Numen refers to the animating force in all living things, the presiding spirit of a place, animal, plant or being, and it is in the exploration of the numinous relationship between humans and plants where this documentary, Numen: The Nature of Plants, excels. Set against a backdrop of unusual photography, a series of interviews with leaders from the world of botanical medicine posit a number of ideas that are worth exploring.
The documentary begins by reminding us how young the human race is in comparison to the ancient plant kingdom. "The plants are our ancestors," says Raylenee Ha'alelea Kawaiae'a, a statement that is more than just a platitude. It's fact. The biochemistry of plant and humans are quite similar. We actually share a great deal of DNA with the plant world, and as Bill Mitchell, ND, points out, "We are as much carrot as we are kangaroo or bird." Like any child who is supported and nurtured by its parents and grandparents, we rely on plants for food and medicine, for cosmetics and perfumes, for clothing, for building materials, and for beauty. "The history of humanity is the history of our relationship with plants," says Kenney Ausubel, founder of the Bioneers. And while most of us don't live in conscious relationship with plants—we seem to be preoccupied with other humans—the film urges us to change.
In discussing the decline of herbal usage in the United States, Ed Smith, founder of Herb Pharm, and Rocio Alarcon, PhD, remind us that until the1930s, 90% of the population used to know how to take care of themselves with herbs. After the first World War, as society became enthralled with technological advances, people stopped using what they considered to be old fashioned methods. "We became separated from our roots in nature and the healing energies of the ecosystem," explains herbalist David Hoffman.
In commenting on how modern thinking has made us feel superior to the natural world, Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, advocates for science "to become a partner, not a bully.
Numen urges us to reconsider our view of nature and to understand that the natural world is the source of healing. "Plant medicine is the oldest system of healing on the planet," remarks Tieraona Low Dog, MD. All cultures and all peoples use plants as medicine.
Pointing out how our medicine has migrated from the ingestion of plants to the intake of man-made substances and the use of chemicals to create products such as plastic, herbalist Phyllis Light explains that in this process, we have polluted the earth. "We can only be healthy when the land and air and water around us are healthy and if they are not, it will show up in our physical well-being."
Which is exactly what is happening to us. Charolette Brody, founder of Health Care Without Harm, points out that the United States is no longer the healthiest nation, ranking number 32 in the World Health Organization's recent analysis of major health indicators. Immune and chronic diseases are on the rise in America, and we have escalating rates of endocrine problems.
Author Mark Schapiro explains that endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates are used as an additive to plastic to increase its flexibility. They can be found in water bottles, shower curtains, and baby toys, to name but a few items. He says that one reason we have a rising rate of infertility is that phthalates act like estrogens, affecting the reproduction system of young males. The film argues that our overuse of chemicals is wreaking havoc on a molecular level, adversely affecting us all.
Numen which encourages gratitude, also endorses the precautionary principle, which states that, "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof."
The discussion of whole plant medicine versus pharmaceuticals, led in part by ethnobotantist James Duke, PhD, points out that herbal medicine uses the entire plant and its complex range of constituents, not just a single, isolated element. The current practice of isolating and using only the "active agent" creates medicines that produce side effects because the full array of constituents in a plant are actually useful and necessary. A case in point is meadowsweet, which is an herb used to correct stomach and bowel problems. But use of a single component of meadowsweet—acetylsalicylic acid—will actually cause stomach problems.
The film also promotes the idea of "food as medicine." The produce department, the spice rack— eating correctly is a first line defense against illness. Herbalist Guido Mase points out that using more herbal medicine would actually help alleviate our overburdened healthcare system. "Herbs shine at prevention," he says. Larry Dossey, MD, argues that, "we cannot address healing by just focusing on molecules. We need to bring consciousness into the equation." The herbalists agree. Isla Burgess discusses being in contact with the energy or spirit of a plant, and many of the herbalists talk about communicating with the plant's spirit and having correct intuitions about which plant to use for which ailments.
I have sat through many "talking head" documentaries in my years as a film reviewer, but never before have I found so much to laugh, cry and think about as when I screened "Numen: The Nature of Plants" for the first time just a few days ago.
Terrence Youk and Ann Armbrecht's wonderful new 95 minute film explores the world of plants, their healing powers, and their central importance (largely forgotten, in this day and age) in providing us with the very building blocks of human civilization, from sustenance to healing. The word "numen" refers to the animating spirit or power infused in an object, and the film makes an impressive argument for reconsidering just how significant "plant power" is. "Herbalism is our oldest system of healing on the planet," observes rock-star herbalist Rosemary Gladstar (if you've never heard of her, get your head out of the drug store aisle and medicine closet and pay attention). "Most parts of the world where you travel today you'll still find people practicing some remnant of traditional herbalism."
And "Numen" seems to have found some of the most eloquent herbalist voices from around the world to speak on behalf of the plants, along with many other plant-loving people. Like any good documentary, "Numen" assembles an impressive cast of thoughtful characters: medical doctors like Larry Dossey (editor of EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing); citizen activists like BIONEERS founder Kenny Ausubel; and even Maine-based herbal practitioners like Deb Soule. Youk and Armbrecht have done their research and their homework, capturing, in tightly-edited and thoughtful fashion, why plants matter so much.
