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dream number one: a community clinic on every corner (or so)

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A new season, a first full year of being a ‘qualified’ herbalist (apostrophes relate to the question of whether it’s the piece of paper that marks someone as a herbalist, or their own journey): always evolving in thoughts, doubts, uncertainties, joys and revelations.

As the summer closes and the hectic activity of July and August settles into this time of slowing down, and bright-coloured landscape and darker evenings, I think about the early excitements of the year, in meeting so many people keen to find out about herbal medicine, whether through our herb walks on the marshes or our workshops sharing knowledge of this, our oldest interaction with our habitat. And I also think about where I feel myself to be, in trying to practice. There are all those people whom I’ve met, and shared enthusiasms with. And then there is a wider setting where contradictions abound and the supporting ground beneath my feet seems shifting and tenuous.

Our world is of course one of contrasts, confounding ones. There are all those people who are interested and believing and want to support herbal medicine. But stepping out of the cocoon of herbalists, teachers and like-minded folk through the years of study, I emerge into a world where our impact seems negligible. I know this is not true; I know that world over, traditional medicine is central and vital. But here, now, where I live, I see a mass of maddening contradictions, ever splitting us, and the value I see in herbal medicine seems sidelined, or disparaged, or just relegated – as if seen to be of no importance or relevance, if noticed at all. This I find in all quarters – among friends who are in theory supportive, among the wider world of folks that I meet, many of whom have never heard of it or don’t realise what it is, and probably most of all in that delightful bureaucratic canker of a ‘governance’ that often seems hellbent on stripping all human compassion and connection from peoples’ lives. This is one perspective. Another one that I commonly have is that massive, deeply exciting and gently revolutionary change is afoot, with wide open creatures all over our planet thinking, visioning, dreaming and working with all their will to improve our ways of being. Did I say contrasts?!

Coming back to this specific place and time, and my own path: in relation to the position of herbal medicine in our UK society, clearly there is a lot of good work to be done in the area of communication, connection between us and the people. This is where the community activity comes in and I feel that for me this is the key at the moment – building that missing link between how people feel about their health and their lives, and the potential of using plant medicine. Using it themselves, and not having to pay many pounds for products in little bottles made by companies, but having some practical knowledge and in collaboration with practitioners, being able to enjoy plants as food and medicine in their lives with confidence and beneficial outcomes. Being able to find, access plants; being able to find valid, quality information about how to use them, and being able to practice using them with other people. I know that many of you already do this, and that many more want to; this is great. However, the space between doing this as a foundation stone for health, and it being allowed as such by the ‘orthodox’, by ‘science’, by the capitalist system, is (enragingly) large. Of course that isn’t in the interests of those systems. And the system we have grown in, all of us, over the last few hundred years, means that we are conditioned automatically to dismiss herbal medicine.

However: many days, these days, I hear a story from someone about an unsatisfactory experience they have had with their GP, or an astounding lack of clarity, or caring, from a healthcare provider. Obviously this is not to say that this is the only thing that happens, I know it isn’t. But the frequency of the story, the repetition, makes me always think: just imagine if we herbalists could share the burden. Not just we herbalists, but the other professional therapists who want and are carefully trained to spend their lives helping people.

If statisticians want to weigh up harm caused by (a) pharmaceutical drugs that are given to vast numbers of the population by qualified physicians whose primary aim is to support healthcare but are often required to use certain medicines made by an industry that has profit rather than healthcare as its mission, compared with (b) harm caused by herbal medicines dispensed to clients by qualified physicians whose primary aim is supporting holistic health and whose medicines are made with care and good intention, what will they find?
The evidence base: if in our current biomedical system we are only using evidence-based approaches, why don’t they always work? Why are many people left stranded between pegs, with nothing really helping their ongoing conditions?

It’s not that I want to speak about numbers and statistics – but these are cited in the case against herbal medicine. I can speak about what I have seen in clinics and what people relate to me. This is real, even if it is not in number form. But anecdotal evidence: not enough for belief. Whatever – I believe that herbalists can help the healthcare system. We seem to be in a constriction, a spasm of rules (or commercial concerns) that hamstring us from accessing positive change! I have only just started practicing and this is only my viewpoint, from where I’m standing just now – many herbalists in the UK see plenty of people and make a lot of change; others see fewer and have to work in other areas to earn enough to live; some have positive relationships with other primary care professionals and some practice within the NHS.

