A Forgotten Piece: A documentary about my life as an herbalist

Life with a baby has certainly hindered my blog posts, so I apologize for the lack of content these past few months. I have been busy however, and wanted to share with you a beautiful video a University of Oregon graduate student made about my life as a forager, herbalist, and mentor. Andrea did a beautiful job piecing together my story along with clips of me foraging, making medicine, and Jasper of course. I want to share this with you all and give you a little inside scoop of my life and vision for living with the Earth.


How to Make Willow Bark Medicine

Below is a guest post I wrote for the First Ways blog in 2011.

Ever since reading one of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” books by Jean Auel I had been entranced by the idea of using willow as medicine. I remember clearly one of the characters peeling willow bark and making a decoction for his injured brother to help ease the pain and swelling. Since then I have been itching to get out there to make a tincture or decoction, but I was nervous, thinking the skill was perhaps beyond my level. I just wasn’t sure how to go about peeling bark off a plant without hurting or killing it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learned that an easy way to collect willow is to simply clip off willow twigs and then peel the bark off of the trimmings. Duh! It solves the problem of possibly killing the plant and it is a simple way to harvest in a caretaking manner. willow-flowers

Last week I took a trip to the coast and found quite literally a sea of willow bushes just inland of some of Oregon’s great sand dunes. Turns out these willows were most likely Hooker’s Willow, Salix hookeriana, a coastal willow. Willow loves to grow with her feet wet, so look for her on stream banks, near lakes and rivers, and marshy areas. There are many species of Salix and some may be small shrubs while others can be larger trees. The leaves are alternate, generally oval and elongated with smooth margins, however there is variation between species.

peeling-barkI decided to prune twigs that appeared overcrowded and unlikely to thrive. Some sources say to gather the twigs before the catkins even begin to come out as this has the most medicine, but many of the leaves were already unfurling and the catkins were starting to flower, so I picked twigs that were in an earlier stage of growth. However, you can harvest year round since the plants contain the medicine in it at all times. Early spring is when the plant medicines are most concentrated and so is the best time of year to harvest.

I peeled the inner and outer bark from the stick using my fingers, right down to the heart wood. It was slightly time consuming but also very meditative. The bark, buds, and new leaves all found their way into my pint jar. Then I added 80 proof brandy and screwed on the top. I will be letting this sit for up to 6 weeks before I strain out the material.

My goal for this tincture is to use it primarily for pain caused by headaches. I have not yet found my perfect headache plant and am excited to see how willow will do.

Willow has been used for thousands of years around the world for its amazing pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing effects. The magic comes from salicylic acid, a natural plant growth hormone that can be used for rooting new cuttings. In 1900 Aspirin was patented and sold as a Bayer product. In order to make aspirin, scientists combined acetyl chloride and salicylic acid. The salicylic acid was actually not derived from any willow species but rather from a plant called Spiraea ulmaria or meadowsweet (another plant I would love to work with) which is where the “spir” in aspirin comes from.

The Signs of Spring in Pictures

Spring is approaching quickly here in the Southern Willamette Valley.  After spending my formative years in Eastern Oregon I still can’t get over how much faster spring approaches on the West side.  At first the buds just begin to swell, crocuses poke out of the soil,  and chickweed takes over.  And before I can say “out like a lamb”  plants are bursting with blooms and new growth.  I would say we are just at the beginning of the plant explosion around the first week of March.  Not to mention the bird activity has shall I say, soared into action.  A couple weeks ago I got to watch and listen to dueling male sparrows – I even could tell who the winner was!

The following pictures are just a few of the signs of spring that I have noticed where I work in the wetlands.  They aren’t of the greatest quality being taken on a cell phone so please do not judge.

Taraxacum officionale:  good ol’ Dandelion.  Two weeks ago was about the time I saw dent de lion begin to flower.  Time for dandelion wine, dandelion fritters, tasty young bitters, and more.


Salix spp. Got a shot of both the male and female flower parts or catkins. Catkin is a Dutch word that means kitten.


Dipsacus fullonum  Last years teasel stalk where the seeds are sprouting on itself! Found this just feet from the back door at work.

Bonus Pics

Can you find the animal hiding in the grass?


How about now?


There it is! A GBH (Great Blue Heron) not 5 feet from the bike path.


“Nurse Ratched” AKA Camp Healer

Every year Whole Earth Nature School holds our seven day overnight, Big Bear Camp.  Kids from across the county sign up for an epic adventure of survival camping, archery, creek walks, gnarly hikes, friction fires, and crazy night games such as “Invisible Capture the Flag”.  Each year this camp grows in leaps and bounds and Whole Earth is proud to say that we had 27 wild kids sharing nature with us.

The more kids though equals more need for first aid and I had the distinct honor of acting as ‘Camp Healer’.  I have found it a challenge to practice my herbal healing and first aid skills since I am not going through medical school or any other training that requires constant practice and repetition.  Even with a couple of re-certifications  in First Aid/CPR and Wilderness First Aid it’s just not enough practice to become proficient or automatic.

