Everyone said to start by exploring what already grows in my yard. I wanted to learn about the vibrant New England Aster. It was much more difficult than I anticipated. Could the methods of the historian help?
In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer offers a beautiful meditation on the interconnection of human experience and the natural world. I found there were important messages here for me about my role as the descendant of settler colonialists, as a 21st century Pagan, and as a student of herbalism.
I am not one to venture enthusiastically into the kitchen. So when I read the instructions for making a salve, I worried that it looked a bit too much like cooking. And what would I do without a double boiler? Could this possibly end well?
I often teach the history of herbal contraceptives in my courses, but I had never heard that common garden sage was on the list of potential pregnancy dangers. Sage is another reminder of the long history of induced abortion in women's health care.
When I teach the history of medicine, I ask students to think about how everyday people — people much like themselves, but in more Puritanical garb — responded to symptoms such as runny noses, sore throats, sprained ankles, and relentless diarrhea. We turn to Nicholas Culpeper for the answers.
When Martha Ballard's niece was ill in 1794, she made her a syrup that contained plantain. Two hundred and twenty-three years later, I learned that this useful herb was growing wild in my backyard.
Wildcrafting is the methodology of those who gather medicinal plants from the wild. Surprisingly, its basic tenets are not all that different from the methods and ethics of the historian.