Yesterday my husband and I hiked a peaceful trail on the Washington Coast. Tall hemlock and Sitka spruce towered overhead, providing protection from the drizzle. The needles they have shed for hundreds of years created a soft, cushy path that guided our way. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot on the cool earth, stepping lightly and mindfully as I made my way up and down each hill. In this slowness I became more aware of my surroundings, of each sensation, each thought…each breath. Touch is healing, grounding, providing a vital connection that assures us we are not alone. And in this beautiful place, surrounded by plant friends, with my bare feet touching the earth, I felt a deep sense of community that was healing to my soul. Hildegard von Bingen called it “veriditas,” a lovely word to describe the healing power of the divine in all things green.
Herbalism is a community; it is also a movement. Herbalism is a different way of looking at the world, exploring our humanness and the way we move through and interact with the world around us. It calls us into awareness of the interconnected web of all.
In herbalism we strive to think holistically, recognizing how the different “systems” of the body are interconnected and working together. We consider how plants can support our bodies to be in a state of homeostasis, as well as enhancing a healthy vibrance, rather than suppressing or masking symptoms of illness. It is easy to miss what may really be going on when this happens. Worse yet, is when an underlying issue is not addressed and we end up needing to take potent drugs that can create even more problems, often with irritating or even harmful side-effects. There is a time and place for life-saving medicine, and herbs and drugs can be quite complimentary, but too often in western allopathic medicine, we focus on treating the disease, rather than treating the person.
Herbs can be gentle and work with our body’s own natural processes. But “gentle” can be deceiving; plants are powerful allies in our health and well-being. Our bodies recognize plants as both food and medicine and have for as long as humans have existed. We can use lifestyle changes, herbs, and adjunct therapies to prevent disease from occurring, to treat underlying conditions, and to care for unique individual needs, returning a person to a state of wholeness. However, as David Hoffmann reminds us, “herbalists are not healers-the plants are the healers”.
Plants contain complex arrays of phytochemicals, or constituents. The composition and concentration of these phytochemicals can aid the plant in attracting pollinators, defending itself from predators and disease, and to communicate (yes, even with us!). Phytochemicals also fluctuate according to climatic and environmental conditions, season, stage of growth, and other factors.
The majority of research on plants as medicine is typically limited to individual constituents, often in amounts or preparations that are contrary to their use in herbalism. In “standardizing” herbs, effectively turning them into drugs, research fails to consider the way our bodies respond to whole herbs and the way that herbal constituents complement each other to bring about change in the body, while at the same time, protecting it. It is helpful to know what some of the phytochemicals are to understand the function they serve and the effects they have in our bodies. However, we want to avoid reductionist thinking! Plant constituent combinations are unique and synergistic, herbalism does not isolate specific phytochemicals because we see the plant as a whole, not the sum of its parts.
Like my slow walk through the forest, herbal medicine is a process, not a quick fix. It takes time to learn about plants and our bodies, craft quality herbal remedies, develop habits and cultivate relationships that sustain us.
Veriditas is within us, waiting for our awareness to tap into it.
Sometimes herbal medicine has nothing to do with taking a tincture, drinking tea, or using a salve. Sometimes it is simply a reflective walk through the woods, or in a field, or a garden… experiencing the healing power of all things green that can bring about true wellness.