My Body—An Eco-terrain

I trust myself to nature, she may do as she will with me.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’ve become a country, my blood a river which carries bacteria, viruses, spirochetes to unsettled territory.  The valley where I met these travelers is beautiful but abused: it’s littered with old shotgun casings, tin cans, hub caps, fenders of rusted cars. It is protected now, its name a local secret—location hidden, road closed. 

I feel an uneasy connection to this land, which was violently wrested from Indigenous people for whom it is their ancestral homeland. My great-great-grandparents were settlers in Washington Territory. In the 1850’s they homesteaded north of Mt. Ranier, not so far from here.

It’s May 2012 and I’ve come with a group of twelve women on a Vision Quest. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a group of white women co-opting an Indigenous spiritual practice, however good our intentions, yet I’ve come.

On the surrounding hills where we wander, ponderosa pines follow hidden springs which emerge as trickles, occasional pools, and tiny bogs. Skirting the valley sun-parched hills bloom with May flowers, wild among antelope bitter-brush shrubs: purple sage, rock buckwheat, scabland penstemon, prairie star. White mock orange blossoms scent the air. 

Water draws wildlife: deer, elk, wild turkey, hawk, owl. Coyote serenades the nights.

Wildlife draw hunters. One good ol’ boy on a horse drops by to check us out. Target practice nearby shatters the peace.

In the relative privacy of these days I drop my inhibitions, and my caution. I bathe in the small spring, spend time naked wandering in the woods.

Wildlife draw ticks which are vectors for several exotic diseases. Ticks spring from bushes, drop from trees, cling to tall grass—leap at me. Four ticks in four days bite me. Illness floods my blood, stiffens my hips, weakens my muscles, fogs my brain. I’m not the only one in our group who is bitten by a tick, but I’m the one infected, the vulnerable one, the receptive one. After eight days, when we leave the valley, it’s a challenge to carry my pack.

My diseases are named for beautiful places: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme Disease named for Old Lyme Connecticut, Old Lyme named for Lyme Regis in Dorset, setting for Jane Austen’s Persuasion and John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman. Some tick-borne diseases are too little known to have earned common names and thus are named for their discoverers: Babesia microti for Victor Babes, Hungarian pathologist; Epstein-Barr virus for Anthony Epstein and Yvonne Bar.

Modern western medicine’s metaphor for ‘combating’ disease is war. Disease is seen as the enemy, to be killed or eradicated by whatever means possible. Bacterial and viral diseases are seen as invaders of our body. There is no Geneva Convention in this war. 

I see a relationship between unending cycles of global political and religious wars and our human tendency to use war as a metaphor and methodology in (trying to resolve) social and health problems. We publicize campaigns: War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Invasive Species, War on Aids, on Cancer. The English language is inundated with the vocabulary of war. “She is fighting for her life.” “ The battle is almost won.” “Let’s bring in the big guns.” Apparently we humans, collectively, haven’t noticed the ineffectiveness of war to solve problems in the long term. England and France engaged in near-continuous warfare for over eight centuries. I’m reminded of spirochete behavior—advance, retreat, advance again when the coast is clear. 

Some historians believe the First and Second World Wars were one continuous conflict with an uneasy stalemate between periods of open warfare. Looked at this way both the Ukrainian War and the conflict in Gaza are a resumption of this war after decades of ineffectual attempts to secure lasting peace and resolve disputes over land. The idea of war mutates, multiplies, adjusts, finds new ways to express itself. The principal of deterrence in the modern nuclear era is used as a bulwark against fear of being overtaken by the untrustworthy and threatening other, be it a disease, a country, or a species.

Modern western medicine relies on antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals to treat Lyme disease. While there are success stories, especially if the infection is treated early, the cyclical nature of this disease means that such treatments often lead to chronic Lyme disease. Many auto-immune diseases have similar treatment patterns, and similar failures.

Under such a treatment plan, I would have understood my body as a battlefield—with metaphors that reflect this perception. Doctors would be the generals and drugs their weapons against enemy alliances, ‘co-infections’—clusters of diseases, which are known to occur together, and often accompany Lyme disease. Spirochete saboteurs would be undercover; Lyme disease is a cyclical spirochete disease caused by spiral-shaped bacteria which are known to have active and dormant phases. Although their original point of entry is the skin, via an insect bite, a spirochete swims through bodily fluids to interact with the organs and nervous system. When they encounter resistance—from the immune system, or from drugs—they form impenetrable cysts to hide in until the “coast is clear”. These parasite reserves, with viral reinforcements, would re-invade at the slightest lessening of my defenses. This would be sophisticated guerrilla warfare. 

