1. How did you first come to working with plants?
I started wanting to meet plants and plant medicine with a sense that we are so imperiled and unsafe in this society, so under-cared for — I was looking to plants to kind of save us from ourselves, really to help us survive. And, personally, I was looking for a radical transformation of my relationship to the world. I grew up in the city, with a relationship of dependence on the ways of the city — on stores, steam heat, movie theaters, noise and light. I wanted a relationship with something that wasn't tied into industrialism and capitalism, that was enduring and alive and didn't have an agenda of total destruction.
It was also happenstance; my sweetie at the time picked up a brochure for a program at 7Song's school in Ithaca, NY. We went to that for one weekend a month, and it was just utterly blissful and fascinating and so right. And it immediately began transforming my relationship to towards my own body and towards the world. That was the year that I stopped dosing myself with caffeine several times a day — I can't even begin to describe how radical that was for me. And I started to walk around my neighborhood and have a feeling of the insurgent wildness that was right there, and to know it by its habits and names — cornflower, goosefoot, the herb robert.
2. What kinds of lenses and frameworks do you bring to the way you work with herbs and offer them to your communities?
There are so many parts to what working with herbs and doing health care means. Questions about what a health care or teaching interaction looks like, in terms of power and in terms of goals and norms. Questions about what our relationship is with the plants that are our medicine. Questions about how the communities that are fostering herbal medicine, peddling it, representing it, wielding it - how do these communities function, who tends them, who is valued in them? And thinking about health holistically, how does our work with plants help to heal the bigger sicknesses in our society, the sicknesses of capitalism and colonialism and white supremacy and the cisheteropatriarchy.
The big kinds of questions I'm asking in my work with plants right now are:
What are the ways that capitalism and colonialism have harmed and continue to hurt our relationships with our hearts/minds/bodies, our relationships with each other, and our relationships with plants and with the land? How can working with herbs help repair these relationships and undermine these tenacious structures of oppression?
How can we create an alternative to the professional culture that dominates western herbalism? How can we teach and practice and share in a way that demystifies plants and, more important, demystifies our bodies?
Much of how I practice and teach right now is reproducing what and how I was taught about herbs and health care. It's my hope that through the lens of these questions, slowly (and also suddenly!) new ways will emerge. There are generations of powerful teachings and discussions about white supremacy culture, and patriarchal stories about gender, and ableism and fatphobia; and also about resistance, community, vulnerability, and I try to let these shape and direct my work with plants. And particular ways that these have been reflected in health care work — harm-reduction; trauma-informed care; client-centered counseling — these frameworks provide really helpful models.
And of course working with plants is about relating to land and resources as well. For me, this means being aware of my role as a settler on this land taken illegally by genocide and violence. Much of my herbal education fed into a sense of entitlement that goes hand-in-hand with settler colonialism -- just go out and take whatever plants you want, like it's a birthright. Owning and living with the knowledge of being a settler, having that lens, means living lightly on this land, feeling awe and reverence and belonging to the land, but also that I'm living in someone else's home, working to take the very best care of it that I can, not break anything, and fighting to return the land to indigenous stewardship.
3. So often plants and their uses in treatment are gendered within the context of the gender binary and gender essentialism. Have you found yourself needing to reimagine this? If so, how have your clients and communities needed something different?
I think of this the same way that so much else in our world has this oily film of gender - clothes, make-up, occupations and hobbies and the ways we talk and move our bodies and, well, just about everything. These stories are there, about honeysuckle being feminine and myrrh being masculine (I did once want to start a line of male-targeted body care products I thought would be very successful called "Myrrhman"). Or like how shatavari is described as the "female ashwagandha," perhaps because it's cooler and more moistening, or particular traditions, or maybe it's a modern association? And like all the other stories of gender, we can play with it, we can use it in ways that feel juicy to us in our gendered identities or experiences, or use those associations to tell particular stories about what our medicines do. And we can also spit in the face of these layers of story and go right to what things actually feel like in our bodies, and whether that's good medicine for us or not.
In terms of how I teach about plants, there are times where I'll talk about gendered associations, particularly where there are stories that appeal to queer experiences with gender. Like the way blue cohosh is associated with tenderness around sexuality in times of gender transition; or motherwort being sooo queen of swords; or using nettle to soften or ward off toxic masculinity. Other times, gendered associations with plants will get air quotes, and I'll try to hone in more on other associations or effects of an herb.
