Where We Are, & Where We Most Belong
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
The following piece by Wolf is excerpted from our book The Healing Terrain, about the healing and inspirational powers of nature, and the nature of healing… describing how to find the land that most calls to us, and providing tools needed to deeper connect with the land no matter where we live. You can order a copy of The Healing Terrain on the Bookstore page at: www.PlantHealer.org
Some of us think that we have no roots, but it simply isn’t true. We are at worst uprooted, our roots torn from the soil as we struggled to keep up with restless, roving parents, or jerked free by our own hands when we left home to break out on our own. We are not rootless. Our roots dangle out the bottoms of our skirts and trousers as we drag them behind us down streets and hallways, their probing tips grasping at the ground at our feet wherever we are, tendrils seeking the stability and nourishment that nothing but an intimate sense of place can provide, the rootedness that makes the fulfillment of purpose possible.
All that we do occurs in a place, and is colored and influenced by it. We and our healing practice are most effective in relationship to a home, with a firm base to work from, in close relationship to a specific place, as expressions of its character, informed by its history and nature. Whatever our healing practice, where we’re situate is to some degree either helping or hindering our work, our development, accomplishments and results. This is true whether we have lived somewhere for only a short while or for all of our lives, and even if we work out of a handmade gypsy healer’s trailer that seems to be always on the road. It is important, then, that we learn how to deepen relationship with wherever we happen to currently be… and just as importantly, that we someday find and develop an in-depth relationship with that one particular place where we can feel most ourselves, most needed or effective, and most fulfilled.
Wherever We’re Situated
“To be enlightened he did not have to leap to someplace else; he only had to come hard against the ground where he already stood.” –Scott Russell Sanders
In the past, humans often lived for many generations in a single region. Every child would by a certain age have become familiar with the land, and with both its dangers and its bounty. Even historic peoples who migrated annually, generally did so in a seasonal loop that took them back to certain cherished locations season after season, and developed a relationship with inspirited place that was nothing less than intimate. This was evident in their attachment to particular mountains, rivers, springs and groves, in their myths and tales, and in their adoption of signature animals and plants of the area as their allies or totems. It was evident, as well, in each culture’s collected body of information, a veritable instruction manual about how to live a healthy and sustainable existence in the mountains, deserts, canyons or shorelines that they called their homelands. It was important that even long range migrants, scouts and explorers did not travel so far, so fast, making sure that their knowledge of the land balanced rather than was outstripped by new discoveries. They were careful to introduce themselves to new areas at the frontiers of their travels, becoming students of the diverse ecosystems of each new valley or forest, of each regions’s spirit and needs as well as its fruits and advantages. The extent of their explorations and health of the tribe were both dependent on its members knowing things like:
• Regional vagaries of weather, and the means for shelter.
• Where the nearest and best sources of potable water were.
• Which locally growing plants and resident wildlife were edible, and the names and medicinal uses of the native plants.
• The time of year to harvest such plants and animals, and the signs to watch out for that might indicate a decline in population and possibly dangerous over-harvesting.
Recent recorded history, however, is more a chronicle of the invader and the exile, the ambitious and the dispossessed, the product of distracted or oblivious surface movers more than conscious travelers or determined settlers. Modern society institutionalizes and glorifies a transitional lifestyle, one symbolized by the “necessity” of vehicles, defined by perpetual movement from one place, one situation, one occupation or employer to the next, house after house after house in the absence of a home. And it’s not simply that we move on so quickly, but that our contact with each situation, each place, can be so insubstantial and superficial. Sightseers fly or drive many hundreds of miles to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, to spend a recorded average of five minutes at its edge before heading back to their car or hotel. In these times, doctor’s evaluations are generally brief and template based. lovemaking is often abridged and rote, meals rushed and and only partially tasted, conversations facile as well as fast paced. Our kind have become increasingly out of touch with our wild, instinctual, dreaming selves, with the actual elements of existence and the natural world we were born of.
“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magical connection of the solstice and equinox. That is what is wrong with us. We are bleeding at the roots.” -D.H. Lawrence
These days, there are well meaning people barely able to engage in a meaningful way at all – not with their sequential partners, adjustable belief systems, healing traditions, vocations or places where we live – before shifting to the inevitable next person or position, place or phase.
The healthy alternative is to connect deeply with where we are and what we are doing, whether it is where we want to be, or imagine we “have” to be… to create a reciprocal energetic relationship wherever we are situated, by:
• Being ultra-present and aware.
• Noticing what actually is, both pleasant and unpleasant, rather than imposing our assumptions or impressions on the world around us.
• Continuing to fulfill our role, purpose and mission, even if the situation or location make it hard.
No matter how temporary our residency, the self-assignment is the same: active relation.
It may be that you genuinely know you’re not living and working in a place you can truly love, or one that fails to nurture your authenticity, growth and becoming. It may not be rural enough to feed your connection to nature, or be to rural to support your service or mission. You may sense a need to get away from the area’s energy, or feel mysteriously and irresistibly drawn to somewhere else – somewhere you came from, once visited, or perhaps have only glimpsed in books or in a dream. If so, you need to heed the call, pack your belongings and follow your heart and the signs to a different home, move your clinic to the neighborhood where something tells you there is the most possibility and need, relocate in the bioregion that calls to you so plaintively. That said, up until that moment it would be best for you to do all that you can to notice, value, connect to and learn from the place where you currently work, practice, and reside. You may only plan to be somewhere for a single Summer, but the healthy imperative is still to inhabit the place consciously and intensely, not passing through blindly or unaffected, but learning from it, drawing from it, and giving back to it in healthy dynamic relationship.
Some ways of connecting include:
• Noticing, identifying, studying and interfacing with the wild nature that exists even in the most urbanized of environments, from an unbridled rain torrent and the birds nesting in the hollow street signs, to those outlaw medicinal “weeds” growing up out of nearly every foot of cement-free earth.
• Studying the areas human as well as natural history, native mythologies and folklore.
• Sensing and engaging its residents spirits, or its overall ambient spirit, energy and character.
• Finding useful ways to contribute to the health and well being of the land and its lifeforms.
Rebecca, a maker of herbal preparations and friend of ours, currently makes her abode in Los Angeles, a city bordered with lovely mountains on those days when the ocean winds have blown its poisonous smog onward to Phoenix. Conceived in Korea, born in England and raised in Scotland, she has reason for being ambivalent when it comes to her place in the world. She didn’t like the arid hills of L.A. when she arrived fresh from the green isle, and judging by her professed needs, aesthetics and dreams it could never be her true home. That said, over the years she has opened her eyes to the beauty of the coastal range, and thanks to her study and gathering of medicinal plants she has come to notice and appreciate not only the species in the threatened wildlands outside the city limits, but also the heroic herbs occupying the edges of its urban parking lots like green protestors at a “grow-in”. She may or may not find her way to the oak covered mountain and supportive community that might serve her best, but she has found the reasons and ways for loving and building healthy relationship with the land where she is.
The consequences of such relationship with place can include personal healing, an enriched and deepened identity, heightened presence and awareness, expanded holistic understandings, your protection or restoration of the land, a more powerful healing practice with more accurate assessments and tailored recommendations, and a greater savoring of life’s everyday meals and moments.
Where We Belong
“These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin.” -Robert Michael Pyle
Every region and place in the world has its own distinctive details and topography, orientation and design, character and personality, flavor and feel, it’s own delineating mix of animal and plant species, advantages and drawbacks, as well as its own blend of human elements such as the makeup of the population, the appearance of a neighborhood, the viability of a business location. While you can take healthy advantage of anywhere you are, some places will feed your heart and spirit more than others, some need your attentions and loyalties more, a few will prove exceptionally opportune for your personal or business aims… and only one place can be said to be optimum for your mission and your fulfillment, one place where your efforts are most powerful and where you feel most wholly yourself, most alive, most empowered, most realized.
The word “situation” comes from the Latin “situs,” meaning “site.” There is an optimal site, an ideal position from which to act upon the world at any given time, and where we can best realize the benefits. A most compelling or emboldening landscape, providing us with inspiration that we then pass on to our clients, customers, readers or students. A most effective place to do our most important and personal business. A community and culture that we can most relate to. Sometimes the situation and place is temporary and will need to change. Most powerfully, is when the most optimum setting for our lives and work calls us to not only remain but to make a lifetime commitment, not just a site but a home.
A good example is our friend Julie, founder of Humboldt Herbals. Her move to the coastal forests of northern California felt not only fortuitous, but a calling. While she was new to the area, it somehow felt familiar – like a return, a reuniting, a homecoming. The community there is full of folks interested in living close to the land, in natural health and stewardship, resulting in her store turning into a location for consciousness raising and life sharing, live music and social events, as well as somewhere to obtain plant medicines and advice on their use. Even more significant, was the effect that the environs had on Julie, providing affirmation for her sensitivity and vision, inspiration to make her dreams come true, examples of right-living and wildness that she can heed and emulate, an ecosystem that she readily fit into like nowhere else. Proof that she had found home, can be heard in her writing voice, as Humboldt County’s wondrous mountains and vulnerable rivers, precious forests and healing herbs speak through her.
