Stephen Buhner Is Listening to the Plants
Like the speaking stones celebrated by poets, herbs too have a voice of their own. Each one speaks within a community so vast and in a language so rich that, taken together, these natural miracle workers truly represent one of humanity’s greatest treasures.by Angelo Druda
At some point in my career as a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I realized I was relating to the herbs I was working with more as personalities than as chemical compounds. The more I saw their effects upon my clients, the more I began to appreciate their subtle, alchemical magic. Like the speaking stones celebrated by poets, herbs too have a voice of their own. Each one speaks within a community so vast and in a language so rich that, taken together, these natural miracle workers truly represent one of humanity’s greatest treasures.
I remember when I finally caught on to the true essence of ginseng, the most famous medicine in the Oriental Materia Medica. The more I worked with it, the more amazed I was by its ability to adapt itself to the needs of each particular person. If the kidneys were weak, ginseng would energize; if the heart was overactive, ginseng would calm it down. The plant—which is even shaped like the body of man—seemed to know what was required in each particular case. Noticing this remarkably intuitive capability, early practitioners of plant medicine coined the term “adaptogenic” for a whole group of these versatile, magical plants.
Working with these plants as an herbalist requires one to become, in a sense, part empirical scientist and part magician, and it is this mysterious play, with all its attendant sensual and intellectual pleasures, that makes the practice of herbal medicine so endlessly fascinating and rewarding. Stephen Buhner is an herbalist who knows this more than most. An award winning author and educator, Buhner is that rare kind of herbalist who not only knows and loves this magic, but is able to write about it in a manner that appeals equally to the poet, the scientist, and the engaged human that each of us natively is. Buhner’s writings on subtle anatomy, herbal medicine and the environment are some of the best we have.
In two of his most recent books, The Lost Language of Plants and The Secret Teachings of Plants, Buhner sounds an ominous warning about our current cultural and environmental predicament. At the same time, he inspires the reader with what he calls the “amazing natural patterning in which we are immersed, enmeshed, and most fundamentally healed.”
Buhner uses the words “lost” and “secret” in the titles of his books for good reason: the wisdom and holistic genius inherent in plants has been largely lost to the modern world, as have so many other forms of hard-won wisdom gained throughout our history. No generation in history has been subjected to more false teachings than ours. We live in a media-dominated age, where we are overwhelmed with sensory input from every direction. We process more information in a day than our ancestors did in a year. In the old days, cultural instruction was transmitted around the campfire in the form of stories and myths. The effect of these teachings—good or bad—was personal and local. In the modern media age, where the darkest distortions can be transmitted to billions of beings in a matter of moments, the effect is global.
In one of his last public performances, the late George Carlin warned his audience that they, and the culture as a whole, had been infected by false teachings and lies. The audience laughed, but the message was clear: we are eating bullshit, and it is not good for us. The collective force of so many uninspected presumptions and points of view has overheated our brains, and grown our conceptual faculties to dangerous proportions. We have lost what our ancestors used to have: a perceptual, feeling relationship to the earth, the plants and each other. In its place, we have the modern thinking man, who knows no other way than to tear the world apart.
Among the many false teachings we have been fed in modern times, the dogma of scientific materialism remains one of the most prominent and destructive. Scientific enquiry is a great and necessary tool—that much is not in doubt. We get in trouble, however, when science’s conceptual beliefs become the dominating collective point of view. The thinking this orientation induces in us, by its very nature, becomes chronic. Man is moralized in his feeling heart—not his thinking mind.