Herbalists as cultural stewards

Below is the transcript of my remarks at the 2017 Florida Herbal Conference. The whole event was an amazing experience - from the warm, humid air, to the live oaks, to the old friends and new, each one a shining star. We talked about connection, passion, and our shared experience as plant people.

On this late winter morning, I find myself in Florida. I set out for my morning run just as the sky begins to lighten, the warm air humid and fragrant, birdsong and the last few stars overhead. As I run, I watch tendrils of mist rise up from the lagoons and circle around the treetops. When I return to camp, I am greeted by live oaks hanging thick with moss, music and song, sacred smoke, and cedar on the prayer mound. I am grateful for this gathering of plant people, doing what we do together, the way it's always been done. I am thankful that the trees give us space to be here - but I also like to think they rejoice to see our joy at being together.

Herbal medicine is different from most of what goes on today. Of course we know this intuitively - but I've been so curious as to what this actually means, how to articulate this difference, because I believe this difference holds a secret that can change lives, change communities, and change culture. I know it because, at least in small part, we herbalists all live it. Fundamentally, it's about awareness of interconnection and the will to act on that awareness. But how to convey this message to others?
One of the first and clearest pieces of evidence for me came from my studies of bioflavonoids, a class of botanical polyphenols found in abundance in berries, but present in almost all medicinal plants. While we've talked for a long time about their potential as antioxidants, recent research is finding that this isn't really what they're up to in our physiology. When we consume blueberries, or hawthorn, we aren't engaging in a war with free radicals. On the contrary: we are tapping in to some of our most basic physiologic processes, we are interfacing with the expression of our genes. A complex and beautiful dance, one that rivals misty sunrises, egrets and fish, live oaks and palm trees, is taking place in our every cell as DNA is methodically turned into proteins that become our physical shape on a moment-to-moment basis. By inserting themselves into this dance, bioflavonoids regulate inflammation, increase cellular resilience, and prevent cancer. They ensure that our genes express a smooth, efficient incarnation. They take care of us (or, rather, without them we get lonely and our physical expression becomes sad and less resilient). When I first put this together, I couldn't help thinking that this was real, tangible evidence that plants love us. Which of course they do.
Another example is how bitter-tasting plants work to ensure normal activity in our processes of self-nourishment. It turns out that without bitter plants, we lose the ability to control our consumption of food. Our guts stop being able to digest well. Our livers become more sluggish, less resilient in the face of challenging chemicals. But after a few weeks of bitters, this all gets better. It's amazing!

We have to recognize that this is a fundamentally different way to approach chronic inflammation, obesity, and digestive complaints. First of all, what we're observing here is a living system at work: plants and humans locked in a co-evolutionary dance that is very difficult to disentangle and understand by looking at its isolated components. We have to watch the living system at work to really get what's going on. Secondly, bioflavonoids don't lower your blood pressure (well, they do - but bear with me). Bioflavonoids set the stage in the heart, and in the endothelial lining of our blood vessels, for a physiologic expression that includes no high blood pressure. But there are many other consequences beyond that: our emotional hearts open and we become more flexible, and fall into love more easily. Our circulation opens too, and we feel more warm and comfortable, less cold and withdrawn. Our cells begin to think that cancer isn't necessary, and they settle in to a more loving rhythm of their own. This resonates across our entire being. Modern science is just beginning to discover this level of medicine - and as of today, there are no approved drugs that work this way. Modern science also just discovered, in the last decade, that we have bitter taste receptors on our heart that help coordinate the smooth shifting of blood flow necessary after a meal. Imagine that! Another mechanism for addressing blood pressure hiding in plain sight.

