Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Place is at the Edge

The headline of a recent action alert from the American Association for Health Freedom urging support for provisions of the omnibus health care legislation now in Congress that would require insurance companies to cover treatments by all health care professionals licensed by the states they live in (including may naturopaths and accupuncturists) asks "Has the Time Come for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to Join the Mainstream?"

While I understand and appreciate and share the organization's goal of giving people more control over the choices they make about how they take care of their own bodies, the language of the question troubles me.

As an herbalist, I am not providing an alternative or a complement to anything. I am practicing an art and science and magic at least as old as humanity-- the practice of working with plants to help people remember how to recover and maintain the dynamic balance of health. It has nothing to do with the effort to "diagnose, treat, or cure" disease because it is older than the concept of disease.

What authority I have comes from my relationships with the plants and people I work with. It is a sacred trust, not something that can be judged and regulated by any agency or licensing board.

The licensing of doctors and the prosecution of those who practice medicine without a license has its origin in the witch persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Well into the 1600's, most rural people in Europe were Christians in name only, believing and practicing in traditions that bound them to land they worked in common. Their medicine came from that land, and its knowledge and traditions were kept alive primarily by women -- midwives and "herbwyfes."

Outlawing these traditional forms of medicine and making medicine the work of a small class of wealthy men trained in universities was part and parcel of an effort to break rural people's connection to the land and to strip midwives and herbwives of the power they still had in their communities -- a power that came from the intimate relationship these healers had with the living Earth. This was bound up with the replacement of living oral traditions of medicine with a single fixed approach that could be altered only with the permission of the recognized authorities of the new profession. All of it a patriarchal game.

Schemes to regulate and license herbalists reflect the same thinking that underlies the licensing of doctors -- the idea that there is a set body of knowledge, an established set of approaches and practices, to which all herbalists must adhere. But the plants themselves don't follow the rules others would set out for them. They are constantly changing in response to the world around them. Those who would work with them need to be able to flow with those changes and trust the messages the plants give them more deeply than they trust anything they learn from the best book or the greatest human teacher.

To those who would argue that the licensing and regulation of herbalists is necessary to protect the public from bad herbalists, I say that the existence of the medical malpractice insurance industry and the legions of medical malpractice lawyers provides us with ample evidence that the licensing of doctors hasn't protected the public from bad doctors. The best protection people have is a sense of responsibility for their own health and the intimate knowledge of their own bodies that gives them a sense of when something is moving them closer to health and when it is moving them further away.

I have no interest in obtaining certification from any government or even any board of herbal elders.

Nor do I have any aspirations toward being part of the mainstream -- the nature of my work involves dancing at the boundaries of the human and the wild.

The shaman, the witch, the healer have always lived at the edge of the village or outside it -- serving the community without being fully part of it. Only by living and working outside the constraints and customs and assumptions of the culture is it possible to maintain the fierce innocence necessary to maintain relationships with plants, animals, and gods.

My place is at the edge. Come, meet me there, where we can both be transformed.

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