Book Reviews

Book Review: Planet Medicine: Origins, Revised Edition: Origins by Richard Grossinger

Posted on December 17, 2013. Filed under: Book Reviews, Path of the Healer |

Planet-medicine

I recently finished reading Planet Medicine: Origins, Revised Edition: Origins by Richard Grossinger  and what a ride it has been.

At its base, this book is an anthropological survey of healing systems from around the world as well as a bit of a philosophical examination of healing and healing systems.  Which by itself is completely made of awesome.

It is also a big shaggy dog of a book that often meanders about sometimes uncovering thoughtful treasures and sometimes digging up old shoes that may not be quite so exciting.    I have to admit there were times when I skimmed sections not quite convinced of the points he was making nor where he seemed to be going, but those were more than balanced by absolute gems and insights that would start me into deep attention.  Followed but exciting turnings of my own thoughts.

In amongst the surveys of different traditions you’ll find intriguing quotes like this scattered about like gold glittering in a stream bed:

1)  Allopathy has become, first and foremost, a competitive multinational corporation with trademarks to protect, products to sell; second, a means for preventing disease and curing sick people.

2)  Western medicine is based on healing people to go back to jobs and niches. Disease in indigenous society is an opportunity for life change.

3)  Most of daily life hypnotizes us—its customs, jobs, vehicles, clocks, billboards, and other media all implant “post-hypnotic” messages while keeping individuals in zombie-like trances.

Wow, I love those quotes because they do capture a bit of truth so well.

Beyond just being a fascinating look at so many varied philosophies of healing it has a couple of particular things that I really appreciated in its general approach.

One was how he also talks about Western scientific medicine as one of the systems.  A philosophy with good points and bad points, strengths and weaknesses as well as blind spots and agendas.  Which is a valuable POV that should always be remembered – heck no system of healing, thought, etc. should ever be treated as truth with a capital T!

I’ve seen too many books like this simplify the explanations and theory so much to make them accessible that they instead instead end up uncomfortably bland and generic sounding.  It’s like saying most people have two eyes, legs, etc. – true but it is not a useful way to talk about different peoples around the world, any more than it is useful to talk too simply about different healing modalities.  And thankfully he doesn’t do that.  Instead he digs in to the stuff that makes them different and the things which leave the uninitiated going – “really? You think that?”

That is good. Actually really good because…

Real knowledge and understanding isn’t found in only being reflected back your current understanding and beliefs – but in being forced to re-consider them as you are exposed to different ones!

So sayeth I.

Lastly, there was one tidbit that really struck me, especially since I’ve had similar experiences in my yoga practice and working with my teacher.   In one section of the book  a man is told in a Tai Chi class to feel something in his body and had no idea how and was told “To whom did you sell your body? I hope you got a good price.”

Isn’t that one of the keys?  How many of our problems come from no longer being connected to ourselves?  Having a sense of ownership and care for our bodies and our health?  It gets too easy to ignore or treat our bodies as foreign things to be done with, or done to, rather than developing that understanding and connection with.  If there is one commonality to all good healing modalities to me, it is one of re-building that lost connection – buying back our bodies, our health.

Just my insane .02

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Herbal Books – The Not So Secret Love That Binds Us All

Posted on September 3, 2013. Filed under: Book Reviews |

If there is one thing that herbalists (and plants fans in general) love spending time with, almost as much as spending time with their plant friends, it’s a good herbal or plant book.

Book Love (Image by Michael Blackmore - Mad Crow Herbalism)

Book Love (Image by Michael Blackmore – Mad Crow Herbalism)

Recently I come up with the idea of and hosted the Boston Herbal Salon (a monthly gathering where plant folks gather and talk about their not so secret herbal love!) at my place in Boston.    As a conversation starter for the first get together I had folks bring a favorite book as a show and tell and boy did that start a great round of conversation all around!