Instead I choose to think of my body as a country at peace. My illnesses have returned me to cheek-to-cheek interaction I had with the natural world as a child. As I’m allergic to antibiotics most effective against tick-borne diseases my quest for healing has led me away from the field of war. My path leads through landscapes of herbal medicines and homeopathic remedies made from substances and creatures of Earth: Japanese knotweed, milk thistle, cuttlefish, copper, magnesium, zinc. I eat turmeric, garlic, Reishi mushrooms, oregano, sage, thyme. I drink tea of nettles and dandelion. These foods and medicines co-operate with each other, form synergies. Some are adaptogens, herbal supplements which help my body handle stress. They strengthen my immune system, whose job is to protect and heal, not to wage war. 

My blood is a river that transports food supplies and medicines wherever they are needed. My journey is guided by herbalists and homeopaths, inspired by shamans, witches and wise women of old. Some maps were prepared in ancient times, some are charts of routes only recently discovered. The peace is holding. 

Since contracting Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and after blood tests that have confirmed several co-infections which have no name, I negotiate with the world within. It is populated by beings who live in ever-fluctuating relationship with my blood and organs, nervous system and brain. To them I am home. I am their colony. 

I grew up in the Canadian Rockies and worked and lived there as an adult. I consider those mountains, alpine meadows, turquoise glacial lakes, and forests my spiritual home. Play, hiking, camping, photography—living in those mountains formed the backbone of my being for most of my life. Contracting Lyme disease began slowly but inexorably to close the door to physically visiting remote wilderness, which requires a fit and able body to navigate its slopes and crags. It was a devastating loss. At the same time I was aware of how much worse it could have been; chronic Lyme disease can rob people of their mobility, ability to work, can leave them permanently incapacitated, sometimes paralyzed. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be fatal.

For me the trade-off for physical limitation is a deepened appreciation of the inter-woven complexity of life in any eco-system I find myself in. I too am a terrain. Growing up so close to nature, and as a shy only child, I have always been more comfortable with the natural world and its creatures than with human society. My health now relies on the bounty of Earth, its food and medicines. Earth is my home. I am also home to countless beings and live with them in constantly shifting reciprocity. And with gratitude.

I have held imaginary conversations with what I imagine to be the spirit of tick.

Why did you choose me? I ask. 

             Tick spirit replies, We’re food for birds, travel winged, cling to fur. You were in our path.  
             There’s an old song, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I hum it. 
             Tick responds, We cull weak animals, strengthen ecosystems. 
             You regurgitated disease into my blood! I protest angrily. 
             We don’t choose to carry disease. Diseases choose us. Hitch hikers.              
             I consider this perspective.
             You ask about our pre-occupations? Feed. Multiply. Survive.
             Am I weak? Is that why you chose me? I ask.
             You choose safety over risk. You hide. We never do. 
             I’m afraid. The way ahead is dark, I whisper. 
             Tick spirit advises, seek balance, resist fear. Illuminate your shadows.

Ticks are not an invasive species. They have been found in the fossil records, and predate our species by millions of years. Ticks have long been endemic to North America. Deforestation, creation of suburban landscapes, the proliferation of deer due to extirpation of wolves and other natural predators, and warmer winters have enabled tick populations to soar. Have ticks always been vectors for disease? Who knows? One might label the diseases ticks carry as invasive species but fortunately they remain known by their classification: bacteria, viruses, spirochetes, etc.

I have come to believe that there is no such thing as an invasive species. There are only situations facilitated by events which have created change in the constantly shifting and re-balancing fabric of existence. Some changes, which appear to be harmful, have hidden benefits we may not understand; apparently destructive changes may be part of larger patterns we cannot yet fathom. Changing climate patterns, land use and development are major factors in any scenario which involves so-called invasive species. When applied to human populations, these changes result in migration.

Many changes to the environment have been caused or facilitated by humans, intentionally or inadvertently. It is an aspect of human hubris to notice this while ignoring the way creatures of Earth constantly rearrange and relocate themselves, seeking every opportunity to broaden their horizons, improve their circumstances, and create balance. Sometimes simply to find safety. This natural process unfolds with and without our participation and understanding. Humans have been responsible for intentionally and unintentionally bringing species from one part of the earth to another, often with dramatic consequences. But wind, rivers, tides, rain, desert storms, hurricanes, migrating birds, insects, animals all play their part in creating change through species movement. Humans have an inherently limited perspective, dictated by our short lives. Our blinkered, paternalistic and arrogant attitudes toward other species greatly hamper our understanding.

