Poinsettia fun facts


Greetings all, and a happy midwinter holiday season to you!

Just to prove I am still alive–yes, I still have big plans for this little blog, and they are coming, but sometimes things just have to move in their own time no matter how much it drives us impatient people crazy–here’s a post about one of our favorite Christmas decorations here in the U.S., the beautiful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).

I was inspired by a link shared by Rosalee de la Foret about plant-based holiday rituals. I was a little disappointed, and this is no reflection on Rosalee, who by sharing this link gave me hours of entertainment, because there actually wasn’t much info on plants. However, in the section about poinsettia, the post says:

“The Aztec name was said to mean ‘mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.'”

I don’t know the original source of that etymology, but it is all over the internet. I’m a language nerd, and if you are too you might find this interesting. I’m hoping that even the non-language-nerd plantophiles among you will enjoy this; but if not you can skip to the tl;dr version at the end. Ok, so, although I know next to nothing about Nahuatl (an indigenous language of Mexico spoken by the Aztecs), I thought that etymology up above sounded a little spurious. Then I thought, many plant names tell us something about how the plant works medicinally, I wonder if this could be one? And if so, what does its indigenous name actually mean?

So I did a little internet research.

I found that there are actually two versions of the Nahuatl name to be found on the interwebz: cuetlaxochitl and cuitlaxochitl. Now xochitl means flower, that’s easy enough. It’s the other part that’s tricky. If the original form was indeed cuitla-, it is apparently derived from cuitltatl, which means excrement, giving us a name that basically means “poop-flower”. Here’s the dictionary entry from the online Nahuatl Dictionary (click to embiggen):


The dictionary also has an entry for cuitlaxochitl (none for cuetlaxochitl) which indeed translates it as poinsettia; however, they note that there was no text that contained the full word, only its component parts. They speculate the name derives from poinsettia’s growth habit. (I hope this isn’t ruining your enjoyment of the flower.)

cuitlaxochitlSince there apparently is no text containing the word cuitlaxochitl, it must come from oral tradition. So it’s not surprising the word would be transcribed in different ways, and there is a possibility that the correct form was indeed cuetlaxochitl, as reported in the post about plant-based holiday rituals and in many other places on the internet that don’t cite their sources. There are so-called “Aztec herbals” (cool!) such as the Codex Cruz-Badianus (a.k.a. Codex Barberini) and Florentine Codex, but they don’t have any recognizable illustrations of poinsettia.

Using the Nahuatl Dictionary, I found that cuetla- is a root in various verbs that describe a sort of floppy, back-and-forth wavering or wriggling motion. It can even describe shapes with a wavery outline, like a canyon winding through a landscape. Some examples involving cuetla- include the way a warrior shakes and thrusts a spear, the way a snake wriggles when caught, a person fainting, and the movement of leaping flames. It is also the root of a verb meaning to wither. So this is how we get to a translation that means a flower that withers, though the “mortal”, “perishes”, and “like all that is pure” parts seem to be complete nonsense as far as I can tell.

But which is it? Poop-flower or wavery-withering-flower?

Medicinal uses

The name question inspired me to dig deeper into poinsettia’s medicinal uses, with which I was not familiar. The genus Euphorbia belongs to the Euphorbiaceae, or spurge, family. These often have irritating latex sap and some are poisonous. Poinsettia sap is only mildly irritating, but that seems to have garnered it an unearned reputation for toxicity.

I found next to no information on the ethnobotany of poinsettia. There is a reference to the sap being used as a galactagogue, although the author who mentions it claims it is not effective as such. All over the internet I find repeated the claim that the Aztecs used the sap to make a fever-reducing (antipyretic) medicine, but I can’t find the original source so must remain skeptical for the time being. Other members of the spurge family, however, are used medicinally in India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere. Depending on species they may be used to treat skin diseases (including skin cancer), warts, cancerous tumors, “hair related problems”, respiratory complaints, diarrhea, constipation, urinary tract infections, venomous bites, wounds, rheumatism and arthritis, diabetes, jaundice, vomiting, “viral fever”, and as an antiseptic. But this is a diverse family including some quite toxic members (e.g., castor bean) so don’t assume that medicinal qualities are the same across all members of the family. In other words:

“The worldwide distribution of the family exposes its members, to all sorts of habitats to which they must adapt, therefore inducing a large variety of chemicals (secondary substances) that are employed for survival/defense….medicinal properties of some [Euphorbiaceae] species may be due to stress factors that characterize most habitats of the family.”

One recent study on E. pulcherrima found it to be very effective at inhibiting the growth of aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus mold (source); another found some indications that the leaves contain cytotoxic compounds that may be useful against cancerous tumors (source).

Tl;dr version

Poinsettia is native to Mexico, where its indigenous name probably translates to either “poop-flower” or “withering flower” (depending on whether the name is actually cuitlaxochitl or cuetlaxochitl). I looked for information on poinsettia’s medicinal and other botanical properties to see if they were reflected in either or both of these names.

My research was hampered by the fact that I don’t currently have any university affiliation and therefore can’t access the full text of professional/academic journals. I could find very little specifically about the medicinal uses of poinsettia, but other members of the spurge family are used medicinally around the world, for a variety of complaints of which skin diseases and digestive disorders may be the most common.

A name translating to “poop-flower” might make sense given that many Euphorbiaceae species are used to treat diarrhea and as laxatives. All over the internet I keep finding the word for excrement, cuitlatl, translated as “residue” and then making the poetic (if uninformative) leap to “soil,” making poinsettia the “flower that grows in soil”, but can’t find the original source, and the Nahuatl Dictionary is pretty firm that the word actually means feces. I cannot find any indication that poinsettia has any more of an affinity to dungheaps than any other plants do, so if this is the name of the plant I would speculate that the “poop” relates to its medicinal application.

Alternatively the plant’s name might be more like “withering flower” or “wavering flower.” The leaves do have a wavy sort of outline which might have been in accordance with the Aztec concept of the word root cueta-. Again though, this could have referred to a medicinal use–perhaps for fainting, another meaning of cueta-. Another possibility might be that it referred to a tendency for the plant to wilt. I would assume it wouldn’t wilt any more than any other plant, in its native habitat, but I must admit that in spite of my ministrations, every poinsettia I have brought home has wilted in pretty short order.

Sorry I couldn’t solve that little linguistic mystery, but I learned a lot in the effort. I hope it was interesting for you. If you have any experience using poinsettia medicinally, I’d love to hear about it!

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Aztec medicine, here is an article on the topic which you can actually read in its entirety online. Here is a book chapter looking at the pharmacological effect of Aztec medicinal herbs, also complete. Here is a page that even has a few recipes and images from the Codex Cruz-Badianus.


In praise of rosemary

rosemary-283098_1280Whether it’s sprinkled on top of a focaccia or growing in a windowbox, rosemary is so ubiquitous that I think it’s easy to overlook its amazing healing properties. I’m guilty of that myself to some extent. I mean, I love rosemary, I grow it, but sometimes with an herb it’s not until you need it that you suddenly realize how awesome it was all along. (Well, that’s true of a lot of things in life, isn’t it?) In fact, if you were to grow only one medicinal plant, you could do a lot worse than rosemary.

Matthew Wood said, and I wish I could remember where but I just can’t, that the mark of a good herbalist is not how many herbs they can heal with, but how many things they can heal with a single herb. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is an incredibly versatile herb and if you know this plant well, you can treat a multitude of ills. Lucky for me, it also happens to be one of the few things I can grow here that isn’t destroyed by heat or bugs. It’s pretty hard to kill, and I think everyone should have some growing, at least a little pot.

First, you have rosemary’s pungent, clearing scent. To me, rosemary is the smell of clean. It’s also uplifting, vibrant, and energizing. Culpeper says, “…to burn the herb in houses and chambers, corrects the air in them.” I can testify from experience that diffusing rosemary essential oil can dispel a multitude of bad odors, but as is so often the case, the medicinal property of this plant reflects its esoteric properties. Rosemary is an herb of purification. It’s become all the rage to smudge with white sage, and in much of the US, including where I live, it’s a good choice: it grows abundantly in the wild and has been recognized for it’s cleansing and clearing powers since time immemorial. But if you happen to not live in a place where white sage is native, why pay for some sad, shriveled sage that’s been shipped halfway around the world or sitting on a shelf for two years? Try rosemary, or a bundle or rosemary, juniper, and mugwort.

