Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lost in Translation: The Doctrine of Signatures

I'd like to, very speculatively, interrogate an aspect of plant lore which I've always found to be strangely silly, as if it contained some husk of knowledge but had become so contorted in the progress of time that it is almost... inside out.

The Doctrine of Signatures is a classic mode of knowing within herbalism. Roughly speaking, it posits that plants contain some aspect which resembles the human organ they have an efficacious power over.

Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) is one example: the lobes of its evergreen leaves suggest the human liver, and thus is its medicinal use revealed under the Doctrine of Signatures.

Round-Lobed Hepatica in Flower, Sourland Mountain, April 2008

Vincent Abraitys recalls the similar lore surrounding Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.):

"The purple and yellow spots which are upon the flowers of eyebright very much resemble the diseases of the eyes or bloodshot"

The Doctrine of the Signatures dates to the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, when "a new breed of commercial herbalists began to vulgarize sympathetic magic..." (Mabey, 1988)

I'm going to start stringing together some conjectures now.

To my mind, the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe coincide with the tail end of a long campaign to eviscerate the connection between people and the land, most especially their spiritual connections. Pagans, heretics and finally witches had been persecuted for centuries, and both the Christian and emergent scientific philosophies posited a vast gulf between "man" and the rest of nature.

I can't help but suspect that the Doctrine of Signatures was a flawed attempt to pseudo-scientifically re-systematize the remaining scraps of herbal lore which had not been lost in the long extinguishing of pagan knowledge which was the Dark Ages.

I suspect that it is a poor caricature of the intense objective study and also the sophisticated spiritual techniques which "pagans" utilized to understand the powers of plants.

Now, a similar project is underway, globally. We are trying to rescue and understand the final scraps of primitive knowledge that were not extinguished in the even greater orgy of destruction which took place on a worldwide scale over the last five centuries.

When I read that Native Americans believed an herb to be efficacious in one way or another, because of the Doctrine of Signatures, it sticks in my craw.

When we look at the myths and symbolisms of oral cultures from the perspective of a literate culture, I think we fundamentally misunderstand their role.

We also like to believe that "primitive" cultures lacked the objective and analytical modes of thinking which we so pride ourselves in. That doesn't help our understanding very much.

I've frequently been confused myself. As a long-time student of anthropology, I have a pretty strong conviction about the sophistication of "primitive" peoples when it comes to issues of awareness and analysis of the ecosystem they lived in.

I'll gladly argue that most "primitive" peoples held far more complex, detailed, and objective notions of the natural world than we do.

On the other hand, I have sometimes been confused when trying to tap into this knowledge myself, utilizing those sparse and sometimes scattered documents which remain of, for example, Native American natural lore.

As much as I enjoy reading mythology, myths are frequently oddly lacking in detail, sparse, riddle-like, and perplexing. They seem always to be missing something, as if they are distilled down and have lost the skin and flesh which once cloaked the skeleton of truth I am left reading.

In a lot of ways, they remind me of the Doctrine of Signatures: arbitrary and overly-simplistic.

I recently read a fantastic book which I will now try to utilize to untangle why myths are often so vacant for me, and also to further question the "Doctrine of Signatures".

In The Spell of The Sensuous, author David Abram traces our loss of sensual engagement with the natural world through recent history, as literary modes of knowledge supersede oral modes. He makes a dazzling case for writing mediating our experience of the phenomenal world, diminishing it relative to the unmediated experiences of time and space inherent to oral cultures.

The book helped me to better understand the myths I've read by placing them within the imperatives of an oral system of knowledge transmission.

I will quote verbatim for while, starting with Abram's quotation of a Koyukon story from the Distant [mythical] Time:

When the burbot [ling cod] was human, he decided to leave the land and become a water animal. So he started down the bank, taking a piece of bear fat with him. But the other animal people wanted him to stay and tried to hold him back, stretching him all out of shape in the process. This is why the burbot has such a long, stretched out body, and why its liver is rich and oily like the bear fat its ancestor carried to the water long ago.*

Abram begins a discussion of this story:

Anthropologists have tended to view such stories from the Dreamtime or Distant Time as confused attempts at causal explanation by the primitive mind. Here, however, in light of our discussion regarding orality and literacy, such stories can be seen to serve a far more practical function.

Without a versatile writing system, there is simply no way to preserve, in any fixed, external medium, the accumulated knowledge regarding particular plants (including where to find them, which parts are edible, which poisonous, how they are best prepared, what ailments they may cure or exacerbate), and regarding specific animals (how to recognize them, what they eat, how best to track or hunt them)...

...Such practical knowledge must be preserved, then, in spoken formulations that can be easily remembered, modified when new facts are learned, and retold from generation to generation. Yet not all verbal formulations are amenable to simple recall--most verbal forms that we are conversant with today are dependent upon a context of writing. To us, for instance, a simple mental list of the known characteristics of a particular plant or animal would seem the easiest and most obvious formulation. Yet such lists have no value in an oral culture; without a visible counterpart lists cannot be readily recalled and repeated. Without writing, knowledge of the diverse properties of particular animals, plants, and places can be preserved only by being woven into stories...

