Thursday, March 31, 2016

Good Relationship and the Unfolding of Spring

I love every part of every season but I have to admit that for me at this time of year it reaches a whole other level as most of the living world reawakens from winter slumber. It begins very slowly at first, gradually accelerating into a symphony of living splendor!

One of the tragedies of our modern world is how cut off most us are from all of this. We are Nature and Nature is us. Connection to the world that we are part of is an essential human need that is not nurtured in modern society. This disconnect is the major reason why modern humanity is so out of balance in body, heart, mind and spirit. It is also why we hang on the edge of a global ecological catastrophe.

One of the fundamental characteristics of indigenous cultures is their connection to the Land where they live. They recognized that as human beings we are one strand of a web of connection and interdependence that includes the rocks, plants, animals, humans, landscape, weather and other beings that inhabit the Land where we live. This rootedness in the Land where we live is essential to who we are.

We can not erase our history. No matter who we are we all have indigenous roots. However, in the modern world very few of us live in the Land where our indigenous ancestors lived. Those who still do have often suffered the weakening or loss of their traditions under the onslaught of imperialist and modern cultures. Nevertheless, we all live somewhere. If we nourish our relationship with the Land where we live the Land and it's inhabitants will speak back to us. This is something that anyone who wishes to live a healthy, harmonious life must realize. Health is not about taking drugs or supplements or herbs. Nor is it about eating the right foods. Health is a state of being in right relationship with the World.

One of the things that traditional peoples know is that everything is interconnected. Whenever one person – human or other-than-human – or aspect of the World is out of balance it is all out of balance. Healing isn't just a personal journey.

We now live in a global society. This necessitates a global vision. It doesn't mean that we should stress out about all of the local and global challenges that we face as human beings. As individuals we can not save the world. What we can do is do our best to be in good relationship; listen to our heart; connect with our purpose; and play our part to the best of our ability. This process begins right here and now where we stand on our Earth Mother.

The Land in late winter.

One of the most important ways that we can bring our life back into balance and connect with the necessary strength and vision to play our part is by connecting with the Land where we live. Since most of us now live in urban and suburban areas this can be challenging – but it is not impossible! No matter where we live the Land is beneath our feet and the Sky above. No matter how much asphalt and concrete we lay on the Earth life comes bursting through. This journey can begin in our backyard, a local park or ravine, and whenever possible a larger park or conservation area in the surrounding rural landscape.

I live in an island of wilderness surrounded by the suburban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area. It consists of 40 acres: 20 acres of woodland; 10 acres of open field; 10 acres of mixed transition areas. This island is surrounded by farm fields interlaced with hedgerows and here and there dotted with small woodlots. The surrounding area is itself an island that is rapidly being encroached by suburban sprawl.

I have lived here for 18+ years.  It takes many years to develop a relationship with the Land. Many years of watching, listening and being on the Land: day after day; season after season; year after year. It takes patience and diligence, but over time the Land gradually reveals more of herself. In the process my life is enriched and expanded and I come to know myself better and my place in the World.

Sasha on the Land.

Working together with the coyotes and deer we have made trails through this Land. Every day that I am not travelling I walk the Land. Some time in the mid to late afternoon when it's time to take a break from my work Sasha and I go for a 60-90 minute walk. While she roams around exploring the latest smells of the landscape I walk, look, listen, smell, feel, sit, contemplate, and make offerings of prayer and tobacco. To simply take from the Land is to be in imbalance. I must always give something back, whether it's prayers and tobacco or picking up a some garbage dragged into the woods by a raccoon that raided someone's garbage on the main road or blown in by the wind. I also sing songs and perform ceremonies to honour the Land and her cycles.

At this time of year, beginning around the time the coltsfoot (Tussilago fargara) goes into flower and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) arrives, there is so much happening on the Land that I also take a walk in the early morning ­­– without Sasha so she doesn't scare off the birds and other animals. Initially it might only be for 30 minutes, but as spring goes into full swing it increases to 1-2 hours until late May when all of the birds have arrived, the leaf canopy has fully opened and the rate of change on the landscape starts to slow down. I do this to increase the likelihood that I'll see the various bird species when they arrive. I walk slowly a few steps at a time, stop, and scan the landscape for the movement of birds and animals in my peripheral vision. I always have a good pair of binoculars!

I also have my desk in a bay window that looks out over our yard so that I can regularly give my eyes a break from looking at a computer screen and gaze out to see what's going on. Many of my bird sightings occur from my desk. Of course, I always have my trusty binoculars close at hand!

Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) overwinter on the Land – unfortunately for the other birds that they eat!
This photo was taken from my desk through my front window.

Nurturing and deepening my relationship with the Land is essential for my health and well-being, and for my work as an herbalist and healer. As relaxing and healing as it is this is not leisure time. It is my life and my work. It took decades for me to create a life that supports who I am and what I do. It requires living simply: no chasing after material wealth; no smartphone; no social media. Anyone can do this. It requires commitment and clear priorities: nurturing what is really important in life rather than chasing after the innumerable distractions of our consumer society. This is where healing begins.

Developing a relationship with the Land where we live requires that we create space for it in our life. By listening to our heart we will find appropriate places on the landscape to walk and relate and be. Having a place to roam is important, but having a place to sit is even more important – even if it's just sitting under that old grandmother maple tree in our backyard. This is what, to anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jon Young, Tom Brown and other teachers of Nature awareness, we call a sit spot. It is a safe place on the landscape where we feel called to be with the Land; where we can observe the unfolding of life through the seasons. I have many sit spots on the Land where I live and throughout the region in places that I regularly visit to be with the Land and to harvest medicines. However, although it's great to have a special place or places out in the country that we can visit once in awhile, it is most important to have a sit spot very close to where we live so that we can visit it often – at least a few times per week whenever possible. Here we can begin to sink our roots deep into the loving skin of our Earth Mother. Here we can begin to get to know the plants and animals that inhabit the Land that we live in: who is present through the seasons and how their lives unfold and intertwine.

Although any time will do, early spring is the one of the best times to begin this process of connecting. There's a lot of change happening, but it begins slowly, allowing us time to become acquainted with the landscape and it's inhabitants. Also, things are much easier to observe before the leaf canopy opens.

One of the useful methods that I have learned to help facilitate connecting with the Land where I live is to record everything. This is something that I had already been doing for years with the plants that I harvest for medicines. I needed to know this information so that I could anticipate when they would be ready to harvest from year to year. However, the community that I live in includes more than just the species I use as medicines.

During the first few years that I lived here I was constantly making a mental note of what was going on. I remembered a lot of it because I observed it every day. Then in 2005 I started recording the key changes that I observed: what birds stay or migrate here in the winter; when the species that fly south leave and return; which species nest here and which just pass through; when the various species of amphibians, reptiles and mammals that hibernate became active; which of the herbaceous plant species overwinter as a rosette; when the remaining species first sprout from the ground; when the woody species begin to leaf out; when each plant species goes into flower. This is a pretty left-brain activity but it force me to be more aware and hone my powers of observation. It also forced me to continually identify new species and learn more about them. Through this process and the other ways that I engage with the Land I can say that after 18 years I am finally beginning to know the Land – at least a little bit!

This year we had two uncharacteristically warm weeks at the beginning of March followed by a roller coaster of weather changes ranging from normal to 5-10 °C (9-18 °F) above normal. Consequently, the arrival of the various bird species started earlier than usual but is a bit more spaced out. Some plants are also ahead but they are coming out in short spurts with dormant breaks in between.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) overwintering rosette.

