We have moved our blog to a new, improved site, radicalvitalism.wordpress.com.
Former blog posts can still be found here, so old links will continue to work, but any new content (starting March 23, 2017) will be posted only to the new site. Old blog posts are also collected there, so you are not missing anything by using the new site. See you there!
Janet and Dave
by Dave Meesters
[Note: We have moved our blog to a new, improved site, radicalvitalism.wordpress.com.
Former blog posts can still be found here, so old links will continue to work, but any new content (starting March 23, 2017) will be posted only to the new site. Old blog posts are also collected there, so you are not missing anything by using the new site. See you there!]
In all the years that I’ve been studying, teaching, and discussing health and the human body with students, clients, and fellow practitioners, I’ve always felt a disconnect, something a little off, with the customary use of the word “reproductive” to describe a certain portion of the human anatomy & physiology. The term misses its mark by failing to reflect the actual diversity of life’s expressions. In countless conversations within my herbal community and beyond, I’ve found that I am in no way the only one who finds the standard language unsatisfactory. Here I will explain the rationale for this dissatisfaction, and promote the revival of an older term that I believe better serves us all.
To begin, the simple fact is that biological reproduction is not how many of us are putting our “reproductive” parts to use. I certainly don’t use them that way—never have and never will. And even for those who do reproduce, what about the rest of life? It’s been argued that whatever we do with them, reproduction is what those organs were designed for. This argument is sensible enough considered within a Darwinian framework, a framework which, it must be said, puts reproduction at the very center of all life as its defining premise. But labeling our genitalia in this way carries with it the subtext that non-reproductive use is the “unintended use,” the extra, unofficial, off-label use of the equipment, the shadow side, unacknowledged, possibly risky, and definitely not covered by insurance.
This strikes me as an unduly conservative view of human sexuality, especially in an era when more and more people are defying and redefining the accepted notions of what human sexuality and even gender can be. The reproductive norm is also just not true of most people’s life experience. Most of us have many more experiences involving our genitals than those relatively few that produce offspring. The assumption of reproduction can be especially alienating to queer and trans folks; educators like my colleague Rae Swersey, who teaches trans competency for health care practitioners and advocates for herb schools to adopt inclusive language, have drawn attention to this fact for many years.
For these reasons many teachers and practitioners have been searching for a more inclusive term that could replace “reproductive” in anatomy & physiology. At the Terra Sylva School, we considered “urogenital,” which is used in some circles, but we thought that the urinary tract should be considered separately from the genitals despite being anatomically linked. So we used “genital” for a while, which worked okay, but was awkward somehow. Now we have settled on a different term, a term attractive for being both venerable—a word with history—while also being very well suited to our modern needs. That word is “generative.”
The word “generative” includes reproduction in one of its meanings (think of the “generations” on a family tree), but it goes far beyond reproduction, as so much is generated by the generative organs besides offspring—experience, sensation, relationship, initiation, power. In fact some esoteric systems identify the generative organs as the ultimate source of the life force in the body. It is possible to deliberately cultivate generative energy and channel it into physical, spiritual, or magical purpose. These organs are generators, of a special and powerful form of energy, and the word “generative” nicely encompasses all of their possible uses, as well as the reproductive.
Although it apparently fell out of favor in the early 20th century, “generative” was once in common use, interchangeable with “reproductive.” From 1858 we have William Acton’s Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Urinary and Generative Organs in Both Sexes. A book by Emmanuel Swedenborg was translated into English as The Generative Organs Considered Anatomically, Physically, and Philosophically. The term can also be found in herbal classics such as King’s American Dispensatory, Ellingwood’s Eclectic Practice of Medicine, and at least as recently as Sayre’s Materia Medica of 1932.
The first contemporary herb school that I noticed using “generative” in their course curriculum was the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine in Asheville, North Carolina. Feeling an instant affinity for that terminology, and appreciating its precedence, we at Terra Sylva quickly followed suit. Many alternatives to the standard term have been proposed, but they usually suffer from being dryly anatomical and hence reductionist (“gonadal”), or obviously repurposed compromises (like “genital”). “Generative” is elegant, unashamed, positive in its implications, and expressing in its fullness the power and potentials of the human body.
If you haven’t made the switch yet, I strongly encourage you to reconsider your use of the textbook term “reproductive,” and consider embracing this marvelous word “generative,” an antique word whose time has come.
[Note: We have moved our blog to a new, improved site, radicalvitalism.wordpress.com.
Former blog posts can still be found here, so old links will continue to work, but any new content (starting March 23, 2017) will be posted only to the new site. Old blog posts are also collected there, so you are not missing anything by using the new site. See you there!]
It’s mid-December, 2016. I write that for future readers who may not know the context and urgency of this post. I hope these future readers are on the other side of the fight against the forces of hate and domination. But for now, I write this to you, and you know exactly what I mean when I say resistance. You know what we are up against and you know what is at stake. You also know that the fight will be going on for a long time. Quite possibly for the rest of our lives. The thought is exhausting.
Some of you are still in shock. Some of you saw it coming. Many are grieving. Many fear for your bodily safety and the safety of those you love. Those familiar with history are bracing yourselves for what’s next. I am here to tell you we need all of you. We need your love, your will and your vision of the world you want to live in.
I am compiling a list of herbs that can help us in the fight, even when the fight is simply surviving in a world run by those who act in the name of greed and hatred.
Holy Basil, or Tulsi
Holy Basil, a.k.a. Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum /Ocimum sanctum)
Tulsi or Holy Basil is an aromatic mint family herb that originates in India. Most of us, maybe all, can benefit from the multi-faceted and powerful medicine of Tulsi. First, Tulsi is uplifting to the spirit. I call it a brightener as it brightens our perspective, and who couldn’t use that right about now? Well I can think of some folks, but I’m not talking to them. Tulsi is also a gentle but powerful remedy for both anxiety and depression, or the frequent combination of the two. Tulsi helps cut through mental fog bringing clarity when we need it, and we need our wits about us now more than ever. After a week or so of post-election fugue state, I used Tulsi to cut through the fog. Tulsi helped me see that constructive action feels better than numb disbelief. As an adaptogen, Tulsi lessens the effects of stress on the body, thus decreasing our chances for developing long term stress related chronic illness.
Preparation and dosage -- Tincture of fresh or dry herb: 30-90 drops. Tea: standard infusion. Both to 3x a day.
St. John's Wort tincture and flower
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Saint John’s Wort has been used for mood support at least since the Middle Ages. Michael Moore taught that SJW helps when we have suffered a blow to our confidence, when our life seems to be in ruins. When we are unsure of how to climb out of the ruin and begin anew. In old European lore, SJW was carried to ward off lightning strike. These two associations remind me of the Tower card of the Tarot, which depicts a tower struck by lightning and signifies catastrophic change. Lightning not only destroys, it also illuminates. Those crumbling edifices that do not support us are exposed. As a society, we are in a moment of harsh illumination. On our own, we fear change and hold may hold onto structures that are harmful to us and others. The storm gives us no choice, clarifying the situation and forcing us to move on.
In our society, we are in the midst of cataclysmic change. The racist and violent underpinnings of this nation are laid bare. Many of us feel more disempowered than ever as we look at the destruction and wonder what to do. May this time of chaos and illumination be the fire that forces us to build the world we want to live in. Hypericum can help.
In the body, SJW supports the liver. This is especially helpful when we feel stagnant and in a rut, unsure what to do, hence its reputation as an ally for those who tend towards depression. For those who experience anxiety, SJW helps the liver clear our stress hormones which can keep us agitated. Allowing the liver to process the effect of everyday stress and oppression more efficiently helps us build resilience and feel less defeated.
Contraindications: if you are on any pharmaceuticals, including hormone therapy, check to see if they are safe to take with SJW. Avoid in cases of mania or bipolar disorder.
Preparation and dosage -- Tincture of fresh flowers and buds: 20-60 drops. Tea: standard infusion. Both to 3x a day.
Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)
This beloved herb has been written about perhaps more than any other. Despite all this previous attention, I want to highlight the importance of Hawthorn’s medicine for the current moment. This is for my empaths out there. Feeling deeply and strongly is a double edged sword. As a power, empathy allows us to feel the pain of others, to assess their needs and act accordingly. This attribute sorely lacking in our culture or we would not be where we are now. However, being empathic can also feel like a curse. To feel the pain of others, with oppression playing out all around, with endless news of violence and hate, can be debilitating. I have spent many days crying as the last bit of news sent me over the edge. Sometimes it is difficult to get out of bed. This time of great grief needs us though. The world needs those who see the pain and destruction and feel it personally. For we are charged with sharing these feelings, for witnessing, speaking up, drawing attention and acting. Hawthorn helps with this burden.
Hawthorn nourishes and strengthens the anatomic and metaphysical heart. It helps us process and heal from grief. Hawthorn also strengthens our boundaries. It thickens our skin without making us callous. Hawthorn calms agitated states, eases symptoms of overstimulation. It also supports us in times of anxiety and despair. There is no more potent ally in this heartbreaking era. We need strong hearts right now. Hawthorn can help.
Preparation and dosage: tincture of the berries and/or flowers, 15-60 drops. Tea: standard infusion of the flowers and leaves or decoction of the berries. Both to 3x a day.
Contraindications: Do not use in cases of diastolic congestive heart failure. Use caution when using digitalis based products, anti-hypertensives, nitrates, and/or beta-blockers.
Milky Oat Seed
Milky Oat Seed (Avena sativa)
Fear, though much maligned, has a purpose. Feeling afraid when we are threatened keeps us aware, on point. Fear has saved my life and the lives of many I love. But what happens when we experience fear on a regular basis? As we enter a time of heightened threats, fear has/will become a more constant state for some. There are those who now live in increasing fear of deportation, registration, the loss of loved ones, and/or death by racist, homophobic or misogynist violence. Living with fear over a long period of time takes its toll on the body. Our muscles stay clenched. Our digestive systems grow weak. We lose sleep. Our nerves literally become frazzled. We are exhausted, depleted, in need of rest and nourishment. This state calls for the seed of oat grass, harvested at the milky stage.
Milky oats are nourishing and restorative to the nervous system. They help ease symptoms of nervous exhaustion, improve sleep and allow us to let our guards down a bit. They are useful in the moment, when experiencing immediate stress, but work even better when taken over extended periods of time to build up a frayed, depleted nervous system. Milky oats soothe the overworked and overtaxed. They lessen the effects of chronic fear on the body. This supports health in every organ system. In so doing, Milky oats also ease the effects of fear on our society as a whole. Fear paralyzes, prevents action. The forces who most profit from a stratified society use fear to control us. Those who have more than others fear those who have less and act accordingly. Those who have less have much to fear from the system itself, as they are kept in place by violence and institutional racism and poverty. We must blunt the effects of fear. If we let fear dominate our thoughts, we will not fight for a better world. When we refuse to be ruled by fear, we become much less easy to rule. Here’s to being less easy to rule.