Of course, as herbalists we also understand that as within, so without: shifts in our internal physiology are coupled with shifts in our external perception, in our homes, gardens, and ecologies. We know this is true because we've learned that we are a living system that is interlocked and nested within larger living systems, and when we affect a part, we affect the whole. Gardening changes our life. Drinking tea changes the way we garden. I am sure everyone here has had an experience like this: when you're brewing tea for someone you love; when you're blending a new tincture formula and a perfect, new flavor synergy emerges; when, deep in winter, you marvel at the bright notes of last summer's lemon balm; when you walk through a grove so familiar it is suffused with a sacred vitality that nourishes and calls you; when you learn the name of a new plant, and a flood of memory and recognition fills your heart. I remember once, on a wild-harvesting walk, I had trapsed over hills, across a bog, and was following the small stream that drained the wetland down into the valley floor. A hemlock tree had fallen across the stream, and I stepped over it to find a bank of reishi mushroom growing out of the opposite side. The mushrooms looked beautiful, I was so happy! I started to pull out my knife, but you know, as herbalists we're trained to take a moment and speak to plant and mycelium, to connect before we harvest. So I stopped, crouched down to get at eye level with the glossy red shelf mushrooms, and just said hello. It felt good. Just a gentle smile, like when someone you love comes home from a weekend trip and you're reconnecting. You feel it in your heart. At that moment, as I felt this flutter in my chest, I had a thought - "turn around!". It was puzzling: was I supposed to go home without these mushrooms? Had I done something wrong? It didn't feel that way, it felt good, like when you're about to give someone a present. I had the thought again - "just turn around!". So, without really thinking about it rationally, I slowly got up and just turned around to face downstream. There, not more than twenty feet away, was a young white-tailed doe that had slowly snuck up on me while I was crouched talking to the reishi. She looked at me for a period of time - I'm not sure how long - and just walked away. Now my heart was really full! Even as I write this, it's filling again. I turned back to the reishi, harvested five beautiful fans, and made my wy back home. Now, every time I suggest reishi to a client in clinic, that moment in the forest comes right back. It's part of the medicine for me. I'm grateful I listened and tapped into that life-moment.

What is it that we're tapping into during these experiences? It's something that all humans instinctively know is possible (I believe we all long for it), and hopefully have experienced at least once. One story that sticks with me was told by Daniel Sarewitz, who is a scientist and researcher focused on public policy, particularly around climate change. He's a professed atheist, straight-ahead science guy, but at the same time is struggling with how to connect with people who, possibly driven by religious belief, reject the scientific interpretation of current events. I so appreciate his compassion in this regard. So he published this beautiful opinion piece in the journal Nature, back in 2012, after he had returned from a visit to the Angkor Wat temples in the jungle of Cambodia. These temples, hidden for centuries under vegetation, reveal an architecture that reflects mathematical patterns resonant across all levels of reality. The buildings are designed to elicit transcendent experiences in those who visit, experiences of fullness and connection, where the boundaries of self and non-self begin to disappear (much like what happened to me with the reishi and the doe). When he visited, that's exactly what happened. It may have been the first time for him, but even if not, it was powerful enough that it led him to write this beautiful article about the temples, the jungle, and the value of art as a way to convey transcendent mystical, emotional experiences in a way science cannot. Perhaps we need both in our culture, he thought. Perhaps these transcendent experiences are an important part of what it means to be human, how we find meaning and truth in our lives, how we are nourished - and if scientists could find a way to speak to this part of our shared humanity, they might be able to connect with those who retreat into religion when science seems inaccessible, who deny humanity's role in climate change, who harden their hearts to the beautiful work he and his colleagues are doing. "Angkor," he concluded, "demonstrates how to achieve an authentic, personal encounter with the unknown." I know we could all use a little more of that! Whatever it is, it holds some serious meaning and power.

But as I came to the end of his article, I saw the comments section. The general tone there was one of anger, with some going as far as to say his article was dangerous and misguided. Others told him he should resign his position as he clearly wasn't a scientist. There were few, if any, comments of support - and these were quickly torn into by the collective, and any chance of conversation immediately squelched. The administrators have since taken down the comments section for that article, and I don't blame them, because is was mean, divisive, and frankly quite rude. What a roller-coaster ride from Dr. Sarewitz's thoughtful, inclusive piece to the reactive, divisive responses.
You probably have seen similar examples of this pattern at work in our culture. We use adjectives like "divided", "polarized", "factional" when talking about our society. We attempt to isolate and separate entire areas of the world because of ideological differences, ethnic differences, language differences. Even our conversations on medicine and healing are filled with words like "inhuman", "quack", and other even less savory monikers. It truly is a pervasive cultural pattern, and it isn't too difficult to see that it is based in large part on fear: fear of the unknown, fear that others will steal from us, hurt us, tear us down, fear that a hidden longing for mystery will never be fulfilled. Our culture wears this fear like a dark cloak, wrapping it tight around us during these modern times when strong winds blow all around us, trying to insulate ourselves from that which would harm us or those we love. This may give us the illusion of security, but as any herbalist (or student of biology) knows, a living system that isolates itself from its surroundings accelerates its path to death. The tighter you squeeze your fist, the more life slips through your fingers. This dark cloak our culture is wearing - it's something herbalists are trained to recognize. Sometimes I think it's my job to dance with darkenss, to find the cloak when it's just coming off the rack and help a person understand that they should put it away, or if it's already been put on, try to loosen it and see if it might fall off.

