Re-Imagining Health Care
by Rusty Poulette
Alternative medicine has become very trendy these days. It is no longer surprising to find all sorts of 'natural' treatments in corporate drugstores. Yet the market's emphasis on alternative medicine mirrors the green-washing taking place in all sects of society. Oil companies are launching campaigns to convince unthinking consumers that gas is 'green,' and anyone who is feeling guilty about their pollution can even purchase 'carbon footprint neutralizers,' a modern day indulgence, giving money to corporate greening campaigns instead of an authoritarian church. This new 'eco-awareness' consuming America too often goes unquestioned, and even is awarded the grand title of the next Green Revolution.
I believe that alternative medicine, in it's pure, unmarketed form indeed has the potential to be revolutionary, yet that this revolution will take more work than simply walking to the local corner store to purchase the latest green miracle drug. A holistic revolution of health is needed in this country, especially as the pawns of national government fight out the best way to uphold industrial medicine's stranglehold on the people. Yet the revolutionary question to ask within the debate on health care in America is not how to make the health care system more accessible, but how to create an alternative to the system. Clues to a new model can be found hidden within the cultural and religious traditions of many pre-industrial societies, including the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's important to realize, though, that when we re-imagine health care, we are not inventing something new. We are looking back, past the infiltration of industrialism, to the way things were all of history and pre-history, reclaiming our heritage as healers. And even more importantly to remember, as we reconnect with our bodies and the medicines that the earth graciously offers us, we will find that the answers are hidden within ourselves. We are on a path to remember what we already know- the intuitive knowledge that has been with us all along.
Medicine has always been readily available to us. As someone who has only recently developed a passion for plant medicine, I must admit that I was shocked to find out that weeds I have for years trampled and neglected hold powers of health and vitality. So many times I have been filled with worry as to how I am going to afford medicine, only to crush a mullein leaf plant as I drive my car out the driveway to the drugstore where I'll pay an outrageous price for an expectorant less effective than the one I just crushed.
This ignorance is new to society and can be traced back to an identifiable cause. The knowledge of healing plants, fungi, and foods have been with us since the beginning. Just as non-human animals know what to eat to heal themselves, we once held such unquestioned knowledge. Agriculture, which changed the world through the introduction of domestication, specialization, and a consciousness of domination, made human animals increasingly believe that they were 'other than' the world in which they existed. When one begins viewing plants and animals as commodities to be controlled, a fundamental shift happens in the worldview of that individual. Plants are no longer allies depended on to complete the cycle of birth, growth, sustenance, and death, but 'natural resources' to be manipulated and controlled. This shift can be traced as we compare the activities of hunter-gatherer tribes with agricultural societies, particularly in the belief of the latter about witchcraft and evil. Women as healers and their suppression as 'witches' was taking place far before western medicine's bloody coop. Hunter-gatherers have little need for a belief in evil. It has been noted about the BaMbuti that “they have no fear, because for them there is no danger. For them there is little hardship, so they have no need for belief in evil spirits."(TWTW) A belief in evil appears once humans become sedentary and dependent on agriculture. Ignoring the natural chaos of the world, sedentary people fear and ward-off natural disasters instead of simply moving along. Instead of moving in conjunction with the natural flow of wildness- moving out as natural disasters move in- sedentary societies fear such life-changing phenomenon and of course must blame it on something or someone. This accounts for the witch blaming we see among so many sedentary cultures, an issue that we'll discuss later in this essay. This appearance of evil can be found in the origin story of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The movement from the paradise of the garden into the curse of agriculture is a direct result of the discovery of "good and evil." This represents a shift from living within the natural order, to fearing it, and viewing humanity as separate from it- victims of it's chaos. Wildness and anarchy then become feared and rejected, instead of embraced as natural.
The development of agriculture was not something that happened over night. There are three major elements that need to be in place for a society to make this shift: surplus, sedentism, and domestication. All three elements are found in early agricultural societies. Some hunter-gatherer societies remain sedentary, and maintain some form of egalitarianism, yet where all three are found, we find a loss of autonomy.
