How does one begin to explain the variables of herbalism to the beginner students, the wonderful important joyful variables? We live in a world of standardization. How you should feel and function, how much you should weigh, how often and how much you should bleed have been standardized. The drugs have all been standardized and so have the patients. Fast food is carefully measured so the billions and billions served are exactly the same.
Living in a world riddled with variety and chaos we seek to impose order on her. Nature is not normal; no two snowflakes are the same. No two people are the same, nor are any two herbs the same. So how can we function in a world where nothing is ever the same? Behind nature there are patterns and cycles that operate in an orderly fashion. The earth rotates around the sun and spins on its axis creating the seasons. Water freezes, thaws, flows, evaporates, condenses, rains, gathers and freezes. It shapes, nurtures, dissolves, transforms and stabilizes life. Each season is stable in relation to the other seasons but unique unto itself. It may be a wet or dry winter a warm or cold spring but always spring will follow winter. If winter comes can spring be far behind? This may be a good spring for St. Johns Wort but an unproductive one for Wild Celery.
This weekend I taught a class on tincture making with all its variables. We studied whether to use the herbs fresh or dried and we talked about the appropriate ratios and menstrums to use to best extract their healing properties. The students, I felt, wanted order and standards to follow. That seems simple enough and it is within a Newtonian physical science paradigm - you use whatever methods necessary to make the herbs fit your procedure instead of following the nature of each plant.
I took the students to a special place of mine. In the morning when I woke up, I visited the plants with my spirit body to let them know we were coming to harvest them. I sang and drummed to the plants before we harvest them. How can you measure that? Well actually there is a beautiful book that shows how thought, music and prayer affects the crystalline structure of water. Don't forget, when we count one thing we often discount a whole lot of other things. For example, say I purchased my 500 g (objective) of Western Coltsfoot from a health food store vs. going to a special river, singing and drumming to it and making an offering and gathering it with my own two hands (subjective). Can we really compare the two? We explored how to transform it into a potent, convenient, stable medicine and a somewhat standardized tincture.
Well this is where the questions started. Who has the right answer? Who has the right way? Most herbalists give a ratio of 1:2 (one part herb by weight to two parts alcohol by volume). Well, I got off lucky because this worked for my herb because it is a root. I was able to chop it up and the alcohol easily engulfed it. What I didn't get was the fact that one author I read uses 95 percent alcohol and my teacher said it was OK to use 50 percent alcohol (vodka). He has found in his practical experience that 50 percent vodka works for most herbs except those with very high water content or resins. The difference being that he uses extra time (3 to 12 months) allowing many of his tinctures to develop.
Some of the other students weren't as lucky as me. One student was using fresh Cedar bows. Again the ratio was suggested to be 1:2. Cedar bows are light and bulky and there's no way she was going to get 500 g into 1000 ml of alcohol. What to do? Well just to confuse her, two teachers gave two different answers. Her head is already spinning with all the new herbal information, harvesting, ratios and menstrums and now they throw a paradox at her. Don likes to make his tinctures so there's always a small layer of alcohol covering the mark (a term to describe the chopped up herb). He also prefers not to grind the herb in a machine, which limits the amount of herb she can get into the alcohol. So his method is to weigh the amount of herb she has before chopping it up. First she filled her jar with 1000 ml of alcohol. Then she chopped the herb as fine as she could without using a blender and steadily immersed the herb that she chopped into the alcohol until the jar is fairly full with the herb and still has a small layer of alcohol on the surface. She then weighs the amount of cedar left which she subtracted from the amount she started with. This is needed to calculate her ratio. Well, chopping as fine as she could, she only managed to get 200 g western cedar into the 1000 ml of alcohol, so her ratio ended up being 1:5.
The other method is to grind the cedar in a blender to almost powder and add this to the alcohol. Well, she tried this and her jar was 3/4 full of ground cedar and about one-half of alcohol, so I instructed her to shake her tincture 7 to 8 times a day for the first week to be sure the herb got saturated with alcohol. After that, she can shake it once a day. Doing it to this way she was able to achieve the wanted ratio of 1:2. Once again we come to the challenge of scientific measuring. If we only measure the chemical constituents, they will vary slightly between the two tinctures, but we have no way of measuring the vibrational quality of not grinding. It is difficult for the western mind is to live with paradox - there were two answers and both are right, but different.
And sometimes Don gets a little too subtle for me and sometimes I want things to be simple. I am really attracted to the idea that how we handle the herbs and even how we think and feel does affect the quality. He did show me scientifically monitored photos of water crystals and how they are modified by music, thought and prayer. What a stimulating but confusing class. Don warned us at the beginning that it was a blend of art and science. It is a conflict between two separate paradigms.
Method 1 (dried herbs) - using the Menstrum sheet (Earth Essences), follow the ratio and the Menstrum percentage.
Method 2 (fresh herbs) - using the ratio 1 to 2, cut the herb as fine as possible or blend it, at the required amount of alcohol and shake 7 to 8 times a day for one week and then once a day after that.
Method 3 (fresh herbs) - fill the jar with required amount of alcohol, weigh the fresh herbs that you plan to add to the alcohol, chop the herbs fine and add to the alcohol as you chop them, when the alcohol is full of herb and there's still a thin layer of alcohol covering the herb, stop and weigh the herb that you have left, subtract that from the amount you started with. Use this to figure out the ratio of herb to alcohol.