Fact or Opinion? Who Cares?

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Traci Picard, 6/7/2017, Providence, RI

Last weekend I taught a class at Herbstalk on Communications for Herbalists. Two of my favorite subjects, together at last!

At the end of 90 minutes, I asked the group if they had any questions, and boy did they ever.

One audience member, an organic chemist, wanted to know how we express whether or not our words are fact or opinion. He kept coming back to this, over and over, asking but are our words FACT or OPINION!??!?!

And he was trying to make a great point–there is little accountability in alternative healthcare, sometimes a lack of critical thinking and sometimes a real load of hooey wrapped up in a nice package of magical thinking and a colorful label. And, you know, gravity exists.

But my angle here is communications, how to talk about these things.

Maybe we could have talked longer if I didn’t have a train to catch.

Ultimately,  the idea that our words must be either fact or opinion is funny to me. It’s a false binary which implies that those are the 2 options, and only those, as if everything in the universe doesn’t overlap and evolve. As if  real life isn’t a chaotic mess. As if mighty health debates haven’t raged for millennia, as if they won’t continue to rage for the foreseeable future. As if Science has figured out facts, as if Scientists don’t actively seek to destroy each others’ theories. As if this isn’t the point of Science, actually.

As if opinion and intuition are the same, as if magic and magical thinking are the same, as if fact and opinion hold the same weight when approaching a brain tumor as with a minor rash.

I don’t see the way I practice plant medicine* as a fact or opinion-based model at all, actually. I see it as a problem-solving model.

Allow me to define problem-solving, as written in the fabulous Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms and Concepts by Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Richard Paul:

“Problem-solving: the process of reaching solutions. Whenever a problem cannot be solved formulaically or robotically, critical thinking is required–first, to determine the nature and dimensions of the problem, and then, in light of the first, to determine the considerations, points of view, concepts, theories, data and reasoning relevant to its solution. Extensive practice in independent problem-solving is essential to developing critical thought. Problem-solving is rarely best approached procedurally or as a series of rigidly followed steps. Yet this is precisely how some ‘problem-solving’ schemas are approached. For example, such schemas typically begin ‘state the problem’. But ‘stating the problem’ often entails complex analysis including: considering multiple viewpoints, examining one’s assumptions and articulating the problem in more than one way to reach a clear understanding of the question at issue. Complexities such as these cannot be dealt with formulaically.”

They’re leading teachers and writers on Critical Thinking and analytical theory, not exactly fruitarians in Birkenstocks and nothing else swaying to flute music.

As an herbalist, I am primarily a questioner who guides my collaborator through a process of inquiry, discovering possible solutions together. I’m committed to inquiry as a religion, as a lifelong partner. I see practicing plant medicine as a fundamentally collaborative inquiry-based process which requires us to constantly experiment, observe and communicate.

We are in collaboration with, in relationship with, each other, our community, the plants and our life circumstances.

I am not a self-centric top-down capital-H “Healer” fixing broken people, and I don’t dole out pure fact OR pure opinion at all.

And human beings are ragingly complex animals in complex relationships with ourselves, our environment, each other. We aren’t math problems.

I appreciate evidence, data and studies very, very much. I love skepticism, and I love taking things apart into pieces and studying them, and there is great value in this. I am enormously sympathetic to his question, to someone asking how they can understand herbalism, especially when they notice some of the clearly unethical parts of the alternative health industry.

But then there is our deep and ancient human need for love, magic, mystery. There is a tiny part of us that is stardust and moonlight, elemental and connected, cyclical and unknowable. I prefer to remember this.

So yes, I am all for transparency. Not all opinions are equal, and some are crappy, based mainly on internet “research”, confirmation bias and logical fallacies. Some “facts” exist on poor foundations and have come into being through a series of folly and bias. The outcome of our question depends on the intellectual freedom within which we ask it.

I believe we can keep asking questions. Ask and ask, and let shitty logic reveal itself through the process of inquiry. Make space for failure, for admitting when we are wrong. Let lies and half-truths fall out of herbalism like a badly mended skirt. Let others try and succeed or fail on their own terms. Yes, refute claims that cause harm. But we can let intellectual stagnation be its own private hell.