But in the main, the fact that people have to pay to access us is limiting. The fact that those herbalists who can practice in an NHS setting are often severely restricted in terms of which herbs they can use, means they cannot practice as they normally would. The ‘lack of evidence base’ for using herbs is dealt out as an absolute truth, and as detrimental to safety. Again: pharmaceutical medicines’ safety record? So there is a wider agenda at work clearly. But for healthcare practitioners, healthcare, and equality of care, should be the primary agenda. Can we apply some antispasmodic relaxant action to the rules and explore the potential for relieving pressure on our struggling system? A Get Well UK pilot study carried out between 2004-2008 assessed outcomes from referring patients from GP practices to CAM therapists in London and Northern Ireland, finding positive results and favourable responses from patients and GPs. This seems to me a worthwhile direction to move in – it can help all parties surely. Apart from the profit-making ones I guess.

Other ways? People around me have great visions – of community clinics in every neighbourhood, shared resources and communal healthcare, supplied with medicines grown and made from local gardens and apothecaries. I know this is starting in some places. Self-organisation is happening around me and people are seeding projects in Walthamstow and Brixton, Bristol and Leeds, oh, all over the place! I am replacing my doubt and disillusionment with hope and inspiration as I write. The Radical Herbalists Gathering is a good place to start with changemaking and linking together all these strands.

My reflections are probably simplistic and plenty of you will have been thinking these thoughts for years – I am only just beginning and this is what I see. But people, share your knowledge with me and let’s share our visions; I know there is a whole universe more that I don’t yet know and want to learn…

Yours faithfully
Rasheeqa
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Glorious summer

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So July passed in a blaze, of heat and wanderings, walks and workshops, people and discoveries, swimming and intense summer greenness. It came with a vengeance eh, our long-desired summer! Today is hot again and though it was good some rain came for the plants and the earth, the wonder of a continental-style summer morning in London never stops amazing and lifting the heart. The city is really open and exciting in this kind of time, its possibilities magnified and lightened.

Charm and I have enjoyed our work a lot these last few months, and each bit of time and activity that happened showed us a shift in perspective, in potential, in ways of working, an opportunity to explore how and who we are, to find new paths – like London, our worlds have opened up through working as herbalists with plants and people. As keeps happening everywhere, people show themselves to be the key in change and development – in themselves, in our approaches – people in collaboration with the learnings of the earth that we find around us.

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As we started to do herb walks on the marshes, and offer workshops in making natural cosmetics, the energy of people showed me strongly that the work and the future of herbal medicine is here, in the community, and this lesson offers so much excitement for the future. At the Radical Herbal Gathering in Somerset in June, a big collective of enthused folks came together to share their activities and their ideas for working with plants to make good change in social and health injustice, in our relationship with natural ecology, and to make plant medicine accessible to all people. It was a timely gathering for our growing consciousness of all the things that are going badly in the world, and for thinking about how we can repair them, and for my personal learning and journey in being a person and a herbalist.

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Working in Walthamstow with a range of different folks this year has shown me that many people, maybe most, have some way of connecting with plants and the wonder of the natural world. It seems the case to nurture the diversity of approaches; if we combine everyone’s different ideas we’ll mix up a rich pot of creative possibility. Much like the biodiversity of Orley Common in Devon where last weekend a group of us visited this ancient area of native grassland and woodland where rangers are trying to replicate the influence of grazing animals, whose patterns and times of eating the plants meant that a very wide range got the chance to flower in turn – meaning a madly species-rich situation. Like the cattle, we can help each other to flower more vitally. Many people have been doing it to me! Go here if you’re interested in reading an account of the Native Herbs Gathering that a few of us attended in Devon last weekend, learning about using our home grown plants as medicine (rather than importing from far afield).

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I am off to Italy this month for holidays, which I will truly enjoy, and I’ll be seeking herbs there as ever. Watch here for some pics from that sunny side in the next few weeks. Happy times to you all, and enjoy the glorious energy of summer.

Inspirations for the next season:
Making links with different projects and communities to share the value of herbs
Doing more growing and medicine making, in gardens and allotments                                      Continuing being part of building our networks of people working together for positive change
Learning new practical skills
Writing more stories!

Come and join us.

