I am within my body, enveloped by the thin and strong, comfortable, involucre of my skin, aware of my being here and now. I feel the silence that is without and within me, a silence that is not lack of sounds, but is attention, awareness, presence… I sense the beats of my heart, the slow and rhythmic sound of my own breath, of the air that comes into and goes out of me; I perceive the birds’ song and the insects’ humming, the rustling of the wind and the muffled noises in the distance.
My feet touch the Earth, the firm and hospitable Earth that sustains me, moist, teeming with life in all his forms and dimensions. And I feel and welcome the presence, all round me, of the many beings that share my same place on this Earth, Mother of many. And I feel the indistinct presence, in constant and chaotic motion, of the invisible bacteria, of the microscopic fungi, of the tiny and large insects that tireless carry on their work weaving relationships: relationships among flowers that, by means of the pollen, touch and fecundate themselves from a distance, perpetuating and renewing the miracle of life in the vegetal world; relations among the insects themselves that share the same place, at the same time in competition and collaboration, making every time actual the dynamic equilibrium of compresence. I feel the fraternal and reassuring presence of herbs and trees, silent fellow creatures that, with their same existence, make the Earth livable for Men and Animals: they transform the air and make it breathable, removing the exhausted part of our breath and turning it into food; they hold the water and vaporize it so that both the ground and the air are able to teem with life; they are our food and medicine since time immemorial.
I am aware of my very being, in this place and time. I perceive all what I am: my present and my past; my uniqueness and my being the point of arrival of the countless generations before me; the lightness of every joy and the burden of every pain I have ever felt. I recall to my memory all the losses I suffered and everything I conquered. I feel every wound of mine and perceive every throbbing that comes from it.
And I am aware of being part of an intertwinement of relations among creatures and places, that is bigger than me and that contains me. I am a single card, part of a breathtakingly beautiful and amazingly complex mosaic. I am not alone, and I cannot exist but as part of a reality that transcends and contains me.
The plants are food and medicine for Man since his arrival on Earth: without the plants Man could not even been able to dwell this planet, since he is not able to produce by himself the oxygen required for respiration or the fundamental molecules needed for his own subsistence. Our bodies know “deep inside” what plants are, within our genes the instructions are coded on how to metabolize the molecules that comes from plants and how to use them in order to produce energy or to modulate our own body functions.
Today we have a whole body of information about the plant world, and it has been handed down to us by our Ancestors, who first discovered the value of each plant. Modern technology and science have provided us with sophisticated tools that allow us to analyze the composition of each plant species and to define its properties in terms of molecules and association of molecules (that is, what we now call phyto-complex), but how the primitive man has ever discovered the properties of plants?
In the vision of modern science, the caveman learned which plants are edible and which useful as medicine using a “trial and error” approach, that is, trying and trying again, possibly often getting intoxicated or even poisoned. The survivors of such an excruciating process would have become able to accumulate a set of information complete and structured enough to be passed on to posterity. The subsequent generations, during millions of years, would have added other pieces of information and completed and refined this body of information, up to shape it into today’s knowledge of plants.
Imagine a man that hurts himself while in a forest, maybe while fighting against a beast, and that, while bleeding, someway guesses (sure: how could he have already known it?) that somewhere there must be a plant that can help him not to bleed to death. So, he starts wandering through the forest to collect first a plant, then another one, and testing them only to discover that neither the first nor the second can be any effective, rather maybe one of them, toxic or even deadly poisonous, make the situation even worse. Any witness, possibly sole survivor of this unfortunate event, learns that those plants do not serve the purpose… But, every now and then, it happens that a really lucky (maybe it would be better to say, “miraculously” lucky, given the extremely low probability of such an event) man or woman succeeds in finding exactly a plant that is able to stop bleeding (imagine, for instance, a yarrow) and so he/she learns that exactly that plant, not another one, serves that specific purpose. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to properly identify it among the thousands plant species living in the same place he/she dwells, as whoever tries to discriminate among two different plants without having the necessary botanical skills (that surely didn’t exist then!) knows.
Now, there’s a problem: as the German anthropologist Wolf D. Storl, in his “The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners – The Healing Power of Medicinal Plants”, pointed out, trial and error is how we, contemporary men, attempt to find out knowledge, but such a method did not exist back then.
If we turn our attention from men to animals, we have no problem at all in accepting the idea that the latter are able to know “by instinct” (as we would say today), at least broadly, which plant can be eaten and which ones can be used to treat some health problems, without having to learn about them by trial.
The historical-mythological accounts that tell about the origin of almost all the herbal traditions share a common item: man doesn’t learn herbal knowledge by means of an analytical method but rather the knowledge “reaches” man in a way that has often a magical tinge. So, Ayurveda texts affirm that the plant properties have been seen, at the dawn of time, by the rishis, seers able to look deeply, well beyond the appearance of things, and only at a later time handed down by hearsay; according to other traditions, the knowledge of the right herb to cure an illness comes within a dream or during a trance. In shamanic contexts, it’s not unusual to come across the idea that plants themselves tell their effects: “the plants told us” (see, for instance, Jeremy Narby, in his book “The Cosmic Serpent”).
