“Northwest Passage”

The amazing music of composer, Alex Shapiro

Featuring the world premiere of ARCANA: SUITE FOR PIANO  commissioned by and dedicated to and performed by Michael Tierra, pianist.

Peace United Church, Santa Cruz, California

March 20, 7PM


I am diverging this month from the usual blog on herbs and healing to write about a very special piece of music celebrating herbs and healing. This month I will be performing the premiere of Arcana, a 20-minute long suite of short piano pieces which I commissioned highly celebrated contemporary composer, Alex Shapiro, to write for me nearly two years ago. (Buy tickets for the March 20 show in Santa Cruz here.)

Michael Tierra the musician

My Life as a Pianist - Herbalist – Healer

I began my life as a musician. I was a pianist, sometime composer, conductor, and an early avant garde music exponent. At one point in the late 1960s, seeing  the possibility of fusing my own revolutionary creative musical impulses within the popular genre of rock and roll, I joined up with avant garde musician Joseph Byrd and others to form a rock band known as “The United States of America (http://bit.ly/1RikfWY).

Even though I initiated the band and we were able to secure a potentially lucrative contract with Columbia Records which led to an LP recording, there were conflicts with one member of the band that caused me to turn my back on it and move to a cabin at the foothills of Mt Shasta. So except for one rare take, I was not on the first recording nor did I join the one and only tour the group undertook before disbanding.

Later, while living for 4 ½ years in a remote Northern California forest commune called Black Bear Ranch, I found myself strangely attracted to the wondrous world of wild plants that grew in the forest or as weeds in our communal garden. Herbal medicine is not simply using plants for healing, but also represents a philosophically rich path whose metaphorical meaning engages us with our interdependence with nature and the possibility that what we need to assuage our ills and imbalances might just be underfoot – a secret for us to discover.

It is my belief that the same creative spirit that imbues music, art and poetry strangely partakes of the creative energy of the planet as represented by the diverse world of plants. Just as plants provide the fundamental nourishment for all life, in some unique way they nourish our spirit. In fact, plants are the first medicine, and for those who are willing to honor their ancestral connection, even in our 21st century a world of rapid technical progress, they are still often the best medicine for healing certain diseases of mind, body and spirit. 

While for me the path of an herbalist and musical artist seems perfectly natural, somehow these two worlds always seemed distant from each other. Except for the occasional odd curiosity, musicians seemed to not know or care about the part of my life that pioneered the mid 20th century herbal renaissance, nor the nine books I wrote which are still in print about herbal medicine, the thousands of students and healers I’ve taught and influenced, nor my work as a California state licensed acupuncturist. In the past but less so now, herbalism and herbalists were regarded as part of a counterculture that, for the most part, was too caught up with the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead. While they seemed to respect manifestations of the human creative spirit that included classical composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Chopin and so forth, they were hardly inclined to an interest in contemporary art music or more obscure music of the Middle Age and Renaissance. How many times I’ve wanted others to recognize the two sides of myself: the serious musician and the herbalist acupuncturist and healer!

I consider that contemporary music (by recently deceased or living composers), is necessary to maintain the ongoing evolution of music. In fact, any serious music lover should maintain at least an equal interest in the music of the present as they to do that of the past. Listening to the glorious music of the great masters is familiar, safe and unchallenging no matter how much we try to nuance one performing artist’s interpretation as compared to another. Listening to contemporary music is exciting, not because of what we expect to get from it, but more what we might receive that we didn’t expect. It is an adventure.

I felt that I needed to write music about healing and herbs but somehow, whether lack of confidence, ability or that I was simply too close to both, I could not do it. I came upon the music of Alex Shapiro quite by accident. I was looking for a contemporary chamber work while planning a program proposal for the Santa Cruz Chamber Players. When searching online, I found my now good friend, Alex Shapiro’s website.

At first I was attracted to the images on her website, a part of the country where I once briefly lived and have visited many times – the Puget Sound islands off the coast of Washington State. It is such a beautiful part of the world that I hate to say much about it for fear that it will be overrun with too many visitors. It is an area I visited several times, first to learn from my first herbal teacher, a woman named Norma Meyers who lived on an island off the coast of Vancouver.

Later, I traveled to Whidbey Island to teach herbal medicine. The pristine waters, the sea life, the haunting botanically-rich nearby Olympic rainforest -- maybe it was only fantasy, but those were the photographic images that first awoke such found memories. Seeing Alex’s beautiful face as part of the whole picture and listening to samples of her various works on her website, I realized I had found a kindred spirit – someone who, as it turned out, I would shyly commission to write a piece of my dreams, a work I could perform that would show my relationship and very special connection to art, music, herbs, nature and healing.

"Arcana" composer, Alex Shapiro

Arcana, the Music, As I See It

All this being said, this is Alex’s piece in the genre of the romantic piano suite which began with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition and then similar piano suites by Robert Schumann such as Forest Scenes as well as various suites by MacDowell, Grieg, Poulenc, Bartok and many others.  Just as each of these composers developed their unique style and tonal palette, the term “arcana” means “secret” or “mystery.” Perhaps the name was inspired from the Herbal Tarot deck I created with fellow herbalist-artist, Candis Cantin, in which the first 22 cards of the deck represent the metaphorical mystery of all aspects of existence. (I don’t consider myself superstitious but I personally use the cards as pictures that awaken subconscious thoughts and feelings to inspire deeper self- understanding.)

Please keep in mind that all of the following is my impression as interpreter of Arcana and may not be anything that Alex had in mind. In fact she once told me that her primary goal always was to write a good piece of music.

Alex’s Arcana is philosophical, representing a perspective of life, our interconnection with plants, healing and the Earth.  At least we can see the connection of healing with music in a unique way through each short piece. Before offering my own interpretation of each piece I must tell you that the work is full of vivid interpretive directives such as ‘the secret must be protected,” “with anger,” “the meeting of two selves jaunty and assured, but questions linger,” ”vines and roots begin to spread,” “alarming changes have altered the ground and air,” “arriving at magic and understanding,” and so forth.

Each of the eight pieces of Arcana, like the 22 cards of the Tarot major arcana, is intended to evoke some aspect of our relationship with nature, plants, the meaning of disease, healing and in the end transcendence. To be more specific than this would be “to expose the secret,” which unnecessarily risks the likelihood that the secret is at once universal and unique to each of us.

According to the Alex herself, “Arcana explores the painfully fragile, and often perilous relationship between humans and the healing secrets of earth’s abundant plant life. The music often does so from the perspective of the plants themselves, with healing herbs as protagonists of a story that begins with a dire warning, and ends with the faith that wisdom and grace shall ultimately triumph.”

Alex is truly a contemporary, post-modernist composer who freely adopts any musical style or sound to accommodate her expression. As a composer, she works pretty much strictly on commission and it is safe to say that her music is in wide demand.

Alex’s music as reflected in this work embodies many influences that may not at first seem apparent, including Chopin, the jazz pianist Bill Evans, Brahms and many others blending together to create a unique sound expression. Alex loves dissonance. She also loves Middle Eastern rhythms, melody, rich harmonies as well, in the piece, the art of intimate, personal expression. When I play her music I feel like she is speaking through me to you, dear listeners, of something with rich philosophical and dramatic import.