Here’s a partial listing of the books we brought and shared:

  • Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger
  • Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year by Susun Weed
  • Flower Power: Flower Remedies for Healing Body and Soul Through Herbalism, Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, and Flower Essences by Anne McIntyre
  • The Herbal Handbook: A User’s Guide to Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman
  • Magical Herbalism: The Secret Craft of the Wise by Scott Cunningham
  • Seaweed: Nature’s Secret to Balancing Your Metabolism, Fighting Disease, and Revitalizing Body and Soul by Valerie Gennari Cooksley
  • The Language of Plants: A Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures by Julia Graves
  • Dispensing with Tradition: A Practitioner’s Guide to Using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way by Anne McIntyre and Michelle Boudin
  • The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman

Inspired by that here’s a random, and not remotely definitive pair of lists of my favorite herbal books.

First are books that inspire me spiritually in my connection or thinking about plants.   In essence they fuel and nourish my herbal heart in one way or another:

  • Wisdom of the Plant Devas by Thea Summer Deer
  • Herbal Rituals by Judith Berger
  • Plant Spirit Healing by Pam Montgomery
  • Healing Wise by Susun Weed
  • Plant Spirit Medicine by Eliot Cowan
  • Secret Teachings of the Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • Sacred Plant Medicine by Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • The Language of Plants: A Guide to the Doctrine of Signatures by Julia Graves

While these are books that I go to to soothe that info hungry part of myself, so they feed my herbal head:

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier
  • Backyard Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
  • A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieve
  • Male Herbal by James Green
  • Earthwise Herbal (both volume Old and New World) by Matthew Wood
  • Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress
  • Adaptogens by David Winston and Steven Maimes
  • Dispensing with Tradition: A Practitioner’s Guide to Using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way by Anne McIntyre and Michelle Boudin

Not that the first list lacks for knowledge nor the second one for spirit/heart but they have different albeit complementary strengths.

I find you need both an openness of spirit/heart and knowledge then you apply both in life and as you gain experience with those tools, you develop wisdom.  🙂

Here’s a really cute video about loving books!

Too fun! 🙂

So what are your favorite herbal or plant books?

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Book Review – Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr

Posted on July 17, 2013. Filed under: Book Reviews, Path of the Healer, Random Musings, Uncategorized, Yoga | Tags: , , |

I recently finished reading Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr  for a book club discussion and have to admit that it, and the discussion at the book club, stirred up a lot of thoughts for me about yoga practice, healing, herbalism and life.

Cover to book Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

Cover: Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

The Basics:

Even setting aside my complete aversion to heat to the point which hot yoga is as about as welcome a practice to me as a soapy bath is to a cat.  I have to admit the book was a bit of bear for me even though there were parts that I found good (such as his way of really getting into the heads of the some practitioners) because there were others that I found almost painful (like his sidestepping the more egregious goings on.)   I felt at times that the author was trying too hard to present all sides and often looking a bit too much to rationalize some of the behavior in the beginning of the book.

While he does toward the end of the book begin to look at some of the problematic aspects of Bikram and his style of yoga – he tries a little too hard to sidestep using the word “cult-like” to describe some of the goings on and that is just screaming out even through the filter of the author’s narrative.  Let’s face it, what else can you call a man who while leading a teacher training sits on an elevated throne, with a special air conditioner to keep himself cool while overlooking a sea of students sweltering in the heat, as a collection of women massage his body – it’s hard to sugar coat the imagery, and expletives, which something like that invokes.

At times, I try to be generous and assume he’s simply trying to present “both” sides while trying to preserve his access to write the book – as well as letting us draw our own conclusions. At others, I suspect it’s a disturbing blind spot.  Still a worthwhile read in trying to understand a world I, for one, would never want to be part of.

 The Deeper Stuff:

What’s really interesting to me about all of this is the issues of pain, growth and what is yoga (and healing) in general that this stirred up.

I often look at these people who pursue these extremes of heat and exertion in yoga (and other things) and I tend to wonder if some of them are a bit addicted to the brain chemicals the body releases to help you deal with it pain and stress on the system.

Frankly, when it is hot your body doesn’t want to be terribly active.   And if you’re exerting yourself extremely in the heat it can only assume your life is in danger and releases chemicals to suppress pain and cover up the damage and shifts the flow of blood and oxygen to the where it would be most needed until the crisis is over (which means shortages to the rest.)

