A Book Review: The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth by Stephen Harrod Buhner. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2002.
After beautifully and poetically describing his early connections to nature, connections that were taught to him by his great-grandparents, Buhner ventures into vividly describing the interior wounds caused by our soulless world and the exterior wounds of watching its destruction. Our languages, whether cultural or scientific, define who we are. The overall understanding of the aliveness of our Earth is lost when the interconnection and interdependence of everything that is of the Earth is broken down into small component pieces for study and define the languages of science. This disconnect from the Earth is also evident in our culturally spoken languages. As children we naturally experience the living Earth with love, but we are soon taught in school, religious institutions, from television and by parents that the Universe, Earth and everything of the Earth is a lifeless and soulless machine over which we have dominion to be consumed as we see fit. Buhner writes from his heart, describing emotionally where this loss of love and knowledge of Nature is taking us. This disconnect is truly terrifying, a loss that separates us from the aliveness of the world around us.
Our separation from the living Earth very direct impacts the world of medicine and pharmaceuticals. 95% of the pharmaceutical drugs we take are not metabolized by the body but excreted, drugs with questionable effectiveness that generally treat only symptoms without providing a cure. These drugs excreted in our urine and feces go into the environment and are not removed by waste treatment facilities, thus they add greatly to pollution and directly end up in the animals, insects and plants that we are so dependent upon. The effect of these pollutants on the Earth and its life is not know but is considered one cause of the extinction of so many species. Other sources of pollution to the environment come from the manufacturing of these pharmaceuticals. Also a huge amount of consumed or thrown out personal care products end up in the environment. Several other sources of pollutants to the environment are the waste products of the chemo and radiation therapies and the medical, infectious and pathological wastes produced in hospitals and other medical facilities including the toxic dioxins, phthalates and mercury. Then there is the severe problem that comes from the continued search for new antibiotics to deal with the pathogenic bacteria and other microorganisms that are rapidly becoming resistant to the presently known antibiotics, antibiotics that destroy both the harmful bacteria as well as the beneficial bacteria that we so much depend upon. In addition the medical establishment has a history of violently suppressing the use of the natural medicinal herbs that had so effectively kept life on Earth healthy for hundreds of thousands of years.
After reading these frightening chapters on pharmaceuticals and antibiotics the chapter Plants are All Chemists provides a new sense of hope. We are dependent upon each plant for breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, a process which has remained in its delicate and sustaining balance for all life on Earth, but a balance that the human species is now in the process of destroying. Beyond this dependency we have much to learn from Earth’s flora in how it survives and stays healthy, and how to live as part of this balance by listening to the flora as did our hunting-gathering ancestors. Plants have many thousands of chemicals in their environment that they have learned to effectively use, some to support and protect their propagation for seed germination and through their roots, some for maintaining their health by fighting disease and some for their growth. Some of these natural chemicals are pathogenic and harmful, but the plant produce antifungal, antibiotic and antimicrobial compounds when needed without creating resistant pathogens.
Plants when needing to be pruned can allow foraging predators, animals and insects, to assist in this task, but they also know when enough is enough and have chemicals to end this foraging, pheromones and scents that send the forager fleeing, some that can make the plant toxic, and some that interfere with the fertility of the foragers thus decreasing their population. When the plant needs room to grow it also has allopathic chemicals that cause the competitive plants to retreat. Buhner offers many examples for each of these situations, e.g. in this last case the toxic Juglone of the Black Walnut that has caused us problems from the several Black Walnuts that stand near our fruit trees. We have search for what we can plant near them and found that Cherries, Red Osier Dogwood and the Viburnums get along with this toxin. What is most impressive is a plant’s ability to communicate in this world of interdependency and the rapidity with which it can respond with specific chemicals when needed for growth, health and sustainability. Joining in this communication by learning to listen to the plants can be effectively facilitated by using ecstatic and/or hypnotic trance as I have used and describe in my previous writings.
