I have held off writing until I finished my summer European travel log, but am no closer to starting that. So I will instead tell you about Mark, who together with his partner Ersine, have created a thriving herb, flower, and vegetable farm in the middle of Mississippi. This is close to my heart for several reasons. I have been a plant person my whole life. As a kid, I sought out the woods for support and comfort when life was hard and friends few. I would take walks with my dad in the nearby hills and point out plants and their medicinal uses. He said I was just like his dad, who used to take he and his siblings on walks in the countryside in Poland, pointing out plants as he went. According to my dad, one of his favorite plants was the buttercup, or Ranunculus. In addition to teaching biology, my grandfather created a natural history museum filled with local flora and fauna in the town of Bieslko Biala. My love of plants led me to study biology in college, with many botany classes. When I was very sick with scleroderma, my naturopath friend recommended that I ask the plants for help. I remember walking through Fall Creek in Felton and attuning my senses to their subtle communications. Such was my love of and belief in the healing power of plants that I considered studying naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Washington.
Back to Ersine and Mark’s farm. Thanks to the scars of slavery and its long and bloody aftermath, the area around their place is a food desert where the average age of death for a black men is 63. Lack of healthy food plays a big role, as does the lack of adequate healthcare, particularly for poor people of color. The couple are dedicated to changing that, not only through providing healthy food and herbal medicine to their community, but also teaching young people how to farm, eat well, and combat the effects of environmental racism. Mark said he was teaching a class one day, when a young boy asked him whether black people made the world. He responded that they could talk after class, but then said, in a word, yes. I love that. And I love that what they are doing is similar to what the Black Panthers did in their 12 point program to build sustainable and healthy community. Healthy food, medicine that heals rather than harms, and an education which addresses the lives of real people who have been studiously ignored in this country, are some of the critical underpinnings of their work. The couple are also in the initial stages of creating a midwife and herbal medicine center to train midwives and reverse the trend of high mortality amongst women of color in childbirth. Mark told me about a woman who recently died while having a baby, and a lawsuit that has been filed due to negligence. Maternity wards have been disappearing all over the US, particularly where poor people of color live, due to the maxim of profit over people.
Even as recently as 100 years ago, there were still knowledgeable herbalists, healers, and midwives in many other parts of the south. Most of these people were black women who helped mothers survive childbirth, cured poor people of ailments that hospitals wouldn’t treat, and generally were critical to the maintenance of the health and wholeness of the community, black and white. Their knowledge came from a variety of sources: their observations of which plants animals chose and experimentation, knowledge and lore retained from Africa, as well as that gained from the indigenous peoples and immigrants like the Scotch Irish, French Acadien, and others. During slavery, these healers were a critical backbone of their community, and many a white woman also came seeking help. An example was herbalist Emma Dupree, who gained renown for her folk remedies across the country after researchers from East Carolina University’s fledgling medical school made a documentary about her called “Little Medicine Thing” in 1978. Dupree believed she was placed on this earth to do good and was given the knowledge of healing because she spent so much time in the woods exploring, wandering and learning about plants. She would brew them to help people and essentially became a doctor for the community. She never charged because she felt she was a vessel and that God was using her through these plants to help others.
Cultural anthropologist Holly Matthews has done field research on traditional health care in Central America and the southern U.S. focusing on African American herbalists. She would visit Dupree once or twice a year. Her kitchen was full of jars and pots of things cooking, and Dupree would point out some of them and explain them. “One thing I wanted to remark on was how generous she was,” said Matthews. “There’s a lot that divides us today in this country, but she was a person who united, and she would treat anybody black, white, rich or poor, and she would share her remedies.”
Matthews met a white woman from Rocky Mount who only used plants from the Bible. The healer pulled out a jar of balsam pear, a subtropical vine that came to this country from West Africa that Matthews had learned about from Dupree. “Sharing of information and incorporating it into one’s practice was truly remarkable,” said Matthews. Dupree would make and then urge people to take sassafras tonic and poke salad in the spring because they were blood purifiers. She cautioned that poke salad could be poisonous unless only the young greens were eaten after thorough washing. Knowledge such as this was not only critical, but as in this example, can be life saving. Poke is now being studied for its anti tumor properties. Dupree’s knowledge and generosity earned her fame far and wide, said Walter Shepard, founding director of Health Service Research at ECU Brody School of Medicine and one of the producers of “Little Medicine Thing” in 1978.
The critical importance of herbalists and healers to the health and survival of a community is true not only in the US but around the world. In Curative Powers: Medicine and Empire in Stalin’s Central Asia (Russian and East European Studies), Paula Michaels discusses the communist campaign against traditional religious and medical practitioners, especially mullahs and shamans, during the first decades of the Soviet regime in Kazakhstan. She also addresses the efforts of Soviet medical propaganda to persuade the local population to distrust traditional healers. Due to the targeting of the shamans and mullahs, the number of healers knowledgeable about the healing uses of local plants diminished precipitously during Soviet occupation. However, when Kazakhstan became independent, there were efforts made to revive traditional healing practices. One such effort was the recirculation of knowledge about Arctic root or Rhodiola, which had been used for centuries as an adaptogen (a natural substance which helps the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes). It had been all but forgotten due to the splintering and fragmentation of the network of traditional healers, but was brought back through various efforts, including an American herbalist who spent several years in Kazakhstan bringing together the shamans who had survived and aiding in the dissemination of their knowledge. In The Way of the Shaman and the Revival of Spiritual Healing in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the author points out that despite many years of Soviet rule in Central Asia, traditional medical beliefs and practices were not eradicated and their revival has been noticeable in the independent republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Religious and magical healing, including shamanism, are important parts of this renewed tradition. He goes on to say that the adaptation of traditions, including syncretism, borrowings, reinterpretation and transformation, should be confused with invented traditions.
Thanks to all the people who have helped to revive and disseminate the herbal and healing practices that have kept millions of people, might I say billions, happy and healthy. In this case, to Mark and Ersine for their dedication to making the world a better place.
Thank you for this! Seeing so many communities rediscover their cultures’ traditional remedies feels inspiring.