When I lived in Spain years ago, you could buy sprigs of rosemary from passing street vendors. It is believed to bring luck and to protect pilgrims and travelers. (The word for pilgrim in Spanish is romero, which also means rosemary. I believe pilgrims acquired the name from the habit of carrying rosemary, but I’m not entirely sure.)

Culpeper emphasizes rosemary’s warming properties, saying it “is very much used both for inward and outward diseases, for by the warming and comforting heat thereof it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly.” Matthew Wood (The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, p. 26) refers to it as “the archetypal fiery mint.” Take a few drops of rosemary tincture directly on your tongue and you will feel that heat, as well as a tingly, diffusive feeling. Indeed rosemary’s warmth and dryness underlie all its medicine, and can serve as a mnemonic to help you remember all the various things it can do. In traditional Western herbal energetics, heat is stimulating and vivifying, and dryness counteracts damp conditions.

Therefore, rosemary can be used in any and all conditions that involve tissue “depression” (an excess of cold) or “stagnation” (excess damp that doesn’t move), wherever they occur in the body. Some common manifestations–this is by no means a comprehensive list–of stagnation and/or depression in various tissues include headache (including migraines), gas, cough, sinus infection, edema, poor memory, arthritis, gout, slow metabolism, constipation, weak digestion, lethargy, excess blood sugar, low blood pressure, and poor circulation. What you have here is a picture of underactive, slow, weak tissues and physiological processes. Rosemary can often benefit the elderly, since many of these processes slow down with age. It is a powerful decongestant for all organs subject to congestion, e.g., the lungs, sinuses, veins, liver.

The penetrating, tingly quality of rosemary’s volatile oils make it well suited for use as a massage oil for sore muscles. You can make a massage oil by diluting rosemary essential oil in a skin-friendly carrier oil (such as jojoba, coconut, almond, olive, apricot kernel, grapeseed, untoasted a.k.a. light sesame, or sunflower)–try a ratio of 10% essential oil to carrier oil, and go as high as 25% according to how you like it. And/or you can infuse rosemary in any of the oils listed above. Let some fresh rosemary sprigs wilt overnight, cut into little pieces, then place in a jar and cover with oil. Make sure there is no part of the rosemary exposed to air, and do not allow any water in contact with the oil. Allow to infuse for 4-6 weeks. You can add beeswax (at a ratio of 1 part wax to 8 parts oil–this basic ratio can be tweaked to your preference) to make a salve. The oil or salve can bring some relief to arthritis sufferers. It also helps with bruises and poor circulation. You can also add a few drops of essential oil to a bath. Matthew Wood in The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism notes that rosemary stimulates the involuntary musculature (e.g., of the heart, intestines, diaphragm) but relaxes the voluntary muscles.

Rosemary’s heat and dryness also tell you where not to use it: anywhere there is excess heat, irritation, or dryness already. If you are having heart palpitations, high blood pressure, or tachycardia, for example, don’t take rosemary. (Take hawthorn.)

Wood says (if I’m quoting him a lot it’s because he’s written a lot about rosemary) (TPoTWH, p. 248):

“…rosemary is indicated in people who have too strong an incarnation, so to speak, or who grasp the material world with such vigor that they get headaches and nervous tension. I do not mean that they are materialistic; it is for people who grasp life with great intensity, or not with enough intensity.”

Culturally, rosemary is most famous for its association with memory, and by extension, loyalty and fidelity. Given its manifold healing properties, it’s perhaps no surprise that rosemary’s esoteric powers are similarly comprehensive–purification, protection, attracting good luck and repelling bad, warding off evil, healing (of course!), exorcism, increasing mental powers, ensuring faithfulness, and empowering women.

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Rosemary by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

How I use rosemary

I sometimes take rosemary as a tea, and when I have a cold with sinus congestion, I’ll put a few drops of the essential oil in a bowl of hot water, put a towel over my head and inhale the steam. I currently have my mother taking half a dropperful of rosemary tincture three times a day because she has some serious edema going on, and memory problems. Actually, she has practically every problem rosemary can be used for. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get her to take tinctures because she doesn’t like the taste. She’s also a classic example of the Boomer generation attitude that medicine comes in pill form, end of. But when I can get her to take it, I notice immediate improvement in her edema.

Speaking of edema, Wood quotes a woman describing her experience with rosemary and edema (TPoTWH, p. 252):

“The difference between rosemary and lasix [sic; Lasix is a prescription diuretic] is that it is more selective. Lasix pumps out all the fluids it can get its hands on, whereas rosemary pulls out fluids that I can feel are stagnant and need to go.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, there are a lot of bad odors that come from a dying person, as well as a general sense of malaise in the house. To counteract these I diffuse essential oils. I use various blends, mostly making them up on the spot depending on how I feel, but they almost always involve rosemary. One of my favorites is:

  • 2 drops common sage EO
  • 3 drops rosemary EO
  • 3 drops tangerine EO
  • 2 drops grapefruit EO
  • 1-2 drops lavender EO (optional)

It definitely improves the overall aroma and lifts the spirits. I always feel a bit more perky, a bit more able to handle it all, after diffusing this blend. The other day one of my mom’s hospice nurses said it always smells good in our apartment, like herbs. Success!

I always put rosemary in my basic surface cleaning spray.

Rosemary is also an excellent hair tonic. I use a vinegar rinse to condition my hair (equal parts vinegar and water), and frequently use a rosemary infusion in lieu of plain water. Not only does it smell lovely but the oils from the rosemary impart a lovely shine without making your hair greasy. It is said to prevent hair loss.

In the old days herbalists recommended infusing rosemary in white wine and drinking a couple wine-glassesful per day. I haven’t tried this–I extracted my rosemary in brandy to make my usual tincture–but it sounds like it might be rather delicious. Rather than infusing the herb for a month as with a tincture, it was simply infused over the course of the day. I intend to try this when I get my next bottle of wine.

And finally of course I eat rosemary! Rosemary and lemon are a simple way to bring out the best flavor in chicken or potatoes, but they’re delicious on everything.

I mentioned that rosemary was one of the only plants in my garden that has survived. My garden was hit hard by bagrada bugs, and everything but two of my plants–a rosemary and a wooly blue curls–were pulled out by the community garden “SWAT team” who are empowered to remove any infested plants. I can’t tell you how heartbroken I was when I showed up to check on my plot, which had been overflowing with green plants a few days before, and finding nothing but two plants. Suffice to say I learned a hard lesson about what plants can withstand the bagrada bug, and it appears to be members of the mint family. So, I now have two rosemary plants, a blue curls, and a lemon tree in a pot on my patio. Because my mom’s health is growing progressively worse, I had to give up my community garden plot–I just can’t get down there often enough anymore. For the time being I’ll just be growing in containers. At least I know rosemary will continue to flourish there.

Long time no see

It’s been a long time since I wrote a post here. My apologies to you, dear readers. Things will be slowing down here for a bit, as they are in some ways slowing down in my real life. My caregiving responsibilities are eating up more and more of my time, health, and energy, and something’s gotta give.

It’s rather fitting that this is also the dormant time of year in my little corner of the world. It’s hot, really hot, over 100 degrees hot. One tries not to move any more than necessary.

I intend to continue posting here, albeit a bit less frequently, and I have a feeling that before too very long, this blog will have a rebirth of sorts.

How to support Free Fire Cider and the Fire Cider 3

Fire Cider

You may have heard recently about the fire cider trademark controversy. It’s a short but sad story: Back in the 1970s, Rosemary Gladstar coined the term “fire cider” for vinegar infused with garlic, onions, horseradish, and chili pepper. Like many of her recipes, she freely shares it with everyone so they can make their own at home and tweak it in any way they want. In the ’90s, she copyrighted the name, so that is her intellectual property–yet she still shares it with the rest of us.

Over the last 45 years, fire cider has become a commonplace, traditional name for a folk remedy. Unfortunately, one company–Shire City Herbals–decided to trademark the name so only they could use it. The trademark really should never have been granted, since there is ample evidence that the name has been in generic use for decades. Not to mention its inventor is still alive and well and can describe its original creation and use. But it was, and to make matters worse, Shire City Herbals are now suing three small herbal business owner/farmers for using the name fire cider. The owner of Shire City Herbals is on record saying that the boycott of their product has actually doubled their business (a claim I doubt), yet at the same time, they are suing Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs, Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution, and Nicole Telkes of Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine–the “Fire Cider 3”–for $100,000 for supposedly harming Shire City Herbals’ business as well as trademark infringement. When people created a Facebook page to organize a boycott, Shire City’s owner complained to Facebook who forced the removal of the page; a subsequent page also had to be removed for the same reason. In spite of this blatant example of greed and legal skullduggery, Shire City continue to portray themselves as a grassroots company that cares about people’s health.

