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What's Science Got to Do With It? by Susun Weed
What's Science Got to Do With It? by Susun Weed

Once upon a time, healing was considered an art. Healing was understood by all to be a complex interaction between the patient, the healer, the family, the community, the environment (plants and animals and fungi and insects and rocks and fish and birds), and the unseen Universe of ancestors, guides, archetypes, Creator Spirits, the God/dess, and Mysterious Movement.

Once upon a time, the healing arts included a keen knowledge of human behavioral psychology, a thorough knowledge of the natural world and plants, especially mind-altering ones, a flair for the dramatic arts, especially singing/chanting and costuming/body painting, and a working knowledge of gross anatomy and physiology.

Once upon a time, science was an art. Art does not preclude or oppose science. But science holds itself aloof from art.

Science is clean and repeatable. Art (like life) is dirty and unpredictable.

Science is measurable and precise. Art (like life) is infinite and chaotic.

Science views Art as fuzzy, soft, and too anecdotal/personal to be trustworthy. (It is interesting to me that the Liberal Arts University I attended -- UCLA -- required students to take a variety of science courses, but the Science College I turned down -- MIT -- did not require students to study the Arts.)

Science factual. Art as fantastical. Life is a bit of both

The Art of healing has been denigrated and the Science of healing venerated. The healer relies on tests in favor of experience, general studies instead of unique individuals. The healer spends more and more time interacting with machines and drugs and technology and less and less time with the patient; more and more time studying books and less and less time learning about the strange, symbolic, provocative powers of the psyche. The healer focuses more and more on fixing the sick individual and less and less on the patient's need for wholeness and meaning.

The herbalist becomes a biochemist. The pharmacist no longer needs to know botany. Herbs become drugs in green coats. Herbal remedies are standardized to the active ingredient.

Is this what I want? Is this what drew me to herbs? Is this what fascinates me about herbal medicine? My answer to all these questions is absolutely NOT.

I am fascinated by the miracle-workers, the shamans, the witch doctors, the old-wife herbalists, the wise women. I want to learn (and teach) their skills, their courage, their connection to Life, and their ability to see and support the changes -- from birth to puberty to death -- in the lives of others.

Maria Sabina, one of the twentieth century's most renowned shamanic healers, didn't need technology to "see into the insides of things." She had the aid of the "little people" (psilocybin mushrooms). Students of herbalism living in the Amazon jungle are apprenticed to psychoactive plants as well as to human teachers.

Science may seem to be catching on. Over the past decades, Science has grown more at ease with medicinal mushrooms and psychoactive plants, but in its own way, as sources of drugs or as standardized drug-like consumer goods

* When Kyolic Garlic was shown by Consumer Reports to have virtually no allicin (the "active" ingredient), Kyolic countered with an ad campaign claiming superiority because it contained a different, stronger, better active ingredient.

* Should standardized Hypericum tinctures be focused on hypericin or hyperforin?

* An article in JAMA on use of Ginkgo biloba to counter dementia explained that no active ingredient from among the several hundred constituents present had been determined and it was, in fact, likely that the effect resulted from a complex, synergistic interplay of the parts. Therefore, the article concluded, ginkgo is not safe to use — until an active ingredient has been established.

* An MD on a menopause panel with me told the audience that no herb was safe to use unless its active ingredient was measured and standardized.

Perhaps the active part is the messy part, the changeable part, the subtle part, and the invisible part.

Perhaps the most active ingredient of a plant is the part that cannot be measured: the energy, the life force, the chi.

Perhaps the fairy of the plant plays a part.

Perhaps focusing on the most active constituents leads us to believe that only poisons are capable of activity.

Perhaps the active part of the plant isn't in the plant at all, but is a trigger to our own brains so that health naturally results.

These active parts are refined away in standardized products,

Does science have anything to do with it? Certainly! The process of identifying specific compounds in plants, replicating them in the laboratory and mass-producing them as drugs cannot be replicated by or superseded by any healer or herbalist. Preparation of standardized drugs protects the consumer (usually) and protects the plants from over-harvesting (although the net effect on the environment may be detrimental).

Science is ideal as the guardian of the purity of the herbs we trade in commerce. But Art is the guardian of the purity of the herbs we gather ourselves.

(A tip from the apprentice book: When Harvesting put only one kind of plant in a basket. This allows one to quickly and easily notice if an interloper has been mistakenly introduced.)

This story doesn't have an ending, for it is ongoing. The dance of health and illness, of art and science (and don't forget commerce) has no pause. So the ending of our tale is not happy, but neither is it sad. Take a look, the real ending of the rainbow is in your own heart.

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