Thursday, August 7, 2014

Things I love to hear folks say after my classes...

photo by Lisa DeNardo

When I was 20 years young and still very inexperienced at living on my own, I came down with something very nasty. I felt like I was going to die, and it scared the crap out of me. I didn't know what to do. My first instinct was to call mom. It seemed the most natural thing to do. After all, she had taken care of three kids through countless health issues. Surely she would know. I don't know what I expected, maybe some sound advice about resting and eating and then comforting words about how everything will be all right. What she said, however, was "well, go to the doctor". 

I took her advice and did go to the doctor. I don't remember much of it now. I was probably given an antibiotic (which was probably useless for my cold or flu) and sent back home. But what I do remember is the feeling of helplessness. I didn't like the fact that I didn't know how to take care of myself when I was sick. But it was even more unsettling that my mother couldn't help me either. I can't blame her of course. She, like so many others of her generation, was a product of the "better living through chemistry" era. The relied upon home remedies of a couple generations ago had been eschewed, to be replaced by the pharmaceutical wonder drugs that promised to eradicate all disease. What was lost, along with the old knowledge of traditional healing ways, was a sense of self empowerment in our ability to take care of very basic health issues on our own.

I think that experience was the first time I felt that loss. I could not, at that time, articulate this sense of loss, because I didn't really have any experience of having a traditional healing system to draw upon. It was more like an ancestral memory, a sort of deep knowing that things used to be different, that there was a time when calling mom for help with healing was the most natural thing to do, that mothers were healers, and the fact that that was no longer true was something to be deeply concerned about. 

This felt sense, that something was amiss, has led me in countless ways along my journey. And when I eventually came to study the healing plants, I had the sense that a piece of the puzzle was found. What could be more empowering then relying on the plants growing around us to keep us healthy and soothe our ills and discomforts. The knowledge of how to use these plants lifted me out of my fear to a place of empowerment. And as I began to use these healing plants, my confidence grew, and my doctor's visits decreased. When I started having children of my own, I was able to take care of the inevitable and constant minor boo boos and health issues that came up. What an amazing feeling. 

This is the feeling I try to put forth in my class…that sense that herbal medicine is incredibly empowering. Yes, we still need health care practitioners to help us in many situations, but there is quite a lot we can handle on our own, if we know how and have the allies to help us. Even then, when you have the information and the herbs on hand, it can be frightening to take that leap, to trust yourself instead of an "authority figure". At that point, we are standing at the precipice of reclaiming our power. (Do we dare?) 

And so, when folks come back to me and describe how they have handled a challenge on their own, where they otherwise would have run to the doctor, that is when my heart soars. In the telling of these stories there is at first an element of fear, of uncertainty. They are not quite sure they can do this. Maybe they give themselves a time frame (If I don't start to feel better by tomorrow, I'll go to the doctor). They feel a little safer, so they try. When they start to feel better, their confidence is boosted, so they continue.  Now they are noticing a big difference. Maybe this is the first time they have even been so bold. When they are well again, the magic happens. They are empowered, and they are on fire. They can't wait to tell me. I never get tired of hearing these stories.

But even with the satisfaction of empowering other people to reclaim the herbal tradition, I will always be most grateful for having reclaimed it myself, for my own children. Recently my eight-year-old son developed a mild fever. This usually energetic and boisterous boy was tired and not feeling well. He spent the day resting on the couch, drinking lots of herbal teas while I took care of him. After a good night's sleep the fever was gone and he was nearly back to normal. At dinner that evening I thanked him for allowing his body to rest and drinking his tea so that he could get well quickly. He smiled and said, "yeah, I'm glad I have an herbalist for a mom". Oh my heart! With those words I knew I had healed my own sense of loss from all those years ago. My children knew they could look to their mother for that sense of comfort and healing. And I hope that one day they will provide the same sense of comfort to their own children. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Inspiration on the Path of Herbalism

"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I've always been drawn to the weeds and the wilderness, as Hopkins puts it. But then, to most young children, there is no distinction between weeds and wilderness. For a child recognizes the wild in all it's forms, from the large and impending wood lot at the end of the lane, to the dandelions bursting through a crack of asphalt in the parking lot. All is Nature in it's indescribable, but wholly palpable (to a child) form. The wild doesn't ask for permission, doesn't recognize rules, isn't proper, doesn't grow in rows, doesn't respect construction. In other words, the wild hasn't been tamed, obviously. But I think that is why it is so easily seen by children. Children, who have not yet been fully trained in the ways of society, i.e. tamed, find a delight in the wilds wherever they find it. But the more we grow, the more the adults try to school us in the ways of the world, the more we lose this connection, this ability to see the intelligence in the wild things around us, and the more we lose a sense of kinship with them.

