Gaian Voices was a digital and print magazine that got very little distribution over the years, but that was as heartful and earthy a publication as there’s ever been. Founder and editor Susan Meeker Lowry recently released what is the final issue, as she moves on from this act of love to a beloved herbal practice. It contains the full version of the interview with Wolf that we’ve excerpted below, and Susan has generously made the entire issue available for us to give to you. Simply click here to download the FREE full color pdf:
Interview With Jesse Wolf Hardin
In dialog with Susan Meeker Lowry
Excerpted From the Final Issue of Gaian Voices Magazine – Autumn 2011
Jesse Wolf Hardin has taught awareness and deep ecological wisdom for nearly four decades. He is the author of numerous books including “Gaia Eros” and an illustrated book for children “I’m A Medicine Woman Too!”. He is the coeditor with Kiva Rose of the acclaimed “Plant Healer Magazine” journal of folk herbalism (www.PlantHealerMagazine.com), and codirector of the Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference each September (www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org) in the Coconino forest of northern Arizona. He writes and teaches at the Anima School and Sanctuary in a remote river canyon ecosystem he restored, hosting wilderness Retreats (www.AnimaCenter.org), and publishing the Anima blog (www.AnimaCenter.org/blog).
.GV: Over the years I’ve noticed the core message of your work has stayed the same, though the way it manifests has shifted, from the early roadshow days when we first met, to your early years in the Canyon, then Loba came and your art and music seemed to blossom, then with the arrival of Kiva Rose your teachings expanded and deepened.
Wolf: The core has remained consistent, grounded in earthen purpose and informed by the lessons of nature. And in every form, this Anima teaching has conveyed the necessity of not only increased awareness and connection, but of manifestation and action as well. And I find it interesting that even as an activist inspiring direct action in the 1980s, I called our concerts and talks “Deep Ecology Medicine Shows” after the traveling inspirational speakers and healers of history. My role at that point was getting hard core activists to include healing themselves, their communities and the environment as part of their activism, and lately I teach herbalists and other healers how vital it is to integrate action to heal political, social and environmental imbalance with their treating of personal and client illness.
We’ve effectively raised awareness and affected thousands of people’s lives through this 38+ years process. Yet the work must go on, for at the same time, wild places and plant and animal diversity have continued to contract, and even the most “progressive” president presides over environmental destruction, expanding wars, decreasing liberties and rule by the elite.
GV: I agree. Even though more people have become aware of the ecological degradation, climate change and all, things are getting worse. It’s disempowering.
Wolf: Not so much disempowering, since it is truly only we ourselves, and not authority, that can empower us. I wish it was as simple as the system or the paradigm of the government or religious institutions taking away our power. You’d know which mouse to root for in that Redwall tale. More problematically, the very idea of taking power in their own hands is unthinkable for most people, imagining that we can’t have an impact, or that the cost we’d pay is too high.
Jesse Wolf Hardin lets his hair down, 2009, Anima Sanctuary, NM
GV: People often say that the only thing we can do is take care of ourselves, that striving to change anything more is impossible. And of course that’s totally the antithesis of what I believe.
Wolf: It is, to put it bluntly, utter bullshit. We know from reading history that it only takes only from 5 to 15 percent of a population responding to a situation to initiate a change. Things don’t necessarily change for the better of course, but it only takes a small number of people to usher in major cultural and political transformation. The few could indeed change the entire ways that we relate to each other and to the natural world, if it was our priority as well as committed goal.
Paul Bergner & Jesse Wolf Hardin, Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference 2010
GV: But something happened. It seemed like something shifted. People went inside. Maybe it was the economy . . .
Wolf: Definitely the economy had something to do with it, in a society where ecological health and giving time to activism are both treated as luxuries. But people also need to rotate out of full-on activism, with others rotating in, so that we can feed our other needs and interests, explore other ways of giving to ourselves and the world. Gardening, restoring land, home schooling our children, or even taking time to learn a musical instrument are not inward so much as grounding, providing strength for the ways we reach out including our activism. The people we worked with decades ago are still doing the good work, though perhaps more regionally and intimately, in their communities and watersheds.
