–––––––OPEN TO DEBATE––––––
Vital Disputation & Healthy Disagreement
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
A recent article in Plant Healer Magazine opened up discussion on the topics of political correctness and cultural appropriation as relates to the practice of herbalism. There was at least one person we will not name, who admitted never having read the magazine, and yet used social media to call the opinionated, adept and earth-loving author Sam Coffman a “Donald Trump.”
This same otherwise caring person also accused the publishers of the magazine of being bigoted for printing the piece. This of course hurt the feelings of my co-editor, who grew up a runaway in a black ghetto, and who supports the emphasis we put on herbal access, justice and empowerment in spite of the heat that puts on us. You might think this would result in our deciding to avoid running any controversial material or addressing any sensitive issues… but instead it increases our desire to raise important but difficult topics that impact our work and relationships, and to encourage healthy and respectful dialogue among the wonderful folks who often try to avoid debate.
Our herbal community places a high value on kindness and cooperation, with most being highly sensitive to the feelings and sufferings of others. As healers, most of us would prefer to mend and confer than confront, even when dealing with a harmful untruth or unjust situation. And there is also a tendency among some of us to treat conflicting ideas as both are simultaneously and equally true and applicable. This well meaning effort to make all things compatible has the unfortunate effect of damping dialogue and debate, limiting the natural systems of testing and reassessing, and reducing the value of what is most real and effective.
This doesn’t mean we would be better off arguing all the time over some principal or “fact,” and we certainly suffer as a community anytime there is a personal attack, acidic gossip, online bullying, guilt-tripping sermonizing or self righteous shaming. Internecine conflict among subgroups is divisive, and is one of the ways in which the dominant paradigm maintains its insidious control. and yet it would be stifling if everyone thought alike, and debate – even heated debate – has the potential to lead to a clarification of our own understandings, as well as to the discovery of areas of agreement, shared values, and common aims. Besides, our tribe is made stronger through a diversity of dissimilar opinions, opinions that change and adapt with each new bit of input and information, with each intellectual and moral challenge.
Do we require an apology from the facebook attacker? Not at all, I for one am pleased people care enough to raise hell.
That said, there is for almost everyone reason and opportunity to make amends.
It would be great if our movement were free of moralizing, bickering, and infighting, granted… but at the same time, we could also use just a mite more productive disagreement.
1. lack of consensus or approval
Lack of approval and consensus can be a good thing. Let me explain.
Consensus – getting every relevant person to agree – is in some ways optimal for groups involved in things that greatly matter, including activists making decisions that could jeopardize their cause or their lives, and healers of any kind on whom the health and well being of a person even partly depends. On the other hand, expecting or holding out for consensus has again and again derailed what could have been meaningful action on the part of environmental and social activists from Earth First! to the Occupy movement, and the tendency of herbalists to adhere to “common wisdom” and “accepted truths” has at times reduced critical analysis and experimentation, hampered new discoveries and slowed the development of new perspectives. Consensus can also lead to inflexible and potentially inaccurate dogma, with a diversity of thinking being replaced by unquestioning conformity and group-think assumptions. Without variance, discussion and debate, herbalism is in danger of becoming increasingly dogmatic and inflexible. We surely do not want to become like a posse of church ladies, tsk-tsk’ing the unenlightened, nodding in unison at each other’s righteous umbrage.
What I recommend is something between: seeking agreement and an alliance of values and approaches without constraining analysis and creativity, or dissing variance.
We don’t need to approve of something for it to have at least subjective credence and value. We likewise do not need any other herbalist’s, herbal organization’s, or government agency’s agreement and approval to be correct in our opinions or methods, or valid when it comes to the roles we fill. Not the conservative medical establishment’s approval, nor the approval of the meanly ridiculed politically-correct “PC Police.”
And no matter how rationally or objectively “right” we are about anything, we undermine its truth and power when we try to insulate it from either the appraisal that tests it or the disagreement that contrasts, challenges, and thus enlightens and vitalizes it.
1. a disagreement or debate
It is the nature of a majority of caregivers to shy away from impassioned opinion, disagreement and controversy. Many of us tend to avoid contention and the “negative” even when it involves important issues of government regulation and certification, the intersection of social justice and herbal practice, of access and affordability, the healing of both the social body and our physical bodies – while those who are most predisposed to debate tend to be focused almost exclusively on social issues, and are often moral absolutists certain of the righteousness of their stance. They may come across as loud and indignant, or alternately claim they are above the fray and only concerned with staying positive… in either case communicating possession of an elevated understanding and moral superiority even when addressing topics like elitism, racism, and hierarchy.
This is not, however, a good argument against airing our differences and disputes. Social issues cannot be separated from healthcare issues, and I think it would be great to see more disputation over the specifics of an effective herbal practice, an airing of strong differences of opinion about herb actions and uses, dosages and combinations. Disputes over terminology and definitions, over invasive species and the impacts of human sprawl on plant and animal habitat, over how we present and represent ourselves to the rest of our contemporary society. Disputes about the best soil to grow a certain herb in, which parts of the plant to use, and whether it is plentiful enough for us to ethically harvest.
The effects on the community of a “shaming culture” that pillories individuals for their opinions are more caustic than any wrong-headedness. And reasoned, compassionate disputes are so much less harmful to our community than social media attacks, backroom nastiness, hidden agendas, ignored injustices, or undisputed untruths. Disputes are downright healthy whenever they inspire applied critical thinking, leading to an open-minded and reasoning analysis of our own cherished ideas as well as those of others.
