Grassroots Healing, Musings, Plant Medicine, Spirituality

On Being Called to Plant Seeds

I have taken on an apprentice. This is my second apprentice. The first quibbled over why my tea bag had a string and informative bit of card attached and his didn’t. I was attempting to teach him how to make a medicinally useful cup of tea. Suffice it to say, we didn’t get past that first lesson, mainly because sixteen is a fascinating age and so is their hair. My second apprentice is a little more eager, although the attention span is also a bit shorter, and she doesn’t actually like drinking herbal tea. Maybe because she’s nine or she’s going on 30. And the second-born hasn’t been engaged to be my third apprentice yet because he’s being called by volcanoes, and dinosaurs, and the ghosts of dinosaurs that were possibly consumed by volcanoes, who also code.

I am of course, talking about my children. As part of their home-school Science/Home Economics/Physical Education and Personal Development (insert other relevant compartmentalised Edubabble here) curriculum I thought I would start incorporating more formal botany, plant identification and herbal medicine lessons into their learning plan. I also had an overwhelming urge to pass on my knowledge so our tradition isn’t lost. I mean, after all, breast milk when they were babies and herbs as they grew and an inordinate supply of hugs, are the only medicine they’ve ever known when they have needed it. It should come naturally, right?  So, we’ve been using the excellent resource that is American herbalist, Kristine Brown’s Herbal Roots Zine – a monthly ‘zine subscription that focuses on a new herb each month. We have also owned the excellent Wildcraft board game since John & Kimberly from Learning Herbs first published it. And we use Jeannie Fulbright’s Exploring Creation with Botany, and Thomas J. Elpel’s Botany in a Day. And of course, we have lived in the bush, or nearby, ever since the kids were born (except that brief exile to suburbia in Melbourne, and that time we bummed around on Currumbin Beach for 8 weeks. Nevertheless, there are still medicinal weeds aplenty in these diverse places). The kids can identify most of the more common medicinals growing around us, wherever we have found ourselves.

Currently, my young Padawan is getting to know Dandelion. We’ve traipsed around our quiet little seaside community in search of it. She has learnt to identify and know the difference between lookalike species, she has harvested leaves and flowers, and dug roots, dried the leaves and sprinkled them in our dinner, picked the flowers to infuse in oil, pressed the plant and recorded interesting information about its virtues in her journal. Yet as I watch her colouring a picture of the Dandelion, I can’t help but wonder – has she heard the Dandelion’s song? You see, she knows the technical sort of details of the plant, but does she know its essence? It should come naturally right? I mean, after all, she has grown up knowing which herbs are what and what I have used them for, surely it would sort of rub off somehow, or maybe she’s inherited my passion.

But then, as is my wont, I pondered some more.

What do you do when the land climbs into your bones,

its green tendrils unfurl through your veins,

and it sings its blooms into your heart?

 

I was somewhat appalled recently when I discovered that a number of naturopaths using herbs have never seen the herbs they use in their original state (that is, as the whole living plant, or even a photo of it, not liquids in a brown bottle, or dried and crushed into equally non-descript pills), let alone be able to identify them if they happenchanced upon them in the wild. A profound sadness filled me. How could this be?! Actually, I felt quite traumatised by this. There is a deep wound here. A deep disconnect. And perhaps as affected as I was, not surprised because we are products of a reductionist society. But on reflection, it reminded me of a conversation I had not so long ago about the meaning of the seemingly unrelated word –Indigenous.  My friend and I were discussing this term in relation to the knowledge of our own Australian Indigenous herbal – or rather Bush Medicine – tradition, and how, it is a largely oral-based tradition that is well protected and not readily shared unless deep respect is earned by the seeker (ie; to people of European descent. Understandably). My friend and I, to the eye anyway, are both of European descent. I have Dutch, Scots/Celt, Scandinavian, & Jewish blood running through my veins, and there has been some speculation that there’s also a drop or two of Indigenous Australian blood in there as well, but whatever the case may be, here I am having been born here, my parents were both born here, as far as I am aware all of my grandparents were born here, and my great-grandparents – well therein is the diversity of where the different blood travelled from. I don’t know the lineage of my friend, but she was born here, she grew up in the bush and spent much of her life feeling strongly connected to it. I felt much the same. So, we began to wonder whether indigenous might also mean something beyond the meaning that we are politically familiar with.

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With all due to respect to our indigenous brothers and sisters and their history, which as a former archaeology/anthropology student and generally someone also experiencing the human condition, I deeply appreciate; this thought process isn’t about social justice or cultural appropriation. I believe herbal medicine transcends these by being the medicine of the people – whichever people you are and wherever in the world you find yourself putting down roots, and it saddens me that we’ve allowed the division from these very emotionally driven political ideas to permeate into our own solidarity as Plantfolk. This thought process is rather, about this thing called being indigenous as the Earth itself sees it – because if you go back far enough, we’ve all been sojourners coming from somewhere and going to and settling down somewhere else, and we’ve all been formed from the dust of the Earth. Some of us have just put down longer roots or sent out more entrepreneurial and aggressive runners. And this may be a bit of an esoteric idea for some, but in attempting to pass on my knowledge to my daughter, I realised that this is my calling, the plants have chosen me. It might not necessarily be hers, and I can’t make it so. Let me repeat that again; the plants have chosen me.

