Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Herbocalypse Now: Herbalism as Activism in a Shifting World

This article first appeared in Plant Healer Magazine, Winter 2012.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” –Buckminster Fuller

In tribal times, humankind depended on nature and community for survival. People grew and gathered their own food and medicine, and traded goods and services within a local network. This system provided security against personal hardship by ensuring that everyone would be cared for, despite illness or injury. Each person of a tribe carried traditional knowledge, passed down through generations, about survival.

The Current System

Tribal life stands in stark contrast to the modern world in which we live today. Most people are far removed from basic survival skills such as growing food or wildcrafting medicine. This separation from nature is also a severance from our personal power. In today’s world, we give away our power to people who already have plenty. The majority work in jobs making more money for the global elite than for themselves. We slave away for a system that cares neither for our wellbeing nor the health of our planetary organism. In the process, we lose the basic knowledge that would free us from this system.

There is no doubt about it; we live in troubled times. The current economic, political, and social systems are in a state of flux. More and more people are waking up to the idea that these systems no longer serve us or the planet. While big business runs the show, we watch as our natural resources dwindle. Meanwhile, the system that claims to improve our lives leaves many of us ill, unhappy, and in debt. Toxins wreak havoc on the environment and our bodies, and the stress of holding down multiple jobs to stay afloat causes us to accrue medical bills that we cannot pay. It’s a vicious cycle.

Oil Spill Clean-up
On top of this is the instability of the system upon which we’ve come to depend. While I do not subscribe to doomsday prophecy, I must admit that we are precariously balanced. By polluting and ravaging our environment, we have pitted ourselves against nature. And yet, the power of Mother Nature could easily throw our fragile systems for a loop. Aside from resources such as oil and clean water becoming increasingly scarce, natural disaster would be quite an eye-opening experience for those who take our unsustainable lifestyle for granted.

Economic collapse is another scenario that many analysts foresee. Some compare the United States’ current situation to that of the Soviet Union before its major collapse twenty years ago. The vulnerability of our system is something that the elite would like to keep cloaked in secrecy. If the masses are numbed into complacency, then they remain stuck within that system, accruing resources for big banks and corporate honchos.

Pharmaceutical Companies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Dependence upon pharmaceuticals is a huge part of the problem. In 1997, the FDA allowed for direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs to American citizens via the mass media in a way that did not require equal time for the discussion of a drug’s risks or side-effects. This has popularized the television commercials that promote drugs for erectile dysfunction or depression. These companies profit from making us feel sick or imbalanced, so that they can “fix” us. They sensationalize and perpetuate disease for their own gain.

To be fair, sometimes pharmaceuticals can be a life-saver. The advent of the modern medical system has increased our collective lifespan as a species. But the commercialization and overuse of synthetic drugs has myriad negative consequences. For one, the production of synthetic drugs has toxic effects on the environment. Pharmaceutical drugs often end up in water supplies. This unholy brew is then absorbed by marine wildlife such as fish and frogs, soaked up in our crops, or drunk by humans.

The synthetic nature of pharmaceuticals also has toxic effects on our bodies. While many drugs are inspired by plants, creating test-tube copies of herbal compounds is no substitute. Humans and plants have co-evolved for millennia and are well-suited to one another. Synthetic drugs have far more side-effects than plants as a whole, and the damage done can outweigh the benefits.

Perhaps the ugliest ramification of the pharmaceutical empire is the effect on our consciousness. When we allow these companies to monopolize our health, we stay locked within a victim mentality. We feel like hapless sufferers of an illness, only to be saved by an outside entity more powerful than ourselves. The idea of taking charge of our own wellbeing has been suppressed. We live in a culture that expects a pill to fix everything, and as a result we forget to take personal responsibility.

This mentality can have detrimental results when living within such a fragile system. In their book A Guide to Understanding Herbal Medicines and Surviving the Upcoming Pharmaceutical Monopoly, Dr. Michael Frawley, ND and Ty Bollinger promote preparedness for a time when our systems, for whatever reason, are not functioning as they do now. The importance of being able to provide healthcare to ourselves, our families, and our communities is of the utmost importance for the times in which we live. Even if our economic and political systems stay perfectly intact, the environmental and spiritual issues caused by heavy pharmaceutical use are inescapable.

Power to the People

“Apocalypse” is ancient Greek term meaning “the lifting of a veil to reveal something that is hidden.” While many worry that we live in apocalyptic times, I hope that we are living through apocalypse, in the best sense of the word. If there is any spiritual significance to the end of the Mayan calendar’s long cycle, or to any number of others’ suggestions that we are in deeply meaningful times, then the opportunity for change is great.

