The Moment I decided to become an herbalist…..
The very moment….? All my life I’ve had a deep love and fascination with plants. I started ‘studying’ them when I was in the 7-8th grade and did my school projects both on Native edible and medicinal uses of plants of Sonoma County. These plants have always been special friends of mine my whole life, no matter how far I’ve traveled or lived. As I mentioned, I grew up on a small dairy farm in Sonoma County, surrounded by the lush greenery of the meadows and hills of this special plant paradise. And my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Mary Egitkhanoff, lived near us as we were growing up. She knew her plants! She use to tell us that it was her belief in God and her knowledge of the plants that saved her life. And she meant it literally. She and my grandfather both were survivors of the Armenian genocide. She felt it was her ‘religious duty’ to teach us about God ~ and plants. And what she taught, at least about the plants, stuck with me all my life!
I can’t say I actually knew I was going to be an ‘herbalist’ when I was younger. I mean, it wasn’t actually a career option back then! But I knew some how intrinsically that I would be called into the service of the green. They began to talk to me when I was very young ~ and, fortunately, no body told me I was crazy for listening! When I was in my twenties, I took off on a horseback trip with my toddler son and a young girlfriend who I had met up in Canada. We rode horseback from my parent’s back yard to the Trinity Alps of northern California ~ a three and a half month odyssey. It was a great adventure! We rode every day, bedded the horses and ourselves down each night tired but excited, and woke up the next morning ready to ride some more! The great thing about that journey was that we ‘wild crafted’ our food almost entirely. We had a little pan that we carried with us and we would cook a few greens at night, and eat some seeds and wild fruit we found along the way. The only other food we had was some trail mix that we would munch on when we got hungry ~ and occasionally when we’d ride by a store, which was not often, believe me! ~ We’d buy a jar of peanut butter and scarf it down. I don’t think we could have lived forever on such a diet, but we were sure healthy that summer. Maybe healthier and more fit than I’ve ever been since. And my son, who was 3 years old at the time, had a great time. He looked like a little Indian boy, dark and brown skinned but with a golden halo of hair and rosy cheeks kissed by the sun.
It was when I arrived home in the fall from a summer of riding, wild and free, and so close to nature and plants, that I knew I was ready to start the ‘give back’. I felt like I was living in a period of grace and that was good, but now, I had to give back a little of all that I had received. I think that might have been ‘the moment’ when I knew I was an herbalist! That was in 1971. In 1972, with the help of some great friends, primarily Drake Sadler, Rosemary Sutton and Warren Raysor, I opened Rosemary’s Garden, a little apothecary in the back of the Guerneville Natural Food store. The rest is history!
The Most influential herbal book that I read and why?
I love reading and devour books. In fact, I got the ‘librarian’ and ‘best reader’ awards when I was in primary school. I think they may have been the only awards I received in school. So to ask what is the #1 most influential book I ever read could be challenging. But I have to say, it’s easy to answer that question. I was in the old Santa Rosa library, a beautiful old library that some city officials back in the 70’s decided needed to be torn down to make way for then new streamlined building that replaced it. It was in that old library and I was doing some research on herbs and herbal healing. This was over 30 years ago and there certainly wasn’t the selection of herb books one finds these days. Just a few books, mostly about herb gardening and a few very slim one’s on herbal medicine. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered two dusty volumes, both out of print, by a woman named Juliette de Bairacli Levy. They weren’t real herbals, but were listed under ‘herbs’, so, of course, I checked them out. And I must say, those books changed my life. They are both old classics by Juliette, ‘Traveler’s Joy’ and ‘A Gypsy in New York’. (Both books have been reprinted and are now available from Ash Tree Publications). I read everything I could find by this mysterious woman. Who was she? It wasn’t so much what she said, but some voice that spoke from within the pages, that opened my heart to some deeper mystery about the plants. She didn’t speak of ‘plant spirit medicine’, a term we frequently use to refer to spirit inherent within every plant, but she knew about this inner world of plants. And she knew how to convey that to others through a language that opened up one’s heart to the messages of the plants. Juliette’s books helped me to discover the rich inner landscape of the green nations.
