Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Herbalists Need to Know About Autism

"We need to help Autistic children now or else we will be paying for them in prison later."

The opening words of David Winston's lecture hit me like a punch in the stomach.

It was the fall of 2013, and I had only been "out" as Autistic in my professional life for a short time, and was still figuring out the implications of understanding and embracing my neurobiology.   Perhaps I should have known that a workshop called "Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Search for Answers"  was going to treat me as a problem to be solved, another puzzle piece, rather than as a person to be engaged and understood.   Maybe if I had known I would have found language that day, found a way to be able to respond directly to the things that were being said and implied about people like me.   But I was caught off guard and felt afraid of confronting a widely respected elder in a place where I didn't know if I could count on anyone else for support, so I bit my tongue and held back my tears and pulled myself together in time to teach my next class.

Now, two years later, I have the same sick feeling in my gut that I had that afternoon, as I see that the journal published by the same organization that sponsored the conference where Winston delivered that lecture, the American Herbalist Guild, has published an article on Autism by another prominent herbalist who sees my neurobiology as a pathology.   K.P. Khalsa's article is gentler than Winston's lecture, and his interest in Autism is clearly inspired by his love for his Autistic adult daughter, but it is still firmly rooted in a paradigm that presumes that there is one correct way for human nervous systems to develop and operate, and that the goal of medicine should be to make Autistic minds and bodies less Autistic.   

Tonight, I have words to speak.  And they are directed not just to Winston or Khalsa or the AHG, but to the entire herbal community.  It is time for everyone to learn and understand some important things about Autism:

1)  Autism is not a disorder.

Autism is a natural variation in human neurobiology that has existed throughout the history of our species.   As Autistic scholar, Nick Walker, writes:
"Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant. The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable.
"Autism is a developmental phenomenon, meaning that it begins in utero and has a pervasive influence on development, on multiple levels, throughout the lifespan. Autism produces distinctive, atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing. One analogy that has often been made is that autistic individuals have a different neurological 'operating system' than non-autistic individuals."
Neurodiversity -- the diversity of neurobiologies -- is as essential to the health of a culture as biodiversity is to the health of an ecosystem.   Traditionally, in many cultures, people whose modes of perception varied from the majority's were recognized and trained as people who could be seers on behalf of their communities and intercessors with other-than-human realms.  This culture has treated only one form of perception and sensation and processing and communication as permissible, and as a result is now enduring a crisis of vision as it confronts human and ecological catastrophes.

Oh, and there is no such thing as an "Autism epidemic."  The increase in the number of Autism diagnoses in recent years is the result of changes in diagnostic criteria, and was accurately predicted by those who wrote those criteria.

2)  Attempts to "prevent" or "cure" Autism are, by definition, expressions of eugenics.

To speak about eliminating a genetically-based variation in the biology underlying consciousness is to speak about eliminating a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of feeling.  As one of the people whose existence some of you would like to prevent our cure, I read such expressions to be declarations of war.

3) "High function" and "low function" are inherently oppressive concepts.

What we are supposed to be "functioning" as is as economically productive members of society.  And as people who act enough like neurotypical people to avoid making other people uncomfortable with our presence.   Categorizing us as "low functioning" or "high functioning" dismisses both the beauty and genius of the minds of Autistic people who don't speak or don't hold jobs or can't still their hands and the struggles of Autistic people who can do those things, but sometimes only at great cost to our health,  who still face stress and trauma related to the difficulty of navigating a society shaped by and for non-Autistic people.

4) No understanding of Autistic health is complete if it doesn't integrate an understanding of the biological and psychological impacts of trauma and chronic stress.

To be Autistic in this culture is to live in a world of physically painful sensory overstimulation, where we are  subjected to social norms that demand that we suppress our natural expressions and perceptions, and where we are marginalized and pathologized.  As people whose experience of the world is inherently intense, we are more vulnerable to trauma than many others, and living in a culture of enforced neurotypicality is universally stressful and frequently traumatizing to Autistic people.   Other people's failure to understand, and hence empathize with, and our difficulties in navigating relationships with people whose modes of perception and communication are very difficult for us to understand also make us more likely to experience physical, emotional, and sexual violenc than the general population.

Many of the "symptoms" and "co-morbidities" associated with Autism -- anxiety, depression, digestive disruption, dysautonomia, hypertension, autoimmune disease, asthma, allergies -- can be caused or exacerbated by the neuroendocrine disruptions caused by trauma and chronic stress.  Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should almost always be investigated as a potential factor in our health problems.

5) Our "symptoms" are differences with the majority of the culture, not problems to be solved.

Let's take a look, if we must, at the official diagnostic criteria for Autism.

We are said to have "persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction" because we have trouble recognizing social cues and adhering to social norms  and  we display "abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gesture."   People claim that we can't read body language well -- but it turns out we read each others' body language and facial expressions quite well, we just have a hard time relating to the body language and facial expressions of non-Autistic people.  But, you know what?  Non-Autistic people have a harighly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focusd time understanding our nonverbal signals.   And most of us do way better understanding the signals sent by non-Autistic people than Autistic people do understanding the signals we send.   One additional "problem" we have:  when there is a discrepancy between someone's words and gestures, or between their outward communication and their presence, we often don't know which signals we are "supposed" to believe and end up responding in ways that are more honest than polite.   

As for our other "symptoms":

"stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech" - aka stims - represent our attempts to create a single stimulus strong enough to drown out the flood of sensation being carried across our nervous systems in order to ground ourselves in overwhelming situations . .

"insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior" is another way of managing overwhelm in environments crafted by and for people with dramatically different from ours . . .

"highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus" are passions we follow deeply enough and doggedly enough to discover patterns and possibilities no one else ever perceived . .

"hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment" means we respond to sensory stimuli in ways that are different from the majority of the population.

None of these are "symptoms" to be treated.

6) Nobody else can speak for us.

Non-Autistic family members and friends and partners of Autistic people have their own experiences of the world.    Some involve frustrations and challenges communicating and collaborating across a neurological divide.   Some involve compassion and solidarity with Autistic people.  Some involve really fucked up ideas about how they wish we were different or wish we didn't exist.   They can speak for themselves.   They and their organizations cannot and do not speak for us.

7)  We have good reasons to be wary of "natural" and "alternative" healthcare providers.

There are a lot of Autistic herbalists.   And there are a lot of non-Autistic herbalists who support Autistic people in compassionate ways.    But there are also a lot of herbalists and naturopaths and people who look and sound to all the world like herbalists and naturopaths who go around talking about preventing and curing Autism.   There are a host of cruel and bizarre Autism treatments advocated by people who call themselves alternative or natural health practitioners -- eg bleach enemas.   And the natural health community as a whole, and the herbal community in particular, have been major vectors for the transmission of toxic myths about Autism.  So don't be surprised if Autistic clients are a little nervous and hesitant at first.   

