Botanical Medicine – also known as Herbalism, or just Herbal Medicine – is the study and practice of safe & sustainable use of herbs for whole-person health, including gathering & use of safe/available plants, basic medicine making & basic nutrition. In the process, we learn more about our environment and the natural world. Read more
In my practice I often play the role of an ambassador, explaining the thought processes & approaches of a clinical herbalist. One of the ways that makes practicing herbalists distinctive from other professions is the chain of custody of their medicines, and their embedded connection with the living, breathing landscape.
Herbalists occupy & triage the continuum between patient, practice & Earth. This is especially true when they make their own medicines–they oversee and craft a chain of custody. When I supply a formula of marshmallow root & chamomille flowers that have come from my garden, I’m not offering just a product. I’m offering a deep understanding of how those plants grow, evolve, and interact with their environment. In overseeing the craft of that product, it’s not just better quality–we invite a dimension of knowing unique to our practice. We are helping our patients evolve their narrative and understanding. This is an important aspect of the long-term healing process.
It’s as if we have one hand stretching into the landscape; formulating, crafting. And with the other, we can offer another a connection, language and, in some ways, a truth.
Herbal Terminology Demystified: A Bit on Herbal Actions, Energetics & Listening to the Language of the Plants with our Bodies
(For a PDF handout version, see Resources.) Plants are complex, living beings—just as we are. And their interactions with our bodies in the context of healing can begin to be understood in terms of patterns of basic energetics: heating & cooling, drying & moistening.
Herbal actions describe the observable effects of herbs in the body. Energetics refers to the overall characteristic or quality of an herb— for example, we know cucumbers are cooling and ginger is warming. This language of energetics & actions gives us a way to understand the broad spectrum of plants in a healing context. It also allows us to get creative with plants and determine substitutes when our first choice isn’t available. A number of bitter plants can be used to assist digestion. Similarly, a wide range of antiinflammatories can be called in to relievethe pain & tension associated with certain types of inflammation. Familiarity with the language of herbal actions and energetics opens our senses & imaginations to the plants around us, and ultimately helps deepen our practice with them.
Botanical medicine is an art & a science. And this is the art part. The way plants flow through us can be perceived & described in several ways. Read more
I presented a workshop titled Trees, Humans & Healing: Alder, Douglas-fir & Hawthorn yesterday at the 2nd Dandelion Seed Conference in Olympia, WA. Though I was sick (with a kidney infection! Argh!), it was a fantastic 2 hours spent with these 3 locally abundant & important tree species.
So why trees as opposed to a general discussion on plants? There’s something a bit different that sets them apart. Trees occupy a special space in our imagination & hearts. Their size & reach for the sky confers a sense of majesty, and the joining of earth & sky. Their long lifespan makes them an instrumental aspect of surroundings & landmarks and provides a sense of continuity that spans generations. Many traditions & cultures employ trees (and related metaphor & imagery) in their spiritual traditions and cosmos. And the branching patterns characteristic of trees are seen in many biological : ecoogical forms: rivers, veins, neurons, etc. So trees touch something deep. They also meet our physical needs with food, shelter, and medicine.
Trees & forests play a critical role in global ecological balance. They produce oxygen, remediate soil, prevent erosion, provide shade, and regulate the global weather. And we’re rapidly changing forests. At the end of the last Ice Age, about half of our planet was forested. Now it’s less than a third, with most deforestation occurring in the last few decades. There are ecological and, arguably, spiritual consequences to this rapid loss of forest ecosystems. And there are public health concerns too–increased exposure to zoonotic infections, poorer air quality, nutrient transition, and others. And, in the Pacific Northwest, our temperate rainforests are special–they have more biomass per hectare than anywhere on Earth.
So as we’re considering community and socioecological health, tree medicine & forests are a necessary component of this conversation.
Feel free to send an email for the notes here. (I’ll also be posting the monographs for these trees over the next several days.)
