August/September 2011
Published continuously for 30 years by Interspecies Communication, a US nonprofit


1Floating in This Weird Weather



2Interspecies Health care reform

by Jim Nollman

Some herbs active ingredients play no identifiable role in the actual metabolism of those plants. Yet the sheer abundance of these secondary ingredients makes it difficult to explain their production as a mere coincidence of nature. Some herbalists believe there is only one good explanation for it. Certain plants developed these secondary ingredients to heal the animals who feed on them. These same ingredients eventually came to inform the identical relationship between human beings and plants. Plants that healed effectively, got cultivated. Their evolutionary success was assured. Michael Pollen wrote about this symbiosis in his 2002 best seller, The Botany of Desire. He may have consulted my own 1996 non-best seller: Why We Garden, from which the above  paragraph is excerpted.

While botanists mostly disagree with this symbiotic explanation in terms of animals healing themselves, they agree with it in terms of people healing themselves. In terms of animals, scientists overwhelmingly interpret the secondary ingredients as chemical weaponry — not attractants — that give off a foul taste and an acrid smell to make predators shun them. While no one disputes this judgment in some instances, there is also good evidence that human healers actively observed animal preferences, to determine which animal endorsed which herb, and for which ailment. The objective of this traditional research into symbiosis offered an essential lesson in how healing occurs.

Traditional healers have always maintained that a person’s awareness of the herbs he or she uses directly affects the curative capabilities of that herb. If biochemists interpret such cause-and-effect as “merely” psychosomatic, it is only because they define medicine in terms of chemical causation. Pre-modern cultures have no concept of the psychosomatic. They assert that either we believe something heals, in which case it does heal; or we don’t. How it heals is a more mysterious matter, and of far less importance to everyone but a chemist. The traditional zeitgeist perceives healing as a vital attunement between healer, patient, herb, and disease. More to do with mediation than enzymes. Herbs work by strengthening the whole system of the body, and not just by overcoming the symptoms of a disease. While the biochemist demonstrates an explicit causation as the rationale for strengthening, the pre-modern remedy remains integrative and implicit, because traditional healers grant every aspect of the process an equal power within the whole.

Herbal healing may have begun as a genuine communication among sick animals, human healers, and plants. One day long ago, a gray stringy plant with an astringent fragrance mysteriously communicated a healing message to a wolf with an infected lung. A Native healer out gathering herbs, noticed this ailing wolf grazing on some tree moss. In such a way, humans may have learned the powerful antibiotic properties of Usnea. At our house, we use it in tincture, primarily for bronchitis.

There is much evidence that the earliest gardens were remedy gardens, the place where people grew their medicine. Most of the decorative plants in the famous gardens of antiquity were prized primarily for their healing powers, secondarily for their value as a spice, and only thirdly for their aesthetic value. Consequently, the first gardeners were the first doctors. The gardens of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut were full of the medicinal plants of her time. The famous hospital gardens of the medieval Arabic world foreshadowed the physic gardens of Western Europe in the sixteenth century. Both were remedy gardens. The first botanical garden in all of Europe was started by a pharmacist, Luca Ghini, in Renaissance Bologna. Of course most herb gardens today no longer do dual service as remedy gardens. But if herbs no longer accrue such power, one may well ask why so many of us bother to plant a separate area to contain the so-called herbs?

Before I ever tried to answer my own question of why build an herb garden, I confronted another question: What is an herb? Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs takes a stab at a definition although, it seems to obfuscate the distinctiveness of herbs in a futile attempt to distinguish herbs from spices. According to Rodale, leaves are herbs whereas seeds, roots, fruits, flowers, and bark are spices. Herbs are grown in temperate regions while spices are tropical. Herbs are green and subtle of taste while spices tend to be brown, black, or red, with dramatic, pungent flavors.

Unfortunately, this definition would have us believing that the calendula flower and the echinacea root are spices and not herbs, as are dill seeds and rose hips. In fact, there is no easy way to correct Rodale’s mistaken identity except by donning a Dr. Seuss hat and declaring that herbs can be spicy and spices can be herbal, although herbs may not be spicy and spices may not be herbal.

