The healing draft - A poem on home herbalist medicine

I have trusted my life to doctors and surgeons and I have trusted my life to dusty herbalist tomes along and my own brain. I've done each in its time and with a lot of forethought. 

I have written these experiences about reclaiming my own health and I've debated in minute detail with proponents of the "medical model" approach. 

My family depends on our herb bed for 90 percent of our medicine and health care. We're lucky to have built up a good perennial supply and the skills to use it. We're also lucky to avoid most chronic illnesses requiring medications with unpredictable interactions.

Still we've seen time and time again that herbs grown and used at home are far superior in action to pills and drugs bought from the pharmacy. We are as careful about the pharmacy as we are about the herbs (and we have a good friend who is a pharmacist to advise us when we do go that route). 

Even with this experience, the drumbeat of advertising and skepticism about herbal medicines is so constant that we have the same discussion every year--just me and my husband as well as with our extended family. We've seen herbs work again and again. And yet there is a resistance to believing that something so simple could be so powerful or that if it is so powerful that it could ever be used safely. 

After a recent skiing trip--during which my husband was too apathetic to put herbal salve on his sore muscles or take echinacea tincture to stave off an encroaching cough, while I breezed through both with the help of these simple medicines--I am tired of the endless argument. I am tired of citing studies and debating with a behemoth industry with my relatives as surrogates. 

This is the season of inspiration and intuition, the days just before Imbolc, and so instead of another detailed treatise, I put it into a poem:

Every day an anecdote,
Sickness, headache, injury or pain
Washed away as if through clear water.
You've got two wore legs-
One rubbed with salve,
The other left to rest and ache.
One is new again in the morning,
one is stiff and swollen.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

It means nothing, they say.
A child crying in pain,
Blisters raised on the skin.
A six-year-old sister goes to pick the leaves,
to brew the tea, to place the cool cloth
against the flaming skin.
And the child smiles,
the blisters disappear
in ten minutes by the phone clock.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

How many times must you see it?
I ask my brother, my friend, my doctor, my dear one
How many times makes a study?
How many people sick with a lasting cough,
How many who drink the garden draft,
who get up and tend those who took pills instead?
How many times before you understand
that medicine is not in an ad?
It isn't Big Pharma or Big Natura.
It is in the hands, the care, the knowledge.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind. 

The questions fall heavy and predictable
like the drum beats of a campaign.
What if you make a mistake?
What if it doesn't help? 
What about the things you cannot fix or cure?
What about all the studies with freeze-dried herbs?
Who are you to say?
You have no double blind or placebo.
You have only whispers
gathered over a thousand years.
You have only the bright faces of your family.
You have only this little plot of growing things.
You have only your own health taken back.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

This is my wish to all in this season--health, healing and inspiration. May your home be snug and your well of strength brim full.

The Connection: Spirituality and Herbal Medicine

I once entered into a formal discussion with an emergency-room doctor on the topic of the risks and effectiveness of synthetic pharmaceuticals versus homemade herbal medicines. 

At the outset, he would only engage in the discussion if I agreed to one condition. I could not use any argument that was based in spirituality, ethics or ecological concern. It all had to be science, based on promoting human health. I am confident of the science behind herbal medicines and interested in seeing more high-quality clinical trials with fresh herbs, so I agreed.

Brigid, Christian Saint and Celtic Goddess of Healing - Creative Commons image by  Cosette Paneque

Brigid, Christian Saint and Celtic Goddess of Healing - Creative Commons image by Cosette Paneque

Unfortunately, the discussion broke down anyway but the talk was very helpful and informative to me while it lasted. In the end, it was matters of belief that got in the way, but it was about trust in the intentions of pharmaceutical companies rather than about my spiritual or environmental beliefs. 

The doctor showed me that often a company will conduct seven or eight clinical trials to prove a drug is safe and effective, but only publish the one study that was favorable to their drug. To him, this meant the drugs had scientific backing but companies also have a profit motive, so  it's better to look at more than one study. To me, it was proof of the utter corruption of the scientific method and it discredited the entire industry and the concept of clinical trials as the definitive measure of safe and effective medicine. 

I, on the other hand, presented the documented findings of generations of herbalists as a source of information about medicinal properties, asserting that clinical trials (when done without corruption) are better but long-term, geographically diverse and corroborated records from practice are also admissible as evidence, if large institutions haven't gotten around to studying a particular  herb or don't use fresh herbs in their studies. And all evidence must be questioned and examined. The doctor rejected this and insisted that the only information worth any consideration comes from clinical trials. 

