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Written by Marko Velimirovic

Let The Nature Heal You - With Chris Marano

Let The Nature Heal You - With Chris Marano

This week, Mystic Mag‘s Marko Velimirovic talked with Chris Marano, a prominent Herbalist who gave us some interesting insight into his career, herbalism, and his relationship with clients.

When did you first know that being an herbalist was your calling and how did it come about?

It was a step-by-step and long-and-winding-road process for me. I wasn’t born into a family of health-care practitioners and I am not part of an herbalist lineage dating back generations. Just a first-generation immigrant guy growing up in a blue collar neighborhood in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Not too many gadgets back then to occupy one’s time. Mostly outside playing, listening to music, watching TV. But even though I grew up in an urban, mostly concrete environment in northern New Jersey, I was always drawn to what little nature there was around me, in neighbors’ backyard garden plots or vacant lots or cemeteries. And in school I was drawn to the biological sciences and botany.

As a disillusioned pre-med student at Columbia University in NYC in the late 1970’s, I became much more interested in Eastern philosophy and spiritual traditions, which led me to not only minor in that college subject but also to find, study and meditate with an actual Chinese Chan (Zen) Dharma teacher named Shifu Sheng-yen. I wound up spending a lot of time in a largely Chinese-based community in Queens, becoming a fixture at the Chan Center in Queens, NYC from my late teens through my mid-thirties, when I wasn’t traveling. Over those years I not only learned about and became deeply engrossed in the human condition (and how to help it) on all levels – body, mind, heart and spirit – but I also became deeply fascinated with Chinese nutrition and herbal medicine, which I observed in the kitchen and took part in as much as I could.

Also, while still at Columbia University, I started reading what sparse literature was available at the time on herbal medicines, and I frequented the Village Apothecary on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, checking out what they stocked, experimenting on myself and (willing) girlfriend with herbs and spices.

I don’t remember exactly why I initially became deeply enamored by the subject of herbal medicine, but I have a strong suspicion it was because of the “seeds” planted in me by cannabis and psilocybin. It is largely due to my keen interest in and exploration with these consciousness-altering substances starting in my teens that I changed my life direction in a big way. Not only was I amazed by how these seemingly simple substances could change my thoughts and feelings so dramatically, but I honestly believe they reprogrammed me not to believe and swallow hook, line and sinker what I was being taught by conventional institutions and thinking at that time. Like I say, marijuana taught me to question authority, and psilocybin taught me to question reality. Anyway, that’s the way it went, and I still utilize these powerful and beneficial medicines as mentors and guides for my thinking and behavior. They still teach me new things, they keep me honest and clear with myself, and they help me stay fresh, with a beginner’s mind.

These two major experiences of the Eastern spiritual sciences (as I like to call Buddhism, Taoism and Yoga) and my personal relationship with weed and shrooms were enough to change my mind about going to medical school after getting my bachelor’s degree and instead inspired me to hitchhike around the country for a couple of years to explore the vastness of North America both naturally and culturally, to push my boundaries, and also to search for potential herbalism schools to attend.

Herb schools were almost nonexistent at the time and so it didn’t pan out like I planned, at least at that time. Instead I deeply immersed myself in Buddhist and Taoist studies and practice, to the point where I took over the magazine editing and book writing responsibilities for Shifu Sheng-yen and almost took vows to become a monk and go that route. Much of what I learned directly from my Chan teacher, from studying literature on the Dharma, and from going on many meditation retreats I incorporated into my practice as an herbal teacher and health-care practitioner. It is still a primary driving force in my life, and like the help I received from cannabis and psilocybin, meditation and yoga help to keep me fresh, honest with myself, true to the path I am walking, and as aware, compassionate and present-moment as possible when helping others.

At the same time all this was happening in my twenties, I got my masters and certification degree to teach secondary school biology and environmental studies, which ignited and fueled my passion to teach, although institutionalized education environments and their indoctrination practices were, again, a big disappointment. Now I get to teach without all the restrictions, regulations and limitations that come with institutionalized education.

Then in my late twenties I fell in with a great group of people doing ceremony and learning some of the ways of the Cherokee tradition. Here again I devoted a lot of time and effort connecting with nature and the human condition as taught by that tradition and culture. It was here that I met David Winston, one of the foremost herbalists (still to this day) in North America, and I finally had my chance to study herbalism formally, with him. That was when I knew my time as a public school teacher was drawing to an end and I began to slowly build the courage to take a leap of faith and depart from working for others and create an herbal practice that combined seeing clients as a health-care practitioner, teaching herbalism and holistic health practices to interested students, growing and gathering plant and mushroom medicines, and creating products and formulas to help others.