Preparation and dosage-- tincture of milky oat seed: 30-90, standard infusion of oat straw both to 4x a day.
Contraindications: avoid if you have a gluten sensitive and have a reaction to gluten free oats. If oats are fine, then this medicine is fine. No other known contraindications.
Ashwagandha (Withania somniferum)
Ashwagandha, a medicinal herb from the Nightshade family, has been an essential medicine in India for thousands of years. Ashwagandha increases resilience as it helps us adapt to stress. Overtime, Ashwagandha makes us less reactive so we respond to stress in ways that are more productive, lessening the likelihood we will exacerbate the situation. Ashwagandha can be used situationally, meaning you can use it in the moment to deal with a specific stressor. However, this medicine really shines when used tonically to nourish and restore a body/mind depleted by long term chronic stress. This action buffers the effects of stress on the body, decreasing our chances of developing chronic stress-related illness. Ashwagandha is specific for worriers and those who live with chronic fear. It supports those who experience mental anguish, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Who among us does not visit these states regularly these days? Ashwagandha is strengthening, an attribute in great demand in the current era. We will soon be tested in ways we may not have imagined. I have faith that we are ready to answer the call. Each of us possesses an inner strength that we seldom access. Ashwagandha increases our resilience, endurance and inner strength. It is an indispensible ally for our times. The fight will not be brief and it will not be easy, but this is our time. We were made for this.
Dosage--tincture of DRY root only: 30-60 drops. Tea: standard decoction. Both to 3x a day or once at night.
Contraindications: do not take if you are allergic to nightshades. Do not take with hyperthyroidism. Use caution during pregnancy.
Kava cocoa with Dale Pendell's chapter on Kava in Pharmako/Poeia
Kava Kava (Piper methysticum)
Sometimes it’s all too much. Sometimes, you just need to take the edge off. If we are too tense and anxious to enjoy any part of our lives, how can we remember what we are fighting for? There are days when a cocktail may seem like the best medicine. Kava is a powerful ally for days like this. Kava imparts a sense of well being even in the most difficult of times. It eases anxiety, grief and despair. Kava calms without dulling the mind.
Kava originates in Polynesia where it has been used for millennia in ways that can inform our use. In Polynesian cultures, Kava is prized as a tool for mediation. Traditionally, folks use kava to discuss difficult subjects, to find common ground, to make peace. While I would argue that this is no time for peace, this is a time for building alliances between disparate groups. Sure, organizing with others can be challenging. Personalities clash, egos flare. But now, more than ever, we must organize and fight to create a better world. Potential allies are everywhere. It is time for difficult conversations, for working with folks who are not exactly like us. Kava is an excellent tool for this work. Just as the folks who first met and cultivated Kava learned, Kava eases communication, both the work of articulating our thoughts and the more difficult work of listening. If you are new to the world of working for change, if you lost patience for organizing long ago, if social anxiety inhibits your ability to reach out to others, try Kava. We need everyone in the fight. All hands on deck.
Preparation and dosage -- Tincture of dry or fresh root:30-90 drops. Tea: standard decoction or cold infusion. Both to 4x a day. Adding fat, such as a milk or oil to the tea aids extraction. Kava makes a fine addition to chai or cocoa, add a teaspoon or two to a cup. Smaller doses take the edge off. Larger doses move is into the realm of intoxication.
Contraindication: do not take if you have Parkinson’s disease. Kava can potentiate the effects of opiate painkillers. Use caution in cases of extreme depression.
It’s not over.
This is the start of a larger compendium, a Materia Medica for the struggle. There are countless herbal allies for us as we confront the powers of greed and domination. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to order herbs from us or if you want help finding a local apothecary or herbalist. Or better yet, if you want to grow your own herbs and make your own medicine, write me for advice. Find the herbs that work for you and share them with your friends.
Take care of each other.
by Janet Kent and Jen Stovall
*CONTENT WARNING: this essay details elements of the violent and racist history of American Biomedicine. We also discuss contemporary injustice in medicine. Take care of yourself.
Fifty years ago in March, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led the march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for African Americans in the South. Upon reaching Montgomery, Dr. King delivered an impassioned speech. While elucidating the forms of discrimination faced by African Americans and poor people of all races, Dr. King proclaimed, “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and the most inhumane.” Fifty years later, while the civil rights movement has accomplished much, there is still great inequality in the health care system. As healers with conscience, it is vital that we acknowledge this injustice and avoid reinforcing this paradigm.
One way we can address the continuing injustice of the American health care system is to know our history. We will present a brief overview of some of this history here; however, we encourage you to use the extensive, but by no means exhaustive, bibliography as a starting point for your own research. While this content is disturbing, it is important that we look at the foundation of conventional American medicine, its continuing biases and the ways holistic practitioners can inadvertently mimic this injustice.
While poor people of all races suffer from the inequalities of our wealth-based health care system, African Americans have been singularly affected by this system. American Biomedicine is, in fact, founded on race based experimentation and dissection. To acknowledge this terrible history allows us at least to honor those who suffered and continue to suffer in the name of medical science. For example, take a simple and useful instrument, the vaginal speculum. This tool facilitates examination of the cervix as well as diagnostic tests and surgical repairs. Countless lives have been improved and even saved due to this invention. A man named James Marion Sims invented the speculum. Celebrated as the father of modern gynecology and surgery, Sims developed breakthrough techniques for the reparation of vaginal injuries resulting from difficult births. Many women, both white and black, suffered from vesico-vaginal fistulae in the 1800s. (Ironically, if not surprisingly, this number increased with the growing use of forceps by obstetricians such as Sims.) The ability to repair this damage was life changing and hearkened a new era of medical possibility. Unfortunately, the development of this procedure, and the tool that facilitated it, epitomize the horror of medical research in an era of race-based slavery.
Sims lived and practiced in Alabama, where people of European descent in the ruling class had license to do whatever they wished with those individuals of African descent who were their property. To develop gynecological surgical procedures, Sims procured eleven slaves suffering from vesico-vaginal fistulae. Over the course of several years, Sims practiced surgical techniques on these women without consent or anesthesia. One of them suffered 30 separate surgical attempts. When the doctors assisting Sims with these procedures could no longer bear to witness the ordeals, the slaves were forced to hold each other down in turn for the duration of the operation. The story of Sims and the eleven women who bore the pain of his research is not an isolated case. Selling old or sick slaves to doctors, surgeons and medical schools was common practice. The innovations of American surgeons in the 1800s that revolutionized medicine around the globe were often developed on slaves.
While overtly non-consensual research and surgery was no longer legal after the abolition of slavery, American medical schools continued to exploit African Americans in the name of science. Medical philosophy and education of the 19th century emphasized dissection as the best means of learning anatomy and physiology. As has been the case across time and culture, Americans of that time saw funeral rites as important rituals, with burial an important symbol of peace. However, the medical schools needed cadavers and a robust business of grave robbing, overwhelmingly from black cemeteries, arose to meet this demand. As there was less access to such cemeteries above the Mason-Dixon line, Northern medical schools shipped bodies up from the South by rail. Grave robbing is no longer the primary source of cadavers for medical schools, yet there continues to be a disparity in the race of bodies that are used for dissection. Aside from individuals who donate their own bodies to science, the majority of cadavers were once homeless people, those whose families cannot afford burial, and those tragically referred to as the friendless poor. Because we continue to live in a country with entrenched institutional racism, these groups contain a higher percentage of African Americans than society as a whole. Take a moment to consider the irony that the individuals who contribute their bodies to train future doctors and nurses likely received little to no medical care within their lives.
No examination of the troubling history of American Biomedicine would be complete without a discussion of the Eugenics movement. In the early 1900’s, in the name of creating a more evolved race of humans, the United States developed a program of forced sterilization for those deemed unfit to reproduce. Eugenics theorists referred to the 3 D’s: dependency, delinquency and mental deficiency as factors determining who should be sterilized. In 1907, Indiana passed the first state sanctioned sterilization law and many other states followed. Sixteen years later, Hitler and the National Socialist Party implemented a sterilization program inspired by the American model.
Most states used the first Intelligence Quotient tests, originally developed by Eugenics advocates, to determine who was an appropriate candidate for sterilization. This data, along with a history of criminal activity, use of social services, and perceived promiscuity could mark a person as unfit for reproduction. North Carolina ran a particularly aggressive eugenics program. Policy makers there expanded qualification for forced sterilization to include not only IQ, but also level of poverty. To prevent the reproduction of people on public assistance was to prevent the further burdening of the state. Social workers recommended candidates for sterilization to the state Eugenics Board and were rarely denied. Between 1929 and 1974, over 7500 people were sterilized in North Carolina. As in all the other state sanctioned sterilization programs in the United States, all of those who underwent the procedure were poor and uneducated. While many poor white people were sterilized, poor people of other races were sterilized at higher rates. States with significant Native populations sterilized more indigenous people. Likewise, states with large African American populations sterilized exponentially more poor blacks than poor whites. Thus the quest for a more evolved race thinly disguised a quest for racial purity.
In looking at the history of eugenics, we must acknowledge that this was not an aberrant policy written and enforced by a few bigots. This was very much a mainstream mindset for white Americans. Reproductive rights pioneer Margaret Sanger and African American activist and writer W. E. B. DuBois advocated eugenics policy. In every state and county that performed forced sterilizations, there were doctors, nurses and social workers who sincerely believed they were helping humanity by sterilizing the poor, especially poor people of color.
As we see with the complicity of the medical establishment in implementing eugenics policy, conventional medicine can be used as a means of social control. This is especially apparent in the field of mental health where the values that maintain the power structure are not only reflected but enforced. Suppose a psychiatrist interviews a new patient. The patient is distressed and complains of feeling watched. He claims the police threaten him when he is doing nothing wrong. The world seems stacked against him. It feels like a conspiracy, he can’t get ahead. Often, this intake would lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia with paranoid delusions. But what if we consider the racial context of the patient. This is a young black man living in the United States. After a lifetime of police harassment, he was stopped while walking home from work and accused of committing a crime. He became agitated and aggressive. The police arrest him. While in custody, he becomes more agitated. He is then committed to a “72 hour hold” psychiatric facility. In this context, is he paranoid? Delusional, dangerous? Or is he fed up? When we examine his context, we may see that yes, in a sense he is being watched, the world is stacked against him. However, many mental health practitioners do not see their clients in the context of a racist, sexist, classist society. These professionals wield power: they can keep people in institutions, perform mind-altering procedures and sedate their wards with tranquilizers. They also hold the life-determining power of diagnosis, a mark that cannot be removed from one’s record however specious it may be.