I wrote to her through her publisher in England, never expecting to hear back from her. But a few months later a small envelope with a small message arrived. We started writing, later met, and have been life long friends ever since. Juliette is now in her mid 90’s. She was younger than I am now when we sent those first notes back and forth.
Where would I like, or envision, the future of herbalism headed….
What a good question! I do feel that herbalists are at a crossroads. As herbalism and herbalists have found their way back to the mainstream (which its done off and on throughout history, sometimes running along on tiny tributaries, sometimes part of the main current, sometimes above ground, sometimes underground…where plants, by the way, thrive quite well!) it’s engendered a whole new set of problems. And it will be interesting to see how it sorts itself out. I’m not happy, of course, with the current trends to try to ‘standardize’ our practices and/or our communities by more rigid regulations and preset standards (preset by whom?). Ok, so it’s not ‘legal’ to practice herbal medicine… but look at the freedom we have as practitioners, medicine makers, and herbalists. I don’t think that inviting beaucrocy or governing boards to over see us will give us more freedom than we have now. I’m also not worried about the schmoozo’s out there who don’t know what they are doing. Most of us didn’t know what we were doing either when we started our work. I’m also not worried about ‘protecting the public’ from herbs. I think herbs are pretty safe, and those herbs that aren’t are already regulated and/or not available. And beside, the most regulated, sanctified, standardized system of medicine I in the world is also the most dangerous (4th leading cause of death in the U.S. is due to legally prescribed prescription drugs).
I definitely am for ethics, honesty, safety, good medicine practices, research, science, plant spirits, prayer, but I don’t necessarily think that can be set by regulations and/or governing boards no matter who sets the stands and/or who the board are.
I know I’m over simplifying. It seems we, herbalists, spend so much time on this argument recently and I do get tired of it. Though I also feel it’s necessary and important. In fact, I feel that everyone who cares about herbal medicine and its rich traditions should be involved in these discussions.
So my vision for herbalism for the future…I’d love to think we’re heading towards the Community Herbalist model; i.e. an herbalist in every community. Herbalists as part of the accepted health care of the community. Herbalists can be the medicine makers, the practitioners, offer classes to their communities. They can set up free clinics and work at the local hospitals to offer adjunct or primary care.
I’d like to see the same as what we’re doing now, have been doing for the past 30 + years, only more. I don’t think the model needs to change. It’s happening organically if we just nourish it and let the vision grow. The primary desire to change this living organic model that has taken root and is growing so beautifully in this country ~ spreading like under ground mycelia, a vast network interlinked, living, thriving together ~ is driven by financial gain and power. The Community herbalist model is a hard model to capitalize on. Almost everyone who drives the desire for more regulations whether it’s for practitioners medicine makers, etc ~ is involved in big finances. In fact, I’ve yet to meet an herbalist at the farmers market or at a small herb store or in a community practice that’s longing for more regulations and laws and restrictions.
I think if we continued to nurture and grow the model that we have, one that’s creative and multifaceted, that’s not ruled by ‘big business’ or government, that we’ll continue to set a model for self sustain ably and creativity. That’s one of the things I love so much about American herbalism ~ the creativity. And the diversity. And the many communities. And the wild free spirit that’s at its core. Its connection to land. To plants and their spirits. To the ecological concerns and preservation…
I think American Herbalism as indefinable as it is, is a terrific vital force pulsating with life.
What herbs do I take regularly….
I use herbs every day in some way. I cook with them, drink them as tea, commune with them, sleep with them and bathe with them. My favorite daily tonics include; nettle, comfrey, rosemary, oats, lemon balm, hawthorn, dandelion and burdock. And those tasty wild greens that grow outside one’s doorsteps; chickweed, plantain, dock. And lots of cooking herbs. Of course, I never follow the cook books that say ‘1/4 tsp’ of this or that herb! Unless its cayenne! I love the taste of our `culinaries’ and season everything liberally; forget the pinch and dab! I use a teaspoon or more so that the subtle becomes sublime. And many of the culinaries make fabulous teas ~ basil, sage, thyme, rosemary. How perfect is that?!
