Enter any classroom, with any instructor, in any field, on any given day and you are met with a similar cast of characters: the smart-ass, the skeptic, the workhorse, the mama-bear, and the secret genius. Chances are, if you’ve been in a classroom anytime over the past year, you could fill in those blanks with specific names and faces. You might have a story about each one that you took home to your partner or your child or your cat. You might even have an idea of which role you play. These personalities – in a classroom setting – become almost caricatures of the humans themselves. We perform a certain role, and our mode of behaving in this public setting becomes habit. Little personalities rising to the surface over the course of the school year, popping like boisterous bubbles of heat in a well-balanced soup.
This well-balanced soup, whether be it a stock of beef bones, or mushrooms, can only be defined as “balanced” if it contains a proper representation of very different and traditionally well-respected flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. We first learned about these flavors from primary school text books as four colorful patches drawn out on a human tongue. Zones where we only taste birthday cupcakes or tart lemonade or granules at the bottom of a pretzel bag. The largely-flawed tongue map was a product of research done by a German scientist in 1901 and subsequently an utter misunderstanding of said research in 1942 by a notable Harvard psychological historian. As it turns out, these boundaries in actuality were artificially contrived and then inflicted upon the tongue due to error. We actually taste everything everywhere and not only that, there aren’t really four flavors at all, but actually five. Though experiencing it within our mouths, we had been ignoring meaty umami in elementary school health class all along.
Now 16, or 24 or 41 or or 56 years later, in our little herb school classroom we talk about these flavors – salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami – in terms of the energy they hold, their movement, their power to shift momentum within our physical, psychological and maybe even spiritual state. And also within this classroom, the salty smart-ass can’t let one potential joke drop to the ground, always sneaking in a last word under breath, the sour skeptic is sure to jump in with “really?” at the same moment the workhorse dutifully (and perhaps bitterly) cleans up after everyone. Mama-bear shoves sweet chocolate bars in everyone’s faces while the secret genius just sits quietly, somewhere inconspicuous (like in the middle row) in all likelihood sipping some sort of umami broth.
Here, also in this place, we memorize the quadrants on a different tongue map. We practice taking in the signals – the cracks, swellings and color – that helps us to recognize what might be going on deeper in the protein fibers, gushing blood, rigid bone and fatty deposits in the human body. Hot or cold. Boggy or too tight. Patterns are everywhere. Our continued training and practice depends on recognizing them. We see them in our plant allies too: alternate or opposite branching, five petals or four, pointed or rounded lobe structure.
But these patterns, these charts and field guides that we look to for reference and guidance, these ideas do not exist in isolation either. They overlap, they influence one another. To determine that something is lacking is not enough, we must also try to understand where there might be too much. An image of what is broken is not the same as a reflection of eventual wholeness. The glass is not half full OR half empty, it’s actually the proportion of air to water in a cylinder.
It is a delicate balance, this journey we all share, and as we transition from last year to this year to next it becomes increasingly obvious that we cannot exist without one another. Not just the plants, but the human ones of us. These boundaries we’ve given to our classmates and even ourselves are perhaps just as flawed and artificially contrived. The workhorse after hours has a pretty salty side. Mama-bear is filled with questions and hopefully, somewhere deep inside, we all have a touch of secret genius. And who knows what other flavors might be out there, just waiting to be discovered and then validated with numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies. The same as it is in the classroom, always leave room for the wild card.