Another day comes to an end – I sit, in complete silence, the only sounds in the house are the tick-tock of the cuckoo clock, and an occasional rustle as embers settle in the grate. This is winter – not yet the deep mid-winter, but it is Samhain eve; to Celts the start of a period of limbo lasting until the midwinter solstice. And, as the sudden jolt of the arrival of winter weather, and the metaphorical thinning of the veils converge, I find myself being stripped back by the time of the year. Just like the leaves are stripped off the trees leaving mere skeletal hulks where once greenery and blossom once flourished. This is winter – of the season, and of the soul’s fortitude.
The dispensary is sleeping too – I have just finished dispensing prescriptions for delivery or dispatch tomorrow morning. Everything is clean and put away, another long day’s work done. A bit like the year. 2017 has been a full on tangle of teaching, travelling, working, and practicing. I am now sitting on a metaphorical harvest and should be satisfied. But I do not feel satisfied in many ways, and my thoughts are restless and turn towards questions that have been swirling round my head for some weeks now. Why do I do what I do? What do I get out of it? What do I want it to become? How does it sustain me? Is it worth the bother? As I sip a glass of mulled wine, my thoughts start falling into order.
Why I do what I do – the answer is simple; to make people feel better with natural medicines. But that’s only half the story. Why do I really do it? Because I have a message to share; ideas to preach to anyone that will listen. About what constitutes good health, and how to hold onto it, or improve it. About the forgotten medicines of our ancestors that are being maintained and, as our modern world chances how our health functions, are being made relevant once again to the new world in which we find ourselves. And to remind people that, inspite of our delight as a civilisation that we have ‘mastered’ the world around us, that the natural world still has many secrets to those who but would look, and much health-improving things to give us – be they the medicines themselves, our connection to nature around us, or an understanding of the complexities of the natural world and our effect on it, and its effects on us.
Unfortunately, our modern world benchmarks success in terms of money – or power, or connections, reach, influence – in reality just another term for your ‘effect capital’ – how everyone should be striving to be the hub of the wheel, not the spoke. How do I fit into this dynamic? Well, though the bills get paid and I make a living, I’m certainly no tycoon or magnate. In terms of the effect on my patients, the clinic is often not as busy as it could be. Though patients come to me in a steady stream, no-one’s queuing round the block to see me, or waiting for appointments. But I like to think that I make a positive impact on people’s life and function – this is what I’m here for after all. Whether people consciously know it or not, I am able to see clinically significant positive changes in people’s health – and this makes me happy. If I improve things for even one person I’ve done my job, and what I do is worth it.
But more importantly, through what I do I am exerting an effect on myself. I am challenging myself to understand people. Detractors of the way in which I treat people call anything that’s not mainstream medicine ‘unscientific’. Yet, the way I was taught to consider the treatment rationale of any clinical discipline is purely scientific. It’s the hypothesis technique. You get a picture of a patient through the clinical encounter and then you form a hypothesis of that patient based on the understanding of the encounter, and administer treatment appropriate to the hypothesis. The hypothesis is tested by seeing if what you administered works, and to what extent, allowing you to further improve the hypothesis and then re-test through adjusted treatment. In effect, the encounter is a feedback loop. But to form the hypothesis you have understand the person that has come to see you, in all their complexity. It truly pushes you to take things in in a very complete way. So one of the things I get out of the clinical encounter is to push myself – to broaden my horizons way past the breadth they would be if I were not a holistic clinician. I am obliged to broaden my horizons of judgement and consideration, and to understand the essence of the person through the complexities of their story, complicated as it is by the lenses of judgement, experience, and prejudice – lenses that, while everyone has them, are often not appropriate and must be tempered with objectivity.
I also get the interaction with my materia medica. One of the true wonders of the way I have chosen to implement the practice of my profession is that I take the medicine from seed, to plant, to medicinal product, to medicine, to patient, to result. It is a cycle; and the cycle begins with the plant growing either in the wild or in my garden. Either way, it is rooted in nature. The more time goes on, the more I realise that my connection to nature has been wholly potentiated and deepened by my continual entanglement with my materia medica in it’s raw state. I now cannot just go and walk the dog, I have conditioned myself to take every moment in the wild, or indeed in the garden to be a shopping trip into nature’s bounteous pantry, from which I never know how I will be enriched – whether by gathering something, or just interacting, seeing, noticing and learning about the abundance of medicinal plants around me. So, the practicalities of my profession enrich me too.
Perhaps the real question to ask as night deepens, and the candles burn dim, is: what’s the game plan here? Where is this going? How can it improve. Well, the answer to that is to make people aware. To make them aware of my role, not just as a herbal ‘doctor’ – a clinician just like their GP, but with different drugs. It is to inspire people to see the herbs themselves, and the alchemical processes that they engender in our connection with them as a force of nature – a message from the limbic system of the earth to the limbic system of our bodies – a message of hope, depth, healing and understanding. To open peoples’ eyes to the complexity and beauty all around us that these amazing plants symbolize. And to make our environment relevant once more. To get people seeing wonder where once they saw weeds – and to get them to fight to protect the marginalised and trivial parts of the natural world around them.
How it sustains me will depend largely on what I set my sights on. In setting up and running a business, the unfortunate reality is that I have spent the past three years measuring my success by my financial income. I can happily report that my income is increasing happily year on year. But I’ve lost myself somewhere in an Excel spreadsheet. In keeping the books in order and the accounts in balance I’ve forgotten to account for the other things that equal sustenance. This year I have travelled over 10,000 miles for work – met hundreds of people and helped scores of them. Been to places I’d never have got the chance to go to and seen things that will enrich me to the day I die. I have learned so much. Through doing, and by studying. Another EMS course taken, and a return to finishing a course in Aromatic Medicine – two completely different areas that deepen and enrich my practice. 900 miles walked (According to my fitness tracker) on countless days of just exploring and taking in nature. More nights than I can shake a stick at spent making over a hundred litres of tinctures and other medicines – these are the gains that never show up in the dispassionate ‘money in less money out’ columns of my ledger.
Perhaps it’s time I started accounting for my business (and path in life) in a radically different way. While the Inland Revenue gets my tax returns, maybe it’s time I started filing my ‘value returns’ – from what have I got value, where is it going, and who has received it?
So is it worth the bother? Undoubtedly. But I need to find nourishment in the process, not the result. And revisit how I keep track of value and worth beyond their cost and profit.