Botany as Therapy

The following is an excerpt from my newly updated Zine #3: “Botany in a Handout”, which can be freely accessed and downloaded on the Educational Resources page.

 

To interact with a study as a therapy is to say that it has healing effects on the psyche.  To me, botany is much more than a study that appeases my curiosity; it is a practice that soothes my agitated nerves, grounds my fidgeting body, and connects me with the mysterious source of life. Along with ecology, tracking, wilderness skills, homesteading competence, anti-colonization work, and mind-body exploration, botany can be a very important aspect of the re-wilding journey.

Plants take up a lot of room here on planet Earth, and no matter how much pavement we lay down, they will always pop up through the cracks to say “HI”.  A common response from civilized humans is a foot in the face, a fresh pour of concrete, or a spritz of poison.  It is unfortunate on many levels.  In our culture, we face debilitating levels of stress and depression, and there is much to learn about self care and community connection. I propose that plants can, and must, play a pivotal role in the human journey towards sanity and health.  I am not referring to herbal medicine (though that certainly has a lot to offer), rather I am writing about botanical awareness; the mere acknowledgement of plants on a daily basis.

A few springs ago, I spent time in an East African Maasai village; my first experience outside of western culture.  It is an area where ancestral ties and traditional ways are still intact, like an artery pulsing through the community.  In this place, despite the growing invasion of western culture, people still carry a general knowledge of the plants living amongst them.  Even if they don’t use a plant for food or medicine, they can identify it, at the very least. I had not seen this collective ecological consciousness before, and do not see it where I live.

Prunus angustifolia
What I have seen, over and over, regardless of location, culture, or age, is the universal eye sparkle when an individual experiences the amazement of botanical awareness.  Perhaps they really see a flower, with all of its reproductive goods, for the first time.  Or they feel the exhilarating terror after tasting the alkaloidal tingle of Prickly Ash bark.  This eye sparkle indicates a childlike wonder that brings innocent joy into the world; something we could certainly use more of. Our eyes dull much too quickly when they are always reflecting concrete.
I have spent time with many plant nerds (which come in all forms, might I add), and repeatedly, I hear stories of pure magic.  Sometimes people hear profound messages from plants (and no…not just “psychoactive plants”).  I personally have never heard a plant speak, per say, though I think that consciously being in the presence of plants helps me to hear my own inner voice more clearly.  More than counseling, what I receive from plants and wilderness is generosity, ease, delight, and clarity.  One afternoon, I was exploring the hills of Vermont.  I spotted a deer trail and, practicing my tracking skills, I came upon a beautiful doe.  I stalked her for less than ten seconds before startling her with my clumsy footfalls, and she took off over the peak of a steep hill.  When I climbed to the top, I looked down to see, as far as my sight would allow, a forest full of giant Reishi mushrooms on old Hemlocks. Some were bigger than my head! I could feel my eyes sparkling. For me, this was magic. I harvested a few mushrooms and brewed a year’s worth of medicine from the fungal gift, though I am pretty sure the journey of discovering them was the most potent therapy of all.
 
The industrialized world is loud, but the magic of the natural world is held in quietude.  When the days are fast-paced, the best medicine really is terribly cliche: stop and smell the roses, or the camphor leaves, or taste the pineapple guava flowers, watch a squirrel nibble on a hickory nut, or launch Jewelweed seeds from their pods for thirty full minutes.  Stop and acknowledge that we humans are part of an intricate network of connections, of checks and balances, of cooperation.  Perhaps then, the pull of social media, the draw of the screen, the demands of the boss, the shitty traffic, and the unending task list will seem less like the center of the universe.  Maybe, finally, important things will become the center of our universe.  Rather than trying to colonize another planet, maybe we can pay attention to the one being destroyed beneath out feet. Perhaps utilizing botany as therapy, humans might start considering the health of their habitats as the most important necessity.  For when the habitat is healthy, the community is healthy; and when the community is healthy, so too is the individual.
 

