Photo by Jessica Hyde

Special Issue

Songs of Hope and Sorrow

Decolonizing (with) Western Herbal Medicine

by Jason Hirsch

It was a year of changing of the guard. This venerated herbal conference, long-stewarded by a community stalwart, would pass over to the waiting hands of two leaders from the next generation. The most popular classes were already being taught by members of this next generation. They spoke lovingly and deferentially about 'their elders,' who had revived Traditional Western herbalism in North America. But alongside this one eye gazing dreamily toward the past, they looked with the other toward a future horizon. Western herbalism, they thought, needed to come into sharper focus from its bucolic haze, and meet eye-to-eye with the gaze of biomedicine, look toward mainstream audiences, and develop a critical political lens.

Their own students, meanwhile–a younger generation still–were on the march. They were strident, politically radical. They saw in this medicine of the people and of the earth a challenge to patriarchy, to settler-colonialism, to state and corporate control over bodies both human and plant. This medicine had touched them, too, with its pristine beauty, but they were here to get it messy–to bring it to bear on the full sweep of traumas in need of radical healing.

The hot mess of this intergenerational ferment was palpable everywhere as I walked around the campus. Just underfoot, beneath a pretty cover of fallen leaves, the body of one being was decomposing, giving over its rich nutrition to feed new life. Compost is not the same as the hunt – it is a form of consumption, but a collaborative one. It gathers; it neither chases nor flees. All three generations of Western herbalism were drawn here, together, to feed. They recognized themselves here, recognized one another here. No matter what they wanted to make of this medicine, all were gathered in recognition that settler culture needed healing, and that one source of that healing was the plants.

I was there from yet another angle–as a lover of plant medicine, but also as an anthropologist. I was trying to understand how it was that this healing work seemed to stray so organically into politics, whether it moved through the woodsy instinct of the elders or the justice ethic of the youth. This curiosity began for me rather far from the plants, in a government public health job. There, I had been taken by an emerging subfield called social epidemiology, which set out to explore the roots of illness in society and environment. It made manifest in cold, hard numbers something I had learned already through herbal medicine in my heart–that we become ill and heal together; that a whole culture, more than one individual or another, is healthy or unwell. And though the epidemiologists' case in statistics was ironclad, winning acolytes across public health and medicine, still I found the scholars producing this knowledge stuttering as they tried to explain it. They could perfectly well describe it in that privileged discourse called 'data,' and yet they seemed nearly to doubt that it could really be so, that all the investments, financial and emotional, that their culture had made in high-tech health care and personal lifestyle advice was nearly beside the point when it came to the question of the causes of health. It seemed almost too much to really believe that health was first and foremost collective.

While working in the civil service, I was taking evening classes in Western herbal medicine. In those classes, I found conversation crossing the bounds between body and world with startling ease, almost as though such a boundary were a little suspect, or maybe hardly even there. This erasure of boundary lines seemed to make these classes fundamentally political, whether or not any matters of justice were explicitly discussed. To know that the body is of the earth is also to know that the illness of any one is an illness of the planet entire. Healing, in such a view, must be a healing for all, and lifestyle change must constitute changes in the ways we organize society.

My public health colleagues, I came to see, lacked this critical concept. For them, health was an individual phenomenon. Convinced as they were by their data, its message seemed to crash up against their deepest sense of how the world was. And so there was a stutter, a catch in the throat, as they tried to jump the gap between the body and the world. Western herbalists had a bridge: we are nature, they could unselfconsciously say. There is no separation. As one of the elder teachers might put it, the profound love herbalists have for plants is an expression of their understanding that we are of the earth. A middle-generation teacher said it this way to me in our very first conversation: there has been an engineered disconnect between health and what we're willing to tolerate politically. Herbalism is one of the ways of re-establishing that connection. For the radical younger generation, meanwhile, this understanding had to be shouted from rooftops and taken to the streets. But they still flocked to the elders' classes, to drink from the depth of their connection to the plants. This plant connection united all three generations: I could see the elders' teachings pregnant with the radicalism being born among the youngest. If revolution was a sun-kissed flower, then for herbalists, the love of plants was its seed.

* * *

On the final evening of the conference, attendees filed into the Gothic chapel on the campus quad for an evening plenary. The air was balmy, and the chapel soon filled with the glowing warmth of many bodies releasing a day's worth of summer sun. I took a seat on the high balcony, alongside some young clinical herbalism students I had met. We whispered about the classes we had attended that day, and a little too about their plant politics and the questions I had come to ask. The proceedings began with a solo piano performance. When it finished, through rousing applause, a lone woman walked to the front of the hall, where she approached a towering plant perched in a broad clay pot on the edge of the stage. She began to affix a series of electrodes to its leaves, and plugged the other end of the wires into an amplifier.

Silence fell over the room; the lights dimmed to amber. Plants, like most other complex living beings, have electromagnetic biological systems, and they give off a small amount of radiation. That radiation can be read with laboratory equipment. Its variations can be modelled on a graph, or... they can be converted into intervals and pitches. The plants, we were told, were to sing to us tonight. The woman switched on the current. Delicate, warbling noises emerged from the sound system, growing slowly thicker and stronger.

