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.

Bad science, Part I: Authoritah

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…

In praise of weeds

When I look at current events I want to curl up into a fetal position and cry myself to sleep. It’s not that I don’t see stories of beautiful and uplifting things–“Earth’s crammed with Heaven”–but the good and the beautiful all seems to be fighting a losing battle against vanity and greed. The forces of what I deem to be Evil–those who would exploit anything and everything and would sell tomorrow for a few more pennies today–are huge and powerful. And even though it feels like bad news gets worse by the minute, people have been lamenting this for millennia. People of conscience are left wondering, “What can I do? What should I do?”

And those of us asking this are really on our own. Who do you talk to? Is this a safe topic of conversation over the holiday dinner table? Or maybe you look to the internet? It connects us to billions of people around the world, and yet inevitably we tend to gravitate to those who agree with what we already believe. If you do try to expose yourself to some alternative values and views, there’s a good chance you’ll be verbally attacked for sharing yours. The level of vitriol, superficiality, and paranoia is depressing. The internet is a veritable paradise if you’re looking for the cast of some obscure ’80s film or another YouTube makeup tutorial (seriously, how hard is it to put on makeup?), but it’s a blasted hellscape if you want a civilized philosophical conversation.

There are no easy answers for thinking people (and indeed, one could argue that would defeat the whole purpose of this incarnation) and perhaps no two people find the same ones. But here are some of the messages that have made their way to me, which seem especially relevant. First this from Runesoup:

“This is going to sound like cold comfort until you experience it. It is going to sound like running away from your problems until you try it. But there is a part of you -your innermost part- that cannot be hurt, damaged or stopped by the unrelenting horrors of the world. It is a diamond; bright and impervious. Just a few minutes in meditation and you begin to discern its presence, its location. Once found it can be grown, it can be lit up like a thousand christmases: so bright you cannot look upon it.

“This core sits at the centre of a universe that -if it isn’t actually a dream- behaves according to the same rules. …there is no getting around the realisation that the world seems particularly flimsy when compared to that experience of your inner core. … This whole thing is a construct. Do not give in to fear, do not give in to disgust.”

This is not mere New Age “only the light exists, think positive and nothing bad will ever happen and you’ll be thin and rich” pablum. That is an attempt to commodify and dumb down the ineffability of your personal relationship to the cosmos. Dear readers, I really urge you to think beyond the straitjacket of reductionist materialism. This isn’t about being religious (unless it is for you), it’s certainly not about being “anti-science,” it’s about prioritizing your lived experience over received wisdom. Yes, even–no, especially–subjective experience. Objectivity is a good goal if you are measuring something, but nothing in human experience is really objective. More importantly, nothing meaningful is ever objective.

Rather than asking, “Is _______ real?” I urge you to think in terms of “What does ________ mean?” Partly that’s because when we’re lying on our deathbeds, I’m willing to bet that the things we think about won’t be objective data measurements. And data certainly won’t give you a sense of purpose. I’m also concerned–given pretty much everything that has happened in history–that focusing on the terms that allow something to be granted the status of “reality” or “truth” too often puts us at the mercy of authority (be that political, academic, scientific, medical, or whatever) and its preferred ideology du jour. You don’t need to imagine vast conspiracies to observe that the people in a position to write metanarratives are never writing them for our benefit. Don’t give up without at least trying to write your own. Always seek the weird and the challenging.

Science is a wonderful way of investigating the universe, but it was never meant to be the only one. Before you ask, “Is ________ real?”, you need to ask what real even means. If you think you know the answer without a doubt, you’ve been drinking somebody’s Kool-Aid. The next question should be whether that Kool-Aid is doing you any good. In my opinion, if you’re not asking this most fundamental question you are wasting the opportunity (and shirking the responsibility) that comes with having a human brain, and if that’s not a sin I really don’t know what is.

weed mural by Mona Caron

weed mural by Mona Caron

Then I stumbled across these murals of weeds by artist Mona Caron. Why weeds? She writes:

“They may be tiny but they break through concrete. They are everywhere and yet unseen. And the more they get stepped on, the stronger they grow back. …
“I look for weeds in the city streets near a wall I’m about to paint. When I find a particularly heroic one growing through the pavement, I paint it big, at a scale inversely proportional to the attention and regard it gets. …
“Breaking through seemingly invincible layers, they reconnect earth to sky, like life to its dreams. It’s happening everywhere at the margins of things, we’re just not paying attention. …
“…in the context of suffocated environments, these undesirables are the first to carve a path for the rest of nature to follow, in due time.”

Be a weed. You can accomplish so much more as a weed than as a garden ornamental. It’s a principle of both permaculture and magic that creation happens in the in-between places. Perhaps it’s the compensation for not being a meta-author of the exploitative sham that passes for “reality” nowadays–that by virtue of our very smallness we continually slip through the holes in their bullshit tapestry. Zhuangzi understood this. So did Tolkien.

If you’re useful, you get used up. Your littleness, your weirdness, your imperfections, your invisibility can be your strength–but only if you can embrace being a weed. There’s no guarantee that you will make it to Mount Doom with the Ring, but the alternative–to sit home and let history write you–is unthinkable.

Feed your family. Feed it!

DandelionMasjid DarussalamSanFrancisco1_MonaCaron_0

Dandelion mural by Mona Caron.

I have been getting an ironic laugh out of the latest Scott’s Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control (TM) (EDIT: the product is called Weed and Feed) commercials. The eponymous Scott tells the homeowner how “dandelions are stealing precious nutrients” from his lawn.