“Dispute” is a Middle English word with origins in the Latin disputare meaning ‘to estimate.’ Its origins can be found in dis – meaning separate or apart – and putare meaning to “reckon.” To dispute is t0 risk the consequences of disagreement in making and announcing your thoughtful estimation. This estimation requires separating out factors and features in order to better reckon their truths, relevance, and effects. And we’d best apply it to every aspect of every thing. Nothing is, as the saying goes, “beyond dispute.” There is nothing that shouldn’t be explored and estimated, and then re-explored and estimated again! No topic is too sensitive to be considered off-limits, and no examination should ever be dissed as heretical. Look at things from one direction, then another, and then another, seeking not only the most comprehensive understanding but also the most healthful application or response.
1. a discussion on a particular topic in a public forum, in which opposing arguments are put forward
For the past five years we have found it nearly impossible for us editors to get reader reactions to specific content, receiving instead simply general compliments on the overall mix of skills, information and ideas, perspectives and approaches in each nearly 300 pages-long issue of Plant Healer Magazine. We have run anarchist urban wildcrafters next to conservative herbal gardeners, articles by Christian home-schoolers along with with pieces about traditional indigenous healers and by Goddess worshipping Wise-Women, the work of evocative folklorists beside that of exacting academics and scientists, and this diversity of experience and thinking has seemed to feed the consistent growth of the magazine as well as what Paul Bergner coined “a new herbal resurgence.”
It is, however, extra satisfying to me whenever any of our content has stirred passions to the point of online discussion, discourse and debate. Heated conversations have at least the potential to add some light! The expression “open to debate” makes sense, given that you have to have an open mind to be a fair and effective debater.
I greatly value those of our writers and teachers willing to voice strong opinions, while being open to the possibility of being mistaken… including Sean Donahue, Renee Davis, Charles Garcia, as well as Dave Meesters and Sam Coffman who continue the dialogue in the upcoming Spring issue of Plant Healer Magazine. It is the mission of this periodical and journalism itself not to push any agenda, promote any single tradition or approach, foster dogma or enforce any “party line,” but rather, to instigate estimation and critical thinking, to challenge every entrenched “status quo,” to encourage creativity, to showcase diversity of thinking as well as further those ways of living that contribute to human dignity and planetary well being. It is our work – the good work – not only to spread empowering herbal information but also to seed and feed deep investigation of our themes and feelings, of our analysis, public discourse and debate… affecting and aiding others as we are able while making clear for ourselves what is real or not, from the stories we tell ourselves to the medicines we ingest and recommend.
This doesn’t mean I want to sidestep issues of right and wrong. It is wrong to call a writer a bigot because they dare address issues like cultural appropriation which have been troubling and sometimes capturing most of the attention of herbalists of late. And I dare say it is right to speak out about how ideas of race, gender, class and privilege impact individuals, herbalism, and our usually shared aims of making this a healthier and lovelier world. If you have to pin me down, I would say it is wrong to stuff our feelings, wrong to vent without listening, wrong to be personally hurtful. And it is right – if anything at all is right – to notice, to feel, to care, to freely express and share… and to act on the urge to help that so often follows among all you deep feelers, culture shifters, and plant healers.
On the subject of healing and caring I reckon you agree with me. But I thank you, anytime you don’t.
–Jesse Wolf Hardin
(Please Share Freely)
Cornucopia: Discoveries & Adventures When Cleaning Out The Freezer
Hello everyone! Sorry for the infrequency of posts, Wolf and Kiva haven’t had time since they’ve been working so hard on the conference, books, and special 5th Anniversary issue of Plant Healer Magazine… and I’ve been giving my spare time to writing and organizing my long anticipated cookbook. In order to make more folks aware of it, I will soon be launching my own blog on the delights of cooking and eating, recipes from the Enchanted Canyon.
The colder days has me cooking indoors instead of in my outdoor Cocina, and appreciating once again in an intense way the warmth of the woodstove and the blessings of a rustic but wind-proof home at the edge of my wildest dreams!
While I quit working with the problematic WWOOF program of homestead volunteers, we continue to host helpers who find out about the wilderness homestead helper program here, including three folks arriving in January for a stay. We provide a riverside cabin and homestead instruction in exchange for assistance in the kitchen, with wood chopping, and with wild foods gathering in the warmer months. We placed a listing in Caretaker Gazette for longer term or even lifetime caretakers, offering a home in this remote and inconvenient paradise in trade for shared devotion to this land. We don’t offer herbalism instruction as part of the package, though if anyone ever chooses to stay I am sure Kiva will make the time to add that to the experience.
I hope you all had a wondrous Thanksgiving! Ours was ridiculously amazing, due to a recent Cleaning Out the Freezer event! Kiva took Rhiannon and I to town a few days before, where we cleaned and organized the big freezer Wolf bought for us. , and it has been such a blessing! At any given time, there is usually a pretty impressive stash of frozen wild greens, berries and meat, and enough roasted green chiles for a years’ worth of chile relish. Sometimes there are wild mushrooms, loaves of sourdough bread, fancy cheeses– some of them homemade, farm eggs, jars of organic chicken broth, paté, and homemade carrot juice, bags of bones for more broth, containers of cooked squash, wild herb pestos and pastes, olive paste, and cooked beans. And so, taking a trip to the freezer in town is at least as exciting as going shopping, and possibly even more gratifying. What a great feeling it is to visit all these foods that we’ve put time and energy and love into harvesting and processing, foods that will help nourish us with memories as well as all the flavors we’ve managed to capture. Inside the many little freezer bags, jars, and other containers are small time capsules of Spring’s ramp butter and nettles, Summertime berries and peaches, Autumn mushrooms and squashes, Wintertime cranberries.