That’s where it gets interesting to me.  Advocates for that sort of thing talk about how you can get deeper into your poses than in normal temperatures.  But then I see accounts of people, like in the book, who can’t do the same poses in a normal temperature room that they can in a hot one.  So essentially it seems to me to be a prop – but one that some of the advocates aren’t letting go of so they can learn to do the work without the external aid.  So at best it can be a illusion of a short cut to what their practice could be like, but actually isn’t.   As well as perhaps illustrating a classic Western obsession with achieving a destination, while missing the point that the true wisdom lay in the journey there and not the actual destination.

More importantly, it seems antithetical to what I view yoga as being.  Part of yoga is learning to listen and communicate with your body.  At its best, it can be a deep communing and learning encompassing both the body’s places of ease and discomforts.  When you push into such  an extreme position that your body masks its own injuries and pain to keep you going you’ve lost that connection and communication and instead are embracing a lie and false view of self. That is missing the meaning of yoga for me.

Beyond Yoga:

What struck me beyond this- is how much it parallels the way it can be sometimes with Western medicine, with herbalism  and in life in general as well.

Too often, we seek a drug or an herb to mask a symptom – lose that connection with the body and so avoid the deeper truth of what is going on.  Cover up that persistent itch or pain that is a warning and miss dealing with the deeper cause of it because you mask the symptom – avoiding communication and exploration.

Or we do something to mask a symptom of what may be going on with our lives and cover up that discomfort rather then learn from it to see what it is we truly need to change about how we are, and what we do, in our world.

Something to think about, isn’t it?

Just my insane .02 in reaction to the book.

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Book Review (Herbal): Backyard Medicine – Harvest and Make your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal

Posted on March 25, 2013. Filed under: Book Reviews |

While I’ve used it as one of my references for years, only recently did I sit down and read Backyard Medicine – Harvest and Make your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal cover to cover – and what a rewarding experience it is.

What can I say but this is one of my favorite general herbal books.   It doesn’t cover everything, but the 50 plants that it covers it covers well.

You might think, oh I know my herbs and I don’t really need a book that appears to be aimed at a general audience, but you’d be wrong. 😉

I suspect almost any plant lover will find something to love about the book and probably learn something new to boot.   It is a wonderful blend of facts, folklore, history, uses, botany and how-tos.   And it is filled with some of the best pictures of any herbal books I’ve seen.   Heck, I think the photos are frame-able bits of beauty for any plant friend.

I particularly like how they blend in bits of fun real life like this one about Meadowsweet:

Everybody says the smell is full of summer echoes, but some do find it rather overpowering.  Matthew is one of these, and says:  “I owe a lifelong debt to meadowsweet as this was the very first long word I uttered.  At about three years old, according to my mother, when I was saying almost nothing else, out pops this word I’d heard on family walks in the Trent marshes.  These days I’m more likely to swear, though, as I get hay fever if I’m too close to the flower.”

or one of my favorite folklore bits from the book about Blackberries:

But folklore dictates that you should not gather the berries after Michaelmas, because that is when the Devil spits or urinates on them.  Or, we’d say, the frost has got to them.

There are many ideas for preparations and uses of the plants discussed – not all of them work for me as my first choice of how to work with them – but there was always some use, preparation or combination that caught my interest pretty regularly.  Offering nifty things to explore in the future.

It’s not a treatment oriented herbal with a dedicated section organized by conditions , but it does have a fair index at the back with many conditions listed.   Instead it is a wonderful exploration of the plants you would find most commonly around you and is filled with love for them.

Definitely worth getting.  ( And it may change, but as I write this it appears to be almost half off at Amazon.com – I linked to their listing in the title of the book at the start of the post.)

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Celebrating the Joy of Trees with Books about Them

Posted on December 17, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Trees |

Since I just taught a workshop on working with tree medicines last week and next week is the climax of the ritual tree sacrifice to some magical red suited man (I always found Santa a little suspicious what with the enslaving elves to work in his factory and whipping reindeer into being his transport, let alone breaking into people’s homes…but I digress) I thought it would be fun to pull together a list of my favorite books celebrating trees.

