Southern Folk Medicine is about the history, folklore, assessment methods, and remedies of Southern and Appalachian folk medicine. I selected this book because when I decided to study herbal medicine, my family often commented that I have ancestors that actively used herbal remedies as recent as my great-grandmothers. I wanted to connect with the type of natural medicine they practiced and chose a book that focused on the practices of the region my family is from.
I also chose this book because it reminded me of one of the biggest reasons I am seeking education in this field.
Light states, “It’s quite easy for common folk to be intimidated by medical language, especially by physicians who use it as a barrier. This limits communication and trust in the therapeutic relationship. It also limits understanding of the health situation by the patient and creates a paternalistic relationship where the physician makes the decisions.”
This hit me hard as I began reading this book. I’d just had several family members and friends tell me about difficulties they had with their physicians not listening to them, making decisions for them, and even misdiagnosing (or refusing to diagnose) their problems leading to my loved ones having worse health problems and a distrust of the health industry. It breaks my heart and spurs me onward towards my goal of learning about traditional, natural methods of health and healing.
The author of Southern Folk Medicine, Phyllis D. Light, is one of the few authors and herbalists on Southern and Appalachian folk traditions I could find practicing. She explains early on in her book that folk medicine is an oral tradition, one that was passed to her by her father and grandfather. Sadly, it is also a dying tradition in an age of scientific “enlightenment” where the body is treated as a machine and our society is largely disconnected from nature.
Light points out that, due to this being an oral tradition, over the years many uses of herbs and ways of healing have been lost because no one ever bothered to write it down and fewer and fewer descendants of healers are bothering to learn. Folk traditions had (and, in many areas, still have) a reputation of being the healing practices of the poor, uneducated, and superstitious. Thankfully, this belief is falling by the wayside as more and more people turn to more traditional methods of healing and maintaining health.
Southern Folk Medicine begins much like how most herbalists begin – “The Calling.” Chapter three is all about the calling Light and so many healer’s have to the field of natural medicine and helping others. It’s a short chapter but very interesting in that it details the many beliefs around who is a healer and how they find out or are assigned the task in the South and Appalachian region.
I suppose I like this chapter because I am often asked why plant medicine and why me? After reading this chapter, I could site a number of regional and family superstitions including, being the first daughter of a first daughter, descending from family healers of various caliber, being born early without a father, and more. However, it’s the calling itself, feeling drawn to this work and having a passion for it, that is the most important reason.
Chapter four, Many People, Many Traditions, carries on with interesting facts, this time about the different cultures that make up the Appalachian region – Native American (the Five Tribes that include Cherokee and Creek), African slaves and their descendants, and the Scotch-Irish specifically.
The section on the Irish and the British Isles as well as the section on Regional Isolation, War, and Depression captivated my attention. This is the story, in short, about my ancestors.
It was interesting to see the quote from Light’s grandfather, “They said it there was a depression. But we couldn’t tell the difference.” My family said the same. I actually learned more about this history of this region and its people than I did in my US history courses in high school and college.
Tenets of Southern Folk Medicine
It was the Tenets of Southern Folk Medicine (chapter six) that really got me thinking about this healing practice. The chapter harkens back to chapter two section on similarities of folk medicine systems. Light says that these tenets are metaphorical “but that does not in anyway detract from its truth.”
I found this chapter interesting because it details ways to assess illness and imbalance as well as lists local herbs for each issues such as the state of the blood and herbs for high blood. I (and my family members) have high blood pressure at varying degrees.
Light says, “my favorite herbs for high blood are cayenne, blue vervain, garlic, American ginseng, Queen Anne’s lace, black cohosh, valerian, and hawthorn berries.” Our family and I use garlic and hawthorn.
I also like the 14th and 15th tenets, ones I’ve heard as well among family members, that say, “The plant/herb you need is always growing close by to where you need it, or is a sign of something that needs attention…The antidote grows next to the poison.” While Light ensures they’re metaphors, I have found this to be very true, like how plantain is always near poison ivy.
Tenet 23 might very well be the most important tenet. “A person’s story can help reveal their illness.” Light says it wonderfully, “In Southern Folk Medicine, discovering a person’s story is half of the assessment process…Without the story how do we know the full extent of the events that lead up to their illness?” Listening to the patient seems to be a lost art among so many physicians. It seems they could use a little southern hospitality and a leaf out of a plant healer’s book.
Lastly, chapter seven’s section on Hot and Cold discusses effects of heat (fever, effects of the sun, hyperthyroidism, inflammation, high blood pressure, etc) in a hot climate (the South) and the contrast to the European folk medicine where it is a cold climate.
Folk medicines develop to deal with geography.
This interested me beyond my interest in my ancestors that traveled from cold, wet Northern Europe to hot wet Southern US but also because it discusses herbs for fever (blue vervain, black cohosh, skullcap, lobelia, plantain, slipper elm, elder, peppermint, yarrow, boneset, cornsilk, bilberry, & dandelion) or colds (cayenne, ginger, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, garlic, horseradish, sarsparilla, sassafrass, & bay).
So herbs that I see a need for and a way to use them with a new perspective on fevers and colds based on the humors.
The book is full of interesting facts and information that I gobbled up like a starved child offered bread with butter and honey. Most of the facts that intrigued me are of the historical information Light shares about how the first Europeans in Kentucky and Tennessee (where I was born and live) were Spaniards, not British as I was taught in High School.
Beyond the historical notes I learned that the 5 Native Nations of the South-East (which include Cherokee and Creek) believed the purpose of the healer was to remove the cause of the illness, not manage the illness (or the symptoms). These healers would investigate the patient’s life, dreams, family, etc. This assessment style made its way into Southern Folk Medicine and I love the idea of it. I think such an investigate and really listening to the patient is a huge key to better healer practices.
Beyond the historical notes I learned that the 5 Native Nations of the South-East (which include Cherokee and Creek) believed the purpose of the healer was to remove the cause of the illness, not manage the illness (or the symptoms). These healers would investigate the patient’s life, dreams, family, etc. This assessment style made its way into Southern Folk Medicine and I love the idea of it. I think such an investigation and really listening to the patient is a huge key to better healer practices.
If I met Phyllis D. Light, and we discussed this book, I would tell her I loved it. If I had to make a suggestion, I would have loved some suggested resources on Irish folk medicine. There were resources lists for other cultures that made up the South but none for this group. Something I would love to learn more about in the future.
I would recommend this book to anyone who lives in the South/Appalachian region and is interested in their history, culture, and healing practices.