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Dr. Wolf-Dieter Storl - cultural anthropologist and ethnobotanist
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Newsletter July 2015
Dear Friends,

I just returned from the 12th International Herb Symposium at Wheaton College, on the outskirts of Boston, where I was invited to hold a lecture and a workshop. A colorful, highly motivated, courageous and inspired group of about one thousand alternative doctors, healing plant teachers, wise women, plant medicine producers, ethnobotanists and authors from all over the world gathered to defy huge pharmaceutical companies, who are obviously not interested in anyone's well-being but only in power and money. There were also lawyers there who - to a degree with tangible success - fight against laws that forbid the use of healing plants and make it possible to arrest midwives and herbal healers for illegal practice of medicine. Such draconic legal accusations can happen to anyone who recommends chamomile tea to a neighbor with a stomachache to a farmer who sells immune strengthening beestings (colostrum: the first milk after a cow has calved) for a sick person.

International Herb Symposium


The guests were not bitter, dogged, "eternal revolutionaries." The spirit of the symposium was more along the lines of a zest for life, goodness and a love of nature. As the hostess, Rosemary Gladstar, a former flower child and successful author, who has organized this meeting for twelve years, says, "Let's not waste energy in fighting ‘evil' but use it to strengthen the good." That could have been the motto of the meeting. Correspondingly, the weather showed itself from its best side with sunny days and blue skies.
The lecturers and seminar teachers were all absolutely knowledgeable. Amongst them was Matthew Wood, who I am proud to call a friend, and who had given me the tip about teasel years ago, the plant that helped me cure my Lyme disease.

International Herb Symposium

International Herb Symposium, Wheaton College

My theme was "Globalization and Aggressive Alien Plants." Thanks to global trade ever more alien plants are growing in America. This is a story any modern day country can tell. The invasive flora comes from everywhere in the world. For the most part - wild carrot, teasel, ground elder, St. John's wort, hawkweed, garlic mustard, swallowwort and others - they came from Europe, and many of them already came along with the first white settlers. However in the meantime the reaction to these invasive plants is panicky. With the big business of massive herbicide companies backing them, the reaction is ever more one of "Shoot first, ask questions later."  That this is a matter for Homeland Security (the authorities responsible for Jihadists and terrorists) is hard to believe for any herbalist or plant friend. Instead of sticking to a system of black and white, good and bad, and supporting the exterminator mentality, I told about the nature of some of these plants, along with their ecological and cultural meaning in their countries of origin. Many of them are important food and/or healing plants. Many of them, such as St. John's wort, for example, have an interesting history and symbolical meaning. Nature is wiser than our short-term, constricted way of thinking. These plants are not "evil" and there is a reason they grow where they grow. I reminded those who were listening of something my Cheyenne friend Bill Tall Bull told me,  "These plants are Mother Earth's children, too, and they should also be treated with respect."

Wort und Wurz

Wort und Wurz (Expected publication date September 2015)

My workshop had the title The Paleolithic Roots of Eurasian and Amerindian Herbalism. The traditional healing lore of the European forest cultures (Celts, Germanics, Baltics and Slavs), as well as the Russians and Siberians, show astonishing similarity as far as healing plant use, gathering rituals, sweat lodges, healing chants and such are concerned. They are also in accordance with Native American healing lore because the Paleolithic mammoth and buffalo hunters brought this knowledge along to the New World. Even though they found a wide spectrum of vegetation in North America, their medicine people stuck to the healing plants that they knew from Siberia. They also stuck to sweat lodges and certain shamanistic practices that are still to be found in the vast Russian territory, the Baltic and Siberia. One of my upcoming books, Words and Worts - the True Story of Our Healing Tradition, deals with precisely this subject. Alongside the scholarly medicine of doctors and druggists, each people, each ethnic identity, has a functioning healing tradition that has grown out of the surrounding bionomics, the plants that grow in front of the houses, the local climate and so on. This old knowledge was passed on in the old world and then in the new world in oral tradition and usually through mothers and grandmothers who traditionally cared for children, ailing people and old people.

