Thirteen Principles of Animist Herbalism
There’s no justice on a dead planet, the slogan goes.
Not only is there no healing on a dead planet, but there is no healing on a planet that we do not experience as alive. Under the influence of wind and rain and sun and moon and stars, our bodies co-evolved with those of Lion and Zebra and Acacia and Spider and the countless microbes within and around them. So did our consciousness.
Healing is the bringing of the life moving through us into the fullness of its expression. My Irish ancestors spoke of health as a Salmon swimming through the oceans of the Great World that contains all worlds and then into the rivers and streams of our own lives. We cannot come into the full expression of who we are without allowing our consciousness to fully enter and fill our bodies. Embodied, we experience ourselves as the animals we are whose senses are attuned to the pheromones of other creatures, the scent of rain on soil, the Milky Way and the Aurora Borealis. We recognize them as signs of the proximity of kin.
Contemporary neurobiology tells us that as humans we need to feel kinship with other humans for our bodies to operate in a coherent way. Less discussed is our need for other-than-human kinship. Few even make the connection that the one therapy that seems nearly universally helpful and relevant in improving the health of people suffering from the “diseases of civilization” – trauma, anxiety, depression, alienation, addiction, inflammation, immune dysfunction, endocrine regulation, and cancer in their myriad expressions – is walking mindfully in a forest. (I expect future research will establish the same for deserts, prairies, taigas, savannahs, swamps, marshes, and other places where wild plants grow.)
Treatment – the amelioration of symptoms – and cure – the elimination of symptoms – are significantly different goals and outcomes than healing. Echoing words spoken about the late Dr. Edward Bach by a woman who worked with him, Peter Conway says that the difference between being cured and being healed is that you can die healed – die brought back into right relation with all things in your inner world and your outer worlds. That can only happen in a context where we recognize and experience the rest of the world as alive.
As herbalists, we are in a unique position to facilitate healing – guiding people in practices that connect them with plants and fungi (and with their own bodies,) we can shift their relationships with themselves, their human and other-than-human relations, and the living world itself in ways that change what it means for them to be a human embodied in this time and place, which in turn will change the ways their nervous and endocrine and immune systems process and respond to the world, changing everything else in our bodies in turn. But too often we fall into the trap of simply treating plants and fungi as remedies for specific ailments, echoing mainstream medicine’s incomplete understanding of the nature of health and healing.
I think that incorporating the following principles could go a long way in shifting us toward an animist, somatic herbalism that can bring deeper healing, both individual and collective:
1. Our bodies are dynamic, complex living systems, and so is the body of the world.
Separating mind from body and body from land, our culture has defined the land and waters as reservoirs of inert material and bodies as machines for transforming that material into wealth.
Historian Silvia Federici writes:
“Capitalism was not the first system based on the exploitation of human labor. But more than any other system in history, it has tried to create an economic world where labor is the most essential principle of accumulation. As such it was the first to make the regimentation and mechanization of the body a key premise of the accumulation of wealth. Indeed, one of capitalism’s main social tasks from its beginning to the present has been the transformation of our energies and corporeal powers into labor-powers [ . . .] Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance. Generally, we stress the economic aspect of this process, the economic dependence capitalism has created on monetary relations, and its role in the formation of a wage proletariat. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.”
Outside the disciplines of mechanization visited on them, our bodies are capable of emerging subtle shifts in their experience of their internal ecologies – the intuitive dimensions of pulse diagnosis come to mind – and win the world from which they arise – Federici writes “We know now, for instance, that the Polynesian populations used to travel the high seas at night with only their body as their compass, as they could tell from the vibrations of the waves the different ways to direct their boats to the shore“ – which we can gloss as reading the pulse of the ocean.
