Herbal Medicine and the Meeting of the Worlds

This article first appeared in Plant Healer Magazine which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the study of herbal medicine, creating healthy human community and basic human rights. It's an excellent resource for any level of herbalist from novice, to hobbyist to herbal practitioner.

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The roots of herbal medicine stretch far and wide throughout the matrix of human history, absorbing the essential nutrients of time during its journey within the narrative of the Earth. It’s a tale of wildness, creation, and co-evolutionary alliances that has engaged us in the twining of the original conversation of the elements that continues its atomic exchange and feeds and nourishes the fire at the hearth of the soul of the world. Our ongoing collaboration with the plants is coursing forward on the genetic scrolls of our ancestors and must be consistently renewed and renegotiated in order to keep this tradition alive.  We are bequeathed with continuing the lineage of the eternal as it successively emerges into form. The decisions we make, the structures we build, and the qualities we actualize now will determine the aspects of creation that will be available to our descendants. The question arises of how we can unite our diverse ideals, experience, and present needs in a way that will maintain the ultimate integrity of what was once the primary health care system of the world.

What we now know of as Traditional Western Herbalism has emerged in a synergy of culturally based healing practices from all over the world. There has been a new resurgence building in the past several decades creating an herbal community that was, at first, small scale, localized, and charged with the delicate reweaving and rediscovering of the buried threads of knowledge of the plants and their healing properties. Over the past 30 years, herbal medicine has blossomed and fruited and seeded and re-seeded into a proliferative force in mainstream culture and a well-established component of alternative medicine. This flourishing renaissance of not just herbal medicine, but holistic medicine in general, has become so popular that it has now made contact with the conventional or allopathic medicine of the dominant culture. This has presented several serious, complex, and not easily resolved issues.

This ancient herbalist or village healer has incarnated in the modern herbal community as the folk herbalist. The work of a folk herbalist encompasses a system that existed long before health care became a profit-driven, centralized commodity and was cultivated by the needs of a localized, place-based practice. It was a lineage that was passed on from teacher to student with no standardized curriculum, but with the objective of differentiating and developing  the unique medicine gifts of each healer to be integrated with the dynamic natural forces that govern life, death, birth, and the health of these natural phases. Other forms of traditional herbalism have evolved through several systemized traditions including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and myriad Native American healing practices. 


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While the overculture has been steadily commercializing, centralizing, standardizing, and regulating, health care services, folk herbalism, and alternative medicine in general have made a strong comeback from the fringes of civilization, not just on the outskirts of our global metropolis, but from deep within the inner sanctums of modern society. From the cities to the mountains to the last remaining forest preserves, the past several decades have seen this ancient tradition rise from the numinous, underground stock through the soils and grassroots of human consciousness into new books, herbwalks, kitchen blenders, gardens, and tea strainers of westerners everywhere. Herbalists are blossoming out of the shadow of the primordial loam into neighborhoods and backyards everywhere with their lessons about Dandelion roots, Nettles, and Plantain along with myriad of other herbal remedies that can provide improved health and treat and prevent illness by simple methods that are accessible and affordable. The roots, stems, leaves, blossoms, and seeds of the past are living again but now within the context of contemporary society, economics, politics, and an enormous centralized medical system.

The resurgence of the herbal medicine tradition has so far maintained a local scale with herbalists working directly within community as traditions dictates. It has, in the past, been a self-regulating convention where the practitioner was embedded in the ordered, yet dynamic pulse of their bioregional network that, when healthy and balanced, is a deeply interconnected web of integrity and transparency requiring no outside authority to alleviate doubt as to the level of skill and mastery of their trade. Small communities are highly sensitive and efficient in their communication. These healers were directly accountable to the people they served and their reputation preceded them. The training was lifelong and usually accomplished by traditional apprenticeship that included all manner and aspect of the craft.  This person would have been supported by the community through trade or payment based on the combined needs of the practitioner and the needs of the patient that reflected a flexible and adaptable method of service. There was little room for error in efficacy and quality in these conditions because the same person who planted the seed harvested the root, sprout, or bloom. This was, of course, within the context of a world paradigm that no longer exists and the classical function of a local healer is now confronting petitions from the dominant culture to validate itself by conventional methods. It is no longer enough for us to bring back an old tradition and remember how to care for ourselves and our communities, but we must discover how this tradition will be kept alive in this crazy, “civilized”, industrial, global society.

My teacher always said that, if there is to be any hope whatsoever of living well on this earth, we have to take the ancient root and put new sap in it. That doesn’t mean we need to do something new, but to do something old in a new way, which takes great courage
— Martin Prechtel

Modern medicine diverged, at some crossroads, from these primary traditions and has come along with great technological achievements, life-saving medicines, and procedures that I for one have been humbly grateful for more than once.  The technology and innovations of allopathic medicine, as inventive and insightful as they are, were structured within the context of an imperial, competitive, political paradigm that values the accumulation of wealth , material goods, and unrestrained growth as measures of success, status, and merit.  This system has built a mass-governing mechanism to sustain and regulate how resources are dispensed in a hierarchical system that is now completely monopolized by corporate interests with corruption at every level. Our global society has left the local, unique, and diversified needs of the small-scale community far behind and has allocated all distribution of services, supplies, and governance from a mass center. This is unconceivably maladaptive and unsustainable as described by Kelly Booth in her article “How Humans Adapt” (Home! A Bioregional Reader pages 73-34) “ Integration, scale and a sensitivity to place are emphatically not found in mass society. The mass does not adapt to a particular place. Instead, it tries to standardize all places. Its relations to its natural environment are coarse, crude and insensitive”