There are a zillion “reasonable” excuses for not taking chances, making changes, moving from where we are, or in other ways following our hearts to such a home. But unless we’re locked up in jail, we get to choose our situations and need not be victims or prisoners of them. We have responsibility – the ability to respond – much more healthy than entrapping obligations. We can each take responsibility for finding and then planting our roots in the town, bioregion, even continent where we can be most at home.
It’s likely that we currently live and work in the wrong place if:
• Our place and purpose are at odds.
• We feel “out of place,” anxious, ill at ease.
• We feel like we can’t be our true selves.
• We tend to cite a job, convenience or promises to family as the primary reasons for living where we do.
• We rationalize where we’re at by saying “it’s only 100 miles from my favorite plant-gathering spot” or “only a few hours from the beach… when the traffic isn’t backed up.”
• We like our house, but are uncomfortable with the surrounding area.
• We put up posters or paintings of distant exotic places on your walls, while usually keeping the windows or curtains closed.
• We are more familiar with the herbs we purchase than with the local weeds.
• Our customers or clients can sense our discomfort or dissatisfaction.
• We are regularly more excited to leave on a trip, than we are to get back.
To the contrary, we may have discovered our place if:
• We feel called most clearly, loudly, insistently.
• Place and possibility, intention and means, magic and design truly align.
• It serves rather than conflicts with our life’s purpose.
• We are most nourished, inspired, excited, connected.
• We feel most our true selves, and we don’t feel we have to look or act different in order to earn membership.
• There is not only the opportunity to do our most meaningful work, but where the situation and energies of the land itself serve to enable, deepen and increase the effectiveness of our efforts.
• Whenever we’re daydreaming or dreaming, we picture yourself there, enjoying its urban character or rural nature, it’s southerness or mountain vibe.
• We already live there, and any direction we leave in feels like the wrong direction.
• The first time we visit it, it feels like we’ve been there before.
• It has a particular landmark we’re attached to, a memorable mountain or certain species of flower that we’d hate to wake up without seeing.
• We can’t talk about where we live without getting all excited or teary.
• We’d find some way to stay in the area, even if our job folded or our house burned down to the ground.
• We regularly feel like opening up the curtains and windows, or constantly feel drawn outside.
• Our clients, customers or students sense our groundedness, and benefit from our place-based knowledge, rootedness, and continual personal blossoming.
• We are generally more excited to get back home, than we are to leave on even a fun trip away.
Seeding & Rooting
“The indestructibility of these associations conveys a sense of permanence that nurtures the heart…. and cripples one of the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says you don’t belong here, you are unnecessary.” -Barry Lopez
For the longest time, our ancestors tended to cast its seeds close to the trunk, so to speak, where group tradition and personal lifelong familiarity ensured a comforting sense of belonging on or near the lands of our forbears. Whenever they departed on their great journeys of exploration, their hearts were torn by the separation, and they sang the praises of the homes they left behind. The greatest of the tragic myths invoke the anguish and longing that follows lengthy separation from one’s cherished homeland, the place where they were known.
These days, the seeds of our kind are more like winged, aspirations carried aloft by the prevailing winds, touching down time and again without stopping, finally caught up in the undergrowth of a distant grove. Those few that sprout usually doing so far out of sight of the parent tree, the culture and place of their origins. But like all airborne seeds, once we feel landed — delivered to the land — we adhere to the fabric of place, work our way down to the earth through the turnings of the weather. When the nature of the soil is just right, the conditions perfect, we extend a taproot deep into the body of place, an anchor securing our very being from the forces of distraction and dissipation.
One of the saddest things I have heard was from a dear woman who said she felt bad for staying where she is at. The essential lesson is not only that we all need to assess and evaluate how well our homes fit us and serves us, but that we connect to the dirt where we stand, love the Earth that flourishes beneath our structures and thrives in our yards and parks, to feel at home in our natural bodies and the region where we live… to notice, cherish, and savor place anyplace.
If you are where your heart calls to you to be, or if you have made a compromise and choice to remain, the work is to connect, realize, root, and nourish. If, however, you feel out of place where you are, then I must ask you to consider change. Heed your dreams, scour maps like an excitable hunter of treasure, consider every vacation an opportunity to uncover the holy grail of true home. Pay attention to your desires, your needs, and the almost magnetic pull in certain directions that requires no rational explanation. Use your imagination, and place yourself in the landscapes you imagine. If it doesn’t feel right, move on from wherever you’re at, to the ideal site for your becoming all you can be.
Even the wandering Healer, given to roam, benefits from a connection and commitments to home. This is because we are most healed – and most able to help heal others – when we reach out and engage the world from a carefully chosen base. And how much we and our healing practices are able to branch and bloom, stretch and reach, depends on how deeply and firmly we root.
Tips For Cultivating Sense of Place
I: Directions For Rooting
• Make a detailed list of the compelling personal, practical, aesthetic, emotional or spiritual reasons that you live where you do, including:
1) Practical considerations.
2) The ways that you enjoy it, or feel related to it.
3) The ways that you don’t like it, aren’t served by it, or are alienated by it.
4) How your purpose and aims may benefit from it.
5) The ways that it may be obstructing, distracting or delaying your purpose and aims.
• Make another list, this time of those characteristics you think could make a place ideal for your fullest expression, satisfaction, service and purpose. Beneath each item, please:
1) Describe the particular ways that each characteristic might benefit your growth and healing, contribute to your wholeness or growth, help define your purpose or propel you forward.
2) Describe the degree to which the place where you live (whether the bioregion, the neighborhood or the specific house) does or does not afford you such characteristics and benefits.
• Weigh your responses to the above two questions and measure them against each other. If your current location is possibly serving you and your purpose best, then there is nothing for you to do in this regard except:
1) Become ever more familiar and intimate with the spirit and processes of the land and its natural and human communities.
2) Create conscious relationship with place, finding ways to receive its benefits and to give back.
3) Help establish human community and lifestyle that increases consciousness of and caring for the natural world we are all a part of.
4) Sense, savor and celebrate!
• If you determine that it is more injurious than helpful and healthful, you will usually realize that there are no practical considerations sufficient to justify your staying where you are.
• And if it does not optimally serve your true self, spirit and purpose, your health, mission and satisfaction require you begin taking substantial steps towards finding and then moving to and consciously inhabiting a place, region and situation that will… by:
1) Recalling and deeply considering past place-related feelings and experiences.
2) Researching bioregions and habitats based on you needs, feelings and purpose as you described them above. Ask yourself questions like: How do different kinds of weather affect you? What combination of weather patterns and seasons makes you feel most yourself, invigorated or affirmed, inspired or comforted nHow populated of a place would you feel best in, if a job wasn’t the number one criteria? Do you feel best in sight of mountains, out in the wide open spaces, nestled in a canyon, within smell of an ocean, or? What regions of the United States or the world do you at the moment feel most drawn to, if any?
3) Exploring any such bioregions, perhaps making weekend trips to feel out (more than “think about”) where you best belong, or commit all future vacations to taking long (expensive or not) trips to the places that may be calling to you most clearly.
4) Researching the practical means to make a move in the direction of such a place.
5) Doing whatever it takes to find and reinhabit your place, no matter how unprofitable, inconvenient, stressful for your friends and loved ones, or alarming to your parents, and don’t let anything or anyone dissuade you from what you know you need to do or where you sense you need to be.
6) Strive to be – and practice being – more at home wherever you’re at. And at the same time, be constantly mindful of where you can be most yourself, the place or places that call to you and stir your passion and resolve. Be ever mindful of – and a student of – where you are now, while ever moving either towards or deeper into where you most belong.
To read more about home, nature, and sense of place, order your own copy of The Healing Terrain on the Bookstore page at: www.PlantHealer.org
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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS:
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
There is a complex and in some ways troubling piece of cloth blowing in the winds of change in this 21st Century America, a simple cotton or poly flag of patriotism which has sadly come to symbolize some of the worst and most lamentable traits of human kind. While once an icon of liberation, independence, and self-rule, it has since been appropriated by people who give lip service to freedom while forcing their ideas on individuals and cultures that they consider inferior. Its most dominant color is red, appropriately the color of blood, since in the name of this flag all kinds of evil acts take place including wholesale murder and the oppression of entire parts of our population who have largely been too misled or are afraid to speak up against its ever more perverted principles. How sad, that this flag of individual liberty, once carried by brave men and women willing to risk their lives for a principle, should over the years become something that many folks all over the world now associate with arrogance, power plays, targeted assassinations, and the worst kind of hypocrisy.
