When plants move into an ecosystem, they do so because the ecosystem has been disrupted. I contracted rather severe pneumonia about sixteen months ago, primarily from overwork. Six months before that, a species of Bidens began growing around my house that is a specific treatment for the damage that occurred in my lungs. So is the bark of the elm trees and the horehound plants that grow around my house.
How do we differentiate between our own actions and the will of an ecosystem? The real question is: Who is the dominant species — us or the plants? Perhaps we are just an organism that functions to spread plant species around the world. If we disappeared tomorrow, things would continue on relatively smoothly. If the plants and bacteria disappeared, we would not last long. Who are some of the teachers who have influenced your herbal practice over the years?
I was extremely lucky to enter the field when so many were developing their craft and still teaching. There is a relatively unrecognized phenomenon that occurs within the nooks and crannies of Western cultures: It occurred in physics at the turn of the twentieth century, in music in the s, and in healing modalities in the late twentieth century. I still remember being able to buy almost every rock-and-roll album being made, and in the late twentieth century there were so few books on herbal medicine and so few teachers in the field that I knew almost all of them: It was the greatest flowering of herbal innovation in the West since I traveled from conference to conference, workshop to workshop, to study with those who moved me.
Each of them contributed something essential to my work. I found myself being educated, not schooled. My education as a healer lasted ten years. Nearly all of it was real-world apprenticeship. The land I bought at nine thousand feet in the Colorado mountains was also a teacher to me. It had never been farmed, ranched, or logged, and the plant diversity was astonishing — like living in the midst of a complex biological pharmacy with a treatment for nearly every medical need.
Now so many people are training in herbal medicine that it is beginning to attract the sober sorts who want to do it for money, as a career. As a consequence it is growing staid and conservative, and it lacks innovation. It is also getting more expensive. Still, it has a vital core of practitioners who have the old spirit. Only time will tell which branch of the tree will survive.
How did you know you were ready to begin treating patients? I began practicing when the hunger in me to heal was too strong to be suppressed. Those who are meant to heal all have this hunger in them, but physicians are forced to suppress it while they go through years and years of schooling. By the time they are ready to practice, many of them no longer have that hunger. I am deeply opposed to the med-school approach, which destroys the very healers it pretends to create.
What would be the alternative to medical school for doctors? There is no training in empathy, no training in communication, no training in being a companion to people in their suffering, and no training in alternatives to pharmaceuticals. After graduation young doctors become residents and often go up to thirty-six hours straight without sleep. They are so overworked that post-traumatic stress disorder can occur. Many become arrogant and focused on money and prestige.
In what situations do you find conventional medicine useful? Dental care, eye care, and small surgeries are the most common. I usually see a physician every three years or so for something minor. I have sometimes gone to a doctor for a diagnosis, as I did fourteen years ago when I came down with hepatitis C. Once I was diagnosed, though, I treated myself.
It took about a year to reverse the condition. Normally I know why I am going to a doctor and what I want from the visit. The way I look at it, I hire them, and they work for me. My father is around sixty. What are some alternative treatments for his condition? Regular fasting will lower blood pressure and keep it low. Certain kinds of simple, focused meditation will lower it. And many herbs, such as hawthorn and garlic, will do the same.
The only type I have regularly treated is skin cancer, usually on the face. I learned the use of a traditional herb for it from a Mexican curandera many years ago.
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The root of Swertia radiata — also known as monument plant or green gentian — is finely powdered, then mixed with Vaseline nothing else will do and applied to the cancer. Once the bandage is removed, the cancer generally comes with it or lifts off with minimal effort. I have never had that treatment fail. It is easy, efficient, and noninvasive. Some types of cancer do respond well to technological medicine, but many do not, and the process is extremely toxic and debilitating for the patient, not to mention bad for the environment.
What made you start looking for alternatives to conventional medicine? For whatever reason, there was always a part of me that refused to accede to the reductionist, mechanistic model. All of us have experiences in which we encounter something that feels extraordinary: Most of us discount such experiences and go on with our lives. I, instead, followed those feelings, and as a consequence my life has been one adventure after another.
You might say that this decision enabled me to experience the metaphysical background of the world. I encountered what is really out there, not the static picture we are taught is out there. The fact that other life-forms possess languages as complex as our own, that they have self-awareness, that they engage in the search for meaning — all of this is hidden from us because of the mental programming we use to process our experiences of the world. But sometimes, despite our habituated not-knowing, we feel the touch of other intelligences in unexpected places, such as a tree or rock formation.
The reality police are quick to denigrate such experiences and accuse us of anthropomorphizing. Simple ones I use are peppermint for an upset stomach, fresh ginger juice for colds and flu, and honey for wounds that do not want to heal. Honey is now part of general-practice medicine in the UK for surgical wounds. It will counteract all resistant bacteria that people might pick up in a hospital after surgery.
