The Two Wounds
The exterior and interior wounds that have come from no longer sharing
soul essence with the world around us are pervasive, though the interior
one is more difficult to see. The exterior wound, however, is easily
perceived. . . . By now it has widened, deepened, become so severe
that most people routinely acknowledge its existence. This wound is
the logging of the rainforest, the pollution and destruction of rivers
. . . all the desecration of our exterior world. It has been talked
about so much, and we have become so inured, that it is easy to forget
that there is a feeling to this exterior wound. A feeling before words,
before thinking. A simple, deep response from somewhere inside us
recognizing damage to the fabric of life. We can shut these feelings
off. But to understand the impact of the exterior and interior wounds
it is important to feel them—even if only briefly—even
if it hurts.
I had been invited to New York to give a talk on . . . the process
whereby historical indigenous people developed their knowledge of
plant medicines and, to some extent, how, in this present time, we
could explore that process for ourselves. . . .
I asked the students if they knew anything about herbalism or plant
medicines. None of them did. . . . So I asked them, “Why are
And they told me the truth. . . .
I turned to the next woman. . . . She looked up shyly, nervously conscious
of the women on either side.
“Well,” she said, “lately, I have been thinking
of becoming a naturopath. So not too long ago I flew out to Portland
to the naturopathic college there to see if it was something I wanted
to do.” She paused and moistened her lips, her head tilted slightly
down. “Well, there were ten or fifteen of us on a tour and we
were stopped in the middle of this hallway. I wasn’t paying
attention to what the guide was saying, my mind was wandering, thinking
about something else, when out of the corner of my eye I caught a
glimpse as she opened a door to my right. I turned and looked and
it was the room where they keep all the plants, all the herbs they
use for medicine. And I could hear each one of the plants crying out
to me, talking as clearly as I am talking to you now. And there were
hundreds of them.” She paused for a moment, then went on. “I
came today because I thought, that perhaps, something in your talk
could help me understand what had happened. I have been thinking,
you know,” and here she moistened her lips again and looked
nervously around, “that maybe I’m crazy.”
Our disconnection from nature and our disavowal of interior depth—of
soul—from animals, plants, and landscapes occurs all the time
in all of us. But there is more depth in the world than we have come
to believe, than we have been taught. Connection with the interior
world of nature has been a part of our species’ experience for
millennia. Contact with it still occurs when we least expect it: In
the glance in a loved one’s eyes, the shadowed green in an old-growth
forest, the primal power in the majestic walk of a bear. Or, unexpectedly,
in dreams of our grandmothers or our daily interactions with plants.
Since the words to describe this kind of depth are atrophied or no
longer present in our language, the experience, when it does extrude
itself, is often difficult for people to deal with; they sometimes
think they are crazy—crazy and alone, the only intelligent life
form on Earth.
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The Environmental Impacts of Technological Medicine
In their drive to conquer disease, the supporters of technological
medicine have created a great many industrial products: pharmaceuticals;
personal care products (things like sunscreens and antibiotic soaps);
radiopharmaceuticals and chemotherapy; and pharmaceutical delivery
and medical practice products (things like hypodermic needles, latex
gloves, thermometers). All of them end up in the environment. All
of them have significant impacts.
The vast majority of pharmaceutical drugs do not heal diseases—they
control symptoms by introducing chemical mediators, at specific levels,
into the body. People with high blood pressure, for example, are not
cured when they take medication, which is why they have to take it
regularly, often for the rest of their life.
Unlike plants, blood pressure medications, and nearly all pharmaceuticals,
are not a normal part of the diet nor a food previously encountered
in our evolution. So, the human body excretes them throughout the
day in urine and feces: 50-95 percent of each drug taken is excreted
chemically unchanged or unmetabolized.1 As blood pressure medication
is excreted blood pressure begins to rise and more of the drug must
be taken. Drugs used for acute conditions, such as antibiotics, are
usually taken short term; those used for chronic conditions like high
blood pressure are usually taken for years or an entire lifetime.
In consequence, enormous quantities of pharmaceuticals are going through
people’s bodies into the environment, where they are proving
to have powerfully negative impacts in ecosystems. And the quantity
of drugs and other biologically active medical products that are flowing
into the environment is increasing every day.
