VIRIDITAS ~ The Greening Power of Nature*
When faced with the prospect of writing a ‘coming of age’ story for this issue, I decided that I didn’t have one, and instead I would start a column about natural health care. While gathering all of my experiences and pondering what was important to cover, I kept feeling thwarted. So when I decided to just sit down and write a prologue to this column, I got a ‘coming of age’ story instead. Such is my life.
Coming of Age or Am I Human?
Since I was a small child, I have often wondered how people lived before they began gathering into cities. If ever I had a problem or challenge in my life, I would approach it by asking myself, “What would someone, who lived a very, very long time ago, do?” And I would feel the answer inside of me, almost as if I was asking my DNA, or some primal source of human experience. Invariably it would help. I did this without even being aware of what I was doing. It was as natural as thinking, as common as the voice in my head. It was, however, also really confusing, because so often the perspective that seemed obvious to me, was not shared by the people around me. I learned to keep these answers to myself, but it colored my childhood in a somber light.
I was raised in a Catholic family and in my early teens we started attending church. I was curious about God and loved to hear stories, but I quickly became disenchanted by the whole ordeal, as it spoke very little to my soul or my heart. I also became very skeptical of the contradicting words and actions of the people who supposedly adhered to these teachings. I was annoyed by the incongruous accounts of God as an angry, childish tyrant, and when no one could give me satisfactory answers to my questions, I finally refused to go to church at all. I decided instead, at 14, to begin my own inquiry into the nature of the universe through the experience of sex and psychedelic drugs—which I found far more interesting. It was around this time that I read Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles**, and revisited Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and decided that maybe I was not really human after all. Perhaps I was really a vampire (or an elf?) and just needed to come out of the trance of believing I was human in order to have access to my latent powers. You can laugh, but I kept feeling that I was capable of so much more than the limitations I had been taught to embrace. There was always this nagging sense of some great mystery just beyond my reach, that no one else seemed to even notice.
I eventually got over the vampire thing, but spent the next twenty years questioning, breaking apart, and reassessing all that I had been taught about the world and what it means to be human. First LSD, and then marijuana and mushrooms, allowed me to step outside the limited viewpoint of what I was taught in school and what was upheld by the culture around me. In this way, I began to breakdown my cultural limitations and re-enchant myself with the world; and I began to talk to animals, and plants, and spirits of all sorts. And most importantly, the world began to talk to me. I started to see patterns and stories in everything around me. Eventually, my perception changed, I no longer needed psychedelics, and looked to other plant allies in their stead.
In my early twenties, after a series of misadventures with Western medicine, I decided to learn all I could about folk medicine, herbology, and natural health care. After all, the way that our society views health and healing seems to be vastly different than the way people viewed it 20,000 years ago. I wanted to know just how different. I conceded that it is something I may never know, but I decided to learn everything I could about it anyway.
I have always been a voracious reader and my appetite grew from mysteries and fantasy novels to include anything and everything about nature, folk medicine, anthropology, mythology, primitive skills, food and nutrition, transformational psychology, dreams, astrology, channelling, energy medicine, chakras, astral projection, quantum physics, runes and magical languages, ancient cultures, religion and spirituality, and so on, and so on. I gathered each piece and digested it, putting it through my inner bullshit-o-meter. If it rang true, I experimented with it, and if I had positive results, I added it to my cosmology. I didn’t do this systematically, but ‘randomly’ as each piece presented itself like some crazy-quilt bread-crumb trail.
It is my intention during the life of this column, to present some of what I have gathered. Not to educate you, or provide you with answers—but to invoke a spirit of inquiry and discovery in all who desire to reclaim the command of their lives, and their health and vitality. For I feel there is no one answer to any question, and each must take the journey of discovery themselves. Along the way, you may find it is the journey itself, and not the answer, that is important.
How We are Different
In our culture, most basic living skills have been forgotten. There is so much confusion surrounding even simple life choices, that people look more and more to ‘experts’ to assist them. What should I eat? How should I raise my children? How can I have healthy relationships? How do I take care of myself? The problem is, experts all have their own agendas—which are often at odds with what is best for you and your community.
