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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)