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herbalism & science

it's complicated......

 
 

My work as an herbalist is one of sudden love and liberation.

Finding the 'medicinal' use of plants after so much labor for my survival, in social justice and addressing trauma is one of the most transformative moments in my life. I am pro plant-human relationships. I am far less plant-human industry. It's a conflict I have about calling 'herbalism' a singular field. Specifically, folks with dominant cultural privileges such as myself, a white person, have easily adapted plant-human relationships to fit into structures and ways of servicing folks that perpetuate and continue these systems. Saying that can be quite inflammatory in the 'herbalism' world. 

Modern white-patriarchal-capitalist ways of thinking and shaping the world are living and present in the herb world. Saying that so openly without apology feels important and congruent with my work with plants. I have experienced and witnessed this first hand. I have had some incredibly painful experiences watching the theft of femme-labor (including my own recently, which was really devastating), the lack of settler/colonizer respect on indigenous land, the patriarchal enshrining of what 'real' knowledge is and where it comes from, the inability for the herb community to respond responsibly to white herbalists who attack herbalists of color, etc. There's more. But, you get my drift. So, I learned quickly that my work with trauma, if it is to include both social justice and plants, has to be selective about how I walk as a plant person. There is a smallish-but-ever-growing force of social justice/intersectional herbalists growing by the day and that feels hopeful to me. 

Plant-human relationships are necessary and transformative. 

I have concerns about the impact of our harvesting, the ethics of white herbalists continuing to harvest on lands while indigenous communities struggle, the environmental impacts of all the little bottles and products shipped here and there, the ongoing control white herbalism maintains over what 'herbalism' really is and who gets what visibility in this community, etc. I think about these things because relationship matters. I don't have clear answers at all. I have earnst inquiry and a deep commitment to trying more and more to make my relationships as congruent, respectful, honest and just that I can in places I am privileged and to increase visibility for the places I am not. Hence, my work shifts and evolves. 

An interesting and important place to explore some of these intersections between plant-human relationships and dominant cultural norms is science. The 'science of herbs.' Because of modern conditioning, you can attach the label 'scientific study' onto nearly anything and it receives additional credibility. Science is oft given the credit for freeing humankind from the tyranny of 'primitivism' (<- a label I reject whole heartedly and find insulting to all our ancestors)....science in and of itself is primarily a lens: looking at patterns and getting more and more nuanced about what the pieces of these patterns are. The first scientists were the plant people and midwives. They looked at things happening, tried different things out and discovered what worked. They listened with multiple senses and tested in their own mouths and bodies what various things do and when. They didn't need to abandon relational thinking (often coming through spiritual language and expression) to do so. 

What really seems lacking in the science vs. magic, the allopathic vs. alternative, plant spirit vs. clinical herbalism is the depth of context. Is understanding the multifaceted, unregulatable, unlinear ways in which reality is composed: in layers of paradox. Thus, there is no fixed reality that exists as complete in and of itself but instead is co-created and both supremely influenced by us individually and collectively as well as larger than us. Relationship to the question will affect the answer. The lens you are looking through shapes the scene. 

Those of us who have struggled with our mental health know, usually,when we are being observed through a clinical lens. We also know when we don't have to work so hard to be seen. 

Objectivity is a myth even science has ruled out via quantum mechanics and critique, though the belief that it somehow exists absolutely and in perpetuity remains. The placebo effect has long been dismissed as miscellaneous phenomenon as opposed to a constant reminder their is far more present in any one moment than what can be observed and repeated (some pharmaceuticals only have a narrow margin by which they are reported to work better than the placebo effect....). So, alas, here we are.

Huge nutri-ceutical companies do bad crap like harvest the wrong part of kava root giving little regard to indigenous knowledge of how it is to be used because it didn't come from a laboratory run by white folks in long coats and when certain toxicity is discovered and it becomes a 'toxic' herb. Isolated parts of a plant are super concentrated and injected into animals which then cause cancer and the plant is listed as a carcinogen, someone gives a bunch of a plant to rats and sees a decrease in fertility and every blog post moving forward mentions reduced fertility........science has a history of performing bad magic, just ask anyone who has navigated the mental health system and felt the gaze of science on their experiences. 

