Breitenbush Hot Springs, located in the Willamette National Forest of the Oregon Cascades, was the place where North American herbalists met for the first time about 30 years ago. The September 2011 conference was billed as a 25-year reunion, but many of us joked about our aging memories and were really not so sure of the date. Upon consideration, it was probably more like a 30-year reunion.
Many of us young herbalists met for the first time at Breitenbush in the nude, steaming in the wonderful sauna or soaking the in the many wonderful hot mineral springs. Most of us felt then as we do now that Breitenbush, tucked away in the wilderness of southeast Oregon, with wild herbs like Oregon grape and others growing everywhere, is in all the ways that count a veritable herbalist’s paradise. We saw ourselves as mavericks and revolutionaries of a sort. The revolution we were fomenting was the entire alternative medicine movement that began with herbs.
It’s perhaps a bit of a cliché to say that most revolutionaries have been part of a youth movement and could hardly ever imagine themselves aging. The Breitenbush reunion consisted of a number of us now in our late 60s and early 70s, having spawned a $3.5 billion alternative health and herb industry in the United States and Europe. Here we were, hanging once again warming our tired old bones in the Breitenbush hot mineral baths, bunking together in the same rustic cabins in the woods, and sharing delicious vegetarian meals on the deck of the main lodge. We capped off the event by sharing anecdotes about each other and our past together during the Saturday evening keynote address which given by all of us sitting in a row in front of the nearly 200 attendees.
When we first met 30 years ago, those of us herbalists in the Pacific Northwest had already taken classes with famed itinerant herbalist Dr. Raymond Christopher, and Norma Meiers, an eccentric hyperbolic herbalist living and working in and around Vancouver, B.C. They were among the scant few who were left from earlier days when all medical doctors learned and implemented herbs as part of their practice. By the 1960s, these two were probably the only herbalists in all of North America who were willing to pass along the torch of herbal medicine, essentially banned since the 1930s throughout the continent.
Another forerunner was herbal pharmacist Nathan Pothurst, who along with his assistant Emma, owned and operated the last surviving herbal pharmacy, Nature’s Herbs, in the United States. At that time, what herbalism remained was supported by an older conservative set who remembered the “good old days” when illnesses were better attended without the risk of dangerous side effects by their parents, grandparents, and benign doctors who healed common diseases using herbs.
The mid-20th century herbal renaissance occurred concomitantly with San Francisco hippies’ use of marijuana and their search for an alternative lifestyle apart from what was felt to be an inhuman, violent and corrupt mainstream. At first, when some of us like myself, Ed Smith and Rob Menzies descended on Pothurst’s pharmacy on Ellis Street, he was not impressed with our unkempt, bearded hippie appearance. Nathan even asked me once to leave because I presented a frightening appearance to his prim and proper elderly patrons. I left but kept coming back with money to buy herbs for the Haight community and hunger for herbal knowledge. It was from Nathan that I first received what must have been the last eight ounces of commercially available echinacea forgotten in the bottom of a jar in his basement.
Today, the continued availability of herbs for study and practice is more fragile and endangered than many think. This is nothing new. I remember Nathan describing how in the late 1940s the FBI stormed into Nature’s Herbs and confiscated thousands of herb books containing formulas sold in the store and took them out on the street for a public book burning. Fortunately that excellent book written by Otto Mausert N.D., simply entitled HERBS was bootlegged and reprinted by Elaine M. Muhr and is once again available today.
Breitenbush 2011’s core teachers were representative of only some of us who were together for the first time 30 years ago, people whom I deeply respect and was overjoyed to renew soul contact with. Some 30 years later, our bodies may show a bit of age but our spirit was the same as when we first met:
I first met East Coast Cherokee-trained herbalist David Winston at Breitenbush all those years ago. We were both delighted and astonished to discover that there were a few others like ourselves scattered throughout the country who were interested in herbal medicine. He is now one of the most sought after and beloved herb teachers in the country.