So for our Thanksgiving feast, I roasted some chickens over wood coals that had already been in the freezer a bit too long– some of which we’d butchered and processed ourselves, and served it with freshly baked beans I cooked in the horno, fresh wild greens, gluten-free acorn apple masa “stuffing”, cranberry orange chutney…
…adding some of the last of the garden’s chard…
…and mashed potatoes, as well as a host of treats from the freezer: kalamata olive paste, bee balm pesto, mandarin orange marmalade, hummus, slow-roasted eggplant and peppers, roasted green chiles. I had held on to a single parsnip for a few weeks, just to sauté it in butter to accent everything else perfectly, as parsnips tend to do. It may sound like it was a lot of work, but with all the freezer items, plus Rhiannon and Kiva’s help we got most of it done the day before Thanksgiving, and had two days of celebratory feasts, plus many more delightful leftovers!
After our amazing meal, I lingered with my plate and the end of my glass of red chile wine by the fire, and as the rest of the family left the kitchen, I bid them with good walks, good writing… And with the evening dusk darkening the canyon sky, I lit a candle and said a silent prayer of thanks for my brimming heart, full of the blessings of home.
Happy Harvest-Time News & Musings, from Elka!
We woke this morning to yet another incredible monsoon season morning, the first day cool enough to be called “Fall” and dressed in the seasons special colors. The sun is shining through the misty mountaintops, lighting everything up in that orangey-pink glow for a long while before the heights of the glow fade. I love striding around in the morning light, preferably before anyone else is up, just admiring all the beautiful beings of the canyon, freshly washed by the rain and shining in the first rays of the blessed sun! Another day of being so good to be alive, and healthy, and filled with energy, love and inspiration! Another day of getting to tend home and hearth and family, with good foods and busy hands! I love that feeling of walking around, seeing the things that need tending and feeling the urges to complete tasks, clean things, write things down, harvest and cook, put things in order. Whenever we get a chance, our daughter Rhiannon and I find fun things to do together, like playing Cooking Scrabble!
There are days when my perception of “the work” clouds a bit, and it seems that there’s way too much to do. But, as much as a sense of urgency tends to make me feel like going faster, it’s rarely a good idea– for me, at least! Usually I’m better off slowing down a little bit extra, even if that feels a little difficult, and even if it means getting a bit less “done”. (In quotes, because so many of the things we do really only appear to be “finished” for a brief moment in time– like the dishes, or emails, for instance!) Really, I try to tend things, and myself well enough each and every day so I never get to that feeling, but things happen… Personally, I think time is the best medicine for just about everything that gets out of whack, and maybe tied with health as the most valuable-yet-often-taken-for-granted resource around. Folks rarely seem to have enough time, and it’s one of those mysteries of life I sure wish I could figure out. I think it might have to do with us as a culture having some collectively screwed-up priorities. Maybe more of us would have plenty of time to take care of our things, enjoy our families and homes and our well-tended things, sit around fires and tell stories and bake bread if we weren’t so convinced that other things were more important. But I have to remind myself that not everyone feels like sitting around fires and baking bread when they have extra time, strange as that seems to me! What are your thoughts about time, and what are the things that you find most nourishing or inspiring, that you don’t seem to find time to do? Can you find a way to make this thing or things happen more often, even just once a week? I would love to hear of any of your stories or successes about this topic! Don’t be shy!
The abundance of rain this past summer has been such a blessing in so many ways! Fire danger has been lower than it has been, here, in ages! All the work our past helpers have been in pulling grasses and clearing brush has paid off, also, but we are still a little behind in the fire prevention-pulling plants department, having had no helpers that have stayed longer than a week or two for quite a while. The “up” side of this is that it’s been an incredible summer for the daturas, which have been blooming like crazy all around our structures, as well as near the river, along with gorgeous giant mulleins and asters, blanket flowers, four o’clocks, brilliant yellow sunflowers, snakeweed, and so many more! delighting us every day with their presence! We harvested loads of stinging nettles, and now they’ve gone to seed and some of them are taller than me! There aren’t many wild grapes, but I’ve canned several quart jars of their leaves, and have been drying lots of bee balm and lamb’s quarters in the shed for the winter. Soon it will be time to harvest dock leaves for drying, too. The fennel in the garden is way taller than me, and the flowers are now becoming seeds and putting out waves of licoricey scent through the air all around the outdoor kitchen. The chard is doing great, but the mustard plants have been struggling because of some very persistent little bug that I’ve been busy struggling to control every day, that really likes the mustard! Another thing on my list to research!
It’s also been a wonderful summer for seeing critters! Wolf and Kiva got to see a mama and baby bear a few weeks ago, Kiva has been seeing foxes and coyotes on her long runs, the raccoons have been hanging around at the compost pile lots, and I keep seeing so many gorgeous hawks and multicolored songbirds, and a little owl the other day! I always have to wonder if some of the songbirds are ones I’ve never seen or heard before, or if it is just me, lacking in the memory department! They move so fast, it’s hard to draw them, and I don’t often keep my camera with me on walks, but I’m starting to take notes to help me at least remember all their pretty colors and patterns! And of course, it’s rattlesnake season, so there have been lots of snake sightings since July began, as usual. A few weeks ago I spotted a big, beautiful salamander sitting by the trail near the cabin! It was night, Wolf and Kiva were still working and I came in all excited about the salamander, because I’d never seen one here before. They were both fairly convinced that I’d mistaken an extra-pretty lizard for a salamander, but they both came out with me to investigate with a flashlight, and sure enough, it was one! It was just sitting by the trail being very calm, for a really long time, and we hoped it was ok. They normally live at a much lower elevation, so we had to wonder why she or he was here!
Rhiannon has been baking bread and little tea cakes almost every time I do any baking, which has been so much fun! She’s been enjoying researching and trying out new gluten-free methods and recipes in the cookbooks Wolf has gotten for us recently.