It is my belief that conventional medical care is only going to become more and more expensive, until the day comes when we don’t have enough fossil carbons left to fuel it and make the plastics it depends on. Medical expenses are now the number one reason for bankruptcy in America. There is, and there will continue to be, a need for health care that all people can afford and, as much as possible, make for themselves. Herbalism has filled that role from the time of Dioscorides, to Nicholas Culpeper, to my great-grandmother, to me. By sharing these methods within our communities, putting people before profit, we have kept the tradition of herbalism alive so that it can do the same for us.

However, it’s clear that some herbalists are more interested in money than medicine. In my opinion, they are a disgrace to this calling. Capitalism being what it is, it may be impossible to legally stop them. But as far as I am concerned, morally it is theft twice over–first they have stolen Rosemary Gladstar’s intellectual property, and secondly in their attempt to create a monopoly on fire cider, they are co-opting our collective herbal heritage. And because of bullying tactics like these (and by the way, Young Living have done the same by trademarking the name “Thieves” (read the comments at that link too) as in Four Thieves), all of herbalism may over time be brought under greater legal scrutiny and regulation which could ultimately make it impossible for us to practice at all.

If you feel similarly, I urge you to do the following:

  • Don’t even buy fire cider, make your own! It is so easy. Keep the tradition, skill, and knowledge alive and share it within your community. Here are some instructions, or watch the lovely Rosemary show you how.
  • Read more specifics about the situation here. Or check out this article.
  • If you prefer to buy fire cider, you can purchase some online from Herbal Revolution. If you want to financially support the Fire Cider 3, buy other herbal preparations from Farmacy Herbs or Nicole Telkes. Or donate to the legal defense fund.
  • If you are lucky enough to have co-ops in your area, you can encourage them to stock products from local herbalists and NOT Shire City.
  • Sign the petition.
  • Like the Tradition Not Trademark Facebook page.
  • Contact Shire City Herbals (the owner is Amy Huebler) and let them know what you think of their behavior. Refrain from actual harassment. A polite approach is likely to be most effective here…although truth be told I feel like if these people had any conscience we would have seen evidence of it by now.
  • Spread the word!

I guess recently there’s been a fair bit of ranting here, what with Etsy’s religious discrimination against pagan and “metaphysical” services (I still have not decided on an alternative platform for my preparations but will update when I do), and now this. But I feel I have to do my part to bring these things to everyone’s attention because they can so easily slip through the cracks. Herbalism is still around in large part because of mutual support among users and makers of herbal remedies. We are only as strong as our communities, and if we allow our traditions to be exploited for the benefit of the few instead of the many, if we stand by and let any member of our community be bullied and threatened, it weakens us all.

Bad science, Part III: implications

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Roman_ruins_(State_1)In this final Bad Science post I want to talk about the implications of all this and what it means for those of us interested in herbalism. I have wrestled with this post for weeks now, but it was always either too long and rambling, or too lacking in context to be worth writing at all. So let this be the tl;dr version:

  • “Bad science” is a combination of (1) scientistic materialism that has gone from the normative worldview of industrial civilization to a more-or-less religious orthodoxy (atheism notwithstanding); (2) scientific method that has been subverted by corruption and ego; and (3) the abuse of science’s intellectual authority (in the service of Numbers 1 and 2), leading to the demise of that authority as discussed in Part I and Part II of this series.
  • These changes arise in the philosophical domain, but have material effects.
  • This is all part of the larger process of the decline of industrial civilization. I picked this particular facet because our medical and food-production systems are strongly effected by changes in the arena of science. Presumably, this matters to those of us interested in herbalism.
  • One of the symptoms of this is a lot of nasty infighting among different social interest groups, each trying to defend its turf against all the others.

And now my reasoning.

I was originally thinking of having a post about the various rhetorical dirty tricks employed by the materialist true-believers against their many perceived foes (including us). But it was depressing me, and it was also boring. And you are probably familiar with all of them anyway. I decided to move straight to the wider implications of that behavior, which was the ultimate point anyway.

I have become quite a fan of John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report blog. In spite of the title, it’s not about archdruiding so much as it’s about the process of decline and fall of our civilization. This is not a bunch of doomsday prophesying. Greer knows his history, and recognizes the repeating patterns. Not that Greer is the only one talking about this, but his writing is possibly the most prolific. I won’t delve into this; if it’s of interest to you, check out his blog. The central point is that we have a civilization that was built on non-renewable resources which are now running out.

Roman Ruins null Jacob More circa 1740-1793 Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T08193One of the first things to be abandoned as the resource-base of a civilization begins to contract are what Greer terms its intellectual and cultural projects:

“Every human society likes to think that its core cultural and intellectual projects, whatever those happen to be, are the be-all and end-all of human existence….It’s important not to underestimate the shattering force of this experience. The plays of Euripides offer cogent testimony of the despair felt by ancient Greek thinkers as their grand project of reducing the world to rational order dissolved in a chaos of competing ideologies and brutal warfare. Fast forward most of a millennium, and Augustine’s The City of God anatomized the comparable despair of Roman intellectuals at the failure of their dream of a civilized world at peace under the rule of law.”

Science has been the big intellectual project of modernity. Intellectual projects need a lot of resources, and when those are in short supply, and society is losing its organizational ability to distribute those resources, priorities shift away from “progress” and toward survival. Therefore, we can’t expect to see science replaced by a similar project or coherent worldview–“when the barbarians are at the gates, one might say, funds that might otherwise be used to pay for schools of philosophy tend to get spent hiring soldiers instead.”

offensive potatoIt’s not just a matter of resources and where they are directed. It’s also that as science’s authority has started to crack, the discontented turn literally almost anywhere else for an alternative. There are a lot of alternatives out there, and there’s also a lot of fear. And so people invest a huge amount of their personal energy in drawing lines in the sand, finding their co-believers, and attacking the “enemy.” It’s about ideology, and it’s about identity. People latch onto any ideology that promises salvation–or in modern terminology, “progress”–like the drowning latch onto a life preserver. A huge amount of personal energy is poured into being offended by anything and everything. Professors are even starting to notice this combination of ideological fragmentation and belligerence among students. Under the current corporate model of university management, instructors are discouraged from presenting any material that makes the customers students uncomfortable, and students are quick to complain, loudly, when that happens. The problem is that there are so many identities and interest groups represented among the student body that it’s impossible not to offend somebody, especially when everybody’s looking for a reason to get offended. Every perceived offense is an opportunity to bang the drum for whatever identity/ideology the offended party belongs to.

Yet we still carry on under the pretense that everything’s ok, and will be even better soon. So actually doing something to remedy whatever offends us is both difficult to imagine and unnecessary. So much of what started out as well-intentioned reform and sensitivity devolved into politically correct thought- and speech-policing, whereby all that’s needed to prove one’s goodness and righteousness is to swiftly dogpile anyone who uses the wrong terminology or asks uncomfortable questions.

Some have claimed that this is because feelings now trump objectivity. I think that’s a very superficial reading of the situation. If that were all that’s happening, I am not sure I would have a problem with prioritizing people’s feelings and subjective experiences. But if people’s feelings and social justice really mattered as much as well-meaning young liberals like to claim, then our first order of business would be to change the social conditions that create suffering and injustice. But that would require admitting that the faith in progress, scientific materialism, technoutopianism, and neoliberal economic models which we trusted would save us was just smoke and mirrors. It’s so much easier just to shout about it.

19th century pencil drawing of Roman temple/ruinsI have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as science loses the right to be the sole arbiter of truth and reality, the things that have been consigned to the “fake” category–like herbalism–have a chance to regain the legitimacy and authority they once had. On the other hand, there are some major drawbacks. First among them is that as a system burns itself out, those invested in it double down. The reaction can get nasty, and you never know which end of the pitchfork you’ll be on. It’s very likely that I will not live to see a day (if family history is any indicator, I can expect to live as much as 60 more years) when we are fully free to do our thing as makers and users of herbal medicine, but that we will be increasingly constrained by bureaucratic red tape put in place to protect corporate and oligarchic interests. Still, I will keep on growing my own food and making my own medicine and sharing them with my community. We dandelions somehow manage to thrive.