As a result of the (for the most part) unusually warm weather the snow disappeared early and the plants that overwinter beneath the snow as a rosette were revealed earlier this year. These include many members of the Rose family such as our three species of avens (Geum spp.), our two species of wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.) and sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta); a few members of the Mustard family such as shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis);  a few members of the Mint family such as motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and heal-all (Prunella vulgaris); a few species of aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) and other members of the Aster family such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), rough-leaved goldenrod (Solidago patula), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale); and a variety of others such as herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta), shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica), common speedwell (Veronica officinalis), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), red clover (Trifolium pratense), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), sweet violet (Viola odorata) and large flower hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum).

Everything else has been revealing itself in it's own time. Here's an example of the kind of information I have been collecting as spring has unfolded on the Land this year:

February 15: The overwintering American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) began singing.

March 3: We had a winter storm on March 2nd. The first lone 'scouts' of the redwing blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) arrived today while it was still cold.

March 4: The temperature began rising rapidly. The first major flocks of redwings began arriving. The overwintering robins (Turdus migratorius) and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) started singing.

March 6: The eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) began venturing out of their winter dens.

March 8: The honeybees (Apis mellifera) from a wild hive in a crack in an old grandmother white pine (Pinus strobus) started exploring the world. They have been flying about every day that it has been 12°C (54°F) or higher since then. I sure hope they have a lot of honey in that hive because it's going to be awhile before there is any nectar available for them to collect!


Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) often hang out in flocks with redwing blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at this time of year.

March 9: The first common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) began arriving with the later flocks of redwings. The first turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) also arrived. They will sometimes overwinter during very mild winters.

March 11: The catkin buds of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) started to open.

March 14: The silver maples (Acer saccharinum) started flowering.

March 15: The overwintering song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) began singing.

March 16: Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) started sprouting.

March 17: Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) and the trout lily (Erythronium americanum) infertile leaves started sprouting.

March 19-20: The spring equinox occurred at 12:31 am EDT on March 20th. In the late evening of March 19th into the early part of the 20th we had a ceremony to honour the equinox; give thanks for the blessings of winter; and welcome spring.

March 26: The overwintering northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) started thumping. Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), cowslip (Primula veris), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioca ssp. gracilis) started sprouting. The latter species actually overwinters as a tiny embryonic plant. Today they started popping out of the soil.

March 27: Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) fertile stalks started sprouting. Coltsfoot began flowering.

Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) sprouting.

March 28: The common horsetail vegetative stalks started sprouting.

March 29: The first eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) and golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) arrived. The latter overwinter in this region but we don't see them on this Land until the ones who migrated further south start returning. The first mourning cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) also awoke and mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) started sprouting.

March 30 (today): The first American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) arrived. Like the golden-crowned kinglets this species also overwinters in the region but we don't see them until more of them start moving north in the spring. Trembling aspen and American elm (Ulmus americana) began flowering.

On March 28th I had the opportunity to welcome a great wind! Fortunately the local trees lost very few branches. While I was walking the Land the following day I found many branch tips from eastern cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) heavily laden with swelling buds on the ground beneath the trees. A couple of years ago I felt called to begin working with the medicine of eastern cottonwood. At that time I made a small amount of tincture of the leaves to experiment with which I finally tried a couple of months ago. The buds of poplar trees are often used and I was wondering about the buds of eastern cottonwood. Unlike it's cousin the balsam poplar (P. balsamifera) which is a more shrubby species, the buds of eastern cottonwood are high up and out of reach. Anyone who is familiar with poplar species knows that they have a strong connection to the wind. What a blessing it was to receive this gift of both the cottonwoods and the wind! I made a couple of litres of tincture to start working with in the near future.

As you can see, there is so much to observe and experience all around us! I strongly encourage everyone to open up the space in their lives to deepen their relationship with it. It is one of the most important things that we can do on our healing journey. This summer I will be offering two different Spirit of Herbs workshops. These are my favourite workshops to teach because they are all about connecting to the plants and Nature. It is a great joy to be able to share this with those who are called to participate and even more so to be present as they are awakened to this awesome world that we live in! I used to offer these workshops in alternate years but in the last few years there have been more people yearning for this experience. I know that there are other teachers out there who are offering related teachings and similarly noticing the growing number of people who are yearning for deeper meaning and connection in their lives. Taking workshops is great and I highly recommend it, but beginning to nurture these relationships right here where we stand on the Earth is far more important – and spring is the best time to start!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Closing the Harvesting Season

I've been getting a lot of people asking me when I'm finally going to finish the three part blog series on The Vaccination Controversy. After several years of repeating the same pattern, I finally have to admit to myself that from the middle of April until the end of November my intense travelling schedule and harvesting herbs take up so much time that it doesn't leave me a lot of opportunity for writing. I'm not complaining. I'm following my heart and my path and love my work and still able to spend a lot of time just being with the plants and Nature. It requires prioritizing and setting boundaries. Following our heart, allowing time to just be and the quality of our relationships with people (human and non-human) and the world we live in is how we cultivate quality of life and allow space for healing. If I don't allow that in my life, how can I possibly help other people to do it? So, some things (like writing!) rarely get done during the busier months.

It's been a great spring, summer and fall! Lots of experiencing, learning, harvesting medicines and doing what a herbalist does. My travelling schedule for the year ends early to mid November and now I'm spending a lot of time harvesting the last of the root herbs that I need before the ground freezes for the winter. Judging by the way things are flowing, that will probably be in a week or two in this area.

Harvesting valerian root (Valeriana officinalis).

Today I harvested valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). Tomorrow I'm going to harvest wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis), wild ginger rhizome (Asarum canadense) and a bit more valerian root.

My friend Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) has offered me the opportunity to work with a different expression of his medicine.
I am going to harvest some of the rhizomes and roots of goldenrod this year so that I can deepen my relationship with this amazing herb.

The last couple of years I've been feeling called to start working with the rhizomes and roots of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Up to this point I've only used the aerial parts of this herb. I'm also going to harvest a bit of Solidago so that I can begin to learn this new medicine. After that I'll be done harvesting for this year – and just in time!

Washing marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) in our laundry tub.

Since I make my tinctures from fresh herbs I need to harvest enough of each of these roots or rhizomes to get through at least 15 months: 12 months until I'm able to harvest them again next year and 3 additional months until next years tinctures will be ready because I allow them to macerate for at least 3 months before I press them [see: Making Medicine, Part 3 of 5]. Therefore I need to know how many bottles of each of these tinctures I still have on hand and how much I typically use in a year in order to determine the quantity that I need to harvest. I'll usually add an extra litre (or half litre for herbs I don't use as much) to be safe. For herbs that I used 3 litres or less per year I will sometimes harvest enough for 2 years so that I don't have to harvest every herb every year.

Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) washed and ready to chop. Note that dandelion maintains a rosette of smaller leaves through the winter.
I keep some of the younger leaves that are in good shape and include them in my dandelion root tincture.

Although the travelling that I do is related to my work and involves hanging out with great people in great places doing great things, I am happy to be at home for the next 5+ months. I'll be able to work on some of the other things that I can't seem to manage the rest of the year like doing a few blog posts (including hopefully being able to finishing the series on vaccinations!) and continuing the process of converting some of our classroom courses to an online format. The latter tends to take up most of my time through the winter months.

Stay tuned! More to come...