In both instances, bodies are attuning to subtle flows within complex systems, and the ways in which everything shifts around them. Changes in complex systems can ultimately only be understood in terms of mapping the nature of such flows – whether somatically, using our awareness of our own experience of embodiment as a technology of perception and investigation, or through the elaborate equations and algorithms of chaos mathematics and systems theory. Linear, rationalist models lack the complexity and subtlety to accurately map and predict events in living systems.
2. Individual, community, cultural, and ecological health are inseparable.
What is this thing I call a body, this community of cells and tissues and organs? It contains at least as many cells that we would call viral or bacterial or fungal as cells we would call Homo sapiens. The elements that make it up are ancient – the iron in my blood and the iron at the core of the earth were forged together in the first generation of stars. But the molecules and atoms contained in it have not been contained in it long – in fact, the mercury and dioxin stored in my superficial fascia when my body breathed them in and couldn’t figure out how to neutralize or remove them in my childhood have been part of my body far longer than any of the molecules I can identify as part of my biochemistry. If anything, this body is a habitual way matter and energy have of arranging themselves.
The water that flows through my body has flowed through other human and animal bodies as well, and through soil and roots and mycelia – and my health depends on the health of everything that water flows through. The soil is the fascia of the Earth and what is contained within it will be held in my fascia as well.
Who is this persona who claims to be “me”? He is a product of the interaction of the consciousness that arises within my body with the actions and expressions of the other consciousnesses around me. If I spend most of my time in the forest, my persona will take on the characteristics of a forest. If I spend most of my time among other humans, my persona will take on characteristics of the community we participate in. The health of that persona, that psyche, is dependent on the health of the community that shapes it.
3. There is an intelligence inherent in these inter-related complex living systems that will tend to maintain, and, when necessary, protect and restore the integrity of the system.
As we discussed above, most of contemporary Western biomedicine is guided by the belief that the body is a machine whose function is production.Disease and injury are seen as the result of malfunctioning parts that will respond to manipulation, suppression, stimulation, replacement, or removal. Diagnosis is based on a taxonomy of symptoms, with little attention to their origin, and clusters of similar symptoms are treated identically.
Systems theory and complexity theory are revealing that model to be flawed and unscientific. Our bodies are not machines, but self organizing systems that adapt to change. The elements of those systems will always work in concert to ensure survival in the best ways that the information and resources available to it. There is, in essence, no such thing as a maladaptive response, and often the only thing that can change the system’s response is a change in the information the system has about the organism’s experience of the world. (Unless there is significant organ damage.)
Let’s look at hypertension, for example. The body elevates its blood pressure because it perceives the world as in some way unsafe, and it wants to be ready to respond to threats. So if a physician or an herbalist intervenes by giving, say, hydrochlorothiazide or Dandelion (Taraxacum officianalis) in order to increase urination, reducing the volume of fluids in the body, and thus reducing blood pressure. That works for a while, but the body realizes the world still isn’t safe, so it increases angiotensin levels in response in order to increase arterial tension, and the physician gives an angiotensin conversion enzyme (ACE) inhibitor and the herbalist responds with Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum.) The body makes an end run around the process by increasing levels of norepinephrine and the physician gives a beta-blocker to shut down the beta receptor sites for norepinephrine and the herbalist gives an adaptogen. Whatever response the practitioner brings, the body keeps finding new ways to elevate the blood pressure, because elevating blood pressure is an adaptive response to living under constant threat.
Any of these strategies can play a necessary role in temporarily lowering blood pressure toprevent heart attack or stroke. But none of them will be effective in the long haul. The only thing that will make a permanent change in blood pressure is a shift in experience that makes the world feel safer. Until the information that is informing the system’s actions changes, the system will continue to find ways to respond to the existing information.
This is nothing new to herbalists versed in Vitalist approaches to medicine. In The Philosophy of Physiomedicalism, J. M. Thurston wrote:
“The human Organism is essentially a vital commonwealth, dominated by Vital force, with integrative, constructive, and regenerative instinct, and whose inherent nature is resistive, prophylactical, eliminative, and reconstructive when the vital domain - living organism - is invaded by inimical or disease-causations.“
But Thurston and Vitalism still treat that commonweatlh and the force that moves through it as separate from the rest of the living universe.
