DIVERGENT STEAMS OF HERBALISM
Alternative Healing & The Mainstream
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Excerpted from Wolf’s upcoming book “Plant Healers and Wisdom Keepers”, and will also appear an in the Summer 2013 Issue of “the Magazine Different”:
Intro: One of the most difficult things facing anyone, is the tension between the pressure to fit in and the desire to be our unique selves. It doesn’t help that the credibility of our chosen field of herbalism is often discounted or discredited, even by our parents and peers, making herbalists question their worth and seek some kind of accreditation that might earn acceptance. And yet, we find that there is both some pleasure and advantages to be found in not having been accepted as “mainstream” in the past 500 years.
“Better to be who and how we are, than to try to fit in!” –Rosemary Gladstar
A grieving herbalist friend of ours posted on a private group about how family members were threatening to disown them both over their attendance of an herbal conference. Other people posted about similar situations of being ostracized, pressured or manipulated by parents, siblings, and friends for practicing herbalism “instead of getting a real job.”
In the latter cases, the insinuation is that being an herbalist is neither “real” nor respectable work, even if the herbalist is in fact making a decent income for their selves and their loved ones, with some of us treated as if we are irresponsible hippies or aimless daydreamers by the very people who most loudly assert their love for us. In the former situation, it would seem that the woman’s family equate herbalism with something far more threatening than simple NewAge indulgence or unregulated plant constituents, with a darker, more nefarious, subversive, or even unholy purpose implied.
It’s alarming when we recognize the degree to which herbalists continue to be looked down upon, trivialized, dismissed, defamed, vilified, and directly or indirectly pressured to move on to a more practical vocation. It’s also mighty odd, given that scientists consider over two-thirds of the world’s known plant species to have some medicinal use, that more than 7,000 of the medical compounds found in the modern Pharmacopoeia derive from plants, and that even the most generic grocery stores sell a plethora of commercially profitable herbal preparations these days. Yet, for all its commercial successes, the actual practice of studying and recommending medicinal plants for the treatment of illnesses and imbalances remains largely unacceptable, beyond the norm, outside the fold.
This is arguably a problem we need to recognize and be ready to deal with if and when it comes up. At the same time, as far as problems go, “going our own way” can feel mighty darn good!
Acceptance & Belonging
The desire to belong is strong, whether to a family, clan, club, church, professional association, ethnicity, culture, or nation. This is true not only for herbalists but for most of humanity, and also for a majority of our fellow animal species. Membership in a group provides pleasing company and increased physical security, help with hunting or extra sets of eyes to watch out for approaching danger. More significantly in the case of we humans, is the opportunity to identify with others sharing a common purpose, with similar interests, opinions, desires, priorities, and codes of behavior. Membership can translate into emotional security, offering comforting friendships, alliances, and pacts. We may enjoy our efforts more, and accomplish more in alliance. Plus, to be accepted by those we identify with or look up to, is to have met their criteria and qualifications, bolstering our sense of worthiness and competence, while providing both a place and a way to belong.
Just being a plant lover, herbalist, or folk healer makes us a member of not only a community, but a lineage of purpose. This may not always feel like enough, however, and we may have a natural psychological hungering to feel an accepted part of the larger culture, the mainstream, the norm. We may even feel guilty about not identifying more with it, earning more of its praise and rewards, or being happier when we are in the midst of it.
There’s no question about it. There are obvious indisputable advantages to our embracing professionalism, legitimacy, organization, or guild registration, or otherwise earning credibility with the authorities and at least some portion of the mainstream consumer public. Official and public acceptance remains rare, fickle, conditional, and uncertain, however, and only ever comes at a high cost in terms of the years given to formal education and many thousands of dollars in tuition fees, as well as in our efforts to prove ourselves. And at no point is it likely that a “certified herbalist” will be viewed by either the professional community, or the average consumer as equal to an industry scientist or licensed medical specialist.
What we find, are:
•Some unregistered herbalists feeling inferior to, or else excluded by the approved members of professional herbal associations.
•Community herbalists imagining that they are insignificant, just because they mainly treat their families, neighbors, and friends.
•Caregivers working nights to pay for nursing school, in hopes of more certain employment aiding the ill.