That said, I do not support the removal of this flag from the poles where it hangs. Instead, I believe it is something we should be reclaiming not only as a piece of our history but as an emblem for a more just future. Why should we allow hateful people and dishonorable politicians take this once cherished piece of cloth as their own? It is up to us to be the kind of compassionate and open minded folks who welcome diversity, welcome other ways of being and thinking, stand up for justice, and truly act as defenders of human freedom in the face of those groups and governments who now threaten it. Instead of banning it from courthouses and relegating it to historical museums, let us change the culture of dominance that it has sadly come to represent.
Yes, my friends, and perhaps you guessed it… it is high time to reposition and reclaim not the ever controversial Confederate banner, but our vauled American flag – from the racists, the xenophobes, and ecology-destroying drone-wielding despots: Old Glory, the good ol’ red, white, and blue.
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Following The Light of Our Interests, Passions, Obsessions, & Beckoning Opportunities
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
I have been thinking lately about a certain quality– that whenever absent, proves a major factor in our disinterest, dissatisfaction, loss of motivation or lack of progress. And a quality that, when blessedly present, can catch our drifting attention and stir our curiosity, awaken us to deep significance and previously unrecognized beauty. It can affirm our focus and course, or even our most individual purpose or special role. It can alert us to all those small and great things best able to excite and engage us, lifting themselves and us above the deadening norm and into an experience of wonder and revelation. The excitement, reconsideration and insight it brings can lead to action and movement, adventure and growth, the means for our greatest satisfaction. It is what I call the “shimmer,” since it seems to light up and animate only those things certain to have the most meaning in our particular, personal lives. Things which shimmer, are those which seem to us to glisten against a dull background, those imbued with an intensity of color making them stand out from a seemingly monochromatic field and context. They seem to have an almost otherworldly clarity about them, a translucence in balance with remarkable form and palpable substance. When we are children, before a certain age, nearly all things may shimmer for us, each apparently calling for our attention, communicating something we know could be important to our development and well-being. Which things shimmer is different for each person, and this is how you can recognize when a signal, a light, an insight, is for you.
There is something in faery mythology called “glamour,” a spell of illusion casting an aura of preciousness on the ordinary, a gilding that can make a plain rock glint like gold, and make that which we’d find worthless appear valuable and desirable. The shimmer is just the opposite. Rather than being an illusion that beguiles, that which shimmers for us is a truth and treasure revealed. The relationships that serve our spirits, hearts and purposes best, will not be those which are most normal, expected or predetermined, but instead, it is those relatively few relationships that shimmer and refract for us, complex, enlivened, opalescent, and utterly incomparable. Your true mate or “significant others” will shimmer. The friends which will fan your flames and ally with your missions will be those that even next to the nicest of other people will be shimmering in ways impossible for you to discount or ignore.
Likewise, you might “like” where you live, and you may even have a practiced script describing all the entirely practical reasons you have for making what you call a “workable compromise”… but deep down you likely either remember or else can imagine a place, a village, a community, a mountain or valley or oceanside landscape that shimmers like nowhere else for you. This is what brings about the level of personalized bonding that we call “sense of place,” a blissful commitment to community and loyalty to land, a physical reality most conducive to our manifestations and growth.
Not all of us can be sure of earning an income from doing the things we love most. Nevertheless, it would be unhelpful and unhealthful to resign ourselves to a lifetime of working at a job that has no meaning for us, that serves no satisfying purpose beyond a paycheck, that we find uninteresting and that brings us no great enjoyment. Life is too short, I believe, to get stuck in a shimmerless career. Many folks, including artists, musicians, and herbalists, give themselves wholly only to that which they have the greatest love and passion for, and in such cases what shimmers is not what we have so much as what we do.
I am so grateful to have found shimmering love, against a historic backdrop of my failed or unremarkable pairings. So happy that this river canyon sanctuary still shimmers like magic even after years of intimate familiarity. So thankful that a cause and purpose shimmers for me, the awakening, healing, and bettering of the world I feel so integrally and ecstatically bound to. So glad to be able walk my path even at its darkest, proceeding from one beckoning shimmer to the next.
Indeed, much like our own private North Star, that which shimmers for us provides a beacon to follow if we choose, the light of our interests, propensities, and perhaps destinies, showing us a way to turn at the important forks on our personal life-trails. We never need worry about which way is best for us to go, if we are always as much as possible moving away from that which disinterests, disempowers or dispirits us, and towards what most piques, excites, catalyzes, uplifts, enlightens, thrills, fuels, and propels us personally. Don’t feel judgmental for discerning, distinguishing, and choosing between things – you are not putting other things down when you look past them to what shimmers for you individually… remember that they may glow for someone else. Consider this metaphor: Many if not all plants have some kind of medicinal action when consumed, but the exact species that can help a particular person with a certain condition is often one that surprises them in its unveiling and effects, shimmering most for those who most need its healing powers. We do not simply pick out what shimmers, what shimmers equally selects us.
Pursuing gloss and glamour, wealth or recognition, can only lead to distraction and dissatisfaction, far from your spirit and heart, far from what the world really needs from you, and far from your heart’s desires. Or optionally, follow the shimmers, and you are following your heart. If what you do is truly a “calling,” it will shimmer for you, and if ever it stops shimmering it will be a sign for you to look beyond and move on. Find and give yourself to that special place and tribe that shimmers, regardless of how hard the search. Give your greatest love to the lover that shimmers, no matter how difficult, no matter who does or doesn’t approve. Give your greatest attention to your shimmering hopes, your shimmering needs and desires, your purpose or mission, your increasingly shimmering life.
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THE VITAL FORCE
New Science, Vitalism, & Healing
by Guido Masé
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist, herbal educator, garden steward specializing in holistic Western herbalism, valued columnist for Plant Healer Magazine, and esteemed teacher at the upcoming Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference atop New Mexico’s Sky Island (click on: www.PlantHealer.org/intro.html). Guido’s teaching style is a good fit for Plant Healer publications and events, focusing as it does on conveying the interconnections within the human organism and between the organism and its surrounding ecology, with a constant eye to the amazing beauty such study reveals: at any level, and in many different “languages”, herbs mirror people, the plant and animal kingdoms grew up together as complements. Such a relational awareness provides meaning and context, critical elements to understanding and also to healing. Learn more about his work and the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism school programs at: http://www.vtherbcenter.org
The following essay is excerpted from the Summer issue of Plant Healer Magazine, available by subscription. To read an excerpt of an in-depth interview with Guido in an upcoming issue of Herbaria Newsletter, subscribe for free by entering your name and email at: www.PlantHealer.org
When I get to the top of a hill, or to a rocky outcrop in the forest, I like to take a moment and put my hands on the raw stone. It can feel hot, if it is exposed in the middle of a summer day; or cool, if it is deep in the shade of the forest. From here, if I slow down a bit, I can get a sense of the roots of the mountain, deep and rocky, cracked and trickling with water, deeper and deeper until it almost feels like I am in touch with a kind of consciousness. But are rocks conscious? Are they alive? Perhaps not in the traditional sense. Although without these rocky bones, the water would not flow the way it does. Streams and swamps would be different, soil would build up in different places. Different trees would grow, different birds would alight on different branches, we would walk different trails and build our homes in different ways. In short, without these rocks, everything would be different. Scoured by glaciers long ago, these stones are a vibrant, essential part of this valley. If the valley is alive, then the rocks must share a piece of its consciousness. Stones, plants, fungi and beasts co-evolved.
What does this mean? Can life forms be really simple – as simple as a pebble in the streambed? Can all the pieces of an ecosystem hold a kind of consciousness, maybe not exactly like ours, but still alive and perceptive? If you speak with healers from many different traditions, your answer will most often be affirmative. There is a vitality that courses through all of the world, from the waters of the ocean to the rocks of the highest mountains. There is vital force – and it may actually predate matter. It is pattern-organizing, it possesses understandable features, it is self-similar at many levels. Or so the story goes.
But this vital force, the élan vital, has been a discredited concept for over two hundred years in the Western system of thought. Those of us who talk about vitalism, about nourishing this power in our gardens, our forests, our bodies and spirits, are ostensibly barking up the wrong tree: a tree that withered and died long ago. So it becomes very difficult, in academic circles, in writing, or even at family gatherings, to have conversations about vitalism, energetics, or other models that speak of qi, unseen forces, humors and balance in our physiologies. Energy systems are an archaic way of thinking. If there is an “energy” coursing through the universe, it is the dissipative force: everything is fading into a slow, homogenous dust. Entropy rules. Vitalism is dead.
Or is it? The Taoist masters talk about a “way” that generates all things, but also grinds them into dust. All around us, we see life increasing in richness. How can we reconcile the homogenizing force of entropy with the “clumping” and complexity everywhere? Many argue that this “clumping” is a rarity – and that may be the case – but it seems that, out of an initial clumpy distribution of energy in the universe, matter and life have exploded into greater and greater diversity in those rare places of high energy concentration. Why is this? Why did the dust surrounding our proto-star clump into planets? Why did the crust of our planet become so complex, when it was once mostly molten silicates? It all makes little sense, because concentrating matter into planets is the exact opposite of diffusion (and diffusion is a clear outcome of the entropic drive).