Disease is a dark cloak - it's often a learned pattern, or a pattern the physiology has been forced into, and part of my job is to know the pattern of that darkness, learn to recognize it, and find a way to untangle it so that a new pattern can take its place. This doesn't mean a return to the same pattern that existed before - rather, it just means trying to establish a new, life-affirming pattern. To do this, you have to seek darkness out and spend a little time with it so you can recognize what it looks like, especially when it's still just getting started, so that you can learn to talk to it in a way it can understand. Of course knowing the light is important too - but this is usually easier and almost always more fun. There are so many examples: unexpressed resentments. Insulin resistance. Depression. Kidney failure. One case I will always remember was of a woman who, in her early 60s, had received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. The malignancy had spread to her pelvic bones and liver, and while she did a few rounds of chemotherapy, no one expected this to resolve the cancer. This darkness was well-established, and cancer is an awful beast that often comes for no reason at all, invading life and stealing its essence in a way that can be impossible to resist. But in this case, I was more concerned with another pattern I saw emerging in my client: the combination of pelvic pain and despair at her prognosis had made her reach for another cloak to wear, and she was starting to wrap it tight around herself. She had retreated from her husband, closing off communication with him. She had begun to eat less - and when she did, it was often just the same combination of rice and chicken. Normally engaged with friends and active in the community, she stopped going out to events and would just stay home. She took narcotics even though they made it impossible for her to converse effectively. It was at this point we started working together.
It is not hard to understand why, afraid of what her life journey held, she chose to retreat behind the warmth of this new, dark cloak. Some might call it depression. Call it what you want - but it is not a life-affirming pattern. So we worked together using a lot of plants and mushrooms. We were able to reduce and then eliminate her use of narcotics using Cannabis and Corydalis. We established a nervine tea ritual, where linden, green tea, and licorice became welcome companions. She tried small doses of digestive bitters. Slowly at first, she began to walk outside again and after a few months, despite the fact that her cancer hadn't slowed down at all, her eyes began to brighten again and her appetite led her back to a diversity of tasty foods. One afternoon, as we were sharing tea in her sunroom, she asked me what I thought the afterlife held. I said I wasn't sure, but that maybe right before we die, time dilates like it does when we dream, or when we lose consciousness. Maybe, I said, what seems like a second to observers is experienced as many lifetimes. All I can hope, I concluded, is that I enter that final moment feeling happy and loved. She smiled.
Over the course of the next few weeks, she invited her family and close friends into her sunroom to share tea. To each she asked the same question: what did they think the afterlife held? I watched her, over her last few weeks of life, become clear, calm, and loving. To each of her visitors, some of whom were in obvious distress, she extended a warm hand and words of comfort. It was one of the most incredible lessons I've learned from any of my clients (always my best teachers), and when her time came to pass away, I am sure she moved on feeling happy and loved. I am still so grateful she shed that dark cloak when she did.

So how do we do this? How can we help re-frame destructive patterns in ourselves, our families, our communities, and our culture? Well, by following the lessons that we learn as herbalists. I think the basic principles at work are relatively simple: first, we have to start from a place that respects the living system. Without this foundation, without the belief that life itself has the capacity to affirm and renew itself all on its own, nothing can follow. Second, most living systems thrive when you increase the diversity of inputs: if you provide more options, increase the amount of connections, the system usually becomes more resilient (and, of course, the opposite is true). We can try to open the cloak, just a little bit. Finally, when attempting to intervene to adjust a dark pattern, we can choose to focus on supporting, rather than controlling, the living system. This of course follows naturally if we start from a place of respect. Those are three principles I try to apply when working with clients: start from a place of respect and trust. Increase biodiversity: expose them to a wide range of botanical chemistry. And rather than picking strong, pushy remedies, try to emphasize the ones that support our vital processes: herbs that nourish digestion, soothe and rebuild the nerves, balance the expression of our genes and immune systems. This is tonic herbalism, and it's unique to our art. It is also, in most cases, incredibly safe. Anyone can start. And if you do, you're building resilience and vitality person by person, family by family, community by community.

