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The Syuxtun Collective: Restoring Reciprocity with Health & Nature

Syuxtun Collective inspecting plants at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden.
Tea, Tincture and Oil: The Making of Traditional Plant Medicine
We have forgotten how to be medicine to the land, and to ourselves. The members of Syuxtun Collective are revisiting lost indigenous wisdom of learning and listening, of harvesting and preparing plant medicine in participation with nature.
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What does it mean to participate?

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” a beautiful, indispensable meditation on the gifts of reciprocity and participation with nature, she writes:

In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top — the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation — and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn — we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance… They’ve been on the Earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.

These words are no mere abstractions. They are an irresistible invitation to open up to a dynamic, reciprocal conversation with nature; to drop into learning from, and participating with, the silent wisdom of our plant ancestors.

Pomo woman using seed beater to gather seeds into a burden basket, 1924 | Edward S. Curtis Collection (Library of Congress)
Pomo woman using seed beater to gather seeds into a burden basket, 1924 | Edward S. Curtis Collection (Library of Congress)

A meaningful conversation relies heavily on the art of listening — to words, yes. But equally, and perhaps more so, to the spaces in between them, to the silence, to the information and unfolding wisdom that is available to us if we are able to connect to that silence. Instead, our unlistening minds are racing, eager to find the next clever or witty thing to say, to prove or disprove an opinion or agenda. We lose ourselves in the quest to be right, to dominate and control the conversation.

We stop participating.

This loss of authentic participation and reciprocity is evidenced not only in our relations with each other, but with our health, our bodies, and with the plants and animals with whom we share this planet. Many of us are coming to know and name this loss of authentic participation as the deep sense of isolation and helplessness that has become a hallmark of our culture. Despite relentless virtual “connectivity” through our screens and gadgets, we’re unable to ignore the gnawing pit of loneliness within.

We have become testaments to a way of life that has deadened our senses not only to true participation with living nature, but with our own living bodies. The result is a proliferation of chronic disease, and a culture of dependence on aggressive pharmaceuticals that — like the unlistening mind — is interested only in silencing symptoms and controlling undesirable conditions, regardless of the costs, or side effects.

In contrast, Indigenous land stewards in California, for instance, still maintain a participatory relationship with nature, medicinal plants, and with health. The Syuxtun Plant Medicine Collective, made up of members of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation from Santa Barbara, and pioneered, among others, by ethnobotanist and herbalist Julie Cordero-Lamb, exemplify this subject-subject relational co-existence with our plant allies.

The Syuxtun Collective is named after the original village that Santa Barbara is based in. The word syuxtun, Cordero-Lamb tells me, literally means "it forks." That Cordero-Lamb picked this name for the Collective is significant: as humans, we are at a crucial fork in the road when it comes to realizing that the health of our individual, dynamic ecosystems is intimately connected to that of the Earth’s. This is no conceptual abstraction of the sentience of nature as something to be discussed and debated. As Cordero-Lamb so potently puts it, “There’s medicine that you can consume and there’s medicine that you can be.”

There’s medicine that you can consume and there’s medicine that you can be.
Ethnobotanist and herbalist Julie Cordero-Lamb, founder of the Syuxtun Plant Medicine Collective

In allopathy, a disease or ailment is viewed in isolation. The person’s life history, lifestyle, diet and unique constitution are rarely considered; in other words, the dynamic, sentient ecosystem of the individual wherein an imbalance has taken place is generally ignored. And consequently, pharmaceutical drugs are administered, to first and foremost suppress the symptoms, and then to “manage” them. Addressing root causes, which would involve participating in making often challenging lifestyle changes, is more often than not, disregarded. We are given pills that bring some short-term relief — along with manifold long-term complications, not least addiction — and in so doing, we give away the power to participate in our own healing journeys. We neglect tending to the living soil of our health, injecting it instead with the equivalent of aggressive chemical fertilizers that deplete and destroy our inner biodiversity.

Similarly, pharmaceutical companies view the properties of medicinal plants in isolation. A chemical compound in a plant is identified, isolated and patented. The whole plant, the ecosystem that it is part of, the health of the soil in which it grows, and the humans and animals it has a dynamic relationship with is viewed as insignificant at best. What’s valued is the isolated compound, and the potential for patenting it, because: profit. It’s no news to anyone that Big Pharma’s agenda is not health, which after all, is not profitable. And yet, we continue to cede our power in participating and collaborating with our health, and doing the often difficult, but always rewarding, work of making changes to lifelong habits that do not serve us.

Of course, the allopathic model has valuable benefits and uses. Fixing a broken limb or undergoing necessary surgery is vitally important. The discovery of penicillin has been nothing short of a miraculous achievement of the modern age. Beyond that however, where prevention through nutrition and lifestyle, identifying root causes, listening and paying attention to one’s unique constitution and ecosystem and with the whole living system of a particular medicinal plant comes in, the conventional “scientific” model falls short. We have sacrificed true participation with our health in favor of quick fixes that bring with them their own litany of dangerous consequences.