Still I value every opportunity where I can help heal someone whether it be physical or emotional.  Most of ‘camp’ first aid is simple – a bandage here or an ice pack there.  However, I find the simplicity to be deceiving for what I am truly gaining skill in is tracking.

Diagnosis is probably one of the most scariest and exciting aspects of treating people especially working with children.  There is always SO much going on underneath that even the child may not know!  Practicing the ‘art of questioning’ while diagnosing a person is crucial to getting to the ‘meat’ of the problem.

We do some pretty dangerous activities at camp that involve sharp implements, hot, dry weather, flying objects, off-trail hazards, bees, allergies, sharp sticks, fire, and cooking.  Yet I only had two “serious” cuts, one wasp bite, one vomiting kid, two belly aches, and a various assortment of ailments.  Pretty good for seven days in the woods.

My job is fairly easy when I have a kid with a cut and visible blood.  Always my first response is “Let’s go get some plantain!”.  Having the child pick a plant, chew it up, and put it on the cut does wonders for their mental state and he can see the wound change for the better by his own actions.

When a kid comes to me with no wounds and no visible ailments then my tracker mind has to come out along with a barrage of questions.  I have learned to never take a situation by just face value – dig, dig, dig!  Here is a great example:

A 12 year old boy comes to me complaining of itching arms.  “Oh my god they itch!” he exclaims as he frantically scrapes his nails up and down both arms.  I took his hands to stop the scratching and to get a good look at his arms.  No redness, no swelling, no hives, no bites.  So I pump him for more details and from what I gathered the arms had just started itching a few minutes ago, he hasn’t had this before, he has no known allergies, and it is driving him insane.

I pull out my lavender essential oil and put a little on to make sure it didn’t make things worse.  It does not so I liberally apply his arms while he prances around the room doing the ‘itch dance’.  It seems to calm him more but not by much. Meanwhile as I am applying I grill him more about the circumstances, then a question struck me that I hadn’t asked before.  “What were you doing when the itching started?”  He replies “I just put my hands in the dish water to do the dishes.”  Ah ha!  Well that narrowed it down to two things 1) he has a sensitivity to the soap or the warm water was causing the blood to go to his arms and 2) perhaps you can guess this one?

I decided to use a different tactic.  The boy wasn’t in real distress he actually seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the attention.  One plant I always keep in my first aid kit is Osha Root because some herbalists believe it can stop allergic reactions.  (I have had personal success when one evening I started getting hives, of which I have never had before, and took three drops of Osha under the tongue and within two minutes my reaction went away. )    Because of the nature of the situation I wasn’t concerned with any sort of major allergic reaction or systemic reaction and so did not automatically reach for Benedryl.  Instead I asked him to smell the Osha first.  FYI it is a very strong aromatic if you have never tasted or smelled it before.  He said “Oh it smells like maple syrup!” Sure I’ll take that.  I put one single teeny drop on his tongue and away he whirled like a dust devil running to rinse out his mouth.  “Yuck! That’s like insane maple syrup!”

I always carry with me peppermint candies and pulled out my bag to give him one to take away the taste.  He looks at the bag and notices some ginger candy.  “What are those orange things?” he asks.  I tell him and he wants to try one.  Gingerly I hand a small chunk to him and once again he is whirling around the room screaming about it being spicy and what not.  He yells for the peppermint candy and runs out the door and I never hear another word about itching arms.

I am always looking to expand my knowledge and experiences in order to blend herbalism with conventional medicine.  To me I think it is a perfect blend of heroic medicine and holistic healing.

There are a couple of herbalists I would love to work with in order to be a better first aid herbalist.  Charles Garcia of the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism and 7Song of Northeast School of Botanical Medicine are a couple of folks I would recommend and give my eye teeth to study with!

Happy healing!

Kids and Plants

My favorite time of year is slowly making itself known and before I know it so many plants will be popping up that I can’t keep track!  I have already eaten a delicious wild plant salad made up of: wild onion, cleavers, chickweed, dandelion, and lots of miner’s lettuce.  And tonight I am adding the young tops of stinging nettle to my chili dinner.

Other than stuffing my face with tasty green plants this time of year is a wonderful excuse to teach kids to appreciate and eat(!) the plants.  When I tell people that I teach kids to indentify, eat, and use plants as medicine many folks are pumped, some don’t get it, and the rest are horrified.  “You tell kids to eat plants?! They will kill themselves!!”

Yes, eating plants can be risky if you don’t know what you are doing or are not paying attention.  And so often I see the (somewhat misguided) schoolyard lore of certain plants and flowers having honey inside being passed down even from the time I was in elementary school.  Luckily those plants are generally harmless.  As instructors we do need to be very careful with how we are dispensing the knowledge of edible plants and making sure that if the information does get passed on at recess that it will be met with respect and care.

