Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tongue-Mind

 Goldenseal growing happily at the margins of a spicebush thicket, on diabase geology

The ray petals of dandelion flowers taste sweet, full of sunny sugars. The core of the flower head is bitter - a rich, earthy bitter that lingers gently at the back of the tongue as the sweetness fades.

In the spring, I pluck dandelion flowers at random and pop them in my mouth. The front of my mouth enjoys the sweetness, then bitterness tempers the sugars. The bitterness travels down into my digestive system, where it prepares the juices of digestion, cleaning out the funk and debris of heavy winter meals and tonifying the liver as well.

Dandelions have long taproots that stretch into the subsoil and bring up many minerals. They are able to colonize rather compacted and sometimes poor soils - like those of lawns and eroded gardens - and then scavenge what they need way below the soil surface. In this way, they draw up nutrients and enrich the topsoil.

Dandelions do much the same thing in our bodies - go deep into our organ systems and tone and nutrify - in the process helping to remedy both external and internal problems.

Dandelions are one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet. When I seek out the deep bitter earthiness of the dandelion's involucre in spring, it is because I have a craving for it after the long winter. Even now, my tongue-mind pictures the flavors...

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Bitter, mucilaginous, nutritive, emetic, sweet, warming, cooling, spicy, diffusive, numbing -- many of the fundamental actions by which herbal medicines are known are properties which are perceivable by our senses. Herbal medicine is an empirical science - knowledge is gained by observation, awareness, sensuality, gnosis - not logic (per se), or reductionist experiments.

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I was thinking about goldenseal - the patch of it I discovered growing, quite surprisingly, in a Princeton nature preserve. Goldenseal is a rarity in this state - Mary Hough's 1982 Wild Plants of New Jersey lists no known occurences statewide, and it is currently listed as "endangered" by the Natural Heritage Program.

At this preserve, it grows amidst Spicebush, Black Cohosh, Wild Comfrey, and Pennywort (the latter two also state listed), and other forest herbs.

Also nearby is Sarsaparilla, a Red Mulberry sapling, a Toad Trillium, and Virginia Bluebells. The latter two are near a house and I always assumed they were planted until I found the three state-listed plants and also tested the soil and found it to be 1. rather high in pH and 2. off-the-charts with minerals (your magnesium, phosphorus, etc...) and decided that, at this preserve, anything is possible.

Not too far from there is a spot I've seen which might be a Native American burial area. One day I must find the time to get permission so not to trespass, and look again. I would not be surprised were I to learn that this area was a sacred medicine place to the first nations.

Anyhow, I was mulling all of this over in the shower yesterday, and was thinking about these rare medicinals, and also the propensity of the overpopulated deer herd in Princeton to wipe out plant populations.

But the deer have left the goldenseal alone. Maybe the bitter alkaloids in it are too strong and deer find it unpalatable. They certainly don't browse Japanese barberry, which contains the same golden-yellow alkaloid berberine that Goldenseal does.

Berberine and other aspects of Goldenseal's character as an herb make it a powerful antibiotic and rather harsh-sounding anti-catarrhal. Maybe, I thought, the deer don't browse Goldenseal unless they need it as a medicine...

It is well-demonstrated that animals will seek plants as medicines. How do they know? Instinct is a marvelous type of mind, one largely lost among humans - a type of memory that is truly long-term, stretching back through not hundreds of years but hundreds of ancestors. However, I suspect that we cannot merely say "instinct" and leave it at that. The instinct-mind and the sense-mind intermeld.

I imagine that if the deer (or, perhaps, other wildlife) consume the Goldenseal as a medicine, it is because they can taste it - and therefore know its actions.

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Why, after all, do we have such a developed sense of taste? Why can we distinguish cinnamon from cloves, marjoram from rosemary, peppermint from catnip?

Is it so that we can create wondrous feasts, or appreciate dining in a fine restaurant? Yes, perhaps, but those things are not causal, they are not selection pressures, they are not the catalysts for the development of a keen faculty for a wild being.

We taste so that we know the properties of the foods we eat -- so that we can eat our medicine, and heal with our food. All of our natural foods have medicinal effects. Some of our most "mundane" foods are powerful herbal healers - oats, for example, are superlative nervines.

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I pull some dandelion tincture from the medicine chest. Rachel tinctured roots in vodka over the summer. Now, in the depths of winter, I squeeze a few drops into my mouth...

My tongue-mind pictures spring, the deep soil, the yellow blooms so sweet with their bitter aftertaste... and I am restored.

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