Following is the program of all-Alex Shapiro music that I directed and produced at this concert on March 20 for which the composer will fly down from San Juan Island to attend:

Of Wood and Touch

Cello --- Aude Castagna

Piano – Ben Dorfan

Shiny Kiss

Solo flute – Kathleen Purcell


Bass Flute – Kathleen Purcell

Water Crossing

For clarinet and electronic sound environment

Clarinet – Jeff Gallagher

Vista – Alex Shapiro

For solo violin and electronic sound environment

Violin – Brian Johnston

Below – Alex Shapiro

Kathleen Purcell – Bass flute

Electronic environment including the songs of whales


Arcana - suite for solo piano

Commissioned by, dedicated to, and performed by Michael Tierra

  1. Cradle these roots -- something very precious and fragile
  2. Unfurl – What is life?
  3. Heal From Within – crisis and acceptance
  4. Reach to Light – Life affirming
  5. Roots and branches – Seeking the best remedy
  6. Touch it - Qi

7 Search – What is meaning?

8 From Earth to Sky – something very precious and fragile

Unabashedly More

Mixed Sextet

Artists: Brian Johnston, Violin; Shannon Delaney, Viola: Aude Castagna, Cello; Kathleen Purcell, Flute; Jeffrey Gallagher, Clarinet; Ben Dorfan, Piano

Alex Shapiro’s music is included in many performances and recordings and there is one recording entitled “Notes From the Kelp” which is only her music and exemplifies the wide diversity of styles and genre’s that is a hallmark of her music.

Please find out more about her at www.notesfromthekelp.com and her website, www.alexshapiro.org.

Following are some You Tube live performances of her music:

Immersion Surface


Of Breath and Touch performed on Cello on our program and renamed “Of Wood and Touch.”


Alex has composed much creative music for bands. One of her most popular is a novelty piece entitled “Paper Cut” which incorporates the sound of paper as part of the tapestry of the music.


There are many other performances of Alex Shapiro’s amazing music to be found on You Tube and on her website. I recommend checking it out. 











Numen: The Nature of Plants

A film about the healing power of plants


This is the most beautiful film yet produced on what we herbalists are all about. It runs 75 minutes long and features many of our herbal teachers as spokespersons. I especially appreciate the extended eloquent presentations of Dr. William Mitchell, naturopath of Bastyr College, and one of the finest herbalists of our generation. This film is a real feast for the eye and soul and the only regret I have is that somehow I was not one of the numerous herbalists featured. 

I echo Dr. Tieraona Lowdog MD’s description of the film:

"From the use of plants as medicine to the impact of environmental toxins on human reproduction—Numen is a beautiful and thought-provoking film that explores the deep relationship that exists between nature and human health. Weaving history, ecology, and modern pharmacy with the very essence of what it means to heal, this visually stunning film should be part of all medical, nursing and pharmacy training programs and/or libraries."

You can purchase your own copy of the DVD and purchase the rights to have a showing in your community.

Botanica Poetica – Herbs in Verse

by Sylvia Seroussi Chatroux, M.D.

Published by Poetica Press toll free 1-877-POETICA


This is a wonderful book that every herbalist should have in their library. Chatroux offers a short poem for 111 herbs, from aloe to yerba santa. Each one describes most of the properties and uses for each herb in a fun and memorable way. I believe that it is important for healers to maintain their aesthetic sensitivity through the arts, be it music, writing, painting, sculpture, or poetry. Inspiration and creativity is always in play when we are working with patients. While we may be inspired when encountering herbs in nature, a lot of that is dulled by hours of research, study and computer work. This book offers the opportunity to combine both learning and artistic inspiration. True "poetry" may be too eloquent a description of what is contained in this book; I think they could be better described as "useful doggerel."

Here’s a sample:


If you go out to the Battlefield

As in the days of old

Put Yarrow in your knapsack

It’s worth weight in gold

Yarrow for your bleeding wound

A poultice for your knee

Or for a painless hemorrhage

You’ll want to drink the tea

For diaphoresis it’s the King

The stem, the leaf, the flower

Reduce your fever, sweat full fling

We’re talking Yarrow power!

Achillea Millefolium

An astringent disinfectant

A urinary healer

Hemostatic and protectant

It’s an aromatic bitter

If you lose your appetite

Have spasmodic ailments

Or your tummy is uptight

If it’s good enough for Achilles

Of Greek mythology

To stop his bleeding wounds

Why, it’s good enough for me!

Doesn’t that say nearly all? Think of a Western herb and you quite likely will find it in this little book. At only $18 plus $3 postage it will make a wonderful stocking stuffer for yourself or for that herbalist among your friends and family.

Incidentally, Chinese doctors trained in the old ways were known as "singing doctors" and learned their material medica via songs and poetry. I always liked that idea and here it is created for Western herbalists by Sylvia Seroussi Chatroux, M.D, physician-herbalist, mother of two daughter and with a family medical practice in Ashland, Oregon. Chatroux also has written books in a similar vein: Medica Poetica: Malady in Verse and Materia Poetica: Homeopathy in Verse. I like them all very much.

Grace of Necessity

by Samuel Green

Carnegie Mellon University Press

Toll Free: 1-800-421-1561

I first heard of poet Sam Green when Lesley and I visited the composer Alex Shapiro on San Juan Island. Another truly great composer and resident of both Waldron and San Juan islands off the coast of Washington State, Morten Lauridsen is the composer of one of the greatest choral works of our time, the sublime Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light). At a public screening of a film about Lauridsen and his music, he gave a talk describing his love of poetry and mentioned Washington state poet laureate Sam Green who happens to be his friend and neighbor. I became curious about Sam’s poetry and upon reading it, some of it clicked very profoundly as a poem should, when you find the words echoing deep in your heart.

My favorite book of Green’s is his most recent one, entitled The Grace of Necessity published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Inevitably, most of us arrive at that time in one’s life when we become more acutely aware of death, first of parents’, our own, and others’. I think it is within our imagination to sometimes be able to make of death something of beauty. The first group of poems in this beautiful collection is entitled "In the Dark’" and I think more times than not, it does capture the poignant beauty of the final passing. The second group is Sam’s wonderful "Postcard Poems" which is a challenge he made to compose a poem each day, with no editing, on a postcard which he then sent to a friend. Here is Sam Green reading some of his postcard poems:


Here is one of my favorite poems in the book:


Miserere: That We Might Keep Her Present Among Us

For Taryn Hoover


Now, when the apples she might have picked against winter

are falling, let us recall her, let us pick them & eat.


Let us recall her as the leaves start their turning,

as seed pods of maples spin & drift in the fickle wind.


As long vowels of rain spill from the sky’s dark sack,

let us bring her back – not as a burden,


no knapsack of grief that will bend us –

But a velvet presence come from the spun cocoon of pain.


Let us recall her because we can, it is easy, the memory

collective, each story shared like bread, elemental as salt.


Let the stories gather as tiny birds

add themselves one & one to the flock,


their small throats gathering the One

Great Song that is more than themselves alone.


Now in the shortening days when light unbraids

too early, let us astonish each other


with love, as though, through us, we channel her desire.

Let us summon her here that she be present


among us, because the true burden is absence

because joy, O my neighbors,


can be grafted to loss and bring fruit everbearing.


                                                            so that


though there is grieving,

there is never true separation, never a leaving.


You can also buy Grace of Necessity on Amazon.




My son turned me onto this app, and many of you undoubtedly must use it already. Spotify makes the music of the world available to everyone either for free or with a modest monthly subscription.


If you feel a bit melancholy and want to resonate with a piece of music, get a copy of the translation of Goethe’s poem Aber Abseits Wer Ist’s? and follow it as you listen to the comforting angelic voice of the late but unforgettable Kathleen Ferrier as she sings Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7S162WFNI8

You might also enjoy Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde also sung by Kathleen Ferrier: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUgEd2oTs80

Premio-10 Electro-Moxa

I’m a great advocate of moxibustion in my clinic. While acupuncture with needles basically moves existing Qi in the body, moxa  which uses heat from the burning fluff of the mugwort plant not only moves Qi but puts energy into the meridians. Because it doesn’t puncture the body, it is a technique that herbalists can learn to administer to their clients directly, usually providing more immediate and sustaining results than can be expected from herbs alone. The two modalities together are highly complementary and will greatly enhance one’s practice.

