Can you tell us a bit about how it all began? How did you first get interested in plants or herbalism? What inspired you to learn about herbs?
It all comes down to meeting Katja. I said, “what are all these jars in your closet?” She’d just moved back to Boston from her time on the farms up north, and was starting to rebuild her practice here. She showed me how to mix up some herbs into a tea, and that was it! She lent me some books and began teaching me, slowly and simply. She revealed a long-standing love of ginger I didn’t realize I had, while helping me get a handle on my own gut troubles; she taught me how to steam with thyme when I got a cold. She cooked amazing meals, spiced and infused with flavors I’d rarely tasted but soon couldn’t imagine life without. Seeing how herbs permeated her life gave me a lot of motivation to learn more about them. Shortly after we moved in together, she taught an apprenticeship with Mischa Schuler right there in our house, so that made it easy for me to attend! It wasn’t long until we were teaching together and I started seeing clients, and we were able to build up the CommonWealth Center into a complete school and clinic, with both of us working full-time as herbalists and teachers.
What would you say is the main focus of your work with the plants?
My work is teaching. I teach my students; I teach my clients also. Every session is a private class. I never want anyone to walk out of my office and say, “that herbalist told me to take this tincture three times a day for my anxiety and heartburn.” Rather, I want them to say, “Ryn taught me how skullcap calms a racing mind, and catnip soothes uprising pressures in the gut, so I’m giving them a try.”
Most of what I do right now is usually described as working with chronic illnesses, the “diseases of civilization” or “diseases of modernity” which are so rampant in our society today – asthma, Crohn’s, diabetes, eczema, Lyme, rheumatoid arthritis, you name it. Usually when I sit down with a client, if they have a diagnosis or suspect a particular label applies to their discomfort, it’s one of these problems of systemic inflammation, usually rooted in dysbiosis of the gut and compromised intestinal barriers. (This is nothing new, really – the Hippocratic school took “All disease begins in the gut” as a primary axiom, and the principle surely preceded even that era.)
Over the last couple of years, Katja and I have been thinking and planning more on ways to work with underserved populations. We’ve offered low-cost teaching appointments as part of our clinic model for as long as we’ve had students to observe the sessions, but now we’re branching out and finding ways to engage underserved communities more directly. To that end, we’ve recently partnered with Sustainability Guild International, and starting this summer we’ll be providing herbal free clinics, teaching classes, and tending medicinal herb gardens in four locations around Dorchester. I’m really looking forward to it!
What challenges did you face when you first started the CommonWealth Center?
Finding time to accomplish all the projects we want to run has always been, and remains today, our biggest challenge. Back when we got started, Katja was working 60-hour weeks as a project manager at a software company, and still seeing clients and teaching classes on top of it – not to mention homeschooling Amber. I was also working a fulltime job and teaching martial arts most evenings and weekends. It took a while before we’d built up the Center into something that could sustain full-time work, first for Katja and later for myself as well. There’s a tipping point somewhere between the place where you need a “day job” to support the herbalists’ work, and the place where the growing practice needs more hours of the day and the day job has to be cut down or left entirely.
This is something we offer guidance about to our third-year students, who are starting to build their own herbal practices. It can be a very stressful time, but it’s a necessary transition. The secret is, those periods of transition keep coming on – there’s always room for growth, for change, for shifts in your priorities or goals, and there’s always a need to balance out the work you’re already doing with the work (or play!) you want to pour more of yourself into. These days, for us, it’s more a matter of gauging when our student teachers are prepared to take over parts of our curriculum, so we can focus our efforts working with Sustainability Guild, or building a distance-learning program, or (oh, someday) writing our book.
Where do you envision the future of herbalism going?
Herbalism as a practice is thriving right now, as evidenced locally by the great turnout we’ve seen at Herbstalk these past few years, and the diversity of practitioners, medicine-makers, teachers, and all other kinds of herbalists who table and present there. Every year I feel so invigorated and elated to see our hometown community of herbalists thriving and growing.