It turns out that built right in to the concept of entropy is a tendency to generate more and more complex structures. Jeremy England, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spends his days analyzing dissipative structures: systems that take in energy and efficiently distribute it over a wide area. The systems in question are exposed to an energy source and are suspended in a bath of some kind: water, air, plasma. A matrix. What the England lab has discovered is that a system of atoms or particles, when caught between an energy source and a matrix, will continually rearrange itself, increasing in complexity and reproducing its structure.
In so doing it dissipates energy into the matrix more and more efficiently. In other words, life arises to better fulfill the goals of entropy. Birth and death are the same thing. Yang flows into yin, harnesses substance, and generates the ten thousand things.
While this may help explain how life and a drive to complexity may exist hand-in-glove with the entropic drive of the second law of thermodynamics, it still doesn’t explain why people use concepts like the four elements, five phases, humors, ama and agni, or any other energetic descriptions. An animating, vital tendency may exist in all matter as it attempts to dissipate the energy of the universe, but why describe it in such broad, metaphorical strokes? Isn’t this outdated language?
One of recent history’s most prolific mathematical geniuses, Stephen Wolfram has spent years developing more and more sophisticated models of computation. He uses computers to simulate reality – and provide answers for engineers, weather forecasters, and scientists in a wide range of disciplines. But what makes his work unique is his approach to creating models. Take, for example, the problem of determining how a block of concrete will break under stress. What does the crack look like? Where does it go? This a very difficult process to predict accurately. Historically, it involved massive tangles of equations. Inputs including vector forces, the structure and density of the materials, temperature, pressure, and many, many more fed into these equations and a computer attempted to give a “best guess” as to the outcome. This approach attempts to predict outcomes by reducing the system to its components and their relationships. Wolfram’s approach is different: instead of trying to identify and catalog all of the complexity of a living system, he looks for a simple system that behaves just like the complex one. He has hit on a just such a simple mathematical tool that generates endless complexity: the cellular automaton(.
Through these constructs, he has created models that predict concrete shear much more accurately than any reductionist system ever has. So much so, in fact, that engineers now use a cellular-automaton-based system much more often: not just for concrete fracturing(4), but for urban flood planning, evacuation protocols(6), even the stock market – among many others. Two interesting insights follow from this development: first, many processes in the universe seem to follow this simple model, from seashell patterning, to concrete shear, to wood snapping, to spirals forming, to fractals nesting. Second – and this is crucial – it is impossible to actually predict what the next step, the outcome of the system, will be without actually watching it move. That is to say, we can’t predict the future by taking a snapshot of the present, even if we know all the relationships and laws of the universe. This had been the dream of the Newtonian “clockwork” universe: the idea that we would
discover a master equation to predict all outcomes from a given set of conditions. Wolfram has proved that this is impossible for cellular automata, and calls it “the principle of computational irreducibility”. In the common tongue, it means we can’t get to understanding through reductionism. We have to watch the process flow. Ecologists are beginning to understand this inescapable fact.
Taking these two insights into the discipline of medicine, we can make some interesting observations. Prognosis – the art of understanding how a disease will progress, and also how a medicine or treatment will affect the progression – is very tricky business. There are many variables involved. We have attempted biomedical models, based on receptor structure, genetic expression, and so much more. These predictive models work fairly well, but there is still a lot of uncertainty, especially in the more subtle and complex situations. Take, for example, the use of antidepressants. Many physicians like to use SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), but often cycle through many different ones, starting with Prozac, then maybe trying Paxil, and finally settling on Celexa (for example). They are all SSRIs, but some work in certain people, while others don’t. I have even heard physician speak in strange ways about them. “I’ve found Paxil is better for a skinnier, anxious person,” they say. Huh?
So perhaps we can inform prognosis, and perhaps diagnosis too, by applying the idea that a given set of conditions (patient, disease and intervention) can’t really ever give a consistently accurate prediction through an equation or algorithm. Even our most detailed understanding of the body, even a complete map of the whole genome, the whole proteome, microbiome and interactome, cannot yield the predictive power we are looking for. Computational irreducibility proves this. So what are we left with? Useful approximations, for one – and medicine has been relying on these for the last century. But more importantly, faced with the fact that reductionist approaches will always be approximate, to deepen our practice and improve our results we would do well to follow Wolfram’s lead: if we don’t want to watch the disease process unfold in order to see what the future holds (because the future could include death!), perhaps we should watch a simpler model. After all, simple models are able to predict a range of different phenomena incredibly accurately, much better than reductionist approximations. Can this apply to medicine?
The cellular automaton models seem to apply at many levels of reality – from weather patterns to chemical reactions. The patterns they weave hold within them spirals, self-similar cracks, repeaters, reproducing sequences. This presents powerful mathematical evidence, beyond such well-known constants such as φ (phi), that broad self-similarity exists at all levels of reality, and that the same models are equally applicable at all levels. What if the processes we observe in medicine (disease, pharmacodynamics, healing) draw on these models, too? If this were the case, then by observing processes at one level, we could gain relevant insight into medicine and healing. Perhaps the way the weather moves, the way ice cracks and flows into water, the way summer clouds gather into storms on the updrafts of July, all can tell us something about the human body. Perhaps the way fire warms your soup, or wind dries your skin, can give insight into medicine and healing. The current cutting edge of science is telling us that an animating drive towards complexity, adaptation, and reproduction exists at the most basic levels of matter. It affirms that it is impossible to predict outcomes by reducing the current situation to components and running those components through an equation. And it encourages us to seek out patterns we can observe to understand how health and disease work, because reality, though complex, is based on simple patterns and is largely self-similar, with simple models underlying all behavior. Does this sound familiar?
What remains to be seen is whether these energetic, vitalist ideas actually have any bearing in medicine and applied pharmacology. While we have not yet fully built this bridge, the basic infrastructure does exist: network pharmacology, which uses concepts from systems and network graph theories, attempts to understand how medicine works by focusing on structures that are echoed at many levels of reality. Concepts like “hubs” and connectors, which are absent from “random” networks, are found easily in everything from ecologies to the interaction of molecules with the protein networks in human physiology. They can be used to predict how drugs will work in a living system, and how a disease will progress. Since we understand how networks work (by observing them at many different levels of reality), academic researchers are starting to apply these ideas to how medicinal plants help with disease, and how different people with the same “condition” might respond differently to the same herb. This is powerful stuff, and it won’t be long now before traditional concepts of energetics will become a source of wisdom to understand how medicine works. Herbalists will be ready.
So next time you feel the cool stone beneath your fingers, deep in an old-growth grove, your harvest basket full of summer’s wild harvest, think about the vital force that brought this all into being. Remember how it courses through all things, invisible but understandable, with clear patterns that are both simple and incredibly powerful. Patterns that are encoded into energetic concepts. Energies that are brought to bear in healing human suffering. Vitalism is alive and well – you just need a new language if you want to talk about it with physicists and physicians. I prefer the poetry of weather, the whispers of spirits. But physics and math weave amazing stories, too. And herbalists have always been equal-opportunity storytellers.
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Summertime Enchanted Canyon News
Hello dear readers! It’s another beautiful June in the canyon! The cottonwoods have all leafed out, the woods are covered with nettles, the hedgehog cactuses are blooming and so are the yucca stalks! Dear sweet chamomile has escaped from the garden and makes me want to pet it, and smell it, as I walk by it on the path in front of the kitchen, and the crazy fennel I planted last summer is now at least 4 feet tall! Rhiannon and I have been very busy getting up to our elbows in nettles in order to stock the freezer with the best tasting greens money can’t even buy! It’s stinging nettle heaven! I haven’t seen so many in years. The rains have been abundant enough this winter, and it’s been raining way more than usual this spring! Which is so great, cause it not only helps reduce the fire danger but makes the nettles keep sprouting new tops faster than even I can sometimes believe! So far we’ve managed to put at least 50 pounds of boiled nettles in the freezer, and I can’t tell you how many we’ve eaten, but it’s been a lot of bowls’ worth, that’s for sure! Kiva has been loving my Potato Nettle Soup, of which we’ve been eating countless variations! (My Potato Nettle Soup recipe will be in the June issue of our Herbaria Newsletter, you can subscribe for free at: www.PlantHealer.org) We’ve also been eating lots of nettles with coconut milk and curry spices, with sautéed meat and onions, with sliced cucumbers and homemade chutney– yum! And I’ve been drinking endless mugs of vitamin and mineral-rich nettle decoction— a perfect Spring tonic!
