by Liza Field
There’s good news from far afield, these days — or even close at hand. Researchers are finding that a “new” purple pill can prevent and heal cancer.
This discovery ranks as a gold mine in cancer research. It’s better than gold, in fact, since anyone with cancer knows life is more precious than money.
That this anti-cancer jewel might be found in North America’s least-valued waste places, overgrown graveyards and weedy lots, seems therefore potent with irony — more like a fable than news.
Yet it’s true: The common, wayside blackberry has been found to prevent or shrink colon, esophageal, breast, cervical and lung cancer tumors, according to researchers at Ohio State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Moreover, a topical gel of black raspberry powder can retard the growth of squamous cell carcinomas in mice receiving skin-damaging UVB radiation.
“We’ve never seen anything like it!” marveled Anne VanBuskirk, Ph.D., senior author of that Ohio State study.
Which raises a new research question. Why?
Why have “we never seen anything like” the humble blackberry? These brambles are native to nearly the entire North American continent.
That blackberries were good for you wasn’t news to American Indians. They honored them as a divine gift of summer food and brewed the leaves for intestinal healing.
American pioneers followed suit. Civil War soldiers with dysentery would even call blackberry truces, allowing soldiers on both sides to go collect that medicine from their one mutual pharmacy — the land.
Not only were blackberries potent enough to stop (temporarily) America’s internal warfare. They also kept many settlers alive, feeding both their families and the wildlife that would help them survive the winter.
Fortunately, this manna for people and wildlife existed wherever settlers moved. Even half a century ago, blackberries grew so prodigiously everyplace, the expression “common as blackberries” referred to anything prevalent and cheap.
Today, it’s hard to find a blackberry in many U.S. communities — our manicured urban, suburban, even industrial farming landscapes. They might appear occasionally in a produce aisle, but often sprayed with questionable pesticides — and rarely “cheap.”
What happened? How did the common, freely-had, healing blackberry become an obscure, toxin-laden item few Americans can even afford?
Our conditioning changed, for one thing. Over time, Americans gradually lost any connection between the landscape and our own insides.
Over the past century, food, water and health increasingly became things to purchase from elsewhere — not to look for “outdoors.” Few Americans younger than 40 today have ever picked a blackberry, or even an apple, outside the electronics aisle.
The American view of reality itself, sociologists say, no longer comes directly from the plants, wildlife or weather that informed our ancestors. Today, weather and world views get downloaded from news broadcasts, entertainers, politicians and marketers.
Our very concept of “landscape” is now shaped by chemical and tractor industries that promote high-maintenance lawns, insecticides and herbicides — not blackberries, wildflowers, trees and wildlife habitat.
Political leadership gets informed likewise — not by the world outside the door, but special interests. And many of these, to improve industry profits, promote the view that environmental impoverishment is vital to America’s economic “health.”
In July, the House passed a bill “amending” the Clean Water Act to allow industries more freedom to pollute America’s ground and surface water. Energy interests had promoted the bill as essential to the “livelihoods” of Americans.
That American “livelihood” is dependent on deadening its waters — that the health of our homeland would depend, in fact, on poisoning the homeland — can only make sense when the feedback loop is cut between inner and outer reality.
When organisms quit heeding feedback from their environment, biologists call it “dysfunction.” When cells continue acting against the good of the whole, doctors call it “cancer.”
Healing this breach requires a return to alignment with outer reality. America could use this kind of recovery.
Perhaps news of the potent blackberry could help. If this wild tonic simply induced us to step outside again, between the soil and clouds, we might see that life comes not from deadness, but from a living world.
If we thought our health, too, came from that world, we might make sure a healthy world were prescribed again: the blackberry, its native ecosystems, drinkable water, fish and wildlife.
Such a medical rediscovery might even begin healing America’s oldest civil war—our chronic siege on the life of our own land.
Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. The column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.