Calendula, with its beautiful yellow or orange flowers, is commonly retailed as an annual. Despite its current ornamental usage, calendula is one of the oldest and most effective pharmaceutical herbs in cultivation, long used to heal burns, bruises, and skin inflammations. Today it is the active ingredient in several commercial brands of skin cream. When our family grows calendula, it is the flower tops we seek to harvest. Pick them as they blossom. Or, if we wish, we might follow this twelfth century directive for harvesting calendula: “Wait until the moon is in the sign of Virgo but not when Jupiter is in the ascendant.” As arcane as this instruction may sound, it actually offers the sage advice of forgoing the harvest of the earliest blooms and waiting until July or even later when the essential alkaloids of the calendula are at their greatest concentration. To make a tincture, we may no longer wish to soak a handful of the flowers in half quart of whisky for five or six weeks as certain herb books recommend. That would make us smell soused all the time, not to mention that alcohol tends to dry out the skin. Substitute vegetable oil with just a dash of white vinegar added. Rub it into the skin as needed. A dose is five to twenty drops.

An herb garden is a symbolic garden, a semantic garden, a historical garden. It is a drugstore, and also a museum, and thus the decision to commence digging assumes a curator’s perspective as much as a horticultural passion. Contrarily, as a collector of herbs is not necessarily an herbal healer, likewise, an herb garden is not necessarily a remedy garden.

An example may clarify the distinction. Horehound is commonly found alongside parsley or oregano in the herb section of many nurseries. It’s accessibility suggests that many gardeners seek it for their own private herb museums. But horehound is by no means conventionally beautiful. Still, it has the look of an herb; its leaves possess that lovely blue-green, bumpy fuzziness common to so many aromatic plants. When the leaves are crushed, it displays the medicinal fragrance of an herb.

The plant’s name has an evocative ring to it, suggesting a curative history. Yet despite that name’s undeniable potential as a subject for punning, horehound is not named after a bordello dog. It is rather the Egyptian sky God, Horus who is said to arbitrate the curative power of the plant. The Greeks used horehound for curing dog bites.  Folk Legend tells us that because Horus’s hound remedy causes vomiting in strong doses, it also possesses an added ability to break evil spells, somewhat akin to the vomiting/evil spell scene in the movie, The Exorcist. The current demand for horehound is hardly remedial. Few herb gardener’s tap the medicinal properties of its alkaloids, although they often tap the species’ parallel value as a historical conversation pieces. The allure of the plant is predicated entirely upon its look, its aroma, its link to Egyptian mythology, and perhaps to the fact that it was a major ingredient in children's cold medicine until the 1960s. Once horehound is planted, very few herb gardeners ever bother to take the next step of gathering the leaves, drying them, and then steeping them in hot water when their children get congested.

A walk through the remedy museum evokes images of the middle ages: a time when medical technology referred primarily to mortars and pestles; when housewives and monks and pre-feminist “witches” browsed the garden paths on any bright sunny morning gathering dewy sheaves of aromatic plants, pinching a leaf here, a flower bud there, searching out the raw material for daily potions, decoctions, elixirs, and infusions. It is in this capacity that the names of the aforementioned eyebright, skullcap, and selfheal start to accrue much power. The more we walk inside the herb garden, the more we come to recognize that the medieval prototype is the direct antecedent of a late-twentieth century browse down the straight aisles of a drugstore trying to decide whether to buy the twelve-hour cold capsule with eight preventatives, or the six-hour cold tablet with twelve preventatives.

While some people believe passionately in herbal healing, othersare just as passionate to employ the word quackery to describe any such “unprofessional” medicine. That is why so many of the books carrying herbal remedies include a disclaimer to serve as a judicious response to the Food and Drug Administration, the malpractice industry, and the American Medical Association. One of my own herbal recipe books discusses the use of all its remedies as an example of why we need to preserve the ecosystem in the anthropocentric cause of conserving unknown resources. That same emphatically pro-herb book prominently displays this no-nonsense warning:

It is dangerous, possibly even fatal to employ self-dosage or to experiment upon one's self with local plants. Many herb teas have not been scientifically investigated.

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs is less shrill, couching its disclaimer this way:
This book is intended as a reference volume only, not as a medical manual or a guide to self treatment. We caution you not to attempt diagnosis or embark upon self-treatment of serious illness without competent professional assistance. The information presented here is not intended to substitute for any treatment that may have been prescribed by your physician.
Strong words and good advice; although, notice that our society finds no need for demanding such disclaimers at the beginning of books about wine, cars, or handguns. Given the horrific knowledge that continues to accumulate about universal pesticide and herbicide use, about antibiotics laced in chicken meat, and hormones in cow’s milk causing ten year old girls to sprout breasts three years before their minds are able to deal with them, it seems the height of irony that our society does not even consider placing health disclaimers on some of the packaged food found at a grocery store. The fact that disclaimers appear specifically in so many herb books points quite emphatically to the current litigious nature of the healing business.

