By Mark McKibben
Summer 2009; Farming & Gardening - Issue 56, Vol. 14
At Uriel Pharmacy we want to change the world! We make anthroposophic remedies— but what does that really mean? It involves a radical take on being human and how illness and inner development relate to each other. What am I talking about?
Permit me just a few words to set the stage before we dive into making a remedy. Like so much in life, the first step is often to back up and look around, to see “what’s happening” in the light of what has happened already—then various ways forward can reveal themselves in context. This assessment is no mean feat of mental effort if we are intent on a thorough consideration that is likely to yield meaningful results.
Let’s take Uriel’s Plantain/Spruce Cough Syrup as a specific example of this process of figuring out what is going on, and work it backward and forward in time to see what perspectives it can offer. We collect the lance-like leaves of Plantago lanceolata in the spring before they flower, the growing tips of spruce trees (ideally in September), and make them into a syrup of organic sugar cane juice and water. Additional ingredients are wild cherry extract and homeopathic amounts of butterbur root, sundew, cochineal, ipecac, skunk (!), white hellebore, Christmas rose, china bark and belladonna.
So far, so good, but this is all merely informational; it doesn’t tell us why these things are good for coughs or how they were found, how they compare to other ways of treating a cough or when to use this or something else. Most people have no idea what these arcane ingredients even are.
Looking backward in time, ancient peoples have had more intuitive awareness of nature, of the properties of stones, plants and animals and how they can be used. It’s all been lost, of course, traded for our new standard of intellectual awareness and resulting technology. So there is an historical, evolutionary perspective. Reaching forward, a deeper understanding of nature and people requires strict observation and reflection on our experiences to reclaim what was lost and to put it to good use. It’s a long road, there are plenty of distractions, but this is the productive, progressive way forward if we are to unite the richness of intuitive understanding with a modern thinking awareness.
Let’s attempt a few observations and reflections of this kind in relation to plantain and spruce. Dark green plantain leaves emerge in early spring when the ground is moist and the air is cool. Their gesture is clearly linear, shooting up from the base into the light. Mucilaginous substances are found in abundance. The slender leaves are tough and beset with silvery siliceous hairs.
Spruce trees are ornamental, steeple-shaped evergreens of cold climates with stiff, sharp, four-edged needles. They grow as far north as the tundra. Like all conifers, they maintain warmth and life all year round by means of resins and essential oils. Their appearance is strongly structured and tenacious.
How do any of these observations relate to coughs? Typically, respiratory illnesses involving coughs are winter diseases, when cold and dark threaten to overwhelm us. Chilled lungs can lead to collection of excess fluid and coughing is an attempt to clear the airways. We have a water process occurring in the wrong place. The water process is at home in the liver, for example. The liver is a spongy, watery organ without any shape of its own—its apparent shape, as pictured in anatomy books, results from other organs and tissues pressing on it from all sides. When “liver activity” exceeds its bounds, it can affect the lungs. In pneumonia there is even a stage called “hepatization” where lung tissue starts to look like liver tissue. In order to overcome coughing, we need a way to “warm up” inside, to retain our internal warmth, and to maintain fluids in their proper place.
The structured, tenacious, aromatic warmth qualities of spruce can be “just what the doctor ordered.” Plantain thrives in cold, wet circumstances of early spring, and also has a tenacious, light-related quality both in its straight-to-the-sun gesture and the silica (quartz-related) hairs. In a way, the plants show the body how to handle adverse circumstances involving response to cold.
In addition, we have minute amounts of some pretty serious plant poisons and a couple of objectionable animals—how about rectal gland secretions of the skunk? Don’t you go “Ugh!” and “Gag” just hearing about it? But that reaction itself points to a deeper understanding of what skunk is and why it might be good for the cough. The smell has been described as a combination of rotten eggs, garlic and burnt rubber. Now, there’s a smell for you! When zapped directly by skunk spray we are gripped by a powerful influence that ruins our day, but do we reflect on it? Consider when you are gripped by a violent cough or watch someone else in a fit. I think there could be a connection. Or take the sessile cochineal bug. It lives as a parasite on a cactus and is picked off to yield carmine-red dye—and a little cough medicine. Sessile means it just sits there, acting like a plant most of the time, an odd mixture of plant and animal. Poisonous plants arise when the animal or “astral” world contacts the vegetable or “etheric” world too intensely. Flowers are the colorful harmonious interface between the plant and animals worlds. Bees and butterflies come to visit the stationary plants. In the case of belladonna; its dark purple, almost black fruits look rather alarming and are highly poisonous. Cinchona bark from South America induces fever in overdose, while ipecac causes vomiting. Cough conditions are a response to disharmonious interaction between the water and air organizations of the body, hence remedies that embody disharmonious relationships can be indicated—they “picture” the illness process. Butterbur root grows along and even directly in stream beds, and creates huge roundish water-drop-like leaves up to four feet across, revealing its intense relationship with fluids, yet its root is aromatic and spicy, showing displacement of typical flower elements (warmth, scent) into the depths of the plant. Sundew, in contrast, is a slender little waif of a plant with round leaves growing in acidic peat bogs. Its sticky hairs attract little bugs which it then digests, exemplifying yet another odd interaction between the animal and plant worlds.
Perhaps the foregoing suffices to briefly outline a anthroposophical way of observing and assessing nature and illness. To understand why a substance, animal, vegetable or mineral would be useful to treat something, we have to understand what we are looking at, both in the nature process and the healthy and diseased process. This is the long path with distractions referred to above, just as Christian Rosenkreuz had to travel some distance and have various adventures before reaching the alchymical wedding to which he was invited. At Uriel Pharmacy, we begin this path by fostering contact with nature, giving ourselves the opportunity to bring observation and thinking dynamically together. Herb gardens are placed outside the laboratory window, where we can look while preparing remedies and we visit local forests and peat bogs to collect ingredients. Sometimes travel to foreign lands is required!
We started with the question, what is anthroposophic medicine anyway? It’s a big one that is difficult to answer briefly, but part of the answer is how we look at human beings; we are more than physical-chemical processes; we are spiritual beings evolving through life to discover meaning. Being sick at times enables us to become aware of new meanings, especially in the getting better part. Nature too has a spiritual element working into the physical, with which we can become better acquainted by observing nature and our experiences, and then reflecting.