Exploring Our Inner Ecology: Understanding and caring for our bodies and the environment as unified systems
This is an essay written by Railyard Apothecary volunteer Jessica Rich, University of Vermont senior, environmental studies major.
"I don't trust a garden, or a gardener for that matter, that hasn't any weeds..."
- Christopher Hobbes
In Taoist philosophy, nature is viewed as infinitely wise and it is believed that through the observation of nature we can learn to better understand ourselves. Taoism often draws similarities between natural landscapes and the human body and, through this observation of natural ecosystems, highlights connections to help deepen understanding of the inner body .
There is great value in fostering a perspective that recognizes similarities of form, function and flow between our bodies and ecosystems. Adopting a perspective that perceives nature as a greater reflection of the human being, can allow us to restore our sense of place within—rather than separate from—nature. Further, we can use this scope of knowledge to care for our bodies—and maybe our surrounding environment too—with more depth. Additionally, finding moments in nature that resonate with our bodies, can be opportunities for us to grow our understanding and connection to our innate being.
By drawing on similar ideas rooted in Taoist philosophy, we can explore how we—humans and ecosystems—function, what weakens our state, what enhances it, and what enlivens it.
Again, the outer world, in many layers, can mirror our inner world because we are both living systems. And through this lens, we can explore an array of parallels between them. Here I will discuss a few: first, that increasing diversity enhances the resilience of living systems; second, our bodies are systems and like ecosystems, intervention that focuses on support, rather than control, enhances their resiliency. Finally, I will touch on how inner and outer ecologies speak in patters.
Diversity and resilience are linked in natural systems. Specifically, ecosystems rich in diversity are more able to resist shocks; the same idea is true in our bodies. For example, in farm ecosystems, soil health is vital to the system’s overall productivity and resilience and can impact plant growth. In the human body, our guts play a prominent role in the health of our immune systems. Our guts and soil both have a microbiome. Systems with abundant and diverse bacteria in their microbiome will impact how they thrive or not. A plant, for example, might survive drought not because of something inherent to its physiology, but because of the diverse symbiotic microbes in the soil .
Furthermore, natural ecosystems, with diverse bacteria, flora and fauna will be more able to bounce back when hit with disturbance such as severe weather or disease outbreak. By promoting biodiversity in soil through sustainable farming practices (ie: polyculture & organic cultivation) the soil microbiome can prosper. For humans, as it turns out, the old adage applies: we are what we eat. Our bodies are built from ingredients our mothers ate during our initial development and what we eat throughout our life . Food and herbs are the building blocks to create resiliency and promote diversity in our bodies. Evolutionary biology recognizes that evolution is substrate driven, and food is a key substrate. If you want to foster an improved body, diet is the way to do it . Specifically, one way to enhance resiliency through food is by eating a diet that promotes diverse bacteria in our gut. Again, our gut microbiome is full of beneficial bacteria that support our immune system function; consuming fermented foods or drinks (kimchi, kombucha) fosters a diverse gut microbiome.
Another important concept to embrace when thinking about ecology, is systems thinking. A system can be defined as a set of connected parts that function and form as one. Our bodies and ecosystems act this way: they have many interconnected parts but act as a unitary whole. Through systems thinking, we realize that you cannot alter one part of a system without affecting other parts too. This concept is illustrated through pesticides in farm ecosystems and, similarly, with pharmaceuticals in our bodies. Pesticides are intended to kill undesired pests and weeds, but when they are applied, they end up killing not only the unwanted pests and weeds but beneficial soil biota too. This weakens overall soil health and farm ecosystem. Instead of complementing and supporting the farm system, to enhance its function, pesticides use a controlling approach.
A similar effect is often seen in our bodies when we take pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical drugs are typically designed to treat a single issue in the body, but in doing so, they may simultaneously weaken or disturb other areas within the body. While pharmaceuticals are certainly necessary at times, their compositions are often foreign and disruptive to our inner terrain. Imagine the list of potential side effects for pharmaceutical drugs: they are often longer than the list of potential benefits . In a 2011 analysis ADE reported to FDA that about two to four million people suffered serious, disabling, or fatal injury associated with prescription medication. Additionally, a study by Dr. Barbara Starfield, reports 7000 deaths/year from medication errors in hospitals and 106,000 deaths/year from non-error, adverse effects of medications . Fortunately, we can still resource to more ancient forms of medicine—herbalism.
Herbalism, healing with plants, can be woven into our lives, into our diets—simply in our presence too! Herbs can be used as preventative medicine, in hope to lessen the need for pharmaceuticals in our lives. Herbs can also provide foundational support and be used alongside and to compliment pharmaceuticals, when necessary. Moreover, the physiologic complexity of plants, matches that of our own and therefore can gently and holistically treat our many layers, physical, emotion and spiritual. For herbs are unlike modern day pharmaceuticals, in that they are similar to physiologic building blocks . Herbs can treat us in the short term, but they are most vitalizing and effective in their rebalancing and supporting capabilities, slow and steady for the long term . Finally, having plants in our lives—consuming them often, not only when we feel sickness approaching, but as a daily practice, can lead us to true health, brightening our lives and those around us too.
“How do I farm the garden inside myself?”
- Baylen Slote, LAc
The language of permaculture draws often on the word “pattern”. Patterns can help us understand much about a given system. Two ecosystems, for example, may be similar in form and function, but they have unique patterns. Natural systems are patterned in varying ways, such as how they harvest energy, how it is used and then cycled through the system . We too have patterns that are unique and of our own. Two people, for example, may experience similar symptoms but they experience them in different patterns . Drawing on this metaphor of patterns in garden ecology and our own bodies we can tune in to noticing our own patterns. Through patience and observation, we can better care for ourselves.
Perhaps there is some comfort and wisdom in discovering connections between our own being and the way of ecosystems. Not only can we note the purely physical and ‘functional’ connections and similarities, but we can remember the emotional and spiritual opportunities found in nature, too. Emotional and spiritual health can be enriched through inward reflection and exploration, but maybe there is value in directing attention outward as well. Because our systems mirror each other, perhaps wisdom outside our doors can heighten our understanding of ourselves on multiple levels. Sometimes we can overlook the greatest resource of nature. It is not merely an outer world for control or extraction, but offers an opportunity for insight and healing. The observation of ecosystems, and their ways and patterns, can bring clarity, direction, and inspiration for our own bodies, lives and wellbeing.
I gratefully acknowledge Katherine Elmer: Professor and herbalist, Guido Masé: herbalist, Dr. Laura Hill: Professor, Baylen Slote LAC, and Nick Cavanaugh: herbalist, for their contributions, and guidance in helping me create a comprehensive piece that draws from various perspectives and disciplines.