The History of Conservation & Preservation from Women Healers

conservation indigenous healers women healers of the world Jun 19, 2024
garden with gazebo

The following is an excerpt from an essay in Holly Bellebuono's documentary book Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History and Geography of Herbal Medicine

The people who have gone furthest into the study of plant species tend to be called explorers, botanists, taxonomists, and adventurers of some sort or another. They are sometimes hailed as risk-taking heroes, such as David Burton and Ebenezer Flint, who suffered violent deaths during the course of their explorations in Australia in 1792 and 1874, respectively. Or they are portrayed as stoic or eccentric travelers, such as Asa Gray in the Appalachian mountains, who traversed insane distances and rugged terrain to explore the deep wilderness and, by collecting samples for herbaria, to provide for those left “back in the city” with a sense of the wonder to be found in the wild.

What About Women?

It’s also vital to recognize that all of the names mentioned so far have been men’s; women were generally excluded from the annals of history that celebrate human achievement, and usually excluded from lists of botanists or explorers with only a few exceptions primarily for gardeners. For example, Lady Skipwith (d. 1826) is mentioned in Raymond Taylor’s Plants of Colonial Days, and Philip Short’s In Pursuit of Plants1 briefly mentions two women named Marianne North and Ellis Rowan.

But Short states that “the fact that only one woman is included in this compilation … is primarily due to the fact that the social constraints of the time did not permit women to travel widely, at least not by themselves. Furthermore, married women, often with large families to care for, had limited opportunities even to step out into the local bush and spend time collecting.” Women botanists were few and far between; he states that for those born before 1901 in Australia, for every woman there were at least seven men who had collected herbarium specimens.

Conservation Priorities Today

Conservation at the local levels must be a priority to protect these important plants from extinction. Thousands of garden clubs have sprung up in the past few decades, usually “manned” by women who enjoy their gardens, preserve the food they grow, make medicines from their herbs, and learn and teach on a domestic scale about plants.

Hundreds of herbalists have also taken up the call to learn about and protect the green medicines that grow both in our cultivated gardens and also in the wild places typically beyond our reach. Herbalists discuss the benefits and downsides to wildcrafting, with some calling for limits to the numbers of plants collected and others decrying limits but agreeing that wildcrafting needs to be done honorably and ethically. Ginseng growers report their “secret” crop has been discovered and unearthed; herbalists frequently return to their favorite wild herb patches only to find a smaller population than the year before.

Local logging and building development plays a huge role in the quick decline of native plants, and thankfully many community planning boards have implemented policies designed to protect sensitive plant systems before building begins, but it is not fool-proof.

To continue reading about this and16 other incredible world healing and health traditions, see the book Women Healers of the World, available here, now celebrating its 10-year publication anniversary.

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