David Watson Hood, visual artist.
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Other flowers of Scotland",
Food, medicine, poison and icon……..:
The distinct categories of food, medicine and poison are human constructs somewhat at odds with the reality. One small portion of aconite root will kill most people while most of us get away with eating moderate quantities of cooked potato tubers on a near daily basis, but both are 'poisonous plants'. Whatever a vegetarian may like to think, plants do not want to be eaten anymore than we do and have been engaged in an evolutionary toxicological war with animals ever since animals evolved. Some days they win the battle and some days we do.

It is this very ability of plants to make chemical compounds that have an effect on animal physiology that gives them potential uses as medicines. The three categories of food, medicine and poison that we would like to be distinct are really a spectrum with shifting boundaries. Anything which affects the human body can be taken in excess or provoke an intolerance or allergic reaction. Perhaps the sensible questions to ask are not is a given plant 'poisonous' but how poisonous is it, which parts are most toxic, in what quantity and to what proportion of humanity, also does cooking, soaking or drying make a difference.

Chocolate can kill a dog, onions can kill horses and almost everything in the fruit and vegetable aisle at the supermarket can be found in somebody's list of 'poisonous plants'. Always proceed with caution when you eat something you have not eaten before whether it is wild or domesticated. Wild plants in particular have not been selectively bred for blandness (which in many cases has incidentally removed active agents, e.g. wild lettuce is best regarded as mild opiate substitute, while the domesticated form is safe to eat in quantity while young). They may have grown in conditions of stress that increase the proportion of active agents and are often more highly variable between individuals than cultivars, as a result of both habitat and genetic diversity.

It is a delusion that herbal medicine is in some way necessarily intrinsically safer than using industrially synthesised drugs. In most cases a botanical will have many of the same negative and positive effects as its synthesised equivalent. However the bio-sphere is full of an infinite number of useful chemicals, some have been used for millennia creating a valuable anthropological record of their actions. At the moment we have, in historical terms, only just left behind a period when orthodox medicine was in thrall to an erroneous Aristotelian conceptual structure. The cultural attitudes this ideology created lingered centuries after the rise of empirical scientific research (it is significant that the word empiric has an archaic usage in a medical context to signify a charlatan or quack). The research community are at last seeing the potential value of the knowledge of hunter gatherers, subsistence agriculturists and folk traditions in general as well as the untapped chemical resource of biomes like the deep rainforest that are as yet hardly investigated. Sadly, at the same time both the anthropological resource and the bio-diversity are disappearing fast.

We are totally dependant on plants as everything we eat is either part of a plant or a plant processed by an animal. All food carries some risk. We owe a great dept of gratitude to a host of nameless ancestors and those who died without being able to become ancestors. By long and sometimes painful fieldwork, testing on themselves they discovered that some frogs and most snails are delicacies but many slugs and toads are best avoided (and some frogs produce deadly neuro-toxins useful for poisoned arrows, in the case of Phyllobates terribilis, or the Golden Poison Frog enough to kill 8-20 people), that despite a superficial resemblance parsnip and parsley are for the most part good to eat while hemlock is better kept for suicide. In an even more remarkable way they found out that small amounts of potentially deadly substances could cure rather than kill or at least provide pain-relief and anaesthesia.

For most of human existence wild plants have been our main sources of food, shelter, fuel and medicine. It is not surprising that they have become deeply entrenched in our collective psyche. All mythologies and religions, from those of the Congo's Mbuti or Efé peoples and South Africa's San peoples (pygmies and bushmen) and other surviving hunters to the more recently formulated creeds, use plants as important symbols and icons or attributes of deities, saints or archetypal forces. It may even be the case that a large part of the origin of mythic narrative, and thus of spiritual belief systems in general, lies in the gatherers need for mnemonics for plants and animals; their properties, seasons, habit, habitat and occurrence. In short much of the older pre-agrarian religious customs and stories would have first functioned as vehicles for the cultural transmission of essential survival knowledge. The structure of later agrarian religious thought is more ambivalent. Sometimes the hunters' veneration of a resource survives and is reflected in belief, sometimes the new need for a polarised dualism dominates; uncultivated nature is then defined as an evil man must escape from to attain salvation.

