D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e      february 2005

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The Roots of Healing

An NMSU film series explores the vanishing knowledge of ancient healers in arid lands around the globe.

By Jeff Berg

With only a minuscule amount of funding, Professor Jeanne Gleason of NMSU and Patrick Holien, formerly of NMSU, who recently relocated to Washington, DC, to work for the US Department of Agriculture, have created a series of three short

Healer Dinah Veeris and Sister Carmen in Curacao

documentary films, collectively titled Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine. The goal of the video series might best be described as a way to encourage students and researchers to pay more attention to the work of regional healers in arid lands, and how their traditions and knowledge can enhance Western medicine.

The program was funded in part by the International Arid Lands Consortium, which is based in Tucson. The IALC is "dedicated to exploring the problems and solutions unique to arid and semiarid regions. IALC promotes cooperative research and practical application of new knowledge to develop sustainable ecological practices. The IALC member institutions share a mission to enable people of arid lands to improve the quality of life for future generations."

The production of the series was done by Leading Object, a little-known branch of NMSU whose "products are developed by specialists at New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics," and is, more or less, an in-house video making studio for the Extension Service. These films, as are a myriad of others, are "designed by a group of educators and media experts; each product has been carefully developed to educate in a wide variety of subject fields."

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Currently, the series is being considered for national broadcast by American Public Broadcasting, and Tapestry International of New York may be doing international distribution.

Holien considered many places, including Nepal, India and a place in Africa that was ultimately dismissed for aesthetic reasons, before selecting the three sites that were finally used.

"There are some incredibly valuable medicinal compounds only available in deserts, in some of the last places in the world," Gleason says. "So, it became a question of where are indigenous people in arid lands, and how is science working with these cultures?" Ultimately, they found only five or six places in the world that met this criterion.

The first episode of the series takes place in Jordan. Nomadic Bedouin tribes there still rely heavily on herbal and plant remedies, and herbalists, who are referred to as "attars," use plants such as the black iris bloom for a number of ailments. In lab tests by Western researchers, this iris, which is the national flower of Jordan, has shown promising results in treating leukemia.

The third episode, which screened at the recent Santa Fe Film Festival, takes place on the Caribbean island of Curacao, whose importance to ancient medicine the filmmakers came upon by accident in an Internet search. Located near Aruba and north of Venezuela, Curacao is a vacationers' paradise, with its curiously dry desert climate, accompanied by trade winds. It is almost rainless, but a drawback is that it is a place much adored by mosquitoes. Unlike the traditional healers of Jordan, those on this little island are not finding young people to pass their skills down to. The film accompanies Dinah Veeris, a traditional healer, who has her own garden that she uses to grow healing herbs and plants. Here, as in many other places, the old ways are being diminished, if not destroyed, by the so-called convenience and faster healing powers of some types of modern medicine.

But it is the second episode that may be of the most interest to residents of the Chihuahuan Desert region. The episode, entitled "The Borderlands," was filmed in various parts of Mexico, such as Oaxaca, and includes a sequence shot in Anapra, which is a colonia of Ciudad Juarez. The episode includes interviews with Juarez physician Dr. San Juan Mendoza, who combines herbal remedies with Western technology in treating her patients, and Amanda Aguilares Martinez, a curandera (a traditional healer in Mexico), whose wisdom of plants comes from her mother.

This episode shows research that is being done on local plants, primarily in use for cancer remedies. The research is a combined effort of NMSU's Medicinal Plant Workshop and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, based in Seattle. Some of the familiar desert plants that are being studied include common plants like mesquite and creosote, which has been used as a remedy for a number of ailments including gout and sinusitis. Three lesser-known plants—bear berry, wild mustard and jimson weed—are currently being tested at the Hutchinson Cancer Center, and show some promise as anticancer agents.

But constant development in many areas of the world is also taking its toll on healers and their remedies. Species are disappearing, and with them go any possible research that may help us find medicines that could be used by all peoples. Other plants, as witnessed in the Curacao episode, which are already known to have some healing powers, have already become extinct, or close to it. Hence, Dinah Veeris' efforts to save these precious species.

