Gaian Voices Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner

Gaian Voices · October 2004


SML: Gary Snyder said, “We’re all natives here”. We all belong to the Earth.
I feel it in my own relationship with plants and using them for healing.

SB: That’s absolutely right. Our first religious articulation was Earth spirituality. When people talk about the great world religions they never talk about that, they talk about Hinduism or Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or the Jewish faith but they are a recent overlay on this deep spirituality that goes back to the emergence of our species. We are all very definitely Earth people, and there’s a unique Earth spirituality that informs the people who are born and raised on this particular continent.

SML: Because we’re here in North America as opposed to somewhere else?

SB: Yes. I believe that the Earth tends to shape the spirituality of people based on where they live. For instance, Native peoples call the North American continent Turtle Island and the North American tribes are different from Central and South American tribes, and the Western hemisphere is different from Africa. Yes, all the Earth’s religions overlap to a certain extent, but they’re unique, too. We’re one thread of Earth spirituality that’s shaped by the land here.

SML: In The Lost Language of Plants, you write about the “taste of wild water”. This really got me because it’s something I remember from my own childhood here in the White Mountains. It’s something people don’t have any more -- you can’t drink the wild water.

SB: Yeah, but you see my mother said that even back then. I lived most of my life in the Colorado mountains and I drank the water all the time. People say you can get Giardia and I thought, what’s the big deal? If you get it you take some herbs and it goes away. Today people are terrified to walk in the forest because of Lyme disease. There’s always some reason for being terrified of the wild, for not letting it inside you. Every generation has its excuse for not letting the wild inside their bodies. Our mothers intuitively knew a great truth -- if you let the wild inside of you it changes you. You start to become uncivilized.

SML: It seems to me that would be a good thing.

SB: That’s our prejudice. It’s what we believe, but you can be sure George Bush doesn’t believe it. The word civilized means “of the cities” and cities are a relatively recent invention. Our culture places great importance on taming, getting rid of, or controlling the wild so that we can have a very ordered existence. I think people are intuitively terrified of the wild because once you let it inside, whether it’s inside your organization or your marriage or your body or psyche it begins to change you. Of course, to me that’s what being human is all about -- letting the wild in.

SML: In the first chapter of Lost Language, you talk about recognition and give the example of a puppy coming over and knowing it’s you. I have that feeling when I go in the woods. Sometimes it’s a place I’ve been before, but not always. It’s like, “Oh, there you are.” And it’s mutual. It’s not just me. I feel it coming from the tree or whatever it is. And I’m not creating it, I’m a part of it.

SB: That’s true. This is participatory awareness. The thing that’s so difficult for civilized people to understand is that we’re just like trees and ticks and bears. We are a life form that emerged out of the ecosystem of the planet for a specific ecological reason just like everything else. But because we’re so carefully indoctrinated to believe that we’re unique and separate from nature and superior because we can think, we’ve come to believe that we’re exempt from the ecological consequences of our behavior. Another thing that happens is our natural capacity to experience participatory sharing with nature becomes so deadened that the majority of the people no longer sense it. And when someone does have an experience of it, they feel like they have to apologize for it. You sort of did that yourself when you said, “It’s not just coming from me . . .”. We all have that problem. It’s part of what I refer to as the internal wound.

SML: Can you talk about that a bit?

SB: There are two kinds of wounds I write about in Lost Language. They come from no longer sharing soul essence with the world around us. The external wound is easy to see. It’s what environmentalists focus their attention on -- the desecration of the Earth. We’ve talked about it so much it’s easy to forget that there’s a feeling to it. A feeling before words, a deep response from somewhere inside us that recognizes the damage to the fabric of life. This is the interior wound, and it occurs in the landscape of the human psyche and heart. It’s a natural consequence of what we’re taught about being human. And it starts as soon as you begin to believe that there’s a separation between you and everything else, as soon as you begin to believe that somehow the human intellect is superior to the mind that is present in nature.

SML: What is sacred plant medicine?

SB: Human beings have always had a strong and deeply interdependent relationship with plants. In many ways we are the byproduct of plants’ habitation of Earth because they created the atmosphere that allowed for the evolution of oxygen-breathing beings. To understand sacred plant medicine is to understand certain attitudes and perspectives toward the Earth and all things on it. Plants are an expression of Spirit; and the human being, through the developed capacity to travel in sacred territory, makes an alliance with plants in order to gather knowledge and develop the ability to heal. Plants are both medicines and sacred beings. Once upon a time the two were not separate.
My work with plants comes out of the western (rather than the Eastern or Asian) model of healing and plant relationship. It’s an approach that has roots in Greek, western European, Celtic, and Native American traditions, as well as 18th and 19th century American eclectic folk practice. People tend to forget that there’s an approach to herbalism that is uniquely American. It’s a blend of ancient western traditions and Native American traditions. What I’ve been doing is rearticulating that approach in a community-based, folk practice that has been developing, for me, over the last 30 or 40 years.

