I step outside onto a blanket of Spring wildflowers, unbound for a time from the solar-powered laptop screen, enjoying a riverside hiatus from my calling to serve the world through the dance and power of words. This botanical and wildlife refuge has not looked so healthy since the introduction of livestock grazing over 100 years ago.
For over three decades I have been barring livestock, planting seeds and starters, and doing all I can to assist a resurgence of natural diversity, and it is this diversity that marks the health and well-being of a place more than anything else. By our definition, health isn’t the absence of illness or disturbance so much as a state of dynamic wholeness and active balance, with the health of the land increasing with the reclamation and reintegration of its native aspects and parts.
I am here not just to protect and encourage a few key plant and animal species, but to nourish and guard a coalition of relationships known as an ecosystem. And in a remarkably similar way, the human body is itself a micro ecosystem, a dynamic balancing of various energetic systems and physiological functions, an aggregate of interrelated, interactive and ultimately interdependent parts.
Eliminating a single species or biotic element from the larger ecosystem can have broad, far- reaching and sometimes devastating consequences. Likewise, removing even a so-called vestigial (appendix, tonsils) or “non-vital” (gall bladder) organ from the human ecosystem is now being shown to have unforeseen implications affecting its health, with researchers only beginning to grasp the many ways that our bodily well being is dependent upon the multitude of resident bacterial strains that a course of antibiotics so readily destroys.
Indeed, there are far more bacterial cells making up our bodily ecosystems than every other kind, and they are not tourists or parasites but integral components of the whole, acting not only to assist digestion but also to aid chemical communication between bodily parts and who knows what other truly amazing service.
Nor do any parts have to be fully excised — only compromised — before negatively impacting wholeness and balance. Anything that infects or otherwise damages, dilutes or denatures the essential elements of our bodies and our environments can, in one way or another, weaken them and put them at risk.
The harm done to the adrenal system with excessive stress or diet pills is accumulative and the resulting problems may take many years to manifest. Toxic waste and industrial contaminants are dangerous to both the environmental and bodily ecosystems, not always immediately but insidiously and surely.
It’s useful to think of the elements of an ecosystem as interwoven strands, such that if we pull on any one of them, we act on them all. Whatever we do to one, inevitably if not always obviously impacts the rest, with the possibility of a single broken fiber leading to a calamitous unraveling of the entire fabric in an exponential sequence of causes and effects.
This leads — in an ecological or ecosystems approach — to considering and treating our bodies and environments as complex conglomerates of qualities and actions, rather than focusing exclusively on a lone species or condition, organ or symptom. Illnesses that may not at first seem related to the liver — from upset stomachs to skin conditions — can be dramatically alleviated by tending to its health with various mushrooms and herbs from Reishi to Dan-delion and Milk Thistle seed.
And just as we might address the problem of disappearing animals by preserving and enriching habitat, we know the first and fundamental way to treat many physical ailments is by nurturing the body overall.
As in the remediation and restoration of wild nature, we start on the path to our individual health and wholeness with increased discernment and decisive choice, by putting a halt to or significantly limiting exposure to the causes of past and further damage. In the case of this canyon where I live and teach, this has meant barring hungry, free-grazing cattle, preventing subdividing and subversion by eager land developers, and arresting the spread of albeit beautiful Tamarisk before they could suffocate the growth of native Cottonwoods and other riparian species with their secreted salts.
In the case of our bodily ecosystems, it means beginning to limit our exposure to any toxic, compromising or unnecessarily stress-producing factors in our daily lives: Altering our schedules and sometimes changing where we work or how we live. Cutting back on carbohydrates and foods containing artificial hormones or chemical additives. Reducing our exposure to loud traffic and mindless television. Eschewing hurtful recreational drugs, and taking antibiotics
and prescription drugs only when truly, unavoidably needed. Saying no to constant distraction and superficial banter, chemical cleaners and shoe styles that are sure to hurt your feet.
Secondly, in an ecology of health we do what it takes to bring more known healthy elements and influences into our lives. This can mean: Studying our bodies, getting to more intimately understand our needs, propensities, vulnerabilities and strengths. Getting more or better sleep. Increasing the amount of fresh produce and grass-fed protein in our meals, or increasingly eating wild or feral foods. Ingesting balancing medicinal and nutritive herbs. Resolving or improving our interpersonal relations. Getting more exercise, and engaging in a wider variety of physical activities. Or taking more time outdoors, in what is a genuinely nourishing and healing natural world.
Modern conventional medical practices tend to be in the “heroic” mold, radical intervention that includes the chemical suppression of both pathogens and symptoms, with microbes typecast as raider, and patients said to be “battling” their illness. In an ecology of healing, micro-organisms are not ill-intentioned opponents, but cohabitants of our bodily and environmental ecosystems that can sometimes contribute to a harmful or even life-threatening imbalance. The herbs we use, therefore, are essentially supportive, restorative, toning and balancing rather than suppressive.
In the Anima Healing Tradition, we consider and then diagnose a set of symptoms, conditions and actions/interactions within an integral bodily eco-system, treating the whole person rather than treating a pathology. Our goal is not simply a reduction in pain or improvement in function, but a healthful, active state of wholeness incorporating our emotional landscape as well as physical environs that affect us, and that we in turn affect. We treat ourselves and others, the supportive land and kindred life forms as inseparable, as composites of relationships and confluences of purpose. We act consciously and intentionally for the good of our whole selves, and in support of the integrity of a world that we are each inherent elements and agents of.
In this ecology of healing, our effectiveness is determined not just by our inclination to provide care, but by our commitment to motive balance, our dedication to wholeness, and the heartful depths of our caring.
Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Animá nature-informed practice and the author of seven inspiring books. He and his partners offer empowering online Herbal, Nature Awareness and Shaman Path correspondence courses, hosting the May 7-9 Herbal Intensive and July 1-4 Shaman Path Intensive: Animá LIfeways & Herbal School, visit: animacenter.org. For info on the 2010 Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference near Santa Fe, visit: TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org