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Homeopathy Under Attack

In the last few years there has been a growing trend to discredit natural healing traditions. Always looking for a controversial subject to cash in on, the media has jumped in on this one with both feet. The primary target that has been in the crosshairs of all of this vitriol is homeopathy. Because the principles of homeopathy can not be explained by modern scientific theory it is an easy target. Although most of the skeptics will be satisfied if homeopathy is thoroughly discredited, the more extreme of the lot are hoping that they will be so successful making homeopathy look incredibly far fetched and ridiculous that it will be easy to extrapolate that sentiment to other systems of healing. In writing this post, I have no interest in debating with the skeptics because it is pointless. I'm putting this out there for those of you who are confused by all of the misinformation that has been propagated in the media. Hopefully it will help you to have a better understanding of the issues.

For my next post I was planning to write the second installment of my series on vaccinations, itself a very controversial subject these days. As we shall see, it is closely related to the homeopathy debate (or lack of it!). I had originally intended to steer clear of homeopathy because I have a limited amount of time for writing and there are other things I want to write about. I was hoping that with time people would just get bored of it and move on to something else. However, instead of fading away this issue has been building momentum and a couple of recent attacks that are relatively close to home grabbed my attention. Firstly, a group of scientists have attacked University of Toronto for proposing some good research on homeopathy. The chief researcher of the study, which is intended to examine homeopathy as a treatment for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is Heather Boon of the Department of Pharmacy. In proposing this study her credibility has also come under attack. I met Heather a few times quite awhile ago. I don't know her very well, but I am familiar with some of her work. She is someone who seems to me to be very committed to doing quality research on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The essence of the attack on Heather and U of T is that, although the proposed study is well-designed, since we already know that homeopathy doesn't work conducting this study is a waste of time and money.

That happened a few weeks ago. More recently the government of Ontario has come under attack for regulating homeopaths in this province. This has been in process since 2007 when the Homeopathy Act was tabled and finally came to completion a couple of weeks ago when the Act was passed. The provincial government is being condemned for legitimizing homeopathy.

Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy.

This story begins at the end of the 18th century when purging, bleeding, high doses of mercury and poor hygiene were typical of the practices of mainstream medicine. At that time there was already a growing divide between the practices of orthodox medicine and more natural healing traditions, although there was a lot of grey in between. Enter Samuel Hahnemann. He was a medical doctor that wasn't happy with the practices of his time. He saw them as counter to the traditional healing principles that date back to Hippocrates and beyond. I'm not going to get into a detailed discussion of the principles of homeopathy because that would require a book, but what's important is that by the end of the 19th century the homeopaths were better organized and had better standards and hospitals throughout Europe and North America than their mainstream counterparts. As a result, they were perceived as a major threat by allopathic medical practitioners who used financial and political influence to gradually discredit or absorb most of the homeopaths. This was easier to do by the early 20th century because mainstream medical science was starting to mature and the public no longer perceived going to a doctor as such a scary prospect.

The influence of homeopathy may have been reduced but it never went away. In some parts of the world, such as India, it continued to flourish. Fast forward to the 1960s and we have the beginning of a renaissance of natural healing traditions that continues to this day. During this time homeopathy has prospered along with herbalism and many other natural healing modalities, and natural health products have become big business.

The growing popularity of natural healing has not been universally appreciated, as is always the case when money, influence and a clash of paradigms occurs. The four major antagonistic sectors are the pharmaceutical industry, medical doctors, pharmacists, medical researchers, and the associations that represent them. Although the growth of the natural health product industry has to some extent been at the expense of the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, the latter has chosen to adapt by diversifying. That primarily translates into buying up successful natural health products manufacturers.

Of course, not everyone who is a member of one of these groups is antagonistic to CAM. But many of them are. In spite of this, medical doctors and pharmacists are mostly too busy to care and pharmacists are happy to reap the profits of natural health product sales whether or not they believe in them. There are, however, a minority of extremists among the doctors and pharmacists who are very antagonistic to CAM.

The recent wave of attacks has to a significant extent been championed by medical researchers, supported by the professional skeptics who are always out their proselytizing. Although there is a definite clash of paradigms at the root of this, a big part of it is about money. In response to its growing popularity, many governments and universities have chosen to devote a small proportion of their research dollars to investigating CAM. For the most part this is a good thing because CAM research in the West is lagging way behind the research that is being done in Eastern countries such as China and India where traditional healing systems have continued to be appreciated.

The result of these changes is that it is now slightly more difficult for researchers who are doing mainstream medical research, many of whom are antagonistic to CAM, to get funding. As they see it, all of the research money rightfully belongs to them and it is being wasted funding research on what they see as pseudoscientific or completely unscientific healing modalities.

In laying out this background, what is not apparent is why the skeptics are particularly focusing on homeopathy. Basically it is this: in accordance with the principles of homeopathy, homeopathic remedies are subjected to a "potentization" process that involves diluting them in fixed ratios and shaking each dilution vigorously before diluting them again. Remedies are used at a variety of different dilutions, but they can potentially be diluted to the point where few, if any, of the molecules of the substance from which the remedy is derived are present. According to homeopathic theory and practice, the more times a remedy is subjected to this potentization process the more potent it becomes, even if on a chemical level it is becoming more dilute.

No one knows with absolute certainty how homeopathic remedies work.

From the perspective of the modern reductionistic, materialistic paradigm, this is absolute nonsense! How can something that has no molecular basis be more potent or have any therapeutic value at all? According to Hahnemann, the potentization process separates and intensifies the "vital force" or life force of the substance and it is this vital force that is primarily responsible for the therapeutic action of the remedy. More recently homeopaths, in an attempt to explain the actions of these remedies in more modern terms, have postulated mechanisms such as the transfer of this life force energy into the water in a way that alters the bonding angle or the electromagnetic field of water molecules, or possibly that they act within the realm of quantum mechanics. These are just hypotheses. The bottom line is that if homeopathic remedies work they operate in a way that can not currently be explained by the known laws of chemistry or physics. This is the crux of the matter.

The attack on homeopathy is fear-based. One of the unfortunate characteristics of human nature, at least how it is expressed in the modern world, is that when people invest a lot of energy into a belief system they (consciously or unconsciously) are afraid of alternative beliefs. Some people can just agree to disagree, but others are more zealous. Human history is full of examples of groups of people acting with violence against other groups of people who held different religious, political or other beliefs. Although scientists like to believe that they are beyond this and act on the basis of reason, the history of science says otherwise. The majority of scientists are dogmatists to varying degrees who do not question the reigning scientific paradigm of their era.

As anyone who has read a few of my posts knows, I'm actually a fan of science! However, for any field of inquiry to be useful we must recognize its limitations. Science, when practiced appropriately, is a very useful way to explore the world that we live in. However, it is only one of a number of different ways to explore the world. Each is legitimate within its field of reference and each has its strengths and limitations. Each also affects how we perceive the world. If we approach the world in a rationalistic, reductionistic, materialistic way, the world will appear to us as a rationalistic, reductionistic, materialistic place. This is one of the major mistakes that most scientists make. Objectivity is an illusion. The world will tend to appear in ways that conform to how we look at it. Even when it doesn't, we tend ignore, misinterpret or deny experiences that don't conform to our world view.

When science is done properly it is a beautiful thing. We approach the world as the big, beautiful, mysterious place that it is. We are humbled by it, knowing that it is infinitely bigger and more complex than we can every hope to comprehend with our rational mind. As soon as we fall into the trap that we have things figured out we are no longer doing science because our beliefs affect the kinds of questions that we ask and how we perceive and interpret the results. Our beliefs can even cause us to see things in the results that aren't there or to manipulate the results so that they conform to our expectations.

The mystery of Nature: the source of all healing!