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There are several issues facing herbalists today and a fair amount of divisiveness amongst herbalists as to how we meet this mass imperative and authenticate our practice while maintaining the human-centered ethics of “people before profit”. One of the major topics of discourse are the FDA regulations that have indicted those who make herbal preparations with strict manufacturing guidelines or what is known as the GMP(good manufacturing practices) laws. The GMP laws have been devastating to the small herbalist as the requirements for compliance are expensive and cumbersome with a great emphasis placed on paperwork, record keeping, and specifications that are time-consuming and tedious.  Even worse are requirements for expensive laboratory tests to determine species and quality of each batch of medicine. These laws arose as a response to what is now becoming a profitable industry where large supplement companies have latched onto the money-making potential of a new retail market. Herbal medicines are now being made by large, automated corporations as tinctures, salves, teas, and herbal formulations that have rapidly become commercialized within a more or less unregulated market. Herbalism as a small, local business has been left with no variances. All herbal companies making internal preparations must adhere to the same regulations; these same regulations that huge multi-national pharmaceutical companies must adhere to all under the guise of protecting consumers and at the expense of the small business and based on unfounded evidence. There has been no science-based risk assessment to justify these regulations.

Another major point of contention is the call for some type of certification or licensure for herbalists. Right now there is no actualized option for herbalists to become qualified by standardized educational programs skills assessments. This increasing popularity of herbal medicine and a greater general acceptance of alternative medicine as legitimate and effective, and, I would suggest, an overall dissatisfaction with conventional healthcare, has led herbalists into more regular and consistent contact with mainstream medicine, drug interactions, and new disease pathologies that were not a part of the tradition in the past. Licensure of herbalists or some sort of certification seems reasonable at first glance and, based on some arguments, harmless. What could it hurt to just make sure everyone who calls themselves an herbalist has proven themselves to some standard of excellence? How else can we tell if someone is a quack or not? And why not if we can obtain legitimacy in the medical field and the confidence of the people we attend to? Because it could also be the ultimate demise of this tradition and the conquest of what I perceive as one of the last wild frontiers of the human species; herbal medicine is the medicine of the people and we must be impeccable with how we decide to facilitate this medicine into the future.

Licensure, scientific research, standardization, and regulations are the ways of the world right now, but is this a world that we want to partake in much less apportion our tradition to? This is a world that is on the verge of devouring itself with its disconnected, disembodied dream of avaricious superiority over the powers of nature. There is an intense polarity at the locus of the contact between the new and old ways of herbal medicine and, from my observation, experience and study; resolution will require the seemingly impossible rectification of two antithetical paradigms. The top-down, authoritative, “civilized”, non-local infrastructure of our society seeks to standardized and centralize based on linear, rational, evaluation methods in order to certify, verify, and qualify a traditionally self- organized, indigenous, and wild natural system. It’s not to say that degrees and standards and laboratory test don’t have an important role in the quality of healthcare, but when these types of expectations are imposed upon a longstanding, self-sustaining, and untamed system you know longer have the same tradition. It’s like when you dam a river and create a lake. You no longer have a river, you have a lake and the villages and families that used to fish and drink from that river will no more. We all know what happens next; the people who used to just drink and fish freely from the river now have to pay a toll to be able to get water from the lake, which means they will need jobs, etc.

But how do we assure quality, verify content and accurate labeling, protect from poorly made preparations or possible contamination, ensure integrity, and a high level of skill amongst practitioners while maintaining a bioregional focus that ensures accessibility? There has been a fair amount of discourse within the herbal community between those that believe licensure or certification to be the best approach to legitimacy and those that want to maintain the tradition exclusive of an orthodox medical model that is clearly dysfunctional. Other issues include the desire to have herbal medicine recognized and respected by the mainstream as a valid and professional system.  Some herbalists simply want to practice legally and offer their services to a greater number of people, and possibly being able to accept insurance payment. It is not my objective here to provide an absolute solution. I don’t have one. But none will be found without first asking the questions and exploring the creative possibilities.

Mass, centralized society, healthcare, education, government, etc. is essentially deaf to the sound of bioregional and permaculture ethics that endeavors to create systems based on the concept of optimum scale or size for sustainability, resilience, and health. A system that is too small is often ineffective and one that is too large is insensitive. “At the right scale human potential is unleashed, human comprehension magnified human accomplishment multiplied. I would argue that the optimum scale is the bioregional, not so small as to be powerless and impoverished, not so large as to be ponderous and impervious, a scale at which, at last, human potential can match ecological reality.” Excerpt by Kirkpatrick Sale in “Home! A Bioregional Reader”.

Herbalism as a tradition, a practice, an art, and a legitimate medical modality is at a great juncture during a time when the requirements and reality of a global society is in desperate need of the traditional essentials of this ancient wisdom and its human centered, local, and sustainable eminence. Any regulations endorsed from within or without that require compliance to a system that has a completely opposing structure challenges us to pioneer profound innovation and creativity. For a health care system to truly serve the needs of the people it must be accessible with practitioners who can work sovereignly based not just on scientific standards, procedures, and profit margin, but on the particular and unique qualities embodied by that practitioner and integrated within the cultural and environmental character of the local community and the individual constitution of each person they work with. Any possible solutions must be able to adapt to a global society while not sacrificing human rights, traditional ethics, freedom of choice, and environmental sustainability. Any decisions to appease, merge, or collude with a centralized infrastructure will come at some cost to traditional principles unless we are brilliant in our negotiations, and resolute in our alliance with human-centered ethics while holding great faith in the human capacity to imagine creative solutions that may conceive of a third way within the symbiosis of the old and the new.