How I Use Herbs to Decolonize (and you can too)


Hello plant lovers,fb fight cartoonA little more than a year ago, I had a disagreement on facebook with a medical doctor that has stuck with me. Our disagreement was actually about homeopathy, but the piece that has stuck with me was the complete dismissal of herbs as medicine.  He and I actually share lots of similar politics.  And some of those politics are around decolonization and solidarity with First Nations people, as non-native people ourselves.Now I'm not trying to single out this one doctor.  In this facebook fight, it wasn't him who called herbalism "superstitious nonsense."  But the question that's nagging at me is this...

How do you practice solidarity with any of the First Peoples if you believe that their medicines and their healing practices are ... naive? superstitious? primitive? uncivilized?

For me this story points to a greater conflict, a clash between worldviews.  gearsOne view says that "there is no evidence of spirit (except maybe an old white guy in the sky)", "rocks and plants don't think or feel", and that "the world functions like a very complex machine."  You could call this a Dead or Mechanical Earth story.The other view says that "the Earth is Alive and Aware" and that "Spirit is imbued in everything."  You could say that it tells a Living Earth story.humanity natureFor simplicity, let's call them the "Scientific Worldview" (reductive science, that is) and the "Indigenous Worldview".  And when I say Indigenous, I'm speaking globally.  You can see this spiritual awareness, for example, in systems like the Ayurveda and Classical Chinese Medicine.I know this is a charged topic.  I want to honour that complexity while also making the exploration of this article more bite-sized.For me, herbal medicine has taken my decolonization work to a deeper, more personal level.  It changed how I saw and experienced the world from the inside out.  Before this, my activism and solidarity work was focused on changing my behaviour.  I was trying to change myself from the outside in.Plant medicines have opened my eyes and my heart so that the nature of reality has shifted.  Herbs have been my path to connecting with that Indigenous Worldview.  And after teaching people how to connect directly with plants since 2009, I have seen this happen for dozens of others too.Here's how I understand it...Colonization continues to take lives, land and culture Indigenous People the world over.And regardless of ethnicity, race or background, colonization has taken the story of the Living Earth from almost all of us.  Rather than seeing ourselves as apart of Nature, we believe we are apart from Nature.keep calm & decolonize everythingIf Shakespeare was correct and “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” then it becomes clear that the devastation of colonization can only occur with this loss of kinship.  And it’s no surprise that Indigenous folks living in alignment with Nature would be viewed as “not kin.”Therefore, decolonization must return us to connection with Nature.  Plants have shown me that part of decolonization involves the Re-Enchantment of the World. (thanks to Sean Donahue for introducing me to that term)  The Re-Enchantment of the World is about respecting the intelligence of Nature.  It's about the return of magic and wonder to the world (by realizing how little we actually "know").  It's stepping inside the Living Earth Story to experience the livingness of the world with your whole being. It's about removing the filters that prevent you from seeing and interacting with the personalities of plants, animals, rocks or bugs.At best, the Scientific Worldview would describe talking to plants as "anthropomorphizing" (inappropriately projecting human emotions/experience on non-humans).  But I think they've got it backwards.  I think it's empathy that allows us to relate to the livingness of the world around us.  Why would humans be the only species with emotions?But of course, it's not just about herbs.  You're not going to find this shift in the herb aisle at the health food store.  This work is about deep nature connection.  It's easiest, at first, to enter the Living Earth Story from more wild places (though you can actually find it in your lawn).Just before we get to some of the how-to, I want to be clear what I'm offering here is an addition to the work of decolonization.  This does not replace the work of addressing power, race, sex, gender, class and so on.  Nor does it replace the solidarity work and support of Indigenous Peoples struggling for justice and sovereignty.It would be truly terrible if decolonization was appropriated by the trendy, personal healing/self help crowd the way yoga and ayahuasca have.  Can you imagine a lululemon shirt that read "Decolonize.  Rewild."

