It’s been 3 years since I wrote about ghost pipe and harvesting ethics. During that time, the post has been shared widely on social media, contributing to a conversation about foraging ethics in our community.
It’s also provoked criticism and defense. Many maintain that it’s common and justifiable to gather like other plants. I’ve been called a fear monger by herbalists insisting on its ubiquity. Some have tried to ‘debunk’ me. Some readers respond to the ghost pipe and respect post offering to sell it to me. Social media users respond to threads on the issue offering to sell me more, or tell me how delicious it is fried and eaten.
I’ve watched this with intense interest.
Wild plant education – breaking down the green wall or opening the way to exploitation?
I’ve historically supported (and participated in) wild plant education. Engaging and educating others with the green world highlights the intrinsic values of forests and other wild places. And when people break down the green wall and understand that there is something to protect, they’ll stand up for its conservation and presentation, right?
I realized I missed a step here. As we pass through the gate of ignorance towards love and respect for other living things, we want to experience it. It usually means consuming it. When we ingest something, we feel that it becomes a part of our bodies and we have it forever. We’ve tasted the earth’s bounty and feel benefited. We want to consume and eat it. Then we want to tell others about it – we’ve learned this new thing, and have a little bit of new value in our human community. We grind it up in alcohol, post pictures on social media. How cool! If only these plants and our planet could sustain it. Now, some plants are so prevalent and their communities are strong to withstand this (dandelion, St. John’s wort, California poppy, mint).
We start as a beginner and wish to learn more of the earth’s treasures. We want to love and respect living things. Sadly, between these 2 states, lies a dark tendency to exploit and be overrun by hunger.
The urge to devour and the hunger it never meets
What is taking place when we want to experience life by consuming and devouring it? What hunger are we trying to satiate?
Are we merely meeting physical needs, or craving connection? With the wild world, it’s the latter. In this age of isolation amid the crowds, we are hungry for meaningful connection with each other and the natural world. We consume plants, and can use those activities as substrate for deeper human connection as well.
These are wholly innocent needs. The problems arise when we’re unconscious about our real intentions and desires with wildcrafting and education. Is this the right plant, the right time? Are my posts about it on the internet and social media made in respect and support of our communities?
Harvesting with the eyes and heart
I have never actually harvested ghost pipe. I don’t have ghost pipe tincture in my apothecary. And I don’t need it. I meet my nervine and analgesic needs with
- California poppy
- Jamaican dogwood
- Valerian root
- and many others
And you know what? My non-harvesting of ghost pipe has brought me deeper into relationship to it than with any other plant. I treasure it when it blooms, stopping on the trail, opening my heart, and taking in its beauty and wonder. And it stays with me.
It sounds paradoxical but isn’t. This relationship is deeper because it’s rooted in respect. I’m letting these plants live out their lives. Other living things do not exist solely to serve us. They have their own lives and purposes and destinies. In an era where other creatures seldom escape human gaze and grasp, just letting them be and exist for themselves is powerful.
As one Instagram user wrote, you can harvest with your eyes and heart. This may yet be the most powerful form of harvest.*
Herbal medicine is different now
Herbal medicine is not about stocking everything you can find. It’s not about having the largest apothecary and materia medica. “Having the most” is old and outdated. Instead, the new herbal medicine is forging deeper relationships to the ecosystem—knowing your bioregion, being intimate with the needs of your community, integrating truth, defending life in all its forms. It’s about quality over quantity, meaning over showcase.
Instead of being an herbalist facing the human community and using plants for healing, try to reverse it. Face the plant community and practice the medicine of being a good human.
Practice herbal medicine that is friendly to the future. Be a voice for those who have none. More than anything else, that is the medicine that is needed right now.
Please don’t take this as a plea to never ever gather anything. Wild plant education plays a very important role in developing a healthy relationship with the natural world. It is also vital for tribal practices and life ways. Leave No Trace ethics, while important, have also been used to shame and harass people of color and tribal members. Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and weaponize what’s being said here. In love, Renee