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Will You Take A Cup of Tea

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Ahhh. A cup of tea. I have been musing on the great cup of tea, and all its incarnations, and its meanings. Even the word ‘tea’ for me has a great feel, and I don’t know if some of you people experience this, but certain words for me carry a shape-feeling and the shape of ‘tea’ is history, grace, drawing rooms, tradition, politeness, civilization, ceremonies. Before I sound too much like I want be to some blessed woman in an Austen parlour (aah, I have been reading Charlotte Brontë, that’s why) – I feel not only these connotations, but others of calm, peace, comfort, plenty. And of course, for the cup of tea situation is, universally, a moment of chill, rest, blissful relief from scurrying reality. A ‘pausa’.

When we were little living in India, the first thing to happen when visitors came was the preparation of tea (chai piyenge?) – ‘o good, another miniscule thimbleful of ridiculously sweet tea’ as my sis scathingly put it – but that didn’t matter, because it was the symbol of the welcoming of the guest, who must drink that tea whether they wanted it or not. And it’s the same here, and most places I guess, the way we put the kettle on (or boil up loads of creamy milk and shake in powdered tea if you’re in Delhi) when people come. Let’s av a cup of tea pet. And then we can sit and chat about anything, for a bit. Or muse on things, on what you’re doing, get an inspiration/distraction that leads you totally somewhere else than where you were pre-tea…

This idea of putting things in hot water to infuse is an old one, and the same principle that one of herbal medicines’ greatest preparations is based on. Pouring hot water on Chamomile flowers and covering the vessel means particular volatile components in the flowers are distilled out with the heat, and held in the water. That’s what goes into you and does some good stuff – different stuff than if you drink Chamomile tincture, or eat the flowers. Plus it’s warm and soothing. Many herbs have properties and actions that come out well in water, especially ones with those volatile parts – some superb ones are Lemon Balm, Peppermint, Rosemary, Thyme, Yarrow, Lavender, Rose, Elderflower, Fennel seed… o, many. Not forgetting the queenly Nettle. Susun Weed makes the distinction between a herb tea and an infusion (tea = flavour; infusion = much more herb, longer infused, for medicinal purposes) and talks about some good ones here. A traditional mix for flu fever times is Elderflower, Peppermint and Yarrow, taken hot – promoting circulation and sweating and offering some anti-infective action also.

At the moment I can’t stop drinking Rooibos tea, it makes me feel solid and connected with the ground. My theory is that in this flighty, excitement-filled London, I need grounding tasty nuttiness. I’m hooked on it. What’s your favourite tea? And tell me how you make it please! Shall we sit peacefully and have a cuppa…

A Day On The Water

Sunday. Freezing, sunny. Walthamstow farmers’ market. Quiche, hot fritter, tomatoes. Goodies gathered for the day.

I wend my way with my bicycle and my basket down the high street, peacefully peopled in this clear brightness but an absolute contrast to the hawking crowds of Saturday. Down, down, down to the end and over the edge, past the last houses of Coppermill and across the border, the large metal plate that bears you over to the wild side of water and yawking birds. Fly on down – silver cityscape dreaming away on left – under the goldening trees and the crazy low tunnel, head ducked paranoically. Then the marshes. Meadowsweet is long gone; Comfrey banks have been shorn and shaved. The air is pure and sweet. There are sacred groves! There are no sirens! Along and on to the marina crowded with boats, the bridge, Stamford Hill couples crossing solemnly in gigantic fur hats, Russian-style. Such a glorious day here. It’s morning busy – canoes, breakfasters in lovely sunshine in front of the caff, football at play and jolly shouts in Springfield park beyond. I find what I’m looking for. Step aboard! Stormvogel is moored under the bridge and smoke issues gently from its roof. I spy some herbalists…