It is also good for serious burns and skin ulcers, as it keeps the wound moist and prevents infection while stimulating skin regrowth with little scarring or loss of muscle tissue. Honey is approved for use in this country, but doctors almost never use it. They like fancy stuff. The second is that they see the writing on the wall. The latest I have heard is that the U.
Then, when the system crashes, it will be the government to blame, not the drug companies. But no matter what we do, no matter how much time and resources we devote to research, nothing will stop the crash. If bacterial infections become untreatable through conventional methods, what will be the ramifications for our healthcare system, and what role do you see herbal medicine playing in the crisis? Technological medicine will return, rather rapidly, to the late nineteenth century. Most surgeries will be difficult.
Organ transplantation will become impossible. Many diseases will come back with a vengeance. Dental work will carry the risk of serious infection. A simple cut to the skin will create an opening for resistant bacteria to enter the body and spread. Cities and towns will turn to quarantines to try to stop outbreaks. We will be immersed in a bacterial ocean containing scores of highly pathological resistant organisms.
Herbal medicine is capable of treating most of the conditions that will emerge, but the healthcare model will have to shift from a war on disease to the alleviation of suffering. We are all going to experience disease; nothing will stop that, and nothing is supposed to stop that. We are meant to biodegrade.
We are all biodegrading right now. Herbs do not create the resistance problems that drugs do. They have far fewer side effects. And they do not destabilize the ecological underpinnings of the world. Herbal medicine is sustainable medicine. In essence the use of plant medicines is based on a deeper knowledge of our limitations, and on the awareness that death is built into the system. It is irksome to many that something larger than ourselves is putting limits on us. One of the main signs of maturity is coming to accept those kinds of limits — without bitterness, blame, or anger.
Antibiotics have built an artificial wall of defense around the human species. As the bacteria become resistant, the chemical wall must be made stronger, which leads to greater resistance. Every year it takes more and more energy to keep that wall in place.
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When it comes down, there will be hell to pay, and we will be out of credit. Bacteria are developing resistance more rapidly every year.
It used to take decades for bacteria to develop resistance to a newly introduced antibiotic. Now it takes six months. They are highly cooperative. As soon as a bacterium experiences an antibiotic, it begins generating possible solutions to it. Every time a successful resistance mechanism is created, the bacteria then communicate it to all the other bacteria they meet, teaching them how to rearrange their genome to be resistant.
They will often drop loops of DNA containing resistance information that are then picked up by other bacteria and woven into their own genome. When two bacteria touch, they can open small portals in their cell walls and share genome strands. They might pump the antibiotic out of their cells as fast as it flows in. They might rearrange their cell wall to make antibiotic penetration impossible. They might alter the target portion of their cell so that it remains unaffected by the antibiotic. Sometimes they learn how to use the antibiotic as food.
Hospitals are like schools where bacteria learn to resist antibiotics. Bacteria are even learning how to live in the disinfectant solutions hospitals use to clean. Other places that are likely to experience outbreaks are nursing homes, prisons, schools — anywhere people are warehoused. The hubris of the medical profession will cause all of us to pay a high price. The myth of Icarus is relevant here. Very few bacteria cause human diseases. The vast majority of them are maintaining the functioning of the planet.
They are, in reality, a global superorganism. We are bacterial organisms ourselves. We are the innovations of bacteria that, through symbiogenesis, created more-complex expressions to fulfill specific ecological functions. They continue to kill susceptible bacteria whenever they encounter them.
The annual dumping worldwide of more than a hundred thousand tons of antibiotics into the ecosystem is stimulating changes in bacterial behavior not seen since the Earth moved away from methanogens as the dominant form of organism some 2. And yet physicians continue to utilize antibiotics without much thought. We focus on the misuse of painkillers, when the most dangerous thing we do is overuse antibiotics. Resistant bacteria are a more severe problem for the survival of this civilization than oil depletion, global warming, topsoil erosion, and water scarcity. What would happen if plant antibiotics became widely used?
It is important to understand that plant antibiotics are widely used now — by plants. Plant chemistry is not static, the way pharmaceutical antibiotics are. The way plants and bacteria interact has been going on for hundreds of millions of years: Bacteria get into the plant and start to eat it. The plants are continually evolving right along with the bacteria. The plants we harvest for antibiotic use this year will possess a different chemistry than the ones we harvested last year.
Is there a country that is widely using herbal medicine today? The Cuban model is, I think, one of the best. I have never been to Cuba, but I have read about it and talked to a number of herbalists who have been there. From what I understand, there are six doctors per thousand people. Patients who cannot travel are treated at home. The physicians spend a lot of time with each patient. There is a heavy emphasis on preventive medicine. Doctors utilize herbs in their healing. People go to specialists or hospitals only if the general practitioners in their area cannot help them.
And every family is experienced to some extent in self-care. The costs in such a system are minor compared to ours, and there is little dependence on pharmaceuticals.