I'm thinking about all this because recently another herbalist, in helping me find inspiration for a blog post, suggested the question, "What kind of herbalist are you?" In pondering this, I began to think about what I love about working with the plants, and then about what attracted me to this path in the first place, and then to that initial spark that first called my attention back to the wild things after many years of disconnection, and how magical that was for me. And then I realized that that spark that woke me up, that grabbed my attention years ago and reawakened in me a thing that had been asleep since childhood, that spark is what keeps me on this path, and what drives me to work in the way that I do. Sometimes in our lives we have moments of crystallization, when something breaks through our consciousness and suddenly we get it, that is we get something. And even though we can't really articulate to our fellow humans around us what it is that we suddenly "get", we are changed in that moment, and able to see things we previously could not. This is how it was for me when, in my early 20's, I saw the wild all around me as an ever presence benevolent force that I was somehow a part of. And in that realization, the flood of childhood memories of a time where this knowing was just a part of who I was, who we all are before we are taught otherwise, came rushing in.

For me, this awakening was sparked by the weeds. I had been studying medicinal herbs (that's a very technical and society-approved term for wild plants that can help us heal) and at some point it began to dawn on me that many of the offending things that we call "weeds" and love to complain about and pull (even if we throw our back out) and spray with poison that makes our children sick and really have  downright declared war against because we loath them so, many of these plants could also be called medicinal herbs. What? 

I started to look at my back yard differently. I started to wonder what was really going on there. And I started to question that weird distinction our culture seems to have made so long ago between the wild and the civilized. I started to wonder, as I hiked through the preserved patches of forests outside of town, why we separate ourselves from the wild (or try to), with us over here, and the "preserve" over there. Over the years I've come to understand that, whatever the reason for the initial separation, the result is a whole society of humans who are so disconnected from the Nature they are a part of, they have no problem at all in destroying it. There is no remorse in  chopping down trees or poisoning rivers. We've gotten quite good at it. But for those who have that connection intact, these acts are traumatic to witness.

When my oldest son was five years old, the road crews were trimming the trees along the power lines on our road. When they got to our house, they began to trim some of the limbs on the big silver maple by our driveway. My son began screaming and crying. I could not calm him down and he became so enrages he started throwing sticks at the crew. I picked him up and brought him inside, where I listened to his pain. They had not asked permission before they started cutting that living tree that he had known all his life, that he still recognized a kinship with. I held him and we cried together. I tried to explain to him that they meant no harm and were only trimming branches away from the wires, but in my heart I knew my son was right. The problem was not the tree, but the fact that to those workers the tree was just a thing to be trimmed, they had lost that connection.

And so this is why I work with the plants. It is a way for me to work every day to rekindle that connection, for me to try to preserve it in my children, and to try, in any way I can, to rekindle it in those around me. This is why I chose to teach (instead of say, become a clinical herbalist), and why I teach outside, in the garden, with the living plants. I want to inspire that awakening in people, I want to open their eyes and their hearts to the wonder that exists right in their back yards, in the cracks in the pavement. I want them to taste calamus root, to feel mullein, to smell meadowsweet, and to see the patterns and geometries of these incredible plants. And then, I want them to begin to shift their perception about their relationship to this green world. It may sound like a grand goal, but when someone suddenly understands the value of dandelion and plantain in their lives, when they can become grateful for their gifts, the shift has begun. 

And when I get ladies coming back to my classes and relating stories about telling their husbands not to mow over there, or weed over here, my heart is happy. Yes, I want to help folks with their eczema and digestive issues, but healing that disconnect is where my real passion dwells. It is what drives me and keeps me on this path. It is what inspires me. 
I love it.

