Monday, December 9, 2013

Day 211 - Taking an Herbalism Class


I have never taken an herbalism class. Quite frankly, before my “I have never...” year I never had any intention to learn about herbalism given the healthy degree of skepticism I have held about the practice for the majority of my life. Although I knew science showed many plants provided health and medicinal benefits to people over the years, the idea of people trying to tend to their own illnesses with the use of plants alone seemed too farfetched, and in some ways foolhardy, for me to accept the practice as legitimate. After all, the majority of people lack any degree of medical training required to know the uses and effects of natural and manufactured substances on the human body. To me, that meant herbal remedies, like any other form of medicine, should be portably only be used as supplements to modern medicine under the direction of a doctor. I simply didn’t buy the idea that a person could produce their own medicines and treat their own illnesses by mixing some plants and liquids as an alternative to traditional medicine.

Of course, I understood that my perspective was little more than a supposition given my limited knowledge and experience with herbal medicine. As a result, I decided I would try to learn more about the topic during the course of my “I have never...” journey. Although I was uncertain as to how I would achieve such an objective, I knew a city like Madison was likely to have several available outlets to learn about herbalism. As a result, I kept my eyes open for events fitting that scope knowing I would set aside time to experience herbalism for the first time when the right opportunity presented itself.

Pinney library
Unfortunately, spring, summer, and fall came and went with little luck stumbling upon resources from which I could learn about herbalism, which left me thinking there would little opportunity to gain the experience as I worked my way into winter. As a result, I lowered the idea on my list of potential experiences and convinced myself it wasn’t likely it was going to happen during the course of my “I have never...” year. That fact wasn’t necessarily heartbreaking, but I knew I had missed a good opportunity to potentially expand my horizons beyond my accepted worldview.

Eventually, I found myself planning my “I have never...” year beyond the stretch of autumn and into the heart of winter. As I plotted events through November and into December, I found myself struggling to come up with ideas that fit into my schedule, which caused me to turn to local resources for upcoming events. Within minutes of beginning my research I found myself stunned to find a two hour herbalism class on tinctures and hand crèmes being hosted at a local library in early December. Although I was shocked such a class occurred so late in the year, I didn’t hesitate in signing up; acknowledging the fact it was the opportunity to experience herbalism I had been waiting to find.

With the class on my schedule for this evening, I braved the unusual cold and made the trip to the Madison Pinney Library after work today. When I arrived, the class was just getting underway, which caused me to quickly find a seat and prepare to receive what insight I could from the experience. Although I remained skeptical about the practice, the packed room of people from diverse backgrounds that had gathered for the class caused me to think there must be some merit to the concept. As a result, I decided to lay aside my assumptions about herbalism and approach the class with an open mind, hopeful I would walk away with some new knowledge and a few informed conclusions.

Our mee... Well, just read the sign.
In front of the moderately sized meeting room a woman named Kathy Eich stood before a table full of tools and materials. In a bright, soft voice she introduced herself and laid out the agenda for the night’s class. Although I was unaware of her background in the field of herbalism, Kathy’s wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of herbalism was immediately apparent as she spoke. If her effort to appeal to those newcomers to herbalism, she walked through the basic objectives, components, and philosophies of the practice before transitioning into a discussion of the preliminary steps in creating ingestible herbal medicines known as tinctures.

Beginning with the concepts of herbal medicine solvents, or menstruums, Kathy explained the various uses of high grade alcohol, honey, vinegar, vegetable glycerin, and other substances in serving as the base and preservative of plant-based medicines during the manufacture of tinctures. Continuing she explained variations in the physical components and molecular structure of plants that affect solubility in water and alcohol. As she spoke, she laid out a series of plants that were alcohol soluble but not water soluble and vice versa, which Kathy explained affected the way the beneficial medicinal properties of each plant extracted into each tincture.

