This is an essay I wrote for Plant Healer Magazine earlier this year. It’s a hot topic right now in the herbal community, and something that Kate Clearlight and I will be addressing at length in a class that we’re co-teaching at the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference next weekend. If you don’t know about TWHC, check it out (and book a last minute ticket) HERE.
Of undisputed origin; genuine.
Origin: late Middle English: via Old French from late Latin authenticus, from Greek authentikos ‘principal, genuine.’
Buzz-words. Like ‘forage’ and ‘artisanal’, and all the other words that take over our collective consciousness with a meme-like speed, these words start out meaning something. Then, because of how quickly trends spread in our current electronic age, what starts as a well-meant thought spreads to the next person, and then the next, until it seems like everybody is using it, and then it no longer has the weight it used to. It hangs there like a dead word, an empty shell of a word, and the original meaning has beat a retreat for the hills. The word and its repetitive re-use loses its authenticity. In an ironic twist of fate, ‘authentic’ has started to become a buzz word itself: meme-fied and scattered around the internet with happy looking people flinging their arms out and quotes about how to ‘be authentic’, or to ‘find your authentic self’.
I thought nothing of it until a few months ago, when an article a friend wrote was plagiarised (almost word for word) on a herbal website. We had an in-depth discussion both about the plagiarism but also that ideas don’t really happen in a vacuum, and I got to thinking about what it is that differentiates between copied content and authentic content, when so many of us herbalists have such similar goals. And also, on a deeper level, what is it that makes a person, their work, and what they contribute to the world, authentic. In this essay, I’m attempting to take a closer look and explore what authenticity truly is, why this is important, and also how we can all work towards finding it in our own work. Continue reading
-the state or quality of producing something, especially crops.“the long-term productivity of land”
-The effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
-The fertility or capacity of a given habitat or area.
I have this image in my head of us as a society, as this gaping maw of hunger that chants its war-cry into the night as it devours its way forwards. ‘More. More. More.’ it says as it chews its way through forest and ocean and pristine wilderness. ‘More!’ it chants as it gnaws through black rhino and ice cap. ‘MORE!’ it cries as it gnashes at spirit and joy and free will, leaving a wake of emptiness in its shadow. We beat our resources into submission, be it the planet, our employees, our own bodies, demanding more: productivity, energy, youth, attention. And rarely, if ever, do we stop to ask if what we are and what we have is actually enough.
During classes about crofts and the Highland clearances (a good Scottish education for you) when I was young, we learned about crop rotation. It was all perfectly logical: nutrients are being sucked up from the land into the plants and if you don’t rotate the crops and leave one field fallow each cycle then the land has nothing to give and eventually the crops fail. At some point, this changed. People discovered that you could keep pouring chemical nutrients onto the soil and spray chemicals to kill the insects that have taken advantage of the plants’ weakness. On the surface the crop still looks the same: big and plump and ripe for the picking. But underneath the surface, the crop is a sad replica of what it could have been. Continue reading
(On facing down the abyss)
About six months before he died, my stepdad’s best friend sat me down and said ‘Your life is nothing but a series of choices: the most important thing you can do is to make good decisions. And don’t think that not making a decision is an option— that’s still a decision, and its a bad one.’
I thought about it a bit, and then he died, and then I thought about it a lot. Sometimes we’re so overwhelmed by all the choices that it seems easier not to choose. To click again. To refresh the page. To look at how Kim Kardashian did her hair this week*, because it saves us from having to act.
(on slow living, finding our own pace, and rebellion as the way forward)
It started a few thousand years ago when the first foreman realised that he could eke a little more work out of his workers if he could somehow convince them that he had more authority than they over the inner workings of their bodies. A plan was hatched— a god bigger and stronger than the body knowledge of when to be done for the day, more worldly and knowledgeable than the seasons that ebb and flow with hours of productivity and then days of rest. The plan took the shape of a sundial on a wrist; a timepiece owned by the boss letting everyone else know when they could come and go. This god was bright like the sun, for it’s the hours of the sun that it governed. In that bright light there was no time for sleep, no afternoon naps, no explorations of the dark spaces, no time to crawl under a rock and look at beetles or pluck worms from the soil and watch them wriggle around in your hands. No time either to wade in the stream under the shade of the redwoods trying to move as slowly as a banana slug as the dappled light hits your eyelids. The bright sun god, all knowing, shone light into every crevice and with that bright light uttered those first words that changed everything: ‘you’re late’.
