Many years ago, Montana resident Thomas J. Elpel dropped off a manuscript entitled Botany in a Day at my office. Over the years many people have submitted manuscript copies of their book to me in the hopes that I would provide some sort of endorsement that could be used for future marketing. Unfortunately, not all were worthy of my endorsement, but this one caught my eye for several reasons.
As the founder and director of the most successful herb course in North America – in terms of numbers of enrolled students and numbers of students who have distinguished themselves professionally in the growing field of herbal medicine, I immediately recognized that Botany in a Day was perfect for herbalists and new students of herbalism.
I contacted Elpel and told him so, and further, that I wanted to make it one of the core textbooks of the East West Herb Course. I think it was 1996-98 or so when this occurred and the first edition of this remarkable book was published. Since that time to the present the book has gone through a total of six editions and has sold over 50,000 copies. Not bad for a self-published and self-distributed book, I’d say. While this is impressive it hardly reflects the true value of such a book to anyone who has an interest in plant identification. The book covers a comprehensive description of plant families of the northern latitudes, especially North America and Canada, but is applicable to most parts of the world above the equator as well as plants on every continent.
It starts out identifying the various parts and patterns of plants with a tutorial on plant names and a section on the evolution of plants that allows one to understand the big picture of plant botany. Following is a segment on "Learning Plants by Families" that teaches the reader to recognize the basic characteristics of the eight most common plant families (Mint, Mustard, Parsley, Pea, Lily, Grass, Rose, and Aster). This covers 45,000 common medicinal herbs and plants one is likely to encounter most frequently. With a basic understanding of these, one is ready to go on to learn the many other families one is likely to encounter.
While not intended as a medicinal herb book, perhaps it is my bias to see it as preeminently a book intended for herbalists, herb students and wild food foragers. As such, it references common biochemical, medicinal and nutritional characteristics.
For most of us, a lengthier and more formal training in botany would promise a long, perhaps dull study with no intended practical application other than learning to identify and classify plants. But Thomas Elpel’s book is a painless approach to the same subject specially tailored to the needs of herbalists and lovers of plants. It approaches the otherwise heady subject of botany on a somewhat limited but totally useful scale with the same sense of satisfaction and fun one might expect from working and solving a crossword puzzle. The end result is a deeper relationship with the plants we know and the possibility of making new plant friends.
Earlier editions of this book were printed in black and white. For the same price, the newly expanded sixth edition has a colorful cover and color depictions of the plants throughout the book.
Click here to purchase the new edition on the Botany in a Day page on Elpel’s website, and don’t forget to check out his other works.
Before there was any understanding of biochemical constituents, traditional herbal healing systems relied on flavors as indicators of medicinal properties. (Determining the properties and quality of an herb by its taste, color, texture, etc., is called "organoleptic" assessment.) Traditional herbalists have long associated corrective and potent therapeutic value intrinsic to the flavors, as follows:
Sweet – nourishing, tonic
Pungent or spicy --- metabolically stimulating and warming
Salty – affecting body fluids
Sour – Promoting digestion (as with fermented foods)
Bitter – clearing, detoxifying
To these, Ayurveda adds "astringent" as a sixth flavor, while Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) adds "bland" another extra "non-flavor," so to speak.
Flavors are perceived by taste receptors (taste buds) located on the upper surface of the tongue, soft palate, upper esophagus and epiglottis. The taste receptor cells send information to gustatory areas of the brain that influence our predilection or repugnance to certain foods.
Today, we know that the flavors are generally identified with known biochemical constituents. The bitter taste usually elicits a strong repugnance with the intention to protect us from non-nourishing and possibly poisonous substances. Biochemistry associated with the bitter flavor happens to include a large number of constituents with known therapeutic value such as alkaloids, bitter glycosides and so forth.
However, could it be that the bitter flavor itself, apart from its associated constituents, possesses its own intrinsic therapeutic value?
The well known traditional herbal principle of flavors may have found scientific vindication with this recent paper published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) entitled "Extraoral Bitter Taste Receptors as Mediators of Off-target Drug Effects." Here, a novel hypothesis offers a possible explanation as to why many drugs seem to affect conditions and diseases other than the ones which they are intended to treat:
"(W)e propose that any drug with a bitter taste could have unintended actions in the body through stimulation of extraoral type 2 taste receptors (T2Rs). T2Rs were first identified in the oral cavity, where they function as bitter taste receptors. However, recent findings indicate that they are also expressed outside the gustatory system, including in the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. . . Bitter-tasting compounds can have specific physiological effects in T2R-expressing cells. . . . If our hypothesis is confirmed, it would offer a new paradigm for understanding the off-target actions of diverse drugs and could reveal potential new therapeutic targets."
T2R taste receptors found in the gastrointestinal system may provide a rationale as to why and how bitter flavored herbs (often called "bitters" as they are sold in innumerable alcoholic beverages throughout the world) can be used to treat different physiological diseases. T2Rs found in the respiratory smooth muscle system affect breathing and bronchodilation, which may substantiate at least one aspect of how bitter tasting herbs such as wild cherry bark and elecampane are effective for asthma and other chronic and acute respiratory diseases.
Of course, the authors of this study did not set out to make a statement regarding the efficacy of the flavors associated with herbs, but their research may provide supporting evidence for how the flavor of an herb may direct its effects.
From an herbalist’s perspective, a drug may be viewed in terms of its pharmacological action and its overall metabolically heating or cooling energy. There are many implications with all of this; for example, we may not only understand off-label benefits of certain drugs, but we can also appreciate how certain drugs such as antibiotics, corticosteroids and others, while good for a specific disease, may be especially contraindicated and harmful for some patients more than others.