And in an era where truth may be even less clear than ever, my wish to believe that our lives can be neatly divided into fact and opinion is very real. I wish I could stand up in front of  a class and make a list, and say Yes, my dears, this is true and this is not true. This is good, and this is bad. Do this and all will be well.

But I can’t. I can guarantee nothing, and I don’t claim to,  with one exception. I can promise you with all of my being that I will listen, observe, investigate absolutely anything under the sun in collaboration with you, my community, and that we will do so with an open mind and an ethical lens, as long as I live and breathe.

*Full disclosure: when I do practice, as I am currently focusing more on broader Communications work than seeing new clients but I still care.

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Love and questions for Hard Times

“Curiosity is your best weapon.”

-Peter Bresner

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Dear Friends,

I have  gathered you all here today to take a hard look at the state of our community. What is up with us? I’m watching arguments happen daily, watching people in left-of-center, activist and alternative health circles, and I am wondering.

Why do we tear each other apart?

Why do we burn out, why do we implode?

(And we do, yes, and there is no debate about this.)

We game-i-fy our activism. Who is the most radical? Who has the most up-to-date language?

And here we are, currently faced with a challenge that literally threatens to end our community, our country and our planet. Seriously. It’s time to get our shit together.

And to start, may I please present a question:

What if, when faced with something, an idea, some words, that challenges us, emotionally, that pokes at our sense of self, that riles up our privilege, that causes our heart to itch and our digestive system to rumble, when faced with REALLY BIG QUESTIONS, when faced with others’ pain, our own complicity, systemic ISMs, structural inequities we just S-T-O-P.

We don’t talk.

We don’t immediately jump to offering our “opinion”.

We don’t get all defensive.

We inquire within.

We delve, we read, we listen, we breathe.

What. If. We. Asked. Good. Questions????

Questions of ourselves, questions of history, questions of who controls the narrative.

Questions of WHOSE story are we identifying with?

Questions of WHAT is behind this feeling?

Especially vital when a marginalized person is attempting to share the story of their own marginalization.

And I am not saying, don’t eviscerate rape apologists. I am NOT saying don’t punch Nazis, don’t talk back to racists, don’t shut down mansplainers.

Boundaries are good.

I am not saying don’t all strive to be better at our inclusive language, better at outreach, better at performing activism.

But Christ on a cracker, my dears, look at how we are hurting each other!

Perhaps, in our frustrations with hearing other sides, with hearing others’ truths, we could just say “OK, I will think about this. Thank you for sharing this.”

(Perhaps, we can stop with the whole “both sides”, too, and move to a word beyond “both”.)

Perhaps we can stop seeing social media as the best outlet for these conversations. It’s too easy to hit send, too easy to verbally destroy the faceless other. Remember when we wrote on paper? When we journalled about things, made first drafts, thought it through?

Go for a walk. Meditate. See where inquiry takes you, and THEN share.

Let’s crack the information bubbles, bridge the feedback rivers, connect the identity silos.

And let’s, when faced with the critiques of our communities, whether we are white people, the middle class, cis-gendered, straight, Americans, men, the gainfully employed, whatever the heck you identify with, for fuck’s sake let’s just say I HEAR YOU. I see you, you matter. We don’t have to agree on everything. We don’t have to fix it all, now. We don’t have to immediately convert to queer-poly-pagan-gender-warriors to prove our loyalty.

But we can listen.

We can say “I was wrong”. We can say “I didn’t think of that” or “thanks for sharing”.

We can stop pushing people away.

And we can love.

“We need a love that starts out in tenderness and moves outward until it manifests as justice.”

-Omid Safi

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Urban raptors, brain food and rebellion

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Lately I’ve noticed an increased pattern of people taking a social media break. Why?
Don’t we want to be connected? To hear the news? Well. I do.
But I don’t just want to connect with people. I don’t just want news of the election or the latest celebrity deaths. I want news of my place, news of the land. It’s a felt news rooted in observation and interaction.
We may hear a lot about how humans are feeling disconnected, dissatisfied, emotionally unwell. Perhaps you can relate—I can, too. I have a practice that helps support me, though—I’ve set the goal of trying to spot at least one urban raptor every day.
It’s not about “power animals”. It’s not about absorbing some mystical “hawk medicine”. And it’s certainly not about projecting my ideas of mystical powers onto birds who don’t really give a shit about this stuff.
It’s just about participating in the life of a place.