It’s been quite a remarkable Spring. I can’t ever remember another May so cool that I still want to make morning fires in the indoor kitchen on a regular basis, and afternoons so breezy and mild that I’m not ready to dunk myself in the river every hour! We’re enjoying the extended Spring wardrobe options that the cooler weather brings. As usual, I’ve been having way too much fun getting dressed in the morning, and in the afternoon, and sometimes in the evening, too! (For those of you who have never witnessed me in action, I’m a regular clothes junkie, with only a little control over my getting-changed habits!) Soon, I predict, (no crystal ball required) the layers and the excessive accessories will be vanishing, or at least, some of them, and nothing with any kind of sleeves on it will even be considered! (Sorry, lovely ones, and dear vests, I’ll miss you!) Our giant school bus closet has been erupting in blossoms of new pink dresses, boho-style. Rhiannon being big enough now that there are things she can give to Kiva and me! I have way more ideas for the growing “to alter” pile in the shed than I have time (or maybe it’s patience and focus) to enact, but it’s been fun, carving out a little chunk of minutes most days to mend, alter, and create on Wolf’s grandma’s old Singer treadle!
Kiva has been inspiring us all with her running and workouts, she just got back from an 11 mile run way down and back up the river! Wow! She took me to see a musical festival last month, and Wolf and Rhiannon are planning to spend some days together soon doing something they both feel passionately about: exploring historic and art museums! (Rhiannon is not a typical teenager in any way!) We also look forward to visits, first by Meya and her kids from Pecos, and then later in the year we’ll get to host Wolf’s wonderful adult daughter Rain again.
I loved meeting and getting to know new people through the WWOOF volunteer farm help program, but we have have decided to look out for longer term resident care-takers for this sanctuary instead. I didn’t get a promising application from Wolf’s post on the Mother Earth News blog, so keep us in mind if you know of anybody or a family wanting to invest themselves into this life. I will always feel the pull between social life and nature, but I will never regret choosing a life where I can hold so close to my true self, to the living land and all its magic, and to a meaningful purpose!
Rhiannon and I have started taking a day each week to do less work and more play and that has been so wonderful! Usual “Indulgence Day” activities? Baking Rosemary Blond Brownies to consume rapturously with cold milk or a homemade ice cream smoothie, going for a walk in the canyon winds to admire things, watching an old Once Upon a Time episode or a costume drama or some other special movie Wolf’s gotten us on Netflix, playing Cooking Scrabble, taking silly iPhone videos which we usually delete, reading things out loud to each other (last week I read her a section of Gone With the Wind that made my heart nearly burst!), working on some art or other craftsy project, or looking at some our picture books and family photos, amongst other romping and resting. Sometimes it’s hard to believe she’s actually a teenager, we all get along so ridiculously well these days! She amazes us all, every day, with her wonderfulness– her sensitivity, playfulness, creativity, uniqueness, her outspokenness and her well-timed restraint, and her caring! We are all so blessed by her presence, and treasure every day even more knowing that she’ll be exploring the world someday all too soon, and how we will all miss her!
On the To-Do List, June 2015
Bake bagels (today!)
Prepare for fire danger
Finish Spring Cleaning
Harvest yucca blossoms for decoration and for marinating in oil & vinegar
Harvest more nettles!
Harvest roses with Kiva
Harvest bee balm, make pesto for the freezer, and dry some, too
Make green chile relish with the rest of the chiles in the freezer
Make more red chile sauce with the rest of the ristra from Denise
Make granola with acorn meal and Fir syrup
Make a cheesecake or a Spring fruits pie soon!
Make acorn chocolate cake!
Make some pretty cookbook-marks for favorite cookbooks
Finish writing the cookbook!!!!
Read new and old cookbooks and make notes about things to try
Clean/organize the freezer in town
Make tamales with acorn meal
Make paté with elk liver in freezer
Dye some of the giant “to dye” pile
Try dying sheep wool with dried nettles & stalks
Sort/organize family archives in shed
Sort all the new music given to me by Wolf
Work on scrapbook, and art for cookbook
Write next Plant Healer article, maybe on Elderberries?
Clean out packrat nests in outbuildings
Fill tank with rainwater with Wolf
Well, this morning (a few days after I’ve started this!) there are incredible flashes of sun on the cliffs in between a lot of clouds and wind, surprisingly cool for the first week of June. It’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. Time to build my woodstove fire, and get ready to bake, dress up, clean and tend, mend and sing, dance and celebrate another day of fully being in this blessed home, in this special moment in time!
A thank you goes out to those of you who have written recently. It’s always great to hear from you, especially given that folks have quit commenting on blogs all across the internet. We are far away from people here in these luscious wilds, so it is extra good for me to feel you with us.
I’ll close with a tempting bit of decadence, my gluten-free brownie recipe copied below. May your heart be full with all the miracles of your own life, however great and small they may be!
Gluten-Free Blond Brownies with Rosemary
Rhiannon and I like to sit and crack the nuts together just before mixing these heavenly blond brownies into perfection. Of course you can make these without the rosemary, or with less, if you want, but I like how this rather large amount helps mellow out the sweetness and makes the flavors all the more tantalizing. Rhiannon appreciates it when I make a little section of the pan without the rosemary, too, so she can have two different kinds to eat! Sometimes I put white chocolate chips in her portion, too.
If you want to make them with regular wheat flour, just use 1 cup of flour.
I like to put a few of these in the freezer and enjoy taking frozen nibbles of them with tea!
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts. lightly toasted
1 stick butter, melted
1 1/3 cup oat flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground dried rosemary (or 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced)
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Sift together the baking soda, salt, and flour in a a medium mixing bowl, breaking up any tiny lumps of baking soda with your fingers that you may find. Mix in the rest of the ingredients, and bake at 300 degrees in a parchment lined 8” square pan till puffy, brown around the edges, but still a little less than firm in the center. I’m not exactly sure how long, just watch it very carefully after the first 20-25 minutes!
We like to eat bites from just around the edges of the pan when it first comes out, and then (usually!) we set it in the pantry to cool and wait an hour or so until the whole thing firms up nicely before digging into the middle of it!
The Care-Taking Mission & The Search For Home
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
It has been a busy Spring here in the wilds, connected as we are to the larger world through the magic of internet and at the behest of a calling – in the past month putting together another free Herbaria Newsletter plus the next 280 pages-long Plant Healer Magazine, producing a new color book on the history of herbalism and medicine called The Traveling Medicine Show, working on the upcoming Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, and writing posts for several blogs. The advantage of affecting culture and human kind from the “comforts” of a remote wilderness sanctuary, is tempered by the awareness that the walls of these crudely built cabins are in need of caulk and waterproofing or paint, that Elka could use help keeping the firewood split that heats our homes and food, and that I have not been able to break away long enough to run the water pump to move precious water from our rain barrels to our storage tanks before this coming weekend’s expected storm. I have missed the raw experience of daily close contact with the elements and fundamentals of real existence, the ritual chores of connection, the scent and heft of wood and water. This led me to pondering again in the middle of the night, as to what kinds of folks might work best to share our incredible land and necessary responsibilities with. It’s intensely wonderful here in such a wildly natural place, but most would say it has too many drawbacks being remote, in a county with a few hundred libertarian country folk, hard to make money, and anything but hipster. The result of such midnight thoughts was my writing my latest post for the Mother Earth News blog. While most often we post about herbs and healing, this time I cover the subject of “Caretaking in Paradise” – not an appeal for assistance and involvement at Anima Sanctuary so much as encouragement and a primer for folks who cannot afford to buy remote property but wish for a way to live out in nature somewhere nonetheless. I include in the post a list of practical tips for finding and arranging for caretaker positions in the rural and wilderness parts of this country. It brought to mind the times before I arrived in our river canyon, when this impoverished young dreamer was searching out places where I might be useful, healthful, and welcome: “For nearly 15 years, I learned to reinhabit the mountains of the rural West by caretaking a number of places: A wild turkey refuge on a creek 23 miles of dirt road into the forest from the small village of Pecos, New Mexico, planting oats for the birds and keeping the pipes thawed between the spring box and the log cabin provided. A ramshackle cattle ranch west the ghost town of Chloride. An A-frame near the art colony of Taos, that I repaired and painted instead of paying rent.”
The search of course, led me here, and probably could have led me nowhere else. This enchanted land, its shining examples and difficult challenges, have in combination informed my thinking and teaching, and largely shaped the person that I am. It inspired my lifelong commitments to its care and restoration, though that ended up meaning being along here for over a decade. The folks who at one time or another were pledged to live here or who helped pay for the sanctuary all drifted away, except for one who fortunately helps ensure its legal protection from afar, and my family who tend its needs are few indeed, but it nonetheless remains true that a primitive homestead lifestyle and our important duties are meant to be the work of a clan if not village, community, tribe. To thrive, rural, farm, and wilderness land needs to be free from the crowds and concrete of so-called “civilization,” and yet if can benefit from small groups who guard, restore, and celebrate it. Finally, as I wrote for the M.E.N. blog:
“…remember that caretaking means literally “taking care” – tending, maintaining, nurturing, and ultimately benefitting a home and ecosystem that you deeply care about! It works best not as an experiment but as commitment, committing as fully to a place and purpose as we would to a spouse, a child, or a cause. …Whether we end up a lifetime caretaker or making years of payments, we each have the option and opportunity to live our wildest dreams – including a dream of living close to the land and the elements, inspired by its beauty, fulfilled by our earthen role and worthy tasks.”
