“The trend in bacterial development of antibiotic resistance is not unlike the increasing resistance of agricultural pests to pesticides. In 1938, scientists knew of just seven insect and mite species that had acquired resistance to pesticides. By 1984 that figure had climbed to 447 and included most of the world's major pests. In response to heavier pesticide use and a wider variety of pesticides, pests have evolved sophisticated mechanisms for resisting the action of chemicals designed to kill them. Pesticides also kill the pests' natural enemies, much like antibiotics kill the natural enemies of harmful bacteria in the body.”
– by Michael Schmidt, from Beyond Antibiotics
What if I told you weeds and bacteria we are trying so hard to kill could save your life? Would you think I was crazy? I've been doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking lately, and I've come to realize that much of what we are told in our day to day lives is not only inaccurate, but flat out wrong. Here are my latest thoughts on our wild and tiny neighbors.
Plants That Heal
Earlier this year, I signed up for a self-study herbalism course through the Herbal Academy of New England (HANE). During the intervening months, life has been as crazy as usual – possibly even a little more crazy. My husband got word he was losing his current job right about the same time he was notified that he had been hired for a new job closer to home, something we've been hoping for for nearly five years. This has prompted a whole series of chain reactions, including addressing some long wanted projects around the homestead like updating the root cellar and other storage and adding many more plants outside. Instead of diving into the online course, I've been working my way through the recommended reading list. Specifically, I've been focused on “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief” and “The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth“. What I found out was amazing.
It turns out that plants are way more aware of their surroundings and interactive with their surroundings than I ever realized or imagined. Take a tree in a forest. Each tree hydraulically lifts water from deep within the subsoil and breathe it out as they breathe out oxygen. Stephen notes in “The Lost Language of Plants” that, “On a hot summer day, a mature cottonwood tree can breathe out 100 gallons of water in an hour.” You know the coolness you feel in the shade? It's not just from the sun being blocked. At night when the trees sleep (yes, trees and plants do sleep), they deposit water just under the surface of the soil. Roughly 2/3 of this water is used by other plants – all that green stuff filling a healthy forest floor. Cut the trees = stop the water flow = create desertification. This is why clear cutting is so devastating to the environment. The “forest” of the “rain forest” creates its own rain. This is why efforts like the Green Belt Movement, which focuses on replanting trees, are so powerful in reversing environmental damage and desertification. By providing food, water and fuel, these trees give life back to struggling communities.
In another section of the book, the author discussed how trees of the same type were girdled, that is, they each had a strip of bark removed from all the way around the tree. Anyone who knows trees knows that this is deadly, and sure enough, the trees growing away from other trees died quite quickly after having the bark removed. But a strange thing happened to the tree that was in a grove of trees. The other trees reacted to the injury of the damaged tree, and sent help.
“The closely intertwined feedback loops in plant communities automatically note when any member of the plant community is ill and the mycelial networks (soil fungus) just under the surface of the soil transports necessary chemistries to them. Healthy plants connected to the mycelial network increase their production of whatever chemical is needed and send it to the mycelia for distribution. Trees that are intentionally girdled by scientists (they cut a circle of bark from around the trunk of the tree which will kill it so they can see what happens) are supported with nutrients transported through the mycelial network from other plants. They can live for years while plants that are disconnected die within a year.”
The mycelial network is something like that scene in the movie Avatar where the ground is all lit up with this interconnected glowing blue grid – except of course our network isn't blue or glowing.
Question – is it possible that since plants can communicate with each other, we can communicate with them, too? Many herbalists believe so, and talk about being guided to use a specific plant for different needs. I used to think this sounded pretty “out there”, but as I work with plants (and I am just scratching the surface), I'll get a feeling that a particular herb may be helpful for one thing or another, and more often than not, some research reveals that my intuition has been right. Since plants can change their chemistry based on environmental stimuli, this would be a very useful thing indeed.
Many “weeds” have been used to treat cancer. Recently, dandelion roots made headlines as George Cairns used them to cure his cancer, and research grants have been issued to study dandelion root as a cancer cure. Violets have also been used to treat cancer and other diseases. Herbal antibiotics are sometimes effective against bacteria that are resistant to standard antibiotics. Yarrow has been used to stop bleeding, reduce inflammation and fight infection. Wild adaptogenic herbs like ginseng have been used to treat depression (without the nasty side effects) and improve general well-being. We are surrounded by plants with the power to heal and maybe even save lives, and we wage war on them with herbicides, hoes and fire. Isn't it time to reconsider those barren patches of grass wrapped around our homes and businesses like green tablecloths?
Life Saving Bacteria
“If bacteria had not developed resistance to antibiotics it is doubtful whether any life would still exist on our planet; sufficient quantities of antibiotics have been produced over the past fifty-five years to kill off all bacteria, and hence all life on Earth, many times over.”
-by Stephen Harrod Buhner, from “The Lost Language of Plants”
I wrote about my less than immaculate housekeeping habits in the post, “In Defense of Dirt and Grime – Germs Don't Cause Disease“. Since then, I've become even more convinced that we are going about “fighting illness” in a very backwards fashion. Our approach to wellness seems to revolve around killing, that is, killing or getting rid of all the bad things that will make us sick. The thing about killing is that it is messy, and there is often collateral damage. When we use antibiotics and antibiotic products, we are also killing off good bacteria. This is really important, because without bacteria, we'd all be dead. A single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria – why are we so scared of them?
The bacteria in our bodies help us digest food, and produce nutrients that we need to be healthy. The good bacteria in our bodies are also very protective of their turf. They will generate their own antibiotics to kill off bad bacteria – no joke. In “The Lost Language of Plants”, the author notes that “a form of streptococcus bacteria that normally live in the human throat, over time (as they increase in number), produce large quantities of antibacterial substances specifically active against Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria that cause strep throat.”
Donna Schwenk of Cultured Food Life has changed dozens of lives for the better through her mission to share probiotic live cultured foods with people through her website, videos, book and courses. “Probiotic” literally translates to “for life” or “life giving”, and these traditional foods filled with healthy bacteria and other microorganisms have improved the health of many. You can read a long list of pro-bacteria testimonials here. I don't know Donna personally, but I've admired her work for years.
My friend, Wardeh Harmon of GNOWFGLINS, is also another wonderful advocate for the use of fermented foods. She has a great online e-course in lactofermentation, and has written a book called, “The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods“. Both are great resources to help you introduce these foods into your diet. I'm a GNOWFGLINS affiliate, which means that if your purchase her course through my site I get an affiliate payment, but even if I wasn't, I'd recommend it anyway, because she's pretty amazing. I don't know how she finds time to get done everything she does.
Weeds and Bacteria are Not Our Enemies
I've rambled on for long enough, and if you've made it this far I appreciate your diligence. I'll be back to more standard fare in the weeks, like a great guest post on cast iron, an introduction to solar water heating, some pantry tips and some time in the garden. We've also got some great giveaways lined up with a cast iron cookware set and a stove to cook on, organic fertilizers, a gorgeous recipe book and fermenting tools and more. I just wanted to share what's been on my mind as I learn more about natural healing, and to encourage you to keep an open mind and keep asking questions, too. We have so much to learn together!