Botany as Therapy

The following is an excerpt from my newly updated Zine #3: “Botany in a Handout”, which can be freely accessed and downloaded on the Educational Resources page.


To interact with a study as a therapy is to say that it has healing effects on the psyche.  To me, botany is much more than a study that appeases my curiosity; it is a practice that soothes my agitated nerves, grounds my fidgeting body, and connects me with the mysterious source of life. Along with ecology, tracking, wilderness skills, homesteading competence, anti-colonization work, and mind-body exploration, botany can be a very important aspect of the re-wilding journey.

Plants take up a lot of room here on planet Earth, and no matter how much pavement we lay down, they will always pop up through the cracks to say “HI”.  A common response from civilized humans is a foot in the face, a fresh pour of concrete, or a spritz of poison.  It is unfortunate on many levels.  In our culture, we face debilitating levels of stress and depression, and there is much to learn about self care and community connection. I propose that plants can, and must, play a pivotal role in the human journey towards sanity and health.  I am not referring to herbal medicine (though that certainly has a lot to offer), rather I am writing about botanical awareness; the mere acknowledgement of plants on a daily basis.

A few springs ago, I spent time in an East African Maasai village; my first experience outside of western culture.  It is an area where ancestral ties and traditional ways are still intact, like an artery pulsing through the community.  In this place, despite the growing invasion of western culture, people still carry a general knowledge of the plants living amongst them.  Even if they don’t use a plant for food or medicine, they can identify it, at the very least. I had not seen this collective ecological consciousness before, and do not see it where I live.

Prunus angustifolia
What I have seen, over and over, regardless of location, culture, or age, is the universal eye sparkle when an individual experiences the amazement of botanical awareness.  Perhaps they really see a flower, with all of its reproductive goods, for the first time.  Or they feel the exhilarating terror after tasting the alkaloidal tingle of Prickly Ash bark.  This eye sparkle indicates a childlike wonder that brings innocent joy into the world; something we could certainly use more of. Our eyes dull much too quickly when they are always reflecting concrete.
I have spent time with many plant nerds (which come in all forms, might I add), and repeatedly, I hear stories of pure magic.  Sometimes people hear profound messages from plants (and no…not just “psychoactive plants”).  I personally have never heard a plant speak, per say, though I think that consciously being in the presence of plants helps me to hear my own inner voice more clearly.  More than counseling, what I receive from plants and wilderness is generosity, ease, delight, and clarity.  One afternoon, I was exploring the hills of Vermont.  I spotted a deer trail and, practicing my tracking skills, I came upon a beautiful doe.  I stalked her for less than ten seconds before startling her with my clumsy footfalls, and she took off over the peak of a steep hill.  When I climbed to the top, I looked down to see, as far as my sight would allow, a forest full of giant Reishi mushrooms on old Hemlocks. Some were bigger than my head! I could feel my eyes sparkling. For me, this was magic. I harvested a few mushrooms and brewed a year’s worth of medicine from the fungal gift, though I am pretty sure the journey of discovering them was the most potent therapy of all.
The industrialized world is loud, but the magic of the natural world is held in quietude.  When the days are fast-paced, the best medicine really is terribly cliche: stop and smell the roses, or the camphor leaves, or taste the pineapple guava flowers, watch a squirrel nibble on a hickory nut, or launch Jewelweed seeds from their pods for thirty full minutes.  Stop and acknowledge that we humans are part of an intricate network of connections, of checks and balances, of cooperation.  Perhaps then, the pull of social media, the draw of the screen, the demands of the boss, the shitty traffic, and the unending task list will seem less like the center of the universe.  Maybe, finally, important things will become the center of our universe.  Rather than trying to colonize another planet, maybe we can pay attention to the one being destroyed beneath out feet. Perhaps utilizing botany as therapy, humans might start considering the health of their habitats as the most important necessity.  For when the habitat is healthy, the community is healthy; and when the community is healthy, so too is the individual.

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Content: Creative Commons 2020 Annie SewDev