Tucked away in the folds of the Talamanca mountains of Costa Rica, the New Dawn Centre is home to Ed Bernhardt, naturo-therapist and expert herbalist, running courses in tropical medicinal botany, natropathy, permaculture and Spanish. The charming cottage and student cabins are surrounded by the health gardens backing onto a river where rock formations have created a series of small natural pools.
Ed spoke to me about how he became a herbalist before taking me around his medicinal garden and introducing me to some of his favourite herbs.
“I spent that year traveling around and ended up here. It was like I had come on a rocket ship and landed on a completely different planet because everything was tropical. I had a lot of studying to do. At the same time I was reading the permaculture manual by candle light and that really inspired me.”
The small piece of land was able to provide just enough food for Ed and his family, but money was tight. After a short stint at a university working with study abroad programs, Ed and his wife, Jessica, came up with a plan.
“Our farm is only five acres. To create some kind of cash, farming commercial products is pretty hard to do. There’s not much cultivatable land. So we thought we should use our talents and do a mix. We developed my other dream: a medicinal plant farm and we used my education and talents in alternative healing to set up the educational and healing centre.”
Inviting budding herbalists, students of permaculture and Spanish, concocting a number of formulas for various ailments, and performing consultations for locals, The New Dawn Centre has applied a holistic approach to its finances too.
“I do a lot of community work, body work, recommendations with the locals. We have a little natural clinic up on the hill where we can see people a couple of times a week. With permaculture, it's been easier to understand things on an ecological level. It helped me see a lot of things that perhaps I didn’t see from my own personal point of view.”
Ed's route into herbalism in Costa Rica came out of tragic experience in 1970, when at Kent State University in Ohio, demonstrations against Nixon´s war in Vietnam turned ugly and the Army fired at students.
“Four people died. One of them was right beside me - it was someone I knew - and 13 were wounded. That put my head in a spin. I was very depressed, angry and afraid - all kinds of things. So there were a couple of years being out of it. I hit bottom and decided I would use my studies in botany and go into herbalism and natural healing. But I knew I didn’t want to live in the United States. From that experience I could see the military and police state in its full power. So, when the opportunity arose with my father’s passing I came here [Costa Rica]. For the first five years I was teaching myself about herbs and rediscovered some of the most powerful botanical plants on the planet.”
“A lot of it is re-discovery. We have to give our thanks to the indigenous people. At the very beginning they probably chewed it, blurgh, “nah that doesn’t work… oh! That helped me…” Thousands of years of trial and error, they came to know that this works for that and this works for a whole bunch of things. That’s really where most of the information has come from.”
This biognosis, reflected in the understanding of the natural world by many indigenous cultures, is increasingly practiced by herbalists and ecologists, and this has lead many to take responsibility for their own health. The aim of natural healing is to cleanse and fortify the body so it can heal itself. Food as medicine: the overlapping spheres of holistic health to empower the individual. This approach encourages minimal use of surgery and drugs. This preventative health care speaks to the language of permaculture.
“If you go to the doctor he’ll probably use his modern technology to give you antibiotics to kill bacteria. Doctors only take a one semester course on nutrition. In all those years they end up knowing very little about human nutrition.”
Preventative, mediocre and inferior medicine
Ed describes three levels of medicine; preventative (the best), mediocre and inferior (or the band-aid reflex that treats the pain without looking at the cause).
“Unfortunately a lot of doctors practice mediocre or inferior medicine. The patient comes in and says I have a headache, I have a stomach ache, etc, so the doctor gives them painkillers - things that hide the symptoms. You don’t really get to the cause. You’re just getting rid of the pain.” So we ignore these wake up calls. We go to the doctor, “Sure, I’ve got just the pill for you. To make you feel good.” It’s the same now with anti-depressants. So we wanted to create here what we call a ‘sanity centre’. A place where you eat well, you talk about your feelings and look at the state of your mind and spirit. We look at stress and emotional problems - the things that really affect your health and lower you immune system.”
How does herbalism redress this imbalance? How does herbal medicine inform our relationship with the world around us?
“It’s like when you know a plant and you understand a personal relationship. You form a friendship, what I call a ‘direct ally’. And so that’s a very personal relationship. You make a commitment to that plant and you tell that plant, ‘don’t worry, I’ll continue proliferating your species. I’ll be your caretaker. I might take some of you but I’ll still be your caretaker’. In our work with the Pau d’Arco tree we’ve helped to get about 11,000 seeds out there in the ground and growing. So we’re not just robbing from the trees. When you take herbal tea and you do natural health care therapies and begin to feel well, you think ´I did that myself, I didn’t depend on the drug store.´And that gives you a lot of personal power.”
So what does the relationship between Herbology and Permaculture look like?
“Permaculture really helped me to develop the farm. I can really say it’s been invaluable. [For example, while using a] multi-level type of ecosystem, we’ve been able to grow ginger and turmeric under the Pau d’Arco tree. We have a very nice food forest, and some decent cash flow coming out from the forest floor. I got a degree in botany and biology and so I took a lot of the first ecology courses that were ever offered, but permaculture helped me piece it all together. Conventional agro-ecology books didn’t quite contain all the elements, such as understanding the community and cultural level. With permaculture, it was really nice to see whole systems organization, unlike other approaches that only saw a little ecosystem here and there, without seeing the whole picture. A lot of science is like that, sort of myopic.”
Plants have much to teach us. And with emissaries like Ed whose knowledge provides us with a link to the world of plants there is hope that we can keep our planet in good order.
Building Naturally with Poeplecare: Phil Moore visits Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica and finds not only a beautiful collection of natural buildings but also a happy, well thought-out education centre and community.
Phil Moore is on a permaculture tour of the Americas. He tweets as @permapeople