And once one begins to accept the possibility that those "weeds" growing around us might not be all that bad, well maybe that will open the door to connecting with Nature at large, perhaps even beginning to heal our kinship with her. Well, we've got to start somewhere.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Now Accepting Sign-Ups for 2014 Herbal Medicine Shares!

2014 Summer Herbal Medicine Shares!!!

Five months of herbal medicine, May through September

As the garden begins to awaken and the wild greens start to burst from the ground, my thoughts are turning once again to a new season of herbal medicine making. Every year brings new inspirations along with old tried and true recipes. Each growing season I offer an herbal medicine subscription program during the growing season. Each month will feature handcrafted herbal products made with local, chemical-free plants which I grow and wildcraft myself. I believe that the quality of these products is a direct result of working with vibrant, fresh healing herbs, along with my love and respect for the gifts of the green world. Knowledge, experience, creativity and gratitude come together to form unique and nourishing products that preserve the vitality of the plants. I am honored to do this work and share this medicine with my community. 

Each pick-up will include three handcrafted herbal products for first aid or daily use and will be accompanied by an informative e-mail about the products and how to use them.

Folks who come out to pick up their shares will also have the option of taking fresh cut herbs home with them as well.
    Just like a vegetable CSA, the exact contents of your share will depend on the season and what grows well this year. Last year's shares included many products I hope to make again, including...
    • healing salve
    • burn salve
    • skin creams
    • lip balms
    • healing oils
    • relaxing teas
    • wellness elixirs
    • herbal tea blends
    • ...and many others.

    By the end of the season your herbal medicine cabinet will be stocked with lovely handcrafted, locally grown, ethically wildcrafted and chemical-free herbal products.  But...I'm only accepting 20 shares per season. 

    This year's summer herbal medicine share will start in May and run through September. That's five months of herbal goodies to look forward to.

    The cost for the season is...
    $200 per share ($230 with shipping option)

    Each share will be available for pick up the first week of each month.
    Folks can arrange a date and time to come out and pick up their shares.
    I will ship orders out the first Monday of each month.

    Folks in Delaware will be able to pick up their shares this year at a location in the Wilmington area.

    Sign up by e-mailing me at 

    I look forward to making medicine for you this season, and sharing the gifts of the healing plants.

    Tuesday, February 11, 2014

    Thoughts on Living Close to the Earth...

    One of the many things I love about studying herbal medicine is the way it naturally draws you closer to the earth. I suppose it is possible to become an herbalist and not move any closer in your relationship to the earth...if one were to be very clinical and sterile and only work with the plants in their processed form from suppliers. However, for the most part, nearly any path into herbalism involves some kind of an invitation to meet Nature on a more intimate level than most westerners are used to. It starts with noticing the plants we are studying growing wild around us, and then noticing a bit more about the wild around us. Perhaps we begin an herb garden, and soon we are digging in the earth and meeting the creatures that crawl under our feet. Gardens invite in the birds and toads. The sun begins to warm us and the wind speaks in our ears. If we dare to get lost in the rhythms of nature for too long we may even find ourselves moving into that place of resonance where, even if only for a moment, we realize that we are a part of this mysterious natural world as well, no matter how far we have pretended to be removed from it. From here it is only a short step to the desire to live closer the earth, to organize our daily lives in such a way as to honor and respect this relationship, to cultivate it, to live in alignment with the laws of this beautiful natural world we are so intimately connected to.

    When I was in my twenties, I fell in love with Tasha Tudor. I never met her, except through photographs in books. But these photos mesmerized me. So beautiful was this woman to me, who had chosen to live so electricity, heating with wood, a hand water pump in her sink...yet every aspect of her life was infuse with the simple beauty of her daily life. She lived with the seasons and did the work of living, not complaining about the burden, but embracing the joy to be found in each task. Something in my heart longed for this simple beauty in daily life. Some ancient memory was stirred by these photos of this sweet old woman smiling contentedly like the Buddha in her garden. I just knew there was a very important message for me here. Tasha is now gone from this world and can no longer tend her beautiful garden, but through the example she lived, she has planted seeds of inspiration in the hearts of countless others who recognized the treasure she had found. I wanted some of that treasure, and now, as I approach my fortieth year, I feel like I am beginning to discover the same treasure for myself. 

