Writer and herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner comes from a long line of healers, but he describes his childhood home life as deeply unhealthy. “Love was in short supply,” he writes. “Certainly kindness was.” Born in 1952, he found solace in the time he spent with his great-grandfather C.G. Harrod, a country physician in rural Indiana. At his great-grandparents’ farm, Buhner felt cared for and in touch with nature in a way he didn’t at home. He also observed his great-grandfather’s approach to treating patients, which he describes as “hands-on, compassionate, and personal.” Buhner remembers wanting to grow up to be just like him, but that type of country doctor was already becoming a figure of the past.
At the age of sixteen Buhner left home and moved to California, where he attended college and “majored in the sixties.” He eventually landed in Colorado’s high mountains, where he rebuilt a turn-of-the-century cabin that he lived in for four years, teaching himself the forgotten crafts of the nineteenth century. In his early thirties Buhner became severely ill with abdominal cramping. Rather than have surgery, as his doctors recommended, he took a friend’s advice and attempted to cure himself using a medicinal plant. The herbal remedy worked, and the experience revived Buhner’s interest in healing. He began studying, and later writing about and practicing, herbal medicine. The road to becoming a “plant person and Earth poet,” in Buhner’s words, wasn’t easy. “I had to take a lot of other jobs along the way to make enough money to survive: doughnut baker, construction laborer, woodworker, mansion restorer, furniture maker, rare-book seller, and so on.”
Over the years he has written more than twenty books on everything from treating Lyme disease to brewing herbal beers to fasting. The topics may seem unrelated, but for him they are all aspects of the same subject: “the luminosity of the land and of the Earth.” His most recent book is Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth.
In 2013 I read the updated edition of his 1999 book Herbal Antibiotics, which is about how plant medicines can be used to treat bacteria that have become resistant to pharmaceuticals. The book focuses on the flaws in what Buhner calls “technological medicine” and suggests different ways of approaching disease, the natural world, and our own mortality. “By declaring war on bacteria,” he writes, “we declared war on the underlying living structures of the planet.” Buhner maintains that, through indiscriminate use of antibiotics, we have created “superbugs” with few effective pharmaceutical treatments, wreaking havoc in hospitals and making future pandemics likely.
My mother, a biochemist, happened to be doing research in India on antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and I shared Herbal Antibiotics with her. We would take walks with my infant son and talk about the landscape of disease that may be our generation’s legacy to him. It was on one of these walks that I decided to interview Buhner about bacteria and plant-based healing.
Buhner currently lives in Silver City, New Mexico, next to one of the largest wilderness areas in the U.S. Along with two partners, including his wife, Trishuwa, he operates the nonprofit Foundation for Gaian Studies (gaianstudies.org), named for the Gaia theory, which says that our planet’s biosphere can be viewed as a single complex organism. Buhner describes himself as an “independent scholar, amateur naturalist, and citizen scientist.” He is also a thoughtful and vocal critic of Western medicine and the bureaucratic and regulatory environment that has grown up around it. The sixty-two-year-old still takes no pharmaceuticals and treats himself entirely with herbal medicine. “I trust the plants with my life,” he says.
Ahuja: What’s wrong with the medical system in the United States?
Buhner: At the end of the nineteenth century there were many different kinds of physicians practicing in the U.S. Allopaths — those we call “doctors” today — were only one of them, and they were among the poorest groups. The homeopaths were the most numerous and the richest.
Allopathic physicians argued that their training was based on science and was thus more legitimate than other medical traditions and would provide safer interventions. With a lot of lobbying, they managed to get control over medical practice and have the other approaches outlawed. After the discovery of penicillin in the 1920s, antibiotics became a primary aspect of allopathic practice. The drugs were so effective against previously difficult-to-treat problems, such as infections in burn patients, that Western cultures completely embraced allopathic healing. In 1942 the entire world’s supply of penicillin was 8.5 gallons — about seventy pounds. By 1999 the production of antibiotics in the U.S. alone reached 40 million pounds per year.
Unfortunately medical researchers’ beliefs about bacteria were very wrong. Researchers said it would take roughly a million years for bacteria to develop widespread resistance to antibiotics through spontaneous mutations. They assumed bacteria were stupid, when in reality bacteria are highly sentient. They communicate by means of a sophisticated language — as sophisticated as ours. They recognize their kin. They protect their offspring. They create chemicals designed to produce specific outcomes in living systems, which certainly fits any definition of toolmaking.
We’ve tended to view bacteria as a collection of single-celled entities, but when many of them join together, it’s more proper to look at them as a swarm intelligence. And complex organisms such as plants, animals, and insects are, in essence, communities of bacteria.
Ahuja: How does bacterial resistance challenge the current medical model?
Buhner: Since the end of World War II, the medical establishment has been promising that we are heading for some sort of disease-free future in which we will live to be 120 and never get sick. They almost imply that they can cure death. Scientists’ inability to predict the bacterial response undermines the entire worldview that the allopaths disseminated — and still disseminate — about disease and the nature of the world around them. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, in 2011, 722,000 people picked up infections in hospitals. About 75,000 of those patients died during their hospitalizations. And some sources give a much higher figure for annual deaths from hospital-acquired infections.
The allopaths’ lock on medical practice, which they insisted would create safer outcomes for the public, has not done so. All it has done is give one orientation toward healing a virtual monopoly on practice.
Ahuja: How would you treat a resistant infection with herbs?
