Every late spring for the past four years, I’ve attended the
West Herbal Seminar in the redwood mountains above
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 bible, Making Plant Medicine.
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
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
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
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:
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 find them.
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
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.
“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 flower. Synchronicity?
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
“I don’t even want to think about it,” he said. “It’s too sad.”
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 there.”
At that moment I realized how loaded this fragrance must be
for him – having toured the
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!
Now 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.
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 blossom.
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.