Herbal Medicine: the thread that keeps us connected to the ecology

The following are some thoughts that were part of my presentation to the Bastyr community during the recent Herb and Food Fair (20th anniversary!). I am an endless optimist - in sum, I believe we can have access to the amazing technologies we've developed as a species, and stay sustainable, too - but only if we use those technologies judiciously, do not let them drive our lives, and stay connected to the ecological context that shaped, and still shapes, our phenotype (the physical incarnation of our genetic instructions). Cell phones, yes - but put them down and walk outside without them sometimes. Antibiotics, yes - but not as a first-line intervention. Cars, yes - but not if walking or biking is practical. Cities, yes - but not without green roofs, community gardens, and living machines. You get the idea. Herbal medicine can teach us all this, and more.

The technologies that we've developed stand tall, almost overpowering, on the horizon as we move into the 21st century. The present us with remarkable, powerful tools. They allow us to build and work in ways we never would have thought possible even one hundred years ago. But at the same time, we're finding that these technologies present new and complex challenges: from the ecological sustainability of energy and food production, to the sometimes overwhelming hold that our information systems can have on our attention and psyche, it seems that our modern tools could eat us alive. Already people feel a loss of connection to spirit, and creativity, and focus - which begs the question: do our technologies work for us, or are we working for our technologies? Is there a way to harness our modern tools but also keep a firm footing in our shared humanity, our shared life on this biosphere, our shared creative source?

I am reminded of the story of Ariadne, Theseus and the minotaur. When Theseus, heir to the throne of Athens, arrived on Crete to enter the labyrinth and challenge the minotaur (generations of children had been lost to its unyielding hunger), Ariadne (the master weaver) presented him with a thread he could use to find his way back out. After killing the minotaur, his work done, Theseus was indeed able to wind his way out of the twisting passages by following the thin thread Ariadne had tied to the front entrance. Without it, even if his work had been successful, he still would have been lost. But as the story goes, Theseus quickly forgot Ariadne, and left her behind, though she'd been the true hero in this story.

For me, plant medicine and the art of herbalism are what can help us stay connected to what really matters. There are many reasons why this is the case, but they all come down to this: nature has built-in threads everywhere that serve to keep all the pieces of an ecological system connected and engaged, so that the whole can function well. We see them in the stream of phytochemistry that travels from the plants, through mycorrhizae and bacteria, into the animal kingdom. This stream connects to long-preserved genetic memory: we hold plasticity in our genes, the ability to alter who we are based on environmental conditions. And, just like caterpillars who modify the plants they consume to help deal with infections, our behavior is different when we are exposed to the phytochemical signals that weave their way through the ecology. Our appetite and metabolism change. Our mind and spirit change. Our heartbeat, the elasticity of our vessels, change as well. Without this thread from the world around us, we suffer - especially if we work, day in and day out, in an environment that is radically different from the one in which we evolved. Most of us do.

So when we engage with the world, we incarnate into our individual reality, and inevitably we are changed by that with which we interact. This is a good thing: we learn, we grow, we evolve. But the world demands its pound of flesh: we may leave some of ourselves behind, and in some cases, we may leave it all behind. This is dangerous: the minotaur can devour us, or we can get lost forever in the labyrinth. What we need is a charioteer, one that holds the reins of the creative spirit, the inspiration, the deep connection to life that we're all born with, and also the daily work, the technology, the physical progress we use to make our mark in the world. Give too much power to one, and you fly apart, and accomplish nothing. To the other, and your spirit dies, congeals, gets stuck, accomplishes nothing. This charioteer is not an overpowering force, a dictator, or a containing power - rather, it is thin, and subtle, like a lighthouse in the mist. It is a thread that allows us to engage, accomplish our work, and find our way home, too, once the day is done. It is Ariadne's thread: for many, a spiritual practice, a loved one, or a shared passion provides this tether. But our soma, our physical body, needs this as much as our spirit does: as plant people, we are lucky to have a thread that holds both, reuniting us to the memory of home and our evolutionary context by helping to regulate our gene expression, while also igniting our spirits with the fire of the wild world, our birthright and our creative source.

The art of herbal medicine, who is  Ariadne, the wise and beautiful one, hands us this thread - how can we help but fall in love?  But unlike Theseus, let us not abandon her wisdom, rather let us fight to keep her by our side. Then, we will be able to help others find her too, and they too will grasp that all-important thread, and live full lives, and thrive in the modern world. What greater gift could we dream of? We all here are so lucky.