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Herbal Conformism and the Illusion of Normalcy by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Posted Jun 22 2010 9:06pm

A Response to Charles W. Kane
from the ‘Freak-Show Field’

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Intro Charles W. Kane is an experienced clinical herbalist and self described “veteran of the war against terrorism.”  Unlike the majority of modern day herbalists, he would not be likely to describe our field as “alternative medicine”, and brings from a military and Western background a refreshing degree of old fashioned common sense and down-home candor.  We often refer to his book when looking for what is increasingly rare experience based information and competent materia medica.  That said, he is also someone whose pronouncements I occasionally find simultaneously disturbing and strangely enjoyable to disagree with.  A recent rant of his is titled “Image Herbal Medicine” , calling attention to various concerns that Kiva and I share, while featuring some assumptions and conclusions that surely call for a response.  It seems somewhat karmic (just kidding!) that such a response come not just from metropolitan, cappuccino swilling, politically correct crystal douser and Obama apologists, but from a long-haired cactus-hugging Gaian ecosopher who not only an animal middle name but also wears cowboy hats, stretches a mean barb wire fence, writes about Old West firearms and teaches personal defense.  The bulk of Kane’s article appears below in quotation marks.  Any blame or praise for the words between, falls fairly on me.

“This short essay may come across as snarky or even unpopular,” Mr. Kane starts.  And let me begin in turn by saying there’s no apology called for in either case.  Snarky can be insightful and incite-ful – and darkly entertaining – so long as we avoid the patronizing airs of elitism, are reasonably clever and truly right.  As for ideas being unpopular, in our screwed up society the writing or doing of what’s popular is one of the surest means of being wrong.

“Image herbal medicine or herbal medicine as a fashion statement is easily the most practiced form within the field today. The indicators that suggest an individual is image or fashion oriented are numerous:

1. Identity crisis: name changes to Root, Weed, or Green for example; middleclass whites (the majority of herbalists) wishing they were Hispanic, American Indian, or other “ethnic” races, as if some groups are more ‘connected’ to the plants/planet – a form of reverse racism really.”

Here, Kane has hit on an important issue regarding the lionization and adulation of particular ethnic groups, especially among guilt ridden herbalists and environmentalists… though a far more common and dangerous error in this society is imagining that we all, even EuroAmerican anglophones, are anything other than the descendants of land based peoples, heirs to our own traditions of natural healing and lifeways that were passed down from equally tribal, resilient, plant-wise folks whether whether they be Celts, Vikings or Visigoths.  That said, there is much to both learn from and respect in some of the ways of remaining indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia, Australia and the Americas, and little of honor and value to emulate in the current, modern, so called ‘civilized’ dominant cultural paradigm.

As for fledgeling herbalists changing their names to Root or Weed, it’s stereotypical enough that his observation earned some belly laughs.  Such names likely come closer to representing their characters, interests and allegiance of these plant loving people, however, just as nicknames like “Ace” or “Cowboy” might do a better job of describing certain rodeo regulars or U.S. Army tank crews than “John” or “Bob” like their parents picked.  Our ex New World Order neocon president goes by the respect demanding “George W. Bush”, but that alone wasn’t enough to win him any respect.  History shows that when people need help with their health problems, they cease to care if the person is referred to as Mike or Moss, as ‘Witch’ or even “Leonard Singh III, esq., Proctologist, PhD, DDT”  Just as it should be.

“2. Anti-establishment appearance/association: fits in at a rainbow gathering.”

That’s far too simplistic.  Not all anti-establishment types fit into Rainbow Gatherings, witness the radical Quakers with their archaic bonnets and men’s suspenders, the Michigan Militia and Wyoming Freemen in their cowboy boots and surplus camo fatigues, pissed off college professors wearing knitted vests that would have any Rainbow chuckling!  What is there to be preferred in pro-establishment business suits, blue collared polyester work shirts or corporate-logo baseball caps?  And what value would there be in dressing like everyone else, unless we were in a military uniform or 1950’s doo-wop band?  Most importantly, herbalists and village healers have never fully fit into or been embraced by the status quo.  As with shamans and medicine men, in earliest times the herb-wielding healer was often thought of as divinely mad or dangerously possessed, an affiliate of the unknown, agents of inexplicable powers who were sought out and rewarded when there was a personal or group needed but perhaps kept at a distance between.  As the language of science increasingly replaced that of magic, being conventional looking didn’t keep herbalists from being sidelined, trivialized and slandered.  Mr. Kane is and always will be an alternative practitioner, working outside of the accepted forms an protocols of the drug pushing, high-tech, high dollar medical industry.  He is as fringe as the jacket on David Hopper’s character in the cult film ‘Easy Rider’, if as uncomfortable with the fact as the beer chugging Jack Nicholson was in that same movie.

Herbal enthusiasts and healers are the alternative because we think outside of their box and hopefully outside of our own, because we look to nature for the knowledge, resources and examples we need, because we may see healing as a return to wholeness and vitality rather than a quick fix, as the treatment of causes and imbalances rather than the suppression of symptoms, with a goal not of living longer so much as living more authentic, healthy, vital, rich, meaningful, and purpose-full lives.  And we are alternative because we do not base our value on degrees or the letters after our names so much as on what we know, how willing we are to learn, and how effective we are in our practice.  Because we possibly do not require the approval of any segment of society, official or not, to believe in ourselves and our growing abilities, to act on what we know and assume a responsible role.

“3. Social orientation: anti-individual, group or collective oriented.”

