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We thought two weeks in New Hampshire at The World Fellowship Center would be enough for us. But it wasn’t. The fragrant air, the pines stretching endlessly towards the sky, the regal mountains, and the rhythm of working in the gardens and participating in a vibrant, socially-conscious community have been medicine for our overwhelmed, overworked souls and minds. Two weeks was too short, so we decided to stay for a month.

World Fellowship Gothic

The more time I spend here the more convinced I am that just as some of our ailments can be cured in the kitchen by our food choices, other illnesses might be healed by spending more time connecting with nature and community.

My new friend, Ellen, recently told me about a study done on hospital patients. Some patients were placed in rooms where they could look out on a parking lot and others faced nature. Which group do you think healed faster? The ones facing nature. Well, since being at The World Fellowship Center I’ve witnessed nature work her healing magic on someone very close to me: my husband.

My husband, Dominique, has been waking up sneezing and going to bed coughing practically every day for about a year. The doctor could not determine a physical cause. She checked Dominique’s throat and prescribed him cough syrup. This suppressed the cough for a short time but it came back.  When I gave my husband herbs for coughs or colds, they had no effect on him. But when I gave him herbs relating to the nervous system, they helped. This let me know that the coughing was a symptom of something beyond the chest or throat. 

My teacher, Robin Rose Bennett, always says “as healers we treat people, not symptoms.” It took me a moment to fully grasp this, but when I did it changed the way I looked at herbs. Two people who visit a healer with the same ailment might need totally different treatments. Our health is impacted by so many things: sleeping habits, dietary choices, environment, social life. One person might have caught a cough because she can’t sleep and her immunity is down and another might have spent a weekend in a colder climate than she is used to. These two people would need different treatments although they are experiencing the same symptom. But the only way a doctor  could find this out would be by sitting and listening to each woman’s story.

So what would a healer prescribe to my husband? A big dose of green and community.

The World Fellowship Center


Apparently this was just what the doctor should have ordered because my husband has not had a bout of sneezing or coughing since we’ve been at The World Fellowship Center.

All this to say that sometimes instead of reaching for medicine, we might need to reach for a friend or a group of friends or a map that leads to the woods.

Have your symptoms ever been signals? What directions did they point you in?

One of the first things I was told when I arrived was that there are bears where I am staying. I’ve never been any good at keeping my emotions from displaying themselves on my face and whatever expression I was wearing after hearing about the bears seemed to scream that I needed some reassurance. “Oh, no the bears are actually scared of people. Really. They are not the fierce kind, they are just interested in the compost.” Um. Ok.

Well it was too late to turn back. My family and I had traveled eight hours to Conway, New Hampshire to work on the farm of The World Fellowship Center for two weeks. The desire to get my hands in the earth and learn more about food and farming far outweighed my fear of bears.


My longing to get my hands dirty started coming to the fore during my last year as an herbal apprentice with Robin Rose Bennett. Robin emphasizes the importance of learning about the plants by seeing them in their natural environments. Knowing that mullein thrives in rocky soil can help you figure out that it can clear hard, dry conditions in your body. Seeing how deeply resilient dandelions are might clue you in that a part of their medicine helps to energize and strengthen our bodies so that we can grow under any circumstances.

Beloved herbalist and midwife Tioma Allison taught me that this way of learning about the healing medicines of plants is part of The Doctrine of  Signatures. She and Robin both encouraged me to look closely at a plant, sit with it and consider the shape and texture of the leaves, the hair (or lack thereof) on the stalks, the colors of the fruit, the appearance of the flowers–everything can offer information about the plants if we are willing to observe them and listen. And if there ever was a place to observe and listen to plants, it is where they grow. So visiting the plants became important to me.

After I spent a season managing two local farmers’ markets, my need to get closer to the earth became irrepressible. At the markets I could barely recognize some of my favorite foods sometimes! Food came in colors and shapes I’d never seen in the supermarket.  I was amazed by the huge difference in taste between a vegetable picked six hours earlier in a town two hours away and one picked in a city across the country–or in a town way across the ocean. The flavor of farm fresh food made me want to see how things grew and play a role (however small) in nurturing that growth.