Another element common to agricultural societies is division of labor. Shamans and the like held the position of healer. Often they were the religious leaders as well since spirituality and health were seen as integral parts of each other. Though this sort of specialization would play a role in the shift to agriculture and hierarchical society, such healers were respected and honored, and did not seem to hold the kind of dominance we might expect to see from their role as leader.(LEC) Religion and specialized medicine represents a schism in the symbiotic relationship of humans and the rest of the earth. As we felt the estrangement from the natural world, it became necessary to develop ways to reconnect with it. This is the concept of ritual. It makes sense that this estrangement coincides with the loss of personal intuitive knowledge of plant medicines, necessitating the role of the shaman or witchdoctor. This is the birth of specialized medicine. Our estrangement can be traced back to this great schism, yet even the most civilized of worlds have always understood plants to be medicines, and many sedentary indigenous peoples relied on the gifts of the earth to heal spiritual and physical wounds. It isn't until western civilization that we move away from plant medicine altogether. The enlightenment brought us far away from the spiritual, and attempted to systematize everything, taking the wonder and the magic out of the world. Just as Aristotle and the civilized world were beginning to hyper-politicize society with law and order, modern science was beginning to ignore the well-understood natural (dis)order of the wild and replace it with natural laws and an imaginative order.
If we are to envision an alternative medical system, we must begin by reconnecting with the wild, learning to see the abundant gifts of the earth as part of us, necessary components of our nutrition and health. We cannot live without food and medicine, and so we are dependent on the wild. When we consume a plant or vegetable, it breaks up within our bodies and becomes the vitamins, minerals, and spirit that sustains our being. It become us and is no longer separate. Food is not a commodity. As the slogan goes, "food comes from the earth, not the store." If we want to move from our dependence on corporate controlled food and health care, it is necessary that we become intentional about learning the craft of gathering foods and medicines. Though we can trace the beginnings of this dependence back to agriculture, it is also necessary at this stage in the game to re-learn to grow our own foods and medicines. We have moved far from being a true agricultural society to one that is dominated by factory farmed meat and veggies. Huge corporate farms feed the masses, and most people have no concept of where their food comes from. At this point, re-learning the skill of agriculture can mark the beginning of our reconnection with the natural world. On that note, so much of our land has been pillaged and privatized that foraging is much less of an option than it once was. Just as the Cedars of Lebanon cried out to stop the deforestation of the ancient world (Isaiah 14:8), we can hear the voices of the redwoods, oaks and pines today urging humanity to stop clear-cutting our sustenance.
Herbal medicine goes back as far as we can know. There is evidence of Neanderthals using Yarrow, Marshmallow and other plant medicines still common today.(HT) Plant medicine seems to have been the norm for all of history and pre-history until western medicine's takeover. The witch burning craze spanning from the 14th to the 17th century, during which an estimated million 'wise women' where killed, is the disturbing narrative of western medicine's birth. Woman healers were indeed wise women. Paying attention to the natural cycles of the earth, listening to the wisdom passed down from prior generations, and doing the empirical research of trial and error, wise women developed an extensive pharmacology and an understanding of anatomy and physiology that put the then 'modern' research of the upper classes to shame. "They had pain-killers, digestive aids and anti-inflammatory agents. They used ergot for the pain of labor at a time when the Church held that pain in labor was the 'Lord's' just punishment for Eve's original sin. Ergot derivatives are the principal drugs used today to hasten labor and aid in the recovery from childbirth. Belladonna—still used today as an anti-spasmodic—was used by the witch-healers to inhibit uterine contractions when miscarriage threatened... In 1527, Paracelsus, considered the "father of modern medicine," burned his text on pharmaceuticals, confessing that he "had learned from the Sorceress all he knew." (WMN, 16)
What accounts for the treacherous suppression of women healers stems from the ideologies of both Church and State, two institutions that were essentially one in the same. The doctrines of the Church taught that women were inherently evil. Though such an accusation about the church seems exaggerated and unfair to many today, the writing of church officials regarding women will shed light on their blatant degradation. St. Tertullian's position on women in the 2nd Century makes it clear "Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil's gateway, ...You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die." St, Augustine of Hippo agrees:"What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman... I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children." Centuries later, Martin Luther makes it clear that not much had changed, "If they [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that's why they are there." Women were the traditional healers of society, but as Church doctrine infused the mind of the western world, thinking that women had something so significant to offer was blasphemous.