Still want to work with us?  Great!  Learn more about our lives by reading Autistic writers   (and good allies like Steve Silberman.) And then come meet us from a place of openness, curiosity, kindness, and respect, and wll will go well!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What is the work of this god? -- Reclaiming the Mean(ing)s of Production

Who is this flower above me/ and what is the work of this god?// I would know myself in all my parts.  -- Victor Anderson

It breaks my heart to see the ways in which so many of us healers and activists and artist and teachers and priests keep martyring ourselves to a god we don't even believe in by driving ourselves into the ground in the name of concepts of productivity derived from capitalism's cult of progress.

My decade and a half of full time activism saw me alternating between periods of working sixty hours a week and periods of barely being able to get out of bed.   In both states I constantly berated myself for my lack of commitment -- and my lack of tangible results.

Surrounded by a culture that values people primarily according to their ability to generate wealth, countercultures and opposition movements unwittingly replicate capitalist values by subtly and not so subtly measuring their members' worth and dedication by the amount of toil they engage in and by their outwardly visible achievements.    Guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy are both consciously and unconsciously exploited to elicit more work from people.   Eventually the voices demanding productivity become deeply internalized.

As an Autistic person I am acutely aware that the degree to which most people are willing to grant me autonomy and equality is related to the degree to which they define me as "high functioning" -- ie able to engage in work that the culture values economically.   Though I pass as neurotypical or at least not obviously divergent in some settings sometimes, I require long periods of silence and solitude to reset myself after engaging with most humans, and after being in environments full of unfamiliar and artificial sensory stimuli.   Nevertheless, I push myself to take on the same level of commitments as someone whose processing and cognitive styles more readily allow moving quickly from one task to another in places full of people -- and sometimes to take on more than is expected hoping that it will make up for my real and perceived deficits.  (eg the inability to turn in attendance sheets competed properly and on time)   I end up paying the price in terms of brain fog, autoimmune flare-ups, further declines in executive function, and brief periods where I cannot speak.   And when I recover from these setbacks, I quickly throw myself into desperately trying to catch up, terrified that my life will come apart at the seams if I can't regain my level of outward productivity.  

Besides my health, crucial and unique elements of my perception and cognition get lost in the process.   My ability to write, to teach, to craft ritual, to do medicine stems from my ability to see systems and networks and relationships differently than other people.   And that capacity depends on my ability to spend time in non-lingusitic space, letting the forest and the stones and those beloveds who know how to hold silence wordlessly remind my heart of its identity and its place in the world.   On the time spent listening deeply to water and stars and strange water plants.  My heart yang -- my outward expression -- draws nourishment from my heart yin -- my ability to receive beauty.  

I am a priest of a religion that says that the universe arose when the original darkness fell in love and in lust with hir own reflection and exploded outward in desire, dividing hirself again and again for the sake of discovery.    I hold ecstasy sacred.   So why I am I allowing my worth to be determined by what humans do and don't see me do?

The true work of the god that I am  -- and the god that you are -- is the work of becoming ourselves.  "Fully human, fully wild, fully divine" as I was taught, aligned and whole in all our parts, centered in the black heart of innocence that mirrors the original darkness with its infinite potential.  

So why do we keep putting the needs of the false gods of market and progress ahead of what we are truly called to produce -- lives of love and pleasure and meaning?

Its long past time to drive the bosses from our heads and reclaim the means and meaning of production.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Eugenics by Any Other Name

There is a reason why every time someone I know posts something about vaccines or pesticides causing the "autism epidemic" my heart starts pounding and I feel like I have been punched in the gut . .  . and I am tired of being nice about, tired of pretending this is just some academic question about which we can agree to disagree.

If you are someone who promotes these kinds of articles, what you are about to read might make you a little uncomfortable.  But its nothing compared to what you do to me and to people like me when you spread unfounded stories that treat our existence as a tragedy or a blight.

Before the Nazis began murdering Jews, they rounded up people they considered mentally or physically "defective" and murdered them, often with the knowledge and blessing of their families.

Yes, I went there.  Why?  Because actual fucking Nazis killed actual people like me.

And you know where they got the idea from?  Not from some mis-reading of Nietzsche,   They got it from the leading minds of the Ivy League medical schools in the U.S.  who were promoting the "science" of eugenics -- the practice of "strengthening the gene pool" by deciding who did and didn't get to have children.

Most overt expressions of eugenic thought are frowned upon today, at least in their most extreme forms.   But its influence isn't hard to find.   Just notice the casualness with which people will express their discomfort with two adults with Down's Syndrome kissing each other.  The aversion is based on a fear that those two adults will have a child who is like them.   And treating that possibility as tragic is tremendously cruel.

And one place that eugenicist thinking shows its head is in the search for ways to prevent or "cure" Autism.

You see, when you talk about preventing or curing Autism, you are talking about creating a world in which people like me don't exist, or at least are not as common.

I want you to stop and think about that for a moment.

How do you think a Queer friend would feel if you posted something about xeno-estrogens causing homosexuality?

How do you think a Black friend would feel if you posted a graphic from text book from the last century that purported to show scientific proof that white people were more intelligent than Black people based on comparisons of the shapes of different people's skulls?

Because besides representing the same kind of hatred the memes and articles you post about the "causes of the autism epidemic," these ideas have something else in common with the claims you are promoting -- they are all demonstrably false.

There is no such thing as an "autism epidemic."   The late Dr. Lorna Wing, who was part of the group that developed the diagnostic criteria for Autism in the DSM-IV demonstrated that the increase in Autism diagnoses in recent years exactly followed the increase predicted when the criteria were modified.    There is no basis for asserting that Autism rates are on the rise.

The claim that vaccines cause Autism was first advanced by a now discredited British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield.   Wakefield fabricated the data and seems to have sought to profit from a class action lawsuit.   (Again -- think about this.  Would you sue someone because your child were like me and you wish they weren't).

Now, I no some of you will say that you knew a kid who never seemed Autistic until they were vaccinated.   Maybe the kid was speaking and then stopped.    The truth is we Autistic people frequently experience "regressive" events when we are under stress.   I sometimes lose speech for brief periods of time.   I experience loss of my already limited executive function for longer stretches.   Sure, it is possible that in some instances an immunological response to a vaccine might bring on a regressive event by creating neuroendocrineimmune dysregulation.  But regression has been happening to Autistic people living in a world of enforced neurotypicality long before vaccines existed.

Autisms is not new. We have been here as long as humanity has.   We pre-exist this culture and we will outlast it.