Getting back to homeopathy, if we want to truly investigate it in a scientific way the first thing we need to do is separate the effect from the explanation of the effect. The most important thing to investigate is whether or not homeopathic remedies work. If we focus on the explanation, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater because if the explanation turns out to be false there is a tendency to assume that the effect is also false. As a healer, I subscribe to a particular paradigm because it is what best conforms to my experience and produces the best results. However, my goal is to heal. Healing is a beautiful and mysterious thing. It doesn't matter to me if my understanding of why what I do works is accurate. What matters most is that it helps people. Similarly, demonstrating whether or not homeopathic remedies work is the most important thing. If it turns out that they do, the appropriate response is not to reject the results because they don't conform to our theories, it is to re-examine our theories because clearly they are inadequate to explain our observations.

One of the major arguments against homeopathy is that it is not supported by research. In fact, one of the reasons that the attack on homeopathy has recently ramped up so intensely is because the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently conducted a "review" of the available research on homeopathy and concluded that the research overwhelmingly demonstrates that homeopathic remedies do not work any better than a placebo. Although it is true that there aren't many good studies on homeopathy, this conclusion is not accurate for a number of reasons. Firstly, good quality human clinical studies are very expensive to conduct and, in general, it's difficult to get funding for studies on homeopathy. Consequently, there aren't very many studies out there on homeopathy and most of them aren't very good. Another issue is that homeopaths are not part of the mainstream research community. If they attempt to do studies, it is difficult for them to get sufficient funding and they, as a rule, don't have a lot of experience doing research. Conversely, most experienced researchers aren't interested in doing research on homeopathy, and even if they are, they don't understand homeopathy. This means that their research is likely to be conducted from a modern medical paradigm and is not accurately testing homeopathy the way it is actually practiced. Finally, many of the people who have done studies on homeopathy are really trying to disprove it. Thus their studies are significantly biased. The Australian NHMRC itself was also trying to disprove homeopathy, so their analysis is extremely suspect.

Personally, I can not speak to the quality of the studies on homeopathy out there because most of the people who are writing about them are biased one way or the other and I simply don't have time to review the actual studies myself. However, I am familiar with one study which illustrates my point. In the late 80s a French researcher, Jacques Benveniste, did a study which seemed to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy. He submitted a paper to Nature magazine. Not surprisingly, they were skeptical of his findings. They told him that in order to publish it he would have to incorporate some additional controls in the study and also have it replicated at other labs. He made the suggested changes and his study was replicated by researchers at University of Toronto, University of Milano and Hebrew University. When he resubmitted the paper, Nature begrudgingly published it because they said that they would, but in an uncharacteristic move they also published an editorial attacking the study. They then sent a team of "experts" to examine Benveniste's methodology. This is completely unprecedented! They would never do this with researchers whose research conforms with the mainstream medical paradigm, even if the research was of a much poorer quality. In addition, none of the "experts" were actual researchers and only one of them was a scientist, but from a completely different field of study. Their sole intent was to discredit Benveniste. They had him repeatedly redo his experiment under more extreme controls even though the results remained consistent, until finally they got the results that they wanted and this is what was reported. From their perspective, that of Nature, and most of the scientific skeptics in the world, Benveniste's results were disproved and the positive results that he did get were due to some flaw in the design of the study that they were not able to determine. Benveniste later conducted even better designed studies and got consistent results but Nature refused to publish them. Shortly after, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research cut his funding after a routine evaluation of his lab. Although they acknowledged that his lab exceeded their standards, they cut his funding because he refused to stop doing research on microdoses.

Needless to say, the whole Benveniste affair has very little to do with real science and all of the characteristics of a witch hunt. Even some scientists who are skeptical of homeopathy have criticized the way it all went down.

When evaluating healing systems that are outside of the mainstream, "not supported by scientific evidence" is one of the common criticisms. What is interesting to me is how skeptics like to apply strict criteria to the evaluation of things that they don't believe in, but are willing to accept far lower standards for things that they support. For instance, many of the practices of modern medicine have little to no research backing them up and medical practitioners often continue to practice them even when the research clearly demonstrates that they are ineffective [see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/demand-better-health-care-book/ and http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/the-ideology-of-health-care/?_r=0]. It is also quite common that things that initially seem to be backed up by research turn out to be false [see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alison-rose-levy/what-statins-transfats-and-gmos-tell-us-about-scientific-controversies_b_4385741.html and http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/13/the-truth-wears-off]. To a large extent this is because of the biases of researchers, whether ideological or because the people conducting and funding the research have a vested interested in the results of the study [see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trial-sans-error-how-pharma-funded-research-cherry-picks-positive-results/ and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150403073439.htm and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141021141746.htm and http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124].

Although there are many medical practitioners that genuinely want to find ways to help people who are sick or suffering, sadly, even those who are coming from a good place are largely barking up the wrong tree. Although mainstream medicine has made great progress when it comes to emergency interventions, it is largely unsuccessful when it comes to the treatment of chronic health conditions. In fact, it has actually contributed to the growing epidemic of chronic degenerative diseases, both as a result of its toxicity and side-effects [see my previous post The Vaccination Controversy, Part 1] and by promising magical cures that don't really work. This is because modern medicine is not really about healing. It is about palliative care - suppressing or neutralizing symptoms rather than understanding and addressing the underlying condition. A good example is the so-called "war on cancer". In spite of the billions of dollars that have been spent funding the cancer industry, with the exception of childhood leukemia a person's prognosis if they are diagnosed with some form of cancer is no better today than it was 60 years ago [see: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2014/05/21/sorry-but-so-far-war-on-cancer-has-been-a-bust/]! Lots of new drugs have been developed and profits made, but the actual results speak for themselves.

Another comment that is interesting to me is that homeopathic remedies are "just placebos". They speak about placebos as if they are something to be written off, but the placebo effect is one of the most interesting things ever demonstrated by medical science. It is a demonstration of the healing power of the human mind! If anything, we should be doing a lot more research on the placebo effect. For one thing, so called "placebo controlled" studies aren't even properly designed to determine the magnitude of the placebo effect [see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150413140906.htm]. Secondly, the placebo effect is a very powerful and important part of the healing process. It should be cultivated, not written off, because the beneficial affects of ALL treatments, conventional and natural, are partly due to the placebo effect [see: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/03/12/psychiatrists-instead-of-being-embarrassed-by-placebo-effect-should-embrace-it-author-says/]. This is why it is a very dangerous thing to attempt to convince someone with a serious illness that they shouldn't follow a treatment that they really believe in. What this does is instill doubt and fear in people and it can significantly hinder the outcome of their treatment. Similarly, there is also a negative placebo effect. Just as a person's belief in the benefits of a treatment can significantly improve the effectiveness of the treatment, their disbelief in the benefits of a treatment can significantly hinder the effectiveness of the treatment. This is one of the reasons why there is usually no point attempting to convince someone to undergo a treatment that they don't believe in (the other reason is that they are less likely to properly follow instructions or continue the treatment long enough for it to be effective). As a practitioner, the best thing we can do is attempt to educate a person in as unbiased a way possible about the potential benefits and limitations of their treatment options and allow them to choose what they feel is best for them.

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) is an amazing herb for the treatment of nerve trauma and inflammation. For this purpose it works
both in crude form and in homeopathic potencies, but it works best when both are used concurrently.

Getting back to homeopathy, regardless of how difficult it is to understand from a scientific perspective, it is completely unrealistic to assume that the tens of thousands of practitioners that have prescribed homeopathic remedies and the millions of people who have used them over the last couple of centuries are completely deluded. I have used homeopathy for myself, my family and pets. Although it is not my primary modality, I sometimes recommend homeopathic remedies to my clients as well. I can say with absolute certainty that they work. Interestingly, they work even better for animals than humans because animals don't have any negative beliefs about them. Because of their lack of beliefs, when animals demonstrate positive results from homeopathic remedies it can not be attributed to the placebo effect.

