Archive for Herbal Philosophy

Introduce yourself to a plant this spring.

If you hang out with an herbalist for long enough, you’ll likely be exhorted to “get to know” a plant.

Some people might find that phrase a bit funny. “I can get to know about a plant,” they might say, “but to get to know a plant directly — what could that mean?”

Well, most herbalists I know mean just what they say: go sit down with a plant, introduce yourself, and get to know it.

Plants are lovely people to know.

And spring is a great time to get to know them.

Here’s how to introduce yourself:

1. Find a plant.

2. Sit down with it.

3. Pay attention.

Use all your senses.

First, notice where it’s growing. (Sun or shade? Wet or dry? Hard soil or soft?)

Then notice who it’s growing with. (Which plants are next to it? Above it? Below it? How does it relate to these plants?)

Now notice the plant itself.

How is it growing? (Is it tall or short? Stiff or flexible? Does it climb or creep? Reach for the sun or hide in the shade?)

Look at the plant. Does it grab your attention or blend in? What color is it? (Is that color pale or intense? If it has more than one color, which parts of the plant have which colors?)

Touch the plant. Is it warm or cool? Smooth or rough? Tough or delicate? Are the tissues thick or thin? Moist or dry?

Smell the plant. What does it smell like? Is the smell sweet or spicy or sharp or bitter or sour or rotten or minty or refreshing or something else?

If you’ve identified the plant, and you know it’s not toxic, taste the plant. What does it taste like? Close your eyes and hold it in your mouth. What does it remind you of?

Now listen to the plant. No, I haven’t lost my mind. Let all that information sink in and listen carefully. What kind of person is this plant?

People around the world have always understood plants as personalities. Think of the Elder Mother, for instance. (If you want a really wild example of working with plants as personalities, check out Susun Weed’s herbal Healing Wise.)

If you know a plant intimately, you understand it as a whole, with all its quirks, and you know how to work with it. An herb’s attributes can’t be reduced to a list of qualities and categories. (Those categories are just silly shorthand anyway — who can say that cleavers and redroot work the same way, though they both fall in the “lymphatic” category?)

The bottom line: What’s in books — even good books — is just hearsay.

Go know a plant!

(This was supposed to be my entry for the April Blog Party, but as you can see, I got to it rather late. Sigh. My life should be less busy in the coming weeks and months, so have no fear, I shall again blog properly!)

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Paying attention: herbalism from the ground up.

(This is the last post in a series on my herbal philosophy. Previous posts in the series: The body is an ecosystem, The body is not a war zone, Escaping the body-as-battleground trap and Respecting human ecology.)

My approach to herbal practice is very simple: pay attention.

Pay attention to plants. Look at them. Touch them. Smell them. Taste them. Spend time with them. Get to know what they like, where they hang out, what they’re up to. Learn who their relatives are. Learn their history with humans.

Pay attention to people. Watch them. Listen to them. Don’t pretend you know all about them. Investigate carefully. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Follow the threads. Don’t ignore nagging ideas in the back of your mind. Study how bodies work. Don’t expect to figure everything out.

Pay attention to ecosystems. Notice things affecting each other. Remember the microscopic and the macroscopic, the inside and the outside. Observe elemental qualities: heat and cold, moisture and dryness, tension and laxity, intensity and lack. Discern where support is needed.

Pay attention. That’s all.

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Respecting human ecology.

(This is the fourth post in a series on my herbal philosophy. The first three posts were The body is an ecosystem, The body is not a war zone and Escaping the body-as-battleground trap.)

I said I would write about why I’m not a big fan of the body-as-temple theory of health. This might have been a surprise to some people, because a lot of “natural health” advocates teach this theory. It goes something like this:

Your body is your temple. It should be kept pure and holy. Bad health is a result of the desecration of your pure and holy temple by impure and unholy things. Therefore you must constantly purify your body and rigidly avoid everything unholy.

Right. That kind of Puritanism is just as silly as the body-as-battleground business. Same trap, different language. Here are the problems:

False assumptions. Bodies can’t be separated from their environments any more than body systems can be separated from each other. The skin is a permeable membrane, not a brick wall. Human beings are part of larger living ecosystems, and any model of health that tries to separate us from our surroundings just won’t work.

Disrespect. Human beings are vital and resilient ecosystems, not piles of dirty laundry. Human ecosystems have finely adapted detoxification and repair systems that should be respected and supported rather than bypassed and abused by “colon cleanses,” “liver flushes” and other such nonsense.

Rigidity. Puritanism is just not helpful. Sure, sugar (for example) isn’t good for you. But feeling superior and repressed because you didn’t eat any birthday cake is likely worse. Emotions are a part of your ecosystem. Culture is a part of your ecosystem. Sometimes it’s okay to eat birthday cake, sometimes it isn’t. Pay attention and you’ll know the difference.

An herbal practice that respects human bodies doesn’t try to “purify” them or take them out of ecological context. A truly vitalist herbal practice pays close attention to each human ecosystem and works to support its innate intelligence and adaptive capacity. A truly vitalist herbal practice works with, rather than against, human ecology.