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The Australian Indigenous people do believe that it is the Land that chooses the people, not the other way around. Our descendants may have colonised it, pillaged it, raped it, but they did not own it. We use it for resources, but it only speaks to some of us. To the rest, it is a dead thing, and in my experience, when you treat things that are living as dead, as without soul or sentience, then it will only yield its gifts to you in kind. It’s the quick fix mindset, the extraction of isolated constituents all over again to produce pharmaceuticals that manipulate the body and produce uncomfortable and sometimes deadly side-effects. When there is no respect, you get none in return. You’ll also be seen as devoid of life. Devoid of heart. Which is what we have essentially become.

“For the intense longing of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the children of Elohim. For the creation was subjected to futility, not from choice, but because of Him who subjected it, in anticipation, that the creation itself shall be delivered from the bondage to corruption into the esteemed freedom of the children of Elohim. For we know that all creation groans together and suffers the pains as of childbirth until now.”  (The Scriptures. Romans 8:19-22)

I know this will be difficult for some people to comprehend, that the Land has chosen people. It is akin to the created becoming a god, is it not? But perhaps, think on it this way; In the beginning we had one job. To tend, to care for this extraordinary garden we call Earth. One job.

“We have a remarkable ability for forgetfulness, ingenuous methods for not being present, a delicious capacity for oblivion. It is not difficult for us to forget the shocks of childhood, our nature, our destiny, the divine, and all those tasks for which our soul came into this world. As Antonio Machado once asked: What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”    (Robert Bly/Marion Woodman as quoted by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Becoming Vegetalista.)

We haven’t done the job. In fact, we forgot all about it. But the Earth knows what its purpose is, it hasn’t forgotten. The plants remind us of who we are and where we have come from, and where we are going, and this is why their medicine can touch us so deeply and profoundly. But in our busy lives of material distraction, we don’t see or feel or hear – except for some of us who were born with eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart that feels and so we hear the silver song and we follow the notes that lilt with the breeze, and we see the golden bark at the bottom of the Grandfather Tree and we feel it’s shimmer and know within our heart of hearts that faeries live here. We become indigenous, we become native, we remember – a kinnection between the earth and man, we speak for them that have no voice that humans might hear. And with our green tendrils we reach into the hearts of those who want to know the way home, and we plant a little seed. And so, the humans only have to tend that one little seed in the garden of their own soul. One job. It isn’t that difficult. But it might be a little painful…at first, because some of us need first to wake up and smell the roses.

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We are chosen, and the plants are our teachers. One day I will write a book on all of these that have taught me. And every year, when the time is right, my feet itch and the Land calls and my heart scouts the edges of the road less travelled, listening for the teacher. My own apprenticeship continues until the day I’m liberated into Light or my bones have returned to the Land and the seeds that have been scattered lovingly throughout my shroud sprout into a meadow of wildflowers.

“Nonetheless, the ecstatic journey has been part of human life for as long as humans have been. And the Earth really is intelligent and alive and aware and communicating with us every second of every day. And there really is a sacredness that flows through everything that, sometimes – usually when we least expect it – touches the soul of us and urges us to begin a journey that, as Mirabai once said, ecstatic human beings have taken for centuries. And for some of us the particular path we are called to take is the path of the vegetalista.

For those of us who take that path, the plants themselves become our teachers. They initiate us into (and surround us every day with) veriditas – a meaning-filled word created oddly enough by Hildegard of Bingen who was okay for a Christian I guess. She cleverly combined two Latin words: veritas and verde – truth and green. It’s a word that means -allatthesametime – the living intelligence of the green world and the sacredness that can be found there.” (Stephen Harrod Buhner. Becoming Vegetalista. )

And the sacredness is this; it is not the created that we worship, it is the created that reminds us, that seeks to work with us. It is the Creator who breathes Life into all, including Earth, a Divine signature; and each plant, each tree, each rock, each crystal, each body of water, each creature, speaks to that glory. Because Yahuah speaks the mysteries in the idiom of tangibles. He speaks in Golden Threads and Green Tongue, and He speaks in pomegranate and almond blossom, in olive, in oak, in cedar, and one day I might tell you the mystery of how the Blue Water Lily healed my root and navel.

“For since the creation of the world, His invisible qualities have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, both His everlasting power and Mightiness…”.     (The Scriptures. Romans 1:20)

Have you ever seen a forest in worship? Each tree, each plant raising its limbs toward the heavens in joy-filled praise?

 And sometimes, when the Pine has had enough of the zombies, it gives everyone the bird.  I don’t really blame it. Sometimes, brick walls are easier to talk to than people (because even the bricks remember that once they were earth).

So, I’m not entirely sure just yet if my daughter has felt this Veriditas entwine itself into her soul, if the earth has called her, or if in this green language, to her Yahuah will speak.

I plant the seed nonetheless, knowing that at least she can tell the difference between a dandelion and a cat’s ear, and that dandelions make a much nicer medicinally useful cup of tea.