Many of us have assigned our experiences with animals, especially majestic animals, to the realm of the magical. And there may be a certain healing power in myths which call upon the natural world to tell us things. But going out and observing the world around us is deep food for the mind, just the most basic, practical and ancient interaction I know of.

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So how can we use this practice to address disengagement?

Wellness, especially mental wellness, is not just the absence of active illness. It’s a feeling of connection, a sense of belonging. It’s being grounded, knowing where we are in the world. Historically, when humans wanted to punish someone, we’ve banished them. Taken them out of this belonging, out of this connection.

We have always looked to our surroundings for messages and clues, literally reading our landscape, even before words, to tell us whether or not we were safe. What’s going on? Where are we? Who else is here? What time is it? Do we need to wear a beaver fur? Are we near water? (This used to be extremely vital information)
What’s the altitude? How far into the distance can we see? What’s the deal with prey here?

Birdwatching was part of this process.

What are the birds doing? Stocking up? Acting nervous? Birds and their behavior are a natural prediction system, an original, natural app. Want to know if there is a hawk around? Find some pigeons and watch how they act.
It has now become a hobby often thought of as best for dorky older people with knee socks and too much free time, but maybe we are ready to reclaim this as a super-badass accessible urban wellness practice.

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Birdwatching is a game-any foraging behavior is, really. The natural rewards system gives us a nice, juicy ping every time we spot a Peregrine Falcon, a Maitake mushroom or a Giant Land Snail—whatever it is that we’ve chosen to “hunt” for. This ping is part of how we build our mental health. The process can be participatory and fun, connecting us to our community or solitary and meditative, giving us the space we need to recharge.
It’s like receiving a text, but from the Universe—although arguably texts from humans are also “from the Universe”. But anyway it’s like an ancestral booty call from deep within your neurology that supports a sense of bonding with our surroundings. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

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And it’s just fun!
Fun that can motivate us to get off our asses and go outside, to feel the elements, driving curiosity to explore and to wonder about things. It creates interactions. Looking at birds is also a great lesson about inhabiting space-watching how they use things in our built environment, challenging our ideas of what these things are “for”.
To me they symbolize a casual rebellion against our acceptance of single-use structures, performing an Avian Parkour on our streetlamps and exit signs, eating a Pigeon atop our places of worship and scanning the harbor from electrical poles and bridges. Urban raptors are a bit of an F you to our architectural plans, to our perceptions, even to our opinions of gravity.
They’re looking at anything, and regardless of its intended (by humans) use they’re making it their own.
Maybe I’m getting a little too romantic now, but I like to think that their perching on whatever the heck they want is a tiny message of resistance to domestication, a message that not all beings are going to relate to this object or situation with the same preconceptions.

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We can learn from them. Maybe we’ll get curious about the food chain, about our own neuroscience, about anatomy and ecology, about animal’s experience of mapping and territories, about observation and patience.
Urban raptors also address our human binary ideas about city and country, and who belongs where. Land is just land, and some animals don’t worry about population density—even preferring prey-rich environments full of dumpsters and Pigeon perches. Cities are stimulating, and some birds like that. Environmentally, we think of rural areas as “clean” and “pure” and cities as “dirty”, but this is not necesarrily true and reflects some of our human biases and our misunderstanding of risk.
Rural areas can be full of hazards, from oil spills to power plants, from planes spraying pesticides to hunters and other large predators. Cities do have dangers, but they also have laws which restrict certain environmental pollutants and may have less competition for prey.

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It’s exciting for me to share this practice that can give us so much joy for such little work. It’s not about possessing anything, it’s not about owning things or shopping. It’s just about scanning the landscape. It’s about feeding a part of our brain which is hungry for input. It’s a little reminder: If they can make it here, so can I. And it’s just about going out and noticing, getting to know your place and building a habit of looking around. It sounds so basic that it can’t possibly be as great as I’ve said, but I encourage you to just go find out for yourself. Get a bird book if you want to, get a pair of binoculars if you’re really fancy, but all you really need is yourself and the sky.