•Nurses feeling inadequate or under-recognized and underpaid, in comparison to medical doctors working in the same facilities.
And even if we earn a half dozen letters of credit and affiliation at the end of our names, get a well -paying position doing herbal research or a teaching job at the university, we will still be seen by many outside of our community as fringe, as pseudoscience, as a counter-current or side channel.
Once we come to terms with this fact, we have the choice of either:
1. Consciously and willfully rejecting the process of accreditation, legitimization and public relations, sacrificing any benefits…
2. Willingly focusing our energies and resources on winning as much acceptance as possible regardless of the extent of inequity or disregard, and without fooling ourselves that herbalism is or will soon be truly “mainstream” again.
“…mainstream culture – there was no fitting into it back then, there’s no fitting into it now.”
From the very beginnings of what it means to be human, the shape of herbalism and the shape of the mainstream of human society and culture were the same, and where people migrated or ideas evolved, the principles of natural healing and cabinet of plant medicine knowledge would go too. When a culture swerved towards one direction or the other, its medicines swerved and undulated in unison, for it was not only the preferred way of healing, it was often the only effective means.
This began to drastically change in the early Middle Ages, especially as “familiarity with healing herbs” became an indicium, an official indication of witchcraft according to the Catholic Inquisition of the so-called “civilized nations.” In Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and England especially, terrible tortures were used to extract confessions for a horrific number of accused witches, many of whom were accused for no more reason than a profane oath, a tendency towards disobedience, or “the gathering of fruits and plants for medicine.” Many were apparently turned in by jealous or weary spouses anxious to be free of them, and many more were easily implicated by their role as midwives, herbalists and healers.
Most herbal practice at the time included a bit of conjuring, invoking, entreating or praying, making it easier to understand how the Inquisitors following Father Bernard Gui’s 1315 manual Practica oficii Inquistiones, were able to convict so many people on evidence of “collecting herbs on bended knee while facing the East and praying the Lord’s Prayer.” (Inquisitor Gui also cited “discovering hidden facts or manifesting secret things” as reason for conviction, something I would be found particularly in violation of). In Peter Binsfield’s 1622 manual Commentarius en Titulum Codices lib. IX de Maleficis Mathematicis Et Cetera, his indicium included something as simple and seemingly innocuous as “seeing a woman gathering flowers from various trees and putting them into a pot.” This, in spite of the fact that herbs had long been used ritually by the church itself, and that a rival inquisitorial tract, Girolamo Menghi’s 1626 Fustis Daemonum, suggests that “A good preventative of demon possession” is to combine not only gold and other ingredients, but also Frankincense and Myrrh.
By the 1700s, the mainstream of society was veering even farther from the course and cause of herbs, becoming ever more estranged from the natural world. Professional organizations in Europe, and then in America, began to insist that only their vetted members were competent enough to be paid a wage for their consultations and house calls, and by the 1920s and 30s were able to frighten lawmakers and voters into passing laws against unlicensed practice. While England made it possible for practitioners to earn accreditation and a license, in other countries including the United States it became possible to continue practicing only if one denied that they were diagnosing or treating illness. While herbal product sales increased dramatically in the 1970s and 80s, herbalism itself became indelibly linked to – and tainted by – an association with commonly dismissed New Age thinking and practice. Plant Medicine has largely remained a semi-legal, semi-outlaw, alternative field ever since… and we probably need to get used to it: a different healing stream, committed to following its own evolving direction, aptly finding its own channel of ingress and expression, proudly assuming its own characteristic shape.
I have to tell you… normal is highly overrated.
–Charles “Doc” Garcia
mainstream |ˈmānˌstrēm| noun
1. ideas, attitudes, or activities that are regarded as normal or conventional
2. the dominant trend in opinion, fashion or the arts
Let’s be clear: Increasing public acceptance of and support for herbalism is a worthy and perhaps even necessary goal for us, irrespective of its degree of attainability. I say this, because the more people whose trust we can win over, the more we can help… and the more support that herbalism will have, as increasing numbers of regulations are decided or voted on. No matter how polar their politics or what ethnicity they might be, the majority of U.S. and European citizens think of themselves as being in the “mainstream.” For this reason alone, if we want herbal healing to be embraced by the larger society, it is to them we must appeal, to them we must hope to educate and stretch, entice and inspire.