Those are the types of issues that stand in the way of understanding between doctors and herbalists. And yet I still believe there is much to be gained from the exchange of ideas across such a divide. In fact, that doctor unintentionally taught me something far outside his field of expertise. That is how much spirituality, ethics and my connection to the earth is part of my experimentation with herbs. The experience of completely isolating myself from those considerations for a time, gave me a deeper understanding of that connection.

Yes, I can document the health benefits and safety of herbal medicines based on clinical trials and herbalist records. At least with the more popular and widely studied herbal medicines I can. One can approach herbs from a purely logic-based perspective and still get great value. 

But if you aren’t involved in a thought experiment or a theoretical debate, it is better to look at the whole picture. Here is the other side.

What does spirituality have to do with herbs?

Healing used to be the province of druids, priests and abbots, inexorably linked to spirituality because A. there was no health insurance or any reliable way for healers to get paid, so medicine was done as part of the ethical practice of those who believed in good deeds for spiritual fulfillment; B. spiritual people were the most educated and had better records on medicinals than anyone else; C. religious institutions that became less spiritual and more political and profit-oriented quickly realized that offering healing was a great way to attract people who were desperate and earn their loyalty, and D. medicine often doesn’t work and lack of success could be blamed on fate or the will of God. 
 
But despite the corruption of the spiritual connection to healing, there is a core of real spirit. In the far distant past, the connection of people to the earth and to spirit was inseparable and people learned about herbal medicine in the same way that they learned about the movements of the planets in the sky or the growth of trees or the flowing of rivers. The uses of herbs for healing were part of the earth and the earth was the core of original spirituality. 

Herb altar - Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

Herb altar - Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

To this day, some of the best records on using herbs as medicines come from ancient spiritual scholars. While religious institutions may have less than selfless motives for opening hospitals, most of the individual healers who kept records in such places over the centuries had an authentic interest in healing, as evidenced by their words and conscientious notations when they knew that it would primarily be future generations who would thank them, rather than their contemporaries. 

When I study herbs and seek their healing potential, I can feel a direct connection to the gardeners of Christian monasteries, Native American healers, African shamans, Chinese monks, Celtic Druids and all the others who have passed down their bits of knowledge, corroborating one another’s findings across time and distance, often working in great difficulty but recording their findings in obscurity, so that we can now benefit from that accumulated knowledge. 

And in the end, it is difficult to quantify, study and logically define, but even those who argue for a science-only approach will admit that a person gains health benefits from simply experiencing nature. Studies show that people have better health outcomes if they can see a natural scene from a window or if they sit in a garden, than when they are in entirely built environments. No one knows why. Science can document the result, but not the means...yet. 

So, when proponents of the science-only approach insist that the fact that something comes directly from the earth must be disregarded as a beneficial factor, I am confused. We may not be able to prove why a connection to the earth helps health. But we know that it does. The part we don’t understand is the place where many of us fill in spirituality. I believe that the earth is alive and that plants have soul and active energy. 

Yes, I even believe that plants are meant to aid in healing, not just that they do so by the sheer chance of a molecular lottery. And this is anathema to the vehement atheist. 

“Who ‘intends’ such a thing?” they demand. “Do you have to believe in God to be healed? Are you arguing that praying helps?”

Herb garden.jpg

That would be "Gods" in my case, but no, I don’t think that you must believe in anything. However, studies have been done showing that even distant, anonymous prayer does aid in healing IF patients are also given high quality health care. Statistically at least. Those for whom someone unknown and far away prays do better in high risk surgeries. And it doesn't appear to matter what Gods those in prayer address or if they address any God at all or simply sent their healing wishes directly to the sick person. 

While spiritual connection does appear to help, we are still stuck with the old adage that the universe helps those who help themselves. And that is where herbs come in. We don't know whether some divine being infused herbs with specific healing tendencies or the herbs themselves attain self-expression through healing or herbal healing is part of the interdependent pattern of the universe. But we do know the results. Herbs often contain compounds that are precisely designed for healing. And some herbalists observe that plants near human habitations change their chemical composition depending on the sicknesses affecting the nearby population.

You can choose to use herbs without thought for the deeper levels of reality. You can choose to base your herbalism only on scientific studies. But you can also choose to give thanks for the gifts of healing given by plants and take spiritual inspiration from them. It is a choice.