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A living ecology

by Emma Patsey

Editor’s note: This post is taken from Emma’s December 2022 class reflection on the Immune System: Part 1 led by ArborVitae co-founder Richard Mandelbaum.

The week that Richard introduced the immune system just so happened to be the week that I had been struggling through my very first exposure to the COVID virus. I had barely made it through the first half of the Zoom school day, struggling to keep myself awake and suppress the waves of aches and fatigue that seemed to constantly run up and down the length of my body. I had not done anything but sleep, eat (rarely), and occasionally dry heave since entering the dazed, fever dream that followed my first positive test result. When I snapped out of the haze to prepare myself for class and realized what the topic of Richard’s lecture was, I rolled my sore, swollen eyes. It felt like brutal irony.

A hand holding a ceramic cup with tea remnants creating a smiley face.
Sometimes there's a smile waiting for you at the end of your elderberry tea.

Richard began his discussion with a debate on “germ” vs “terrain” when discussing the body’s ability to resist infection. Allopathic medicine largely operates under the paradigm that the immune system’s primary job is to “defend the body against attacks by “foreign invaders”—or germs (microbes) that can cause infection. However, Richard asked us to consider the immune system as our body’s innate capacity to not only resist but correctly modulate its reaction to microbes that are disruptive. This points to the fact that a healthy, well nourished body (terrain) will ultimately be able to proactively resist and/or modulate its response to unbeneficial microbes more appropriately than one unnourished or in a diseased state.

Richard continued to explain the role of our micro- and macrobiomes to immune health. He explained that the more diverse one’s microbiome, the more apt the immune system becomes at appropriately recognizing and modulating immune response. Therefore the more diverse the external microbiome to which one’s microbiome draws from, the more resilient the immune system. What a shockingly beautiful realization. We are living ecology, really. It’s a visceral reminder that we are intimately tied to the health of the land by which we live and the communities and lifestyles we chose to join and adhere too. As David Hoffman so eloquently writes:

A fennel blossom encased in a rainbow sits foreground, with a harvesting basket in the background.
And sometimes there's fennel waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.

Human immunity is ecology in action. There is a multifactorial relationship at play between individuals and their environment. There is a complex web of interactions between the inner world of the body and mind and the outer world of the environment. (Hoffman 2003, 441)

It is a common thought amongst environmentalists that our extractive relationship to our ecosystems is to the advantage of us now to the disadvantage of us later. This is just one example of how we are in constant reciprocity with our ecosystems. There is no “later,” only the continuous, evolving now. For a moment I felt like a beautiful amalgamation of all of my most treasured Hudson Valley streams, trees, boulders and agricultural landscapes where I spend so much of my time. Knowing that in a very real way, I carry a piece of them everywhere. They are, very practically, the medicine that I always felt them to be through their contributions to the parts of me unseen that support my health and wellbeing.

After class, feeling a little better, my husband and I took our daily quarantine walk in an attempt to teach ourselves how to breathe again. Silently, between strained breaths, I thanked every tree, rock, moss, grass.

Immunity is an expression of relationship. (Hoffman 2003, 441)

Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine. Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2003.


A second-year student at ArborVitae, Emma is a clinical herbalist, medicinal gardener, and occasional writer, and lifelong resident of the beautiful Hudson Valley, New York. Her work is largely a love letter to the cycles and patterns of this life that so intimately tie us together. Find her on Substack


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