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Posts from the ‘Research & Writing’ Category

The Herbalist’s Chain of Custody

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.

Interview with Mel at HerbGeek on the Future of Integrative Herbal Medicine

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.

cal poppy dryingMelanie:  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

Is health a right or a privilege?

On one hand, health is a right and it should be available to us all. This is the basis from which most healers practice. It’s even recognized in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. The World Health Organization Constitution “enshrines the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.” Health is attainable and an inalienable right. We empower people to take charge of their own health.

But health privilege also exists. It lives in unexamined notions of health, disease, and shapes the meaning of these experiences. Much like racial, gender, or socioeconomic privilege, health privilege shames the individual for being ill, attributing illness to New Age judgements of spiritual impotency, or impure thoughts/actions. It rears its head when someone asks you if you’re “still taking those crazy medications?!” or tells you that daily consumption of bentonite clay would have prevented it. When you enjoy unexamined health privilege, you may think that someone is ill because they ate poorly, or haven’t learned a karmic lesson yet, possess stuck/suppressed emotions, lived dis-harmoniously with Nature, or lack chuztpah or spiritual willpower. And we pass judgement. In the clinic, this can disrupt the healing process. I think it can even cause harm.

Herbalists, specifically community-oriented ones, can better understand and serve our clients & communities if we examine the types of health privilege we enjoy. This way, we can be better allies and be more effective partners in the healing of people & planet by taking responsibility for our constructs of health & illness.

Ecology, Learning & the Subconscious

Ernst Haeckel

The more I learn, grow, develop new skills, reach out to new groups, try to engage creative social change, I’m consistently reminded that most of our thinking and decision making is driven by unconscious processes. (One of the articulations of this is Buddha’s metaphor of the Elephant and the Rider—where the rational, conscious mind is the rider, and the elephant, the subconscious. A crude metaphor, yes. But the take-away is valuable—where the elephant goes, so does the rider. It’s why marketers, politicians, and anyone else that tries to persuade does so through engaging your deeper emotional being, despite their methods appearing so artless to our neocortex.) And I think this is a source of a lot of resistance to creative change and evoluation in groups, communities, and societies.

I was at mycology seminar this past weekend, and spent a minute or two considering ecological innovation in leading the way for subconscious thought transformation. The developments in mycology today are jaw-dropping—medicinal mushrooms and their ability to support immune system adaptation, mycelium to filter agricultural waste and water-born contaminants, bioremediation of petrochemicals & nuclear waste, mycopesticides. And I’m thrilled to be working so closely with them.

Read more

Interview with Poppyswap on Community Herbalism

I had the pleasure of having a conversation with the amazing, inspiring folks at Poppyswap, where I shared some information and background on the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic and the Dandelion Seed Conference: Herbal Medicine for Community and Social healing. Check out the post here. Here are some excerpts to tantalize you.

I think we’re going to be seeing the emergence of a new model of herbal practice and education, for a couple of reasons: An adaptation to changes in the healthcare industry and regulatory agencies, and to engage the larger social system and other social and environmental movements in large-scale change. Herbalists are uniquely positioned to be agents of change and transformation because they stand and work at the nexus of human and Nature, and are oriented to affirming and nurturing life in all its manifestations.

Herbalists innately understand life, complexity, diversity, and resilience. These ideas and topics are now becoming very in-vogue and seen as innovative with social change theorists, social entrepreneurs, activists, etc. But they’re the very foundation of herbal practice, and that’s been with us since the beginnings of mankind. This is our heritage; the torch we carry onto the next generations.

And when asked advice I’d give to new herbalists:

I think the most valuable piece of advice I could give is to encourage people to stay open, curious, and inquiring. It’s so often the case that we get extremely inspired or even overwhelmed by the work of others. It can either light up, expand and energize us, or fold and turn inward, closing us and inciting insecurity, envy, and smallness. Herbalism is a beautifully brilliant, dazzingly complex and dynamic field. People spend their whole lives developing mastery, and always feel like there’s more to learn. My best teachers have been ones that I’ve observed to be open, humble, inquisitive, and ever supportive of other herbalists. It’s being a stepping stone, and someone that empowers others, even if it doesn’t feed your ego. Just be open, be happy to learn, support the success of others, and welcome the hard and necessary lessons. Try not to take things personally. And also, try not to be a jerk. (It’s just a good life strategy in general.)

 

Conversation with Ann Armbrecht on Traditional Medicine

Ann Armbrecht, Ph.D. (author of Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home and creator of the film Numen: The Nature of Plants) and I were able to talk last month about my recent work with a Salish ethnobotanical education program, as well as larger issues of traditional medicine and community healing. I had a great time doing this, and got to reflect on these important topics. Check it out here. Her blog is also chock-full of interesting, thoughtful & engaging conversations with some truly dynamic & creative people. Enjoy!