Shame on you, Etsy

etsy sweatshopsI have been thinking about leaving Etsy as a platform for my business (small though it is) since it went public in April, and now I am considering not shopping there either. That makes me sad, because there are so many awesome things available there, and it’s the best-known platform for handmade goods so as a seller, you have a better chance of having your products seen.

But Etsy ain’t what it used to be.

I first got concerned when I read this piece by April Winchell, the author of Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF. Regretsy is hilarious, but Winchell is dead serious when she writes,

“Etsy’s “handmade-only” rule went down the drain faster than a cold soy latte. For all its chest thumping about conscious consumerism and the handmade ethos, Etsy had to face the fact that it was never going to be a billion dollar company selling potholders and bedazzled tampon cozies. Especially since most of its “sellers” were not, in fact, selling. All they were contributing to Etsy’s coffers were 20¢ listing fees. That’s not going to take you from Williamsburg to Wall Street.

Clearly, Etsy had to add some other kind of merchandise to its marketplace. It couldn’t be handmade, but it had to jibe with the Etsy culture. In another masterstroke, it hit on the idea of allowing  crafting supplies and vintage goods on the site.

It was a smart move. But even with these additional revenue streams, Etsy wasn’t moving fast enough. It was going to have to show some spectacular growth to lure investors to the table.

And that’s when Etsy decided to allow factory-made goods into its vibrant handmade marketplace.”

Do you think actual handmade stuff can compete with stuff made in sweatshops in Southeast Asia and falsely marketed as handmade? Me neither. As Winchell puts it, nowadays “Etsy is Walmart with better fonts.”

I immediately looked into alternatives to Etsy, but to be honest, I got lazy. I had a lot of other stuff on my plate, I hadn’t made any new stuff to sell, and I was admittedly worried about losing potential customers if I went to some more obscure platform. I mean, I’m not making a living off selling a bottle of tincture every three months. I have made zero attempt at marketing at this point, in part because I’m more interested in ultimately becoming a clinical herbalist as opposed to an herbal products creator (not that those two are mutually exclusive). But being squeamish about marketing is one thing; voluntarily ditching your customers is actively shooting yourself in the foot. I’m not proud of that, I’m just being honest. (Too bad Etsy isn’t that scrupulous.)

But I think the time has finally come to make the break. Now comes news that Etsy is no longer allowing the sale of magical spells and metaphysical goods and services marketed as such. I don’t sell spells, nor do I buy them. (I don’t have a problem with them, I just like to DIY everything.) But I have browsed the offerings on Etsy because a lot of them are quite beautiful. There are some real artists out there putting some incredible creativity into making spell kits. Moreover, it seems that a lot of people do buy spells and spell equipment through Etsy, especially since eBay forbade the selling of spells back in 2012. In typical fashion, Etsy is not explaining the motivation behind this decision. But given that Etsy has shown itself more than willing to sell out their customers (the sellers) and investors for a few more bucks, I suspect that there is some financial reason underlying the ban on spells. But whatever the motivation, it’s an act of religious discrimination. Witches, pagans, and yes, even herbalists regularly have to tailor our wording to basically say that what we are offering is for “entertainment purposes” to conform to the prevailing worldview that what we do isn’t “real.” Now even that isn’t enough to protect our right to provide our goods and services. Note that the paraphernalia of dominant religions such as Christianity–your rosaries, crosses, angel statues, and whatnot–can still be sold on Etsy. One can sell a “prayer kit,” but not a “spell kit.” This reminds me of what Peter Grey of Scarlet Imprint publishers said in his essay “Rewilding Witchcraft”–the present toleration of witchcraft is not acceptance, it’s simply disdain:

“The reason that social services are not taking your children away is that nobody believes in the existence of the witch. We have mistaken social and economic change for the result of our own advocacy.”

When nobody believes what you do is any more than dress up, you have a fair amount of freedom to do it, but don’t think that means society has progressed to accepting your alternative religion as legitimate. When eBay banned spells, they said it was to “build trust in the marketplace,” implying that every witch with a shop is a con artist. This is the down side to having your religion, your worldview regarded as bullshit by the monoculture–if you make a dime off it, you are automatically legally a fraud. Still, Etsy has been willing to work with favored frauds in the past, even when they were exposed, indeed Etsy itself is being sued for fraud, so one can’t help but wonder what makes magic different?*

Herbalism is another activity that is tolerated because as long as we don’t claim to “cure,” “heal” or “treat” anything, as long as we take extreme pains not to even so much as imply that herbs are medicinal, it are seen as harmless nonsense. If you are an herbalist who happens to have a Ph.D., you cannot even be called by your proper, hard-earned title–“Doctor”–because that might suggest that what you are offering is “real” medicine. Heaven forbid. So I suspect that if Etsy is banning sales of magical or metaphysical goods and services, it’s only a matter of time until they crack down on herbal formulas and extracts. At the very least, I suspect they are going to get so restrictive about what wording is allowed that it will make it nearly impossible to sell herbal products.

If you are bothered by this and the potential it creates to limit our access to any and all non-mainstream goods and services, I urge you to sign this petition. And maybe consider taking your business elsewhere.

*UPDATE: In an article published yesterday in Quartz, an Etsy spokesperson is quoted as saying the rationale behind the ban is to “protect our community from business practices that prey upon vulnerable and desperate shoppers—such as those seeking a treatment for cancer or infertility, or those with self-esteem issues who are seeking a spell for weight loss or beauty enhancement (think penis or breast enlargement).” Thank you, anonymous Etsy spokesperson, for making my point for me.

Here are some links with information on online handmade marketplaces you can use instead of Etsy: 12 Etsy alternatives, 5 other handcrafted marketplaces, Best Etsy alternatives, and of course, for herbal products, there is PoppySwap, which is entirely dedicated to herbal stuff.

Herbal archaeology roundup 3

Taking a brief break from the bad science series, I thought it was time for another botanical blast from the past. Unfortunately, as far as I know, no one is specializing in the archaeology of herbs, but here and there, some really interesting stuff is being discovered. My definition of “herbs” here isn’t limited to the strictly medicinal, because after all it’s a fine line between medicine and food (if there even is one), and when we’re talking about the very ancient past, we are lucky when we can figure out what someone was ingesting–knowing why is often beyond our ken. Let’s proceed in chronological order! (Headings are links to articles.)

Oldest evidence for fungi in the human diet

Fly agaric, the most famous (toxic) member of the agaric mushroom family.

Fly agaric, the most famous (magic) member of the agaric mushroom family.

The “Red Lady” burial of El Mirón cave (Cantabria, Spain) dates to approximately 19,000 years ago and is very interesting. This individual, a woman aged about 35-40, was given special treatment. Really, anyone buried during the Palaeolithic was probably receiving special treatment, because very few graves have been found. Interestingly, a number of the burials that are known contain people who were physically unusual. That was the subject of one of my first grad school papers (sigh, good times)–but sadly that was so long ago that I don’t remember all the specific examples. An individual from a double burial at Romito, Italy had achondroplasia; and the woman from the triple burial at Dolní Věstonice, Czech Republic probably suffered from chondrodysplasia calcificans punctata (probably the milder X-chromosome-linked variant), a rare genetic disorder, “complicated by trauma and early fractures of the upper limbs.” In my research I found that a statistically significant proportion of Palaeolithic burials contained people who would have looked different, and in some cases been differently-abled, than other members of the community. (I really should have worked that up for publication because as far as I know, no one else has. There is this article that suggests these burials might be human sacrifices but since there’s no evidence for violent death/murder in these burials, I think it’s a bit of a reach to assume these people were sacrificed. But I digress.) The Red Lady was in robust good health, other than being dead, but she did show evidence of another common theme of Palaeolithic burials, which is that the bodies were sometimes covered in red ochre (iron mineral pigment). The Red Lady’s body was covered with ochre, and at some people people went back to the burial and applied more ochre to the bones. Moreover, pollen in the grave suggests that people may have left flowers there.

Moving on to the mushrooms, analysis of the Red Lady’s fossilized tooth plaque reveals that she ate fungi, making this the oldest evidence of fungi in the human diet (you can be sure it goes back further though). Remains of multiple types of mushrooms were found, including ones belonging to the Agaric family. Some agaric mushrooms are harmless, but some are majorly hallucinogenic (and/or poisonous): “There is some evidence from neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Piedmont in the Italian Alps that suggest psychotropic mushrooms were used in rituals.” Maybe their use extends even further back in time.

High on henbane in the Neolithic?