In the year 2014, the brewing tensions between police and African American communities reached a boiling point. In the 60’s and 70’s there were similar, more frequent and widespread periods of unrest. During those decades, record numbers of black men were institutionalized with little chance of rehabilitation and release. Acclaimed neurosurgeon Orlando J. Andy, MD performed partial lobotomies on scores of children he deemed aggressive or hyperactive. Some were as young as six, all of them were black. Dr. Andy publically stated that participants in the Watts riots would be appropriate candidates for this type of surgery. The explosion of anger and violence in cities then and now is often deemed a symptom of pathology by health practitioners of all kinds. As is often the case in our culture, the symptoms of an ailing society are ascribed to the individual.
Medical research reflects and reinforces the inequalities of society. In the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972,) six hundred poor black men with syphilis were offered free treatment for participating in an experiment. In fact, researchers withheld treatment as they sought to study the progression of the untreated disease. The researchers continued to deny care even after life-saving treatment options became available decades into the study. This experiment is a blight on the already spotty history of American medical research. The medical establishment seeks to place this episode firmly in the past as an embarrassing incident only possible in the racist South. Unfortunately, despite improvements in research oversight and the requirement of informed consent for research participants, there continue to be troubling facets of contemporary medical research that stem from and contribute to our unjust society.
In a society in which only some people have access to health care, those who do not have access are more likely to take risks to receive any kind of treatment, even if it is experimental. For example, in 2003, the Division of AIDS, a primary branch of the National Institute of Health, sponsored a study of the “treatment limiting toxicities” of two HIV drug regimens. Physicians in urban areas found subjects by offering to test pregnant mothers for HIV even if they presented no symptoms. They did not inform the mothers-to-be that pregnancy is a leading cause of false positives in HIV testing. Imagine that you are a young mother who is told she is HIV+ and that she will pass on the virus to her child unless she takes these experimental drugs. Most of the women facing this dilemma agreed to be in the study. Many got sick and at least one woman died from liver failure. The protocol proved too toxic for public release, knowledge gained at the expense of over 400 women and their children.
This example typifies the injustice of our medical system. Teaching hospitals are often located in poor neighborhoods. Researchers rely on underserved populations to obtain willing, even desperate subjects. Children in foster care, prisoners, mental health and emergency room patients all provide subject pools with limited if any ability to say no to study participation. When ethical parameters are too binding in this country, researchers go abroad finding hordes of potential subjects in Africa or India. There, people are desperate for medicine and if something goes wrong, there will be little backlash here in the United States. When a pharmaceutical or risky procedure does make it through the experimental phase, the final irony of our medical system rears its head: those whose bodies provided the data can no longer afford the treatment.
The subsequent high cost of care creates a wide disparity in contemporary healthcare. As Americans rely increasingly upon high-technology medical interventions to support our rising expectations of health & longevity, those on the other side of the healthcare gap suffer from preventable diseases and disease complications. As the envelope is pushed further and further to develop the means of maintaining health against all odds for the wealthy or well-insured, high-technology care is withheld even from those with life-threatening conditions if they cannot afford it. Life expectancy is longer and overall health outcomes continue to be better for white Americans. Those below the federal poverty level have a higher prevalence of most chronic illnesses, infant mortality rates that are more than double, and receive higher rates of HIV diagnoses. These health profiles more closely resemble that of Third World countries than a country that boasts at having the best healthcare treatments available worldwide. These are only a few examples but they are representative of the larger health inequality that exists in this country.
The disparity in health care is further widened by a fear of conventional medicine that stems from historical atrocities perpetrated upon these already underserved populations. As new information continues to come out exposing unethical experiments, it is hard to have faith that anything has actually changed. It is understandable that marginalized populations have gained a healthy distrust of the current system of healthcare & medicine; regrettably, this contributes to the large rift in the quality of care provided.
This distrust, the cost of contemporary healthcare, & strong cultural traditions create the conditions for a continuing reliance on plants for medicine. Many underserved populations in both urban & rural settings have a deeper & more recent connection to herbalism than those who have had consistent access to conventional health care. Marginalized populations in urban areas have a strong tradition of plant medicine that is heavily influenced by both the merging of various immigrant cultures & the lack of accessible care due to cost. For undocumented immigrants, in rural and urban areas, this lack of access is compounded by the fear of deportation. In rural locations, many people cannot afford health care and live far from hospitals and other health care facilities. Isolation and poverty, as well as proximity to a host of herbal remedies, traditionally led rural populations to rely on plant medicine. In both types of environs, this reliance upon plant medicine upholds a long-standing relationship with herbal medicine.
This connection to herbal medicine is at risk. As herbal medicine transitions into a more mainstream modality, it falls prey to the demands of the market. While many are excited about the possibilities of herbalism traversing from a currently sidelined “complimentary” medicine to celebrity status, this transformation threatens to remove the people’s medicine from the toolkit of the marginalized. Herbalism’s upgrade to a luxury medicine isolates it from those who can’t afford the market determined price. As plant medicine moves in this direction, it becomes less accessible to the very people who have continued its tradition & relied upon it until now.
As plant medicine moves away from its traditional origins, it also begins to more closely resemble allopathic medicine. Herbs are increasingly packaged for easy consumption, similar to conventional over-the-counter medicines. This commercial rendition of plant medicine allows the market to drive up the price of herbs and to determine how they are sold. The resulting discontinuity in the way people relate to plant medicines can have a deleterious effect on both the plants and the communities that have maintained a connection to them through the ages. When people are separated from the source of their medicine, they no longer notice the effects of the market on the plants. Furthermore, as the plants are removed from the context of their natural habitat, they are no longer sustained by the traditions that have tethered them to humans for generations. The commodification of plant medicine, both the product and the service, effectively removes this medicine from the very hands of the people who once relied on it.
What are we to do? How can we avoid the traps of the market? How can we avoid reinforcing the injustice of a wealth-based health care system? How can herbalists address race and class-based inequalities in our practices? The first step is self-education. When we work with individuals from populations different from our own, we should take the time to consider what specific stressors they might face. Be careful not to reduce a person to one characteristic. Race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, culture, region of origin, age and size multiply and enrich a person’s medical narrative.
As we self-educate, it is vitally important that we look at our own cultural beliefs and assumptions. How do we define healthy? Is that definition applicable to all kinds of people? What are our assumptions about race and class? What kinds of privilege inform our perspectives? Do we assume our concepts of health and disease are best? Are our concepts of healthy living prohibitive to people in urban areas or on fixed incomes? Does the dominant economic system determine how we value our time? How do we price our consultations or our medicine? Remember that the atrocities we discussed earlier were/are perpetrated by people who think they behaving ethically. As herbalists with conscience we must ask ourselves difficult questions and answer honestly even if we do not like what we hear.
Educating our clients and communities is an essential component of working for change. When working with clients, do not simply prescribe herbs or supplements. Explain what the herbs do, teach nutrition and physiology when appropriate. If you recommend dietary changes, sleep hygiene, exercise, or time outdoors, fully explain your reasoning. When possible, empower your clients by teaching them to make their own medicine. If you live in a rural setting or a less toxic urban one, teach them to grow and harvest their own herbs. Teach ethical wildcrafting. Reconnection with plants is an important part of the healing process.
Offer affordable classes to increase the amount of herbal knowledge in our communities. This knowledge spreads. Each student we encounter will share some of what they learn with their friends and families. The more of us who know how to identify and use plant medicines, the better. As you teach, acknowledge the sources of herbal medicines. North American herbalism draws heavily from Native traditions; if you are not native, be sure to site this source without fetishizing or appropriating their culture.
When working with individuals who come from families or communities who used herbs, try to bridge your therapies and their culture. It may be possible to use plants, remedies or methods of delivering medicine that they are already familiar with. Allow yourself to learn from their culture to expand your clinical horizons. If you are lucky enough to work with someone from an unbroken tradition of herbal medicine, use this opportunity to learn from their tradition.
With clients and in the classroom, emphasize kitchen medicine. Culinary spices and common herbal teas are familiar and comforting. Teach medicinal foods such as lemon, garlic and ginger. If your students or clients are on public assistance, they can purchase this medicine with food stamps. Focusing on common spices and teas also cultivates holistic practices. Medicine for everyday, not just when you’re sick. Medicine as nourishment.
As for consultations, there are a growing number of strategies for increasing access to holistic care. For decades, herbalists have used herb shops to offer quick consultations. The community acupuncture model allows clients regular affordable treatment. In New Orleans, Maypop Community Herb Shop offers NADA weekly. NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) is a protocol utilizing ear acupuncture for behavioral health, including mental health, addictions, and disaster and emotional trauma. It is always offered for free and is easily adapted in numerous settings since it does not involve any diagnosis and everyone receives the same treatment.
Work with non-profits when possible. In Asheville, the Sassafras Community Health Collective ran a free clinic in a day shelter for the homeless, hosted self-care workshops at the domestic violence shelter and at Nuestro Centro, a Latin American community center. Look in your area for groups open to working with herbalists. Pop-up and mobile clinics such as HerbBus in Atlanta offer valuable services with low overhead. Free clinics operate around the country, often benefiting from donations of medicine from large herb companies. In the rural South, folk herbalists may charge for medicine only, not for the consultation. Many of these communities also maintain an active practice of barter, or more appropriately, exchange of gifts. If you live in a rural community, this is often an option. There are many ways we can get medicine and information to the people, we need only imagine them and make them happen.
We are in an exciting era of herbalism. Knowledge of the use of plant medicines is becoming more widespread, even prescribed by some conventional doctors. Interest in herbal medicine is growing exponentially each year. But with this growth, comes temptation. We are at a crossroads. Will we cash in on the excitement, find our niche in the luxury health care market, or will we choose a humbler path? We can either reinforce the systems of oppression that deny access to marginalized groups or we can stay true to the roots of herbalism. We have a chance to create a system of healing that is accessible to everyone. For thousands of years, healers have learned from the plants and brought this healing wisdom to their communities. Let us honor that tradition and work to create the world we want to live in.
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Holism and vitalism are related concepts—frameworks for observing, interpreting, and acting—used by herbalists and other practitioners in the quest to support health. They both encourage us to understand the broader patterns and interrelations between all of life, to see the flows and interdependencies that make life and health possible, and to see how health is compromised when the links are broken. Unfortunately, clinical herbalism’s focus on individual clients can lead us inadvertently to overlook the real root causes of disease, and to mystify the sources of vitality. We propose a Radical Vitalism that transcends the individual to encompass health challenges at every scale in society and empowers our vitalist techniques to work beyond the usual clinical context toward deep and lasting health for all.