The suppression of women as witches was, as I said, a product of both Church and State. Medical professionalism, a phenomenon beginning in Europe around the 13th century, made it easy to legally fault women for healing. As universities opened and doctors were trained, the practice of medicine became a legal matter. Only those with formal training were allowed to practice, and of course women were not permitted into these institutions. This is the point at which the bloody coop of western medicine began to flourish, helped along by the Churches degrading view of women. Women were tried and convicted for healing. "Take, for example, the case of Jacoba Felicie, brought to trial in 1322 by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, on charges of illegal practice.That her patients were well off is evident from the fact that (as they testified in court) they had consulted well-known university-trained physicians before turning to her. The primary accusations brought against her were that
'. . .she would cure her patient of internal
illness and wounds or of external abscesses. She would visit the sick
assiduously and continue to examine the urine in the manner of
physicians, feel the pulse, and touch the body and limbs.'
Six witnesses affirmed that Jacoba had cured them, even after numerous
doctors had given up, and one patient declared that she was wiser in
the art of surgery and medicine than any master physician or surgeon in
Paris. But these testimonials were used against her, for the charge was
not that she was incompetent, but that—as a woman—she dared to cure at
all." (WMN, 17)
From this point on we see medical practice become an upper-class male
dominated institution. Even later on as women began to be allowed to
study, they were only afforded the opportunity to become nurses, and
not doctors. This largely unquestioned trend continues today as the
majority of doctors are male and nurses female.
As we think about an alternative health care system, we have to
consider the origins of the one we have. It's history is ugly and
unfortunate, but it can teach us a lot. Aside from the obvious atrocity
we just discussed, I see two major problems with this medical system.
First of all, it disregards the empirical. This system is rooted in a
deep mistrust of senses, feelings, and intuition. Any thought of
valuing the natural (dis)order of the world is thrown out with the
bathwater, (and in this analogy, the wisdom of women healers is the
bathwater.) A new system based on isolationism emerges. Western
medical research isolates the individual components of the body that
are responsible for the specific symptoms of the problem and treats
them with isolated constituents of plants and chemicals. Though this
method has proven effective and efficient, it's success happens at the
expense of the whole. This diagnostic method ignores all environmental,
emotional, and spiritual components of the problem, and the treatment
ignores how the whole body system may be effected by, or perhaps the
cause of, the dis-ease. Herbal medicine attempts to treat the whole
body and the whole person. For example, inflammation in the urinary
system, such as Interstitial Cystitis or Prostatitis, may be caused by
environmental or emotional stressors, which would then lead to treating
the nervous system as the first line of treatment. Good herbal medicine
values the whole plant, including the 'inactive' constituents. The
'inactive' ingredients can act as balancing agents for the 'active'
ingredients, aiding in digestion and easing any otherwise harmful
actions of the the constituents. Modern research has recently begun to
show that there is such thing as good bacteria in the body and that
this bacteria feeds off of these 'inactive' materials, which were once
seen as having no beneficial purpose. (HMMH) This good bacteria is
essential to good health.
The other problem I
see is the specialization of medical knowledge. The repression that
resulted because of medial professionalism is a common symptom of
institutionalized knowledge. It takes knowledge and power out of the
hands of the people and puts it into the universities, where it is only
accessible to the upper-class, (and in these days the middle-class
too). Regaining knowledge of our bodies and our health is a radical
thing to do. It threatens the elitism of the medical system. Much of
the witch-hunting was spurred on by this reality. As the peasants
gained power and knowledge, they became more of a threat to the elite.
The Popular Health Movement of the 1830's and 40's is a great example
of such a peasant rebellion. Back when even the most basic knowledge of
health and the body were unknown to the majority of the public, working
class folks, mostly women, began to study and teach about the human
body, emphasizing preventative care. "The "regular" doctors quickly found themselves outnumbered and
cornered. From the left-wing of the Popular Health Movement came a
total rejection of "doctoring" as a paid occupation—much less as an overpaid "profession." From the moderate wing came a
host of new medical philosophies, or sects, to compete with the
"regulars" on their own terms: Eclecticism, Grahamism, Homeopathy, plus
many minor ones. The new sects set up their own medical schools,
(emphasizing preventive care and mild herbal cures), and started
graduating their own doctors... It was impossible to tell
who were the "real" doctors, and by the 1840's, medical licensing laws
had been repealed in almost all of the states." (WMN,
25) This of course happened in conjunction with the beginning of the
feminist movement, which would attempt re-instate some of the dignity
that women had lost from years of Church dogma an state repression.