Buhner: One woman who had undergone multiple antibiotic regimens over several years for a resistant staph infection (MRSA) came to me for help. She was about to lose her foot to the disease. It took a month to turn her condition around using an African herb called Cryptolepis sanguinolenta. Commonly used to treat malaria, it is also a broad-spectrum, systemic antibacterial with no side effects — at least, after twelve years of use, I have seen none. Vancomycin is the antibiotic often used for staph infections. Besides being frequently ineffective, it has a long list of side effects. In general, herbal medicines have fewer or no side effects. They are composed of hundreds of synergistic compounds, whereas pharmaceuticals have just one compound, or perhaps a few. We have been at this antibiotic business only a century or so. Bacteria have been around for 3.5 billion years.
Ahuja: Won’t bacteria eventually become resistant to plant medicines?
Buhner: With a pharmaceutical, the bacteria analyze the single compound and generate solutions to it, which they then pass on to other bacteria. Plants, on the other hand, generate multiple compounds that deactivate resistance mechanisms in the bacteria and enhance the activity of the plant’s natural antibacterials. Bacteria cannot easily counteract that kind of complexity. Also, plants aren’t trying to kill all the bacteria on Earth. They merely want to create a balance in which the plants and bacteria set limits on each other’s behavior.
Ahuja: There seems to be a general view that herbal medicine is fine for coughs and colds, but when something gets serious, you go to a conventional doctor.
Buhner: The pharmaceutical companies’ advertising campaigns are very good. We have been trained to think of technological medicine as the only reliable type and other approaches as outdated remnants of a prescientific age. Yet the majority of people I have met don’t much like doctors or hospitals. The one thing modern medicine is good at is trauma. If I get hit by a car, I will go to a hospital. But other than antibiotics and some surgeries, hospitals have little they can offer to cure disease. They can only address the symptoms.
Pharmaceutical companies are in business to make as much money as they can. They try to develop drugs you have to take for years and years, such as medicines for high blood pressure or depression. You don’t get well; you just keep taking the drug.
In Africa people can’t afford to pay a dollar a day for a malarial drug from a Western corporation, and their infrastructure is not going to support producing the drug themselves. They need to do something else. So in Nigeria, for example, researchers asked local healers what herbs they were using. The researchers ran tests to find the best ones and the most effective methods of preparation. Then they took the seeds to people and told them how to grow and use the plants. That’s not the Star Trek vision of the future that a lot of Americans want, but it’s the most ecologically sound and empowering.
Ahuja: Besides the profit motive, what else is wrong with pharmaceuticals?
Buhner: For the most part, they are not biodegradable. And these are dangerous substances to release into the environment. To receive a patent, the natural molecule that forms the base of the drug — which is often a molecule found in plants, fungi, or bacteria — must be tweaked slightly, altered. That now-alien molecule causes disruptions in ecological functioning that are impossible to predict.
Also, adverse drug reactions are a leading cause of death in the U.S. By some estimates more than a hundred thousand people a year die from using prescribed medication. I think the number is far greater. If herbalists caused that many deaths, there would be an outcry heard on the moon.
Ahuja: In Herbal Antibiotics you mention the dangers of what you call “monotherapeutic thinking.” What do you mean by that?
Buhner: The germ theory of disease, once it became entrenched, generated the idea that the only logical treatment was to kill the germ with a drug. And it did indeed work for about fifty years before it began to fail. It even influenced herbalism. Herbalists who wanted to be accepted by physicians as legitimate healers began to mimic the medical approach. Specifically they looked for the “active” constituents in the herbs they were using, then tried to standardize the herbs for that constituent. They sought to become plant-drug doctors. Many of us got caught up in that for a while, some permanently. It still influences the field, especially at the regulatory level.
Ahuja: You write that most community herbalists “haven’t been trained to believe they know some ultimate truth about the nature of plant medicines or reality as a whole.” Why is that an advantage?
Buhner: Because a reductionist, mechanistic approach to nature, such as the one our culture has inherited from scientists of the early to mid-twentieth century, is deeply flawed. It tries to understand complex aspects of nature by dissecting them and looking at the parts. Though in many areas science has advanced beyond such reductionist thinking, this oversimplified model is still taught in schools. Children are told that humans are the most intelligent organism on the planet, while other organisms are mostly unintelligent and do not possess complex language or make tools or have empathy. Science has realized that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, but it still thinks it revolves around human beings.
The alternative is to understand the Earth as a living organism that modulates its own environment, not as inert matter to be used in any way we see fit. As psychologist James Hillman once put it, “It was only when science convinced us the Earth was dead that it could begin its autopsy in earnest.” The greatest act of disobedience to the mechanistic model is to reclaim our empathy with the living planet, our ability to feel.
Ahuja: Hasn’t a reductionist, mechanistic approach led to many scientific advances?
Buhner: Perhaps, but it has also led to tremendous ecological damage, and its limitations are revealed almost daily. Researchers continue to find evidence of spontaneous self-organization in matter, such as occurs in living creatures. If molecules, for instance, are packed tightly into a closed container, they will synchronize and begin to act as a unified whole. Mathematician Steven Strogatz writes in his book Sync that “these feats of synchrony occur spontaneously, almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order.” I find his term “eerie” interesting; it suggests an underlying fear of this aspect of the natural world.
A biological organism is something more than the sum of its parts. Consider the people you know. If you analyze them according to height, weight, age, where they went to school, and so on, you are engaging in a form of reductionism that will never capture their essence. We intuitively understand this to be true with human beings, but we have been trained not to apply it to every other substance and life-form on the planet.