 

 

Green blessings,

Michelle x

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Grassroots Healing, Plant Medicine

Season’s Greetings

Some Practical Solutions for Living in a Sunburnt Country

 

I love a sunburnt country

A land of sweeping plains

Of rugged mountain ranges

Of droughts and flooding rains…

 

Here begins Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem about Australia, My Country. Many years and thousands of kilometres traversing this vast land after reading this poem in primary school, I now have a deep appreciation for Ms Mackellar’s sentiments. I love this sunburnt country. I love its contrasts, the everchanging landscape a familiar companion and a constant fascination on my travels. And we are such a land of contrasts. Last week, we saw half of Queensland ravaged by searing heat and wildfires that are still blazing (I hear there are some cyclones on the way now as well), we had two months-worth of rain here in New South Wales within a matter of 36 hours, and it snowed in parts of Victoria. For the course of 2018 the whole of NSW has been gripped by drought (Have we ever had a time without drought somewhere in this country?). Each year, the States seem to rotate these patterns. A few years ago, most of QLD was underwater, while NSW and Victoria were on fire, and South Australia was windswept off the map.

We believe in giving everyone a ‘fair go’.

The current narrative says that this is due to Climate Change, but the climate has always been changing and often in a big way – especially here. Climate as far as I know isn’t really a static thing. It responds to that turning of the great wheel of the heavens like we all do. Maybe now with all those satellites weaving in and out of that wheel, we just have better media coverage, and whoever owns the biggest satellite wins the narrative.

Nevertheless, the wheel turns once more, and we find ourselves in the season of the big Hot Dry, the big Hot Windy, or the big Hot Wet, depending on where in the country you live. If you live in Victoria, you might get a bit of Cold Wet blown on you as well, but I guess that’s because you’re the Progressive State and why not.

The ‘climate’ of our bodies also changes according the seasons. In the folk wisdom of the Southern states of the USA, (referred to as Southern Folk Medicine) this change was recognised in the quality of the blood.

“The blood types described by Phyllis [Light]…tend to be constitutional, or innate to the person, or perhaps acquired after a major shift in health. They can temporarily change with the seasons, aging, a bad day or a good day, and other influences, but Southern folk medicine has a second group of blood types that are associated directly with the seasons and with aging. I call this group the “seasons of the blood”.

….It is said that just as the sap rises in the trees in summer, and falls to the roots in winter, so too does the blood rise and fall. But there is more to it than that: The sap of summer is higher, thinner, faster flowing, cleaner, and warmer, while the sap in the winter is lower, thicker, slower, dirtier, and cooler.

…There is an additional reason why it is appropriate to refer to this group under “seasons of the blood’. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when white settlers were moving into the interior of North America, dispossessing the Indian people and bringing enslaved Afro-Americans with them, the doctrine of “seasoning” was well established. This was the idea that it was too hard on most constitutions to move rapidly from North to South, or hot to cold. ….Phyllis points out that even the Federal Army, during the Civil War, had policies on seasoning….And even today troops are exercised in Texas or dry areas before being deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This idea survives in several old expressions. We speak of “seasoned troops.” Also, a person will say, “I have thin blood,” meaning they can take hot weather. The blood actually is thinner – the prostaglandins shift the viscosity of the blood – in people acclimatized to hot weather.”

(Matthew Wood. Ch.7/Southern Folk Medicine. Seasons of the Blood. Wood, M; Bonaldo, F; Light, Phyllis D. Traditional Western Herbalism and Pulse Evaluation: A Conversation.)

 

In Ayurveda – developed and practiced over thousands of years, it is recognized that the body responds to the changing seasons. In that tradition, short cleanses are recommended around the time of the equinox and solstice to help the body to adjust and acclimatize to the new season.

We can also ‘season” ourselves by matching the energetics of the season with the energetics of our lifestyle, our food, and our herbal allies.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do when preparing for the heat (either dry or wet or windy, it will still drain you) ahead is to ensure that we are adequately hydrated.  I’ve written about the importance of hydration in my soon-coming book Luminous Immunity: An Elemental Paradigm. So because I’m feeling lazy yet generous, here’s another tantalizing excerpt;

“You’ve probably heard it said that we are made up of around 60 – 75% water. Water itself is such a critical element to our body and to our mind. We can survive for 4-6 weeks without food, but only a few days without water, unless we have supernatural help. It forms the basis of our inner ocean, comprising around 10% of our bodyweight in interstitial fluid (the Extra-Cellular Matrix) that surrounds the cells and includes the lymph, the cerebrospinal fluid, and our cartilage. 4% of our bodyweight is found in the blood plasma. The fluid within the cells (intracellular fluid) makes up around 33% of our body weight. And then there is more water found throughout the body in our various tissues. The balance of all is this fluid is critical and the amount of fluid lost (through our elimination processes) should ideally equal the amount of fluid taken into the body. When any water is lost, the electrolyte balance is disturbed and the body needs to recalibrate through various endocrine mechanisms, and once again we can see how even though water in the body is perhaps the main vehicle of life, it’s quantity and quality can also be adversely affected by any disturbances to the other systems, which are in turn affected by the state of the water in the body. Can we see that our bodies don’t work in isolated compartments?

Let’s take a brief look at the function of water in the body;

*  the water-based platform of the extracellular matrix and the fluid inside the cell is where most cellular activities take place.

*  nutrient and waste material are carried through this medium.

*  minerals and many vitamins (such as the B vitamins and vitamin C) are soluble in, and therefore easily absorbed via water.

