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The first time I made a concrete connection between the food I eat and the earth, I was 25 years old. I was in Mantanzas, Cuba with a group of language and dance students. Someone enthusiastically pointed to a mango on the soft grass under a tree.  “Oh, we could eat that,” she exclaimed. “What?! I’m not going to eat something laying on the ground.” I replied. There was a moment of quiet. Then I looked down at the mango and up at the tree. “oh my goodness.” I said quietly. “The mango came from that tree.” It was a transformational moment. It was the first time I’d seen food where it grew. It was an ah-ha moment of major proportions: food did not come from a supermarket, a packet, a freezer, a truck or a box. Food came from nature and I had an opportunity to experience nourishment right the source. I picked up the mango and savored it. As I did, a yellow butterfly, the symbol of transformation, came and landed on my hand.

Nine years later, I would find myself connecting with the earth in a powerful way again when I studied herbalism with Robin Rose Bennett. Instead of teaching us to work with capsules and tea bags, Robin took us out into parks and woods and taught us to identify plants. She encouraged us to sit with plants in their habitats to learn about them that way. This was frightening to me at first, just as the mango in the grass was, but eventually it became my preferred way of getting the herbs I wanted to work with. Robin taught us that herbs could be as much a part of daily lives as food was. I thought about how often people ask about herbal solutions to problems that could be prevented or better controlled by changing their approaches to food and eating.   I began to approach cooking as a healing art.  I managed two farmers’ markets and learned about foods I had never seen like patty pan squash, fresh mustard greens, grape tomatoes, concord grapes, white peaches, and garlic scapes. After completing work ekere farms (1 of 1)at the markets, I was desperate to know where that food came from. I wanted to see it growing. I wanted to learn how to grow it.

A customer at the market suggested a place where I could learn to grow food. And so one thing led to another and my family and I went to work at Work Fellowship Center (an amazing secular, social justice and environmental camp in New Hampshire) during the summer of 2010. For two summers I assisted a farmer five days a week;  it was was life-changing. I learned about planting, harvesting, composting and I saw the hard work farmers put into nurturing their crops. I got to experience the highs of harvesting and the lows of bears eating crops, blight killing plants, japanese flea beetles and cabbage moths.

One of the things I had a hard time reconciling was how the very herbs I had grown to love and work with for medicinal purposes, were seen as a nuisance on the farm. Red clover, dandelion, comfrey, plantain–all faithful friends to me–were “competing” with the vegetables for nutrients and we had to remove them from the garden. I vowed to make medicine from all of the plants we “weeded” but I did not.

This summer when I arrived at WFC, there was no head farmer. I sat down in a meeting with Andy Davis, who co-directs WFC, and he asked me if I would be interested in the position. Me? I’d spent the last year traipsing up and down concrete streets, riding in buses and dollar cabs. Besides visits to my favorite park and an occasional journey to the woods, I had not had a hand in the earth for months. How the heck could I care for 3 gardens with more than 50 beds of vegetables and flowers!? I thought about it for a while and figured that what I lacked in skill, I’d learn. I knew that my love for the earth and my enthusiasm would count for something as I worked with the plants.

What I noticed early on was that the work I was doing felt so result driven that I was not connecting with the plants or the land in the way I had imagined I would. I was getting results. Food was growing, we were feeding the WFC guests. I was learning to be more efficient. I worked well with the people assigned to assist me in the garden. But something was missing. I wrote in my journal “I hear my fears and hopes more than I hear these plants. Plants in nature, wild plants, have a lot to say. They are always communicating. These plants in rows might be quieter like children in school with their hands folded. The plants that grow wild are kin to children running in the playground or the park.”

ekere farms (2 of 1)

I made a decision to take more quiet time with the vegetables. I knew it would seem–ummm odd—to announce that to folks so I kept it to myself.  It just seemed as though I was always working with the plants but I didn’t spend much time observing them. When I began to dedicate time to quietly looking at the plants,  things started to shift. I could better see  when a plant was strong and suss out what a weak plant might need. I am not saying that I had all the answers, but I am saying that I was able to establish a better understanding with the plants. Sometimes the answer might be as simple as watering the plant more. Other times I might add more compost to the soil or give a plant more space to grow. I began to pay attention to the weather, too. I realized that I was in partnership with nature and my role was that of nurturer. Being with the plants in this way was gratifying, humbling and fun!!!

A local bio-dynamic farmer Lincoln Geiger came to speak at the World Fellowship Center and his approach to farming embodied the soul and spirit of everything I had been taught about healing and herbalism. He talked about love and the spirit of the land. He spoke of plants holding the energy of both earth and sky/heaven.  He shared a picture of himself reading a “grace” before milking his cows. He talked of thanking the food plants. This man has been producing food for 120 families in his CSA for decades, so obviously he and his team have a great deal of very practical knowledge about growing food and tending livestock; but what his presentation taught me is that the practical and the spiritual can go hand in hand– even in farming.

ekere farms (3 of 1)

After Lincoln’s visit I still carried my harvesting knife, buckets and compost to the garden but I also brought a peaceful mind and a heart full of gratitude every day.