When spontaneous self-organization occurs in a biological organism, the organism immediately begins working to keep its new self-organized state intact. It analyzes incoming data and generates responses. In other words, intelligence arises in the system. It does not matter if this is a bacterium or a plant or a person or an ecosystem. The organism becomes extremely sensitive to all incoming data, because anything that touches it might destabilize it. Tiny inputs can create huge changes in self-organized systems. For example, infinitesimal amounts of estrogenic chemicals from drugs, preservatives, plastics, detergents, and other sources have been found to cause sex alterations in males of nearly every species studied.
To get an idea of how sensitive self-organized systems are, imagine a toy top spinning. If you touch it even slightly with your fingertip, you will alter its movement considerably.
Reductionists view the world as a static stage upon which humans are the only actors capable of intelligent movement — though they might allow that some animals possess rudimentary thought processes. The reductionists believe they can take organisms apart to understand them, but that is not how life works.
Ahuja: What was your first experience with herbal medicine?
Buhner: When I was thirty-four, I became quite ill with severe abdominal cramping. The doctors didn’t know what it was. I met a local herbalist, and she mentioned that a certain plant growing in the forest around my house was good for my condition. The doctors wanted to do exploratory surgery, but instead I ate some of the plant. The pain was about half as severe the next time it happened, and the next time about half again, until finally it just went away. After that, I began to take control over my own health.
Ahuja: What was the plant?
Buhner: It was a perennial herb called osha. I just dug up the root and began eating it. It’s got a spicy, celery-like taste. Not only did I feel my body getting better, but I could feel, inside, some living entity that cared about me. It’s difficult to explain, because it’s not something we generally talk about in the West. When you use a living medicine and get well, you feel that the world is alive and aware and wants to help you. People often talk about saving the Earth, but how many times have you experienced the Earth saving you?
Ahuja: How do you go about treating patients as an herbalist?
Buhner: It’s a relationship, not a technique. My clients often feel lost and alone in their suffering. They need human companionship and also a sense of companionship with the living world. If I can, I’ll take them into the woods and introduce them to the plant that will be helping them.
In my book The Lost Language of Plants I tell the story of a twenty-eight-year-old woman who was going through a messy divorce. Her periods were extremely irregular, with heavy cramping and bleeding, and her hands were always cold. I could see that her whole body was closed off, curled in on itself. Her fingernails were chewed back deeply, as if she were eating herself alive.
I told her there was a plant I thought she should meet. We went for a walk through a pine forest, and when she saw the plant at the edge of a stream, a kind of force drew the woman and the plant together. The plant was Angelica, which has been used for thousands of years to help treat menstrual cramping. She spent a long time with it, then said a prayer and asked for help, and then we went to look for just the right Angelica. When we found it, she dug up the root, which has a beautiful smell. On the walk back she held it close to her. She was already carrying herself differently. The healing had started.
She took a tincture made from the root, and within a month her period had normalized.
Ahuja: How do you know which individual plant is the right one?
Buhner: From experience I can tell when a plant is healthy or not. I can tell when a plant has more-potent medicine in it. I can tell when a plant wants me to pick it and when it doesn’t.
It’s difficult to explain how I know this. It’s like when you come home and ask your partner, “How are you?” and he or she says, “Fine.” You know something’s wrong, right? But if you just looked at the content of the statement — “Fine” — you couldn’t tell. It’s what’s inside that matters. That’s what herbalists are talking about when they refer to the “energy” of a plant. The strongest plant will feel slightly different from the others.
In herbalism you’re engaging in a deeper sort of communication. The words, the phrasing, the posture, the kind of touch you have — they all matter. Compassion needs to flow in all directions. These are things that the medical model doesn’t take into account. It can’t. That’s one reason why imposing the medical model on the herbal model will destroy it.
Ahuja: My mother studies antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and when she read your book, she was excited by the possibility that plant medicines might help reduce dosages of conventional antibiotics. As a scientist sympathetic to herbal medicine, she wants a synthesis between herbal and technological medicine. I get the sense that you want to keep them separate.
Buhner: That’s not actually true, but I am highly suspicious of Western medicine. I’ve met some wonderful physicians. I’ve also met many patients who don’t like how they’re treated, or the outcomes they get, or how much the treatment costs, but they feel as if they don’t have any other options. In the U.S. the medical establishment is like a powerful trade union. It tries to co-opt whatever works and control it.
Ahuja: How has it been trying to do this with herbal medicine?
Buhner: The Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has established what it calls “good manufacturing practices,” or GMP, which control how commercial herbal medicines are produced. It does this under the guise of promoting safety, but most herbal medicines come from mom-and-pop operations who sell what they make in locally owned stores. The regulations now in place will put those people out of business. One community herbalist told me she thought it would cost between half a million and a million dollars for her to meet the GMP requirements.
It was the big herbal companies — and the pharmaceutical companies that wanted to break into this market — that lobbied for these regulations. As smaller operations disappear, the remaining, larger, ones will make a great deal more money and ultimately be bought by pharmaceutical companies. Public safety won’t really be improved. The herbal medicines that hurt people, in my experience, are always produced by large companies. The problem is usually a contaminant or a misidentified herb.
Ahuja: Is the GMP an entirely bad thing? How else can we ensure the safety of herbal medicines?