*  the various secretions, their enzymes and co-factors require water as their base.

*  fluid balance regulates body temperature.

*  provides shape to the body and a more youthful appearance.

*  purification of wastes occurs in a water medium and allows it to be effectively eliminated from the water via urine, sweat, tears, and stools.

*  gives volume to the blood and plasma and allows it to move throughout the entire body.

*  it also helps lubricate the body via various secretions.

Dehydration is pretty serious, and it is said that by the time you actually feel thirsty then dehydration is already occurring. Dehydration puts stress on the body. The blood becomes thick and sticky and blood pressure increases, lymph becomes congested, and as a result the organs of elimination slow down, and we may experience constipation, dark and scanty urine, an inability to sweat, and dry eyes. Mucous becomes more sticky, and congested. Our skin dries out and we develop fine lines and wrinkles, our hair becomes brittle and thins, our nails weak and breaking. We feel lethargic, drowsy, weak, and unmotivated, our thinking is dull and foggy. We may experience burning sensations and faintness.

Many people confuse thirst and hunger and eat when they should be drinking. And many people suffer chronic dehydration and aren’t aware of it. In his book ‘ Your Body’s Many Cries For Water, Dr Batmanghelidj, M.D outlines how chronic dehydration is one of, if not the leading cause of chronic disease in the world, simply because it is so vital to all processes of life.13 Ironically, your body holds on to water the more dehydrated it becomes in order to dilute the waste material that really isn’t going anywhere. We can also add oedema and water retention to the list of things that not getting enough water can result in.

So how much water do we need, where do we get it, and when should we drink it? According to Dr Batmanghelidj, you need to drink half your bodyweight in fluid ounces as the baseline for what your body needs. if you exercise or the weather is hot, then you’ll need more to compensate for the loss in sweat. For example, if I weigh 65kg (which is 143.3 lbs), then I’d need to drink 71.65 ounces or 2218 mls (2.1 litres) per day as my baseline. If I eat a lot of juicy fruit, which contains pure water, and I drink herbal teas or cook my veggies or rice in water and consume that water as well, then this would meet some of this requirement. Beverages such as coffee, tea, and alcohol are all diuretics, meaning they make you urinate more. Therefore, for each cup consumed, you’d need to drink a cup of water to make up for the loss.  

The type of water we drink is also important. Most municipal tap water has had chlorine, chloramines, and fluoride added to it during treatment, as well as other chemicals depending on whether the water is ‘soft’ or ‘hard’. These chemicals may clean the water to some extent, but they don’t neutralise or filter out trace pharmaceuticals, certain toxic chemicals like persistent organic pollutants (POPs), E.coli, giardia, and other bacterium and viruses, microplastics, and trihalomethanes14 . The chlorines increase the risk of respiratory conditions such as asthma, and their by-product creates trihalomethanes which have been found to be carcinogenic.

Although the body needs fluoride for healthy teeth and bones, it is in trace amounts and a completely different form, usually coupled with calcium. The fluoride added to tap water is an industrial by-product and is not useable by the body. Instead it is accumulative in the tissues. It competes with iodine and blocks it’s uptake by the thyroid, and thus also contributes to brittle bones and osteoporosis, arthritis, brittle and discoloured teeth, cancer, heart disease, and lower IQ and learning difficulties.

This is obviously not the ideal water to drink. Bottled water is often dubiously sourced, overpriced, and is sold in plastic single-use bottles which leach xenoestrogens and other hormone disruptors. Perhaps the best water is that collected in a glass vessel from a fresh, pristine mountain spring.15 The next best source would be rainwater you’ve collected yourself and then filtered, assuming you don’t live under a flight path or in the middle of the city. Some people use reverse osmosis filtration systems, others use UV or ozone filtration. Others distil their water in order to purify it. Most of these systems require electricity, or more water input for what you get out of it.

After much research, I found the most economical filter system for drinking water is a gravity fed Berkey Water Filter16. It consists of two stainless steel chambers which contain two-four carbon filters and then two fluoride filters underneath (if needed). It comes in a range of sizes depending on your requirements. No electricity is required, and if you fill it with 12 litres of water, then 12 litres will come out, minus a few grams of impurities.

According to Ayurveda, there are some simple yet profound guidelines on how to drink water, because how we drink also impacts our health. The ancients recommended that water should be drunk at room temperature or warm. On rising in the morning, drinking a glass of warm water with a squeeze of lemon before doing anything else encourages the lymphatic channels in the gut to open and begin to move and flush out waste material, and in doing so, regulates the bowels. It is also suggested to sip rather than take great gulps of water throughout the day. Sipping warm or hot water while eating is also said to aid digestion, clean the mouth and the palate, and enhance taste.18 “

Ironically, people who are constitutionally dry find it difficult to rehydrate simply by drinking more water. It’s like a downpour of rain on land that is impoverished and has been parched for a very long time. The water doesn’t seep into friable soil, instead it turns the deadpan clay on the surface to mud and simply runs off to pool somewhere and evaporate when the rain ceases. With the chronically dry person, the most effective way to rehydrate that I have found is to re-mineralise the body along with drinking water at room temperature (as described above) and using herbs and foods that also have moistening qualities. This three-pronged approach allows the water to be absorbed and to be utilised effectively.