"The Merits of Our Cocaine," an advertisement published in Practical Druggist 8, 1907 | NY Academy of Medicine
1/6 "The Merits of Our Cocaine," an advertisement published in Practical Druggist 8, 1907 | NY Academy of Medicine
"Louden's Indian Expectorant" | Library of Congress
2/6 "Louden & Co.'s Indian Expectorant" | Library of Congress
"The Hindu Remedy for Asiatic Cholera" | Library of Congress
3/6 "The Hindu Remedy for Asiatic Cholera" | Library of Congress
"Dr. Hope's Vegetable Sasparilla" label, 1896 | California State Archives
4/6 "Dr. Hope's Vegetable Sarsaparilla" label, 1896 | California State Archives
"Dr. Hope's Cough Cure" label, 1896 | California State Archives
5/6 "Dr. Hope's Cough Cure" label, 1896 | California State Archives
"Dr. Hope's Ague Cure" label, 1896 | California State Archives
6/6 "Dr. Hope's Ague Cure" label, 1896 | California State Archives

In forgetting that symptoms are the smoke signals that our bodies send us as a way of communicating with us, of inviting us to participate in a dialogue towards health and balance, we have stopped listening. Instead, the prevailing western scientific paradigm has become one based on the transactional nature between subject and object. In this system, the “object” whether it’s our health, our bodies, or nature, is objectified to the point of lifelessness. Participation, and its companions, reciprocity and dialogue, are not possible with an object rendered lifeless. And this is the foundational bedrock of the allopathic model.

Through participating with nature, with our plant allies, and with our health, the Syuxtun Collective is responding to “the fork in the road.” Instead of ignoring this crucial choice point, and pretending that it will go away if we just carry on as “normal” by adhering to the Cartesian world-view of nature — within and without — as lifeless, and therefore something to control, dominate, exploit and commodify, the Syuxtun Collective embodies the power of living in subject-subject communion with the Earth and her gifts.