Without wishing to question the value of modern analytical methods with respect to their ability to detect the molecules contained in the plants, it still makes sense to ask: how really did primitive man come to know plant properties? Or, in other words, is it really possible to learn such properties directly from plants?
“Some communities had so-called sensitives who did not dream of the virtues of the plant but who could feel a sensation somewhere in the body when they were near a plant. This tingling would be taken as an indication that the plant could be used as medicine for that part of the body.” – Wolf. D. Storl (anthropologist), “The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners” (2012)
Pharmaceutical drugs are extremely simple in their action, since they are mostly made of one or few active ingredients, possibly mixed with some other substances (excipients) that serve only as a vehicle for the former ones.
Plants, instead, has a complex composition, since they contain a huge number of molecules, all more or less able to affect the human physiology. For this reason, rather than speaking of active ingredients, with plants we prefer to use the term phyto-complex: by this word we refer to the whole array of molecules contained in a drug, that act together upon the human body. Such constitutional complexity obviously reflects in a functional complexity, a synergy: plants, indeed, typically don’t work upon a single problem, but upon a whole set of “syndromes” (that is, symptomatic pictures), even (seemingly) uncorrelated, and they often work differently with different people. Moreover, often they act on the physical but also on the mental or emotional level, making the picture even more complex.
Due to the complexity of their effect, sometimes we speak of a personality (or essence) of plants: the whole set of effects a plant exerts upon both the physical and mental/emotional level, possibly put in relation with the constitution of the people upon which the plant is typically most effective, can be depicted as if it would be a real person, well defined with respect to his physical, character and psycho-emotional traits, and to his physio-pathological tendencies.
The constitutional and functional complexity of plants prevents any strictly analytical approach from succeeding in accessing and “containing” all the possible information about any vegetal drug. No chemical analysis will ever be able to explain how a plant works. However precise the method and detailed the instruments resolution be, it’s really hard to reconstruct the whole chemical profile of any plant individual! Within an herb, we can identify the main substances, the primary metabolites and most of the secondary ones, but very hardly we can be able to detect the minor components, that indeed are not necessarily the less important ones from a functional point of view (think, for instance, of enzymes or phytohormones, that can have profound effects even in trace quantity). And even if we succeed in doing this, the information collected would however be insufficient. Any analytical method, indeed, is subject to a specific a priori bias: it cannot provide in any way information about the ensemble action of a complex association of molecules. And the molecules in a single plant are really a lot.
It’s like trying to describe the subject of a painting in terms of the color brushstrokes on the canvas: a little green here, a blue brushstroke there… when simply saying, for instance, “Monna Lisa” would make anyone understand at once!
Or it is like trying to describe a man in terms of the molecules that make up his body: no one would ever dare do it! Nevertheless, we do it (or at least we try) with plants …
Trying to know a plant only from the chemical point of view is like trying to know a man by looking at the molecules he’s made of, or like describing a painting in terms of every single color brushstrokes: what we lose is the “spirit”. The more we look at a living being in details down to the biochemical level, the more we lose the overall “sense” of the being we are looking at.
Our Ancestors, less technologically advanced than us, but probably wiser, tried to handle the plants complexity by means of a stratagem: factoring it. In other words, they tried to split up the complexity into simpler and more easily understandable and experienceable terms. For this reason, every herbal tradition adopted a characteristic set of basic terms of its own: the Hippocratic-Galenic medicine and Ayurveda resorted to Elements (four for the former and five for the latter), Chinese medicine to the Five Movements (wu xing); Ayurveda introduced the threefold concept of doshas (vata, pitta, kapha) and the traditional Mediterranean medicine used the Humors (Bile, Blood, Phlegm, Melancholy) e the Qualities (Hot, Cold, Dry, Damp). Some disciplines defined the plants properties in terms of astronomical or astrological entities, like the Planet of the Sun System, the Moon and its positions, the signs of the Zodiac. The whole medicine and, so, the plants actions too were described in terms of such basic concepts.
This stratagem allowed to greatly simplify the process of understanding plants. In some traditions, for instance, some experienceable characteristics (i.e., the color, smell, taste) are linked to the “simplified” qualities: hotness is typical of so called “hot” plants that can be used to warm what is cold; mucilaginous (a sensation rather than a real taste, due to presence of polysaccharides that “hold” water) is typical of “damp” plants that can be used to treat dry conditions or to improve the quality of Phlegm and so on…
Recently, several books have been written about the possible approaches we can use to directly know plants; some of these are linked to “energetic” or magical-like forms of herbalism and propose more esoteric-like techniques, other ones are more technical and offer a more pragmatic approach.
Anyhow, we can identify some basic elements, common to all the techniques, that are essential if we want to learn plants properties directly from them.
Silence – Making room
An essential prerequisite is the creation of a condition of silence and listening, a space of receptivity, that allows us to shut down our inner voices (including any previous knowledge), in order to make room for any new information. This is an essential step: if we skip it, we can’t go on. It’s like when we get ready to listen to a music piece: if we don’t be silent and don’t listen, we can’t grasp the various musical passages.