Boston Sykline

Skyline von Boston

After arriving in Boston, Ingo and I took a tour through the historic city. Boston was the center of the famous Tea Party in 1773 when the settlers rebelled against the British colonial rule. The young republic was victorious against foreign rule and became a beacon for freedom and self-determination for the entire world. Goethe was also inspired and wrote, "America, you have it better!"  Of course that was a very long time ago. Yin changes to yang, as Taoist philosophy teaches us. The great freedom is unfortunately melting away in our times, it seems, and a new kind of feudalism, that of international, global corporations, is advancing and striving to establish a global hegemony - and this brings us back to the gentle grass root movements, such as expressed in the International Herb Symposium. "We are few, we are small, but a spark lives in us and a spark can start a big fire. Even if the corporations and governments seem so huge, we won't let ourselves be intimidated; the truth is still stronger than lies," Rosemary announces.

But not only do we see historical buildings and colorful urban quarters where Italians or Irish immigrants used to live in Boston. We also see Cambridge, Harvard and MIT with their sprawling, bold building complexes for bio-tech studies where brain driven, wicked primates of the homo sapien species carry on gene and pharmaceutical research with plants and animals, mixing and patenting genetic material. As if it were a mirror of what goes on in the research centers, the trees and monotonous lawns surrounding these cement and glass buildings also look unloved and barren. For dwarves and nature spirits that like to communicate with human beings there is no abode in such places.

Cornus florida

Dogwood (Cornus florida)

When the meeting was over, we drove though the beautiful forest in the surrounding area. Everywhere the indigenous flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) with its huge, creamy white blossoms could be admired, reminding me of my childhood summers in Ohio. Robinia (Robinia pseudoacacia) was also in full blossom, smelling delightfully like honey. In Europe the tree is an invasive plant and fanatical nature purists fight it as an intruder. But it is an excellent bee pasture and acacia honey is one of a kind. The rot-resistant wood is used in mines to stabilize shafts and in vineyards as a lattice; fences and railway ties are made of it. The wood burns nearly as clean as hard coal, leaving very little residue. It can be used as well as any tropical wood for furniture. Native Americans cooked the pods as food; Appalachian healing lore recommends the dried, powdered leaves for stomach ulcers and gastritis; the plant has even been used to help cure cancer.

Robinia pseudoacacia

Robinia (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Big areas of New England are overgrown with wild grapes. This is the proliferous climber that prompted the Vikings to call North America "Vinland" (Grape Land). It was this very wild grape (Vitis riparia) that saved the European wine culture in the second half of the 19th century when vine fretter and blight threatened to decimate the exclusive vineyards of Europe. At that time, philosopher Rudolf Steiner commented, "the grape vine has fulfilled its historic mission and is leaving the earth" but the old kinds were grafted onto fretter-and-blight-resistant American stocks and we can continue to get tipsy with cultivated kinds of wine, after all.

During the two days that remained after the symposium, we visited Cape Cod, which is located on the beautiful coast and where in 1620 the Puritan pilgrim fathers had landed. The native Wampanoag Americans gave them a friendly welcome. One of them, who was named Squanto, could even speak fluent English. He had been captured as a slave and taken to England from where he had escaped and made his way back in a very adventuresome way. Without Squanto's help the pilgrims would have starved and died miserable deaths. The natives gave them corn, showed them which fish are good to eat and finally celebrated Thanksgiving Day with them. Roast deer, turkey, corn, cranberries and other delicacies were served. But soon tensions grew. The Puritans realized that the natives were wild, "godless" heathens and difficult to convert. After 1630, when thousands more Puritans arrived, hostile encounters occurred. Epidemics, battles and expulsion nearly decimated the natives.

Aquinnah

Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard

On the island Martha's Vinyard there is a cliff called Aquinnah, which is made of white-yellow clay with a red streak drawn through it. For the Wampanoag it was a sacred place where their culture hero, a giant named Moshup, had smashed a whale, which caused the red streak in the clay. There is a restaurant near the cliff where we decided to try some famous clam chowder. I was surprised to see that Native Americans were running the restaurant. One could see that a lot of European and African blood had been mixed in but they were obviously Native Americans.

"Yes, there are not many of us," the waitress confirmed with a friendly smile, "but we Wampanoag are still here." "Now you surely regret that Squanto was so friendly to the Puritans and saved them from starving," I commented. "What else should we have done? One tries to be good," she answered.

With best regards,

Wolf-Dieter Storl