When I started to write this post, I was sitting in Butter’s kitchen, with the smell of wild plums and sugar infusing the air. I was visiting her as part of a road trip that led me through New Mexico, to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, then up to Northern Colorado for some mountain and foraging time, then back across the mountains and the desert to Los Angeles. 2355 miles in ten days or so. A zillion plants. Some of the most wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to meet.
Driving through the Southwest is no great chore to me. I remember, a few years ago, when a Costa Rican friend came to visit and we went to Joshua Tree national park, and she was horrified. She said that everything looked so dead. That life, to her, is green and brightly coloured, and that the starkness of the desert made her feel funny. And quite honestly, after doing the drive from Utah to Vegas in late summer, I’d be inclined to agree if I didn’t have such a love of all places stark and craggy. I think about putting myself in the jungle and it makes me crazy. Like Rochester when he got to the Caribbean*. All that green, all that moisture, all that colour. I start slapping my arms imagining ghost insects and (not to be melodramatic or anything) I am pretty sure I’d die of some kind of exotic fever if I weren’t allowed to leave.
The conference was at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. A state described as the ‘Land of Enchantment’. It’s a good name for it. The second you cross the border from Arizona the scenery starts to change. Big dramatic mesas intersected by moody rivers rise up into startling blue skies. Then the late summer storms cut in, and what was bright blue five minutes before can be heaving with pent up energy. I drove through one storm that scared the crap out of me. The rain was coming down so hard, and the lightning striking so often that if I hadn’t been on a freeway with lots of other moving cars I’d have stopped right where I was to wait it out. But I couldn’t see the shoulder and couldn’t be sure that nobody would hit me (because they couldn’t see either) so I kept my eyes focused on the barest outline of the white stripe to my left and kept going.
I passed the continental divide. Which kind of blew my mind a little bit. Things like that often do. I stood there staring at the sign for a minute trying to figure out why there are no waterways that start East of there that flow to the Pacific but it was all too much for me so I ate some chocolate instead**.
I got to Ghost Ranch after dark. Made the mistake of trying to read for five minutes (*cough* I’m reading the Twilight series. This is embarrassing. What is more embarrassing is that I stomped around the house yesterday in a bad mood because Edward had the audacity to leave Bella and kept glaring at Jam like he’d done something seriously wrong.), finished my book, and then slept for 12 hours.
Ghost Ranch is stunningly beautiful. Crazy beautiful. Even more stunning than the scenery are the herb conference attendees. There’s something really nice about being surrounded by people who think absolutely nothing of you stopping to look at every shrub or munch things as you pick them off trees. About being around a group of people who, for better or worse, are following their calling (because, let’s face it, nobody gets into herbalism for the money). Some people are trying to make the world a better place, some are trying to help people, and some are (as Matt Wood so eloquently put it last year) ‘just in it for the plants’. It’s a non-pretentious group too. I can’t imagine many big conferences of any profession where the bigshot presenters are just as humble as the newbie learner. I think some of that has to do with the way it’s organised- Kiva and Wolf (the directors) made a choice to not let anyone put any letters after their names. They aren’t even allowed to use powerpoint. Not to devalue their experience, but to show that experience is what counts, not letters, or degrees or social status. And that’s the thing I like the most about it. Some of the teachers are licenced in some form or another, and some are proudly unlicensed. Some have been practicing for 30 odd years with no license at all. Taking away all the extraneous stuff makes the lectures more about experience and information, and it’s, in my opinion, a really great idea.
My favourite lecture turned out to be by Paul Bergner, on Herbs for the Spiritual Heart. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it. I hate the word ‘spiritual’ and any reference to it. But in talking about formulas to enlighten the heart, to protect it, to centre it, Paul passed around formulas that we all tried. And I tell ya, looking at the 50-odd people in that classroom change a bit after taking each formula made me want to cry a little bit. I left that class feeling like I loved everyone and everything. Luckily it only lasted an hour.
Other great classes that I attended were 7song teaching how to put together a good formula. CoreyPine Shane on herbs for pain (GREAT class!). Ryan Drum went over some case studies from his 30 odd years as the sole healthcare practitioner on his little island. Case studies make me happy; they’re never boring and there’s always something interesting and new to learn from another person’s experience.
But there were so many other classes I wish I’d gone to. Kiva Rose taught on Southwest folk herbalism. Lisa Ganora taught on plant constituents. Linda Garcia did first aid courses for herbalists. Sean Donahue taught on asthma. Todd Caldecott (who has an excellent new book out) taught on ayurveda. I’d list them all but I fear I already lost most of you about four paragraphs ago so let it suffice to say that if you’re remotely interested in herbalism- not just as a clinical herbalist but as a person with a kitchen who wants to be able to help out friends and family when they come down with something- check out the TWHC website***.
I left with a heavy heart. It didn’t help that (I can’t believe I didn’t know this) one half of Colorado is flat, and that’s the half I was driving up. Did I ever mention that flat places scare me? They do. They make me panic right in the middle of my belly, it’s horrible. Take away the big craggy rocks and mountains and my palms start to itch and sweat and I keep looking for an exit that isn’t there. Anyway, going to stay with Butter was a really nice way to wind down. We spent every day out foraging. Picking wild plums and apples and black walnuts and more herbs than I can list in one paragraph. We went to Rocky National Park and listened to the elks bugle while a storm rolled in. We ate at one of the restaurants that she forages for and were treated like royalty. We had a cheesy picnic up on top of a mountain in what quickly became a snow storm. The rockies are stunning. Heartbreakingly so. And they smell of clean air and ponderosa pine.
And we made wine. Wild plums grow everywhere around where Butter lives, and we had gathered enough to fill a couple of boxes. I’ve been really into making boozy things lately- from liqueurs to beers (complete failure), but had never tried wine. But plum wine sounded good. And really, it’s not complicated. It sounds complicated because thinking of wine people with their bouquets and fancy meters reading levels of things and all kinds of chemical processes are just scary. But wine for home consumption isn’t scary at all.
1 quart plums
1 1/2 cups sugar
yeast (if the plums aren’t covered in that white wild yeasty stuff)
Put the plums in a big bowl, and using your hands, start to squish the hell out of them. Think nice thoughts. When making boozes you can’t ever go wrong with fermenting nice thoughts. When thoroughly squished, add the sugar, then pour the lot into a jar that would be left half empty. Fill up the other half with filtered water.
Cover with a cloth and rubber band and allow to ferment in a dark corner for 22 days. Then strain, bottle, and leave it for a year, after which it’ll be ready to drink.
By the way, if you’ve made it this far, do you guys get like that about places? Some places that you love and feel great in and some places repel you like two magnets held the wrong way? I’m curious- what kind of places do you love?
ps. I put more photos on facebook
*Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Jean Rhys wrote it in response to Jane Eyre- it’s a fascinating character study and makes you see a whole lot more about Bertha than originally meets the eye. And I much prefer it to gothic romance :).
**Really, I don’t get it. Does this go all the way to the equator? South of the equator to Tierra Del Fuego? Is this why the waves down there are so scary to sail in? Is there not a single stream that goes the other way? If I pour a big bucket of water down at the divide will half of it go one way and half another (I should’ve tried that)?
***I didn’t even mention the music: 3 fantastic bands. We danced all night on Saturday. See, it’s a weight loss conference too.