Today we received a package in the mail from United Plant Savers. UpS has welcomed the Serpentine Project into their botanical sanctuary network. A bit from the UpS website:
“The mission of United Plant Savers is to preserve, conserve and restore native medicinal plants and their habitats of the US and Canada, while ensuring their abundant, renewable supply for future generations. To this end, United Plant Savers established one of our most important projects: the Botanical Sanctuary Network. As we became more deeply involved in the complexities of plant preservation, we realized that in order to preserve plants we must first preserve and protect the habitat in which our native plant communities thrive. What better way than to create a network of sanctuaries dedicated to restoring and preserving habitat for wildlife, both plants and animals.” Read more here if you are interested in developing your own sanctuary: https://www.unitedplantsavers.org/content.php/43-Botanical-Sanctuary-Network
I decided to work toward developing a UpS sanctuary for medicinal plants while I was studying plants in Oregon. Much of my studies centered on indigenous or native plants and naturalized plants. Some of the indigenous plants are rare and require ethical wildcrafting and propagation to ensure that they continue to exist. So I invite them to the places I live and hope that they settle in and get comfortable. Right now I’m inviting plants to NE Ohio. I had a garden in Oregon and then later started another garden around the meditation center at Anathoth Community Farm that is still doing well.
At BLD farm in NE Ohio, a learning garden with the at-risk species has been established closer to the house so that people who want to come learn and see the plants can do so without braving ticks and mosquitoes. So far that garden has a few plants each of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, Goldenseal, Wild Ginger, Great Blue Lobelia, and Red Trillium. The other medicine gardens are in open areas near the garden and the work site for the green house.
Our long-term plan is to establish a center at BLD farm that emphasizes Earth-based skills (such as herbalism) and other folk arts that can contribute to a more sustainable society. We are currently working on the design of the primary classroom and apothecary. If you would like to help us make this dream come true, please donate or volunteer. Send checks payable to Serpentine Project to:
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This article was originally published in Plant Healer Magazine last year.
I am frequently asked why I still go to protests. This question surfaces in conversations about successful political actions – the assumption being that mass mobilizations in the U.S. are rarely the tools of change they once were. For me it doesn’t matter. I measure the success of an event by the community connections made, the skills developed, the wisdom shared by the too few elders.
Most importantly, I have found that my work as a street medic and herbalist at mass mobilizations gave me a few skills that made it possible for me to do disaster relief. Mass mobilizations, after all, are often considered political emergencies by the State. And sometimes, these events turn disastrous when police deploy “less-lethal” weapons to disperse crowds. Street medic history starts with the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement. People trained as doctors, nurses, first responders, and others with more traditional skills such as acupuncture and herbalism began marching side by side with protestors to promote health and safety by preventing dehydration, blisters, and other co
ailments while being prepared for the emergency situations that arose when counter protestors or police injured marchers I encourage herbalists to consider working at a free clinic during a mass mobilization. It’s an opportunity to learn about the logistics of providing medical support, develop conflict resolution and negotiation skills, practice cultural and situational awareness, build community – all under duress. These clinics are open to the public. Clinic staff ranges from doctors to acupuncturists and from herbalists to EMTs. For some patients, this might be a rare opportunity to receive health care. In an emergency situation, it’s important to be able to set up a clinic, provide medical support for large numbers of people, and think on your feet.
When we got the call, we’d been spending most of our time shoveling snow in NE Ohio. A friend in Montana called to ask Charles and me if we would be willing to go to Haiti. The team was self-assembled and unaffiliated: all we would have was each other. We knew other street medics who were in Haiti and through them learned about a Haitian living in New Jersey who was looking for medical teams to go to his hometown, St. Marc, in northern Haiti. Odson would be our guide and primary interpreter while we were in Haiti. We raised money in our communities and within a week of deciding to go found ourselves flying to the Dominican Republic.
When we arrived at the hospital in St. Marc, we discovered that the American team of surgeons and nurses that were there were leaving the next day and the next team was not arriving for five days. We were the only care providers for their patients during that time. We provided care for patients who had received or needed serious operations, amputations, complicated breaks requiring external fixators, and skin grafts. After that five days passed and the next team arrived, we took a day off.