Yarrow | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Atlas de poche des plants des champs des prairies et desbois, 1894, public domain
1/16 Yarrow "is used for fever, common cold, hay fever, absence of menstruation, dysentery, diarrhea, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal (GI) tract discomfort, and to induce sweating (rxlist.org)." Illustration originally published in Atlas de poche des plants des champs des prairies et desbois, 1894 | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Willow | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Histoire des arbres forestiers de l'Amérique septentrionale,1812 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
2/16 "Willow bark is used to ease pain and reduce inflammation (pennstatehershey.org)." Willow is the progenitor of asprin. Illustration originally published in Histoire des arbres forestiers de l'Amérique septentrionale,1812 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Pitcher Sage | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Wildflowers of California 1902, public domain
3/16 Pitcher Sage "Teas were made from the leaves of Pitcher Sage to treat colds. Seeds were ground, toasted, and then eaten with other seeds (snmtc.org). Illustration originally published in Wildflowers of California, 1902  | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Wild Ginger | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Wildflowers of California 1902, public domain
4/16 Wild Ginger "was a popular carminative and used to relieve generally upset stomachs. It was also used to treat intestinal ailments, and relieve stomach aches and cramps, as well as indigestion (wp.stolaf.edu)." Illustration originally published in Wildflowers of California, 1902  | Biodiversity Heritage Library
White Sage | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Field Book of Western Wildflowers 1915, public domain
5/16 White Sage "medicinal uses include treating excess sweating, colds and sinus infections, and indigestion (healthyeating.sfgate.com)." Illustration originally published in Field Book of Western Wildflowers 1915  | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Sage | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Field Book of Western Wildflowers, London, 1915 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
6/16 Sage "has a long history of medicinal use for ailments ranging from mental disorders to gastrointestinal discomfort (medicalnewstoday.com)." Illustration originally published in Field Book of Western Wildflowers, London, 1915 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Mugwort | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Norden's Flora, 1923, public domain
7/16 Mugwort "[is] used to stimulate gastric juice and bile secretion. It is also used as a liver tonic; to promote circulation; and as a sedative (webmd.com)." Illustration originally published in Norden's Flora, 1923  | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Elderberry | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1874, public domain
8/16 Elderberry "berries and flowers... are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that may boost your immune system (webmd.com)." Illustration originally published in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1874 | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Brodiaea  | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Wildflowers of California, 1902, public domain
9/16 Brodiaea "corms were an important starch source in [the Native American] diet (wikipedia)." Illustration originally published in Wildflowers of California, 1902  | Biodiversity Heritage Library
Nodding Thistle | Biodiversity Heritage Library |  Familiar Garden Flowers (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
10/16 Nodding Thistle "leaves and seeds are useful as a bitter tonic to stimulate liver function (wildflowers-and-weeds.com)." Illustration originally published in Familiar Garden Flowers | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Aster | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Familiar Garden Flowers (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
11/16 Aster "A poultice of the root has been used in the treatment of pain, fevers and diarrhea. The ooze of the roots has been sniffed in the treatment of catarrh. A decoction of the whole plant has been used in the treatment of all kinds of fevers and in the treatment of weak skin (herbnet.com)." Illustration originally published in Familiar Garden Flowers  | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Marigold | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Familiar Garden Flowers, 1907 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
12/16 Marigold "[heads] are well known for their wound healing and antiseptic properties, but modern herbalists have found a wide variety of uses for them, including: an alternative analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent, bactericide, carminative, depurative, diuretic, emmenagogue, stomachic, styptic, and tonic (offthegridnews.com)." Illustration originally published in Familiar Garden Flowers, 1907 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Meadow Crane's-Bill | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Familiar Wildflowers Figured and Described, 1878 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
13/16 Meadow Crane's-Bill "possesses hemostatic properties and can work as an agent to stop internal hemorrhages. In addition, the herb is used for hemoptysis (expelling blood or bloody mucus), hematuria (presence of blood in urine) and heavy menstrual bleeding and externally to stop bleeding and heal wounds (herbal-supplement-resource.com)." Illustration originally published in  Familiar Wildflowers Figured and Described, 1878 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Athyrium | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Album of Indian Ferns, 1887 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
14/16 Athyrium Fern "A tea of the boiled roots has been used to treat general body pains, to stop breast pains caused by childbirth and to induce milk flow in caked breasts (naturalmedicinalherbs.net)." Illustration originally published in Album of Indian Ferns, 1887 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Blechnum Fern | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Album of Indian Ferns, 1887 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
15/16 Blechnum Fern "has been found to possess promising antioxidant, anticancer, antidiabetic, antimicrobial and wound healing activities (impactfactor.org)." Illustration originally published in Fern Album of Indian Ferns, 1887 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Various plants from the apple and plum family. | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Rocky Mountain Flowers 1914 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
16/16 Various plants from the apple and plum family. Illustration originally published in Rocky Mountain Flowers, 1914 | Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Indigenous traditions of tending the land, of living in dynamic, reciprocal relationship with our plant allies, of learning to listen to, and communicate with them, have all but been lost at the hands of colonialism and its legacies. Our health has also fallen victim to this loss. We have forgotten how to be medicine to the land, and to ourselves. Groups such as the Syuxtun Collective not only teach a remembering of this lost indigenous wisdom, of learning and listening, of harvesting and preparing plant medicine in participation with nature; they also strongly emphasize the importance of, in Cordero-Lamb’s words, “regenerative horticulture.” In essence, this is based on the indigenous science of exploring how embedded we can be in an ecosystem as a dynamic member of it. This seems to be the very definition of community, from the micro out to the macro; from the complex systems of atoms, cells and organs in our living bodies, all the way out to the networks of mycelium in the soil, to the communities of plants nourished by the soil.

“What’s really needed to combat climate change,” says Cordero-Lamb, “is a shift in world-view from the commodification of nature towards a more reciprocal, regenerative one.” When it comes to our own health, this can only have genuinely healing effects: we can begin to learn to work in collaboration with medicinal plants, learn how to nourish and care for them, and allow them to do the same for us. Most significantly, we can learn to participate in a system of healing that creates an empowering resilience instead of a disempowering dependence. This is a foundational tenet of all so-called indigenous healing modalities, including western herbalism, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Native American plant medicine. It is not sustainable for human or environmental ecosystems to operate in a vacuum, where lifelong dependencies are peddled as beneficial to health and well-being. When the chemical compounds of a plant are isolated and patented, that plant becomes a lifeless commodity to be exploited forevermore. The human in turn becomes a mere consumer, with no active, reciprocal participation with the drug that she has become dependent on. Indeed, all of the healing traditions named above generally advise in favor of a “cycling on and off” period with the healing herbs and plant medicines they prescribe. This allows a person’s constitution to self-regulate, regenerate and build resilience, instead of dependence. And it prevents the plants from becoming relentlessly exploited and commodified.

We do not need to be of Chumash descent in order to learn to listen to and live in reciprocity with the Earth.

Groups such as the Syuxtun Collective are custodians and guardians of precious indigenous wisdom; wisdom that comes from the land itself, and that has been handed down generation after generation, barely surviving the onslaught of colonialism. But survive it has. And collectively, we are all at a fork in the road. We are experiencing first-hand the pathological ravages of colonialism and its dangerously reductive, binary-based world view in nature and in our bodies.

We do not need to be of Chumash descent in order to learn to listen to and live in reciprocity with the Earth. But we can look to organizations such as the Syuxtun Collective to guide us, and teach us so that we may also become custodians and guardians of valuable indigenous wisdom that this planet deeply needs us to learn and live at this time.

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