Hilary Miflin, The Green Fuse: our deep connection with the power of plants. Matador, 2021.
ISBN 978 1800461 819 [buy it from Amazon]

“At the top of her game” as the author says, and with everything going for her, Hilary Miflin was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her world collapsed, exposing a gaping hole in her spiritual wellbeing. A highly trained scientist, her first degree being in botany, and her expertise in the use and abuse of pesticides, she realised that she needed to overhaul her life if she was to be healed – and not merely cured – of the disease.

Filled with authoritative detail, Hilary’s book is engaging and readable. It is a candid account of one woman’s journey from cancer, and the lifestyle that fostered it, to wellness and personal integrity. It details her journey away from being a high-performing product of her generation to retraining herself as a Jungian, a shaman, and a distiller of top-quality herb and flower essences. A major ingredient of reconstructing her life concerned her relationship to plants. She had been trained to study these as if they were mere machines: complexes of cellular structures filled with biochemicals.

The great explorers of the 1700s and 1800s collected many plants new to science from all over the world, bringing them back to England to grace such noble institutions as Kew Gardens and the Chelsea Physic Garden. But in so doing, the knowledge of their use in traditional medicine became detached from the specimens these pioneers of science so carefully collected and classified. 

In its place there grew up a science of isolated active ingredients matched to isolated symptoms to replace the various holistic systems of traditional medicine based on a unified view of the human body, mind and spirit. Ancient Greek, Chinese, Indian or native American, all these systems of medicine stress energy flows and balance, appealing to the deep and intimate relationships between ourselves and the plants with which we have co-evolved. These are relationships of medicine and food, worship and adornment, with no fundamental distinction between these aspects of plant use.

The author laments the gradual but systematic elimination of plant preparations from the British Pharmacopoeia. The purge started in the mid-19th century and she charts it in detail in Appendix A. To her it is symptomatic of a trend away from healing the sufferer towards treating symptoms in isolation, with pharmaceuticals isolated from nature, and ideally synthesised.

The declared aim of doing so is to deliver a measured dose of a standardised product to the site of action. But the fruit of all this effort is dissipated in the chain of guesswork that sets in once the pills leave the factory to be swallowed by the patient. Is the focus of modern medicine really upon the sufferer? Or is it on the preservation and maximisation of profit through the purification and promotion of some wonder ingredient upon which royalties are payable?

The book’s enigmatic title comes from Dylan Thomas: the force that through the green fuse drives the flower // drives my green age. An apt title for an extraordinary book. It is tempting though to view it as a chimera of three distinct genres: (a) a journey of healing and self-discovery, (b) a textbook of herbalism, and (c) a manual on how to build and operate a distillery for essential oils, tinctures, hydrolats and other plant essences. But to do this is to fall into the trap of the six blind men encountering an elephant for the first time, who come to six different conclusions based on which appendage they happened to touch first. Thus they miss the integrated nature of the beast.

Like the elephant – and like plants themselves – Hilary’s book is an organism: every part of it necessary for a proper understanding of the whole. It cries out to be read from beginning to end, not dipped-into like a work of reference.

Ian Clark
Whitby, 20 February 2023.