breath of life

Raising the Dust Chapter 11 – Theoretical Reflections Part II

Bringing together the data, and my original ideas of the relationship between human and ecological health in a changing place, in this chapter, I returned to the idea of there being a deep green medicine that has always been in place and is still alive and well in traditional medicine today. My thesis sought to explore the ways in which this traditional medical knowledge reflects the sum of people’s relationships, values, knowledge, practices and beliefs about health and healing, in a holistic and interconnected way. My data analysis chapters indicate that the medical aspects of life are not separate, but instead, encompass a set of interrelated yet diverse principles, practices and beliefs for maintaining positive health and wellbeing. This interconnectivity has been the guiding principle of health and healing throughout the ages and modern day shamans and traditional healers are the guardians of this holistic way of living in the current age. In bringing together a range of ecological approaches, which included the sacred, the deep, the social, the traditional as well as eco-feminism and Gaia thinking, I asked if these approaches might collectively hold the potential to act as some kind of ‘foot-break’ on the socioecological crises threatening the life systems we rely on today.

Deep Green Medicine

Traditional medical knowledge is known for its “circularity” (Mehl-Madrona, 2007:34)[i] because the interrelationships that define it extend outwards from private dreams and personal experience towards the natural environment and wider socio-political structures. My ethnographic study confirms that understanding the unique principles that define these connections, and recognising the ways in which traditional healers maintain healthy socioecological relationships, adds valuable insight to our understanding of the obvious link between health and ecology. African traditional medicine is an ideal example to use to show this because it is deeply green, being practiced according to a set of holistic principles and values that focus on the significance of maintaining harmonious relationships, including our relationships with the natural environment. Firstly, traditional medicine connects the living members of the community with the ancestral spirits. Secondly, much of its healing is based on connecting people with plants and places through the gathering and administering of herbs. Thirdly, traditional medical knowledge, practices, skills and beliefs are an extension of family and close non-kin relationships that extend outwards into the community. Traditional health is naturally infused in a variety of everyday practices that include: harvesting, cultivation, ritual performance, health promotion, education, stakeholder collaboration and ecological restoration. A key theme that stands out is the living nature of traditional medicine. Its living nature keeps it alive in a changing world, distinguishing it from scientific approaches, whilst at the same time strengthening its empirical base through observation and active engagement.

Aldridge (2004)[ii] argues that all healing is an act of influencing another in order to activate, or re-activate, their vitality, their ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’. Hippocrates (460 BC-370 BC) saw the breath as the vital force animating life. We know that the breath “links the body, heart and soul together” (Aldridge, 2004:151), leading modern day ecologist David Suzuki to state that our breath is “a part of life’s breath” (1997:38). It’s not only people who draw their energy, ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’ from the universe, plants do too, and this is why traditional healers communicate directly with the plants they use. Plants are seen as a “gift from the creator” (Ross, 2008:386)[iii] so their spiritual energy must be respected through ritual and communication (Harrison, 2004)[iv].

As life’s intermediaries, traditional healers communicate constantly between the spirit world, the mineral world and the world of the living, including plants and animals, to activate the spirit, or ‘breath’ of life. Some say that traditional healers have such a sacred bond with the plants, animals and lands they inhabit that they are the rightful custodians of nature. The removal of both plants and practitioners from their locality can therefore have a significant impact on these relationships. The removal of a plant from its locality changes its characteristics and alters its meaning. Likewise, displacing a practitioner from their living environment changes their identity, thereby impacting on the knowledge, practices and skills that define these interrelationships. By being the custodians of the sacred bonds between land and life, practitioners are not only protecting their own knowledge of herbal and spiritual healing, they are also maintaining long-term cultural practices. My research confirms the dynamic nature of this long-term, evolving cultural knowledge and shows how it provides a strong basis for rejecting any idea that traditional medical knowledge, practices and beliefs are outdated, dangerous or ungodly. It shows instead, how it is an integral and dynamic part of everyday life and provides both practical health support as well as deep cultural meaning.

Since traditional healers hold an extensive, diverse and dynamic body of ecological knowledge in their memory, their expertise is increasingly being called upon by those who are interested in earth-based, ecological approaches to health and wellbeing in the current age. Kenny Ausubel (2004)[v], a pioneer in earth-based medical approaches, argues that there is a growing need to promote an ecological medicine aimed at creating the right conditions for health and wholeness. The current increasing interest in ecological medicine can be viewed as recognition of the value of traditional approaches to health and healing, highlighting their potential to facilitate a deeper understanding of the important nexus between human and ecological health.

