We’ve all felt it, any one of us grabbed by the ache of the wild: herb lust. That undeniable urge to grasp and hold on to those things that promise to awaken us, heal us, make us whole. Herb lust. That feeling you get, say, when picking berries or herbs, just one more handful is never enough. Herb lust. The sensation one could feel sitting in ceremony after ceremony across South America seeking the Truth. Herb lust. When is enough, enough? When does curiosity become conquest? What should we do about it?
The Sufis say we all have a greedy soul, or a hungry soul. They call it nafs. It desires, aims to consume, inflames. It wants more. It’s a motivator, a spark, a fire. The greedy soul isn’t good or bad, it just is. Whether it keeps one comfortably warm or sets the house on fire depends on the context, the milieu. The hungry soul is the pang that built the Taj Mahal, and it’s also the impetus that brought Columbus over to raid the new world. When this same urge is applied to harvesting or consuming wild medicine, we could call it herb lust.
Problem: If a culture is lusting after an at-risk wild medicinal, say, Oshá (Ligusticum porteri), then what happens to that herb?
Those who have worked in the restaurant industry know what goes on in the kitchen isn’t quite what is presented to the diners seated comfortably in their booths. The same goes for the front and the back of the house of your favorite supplement or herbal medicine company. Procurement and production aren’t likely as pretty as the gleaming labels on the aisle floor. As I see it, it’s precisely this dissociation, this dislocation between production and presentation that is the source of our woes.
The cure, the remedy for such a disconnect I will argue is a paradox, the conservation-through-use paradox. Let’s take hunting as an example. A hunter seeing death first hand has a different perspective on the sacrifice it takes to eat animals. Hunters seeking food want to keep their game around, and as such they are largely in support of habitat protection and proper population management. In fact, the cost of a hunting or fishing permit partially pays for the administration of the animals they admit the permit holder to hunt. Odd as it may seem, the act of hunting deer keeps the deer population healthy. In other words, hunting is an example of a conservation-through-use paradox.
This same idea can be applied to wild plants. Blue Camas (Camassia quamash), grows in the Pacific northwest. Lewis and Clark on their 1805 expedition west ran into fields of these lily-like blue flowers and guessed they were approaching a lake, so abundant were they. Since that time, wild Blue Camas populations have been dwindling.² Why? It turns out that in Lewis and Clark’s time the indigenous Nez Perce living in the Pacific northwest were eating the bulbs of Blue Camas as one of their staple crops. If the bulbs are not dug up periodically and tended, they can be buried by too much leaf litter and other decomposing material and effectively choked out. Happily, the Nez Perce and other tribes have been allowed to gather these bulbs again as food and the sea of blue that once was is returning. The act of eating and tending these bulbs increases their numbers and makes them healthier. Again, we have the conservation-through-use paradox.
Have you ever harvested Oshá? If you have, then you know what it takes to properly and carefully dig its roots. You know that to dig Oshá well requires a good amount of time and a great deal of respect. You know Oshá requires 100% positive botanical identification, as many highly poisonous look-a-likes exist that could fool you. You know that a healthy Oshá stand should contain many hundreds of plants or more, and you also know how to take only what you need and use it only when necessary, when no other remedy will do.
Oshá is in high demand today, and most of the material used in commerce is wild, as it is notoriously difficult to cultivate (though some companies such as Mountain Rose Herbs in Eugene, Oregon have switched over to 100% organically cultivated Oshá, and as such they are often out of stock). Just one small herbal medicine company in Colorado for instance was using over a thousand pounds of wild Oshá root per year until recently altering their formulas to significantly reduce their impact.
What does it mean to take a thousand pounds of roots from the Earth? What does it really mean? In other words, what does all that digging look like in the back of the house?
In short, we don’t really know. It has been reported that certain isolated populations of Oshá in the Rocky Mountains have dwindled or become extinct over the years, and some large populations still remain, hopefully in perpetuity. Luckily, Kelly Kindscher and colleagues at the University of Kansas have been undertaking a multi-year sustainability study of wild populations of Oshá in Colorado since 2013 to determine just how much harvesting the plant can handle. They have promised a harvest sustainability statement at the conclusion of their study. Please stay tuned.
Despite the uncertainty, there are a few things we do know: If we as citizens are not mindlessly (or lustily) consuming herbal remedies and are growing or harvesting our own, we will have a much different perspective of what our medicine is. If our experience is that our garden or our wild landscapes are healing us, we will have a much grander feeling of our place in the world. If, when we are buying herbal remedies at the market, we ask, “Where did this come from?” or “How was this produced?” we will be tossing our coin into a more promising future. And, if at all possible, we endeavor to bow our heads to something greater, if we kneel and kiss the ground every now and then as we move, we will be less consumers and more conservers, living amidst the paradox.
If you would like to learn more about wildcrafting ethics, botany, and herbal medicine, please consider our Rocky Mountain Field Botany course at The Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, found here: https://clinicalherbalism.com/rocky-mountain-field-botany-certificate/
Joshua Paquette is a botanist and herbal educator who enjoys using immersion, poetry, story and metaphor to inspire people into the graces of green landscapes. Of particular interest to him is how our personal stories intersect with those of the wider Earth. Some big questions he likes to ponder curiously are: How can the exploration of untamed places be used to foster the innate, wild genius living inside us? What do ritual, poetry, story and myth have to teach us about the analogical processes of nature, and vice versa? Who or what is actually guiding this boat, anyway? Joshua finds that engagement with natural landscapes coupled with in-depth observation often brings magic and connection to people’s lives; he aspires to share that sense of magic with his community.
Joshua holds certification in herbalism from the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism (NAIMH), as well as from the Columbines School of Botanical Studies. He began his study of the natural world in 2005 at the University of Maine, Orono where he was introduced to the craft of environmental education. Since then he has had the opportunity to work with some outstanding herbalists and botanists in the field. His time with Howie Brounstein and Steven Yeager at the Columbines School of Botanical Studies has enlivened his passion for plant identification, ecology, and wildcrafting ethics. His studies with Paul Bergner at NAIMH revealed the powers of Vitalism as a therapeutic approach to healing as well as a way of living. Namely, that our innate heat does much of work, one has only to encourage the flames a bit and step out of the way (which is much more challenging than it sounds). Joshua lives off-grid in a solar-powered, straw bale house at 9,000 feet in Ward, Colorado. He teaches botany, wildcrafting ethics, nutrition, herbalism and natural therapeutics at the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism in Boulder, CO. You can find more of his work here: www.abotanica.net or www.joshpaquette.com
 “Herb lust” is a term used by Howie Brounstein and Steven Yeager at the Columbines School of Botanical Studies, Eugene, Oregon.
 https://www.nps.gov/lecl/learn/nature/common-camas.htm Accessed December 2018
 Kindscher et al. Harvesting and Recolonization of Wild Populations of Oshá (Ligusticum porteri) in Southern Colorado http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3375/043.037.0207 Free full text. Accessed December 2017