After resting for a day, we went to the village where Odson’s grandmother lives to see the countryside and set up a clinic for the day. We set up a three-part clinic: wounds/musculoskeletal injuries, blood pressure, and minor medical treatments (pharmaceuticals and OTCs given by a nurse and herbal remedies from me). That day was amazing and incredibly discouraging. The countryside is beautiful, but the people are undernourished – some of them suffering from easily prevented conditions, like night blindness from Vitamin A deficiency.
Before we left Haiti, Odson told us that the hospital staff agreed that we were one of the best American teams to come to St. Marc. There were two reasons for this. The first was our willingness to ask how we were doing. After two days of working in the hospital we asked to have a meeting with Odson and his sister, a nurse at the hospital. This gave us an opportunity to learn from our successes and mistakes. We learned that Haitian providers use full sterile protocol on all patients. We were ushered in by a team of doctors who walked us through their protocol – they weren’t using sterile protocol either. They felt that nothing about the environment was sterile, so why bother wasting the costly sterile gloves on every wound dressing change. Just outside of the operating room, we were told to take care not to stand directly in front of the doors, because the water dripping down was a sewage leak. However, the Haitian doctors and nurses employ full sterile protocol precisely for the absence of sterility throughout the hospital. Despite this blunder, none of our patients developed new infections in their wounds while under our care.
Our second success rode on our willingness to integrate as much as possible into the community of St. Marc. We stayed with Odson and his family, creating our own tent city in their enclosed courtyard. When we needed to go somewhere, we walked or rode on the back of motorcycle taxis. We bought our food in Haitian grocery stores and restaurants. (One American doctor expressed mild shock that we went out for a drink with “them.”) We flew kites made from beach trash and skipped rocks with the children at the beach while chickens, pigs, and goats nosed through the garbage in the sand. None of us were fluent in Haitian Kreyol, but we learned basic phrases and important words. One of the slang phrases I learned (to everyone’s amusement), was m lage cha a (I gotta bounce).
Everyone’s an herbalist in Haiti
That may sound like an exaggeration, but this is in contrast to the U.S. where many of our best medicines are torched, yanked, or sprayed in an effort to annihilate their existence. Odson frequently pointed out things that his mother or sisters use for teas. His father spoke of the medicinal qualities of calbasa while demonstrating how to carve the hard shell into a bowl or water carrier.
I learned more about Haitians and their plant knowledge while we were visiting the village where Odson’s grandmother lives. After lunch (rice with chicken and greens), a few of us wandered into the yard behind the houses. I was feeling that it would be better to recommend treatments based on plants that were growing in the area rather than giving herbs from the states. I came upon a vaguely familiar plant with big leaves – I grew up in southern California and was surprised how many plants were similar. I bent down to look closer and asked Odson what it was. This one I didn’t recognize because I’d only seen them in orchards: almond trees. They grow like weeds in Haiti.
Excited I stood up and said to him, “The leaves as a tea are good for high blood pressure!” At that moment, I realized that a small crowd had gathered around us and blushed because suddenly they were all talking at once. I asked, “What are they saying?” Odson smiled, “They are saying it is good for high blood pressure.” We were then able to recommend the tea to those with high blood pressure. It wasn’t important that I knew about the benefits of almond leaf tea, but the connection helped those who didn’t previously know they had high blood pressure.
The earthquake in Haiti caused an acute disaster that was all the more devastating because Haitians have been living in a state of political and economic oppression and chronic disaster. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Many struggle to get enough food. Few have access to clean water and the means to clothe and shelter themselves. The rates of malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases were high before the earthquake; and after, many suffered in an outbreak of cholera.
I began to wonder how to measure the success of recovery under those conditions; especially when those conditions are a result of decades of political and economic oppression. Coming home from Haiti was not easy. There is so much work to do there.
But the work is here, too. Throughout the world, corporations exploit poverty-stricken regions for labor and the extraction of raw materials. Chocolate, coffee, diamonds, trees, oil and coal are exchanged for blood, sweat, and tears all over the world.
In the U.S., Appalachia is the poorest region if you look at the human statistics, but one of the wealthiest if you look at coal production. The greatest profit exchanged for the greatest suffering. The coal industry has been destroying people and entire communities in those mountains for more than a hundred years. My great grandfather was one of them. Mechanization led to layoffs and my grandparents moved to California to work at the Kaiser steel mill and hospital. If they had stayed, it’s likely that my grandfather and father (who also worked at Kaiser) would have also died young from black lung disease (officially known as coalworker’s pneumoconiosis).