This is a perfect expression of how messed up our culture is. We would rather use our paltry bit of land for almost entirely useless* “grass” while dismissing amazingly nutritious, health-enhancing, tasty, medicinal plants as “weeds.” (God forbid we use that space to grow food for our families.) It’s just so…stupid. It makes me laugh and rage at the same time.

It exactly parallels what is happening to humans here in California. We are in the midst of this major drought, and far from all of us pulling together, we “little people” are expected to shoulder the burden by cutting our water use by 25% while petroleum companies, Big Ag, and Nestle can have all the water they want so they can either pollute it utterly, or sell it back to us at obscenely inflated prices under various brand names. And as for the wealthy of Southern California, well, they just use as much water as they damn well please because (1) they are evidently *completely* out of touch about how to actually conserve it and (b) they feel entitled to everything else, why not water too? But hey, they’re willing to cut back “if the state’s water situation doesn’t improve.”

Well, guess what? It’s not going to improve in our lifetimes and probably not in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

We know grocery store vegetables and fruit taste like cardboard. We can reasonably surmise that they’re not as nutritious as they once were due to the depletion of nutrients in soils.** They’re covered in pesticides (even some of the organic ones) that we’re told are safe, but then they told us DDT was safe too. Few people are affluent enough to buy all organic, and for all the reasons listed above, even organics aren’t that great (certainly not commensurate with their price).

Not everybody, not even everybody in suburban America, has access to a garden. Some people are lucky to have a little balcony or even a windowsill. So it is, in my opinion, frankly nuts not to use your land to grow food and/or medicine, if you are lucky enough to have access to some. It is bonkers to spend your time and money seeding, feeding, mowing, and watering a lawn (which you know you don’t even like doing anyway, to the point that you’ll hire others to do it for you) when you could probably put less time over the long term into making delicious food. Lawn has never been anything other than a status symbol. “Look at all this land and water I can afford to waste! Look at how I’ve tamed nature! Look how I employ the less-wealthy to maintain it for me!”

If status and conformity are more important to you than (1) eating delicious things, (2) saving money, (3) taking charge of your health and nutrition, (4) potentially even making money (market gardening or mini-farming), (5) conserving water, (6) living more independently and self-sufficiently, and (7) sticking it to The Man (in the form of mega-corporations and consumerist, materialist ideology), if you’re into that sort of thing–then you’re probably not reading this blog anyway. Look, I am not saying that growing your own food is a stress-free, idyllic lifestyle. Anthropologists have long noted the relatively high levels of stress and worry in farmers relative to hunter-gatherers. There is a learning curve and some trial and error involved. And some initial capital is required, although probably not as much as you’d think.

What I’m really saying here is, would you rather be a dandelion–wild, un-dollarable, full of juicy vitality, tough and tenacious, thriving in any conditions?–or would you rather be a lawn?

*I will grant, it feels nice under bare feet.

**For a plan to re-nutrify your soil, I recommend The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food by Steve Solomon.

You’re on your own

When I started this blog, I figured it would be limited to more specifically herbal topics. But the more I think and write about working with plants, the more I find it impossible to draw a clear line between that and other aspects of life. It’s all interconnected. And I think that a big part of what has drawn me to learn about herbal medicine is that it has implications for my whole life.

I think it’s important to explore these implications.

I don’t know how broadly applicable the implications I see will be for other people’s lives. But I know I’m not alone in thinking about these things because I read blogs. Besides, I swear at least 60% of what I write here is to help me get it straight in my own head! I am humbled that other people have seen value in some of it. But if you don’t, you can always just chalk me up as a little “woo,” as many of my work colleagues have done, and no hard feelings. So without futher ado…

Here be monsters.

Here be monsters.

I wrote before about the new normal. I feel that if the world today had a slogan, it would be “you’re on your own.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, but it is scary. We are off the map, people. Uncharted waters. Here there be monsters.

Now, this is just my interpretation but to me the world looks…how shall I say? Totally batshit crazy. Deranged. Diseased. I won’t belabor this point because I’m sure you can supply your own examples, but everything seems to be the opposite of what it should be. The levels of hate and rage and fearfulness are extreme. We have political parties that are literally based on nothing but mutual hatred, where belonging to the right hate-club is more important than any policies that club may endorse or enact. Slavery is flourishing at unpredented levels. Little kids get raped every day. There is a seeming absence of reason everywhere I look. Everyone is at least a little sick–and many of us very sick–because we have poisoned our food and water sources and our air.  Quoth Dr. Venkman, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!”

I think of myself as a cynical optimist, because no matter how crappy things get for me I always somehow expect them to get better. But it’s true I don’t have much faith in people (for reasons listed above) and I don’t trust in luck or “The Secret” or positive thinking to save my bacon. I have received help from benevolence much, much more powerful than I (which granted isn’t saying much), and I am grateful and adoring for that and hopeful that more help will be forthcoming, but I try hard to earn it rather than taking it for granted.

I’m not a disaster prepper because something in my gut tells me that none of that will actually do us any good. (I mean I can’t say why. On paper, it seems like not a bad idea, but I just can’t quite buy into it. I do think everyone should have an emergency preparedness kit for their family but I admit I don’t have one because I have no place to store it.)

I’m not an atheist nor a materialist (ha! as if) but I also don’t believe in a Christian-style apocalypse. I think we might already be living the apocalypse, and to me it looks more like the Kali Yuga than Armageddon. But people have thought the world was ending before, and it didn’t, so I agree with Gordon when he says:

“With a long enough timeframe, your ideas about how god and the universe works are shown to be ridiculously small and tribal. There is something almost infantile in the hubristic notion of holding opinions about How Things Work.”