Wilhelm Reich would later document the presence of this force, which he called orgone, both in our bodies and in the body of the world.
An animist herbalism recognizes that our life and our bodies are not apart from the rest of the living universe. That we are a particular and precise arrangement of matter and energy into exactly the forms they know as ours for the purpose of experiencing the universe in its fullness, and seeks only to remove obstacles to the flow of life through us and to nourish that flow until the matter and energy contained within us yearn for dissolution, and then allow them to dissolve to arise again in new form.
We recognize that every response of a cell, a tissue, an organ, an organism, or a community, be it a physiological or behavioral, is the system’s best attempt to meet its needs with the resources and information available, and are curious to understand what the system is responding to and why it is responding the way it is responding. If we seek to change the response, we need to change the information driving the response or give the system another way to accomplish what it needs to accomplish.
4. Humans need connection with other humans and with other-than-human beings to maintain neuro-endocrine-immune health.
Our ancestors evolved in a world that they experienced as alive and always speaking to them. Their bodies were attuned to the rhythms of wind and water, the sound of the air moving beneath an Eagle’s wing, the exhalations of Cedar and Honeysuckle and Datura, the pheromones and heartbeats of each others’ bodies.
Their bodies, and our bodies, the bodies of their descendants evolved to live in communion with each other, the living world around them, and themselves in all of their parts. Like all mammals, their primary impulse was toward connection — as long as the world around them felt safe and they perceived connection as available.
Psychiatrist Stephen Porges speaks of our capacity for neuroception, ”a neural process, distinct from perception, that is capable of distinguishing environmental (and visceral) features that are safe, dangerous, or life threatening.” He says that “Neuroception represents a neural process that enables mammals to engage in social behaviors by distinguishing safe from dangerous contexts.”
When we experience the world as safe, we seek to engage each other. Our vagus nerve carries a strong signal to the heart, which allows it to maintain a rhythm that is coherent with what is happening in the world around it. We breathe more deeply. Our muscles relax. We are open.
Even if we encounter threats, if we believe help is available, we continue to remain in that optimal vagal state – which allows us to maintain our capacity to perceive, communicate, and co-create solutions.
But, when we experience the world as unsafe and help as unavailable, the signal the vagus nerve carries to the heart becomes weaker. At first the heart begins to speed up, and, as it does, norepinephrine and adrenaline first make us increasingly vigilant, and then make us increasingly fearful and aggressive. Eventually we reach a fight or flight state, where our cognitive awareness of the world around us slips away and we are acting on pure survival instinct.
If we have experienced our most desperate struggle failing to keep us safe, or if we believe then we may go into the opposite state when we sense danger — surrendering to the inevitability of disaster, becoming increasingly numb and dissociated until we freeze completely.
If we aren’t brought back into connection and coherence, we can get stuck in such hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal states, and our nervous system will continue to inform our endocrine and immune systems that we are remain in danger even after the danger has past, leading to physiological responses that are incongruous to our actual current situation, and which can give rise to chronic inflammatory, automimmune, endocrine dysregulation, and pain disorders as well as compromising our body’s ability to detect and respond to internal ecological imbalances such as infections and cancers.
We come back into regulation by coming back into connection with our own bodies and our own web of relations.
Connection with other-than-human beings can help to draw us back into embodied presence – especially if our history of human interactions is fraught with pain, fear, and struggle. We have an immediate, visceral set of responses to the presence of plants. When we breath in their scents, our smooth muscles relax, we become more sensitive to hormonal signals inside and around us, and our nervous systems move into a state of coherence that recalibrates the function of our internal organs. As Guido Masé writes, “aromatics bring us into focused, flowing balance and help us function more effeciently.” ) We seek the shade of trees in summer, and the kiss of blades of grass glazed with dew.
