We’re just coming up on February and it’s been a long cold winter already. Since I finished the shell on the timber frame I’ve been inside a lot staring at the computer screen. It’s good in one way because it’s forcing me to finish a book on bioregional building, The Hundred Mile House (tentative title), but it’s not been good for my eyes.
I’m at that age, over half a century, where one’s eyes begin to wane. In many ways I suppose this is as it should be. The truth is I’ve been around and seen what there is to see. I don’t need to read anymore, I’m long done searching. Now I’m just trying to live what I know. People are always aghast when I say this, because we’re so print oriented, and it flies in the face of the boomer mantra “lifetime learning”. But really, haven’t we been given more then enough wisdom from fine books to work with for this lifetime? How about some “lifetime doing” or “lifetime giving”?
As for those fine skills, where we need keen vision, like sewing, bud grafting or separating-out and planting tiny seeds? Something amazing happens when you do something enough, your hands and feet grow their own eyes. Our body knows the perimeters of those motions so well they can do it through an inner-vision. And, I guess in evolutionary terms, if you lived as long as I have you were blessed already, and hopefully had generations that you’d brought up to watch out for you. The skills you knew, you knew inside out, and weren’t likely needing to learn any new ones at that point in your life. This isn’t to say the elderly in traditional cultures weren’t learning new things, just not new things involving fine motor skills. Just to say, weak vision wouldn’t be a life threatening disability at 52.
While I can accept my natural decline in one way, in another way when my eyes aren’t working I find it very disturbing. The way I live is extremely dependent on me seeing, and so, like when we lose any adult teeth, losing our sight whispers to our sense of self and its mortality. And you can’t buy new peepers, at least not yet. You can get glasses but that just makes your eyes weaker. I’m an extremely visually oriented person which is why I tried to make a living as a visual artist in my younger days. I’ve always had better than 20/20 vision until a couple years ago when my close range focus started getting what I’d call ‘lazy’. Like old folks, it felt like my eyes were just not willing to stretch and bend like they used to.
I think my eyes were as good as they were, for as long as they were, because most of my waking hours, for my whole adult life has been spent outside doing a variety of activities that exercise my eyes. Focusing close, then far, then middle… all day long. This way of outdoor living helped my eyes because this is of course how we evolved. For the first few million years of our primate evolution we lived in a verdant green world with no pollution and very little direct or bright light. Now, most of us live in very bright houses and offices and we even extended the daylight with artificial lights (when our eyes would be healing) for many hours more then is natural, every night. Our air is full of pollutants. Our landscape (for most of humanity) is clearcut and filled with hard reflective surfaces of concrete, glass and painted buildings, so the sunlight bounces everywhere unlike in a green forest or jungle where the glare is absorbed. And to further compound that the UV from the sun which damages our eyes has dramatically increased because our pollutants have caused the atmosphere to not function well, not blocking the harmful rays. Our cooked foods and processed foods are full of nitrates and oxidized molecules, that degenerate the eyes, the likes of which we’d never see in the jungle. And like that’s not all bad enough, we stare at phones, PC’s and paper, two feet away, for much of our waking hours. From the eyes perspective we’re living in a box and torturing them like caged animals. It’s stunning that people see as well as we do. Praise be to the resilience and adaptability of the eye.
So, my eyes stayed at the ’trouble reading without bright light’ stage for a couple years until this winter. Now, when I’ve strained to see close-up for a couple hours in the morning, writing or reading, and then go out for a walk or to do some chores, I suddenly can’t focus in the distance either! That was it, I felt I had to do something about it.
I’m generally a reluctant herbalist, at least when it comes to myself. Essentially I believe in my body’s ability to heal if I clear up my end of the illness, in my emotional body. But with eyes, or teeth, it’s hard to imagine ones ailment coming back into balance on its own when the cause is simply aging. All that’s to say, strangely enough, external medicine is the last resort for me. However when I need help, I look no further than my front stoop. I’ve worked with the plants for long enough that all I need to do is to hold the aliment and the person who has it in my mind and the older ones will usually present themselves for healing that person.