But even if the world isn’t ending, it’s always possible that one of them is. I just don’t have a better explanation for the madness.

I know people who think the opposite. They believe we are at the vanguard of a new awakening. They see evidence all around that people are becoming more spiritually aware, treating each other with greater kindness and love. Some believe angels will literally intervene to save us, even to the point of disabling nuclear bombs if anyone should launch one. (I don’t understand why the angels wouldn’t have done this for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or why they aren’t intervening to protect the millions of people currently being subjected to slavery, genocide, and any of a hundred dirty little wars that never make it onto CNN.) But I get that it’s possible for two people to look at the same evidence and interpret it differently. That’s the nature of phenomena. I’d be happy to find out I’m wrong. But in that case someone’s gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do.

So what now?

Dr Seuss

Who knows? This is the scary part. Nothing in history gives us an analogue for how to deal with the new normal. In the past, there would be a community that would prescribe the right actions to take, and give meaning to what was happening. Now there is nobody who can make this make sense. Your priest doesn’t know, your pastor doesn’t know, your doctor doesn’t know, your government doesn’t know, your guru doesn’t know (probably), your mom sure doesn’t know. Our elders might be the best ones to ask, but Western society has decided they are valueless trash to be hidden away since we can’t legally turn them into Soylent Green.

This is what I mean when I say you’re on your own. In the US we enjoyed a brief golden age of the government actually caring about its citizens’ well-being more than it did about corporate dollars, but now if you’ve got a health problem or you’re poor (say it with me) you’re on your own. (If that’s not 100% true yet, we are headed there fast.)

Meanwhile it has been commented that because job loyalty just makes you that much more likely to be downsized, if you want to make much money, or even if you just want to have enough to pay off your crushing student loan debt, you’re on your own there too. Everybody should have one or more side jobs just as a buffer and apparently, the necessary ingredient for success is “hustle.” I find it a propos that “hustle” has connotations of confidence scams, cheating, prostitution, and (the worst of the lot) hurry. These are all Things That I Am Really Bad At. Ok, some I haven’t tried. But I know I’d be bad at them. You’ll notice that integrity, ethics, and compassion don’t figure on the list of things you need for business success.

Take another look at that Dr. Seuss quote. He says, “you know what you know.” It’s also going to be essential to know what you don’t know. Academia and higher education is in a state of meltdown right now. You might not see it from outside the environs of a university, I don’t know, but it’s happening (that’s another rant for another time). Science is in a weird place right now because on the one hand, it’s held up as the new religion, but on the other hand there is a small but vocal minority that dismisses everything that comes from “mainstream science.” (These people don’t all share the same agenda; some of them are just ignorant bumpkins who think that Obama and “science” are somehow in league to deprive them of their God-given right to pollute, others are worried that scientists are fools who can’t see that they are all just pawns of our extraterrestrial lizard overlords.)

Meanwhile, there is a knowledge-filtering effect that seems to get exponentially stronger every year, enabled by the internet and social media. If you have ever used Facebook, you are probably aware that it uses algorithms to determine what shows up in your news feed. It depends in part upon which friends you’ve interacted with, but also who has paid for your attention, and there are probably many other factors such as research on how to make you feel sad. After a while, you can end up seeing infinite baby pictures from the same three people while your other hundred friends seem mysteriously inactive. The same thing happens with iTunes. The more you have listened to a song, the more it will come up when you set random playback. There is nothing random about it! And the more a song comes up on shuffle, the more it comes up on shuffle. So in the end, once you’ve gotten to where you’re just hearing the same 20 songs over and over again, you have to select songs manually which defeats the entire purpose of having a random setting. My point is, everyone is striving to show you more of what they think you want to see, based on what you wanted to see before. Now if you are also doing your own filtering by choosing to only associate with people who agree with what you already think, then the Kali Yuga is gonna hit you like a ton of bricks. Again I’m going to quote Gordon here because I just couldn’t say it better and also I don’t want to pretend I’m the first person to have thought about this stuff:

“If you have enough time to only consume stuff you agree with and then even more time to overreact to anything that slightly deviates from it then, humbly, you need to look at how you are spending your incarnation.”

On the other hand, I think that subjective personal experience, which has been eclipsed as a valid epistemological relationship to the world by objectivist materialism, is going to have a resurgence. I’ve often remarked that nobody believes in ghosts until they see one. I’ve been seeing, hearing, and interacting with them since I was three. Sometimes people smirk at me and tell me “Ghosts don’t exist,” and I just have to laugh at them because what the hell would they know about it? To me that’s like saying I don’t believe in bacteria because I’ve never seen one.

I am not saying that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Only informed opinions are valid, and even then they’re just opinions. That unfortunate outgrowth of postmodernism trivializes the essential truth of subjective experience. Nor am I saying that you shouldn’t question the voices in your head, whether it be your id or an angel. Unverified Personal Gnosis is, after all, unverified. You absolutely should and must investigate and reason and critique. My favorite thing about Buddhism is that the Buddha said (I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t take my word for any of this–try it and see for yourself.” Once you’ve investigated, tried, reasoned–then, and only then, you know what you know, and it will stand you in good stead.

We need to be beyond flexible. We need to be antifragile. In situations like this there will be opportunities, and some will make friends with the monsters and flourish. We need to invest in relationships because we will depend on those of like mind. I am reminded of an article by Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen, about early medieval (“dark ages”) Germanic and Scandinavian “animal style” art. I’m going to quote from the abstract and then break it down. (Bear with me, I’ll try to keep it short.)

