The Urge to Gather

Spring is finally arriving in the Northern Hemisphere and with it, the first green shoots of our early edibles and medicinal herbs. After several months consuming dried and prepared herbs, I’m eager to go out foraging and drink Hedgerow tea again. As I do not have a garden of my own just now, I rely on the wild spaces around me to provide the plants I use, for both magic and medicine. I’m fortunate to have access to a range of bio-regions, from water meadows to coppiced woodlands and enjoy making trips up to the Yorkshire dales and the North York Moors to gather herbs that are abundant there but rare in my locale.

However, as I have herbs gathered last year that I still have not used I have been thinking about responsible foraging practises and the urge to gather. This is a compulsion shared by herbalists and foragers alike and one that can be difficult to resist. I recently listened to Howie Brounstein’s podcast on ‘Herb Lust’ over at Herb Rally and it stirred my own thoughts on the subject of violence towards plants. I believe that our desire to pick every new herb we encounter comes from a scarcity mindset bred by our capitalist culture. This lust, if uncontrolled, is ultimately harmful to both the bio-region and ourselves.

While many recognise that eating meat involves violence towards animals, few seem to extend this compassion to the green folk, despite growing evidence that plants have their own social networks and intelligence, and that they respond, individually and collectively, to animal or human grazing. Our ignorance of the violence we do to plants is a product of a system of thought in the west that privileges certain types of life over others, a hierarchy of being that can be traced back to Aristotle. This philosophy, deeply ingrained in our culture, says it is ok to harm plants because they are closer to non-living ‘objects’ than to sentient beings. It is built entirely on false premises and assumptions about a form of life that is ‘other’ and difficult to relate to compared with our animal companions whose moods and emotions we can more easily interpret.

The practise of herbal medicine, like gardening, foraging for food and agriculture, involves violence against plants. I feel it is better to accept and acknowledge this than pretend that what we are doing harms none. If we accept that the plants we work with are independent entities, not put here to feed or heal us, but to live their own lives, we can at least try to limit unnecessary violence and over-harvesting. As a practical animist, this is even more vital, because respecting plant-life is part of developing a healthy relationship with the land spirits of one’s locale. To esoteric herbalists, plants are not only medicines but allies and we must keep on good terms with them if we hope to receive their most potent gifts.

When we buy pre-packaged herbs we can only hope they, and the land they grow on has been treated with the care and respect we would accord it. Picking our own herbs means that we experience this violence directly, it is our hands that do the damage. To put a high value on the life of plants counters our own desire to consume, to take and to possess. A shelf full of herbs in nicely labelled jars is very satisfying, but plant remains are not props, they are dead things we have taken from the bodies of others, they are a different sort of sacrifice.

I use this emotive language in an attempt to elicit the same strong feelings people express towards animals and am aware that many who lack connection to the plant world will simply shrug their shoulders. To them, I offer the concept of sustainability and thrift. If we over-harvest we leave less for wildlife and other foragers, we can also exhaust a patch of a certain herb so that there is less to gather the following year. For ourselves, ending up with a surplus of herbs offers no benefits as most are best used within a year of drying. To have old herbs sitting around is a waste of space and empty jars. To this end, I offer some suggested guidelines which I try to follow myself.

Spring stock-take

At the end of winter I like to do a stock take of all the herbs I have in storage. It can be helpful to make a list and record the dates the herbs were gathered so that you know when they will be available again (if you’re not writing the month/year gathered on your labels I encourage you to do so.) Look over the list and see what you have been using the most, draw up a list of herbs you are nearly out of and make these your gathering priorities. If there are plants you have not used, consider why and whether you could potentially gather less or none of that herb this year. If the herb is used infrequently, a tincture may be better as it will last longer than dried material (2-4 years). It is more valuable to have a small apothecary of herbs you know intimately and use regularly than a vast collection of untouched and aged plant matter on dusty shelves.

Non-picking Days

We don’t need to gather herbs every time we venture out. Sometimes, we can simply enjoy their company instead. To have a day, now and then, to observe plants but take nothing and return home empty handed helps counteract the desire to take. If this feels fruitless, there are ways of ‘gathering’ information that leaves the plants themselves untouched: photography, keeping a field journal or sketching are all wonderful practices that build up our plant knowledge. This practice fosters a relationship with plants that is not always about picking and allows them to experience us as something other than a threat.

Mindful gathering

Some people follow the practice of asking every plant they take for permission before picking. I applaud the sentiment behind this but feel it is self-defeating. How often do you hear the plant say ‘no’? Does a nettle or a bramble ever really consent to you taking its leaves? The stings and scratches would suggest otherwise. Unfortunately I think this is one of those situations in which our lust for the plant is likely to overcome any real communication coming through. Instead I would recommend simply paying attention and being in the moment while you are picking, focus on the action and express gratitude in some way, whether this is by offerings, prayers, songs or simply heartfelt words.

Taking less

How much of a herb do you really need? Who will it serve? Your community, your family or just yourself? How much did you go through last year? I try to think of this while gathering. When faced with abundance, a field or tree full of flowers, it takes humility to say ‘that’s enough.’ Knowing when to stop picking takes restraint, but is a sign of respect towards the plants you’re taking from. Likewise, taking less from individual plants or from ‘patches’ will minimise the violence to some degree. Taking one or two leaves from different plants, rather than pulling a whole plant gives the individuals a chance to recover and flourish despite picking.

Pulling roots with respect

Most plants will recover from a certain level of grazing or picking. However, if you dig up a plant to harvest its root you are killing it. There is no way around this unless you’re able to keep some of the root and regrow it (which does not work with all plants.) Root magic and medicine is powerful and this is why we have legends around plants like the mandrake that scream and curse those who uproot them. I treat the pulling of roots with more ceremony and respect than the picking of aerial parts and always try to make some offering or gesture – this can be as practical as distributing the seeds of the plant more widely or as symbolic as offering a drop of your own blood in thanks.

Use what you have

Finally, and perhaps self-evidently, use the herbs you have gathered. Many of us hate to waste food, and wasting herbs should also play on our conscience. Make the sacrifice of life worthwhile by using the results to heal, to enchant and to create. If you absolutely have to get rid of old herbs, return them as compost and think about whether you will gather that herb again next year.

I write this as much to inspire myself as others, for I am not immune to herb lust and the urge to gather. My work in herbal medicine and magic comes into conflict with my heart-felt animism and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the two. That is why I offer these as guidelines and not rules and recognise that your relationship with wild plants may differ greatly from my own. I do not think it is ‘wrong’ to gather herbs or roots, any more than I think it is ‘wrong’ to eat vegetables. However, I feel passionately that we need to acknowledge the rights plants have to live and flourish and that it makes us better herbalists and foragers if we know when to stay our hand.

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