In Praise of Worry

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Don’t worry, people say. Just let it go. Escape.

Worry is bad for you, just stop. The odds are in our favor! It can’t happen.

But I did worry. I worried a lot about this election, about this reckoning with America and its discontent. I indulged in news every single day. Radio, podcasts, internet, even the so-called “failing New York Times”.

My fear has been realized. The exact thing I was worrying about has happened. I knew that it could happen, because I am of the “uneducated, white working class” and I have been listening for 38 years. I’ve been observing what we do, what we say, what we believe.

Those who chose to avoid this worry have to mourn today. They have to accept that what they thought would not, could not happen HAS happened.

The media says “noone saw this coming”. But worriers DID.

I do not need to spend today accepting this.  I’ve already ground down my teeth, and now I am ready to go to work. I needed 5 minutes to wallow in my own despair, but now I am ready to do something.

I think that saying “do not worry” can be a bit too easy. When something is too easy to say, how might examine it further? How might we look into the cognitive dissonance that is allowing us to avoid this worry? Why do we think we deserve to live without it? To disengage from the news and our community?

Of course, there are different types of worry. One is a circular type, going over and over the same things. It can be paralyzing, keeping us from action. Worrying can take the place of doing the work, can keep us from being present.

We might say “do not worry in circles”.

The other type is activating. It can spur us into problem-solving, forming a strategy, taking action. Activating worry  is preparatory and engaged, in conversation with the ongoing situation.

We might say “worry better”.

And ultimately, I think neither worry nor escape are inherently good or bad. Perhaps we need both. Perhaps the problem is making either path your home, living inside of one or the other and being unable to move back and forth between different approaches. The need to escape is very real, and I do recognize and honor this need. We might need to let go of the things that we can’t do anything about, and these things DO exist.

But right now, many of us feel powerless. We may feel despair like never before. And if my 18 months of worry have given me anything, it’s a plan–and maybe this can help those of you in shock right now.

So. What can we do to get through today? What can we do to get through the next 4 years?

  1. Self-examination. How have any of us contributed to this situation? This culture? When have we stayed silent? How have we participated or othered? What conversations have we avoided? How can we be better people?
  2. Volunteer. Whether it is with an organization that helps refugees, provides accountability, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, food banks and domestic violence lines we ALL need to get to work. Give time, money and resources.
  3. Heartfelt communications. Tell someone who is hurt by this political climate that you are with them, you love them, you care. Write it, sing it, spray paint it on a bridge:  YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Give a smile, hug, listening or a supportive note to a neighbor or community member who may have suffered from this political rhetoric.
  4. Go talk to people. Gather information. Outside of your comfort zone, that is. We need to learn WHY people voted this way in order to move forward, to fix the problems.
  5. Support the media, Be the media. On my path towards journalism, I personally vow to tell everyone’s story with ferocity and heart, a commitment to truth and justice.  The media can play a very important role going forward in addressing othering and forging whatever is next for America, and we can all participate. Now is NOT the time to lose our great journalists or to check out of supporting our storytellers. Stay informed! And remember that those who help us all  to do so have value.
  6. And yes, take care of yourself and each other. Today I am taking a walk, hitting up the Hawthorne tincture, reading a book that I turn to in hard times and writing. Do what you need to do, and get some sleep. You’ll need it

I love you, friends and neighbors. It is only because we love each other so much that it hurts so bad. Don’t look away. Witness these times with your whole self. 

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Update, August 2016

Dearest friends of Fellow Workers Farm,

I would like to officially announce that FWF is scaling way back as a products business.

I will never totally walk away from my deep and abiding love for the plants, medicine-making, my beloved clients and the ongoing debates that surround our field. (Get it? field?)

But I will be pursuing an education for myself, and a career path which looks to me right now like media/journalism/communications. With a strong health and science angle, and a lot of interest in ethics, social justice and accountability.

I will be teaching several exciting classes this fall, and I will continue teaching about and writing on Critical Thinking, Holistic Stress Management and other subjects very dear to me.

Essentially, I am choosing to focus more on the ideas side for a bit, and I’ll see where it takes me.

I am excited to start this new phase of my life, and this blog WILL continue, though I make no promises as to regularity of posts.

Thank you all so much for your support.

-Traci

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