Notes from regional herb gardeners.
Wolf Creek, Virginia—I have a favorite talk that I deliver to any group that asks me. Titled “Herbs: The Nurturing Connection”, it’s one I feel called to give. It has evolved and been fed from many sources at many levels, and one of its main messages is that herbs can heal not only humans, but the Earth as well, if we allow them to.
My husband, best friend, and severest critic has listened to my talk many times and helped me bring it to its present shape. In response to his recent suggestion that I make the Earth-healing claim more clearly, I spent days of hard thinking about our view of the Earth and how extremely people-centered it is. One commonly accepted definition of an herb is “any plant useful to humans”. This is just part of our cultural baggage.
Biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas says that “human beings share genes in common with grass and seagulls,” but I find that hard to keep in mind as I wander around my property. I tend to think that everything is here that I need for joy, love, health, wealth, happiness. There’s my black cohosh, my echinacea, my chickweed, my nettle, my persimmon. Even my bluebird houses.
Most of the herbs I talk about grow wild on the farm. Queen-Anne’s-lace, evening primrose, chicory, Joe-Pye weed, dandelion, St.-John’s-wort, mountain mint, calamus, sumac, burdock: I could name a hundred more. They appeal to me because they are the Creator’s gift: they flourish without the need for human attention and care. And I focus on how they benefit Homo sapiens.
But how about the plants that feed and heal the animals? How about the recent research indicating that plants communicate with each other? need each other? grow best when they are near certain other plants, falter and fail when next to plants that send out hostile signals through their roots? How about the butterfly’s plant needs, or the worm’s?
I need to broaden my herbal horizon to include the milkweed whose leaves sustain the monarch butterfly larvae and whose nectar feeds the adults before they move on to Mexico for the winter. I need to include the tall junipers that shelter all manner of birds, the elderberries that we and the mockingbirds fight over, the many roots and tubers that, whether I like it or not, feed the mice. And how about the nectar in red tubes of bee balm that nourishes the bees and hummingbirds, and the Canada thistle and poison ivy berries that sustain birds in winter?
I read recently that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, it affects the weather in the Rockies. How many unexplored plant phenomena are there that nurture the little critters or other plants or the Earth? What a list it would be, and what a global tragedy should they disappear! We need each other. The plants are there for reasons that seldom include us, at least not directly.
It is the collaboration among all the different forms of life, their dependency upon each other and their tendency to link up in symbiotic partnerships, that produces the most spectacular and astounding features of life on this planet . . . behaving in fundamental ways as though they were the working parts of a single immense organism.
—Lewis Thomas, Sierra magazine, 1992
The Earth needs the mushrooms, the beetles, the vultures to decompose and recycle the litter and garbage left by humans and other natural lifeforms. It owes its health to a delicate balance among all these organisms, and we humans have the ability and power to maintain or destroy it. Bacteria keep our septic system active, but I can wipe them out if I carelessly use too much chlorine. If I use Diazinon to kill lawn bugs, I can end up with a lawn full of dead birds. Herbs can heal the Earth, if we treat them as if all Creation mattered.
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