My path to herbalism has been long and complicated but I think it’s worth sharing.
It all started with plants, but not the medicinal ones.
The first job I landed was at an organic health food store in the small town I grew up in in eastern Canada. I worked there while I was finishing high school. The owner was deep into herbal medicine and taught me a few bits and pieces but my heart wasn’t in it. I was keen to get out of eastern Canada and see the world.
Eventually I ended up in Australia, working on farms to pay for my travel.
My first major light bulb moment happened while working on a conventional citrus farm in middle-of-nowhere Queensland (Mundubbera to be exact)
As a Canadian backpacker I took advantage of Australia’s offer for a second years stay by working on a rural farm for 3 months.
Until this point I was only half informed. Seeing broad scale conventional agriculture in action really opened my eyes. We would finish the day smelling like chemicals (pesticides sprayed on the fruit we were picking). The exposed topsoil was eroding away at an alarming rate and you could see evidence of algae blooms in the local river from the excess nitrogen fertilisers.
All in all it was clear that this wasn’t the way to do it.
Looking for answers I found the big black Permaculture bible in the local (and extremely tiny!) library. What a perfect solution to the issues I was seeing first hand.
This was a major turning point for me. I hassled the local librarian daily, chasing obscure permaculture books, reading them cover to cover in days.
Returning to Melbourne armed with my second years visa I landed a job at CERES environment park in East Brunswick. What a fertile ground for all things permaculture. Here I learned plant propagation techniques from the master propagators Matt and Meg, I worked in the community gardens and in the local market gardens and eventually made my way to the gourmet mushroom growing enterprise.
Mushrooms and Permaculture
As a Canadian born and raised mushrooms have always been an interest of mine. Stepping into an evergreen forest in the fall was mushroom galore. I even tried my hand at commercial mushroom hunting one autumn. We found a handful of morel mushrooms but unfortunately it was a bad year. I remember trying to grow gourmet mushrooms in the cupboard under the kitchen sink as a child.
During the next few years I worked on making gourmet and medicinal mushrooms a sustainable and profitable venture for CERES.
I ended up concluding that as a commercial venture gourmet mushroom cultivation wasn’t a sustainable project. Button mushrooms can and are grown organically. This removes the use of bleach and other anti fungal chemical agents but what most people are unaware of is the massive amount of peat moss that is used to grow button mushrooms.
In Australia we import all of the peat moss from overseas (massive food miles and it’s heavy as) plus the peat is mined from extremely old and fragile ecosystems. I’m not sure if you have spent any time in peat bogs but they are incredible places. The diggers go into these ecosystems and literally mine the peat moss.
Not pretty and definitely something that I didn’t want to be involved with.
Even considering growing other gourmet and medicinal mushrooms involved issues and compromises that I wasn’t happy with. This mainly involved the huge waste stream of high grade plastic that is used to grow the mushroom substrate.
Turning To The Deep Living Project.
Leaving mushroom cultivation behind I turned back to permaculture proper. The Deep Living Project was born in attempts to share and educate people on all the awesome and inspiring projects that were happening in Australia.
It was incredible to see and meet people in the trenches working on making this world a better place with projects including regenerative agriculture, community garden efforts and organic market gardens.
All very inspiring.
My wife and I felt a tad confined living in the big city. Even with CERES a 10 minute bike ride away and a backyard full of fruit trees, chickens and vegetables we still felt hemmed in. The decision to move to Northern Rivers was easy. The subtropical climate, abundance of rain and community of like-minded people seemed like paradise for permaculture projects.
Life In The Australian Rainforest
Moving to Wilsons Creek sounded great on paper. Deep in the subtropical rainforest, plenty of land to work with and a cute little shack done up with a wood stove for the winter months. What more could you want.
After two weeks of living on the property I started to feel awful. Everyday I would experience some form of stomach pain. This continued along with other issues like fatigue and irritability. The owner stopped by on an errand and seeing I was drinking the tap water told me that it was unfiltered and full of parasites! She had known this the whole time and failed to mention it to us. Not only that but she was dealing with chronic and unrelenting gut infections from the tank water as well!
My first experience with poor health floored me. I was so used to feeling good and having energy so much that I had taken it for granted. Doctors were no help. Not only did the antibiotics they prescribed fail to treat the gut bugs they made the matter worse.
A Long Road Back To Health
And so started my long journey back to health. Surprisingly to me no one had any real solutions to chronic antibiotic resistant gut bugs. After numerous visits to my doctor, multiple tests and no answers I turned back to plants.
Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a slight obsessive nature. If I’m into something I’m really into it. This time I focused all of my dwindling energy on herbal medicine and gut health. I dug into the scientific research on the specific gut bugs that had taken up residence in my gastrointestinal tract.
Years went by. Some plants helped. I slowly managed to regain my health. It was a battle.
Finally I came across a combination of herbal medicine combined with advanced gut testing and infused it with the recent scientific understanding of our gut microbiome. Finally I had a solution that worked. Gut testing showed that I had successfully eradicated the gut bugs! It only took me three years of feeling terrible.
Herbal Medicine and Permaculture. A Perfect Combination
Life’s funny. The thing that I had been focusing most of my attention on (plants) ended up completely sorting me out. From that experience I have developed a whole new relationship with the plant kingdom. From a permaculture perspective they supply so much. Food, firewood, fibre, shelter the list goes on. Now I can add medicine to that list with no doubt in my mind at all.
For me the connection between grassroots herbal medicine and permaculture is easy to make. Care of People, one of the three permaculture ethics, touches on this point. As an encompassing ethical framework care of people focuses on supplying our needs (food, shelter, education) within the context of the first permaculture ethic care of the earth.
Looking out at my newly established permaculture garden from my office where I’m typing this I can see fruit trees settling in, nitrogen fixing support trees conditioning the soil and providing shade, perennial and annual food plants and medicinal plants. It is a piece that was missing before.
The Future Is Herbal Medicine
So where to from here? That’s the big question.
Through my healing crisis I found my true calling, herbal medicine. I was chronically unwell for years. During that time I had to step away from my permaculture projects and even let The Deep Living Project grow weeds. Now that I’m back on track and feeling better I am devoting most of my energy towards herbal medicine.
I will still be involved in permaculture, growing food and engaging with regenerative agriculture and am happy to share that here and on the Facebook page but exploring the power of medicinal plants will be the main focus.
Thanks so much for reading and coming on this adventure with me and thanks to everyone who reached out while I was taking my extended hiatus from The Deep Living Project.
I appreciate you all!