To write us, email: mail(at)AnimaCenter(dot)org – And to read the entire Mother Earth News blog post, click on: Caretaking in Paradise
A Healthy Look at Anger
Hospital-Caused Deaths, Twitter Indicators, Heart Attack & Prevention
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
The second greatest cause of deaths in this country are factors associated with conventional hospital care, from misdiagnosis to resistant infection and drug side effects, as my partner Kiva and I regularly lament. Recently our esteemed herbalist friend Paul Bergner alerted us to a report in a 2013 edition of The Journal of Patient Safety, discussing extensive research indicating there are an estimated 400,000 deaths per year directly related to drug-based modern medicine and hospital care. These statistics, you must admit, are downright alarming. More than that, they flat-out piss me off… as they likely anger a good number of our Plant Healer readers as well!
But be careful how angry you get when you stop to think about this regrettable fact, with anger looking more and more like a primary preventable trigger of the numero uno cause of death: the approximately 600,000 women and men succumbing each year to a fatal heart attack. That anger triggers HCV symptoms and gall bladder pain, I can personally attest. But some curious researching of twitter messaging habits makes me think about the ol’ ticker as well.
Social Media data is increasingly being analyzed by healthcare researchers for a better understanding of disease patterns and causes. According to a January 14th, 2015 science report on National Public Radio, the internet platform Twitter has provided some very telling statistics. Of particular interest to this discussion, it was found that those places where the greatest number of angry “tweets” issue from, strongly correlated with those areas reporting the greatest number of deaths from heart attack. As NPR science reporter Shankar Vedantam explained:
“There’s new work now that connects Twitter with heart disease, because it turns out that you can trace many tweets to the location from which they were sent. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools traced these tweets and then they analyzed the language in the tweets to see if they were expressing anger, or love, or boredom. And they find, in an analysis of more than 1,300 counties, that the amount of anger expressed on Twitter is a very powerful predictor of heart disease in those counties. And in fact, anger, hostility and aggression on Twitter is better able to predict patterns of heart disease than 10 other leading health indicators, including smoking, obesity and hypertension.”
Bergner points reminds us that correlation is at best indication, and does not equal causation: “Sometimes two things that seem causally correlated are both caused by something else. What if living in a high crime expensive polluted city causes heart attacks, and also causes people to be angry? With obesity and heart attacks, the correlation disappears when you remove insulin resistance, the insulin resistance causes the obesity and it causes the heart attacks.”
Yet, even if a direct causative relationship between anger and heart attacks remains unproven, it would seem to be their mutual causes that need to be determinedly addressed.
There is much to be upset about, and crucial for a healer of any kind – herbalist, nurse, nurturer, culture-shifter – empathize with, hurt over, take exception to, and try to address, confront, transform, or otherwise heal. Dwelling in our pain and anger, however, is likely to do more damage to our health than bring justice to the world. Instead, acting on our feelings can vent dangerous pent-up frustration, releasing tension through direct action and purposeful effort regardless of how successful such efforts and acts are. I am angry over the persecution of herbalists and marginalizing of herbalism, and the threat posed by pharmaceuticals. I’m ticked-off about the lying and manipulative politicians of both parties who continue destroying the environment and supporting corporatism and war, riled at the disappearance of wild habitat for plants and animals and free spirited people, upset with onerous regulation and oppressive laws, disgusted with bioengineered foods and proprietary seeds. And thus, my preventative treatments for possible future heart attacks include helping to gather, store and promote wild seed varieties, protesting against or working to change unjust laws, purchasing and restoring a riparian ecosystem and encouraging its plant and wildlife, refusing to vote for what we imagine to be the “lesser of two evils”… and supporting the herbal resurgence against all odds, in every ways possible. With every strenuous effort I make, I can feel the anger resolve into calm deliberate purpose, feel the tension dissolving in my weight bearing shoulders, my busy head, and my still beating chest.
Most official and unofficial websites discussing heart failure give us the same, not always correct recommendations. According to the MNT Knowledge Center, for example, the steps to preventing heart attack are:
1. Follow instructions on medications usage (!)
2. Make sure diet is low in salt, fat, and cholesterol (even though nutritional cholesterol has been proven to have no significant effect on the levels of harmful cholesterol in the blood!)
3. Exercise in the form of a 10-minute walk…
4. Quit smoking, and
5. Avoid drinking alcohol.
Hell’s-bells, as my Papa used to say! No mention of herbs, of course. Not a single word about not bottling-up our emotions, or making changes in where and how we live. Maybe we should add a fifth recommendation:
5. Don’t get angry, get even! (in other words, take charge of our own health, and work to change the dominant system!)
With that calmly considered amendment, I think I’ll ask our partner Kiva – the blender of genuinely remarkable Margaritas – if she’ll kindly fix me a drink.
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THE MEDICINE BUNDLE:
Magic, Commitment, & Song
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
I was in my seeking twenties when some of the most magical, incredible events of my life transpired, casting light on my purpose and some of what that purpose entails.
Truly, all the world is nothing less than amazing, and we all experience many instances of bizarre timing inexplicable coincidences and unexpected fortunes… and yet, apart from spiritual visions or hallucinatory trips on sacred mushrooms or peyote, extreme occurrences outside the realm of reason are rare. We have reason to pay attention, and to try to comprehend their significance. And all the more so, when they also come with an intimation or proclamation, a message or directive. It is problematic if we read something into an event that doesn’t really exist, project on it our own fantasies or fears, but it is all the more worrisome if we fail to heed the revelatory patterns unfolding around us and for us, patterns that – like speech – have the potential to communicate something to us.
I’d lived in the wilderness river canyon we now call Anima Sanctuary for less than five years at the point of my discovery, having given up an art gallery in Taos and sold everything including my vehicles for a down payment on this inspirited wilderness inholding. I was still, having a very hard time making the semi-annual land payments, and being a writer/artist with no marketable skills, I was always in danger of losing it back to the seller. Trips away to make money were heartbreaking, always missing my home when gone, and often suffering the pain of environmental destruction that my work was devoted to opposing. I could not understand how my calling to pledge myself to this wildlands sanctuary, could possibly fit with a calling to help effect and heal the larger world and errant human society. Much had happened to demonstrate the limits to even my most determined efforts. I was closer than ever to dropping my Quixotic quest, ceasing my trips and activism, cloistering in the canyon and laboring locally only enough to make the payments and fill my belly. And it was exactly in this moment of reassessment and self doubt that it started happening.
Climbing a section of the mountain here that I had climbed many times before, I first laid eyes on a fiber sandal sole, protected from the rain, rot, and the harsh New Mexico sun by the an overhanging boulder. Tears flowed as I though about what it meant to “fill the shoes” of those who came before, especially those who up until a thousand years ago were the guardians of this land and its animate spirits. Holding it up to my own bare foot, the sole seemed a perfect fit, and I was overcome with the feeling of needing to continue – however clumsily – walking the path of committed caretakership. From the site of the sandal, I followed an ancient trail leading upwards to a narrow cave penetrating the mountain heart. I held tightly as I dared to the crumbling cliff side, since a single slip could mean a terrible fall, and eased my way out of the sun glint and into the dark. Once my eyes began to adjust, strange objects began to take shape before me: A design painted in red ochre on the wall, of what appeared to be a red wolf mother with teats. Pieces of pottery painted with geometric designs. And most portentous of all, a medicine bundle that to this day I don’t feel privileged to describe.
Upon its discovery, I began making inquiries of the medicine elders I knew in the various New Mexico pueblos, along with my spiritually-connected friend David Hopper (actor Dennis Hopper’s brother) in Taos. Keep the bundle where it is, I was told, do not sell it or put it at risk for any reason. It was one of four bundles secreted by the elders before the last migration, and the fate of human kind could in part rest on the dutiful protection and consecration of such bundles.
I have treasured the role and duty, however unqualified and unprepared I might be. Every Spring Equinox, I did as instructed, holding the bundle out to each of the four directions as the morning sun first falls on the cave face. Rawn, a witness to some of the magic, has faithfully attended over fifteen years in a row, as Elka stands close to the river and sings her special wordless song.
Does it really matter if anyone watches or anyone hears the song, or if any conscious spirit or God values the ceremony of connection and promise? Would the world really be in danger, or even noticeably different, if the bundle were left hidden in its earthen safe, or sold to a museum, or somehow damaged? Is its significance as large as the planet, or only as big as I, David, Rawn, and the tribal elders make it out to be?
These days, I continue to give thought to what my most effective role is, and what the most effective mediums (art? music? nonfiction books? graphic novels? activism?) might be. I have a million projects I’d like to do, all to help better the world and none meant simply to provide an income. But which, for which communities, and when? What besides guarding this canyon legacy and helping restore this ecosystem is a worthy expenditure of my finite mortal time? How can I do my very best, and give the very most?