Given the fact that so many diseases are caused by excesses of all kinds including an excess of consumption of the non-nutritional sweet forms of food, we may now understand both through traditional medicine and science the old adage, "It’s time to drink your bitter brew."
Now that I'm on to ginseng-like herbs, here's another one that can be taken during the summer. Its real name is Panax notoginseng, known in Chinese pinyin as san qi, but is best known by its commercial name, Tien qi ginseng.
It is definitely in the ginseng family, but has quite different properties from the ones we usually associate with other ginsengs.
Rather than tonifying Qi, this herb moves and builds Blood. But even better, while it moves Blood it also stops bleeding. This makes it a perfect application for any trauma from falls, fractures, contusions, wounds, cuts or sprains (for this reason it is used extensively by martial artists) and to stop bleeding in vomit, urine or stool along with nosebleeds and hemorrhaging.
In fact, it is used for any internal and external bleeding and should be taken frequently for this, both internally and externally placed on the wound in powder or liniment form. It is called Yunan Bai Yao in its patent form, which is widelyused to stop bleeding, specifically from gunshot wounds.
San qi also reduces swelling, alleviates pain and dissolves blood clots. I have seen it dissolve large blood clots and slow excessive menstrual bleeding and hemorrhage (high doses are needed for both). It is used for chest, abdominal and joint pain and diabetic retinopathy. As well, it lowers blood pressure and increases coronary artery flow. Because of its tonic circulatory properties, it is one of the most popular of all herbs used by the Chinese.
Image of San qi tubers from: ITM Online.
Latin: Panax notoginseng, P. pseudoginseng
Part Used: root
Energy, taste and Organs affected: warm; sweet, slightly bitter; Liver, Stomach, Large Intestine
Actions: stops bleeding
Properties: hemostatic, cardiac tonic
Biochemical constituents: arasaponin A, arasaponin B, dencichine
Dose: 1-3 g powder; 3-9 g whole root, decoction; apply topically as needed
Precautions: pregnancy; Deficient Blood or Yin
Other: also known as pseudoginseng, notoginseng, tienchi, tien qi and tian qi
Indications: internal and external bleeding, nosebleed, blood in urine, vomit, mucus or stool, traumatic injury due to falls, fractures, contusions and sprains, chest and abdominal pain, angina, coronary heart diseases, joint pain, hemorrhage, injuries, wounds, excessive menstruation, diabetic retinopathy
Energies and flavors: Cool, astringent
Uses: Hemostatic, astringent, vulnerary
With the advent of Spring comes horsetail, a type of shave-grass that grows in watery places. I've been studying several stands of these interesting plants for a few weeks now, watching them pop through the earth, shoot upward and sprout into feathery and bottlebrush-like 'leaves.' My walks take me past a stream where they love to flourish, offering me some interesting photo ops.
Horsetail's fresh, barren stems have long been used medicinally. Older herbalists used it for consumption, dropsy and dysentery. Horsetail decoction has also been used as a vulnerary, stopping bleeding, healing wounds and reducing eyelid swelling when applied externally. High in silica, they are often included in mineral-rich formulas or herbal combinations for strengthening bones.
Horsetail's main use, however, is as a diuretic to increase the flow of urine. Thus, is used for such urinary issues such as bladder, prostate, urethra and kidney infections. As well, it is used for frequent urination, which may seem contradictory. However, by increasing the flow of urine it empties the bladder so one doesn't need to urinate as much.
Horsetail is also used as a lithotropic, helping to dissolve kidney and bladder stones. As an astringent, it can stop bleeding, internally and externally, and has particularly been used this way for nosebleeds. When calcined to ash, it supposedly helps alleviate acid indigestion.
When taken regularly, however, horsetail may irritate the kidneys and cause some toxic reactions. Thus treatment should last no more than six days. Another precaution to keep in mind is that a strong decoction of horsetail acts as an emmenogogue, which contraindicates it for pregnancy.
In the marketplace, it is often more difficult to sell the general public on an herbal formula as opposed to a single herb. This is understandable, because people are usually driven to single herbs when they hear of some sensational effect associated with it.
For example, Ligusticum porteri (now available as a Planetary Herbals extract), commonly known as "osha," has been found to lower viral count in chronic hepatitis C patients. Traditionally, the herb is considered "big medicine" by southwestern natives who widely utilize this herb in ceremonies and as treatment for a wide variety of conditions including sore throat, and all viral diseases including the flu.
In the marketplace, a typical consumer presented with the choice of capsules of pure lomatium versus capsules of lomatium blended with other herbs would most likely choose the former.
Assuming that it is well crafted by an experienced herbalist, a formula consisting of two or more herbs can often more effective than a single herb. The operative word here is 'can' not always.
Strange how often the first things you hear on your learning path often prove to hold the greatest weight in life. My first Chinese herb teacher, a Taoist named Foon Lee Wong who operates a curio shop on the outskirts of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, once off-handedly said that herbs used together represent more than anything we find in nature -- in other words, herbal formulations are 'unnatural' or perhaps 'supernatural,' as in beyond nature.
In a very real sense an herbalist uses herbs as a musician uses individual notes or an artist uses colors and shapes to create something unique and hopefully therapeutically effective.
Herbs are combined in formulas with particular objectives in mind. For example:
To complement or augment a primary intended therapeutic action: For instance, we might use more than one antiviral herb together to have a wider range of effect in treating viruses. Or we might use several complementary tonics together for a wider range of tonification.
Or, we might add some herbs because we can see the need to support an internal organic function in order to help the body achieve relief of a specific symptom. In other words, extra support for the digestive or urinary systems will help more effectively treat the underlying cause.