Spearheading Culture Change with Plant Traditions

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of Plant Healer Magazine. If you haven’t subscribed to this eclectic, thoughtful, extremely original publication, I highly recommend it. Subscriptions are affordable and support the Anima Lifeways & Herbal School, one which I proudly attend. Enjoy. 

I absolutely love writing outside in the Summer. In the Pacific Northwest, clear, open skies can be rare. When it’s sunny and pleasant, we are like solar panels, soaking up every available ray, letting our spirits be infused by the blooming Nootka roses, the ripening salmonberries, and the glaring, spectacular foxglove stalks. In this exalted light and heat of Summer, I have some special things I want to share with you. (And you can bet I’m writing it outside!)

Flowers of lavender, thyme & sage.

In June, I completed my Master’s thesis—a culmination of a 10-month ethnography exploring the role of plant traditions in diabetes prevention and addiction treatment in Salish tribal communities. Additionally, over the last year and a half, I’ve been collaboratively running the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic (OFHC) as a member of a collective of 7 herbalists. We are presently forming a nonprofit called The Dandelion Seed Community Health Project, which will feature the free herbal clinic as one of its programs. This type of endeavor is a complex labor-of-love and juggling act, involving obtaining business licensure, organizing and recruiting a Board of Directors, managing volunteers, organizing a conference, teaching workshops, maintaining apothecary inventory, organizing a host of outreach and fundraising activities, and the list goes on. As a collective, each of us wears many hats. But we all definitely bear the title of Manager of Chaos. So I finished my thesis, graduated, and now have a bit of space to sit back, gaze at the flowers, and reflect. Specifically, I’m reflecting on the last few years of working with plant traditions to inspire social change in collaborative and community settings. It’s my desire to share these musings with you and the herbal community as a whole.  I’ve learned so much from those who have walked before me, as well as those who walk with me now on this path of plants and healing.

The world of plants has inspired me since childhood, being an endless source of fascination, enchantment, and wonder. In following this allure and heeding their call, my passions have broadened. Currently, I’ve been intrigued by how plants affect social and ecological identity, and have come to understand that plant traditions are indeed an inextricable aspect of it. The network of symbiotic relationships and connections between humans and other life forms orient us in our habitat and in the cosmos. I’ve also noticed that this connection is an overlooked one in mainstream American social change and innovation practices. And that’s unfortunate, because revitalizing and creating herbal traditions and ethnobotanical practices can spur authentic and systemic social change through a variety of ways, by:

  • Broadening perception of place,
  • Inspiring self, family, and community care,
  • Orienting our selves as humans in time and in habitat.

Working with plant traditions (in their revitalization as well as creation) are fascinatingly paradoxical. They are simultaneously old and new, ancient and innovative. These traditions carry knowledge so ancient, vast, and are the foundation of our species biological and cultural evolution. They are also new, innovative, and deeply pertinent to the challenges of a contemporary, global society.

Plants traditions are also simultaneously simplex and complex. They can be as simple as passing down a grandmother’s cold remedy or gathering dandelions in the backyard; And yet can be as complex as articulating cultural contexts of plant practices, assessing constitution, or learning phytochemistry and pharmacology. The relationships between plants and people are so profound, complex, and encompassing. And they’re fundamental in building culture. And if we can help or facilitate the emergence of a culture of health, diversity, and resilience, countless lives can be all the more nurtured. Read more

More on Community Herbalism & Socioecological Health

We at the Dandelion Seed Collective see community herbalism becoming an increasingly powerful social force. The Dandelion Seed Conference is intended to catalyze this work and contribute to the emerging conversation on social and ecological health by conducting workshops, sharing stories and experiences of community projects and programs, as well as offering a foundation of support to help move this work forward.

We see community herbal practice as something that empowers and inspires both social and ecological health. Community herbalists everywhere help people learn practical tools for self and family care, as well as help mobilize community health resources. In these times where many people are losing the social safety nets, this kind of community-based health care helps us take care of our own again. In this way, it strengthens the social fabric.

In addition to providing people with practical, accessible tools to maintain health and prevent disease, community herbal practice broadens our ecological awareness. When we learn about plants–be they in sidewalk cracks, our backyards, or an old growth forest–we learn to recognize diverse forms of life, their contributions to the planetary ecosystem, and the importance of biodiversity. Herbal education and practice reconnects us to our place, and calls us home.

This is what we intend to support with the conference: community-based action, social justice, and herbal education. But most of all, we empower herbalists to pursue positive, creative social change and bring herbal practice to the next level.

Originally featured at Poppyswap!