Premio-10 is an electro-moxa tool that generates the same far infrared heat as moxa herb without any of the negative aspects associated with its use. 

At $1200, Premio-10 is a wonderful business expense that will greatly enhance your clinical practice.

It is available from LHASA Oriental Medical Supplies at http://www.lhasaoms.com/Premio-10-Moxa.html

You may need to find a licensed acupuncturist to purchase it for you.


I'm in Fort Worth right now, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. As a classical pianist, the opportunity to attend the Van Cliburn is akin to being able to attend a Super Bowl playoff. It's especially a kick for me, because one of the contenders happened to be my son, Chetan Tierra, who was specially selected and auditioned from a worldwide pool of over 1,000 very talented young men and women. Despite being a favorite of the Dallas Star's classical music critic and many of the audience, Chetan did not advance to the semifinals. The fact is, at such a prestigious, well funded and expertly organized event, all the contenders were among the best and most talented young pianists in the world today, and it's a significant accomplishment to just be one of the competitors.

At the time of this writing, the Van Cliburn is in its final rounds with playoffs by the six finalists consisting of a 50-minute solo recital and two major concerto performances with orchestra. At least from my perspective, having met many of the avid Cliburn patrons, this is one of the most anticipated cultural events of this wonderful city. Many have assiduously followed the event, which has taken place every four years since its inception in 1962.

The competition is held in honor of Fort Worth's very own esteemed resident Van Cliburn, who, at the age of 23, played the Tchaikovsky concerto at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 -- and won. Unintentionally, this put a chink of human warmth in the midst of the Cold War deadlock between Russia and the United States, which portended mutual annihilation at that time. Van Cliburn, then a tall, lanky red-headed boy from Texas, instantly became the beloved of both the American and Russian people. His win was no mean feat in the eyes of the Russians, who could not imagine that anyone who was not Russian could give a more powerfully passionate performance of Tchaikovsky's iconic piece than one of their own.

Allow me to heartily recommend that you tune into the Van Cliburn website where you can watch incredible performances by Chetan and the other competitors.


As much as I am a musician, I am also an herbalist, so plants can never be too far from my range of experience, wherever I may be. To wit: I visited Fort Worth's Botanical Research Institute of Texas (also known as "The BRIT"), which I learned was the country's 10th-largest herbarium and the repository of over a million dried plant specimens in special storage cabinets dating as far back as 1741.

Few people who may have enjoyed pressing a favorite flower in a book or with guidance using a plant press in childhood, may ever have imagined that there exist multifloor herbaria dedicated to collecting and maintaining such fragments, along with information about the collector, the date and time of collection, and so forth.

The obvious question is: What purpose do these herbaria serve, especially in the 21st century age of information? Our guide, botanist Triana Franklin, said that such institutions as the BRIT serve many research-related functions, including charting the changing ecology of different regions and having an actual dried specimen of a plant that can be referred to in various botanical research projects involved with plant taxonomy, geographic distribution, and the standardizing of plant nomenclature.

In fact, most universities maintain herbariums. The most notable ones in the United States are the Gray Herbarium at Harvard and those at the U.S. National Museum (of the Smithsonian Institution) and at the New York and Missouri botanical gardens.

The herbarium at the BRIT has particular strengths in the plants of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, and all of the Gulf Coast and southeastern United States. However, its collections are also worldwide in scope, and most of the Earth's plant families are represented here with special collections of plants from the Phillipines and New Guinea.

One of the distinctions of the BRIT herbarium is that it has one of the largest collections of plants in the Asteraceae (formerly Compositae) family. In common parlance, these are plants with ray-like flowers. From daisies to sunflowers to dandelions, this is one of the most ubiquitous plant families and is responsible for a certain percentage of allergic reactions. According to the curators of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, the Asteraceae family comprises more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 species, enough to fill a modest herbarium, but not enough to fill the mighty BRIT.

Sorting at the BRITWe visited the room where new plant specimens are sent in daily and are handled and catalogued by volunteers specially trained by the national Master Gardener Program or the Texas Master Naturalist Program. Individuals participating in these programs volunteer their services a the BRIT Herbarium for credit, making it particularly useful when weather does not permit them to be exploring outside.

Plants are pressed, dried and catalogued by volunteers, ideally following what the herbarium hopes might one day be a standardized catalogue methodology. However, with the recent taxonomic reclassification that is going on as a result of DNA typing, the task of not only renaming but recataloguing bits and pieces of dried and pressed plant material dating back over 400 years is bound to remain an herbarium's distant dream for many years to come. Displaying all their respective parts (leaves, stalk, flowers and root), plants are laid out and pressed on non-acidic paper or fastened by special glue strips that will not degrade the plant material. Also recorded and preserved with the plant specimen are the standard Latin binomial genus and species names, plus the name, names or initials of those individuals who assigned the name to the plant.

For both edification and fun, check out the following page on the taxonomy of echinacea to find out just how complex plant taxonomy can be.

(Pictures above from http://www.brit.org/herbarium/.)

Herbal pharmacy beetleAnd Pests!

For what it's worth, particularly to my fellow herbalist colleagues and students, I finally got to identify one of the most common insect pests that have been a nuisance at my herb pharmacy for years. Unsurprisingly, it also plagues herbaria and is aptly named the "herbarium beetle" or "cigarette beetle" (Lasioderma serricorne; Coleoptera, Anobiidae). I think we can also safely call it the "herbal pharmacy beetle."

I also found out that the herbaria practice the same method of extermination as I do. Not wanting to discard plant specimens that are hundreds of years old, herbarium staff simply place them into a -40 degrees F freezer for four days, shake off and discard the dead beetles, and return the plant to its proper shelf location. For a more up close and personal description of this little harmless critter which may actually be one of the best natural sources of B12 and other nutrients (I know you avid vegetarians and vegans will love that!) go here.

Fort Worth also has several wonderful museums including the Modern Art Museum, Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum, all very worth a visit. Fort Worth also has a beautiful botanical garden. Triana and the staff of the BRIT Herbarium are anxiously awaiting with a mixture of anticipation and some dread (at the work involved), a move away from the busy financial district to a location appropriately adjoining the botanical garden.

Visit the BRIT's website here or drop by for a visit the next time you're in Fort Worth.

Herbalist Michael MooreMichael Moore, the great Southwestern herbalist of North America, left his earthly dwelling for other realms on Friday, Feb. 20, 2009. Michael leaves us a rich legacy of herbal knowledge and wisdom, the fruit of over 40 years of his passionate explorations of the fundamental healing relationship between plants, the earth and humankind. 

I had first heard of Michael around 1967 when he and I were involved with the avant-garde music scene at UCLA. At the time, Michael was an accomplished symphonic trumpet player. True to his nature as one attracted to the more esoteric fringe aspect of any endeavor, Michael was not content to simply occupy a life chair in a symphony. Instead, he was well known as the unconventional musician who was open and willing to explore exciting new musical languages and artistic experiences. 

It just so happens that when we had our first brief encounter at a rustic outdoor summer fair in Topanga Canyon between Malibu Beach and San Bernardino in Los Angeles, Michael was already involved in another fringe movement: herbal medicine.  

At the time I was identified with the artistic beat culture and living in Venice West. I must confess, herbs and herbal medicine had not even occurred to me when I happened into a quaint herb stall at the fair. Herbs hung to dry from the eaves and various homemade potions, lotions and ointments were priced to sell. For some strange reason I was drawn into this medieval-looking tableau and was taken a little aback to see a large man with a shaggy beard sitting behind a counter, looking more like an LA biker than ye olde herbalist of yore. We shared the look of the 'beat outlaw,' and as such we should have been kindred spirits, so to speak; yet, his eyes were fixed menacingly on me.

