and Our Lives
(The writer does not suggest or imply that herbs should be substituted for standard medical care. As in all things herbs should be used in moderation and in conjunction with a knowledgeable herbal healer.)
To Go Where No Herbalist Has Gone Before
I am often asked, "Chuck, where do you get your herbs?" The question is easy to answer, up to a point. I grow them, as much as my backyard and the nut grass will allow me to. I shop at various stores that I know carry reputable herbal products. And I go "wildcrafting." At this point, folks often think I'm talking about "wild rafting," the sport where borderline psychotics climb into barely water- tight rafts and go riding white water rivers through rock filled gorges. I've done this once myself but found sitting at home recuperating from the resultant battered hip and broken finger is more in my line of recreation.
Wildcrafting, as I explain to my friends and students, is the art of hunting and harvesting herbs in the wild. A good wildcrafter understands growing conditions, weather patterns, ecological ranges, and plant folklore. But I try to distill this into three easy rules: The first rule of wildcrafting is to pick only 1/3 of any available herb in any given area. And only if it is abundant. A second rule of wildcrafting is "Don't get caught by the Rangers." Like the voice in Mission Impossible, we will disavow all knowledge of your actions. It is illegal in most public lands to harvest anything, abundant or not. That is unless you are a lumber corporation or mining firm. Rangers take a dim view of civilians picking plants to make medicine for the sick. The third rule is GET HOME IN ONE PIECE. Storms, bad roads, no roads, accidents and the occasional emotional breakdown can ruin your chances of getting home in one piece.
The next question is often, "Why do you go wildcrafting at all?" The answer is simply this: many of the most useful plants in existence cannot be purchased commercially because they cannot be grown commercially. So every year, students of the Pacific School of Herbal Medicine (my herbal alma mater), and the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism (the school I run) head into the wilds of the Sierra and the Mojave in search of healing plants. We search for such exotic herbs as Monkshood, Betony, Fireweed, Ocotillo, Desert Lavender, Arnica, Indian Parsnip, Blue Flag, the beautiful Western Pasque Flower, Wild Ginger, California Mugwort, White Sage, Yerba Mansa and more. Few of these can be found on the herbal market, and none in great quantities.
To harvest and process these plants, each student must carry digging and cutting tools, gloves, two gallons of alcohol for liniments and tinctures (vodka is popular, though everclear is preferred by some), paper bags for storing, twine for tying, and bottles of DEET for the millions of blood sucking mosquitoes. This list does not include food, clothing, tent, stove, sleeping bag and a minimum of 15 gallons of water. These are week long journeys, often resulting in car failures (driving up the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, then driving down will melt your brake pads), getting lost off-road in Death Valley, sand storms, facing down drunks in small towns ("How bad do we really want a pizza, gang?"), chipping ice off sleeping bags in August, racing in and out of rain storms, giving first aid for knife gashes, Coleman stove burns, high altitude pulmonary edema and bug bites, playing marriage counselor, dealing with heat stroke, flash floods and listening to bears grunt outside your tent. There also seems to be a rule of nature that states, "the plant you want is on the other side of the stream." This means fording an icy stream, usually raging with snowmelt at 12,000 feet above sea level. Hypothermia sets in very quickly, and allows more knowledgeable students a chance to show off their skills in cold water rescue.
The flip side of this rule is, "You only have 45 minutes in Death Valley, then you die!" Harvesting in Death Valley requires you to wake at 4:45 from your campsite at 5,000 feet above sea level, make it to the valley floor (below sea level), locate and harvest your plants and get out before the sun crests too far above the Panamint Mountains. The desert floor will reach a hundred degrees within 45 minutes. You don't want to be there beyond breakfast. Most embarrassing are the wild burros. They stand in the shade of the cactus and laugh at you. Special types of rugged individuals can accept the rigors of wildcrafting. Patience, fortitude, and bravery are a must. It also helps to have a few screws loose. Friendships are made and destroyed on these trips. One to two hundred miles of driving a day can be stressful in itself. Sitting with a spouse, lover, or classmate who enjoys listening to Heavy Metal Rock'n Roll can become tedious. So can those folks who enjoy Barry Manilow. ("I don't care if he writes the songs! You play that one more time and you're a DEAD MAN Chuck! DEAD!")
Days are spent harvesting herbs and nights are spent processing them. The lack of sleep can change personalities faster than Dr. Jekyll's potion. Those who make it through in good humor deserve some recognition of their emotional strengths. My own school provides T-shirts with such logos as: I SURIVIVED THE EASTERN SIERRA WILDCRAFTING TRIP 1996. Or, "I Froze In the Mojave! 1998 Spring Wildcrafting Trip." And my personal favorite, "Cowards won't show and the weak will die!" 1997 Wildcrafting Trip.
On the upside, friendships can be cemented on these trips. I am happy to be an honorary father to one student, an honorary granddad to the child of another, and trusted herbal practitioner to several others. Leaders of such expeditions often bring luck of one sort or another with them. Friend and colleague, Adam Seller, of the Pacific School of Herbal Medicine, can bring rainstorms and flash floods to areas previously parched by drought. Near Lone Pine, California, famous for numerous movies and TV westerns, he and several students took an unintentional swim in a viscous river of mud during a flash flood, to the delight of several German tourists armed with camcorders. I, on the other hand, am not so flamboyant. Desert nights are supposed to be chilly, but my presence brings ice and bone chilling winds, in the summer. Photographs taken in the closing days of such trips show people dressed like characters out of a Mad Max movie. Superfluous clothing goes out the car window, literally. Students who cannot take the demands of the trip, either physically or personally, leave the caravan days before. If they continue their herbal studies, they will buy their herbs at health food outlets, reputable herb stores, or go without.
Though physically and financially, not every herbalist can go wildcrafting, these trips do tend to separate some of the dilettantes from the serious will-be's. The herbs you find, and the medicines you make with your own hands become a symbol of your pride and skill. Furthermore, these esoteric little plants survive in some of the harshest terrain in the world. They are not cultivated and protected from the elements. Arguably, they tend to be stronger than cultivated varieties. These healing plants come from the hand of the Creator. And used correctly can save a human life. At this point in the conversation, I am usually taken to task for the crimes of herbal over-harvesting. I will say this: Individual herbalists and herb schools seldom, if ever, over-harvest any herb. Most herbalists who are wildcrafters consider themselves caretakers of nature. Many of us help the procreation of herbs by spreading seeds in locations conducive to growth. Wildcrafters who work for large herbal companies must shoulder most of the blame for over harvesting. Case in point: Lady Slipper and Golden Seal, abundant a decade ago, are now endangered. Wild Ginseng is almost an oxymoron. These three herbs are virtually impossible to find due to over harvesting in the east. All three were popular treatments for depression, infection, and suppressed immune systems. The HIV epidemic gave large herb companies a ready-made clientele for their products. I will assume that most of the readers in Zapata County would prefer to brave the wilds of the Internet or the local botanicas for herbal remedies. Even a drive to Laredo would be useful in searching for tinctures and bulk herbs.
For those of you who might want to invest in more unusual or hard to find herbs, I would like to list a few of the stores and companies I trust to have quality herbs in bulk, tincture, and salves. For the cynical in heart no I do not have a financial interest in any of these stores or companies. (You wouldn't want to follow my financial advice anyway. I'm the guy who said cable television was a fad, personal computers would always be a rich man's toy, cassettes would never have the quality of reel to reel, and CD's would never catch on).