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Becoming a Herbalist, Part Two

Tuesday, October 22, 2019 5:33 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)

Becoming a Herbalist
Part Two
by Susun S. Weed




What a relief to leave behind the bustle of New York City and settle into the rhythms of Nature. In the city the parks were paved and nature was something we had to seek out and visit. Now my toddler daughter and I had a green lawn and an herb garden. We could spend as much time outdoors as we wanted. We were part of Nature and She was surely part of us.

And what an outdoors we had to play in. We were surrounded by the Catskill State Forest: thousands of acres of hardwood forest, with mushrooms, mosses, ferns, waterfalls, birds, wildflowers and even wild orchids. It was truly a fairyland filled with delight for a young mother and daughter.

After breakfast, my daughter and I would pack lunch and some guidebooks, and set out along the familiar trails into the heart of the forest. We wandered as we would, moving from mushroom to mushroom, flower to flower, stream to stream, rock to rock as the desire took us. And as the light grew dim in the evening, we made our way home, fording the creek that ran past our door, or perhaps staying out even later when the moon was full.

At night, I would sketch and paint the magic I had found that day, putting names to the new plants and mushrooms, learning something new about the familiar ones. My interest in herbs was still just a flirtation, but they increasingly drew my attention as I sought to learn about the beautiful flowers, leaves, and berries that grew around me.

As I moved into Nature's rhythm, following her seasons and cycles, She rewarded me with a special place to live. A mile from the nearest neighbor, at the end of a dead-end dirt road, lay the big barn and lovely house. The previous owners were organic gardeners, and the flower and vegetable beds astonished me with their perennial abundance and ever-changing beauty.

Here my days were more intensely filled. Wanderings in the woods, yes, but not every day. There was the garden to tend and herbs to grow, my bread-baking business, the hour drive to take my daughter to her playgroup, maple syrup to boil down in the spring, tomatoes to can in the fall, blueberries to pick in the summer, and firewood to gather, cut, split, and stack for winter warmth.

I might have lived there for decades, but for this: My beautiful home in the country was vandalized and I was held at gunpoint. No lasting harm was done, but I was severely traumatized. I was unable to sleep in my bedroom and cried uncontrollably anywhere in the house. Only outside did I feel easy.

Perhaps I had a nervous breakdown, or suffered from post-traumatic shock; then, I had no name for my nameless fear. So, in a desperate attempt to create safe space for myself, we sold our beautiful farm, bought a Land Rover station wagon, and set out to explore the parks and wild places of North America.

When your life is on the road, you pare down your possessions and what is important becomes clear: tools, food, cooking gear, purple shorts, and the guide books. Actually, the book shelf needed to be expanded several times that year, as I bought more and more books about wild plants, mushrooms and wild flowers.

Cooking over a campfire night after night and camping far from supermarkets increased the pressure and the pleasure in finding wild foods to nourish myself and my family. Meanwhile, I was discovering that the herbs, wildflowers, and even the weeds that was coming to love, were considered by some to be medicinal.

More than a year (and many high adventures later), we found ourselves in California, at a friend's house, where we were gathered up in a police dragnet. I spent a week in jail, fearful of the fate of my daughter, who I had left with the (nice-looking) older woman next door (on the pretext that she was the "grandmother"). We were safely reunited, but my husband was detained and eventually sentenced to four years in prison. The lawyer said he might be able to get him into Danbury, a minimum security federal prison, if l would move back east.

Once again, the Catskills called. So I put myself and my four year old daughter into the Land Rover and, with my brand-new driver's license, drove from Santa Monica to Vancouver (where we had an apartment) and from there to Woodstock. I didn't have any idea that herbs could have helped me, but I knew that Nature was my refuge.

I would drive all day, and, as night gathered, turn off the main road onto a smaller road, and from there onto a smaller road, and eventually into a dirt road into a forest, where I would cook a small dinner and sleep lulled by the sounds of the creatures large and small. One night I felt so much grief that I threw up; but the next morning incredible butterflies moved gracefully across the ground I had soiled the night before, and I understood that beauty is everywhere, hidden even in pain and loss and fear.

Did I mention that the Land Rover was constantly breaking down? Of course, it was. Fortunately, I knew how to fix most things that went wrong with it. But the day I arrived in Woodstock, something BIG broke and I was out of wheels for a while. Thus I found myself hitching a ride to town and thus I found myself being charmed by Aaron van de B. Jr, a man, who, in his own words: "Been in these mountains so long I know what's under every rock. " *

Within the hour my daughter and I had a place to live: a Quonset hut on Cross Patch Road, with a front yard full of hundred year-old ginseng plants, and an enormous cage to hold the occasional wild animal that Aaron had to tend to, being as he was the Forest Ranger.

It was here that my path as an herbalist was clearly revealed to me, but, of course, I tried to ignore the message.

    * In the Catskills, what's under every rock is another one!



Read Part One

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