I never understood why until years later, when Michael explained that he remembered my wandering into his booth and that he was sure I had pilfered one of his herbal extracts. Well, in those days I might have, but hardly from him -- I was still in my 'rebel without a cause/Robin Hood' period and I would hardly have stolen anything from someone who looked as disheveled as he did. I also distinctly remember that Michael was eager to tell people the then-revolutionary idea that herbs could heal body and soul, but few believed him, and it didn't appear that he did much business.  Given the social climate for herbs and my own ignorance at the time, I half jokingly reassured Michael, when we became respected herbal colleagues much later, that I owed him no debt from that day at the fair.

In retrospect, what I get from that brief encounter was that Michael Moore was pursuing his passionate affair with herbs before I or most anyone knew there even was such a thing (except, of course, for the herb).  Years later we met again at a number of seminars and I visited his store Herbs Etcetera in Santa Fe. At the time he was teamed up with another giant man, Stuart Watts. Stuart and I were part of the first group of North American acupuncturists who went to China in the '70s specifically to study Chinese herbal medicine, which was then pretty much unknown among non-Chinese in the West.

I remember how much Michael and Stuart resembled each other in stature but also in the incongruity of their appearance as healers. As I mentioned in my first impression of Michael above, you could easily have mistaken these two as members of a biker gang. The fact was, they were both at the top of their game. Michael was never much of a business man. Like the rest of us, he didn't get involved with herbal medicine to get rich but was able to preach the gospel of herbs to anyone he encountered. From the beginning we were both dedicated to plying our herbal potions on those suffering from various ailments, who for a number of very good reasons found conventional Western medicine unsatisfactory. Michael mainly wanted to sell enough so he could continue his passion, which was to go either alone or with a small number of adventurous students on his herbal forays through the mountains, deserts, forests and canyons west of the Rocky Mountains.  This was a perfect calling for Michael Moore, for various reasons.

You see, back in the '70s (and even continuing up to the present day somewhat,) the extent of our knowledge of North American herbs might have been summed up with ginseng, goldenseal, sassafras and sarsaparilla, which grow east of the Rockies. This part of the United States was first to be settled, and it was settled at a time when there was a still a keen interest in herbs as healing agents both here and in Europe. In those days there was a lively exchange of information and many Eastern seaboard medicinal herbs were shipped off to be integrated into European medicine.  The Chinese, hearing that wild ginseng was available, literally imported tons from Eastern forests so that the 'seng' trade rivaled the trade in furs and other wild products.

By the time the Westward expansion began to occur, interest in herbs - at least new herbs - was on the wane, and Native Americans, seeing how brutally their Eastern brethren were treated, became more and more reluctant to tell white settlers about the use of their native plants. So by the North American herbal renaissance in the mid-20th century, we herbalists knew little or nothing about native herbs west of the Rockies.

Enter Michael Moore, a man whose aerophobia kept him close to his Southwestern home base, and who loved to get in his truck and drive to remote areas of the West to learn, teach and harvest herbs for his homemade potions. Michael educated himself from whatever scientific literature was available, usually from "journals, sources and research outside the United States," as he states in the introduction to his Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. He expresses this frustration of not being able to find similar literature in his own country in one of his usual rants against the 'establishment': "We are able to develop and finance BIG medicines; we have no method of developing and financing little medicines (like herbs)," in contrast to countries like China and India, for instance.  

Michael describes our being embroiled in a "grim, desperate, multi-billion-dollar mud-wrestling match between the public sector (the Food and Drug Administration) and the private sector (the pharmaceutical/medical/hospital industry)."  He lays the problem out clearly, pointing out that the initial cost of $50 million is what it takes to bring a drug to market, meaning that no less than a million people a day have to take the new drug to justify its cost. It's hardly any different today than it was in 1989 when this book was first published, except to say that the figure is probably much, much bigger.

Michael goes on to say that at the time of his writing, medicine was our biggest industry, bigger than the Pentagon, costing us 10 percent of our Gross National Product.  That was then; today not only is medicine still our biggest industry, but its cost has grown to 17% of our gross National Product, according the National Coalition on Health Care. Is it any wonder that in these times of deep recession we read in the news about how herb and supplement sales are up?

No herbal reference library should be considered complete without Michael Moore's three major books, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, and Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. The first two are published by the Museum of New Mexico Press and the last by Red Crane Books.  These are universally regarded as classics by the majority of herbalists throughout the world, not only for their practical descriptions of in-the-field, hands-on use of the herbs Michael selected, but also for his inimitable 'Kerouacian' witty writing style that makes his herb books a very special experience to read (a talent of which the rest of us who have written herb books can only be envious). Here is a link to all of his published books and clinical manuals.

In contrast to the lucid communication provided by his books, Michael had an eccentric, difficult to understand stream-of-consciousness style of teaching. He seemed to have such a uniquely consummate understanding of Western biochemistry and physiology that he couldn't help but weave us dizzyingly through a labyrinth of complex scientific terminology and interrelationships in class. Few could follow him and still come out the other side; I know I couldn't. But I could understand enough to know that Michael espoused a vision of holistic interconnectedness expressed in scientific terminology that completely jived with my traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic models.  It may have been tough for us to hang on to Michael's train of thought in a workshop or classroom situation, but this never diminished one iota my deep respect for him, whom I consider another one of those misunderstood geniuses.

For a while I wanted to engage Michael in a discussion comparing Chinese and Ayurvedic energetic herbal medicine with what I mostly suspected was Michael's version of the same in Western biochemistry and physiology. Knowing this, he approached me with his intention to formulate a constitutional model of the human body based on Western physiology. We co-taught one class together on this. In the end, I'm not sure either of us nor any of the participants got anything from the experiment, but it is worth knowing that we tried and that this is now increasingly becoming a powerful direction in which to carry Planetary Herbology in the future.

I do know that despite his gruff appearance, Michael was a true gentleman. He was always too cognizant of his own personal shortcomings to hold anything against others he would encounter.  I think the concept of the personal hamartia (the tragic flaw that ultimately brings down the hero that the audience perceives but the hero does not) didn't apply to Michael, whose self-awareness made him the kind of teacher and healer who would have to say in so many words, "Do as I say but not as I do."  All of us have our personal limitations that we must struggle with through life. In Michael's case these do not in the slightest tarnish the contribution he has made to herbalism now and as far as it will extend into the future. 

Dioscorides, the famous Greek physician who served as a field doctor to Roman legions during the reign of Nero, discovered and chronicled the medical use of over 600 plants found throughout different regions of the known Western world. His herbal served as the most indispensible one of its kind for over 1,500 years through the Middle Ages. In a similar way, Michael Moore's three books on the medicinal uses of herbs west of the Rocky Mountains will remain as the quintessential source reference for this area for many years to come.

But back to the burly, bearded, avant-garde musician-herbalist at the fair.

I have noticed that for the most part, herbalists in all cultures are also artists, musicians or poets. There is an appreciation for aesthetics and things beautiful and creative that I think underlies one's attraction to the use of plants as medicine.  As Michael says, "There are no fixed methods to apply to the human predicament, there is no single all-pervasive rule to follow, since medicine is not a science but an art."

No matter how deeply one studies and enters into the complexity of healing, plant biochemistry and so on (and I happen to agree with Michael that one should go deeply into these things), nevertheless there is always place for the irrational and the subjective. The poet's perspective of life, the musician's sense of harmony, the artist's eye of proportion and relationships - these are all shared by healers, especially the herbal healer who works with plants, which are the pure creative expression of nature and the healing process.

Michael was an extraordinary musician. Music is something that he and I shared in a special way. I was honored when at a symposium he presented me with a gift of two CDs which were the recordings of his beautiful orchestral works.  After I learned of his passing, I went to find these CDs and play them in his honor. For whatever reason, they would not play. I was so happy to see that these recordings, along with his teaching manuals, scans of valuable medical Eclectic books, and other precious herb-related materials, are all freely available to enjoy online.  