Hey everyone–I recently had a conversation with Mel at HerbGeek on the future of integrative herbal medicine. We discussed free clinic work, narrative medicine, whole systems design, the upcoming Dandelion Seed Conference. It’s basically my ruminations on the art & science of recontextualizion in herbal medicine–and I think you’ll enjoy it. Read the full interview here.
Melanie: Your eclectic background includes studies and research in medical anthropology, ecological healing, and whole systems design. Can you explain how these separate fields all relate to one another and how they’ve shaped your approach to herbal medicine?
Renee: Why, thank you! You do great interviews (and feature important questions), so I’ve been looking forward to this.
Regarding these different areas of knowledge, there’s a method to the madness. It all starts with the observation that humans are doing completely unprecedented things to their bodies, other people, and other species. These disciplines and areas of inquiry–medical anthropology, environmental health, and whole systems design–offer language and insights that help us understand the unfolding story and empowers us to draft an alternative. How we understand and respond to these new evolutionary trajectories and technologies relies on the integration of currently disparate knowledge bases. Ultimately, I find the language and constructs of these areas extremely useful for understanding the human condition and illuminate new directions for integrative herbal medicine.
In 2008, I joined the researchers at the Center for World Indigenous Studies on projects relating to traditional medicine and sciences and environmental diplomacy. My post involved analyzing and building policy frameworks, and as I grew in this position I developed a great interest and respect for the language and insights of whole systems design. It helps me consider aspects of complex systems such as scale, paradigms, leverage points, systems attractors and feedback loops. Simply put, I just understand it as the science of hacking. Social hacking in particular.
The field of herbal medicine is vast, complex, and life affirming. It is humanity’s oldest form of medicine. The legacy of plants and humans in healing contexts spans hundreds of generations, and across all cultures. We’ve co-evolved with these plants–they’re an inextricably part of our bodies and identities.
In the last few decades, technological developments have totally altered our bodies and ecosystems. We have new, deeper ways in which to intervene. And these interventions are risky because we don’t yet have a grasp on the complexity of the systems that we’re tinkering with. Sometimes, or pretty often, actually, our interventions are naïve and end up damaging adaptive capacities or spur unintended consequences.
Now, I’m not anti-development, nor do I romanticize the past. I do point out that we’re moving forward in radical development as an entire species with fragmented understandings of health & ecological interdependencies. Medicine is decontextualized, the medical field is fragmented and led on a leash by corporate entities. I don’t see the reality of our ecological dependencies being considered as we’re designing future humans or plotting to colonize other planets. I don’t see much leadership from our healers on the biggest questions humanity has ever faced. Medical practice & health care should be proactive instead of purely reactive. Who’s in the driver’s seat here? Read more
I recently returned from assisting with CALM at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in SW Montana. For my curious comrades, CALM stands for the Center for Alternative and Living Medicine, and it’s the first aid station at the Rainbow Gatherings. It’s served as a teaching site for 7Song and the students of the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine for several years, as well as a place of healing & respite among 10,000 people abandoning civilization in the middle of the woods.
I’m still unpacking, unwinding, and decompressing. While still in orbit, some useful thoughts & impressions are beginning to take shape.
- Ragweed tincture (fresh leaf) is very effective for Type 1 allergic responses
- Compliance is better when people are familiar with the plant
- Bandaging & wound dressing is an art form, and vet wrap is a friend to the entire human race.
- Have a pot of simmering yarrow infusion near the campfire: for soaking/ disinfecting wounds (and soothing inflammation)
- Giardia: water born, charcoal filter should be sufficient, incubates for about a week. Sulphur burps. Oregon Grape Root/Berberis & activated charcoal (take charcoal 30 mins away from other herbs/medications).
- Osha root (& Cordyceps) for altitude sickness
- Propolis tincture: disinfectant, resinous barrier help protect against microbial onslaught
- Lobelia for asthma attacks: another effective herb
- Foot wound care is a beautiful & complex art, and watching Lorna Mauney-Brodeck work on feet was befuddling in the best way possible. She has a 30-page manual available for download here as well as other great resources on her site.
