Grassroots Healthcare: a conversation with clinical herbalist Larken Bunce
I’ve known Larken for many years, through her work creating the new herb school in town, while working together in the Health Arts and Sciences Program at Goddard College, and most importantly, while dancing! Larken is a leader in envisioning how we can create more sustainable and resilient community-based healthcare and in working toward that vision by co-founding the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Some of Larken’s fantastic handouts on using medicinal herbs for common ailments can be found in our resource guide and her stunning photographs of plants can be found here and on our website. Thank you, Larken!
For up to date herb tips from Larken, follow her on Twitter @physicgardener.
Ann: What was your vision in creating the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism?
Larken: I see the development of VCIH as having arisen out of need, that we’re riding the crest of a wave that has been building in our culture and we are lucky to be here to carry out the work. So, when you ask about vision, I don’t know that I was totally clear about what it was in the beginning–I felt I was answering a call, moving toward something with its own magnetism. Now six years from our inception, I do feel pretty clear about where the momentum of the wave is headed and I’m excited to build and guide it, along with my partners, Guido and Betzy.
My very general vision of VCIH has always been that of a beacon, shining out to light the way back to the plants, drawing people from down the block and across the country to answer the same call, to step up to the challenges ahead, and to find comfort and healing in the plants and in nature.
Recently, we collectively did some writing that coalesces our current hopes in light of our original mission and I can’t restate it any better. This little excerpt holds the power and clear intent of our vision for me:
Ultimately, we seek to bring about a system of healthcare wherein primary care is Nature-based and practiced in the home; the tools of technological medicine serve as secondary resources; and the herbalist acts as a bridge between the two. This model ensures each individual’s central role, utilizes the simplest and least invasive treatments, and emphasizes the co-evolutionary and interdependent relationship between humans and our environment.
Ann: What is your vision for grassroots healthcare in this country? And what are the steps you see we need to take to get there?
Larken: Successful grassroots healthcare, from my perspective, has to arise from relationship. First, we need strong relationship with the land, not just medicine plants, but all of the elements in our ecological environment. Second, we need strong relationship within our human communities. Our neighbors actually are a part of our ecology, but we often artificially separate humans from nature, so I’m pointing this out specifically. But, the bottom line is that we need to see and experience ourselves as deeply, inextricably embedded in the ongoing life around us.
We are lonely for connection to something greater than ourselves, something that draws our focus beyond the false boundaries of our insular lives. Some would say this is at the root of both individual illness and cultural dysfunction, and I agree. Developing relationship with the land outside our door is the first step in healing this experience of separation. Using plants specifically as medicine is a wonderful way to recognize our inter-relationship with them and, as an herbalist, obviously I see their medicinal activities as an important benefit, but not the sole or even most significant one. We can simply open our senses to the scents and tastes, the visual beauty, the tactile intricacies of the plants to re-awaken ourselves to the truth of our belonging to this greater ecology. We find that we are literally built, at a cellular level, to perceive and interact with our natural environment. Beyond their capacity to strengthen our immune system or soothe our headache, that they have the capacity to call us back, through our senses, to an awareness of ourselves as Ones Who Belong is perhaps the deeper healing that plants offer.
As a part of sinking back into a consciously interconnected life, the second thing we need to cultivate is relationship with the humans in our lives. Of course we have relationships with family, friends and coworkers, but there is a vast network of people living all around most of us that we are completely unaware of in all but the most superficial ways. We don’t tap into their skills or their generosity and worse, we don’t feel that we have anything to give, any reason to reach out. Our own generosity and gifts have limited outlets. Just as the plants have specific ways in which they can effect us physiologically, many of us have particular skills that we can offer each other for the purposes of healing: body work, counseling, acupuncture, growing and cooking food, knowledge of herbs. But, again, perhaps more importantly, we have the simple and powerful gift of our presence, our attention, time and care. We can just be with each other, offering our listening, our genuine compassion, simple acts of assistance, and even play. Through the unique gift of our humanity, we are a necessary part of our local ecosystem. And again, we belong.
So, when I think about the basis for a successful grassroots healthcare system, the answer is Belonging. Feeling needed and loved, feeling connected, supported and appreciated, feeling we have something to give and that we have the discernment to take only what we need–in our interactions with both our human and non-human communities–this is my simplest definition of health.