Sometimes I make longevity balls and take those daily. I mix almond butter and sesame butter together and add honey to make a creamy paste. Then I add my favorite longevity herbs such as ho shu wu, schizandra, nettle, hawthorne, astragalaus, ashwagandha, etc (all powdered). And then add coconut, carob or chocolate chips, almonds or other nut, cranberries, etc. to make it taste delicious. Thicken with unsweetened carob powder and roll into balls (walnut size). One or two a day keeps the doctor away for a long long time….!
Some of my favorite herbalists..
Oh, dear, this is the hardest question. I love this big hearted ever growing circle of herbalists and plant lovers. I’ve never met an herbalist that I didn’t like, or love, or admire. They are all such outrageous characters. But I would like to honor my elders who taught me so much….Tasha Tudor, Juliette de Bairacli Levy, Adele Dawson, Russ and Mary Jorgenson, Sage Blue, Norma Meyers. And now I can add James Green and Jeanne Rose, Michael Moore, Ed Smith and Michael Tierra, Susun Weed, and Ryan Drum to my ‘elders list’!!! (And a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment).
I also love the younger herbalists that I see moving into the circle….so passionate and filled with zest , they bring new life and blood to the circles. I feel a bit sorry for them at times, however ~ there’s so much information out there now, so many books, so much politics, so many classes, so many conferences! How does one make sense of it all? Where does one start? I always try to lead them back to the gardens and the wild heart of nature where the plants abide in such abundance. Listen to the plants! They are your greatest teachers! And listen to your own heart as it guides your way. But they are a great lot, these younger one’s. So, I’d like to include them here as well, at least a few that have touched me deeply ~ Sandy Lory, Lydia and Dana, Bevin Clare, Britain, Guido Mase’, Solveigh and Gisella, Jill and Wendy, and on and on….
I have some very special friends in this wild herbal circle (or circles….) and mostly I love them because they are such renegades and speak from their hearts so freely. But I’ll not mention them because they know who they are ~ and because they are on ‘the wanted’ list!
Brief tips for budding herbalists..
Follow your Bliss….not my words (wish they were!) but the wise words of Joseph Campbell. Every day, spend time directly with the plants and above all, listen to them. They will teach you more than any book and even the best herbal teacher. We all learn at the humble roots of the plants…all the way back to the beginning of time. Let’s not forget how to listen, how to hear, their language. It is not a lost language, or languages as they speak in many tongues, but a forgotten language that is heard with the heart.
Also, study from many different teachers. Never just one otherwise we become little clone heads. Better to study with many, and to let each one inspire your own vision, to clear your eyesight to see better the world around you.
What besides herbs invokes my passion and interests ~
I love wilderness, hiking, swimming in cold mountain lakes, being as close to nature as I can be. I’m never happier.
Traveling, meeting new places and people. Learning bout plants around the world.
Horses and animals. I want to ride off again one day…into the sunset of my youth, on another journey of heart and soul….its my dream.
Projects currently involved in
Well, as I’m sure you know, I’ve been deeply involved in medicinal plant conservation and preservation. Its actually probably my greatest passion at this time, helping to reestablish our wild gardens, to help ensure in whatever small way I can that these plants will be here for future generations ~ and more importantly, for the earth itself. Sometimes it seems so small in face of all that’s going on in the world right now, but then I’m reminded, mostly through my dreams and inner voices, that we can make change by doing what we love the best and doing it with all our hearts. This is one way I can change the world. And who knows what it may result it ~ a plant that lives for another day? A medicine that can change the face of the world? We never know. But we are called to service and if we follow that calling, then we are always where we are suppose to be at the perfect moment. So for now, I’m planting seeds….
I’d like to be of service, also, for those who are dying….to be available to help others on their journeys. I’ve been with a lot of people as they’ve journeyed on, and its midwifery, but of the spirit, not of the body.
And another project I dream about doing, but haven’t started yet, is writing my novel! It’s been living itself out in my head for about 15 years so if it ever gets written it will be well seasoned. It’s called, Chili Verde and the Garlic Queens, a Story of Love, Passion and Herbs. Don’t you think it will be a best seller!!!
Thank you for this opportunity to share…..