Do you still think you can talk about preventing more people like me from existing and call yourself my friend?    And to think, they say Autistic people "lack empathy" . . .

 p.s.  On that comparison with questioning the origin of Queer people -- "conversion therapy" for Queer people was based on the most popular form of therapy administered to Autistic people, developed in the same lab with involvement from the same researchers.   Conversion therapy for Queer people is finally outlawed in the U.S.   But in Massachusetts, Autistic people are still locked up and given electric shocks.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Unsettling Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Growing up in Ireland, Cora Anderson's grandfather, Pete Rivers learned to work with herbs.  When he came to Alabama in the nineteenth century, he sought out Cherokee healers and they exchanged information about the names and uses of plants.

I tell you this at the outset, because I want to say that there are times in history when people from Europe have met Indigenous people from North America on respectful terms and shared medicine.   But, things were different then.  Like my ancestors, Pete Rivers was an Indigenous person displaced from one continent to another.   He met his Cherokee neighbors on a certain equal footing.

My own great grandfather was probably two generations younger.  When he arrived in Lynn, MA, at the age of 21, a young Irish revolutionary with a price on his head, the Irish were not yet "white."  He, and my grandfather, faced the Ku Klux Klan who were terrorizing Irish neighborhoods in Massachusetts.  (Other ancestors of mine likely faced the same struggles when the Klan was going after Quebecois communities in Maine.)

But, three generations later, my body is read as "white" in thus culture, and I am an uninvited interloper on unceded WSANEC territory.    While the term "settler" doesn't, in my mind, fit my great grandfather, I am, against my will, a beneficiary of colonization, and of a white supremacist capitalist culture that values my life, my voice, my existence more than it values the lives and voices and existence of Indigenous people or Black people or Brown people.   And as much as I try to resist the violence of capitalism and white supremacy, I live within them.    The "privilige" given to me is not something I can renounce or give away.   So I do not enter into relationship with the people whose land I am living on with the same kind of equal footing that Pete Rivers held.   

This doesn't make true exchange impossible, but it complicates it. 

Adrienne Rich wrote that  "poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history."   The same is true of herbalism.

And in the case of relationships between the Indigenous people of this continent and the descendants of Europeans, that history is one where colonizers have again and again taken whatever they wanted and needed from Indigenous communities.    And, now that capitalist colonialism has stolen almost every material thing from the original inhabitants of this land (and is doing its damnedest to take what's left), a lot of people who materially benefit from that theft are looking to Indigenous communities to feel their spiritual needs as well.   Some are approaching respectfully, but most less so.    And so Indigenous communities are rightly and understandably outraged when outsiders claim their medicines and their ceremonies as their own, especially when they profit from them without giving back to the people they took them from.

Its true, plants belong to themselves, not to cultures.   I disagree with the claim I have heard (though it is a rare one, and I hear people denouncing it more than I hear anyone making it) that white herbalists have no right to work with Osha or Devil's Club.   We do have a right to make relationships with those plants on our own terms.   And, then, to learn what there is to know about traditional understandings of those plants that might give us better context for our own relationships with plants.   Where I draw the line is at claiming to be practicing the traditions that knowledge comes from without understanding and sharing the full cultural context they emerge from.    And at harvesting these plants in ways that disrespect and disrupt Indigenous people's ability to access the plants that helped to shape their cultures.

Its also true, that even in the presence of this history, real conversation and real exchange around plant medicine can happen between people form different communities.  But most of the time I find that those conversations happen quietly.   And the white people who engage in them don't tend to make bold, public claims about having a special knowledge of Indigenous medicine.   They happen when one plant person recognizes another, and they get curious.  

Just like Pete Rivers and the Cherokee healers he met when he came to Alabama.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fragments from a Lost Suite

for Van

Until you left
your body

You never knew
the limping god
was not a lame god.

Now he rises
to dance
to your tune,

and becomes
a green light
guiding you
into the woods.

But this time
the will o' th' wisp
burns true

guiding you
into the swamp
in March

where a
purple flower
rises from roots
that melt through
the ice.

Its blossom
will be your boat
for the next part
of your journey

floating on dark waters
through the cavern
of your heart

its beating
reminding you
of the rhythms
that anchored
you to the Earth.

Follow that river home.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Political Correctness and Censorship

I have been noticing more and more lately the ways in which the concept of political correctness is stifling free speech.

I see it happening again and again.   Someone in a position of privilege says something cruel or ignorant about a group of people who are marginalized, pathologized, brutalized, or otherwise generally shit on by the dominant culture.   People respond, pointing out the ways in which the things the privileged person said is hurtful or inaccurate or otherwise problematic.  The privileged person complains about how political correctness is destroying freedom.  And then everyone else is expected to shut the fuck up.

But, you see, that's not the way free speech works.  You are absolutely permitted to say whatever you want -- I will always oppose any law that gets in the way of your doing that.    But, then, I am allowed to say that what you said is fucked.    And if you turn around and say that I am taking away your rights by criticizing you and I need to be quiet -- well, then, who is trying to shut down free speech?

Its kind of like the way Christians claim to be oppressed in this culture right now. Allowing people to have marriages that your church doesn't approve of doesn't stop you from practicing your religion -- nobody is requiring or expecting you to change your rules about who your clergy will and won't marry.   But making laws that say  that Quakers and Unitarians and Pagans aren't allowed to perform weddings that your megachurch pastor disapproves of really is curtailing religious freedom.  

I don't go by the bullshit about "what this country was based on"  or "what the Founding Fathers intended" -- what the Founding Fathers intended was for one group of white male landowners to be allowed to make money without paying taxes dictated by another group of white male landowners to pay off the debt from the genocidal wars waged to make both groups richer.   But I am a believer in consistency.   If you want to invoke freedom of speech, you need to realize that includes other people's right to call you out on bigotry.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gathering the Wild Herbalists

When I was a teenager growing up in suburban Massachusetts, the Earth First! Journal brought me news of struggles to protecting old growth ecosystems from the Redwoods of California to the Cedars of Alaska, and I dreamed that someday I would be part of giving voice to those ancient forests.  Among my greatest inspirations was Lone Wolf Circles, and the Earth First! Warrior Poets Society that he founded.  

After a decade and half on the frontlines of opposition to the violence of late capitalism -- visiting war zones, blockading weapons factories, planting sunflowers at nuclear power plants -- I left the city for the woods, and eventually found myself teaching and practicing herbal medicine in the Pacific rainforest, a few hours' drive south of Clayoquot Sound, where forest defenders made their stand in the '80's and '90's, and the Walbran where friends and students of mine will soon prepare to put their bodies on the line in defense of some of this island's last old growth.   I venture from my forest home to come into Victoria to teach and work in the clinic at Pacific Rim College, to buy groceries, and to lift weights late at night when I am the only person in the gym.    And every summer and fall I find myself on the road, teaching at herb conferences.