Along with Kiva’s excellent help brainstorming, and with inspirations from the cookbooks, the three of us have come up with some real winners! We had so much fun making a cake for Rhiannon’s 15th birthday in August- chocolate cherry with mocha cream cheese frosting– oh my! And Kiva made a wonderful birthday pie for her special day back in July– coconut banana cream pie with a gluten-free crust and a wild blueberry yogurt topping– so yum!
It’s time to harvest acorns! The ripe ones falling from the trees make us think of and miss Rhiannon’s best friend Caile, who has come every fall now for the past few years. Kiva has already been bringing me bowls full of acorns for the oven and prompting me excitedly for acorn-y treats! And I am ever so happy to comply! Yesterday I made some very delicious gluten free Acorn-Fir Cinnamon Rolls. They are sooo good! I have one by my side right now, piled with too much butter, keeping me company as I’m typing, to nibble on as I gaze out the window at the moon and the clouds between paragraphs!
I’m sure there’s more news that I’m missing here, but now it’s late at night and I’m getting sleepy! I wish you all a very good night, and I hope to talk to you all again sometime after all the acorns have fallen, and been gathered up by us, the bears, and the squirrels!
Harvest-time Blessings and Sweet Moments of Wonder to you all!
GETTING BACK IN TOUCH
Reawakening the Senses
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”
The first step in expanding and deepening our awareness is not developing the power to see far but to feel close, the necessary reinhabitation of our resensitized bodily selves in the present lived moment. Whatever our individual variations on torpor, escape or turning away, our healing, growth and satisfaction hinge on our re-embodiment.
To be fully alive on this planet we must first “come to our senses.” We experience the world and our place within it through not just our minds or even our emotional “hearts,” but through a unity of our entire being including our sensate creature bodies. Oneness with the world begins as neither concept nor sentiment… but at the exact physical point where our bodies make contact with the living world we’re an integral part of, where our sensitive fingertips graze the velvety surface of lover’s skin or a particularly attractive leaf, where tasty meals and attentive tongues meet, where our bodies press into the giving ground that is both our mortal destination and terrestrial origin.
Bodies evolved not simply as containers and vehicles for spirit and will but as receptors for the receiving of sensory information, as well as transducers (from the Latin transducere: “to lead across”) passing this information on to our immediate others, our community and culture. In addition, it’s important to realize the planet as a living whole feels and experiences through its sentient constituent parts, responding and making adjustments according to the sensations and signals bodily, emotionally and energetically transmitted. As the potentially most sensitized species on earth to date, our inherent purpose would seem to be to honestly and unreservedly experience, to awaken every sense and be maximally conscious and aware, to empathize with other beings to the utmost degree and then act to help further, heal and make better.
Some texts speak of how the senses “report” to the decision making mind where all input is processed, prioritized and stored. But while they posit the brain as the exclusive housing of whatever constitutes human consciousness, in truth our awareness courses throughout the entire body in a shifting, informed chain of cell and hormone, communicative enzyme and electrical impulse. We feel through the complex symbiosis of emotion and instinct that we sometimes call the heart, through the five physical senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight, and those unmeasured faculties like intuition and precognition that scientists have lumped together as the “sixth sense.” Those capacities labeled “extrasensory” are in actuality intrasensory and ultrasensory. And when we are fully enlivened – fully residing within our awakened bodies – the result is nothing less than revelatory: a great revealing of hidden pattern and process.
Even the most extraordinary of sensory perception begins with and is predicated on our being – quite literally – in touch. Touch is a primary aid to reconnection, a tool for the mending of the tether, a reminder of what is most palpably real. It’s a fundamental way that we read the details of the world we’re immersed in, reinforcing our connection to all that is and thereby reinforcing our sense of place and belonging. It’s also a way in which we express to those things we touch that we acknowledge each as a distinct and valuable part, and that we appreciate them as well. Flesh to rock and fur, being to being. Its importance is indicated by our very language. When something affects us at a deep level, we call the occurrence a “touching” one. When we start to feel detached from someone, we might say that we’re “losing touch” with them. Someone suffering from a disorienting mental breakdown is said to have “lost touch with reality.” Touching is the way we verify the sometimes contradictory messages we pick up through the eyes, testing any potential mirage with our inquisitive probing hands.
Our skin is the flexible, permeable membrane that sheaths our organs. It defines us as a form discernible from the interlocking forms that surround us, at the same time that it connects us to the world through the receptors in every inch of its sensitive surface. This tactile sensitivity includes specific receptors for pain, temperature, and tactile stimulation from firm pressure to the stroke of a feather on a normally clothed stretch of skin. Chemoreceptors, thermoreceptors and mechanoreceptors transmit information through sensory nerves leading up through the spinal cord and into the brain, where they are primary processed in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Together they help the mind create a touch map, an image telling us where our immediate bodies end and the larger earthen body of which we are a part begins, sensing gravity and ground and thereby determining posture. These amazing modalities make it possible for us to experience the air against our face as gentle pressure, temperature, wind in motion, or even pain if it blows hard enough.
The word “touch” originally meant contacting by “striking,” but in the evolved sense it implies an entirely different kind of contact, gentler, slower so as to pick up and transmit a greater depth of information and meaning. We are linked to that which we touch, held by that which surrounds us. We come to know the world through this touching, and the world comes to know us in the same way. Touching is the act of contact and acknowledgment. We touch with our eyes and are touched in return. We touch the rest of the world we’re a contiguous part of with our ears and tongues and nasal passages as well as the surface of our skin. “Contiguous” means touching… continuously! Our inquiring minds might conclude that all things are interconnected, but it is only through our heightened senses that we can experience all things touching at once. We can open to this by paying attention to the feel of air molecules as we stand in a subtle breeze, envisioning the great body of air simultaneously touching us and the birds above, touching at once everything that exists on and within the planet, touching the soil that in turn touches its ground dwellers, eventually coming to touch the earth’s molten heart.