And so at 35 I jumped ship from punching the clock for a high school in New Jersey and moved up to rural Massachusetts to reinvent myself as a self-employed herbalist, which is where I am to this day. I interwove all my interests, education and experience into a tapestry that I call my herbal practice. It includes everything I just mentioned going all the way back to my childhood and is still evolving.

When I started out on this new career in the early-mid ‘90’s, herbalism in the US was akin to the wild, wild West, and it totally suited my maverick style. It is not nearly as wild as it once was and it has grown from a few hands full of herbalists across the country to the hundreds and thousands that are practicing today. This path never grows old. This life and work and practice is still something I wake up to every day with excitement and curiosity. The learning and evolution never stops, and it never ever gets boring. It feels very soul-satisfying to be walking lightly on the Earth and helping people wherever I can while still being intimately involved with and grounded in the natural world.

What services do you offer?

I have officially been practicing herbalism as a profession since 1993 and have always worn many hats: health-care practitioner, teacher, grower, product maker, writer.

First, I am a clinical and community herbalist, offering health and wellness consultations for people seeking guidance for their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. People approach me with all kinds of health issues, whether acute or chronic or just wanting to be savvier about maintaining and optimizing their health. I draw upon skills, experiences and studies in Chinese, Western and Native American herbal health traditions to offer wellness consultations for the full range of human health issues on the physical, mental-emotional, spiritual and behavioral planes. As a holistic practitioner I believe that the body has an innate ability to maintain, balance, heal and correct itself. And like most herbalists I know, I see myself as an educator as much as and even more so than as a person who treats conditions. I offer lifestyle and nutritional suggestions as well as custom-blended herbal preparations to help facilitate an individual’s natural healing processes, and to help people feel more confident about understanding and taking control of their own health and healing journey.

Second, I am the founder and head teacher at Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine. Teaching the science, art and craft of herbalism is deeply important and soul-satisfying to me. Herbalism is as viable as and older than all other health traditions and modalities. As an educator I have an ongoing desire and mission to foster the growth of as many high-quality herbal health-care practitioners as I can. It would be a dream-come-true to witness the presence of herbalists and herbalism in every region and community across the country. Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine offers a diverse and engaging range of workshops, classes, courses and programs for herbal enthusiasts of all interest levels, whether interested in herbal identification knowledge, gardening or wildcrafting, theoretical or hands-on, herbal knowledge for self and family, or programs for the more dedicated students to go further and develop the skills to be community and clinical herbalists. Most of the theoretical classes, such as Materia Medica classes (in depth exploration of medicinal plants and mushrooms) and Foundations of Western and Chinese Herbal Medicine, are available for both in-person and remote (Zoom) students.

Third, I am also founder of Clearpath Herbals, a company that creates and stocks over three hundred herbal extracts (alcohol- and water-based tinctures) from around the world, many of which are organically cultivated in our Clearpath medicine garden or gathered (conscientiously wildcrafted) from fields, forests and other ecosystems across North America. From these 300-plus herbs I can concoct custom-blended herbal formulas for virtually any condition or situation, and I also stock over thirty ready-made formulas for common issues, such as blends to help with sleep or pain or reduced energy levels or to address chronic and acute infections and illnesses or to support various physiological functions or organ-systems, such as for reproductive health or mental-emotional well-being or digestive health, and so on. In recent years I also started another product company called Chrysalis Botanicals, which focuses on remedies for acute and chronic Lyme Disease, which is a very serious health issue here in the Northeast.

How would you compare the effectiveness of homeopathic solutions versus conventional medicine?

I am figuring you mean herbalism when you say homeopathy. Although sharing many similarities – primarily the use of plant medicines – herbalism and homeopathy are two different modalities. I am not a trained homeopath, but I do read the writings of the past homeopath masters to help me in my deeper, more subtle explorations and understanding of plant medicines. And although I am primarily a formula maker — combining several herbs to create a blended remedy where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts —  I sometimes use herbal medicines from my apothecary in a “homeopathic” manner, meaning that I will work with one herb (called a “simple”) in very low doses. It depends on what I think the person needs. Herbalism for the most part uses plant medicines in doses that are measurable and observable by scientific equipment. In this particular aspect herbs are more similar to pharmaceutical medicines than they are to homeopathic medicines, which have been diluted to unmeasurable concentrations and are utilized on an energetic, vibrational level.