Plant people are some of the best people I have met, and they make me feel welcome everywhere I go.   But, I have to admit, among all the amazing gatherings I attend, one has a very special place in my heart:  The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, where, a few years ago, Lone Wolf Circles (now known as Jesse Wolf Hardin)  and Kiva Rose took the risk of inviting an unknown herbalist with no formal training and a strange, poetic manner of speaking in spirals to come talk about my relationships with wild plants.    They earned my eternal gratitude then by making room for a new voice, and I have watched them continue to do the same for others, as brilliant people who sat in some of my first workshops have begun to emerge as new, clear, strong, creative voices in our community.   This year I had the special privilege of co-teaching with one of those still newer voices, Asia Suler, whose love and reverence for the land serve as weet but powerful medicine for the re-enchantment of the world.

Wolf and Kiva invite people like me to teach not in spite of our strangeness, but because of it.  They recognize that, as Albert Einstein may or may not have said, the problems we face will not be solved by the same thinking that gave rise to them.  I was particularly moved by the amount of space consciously and deliberately created for neurodivergent voices at this year's gathering.

 But that doesn't mean the conference is a free for all.   The strange truths spoken in the high desert are grounded in lived experience and must pass through the finely tuned bullshit detectors of those willing to challenge what passes for wisdom, be it conventional or unconventional.   The same rollicking spirit that inspired me when I first encountered Earth First! lives on in a conference that grew out of the movement of deep ecology from road blockades into medicine.    I am already counting down the days until next September.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

False Hierarchies and the Backlash Against Silberman's NeuroTribes

Hans Asperger, with guns to the heads of the children he treated, created the myth of "high functioning" and "low functioning" Autism in a desperate attempt to save some of them from being killed in concentration camps.

Those who insist on such a distinction today have no such excuse -- and are leading the backlash against Steve Silberman, the journalist whose meticulous work uncovered this history.

In a review typical of this backlash, Dr. Jennifer Margoulis writes "Silberman is conflating children and adults who have some neurodiversity with children and young adults who are suffering from severe autism and related health issues like gastrointestinal problems and severe pain."

Let's parse her statement a bit.

We'll begin with the most obvious -- Margoulis implies that proud Autistic people and our allies aren't interested in finding solutions to mitigating conditions that are common among Autistic people such as gastrointestinal problems and autoimmune conditions.   Helping fellow Autistic people get to more happily inhabit bodies is on of my passions as an herbalist, and most of my Autistic patients have become amateur medical scholars of their own conditions -- we get obsessive about or special interests, or so the diagnostic manuals say.   One thing many of have found is that conditions we are most prone to are also common among trauma survivors.    To a large extent, they are likely linked to the experience of being neurodivergent in a culture of compulsory neurotypicality.   (Organizations that claim to speak for us silence our voices will funding eugenic research aimed at preventing or existence in future generations.  Our styles of speaking, thinking, and self-regulating are pathologized, often punitively.  Some of us are institutionalized and subjected to electro-shock therapy and chemical lobotomy.   Autistic People of Color are frequently looked in cells in schools as children and all too often become targets of police violence.)

But more troubling is Margoulis's main point -- that we need to make a distinction between "adults who have some neurodiversity" and "children and young adults who are suffering from severe autism."

As I have written elsewhere, such a distinction is false, and serves to further capitalist agendas that value us according to our ability to participate in the creation of wealth.   Those of us who are assigned the category of "high functioning" maintain a performance of neurotypicality at a high cost to our health in order to get access to the things we need to survive in this culture.  And, just as the late Dr. Oliver Sacks found with silent Parkinson's patients who were presumed to be mentally vacant, we are discovering that non-speaking Autistics have inner worlds that are rich and uncannily similar to those of speaking Autistics.

Breaking things down further, talking about "adults who have some neurodiversity" suggests that neurological divergence is something to be accepted in moderation, but policed.  "You Aspies are ok Sure, you are weird, but you talk with us.  Yeah, we do like it best when you are in a separate room writing code.  But you aren't like those other ones.  You don't bite and kick."   It echoes discourses around previously pathologized aspects of human diversity, like sexuality -- "Middle class lesbians and gay men who want to get married and own houses and avoid public displays of affection are ok, but not the flamboyant ones who wave their sexuality our faces.  And Trans people skeeve us out."

It is wrong when talking about sexuality, and it is just as wrong when talking about neurobiology.

We're here.  Our neurobiologies are Queer.  Get used to it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Confessions of a Facebook Witch

Facebook is one of my favorite magical tools.

It is an amazing tool for divination -- I know people of all kinds scattered across a continent or two, and I can see what is showing up along each thread of my connections, and also pick up on things that are showing up at really disparate parts of my web.   This gives me a way to feel what is moving through the world and discern its patterns.

Sometimes, reading those patterns, it is possible to make just the slightest tonal shift in the song being sung by this part of the human world to change the music entirely.   Words, images, songs have this capacity.   Viral in the sense that we would mean if we embraced the necessity of the viral elements of our own microbiomes.    The nature of the movement of the changes across the web predicted by complexity theory and chaos mathematics.

Facebook is in so many ways a simulacrum of the internet itself, which in turn is a simulacrum of a mycelial network, which mirrors a neural network.  The internet itself emerged when neurodivergent people who had been given access to consciousness altering mushrooms and synthetic ergot derivatives were given access to enough silicon, enough electricity, and some new kinds of conductors.   Right now much of the mycelium is still living under laboratory conditions, feeding off information poor simple sugars, but as we bring our wild selves into contact with the technology, it can be fed the rich nutrients of the forest floor (because some of us have forests inside us, and our very exhalations can be like falling leaves) which will allow it to blossom forth the most amazing fruiting bodies from the transformation of the nutrients.

Karina taught me that "a witch works with all things."   This web is one I tend.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Theology is Mycorrhizal

Niki Whiting, just wrote a beautiful essay on the relational and intersectional nature of her theology.  
My theology is also relational and intersectional -- but it is above all ecological.  

I am a Feri priest, wedded to the gods of my tradition, oathbound to my kindred in my lineage and my tradition.    My gods are not metaphors.  But, aside from she-who-is-all-that-is-of-which-all-is-fractal-form (shhh! don't tell the other polytheists that I just confessed to monist heresy)  they are not everything.

I am also an animist, inhabiting a world in which everything is alive.  Gods are one form of life -- like humans and Oaks and Salmon and Mountains and Rivers.  The way in which gods differ from other beings is in their persistence of form -- some have lifespans as long as a river or a civilization, others live as long as a galaxy, a handful are almost as old as time itself.   But ultimately we and they and the Owl calling outside my window and the Cedar the Owl is perched in and the forest floor and the ocean are all made of the same matter and energy infused with the memory of a world born of the love and desire that arose from the Darkness gazing on Hirself in the curved mirror of space and time.

