Notes from the New England Women’s Herbal Conference 2016

WHC 2016Last year I wrote, “I’ve only been to three years of this 28-year-old conference, but each year I’ve attended has been more nourishing, more inspiring, and also more fun than the last.”  Now I’ve made it to my fourth year at the WHC, and the trend has continued.  What really moved me this year was the conference’s commitment to both courage and compassion in facing the awfulness that has boiled up in the US over the last year or so (which is not to say it wasn’t there already, but that it’s become more evident).

Emily Ruff, who founded the Orlando Grief Care Project in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, taught Herbalism in Action, in which she and Lupo Passero discussed their experiences running crisis-response herbal projects in Orlando and Sandy Hook, respectively.  This class was valuable both for its practical teachings – how we can respond to a crisis effectively and compassionately through herbalism – and as an opportunity to check in in person regarding these tragedies.  The news and social media can be overwhelming to the point of seeming abstract, but talking to real people who have been directly working with those affected by a tragedy is a reminder of how real these happenings are.

Sobande Moss Greer taught “Herbs, Slavery, and America.”  It’s easy, as herbalists, to think of ourselves as countercultural and so as not falling into the same mistakes that mainstream culture makes.  This class was an intriguing and important introduction to herbalism practiced by enslaved Africans in the US, and by their descendants – and to Western herbalism’s failure to engage with this school of healing.

Melissa Morrison taught on Medicine For the Warrior: Alternative Healing Therapies for Veterans, a detailed and practical class borne out of extensive personal experience (as was her Taking Care of the Caregiver class).  Both Melissa and Emily had valuable lessons about meeting people where they are: Flower essences or alcohol-based tinctures may not be up everyone’s alley, but there are a plethora of ways to deliver herbs that can make them more accessible, and it’s as important to respect the needs of the individual in delivery method as in choosing the herbs themselves.

In addition, there were donations being collected for Standing Rock; classes on compassionate herbalism based on Health Justice principles, on health freedom, on herbalists and the FDA, and on how to stock your apothecary via foraging and food stamps; an update on the Free Fire Cider campaign (as well as fire cider tastings and awards – congrats to the winners!); and, as part of ‘Saturday Night Live at the WHC,’ a piece on celebrating diversity.

There can sometimes be, in liberal circles, a lot of emphasis on what we say.  While I wholeheartedly agree that language is important, I appreciated the emphasis on practical, robust actions we can take to help support and to express respect for those whom our society has failed to properly respect or support.

I have to mention one last class, Tiffany Robbins’ Wild Food Cooking, which I took as a bit of indulgence among the other, more weighty, classes.  Tiffany – a persuasive advocate for including wild foods in your diet – was so generous with her samples that, after the class, I found I’d been so well nourished I wasn’t hungry for lunch!  There was wild rice salad with wonderfully weedy greens from the conference grounds, cocoa tulsi seed pudding, a beautiful and refreshing hibiscus seaweed drink, and lots more deliciousness.

The class was inspiring both in small ways (definitely making apple sugar this fall) and in big ones: This was a robust reminder of the abundance surrounding us.  Scarcity is so often of our own making, not necessarily as an individual, but as a culture.  If we can reroute our culture to value a basket of wild greens more than a bag of chips, gatherings with friends more than unlimited streaming, clean water flowing down a river more than oil flowing through a pipeline, exchange of ideas more than headlines that confirm our own biases, mindful changemaking more than politics as usual – and, importantly, make sure these things are accessible to everyone – we may still manage to live well in this world.


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