We are so blessed to have this kind of access to Michael's herbal and artistic treasures, which he always so graciously shared. Personally I think this says volumes about the kind of man Michael Moore was: at the core of his being, he was a man of genius, deep caring and generosity.

Note: Michael's generosity does not leave a whole lot to pay for his enormous medical bills and support his beloved wife, Donna. It is important that we give back some of what we received from the life work of Michael Moore and all that he has done for the herbal renaissance of North America. Donations can be made out to The Bountiful Alliance and sent to: Catherine Mackenzie, 457 East Riverside Dr., Truth or Consequences, NM, 87901. The Bountiful Alliance is a 501 C-3 non-profit organization and is able to issue receipts for tax purposes.

Please consider attending this April 17-19, 2009, event in Truth or Consequences, NM. Originally coordinated to help raise funds for Michael's medical expenses, now it will be not only a fine educational event but also a celebration of this great herbalist's life and legacy.

Been to a piano recital lately?

Thanks to the dedication of the impresarios at the UCSC Arts and Lecture Series and the indefatigable John Orlando of Cabrillo College's Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series, I attended exquisite back-to-back piano recitals by Valentina Lisitsa and Halida Dinova in Santa Cruz last weekend.

And before you say, "Oh boy, a piano recital - how boring," let me tell you that judging by the near sold-out shows at the UCSC Concert Hall and the Cabrillo College auditorium on both evenings, I would say that more than just the intelligentsia are responsive to the kind of intimate entertainment experience wonderful classical piano recitals like these can be.

But let me tell you about the performances.

Ukrainian-born Lisitsa and Russian-born Dinova were born and trained in Eastern Europe and are therefore strongly influenced by the highest standards of renowned Russian pianism dating back to Anton Rubinstein during the late 19th century. Despite the background they share, they are very different artists.

Valentina LisitsaValentina Lisitsa

Valentina Lisitsa, with her long blond hair, black gown and finely muscled white arms, looked and sounded like the quintessential bravura pianist. Boasting a big rich sound, she hardly dropped a note as she exploded into the opening salvo of the riveting Rachmaninoff Etude Tableau Op. 39, No. 6. This was followed by a group of the more popular Preludes, including the wistful G Major of Op. 38 and the martial G minor of Op. 23 with its typically 'Rachmaninoffian' dreamy middle section. (Coincidentally, this pairing of G Major and G minor Preludes was unwittingly programmed by both pianists. Both were wonderfully played. It is a matter of taste as to which one might prefer, but I was partial to the more lucid transparency of Halida's interpretation of these.)

Lisitsa's powerful performance of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata Op. 53 left the audience bedazzled; at intermission, we walked around the lobby praising her commanding technique and musicality.

Schumann's Kinderszenen (Children's Scenes), Op. 15 was a welcome contrast after a moody and tempestuous first half. Kinderszenen consist of 12 short reflections by a grown man looking back on childhood, concluded by a poetic 13th apotheosis entitled Der Dichter Spricht (The Poet Speaks). I always appreciate program notes when they contain not only the history of a piece but also the seldomly included performer's views on it. Lisitsa's personally written and unconventional program notes pointed out that Schumann composed these somewhat idyllic childhood scenes between 1840-44, when he was not quite 34 years of age, at the very beginning of his marriage with the great pianist, Clara Wieck. Because he was just beginning a brood that was to grow to seven children, Lisitsa reasons, Schumann could hardly craft more realistic children's scenes of 'whining' and 'tantrums.' She also observes how the composer's famous Träumerei (Dreaming) "is ten times longer than any kid, even a very dreamy one, could sit still through."

Lisitsa is an elegant, colorful and commanding pianist who is unlikely to miss an opportunity to show off her 'chops.' Very occasionally in this program, the performance became more about its star than the music, which could lead to interpretive problems. This occurred during Schumann's more up-tempo pieces, such as No. 3, Hasche-Mann (Blind Man's Bluff) or No.9,  Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse), which she tended to play too fast and too showily. However, Lisitsa should be commended for having learned the important lesson of how to add more star power and entertainment to what might be, for other artists, too often a pedantic and boring classical piano recital.

Adding to her already formidable list of talents, she is equipped with a photographic memory, which any pianist would envy. To my ears, she hardly dropped a note, and even if she did, the playing was so committed that no one in their right (that is, receptive) mind would care.

She appropriately concluded her program with two sizzling pot boilers of 19th-century golden age of pianism: the seldom heard Grande fantaisie sur le Barbier de Séville, Opéra de Rossini, Op. 63 by the Swiss virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg; and then for her finale, the equally seldom heard, bombastically indulgent solo version of Liszt's Totentanz (Dance of Death). Both of these she pulled off with full virtuosic aplomb.

Halida DinovaHalida Dinova

Halida's Dinova's program, on the other hand, also armed with a formidable Russian technique, offered a more introspective performance. I was absolutely enthralled with her opening performance of J.S. Bach's Italian Concerto especially when she hit her stride in the meditative second movement, which she performed with tender sensitivity; she sounded the very epitome of grace and compassion as her right hand played a long, slow line that could only be the musical counterpart of a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Her ebullient rendering of the last movement, with the dazzling virtuosic concertati-styled alternation of loud and soft passages, played appropriately con brio, launched the program on a high note that she sustained throughout.

At this point, Dinova diverged from the more piano competition-styled repertoire she had originally planned, performing instead an uninterrupted series of popular piano treasures beginning with Schubert A-flat Impromptu Op. 90, No. 4, with its gentle cascading fountains of arpeggios. This was followed by a very different A-flat piece, Chopin's heroic Polonaise Op. 53, whose slower section reflected the melodic theme in the opening Italian Concerto. From there we were led to Mendelssohn's nymph-like E minor Scherzo, reminiscent of his A Midsummer Night's Dream overture.

I enjoyed Dinova's performance of these miniatures and found them to be a relief from some of the more pedantic fare of some recitals. However, nowadays performing pieces such as these can be risky, considering the abundance of unshakeable opinions as to how they should really sound (meaning how a listener is used to hearing them played). So, stepping forth with my own pedantry, I would say that Dinova made the romantic Felix Mendelssohn sound more like an 18th-century sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, which some might argue was played a bit too fast. There was also a slight aesthetic clash stemming from an attempt to play Liszt's interpretive arrangement of Schubert's Auf Dem Wasser Zu Singen (On the Water), as the opening seemed too refined and transparent compared to the denser virtuosic musical textures toward the end of these pieces.

Her performance of Clair De Lune by Debussy on such a gentle moonlit Santa Cruz evening met with sighs of approval from solitary members of the audience. Perhaps, like myself, they felt transported to another world of musical enchantment, imagining the full moon over our beautiful nearby Monterey Bay.  

I like to think that all these crowd pleasers were deftly employed to prepare the audience to better appreciate the highlight of Dinova's Saturday program, the U.S. premiere of Santa Cruz's own Josef Sekon's Dodecafonically for Solo Piano. Sekon's piece is based on his wife Maria Davico's poem, Dodecafonicamente (meaning 12-tone). Before the music, the poem was read with a beautiful sense of cadence in its original Portuguese by a native speaker, followed by an English translation read by John Orlando.

Dodecafonically was played with Dinova's penchant for refined sensitivity from score. Much to my delight, no one seemed to mind its appropriate 12-tone atonality. I think bouncing off the atmosphere of Clair de Lune, the audience was able to understand the beautifully expressionistic atmosphere of the piece. Could this mean that some 50 years later, audiences are finally catching up with the language of atonality used by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, at last able to appreciate the heightened expression that the best of  music can achieve?