So here I am almost two weeks later in rural New Hampshire harvesting mustard greens, radishes, and snap peas; planting scallions, chard, kohlrabi and pulling lots of my favorite medicinal plants out of the ground ( I’ve learned that an herbalist’s dream is often a farmer’s nightmare). I’ve petted a pig named Sassafras, milked a goat named Merry, tasted pine resin, and taken multiple rides in the back of an ancient green Ford pick up truck.

I’ve also fallen in love with The World Fellowship Center, the beauty of the people this place attracts,  and the dedication of the Center’s Directors to environmentalism, peace and social justice. I am starting to feel as though I have found another place my soul can call home. And no, I haven’t seen any bears yet…let’s keep our fingers crossed on that one.

What are you growing this summer?

Got Breastmilk?

I remember when I was pregnant all I could think about was labor. I was fascinated and frightened by birth. How in the world would I manage to get another human being out of my body? Birth seemed like the ultimate challenge, the ultimate transformation. I spent months poring over books trying to prepare myself mentally and spiritually. In the end my experience of birth was one of deep surrender and power. When I finally held my child in my arms, I felt as though I had gone through an incredible journey.

Then my midwife put my first daughter on my breast and that little girl latched on for dear life; I was immediately put on notice that we were embarking on another powerful journey. In all my preparation for birth I had barely read a word about breastfeeding. I took for granted that since it was natural it would be easy. But I learned that breastfeeding was work. I think half of the work of breastfeeding is making sure that we are well-rested, well-fed and hydrated. Many of us have a hard time taking good care of ourselves before we have children and after we have them…well, the center of our worlds shift.

Below is my list of seven herbs that supported me through over four years of nursing. Most of these herbs are not specifically related to breastfeeding, they are about making sure that we get the nutrients and nourishment that we need.  Then while we are taking our first steps in a new dance with a newborn, our bodies can go about the work of producing good breast milk.

Nursing Mother’s Care Package:

Fenugreek (Trigonellaum foenumgraecum)-These bitter seeds did such a great job at boosting my milk supply that I had to stop taking them at one point! I prepared them by putting a teaspoon of them in a cup and pouring just-boiled water over them. I let this sit for about 15 minutes.

Oat Straw (Avena sativa)- In her book, Family Herbal, Rosemary Gladstar writes “Oats provide energy by increasing our overall health and vitality.” Indeed. Oat straw does wonders for our nervous systems, it’s mineral rich and deeply nourishing.  It’s great for the skin and hair and has a reputation for boosting the libido. It’s one of my favorite herbs to drink. I prepare this as an infusion, using one part herb to five parts just-boiled water and letting it sit overnight. (I do this with the next three herbs on the list as well.)

Stinging Nettles (Urtica Dioica)-This herb has been my best friend ever since I started drinking it. Packed with iron, calcium, protein, potassium and more vitamins than I can name, nettles are a busy woman’s best friend. This plant works wonders for our entire bodies and I can’t extol its healing virtues enough. I know that my energy level has been profoundly changed by the presence of nettles in my life.

Dandelion leaves and blossoms (Taraxacum Officianale)-I adore dandelion. I think I had the energy to care for two young children, run a household, take herbal classes and write a booklet on mothering largely because of my regular infusions of dandelion and nettle leaves. Dandelion leaves contain potassium, iron, clacium and are rich in vitamins A,B,C,D. Dandelion also helps keep things moving in our lymph systems.

I once had an incredible experience using home made dandelion blossom oil on a blocked duct. I had been following the standard advice for dealing with a blocked duct: I nursed my daughter on the blocked breast first, I showered with warm water and tried to unblock the area with massage but to no avail. The breast was still hard and still hurting. Finally, I massaged a small amount of dandelion blossom oil on the swollen part of my breast and lay down to rest. When I woke up and nursed my daughter again, the swelling and pain went away. Just like that!

