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Becoming a Herbalist, Part Three

Monday, November 18, 2019 5:37 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)


Becoming a Herbalist
Part Three
by Susun S. Weed




From Ohio to Texas to California to New York to the open road and back again to the Catskills, my path may have seemed meandering, but it was as purposeful as any river, carrying me closer and closer to the sea, though I little comprehended where I was headed.

The Quonset hut on the side of a Catskill mountain was a safe refuge while my daughter's dad served time in Danbury Federal Correctional Institute for being a "menace to society." But within months I realized my savings would soon run out. I loved to draw, so I decided to get a job as an artist. I prepared my portfolio and began the arduous process of trying to sell myself to art directors in Manhattan, a two-hour bus ride away.

Many were interested, but no one would hire me. Someone finally told me outright that he would never hire a single mom. What to do? There were no local jobs that would pay me enough to pay another women to watch my child while I worked and still leave me enough left over to pay the bills. (This was also the genesis of my feminism. Up until now, I had always thought I was one of the "guys.")

I applied for Aid to Dependent Children. Though there were depressingly long waits, seeming ignorance of basic human needs, and all kinds of frustrations associated with getting approved (and staying approved) for "welfare," it was definitely the right choice for my daughter and I, allowing us to continue our adventures in fairyland: the magical realm we entered when we stepped outside and opened ourselves to the timeless abundance of Nature.

Nature is incredibly rich and giving. But even with all that, living on welfare wasn't easy. There was never enough money. And my daughter seemed to need new shoes with alarming frequency. I was talking to a neighbor about my dilemma, when he made the outrageous suggestion that I teach at a local community college.

"I can't do that!" I replied. "First, I'll be thrown off welfare if they even so much as suspect I'm working. Second, I don't have a license to teach. Third, I don't have any credentials, not even a high school diploma."

He calmly explained that the adult education department allowed anyone to offer a course, required no credentials, and although I would get paid $25 per class, I wouldn't really be employed (no social security number needed) and he sincerely doubted that I would get "caught." It seemed absurd; it seemed liked a miracle. I rolled the idea over and over in my mind, until at last I could envision myself teaching a class. Yes! A class in whole wheat bread baking!

I sent in my proposal. They published it. Students signed up. With nerves quivering, I began to teach. We made wholewheat bread. We made wholewheat rolls. We made wholewheat bagels. We made wholewheat croissants. We made wholewheat pretzels. We made wholewheat crackers. We made wholewheat chocolate chip cookies. We made: "The best bread you ever ate! You make it yourself, with love." And my daughter got new shoes.

Everything was settling into place. And then I met the woman who was to change my life forever. You wouldn't have known it to look at her. And who could have missed seeing her -- a women who appeared to be ten months pregnant, standing beside the road with a babe in arms and three huge bags of laundry, hitching a ride? I not only took her to town, I waited while she did the laundry and brought her home. She lived on the other side of the mountain from me. And she was wildly interested in herbal medicine.

Our friendship took root in the fertile soil of our motherhood, our love of plants, and our respect for the Mother. Soon there was a trail over the mountain, connecting our houses by a far shorter route than the five mile drive around the mountain. Every plant, every rivulet, every fern, every rock, every mushroom along the mile and a half of that trail was soon as familiar to me as the inside of my eyes.

As they grew, our girls visited each other by means of the trail. Often they found special treats for dinner. One guest, incredulous, as I began to cook the mushrooms handed to me by my six-year-old daughter, gasped: "You're going to eat wild mushrooms picked by a child?!" "Before I would eat any you picked," I retorted. "She's been doing this since she could walk. And she's closer to the ground than adults," I added with a smile, "so she can identify them better."

And it was true. There was rarely a day that we didn't spend time together practicing our skills in identifying and eating the wild abundance around us -- even if it was only a salad of weeds from the garden. One day, out in the woods, my friend complained to me that her husband didn't seem to understand how difficult it was to be home alone all day with two small children. "If he comes home from work one more time and criticizes me for a messy house and a late dinner, I might kill him," she confided.

"Don't even think of that," I counseled her. "What you need is a night off once a week. Let him deal with the kids alone for even a few hours and I bet he'll change his tune."

"But he would never agree to that," she sighed.

"What if you were working?" I asked. "You could teach a course at the local community college!"

"But I don't have a license. I don't have degrees! I can't teach!" she protested as I laughingly explained to her that those were not valid objections. And so she decided, after a few weeks thought, that she would do it. She would teach a class in herbal medicine.

"And that means we have to study really hard," she told me. "Every day between now [May] and when college starts in September." That's what we did. Everyday. We redoubled our efforts to identify and learn about the plants around us. Every day. With our daughters in tow, or on our own, everyday. Everyday. Rain or heat or mist, we roamed the mountains, the fields, the streamsides, the vacant lots, the meadows, with our field guides in hand. And we brought the bounty back to our kitchens, where we cooked and compounded and decocted and infused and tried our hands at every preparation listed in the books.

Friends stopped coming to dinner after one especially wild soup spilled on the floor and removed a stain that had been there for years. But we were undaunted and indefatigable, avid and eager. And the class was a great success. On every level. For indeed, her husband did change his tune after spending the evening alone with his two rambunctious young daughters: to one of respect. In fact, the family got so tight, they decided to build a camper on their pickup and go off for a month of summertime fun.

"I'm looking for paradise!" my friend yelled as she waved goodbye.

"I found paradise!" she said on the other end of the phone, a month later. "And we're not coming back."

"But what about your class?" I pleaded, thinking that guilt might be more effective than friendship in luring her home.

"My class?" Her voice sounded far away. "Oh, my herbal medicine class! Well, you'll just have to teach it."


~ Read Part One ~


~ Read Part Two ~


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