Renée is a community herbalist and cofounder of the Dandelion Seed Community Health Project, which administers the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic and the annual Dandelion Seed Conference: Herbal Medicine for Community and Social Healing. She has functioned in research capacities both independently and with the Center for World Indigenous Studies and Antioch University, with a special focus on herbal pharmacology, ethnobotany, and medical anthropology. Her recent graduate thesis explored the role of cultural plants education in healing cultural trauma in Salish tribal communities. She always wants more time to write and be outdoors and is currently infatuated with the medicine and folklore of the Northwest trees.
Tell us about yourself as an herbalist – your inspiration behind getting involved with plants and their role in your life today.
Like many of us here, I’ve long been enchanted by the relationship between people and plants, in all it’s iterations and manifestations. It’s so simple, yet so complex. Ancient and innovative. Beautiful, available, yet just a bit mysterious. So since being a young girl, one who loved the trees, who liked to think the wind whispered things to her, who thought flowers had magical powers–that inspiration and sense of beauty never left. I’ve been following a curiosity and exploring what that meant for me, turning this connection around and experiencing its sides, dimensions and angles.
When I was younger, I wanted to be an artist. I felt like art was the best way for me to explore the meaning, connection, and relationships between humans, place, plants, and what it means for human identity. So I actually started my college career at the Pratt Institute in New York City. But good lord, that was a complete turn-off that was to my creative process! I also really missed science, and wanted to be engaged in those methods of inquiry. So I switched schools and became a chemistry major. But I soon felt just as confined as I did in art school, this time by the conventions of academic disciplines. My curiosities were trans-disciplinary, I discovered.
My relocation to Cascadia several years ago marked the beginning of understanding the role of plants in individual, community and ecological health. The landscape inspired me. Knowing the plants, trees, fish, weather patterns all helped inform my identity in relation to place, and reaffirm my place in the cosmos. So in pursuit of that enchantment, grounding, and connection, I became involved in herbal practice and community health.
Tell us about your work with Olympia Free Herbal Clinic.
Right! The Olympia Free Herbal Clinic (OFHC) started in 2008. I was still apprenticing with Joyce Netish, an herbalist in McCleary, WA, when Emma Rose, Julene Graves, and Jean Madrone started operating a free, walk-in herbal clinic in downtown Olympia. As young, trained herbalists, they were inspired to help make herbal medicine accessible, safe, and effective in our community.
I started getting involved around Spring of 2011, after I had completed my apprenticeship with Joyce and was halfway through grad school. I was studying at Whole Systems Design (a program about complex systems theory, resilience science, and social change), and was beginning to envision the potential for radical, systemic social change through herbal education and practice. So I was working with some other non-profit startups in traditional medicine and picked up some working knowledge on nonprofit program design and management, organizational development, etc. Over time I became impressed with the work OFHC was doing as a community organization. They were really starting to make a difference in our community. So I came on board to help with developing the overall organization, helping conduct workshops in the community, coordinate volunteers, etc. We’re currently developing a nonprofit called the Dandelion Seed Community Health Project, whose mission is to encourage holistic health on personal, ecological, and community level. We aim to do this by:
1. Offering resources and support for people to make informed, individual health choices: We encourage people to take charge of their own health through individual health consultations, herbal education, and facilitating access to community health resources.
2. Strengthening the relationship between people and plants: We aim to foster and strengthen the connection between people and local plants for individual and ecological health and resilience. Through community garden projects, plant walks and other educational endeavors we help create a symbiotic partnership between people and nature and cultivate a strong connection to place.
3. Working to reinstate herbal knowledge as common public knowledge: Through creative and comprehensive community education, we aim to make herbal knowledge practical, accessible and available as common public knowledge. Ultimately, we envision a culture that values health and empowerment through safe and effective use of herbal medicine on an individual, family, and community level.
Can I even express how exciting this is?! Through herbal practice and education we can cultivate human AND ecosystem health, all in one shot. It’s so simple and sensical. Through education, community empowerment, and sustainable healthcare practices we can remedy our systemic social and ecological ills. I’m so excited and charged up I hardly know what to do with myself! I think this work can go really far.
How do you blend your heart-centered approach to herbalism with the more research oriented parts of yourself?
That’s a really good question. And people often ask this of me, so it’s nice to be able to speak to this issue. I think it’s an important one.
I do think that the heart/spirit v. Science dichotomy is problematic. It limits our creativity as herbalists, community activists, social change activists, etc. In mainstream thinking, they are polar ends of an imaginal spectrum, with each side pitted against the other. They are ultimately different ways of dealing with knowledge and information. Science often gets a bad rap because, well, its proponents can be rather close-minded, thick-headed, and ignorant of the limits of their methods.
