Flammarion woodcut, colorized


Recently on our East West Herb Course private student forum, a student asked about my distinction between the terms ‘herbology’ and ‘herbalism.’

Essentially, while both terms represent two sides of the same coin, I believe that herbalism begins where herbology leaves off. While herbalism can encompass herbology (the more scientific aspect of plant study), herbology seems not able to encompass the various diverse aspects of herbalism.

For the majority of people involved with plants used as food, clothing, warmth, shelter and medicine, the study of plants is much more than an academic discipline or science, which the word ‘herbology’ implies. For them, the ‘way of herbs’ is a way of life expressing the fundamental relationship between the human family and plants, which are the primary source of all life energy on the planet. This, in a nutshell, is what I mean when I refer to ‘herbalism.’

Plant Power, Cosmic Power

Recently we installed a full battery of photovoltaic cells to supply all of our home energy needs in our backyard herb garden. Picture this: I am now the proud owner of a large panel of somewhat unattractive industrially created solar cells, relatively inefficiently transforming sunlight into useable energy. This is juxtaposed against my beautiful garden of medicinal herbs, ornamental plants, grasses and dwarf fruit trees, which are not only more efficiently doing the same but with much greater aesthetic appeal.

I think to myself, “If I could only find a way to plug into my garden for the energy needed to power our cars, TV, computers, dish and clothes washer and drier and so forth!” Instead, I have to be content with the inferior Mondrianesque solar cell sculpture occupying about 40 feet of space in my yard. With a bittersweet sigh, knowing that life often involves compromises, I take satisfaction that the investment is worth it at this time for the sake of clean, non-polluting energy.

The lesson here is a broad one, one better ascribed to ‘herbalism’ than to ‘herbology’: that the life of our whole planet is, or can be, sustained by plants through the direct transmutation of the sun’s energy into proteins and carbohydrates, through the simple process known as plant photosynthesis. Thus far, science and technology have not been able to duplicate this uncomplicated elegance that occurs everyday in the humble leaves of trees and plants.

I don’t think plants’ energy transmutation is exclusive to the sun, however. The moon, for example, has her dominion over the tides and currents (at least). Most of us have experienced the effect of the moon on the fluidic aspects of our being (the essential bodily Yin) with disturbed sleep patterns and a kind of emotional hypersensitivity. If much denser creatures such as mammals can feel the moon’s effects, might not plants also?

The attribution of planetary rulership to specific herbs isn’t a new concept. The 17th-century English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, for example, famously classed plants and diseases by planetary and astrological influence. Further, throughout all traditional cultures, herbalists (not ‘herbologists’) ascribed the colors, shape and various healing properties of plants to astrology. Of course, these attributions are not scientific fact and represent only one particular way to classify and express the different qualities of plants and herbs.

One could delve even further into the cosmic relationship of plants to the earth, ourselves, and the universe, advancing the concept of ‘herbalism’ with the not unreasonable conjecture (which at this stage is my own belief) that besides the relationship of plants to the sun, moon, and planets, they may also be able to absorb and transmute elements from intergalactic sources into vital, life-sustaining elements. Throughout the year we are treated to spectacular displays of meteor showers and I can’t help but wonder what effect this space debris may have on plants and us when it disintegrates into our Earth’s atmosphere.

So, at least on the greater scale of things, we are interdependent with what happens in the cosmos and that interdependency is shared by all life including plants.

Herbalism: A Basis for Sacred Mystery

I believe that our relationship to plants represented by the term ‘herbalism’ may be the descendant of a way of thinking and set of beliefs that are probably older than all other spiritual and religious beliefs.

Our reliance on plant cultivation for sustenance, medicine and shelter have profoundly shaped who we are as humans and how we interact with each other and the Earth. Agriculture has even permeated our faith: the most high religious rites occur in the setting of our sacramentally sharing food — usually made from plants — which communally recognizes our dependence on the plant world for our very lives and as an entity which brings and keeps us together.

As the ancient Eleusinians knew, plants eloquently teach us the mysteries of death and rebirth, as over the endless cycle of seasons, they are perennially disassembled and reassembled. No matter how hard and long the winter, plants again flourish with boundless enthusiasm, energy and beauty to become the fundamental expression of Spring.

On the other hand, we cannot escape the incontrovertible fact that life feeds on life, and that without inevitable temporal loss there would be no renewal. From our perspective, what is eternal, therefore, is the power of plants to ceaselessly recycle the elements of life. Thus, cosmically, it is impossible to take away and diminish from wholeness.

What seems to pass away, and even this cannot be known for certain, is the individual form of things which is bundled with our changing physical appearance and our sense of individuality which we identify as the ego. By embodying the essence of both the collective and individual expression of the creative life force, plants provide a perspective on the role of form and by inference, ego, through the fundamental adaptive impulse of evolution.

I could probably ramble on with the more esoteric aspects of this topic, but my point is that whether referring to ‘herbology’ or ‘herbalism,’ ‘herbologist’ (now an antiquated term) or ‘herbalist,’ it is ‘herbalism’ that informs the basis of our relationship with plants.

But in the end, maybe e.e. cummings sums it up best, though without any specific reference to herbalism, in the following poem:

when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it’s april (yes,april;my darling) it’s spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)

when every leaf opens without any sound
and wishing is having and having is giving-
but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
-alive;we’re alive, dear: it’s (kiss me now) spring!
now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
now the little fish quiver so you and so i
(now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)

when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living-
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
-it’s spring (all our night becomes day) O, it’s spring!
all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
(all the mountains are dancing; are dancing)

— e.e. cummings

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