We might add in a smaller amount of an herb that slows down the liver's ability to neutralize any strange substance that enters its portals. Usually this would be a small amount of a spicy herb to bypass the liver P450 enzymes. This allows the active principles of an herb to remain in circulation longer than if it were used alone.
Or we might add a small amount of an antispasmodic herb to relieve any physiological resistance to the unique qualities (taste, texture, etc.) of an herb.
However one of the most fascinating phenomena around herbal formulation is how a particular combination, even a ratio of two or more herbs can biochemically optimize the primary ingredients in the herbs themselves.
Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine includes thousands of preparations, sometimes in exact prescribed rations and amounts that have been passed down over millennia because of some unique experientially proven benefit.
Given today's research capabilities, it is difficult enough to try to understand biochemically why some herbs do what they do. Each herb contains thousands of unique compounds. Compound this with trying to analyze an ancient traditional herbal formula containing two or more herbs, and you can see what a challenge this would be! (And that's assuming that there is a will and funding for such research - which by and large in the West there is scant little of either.)
Over 50% of all pharmaceutical drugs were or are derived from plants. Are there miracle cures in the vast but dwindling Amazon rain forest? Absolutely, but thus far only a handful of drugs have made it to market (including quinine, codeine, morphine, and cocaine). While visiting the Amazon, I spoke with one of the leading Western ethnobotanists whose job it is to discover and send back plants to pharmaceutical companies that may have a value in medicine. He said he's sent them hundreds but because they are unable to isolate, synthesize and therefore patent a single active constituent, all of this traditional knowledge of therapeutic plant usage goes to waste.
In the case of herbal formulas, the challenge to isolate and synthesize is exponentially greater.
So given all of the above, you can imagine how excited I get when I find a research paper that substantiates the value of an herbal formula over a single plant, in this case where the herbs work on each other to optimize certain therapeutic properties and effects.
While researching the effects of the Chinese herb dang gui (Angelica sinensis) as a blood tonic especially for women, I accidentally came upon a study of a famous ancient Chinese two-herb formula Dang gui bu xue tang (DBT) which consists of one part dang gui and five parts huang qi (astragalus root). This formula has a wide range of use and is traditionally prescribed alone with other herbs or in soups for anemia, uterine bleeding, post-partum bleeding, fatigue, and symptoms due to hormonal deficiency including osteoporosis.
The odd thing is that the formula is for blood deficiency but dang gui, the herb regarded as the sovereign blood tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is used in a much smaller amount than astragalus root, an herb used as a qi tonic. Why?
The study "Verification of the formulation and efficacy of Danggui Buxue Tang (a decoction of Radix Astragali and Radix Angelicae Sinensis): an exemplifying systematic approach to revealing the complexity of Chinese herbal medicine formulae" demonstrated the higher therapeutic efficacy of the two herbs together with the primary herb being a one fifth the ratio to its secondary counterpart.
The researchers speculated as follows:
"The saponins may liquefy and make the primary properties of ferulic acid and ligustilde in dang gui more bio-available. When boiled it seems that the ferulic acid and ligustilide in dang gui are oxidized and degraded which is far less when astragalus is combined in the 5:1 ratio with dang gui. Finally it's possible that the stability of the active constituents are improved by having the different plant chemicals together."
While none of this is conclusive, it sure supports Foon's notion that an herbal formula is more than the sum of its parts.
This Dec. 1, 2009, article at the BBC website entitled "Prince Charles: 'Herbal medicine must be regulated'" points to a potential crisis for the practice of herbal medicine in the UK. Under threat of new European Union (EU) laws scheduled to take effect in April 2011 that would restrict the prescription of manufactured herbal medicines to "statutorily regulated professionals like doctors," the Prince of Wales is urging his government to regulate herbalists, lest they be banned from practice entirely when the new laws take effect. The new laws also stipulate that the only herbal medicines that will be sold over the counter will be ones used to treat 'mild and self-limiting' conditions - basically meaning nothing worse than a cold.
Apart from the fact that this would undoubtedly cause a large legally disenfranchised body of people to seek natural remedies through illegal venues, it also would overturn a 500 year-old Commonwealth law that prohibits governmental legal restriction enabling anyone to treat patients with herbs.
Since 1542, the Commonwealth Charter of Henry VIII has guaranteed herbalists the right to practice freely throughout the Commonwealth. This law is still applied in the UK as well as its former territories worldwide such as Australia and New Zealand. In fact, many think an argument could be made that the U.S.A., as a former British colony, has a legal basis for unregulated and free practice based on the English Herbalists' Charter.
For over 400 years, this has worked pretty well with very few adverse incidents reported, especially compared to those reported about conventional mainstream medicine. Other European countries such as Germany and France have chosen to impose highly restrictive laws limiting the practice of herbal medicine to medical doctors. As a result, there is economic pressure for the UK to declare the Herbalists' Charter antiquated and to get in step with the same restrictions imposed by other European countries. This has met with stiff opposition from a well established tradition that has allowed for the comparatively unrestricted practice of herbal medicine by both lay and professional herbalists.
Aside from the many differences of language, culture and history between closely adjoining countries, the standards for the practice of herbal medicine is yet another obstacle to true union. With obvious financial advantages to globalization in respect to the EU, many of the differences between these financially interdependent countries must be resolved -- and apparently how herbal medicine is practiced and regulated is just another one of those issues. Countries such as the UK with a long history of distinctive customs and traditions encounter difficulties with conformity. For instance, while most European countries have converted their currency to the Euro, the UK still uses the pound sterling as its distinctive "coin of the realm." So far, under the Herbalists' Charter, the UK is similarly seen as 'not fully participatory.'
The upshot of all of this is an ongoing fundamental conflict as to how herbal medicine is practiced, manufactured and sold between the UK and its European Union partners.