What is still needed most is the coming together, not just sharing values but sharing life, building an active, participatory community.
GV: One of the things you said after the last Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference is that you felt it was the tribe coming together.
Wolf: Yes. And once again that will require instigating, inciting, developing the kind of tribal interactions that survive throughout the year, that aren’t just dependent on an event or personality. Of the TWHC participants, 2/3 say they don’t go to any other conferences because they usually don’t like them, many sleep in their cars because they’re free clinic volunteers and people working for next to nothing in their communities. These are people who are in resistance to the paradigm in every way. Herbalism is simply one important way in which this manifests. If Kiva and I can feed this so that it grows and spreads roots throughout the winters between the summer events, we’ll be satisfied that the tribe is indeed gathering and coalescing. But the next step has to be the one that most contemporary movements haven’t taken, which is to make it real and continuous in our daily lives.
GV: What do you think about all the Occupy movements that are happening around the country right now?
Wolf: There’s not going to be any real environmental or social change in this country or the world until there’s been a complete confrontation of and collapse of the economic system that rules the world. At the same time, I wish it didn’t require financial hardship to make people aware of and responsive to a need for change. I’m tickled that it’s happening but I wish the uniting inspiration could have been something besides the fact that folks are getting paid so much less than the bankers who are screwing them.
GV: Like coming together because we love the earth and want to live differently. For years people would ask me, “What is it going to take?” And for years I’ve been saying, “It’s going to take thousands of people in the streets, not just in one place at one time, but everywhere at once.” Like you said, we need the economic system to collapse, and the consumer system to collapse.
Wolf: Crazy, though, would be waiting to be sure we’ll succeed before initiating changes in our lives and our community, or trying to ensure our security before taking risks. The good work, and the rewards that come with it, always happen in the now. The party is now, the activism is now, the garden is now, the love is now, and the resistance, – the fight – is now. Regardless of outcome or the chances of success, in the face of almost impossible odds, it has to be done. And this glad doing, hard as it can be, tastes ever so sweet.
GV: Yes. I’ve tried to live my life that way, then I came here because my sister can’t live alone. It’s a beautiful here with mountain views and really old trees, but it’s not what I would have chosen. My vision was for a place much more rustic, ideally off-grid, more sustainable. I also wanted to have a small do-it-yourself kind of herb store. But this year I started Gaia’s Garden Herbals, so that’s kind of going back to those roots. And I’m going to offer some workshops, even though I’m nervous about putting myself out there as “teacher”. I feel I don’t know enough, more what I want to do is share a perspective.
Wolf: That’s what teaching is. It’s sharing tools and perspective. Both of which you present in a way that is optional. And you know the nice thing is, no matter where you are, healing is a bridge because most people, regardless of lifestyle or income, understand that our modern allopathic medical system does more damage, is unfair and unjust, is too expensive with limited access, and so on. In other words we can take a retired person out of Aspen or a cowboy out of Reverse, NM and have them immediately understand the language of empowerment when it comes to self-care.
GV: And learning what’s growing around you. Like goldenrod. Most people think of it as a weed but it’s so much more.
Wolf: If goldenrod helps what ails them, they’ll realize it’s not a “weed” to be denigrated and removed, which could open them up to other possibilities. Maybe they’ll want to know more about other uninvited plant guests growing in their yard rather than yanking them out. The next step might be for them to plant some native medicinals that used to be prolific but had become rare. In this way, herbalism becomes a language people can hear, and perceptual as well as clinical tools for them to use. That’s why I’m so heavily into herbs now. If it were just about fixing one’s physical “owies”, I wouldn’t give myself so fully to this effort. What excites me is the way that the study and use of herbs can be a bridge to a larger concept of healing and living, to healing others, our disjointed and denatured culture, and the living land of which we are a part.
GV: I want to talk about the Wallow Fire of 2011. In one of your updates during that time, you wrote that you always loved the wind, but the wind brought the fire closer and closer. Did it change the nature of your relationship with it?