Stories, like rhymed poems or songs, readily incorporate themselves into our felt experience; the shifts of action echo and resonate our own encounters--in hearing or telling the story we vicariously live it, and the travails of its characters embed themselves into our own flesh. (Abram p. 119-120)

End Quote. Using Abram's notion of myth as, among other things, a mnemonic device for the narrative exchange of culturally vital information, I'd like to have a second glance at the "Doctrine of Signatures".

Is it possible that we (and the 17th &18th century commercial herbalists who preceded us) have mistaken a mode of transmitting and remembering information, for a mode of discovering information?

What if the aforementioned Eyebright was discovered, through objective or magical means, to have a curative effect on the eyes, and its "The purple and yellow spots which very much resemble the diseases of the eyes or bloodshot" are merely cues-- visual hints encoded in half-lost oral narratives which encoded the herbal knowledge of pagan cultures?

What if all of our perception is essentially synaesthetic, narrative, searching for connections? Wouldn't it then be easier to remember even the most objective facts by enmeshing them in an essentially metaphorical network?

As in many other things, I think our modern system of education has much to learn from the knowledge-transmission technologies of primitive peoples.

A last point, perhaps shaped more like a caveat than a spear:

In suggesting this rather functional role of myth, and in stressing the objective traditions relating to plant lore, in no way do I intend to suggest that "magic" or "spirit" had no role in the revelation of plant powers to primitive peoples. I think that they did, and in ways which are far more complex and potentially alien to us than we typically caricature.

The Doctrine of the Signatures, however, is not "magic". Insofar as it appears to be "silly" or arbitrary to us, it is as a result of the conversion of (half-destroyed) oral knowledge into a literate and (pseudo-) scientific context.

Lost in the translation, as they say?

*This Koyukon story is quoted from Make Prayers to the Raven, an excellent ethnography/natural history of the boreal forest.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When the Leaves are Gone

"In the winter, you can see the bones of the earth."

By late December the witch hazel has dropped her November flowers. Next year's leaves are tucked into buds. The forest is plain, and the surface of the earth is revealed.

Animal sign on Grey birch and Sassafras

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lessons in Character

clockwise from top left: Black birch (Betula lenta) bole, Ice on trees, American beech (Fagus grandiflora) leaves, and Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Why do people love trees? The easy answer is that they provide us with the essentials for life: food, fuel, shelter, water, breath. That's so much. What else could there be?

Character. Dignity. Flexibility. Patience. Strength. Longevity. Beauty. Awareness.

They yield to the weather. They respond to their surroundings. They compete, and some fall to the ground. The fallen become a tapestry of life: moss quilts on woodpecker drums. Ant tunnels inside nurse logs covered with black birch saplings. Mouse houses and bumblebee hibernation stations.

They slowly share themselves with those still standing. They build thousand year old relationships underground. With delicate fibers, they plunge into the toughest soils. Limbs snap and though crooked, they grow still. The trees turn to face the sun and share with us a vision of character.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Provisions

The Sourlands are frozen over. Several days of freezing rain and snow have left a beautiful and temporary crystal layer over the forest.

This morning, the varied calls of a small flock of crows echoed across encrusted surfaces. Their weight caused loosening ice to fall from their high perches. They sat high above the birdfeeder, causing the chickadees and titmice to buzz and tseet.

Mice scurried across the top of the ice into the woodpile and across the living room floor. Several inches of ice and the recent mowing of the meadow must require some adjustments (including an annoying increase in nighttime nibbling, scratching, chewing, and rustling).

A red tailed hawk flew over the forest and the bald meadow. Fox tracks crisscrossed the trails, and squirrels dug for their caches. A dead tupelo has fresh woodpecker holes at its base. Everyone is looking for food.

We're working our way through our cache from this year's garden harvest. Last year was an inspiring mast year, but this past season's garden was devoured by woodchucks, rabbits, and a voracious corn-eating downy woodpecker. Nevertheless, dilled beans, ketchup, and hot peppers glitter in Ball jars and Kerr jars. Frozen peas, corn, and squash wait in the freezer. Potatoes are in a sack in basement. Tobacco is drying in the spare room.

Tonight, I'll fill the feeder with cracked acorns, and hope the downy woodpecker forgets about her love for Stowell's evergreen corn.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Toughed Tufted Titmouse or The Order of Being Different

Two years ago this little dear appeared on the maple in front of the house. I happened to be looking out the front door when "Sooty" landed.

I started doing the "Wildlife Sighting Dance": a series of stifled yet wild gestures using whichever limbs seem out of the creature's immediate view combined with low murmurs and grunts, widened eyes and arced eyebrows. The initiator of the dance expects the chosen partner to raise their eyebrows, mouth the word, "Oh", readily interpret any frantic hand signals, and act accordingly.