One of my favorite stories that illustrates these principles (in a sort of magical way) is the story of Airmid, the Irish fairy-goddess who brought the use of plant medicine to the world. Way back when the fairy folk, the Tuatha de Daanan, landed on the shores of Ireland, they encountered a fierce warrior race known as the Fir Bolg who wanted nothing to do with the new arrivals. The Tuatha de Daanan, led by Brighid the fairy queen, decided to engage in battle. Nuada, Brighid's consort and king, led the fray. Dian Cecht was chief healer, and he set up a magical well that would heal any wound, with the one exception that, should a body part be severed, the well could not reattach it. This meant that one of the only ways to kill the Tuatha de Daanan was to sever their heads completely.
One day, Nuada met the leader of the Fir Bolg on the field of battle. Back and forth they went, until Nuada made a misstep and the Fir Bolg leader was able to cut his hand clean off. Nuada ran back to Brighid, who told him that he could no longer be king because he was not whole - a piece of him was missing, and he could not lead the people. Desperate, the former king ran to Dian Cecht who told him that, while he couldn't restore his severed hand, he could craft him a new one out of silver that would work just as well. Nuada's new hand was strong and he was able to weild his sword again - but this was not good enough for Brighid, who reminded him that he was still not whole.
Dian Cecht's son Miach and daughter Airmid had been observing all this from the sidelines. Cautiously, Miach approached Nuada and asked if he could try to restore his hand. Granted permission, he and his sister returned to the battlefield, found Nuada's hand, and together, using deep, now-forgotten magic, they restored Nuada's true hand. This satisfied Brighid, and the fairy folk returned to battle.
Dian Cecht, however, was not pleased. Upstaged by his son, he challenged him to show his true healing skill. Three times he swung his sword at Miach's head, and the first two times, though the cuts were deep, they didn't go clean through and Miach was able to heal himself. But the third time, driven by anger, Dian Cecht completely severed his son's head. It was too late when he realized what he'd done, and he ran off in grief. But Airmid remained, and sat with her brother's body as light rains washed over it. After a few days, plants began to emerge from around Miach's body. Airmid sang to them, and they sang back, telling her their secret healing powers. And even though Dian Cecht returned and scattered all of Airmid's healing herbs, she remembered them and has shared the knowledge with us through a lineage of Irish wise women that continues to this day.

Airmid's deep magic isn't actually lost. While we can't reattach hands, we can provide medicine that restores people, communities and culture back to their whole state - connected to all the parts of life and nature that actually make us human. Of course our culture needs this right now! The reason we treat each other with such anger, and attempt to isolate and divide, is because we feel afraid, alone, disconnected. But look at what happens when herbalists gather to sing, speak to plants, and dance around the fire together! We learn to be inclusive, to stand strong but accept different perspectives, to provide a safe place where everyone can grow, together. This is our culture because the plants shape our culture. It is the plants' culture, too.
Airmid's story goes futher, however. It helps clarify what made my experience with reishi so powerful, what illuminated the last weeks of life for my client. And it puts a point on how we can discriminate, in our daily activity, between what is life-affirming and what is maybe less so. For you see, there is a difference between a mechanical silver hand and one of flesh and blood. Brighid, the mother of life, could tell the difference. But we all have the same gift.
Vandana Shiva, the pre-eminent physicist, activist, and ecological steward, describes this as the difference between the mechanistic mind and the biological mind. The mechanistic mind legislates from above: an intellectual understanding creates a framework into which it attempts to fit reality. The biological mind builds up from the grass roots: evolution, trial and error, and interconnection create a resilient system that emerges from its components, valuing and nourishing each one. The mechanistic mind creates blueprints, while the biological mind self-assembles. If something doesn't fit in to the mechanistic models, it is ignored or pushed aside. In a biological model, nothing can be ignored because it was integral to the development of the model itself. The mechanistic mind sees natural resources as commodities. The biological mind sees natural resources as the beginning and end of all life, the source to which we all return. The mechanistic mind, in pursuit of commodity, is able to spill millions of gallons of oil into the gulf of Mexico and brush the problem aside as a temporary setback, the cost of doing business. And crucially, the mechanistic mind tells us all that we are only as good as our productivity. No wonder we don't feel whole anymore, no wonder we feel afraid. But our response shouldn't be to cloak ourselves with that fear - that only serves to isolate us further, deepening our alienation. It is a dark pattern.

I am in no way saying that systems created by the mechanistic mind are somehow inherently bad - they are not. Look at the information systems we've created, for example. There is incredible potential in these tools. All I am saying is that, especially when we're trying to understand how to heal disease, or heal the rifts in our culture so we can support all beings who live on this planet, it is going to be useful to adopt the biological mind. And it's really an easy exercise: when you're working in clinic, or when you're gardening, or talking to a member of your community, or planning an event, ask yourself: are you using a mechanistic mind or a biological mind? It's not difficult to tell the difference: when we interface with a biological system, we feel it immediately in our hearts. It is full, it is vibrant, it is undeniable. When we interface with a mechanistic system, all the thoughts and emotions associated with that interface just seem a little dull in comparison. I've had plenty of thoughts when out wild-harvesting, or when working in the garden. Sometimes it goes a little bit like this: "well, I know there's not a lot of scullcap here, but I need it for tincture, and it will be ok to harvest it". Or, "well, I'm not sure what's around that bend, but I need to get back to my car if I'm going to be home in time for this appointment". This is our mechanistic mind at work, and it's great, it's practical - but these thoughts originate inside us, and their flavor, their color, is much less vibrant. Compare that to the simple "turn around" I experienced. This was the biological mind speaking, it was me and the reishi and the doe and our shared consciousness resonating at that moment in time. It was a full, vibrant, delicious thought that I felt in my heart as much as in my head. And it rippled into my harvest, my medicine-making, my dispensing. Ground-up, not top-down. When the heart perceives it, it is the living system speaking, it is the biological mind. Love is perhaps the best example.