Nationally speaking, I am heartened by recent developments in the American Herbalists Guild. I have had my reservations, in the past, about some prominent voices in the leadership and their opinions regarding certification and licensure particularly. There’s been some changing of the guard recently, and changing of the rhetoric coming from the leadership: I was very pleased to see their statement of support for Health Freedom legislation, and I hear they are considering ways to improve the Registered Herbalist qualification process as well. These are good signs! I think they reflect greater attention to the atmosphere of herbalism in the US today, which has developed a deep and abiding appreciation for the diversity of practice here (which is, in some ways, unique to our country), as well as the wisdom – and renewed relevance – of folk healing traditions.
We all talk about herbalism as sustainable medicine. That’s important today, but it will be ever more important as time goes on. Whether our future involves a sudden and traumatic economic and societal collapse, or a “softer” transition involving more renewable energy sources, it seems clear that we will all find ourselves, one way or another, moving into a relatively low-energy lifestyle. There is simply not an infinite amount of oil in the world, and our present society is fundamentally dependent on oil and its byproducts (fuels, plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, etc). This has grave implications for the future of medicine: however you feel about them today, “vaccinate everyone forever”, “medicate our way out of unhealthy lifestyles”, and “hope for new miracle drugs” will no longer be viable strategies for anyone in a post-carbon world. Herbalism will not be the alternative, but the primary or even the only available medicine of our future, as it was in our past. Whether we see this world in our lifetimes, or our children’s children’s children are the ones who live in it, as herbalists we have a responsibility to be thinking and talking about sustainability and survival in the same breath.
What made you want to be a part of Herbstalk?
Steph was a student of ours when she was first developing Herbstalk, and I was then (as I remain now) deeply impressed with her work ethic and the dedication she showed for building and connecting our local herbal community. I’ve said before and I’ll say again: every city should have its own Herbstalk! I believe it has had a major beneficial impact on the level of discourse and herbal education in our city and beyond.
I most often walk to the Center from home – it’s about two and half miles each way – and I make a habit of touching all the trees along my route. This winter I became particularly interested in the sycamores – they have such a distinctive bark, with big irregular patches peeled away and the green underlayers exposed. It turns out that sycamore’s bark is much stiffer than other trees, and instead of folding and creasing as it grows, it simply sloughs off and falls away. I haven’t yet found any reference to medicinal uses of sycamore per se, but in reading about sycamore trees I came across this perfectly sublime sentence (on Wikipedia, of all places): “The bark of all trees has to yield to a growing trunk by stretching, splitting, or infilling; the sycamore shows the process more openly than many other trees.” When I read that, I thought – well now, there’s a flower whose essence we need! It makes me think of people who are having trouble reconciling their changing inner lives with their past selves, or the expectations of those close to them – people who feel that their process of growth is on open display, and they’re exposed to criticism from their peers and family. We see this frequently with our students, whose lives change a lot in the course of their nine months (or three years) learning with us. So as I walk this spring, I’m watching carefully for the emergence of the flowers, and I have a tree or two picked out whose branches I should be able to climb up to when the time is right.
And here's another related question just for fun: what would be your top five deserted island herbs? (the only herbs you could have around while stuck on a deserted island)
(Nice of you to clarify – if it were herbs from deserted islands, I might be at a loss . . . Coconut? Hibiscus? Kava, perhaps?)
When I read Hildegard von Bingen, saying sage “grows more from the heat of the sun than the moisture of the earth,” I knew I’d found an ally. Sage is something of a totem for me, and has taught me a great deal about the complexity of simples. The fluid intelligence of sage in keeping moisture where it belongs and draining it from where it doesn’t, that’s a lesson in adaptable resilience. We have a sage plant on our front porch; in its season, I start my morning walk with a fuzzy aromatic leaf in my mouth, and all temperatures seem tempered, all humidities humbled.
Marshmallow is a medicine I marked myself with almost more as a reminder than a tribute. When I keep up with demulcents, I feel smoother, looser, easier – but I’m not fond of the mucilage mouthfeel, so I tend to dry myself out, even though I know better. A pinch of marshmallow root in the water bottle or a bit of the leaf in an otherwise drying formula, though – that I can appreciate, and it has saved my mucosa on more than one occasion. It was really when we started growing a marshmallow plant here at home that I became more friendly with her – it’s something about stroking the soft still-growing leaves in the summertime heat.