Most people, whether chronically dry or not, are depleted in minerals due to our impoverished soils destroyed by monocropping (devoting vast swathes of land to just producing one type of crop – also known as the fastest way to create a desert.) The food we eat is therefore also devoid of these essential minerals, and the food most people eat is also often highly-processed and high in sodium. This means that we retain water, particularly if we are dry, but the water we retain is largely unusable. At best, it helps us to continue functioning but at sub-optimal levels, just like agricultural inputs of Nitrogen, Phosphate, and Potassium. It allows the land to produce a crop, but it’s end-product nutrition is sub-optimal.

My main recommendations to help people re-mineralise are colloidal trace minerals rich in humic and fulvic acids (which also create friable, fertile soil), and sea vegetables such as kelp, nori, wakame, and dulse.  These provide a full complement of the 92+ trace minerals and electrolytes that our body needs to function at optimal levels. This remineralisation also creates the electrical charge within the watery medium needed to absorb and use water effectively, and so we become adequately hydrated ready for our blood and the rest of our body to adapt to the changing climate. Replacing minerals is also essential in the heat as we lose a lot through our sweat and normal processes of elimination.

Herbs such as Marshmallow (Althea officinalis) and Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) are cooling and moistening. The leaves of any mallow species also exhibit these energetic qualities and can be used, but I like making a cold infusion of Marshmallow root to help cool and rehydrate during the hot and dry season. A cold infusion is prepared by simply taking a teaspoon of dried marshmallow root and adding it to a mason jar filled with 1 litre of water. Let infuse overnight, and it can be placed in the fridge and sipped on throughout the day if the weather is particularly hot or sipped at room temperature if you are chronically dry. The marshmallow has a sweet to neutral taste, meaning that it also imparts a nourishing quality to the tissues. If you don’t have marshmallow growing near you, or can’t obtain the root, other species within the same family can be used – such as the leaves of Malva neglecta or Malva sylvestris (Common mallow), or even Hollyhock leaves and flowers. Marshmallow root infusion is also particularly beneficial for soothing and moistening the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract when there are bushfires around and the air is filled with smoke, or the hot dry winds have blown in dust from across the desert. Most reputable health food shops should stock marshmallow root, which would be a good addition to the first aid kit.

I’ve noticed that Aloe vera or related species such as Candelabra Aloe are more commonly grown in Australian gardens than Marshmallow, and these are a good substitute for marshmallow and can be used to effectively rehydrate a person as well.  Simply cut off a good-sized plump leaf, fillet it like some people fillet a fish, cut out the gel and infuse that in cold water, and it will help to rehydrate you (you can also leave the whole leaf intact without filleting it, but be sure to drain the bitter yellow latex out first). It is also particularly useful for sunburn, and other burns. And if planted around the house with other succulent species (such as Houseleek – Sempervivum tectorum on your roof) can protect your house in the case of bushfire. If you have the dreaded Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) growing around you, its yellow flowers infused in cold water are also cooling and moistening and make an excellent syrupy infusion used for hot, dry, and irritated mucous membranes (including hot, dry, irritated coughs). The filleted pads themselves are cooling and moistening and can be used in much the same way as Aloe vera (just be sure to use gloves when handling and remove the spines and glochids – the small hair-like spines).

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Foods such as cucumber and watermelon are also cooling and moistening and improves hydration. Cucumber makes a refreshing juice and if you juice it with the skin on, you receive the hydrating benefit of its silica content as well. Watermelon seeds and rind can also be eaten (or juiced to make it easier) to enhance remineralisation.

Speaking of foods, it’s amazing that the foods we need for our bodies to cope with the seasons will often grow and ripen in that season. For example, the stone fruits which ripen at the height of summer, are cooling and moistening. We think of juicy peaches, plums, and apricots. Peach leaf is specifically used in herbal medicine for hot, inflamed and irritated conditions as seen by a carmine red & pointed tongue. Mangoes are my favourite. They are also cooling, moistening, juicy, and nourishing. The berry fruits such as blackberries, raspberries, cherries, and blueberries are sour (or sour/sweet) and astringent. These are cooling and drying, and people in hot and wet (humid) areas may find them very refreshing. The rich colour pigments of the Hot season fruits show high anti-oxidant activity, meaning that they are beneficial for protecting our skin from sun-damage and nourishing our body’s immune system for the challenges of this season as a whole.

When approached with wisdom, the sun is vital to our health, but unfortunately, it’s inevitable that most of us will experience a bit of sunburn during the Hot season, and so methods to bring quick relief and effective healing should be known. Fresh aloe vera gel, prickly pear gel, rose petal and lavender infused apple cider vinegar are all cooling and soothing for these and other burns. The rose petal & lavender infused vinegar is also useful for the burning itch of mosquito bites and midgie bites on balmy or sultry summer evenings. To make this cooling vinegar (which is also good for calming red, hot, inflamed teenage acne), simply fill a jar with dried organic rose petals and lavender flowers and then pour raw apple cider vinegar over until the flowers are covered and the jar is full. Screw on a lid and let it infuse for 2-4 weeks before straining and using. Dab on the affected areas with a cotton ball or cloth soaked in the solution.

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These are just some suggestions for helping to prepare for and adapt to the season ahead of us. I hope you find them useful.

 

Many Blessings,

Michelle.