But this structured human inquiry into the state of things is necessary and can also be lovely. I do want someone to crack open my chest and massage my heart should I drop like rock on a hike one day. Well, maybe.....lol......I was just at lunch with a friend who had surgery to halt the progression of a degenerative cornea disease in his eyes. Would I prefer we not have that technology? NO. Of course not. What I would prefer, however, is a much more relational approach to what it means and what are the consequences of exploring these questions. Have there been amazing discoveries that affect human lives for the better? YES. Has science been used as a tool to violate people of color, indigenous peoples, subjugate women, pathologize gender and sexual identity and be utter state-sanctioned evil? YEP. 

'Science' as we currently understand it, here in the west being born out of the Age of Reason/Enlightenment developed within white-cis-hetero-patriarchal-ableist cultural powers and norms. It is not free from these lenses and in fact often depends on the reductivity of these dominant cultural norms in order to maintain the promise of 'better living through chemistry' (an echo of manifest destiny). Think about how many herb classes you have been to where the teacher begins by mourning the amount of rats who were tortured and died in order to prove that an herb does exactly what traditional and indigenous use said it did? Not many, likely. Science is an alter to which much is sacrificed without question. 

It's not an either/or thing. The ability to ask questions, structure an exploration of the question and examine the result in relationship to the question is part of the human experience. Systems of power and how we conceptualize our relationship to this big mysterious thing-life-existence-have always existed and always will. Is it any wonder the witches, midwives and healers who operated outside the realm of the Christian notion of where all power comes from needed to be burned in order for science to exist along side religion? And as science surpassed or invalidated held beliefs of the church was suppressed? There is no objectivity the transcends the context the question is engaged in. I talk about that in my online anxiety course because a diagnosis of anxiety or the calling anxiety a thing that someone has is language that fits a paradigm in which the body is more machine and either functions or malfunctions. And, as the spell is cast (the diagnosis is made) then there becomes a duality: there is me and there is the anxiety, which must be eliminated. The truth is how much more complex we are. 

It's interesting to watch scientists suddenly tell the larger community why folks with trauma are how they are as someone who has and also shows up to stand with others in their trauma. Science can tell me that the social engagement system of the autonomic nervous system isn't working. For a very, very long time, indigenous healers have said that part of the self/soul/spirit was trapped elsewhere. Many of the tools of bringing the social engagement system online are the same tools used by earth based healers and indigenous spiritual mediators (I avoid the generic use of the shaman word as a white girl and religious studies major with generous eye rolls for Mircea Eliade whose work allowed for the diluting of that term through white-western-academia). Basically, the manipulation of knowledge and relationship can happen anywhere, in science, in politics, in herbalism and magic/realms of the non-embodied. 

You might be wondering, where is she going with this? LOL. Totally. If there is anything I have learned as both witch, activist and trauma survivor, it is the power of context, relationship and the capacity to hold complexity and paradox. I love being able to talk about phytochemistry, physiology and ecology. I do not love that often the pursuit and pedistol of these findings has been used to colonize, torture and subjugate folks who are not part of or resist the white-cis-capitalist-hetero-patriachy as well as the ingrained belief that the knowledge and reasoning it upholds is not without reproach. I question, as a white person whose plant based traditions were stolen, destroyed and colonized by white-christian-patriarchy, the way in which herbalism as a 'career' can replicate what happened between healers over generations living close to the land where the bodies of their ancestors fed the plants they made preparations from. I can't know that in this life. Admitting that feels really important to me. 

So, yes I look to and explore with a glaring gaze at the gorgeous ways our world works according to our latest understanding. And, I hold it accountable for the violences it has, will and might commit. I think that is important. I love knowing that some primary adaptogens have structures so that they can bond to cortisol receptors on cells and slow down/help regulate the body's usage and production of stress this stress hormone. Did I need animals to spend their lives suffering in order to effectively work with the herb? Not really. 

Can knowing intimate details about phytochemistry actually ensure that I have a capacity to see deeply the needs of someone seeking support from me and to ask good questions? Not really. 

Context, relationship and complexity are important skills here. 

You can find both bad magic and bad science in herbalism. You can also find folks also trying to be critically aware of the complexities of what it means to show up to someone and how it is done. Keep your eye out for both in any arena you seek support, neither a lab coat or published book on herbs prove superiority, only the context and quality of the encounter. Don't be afraid to seek out an herbalist who looks like you, approaches their work in ways that call to you, has good boundaries and appreciates the complexity of showing up to each other. That's where good magic and good science and good herbalism meet, in the quality of the relationship...especially for survivors of personal and collective trauma. 

Ok, off my little soapbox.