In this case, I believe I was utilizing a confusing mix of "come here" and "stay there" hand gestures and murmuring, "Oh, umm, umm, luh, luh..." That translates to "Husband, come here, quickly, quietly, look at this bird."

The next few days were fraught with the Wildlife Dance. Sooty, the dark morph tufted titmouse, graced our modest lawn and bird feeder regularly.

I made this photograph of the bird after taking the screen out the door. It shows the titmouse's red breast and dark grey wings and back. Always last in line at the feeder, often scolded and strafed by incoming chickadees and titmice...eventually, Sooty did not return to visit.

This little bird was very popular with human observers, but far less so with his bird kin. Perhaps they recogized that he wasn't quite like them. Maybe his camoflauge was imperfect and he made foraging risky for the others. I can't be sure, but I do still look for him.

*I prefer to use "his" over "its" regardless of the titmouse's uncertain gender. In a previous post, I referred to a raven as "she" for the same reason. I use this approach for living things.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Seed Hunting Season is over

Hunting season ended for me today – seed hunting season. No more wonton soup containers full of fermenting plant flesh on the side room desk. No more film canisters and ziplock baggies in every pocket of every bag, pant, and jacket.

The season began this year with round-lobed hepatica, collected steps from home up on the Sourland ridge, and ended with Hydrangea arborescens, a lucky find on a Thanksgiving day family hike along the Musconetcong. (I did suggest that hike, just on the off-chance...)

Today I sowed flats of that Hydrangea, along with Zigzag Goldenrod (near Round Valley), New England Aster (the wet meadow out front), and Virginia Pine, collected on a lark with Bill Rawlyk in Kingwood.

It was a lean year for Wreath Goldenrod. I sowed a little pot of it and put it in a big ziplock bag.

The few seeds I dared collect from the solitary (and heavily-browsed) Hearts-a-burstin’, the only one I’ve found in the Sourlands, got packed in wet sand in a little cocktail sauce container and placed in a box which lives in our refrigerator, alongside the mushier and mushier Stayman Winesap apples from Terhune Orchards. With that, the desk in the side room is clear, and the seed hunting season is – closed! Just in time for muzzle-loaders to begin firing in the surrounding woods.

Now I wait for spring. I did resolve to do more tracking this winter, and I already had an interesting encounter with fresh fox scat on a mossy fallen black oak, but... part of me is senescing until the plants rise up from beneath the sleep of leaves.

It’s astounding to me when fresh mayapple parasols poke through the spring soils from their centenarian rootstocks: would that we all could look so perfect and young when we are two hundred years old.

It’s equally astounding when a baby spicebush breaks through its potting soil and appears to be fully formed within a few days of germination. Forget cotyledons! it says.

I wait for spring to pull the heavy Kadon trays wrapped in black garbage bags off the basement shelves. “Black Cohosh”, they will say in sharpie-marker-on-masking-tape, or “Trout Lily”, or “Black Birch”.

This past spring, those trays spilled out onto our front and side porches, into the little hoophouse that ate our backyard. Pots of seedlings lined every windowsill that my wife Rachel didn’t “stand and defend”.

Those fermenting plant fruits in leftovers containers- they really started to accumulate on the side room desk in August or so. Most of our native fleshy fruits contain germination inhibitors and need to be cleaned before the seed(s) within will sprout. The parent plants seek to insure that their fruit has been ingested, digested, and taken away before germination. Fermentation is a great way to start the cleaning process, but... the yogurt container with the 300 rotting spicebush drupes in it did start to smell pretty rank after a few weeks.

Next year will be different. We’ve got a grant for a greenhouse from Conservation Resources, Inc. More grants may be on the way. We’ll be setting up shop in Princeton, and the plants will be finding their way to our preserves, to the backyards of neighbors, to the edges of those new vernal pools NRCS helped us dig at Cedar Ridge...

Next year will be a big step forward for the Native Plant Nursery. More volunteers, plant sales, networking, with other restorationists. We’ve got a lot of folks to reach: the residential landscape will never be re-knit with the wild landscape (while people remain) until people start planting native plants – lots of them. A spicebush patch in the backyard will feed migrating wood thrushes; ants will carry Bloodroot from one shade garden to the next; a frontyard Hornbeam will float seeds over to an adjacent young woodlot – that little stretch of wet woods that couldn’t be developed.

That’s the dream. Far-fetched? Maybe. But we who do stewardship are facing tough odds, massive disturbance at both local and global levels, and we might as well aim high.

My desk is clear and hunting season is over... unless I run across those tamarack seeds I never got around to looking for...

p.s. This post is really similar to one I put up at - and I mention that both as apology to those who've seen it, but also as encouragement to check out that blog if you're interested in land stewardship issues in New Jersey.