Book-tree

Yes, yes I appreciate the irony of books being made of trees – shoo, shoo you malcontents!

So here in alphabetical order by author last name, lest I be accused of playing favorites are my top ten favorite tree books:

    • The Life of the Leaf by Steven Vogel: Focuses on the physical sciences aspects of trees. Gives a great contrast to the ones that focus on medicinal or biological/botanical aspects. Can be a little bit of a slog since even toned down for the layman as it is; it is still the physics of trees. But it is still very interesting stuff.
    • Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History by Diana Wells: Fascinating collections of stories, facts and history about different tree species.

Hopefully they might serve to inspire your interest or tweak some holiday giving for the tree loving people in your life!

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Book Review: trees a visual guide by Tony Rodd and Jennifer Stackhouse

Posted on August 3, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Trees | Tags: , |

Trees are the bees knees!  (Yes, yes, I know left brain it sounds silly but I’m waxing* poetic or at least very silly.)

(*Yes that’s a bee pun!)

I’ve been spending time this summer as part of my Summer of Tree Love getting to know them including reading all kinds of tree related books.   I’m particularly excited about the latest book I’ve read about the subject – trees a visual guide by Tony Rodd and Jennifer Stackhouse

One of the big reasons is that it has many, many…more than a few…beautiful and inspiring pictures of trees!

More than a picture book though, it is also a lite botany book focused on trees.   In particular, it is a form and function focused book and not a tree identification book, although it has a nice reference section on 99 individual trees.

It’s broken down by thematic chapters:

  • A world of trees:  a basic overview of what constitutes a tree, the evolutionary history of trees as well as considerations of climate
  • Form and function: One of my favorite sections which goes into the essence of the parts of the tree, its reproduction, environment and the external factors affecting them (soil, predators, etc.)
  • Diversity of design:  How the different types of trees express the elements above and deal with their environment
  • Communities of life:  the natural world that develops around the differing community of trees – other plants, animals, fungi, etc.
  • Trees and the human world:  how we use trees in society historically and currently
  • An indispensable resource:  Trees immense value to the life on the planet as a whole
  • Factfile:  Nice sum up of leave type, tree appearance and families

Which really covers the bases well.

There are little touches throughout like have to scale icons of people next to trees to illustrate the sizes which is a marvelous nice quick visual aid that I wish other tree books would do. And it is filled with moments where you learn new things.  I periodically thought “wow I didn’t know that”, “oh interesting”, “now it makes sense”, etc.   Plus did I mention the many nifty pictures?

Now I’ll grant that it doesn’t talk about the medicinal properties of trees but I still think it is interesting and valuable for herbal folks.    It can be pretty easy to just focus on the medicinal uses of the plants but I feel you can work with best them by understanding them better which means a little botany and this is a very painless introduction to that topic.  On that note, I’d also recommend Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon which is an amazing book – both books work well together.

Yes, someone will no doubt be raising their hand going Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel which is another very nifty book but that is oriented toward botany for identification which is great but I like that these two are more form and function.  It’s the difference between just knowing someone’s height, weight and name – and actually knowing something about them.

I think it is important for herbalists (and folks who love plants in general) to really know more about plants and not just how to ID them and use them.  It is a more respectful approach to them spiritually as well IMO.

Anyway…I definitely recommend this one.  It’s pretty, informative and fun – how many books can say that?

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Book Review: The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore by Fred Hageneder

Posted on June 12, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Trees | Tags: |

Admittedly, I’m beginning to feel like Goldilocks in the quest for the just right book on tree medicine and spirituality. That said once more into the breech dear friends….

I just finished The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore by Fred Hageneder and enjoyed it it in many ways, but found it still not quite what I was hoping for.