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How do the mortality rates in countries that use herbal medicines compare with those in the U. The problem with making such comparisons is that infrastructure differences have to be taken into account — access to clean water, sanitation, food, and so on. Just looking at Cuba, however, what we see is that life expectancy is nearly identical to the U.
Infant mortality is five per thousand, slightly lower than in the U. How does pollution affect herbs and their healing properties? We live in a sea of pollution. It is not really escapable. Many plants do act as soil remediators: The easiest solution is to pay attention to how a site feels to you. You can actually tell the health of a plant or site this way. As your feeling sense grows more acute with use, you increase the size of your library, and it becomes a more reliable source.
No, intuition is vague: The library of feelings is stored in the conscious mind. Everything we encounter has an aesthetic dimension to it that we can feel. You once said that an ecosystem that lacks poisonous plants cannot be healthy. To the Earth there is no such thing. Buddhist ecologist Joan Halifax writes in The Fruitful Darkness that when we remove mountain lions and rattlesnakes and poison ivy from a habitat, the system immediately begins to degrade, because the people who enter that habitat no longer need to be careful when moving through it.
I find it interesting that toxic plants often move into damaged landscapes. Some specimens are harmful to cattle or sheep who graze the land.
Are you nervous about relying on pharmaceuticals for your health?
Others interfere with industrial agriculture or threaten people. They all have the same purpose: How do wild and domesticated plants feel different to you? That is the difference between wild and domesticated plants. Wild plants do not have water and fertilizer delivered to them on schedule. They do not have pesticides applied if they get infested.
They must be strong to survive in the wild. Their chemistry tends to be a great deal more intense than that of domesticated plants. We have the capacity to receive and interpret the messages of nonhuman creatures, but we tend to think that human language is the only one out there.
When we do sense nonhuman communication, we have been trained to believe we are nuts. People who have dogs know that their animals communicate with them. There is a constant exchange of meaning there between two sentient organisms. This same process occurs with plants, which possess a variety of languages, including sounds outside the range of our hearing.
There is little difference between a plant releasing an aromatic chemical through its stomata and a person releasing a word through his or her mouth. Both do so as a process of exchanging meaning with the exterior world. If the exterior world touches a plant in a way that invites a response, the plant will often craft a specific chemical directly related to the event. At the same time, the bean plant will release other chemicals to tell the plants around it that this particular spider mite is feeding on it, and it will include the information about the pheromone.
The poet William Stafford once said that it was not through extraordinary experiences that he created his poetry but through everyday experiences that he paid attention to. I had a tree outside a house where I lived for several years in Vermont — a huge old maple. One day I observed that the tree was shivering, almost undulating. Great vibrations traveled up and down its trunk. This went on for several days until finally a large limb came crashing down from the overstory. After that, the shivering ceased. I realized then that the tree had been in the process of self-pruning.
Every time some new evidence of plant-based intelligence intrudes on my awareness, it confronts perspectives about the world that I inherited from my culture or my family or my schooling, and some portion of that received worldview crumbles, and something new takes its place.
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The world is a great deal different than we have been led to believe. In fact, we know very little about what goes on here. The ancient Athenians had a word for that moment when some intangible part of ourselves leaves our bodies and touches a living intelligence in the world: There is an exchange of soul essence accompanied by a gasp of recognition, a deep breath, an inspiration.
In the modern West we are trained to discount such experiences, to forget them.
But, perhaps out of stubbornness, I have always remembered those moments. For example, one time I lay with my great-grandfather by the banks of a pond in rural Indiana. We did not talk. We just lay side by side, and in that silence something of him came into me, and something of me went into him. The poet Robert Bly has said that something necessary to our humanity is passed on in moments of silence between the man and the boy, the woman and the girl. For some reason the light in the room had a particular radiance that day. It seemed as if I were seeing a deeper light within the everyday light.
That room took on a living radiance, almost a velvety fragrance that I could feel. And the silence there was itself a kind of sound. My grandfather and I exchanged a glance and were held suspended in time while the metaphysical background of the world intruded on our waking experience. The moment passed, as these moments always do, but we were left changed in its wake. These experiences are the source of much beauty in our lives. We are poorer for ignoring them. How have your spiritual beliefs evolved alongside your view of the world as alive and filled with intelligence?
The experience of a world filled with soul and intelligence naturally engenders a deep spirituality. Do our genes set us up for a predetermined destiny, or are we overlooking something? There has been a long battle of mind over matter, but overall the war against matter is being lost and the sooner we surrender our minds the better.
Millions of dollars and many decades of research have gone into finding a cure for cancer and yet we still have no answers, no solutions and no way of preventing this dreadful disease. Love is something that we all crave; we all want to be loved and to love back in return. Could love be our best medicine? Many of us are obsessed by sleep — mainly because we think we are not getting enough! But there is a way of approaching sleep that may just cause a revolution in the way we think about it, and the way we experience it.