Anaar recently reminded me that in Feri, perception and experience come before belief, an that whatever is true is observable in nature.    So it makes sense that our relationships with gods would resemble our relationships among other beings and other beings relationships with us.

And just as Wolves shape Rivers by preying on the Elk that graze the Willows that change the Rivers' course -- and are changed by the River and the Willows and the Elk in turn -- the presence - or absence - of gods changes an ecosystem.    It leaves holes in worlds, internal and external.

The question is not whether the empty places inside us and  in our world are god shaped of Bear shaped or Lady Slipper shaped holes, because all exist, all are real, the question is what are the relationships among those holes, and what do those relationships tell us about what is missing from our lives and how to invite its return.   And what is ultimately absent is the sense of relationship itself.   We have forgotten how to be in relation with gods because we have forgotten how to be in relation with life in all its complex, emergent forms around us.   And in the absence of relationship, there is a loss of meaning.

Rhyd Wildermuth writes:

"Meaning is a social-act, a kind of intercourse between us and the world, and us and each other"

"Meaning can’t be reduced, it only expands. Meaning has no cognate, and the only other word in the English language that comes close to functioning as its synonym is not Truth, but Love. [ . . ] When I love someone, they have meaning for me. They are meaningful to me, I derive meaning from them, we mean something to each other. When I do not love someone, they hold no meaning for me; they are meaningless to me, or they mean no-thing to me."
Where there is no meaning there is no love, where there is no love their is no deep relatedness, where there is no deep relatedness there is no divinity, for divinity is nothing if not a complex emergent quality of a living system, and without deep relatedness there is no system and no complexity.   

But where I differ from Rhyd is with his claim that "humans are the only seekers of meaning we’ve yet encountered"  When I call to Owl or Raven in sounds that mimic their vocalizations, they respond in kind, even though they know I am not a bird.    When a Cedar exhales volatile oils into the air, they carry messenger molecules recognized by our own nervous and endocrine systems.   We are used to experiencing meaning only through the interpretation of our talking selves, but we all know that around some of the most meaningful things, words and concepts fall away and are replaced by the felt sense of being of our wild selves.   Stephen Buhner writes:

"Human beings, long embedded within their environment, have always been sensitive to the meanings that surrounded them. Those contained within plant communications, as with all communications, generate feelings in us in response. We know the touch of the world upon us, that we have been caressed by meaning, even though we might not be able to consciously say just what that meaning is. A door opens inside, our unconscious gathers it in, and at night we dream and it is woven into the fabric of our lives. We have always been surrounded by such meaning-imbued language; later we created our own. Our language also travels through the air, though it is vibrating waves of sound. (Did you think we made all this up out of our bulging forebrains alone?) We have always lived, surrounded by original language."
The new field of biosemiotics is examining communication within and between communities of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.  I imagine the field extending itself to theosemiotics, which would follow the same patterns observed in the wild world.

I learned what I know of speaking with gods from speaking with plants and fungi.    There are gods who speak like Spruce, their breath calms us, and we stand in their shade.   Their are gods that seduce us like Datura, their breath all perfume and pheromones and opium,   There are gods like fermented Apples, who render us drunk or put us to sleep.    There are gods like the Matronae who are like mushrooms, each Matrona an individual fruiting body with her own experience, but each connected to the whole by mycelial threads.    There are gods like the roots of Oaks.   And there are gods like the coiling of mycelium and rhizome.

Like plants, all of them speak unmediated to the wild self, and the talking self finds its version of meaning in the traces of thought and language and narrative that arise where sensation touches consciousness.

Gods are not plants or fungi or animal, but neither are they human.   They meet me at the edge of the forest.   And it was the forest that taught me how to speak with those who are not human.   And so my theology is mycorrhizal.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Can Information Technology Deliver Us from Capitalism?

Will information technology succeed where popular movements have failed in leading us out of capitalism?  That is British journalist Paul Mason's contention.

Mason says that because information technology has reduced the need for workers by automating more forms of work, disrupted price structures by flooding the market with an abundance of information, and facilitated new mechanisms of sharing and trade, it has begun to erode the fundamental structures of capitalism, coupled with external stresses, it will move us, over time, and with fits and starts, toward a post-capitalist world.   The new project of the Left, he argues, should be the creation of alternative structures and institutions to replace those of the dominant culture as they disintegrate.   

There is much to like about Mason's essay.  I agree with his contention that information technology has been an important force for liberation and for the establishment of a new commons in some spheres.  (Though,  we ignore the ways in which it also facilitates new forms or repression at our own peril.  The manifestation of Foucault's Panopticon in the form of surveillance technologies and the development of drone warfare are as much expressions of information technology as are cell phone cameras that can document police violence and technologies that democratize media.)   I also agree that the Left would be well served by an increased focus on what Gandhi called the constructive program.  (Though as a counterpart to, not as a replacement for, resistance.   Mason argues that we need to stop engaging in defensive tactics.  I think that we need to both defend communities, human and wild, and carve out new liberated spaces at the same time.)   And there is the fact that a major British journalist is joining the growing and diverse list of public figures from Russell Brand to Pope Francis who are openly and directly critiquing capitalism in a culture that had been largely silent about capitalism since the end of the Cold War.

But Mason's account of the emergence of capitalism is deeply flawed in ways that also cloud his analysis of the present and the future.  He writes:

The feudal model of agriculture collided, first, with environmental limits and then with a massive external shock – the Black Death. After that, there was a demographic shock: too few workers for the land, which raised their wages and made the old feudal obligation system impossible to enforce. The labour shortage also forced technological innovation. The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).The feudal model of agriculture collided, first, with environmental limits and then with a massive external shock – the Black Death. After that, there was a demographic shock: too few workers for the land, which raised their wages and made the old feudal obligation system impossible to enforce. The labour shortage also forced technological innovation. The new technologies that underpinned the rise of merchant capitalism were the ones that stimulated commerce (printing and accountancy), the creation of tradeable wealth (mining, the compass and fast ships) and productivity (mathematics and the scientific method).

This account begins with a popular misconception:  that communal agriculture in feudal Europe collapsed because it over-stripped the carrying capacity of the land.  The concept comes from a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin called "The Tragedy of the Commons."  Hardin argued that in a situation where people farmed land in common, as was common in feudal England, nobody would protect the commons because each individual farmer would have an interest in using more than their share of resources and no incentive for conservation.   Hardin's surmise was taken as historical fact -- despite a complete lack of evidence that any such thing did happen.  If anything, it appears that communities of peasants organized to regulate the use of common resources.

The end of communal agriculture in England was, in, fact, quite brutal and bloody.  People were driven out of their communities and into the cities as communal land was forcibly seized and privatized and sold to people who had become wealthy as a result of Spain paying back its debts to British and other Western European creditors with gold and silver looted from the Americas.   This created not a shortage, but an abundance of available labor, which provided the workforce for British industrialization. 