So, how do you do this Re-Enchantment of the World?

It is said that "the mind is like a parachute.  It won't work, if it's not open."Even if you're struggling with this idea that plants have intelligence and awareness, try to suspend your disbelief.  You've been trained out of this and it doesn't come back right away.Let's start with something simple... talking to a plant or a tree near your house.The first step is to respect the plant.  You can't think that you're better or more important than that plant.  Then whenever you walk by it, stop and say hello.  Acknowledge the tree.  Notice what's around it and what relationships it has.  You may even want to sit and just listen for a while.  You could even climb and sit in the tree.Notice how you feel.  This is key.Like all relationships, it can take time to develop.  But most people who practice this will notice something comes as a response one day.  And once that happens, you've got your foot in the doorway to re-enter the story of the Living Earth.And it's here that you'll be able to find Living Medicines that can bring healing to your body, mind and spirit.So that's one side of the coin, opening to the magical reality of the living intelligence which is Earth.Plant medicines have this great ability to show spirit to the politically minded and politics to the spiritually minded.  I think both are important.

The other side of the coin is the political side.

When you feel this close, intimate connection to the plant world it changes how you related to the Land in general.  This is where you harvest berries and over there is where you pick the fever medicine.  Up on that hill is where your soul was cleansed of fear.fiddlehead heartYou will develop an incredibly deep love, respect and appreciation for the Land.  It becomes your home, your food, your medicine.So, when the developers come with their big machines, you will understand "progress" differently.  You will see the true threat of industrialized resource extraction and you will need to make a choice.

Where the Indigenous and Scientific Worldviews converge…

Have you heard of holistic science?  Or Gaia Theory?  There is amazing work being done today that merges these two conflicting worldviews.Reductive science, like dominant economic models, is collapsing.  The need for interdisciplinary understandings is simply too great to be ignored.  And holistic science is emerging.“Science itself, is evolving, moving away from a mechanical understanding of nature.  The idea of a kind of intelligence active throughout nature is gaining support...affirming the view long held by Indigenous Peoples...Now the entire edifice of Life seems shot through with intelligence suggesting that even the evolutionary process itself may be intelligent.”  Jeremy Narby, anthropologist A holistic scientist named James Lovelock proposed a theory in the late ‘70s suggesting that the Earth is a living system, aware, intelligent, self organizing and self regulating. Of course, even the name “Gaia” is a reference to Greek Goddess and so not that new.  I particularly appreciate Gaian science because it merges these two worldviews without cultural appropriation.  (which is a very charged topic that we’re not going to address here, though it is very important to me and to decolonization.  I would be remiss not to address it at all.)I invite you to comment on my blog (below).  I know the topic of decolonization is important to many people.  I’ve certainly had many heated discussions about it over the 20+ years of my activism.  That said, I invite you take breath deeply before posting so that your words can foster healthy discussion :)strength & wisdom.garliqheart in rainPS.  If these ideas speak to you, if the blending of the spiritual and political tickles you, then I think you're going to love my upcoming web-class: Herbal Self Care for Radicals, Activists & Organizers ~ How to Sustain Yourself and Your Activism with the Wisdom and Healing of Plant Medicines.  We're going to be exploring Gaian "discoveries" and how they relate to bringing balance back to the world.flu-cartoonPPS.  I'm doing a Free web class next Thursday Oct. 8 to promote the above class and help folks to avoid seasonal illness this Fall.  Click here to read more about -->Using herbs to avoid getting sick while living in a system designed to make you sick ~ Why “immune boosting” herbs may not be the best approach to preventing colds and flus PPPS.  Here are 2 videos that I think you'll love.  They have similar content and feature the same guy.  Jeremy Narby speaking about the Intelligence of Nature (plants and animals).  The first is a presentation at the Bioneers Conference.  The second is him giving an interview.  You get to choose.  They both made me laugh.  Link #1 - Bioneers talk  Link #2- Narby interview