Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his daughter in which he said something to the effect that the only point of an education is to recognize bullshit! I very much agree with that, and over the past few years my own bullshit detector has almost worn out under the onslaught of vintage crap. I want to scream when politicians claim that they are following the evidence – when it’s evidence that they only just finished dreaming up on the back of an envelope. Science, of course, is supposed to be free of those kinds of bias – except it’s not. Too much science is bought and paid for, or suppressed by huge conglomerate industries who want you to believe that there’s nothing new or troubling about having glyphosate in your urine.
Of course it’s always been a bit like this. An old friend – a scientist with a mission to debunk dodgy claims – once showed me the catalogue of a local supplier of herbal remedies. It was full of testimonials to the fact that after only two days the correspondent had coughed, passed or otherwise voided tumours of considerable size and been returned to perfect health. Herbal medicine has always suffered from charlatans who prey on the desperate – which is a shame because in genuinely scientific trials, thousands of herbal remedies have been shown to have some merit. Drug companies have played a dirty double game making vast fortunes by identifying and synthesizing useful components of herbal medicine whilst lobbying to make sure that small scale herbalism is hamstrung by regulations preventing any claims of efficacy.
Madame and I have been reading the same book – “A Midwife’s Tale” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which unravels the 27 years covered in the diary of Martha Ballard; an American midwife and local healer. For her, the plants she harvested in the neighbourhood and those she bought from the local doctor were the mainstay of her work, and although sometimes it takes a little research into local names, many of them find a place in Culpeper’s Herbal. What’s fascinating is the way that over the period the Harvard trained – therefore male – doctors began to dominate and push the women to one side.
Reading some of the entries you quickly realize that Martha Ballard’s herbal treatments didn’t – weren’t intended – to cure the multitude of injuries and illnesses that presented themselves, but to relieve symptoms; to bring comfort and some hope where there was none. This kindly battle against ordinary everyday suffering took place in a society without the means to heal many of the diseases modern medicine has almost vanquished. The drift into scientific medicine has immeasurably improved our life expectancy, but not without the loss of a huge resource to deal with the everyday complaints.
I was so intrigued by the diary that I began to think about the Potwell Inn allotment. Over the years we’ve planted a few things that we were aware have some healing properties. We make Calendula ointment every year, for instance because it’s tremendously useful for minor skin problems and costs a fortune to buy. The upshot was that I had a quick search through a modern translation of Culpeper edited by Steven Foster and discovered that we presently have forty two plants, mentioned and used by Culpeper, growing on the allotment – and it’s only 150 square metres. There are at least twenty more growing on the whole site, and I could find another twenty or thirty growing in the immediate vicinity – up and down the river and the canal. The canal is an especially useful resource because the narrowboat community would have sown patches of useful herbs along the length of their route to London. Essentially, these aren’t rare plants at all, but they’re potentially very useful – if not miracle cures – for the everyday ills we all know.
I’d argue that the loss of the traditional knowledge of these remedies is a factor in the overloading and breakdown of the primary care system. The doctors won the monopoly to treat all our ills, but now that the funding has shrunk, they’re completely overwhelmed – often by precisely the kind of ordinary and non life-threatening problems the old remedies were best at dealing with.
The other point worth mentioning is that the list of useful plants on the allotment seems to sit somewhere in the middle between food and medicine. I suppose it’s blindingly obvious, but the distinction between the two categories is entirely arbitrary. Eating well keeps us well – is that so hard to understand? Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we all become amateur herbalists, but that knowing that a plantain leaf is even better than a dock leaf for soothing nettle stings is one to pass on to the children, and the commercial herbal remedy we use for coughs is more effective and less dangerous than some of the heavily advertised alternatives. There are dozens of potentially effective remedies for minor ailments that would help to keep us out of the doctor’s waiting room – that’s if you can find one anyway!
So that’s a third arm to my argument in favour of gardening – it keeps us fed, it keeps us fit and healthy and it keeps us mindful. Someone should write a book about it – maybe it’s me?
Anyway the excellent news is that we now have a common frog living in the little pond. Here’s a photo – we think it’s beautiful.