I had a glorious summer. I hope to carry what I have learned back to my life in New York City and share it with anyone willing to hear.

Are you back?

I am.

Spring is flirting with summer, the heady scent of linden blossoms is in the air, and I am done with marking papers and lesson planning for now. The last six months were a juggling act for me–or should I say more of a juggling act than usual. I was teaching English classes, caring for my family and doing speaking engagements and performances to promote my first book of poetry, Karma’s Footsteps. Sometimes it was a test of stamina but I had a ball. I reconnected with old friends, met writers I deeply respect and admire and made contact with readers from all over the United States. Without my regular consumption of herbal infusions and teas, I am not sure that I would have been able to adapt to all of the different roles I was required to step into this year: one minute I’d be in a classroom discussing the work of James Baldwin, the next I’d be talking to my daughter about the fine art of single digit subtraction, after that I’d be headed out to share my poetry at a bookstore or a college. Herbs that help us adapt to any type of stress are called adaptogens and I had some of them as allies during this time.

Mind you, when I started this blog, I was a stay at home mother doing an herbal apprenticeship. This meant that my family, my home and studying herbs were at the center of my life. Now my life is a mezcla of passions and I had to make a more concerted effort to keep the herbs and the earth central to it. Finding ways to do that improved my ability to be effective, relaxed and enjoy all of the dreams I was living day to day.

Starting the day with gratitude was an important part of this. It helped me to remain centered and in good spirits even if I sometimes felt overwhelmed, I would think of all of the beautiful things or people I am thankful for and name them. First thing in the morning before even opening my eyes. Connecting with mother earth and herbal medicine is a way of being that goes beyond picking flowers for headaches. It is about how we walk (live) daily. Gratitude is an important part of it.

I found myself scrambling for space and time to make my herbal infusions until I made that a part of my evening ritual. Ritualizing your preparation of herbal teas will help you keep them in your routine. At night when I was washing dishes or answering email, I would boil water for my infusions. They’d steep overnight and when I woke up I could have a cup of tea. It was perfect!

I’ve leaned very heavily on red clover, dandelion root, linden, and nettle so far this year. Dandelion root and leaf are great for just about everything. Many folks use dandelion leaf as a spring tonic. Nettle and red clover are nourishing, mineral rich herbs. The red clover was especially helpful at keeping my moods balanced before and during my moon cycles. The nettle is iron rich and I need it to keep anemia at bay. Linden has become a heavy rotation herb in my house. It is deeply comforting, tasty, spirit lifting, sexy even! The scent of linden flowers wafting through the air in June is incredibly intoxicating. I drink linden by itself or mix it with lemon verbena, lemon balm, elder flowers or rose. When I was deeply blue over the deaths of two young friends, Robin Rose Bennett made sure that I was drinking linden tea. In her book Healing Magic: A Green Witch Guidebook she writes “Drink linden blossom tea to help you recover from grief. Linden can help you feel young and vibrant again when you feel old and tired, defeated or in despair.” I can testify!

I also found it necessary to go to nature–even when it was chilly in New York. I would go visit my favorite oak and lean on it for a bit to ground myself and be reminded that I am supported by the earth. When I went to speak at Union College in upstate New York, my beautiful hosts took me to the campus garden. It was a most enchanted place. There were rosemary and thyme and oregano growing, roses, peonies and other visually delicious flowers in bloom. And in the midst of this was a gorgeous, huge gingko tree. Before I could stop myself I had my arms around the tree. My hosts were surprised (and accepting). I talked to them about gingko and how it helps circulation of oxygen in the brain. We talked about how the leaves resemble the halves of the brain. Holding that tree and standing barefoot in the grass was one of the highlights of an incredible trip! So get your nature on when and where you can. It is so replenishing.

Gift of Gingko (photo by Lorraine Morales Cox)

Please do your best to make herbs a regular part of your life. My health has been enhanced by partnering with herbs and earth as opposed to reaching for an herbal remedy only when I am sick or in need. As an elder said to me “The earth is our mother. We get our food from her, we come from her and we’ll go back to her.” I talk to my mother on a fairly regular basis, not only when I am sick or needed something. I treat mother earth the same way.

How do you make time for the plants in the swirl of your life?

I was talking to a beloved colleague last semester about taking forever to mark papers. It was late November and he said “I always find myself slowing down at this time of year.” I said I did too and as distressing as I found it having piles of paper to get through, I thought slowing down at that point was natural. “Nature is slowing down and I think we’re meant to do the same thing,” I ventured. There was a spark in his eye then as he said “You know, I never thought of it that way.”

