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Book Data

ISBN: 9781931498760
Year Added to Catalog: 2005
Book Format: Paperback
Book Art: photographs, appendices, resources
Number of Pages: 8 x 10, 352 pages
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Old ISBN: 1931498768
Release Date: April 30, 2005
Web Product ID: 329

Also By These Authors


The Herbalist's Way

The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines

by Nancy Phillips, Michael Phillips

Foreword by Rosemary Gladstar

Excerpt #2

A profile of herbalist Matthew Wood from Chapter One of The Herbalist's Way


Matthew Wood

INDIAN PEOPLE learned about certain plants for medicine and food by watching the bear dig up roots, tear off barks, and collect berries with its claws. The bear is a totem animal for the native healer, bringing empowerment from the dream world. Bear medicines (osha, lomatium, and balsam root) are the first plants the bear seeks to eat each spring. The resins in these roots work on the lungs, heart, and liver. Native Americans believed the bear was taking care of the people by pointing out these remedies for the aeration, circulation, and metabolism of the body.

The herbal renaissance has a modern-day bear to similarly heed in Matthew Wood. This Minnesota herbalist prods at the roots of healing traditions, seeking integral understanding of body systems and plant energetics. “I spend a lot of time going through the old books,” explains this eclectic explorer. “I see phrases that don’t mean much today, like keeping open the kidneys, or the condition of the skin, or keeping open the bowels. I didn’t initially get that this was a medical system.” Little by little Matthew has come to realize that hese expressions have meaning that tie together seemingly different approaches to therapeutics. An intensive teaching schedule has helped him articulate these fragments of lost healing wisdom into a congruent whole for other herbalists.

“Remember in the movie Little Women? The mother comes back to treat the daughter who’s sick, takes down the covers, and says, ‘We have to get the heat down to her feet.’ She instantly knew what to do. These simple folk-medical ideas were the common property of doctors, mothers, grandmothers, healers, and herbalists in the nineteenth century,” notes Matthew. “These medical sayings are still in our blood. Our ancestors want to speak. They healed and they know things . . . we can pick up hints from them and realize we do know about medicine after all.”

Finding a language that meshes such folkloric perception with modern medical understanding is the challenge. “I recently made a big conceptual shift. The nineteenth-century botanical doctors refer to five different tissue states. Modern allopaths can get down to microscopic lesions, but the old doctors could only see general conditions of the body. Tissue overstimulation or irritation or heat would be one, contraction or spasm another, then relaxation. Those three are the basic biological response states that happen in living tissue. In addition, there’s atrophy, or lack of nutrition, and then there’s depression. These five tissue states correspond closely to causative agents long recognized in traditional medicine: hot, damp, dry, cold, and wind. This has knitted it all together for me. These five tissue states have analogies to old medical systems as well as roots in allopathy and nineteenth-century botanical medicine. It’s simple, yet it takes in so much. I have not been a fan of simplifying everything to four or five elements, till I understood these tissue states. Then, all of a sudden, boom. I began to read the nineteenth-century botanical literature with fresh eyes. Everything they do gets defined in terms of these five tissue states, again and again and again. If you can define what you are looking at as one of these five states, and then understand what organ systems are involved, then you’ve got it. My work has gotten much more precise and clear and easy.

“I always felt from the beginning of studying herbal medicine that I didn’t want to practice in a way that is boring, that is not uplifting to me. I don’t want to be a doctor and just do mechanical diagnosis. Understanding what goes on in the body energetically cultivates my senses, my observational skills, and my mind to make deductions and put things together by intuition. This develops my own soul and spirit so that I am growing while my patients are growing. Otherwise it would be an imbalance.”

Matthew considers himself a clinical herbalist of the Western tradition. This good- humored man prefers to get right down to the business at hand in these consultations. “I take their pulses, make note of indications in their tongue and skin, and hear what their doctor had to say. If it’s a fairly acute, superficial condition, and I have the right remedies for it, I figure I won’t see people again because their problem will be helped. But for a more subacute or chronic thing, I might need to see people two or three times over a half-year period. I don’t get as much into lifestyle changes, eating, psychological factors, et cetera. I believe the herbs will change people.”

Here is an herbalist renowned for low-dose recommendations— as in, one to three drops of a specified tincture. Matthew perceives that the plants work in our bodies on a much deeper level than the mechanical explanations offered by phytochemistry. His homeopathic application of herbal remedies can be puzzling, until you recognize this man’s broad grounding in spiritual intent. “We need to understand the herbs as living beings, as personalities, as entities in themselves,” he explains, “that we treat with respect and that we can know and understand. I am a believer in a shamanistic interaction between medicine plants and people.” A friend of Matthew’s had eaten a poisonous mushroom, known as a Death Cap. When he got to her house, he gave her a few milk thistle seeds. The staff at the emergency room were not too hopeful for this friend’s chances. Whether it involved an atypical antidote or spiritual trust, the woman walked home the next morning.

“Some of us arrogant types start out thinking we know it all. The herbalists who go around speaking at conferences tend to be people who have a lot of selfconfidence. We need these kinds of trailblazers who’ve figured things out on their own. Speaking for myself, I can say that when I knew a lot less, I thought I knew just about everything.”

Matthew accepts that his views may be spurious to some. Certainly, like the native bear, he gives us much to ponder. His Book of Herbal Wisdom rates high in our collection of herbals, providing a thorough cross-referencing of many traditions. Physical indications and pulses are just a part of his tool bag, as he simultaneously calls upon intuition, psychic acuity, and past experience with plants and people to help him choose the best remedy. Matthew always comes back to an understanding of general broad patterns. “Say you have an upset stomach that goes on and on. You go to the doctor, then come back again after another month. They give you a barium enema. It turns out you don’t have cancer, so they say bye. You either have cancer or you have nothing they want to know about or can treat or help. The old medical books—and our herb books—say dyspepsia, ulcer, acidity, bilious distress, flatulence, bloating. We treat all these. Many of our simple herbs, the carminatives, like dill, fennel, angelica, are warming, drying, and help to dispel gas and bloating. This is just the wisdom of the ages, but it’s ignored in modern medicine.”

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