    What started with a knowing in my heart, blossomed over the years to a slow and steady tweaking of my life and lifestyle. Making little changes, and at times big changes, but always drawn along by the wisdom awakened in my heart. I wanted to live close to the earth, to ebb and flow with the seasons, to simplify my needs and indeed to nourish and be nourished by natural world around me. I wanted my children to grow up in a garden, to know where food comes from and to eat that vibrant food still warm in the sun. I wanted to grow my own medicines and learn the weeds (and love them). I wanted to live on the same piece of land for many many years, to learn from it, love it, watch it change with the seasons and the years, and give back to it...become a part of it.

    As the years moved by and my babies grew along with my garden, my partner and I slowly made the changes that we were able to live more gently on the earth. We switched from heating with oil to wood.  Now most of our wood comes from trees on surrounding farms that either fall down or are trimmed. We decided to do away with our clothes dryer and dry everything either outside on the line, or inside by the wood stove. Our simple construction projects are built with local reclaimed lumber and salvaged materials as much as possible. We switched to a composting toilet system that allows us to return nutrients to the land. There is still so much more to do as we consider meeting energy needs more sustainably and continuing to learn more life skills along the way. But we are moving in that direction every day.

    As we move further along this path, the rhythm becomes more established. There are tasks to complete each day and these tasks change with the seasons. We are tending the land, cooking our food, maintaining our house, preparing for the winter, and the spring garden... we are taking care of each other within a meaningful relationship with the earth. But at the same time, it doesn't feel like work, it feels like life. And because we have simplified our needs enough to maintain this lifestyle on a very modest income, we are home more than we are elsewhere. 

    As the trees we planted in reclaimed pastureland become taller, as new birds appear, as the diversity around us increases, my heart becomes filled with joy that is hard to describe. It is like watching someone who was dying come back to life, and realizing you never knew they were dying until you saw what they were like fully vibrant. As the land becomes vibrant, our energy in turn is nourished. How many of us believe that the earth, feeling our love, will then return love to us? How many of us know it, because we have felt it? Once you have a relationship such as this with the land, once you open yourself up to feeling that love, I can tell you that you will also feel pain and suffering of the earth when you visit areas of abuse and destruction. I very rarely go to the city anymore. I just cannot take that energy for long. And when I do, I am filled with gratitude to be back in my earthspace, so much that I often will fall down to kiss the earth.

    But we all know it is all connected. There is only one earth we all live on, and she is the same earth in the city as in my garden. She takes in all our energy and does the best she can to support the life on her body. My garden, my way of living as gently as I can on this earth, is my way of helping her in some small way. I suppose, like Tasha Tudor, I am hoping my example will plant the seed in others, so that more people do what they can to love the land they live on, to treat her gently, to nourish her with love and kindness, she does feel it I can tell you. And she will return that love in beautiful ways.

    I'm thinking all these thoughts lately, about how we have set up our life, because we recently lost power for two days because of an ice storm. Some folks around here were without power for much longer. And though it is often very difficult to lose power for an extended length of time in this day and age, I can say that we were quite comfortable. At this point we have not become completely independent of the grid, but we have come far enough along to experience these disruptions and minor inconveniences instead of the major ordeals they are to many others. We don't worry about losing heat, we can easily switch to using oil lamps, and although we don't yet have a hand pump for water, we do have drinking water stored in the pantry. We don't even need to flush our toilets. To be honest, the most difficult part of losing power is having three boys who are used to using the computer for so many things, but even they start to appreciate the simplicity of letting go of that last bit of false light that remove us from the environment around us. When we are not worried about meeting our daily survival needs, losing power becomes a beautiful invitation to appreciate the natural beauty around us, yes even after an ice storm. 

    We are not there yet. And will never simplify to the level of Tasha Tudor. But we are becoming more conscious of how our lifestyle impacts the earth we live on, the earth we are a part of. I am grateful for the distance we have come, and I look forward to moving further along this path. Our daily lives can be lived in artful beauty, in loving give and take with the natural world. Some call it walking the beauty way. For me, it becomes more and more like breathing, like the simple in breath and out breath that just feels right in my heart.