But what really sets "Numen" apart is the balance of playfulness and candor with which the filmmakers approach their subject. "Numen" opens, for example, with a sped-up time-lapse sequence of plant shoots literally exploding from the ground, accompanied by a catchy funk-driven electric guitar. I was caught completely by surprise, and totally hooked. In another sequence, we see a sped-up "shopping cart camera" view of a modern grocery store, with harried consumers completely detached from the sources of their food. Refreshingly, there are some moving scenes, too - one researcher, for example, breaks down on camera as he reflects on the sheer beauty and mystery of the plant world. In another interview, a traditional herbalist from Hawai'i grapples with the "deep history" and cultural connections she shares with the plants. "Numen" is filled with powerful moments like these.
The special effects and animation work in "Numen," too, is impressive - taking us on both a micro (inside the plants themselves) and macro (consider the planet from space) tour explaining why plants matter.
Perhaps the best part of the "Numen" experience, though, is how hopeful, positive, and forward-thinking a film it is. In an era when there is so much to be concerned about - peak oil, climate change, the endless "war on terror," economic downturns, "too-big-to-fail" banksters, and that constant migraine headache that over-the-counter meds can't quite chase away, "Numen" reminds us that the answers to many of these problems, magically enough, is growing all around us. It is our job, as 21st century citizens inhabiting a finite planet experiencing "limits to growth," to reconnect with "plant wisdom." If "Numen" provides the inspiration for us as audience members to root ourselves once again in the earth and amongst the plants, it will have provided an incredibly valuable service to our struggling 21st century world.
Anyone who has ever experienced the bliss and connection of gathering Mullein flowers on a warm summer day or the satisfaction of facilitating wellness in another living being, who may have ever known the incredible healing power of the plants - is sure to be touched and inspired by this cinematic exploration of herbal medicine!
The premise of Numen is very much in alignment with our work in the Animá Lifeways and Herbal Tradition. What they define as Numen in the film, is what we call the anima, the vital lifeforce in the human body as well in plants. The creators of the film also clearly understand that healing is not just about tending our individual wounds but also those of our larger self, this inspirited planet. This movie is rooted in the understanding that healing can only take place in the individual self when the large self is also being tended, and vice versa. There is also an inherent sense of the magic of healing and the plants, a recognition that while science offers us many valuable gifts and ways of understanding the world, there is something akin to spirit and the miraculous in even the best aided results. Numen inspires its viewers to take their health into their own hands, to empower themselves to reconnect to their needs and to utilize resources close at hand. There is an invaluable sense of alliance with the plants, rather than just an expounding on how we can utilize our "natural resources". This personalization provides the viewer with a very real connection with the plants and process of healing.
Numen is divided up topically into sections: an Introduction, Plants as Medicine, Mystery, the Decline of Herbal Medicine in America, Disconnection, Just Say Yes, Allopathic Medicine, Whole Plant Medicine, Business of Herbs, Vis Medicatrix Naturae, Numinous Questions and Future Generations. Each section deals with either philosophical or practical aspects of healing with plants. From the opening scene of a woman gathering calendula from the garden to the closing shots of children creating a gorgeous plant mandala, the artistry and intent of Numen is clear.
The bulk of the film is based in conversation with practicing herbalists, ethnobotanists, ecologists, those who have been healed by the herbs as well as authors or speakers who specialize in related topics such as chemical sensitivity, earth-based healing and ecology. I commend their careful yet broad selection of knowledgeable and experienced guests. Each individual was both thoughtful and deeply caring, experienced in their chosen field and impassioned about their message.
Brimming with the enthusiasm, experience and wisdom of many great herbalists, including Phyllis Light, Matthew Wood, Bill Mitchell, Rosemary Gladstar, Deb Soule, David Hoffmann, Guido Mase and many more. I was heartened and inspired by their compassion, insight and commitment to the healing of not only we humans but also this precious earth and everything encompassed within.
I must admit that I expected there to be a bit of the new-agey fluffiness so common to recent documentaries on healing and spirit, but was pleasantly surprised to find the whole feature to be grounded in common sense observations, real life experience and understandings straight from nature. Numen truly stands on its own as an exceptional film and testament to the compassion and wisdom of the herbal community.
Indeed, I found myself completely drawn in to the conversation and close to tears more than once, especially listening to the sage words of the late Bill Mitchell and the passionate grace of Rosemary Gladstar. The filming is both sensitive and evocative, presenting a gorgeous presentation of the natural world through time-lapse photography, exquisite settings and a wonderful emphasis on the microcosmic world of the plants.
Numen is a film imbued with the spirit and every day beauty of the contemporary herbalist. Not to be missed by any student of the plants, whether you are just setting out on your journey or have been traveling your path for many years. No matter if you are a gardener, wildcrafter, herbalist, ecologist or simply someone who deeply feels the connection and gifts of the living earth, Numen has something important and beautiful to offer you.
My personal thanks to Ann and Terry for taking years out of their lives to create this precious glimpse into the living tradition of herbal healing and the community committed to its continuance.
The term numen is defined as "the presiding divinity or spirit of a place," or "the spirit believed to inhabit natural objects." It is applied in this program to plants and the value they bring to our lives. Through interviews with ethnobotanists, herbalists, naturopaths, medical doctors, and specialists in integrative medicine, viewers come to appreciate the role plants have played in our health and welfare. Before the rise of the modern pharmaceutical industry, families used herbal and plant-based medicines to cure common ills. Today, we are separated from our roots in nature, including our food. Recognizing that herbal medicine is also a business, this program makes a strong case for "whole plant medicine" as a viable alternative to today's diet and pill-based approach to health. This is a subject that will generate thoughtful discussion; for most public libraries.