“The ambiguous quality of the art is suggested to be present on a perceptual level, but also on a compositional (structural) and iconographic level.  Psychological (and neurological) processes involved in the perception of ambiguous figures and their effects are presented:  Gestalt formation, unconscious processing, subliminal perception, motivated perception, and changed states of consciousness.  It is suggested that this art instigated, or at least referred to such processes.  In addition, on a semiotic level, the art is suggested to contain information-condensation (“hyper-texts”), cryptic information, and to have had other semiotic functions.”

This art style is most frequently seen on elaborate brooches that are only found in wealthy adult women’s burials (AD 5th-8th centuries). The brooches involve twisty knotwork and hidden animals and faces, and based on psychological studies of how people make sense of ambiguous imagery (Rorschach blots, for example) the authors argue that the hidden pictures are best perceived when one is in a light hypnotic state. But also that looking at the images can be used to instigate such a mental state. Certain people find it easier to slip into such light trances, and therefore any information which might have been encoded on the brooches–for example, traditional stories or images of gods–what they call “hyper-texts”–would be easier for these trance-able people to “read.” Since the brooches belonged to women, most likely women were the ones interpreting their imagery. Now although we often think that people who are easily hypnotized are weak and/or gullible, Lindstrøm and Kristoffersen cite psychological research that shows that the “hypnotically talented” (that’s the actual term by the way) in fact usually have a stronger sense of self and are less likely to be duped than others. Specifically they are people good at understanding things in their entirety and in context, intuition, subliminal perception, ability to recognize patterns one has been trained or preconditioned to spot, and using altered states of consciousness such as trance. These are mental/personality characteristics that help to make one a savvy character, and savvy was essential for survival, let alone success, in the chaotic shifting societies of the early middle ages. So to sum up, the most intuitive women who were best at perceiving and correctly interpreting subtle and ambiguous information were the ones who were most likely to to become wealthy and powerful and have lots of bling.

A Scandinavian animal-style brooch.

A Scandinavian animal-style brooch. There are faces and critters all over this thing. Can you see them?

This analysis keeps coming to mind because I think we are in another period when these same personality characteristics are going to come in really handy. A strong sense of self, an ability to cope with ambiguity and to see the unseen, then to put it all in context and know how to apply it on the fly? Yeah, I’d say that’s going to be crucial. You better start believing in ghosts, because you’re going to need to see them.

So the fact that our community myths and rules are crumbling will be liberating for some. Remember that, because that’s the up side to being on your own. As the good Dr. Seuss notes, “YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

Back to the implications of herbal medicine, one is that for me, it’s a way to break free from knowledge filtering. It shows me alternative views on healing and illness (here one has to be careful not to just soak up what’s on the internet because those cutesy little infographics on Pinterest are mostly BS or at best, hideously oversimplified–knowledge filtering at its finest).

The way I practice herbal medicine is resistance to a reductionist-materialist metaphysical paradigm and to those who want me to drink the Kool-Aid and believe there’s nothing I can do to heal myself. (Ghandi, and following himMartin Luther King, Jr., were at pains to point out to us that believing the lies of an immoral system is tantamount to complicity.)

Getting to know the shapes and colors of the herbs, to distinguish them from surrounding plants or deceptively similar ones, to read their signatures, helps me practice my intuition and pattern recognition. Their diversity helps keep me on my toes, and at the same time, simply trying to keep this knowledge alive and understand where and how to apply it also keeps me on my toes in a different way.

Working with plants keeps me surrounded by beauty, which I think is very important when everything seems to be going pear-shaped. Of course I don’t mean just superficial beauty, but the kind that you feel nourishes your soul and makes you feel connected to the divine.

One can even use the plants to induce altered states of consciousness, though altered states can be achieved in other ways too. I get information about herbs to use in my dreams. I don’t know how it works, I just know I will sometimes be strongly urged to seek one out. Second sight runs in my family, but let me tell you–practice beats natural talent any day. The plants help me practice.

This is why herbalism matters so much to me. Because I’ll never be good at hustle, but the plants are helping me to be better at insight–and that, I dare say, is indispensable when you’re on your own.

Miss Appropriation…if you’re nasty

Cultural misappropriation isn’t something I have seen discussed much in herbological circles, but it’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere in related topics such as magic and spirituality*, and I am starting to see it trickling into herbal discussions too. In fact, here is an article that touches on the subject.

"I don't always steal oppressed peoples' cultural signifiers, but when I do, I prefer Native American artifacts."

“I don’t always steal oppressed peoples’ cultural signifiers, but when I do, I prefer headdresses.”

“Modern western herbalism is one of many ways of herbal practice, and even within modern western herbalism, only certain voices are often heard.  There has been a lot of talk about the last forty years being an herbal renaissance….For many people, especially communities that have not been the recipients of wealth in capitalism, there has been no herbal revival because plants have always been relied on for medicine.

“Western Herbal medicine has developed in the context of a white supremacist, sexist, ableist culture, and every one of us is losing something when we ignore this dynamic. We must take a close look at aspects of herbal medicine and culture that have been shaped by the dynamics of oppression, including cultural appropriation, binary gender essentializing, and classism within herbalism. When we hear and understand each others’ individual experiences, when we are humble and open to learning from each other, when we connect with our own histories and understand the stories that inform our relationships with each other and with the plant world, this work we do reaches its full potential.” (more)

I’m a little hesitant to write on this subject because it can trigger heated, not to say hurt, feelings as well as moral indignation. Opening up about one’s opinions can make one the target of a real poop-storm of vicious (and in some cases I’ve seen, quite psychopathic) comments. My take on it is a little different from what I usually see, which means it will either be very unpopular or a useful contribution to the dialogue. I’m hoping the latter. I hope you’ll bear with me because it’s a big topic, and this is going to get kind of long.