Buhner then presents the concept of a “keystone plant” that attracts other plants into its community or archipelago upon which it depends for health maintenance, plants that are also dependent upon each other. His example is the community of plants around the “keystone” Ironwood trees in the Sonora Desert that have taken hundreds of years to become established. He also describes the “nurse” plant that leads the way to create such a community before the keystone plant finds its way to join it. On the wooded hillside of our acre in the Hudson Valley there are two ironwoods that are growing in the middle of a grove of dogwood. Maybe in this case the dogwoods are the keystone plants, but I have been clearing out a tangle of invasive multiflora rose and barberry, both very invasive in the area. Maybe it is a mistake, i.e. if these invasive plants have been supporting the ironwoods and dogwoods, but I have left a few of these invasives. We have a small herd of deer in residence and since the barberry is a magnet for ticks, maybe they should be removed though the barberry also has many medicinal qualities. Buhner’s book is very thought provoking, and in a personal communication he agrees that at least some of these invasives should remain.
Buhner then continues with many fascinating examples of how animals use medicinal herbs. Especially interesting is the chimpanzee’s use of the rough, bristly and hairy leaves of the Aspilia to rid themselves of intestinal worms. The chemicals in this leaf weaken and even kill the worms, but the chimpanzee folds the unchewed leaf like an accordion and swallows it whole. The folds of the rough bristly leaf catch the worms as the leaf passes through the GI track, pulling the worms loose and out. Buhner’s numerous examples reveal the high intelligence of the animals and show in an amazing way how the animals have learned to use specific plants effectively for specific problems.
The biofeedback loops of communication within a plant species, between different species of plants, and between plants and other life send messages for when to use specific chemicals produced by the plants and other soil organisms to maintain plant health, growth and fertility. The artificial pharmaceuticals that end up in the environment cause chaos in this network of life causing the loss of many species. Again the examples offered by Buhner of this chaos are frightening.
Plants are ecological medicines. Cancer has increased “exactly parallel to the decrease of diverse plants as foods and medicine” (p. 206). In 1900 a person’s diet included a much larger diversity of plants and many were wild-gathered, plants that contained multiple types of compounds that inhibit cell-division and cancer, thus cancer was much less of a problem then than it is today.
Buhner in Chapter 10 returns to his beautiful and poetic way of writing from the heart. He offers a hopeful description of what could be a healthy future if we can return to our rightful place in the continued process of evolution rather than thinking of ourselves as superior to all other life on Earth. We again need to learn to listen to the plants that also listen to us and know our needs. We again need to learn the language of the plants. The chapter ends with a beautiful series of exercises on how to listen, not intellectually but emotionally and spiritually from the heart, to the spirits of the Earth’s flora, a topic that has been so important to me personally in my teaching of ecstatic trance, a trance state that distracts us from interfering intellectual thoughts through drumming and opens us to the ecstatic world of the spirits. So important in these nine exercises are the latter exercises when the earlier exercises are repeated but this time taking with us on these trance journeys our younger selves. As it did for Buhner during his childhood, our child self so naturally knows how to listen to the spirits of the natural and wild world. By seeing this world through the eyes of our child-self we can again open ourselves to this world of the spirits as I write about in my book, Trance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers: Ecstatic Practices to Reconnect with the Great Mother and Heal the Earth.
The last chapter of the book calls upon four very articulate writers who describe from the heart their personal journeys of reconnecting with the Earth. The Lost Language of Plants is a most important book to read to help in guiding use to finding those ways to sustain the health of the Earth for our children, grandchildren and all future generations.Nicholas E. Brink, PhDAuthor of
- Ecstatic Soul Retrieval (publisher – Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.)
- Power of Ecstatic Trance
- Baldr’s Magic
- Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic
- Trance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers
- Grendel and His Mother (publisher – Routledge)
- Applying the Constructivist Approach to Cognitive Therapy: Resolving the Unconscious Past (Routledge – in press)
Available from Postmark Books in Rosendale, NY or your local bookseller – IndieBound.org