They are our kindred. They bring us profound medicine. And that kinship is part of the medicine.
5. Diversity increases the resilience and adaptability of living systems.
There is a saying in Ireland, “God put the blight on the potatoes, the British put the famine on the Irish.” The Irish potato blight spread rapidly and wiped out a food system and an economy in short order because the occupying British military had turned the country into a monocropped plantation dedicated to supplying England with potatoes. An economy, an agricultural system, an economy become brittle when they lack diversity, subject to catastrophic collapse under stress.
The same is true of a species and of a culture.
An animist herbalism celebrates the diversity of human and other-than-human bodies and consciousnesses, and seeks to help every body be a full expression of the life flowing through it according to its own nature rather than seeking to pathologize and eradicate difference.
6. Plants and fungi are not inert materials for the production of medicine, they are living beings with their own intelligences, and animist herbal medicine seeks to engage in reciprocal relationship with the plants and fungi whose help it engages in healing.
This includes supporting the health of wild populations of our medicine beings and the ecologies that give rise to them.
It also means that our therapeutic goals need to have an ecological dimension. We seek to help people regain their ability to perceive and act in accordance with their connection to and interdependence with the other members of the human and other-than-human communities they belong to by bringing them into states of open-hearted embodied presence. We do not seek to make it easier for people to continue to participate in an ecocidal culture. We especially do not disrespect the lives of the plants and fungi whose bodies we use as medicine by using them to enable the continuation of ways of being and thinking and seeing and feeling and unfeeling that threaten the well being of their kin.
7. Sex and death are the currents and currencies of exchange in ecological systems. Our therapeutics must take this into account.
Sex and death, eros and thanatos – the vibrant, vital, ecstatic flow of life into being and connection, and the decay and dissolution of life back into the soil and water of the body of the earth are two serpents intertwining in fluid motion in relation to each other.
Eros is the drive of life toward ecstatic flowering. Most of the time we seek to bring people into the fullest blossoming of their nature.
Thanatos is the drive of life toward death, toward shedding one form and dissolving so that it may be reconstituted into another – ultimately a transpersonal variation on eros. Sometimes our therapeutics are about helping what is trying to die die – whether it be a way of being and seeing and feeling, a persona, or, in the right season, the people themselves.
Neither is possible without the other. The Cedar grows tall and majestic feeding off the bodies of Salmon dragged into the woods by Bears and Eagles and off the fallen leaves and flowers of the other trees around it. When it dies its body will feed fungi and microbes and the soil itself – and eventually other trees.
In a culture that fears the power of both sex and death and the ways in which they connect us with the animal reality of our being and our kinship with the funky musky florality of Hawthorn Blossoms and the experiences of pain and pleasure, terror and ecstasy that we share with all of life, an animist herbalism will recognize that all of these experiences can be gateways into deeper embodied presence and connection.
8. Human bodies and the body of the world are the primary texts that inform our practice of healing.
The wider the variety of somatic experiences we have of our own bodies and the bodies of others, and the deeper and more varied the connections we experience with other living beings, the richer our medicine will be.
9. Ancestral memories of trauma and resilience live on in our bodies.
The emerging/ent science of epigenetics is showing us how experiences changes our genes, passing down the memory of a response to a sensation or an emotion to future generations. We also inherit elements of language and behavior and posture in the process of becoming assimilated into our family culture, which shape our experience of embodiment. An animist medicine must take into account ancestral influences and ancestral healing and may engage healtfhul ancestral memories to help shift and replace unhealthy patterns passed down from more recent generations of our families and our cultures.
10. Plants and fungi belong to themselves. While traditional relationships between plants and fungi and the Indigenous cultures that arose alongside them need to be honored as part of the ecology of a place, plant and fungal knowledge is a continuing revelation arising from all authentic and sincere relationships with the plants and fungi themselves.