That said, before we go too far in our attempts to be accepted by and integrated into the mainstream, it could be helpful for us to first take a good look at its character and direction. Whether we are talking mainstream medicine, fashion or entertainment, you’ll note that it tends to be marked by:
•A general absence of critical thinking.
•Acting out of fear, such as a fear of unconventionality, the fear of medical self-care, a fear of trusting the aid or advice of anyone unofficial.
•Default acceptance of the opinions, research, beliefs, prejudices and proclamations of people and institutions in power, popular celebrities and official “experts.”
•Dependence on and subservience to the edicts and strictures of officials, agencies and authority figures.
•Endemic superficiality, responsive to sound bites rather than making deep investigations.
•Allegiance to conformity, or even uniformity, as exemplified by fads, adherence to fashion trends, uniforms, dogmatism, regulated behavior and self-restraint.
•Greater individual worry about appearing “weird” or different, than concern about doing the best thing.
•Mistrust of and resistance to the unfamiliar, unusual, untypical, uncommon, unconventional, unorthodox, out of the ordinary, irregular, abnormal, aberrant, “strange,” exceptional or unique, eclectic or eccentric, adaptive or creative.
•Disregard for options and alternatives, more resistant to considering new ideas, methods, means, products, practices, and possibilities.
Those outside of the mainstream are more likely to:
•Act out of vision or instinct, hunch or hope.
•Listen to the pronouncements of authority figures, agencies and official “experts” with a critical ear.
•Personally experiment, and independently evaluate.
•Investigate deeper, and weigh supposed facts against personal intuition and observation.
•Challenge entrenched beliefs, systems, prejudices, and protocols.
•Sometimes question their own habits and assumptions.
•Place more importance on authentically being themselves, than on conforming in order to fit in.
•Value and appreciate the unfamiliar, unusual, untypical, uncommon, unconventional, unorthodox, out of the ordinary, irregular, abnormal, aberrant, “strange,” exceptional or unique, eclectic or eccentric, adaptive or creative.
•Be more afraid of being a meaningless, conformist “cog in the wheels,” than of being thought of as different or weird.
•Be open to options and alternatives, considering new ideas, methods, means, products, practices and possibilities.
My dictionary definition of “mainstream” includes “conventional,” which that same edition describes as actions “based on or in accordance with what is most generally done or believed.” For this simple reason, we cannot be truly and completely conventional if we are an herbalist who acts on or in accordance with our own observations and beliefs, convictions and aims.
We may think we could be happier fitting fully into the mainstream, or that it’s the most practical and safest choice, but if so, it would be best to first decide if it embodies the values and characteristics, the goals and means for getting there, that we personally aspire to.
And if it is students, clients or customers that we seek, we would do well to be realistic about the propensities of the mainstream, how many we can serve and how deeply we can engage and benefit them… and grateful for the creative, sensitive, receptive alternative.
alternative |ôlˈtərnətiv| adjective
1. one or more things available as additional possibilities
2. of or relating to behavior that is considered unconventional and is often seen as a challenge to traditional norms
Nearly everything alternative is painted in the mainstream as being either extreme, subversive, heretical, unseemly, fatuous, or foolish. Alternative schools are often dismissed as undisciplined daycare for the children of liberals, and alternative novels criticized as being for the effete. Members of the mainstream often seem to enjoy being disgusted and mortified by what they call “alternative lifestyles,” from communal living to gay marriage. And anything other than conventional medicine is considered quackery, whether via deliberate fraud or self-delusion.
A number of mainstream scientists speak as if alternative medicine (including herbalism) meant “ineffective or unproven” or “without any scientific basis or verifiable results.” Alternative practices “do have scientific value,” quipped one of the commentators on Randi.org, but only “to psychologists studying delusional behavior!” A standing joke among MDs, is that “alternative medicine” means an “alternative to medicine.” This includes plant medicine in the eyes of the great majority of them, considered of little more use than colloidal silver and magnet therapy. One online rant goes as follows: “Herbal Medicine? Give me a break! If herbs pass the test, they’re just medicine. And if they don’t, they’re just soup and potpourri.” This prevailing attitude on doctor’s forums and in many scientific circles helps explain why up to a third of all herbalists go to such incredible lengths to establish academic, professional and scientific credentials. They don’t spend so much money on formal education and memberships just to get a better job in the field, or to be better informed and positioned for influencing the academic community… they’re hoping at the least, to avoid being completely ignored, disregarded, denigrated, and dissed.
