Ramping up for el Dia de los Muertos


Once again, it's been a rather long break here on Herbis Orbis. I've been AWOL thanks to all my spare moments being devoted to preparations for Lugh's Day of the Dead show this Friday. Altar-building, sugar-skull hunting, beloved volunteer-wrangling and general art production (see this year's poster artwork above; Sharpie on drawing paper!) have all been on my Dia de los Muertos plate. On top of that we have our Mystery School Samhain celebration and ritual tonight, for which Ima asked me to bake saffron- and cinnamon-scented soul cakes and possibly reprise my role as a goddess who somehow gets trapped in the Underworld (last year I was Inanna; this year Persephone). My acting skills are flimsy at best but I go into it with gusto.

Also, I just returned from a brief trip to Columbia, Maryland, where the American Herbalists Guild held their annual symposium.  The content from such famed herbalists as David Winston, Christopher Hobbs, Bob Duggan, Simon Mills, James Duke and Candis Cantin was excellent, and I wished I could have attended all the concurrent sessions. Still, a real feeling of "tribe" eluded me, much unlike the comparatively dreamy -- in a good way -- East West seminar last spring. In an e-mail to my friend Ben, the best way I could find to describe the AHG conference experience was that "I felt like the out-of-town visitor in a Tim Burton comedy set in a Whole Foods."

A highlight of the trip was getting to spend a bewildering and yet totally satisfying less-than-ten-inconsecutive-minutes with my teacher Michael Tierra, who reminded me to go back to the Kybalion and meditate upon the hermetic Principle of Rhythm. In other words, "Stop being so damn sensitive all the time."

When I wasn't sitting in lecture or being bewildered and sensitive, I was in my hotel room with my buddy Christina, eating cold pizza and giggling over bathroom humor... which was really the perfect foil for spending eight hours surrounded by more batik-printed, patchouli-scented, vegan-thin, surprisingly touchy people than you will ever meet in a lifetime in Chicago.

More on Samhain tomorrow!

Happy Culpepermas: Nicholas Culpeper, Patron Saint of Modern Herbalists


Today, Oct. 18, is Nicholas Culpeper's birthday!

In honor of this special day, I'd like to provide a few links and info on one of my herbal heroes, Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th-century, pre-Restoration herbalist who strove to bring the power of botanical medicines back into the hands of lay people.

The patron saint attribution is my own; in a striking parallel to our own era, Culpeper faced a megalomaniacal, money-hungry medical/pharmaceutical establishment which sought to control the treatment of ailments large and small and denounced anything else (particularly folk herbal healing) as quackery or witchcraft. In fact, Culpeper himself spent time in prison under the latter charge.

At the heart of Culpeper's career was his conviction that medicine was not a commercial monopoly and secret meant only for doctors, but a birthright of the people. He had good reason to declare that "no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician" -- unlike other apothecaries of the time, he was Cambridge-educated and, when only an apprentice, decided to translate the (Royal) College of Physicians' Pharmacopoeia Londonensis for the benefit of the Society of Apothecaries and the lay public. (The College published the book in Latin so that it could only be read by the educated -- that is, a tiny minority of 17th-century England.)  Culpeper found it to contain nebulous, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes dangerous or impossible recipes of herbs and other substances that could either not be identified or could only be obtained by the extravagantly rich. He published this translation with his own commentary, and this act put him squarely in the midst of a years-long political battle between apothecaries and doctors.

Culpeper spent most of his life cataloging and researching herbs of the English isles. He maintained that plants grow near the people meant to consume them as medicines, and employed astrological principles to his categorization of the herbs' energy and actions (in other words, an herb described in traditional Chinese medicine as hot and blood-vitalizing might be attributed to Mars, or a warming harmonizing herb might be the Sun in Leo, herbs that drain dampness of the lower jiao attributed to Venus, etc.). I certainly agree with this concept of eating/healing with locally-grown plants, but I wonder how Culpeper would feel about planetary herbalism now that exotic plants are easier to acquire and grow at home. He was a product of his time, and I imagine he'd find the notion of planetary herbalism quite agreeable if he were alive now.

He maintained a well-known clinic in Spitalfields, so named for the hospitals and asylums situated in the poor East End of London. He saw dozens of patients per day and didn't turn away those who could not pay. Because he used medicines made from locally grown herbs, his treatments and formulas were infinitely more affordable for common folk than the expensive potions that the College of Physicians declared were the only legal medicines.

