How do we know what we know?

Tulsi and a bee in their unique, ancient relationship

Tulsi and a bee in their unique, ancient relationship

"But how do we know all this?"


Picture the scene: I'm sitting in a flourescently-lit room, maybe in a high school or community center, on a sticky, floor-scraping chair, with a group of 5-10 herbal newbies, giving a very introductory class on some aspect of herbalism -- tinctures, oils, or infusions, most likely. 

People usually come to classes like this because they're vaguely curious about alternative medicine and the word "herbalism" intrigues them, and they often have the timid-yet-excited approach of someone who's about to break a rule they've never broken before - e.g. question their doctor, take a tincture, or reclaim their agency in their health. Daring stuff. 

Students are often really quiet at the start, and then once things get going, they come at me with the oh-so-many questions that have been brewing inside them for years. 

They ask about their health conditions, herbs they like, books to read -- so many things. 

And then there's one question that comes up every time.

"How do we know all this?"


It comes up because it's a really good question.

How do we know all these intricate, complex details about which plants can heal you and which plants can kill you?

How do we know that, if you dry the root of Rehmannia glutinosa it serves as a potent immunoregulator, but if you process the fresh root through 9 cycles of boiling and steaming in rice wine and then dry it, it's an incredible blood tonic for uterine problems. 

When it comes to our stores of herbal knowledge, there are three common answers:

1) Trial and error (i.e. humans sampled everything to see what killed them).

2) A slow-and-steady trial and error that gives us thousands of years of empirical data (i.e. scholarship).

3) Humans communicated directly with the plants (i.e. shamanism)


I would like to pause for a moment here and point out that all of these options rest on one assumption: that there was a point in history at which humans suddenly became humans and forgot all our herbal knowledge. 

We tend to be so focused on our disconnect from nature that the disconnect become the perspective from which we view the world. Our belief in our separateness feeds the separation. 

But this separation is not our truth. 

The truth is that there was not one instant in which humans stopped being less-evolved primates and suddenly became the uniquely weird primates that we are today. It was a long slow process, lasting millions of years. 

And guess what we, in our pre-human forms, were doing over the course of millions of years?

We were co-evolving with plants, learning to use them for food and medicine as they learned to use us for pollination and seed dispersal. It was a nifty relationship, and it still is.

There was not a moment in which lightning struck all the pre-human primates and transformed them into human primates, erasing their knowledge of plants in the process. 

There was not a Grand Moment of Forgetting. 

And yet, it's a reasonable assumption that our current state of herbal knowledge is much more vast than the knowledge of our ancestors who were nibbling leaves and roots. We now boil and steam Rehmannia roots 9 times. 

So how did we get here? 

While the story of trial and error is glamorous -- if constantly sacrificing beloved family members to sample each different part of each plant again and again to see if it was poisonous, let alone discern healing properties, sounds glamorous to you -- it doesn't hold up when you really think about it.

It would take so much "trial and error" sampling to test the roots, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds of every plant and then match them to one of the many types of human maladies. I mean, there are so many different things that can go wrong in the human body. It would take forever to sort through all that. 

And -- it's certainly true that we humans have spent thousands of years homing in on the intricate details of working with these plants ("Is the Rehmannia as potent if we only steam it 7 times? What if we boil it in honey instead of rice wine?") we must have started off at some place better than "trial and error." 

If only we, as living beings, had some way of directly communicating with these other living beings with whom we have co-evolved over billions of years.... 

Oh wait. 

While most of us in the modern-day U.S. are busy bemoaning our separation from the natural world, there are folks all around the world who continue to practice ancient and effective techniques of communicating directly with plants. 

Somehow, these folks must have been spared from the lightning-strike that erased our modern memories. 

These folks are called shaman, and they are not a relic of the past. They are alive and thriving and brilliant as ever, helping us to help ourselves, serving as a bridge between our world and the plant world. 

The word "shamanism" is used to describe a highly diverse set of practices from around the world. Everywhere that there are humans, there are plants. And everywhere that there are plants, there are shaman.

Shamanic traditions and techniques vary, but there are two aspects of shamanism that are nearly universal:

1) The shamanic journey
2) The use of sound, typically a drum, to ease one into a trance state

The shamanic journey is an incredible way to communicate directly with plants. 

In a journey, you can ask a plant any question. And you will likely get an answer that is so much more than you bargained for. 

Drumming is an important part of shamanic practice.

Drumming is an important part of shamanic practice.

I believe that the shamanic journey is a technique that should be available to all of us.

I believe that direct communication with plants is our birthright.

I believe that it is important that all humans learn to do this.

Note: there is some highly valid controversy surrounding the teaching of generalized shamanic techniques. Read my views on that here.

Because I hold these beliefs, I have included shamanic journeying in my Plant Allies series.

I truly, truly want you to feel empowered to communicate directly with plants. It is so powerful, and creates endless opportunities for healing, growth, and understanding.

I paired shamanic journeying with Tulsi, because Tulsi is such an extraordinary spirit.

There are two opportunities all about the magic and medicine of Tulsi and also shamanic journeying:

Monday, July 8th, 7-9pm
Saturday, August 24th, 1-3pm

Tulsi is considered by some to be the earthly incarnation of the Divine Mother. She is a calming adaptogen that supports our brain health and nourishes the heart-mind connection.

She is all kinds of amazing and is eager to swoop into your life.

I love working with smoke medicine.

I love working with smoke medicine.