I have been following herbs through the supply chain for the past three years. I’ve traveled to Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Germany, the UK, India, and the United States. I began this project because I was interested in the plants and what happened as they moved from living entities growing in meadows and forests to products sitting on a shelf. Yet what captured my attention at each step of the supply chain were not the plants, but the people. Especially the men and women working directly with the plants, whether growing them on 1, 10, or 100-acre plots, or collecting them in the fields and mountains they call home.
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My conversations with these men and women were in broken English or with poor translation; most just scratched the surface. Yet as I listened, things I had found so shocking about the industry: the huge piles of overly dried herbs, the thick spider webs hanging over unbagged herbs, the noisy machinery, the seeming chaos of so many different plants from so many different places – became less important. What mattered instead were the people and their stories—and the way, even in such brief encounters, we were able to connect around their work and my interest in the plants.
A month or so after I returned, I was walking down the tea aisle of our local food coop. A box of Traditional Medicinals Gypsy Cold Care tea caught my attention, and I took it off the shelf to read what the box had to say. It said that the Elder flowers in the tea were FairWild certified and were wild-collected from near the Bialowieza Forest in Poland—and then it described the region and the collectors, one of whom was likely the very collector whom I had recently met while visiting this company in Poland.
I realized this was probably the first time in my life I had visited the place where the raw materials for a product distributed on the international market had been sourced. I decided to buy the tea. And as I placed the box in my cart, I felt something subtle shift inside – a lowering of a defense I only realized had been there by its sudden absence: the defense against all I can’t control about the impacts of every purchase I make. For this one box of tea, there was nothing to defend.
I know commodity systems are complicated, that things aren’t always what we want to believe and that the benefits don’t always flow to the people for whom they are intended. Supply chains are complex and, as with anything, it is important to do our homework.
Even so, I can’t help feeling that in our focus on how plants can heal us, we’ve missed seeing how these plants also connect us to people whose lives the economy has rendered invisible. As I think about the people on the far side of the supply chain, I begin to consider not just how a particular product might serve me, but how my purchase of it might help particular people in particular places. I begin to see how the plants reconnect us not only with the larger ecological web of life but with a broader social and cultural web as well. And I wonder if this might be a key piece of the healing they make possible.