Functioning in the Chaos

Cultivating Life in the Spirit of Reciprocity

Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with Barbara Volk of West Virginia with a focus on the Wise Woman Tradition, the oldest healing tradition in the world.

WESTON, W.Va. — “The universe is chaos.”

With those few words, the wisdom of West Virginian Barbara Volk aptly closed out 2020 during an interview on Dec. 31.

Few who experienced 2020 would disagree with her. Beyond that similarity however, she knows that her worldview leaves her in the minority. Volk embraces the chaos as a daily life reality that is ever-present and enduring. That was true before the pandemic, she says, and will remain so after it passes. It is how one deals with this reality of chaos that is essential, says the Lewis County herbalist.

“Adaptability is crucial. And acceptance. There is a lot going on that we don’t have control over. The universe is chaos. We must accept that we can function in that chaos; otherwise, we’ll crumble.” – Barbara Volk

An adherent of the Wise Woman Tradition, she is preaching a gospel of the Spirit of Reciprocity. That it is not news to those who have known her for any time. However, it is her guiding life force — in her relationships, her business, and her interaction with nature. According to the WISE Women in Solar Energy, “The Wise Woman Tradition heals by nourishing the wholeness of each unique individual. Nourishing has three primary aspects: simple ceremony, nourishing foods, and compassionate listening. When women are heard, when we listen to each other, then we feel validated and empowered.”

Volk adds however, “The Wise Woman Tradition encompasses men as well. It is not exclusive to women. It’s a belief that compassionate listening reshapes all human lives.”

Sharing the Tradition

Volk’s message is two-fold:

  • We must all embrace a Spirit of Reciprocity; and,
  • Let the Wild Weeds Grow

She shares, “For a lot of people, having a spirit of reciprocity means having a reciprocal relationship. ‘I do something for you, you do something for me.’ There is a deeper meaning to that that we need to understand. It means that I do something for you and expect nothing in return.”

She says she preaches “Let the wild weeds grow” for a simple reason. “There are plants out there you can make medicine out of. Sometimes food shows up in your yard.”

Barbara Volk conducts a “Weed Walk” at the Sweet Springs, W.Va. Sustainable Living Forum in August 2019

She would know, for she has been ridge-running the forests of Appalachia for 25 years learning what she can about every plant. Though Volk was born in Maryland, she reveals, “I was born knowing I wanted to live in West Virginia.” She hadn’t even visited the state, yet she recalls, “From my earliest ability to talk I told my parents I was going to live in West Virginia. I knew my whole life I wanted to live really simply, grow my own food, make medicine, do art and have horses.” She adds,” I would eat weeds out of the yard when I was a kid. It drove my mom crazy.” 

Today, she’s still making salads out of what most people mow down.

Eventually, others began asking her for advice on using herbs for food and medicine. “First it was my family, then other people started asking. They’d say, ‘I have this issue, what plant do you think would help?’ I realized if I was going to help other people, I was going to have to increase my body of knowledge to teach myself.”

So, she has accomplished most of what she dreamed of when West Virginia would dominate her thoughts. Indeed, in addition to having horses, she is an equine podiatrist that cares for horses across West Virginia. She is also a fiber artist and enjoys the nearly lost art of horsehair hitching. From it, she creates jewelry, bridles and inlays. 

She admits it has been a struggle this year. Keeping her customers through the pandemic has been difficult. Also, about six years ago, Volk, who is president of the West Virginia Herb Association, turned her focus entirely to harvesting wild food and medicine plants to make products which she sells. This presents its own challenges.

Yet, she has every intention of plowing through it. “It took me a really long time to get here,” recalls Volk. “Once out of college, when I was 22, I started renting houses outside of the cities. I started experimenting. So, it’s something that’s been going on for a long time.”

Fairy Garden with turtle

While a more holistic health approach has gained greater acceptance in recent years, Volk says she knows much work remains. “It’s kind of like Yoga. It was also once a fringe thing. You were weird if you did yoga. Now, everyone has heard the word Yoga, but 40 years ago it was this weird thing that just hippies did.”

Cultivating Life in the Spirit of Reciprocity

To cultivate life in the spirit of reciprocity, says Volk, is to stay attuned to the needs of your family, friends and neighbors. But it is also about more than human relationships, says Volk. “That’s how animals and plants interact with us. When I get harvest plants, they give of themselves freely. So I have to give of myself freely. For me, it is replacing plants that have been over-harvested and destroyed. That’s one of the ways I cultivate it.” Some of her favorite plants she uses to reforest and does not harvest are goldenseal, black cohosh, blue cohosh and bloodroot.