Holism is, simply, the preference for working with whole entities (organ systems, people, ecosystems, plants) as something more than the mere sum of their parts. In practice it involves training your vision to step back and see how the object of your contemplation (a person, an organ, a disease state) is connected to other elements in a broader system rather than gaining your understanding by dissecting that object into its various parts. Holism also suggests that our therapeutic strategies be accountable to these broader systems.
Although traditional systems of healing are typically holistic, the modern concept of holistic health arose to address some of the inadequacies of conventional medicine. These shortcomings, such as the emphasis on specialization among researchers and practitioners, the reinforcement of the fallacy of the mind/body split, and the treatment of the disease rather than the whole person have contributed to a general state of ill health in a field theoretically devoted to the opposite. The holistic critique is a necessary antidote to this fragmentary approach.
However, holistic health in practice has its own limitations. For many practitioners of holistic medicine, the consideration of the whole organism stops at the individual level. This approach to health unconsciously reinforces a destructive framework that contributes to the illusion that we are separate from each other and from the rest of the Earth. This concept of the individual as a discrete being isolated from family, community, society, and Nature is a relatively new idea in the history of Homo sapiens.
Individualism as a foundational part of the contemporary mindset contributes to many societal ills. Alienation defines the modern condition. Many people feel isolated and alone despite the illusion of hyper-connectedness given by the internet. Insularity limits our intelligence; we evolved to live in bands sharing work and solving problems as a group. While members of traditional cultures see their personal well-being as connected with the well-being of the rest of the community, contemporary humans rarely see the fate of their neighbors as connected to their own.
If we broaden our gaze to look past human society, we see that the severance of the individual from the rest of life has also contributed to the current ecological crisis. Humans, for the most part, no longer see themselves as part of Nature. In fact, our health as a species is inextricably connected to the health of the Earth. Communities on the front lines of ecological catastrophe do not have the luxury of denial on this matter. Nigerians without potable water thanks to Shell Oil, Louisianans in Cancer Alley sick from proximity to oil refineries, Appalachian folks poisoned from the runoff of mountaintop removal know their fate is tied to that of the environment.
It is time for herbalists and other holistic practitioners to broaden their scope. Our selves do not end at the boundary of our own skin. We must look to the systems we are part of to create an approach to health that is truly holistic. Vitalist practice provides a helpful context for this work.
Even though vitalism is the common foundation of all traditional systems of healing, the concept might require some explanation. The dictionary defines vitalism as the belief that living things are animated by a mysterious “vital force” that makes them essentially different from stones or ice cubes, but practical vitalism requires no such religious conviction. Vitalism simply notices the natural drive inherent in all unimpeded living systems (ex. an ecosystem, a human community, the human body) toward growth, complexity, richness, exuberance, and health—in short, towards vitality—and has us imagine that this process is driven by a force, the “vital force.” The vital force will direct and ensure the growth and health of an organism as long as the vital force has what it needs (i.e. it is well-nourished) and can act unimpeded. Disease results when the vital force is malnourished or its natural flow is somehow obstructed.
The job of the healer, then, is to make sure there is ample and appropriate nutrition (and nutrition here refers to more than just food), to support the action of the vital force, and to remove any obstacles to cure. Thus freed and supported, the vital force will do the healing. This basic model applies whether the organism to be healed is an ecosystem or a human being.
In herbalism, plants can be used to supply nutrition, to support the work of the vital force through their medicinal actions, and sometimes to remove obstacles to cure (as when an antiseptic herb is used on an infected wound). An important notion is that vitality breeds vitality, so that vital healthy food in the diet and the uncanny vitality of herbal medicines support personal vitality.
What’s revolutionary in vitalism is the idea that Nature is smarter than we are. In healing work and in all of life our best move is usually to get out of its way and support what it is trying to do.
Needless to say, this isn’t always easy to achieve, especially once we see ourselves as inseparable from all the systems, both man-made and ecological, of which we are a part. Radical Vitalism perceives the vital force flowing through all of nature, and through culture, through communities and families, and considers the way these vital flows intersect within each person. Once we extend our vitalism in this way, we quickly recognize systemic obstacles to cure.
The first system most of us encounter is the family. Practitioners will often ask what health conditions exist in an patient’s family, thus acknowledging genetic connections to certain disease states. As holistic practitioners, we must also look at non-genetic and epigenetic familial factors that affect a patient’s health. The idea that family dynamics and early childhood experiences affect our perceptions and behavior as adults is widely accepted. However, we must also acknowledge their impact on our health, physical and mental, throughout our lives. Early experiences of abuse, neglect, conflict, and need can be long-term obstacles to cure. Furthermore, studies on the effects of trauma show that the experiences of our parents, grandparents and even earlier generations directly influence our health. Intergenerational trauma is an obstacle to cure.
From the family level, we can expand our concept of the whole to encompass the larger socio-economic system a person inhabits. Communities who experience oppression based on class, race, gender, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation exhibit symptoms related to the specific stressors they face. As Paul Farmer, the Harvard clinician who has written extensively about treating the rural poor in Haiti, points out, to identify epidemiological trends without acknowledging their societal context is to confuse cultural difference with structural violence. Are African-Americans predisposed to heart disease or does the everyday experience of racism and oppression create the conditions that lead to heart disease? Racism is an obstacle to cure. Institutional poverty is an obstacle to cure. Misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are all obstacles to cure.
As we expand our gaze to include national and even global systems, we see that the health of the individual is also affected by larger policy spheres such as environmental regulations (or lack thereof), trade agreements, and most significantly, the global distribution of wealth. As we saw tragically in the recent Ebola outbreak, communities in the global south have limited access to basic health care and disease prevention. A global economic system that extracts resources from poor countries yet denies their citizens basic health care is an obstacle to cure.
Even those fortunate to live in a wealthy nation who do not belong to a marginalized group face barriers to optimal health. In the dominant economic system, a person’s value is determined by what they do for money and how much they make. Most people in our culture sacrifice their lives to work that lacks meaning. Those who earn enough to do more than get by are offered in exchange a never-ending parade of products that only exacerbate the emptiness and alienation that define the modern condition. And who does not suffer from the effects of chronic stress? What some call progress has brought forth a host of ailments—from ALS to fibromyalgia to an epidemic of cancers. Few can sustain the onslaught of stress we experience in day to day life. Even a life deemed successful can be sickening. Capitalism is an obstacle to cure.
And as if this situation were not dire enough, let us point out that the crisis even undermines our abilities to become proficient healers. The development of holistic thinking is constantly undermined by the relentless fragmentation of knowledge. Restlessness and short attention spans do not facilitate the cultivation of deep awareness. Herbalism is premised on an intimate connection with Nature and its flora, and though it’s never too late to connect, few among us are lucky to have come from a culture that honors this premise. The baggage of mind/body dualism and generalized alienation from the body are blocks to knowing the body well and to noticing the effects that herbal medicines have. Finally, the stultifying rationalization of modern narratives around disease and healing has nearly destroyed the cultural context in which healer, patient, disease, remedy, and Nature itself are united in a common narrative that potentizes the healing intervention and the medicines used.
But yet, healers we are, by tooth and nail. We don’t just know how to diagnose the grim situation. We do know how to heal. Radical Vitalism expands our awareness not only of the sources of harm and disease, but also the source of our cures. The goals and principles are still the same: recognize the vital force inherent in Nature as the ultimate healer; nourish and protect this vital force; support the work of the vital force and try to remove or reduce what impedes it; remember that vitality nourishes vitality.
A powerful first step in practicing Radical Vitalism is to incorporate the full context of our ailing world and dysfunctional society into our narratives of illness. Standard holistic approaches to, say, heart disease or diabetes focus on dietary and lifestyle factors in a way that can unintentionally lay blame on the sufferer if larger forces are not accounted for. Still other disease narratives place responsibility in the hands of a cruel and arbitrary fate. Let’s face it: any chronic illness that becomes common in a culture is going to be the result of systemic forces at work, and can’t be reduced to an individual’s “poor choices.” In the case of heart disease, the industrialization, commercialization, and devitalization of the food supply is the crux of this story. Radical Vitalism might preserve the common holistic therapeutic regimen, but its narrative explicitly weaves individuals into the larger patterns observable in society as a whole.
Contrary to our American doctrine of individualism and self-sufficiency, no person is an island. Holism demands that we see the big picture. History and politics are written on our bodies, and to learn the story of how is a step toward empowerment, even though seeing one’s health problems as caused by forces outside one’s immediate control might not seem empowering at first glance. One can still take personal steps to heal oneself, but we participate in the world more fully when we are aware of how the world acts on us.
Our human cultures are of course embedded in and fully dependent on Nature, and thus the larger context of Nature as a whole is even more important for the vitalist than the context of society and history. Humans, and no human is an exception, are part of Nature, but this relationship has become distant and alienated for most people in the developed world. Anything the herbalist can do to mend this split is beneficial to the health of all. The fundamental herbalist action of ethically harvesting plants, including wild plants, and offering them to people is a gesture towards healing the rift. But we can expand our role.
To the vitalist, the rise of chronic disease and devitalization of humanity cannot be understood separately from the devitalization of Nature as a whole. The erosion of the manifest diversity and resiliency in Nature world-wide represents a material and energetic loss in the ultimate source of all that nourishes life. This truth, too, must find its way into the stories we tell ourselves about the origins of ill-health, for to acknowledge it is to reinforce the bond between all life.
In the broadest scope of vitalist healing, it is the calling of our generation to end the war against Nature. Of course not everyone can be on the front lines of the fight to defend Nature, nor need we all be. There are countless roles to fill, all of them important. DIY community herbalists, whose tools and methods both rely on Nature for their effectiveness, make excellent spokespeople for the power of healthy wild Nature and the value of aligning ourselves with its will. But we should consider how else we can act in this struggle. Support for and solidarity with those who are on the front lines would be a good place to start. And solidarity should be extended not only to those who defend Nature but also to those fighting socioeconomic inequalities, fighting to reform the food system, fighting to remove any of our systematic obstacles to cure.
In some cases it may even be helpful to share this perspective with our clients. Many folks who are drawn to herbalism as a healing modality are intuitively or explicitly critical of the divorce from and destruction of Nature, and a narrative that connects systemic devitalization to their own ill health might be revelatory for them, sometimes giving words to an understanding that they already feel in their gut. If they come to see themselves as part of the fight, even better. And if they act as part of it, better still. Resistance breeds vitality.
Radical Vitalism asks us to broaden our ideas of what might be effective therapies. For some, blockading the construction of an oil pipeline might be an important part of their healing—passionately and actively going to the root causes of disease. Others may want to volunteer their time or raise money for an organization pursuing social justice, or building alternatives to the culture of domination. For most folks, getting involved in the community in any way outside of work and family life is a healing connection.