Wolf: It was especially hard for me because I’ve always heard from everybody, from my mother to my friends, that the wind is unsettling, they just wish it would stop. But for me, it was always a way that I felt connected to everything around me, awakening a sense of air’s molecules connecting us physically to the breath and being of every living thing. Experiencing wind as a connective force uniting me physically with everything, was a spiritual sense made physical for me. And when it got too strong, I was proud that I was the one who stayed out because I liked being humbled by something I could barely walk headfirst into.
But during the Wallow Fire, every time the wind slowed we could see on the progression maps that the fire had stopped moving in our direction. And every time it picked up, we’d see it suddenly rush three or four miles in a single night in our direction, until by the time the fire finally stopped at the end of June it was in some places only seven miles from the Anima School and Botanical Sanctuary. You can drive just a short ways from here and see where the trees are burned and dead. The ponderosas will be replaced by a succession of junipers and not by old growth pines, because of the drought cycle the Southwest is in. The pain from this thought and threat was indescribable. All the trees in the canyon, except for the ponderosas, are in a sense my babies. None were here until I mercilessly started chasing cows out when I first arrived, swinging my rusty Confederate sword, screaming at them at the top of my lungs. Until then, there were no cottonwoods, no willows, no medicinal plants growing because the cows had eaten everything. So here’s this wind that I experience as an extension of my spirit – the anima – also feeding the flames of impending forest destruction.
I’ll tell you a story. Not so awfully long before, I’d hit a low point, mourning that no lover chose to stay and make a home in this wilderness with me, that my children were taken from me and no longer under my protection and influence, and that it seemed I needed to travel in order to properly champion these and all wild places. At one point while on the road, a sweetheart wrote to say she didn’t want to see me because I was “too intense”, the caretaker I left tending my home bailed and the borrowed vehicle I was touring in blew up. Hitchhiking home, I then walked straight away to the sacred cliffs below our property to do the one thing that felt most authentic for a mixed blood Cossack to do… I cried. And in the process of crying I felt my heart saying to the cliffs, to this canyon and region, “I’m yours. I will not leave you. No matter what happens, I will not leave you. If I never have a mate, if I never have an income, if I can’t get my art and writing out to the people, it still won’t drive me away. I am here for you.”
And so, if the Wallow Fire had come through, after that force of life and death that is the wind had roared over this land, I knew I would still be here. In case I couldn’t save the cabin where we write, I had picking the spot where I’d set up my tent in the midst of the black ash, from which I would start planting the seeds of green and home and wildness anew.
San Francisco River, Anima Sanctuary in the Fall. Photo by J. W. Hardin
GV: That had to be really intense.
Wolf: Yeah, and especially happening right before the conference and when our Plant Healer Magazine was due out.
GV: I know! It was unreal. I’ve never visited your home, but I feel a real connection, because of you of course, and the way you live and your commitment to the land. So the thought of that fire coming through – there wasn’t a moment in the day during that time that I wasn’t aware of it in some way. And there were many, many people who felt the same.
Part of it is the commitment you’ve all made to the place, and the relationship that’s reciprocal back and forth between you humans and the rest of life there. It’s also the writing and photography you and Kiva share. I think it helps people to become more aware of and open to their own places. The fire also got me thinking about my own fears. To acknowledge and honor that beauty that is all around me and then to have it destroyed by a fire and still remain here, to be able to see the potential of the beauty that would still be there, that would be revealed over time but in a different way.
Wolf: There’s two things we teach in the Anima courses with regards to place. One is to feel at home everywhere you are, even on a park bench in the largest city, connecting deeply wherever we are, sending out not necessarily roots but feelers, like tendrils that sense the being and messages of where we are now.