Over the last two years I’ve been to West Virginia twice: to see family and the landscape my ancestors lived in and to work on health-related projects. The first time I went, I spent a week with Roland Micklem and attended a rally to protest mountain top removal. I provided medical and moral support to Roland; an 81-year-old man who was fasting to demonstrate his grief for the mountains that are being cut down for coal.
The second time I went, I trained two groups of people to conduct a health survey. The data will be used to further understand the health impacts contributing to health disparities in Appalachia. People in that region die more often from lung, kidney, and cardiovascular illnesses compared to the rest of the U.S., so the National Institutes of Health has designated the region as a priority area for eliminating health disparities. These illnesses are likely a result of a combination of things including poverty, hunger, unemployment (and underemployment), limited access to health care services, air and water pollution, and the health behaviors influenced by all of the above. I’ve seen jars of blackish water from formerly clean wells. I’ve seen air filters blackened in just a few short days. If that doesn’t describe a disaster situation, I don’t know what does.
My experiences in West Virginia and Haiti and my earlier experiences as a street medic inspired me to become more prepared for a disaster and to teach others to do the same. I teach an introductory workshop on preparing for a disaster that can be followed up with conflict resolution, negotiation skills, non-violent communication, basic first aid/herbal first aid, disaster herbalism, emotional first aid/disaster psychology, setting up/running a temporary clinic and turning that clinic into an enduring project. The knowledge and wisdom shared in the workshop comes from a number of people and in the tradition of recognizing those who help us, I will say their names here: Mo, Charles, Noah, Aislyn, Grace, and Roger.
While I was in West Virginia this year, I visited some relatives and saw the house my father was born in. I touched the Spruce trees in a tiny isolated old growth forest. I found the new leaves of an orchid called Rattlesnake Plantain. I sang in the shadow of the New River Gorge. And for the first time, I saw the name of relatives in a graveyard in Norton, WV. I saw life and death and everything in between. The cycle of life is the here and now. The only thing I know. And I will work to keep that cycle balanced in everything I do.
Leah Wolfe, MPH, is a community herbalist and health educator with a background in health research and community organizing. She teaches as a way to contribute to decentralized sources of health care, which are integral to a sustainable, ethical, and affordable system of health that emphasizes public health and autonomy. She is an apprentice of the forest and field and is certified as a Wilderness First Responder. She offers consultations and herbal medicines on a sliding-scale or gift exchange basis to make treatments accessible. She founded the Serpentine Project in 2009 to restore habitat for at-risk medicinal plants and cultivate other important medicinal plants at BLD farm in Ohio.
In late 2011, Charles and I began the construction of a timber-framed straw bale green house that will have a hoop house attached. Mostly I helped dig the drainage ditch for the foundation, which will drain into a bioswale. The green house will increase our capacity to grow vegetables, at-risk medicinal plants, and other important medicinal plants.
The frame has been erected on a concrete slab that is left over from the days when a small-scale dairy farm was run here. The frame is made of wood sourced from BLD farm. Half of the roof is made of metal roofing that was left over from a house job. Plastic roofing for the south side will increase warmth in the winter for more delicate plants and create a place for us to escape the winter blues.
We will build the walls from straw bales and cobb made from the clay that we saved when we dug the drainage ditch (note the clay piled to the right of the frame). The drainage ditch will flow out to the bottom of the primary medicinal garden where water loving plants like Gravel Root can grow. Soon we will build the walls and will announce a work-party/workshop for those who are interested in participating in a cobb/straw bale project. As we raise funds we will purchase a hoop house to extend off one side to replace the make-shift hoop house that is there now.
If you have the means to make a small donation, it will make a big difference! Click on the donate button in the right column.
Currently, we are especially concerned with the chronic disaster that is caused by mountain top removal coal mining practices in the Appalachian area. These practices are causing air and water pollution, fear, and dislocation of communities in an area that has a history of poverty. I have seen black water, I have felt houses shake from nearby blasts, I have seen flyrock, rocks that are thrown in the blasts, the size of small cars, I have seen people with cancer, and I have seen people who are afraid to protest mountain top removal practices for fear of losing their jobs. Some of the plant medicines growing in the region are on the United Plant Savers at-risk list. Entire biospheres where these plants live are lost when the mountains are torn down for coal.