Holien, who was the director, screenwriter, producer and cinematographer for the entire series, was not available for interview for this article, due to his relocation to DC. His award-winning documentary experience goes back 30 years, and his work has appeared on PBS, ABC and The Learning Channel. In fact, "Episode One—Jordan," won a Silver Remi Award at last year's Worldfest International Film Festival in Houston.

NMSU professor Jeanne Gleason, the other part of this small team, was the grant writer, field producer and interviewer. She says she also did all of the "grunge" work, such as carrying equipment and cables. Gleason is currently on sabbatical in Kunming, China, where she is working on food safety training videos for Chinese immigrants who come to the United States and find employment in the food industry. Entitled the "Food Safety Project," Gleason's goal is to explain the cultural differences between food preparation in China and the United States.

In a phone interview, Gleason says, "I am developing this project for the USDA, who will use it to help explain Western food preparation to Mandarin and Cantonese people. I can watch from my eighth floor (walk-up!) apartment window, as people at the market will prepare a goat to sell by butchering it on the sidewalk. Then do the same thing with vegetables. Because the people who do this work cannot 'see' germs or bacteria, they do not believe (as a culture) that it exists."

About the "Ancient Roots" series, she says, "[It] is not so much about the science of medicinal plants, but more of a way to find out what we can learn from traditional medicine and healers.

"There is no way that I would recommend anyone going to the healers" without also consulting a physician, Gleason says. "But because they have been providing service for thousands of years, I feel it is important to find out what is it we need to learn from them. I also feel strongly that healers will not be around much longer, since no one is learning the old ways any more." An exception, she says, is that this aspect of Jordanian culture may last longer than the next 20 years, because religion and tradition there teach the people "not to modernize."

But the others seemed doomed to end up the same way as coopers, wheelwrights, and carbon paper manufacturers. "Of all the healers we met on Curacao, there was only one who was not over 80, and he was the son of one of the elder healers," Gleason says.

"There are multiple levels as to what the lab does," O'Connell says. "We do basic research, such as having students look for plants that could be used as cancer therapeutics. We also engage them in research that involves the search for new drugs from plants."

O'Connell is also the organizer of the university's Southwest Medicinal Plant Workshop, which has taken place annually since 2000.

Like Gleason, Dr. O'Connell cautions, "I cannot endorse these healers. There are some things you should not attempt to treat with plants, but using them for prevention is okay. Many diseases need aggressive treatment."

Some of her misgivings arise from the fact that a healer will not know how much of a needed chemical can be extracted from a certain plant, thus casting doubt on the potency and amount of that plant which should be used.

A chemist by trade, O'Connell also warns, "Some prescriptions don't interact well with herbal remedies." Consequently, "a patient may not respond properly to the treatment prescribed.

"What we do is grind them up (the plants), and look at them chemically. That shows us what path to take, where to go from there. People are still looking in the natural world for plants, and are now starting to look at the marine world as a new area to explore, things such as sponges."

For example, in the Curacao episode, Mermaid's Hair, a form of blue-green algae, is shown being looked at for its potential use against cancer and staph infections.

As could be expected in any conversation with a plant person from New Mexico, the topic turns to chile peppers. Gleason recalls asking some of her Chinese hosts to roast some chiles, whereupon she peeled one and consumed it, much to the surprise of Chinese. They were slightly aghast that she was even familiar with chile.

O'Connell speaks of the medicinal properties of chile, as an arthritis remedy. "Some people find that it is worth enduring the pain in using as an analgesic, as opposed to the pain caused by arthritis."

Capsaicin, the five-compound chemical that makes chiles hot, is "detectable to human palates when diluted by up to 17 million times," according to the Bailey Farms Web site. O'Connell says, "Birds have no receptors that detect chile, while animals do. So, birds are able to dispense the chile seeds, while animals don't go near chiles."

They may be missing something—much as modern humans are often missing the health benefits of ancient herbs, a knowledge that's rapidly vanishing but that NMSU has sought to capture on film before it's too late.

Episode Two—The Borderlands of the Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine series will be shown on Saturday, March 5, at 1:30 p.m., at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, as part of a special afternoon of locally made short films. DVD copies of the entire series will be on sale at that time, or you can call toll-free (888)750-4156 to order now. For more information about this special screening, call 522-4100 or 522-0286.


Jeff Berg also wrote this issue's feature about Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.


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