A recent New York Times article observed that: “Prescription
drugs are now the fastest-growing part of the nation’s health
care bill. That is not so much because manufacturers are raising prices
for existing drugs, but because patients are switching to newly approved
medicines that cost more, and more prescriptions are being written
than ever before.”2 Retail prescription sales for pharmaceuticals
were $42.7 billion in 1991. In 1999, a mere eight years later, sales
were $111.3 billion.3 In the next decade, as the knowledge from the
unraveling of the human genome makes even more drugs possible, this
figure is expected to increase substantially. At present there are
some 500 known chemical receptor sites in the human body affected
by drugs. With information from the human genome project this number
is expected to soar to between 3,000 and 10,000 sites. As Dr. Gillian
Woolett of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association
excitedly proclaimed, “The rate of change is absolutely incredible.”4
The two scientists who have done the most research on pharmaceuticals
in the environment, Christian Daughton (of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency—EPA) and Thomas Ternes (of the Institute of
Water Research and Water Technology in Weisbaden, Germany), comment
that “[This] escalating introduction to the marketplace of new
pharmaceuticals is adding exponentially to the already large array
of chemical classes, each with distinct modes of biochemical action,
many of which are poorly understood.”5
Many excreted pharmaceuticals and their metabolites are not biodegradable
and go on producing chemical effects forever. Most that do biodegrade
are regularly replenished by the need for continual dosing or by new
prescriptions for new people. As pharmaceuticals are excreted in pure
and metabolized forms they also intermix in the waste streams that
flow into the environment in ways that cannot be predicted, with effects
that are not understood. Researchers have found that metabolites,
chemicals produced as byproducts of pharmaceutical interaction with
the body, tend to be more persistent in the environment, and are sometimes
more powerful in their actions, than the drugs from which they are
In 1999 Americans filled 2.8 billion prescriptions covering roughly
sixty-six classes of pharmaceuticals. These include: antidepressants,
tranquilizers and psychiatric drugs; cancer (chemotherapy) drugs;
pain killers; anti-inflammatories; antihypertensives; antiseptics;
fungicides; anti-epileptics; bronchodilators; lipid regulators (e.g.,
high-cholesterol medication); muscle relaxants; oral contraceptives;
anorectics (diet medication); synthetic hormones; and antibiotics.7
These pharmaceutical drugs and the personal care products also manufactured
by many pharmaceutical companies (such as sunscreen lotions, lipsticks,
deodorants, perfumes, and shampoos) are produced in staggeringly huge
quantities; often equaling or surpassing agrochemicals in tonnage.
The number of pharmaceuticals Americans consume is simply astounding.
All of these go into the ecosystem, most of them through excretion
into waste treatment systems.
Chapter Five Notes
1. Christian Daughton and Thomas Ternes, “Pharmaceuticals and
personal care products in the environment: Agents of subtle change?”
Environmental Health Perspectives 107, Supplement 6 (December 1999).
2. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “A Drug Plan Sounds Great, but Who Gets
to Set Prices?” New York Times, July, 9, 2000, section 4, 1.
3. Andrew Sullivan, “Pro pharma,” New York Times Magazine,
October 29, 2000, 21; Kathy O’Connell, “Pill Poppin’
Nation,” The Inlander, July 22, 1998; Milt Freudenheim, “Consumers
across the Nation Are Facing Sharp Increases in Health Care Costs
in 2001,” New York Times, December 10, 2000, section 1, 40;
Sonya Ross, Associated Press “Clinton: GOP Drug Plant Is ‘Baloney,’”
July 31, 2000—on America On Line (AOL); Eli Ginzberg and Panos
Minogiannis, “Medical care in the U.S.—Who is paying for
it?” Journal of Practice Management, 15, no. 5 (2000); “Because
of the costs many poor Americans and most people in poorer nations
are simply out of luck,” Donald McNeil, “Do the Poor Have
a Right to Cheap Medicine?” New York Times, June 25, 2000, 18.
4. Peter Montague, “Headlines: Pay Dirt from the Human Genome,”
Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, #702, July 6, 2000,
online at www.rachel.org. (Hereafter Rachel’s).
5. Quoted in ibid.
6. Daughton and Ternes, “Pharmaceuticals and personal care products
in the environment.”
7. Rx List: The Internet Drug Index (February 24, 2000), online at
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“Plants Are All Chemists”
In 1803 Frederich Seturner isolated the first individual plant constituents
from opium and named them alkaloids, some 140 million years after
complex land plants created them for reasons of their own. Plant chemistry
has not been studied very long in the scheme of things; it is still
not very well understood.
Consider: Each of the estimated 275,000 different species of plants
on Earth contains several hundred to several thousand unique chemicals.
The majority of these species manifest as millions of different individuals,
all of them generating different variations, sometimes significantly,
on their species’ chemical theme. A plant with one thousand
different chemical constituents can literally combine them in millions
of different ways. To compound the complexity, these combinations,
added to those of other plants or of other organisms, produce synergistic
results that are not predictable. Even a tiny change in dosage or
combination can produce significantly different outcomes. Basically,
the little that people currently know about plant chemistry is not
very much. This ignorance is magnified by our tendency (because of
our upbringing) to think of plants as insentient salads or building
materials engaging in chemical production processes that just happened
by accident and, in consequence, have no purpose or meaning. Phytoexistentialism.
Still, here we are.