Buhner: If you are looking only at the larger herbal companies, the GMP is definitely a good thing. The problem is that the FDA applied the same rules to the small companies, which have never had the kind of problems the larger companies do. Most community herbalists do it for love. They often harvest their own plants in the wild or grow them or buy them from farmers they know. They are not selling millions of units and buying herbs by the ton. That’s the primary reason consumers almost never have adverse reactions to their products. They are craftspeople, not manufacturing companies.
Ahuja: Can you imagine a balance between pharmaceutical and herbal medicine?
Buhner: I’m hopeful that, over time, a balance will be found. In a functional healthcare system, people would know how to do some self-care. You don’t need to go to a doctor for colds and flu. There are easy ways to treat them that everyone should know. If a problem is more serious, you should go to a community herbalist. If it’s beyond him or her, then you go to a natural practitioner who has expertise in the organ system that’s causing the problem. Finally, for certain rare illnesses, you find physicians who use a combination of pharmaceuticals and herbs. This is what the Chinese are already doing. They don’t have a cultural bias against herbs; they just want to use what works.
Ahuja: Many of the plants in Herbal Antibiotics aren’t native to North America. Do you think people should look first to the plants around them for medicine?
Buhner: The book was written to offer alternatives to people who might die of a resistant infection, so I wanted to list anything they could reliably use in that circumstance. Still, many natural antibiotics do grow in the United States. I live in the Southwestern desert, and Bidens grows all around our house. It’s invasive. Sida grows along the Gulf Coast, and some Sida species grow in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They’re all considered invasive. In fact, the most potent medicines for emerging infections tend to be invasive botanicals that people are busy trying to eradicate.
These invasive plants don’t move into a region for no reason. Take, for example, the berberine-containing plant Phellodendron. Berberine-containing plants are used to treat parasites and infections from yeast, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Goldenseal was probably the most potent berberine plant in the U.S. until it was harvested to near extinction in the late 1800s. Phellodendron, which is a massive tree, is invasive in exactly the same range that goldenseal was removed from. And if you cut just one branch, you’ve got enough berberine plant to last a year.
I’ve found that if people are ill, the plants they need are almost always growing in their vicinity. I’ve watched plant populations change around me in places I’ve lived for thirty-some years, and they seem to shift in response to changes in my own disease complexes. This sounds airy-fairy to the Western reductive mind-set, but people have been commenting on it since Hippocrates. Plant populations rise and fall according to the needs of the ecosystem in which they grow, and that includes the animal life there, which includes us.
Ahuja: Yet we act to remove invasive plants from ecosystems.
Buhner: Yes, these plants are seen as alien invaders. I joke that the Republicans want to get rid of immigrant people, and the Democrats want to get rid of immigrant plants. It’s not understood that dandelion and burdock and a host of other common plants are non-natives that moved in and established a balance with local ecosystems, or that many of the plants targeted for eradication happen to be effective against the exact diseases that local people are contracting. Japanese knotweed is invasive all up and down the East Coast, and its root is the most specific medicine there is for the treatment of Lyme disease. There’s a Lonicera species — a honeysuckle — that reduces mosquito egg-laying wherever it grows. The mosquitoes that it discourages happen to carry dengue fever and a number of other viruses that cause encephalitis — inflammation of the brain. And it turns out that the plant is also a treatment for inflammation in the central nervous system.
When plants move into an ecosystem, they do so because the ecosystem has been disrupted. The problem is that people don’t ask, Why is this plant here?
Ahuja: What’s an example of a plant population that changed near you?
Buhner: I contracted rather severe pneumonia about sixteen months ago, primarily from overwork. Six months before that, a species of Bidens began growing around my house that is a specific treatment for the damage that occurred in my lungs. So is the bark of the elm trees and the horehound plants that grow around my house.
Ahuja: Isn’t it human activity that normally introduces invasive plants? How do we differentiate between our own actions and the will of an ecosystem?
Buhner: The real question is: Who is the dominant species — us or the plants? Perhaps we are just an organism that functions to spread plant species around the world. Remember: plants and bacteria are integral to the functioning of the planet. We are not. If we disappeared tomorrow, things would continue on relatively smoothly. If the plants and bacteria disappeared, we would not last long.
Ahuja: Who are some of the teachers who have influenced your herbal practice over the years?
Buhner: I was extremely lucky to enter the field when so many were developing their craft and still teaching. There is a relatively unrecognized phenomenon that occurs within the nooks and crannies of Western cultures: unregulated areas of the culture go through periods of phenomenal innovation. It occurred in physics at the turn of the twentieth century, in music in the 1960s, and in healing modalities in the late twentieth century. I still remember being able to buy almost every rock-and-roll album being made, and in the late twentieth century there were so few books on herbal medicine and so few teachers in the field that I knew almost all of them: Rosemary Gladstar, Michael Moore, William LeSassier. It was the greatest flowering of herbal innovation in the West since 1890. I traveled from conference to conference, workshop to workshop, to study with those who moved me. Each of them contributed something essential to my work. I found myself being educated, not schooled. My education as a healer lasted ten years. Nearly all of it was real-world apprenticeship.
The land I bought at nine thousand feet in the Colorado mountains was also a teacher to me. It had never been farmed, ranched, or logged, and the plant diversity was astonishing — like living in the midst of a complex biological pharmacy with a treatment for nearly every medical need.
Now so many people are training in herbal medicine that it is beginning to attract the sober sorts who want to do it for money, as a career. As a consequence it is growing staid and conservative, and it lacks innovation. It is also getting more expensive. Still, it has a vital core of practitioners who have the old spirit. Only time will tell which branch of the tree will survive.