The very act of getting silent, of getting to listen moves us to a kind of inner terrain, made up of perceptions, of physical and emotional sensations, of experienced qualities, of images and symbols. What plants have to tell us projects itself into this space. For such reason, it’s important that, in the beginning, we start to explore this terrain, so that we can draw a map of it, we can learn to recognize what belongs to us and what does not, we are able to feel any new impression arising in ourselves in any given moment.
In order to do that, we must learn to rediscover our own senses and become able to accept all we perceive: the beautiful and the bad sensations, the “places” in which we feel good, our pains, the burden of our experiences, our wounds. Only after we have become able to perceive ourselves, we can succeed in perceiving what is outside of us too.
The Approach – Spend time with the Plant
After we have prepared ourselves to listen, we must approach the plant and spend some time with it, so to get to know it as deeply as we can. At this moment, all that provides us with information about the plant is useful.
It’s possible (and important) to study the plant botany and possibly phytosociology, but it’s fundamental to find as much information as possible about its properties, referring to both written sources and people that already know and use the plant. We can read any ancient or modern text, Chinese, Ayurvedic, Mediterranean, anthroposophical, homeopathic medicine books, scientific literature: the more we find, the more we get a complete picture of the plant properties.
We surely need to study because this allows us to know the plant from a mental point of view, but, besides this, we absolutely have to spend some time with the plant we are studying: looking at it, possibly within its natural environment; studying its life cycle (in which period of the year it germinates, when and how it blooms, how it reproduces itself, how many and which insects it attracts, how long it lives); noting the colors, the shapes and the smells that characterize it… We can try to draw it live or recalling it from our memory. We can carry with us a little piece of the plant or keep it under the pillow during the night.
Let’s open, in this phase, to receive any “inner” impression the proximity with the plant elicits within us: the simple contact with the plant or the smell it exhales, for instance, can tell us more than we can imagine.
If the plant is not toxic, we can taste it: the flavors and tastes we perceive are a precious source of information about the qualities of the plant (or about what is called its nature). Is it hot (or does it warm), cooling, bitter, sweet, salty, mucilaginous, astringent, acrid, pungent, …? Which physical and mental/emotional reactions evokes when we taste it?
We can decide to chew a nibble every now and then, to make an infusion of it and drink it for a whole week or a tincture we can take twice or three times a day: this way, we can test on ourselves which effects it produces within the body and/or psyche.
Especially in this phase, it’s extremely important to be absolutely sure of its correct botanical determination and to be perfectly aware of any possible toxicity of the plant: a harmless plant can be tasted without any problem, but we must definitely avoid bringing any toxic or even poisonous plant to our mouth. Remember that some herbs (monkshood, for instance) are so toxic that we must be careful even when we simply manipulate it.
If a plant is toxic enough to require we avoid tasting it (but not so to cause any adverse reaction by means of a simple contact) or if perhaps it has a so bad taste we want to avoid it at all, we can try putting a little piece in the bathwater: a Datura or Mandrake flower resting on the surface of the water we bath in won’t surely cause any harm to us, but will allow us to live an important relationship experience anyway. We can also try making and ingesting a homeopathic dilution: this is another viable solution that requires a little more experience.
Insight – the Knowledge
There’s a profound difference between studying a plant and knowing it: the former is a purely mental act that allows us to learn a more or less structured set of information about the subject of our attention; the latter is a condition, the result of a far more articulated process that enables us to know really much more. It’s a bit like the difference between being told about a person and meeting him live.
During the previous two stages, every act we perform has the task of contributing to give birth within us, within our inner terrain, to an image, a portrayal of the plant. Such a portrayal won’t be made only of word or mental concepts, but also and above all of correlated images, physical and inner sensations, known relations and impressions received, “footprints” someway present within us.
At a certain point during the learning process, it happens something peculiar: the inner portrayal of the plant, up to that point only outlined, suddenly transforms into something vivid, definite, full of details; it’s as if the plant “comes alive” within our inner space. This is the kind of “felt” knowledge that comes from an insight, that is, an event that lets us see from within (us) the plant in its entirety for the very first time.
It’s as if suddenly we became able to grasp the plant behaviors, its movements, and to conceive its very essence (the personality). At this very moment, and only at this moment, we really start to know the plant (it’s a felt knowledge, not only a mental one) and to know almost instinctively how to use it, becoming able to foresee the effects it can exert upon any people with given characteristics and physio-pathological tendencies. Maybe at this point we also begin to realize how much nonsense has been written about the plant.
With time and exercise, each of us succeeds in finding his own technique, that become more and more refined and fast. With time and exercise, the map of our inner terrain that allows us to orientate ourselves and understand at what point we are in our path of knowledge and to discriminate between what comes from within us and our fantasy rather than from the actual interaction with the plants becomes more and more clear and detailed.
What’s the hardest part of everything? What seems to you the easiest: to see with your eyes what lies before your eyes. – Goethe