By Bevin Cohen, author of The Artisan Herbalist
I began my herbal journey as a young teenager, living with my grandmother in a small apartment on the edge of town, where the city's manicured lawns met the uneven wildness of the forest. In this forest, I spent a great deal of my time growing up amongst the bracken fern and mighty willows, and it was here that I first encountered Gaultheria procumbens, the American wintergreen.
A chance encounter with this low-growing, evergreen shrub led to a life-long fascination with the seemingly immeasurable bounty of Nature's flora. If this small patch of the forest could be home to such a diverse collection of mosses, herbs, ferns, trees, foliage and fruits, then what wonders might the rest of the world have to offer? Over the years, this fascination evolved into a near obsession as I frantically studied the many plants around me, their habitats, histories and uses as both food and medicine. Today, my family and I are comfortably settled into a young homestead and sustainable herb farm in Central Michigan, affectionately named Small House Farm. Once again, I find myself on the edge of the forest yet just a short drive from the trappings and conveniences of a nearby city. Small House Farm is named as a reflection of the size of our home and as a symbol of our philosophy; it is here that we seek a smaller, slower and more intentional life.
In the almost two decades since my first cup of wintergreen tea, I've come to understand that although Nature's gifts are plenty, they surely are not inexhaustible. It is our responsibility as herbalists and stewards of the land to teach and to practice sustainable systems; systems that work in tandem with nature's cycles, systems that recognize Nature's gifts not as commodities to be taken and consumed, but as partners, allies, with which we must learn to work together. The relationship between man and nature must be reciprocal because man and nature are, in fact, the same.
When New Society Publishers approached me with an offer to write an introductory-to-herbalism style book for their Homegrown City Life series, I naturally approached the project from the perspective of a small batch, handmade, hyperlocal, relationship-based herbalism. Thus, The Artisan Herbalist was born.
An artisan is a highly-skilled craftsman that produces something in limited quantities, often using traditional methods. Just as the artisan baker endeavours to procure the finest flours for his creations, and the artisan cheesemaker lovingly crafts high-quality cheeses from the freshest local kinds of milk, the artisan herbalist adheres to these same principles of quality craftsmanship and traditional methodology. The hands-on, small-batch philosophy of the artisan allows for responsible consumption, never taking more than is needed and always focusing on producing the best possible products with the materials readily available.
The Artisan Herbalist will demonstrate to the beginner and remind the experienced that everything that we may need is always just beneath our feet and that with a bit of exploration, we'll find that our gardens, parks, fields, forests and even the kitchen spice rack are home to a cornucopia of herbal allies eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work with us. Herbalism on this scale is a possibility for all, whether we live on a spacious country estate, deep within the urban jungle or nestled between in a peaceful, suburban neighbourhood.
In today's frantically fast-paced, consumer-driven world, it is perhaps the pursuit of herbal knowledge that will lead one to a lifetime of contentment. A quest for healthy relationships with the plants in one's own bioregion, working towards the critical balance required to sustain our very existence and gaining independence from a lifestyle of production and responsible, limited consumption is the only reasonable path forward. This is the path of The Artisan Herbalist.