The book drifts along the boundary between coffee table book and a reading book. It’s filled with big beautiful pictures of…. you guessed it TREES! The photos are generally magical and often invoked a deep yearning in me to be with the trees in the places shown. They aren’t ID style photos and generally couldn’t be used to ID the trees discussed in real life. But that is clearly not the intention of the author – instead they are meant to inspire that sense of magic embodied by our tree friends and not to stir up that intellectual labeling we so tend to do.

The book covers more than 50 trees (58 if you’re the sort that counts – which apparently I may actually be.) Which is fair coverage, but given it isn’t focused on a particular region means it isn’t remotely covering them all. (BTW, one thing that bemused me is that the book is alphabetical by the trees’ Latin names, but the table of contents only lists the common English names – not a problem just amusing.)

The chapters are structured in a very exact format with an introduction which covers very, basic botany followed by sections on:

  • Practical Uses
  • Natural Healing
  • Culture, Myth and Symbol

And a sidebar in each with sections on:

  • Symbolism
  • Divine Association
  • Astrological Association
  • Superstition
  • Historical Spotlight

But not every tree has every section in the sidebar.

I actually found the section on Culture, Myth and Symbol often the most interesting segments of the text and they increased my urge to learn more about those aspects. I’ll certainly be reading other books more specifically on those topics in the future.

The natural healing parts varied tremendously. Some were brief and forgettable. Other offered more interesting notions but none of them are quite detailed enough though to be a real herbal reference. But instead just served to offer some tantalizing hints of things to be researched. But still I really wanted a lot more coverage on that front. (I did find the uses for Tree Essences very interesting.)

The sidebars were not quite effective for me. If I were to try to put my finger on it, I think the format was too constraining and it felt like he was trying force some things to fit that really didn’t seem like they did. But every now and then there would be something I loved – generally in Superstition like this:

“In 19th-century England and France, the finger and toe-nail clippings of a person who had a fever or who was suffering from a toothache were buried under an ash tree in the belief that this would cure their affliction.”

I’m not sure why but that just really struck me. Reading more about some of the differing superstitions and folk beliefs about trees would be amazing and fascinating in itself. I’ll definitely search for some of those.

Overall, a beautiful book to enhance one’s appreciation of trees. Not essential for herbalists but a nice adjunct if you are interested in the non-herbal aspects of trees as well. A good part of my budding tree library.

Now to continue that quest for that mythical perfect book on tree healing and spirituality….

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Book Review: Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman

Posted on May 20, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Trees | Tags: |

“I am the Lorax and I speak for….”

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Stop.     You used to be cool back in the day, but now you shill for greenwashing companies, so away with you and let me get on with at little tree love today.

I’m embarking on a tree themed summer and as part of that I’m starting to line up some readings along those lines.  First up is Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman.

Cover to Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman

I generally prefer to review what a book is rather than review what it isn’t.  But I’m going to do that anyway.   This book is so almost what I wanted but not quite.  Not that it is a bad book, it is in fact good for what it is.  I just kept having moments where I felt a nagging feeling of something lacking or wanting something else or more.

The introduction to the book sets a great tone where she says:

“My purpose in writing this book is twofold.  First, I wish to remind the world of the beauty and poetry of the large trees that are being decimated everywhere to make room for parking lots and shopping malls, to make paper and wood products, and also through the destruction of rainforests and wildlands.  My second intention is to bring to public awareness how useful natural medicines are, how easy they are to prepare, and how available they are year round in our own back yards.”

In some ways the book does just that.  For each of the 19 major tree families she covers, there is a chapter with sections on:

  • Brief descriptions of individual species within that family
  • Practical Uses
  • Herbal Uses
  • Magical Uses
  • Poems between each chapter

One of the problems for me is the the black and white drawing for the trees.  They are fine drawings but linked with the limited descriptions they fail to invoke the trees discussed for me.  Let alone the majesty and power of them.  I’ll contrast it to a similar book The Meaning of Trees: Botany, History, Healing, Lore by Fred Hageneder (which I’ll be review before long) which has wonderful color photos that force you to pause and take in the tree.

There are times when I was reading on certain trees and felt them well covered but too often, I found myself thinking “Is that all? Isn’t there more to tell about that tree?”