In the case of our eager and delicate mouths, they easily sense the touch of the spoon and swish of the tongue, distinguish the pleasant crispness of an apple or waffle from the luxurious smoothness of whipped potatoes or gentle waves of soup, the lovely Winter chill of ice cream and fresh pepper’s Summer heat, the curious coolness of mint and the pleasant burn of chili. In addition, they can taste! It’s generally accepted in the West that chemoreceptors – in the soft palate, pharynx and epiglottis as well as the tongue’s myriad tiny buds – are able to discern at least four distinct taste categories: sweet, sour, bitter, salty. To this, Asian healers have traditionally added a fifth, umami or savory (think msg), and herbalists including Kiva Rose sometimes cite fattiness and pungency as others. Neuroscientists and psychophysicists have additionally suggested metallic and water, combining with the rest of the core categories to create every known and possible flavor.
It’s been found that South Americans, Asians and Africans are among those races with a generally heightened sense of taste, while 75% of Europeans and EuroAmericans have decreased sensitivity, and that women often have greater inherent capacity than do men. This is in part due to a higher number of fungiform papillae, raised mushroom shaped bumps whose top surfaces are packed with taste buds. It may also be due to a culturally reinforced degree of attention and focus that is more intense in the case of certain cultures… and a somewhat more sensitized gender. These so-called “super-tasters” are an inspiration for all of us to greater tune into, stimulate, develop and test the capacity we’re born with.
Perhaps the most intimate of all ways of connecting, we taste by taking into ourselves the flesh of plant and creature, fruit and seed. We are rewarded for the degree that we attend and focus, by the melt of soluble dairy fat and the tang of citric acid, the earthy depths of gravy and sweetness of the garden yam. And yet, taste is an ability animals and humans alike developed not just to provide pleasure but to help us discern what is or isn’t wise for us to eat, to select what tastes like it will provide us with the nutritional elements our bodies request and require, and at times to instinctively recognize those flavors indicating ingredients which could either kill us or make us ill. No wonder then, that someone is considered “tasteless” who doesn’t know clever from offensive, and we say they have “no taste” if they fail to notice when their clothes’ colors clash. And we are likely to exclaim “it stinks” when either a movie or a dish of food is too objectionable to take in.
The nose makes contact with the larger world in ways only slightly more removed. The scents it pulls in and takes the measure of are not abstract symbols, representations or stand-ins like the written word or computer code, but rather, actual elements of the bodies of loved ones and strangers alike, the unpleasant flotsam bubbled forth by fermenting compost, the miniscule airborne appetizers reeled out by whatever steaming cuisine trolls for our attention and enthusiasm. Through the damp nasal passages and across our over 12 million olfactory receptors pass telltale molecules shed by the bodies of friends and flowers, or more accurately launched like agents of each thing’s being and expression, announcing its presence, and often if not always offering to communicate something to us. We each draw in hormone laden perspiration containing useful information like sexual excitement or receptivity, anger or fear, whether or not we are awake and embodied enough to discern a message and its implications. At the very least, the ability to smell has evolved in order to help us discern, meaning not only what to move towards but also what to move away from.
It’s said that for an animal like a dog, the world is a complex web of smells more vivid than the information gathered by the eyes, and that we can only distinguish a small fraction of as many scents as they do. Even so, researchers have found that the average human can recognize up to 10,000 different scents, and even a mother with her senses permanently dulled by tobacco smoke can often distinguish her newborn from others by its smell alone. Except in rare cases of hyposmia (inability to smell, usually caused by physical trauma), our inability to process these messages are a result of suppression and neglect more than physiological shortcomings. Anyone who has ever suffered the congestion of a common cold, however, can attest to how bland meals can taste without the additional sensory input of the nose. For a reason to credit the human nose, we can consider the example of a perfume maker whose focus and passion has led to better smelling, which in turn has deepened and broadened their perception. And people born blind have often developed their other senses including smell to a degree the sighted folks may never know. Researchers, seekers and shamans who have ingested psychedelic mushrooms or peyote have on occasions reported a stunning increase in discernible odors, an attention-wresting vividness described as almost overwhelming in the moment and sad to leave behind. Each of these cases would indicate a natural human capacity for intense sensing that we can potentially arouse, exercise and thus maximize.
And there are more reasons for this deliberate development as well. Think about how a particular floral scent can summon the visage of a past lover whether welcomed or not, or the way the smell of leather can so readily trigger reminisces of childhood rides on oiled saddles. More so than any other sense, smell is closely interlinked with the limbic system, those parts of the brain like the amygdala and hippocampus that process emotion and associative learning. The olfactory bulb that sorts sensation into perception is an essential organ of memory, mood and behavior, and any awakening and growing of this sensory capacity could deepen associative recall, tightening the weave of information and reflection, intensifying feelings to the point that they become hard to ignore and not tend, overall increasing our vital experiencing of life and this world.
So it is with the sense of hearing, so often taken for granted. How often do even the most aware of us begin to ignore the music in the background, until the wondrous vocals and quaking strings seem to fade out into unnoticed and unremembered background noise? Learn to block out the roar of jets over our heads, and in that way miss out on the conversations between wind and trees? Or ignore the telling tones of the highway rushing past until the sound of screeching brakes causes us to stop in our tracks?