Understanding the problems with our current system is important, but dwelling on them does nothing to alleviate the situation. While the possibility for upheaval is a real one, it is our job to raise awareness and start bringing the more sustainable systems into place as the old ones fall away. Each of us must find our own ways to contribute to the solution.

It is time to take back our power and stop depending on a system that doesn’t value life. Rather than toiling away on the corporate treadmill to support a government run by big business which promotes violence and subordination, let us detach ourselves from that machine. By eliminating our dependence on the outside system, we can rediscover what it means to live in a community-oriented culture.

Each of us has practical gifts and talents that we can offer to others within our local communities. Herbal medicine is one of these gifts. Regardless of what the future may hold, practicing herbalism is a means of promoting positive change in the world. When we become herbalists, we become capable of healing ourselves, no longer dependent on an external system. In this way, herbalism itself is an act of protest, a mode of activism.

Perhaps a shift in consciousness is at hand, a new paradigm of reality. I say, let’s find a way of merging with the natural world as our ancestors did, yet with the benefit of modern tools and resources currently available. Let us begin the Herbocalypse, now!

How Herbalism Helps: The Big Picture

Can plants really start a revolution? While herbalists and Big Pharma may seem as equally matched as David and Goliath, there is hope. The benefits of practicing herbalism are myriad and multi-leveled.

The power of the paradigm shift from victim to healer cannot be understated. When we become active participants in our own healing, we discover how the concepts of authority shift as well. We no longer need anyone else to tell us if we’re healthy, because we have learned to get in touch with our own bodies. We can then start to question the recommendations of our doctors. We might ask ourselves, “Do I really need to start this medication, when I know I will become dependent?” or, “Is my child really hyperactive, or is the school system he belongs to just not working for him?” These kinds of questions are crucial when it comes to stepping back from preconceived notions of wellbeing and normalcy.

Avoiding Chemicals

Herbalism also spares our bodies and the Earth from toxic chemicals. Even over-the-counter “medicines” are often chemical concoctions that more closely resemble poison. When was the last time you read the ingredients on a bottle of liquid cold medicine? The first ingredient is often propylene glycol, a form of mineral oil also found in antifreeze and brake fluid. While the safety of this substance is currently debated, most folks blindly trust drug companies and the FDA to provide wholesome medicine. The same is true for artificial colorings added to cough syrups and pills. Studies now suggest they may be responsible for allergic reactions or even cancer—all for a cosmetic ingredient.

Aside from the pollution to our bodies and our planet caused by synthetic drugs, there is also the question of whether these drugs even promote healing. Cold medicine, for example, may quell the symptoms of a cold. But, is the suppression of symptoms really a good thing? Many natural healers say it is not. Our bodies create fever to boost immune function and excess mucous to drive out irritants. Why interfere with a natural process? Is it so that we can remain functional in our daily grind and thus continue to support the system?

When we learn to use herbal medicines, we can eliminate the purchase of many, if not all, chemically-based drugs. This has the two-fold benefit of keeping these controversial chemicals out of our blood and reducing the demand for such chemicals, so they stay out of our water as well. In this way, care for our bodies becomes care for the planet.

Financial Freedom

Another major bonus is the inexpensive nature of creating one’s own medicine. When we wildcraft or grow herbs, we take advantage of the inherent abundance of nature. Of course, it is important not to over-harvest, especially endangered or at-risk plants. But much medicine can be derived from very common plants. One person’s weed is another’s medicine. Rather than fighting off Dandelions, why not use them as a nutritive liver support to help our bodies fight off toxins?
Good, wholesome medicine can be made cheaply with the right know-how, especially in comparison with the cost of pharmaceuticals. Taking advantage of natural abundance is a way to circumvent the money-driven system. By replacing our store-bought cough syrup with a homemade concoction, we drive down the demand for synthetic drugs while also liberating ourselves.

The more self-sustaining we become within our families and communities, the less money we have to make. Some of us may even feel liberated from the need for health insurance, which in turn might free us from taking a job we don’t like. This liberates us from the workaday world, giving us more time and energy to enjoy life. When we do so, our stress levels drop dramatically, promoting health from the inside out.

Community Connection

Fostering a sense of community is another benefit of herbal medicine. Getting back to our tribal roots means developing a network of local healers. When herbalists use plants from their own gardens or woods to create medicine for their communities, a strong system is developed. Local trade, barter, and exchange systems foster far more security for our world than depending on governmental aid. The insufficient help provided after Hurricane Katrina is a microcosmic example of the system failing. By promoting community solidarity, we hedge against the need for outside support, available or not.

