by Gabby Allen
Once upon a time, for a long time, herbal medicine was the only medicine. We as a species quite literally wouldn’t exist without it. I think that collectively, we are disassociated from this important fact, and thusly disassociated from the vital role that herbalism plays into our past and present existence.
At first glance, it seems a far off time when we were relying solely on plant medicine to keep our species on its feet. However, when looking at how long we have been here, and most especially how long plants have been here (oh hey, horsetail), it’s really less than an eye blink. In comparison to how long herbalism has been practiced, modern medicine is very....modern. I’d make clear right away that I am not attempting to invalidate modern medicines obvious efficiency and crucial roll in our current existence, but rather illustrate that herbalism has gained a lot of wisdom in the passing centuries and millennia.
Survival of the fittest, as it were, and of course when considering bruteness, we are of lesser strength than some of our more fearsome and outright tenacious neighbors. I don't doubt that history would be missing were it not for some major plant allies supporting us a long the way. The generations long process of learning plant medicine, and evolving along side them, not only kept our species alive, but enabled the nearly endless luxuries we partake in today.
If we could consider for a moment all of the various ailments, diseases, and dealings that are addressed by modern medicine, then consider the stark difference in physicality in the lives of our lineage bearers, how far would we have gotten with no way to treat an out of control fever, or pull an infection from a wound? Our big brains are wrapped up in fairly fragile packaging and I really just don’t think we would have made it very long if ailments and injuries were completely untreatable.
Without herbalism, we wouldn’t have made it far enough to have the millennia required to come to a point where we can develop such sophisticated technologies that make up modern medicine. Obviously there are a lot of factors to the here and now-ness in which we find ourselves, but its been my conclusion that we quite literally, and very directly own our sustained existence to the plants.
What a gift it would be to peek into the past and witness the undoubtedly reverent process of an individual who’s life had depended upon botanicals. That is, one who would not have survived and thrived nutritionally and medicinally without herbs and edible plants. I’d like to comprehend even a fraction of the depth of understanding, and the depth of plant knowledge of those that are in large part responsible for getting us this far. The reverence and treatments of plants by those who’s lives truly depended on them, without any hope of modern intervention, must have run unfathomably deep. I know one such man who can give us this peek.
Rewilder, hunter, and all around wild man, Jordan Manley, spent a grand total of seventy seven days in the wilderness, and gained a peek into what life was like for nomadic cultures, spending those days being reliant upon the land for sustenance. During his journey his diet was mostly wild plants.
"My diet during that particular trip was comprised almost entirely of plants. Somewhere of about ninety five percent or more. I harvested a bear during the trip, which was made into jerky, and I caught fish during a week that I spent camped along a river. The majority of my diet was Native American First foods, such as biscuit root, onions, fireweed, raspberries, serviceberries, lilies, and grasses. I also ate some introduced European plants, such as burdock and plantains. I usually ate one meal a day, comprised of a large salad, a dish of fried or boiled roots, and a large pot of stewy broth."
Mr. Manley was consuming herbal medicine everyday, and it had a very direct effect. While he does account low energy, he also reports that his mind was clearer, and sharper than it had been in all his prior days. His vision was better, along with a heightened sensitivity to all of his senses. There was a notable positive change in his thought patterns, and a lack of stress. That last bit is significant to our hyper stressed society. Imagine, over two months of mostly stress free days. That's the kind of thing that people pay big bucks (often earned through four lifetimes worth of stress) to achieve. It seems a dream, and Jordan, along with the original herbalists and wildcrafters lived it. From his account, it's easy to conclude that our ancestors lived a life of nearly infinite more vitality, strength, and stamina.
In the passing weeks, the relationship he had with the plants that were nourishing him evolved.
"Over time, I began to think of the plants I was interacting with more as relatives than resources. Once I became aware of the abundance of wild food, I noticed that it is hard to take a step out in the wild without stepping on something you can eat. I began to walk more softly on the earth, and interact with plants in a more gentle manner."
No one walks through a grocery store with such reverence and respect. The life giving and sustaining nutrients are trampled upon by generations of ignorance and greed (agricultural and industrial revolutions, respectively), so yes, herbalism matters very much.