And, as devitalized and threatened as Nature is, connecting to it is still a healing connection to the wellspring of all life. The modern Japanese healing practice called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, takes this as literally as can be. Participants go to the forest and are encouraged to engage with it using all their senses: feeling the mosses and the bark of trees, inhaling the aromas from the conifers, tasting the plants, gazing at and listening to the eddies and falls of the stream. The practice produces measurable health benefits, and if it motivates participants to value and defend the wild, then everybody wins. Immersion in vitality breeds vitality.
Gardening, too, can be intensely therapeutic. Growing a portion of our own food or medicine makes us powerfully and directly involved with the primal source of nourishment and healing. Gardening brings Nature closer and weaves it into our lives. Garden plants channel immense vitality and even wildness. The garden is inseparable from the soil life, the insects, birds, and weather. We connect with all of that through the garden. Thoughtful gardening can even enhance biodiversity and support ecosystems. Participating in Nature breeds vitality.
All of these practices help create vitality beyond the individual, but ultimately the restoration of the free flow of the vital force will require the creation of a new society, a new way of life. Luckily this “new” way of life already exists within the current oppressive system. We all live it every day, and it is our passion and our job as healers to help people better connect with rich, free-flowing vitality in their daily lives: vibrant health, nourishing food, supportive community, connection to Nature, and so on. But the obstacles are immediate and obvious: try counseling most Americans about the vitalist need to slow down, reduce stress, and take time for rest. To blame this obstacle on an abstraction like “our American obsession with achievement” is to obscure the fact that our economic system demands it. To accommodate these obstacles to vitality is to practice harm reduction. To remove them should be the basic health goal of all humanity.
It is overwhelming to look at health in this larger context and identify the complex of systems that create obstacles to cure. Most of us maintain a certain amount of dissociation to bear the incessant onslaught of news of catastrophe, extinction, violence, cruelty and the knowledge of our complicity in these horrors. It is time to wake from this dream state. The detachment that allows us to carry on as if we are not in the midst of crisis does not serve us, our community, or Earth. Fortunately, this waking is part of healing. In When the Body Says No, Gabor Maté explains how complacency begets disease. Those who do not accept their prognosis, who fight back, are more likely to survive. Resistance nourishes vitality. Likewise, communities who actively resist their oppressors forge strong bonds, maintain their social identity and are strengthened by the fight.
Do not let the magnitude of our global health crisis keep you from acting. If anything, the level of catastrophe we face should strengthen our resolve. There is only one fight, and we either participate or watch from the sidelines. For herbalists, who draw our powers of healing from the Earth, it is imperative that we work to heal the whole organism.
For inspiration, let us look to the resilient powers of Nature. Consider two clearcuts, one situated next to a healthy forest, the other located in the middle of a housing development, cut off from other intact landscapes. The latter clearcut is seeded by opportunistic pioneers. With only the non-native plants popular to mainstream lawn design nearby, the land is open to invasives. Privet and multiflora rose take over. Insects who depend on specific plant hosts cannot settle here. The birds who feast on these insects must settle someplace else, and so on. The web of life is disrupted. Our island of regrowth suffers from disconnection.
On the other hand, we have the clearcut located next to an intact forest. Here we see the difference connection makes. Trees from the forest seed the new opening. Wildflowers that have not flowered in decades from want of light use this break in the canopy to make seed, further strengthening the clearing. Animals that thrive at the edges, such as songbirds and deer, are drawn to the site. Trees grow to create habitat for warblers and other birds who prefer to perch in low cover. The landscape heals from the logging slowly but surely. In a hundred years, there will be a mature forest connected to the greater whole. We must learn from the forest. Individuals, communities, and societies severed from each other and the world they inhabit cannot heal. Our vitality depends on that of the whole. Its vitality depends on us.
This essay first appeared in Plant Healer magazine, Summer 2015. It also appears in their anthology, Radical Herbalism, out now. Order yours at https://www.createspace.com/6300402.
by Dave Meesters
[Note: We have moved our blog to a new, improved site, radicalvitalism.wordpress.com.
Former blog posts can still be found here, so old links will continue to work, but any new content (starting March 23, 2017) will be posted only to the new site. Old blog posts are also collected there, so you are not missing anything by using the new site. See you there!]
I got curious about using Bidens species as an “herbal antibiotic” after reading about it in Stephen Buhner’s book Herbal Antibiotics (2nd edition, Storey Publishing, 2012). I usually take the clinical information in Buhner’s books with a grain of salt, as he always seems to be reporting much more on the results of research than on his own experience as a practicing herbalist. But Bidens is such a common and accessible weed, and here Buhner was claiming that it has the power to act as a systemic antibiotic in the human body, so I made a note of that.
The Background: On Bidens, Pharmaceutical Antibiotics, and Botanical Antibiotics
Bidens is the scientific name for a genus, comprised of close to 200 species of herbaceous plants, in the Aster family. Many folks would recognize Bidens by its seed (fruit) before they would recognize the plant itself. The most common Bidens species are not particularly showy, but their seeds are one of the many kinds of “hitchhiking” seeds that stick in masses to clothing and shoelaces and effectively spread themselves that way. The Latin name Bidens actually refers to the seeds, which have two barbs that claw into things, hence bi- (two) dens (teeth). Other names for Bidens species include “Beggar’s ticks” and “Spanish needles.” Bidens is thought of by many as a vile and opportunistic weed. In my experience it really does get around. On our land it seems to magically emerge whenever the clay subsoil is exposed and loosened up, as long as the spot gets a little sun. Sometimes it appears in garden soil or loamy topsoil, but it seems to really like red loose sandy clay.
I’ve used Bidens frondosa as medicine for years. I pick the leaves and flower buds just as they’re about to open and tincture them fresh, and dry some for tea as well. They are very mildly aromatic, and have a stimulating and tonifying (astringent) effect on mucous membranes—tightening without being too cold. They can be used in hay fever, but I have other herbs for that, and I usually end up using Bidens in the urinary tract and for the prostate. Its combined effect of tightening up boggy or lax tissue along with gently stimulating, warming and improving the function of that same tissue can be so helpful when the mucosa are ragged from chronic infection, or when the prostate is swollen and sodden and obstructing the flow of urine.
But I’d never heard of Bidens as an antimicrobial. First of all, I must say I’m instinctively skeptical of the whole concept of an herbal antibiotic. My philosophy leans towards seeing infectious organisms as taking advantage of a body that is already compromised for other reasons, and I focus on improving underlying health and immunity so that infections cannot gain a foothold. As Louis Pasteur, the originator of the germ theory of disease, is said to have recanted on his deathbed: “The germ is nothing; the terrain is everything!” The rise of the germ theory and the subsequent over-reliance on antibiotic drugs has had manifold negative health consequences (not the least of which has been the unintentional breeding of strains of bacteria resistant to every new antibiotic drug introduced) and allowed allopathic medicine to all but ignore “the terrain” as a factor in infectious disease.
Still, antibiotics have their appropriate uses. I have taken them before, and I would again, in the right situation. What’s more, and Buhner makes this point abundantly in the introduction to his book, herbal antibiotics might be especially useful in an age where drug companies cannot develop new antibiotics fast enough to stay ahead of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and people are dying in hospitals because the habitual medical means of controlling infections are no longer working.
And here I want to clarify something that the sensationalist literature around antibiotic-resistant germs tends to obscure. (The marketing around Buhner’s book is unfortunately guilty of this as well.) The soundbite usually goes like this: Overuse of antibiotics is breeding new strains of hyper-virulent “superbugs” resistant to antibiotics and increasingly deadly. True enough, I guess, but it makes it sound like these new strains are beefed-up, stronger, faster, hungrier, deadlier germs-on-steroids. Let’s be clear: the new strains of bacteria are only hyper-virulent in that they are resistant to the drugs doctors use to kill them. They do not reproduce faster, spread more contagiously, become more ubiquitous in the environment, or cause more damage in your body than similar non-resistant strains. For example, MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is only deadlier than “regular” staph if your only medicine is methicillin.
Now what’s great about plants as antimicrobials is that millions of years of coevolution with bacteria has equipped plants with sophisticated suites of phytochemicals that work together to disable and eliminate bacteria. There’s rarely just one antimicrobial substance in a plant, there are several, and they are frequently teamed together with other chemicals that synergize with the antimicrobials, helping them to work better, for instance by disabling the mechanisms bacteria use to defend themselves from attack. For these reason, bacteria have a much harder time developing effective resistance to botanical antimicrobials than to pharmaceuticals. As herbalists have come to expect from plants as medicines, they will usually do a more thorough and sophisticated job than the isolated chemicals that modern medicine prefers.
But there was one more obstacle to me appreciating the suggestions that I found in Buhner’s book. This was the idea that an herb could act as a systemic oral antibiotic, in the way that pharmaceutical oral antibiotics do. I was well aware that certain herbs are powerfully antiseptic—that they would kill microbes on contact. Thus you can use Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), containing the antiseptic yellow alkaloid berberine, on an infected wound, or take it orally if you have a bacterial G.I. infection. But the plants’ constituents won’t travel through the digestion and into the blood and act on bacteria throughout the body systemically. The best you can do for a systemic effect would be to stimulate or otherwise enhance the body’s own immune system. But in this book Buhner was asserting that in addition to herbs that act as “localized antibiotics”, there is a group of herbs that act as systemic antibiotics, and Bidens is on the list. We’ll see…
My opportunity to put Bidens to the test came less than a year later, and the patient was me.
It went like this: On some random day in late summer that I’ll call Day 1, I noticed a small lesion on the inside of my cheek, a raw spot, somewhat tender, like you might get if you accidentally bit your cheek while eating. Not associated with a lymph node or a salivary gland, just right in the meat of my cheek. I have no idea how it got there. Maybe I bit my cheek—it does happen sometimes—but I didn’t remember having done that. Anyway, I didn’t do anything about it.
By Day 3 there was a hard, roughly disc-shaped lump in my cheek, maybe the diameter of a quarter (25 cents), but thicker. It was tender, and firm. By putting my thumb inside my mouth I could grab the hardness between my thumb and forefinger. At this time I started to pay it more attention. To the best of my ability, I looked at the inside of my cheek in the mirror with a flashlight. There was indeed a small wound, tucked behind a strange fold of inner cheek-skin, and a little redness.
I started using one of our tincture formulas (“Immune Boost”, consisting of Myrrh, Echinacea, Spilanthes, and Usnea; the formula also works well as a topical antiseptic) on the wound. I also chewed fresh plantain leaf (Plantago major) into a cud and kept that lodged in my cheek, replacing it periodically. Plantain has a nice ability to draw infection from a wound, among other helpful properties.
On Day 4 the infected area had grown and was making that whole side of my face feel stiff. The plantain leaf was enabling me to painfully express a small amount of bloody pus from the wound inside my cheek each time I removed the cud, but it wasn’t making a big difference in the size or the spread of the infection. The antiseptic tincture applications didn’t seem to be holding it back either.