Next in this series: My herbal philosophy is very simple.

(And I swear that millet polenta post is on the way—it’s just that it’s evolved into a whole series of posts on grains.)

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Escaping the body-as-battleground trap.

(This is the third post in a series on my herbal philosophy. The first two posts were The body is an ecosystem and The body is not a war zone.)

Conventional medicine tends to think of the body as a battleground rather than an ecosystem. It takes a divide-and-conquer approach, dissecting the body into little pieces and forgetting how to put them together again.

I have a feeling that a lot of doctors and researchers fall into this trap because they’re drowning in a sea of microbiological information—they aren’t given the time or space or training to think about “macrobiology” or body ecology. So we have a proliferation of gastroenterologists and neurologists and dermatologists and fewer and fewer general practitioners. There really is an immense amount to know about the details of the human body, and specialization makes sense as a way to process those details. But the thing is, health problems are not specialized.

Take Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)—a common diagnosis these days. It’s a condition that usually involves a person’s nutritional status, digestive system, nervous system, immune system and psyche. Say an IBS patient gets violent diarrhea when she eats foods that have wheat in them. Her doctor says “Your allergy tests came back negative. You’re not allergic to wheat.” And she leaves her doctor’s office with a prescription for a drug with serious side effects.

Luckily, there are still doctors out there with enough common sense to say “Okay, if wheat makes you feel bad, just don’t eat it,” regardless of test results. But it’s all too common for doctors to rush in with invasive battleground-style treatments where simple ecological changes—lifestyle, diet, stress reduction—would be enough.

And doctors don’t have a monopoly on the body-as-battleground theory of disease either. There are plenty of herbalists and herbal salespeople out there who use plants with the same mindset. (Don’t get me started on people who tout echinacea and goldenseal as “herbal antibiotics.”)

As an herbalist, I work on the assumption that the body is a vital, resilient ecosystem. Everything I suggest to people is intended to support and revitalize the ecology of their bodies. So the disclosure statement my clients sign that says I work with them to “support health” rather than “treat disease”? It’s not some legal word game to avoid practicing medicine without a license—it’s absolutely true.

I do not cure anything. Herbs as I use them do not cure anything.

Human ecosystems heal themselves.

Next in this series: Why I’m not a big fan of the body-as-temple theory of health.

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The body is not a war zone.

(This is the second post in a series on herbal philosophy. The first post was The body is an ecosystem.)

In a comment to my post on flu care, Persephone asked me to explain what I meant when I said “I’m not a big fan of the body-as-battleground theory of disease.”

The body-as-battleground theory of disease goes something like this:

The forces of evil (disease) have invaded the body. The forces of good (medicine) shall enter the body and conquer the forces of evil.

This theory sees the body as passive: it’s a battleground in a cosmic war between good and evil—a piece of territory rather than a dynamic, living organism. This theory does not respect the body’s innate vitality and intelligence. This theory doesn’t know the body is an ecosystem. This theory is ridiculous.

The debate between body-as-ecosystem and body-as-battleground has been going on for a long time. In the 19th century, Antoine Béchamp and Louis Pasteur squared off over whether the primary cause of disease could be found in the ecology of the body itself or in microbial “invaders.” Pasteur’s microbes carried the day, and medicine is still feeling the effects.

Sure, microbes are interesting. They certainly play a role in the development of some diseases. But they are in no way the whole story. Exposed to the same microbes, some people get sick and some people don’t. Every ecosystem is different.

It’s a question of science getting ahead of itself: “Wow, look at these bad little critters that make people sick. If we just kill them all, everything will be better again.” Um, no. Wrong approach. Think antibiotic resistance. Think superbugs.

The story of humans and microbes is fascinatingly complex. It turns out we’re covered with them, inside and out. And it turns out we depend on them—to protect us from infection, to manufacture nutrients, to train our immune systems . . . sure sounds like an ecosystem to me.

Next in this series:
Pitfalls in modern medicine: the body-as-battleground theory in practice.

And coming soon:
Traditional foods: millet polenta.

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The body is an ecosystem.

(This is the first post in a series on my philosophy of herbalism. The posts in the series will alternate over the next couple of weeks with posts on herbs and food.)

The body is an ecosystem, and the basic principles of ecology are useful to herbalists:

1. Relationship. All systems of the body relate to and rely on each other.

2. Pattern. The relationships within the body form recognizable patterns.

3. Networks. The patterns in relationships within the body form networks.

4. Self-organization. These networks give the body an innate intelligence.

5. Flexibility. The body’s intelligence gives it the capacity to adapt and evolve.

6. Relationship. The body is part of the ecosystems it moves in.

A thorough understanding of the body as an ecosystem is the foundation of a truly vitalist herbalism—an herbalism that can work with the body’s innate intelligence in support of vitality.

Next in this series: The body is not a war zone.

NB: These principles of ecology come from the essay “Ecology and Community” by Fritjof Capra, available from the Center for Ecoliteracy.

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