The Herbal Barge, I gotta say, is quite a magical little domain. Wooden shelves all crammed with ointments, bunches of protective plants hanging from windows, mysterious snuff boxes, jars of teas… a delicious little kitchen with old tiled black iron stove and a mess of pots… You step down from glinting green surrounds reflected in the (today not so murky) canal, colourful boats lined all along, bright blue sky above – into a warm sunlit little space full of enticing smells and discussions. What is this? It’s an awesome little converted barge – ‘London’s first floating apothecary in 350 years’ – resulting from the handiwork of several years of Melissa Ronaldson, a medical herbalist whose creations and achievements to date include her collection of herbal snuffs, formation (with a small group of colleagues) of the London Community Herbalists and a lot of community action: sharing and teaching herb lore, making medicines and developing herb gardens, striving for vigorous and just representation of herbal medicine in this country… you can see the love and power of her vocation shining out of the carefully made spaces and pots of medicine all around you on this boat. Melissa ain’t here today though – I’m sharing the day with Annwen and Siobhan, two blessed herbalist creatures that I got to know at the Green Gathering, documented early on in this blog. Annwen the Welsh elf is listening to Cerys on Radio 6 and pottering about making fragrant tea, Siobhan is talking nineteen to the dozen as she does (she spends the day doing consultations under cover of looong friendly conversations)… ahh, what a happy place to be for breakfast. I put out the hot fritter with chilli sauce and we all sit on deck at the plastic-clothed table drinking tea as various visitors step on and sit and pass some time with us. The lure of Stormvogel is too fascinating to resist I think – as it would be for me if I were some unsuspecting member of the public strolling by. The day goes on like this, making lots of tea, welcoming folks aboard, them telling us things, us talking about health and herbs… most of our Mill workshops people come to hang out which is great. One comes asking for a magic cream that she had from Melissa that enabled her to walk again at a festival after being laid low by her knee complaint… Annwen and I begin a mission to recreate this, going by the ingredients on the old label. Filippo brings lunch of Jamaican stew and rice from the market. We mix teas, we talk, we show people round, we share ideas and knowledge about medicines and what grows around us in the marshes. A long and lovely autumn day spiralled about by sun and light and gentleness and learning.

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Melissa has a little consultation room at the back of the boat but it’s not her main place of practice – but the barge will be around on the canals at certain times, with a Christmas floating market on the cards (location to be confirmed – check on the Herbal Barge website) and monthly moorings at Springfield Marina. Do come visit.

Related links: Annwen’s work at Rhizome Community Clinic in Bristol, Siobhan’s herbalism courses at the Mary Ward Centre in London

Workshops: the second set!

We have completed our first course of herbal medicine introductory workshops.

They were great!

A brilliant mix of a group of Waltham Foresters came together and shared, learned, questioned, wondered and got inspired – including us. As a first experience of workshop-making it was a little scary at first, then it became real fun and a useful way of realising and enlivening the last 4 years of learning in my head and bringing it out. It was also a joy to do it with this lot! Seeing this diverse band of plant health seekers getting together to start a journey (or in some cases, continue ones they had already begun) was fabulous and has strengthened my ideas about community being the necessary and pro-active heart of herbs as medicine, where people learn themselves to take intelligent care of their own health, in collaboration with the bountiful green world we prowl about in…

Sadly we were so busy discussing and making ointment and onion syrup that I foolishly failed to take ANY pictures to document these merry moments – REMEMBER next time! Workshop people, put your testimonials here please to prove it was all real!

And so now, in the light of these positive & powerful beginnings, we announce the next set of workshops at The Mill in Walthamstow, east London: starting Friday 9th November, 12 noon-2pm and running for 4 weeks, same time each Friday.

We’ll be covering general introductions to the field of herbal medicine including the following:

  • Sensible plant recognition & gathering
  • The nature and approach of herbalism in health
  • The range of preparations used
  • Exploration of a few herbs in depth
  • What we can find and use respectfully in our local lands
  • Using herbs supportively to make home remedies and treat simple ailments

The course includes a practical session making some medicines, and lots of herb tasting – for it’s always better to experience what a herb does for you before you use it!

Cost is £20 for the whole 4 week course, or you can attend individual sessions if unable to commit to all, for £5 each time.

For more info or to book, call Rasheeqa on 07784 506 494 or email hedgeherbs@gmail.com

Come and join us and play with some herbs!

Urban Herbs

Little patches of herbs around the cities as I walk…

Interesting sometimes the spots they choose to grow in – what’s their role just there and just how polluted are they getting? Perhaps they are synthesising ever new crazy compounds to deal with London fumes. I wouldn’t pick em but they are lovely little green reminders of some other business going on under our feet, quietly and determinedly amongst the rush and concrete and heavy metal.

