Healing is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing nature. W H Auden
It could be said that the industrial/agricultural revolution which lurched into motion in the late 18th century at the time the Berkeley Trilogy begins, is still an experiment in progress. Some might argue that for all our know-how and technological advance, mankind, on the whole, has gained little in terms of personal satisfaction and inner content.
Whilst the Enlightenment was hauling the western world from a medieval mindset, configured by religious superstitition, with all its inbred lore, droves of artisans and commoners flocked into the spreading cities in search of work and became trapped in an even more degrading brand of poverty, their privations the result of prolonged wars, failed crops and land enclosures. Their contact (and their contract) with the earth swiftly diminished, along with the health-giving properties of daily, often thoughtless, interaction with nature.
It's easy for us to raise a brow at the possets and potions of yore and exult in the leaps and bounds of progress, but much of modern day drug therapy is based on synthetic versions of naturally-occurring elements which our ancestors knew how to exploit.
All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted. Saint Teresa of Avila
Historical theories held that the environment in which you found yourself, particularly when it was your native one, held all the components needed for well-being. The kind of food that land supported was the most vital for sustenance. Creation was seen as a whole, the human organism not separate from it, but composed, in characteristic permutations, of the same biochemical constituents. Nature, they concluded, supplies close to the source of need. Arnica, well-known for healing sprains, bruises and physical trauma, is the mountain tobacco plant, found on rocky altitudes where climbers venture. Burdock grows in the vicinity of nettle patches and the rubbed juice of the leaf upon nettle stings works wonders, as I well recall from childhood. Nettles themselves are rich in nutrients and are a specific for irritated skin and the stinging of cystitis. There is a clue in its Latin name, urtica urens. The skin condition, urticaria, caused by external irritants, is even more likely to be brought on by a (prolonged) psychological state of being nettled!
John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper, the herbalists of the Tudor and Jacobean ages, were supremely methodical in their approach to recording the properties and virtues of plants. Where they thrive, in what climate, in what soil, in what months of the year they flower, is some indication of the human states they best address and whether the petals, leaves, berries or roots should be used. Colour is important. Reds and greens are associated with the life force. They are the colours of the (edible) hawthorn, or crataegus, a gentle heart stimulant and pulse regulator. Celandine, or chelidonium (above) was used for afflictions of the gall bladder, its bright yellow a clue to its suitability for jaundice-inducing afflictions.
There is also the 'doctrine of signatures' which maintains that the plant, or its useful part, actually resembles the organs, or disease, it is designed to treat. These were branded accordingly. Lungwort, for instance, for pulmonary infections, snakeroot as an antidote to venom. The botanist and herbalist, Richard Coles, writing in the mid-17th century, observed that walnuts were good for head ailments and it is no coincidence that they resemble the brain. Heartsease, the wild pansy, a specific for the lovelorn and grieving, as well as its smiling countenance, has leaves that describe a perfect heart and is believed to be useful in many illnesses associated with that region. So also foxglove (digitailis) long used in allopathic medicine for strengthening the cockles of the heart! The fennel bulb is a classic example of food for heart health since its shape so well describes that organ and its arteries.
You see, they didn't need to remember to take their manufactured vitamins and bioflavonoids which our consumption of de-natured foods seems to warrant. They worked long hours outdoors for their vitamin D. They ate local grains and honey, drank real ale out in the fields with their bread and cheese, milk from the cows and goats pastured on their land or common, eggs from their own or their neighbour's patch. They chopped down oaks for Drake's or Nelson's navy and absorbed enough quercetin for their needs. They picked their elderberries, blackberries, wild strawberries, bilberries, rosehips, nuts, from the hedgerows. It was free food, not battery-grown crops, and had travelled none of the 'food miles' that necessitate chemical processing to keep them presentable. Even brushing against such plants as deadly nightshade (belladonna) and poison ivy (rhus tox) could confer salutary benefits.
All this requires imagination to a 21st century perspective, but to become steeped in their way of thinking throws open doors to a clearer understanding of our existence on this planet and the integrity of God's providence. When the mist begins to dissolve, it's like grasping a whole new language and poses the question whether the obfuscation is really ours, driven by the greed and hubris of our culture.
All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud, you have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. Ralph Waldo Emerson
A colossal industry has grown up around drug and dietary supplements in many forms, creating a dependency within the economy itself, thus leasing our destiny to outside factors which are no respecter of persons. Whilst not for a moment wanting to dis some of the quantum leaps in medical science, I happen to believe that the Western world would be a lot healthier and holier (more whole) for some self-determination and the forsaking of psychological dependence on others. Consider this, even supposing all prescribed drug trials to be scrupulously rigorous and objective, no one can forecast accurately how a patient will be affected. A doctor's understanding is still almost wholly formed from anecdotal evidence. Sometimes they admit they don't really understand how and why a drug works. All such drugs are heavy-handed in their effects with the risk of negative reactions, seen and unseen.
It's true there was in the past no regulation. But there do seem to have been prescribed procedures along with warnings about overdosing. However, homeopathy, a branch of medicine which has interested me for many years, is a pharmacological discipline which in application is safe and non-invasive. One random example at a superficial level is that of Silicea (silica) which, taken in the appropriate potency, in drop or small tablet form, has the power to remove splinters all by itself. The same substances are used in an entirely different way to herbalism and remedies will not necessarily agree. (More on this anon.) The philosophy is profound. If the practice and awesome rationale behind it were grasped, it would change the cosmos. But retweet the British Homeopathic Association on Twitter and you will find yourself spammed by a barrage of aggressive bots (at least until recently, before the clean-up campaign.) I wonder why?
We have gone out on a limb and belittled our roots. Medicine has been as much the subject of fashion as designer clothes. But in the last decade or two, we've begun to examine the wisdom refined by our ancestors which spanned many centuries with little modification and goes back to the civilisations of Greece and Rome, to Dioscorides and Pliny the Elder. The shrinking globe has also helped us align with Eastern cultures which hold to the concept of food as medicine.
Such is the audacity of man, that he hath learned to counterfeit Nature, yea, and is so bold as to challenge her in her work. Pliny, the Elder
Enlightenment can sometimes be a moving beam and a narrow shaft.
As the opening line of L P Hartley's compelling novel, The Go-Between, states: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Hay Making - Jules Bastien-Lepage
Over the summer, I hope to make a few stories from medical history the subject of blog posts, one or two of them drawn from the Berkeley Trilogy, to which this post serves as an introduction. There are many allusions in The Twain, Poems of Earth and Ether, to the latent healing properties of plants.
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