Monday, October 3, 2011

Enter the Green Monkey

There is a phrase in Japanese storytelling – ima wa mukashi – that means, “Now is the ancient past.”  The storyteller says this first to set the stage for the story to follow, letting us know that it took place a long time ago.  It also puts the audience into the story, into the ancient past, so they can experience the story from within, as a participant rather than as a passive listener.  It’s a handy-dandy neurolinguistic programming device, a kind of a time machine.  So:

Ima wa mukashi.  The monkeys are agitated.  The weather is changing.  The forest is shrinking.  Strange bugs are swarming, fruit aren’t ripening at their usual times, many monkeys are sick, and quite a few are dying.  The monkey bands flee the pestilence and chaos of their home, heading out into the unfamiliar savannah.  One monkey, himself sick and weakened, limps along with his group.  When the rest of the group stops for the night, huddled together for warmth and protection, this monkey leaves his starving companions, heading for a nearby hill, drawn inexplicably to the bump in the landscape. Ominous black clouds are forming overhead, it starts to drizzle, then pour, but the monkey stays his course.  Lightning pierces the darkness, thunder explodes, and the wind shrieks.  A thunderbolt strikes the hillside and a fire erupts.  The monkey, as if in a trance, continues on.  Every now and then, he stops and picks some of the foliage around him, nibbles on a few of the green bitter leaves, and holds onto bunches of leaves to eat later.  When he gets to the hillside, the fire has subsided, though there are still smoldering spots here and there.  The monkey spies a young antelope, crushed under a tree.  He notices that the animal is singed and blackened from the fire.  He sniffs the air.  It smells good.  He tears off a forelimb and takes a nibble.  He begins to gorge.  His belly full, the monkey takes a nap.  When he wakes up, he is feeling better, though still feverish.  He sees the antelope’s skull, broken open with the brains sizzling inside.  Inspired, he stuffs into the skull the leaves he has gathered previously.  Soon the brew is bubbling away.  Eventually the fire subsides and the skull is cool enough to grab.  The monkey slurps down his creation.  It is slightly bitter, but delicious.  Over the next day or two, his fever subsides.  The monkey starts back towards his band, a new lightness in his step and confidence shining from his eyes, a smoldering stick in one hand, bunches of herbs in the other.  He chews on fresh leaves all the way home.  His band sees him coming.  They think he is crazy, waving the burning stick and bunches of leaves in the air.  But, as he nears, they are amazed at how healthy he appears.  There is much hooting and hollering as he rejoins the group, and the monkeys gaze in wonder at their companion’s strange-looking, green-stained lips and teeth.  The Green Monkey gets to work, starting a fire, cooking the magic leaves, serving his friends and relatives.  Soon the band is healthy, ready to face the future, whatever it may hold.

Of course, I have packed into one simian superhero a number of epic events that actually must have occurred over many generations of early hominids: the taming of fire, the advent of cooking, the usage of medicinal herbs. It cannot be denied that cooking is something that sets us apart from other animals.  Cooking, by concentrating nutrients and in a sense “predigesting” our food, frees us up from the pretty much constant foraging that the eating of raw foods demands.  In the abundant free time thus created, humanity emerged and flourished.  (The definitive work on this theme is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham).  As for medicinal herbs, it’s true that other animals use herbs in the wild to treat their illnesses.  In fact, many of the origin stories of medicinal herbs have to do with people observing sick or injured animals eating certain herbs and then getting better.  But a couple of things set human herbal medicine apart from animal herbal medicine.  First, cooking and other methods of extraction allow us to ingest herbal medicines in concentrated form without having to eat piles of hard-to-digest leaves and hard-to-chew roots.  And second, with the invention of writing, we have been able to catalog an encyclopedic database of herbal knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation in books and living traditions of clinical practice.

It may have occurred to the astute reader that our current situation is not unlike that of the monkeys at the beginning of our story.  The climate is changing, new diseases are emerging, the monkeys are agitated.  Ima wa mukashi, indeed.  I believe that it is extremely important for humanity to tap into the vast pharmacopeia of nature to help us deal with our health problems.  It’s great that government-funded natural products chemists are scouring our jungles and oceans for compounds that will fight cancer and other ills.  But it is equally important to utilize existing knowledge of herbal traditions, especially because effective treatments for some of our most common health complaints have already been discovered.  This is where Green Monkey Pharmacy comes in.  I don’t claim to have the cure for cancer.  But, with my training in traditional Chinese medicine and extensive experience in medicine-making, I am pleased to offer you high-quality herbal medicines that will fill many of your healthcare needs.  


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