Black henbane

Black henbane

So far only a single charred black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seed has been found at Ilendentsi, Bulgarian, a settlement dated to around 5800 BC. However, archaeologists are tentatively speculating that the residents may have been consuming henbane, a psychotropic. Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae, a relative of nightshade, datura, and mandrake and in medieval times was used as an ingredient in witches’ “flying ointments.” In other words, they are really toxic if not used in tiny quantities–maybe that’s why they have only found one seed at Ilendentsi! Henbane was also found in pottery from the stone circle at Balfarg, Scotland, bolstering the interpretation that the circle was used for ceremonial/ritual purposes.

Scythians liked their opium with a cannabis chaser

Artist's reconstruction of Scythians getting sooo high.

Artist’s reconstruction of Scythians getting sooo high, man.

Ornate gold cups from the Sengileevskoe-2 kurgan (South Caucasus, Russia) contained a black residue with traces of opium and cannabis. This, along with other archaeological sites, confirms Herodotus’ claim that the Scythians used cannabis, but so far as I know this is the first evidence for their use of opium (I could be wrong, because it was certainly used long before the date of the Sengileevskoe-2 burial around 400 BC).

An ancient Graeco-Egyptian hangover cure

Nike, the goddess of victory, crowns an athlete...or helps him with a hangover.

Nike, the goddess of victory, crowns an athlete…or helps him with a hangover?

How did you pull yourself together after a night on the town 1,900 years ago? By wearing a garland of Alexandrian laurel leaves (Danae racemosa, formerly Ruscus racemosus) around your neck. This comes from a trove of medical papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Dioscorides wrote in somewhat greater depth, recommending a topical application of pounded leaves to cure headache, and the juice of the leaves mixed with wine to sooth stomach ache, bring on menstruation, or urine. A garland of Alexandrian laurel (this time worn on the head) was still being recommended in the 16th century. Because the exact “recipe” for the garland isn’t included in any of the articles I found, but one article says “possibly” worn around the neck, I wonder if in fact it was always meant to be worn about the head–that would fit with the instructions in Dioscorides and the 16th-century herbal. According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Plants, Alexandrian laurel is used as a culinary spice and contains vitamins and antioxidant flavonoids. The authors found that rats receiving a high dose of D. racemosa produced more sperm,, suggesting it may be useful in treating infertility.

Medieval eye-salve cures MRSA

Facsimile page from Bald's Leechbeek

Facsimile page from Bald’s Leechbook

A recipe for treating eye infections in the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon medical text Bald’s Leechbook describes a salve made from onion, garlic, wine, and cow bile, steeped for nine days. The remedy was recreated by microbiology researchers at the University of Nottingham (they even used English wine!) and tested on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a.k.a., MRSA. The recipe killed up to 90% of the MRSA bacteria, and the researchers concluded that it was the combination of ingredients–rather than any single ingredient–that did the trick.

The contents of this Maya “death vase” might make you wish you were dead

The sort of thing one might see in a Maya vision. Here a spirit emerges form a serpent, which rises from a basket filled with bark paper. The paper was used to absorb sacrificial blood, usually taken from a queen's tongue or king's penis. Ow.

The sort of thing one might see in a Maya vision. Here a spirit emerges from the mouth of a serpent, which rises from a basket filled with bark paper. The paper was used to absorb sacrificial blood, usually taken from a queen’s tongue or king’s penis, and then burned. Ow.

Meanwhile in the “New” World, the Maya were consuming some pretty potent stuff. At a site in Hondurus archaeologists discovered a vessel containing pollen from corn (maize), cacao, and false ipecac (Pscychotria emetica or Ronabea emetica)–the latter a plant which, as its species name indicates, causes vomiting. One interpretation is that the purpose was to have visions and so communicate with the spirit world. (The Maya also used chocolate enemas. Now I love chocolate, but it seems to me that is not the best way to enjoy it.) Although it’s not mentioned in the article just exactly how barfing your guts up is supposed to lead to having visions, many members of the genus Psychotria contain DMT, a psychedelic. However, some cultures have uses vomiting (and other bodily processes of excretion) as a purification, though it’s not known to have been done by the Maya. Speaking of vomit…

Ancient Cahokians were super buzzed–and really sick

Artist's reconstruction of Cahokia at its peak.

Artist’s reconstruction of Cahokia at its peak.

Cahokia, the largest metropolis of pre-Columbian North America, was situated in Illinois directly across the river from where St. Louis would later be established. Once again, plant remains in a cup have provided evidence that locals were drinking a botanical brew–this one made from the leaves of yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Once again, the species name gives a clue as the effect of this beverage, and once again, archaeologists have speculated that vomiting was part of some purificatory ritual. In this case, there is further evidence that this “black drink” was used in ritual contexts, because once Europeans arrived they recorded that men from cultures all over the American southeast drank the black drink for purification. It’s use dates back 1000 years. Aside from its nauseating properties, the holly drink contained theobromine (also found in chocolate) and 6 times as much caffeine as coffee. Those people must never have slept. I. vomitoria doesn’t grow around Cahokia, so this is also evidence for very long-distance trade networks, which is also seen in the distribution of other materials, especially ceremonial ones such as copper, shells, and iconography.

I found it very interesting that a couple of the comments on this article say that yaupon holly makes a nice tea and does not result in copious barfing. This may be a dosage issue. While a “mildly stimulating” and “intoxicating” beverage can be made from the dried and roasted leaves, the historical texts indicate that the leaves were toasted and then boiled for several hours to produce a thick decoction that inducing immediate vomiting (source).

Well, I hope you enjoyed this installment of the herbal archaeology roundup! I will continue to bring you all the herbal archaeology news–or should I say “olds”–that’s fit to print.

Bad science, Part II: Philosophy and ideology


In today’s anti-intellectual social climate I often see philosophy dismissed as useless ivory-tower navel-gazing, but the reality is we are all philosophers. The most basic questions asked by philosophy are fundamental: What Is? (i.e., ontology) and How do we know? (epistemology). We spend our infancy asking those questions–the little kid asking “Why?” endlessly is a perfect philosopher–until we get to the age where we just accept the answers our elders give us. Philosophy is the study of ideas, and it is basic to the experience of being human and having a human brain.

Of course not everybody wants to go pro with philosophy. When I was a kid I was fascinated by philosophy and even told one of my elementary school teachers I was going to get a Ph.D. in it (ha!). Yet by the time I went to college I had learned to disapprove of it as “useless,” and I regret to say I never took a single philosophy class. Granted, this was partly because I had become aware that all of us are doing it all the time, so why take a class? Also, some of my friends (and one guy I dated) were philosophy majors and holy cats could they get infuriating. It was almost impossible to have a conversation without footnotes defining every word! But I still wish I had given it some formal study, if only to learn a better language for asking questions, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

“Study of ideas” does sound a little rarefied until you consider that almost everything we ever “know” is actually an idea. We can’t get outside of our own heads, so our experiences are always mediated through our perceptions and memories. Our experience is made up of ideas about things, not the things themselves. In that sense, philosophy is the study of lived experience, plus everything we think about that. So you know, pretty important stuff.

While we’re on the topic let me say that the philosophical school I most closely identify with is Skepticism. I don’t mean those smug jerks who make it their life’s mission to liberate us from our “errors” (they are true-believers, and I’ll come back to them shortly)–I’m talking about David Hume’s Skepticism, or that of the ancient Greeks. Because we can’t get out of our own subjective head-space, we can’t know whether anything objectively exists outside of it, or what that anything might be like. A more extreme Skeptic would even question whether other subjectivities–other minds–exist at all. I don’t take it quite that far. I certainly don’t say that nothing else exists, I just don’t believe any of us humans has a tool kit that would enable us to determine its objective nature, or indeed even our own objective nature. I also think of myself as a sort of Neo-Gnostic in that I suspect (but don’t know!) that there is some kind of objective reality but that our subjective human experience is different from and even deceptive about what that reality is, and I also suspect that reality is both conscious and non-material in nature, though I have no way of being sure. I’m telling you this to be as forthcoming as possible about my own perspective, since I’m about to criticize others for not doing that.

The philosopher and scientist (and skeptic and atheist) Massimo Pigliucci has been calling out scientists and sciencelebrities lately for taking an anti-intellectual stance toward philosophy, and some other disciplines which aren’t their own, for example in this piece at Scientia Salon and this one in the Huffington Post. In his HuffPo piece, Pigliucci points out that philosophy is “the mother of all sciences,” and criticizes sciencelebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular:

“It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so.

…someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short, someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship.”

But aside from being rude to fellow scholars, what’s the big deal? The dismissal of philosophy as a valid field of inquiry demonstrates two deeper issues:

  1. There has been a serious deterioration in science (both in practice and education) to the point where its predication on beliefs, ultimate subjectivity, and its history and cultural context have been forgotten, or are deliberately obfuscated.
  2. In the hustle to achieve greater authority (see the previous post in this series), scientists have become unwilling to face challenge–not only from ordinary people like you and me, but even from fellow academics.

So it’s partly a sign of ignorance of the foundations and ethics of science, and partly due to fear of losing their status if anyone dares to point out that there’s a man behind the curtain.

If you’ve ever taken an English composition or historiography class, you’ve probably been told never to use the passive voice (e.g., say “X did Y” not “Y was done by X” or even more vaguely, “Y was done.”) However in science writing, the passive voice is used preferentially. This is to make it appear as if the findings simply manifested all by themselves, without any interference from a flawed human. It creates a veneer of objectivity.

Just as scientific experiments don’t happen in a vacuum, science didn’t arise in a vacuum: It was the product of specific historical and cultural trends–and philosophical beliefs. These beliefs have evolved somewhat, but not as much as you might think/hope. Science and the belief in scientific and technological progress arose out of what John Michael Greer calls the “prophetic religious sensibility,” which was also the source of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

“A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.”

Although Greer is talking about religion and not science, it isn’t only religions that are built on the substructure of “religious sensibility”–so are all of our just-so stories. They shape each of our subjective lived experiences. Atheism and science are not the same thing–although the dominant metaphysical premise of modern science is scientific-materialism and there is significant overlap–yet if you substitute “science” for “atheism” in this quote, it is still true.

“…the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility…

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” (my emphasis)

In another post on a related topic, Greer elaborates:

“I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.

Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions.

All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.”

All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute…” (my emphasis)

I quote Greer at length here because I think this point cannot be overstated–the scientific method is a specific response to a specific set of cultural, historical, and philosophical conditions (one of which is the substructure of the prophetic religious sensibility with its notions of progress and transcendence), which were enveloped within the developing concept. Like a snowball rolling along, over time science has gathered to itself a set of mandatory beliefs necessary for membership (an ideology) and its own community of prophets and true-believers. Notice how the exact same language that Christians use to dismiss non-Christians is used by science’s true-believers to dismiss people who believe in sasquatch or ghosts. The problem is when people mistake their beliefs for truth. As we know, this has led to many wars. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else and label their “truths” as beliefs, but we have to be able to do the same thing in the mirror.

For a more in-depth examination and critique of the mandatory beliefs of scientific-materialism, I recommend this debate on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Note the fact that Shermer, the darling of materialist true-believers, is not actually a scientist (he does hold a Ph.D. in history of science); Sheldrake, their bete-noire, actually is a scientist. It’s not merely an irony, it’s indicative of how true-believers accept as science only that which corresponds to their fundamentalist beliefs.

In this debate, Sheldrake takes the position that science needs to move past its dogma, while Shermer argues “science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition” (my emphasis). I think the italicized part there is really interesting and reveals much about materialist orthodoxy: Shermer could have said that science is a materialistic enterprise, full stop. Or he could have said that it’s a materialistic enterprise, everything else is outside of science’s purview, and so simply is not of interest/can’t be addressed by science. If you read the rest of Shermer’s remarks, it seems that the crux of his argument is that attributing something to a “supernatural” or “paranormal” (or by extension, any other non-material) cause is laziness–those aren’t explanations, just “placeholders” for material processes we don’t yet understand. And the goal of science is to continue investigating until we do understand. This is a fair point (although he assumes a priori that the answers science will discover must be material in nature), so why didn’t he say that? Why did he sum up his argument the way he did? When you read closely what he actually did say (in the quote above), you see that Shermer is stating that science is materialistic, and everything else doesn’t exist/is delusion. Moreover, to even attempt to investigate all of that non-material/non-existent stuff is betrayal–which totally contradicts his argument that science keeps on investigating until the answer is known. Shermer is not arguing that we need to keep investigating and not be lazy; he’s arguing that we should adopt a particular ontology and ignore and deny everything that doesn’t seem to fit it. And I don’t know about you, but his language sounds rather religious and very emotional to me. I’m half surprised he didn’t say “apostasy” or “heresy” instead of betrayal. It’s also a ridiculous statement from anything other than an ideological point of view. I mean, think how ridiculous it would be if I applied this same reasoning to an entirely different thing. What if I said, “horses are mammals; only mammals exist, therefore all other animals are mythical and it’s a betrayal of horses to investigate them.” Or, “painting is done with paints; and therefore all other art forms are imaginary, and it’s a betrayal of painting to do other kinds of art.” But notice how normal and familiar it sounds if I say, “Islam (or Christianity, etc.) is the only true religion; all other religions are lies/sin/delusion/heresy/paganism/etc. and it’s a betrayal of God to follow them.” As Sheldrake says,

“These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology….Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.”

I do know some scientists that are aware of this. Unfortunately, true-believers–the evangelists of scientific-materialism–rarely even understand how scientific experimentation is done, let alone do it themselves, let alone know anything about the history and philosophy and cultural context of science and how the method has changed over the years. Just as 99.9% of Christians I encounter have virtually zero knowledge of the history and philosophy and cultural context of Christianity. Part of why I get so irked by the pop-science Facebook memes (a few of which I dissect in my next post), and the pandering of prophets sciencelebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that their proliferation, their sheer numbers, give them credibility in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t think critically about this stuff. The more that stuff is shared uncritically, the more natural and normal it appears to be. “Everybody knows.” “They say.” “Studies show.” “It’s a well-known fact.” They’re all code for ideology.

Oh, really?

I love how it looks like Tyson is experiencing some kind of mystical communion here.

I’m not sure when science came unmoored from its fundamentals and its history. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy tells his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact–not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall”? Indy was correctly acknowledging that questions of “truth” are not the domain of science, but of philosophy. Have Tyson and his fellow sciencelebrities forgotten that, or are they simply ignoring it? I can tell you that scientists’ unwillingness to engage with philosophy is a sign of science’s devolution into a cult. It’s more important to belong to the group, and to show that by espousing the same opinions and beliefs and not doing transgressive stuff like, say, cryptzoology to name just one example (unless the point is to belittle the notion). This is an extremely inflexible, and therefore fragile, position.

Because this is where we get into Black Swan territory. For a materialist or a so-called skeptic, a philosophical challenge taken seriously could be a Black Swan. Nothing in your past led you to believe it could be possible, so when it happens, it blows your world up; yet looking back, you see that really, all the necessary ingredients were there all along, you just didn’t realize it. The important thing about Black Swans in this context is that they are dependent on your worldview. An oft-quoted example is that Thanksgiving is a Black Swan to the turkey, but not to the butcher. It all depends on your prior experiences and your perspective. It is possible to turn a Black Swan to your advantage, but all of them are dangerous to some extent. The more inflexible you are, the more likely a Black Swan is to break you. The antidote is to have horizons so broad and mental doors so open that it’s almost impossible to take you completely by surprise.

Once you grasp that there’s more than one way to add up to 9–and even more importantly, that 9 is not even a foregone conclusion but some may be adding up to 7, or 15, or 232–you are down the rabbit hole my friend. You have chosen the red pill, and shit gets weird. You’ll never be able to go back to the comfortable certainty of your prior belief system, whatever it was. Being truly aware of and open to other ontologies isn’t mere political correctness, or even cultural relativism, it’s an awakening that completely changes your views of the universe. Meeting actual flesh-and-blood Martians would not be any more mind-imploding than this. From then on, no premise can be taken for granted. You will, like it or not, be forced to think critically about everything all the time. (The good news is there will be infinite new horizons of thought to explore.)

This is not incompatible with good science–science that lives up to its stated ideals rather than its secret agendas. However, it does reveal scientific-materialism for what it was all along, which is merely one among many metaphysical propositions which cannot ever be proved or disproved. Scientific-materialism is an ideology, and those who trumpet it as the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, are ideologues. They have a vested interest in converting you to their belief just as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelical Christians will try to convert you to theirs. They cannot see that, though, like the fish who can’t see the water. Now, I think they are all entitled to their religions, I only want them to recognize them for what they are.