Whatever the stories are, the way we conceive of gender in plants needs to be individual and not flat! We can't just have a soundbite about an herb and think we know it, just like we can't just throw humans into gender boxes and feel like we know them. This truth about plants is something I feel such a need and demand for amongst herbal community I'm a part of - escaping the gender binary's miserable reductionism of the plant world, and instead spending time with plants in their homes and in ours, making family and friends with them, understanding who they are in all the gendered and non-gendered ways.
4. What are your favorite plant guides for the heart? Physical, emotional, spiritual all welcome!
It's always been trees for me, they have always been the plant hands that have held and guided me from when I was little. I am a scattered, anxious and easily distracted creature, and my tree friends, with their towering views, their slow way, their giant, strong and thirsty root feet deeply holding the earth, they have been such steadying voices for me, offered quiet and solemnity and teasing and realness in just the right moments. Different trees of different ages and dispositions and circumstances with such different voices, but most consistently the ones that I need. Most especially, the old oaks and willows and beeches, the white pines and hemlocks and spruce and the redwoods, and of course the occasional cedar (you know who you are).
5. How have herbs supported your relationship with your body?
Working with herbs has been all about intimacy with my body. How could it be anything but — putting all these strange new tastes and smells and molecules and magicks right inside, and seeing what happens! The parts of my herbal education (from humans and plants) that I treasure most dearly are the ways that I've learned to understand what's happening inside, learned to listen and feel in new ways, and learned how to respond with care, curiosity, and love. One technique I was taught by Carolene Gagnon is called focusing (you can google "focusing therapy"), which is a practice of listening to, honoring and responding to the felt senses in our bodies. Learning this felt like a huge endeavor of repair work, of regaining a natural and right relationship with my body, unlearning years of ignoring and pushing away body awareness. There is so much I don't like or am afraid of in my body, which connects with experiences with gender dysphoria and trauma, and also so much truth I was taught to ignore in the world; and so this work feels immensely healing and sacred.
And the plants, they teach us this automatically, if we pay attention to them. When we play with and get to know plants in our bodies, we are touched by the world and it stirs shifts within us, emotionally, energetically, physiologically. Like maybe we drink astragalus tea and we feel well fed and warm and our eyes feel wet and bright! And that deep listening into our bodies to understand that, it comes with all kinds of additional information of what's going on in our bodies. Take mad-dog skullcap (does anyone call it that?) — for years I treated skullcap basically like a magick, delicious, pharmaceutical downer and muscle-relaxant. But really what skullcap does, I've found, is increase the presence and awareness of the tension in the skeletal muscles, and then we can then act on that awareness by releasing what we've been holding.
And I'm not saying everything has to go through our awareness centers to operate; our body has intelligence, and we can listen and respond to that at a deeper level. I've found so much with many of my plant allies that my body will ask directly for what it needs, by name or flavor. When I'm getting sick, my body craves the taste of echinacea, or the taste of ginger tea. The more I satisfy these tastes, the stronger that voice speaks. This connection, this feels like revitalizing a relationship that decades living in our culture has badly damaged.
Going back to the question about gendered stories about plants, this healing work has been immensely helpful to me in understanding and playing with gender in my body. Thinking about that cozy cup of astragalus tea, there's a dimension in the sensations that feels gendered for me. It opens up sense awareness of parts of my bodies in ways that I couldn't have described without the astragalus leading the way. It changes shapes and textures and ways of relating to the world, and those shapes it opens up somehow have gendered meanings and feels within my body. What about you — does that astragalus tea help you feel your inner grandpa or power lesbian or Saturnine androgyne more fully in your body? I am thinking about kink, and the ways that opens up sensations and relationships which help us feel really present, and also often help us feel our gender in specific and unique ways. Our relationship with plants can be kinky too.
Vilde Chaya Fenster-Ehrlich grew up in New York and migrated to the Midwest to live in small houses with lawns and gardens. She presently resides amongst the rivers, cliffs and hillsides of Pittsburgh, PA on Haudenosaunee land, where she teaches about plants and runs a sliding scale clinic as part of the Stonefruit Community Herbalists. By night she is a fearsome systems analyst/hacker at a neuroimaging laboratory. She carries on family tradition as a musical-theater-inclined, anti-authoritarian Jewish radical, and has been doing health justice work for ten years in her communities. Plants and body-awareness work have been critical allies to her as a trans woman, and she has been teaching, researching and facilitating discussion about herbs for trans folks and allies since 2013.