Category Archives: Social and Ecological Medicine

Reviving the Bean Feasa

harvestThe blog is going to switch gears for a bit to discuss the focus of much of my anthropological research. You will have to read through to the end of this series of posts, before I get to my very exciting new project based on this research, but I do hope that you find it informative, and maybe even a little inspiring, along the way.

I suppose I should explain to people who read my last series of posts,  that  research questions don’t always have to do with interventions and outcomes.  They cannot be always be answered through microbiology or clinical trials.  Some recently acquired readers might even be surprised by the fact that the person in this picture  likes to spend hours pouring over research about how plant agents impact neurotransmission or endocrine function.

While I will admit a certain compulsion towards understanding the mechanisms of action behind a botanical therapy, I do not believe cutting edge technology is the solution to creating wellness in our society. I have no doubt it will cure  some diseases but that is a very different thing than creating wellness.

When studying clinical herbal practice in college, I began to question whether herbal clinicians should  only focus on the therapeutic delivery of botanical medicine or if our roles extends to something more?  This question led me to my anthropological studies and an investigation of the pluralistic nature of health care practices in early societies, which I will explain tomorrow.

I am often asked why I think this is important work? While working on my senior project, I realized that at one time, before religion and capitalism interfered, wellness in a community was created through respectful cooperation of many types of healers.  Much of my research has been gathered in my efforts to understand what this cooperation looked like and how to make that work in a modern context.

The conclusion I arrived at is summarized best by the abstract of my thesis Reviving the Bean Feasa: Building Resilient Communities through Folk Healing which states:

This thesis draws from the study of the past, when there existed an alternate paradigm of healing. These healing systems, grounded in autonomous self-care and common production of locally available plant remedies, seemed to be more successful than modern professional systems at addressing the social and ecological determinants of health. These popular health cultures, consequently, contributed to the resiliency of their communities. I recommend the wide dissemination of this common knowledge of our ancestors regarding health as means of restoring wellness to the land, the plants and the people.

I’d like to distribute the thesis to a wider audience, but I doubt that many people would be interested in sitting down and reading the whole 130 page of my thesis, here on my blog, so I am going to spend some time discussing some of the beliefs I presented in it.

These are the beliefs that informs much of what I write for other people and classes I teach at herb conferences. They are the beliefs that inform how I work in my community.  They are the beliefs that that inform how I live.

Friends who know me know that it has been a weird couple of years for me personally, but just the other day my dear friend Wolf commented that despite this series of deeply disturbing challenges, I haven’t let it crush my spunky spirit. I attribute that capacity to  these beliefs.

Sustainable Sourcing

Supporting small, local farmers who haven’t quite made it to organic certification but are using good growing practices and pasturing their animals is part of this story, too.[/caption]

A conversation ensued the other day on Facebook to which I probably contributed far too frequently to because it is a topic which I am passionate about. I thought it best to remove myself from the conversation and bring my thoughts here to the blog, because I was getting a little het up.

We talk A LOT about sustainability and social medicine at Goddard. In fact there has been a rumor that the Health Arts & Science program might begin to offer that Master’s degree. I believe it is the degree I will probably end up pursuing if is offered. I realize in participating in that conversation surrounding sourcing, that the information people have has not kept up with the modern reality of a global market.

Do you remember the heyday of the phrase “think globally, act locally”? I think many of my readers are old enough to have heard it quite a bit. But maybe what you don’t know is that idea is kind of an outdated one, in these days of the international, global economy. While certainly we need to continue to support local initiatives, the idea that the whole world is going to go backwards and countries will turn back to insular purchasing while ideal, is ludicrous. Those who want to pursue that idealism, by all means continue. For those who prefer to focus on what is practical, read on…

We also have to consider the historical impact of the American role in the global economy, as well as its modern implications. If by creating an insane demand for a product, we Americans have created jobs which have enticed people in third world countries to leave their traditional form of living behind to work in these industries, we are indirectly responsible for the continued well-being of these workers. We have a certain level of social responsibility for these people.

Boycotting a product while it might have some small impact on a company could also have a devastating impact on the workers and their families. To be fair. There are some companies, like Nestle, that I boycott, but I question the efficacy and even morality of that practice. Steve’s Mom has also been boycotting Nestle since before I was born and that hasn’t seemed to make much of an impact on the CEO or the shareholders. The fat boys are going to maintain their salaries and payouts at the expense of the workers, by cutting back their workforce, requiring mandatory overtime of those workers who remain and mistreating them even more than before. That is the regretfully atrocious reality of mainstream American business practice. It is entirely possible that the boycott has increased slavery, rather than prevented it. Still, I can’t suggest that we support, or source raw ingredients from, companies whose business practices we abhor. I think that the best that we can do is to research and support fair-trade, sustainable farming projects in the hopes that maybe some of those displaced workers can find a better employment situations, if our boycott has in some way impacted them.

