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The Doctrine of Signatures (DoS)

In 2001, my Mother retired and took the family on a cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage. We flew to Vancouver from Seattle and boarded a cruise ship that deposited us in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. We bussed to Anchorage, and then independently ventured to Kotzebue and Nome. 

In Ketchikan we went snorkeling. Even in August it was not warm by any caliber. At the time, I struggled daily with Raynaud’s, a symptom of an autoimmune crisis my body was encountering, which made my hands and feet very susceptible to cold. My sister convinced me to go, and against my better judgement, I went. We dressed in wet suits. For the time I was in the water, I wasn’t sure that I was going to survive. The cold was alarming and paralyzing. Swimming through the tide, exploring the pools, brought me to this near death experience, and I became invigorated with a heightened sense of life and surroundings in my body’s fight for survival. I encountered small jelly fish flutter past my masked face, as I braved the unknown. Almost like water insects, butterflies, or moths, they gracefully moved with the current. I swam against the current for a time and came face to face with hundreds of these silver dollar sized creatures, but not once was I stung or harmed. The experience of being in this moment was one of profound amazement and awareness.

I could not walk when I got out, most certainly the onset of hypothermia threatening my limbs. All I could think during the next 4 hours as I came back to my homeostatic temperature was, I should have listened to my better judgement. My memory of that snorkeling session is blank from after I encountered the jelly fish, only coming back to awareness as I warmed. “That was a really bad idea,” was all I could conjure.

Much later in the journey, we ventured by plane to Kotzebue, a small town about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We stayed in a small hotel. It was the season of the midnight sun, which made slumber challenging. We toured the Inupiat Native Museum and explored the Tundra while clothed in traditional Inupiat Parkas. The native youths were the museum’s volunteer docents. Their excitement in sharing their knowledge with us generated an unscripted recital of how to look at the environment, food, animals, etc. from their native perspective. They urged, all beings are interconnected. How do we understand the nods nature gives humans for better health and sustainability? Such as how do you know which foods are good for what? Such as, a walnut resembling a brain- and so that means that walnuts are good for the brain. Apples have 5 directions, so they are beneficial for humans. And so on, these docents had a ton to say about their culture and their surroundings. 

While on the Tundra, we were instructed to keep our hoods up for protection. The advice for “protection” was not just for the cold, but for the very sizable blood sucking mosquitos. We encountered mosquitos that happened to be the same size as the jelly fish in Ketchikan. They were absolutely monstrous. As they hovered and flew by my face, I could not help being transported to my snorkeling experience. In this metaphorical memory exchange, I realized that I was meant to see the similarities in these two very different environments. An education moment, where I learned that when on the Tundra, the fur surrounding one’s hood generates static that keeps mosquitos at bay, like the mask worn during a snorkeling session for all those jellies. The incredible understanding that the appropriate attire for the two surroundings would render the small jelly fish too small to sting, and the large mosquitos too large to bite. Like covering one’s neck to ward off invasive wind. And postpartum women should keep their abdomen, torso and body warm, do no strenuous activity. Why? Because the vacuity could give rise to wind, cold, and contribute to weakness as blood is deficient and in need of replenishment.

We also learned that sweet wormwood is an herb that grows naturally on the barren Tundra. It is a good herb for sore throat and other cold induced ailments, the docents elucidated. Much later, while earning my Master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine, I would learn that sweet wormwood- Qing Hao- was also the herb of choice for malaria, and other latent pathogens. Its functions are clear yin deficiency heat, release external wind, stop bleeding, and treat malaria. 

My Dad once gibed, “You know why a marijuana leaf has 5 lobes…? It’s God’s way of giving you a helping hand.” This is also true for Ginseng. In Chinese Medicine Ginseng is called Ren Shen, or human spirit. It too has 5 leaves and Chinese culture knows well that cultivating the plant takes time to allow the plant to mature. Mature plants have three to four prongs, each with five leaflets. The toothed leaflets are five inches long. Plants can develop more than four prongs, but it is rare. These rare occurrences indicate superior quality and will fetch thousands of dollars when sold on the market for medicinal uses. Interestingly the roots of Ginseng look like little humans.

These Inupiat docents were aware of how to accurately recognize when a plant or parts of a plant will benefit the parts of the body it resembles. They were also aware of how to safely interact with their surroundings to prevent illness. Their excitement was in convincing the tourists what they have known for generations, that science and Western Nutrition is just ‘discovering’ with technology to prove or map the various chemical constituents of food, medicine, and adaptogens. Traditional Chinese Medicine has had this awareness for thousands of years, too. 

The Doctrine of Signatures, is a concept that best describes how to think like a native human. “In many cases, a firm belief in the goodness of God who put everything on earth for his people gave rise to the doctrine of signatures, which held that the key to man’s use of plants was hidden in the form of the plant itself; one had only to look closely.” There has always been a a nod from nature to help us hone in on what is food, medicine, adaptogen, or toxin in our surroundings. Awareness of how plants grow in their natural environments gives us resources to resolve the effects of a harsh climate, or deter pests inherent to the environment. Observing how animals behave and interact with their environment, what they eat, and of that what is edible for humans, are all part of The Doctrine of Signatures. It is not only a part of survival, it is the route to vitality and sustainability.  

As we see a movement toward commercial farming, the necessary question isn’t, “is this a route to sustainably growing more food?” The question is, “what harm will be done when technology attempts to make the environment adhere to commercial interests?” Farmers who have lived for generations on their land know how to cultivate it, which crops grow well, how to sustainably rotate crops to benefit the soil, and when to let the soil rest and go fallow. Using chemicals and bioengineered crops will lead to more soil erosion, contaminated water, contaminated food, and humans who are unhealthy due to the absorbed forever chemicals and heavy metals inherent to those additives. Native American culture is based on observation and awareness of one’s surroundings.

My reward for surviving that snorkeling experience was an enduring sense of profound awareness of my being in time and place and our interconnectedness with nature. I’ve found that I have developed a knack for tucking away a memory, thought, need, or question, like missing pieces of a puzzle which has been strewn about in a house. As I move through my conscious surroundings, I collect these pieces and put them together. Eventually I have the whole puzzle assembled, and my question answered enough to move on to the next puzzle. Most questions of survival are answered by deep awareness of one’s surroundings. If one were deposited in an unforgiving environment how would one educate oneself in order to survive? I look toward nature, asking what are the animals doing? Are there invasive species? What types of weeds are here? Are any of them medicinal? 

So, when I encountered an article last week entitled, “The invasive shrub that’s impossible to kill – BBC Future” I was like, Oooh! What is it??? It is Japanese Knotweed. Stay tuned for the next installment in this query, “An Invasive Species.”



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