Down to Earth: Advice for Beginners

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There are many paths to a career in herbs; what’s important is joy in the journey.

I get wonderful letters from readers, and it’s probably what keeps me writing. To have someone take the time to comment on something I’ve written is priceless. Recently I got a letter from a young woman, nineteen, who identified herself as “reading me” for two years.

“What you do for a living sounds wonderful and I have some questions for you. I am in love with herbalism–the medicines, the lore, the gardening. . .herbs are what I want to do when I grow up. I would like to make medicines, teas, cosmetics. I don’t know what, exactly, and I don’t know how to make the journey–schooling and all. I’d love it if you could help me, as I have all of these ideas, but I don’t know where to start,” she concluded.

Flattered, amazed, delighted–and maybe a bit embarrassed–that my path would be interesting to someone else, I penned this reply:

Dear Melissa,

What a sweet and kind letter. One of the best aspects of writing for a magazine like The Herb Companion is knowing that from time to time, my words influence people in pleasant ways. Thank you!

Your questions are big ones and I’m going to tell you that there are no easy answers. The answers are as large as the questions you have asked. What you’ve described–your love for herbs–is a passion. I know people in their fifties and older who have no idea what their passion in life is. It’s possible that you may have already found yours. How lucky you are!

You wrote, “what I want to do when I grow up. . ..” So the first piece of advice I want to give you is to never grow up. I’m fifty-four and I have not grown up yet, nor do I intend to. Be mature in your thinking, your planning, your dealings with people, but always keep a spirit of wonder and excitement alive. Don’t worry so much about what you will become. There’s too much pressure on young people to make this decision too early. Those who make that choice early and seemingly forever are the ones who find out after age forty that they didn’t really need to decide so young.

In my twenties I worked very hard, at one time keeping three jobs. I wanted to “be” something, to prove my worth. My grandmother, who was ninety at the time, sat me down one day and said, “You will end up like your parents, working nonstop, never enjoying life as it slips through your fingers.” Then she paused and said, “Do what you really love in life. If you do, all the rest will take care of itself.”

It took me nearly twenty more years to accept and practice what my grandmother said. Eventually I quit my work in landscaping and took a chance working with herbs. For a couple of years I was nearly broke. I struggled; I nearly gave up. But Grandma was right. Doing what I loved, which is my passion for herbs, is the most satisfying thing I can imagine. Once I began that journey, things began to fall into place.

Don’t be hard on yourself for not seeing exactly how things should unfold. You obviously feel passion for the magical relationship between people and plants. Find work with others who love herbs; discover the diversity in the herb world. You’ve got to experience all of its aspects, learn about the methods, smell the smells, and taste the flavors. We’ve all been taught to focus on goals, to see where we are headed, to make a plan. That’s all well and good, but the real truth is found in the journey.

Take classes in herbalism and related subjects, whether you are learning from someone who has an herb business or gaining a college degree. I didn’t start out studying herbs, but my classes made what I do possible. I studied English, public speaking, art, and design. I worked in restaurants and in the landscape design business, and at every turn, involved herbs. Now there are certified courses of study in herbs that were not available then.

Be patient with yourself. Learning about the intricacies and wonders of herbs takes a lifetime. You will never know it all–nor will anyone else. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for advice. You took a chance in writing me; that’s a great sign you have courage. When you want to know something, go to who you think will have the answer. If you don’t get an answer, ask someone else. There are no wrong questions.

And Melissa, I hope you will always follow your passion for herbs. When you have an open attitude and an inquisitive spirit, the knowledge you seek will develop and you’ll realize that much of it was there in you all along. Nourish your spirit, listen to your heart, and do what you love. Those are the best words of advice I have for you.

I have no doubt that you will find what you want in life. You’re already well on your way!

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas. He discovered his passion for herbs as a young boy growing up in rural Missouri.

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