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Herbal Medicine is a part of all of our ancestral traditions. The way people once related to nature and to healing was much more integrated than modern medicine. Understanding how the primary elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether affect our health on all levels is essential to our well being. Our bodies are gardens, and our planet is a body of life. This is the foundation of Ayurveda - the ancient Science of health and longevity of India. It is also foundational to most Indigenous healing systems and Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is up to us to learn to tend to our own health and well being to prevent disease and realize health is a state of being as much as it is diet, activity, and rest!
It was nearly 20 years ago that I first encountered the idea of using herbs as a way to heal. As a teenager I had been on various pharmaceutical drugs for acne and they had taken their toll on my body. Shortly after I turned 23 I took a job up on Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte islands. I had never in my life seen such a wild and powerful land and people as I discovered there. Situated far off the Northwestern coast of British Colombia, Haida Gwaii is akin to a Canadian Hawaii, though much colder and with a lot more rain. After working as a wilderness guide there for some time I began to meet more local people, and some of them Haida. It was the people I met on these islands, and the spirit of the islands themselves, that really changed my view of health, nature and disease. It was in Haida Gwaii that I received the calling that I am living today. I spend now my days working as an Herbalist, educator, and operating a holistic healing centre in Winnipeg. My goal to inspire, educate, and empower those around me to learn more about natural healing methods.
I’ll never forget the first time I went picking wild herbs in Haida Gwaii. I was with a local man named Brian and we gathered wild mint and yarrow. Brian was a kind of “off the grid” person, and ex logger who had chosen to live very simply and more eco-conscious, he had created a spacious life fro himself. Though it was not without it’s challenges the lifestyle allowed for a lot of free time to go looking for herbs to harvest wild edible mushrooms. We would bring them back to the drying shack, beside the house – which was also a quite the shack. I remember feeling wealthier than I ever had, and also more at peace and secure then I had ever been. Looking back on it I think it was the beginning of my physical healing, but also healing on deeper levels. Though I was still wet behind the ears I came to feel a connectedness to the land, a “total connectedness” as Brian used to say, and it felt good.
I mailed some of that first fresh wild mint back to my Mother in Winnipeg. I was shocked when I called her next and she asked “what was that black sludge you sent me in the zip lock bag?” Apparently I didn’t yet know one couldn’t send fresh herbs in a plastic bag via Canada post. She was touched I had thought of her but unable to taste the magic and the beauty I wished to share with her. The drinking of herbal tea and changing my diet to a less processed one helped me to heal my body. Yet even more profound for my young mind at that time was the healing of the perspectives I held of myself, and the natural world around me.
One of the root definitions of the word “heal” means to “make whole.” In Haida Gwaii I realized that my body, the water, bacteria, minerals, air, and spark of life within it are all simply a microcosm of the greater body of nature. I was no longer able to view our planet as a machine of parts that were somehow non-living. The entire earth transformed before my eyes into a gigantic living being, a living system of intelligence just as my own body was. This was something I had heard of before but somehow it changed from an idea to a realization. It was why the Haida Gwaii people were fighting to protect the rainforests, the salmon, and the ocean waters. They understood that these things were not “resources” they were a part of the living matrix of life and that each element and species played an important role in the health of the whole.
As I went on to study and become a professional Herbalist I encountered various systems of healing that stemmed back thousands of years such as Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine. Not surprisingly these systems of healing, much like those of all of our ancestors, understood exactly what I had learned in Haida Gwaii. Though they used different terms they were all saying the same thing – the body is a garden and the garden is a part of a greater planetary body. The trees are the lungs of the earth, the amazon and the boreal are prime examples of this, but the trees on our street front are just as important in their role. Each plant that we see has a role in the symphony of life and plays a crucial part in the game. For example, plants we often call weeds such as plantain, pineapple weed, and fireweed are first responders. They are first responders in that if the earth gets harmed, scraped away at or scorched they will be the first plants on the scene to mend the wound, bring the green back into the parking lot. Not surprisingly they are used for the exact same things in herbal medicine. They heal our skin wounds, calm inflammation, address infections, and soothe burns.
Another great example of this is the usnea lichen, which is found hanging on the branches of jack pine trees and others throughout the boreal forest. This herb is used to treat lung infections of a serious nature and it’s highly antibiotic. Many of the plants we call weeds today are highly nutritious and medicinal, they know how to thrive and they help us to thrive also. Often these plants are considered naturalized to North America because they were actually brought here by our ancestors for good reason. Dandelion is one of these plants not only is it incredibly nutritious but it is also a highly prized medicinal plant around the world. In Ayurveda, the over 5000 year old system of healing found in modern India, it’s recommended for blood cleansing, and addressing tumors and cysts, particularly of the breast and the leaves are a powerful diuretic. A recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press covered the story of researchers who had used dandelion root to send a percentage of pancreatic cancer patients into remission when nothing else was working. The researchers were all quite surprised and were going to look for the “active ingredient” in the plant that they could attribute such actions to. A nice idea, especially for groups seeking to profit from the patents, however as the Herbalist Andrew Chavellier once put it, trying to find the part in a plant that “does the healing” is like trying to find the part in the radio that makes the sound. I often marvel at how many dozen of pounds of dandelion root we go through in our herbal centre and how there are so many people who think of the plant simply as a dreadful invention of nature.
