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A very fitting tribute

Mel Hornby was not aware that she had been nominated for the Christopher Hedley Memorial Award, and the time between finding out about the nomination and finding out that she had won was very short indeed.

It was a wonderful surprise for Mel though. Like so many people, she had nothing but love and respect for Christopher. Even a brief glance at a short biography of the man makes the reasons for that clear. It is not just the contributions he made to herbal medicine that gained him this love and respect, but the effect he had on those he met, taught and worked with.

Mel had the same experience when she met him at a conference shortly after she graduated. The first thing she noticed was his height. He was very tall indeed, which along with his long white hair, may have contributed to his having the faint appearance of a modern-day wizard. Soon afterwards his kindness and knowledge made itself clear as well.

And his knowledge was certainly remarkable. Mel describes how he would quite frequently go off-topic, but every one of these digressions was fascinating. That may be another sign of a great teacher: someone who bursts with facts, stories and anecdotes that hold the interest of almost any audience.

That is part of what the award celebrates. It was inaugurated by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, of which Christopher was a Fellow, in 2018, the year after his death, and the criteria for the award include how the nominee has been inspirational in what they do, how they have brought people and plants together, and the contribution they have made to herbal medicine.

The Junior Herbalist Club that Mel started eight years ago has been doing all of this. Her enthusiasm for the subject she teaches has been reflected by the eagerness shown by the children who have attended the class.

An advert on social media quickly attracted twenty participants and soon the course was ready to begin in the local community park. There was little equipment at first except for a couple of trestle table, occasionally supported by some parents who would hold up umbrellas on days where the weather wasn’t as enthusiastic as the students.

A bit later, more local support would come from the park café who supplied some equipment and eventually the classes were able to share the indoor space of the park’s newly-built eco-pod community centre.

Initially, circumstances determined the content of the classes. The lavender in the park was prolific which helped decide what the first class would be about and subsequent classes were often designed around what was available. As the classes continued and the knowledge of the children increased, so did the complexity and structure of the classes.

Ten classes ran during the first year and Mel was insistent that this shouldn’t be a drop-in; she wanted the children to progress throughout the year. This approach showed obvious signs of success by the end when the parents, invited to observe the final class, were amazed at the knowledge their children had acquired.

How this happened is a real tribute to Christopher’s aim to encourage people develop relationships with plants and the living world. The fundamental part of Mel’s approach was to make the children engage all the senses of sight, touch, taste and smell, which they did readily when handling the plants. There is no delayed satisfaction with the senses. Once the children’s attention has been caught here, they develop a positive association with the academic side.

This also made it possible for Mel to deliver what she amusingly refers to as ‘covert learning’. This covert learning doesn’t just mean some of the facts of biology and botany which you would expect in an herbalism class to teach. It also meant maths, Latin, Greek mythology and chemistry. That is an achievement in itself considering that half of those subjects aren’t taught in most schools and the other half haven’t always provoked huge amounts of enthusiasm from schoolchildren.

Ratios from maths are needed in the mixing of herbs and instead of a dry, textbook ‘if Maisie has six apples…’, children can apply the mathematics to a task they are doing right then. When exploring the difference between which herbs can soothe the more acidic bee sting or the more alkaline wasp sting, the PH scale taught in chemistry classes is put to practical use.

They could learn that the origins of the name for Tussilago Farfara, a plant traditionally used to help with coughs and otherwise known as Coltsfoot, is derived from the Latin ‘Tussis’ meaning ‘cough’ and ‘Ago’ meaning ‘act on’. The genus of plant Melissa with its abundance of nectar owes its name to the Greek myth of the nymph Melissa, who discovered and taught the use of honey, and therefore lent her name to the Ancient Greek word for ‘bee’. Some people spend vast amounts of money to send their children to schools which teach these sorts of things.

A truly Christopher Hedley-inspired class comes in February around Valentine’s Day when the ‘love potion’ he used to show his students is taught by Mel. The continuation of his legacy relies upon more people such as Mel who can do this sort of thing. As she herself says, without inspiring another generation, there is the danger of losing the skills and losing the practitioners. Her approach is a major contribution to preventing this from happening and it also means that a new generation learn the skills to treat themselves and those around them.

It does however mean that the necessity of herbal practitioners who can teach the classes to children is an immediate priority. Luckily, this has been recognised. When Mel gave a talk at the United Register of Herbal Practitioners a few years ago, Emma Dalton of the National Institute of Medical Herbalism was completely taken with the Junior Herbalist scheme she was running. This led to the Institute giving its full support to the scheme, and to rolling out more of them throughout the country. As that meant more teachers, it also meant the beginning of a course to train more of them.

The first leader training was in July 2021 for six herbalists. For obvious reasons they did have to be qualified herbalists (or close to becoming herbalists) but the limits end there. One herbalist in her eighties is looking forward to completing the leader training course in May 2022.

This points to the other benefit of the classes. Just as there is a symbiotic relationship between herbalist and plant, so there is between teacher and pupil. There is always the danger of more established specialists in any subject forgetting the magic of the subjects they know so well, especially when the approach to learning becomes more institutionalised. The energy of the children is a very effective tonic to this. The future plan is to build on this remarkable and innovative scheme as it sees more classes rolled out across the country, with more and more children taught about the magic that grows all around them.

It would be hard to find a more fitting tribute to Christopher Hedley than this, and Mel Hornby deserves all the credit for showing the herbalist community just how well it can work and what a positive impact it can make.