Tried and True: welcome to the Village Herbals Blog!
The practice of herbal medicine is heavily nuanced, as each practitioner puts a unique stamp on their work, according to personal philosophy. There are probably as many unique approaches to botanical medicine as there are herbalists. Today, with multi-level marketing companies selling essential oils, all the commercial “green drinks” and micronutrients on the market, and so much conflicting information flying around in cyberspace, this can be a very confusing subject.
So, how do we begin to make sense of it all? In my own pursuit of personal health and wellness, I became very confused. In fact, I became so confused that I was forced to listen to my own intuition. What began to make sense to me was the question “What have people been doing for thousands of years? That seems to have been working.” (Sometimes it’s not knowing the answers, so much as the questions, that can point us in the right direction.) So having been around the block with “the diet of the week” or this week’s cover girl quick fix herb or supplement, I realized that what I wanted to do was pay homage to the roots of the tradition (of herbal medicine, and of our basic humanity). Over the years, by asking this question, I have found better guidance in using herbs the way Nature intended. That is to say: most effectively, safely, and with the most reverence for an approach that simultaneously fosters True Health in people, community, and planet. For these three can never thrive if treated as separate entities operating in a vacuum. They do not exist in isolation from one another. It is precisely that sort of disconnected thinking which, I believe, is the essence of dis-ease. What this means to me is that for a person to be truly healthy, they must feel a part of a supportive social structure, and that the health of the collective community will mirror how they treat the Earth on which they live, from which all sustenance is provided. Likewise, the dimensions of a person – mind, body, and spirit, are all greater as a whole than the sum of separate parts, and must be integrated and honored in order to enjoy optimal health.
Health is not defined merely by the absence of disease, but is recognized as a feeling of dynamism, vibrancy, and empowerment! Herbalism practiced in this way treats the Whole Person, instead of just symptoms, and leads each person to a state of greater vitality.
In a world gone mad with products derived from artificial ingredients, laden with chemicals, and plastered with health claims, even many store-bought “herbal remedies” are bastardized, standardized, and subject to irradiation. These days, “Natural” is just a trademarked word, bought and sold for marketing purposes. All of this is designed to line the pockets of The Very Rich while capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of people concerned about their health.
“Health is not procured by the sale of medication, or purity by the addition of poison. Science at the bidding of corporations is knowledge reduced to merchandise…” -Wendell Berry
So, what does it mean to practice herbal medicine in a way that pays homage to the roots of the tradition? It means looking at how our Great-Great Grandmothers might have used a plant to prepare a remedy. It means LOW-TECH. It means there are safety mechanisms in place, mechanisms that Nature put there- such as using the senses of taste and smell (as opposed to swallowing capsules). It means there is direct interaction between people and plants and the Earth they both grow on. It means using plants that are common, readily available, and growing in abundance where people live. It means treating herbs as food, and food as medicine. Folk are people, and herbal medicine is Folk Medicine. Medicine made by people, not machines. Medicine that people have free access to, and can learn how to use, beginning at about age four.
Herbs and people have evolved together for millennia. Using herbs the way our ancient ancestors did-simple, basic preparations, the kind that, as herbalist Susun Weed says, “can be grown in the garden, and made in the kitchen,” ensures that the remedies are made from unadulterated whole plant parts. With no fancy distillation equipment, or chemical solvents used in standardization, the medicine cannot be so divorced from itself as when only an active ingredient is sought after, fractionating and introducing poisons to the final product. The time tested remedies of our Great Grandmothers are made from leaves, roots, seeds, and flowers, and are extracted using kitchen methods with simple solvents such as water, oil, and alcohol. They are preparations which deliver the medicine in its most absorbable form, and therefore offer the greatest efficacy. Not pills to be swallowed, but tinctures, teas, foods. Safe, simple, and effective medicine, which builds real health.
When we use the herbs from our own backyards, it stands to reason that our health will be supported in the climate and environment in which we live, as the plants growing around us are having to survive the same elements. This, really, is the basis of the Bioregional Diet. Eating a seasonal and regional diet of locally grown foods and using herbs that grow around us does a lot to support our health, as well as reducing the much discussed ‘carbon footprint.’ (The opposite of this might be eating watermelon in January in Alaska.) Herbs used as foods lead us to needing to use herbs as medicines less. Integrating them preventively, as an extension of the diet, rather than explicitly using them when we’re sick, is real health insurance! My favorite category of herbs are those which are commonly known as WEEDS. “Food grade herbs” is a fancy way to say, “weeds you can eat.” These plants grow in abundance right where we live. They thrive when we pick them, if we do it respectfully, and we thrive when we eat them, if we do it respectfully. It’s almost like Nature planned it this way!
But beyond the arguably higher level of mineral content in wild plants, which actions a given plant has in the body, or which properties are contained in what, the fact is, when we go outside to pick the wild herbs at our doorstep, we are getting more than can be seen at the molecular level. We are connecting to our environment. We are drawing intangible nourishment simply by communing with The Source. This is how the truth plays out that to care for oneself, one must care for the planet, and vice versa. If we all ate from our backyards, I’ll bet we would all take better care of our backyards!
A mother steps outside her kitchen door, her bare feet contact the cool soil. She hears birdsong and looks up into the bright blue sky. She squats down on strong legs, bending low to pick some juicy chickweed for the dinner salad. Her hands take on this morning’s dew, still fresh on the leaves of this bouncy, green, starry-flowered plant here in the shady corner of the yard. Her children might see her do this and understand that this patch of ground is the place food comes from. One of them might feel proud to help pick this plant, contributing to the family’s meal. This tasty herb, added to the salad, will not only provide optimum nourishment in the form of minerals and vitamins, it will increase cellular permeability, promoting better-assimilation of all the food it is eaten with. It will quietly work behind the scenes, replacing the fat and water in the cells with minerals and protein, soothing inflammation, supporting thyroid function, shrinking cysts and tumors, and helping to shed unnecessary weight. No one at the table needs to know that it is because of steroidal saponins that this is the herb of choice for weight loss, or that the high levels of calcium, zinc, potassium and many other trace minerals it contains are building immunity and strong bones. The words Stellaria media, Caryophyllacaea, restorative, absorbent, alterative, anti-scorbutic, or vulnerary might be nowhere on the lips of these children. But green goodness will be. It works whether we microscopically analyze the constituents or not. The bushy patch outside the door, having been trimmed for the dinner salad, will regenerate and grow thicker than ever for the next time it is harvested. Its placement in the yard was chosen by the wind that blew the seeds there. Its presence adds healthy nitrogen to the soil.
In the next blog post, learn about an empowering way that you can begin to take preventive health care into your own hands. We will discuss an easy preparation method for some safe and simple herbs which can be used daily to give your body the deep down support it craves, with Nourishing Herbal Infusions.
The name of this blog comes from a song I learned from one of my most respected herb teachers, wise woman Rosemary Gladstar:
Earth make me a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
And in thanksgiving I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you