The writer Richard Dawkins calls alternative medicine – herbalism included – “a set of practices which cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or consistently fail tests”… and without mentioning that most research is conducted by an industry with a vested interest in profitable synthetics, is usually done on isolated compounds rather than whole plants, and fails to take into account individual constitutional factors. Thank you, Dick! His is one example of how the mainstream discredits any but conventional, institutional practice… by totally missing the point!
As I have learned from Kiva, herbal effects are indeed testable – in some convincing way or another – if:
•Using whole plants, not constituents.
•Paying close attention to dosage, when to use dry or fresh plant material, and means of preparation
•Looking for more than an isolated action or effect.
•Taking into account the constitutions and health histories of those in the study.
•Measuring health as more than the alleviation of symptoms.
Herbalism and other nature, folk, tradition, and experience-based healing practices are not merely complimentary adjuncts to “modern medicine.” They’re vital alternatives to the conventional, blind-sided, narrow minded, profit motivated, corporate financed, pharmaceutical drug pushing, in many cases life endangering medical paradigm.
Nor is alternative medicine an insubstantial alternative to “real medicine,” it is an alternative way of perceiving the body, illness, treatment, and the very notion of what it means to be healthy.
“It is often thought that medicine is the curative process. It is no such thing… nature alone cures. And what [true] nursing has to do… is to put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.” –Florence Nightingale (from Notes on Nursing)
You might think of alternative medicine the way you think of alternative energy. Wind and solar power are alternatives to mountain-leveling coal mines and air polluting power plants. Or the way you think of healthy whole foods from the woods or garden, an alternative to the mainstream American diet of processed carbs, sugar and salt, hormone laden meat, genetically modified vegetables, canned food, and snacks. Or like what is undoubtedly the best music these days, not the formulaic (certified, licensed) mainstream music being pushed, but the often unsigned (uncertified), independent musicians creating new Alt-Country/Americana, Alternative Rock, World Fusion, Alt-Latino and more. Think about how much the mainstream media sucks, and how necessary are any alternative sources of much needed news.
In a similar way, we are the alternative – to a fearful, highly distracted and controlled humankind, increasingly divorced from its nature and from the natural world, out of touch with its native intuition, instincts, emotions and their triggers, dreams and service, purpose and calling. And herbalism is an alternative – to institutional/industrial health care, to viewing the body as a mechanism or chemical factory, to treating symptoms instead of causes and imbalances, to the restricting of health care access and total dependence on technology and drugs.
Some of you may be attached to identifying with or being thought of by others as mainstream, but let’s get serious! How mainstream is it today, to practice plant medicine apart from its twisted pharmaceutical successors, to make one’s own preparations, to think of health as wholeness instead of an absence of symptoms, to provide advice to nearly anyone who asks, to put ethics and quality ahead of income, or to be concerned about the health of plant populations as well as of the people served?
I frankly don’t know hardly any mainstream-type people in the field of herbalism. Nobody has done more to broaden the appeal of herbalism than the herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, for example. Yet on closer examination, we see that she, like I, has a soft spot – and acts as a magnet for – radicals and activists, wild women, frisky fellow and self-proclaimed freaks, outlandish outliers and edge-dwellers.