It certainly wouldn't hurt to fund some good quality, unbiased human clinical studies that investigate homeopathy in the context of how it is actually used to put this issue to rest once and for all. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to convince most of the skeptics. They are too attached to their theories. How the world really works is secondary. If such studies were to be done, I have confidence that the results will be positive. Once it is clear that homeopathy does work, then we can attempt to figure out why. It may be that we do not have the right technology to figure that out at the moment, or that we will never be able to with absolute certainty. As far as I am concerned, that doesn't matter. What matters is that homeopathic remedies when used correctly have a tremendous potential to help people. Positive healing outcomes are the most important thing. Good theories and explanations are useful, but not necessary.

For those who have been patiently waiting, I will continue my series on vaccinations in my next post.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Vaccination Controversy, Part 1

Lately I have been getting a lot of questions from clients in my practice about vaccinations. This is a controversial topic about which there are mostly extreme and contradictory points of view. As always, I will do my best to approach it in a balanced way and will likely upset people on both ends of the spectrum. I even risk ridicule by calling it a "controversy" because most people's perspective on this issue is so extreme that they simply believe that they are right, it's obvious, and anyone who disagrees is ignorant. For example, with the recent outbreaks of measles in several North American cities, there has been media blitz aimed at demonizing anyone who opposes vaccinations. Even supposedly "liberal" media such as the CBC have jumped on this bandwagon.

As I'm sure is apparent from my other blog posts, I try to be as thorough as possible. However, this is a very complex topic and it would take a whole book or possibly even several books to fully explore it. I am going to do my best to look at vaccinations in as holistic a way as possible and to provide as much information as I can within the limitations of this format. As a result, it will be necessary to cover the subject in three posts. In this first post I am going to lay out the broader issues. In Part 2 I will look at some of the pros and cons of vaccinating and introduce a couple of good resources where you can get more information, and in Part 3 I'm going to present some basic protocols that can help boost immune function and reduce the incidence and severity of infectious conditions and the potential side-effects of vaccinations. The recommendations that I will provide will be useful for anyone regardless of the choices they make regarding vaccinations.

What I am not going to be able to do is to make your decision for you. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of good information out there and there are way more questions than answers. The kind of studies that need to be done to more clearly demonstrate the health consequences of vaccinating, both positive and negative, are not being done and probably no longer can be done. The best we can do is educate ourselves; approach the information that is available with an open mind; recognize that, no matter how rational it sounds, a lot of that information is coming from extreme positions; and then make the best decision that we can. It is best if our decision is as informed as possible, but ultimately we'll need to make it with our heart because their simply is not enough good information available to know with certainty what the "right" decision is. We have to accept that, no matter what decision we make, some of our kids are going to get sick and a few of them very sick. When that happens, although there are going to be many people out there who will point their fingers and use the less fortunate as statistics to "prove" their point of view, the truth is that we will never know if things would have been different had we made a different decision. All we can do is our best.

The last thing I should point out before getting into this topic is that I live in Canada and have the benefit of living in a privileged society. My experience is coloured by living in one of the more affluent "First World" nations. I can not speak with the same level of confidence about poorer countries where proper sanitation, clean water and decent nutrition are not available to a significant proportion of the population. The discussion of infectious disease and vaccinations is different in those parts of the world. The information that I will be presenting is still relevant in those countries, but the priorities are different.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? That is the question!

When it comes to vaccinations, people tend to fall into one of three camps: the mainstream medical-industrial complex and those who completely buy into their medical dogma; those who distrust mainstream medicine and think that vaccinations are the cause of much of what ails us; and those who are confused by all of the contradictory information and are trying to make their way through the rhetoric. I am mostly speaking to people in the last group because most of the proponents of the other two points of view have already made up their minds and no amount of reasonable discourse is going to change it. However, I hope that these posts will also be helpful to some of the advocates and opponents of vaccinations whose views are a little less extreme.

In approaching this topic, one of the important things to keep in mind is that regardless of where everyone falls on the spectrum of opinions, they all want the same thing: to protect the health of their families, themselves, and their society. Unfortunately, with emotionally charged issues such as this, it is almost impossible to be objective because people's perspectives are mostly based on fear: fear of microbes; fear of disease; fear of people with a different point of view; fear of being wrong; fear of what we can't control; fear of the unknown. This is an unfortunate characteristic of human nature - at least how we've cultivated human nature in the modern world. Even the self-proclaimed rational, scientific types can't see that their rationality rests on a foundation of fear. It's a big, beautiful, mysterious world that we live in! A world in which what we experience as suffering, disease and death are an integral part. We will never be able to understand or control more than the tiniest fraction of the world, and even then our "understanding" and "control" are largely an illusion. The world and Nature have their way and we are part of it. It's better to embrace the mystery and learn to flow with the world rather than attempt to mold it to our ideas about how it should be. We do that at our own peril, the consequences of which are all around us.

OK, enough philosophy! In approaching this issue, it is important to remember that we do have options: we can choose to follow the directions of our doctor; we can choose an alternative vaccination protocol getting only some of them and/or changing the timing of them; and we can choose to avoid them altogether. The degree to which we can exercise these options depends on where we live. It is important to find out what the options are in your local jurisdiction. It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes people in authority will lie to you. They will tell you that you don't have options when you really do. Sometimes it may be because they just don't know. If few or none of the other parents in a school have made alternative choices, the situation may not have come up for the person you are dealing with. However, more often than not they are trying to manipulate you. Once more it's important to realize that they are doing it out of fear and because they believe it is the right decision. It is not out of malicious intent.

Another thing you might come across are doctors who are unwilling to alter the vaccination protocol or who might not even be willing to treat your children if they aren't fully vaccinated. All of these factors affect our options. If we feel strongly about our choices it might necessitate changing our doctor, daycare, school, or even moving to a different province or state. All of these things need to be considered.

So lets start at the beginning...

Every region has its particular ecosystem based on the features of the landscape, soil, climate, and all of the various organisms that live there. There is an ebb and flow and, contrary to the "survival of the fittest" model of ecology, although competition is a component to a larger extent ecology is about cooperation between species. Yes, individuals die and sometimes entire species disappear, but life is really not about individuals. The ecosystem is a living organism and the relationship between species like us to the whole is more like the relationship of bacteria on our skin to our body as a whole. We are just one of many species integrated into the whole.

Life in balance!

What we think of as "disease" organisms are also important parts of the ecology. Among other things, they help to keep things in balance by providing healthy immune stress for individual organisms, weeding out the weaker members of a species, and keeping populations in check. I am sure that they have many other roles that we don't understand, but these are their most important functions for the purposes of this discussion.

Outbreaks of illnesses associated with particular microorganisms come and go in accordance with natural cycles. For the most part, as long as a particular species and the local ecosystem as a whole are in balance, these outbreaks are not too destructive. However, if a species is out of balance they can be devastating. Similarly, when an organism that isn't a natural part of the local ecology is introduced, the results can potentially be catastrophic. For example, it is estimated that the introduction of European diseases resulted in the death of 40-80% of the population of First Nations peoples in North America. Such tragedy is beyond comprehension! On a different level, Dutch elm disease devastated the native elm populations in North America when the fungus that causes it and at least one species of beetle that spreads it were introduced from Europe. In both of these situations it is important to keep in mind that the arrival of Europeans in North America disturbed the balance of the local ecosystem and the social structure of First Nations peoples in many ways. The introduction of novel species is just one of them.

Viruses are people too!