As background you need to know that I am by training an anthropologist and archaeologist. Both of my parents are too. I grew up steeped in a value system that was rich in everything historic, espoused cultural relativism and approached mainstream American culture from a more-than-normally observational standpoint. Also my parents were hippies. Not the Woodstock-flower-child-moonbeams-and-rainbows kind, but the let’s-make-our-own-mead-and-goat-cheese! kind. For as long as I can remember I was attracted to “the olden days” and artifacts from the past, including but not limited to herbalism. Also relevant is that for three formative years (age 15-18) I lived and went to school in Europe because that’s where my mother happened to find a job. At the time we thought it was a permanent move so I made every attempt to adapt to the local culture and learned the language, in anticipation of spending the rest of my life there. Last but not least, I’m a white American (minus the parts of my worldview that developed between 15 and 18 anyway). My DNA is 100% of European descent***. I recognize that being white + having letters after my name (academic bona fides)  = certain privileges within the context of American and “Western” society, and that some colonized and non-hegemonic people view anthropology and archaeology as exploitative. I also belong to certain non-privileged groups, for example I’m poor and female. The very fact that I am laying out this context for you so that you have a better idea where I’m coming from is testament to the way I was schooled and the fact that for a long time, my career has been essentially thinking-about-thinking. But I don’t want to get too meta here, so let’s move on and please understand that I could critique each of my own thoughts in this post if we wanted to go there. But I don’t think we do.

So. The idea of cultural misappropriation is that members of imperialist, colonizing cultures have taken to illegitimately adopting certain signs, practices, and artifacts from the people they oppress. We might call this a form of theft. Modern liberal** people deem it really, really evil. I agree but I think that identifying true misappropriation is not nearly as easy as the level of judginess it provokes would lead you to believe.

There are really egregious examples of misappropriation. The one that leaps instantly to mind for me is white hipsters wearing pseudo-Dakota feather headdresses they bought at Urban Outfitters. I mean yes, the real headresses are spectacular and dare I say sexy, and I can totally understand why anyone would want to wear one. But it’s not a privilege that’s open to everyone, even in Lakota/Dakota/Nakota society. You can want to, but that doesn’t mean you get to. Except that in America, being white and having money (as hipsters almost all are/do) lets one feel entitled to buy at least a facsimile of the headdress no matter how blasphemous it is to L/D/N people, and you don’t have to care about how they feel because there’s nothing they can do to stop you. I used to live in a major Midwestern city that was crawling with hipsters. Most of the Native Americans in the area were very poor and their communities subject to all the indignities that can happen to poor indigenous survivors-of-genocide whose land has been stolen (speaking of misappropriation) and whose cultures and languages are hanging on for dear life. Hipster headdresses just add insult to injury. What else can we (= white Americans) take from these people for crying out loud? How many more ways are there to show them we don’t care about them or indeed even recognize them as people?

lakota

(Hipsters by definition steal cultural signifiers from everyone, including other–usually poorer–whites. They do not so much produce as collect, and consumption seems to be the highest endorsement they can give. So they probably are genuinely baffled that their headdress-wearing is offensive and not seen as the “tribute” they feel it to be.)

On the other hand I recently read an opinion piece that argued that for white women to do Middle Eastern (“belly”) dance, raqs sharqi, is cultural misappropriation because these dancers are not from the Middle East. I am inclined to disagree with that assessment because–as the author points out at great length–(1) within a Middle Eastern cultural context this form of dance has been open to all women, but also (2) “belly dance” is widespread throughout various cultures in and adjacent to the Middle East, ranging from Greece to Yemen,  so clearly no one was worried about its adoption by other cultures, and (3) because raqs sharqi dancers themselves have often been at the vanguard of their respective societies when it comes to adopting from others. I acknowledge that an “Orientalized” people adopting certain practices from their former colonizers is not equivalent to the colonizers taking cultural signifiers effectively by force, but raqs sharqi is not a fossilized, “classical” dance form. It relies heavily on extemporization, improvisation, and personal expression and has always been characterized by a high degree of cosmopolitanism and innovation. I’m not saying there are no appropriations happening within the belly dancing world, and I could certainly understand if the author felt that a would-be dancer should live in the Middle East in order to learn the dance in its native context, but I personally don’t think the mere presence of white belly dancers qualifies as misappropriation.

The broadest definition I have seen of cultural misappropriation is “the adoption of certain elements of one culture by those from a differnt culture” (source). By that definition, we are all guilty. Humans have always “appropriated” from their neighbors. In anthropology it’s called diffusion. Sometimes it happens from close up–“Hey, your pot looks awesome! Show me how you did that cord-marking decoration!”–sometimes from far away–“I saw some hunters across the pass who had these stick-thingies they used to throw spears…we should totally get some of those.” Basically, when humans see anything that works or they think is pretty (especially shiny things), we will try to take it or make it. That is what inspired imperialism in the first place. In the scale of human history there is very little delay between people first starting to accumulate “valuables” (shiny stones, bits of copper, shells from far away), archaeological evidence for warfare, and the rise of the first empires. The love of shinies is the root of all evil.

Let me reiterate that.

