All my book-related posts are, I realized, drafted during the Winter months. I’ve always been an ethusiastic—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
The cover is what I’d call “slightly cheesy.” So it wasn’t until one of my fellow herbalists at the clinic (Jean) gave it glowing reviews did I leaf through a copy & pick it up. Now I consider this 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. You may have to take notes or reread it: it’s fairly dense if you’re not familiar with the endocrine system.
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.
Antifragility: 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).
Seeing Trees: 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!
“Trees were our first teachers,” Bruce Miller used to say. Bruce (Subiyay) was a Skokomish elder, teacher & leader behind the Salish cultural renaissance of the last few decades. Bruce continues to be a powerful inspiration. and many continue his work of revitalizing Salish culture and rekindling the connection between plants and people. (For more information, see links at the bottom of this post.)
A resonant aspect of his teachings is the consideration of tree as teacher. There’s something about trees that stirs something inside us. Humans have long felt a unique kinship with the trees, and their medicinal qualities represent a vast & untapped potential in the health & ecological field.. Read more
Tea is the perfect theme for this month’s Wild Things Roundup. I truly love tea—it’s an art and, sometimes, a form of therapy.
In the depth of Winter, we confront dark, hard, uncomfortable things. I doubt I’m the only one recovering from the turmoil of 2012, ducking from the seasonal bugs whizzing through our communities, and trying to find solace & a silver lining from the horrific events we’ve witnessed in the last few months. It’s been a rough few months, I won’t lie. But tea—well, that makes everything a bit better. Teas (infusions & decoctions) make available some very useful compounds to rebalance our physiologies. But they’re also satisfying, comforting & soulful. Read more
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.
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.
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.)
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!