 

 

 

 

Grassroots Healing, Musings, Reflections, Spirituality, Plant Medicine

Learning to Open the Eyes on the Ends of my Fingers

(or Reflections on The Diagnostic Touch)

 

The times are changing and perhaps more exponentially, or more rapidly than ever before. Tech is venerated as some new god that will redeem us all, as we get swept up in a tsunami of information unprecedented in human history. For folks who are digital migrants, we have either taken to it like a fish to water, or we have started to feel like we are really drowning. In my own work, there’s now an unspoken burgeoning pressure to somehow be ahead of this game as most people now are wont to self-diagnose via advice from Dr Google. Some people subscribe to every internet health gurus eNews, and as a result not only end up taking every supplement and ‘superherb’ that’s on trend, or worse – start prescribing these wonder drugs indiscriminately as some sort of panacea to everyone they meet. At the other end of this spectrum, we also have clients who are on about twelve different pharmaceuticals and so we now have to wade through which drug is for the original ailment, which are for the side-effects, possible drug-herb interactions, contraindications, and half-lives. And then we have to figure out if we can actually be of help at all, and if they have a doctor who is willing to work with us to begin to wean the patient of this chemical cocktail. The mindset that births both of these extremes is the same. In this Age of Instant Gratification & Technological Wonderment, it is the reductionist mindset of the quick fix. And as a result, we are losing our traditional knowledge and understanding of the unique essence and specific virtues of the plants, and we are losing our skills of diagnostics. And why not? We have the machines that go ping to do that for us now. (And we have standardised plant extracts – but that’s another story). We are losing touch.

But machines, or even standard lab tests, can’t detect nuance. They can’t depth diagnose through empathy or perceive the dynamics of the life experience that courses through a patient’s veins. They can only take snap shots of that given moment, without regard to extenuating circumstances. The conventional assessment of blood pressure is a prime example.

monty-python-machine-ping
Monty Python fans will understand.

 

Before medicine became technological and profit-driven by the pharmaceutical companies, the physicians/healers  themselves, if they were any good, had to also be skilled diagnosticians. Trained on the job, their own bodies were highly aware, acutely sensitive diagnostic instruments. The full use of all of their senses was employed to make an accurate assessment of the dynamic being that sat or lay before them. Mindful observation of mannerisms, pallor of skin, observation of the tongue, colour of eyes – both iris and sclera, the posture, the gait on walking, facial expressions, the colour of urine and any discharges, as well as skilled and thoughtful palpation of the tissue, the moisture of the skin, feeling the temperature, feeling and reading the pulse, smelling the general odour, hearing the tone of voice, hearing the heartbeat or the lung sounds, the crepitations (crackling) in the joints, the gurgling of the stomach.  All of these, as well as a detailed case history allowed the physician/healer to make a highly accurate diagnosis.  Of course, one needs to have a certain depth of knowledge and understanding to then be able to understand the significance of what the senses are reading, as well as the most appropriate treatment, but overall what we have is a truly holistic picture of the state of health of the person. Up until the 1950s, many physicians in the West still practised like this and with an understanding of the energetics of the disease process. Physicians who practised in the East within the systems of TCM, Ayurveda, and Unani-Tibb continue to practice under this paradigm. Their diagnostic skills have been maintained.

Touch is a human need. Babies crave it. Appropriately given, it soothes our nervous system, or it can stimulate it. It can convey a sense of belonging, and of being loved and cared for. We may think of the therapeutic touch of massage and bodywork. Yet, the diagnostic touch, the touch that conveys that someone is willing to spend time with you, is willing to listen to you -on all levels of your being- in order to most appropriately care for you, can also be therapeutic. We all want to be heard. We all need our pain acknowledged. Whether modern medicine thinks so or not, this acknowledgement forms as large a part of the healing process as the treatment itself.

I’ve come to this reflection on this diagnostic touch from my own nagging feelings of inadequacy, of something missing, spurring an eagerness to learn. When I did my training at college, out of the four or so years dedicated to the practice of Western Herbal Medicine, we did a grand total of two days dedicated to physical examination. Even then we didn’t use it much, nor were we encouraged to, in the 400 hours of student clinic. And reading the pulse or feeling the tissue for changes beneath didn’t come into it at all. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, I’ve learnt much on the job, and I often find that when the time is right, things come into your world that suggest – either subtly or blatantly, that it’s time for further development. The personal upheaval of recent months has been such a time.

In my previous post, I mentioned that working with plants and making medicine is one of my coping mechanisms. Reading is another. I devour books almost insatiably. The first book that came into my world around this time was “Cancer: It’s Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment’ by the late, great American physiomedicalist, Eli Jones, MD.   Published in 1911, it is as relevant today as it was back then. Perhaps more so. After spending the first two to three chapters lamenting the state of cancer treatment in regular (allopathic) medical practice[1], and indicting it all to shame, he then begins an emphatic treatise on the physician’s skill in correct diagnosis.