When you use a living medicine and get well, you feel that the world is alive and aware and wants to help you. People often talk about saving the Earth, but how many times have you experienced the Earth saving you?
Ahuja: How did you know you were ready to begin treating patients?
Buhner: I began practicing when the hunger in me to heal was too strong to be suppressed. Those who are meant to heal all have this hunger in them, but physicians are forced to suppress it while they go through years and years of schooling. By the time they are ready to practice, many of them no longer have that hunger. I am deeply opposed to the med-school approach, which destroys the very healers it pretends to create.
Ahuja: What would be the alternative to medical school for doctors?
Buhner: I don’t mean there should be no medical school, only that the present system is dysfunctional. There is no training in empathy, no training in communication, no training in being a companion to people in their suffering, and no training in alternatives to pharmaceuticals.
After graduation young doctors become residents and often go up to thirty-six hours straight without sleep. They are so overworked that post-traumatic stress disorder can occur. Many become arrogant and focused on money and prestige.
Ahuja: In what situations do you find conventional medicine useful?
Buhner: Dental care, eye care, and small surgeries are the most common. I usually see a physician every three years or so for something minor. I have sometimes gone to a doctor for a diagnosis, as I did fourteen years ago when I came down with hepatitis C. Once I was diagnosed, though, I treated myself. It took about a year to reverse the condition. Normally I know why I am going to a doctor and what I want from the visit. The way I look at it, I hire them, and they work for me.
Ahuja: My father is around sixty. I don’t think he could imagine being without his daily blood-pressure pills. What are some alternative treatments for his condition?
Buhner: Regular fasting will lower blood pressure and keep it low. Certain kinds of simple, focused meditation will lower it. And many herbs, such as hawthorn and garlic, will do the same.
Ahuja: Have you worked much with cancer?
Buhner: I haven’t. The only type I have regularly treated is skin cancer, usually on the face. I learned the use of a traditional herb for it from a Mexican curandera many years ago. The root of Swertia radiata — also known as monument plant or green gentian — is finely powdered, then mixed with Vaseline (nothing else will do) and applied to the cancer. It’s left covered for three days. Once the bandage is removed, the cancer generally comes with it or lifts off with minimal effort. I have never had that treatment fail. It is easy, efficient, and noninvasive.
Some types of cancer do respond well to technological medicine, but many do not, and the process is extremely toxic and debilitating for the patient, not to mention bad for the environment.
Ahuja: What made you start looking for alternatives to conventional medicine?
Buhner: For whatever reason, there was always a part of me that refused to accede to the reductionist, mechanistic model. I left home at sixteen and ended up in San Francisco, where I got my GED and started college. In one of my philosophy classes we learned about René Descartes and his famous dictum cogito ergo sum — “I think, therefore I am.” I thought about that for over a year and finally decided that Descartes was wrong. He should have said, Sentio ergo sum — “I feel, therefore I am.” I decided then and there to make feeling the foundation of my life and work and to place thought second.
All of us have experiences in which we encounter something that feels extraordinary: a great tree we come upon in a forest; a person we encounter by chance; a book we find lying on a park bench. Most of us discount such experiences and go on with our lives. I, instead, followed those feelings, and as a consequence my life has been one adventure after another. You might say that this decision enabled me to experience the metaphysical background of the world. I encountered what is really out there, not the static picture we are taught is out there.
The fact that other life-forms possess languages as complex as our own, that they have self-awareness, that they engage in the search for meaning — all of this is hidden from us because of the mental programming we use to process our experiences of the world. But sometimes, despite our habituated not-knowing, we feel the touch of other intelligences in unexpected places, such as a tree or rock formation. The reality police are quick to denigrate such experiences and accuse us of anthropomorphizing. I say they are “mechanomorphizing.” We have much more in common with a tree than we do with a machine like a car.
Ahuja: For someone who has never tried plant medicine, could you suggest a “gateway herb” — something to treat a common condition?
Buhner: Simple ones I use are peppermint for an upset stomach, fresh ginger juice for colds and flu, and honey for wounds that do not want to heal.
Honey is now part of general-practice medicine in the UK for surgical wounds. It will counteract all resistant bacteria that people might pick up in a hospital after surgery. It is also good for serious burns and skin ulcers, as it keeps the wound moist and prevents infection while stimulating skin regrowth with little scarring or loss of muscle tissue. Honey is approved for use in this country, but doctors almost never use it. Why? Because it’s honey. They like technology. They like fancy stuff. They don’t like using remedies that, for years, they’ve said only the superstitious bumpkins use.
Ahuja: You’ve said that pharmaceutical companies are getting out of the antibiotic business. Why?
Buhner: For two reasons. The first is that they don’t make much money on antibiotics, because the drugs are used for short periods only. The second is that they see the writing on the wall. They know antibiotics are going to fail, and they don’t want to be the ones holding the bag when they do. The latest I have heard is that the U.S. government is going to take over antibiotic research and production. Then, when the system crashes, it will be the government to blame, not the drug companies. But no matter what we do, no matter how much time and resources we devote to research, nothing will stop the crash. As David Livermore, the top antibiotic-resistance researcher in Britain, put it, “It is naive to think we can win.”
Ahuja: If bacterial infections become untreatable through conventional methods, what will be the ramifications for our healthcare system, and what role do you see herbal medicine playing in the crisis?