SML: What are your thoughts on the current trend towards licensing and standardization?

SB: The herbal renaissance that started in the 60s was really a folk-based, intuitive herbalism. People were finding their own way. The whole alternative healing movement -- midwifery, psychotherapy, bodywork, and all -- came out of people with very little formal education. They dove into the material to find what was true for them and created a massive body of wonderful work. But now the dominant system is co-opting it. And the hippies of the 60s and 70s have grown more conservative. Instead of going to the folk herbalist people want standards to supposedly protect the public. But one model or approach to life shouldn’t become dominant. We’re losing our respect for different cultural perspectives. And the folk-based approach is, in fact, another cultural perspective, as effective, or perhaps more effective, than the perspective encoded in standardization.

SML: It’s the same thing with the herbs themselves. People have a tendency to chose the standardized, encapsulated version over the tincture made from the whole herb. Sure, hypericin has been identified as the active ingredient in St. John’s Wort, but what about the other constituents? In your book you wrote about yarrow having up to 2,000 different chemicals. They all work together. You can’t just separate a couple of those and think you’re taking yarrow.

SB: Human beings have been taking these plants for something like a million years. And today we assume that after three or four years of study we’ve got the whole thing figured out. It’s remarkably arrogant.

SML: What about pharmaceutical medicine? For years I’ve been looking at how we’re abusing the Earth but I didn’t think much about the consequences of pharmaceutical medicine in the sense of what goes into the waste stream. When I read Lost Language, I was shocked. And of course so many people are on prescription drugs for everything, even normal feelings.

SB: The thing is, no one wants to suffer. Wanting people to feel okay is very seductive, but going down that path can be dangerous. Just because we’re doing something to alleviate suffering doesn’t mean we’re exempt from the ecological consequences of doing it. Everybody assumes that the alleviation of disease is a noble goal, but I’m not so sure. Since the 1920s, basically since the discovery of penicillin, we’ve been indoctrinated into a technological perspective on healing and disease. But when it comes right down to it there’s still going to be a leading cause of death. The most important thing is how we live, not that we live forever.

SML: It’s ironic that the things we’re doing to cure diseases and make people feel better are actually polluting the environment and causing the diseases in the first place.

SB: So now we have this horrendous problem no one is willing to look at. We’re struggling with an unintegrated value system. People who are extremely upset about agricultural pollution and only eat organic food will wholeheartedly support the use of pharmaceuticals to cure or control disease or other maladies. It’s like people who eat meat but won’t kill an animal and also denigrate the butcher. And of course the pharmaceutical companies are never going to support the widespread dissemination of this information about pharmaceutical pollution.

SML: And they’re doing everything they can to get herbs in the same boxes as their drugs.

SB: They’re doing the same thing to herbs that the hospital system did to midwives. They’re incorporating it into the system so they can control it. They’re standardizing as much of it as they can, then they’ll have manufacturing requirements for the rest of it which will put most of the mom and pop operations out of business. They won’t be able to afford to go through the processes necessary to meet the requirements. The same kind of bureaucratization is happening to organic agriculture now that the USDA has passed its standards.

SML: One thing I’ve come to believe over the years is that herbs grown where I live are more effective for my healing than herbs from totally different bioregions. Not that something from China or California wouldn’t work, it’s just that there’s a resonance . . .

SB: In general I believe that’s so. There are so many plants we know very little or nothing about. For instance, milk thistle, which is excellent for liver disease, doesn’t grow everywhere. But as it turns out many thistles are good for liver disease, and other herbs are too. The herbal tradition has become so impoverished, despite the fact that it’s getting more and more sophisticated, that we don’t have a deep awareness of the full spectrum of herbal medicine. For example, it turns out that pine pollen contains testosterone. Now who knew? So one of the best ways for natural testosterone enhancement during male menopause, that transition in middle age, is for men to take pine pollen tincture. Our knowledge of herbal medicine is so limited and our thinking is so narrow that perhaps the best plants to use do grow around us but we just don’t know it.

SML: What’s really cool is I’ve had plants I need just show up in my yard or garden . . . motherwort, red clover, mullein, St. John’s Wort. We need to pay attention to plants that call to us -- or that just show up.