My biggest rule for teaching kids about plants?  Stun them with reality!  I say outright that some plants could KILL you with one bite.  And I am not even exaggerating.  Poison hemlock grows all over town and looks frighteningly similar to wild carrot and so we simply avoid any Parsley family plant in our programs.  This proclamation certainly gets their attention and makes them wary enough to view plant eating with respect.

Secondly we use a simple rule:  Ask First!  First ask an instructor or if not at camp then an adult who knows before a plant enters a mouth.  Then ask the plant.  And sure, you can actually ask the plant!  But also we are getting kids to pay attention to what the plant is telling them.  Does it look healthy?  Are there poisonous plants around?  Is it too close to a road?  Is it the right plant?  Does it feel right to harvest it?  I always encourage kids to give the plant an offering such as a hair plucked from their head in thanks.

Most kids are more than happy to put a plant in their mouth.  It is wonderful to see kids facial expressions of the more bitter plants like dandelions or hazel flowers since bitter is unfortunately a flavor our culture tries to hide.  Plants such as chickweed (Stellaria media), candy flower or Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytonia sibirica), dandelion flowers, big-leaf maple flowers (Acer macrophyllum), and lawn daisy flowers (Bellis perennis) are examples of some of the more favorite plants that kids enjoy.

I leave you with a video of one of our Spring Coyote Kids! programs from a couple years ago with kids enjoying their wild plant feast!

Coyote Kids Sample Some Wild Plants from Whole Earth Nature School on Vimeo.

Slingin’ It

It may be no surprise to you that one of my favorite fictional characters is Ayla from Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear Series.  Ayla rocks my prehistoric world.  So, inspired by her hunting prowess, several years ago I decided to make my own sling out of parachute cord and store-bought leather.  I had some success with that rough design. Earlier this year I became re-inspired by the sling and I decided to make one completely by hand using “native” materials.

A sling is an ancient weapon that allows the hunter to throw objects such as rocks with more speed and force than is possible with just the arm alone (think David and Goliath).   The origin of the sling remains unknown however it is a weapon found throughout the world and has been used for thousands of years.  It’s effectiveness is in the hands of the hunter – once you are well practiced the sling can become a deadly weapon.

The weapon is very simple in design:  you need two lengths of cord and a pouch.  At the end of one cord there should be a knot and the end of the other cord a loop to go around your finger. When the sling is hanging at your side it should reach just above the ankle.

I wanted my sling to be a mixture of fiber and leather.  My weaving skills aren’t quite up to snuff and so was rather daunted by the option of weaving a fiber pouch.  I went to a great website called:  www.slinging.org to get some ideas of how to design my sling.  Back in November I had harvested dying Stinging Nettle stalks in order to obtain their fiber.  Stalks that are still green and then dried work best for this as they are not already rotten from the soaking rains that come in the Fall.  I decided I wanted to use nettle fiber for my cords and for the pocket/pouch use the deer hide my husband and I tanned several years ago.  While on the slinging.org website I found an article by Paul Campbell about sling designs.  I found out that the Pomo people of California actually made slings out of nettle and leather.

The first step of my project was to break apart the nettle stalks in order to release the fibers within.  Stinging Nettle fiber is incredibly strong and versatile and has been used for thousands of years for projects from cordage to clothing.  The fibers are in between the pith or inside of the stalk and the outer bark.  Using a rock or a stick I crack the stalk up an down then begin the tedious process of removing the pith from the fibers careful not to tear off the precious fibers.  I ended up with a very nice basket full of fibers.  Before I begin to work with the fibers I rub them between my hands in order to remove the chaff or outer bark so that they become supple.

Next I began to reverse wrap the fibers in order to make a rope.  Reverse wrap is a very ancient and solid way to make rope – it is hard to explain but fairly easy to do.  Here is an article on how to do it from Wild Wood Survival.

I decided to make a sling completely attached, or in other words not having two separate cords tied at the pouch.  I twisted the first side of the string to the desired length with the very beginning twisted into a loop that fits over my middle finger.  At the base of the first length of cord I split this so that I could have the outline of the pocket then reattached the fibers back together on the other side as shown.   Then I twisted the other half of the cord to meet the same length of the first tying a knot at the end.

Now I was ready for my leather.  I cut out the leather adding extra lengths on either side so I could wrap it around the ends that attach the pouch for added strength.  Here is where I hit an obstacle.  How do I sew on the leather over the fibers?  The nettle fibers alone (not wrapped) weren’t going to be strong enough thread and I didn’t have any real sinew on hand.  I caved and went for fake sinew – however once I get some real sinew I will swap it out.

Once sewn, I added a slit in the middle of the pouch for added grip around the stones I will be slinging.  After slinging a few times I am very happy with how it turned out.  I may shorten it slightly for better snap when it goes around or over my head but I am very excited with how silently it turns in the air!

Practicing the sling can be tricky since you don’t want to actually hurt anything while in practice.  Be careful where you choose to throw.   Rounded rocks work very well however it can be a pain finding them then losing them.  A friend suggested rolling balls of clay and letting them dry without firing them and they simply bust apart when hitting your target!