What we have to avoid here is falling into the same trap as the true-believers. Being critical of some current scientists (and their followers) for not recognizing the philosophy underlying their work does not mean we get to reject scientific principles or findings out of hand. These findings still represent generations of empirical observations made by our ancestors. They are now part of the Western tradition. It means we take things on a case-by-case basis, critically evaluate the claims, realize they are probably at least partly wrong and so are we. Yes, we need guidelines on which to base our life decisions. You can be philosophically a Skeptic or a Gnostic who views life as a flight simulation, but as long as you’re in it, remember that you don’t get infinite lives and play as if it were real. We can even take our guidelines on faith and be totally devoted to living them, as long as we don’t call it truth, ram it down everybody else’s throat, and infantilize and demean them for having different guidelines.

Next time I tackle how ideological arguments are constructed so as to beat us into submission.

Bad science, Part I: Authoritah


Okay. Deep breath. There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but every time I start I get so worked up about the issue and I have so many words I can’t sort through them. Every time I have given up. This time, I was almost to the end when I hit some unknown combination of buttons and accidentally erased more than half of what I’d written. But I think this time I will make it through to the end…

(This got really long, so I’m breaking it up into parts.)

I want to say at the get-go that I’m trying as hard as I can to spell out my thoughts clearly. Not because I am underestimating your intelligence. Far from it! If you read this blog you are clearly a person of wisdom, discernment, and excellent taste! But I don’t want to assume that you already know my thoughts, let alone agree with them. Writing your thoughts and cherished beliefs–I mean, not just stating them, but explaining them–to someone who has never met you and can’t see your facial expression or hear your tone of voice is really difficult. I have discovered that through bitter experience. So I’m trying not to assume any prior knowledge, as if you just stumbled on this blog and this is the first post you’re reading (which it might be).

In other posts I’ve alluded to the fact that I used to be a science educator and used to do scientific analyses in an R1 (does its own research) university. In a lab and everything! I ended up leaving that path, first because I realized I was not interested in just measuring stuff, but in wrestling with questions about meaning and human subjectivity. I went humanities, in other words. Second, because my mom got sick and I had to take care of her, and my nascent academic career disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

I make no claim that the herbalism I practice is science-based. That is, I do incorporate scientific findings and will share them with you when relevant; and I do base my practice on empirical (but subjective) observation–but I personally am not conducting a controlled study. But this doesn’t mean I stopped being interested in science. Nor does it mean I forgot how science works or stopped associating with practicing scientists.

Because I love what science actually is (I’ll return to that in a minute), I get really incensed when I see it being misused.

Specifically, I’m referring to the use of “science” to establish and enforce an epistemological and ideological hegemony. To be completely clear, what I am saying is this: over the course of my adult life I have seen the concept of “science” co-opted by thought police who want to enforce conformity in the general public–determining what questions can be asked, whether and how they can be discussed, and using rhetorical tricks and misdirection to discredit opposing voices.

Now I know it might sound like I’m making some crazy conspiratorial claim here. Stay with me and you’ll see it’s nothing so glamorous.

I am not the only person noticing this. Currently, the protesting voices are coming from the fringes–not from mainstream society–but there are more and more of them. It’s time for me to add my voice to the chorus. If every person adds their grain of sand, in time they make a mountain. But whether my grain of sand adds much to the pile is irrelevant–a person’s character is obvious from their values, and this misuse of “science” in the attempt to quash free inquiry and free speech goes against everything I believe in and care about.

I believe in critical thought, and that if you’re not thinking critically you’re wasting your human brain. I understand that it’s often difficult to look beneath the surface explanation of things, especially when we really like the explanation we’re being given, but making the attempt is not only good for the developing your cognitive skills but is also a moral virtue. Moreover, we need to turn that probing eye on ourselves and our own society, to put them under the microscope, and never accept something as truth just because someone told us so. In particular, we must always ask whether what we’re being told is a statement of fact or an ideological belief or philosophical premise being packaged as fact. I don’t care whether the claim is that Yahweh is the one true god, or that there is no god, or that the two-party system is the best form of governance, or that such-and-such war is justified, or that you need to detox your liver, or that science is the best way to investigate the universe. The metric for truth is not whether we agree with it, whether it makes us happy, or whether it’s convenient. In fact, we need to beware anything that feels easy and comfortable because that is where blind spots develop.

I think it should go without saying–though I’m saying it anyway–that scientific materialism is the dominant paradigm in modern Western society, and has been for about 200 years. We give science ultimate explanatory authority. Previously, Christianity and the Church held that role, and although there are still a small minority who look to Christianity for answers, their day is long past. It was already getting shaky in Henry VIII’s time. But it’s still a long way from being really threatened. When was the last time you heard a talking head report sincerely the good news that Jesus has appeared miraculously in a tortilla? Not in your lifetime. The fact that creationism is increasingly being packaged as “creation science” shows how desperate people are to reconcile what they want to believe in–Christian theology–with what they kind of believe in spite of themselves and think everyone else believes–science.

Yet there has been much hand-wringing and arm-waving, as well as snarky mockery, lately about people being “anti-science” and “science-deniers,” and it’s true that cracks are beginning to appear in science’s credibility. What’s got scientists and science fans so defensive? Basically, people are starting to question and in some cases even dispute their authority. Take for example this blog post by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who writes:

“So you have the direct problem of science collectively steering my entire generation toward obesity, diabetes, and coronary problems. But the indirect problem might be worse: It is hard to trust science.

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

If a person doesn’t believe climate change is real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that a case of a dumb human or a science that has not earned credibility? We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.”

(Emphasis and link are in the original.) Adams isn’t dumb and he isn’t a “science denier.” He understands that science is a “’mostly wrong’ situation by design that is intended to become more right over time. How do you make people trust a system that is designed to get wrong answers more often than right answers?” Indeed! By definition scientific findings can never be conclusive; it’s always a work-in-progress. So how did science ever come to be granted so much authority as the arbiter of truth?

The picture gets even murkier. John Michael Greer elaborates:

“Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is ‘Who’s paying him?’ …

From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering. …

Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.”

(I’ll have more to say on academic philosophy and science next time.)

Nothing upsets a scientist more than telling her that her work is irrelevant, but a close second is finding her work misrepresented in the popular media. How often have I seen scientists raging about how the spin put on their research is going to mislead people? Or gloating over how uninteresting some rival’s findings are once you discount the spin? But a recent (scientific!) study shows that most of that spin actually comes from the scientists themselves, or from the universities where they work. Scientists have to compete for funding, and bigger results get bigger grants, so there is a lot of pressure to exaggerate the significance of results. Greer again:

“These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing.”

In short, there are a lot of reasons why people are starting to reject scientists’ a priori authority and are getting pissed that their every challenge is dismissed as ignorance, stupidity, or conspiracy theory. It’s kind of sad in that in its early days, modern science was a challenge to hegemony and ideological oppression–but now it has become its own tool of oppression. But in the long view, you see that over and over through history.

Particularly concerning, to me, is the fact that scientific authority is used not only to promote scientific findings as accurate and truthful, but how it is used to bully and shut down discussion. Thought- and speech-policing is a bad, bad sign of deeper and darker social and political problems.

A list of things we're not allowed to talk about.

Shhhh… A list of things we’re not allowed to talk about.

Although in principle nothing is off-limits for scientific investigation, and nothing can be discounted until thoroughly investigated, above you see a list of things a scientist is not allowed to investigate or seriously discuss. To do otherwise is to lose all credibility (and thus funding). As far as science fans are concerned, all that is necessary to discredit an opponent is to accuse them of pseudoscience (even when the label, as in some of the items on this list, is inaccurate).

Why are these particular topics off-limits?

Because they relate to aspects of human life that are generally very meaningful, where people are most likely to stand up to authority and say the emperor has no clothes on. For example: 8 out of these 25 items (32%) relate to health and healing; 5 of 25 (20%) directly relate to religion; and a conservative count of 18 out of 25 (72%) pertain to the possibility of the existence of non-material phenomena or experiences. You know, the kinds of things that massively effect people’s quality of life. People don’t like being shut out of the discussion on topics that are important to them.

Most importantly, I think people are starting to see the man behind the curtain. They are starting to recognize that many claims which are in fact ideological (belief-based) are masquerading as science in order to ride the wave of scientific authority. So things that for a long time were accepted as natural, self-evident, and true are now being challenged. The reason that the topics on the above list are verboten is not because they have any inherent conflict with science–it’s because they conflict with materialism, the metaphysical proposition that underlies science as it’s currently practiced.

