"Whatever people say they believe in terms of spirituality and religion, what they do when they are sick and in need reveals the true basis of their belief system."
-- Matthew Wood, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism
When dogmas reach a certain level of acceptance they begin to be treated as self-evident facts beyond questioning.
So it is with the notion that "people without health insurance cost us all money" because "everyone will eventually need to go to a doctor, a hospital, or an emergency room."
The idea that health care is a service that we receive from doctors is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it is impossible for most people in our culture to imagine anyone choosing not to participate in the "health care system."
In order to understand why I refuse to participate in that system its necessary to understand its history and its nature.
In traditional societies around the world everyone knew some of the medicine that the world around them provided.
The art and science of medicine were practiced by witches, shamans, midwives, herbwives, medicine men and women -- people who were responsible for maintaining the soundness, wholeness, and integrity of all things. The health of the individual, the health of the family, the health of the village or tribe, and the health of the land were inextricably linked.
Knowledge and technique were passed down through oral tradition. But the medicine itself came through direct interaction with the living world. It was deeply relational.
The healer was responsible for making all things sound. And the community supported the healer.
This approach to healing and medicine continued to prevail throughout rural Europe well into the early modern period until it was systematically suppressed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (It is still the primary approach to healing in poor communities around the world, including parts of the U.S. like the rural south.)
But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new social and economic forces caused knowledge to become a regulated and privatized commodity.
The Catholic Church had already made some attempts to suppress these practices because of their ties to traditions that taught that the divine was present everywhere and healing grace was abundant and freely available. As Starhawk writes in Dreaming in the Dark:
"The Catholic Church had for centuries served for a model for an approved body that dispensed approved grace. Many of the charges against Witches and heretics can be seen as charges of dispensing 'Brand X' grace, one that lacked the official seal of approval"But while this ideology held sway in the cities, in rural areas where people continued to work the land together, older beliefs still held sway. And many feudal landlords looked the other way, seeing old customs, old beliefs, and old festivals as outlets for energies and impulses that might otherwise feed rebellion.
But other forces began to come into play. Over farming and over grazing (a result in part of pressures on the countryside to provide food of the cities) were leading to diminishing returns on the land at the same time that the infux of stolen gold from the Americas was causing massive inflation in Europe, leading landlords to break up and sell their holdings. The Witches who were both healers and priests to their communities were responsible for the rituals that reinforced peoples' ties to the land. And so they were persecuted.
At the same time, the urban market economy was expanding into the rural areas. With its spread, Starhawk writes, "Knowledge itself began to be an 'intangible commodity.' It was something to be sold only to those who could afford to buy it." It became the property of licensed professionals. And medicine was one of the first professions to be licensed. Just as the clergy had been the guardians of the soul and sanctioned dispensers of grace prior to the Protestant reformation, in the newly emerging and more materialistic society, doctors were the guardians of health and sanctioned dispensers of medicine. Licensure was the legal instrument by which they established their monopoly.
The story we are told is that this is the point in history at which medicine became a science and it became necessary to have means of certifying that practitioners were sufficiently well versed in the appropriate knowledge. To say this is to belittle the richness and complexity of the body of knowledge and wisdom passed down from practitioner to practitioner throughout human history prior to the 1600's.
There is no evidence that the licensed physicians of the time had better results in treating their patients than the unlicensed herbwyfes, midwives, and witches who they condemned.
As Starhawk writes, citing the work of Jean Baker Miller:
"Licensing is supported by the premise that it protects the consumer of services from incompetents, charlatans, and unethical practitioners. In reality, licensing protects those with approved credentials from competition by allowing them to limit their own numbers and raise their fees. It is one of the primary ways in which 'functions that a dominant group prefers to perform . . are carefully guarded and closed to subordinates.'"In the case of medicine, the system of licensure led to the criminalization of traditional healers and the marginalization of their methods and knowledge. Fortunately the fact that women's work in the kitchen was largely invisible and innocuous to the powers that be allowed some traditional knowledge to continue to be passed on from woman to woman.