Buhner: Technological medicine will return, rather rapidly, to the late nineteenth century. Most surgeries will be difficult. Organ transplantation will become impossible. Many diseases will come back with a vengeance. Dental work will carry the risk of serious infection. A simple cut to the skin will create an opening for resistant bacteria to enter the body and spread. Cities and towns will turn to quarantines to try to stop outbreaks. We will be immersed in a bacterial ocean containing scores of highly pathological resistant organisms.
Herbal medicine is capable of treating most of the conditions that will emerge, but the healthcare model will have to shift from a war on disease to the alleviation of suffering. We are all going to experience disease; nothing will stop that, and nothing is supposed to stop that. We are meant to biodegrade. We are all biodegrading right now. In the short run a reliance on herbal medicine will result in more deaths, but in the long run fewer people will die, because we won’t be breeding superbugs. Herbs do not create the resistance problems that drugs do. They have far fewer side effects. They are cheaper. They are renewable. They are biodegradable. And they do not destabilize the ecological underpinnings of the world. Herbal medicine is sustainable medicine.
In essence the use of plant medicines is based on a deeper knowledge of our limitations, and on the awareness that death is built into the system. It is irksome to many that something larger than ourselves is putting limits on us. One of the main signs of maturity is coming to accept those kinds of limits — without bitterness, blame, or anger.
Antibiotics have built an artificial wall of defense around the human species. As the bacteria become resistant, the chemical wall must be made stronger, which leads to greater resistance. Every year it takes more and more energy to keep that wall in place. When it comes down, there will be hell to pay, and we will be out of credit.
Bacteria are developing resistance more rapidly every year. It used to take decades for bacteria to develop resistance to a newly introduced antibiotic. Now it takes six months.
Ahuja: How do they develop resistance so rapidly?
Buhner: They are highly cooperative. As soon as a bacterium experiences an antibiotic, it begins generating possible solutions to it. Some people assume it’s the few bacteria that are naturally immune that reproduce and create resistance, and in a minor way this might be true, but it’s more accurate to say that the bacteria intentionally rearrange their genome to produce offspring that are resistant — and some of them can spawn a new generation within twenty minutes. Every time a successful resistance mechanism is created, the bacteria then communicate it to all the other bacteria they meet, teaching them how to rearrange their genome to be resistant. They will often drop loops of DNA containing resistance information that are then picked up by other bacteria and woven into their own genome. When two bacteria touch, they can open small portals in their cell walls and share genome strands.
Bacteria’s strategies of resistance are many and varied. They might pump the antibiotic out of their cells as fast as it flows in. They might rearrange their cell wall to make antibiotic penetration impossible. They might alter the target portion of their cell so that it remains unaffected by the antibiotic. Sometimes they learn how to use the antibiotic as food.
James A. Shapiro, a bacterial geneticist at the University of Chicago, says that “bacterial information processing is far more powerful than human technology.” And, of course, the main place that bacteria share information and create resistance is in hospitals. Hospitals are like schools where bacteria learn to resist antibiotics. It’s not unusual now to see hospitals temporarily shut down when resistant strains begin spreading. Eventually they won’t be able to control the outbreaks. Bacteria are even learning how to live in the disinfectant solutions hospitals use to clean. Other places that are likely to experience outbreaks are nursing homes, prisons, schools — anywhere people are warehoused. The hubris of the medical profession will cause all of us to pay a high price. The myth of Icarus is relevant here.
We shouldn’t be creating substances that indiscriminately kill all bacteria they encounter. Very few bacteria cause human diseases. The vast majority of them are maintaining the functioning of the planet. They are, in reality, a global superorganism. We are bacterial organisms ourselves. We are the innovations of bacteria that, through symbiogenesis, created more-complex expressions to fulfill specific ecological functions.
Antibiotics don’t stop working when they leave your body. They continue to kill susceptible bacteria whenever they encounter them. If bacteria didn’t develop resistance, all life on this planet would die. The annual dumping worldwide of more than a hundred thousand tons of antibiotics into the ecosystem is stimulating changes in bacterial behavior not seen since the Earth moved away from methanogens as the dominant form of organism some 2.5 billion years ago. And yet physicians continue to utilize antibiotics without much thought. We focus on the misuse of painkillers, when the most dangerous thing we do is overuse antibiotics. Resistant bacteria are a more severe problem for the survival of this civilization than oil depletion, global warming, topsoil erosion, and water scarcity.
Ahuja: What would happen if plant antibiotics became widely used?
Buhner: It is important to understand that plant antibiotics are widely used now — by plants. Plant chemistry is not static, the way pharmaceutical antibiotics are. The way plants and bacteria interact has been going on for hundreds of millions of years: Bacteria get into the plant and start to eat it. Since the plant can’t go to the hospital, it analyzes what the bacteria are doing and makes its own antibiotic. The bacteria respond, and then the plant responds to the bacteria’s response, and so on. The plants are continually evolving right along with the bacteria. The plants we harvest for antibiotic use this year will possess a different chemistry than the ones we harvested last year. This is living medicine arising out of a dialogue — another reason why standardization of plant medicines is a fool’s errand.
Ahuja: Is there a country that is widely using herbal medicine today?