Cascade Anderson Geller is another great herbalist held in high esteem by naturopathic and herb students who have studied with her throughout Oregon and Washington state. Cascade and I enjoyed a wonderful walk along the Breitenbush River that runs through the property talking about the past, present and future of herbal medicine and the legacy we want to leave our beloved students “” as if, in fact, we really have any control over that!
Kathi Keville, an herbalist from the Lake Tahoe California Sierra region, one of the founders of the American Herbalists Association, is an author with the most joyous personality.
My close friends Christopher Hobbs (shown with me at left), as well as James and Mindy Green, no longer a married couple but close friends and respected colleagues, were there.
One of the most amazing faces from the past for all of us was Rob Menzies, the founder of Star Herbs, a Vietnam vet, keeper of the biggest heart you can imagine and a deep wealth of all aspects of herbal medicine. He, his wife Mary Po (a former student of mine from Santa Cruz), and I shared a cabin and enjoyed some intimate conversation together. He told me to check out his website to see what he’s up to these days. If you’ve ever wondered, as I did, “Whatever happened to the Wild man of the West, Rob Menzies?”, do check out his fabulous website at http://www.menziesnatives.com/school.html.
Notably absent were some like Ed and Sarah Smith, the founders of Herb Pharm, arguably the most enduring and one of the finest herb companies in the country. Ed and Sarah got their start by selling their tinctures and wares at the first Breitenbush gatherings.
Also absent was Roy Upton, to whom I gifted my herb course on a hillside in Breitenbush because he made and continues to make such a deep impression of his compassionate caring, love and devotion to humanity, was also at our “reunion.” Without even one iota of university credentials, Roy went on to write several books, formulate great products, become the line director for Planetary Herbals, and most impressive of all, found and create the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, which consists of a series of scientifically peer-reviewed monographs on herbs. These are considered the academic standard of the herbal industry worldwide.
Last but certainly not least, the person who brought us together in those early years, first in classes taught in the barn of a ranch where she lived called Rainbow’s End and later at Breitenbush Hot Springs, was the beautiful granddame of North American herbalism, Rosemary Gladstar (pictured at right with me). It is impossible to consider a North American herbalist reunion without her presence. Rosemary now lives with her husband in Vermont and continues to invigorate the herbal movement with her teaching and the annual International Herbal Symposium, where herbalists from throughout the world attend and teach. Rosemary pays their expenses and treats them like honored royalty, keepers of the sacred knowledge and wisdom of herbal medicine.
Throughout the Breitenbush reunion, whenever we needed a spokesperson or someone to bring us together or send us on our way with a heartfelt invocation or closing circle, Rosemary, with all of her beauty and grace, was there. It was like old times, forever.
I can’t begin to mention all the people and events of the Breitenbush 25 year-but-really-closer-to-30-year reunion but four more deserve mention:
Gabriel Howearth is one of the founders and promoters of the permaculture movement in America, herbalist and founder of Seeds of Change. Gabriel was there, happily recovering from a severe years-long struggle with the crippling effects of spinal meningitis he contracted by accidentally swimming in sewage polluted oceans off the coast of Mexico. He was completed paralyzed, in a coma for a year, couldn’t walk or talk. We were all so happy to see him miraculously recovering, though he still needed a lot of assistance.
Ryan Drum is an herbalist whose specialty is the many healing benefits and uses of seaweed. During the keynote speech Ryan, who looks like an herbal leprechaun, gave a hilarious description of when we was assigned to a cabin where he almost crawled into bed with a giant man with a snore to match (probably Michael Moore).
