Herbalism isn’t monolithic. It’s cacophonous. It’s as difficult to contain as dandelions and peppermint.
The most useful way to grow food or medicine is to cultivate a garden. And a garden isn’t a wilderness. It’s a collaboration between humans and nature. The gentle taming and temperance of human rationality, planning, and restraint have allowed us to escape from some of the dark and devouring aspects of Nature. We shouldn’t let our success turn us complacent. Wildness may be innocent, but it is anything but innocuous or entirely benevolent.
There are herbalists who love the wildness of our traditions. Sometimes it seems to me that most of my colleagues are more at home with wildness than I am. Maybe they’ve never had their lives saved by medical precision. Maybe science has only struck them as a cold tyranny of logic that erases the tiny mistakes that love leaves behind as a signature. For a while, my resistance in the face of the herbal zeitgeist of “just let the plant tell you how to use it!” made me feel like an imposter. Now I realize that each of us who is called to this work is called to bring all of our gifts and capacities. I can’t be an herbalist without retaining my enthusiasm for science and conventional medicine any more than I can do this work without hands informed by ten years of touching bodies where they hurt or the “built in broken heart” of an actress.
I crave some re-wilding of medicine, too, but I find myself frustrated with conversations about herbalism that will not agree to define their terms, get precise about matching plants to people, or resort to mystical-sounding answers whenever a thorny problem pokes its way into the light. We’re more than our intuitions. Our minds are faithful servants when we train them to work properly.
Today’s class is about untangling the confusion.
Human beings have been using plants for medicine from the beginning. (Since before we were human beings.) When a bear comes out of hibernation and digs up hairy Osha Roots (Ligusticum porteri) and scarfs them down, or rolls around in them to cover himself in the scent, or offers the roots to his mate, he’s not doing this because he he read an abstract on PubMed (and took that isolated study out of context…but, I digress…) suggesting that the root is helpful for re-starting peristalsis after the long cold gastrointestinal stillness of Winter. It’s not because someone told him Osha has a long history as a love charm. He does this because his observation and experience teach him.
The bear has an energetic understanding of herbs.
Humans add language, and this is where it gets confusing.
Words like “hot,” “damp,” and “exterior-releasing” are ways that we try to describe our experiences. Herbal energetics is applied phenomenology at its finest. The language of traditional systems of medicine like Classical Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and even what remains of the Western Herbal Tradition are not scientific in the modern sense of the word. Yes, science is based on observation. In that sense, herbal traditions belong to science. But the emphasis on the nature of the experience of a plant is closer to the philosophical tradition than the scientific.
Today’s class is about drawing distinctions between these three ways of knowing that are all equally valid ways of working with plants. Each framework has its limitations. Responsible approaches to herbal medicine can make use of any or all of these ways of knowing. The danger is falling into the trap of using the wrong framework. It’s dangerous to use a spiritual or intuitive framework to try to suss out herb/drug interactions or allergies. It’s dangerous to believe that glancing at scientific literature is an adequate (or superior!) way to match herbs to people than the energetic approach.
Don’t get caught trying to solve a scientific problem with your spirituality. Or vice versa. Join us for tonight’s class for a detailed review of how — and when — to use each of these powerful ways of knowing.