I've been asked more times than I can count, how I got into herbalism, what my background is, and what my advice is for anyone trying to get acquainted with herbalism. I kept pushing off the task of fully laying it out there, because it's a big job to recall, write down, and share my story. But lately, both due to the growth in my Apothecary, as well as big questions that I've been asking myself about how I'd like to continue growing, I decided to sit down and write this out.
Who Am I?
I grew up just 45 minutes northwest of Manhattan, New York- one of the most diverse places on this planet- yet I was raised in a nuclear, very religious, Orthodox Jewish community. We said blessings upon waking up, going to the bathroom, when lightning struck, and when we brought in the weekly Sabbath. We said specific blessings over fruit, bread, and wine. We said prayers when the sun rose, when the sun was high, and when the sun was setting. Practically every part of our day, week, month, and year was dictated by the awareness that everything can somehow be marked sacredly by a prayer or blessing. And yet, nothing really struck home for me. Perhaps it was the lack of actual spirit in the teachers’ eyes. Perhaps it was the rigid route in which everything was done, rooted in a fear-based patriarchal approach to leadership. I needed out. I felt the need to wear shorts instead of long skirts on long hot summer days. I felt that there was something more out there, and so I was called a rebel. I was a wanderer for most of my adolescence, building relationships with so many different groups of people across the globe, as I sought that something. I toured the world with musicians. I became a holistic health coach (where I met my best friend Lauren of Lala Earth!) and helped people heal their relationships with their bodies, as I healed my own. I lived in “conscious community” with 19 other young adults on a farm in Israel and studied permaculture, where I cut off all my hair and realized I was queer. I lived in an ancient mansion in the countryside of Ireland for a summer and wrote music every day. I became a yoga instructor in Costa Rica, walked from France halfway through Spain on El Camino De Santiago, and went on a six-week Buddhist pilgrimage to India and Nepal.
But it wasn’t until I devoted myself to a two-year plan of moving to Portland and getting my masters at Portland State University, that I began to grow my own roots, and (perhaps ironically), reconnect to the roots of my heritage. I came to the Leadership for Sustainability Education (LSE) program for a structure in which to write a book about holistic nutrition and ground myself after so much traveling, but the program helped me integrate so much more. While my adolescence was both a literal wandering and an internal journey of seeking, it was here in Portland that the world of my heritage and childhood collided with the value system that I was finally embracing through LSE. The cycles of the moon, the consciousness around how we get our food, and the importance of care for other life-forms- all these are the eco-spiritual foundations of Judaism. It became clear to me that the flaws within a rich culture- full of ritual, was not entirely the fault of the heritage. These flaws are the misfortune of humans carrying the weight of such a deep set of traditions through many oppressive centuries. While in LSE, I created an herbalism practice called “Roots & Crowns,” as an homage to my cultural roots, and the meaning of my Jewish name. This was-and-is the synthesis of many of my experiences, learning, and my desire to bring “plant power to the people,” which is the slogan for Roots & Crowns. I am thriving. I am a child again. I have wide-eyed wonder, and the familiar feeling of embracing the spirit within myself as I engage with the spirits around me. That’s who I was, and this is who I am.
I said Grad School brought me to Portland? What the heck did I learn in Grad School?
I moved to Portland in June of 2013, on a two-year graduate school plan (which obvs got extended to: indefinitely) to the Leadership for Sustainability Education (LSE) program. Through the deeply transformative curriculum taught during my time in the LSE program, I moved past the discomfort of considering myself a leader in Advanced Leadership for Sustainability Education. I learned about power and privilege and how important social justice is within sustainability education in Ecological and Cultural Foundations of Education. I gained clarity around my way of connecting spirituality to my work, in Spiritual Leadership, and I made peace with the multiple dimensions of my identity in Developmental Perspectives of Adult Learning. All of the literature I delved into during this program informed my work and the values I now bring to it. The principles that guide my work are: Holistic Health, Feeling and Intuition, Creative Action, & Love. These four elements align with the four key learning of LSE: Systemic View of the world, Self Understanding & Commitment, Biocultural Relationships, & Tools for Sustainable Change. This is a little snippet from my thesis, so it probably needs a little more explaining at some point. But at least it's a glimpse for now!
Why, when, & how did I start Roots & Crowns?
While I was in grad school, I apparently felt I needed even more academia, and started an herbalism course here in Portland. I don't feel comfortable going into the specifics of it because, although I am grateful for aspects of the program, I would not recommend it to others, overall. When I started Roots & Crowns, it was mostly about the psycho-emotional healing of plants, and I wasn't even making ingestible products. I was making amulets utilizing my intuition, and people's stories- blending herbs and words of intention written on birch bark, to craft a customized piece for friends and then quickly for strangers, as well. As I got a bit comfortable with the more clinical application of plants, I started making medicine. I foraged a lot of plants on my own here in Portland, and it was truly an awakening/inspiring time in my life. I was stepping into acceptance of acknowledging myself as a witch. (Being a "witch" is very trendy right now, and there's a lot to say on this topic, but others have said it better than I. See Milla Prince's website and check out the podcast she did with Amber Magnolia Hill!) I should also mention that my entire childhood was graced with an inner knowing and connection to the natural elements surrounding me. My mom has lately confirmed with me that I was an odd child who would silently stare people awake from across the room (creepy!), and who was always in her own world. When I re-call the memories of my younger self, I see little saplings of identity and ways of being that all make sense now. My first introduction to plants as medicine was through films, but I was fortunate enough to meet a man named Paul Tappenden when I was in college. Paul is a wild food forager and plant medicine expert (though he would NEVER call himself an expert). He taught me so much first hand, walking in the woods, showing me how to identify lots of plants, and telling me his experiences with their healing properties. I often miss Paul, and mourn the fact that we live so far from one another. But he will always be my teacher.