One of my former students, John Smith, is now a professional herbalist in the UK who opposes licensure and restrictions of herbalists in that country. In discussion on this issue he recently wrote me the following:
Unfortunately, what has been happening in UK is that it was felt by the powers that be that herbal medicine either had to be regulated or banned entirely -- so herbal bodies agreed to compromise and go for self regulation (i.e. Herbal Registers). (In other words,) we'd get together to exclude non registered or unqualified practitioners and agree on what herbs could and could not be used, etcetera). This was done even though many of us saw such negotiations as a huge compromise but the lesser of two evils. Ten years of time and energy went into this regulation process internal wrangling for power and influence within the herbal and alternative medical community and discussions with the Department of Health and European Union representatives. What is happening at present is that the government has pulled the plug and left herbal medicine back at square one where herbal medical practice could be banned entirely. Prince Charles, a long time proponent of herbal medicine, homeopathy, and alternative medical practice, has chosen the path of supporting the regulated practice of herbal medicine and fights that corner.
Any decision in the EU and UK to restrict herbal medicine to licensed medical doctors would be a purely financial one with no regard for the needs of the people. At the same time it supports an already established free socialized medicine of a particular state-supported brand, administered only by licensed medical doctors.
Preserving the Tradition of Herbal Medicine
Here are three good reasons why herbal medicine should remain as unregulated as possible:
Because of the above stated reasons, both China and India, which have long standing traditions of herbal medicine, are able to recognize professional herbalists without prohibiting the accessibility to herbs and herbal preparations and the popular practice of herbal medicine by all.
It seems either a poor compromise or simply naive for Prince Charles to promote restrictions on herbal medical practice in the UK similar to those now in effect in other European countries. The compromise, which is the financial advantage, is probably more the reason as I can't imagine that someone has not discussed these other matters with him.
Who else stands to gain from herbal regulation and restriction?
Commingled with EU financial considerations to override the UK Commonwealth law and the 1542 Herbalists' Charter is the protection and practice of healing professions. Of course this includes conventional Western medicine but also the practioners of newer recognized alternative medicine professions, such as acupuncturists, herbalists, naturopaths, and Ayurvedic and Chinese healers who have been struggling over recent years with various degrees of success to gain recognition. Despite their roots as popular unregulated healing modalities, each of these, backed by schools standing to benefit from increased enrollment, at least superficially stand to gain in restricting practice to "licensed professionals."
Historically there is nothing new in any of this motivation of protection. Since medieval times, guilds and other organizations have been established specifically for promoting the professional (i.e. financial) interests of its members. There is something gained and something lost from this. What is gained is a standing organization that can share its experience and knowledge with its members and establish a standard of practice. What is lost, of course, is the wider experience that is the result of non-members who may also practice a particular discipline or practice such as herbal medicine.
In order to safeguard its knowledge, these professional organizations developed their own language and jargon that distinguished them from the populace. We encounter this when we try to decipher the diagnostic assessments and prescriptions of medical doctors as well as the metaphorical jargon used by Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic doctors.
For example, Latin, a universal language understood by medical legal and scholarly professions across all European countries, was used this way. While at first intended for more widespread understanding and greater definition and clarity, the use of Latin as a professional language of medicine had the same effect as it did when it was used by the Church for 1,500 years where the Bible was only available to be read and interpreted by clergy: to prevent free thought.
The mid-17th century English apothecary-herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, caused a furor when he published his own translations from the Latin to the English vernacular of various herbal and medical texts of the College of Physicians. He did this so that his fellow countrymen who could not afford expensive doctors would have available to them guides for maintenance of their own health. He published his own herbal, The English Physitian (1652), arguing that "no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician," when he could obtain his herbs from the nearby countryside. Culpeper upheld medicine as a "public asset rather than a commercial secret." Since its first publication over 350 years ago, Culpeper's Complete Herbal has been reprinted as many times as the Bible. He remains a revered iconic figure for English people and herbalists worldwide.
Education, not regulation
Many will still argue that the unrestricted use of herbs and self treatment is dangerous, but the fact remains that statistics of adverse events and deaths from herbal treatments are infinitesimal compared to the estimated 400,000 people who die annually from pharmaceuticals alone, or who are otherwise injured or made sick from conventional medicine and drugs.
It is undoubtedly my personal bias that herbal medicine remain as unregulated and unrestricted as reasonable. In fact, this was my personal path of learning. As part of a counterculture seeking independence from the mainstream in all ways possible, I looked to herbal medicine first as a passionate attraction to nature and plants, and secondly for the possibilities of what it might offer as an alternative to more invasive and Western medical drugs and procedures. It was out of this need that acupuncture and herbal medicine has grown in North America since the late 1960s.
There were no official schools to turn to for an education on this continent, and if there were, I certainly did not have the financial means to afford them. So I made do at first with the scant few books that were available by Jethro Klos and a few others and tried different herbal potions on myself and members of the commune to which I belonged. Despite the limitations of this approach I learned that plants do work and found common weeds such as plantain, comfrey, mullein, goldenseal, and later echinacea to be amazingly effective.
So my career arose out of years of personal trial and effort. I eventually got a leg up when I began to find a few experienced herbalists such Norma Meyers of British Columbia and Dr. John Raymond Christopher of Provo, Utah to study from. This eventually extended to the study of Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbalism in Yunnan, China with some remarkable doctors. Through this path, I think I received a wonderful education. Certainly there were holes because of the sporadic nature of the learning process but I found that I would only learn what I could absorb at the time and gradually my understanding deepened.
