THIS IS ANARCHO-HERBALISM
Thoughts On Health and Healing For the Revolution
(used by permission of the author)
My medicine chest is a council of bioregions, with representatives
gathered together as I make my way around the world west of the
Rocky Mountains. The Coptis root was picked out of the churned-up
scar left by an excavator, at the retreating edge of the Idaho
wilderness. The tiny amount of Pipsissewa leaves came from an
ancient grove above the Klamath River just feet away from where
the District Ranger sat on a stump talking about his plans to
cut it all down. I am drying Nettles from the California creek
where salmon die in the silt left after a century of industrial
Every jar holds a story (often a ghost story of dying ecosystems
and places gone forever). I am honored to have known the plants
in their home places and to have studied their uses as medicine.
But for people not lucky enough to roam throughout the wilds,
purchased herbal preparations such as tinctures may be the link
back to this sort of healing.
Like so much in this consumerist society, it is easy to ignore
the connections between a bottle on a shelf in some store and
a living, growing plant out in the world somewhere. It can be
hard to know if the plant grows a mile away or on another continent.
There is much to be said for reconnecting, for educating ourselves
about the herbs we use and gathering our own medicine when we
can. That's how we will be able to build a whole new system of
healing ñ one that can support our movement away from
the corporate power structure that medicine has become.
The development of a new medical system, or the recovery of ancient
models, will be another link in our safety net when industrialism
fails. It will keep us alive and kicking out windows now in the
system's last days when so many people have no access to industrial
medicine. And it will reestablish our connection to the real
medicine that is the Earth.
An alternative to "alternative
The sort of herbal medicine popular these days (presented to
us by the media and so-called green capitalists as yet another
exciting fad) has brought with it very little thought of a new
way of healing. The plants, reduced to capsule form or, worse,
to their "active ingredients", are just new tools to
work with in the same body-machine that industrial medicine sees
people as being. They become no different than pharmaceutical
drugs or a scalpel blade: something to pry into the body-machine
with and use to mess around with the parts. Except of course
much less effective, because the herbs have been taken out of
the system of healing in which they have their strength.
When the marketers of herbal products get their hands on a new
"miracle cure", it can mean extinction for the plant.
This is especially sad when so many living creatures go into
useless products or are wasted on conditions that they don't
treat. (Has anyone else seen that Echinacea shampoo?) The classic
example of this is Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, a plant
close to extinction in the wild. It has a couple of amazing actions
in the human body but has mostly been marketed as a cure for
the common cold, which it will do almost nothing to help. By
the way, the largest brokers of wild-harvested Goldenseal and
many other big-name herbs are multinational pharmaceutical corporations.
Given american society's obsession with herbal Viagra, weight
loss pills, and stimulants, most of the herbs on the mass market
are being sacrificed to these ridiculous causes.
There is an alternative to "alternative medicine".
Southwestern herbalist, author, and teacher Michael Moore probably
said it best in one of his recent digressions from a lecture:
"In this country, the herb business mostly revolves around
recently marketed substances with new research, and it comes
from them to us. Whereas we're trying to establish as much as
possible (in this "lower level" if you will) the fact
that we need to create a practice and a model that's impervious
to faddism. We're trying to practice in a way that derives from
practice rather than from marketing. Not from above to below
but from below around. Bioregionalism uber alles. Keep it local.
No centralization because centralization kills everything."
So we need another way of looking at our bodies and the plant
medicines. Seeing the two as interconnected and in balance is
new to industrial culture, but in reality it is the most ancient
healing model on earth. We knew it before we were people. Animals
know how to use plants to medicate themselves. Their examples
surround us, from dogs eating grass to bears digging Osha roots.
Probably every human society has had some way of explaining how
the body works and how plant medicines work in us.
One thing all herbalists know - dogs and bears included - is
that a health problem is best treated before it begins. In more
primitive societies where people have the luxury of listening
to their own bodies it is easy to spot an imbalance before it
turns into an acute disease state. This is where herbs are most
effective. They work at this sub-clinical (and therefore invisible
to industrial medicine) level of "imbalances" and "deficiency"
This old/new healing system is subtle and requires a lot of self-knowledge,
or at least self-awareness. It uses intuition as a diagnostic
tool. Emotion, spirituality, and environment become medicines.
The spirit and environment of the plants we gather affects their
healing properties, and our relationship with those plants becomes
When we take herbal medicine we are taking in part of the plant's
environment. Everything it ate and drank and experienced has
formed the medicine you're depending on, so you better make sure
it gets all the best. When we are healed by plants, we owe it
to them to look out for their kind and the places where they
live. Traditional plant-gatherers often have a prayer they recite
before they take anything from the wild. I usually say something
along the lines of "OK, plant. You heal me and I'll look
out for you. I got your back. No one's gonna build over you,
or log you, or pick too much while I'm around." So this
true herbal healing system has at its heart a deep environmentalism
and a commitment to the Earth.
The bioregional concept is important to this model of healing.
Plants' actions in our bodies are really quite limited by the
chemicals they can produce from sunlight and soil. For every
big-name herb on the market cut from the rainforest or dug from
the mountains, there is most likely a plant with a similar action
growing in your watershed. Some of the best medicines to maintain
good health grow in vacant lots and neglected gardens around
A society of people who are responsible for their own health
and able to gather or grow their own medicines is a hard society
to rule. These days we are dependent on the power structure of
industrial health care - the secret society of the doctors, the
white-male-dominated medical schools, the corporate decision
makers with their toxic pharmaceuticals and heartless greed and
labs full of tortured beings. That dependence is one more thing
keeping us tied down to the State and unable to rebel with all
our hearts or even envision a world without such oppression.
With a new system of healing, based on self-knowledge and herbal
wisdom, we will be that much more free.
Offering a real alternative health care system will help to calm
some people's fears about returning to an anarchistic, Earth
centered way of life. There is a false security in the men with
the big machines, ready to put you back together again (if you
have enough money). What is ignored is the fact that industrial
society causes most of the dis-eases that people fear. Living
free on a healing Earth while surrounded by true community and
eating real food will prove to be a better medicine than anything
you can buy.
What steps can we make now towards creating this new system of
medicine? We all need to learn what we can about our own health.
This can be through training in one or more of the surviving
models of traditional healing and/or through self-observation.
How do you feel when you're just starting to get a cold? What
kinds of problems come up repeatedly, especially when you're
stressed out? If you're a womyn, how long is your cycle and what
does the blood look like? Understanding how our bodies act in
times of health can help us recognize the very early stages of
dis-ease when herbs are the most useful.
People who have some background in healing (in the traditional
or industrial systems) can be a great help to those of us just
learning. Healers who are working to form this new model, whether
collectively or through their individual practices, should keep
in mind that commitment to the Earth and a decentralized form
are central to truly revolutionary medicine.
In these times of change, everything is being examined and either
destroyed, rebuilt, or created from our hearts. Industrialism
has affected every aspect of our lives - we are just starting
to realize how much has been lost. Medicine is just one part
of the machine that we have to take back and re-create into a
form that works for the society we will become. Every herb, pill,
and procedure should be judged on its sustainability and accessibility
to small groups of people. We can start with ourselves, within
our communities and circles, but should never stop expanding
outwards until industrial medicine rusts in a forgotten grave,
a victim of its own imbalances.