The only clear answer I get, is to keep doing all that I can. I have to figure out the specifics, of course, but the general answer is the same whether the perfect fit of the sandal prophetically means “the shoe/role fits, so wear it!,” or if it is simply a sign that I and a certain prehistoric inhabitant of this canyon share a common foot size. Dance your dance. Fulfill your commitments, whether there are witnesses or not. Keep on honoring what is honorable, in whatever ceremonies feel right to you. Acknowledge and put to use the real magic that exists, in contrast to society’s brilliant illusions and slight-of-hand tricks. Do whatever ceremonies give power to your purpose and meaning to your life. Sing your own special song, even if no one hears.
Spring Equinox Blessings to you all….
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–Dedicated To Regina, Bar-Wench Extraordinaire–
For the past several weeks, I have been busy as hell at my desk, doing the layout for the upcoming issue of Plant Healer Magazine for herbalists. For inspiration, I often look out of the window at our remote river canyon and the mountains and forest beyond, a reminder of the beauty and power of the natural world… including the power to heal our bodies with its herbs, our hearts with its wild balm. It is across that river that we go anytime we need something from the nearby village of Reserve, New Mexico, and it is where our dear partner Kiva Rose regularly goes to access a decent internet connection while Elka, Rhiannon and get to stay home. Our precious friend and ally, Nick, helps us keep communications working here at home, with solar powered batteries and dodgy satellite internet service is the only currently viable system, but the tight bandwidth ceilings require we download photos and upload our publications from Uncle Bill’s Bar instead. To some in the herbalist community, it is hard to imagine living in the wilderness so far from the concerts and other urbane benefits of Vermont or Portlandia. Many imagine it a hardship for us to reside in a region where most of the scant human population are old fashioned “country-folk,” with decidedly politically-incorrect ideas and sometimes rough ways. And a majority likely wonder how Kiva deals with hanging out afternoons in a Western saloon. Truth is, Uncle Bill’s is not just a source of WiFi and my outlaw Mezcal. It’s a bastion of old-timey friendliness, where authentic locals discuss each other’s physical ailments and sad heartbreaks, how the recent snows might impact the ongoing drought, the agreed oppressiveness of government authority, and what medicinal herbs grow hereabouts – to the sounds of the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack, over reasonably priced beers, beneath antique firearms hanging from the ceiling, in close walking distance to the bathroom door adorned with that iconic painting of a proud cowboy and his beloved horse blissfully urinating together. The owner Zoe and her posse of strong willed women bartenders dish out loving insults for fun and comfort when needed, and guard Kiva’s privacy and focus the way Blue Healers and Border Collies rise to protect any kids or colts. When there is anything we really need, we can count on the help of the fellows bellied up to the bar, the rural mothers shopping in Jake’s Grocery store next door, and the backwoods libertarians scattered throughout the still wild landscape. It’s possible for city folks to feel a mite superior and better informed than those rural folks living their considerably simpler lives out in the sticks. But before writing anyone off, let’s take a closer look at America’s remaining willful throwbacks, backwoods philosophers, glad anachronisms, dirt covered farmers and gardeners, horse-riding proponents of personal liberty, sassy women and unbowed men. And for that, one need only go as far …as any friendly rural establishment, like our Uncle Bill’s Bar.
If you are ever in the area, stop in for a drink and dance. Tell ‘em we sent ya…
To read more about Kiva’s relationship with rural NM, its people and herbs, turn to her fascinating column in the Spring issue of Plant Healer Magazine, releasing March 1st. To read more about the culture and attitude of rural New Mexico and its fascinating natives, order our book “Pancho Villa’s Motorcycle” from www.OldWestScribe.com
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Killers, Meat-Eating, & Rights vs Considerations
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
It hasn’t been easy being someone active in environmental and social issues often championed by the left wing, while writing about western history and antique firearms for an often right leaning audience. Not easy to be a free thinking libertarian in a society that largely surrenders its independence for the illusion of safety and a semblance of comfort, or someone with a low income who is bent on making things hotter for the elite 1%. Or a lover of peace who practices self-defense moves. Or a guardian of nature who hunts animals, at a time when most nature advocates are against all hunting.
The following thoughtful email from Jeff, an urban activist, asks questions about the latter, seeming contradiction – and I hope you find my response underneath it to be thought provoking. Let’s begin with the premise that nothing is ever black and white, all bad or all good. I suspect this email dialogue could be cause for a heated argument or two, but this could have its beneficial side. Such passions are known to increase excitement, speed up the pulse, and promote action… each a fair measure, you’ll note, of how alive we are…. -Wolf
Hello Jesse Wolf,
I’ve always had a deep appreciation of wilderness and wildlife. I’ve also read quite a bit on Deep Ecology, Conservation vs. Preservation, Environmental Ethics , American Indian ecology and spiritualism, and animal welfare and animal rights . But I have been perplexed always by one question, to which you seem the ideal person to ask (I remember seeing a younger you interviewed in the documentary “Redwood Summer”). As one who has shared very much your thoughts and feelings about other life forms and their natural communities, I was flabbergasted in seeing you holding a rifle and other weapons of destruction. Which leads me to the question I ask to you, and have to many others, but with no satisfactory explanation:
You have great kinship with life and I assume fall under being a biocentric egalitarian, yet you are a KILLER of Life. Please do not be taken aback by what I have said, for I have said this to myself before writing it to you. Then I said to myself, but the most spiritual people in this hemisphere, American Indians, killed animals daily. Is this your mentality when shooting animals? Or do you shoot them for recreation too, perhaps to close the bond between real man and real nature. I say this not with ill will to you, only to elicit finally a satisfactory answer which I myself have struggled with for years.
I love the environmental philosophy of Deep Ecology, sacred and whole earth, and the spirit of all beings and things. But, damn, there’s another side to me that tells me compassion. If I were living in the Pleistocene again, or under similar circumstances now (nuclear winter, meteor strike like 65 million ago, etc.), then I’d have no problem spearing, blasting or trapping an animal for food. But, and I live in New York City, I now have other food choices to avoid killing. Many of my friends are now vegans, and swear by PETA. So, how can one exhilarate the glory of the earth and its life, while at the same time killing that life. Would not Thoreau, Schweitzer and Ghandi condemn this hypocrisy. Is not the short and cruel life of the chicken, pig or calf in a factory farm worth as much as any wild animal, be it wolf or grizzly?
To answer no, is to become Lord Man again. What exactly are the “rights of nature”; is it only the “rights of species”? That’s the paradox I’ve felt for quite a long time, I’m like a hybrid. Radically for the environment, and radically for the beings who inhabit it. Can’t seem to have a land ethic without a life ethic, and vice versa. People working all their lives to put circuses, zoos, puppy mills, kill-shelters, fur farms, etc. out of business, and then people working to put lumber and oil companies, ranches and Big Agriculture out of business. I’m going crazy being a member of Humane Society and PETA, while also the Wilderness Society and WildEarth Guardians.
Can you maybe help me out on this? I’d appreciate your own thoughts on this, especially the role of animal rights in today’s society living along side a healthy environmental movement. Thanks very much for your time, and do answer at your convenience.
Sincerely, Jeff (an activist)
to which I replied:
Greetings To You Jeffrey:
I seldom have time for correspondence, caught up as I still am with the somewhat Quixotic but evermore urgent and time consuming mission of helping awaken and heal people and planet. I cannot, however, ignore such a well considered letter of inquiry, from such a clearly caring young person. Relatively young, I surmise, since traits like introspection, the questioning of assumptions, empowerment and even enthusiasm all too often decline with the passing years and the imposition of harsh realities, blinding comforts, or insipid compromise.
An appreciation for wilderness and wildlife such as yours, or dare I say, a physical, emotional and spiritual or “magical” connection to the wild natural world and to one’s one own true wild nature, is not only laudable but essential – crucial to knowing one’s self, their place in the world, and membership in the chain of life and death and purposeful coevolution. It is thus, that if you are willing to commit to critical thinking as well as deep feeling, I can commit this time to explanation.
Before getting to the “meat” of the matter, let us please dispense with the notion of “animal rights.” There are no rights in nature, only each being’s claim to existence and survival, and a balancing of individual, community and ecosystem needs. Rights are liberties or protections assigned by a figure of authority, be it religious (God) or secular (Government). Animals don’t have any intrinsic or inalienable rights, but then – no matter what the U.S. Constitution says –neither do we. As we’ve seen since the attacks on the World Trade Center, any government-given rights are temporary and conditional at best, and can be taken away whenever “security” or “order” are deemed threatened. In a world of no rights, it becomes all the more important that we ourselves do right… and that we actively intercede whenever and wherever we see wrongs and injustices being committed. In a world of no rights, things require considerations: thoughtful, careful and caring evaluation, relationship and interaction. We don’t really have the right to unimpeded free speech in this country, as numerous news stories have recently borne out, therefore we consider it essential to speak our minds. Other species are often at our mercy, their lives and deaths hinging on us, and thus we must consider their needs for territory and sustenance, postured against our perceived needs for ever increasing population, new housing, or a certain flavor of roast. We should consider and care for animals, not because it is their right, but because it is right to do so.