Workshops folk! Identify these ere erbs and tell us what they are on Saturday if you can, a little challenge…

Stripping leaves

When I spend time doing stuff with herbs – as I did last Sunday, finally taking down some great bunches of Lemon Balm that were drying over the cupboard to take off the leaves and crumble them into jars, and pressing out some vinegar that had Meadowsweet infusing in it – I have a delicious feeling like being a child again, sitting in the dust stripping leaves off stems or piling dried leaves into heaps, or gathering together pods… it’s like a feeling of doing something utterly meaningless, yet so methodical, in the face of all the stuff there is in the earth – after all, how many leaves are there, and nuts (not to mention everything else, ha) – but even so, I’m rescuing some meaning from the wilderness of infinity by collecting and distilling these few bits of the mass, for a future purpose. Anyhow, it feels peaceful and a perfect thing to do on a sunny late-summer September Sunday. I like the motion and how it makes me go into quiet lines – an internal visual blur, merry waves of greenness and enticing delicate smells infusing into everything… hmmm this sounds like a little planty trip haha.

Emerging from tripping and stripping, our first workshop at The Mill is tomorrow! Eeek but exciting – the first step into sharing herbs with people. We’ll do some tea tastings in the way of the Scottish School in Glasgow, where I first learnt to sit and imbibe the erbs and discover what they do. I’m glad Charm is with me doing this. Is gonna be good! Reports on these workshops to follow…

Herbal Medicine Workshops

Hello all, an update on Hedge Herbs’ first workshop series.

Workshops commence on Saturday 22nd September, 2-3.30pm (5 weeks course). They will be led by Rasheeqa Ahmad of Hedge Herbs but I’m now joined by fellow herbalist and nutritionist Charm Elakil, also Walthamstow-based and a cheery addition to the course, bringing her own special skills in gardening and making delightful concoctions…

The workshops will cover the following areas and will also be open to participants’ interests so if you have any particular herb favourites or ideas you want to explore – bring them to the table!

- Ideas and approaches of herbal medicine practice

- Its role in today’s world and its relations with orthodox medicine

- What herbs we can find, gather, cultivate here in east London, and when their seasons are

- Herb actions, applications and energies – using plants for our health and in illness

- What kinds of preparations we can make with herbs, what they are valuable for (including practical session)

- Lots of herb exploring: looking, smelling, tasting, eating, drinking!

If you’re interested in joining, contact me on 07784 506 494 or email hedgeherbs@gmail.com

Workshops will run at The Mill in Walthamstow – 7-11 Coppermill Lane, E17 7HA – you can also drop in there to book a place, or ring them on 020 85213211.

Hope to see you there!

Hips

Walking on Otley Chevin, the rosehips are coming. Late summer in Yorkshire – not as golden as other times! ha – but still lovely. Friend Heather introduces me to the invasive Himalayan Balsam, long swathes of bright pink beaconing to the moorland opposite our path. The seed pods (which are also not quite ready) uncurl explosively like a crazy jack in the box, flinging white and black seeds all over so that you see why it invades, and leaving a gorgeous sculptural spiral shape behind in your fingers. There’s some power in those pods, you can feel the springforce against your fingers like a shock, Heather says you only have to touch them to activate it when they are fully ripe… and the seeds are yummy nutty oaty flavour, apparently you can make a tahini with them (note, the white unripe ones are tastier, the black popping out ones are bitter). I suppose you would need to pop a fair amount o pods for a tahini… here are some other recipes…

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Holidays

A quick jaunt to Italy and a scorched Croatia, full of reddened forests after apparently not a drop of rain since May! Whereas here the drenching continues. Life is so unbalanced.

Rovinj, a town by a sparkling aquamarine sea possessing the very smoothest of smooth-worn cobbles I’ve ever felt, had a lot of anise-type plants everywhere, including a marine variety! Seemed to be the only green herb surviving this roasting…

Croatian Sea Anise!

In other news, un-herb-related but curious, I have spent some time at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford over the past week, assisting a performer in the Paralympics Opening Ceremony (large-scale bonkersness) and there discovered a weird fact. Which is, that in olden gladiatorial days, the entrance/exit tunnels underneath the stadium through which lions would enter and audiences would leave, were named vomitoriums, deriving from the verb to spew forth or expel. That explained why each of those tunnels where the performers were congregated before trooping into the centre were proudly named VOM 1, VOM 2 and so on… as in, ‘Everyone to VOM 5, NOW!’. Peculiar, entertaining and fabulous – make sure you watch tonight for some beautiful movements and wheelie action…