At the same time, herbal medicines are more closely aligned with homeopathic remedies because both modalities use whole plants as the source of their medicines. Also, there is great overlap in how herbalists and homeopaths understand and utilize the medicinal effects of plants. Homeopaths also utilize many mineral-based remedies, which is not necessarily something that herbalists use. Many, however, do. I use minerals in my practice, and mushrooms and lichens and even some animal products, such as bee products (honey, wax, propolis) and the shell remains of some mollusks.

I suppose I should also say that homeopaths are more closely aligned with allopathic physicians in that they use products that have already been created by companies that devote themselves to the manufacturing of these remedies. Many herbalists, like myself, gather or grow medicinal plants and process them directly into functional medicines, either as raw herbs (fresh or dried) ready to be eaten or made into infused or decocted water-based preparations (think a cup of ginger tea) or converting them to alcohol-based, oil-based, vinegar-based, or glycerin-based extracts.

As far as your question is concerned, it is difficult to reply with a pat answer. Most would say that pharmaceutical medicines are stronger and therefore more effective than herbal medicines. I guess if you were basing your comparison on this one bit of criteria, then pharmaceutical medicines are better. But stronger doesn’t always equal better. In the process of making pharmaceutical medicines strong enough to work on everyone no matter what, along with that comes a long list of adverse reactions that often end with the phrase, “can cause coma and death.” Pharmaceutical drugs are on the top-five list when it comes to things directly causing illness, injury and death in the US. So, if we were to base our comparison on how risky or potentially harmful to our health medicines are, then herbal medicines would be the better choice.

For the most part, herbs are far safer than pharmaceutical medicines. Yes, there are some herbs that are quite potent and potentially harmful if misused, but these are the exceptions to the rule, whereas with pharmaceutical medicines I would say it is the other way around. Even a seemingly harmless, over-the-counter medicine like acetaminophen can be lethal if you take too much over too short a period of time, and that difference between an effective dose and a lethal dose is not that big.

A bigger difference between herbal medicines and pharmaceutical medicines is how they are used and what they are used for. Allopathy and pharmaceutical medicines are designed to eradicate invading organisms (antibiotics) or kill aberrant cells and tissue (chemotherapy) or to suppress uncomfortable symptoms (pain relievers, antihistamines, etc.). I call this “outside-in” medicine. meaning that pharmaceutical medicines for the most part do not offer a cure but rather relief while – hopefully — the body cures itself. Herbal medicine also has equivalent, “outside-in” plant remedies in its repertoire, helping to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms, but it also contains a vast number of remedies that help the body to work better, more harmoniously, and to help the body to more easily effect a cure. This I like to call “inside-out” medicine. It includes such herb categories as adaptogens and tonics for various organs and systems like the nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system and so on. Medicinal mushrooms, for instance, fall into this category. Pharmaceutical medicine is largely lacking in this area, although allopathy is starting to come more on board in this area in recent years.

Remember, plant, mushroom and mineral medicines are still to this day used much more worldwide than pharmaceutical medicines, and they have been around in our environment and our physiology for many hundreds of thousands of years longer than pharmaceutical medicines. Human physiology is way better designed to assimilate and metabolize nature-created, whole plant medicines than synthetic chemicals designed in a laboratory and existing as super-recent newcomers in nature and in our bodies. Modern pharmacy has only been around for about a hundred years.

As an example of this long relationship between humans and plant medicines, I would like to point out that Western-based anatomy and physiology now acknowledges a newly discovered physiological system called the endocannabinoid system. It was only recently discovered (1970’s) because it is a microscopic system, not a visible organ system. It exists at the cellular level throughout most of our bodies, and especially in the immune, nervous, and digestive systems. The endocannabinoid system is named after potent plant chemicals found in the cannabis plant. It was discovered several decades ago that most cells in these organ-systems have receptor sites designed specifically to uptake and utilize THC and CBD, and these substances are absolutely essential for optimal immune and nervous system health and functioning. Move over skeletal system and digestive system, there’s a new human physiological system in town. We now scientifically recognize this biological system, and its function is so intertwined with a medicinal plant that we named the system after that plant. As an herbalist and personal partaker of that medicine, it brings me great satisfaction and leaves me grinning widely. And, as far as cool biological topics are concerned, I think that such an intimate and inextricable human-plant relationship is jaw-droppingly amazing!