The whole impetus for imperialism and exploration was to take stuff from other people (including the people themselves) without having to pay for it. To mug them, basically.

Globalization is not a new thing. It’s evident even by 2500 years ago, and by the time the processes become archaeologically visible they’d been in action for a long time. The Silk Road goes back waaaaaay before the first historical references to it. Horses and the wheel accelerated the process, as did ships later on. They brought us into contact not only with our neighbors but with people from far, far away.  Compared to all other primates, humans are the only ones that move long distances, which means that we are constantly bumping up against other communities. Even if we try to ignore them completely (as the Norse colony in Greenland attempted to ignore the Inuit), that is still a form of interaction because studiously avoiding someone requires keeping tabs on them. Most human interaction involves not only the exchange of goods and ideas, but also of spouses. My mom and me moving to Europe for work was in no way a new thing in human history.

There are no impermeable boundaries around cultures, ethnic groups, or races. People don’t move around in single migratory events like big arrows swooping across a map (no matter what the Romans or the Venerable Bede say, the archaeology just doesn’t back it up); we move in chains, in constant trickles and in back-and-forths. Just as the principles of permaculture state, the most fertile zones are the interfaces. This is where innovation and inspiration happen.

This doesn’t justify attacking people and stealing their children, their stuff, or their land. I am merely pointing out that cultural mugging is something humans have done for a long, long time. One of its most insidious forms is a belief that one is entitled to interpret everyone and everything else according to one’s own value system (ethnocentrism in other words). But cultural sharing is also something humans have been doing for a long time. Cultural sharing should be the antidote to ethnocentrism yet interactive situations are the very place misappropriation is most likely to happen, because in the 21st century the interacting parties are seldom on an equal politico-economic footing. It is hard when ontologies clash–I remember having an epiphany years ago while watching a documentary about the peopling of the Americas in a class. After detailing the archaeological evidence that so far indicates humans arrived in the Americas sometime around 15,000 years ago, there was an interview with a (I think) Dakota man who said that the Creator created his people in North America and they didn’t need any scientists condescending to explain their origins to them. If people want to know the origins of the Dakota, they should ask the Dakota–and accept their answer. I realized that there would never be any way of reconciling archaeology with that worldview, and I had to agree that the Dakota (and other indigenous peoples) should have the right to not have their bones and houses and stuff dug up if they don’t want it to be. But modern Western people simply cannot accept another culture’s answer unless that answer conforms to our scientific understanding. “I accept that’s your story, but what really happened?” we seem to always be thinking. We like to think that there is an empirical, objective truth that exists outside of all cultural origin stories, and that we can discover it–we forget that this is yet another origin story!

I think about this as I’m learning about herbal healing. In the US, the dominant models of herbalism are Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and pseudo-scientific phyto-pharmacology, although Ayurveda is becoming more popular. Although I’m seeing more and more mentions of cultural misappropriation in the context of herbalism, I haven’t seen any specific examples of what this would look like. I haven’t heard any Chinese people complaining that white students of TCM are misappropriating their cultural legacy. But I have heard some Hoodoo rootworkers, who use herbs extensively, state that whites should not practice Hoodoo, and I’ve seen some white herbalists criticized for publicly sharing Native American herbal healing techniques or philosophy which was, ostensibly, supposed to remain secret. (I have no idea if that particular accusation is true.) When I took a medical anthropology course in college we were required to peer-review each other’s papers and I was frustrated by how the (predominantly pre-med) students were completely incapable of understanding other medical systems on their own terms. I remember one paper on acupuncture which never mentioned qi at all! The efficacy of acupuncture was put down to stimulation of endorphins or some such. From the western point of view, qi “doesn’t exist,” so we don’t have to take it into account.

I think we have all been colonized by a worldview that privileges reductive, materialist (in both consumer and philosophical senses), sciency-seeming (not necessarily scientific) explanations for everything. Go ahead and look up some antique Western scholarly disciplines on the Wikipedia–oh, say, astrology or alchemy or even, yes, herbal medicine and note the not-so-subtle way our ancestors’ cherished “sciences” are trashed by “guerilla skeptics.” (I have linked to a blog post that discusses this in a bit more detail because I can’t find where I originally read about it, but I have seen it myself. I have no idea what the rest of that blog is about.) I have noticed that at times, the effort to discredit an erstwhile-science is so brutal that it actually completely misrepresents the historical facts, though I think this is perhaps equally due to the editors’ poor and unsubtle vocabularies. (Of course, this is why professors do not allow students to write papers based on Wikipedia research.) I don’t advocate throwing the science baby out with the bathwater. And I’m not saying we should all go back to taking mercury and being bled whenever we’re sick. What we do need to do is recognize our own programming so that we can evaluate how well it fits with our subjective experience of the world. I feel that to some extent the increasing focus on cultural misappropriation derives from an attempt to establish ownership of certain intangibles–“traditions.” I think I can understand this from a political standpoint. When you are dealing with cultures (the “West”) that only recognize value in monetary and proprietary terms, you need to speak that language just in order to get your message across. If non-Western cultures are angrily proclaiming ownership, the West forced them into that position. Indeed I can’t help but feel like one of the worst legacies of western domination has been the grasping, boundary-drawing, “mine!” mindset and its application to absolutely everything. So while I feel it’s an understanable reaction, I’m not sure if it bodes well for the long-term, especially when every single example of diffusion is labelled “(mis)appropriation.” But in the meantime, maybe modern Western white people would better understand indigenous cultures’ contributions if we looked into our own history and saw how our own minds were, and remain, contested territory.