Having personally received the score many months previous, I must confess that I could barely make sense of its overall expression. Saturday evening's performance pointed out the role of an artist-interpreter of Dinova's depth to bring forth the expressive possibilities of such a work. One would hope that she will include it in her future programs and possibly produce a recording.

As a pianist and sometimes composer, I know how difficult it is to compose an original piano piece. Somehow, our fingers seem preprogrammed to fall into well worn, predestined grooves.  Two years in the making, Sekon's piece wasenthusiastically received, hopefully sending it on its way to ongoing appreciation in other concert venues. This single piece can establish the otherwise obscure and under-appreciated Sekon, who has taught composition for years at Cabrillo College, as a major Santa Cruz composer. I hope Dodecafonically and future compositions by Sekon will achieve the acclaim they deserve worldwide.

I think it would be a trite disservice to indulge in comparisons between Lisitsa's concert on Friday evening and Dinova's on Saturday. Both received a much deserved standing ovation, but special recognition should go to Dinova for her artful programming of a U.S. premiere of a local composer's work, particularly one written in an atonal style that usually doesn't mesh with the kind of audience who comes to hear a Chopin Polonaise or Debussy Clair De Lune. In the end, it worked. This gave Dinova's program an edge over Lisitsa's, which is not to reflect on the excellent pianism of both. Furthermore, Dinova, who premiered the hauntingly beautiful and powerful piano concerto called Shadow of the Swan written for her by the late great Dennis Eberhard (another important American composer whom we have thus far not heard at any of our contemporary Santa Cruz musical venues), clearly deserves special musical importance as an Eastern European pianist with a stated interest in contemporary American composers.

Two piano recitals back to back in one weekend, both wonderful in their own ways, not only drew large numbers of patrons, but also shared one quarter of the audience on both nights. Both performances represented an innovation over the usual kind of museum- and competition-styled programs, choosing instead to show that a piano recital, and indeed any classical program, is first and foremost, entertainment. Liszt, Thalberg, and other old masters and performing artists of the 19th century never forgot that fact when they performed.

The early 20th-century propensity toward an authentic representation of a work or a composer used to be something one 'studied' at school, but the act of performing this music was a satisfying entertainment event and involved featuring a solo pianist who was joined on some pieces by other notable colleagues. Imagine a concert starring Andra Schiff, during which he would be joined on a multiple piano piece by Murray Perahia, Lang Lang and Garick Ohlson, perhaps even adding a famous singer or violinist to the mix. This was the way that much 19th century music was programmed. Who wouldn't want to go to such a musical event?

Taking a page from the diverse programming and showmanship of the 19th century, Dinova featured a little known local composer, greatly enhancing the interest of her program. There are plenty of wonderful underplayed composers everywhere, perhaps not of Sekon's caliber, but leave that to the audience to decide. No musical program should be offered without consideration of featuring an original new work or something else of 'extra' musical interest. With directors trying to find ways to stimulate greater patronage of worthy classical venues, there must be a renewed effort at matters of innovative staging, presentation and programming.

Dinova and Lisitsa's performances last weekend in Santa Cruz show that the age of the piano recital is definitely not over. They do, however, show us that directors need to find more daring and original ways to enhance the 'entertainment' value of our classical concerts, while music lovers might consider broadening their sonic horizons.

Experience a little of the artistry of Valentina Lisitsa at her official website:


and on Youtube here:


Don't miss Halida Dinova at:




The third copy of
When the little bluebird
Who has never said a word
Starts to sing Spring
When the little bluebell
At the bottom of the dell
Starts to ring Ding dong Ding dong
When the little blue clerk
In the middle of his work
Starts a tune to the moon up above
It is nature that is all
Simply telling us to fall in love.

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love!

--  from "Let's Do It" by Cole Porter

The lyrics above and sprinkled throughout this text are from the wonderful collection of tastefully uninhibited Cole Porter songs performed by some of the greatest artists of bygone years, entitled "The Cole Porter Songbook."

If love and romance were meant only for Valentine's Day, all our babies would be born in November. Luckily, amore is in season all year long!
Sex, like eating, is a primal urge that should provide some of the greatest satisfaction and joy that life has to offer.

No one knows the true origin of Valentine's Day. Legend has it that St. Valentine was a third-century priest imprisoned by the Romans for secretly marrying young men who would otherwise have been prime candidates for military conscription under the reign of Emperor Claudius II. As for the Valentine's Day cards we exchange, another legend was that when St. Valentine was imprisoned he became enamored with his jailer's daughter and sent her love notes.

Alternatively, Valentine's Day could simply be the product of the church conveniently designating a holiday to coincide with a Roman fertility festival honoring Faunus, the Roman God of agriculture (February 15). Whatever the origin, by the Middle Ages, Valentine's Day was one of the most popular celebrations throughout Europe.

Let's Do It! (Or Maybe Not?): Sexual Taboos

Have you ever wondered why throughout civilization there have been so many sexual taboos? Could it be that the many creative expressions of humanity happen, more or less as a result of sexual repression?

If truth be known, most of us have had reason to lament the fact that just as we try to restrain, twist and contort our gustatory inclinations to deny ourselves the occasional banana split or chocolate sundae, we also try in vain to repress our eroticism. No wonder so many of us are depressed.

When grandmama whose age is eighty, in night clubs is getting matey with gigolos, anything goes!
-- from "Anything Goes" sung by Ella Fitzgerald

"Old" age is just one supposed restriction to enjoying sex.

Not so for the 70,000 residents living in some 40,000 homes who are spending their '˜golden years' at a retirement community called "The Villages" at Lady Lake, Fla. According to a recent article in Fox News, these folks are not wasting any more of their precious time in erotic self-denial. With a female to male ratio of 10 to one, it is a virtual widower's paradise where inhibitions are shed at the slightest inclination. It's not unusual to stumble upon a casual amorous encounter happening on a golf cart. Rumor has it that there is a very active black market in Viagra both for men and women at The Villages. Why not? With families raised, no need for contraception, and obligations and responsibilities to a significant other a thing of the past, I think these people are just making up for lost time.

Do we ever get too old to partake of the joy of sex? For most of us, the answer is NO. Armed with little more than some lubricant (or, in the case of folks at The Villages, an occasional half tab of black market Viagra), most of us remain good to go all the way to the end of our days. So long as we have an appetite for food, we should have an appetite for sex.

We're all alone, no chaperone
can get our number
The world's in slumber
Let's misbehave!!

-- from "Let's Misbehave" sung by Eartha Kitt

Unsurprisingly, religion and spiritual practice present sexual taboos as well.

As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I've had various opportunities to consider the Chinese Taoist teaching that is the bane of women married to too-serious martial artists: that the male should never ejaculate for fear of losing some precious life essence. In my opinion, this is just another form of invasion of the bedroom by a restrictive society. We see evidence in some species that male energy spent as ejaculation is a prelude to death, but for humans, current scientific research shows that sex promotes health.

Let's face it: we only live once. As an herbalist, I suggest that the best aphrodisiac is when we reserve sex as the last frontier of our essential wildness. As long as it's between consenting adults, let's get the government, along with the clerics, hypocritical moralists, and ascetic martial artists out of our bedrooms - or wherever else you choose to "misbehave."

Causes for Low Libido

Just as decreased appetite is an indication of disease or impending illness, so also is a sagging libido. Nowadays, doctors not only don't inquire about a patient's appetite, but they wouldn't dare ask about one's libido. For most of us, a good appetite in all departments is a sign of wellbeing. So if that's you, perhaps you have something to rejoice about.