The second thing is, in my heart of hearts I believe there’s one place in all the world for everybody that calls to them louder and more insistently than all others, a place that will support them in being their most authentic selves, and that perhaps needs us the most. Finding that one place is kind of like the child’s game where one kid tries to find a hidden treasure while blindfolded, with the only clues being the other children shouting out “warm or warmer” as they stumble closer to the prize, and “cold and colder” whenever they moved away. When we travel even a few miles from this home, things will feel a little colder in a sense, and on the way back it will feel increasingly warmer until we’re settled into the heart and center of that place again. It’s not just a matter of thinking “I like pine trees, so I should be in a pine forest.” Sure, it’s a hint. But it will be more than pines that distinguish your home, more like the qualities of a particular forest, a specific grove, a certain watershed or section of coast, a definitive square mile. And it will be the site of greatest potential when it comes to being at home in both your self and your place.
I ask that people connect with, learn from, honor and repay any place where we might be. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to seek the place that brings us into our power and best aids our gifting to the world… regardless of income potential, inconvenience or disruption, and even – if I may be so personal – if caring for a handicapped sister makes it more complicated and difficult. The search for that one place to root and settle, is in itself an unsettling process, just as is following the calling of your gifts and what to do with them. It requires discomfort and movement, with great sensitivity to the signs.
Wolf Hardin with daughter Rhiannon in 2010, Anima Sanctuary, NM
GV: I still have the interview you did with me so many years ago. We talked about Gaian Economics, among other things. It’s strange, but I still feel exactly the same way I did back then. All the stuff we talked about – the economic alternatives people were starting, still exist. If I were to do a Google search I’d find all kinds of cool stuff, but they seem isolated from each other, and the potential comes from connection and working consciously together. For that to happen we need more than email, we need face-to-face communication. That’s one of the things I miss so much from the days of the bioregional congresses. When we stopped getting together regularly it was like losing a part of myself. The times we’re living in need us to have that kind of connection again.
Wolf: In part, we need to break bonds, because so many of the bonds in this paradigm, in this society, are unhealthy. They’re obligations instead of responsibilities. They’re laws that we obey instead of things that we do out of consideration and care. We need to rip ourselves asunder from our own comforts, from our imaginary limitations, and from this gawdawful system, yet at the same time we need to make and nourish existing connections. As much enjoyment as I get from needed revolutionary acts, it seems my main job now is not to go around severing with scissors so much as casting the luminous threads of co-mingled purpose and shared values that might possibly lead to the re-creation of a living, organic, Gaian tribe. It’s funny that the wild eyed hell-raiser that I always took pride in being, is now so dedicated to the nearly impossible work of mending existing conduits and creating new connections, pathways and circuits… for drawing us together.
GV: A lot of people are being connected because of your work. You, Loba, and Kiva Rose have created a vehicle for people to be attracted to. You’re bringing people together and helping to make those connections.
Wolf: I’ve always been afraid of just entertaining or affirming the “choir”, as they say. Each of us has to reach out to those who still buy into the lies of the old paradigm, who are by far the majority. To find common ground, common loves, common language with people who aren’t that much like me, to have an effect on them that they may not even be aware of until after the fact, that’s very Loki or Coyote – the Trickster, as we say in the southwest – and it’s absolutely delightful. And we need never miss an opportunity to do this magic. So if I briefly have a local carpenter’s attention, for example, I’m going to find things to say in the metaphor of his tools and livelihood that are very much Gaian and deep ecological, very much incendiary and revolutionary and that lead him to thinking. I council everybody to do this. Whether you’re 18 years old or 80, whether you’re in front of a class or client, or if you temporarily have the attention of a distracted checker in a grocery store, that’s your opportunity to teach, affirm or disrupt as needed. That’s your audience in the moment. You can rock that checker’s world! There’s something you can give her that’s exactly what she may be least ready to hear but most in need of understanding.
It’s each and every minute that we need to do this work, every minute that we need to be resisting injustice, and every minute seeking our home, our place and purpose until we’ve found it, and it has found us.
We’re certainly not waiting for anybody’s qualification or certification. We’re not even waiting for our own self-confidence to catch up.
As is necessary, we’re doing it now.
(Please take time to repost and share this interview… so as many as possible can get the free, final Gaian Voices magazine)