I first stumbled upon the term leafing through well-known herbalist Matthew Wood’s acclaimed book, The Book of Herbal Wisdom, while in the midst of completing my studies as an herbalist’s apprentice this past year (2013).
The juxtaposition of these two words seems to leap out from the page. They somehow combine themselves together very beautifully. I guess you could say they leapt out at my subconscious just like a pair of deer themselves. The words take me way back to a time I dreamt I was being trampled to dust by a stampede of a thousand deer, trapped in a car on the highway, windows smashed and hooves and antlers puncturing the walls of the vehicle like butter. I was unable to escape death and yet at the same time, I felt completely elated.
A Mdewakantan Dakota woman Wood was treating and whom he mentioned in his book passed this term on to him as a formal title for all deer, their name as a complete species, as if they are a collective society, a tribe. No doubt in my mind they are. Wood references the term Deer Nation later in the book, stating that some herbs are specifically endorsed by the Deer Nation. His meaning is very simple: these are herbs that deer like, of which deer are often seen favoring and feeding on in the wild, and very arguably for their own medicinal purposes.
The concept of the Deer Nation can develop further along those lines, if one delves into Matthew Wood’s phyla of Native Medicine and a grouping of herbs called Deer Medicines. Specificity and origin of this herbal medicine classification system is unknown by me as to which tribe or nation from which it may originate; there is a chance that this is simply a classification method Wood developed on his own, inspired by native practices, but don’t quote me on that and I am sadly not a person to ask. There are Wolf Medicines, Bear Medicines, Snake Medicines among others. The classification of medicines in this system known as Deer Medicines have signatures reminiscent to the the physical and behavioral characteristics of deer, while also being herbs and wild plants that deer have predilection for. Thus, Deer Medicines are herbs used (and endorsed) by the Deer Nation, you could say.
In taking the term Deer Nation and applying it in part to the work I want to do, it serves as a reminder to me and I hope to everyone else that everything we use is borrowed. The plants and wildlife around us ultimately take care of themselves as they have for so many hundreds of thousands of years, without our help and regardless of our hindrances on them. As herbal medicine is beginning to explode and become somewhat of a “trendy” thing along with all that other trendy stuff, people are going to start buying Gypsy Cold Care tea, or Triple Echinacea, or Black Cohosh capsules, or Goldenseal Root or whatever-what-have-you without even thinking twice about where it came from, and probably right off the Walmart shelf pretty soon– probably even already. A lot of these “hit” herbs are, ironically, endangered and for the most part, you can attribute that to the high demand that has been placed upon them as medicine now and throughout history. Plants don’t just belong to us all of a sudden as if they are now newly responsible for our health, a newly discovered medicine cabinet just sitting there in the wild, ripe for the picking. We can’t just think of our health only to forget theirs. We need to think of where they come from, where they grow, and we can’t forget the other Nations that may use or depend upon them. We also can’t forget that they are their own Nations, their own populations of living things in their own right.
Deer Nation is a reminder to me that the plants I use are no more so my own than they are for the deer that wander through the fields outside my window. In fact, one could argue that the deer are much more deserving of nature’s medicines than I could ever hope to be. So I just try to remember what I’m borrowing. Even the Black Cohosh capsules I purchase here in town– who knows how far they came, from where they came, and how many are left from where they have come.
Lastly, if the overlooked state of Iowa where I live could be called anything in terms of its representative wildlife, Iowa is most certainly the Deer Nation. Without wolves to hunt them and far outnumbering the coyotes that cannot hunt them but only scavenge their remains, deer are next at the top of the food chain amongst land mammals, second only to us human beings here in Iowa. Deer are a widespread pride of this state, no doubt the most populous denizens of our wilderness, the guardians of what’s left amongst fragmented borderlands and patches of woods still clinging for life to the edges of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. If there’s anyone left looking after and deserving of the small wealth of plant medicines we have remaining here in the last oak savannahs, tallgrass prairies and woodlands of Iowa, it would be the Deer Nation.
So I have a handful of “hopes” in launching this “thing” I like to call Deer Nation Herbs. It’s not a company, although it has a website. It’s hard to call it even an operation, or an apothecary. It may evolve into something like that someday, including products and consultations. But I really just see it foremost as a hopeful presence. Firstly, Deer Nation is my personal, unique take on herbalism, not just as an “-ism” but as the rich, deeply ancestral well of human culture it really is.
Secondly, I wish to exhibit a clear, unmuddled resource on herbal medicine in Iowa and the Midwest. It is astounding how much misinformation there is on herbalism, and it’s disheartening to see how little it reaches people despite its increasing popularity. When it finally does, people misinterpret it so much. What’s more, when people who could greatly benefit start to use it, so many have no idea what they are actually talking about, let alone what they are doing– yet there they are, drinking Echinacea tea every day. I do think Herbalism is a medicine belonging to the people; but medicine and especially medicine, like everything else, requires actually studying it and learning it from a reliable source or teacher. Indigenous peoples the world over did indeed use herbs and have knowledge of their medicinal uses, the average layman amongst some knew the uses of 100+ herbs for food and medicine simply as a cultural norm; and yet, why did our cultures still have healers, medicine people and herbalists, people with specialized knowledge? Herbalism is becoming immensely popular, yet 85% of the time when I hear it being discussed and “used” as at-home remedies, I am saddened because just these types of advocations and uses of herbs are the ones that discourage people from ever going to herbal medicine again, because it “didn’t work” or even made matters worse.
So without any further definitions, here is my hope of developing a tradition of herbalism and lore based in magical Iowa (that’s right, Iowa is magical), a place where herbalism is not heard from much in comparison to other areas of the United States, and where a lot of the old lore has been lost with the people who were displaced here before– and a place aching for a culture which desperately needs a true representative. What better representative, or you could say “mascot,” may be found in Iowa to speak for plant lore, other than in the Deer Nation?
Soon to come: I hope to release sporadic articles on many subjects herbalism, at times discussing healing modalities directly or indirectly related to herbalism, or perhaps focusing on a specific plant as medicine, particularly Iowan plants, from Eastern Iowa and the Driftless Region. This will include various herbalist concepts, methods, beliefs, traditions, movements, or personal commentaries on herbalism; whether from myself, other herbalists, other cultures or other herbalist sources– or maybe just what’s on my mind in regard to the world of herbalism at the moment. I wish to post articles not only voiced in informed, scientific speak, but also to convey a voice steeped in lore and tradition stemmed directly from herbalism’s deep and fascinating past. Included may be unique or passed-on preparations for medicine-making, recipes and directions for your use and education at home. I hope to see this website teeming with artwork, animals and plants. Consultations, services, and perhaps products, to follow...
….thank you in advance for following Deer Nation Herbs.
Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom. David Winston.
Artwork Copyright Adrian White