Coal is not a clean fuel and underground mining presents health risks to miners, but I feel that a return to more traditional mining practices would reduce the negative health impact in the region. Yes, I would like to see coal abolished as a form of energy just as much as I’d like to see nuclear power plants abolished. But the reality is that energy is needed, jobs are needed, and for now the government and the corporations are unwilling to promote sustainable approaches to energy needs. After talking with miners in West Virginia, I learned that there needs to be a focus on realistic solutions that create jobs and don’t poison entire communities, hence my belief that in the short-term a return to underground mining would save the lives of countless plants and animals (including humans).
I participated in a study on the health effects of large-scale surface mining (also known as mountain top mining and mountain top removal). Large-scale surface mining spreads the health risks to adjacent communities and beyond as streams, water wells, and air are polluted with sludge and coal dust. The health study that I assisted with in 2011 demonstrated that Appalachian communities in mountain top mining areas are twice as likely to have cancer than Appalachian communities without mountain top mining sites.
My role in the study was to train interviewers who planned to go door-to-door asking residents if they’d be willing to participate in a survey and provide a hair sample. Interviewers were college students from surrounding areas. They were trained in consent protocol, Appalachian cultural history, history of coal mining, interviewing procedures, and safety/emergency plans. I also helped write the first article published later that year – the abstract is available here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21786205
Well, it doesn’t really breathe fire, but it certainly gets hot and dry in this thing.
Charles from BLD farm, built a solar dehydrator (aka “The Beast”) for the Serpentine Project. The nickname relates to the size of this particular dehydrator. The glass over the black sheet metal generates heat from the sun, which vents into the box. The box where the plants dry was painted black to generate more heat. The warm air rises through the plants on the screen shelves, and out through the chimney. Temperatures range from 80° on cloudy summer days and 130° on sunny days.
Potent herbal medicines are made from well-dried plants. After leaving the mountains of southern California, I learned that drying plants quickly in a humid environment is not easy. Each night, as temperatures drop and humidity rises drying plants will absorb water from the air. After several nights of this, plant material begins to deteriorate: color, scent, and other properties fade. To prevent this, plants must be dried quickly.
Electric dehydrators are useful in humid environments but they aren’t necessary. Look for four elements when identifying a place to dry plants without electricity: warmth, regular airflow, humidity, and protection from light. Plant materials should be tied and hung or laid out in one layer on screens or other porous surface and placed in a dry, warm area that has airflow. Protecting plants from direct sunlight also helps preserve oils, vitamins, and other phytonutrients.
To decrease the drying time, plants can be garbled or hand-cleaned; stems and yellowed or damaged leaves are removed, and roots are sliced thin. Plants will dry faster if leaves are removed from the stems, because the stems hold on to water and redistribute to the leaves when they start to dry out. Leaves should be left whole so some of the volatile oils and other delicate constituents are retained. Berries and roots take longer to dry. Most plants dry in a day or two.
If you are interested in building your own dehydrator, please feel free to contact us for ideas.
BLD farm has established a plant sanctuary for medicinal, indigenous, and unusual plants. We are hoping to ensure that some plant diversity in the regionis preserved. Many of the plants that grow here are common (or once were common) in the Appalachias, so we work hard to include those species due to the reduction in habitat in the region caused by mountain top removal (more on that below). We were accepted into the United Plant Savers sanctuary network in the November 2012.
The sanctuary includes medicine gardens, restoration projects, a food forest, and a green house improvement project. The medicine gardens are filled with indigenous plants, some beautiful cultivars, and important medicinal and edible plants. We plant non-native plants like the Elecampane at right as a way to reduce the use of indigenous plants that are on the United Plant Savers at-risk list. Under a canopy of beech, wild cherry, and oak, an indigenous plant garden has been started that thus far includes at least one each of red trillium, goldenseal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, great blue lobelia, black cohosh, and wild ginger.
The Serpentine Project has a new website. The old website was too time consuming to maintain. Take a look at the new site. There are new projects and upcoming workshops.
And some new goals.
Our first new goal is to build the infrastructure at BLD farm in Ohio to support a collection of workspaces that will focus on folk arts and community health. The curriculum will emphasize earth-based approaches to building shelters and other structures, making tools, and pottery; food forests, gardening, wildcrafting, stocking up, and medicine making; and basic survival skills like building temporary shelters, making cordage, and building fires.
But first, fundraising. We need to raise $5000 to establish our organization as a non-profit, finish building the Seed House, a timber-frame strawbale greenhouse and sunroom.
If you are interested in learning more about the Center or interested in teaching a workshop, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.