To apply the term ‘invasive species’ to a creature is to declare a war against it which usually cannot be won, and is unjust in its very nature. This word interferes with observation and perception by imposing human judgements and combative strategies on natural processes. 

Perhaps it is easiest to observe this process with so-called invasive plants. There may be instances when human intervention is warranted but what is usually overlooked is that native plant species struggle and retreat when conditions are not favourable to their growth due to changes in climate, loss of habitat, disturbances to soil or water, etc. Frequently this is when ‘invasive’ species begin to move into previously healthy terrain. The old adage, “nature abhors a vacuum” is apropos. What is missed, or ignored, is the benefit ‘invaders’ may provide in soil remediation, erosion control, feed for animals, nectar for bees and other benefits. Many ‘invasive’ plants such as blackberry remove industrial toxins from the soil.

A guide in my healing journey with Lyme disease has been the herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner, who wrote extensively about this disease in his book, Healing Lyme. One of the plants that is central to the treatment he outlines is Japanese knotweed, Polygonum cuspidatum. Knotweed is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of the 100 worst invasive species in the world. There are four species of knotweed and they appear on every register of invasive plant species.

Stephen Buhner writes: “…the plant [Japanese knotweed] is specific to the treatment of Lyme disease, reducing the inflammation in the neural system that the disease organism initiates…the plant is invasive in the areas where the disease is most strongly emerging.”

This contention that not only does this particular plant uniquely treat a specific disease but that it has come to do so in a time of great need flies in the face of most present-day science and environmental theory. It turns the situation on its head. Japanese knotweed is part of a solution to an existing problem. 

Japanese knotweed has been my frequent companion, as a remedy, for many years. It is another guest of my interior terrain, a country rich and strange. I close with an address to my companion:

A year ago I barely knew your name. Your reputation on breath stained pages: loathed invader, hu zhang, tiger cane, Japanese knotweed, Polygonum cuspidatum. On disturbed land, barren ground, your amazon army roots the defense of tissue, blood and brain. Samurai of plant medicine, you are the vanguard.

Immune system modulator, you cleanse and balance blood, protect brain and nervous system from neurotoxins. You treat: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple-sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Huntingtons chorea disease, front-o-temporal dementia, encephalomyelitis.

You treat Lyme disease and its cohort co-infections
born by ticks, mosquitoes, birds
riders of deer
vector born diseases—a new vocabulary
your future is clear.

You are: anti oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, anti-fungal, anti-thrombotic, anti-atherosclerotic, anti-pyretic, anti-viral, anti-spirochetal, yet war is waged against you. Your enemies arm themselves with chemical weed killers, blow-torches, shovels. Well intentioned volunteers seek to save indigenous plants from your colonization. On his website, “Dr. Knotweed” promises to eradicate you. You have been described as the scourge which could sink a house sale. Is this just another international misunderstanding? Your giant female root brain drinks up Round-Up, detoxifies polluted earth. Ticks need you, birds, deer—I need you. 

I read you’re delicious in muffins.

Author’s Note

I would not be the healthy person I am today without the healing regimes prescribed by Dr. Cindee Gardner of Monroeville, PA. Dr. Gardner: PhD, HD (RHom), CHom, DHom, is an internationally renowned homeopath, master herbalist, molecular biologist and clinical nutritionist. She is approaching retirement after forty years of an internationally renowned career.

About the Author

Carole Harmon writes as she photographs—from islands of memory and awareness. She grew up in Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, where she spent much of her adulthood as a landscape photographer, regional publisher, and gallery owner; she diversified a family business begun in 1904 by her paternal grandfather, Byron Harmon.

Now she lives on the Sunshine Coast in Canada where she co-produces Writers Radio with Ingrid Rose and Gary Sill. Writers Radio is an internet radio program and podcast which broadcasts internationally.

Carole has been actor, photographer, business woman, gallery owner, and now writer. She responds to the world through whatever medium she’s using, working with cascades of images given to her by ancestors, other creatures, landscapes, world.

Writing is a relatively recent form of expression for her. Her essays and poems have appeared in Dark Matter Women Witnessing, Don’t Tell: Family Secrets, Whiteness is Not An Ancestor: Essays on Life and Lineage by white Women. (Her long poem, “Yarrow’s Offering”, was short-listed in 2019 for The Ruth and David Lampe Poetry Competition and Award in memory of Gwendolyn MacEwen. | |

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