At one point, she talks about Christmas and problems with attitudes toward  it as well as the killing of pine trees for it.  Then she relates her friend’s solution “to seek out the ugliest most asymmetrical tree” and that she found that “my little misshapen tree had a natural, windswept beauty that made it truly original and deeply loved.”   And I couldn’t help but think how I liked that story better in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

There are things that I wish had more explanation like when she talks of hawthorn:

“It is wise not to use hawthorn alone as it is a powerful herb.  Mix it with borage, motherwort, cayenne, garlic, and dandelion flowers for a long term heart program.”

Where I’d love more discussion of that since I haven’t seen or heard that warning before.  I’m not doubting her, but simply wanted more.  Mind you while I’ve used hawthorn by itself many times, I generally prefer it in blends myself including one of my favorites – hawthorn, eleuthero, licorice, milky oats and violet – I’ve never noticed a problem with using it alone.

But there are also profound bits like this scattered throughout:

“Large trees are a very valuable asset to the physical and mental health of society in general.  Tall trees act to conduct energy from the atmosphere to the ground, and vice versa.  Large trees in the neighborhood contribute to feelings of stability and strength for the community.”

I wouldn’t mind reading a larger essay along those lines.

I think in some ways I’m sounding harsher than is necessary because I suspect the book is partly just showing its age. It’s from 1991, out of print, and I’d love to see it revised and expanded.   A lot of its information can be found elsewhere, and sometimes more thoroughly, but in separate books.   If you already have good herbal reference books you’ll find the medicinal coverage, ID books will introduce to trees more completely, you can find books on the spiritual and magical aspects.

Nowadays, if you have other books that cover these things separately you don’t need to hunt it down.  (While back in 1991 it would have been the go to book, IMO.)  But if you happen to come across a good used copy, then definitely grab it as a nice addition to your herbal library.  There’s still wisdom and useful info to be found in there if you look for it.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

“I am the Lorax and I speak for Waki-Cola in our new Enviro-Bottle..”

Out, out damn Lorax. I’m dialing 911….

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Influences: The Forest by Roger Caras

Posted on April 29, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews, Influences | Tags: |

Sage Butterfly came up with a great idea on how to show appreciation for Earth and combine it with a love a reading by having a blog contest for folks to “share what books inspire them to live or garden more sustainably.” (Sage Butterfly’s Earth Day Reading Project)

Since my passion for nature and books rank pretty high in my life, I I wanted to give it a spin and spent considerable time thinking about what book would I focus on. There were several contenders which I’ll talk about another day, but my first choice was The Forest by Roger Caras.

Cover to The Forest by Roger Caras

Caras’ book always held a special magic for me, because it was the book that really got me seeing the hidden and connected world in nature. It’s a narrative view of a forest exploring the life, and lives, of everything within it from the most microscopic to the largest plants and animals.

What made it powerful for me was the way it invoked the sense of how much life, connections and activity are essentially invisible to us. Its tales of the complex life in the soil to the animals that hide from us, the struggles and interactions that occur around us made me realize what we see and we think we know is only a portion of a much larger and mostly elusive whole.

The seed it planted, so to speak, grew over the years both connected to new understanding and old pieces of knowledge:

  • The way plants and fungi form communities sharing nutrients and information beneath the soil.
  • The chemical messages plants share
  • The language of scents, unnoticed by us, that animals and insect live in
  • The many times we attempt to shape the natural world only to have it change in unexpected ways
  • The complex community of life that lives inside us and our health depends on

From that I understood that we don’t live as part of the food chain we were foolish taught as children, with humans conveniently on top. Or even a food web which still sounds like something we master. Instead we are a thread in a much broader and vastly interconnected tapestry of life.

Pulling threads and altering threads has unforeseen effects. The more we alter it to suit ourselves, the more fragile the whole becomes. We need to live sustainably or risk unraveling it and ourselves in the process.

For me that powerful realization grew from that beginning of insight contained in Caras’ book.

