The Weaving of an Herbalist

(This is the newspaper version shortened story, of how I became an "herbalist.") 

I was born into a world of plant medicine. The first month of a Taiwanese baby’s life is traditionally spent indoors. The father’s mother comes to take care of the new family, bathing the baby in herbs, and cooking nourishing broths filled with warming, tonifying, and healing herbs. These herbs infuse the home with a delicious aroma, and root into the baby’s body, heart, and life. I was thus nourished by herbs since birth, and surrounded by plants from a family that adored green living friends with multi-colored flowers.

Herbalism, or plant medicine, is deeply woven into the lives of Taiwanese people through their cooking, growing, and wild-crafting of plants. My parents came from a traditional Taiwanese culture, whereas I grew up in free-thinking southern California. Regardless of cultural differences, as plant-eating, plant-wearing, and plant-loving humans, herbalism is an ancient lineage from which we all descended.

My mom taught me how to harvest, eat, and appreciate the wild fruits that fell deliciously from neighboring trees, that nobody but us came to pick. I spent my favorite childhood days wild-crafting fallen fruit, hiking big mountains, exploring National Parks, climbing trees, playing games, and creating stories.

We refer to affinity or serendipity in Chinese as “yuan fen,” which represents the invisible red thread that ties people’s lives together, similar to the magical thread that the Fates weave, in Greek mythology. The simplest way to describe how I became an herbalist is to say that yuan fen immersed me in plant medicine, through my life and travels.

A respected elder once called me an herbalist, after I gave him an aromatic blend of beloved wild-crafted herbs. It was my first time hearing the term “herbalist,” and I didn’t know what that meant. But, something in my heart jumped in recognition. I realized that that’s who I was, and who I wanted to be. After college, I traveled around the USA and southeastern Asia for almost eight years, exploring diverse traditional healing modalities, and Earth-based skills and spiritual traditions. While in Taiwan, I went through a traumatic surgery to remediate the long-term effects of a near-death climbing accident. That experience taught me that healing is a multi-factorial process, and life-long dance. With no clear answers, life is what you make of it. I decided to focus my life on my deepest passion: herbalism.

I returned to the USA to study Western clinical herbal medicine, botany, and critical thinking with 7song, at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine in Ithaca, NY. There are no degrees or certifications for herbalists; there is only life experience. Two years, two schools, and many adventures later, I met a Patagonian at an herbal conference near Tucson, which brought me here. I’m now involved with various organizations in Patagonia, including Borderlands Restoration, Revitalist Botanicals, the Global Arts Gallery, and Patagonia Creative Arts Association. I’m also teaching yoga, practicing Thai massage, and seeing clients for herbal consultations.

An herbalist is simply someone who effectively employs plants to help facilitate natural healing processes. I, as a clinical herbalist, work with diverse plants and people to aid healing, on all levels. During an intake, I ask many questions that include diet, lifestyle, emotions, and more. I then make suggestions that address root issues, surface symptoms, and, if appropriate, supportive plants and other therapies. Herbal medicine is especially helpful as a preventative, or lifestyle medicine. It may also be helpful for acute situations, depending on the individual concerned.

You’ll see a monthly herbal medicine article in this paper: philosophies, plants, stories, and more that will hopefully inspire you to deepen your relationship with your own health, and the natural world that surrounds you. I look forward to meeting you at Borderlands, and around town. I’m grateful for these plants threading us together, like the threads of yuan fen weaving, weaving. 

2014/ 09/ 19 - 2014/ 10/ 25 (A Sentence a Day)