Most of the vaccinations that are part of public vaccination programs are for cyclic illnesses that were once common. When I was a kid in the 60s, illnesses such as measles, chicken pox and mumps cycled through on a regular basis. When they did, adults rarely got them because they had a natural immunity having been exposed as children. Among the children who were exposed, many of them were asymptomatic. This means that their immune system was strong enough to bring the infection under control before any symptoms developed. The kids that did develop symptoms experienced symptoms of varying degrees of severity, with most being mild to moderate and very few being severe enough to be considered serious. The relative severity of the symptoms will always be directly proportional to the overall health of the individual and the strength of their immune response. In my lifetime I have only heard of a few severe cases of any of these illnesses (in my circle of experience, not in the media). All of them were measles. All of them were vaccinated! More on that in Part 2...

There are a few illnesses for which vaccinations are given, such as tetanus and diphtheria, that are more serious. However, these illnesses have always been much more rare, so the potential for any particular person to develop serious symptoms is similar to the more common illnesses.

There was a time not so long ago when the disparity between the rich and the poor was greater, most people lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions, and access to good nutrition was limited. It is not a stretch to conclude that in those conditions a significant proportion of the population was immune compromised to some degree. The conditions that most people lived in were very out of balance and ideal for the spread of infectious agents. Not surprisingly, in those days when cyclic illnesses moved through the population many people died, often as a result of the consequences of high fever. As a result, people have come to fear fever even though it is a normal, healthy part of our immune response.

I was about four years old when I got "the measles". The itching was one of the most irritating things
I have ever experienced, but having gone through it I now have a life-long immunity.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the situation changed significantly in industrialized countries. Sanitation, living conditions and access to a fresher and more diverse food supply all improved. As a result, the incidence and severity of infectious diseases declined. Advocates of pharmaceutical medicine and, more specifically, vaccinations would like us to believe that this reduction is mostly due to the advent of modern medical practices. However, the evidence doesn't support that. Most of these illnesses had significantly declined prior to the implementation of vaccination programs and the development of modern drugs. The only exception was the discovery of antibiotics!

In response to people who uncritically advocate the benefits of modern medicine I'm going to go one step further. According to the most recent statistics it is estimated that in the US alone 1,000 people die and another 10,000 people suffer serious health consequences of medical errors each day [see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-many-die-from-medical-mistakes-in-us-hospitals&page=2 and http://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/deaths-by-medical-mistakes-hit-records]. These are not statistics from anti-medicine extremists. They come from prestigious medical journals. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many medical errors go unreported and the statistics we do have come almost exclusively from hospitals. We know a lot less about medical errors that occur outside of hospitals in everyday medical practice. These tend to be even more under-reported. Nor do these statistics include people who suffer less dramatic chronic health complications. It is also estimated that there may be a similar number of deaths and adverse reactions to drugs and medical procedures that are appropriately administered!

Enough about the limitations of modern medicine, now lets look at the arguments on the other side. Opponents of vaccinations like to claim that the reduction in the incidence of diseases for which vaccinations are available would have occurred to the same degree as they have even if vaccination programs had not been implemented. This is also not true. Although the issue is very complex and it is impossible to determine exactly how much each factor contributed, there is no doubt that vaccinations have played their part. In fact, there was almost certainly a synergistic interaction between all of these factors. For instance, improvement in the immune function of the general population due to the various social factors that I mentioned probably had a significant impact on the effectiveness of the vaccines. No matter how we look at it, vaccines have definitely made an important contribution to the reduction in the incidence of these illnesses and continue to do so today.

This is the end of Part 1 of this series. In Part 2 I'm going to look at some of the pros and cons of vaccinating and introduce a couple of good resources where you can obtain more information.


Friday, December 19, 2014

The Herbs and the Herbalist

This post is partly a continuation of some of the themes discussed in the last one. Particularly concerning the challenges of obtaining the herbs that I need. There are a number of other older posts in which I've also touched upon related topics. Collectively they tell a story. I am using some examples of how the medicine moves in my life to answer some common questions that I am often asked by students, specifically relating to what herbs to use, how many, where to get them, and to what degree someone should prepare medicines themselves or obtain them from other sources. I'm putting this out there because I know that there are many other people asking the same questions. Hopefully, it will help others who are considering or already walking the path of the herbalist, or anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with plant medicines for personal use or interest, or other reasons.

Like some of my other posts, I am going to begin with broad strokes, laying somewhat of a philosophical and sometimes esoteric context in order to explain why I do things the way I do and what things you might want to consider when addressing similar choices. Then I will get a lot more practical towards the end.

Before I begin, I want to be clear that living the medicine is a very personal journey. There are many different systems of herbalism and each of them has its strengths and limitations, as do individual herbalists who practice these systems. Herbalism is very multifaceted. There are paradigms within paradigms within paradigms; based on world views, cultural differences, etc. However, I tend to view the overriding paradigms of various herbal traditions as existing somewhere within a circle consisting of two intersecting continua: holistic to reductionistic (i.e. treating people vs. treating symptoms), and material to spiritual (i.e. plants and people as a bunch of chemicals vs. plants and people as being both physical and spiritual beings). The paradigm of modern medicine, which largely evolved from herbalism, is located in the extreme lower left quadrant of this circle. In contrast, indigenous and traditional systems of healing fall somewhere in the upper right quadrant.

Herbalism Paradigms: The blue dot represents my initial orientation as an herbalist. The green line represents the evolution of the medicine
as I have gained greater experience and deepened my relationship with the herbs and the land. The green dot represents my current orientation.
The red dot represents the paradigm of modern medicine. Most, if not all, systems of herbalism will fall within the shaded portion of the circle.

The systems of herbalism that fall in the lower left quadrant tend to be those that operate from a more medical paradigm. They often define themselves as "medical herbalism". That being said, I know many herbalists whose training is in some form of medical herbalism who are very holistic in their approach, and sometimes even spiritual. Most systems of modern traditional herbalism tend to fall in the lower right quadrant. For lack of a better way to describe them, we could refer to those systems that fall in the upper right quadrant as "shamanic herbalism". I use that term because it more or less describes systems of herbalism that not only subscribe to a more spiritual or animistic philosophy, but they also incorporate ceremony and other spiritual elements into their practice. Shamanic herbalism is not the same thing as shamanism. It refers to systems of herbalism that have shamanic elements. However, in the context of indigenous systems of healing, the line between what constitutes shamanic herbalism and shamanism is pretty blurry.

I have to admit that I am not completely comfortable using the terms "shamanism" and "shamanic" because they have been considerably abused in the last couple of decades. Also, many indigenous healers are not comfortable with these terms because it comes from a particular tradition in northeastern and north central Asia. Although there are common elements in indigenous healing traditions from around the world, there are many differences as well. So, using a single term to refer to them has considerable limitations.

Regardless of where a particular system of herbalism fits within this circle, there will always be variations on every theme. A good student will learn a system as best they can, and then through continued learning, experience and (hopefully) intuition, make it there own. As with any skill or profession, there will always be those people who don't feel it in their heart and just go through the motions. It's like reciting a prayer with no feeling or expanded awareness. It becomes just words. However, there are many people who truly live the medicine and it would not be inaccurate to say that there are as many systems of herbalism as there are herbalists who live the medicine.

Traditional cultures are rooted in the land. So is their medicine.

For every herbalist, the medicine expresses itself differently. It is informed by the personal and ancestral history of the herbalist, the traditions of their teachers, and the culture and any subcultures that they are part of. These are the personal elements. It is also informed by the herbs that they use. However, traditional cultures experience the world in a different way. They know that everything is related, interconnected, and that our sense of individual identity is largely an illusion. Traditional medicine is informed by the land where the people live: the plants and animals; the plains, hills and mountains; the rivers, lakes and oceans; the grasslands, forests and deserts; and the living and ancestral spirits of the land.