SB: That’s absolutely true. In my experience, there are three different types of plants we should pay special attention to. The first is the plant you’re drawn to, that you just can’t resist. There’s something about it that compels you. Then there’s the plant that, for some reason, you just don’t like. If it grows in your garden, you want to get rid of it. But that’s just another way of getting your attention. And the third is the kind of coyote medicine that gets hold of you through your enhanced sensitivity and messes with your psychic reality. You don’t meet these very often.
Another thing that plays into this, that I write about in Lost Language, is the tremendous movement of plant populations across the world over time. On an intellectual level people get the idea and think it’s pretty cool. But when they experience it happening, it totally freaks them out. Here in Vermont there’s a plant called wild chervil, some people call it raven’s wing. It’s considered to be an invasive, alien species and people think it should be destroyed because of its impact on native species. Gout weed, which is an amazingly good medicinal herb, is another one. But what I want to know why is the plant moving into a particular area in the first place, and what its medicinal qualities are.

SML: What about purple loosestrife?

SB: (Laughs) Everybody has their “what about?”. Of everything that I’ve ever said in public, this has caused the most trouble. It’s like going to a nutrition conference and saying there’s no such thing as a bad food. But to really understand these plants you have to learn to think from the position of the purple loosestrife. That’s what my next book is about -- developing the state of biognosis and perceiving the world through that orientation.

SML: What’s biognosis?

SB: It’s a process where you move into literally knowing what the purple loosestrife is doing and why -- what its medicine is, and its ecological function. Most people see it from outside rather than relaxing and going into the world perspective of the purple loosestrife. It’s difficult for people to stop and ask, “What’s with this plant? What’s it about?”, to become the student of the plant. Biognosis is how indigenous peoples got their knowledge of plants. They were literally able to understand the plant’s point of view. By that I don’t mean opinions but rather the world perspective of the organism itself. Some who have taken ayahuasca have a direct experience of this. They can literally see the molecular structure of the drug that they’re taking. But you don’t have to take a hallucinogen, everybody has the capacity to experience that depth of meaning. It’s what the indigenous relationship to nature was based on -- dropping into that depth of field. For me these things become a meditation that I work with to understand over time.

SML: That reminds me of Barbara McClintock and her studies on genetic transposition of corn plants. She won the Nobel Prize for basically listening to the plants and then translating what she learned into scientific language. I have a sense that, rather than using the violent methods of genetic engineering, that plants evolve naturally as we evolve, and that if we “need” a medicine for something, over time the plant itself evolves and provides that need. And it seems to me that you're saying something similar about the movement of plants.

SB: Plants are extremely adept at changing their genetic structure, or even enhancing a particular medicinal component, if they perceive an ecosystem need for a particular chemical. But even beyond that, if they sense an ecosystem need that is of such a form that it requires them to alter their genetic structure, they can do it in a single generation. Barbara McClintock discovered that in the 1950s. This has tremendous implications for everything we do. She was completely ostracized for her work for a long time because it attacked the underpinnings of Darwinian evolutionary theory. For years she wasn’t invited to speak or write papers. But her work was too well researched and documented to be ignored. Still, 99 % of the public still believe DNA is a fixed software program. Scientists talk about unlocking the human genome. So what if they unlock it? It can change at any time. It’s not a software program that you can play around with to produce different physical forms that have any meaning whatsoever.

SML: How do you feel about genetic engineering?

SB: The concept of GE anything is bad enough, but the area that gets to me the most is agriculture. Corporations getting away with patenting seeds, and life forms, angers me. Indigenous agricultural practices and perspectives are being destroyed to get control for money. And I hate that they’re playing politics with hunger. That’s how I tend to respond to it. In the long run, though, scientists understand very little about the strength of life on Earth, and I have tremendous respect for the power of the Gaian ecosystem to come to balance when things get out of hand.

SML: It seems as though things are out of hand as we speak.

SB: We’re on a one way ticket to nowhere. There is no way technological culture can be made sustainable. Every time we take a piece of nature and transform it to support technology, the thing that we’ve taken is dead. And we don’t have the power to create more. We’ve already exceeded the restoration capacity of the Earth. We’re using up the wild “capital” produced by thousands of generations of life for a short-term burst of technological civilization. Then we’re basically screwed. The civilization will collapse, which can happen extremely rapidly -- history shows that it’s not usually a slow decline. One year is great and then two years later the thing is gone.

SML: It’s pretty depressing.