No one is more of an individualist than myself, and I have always paid a high cost because of that.  I grew up individuating myself even if it took me rejecting ideas and ways of being that I’ve since found valuable.  While I teach groups of hundreds, I tend to quickly grow restless in a crowd larger than three!  And yet, we would at best be herb takers and not herbalists, if we only treated ourselves.  By its very definition, healing is other-oriented, a service to our collective kind whether that be an ecosystem, a community, a neighborhood or simply our own family.

“4. Politics: radical left, green socialism.”

There is predictably a majority of Progressives in the herbalism field, just as most environmental activists are Caucasian.  That is not an indictment of either herbalism or ecoactivism, however, but a questioning of and call for more diverse participation, for greater black and asian involvement in ecosystem restoration… with Republicans considering the treatment of more than their own cirrhosis, and contributing to the balance of more than their allopathic specialists’ bank accounts.

“5. ‘Spirituality’: gaia, plant spirit medicine, animism, Buddhism, or the “pick what feels good” self-styled path; anything non Judeo-Christian.”

I recognize that a certain shallow New Age, style oriented approach to herbalism has hurt the credibility and slowed the revival of herbalism in general, but not nearly so much as the slanderous statements released in industry and regulatory agency papers, nor any more than an internecine post such as Kane’s.

An understanding of the earth as a living totality whose health we depend on, can be found in nearly every religious tradition.  Recognition of a spirit or force in plants was characteristic of Christian mystics as well as Gnostics and alchemists, and new science is affording us a model and vocabulary for natural forces and healing processes are still nothing less than magical in their ways and ramifications.  How referencing the Greek word for Mother Earth – ‘Gaia’ – could discredit nature-inspired herbalism is beyond me, and it concerns me to imagine having a preponderance of Judeo-Christian practitioners could ensure the acceptance of and respect for the field of herbalism, when we should insist on being measured by intent and accomplishment, rather then prejudged and pre-approved due to any personal spiritual or philosophic bent.

“6. Modality crisis: embracing TCM, Ayurveda, Unani, or any other foreign system with the thought that they are more enlightened than western approaches, or equally common, the smorgasbord approach: cherry picking from an array of cultural approaches, ending up with a big pile of muddle.”

Eclecticism is indeed a pitfall on the path, leading us to select only what we like or find easy about an approach instead of facing the aspects that are more discomforting or challenging, creating a self-satisfying hybrid without the backbone of tradition, the test of experience, or the benefit of focus and devotion.  Still, even Mr. Kane’s system of Western Herbalism is a conglomerate, drawing from mix of different people’s ideas and approaches, an amalgam even if he were to try to resist all change and influence, and an evolving body of knowledge if not.  The Western world adopted the plants and adapted the healing techniques of the East, Greece was the meeting point of the two.  Roman medicine was highly informed by what they learned from North African healers.

“The catch-22 is when an individual matures to the point of dropping this exterior, moving on to adult life, herbal interest often gets dropped as well: this occurs to most in the field between the ages of 25 to 35. The ones that stay are often in a state of arrested development (75% of ‘older’ herbalists are still children).”

Actually, Mr. Kane is at least as concerned with exterior appearance as any cloak conscious pagan herbalist, and perhaps more so since he deemed it a topic worthy of writing an article.  His entire piece is given to describing how important he finds conventional appearance in the search for personal acceptance and professional credibility.  It matters a lot to him that he not look like a hippie, Democrat, Moslem or Mexican, nor be confused with flower-sniffing, plant communing herbalists whose look he believes undermine the practice.

But yes, most herbalists, plant lovers and nature nuts that I know are still childlike, stopping the most adult activities at the sight of an unnamed plant at the side of the road or trail, grinning and hopping up and down when they finally key it out, anxious to make others feel better, crestfallen when unable to do so.  The are delightfully free of the fear of being seen in public adoring another life form, free of concern over getting their knees dirty when a fragile sprout or shiny bug calls for close attention, inclined to act on their impulses and convictions, likely to foolishly but wondrously work to heed an inner calling or fulfill their dreams.

People trapped in what Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) might call premature adulthood, are stuck  with concealing their excitement over even the rarest of plants under a veneer of machismo or maturity, and worry needless if someone is watching when it comes time to crawl around for skullcap or jump into a swimming hole.

“If you look like you just steeped off the bus from the local primitive skills gathering, you will raise doubts in the minds of the people you are treating. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been thanked by patients, who appreciate my normality within an otherwise freak-show field.”

Looking like what the average, normal person considers to be a freak can be counterproductive if you want to be able to treat folks of all kinds, from all walks of life.  On the other hand, there is nothing about a conservative’s crew cut or doctor’s starched white doctor’s coat that universally communicates wisdom, let alone accessibility, a capacity for empathy, deep concern or human warmth.  And by being comfortable with their selves, their bodies, mortal processes and physical looks, healers help their clients to do the same.

Normal is too often the refuge of the fearful and average, the self doubting and those who are scarily well adjusted to situations and environments they should naturally be finding intolerable and unacceptable.  It is normal to obey every new law that is passed no matter how unconstitutional or intrusive, to pay thousands of dollars for health insurance without spending anything to learn how to care for ourselves and our loved ones or tend even the most simple to treat family ailments, to take steroids for allergies and antibiotics for nearly everything else.  It’s all too normal for practiced nurses to defer to book learned doctors, for health practitioners to ignore their instincts and observations and blindly employ the pharmaceutical-centric approach, and for herbalist to worry they can’t do any good unless they are certified and have an office.

What’s not normal, Charlie W. Kane, is someone like yourself caring so much about plants and natural healing at the same time you’re so concerned about appearing normal.  Just a little bit freaky, you have to admit.

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