He [the physician] must educate his hands — have his eyes at his fingers’ ends. The delicate, sensitive touch of the fingers will soon teach him how to detect cancer in any form….”   (Eli Jones. Ch.5)

In “taking a case” of cancer to treat we want to look the patient over carefully; ……

We examine the pulse of our patient; we find the pulse of cancer a weak pulse, often a discouraged feeling to it, and quicker than normal. The weight and feeling of the muscles show lack of nutrition. The tongue under its yellowish, white color shows, in advanced cancer a dark red color; in the last stages we have the “beef steak” tongue. The white of the eye has a pearly tint with greenish yellow spots, showing a drain upon the system, toxic matter in the blood and decomposition of albumen. The eyes will tell you if the glands are acting normally or not. The tongue shows you whether the patient is digesting his food or not; if he cannot digest his food, he cannot make good blood. The pulse tells you whether the vital forces are strong or weak. You must learn to study the quality and character of the pulse; until you can do that, you cannot cure this disease or any other.

Thus it is, by a careful intelligent study of the eye, tongue and pulse of our patient, we can get a good idea of the advancement made by the disease and the vitality of the patient; and this will be a guide to us in making up our prognosis and also for the rational treatment of the case.”  (Eli Jones, Ch.6)

And;

“Never forget the fact that the general health of the patient must be better before the cancer is any better. Watch the eyes, the tongue and the pulse; they will tell you of your patient’s condition. One of the first things my students have to learn is how to read the pulse. Not one doctor in a thousand can do it…. Grasp the wrist of your patient; banish every thought from your mind; think of what you are doing and what you want to know. How does it feel? What is the impression you get from the pulse? Remember the pulse of cancer has a weak discouraged feeling. It is a little faster than normal. If there is pain the pulse will show it, also if there is any heart difficulty. You can tell by the pulse if your patient is responding to the action of your remedies. The pulse will feel a little stronger, fuller and more regular. Remember that the healthy, normal pulse is full, strong and regular.”

I particularly like this admonition to his students;

“A doctor of all men should be a gentle man, and have an easy, gentle touch. I have had patients tell me how their physician pinched and squeezed the tumor in their breast until they screamed so that people could hear them out in the street. Such men are ignorant jackasses. I told these patients that they should have “slapped them in the face.” Such men need that kind of treatment. It is the only treatment that they can understand. In examining a case of cancer, it is hardly ever necessary to cause a patient a moments pain where a doctor understands his business. Treat your lady patients just as you would like a brother physician to examine you or examine your wife, sister or mother.”

Throughout the rest of the book, he then cites numerous successful case histories, along with his particular treatment protocols. The good doctor clearly knew his stuff and got extraordinary results. It’s a fascinating read and one which I will refer to time and again, and perhaps I will expound upon his work in some future article, but this idea of the importance of the physical examination, the diagnostic touch, to confirm a case spoke to me. Something was stirring, once spoken of, long forgotten, wanting to be heard once more.

Perhaps it spoke because of my own case of fibrocystic breast change. I’ve had it for about 9 years, managing to reduce it somewhat through various means including fasting, juice feasting, and dietary management, but never fully being ‘cured’ of it. Over the years it has changed character, largely influenced by hormonal cycles, that in themselves are an apparent barometer of whatever stress I have been going through. Recently, the character of the fibrous tissue and the cysts changed again. Using it as my own case study, I am acutely aware of the ‘eyes on the ends of my fingers’ as I palpate the changes and monitor closely the response to more accurately chosen remedies. It is often said that it is very difficult for the practitioner to self-diagnose, and an objective view must be obtained. Having said that, there is also the adage; “Physician, heal thyself.” Why pass up an opportunity for such intimate hands-on learning? It’s only through direct experience, that which we then can internalise, are we able to apply the knowledge gained with true, deep understanding and maybe a hint of wisdom. During my pregnancies, I learnt to feel the growth, and the positions of my babies, to listen to the heartbeat, and the whooshing of the blood coursing through the umbilical cord, as well as the difference between a ‘ripe’ and an ‘unripe’ cervix.  I am, by and large, my own practicum, being curious by nature. But I digress.

As luck (or divine direction?) would have it, I came across another book for the hands-on aspect of diagnosis simply called ‘Hands On’ by Nic Rowley. It outlines in very easy to read and systematic detail the course of physical examination that any practitioner can employ (the subtitle is ‘Basic Clinical Skills for Students and Practitioners of Complementary and Alternative Medicine), and in a logical and what may become intuitive sequence. Although written much more recently than Eli Jones’ work, it borrows from the physical examination methods used in modern conventional medical practice (but devoid of observation of the tongue or reading of the pulse beyond counting it’s beats), and the author states that “if you have not got a pretty good idea of what is wrong with someone by the time they get on to your examination couch, you are unlikely to know what is wrong with them by the time they get off it”. This method of physical evaluation was what we were taught in that grand exploration of the subject during college. However, I think that despite the statement made above, not only does it’s offering still give our client the reassurance that we are leaving no stone unturned in their care, if we combine it with the careful visual and tactile observations of our tradition’s elders, then new information can be gained, and the case may be more fully rounded. After all, conventional medicine has left the concept of energetics and holistic practice behind, and as a result the most appropriate remedy. Unfortunately, in the modern practice of Western Herbal Medicine, particularly in this country, we are moving along the same trajectory. Nevertheless, it is a helpful book that reminds us that our senses are still among our best diagnostic tools. And even if we stop here with these ‘basic skills’, we can still determine likely differential diagnoses.