Not only can we rediscover the important health and nutritional benefits of the plants that grow in our regions but we can also remember how to use them more efficiently and with deeper understanding. In herbalism we are looking at plants in terms of their elemental influence. For example ginger or horseradish are heating. Dry ginger powdered can be considered heating and drying. This is especially important when it comes to addressing health issues that are of a “cold and damp nature.” In other words these conditions, such as arthritis, are made worse in damp cold weather. Thus you seek to bring balance to the “nature of the disease.” We want things moist but not a swamp, we warmth but not an out of control fire or inflammation condition and so on. Another example would be using slippery elm bark, which is cooling and moistening. It is the opposite of dry conditions such as constipation or inflamed bowels. Each herb can be understood by where we see it growing in nature but also from it’s flavor. The flavor of the herb can tell us the “energetics” of the herb and thus it’s healing action. If it is pungent then it is warming, if it’s sweet it’s cooling, if it’s astringent it’s drying, and if it’s bitter is cooling and drying and so on. This is more than speculation as we now know that these herbs do in fact influence certain organs in the body in certain ways thanks to modern research. Plant effect use physically, but also emotionally, and spiritually.
Many of our modern health conditions are due to ingesting too much sugar, pasteurized dairy, flour, yeast, alcohol and so on. As a result the spleen and stomach become “damp.” That is, they become inefficient at transforming foods due to the amount of yeast and bad bacteria present. It is like a garden that gets mold. In some ways our digestion is like a fire. If we put wet poplar wood on it, such as the foods I described above, it will smolder and for us that smolder is toxins, and fungal like organisms that can cause us problems that can range from athletes foot to sinusitis and bronchial infections. In traditional terms we would use herbs that are the opposite of damp – they are drying and warming. Not surprisingly we see that our ancestors have travelled with such plants close at hand for eons. They include oregano, rosemary, thyme, ginger, cinnamon, sage, basil, black pepper and so on. They are all, not only warming, but antibacterial and anti fungal. They keep the stomach from becoming a “swamp.” They keep the fire of digestion burning. Many other herbs are used this way.
Around the world we will find people using digestive bitters before meals to improve digestion. Swedish bitters, Chinese bitters, and so on. The bitter flavor is associated with the air element. This is also how we get a fire going, by blowing on it. Our modern understanding of this is that the bitter taste, which we don’t get enough of in our diets these days, will trigger the stomach to produce the hydrochloric acid we require to digest our food effectively. If we do not digest it well it will smolder, we can get gas and bloating, and we are not able to absorb the nutrients we need to stay healthy. When viewed in this way the garden and the plants in it take on a new light. This is why hospitals used to have healing gardens, and they were not simply for show. The plants were all used for a specific purpose, and the early pharmacists used plants based on similar understandings. They would effectively administer plants for all kinds of health issues and even light herbs like rosemary to smoke and cleanse the air of disease.
Many of our great grandparents carried a type of folk knowledge with them and they knew the plants that grew around them and what they could use them for. This is a tradition that is renewing itself today and for good reason. Since the early days on Haida Gwaii I am more convinced that we are seeing the end of the mindset of man and nature, and the return of the mindset that the Haida and many of our ancestors held - that man is nature. When we tend the healing garden we are tending something that is not separate from ourselves. The sun, the rain, the wind, the earth, and the very force beneath all life are all greater parts of the whole of us. This is the salve for the wound that occurs from a mindset of separation between ones self and the living intelligence of the planet.
The element systems of healing such as those found in India, China, South America and elsewhere are all sharing the same wisdom. We can use the plants we grow by understanding the elements and flavors to bring balance and thus avoid disease. I speak of this in more detail in Our Common Roots, a film and workbook I recently released based on a course I teach. One of the most fascinating aspects that I have found in the many traditions of herbalism is that plants are gifts from creation to help us heal. They capture the vital light of the sun in the chlorophyll molecule and pass it on to us. They generate the air we breath, and they contain properties that address human disease on many levels. To the Ayuvedic physician, or the Indigenous healer, the healing is not simply in a chemical it is in the relationship, and the primary ingredient in the healing force of creation is what we call love. Though it may sound unscientific to some, I think that the more time we spend nurturing the garden and contemplating such ideas the more we will grow to see the beauty and understand the ways of healing and herbs.