Until recently, our ancestors answered these questions through cultural traditions, passed down without much fanfare, generation after generation—which is, unfortunately, an inheritance we don’t always have access to. But where did their ancestors learn them? The common belief seems to be that they learned through trial and error over time. But the idea that people would systematically test all of the plants of a new terrain, to see what was edible—or that they would stumble upon a vast knowledge base of plant lore (with many varied cultures coming to the same conclusions) by accident—seems a bit absurd to me. In fact, the people themselves tell quite a different story…
Indigenous people were clear…about where their knowledge of plant medicines originated. In the vast preponderance of cases, when they were asked, they insisted that their knowledge of plants came, not from trial and error, but from the plants themselves, from visions or dreams or from sacred beings. That their description of the sources of plant knowledge should be so uniform is in itself…amazing. The assumption by scientists that all nonindustrial peoples generated these descriptions out of superstition and ignorance is astonishingly short-sited and, frankly, not very good science. What is especially striking is that the medicinal uses for plants that nonindustrial people were taught during these experiences correspond nearly perfectly to the medicinal actions of the plants that have been identified through science. ~ Stephen H. Buhner, The Lost Language of Plants
What gave them this power we don’t seem to have access to? What makes them different from us? Well, for one thing, they lived much closer to nature than we do. With such a simple, obvious observation, comes a vast world of implications. It is, I believe, the reason behind so many of the challenges we face today. Placing ourselves in a position outside of, and superior to nature has grave implications not only for our personal health, but also for the health of the world that sustains us. People who live close to the earth know those implications are intimately connected. One of the consequences we have reaped, is losing access to the divinity in the natural world, and to the divinity within ourselves, as a part of that world.
. . . far are we from the forests of our rest
Where the wolf nature from maternal breast
Fed us with strong brown milk
Yet still our souls keep memories of that time
In Sylvan wildernesses, our soul’s prime
Of wisdom, forests that were gods’ abode.
~ Edith Sitwell
Author Stephen Buhner, in his quest to understand what world view informs such ‘non-scientific’ means of collecting information, has compiled an eloquent and comprehensive overview of the beliefs of indigenous people from various cultures. He found that the majority of them shared these basic tenets1:
• At the center of all things is spirit. In other words, there is a central underlying unifying force in the Universe that is sacred.
• All matter is made from this substance. In other words, the sacred manifests itself in physical form.
• Because all matter is made from the sacred, all things possess a soul, a sacred intelligence or logos.
• Because human beings are generated out of this same substance it is possible for human beings to communicate with the soul of intelligence in plants and all other matter and for those intelligences to communicate with human beings.
• Human beings emerged later on Earth and are the offspring of the plants. Because we are their offspring, their children, plants will help us whenever we are in need if we ask them.
• Human beings were ignorant when they arrived here and the powers of Earth and the various intelligences in all things began to teach them how to be human. This is still true. It is not possible for new generations to become human without this communication or teaching from the natural world.
• Parts of Earth can manifest more or less sacredness, just like human beings. A human being can never know when some part of Earth might begin expressing deep levels of sacredness or begin talking to him. Therefore it is important to cultivate attentiveness of mind.
• Human beings are only one of the many life-forms of Earth, neither more nor less important than the others. Failure to remember this can be catastrophic for individuals, nations, and peoples. The other life in the Universe can and will become vengeful if treated with disrespect by human beings.
To me these tenets are more than just a beautiful sentiment—they get to the heart of the differences between indigenous and industrial cultures and their views on health and healing, among many other things. This direct line of communication—also variously referred to as instinct, intuition, guidance, and heart-based perception—is an indispensable tool for traversing the uncertain terrain of our life journey. I believe this is how our predecessors learned about how to maintain health, heal illness, and even thrive. Unfortunately, their legacy—our traditions—have not been well kept. They haven’t weathered the challenges of Christianity and reductionist science intact. Still, through the study of folk medicine, folk traditions, and mythology, much can be learned. However, key to understanding these traditions is the ability to let go of the linear, black and white, perceptions of our modern world view; to be open to ‘non-scientific’ means of collecting information, and things that cannot be seen or measured, only felt. You never know when the Earth might start talking to you.
Rather than applying the epistemology of Western understanding to the alien, the tribal, and non-technological cultures, we should let their anthropology (their stories of human nature) be applied to ours. ~ James Hillman, The Soul’s Code
In folk medicine, there are no rules, no right or wrong. Being mostly an oral tradition, it is often non-replicable, ever changing, mysterious, and poetic. Similar to the way our folk saw the world—truly, the most important aspect of folk medicine is the world view that informs it. So how can you learn a tradition when not much of it was recorded and there are no rules to follow? How do you know if you’re doing it right? Right? Wrong? No such thing. How do you know if something is right for you right now? You listen…and you discern with your intuition. So how can we reclaim our ability to discern—to make wise and healthy choices for ourselves, our communities, our world?