Our ancestors were nomadic. Follow the seasons, follow the food, both flesh and plant based. Our existence literally revolved around the plants (and the animals, who also followed the food or were pushed by predators; predators who were following their food) we followed them, making a great circle on the land, over and over, season after season, century after century, again and again. Until of course, we didn't and disease, and malnutrition became a common companions, the penance for the boom in population allowed to us through our own domestication. (1)
It seems to me that we should stay in connection with something that was so important to our existence. If we couldn’t survive without it in the beginning, how long will we survive without it now, even with our new, very clever discoveries? The signs are clear, depending on who you ask- not that long.
Something that was such a vital foundation to our sustained existence is something that we probably shouldn’t lose touch with. One, me for example, could justly argue that our departure from the wild way of things is integral to many of the issues that we are facing globally and culturally. Herbalism matters because life matters and there wouldn’t be any of it without the plants. Without botanicals, there would have been nothing to isolate and concentrate, starting the decades long process that has lead us to modern medicine today.
There is independence in the addressing of ailment that is achieved thorough herbalism when modern medicine fails. Cottonwood and mullein cleared my son’s wee lungs when they were bombarded by virus. Herbalism can offer our children relief from unpleasant symptoms of viral infections that a doctor can give no prescription for but time.
My husband had a yearly spring cycle of sinus infections. It went allergies, cold, sinus infection, antibiotics. If luck was on his side, he’d do this once, then rinse and repeat next season. I came across a really great write about sinus infections by jim mcdonald, (3) and the resulting plantain and yarrow saline rinse that came of it worked famously. A simple tea of ginger, cayenne, lemon juice, and honey, also assisted this true healing process in a great way. (4)
The previous solution offered to my husband by modern medicine isn’t even what I would call a solution. A yearly cycle of wrecking absolute havoc on his gut flora, only to do so again a short while later, does not seem to me a path of true healing and vitality. I am grateful that we had access to the antibiotics for stopping the issue before we had knowledge to address it otherwise, but it was a bandage over a broken bone. Not only a bandage, but it left no opportunity for his body to heal itself. There’s a potential too, for a very lengthy discussion on the long term effects of too many antibiotics. It’s been four springs since he had to take them.
My goal here is not to say that modern medicine is inherently useless, or evil, or that we should just be rid of it. My point is that herbalism fills the undeniable gaps that heroic medicine leaves, and then some, because it has to power to truly support us through of various life phases and transitions.
The really great thing about it is that often no harm is done by trying to cure your ailments with plants. If your energy is low, the worse thing that will happen by adding herbal infusions to your life is that they won’t work. If you are prone to panic attacks, the worse thing that will happen by keeping skullcap tincture handy, is you will have the panic attack anyway. And in both cases, a complete lack of result is fairly unlikely. When a lack of result does happen, you've effectively ruled out a few of things that your ailment is not, and are closer to narrowing down what could help you.
The thing about modern medicine is often times it comes with consequences. Ugly side effects and sometimes (often?) irreversible damage. Side effects that pretty soon have you taking a whole cascade of medicines. Under the right circumstances, and with a few precautions (5) we can attempt to address many of today's aliments and life transitions with plants.
The way that a pregnant or birthing woman is treated in the conventional birthing realm, and the less than conventional birthing realm is one of the biggest examples of the nourishment and healing that is offered through a more holistic or herbal approach. Nothing I’ve experienced cures the bone deep weariness of anemia like nettle infusion. Calendula soothes growing, tired skin. Ginger offers nausea relief, and hawthorn eases the ache of loss, when it happens, because it happens. How common is it for a bereaved mother to received genuine comfort, or tools for seeking comfort from a doctor? They’ll stitch you up, but steady vitals are not equal to heath and vitality.
Aileen Peterson of Lady Moon: Bodywork & Birthwork, offers enlightening information regarding the topic of modern pregnancy and the roll herbs play.