SB: If you totally believe in Gaia, if you truly understand what Gaia does and totally believe and have faith in her, then any short-term blip is just a short-term blip. My life isn’t really that important, my culture isn’t either. It’s the whole Gaian intelligence that’s important. Gaia is not endangered, the human species in danger. But the thing is, every single life form on Earth expressed out of Gaia to fulfill an ecological function -- including the human species. And what is that function? If you assume that Gaia doesn’t make mistakes, and I assume that, then I have to ask, what if everything the human species is doing right now is in fact fulfilling its ecological function?

SML: In what way?

SB: People say human beings are like a cancer or a virus. . . well there’s one other thing that has the exact same growth curve and that’s mushroom spores. And if you look at the space probes we send out, they look exactly like bacterial spores or mushroom spores. And there’s no way those probes are sterile. Think about it -- the bacterial spores from which all life on Earth originally evolved are being taken into space and dropped everywhere. One of the early critics of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Richard Dawkins, argued that Gaia wasn’t alive because Gaia doesn’t reproduce. But how could a man with an 80 year life span know what a 4.5 billion year old organism is capable of? Gaia learns over time and is always innovating. What if Gaia is reproducing? It took about a billion years for the bacterial membrane to form around the Earth and for Gaia to come into being. That’s a long time.
Now we humans have used a huge amount of the Earth’s resources to get where we are. But think about a plant in the fall when it’s setting seed, it begins to look kind of ragged and straggly, right? That’s because it’s using up all of its resources to set seed. What if Gaia is setting seed? What if we had to use Gaia’s stored resources to build the kind of technology (but it’s not new so don’t think it is, it’s all based on patterns already present in the Gaian ecosystem) to launch Earth’s bacteria into space, to other planets so it can germinate there? And think about it, all the time we want to go “up and out”. Even the ancients were fascinated with the solar system. And the whole Christian thing: “It’s out there! That’s where we have to go.” Why are we driven to go up and out? Because it’s part of our ecological function to do so. People think that this means some sort of Star Trek future. I’m not so sure. We are, as Bucky Fuller said, only throw away. It’s the bacteria we carry within us and from which we come that is important, from that all things are possible, new planetary life is possible.

And so then what happens? After the plant sets seed, winter comes and the plant regenerates itself. We’re right on the edge of another ice age, which is winter for the planet so it can regenerate. It’s an incredibly elegant pattern. I think one of the reasons we believe we’re so special is we have a sense that we’re the pollinators for the planet in this period. This concept is not new, it’s just that you have to think outside of the box to see it. Bucky Fuller said, and I thought it was a metaphor at the time, “We’re like bees, you see. Bees who go out looking for honey without realizing that they’re also performing cross-pollination”. That’s what we’re doing. Part of the function of people like you and me and the Gaian work we’ve been given to do is to help maintain the balance while we go through this.

SML: Whoa! I never thought of it that way! Even so, I take what’s happening to the Earth personally. How do those of us who feel this loss and sadness on a daily basis live with it?

SB: This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time myself because I too feel the loss very deeply. A few things come to mind that have helped me deal with this over the years. The first is to keep working, to keep doing the work I have been given to do. The second is to know where my allegiance lies, which is with Gaia. I trust what I know about Gaia and I know that I’ve been given just one part of the work to do, Gaia is dealing with the rest of it, you see. Gaia deals with the big picture, we deal with our little part. Coming to this understanding was crucial. There is a place for faith in all of this. And beyond this, I had to really allow myself to grieve, to relax to the inevitability of suffering. This was an extremely difficult process because I had to allow myself to feel the pain of the world as long as it took to get to the other side of the experience. I literally sat in devotion to the reality of the experience until I was done with it. At that point I realized that suffering is not optional -- suffering is, suffering has been, suffering shall be, and into every life suffering comes. And so if you can eat that particular meal, what starts to happen is you gain a balance with the suffering human beings experience, of which the pain we feel from the depredations to the Earth is a big part. Then you can respond from a more measured perspective because you know no matter what happens there’s still going to be suffering. So you don’t try to end all suffering. You just do what is there for you to do now.
And I think the final thing is to recognize that the impulses we’re given are there for a reason. They’re part of our personal ecological function. Everybody is given a different kind of ecological work to do. Mine is to write these books, to teach in this way, to be in this deep relationship with plants. People who feel the presence of Gaia and the sorrow, that’s part of their ecological function. It motivates them to stand up and speak on behalf of the Earth which helps bring balance into the world. You begin to realize that you are Gaia speaking on behalf of herself. You’re no longer coming from a human-centered perspective and you’re also not attached to the outcome because no matter what you do, suffering shall be after you’re gone. Together these things lead to a balance of perspective and emotion so that you can experience joy in spite of the sorrow and grief. It’s a paradox to feel both so deeply and at the same time, to not mind. But then life itself is an odd proposition to begin with.

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