 

*Historically speaking, most of the people who would have used herbs for healing also believed them to have supernatural and/or symbolic properties. This is true even in a Christian context, for example, using rowan and red thread to keep misfortune away from one’s cattle, or the belief that St. John’s Wort was attractive to fairies. Every medicinal herb has its list of magical powers, and vice versa. Also, people with an interest in “alternative” healing modalities often also have an interest in other alternatives to the dominant practices of their society, including in spirituality/religion.

**I refer to liberalism not in the sense of American politics but the larger philisophical-historical sense.

***To the extent that anyone is, I mean we are all Africans ultimately if you subscribe to the scientific origin story–and in this case I do, but your mileage may vary. My father’s male ancestors seem to have ridden into Europe from the Eurasian steppes sometime in the Bronze Age. But from about 3000 years ago until about 350 years ago, my ancestors were all European, and mostly British/Irish. I’m as white as it gets.

Getting used to the new normal?

There are many things rolling between the tumblers of my brain lately, so it’s been hard to decide what to post. I decided to just dive in, so I hope this stream of consciousness isn’t too garbled.

keep calm

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is climate change. Over the past 10 years the region where I live has become increasingly arid. I used to enjoy growing vegetables but they just don’t last long enough to produce fruit anymore. While temp and humidity are the long-term problem, the most immediate threat to my plants is the bugs. Within the past three days I have watched my lemon balm be devoured by…something with an exoskeleton, that’s all I know. I think it was grasshoppers, but there are so. Many. Bugs. Who knows?  The same thing happened to my lemon balm last year, so I was really happy to see it bounce back this year and had high hopes for it. Alas. It died even earlier than last year. So far my calendulae (would that be the plural?)  have held up, which amazes me considering they are crawling with crawlies, and my catnip and rue are doing well. Some of my catnip is being tinctured as we speak! I’m planning on planting some marigolds (that is, African or Mexican marigolds, Tagetes sp.) in hopes of warding off some of the bugs, but there’s no altering the fact that this area is becoming a desert.

There will be no more homegrown tomatoes.

Not here, anyway.

I don’t know if my grief about that fully comes through in writing.

We have to start getting used to the new normal. The world is never going to be like it used to be, not in our lifetimes. When you dabble in herbology and astrology as I do, you swim in the tepid waters of the pop-culture New Age. Pop-culture New Age lacks any of the radical zest of the original New Age philosophers. It’s less Age of Aquarius and more Age of Aquarius™. One of the tenets I hear voiced frequently is that we are on the threshold of an Ascension, where humans will become more enlightened–that we are past the bad old days and it’s all gravy from here on (well, really since 12 December 2012). I’m no soothsayer, I am agnostic when it comes to any putative ascensions…well no, skeptical really. My career up until becoming a full-time caregiver was all about the study of humans in context (cultural, environmental, et al) and deep history, and when you look at the last 200,000 years you see the same stuff come back around again and again. What you don’t see is progress.  Ascensions aside, I do know that whoever finds themself at the vanguard of sweeping changes usually has a lot of crap to clean up before the next generation gets to enjoy its enlightenment. So even if the Ascension is in progress, we still have a lot of work to do.

Today I encountered a global-warming denier. I don’t really want to get into all the reasons that position is delusional (you should know them by now), because I already issued what I flatter myself is a pretty scathing response. This was not some internet troll, this was an acquaintance who considers themself an empath* and a reasonable person, and I was blown away by their callousness. Instead I’m writing what I hope will be a succint open letter to humanity:

Dear Homo sapiens, you and I have a conflicted relationship. Sometimes I love you en masse and am annoyed to death by you as individuals.  Other times I recognize the poignant, fragile beauty of your goodness as individuals but despair for us as a species. As a species we have messed up so bad. We’ve had no respect, no gratitude, no love for Life, for Earth and our fellow Earthlings, for our Creator. We have utterly fouled our nest. It may actually be too late now to fix what we’ve shat upon. But we don’t care, because we’re happy to have our opinions dictated to us by billionaires who would burn the Earth’s candle at both ends to make a few more bucks. There are way, way too many of us but we don’t care because we let some mean old misogynists in dresses convince us contraceptives are a sin. I think many of us are waiting for God, or some vague Ascension, or the Crystal Children, to come and save us from ourselves–but it’s not going to happen. We don’t deserve help anyway. We stopped deserving it when we turned our sovereignty over to the bankers.

But who is going to help all the other Earthlings, the ones who didn’t bite the hand that feeds them?

Do not waste my time and yours by telling me this is “just my opinion” (what an embarrassing comment to make anyway) or reply by citing Fox News and its ilk. Reality is beyond politics and you owe it to yourselves to face up to it. While we’re at it–beware of anyone who dismisses an argument because it comes from “scientists” (always in smear quotes), “mainstream academics,” or conversely, “conspiracy theorists.” They are trying to drown out an argument that scares them with hearty fake laughter. Please, do not take my word for anything–just open your eyes and see for yourself.

Look humans, I’m not totally pessimistic about our chances. I want us to live. I want us to redeem ourselves. And we have the opposable thumbs to  fix this, or at least make it less worse. But it’s never going to happen if we sit around praying for help we don’t deserve–it’s only going to happen if we get scared, get smart, take responsibility, and have some damn compassion already. I believe this work could fill us with purpose and unutterable transcendant beauty and joy. Start where you are.

 

*Another thing I’m not going to get into right now.