Also, to be clear, many if not most pharmaceutical medicines are based on or distilled from whole plant medicines. So, although the pharmaceutical industry tries to discourage use of herbal medicines through their propaganda, they are also quite dependent on the plant world for their existence. Not very nice behavior on their part, and quite duplicitous. They are, however, correct in calling their creations drugs. Once you distill and concentrate so-called active constituents from the matrix of a whole plant or mushroom or mold and use them as isolated substances, then you have essentially created a drug. Curcumin, the so-called active constituent in turmeric, is no longer whole turmeric medicine once it is isolated and concentrated and administered on its own. Aspirin is a drug that is synthesized from salicin, a constituent found in many plant species and famously so in willow trees and shrubs.

Also, we cannot talk about medicine in a vacuum. This is also a political and economic question that you are asking. Herbal medicines are truly grassroots and democratic medicines. If you know what to look for and how to use it, herbal medicines are available to everyone. Books and internet sites that can teach you where to look, how to identify, and how to use medicinal plants are readily available. Affordable herbal schools and teachers are available to everyone and anyone to help people explore even further. You can venture outside and gather plant medicines in the wild, or in whatever bit of green you can find in your not-so-wild neighborhood. You can grow them on a farm, in a garden, in pots on your window sill, or sprinkle seeds between the cracks of sidewalks. Nature knows how to survive and flourish. You can prepare herbal medicines in your kitchen with a little bit of water and heat. And there is vast amount of literature starting from today and going back hundreds and even thousands of years across hundreds of cultures describing these medicines and how to use them properly, safely and effectively, on their own or mixed in formulas with other herbs. And if you cannot find or grow these plants yourself, there are companies that stock these raw herb products at a very affordable price that you can access without a prescription or someone else’s permission.

This is what I mean by “grassroots” and being truly “democratic”. Unlike, in comparison, the bottom line of all pharmaceutical corporations, which is to maximize profits for the companies and for shareholders’ pockets. And these internationally powerful, multi-billion dollar corporations go to great, insanely-expensive lengths through marketing/advertising campaigns and political lobbying efforts to indoctrinate consumers to this one way of thinking and to influence lawmakers to regulate medicines to their advantage and to other medicine modalities’ disadvantage. I believe that more people than not are savvy and understand this to be true. It has kind of become a no-brainer, given the ludicrous number and frequency of advertisements devoted to pharmaceutical medications we are forced to watch on television. In a perfect world, allopathic health information and pharmaceutical medicine information would be transparent and truthful and primarily in service to the public, not in service primarily to profit margins and creating regulations that ensure their supremacy. Think of all that money that goes to advertising hype, marketing strategies, and influencing lawmakers that could be used for greater good. Sure, there are herbal product companies that want to turn a profit too, but they are minuscule in number and size in comparison to the behemoth pharmaceutical companies and their lobbying groups. And these economic tactics don’t touch the medicines that are already present in many of the foods and spices you purchase. Nor does it include the vastness of natures’ medicine cabinet waiting just outside your door.

Lastly, I am a “both-and” kind of person rather than an “either-or” type. By that I mean there are many more instances than not where herbal medicines and pharmaceutical medicines (and supplements for that matter) can be taken side-by-side in a beneficial and complementary manner. For example, taking anticancer herbs along with chemotherapy, or taking antibacterial herbs along with antibiotics. Try not to think about choosing one over the other. Medicine modalities and remedies, in my opinion, should not be viewed in a hierarchical, adversarial and competitive manner based on raking in maximum profit at any cost, but rather on a level playing field and in a collaborative, altruistic manner, sharing and celebrating their differences, and with compassion for people and the environment being the driving force. And herbs and herbalism, being truly the peoples’ medicine, is more likely to be leading the way in this way of thinking. Realistically and unfortunately, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

What is the biggest breakthrough or realization that you came across during your career?

Hmm. That’s a hard one. I am having breakthroughs and realizations all the time. But the biggest?! I am sure if I were to think about this more I would come up with another few answers, but today it is this one. The biggest breakthrough for me was to realize that I am not responsible for another person’s health or well-being, and I am certainly not responsible for keeping anyone alive or … whatever.