As I mentioned before realism has to enter into to the picture at some point. We are not going to eliminate the American demand for sugar, coffee, chocolate or even palm. What all consumers can do is put intense pressure on American companies to source these products properly. By pressuring large manufacturers into sustainable sourcing, we have the effect of improving the workers situations even more by creating more business for companies treating their employees, and their ecosystems, ethically. I get that all of the regulatory commissions aren’t perfect, but if no one is buying their product, the companies won’t have the funds to continue to improve their programs. So consumers should look for sustainable sources of the aforementioned and continue to encourage more stringent regulation in that industry.* Personally I think that correspondence from someone who says, “Listen, I am supporting you but I want you to do better” is far more effective than “I will not buy your product until you are perfect”.

We herbalists can do the same when sourcing our herbal products. Ideally, we should try to focus our practice on local herbs and local herb growers. When you hear my polite explanation that ” Indian and Chinese herbs don’t really speak to me” what I really mean is that it is kind of against my principals to use exotic herbs when there are perfectly good local plants about.

Still there are some herbs that I have found to be useful and I love spices in my cooking so I am at the mercy of the international market. That is reality. There are companies like Mountain Rose, which enforce fair-trade standards in their international sourcing and I support them because of it. I still want them to do better, though.

I am continually impressed by Frontier Natural Products Co-op‘s work in this area. Sadly, they don’t get a lot of respect from the herbal community for working to improve their sourcing practices dramatically over the last decade. (I am going to go out on a limb and say it is because they don’t have an affiliate program and no one gets paid to promote their products, but I am cynical that way.) First of all, the company itself is a member-owned coop with stellar business practices especially in how they treat their employees. I’ve heard rave reviews of their cafeteria as I know a few of the farmers who supply it and they have an on-site employer-subsidized childcare facility which is an extreme rarity in Iowa. Additionally, their Well Earth Program has truly been going a step beyond the idea of fair-trade and is actively working to improve the communities from which they are sourcing their products. You can read here about a school they built in one community. I am baffled as to why they don’t get more respect amongst herbalists. I figure it is because a lot of people don’t know about the program, so I will give it a shout-out, but I still want them to do better.

There are companies like American Botanicals whose sourcing is not stringent enough for me and I won’t order from them. This is no great loss to any, except maybe to my pocket book because they are cheaper. But you kinda get what you pay for there.

I’d like to end this with a plea to the community herbalists out there, not to be too judgmental of people for not using sustainable products. I get it, but really shaming people who might be buying the best ingredients they can afford, isn’t going to make you any friends and it is mean. Also never speak in absolutes. Most words which follow the phrase “I never..” are sure to get you in trouble someday unless you are “practically perfect in every way” like Mary Poppins and even she eats sugar.

I am definitely not perfect in this regard. Sometimes it slips out because I am really passionate about these things. But also I come from a pretty damn poor background and I have a compassion for poverty that is only shared by those who have experienced it.

Even on a practical level, I am of the opinion that if you give people a positive action to take rather than shaming people for the negative you will accomplish more good. I think that my goal for the blog this year is to talk more about sustainability and share more practical, simple ideas for achieving that. And yes, Quinn, that means I will share more recipes, even though that makes me look more “like a bumpkin and less like a professional herbalist”. Because maybe I am a bumpkin, but I am a damn smart one and I’d like to do some good with that.

Personal letter I sent to GSA

The other day I had my proverbial rear handed to me for sticking up for Girl Scout cookies in a public forum. As a former leader and cookie cupboard, I have to tell you that I don’t appreciate the fact that the organization leaves me in the precarious position of having to put aside my values in defending what has pretty much become an American tradition.

While I understand the efforts the organization is making (GreenPalm Certificates, planning the switch to certified sustainable palm oil), it simply isn’t enough. The standards in that industry need to be made stronger.

Girl Scouts has the purchasing power which could drive the industry to do away with deforestation which would indeed “make the world a better place”

As an aside, it would also “make the world a better place” if you would remove the hydrogenated products from all of your cookies. Trans fat is pretty evil and draws the organization even more bad press. Stop falling back on loopholes and do the right thing.

Community Herbalism

IC_Herb_DayThis article was published, in its entirety,  in the September 2013 issue of  The Essential Herbal Magazine.

I  once had someone level the accusation at me that herbalism was a privilege afforded primarily to upper middle class white people and that I was an elitist.   At first I was offended.  But once I listened to his complaints, too numerous to mention here, I realized that I completely understood where he was coming from.   His experience of “boutique” herbalism was very different than mine,  having been self-taught and tutored by the occasional street medic or other ‘renegade’ who was willing to barter a lesson.

I know the herbalists he is talking about.  I first came to herbalism as a very young single Mom with two little girls.   I  started learning to be an herbalist because the closest one I could find, charged $250 for a consultation.  That might as well have been a million dollars back then. He laughed at me when I asked if I could make payments…

I know that not every reader is a practicing herbalist.  Chances are though that once you started dabbling, people started asking for advice.   I’d like to offer some pointers here for thinking about how you can present information in a way that doesn’t discourage people of any income level from taking control of their health.