Red Clover Blossoms (Trifolium Pratense)-This herb is well-known for its anti-cancer properties. It is also refreshing, hormone balancing, rich in calcium and protein. These cheerful blossoms were a sweet ally for me when I was nursing. But under no circumstances should anyone with thin blood or on blood thinners use it.

Fennel (Foenicullum vulgare)- I added this tasty seed to my rotation of herbal teas when my baby was colicky. Not only was it  a delicious digestive aid,  it also helped increase my milk supply. I made fennel tea the same way I did the fenugreek tea.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)-Drinking simple tea from sage or using it as a ticnture will decrease or dry up your milk supply. I used a sage tincture when I was going to be away from my daughter for almost three days. Although she was two, she was still nursing frquently. My teacher, Robin, suggested I take sage tincture every few hours to keep the milk supply in check until I got home. It worked fantastically! No engorgement or painful breasts and when I got home my milk flowed as usual. This experience taught me a lot about the power of intentions when using herbs as well.

Mamas, I wish you deep joy, abundant rest and flowing breastmilk.

What herbs have you used during breastfeeding?

“In order to plant you have a have a free spirit,” my neighbor said to me recently. Something about the statement resonated. I am a born and raised city dweller. Working with the earth, honoring her seasons and cycles, knowing what grows and when it grows never seemed like a necessity. The supermarket carried peaches and apples all year round. carrots, greens and broccoli were always on the shelves. Organic? Local? Farming? Huh?

Last year I managed two farmers’ markets. During that time I ate what was in season, tried vegetables and fruit that I’d never heard of, tasted fresh tomatoes, took home greens that didn’t pass out as soon as they hit the refrigerator, and saw what broccoli looks like before all its leaves are cut away. It was an incredible education. I worked with the very people who planted, harvested, transported and  sold the food my neighbors and I were eating. I was amazed by their hard work, in awe of the flavors of the food, and saddened by how divorced I had been from the entire process of how food gets from the soil to our plates.

What does this have to do with herbs? Well, so many of our ailments have their roots in the supermarket. When I started paying more attention to what I ate, my first rule was that if I couldn’t pronounce something on the label, I’d put it back. Now I tend to say that if it has a label, I probably won’t pick it up.

Having children makes me even more conscious of the foods I buy. How can I expect my child to behave in a classroom if she had a bowl full of sugar with milk for breakfast? Why are people shocked at childhood obesity and early onset of pubery when the children are being fed regular doses of hormones in their meat? And what about the drinks labeled juice? Just water, high fructose corn syrup and red #40. This stuff is piled high on the aisles of the supermarkets in my neighborhood.

I’ve watched folks in my family turn to doctors for help although healing could have been found in the kitchen. Maybe the cure was at the farmers’ market. The prescription might have been planting seeds in a community garden.

A few weeks ago I was in a greenhouse carefully planting basil and bok choy seeds. I walked back and forth getting water from a creek to water newly emerging plants. It felt like a homecoming. That night I ate kale and bok choy harvested from a friend’s garden. She is able to feed her family because she has a close relationship with the earth and this seems to me like one of the ultimate freedoms.

So this year while I vow to keep learning about herbs and have my hands in the earth more, I also want to figure out how to help improve the health of  my community. My local farmers’ market is located between two fast food joints. I guess there is more than one way to plant a seed.

How do you plant seeds of health in your community?

Lust for Lavender

 

My love affair with lavender started long ago.  It began with lavender’s intoxicating scent. This calming, complex, sensual fragrance is not one that is easily forgotten. The scent of lavender has followed me from New York where I first encountered it in an essential oil, to the South of Spain where I saw dried lavender buds in a market, bought a bag and placed buds in my pillowcase nightly. Lavender’s scent is a lullaby, the herb is known for inducing sleep, sweet dreams and relaxation. Lavender’s small delicate buds are surprisingly powerful, they have a way of smoothing rough emotional edges and soothing tense physical ones. The essential oil, or an infused one, is a popular addition to many massage oils because of these qualities.