In terms of what that looks like in action, we’re thinking a lot about that, both at VCIH and in the Health Arts and Sciences program at Goddard College. We’re looking at practical and accessible ways to heighten awareness of the need for this felt sense of belonging and interconnection, and at how to offer tools for everyone to engage this work together. A strong part of our mission is to provide consultations and herbs to people, regardless of ability to pay. We’re also committed to educating highly skilled professional herbalists who can contribute to the paradigm shift we’re talking about and bridge self-care and medical care. But, at the foundation of our mission is to enhance people’s capacity to tend to themselves and their families and neighbors. By empowering everyone in enhancing their sense of well-being and managing common health concerns, we can take significant burden off of the current medical system and will even likely reduce the need for “alternative” health professionals, or at least shift the focus of our work away from assisting in day-to-day concerns.
To achieve this, we’re designing some programs that bring together a variety of basic skills and knowledge streams, essentially re-educating folks about traditional medicine–what we might have called folk wisdom in the past, but re-envisioned to take into account modern physiology and basic understanding of plant activities, nutrition and the like. Imagine everyone knowing where their stomach really is and how digestion basically works, three local plants to support digestive functions, a massage technique, acupressure point, or breathing exercise to relieve discomfort, what foods to avoid until they feel better and when it’s important to call in more assistance, from an herbalist or from the emergency room. Imagine knowing what questions to ask and more, being reminded how to truly listen and attend to another’s pain.
Central in this scenario is the confidence and accountability generated in people who are caring for themselves and for each other. Most importantly,the sense of belonging that I spoke of is strengthened through self-knowledge, through interaction with the plants grown, prepared and used for healing, and through the mutual care offered when tending to others in need.
Ann: You’ve worked in and studied a number of different healing modalities and while I imagine you draw on all of them in your teaching and work as a clinician, what draws you primarily to herbal medicine?
I think you can hear in what I’ve said earlier that I’m pretty smitten with the plants, with the green world in general and with what nature has to offer by way of reminding us of our own essential nature. So, that’s a big part of my draw to plants as medicine–they began whispering to me as early as I can remember, when I was a child living mostly outdoors with my family in the redwoods in California. We had a tiny wooden house, no electricity or running water. We had an outdoor kitchen, the creek was our refrigerator. There were no other children and few adults. The plants and animals around us were my primary relationships. They were my friends in a deep and unencumbered way. Clearly, that influenced my perspective on the primacy and value of intimacy with the non-human landscape, which has translated into my reliance on herbal medicine as a foundation upon which to layer all other modalities.
That said, my conception of a sustainable and effective healthcare system acknowledges that we are each unique and will be drawn to and best affected by diverse approaches. So somatic therapies, talk therapies, energy work, different movement practices, all feel important. I do believe that we all need some basic, conscious interaction with plants in a daily way. But, that can (and should) be in the form of a varied and colorful diet that emphasizes plant foods–we don’t all have to be herb fanatics!
Ann: There is so much awareness about local food, local energy, local economies. It seems that a local medicine movement is much harder to get moving…why do you think that is (if you agree!)? What signs do you see that this movement is happening, that awareness is growing? What are some of the obstacles that need transforming to make it grow even more?
Larken: As many would imagine, the prevailing system of medicine, along with insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and medical education all present structural and ideological challenges to implementation of a new and more sustainable system. However, what I think we need to focus on is our own attitudes towards health and our sense of accountability (or lack thereof) when it comes to healing. If we are willing to take responsibility, instead of abnegating to someone else–doctor or herbalist, etc.–then we have the power to change the system. Unfortunately, it is a deeply ingrained notion that we don’t know enough about our bodies or health to take care of ourselves, that it is dangerous to try, that we need technology and expertise to be truly well.
When people learned enough about the damage and hazards accompanying agribusiness, they decided they wanted local vegetables and meats and prioritized that financially and in terms of time and effort spent to access them. Farmer’s markets across the nation began to boom as a result, as has home gardening. If each of us chose to educate ourselves, even a little, to understand the benefits of stepping up self-care and relying on nature-based modalities to carry that out, then programs offering these tools and models to connect people in networks of care would also boom. Yes, as we’ve seen with various efforts to stop sale of raw milk for instance, there will be industry push-back, but ultimately, it is our right to care for ourselves in the ways that make sense to us and are nourishing, that engender genuine health.
I see the revolution coming, and while it’s slow, I think it’s also steady and will be built on a strong foundation. As long as we draw on all the tools available to us, on the richness of our communities, on the model of diversity that nature holds up, and the truth of our belonging, we’ll get there.