Updating a valued tradition

Father Künzle (1857-1945) was in a perfect position to observe the transitional period from an old style of life-in which most people still lived closely with nature-to a new style of life in which most people have gone to great lengths to isolate themselves from nature. This new book, written a century after he began his herbal healing practice, comes as the transition he observed proceeding slowly in the relative remoteness of Swiss villages is nearly complete throughout most of the world, and especially so in the great cities of the 21st century.

Despite some well-deserved complaints he voiced about the rush toward the modern life style, Künzle certainly did not suggest that anyone ought to expend one's energy resisting the entire tide of progress. The modernization of human culture and civilization has been going on, albeit much more slowly in past centuries, throughout history. Efforts to turn things back to the seemingly golden age of the past, a past which was never so desirable as portrayed by those who romanticize it, have always failed.

On the other hand, it is foolish to even attempt, in modern life, to leave behind the fundamental nature of human existence or the hard won wisdom of accumulated human efforts in order to participate more fully in technological pursuits. It is for this reason that naturalists, like Father Künzle, have tried to maintain the thread of common sense and solid daily practices. Their recommendations should be given due attention, lest errors of neglect accumulate. Künzle wanted people to pay attention to their actions and to their environment, not to ignore these things as they sought the benefits of progress.

There were many subjects raised by Künzle in Herbs and Weeds that are worth revisiting now, but in an updated manner. Künzle's focus was that one of the greatest tragedies accrued during the rush to modernization is the impairment of human health that occurs at the earliest ages and then proceeds further, often out of sheer habit. He referred, in particular, to a trend that was already underway in his time, which accelerated in the following decades, of avoiding the proper nourishment of infants and children. He spoke of the limited duration or the absence of breast feeding. Although he brought this subject up after outlining the properties and uses of some valuable herbs, it is here mentioned right off, because it is evident from Künzle's writing that it was a matter of great importance to him.

Medical historians agree with Künzle's depiction of the tragedy facing children at his time: "There are regions in Switzerland," he wrote, "where for decades half of the newborns died in the first year of their life." As to the cause: "I knew a priest who searched for the reason for this mortality rate and who was soon successful. The children were deprived of the milk which God gives to mothers." It is well confirmed now that this natural, normal, and seemingly inviolable aspect of the relationship between mother and child, when discarded, yields numerous problems for the child that can last throughout life. This includes intolerance and allergy to common foods, atopic dermatitis, impaired immune functions, and, perhaps, psychological irregularities that lead to an unsuccessful and unhappy life experience. While the death of infants, as occurred in Künzle's time, is largely avoided by use of antibiotics and specially designed nutrient formulas to replace the important mother's milk, the adverse effects of deleting breast feeding are still with us.

The subject may seem a strange one to lead into the topic of herbal remedies, but it is a signature act of unthinking modern people (both women and men) that one would consider this critical part of life dispensable. If this simple point isn't grasped, then the true value of herbs as a part of natural lifestyle will also not be properly understood. Whether offering natural breast milk to the newborn or a healing herbal tea to a child or adult, it is the act of living with nature, rather than against it, that captures the essence of what needs to be done to assure good health.

Künzle put it this way: "It is God's commandment that mothers should feed their children with mother's milk as long as possible. Even the most primitive people observe this custom." The statement is quite revealing. Today, many would think that breast feeding is one of those things that only primitive people do, something that we can now discard in favor of the modern way of life, where the mother is too busy to be bothered by such things. Some women, because of societal messages that have become ingrained, are even repulsed by the concept of breast feeding, while others see it as a burden to be tolerated for the shortest allowable interval. But, to Künzle, it would be the enlightened, civilized people who ought to perform this essential task, and the fact that primitive people would also do so is just a reflection of how universally important it is. At his time, mothers were not too busy, but rather, there were numerous mothers who, he said, "neglect this holy duty or fulfill it only for a very short time of a week or two," for regrettable reasons, like false modesty. Whatever the basis, the loss of breast feeding is a tragedy.