There are some physiological reasons for low libido. Certainly as we get on in years (despite what you might hear about some of the residents at The Villages), we can expect things to slow down as our hormones diminish. In Chinese medicine these hormones are all encompassed by the concept of Kidney Yang and Kidney Yin with herbs specifically indicated for each. Specifically, the Kidney Yang herbs support the production of all those hormones that increase our motivation in all ways, including sexual appetite. These include testosterone, estrogen, and the androgynous hormones that are necessary and present in varying degrees in both men and women.

One Kidney Yang herb used in Chinese medicine is Epimedium, aptly known as Horny Goatweed. Lesley describes this herb in her blog. I would only add that this is a common ornamental that can be purchased at most nurseries. One can periodically harvest the leaves; make tea or an alcoholic extract by macerating a good amount in a little vodka. This can then be taken in teaspoon doses once or twice a day.

The fact is, unless there are other physical disabilities such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, there is no age limit for the world's number one pastime.

Side-effects of prescription drugs

Drugs are a major factor causing loss of libido. For example, the popular drug Proscar is commonly prescribed for Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) - swollen prostate in common parlance. BPH usually does not occur before the age of 40, but approximately 50% of men in their 60s and 90% of men in their 90s develop this condition. It is characterized by the frequent urge to urinate, which can result in arising several times throughout the night.

Proscar and related pharmaceuticals treat BPH by altering testosterone metabolism, which in turn shrinks the swollen prostate. The drug's effect on testosterone metabolism, however, can cause diminished libido and erectile dysfunction. You could try having a "drug holiday" on weekends - that is, taking a break from your BPH drug for a couple of days - but it isn't clear if this would restore a man's sex drive. An option would be to ask your doctor whether a lower dose might solve the libido problem and still manage the prostate swelling.

So it seems that if you're suffering from BPH, you have to choose between frequent urination with normal erectile function, or a normal-sized prostate with problems getting going in the sack. What kind of a choice is that? The good news is, there are some natural alternatives to prescription drugs for BPH:

  • Saw Palmetto Berries: Extensive European research on saw palmetto, a common berry found growing in abundance in southeast United States shows that saw palmetto is equally effective to Proscar but is not known to diminish libido, cause erectile dysfunction or any other side effects associated with the drug. Just as Proscar needs to be taken over a period of two to three months to effectively shrink the prostate, so too does saw palmetto need to be taken over time (usually not nearly as long as Proscar) to achieve similar positive results. Saw palmetto comes in the form of a standardized extract of 80- 90% fatty acids and is taken at the dose of 160 mg twice a day or 320 mg daily.
  • Pumpkin Seeds: Eating a handful of shelled pumpkin seeds three times a week, or better yet daily, is an old time remedy for treating BPH. These contain protective compounds called phytosterols which may be responsible for shrinking the prostate. Like all prostate drugs and herbs these work by preventing the transformation of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). High levels of DHT are associated with enlarged prostate. Pumpkin seeds have this action as well, but with no danger of loss of libido.
  • Other approaches such as a low-fat diet, zinc supplements, and essential fatty acids (from sources such as fish or flax oil) and another herb, Pygeum africanum, are also useful for treating BPH.

Statin drugs and loss of libido

Millions of people in North America are presently on statin drugs making it the number one cash cow for pharmaceutical companies, but few read the small print of adverse side effects, one of which can be loss of libido. This is because statins interfere with our body's ability to create cholesterol and can cause a decrease of sex hormones with a concomitant dampening of Eros.

There is considerable controversy regarding the relation of elevated cholesterol and cardiovascular disease (CVD) because there has been no study demonstrating that high cholesterol causes CVD. In fact, studies show that nearly as many people with so-called normal to low cholesterol die of CVD as those with high cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a hormone precursor that has a strong genetic factor; some people naturally make more or less cholesterol. It is also a substance that the body manufactures as a result of stress. Be that as it may, if one wants to lower cholesterol, instead of taking statin drugs, try red yeast rice which is a more natural alternative with similar chemistry and results. Better yet, it is a far cheaper alternative to statin drugs and will not affect libido. I would still recommend taking a dose of Co Q10 along with the red yeast rice since statins are known to diminish this vital heart nutrient.

If you work out, you're more likely to make out

Finally, it seems like a no-brainer, but I have to mention that lack of physical fitness is another big factor in sexual dysfunction. It's been found that men who exercise regularly (especially with some strength training) rarely have performance problems. That's because exercise generates natural hormones that keep you youthful and able to enjoy sexual health.

What about a natural alternative to Viagra?

Viagra works by enhancing circulation to the penis enabling its erection, and may work in women similarly, by increasing blood flow to the clitoris. L-arginine is an amino acid which in itself is not a cure for impotence or sexual dysfunction, but is used by the body as a vaso-dilator, benefitting circulation and endothelial function. Endothelial cells line the inner surface of blood vessels. Erectile dysfunction and endothelial dysfunction both share the common problem of impaired circulation, for which L-arginine is effective. As such, it is a good supplement to add to an herbal program to enhance sex. The difference is that while Viagra increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, L-arginine decreases these risks and costs just pennies compared to the current market price of $15 a pill for Viagra.

Foods and herbs for enhanced sexual performance

  • Oysters: These are high in zinc which is a necessary nutrient for fertility and male prostate and sexual health. You needn't be too concerned with the fact that oysters have the peculiar ability to change sex many times during their lifespan. They have a high reputation as a sexually nourishing food.
  • Asparagus root: Asparagus, rich in hormone promoting steroidal glycosides, has a high reputation as an aphrodisiac. Both in China and India, the root of Asparagus racemosa is used to increase sperm count and nourish the ovum. Chinese herbalists believe that the Yin-nourishing qualities of asparagus root induce feelings of peace, compassion and love. Traditionally, Chinese herbalists would reserve the sweetest roots for their personal consumption. In India Asparagus root is known as shatavari, which literally means "she who possesses 100 husbands."
  • Oregano: Whether it's used as a spice on pizza or in pasta sauce, oregano leaves may help to spice up one's love life. Homeopathic preparations of oregano are claimed to sexual excitability.
  • Ashwagandha: Withania somnifera is considered the most important single herb in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It is recommended as a rejuvenative tonic for general debility, brain fatigue, nervous exhaustion, impotence, general aphrodisiac purposes, low sperm count and lack of motility, infertility, and to prevent and treat habitual miscarriage. It works by normalizing male and female hormones. The powder can be taken in capsules, as a tablet, or as an alcoholic extract. One Ayurvedic aphrodisiac formula combines one part ashwagandha to 10 parts milk and one part ghee (clarified butter). You boil the mixture down until only ghee remains. This end product is called Ashwagandha Ghrita. The ancient texts recommend taking a heaping tablespoon of this mixture morning and evening. Eventually, one will experience a significant boost in vitality, libido and sexual stamina.
  • Maca: Lepidium meyenii is an annual plant which produces a radish-like root. The root of maca is typically dried and stored, and will easily keep for seven years. The plant is cultivated in Peru's Central Highlands, and was highly revered by the Inca. Sometimes known as Peruvian ginseng, maca's sexual boosting properties for both men and women properties are legendary. When Kris Kilham, an ethnobotanist known as "the medicine hunter" asked a native Peruvian woman why she used maca, she smiled and replied, "Well, for sex of course." Maca is a food-grade herb and the Peruvians would consume 3,000-5,000 mg of maca a day or more. For the average consumer, 4 to 5 capsules a day (1,800-2,250 mg each) is an effective dose. I recommend purchasing maca powder by the pound to take in capsules, sprinkle on food or in blend into smoothies. 

A word about consumer expectations of herbs vs. drugs

Most of us are used to the promise of fast-acting drugs. While a drug like Viagra can produce a lasting erection within an hour or so, we have to be realistic when we consider our expectations of herbs and other natural supplements. Herbs bring harmony and health to the body over time. As a result, herbs' actions are accomplished more slowly but are generally longer lasting. Keep this in mind when treating any condition, but especially sexual dysfunction, with herbs.