Admittedly, not all sounds are even available to us, depending on how quiet they are or what pitch. Higher ultrasonic and extremely infrasonic frequencies are out of our reach, making us naturally oblivious to the echolocation calls of bats as well as the deeper rumblings of signaling elephants. There is, however, a wide range of audio frequencies that we can hear, from 15Hz and 20,000Hz, through which means anyone without hearing damage can powerfully discern, learn from, respond to, and thoroughly enjoy the world. Sounds not only warn us of dangers before they get too close for us to react, and allow for complex communication between us that would be impossible without words, but they also describe the ever changing environment we live in and pass through, and afford us the pleasure of a planet’s native music, the rhythm of a drumming rain on a tin porch roof, the singing insects, the “shush, shush” that tall wild grasses make as they brush against each other to get our attention. The laughter of children and the sweet sobbing of a woman who has loved and lost. All sound is but a vibration in air or water that in turns vibrates the tiny bones in our ears and sends signals – like our other senses – to our lapping brains.… and then vibrates our feeling beings and spirits. We can tune-in with our ears to the aural magic of all that surrounds us, practice hearing all the layers at once even when someone is talking to us, and quiet our own talking minds at times to fully give way to the tides of a favorite melody coming through the stereo speakers.
It is sight that I mention last, exactly because it is the sense we tend to use most when “looking” at the world, to the neglect of the rest. And because it’s the way of perceiving that we can do from the greatest distance, while what we need is to literally come closer. We say “I see” when we understand something, as if “seeing were believing.” Visual perception, like all perception, is subjective. What we perceive depends on not only the strength of our eyes and ability to notice, but also the subjectively developed perceptual patterns that we fit information into, and the belief systems or preconceptions that we harbor. It’s not just culturally impressed standards but also subjective temporal attitude that determines whether we find a boyfriend or girlfriend beautiful or not. A person in love may see only beauty in their partner, but once there are hard feelings between them, the same face may seem to hold no attractive features. We’re not just talking about interpretation here, but the facts of what we consider we’ve perceived, just as ten witnesses to a crime may tell ten different versions of what happened even if they didn’t know the victims and had no preexisting bias. Any stage magician can tell you that what the audience sees is what the entertainer suggests they see, directing focus, utilizing distraction, making hay of their existing assumptions and raising expectations.
Our visual system responds not to vibrations but to photons of light, the graduations of light and dark that created forms are perceived by photoreceptive cells on the retinal membrane. The resulting neural impulses are processed hierarchically in the cerebral cortex, assigning prominence as well as meaning, deciding what is to be further assessed and what can be safely ignored. It is that aspect of visual perception that we can best and most beneficially develop, making more and more of those decisions conscious, consciously choosing in the moment what should be focused on, remembered or acted on… with less and less visual information being discounted. And increasing what we actually see is fundamental to the development of related visualization, realistic projection and foresight. One’s personal revelatory “vision” of the world, of their true self and their calling, is for whatever reasons only as vivid and accurate as the signals they perceive from the existing communicative world. For that, we must remove the blinders of denial and dogma, illusion and denial, wholly seeing and feeling and living again!
Before we try to reconfigure reality, we must first learn to wholly notice, clearly perceive and discern what is, undistracted by any delusion or projection. It is up to us to come back to our senses, and in that way come back to the interactive world we are meant to be response-able, proactive, and joyous participants in.
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Good Cops, Bad Cops
Exposing the Real Wyatt Earp: “The Fighting Pimp”
(OK – we’ll ask him to keep on his britches!)
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
As a naturalist, ecophilosopher, and booster of folk herbalism, I have many readers who are perplexed about my simultaneous interest in history with all its militarism and violence, treachery and injustice… and I say, not only because it is a fascinating collection of dramatic and consequential tales, but because of what we can learn in the process about ourselves, our culture, government, and popular icons.
Part I: Police Shootings, Unworthy Heroes, & Honorable Peacekeepers
In these days when the news is filled with reports of police shooting unarmed citizens, it seems important to remember that not all cops are bad. Nor, as we are becoming more and more aware, are they all good like we may have been told when we are kids. I have been beaten by police for no reason at environmental demonstrations, and had them bear false witness against me, and yet the rural county where we live has had a number of honorable sheriffs that we could trust to respect the people as well as do all in their power to protect us. It was the same back in the days of the “Old West,” with there being many seldom remembered lawmen who bravely and honestly stoop up for the common folks, alongside a number of badge wearers who used their power to literally “get away with murder.” It seems crucial that we measure every lawman as an individual, regardless of the fairness of our established laws… and that we take great care as to who we claim as our cultural heroes!
It is kind of crazy to imagine things ever are or were as simple as “good” and “bad,” white hat and black. Western lawmen were human beings like the rest of us, making hard choices in difficult situations and fast changing times. Whether we respect their choices or not, we have to sympathize considering all they faced and dealt with. Whether known as sheriff, marshall, deputy, ranger, policeman or peace officer, those who wore a badge found themselves caught between the demands of a city council or state government and the practical realities of hard-bitten frontier towns where freedom and opportunism were both worshipped and defended. Many received no pay other than a percentage of any money that those they arrested might be fined, contributing to the most honest officers having to moonlight at a second job, and others to turn to protection rackets or other crimes. Those who received salaries, usually made less than the not only the saloon-keepers but even the saloon sweepers, a monthly wage no better than that of the cowpunchers they rode herd on come Friday and Saturday nights. Their work could best be described as weeks of boring tasks, punctuated by moments of high drama and sometimes deadly confrontation. For these reasons and more, very few of even the most famous lawmen actually spent that many years wearing the star. While some like famed Jeff (Jefferson Davis) Milton could boast of lifelong lawman careers, they were the exceptions. Wild Bill Hickok, for example, served only a few stints between less officious gunslinging, while our subject, Wyatt Earp, worked only as a policeman in a couple of Kansas towns and for less than 3 years, other than being temporarily deputized by his brother Virgil in time for the O.K. Corral gunfight.
