What I’ve been reading this Winter: I chose 10 books that, to me, correspond with concepts that I would like to see discussed and taught within the word of herbalism. It is nice to read a book, but to me, even better if I can USE it as a tool. I read mostly non-fiction, and I do so with a (real paper) notebook handy so I can take notes on what excites me, what pisses me off, what I need to share or what I must find someone to discuss as soon as possible.
-A History of Public Health: revised and expanded edition by George Rosen
A sense of our place in history.
I have a love-hate relationship with public health. It encompasses the history of waste management, which I find very interesting, and without a doubt useful. And it also encompasses a person or group trying to force another person or group to change, and a loss of cultural diversity that comes from calling individual humans “the public”. It raises questions around human rights and human responsibilities, access, communication, authority and information. Thankfully, Rosen does bring a bit of class consciousness to the stories, which I appreciate.
This book was originally written in the 1950s and does reflect that time, so if you are looking for something more recent, this is not it. But if you would like to geek out on the journey of public health, especially during the 1700s and 1800s, mainly European and American, this is the book for you. It has people and places, diseases and theory!
And this is one piece of the overall life-puzzle I explore constantly: How did we get here? How did NOW happen? I just don’t think we can move forward without some information about where we’ve been.
What I found most interesting about this history is that Public Health seems, on first glance, like “the man” but the reality is full of activists, problem-solvers and creative thinkers, and includes many working women.
-Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Eastern/Central, third edition by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
Skills, baby, skills! Field ID, botany
OK, I am going to air out my internet pet peeve: “Can I get an ID?”
Why do we think it makes sense to take a crappy photo and post it on Facebook, where people we don’t know argue over whether it is a tomato or an Oak tree? Like the constant desire for an ID app, this speaks to a modern learned helplessness and an unwillingness to do a little work.
People. Get this book. Learn to ID.
For basic field ID of common plants, it is convenient and reasonable.
I do NOT use this book for information about plant use, as I find that part of it oversimplified, outdated and overreliant on “used by X tribe for __” and “experimentally, used as___” both of which I personally find obnoxious.
Example: Prenanthes alba, “Iroquois used tea as a wash for weakness.” This piece of information is so useless to me. What does that even mean?
But anyway, it’s a great book for identifying plants.
-H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Finding meaning in the struggle
This book is a memoir of Ms. MacDonald’s journey of mourning. She struggles after her Father’s sudden death, and ends up combining a literary research project and the training of her own raptor (a Goshawk, Mabel) to pull herself through. Slowly. Excruciatingly.
It is a beautiful book, wonderful use of language, very descriptive, it moves quickly and it’s emotional but not mushy.
I admit to scanning a few of the paragraphs about TH White towards the end, but this is a minor detail.
It ultimately speaks to how we all need an outlet in life, a way to process all that comes at us, all that is hard to speak about or let go of, whether it is a dramatic death or just dealing with life’s many challenges.
-Out on the Wire, The storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel
This is a graphic non-fiction book about making great radio. The issue it hits upon that’s relevant to herbalism is story-telling and public speaking. It took me time to find my voice as a teacher and speaker, and I’d suggest this to new and old writers, teachers, interviewers and anyone who has to speak in front of others.
That is part of what being an herbalist is, really: a good interviewer. A good listener. And someone who can present suggestions in a way that grabs others and keeps them interested.
And many of us create audio or video of our classes, plant walks and/or discussions, so I see this as a useful tool in creating that work, too. Because becoming great speakers is difficult and takes time–but is a worthwhile pursuit, especially if we would like to share our ideas with others.
-Risk, the Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner
Yes, we need an understanding of risk management in health care. YES, yes, yes.
From the tired old trope “vaccines are the cause of Autism” to the constant claims that a trace of ___chemical means certain death, or an herb that has SOME effect on the uterus will totally abort your fetus, from fearfully kicking trans folks out of “womyn’s” spaces to running for cover from “chemtrails” and conventionally grown bananas we just don’t seem to be interested in assessing real risk.
The reality of risk is that it is complex, that humans fear what grabs their attention and ignore what kills us slowly.
The reality is that we seem to want to blame someone. Anyone.
And most of the media we hear is based on gross oversimplification, fear-mongering, and quick and easy words about difficult subjects.
So we need to really get how to ask questions!
Even just the most basic–What is the actual risk of doing or not doing this thing?
And ultimately, having a grasp of how risk management affects us, as practitioners, as end users, as participants in a system, might be the most important way to create cultural shifts, to make change away from fear-based decision making and towards more practical management of our risk.
–Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh
Quite possibly my favorite subject. We often talk about treating the problem, not just the symptoms. But how?
We can’t often change these underlying problems without a shift in how we look at these problems, without shifting how WE understand them.
Systems thinking is one possible solution to creating a broader perspective on these problems. It gives us tools to talk about things, to diagram the problems we are facing. And that is how to start.
This book has some interesting ideas for helping us to create that broader thinking. Chapters like Why Good Intentions are Not Enough, Storytelling for Social Change and Facing Current Reality excite and invigorate me.
I definitely suggest it.
-Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen
Age Power to the Old People!
Ack, I loooooove this book. It’s an easy read, a break from all these wordy chaptery things. It’s about elders who are still having fun with their looks and outfits. But it also speaks to a deeper issue–shaming the aging process with our shitty marketing campaigns for wrinkle creams and butt slimmers. And herbalists do it, too–same baggage-laden products and concepts with an all-natural label stuck to the front.
Turns out that using the wrinkle cream designed for your face isn’t good enough for your neck, which has its own special needs and requires a separate “décolletage cream”. UGH.
So this celebrates people–mostly ladies, in this case–who are rocking their wrinkles and it shows their style, beauty and spirit in an inspiring and fun way.
-Mind Over Medicine , Scientific Proof that you can Heal Yourself by Lissa Rankin, MD
-Cure by Jo Marchant
I am going to write about these 2 together because I am lazy and want to go take a walk.
OK, how many times have we heard someone get mad at being told “it’s all in your head”? And yeah, when people say that as a put-down, it IS obnoxious and shows that they don’t understand the mind-body connection. But what if we take control of that narrative for ourselves? What if, when we hear something is all in our head, we say YAY! That means that, though it will be long and hard, thought it will take work, I can create shifts myself!
That means it’s mine!
We often go to a practitioner wanting them to fix us. But sometimes getting better requires our participation, and rather than seeing that as a problem, maybe it is an opportunity.
Self-empowerment is an interesting concept, as it holds a lot of potential for healing but also some potential for loneliness. Challenging standard ways of thinking is not always easy or straightforward. But if the story is mine, that means it’s mine to destroy, or change, or accept–or some combo of these.
Of these two books, I’d strongly recommend Cure and weakly recommend Mind over Medicine–I think Marchant’s book is the better of the two.
I am super excited about new studies and ideas around changing our brain, around mindfulness and neuroplasticity. It is exploration and it is Science. If you like Oliver Sacks, if you wonder how the mind and body intersect, if you struggle with something that is “all in your head”, or know someone who does, if you like stories, check these books out.
-Fuzzy Memories and Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey
I am including these two for the sole reason of fighting the trend to take ourselves too seriously, and because humor heals.