Dirt Medicine

The phrase “Dirt Medicine” came into my mind a while ago and I’ve been unable to shake it.  In thinking about Dirt Medicine my concept has become clearer and more evolved.  It is becoming a call to action for me as a Naturopathic practitioner.  As a distinct system of medicine, Naturopathy has its own set of foundational principles.  There are the six tenants of Naturopathic Medicine, upon which I will doubtless expound in future blog posts.  But I feel certain that these principles arose from and are built upon something simpler, an undeniably true foundation.  The underpinnings of Naturopathic Medicine are not a discovery or an invention that were scientifically synthesized in a laboratory setting.  It, Nature, just is, and has been, and has been recognized and valued by wise people the world over for as long as humans have existed.  I call this foundational principle Dirt Medicine.  It is not fancy or shiny or modern.  Dirt Medicine has its origin in the earth, in the soil, in the basic idea that we are part of our environment, that we have a place in the ecosystem.  Part of the reason that we as a species (some cultures much more than others) are often sick, be it depression, cancer or diabetes, to name just a few, is because we have forgotten these humble beginnings.  We have forgotten to respect our bodies and our environment as inter-related, as intricately entwined, as One.  We evolved as part of this beautiful green and blue ball but we behave as if we are something separate, different, superior, as if we are immune to the rules which govern our existence.  Naturopathic medicine and Dirt Medicine is a call to remember, and to act.

Medicine, and for the moment I speak of herbal medicine, which was the basis for all pharmaceutical drugs (the old English word “drogge” translates to “plant”), grows up out of the soil. Plants have evolved to produce thousands of chemical compounds in their leaves, stems, flowers, roots, seeds many of which they do not need for their own survival. David Hoffman, British herbalist, author of many herbal manuals and one of my earliest and most lasting of herbal influences, asked in one of his lectures in my early courses on herbal medicine, why we thought the plants did this. His answer was simple and profound: “they do it for us”. Now, the “us” in his statement may need to be somewhat unpacked.  Not the self centered human “us” but the “us” of environmental community.  This is the “us” that recognizes that without the bees which rely upon the flowers to feed them we lose the pollinators of most of our food staples.  The “us” that understands that the meat animals that we consume rely upon grasses.  They, the plants, probably do it, first, because they do it out of an evolutionary generosity, a mutually beneficial arrangement, because they evolved that way. But we humans, just one of the species of animal that inhabit the same environments as these plants, also rely on plants, as food and as medicine. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” Hippocrates is oft quoted as having said. We are reliant upon the soil, the microbes and the minerals in the soil that nurture the seed into a seedling. The substance which holds up the root system so that the plant may rise up to where it will meet the sun and rain.  That it may grow to form all the complex chemicals that when ingested, become us.

In order for these complex plants to become us, we have to be able to take them in, to digest, absorb, metabolize and use them as building blocks for all of our cells.  We must be healthy enough to assimilate all of these nutrients and compounds so bountifully produced for “us” by the plants.  In this we are dependent upon another whole idea of soil.  The human gut microbiome, so much talked about in modern medicine all of a sudden, has been a concept in Naturopathic Medicine for decades, and longer.  The soil of our beings, the microbiome, often becomes out of balance, as after use, or overuse, of antibiotics, exposure to chronic stress, daily excessive sugar intake, dysfunctional gastric protection situations (like what the “purple pill” or digestive acid suppressants can create).  We are rendered incapable of defending ourselves, of digesting our foods and so of gaining the nutrients that are still in our foods.  If you want to grow a healthy garden full of food that is vibrant, highly productive, has good defenses against pests, disease and weather fluctuations, you have to start with healthy soil.  The same goes if you want to grow a human who is vibrant, highly productive and has strong immunity against disease.  We have to attend to the soil, inner and outer.  We have to return to humility of our place within our environmental community.  The word humility, by the way, derives from the word “humus” or soil.  To be healthy, we can’t think that we live above the soil.  We are the soil.  This knowledge is “Dirt Medicine”.  And the good news is that it is available to all of us for the owning.