It is the image of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight – or more accurately, the fight in a back alley near the O.K. Corral – that defines the western lawman for most people today, as popularized by early sensationalist dime novel biographer Stuart Lake, featured in dozens of books in the years since, and burned into our memory thanks in part to the highly inaccurate movie Wyatt Earp and more so due to the powerfully acted but also fictionalized film Tombstone. We are comforted in this case, by the notion of a brace of officers standing up for law and order and protecting the innocents with an air knight-like nobility and fitting panache, unintentionally setting off a firefight with their well meaning enforcement of sensible gun control laws. Less comforting is the reality of two contending politicized factions of part time criminals and full time hustlers vying for control of the town of Tombstone, using an unpopular and seldom enforced ordinance against carrying guns as the excuse to confront a handful of cowboys who were already saddling up their horses and on their way out of town. There is something creepy about the Marshall pinning badges not only on Wyatt but on the colorful lawbreaker and killer Doc Holliday in order to carry out what many testified to be more of an execution than fair fight.
In the “days of yesteryear”, and to some degree in these modern times as well, things like right, wrong, justice and law enforcement in the American West were anything but clear-cut. Instead of the proverbial black-hatted bad guys and white-hatted heroes, upon close inspection what we find are more like the gray hats of complex people acting on agendas that sometimes appeared – to certain vested interests, in specific situations – as being either dangerous threats to the community needing to be removed or else its brave defenders upon whom civilization itself seemed to depend. Not only were they judged differently depending upon the circumstances, but many at one time or other worked both sides of the fence.
The job of lawman may have been underpaid but it provided potentially valuable inside information and special advantages sometimes contributing to officers branching out into extortion, or hanging up their badges altogether in exchange for a potentially more lucrative career of crime. Whether they were praised or reviled for their forays outside the law depended on the situation and context, and just who was doing the appraising. The bounty hunter Tom Horn was treasured by the well financed and often European cattle barons that hired him to both punish assumed rustlers and enforce their monopoly on grazing, but was hated by the small struggling homesteaders whom he primarily targeted. The respected lawman Sheriff Henry Brown of Caldwell, Kansas, was awarded a gold plated, presentation model Winchester rifle by a grateful citizenry for his services, but then took this same rifle with him on a botched robbery attempt on the bank in nearby Medicine Lodge. At the same time, experience as a gunslinger and lawbreaker were excellent qualifications for the post of sheriff, and it often required bending or ignoring the fine points of law and order to get the job done. In the cases of Hickok and the Earps, town managers were more than happy to overlook their zealous use of their Colt’s revolvers to bludgeon or shoot the miscreants undeniably making life difficult for law abiding folk.
Wyatt Earp is a perfect case in point, our collective memory of him being one of a brooding anachronism with a flat brimmed hat and drooping mustache, a reluctant hero and near magician with a gun. More often and more accurately he was a gambler and provider of womanly flesh, a man whom many contemporaries referred to as the “fighting pimp”. He can neither be wholly lionized, nor vilified, being more than anything typical of any of the “sporting men” who joined with the countless other opportunists who came west in search of riches and adventures. What distinguished him and others of his ilk, was a degree of hard-headed determination and a willingness to kill. But even given his various shooting scrapes, the primary reason we remember him is for the exaggerations and outright fabrications about his experiences that started with the release of those dime novels while he was still alive.
Part II: Wyatt Earp Myth & Reality
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)
Like many of you, I grew up watching a fictionalized Wyatt Earp played Hugh O’Brien on TV, a morally spotless good guy always looking out for everybody but himself. To the contrary, the real Wyatt was in many ways a self serving and self aggrandizing scoundrel.
Wyatt was born March 19, 1848 to a family that locals came to call the “fighting Earps,” since anytime the father and brothers weren’t fighting other folks they could likely be found brawling amongst themselves. When he got his first law enforcement job as constable of Lamar County, Missouri in 1870, he was heard to brag about how the badge made it possible to do as he liked without any more worry about being thrown in jail. A year later he had quit and moved on into the territory of the Cherokee, where he and a friend named Edward Kennedy were pursued, arrested and fined for rustling horses. By 1874 he could be found with his brothers Jim and Morgan and their mistresses in the then rowdy cow-town of Wichita, Kansas, where he made money gambling in the saloons and managing a stable of prostitutes… several of whom registered for business using the Earp last name. It was for kicks, it’s said, that he joined local officers in tracking down a wanted miscreant, when the act of emptying their prisoner’s pockets of $148 for “expenses incurred” reminded him of the extracurricular opportunities law enforcement work could provide. Wyatt then got hired as a Wichita policeman himself in 1875, his performance described by the Wichita Weekly Beacon newspaper as “unexceptionable,” the most exciting incident he was involved in being his dropping of his revolver on the saloon far and being barely missed by his own bullet. Later that year he was arrested and fined for pummeling his boss’s main rival during the election campaign for city Marshall. The Earps moved out of town two weeks after his dismissal, prompted by the city council issuing a warrant for their arrest as vagrants.
Not exactly the best start for what would be a future righteous legend.
Soon after being run out of Wichita, Wyatt Earp worked two short stints as deputy of of Dodge City, possibly shooting one fugitive in the back during a chase, clubbing dozens of rowdy party-goers with the butt of his sixgun, and putting a bullet in the leg of a Texas cowpoke in the course of enforcing the ordnance against carrying guns in town. Resigning his post, he fatefully chose the silver mining town of Tombstone for his next attempts to strike it rich with as little effort as possible. It was there that he and his brothers came into conflict with an equally roguish band of part time rustlers who called themselves simply “the cowboys,” with the Earps being both romanticized and provoked by the self proclaimed champion of “law and order”, Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum.