This points to the second major flaw in Mason's reading of the history of capitalism -- Mason suggests that technologies like sailing ships and mining techniques were the drivers of capitalism's evolution while ignoring the human and material elements of the system.  Technology appears as a force that precipitates cultural change rather than a product of that change.   (For an excellent critique of this position see Raymond Williams' "The Technology and the Society.")     In his technological determinism, Mason misses a process vital to the emergence of capitalism:  the process of accumulation.

Marx observed that the rise of capitalism was dependent on the influx of new wealth in the form of precious metals from the Americas which spawned the emergence of a managerial class, that most beloved class of modern politicians -- the middle class, which Marx called the bourgeoisie.   Silvia Federici points out that Marx's account of primitive accumulation was incomplete since it ignored the enclosure of the commons, the driving of rural workers into the cities to form the basis of the proletariat, the creation of a domestic sphere in which women provided free labor, and the witch persecutions which created a climate of terror that facilitated these changes.   Slavery provided the work force for capitalist expansion in the Americas, following on the heels of genocide.

Federici also points out that because it depends on infinite growth (nevermind the impossibility of such a thing given the laws of thermodynamics), "capitalism must engage in continual accumulation "capitalist accumulation is structurally dependent on the free appropriation of immense quantities of labor and resources that must appear as externalities to the market"

So does the information economy.  This "post industrial" economy still depends on industry and agriculture, these simply occur out of the sight of most people in wealthy nations.  The infrastructure of the information economy depends on the mining of minerals and the extraction of fossil fuels from lands expropriated from Indigenous communities and the labor of the displaced rural people from these areas in mines, oil and gas wells, and factories.   Will these people be invited to be full participants in a "post-capitalist" economy?  And is that what they and their communities want?  Most likely not, but Mason doesn't tell us.

Exits from capitalism have always been available to some for a price.   The communes of the 1960's and 1970's were largely populated by the children of the bourgeoisie.   Burners celebrate the cashless economy of Burning Man while forgetting the process of accumulation that feeds it -- people come to the desert to give away resources they obtained by succeeding within a capitalist economy, often with the benefit of racial, class, and colonial privilege.   The post-capitalism Mason envisions may have room for more people, and may even be accessible to most people in the US and Canada and northwestern Europe and parts of Asia, but its hard to see it actually having room for everyone.  This is not to say that such exits from capitalism play no role in transforming it -- but they are not complete, they are not enough.

The technologies themselves at play are of mixed provenance.  On the one hand they are the product of the Cold War drive to maintain military control in the event of a nuclear war.  On the other hand they are the product the work of groups that included a lot of neurodivergent people who had eaten fungi and fungal derivatives rich in serotonergic alkaloids creating a silicon simularum of mycelial webs.   There were both repressive and liberatory impulses involved in the emergence of our information technologies, and they continue to be used in both repressive and liberatory ways.

Adrienne Rich once wrote "Poetry never stood a chance of standing outside of history."  Neither does technology.   Technological developments will both shape and be shaped by the people who engage them, who in turn are influenced by a host of political, economic, cultural, economic, spiritual, and magical forces.   We can't rely on technology to bring down capitalism.   We have to use it and engage it strategically in combination with old, new, and very old strategies of resistance and cultural innovation.  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

It's Midsummer's Eve and the temperate rainforest I call home has turned hot and dry after months without rain, and I am awake after midnight, weeping at the beauty and power of a papal encyclical.

Two years ago, a month before my initiation as a Feri Priest, I wrote about the intense liberation I felt with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, which helped to break the chains the Church still had wrapped around my sense of myself in the world.

Now, freed of that relationship, I am able to read the words of his successor, Pope Francis, with new eyes, and recognize a surprising resonance with my own Pagan practice. 

"Pagan"  and "Heathen" are words that originally referred to the unchurched and unlettered people of the countryside, and these were the people Francis of Assisi ministered to -- a ministry marked not by conversion but by inclusion in  an animist form of Christianity, which saw plants and animals and sun and rain and wind and stars as humanity's kin.  It is telling and significant that the saint's namesake draws quite explicitly on that original Franciscan language, theology, and spirit in an encyclical addressed not to Catholics but to the world.   The Pope writes:
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.
And, then, comes the really astounding part:
The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
With these words, Pope Francis challenges the cosmology of capitalism, resurrecting a world that was declared dead, and calling for a new politics and a new economics that recognize the inherent worth and rights of all life, human or otherwise.  

He goes on to explicitly condemn anthropocentrism -- a complete reversal of Benedict XVI's position that challenges to the concept of a human centered world were inherently heretical.   Writing of biodiversity, he says:
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. For example, many birds and insects which disappear due to synthetic agrotoxins are helpful for agriculture: their disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful. We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.
What we are witnessing here is a fundamental theological shift --  the Pope is moving the Church's position from a view of a world created by God for human use to a view of a world in which all life is sacred.  

He aligns himself and the Church, as well, with Indigenous people, taking the position that they are  best caretakers of their traditional homelands, and that they deserve to be allowed to honor an protect  "a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values."  These words are coming from the leader of a Church which for centuries blessed the extermination, forced conversion, and forced assimilation of Indigenous people.   Now, witnessing a world devastated by colonialism and capitalism, the Pope is completely rewriting Church doctrine.

Its appropriate that this comes just weeks after the Vatican beatified Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by U.S.-trained assassins for speaking out on behalf of El Salvador's poor.   Like Pope Francis, Romero was a quiet and moderate man who distanced himself from politics -- until he could no longer ignore the suffering around him.   Romero said "“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”   I wonder at the miracle of the tears that have cleared the eyes of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis believes in a single God.  Though he also speaks of Mary, beautifully, as the Mother and Queen of the universe:

Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power. Completely transfigured, she now lives with Jesus, and all creatures sing of her fairness. She is the Woman, “clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” Carried up into heaven, she is the Mother and Queen of all creation. In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty. She treasures the entire life of Jesus in her heart and now understands the meaning of all things. Hence, we can ask her to enable us to look at this world with eyes of wisdom.
 My spirituality is rooted not in belief, but in relationships -- and my relationships are with many gods - the Feri gods and the gods of my ancestors - and with plants and animals and rivers and stars.

But that is almost all that separates my view of the world from the view Pope Francis articulates in this encyclical.

And that brings great healing to this once Catholic heart.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Rainbow Family, Leave the Oglala Sioux Alone!

I was saddened and disturbed today to learn that the Rainbow Family is planning to gather, uninvited, in the Sacred Hills of the Oglala Lakota Nation.   This is an act of tremendous disrespect against people who have been fighting genocide and colonization for centuries.