“These people are my tribe. I’m one of them! I identify with them because I’m a bit freakish and outlandish myself! I just have a sweeter cover, perhaps, than many of my fellow radicals, is all!” –Rosemary Gladstar
If your reputation is based on clinically informed medical herbalism, you’re clearly still not mainstream if you teach aromatherapy, promote critical thinking, or sing “I’m An Herbal Rebel” at events full of other alternative-type folks. You may be an officer of the American Herbalist Guild making inroads in the scientific or legislative community, but you are unavoidably alternative if you’re also an activist, eco-tourist, or conservationist, teach energetics, or had an herbal epiphany at a Grateful Dead concert. Academic degrees are impressive, as are any years of study you may have put into your botany or chemistry, but these things are not enough to earn you full mainstream membership, if you are known to administer to the homeless, volunteer in Nicaragua, fight to protect endangered Sandalwood trees, foster free clinics, run a first aid station at a Rainbow Gathering, sleep in the back of your herbal business to save money, prefer nature documentaries over action-movie superheroes, or discuss in public what plants seem to be communicating to you.
Sorry, but at most – if you are quiet and guarded about much of who you are and what you believe, and are careful with your appearance and language – you may be partially accepted by a mainstream that you can only partially relate to.
Confluence & Divergence
“Just because I have success, doesn’t mean I’m part of the mainstream.”
So what might be a healthy relationship, a healthful confluence with the predominantly unhealthy mainstream? How can we interact with it that serves both our well- being and our purpose, draw from it what we need or desire, trade with and help its members, influence and help heal its culture? Consider the following model/parallel.
In many parts of the world, for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, the majority of the population lived outside of the few urban areas, gathering or producing food, living in rural villages with cultures that helped keep them aligned with the spirit and needs of the land. Cities, with their closely packed buildings, constant commotion and mind numbing noise, were seen as rather unpleasant places one traveled to in order to trade their rural produce or crafts for things that couldn’t be obtained elsewhere, meet and hopefully mate with someone from a different town or tribe, and party hearty! With any luck, one would wake up suffering no worse than a hangover, recover their wagon and newly scored goods, and then get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as their feet, horse, or jalopy would carry them.
Imagine now, if you will, mainstream society as an old-school urban center, with the herbalist as the ecocentric outlier, a feed-stream periodically entering the mainstream in order to exert a positive effect, teach or be taught, exchange products or services for what’s needed or enjoyed, dance with the most attractive elements until late at night… but always returning to the alternative of our true community, to the source and heart of herbal wisdom, identity and mission.
If we are to give our lives to this work, we perhaps need to become more comfortable with, and find more satisfaction in being different… and to be more fulfilled and satisfied, serving not the masses so much or so deeply as the exceptions – those exceptional folks courageously looking beyond current convention for the most natural, healthful alternatives.
I was once asked if I had ever treated “mono.” Even if I were a clinical herbalist, I likely still would have had to say “Yes… monotony, monopolies, monotheism, monoculture, and monosyllabic cliches.” And a good treatment for that is a protocol of divergence, diversity, multiculturalism, and intelligent investigation and communication.
Let us return our watercourse analogy again, in closing.
While the mainstream features the greatest volume, it is also in some ways the narrowest and straightest channel, herding, compacting, densifying and considerably accelerating everyone caught up in its flow. As anyone who has ever been caught up the central current of a fast river knows, it can be exceedingly hard to paddle out of its hold and into a preferred path. Even within the river itself, there are deep currents that do not run nearly so fast, and to either side can often be found shallower waters slowed by their more intimate contact with shoreline terrain, affording one time to consider both where one is? heading and what we are passing by. There are even eddies, areas where the water catches and swirls, sometimes sending floating objects temporarily back in the direction of the headwaters, the source. Each of these is an available alternative to mainstream: The depths, where meaning is paramount but few reside. The gladly uneven, explorative, meandering edges. And the pivotal moments of eddy spin, when we’re helped to find our way back in the direction of the dream and connection, to where our herbal journey began.
Indeed, what we have been calling “alternative” is never a single option, but a multiplicity of directions, possibilities, methods, means, and personal styles.
Rather than seeking a single unified body of herbalism, let us celebrate the many divergent streams. And rather than obsessing about herbalism’s acceptance into the mainstream, let us celebrate our divergence. Let us be happy with the healing effects we are able to have on any members of the dominant culture… and thrilled with those atypical and alternative thinking folks who will continue to comprise our main clients and favorite suppliers, our students and teachers, our allies and tribe.
Excerpted from Wolf Hardin’s upcoming book “Plant Healers and Wisdom Keepers”, and it will also appear an in the Summer 2013 Issue of “the Magazine Different”:
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