A new season, a first full year of being a ‘qualified’ herbalist (apostrophes relate to the question of whether it’s the piece of paper that marks someone as a herbalist, or their own journey): always evolving in thoughts, doubts, uncertainties, joys and revelations.
As the summer closes and the hectic activity of July and August settles into this time of slowing down, and bright-coloured landscape and darker evenings, I think about the early excitements of the year, in meeting so many people keen to find out about herbal medicine, whether through our herb walks on the marshes or our workshops sharing knowledge of this, our oldest interaction with our habitat. And I also think about where I feel myself to be, in trying to practice. There are all those people whom I’ve met, and shared enthusiasms with. And then there is a wider setting where contradictions abound and the supporting ground beneath my feet seems shifting and tenuous.
Our world is of course one of contrasts, confounding ones. There are all those people who are interested and believing and want to support herbal medicine. But stepping out of the cocoon of herbalists, teachers and like-minded folk through the years of study, I emerge into a world where our impact seems negligible. I know this is not true; I know that world over, traditional medicine is central and vital. But here, now, where I live, I see a mass of maddening contradictions, ever splitting us, and the value I see in herbal medicine seems sidelined, or disparaged, or just relegated – as if seen to be of no importance or relevance, if noticed at all. This I find in all quarters – among friends who are in theory supportive, among the wider world of folks that I meet, many of whom have never heard of it or don’t realise what it is, and probably most of all in that delightful bureaucratic canker of a ‘governance’ that often seems hellbent on stripping all human compassion and connection from peoples’ lives. This is one perspective. Another one that I commonly have is that massive, deeply exciting and gently revolutionary change is afoot, with wide open creatures all over our planet thinking, visioning, dreaming and working with all their will to improve our ways of being. Did I say contrasts?!
Coming back to this specific place and time, and my own path: in relation to the position of herbal medicine in our UK society, clearly there is a lot of good work to be done in the area of communication, connection between us and the people. This is where the community activity comes in and I feel that for me this is the key at the moment – building that missing link between how people feel about their health and their lives, and the potential of using plant medicine. Using it themselves, and not having to pay many pounds for products in little bottles made by companies, but having some practical knowledge and in collaboration with practitioners, being able to enjoy plants as food and medicine in their lives with confidence and beneficial outcomes. Being able to find, access plants; being able to find valid, quality information about how to use them, and being able to practice using them with other people. I know that many of you already do this, and that many more want to; this is great. However, the space between doing this as a foundation stone for health, and it being allowed as such by the ‘orthodox’, by ‘science’, by the capitalist system, is (enragingly) large. Of course that isn’t in the interests of those systems. And the system we have grown in, all of us, over the last few hundred years, means that we are conditioned automatically to dismiss herbal medicine.
However: many days, these days, I hear a story from someone about an unsatisfactory experience they have had with their GP, or an astounding lack of clarity, or caring, from a healthcare provider. Obviously this is not to say that this is the only thing that happens, I know it isn’t. But the frequency of the story, the repetition, makes me always think: just imagine if we herbalists could share the burden. Not just we herbalists, but the other professional therapists who want and are carefully trained to spend their lives helping people.
If statisticians want to weigh up harm caused by (a) pharmaceutical drugs that are given to vast numbers of the population by qualified physicians whose primary aim is to support healthcare but are often required to use certain medicines made by an industry that has profit rather than healthcare as its mission, compared with (b) harm caused by herbal medicines dispensed to clients by qualified physicians whose primary aim is supporting holistic health and whose medicines are made with care and good intention, what will they find?
The evidence base: if in our current biomedical system we are only using evidence-based approaches, why don’t they always work? Why are many people left stranded between pegs, with nothing really helping their ongoing conditions?
It’s not that I want to speak about numbers and statistics – but these are cited in the case against herbal medicine. I can speak about what I have seen in clinics and what people relate to me. This is real, even if it is not in number form. But anecdotal evidence: not enough for belief. Whatever – I believe that herbalists can help the healthcare system. We seem to be in a constriction, a spasm of rules (or commercial concerns) that hamstring us from accessing positive change! I have only just started practicing and this is only my viewpoint, from where I’m standing just now – many herbalists in the UK see plenty of people and make a lot of change; others see fewer and have to work in other areas to earn enough to live; some have positive relationships with other primary care professionals and some practice within the NHS.
But in the main, the fact that people have to pay to access us is limiting. The fact that those herbalists who can practice in an NHS setting are often severely restricted in terms of which herbs they can use, means they cannot practice as they normally would. The ‘lack of evidence base’ for using herbs is dealt out as an absolute truth, and as detrimental to safety. Again: pharmaceutical medicines’ safety record? So there is a wider agenda at work clearly. But for healthcare practitioners, healthcare, and equality of care, should be the primary agenda. Can we apply some antispasmodic relaxant action to the rules and explore the potential for relieving pressure on our struggling system? A Get Well UK pilot study carried out between 2004-2008 assessed outcomes from referring patients from GP practices to CAM therapists in London and Northern Ireland, finding positive results and favourable responses from patients and GPs. This seems to me a worthwhile direction to move in – it can help all parties surely. Apart from the profit-making ones I guess.
Other ways? People around me have great visions – of community clinics in every neighbourhood, shared resources and communal healthcare, supplied with medicines grown and made from local gardens and apothecaries. I know this is starting in some places. Self-organisation is happening around me and people are seeding projects in Walthamstow and Brixton, Bristol and Leeds, oh, all over the place! I am replacing my doubt and disillusionment with hope and inspiration as I write. The Radical Herbalists Gathering is a good place to start with changemaking and linking together all these strands.
My reflections are probably simplistic and plenty of you will have been thinking these thoughts for years – I am only just beginning and this is what I see. But people, share your knowledge with me and let’s share our visions; I know there is a whole universe more that I don’t yet know and want to learn…