Little First Aid Kit

First aid kits can come in all shapes and sizes. Creating kits for different settings has become an unintentional hobby; I have a home kit, car kit, camping kit, foot care kit, birthing kit, menstruation kit, animal kit, trauma kit, a daily kit, and even an “extras” kit (a kit from which I can restock all other kits!). All of these are constantly transforming and evolving when I come across different containers, different wound dressing material, or if I choose to switch up the herbs I’m working with.  It’s become an obsession really.

What I want to share in this post is a simple first aid kit that is carried daily, and covers the most basic first aid needs. This is a kit that I created for my mom, and, according to her, it has been useful.  It is small (3.5″ x 2.5″ x 1″) and fits nicely in her backpack or purse.

The little first aid kit includes:

  • Band aids
  • Gauze
  • Antiseptic towelettes
  • Wound dressing- a vial of honey-resin mixture.
  • Green band aid salve- all purpose salve in chapstick tube, for skin irritation- bug bites, burns, eczema, dry skin, etc.
  • Electrolyte packets
  • OTC medicine- each in its own bag, labeled with dosage, instructions, contraindications, and expiration date:
    • Ibuprofen- an NSAID (non-steriodal anti-inflammatory) that eases pain from inflammation and lowers fevers. Ibuprofen acts quickly, but doesn’t stay in the body too long, so it has a lower risk of stomach and kidney problems, compared to other meds. Long term use is still not ideal. Do not give to anyone less than 6 months old.
    • Aspirin- another NSAID. Beyond pain relief, this can be a lifesaving anti-clotting medicine in the event of chest pain & heart attacks. Chewing 2-4 baby aspirin upon experiencing chest pain is a standard recommendation by the 911 dispatcher before first responders show up. I have seen aspirin alone resolve serious chest pain very quickly. Long term use can cause gastric distress.  Aspirin is not usually given to children and teens due to the increased risk of Reye’s syndrome.
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)- an analgesic (painkiller) and fever reducer. This important to have when NSAIDs cannot be taken, or if pain is not from inflammation. Be careful with Tylenol, as it is one of the most commonly overdosed OTC medications, causing liver damage or even acute liver failure. Don’t take Tylenol with alcohol, and follow the exact dosage instructions.
    • Children’s Tylenol can be important to include in a kit for children, for cases of high fever.
    • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)- antihistamine and sedative.  Severe allergic reactions are becoming more common, and Benadryl can help stave off/slow down/reduce an anaphylactic reaction. Even though I don’t experience allergies, I always carry it on me because (1) I could develop them at any time, and (2) I’d like to provide relief if I am with someone having an allergic reaction. Please note that diphenhydramine is also a sedative, so people will feel sleepy after taking it.  This can effect driving, and the like. I choose Diphenhydramine over other antihistamines because of its relative effectiveness for more severe allergic reactions, beyond just the typical sinus discomfort. In these cases, take Benadryl and call 911.

You may be thinking, “Well, geez Annie, this is not very herby!”  And it’s true.  With this little kit, I’ve chosen to prioritize pharmaceuticals over herbs. The purpose of this kit is to cover the most basic first aid needs, in as small a container possible; so that it is practical and desirable for my mama to take with her wherever she goes.  And since she is rather herbally-inclined, she expands upon this kit with her own plant potions as it makes sense for her personally.

First aid kit photoshoot by Carla Seward 🙂

Stress & Poverty

The following is an excerpt from the zine “How Stress Affects the Body”, which I wrote in 2014.  The whole zine can be freely downloaded here.