An alternative health care system begins with an alternative medicine. We must shift our focus back to herbalism, nutrition, and spirituality as the primary methods of healing, for the reasons discussed previously. A lot of this knowledge has been eradicated right along with the women who were killed, and with the traditions that were killed off, such as the Native Americans and more recently, Appalachian culture. Yet thankfully much of it has indeed been preserved, and of course much of it is intuitive. Within the last 40 years there has been a huge resurgence in herbal medicine. It again began to emerge as a people's movement and again is quickly becoming co-opted by the market. As soon as an herb becomes popular, it is quickly threatened with extinction. Corporate interests, influenced by reductionist science, market the 'essential oils' or extract the 'active ingredients' as the healing agents of herbs and charge an outrageous price for these heroic remedies. This is not herbalism. This is not people's medicine. Re-gaining knowledge of herbal medicine begins by reconnecting with the wild. Spending time in the woods or starting a garden can be effective medicine in and of itself. The civilized world has forgotten the natural cycles and flows of the earth, and necessarily so. Reconnecting with the earth can be seen then as an act of resistance. Take time to get to know plants, where they grow, what they smell like. Pick a leaf off a plant you don't recognize. Smell it. Taste it. Is it bitter? How does it make you feel? Re-gaining this knowledge will take work and time. There are many people who have been doing this for a while, and they are often willing to teach. There are good books and manuals available, yet the best way to learn is by forging a relationship with plants, getting to know them and how they effect your body.
health care system not only begins with an alternative medicine, but by
changing the way we view medicine altogether. Western medicine is based
on treating symptoms. This is nonsensical. It's like prescribing a pain
reliever to someone who keeps punching walls without telling them to
stop, or finding out what is making them do it in the first place.
Unfortunately this analogy is not too far off from actuality. An
alternative medicine must be preventative. Waiting for problems to
flare up is not helpful at all. Health must be maintained by catching
problems before they get out of hand. This is only possible if health
is viewed in a holistic sense. Maintaining a nourishing diet and
keeping stressors to a minimum are then just as important as taking
herbs. Some herbs have immediate effects, but most work slowly. They
tone the endangered bodily system, nourishing it and keeping it working
right, preventing dis-ease from occurring. Re-gaining a knowledge of
nutrition and cultivating some sort of mindfulness practice such as
prayer or meditation, is just as important, if not more so, as
re-gaining a knowledge of healing plants.
alternative medical system will rise up naturally and organically as we
learn and spread this knowledge. It will look nothing like what we
have. Neighbors and friends will share knowledge and medicines together
with each other and nourish each other with food and conversation.
Expensive pharmacies and cold sterile doctors offices will be replaced
with foraging classes and canning parties. An alternative system must
be the peoples medicine. It must be non-hierarchical and holistic. It
must honor and respect the healer in all: in plants, in vegetables, in
human and non-human animals. As the union slogan goes, we must build a
new society in the shell of the old. But we have to also realize that
true health is simply not possible in our current industrial society.
Corporations cannot grow our food if it is going to nourish us.
Exportation and industrial production must stop if we want to live on
an unpolluted earth. There are those who make grand claims of clean
alternative fuels, yet all the while ignoring the emotional and
spiritual pollution that industrial society generates. Bringing down
civilization may be the first line of treatment for global health and
well-being. Yet the
dis-ease of industrial society is really only a symptom of organizing
society on such a large scale. This too must be done away with if we
are to restore our health. The nutrition of individuals appears often to
have declined for any of several reasons: because increasingly complex
society placed new barriers between individuals and flexible access to
resources, because trade often siphoned resources away, because some
segments of the society increasingly had only indirect access to food,
because investments in new technology to improve production focused
power in the hands of elites so that their benefits were not widely
shared, and perhaps because of the outright exploitation and
deprivation of some segments of society. (HRC) Many
things must change, but the first must be our mindset. As we explore
alternative medicines and re-connect with the wild, we will find the
prophecy of the Christian tradition come alive, "A tree shall sprout up in the middle of the city's main street, and it's leaves will be for the healing of the nations." Revelation 22:2
(LEC) A Lesson in Earth Civics
by Chellis Glendinning
(WMN) Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Woman Healers
by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (page 5)
(TWTW) Quoted in The Witch and The Wildness
by Kevin Tucker (paragraph 5)
(THT) The Herbal Tradition
by Michael Tierra, O.M.D.
(THMMH) The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook
by James Green
(HRC) Health and the Rise of Civilization
by Mark Nathan Cohen