I wanted to like this book. It’s the sort of thing I ought to like. I didn’t, though.

There are parts of it that are beautiful and wise, especially the interviews with traditional healers. I loved those. Cowan’s insistence on the power of using local plants is right in line with my own feelings, and his focus on the spirit of the plant, as opposed to the physical constituents, as the source of healing is an important point, except…
it’s not actually “as opposed to”, it’s “along with.” That’s a big part of why I didn’t like the book. We live in a culture that vastly privileges the physical over the spiritual, but going completely the other direction isn’t healthy either. Cowan talks about working with plants, and he makes a very good point about the fact that plants are far more than “little phytochemical factories,” but he seems to completely ignore the fact that the phytochemicals are still there, and still very powerful. I believe that it takes the substance AND the spirit of the plant to help the body heal.
The healings that Cowan describes are entirely unhelpful. He doesn’t have anything useful to say about his technique. The pattern throughout the book is to describe a patient with some kind of big, complicated health problem. The patient comes to Cowan, Cowan gives a vague, usually unspecified treatment, and within moments the patient is all better. Many of the problems he describes, such as trauma from childhood abuse, are deep-rooted complex issues that take time and work to heal. Perhaps the patient felt better after a treatment, but what about two weeks later? A year later? He never says. The worst example of this was the patient with pancreatic cancer. Cowan treats the patient, the patient instantly feels better, and we never hear the end of the story. Pancreatic cancer is fatal. If the cancer was healed, that would be wonderful and miraculous, but Cowan doesn’t say that. If the treatment allowed the patient to meet his death with courage and serenity, that would be less miraculous but also wonderful. Cowan doesn’t say that either. Patient has cancer, Cowan treats patient, patient feels better. It’s unsatisfying both as an explanation of a healing technique and as a story.

Cowan also gives the impression that he’s the first person ever (besides native shamanic healers, who apparently don’t count) to connect with plant spirits in healing. He seems completely unaware that there is an ongoing tradition among European and European-American folk healers that connects with plant spirits, in spite of the fact that these people have been writing books for years before Cowan did. He speaks of making a connection with a plantain spirit, who tells him that the plantain have been waiting 200 years for someone to connect with them and ask for healing. Rubbish. People have been working with the plantain spirit continously for a very long time – it was brought to this continent by the Europeans for its healing power.

At one point, while rhapsodizing over the power of the mother’s breast, he laments that “Women are no longer solely devoted to motherhood…” If he really believes that there ever was a time when women were solely devoted to motherhood, then it’s no wonder that he’s missed all those female herbalists who have been quietly and effectively working with plant spirits all along.

I also have to disagree with his whole philosophy of healing. He claims that you cannot heal yourself, and that only another (person) can heal you, because when you’re ill you are too sick to figure out what you need. There is a grain of truth in this, in that a sick person needs counseling and care, but there is no one that can heal you but yourself. The “healer” doesn’t heal you. The plants deserve a little more credit, but they don’t heal you either. All anyone can do, however skilled or knowledgable they may be, is help you to have the best conditions where your body can heal itself. Not only can you heal yourself, you are the ONLY person who can heal you.

“Plant Spirit Medicine” has some good moments and is worth reading for the voices of various Central and South American healers who speak through it. Cowan’s own voice is much less interesting or useful. He may indeed be able to help people as well as he claims he does. I hope so; we need that sort of thing. I’m less than convinced by this book.