People always ask where I studied, how I learned what I know and how I became an herbalist. It wasn’t until I had been practicing as an herbalist for several years that I began to piece together my entire story. On the first day of class in my herbal apprenticeship program, when we introduce ourselves, this is the story I tell my students – I can’t help but start at the beginning; everything seems to count.
I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts. My most vivid childhood memories are of being outside. I used to hang out with my dad while he cut, split and stacked cordwood for the winter. I remember the simple satisfaction that I got from staring up at the trees, making things out of snow and playing in the leaves. I remember crawling on my hands and knees beneath the mountain laurel looking for treasures and special places. Tree stumps, gnarly branches, big rocks and jackpots of mushrooms or cool-looking leaves were the highlight of any afternoon. I thought everything was special – every part of the natural world was a treasure, and I was constantly in a state of admiration.
My step grandmother was very ill for most of my childhood. She had been told many times by many doctors that she was going to die. In her quest to live, she became a self-made scholar of the body, natural medicine and alternative therapies. Getting better was her life, and I was fascinated to listen. Her stories were my first introduction to anatomy and physiology as well as many vitamins, minerals, algaes, herbs and the pendulum. Sometimes, when I think about health and the body, I can still hear her voice in my head.
I had other mentors too. The mother of my younger brother’s best friend, Jean Bergstrom, spent many years studying herbal medicine with Kate Gilday. Jean later went on to become a practitioner of plant spirit medicine; she used to practice doing pulse diagnosis on me at soccer games. Jean was the first to teach me how to identify plants (I especially remember the poison ivy lesson!), and I took my first herbal class with her when I was 13.
I fell in love with the kitchen in the later years of elementary school, when I remember rushing through my homework so that I could help my mom cook dinner. In the kitchen, she taught me what she knew and gave me a great sense of comfort in moving around the space and making food appear. Later, while attending college at UC Berkeley, I lived in a large co-op where I cooked for two years in an industrial kitchen. During my years at the co-op I would make dinners and lunches for 100 or more of my “housemates” at a time! It was here in Northern California that I began to formally study Herbal medicine with Kami McBride – traveling to the dessert, mountains, coastal hills and river valleys to learn the patterns and actions of native, naturalized and cultivated plants and their amazing healing gifts. During these years, while I was still receiving the tail end of my college education, I reconnected with the plant world of my childhood, enriching and deepening my love for the smells and sounds (and of course the magic!) of the natural world.
It didn’t take long for my passion for herbal medicine to meet my busy hands in the kitchen. I began to cook medicinally, using herbs and spices that were appropriate for the occasion, the season and the food. The powers of not just herbs and spices, but grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits, meats and all other ingredients began to appear to me. Through these experiences I gained a deep respect for the adage, food is our medicine. After graduating from college I dove head first into the world of food, volunteering and apprenticing at local kitchens and restaurants and experimenting in my own kitchen. I spent time learning about nutrition in addition to cultural food preparation and cultivation rituals from around the world. I was, and still am, interested in how the simplicity of increasing intention and awareness around food and our relationship to it can promote wellbeing and stimulate the kind of self-respect that fuels and empowers health and healing. I always tell my students that it was applying herbal medicine in the kitchen that gave me my first clinical experience – as I cooked for myself and others I observed how food and our relationship to it could nourish, nurture and heal. A kitchen witch is no joke!
Thyme Herbal was born in the spring of 2008 while I was living in Oakland California. For the first year, I mostly taught cooking classes with an herbal emphasis and did some private cooking for families in the Bay Area. A year later I moved back to Western Massachusetts where I intensified my study of Ayurveda and Western Herbalism and began to study Chinese Medicine. I now have a private herbal practice and an herbal education center (Thyme Herbal) at my homestead in Conway, Massachusetts. While I don’t do private cooking anymore, my work with food, nutrition and dietary applications of herbal medicine is still a central part of my clinical practice and my teaching approach.
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine practiced on the planet, and it has been largely practiced as an art form – learned through observation and experience and passed down from one person to another. It is this history of herbal medicine in practice that most clearly illustrates my vision for herbalism in our country today. Herbal medicine doesn’t belong to doctors or herbalists or authors, it belongs to everyone. I work in service to the vision that our society as groups of individuals and communities deserves to hold the wisdom, knowledge and self-empowerment necessary to practice herbal medicine every day in our own homes.
In the same way that I believe everything about the food we eat informs its nutritional quality – including where it is grown, how it is harvested, how it is prepared and how it is enjoyed – I also believe that all layers of life, all forms of doing, being, thinking and feeling, inform our state of health and wellbeing. With this lens, I can expand the idea that “food is our medicine.” Food is representative of all that we ingest, absorb and let go of. In this spirit a hug can be as nutritious as a bowl of greens and the preparation, intention and love behind a medicine is as important as the medicine itself.