In the mixed up world that we live in we have largely disengaged from this experience ­­- but it doesn't have to be that way. Instead, we can follow our heart and find that place where the land calls to us and stay there. When we approach the land in silence with humility, reverence, love and awe, it will speak to us if we learn how to listen. It takes time. A long time! We need to demonstrate our commitment; walk the land; get to know its different moods through the seasons, year after year. We also need to get to know the inhabitants of the land: the plants, animals and other beings that live there. If we want to go deeper, then we need to offer more than just our time, awareness and love. Through prayer, sacred offerings and ceremony we can open up to the land in ways that transcend the limitations of our logical mind and physical senses. Eventually, every step we take on the land becomes a prayer, a ceremony.

The medicine that I practice is not my own, although I am a part of it. It is my work, my path and my life. As I experience it, each expression of the medicine is unique in time and place. It includes the Earth, the Sun, the spirit of the land in a particular region, the ancestors of that land, the herbs, the practitioner, and those people who seek healing. It encompasses all of these and more. As a practitioner, I am both a part of the medicine and a conduit through which it is made accessible. As my relationship to the plants and the land deepens, so the manifestation of the medicine deepens as well.

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) is a European species that won't grow where I live. I must obtain the dried root for making the tincture
because the North American species that grow in the region where I live are not plentiful enough to harvest.

When I first started practicing, I worked with about 120 herbs. Like most Western herbalists at that time, the largest portion of the materia medica that I learned consisted of European herbs, probably about 60%. Of the 60%, about 30% were plants that have naturalized in Ontario where I live, 20% plants that could be grown here, and 10% plants that won't grow in our climate. About 25% of the remaining herbs that I was using consisted of North American herbs, 15% which grow in the region where I live and 10% from other parts of the continent. The remaining 15% was an eclectic selection of herbs from South America, Africa and Asia, most of which can not be grown where I live.

I always had a deep connection with Nature and I felt it was important that I have a similar connection with the medicines that I use. Although the nature awareness and spiritual elements were not part of my original training as an herbalist, I was developing these aspects of my life in parallel and learning how to integrate them with my work. This process was one of the most challenging aspects of my work. It took years of deepening my relationship with the medicine and patiently listening to what the herbs and the land were teaching me. It would have been easy to impose my own ideas and I had to constantly guard against that. However, when I did slip up, the results very quickly made that apparent. I've had to learn not to push the energy, but to allow it to unfold in its own way in its own time.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) can't be grown in a temperate climate, but the organically grown fresh rhizome is available from commercial sources.

When I started practicing back in the 80s, I was ordering dried herbs and making my own tinctures. I also took the tincture of every herb that I made for a couple of weeks to get a deeper experiential connection with the medicines. At the same time I began a process of connecting with the plants in the region where I live. I would go out in the woods with a backpack full of plant identification books and manuals, walk into the fields or woods and try to identify every plant I didn't know. Sometimes it would take me hours just to walk a few metres. I recorded the botanical name of every plant that I was able to positively identify. When I got home, I would research each plant and record any information that I could find from about 200 herbals and technical reference books that I had. In this way I began to develop a data base of information on the plants that grow in the region where I live.

At the same time I continued to develop my relationship with the plants, the animals and the land. I spent lots of time wandering and sitting on the landscape. I attended and performed ceremonies and made offerings in accordance with the rhythms of the world around me: the solstices and equinoxes, the lunar cycles, and to honour powerful beings on the landscape such as rivers, waterfalls, lakes, cliffs, caves and ancient grandmother and grandfather trees. I sat with them, spoke to them, sang to them, prayed to them, meditated with them, made tobacco and other offerings. The plants, the land and the ancestral spirits became my chief teachers. I was skeptical at first. Not because I doubted the possibility of such communication. I had enough experience and had the opportunity to learn from a number of elders who were more adept in this realm. My doubts were about my own capacity to accurately receive and interpret these teachings from the plant realm. However, I very quickly learned to trust these communications because whenever I listened, the healing results were greatly expanded.

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is a native of northeastern Asia but can be grown in temperate North America.

In this way the medicine gradually unfolded. One of the first things I learned was that I needed to work with fresh plants as much as possible as their healing capacity is much deeper. I was also instructed that I must gradually introduce more herbs that grow or are grown in the region where I live and replace most of the exotic herbs in my materia medica, and to wild harvest most of them. This is not an intellectual process. It's not about what I think or want. I must wait for the plants to offer to be part of the medicine. Neverthess, this relationship can be challenging at times. For example, one of the herbs that I know I must work with is blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and I have written about this herb in the Making Medicine series of blog posts. There aren't a lot of places that I know where this herb is plentiful. It is one of the herbs that I mostly obtain by "water walking", meaning I walk upstream or downstream through a creek or river so that I can harvest herbs that grow along the banks. Blue vervain tends to grow in little clumps here and there close to the shore. I usually have to go water walking several times, each time obtaining enough to make a couple of litres. About 10 years ago I was really concerned about being able to continue to use this herb. I started doing research on white verain (V. urticifolia), which is more common in this region, to see if it is similar enough to either combine them or use it as an alternative. However, I still needed to honour my relationship with blue vervain. That year I had particular difficulty making enough tincture. I visited this herb near the end of the season and offered prayers and tobacco and explained my need and asked for guidance about how to proceed. The next year when I went out harvesting the amount of blue vervain that was growing in the areas where I harvest it increased by two to three times! I also discovered a decent patch a bit off the beaten track in an area where I regularly wild harvest. When we work with the medicines in this way they listen and help. They are part of the medicine too, and they take their responsibility seriously. As long as we do our work, they will support us. Blue vervain used to be one of the medicines that I used in moderate quantities. Now it is one of the herbs I use the most. By the way, it did turn out that the properties of white vervain are almost identical to those of blue vervain.

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is a Eurasian herb that has naturalized in eastern North America.

Gradually, as I was called to use more local herbs, it became apparent which ones I need to stop using as well. Today the profile of the herbs that I use is very different than it was when I started. When I recently did an inventory of the tinctures that I have on hand, there were 102 (45%) native herbs, 81 (35%) that are naturalized, 28 (12%) that are grown locally, and 19 (8%) that are not available locally. 182 (80%) of my tinctures are wild harvested and 46 (20%) are organically grown. 202 (89%) of the tinctures are made from fresh herbs, 19 (8%) from dried, and 7 (3%) from both. The latter group are herbs that are available locally but not in sufficient quantity to meet my needs. In these cases I will usually make some dried herb tincture as well and press them together so that the tincture I use is a mixture. I try as much as possible to do that in a 2:1 ratio (fresh:dried) but sometimes have to do 1:1 or even 1:2.

Of the various tinctures that I have on hand, I only use 150 of them in my practice. Of these, 88 (58%) I use in a relatively low quantity (0.5-1.0 litre per year), 43 (29%) medium (2-4 litres per year), and 19 (13%) high (5-8 litres per year). The remaining 78 I only have a small quantity of (usually 250 ml) for research purposes. Some of them will eventually become part of the medicine. My relationship with the ones I don't end up using is different. They want me to make information available about them so that other people will start using them again, as this is part of their purpose.

Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is a circumboreal herb that is native to the temperate regions throughout the northern hemisphere.