The Dance of Plant Chemistry
The carbon atoms that become available from the breakdown of CO2 during
photosynthesis form the backbone of all plant chemistry. Plants use
this carbon (along with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen) to make their
physical structure (whether a huge redwood or a tiny violet growing
along a mountain path); primary compounds such as sugar, starch, and
chlorophyll; and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other,
complex, secondary compounds: “acids, aldehydes, cyanogenic
glycosides, thiocyanates, lactones, coumarins, quinones, flavonoids,
tannins, alkaloids, terpenoids, steroids” and more.2 Adding
to the complexity, all these compounds can be made using different
metabolic pathways—different construction techniques, as it
were—and each family of secondary metabolites can contain incredible
numbers of substances. Simply altering the relationship between four
sugar molecules, for instance, can create over 35,000 different compounds.
Over 10,000 alkaloids, 20,000 terpenes, and 8,000 polyphenols are
known. About one new alkaloid is identified each day.3
Even though many of these compounds are present only in parts per
million or even parts per billion or trillion, they exert significant
bioactivity. Their bioactivity can increase substantially, sometimes
by several orders of magnitude, when they are combined.4 Through complex
feedback loops, plants constantly sense what is happening in the world
around them and, in response, vary the numbers, combinations, and
amounts of the phytochemicals they make.
Plant Compounds as Medicines for the Plant Itself
As plants grow, they produce a complex assortment of compounds to
maintain and restore health. These include: tannins; antibiotic, antimicrobial,
and antifungal compounds; mucilages, gums, and resins; anti-inflammatory
compounds; analgesics; and so on. They are stored in different parts
of the plant, being released in varying combinations and strengths
as needed. Often these compounds are highly reactive when combined
or exposed to air and so are kept isolated in holding cells located
throughout the plant. The plant can increase the quantity of any of
these compounds at the point of need or translocate them extremely
rapidly through its tissues.29
Antifungal, antibiotic, or antimicrobial (preinfectious) compounds
protect the plant from invading pathogenic organisms. For example:
The tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) produces a number of strongly
antimicrobial alkaloids (dehydroglaucine and liriodenine) that it
stores in its heartwood to protect it from invasion by microorganisms.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) produces a number of strongly antifungal
compounds to protect its leaves and roots from pathogenic fungi. The
compounds are so potent that even when chicory roots are kept moist
on a plate for lengthy periods they will not mold. Other chicory compounds
strongly protect against damage or infection from nematodes and other
small organisms.30 Plant antimicrobial compounds such as those in
chicory are active against microorganisms in exceptionally minute
concentrations, ranging from one part per thousand to one part per
million.31 During infection other kinds of compounds can be brought
into play. Aromatic coumarins in such plants as potatoes increase
rapidly at the site in response to any pathogenic organism.32 Cyanogenic
compounds are also commonly present in at least a thousand plants
where they are released as hydrogen cyanide gas to kill invading organisms.
In many instances invading pathogens release their own compounds that
are toxic to the plant. Plants immediately begin to identify these
compounds and create chemistries designed to counter them. At the
same time, the plant will begin to generate unique compounds—phytoalexins—at
the site of infection that are never present in the plant until an
infection occurs. When fungal spores take hold on a leaf surface,
for instance, and begin inserting growth tubes into the leaf, a plant
may begin to synthesize a phytoalexin specific for that fungus. The
synthesis begins immediately, can be detected after an hour or two,
and reaches its highest concentration in 48 to 72 hours. The phytoalexin
is concentrated in leaf cells and pushed out onto the surface of the
leaf where the fungus has taken hold.33
Plants, and their chemistries, do even more, of course. They are intimately
interwoven into the lives of all organisms on Earth. And the roles
of plants are still more complex. They exist not for themselves alone;
they create and maintain the community of life on Earth, they produce
the chemistries all life needs to live, and they heal other living
organisms that are ill.
Chapter Seven Notes
2. Alan Putnam and Chung-shih Tang, “Allelopathy: The State
of the Science,” The Science of Allelopathy, ed. Alan Putnam
and Chung-shih Tang (N.Y.: John Wiley and Sons, 1986), 4.
3. David Hoffmann, Phytochemistry: Molecular Veriditas, work in progress,
4. Frank Einhellig, “Mechanisms and Modes of Action of Allelochemicals,”
and Putnam and Tang, “Allelopathy,” both in The Science
29. J. B. Harborne, Introduction to Ecological Biochemistry (London:
Academic Press, 1982), see especially chapter 9, 227–259.
30. Hiroyuki Nishimura, et al., “Ecochemicals from Chicory Rhizome,”
in Biodiversity and Allelopathy.
31. Harborne, Introduction to Ecological Biochemistry, see 227–259.
32. Ibid, 235.
33. Ibid, 242; Shigeru Tamogami and Osamu Kodamal, “Jasmonic
acid elicits momilactone A production: Physiology and chemistry of
jasmonic acid in rice phytoalexin production,” in Biodiversity