Every late spring for the past four years, I’ve attended the
West Herbal Seminar in the redwood mountains above Ben Lomond, CA.
Every year has been different and brought its own (sometimes mixed) blessings,
and I confess, after last
year, I wondered if I’d return so soon.
I’m so glad I did.
Ultimately, what is so healing about these seminars is that
it’s sort of like summer camp for adults. Your job is to leave your work and
home cares behind, ascend the mountain, set up your sleeping bag and toothbrush
in a cabin with a roommate, then show up on time for herb classes or walks from
morning until night. You are fed three beautiful meals a day, forge amazing
friendships, and in between eating and learning, you sleep without the
distraction of Internet, phone, TV or radio. And you wake up amid ancient
towering trees full of singing birds. Not bad.
The big attraction this year was keynote speaker Richo Cech,
founder of Horizon Herbs, purveyor
of “seeds of medicine,” “seeds of sustenance” and live plants. Many of these are
exotic or just plain hard to find, and are identified and collected by Richo
himself on his many travels all over the world, then grown, researched, and
lived with on his farm and in his greenhouse in Oregon.
At the beginning of the seminar when Richo was introduced,
my friend Ben Zappin pointed out that
by virtue of East West being a correspondence course, it couldn’t be very “plant-centric,”
not in an immediate, tangible way; this aspect is left up to the student. The
danger, Ben warned, is that one enrolls in a course like this and becomes a
“UPS herbalist” who never sees or works with live plants. Richo was bringing to
us a particularly passionate and focused brand of “plant-centric-ness” which, I
would later discover, explained his rock-star status in the world of herbalism.
So on Saturday night I arrived late to Richo’s first lecture.
With no empty chairs in sight, I sat quite literally at the feet of the fondly
dubbed “jolly green giant.” Until that moment, I’d only known Richo as the
faceless author of my teacher Althea Northage-Orr’s nearly-falling-apart kitchen
What followed was a three-hour talk on Planetary Herbology
(a term coined by Lesley Tierra back in the ‘80s to describe the use of herbs
from all geographic healing traditions), complete with slides of beautiful
plant photography, inspiring stories, hilarious anecdotes, potted plants for
passing, and gardening and botanical identification tips about plants from all
over the world.
I’d known Richo was a great writer, but in person he was
pretty damn amazing. What really got me about his talks —his second lecture on
the herbs of Zanzibar
was possibly even better than the first— was that there was no shortage of frankly
acknowledged magic there. Here was a man who was just as comfortable behind a
microscope studying a seed as he was singing to that same seed while smoothing its
destined home soil into a sun glyph with his giant hand. You got the feeling
that you were watching someone whose sheer love and desire for Gaia – or, to
put it less New Age-ily, someone whose steadfast dedication to responsible
stewardship of this planet – put him in regular ecstatic contact with plant
After his final talk, I approached Richo to thank him and ask
him to sign his new book, The Medicinal Herb
Grower, Volume I, for Althea. I told him I live in inner city Chicago, and
that the stories of his far-flung botanical adventures made such an impression
on me, given that I don’t even have a backyard to call my own. I have fun
identifying and even harvesting herbs around Chicago’s bungalows and sidewalks, but the
weekends at Althea’s nature sanctuary are the days I really live for.
Richo knew Althea as a regular Horizon Herbs customer, and
somehow he knew that I worked for the Tierras. I mentioned that the editing
work I do for them keeps me in front of a computer and away from plant play,
but that it provides a great education to me and is still in service to the
living herbs. He remarked that it’s great to do a good job serving your
teachers and other herbalists.
Then he said, “But in this field you can get burned out
pretty quickly. You have to figure out what it is about herbalism that brings
joy to you, and go do it.”
He might as well have handed me a couple of stone tablets
and told me to walk back down the mountain.
It’s a puzzle I’d been bumping up against for about a year.
What I know for sure is that an activity like lying in a patch of Saint John’s wort gazing
at the sun through the herb’s perforated leaves feels like recharging my
soul-battery… Like returning to that blissful dreamtime of childhood where the
world had not quite begun to push in upon me just yet (as Joseph Campbell says).
I didn’t see him again after that, but Richo’s parting words
seemed to set the tone for the rest of the week – one of joy, of botanical delights, in sensory forms:
When the cook sings, the food sings
I had the good fortune to be asked to aid Ben and his lovely
friend Marco in the kitchen – the pair were in charge of all the fabulous meals
we had at the seminar. Little did I know, my first day on duty would be just
Marco and myself while Ben worked at his clinic in town. As I was a stranger
and untrained sous-chef to Marco (who cooks professionally), you might imagine
that the day started off quietly and formally, the meditative santoor music I
selected punctuated only by Marco’s gentle orders and mostly apologies from me.
The real communication we did share, however, was via
plants: communing over the musky leather fragrance of saffron destined for the
pasta; the unmistakable bright green odor of tomato vine; deep, earthy notes of
freshly grated chocolate for the mole; the familiar thin and fresh smells of
cilantro stems, chopped mint, parsley.
I’m relieved to say that my presence did not seriously
derail any of the meals. By the time Ben had returned, Marco was dancing around
the kitchen in his Crocs and fancy socks, singing along to Caetano Veloso’s
shimmering version of “Cucurrucucu
Paloma.” (You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed this kind of happiness.)
That evening after dinner, I saw a client at student clinic.