When I woke up on Day 5, the whole affected side of my face was puffy, and a little red. There was even puffiness around my eye, including my eyelid. I felt feverish. Now the affliction could be noticed by others. At this point I started to worry. It was time to reconsider my approach, and entertain other options. Against my will, I began to picture a long and dispiriting afternoon in the waiting room at Urgent Care looming in my future. It was a Sunday.
Then I thought of Bidens. Why not give it a try? I had almost a quart of Bidens frondosa tincture (fresh leaves and flower buds, 1:2 @ 95% alcohol) on hand. Buhner’s book says that Bidens needs a high dose as an antibiotic. In acute situations, he calls for “¼-1 tsp (1.25-5 ml) and up to 1 tbl (15 ml) in water, up to 6x daily for up to 28 days, depending on severity. … The tincture can also be used topically on infected wounds.” I decided to start with 1 teaspoon (5 ml) every two hours. I would pour the tincture in a little water and swish it all around the wound before I swallowed it. I started the regimen late in the morning, and I discontinued the plantain leaf and antiseptic tincture at this time.
By evening there was no noticeable change, for better or for worse. I had an engagement in town the next day so I drove there (1 hour away) in the evening, which would also put me closer to medical attention should I need it. I went to a friend’s birthday party and even drank a couple beers, but I stayed on the regimen.
I went to bed early, at a friend’s house, exhausted. In the middle of the night I woke up, dosed myself again, and went back to sleep. When morning came, the pain was less and the swelling had diminished noticeably. Encouraged, I stuck with the dosing regimen all through Day 6, noticing continuing improvement as the day progressed.
By the morning of Day 7, the infection had subsided to the point that I felt only a small hard nub in my cheek, the size of a dime—maybe a nickel! At that point I cut the dosing regimen to 3 times a day, which I continued for three days, at the end of which the infection was resolved and I discontinued treatment.
To summarize: After less than 24 hours of treatment with 1 tsp every 2 hrs of Bidens frondosa tincture (fewer than 10 doses), the infection had turned around and was receding. I followed with one more day of frequent high dosing, before switching to a maintenance dose for three days.
Maybe it was the beer, but I believe it was the Bidens tincture that turned my infection around so quickly. In the time since this case, I’ve dispensed and/or recommended Bidens for infections at various stages on several occasions, usually with good results, but nothing with as clear of a dramatic arc as the story I just told.
Based on these results, I think that Bidens shows promise as a systemic oral botanical antimicrobial.
Anyone care to corroborate, contradict, or amend?
Note: Buhner maintains that Bidens is a much less powerful antibiotic once dried, but the dried herb can be used, in even higher doses. Heat damages the properties, so don’t decoct. Tincture or juice of the fresh plant are the preferred preparations. I used Bidens frondosa. Most of the research was done on Bidens pilosa (introduced to the US and common in the southern states). Bidens bipinnata and other Bidens species are known or presumed to be effective. There is probably a Bidens species near you. Try it and report back.
by Janet Kent
One of the great joys of living in the woods year round is watching the seasonal changes of the plants and landscape. While fall and spring in the Southern Appalachian Mountains are famously beautiful, winter receives less acclaim, except when the hills and trees are covered with snow. Though the snowy landscape is undeniably lovely, so too is the skeletal beauty of the forest and fields during the rest of winter. From the dried seed pod rattles of evening primrose and iris to the wispy windborne seeds of clematis and aster, winter shows us Nature’s intricate and diverse strategies for re-generation. The trees of the deciduous forests shed their leaves, laying bare their own limbs as well as the lay of the land.
For those of us with land-base lives (herbalists, homesteaders, gardeners, farmers and more), winter also allows much needed down time for contemplation. When the weather is warm, I can scarcely find time to read, study, make art, and write letters. But the cold comes and I get to stay inside, attend to my indoor life, turn inward. I look forward to these cold months as much as, if not more than, I do any of the seasons.
For almost a decade, I wintered in New Orleans and lived at my mountain home in the warmer months. The years leading up to my permanent move were difficult in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city and those inhabitants that were left faced the effects of collective and individual trauma. Grief was palpable. Many had lost loved ones and we had all lost the city and communities we had before the storm. In addition to those losses, we saw what neglect and subsequent opportunism can do to a city. Once emptied of half her residents, New Orleans became vulnerable to the vultures of real estate speculation and neo-liberal city planning. This tragedy continues.
As all this trauma set in, there were spates of murders. Beloved community members such as Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers fell prey to the arbitrary violence of the time. There were suicides, freak accidents. Death was all around us. As a bartender, I grew accustomed to the mask of grief a person wears who has just found out that someone they know has died. “Let me see the paper,” they’d say. “Need a shot?” I’d offer as I slid the paper across the bar. One death after another, never allowing us the chance to recover. No time to process the grief. Despite the frequency of exposure, I failed to develop a healthy relationship with death.
After moving to the mountains full time in May of 2008, I began the long, difficult process of healing. The calm of the forest, the way that gardening and medicine making tie me to the rhythm of Nature was/is an indispensable part of my recovery. Living connected to the seasons provides a healthy framework for understanding the cycles of life and death. Winter teaches us the importance of dormancy. Plants die back, creating mulch for their future growth and offspring. Leaves fall to the forest floor in a thick layer, feeding the rich mycorrhizal network, which feeds the herb layer and the canopy trees themselves. Every living thing is connected, in life, death and regeneration.
This winter, I was determined to finally make peace with death, to see death as it is, part of the cycle of life. After years of living immersed in the forest, it seemed possible. With this in mind, I spent a warm December afternoon hiking around, looking at dried inflorescences, lying on the crispy leaves, gazing up at the dendrite-like branches of the bare treetops. I tried to open myself to death as a part of life. While part of me could be present with the breath-taking beauty of the winter landscape, another part stayed agitated. For the landscape was not the only thing laid bare this winter. That week, yet another grand jury failed to indict a policeman for killing an unarmed black person, this time an 11 year old boy, Tamir Rice. I cannot see Tamir Rice’s death as natural. I refuse to see his death as part of the cycle of life.
In the past, I have viewed my issues with death as a personal shortcoming, a lack of spiritual substance. But on this afternoon, I saw the reasons for my block clearly. To accept his death and the death of all the other people of color at the hands of police, prison guards, border patrol, vigilantes and bigots would be to accept that this system of domination is natural, is necessary.
In our racist, classist, misogynist society, some lives are worth more than others. How am I to make peace with death when it comes earlier to those who have less? When it comes violently to those who are seen as dispensable, be they the women who work in the Maquiladoras in Juarez, Trans-women, Native women of the U.S. and Canada, or sex workers? When it stems from governmental policy that encourages toxic industries to operate in areas populated by the poor, from the coal fields of Appalachia to the refinery polluted lowlands of southern Louisiana, causing obscenely high cancer rates, birth defects and all manner of chronic disease? The peace of acceptance comes at a cost. Dropping out. Closing my eyes and ears. I don’t want that kind of peace.
Even in my resolve, this admission makes me angry. Not just angry at a society that kills those it oppresses, but at its interference with life for those of us who survive. Acceptance of the cycles of life is a basic need. Countless mythologies, religions and philosophies have sprung from this need. We want to make sense of our lives and our deaths. The violence and greed that fuel our socio-economic system preclude such sense-making. So we grieve. We grieve and before we’ve healed, we hear of another murder, another assault, another horror.
Pretty bleak. This is the place I found myself seven years after Hurricane Katrina. Despite a life grounded in the woods, growing food, drinking from the springs, living in a house I built, I could not recover. Sometimes, when we are locked in grief, we cannot recognize what might ease our pain even when it is right in front of us. Finally, after years of suffering, I turned to the plants around me. Though I would eventually make my way through much of the Materia Medica for mental health, the herbs known to ease grief were the first to unlock my pain and allow me to work through my loss. Of these, Hawthorn was my chief ally. And it is to Hawthorn that I turn now, as the news cycle breaks my heart every day.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Hawthorn, a member of the Rose family, looks like a small apple tree with thorns and bears fruit called berries though they look more like crab apples. It flowers in late May near my house. The flowers are as medicinal, some say more so, as the berries. We harvest the flowers and flower buds in the spring and the berries in the fall, then combine the tinctures. The berries also make a delicious syrup.
Hawthorn is tonic to the heart and circulatory system. It strengthens and regulates heart contractions. I first came across the use of Hawthorn for the metaphoric heart in David Winston’s work. Among a host of other indications, Winston uses Hawthorn to treat long term unresolved grief. Long term unresolved grief is a good way to describe what many of us experience when we live in embattled communities or have empathy for others and pay attention to the constant stream of tragic news. Part of the reason that it took me so long to treat my own symptoms was that I didn’t want to feel less. I identify as a person who feels deeply, an empathetic person concerned about injustice. Why wouldn’t I be crippled by grief? This is an appropriate response to the world we inhabit. But if we can’t function, we can’t fight. The bad news isn’t going to stop.
Time for Hawthorn. Hawthorn doesn’t make us feel less; it makes us more resilient. Just as it strengthens the anatomic heart, it strengthens our spiritual heart. We can remain people with great capacity for emotion outraged at the injustice of our society. Hawthorn helps us avoid becoming overwhelmed by these feelings. It thickens our skin without making us callous.
In many traditional European cultures, Hawthorn thorns were carried to ward off depression and as protective talismans. This magical use resonates with its medicinal qualities. Hawthorn helps us heal from all kinds of heartbreaks: the end of a romance or friendship, the death of a loved one, or as I highlight here, the heart break of being a thinking, feeling person in an unjust and violent world. Hawthorn’s thorns point to its protective quality. It provides a feeling of safety and support. I add Hawthorn to formulas for clients who feel a lack of support from friends or family as well as those who need extra support while confronting difficult situations or recovering from trauma. Hawthorn also protects us from the grief and heart ache of others. It is difficult to support those we love without soaking up their pain. Vicarious grief can be debilitating, though we may not notice because we aren’t the ones “really” grieving. Hawthorn nurtures the nurturer.
Though it does have an immediate effect, Hawthorn works better when taken over time. Once you get to know Hawthorn’s medicine, you’ll be able to recognize when you need it. Now, when I feel an agitated despair, when I can hardly bear to hear the news, I reach for Hawthorn.
Preparation and dosage:
flowers, buds and leaves—standard infusion , 2-4 oz up to 3x a day,
tincture fresh 1:2 at 95% etoh, 10-30 drops up to 3x a day.
berries--standard decoction, 2-4 oz up to 3 x a day, cold infusion 1-2 oz up to 3 x a day,
fresh tincture 1:2 at 95% or dry 1:5 at 60% etoh, 10-30 drops up to 3x a day
*Hawthorn berries make a delicious syrup and elixir.