The first topic that that should up when talking about health is diet.    Yes, I know that organic food is best, but do not dwell on that issue.    Clean food is often not available in stores that accept SNAP (food stamps).  [Or should I say local, organic food vendors rarely accept them. ]   I’ve seen a lot of improvement in people who go from eating McDonald’s every day to making their own meals, even from less than ideal meat, vegetables and fruit.  I recommend that people buy the best quality they have access to and can afford and I NEVER disparage their choices.
Do not assume people have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and are just choosing to purchase convenience food because they are lazy. (I know that’s harsh, but I’ve heard people say it!)  People who live in certain urban areas may truly be purchasing most of their food from convenience stores and fast food restaurants.  [ The sociological term for these places is food deserts.]  If you are going to work in low-income areas, it is a good idea to visit the stores in the neighborhood to see what sorts of establishments operate in the area.   Don’t assume someone has transportation out of their immediate neighborhood.

There are some clean foods that are easier to pick up inexpensively. Soup bones are inexpensive.  Brown rice and dried beans are also cheap.  The thing you have to remember is that people don’t know how to cook.   Sometimes I work with homeless people who don’t even have the means to cook.    Instead of just telling someone to make something, invite them over to teach them how to cook it and send them home with a little bit.  [ Or teach them how to make a rocket stove from bricks]

You can also teach people how to make inexpensive preparations.  While I understand that everyone likes to talk up their organic fair-trade oils and pristine organic grape alcohol, you don’t need those ingredients to make preparations.  Honestly even if you use them, you could downplay things a little because people who can’t afford those ingredients may think that you HAVE to have them.

Essential oils are expensive.  Learn to work without them.   Tinctures are obviously more expensive to make so save them for internal preparations and make liniments for external use.  These have traditionally been made with rubbing alcohol or vinegar.   Oils are also expensive so substitute the use of poultices when possible and save the oils for appropriate use.    Look into local sources of rendered lard.   Sometimes you can pick this up really inexpensively and local is always better.

When making herbal and dietary recommendations, I always try to keep it limited to things that grow in my area.   Don’t recommend the latest ultra-expensive super food that only grows deep in the Amazon jungle to someone who can’t afford a bus pass.  It’s just not cool.

Keep an eye out for accessible plants.    In my town, the Hawthorns growing in the grocery store parking lot have enough weeds at the base of the tree that I don’t think they spray them.  And there are raspberry bushes all up-and-down the bike path on the East side of town.

Don’t recommend protocols that require expensive equipment.    Vitamix and juicers are not affordable.  Low-income individuals might not even be able to swing a crockpot.   I  haunt the thrift stores in my area so that if I do make a suggestion like making infusions in a thermos or thermal carafe,  I can tell them where to find one that only costs a couple of bucks.  Lately I’ve been buying them for 50 cents or less and just giving them to clients.   I also like to keep an eye out for air purifiers, aromatherapy diffusers and other items.

Self-care can be really difficult.   Even going for a walk is not always possible in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  People often keep indoors because they fear for their safety.   Be aware of free options in your community such as community rec centers, but understand these places are not always safe, either. My daughter was twelve when an older man pulled her aside and tried to sell her marijuana at our local rec center. People who voice these concerns are not making excuses.  It is a reality of modern living.

Yoga classes, energy work, massage therapy and all of the other trappings of modern “holistic health” are usually cost prohibitive unless you can recommend providers who will barter or do work-trade.   To my way of thinking they are not necessities.  I mean they are nice for people who can afford them, but don’t assume that someone can.  I have a friend who goes on-and-on to me about her favorite types of massage who has no idea I’ve never had one.

What I do have, is whole bag of self-care tricks that I can do in the comfort of my own home for not very much money, like my herbal foot soak routine.   Those are the types of things you teach people by inviting them to your house for a big herbal self-care party.

For those who are practitioners, we have many opportunities to extend services to under-served communities.  We can offer services on a sliding fee scale or accept other forms of payment such as bartering or work-trade.   We can teach free classes in safe areas that are accessible to people who don’t have cars.  The park next to me is near a bus stop and I like to plan classes there during the summer.   There are even herbalists out there with mobile free clinics.  You can offer free information on a blog, but don’t forget that many people in under-served communities don’t have Internet access so printing newsletters and distributing them is also a good idea.    Building community connections is also a very important part of working in under-served communities.

I’d like to end with a plea for practitioners to consider doing more of this work.   Recently I was in a workshop on Social Medicine.  The message delivered was one that resonates with me clearly.  Your capacity to be well is limited by the wellness of the weakest member of your ecosystem.    You will not be able to achieve health unless the community in which you live is also healthy.    As herbalists and wise people we have the capacity to help create that change in ways that I’ve only begun to touch on in this article.