This takes us into philosophical territory, which will be the topic of my next post.

EDIT: Just one week after I published this post, an article about “Big Science Frauds” was published in The New York Times.

Every day, on average, a scientific paper is retracted because of misconduct. Two percent of scientists admit to tinkering with their data in some kind of improper way. That number might appear small, but remember: Researchers publish some 2 million articles a year, often with taxpayer funding. In each of the last few years, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, has sanctioned a dozen or so scientists for misconduct ranging from plagiarism to fabrication of results.

The article goes on to point out that it isn’t just a matter of a few dishonest scientists. Scientists want to publish in more prestigious, and therefore more competitive, journals such as Science and Nature. But the high-profile journals actually retract more papers than the less-prestigious ones. Maybe the editors of big-name journals are more conscientious (but then why are mistakes being made in the first place?); or are scientists are cutting corners to make their articles more competitive? The article’s conclusion is so perfect, I’m just going to quote it:

Economists like to say there are no bad people, just bad incentives. The incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature and the media that covers it. Until those incentives change, we’ll all get fooled again.

Science’s crisis of authority continues…

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–mallows

S ambigua

This is Part 4 of a series of a number yet to be determined. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.

Six weeks or so ago, I could see why Juan Batista de Anza saw this as the Valley of Paradise. I mean, I have to struggle a bit to see past the mega-suburb that lies on top, but I can just about imagine what he must have seen: snow on the distant blue mountaintops, juniper-scented breezes, the graceful twisted trunks of sycamores and oaks along the river, and green hills speckled with wildflowers and golden granite boulders.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long. Maybe three months of the year if we’re lucky; the other nine are sere and brown. Remember the story of Persephone? The way I first heard it, her grieving mother Demeter blights the earth during the months Persephone spends reigning as queen of the Underworld, and this is what we know as winter. But recently I read an interpretation (I cannot for the life of me remember the source–sorry) that said that in Greece, the “dead” time of year is summer, not winter. I don’t know how accurate that is; I’ve never been to Greece (alas) and winter is still the time when days are shortest, light is least, and plants are mostly dormant. But I think of that interpretation as I watch the seasons in inland Southern California. Persephone doesn’t spend much time above ground here.

In this dry and fire-prone climate, plants survive the heat by either storing water internally, finding some way to draw it up from deep beneath, or shriveling up, turning brown, and waiting, their life hidden underground. Many of these plants, of course, can help us hold onto moisture too. Rebecca Altman of Cauldrons & Crockpots has written extensively and eloquently about the waterways of our bodies, for example this lovely post, and this piece on how ocotillo moves stagnant waters, and this post on dampness and our bodies’ boundaries. Maybe she notices moisture and dryness so much because she is from Scotland, one of the rainiest places in the world, and now lives in Southern California, one of the least rainy. (Stephen Colbert once referred to the British as “mist-based life forms.”) Regardless, moisture–and the lack thereof–is something very much on the minds of all Californians these days.

I don’t want to infrige her copyright by quoting huge chunks of her writing, so just go read any of those posts. It’s ok–I’ll wait.

Moving on to today’s topic: mallows, the family Malvaceae, of which there are many native species.  Calflora returned a list of 40 native species in 10 genera in Riverside County alone. Plus I frequently see some kind of as-yet-unidentified-by-me non-native Malva species–commonly known by the adorable moniker cheeseweed–along the margins of sidewalks all over the Inland Mega-‘Burb. Probably M. neglecta.

S ambigua 2

S. ambigua. Notice the fuzziness of the leaves and the moist look of the petals.

Although related plants are not 100% interchangeable, the keyword for all the mallows is soothing. Henriette Kress groups them together as YAMFDs–Yet Another Mallow Family Demulcent. Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) may be the most famous, but for all the species that I’ve been able to find any information about, they are mucilaginous, cooling, moistening, and sweetly nourishing. Matthew Wood calls marshmallow the “indispensable water remedy;” while marshmallow is awesome, I think it’s always best to use native herbs where possible so by all means, if you are in Southern California, use Southern California mallows. They are excellent for people who are overheated (you can see why they are so useful in this climate!) and, from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, they are a yin tonic. When I went to an acupuncturist I was surprised to learn that I was deficient in yin. Not knowing much about TCM, but being female and tending to be cold when I was younger, I just assumed I would have yin a-plenty. Not so. It’s something for everyone to watch out for in very dry climates like this–it is very likely that on some level, at least seasonally, you will need the soft soothing of a mallow.

All the mallows are useful for treating irritation of the skin, mucosa, and digestive tract. Interestingly, mallows are also drawing, and are used on swellings such as sprains and broken bones. Wood attributes this to mallows’ softening effect; the type of swellings that respond well to mallows tend to be hard.

Mallows harmonize well with rose, which is similarly cooling and soothing but adds a mild astringent action. Wood cites another herbalist, David Dalton, who “considers it [marshmallow flower essence] to be a remedy for hardening of the personality, inflexibility, hardheartedness, intolerance, and inability to feel one’s emotions. He looks upon it as a heart remedy…” This is the energetic dimension of mallows’ softening and soothing action. Rose is, of course, the botanical symbol of love and beauty in many cultures, and a famously heart-centered and heart-opening medicine–but I’ll leave more in-depth discussion of rose for another post.

I have not been able to find very much about mallows in the ethnobotanical literature, although I have no doubt they were used by native peoples. Leaves of Sidalcea malviflora (dwarf checkerbloom) are edible raw or cooked. This species can be found in chaparral and coastal sage scrub plant communities. According to the Native American Ethnobotany page (I can’t link to search results so do a search for the genus name), the Navajo used cold infusion of a related species of checkerbloom to treat internal injuries.

desert mallow

An infusion made from species in the genus Sphaeralcea, the globemallows (our local variety is S. ambigua, desert globemallow or apricot mallow), will help soothe irritated GI tracts when there is dryness coupled with inflammation, according to Kiva Rose (more by her here and here) and Michael Moore. According to the Native American Ethnobotany page, the plant was used for everything from sore eyes to bug bites to broken bones–all applications traditionally within the mallow wheelhouse. Two points of interest with desert globemallow–first, it has tiny, irritating hairs on the leaves and stems. Kiva Rose warns that if working with anything but the roots, be very careful to strain these hairs out. Not just with cheesecloth–we’re talking coffee filters here. Second, and again this is according to Rose, the plant infuses well into oil, even though you might predict that it would cause mold due to its moisture.

When in flower, desert globemallow has gorgeous orange cup-shaped flowers. These are very small, about the size of my thumb nail, but abundant. The plant is typically found in creosote bush scrub and chaparral plant communities, and likes alkaline soil. I planted one in my native herb garden this past fall, and so far it is doing well. It has even produced a few flowers.

I photographed this tree mallow in St. Davids, Wales. At that time I didn't know what species it was, I just thought it was beautiful.

I photographed this tree mallow in St. Davids, Wales. At that time I didn’t know what species it was, I just thought it was beautiful. Weird that something that can live in Wales can also thrive in inland Southern California.

I like mallows so much that I also have a non-native mallow growing in my garden, tree mallow or Lavatera arborea. It is actually from the Mediterranean but, the climate here being so similar to the Mediterranean, it is quite happy here even though its native habitat is maritime. It is so pretty I just couldn’t resist planting one. Unfortunately, it’s very popular with hungry rabbits and/or ground squirrels. It can be eaten by humans too, but the leaves are hairy like those of the desert globemallow which tends to diminish their culinary appeal. Its medicinal uses include as a poultice for burns and sprains.

Abelmoschus moschatus

Abelmoschus moschatus

Today I received some seeds of another non-native mallow, musk mallow or ambrette (Abelmoschus moschatus). They were a gift from Anya McCoy–the creator of Anya’s Garden natural perfumes and author of the Anya’s Garden blog–who generously offered them to her readers (they are all claimed now). Ambrette plants are edible, ornamental, and utilized in Ayurvedic medicine in their native India. The highly aromatic seeds are used in perfumery. Ambrette has many medicinal applications–antispasmodic and nervine (relaxing inside and out!), diuretic, antiseptic, carminative, aphrodisiac, and like other mallows, demulcent and cooling. As aromatherapy it is used to treat depression and anxiety. I am very excited to meet this many-faceted plant!

The heat will be upon us soon, so get your mallow medicine ready! And be sure and check out the various articles I’ve linked for many practical applications of these soothing herbal allies.