To legislate and deprive others from this path of learning to me would seem a shame of the first order. I know today, that there exists a large number of herbalists living in the mountains, forests and countryside who practice with local plants in ways that are not "official" according to accepted standards of clinical Western herbalism, TCM or Ayurveda, and that the contribution of these individuals are just as important as those made by the professionals. I think that there remains a place for both lay herbalists and individuals who might follow a path similar to my own as well as those who may seek a more set curriculum leading to professional licensure.
Please copy and sign the following petition and submit it to http://change.gov/agenda/health_care_agenda/
Then please send or forward it to as many people as you know, asking them to do the same.
Or sign it online here and share the link!
To: President-Elect Barack H. Obama
Presidential Petition for Incorporation of Integrative CAM into U.S. Health Care Policy
I respectfully ask that you incorporate Integrative Medicine modalities into any new U.S. health care policy once you take office in January 2009.
The 1979 oft cited resolution by the World Health Organization[i] called on countries to promote the role of traditional practitioners in the health care systems of the world and also encouraged more financial support for the development of traditional systems.
It further recommended that the medical profession should not undervalue the role played by the traditional medical system in providing important health care in developing countries and even specifically advocated the use of medicinal plants and remedies used by traditional practitioners to effectively treat their patients.
With the popularity of these traditional healing systems, we are at the place in time where at least a third of the people of America have recognized the value of these traditional systems not only for developing countries but as being of great benefit for certain conditions in our own country.
Because they provide relatively safe and effective approaches for treating many conditions, evidence-based, complementary, alternative medicine (CAM) health care modalities should be integrated into the U.S. health care system.
There are many reasons why one would choose such alternative health care methods but one of the most obvious is described in published research revealing that over 150,000 Americans die annually from FDA-approved pharmaceuticals that have been prescribed and utilized according to their indications. Shockingly, these 'iatrogenic' (medically induced) deaths account for the fifth major cause of mortality in the U.S.
I am one of the millions of Americans who have found complementary, natural health methods to be an invaluable part of my health care requirements and needs. These systems, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, naturopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy and Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine offer aspects of health care that are not provided by conventional Western medicine.
A recent study based on 1162 patients found acupuncture to be more effective for treating lower back pain, from which 85% of all people will suffer at some point in their life, than conventional treatments.[ii] This is only one of many conditions that are better treated with traditional alternative medicine but the fact remains that these time honored methods represent relatively non-invasive treatments that continues to be the legacy of all traditional peoples throughout the world.
The reasons that these methods continue to be resorted to is because conventional Western medicine based on expensive technological procedures and synthetic drugs, for various reasons is not always the best approach for all conditions, in much the same ways that exclusive reliance on fossil fuels is unsatisfactory for all of our energy needs.
Happily, there are other approaches from which to choose and utilize. These are some of the reasons why Harvard studies conducted by David Eisenberg, M.D. et al.,[iii] in 1990 and again in 1997 revealed that a significantly large percentage of Americans are already using these integrate, alternative, complementary therapeutic approaches and that they are even willing to spend more out-of-pocket money for such care than for all allopathic primary care and hospital care combined.
As recent as December, 2008, a National Health Statistics Report, entitled Complementary and Alternative Health (CAM) Care Use Among Children and Adults: United States 2007 by Barnes' et al. revealed that 38% of adults and 12% of children used CAM therapies over the previous 12 months.[iv]
I stand ready to be of assistance to you and Secretary of Health, Tom Daschle in any way that I can. Thank you for your kind attention and I look forward to your expedient response.
[iii] Eisenberg DM, Davis RB, Ettner SL, Appel S, Wilkey S, Van Rompay M, Kessler RC. Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997. JAMA: the Journal of the American Medical Association 1998;280:1569-1575.
Read the recent article in the Wall Street journal: "Alternative Medicine is Mainstream" by Deepak Chopra
The meditation for today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa, is Ujamaa -- Cooperative Economics: To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
In meditation on today's theme, I look back once again to my experience at Black Bear commune where our goal was to become as self-sufficient as possible through pooling our talents and resources. We found that through a combination of gathering, growing and raising our own food, and utilizing simple resources found or developed on the land, the cost to support and maintain a person was only $80 a year. No one felt deprived and nearly every evening there would be some form of communal singing and dancing or the opportunity to go off to some quiet place to read.
This did not mean that there were no challenges or problems. In fact there were many, much of them the result of our own ignorance and naivety concerning matters that other more successful tribal societies, through trial and error and with no alternative to pack up and leave (as we individually eventually did), learned to avoid. Lacking any agreed upon or enforceable principles and rules, we had no means to control who came down the long switchback dirt roads, how long they might stay, or when they might leave. This made for a more or less continuous state of instability.
In retrospect, my Black Bear experience ultimately showed that one need not run off and join a commune to experience the benefits of ujamaa. What it takes is vision and will to change. Perhaps it starts with inviting a few like-minded people to a friendly discussion about community. This may include family, friends or neighbors. What resources are they willing to share -- a seldom used piece of equipment, a portion of land to make a collective garden, a plan for collective buying or exchange of services, perhaps?
On a slightly larger scale, cooperative economics means developing small businesses and enterprises to fulfill the needs of one's immediate family, friends and community and whenever possible to employ those who are most able and dedicated to work and further develop themselves within those businesses and enterprises.
Even without the exceptional challenges of living in a wilderness commune like Black Bear, some of the steps toward cooperative economics I describe above may not only seem daunting and inconvenient, but downright counterintuitive to some. But take a moment to contrast this with the ensuing financial crisis of our times where people are losing their personal and collective autonomy to self-perpetuating corporate greed.
The root of selfish hoarding and greed is fear and insecurity. This in turn impedes the free flow and availability of energy, which in economics equates to money. This has an adverse effect on all of society, which includes the economies of the entire world.