 

If you have a group of people of the same sex, age, and ethnicity, and you want to predict who will live the longest, the single most useful fact to know is each person’s socioeconomic status. The people most vulnerable to chronic stress and its health risks are those trapped in poverty. It is important to note that, due to racism, certain ethnicities are much more likely to live in poverty. Being poor involves many psychological stressors, such as caring for a family without adequate resources, not having a job or juggling multiple jobs, worrying about getting to a job on time by public transportation or unreliable vehicles, struggling to pay rent, lack of good education, lack of safety, lack of control and predictability, and even lack of housing. People of lower socioeconomic status are also more likely to be separated from family members by incarceration, immigration, and deportation. Being poor also comes with many physical stressors, like manual labor and increased risk for work-related accidents, sleep deprivation from working two or three exhausting jobs, exposure to higher amounts of pollution in low income neighborhoods, poor health care, walking to and from work, the store, the laundromat with heavy bags in hand, living in close quarters with many other people and increased exposure to pathogens and tobacco smoke, inadequate heat in the winter, excess heat in the summer, limited access to healthy foods, etc, etc… One study of the working poor showed that they were less likely to take prescribed anti-hypertensive diuretic drugs (which lower blood pressure by urination) because they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom at work as often as needed. There is a thin line between the physical and mental stressors of poverty. Being poor means that there are no resources in the reserve, so people in this situation can only react to the present crisis rather than plan for the future.

This constant stress exhausts a person’s mind and body. With chronically elevated glucocorticoids, they are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, psychiatric disorders, poor immune systems, autoimmunity and more. The luxury of prevention rarely exists in poverty. People in this situation often don’t present for medical care until they are in crisis and at this point, it is more difficult to treat. When an impoverished person gets sick, they cannot afford for the world to slow down for them; the boss still expects their labor and the landlord still expects rent. Or if they are houseless, they are left to care for themselves while exposed to the elements and the police telling them to “move along”. Maneuvering through doctors and hospitals without good health insurance is incredibly frustrating, to say the least.

The stress responses of poverty start at a young age. Children from low-income families are four times as likely as privately insured kids to receive anti-psychotic meds. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “These medications make children more manageable and less aggressive, but they also interfere with motivation, play, and curiosity, which are indispensable for maturing into a well functioning and contributing member of society.” A study of school kids in Montreal showed that at age 10, kids of lower socioeconomic status had almost double the amount of glucocorticoids circulating their bloodstream, in comparison to kids of higher socioeconomic status. Another interesting study involved a group of elderly nuns. Since they were young adults, they all shared the same diet, health care, and housing. And yet in old age, their patterns of disease, dementia, and longevity were still predicted by the socioeconomic status they had growing up, fifty years prior.

Just as being poor affects health, so too does feeling poor. Many wealthy people experience dissatisfaction and want, always grasping for more to keep up with the nonexistent Joneses. However disconnected from reality this pressure may be, it taps into the stress response and exposes a person to all the same health risks. This distorted view of one’s security also affects their ability to share and redistribute resources to those suffering in poverty.

For 99.9% of human history, satisfaction has been measured by basic needs being met and deep relationships sustained. Robert Sapolsky, biology and neurology professor, writes, “Agriculture is a fairly recent human invention, and in many ways it was one of the great stupid moves of all time. Hunter-gatherers have thousands of wild sources of food to subsist on. Agriculture changed all that, generating an over-whelming reliance on a few dozen domesticated food sources, making you extremely vulnerable to the next famine, the next locust infestation, the next potato blight. Agriculture allowed for the stockpiling of surplus resources and thus, inevitability, the unequal stockpiling of them- stratification of society and the invention of classes. Thus, it allowed for the invention of poverty. I think that the punch line of the primate-human difference is that when humans invented poverty, they came up with a way of subjugating the low-ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.”

A mentor once told me, “The greatest joy is only known in close proximity to suffering.” Recognizing and naming oppression for what it is can be powerful. It can release someone from their misplaced feelings of shame that came from abuse, or it can open an oppressor’s eyes to the ways in which they have been conditioned to use others for their own benefit. All living beings are intricately connected and our choices can significantly affect another’s life, for better or worse. Increasing awareness of how oppressed human and nonhuman animals live should lead us to seek justice (whether it empowers us as a survivor or disempowers us as an oppressor (sometimes both)). Seeking justice connects us with a deep current of passion that ties us to one another and lets us taste what it means to be truly alive. It may seem like taking on the injustices of our day would only add more stress, but becoming aware of the larger picture puts things into perspective; the small stressors fall away and the big stressors, well, we need not face them alone.