"To be wise, we have to examine our intention to ensure that it is free from delusion. The ends do not justify the means. If our actions will bring harm to others, even in the service of some 'good', they are almost certainly deluded. If our actions do not come from a kind heart, from loving courage and compassion, they are deluded. If they are based on a distinction between "us" and "them", they stem from delusion. Only to the extent that we act from the wisdom of no separation, understanding how we are woven together, will our intention bring benefit." (Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart, 264)
When I first became a formal student of plant medicine over a decade ago, I immediately fell in love with the medicine of burning plant material -- smudging, as it was introduced to me. I was transported into one of my childhood memories of building and burning a fire made of hard and soft wood, pinecones and dried needles, and the feeling of comfort, protection and purification that accompanied the warmth and beauty of smoke and flame.
Though, like so many of us born into the US, White Sage -- Salvia apiana -- was taught as a powerful plant ally and smudging herb, I was blessed with deeply knowledgeable teachers committed to practicing responsible, respectful, sustainable medicine, so I was also taught about the myriad of fumitory herbs known and revered throughout the world for their capacity to purify and protect. It was made very clear to me that purchasing plant material for medicinal use (and otherwise) is always an act to be undertaken with utmost ecological mindfulness -- as herbalists, we are bound to the important task of stewardship of the plants and the ecosystems in which they grow.
After all, no plants, no medicine.
For this reason, purchasing bundles of plant material for smudging is something I rarely do. Since reading the extraordinary and enlightening Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, I may never again.
In fact, I work very hard to use only plants I have personally grown or ethically foraged -- or traded with a trusted friend -- in my personal formulas and the medicine I make for family, friends and clients. When I do purchase, for medicine or otherwise, I rigorously research sourcing, stewardship and sustainability practices of the individual or business I purchase from (luckily, there are a lot of wonderful herbalists and companies who are extremely ethical). I have always believed, however, that the most nourishing food and medicine is that which is local and in abundance, so "weeds" and common garden plants constitute the majority of my apothecary; as I am blessed to travel for school, work and family visits, I have the opportunity to personally acquire and give gratitude for what I use; ultimately, harvesting and preparing, whether for ourselves or others, is an act of medicine in and of itself.
So more recently, as I read about the continued pleas from Indigenous communities for the cessation of corporate cultural appropriation and exploitation of endangered species for the sake of capital gain, I feel that old, familiar guilt for the European in my blood and I wish I had the power to bring awareness to this very serious problem and the ability to ensure the survival and expansion of our Earth's wild lands and the plants inhabiting them.
I doubt it a coincidence that as those very feelings of sorrow welled up within me as we arrived at the trailhead where we would begin our run, I was greeted by a vast and lush stand of one of my favorite fumitory herbs, Yerba Santa -- Eriodictyon crassifolium, in this case.
I first met Eriodictyon (angustifolium -- the narrow-leaf species, in that case) while on an herbal field trip in Sedona in 2008. It is a treasured plant of the region, with varieties stretching south, west and north into Meixco, California and Oregon, and boasting anti-microbial, expectorant, bronchodilating, and carminative properties that make it a superb ally for the respiratory, immune, integumentary, and digestive systems. The enchanting aromatics of this resinous plant is not soon forgotten, and in my time away from the places it calls home, I missed my friend.
As I often do when I am reunited with a loved one after many years apart, I cried with joy at the sight of this beautiful, fuzzy variety; I nestled deep into a branch, reveling in its softness against my arms and hugging it closely, taking a long, deep breath of its scent into my whole being.
Heeding the wise, respectful teachings of the Honorable Harvest, I bowed in respect to Yerba Santa and we went about our run. As we traversed the rocky, steep miles, I noted the abundance of Eriodictyon that populated the area, and I began to evaluate how much would be appropriate to harvest. I knew it would be important to have enough to make an oxymel (vinegar extract) for internal use and an oil infusion to add to my desert salve. As I continued running, the heavenly scent continued to fill my nose and lungs, and I was keenly aware of the suggestion I was being given to gather some for burning.
After we completed our run, I returned to the healthiest, largest gathering of Yerba Santa, and I respectfully gathered enough for my small apothecary. I was taught to pick no more than 30%, but I rarely take more than 10% of what I can see, and I was also taught to harvest by pruning in a way that stimulates plant growth. Finally, I was taught to give an offering of the nitrogen rich tobacco in return for picking plants, but as I don't currently grow my own tobacco, I started carrying powdered nettle leaf as a nutrient rich gift for my generous friends. With a heart full of gratitude, I bid farewell to the mountains, and to the Yerba Santa and all the medicine they gave.
Upon returning home, I started my oil and vinegar infusions, and sat down to tie a few bundles for burning. I thought about the similarities between Salvia apiana and Eriodictyon crassifolium. They share a great deal of medicinal properties, and even look alike. They share growing habits and necessary conditions, and historically, share a very similar range. Habitat loss due to development and overharvesting of White Sage is very likely the reason I hadn't seen the sacred plant on my run today. I started to think of all the abundant, aromatic botanical species that have been allies to me in the past, filling the air with their rich, sweet and earthy tones (Rosemary, Mugwort and Eastern Cedar come to mind). I am fortunate to be a part of a community that has access to a world of plant medicine, and has been taught, at least in part, their stories and their powers. Most of all, I feel fortunate that I know well enough to make my choices on behalf of the Earth and the plants I depend on. The bundles I tie today will be burned in loving respect for the generations of people who have carried the teachings of medicine in story, song and practice. These bundles of Yerba Santa will be burned in gratitude for the gift of the powerful medicine they provide, and with the hope that sustainable harvest of this abundant plant will allow Eriodictyon to continue to thrive, and allow Salvia apiana to recover.
For those of us seeking to benefit from the healing power of plants, may we remember that at the heart of our wellness are the relationships we cultivate -- to our food, to our medicine, to our rituals. Please consider the impact your choices have on our world.
We each are in a position to heal ourselves and the world through the simple act of mindfulness.
Our intentions lie at the heart of our experience; suffering has a direct correlation to the motivation at the core of our interactions with ourselves and the rest of the world. If we act from a place of selfishness, or a place in which we differentiate ourselves from the rest of existence, we are behaving from a destructive false construct. When we remember our relationship to the universal consciousness and unity, we can act from a place of pure love and integral motivation, knowing that a good deed has a positive impact on the entire web of life, and that any act that is harmful to any thread of the web will cause harm to the well being of the entire web of life.
Let the sparks we ignite illuminate a deeper reverence for this miraculous existence, and burn hope, justice and resilience into our shared future.
With gratitude and lovingkindness,
RESOURCES // FURTHER READING
For more information on the ecologically mindful burning of plants, check out the following class (in North Carolina) and accompanying booklet being offered by Blood & Spicebush
Another article about the sustainability surrounding the use of White Sage
More information on Yerba Santa
Interested in becoming more involved with plant stewardship?
Check out the resources provided by United Plant Savers, and consider becoming a member of this wonderful organization.
Additionally, UpS has a membership program for businesses and institutions involved in the cultivation, harvest and formulation of herbal products. Supporting entities who support United Plant Savers is a great way to be confident about the sourcing and ethics of the businesses you support. If you're an herb-based business, consider joining the UpS corporate membership program to join in the fight for conservation and to help customers make more informed, more sustainable choices.
Molly Jo Stanley
Educating for Mindfulness and Sustainability