Sunday, October 12, 2014

Gathering the Edgewalkers: The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference

I am, by nature, a witch at the edge of the woods, as my friend Kiva would say.  Sometimes, quite literally -- right now I live in a small cabin on unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, on land surrounded by Douglas Fir and Hawthorn and Big Leaf Maple.   Sometimes my solitude has been more closely surrounded by people and the trees have been further away.   But my work happens in the places where the wild, the human, and the divine meet, both within me and around me.  Its a calling I was born to in many ways, coming into this world with a queer neurobiology.  It has opened me to unspeakable beauty.

But it has also been a lonely calling.  I have found myself an outsider among outsiders again and again -- among hippies, activists, and pagans, finding that my difference was different from the differences that united them, and ending up feeling more alone than I started.

To some extent this is to be expected.  Anyone who has read enough Terry Pratchett knows that "the natural size of a coven is one" . . .   But they also know that now and then those solitary magical ones need to come together to make sure nobody has "gone off cackling."

Sometimes I find those moments of connection visiting another herbalist or witch, or even grabbing a few moments on the phone or online (though the people I actually enjoy talking with on the phone are few and far between.  Phones can be pretty stressful.)  Often I will find those moments of connection with students and patients and other teachers.

But all year I look forward to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference (thought it has sometimes gone by other names in recent years) -- where a ragtag bunch of herbalists and activist and witches and curandero/as come together from across the continent to share our love of wild medicine in a place where our individual and collective strangeness is enot just welcomed but celebrated.

I have been going to the conference every year since its inception.

The first time I came, I had never been to a major herb conference before, and arrived feeling a little awkward and intimidated.  But by the end of the first day, I found myself sharing meals with people like Matthew Wood and Howie Brounstein and jim mcdonald whose work I had been following for a long time, and was struck by the way that they treated me as a colleague and an equal, encouraging my work while they shared theirs.  

The second year, I was moved to find that Wolf and Kiva were willing to take a chance on inviting an unknown herbalist living in rural Maine to teach about working with Skunk Cabbage, Ghost Pipe, and Black Cohosh to connect with the underworld and with submerged aspects of the self.  The experience helped me realize that when I taught  from my own experience rather than just repeating things I had read and heard I could begin to help other people engage or re-engage their own hunger for authentic connection with plants in a way that could change their lives.  

The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference has always emphasized this kind of vital teaching and practice, bringing forward new voices and challenging established herbalists to bring forward aspects of themselves that don't often get seen in public.   This year's iteration of the conference, the HerbFolk Gathering, brought that to a new level, as elders of the community like David Hoffman and Matthew Wood and newer voices like Asia Suler and Rebecca Altman taught classes infused with enchantment, where their love and passion for the healing found in forest and desert and swamp and field was palpable and contagious.  The magic spilled into the evening, as a community danced and celebrated.

The connections made at these conferences have extended into the rest of my life too.   Friendships made over plant conversation and strange libations have evolved into a network of witches at the edge of the woods who keep each other from going off cackling, and a continually growing confidence in the necessity of my own strangeness.

Gathering the edgewalkers may be like herding cats, but somehow Kiva and Wolf have turned a bunch of scattered feral cats into a pride of lions.   There is room in the pride for you too!

2 comments:

Gel said...

I'm really glad you wrote this. It inspires me to keep walking my 'edge of wilderness' even though it's lonely sometimes. I'm always glad to see a new post by you (wish there were more)

xxoo

woolgatheringwildcrafting said...

So very beautiful Sean. Thank you for your words!!!

Much love,
Asia