Ecological medicine aligns the healing powers of the body with the earth. Like traditional healers elsewhere, the participants in my study rely on this human/nature alignment, collecting the right plants from the right places, mixing up remedies, activating them through the energies of the spirits and transforming them through the elements of fire and water. Traditional medicine is thus like any other form of remediation, in that it is about restoring the balance. Ecologists see this as the restoration of the sacred balance (Suzuki, 1997)[vi] that occurs naturally in ecological systems and humanists view these interconnections in terms of the need for more equitable distribution of resources. Theorists from different perspectives thus agree that health and wellbeing needs must be met fairly and without harming the very systems that support life on our planet. Health can only be maintained through harmonious relationships, by using resources wisely and by preventing unnecessary harm. Basing its foundations on holistic outlooks, ecological medicine draws on both spiritual and scientific understandings of the complex bonds between humans and nature. Returning to Lovelock’s (1996)[vii] notion of the co-evolution between an organism and its environment, Ausubel highlights the critical interdependency between the two. Like Lovelock, he too states that “just as the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, human and environmental health are inseparable” (Ausubel, 2004:5). The inherent ecological co-dependencies in these couplings means harm to one causes harm to the other and healing in one occurs in relation to the other. It’s impossible to separate the self-healing powers of the body from the healing powers of the earth since we humans ‒ and all other animals ‒ share a self-repair system with nature.

In order to return to a state of health we must remediate the harms. Hippocrates ‘do no harm’ principle corresponds with what we refer to as the precautionary principle, one which seeks to protect the earth against environmental harm. The term comes from the German word Vorsorge, meaning, “to care into the future” (Raffensperger, 2004:43)[viii]. The Rio Declaration (United Nations, 1992)[ix] highlights the need for caution, stressing the uncertainty of science and emphasising the need to protect the environment. The Wingspread Conference,[x] held decades ago, drafted a comprehensive statement of the principle, declaring that there was already enough evidence at that time to suggest that “damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary”. The precautionary principle highlights the seriousness of the ongoing crisis, endorsing the view that it is neither logical nor acceptable for human beings to keep putting profits over health and wellbeing. The principle acknowledges that “all life is interconnected” (Ausubel, 2004:6) and demands that science and industry assess the potential harms of their actions before imposing them on the public and the environment.

Conversely, the risk principle allows for ‘acceptable’ levels of contamination and places the burden of proving that technological and industrial processes are harmful, back on to society. Raffensperger refers to the precautionary principle as the “duh” (2004:47) principle because its inherent rationality is so obvious yet we are still so reluctant to take it seriously enough.

A great need of caution and care is needed because both human and natural systems behave in unpredictable ways. Fulfilling our needs should thus cause minimal damage to nature, and Spretnak warns that if that were our guideline, given that our knowledge of life is so limited, “we should make far-reaching changes in the ecosystems only with great caution” (1993:110)[xi]. Many decisions that guide human behavior are unresolvable with science but the precautionary principle allows us to make positive decisions towards health and wellbeing. By living more coherently with nature, by taking greater care, by being mindful of the risks, by following the ‘do no harm’ and precautionary principles, our hearts and minds remain open to better health and greater healing. Understanding health thus requires further social inquiry and a greater understanding of the complex interdependencies between people and the places they inhabit.

Phungwako (2006)[xii] states that the basic aim of any remediation is the prevention of harm and that all medical principles are based on this precept. Hippocrates taught his students that nature heals and that the physician is merely nature’s helper. Ausubel reminds us of how Hippocrates had instructed his students to “revere the healing forces of nature” (2004:9). My interview participants practice according to this same guideline and they adhere to many other principles taught by Hippocrates. They too place a high importance on the role of the teacher who is often a parent, or is respected as a parent. They stress the importance of making appropriate referrals and not claiming to be able to heal conditions they know they can’t. In addition, as Hippocrates had, they often prescribe dietary measures to enhance positive health and wellbeing and they respect each other’s knowledge, which is shared. Practically as well as theoretically diverse health outlooks share as many similarities as they do differences. The basic principles of healing have remained intact throughout the millennia even though they now translate into a variety of practices defined by a diversity of spiritual, herbal and scientific outlooks. The spiritual and material aspects of wellbeing have become sharply separated in western health outlooks though, with physical health being the domain of the biomedical profession and spiritual health being taken care of by the church. Notwithstanding these separations, the potential to rebuild the ‘bridges’ between traditional and scientific paradigms may be less difficult than it first appears. Despite the compartmentalisation of physical, mental and spiritual health in western culture, there remains a remarkable similarity in the basic beliefs of the different outlooks. Given this symmetry, the holistic, people-in-context approaches that define both traditional and modern day ecological outlooks may be a just the right place from which to begin rebuilding this bridge.

Deep green theory 

One of the reasons I chose to conduct fieldwork in Malawi is because relative to Australia, it is extremely poor, deals with health crises of epidemic proportions ‒ with limited resources ‒ and engages with the rest of the world from a position of dependency. Most Malawians live on less than $2.00 a day and people rely mainly on traditional medicine. Place, and the state of place, is a key factor in health and wellbeing globally and I wanted to understand how such a small, poor, landlocked, agricultural country responds to the basic health needs of the population. As data collection progressed and as I became more aware of the impacts of local conditions on people’s everyday experience, I moved away from the postcolonial position I started with and towards a post development narrative. Interpreting the data, in a rapidly changing context, I became increasing influenced by trying to understand the models of health and natural resource management that were already in place in my area of study (for example, in the status of traditional birth attendants at the time of fieldwork, and in the implementation of the USAID funded tree re-generation climate change program at Nessa). As the themes began to emerge from these development narratives, the critical theories that inform a radical political ecology of health began to influence the direction of my research. These critical perspectives had already informed the holistic paradigm that I took with me to Malawi, but as the link between health and ecology became more obvious they began to define my focus even more sharply.