Both disclaimers imply a lack of common sense and a fear of litigation as much as they voice a genuine concern for the health of their readers. One might wonder if common sense was thrown out with shamanism. Are people that dumb? In fact, an all-inclusive disclaimer  actually implies that the very preparation of calendula skin cream involves a taboo knowledge conventionally regarded to be the exclusive domain of medical doctors, pharmacists, and especially our good friend, the multinational drug company. Yet disclaimers do have their value. They serve to warn the curious to keep such plants as hellebores, foxgloves, and lobelias out of the mouths of the ignorant and the very young.
Here’s this essay’s disclaimer:

Know thyself.

beaked whale
Blainvilles beaked whale. The two points are tusks growing from the lower jaw.


3 Links for August and September

  • Everything you ever wanted to know about pilot whales. This hybrid of a fan club crossed with a marine biology library could never have existed before the Internet.Or how about a travel guide to an oceanic canyon called The Gully, located off the coast of Nova Scotia? Meet the locals. And then spend a few minutes in a portrait gallery devoted entirely to minke whale faces. How about those eyes?
  • Dolphin and whale mysticism is no longer quite so mainstream as it was in the conscious-exploring 1980s. Here are two sites that have stayed the course, and will keep you pondering an extended meaning of "networking". Scott Taylor channels several sources, especially the Australian consciousness explorer Peter Shenstone, in his online presentation of the Legend of the Golden Dolphin. And Mary Getten is perhaps, the best known translator of animal telepathic communication.Want to know what your dog is feeling about the new baby in the house? Or what those orcas were trying to say when they breached ten times in a row in front of your whalewatching boat? Ask Mary.
  • If organizations can be defined psychologically, one might conclude that the International Whaling Commission is pathologically schizophrenic. Newspaper accounts are consistent in reporting a recurring tale of how one branch of the organization will do anything to stop whaling, while the other branch is working even harder (and far more duplicitously) to expand whaling. Here's a good example of the hopelessly deep fissure as expressed at the latest annual meeting. How it could be different when a Japanese whaling town throws a celebration in honor of the first slaughtered of the new season? Or when the overworked whale protection biologists still report that, despite all their efforts to keep internationally-agreed-upon quotas intact, the governments of both Japan and Korea flaunt regulations on their own whaling industries. Does anyone besides me wonder if the 2009 jellyfish invasion of Japan is an indication that the ocean may be starting to fight back? On the good news front, is the US government — In this instance NOAA — not acting quite so earth-backward as it usually does,as it bans the harvest of krill from US territorial waters?
  • Youtube has something important to show us about krill and global health. Let the whale's manage the krill stocks. They've been doing an exemplary job for millons of years. Then take a look at the latest movie from Interspecies collaborator Mark Fischer displaying blue whale calls. After you've watched these, and clicked lots more youtube links to watch other whale videos, why not read the NY Times magazine cover story about how whales are also watching us.
  • Insect miscellany: An excellent NY Time story of an 1870 experiment in ant communication. And a new microphone technology for beekeepers, to keep their hives healthy. From Wired Magazine.
  • Temple Grandin. I've read her books. I have been inspired, especially, by her autistic's description of the non-verbal communication of animals. I'd never heard her speak, until today. Check out this Youtube presentation focused on the unexpected connection between the sensory-based communication of animals and human autism.
birdmirror raven ghost
Finch knowing itself
Raven knowing itself


This brief recording, made way back in 1985, shows what can happen when a fiddle player (Mickey Remann) and a guitar player (Jim Nollman) play simple songs underwater in the presence of wild orcas. It is about 10PM, and we are transmitting music through underwater speakers from a recording studio built into a boat. No editing was done on this piece.

The Interspecies newsletter is edited monthly by Jim Nollman and published with the help of Brett Alton. Brett is now working to overhaul and modernize Check it out later in June. Most links are sent to us by subscribers. Please keep them coming. if you'd like to contribute with writing or images, email: