Preserving plants, places, and people in our 21st century world
This article is inspired by the recent book, The Business of Botanicals, by Dr. Ann Armbrecht. Packed with great stories, it also shows a new model for how to bring the insights we learn as herbalists into the business world. It’s on sale at Chelsea Green and discounted for the holidays. Thank you for reading and being a part of our herbal world!
I grew up in a town that reached its heyday over 500 years ago. Modern life has threaded its way through the city: old cobblestones are paved over, lights and plumbing and internet are everywhere. But the bones–the buildings, the city walls–all remain. You can walk on stairs where the treads are worn concave by years of human feet. The terracotta bricks in the guard towers were laid in the 15th century, and you can tell. The encircling moat, now a grassy, sunken park, is studded with skinny poplars and not the spears of soldiers, though archaeologists still find remnants from the battles of the past. Summer afternoons are hot and humid, so you sit under an awning with coffee, enjoying the cool air that pours out of the dark building. Its 20-foot ceilings and drawn shades act as natural air conditioning. Here and there, scaffolds are a reminder of the constant work of upkeep. But don’t suggest a replacement: there is something in the old walls that resists, and that something is echoed in the hearts of the citizens–especially the old timers.
Perhaps it is not surprising to find this feeling throughout Italy. In the cosmology of the Roman civilization, roads, neighborhoods and homes were inhabited not just by humans but by domestic spirits, known as lares(this Latin word is pronounced sort of like “lah-rays”), who had the power to protect the places under their domain and influence the fortunes of those whose lives came and went, ephemeral, through those places. You can feel them as you look across old courtyards or walk on ancient paths: these places are resonant. This came into focus for me when, as a teenager, I relocated to the United States to find wide roads and modern buildings, fresh and new, and a general feeling in the dominant culture that old structures were best demolished and replaced with modern, efficient versions. Where, in these impressive American cities, could you go to settle into deep history? To anchor yourself in the whirlwind of life?
Even older than the buildings in my hometown were the trails in the mountains where we’d walk all summer. My grandmother’s house was on the edge of a forest whose trails could take you 8,000 feet up, right from her back door. These trails are ancient, and you can find small shrines here and there, sometimes next to springs or rock outcrops, to remind you that humans still take time to honor the lares who live along the trail. I was drawn to plants and mushrooms around these shrines: here an old chestnut, dropping its delicious nuts every fall; there, a wide mossy area where fly agarics popped up every year; the mistletoe clinging to the furrowed oak; bilberry bushes and stunted spruce trees. In some places, it seemed that the shrines and the plants around them had a long-term relationship. This was most evident in the high meadows that opened, vertiginously steep, as you followed the trails to elevation and crossed out of the tree line.
Here, under the unobstructed summer sun, you will find arnica, its single flower stalk holding a wide golden disk. Or the giant yellow gentian, with ribbed, otherworldly leaves. If you’re lucky, you can spot black vanilla orchids, richly cocoa-scented. Walk on mats of wild thyme, often found where the soil cover is thin, and gather the fresh stemmy tangles for winter. Every spring, cattle herds are driven up to this high country where they remain until the cold returns. The folks who tend the animals sit by water troughs made from hollowed-out larch trunks, gather plants as needed, leave small tokens like candles or cards at the shrines, and walk the trails every day. You might begin to see–as I did–that this landscape, from the valley floor to the meadows above the tree line, is a living ecology that relies on the presence of humans. It has been this way for thousands of years. Remove any of the elements from this context, and they’re no longer what they were, though at first glance the arnica in my Vermont garden might look very similar to its Alpine sisters. What knits this ecology together isn’t tangible, but it still has impact. We humans, in typical fashion, give these intangibles an image like our own. Across the world, we still honor the spirits of place: the lares.
Returning from a morning of wild-collecting, we’d join a lively conversation around the lunch table. The mushrooms and herbs laid out on the counters drew compliments and congratulations–and in return, the gatherers told stories. These berries came from the trail to a well-known rifugio (a high-mountain house for through-hikers): no, not the usual spot that everyone knew, they came from a place higher up, past a meadow full of yarrow, where we’d found an unpicked cache. An old spruce, a landmark as familiar as a friend, had fallen over in a recent storm and a few boletes popped up–a sad surprise, but a welcome gift. The storytelling spiraled, with aunts and uncles talking about their own past adventures in the same places, or about secret spots with even richer finds. The trails, streams, and mountains in these stories stood on equal footing with the people: the land offered its gifts, the humans offered their stories, and we as kids listened and ate and lived in a world where the spirit of place was folded into mushroom sauces, raspberry syrup, elderflower tea.
There is no easy way to measure how the stories were worked into the food we ate or the herbal teas we drank. A simple glance reveals no difference between the elderflower from my uncle’s tree and elderflower from a big farm that is destined for the commercial market. While there may be some subtle chemical differences, even this is not guaranteed: the flowers might look identical even to analytical equipment. But I know now, as I did then, that my uncle tips his hat to the elder every time he walks by; he brings fresh soil to her roots from places in the woods where wild elders grow; he can tell you (with varying degrees of accuracy) what the weather might be by the bend in the elder’s branches. And most importantly, he knows the tree planted outside the mountain cabin is protecting his corner of the world and deserves as much in return. When he tips his hat to the elder by his front door, he is leaving a gift to the spirit of the place, acknowledging the lares. But does this really mean anything at all?
“Even for our grandparents a house, a well, a familiar tower, their very old clothes, their coat, were infinitely more intimate,” remarked poet and philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke to his editor in a letter penned in 1925, comparing these to the “empty indifferent things (…), sham things, dummy life” of the modern consumer world 1. “Live things, things living and conscient of us, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last to still have known such things. On us rests the responsibility not alone of preserving their memory (that alone would be little and unreliable), but their human and laral value (laral in the sense of the household gods)”2. To Rilke, the cabin, the elder, my uncle’s hat all have deep, important meaning–meaning born of a shared intimacy, a “conscient” quality, worked over years and through generations into something that indeed has value. This is the “laral” value (the value of the lares): you can feel it when something or someone or someplace is infused with laral value, it is like well-kneaded bread, a fiber stitches the whole together which was not there before all the work. Though the ingredients may be the same, you know as soon as you bite into it that the loaf is not quick, commercial, sham bread.
You can feel it when you walk in places where plants have fused with place and people. There is laral value here. Tea gardens; Balanites trees in East Africa; my meadows high in the mountains; the potted geraniums that greet you when you come back home: there are intangibles here born of repeated encounter, intimacy, and that conscient quality that builds familiarity. There are gifts and stories that build a lasting bond. Over time, these bonds stabilize the whole. The conscient quality, where people, place, and plants learn to recognize and rely on each other, becomes almost a shared consciousness, a shared sense of purpose, agency, belonging, and meaning. We are held, we are home. Our thoughts and moods soften and take on the qualities of this new, wider ensemble. It happens sitting by a sunny windowsill, trimming basil leaves. It happens walking through a familiar city park. How strong these connections must be, these stable patterns of shared consciousness, in places where generations of humans have walked the same trails, worked with the same plants, followed the same seasonal rhythms: here the laral value is so deep and rich, it shapes and drives human culture, it shapes and drives ecology 3.
Herbalist and anthropologist Ann Armbrecht writes about how this work impacts the people involved. “Every collector I met during my travels talked about how harvesting plants was peaceful,” she remarks as she retells the stories of growers and wild-collectors she visited across the world. “They all talked about how digging roots and harvesting plants helped them be well and stay well. That it calmed their mind. How hard it was when they couldn’t go out to collect. They all talked about how that work fed something that can’t be measured, something more than what was exchanged for coins or faded bills,” pointing to how being a part of these stable eco-cultural systems brings the mind and spirit into a calm focus born of a shared sense of purpose. “Yet,” she continues, “in a global economy driven by growth, everything is reduced to monetary terms. I wondered, can you talk about the laral value of work?”4.
In fact, work is how laral value is built. Whatever your craft may be, it is the repeated encounter, the kneading of shared experience, the long process of engagement and re-engagement, that enchants the finished product (be it an object or not) with laral value. Money comes in because we’ve become comfortable using money as a stand-in for this more numinous quality: a custom-crafted, hand-made item costs more than a mass-produced model (and rightly so–it is made with human attention). There is nothing inherently wrong with this: our world is wide, and we can move across it in ways our ancestors only dreamed of. We need a shared way to account for laral value when it was formed outside of our immediate community. The risk lies in thinking that financial accounting is the same thing as meaning and purpose, instead of just a stand-in.
As we move forward in this century, the stories we tell about plants, people, and place are changing from the ones we used to tell at my grandmother’s house. There is another layer: plants move across the world in big batches, new types of work (from chemical analysis to careful milling and blending) stitch new threads of value into them. At the source–where people, place and plants converge, where the lares live–you can still find patterns that are like what they’ve always been. And when the plants come to you, the experience you have can be (hopefully) like the experience humans have had for generations. But in between, the new layers, the new value, have a life and conscient quality of their own–and this means they have impact.
As Dr. Armbrecht shows, we are already seeing examples of the negative potential of these new layers: one clear pattern involves stripping as much of the laral value as possible from plants, to transfer it (in the form of money) to whomever is doing the selling. This works for a while. But because it means digging up every root you can find, or storing your harvest where it molds, or using that spoiled material anyway, it often means that you end up with lower quality herbs. Perhaps more importantly, it makes traditional ways of doing things unsustainable–it becomes impossible to make a living. The price that comes from sustaining the lares of where the plants grow is simply too high.
The effect is that fewer people connect with the wild-harvesting spots, fewer farm plants with attention to the soil and ecology. That process of repeated encounter, of enchantment, is changing. As a result, the ecologies are changing too: a machine harvesting the wild behaves differently than a human does. Intensive agriculture puts different pressures on the land. But Dr. Ambrecht points to the positive potential of modern plant stories, too: there are new ways to help sustain the connection between people, place and plants. She told me about a company in Poland, Dary Natury 5, that sells beautiful herbal teas, preserves, pickles, and more. The founder, Mirosław Angielczyk, emphasizes the importance of stewarding the natural spaces where herbs grow but, more importantly, preserving the knowledgeof how, where, when to harvest and process what he calls the “gifts of nature” (“dary” means “gifts” in Polish).
This gives me pause. It’s one thing to strip an area of plants: it may not be quite the same, but we (maybe?) can grow them intensively somewhere else, where it’s less expensive. But stripped of laral value, these new plants won’t sustain the knowledge that’s necessary to be able to harvest, process, and use them correctly. Once that is gone, you may still have plant material, but it’s sham plants. Fortunately, people like Mr. Angielczyk have found ways to create sustainable, modern models of enchantment. In an incredible homage to the lares, he repurposes lumber from buildings that are being demolished in his local community, using it to build a botanical garden and education center. Learning about plants and sustainable herbalism becomes part of your experience at Dary Natury, sheltered under enchanted beams.
These types of decentralized, real, thriving facilities exist everywhere. If there is one in your community, you are lucky! But what of the modern grocery store, the big herbal remedy companies? Is it possible to find herbs suffused with laral value? In Dr. Armbrecht’s opinion, it is. But it requires us, as individuals, to join in the process of encounter. We may not be able to walk into Dary Natury, but we do have a direct connection to the companies from which we buy our medicinal plants. This is our engagement point with the new layers through which plants travel in our modern world.
When you hold an herb that has come to you from across the globe, you are holding the expression of an ancient being whose lineage has entangled our own for a very long time. Humans and our gardens, the wild spaces we walk, the work and how it shapes our lives, the drying houses where plants are processed and stored, the big ships and trucks–all are threads in a web that comes to you. Some threads the plants know well: they guide the harvester’s hand as they have from the beginning. But others are new, and for these the plant world needs our focus and attention. For without it, the threads familiar to plants–the intimacy, the daily connection–will vanish. Their continuity is no longer guaranteed. As Rilke warned, we are perhaps the last to still have known such things.
What this means is that you don’t have to live in an alpine meadow to be a part of this process of enchantment. All the process requires is repeated engagement (granted, this is work). Though it may not be as romantic of an image, today we can shape the laral value of the herbalist’s world with new elements of enchantment: certifications, culturally humble non-governmental organizations, financial structures that take money and convert it back to laral value of people, plants and place. This may help sustain and protect the places around the world where herbal knowledge is stewarded using traditional rhythms and practices–paradoxically, using modern tools like social media and certification schemes that plants are just starting to learn about. Just because it’s modern doesn’t mean it’s not magical (in the right hands).
I’ve always believed that herbal medicine heals more than just people. To truly make this so, in a world where we often don’t know the person who gathered, dried, and carefully prepared the medicinal plants we consume, it becomes our job to tend, engage with, relate to the web that brings those plants to us. That’s how laral value can flow from place to person through the plants we love. We then receive a gift of nature that is part of a stable, wider, sustainable, modern process–something real, and grounded. We feel better, because it is a medicinal plant, but the whole process “feels better”, too: it receives attention and is nurtured, and can therefore nurture and sustain in return.
In Business of Botanicals, Dr. Armbrecht gives us a manual of engagement, pointing out through case studies what tools are available to ensure laral value is being accumulated in the growing and harvesting source-spots for medicinal plants. In this light, the book follows in a lineage of texts that teach enchantment: how to sing to the mountains, forests, and plants so they will be a source of well-being for the community, year after year. But instead of the focus being on individuals walking in their local ecologies (there are many tools already available to learn this layer of engagement), she teaches us new songs and stories, ones we can use to shape the global economic “ecology” into which our herbs are thrust. Where did your pound of arnica flowers come from? Did you ask the company about the community where the arnica grows? Do they think about these things? We together have a lot of voice, and enough communication gateways to open wide doors if we know where to knock.
On the surface, these avenues of communication may seem different from my dinner-table stories of elder, boletes and bilberries. But really, they are the same: it’s just that the dinner table is bigger (so are the stakes). Just as the stories we used to tell kept the threads between people, plants and place alive, so today the stories we tell through new communication channels, through organic certification that helps protect the land, through fair-for-life certifications that protect the people, are the elements of enchantment that keep herbal medicine alive on a global scale. Because the experience of ingesting medicinal plants is such an intimate gift, one that changes us and uplifts us for the better, it is our responsibility and our privilege to join in this conversation, to help do what herbalism has always done: sustain people, and also culture, ecology, and economics, in a way that honors every element of the process. Though it takes work and personal involvement, The Business of Botanicalsshows us how the life-changing magic of herbs can help modern economic patterns break free from business-as-usual. The results are two-fold: in the short term, we can help preserve traditional knowledge, ecologies, and seasonal rhythms. But in the long term, in a world where empty consumer goods fail to meet our longing for meaning, we will help show that there are still ways to build laral value, meaningful connection, and mutual well-being even at a global scale.
- The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1965.
- I first came across the concept of “laral value” in Armbrecht, Ann. The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry. United States, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021. Pages 108-109
- Armbrecht, Ann. The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry. United States, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021. Page 129
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