Early reports are that Rainbow Family "scouts" have been showing up at sacred sites, dismissing requests to stay away, answering them with promises that the Rainbow Family will leave the land "better than they found it."  These are the same words outsiders have been using for years to justify their disrespect for  Oglala Sioux sovereignty. 

The plans to leave the land "better than they found it" include plans to bring in non-native plants and plant them all over the Sacred Hills which are essential habitat for the plants that are at the core of the nation's traditional medicine.

All of this is happening as the Oglala Lakota are preparing to go into the season of vision quests and prepare for the Sundance.

The Rainbow Family's plans are unspeakably arrogant, ignorant, and destructive.


-- Do not take part in this gathering in any way.

-- Speak out against the Rainbow Family's disrespect for Indigenous sovereignty.

-- If you have information about the specific location of the Rainbow Family's June 17 Spring Council in South Dakota, pass it on so people from the tribe can try to talk some sense into those planning the gathering.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Beyond Adaptogens: Holistic Strategies for Surviving Late Capitalism

A little while back, I wrote about the problem with using adaptogens as our primary way of addressing stress -- basically, the function of adaptogens is to allow people to continue to function at relatively high levels while under stress without necessarily mitigating the damage done by that stress.  In the process they tend to normalize the intolerable conditions of people's lives under late capitalism. 

I promised I would follow up with some suggestions about other therapeutic strategies for dealing with stress - -  harm reduction techniques that we can use while we await the removal of the largest obstacles cure in human history - structural violence and systematic oppression.  So, here are a few approaches I am using in my practice:

Removing Straw from the Camel's Back: Reducing the Allostatic Load

Stress occurs when we experience a real or perceived threat to our ability to meet our survival needs and maintain health.   Allostasis is the ability of our bodies to fluidly respond to stressful situations -- for example, under normal circumstances, if we here a bump in the night our muscles might tense and our heart rates might increase, but when we realize its just a cat leaping from the couch to the floor, our heart rates would slow down again and our muscles would relax.

Each of us has a limit, though, an amount of stress we can respond to fluidly.   If I were sleep deprived and worried about someone breaking into my apartment my heart rate might stay elevated and my muscles might stay tense even after I realized the sound I heard was just a jumping cat.

The things that take reduce our ability to respond to change collectively form our allostatic load.   Unresolved trauma, especially from early childhood, takes its toll on us, reducing our capacity to respond to new stressors.  So does having unreliable access to the means to meet out basic survival needs - food, warmth, loving connection.   And because poverty and oppression make people more vulnerable to attack and limit people's ability to meet their fundamental needs, they tend to have a tremendous impact on our allostatic load.   The greater the allostatic load, the less capacity we have to heal.

This phenomenon partially explains the seemingly sudden emergence of chronic conditions -- thyroid disorders that begin in pregnancy, food sensitivities that seem to appear in stressful times in adulthood, etc.   The underlying pattern giving rise to the condition has often existed for a long time, but the body was able to correct for it and prevent the development of symptoms until something came along that overwhelmed its ability to maintain allosatasis.

As practitioners, we are often tempted to focus on finding the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back -- the stressor that finally pushed the body into a state where it could no longer regulate itself.   But identifying and removing that particular stressor is less important than reducing the overall allostatic load.   The camel's back will heal best when the load it is carrying is smaller.  At that point it won't matter whether the straw that broke it is among the straws that remain or among the straws that were removed.

So I work with people to find what changes we can make in their lives that will make things just a little bit easier: finding foods we can add to help their bodies be more deeply nourished, working on strategies for deeper sleep,  reducing pain, addressing acute anxiety, any helpful change that can be incorporated in a person's daily life without adding stress.  (I will sometimes advise against particular changes, like quitting Tobacco, if someone is really shaken up or really depleted, and making that change will cause more stress than it will relieve.)   As simple changes come into place, room gradually opens for larger changes.   When a person reaches a place of relative stability and solidity I often recommend working on some of the deeper factors contributing to the allostatic load.  I tend to find somatic approaches to healing from trauma to be especially effective at that stage.


Feelings of helplessness and isolation often accompany or underlie chronic stress.  Solidarity is a powerful antidote to alienation -- when we know that others are standing with us in our struggles for survival and liberation,  the challenges we are up against become a little bit less overwhelming.

One of my goals as a practitioner is to shift the dynamic in the sessions I hold with people from one where a patient is receiving a commodified service from an expert professional to one in which everyone in the room is on equal footing, working together to find ways to shift challenging situations in one person's life.   Part of that work involves witnessing that person's pain and that person's strength, and part of it involves coming to collective agreement about what changes we want to try to create and how we want to go about making those changes.   In all of this, the degree to which our plans fit the person's life and increase their experience of personal sovereignty. 

Whatever else does or doesn't happen, creating spaces where people can shift their experience of health care as something done to them to an experience of health care as something done with them can often bring profound healing in and of itself.

Connection with the Living World

Our nervous systems and endocrine systems evolved in the context of a world rich with phytochemical and mycochemical stimuli, molecules morphologically and functionally similar to our internal chemistries of thought and emotion. And the chemistries of the plants and fungi in our ancestral environments would shift and change subtly in response to the chemical outputs of their human inhabitants. Mental and emotional regulation were never meant to strictly inside jobs.

In an article last year I wrote:

Our ancestors evolved in a context where they were constantly taking in a varied abundance of medicines through breathing in the chemicals plants were releasing into the air, absorbing chemicals from plants as they brushed against them with their skin, drinking in the chemicals that filtered from their root systems into the water – and that is not even taking into account the plants they ingested. This wove them integrally into the ecosystems they inhabited, and the fluidity of those ecosystems and the ever changing nature of the chemical inputs into their bodies created a fluidity in their experience. Water soluble compounds from plants interacted with their endocrine systems and oil soluble compounds from plants altered their brain chemistries, shifting their perceptions.

Simply bringing people into the presence of plants or bringing plants into the presence of people reawakens our sense of connection with the living world.

Aromatic plant compounds have a special role to play here.  Inhaling the volatile oils of plants sets off a chain of events which activate the parasympathetic ("rest and digest") nervous system and relax tension in the small muscles around the blood vessels, helping us come down from the "fight, flight, or freeze" response.  (For more on this see Guido Masé's The Wild Medicine Solution.)   This is likely one of the reasons that the Japanese practice of "forest bathing" seems to have such a profound effect in preventing and ameliorating stress-related illnesses.

These are just a few initial thoughts on approaches to mitigating chronic stress -- please share your thoughts and strategies in the comment section below!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Of Capitalism and Cortisol (or the trouble with adaptogens)

 Recently, while preparing a lecture on stress hormones, I came across a quote from the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst,  Slavoj Žižek:
"Think about the strangeness of today's situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism"
and it struck me that what Žižek describes is the collective manifestation of the effects of consistently high levels cortisol on consciousness.