Heart vs. Science is too dualistic. When we consider a holistic orientation for herbalism, we can recognize the value of many kinds of inputs of information. Science is valuable. So is experience, intuition, and the wisdom generated from tradition. Good judgment and critical thinking dictates the weight and appropriateness of all these streams of information in a given situation. I don’t think being dogmatic and demonizing scientific inquiry will help you be open, present, and authentically connecting with a situation. If our dogmas are too rigid, we stop being aware, present, and grounded. Does that make sense?
I really like Paul Bergner’s articulation of this holistic perspective in his Four Directions model. To summarize it briefly, he uses the model of the 4 directions, with the practitioner at the center. In his words:
In the North, we diligently study traditions and what previous generations have left for us in books or oral tradition. In the South we throw ourselves into practical experience, alone, in groups, or in our communities, tasting and experimenting the plants and the contexts of their healing, testing the promise of the studies of the past. In the East, in this era, we look at new information or perspectives that may be coming from the field of science, and we look to new plants or methods, entering our awareness from other lands or traditions. Finally, in the West, we study the reality of the plants and our healing methods with instinct and intuition. “Plant Healer Magazine, Spring 2012, excerpt”
So back to the original question–my instincts, intuitions, curiosities are fueled by my heart, love, and reverence for all living things. It’s what makes this work artful for me. And the information generated by scientific inquiry is a great tool in my critical thinking and invaluable in the development of good judgment.
What is your vision for American herbalism in the next 5-10 years?
I think we’re going to be seeing the emergence of a new model of herbal practice and education, for a couple of reasons: An adaptation to changes in the healthcare industry and regulatory agencies, and to engage the larger social system and other social and environmental movements in large-scale change. Herbalists are uniquely positioned to be agents of change and transformation because they stand and work at the nexus of human and Nature, and are oriented to affirming and nurturing life in all its manifestations.
Herbalists innately understand life, complexity, diversity, and resilience. These ideas and topics are now becoming very in-vogue and seen as innovative with social change theorists, social entrepreneurs, activists, etc. But they’re the very foundation of herbal practice, and that’s been with us since the beginnings of mankind. This is our heritage; the torch we carry onto the next generations.
Erico Schleicher, at our conference in Olympia last weekend, described this very beautifully. In his view, current regulatory trends are pushing herbalists and apothecaries to go either big or underground. There is this cleaving force, so to speak. In order to adapt, we need a new model of community herbal practice, one that’s based in identifying the health care needs of the community, and meeting them with safe, locally abundant, easy to harvest medicinal plants. Jonathan Treasure also talks about the emergence of a new model of herbal practice. He (quite cleverly) dubs this ‘Herbalism 3.0’. As I understand it, he’ll be putting forth more writing on this topic in the near future. So keep an eye out!
I also hold the hope that we can broaden our clinical research model to better suit the study of herbal medicine. Herbs don’t act like single-agent pharmaceuticals–they are complex. I’d love to see a clinical research model that accommodates that. Some researchers are advancing the idea of Whole Systems Research. I’m eager to see where that goes.
Which brings me to my next point. I also envision American herbalists being proactive, creative, integrative and holistic in orientation instead of just reactionary. I sometimes observe the demonization of scientific inquiry, medical doctors, etc. It’s a macropsychological reaction against the philosophical violence of the medical establishment against herbalists. But it often comes at the price of critical thinking. I want us to be critical thinkers, as well as hold our intuitions, traditions and personal experiences in high regard. They’re not exclusive, and it’s a waste when things like this become divisive. I’m by no means saying that we need to mold to a certain form, or wear one kind of hat. What we can do, though, is have a constructive attitude and honor diverse perspectives.
Again, there are these polarities that we play tug-of-war with (Science v. Spirit/heart is my favorite example). But we can do better than that, creating more dimension than afforded by either/or thinking.
What is the inspiration behind the Dandelion Seed Conference?
So just a few weeks ago was the first annual Dandelion Seed Conference! The theme was Herbal Medicine for Community and Social Healing. It was from September 21-23 at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.
As I mentioned before, we see community herbal practice as something that empowers and inspires both social and ecological health. Community herbalists help people learn practical tools for self and family care, as well as help mobilize community health resources. Herbal practice broadens our ecological awareness and deepens those relationships. So that’s the inspiration for the conference.
This is what we intend to support with the conference: herbal education, community-based action, and social justice. But most of all, we empower herbalists to pursue positive, creative social change and bring herbal practice to the next level. We want to facilitate unique, original and place-based classes to help move this work forward. And while it was a fundraiser to keep our little project going, we took many steps to ensure that this experience is accessible to all who want to attend.
We got really unique & amazing teachers with some truly original classes. We had Elise Krohn talking about community building through herbal practice, and her experiences of healing cultural trauma through native plants education. Heron Brae and Sean Croke did plant walks and classes on ethical wildcrafting. Paul Bergner spoke on cultivating mastery as an herbalist. Sean Donahue did a stunning class on herbs to nourish the heart during these often tumultuous times. Erico Schleicher taught about the development of a new model of community herbalism, and we had a really dynamic panel discussion about progressing the movement of community herbalism. The weekend couldn’t have gone better! Folks left energized and inspired to carry their passion for the healing affinities between plants and people to another level. We got a terrific response, and had to promise to do it again next year!