Culpeper's famous "The English Physitian" concentrates on English herbs, including botanical descriptions, where to find them, energetic/astrological attribution, recipes for medicines, and of course, indications. It's written in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone meant for lay people, and he doesn't resist the urge to sometimes throw in a bit of snarky, humorous editorializing (usually at the expense of doctors). "The English Physitian" has been in continuous print since it was first put to paper in 1652. (Beware new titles published posthumously by his wife; she really tried to make a lot of money on his popular and trusted name. There are a number of fakes out there, some including alchemical formulas neither created nor endorsed by Culpeper himself.) Culpeper died at the young age of 38 from tuberculosis aggravated by a chest wound sustained when he fought in the English Civil War.

As now, there were certainly many righteous doctors practicing during Culpeper's time (like William Harvey), but his actions called attention to the corruption and dangerous practices running rife in the powerful College of Physicians, and in the long run restored better balance to the healing arts at home and within the medical establishment.

And now, in honor of the Feast of St. Nick, those links I promised:

The English Physitian (1652)- Culpeper's materia medica and magnum opus online. This pharmacopoeia provided the kind of organization upon which later herbals and dispensatories would be based.

Get a copy of The English Physician or Culpeper's Herbal for your library! The latter is illustrated and contains notation for modern usage along with Culpeper's original information. While some of his formulas still enjoy popularity today, it is necessary to check modern sources for the most reliable information and indications on each herb.

Nicholas Culpeper on Wikipedia (however, the bit at the end about Aurum Potabile attributed to Culpeper is probably inaccurate)

Sadly, there is very little biographical information left to us from Culpeper himself or from his friends and family, and certainly he has been alternately demonized and deified throughout history. Benjamin Woolley's book, Heal Thyself: Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People, gives us as much biographical information as there is to be had on Culpeper supported by an exciting account of the complex and tumultuous atmosphere in England during his lifetime.

Calgon, Take Me Awaaaay! Botanical Nervines to Soothe Your Frazzled Nerves

Herbday07 It's Wednesday, or "Mercury Day," and Mercury rules (among other things) the nervous system. I briefly addressed the benefits of nervine herbs in Monday's post on PMS and dysmenorrhea, but the soothing effects of such herbs can be a godsend to anyone in times of physical, mental or emotional stress. (There are stimulating nervines, too, but this fast-paced world it's usually the relaxing ones to which we turn.) Nervines may strengthen, relax or even sedate the nervous system. Many of them are analgesic and antispasmodic to boot. Here are a few links to some great articles by some very qualified herbalists on nervines, their actions, and body system affinities.
In his fantastic clear, conversational writing style, Hobbs provides us with a solid introduction to how the nervous system works, nervines, why we need them, how to choose them, and gives us some case histories as well.
Hoffman's article maps out different nervines and their properties, secondary actions, and affinities for different body systems (i.e., reproductive, circulatory, digestive sytem, etc.). His book mentioned above is an indispensable resource for any herbalist or student of herbalism.
Tierra (Herb Dad) offers a very comprehensive and detailed look at nervines from the Western, Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions. He provides the herb's energetic, properites, dosage information, specific indication, and, best of all -- a comparison of it to other nervines, which can really help you choose exactly the right herb for a given condition.

How to Treat a Cold or Flu with Herbs

Herbday07 Herb Week 2007 continues! It's Tuesday, or "Mars Day," and Mars is all about cutting out what isn't needed. In other words, if we're talking about the physical body, Mars represents the immune system. Here's a link to my Squidoo page, "How to Treat a Cold or Flu Naturally," that discusses how to treat different kinds of colds and flus with some really basic, easy-to-find herbs.

You have exactly 15 minutes to create an eight-part formula chosen from at least 200 herbs...


... Ready, set, GO!

Last night I led the interrogation and assessment of a new client in our clinical class at herb school. A young couple came to us with a host of complaints. I took the gentleman to one of our treatment rooms, in fact the same treatment room where I received structural therapy when I first started attending school here. I sat on the low massage table while he chose a chair across from me. Behind me, two of my classmates quietly took notes and observed the process.

I love talking to people. I love interviewing them, making them feel at ease, helping them find words when they have difficulty expressing themselves. I love the investigative process of the intake, picking up a thread and seeing where it goes. I love taking a patient's hands to feel their pulses, the quiet calm we enter when I "listen" to those pulses in all their different positions. I love holding their hands once more as I look them in the eye and thank them when I let them go. Heck, I even enjoy examining the tongue for more clues as to what patterns of disharmony they may have.