Buhner: Many countries in South America, Asia, and Africa are approaching healing with a better model than ours, usually because they can’t afford the technological model. The Cuban model is, I think, one of the best. I have never been to Cuba, but I have read about it and talked to a number of herbalists who have been there. From what I understand, there are six doctors per thousand people. That’s more than twice what we have in the U.S. Cuban doctors visit their patients’ homes to see the conditions in which they live. Patients who cannot travel are treated at home. The physicians spend a lot of time with each patient. There is a heavy emphasis on preventive medicine. Doctors utilize herbs in their healing. People go to specialists or hospitals only if the general practitioners in their area cannot help them. And every family is experienced to some extent in self-care. The costs in such a system are minor compared to ours, and there is little dependence on pharmaceuticals.
Ahuja: How do the mortality rates in countries that use herbal medicines compare with those in the U.S.?
Buhner: The problem with making such comparisons is that infrastructure differences have to be taken into account — access to clean water, sanitation, food, and so on. Just looking at Cuba, however, what we see is that life expectancy is nearly identical to the U.S. Infant mortality is five per thousand, slightly lower than in the U.S.
Ahuja: How does pollution affect herbs and their healing properties? I was making jelly out of Japanese knotweed the other day and had a moment of anxiety because I’d harvested it next to a potentially polluted drainage ditch.
Buhner: We live in a sea of pollution. It is not really escapable. Many plants do act as soil remediators: they pick up, store, and process toxic compounds. The easiest solution is to pay attention to how a site feels to you. You can actually tell the health of a plant or site this way. With experience you can develop what the writer Bradford Keeney calls a “library of feelings,” a concept he roughly translated from the teachings of the Kalahari Bushmen. As your feeling sense grows more acute with use, you increase the size of your library, and it becomes a more reliable source.
Ahuja: Is that the same as what we might call “intuition”?
Buhner: No, intuition is vague: some deep, unconscious part of ourselves senses something and tries, often unsuccessfully, to get the conscious mind’s attention. The library of feelings is stored in the conscious mind. Everything we encounter has an aesthetic dimension to it that we can feel. You build a library by continually encountering physical objects or places and asking yourself, “How does it feel?” If you do this, you learn to interact not with surface impressions but with the deeper dimensions of a thing, to move consciously through a world of meanings.
Ahuja: You once said that an ecosystem that lacks poisonous plants cannot be healthy.
Buhner: The concept of “poison” is not ecological; it is cultural. To the Earth there is no such thing. Buddhist ecologist Joan Halifax writes in The Fruitful Darkness that when we remove mountain lions and rattlesnakes and poison ivy from a habitat, the system immediately begins to degrade, because the people who enter that habitat no longer need to be careful when moving through it.
I find it interesting that toxic plants often move into damaged landscapes. Some specimens are harmful to cattle or sheep who graze the land. Others interfere with industrial agriculture or threaten people. They all have the same purpose: stopping the source of the damage so that the landscape can regenerate itself.
Ahuja: How do wild and domesticated plants feel different to you?
Buhner: Look into a wolf’s eyes, and then look into a domesticated dog’s eyes. That is the difference between wild and domesticated plants. Wild plants do not have water and fertilizer delivered to them on schedule. They do not have pesticides applied if they get infested. They must be strong to survive in the wild. Their chemistry tends to be a great deal more intense than that of domesticated plants. This is, in part, why wild versions of domesticated plants have a stronger flavor that many people don’t like.
Ahuja: It’s clear that you believe communication can take place between us and other life-forms.
Buhner: We have the capacity to receive and interpret the messages of nonhuman creatures, but we tend to think that human language is the only one out there. When we do sense nonhuman communication, we have been trained to believe we are nuts. My life has been filled with such experiences, and a large part of my work has been to share them, so that other people don’t have to go around thinking they are crazy all the time.
This isn’t such a radical idea. People who have dogs know that their animals communicate with them. There is a constant exchange of meaning there between two sentient organisms. This same process occurs with plants, which possess a variety of languages, including sounds outside the range of our hearing. They also “speak” by releasing chemicals. There is little difference between a plant releasing an aromatic chemical through its stomata and a person releasing a word through his or her mouth. Both do so as a process of exchanging meaning with the exterior world.
If the exterior world touches a plant in a way that invites a response, the plant will often craft a specific chemical directly related to the event. Here’s a crude example: If spider mites are feeding on a bean plant beyond the point that’s healthy for the plant, the bean plant will analyze the saliva of the mite, determine what kind of mite it is, and create a pheromone that will attract the exact predator wasp for that mite. At the same time, the bean plant will release other chemicals to tell the plants around it that this particular spider mite is feeding on it, and it will include the information about the pheromone.
Ahuja: In your most recent book, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, you share a story about a maple tree you encountered that made you feel as if “the underpinnings of my worldview were crumbling.” Could you describe that experience?
Buhner: The poet William Stafford once said that it was not through extraordinary experiences that he created his poetry but through everyday experiences that he paid attention to. Amazing things are happening around us all the time; we just don’t pause to notice them.
I had a tree outside a house where I lived for several years in Vermont — a huge old maple. One day I observed that the tree was shivering, almost undulating. Great vibrations traveled up and down its trunk. This went on for several days until finally a large limb came crashing down from the overstory. After that, the shivering ceased. I realized then that the tree had been in the process of self-pruning.
Every time some new evidence of plant-based intelligence intrudes on my awareness, it confronts perspectives about the world that I inherited from my culture or my family or my schooling, and some portion of that received worldview crumbles, and something new takes its place. The world is a great deal different than we have been led to believe. In fact, we know very little about what goes on here.