So can I plug the website? It’s http: www.dandelionseedcollective.org. Ultimately, we wanted an event that helped build our community (Olympia, Washington and the greater Puget Sound region) and strengthened the plant-people relationships therein. We’re not aiming to have a national conference. Rather, we wanted something that really serves our community here, one that’s built and carried by its members.
What provides YOU inspiration?
Oh, so many things. Can I write them in list form?
Wholeness, beauty, connection, kindness & freedom.
Really good writing. Both reading it and doing it.
Herbal medicines crafted so well that they make your heart light up, instantly!
Elegance in design.
History & lore of plants, and medicine traditions.
Being in service to my community is deeply rewarding and satisfying.
Long term thinking–considering history & futuristic perspectives.
All the beautiful plant photos I see in books.
Dedication to practice and devotion to craft.
But above all, lives and practices that help us develop ever-deeper and authentic connections to all forms of life; that which evokes beauty, freedom, and wholeness.
What plants have found their way into your personal apothecary recently?
Rosemary. How many times can I fall in love with Rosemary? It’s never enough, I tell you! It’s one of my staples, and I love a short decoction of it with burdock & yarrow. There’s a 6′ tall Rosemary plant growing outside my front door, so it’s a nearby and always-cherished ally.
I love the lore surrounding Rosemary. Aphrodite, for example, was seen emerging from the sea draped in Rosemary boughs. It’s long been used in Europe as an herb of remembrance, as well as a protector of the home and keeper of family peace and fidelity.
It’s my experience that it’s a particularly suitable ally for our climate and the seasonal issues folks deal with here. During the rainy season, it’s cold, wet, damp and often stagnant. So we often see chronic, lingering infections, general melancholy and seasonal malaise from the lack of sunlight. Rosemary, in its solar, expansive, aromatic, dispersive, uplifting, mentally stimulating wonder, lifts us up from the swampiness–much like Aphrodite’s ascesion from water to land. It helps clear lymph stagnation, stimulate cerebral circulation and digestion. It helps clear the fog. It’s also one of my staple culinary herbs. Rosemary tomato soup? Rosemary-lemon sorbet, or rosemary-ginkgo lemonade? Yes please!
Additionally, all the medicinal mushrooms have landed in my lap this summer when I started working with a prominent mycologist and innovator. So Reishi (and other Ganoderma species), Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus), and many others. They require a bit of a learning curve, as they are metabolically quite different from plants. They are such enigmatic, mysterious little beings.
Their chitinous cell walls break down into long-chained polysaccharides called beta glucans, which have been the focus of a tremendous amount of research regarding the stimulation of immune cytokines. Beta glucans are glucose molecules connected by beta linkages (seen in cellulose and chitin), whereas starches contain glucose molecules and alpha linkages. Our digestive enzymes can only tackle alpha linkages, which is why beta glucans can be absorbed into the system intact. They then resemble the cell wall of an antigen, stimulating an immune response. There are many other compounds in medicinal mushrooms that we are only starting to understand. For instance, Lion’s Mane mushrooms contain erinacine (among other compounds) that stimulate the production of Nerve Growth Factor in neurons, and has been the focus of studies investigating its potential use in Alzheimer’s and dimentia treatment, as well as overall cognitive support and neurogenesis. These developments are exciting.
So it’s one of the win-win situations I love: mushrooms can give us important medicines (and in fact, many of our pharmaceuticals like cyclosporine, cephalosporine, and lovastatin are compounds derived from our fungal friends) and play a crucial role in our ecosystems. Paul Stamets and other mycological pioneers are figuring out ways to clean up petrochemicals in the environmental, use Cordyceps as a non-toxic (and species-specific) pesticide, and use bunker spawn to filter contaminants out of water. It’s really exciting to be a part of it all! So yes, the medicinal mushrooms have definitely found their way into my garden and apothecary. And my heart!
To anyone new to herbs (whether aspiring to work with herbs personally or become an herbalist), what is one thing you’d like to share with them?
I think the most valuable piece of advice I could give is to encourage people to stay open, curious, and inquiring. It’s so often the case that we get extremely inspired or even overwhelmed by the work of others. It can either light up, expand and energize us, or fold and turn inward, closing us and inciting insecurity, envy, and smallness. Herbalism is a beautifully brilliant, dazzingly complex and dynamic field. People spend their whole lives developing mastery, and always feel like there’s more to learn. My best teachers have been ones that I’ve observed to be open, humble, inquisitive, and ever supportive of other herbalists. It’s being a stepping stone, and someone that empowers others, even if it doesn’t feed your ego. Just be open, be happy to learn, support the success of others, and welcome the hard and necessary lessons. Try not to take things personally. And also, try not to be a jerk. (It’s just a good life strategy in general.)
Be sure to have a look at Renée’s website here: