Raising the Dust – Chapter 11 Reflections Part I
After analysing the ‘mountains’ of data I’d brought back with me from my field, I had the chance to reflect back on some of the themes, concepts and ideas that had led me to my research in the first place. In this month’s article I explore some of these themes and ideas, highlighting what I saw as some of the strengths of my research and also where I might have left gaps. No research can cover every aspect of a topic and my interview participants would often remind of this by saying, “not you, but others who will follow”. They had a clear understanding of the limitations of my presence in the field and where my research would end up, mostly on a shelf. Their comments indicate an important aspect of research, that it is not so much an activity, but a process, a process that takes time and evolves as it goes. Throughout our PhD candidatures, we are encouraged to come up with ‘new knowledge’ but as a holistic practitioner, and a person with great respect for traditional ecological knowledge, I know that very little knowledge is “new knowledge” and that mostly it is a new way of looking at existing knowledge. This is of course a good thing as it deepens and broadens our understanding of life, and our place in it.
Ho suggests that there is no authentic knowledge, and hence no meaning in life, apart from nature (1996:287)[i]. As an ecologist, this is also how I view the world. As a holistic health practitioner and an ecologist, I view the world through a particular lens and for me this means seeing health and nature as being one and the same. Humans are part of nature so if nature is not well, then humans and other animals cannot be well. Human and ecological health are inextricable; you cannot have one without the other ‒ they are interconnected. Human health is dependent on the health of our environment but we know that our environment is under stress at present and we understand that this is causing physical, mental, spiritual and emotional illness in human populations and that our dwindling wildlife is suffering too. We know that as our ecological world breaks down we are experiencing ongoing epidemics of things like cancer, heart attack and stroke, obesity and diabetes, to name just a few. HIV/AIDS is still at epidemic proportions in my study area with around 10% of the pollution across Malawi living with HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, Malawi still carries 94% of the burden of disease and death from malaria (the death toll from malaria in 2019 was over 400,000 people). Also, the progress of the current COVID 19 pandemic across our world shows us that all is not well. As a global society, we are not well, we are out of balance; our world is out of balance and inevitably, so are we.
This can be disheartening but the truth is, we can change the status quo, we can have a healthy and abundant future and live in greater harmony with our fellow beings but how do we go about it? How we view these issues will depend on our worldview and our underlying beliefs and in this chapter of my research I bring together the two main ecological perspectives that informed my study, traditional ecological knowledge and radical ecological theory. This chapter further explores the linkages between the two, and in light of my data, I returned to my question: “What can we learn about the relationship between human and ecological health by exploring traditional medicine in a changing context?” In collecting my field data for this study I began by looking at the principles that define the everyday knowledge, practices and beliefs of two separate groups of traditional healers in the Mulanje Mountain Biosphere Reserve. Additionally, I spoke to locals about their beliefs, thereby gaining an insight into their perspectives. Much of what emerged from these interviews and conversations conformed to existing knowledge about traditional medicine ‒ that it’s diverse and dynamic ‒ a living practice that is part of people’s everyday lived experience. However, as the data began to shape the text, and the unique aspects of people’s experience came to prominence, it opened up a space to develop a stronger theoretical direction for the thesis as some key themes emerged.
The first of these was how the idea of ‘holism’ played out, not just in my own research, but in people’s everyday lives. Firstly, the narrative ethnographic methodology I chose for my study was congruent with the subject matter of my research. The methods I used were compatible with my ecological framework since I was not only interviewing people about particular aspects of their lives, but also observing how their experiences played out in the broader context of life in the region. At times I found myself worrying about why life is so hard for people in Mulanje. It was difficult for me to watch people struggle, not just to stay healthy, but to stay alive. I kept thinking about the injustices that define worldly relationships. It saddened me to see the effects of the tea and eucalyptus plantations on life and landscape, to hear about the threats of mining the mountain, to know that the endemic Mulanje cedar was under threat and to feel the loss of forest cover my participants spoke about. I worried about the health of people in the villages and wondered what I could do about it. Over time, however, as I started to feel more at home on the mountain, I found that the more time I spent wondering about the woes of life in Mulanje, the more I began to understand that I was a part of this same world. More and more, the holistic ideas that had dominated my thinking, yet faded into the background as I focussed on preparing for field research began to resurface. Immersed in life on the mountain, I realised that because life is so interconnected, what I do affects the lives of others in the same way that how others live affects me. I began to understand more clearly how there are differences between people and places but that there are no real ‘separations’. I’d become de-territorialised (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988)[ii] for a moment in time, space and place and used it as an opportunity to think about what this meant for human and ecological health in a rapidly changing world. The more I thought about these complex networks, the more my own world views were challenged and changed. Taylor argues that our knowledge about the world “is always reciprocal” (2002:104)[iii] in this way. We do not know the world through ourselves; we can only know it through a process of learning and reciprocity with others (Taylor, 2002). It was this process of reciprocity and exchange that helped me better understand the significance of the interconnections between mind, body, spirit and Earth ‒ on a global scale.
This shift in thinking is important because it helps us to change our values, beliefs, behaviours and perceptions in order to live more harmonious and richer lives. Rigby calls it a re-engaging with the forces of life, a ‘dance’ that “could prove helpful in articulating and enacting a different kind of rationality” (2009:131)[iv]. Such a coherent and authentic (Ho, 1996) way of living can facilitate more ecologically sustainable and socially just networks and engender more compassionate attitudes and behaviours towards others and can lead us to deeper knowledge and understanding. Traditional ecological knowledge ‒ like radical ecological knowledge ‒ is about three particular aspects of life, the significance of world views (our values, beliefs and perceptions), the use of resources and the transfer of knowledge. Unsurprisingly the key areas of my data emerged as power (or relationships and how we relate to our world), the transfer of knowledge and the use of resources. Although I considered the world views of my participants, I looked at them, not only for what they are, but also for how they related to other aspects of local life and well as wider structural factors. Likewise, in the case of examining the use of resources, this meant interpreting the complex interrelationships between the use of resources, the sharing of knowledge and the power relationships that determine people’s experiences. It was from this trans-disciplinary ecological paradigm that the theory emerged, through the complex interplay between my original concepts and the key themes that emerged.
Although my interview questions were structured towards obtaining specific information, the themes that emerge from these interrelated concepts enriched my study, and despite the expected gaps in understanding, I was able to explore some of the obvious links further. For example, although the concept of the whole being “more than the sum of the parts” (de Carteret, 2008:246)[v] is now mainstream, Grzywacz and Fuqua (2000)[vi] argue that even though these links are well established, they are not well understood. The social ecology of health, for instance, is still an area “with no clearly defined body of research or scholarly field” (Grzywacz and Fuqua, 2000:101). Grzywacz and Fuzua note that the “structural lag” in responding to changing health needs globally has produced a persistent “inability to capture the mutual accommodation of the persons and the environment” (2000: 109). Epidemiologists can tell us a lot about human health indicators in particular regions. Human geographers have investigated the link between human and environmental health ‒ but from a biomedical perspective. Anthropologists have done pretty much the same thing, looking at the social and cultural impacts of the environment on our health and wellbeing. Understanding traditional medicine in a changing context, as I have done, can provide us with a unique and ‒ as yet ‒ under explored insight into the broader eco-spiritual and material aspects of the relationship between human and ecological health. Moreover, viewing traditional medicine and radical ecological theory provides the basis for a ground up approach to enriching our understanding of these issues.
There are a number of features that stand out as particularly useful and by understanding how these interrelated factors function to sustain health and wellbeing, on a local level, the wider implications of this knowledge can be applied to a broader theoretical framework for ecological health. To better understand the factors that strengthen and threaten it, I had to turn the wide lens of the ecological perspectives that informed this study back to the specific values, practices, principles and beliefs that define traditional medicine amongst my participants. Throughout the study, my research lens thus shifted continuously between traditional health outlooks and radical ecological ways of relating to the earth in order to strengthen the theoretical basis for understanding the deep linkages between the two. In exploring the interconnections between human and ecological health through the lens of African traditional medicine, a number of core themes emerged, that being; the idea of a ‘deep green medicine’ based on deep green theory; the idea of integration (with an emphasis on syncretism as opposed to synthesis of spiritual and material approaches) and the idea of a ‘medico-religiosity’ and how this plays out in the context of our health. I also considered how, since caring for the Earth has always been an essential aspect of traditional ecological health, we might go about putting its significance back into mind, body, spirit approaches by looking at the key pillars of traditional ecological knowledge; reciprocity, responsibility and respect.
I will explore these themes in my articles over the coming months but in the meantime, if you’d like further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605
[i] Ho, M.-W. (1996). Natural Being and Coherent Society. In P. Bunyard, (Ed.), Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth (pp 286-305). Great Britain: Floris Books.
[ii] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: The Athlone Press
[iii] Taylor, E. R. (2002). Ecology, Spirituality and Education. Curriculum for Relational Knowing. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.
[iv] Rigby, K. (2009). Dancing With Disaster. Australian Humanities Review, (46), 131-144.
[v] de Carteret, P. (2008). Storytelling as research praxis, and conversations that enabled it to emerge. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 21(3), 235-249.
[vi] Grzywacz, J., & Fuqua, J. (2000). The Social Ecology of health: Leverage Points and Linkages. Behavioural Medicine, 26(3), 101-115.