I certainly understand your discomfort with “killing,” and you would be correct to think no one is more appalled by or driven to action than I by the sight of ancient old growth forests being killed… at times processed by beguiled mill workers whose timber and jobs were all being shipped overseas. As their advocate, I was assaulted, imprisoned, maced. I have fought to oppose the killing of large predators, whose deaths do nothing to ensure healthy herds of elk and deer. I am disgusted by the visiting “horn hunters” who kill elk here in this NM county, remove their coveted antlers and then leave the hundreds of pounds of life-giving meat rotting on the ground. Commercial meat production facilities are abhorrent in every way. Killing people for any reason but immediate self defense is what I would call indefensible, whether it is a murder committed by a thug or a policeman, by a pissed off Jihadi warrior or the Democran/Republicrat president’s horridly impersonal drones.
That said, all of life is responsible for the giving of death. You cannot rinse with mouthwash without wiping out innumerable bacteria, including those known to be beneficial. You cannot walk without ever stepping on bug. In addition, if you eat any plant matter besides fruits, legumes and nuts, you are likely responsible for the killing of plants. It would be the height of anthropocentric hubris to imagine plants are happy to be whacked for our salads, or to think they experience nothing akin to pain! We can only escape the “killer consumer” label if we convince ourselves that plants aren’t alive, or that their lives are somehow less precious and individuated than the lives of our cousin animals. And none of us can be said to have no blood on our hands, who live in cities that were once wildlands full of wandering critters and their native hunters and celebrants. If you live on tofu, your domestic investment in the soy industry is resulting in the death and displacement of vast numbers of indigenous plant life and native animals. If you use manmade instead of leather products, you have helped make possible the poisoning of animals through the manufacture, off-gassing and then dissolving of polymers. And I hate to say it, but if you have ever paid taxes, you have done your part to fund roads being built into wilderness, giant dams that bring about the death of endangered salmon, medical research that sometimes tortures its animal subjects, and missiles that vaporize goats and wildlife and innocent children as well as convoys of targeted “militants.”
Indeed, no one is blameless when it comes to death and killing, and all of us bear some responsibility for the results of our choices as well as actions, but neither blame nor responsibility fully address your quandary. What we need is to understand that life subsists on life, in an act of eating and being eaten that is not evil even when it feels lamentable, life animated and propelled through an exchange of nutrients as well as energy and influence. While made up of a diverse number of interactive life forms from micro to macro, all things of this Earth also exist and function as one mega organism, molecules of soil and microbe and person and bear that are never truly separate from one another. The vegetables we eat, sprouted from the fertile detritus that is the bodies of “perished” (deconstructed) fauna and flora. It is through the process of being eaten, that they transform into man and woman, mother, father, soldier, social activist, or healer. We become a little more like the foods we eat, and those foods re-manifest as us. When life is consumed, whether grazed or butchered, it changes form. For that reason, the ethical challenge becomes for us to be at least as real and whole, as enlivened, as sentient – and as much of a gift – as those plants and animals we eat. The primary ethical question becomes not whether or not to “take,” but rather, how best to give back!
To the extent that Native Americans or any other indigenous people ever seem more “spiritual,” as you say, it is not due to ethnicity but a culture of belonging to this terrifying, inspiring, always changing, natural world… a result of being part of a “gifting cycle,” of direct, practiced, personal relationship to the living earth that we are all an integral part of. Even there where you are in NYC, vitality and wisdom depends not on good thoughts or ideals so much as the exact point where feet touch the soil, where hands tend gardens or indoor plants, and where ideas are put into visible and effective action. No amount of pavement and concrete between us and the ground can make us into aliens, but we can and do alienate ourselves through imagined separation from the processes and intentions of the living whole. Our bodies will inevitably be reunited with the elements of the very real world, but until then, we humans have the option of infinite distractions and debilitating self delusions… scientifically or religiously parsing, without the conscious membership and immersion that make us more native and knowing, more relevant and helpful, more healthful and alive.
Beyond that, yes, I am a “killer” of life as you said, just as surely as I am life’s defender and proponent. I am an occasional hunter, aware that I have an omnivore’s body that developed over millions of years to thrive on a diet that includes a percentage of animal protein, and this body likewise developed the physical appendages and natural abilities to effectively obtain it. I respect the quarry I hunt, adore and learn from them, and it feels nothing but right that we should love and mourn and then celebrate that which we bring death to, and that we are able to admire the plants and animals that contribute to the foods we eat. It hurts my heart to bring them down and still their breaths, or even to make soup of a domestic rooster or pull an edible plant out of the soil by its roots… and this conscious awareness and pain of connection and caring is itself a gift to me, a gift that’s as nourishing to my being and to my humanness as any broth. Everyone who eats their veggies, should spend time planting a seed, watering and tending the new shoots, breathing into it and allowing it to breath into them, in order to honor the preciousness of their life and the significance of their death. And I think that any who eat flesh from a package, should at least once raise and love an animal, before painfully taking its life and accepting its life-perpetuating gift.
While I can support actions against puppy mills and fur farms, I do worry about the ways in which well meaning practices like radical veganism and animal rights ideology contribute to our imagined separation from and superiority over the rest of the natural world. We were neither assigned to be nor evolved to become the all knowing managers of a passive planet, but instead, we are born to be active participants in the natural and purposeful ebb and flux, growth and rest, life and death cycles of a planet in perpetual and magnificent flux. Can the planet support endless numbers of hunters, or even chicken and beef eaters? Of course not, but neither can it survive the effects of an ever expanding number of vegetarians… or hysterical PETA orators, or nonviolent Buddhists, or even of socially and environmentally conscious young folks like you. Until an epidemic, nuclear exchange or bioengineering fiasco brings about a drastic reduction in our numbers, living a conscionable and ecofriendly existence will be an important but difficult quest, and slowing the destruction and denaturing of the world will be our nearly impossible but wholly essential mission.
Should you or anyone else be eating meat? That is for you to decide, based on your awareness of your body’s requirements, and your relationship with your chosen foods. Of course you should weigh the environmental effects, of vegetable and grain production as well as meat production. Measure the indirect and long term consequences. My best counsel is to not only listen to your heart, but also study and compare actual research. Know where your foods come from, how they were grown and how they treated, how far they were shipped, what nutrients they contain as well as any noxious chemicals that may have been added. Consume foods produced as locally as you are able, usually from the same state if not the same county you live in. Are they truly free range? From small farms or corporate? I’d add, never waste anything. And when you are at the table, set aside those feelings of guilt. At this point, the best way to honor the deaths of those plants and animals we choose eat is to intensely taste, savor, appreciate, celebrate, and praise them!
I advise that you don’t look for universal answers or one-size-fits-all-solutions, for moral righteousness or ideological purity, and that you increase your awareness as well as compassion to measure all ideas and acts. Equip yourself with the tools of discernment, not with self assuring dogmas. It is as vital to dissect and evaluate, each and every moment, even as we choose, commit and do. Hopefully your questions will never end, with each discovery and realization leading to further chains and channels of inquiry. Is the warehousing of impounded dogs and unwanted cats always better for them than dying? Are pets and domestic animals more important issues of concern than the well being and continued existence of wild species? Are bacteria, which are being found to help orchestrate so much of our bodily design and function, less important or worthy of consideration than poodles? Are the actions of a woman of man hunting his meal, or even of a person raising sheep for their meat and wool, really more onerous than the burning of forests or banishment of indigenous tribes for palm oil or the extirpation of wild plants and animals for the makings for our tofu? And most urgently, what are the actual effects and indirect consequences of every single choice you make – of everything you either choose, or fail, to do?
There is, however, really nothing to choose between social activism and environmental action, between care for individuals and whole species, between treating farm animals well and protecting wild ecosystems. When I coined the word “ReWilding” over three decades ago, I didn’t just mean establishing wildlife migration corridors, I meant the rewilding of our own natural beings as well as of this oppressed world and its life forms. Liberate the timid human mind. Free the children. Free ourselves. We need to address it all, at once. The hard thing is focusing on each long enough to make a difference! In this effort, I send all my encouragement and support.
I hope I’ve been of some help. In a natural and balanced world, there would be more wild critters than people, and you and I would likely hunt for the opportunity to embody their spirits and extraordinary powers as well as for the strength their flesh can give. We would be just as sensitive to the pain of the plants we take for healing and food, praise them in song and spread their seeds. I wouldn’t have a slew of cage-rattling books to sit at a computer and write, and I would therefore have plenty of time to point out some of the medicinal and edible plants we pass as I taught you at least a thing or two about tracking those fellow creatures you had once emailed me about.
Adventure and savor,
Jesse Wolf Hardin
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