We must go through the dark forest, not around it. My entire being is spinning with ideas, inspiration, and excitement. I want to remember this feeling of empassioned and bold aliveness, with hearing Wolf and so many other acclaimed herbalists telling us to be bad, not be afraid, and go out and create lasting positive change in the world and our communities. It feels so nice to be this comfortable, and to truly rest. I feel so tired, excited, stressed, inspired, overwhelmed, overworked, overstimulated, and just ridiculous right now. Herbalism is about establishing relationships with plants and the world around us, and facilitating that for our clients and community, too. The mountains told me to stop for a moment, so I did. While the winds stir up dust, clouds, and emotions, I sit under the shade of this large stone, watching the landscape do its dance of the day , and listening to its stories. I stayed awake all night to feel the wind toss my body across the stern granite ocean, to go prancing and howling across the desert mountains, hills, and plains with my coyote brethren, and to watch the stars dance across the sky, with lightning illuminating the neighboring mountains, breathing the deepest breaths of peace, delight, and truly Earthen blessings. I feel terrified yet delighted, ecstatic to scale these dangerous fourth class Arizona canyon walls that take me seemingly nowhere but up, dangerously up. During the in-between hours of dawn and twilight, there’s a certain timelessness and transience that permeates the landscape with a magic and beauty that is explosive yet subtle in all its vibrant potential. Is this the peace before the storm, or is it just peace? The first step of my journey of a thousand miles began today, by painting our/ my future/ upcoming clinic a deep/ bright earthen red. I possess an obsessive compulsion to complete what I’ve started, even though I still can’t fathom just how it will all work out. I am building a temple. I love working with mental illness. Living off-grid again might be an upcoming reality, which I embrace. Clouds feel protective right now, as I hide. I found a hawk feather, golden Cottonwood leaves, a dried river bed that flows into more, Osage Orange fruit, apple butter, a dead mouse, a massive black walnut tree, a field of Yerba Manza, a killed javelina, and how to renew life and hope from what feels like a deadened spirit: time. I woke up dreaming about labels. Today the Herb Temple, albeit incomplete, opens its doors to the public. Today’s our six month anniversary, between spring and autumn, and two hearts, two paths, two lives that converged and mutually decided to continue dancing together, to the clapping hands and delight of the Universe, herself. This morning, I promised this wild western winding muddy magnificent river of the Gila watershed, with its Heathen’s Baptismal hot springs, to unleash my tongue: as “good” (societally acceptable) me floats down the river, “bad” (societally overwhelming, alarmingly wild and untamed) me dances boisterously, naked and howling. Transition is a funnel: death to one life, purgatory, then rebirth into a new life. The fairy dusters have blossomed for the second time this year, late in the season, testament to the surprising amounts of rain, coupled with the encroaching cold via wintry nights, yet sunshiny days. The nights are now cold enough that Akimel, our coyote-chow puppy, sleeps on the bed with us, most notably wedging his little coppery golden body between my legs in the middle of the night. I just said, “yes” to something that I don’t wholly agree with, and find confusing yet alluring, but don’t feel like I have anything else fitting to say, “yes” to with my entire being, at the moment. My fears rise up like a flock of birds, lifting to cover the sky of my heart with their fluttering wings of questions, doubts, confusion, and the bones of despair, an underlying feeling of complete inadequacy. I’m glad to cry, rest, write, and take a day to myself to dream, be, emote, and dive into the waters of teary eyed emotional creativity with many pots of tea. We laughed, danced, cried, and had a really good time taking a chance and having a blast, to remember this moment for the rest of our lives. We walked across the starlit landscape hand in hand, surveying the Milky Way while discussing the mundane challenges and triumphs of our busy yet banal lives. I really don’t know anything at all, for there’s really nothing to know--- and that’s it. Gravity drew me, bike and all, down the gully and into the gravelly wash; pendulumatic motions and muscles drew me back out again, screaming and laughing with unfettered delight. I’m not sure what happened, but all has suddenly lost meaning once more, and I’m drowning in my own tears. That trip brought me to my knees. I have questions that revolve around culture, belonging, place, home, being, purpose, choice, meaning, and possibility.


Clouds, Questions

I sit at Caleb’s wooden desk, an old recycled school child’s table. Our window overlooks the hills that lead forth into Nature Conservancy lands. It’s a cloudy day. The rain begins falling as I write. I feel melancholic with the clouds. They remind me of New England, and of Taiwan, which I’m currently pining for. I’m drinking “Dong Fang Mei Ren” tea, a brilliant aromatic green tea that my best friend in Taiwan gave me, when he came to visit the USA. The name of the tea means, “Beautiful Oriental Person.” I’m using a little white porcelain tea set that I traded some Taiwanese friends that came to last year’s Rainbow Gathering. I’m listening to old Taiwanese/ Chinese folk music, that makes me cry. I enjoy this tea ceremony and music by myself, remembering all the tea leaves, water, and saliva expended drinking tea, laughing, and chatting with so many different friends, relatives, and elders throughout Taiwan, but especially in Taipei. I remember the old hands and tables, the music that brings smiles to our faces. I remember turning around when my grandma shared her favorite song with me, a song about roses, and started singing along. I didn’t want her to see me crying, not because the music is so beautiful, but because I suddenly got overwhelmed by the magic of it all: being in the country of my ancestry, drinking tea with my grandma, as she sings her favorite song, which is about roses. Roses are one of my favorite medicines, for joy, love, and the heart. I have two burlap sacks covered with rose petals drying outside of our room, right now. I harvested these brilliant multi-colored rose petals from Bernice’s garden, a few road’s away. Today’s roses, tea, music, clouds, and medicine of the moment makes me cry, and cry.

It’s difficult living in a world of no ancient, authentic culture. It’s exciting to try and sculpt one of my own, our own, an amalgam.