As she rattled off examples of such occurrences and the symptoms and illnesses the plant extractions were intended to treat, I recognized several of the names in her list from medicines, teas, and other health products Rachael and I had throughout our home. With each example Kathy provided, the intended use of her tinctures mirrored those of the medicines we had at home that contained the same ingredients. Although it makes sense in retrospect, in that moment it dawned on me that most of the key ingredients in the medicines Rachael and I were already using were derived from the very sources Kathy was discussing in her presentation. She wasn’t a doctor and she wasn’t a scientist, but Kathy had a wealth of knowledge that covered an encyclopedia of plants with natural medicinal properties and the symptoms, illnesses, and diseases they could help treat. Additionally, she wasn’t selling herbal medicines as the cure for all ills. She was simply laying out the science behind herbal medicine and the process for converting plant matter to chemical extraction. Less than 30 minutes into her class I concluded my assumptions about herbalism and the people that practice it were flat wrong.

Our class agenda
With the basic background of foundational tincture processes outlined, Kathy moved into the steps needed to gather materials and produce tinctures. At first, she walked us through a variety of literature related to the identification of plant uses and the application of each plant in the creation of tinctures.  As a result of the season Kathy presented a variety of dried roots, leaves, and stems from a broad range of plants as she prepared her menstruums for her tincture demonstration. With a base of 96% alcohol, she broke down the formulas for creating the appropriate mixture of water, alcohol, and plant material to produce the desired outcome of a home remedy for any number of illnesses.

Explaining her demonstration intended to extract a cold and flu medicine from Osha, Kathy mixed her menstruum, crushed some Osha root, and combined the elements in a mason jar. There she let the materials soak as she continued with a timeline of plant reconstitution to usable medicine, which involved routine monitoring and agitation of the plant mixture. By the time she concluded her talk on tinctures and prepared to move into the concept of creating lotions and hand creams, I was floored by the depth of her expertise.

The classroom

For the remainder of the class Kathy continued to discuss an endless variety of plants and their medicinal benefits as she exposed us to some more literature on herbalism as she prepared materials for her demonstration on the manufacture of hand creams. Making reference to one work that explained the molecular components of a wide range of plants, she discussed the chemical properties of some natural materials that cause them to be indigestible, which requires their application on external surfaces.

Eventually, this explanation led into the introduction of a natural preservative, jojoba oil, which Kathy explained is a critical component of any lotion or cream. As she worked into the preliminary phases of making the hand cream, she also detailed the use of other ingestible products in herbal remedies meant for external use. Specifically calling attention to carrot seed oil and [FIND PLANT NAME] oil, Kathy explained the body’s ability to absorb the refined components of each material into the bloodstream through application to the skin. In complement to her explanation, Kathy quickly prepared a body cream using the oils and a series of other ingredients including Shea butter and goat yogurt, which produced a smooth, soothing cream each of the students had the chance to sample.


With the class drawing to a close, Kathy fielded a few questions from the group, which included discussions of specific symptoms and ailments. Without hesitation, Kathy supplied answers to each question with recommendations, backing her advice with real world examples of treatments she recommended to doctors and pediatricians across the United States with positive results. Ultimately the discussion left the clock pushing toward 8:00 pm, which caused Kathy Kathy to wrap up the final moments of the class with some recommendations on reading and resources for those interested in learning more about herbalism.

As I listened to her speak, I was surprised to find myself documenting some of the reading material as a result of an unexpected interest growing inside of me. Although I had approached the class with a strong degree of skepticism, I was leaving with a healthy amount of insight and curiosity regarding the natural remedies that exist throughout our world. Unbeknownst to me, I had been using many of them to treat my health in one form or another over the years, but I had simply been ignorant to the sources of ingredients in the medicines lining my bathroom cabinet. Connecting those dots opened my eyes to some important takeaways from tonight’s experience and gave me a refreshed perspective on a practice I had baselessly written off years ago. While I doubt I will take up herbalism as a new hobby anytime in the near future, I can say my first experience with an herbalism class exposed me to a wide range of new outlets for learning. Additionally, it provided a blatant example of prejudgment affecting my ability to challenge my beliefs and maintain an open mind. From that, I can say I gained much more than I expected to gain from tonight’s “I have never...” event, and, to me, those are the best kind of new experiences.

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