She continues, “Another way I do it is make lots and lots of medicines and give them away. People might need it. They might not have the money for it, or they’ll go online to order a product that they don’t know who created it or what is in it.” 

She observes, “Our mindset has to shift. It will only happen with people operating by the spirit of reciprocity.”

Let the Wild Weeds Grow

Volk calls this her “weedy weed” philosophy. Those are the weeds that have medicinal or food value that people mow down.

Saving those weeds is essential to our health, she argues. “That’s another part of reciprocity. We are set up with this idea that we have to have these well groomed lots that we mow, with certain lengths, with flower beds. 

She doesn’t mow or rake leaves. Not only does she do so for the medicinal and nutritional value of the plants she is saving, there is another reason. She explains, “Those plants and leaves are homes and shelters to my tiny neighbors — what we think of as pests in the city. By allowing the plants to be the way they want to be, I serve a whole lot of critters in my ‘neighborhood’.”

Passion flower (Passiflora incarnate)
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosis)

Adapting in the Chaos

Volk believes the experiences of 2020 have taught us, “Adaptability is crucial. And acceptance. There is a lot going on that we don’t have control over. The universe is chaos. We must accept that we can function in that chaos; otherwise, we’ll crumble.”

That means, says Volk, to recognize, “Our mind is a powerful tool. We all tell ourselves stories. If I don’t feel good today, I can tell myself that story today. Or I can get up, acknowledge I have a few aches and pains, know that they’ll calm down and believe that I’m going to have a great day. We can use our mind and thought processes to change our ideas and our health.”

Such an outlook requires discipline and practice, says Volk. “Everyday I say I’m energized. Everybody needs to come up with their own word. I have chronic illness. Regardless of how well I exercise or eat, I’m going to have pain. So, rather than be negative, I choose to wake up and be energized. And I think that in my mind. Some days my pain is less than others. Rarely does it go away, but it never keeps me from functioning through my day. Nor does the fatigue. I may do less on some days, but that’s OK. Our best changes every day. We’re always expected to be at peak performance, but that’s not how we’re created to function as human beings.”

Hence, she argues, we have to avoid negative feelings about ourselves. “I think that’s a really important point,” says Volk.

Getting Started

Transitioning to a simpler life or reciprocity must be done one step at a time, insists Volk. In addition to suggesting people abandon their mowers and weed-eaters, which she calls “a good first step,” she adds, “Just start looking around. Get a good plant identification book.” She recommends a “Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers.”

One doesn’t have to live on a farm to start, she says. “Start identifying things. There are so many things even in cities that grow out of sidewalks that are medicinal and edible.”

St. Joan’s Wort (Hypericum  perfoliatum) flowers in vodka for a tincture

She continues, “Start thinking about food as medicine. We are going to be stronger to fight illness, injuries that will occur. It doesn’t mean we won’t get ill, but we will have created a stronger and more healthier body to return to health.” For instance, instead of buying salad ingredients at a store, Volk will use chickweed, dandelion greens, ground ivy and plantain. She notes, “These have both medicinal and nutritional qualities.”

She also warns strongly against taking “herbs” in capsules. Volk explains, “It’s as far from the plant as you can get. It’s not fresh. You don’t know what you’re getting. You don’t get nourishment.” Her alternative is Nourishing Herbal Infusions. Using an ounce of dried herb and one quart of water. She boils water, lets the herb steep for four hours, then drinks it. The infusion process, says Volk, strengthens the effects of the minerals and other nutrients.

She also recommends a well-rounded diet. I think a broad range of well-cooked foods infused herbs and wild foods is the best diet.”

Volk knows those who transition might be met by skepticism in certain circles. “It is fringe. It’s something different. But, everybody’s been looking for something different, but some people haven’t been able to get away from TV long enough to know that. People are learning they can grow gardens even in towns. They are longing for something different. I think that includes reciprocity. It includes the knowledge of how they function in their food system and living situation.”

It has worked for her. “The people I’m surrounded with have similar hearts and minds to me. So while I don’t know who those people are that want to change, I’d like to try and reach those people.”

Asked what she would tell them, she offers, “I believe if we plant seeds, that when enough people have this consciousness, we’ll be there and everyone will have an understanding of the spirit of reciprocity.”

She concludes, “All it takes is one plant to get you started.” 

© Michael M. Barrick, 2021. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of Grassroots Appalachia LLC. Flowers and Fairy Land photos by Barbara Volk.

5 comments

  1. Excellent, Barbara is a friend of mine, we both serve on WV Herb Association Exec Board. I can hear her voice, saying the words below!
    Here’s to a MUCH better and adaptive 2021!

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