Moving beyond disaster scenarios, visiting a local herbalist just feels better than going to a doctor. Rather than a sterile, clinical environment, we receive much more personalized and compassionate care. Providing such care for others in the community also feels good. There is just something special about giving somebody a bottle of tincture and pointing out the window to the very plant in the bottle. The plants themselves become a part of the healing community, fostering a deeper connection with nature.


There is no doubt that change must occur on an outside level to protect the life on this planet. On the other hand, spiritual masters point out that all change must come from within. If it is true that the outside world reflects our inner being, then spiritual evolution is another means of social change. Connecting with plants spiritually then becomes a very important process.

Native American and other traditional cultures throughout the world have long-standing spiritual practices to connect with healing plants. The shamanic traditions foster a connection with plant consciousness, allowing for a deeper understanding of the healing medicine they contain. It is my belief that plants are teachers and allies, to be treated with respect and reverence. By listening to their messages, we develop intuition about when and how to make use of their healing gifts.

At the same time, working with plants cultivates a sense of gratitude for Mother Earth’s bounty. When we allow plants to work their magic on us, we develop a profound appreciation for nature. It then becomes very natural to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We find ourselves seeking out ways to get more involved with the conservation of medicinal plants and the environment.

Practical Steps

It might sound great to be a part of the Herbocalypse revolution, but how do we get started?

Step one is to learn about herbal medicine. Read books, take classes, and grow a garden. Seek out someone more knowledgeable than yourself as a teacher. Buy a field guide for local medicinal plants and take regular walks in the woods. When you feel confident enough, try your hand at making medicine. Bring herbal teas, tinctures, and salves into your everyday life. There is nothing like hands-on experience to quicken the learning process.

Next, bring herbalism into your community. Make connections with other herbalists; a group support system is invaluable. Create a network of people who can share not only knowledge and experience, but also plants, seeds, and medicine. You may make herbal products or start your own practice. Growing medicinal plants and making them available to the community is a wonderful service. Getting involved with plant conservation is another important project; United Plant Savers offers information and support for this venture.

You might also teach a class for your local community. As an Indiana native, I traveled to Oregon in 2010 for an internship with Herb Pharm, where I worked in the fields and took classes. Upon returning home, it struck me that not everyone from my community who was interested in herbs could do the same thing. Many people have families or jobs that prevent traveling across the country for months on end. At the same time, Indiana is not exactly a hot-bed of herbalism schools. So, I offered a beginner’s class for local folks, sharing the knowledge I had gleaned out west and providing the tools needed for them to continue learning on their own. Meanwhile, the contact I made with students has enriched my own practice. 

It is also important to support other herbalists. There is room for everyone to contribute to the herbalism world, so a competitive attitude is null and void. Seeking out healing and advice from another person is educational and inspiring. Individuals who make herbal products have to go through a lot of red tape to sell them, as the laws favor larger companies. By going to farmer’s markets, festivals, or shops that sell local products, you allow these individuals to continue their important work. Even if the healing salve of a local herbalist costs more than a mass-produced one, you are investing in your community.

And finally, spread the word. Writing and public speaking are great ways to promote herbalism. Or, simply communicating to family, friends, and acquaintances about the glories of herbal medicine is one of the best ways to raise awareness. Of course, you may meet some opposition, depending on your community. There are still those who doubt the efficacy of herbal medicine. I find that engaging people’s senses works well. Have them taste a delicious tincture or tea, for starters. One of my favorite tactics is to give someone (with plenty of warning) a Spilanthes flower to chew. The intense tingling and numbing sensation provided by this most humble-looking flower is enough to make a believer out of many folks! As they marvel in the feeling, I explain how the antibacterial flower also cleans the mouth, boosts the immune system, and improves digestion.

Buy Local and Be Vocal

In short, the way to start the herbal revolution is to buy local and be vocal. By focusing on our communities, we foster security and connection. By sharing what we know with others, we raise awareness of herbalism. Knowledge is power, especially within a system that conditions us to be unthinking and disempowered. Using the intelligence of our minds and hearts, we can circumvent our dependence on this destructive system.

With the veil lifted, more people will take up the caduceus of herbal medicine and start the healing journey for themselves. Thus, herbalism is activism. By working to build our local networks, to provide medicine for our communities, and to take the power to be well back into our own hands, we are active participants on the road to freedom. Herbalism makes for a healthier, more sustainable, and happier world.