And last night I enjoyed all of that. Our new patient was totally open to the process, friendly, and he had a sense of humor to boot.

But then we were released into the main classroom to identify the patterns of disharmony and come up with a formula or two to treat them. And it had to be done in about 20 minutes.

I mapped out the patient's symptoms on a five-element chart (like the one in the last post, just without all the fun cartoon characters). He was all over the place, but his main issues were concentrated in two or three places. I could identify the man's patterns fairly well, steered back on course
by Ima when I went off track.

But when it came to formulary...

We had about 15 minutes to come up with activator and tonic formulas, and I swear, it's as though I'd spent the last four years daydreaming through my materia medica classes. I could remember most of the energetics of the herbs we looked at, but if you asked me for three herbs, say, that treated Heart Qi deficiency but didn't interfere with his other patterns or were not contraindicated with some of the more troublesome symptoms, I couldn't tell you. Not last night anyway.

So here we were, under the gun, and I felt like Robin Williams' character in "Moscow on the Hudson," freshly defected from the U.S.S.R., standing in the coffee aisle at the grocery store and about to have a nervous breakdown.

The beauty of Chinese herbalism is that umpteen herbs do umpteen different things. Just like there is no one can labeled "coffee," there is no one herb indicated for one condition, and when you create a formula to treat multiple symptoms you introduce a synergy of herbs that will do the job according to their energetic, the organ meridians they enter, their direction, etc. The system, with all its choices, offers the practitioner and patient as much flexibility as it does precision, but the catch is: YOU HAVE TO KNOW YOUR MATERIA MEDICA.

Alas, I felt as though I'd checked that part of my brain at the door last night.

With Ima's help, my team and I put together two formulas for this man, and while my classmates prepared the formula in the pharmacy I went out into the front room to talk to him and his wife about what we were putting together and why, dosages, diet, etc. I told them to support each other and to set small, achievable goals for themselves. I also encouraged them to be patient with the process, as herbs work more gently than prescription drugs. I was so grateful that they would allow us students to question, poke and prod them. I was grateful for their trust and openness. I wanted to deliver the best that I could. I wished I could have spent more time with them.

Most of all, I wished I could have done the formulary part of my job better. It's my weakest point. I know I could have come up with something good if I'd had all my books around me and an evening to devote to it, but who has that luxury in the field, in real life?

I had a hard time falling asleep last night, Metal type that I am, always wanting to be perfect, hard on myself when I can't live up to my own standards. When I was in journalism school, we were faced with a similar challenge at least once a week. After an interview process, you'd be given 20 minutes to write a story that could be no less than 500 and no more than 550 words, and it had to be perfect. One misspelling, one factual error, one AP style mistake -- any single one of these earned you an automatic F. You had no team and no guidance from the professor. You were on your own.

I never got an F. Ever.

The thing about medicinal herbalism is, the stakes are much higher. Someone's life and health may hang in the balance. If you screw up, you can't publish a retraction, dreaded in the world of journalism as retractions are. Of course, you can tweak formulas that don't work, and these experiences may serve as guides, filling in missing gaps of information. But if you can nail it the first time, you earn confidence in yourself and trust from your patient. With herbs, the more tools you have, the more possibilities you may have to heal, but it doesn't mean a whit if you don't know your tools inside and out.

Looks like it's going to be an Autumn full of flash cards.

Above: Apothecary at Star Child in Glastonbury, UK. I took this photo about three years ago and they've since changed the look of the store. If you're ever in Somerset, please visit them!

P.S. Last night before clinical intake Ima pushed copies of the Nei Jing Su Wen, Shang Han Lun and one other book into my hands and told me to read them. What, my beloved teacher, learning TCM by South Park isn't serious enough? :)

Queen Anne's Lace


Hey kids, click on the graphic above for a free wallpaper of the lovely daucus carota, also known as wild carrot or Queen Anne's lace. (For my less computer-savvy readers, when the larger picture comes up, right-click and choose 'Set as desktop background' or a similar option. The size is 800x600... cropped from 1200+ by Typepad; I'll work on finding a way to post the larger option.)

If this photo does not help you appreciate the exquisite fractal symmetry of the botanical world, at least meditating on the deep purple flower at the center of the umbel will help you differentiate this medicinal herb from the deadly water hemlock (which lacks such a signifier).

I've got the "Herbis" covered; for a more "Orbis" wallpaper, check out Brian's shot of two Perseid meteors taken Monday night.