Notice that the largest proportion of herbs that I work with I use in relatively low quantities. Some of these are herbs that I feel are indispensable in my practice but I can't harvest them in sufficient quantities, either because large populations aren't very common in this area, or because they are difficult to harvest in quantity. A good example of the latter is heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). This herb is very common, but it's a small herb and the portion that we harvest is very small as well (the flower spike and first pair of leaves) which makes it difficult to harvest in quantity. Like many herbs from the mint family, it is also fairly low density due to lots of air spaces in its tissues. This makes the harvested portion even lighter than a similar amount of some other herbs. I know that it is important for me to have this herb available, so I keep it on hand and use it sparingly. The other herbs in the low quantity group tend to be specialized herbs that are used for very specific applications. I really need them when I need them, but not very often. They add a significant level of versatility to my practice.

The 62 herbs that I use in moderate to large quantities are the herbs that I use more than 90% of the time. Theoretically, I could base my whole practice on these herbs. Most herbalists have a small group of herbs that they use the most. I recommend to my graduating students that they begin their practice using about 50-60 herbs that they feel most drawn to and then branch out from there as they gain more experience. It means that they need to know their herbs very well so that they can treat virtually any person that comes their way. Fortunately, herbs are not as limited as you might think from the general herbal literature. They tend to be very versatile, having dozens of properties and hundreds of applications.

Common purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native of central North America. I have established a wild population on the land where I live.

Because I make all of the medicines myself and harvest almost all of them as well, I have to devote a considerable amount of time to this part of my work. Their is usually a fairly narrow window when an herb is ready to be harvested, typically a few days to a couple of weeks. During that time I have to harvest whatever amount of each herb that I will need to prepare enough tincture to last me at least a year, which is when I will next be able to harvest it (actually enough for 15 months because I allow at least 3 months for a tincture to macerate before pressing it). With roots and rhizomes there's more flexibility. They can be harvested any time from when their aerial parts have almost completely died back until the ground freezes. Also, whereas the aerial parts of herbs need to be macerated withing a couple of hours of being harvested (for some herbs less), roots and rhizomes can be stored in a cool place for a couple of days as long as they remain moist and they aren't washed until we are ready to process them. This is great because they are a lot more work to harvest! They need to be dug up, washed and allowed to dry before we can use them to make a tincture. Being able to spread the work out over a couple of days makes it a bit easier. I can spend one day travelling and digging up several herbs and the next couple of days processing them.

I schedule clinics on Thursdays. Typically, I see 5-7 clients per day. However, when I am travelling a lot I need to schedule the odd Wednesday clinic in and my client load goes up to 7-8 people per day. Until last June, I also had a student clinic scheduled every second Saturday. In order to be able to prepare enough tinctures to meet my needs, I spend about one day per week harvesting the medicines from mid April to mid May; two days per week from mid May to mid June; three days per week from mid June to the end of July; two days per week in August; one day per week in September and October; and then it's back up to two days per week in November. All of this needs to be coordinated with the weather and the rest of my life! Among other things, in recent years my work has required me to travel a lot during the time of year when I am doing all of my harvesting. That means that I have to harvest even more days during the weeks that I'm not travelling. To be able to accomplish this, during harvesting season I have to minimize the amount of days that I have a fixed schedule, such as clinic days and scheduled classes and workshops. During the peak harvesting season when I am not travelling I do my best to allow four to five days per week when I have nothing in particular scheduled so that I can head out on a moments notice whenever the herbs and the weather align! Fortunately, a lot of the work that I do is flexible and can be scheduled around my harvesting days. Also, the advanced students who are completing the clinical part of their program are required to harvest and prepare some tinctures for their student clinic. It only amounts to a small percentage of what they use, but it does reduce my work load a bit. Now that the clinical portion of the program is organized differently, no tinctures are required for the student clinic until the new version of the student clinic begins in a couple of years. This will reduce my load for awhile as well, but it also means that I am making them all myself.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) is a native of eastern North America.

This year I was not able to harvest as many herbs and prepare as many tinctures as I had intended. This was due to my intense travelling schedule and the unusually cool, wet weather that we had in this area. I managed to make 90 litres of tincture from herbs that I wild harvested; 7 litres from fresh herbs that were organically grown locally [rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and cayenne (Capsicum annuum)]; 17 litres from organically grown fresh herbs that I had to purchase [turmeric (Curcuma longa), ginger (Zingiber officinale), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)]; and 21 litres from organically grown dried herbs. The proportion of dried herb tinctures is normally nowhere near this high, but I harvested a lot less herbs than usual this year, and last year I allowed much of my dried herb tincture stock go down to almost nothing.

I will have to cut back my use of some herbs this year. There is also a good chance that I will run out of a few of them before I am able to harvest them again or before some of the tinctures that I prepare next year are finished macerating. I am going to have to use other herbs as substitutes, which means that I will need to use a litre or two more than usual of some of the tinctures of which I have a bit of surplus stock. Fortunately, I do have a bit of surplus stock of some of them. It is still going to be a very intense harvesting season next year!

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is one of the more specialized herbs that I rarely use due to its very high potency and potential toxicity.
However, sometimes it is indispensable. I use it for very deep conditions of the liver and spleen, and for a number of types of cancer.

In addition to all of the harvesting and macerating tinctures, I also have to spend about 4-5 hours, 3-4 days per month pressing and filtering tinctures. The time commitment to make all of these medicines is very high even though I'm only seeing an average of 6-8 clients per week. I figure, making medicines the way I do, if my work consisted solely of seeing clients it would not be possible for me to see more than double the number of clients that I am currently seeing. In my case a lot of my work involves teaching, but if someone were called to practice full time making medicines this way, it is definitely possible to make a living seeing 12-16 clients per week, and they'd (hopefully) be doing what they love. I think that's worth it! Nevertheless, spending this much time making medicines is challenging. This is why many herbalists make a lot of their tinctures from dried herbs, or purchase bulk fresh or dried herb tinctures from commercial sources. Ultimately, it is up to each herbalist to find the path that works for them.

Notice that I specifically did not say "choose" the path that works for them. To "choose" our path would require following our head instead of our heart. It is my experience that the path of the herbalist, or any path for that matter, is a calling not a choice. I have experienced this in my life and witness it on a daily basis in the people around me. In Western society we are taught to think our way through life and make many important life decisions based on fear rather than following our heart. It is one of the major reasons why there are so many unhappy people in the world today and one of the major causes of chronic illness. We live our life like an island at our peril. The consequences of this way of living are all around us.

Resinous polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum) is a fungus that has been calling me for several years. This fall I finally
got the call to harvest it and make some tincture. There isn't much information available on its medicinal properties.
It will probably be a year or two before I am familiar enough with it to start integrating it into my practice.

For anyone who is called to deepen their relationship with the plant people, or to follow the path of the herbalist, the most important advice I can give them is to quiet their mind, listen to their heart, deepen their relationship with the land and the plant medicines, and allow the medicine to unfold through them. In this and other posts I have given examples of how the mystery of the medicine manifests in my life. That isn't to say that this is how it will manifest for everyone. We are all unique and the medicine manifests through each of us in unique ways. There is no "right" way for everyone. For some people wild harvesting might not be appropriate or even an option. Maybe the only way they are able to offer their healing gifts is by using tinctures or teas made from dried herbs. That's OK. There are ways of working with herbs in any form, or even without form, that allow their healing to come through in a deep and meaningful way. The most important thing is that we develop our own relationship with the medicines. They will teach us how the medicine can best manifest through us.

The themes that I discuss in many of these posts are interwoven like a complex tapestry. Together they tell a story of herbs, healing and the interrelatedness of things. Many of my previous posts address some of the themes that I have discussed here in different contexts and from different angles. If you find yourself drawn into this world I encourage you to go back and check out some of the archived posts. Happy solstice and happy reading!