The most effective systems or types of herbalism tend to use a system of energetics to understand the way a plant works in the human body. In TCM, terms such as yin or yang, hot or cold may be applied. In ayurveda or humoral theory other terms may be used. Most systems of energetics tend be strongly allied to the language and metaphors of the culture they’re born from. This makes for amazingly intimate and intricate understandings if you happen to be from one of these culture, but for a possibly frustrating quest if you’re not. Here in North America there are remnants of several different systems. The most intact may be the European-rooted humoral system still seen in Appalachian and Hispanic folk medicine. Many indigenous tribes have varying amounts of intact theory, though I don’t meet many young indigenous (or Hispanic, or Anglo) folks in this region with much understanding of any aspect of traditional herbal healing. Many traditional herbalists are doing their best to patch together, record and develop existing understandings, as can be seen in the work of Matthew Wood, Michael Moore, Phyllis Light and many others.
One question I’ve frequently asked myself is just why energetics are so important to successful, practical herbalism. I think the answer to this lies in the human need to see things as symbols, patterns and classifications in order to process, store and understand information. This is great, and we can utilize this tendency in ourselves to better teach each other about all kinds of things. On the other hand, it’s very important not get caught up in the omnipotence of any one system, and to remember they’re just reference points for looking at plants, humans and life, not the ultimate herbal dogma to memorize, regurgitate and swear by.
The benefit of the sense based systems of energetics is that nearly anyone can touch an injured muscle and perceive whether it is radiating heat or not. Almost any one of us can take a nibble of Cayenne Pepper and taste the heat, or rub Mallow flowers between our fingers and feel the slippery sliminess of it. Of course, it suddenly gets more complicated when you ask someone how Peppermint feels in their mouth – hot, cold, peppery, refreshing and numbing. And then you wonder how to fit all that in a category.
It’s easier if we remember that categories can are artificial and that plants and people don’t belong in boxes. Great Lakes herbalist, Jim McDonald, once explained to me that it’s not that Catnip is diaphoretic, sedating and emmenagogue as separate categories, it’s that all these actions can happen in the body because of Catnip’s overall relaxing qualities. So if tension is disallowing peripheral circulation or normal moon cycles, well then yes, Catnip will act as a diaphoretic and emmenagogue. Jim’s rather genius like at understanding the underlying natures of each plant, and this is something I’ve been focusing on a great deal in my own practice. Once we understand that underlying nature, we’re able to see what the herb may do for the human being. I think that this looking to the core nature of each individual plant is the root of energetics, and that the systems are merely ways of naming and categorizing the natures of all these plants and all the ways the life energy manifests in the human being.
Once we understand the core nature of plants then labels become an entertaining shorthand, but also a sometimes annoying limitation or misconception, especially where those labels contain all the anti prefixes. It seems infinitely more useful to me to know how a plant acts rather than what it kills or prevents. Just knowing what a plant kills doesn’t tell you much about the rest of its effects, but knowing how a plant acts tells you MUCH about all the actions it may potentially have, including the effect it may have on bacteria.
So, how do we get to the core nature of each plant? I’ll start with two answers 1) remember that plants are people, 2) remember that plants are not humans. Plants have personalities, tendencies, sentience and a miraculous intelligence and ability to adapt. However, plants are not humans. Those of us who grew up with disney-fied fairy tales or even saturday morning cartoons often have odd notions about the plants. We may think that if we’re really in touch with the plant world then they’ll appear to us as green nymphs in flower petal skirts or old tree men with twig-like fingers and rough, barky noses. That they’ll speak in the syntax and language of words. And that the ultimate manifestation of any lifeform is as a human with human expressions and gestures. When we slip into this kind of thinking we miss out on the amazing complexity of other than human language, and the ways in which the plants are already speaking to each and every one of us, right now.
Despite many sweet cartoons and fanciful stories to the contrary, nature is not made up of humans in leafy or furry clothing. The myriad living creatures around us are not waiting for just the right moment to surprise you with their great grasp of modern English. They are, in fact, communicating with us, each other and the whole world at every second. These communications may be in the form of scents, textures, sounds, energy or any other number of sensation based stimuli.
All this time, they’ve just been waiting for us to remember the call of river song and the lullaby of sun-warmed grass. To recognize the warning of sharp edges and the call to awareness of barbed tips. And in a narrower sense, this is just what energetics are here to teach us – to give us a reference point for communication between plant and person.
Sometimes the plants may speak to us in our expected way, in the guise of human skin, but that’s because that’s the form we desire and need in order to hear them not because it’s their truest expression. I myself have had many of these experiences, in dreams and other out or ordinary experiences. I’m not denying their power and validity, for they’ve had an immense impact on my perceptions and understanding. I do notice, however, that the further I delve into the realm of plants and bugs and frogs and mosses, the more I am aware of their essential otherness as well as my own innate kinship with them.
I think it’s a necessary step in human evolution to realize that we can have relationship with the world without making it look like us. And if we can come to grips with on a gut level, we may yet have the capacity to stop destroying everything we can’t control or make like ourselves. Domestic dogs are forever safe as our allies and help mates while wild wolves slowly (or quickly) go extinct as threats to our mandated world order. Not because wolves eat our children but because they represent a fierce, unmanageable aspect of the natural world that we can’t make look like us. Socio-political commentary aside, many of us as herbalists, activists, gardeners and cooks represent the plants to the rest of a world that has lost intimate contact with that realm. As their emissaries we have a responsibility to accurately transmit, to the best of our ability, the true magic and mystery of the plants to those willing to hear.
So we’re back to where we began, and to the origins of all relationship and communication. Reach out, touch, feel and give back to the beings we’re surrounded and sustained by. It’s really as simple as that.
Wake up and smell the dirt.