I woke up with too many questions, my mind screaming. I sat on our back doorstep, overlooking the hills and sunrise, with a red candle glittering and dancing, aromatic plants sending their smoking incense into the air from a heart-shaped abalone shell, and prayers and questions spilling forth as I invoked my ancestors, and all those who would hear me. I don’t know how to earn money in a way that feels good and right, how to continue learning and evolving with the herbal medicine studies that I’ve been focused on for the past 1.5 years, how to live in one place, how to be “normal.” I question the validity of all of the above, and wonder what I really want, and what’s best for the world. Nomad, pilgrim, wanderer, wind. Woman of no culture yet many, no community yet many, no skill yet many, with all the overwhelming possibility of infinite choices, and uncertainty as to how to walk forward, from here. I cry as I practice my daily sun salutations, yoga’s Surya Namaskar. I cry because I am so familiar with these movements that they flow fluidly into their own movement, their own dance, from a traditional something that originated a long time ago, has somehow been brought into this country, into my life. I journeyed to the country of its origin, relearned it, returned back to this country, and now this tradition has woven itself into my life, and is birthing into its own form.


HerbFolk 2014

I stream of consciously wrote about HerbFolk the day after it ended, in my journal. That journal entry is below, in its raw form, with my disjointed mind processes trying to digest all the diverse elements of intense delight, joy, inspiration, learning, questioning, challenging, and more that took place within the short span of just 3.5 days. Enjoy.

“Perhaps my favorite part was the little things: talking with friends, new and old. The tea bus. Coming in at all points during the day to laugh with Giuseppi, pick up more tea, and interact with various others doing the same. Talking with Jim McDonald, crouched uncomfortable yet excited over his table, shouting important questions over the sounds of various others doing the same, as the band blasted its dance tunes, and I laughed at Jim’s witch hat. Dancing in the back corner of the main tent, then having the esteemed herbalist David Hoffman join me, the music awkwardly working its way through his older body. I can see the silhouette of Guido Mase, who taught one of my favorite classes, as he rocks out to the rhythm of his own internal symphony. We all dance together like wild animals, to the raucous celebratory music of the night, and gather back up again after all the music has ended, still masked and sweating, to share stories, jokes, and seriousness. Meeting Bethany the first night, then taking her to the tea bus. Late night conversations every night, then my long walk up the hill behind the gathering, by moonlight and starlight, stumbling over stones and laughing. Interspersed meet-ups with familiar faces from all over the country, and all too often folks who know me, but I can’t remember them. The conversation with trees, from the past month, culminating in my tree classes with kids. Having my students come to me with huge smiles, then dancing surrounded by them during folk dance class. The satisfaction of selling medicines that I wildcrafted and handcrafted, for the first time. The most awkward interactions with an old romance, as we coincidentally take all the same classes, over and over again. Taking classes with well-known herbalists that I’ve read about for years, then just hanging out after class and around the gathering, chatting. David Hoffman buying my journal, to write his autobiography in. Getting caught in the thunderstorm with my students, and just crouching under a stand of Ponderosas to listen to the rain--- until an especially huge “BOOM!” with lightning sends us running back under cover. I grab plants while running down the path; we sit on the stage in the main tent later, playing plant identification games. The feeling of total inspiration after Guido’s classes: I too wish to teach like this, elegantly mixing science, mythology, poetry, and personal experience into an eloquent and fiery presentation that I had to remind myself to keep breathing through as I listened, enraptured. The feeling after some classes, like I’ve just been washed clean after a great storm, and the ensuing clarity and brilliant inspiration, a new way of looking at the world. Receiving blessings from new friends and teachers at the end of the gathering--- feeling seen, and met. I hope to honor others, especially the even younger generation, in such an authentic and generous fashion, as well.”

(3 weeks and many journeys later...)
I think back often to my HerbFolk experiences. Having met so many other like-minded folks, I feel further validated being who I am as an edge-walker, clinical herbalist, artist, and quirky gypsy. I feel more confident with sharing what I know, being honest about what I don’t know, and asking all the questions that arise between those two. My favorite is questioning all that I think I know and don’t know, holding a completely malleable world view. I’m especially grateful for all of the people that I met at HerbFolk, and the connections born from the short yet intense interactions of just a few days together in an herbally focused setting. Small actions can create great ripples. The smiles, words of encouragement, questions, reflections, stories shared, and more have certainly created great ripples in my life, that are now rippling out into my own community. I’m creating what I call in my heart, “The Herb Temple.” It doesn’t have a formal name, yet. Really, it’s just a little old renovated storage shed, a wooden shack with a garden, here in Patagonia, AZ. But, I cleaned it out, painted its belly an internally glowing red, added shelving, tables, decor, and herbal goodies, and am transforming it into an herbal clinic, store, community center, and educational center. We just opened (all nice and red) today.


October writing prompt: Autumn

Autumn is here. Describe the changes of your surrounding landscape. What does that mean, for you? How do these changes make you feel? Allow yourself to briefly run over your summer experiences in your mind's eye. 

What have you cultivated, this summer? What are you harvesting, this autumn? What is dying away, to rest for the winter?