If we seek the input of the biological mind in clinic, we will gravitate more towards nurturing and supporting rather than to strong, powerful herbs. This is not to say we shouldn't use heroic herbs in an appropriate context - it's just to say the input of the biological mind needs to be brought to bear. The same applies to our families and our communities. But we herbalists, we who understand these things, also have a responsibility to bring the biological mind to the halls of power locally, nationally, internationally - because Western culture is showing the signs of disease similar to those you would see in wounded animals, in cancer patients, in depression. As herbalists, our joy and our bright, shining light grows from the heart experiences that come from engaging with living, biological systems - our kitchens, our gardens, our forests and our fields. It is precisely the support that Western culture needs today.
I am here to say that it's not enough to just rejoice in this. We need to shine this light into the larger community. It will take effort, but it is certainly not impossible! Just as the old alchemists wrapped their remedies in layers of extraction, digestion, maceration and language that invoked concepts from the Christian trinity, we today need to wrap our joy and light in layers that reflect society's preference for the mechanistic mind. We need to make an effort to speak the language of science and to understand the laws that govern our land, not to become compliant and appease, but to inject ourselves, virally, like green tendrils, into the concrete wall built up by five centuries of unfettered mechanistic dominance. We can enter the cities, the courtrooms, the government and show a clear and different way of doing business, one that values and respects life, increases biodiversity wherever and whenever possible, and relentlessly strives to support rather than to control. It is the next turn of human evolution, and we need the plants beside us as we move forward. Herbalists are the perfect agents of cultural renewal, because we deeply understand these principles, and we are united in our common love for plants and the resonant experiences of renewal they provide.

When I travel to East Africa, I always make it a point to connect with my friend Sangau. He is a local traditional Maasai healer and herbalist, and taught me a lot of what I know about the plants there. We speak (sort of) through an interpreter, share tea, talk about the hospital where I work. He listens because I speak the language of plants, and I am an American. Many people say Sangau is a witch doctor. The Christian community says that he speaks with Satan. But when I ask him about this, he tells me that he sits under trees in the forest and speaks to their spirits. This misunderstanding is the root of the schism between the mechanistic mind and the biological mind, and it won't be easy to heal. But where I work in East Africa, we've trained hospital staff to use usnea and honey for wound care, and simple ginger compresses for swelling and pain. They listen to us, because we speak the language of science and come from America - we speak the language of the mechanistic mind. Hospital staff start asking more questions about other plants, and what they might be used for. So we create a decent guide to over 40 local medicinal species, along with all their names (in 3 languages) and uses. Slowly, folks start to say that maybe what Sangau is recommending is not so bad. And in the end, it's all to the patients' benefit.

I will leave you with one last story, it is a very old fable, probably one you've heard before, but it's a good one. The sun and the wind, always having to share the sky, would get into a lot of arguments about who was the strongest. The sun would say, I light up the whole sky. The wind would reply, I wear down mountains and reshape the land. The sun would reply, I raise water up into the air and create clouds. The wind would retort, I whip the waters and clouds into powerful storms - no one can stand in my path. One day, tired of arguing, the sun and the wind decided to test their skills. "Do you see that traveler on the road down there?" the wind asked the sun. "Yes, I see him," the sun replied. It was a cool day, and the traveler was wearing a heavy, dark cloak. "Will you agree," the wind asked, self-assuredly, "that whoever can remove his cloak is the strongest?" The sun agreed. The wind went first, blowing gently, then harder and harder until the traveler was barely able to walk forward, the gale was so strong. But every time the wind blew harder, the traveler just pulled his coat tighter and tighter around his body. Finally, exhausted, the wind turned to the sun. "Your turn," he gasped. Then the sun shone his light, beaming down on the traveler, filling the air with warmth. After a few minutes, the traveler, amazed at the beautiful weather, took off his cloak.