When I was in Spain a poet friend told me that lavender could also help heal cuts and burns. I had first-hand experience with this when I scalded my eyelid with just boiled water (long story). I used a lavender infused honey to soothe the pain and an hour or so later when friends came to visit, no one could see any evidence that I’d burned my eyelid!  Of course you don’t have to be in dire straits to enjoy this herb. Lavender infused honey is delicious in tea and on bread. My good friend, Lorenza, even makes a delectable cake using dried lavender buds.

Recipe: Lavender Infused Honey

  • Harvest or buy fresh lavender (summer)
  • Put the buds in a glass jar, cover them with the best honey you can get your hands on.
  • Cover and let this sit for four weeks.
  • Enjoy!

When I have a headache, particularly one caused by nervous tension, I’ll rub a bit of lavender oil on my temples or my wrists. A lavender bath is also a wonderful way to get rid of a tension headache.

And did you know you can make delicious tea with lavender?  I learned this when my sister gave me a lavender travel kit. (yes, my family knows me) Put a half teaspoon of dried buds in a cup, cover with just- boiled water, let it steep about 10 minutes (do not let it sit too long –the bitterness will make the tea impossible to drink). Enjoy. A rose and lavender infusion is also a heavenly mix. Again, make sure not to let the roses steep for more than 60-75 minutes. Add the lavender during the last ten minutes or brew it separately and add to taste.

Now speaking of rose and lavender, These two ingredients feature prominently in my home made cosmetics.  My facial scrub includes lavender, rose and oats. These are all great for the skin, they exfoliate gently and the rose and lavender are toning and delicious smelling. My bath salts are a heady lavender experience with rose petals sprinkled in for good measure.

Homemade lavender bath salts

Lavender is a soothing, powerful, healer in a delicately regal body. Is it any wonder I feel my medicine bag is incomplete without lavender in it? Is it any wonder my love affair with lavender has spanned continents and time and shows no signs of ever ending?

Are you in love with lavender? How do you use it?

Raw…Magic

Imagine something you can cook with, splash on salad, make medicines from and use to get rid of dandruff. What is this magic elixir? Raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar.

This wonderful alkaline liquid can electrify a bowl of kale or add character to a pot of collards while making the minerals in the greens more accesible. It’s a digestive aid, it can ease arthritis pain and lower fevers. It’s full of enzymes, rich in malic acid, potassium, sulphur, iron, phosphorus, copper and many other fantastic minerals. Who knew apple cider vinegar was so fabulous?

One way to get the goodness of apple cider vinegar onto your plate is by making herbal vinegars. To do this, you’ll need a glass jar with a plastic lid, apple cider vinegar and some fresh herbs. I’ve made herbal vinegars from raw dandelion greens, fresh rosemary and nettles. I like the convenience of getting the benefits of both the herbs and the apple cider vinegar by making the vinegar and including it on salads, in stir fries or greens. So I get the herbs, put them in a jar, cover them with apple cider vinegar, close the jar and let it sit for at least three weeks.

I remember my aunts adding apple cider vinegar to steaming pots of collard greens to make the greens more tender. Not only were the greens delicious but they were easier to digest because of the addition of apple cider vinegar.

Fire cider, a popular cold and flu preventative among herbalists and elders in the know, counts apple cider vinegar as one of its key ingredients. This strong mixture consists of garlic, onions, ginger, horseradish, cayenne pepper all thrown into a jar of apple cider vinegar. You can put a tabelspoon of this in water daily and drink it as a tonic during the winter. I have a friend who enjoyed his first cold-free winter season as a result of taking a shot of fire cider daily.

Funny enough, this elixir can bring the fire and rev up circulation when necessary but it can also help bring a fever down. In Family Herbal Rosemary Gladstar writes that bathing a feverish “child in a tepid bath with 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar added to bath water” or wrapping the “child’s feet in a cool cloth that has been dipped in a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water” can help lower the fever.

