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Learning cool new stuff while remembering the tried-and-true and respecting the intelligence of Nature

We scientists can become so enchanted by our wonderful intellectual powers that we are in danger of becoming arrogant. We tend to forget the wisdom of Nature. Our ability to observe new phenomena is sometimes dulled by our romance with the knowledge that we already possess. We may become conventional, invested in the status quo. We might tend to pay more attention to hypotheses and theories than to clear and simple observations. Some disparage “common sense.” Many deny the Spirit.

Herbalists generally don’t like arrogance, and we stop listening to arrogant scientists. This easily leads to a common mistake: thinking that science
itself is arrogant. Also, we see how statistics and ‘studies’ can be twisted into manipulative propaganda. We see how ‘science’ has been used badly, even in evil ways. We oversimplify: ‘science is bad!’ or maybe, ‘science is irrelevant!’ The situation can devolve into a tired old them-versus-us paradigm. Polarized linear thinking: herbalism vs. science. Boring.

Ok, so here’s what I think it boils down to: there are many kinds of knowledge; knowledge is power; power can be used for good or evil. So how are we going to use it?

I like to think of science as a fine, sharp blade. Dividing, divining, seeking for truth when employed with wisdom. Phytochemistry helps me see the inner architecture of a plant’s powers. It helps me understand the hidden language of herbs. Science is an artfully crafted tool in my kit; it’s very good
at what it does, but I sure wouldn’t want to use it for the wrong job. I don’t use a fine blade to slice a Poke root; for that I use a sharp, stout cleaver. I don’t need science for understanding how a great sadness can manifest itself as a heart attack. For that I need heart wisdom. I don’t need a theory to see
which formula kills lice the best; for that I need tradition, experiment, and keen observation.

As a younger herbalist, when I used to think about plants, I asked myself, why do the healing herbs help us? Is it like the Elders say, because they are kind spirits and want to share their wisdom if we but respect them; or is it like the scientists say, that certain of their molecules, through a complex web of co-evolutionary relationships, can interact with human (and microbial) physiology in a way that happens to be beneficial to our species?

The mistake in this thought was: “or”

These two ways of understanding do not have to be mutually exclusive. I can respect the knowledge and honor the mystery at the same time. I can spend some time teasing out the fine distinction between 26-deoxyactein and 23-epi-26-deoxyactein and such, and I can also spend my time hiking up to a spring to talk to the plant spirits living there. Or dreaming with Coyote and the flowers that bloom by the creek in the snow. Or chanting to the Nettles to make the medicine strong.

If I limit myself to one vision, one belief system, one way of doing things, why then I guess I’m just a one-trick pony. But if I open my senses and my powers of feeling and thinking, of observing, of learning, of experimenting, then I’m more like, oh, you know, that awesome buckskin Mustang in that old movie, Spirit.

One more thought. I have a great respect for the Plants, the Green People. They make beautifully complex webs of amazing molecules and energies. Always shifting, changing, adapting to the requirements of their environments. The more I learn about them, the more I love them. They take the power of Grandfather Sun – the Fire, the Water, the Air, the Earth, and turn the elements into thousands and thousands of different phytochemicals. These molecules are their tools; the physical expressions of their spirits. We absorb these molecules, these miniscule packets of powerful energy. They become part of us, or pass through leaving behind their medicinal impressions.

These green geniuses, ultimately, make our lives possible. They make all the food we eat. They make medicines that can improve or even save our lives. They breathe in our carbon dioxide and breathe out our oxygen. Without them we would die. They give us many blessings.

So let’s embrace science and keen observation, while we watch out for arrogance … let’s cultivate respect, humility, curiosity and a never-ending willingness to learn … to respect knowledge and experience as partners. To respect and honor the intelligence of Nature and to find and embody our place in the complex and beautiful web of Life upon Mother Earth. To the Green People!

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