When I sat with my ailment Eyebright came to me right away. I had tincture but for some reason I didn’t go find it and take it right away and then it left my mind. I might have thought, “Eyebright, that’s too easy” and brushed her aside. I was also thinking subconsciously that nothing could really heal my eyes, let alone a little herb that nobody really gives much credit to. But of course I was just being a fool, I know big things often come in little packages. Anyway, I ended up talking with other folks my age and older about what they did for their eyes, and got lots of advice. I also looked on the internet.
So, then I tried vitamin A, and Lutein and blueberry extract and a couple other vision products. I did each one for a week or two, sometimes overlapping, but no noticeable difference with each. Which is not to say don’t try these things, I’m sure they work for some people. One thing that did help when they feel strained or tired was ‘cupping’ the eyes. To do this you gently place in your palms over your eyes for a few minutes. Its not just the darkness that helping. Healing energy leaves our body through our palms. And like a stream that energy clears residual energies from the whole eye area. But it didn’t do much for my ability to focus.
Finally, after a couple of months, I woke up one morning and it was as though someone had just yelled into my forgetful brain…EYEBRIGHT!
I knew about eyebright. Although I admit she was one of the last local medicinals I learnt about. Nobody had ever pointed her out to me and the picture of the flower in my Peterson Field Guild was so big and showy looking, I was pretty sure I’d never seen anything like that. Then one day, about twenty years ago, I was lying on the ground, merging with the energies there and I looked up at a flowering plant two inches away from me eyes. I had an a-ha moment realizing this was the flower I’d looked at many times in the book, but it was super small! That’s why I had never noticed her before. The plant herself is at the most only about a foot tall (sometimes only 2”) with a thread-like stalk, wee leaves and a very ornate (almost orchid like) whitish flower less then a 1/4 inch across. One of the first things I thought, after admiring her fragile beauty, was that “this plant is truly magical, and a trickster”. Only someone with really good sight could ever find this plant, that heals your eyes!
When you look close-up at the small grape leaf shaped leaves, they’re very scratchy looking with lots of fine hairs. If they existed on a ‘dust sized’ scale they look like they would cause an allergic reaction of itchy, red, runny eyes. Her flowers, also significantly, have a red hue. Especially around the edges and centre, like someone with pink eye or conjunctivitis. In the old world this plant was called Bird’s Eye. And indeed the flowers do look like bright eyes shinning out from the dark ground and vegetation around them. And she gives our eyes back that quick alertness that birds have. In some areas that are more acidic the flower has a stronger bluish purple hue. This makes me think of people with light coloured eyes and their inherent susceptibility to UV damage which apparently Eyebright can prevent. And while her flowers may be fragile looking she is not. The stalks while very thin are strong and flexible. They’re almost as tough as plantain in their ability to handle trampling and have some similar drawing properties as indicated by her thread-like stalk. What Plantain is for bites and bruises, Eyebright remedies the abuse of the eyes, both drawing out dead material and toxins. And like plantain she seems to choose to grow on infertile ground, often in the open. This speaks to her ability to rebuild exhausted and burnt out tissue, that heals the eyes. As a plant she can handle the dry and wetness, which to me speaks of not only her astringent anti-inflammatory talents but also her moistening abilities. When there is dehydration or fiery red mucus membranes. The leaf, however small, is powerful tasting and has both mucilaginous and astringent qualities. That considered, it’s not surprising that Eyebright has been traditionally used throughout the northern hemisphere for not only eyes but for colds, fevers, congestion of ears, the inner ear, nose and throat. Another memorable signature characteristic of the flower is it looks like a mouth of someone opening-wide with an irritated red throat, saying ahhh to the doctor.
After receiving the Eyebright message that morning, I got up and dug around in the tincture cabinet to find her. I took a healthy dose (thirty drops x2) and then again the next day. And like a miracle, considering I’d been struggling with this for three years, I could focus both near and far. I felt like what people who’ve needed glasses and then get them say. I still had to try a little bit to get that focus, but I could see again, everything was clear. Now everyday as I take my morning drops I have another herbal friend to be thankful for.