In his conversational tome, Traditional Western Herbal Medicine and Pulse Evaluation, co-authored with Phyllis D. Light and Francis Bonaldo, Matthew Wood reminds us;

“ In energetic medicine we view disease as a pattern. This is the basis of Holism, which looks to the unity in the diversity, the pattern that pulls together the disparate symptoms into a whole.

…In holistic medicine we believe – and everyday experience confirms this – that nature can cure herself. This is the primary difference between holism and biomedicine. But in order to make this belief a reality we have to pick up a different set of tools and approach the body from an entirely different perspective. Holism requires that we seek to understand the underlying problems that cause illness in the body such as heat and cold, damp and dry, tension and relaxation. If we can address these conditions before the disease has progressed too far, then we will be able to unburden nature and allow her to cure herself. Our understanding must be different and our tools must be of a different order.

…In natural, holistic, and energetic medicine our diagnostic tools must also be different. These include methods that help us to see the general patterns caused by stress in the body. We start with simple questions pertaining to hot and cold, damp and dry, tension and relaxation, basic emotions, aggravations and ameliorations. While we are asking questions, we are looking at the complexion of the face and skin, and then the signs of strength and weakness on the face (color, wrinkles, high spots, low spots, good hair, bad hair, etc.) Then we move on to methods that allow us to perceive very directly the imbalances in the body. This includes looking at the tongue, taking the pulse, and feeling the skin (for moisture, dryness, warmth, cold, oil, water, etc.) Pulse diagnosis is particularly suited to energetic medicine because the pulse reveals patterns of imbalance in the organism, not the sort of molecular lesions that constitute the evidence of disease in conventional biomedicine.

Such examination is usually enough for an experienced practitioner to draw conclusions about the origins of stress and disease within the organism. Then we select our therapeutic tools. These include exercise, nutrition, lifestyle, massage, bodywork, herbs, and homeopathic remedies. They must be suited to natural energetic patterns and changes in the body.”

This is the third book that happened to fall into my lap in recent weeks, and one that ran along with this theme building in my mind of the diagnostic touch. On first read-through I admit that I found it somewhat overwhelming. How in the world am I going to learn all of this? How in the world am I going to remember it all? There are no less than 22 different pulses that might be felt in 3 different positions on each wrist at three different depths representing the various organ systems, existing in pairs such as high/low, rapid/slow, tense, wiry/relaxed, slippery/non-resistant, strong/weak, etc., listed under the headings of dimension, time, tone, blood and vessel, and power. As well as the Southern blood types and the seasons of the blood noted by Phyllis.  Even with a knowledge and understanding of the energetic model of Traditional Western Herbalism, and of the physiological processes of the body, it still seems at first exploration to be overwhelming. But how it has spoken to something deep within me! Pulse reading is akin to learning a whole new language. But then so was the materia medica of herbs when I first began learning them. These things become indentured over time, seasoned by practice. Even Matthew states; “ It takes decades to learn pulse diagnosis and, like herbalism, there is always more to learn.”  I suspect that over this time, intuition will also develop alongside, much as it has with learning the herbs.

Phyllis D. Light picks up the thread;

“ The pulse is also that lyrical, throbbing, musical heart rhythm that sings the song of our body and soul. This is the pulse that I must explore. It is the cadence, depth, quality, breadth, speed, force and rhythm that invites me into the wrist to palpate the flow of the bloodstream, the river of life. Feeling the pulse against my fingers is one of the most important assessments of vital energy that I know.”

 This is a book that I expect to be referring to over and over again as I begin to slowly train those ‘eyes at the end of my fingers’ to ‘see’ and really feel into the dynamics of the blood – that river of life – moving beneath them. Don’t be alarmed if I greet you now with “may I feel your pulse?”, rather than “hi, how’s it going?”  It may take me a while to learn to really feel what it’s telling me but, in the meantime, I need lots of practice, so “may I feel our pulse?”

In this age of tech where even the idea of robots ‘caring’ for the elderly in nursing homes has been floated around, I fear that we are, quite literally, losing touch. Obviously for the practitioner – allopathic or holistic – mindfulness, empathy, and respect must accompany this ‘hands on’ tool. One must be aware of past trauma, or cultural taboo. This should go without saying and permission should be gained first. The diagnostic touch may also serve, however, as an educational tool. By explaining what you are looking for and why, the patterns that we are feeling and observing and how it all connects, we invite the client in to the conversation with their own body. We invite them to get in touch.

By often feeling of the pulse….we may get the faculty of discerning the natural magnitude of the different constitutions, which no words can explain…”  Sir John Floyer (1707)

I’m excited to add this tool to my practice, and to grow and develop with it in seeking a truly holistic framework for the wellbeing of my clients.

 

 

 

References:

 

Jones, E. “Cancer: It’s Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment’.  1911. This book is available to read free online at https://planetherbs.com/research-center/cancer-book-resources/

Rowley, N. Hands On: Basic Clinical Skills for Students and Practitioners of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. 2018. Aeon Books. London.

Wood, M. Bonaldo, F. & Light. P.D  Traditional Western Herbalism and Pulse Evaluation: A Conversation.  2015. Lulu Publishing.

[1] If we read it without a knowledge of the time he wrote it, one might think that he was writing about the state of affairs today. The allopathic paradigm hasn’t changed in 100 years.