The Soul of the Rose

The Soul of the Rose - Waterhouse, 1908

I’ve always loved this particular pre raphaelite painting. Not only is the use of colour just delightful, but it seems to convey something more than can be seen with the eyes. I always wonder what the girl in the picture feels about the rose, other than the outward beauty of its petals and the heady scent of the flower itself. I wonder what this painting would look like if the woman were to be cradled in a wild and sprawling mass of roses heavily in bloom, with bees soaring overhead singing happy bumbling songs, the sun beating down and the wind making the thorns a hazard, instead of the rose being a clipped, civilised specimen tied up to the wall. And yet, given half a chance, that seemingly tamed rose would become the wild, feral creature in the field! In a way, that sense of something hidden and restrained reminds me very much of herbalism, most particularly the grass roots kind.

I’m increasingly convinced that herbalism, like the plants themselves, is a combination of many different things – unconditional positive regard for both the plants and people, a healthy dose of intuition balanced out by the roots of common sense and knowledge. Book learning can only carry a person so far – to really get to grips with the plants, you need to open your heart and forge bonds between yourself and nature. This will give you the tools you need to heal your patients, the plants, the planet, and finally yourself, for what are we if not a reflection of the world around us?

Herbalism is ultimately rooted in the messy, earthy, grimy real world. It is not sterile, has no love for white walls and microscopes, and is uniquely suited to treating the human race. Plants are a potent bundle of thousands of constituents which cannot be isolated, pinned down, restricted and retrained into being what ‘modern medicine’ wants it to be. It does not respond to modern ways of researching and quantifying it, because, being born of mama nature’s ultimately chaotic beauty, each link is dependant on the next. Remove even one constituent and you essentially change the whole nature of a plant medicine. In this way we reflect the plants, for humans are a mass of millions of cells, different parts of the body all depending on each other to form a cohesive whole.

You want real medicine? Roll up your sleeves and dig in the dirt. Get your hands mucky. Look to the plants themselves – seeds, roots, leaves, flowers, stems and pollen – for the soul medicine, body medicine, earth medicine that will heal us all. Academia will only carry us so far. The last, most essential step on the journey is to open our eyes and see, open our hearts and really FEEL.

I worked at a market all day the other day, selling my teas and salves to the christmas crowd of people wanting small gifts for friends and family. The highlight of my day, however, was the lady who came over for a chat first thing in the morning. The lady wore a patchwork coat and big earrings, and had a tanned and gently aged face surrounded by ringlets of gorgeous silver hair – she looked completely comfortable in herself and her age, and this made her beautiful. After the usual pleasantries, this lady proceeded to tell me about how she had, working on instinct and intuition, gone outside, picked nettle tops, added a little water and heated them until they turned slightly translucent, then put them into a tray, pounded them flat, and put them on drying racks in the sun. She handed out the resulting nettle paper to friends and family with hayfever, racking up considerable success in relieving the symptoms. My immediate reaction to this was one of overwhelming joy! Yes! HERE was what I had lost – the urge to play, to experiment, the instinctive need to get out there and have a go. Meeting that lady was the high point of my morning, and has given me a lot of food for thought for the next few weeks and months. I wouldn’t have cared if I hadn’t sold another tea that day – meeting her was a gift beyond recompense, an unlooked for bright point to the week. It reminded me that we can only go so far with the books and book learning – that if we forget our herbal roots, the urge to play with the plants themselves, then we lose a priceless part of our skills, our art, the medicine itself.

I’ve reached a fairly important realisation just recently; that I feel boxed in by being a member of NIMH at the moment, so I have now reached the conclusion that taking a year or two out of being a member is what is needed. I need to relearn my wild roots and take myself out of the trap that NIMH membership is starting to feel like. The rose is rather tied up to the wall at the moment and needs to be set free to sprawl where it will, so that I can relearn the original wildness and passion that I always associated with herbs. I’ve found myself mentally heading towards having a bit of a chip on my shoulder about those who are not a member of NIMH, and that is so totally alien and wrong to me that I find it deeply upsetting that I’ve found myself almost brainwashed into thinking that way. That is the first and most important reason why I need to walk my own path for a while – all herbalists are plant people, and being a member of NIMH or not has absolutely nothing to do with it. I think meeting the lady at the market the other day is what made me realise that I need to do this for a while, to walk my own path through the trackless woods and not follow the NIMH way for a while. I’ll rejoin when legislation kicks in, but until then, I’m going to walk my own way and relearn what means to truly be a herbalist, instead of feeling like a square peg stuck in a round hole. The idea of setting aside that regulating umbrella is both exciting and slightly frightening – I went through my university years with the assumption that I would have to be a member of NIMH to practice, and that is just not the case. Putting aside the ‘authority’ handed down from NIMH is, I think, what will ultimately set me free and help me settle within myself as a herbalist and a witch. Its not about ‘us’ and ‘them’ – there are only herbalists. It should never be about who is a registered member and who is not. Herbalism is inclusive, not exclusive.

I solemnly promise that the next post will be about Burdock. Honest. 😀

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