Society as a whole always suffers when its economy is solely based on "winners and losers," which allows an increasingly disproportionate small number to advance at the expense of the larger majority. This type of cold, unbridled capitalism leads to exploitation, persecution, poverty, crime, war and terrorism. People with no meaningful way within the law to oppose oppression eventually feel justified in resorting to acts of terrorism and violence.
As we learned in part from yesterday's meditation on collective work and responsibility, one always has a choice. Why would you choose to support an economy like the one I've just described where there exists a much more compassionate and intelligent option?
No society is without its problems and challenges. The point of this day's meditation is only to show that through cooperation and sharing it is possible to expand the limited number of loaves and fishes to attend to the basic needs of many.
Love Is All You Need
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.
There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
There's nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
There's nothing you can know that isn't known.
Nothing you can see that isn't shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be.
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
All you need is love (all together now)
All you need is love (everybody)
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
-- Lennon/McCartney, Magical Mystery Tour, 1968
The lyrics of this song are so out there that it requires a certain level of letting go in order to embrace its meaning.
To put it simply, all is dependent on the power and intention of love to allow anything that is worthwhile to occur. We needn't delude ourselves that love somehow boils down to any overt act, but we should always strive to allow it to be the spirit behind all our exchanges with each other, including our business activities. I think if we operate from the place that "I gain when you gain" (perhaps using this as a basis for meditation), we have the essence of today's Kwanzaa theme, Ujamaa/cooperative economics.
Two herbs come to mind as I contemplate what it takes to invoke the powers necessary for "cooperative economics:" ginseng and astragalus.
Ginseng is the major herb used not simply to stimulate and therefore exhaust energy (as does coffee and other stimulants), but it actually builds and increases energy by increasing cellular mitochondria and the creation of ATP, the physiological basis of physical life energy.
There are two major types of ginseng: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) and Chinese ginseng (Panax ginseng). Both are powerful energy-building tonics. American ginseng has a somewhat cooler, less stimulating effect, while Chinese and Korean ginsengs are warmer and more stimulating. Forget about the popular sodas and caffeinated energy drinks that claim to have ginseng in them. Usually it is present in quantities insufficient to have any value, and is of poor quality at that. Unlike the true energy-building properties of ginseng, the effect of these drinks is based on stimulants such as caffeine which draws from our energy reserves, and when abused can lead to adrenal exhaustion.
Planetary Herbals has several products that include ginseng, including pure ginseng tablets. Personally I make it a point to take two of these each morning. This is not a full therapeutic dose, but is enough to gently build and maintain our daily energy needs. For those complaining of chronic low energy, I recommend taking two tablets three times daily with warm water to help assimilation.
Astragalus is another herb used as an energy-building tonic with the additional virtue of increasing the protective energy of the body against pathogenic corruption. Thus, astragalus symbolizes our ability to channel the power of the four elements of nature to outwardly manifest our immediate needs as well as our highest dreams and goals. The Chinese include astragalus as the major herb in a formula called Jade Screen, which protects against catching colds, flus and other diseases.
Together, these two herbs' healing and spiritual properties symbolize the energy, trust, focus and protection needed to build a cooperative economy.
The meditation for today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, is Nia -- Purpose: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
America is a great country because we are all here! Aren't you great? Aren't I? We're all great. Can you rise above your layered guilt and low self-esteem to say, "I'm great - and you're great too"?
What makes us feel the most pride? We can feel pride for all kinds of things about ourselves but too often it's directed to those things that our actions and decisions have the least to do with -- our race, the place where we are born, the country we live in, and so forth. This is natural, but for me, my actions, work and accomplishments are the greatest source of my pride. I don't think I'm better than anyone; I'm just talking about that moment after you've completed a worthwhile task when you can stand back for a few seconds and say, "Wow! That turned out pretty darn good!"
I can't imagine anything worse than awakening in the morning with nothing to look forward to and nothing to do. Thankfully, this hardly ever happens. If that were part of my daily reality, I think it might be time to die and make room for someone else who might be able to find something useful to do with their lives. Yet I'm afraid that too many people who have allowed their dreams and hopes to be beaten down since childhood awaken each day like that.
Anything we do must be done with the spirit that it is something we all can share some satisfaction and benefit from, or it's just another exercise in loneliness - and that's not much fun. Ideally, one's source of income should be a job or career that one can feel some personal pride and fulfillment in doing. Those who are self employed usually have little problem finding this perspective, but one may also be fortunate enough to have an employer who allows one the dignity to experience his or her personal accomplishment and satisfaction to the full and share in the profits.
One thing we need to remember is to always leave room for those who need to look deeper or higher for a purpose. These are the visionaries. They are the artists, poets, painters, musicians and scientists who of necessity must be given the resources to indulge themselves in the search of rarer accomplishments; accomplishments that require time and whose purpose many of us may not immediately see or understand.
This was one of the shortcomings of my life at the Black Bear Commune. Practical needs involving daily survival, involving kitchen duty, clean up, child care, pulling weeds, milking goats, chopping wood, etc., were so immediate in terms of our needs that those of us who at times went off to paint a painting, write a poem, compose music, or even study plants and herbs were seen as shirking their responsibility and duty to the commune. Those of us who had the calling and inspiration for these kinds of activities just had to take that time but it would have been better if everyone respected and appreciated the value in terms of our greater life together.
