When I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia in Athens, I became a head-on-a-body English major who spent more time with her nose in a book than smelling the flowers. A series of encounters with nature began a personal transformation, which saved my life and called me to share the healing power of nature with others.
For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils. -Wordsworth, 1802; photo taken at Cylburn Arboretum, Baltimore, MD
Being an English major, I have to credit Shakespeare and the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Blake and Keats for opening my heart to the plants. These poets lived and moved intimately with the green world, expressing our deeply intertwined relationship with plants through the symbolism the plants hold for human qualities –often based on a plant’s medicinal uses–and their stimulation and intoxication of human senses. Reading “Ode to a Nightingale” was like entering a secret, enchanted garden, and when I closed the book of Keats’ poetry, I was back in the world of gray concrete and petroleum-scented air. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Blake and Keats made me yearn to know the plants as they did.
The poets led me to sign up for a “Herb Walk” given by Kerry Fulford, who, at the time, was the manager of Phoenix Natural Foods, which no longer exists. Kerry led a group of us to the woods behind the Intramural Fields, where she spent the day introducing us to the plants and teaching us how we could use them medicinally. To me, it was archaic to speak about “wildcrafting” a plant and making medicine out of it. That was something from Shakespeare’s time, definitely not something that I could do now! I suddenly found myself walking through the gate leading me into the enchanted garden. The transformation was beginning.
A flier on a college wall caught my attention, advertising a National Student Exchange program. I chose to study in Bellingham, Washington at Western Washington University. For me, in my newly nature-oriented state, there was only one way to get there…by camping the whole way in State and National Parks (and once in a Nebraska high school parking lot). That summer, I visited many of our National Parks, including the South Dakota Badlands where I was moved to tears for the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Glacier where it snowed in August, as I made my way from Georgia to Washington State. Once in Washington, I continued my adventure, exploring magnificent places, big and small, of Washington with my backpack: Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Mt. Rainier National Park, the North Cascades National Park, Olympic National Park, Discovery Park of Seattle, Lummi Island, Lake Watcom, Sauk Mountain, Larrabee State Park…a thousand wows for Washington.
The Brick House, Crawford, GA
With one semester left at UGA, I came back feeling like a Lepidoptera butterfly working its way from a chrysalis. I moved into the Brick House in Crawford, GA, an old Southern plantation house in the country, which is where I learned of the place my plant passion would further develop, Goodness Grows Nursery in Lexington, GA. Rick Berry and Mark Richardson taught me about the diversity of plants around us, how to grow them, and how to sound smart by calling plants by their scientific name, or binomial nomenclature, a-hem. I began looking at all the wild plants around me wanting to know them all by name. They were becoming my friends, my companions, my lovers, and I felt welcome among them.
Eventually, I moved to the North Georgia Mountains where I was an English teacher. In my leisure time, I carried with me the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke, learning one or two plants on each walk through the pristine woods. A few years later, I enrolled in an extended course in medicinal plants taught by Patricia Kyritsi Howell. The class increased my love affair with plants, and my curiosity for their medicinal uses.
I chose to deepen my understanding of plant chemistry, called phytochemistry after the latin name for ‘plant’, human physiology and how the two interact at Tai Sophia Institute, a three-year residential graduate school for herbal medicine and acupuncture. Soon, I was being taught by Dr. Duke himself, the author of the Peterson Field Guide I had carried with me for years.
Becoming a herbalist is mixing art and science, traditional knowledge of tried and true remedies from around the world, medieval alchemy and current scientific research, energetics and chemistry. The insight gained into the co-evolution of humans and plants through learning plant medicine is truly fascinating…and liberating. As a herbalist, I am more empowered and prepared to care for myself and others if anything should happen to my local conventional medical system. I know what wild plants are edible and medicinal, and I can keep on hand the plants I use often. All of us are connected to the natural environment, but few of us are aware of that connection.
As a herbalist, I notice the green world in a way that has sadly become uncommon. (Like I thought once upon a time making plant medicine was archaic!) One of my hopes is to bring more people to an awareness of our intertwined connection, which will lead greater amounts of people to choose actions that enhance and complement our natural relationship with the plants and the planet we all call home. I am so grateful for nature and all of my human teachers to assist me on my personal transformation. The enchanted garden is lovely, indeed.