For many years, I lived in a bioregion where Devil's Club grows. Coast Salish peoples have long engaged the plant in protection magic — but, though their ritual and medical science and technology inform my understanding of the plant, I do not engage it using their cultural practices. I came to know Devil’s Club on its own terms and visited it regularly, bringing offerings and prayers, and harvesting it according to instructions the plant itself gave me.
I can tell you that Devil’s Club grows where the forest has been disrupted by a clearcut or a landslide or a flood and protects rich soils and the wildflowers that grow in them because its spiky stalks prevent big creatures from blundering over them and its great leaves shade the ground. I can tell you that it is so hard to remove by hand that it stopped the northward expansion of the railroads in British Columbia. I can tell you its green buds tipped with purple throb with erotic power in spring. But you still will not know Devil’s Club. And Devil’s Club will not be ready to join you in your work until you have made your own relationship. And then your magic and medicine will not resemble mine.
11. Contemporary animism in a multicultural society is inherently syncretic.
It is informed by the technology and science of the people who traditionally inhabit the land, elements of the disasporanimisms (a term coined by Brandt Stickley) both traditional and recovered, of the colonizing and disaporic peoples who also inhabit the place, and new understandings and practices arising out of direct relationship with the other-than-human inhabitants of the land. We respond to the world as it is with all its messiness and pain and contradictions rather than seeking to act as though we are in an idealized past or a utopian future.
12. Connection with natural rhythms of the sun, the moon, the stars, and changes in the land is important to human health.
Gil Hedley speaks of the sun as our master endocrine gland, with its cycles of light and darkness signaling our bodies to shift their chemistries. Tiny suns in the nuclei of our cells produce biophotons that carry signals in the form of light throughout our fascia.
Our bodies move through other chemical cycles with the moon – and the water that makes up most of our bodies responds to shifts in the gravitational pull of the moon, and likely shifts in the gravitational pull of the planets as well. Systems of astrology may have arisen as people marked the character of the changes in emotional and sensory experience that occurred when the Earth was in various positions in relation to the stars that make up the sets of constellations we call Zodiacs and which appear from the perspective of humans on Earth to be fixed in their relation to each other because they are so far away and so tiny in comparison to the vast emptiness between them that we can’t perceive their motion away from each other, making them good navigational markers.
And while we do not yet know the ways our bodies respond to starlight, looking out at the night sky far away from electric lights it becomes impossible to believe that our bodies did not evolve to respond to the subtle shifts in the arrangement of stars in the sky that move in predictable cycles.
All traditional systems of medicine speak of changing how we eat and move and sleep and celebrate with changes in the season marked by the life cycles of plants and animals.
The sun, the moon, the stars, the darkness, the weather, and the myriad births and deaths around us change the information coming into the complex systems of our consciousness in ways our bodies evolved to understand and shift with. To come back into connection and back into wholeness we need to come back into alignment with those cycles.
13. Beauty and wonder are the somatic recognitions of the healthy flow of life.
Our innate aesthetic sense is rooted in the resolution into meaning of the gestalt of emotional and sensory information being processed by the right frontal cortex of the brain from the signals coming from the heart to the amygdala to the “right brain.” (See Stephen Harrod Buhner’s work on the heart as an organ of perception.) When we train ourselves to shift our aesthetic response away from the learned judgements of our talking, thinking minds and toward the responses of our hearts and our bodies as a whole, we begin to perceive beauty wherever there is healthy flow.
A proper herbal formula will feel like a single herb to the body, and will engage the senses fully.
Animist medicine is also a bardic medicine that begins to break down the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical. What we call the literal is an attempt to impose a single set of colonial metaphors on the world.
Manannán mac Lir sees the sea as a field of wildflowers. Dogen saw mountains as slowly moving rivers of stone and rivers as swiftly moving mountains of water. I see all these things and more.
In animist worldview, it is not mere whimsy to equate a river and a galaxy, both are alive and flowing. And so are you. And so am I. And so are we.
(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Plant Healer magazine.)