One day, the beatnik poet, Diane Di Prima, a friend of Elsa Marley (herself an extraordinary artist and poet), came down the road to live at Black Bear Commune. She decided make her home in the loft of the barn. In it she put up beautiful clothes and tapestries and exhibited the art treasures that she had acquired, welcoming us all to come up and appreciate them and the space she created any time. Below, a spirit of resentment was stirring concerning the contrast of someone "owning" (I prefer to regard it as "caring for") objects that possibly had considerable monetary value while everyone at the ranch was always scrambling to see how to get enough money for building supplies, tools, or the next run for food staples. I really appreciated and was proud of the space that Diane had created and enjoyed hanging out in the wonderfully warm, exotic space she had created in our barn loft, above the cow and goat herd. It didn't take more than two weeks for the negative rumbling of resentment to reach virtually threatening proportions. One morning around 4:30 a.m., I saw Diane hurrying up the road with all of her books, art, sculpture, tapestries and so forth, to skedaddle out of the ranch before others took it upon themselves to rip her off. I think it was a sad day for Black Bear.
For me, the moral of the story was that apart from all our practical needs, purpose must leave room for deliberate, focused purposelessness to impart that added special meaning that I think reflects our higher purpose.
Despite my suggestion that Kwanzaa might be a universal celebration, it is impossible to ignore the fact that its founder Maulana Ron Karenga intended it as a special celebration for the African Americans. Kwanzaa was founded by Karenga in 1966 in Long Beach, CA, a year after the infamous Watts riots.
Only 43 years later, we have just elected Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States. Obama never said or implied, "I'm black and therefore it's time that I get elected president"; nor did the Democratic Party he represented say or imply, "Let's give a black man a leg up and a lift to the presidency of this historically racist country." We the people saw him as the best candidate for the job and he was elected based on his talent, charisma, skill and ability to communicate to the needs and concerns of the broader base of the American people.
I know it may not be entirely true yet, but I'd like to think that the pervasive worldwide acceptance and high regard for jazz and rhythm and blues; numerous black athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Jerry Rice, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, just to name a few; and the incredibly wealthy humanitarian, Oprah Winfrey, shows that we Americans have finally arrived at the place where race indeed represents nothing more than the color of one's skin or other superficial characteristics.
So there's a question here: Are we as a nation ready to move ourselves even measurably away from considerations of race?
Are we coming to the "America" Langston Hughes describes in the following poem?
Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Purpose is not simply something that we find, but a quality that we have -- the power to actively impart meaning to any endeavor of our life. Somebody, sometime, somewhere had to see and impart logic and purpose to just about any and everything we can imagine. This is a divine quality.
This implies that it is our prerogative and choice to impart and see purpose to anything we may do. We can help each other in that and I suppose that is where the collective or community support aspect is valuable, but ultimately it is up to the individual to awaken to it in his or her own life. Some of us are given or find great, creative work to do, those fortunate people may find it easier to see immediate and long term purpose and reward to their work. Others may find it difficult to see the greater purpose in a monotonous occupation.
However, it is possible to lose one's sense of purpose regardless what the task may be. People who commit suicide may be considered to have lost a sense or purpose for living. For the despairing teenager losing his or her first love, shamed before their peers, failing in school -- when one gets to the place where suicide appears as an option, sense of meaning and purpose is either absent or at critical low point.
The point is, purpose is a choice. Consider those who live in the most oppressive and abject circumstances, subjected to tyranny and oppression. Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela served 27 years in one of the worst prisons in South Africa only to emerge as South Africa's first democratically elected president, and went on to lead his nation through a period of reconciliation. One can cite countless other examples, but suffice it to say that such individuals obviously possess a strong sense of meaning and purpose that allow them to persevere.
Purpose is a divine attribute that we bring to our work. We can help each other achieve this by serving as an inspiration for those with whom we are in close association.
Atractylodes alba is a Chinese herb that is used as a Qi tonic with the specific attribute of firing up digestion, helping the body to sort through and find appropriate purpose for the many and various nutrients in food. Herbalists believe that good digestion is the foundation to health. Without it our body suffers gradual and progressive malnutrition which leads to a plethora of acute and chronic diseases.
Atractylodes is seldom taken by itself but can be combined with other qi tonic herbs such as ginseng and astragalus described for the fourth day of Kwanzaa's theme, "cooperative economics," to amplify their effects by further enhancing digestion and assimilation. In the same way one can easily imagine how adding a sense of meaning and purpose to any of our solitary or collective endeavors enhances their value.
The meditation theme for today, the third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima -- Collective Work and Responsibility.
I can hardly reflect on this theme without considering my own experiences as a Digger -- a hippie living in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district from 1967-69. These years of my life, considered now the zenith of the hippie revolution, finally culminated with myself and others founding a wilderness community known as Black Bear Commune in the mountains of Northern California. (The photo below is one of a much younger me at Black Bear.)
During those years, thousands of young people throughout America found themselves smitten with the wanderlust for a new life purpose. This quest often used the promise of love, sex, and rock and roll as its rudder, but in the highest sense it was a search for community based on principles of "do-your-thing' self-determination, sharing and openness -- all based on what I generally believe to be a well-founded conviction in the essential goodness of humanity.
In my community we learned that it was possible to share so many parts of ourselves with each other -- our homes, food, methods of transportation, bodies, minds, spirit, art, music and yes, even drugs -- and no one would be the lesser for having participated. In fact, it was quite the opposite; we learned that by voluntarily pooling our resources we were greater than the sum of our proverbial parts. Then it dawned on us that with a cruel illegal Viet Nam war looming in the background, and the struggle for racial and gender equality raging on all around us, we were participating in a movement that was soon seen as a threat to the principles of a society and politic that was antithetic to our young ideals. We aimed to build a culture and community counter to a society that sought to control individuals by keeping "we the people" separate and alienated from each other.