Pine I first loved as trail tea, hiking in the mountains – just a handful of needles boiled right in the kettle, so fragrant and delicious after a long day’s climb. Pine resin salve is one of my absolute must-have first-aid kit items, for disinfecting dry wounds and staving off skin infections. I haven’t collected pine pollen yet, but I’m hoping to find some this year. Pines, and all the needleafamily, carry the warmth of the world within themselves through the windy winter, and help us to do the same, so I’m particularly grateful for them in the colder months of the year.
Yarrow is a warder, doubt it not. I love its skillful discernment in spurring or stilling blood flow, and it always finds a way into wound washes and bruise liniments. It frequently turns up in gut-healing tea formulas also, especially in those who have progressed to intestinal laxity and torpor, for its bitterness, astringency, and liver support. Yet, I almost more often offer clients yarrow for building energetic armor – the mental & emotional equivalent of thicker skin. It is, after all, Achilles’ namesake.
Solomon’s seal is an herb whose medicine I turn to frequently. I’m a fairly active human with a preference for agility games, and I have a dry & tense constitution, so I’m susceptible to connective tissue injuries; the moistening, relaxant, and joint-lubricating aspects of sol’seal are very helpful for me. I also find it to have a soothing effect on disturbed guts, which is how stress often manifests for me. One of the first things I worked with solomon’s seal for, though, and where I really came to value it, is for its emotional repatterning – the short version is, sol’seal is medicine for the stubborn. It helps us learn to stand securely grounded and stable, but at the same time to bend and flow and glide with the onrushing forces of the world, rather than throwing up a heavy shield and plowing on through.
Oh, grant me a few more: Ginger is one of my first and finest friends, that salamander all soothing and stirring. These past two years we’ve been lucky to get fresh young ginger from our farm share, and we’ve sliced and soaked a pound or so in local honey – I know few better treats than those home-candied ginger bits, with some salted almonds alongside. Calamus is a very important friend for me as a teacher and clinician, both to get me into an open state of wide-angle perception where I can do my best work, and also to soothe my throat after speaking four or eight hours a day. Barberry is an herb I’ve come to really appreciate for its antimicrobial activities and its vital-force-stimulating, berberine-bitter nature. And there’s another herb or two I really adore for recreational purposes, but I guess I’m now well out of room on the island…
Are there any non-herbal hobbies or interests that you love doing as well?
This year I am finally fulfilling a lifelong dream, and working my way toward hunting with bow and arrow. I just recently completed the basic hunter education course, and I was particularly impressed by the emphasis placed on conservation. It turns out that hunting licenses, along with taxes on firearms and hunting equipment, are the primary sources of funding for state conservation efforts. There is a common misunderstanding that hunters don’t care about the land they tread on or the animals they pursue, but I saw a respect for the natural world in these hunters as deep and fervent as any herbalist I might name. Just as we urge people to get into the garden or forest and learn their herbal allies from the ground up, hunters develop an intimate relationship with their prey, learning their habits, their needs & desires, their ways of being in the world.
Now, of course there are those degenerate individuals who pay enormous fees to terrible men for a canned giraffe or lion “hunt”, of all ungodly things, firing through telescopes mounted in armored cars; there are poachers; there are poisoners. But then, there are also people who relate to plants that way – bioprospectors for the pharmaceutical companies, gene-twisting and pesticide-strewing monoculturalists. They are both symptoms of the same diseased worldview, thinking everything that is, is theirs for the taking – and neither should be imagined to represent the hearts of those humans who truly care about the other intelligences of our world, and seek to know them by root and ritual. Look, instead, to those who practice wild craft.
What advice would you give to budding/newbie herbalists?
Avoid debt at all costs.
Learn a few herbs deeply rather than many herbs superficially.
Start teaching as soon as you can; it’s the best way to learn.
Study energetics. Use your senses.
Study history, that we may not repeat it.
Find a partner, find a circle, find a community.
Finally, if you could go back in time to meet yourself when you were just starting on the herbal path, what would you say?
I would say, “keep going.”