Part of this young woman’s prescription was a nervine tea full of flowers – including
rose petals. She looked at her tea blend and mentioned to me that she had never
really resonated with the mystique of the rose before; but lately she’d been
noticing them more and more on her way to work, and found herself telling the
customers at her store all about the roses – how they smelled, and where to
To me, the rose has everything to do with the heart of
femininity: compassion, beauty, sensuality – delicate softness not without its
thorns. I posited that if she were recently beginning to develop a relationship
with this plant, it surely belonged in her tea. She agreed.
At the end of the consult, I mentioned flower essences. In
particular, one that stepped forward was sticky monkeyflower. I suggested she
look it up in an FES book or online and see if
it seemed a good fit for her.
That night, Ben, Marco, our friend Word and I worked late in
the kitchen to prepare the next day’s lunch so that I could attend Ben’s
offsite herb walk with the intermediate students. This walk was one of the
events I was most looking forward to in the seminar, and I felt bad leaving
Marco all by himself. But the plan was to get everything pretty much up to the
‘pop-it-in-the-oven’ stage so that Marco’s work would be light.
In the morning, still feeling just a little guilty, I found
myself walking the sunny lupine-edged trails of Quail Hollow with Ben and his
students. Looking even more in his element under the eucalyptus and manzanita
than under the range hood in the kitchen, Ben unwrapped for us the mysteries of
black sage, yerba santa, cow parsnip, horehound, plantain, wild oat, usnea, and
California poppy, among many others.
And then he pointed out a showy orange flower which I’d
noticed cascading over the hillsides on the way up.
“This is sticky monkeyflower,” Ben told us. “Try not to
drive off the road when you crane your neck to look at it. Everybody does.”
This was the first time I’d ever made contact with this
I had just arisen from squatting to take too many pictures
of the monkeyflower when Ben passed by, unceremoniously aiming some kind of
seed at my mouth.
Instinctively I opened up and said, “Thank you. What is it?”
without so much as tasting it first.
He laughed and said, “Prepare to kiss the world goodbyyye! .
. . Are you always so trusting?”
(It was sweet cicely.)
On the way out of the nature preserve, I was arrested by the
smell of light pink tearoses growing on a trellis next to some wisteria. I
picked a little rose for my previous night’s client. But when I returned to the
cafeteria and saw lunch perfectly prepared and laid out, I tucked the little
flower behind Marco’s ear (as shown in his portrait above) as a thank you for letting me leave on a day when I
was scheduled to work, so that I could meet sticky monkeyflower.
Late that night a bunch of us huddled in my room, winding
down the day. I sat next to Ben, who was still wearing the sap green shirt he’d
worn on the herb walk. After about a half hour of wondering, I finally said,
“What is that? Why do you smell so good?”
From his breast pocket he produced a tight, hummingbird-sized
clutch of warm, wilted yerba buena.
“For cooking,” he
said, sleepily. “Or tea. Tomorrow.”
Toward the end of the week, I was starting to feel sad about
having to leave. I was already dreading the year-long gulf that separated me
from the next opportunity to be in this magical place with these beautiful
people. I sat with Marco at a picnic table outside the cafeteria, overlooking
the orchard. He was talking about his hometown of Naples, and how much he missed it, and all
his friends and family there.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” he said. “It’s too
The long blue shadows of dusk matched our mood. We hung our
heads and swatted mosquitoes.
Then the breeze shifted, and Marco’s face lit up.
“Do you smell that?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s the orange blossoms from the trees down
At that moment I realized how loaded this fragrance must be
for him – having toured the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento and
Capri in February, I remembered how there were probably more orange trees per
square foot in that part of Italy
than probably any other place in the world. We strolled down to see the tree. When
Marco inhaled the scent of the waxy white flowers, he looked like he might cry.
I thought, This is one of the great healing powers of
plants – their ability to emotionally mend or soothe, just by being… By being
their quintessential selves, everywhere, tugging on the matrix of memory!
you try and tell me the tree and the wind didn’t hear Marco talking.
The next night the fresh orange blossoms were in the daily
tea along with some chamomile. If a more soothing golden liquor were ever
distilled from plants, I’ve never tasted it.
Resistance is beautiful
As I re-integrate into skyscraper life and recall this very
narrow but intense slice of my seminar experience, one thing that keeps coming
back to me is something Richo said early on in his Planetary Herbology lecture:
“Back pressure is a much under-appreciated force in the
universe. Tamping seeds into the soil gives them a chance to align themselves.
It is back pressure that allows for this. I suggest you find out how back
pressure works for you, and use it.”
What’s my back pressure? What regulates the speed and quality
of my growth, expression, movement? Is it karma? Is it trial? Is it memory? Is
it chance? Is it the people I meet? How much of a factor is my own inertia?
The gardener’s hand tamps the seed into the soil to align
itself, to be held in place. From there it grows, creates movement – both up
and down. The below ground parts you don’t see are just as important as what
you do see.
In a real way, back pressure helps the seed's self to be organized
into its unique identity and put forth its greatest potential. Maybe it’ll have
the flavor and nourishment of kitchen herbs; the physiological healing capacity
of rose petals; or even the space-time continuum-bending quality of orange
For human “seeds,” I suppose this process could be called "individuation."
I’m still working out Richo’s challenge(s). But as far as
back-pressure goes, I’m coming down on the side of finding good growing medium
for my “soul seed” so that when the hand of the divine comes to tamp me down, my
earnest attempts at work, healing, and my great loves push back, making me that
much more awake and aware.
We’ll see how it grows from there.
P.S. Today is Michael Tierra’s 71st birthday.
Happy Birthday, beloved teacher and friend.