As a last note, I was reluctant to write about Eyebright, as I often am about wild plants for fear of people over harvesting. This is a very small and light plant. To get a dried pound a huge area (like an acre) needs to be harvested and there are very few places where she grows in that quantity. So areas are stripped of her. Eyebright is not a mint, she won’t keep jumping back up every time she’s cut. Eyebright is an annual, which means she grows from her own seed every year. So if she’s over harvested for a couple years other plants and grasses will move in and crowd her out, or she just won’t show up because there’s no viable seeds left in the ground. Eyebright can be harvested sustainably but you have to know her well. She flowers for many weeks, mid to late summer. During that time early in her flowering season, make your offering and then you only take the top half of the plant, leaving some leaves. Because there is still time she will bounce back and still be able to produce more flowers to perpetuate herself. Also, I only harvest from about 1/4 of a given area. Always leaving the edges of the patch, to help her expand her territory, shifting my harvesting around from year to year within the patch so she stays strong.
In many parts of the world Euphrasia (Eyebright) is already endangered from development and over harvesting. So if you naively purchase this herb from a commercial source you maybe unwittingly causing Her extinction in that area. Many other herbs can work for eye infections. Many from your backyard or nearby. For irritated or infected eyes, Narrow leaf Plantain, Heal all, Alder, Balsam Poplar and Witch hazel, all work equally as well as light decoctions for making an effective eye wash. Other more common and abundant herbs like Blueberry or Bilberry can be taken internally to strengthen your eyes. And let’s not forget our newly legalized but ancient friend Marijuana, who among many other healing gifts is a cure for glaucoma and other forms of eye inflammation.
So, I would ask that you please use this precious bright one (Eyebright) only when you need to. And if it’s at all possible, work with a patch and help her grow. Harvest her yourself to make tincture. This is the most efficient use of the herb. A 25% alcohol based tincture can be diluted ten to one with warm water as an eye wash, used for drops or can be taken straight up internally.
As with Chaga, and many rare or endangered wild herbs such as Echinacea Angustifolia, Goldenseal or Ginseng (that have almost been wiped out) Eyebright should only be use selectively. Chaga will be wiped out by commercial harvesting in the next two decades. This is because its slow growing, slow to spread even in perfect conditions, not commercially grown and (based on twenty years personal experience with Chaga) it doesn’t grow back as producers often claim. With such a booming industry there is little hope of there self regulation and preservation of the plants. So our ability to discern and act on what’s appropriate and what isn’t, is what’s needed. For example, I use Chaga for its miraculous ability to shrink cancerous tumours, but not as an immune booster (for which 40 other more sustainable fungi and herbs could be used). Or heaven forbid as a coffee substitute!!!. We must now consider not using, or selectively using many endangered herbs and fungi, when other more common or commercially grown herbs can be used in the treatment of the same ailments. And this isn’t just about the preservation of the species for itself, but quite selfishly for us. If our industry keeps over harvesting, then harvesting will be banned. But often this restriction backfires, only making the plants more mythical and even more valuable. This creates higher value illegal harvesting which will continue until there is nothing left to harvest. And then when we really need these precious ones for ourselves or our loved ones, we all lose .
Eyebright is an interesting one and shares the same advantage or disadvantage (depending on your perspective) in regard to the industry as Golden thread, she’s very small. Golden thread, while loaded with berberine and other antiviral chemicals, is so small and light, nobody grows her, researches her or talks about her. Like eyebright she’s too light-weight, so there’s no money in it. And no one’s doing research on these most powerful of plants because they’re not abundant enough to make into a nutraceuticals or herbal products. It doesn’t matter that a cursory chemical study of Eyebright showed this plant is not just astringent and anti-inflammatory, as it has been historically categorized, but also has many iridoid glycosides such as Aucubin, which are said to be antiviral (hep B), anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. Unless someone can make money from the results of the research, then no funding. The funniest part to me is if they put a fraction of the money into creating polyculture to grow these wild ones that they do to research and market, there wouldn’t be a problem. Instead we keep leaning on the wild until she’s gone, and then move on to our next victim in the pop-herb line up.
And of course industry lead herbalism is a problem because the old ways of herbalism are being lost as the industry takes over. On the simplest level it works like this. What can’t be scaled up becomes not accessible to practitioners. In this sense the industry already leads herbal practice. Just like the pharmaceutical companies lead doctors in there training and prescribing. Not to sound too paranoid but these industries are in the process world wide of becoming one and the same. And Canada is one of the last in the conquest to be fully taken.
I suppose the size of these wise little ones may be a blessing in disguise. We can only pray the industry leaves these tiny healers alone and the healing power of these beauties can remain our little secret.