Bioregional Denial, or the Great Sycamore Debate of 2014

Tonight I’m a little grouchy. I was just ranting about (1) what I consider the delusional landscaping of the area in which I live and (2) my frustrated search for affordable bones from pastured animals for making soup stock.

The sycamore has become the symbol of what I think of as the local Bioregional Denial. All over town there are American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). (This is similar to the London plane tree for you Brits.) They are all sort of stunted and miserable looking; their leaves wither and fall off all through the year. I know trees drop leaves all the time but we are talking autumnal levels of leaf debris here. I get very angry looking at these poor unhappy trees in the middle of lush, useless lawns which, through no fault of theirs, are guzzling too much of our already crtically low water supply. My mother, the victim of my rant, said (mainly just to be contrary to my contrariness) that she likes a nice sycamore tree. (As do I–in its proper environment.)

P. occidentalis, the American sycamore (a healthy specimen)

P. occidentalis, the American sycamore (a healthy specimen)

Climatically, this is a transition zone between arid Mediterranean-like chaparral and the Sonoran desert zone. Platanus occidentalis does not grow here naturally and clearly doesn’t thrive when imported. And yet there is a local species, the California or Western sycamore (P. racemosa), which is beautiful, drought tolerant, and suitable for urban landscaping. (My mother said the California sycamore must be short and ugly like a valley oak. This is how I can tell she’s just being ornery, because live oaks are gorgeous! Anyway I’ll let you be the judge but I think California sycamores are plenty attractive enough for urban parks and yards.) I cannot grasp, and believe me I’ve tried, the mindset of a person who would settle in Arizona and then attempt to turn it into Ohio. If you want the environment to look lush and verdant, then live where it rains a lot! This is Bioregional Denial–the inability to accept the place you live for what it is.

P. racemosa, the California sycamore, in an urban setting

P. racemosa, the California sycamore, in an urban setting

The sculptural beauty of a valley oak (Quercus lobata).

The sculptural beauty of a valley oak (Quercus lobata).

In a way, I’m guilty of it too. I’ve already expressed my inability to get in touch with this place. I was thinking it was down to the fact that I just don’t like arid environments at all. But I’m starting to think that it may be, at least in part, because of the pervading Bioregional Denial. It’s confusing when a place is wearing a veneer of another place.

And that brings me around to the second source of my irritation.

One thing that bugs me about one-diet-fits-all (or one-herb-fits-all) claims is that not only does it not recognize differences between individuals but it also overlooks differences between bioregions and what is available there. I completely understand the motivation, when a diet or other health regimen has worked for you, to want to share it with everybody else. It’s a laudable instinct, really–I mean, people are just trying to help. I get that. I do it too.

I wrote about my archaeologist’s view of the paleo diet recently. (Summary: It’s not really ancient at all, and it’s not the end-all-be-all, but if you can afford to do it it’s probably pretty good for you.) Another thing I perhaps should have pointed out then is that the affordability and viability of any paleo, whole foods, organic, or local diet varies according to where you live.

I lived for about a decade in Minnesota. Over time I really grew to love the place, even though my friends from California think it is insane to love any place with six months of snow. And I admit, that wasn’t my favorite part, especially when nursing the bruises resulting from each year’s Annual Black Ice Slip ‘n’ Fall. But I digress. My point is that if you want to go paleo/organic/whole foods, Minneapolis/St. Paul is actually a great place to do it. In the winter your produce won’t be local of course, but you can still get oragnic foods at the plethora of independent co-ops and you will have affordable pastured meat and dairy coming out your ears. Game meats, if you’re into that, are also plentiful and indeed one of the traits I found most charming among ‘Sotans is the surprisingly (to me) large number of people who will happily collect and eat road kill.  Well, if it’s a deer or a goose or something. And, you know, if it’s fresh. I assume.

In general, the western US is a bigger market for organic foods that the central, southern, or eastern regions (source), but here’s the thing–the western US also includes the desert Southwest. And–crazy, I know–deserts are generally not big food-producing regions. So they are not good places to try and find organic produce or pastured meats or dairy if you are low- or even middle-income. You can get some of them shipped, but the cost is very high–way too high to make paleo or fully-organic diets really feasible, I would think. I mean I’m sure many people manage it but I know they aren’t living on minimum wage. An organic vegan diet might be more doable, I’ve never tried it, but even then it’s going to be relatively pricey.

Bioregions of North America

Bioregions of North America

This has nothing to do with whether these diets are good for you, or whether your individual health and ethics warrant such a regimen. There are a lot of intertwined issues here including wealth inequality, food production practices, and what I think of as nutritional anthropology (not sure if that’s actually a thing–somebody should get on that–what I mean is the cultural patterns of what is deemed healthy and nourishing and what’s not). But if we were truly paleo, we would be eating regionally-specific local diets, something we in the industrialized world really can’t do these days, in large part because we’ve totally destroyed/disguised our bioregions. I would have to drive 70+ miles to get to a place where I could forage (there are some urban parks which are closer where a few things could be gathered but not significant amounts of anything) and the only wild animals I’ve seen here are a couple squirrels (each sighting about a year apart), a handful of possums, two mice, and a coyote a couple years ago. This is the extent to which our Bioregional Denial has displaced us.

I can’t help but wonder what else we have displaced; or if we haven’t displaced them, what has happened to them? As far as I’m aware, every culture in the world except for modern scientific materialists perceives, or used to perceive, their land to be inhabited by a community of other-than-human beings–animals, plants, stones, spirits, ancestors… What happens to them when their land, their place, is covered with a pastiche of alien suburbia? How do they feel about this bioregional masquerade?