What is the meaning behind the name Roots & Crowns?
- As I mentioned earlier, the name of my "business," is so much more than (what I think is) a cool name. It's loaded with meaning. The most intimate meaning of the name is an homage to my heritage, and to my Hebrew name. Though I've been going by "Max" since I was young, I was born "Malka," which means "queen" in Hebrew. At the time of naming my work, I was feeling like it was important to honor the parts of my identity that I wasn't really embracing. So there's that.
- Roots & Crowns also brings up an image in my mind of a robust tree. A tree of life. Deep roots, and a flourishing canopy. I've been obsessed with trees and tree medicine for a long, long time. I I've created art, taken a multitude of photographs during my travels, and written poetry out of deep inspiration from trees. Their ability to be so grounded, and still dance in the wind has taught me a lot about joining stability with flexibility, in all matters of life.
- I mentioned that I became a yoga instructor at one point. While I was living in Costa Rica to go through that program, I also went through a pretty transformational Reiki Attunement. I have a lot of current thoughts surrounding the appropriation of yoga, relating practices/systems, reiki, etc. But at the time, I delved into Reiki and the chakra system on a deep level. I studied and resonated-with, the whole chakra system as it relates to the physical and emotional health of our bodies. In that system, the bottom chakra is the Root Chakra, and the top chakra is the Crown Chakra. I was in constant work trying to connect my very airy-inclined, aquarian self to more grounded routines, and the imagery of the chakra system was incredibly helpful for me at the time.
- (Addendum: My mother's first reaction when I told her about the name Roots & Crowns was, "what? are you a dentist now?" And I've gotten that a few times since. At first, I was slightly annoyed by these sorts of comments, but the more I thought about teeth, the more I realized that it kind of fits with my work, too. I think of teeth and all bones as the fundamental root of our bodies. Bones symbolize structure to me. Teeth are bones that allow us to chew good food and smile. So if folks want to go the dentist route, at least there's a way to connect it, right?)
After talking a lot about myself and how I got here, I want to acknowledge something. Herbalism and plant medicine (whether it's having more flowers & houseplants in our spaces, ingesting more herbs/mushrooms/beauty-promising-supplements, etc.) is TRENDY right now. This is both wonderful, and can be simultaneously confusing. I celebrate the spreading of knowledge and healthy aspects of living to wider audiences. I genuinely believe that the more folks get reconnected to their own self-care, the plants and our landscape- the healthier this world is. I also believe that there is a huge thirst within the collective consciousness, for a remembering of ritual and connection that goes far beyond the regimes of religions and specific lineages of tradition. I celebrate this thirst, because it's important and we all have a right to seek meaning and connection to something greater than ourselves. On the other hand, trendy can also become synonymous with corporate greed, bottom lines, and compromising both quality and ethical values. I've been battling guilty feelings when I notice myself being a little judgemental toward others who I felt weren't conducting their businesses according to my standards, but my friend Milla Prince (The Woman Who Married A Bear- if you don't know her yet, get acquainted!) pointed something important out to me. When you love something, you want to protect it. I love plant medicine and ritual, and so when I witness aspects of it being extracted in certain ways, I want to protect it. I am by no means perfect, but I am constantly checking myself when opportunities come knocking, to make sure that my bottom-line intention for my work is to be part of a healing paradigm that keeps justice, self reflection, and awareness of "goodness" as uncompromisable values. To me this means making medicine with ingredients that have been harvested and extracted in ethical ways, making sure my formulas are organic and/or wildly harvested, working my best to keep my business model as sustainable as possible, collaborating with businesses and humans I believe are doing their best to uphold ethical behavior, and being committed to social justice. I regularly donate 10% of my profits to organizations doing important work, not only because that was one of the laws within Judaism regarding charity, but because I want to make sure that I'm sharing physical abundance- keeping the flow of this energy open. These are my commitments to you. Whether you are a stranger, a first-time visitor, or a returning customer.
My Advice for Aspiring Herbalists:
This question is both difficult and simple for me to answer. I'm by no means the expert herbalist, and there are far more experienced herbalists out there. But I found this practice (it seriously is a constant practice! constant learning!) and though I have a certificate proclaiming me to be an herbalist, it's more about all the experience that keeps building as I go. I think that every single individual who stumbles upon an interest in plant medicine has such an individual story and series of events which brought them to this interest, and therefore the way to see the interest through, varies greatly. Do you want to learn more about herbalism for your own healing? To help others? To have a home apothecary? To make it your career? Do you imagine foraging plants? Making medicine? Sharing medicine? Every life has a different path. And when the student is ready, the teacher shows up. There are many approaches to herbal medicine, and an abundance of opinions and perspectives about it all. My own path has been complex and nuanced, and it came very naturally. Where I am now is a summation of my life up until now- including all the experiences, encounters, studies, etc. You need to start wherever you are. Start reading. Put out the intention that you're ready for a teacher. Read Milla's post about books she recommends. Go to plant medicine gatherings.
I remember having the fortune of meeting Irish poet, Seamus Heaney just a couple of years before he passed on. I asked him what advice he had for me, an aspiring writer. He smiled and responded "just write, then you are a writer." If you want to be an herbalist, start practicing herbalism.