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.