As a mother, educator, wife, writer and budding herbalist I often feel the pressure to go full steam ahead even when I don’t have the energy to. I think part of this has to do with buying into the idea that we always have to be “on”. Another part of this though, is not taking my cues from nature. I remember a long time ago I told my friend Bruce that sometimes I wanted to be out socializing but just as often I wanted to be home writing and being quiet. He replied “Well the moon is not always full.” That wisdom provided the first huge shift in my thinking about my energy and how I used it. Watching the seasons and celebrating them has provided me with my second huge shift.

As a lifelong city dweller I’ve lived much of my life divorced from nature and her cycles. I can eat strawberries in December, write in well-lit rooms at 2am, and work the same schedule year round in an office where I barely catch glimpses of the sunlight or rain. Nothing in the city encourages me to take my cues from nature and we are expected to be as “on” in December as we are in June. But notice: most of the flowers are gone in December. The trees shed their leaves and instead flaunt their elegant bones. The vibrant greens, reds, pinks, and yellows give way to deep browns. Animals hibernate. In the natural world there is stillness. Darkness is abundant at this time and just as the seeds in the earth rest, we too are invited to bask in a long, dark, delicious sleep. This is what winter is for. Going underground to nourish and replenish ourselves.

During fall and winter I make a conscious effort to slow down, rest more, gather my energy and reflect on what I am grateful for. I notice that the more I imitate the energy of the season, the better I feel.

How do you honor the energy of winter?

Some people believe that plants grow where they are needed; I am one of those people. It’s true that certain plants show up and nourish the soil, while others appear to cleanse it. Plants tell us a lot about the health of the earth they grow in. What if plants also tell us something about the health of the people around them?

Artemisia growing through the concrete


Where I live, artemisia vulgaris grows on just about every street and in every abandoned space. Artemisia, named for Artemis the Greek hunter and protectress. Artemisia whose top is a wonderous green and whose underside is a surprising silver like the moon. Artemisia – famous for invoking visions and lucid dreaming. Mugwort, known for calling forth moon (menstrual) flow. In traditional Chinese medicine this herb is used as moxa to unblock points in our bodies.

Has artemisia come to help us unlock the deep dreams that day to day living has swept seemingly out of reach? Has she come to guard us and protect us while we realign ourselves with the strength of feminine energy? Has she come–with her liver cleansing and digestive tonic– to help ease the pain of those sisters who can not honor their monthly cycle by calling “time-out”? I think she has.

Artemisia is an emmenagogue which means it stimulates menstruation. I combined mugwort (artemisia’s other name) with ginger once to get my flow started a little earlier than usual. I was planning to go on a road trip and attend a conference and I wanted to be at the end of my cycle instead of the beginning when I got there. Imagine my surprise when my cycle came within days of taking this brew regularly. My moon cycle was easy and by the time I got on the road–it was over!

I know many women–myself included– who enjoy more comfortable periods as a result of this herb. Mugwort is strong enough that just a pinch added to an infusion is enough. I combine mugwort with red raspberry leaf, nettle leaf, or dandelion leaf during menstruation.

My husband watched a special on Bob Marley and was moved that his life, and the lives of those around him, were so guided by dream and vision. He asked me what herb would be good to help him dream and I suggested artemisia. He drank a tea made of the herb. Not only did my husband dream, his dream contained a vision for my herbal work, and he actually remembered it in detail–this is something that rarely happens.

Sewing a little pillow with lavender, white sage and a pinch of artemisia can carry you into deep, delicious dreamwork and sleep.

Artemisia smoke is is wonderful for guided meditation and visualization. You can use it as a smudge or smoke it if you choose. Whenever I have burned artemisia a tangible sense of calm has come over the room and the people in it.

I learned about the power of this herb while standing in an area of a park where the artemisia was as tall as I am. The stalks of artemisia were dry and brown but they were still wonderfully fragrant. A little goes a long way. Some people–myself included–can not use large amounts of this herb as the dreams it brings on are so real we wake up feeling as if we did not sleep. Start with small doses of artemisia when you begin working with it. But do work with this wonderful, abundant herb. I believe artemisia vulgaris is here for many reasons. If you get close to her, she just might share some of those reasons with you.

What have your adventures with artemisia been like?

The Whispers of Trees

I have trees throughout my neighborhood that function as friends. There, I’ve said it. As I am writing this I am leaning against a huge oak. It’s an old, wise, giving tree in a park within walking distance from my house. I make it my business to visit this tree regularly.

My Good Friend, Oak

I have a feeling that different trees provide us with different medicines just as plants do. In my experience, we don’t even have to create anything from trees to receive their healing benefits. We can just sit with them and have positive shifts in our energy or receive insights.