The fact is that in our time, there is more than enough of all the necessities to go around. We could feed thousands at a love-in in Golden Gate Park by barbecuing the meat of a freshly dead whale from a marine biology lab up the Northern California coast. The still very edible discarded unsold produce that filled the waste bins behind giant supermarkets was practically enough to feed a community of large multiple dwelling homes in the Haight. With the spirit of sharing openness on the part of its legal owners, one truck that would otherwise spend most of its time unused and parked on the street was used to pick up and deliver these and other useful goods to the places where they were needed. What's more, it was all done in a spirit of goodwill and joyous satisfaction. It was a "thing" that someone was eager and happy to do, and others were able to benefit from this union of generosity, joy and action. There was nothing to steal or take because whatever there was belonged to all.
In short, it was the picture of ujima -- all of us took reponsibility for one another and worked collectively to achieve a harmonious community.
Foreseeing the collapse and devolution of the hippie/Haight Ashbury culture (which was partially because the media kept blowing it up and inevitably more and more unsavory elements mixed with drugs took its toll,) I and some friends purchased land in the Klamath mountains with a down payment provided from various "weekend warrior" Hollywood and rock band types. In the autumn of 1968 about 30 of us moved out onto the land, named Black Bear Ranch. At first it truly represented our "back to Eden" mythos. It was a place with two year-round running creeks you could drink and fish from, endless miles of national forest (these were the days before the U.S. Forest Service designated such wild tracks as "tree farms"), no electricity or telephone, and a few broken down shacks. By the time we got there, we had barely enough time to truck in a winter's store of food and put up a pile of wood for to provide heat for the next six months or so. We soon learned the value and meaning of interdependent survival, making the most of our collective pool of scant experience and whatever tools we could find.
This is where I seriously began to explore the wild plants and other possible sources for food and medicine we could derive from our natural surroundings. The goal was ultimately to become completely self-sufficient and freed as much as possible from a money-based economy. Even then we sensed the fall of the American capitalist empire (which may or may not be occurring at this very moment).
In any case I learned many powerful and valuable lessons about collective consciousness from that wilderness experience -- life lessons that few of us living in our ticky-tacky little separate boxes we call home might hope to earn. We really are a tribal people and when we find ourselves in close daily intimate contact with a group of people based on interdependent survival, everyday life events and people assume mythic proportions. People tend to fulfill certain needed roles in a society if they are left to sort things out on their own as opposed to being told what niche to fill. I gravitated toward the herbalist, healer, and shaman; others became the kid care people; others, the garden care people, the animal care people, the art people, the kitchen people, the construction and repair people - all of this just naturally occurred without any pre- agreed upon assignments. Again, it was the power of "do your own thing" in action. For me it seemed uncanny but strangely natural. What's more, we each eventually grew to resemble the various gods and goddesses of ancient mythology, and I learned first-hand how those myths evolved.
Another valuable thing I learned was that sharing cooperatively was the most ecological and economical way to live. We only needed one or two vehicles for the ranch, one being a mandatory truck. People shared tools and learned to maintain them for each other. I learned how natural it is that around the early spring, living off the land, one naturally gets low on animal protein and we just naturally eat less and shed the winter stores of fat. I also learned that living off the land as a vegetarian was, practically speaking, impossible. Our life together as a wilderness tribe convinced me that we are first a hunter/gatherer people, requiring fish and game to survive, along some wild edible plants which were the first to appear in the early spring. Living off the land as we did, we watched a agrarian lifestyle naturally arise with goat and cow's milk, but we also relied for food on fish (salmon were abundant in the nearby rivers and creeks), deer and even an occasional bear or mountain lion.
(By the way, if you want to see a video that only hints at what communal life was like at Black Bear Commune, I suggest you rent the documentary "Commune" which I'm told is now the fifth top-rented Netflix film.)
So on this day of Kwanzaa and the next, let us meditate on our primal roots as an interdependent people, reliant on the earth and all its gifts and changes, but more importantly, each other. Consider the opposite: how utterly difficult it would be to have to survive totally by ourselves! The relationships and societies we create are not only to generate rivalry and confusion but also to at least make it possible for each of us to achieve a level of self-sufficiency so that a few of us at least can rear our very inquisitive heads above the herd to see and help prepare for what's ahead -- and yes, most importantly, to inspire us to a vision of unity.
The poem for the today's theme of ujima is by one of my all-time favorite poets, Walt Whitman:
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day- at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
My choice of herbs for our theme today is informed by my personal experience: Marijuana and Goldenseal. These were two of the most influential and widely used herbs during the inception of the Black Bear wilderness community (and by hippies in general).
If truth be known, the mid-20th century herbal movement was begun with marijuana -- and we did happily inhale. Marijuana is currently finding deserved appreciation not only by those who use it recreationally but from the medical community. While frequent use of marijuana leads to a state of apathy and delusion which is counterproductive to health and well being, marijuana and all intoxicating herbs have and continue to play a vital role in human society -- as a way breaking free of our stuck fixations, compulsions and obligations enough to see that somehow there are always at least several different realities operating or possible at any given time. In other words, we should always remember that we always have a choice. Ever notice how things tend to work themselves out whether we choose to play an active role or not? (For an illustration of this, I highly recommend that you rent the old 1938 Frank Capra movie masterpiece, "You Can't Take It with You.")
Goldenseal is an intensely bitter herb so that indeed it tends to serve as the "bitter brew" that serves as an antidote to our overindulgences that lead to liver congestion, toxicity, and stagnant inflammatory diseases.
The hippie bibles included the books "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A. Heinlein and "Back to Eden" by the naturopathic doctor Jethro Klos. Jethro Klos was big on the use of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and until I rediscovered echinacea, it was the go-to herb for all infections and inflammations. It is still pretty good for those conditions taken both internally in a powder (usually put into gelatin capsules) and applied externally to infected sores and wounds. With herbalism going mainstream we have learned that the wild stands of North American goldenseal are endangered and so we should generally insist on using only organically cultivated goldenseal.