The replacement of breast feeding by the use of imitation milk formulas and animal milk (or soy "milk") from bottles, supplemented by artificial nipples (pacifiers), and then dropping off young children into the hands of strangers (child care centers) or leaving them for hours at the television, is even a step beyond what Künzle saw happening in his time, though certainly in line with it: "They feed their infants all sorts of artificial food instead, which never replaces mother's milk, just as a servant can never replace a mother."

The transfer of responsibility away from feeding a child appropriately is a direct correlate of another trend. This has been the move (by adults) to replace herbal remedies, exposure to nature, and healthful habits with reliance on modern drugs and turning over the care of one's health from a personal responsibility, where most of it ought to lie, to the responsibility of a medical doctor, pharmaceutical company, and health maintenance organization. It must be said that maintaining one's health takes a certain amount of time, effort, and respect for the natural and traditional way of doing things, as does the care and feeding of infants. These concepts are linked.

We now have generations who grew up without the benefits of alignment to natural methods of staying healthy. Many who suffer the consequences are quick to blame other aspects of modern society-chemical pollutants, electromagnetic energy, improper medical care, the efforts of corporations to earn profits from selling unhealthy products, and the like. These things are said to be responsible for the ailments that are, for the most part, properly blamed on how individuals started out their lives under inadequate parental guidance, and the fact that they were not trained to take care of themselves. This orientation to being against the trappings of society (e.g., its technology) rather than considering one's own priorities has this numbing effect: it allows one to rail against something that is outside oneself (what "they" are doing), while passing on the same unhealthy behavior to the next generation. It is not acceptable to simply reject drugs and seek out herbs to replace them for alleviating ailments: one must break the cycle.

With such beginnings, including, too often, failings in prenatal care, an unacceptably large portion of the population of children are diagnosed with brain defects such as attention deficit disorder, with immunological disorders such as asthma, and with metabolic disorders such as diabetes. Künzle saw this trend evolving, even before the increase in female binge drinking, tobacco smoking, and other bad habits that had formerly been mainly to the detriment of men. He noted that "Many children are already ill in their mother's womb. Habitual vices like confirmed drunkenness or particular sensibility...will be transmitted to the children." Of course, the father, who ought to be contributing to and supporting the good habits of the mother, can't be absolved of some responsibility for the environment in which the mother lives. Today, too often, the mother is without a husband to take any daily responsibilities.

For several decades, as the natural diet gave way to a processed one, a key nutrient, folic acid, became available only in reduced amounts. In its worst known cases, this leads to neural tube defects and death. Now, it is the duty of health authorities to instruct women to go back to eating fruits and vegetables, a good source of this nutrient or, at least, to take a supplement for that which may be missing in the diet. In fact, so serious is the concern, that manufacturers of certain common foods are instructed to fortify with folic acid while others advertise that they uniquely do so. Modern research confirms the importance, at least in broad perspective, of dietary recommendations which Künzle had emphasized.

Children are now inculcated with the idea and the experience that food does not have natural flavor and they are not aware of the basic production path of food: from the earth to the market to the kitchen stove to the plate. Rather, food becomes a synthetically flavored substance that appears miraculously: in a packet or box picked up at a store, or dispensed by a machine, manufactured and microwaved, or a meal served up by a stranger at a restaurant from a hidden kitchen where unknown ingredients and processes are used. The food loses its meaning, and is given the role of satisfying one's palette and stomach, at least for a short time, before it causes digestive distress and worse.

Food is then unrelated to the earth; just as drugs are increasingly unrelated to the earth. There is hardly a confection or snack that has a flavor actually found in nature, despite some good efforts. There is hardly a meal that doesn't include at least one item made by an industrial technique that renders the processed food tasteful to the modern palette that has now been trained to such things, but that tastes utterly bizarre to anyone used to the remarkable taste-and texture-of properly prepared natural foods. The term "natural foods" does not refer to the strange things often sold in so-called natural food stores that are manufactured as imitations of the standard items (but having an organically grown ingredient or sea salt in place of regular salt). Rather, the term should refer to the things that are grown and raised, perhaps minimally processed (e.g., turning milk to butter), but not manufactured (e.g., chemically transforming liquid vegetable oil to solid margarine).

