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Becoming a Herbalist, Part One

Monday, October 14, 2019 5:45 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)

Becoming a Herbalist

 by Susun S. Weed

    

    ~ Part One ~



 

I didn't grow up wanting to be an herbalist. As a child I lived a few short blocks from the Dallas City Zoo. At night, as the stars came out and I laid in my bed waiting for sleep, the trumpeting of the elephants and the roar of the lions and the hoots of the monkeys were my lullaby. And my dreams were filled with spirits, urgings, feelings.


Between my house and the zoo was a small woods. This forgotten five acres was as good as five million acres to my child self. Whenever the world made me mad or sad, I would pack a lunch and "run away" to the woods. There I would sit by the little creek or hide in the cave carved by the water in the chalk cliff. Perhaps the Nature Spirits called me there. I only knew I found solace in nature when people disappointed me.


Actually, I planned to be a mathematician. Even majored in math at UCLA. But a funny thing: Nature seemed to be following me. Right across the street from the sorority house where I lived was a five-acre woods. Despite (or because of) the fact that we were warned not to venture into the woods, we did. It was the shortest way to campus. Every morning I would set out briskly for my classes, only to find myself enchanted by the changes I saw around me in the woods.


At nineteen, despite taking birth control pills, I was informed that I was five months pregnant. Wow. That was not on my list of things to do in life. I became something of a curiosity at the UCLA Medical Center where I went for pre-natal checkups. No one knew how the baby would be affected by the hormones I had fed her unkowningly for five months, and this was before the routine use of ultrasound, so there was no way to know. When all the interns showed up to peer between my legs, I didn't like it.


So my husband and I moved. To New York City. I was seven months pregnant. And I had no intention of taking any drugs. But, like most pregnant women, I had my share of minor complaints. What to do? I went to the library, the one with the lions, and asked the librarian for books on herbs. (Why? I can't tell you. The words just came out of my mouth and I followed them where they led.) She brought me all four of them! (This was 1965.) And I took them home. But what they told me to do was to put basil in my tomato sauce and dill in with my sliced cucumbers. Good advice, but not what I wanted. I wanted a natural childbirth, a bonded relationship with a nursing baby, and no drugs anywhere along that way.


Fortunately, I am generally healthy and strong, so I was able to have what I wanted, although without the use of any herbs, and without the support of the doctors and nurse in attendance. They actually gave my baby sugarwater before bringing her to me to nurse and closed the curtains around us when I put her to my breast "So as not to disturb the other women with your perversion!" Finally, in desperation, I checked us out of the maternity ward, against doctor's orders and went home to my fifth-floor walk-up on east ninth street.


For ease, for peace, for joy, I took myself and my infant daughter to the Cloisters, a beautiful, quiet park and museum along the river. I needed nature more than ever as a young mother whose ideas about childcare were not "normal." One day an older women stopped me and scolded me for holding my baby. (This was before Snugglies and the general acceptance of the need for body contact between infant and mother. I just knew that my body wanted contact, so I ignored strollers and held my baby close.) "You are spoiling her!" she harangued me. "You must not touch your child any more than is necessary. Especially when she cries. My sons were never touched and they are both at West Point," she concluded with a satisfied smile. I clutched my daughter to my chest, smiled, and silently vowed to hold her for as long as possible.


Though I was frightened in the city (a brick thrown through the window of my apartment fell to the floor an inch from my bed, I was hit several times by eggs thrown from roofs, and a gang of teenagers accosted me on the street, taunting me and lifting my skirt to expose my thighs and underwear), I had no idea of where to go. Nature did. And She finally got through to me with stories of a magical place upstate: the Catskills mountains.


We visited, and true to the tale (those who spend a night in the shadow of Overlook are forever bound to the Catskills), we were enchanted. Within the month, we had rented a small cottage and began to stay there on weekends. For my daughter and I, the weekends lengthened, and lengthened, until we were upstate full time. And what a glorious time it was: frolicking in the woods looking for mushrooms, gathering wild strawberries so dense that our knees turned red, splashing in the swimming hole, and planting my first herb garden.


Real basil. Real dill. And lots of weeds. I didn't know which of those little green sprouts were my herbs and which were the weeds. Thank goodness for Euell Gibbons, whose books on wild foods were coming into print. Soon I realized that the weeds were herbs too!


And so began a fascination that I carry to this day: to know the plants around me and to know how to eat them and to use them for medicine. There were to be many more steps laid out for me on my path to becoming an herbalist. Steps I knew nothing of as a flower child. Steps that would forever change me and the way I viewed life.


To be Continued...

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