“I believe that traditional herbalism most definitely has its place in the modern birth world. Because, though we are ‘modern’ humans, we are also very ancient creatures, who have had a relationship with plants and the plant kingdom since the beginning of our time on this planet. Plants have provided us with shelter, clothing, food, and medicine (and yes, even poison) for time immemorial. I believe that plants and specifically medicinal herbs hold a key position in our repertoire of providing nourishment, preventative care, and treatment for menstrual health, fertility management (both contraception and conception), pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum. I believe that herbs in many cases can and should be utilized in some way by all childbearing persons and the birthworkers who serve them, whether they are on a more ‘conventional’ or ‘non-conventional’ birth journey. Though specific herbs can be utilized for treating acute or chronic conditions associated with menstruation, infertility, pregnancy, and birth, I believe that they can best be utilized by all peoples for their nutritive properties— which is the ultimate preventative medicine for pregnancy and birth-related complications.
The birthkeepers and midwives of old were knowledgeable in many things, and in all things related to womb health and childbearing. They were gone to for simple herbal remedies for colic and coughs, they were gone to when a woman wanted to get pregnant, or who did not want to be pregnant, they were gone to when a woman was with child and cared for her through the birth and beyond. And her most valuable tool, I believe, was her knowledge of and partnership with the plant medicines, both spiritual and mundane. This is true and can be said for wise women and midwives the world-over, from the First Nations of the Americas to Europe and Africa. Different herbs were sought for their different properties—such as nutritive, uterine tonic, abortifacient, to stop a miscarriage or early labor, to bring on labor, to relieve or treat different complaints such as nausea, to bring out a retained placenta, to prevent or treat a postpartum hemorrhage, etc. – and depending on the area where they could be found growing. Some herbs commonly used in North America for womb care and birth were Queen Anne’s Lace, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, and Nettle. A few examples of herbs commonly turned to in Old Europe were Pennyroyal, Rue, Nettle, Oatstraw, Mugwort, and Raspberry Leaf. [Note: I have included some infamous “abortifacient” herbs in these short lists because the releasing of unwanted pregnancies has always been an area of expertise belonging to the midwife, from thousands of years ago all the way through the 19th century when the war on midwives began in earnest in North America. I believe it is very important to acknowledge this and to not hide away this part of our history as birthworkers and as women, nor to ignore this knowledge which is still applicable today]. All of these herbs and more are still in use today. My personal favorite herbs for pregnancy and preparing for birth are nettle, red raspberry leaf, oatstraw, and alfalfa, which are nutritive, good for the womb and the nervous system, help build the blood, and are generally considered safe for most people to consume regularly [Note: alfalfa should only be used in medicinal quantities in the last trimester]."
All this to say, in a round about way, is that herbalism supports us and walks along side us through many twists and transitions, and has done so for a long time. This is not to say that all of ancient herbal knowings can be classified as applicable wisdom. Some texts of old contain information that is simply inaccurate, but there’s a lot that is accurate, and it has combined and meshed with what we have learned and discovered in recent years. Herbs can and will support us through our various transitions in life; Baby to child, child to maiden, maiden to mother, mother to crone, an on. (Insert whichever titles and transitory process that suits you. I simply have chosen the one that applies to me.)
If you walked into a doctors office and asked the doctor to give you something to help with your broken heart (a very legitimate ailment) you’d likely be laughed out and add a healthy dose of embarrassment to your plateful of pain. Ask and herbalist and they will lovingly supply you with their condolences and perhaps an extract of hawthorn, and perhaps go so far as to recommend you wear the berries on your person. (6)
Herbalism matters because despite growing and waning trends throughout the centuries, we have, undoubtedly through guidance of the plants, have found our way back to them, and have come at a new influx of energy in the ever growing movement of modern herbalism. It’s a continuation of ancient wisdom that is still more than applicable today, and we herbalists may not be able to replace a hip with the beloved botanicals we work alongside, but again, steady vitals isn’t the end of the story.
"Herbal medicine is the people’s medicine" - Susun S Weed. The people’s, all of them. Plantain won't turn you away because you can’t pay, or because of a culture influenced by "isims,” and I doubt it will ever be successfully regulated.
Down to the DNA in our bones, the same plants that were part of our ancestors, are part of us. They've been supporting, healing, and killing us for generations. Perhaps a balance between the world we created, and the world of old can be achieved in part, or perhaps in whole, through the guidance of our plant allies.
Herbalism matters a very great deal.