Contraindications: do not take in cases of congestive heart failure, use caution if using prescription heart medications
In the coming months, I plan to post a full monograph for Hawthorn, as well as some writing on the physiology of grief and more on herbal allies that support us in grief. As there seems to be no end in sight to the need for these remedies, for ourselves or those we love, we can all use more tools for support and self care.
This summer, I went with my mother to visit the cemetery where her parents and other relatives are buried, less than a mile from the one room shack where she and her three siblings grew up. My grandmother, Elizabeth Pitman Buchanan, died of tuberculosis when my mother was 9 years old—and even as she approaches ¾ of a century, this is still the defining moment in my mother’s life. She, like many children who lose one of their parents when they are young, has few memories of my grandmother. One important memory came to light in the past year.
My mother on my grandmother's knee, 1940.
My mom grew up in an Appalachian holler much like the one I live in now. Her family was poor—the kind of poor that is hard for many Americans to imagine. Though the Depression was technically over, the hill folk of the Appalachian mountains would not recover for decades. Fortunately, my mother’s family had a little piece of land on which to grow food so they seldom went hungry. They grew most of their food and put enough by to eat throughout the winter. Every inch of their yard was devoted to this purpose except for one garden bed. In this bed, my grandmother planted bulbs and seeds of flowers. She especially prized those that bloomed in June, for that was the annual Decoration Day at the cemetery where her relatives were interred. Every year, she and the other women in her community traded seeds and bulbs to diversify and enrich their yearly floral offerings. My grandmother sacrificed valuable garden space to grow another kind of nourishment, flowers for her ancestors. Tradition, brought over from Scotland decades before, demanded that she do so.
If my mother told me this earlier, I wasn't ready to hear it. Like many folks people of primarily European protestant descent, I have long felt a lack of inherited tradition for honoring those who came before. Yet here was an image I could hold onto, a way my mother's people mourned and honored their beloved dead. For the remembrance occurs not only on the day families gather to place flowers on the graves of those who have died, but throughout the year as the living save bulbs, plant seeds, water, weed and feed the plants they will offer those who have passed.
Some families we are born into, others we choose. For many, the chosen kinship groups are as important as, if not more than, our actual blood relations. We seek out and form community, living together, sharing resources, creating and resisting. Our chosen families form another type of ancestry. Near my house, under the boughs of a weeping cherry tree, lie the ashes of such an ancestor, Samantha Jane Dorsett.
From the poster by Shari Rother:
Celebrate People’s History
Samantha Jane Dorsett
Beautiful and courageous—transwoman, artist, writer, lady detective, anarchist, punk, sweet animal friend, tireless fighter for peace and justice, dancer, lover, chess player, secret sailor, feminist, soup chef, queer, lover of rabbits, queenie, puppeteer, beloved friend and ally, math whiz, radical, passionate, so much more.
Samantha left us in June of 2009, but her life and work continue to reverberate; generations who never met her know her influence, through the stories, songs and art she left behind, as well as that of the people who have memorialized her in their own work. This year, our apprentices helped create a memorial garden for Samantha around the tree that grows from her ashes. Two of them already knew her story and her legacy. We gathered herbs from around the land to honor her: angelica and yarrow for protection, rose for opening the heart and soothing the pain of grief, mugwort for those who live between worlds and red clover to attract her beloved rabbits. Now and in the spring, I’ll plant bulbs and seeds, carrying on the tradition of the grandmother I never met. Each time I weed or water, each time I contemplate the beauty of the flowers, from the early pink blossoms of the cherry to the deep hues of the gladiolas in late summer, I will honor both their memories.
After landscaping Samantha's garden, we lit a candle and set off fireworks to celebrate her birthday.
As I write this, I look out onto the spectacular display of yellow, crimson and orange leaves that signifies the coming of winter. The days become shorter, most of the plants die back and it is impossible not to reflect on the cycle of life and death. Autumn compels us to contemplate our own mortality and that of those we love. Many cultures in the northern hemisphere honor those who have passed during this time of transition. This fall, I would like to offer you a tradition, passed down from my grandmother: make a memorial garden. Prepare a garden bed, plant some bulbs and fall seeds. Plant more seeds and starts in the spring. There are many ways to plan a garden. Choose flowers your loved ones admired. Pick different flowers to bloom sequentially through the year. Or choose herbs for their medicine or symbolism. As you tend this garden, think of your loved ones that are gone, be they related to you by blood or friendship. Tend their memories as you tend the plants. From sorrow, foster beauty and comfort. From death, reconnect with life. As you tend to the roots of the plants, so you tend to your own.
"Holism and vitalism are related concepts—frameworks for observing, interpreting, and acting—used by herbalists and other practitioners in the quest to support health. They both encourage us to understand the broader patterns and interrelations between all of life, to see the flows and interdependencies that make life and health possible, and to see how health is compromised when the links are broken. Unfortunately, clinical herbalism’s focus on individual clients can lead us inadvertently to overlook the real root causes of disease, and to mystify the sources of vitality. We propose a Radical Vitalism that transcends the individual to encompass health challenges at every scale in society and empowers our vitalist techniques to work beyond the usual clinical context toward deep and lasting health for all."
That was the intro to our new essay titled "Radical Vitalism" appearing now in the Fall 2015 edition of Plant Healer magazine. This next paragraph is found deeper in:
"Do not let the magnitude of our global health crisis keep you from acting. If anything, the level of catastrophe we face should strengthen our resolve. There is only one fight, and we either participate or watch from the sidelines. For herbalists, who draw our powers of healing from the Earth, it is imperative that we work to heal the whole organism."
Stay with us for more on Radical Vitalism, and eventually, the full text of the essay.
[Note: We have moved our blog to a new, improved site, radicalvitalism.wordpress.com.
Former blog posts can still be found here, so old links will continue to work, but any new content (starting March 23, 2017) will be posted only to the new site. Old blog posts are also collected there, so you are not missing anything by using the new site. See you there!]
by Dave Meesters
Faced with a patient who habitually uses certain problematic herbs or substances such as tobacco, coffee, alcohol, cannabis, or harder drugs, most herbalists instinctively frown upon such use, or take a “harm reduction” approach that emphasizes the harm these tools may inflict. More discerning practitioners will pass judgment only if the substance(s) are likely contributors to the presenting symptom picture or apparent underlying imbalance. Still, it can be safely said that, at best, mainstream herbalism tolerates but does not support the use of these dark medicines. I believe that, as healers, we could have a subtler and more holistic approach, but to get there we needed to examine the nature of balance, and our definition of health.
The concept of balance is a major touchstone for holistic practitioners. Balance can be used as a conceptual tool to evaluate, and guide our interventions in, the health of almost any system, be it physiological, emotional, interpersonal, ecological, and more. Instead of seeing the use of problematic herbs and drugs as simply detrimental behavior that would ideally taper off or cease to be, we can, I think, more usefully and humanely see it in the context of a strategy of balance—in this case, the balance between dark and light.
The poles of dark and light are as natural and obvious as the rhythm of day and night, the day naturally associated with the sun, dark and night with the moon. Under the signs of light and dark, solar and lunar, fall all sorts of traditional correspondences. In the light, the world is visible, discernible, clear. As humans, we do most of our productive work in the day. Thus the light, the solar, signifies that which is productive, clear, orderly, rational, safe. In the dark, on the other hand, the demands of the day are set aside, so we rest. Our visual perception is limited and easily fooled. In bed, we lie close with other bodies. Asleep, we dream. The dark and the moon is thus associated with mystery, imagination, danger, sensuality, intuition, dissipation, and even destruction. A natural balance arises from the oscillation and interpenetration of these two poles.
Other associations commonly made with light and dark are less primal, and more recent historically. These include the association of light with what is positive and good, dark with what is negative and bad. Good and bad, positive and negative are not natural or primal polarities; they are the products of civilized (and therefore political) morality. The gory death of a prey animal at the hands or teeth of its predator might be a “dark” moment, but we can’t, ecologically speaking, call it bad. Yet every invented morality I’m aware of has sided with the light over the dark, setting the stage already in antiquity for a dangerous imbalance. And once political hierarchies brought the productivity of the work day under the control of bosses and overseers, the relative freedom of the night, and everything it stands for, became a liability and a risk for the dominators, who in response vilify the dark and minimize its importance. The movement revealingly named The Enlightenment has since the 17th century exacerbated the imbalance, promising to bring Europe out of the “dark ages” of superstition and magical thinking through the development of a human reason that would finally penetrate the mysteries of nature (shedding “light” into all those dark corners). That very human reason, with help from the technologies that its science would create, has made solar productivity and accumulation its god, and invented a machine for the consumption of the Earth that has done its best to enslave all of humanity to its purpose.[i] The dark, mysterious, imaginal, non-linear, animist, dissipative and non-rational force that might balance this cruel logic of accumulation is neglected, even suppressed.
So it’s time to reclaim the dark and move towards a healthy balance of solar and lunar. Which brings me back to my subject, dark medicines, and another word I’d like to reclaim: poison.
The fundamental inseparability of poison and medicine is a long-acknowledged fact of the art. Paracelsus famously wrote that the only difference between poison and medicine is the dosage. Going further back, the Greek word pharmakon, the root of many familiar medical terms in English, can equally mean poison or medicine, attesting to an ancient consciousness that did not draw firm distinctions between the two. But a more relevant point—relevant to our herbal practice—needs to be made here: poison is an opening to the dark. The poisonous aspect of an herb or substance is exactly that which supplies the lunar medicine, and lunar medicine, broadly speaking, is as necessary as solar.
In a polarized way of thinking, we may admit that problematic substances have a “bright side” that exists in the shadow of a potent dark side. For coffee, the bright side is alertness and energy; the dark side might be adrenal exhaustion. For alcohol the good times and relaxation are the bright side; cirrhosis and drunk driving are the dark. Tobacco would seem to many to consist only of dark side, without substantial benefit. Addiction and dependence are a dark side possible for all.
As herbalists we are commonly, if subliminally, taught to steer our clients away from substances with a potent dark side such as these, but in doing so we fail to see that through the dark side the user connects with the whole darker half of life, and use of dark materials is therefore part of a larger strategy to activate balancing lunar energy in a world gone solar. Users pursue a broader notion of health by seeking dark to balance light. Of course it makes sense not to smoke tobacco, but in the dark not everything makes sense, and we need the dark too.[ii]
What I call poisons are those agents that offer us ready access to the dark side. The common definition of poison as an agent of destruction pure and simple captures something essential about poisons—their capacity to do harm—while failing to convey their positive role in navigating light/dark balance. I reclaim and persist in using the word poisons, defiantly against those who would see them as essentially negative, to refer to a volatile, risky but ever-present and useful subset of medicine.