Father Kunzle, with his religious background, offered an alternative view of diet that fit well his spiritual side, warning against gluttony and partaking in the latest food fads:

If you want me to express all this in a few words and to give you an unequalled absolutely sure model for a healthy and reasonable way of life at the same time, then I advise you: back to Christ, the Lord, who also wanted to have a human body like ours, who had the same natural needs as we have (with the exception of sin), who suffered from hunger, thirst, heat and cold, who worked and got tired: Christ, the Lord, is the most perfect example for a pure and natural life, the ideal of man.

Ecco homo, look what a man he was! The Son of God was modest and natural in his food and clothing. He partook of the meals of fisherman and day-laborers, of just what they had to offer...The Apostles He advised: "Eat whatever is put before you."

Künzle's reference to just eating what was offered had a great significance to him and it should to us. The food that was offered at the time by fisherman and other laborers was simple, natural, and had one purpose: to provide the body what was needed in order to carry on the work at hand. What has happened in recent times is that too much of our effort is put into making the meals suit other purposes. Rather than simple-fish and bread was the standard, mentioned as the foods used to serve the multitudes who had come to hear Jesus speak-many today turn to restaurants where foods that are too complicated to make at home are offered. I recall a statement from one of the oldest men to live in America; he was about 113 at the time of the interview in which he was asked about his diet, and lucidly responded that he had lived mainly on sardines and Saltines. Rather than being natural, today people usually rely on numerous foods prepared in factories from a mixture of processed foods and chemical additives. And, in place of the providing what is needed for labor, food is frequently consumed for taste and texture sensations, comfort during times when anxious sitting replaces physical activity, and providing a distraction while being a spectator, observing sports, movies, or television programs.

The twisted consumption patterns that have arisen during the past century have an impact on medical practice. Young children are now routinely subjected to all kinds of drug treatments, even surgeries that might otherwise be unnecessary, and become used to the routine of unnatural living that is to be interrupted by medical care from time to time. Today, numerous children are obese and suffer from adult syndromes like diabetes, because their parents, often unwittingly, provide to them the wrong food, improper guidance, and poor role models. As they become adults, this unnatural pattern is now firmly ingrained, so that people will even seek out herbal remedies that are falsely touted as substitutes for good diet and exercise, in order to control their weight with pills. They may look to herbal remedies to take the place of a growing medicine cabinet of drugs after it is almost too late to make a change: fear of interactions between herbs and drugs now takes over as a significant concern. Worse, this pattern is passed on to the next generation. Meanwhile, the potential of research on the human genetic code is held out as an ultimate solution, as if the diseases and discomforts will be wiped away once their genetic basis has been identified. The next generation is then prepared to take a step further away from nature.

The family meal, probably one of the most enduring traditions and a virtual necessity until recently, has given way to a myriad of eat and run experiences in many families. One not only loses the connection between cooking a meal and eating that food, but also the connection of family members to one another. As a result, there is no clear sense of tradition in consuming food, and, likewise, there is no lingering sense of tradition in taking herbs. The ability of people to succumb to peculiar diets grows as people lose connection with their larger community, starting with the family unit that was formerly united several times daily by eating.

Besides, the effect of losing this important cultural tradition can also be damaging to children beyond assuring nutritional requirements. It was reported in a recent issue (January 2002) of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that: "Many adolescents with anxiety, depression or other mental health problems come from families that don't eat meals together or participate in similar family rituals as often as the families of adolescents without such psychological problems. Union rituals, such as sharing meals, serve to transmit belief systems and norms of behavior. The lack of such practices can adversely affect a person's maturation, and the resolution of the crisis of adolescence may be impeded."

This being said, it is the task of the next chapter to outline a healthier way of living, in order to prepare the reader to understand and properly utilize herbs.