Baba Rahsan Abdul Hakim, herbalist and Founder of Sundial, once told me “Trees have a healing spirit. You know herbs have a healing spirit. You don’t have to pluck it or pick it for it to work with you.” He explained that many of our ancestors would simply sit with nature to receive healing; but “after we lost the knowledge (through colonization and enslavement) we have to make tea and thing like that, we never had to do that before. That’s just come (recent) business.”

Trees have allowed me to experience this older form of healing. Every time I sit with one, I come away changed. 

This oak I’m with always surrounds me with an energy of support long after I leave the park. It reminds me that I can only grow when I nourish and nurture my roots. It helps me be unabashed in my love for nature–even when I am alone, I have no issue walking up to the tree to lean on it or even give it a hug. My friend the oak says that there is a time for everything: from quiet growth to abundant sharing.

As the leaves fall and change color this Autumn, please don’t forget to sit and listen to the wisdom of the trees and plants.

What has nature told you lately?

It was the kind of day I dream about. My family and I went to our neighbors’ backyard to check on the food we’d helped plant there in May. The tomatoes were peppy, the flowers were vibrant, the basil was huge, and the pepper plants stood tall and proud. The sun, rain, seeds, and all of our hopes had come together to create a garden. A lush, semi-unruly foodscape in the middle of the New York City concrete. It was just what I needed to see as we boarded the subway to go to the Bronx.

Brook Park in the South Bronx

I was headed to teach a workshop on creating herbal honeys at Brook Park. I would be reconnecting with youth who were taking part in the Padre Plaza Success Garden Summer Camp.

I’d last seen the kids and their garden in June when I taught a class on some of the herbs at Padre Plaza. I also met Jada then, an amazing ten year old gardener who planted most of the herbs we’d be working with. Imagine my joy when upon return, I found that the youths’ adoration of the herbs had grown as much as the plants had. Click here to see Jada’s interview.

Aresh Javadi, my friend and the inspired co-founder of More Gardens, and Kate Temple-West, a wise-woman, poet and gifted herbalist, brought huge jars of delicious honeys, lavender, sage, lemon balm, and wild mint. We then gathered some more fresh herbs from the garden. We returned to our gorgeous outdoor workshop space with armfulls of lemon balm, lettuce leaf basil, marigolds, mullein, and chocolate mint.

It was time to make herbal honey!

Little Honey Hands

Why make herbal honey? Because honey alone is one of the most delicious medicines I know of. It is antibiotic, antibacterial, mineral rich and able to ease coughs better than commercial cough syrup in a single bound. It’s also great on scrapes, burns and cuts. Once you team honey up with an herb, you have a fantastically healing combination. Honey preserves many of the medicinal properties of herbs and you can add it to teas, spread it on bread, take it by the teaspoon, add it to elixirs or use it on your skin. I’ve done all of the above with herbal honeys and have a cabinet full of them to testify to their goodness.

So here is what you need to make an herbal honey:

  • a jar
  • fresh herbs
  • honey
  • a chopstick or strong plant stems or a spoon.

You rip the plant material into small pieces and pack the jar with it. Then you slowly cover the plant with honey. It is important to use the chopstick or the plant stem (we used those in our workshop and had great success) to push the plant material down after you have poured honey over it.We do this to release air bubbles in the medicine and ensure that the jar is full of honey and herbs instead of air!

Once you have filled your jar with honey, cover it and put it away for six weeks. When you encounter your honey again it will taste like whatever herb you infused it with. I can’t describe how delectable this can be. You’ll probably forget it is supposed to be good for you.

A few of my favorite herbal honeys are: sassafras (leaf and/or bark), lemon balm, lavender,rose hip,and sage.

By the time our workshop was over, everyone was a happy, sticky mess. The beautiful jars of honey soaked herbs were cradled in the palms of the children. I left the Bronx elated: the future of healing is in wonderful hands.

When spring arrived, I had one wish: to spend more time with my hands in the earth. Thankfully, that wish was granted but I had no idea how deeply my perception would change after spending so much time in gardens and fields.  When I see rain I think of plants now. When there was the recent threat of a hurricane, I wondered how it would affect the farmers who bring produce to the local market. While rinsing green string beans for dinner I remembered being in a small field carefully deciding which beans were ready to harvest. I don’t look at my food the same way I did at the beginning of the summer.

This change reminds me of how after taking my first herbal class, something in my world seemed to shift.

Me and my friend Oak

Suddenly I wanted to know the names of trees. I was fascinated by the plants growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. I could not go to the woods without coming back with something to make tea or a tincture from.  I had no clue that herbs would become as important to me as they have.

Recently a beautiful film crew of two came to my home to interview me about my surprise journey into herbalism. This is the video they made:

http://mondoblack.com/2011/08/black-roots-episode-8/

Please check it out and let me know what you think.

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