Cortisol, like all of our hormones, alters our consciousness.   Released by the adrenal cortex, cortisol serves to keep us in a position to respond to danger when an immediate threat has passed but we are not entirely safe yet.  It acts to elevate our blood sugar so more energy will be quickly available to our muscles, to dampen the inflammatory responses brought on by the adrenaline/norepinephrine response we had to the initial threat, to favor the storage of excess energy as fat over the construction of muscle -- and to make us more afraid of and more prone to perceive immediate, cataclysmic threats in the world around us while also diminishing our cognitive capacities.

From an ancestral survival standpoint this all makes sense -- if you have just escaped from a mountain lion you are better off perceiving a rabbit in the bushes as another mountain lion than perceiving a mountain lion in the bushes as a rabbit.   In response to short term stresses, pessimism serves us well.   And you are also better off remaining focused on crashing sounds in the bushes than on contemplating the nature of mountain lions or future strategies for dealing with them.

In a contemporary context, this doesn't serve us.  When the threats to our survival come from not being ale to pay the rent or afford groceries or from not knowing whether we will be shot by police as we walk down the street we seldom reach a point where we can relax fully enough for our cortisol levels to go down because the threat never really goes away.   High cortisol levels cause us to be prone to fear of sudden disasters, and they diminish our ability to analyze the situation and see alternatives.  They also, of course, contribute to stress-related illnesses.

Contemporary responses to chronic stress amount to battlefield medicine.  The role of a military medic is not to help people  heal but to get troops back onto the battlefield as quickly as possible.  Under capitalism, the role of health care workers is not to help people heal but to restore their economic productivity.   And this gets justified in terms of meeting patients' expressed needs, because most people's day to day survival depends on their being able to continue to work to earn money to meet their basic needs, so the patients themselves get put in the position of needing to ask for the medicine that will restore their functionality rather than the treatment that will support their recuperation and restore their vitality --  since the latter requires rest and restructuring of life, luxuries available only to those with enough wealth not to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

The same imperative was true under state Communism.   Soviet scientists set out to find medicines that would improve people's ability to perform key functions under prolonged stress.   They discovered them in a class of herbs they called adaptogens -- herbs which act by extending the cortisol dominated resistance stage of stress, staving off a complete adrenal crash.   The first such herb researched was Siberian Ginseng -- which was found to allow auto-workers to work long hours at grueling jobs without having to take as many sick days as those who didn't take the herb.

Reimagined in a capitalist context, adaptogens are sold and prescribed as herbs to help people remain active and focused while living stressful lives.  They do this -- for a while.   They buy time, putting off the point where the body can no longer function in the ways a person wants it to, masking and delaying symptoms of fatigue that would normally tell us we have pushed ourselves too far.   And, yes, sometimes that is necessary -- a person working three jobs to feed their kids can't take a week off to sleep and can't reduce their hours and can't go off to the woods for days on end.   But they are not really a solution to the problem at hand, and we need to be honest about this.  Especially because they tend to have the effect of making us normalize the situations we are living in and inhibiting the process of questioning the systems that make survival so brutally difficult.

Last December, I wrote:
"It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse."
Maybe the process begins with giving people medicines and practices that connect them with new senses of possibility --  in my next post I will explore some of these approaches .  .


Want to read more about dreaming and thinking and working our way out of the mess capitalism has put us in?  Go to:

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Hyperlexic Paradox

The precocious development of a large vocabulary and the use of unusual and complex sentence structures are common elements begins of early childhood for a certain group of Autistic people, and remain a features of our communications well into adulthood.   And it is one of the reasons we are so often misread.

Some see us as cold or formal or distant because to those who don't know us well our expression comes across as more similar to literary or academic writing than colloquial speech -- a byproduct of our hyperlexia.  When you are 9 and the only person whose words reflect an understanding of your inner reality is a dead Irish poet, you tend to find yourself communicating in strange ways.  And those habits stick.

Others take the complexity of our language and our obsessions with it as signs  that we feel at home expressing ourselves with words.  For me, they indicate the exact opposite.

All my life, I have been trying to communicate what I think and feel in a language that evolved from a way of viewing the world completely alien to my own experience.   In the folklore of my ancestors, precocious speech was seen as a sign that a child might be a changeling -- all I can say is that is not far off the mark.   From an early age I always imagined that I came from another world where people thought and felt like I did.  I assimilated language in an unsuccessful attempt to explain my reality.  And when speech and prose failed, I tried poetry.

Speaking of the way modern Irish literature grew out of the experience of colonization, Malachy McCourt thanked the English "for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors."  I could say the same of the "gift" of a language shaped by a culture that aims to limit the acceptable bounds of sensation and perception -- being an Autistic person whose only available means of communication was a language shaped by neurotypical assumptions made me a poet. 

 Ironic, perhaps, because the assumption is commonly made that Aspies don't understand metaphor.  But what I actually find is that usually when I am speaking literally people take it as metaphor, because what I am speaking of exists outside the world that their sensory gating allows them to perceive, and when I am speaking metaphorically people tend to take what I am saying literally, because I have translated it into terms that appear more concrete to them than my actual concrete experiences do (which tend, in turn, to be misinterpreted as abstractions.)

You might think that being a poet makes it easy for me to express my feelings.  But I write poetry precisely because everyday language doesn't readily convey what I feel.   When it comes to things I am feeling intensely, sometimes conversation is nearly impossible.   Knowing that my words will only express an approximation of what I am saying, I become slow and meticulous in attempting to choose each one.   And each one also is a signifier fraught with a dozen layers of meaning for me.  And sometimes typing or uttering them can bring me into a place of being completely overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings they evoke.

And once I have written or spoken words, I often hear them repeated to me in a new context that shifts their meaning.  I hesitate in conversation when it is important for something I say to be understood because I see how quickly meanings I did not intend can become attached to my words, and the ways in which the words I use take on a life of their own.  As Adrienne Rich writes in her poem, "North American Time"

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.

"We move but our words stand
become responsible

for more than we intended

"and this is verbal privilege"

A verbal privilege not shared by my Autistic kin who this culture deems "low functioning" and who most people assume lack a rich inner life -- until someone like Carly Fleischmann finds a way to all too briefly break into the world of language and describe her experiences.  (That is, until they are silenced by electroconvulsive therapy as Carly was . . .)

Sometimes speaking or writing at all feels like a betrayal of my own heart and my own experience.  The harsh sounds of English doesn't reflect their flow.  The concepts the words of the language refer to are not mine.   The history that shaped the language and the culture is a history of brutality.   And I want to stand outside of history.  But poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history, and neither did I.

And so I write.  Knowing that I will be misunderstood.