This little timeline has been making its rounds lately in some of my friend circles:
2000 B.C. – Here, eat this root.
1000 A.D. – That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 A.D. – That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 A.D. – That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1985 A.D. – That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2000 A.D. – That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.
Sometimes it does feel like we’re all trying to come full circle, to go “back to our roots” as it were, and in this case very literally.
My own interest in herbalism began when I learned about our growing problems with various bugs becoming resistant to our antibiotics, and how a lot of that problem was coming from our overuse of antibiotics.
Wait, what? Overuse? I didn’t understand how we could be overusing antibiotics. I mean, you can only get antibiotics through a doctor’s prescription, and who would want to take antibiotics if they don’t need to anyway? As it turns out, lots of people want to take antibiotics that they don’t need, mostly out of a desire to be “doing something” (however ineffective it might be). Many doctors are very happy to oblige their patients here, or worse, are worried that they will lose their clientele if they don’t prescribe something even if it’s clear there is no reason to do so. This realization was frankly rather scary. If we were overusing antibiotics so frequently, what else were we overdoing?
I’d always loved gardening, growing plants, and using herbs in cooking. I was aware that many people used herbs as part of their healing practices, and it made perfect sense to me. After all, where did many of our modern synthesized medicines come from in the first place? They came from plants. I started working on learning more about how to use herbs to maintain good health, and then how to use them when things go wrong. At the same time, I was learning more about the value of eating locally, and my growing interest in herbalism dovetailed perfectly with this.
I started to see the differences between the basic healing approach of modern medicine and traditional herbalism. I learned about the essentially mechanistic approach to healing that modern medicine uses — where problems are understood and treated in isolation, sicknesses have specific pathologies, and generally speaking the body is treated somewhat like a machine. In contrast, herbalism urges the practitioner to view the body as a whole system, or even as a part of a larger ecosystem in which one lives. I could see that sometimes one approach would make more sense than another, but at the same time, I could also see that modern medicine was completely ignoring one side of this equation.
So I started making teas, poultices, and the occasional salve. I started to turn to slippery elm bark for dry coughs, and to rest and relaxation for fevers, rather than reaching automatically for a bottle of Dayquil. I found that one of the best ways to learn herbalism is just to dive right in — make that chamomile tea, mash up some plantain and put it on your child’s scraped knee, try some mullein oil for the ear infection. And for the most part, it’s very easy.
Once people see how simple herbal preparations can be — they don’t have to be laundry lists of dried herbs, brewed “just so” — it becomes much easier to begin incorporating herbalism into one’s own life. And then, when you have that cough, stuffy nose, or bruised shin, instead of a bottle you could reach for some leaves and roots instead!