Political ecology “deconstructs [the] barriers between academic disciplines” (Cooper, 2002:10)[xiii]. It responds to the tensions between local circumstances and global structures. Radical political ecology became important to my research because it seeks to understand, and to challenge, hegemonic relationships between different groups that determine access to the knowledge and resources that determine health and wellbeing. My study found a number of areas where hegemonic social relationships have the potential to influence the future of traditional medicine, these being: the church, the public health system, the commercial market and the management of local forest resources. Each is associated with colonialism, and each is still influenced by the historical circumstances that define these relationships. Moreover, each affects the other. The influence the church holds over the local community is reinforced in the public health sector. Likewise, the ongoing tension between forest users and forest managers is exacerbated by other ownership and access issues associated with the legacy of colonialism.

Radical political ecology is a useful approach to understanding human/nature interrelationships in changing local contexts because it traces the intersections between the loss of local knowledge, the use of local resources and changing community relationships. Globalization reinforces the legacy left by colonisation and without a critical standpoint, ethnomedical research can become embedded within these hegemonic networks. The commercialisation of the hoodia cactus (Chilisa, 2012)[xiv] is a good example of why ethnomedical research requires a cautious approach and how the current rise in interest in traditional medicine globally is an extension of earlier colonisation processes. I too wanted to understand the ‘intangibles’ of traditional medicine, the rituals and practices that are part of people’s belief systems, their “ideas about healing, about the universe, about relationships and ways of organising” (Smith, 1999:25)[xv]. At the same time, it was important to ensure that my research did not become embedded in hegemonic research practices. To avoid this, I spoke directly with traditional healers and other local people. Inevitably, by engaging in this process, I developed some insight into people’s struggles, not only in accessing health, but in surviving in a rapidly changing world.

By interacting with people on an everyday basis, developing friendships and building trust over the months of fieldwork, I gained a view of my participant’s worlds and this has influenced my own perspectives on life. I’ve been able to review many of the ideas I took with me to Malawi and these altered positions motivate me both personally and professionally now. My data chapters captured some of the challenges of exploring traditional medicine in a changing context, from a critical standpoint. They also showed that traditional healers are skilled at negotiating life’s limitations and challenges, thereby providing a pathway for understanding the obvious link between human and ecological health, in a world out of balance. In next month’s article, I reflect on another significant aspect of understanding these interrelationships, the notion of following an ‘integrated’ approach to health and what it means to the practice of traditional medicine in a changing place, and in our ever globalizing world. In the meantime, if you would like any further information about any aspect of my research, please email me at


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] Mehl-Madrona, L. (2007). Narrative Medicine: The Use of Story in the Healing Process. Rochester: Bear and Company.

[ii] Aldridge, D. (2004). The Breath in Healing. In Health, the Individual and Integrated Medicine: Raising an Aesthetic of Health Care. (pp 149-162). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[iii] Ross, E. (2008). The intersection of cultural practices and ethics in a rights-based society: Implications for South African social workers. International Social Work, 51(3), 384-395.

[iv] Harrison, K. (2004). Green Medicine and Plant Spirit. In K. Ausubel., & J. P. Harpignes, (Eds.), Ecological Medicine: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth (pp 131-136). San Francisco: Sierra Book Clubs.

[v] Ausubel, K. (2004). The Coming Age of Ecological Medicine. In K. Ausubel., & J. Harpignes, (Eds.), Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth Healing Ourselves (pp 3-11). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

[vi] Suzuki, D. (1997). The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering our Place in Nature. British Columbia: Allen and Unwin.

[vii] Lovelock, J. (1996). The Gaia Hypothesis. In P. Bunyard, (Ed.), Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth (pp 15-33). Great Britain: Floris Books.

[viii] Raffensperger, C. (2004). The Precautionary Principle: Golden Rule for the New Millennium. In K. Ausubel., & J. P. Harpignes, (Eds.), Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves (pp 41-52). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

[ix] United Nations. (1992). Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Retrieved from

[x] The Wingspread statement on the precautionary principle can be accessed at

[xi] Spretnak, C. (1993). States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. San Francisco: Harper.

[xii] Phungwako, V. J. (2006). A critical analysis of the ethics of integrating traditional medicine into the Malawian health care system. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Malawi, Malawi.

[xiii] Cooper, A. (2002). Contending Environmental Discourses: Multilateral Agencies, Social Movements and Water (pp 1-49). London: University of London, SOAS Water Issues Study Group.

[xiv] Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous Research Methodologies. London: SAGE.

[xv] Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.