In March of 1881, the Benson stage was robbed by someone with insider information, and Wyatt came under suspicion. Years later his brother Virgil’s wife wrote that she had hidden the masks and disguises they used, but regardless of the facts, things were heating up for what would be the shootout upon which much of Wyatt Earp’s future fame will be predicated. In June, the then Mayor Clum appointed Virgil the town Marshall, who in turn temporarily deputized Wyatt and Morgan Earp as well as the always “game” Doc Holliday. By October 15th things had heated up between the contending parties and their respective political bases, beyond the point of hope for a peaceful resolution. It was ironic, many would agree, that the gun toting, often lawbreaking Earps would again use the enforcement of early, widely resented gun laws to spark the confrontation that everyone had been so long expecting.
On that infamous afternoon of October 26th, word had gone out that “cowboy” faction members Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Clairborne and Tom and Frank McLaury were armed and gathered in the aforementioned alley, saddled and ready to ride out, though clearly making a point of taking their time. As was indicated by later trial evidence, of the five cowboys only Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry were “packing iron”, while all three of the Earps and Holliday were carrying. The fight apparently went down much as dramatized in the movie “Tombstone,” other than the ridiculous fanning of a dozen rounds into the nearby Fly Photography Studio: Virgil yells at the cowboys that “I want your guns,” as Wyatt draws his Colt and Doc jabs his shotgun menacingly at Tom McLaury. The spunk Billy Clanton pulls his revolver in response, as an unarmed Tom McLaury struggles to get his Winchester 1873 rifle out of the scabbard on his horse. Somewheres up to 30 shots are fired in a space of around 25 seconds or so, a wild melee in which Sheriff Behan pulls Billy Claiborne to safety, the troublemaking Ike Clanton runs, Billy Clanton shoots at Wyatt, Wyatt shoots at the more formidable Frank McLaury, and Earp exchange shots with F, and Doc putting two loads of buckshot into Tom as his horse spins out of his grasp. The fight ends with the thrice-shot and quickly bleeding-out teenager Billy Clanton hollering for more bullets as he clicked his emptied revolvers, and a dazed Morgan Earp and puckish Holliday now armed with a Colt handgun, facing down a wounded Frank McLaury who bravely asserts “I’ve got you now.” “You’re a daisy if you do,” Holliday is reported to have replied, as he and Morgan simultaneously drop him dead. Scorecard: The McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, deceased. Doc Holliday, a flesh wound to the hip. Morgan, a round in the shoulder. Sheriff Virgil Earl, a .45 caliber hole through is right calf. Wyatt, unscathed and movie-poster proud. Later, Wyatt and Doc are both arrested, and then freed in November. Judge Spicer felt obliged to drop charges in part because they hadn’t gunned down the despised but unarmed and retreating Ike Clanton.
Dissatisfied with the ruling, cowboy compatriots ambushed and shotgunned Virgil Earp first, crippling him, and then blew away Morgan Earp as he bent over a billiard table. One of the suspected shooters was Frank Stillwell, who contrary to the movie version was at work at the stock yards in Tucson and not stalking the Earps when he first had his legs shot out from under him, and then suffered two loads of buckshot and four rifle rounds to the torso. Earp and friends put five holes in a second suspect, Indian Charley, before he could get away from the area, and the third suspect Pete Spence promptly asked Sheriff Behan to place him in protective custody. Satisfied at having taken the law into their own hands and extracted revenge, Wyatt and Doc left Arizona… but not as triumphant lawmen, as fugitives with warrants out for their arrest and a reward on their heads. For Earp, the O.K. Corral shootout was the historical high point from which he slowly spiraled down into a life of increasing irrelevance and personal desperation.
Hugh O’Brien aside, Wyatt never ever wore a star on his chest again. Instead, in the ensuing years he travelled around the West with his brother Jim running confidence schemes and real estate scams that bankrupted unsuspecting rubes, and Wyatt was actually arrested a number of times including in Alaska and in Idaho on two counts of claim jumping. His notoriety won him honored work as referee of the world champion boxing match in 1896, a bout which he ended due to a foul he called against contender Fizsimmons, a judgment it was commonly believed was made because of bets Wyatt had placed on opponent Sharkey. As late as 1911, at age 63, Earp was arrested again for vagrancy and for bilking tourists in a bunco game.
Wyatt spent much of his later period trying to get film star William S. Hart to publish his autobiography and make it into a movie, but Hart found problems with the manuscript’s veracity. Stuart Lake held no such reservations, and printed his pack of colorful lies under the title “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall.” 70 years later there have been several imaginative programs and movies made about his life, with little understanding of or attention to the complexities and twists of this most famous lawman/outlaw.
In the end, it was no shootout that did him in. The year of the stock market crash, on January 3, 1929, Wyatt Earp died as he had lived: a “pain-in-the-arse”… not from bullet wounds, but from prostate cancer!
Part III: Mixed Bags & The Highest Standards
“Don’t shoot! I can’t breathe!” -Recent protest chants against police injustices
After 2015s incidences of citizens being killed for sassing the cops or trying to run, we are left wondering what is different now and in the days of the Wild West… if anything at all. The famous/infamous Wyatt Earp never suffocated any black men for selling loose cigarettes or drivers for reaching for their keys like officers were accused of this year, but he damn sure shot unarmed men in the back who dared to be so disrespectful as to try to run away.
Then, as now, we are largely left with what we as a collective people seem to desire more than truth: the hope that can only come from an excitingly portrayed legend. The truth, to the degree that we are willing to listen, is that we humans are all a mixed bag of qualities and faults, and that America’s chosen heroes are often not the best examples of laudable character.
And the truth is that of all the people on this planet, the ones we should be holding to the highest standards of all are those that we have as a society permitted to carry a badge and a gun.
Books on Western history and culture by Jesse Wolf Hardin are available for sale at: www.OldWestScribe.com
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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.
www.PlantHealer.org – www.AnimaCenter.org/blog
If you find this posting useful, let us know at: mail(at)AnimaCenter.org
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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!