    And so, as we ready ourselves for another winter storm this week, I am grateful for the changing seasons, for the sleeping earth beneath the snow, for the medicines in my pantry crafted in my garden, for the wood keeping us warm and the spirits dancing in the empty branches. In a few weeks winter will ebb and the earth will green. It's already beginning, with a stirring as buds swell and sap flows. The same changes occur within ourselves. Can we recognize this connection? Can we honor it? 

    Friday, January 3, 2014

    2014 Folk Herbalism Series

    Herbal medicine has been the medicine of the people in all cultures since ancient history. Only in recent times have we lost our connection with the healing plants that our ancestors knew and relied on. But the plants are still here, growing all around us, and waiting for us to remember their gifts. This series of three hour classes was designed with the beginner in mind, as a way of offering practical ways of using these safe healing herbs, and reconnecting with the plants around you. Each month we focus on one topic, but I always include brief herb walks in the garden to introduce the living plants. Also, folks will bring home from each class either a living plant for their garden, or an herbal product we make in class. This year's classes will all be held on the second Sunday of the month, except for May, which will be on the first Sunday because of Mother's Day.

    April 13th  Food as Medicine-
    Spring tonics growing wild in your yard
    Identify the herbs and weeds that are most nourishing and toning to our systems. Learn how to harvest and use these plants as edibles and infusions. Prevention is the best medicine, and many of the wild plants are loaded with the nutrients we need to stay healthy and energized throughout the season. We will be tasting some simple recipes made with these nutritious and tonic plants.

    May 4th Herbal First Aid
    Learn what herbs to reach for when those little emergencies happen. We will look at my favorite plants to turn to for cuts, scrapes, bruises, bleeding, pain, poisoning, diarrhea, infections, bites, burns and other minor emergencies. Nature offers abundant and safe solutions to heal our traumas. We'll be getting to know some of my most relied upon plants.

    June 8th Tinctures and Elixirs
    Learn to make your own tinctures and elixirs to last all winter. These potent and portable herbal preparations will preserve your herbal bounty, and making them is easier than you think. We'll be making some in class.

    July 13th Oils and Salves
    Herbal oils and salves can heal and soothe, stimulate or relax. In this class we'll make some together and look at recipes and techniques for making your own at home. 

    August 10th Poultices and Fomentations
    From chew and stick poultices in the field to carefully prepared fomentations in the kitchen, we'll look at the lost art of laying on the herbs. These techniques are useful for anything from treating minor skin problems to helping broken bones heal faster to drawing out toxins and poisons and infections.

    photo by Amelia Rehrman

    September 14th Harvesting and Preserving
    We'll cover harvesting techniques for varies plants and their parts, with a bit of wildcrafting ethics thrown in. We will also discuss various ways to preserve your herbal harvest.
    (tinctures and oils will be briefly discussed in this class, but are more thoroughly covered in previous classes)

    October 12th Digging the Medicine
    Fall is the time to dig the roots, both physical and proverbial. We'll be talking about underground medicine (literally and figuratively). Come unearth some healing roots while discussing the history of the suppression of herbal medicine and why it continues, like a stubborn root in the garden, to persist.

    November 9th Teas and Syrups
    Tisane, Infusion, Decoction...what's the difference? Teas are among the most simple and effective of herbal medicines. We'll sip some in class and make some sweet syrup too. This class will also focus on herbs and recipes that are useful as we move into cold and flu season.

    All classes will be from 10am to 1pm
     at my home and garden outside of Oxford, Pa.

    Space is limited to 15 per class, so sign up early to reserve your spot.

    Cost is $40 per class ($10 for interested young people)
    In the event of cancellation due to weather, 
    classes will be rescheduled for the following Sunday

    **Adults who wish to sign up for the entire season of classes can do so for a 
    discounted price of $280
    (however, I cannot refund money for missed classes)

    To sign up, e-mail me at

    I look forward to sharing another season of herbal medicine!

    Photos in this post by Earth Mama