My Great Big Herbal Adventure-Part 1
Back in April I wrote about going on a big trip out to Arizona for an herbal learning experience with clinical herbalist Michael Cottingham of Voyage Botanica (a bit more about Michael here). Michael was a student of the late, renown herbalist Michael Moore. He is continuing the tradition of herbalism through online courses as well as destination herbal intensives on topics such as essential oil crafting and native medicinal plants of the southwest. Right now, Michael and many of my former classmates from Arizona are enjoying another long learning weekend in New Mexico. I wish that I could be out there with them, deepening my understanding and appreciation of plant medicine. Since I cannot, I thought that I would write a bit about my Arizona trip so that I could savor and share all of the memories.
Before launching into that I should say that this trip was a big, thrilling deal for me. Years ago I would have not felt the freedom to leave my family and spend time away by myself, learning about a topic of interest to me. I feel extremely fortunate to have taken this trip. I learned so much and was inspired in many areas of my life. It also gave me an extremely rare change to unplug as a mom and reconnect with myself as an individual, which then allowed me to return home better than I left. I realize that a lot of people reading this blog may not have the time, freedom, or resources to go off on such a trip today. I hope that it at least plants a seed of an idea that maybe someday you can take a similar adventure, or maybe today you can think of a little something attainable that might allow you to recharge or feed the creative fire within you.
I have a delightful mama friend who I first met when our oldest daughters were attending a parent-child class together at a Waldorf school. We discovered that we had a lot in common, not the least being attachment parenting tendencies, as well as an enjoyment of cooking, crafting, healthy living, and a general overall drive to learn how to do new things. That connection has remained strong over the years, and we often find that we will encourage new interests in one another. She might mention a topic of interest in passing and then move on to something else only to find that I rediscover it down the line and renew the interest for her or vice versa. Through this relationship we have been partners in crime in many adventures that we might not have had the courage or follow through to pursue on our own. She had first introduced me to Michael Cottingham and then I later mentioned hearing about this trip. We both let it rest for a while as a bit of a pipe dream. Some time later, she brought it up to me again. Somehow through travel miles, and car rentals, supportive spouses, and a sense of adventure, we found ourselves heading halfway across the country to Arizona to learn more about herbalism and medicinal plants.
When we finally made our way to the private hot springs reserve area that would be the home for the class, we began with the group sitting in a large stand of yerba mansa, learning about the plant and its uses as an antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory herb. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by the plant, and to reach out and feel the leaves, nibble the plant, and smell the fragrance all around us. If you have an interest in learning more about this magical plant, you can hear a sampling of the type of teaching that we received from Michael in this video:
After several hours developing a relationship with yerba mansa, we toured some of the rest of the reserve area, viewing the hot spring pools, and being taught about various plants as we walked by them. Michael shared a bit of information about mindful wildcrafting; taking care not to gather plants when too tired or distracted. He emphasized the importance of being present when harvesting, and use good guides to help identify plants and to become aware of “lookalikes” that may potentially be harmful.
We saw numerous plants native to the desert region including mesquite, desert wolfberry (similar to goji berries), tamarisk, desert plantain, and chaparral. You can read herbalist Sevensong’s insightful monograph on chaparral here. Michael guided us through the medicinal uses of each plant, encouraging us to touch, taste, and smell as appropriate.
It was clear that the private reserve area has been cared for by many over the years. Although the buildings on the property were rustic, they were sufficient to meet all of our needs. All throughout the property were beautiful natural gifts, formations, and symbols large and small that showed reverence for, and resonance with the beauty all around.
In addition to teaching us to recognize and utilize the various plants, Michael also took care to speak with us about ethical wildcrafting, developing relationships with private land owners who might allow one to harvest medicinal plants from their land in areas where wildcrafting is not allowed, and ways to give thanks to the plants and to the Earth for the gift of plant medicine.
The long first day of travel, walking, and learning began to wind down. Many of the students who had come by car had pitched tents to camp on the grounds. Since we had come by plane and rental car (and I do not own a tent or camping gear) we had intended to stay in a motel in a small town 20-30 minutes away, but when we had arrived we learned that there were rustic casitas on site that we were welcome to use for our stay.
We took a quick look at the casitas and realized that unfortunately we did not have what we needed to immediately take advantage of the offer. The casitas had only bare mattresses on the concrete floor and a string of Christmas lights and a small table lamp (on the floor) for illumination. They also has a series of nails sticking out of the wood beams along the wall and ceiling to allow us to hang up our clothes as needed to keep them away from the vermin (I mean, the four-or-more-legged casita keepers).
We decided that we really would much prefer to stay on-site for the remaining nights, even if that meant roughing it more than we had originally planned for. We wanted to be able to enjoy the hot spings, gather and process plant material, and build relationships with our classmates without the pressure of transporting back-and-forth to town to sleep. We decided to take the first evening to gather supplies and prepare. After a restorative soak in the hot springs, we drove out to town and headed for the biggest super store. We bought food, water, and sleeping bags. We then hit the clearance rack for the warmest nightgowns, lounge pants, small blankets, and scarves that we could find since the casita was not climate-controlled, and the temperature in the desert at night was shockingly cold. Once we had all of our spoils in the car, we went out for a quick bite to eat (quick because we were so exhausted from the day that by the time the food arrived at the table, we just packed it to go). We then made our way to our motel where we crashed hard in preparation for an early start the next day.
I will continue with day two of my herbal adventure in Part 2.by