Poisons facilitate the necessary dark side in two ways. First, they induce lunar states of consciousness: drunkenness, hallucination, poetic vision, impulsiveness, extreme mirth, engorgement or derangement of the senses.[iii] Second, and actually not fully distinguishable from the first, is their toxic (q.v. “intoxicating”) nature: hangover, vomiting, terror, sickness, withdrawal, dependence, etc. This second order of darkness is what makes poison a variety of ordeal—a challenge, something difficult to live through. Now folks might say that life guarantees enough ordeals without us having to go looking for extra ones. But the truth is that the practice of seeking a deliberate ordeal, often for the purpose of spiritual growth, is older than recorded history. In the shamanic context, these ordeals might involve extreme fasting or lonely treks through wilderness, but just as often they are catalyzed by poison use. Whether the poisonous agent and the attendant ordeal are administered all-at-once, as in the case of a peyote ceremony, or in protracted intermittent doses, as in today’s tobacco smokers who inhale their ordeal one cigarette at a time, depends on the user, the poison, the intent, and the cultural context.
The purpose of the traditional shamanic ordeal is the initiation of a special kind of person: the shaman. But more broadly and democratically, much of our spiritual growth in general—our strength of character, our deepest understanding—is forged in the fires of ordeal. Ordeal cultivates lunar medicine in the forms of subtlety, flexibility, wisdom, sense of humor, and creative vision. Those who do not find some way (poisonous or not) to develop their moon side often suffer from a deficiency of these important human qualities. As an old alchemical dictum has it, “For a tree’s branches to reach to heaven, its roots must reach to hell.”
It can be argued that the weak link in my support of poisons, and what’s missing from most contemporary poison use as seen in our herbal practices, is the faculty of intention: clear intention and mindfulness are the markers of a healthy and sustainable practice, while merely habitual or unconscious use, which is more common, tips the balance, always delicate anyway, towards truly harmful and addictive relationships with these substances. I agree that a relationship that is consciously and thoughtfully engaged is the safest and most beneficial in the long run, in fact balancing the poison’s moon energy with solar responsibility, clarity, and attention. But I would not underestimate the power of the poisonous ally to deliver a real, though perhaps darkly mysterious, boon to the user regardless of their state of intention or appreciation. Likewise, a person’s deepest logic and intention are often not fully conscious to or communicable by that person at the time, and we must leave room for the possibility that what appears self-destructive today may be revealed down the road to be a step on a true and righteous path. Furthermore, in the context of many modern lives, intention is a luxury that not everyone can afford. Yet it is our role as herbalists to empower our clients’ relationships with their own well-being, helping them to a place of active engagement, responsibility, and conscious intention. If we can facilitate the growth of such intention regarding our clients’ use of poisons, then their own innate ability to navigate balance in their lives—light, dark, and otherwise—will benefit.
With these principles in mind, I’d like to offer some clinical tips, distilled from my own experience, for working with clients who use risky substances.
Respect the essential validity of poison use. I hope I have sufficiently laid the groundwork for this most basic guideline. Specifically, do not assume, without other evidence, that a patient is reckless, immature, uneducated, less evolved, weak, careless with their health, that they have poor boundaries, they are beset by demons, they use drugs as a crutch, or they are trying to “fill a hole” in their soul or anywhere else because they use harsh medicines. Remember that something valuable is lost whenever a person ends their relationship with a drug, no matter how necessary and beneficial separation may be.
Evaluate your experience and abilities as a practitioner. If you haven’t felt what is sublime in smoking a cigarette, life-affirming in a bout of drunkenness, or sensuous in being stoned on pot, then you might not be an appropriate practitioner for someone whose desire for health is complicated by these practices.
Remember that an affirmative and non-judgmental attitude toward poisons invites your client to be completely honest and open with you about past and current use. Valuable information may be lost to us as practitioners—and therefore can’t be used for the client’s benefit—if they don’t feel comfortable discussing these aspects of their life with us.
Be informed about the theory and practice known as “Harm Reduction.” Harm Reduction is a philosophy and modality that argues for a humane, non-coercive, and client-centered approach to the treatment of substance use. While generally stopping short of acknowledging the virtues of poison use, Harm Reduction encourages non-judgment and assumes that the client knows what is best for them, including knowing when to quit and when to keep using. Harm Reduction practitioners focus on reducing the harm that drugs can cause (in the body, the family, the community, etc.) and supporting the user’s overall well-being.
Support poison use in your plan of care if the patient intends to keep using. All of our tools (herbs, supplements, diet, exercise) can be of help to buffer and mitigate the ill effects of substance use. If material support is impossible or not desired, emotional and energetic support can still be offered. Sometimes it’s not the practitioner, but the patient, who needs to be reminded that these potent medicines are in fact valuable and we are lucky to have the chance to work with them. Cultural shaming and judgment around drugs can lead even committed users to undervalue their tools and not take them seriously.
Try to assess whether the patient is “self-medicating”, i.e. using a poison in part to palliate a condition that can be addressed through standard herbal practice. For example: using cannabis for chronic pain or anxiety, coffee for depression, fatigue, or constipation. If this is the case, it may be possible to resolve the condition using standard means, leaving the patient to reassess their relationship with their poison. However, assessing whether a patient is self-medicating can be complicated. It’s not always effective simply to ask. Some folks are just not aware of the therapeutic dimension of their drug use when it does exist. Others will rush to claim they are self-medicating because it tends to legitimize a practice that they otherwise feel ashamed of or judged for, thus distorting the truth of the situation. Such distortions can be quite unconscious. It’s up to us as practitioners to be sensitive and alert to clues as to whether self-medication is a relevant factor. And remember, a poison used partly as a medication is still a point of contact with the vital dark side. If it is replaced with benign medicines, this point of contact will be lost. Will something need to fill the void?
Honestly inform the patient if you believe their poison use is negatively impacting their health, especially if the impacts relate to their primary complaints. Do this respectfully. One can often assume that a patient is aware of the long-term risks associated with an herb like tobacco; at other times we may feel compelled to review them. But patients frequently need us to make clear the connections between poisons and their immediate ill health.
Trust and support the patient if they want to quit or reduce their use. Whatever we may think of the value or potential of a substance, if a person feels that a tool is no longer serving them, or that it’s time to change things up, that choice should be respected and supported with our herbalist’s tools and referrals as appropriate. Only a couple of modifications to this guideline come to mind. First, sometimes a person doesn’t want to quit, but feels they have no choice. If you see possible alternatives to quitting that the client does not, you may want to bring them up for consideration. Second, I’m wary of the tendency in some to cycle between “binge” and “purge” episodes. The sustainability of the strategy is questionable: it’s difficult to find balance between extremes, and the psychology of binge/purge is usually tangled up with the puritanical shame and self-loathing that make it hard to have healthy relationships with poisonous intoxicants. The assumption seems to be that a “clean” healthy body is pure of all “contaminants” and does not touch poison. A client in this phase might express a desire for detoxification, for abstinence from all manner of things, and for more exercise, yoga, meditation, etc. On the flip side, since there is no middle road, any incidental (or addictive) indulgence in poison can only be justified, perversely, by giving up on self-care altogether and bingeing heedlessly, as if to prove that failure is inevitable and total, or that nothing really matters anyway. Remorse usually follows, setting the stage for another purge, and so on. If this pattern is evident, it might be helpful to address it. In general, however, assume that the patient knows best when they want to change their relationship with a substance.
When a client wants to quit or reduce their use, there are many ways we can support them. These couple of insights have come from my practice:
Have a conversation about timing. Once I had a client whom I was helping with intense winter depression. In the middle of her bad season she fixated on her tobacco habit as central to her predicament and resolved to quit. Great, except her timing added some new difficulties to the situation. The negativity she directed toward her dependence was challenging her self-esteem during her most vulnerable period. She also overlooked the fact that tobacco was a reliable companion and confidant, a grounding point, during a dark night of the soul. I asked her to consider waiting to quit smoking until she was stronger, rather than complicate, and possibly exacerbate, her depression by testing her willpower, going through withdrawal, and throwing away her crutch at a time when walking unaided did not come easily. She agreed, and in fact seemed relieved that I had “given her permission” to wait. This was a tough call, because the somewhat sinister and draining nature of the tobacco ally resonated with my client’s depression, and it made sense to try and separate the two. She made the decision, knowing that I would support her either way, and was happy with her choice.
Suggest other activities on the “dark side”. Some folks overindulge in poisons as a response to the intrusion of too much rational, orderly, productive solar energy in their lives. I see this often in people whose life demands an abundance of sobriety, planning, productivity, and accountability to others: working full-time or more in a high-demand job, parenting, intense schooling, maintaining a house, caring for sick loved-ones, or combinations of these are all common. At the end of the day, work done, kids are in bed, it’s time to get wasted. Some don’t even wait that long. Sometimes to us their lives don’t even seem that demanding relative to others. Still, they need that lunar fix in a solar world. This might be a good time to suggest some other practices to shift a person toward the dark side of life they are seeking. Art, magic, spiritual practice, exploring one’s sexuality, trance states, lucid dreaming, ecstatic dancing, keeping strange hours, night journeying, and pure play in general all involve a lot of satisfying lunar energy without most of the risks involved in using substances. If a person is already doing plenty of this and still has a problem with their poisons, then they’re probably a constitutional moon warrior living out of balance, leaning too heavily on their native strengths (a.k.a. weaknesses). These patients need solar medicine, though it will likely not come easy for them.
Our healing work as herbalists may begin with our clients’ physical ailments, but we quickly find that vast forces come into play when working holistically. To acknowledge and support the need for a vital dark side might make our jobs as facilitators of radiant bodily health more difficult, but in the long run it allows us to serve our clients needs more deeply, and to be healers of another sort—healers of the rift between light and dark.
“Everything is poison, nothing is poison.” – Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a.k.a. Paracelsus
[i] You might notice that this image of solar excess in systematic extremity is actually a dark and chilling one. It’s not a contradiction: often we see that extremes of light give birth to extremes of dark and the two seem to merge. Thus the apparent wealth and luxury of American capitalism (the outgrowth of a basically solar process) is supported by a practice as dark as torture. A twisted and pathological light will spawn an equally twisted darkness to be its balance/mirror. This is akin to a principle in Daoist philosophy, where you find yin in the depths of yang and vice-versa, symbolized in the familiar graphic by the black & white dots appearing in the midst of the opposing color.
[ii] At the most esoteric level, balance itself must be balanced with imbalance, resting our deepest truth appropriately on the crux of a paradox.
[iii] Some, of course, do so more than others. Coffee in particular has a strong solar aspect, notoriously compatible with capitalism’s insatiable demand for work, though it is in other ways a dark medicine.