Svevo Brooks, an herbalist whose emphasis is on practical wisdom and simplicity, is deeply revered throughout the community of friends and colleagues. He taught his workshop at 4 a.m., inviting those who joined him for a walk and icy plunge in the Breitenbush River. Svevo believes in the most ancient and fundamental principles of good living. Rosemary tells of hiring Svevo to teach at one of her East Coast symposiums; he taught, amongst other things, the art of napping. She was utterly shocked when she dropped in on his class and found the entire class napping on the floor! On Saturday evening, there was a talent show and Svevo read the following poem, entitled “The Nap,” which he composed for this event:
Passing years are not as great
When reckoned by the score
Half again is after all
Not a great deal more
Counting is an exercise
That jumbles up the brain
Age is better tallied
By measuring drops of rain
Or even ice cream sodas
Chocolate mints and lollipops
Children, flowers, barefoot walks
Random draughts of schnapps
At least these do bring pleasure
And fix upon the mind
Memories of former days
When life was more sublime
I therefore raise an empty glass
To whatever age you choose
That half again be just enough
More to gain than lose
An now if you’ll excuse me
The mid-day bell has tolled
I’m of the age when courtesy
Gives way to being old
What’s that I hear
A snicker and a laugh?
I suppose you’re one of those
Who stopped at 3 1/2
As though a nap is infantile
Unbecoming one my age
Closer to dementia
Decidedly less sage
I don’t deny penchant
For prepubescent times
When milk and ginger cookies
Were served with nursery rhymes
Or that my mind does wander
To places yet unknown
And that I dream of bubbles
Not yet fully blown
But these are useful assets
In my field of expertise
Matters of repose
Rest, supine, and ease
For napping is an art
Like painting and croquet
Those who would excel
Must practice every day
So please, my friend, forgive me
I really must depart
The muse of sleep is calling
Tugging at my heart
A journey to vacuity
A voyage to unknown parts
Villages above the clouds
Life with endless tarts
All of this awaits me
Wind beneath my kite
For age and time do dissipate
As day gives way to night.
Copyright Svevo Brooks http://www.botanicalmedicine.org/Tapes/Bios/Brooks.htmks
Another talent show star was Vicki Dodds, an empath who can embody and express the energy of anyone or anything. She did this through sound and I later learned that she teaches workshops in Sacred Sound Energy to lay people as well as accomplished musicians. I’m happy that I’m a skeptic of so many things because being associated with alternative medicine, one is inundated by a lot of half baked notions and ideas. But what Vicki Dodds evoked with her short performance singing the energy of the plants in Breitenbush was very powerful. She was able to completely alter her voice, tone vowel sounds that reminded me of Hawaiian language and she was a master of overtone singing causing her voice to intone arpeggios like an Aeolian harp.
Speaking of which, my own artistic contribution throughout the conference was to play on piano the music of Chopin including his nocturnes and Aeolian harp etude.
The highlight of this event was Saturday evening when the Breitenbush Conference organizers had all the reunion herbalists sit in a line facing the attendees and reminisce about each other and our amazingly accidental wondrous life journey together. Despite moments between the sublime and high humor, these were our stories, sacred stories if you will, lived and told by us, the founders of the herbal renaissance. Like music, it is a thing of the moment and you needed to be there to appreciate it.
This lighthearted but profoundly moving evening was completed with Rosemary leading us in a ritual honoring all of those who played a profound role in carrying forth the herbal tradition through the dark ages of the early 20th century, who were beloved by us but have moved on from this earthly life, including Michael Moore, Dr. Christopher, Norma Meiers, Silena Heron, Jeanine Parvati, and many others. For these herbal teachers, friends and colleagues, we lit a candle of gratitude and remembrance.
While the event certainly was a reunion, it was also an educational opportunity; we taught nearly 200 wonderful and enthusiastic Breitenbush herb conference attendees. Two hundred is actually a good number for a seminar held in this wonderfully remote location, a two-hour drive into the wilderness from the Portland airport. Kudos to organizers Catherine, Sue, Cassandra, Tracy, and Trudy, who somehow arranged for most of us to be taken back and forth from the airport by conference attendees. There was also so much more that they did to provide for us and make us feel welcome and comfortable at our advertised 25-but-actually-30-year-reunion.
Breitenbush may have been the first, but now there are herbalist conferences and symposiums happening throughout the year all over the country. The American Herbalists Guild Symposium will take place on October 21-23 with preconference intensives happening on the 20th at TradeWinds Island Resort on St. Pete Beach, St. Petersburg, Fla. For more information go to http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/.