Sunday, November 4, 2012

Women and Nature

Looking for an intriguing quote to start this blog post about women's relationship to nature, I sadly found myself unable to come up with even one quote talking about the ancient bond between females and nature...unless it was a reference to the ever-scary, "Witchcraft ". 

You see, I thought it would be a good lead in to what I learned in the historical novel, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, written about the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in the 1700's.  An herb woman, Jeanne Baret dressed as a man to serve as a botanist's assistant in search of new healing plants.  Called "the beast of burden" for her hard work and dedication, she discovered plant species she would never get credit for.  Even while on the harrowing voyage, the ship's crew would come to her rather than the ship's doctor, who was prone to cutting off a limb to cure them.

The book explained how herb women in the early 16th century possessed an unrivaled knowledge of the plant kingdom while educated male scientists only knew what they had read in scientific publications.  This anecdote from the book, told by the Renaissance scholar, Otto Brunfels, provides a perfect illustration.

"According to Brunfels, a contemporary physician named Guillelmus Copus of Basel gave a dinner party for his fellow physicians from the Paris Faculty of Medicine.  Pulling a leaf from the salad, Copus asked his guests if any man could identify the herb.  None could, and all agreed the tasty addition to the salad must be some newly introduced exotic.  Calling in the kitchen maid to see what she might say on the matter, Copus watched the surprise on his guest's faces as the woman announced the 'unidentifiable" herb to be parsley."

Early male botanists and doctors knew the most expansive knowledge of the power of plants resided with herb women who passed their accumulated wisdom through the female line of their families.  Many doctors paid local herb women a small sum for the healing plants and the knowledge of how to use them.  Doctors then used the herbs for their own work, happily taking the credit while enjoying social status and power not available to the women. 

Here in 2012, women still learn from other women family members and friends about natural ways to heal an illness.  As a mother and woman in my 50's, I know this tradition continues.  When our daughters (some young mothers themselves) want to know how to bring down a temperature, what to do for an upset stomach, or how to take care of a thick cough, it is their mothers, grandmothers or aunts they call first.   There is no need to consult a scholar.

Think about where you learned how to treat a sick child using a hot pad, a steamy shower, or bowl of broth.  Sometimes just a warm hand over the troubled spot augmented with ginger soothes nausea.  Insect bites stop itching with a poultice of baking soda.   Peppermint tea to help the digestion.  A salt rinse with a neti pot controls the symptoms of hay fever. 

My teachers have been the women I know, the women before them and the women before them.  Our healing remedies aren't written down, they are passed down, similar to the best family recipes where grandma used a pinch of this and a little bit of that and you learned by her side.

Women are the keepers of the tribe and the keepers of nature because those two things are inseparable.   Perhaps there isn't enough written about it, then again, perhaps there doesn't need to be.  After all, the knowledge is safe with us.

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