I guess if I were to boil it down, it was to understand that I am not a healer. I don’t heal others. I can only heal myself. And to be truly honest, I am not sure I even know what that means. I am also quite happy that I learned this invaluable lesson very early in my practice. I am sure there are a small group of people out there that are truly healers, meaning that they can say a prayer or lay their hands on someone and have them miraculously healed, but that is not me or any health-care practitioner I know. On the other hand, everyone is innately and intrinsically a healer … for themselves.

As an herbalist and educator and holistic health-care practitioner, my mission and challenge and pleasure is to help reveal or inspire or guide the healer that is always present in anyone who contacts me for help. It certainly lifted a lot of unhealthy and undue pressure that I would have placed on myself, and it made it easier for me to be there in a present and compassionate way for others. Everyone has their own karma or destiny. By destiny I don’t mean fate. Fate-based living is reactive; destiny-based living is proactive. Destiny as I see it is the potential unfoldment that everyone has inside of them – possibly part of our DNA — that guides people to make certain decisions and plans based on their unique circumstances and experiences that leads them down the paths they find themselves on. It would be foolhardy and truly arrogant on my part to believe that I have control over someone else’s destiny. I don’t have that power, nor would I want it. It is hard enough taking responsibility for and managing my own destiny-path. I just want to help people find a better way by pointing to some better alternatives and inviting them to try them out and see for themselves.

What is the most important detail in maintaining a relationship of mutual trust with clients?

Leaving judgment at the door. I don’t mean the judgment that is intrinsically part of every person’s survival toolkit. This kind of judgment is part of all animals’ survival toolkits. Survival judgment includes the observations and decisions I make every minute of my life to navigate life as smoothly and safely as I can muster; for example, all the moment-to-moment judgments I make as I drive in traffic.

Here and in my practice, I am talking about the opinionated judgments I may conjure up about other people while I am engaging with them or thinking about them. These judgments are my opinionated biases, prejudices, triggers and reactions. I do my very best to leave this kind of judgment at the door. In fact I try to do this in all waking moments of my life with anyone and everyone I meet, not just when I am a practitioner. I’m not always successful, but it is one of my guideposts for life and personal behavior. This behavior adheres to the adage of “walking a mile in another’s shoes” before passing judgment or opinion about them. Every culture I have come across has their own saying or wisdom on this matter. How well it is followed is the more important  question.

Exhibiting this kind of biased judgment will instantly and enduringly create resistance between me and others. They will not be as honest, open or forthcoming in our conversations and consultations if I harbor or exhibit these feelings and opinions. I have found that most people are incredibly astute, sensitive and empathic, and they can sense this kind of judgment and opinionation in others. When they do, walls of resistance and mistrust are instantly raised. And once up, these walls are hard to dismantle.

What do you love most about your profession?

A few things. First, being in nature. I am constantly interacting with nature, learning new things and relearning old things – as I observe and interact with its infinitude of diversity and its elegant cycles and rhythms, all of which give me insight into how things work and how to be and act in this world and how to help others. Second, interacting with people.

I love people in all their quirky and unique splendor. I am constantly engaging with others –either as clients, students, colleagues, friends, family – and it encourages me to always be as honestly myself as possible and to always try to bring my best to the table. Third is a natural segue from the first two, and that is that my life and the career I choreographed for myself is never ever boring. And not being bored speaks well to my card-carrying Sagittarian nature.

We rank vendors based on rigorous testing and research, but also take into account your feedback and our commercial agreements with providers. This page contains affiliate links. Advertising Disclosure
MysticMag contains reviews that were written by our experts and follow the strict reviewing standards, including ethical standards, that we have adopted. Such standards require that each review will take into consideration independent, honest and professional examination of the reviewer. That being said, we may earn a commission when a user completes an action using our links, at no additional cost to them. On listicle pages, we rank vendors based on a system that prioritizes the reviewer’s examination of each service but also considers feedback received from our readers and our commercial agreements with providers.This site may not review all available service providers, and information is believed to be accurate as of the date of each article.
About the author
Marko is a true psychic, physics, and philosophy enthusiast - he is very interested in all these areas, and their mutual interference. In his free time, Marko likes reading books, walking his dog, and practicing meditation.