Note from the Editor: According to statistics, Alaska, Oklahoma and New Mexico are the three US states with the most members of Native American populations. All three states require knowledge of Western science. However, neither of these states teach ancestral knowledge of plants that are at the core of the cultural knowledge these Native populations have to offer society at large. In New Mexico, there are some efforts towards understanding ecosystems through a green lens. Even though this is better than nothing, it still remains an imperialist viewpoint that erases the Native American populations’ wealth of knowledge. Sources on each of the educational curriculums available at the end of this article.
Knowledge on medicinal plants is a cultural inheritance that our ancestors have mostly passed on from mouth to mouth throughout human history. There are records of said oral history dating back over 8000 years. And sometimes I wonder how that knowledge managed to live on for so long in each culture. I believe the answer partially lies in how significant this wisdom is in relation to our bodies. A natural resource that cares for us and vice versa.
This knowledge comes from our ancestors. They learned through their bond with nature, from observation, and from the practice of herbal medicine. This knowledge became a never-ending source of possibilities and power to heal the body of all beings both physically and spiritually. Recipes, ointments, syrups, elixirs, and formulas were passed down through oral lore, and most probably, some were lost, modified, and perfected. However, in a way, they continue to be transmitted in the present.
With the coming up of technology and science, along with the new possibilities they brought —and by this I mean the growth of the industry and capitalism—, these mixtures were left sitting on Grandma’s shelf, as society became leaning on pills and synthesized remedies because manufacturers started producing medicines with a more immediate and stronger effect on the body.
As it is, there are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, there’s the possibility of doing more accurate and thorough studies about the properties of each single plant that grows in our environment, and consequently adjusting its use and production. On the other hand, there’s a rise in the possibility that the intake of medicine turns into a logic dedicated to extracting active ingredients from plants. Whoa, whoa, slow down. Where am I going with this? We have become a culture that takes the plant, the roots, or the seed from the earth, takes its healing properties to conveniently benefit from them and then disposes of them without giving anything in return. Turning a living being into a pill. A living being, really? Why, yes, darling. And that makes us detached from the main teachings —its preventive and therapeutic properties— that managed to stay afloat throughout generations thanks to oral tradition. Drawing the focus of the interaction between medicine and health towards treating symptoms as quickly and immediately as possible, or even providing pills as placebo.
So, what I mean by all this is that, as humans, it is much easier, quicker and more efficient for us to go to the pharmacy and get a blister pack to soothe a headache, stomachache or cold as quickly as possible instead of asking ourselves “What’s the cause of this pain? Is it something I ate or am I overwhelmed by a situation? Maybe I caught a cold? Maybe if I changed my eating habits and started to look after myself…
What if I took an herbal brew? Or should I make my own cough syrup?”, and then ponder different ways of keeping ourselves healthy after reflecting upon and creating a caring bond with our bodies.
Needless to say, this post is not a boycott against the pharmaceutical industry (or is it? —For legal reasons, this is a joke.) Even when there are situations where the intake of prescribed drugs is necessary on a daily basis or in an emergency, learning about plants and their various forms of consumption is an individual and social necessity, and a search for habits of care for our bodies and health. This was marginalized as generations went by.
Given that most of the knowledge about herbal medicine was passed down orally by our ancestors, generation after generation, the access we have to information about herbal medicine puts us in a place of uncertainty. This information may either be subjectivized, or lack recommendations on contraindications. Moreover, it becomes a non-stop online search, which results in confusion due to multiple emerging alternatives, and the possibility of incorrect dosages, and obviously a margin of error
that could put us at risk of intoxication.
It is clear that, this wisdom is passed down among peoples —we may as well call it hereditary. There are few places where knowledge on herbs is transmitted with honesty and awareness of the environment we live in. And, being unable to access those places, we are missing the opportunity to tap into the wisdom of self-healing or preventing conditions.-Because there’s nothing better than having resources available to look after our bodies when they’re out of balance, knowing the functioning of our organism, and embracing our inner alchemist to heal both ourselves and others—while being aware of everything that comes from nature is necessarily related to the environment and the significance of the bond humans have with the earth.
Extractivism, climate change, water scarcity, and exploitation of natural resources are also matters that intersect with naturist politics. Learning about plants, their consumption, and their possible creative relationship with the human body inevitably implies their association with non-extractivist care methods, as well as recognizing the importance of all living beings, and looking for ways for caring, protecting, and regenerating what has been taken from the earth.
Learning and taking care of the environment is an impending debt for everyone. In recent years, with the growing awareness about the risks generated to the careless ways in which we inhabit the Earth, some habits have changed. Minimization in the use of plastic and water, and even the increase in the amount of people who changed their diet to become either vegetarians or vegans are a big step forward.
Even though this may seem quite chaotic (and in a way it is), the intention of this post is not to make you feel sad or overwhelmed. It is rather to bring awareness and open-mindedness about the possibilities and the resources we have at our disposal. Letting you know that there is wisdom about plants, that it is circulating and lives on through spoken word and our bond with the earth, and it lives within every person who continues to walk the path of herb rituals.
If you’re reading this, it’s because you’ve felt a nibbling interest for herbalism and its mixtures, its powers, and possibilities. Learning about plants and with them —and I might even say learning in itself— is not a linear process. This doesn’t necessarily mean constantly making progress, but rather going back to one same topic, revising it, making mistakes, and being confused. Which is very similar to what happens with tinctures, formulas or Recipes, as I prefer to call them. They imply failing, trying again, having a taste for what is done with one’s hands, embracing the perfection of imperfection.
A homemade ointment with the herbs we stole from our neighbor’s garden, instead of a store-bought plastic bottle of synthesized products; a cough syrup we made ourselves to give away to a loved one; knowing which herbs to use when we’re overwhelmed with stress, or even knowing which ones we can put in a burner and use as an essential oil for improved focus. Moments of loving care.
These little details about herbalism to make ointments, creams or syrups, and aromatherapy are tools that aid us in our daily lives and help us look in more detail before shopping at the pharmacy. It must be noted that each body is unique and has different needs, so plants could work to a certain extent, and from then on, we could resort to other ways of self-care.
Learning about our own bodies and their necessities, and most importantly, asking ourselves “Why? Why do I have a headache whenever I’m feeling anxious?” or “Why do I get pimples or cold sores? What’s the reason my body reacts the way it does?”
Every body reacts differently to stimuli. So, what if you had tools to manage these processes? How about being your own guide? Everyone knows their own body, but if you’re still getting to know it, it’s just a matter of digging deeper into this wisdom, reaching to your masters, and returning to the path our ancestors have traced with herbs.
Sources on US Educational Curriculums
Translated by Andrea Valeri & Bárbara Cáceres
Edited by Virginia Castiglione