There is a sophistication prior to adult learning and modern development of culture, an appreciation for the interiority of nature and the hidden power of persons and places. It’s a sophistication that can be lost behind the illusion that our own developed intentions, observations, and values are supreme. The first step in enchantment, then, is to recover a beginner’s mind and a child’s wonder, to forget some of the things we have learned and to which we are attached. As we empty ourselves of disenchanted values, a fresh, paradisical spirit may pour in, and then we may discover the nature of the soul and the pleasure of being a participant, and not a master, in the extravagance of life.
~ Thomas Moore, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life
It seems that people long ago foresaw some of the challenges we were headed for, as there are many teaching stories about the ever-renewing power of nature, and what consequences we may reap if we turn away from that power. From the Garden of Eden (‘softness, tenderness’; or ‘verdure, green with vegetation’) to the garden of Iðunn (‘one who perpetually bestows’) we are shown the way. If we invite Viriditas (‘the greening power of nature’) into our lives, our bodies, our souls, it will show us the way back…to ourselves. It will teach us how to be human again.
I am the ancient Apple-Queen,
As once I was so am I now.
For evermore a hope unseen,
Betwixt the blossom and the bough.
Ah, where’s the river’s hidden Gold!
And where the windy grave of Troy?
Yet come I as I came of old,
From out the heart of Summer’s joy.
~William Morris, “Pomona”
Until next time, here’s to your good health!
* Hildegard of Bingen uses the Latin term viriditas in this way, to denote the greening power of nature in all living things; the energy of life which comes from the divine; the power of youth and sexuality; the power in seeds; the reproduction of cells; the power of regeneration, freshness, and creativity.
**If you haven’t read any of Anne Rice’s novels, and you’re wondering what I am talking about…her vampires are endowed with super-human strength, sight, hearing, and telepathic powers. It was these powers and not the blood sucking that I was interested in.
Do your homework:
“In folk medicine there is a simple prescription for replenishing the mineral needs of the body. It is as follows: Take two teaspoons of honey, and two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar, in a glass of water, one or more times a day, depending on how much physical and mental work is done. The blend tastes like a glass of apple cider. The vinegar brings across from the apple its mineral content, the honey brings across the minerals in the nectar of flowers.”
~ From Folk Medicine: A New England almanac of natural health care from a noted Vermont country doctor by D.C. Jarvis, M.D.
Lie down and close your eyes. Place your hands on your stomach in a way that feels natural to you. Put your knees up if it is more comfortable. Imagine the light of the sun glowing warmly inside your solar plexus (where the ribs hollow below the chest). Just breathe and feel its warmth spread out from your solar plexus. If your mind wanders as it is wont to do, gently lead it back. It helps to give it a task so…remember a time when you experienced great joy, love, or divinity in your life, and hold the feeling of that experience in your body. After a while you might be able to feel your hands tingle, grow warm, or even throb. You are moving life force through them. Now take your hands and place them on any part of your body that feels cold, or stiff, or painful. Imagine you have the light of the sun in your hands now, and let it flow into your body. You will feel a sensation of warmth and calm. Eventually you will feel relief from pain. Experiment with this technique. It is my opinion that ‘laying on of hands’ is the probably the oldest method of healing, and we are all born with the power to use it.
I am just going to list a few books here. They are directly related to things I touched upon in the prologue. This list will grow. Enjoy…but remember: reading is good, but direct experience is even better.
1 Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2002.
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2004.
Anyone who has an interest in plants, medicine, and divine communication, should read anything and everything by Stephen Harrod Buhner. You will not be disappointed.
Jarvis, D.C. M.D. Folk Medicine: A New England almanac of natural health care from a noted Vermont country doctor. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1958.
This is a great little book on simple and practical folk medicine techniques. I love this book.
Narby, Jeremy. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 1998.
If you want to hear some ideas about how people can communicate directly with nature, as discovered through adventures with ayahuasca in the Amazon, you’ll love this fascinating book.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
What should I eat? Michael Pollan captures it well in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This great book reminds you how to get back to the basics and untangle yourself from the complicated world of food science that has a stranglehold on modern Western culture.
Tompkins, Peter, and Christopher Bird. The Secret Life of Plants. San Francisco, CA: Harper Paperbacks, 1973.
Most people have heard of this book. Check it out if you haven’t.
Tompkins, Peter. The Secret Life of Nature: Living in Harmony with the Hidden World of Nature Spirits from Fairies to Quarks. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.
Not many people, however, have heard of this book. It is full of all of the stuff Tompkins and Bird discovered in their research writing The Secret Life of Plants, that was a little too weird to publish in the 70s. This is a fascinating book.
Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. La Mesa, CA: The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Inc., 1939.
This book is amazing. It will change your perspective on health and diet, and what we have gained and lost through civilization.
Article by Arrowyn Craban