The ancient Athenians had a word for that moment when some intangible part of ourselves leaves our bodies and touches a living intelligence in the world: aisthēsis. There is an exchange of soul essence accompanied by a gasp of recognition, a deep breath, an inspiration. In the modern West we are trained to discount such experiences, to forget them. But, perhaps out of stubbornness, I have always remembered those moments. For example, one time I lay with my great-grandfather by the banks of a pond in rural Indiana. We did not talk. We just lay side by side, and in that silence something of him came into me, and something of me went into him. The poet Robert Bly has said that something necessary to our humanity is passed on in moments of silence between the man and the boy, the woman and the girl. I also remember a time when I hesitated by my grandfather’s open study door while he was working. For some reason the light in the room had a particular radiance that day. It seemed as if I were seeing a deeper light within the everyday light. That room took on a living radiance, almost a velvety fragrance that I could feel. And the silence there was itself a kind of sound. My grandfather and I exchanged a glance and were held suspended in time while the metaphysical background of the world intruded on our waking experience.
The moment passed, as these moments always do, but we were left changed in its wake. All of us have moments like that, but sometimes we don’t take the time to stop and cherish them — though it seems that poets and small children always do. These experiences are the source of much beauty in our lives. We are poorer for ignoring them.
Ahuja: How have your spiritual beliefs evolved alongside your view of the world as alive and filled with intelligence?
Buhner: The experience of a world filled with soul and intelligence naturally engenders a deep spirituality. As we feel more deeply into the world, we become aware of what Stafford called the “golden threads” that run through the world and connect everything. We become aware of the intelligence and soulfulness in all things. This kind of spirituality is the oldest our species has known. It has little to do with religion, which is the formal structuring of spiritual belief into a hierarchy run by people. Organized religion is the place where you experience what inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller called a “secondhand god.” As I have removed more and more of the defective cultural programming I inherited, my personal connection with the aliveness and intelligence of the world has deepened. I live in a constant state of communication with beings similar but not identical to myself who have stories and adventures of their own. In this place I am never alone.
Ahuja: Why does our culture perceive plants as basically passive and without intelligence? Even our term for a person who loses brain function is “vegetable.”
Buhner: Plants respond on much longer time frames than we do. Older cultures actually did view plants as intelligent, as kin. In fact, most of us just don’t look. If we think something isn’t there, we won’t find it. When former generations of white men believed that women and blacks were intellectually inferior, the idea wasn’t often challenged. Today the intellectual inferiority of plants usually goes unchallenged. Plant neurobiologists are doing some good work these days, revealing flaws in research that says plants have no intelligence. They are mounting an assault on what they call “brain chauvinism.” Plants, it turns out, often possess brains containing far more neurons than our own. A plant’s neural network is embedded within its root system, rather than a “brain” organ. Because this network is not constrained by a skull, it can grow to any size the soil can support. Some aspen root systems cover hundreds of acres and are more than a hundred thousand years old.
Physicians continue to utilize antibiotics without much thought. We focus on the misuse of painkillers, when the most dangerous thing we do is overuse antibiotics. Resistant bacteria are a more severe problem for the survival of this civilization than oil depletion, global warming, topsoil erosion, and water scarcity.
Ahuja: Once one becomes convinced that plants have consciousness, eating a salad starts to feel troubling.
Buhner: Other life-forms must die so that we may live. Don’t worry, payback will come later.
Ahuja: What are you working on now?
Buhner: I have written two books a year for the past three years and am pretty worn out, so I’m taking a three-year break from writing. I need to rest and transition from late middle age into early old age in such a way that I do not become a caricature of myself. Who I will be in old age is not the same as who I was in middle age. It is important to grieve the passing of my younger self: to cherish it, let it go, finalize what needs to be finalized from that stage of my life, and move into the next.
Ahuja: Did you commemorate other life transitions this way?
Buhner: We all know the cliché that men in midlife suddenly get a toupee or a sports car or a new wife, but few of us understand that at every major stage of life — puberty, adulthood, midlife, old age, and death — we move into different territories of the self. The movement into puberty, for example, involves extreme changes in our identity. We leave childhood behind, and it takes time for us to come to terms with this, which is partly why there can be so much rage in adolescence. The extreme emotions we repressed in childhood, when we were too dependent to express them, have to be addressed. We work to resolve the problems we could not resolve then. We experiment with various moral structures to find out who we will be in this new stage of life.
The same dynamic occurs at midlife. We have to look back over our youth, grieve its passing, become who we are now, and learn to fulfill the functions that belong to midlife. The moment a man enters midlife is the moment when he looks into a younger woman’s eyes, indicates through body language and eye contact that he finds her attractive, and gets back the message You’re old enough to be my father. (I’m sure there’s an analogous experience for a woman.) At that moment the new life stage can’t be denied — though many people try.
As we approach death, the process occurs again. Some part of us is passing away, and it is crucial to grieve its passing; to spend time honoring that part of us, how hard it worked for us; to recognize its mistakes; to grapple with the things we left undone, with regrets, with our own limitations, with missed opportunities.
At each stage we have the chance to correct the past to some extent, to do the things we avoided doing. Most of all, we have to understand that our younger self is never coming back. And we always fear that passing, that movement toward the end of life. If we do not come to terms with these passages, we risk becoming less genuine, becoming the enemy of our souls and our memories. We risk lying on our deathbed, looking back, and saying, “I could have.” That is a deep betrayal of the self, one that I am determined to avoid if at all possible. I wish to greet my death knowing that I have left nothing undone.