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Book Review – The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Herbal Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood

Posted on April 2, 2012. Filed under: Book Reviews |

I just finished The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Herbal Medicinal Plants by  Matthew Wood and given that it is more than 500 pages I feel I’ve accomplished quite a task in doing that! Mind you, it is an extremely worthwhile time spent doing that.

Right in the introduction of the book as he provides a look at philosophies of herbalism, as well as his own, he sets a tone I can completely respect:

“The selection of medicinal herbs was originally base on “tradition only, with shrewd guesses, and close observations,” as Dr. W. T. Fernie (1914,8) wrote. Or, as Nicholas Culpeper (1653) would say, Dr. Tradition, Dr. Reason, and Dr. Experience. These are the foundations The Earthwise Herbal particularly cherishes, and attempts to build upon. Modern knowledge is not ignored or trivialized, but the latter has in recent times been pushed with great zeal, at the expense of tradition, shrewdness, and observation, and it is time that we begin to value experiential and traditional wisdom.”

Philosophically I like at lot so it made for a very promising start.

The first few chapters of the book covered overviews of Energetics of Traditional Medicine, Herbal Actions, The Art of Herbal Practice and Preparation and Dosage – which gives a useful skeleton to hang the rest of the book around. While each of the chapters are good they clearly aren’t meant to be real how to training but just a quick introduction. The bulk of the book is the Materia Medica of numerous individual plants and that part is extensive and fascinating.

In the introduction to this section he describes not only how it is structured but more importantly his approach and intention in writing it:

“It was not my intention to write a formulary, or workbook giving specific preparation methods, formulations, and standard dosages. I have instead merely handed on a collection of notes on preparation from my own or others’ experience that should prove useful and may, in the future, provide material for a formulary.”

So while, of course, an excellent reference book when you want to look up a particular plant, I think its greater value is as a basis for exploration, inspiration and experimentation. The text is sprinkled throughout with ideas of different ways herbalists have worked with and prepared the various herbs discussed. What really shown brightest for me though was not the ideas of the contemporary herbalists but those of previous generations where I’d stumble across something that would cause my eyes to gleam and a deep smile to press across my lips as I thought “I have to try that!” (Like garlic infused brandy which is seriously on my agenda for future explorations!)

It is also great for drawing your attention to plants you may, or may not, be aware of but simply haven’t worked with as much. For example, I was reminded how much short shrift I give to the medicinal and healing properties of what are more commonly used as culinary herbs (basil, oregano, sage, thyme, etc.) Definitely thyme (sorry I couldn’t resist!) to give them the respect they deserve as long time healing allies by working with them more and getting to know them outside the kitchen! 🙂

I think my only frustrations revolved around getting all excited to see discussion of a plant I wanted to read more about – only to find there was very brief coverage of it and much longer ones on others I wasn’t nearly as interested in. But realistically, it would be nearly impossible to cover everything so extensively and meeting the interests of every single reader would be quite impossible.

Even though, I knew going into it from his description (which I quoted above) that it wouldn’t necessarily go into depth on formulations. There were times when he’d discuss the use of different plants and I really wanted to know more details and had to step back and remind myself that wasn’t the goal of this particular book. Those would have to be just enticing tidbits for my own future herbal journeys.

And one thing that amused me terribly – these two entries in a row:

“Spiraca ulmaria. Meadowsweet.
Refer to the entry under the modern name, Filipendula ulmaria.”

“Stachys officinalis. Wood Betony.
Refer to the entry under the old name, Betonica officinalis.”

I can kind of rationalize why, but still it struck me as laugh out loud funny. But I’m weird that way.

Overall, a wonderful reference book that I have, and will continue to, referred to often. It’s a great foundation for research and future adventures in herbalism. I certain made a great deal of notes of things that I plan to look into more and explore – and who knows what new ones I’ll find as I return to it.

One final great quote from the book:

 “I do not feel that is a good idea to copy the United States Pharmacopeia or National Formulary slavishly. Herbs are like condiments; they can be prepared in subtle, beautiful, and almost countless ways.”

Exactly.

I think you can make magic working with the plants but to do so you have to embrace that free form, magical creative energy in yourself.

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