In the Scottish context many wild plants have suffered from the very veneration they were once held in, as can often be seen by their successive vernacular names. What is sacred in Pagan times becomes the fairies' or the witches' with the emerging dominance of the new, text based, religions, then, after the rise of a Calvinist fundamentalism, the Devil's. The modern tendency to dismisses all traditional uses of botanicals as undesirably primitive or, particularly in the case of medicinal use, 'superstitious' can be seen in part as an agnostic re-rationalisation of such a pre-existing cultural bigotry. Perhaps such an attitude also involves anthropocentric, capitalist/consumerist and racial supremacist beliefs that developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries causing us to undervalue anything that was not an industrial product. It is certainly not the rational attitude, which would be an objective re-evaluation of such traditional uses.

While war may encourage the cultural delusions of separate national, racial or religious identities fostered by those seeking power, it can also dispel some of the economic delusions fostered by the ideology of capitalism seeking profits. In World War Two the 'County Herb Committees' collected from the wild 750 tons of dried medicinal herbs, a vast amount of rose-hips for vitamin c supplement, nettles for camouflage dye and seaweed for agar jelly. The collection of rose-hips by school children continued well into the 1960s.

Recent academic research (focused on the Scottish Borders and north eastern Highlands) has shown that while a great deal of collecting of Scottish wild plant material for food, drink and craft uses continues, (including collection for commercial companies such as Caledonian Wildfoods) in the sector of medicinal use there has been a major decline since the mid 20th century. This is not surprising as it is the area where knowledge is most critical, detailed culturally transmitted knowledge only needs to miss one generation to be lost forever and the post-war generation has been the target of the consumerist ideology promulgated by pharmaceutical companies who have now got to the stage of medicalising our normal physical conditions in order to sell us more drugs. Re-discovery of the wild medical resources could have a great benefit for our real health and wealth. What is needed is the kind of formal support for collectors combined with the expert processing, and diagnosis and prescribing through qualified practitioners that was used so effectively during the war. This is not going to happen until we realise that we are again in a condition of peril.

The work I do outside of being an artist leads me to believe the global ecological situation is far more critical than most people know or are prepared to accept. The implications are clear, we need to realise that we are not independent from the biomes we inhabit. It is my belief that if there is a little hope of a future it lies in a sustainable exploitation of the bio-diversity of our environment, not in what seems to be the current urban conservationist's view, that bio-diversity is best preserved in some sort of an untouched reservation in a fictional somewhere else, an imagined un-inhabited pristine wilderness that does not exist. Alternatively, even if there is no hope of general survival of our culture there may at least be a handful of surviving individuals who will not be survivors for long unless they have that knowledge, which all wild animals and despised human hunters have but that few 'sophisticated' modern men do, of how to feed, shelter and heal themselves with the plants and animals around them.

Sources and Resources:
Plants For A Future, www.pfaf.org/index.html,
Wild Harvests from Scottish Woodlands, Social, cultural and economic values of contemporary non-timber forest products, Marla Emery, Suzanne Martin and Alison Dyke, Forestry Commission: Edinburgh 2006 ISBN 0 85538 695 9 download from www.forestresearch.gov.uk/pdf/fcrp008.pdf/$FILE/fcrp008.pdf
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/
Wild Resources Limited www.wildresources.co.uk/
Caledonian Wildfoods www.callywildfood.com/
Richard Mabey, Food for Free, Collins, London 1972
Flora Celtica, www.floraceltica.com/, Flora Celtica is an international project based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, documenting and promoting the knowledge and sustainable use of native plants in the Celtic countries and regions of Europe.

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