The plant music dipped and crescendoed, exploring a melodic range. It sounded unlike any other music I had heard, but not, in any sense, disharmonious either. Eyes moistened and softened all around me. Some herbalists wept, openly, their faces flush and flecked with tears. Here were people who had spent years of their lives singing to the plants, mostly silently, in their hearts, in gratitude. They had felt plants well up inside them and bring them aliveness and sweet release. Here, through some alchemy of plant chemistry and audio technology, a voice these herbalists never thought they would hear with their ears was speaking—singing—and they were basking in its symphonic glow. It would have felt otherworldly, were it not so manifestly a song from the earth itself. We are not so different, you and I, the very air in the room seemed to speak. It had only ever been a matter of different equipment (e.g. Gagliano, Mancuso, and Robert 2012; Gagliano 2013; Myers 2015).

The sound faded to a whisper, and ended, as the woman on stage turned down, and then off, her amplifier. Nothing happened for what seemed like many minutes. The air hung thickly, then thinned, and grew wispy. The trance began to dissipate, in sighs and hugs, and then cathartic applause. The electrodes were unhooked, tears wiped away. The great plant on stage was once again silent, and this strange channel between the human and plant worlds closed.

In this aftermath, the keynote speaker rose to the podium. It was Linda Black Elk, the celebrated indigenous ethnobotanist from Catawba Nation, who had overseen the healing tent at the Standing Rock protest encampment. The mood in the room transitioned. She gave a rousing, fiery lecture, sharing stories from the camps and laying bare the state's allegiance to a pipeline company and its profits over the protection of drinking water and the safety and sustainable livelihood of the original occupants and current owners of the land. Toward the end, she turned her fire toward the assembled crowd directly:

You need to stand on the front lines beside us! Because you have been benefitting from our knowledge of the plants.

It was just not enough, I heard her saying, for white Western herbalists to recover connection to the plants. For some in the older generation, their own reconnection seemed an answer to problematic politics. But Linda Black Elk was saying – to borrow a phrase from scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang – that decolonization is not a metaphor (2012). It was not something that could happen in the mind and heart alone. It needed feet on the ground; it needed struggle.

This was a rebuke. It was not a likely applause line. But a thoroughgoing roar broke out from the crowd. Some among them, likely, had been at Standing Rock, but perhaps not very many. Fewer still, I gathered, could even really account for what parts of their herbal knowledge had been drawn from Indigenous wisdom and under what terms. But the assemblage welcomed Linda's provocation almost eagerly.

It was not clear to me how many understood what the hard road of reconciliation might entail for them or others. The young generation, who demanded a Western herbal medicine that included this, were far too few in number to account for the deafening roar. Yet for this moment, at least, this audience seemed to want to be implicated. Wanted to be implicated, I thought: in the life of the plants and in the responsibilities of caring for them, in the fate of the land itself, and in the possibility of someday and somehow being in good relations with the peoples from whom it was stolen and who were still putting their bodies at risk to protect it. Whether or not, that is, they yet knew how. The deep well of emotion that had been filled up by the plant symphony earlier that night now gushed forth in adulation for this demand of solidarity.

The conference wrapped up the very next morning. Waiting for a closing circle to begin, a small group of older white women danced on the grass and chanted, playing drums. I was sitting on the grass near them, chatting with a group of young radical herbalists. One by one, they tapped and elbowed each other and pointed, spreading cognizance of the cultural appropriation ongoing beside them. A hushed debate followed, over whether to let it go or get up and ask them to stop. There was no clear answer among them—not for how to engage with the scene at hand, and not yet for how to engage with a history of herbal medicine on colonized land.

For the young generation, the primacy of decolonization in Western herbalism was plain and commonsensical. Older generations of herbalists could sometimes feel that the cutting invectives of settler-colonialism and oppression interfered with the simple beauty of their plant love. But in this rousing applause, I felt amongst the messy ferment the presence of seeds for growth. Linda Black Elk's admonition tugged upon settler herbalists' relationship to the plants. A thread of heartfelt connection could run from their own plant love, to a reverence for the Indigenous peoples who had crafted and nurtured much of the plant knowledge they enjoyed. It could run on from there, in this singular moment of rupture at least, to a recognition of the historical traumas that settler culture tries so maddeningly to suppress. In the love of plants, settler herbalists could try to heal their own painful absence from the earth, but as that same plant love grounded their connection to the whole planetary collective, so it linked them to the traumas their ancestors had inflicted. Settlers and Indigenous peoples stand on opposite sides of unspeakable trauma – unspeakable, usually, by settlers. In this moment, a seed sprouted and reached its tendrils across the divide, to help this settler audience hear and feel.

Adapted from Wildflower Counterpower: A Political Theory of Western Herbal Medicine, coming soon from Triarchy Press.


Gagliano, M. 2013. The Flowering of Plant Bioacoustics: How and Why. Behavioral Ecology, 24(4), pp.800-801. Gagliano, M., Mancuso, S. and Robert, D. 2012. Towards Understanding Plant Bioacoustics. Trends in Plant Science, 17(6), pp.323-25. Myers, N. 2015. Conversations on Plant Sensing. Nature Culture, 3, pp.35-66. Tuck, E., and Yang, K. W. 2012. Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1 (1).