In the heavens, stars are dancing and the mounting moon is new,
What a rare night for romancing, mind if I make love to you?

-- from "Mind if I Make Love to You" sung by Frank Sinatra

Sexual energy is a reflection of an overall state of health and well-being. A healthy sexual appetite is as natural as an appetite for food. Drugs often interfere with libido and whenever possible we are better off looking for nutritional and herbal substitutes for drugs, not only to treat sexual dysfunction, but also to treat the conditions that may cause loss of libido in the first place! With this approach, may you enjoy your lover in health and happiness not only on Valentine's Day but year-round.

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.


Cooperative Economics: All You Need Is Love by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

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

It's easy.

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

It's easy.

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.

It's easy.

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.


ginsengastragalusHerbs for Ujamaa: Ginseng and Astragalus

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.


With the holidays and the season for gift-giving upon us, I thought I'd put together an Oprah-style list of "My Favorite (Herbal) Things" for all you generous hearts out there. Here goes:


Michael Moore's Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West M. Moore's Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West M. Moore's Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West

All of Michael Moore's classic Trinity Herb Books:

Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West - 2nd edition (2003), $24.95 from Museum of New Mexico Press

Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West (1989), $11.53 from Amazon

Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West (1993), $22.50 from Museum of New Mexico Press

These are arguably the greatest herb books written in the 20th century. In his inimitable witty style, Moore wrote these from first-hand experience seeking out, gathering, making preparations and administering herbs from throughout the North American Continent. Michael Moore (not the filmmaker -- but they do resemble each other somewhat) is one of America's greatest living herbalists. Even if you are not an herbalist, you may find reading these a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Highly recommended!


For Children

A Kid's Herb Book by Lesley Tierra

A Kid's Herb Book by Lesley Tierra

Find it on sale now at the link above!

This beautiful book is for the most part exclusively available from our website. It was written for our son when he was a small child and who is now 25. It is an herbal for kids. It is beautifully illustrated with herbal stories, herbal projects and even herbal song ditties I wrote to sing along with kids. The many projects include making an herbal tea, oil, salve. It is magnificently illustrated and sure to be a Christmas delight for both children as well as the giver. Especially suitable for kids from ages 4 to 10.



For your own and another's overworked adrenal glands (what better time to address this than around the often stressful holidays?):

CaffeaCAFFEA: an ideal healthful alternative to caffeinated beverages

Let's face it: we in the west are addicted to coffee. But while most of us rely on it for that instant "pick-me-up," consider that it is a beverage that works by depleting energy reserves instead of building them. As you feel yourself becoming persuaded by the coffee lobby who is flooding the media with the health benefits of coffee based on its high amount of antioxidants, you should also be aware that coffee works by increasing stress in the body. Now do we need more stress in our lives? Stress in itself causes the increased secretion of stress hormones which in turn deplete our adrenal reserves and contributes to a wide number of disease imbalances.

Caffea is an instant full-bodied roasted beverage that can be taken daily and is made from roasted dandelion root, semen casia tora, roasted beet and roasted barley. It may sound strange, but besides being delicious to drink it gently detoxifies the liver and kidneys, benefits the stomach and pancreas, and helps in regulating blood sugar.

Most people know of the benefits of dandelion root. It is high in essential minerals and vitamins, especially potassium, and has been used for treating the liver and reducing inflammation and promoting the elimination of excess fluid in the body.

The Chinese herb seed cassia tora was the inspiration for this formula. I once was invited to the home of some older Chinese friends and noticed the man of the house roasting some seeds in a frying pan. He said it was the herb, zue ming zi or casia tora seeds, and that after roasting these would be ground to a powder and brewed as a tasty roasted beverage that also lowers blood lipids, reduces weight, improves eyesight, aids detoxification and prevents heart attacks.

Caffea can be drunk as an alternative to coffee or simply because it tastes so darn good! It's available at the link above, $18.00 for 8.6 oz (makes over 100 cups).



East West Herb CourseThe East West School of Planetary Herbology Herb Course

If herbalism is your passion and you want a really big gift that will continue to give healing for you and others throughout your life, you might consider enrolling yourself or a special person in the East West Herb Course.

Read what our graduates have to say about it here.





Floral BathFragrant Flower Bath

To one gallon of freshly boiled water, add a handful of each of the following dried herbs: lemon balm herb, rose petals, calendula flowers, lavender flowers. Steep covered for 15 minutes while drawing a bath in a specially decorated bathroom space with incense, colored fabric (to tastefully disguise such aesthetically disrupting areas as the toilet, sink or the messy medicine cabinet), a bouquet of flowers (yes men like flowers also), and beeswax candles. Pour the prepared flower water along with several drops of essential oils of rose and lavender into the bath. At the last minute you may add fresh flowers and flower petals (organically grown, please!) to float on the surface of the water. Be sure that the temperature of the water is warm and pleasant before leading your honored recipient into the room.

By candlelight, help your guest out of their clothes and guide them into the tub. Gently ladle the water using your hands or a specially chosen beautiful bowl over their head and back. (Really, try not to employ your everyday kitchenware in this experience, lest you risk the romantic spell being broken.) Allow your loved one to peacefully soak in the wonderful, perfumed water, lingering over the experience as long as they like.

Have a special extra-soft bamboo fiber towel ready for when they arise from the bath. You may also consider a special bathrobe as well. The towel and bathrobe are their take away gift. Every time they wear the robe or use the towel, they will think loving thoughts of you and this wonderful and loving moment you have created just for them.

Afterward, present them with a Go Ji Berry and Ginseng Liqueur which you made yourself using the following recipe:

  • 1 lb. (450 g) Go Ji berries (Lycium Chinensis)
  • 1 full sized root of sliced Chinese Red Ginseng (this can be approximated)
  • 3 cups (710 ml) 80-proof of your favorite vodka (I love Stolichnaya vodka)
  • 1 1/4 cup (300 ml) granulated natural mineral rich, sucanat sugar

Rinse the berries and roughly chop them into small pieces. Place the berries and ginseng slices in a glass container and pour the vodka over them. Close tightly and store in a cool, dark place. Stir or shake this mixture once a week for two to four weeks. Strain through a metal colander into another glass bottle or container with a tight cap. To this, add the sugar. Let this liqueur age for at least three months.

(It's too late to complete this recipe as described for this coming Christmas, but you can perform all the steps and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Then carefully pour perhaps a third of this liqueur into a small, decorative bottle, and add more sugar as necessary for sipping now. You can enjoy the rest of the properly aged product in time for Spring Fever romance!)

Sip this exotic spirit with your special recipient in liqueur glasses as part of your romantic experience. You may enjoy this liqueur any time as an aperitif and blood and energy tonic. It can also be poured over ice cream.

An evening like this is nothing without music. Here are some suggestions:

What you do afterwards is yours to orchestrate, but one suggestion is to apply the following "love oil" to each other's sensitive areas. Go gentle with this at first to determine if it will be a pleasant sensation. Be sure to liberally apply it on each other's sacrum. Take time and allow the pleasure to slowly engulf and fill your entire being.

Love Oil

2 ounces each of

  • apricot kernel oil
  • wheat germ oil

5 to 10 drops each of the following pure essential oils:

  • cinnamon
  • rose
  • chamomile
  • sandalwood
  • musk
  • neroli
  • ylang ylang
  • black pepper
  • ginger
  • vetiver
  • clary sage

Have fun experimenting adding these to the base oil. Begin with 3 to 5 drops and increase each according to your own preference (but stay on the low end with the cinnamon, black pepper and ginger). You may purchase the essential oils mentioned above from Mountain Rose Herbs. Alternatively you might try Kama Sutra's massage oils.

Happy holiday gift-giving!

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