Besides being wonderful for our health, I know two people who have used apple cider vinegar in their hair and had good results. One used a rosemary vinegar rinse to keep her hair dandruff free, another used apple cider vinegar alone to add shine and fullness to her hair.

The way I most frequently make use of apple cider vinegar is in my food. With Spring just around the corner, I want to share my favorite kale salad recipe. This stuff is so yummy that my five year old and three and half year old gobble it up!

1 bunch fresh kale
1 tomatoe
1/2 yellow onion
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt
cayenne pepper (optional)

Tear the kale and place it in a large bowl. Chop the onion and tomatoe and add them to the kale. Pour the apple cider vinegar and the olive oil over the salad, add a few pinches of salt. This is the most important part of this recipe: massage the kale salad thoroughly. Make sure all of the veggies are coated with oil and apple cider vinegar. Let this sit for about 15 minutes. The kale will wilt and the flavors in this simple salad will delight you. Sometimes I add ripe avocado to this salad (I stir it in so it becomes part of the dressing)or a little cayenne pepper for extra umph. Enjoy!

How do you use apple cider vinegar?

Lovely Mamawort in Flower (Image by Parks Service)

Motherwort: the name alone conjures up comfort. Her deep green leaves extend like gentle hands. Her pink/purple flowers let you know that there is something soothing about her medicine. Her small thorns let you know that there is something powerful in it too. I have come to see motherwort’s medicine as a lesson on the interplay between gentleness and strength: in order to truly embody one quality, we must wholeheartedly embrace the other. Keep in mind, her botanical name is Leonurus Cardiaca meaning lion heart.

Like most mothers, this is an herb that multi tasks. Motherwort is used to strengthen and invigorate the heart. A family member who started using motherwort to treat heart palpitations has not complained of them since. This herb helps balance hormones, is fabulous for menopausal women and women dealing with PMS. Motherwort plays an important role in keeping my moon cycles comfortable as it alleviates menstrual cramping and helps promote flow. This herb is also known to help those suffering from high blood pressure. Motherwort has all these great gifts, yet when I think of this beautiful, lion-hearted herb, three words come to mind: ease,rest,centeredness.

I started using motherwort after I flew into a rage at my (then) three year old daughter. I was at my wit’s end dealing with Serene’s daily tantrums. I felt isolated caring for my two girls for hours on end while trying to juggle endless cleaning, mountains of laundry, and constant errand running. (I am not a natural at this stuff) I hadn’t had a moment to hear my own thoughts in what felt like an eternity and I certainly hadn’t had a night of unbroken sleep in over a year. I snapped. My daughter began her mix of screaming and crying and I found myself almost standing outside of myself. I yelled back, shook my daughter by her shoulders, and put her in her room. It was not simply what I did, it was as the intensity of my anger that scared and shocked me. I felt totally out of control. I was trembling inside. “Do you have motherwort?” My teacher Robin asked when I told her about the incident through tears. That was my introduction to this healing plant.

This herb soothes our nervous systems and helps us get back to our centers. I have found that using motherwort gives me more space to reflect before I react. Sometimes, when my daughters are going off, I listen to them and then give them about ten drops of motherwort tincture in water. It helps!

I use motherwort when I am faced with intense feelings of anxiety, when I can’t sleep, or when my thoughts are flying by so quickly that even I can’t grasp them. I’ll take a dropper full of tincture (about 20-25 drops) in any of these situations. Taking motherwort feels like taking a deep breath.

I am discovering that motherwort’s gifts as a nervine also make it a supportive ally during times of grief. In her fabulous book, Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs, Gail Faith Edwards writes, “At times of extreme emotionally upset, when you can’t hold yourself together or stop crying, 20 drops of motherwort tincture can be taken as often as necessary.” This is an herb that nurtures.

Because Mamawort is very, very bitter, I prefer using her in tincture form. (The bitterness of this herb lets you know that it can do wonderful things for your liver too.) Enjoy the gifts of this big-hearted herb, they are many.

How do you use mamawort?

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