In North America, the mingling of kitchen witch traditions with Native American and African healing traditions led to the development of rich healing traditions in many rural areas which in turn informed the rise of the Physiomedical and Eclectic medicine in the nineteenth century. These threats, along with the emerging threat from European homeopathy, was dealt with through the establishment of the American Medical Association which successfully lobbied for the passage of new licensing regimes.
Well into the first half of the twentieth century, no matter how mechanistic their model of healing was, physicians used plants as the basis of most of their medicine. Healing was still about a chemical and electromagnetic conversation between living beings.
But after World War II, doctors began switching to pharmaceuticals made from synthetic chemicals primarily made from petroleum products -- the long decayed bodies of ancient plants and animals.
The biochemistry of plants is remarkably similar to the biochemistry of our own bodies. Plants create medicines to address their own chemical imbalances and to support the healthy functioning of their own systems. When we ingest a plant medicine, our body recognizes its structures, and over time can begin to imitate them. Subtle medicines can bring profound healing over time.
But ecause of our limited understanding of the chemistry of life, synthetic pharmaceuticals act at a very crude level, stimulating or suppressing a particular chemical reaction in our bodies.
This can have a host of unintended consequences. Our bodies can become too dependent on these outside stimuli, allowing our natural feedback loops to atrophy. And turning one reaction on or off can have a cascade of consequences elsewhere in the body.
Bacteria and viruses quickly learn and pass on new responses to these simple chemicals, setting off an escalating arms race between the chemists of the pharmaceutical industry and the infinitely more innovative infectious microorganisms that grow resistant to each new generation of drugs.
And since our bodies don't recogize these chemicals, we excrete most of them and they end up in our wastewater. They are taken up throughout the environment with often devastating results -- excreted Prozac in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico is altering shellfish mating patterns and excreted synthetic hormones are altering the sexual development of fish, amphibians, and possibly humans. (See Stephen Harrod Buhner's The Lost Language of Plants for an in depth exploration of these issues.)
I spent much of my own life dependent on asthma medications that kept me breathing but taxed and weakened my body.
In the winter of 2006, I was introduced to Elecampane, an herb that would help my lungs release everything they were holding onto.
Mischa Schuler, the herbalist who introduced me to Elecampane, also introduced me to the possibility of learning directly from the plants, transforming my sense of the world as alive from an abstract belief to a literal reality.
Over the next few months, the plants began speaking to me more and more directly. They healed and transformed my body in profound ways.
They also transformed my sense of myself -- I had believed my body to be a broken machine in need of constant support. I came to see it as a living entity just like the forest capable of regenerating itself given the right conditions. That transformation required faith in my body's ability to heal and faith in the plants as teachers.
That faith was tested dramatically in June of that year when I contracted Lyme disease. Most of the people in my life were telling me that I risked debilitation and even death if I did not take antibiotics. Instead, I opted to put my faith in my body and the plants, and immediately began a complex herbal protocol that spared me from the dire consequences my friends and family predicted.
My relationships with the plants around me deepened, and I spent a lot of that summer walking in the woods alone, listening. By the end of the summer it was clear that I would spend the rest of my life deepening those connections. And it was clear to me as well that I could never again take the synthetic pharmaceuticals that had created such dangerous imbalances in my own body and the body of the living Earth.
Many herbalists I respect greatly continue to use pharmaceuticals themselves for various reasons -- and I don't think any less of them as a result. I am in no position to place judgement on anyone else's relationship to medicine.
But the integrity of my own relationship with healing plants and with the living Earth requires a radical trust. That includes trusting death's place in every life, and knowing that the time will come when it is time for me to die, and that I would rather die in right relationship with the world around me than prolong my life through methods that violate the sacred trust I have placed in my plant teachers and allies.
As an herbalist, I place myself firmly in the tradition that sees the health of the individual, the health of the community, and the health of the land as of a piece. I cannot justify trying to heal my body with chemicals that will damage the forests and fields that provide my medicine any more than I could justify digging up ever Lady Slipper root in the woods around me. Either would represent a betrayal of everything my work is about.
And I will not comply with any law that insists that I pay money to health insurance companies with a vested interest in maintaining a model of health care that insists that we cannot heal ourselves without poisoning our planet.
Consider me a conscientious objector. I will not obey.