Re-wilding: exploring nature's lessons in vitality through tonic herbalism
Updated: Jul 4, 2018
By Guido Masé RH (AHG)
It's always puzzled me that life and vitality even exist. After all, there is a vast amount of decay and destruction all around us. Many speculate that the universe will eventually end up a homogenous, barely warm, field of force. Yet somehow there is also this tendency everywhere for more and more complex beings to spring up, interact, and reproduce. These two trends seem to stand in opposition, two basic drives, somewhat of a paradox.
But if you look at the work of Jeremy England, a physicist at MIT who studies the emergence of complex systems, you might see the possibility of a synthesis. Looking at the mathematics of disorder and entropy, he points out how complex, living systems appear much more efficient at dissipating energy that any other form of matter. In other words, a leaf breaks down high-energy sunlight better than inert soil does. It may very well be that vitality is a consequence of the universe's drive to disorder, not a force in opposition.
England began his work with simple molecular networks in water. When an outside energy source, such as motion, was applied to the molecules, they arranged themselves in ever more complex clusters and, in so doing, dampened and buffered the motion, turning it into diffuse heat more quickly and efficiently. He then looked at RNA, DNA, and simple cells. The math stays consistent: the best way to increase disorder in the universe is to make more and more intricate self-replicating systems. The fractal complexity of life is an essential way to achieve more entropy!
For us humans there is no escape from this basic fact. Some say we are becoming more and more separate from nature, which of course is impossible (we are nature). But maybe there is some truth to the sentiment: if you look at the ways in which we are increasing our complexity, much of our efforts seem to have an internal focus, centered on our skills of communication, inquiry, and information storage. Knowledge is much more disseminated (decentralized, diverse, efficiently transmitted) now than it was at any time in our previous history. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this. It's part of the mission. But while we may be increasing the connection and complexity of information systems, we are decreasing connection and complexity of our botanical interactions. There's less diversity - life is less efficient - in the spaces around and inside us.
Take, for instance, our fields. Huge sections of land are devoted to single crops: less diversity, less long-term efficiency. Look at our cities, which are arguably the best way to handle a large human population. There is lots of housing, but few plants: waste processing is less efficient, and we build huge landfills full of plastic, segregating and accumulating energy. Once we consider what's happened to the world around us, it isn't surprising to notice that our cells, the world within us, is exposed to less diversity too. Our metabolism becomes less efficient as its environment becomes less diverse. This is an affront to life, and an affront to basic physics as well.
If you fail to recognize how important it is to fully interact and engage with the diversity of life, consequences inevitably follow. Less bees, fewer flavonoids, more heart disease. Fewer monarch butterflies, absent bitter compounds, more diabetes. That's the thing: complexity works at all levels of the ecology, and our current culture has places where things aren't as connected, aren't as linked up. We may be fully jacked into the information stream, but our phytochemical stream has very low bandwidth. Maybe the best way to link up is simply to do as life does: increase the chaos, increase the diversity, open up access, re-wild within and without. It seems to me that the spring season is a good time for this. It's when the ice cracks, and the seed breaks through the soil.
One strategy is to change the ecology, little by little. We can look to the parking lot, the lawn, the edge of the cornfield. Scatter seeds of resilient native plants - wild bee balm, dandelion, red clover. Leave some grass uncut - watch the trefoil, wild carrot, and asters grow. Leave thick buffer zones between your gardens, rich in weeds like St. John's wort, mugwort, and chicory. These plants will attract pollinators, giving them a much needed source of safe food. They will change the chemical interactions of microbes in the soil, affect patterns of bird nesting and reproduction, and speed the dissipation of contaminants. This will help our cities, gardens and fields link up.
In our bodies, herbal medicine is the best way to achieve similar diversity, and it may be the easiest as well (life, after all, appears to be the path of least resistance). While much of herbalism is devoted to specific constitutions, or well-defined patterns of imbalance, it also has a rich tradition of plants applied tonically, ritually, daily: planting a wild garden inside. The life-enhancing power of tonic herbalism is the exposure to an ever-changing cocktail of phytochemistry, enriching the internal ecology and helping us connect to seasons as they change.
This spring, try a simple version of the classic bitter tonic: gather dandelion leaves and roots and mix them with an aromatic plant like motherwort, mugwort, or mustard, the young leaves still fresh and vital. To these add something with a little hint of salt, like parsley or chickweed. Get your plants locally and, if you can't find them, plant them. Chop the herbs up well and cover the mix with vodka, or even apple cider vinegar. After a few weeks, strain this mixture and take a little bit every day. Great on the tongue, this tonic wakes up and supports all the internal organs. It encourages vitality because it is vitality: life, diversity, complexity, efficiency. This will help our bodies link up.
Creation and destruction, the generating force and the dissipative power, are all part of the same flow - but of course, herbalists have always known this. There are the legends of the Oak and Holly, the simple rhythms of seasons spent close to living plants, and the rushing of the spring equinox, when night and day hang on the edge of their hinge. Every healing tradition recognizes that life is born from and strengthened by the rush towards dissolution. That's why plant medicine provides such a great model: it helps us understand and define what it means to be connected to an efficient life-system (a.k.a. being healthy), and how humans (and animals!) have gone about achieving this goal. But I have to say I'm excited that physics and mathematics have now described a similar model, too.
For health and vitality, tonic herbalism is unequaled. Isolated components of plants, concentrated and potentiated, are fantastic information sources: we've boosted their "signal" very effectively. But they cannot provide as multi-faceted and deep of a link to the local life-system as can a daily dose of thousands of phytochemicals from wild, unhybridized plants. Plus, a purified pill is inherently much less complex, much less diverse. In the end, it does not serve the efficiency of life. But the weeds you plant behind your home, the weeds you take into your body, can and do. I believe we are already starting to see a change: living machines, green spaces, home gardens, a world here plants are integrated in everything we do. It's clear this will help us live longer, better lives. It's clear it will help our ecology. So this spring, what will you do? Time to link up.
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist at the Burlington Herb Clinic. Learn more about Guido's work as an herbalist here. He and other herbalists at the clinic are available for consultations. By working with an herbalist, you'll receive personal guidance through the process of using herbs and nutrition to better your health. Book an appointment here, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, (802) 540-0595. Guido's personal blog can be found here.
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