The Interconnectedness of Man and Plants

This is an article I wrote for a now-defunct magazine almost ten years ago. I believe it still holds true.

I live in the woods and frequently have city friends come to visit, to “connect with nature”.  While getting out into the country, away from city noise, light and smell, is a great thing to do, Man and Nature are already connected, even for city dwellers.

Plants have nourished every other living thing on this planet since time immemorial.  When thinking about eating plants, most people’s minds automatically turn to the vegetables or salad on their plate.  However, you are indirectly eating plants when you consume meat or dairy products.  Plants nourished the animals that produced those food items, too!

Other plants, namely trees, help keep our air clean by filtering out pollutants. We use their wood to warm ourselves by a fire and build our homes.  Water-based plants help keep water clean for those creatures that drink or breathe it.

We and our green brothers and sisters are the same in many respects … we all need air, water and sunshine; along with minerals for use in our bodies.  The same pollutants that harm our bodies also harm the plants.  Today’s buzzword is “organic” but the idea is not just to prevent the chemicals used on commercial farms from getting into your body and wreaking havoc.  Organically-grown plants are generally higher in vitamins and minerals than those treated with pesticides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers.  The healthier the plant, the more vitamins, minerals, and other substances it has to share with you.

The marvelous thing about plants is, not only are they nourishing, they have beneficial healing powers.  Their unique combinations of chemical compounds have provided us with a way to help virtually every human ailment, with the exception of cancer and HIV (and those are being studied even as I write).

Man has known about the healing power of plants for millennia.  Excavations of Neolithic villages in England and Switzerland have shown that our ancestors there used plants … probably not just as food but for their healing qualities as well.  A prehistoric man found frozen in the Italian Alps carried a piece of fungus we know would have cured his intestinal parasites. It’s estimated he lived 5,300 years ago.

So, how did we find out about all this?  Science says “experimentation”.  Because I hear plants speak, I believe that the plants themselves told us. Before the advent of industrialization and technology, Man lived his life close to and in harmony with Nature.  It’s not hard to imagine someone walking in the woods, feeling very poorly, and hearing “if you eat a few of my leaves, I can help you feel better.”   It’s also not hard to imagine that person, noticing he did feel better after eating part of the plant, take one of the plants home and put it in the ground near the entrance to his cave or hut, just in case the same malady struck again.  The same thing happened to other people and word spread.

Man learned to cultivate plants for both their nourishment and their healing abilities.  In older times, a kitchen garden would contain not only vegetables but herbs.  Herbs would flavor the food, but the lady of the house would also use them to treat the injuries and illnesses of the household.

Science, in its infinite curiosity, wanted to know how the plants did what they do to heal us.  When chemical analysis became available, they started breaking the plants down into their constituent parts and then figured out how to synthesize the “active chemical constituent” or what they thought was the reason the plant worked.  Sometimes they were and are right and the synthetic drug works.  Many other times, however, the synthetic either doesn’t work as well, or has side effects not found if you take the plant in its whole form.

There’s a reason for this.  Plants are much more than their chemical compounds.  They are a harmonious whole, made up of the air they breathe, the water they drink, the vibrations of the sun and moon on their aerial parts, and the minerals their roots pull from the soil around them.  It’s this harmony that works to bring our body back into balance with itself when we use plants to help a human condition. I can think of only a few problems when taking herbs in a correct format and dosage, yet the list of side effects for synthetic drugs seems to grow faster than kudzu.

In a way, Science’s synthesizing did Nature a favor by preventing over-harvesting of some plants.  Synthetic drugs have been a way of life for most people in the Western world for over one hundred years.  However, recent “back to nature” health trends have endangered some plants again, most notably American Ginseng, Black Cohosh and Wild Yam.

Growing your own herbs not only helps prevent the extinction of many plants, it has an added benefit. If the plant lives in the same environment you do, it will interact with your body more easily and, strangely enough, provide you more of what you need than the same plant grown in completely different surroundings.  Admittedly, we can’t grow all the herbs we need. I haven’t figured out how to keep a Commiphora (Myrrh) tree alive in Georgia when it’s a native of the deserts of Yemen.  But the basics like Peppermint, Feverfew, Sage and others will grow just about anywhere, even in pots on a deck or balcony.

Unless we actively cultivate our friends, they won’t be around to help us when we need them.  Grow your own and support groups like United Plant Savers (which keeps an eye on endangered plants) and the Arbor Day Foundation (which advocates planting more trees).  Without our green brothers and sisters, life will not go on.