The knowledge of the body was ousted in favour of this all-knowing god, for what is more important or more constant than time? What is more objective than a second hand ticking like a metronome dividing life up into easily digestible chunks. A life you can eat on the go, cut into easily digestible squares, so neat you don’t even need utensils anymore. Would you like a soda with that? Continue reading
(on connection, immersion, being an artist regardless of medium, and salt)
“Who is the person that you call an artist? A man who is momentarily creative? To me he is not an artist. The man who merely at rare moments has this creative impulse and expresses that creativeness through perfection of technique, surely you would not call him an artist. To me, the true artist is one who lives completely, harmoniously, who does not divide his art from living, whose very life is that expression, whether it be a picture, music, or his behaviour; who has not divorced his expression on a canvas or in music or in stone from his daily conduct, daily living. That demands the highest intelligence, highest harmony. To me the true artist is the man who has that harmony. He may express it on canvas, or he may talk, or he may paint; or he may not express it at all, he may feel it. But all this demands that exquisite poise, that intensity of awareness, and therefore his expression is not divorced from the daily continuity of living.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti
Herbalism, to me is just another form of art. A design starts with a few general ideas and solidifies into something solid and perfect and a formula starts as the same thing. Each design, each piece of art, each product, each formula is a message, and each message starts out as a series of separate things that in combination become something different entirely. When it all fits into place, I feel a *click* and for a brief second all is right in the world, until the cycle starts again.
(on May surprise boxes, camping trips, wildflowers and friends who have the patience to key out plants)
A week ago, after what was thus far my favourite class ever, I met my friend Shana out in Joshua Tree national park for a spontaneous camping trip. Should you have the opportunity to go camping with a friend who is an veritable botany geek, I highly recommend it because you find out things like EXACT SPECIES of plants you’d never even think to identify down to specie level. You also spend an inordinate amount of time staring at said friend’s back while she’s hunched over the Jepson guide trying to determine whether the tubercles on a cholla are over or under 0.75 inches tall and you might go and wander and take photos of various cacti catching the light while she makes said determinations. Which brings me to one of my favourite truths about life: having people in your life who are dramatically different to you makes your life infinitely richer because you see things you would never have seen before.
(on murky depths and surrender)
We watched him row out from the shore as the sun was setting. He rowed steadily, firmly, like someone who had been doing it for years. He jumped aboard his trimaran, which was moored next to our boat, and we called hello and chatted back and forth across the water. He’d built the boat himself. It was fast, with a max speed of 30 knots, and he has sailed it alone across the Atlantic seven times. When he found the cove we were anchored in, he liked it so much that he set up a mooring and stayed there. He himself looked like the archetypal image of an old sea man: white beard, tanned skin and sinew. He gazed out over the sea as we talked, as if casting stabilising lines into the deep. I thought to myself: This is a man rooted in the sea, which spends all its time moving. This is a man who has made his peace with uncertainty.
(changes, moisture, drought, and olfactory fireworks)
Here in LA, springtime hits like this:
As the pink jasmine starts to blossom, there is a slight pause, I imagine as the entire city takes a collective deep breath and thinks of only good things for a moment or two. Then they explode: a cacophony of white fireworks that blow up your olfactory sensors and make you giddy with the joy of it all. Tender green leaves start sprouting on the sycamores that, two weeks ago, were still twisted gnarled branches suspended against the grey sky. Peach, cherry and apple trees all bloom together; the bees are buzzing in a frenzied orgy. Its a sudden thing, this explosion. They’ll be gone in a week, replaced by the citrus blossoms that, in turn will hang heavy in the air.
(adventures in New Mexico and thoughts on stress)
As I started to write this, the tips of my fingers were numb, and my computer keys were so cold that I dared not rest my hands on them for any length of time. Jam was upstairs sleeping in the loft bed, having decided that his prerequisite for leaving said bed was whether he could see his breath or not, and I was [thankfully] starting to feel the first of the heat reaching my way from the wood stove. I was in a rocking chair next to the window, because given a choice of warmth by the stove or watching the sun come up over the cliffs, I chose the sun, and my fingers could just deal.
(thoughts on fear, on adventure, on doing it regardless and tips on how to float like a jellyfish)
Jam and I raised our anchor in Ibiza and cast off at 2am, in the pitch black of a night when the moon had already set. The outline of Ibiza rock hung heavy on the horizon, outlined as black nothingness set against the backdrop of the milky way. A backdrop without disturbance, blotched with nebulae. Shooting stars shot by overhead every minute and the sea around us was dead, silky calm, save the drone of our engine. A couple of miles out, a mist arose from the warm sea, entirely covering horizon line, hanging low all around us.