The Lost Language of Plants, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont; 2002. 325 pp., softcover, includes index, references, bibliography, resources. $19.95 ISBN 1-890132-88-8.
When I picked up this new book by Stephen Harrod Buhner, I was not sure if it would resemble The Secret Life of Plants (by Peter Tompkin and Christopher Bird: Harper & Row, 1973) or a 300-page account of one of my favorite documentaries The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behaviour (by David Attenborough: Princeton University Press, 1995). Not only was I mistaken on both accounts, but I found myself pleasantly surprised with the content of The Lost Language of Plants. I believe Buhner’s book is more of a cross between the immortal Silent Spring (by Rachel Carson: originally published in 1962, 40th anniversary edition published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002) and learning first-hand about herbs from the likes of Dr. James Duke (author of The Green Pharmacy, Rodale Press, 1996).
Not one to mince words, Buhner gives the pharmaceutical industry both barrels from his shotgun, accusing them of fueling the current antibiotic resistance crisis and being one of the larger polluters of the environment. As a clinical pharmacist practicing natural pharmacy, I agree that antibiotic abuse and misuse is the main reason why bacteria resistance is a global issue. But we have to recognize that antibiotics have saved millions of lives and helped immensely with the longevity of the human species. The golden age of antibiotics may indeed be coming to an end, but most people would not want to abandon their use in the face of emerging disease from "the hot zone." Buhner may or may not agree.
Buhner stands on much firmer ground when attacking the pharmaceutical giants in the area of synthetic hormones. These female "xeno-estrogens," (mostly derived from forty years of birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy use) are negatively affecting the environment in a myriad of ways. He sites a Canadian study where white perch in the Great Lakes are becoming unisex after three weeks of direct exposure to estrogen. Estrogens such as Premarin, Prempro, and synthetic hormones from birth control pills are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the industrial world. The deluge of problems they are spawning include low sperm count in men living in industrialized nations, increased cancer risk among women due to estrogen dominance, an earlier onset of puberty in young girls, and environmental havoc regarding the sex organs of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. It is truly a disaster in the making. I wish Buhner would have written an entire chapter on environmental "xeno-estrogens," but he did an admirable job exposing the environmental toxicity caused by a cocktail of other drugs such as anti-depressants, chemo-agents, and even personal care products (non-prescription drugs).
In addition to being an environmental medicine book and a pharmaceutical-beware book, The Lost Language of Plants does a good job explaining the chemistry of plants and herbalism. Buhner states, "using herbs in the healing process means taking part in the ecological cycle." He proves this point with both compassion and scientific expertise. Drawing on traditional Native American wisdom and believable modern-day research, Buhner wants to reconnect the reader with the natural environment, even making a plea for children to feel the earthly impulse which he calls "biophilia."
As I finished reading this energized and heartfelt book, I was reminded of the many hours I sat with indigenous healers and shamans in the rainforests of Africa, and Central and South America. These remarkable men and women believe that the plants speak to them in a language that they can only hear when in a trance or dream-like state. When they encounter an illness or a disease in the village with which they are not familiar, they often wait until the specific herb, tree or vine that holds the cure "speaks" to them in a dream. Buhner says it well when he writes that plants are our teachers and healers and have a language that we have long known.
Filled with hundreds of exotic and fascinating quotes from masters such as Goethe to a litany of contemporary environmental and natural-healing authors, the book reads quickly like a suspense novel. It is not difficult to recognize that the ancient knowledge and wisdom of the few remaining indigenous healers with the ability to "speak" to the plants is at a dangerous precipice. One can only hope that our modern society can somehow garner this language skill, which is likely within each of us, and discover the plant medicines akin to healing diseases of humankind, and hopefully save the ecosystem in time. Stephen Harrod Buhner is an experienced writer who exemplifies impeccable research and knows how to keep the reader in suspense. His writing style is elegant and you sometimes get the feeling that you are reading poetry. Buhner best sums up the importance of his book for the generation of the new millennium by evoking a simple logic: "herbalism is based on a relationship between plants and humans, humans and planet."
– Daniel T. Wagner, PharmD, RPh, MBA
[Note: The Lost Language of Plants received a 2003 Nautilus Award in the Ecology/Environment category from NAPRA, the Network of Alternatives for Publishers, Retailers & Artists, which honors books that contribute significantly to conscious living and positive social change. The NAPRA website <www.napra.com> notes, "Buhner’s warnings about the truly frightening hidden ecological cost of the pharmaceutical industry are framed within a love song for medicinal flora. As he inspires his readers to a passionate appreciation for the wisdom and inestimable value of plants, he also demonstrates how to open one’s heart to the great wound that is our separation from the natural world."
Further, ForeWord Magazine bestowed a silver Book of the Year Award to this book in the Environment category <www.forewordmagazine.com>. This award was established to increase attention to the literary achievements of independent publishers and their authors, based on editorial excellence and professional production as well as the originality of the narrative and the value the book adds to its genre.]