A-Wildcrafting We Will Go

I suppose that it all begins with Martha Ballard.

Martha Ballard lived on the frontier of Maine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. From 1785 until her death in 1812, Ballard kept a diary that logged her daily activities as a wife, mother, midwife, and healer.

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A still of the actress portraying Martha Ballard in the PBS Documentary, A Midwife’s Tale. Source: DoHistory.org

Most historians are familiar with Ballard and her diary thanks to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s beautiful book, A Midwife’s Tale, which became a PBS documentary and an online tool for understanding the process of a historian’s craft. I teach US women’s history and the history of American medicine, and Martha Ballard regularly appears in my courses. In truth, I’ve seen the documentary more times than I could count (and I always cry when William McMaster dies).

Recently, though, I’ve begun thinking about Martha Ballard in a slightly different way. So often I have turned to Ballard in order to depict the daily routines of women in the late 18th century. How they spent their time; how they maintained economic and social networks; how they supported each other in all sorts of ways. In the history of medicine course, I highlight Ballard’s role as a midwife and her incredible success in safely aiding her friends and neighbors in bringing their children into the world. But I have not paid the same attention to her work as a healer. Now that I reflect upon it, I am surprised. While Ballard attended more than a thousand births in her lifetime, she tended to many, many more sick patients. Most women of this era would have had some basic skills in soothing sore throats and treating wounds. But Ballard went far beyond that rudimentary skill level. She was an expert in healing, and her neighbors depended upon her in their times of need. I’m still not sure why I have always skimmed over this aspect of Ballard’s career. But now I’m curious about the knowledge she held about herbalism and plant-based medicine and what it suggests about her broader knowledge about the natural world and her local environment.

As a long-time practitioner of herbal medicine, Ballard would have relied upon the seasonal cycles of growth to find the leaves, blossoms, stems, and roots she needed to tend to her community’s needs. This required extensive knowledge of local flora (and fauna, too, as she would not have wanted to disrupt the food chain) as well as seasonal weather patterns. She needed to know when the wild strawberries would ripen and when the dandelion root would be at its most potent. Ballard would have known that some plants are best harvested just after dusk, when the flowers were still wide open, but dew had not yet settled upon them, while others were most potent at midday. She also would have understood that certain herbs needed harvesting just before they bloomed. Others were best gathered in the late fall, just after they shed their blooms and leaves and sent their energy to the roots in order to survive the winter. This environmental awareness highlighted the contingencies of life. Droughts, floods, fires, insect infestations — all could disrupt the ecosystem, even to the extent that the plants Ballard needed for food and medicine might no longer be available. Given her certain awareness of this potential, we easily can imagine that Ballard greeted the first bloom of Echinacea with a happy relief, or offered thanks when she found a particularly hardy growth of Plantain. Even in times of scarcity, Ballard would have had to gather carefully, leaving plenty of plants behind for future harvests and regeneration.

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Conrad Environmental Research Area, Iowa

Today, this combination of awareness of the ecosystem’s cycles, knowledge of plant properties and uses, the intentional gathering with a eye to regeneration, and the offering of some thoughts or words of gratitude, is known among practitioners as ‘Wildcrafting.’

At first glance, wildcrafting feels a lot like just a fancy word for foraging. But foraging is subject to chance encounters with suitable plants and berries. Foraging implies searching for whatever you might be able to find. Wildcrafting, by comparison, is a more intentional methodology. To Wildcraft, we need to know what we need, how to use it, and where and when to look for it. To Wildcraft, we set out with a particular desire and return, hopefully, with it in hand. When we come across a treasure trove, we do not greedily fill our baskets, grabbing as much as we can carry. Instead, we think ahead, planning for the future needs of ourselves and others. We learn from past experiences in order to better prepare for future needs. We ground ourselves in our intentions and our gratitude. When we Wildcraft, we connect.

The methodology of the Wildcrafter is not that different from the methodology of the Historian.  Historians, too, seek with greater intention than foraging. Rarely do we enter in an archive with no sense of what we want to look at or for. Instead, we start with questions and look for clues. Sometimes we find what we need; sometimes we are left with more uncertainties than we had when we first set out. Even when we find exactly what we were looking for, we know that we will not be the only ones to use these resources. Just as we were lead there by the work of previous scholars, so, too, will future historians follow our path. We are certain to leave a trail for them, in our citations and bibliographies, so that they, too, can find what they need. Like the Wildcrafter, we abide by an ethical code and we honor the traditions of our craft. We look to the past in order to create a more intentional future. In crafting history, we connect with people of the past, the present, and, the future.

This blog plays with the parallel between Wildcrafting plants and Wildcrafting history.  I am a professional historian, but recently I also have become an amateur herbalist. In the first class I took on herbalism, I found my thoughts repeatedly turning to Martha Ballard. So much of the information the instructor offered

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My first gathering to learn plant identification.

reminded me of entries in her diary. Now I find myself wondering about Ballard as an herbalist and the knowledge and skills that role required of her. Many of the resources that herbalists use today — including myself — are the same resources that Ballard and others of her era would have relied upon, such as the writings of Nicholas Culpeper. In studying herbalism, the past has become very close.

Some of the essays posted here will lean more towards the historical; others, the herbal. Most will be somewhere in-between as I enjoy the pleasure of learning something new. As I say in the “About” section, this blog is my gift to my self. Thank you for sharing in it with me.

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