- Don’t be afraid to hurt people a little when cleaning out their wounds. Calling them ‘Pookie’ helps (thanks again, Lorna).
- Observing a few drops of tincture have an effect on someone is really neat. Think Lobelia, Valerian, Anemone and Ragweed. I do believe herbal practice is a lifestyle and expecting quick fixes isn’t the goal. When when they occur, they are awesome.
- 7Song’s teaching style is truly awe-inspiring, and it’s always a pleasure to see him in action. I mean…damn.
All my book-related posts are, I realized, drafted during the Winter months. I’ve always been an enthusiastic—nay, voracious reader. But during the other seasons I’m inclined to engage in and write about the more tactile & outdoor activities.
And that time is almost upon us. However, it’s still just over 40 degrees and raining here, and I’m still under blankets at 11am with hot tea and a pile of books. So. Here are the reads that are currently on my nightstand or kitchen table, and I think they’d pique your interest. Because I know you, and you’re a curious, interdisciplinary individual. While they’re not directly related to herbal medicine, they all espouse a novel concept, perspective or story that can deepen our practice & understanding. (And when you’ve finished, see How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read on Brain Pickings, on the art of not reading. Thanks Michael DeMarco for the link!) Note: While I link to Amazon, I encourage you to purchase from a local bookstore if possible.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My mother is a biochemist, and has all the respect & admiration I could offer. We just started a mother-daughter book club, and this was our first pick. (Next we’re reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that I’m ashamed to have not read yet.) Released in 2012, this book is an attempt by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee to get into the mind of a disease. Significant questions & themes are tackled: When did cancer first arrive? Is it a disease of civilization? We’re invited to learn the story of the discovery of genetic mutations, oncogenesis, and the development of chemotherapy, high-dose polychemotherapy, pap smears, mammograms, radiotherapy, and the like. It’s gorgeously written, with enough information to leave feeling satiated.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping by Robert Sapolsky
This is a true treatise on neuroendocrinology. Topics covered are stress & its effects on immunity, human development, memory, metabolism, cardiovascular health, reproduction, voodoo death, and pain. The author is also hilarious–sarcasm is tough to pull off in print, but Sapolsky does it well. Highly recommended for any reader interested in the connection between stress & illness.
The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson, the Harvard entymologist most famous for his advocacy of biological diversity, covers a lot in this book: eusociality strategies of insects & humans, paths to terrestrial conquest, and forces of social evolution. Essentially, insects’ evolutionary pace comparitively slow. They progressed (more or less) symbiotically with the biosphere, with the colony being a superorganism/genetic extension of the queen (and natural selection operating at this level, not at that of the individual). Human evolution stands in stark contrast, evolving quickly with natural selection operating at the individual and group level. This is a good pick for those interested in human evolution & social complexity.
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
I’m listening to the audiobook version of this, and will soon get a hard copy. I have to confess: I thought this was another book about resilience and robust systems. I was wrong, and apparently people like me (who initially confuse resilience and antifragility) annoy the author. Antifragility is the opposite of fragility. When volatility or a disruption occurs, fragile systems are disturbed (or, if unable to recover, collapse), robust systems are indifferent to some degree, and antifragile systems are invigorated. There are a lot of useful insights for medicine (things like hormesis). The author’s got a wicked sense of humor. A must-read for any systems thinker (looking at you, C3 grads & faculty).
: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo
One of my foci this season are trees and their medicine. In addition to reading Tree: A Life Story by David Suzuki (a biography of Douglas-fir trees, which you need to promise you’ll read), I’m also gracing through this book (a Christmas gift from my sweetheart). It’s a stunning compilation of naturalistic observations of trees through the seasons & their growth patterns. The photographs along are worth the purchase. Robert Llewellyn took several photographs of each plant part, each with a different focus. Layering the images, he presents a nearly microscopic view of tree parts that expands our senses & understanding of these majestic species. This is the book I leave on the coffee table to show off to guests. Anyone who loves trees & the study of botany will find delight here.
And I’d love to hear what you’re reading & learning about. Please leave a comment below!