I am an intense person. This has been pointed out to me. In order to keep my whole person from shattering at the thought of all my faults I reframe these comments to think I’m passionate. The other day I was on the phone and was trying so hard to explain why I felt a local organic farm was injected with privilege. I couldn’t get my words out and sounded as if I was starting a war against young white farmers. The friend helped me tease out my words and she said what was in my heart—“oh you want to make organic farming more accessible!” YES! All of my work in the social justice arena comes down to money. Classism. Poverty. Social currency.
When I first came to Colorado, I was living in the San Luis Valley. These were some great farmers markets. Garlic, onions, potatoes, even some osha sprinkled into the mix. When I was younger, I was involved with an apprenticeship in Laramie, WY at Elk Mountain Herbs. I learned about herbs of the mountain west. Herbs that grow in between 7,000 and 9,000 feet. Yarrow, nettle, redroot, Oregon grape root, bedstraw, curlycup gumweed, plantain, black cohosh root, wormwood, elderberry. I had a kitchen drawer full of dried herbs that I would combine into a daily tea or tonic as its called in the herb world. Tonics are preventative medicine with tinctures serving for more acute illness. I stopped at the farmers market in Alamosa, CO to talk a bit to a farmer about osha. He realized its value and I felt as if I found someone who understood the distinct healing properties of whole plants.
The ranch in Elk Mountain had received a grant from the USDA to grow osha commercially and when I took my apprenticeship I was also in a magazine writing class. I decided to write about the curative properties of osha, although the story was never published because osha has an endangered distinction due to being over-picked around herbs schools of the southwest. In simple terms, osha helps regenerate the cilia within lungs. Its best taken when you feel a cold or respiratory illness coming on. A tincture can be made, or the roots can be chewed on. Usually, the herb causes coughing right away and tastes of strong celery. I interviewed Michael Moore, a very talented herbalist who has since passed, outside Reeds bar one night on the phone. He talked about how osha was so special in the southwest it could be traded for money, gas, etc. Since I’ve moved to Pagosa Springs, not quite as many folks know about the value of osha or more likely I’ve not met these folks yet.
During my apprenticeship learning about the medicinal aspects of herbs, we also learned about the magical properties. Yarrow and dandelion were deemed “desert island” herbs that could be used for many purposes. We learned catchphrases like “eat them, don’t weed them” or “research causes cancer in rats.” I think what I liked best about this course is that I felt I was becoming more in charge of my own health. I was noticing what herbs grew on my hikes around southeast Wyoming and collected nettles taller than my 6 foot frame at Elk Mountain Ranch in Wyoming. This stuff felt accessible and much of what we knew about these herbs was collected from indigenous cultures—American Indians, Latino/a’s. During the course, a medicine bundle was found in Arizona assumed to be 500 years old containing osha. Ligusticum porteri. Strong enough medicine to be worn around the neck in a bundle for healing and good fortune.
What does all this mean for gardening, organic farming, foraging? For me, it meant I could learn to produce or find my own medicine and food. It meant that I could take a hike and have even more purpose taking and giving from the forest diving into permaculture before I had even heard of the word. I’ve only recently started growing plants and herbs and wonder why I haven’t tried this before. But then I stop and remember that I’ve got to meet myself where I am. The cost of organic gardening is more than just the $100 of seedlings in my garden. Its learning how to grow, harvest, cook, having the mental energy to prepare a meal. I’m a straddler of social classes, forever aware of my debt yet forever aware of my privilege. I know about herbs. I have space for a garden. I can buy osha, or I can trade my goods and services.
To me, food justice means empowering folks through knowledge. And the best part about this knowledge is that it can feed the mind, the body, the spirit. I’ve sprinkled elderberries around my home for protection, picked yarrow in big open fields, hung bundles of nettle in sheds to dry. I have cut up my cucumbers and ate them with yellow pungent sprigs of dill. Growing my garden has rekindled my interest in herbalism. And now I’m on a project to leverage folks in Pagosa Springs to start talking about how to reclaim our food, reclaim our plants, get out of the isles of the grocery store and into the isles of nature. I’m just not sure yet how to do this—I’m weary of talking with folks who already have power. I feel that some of these organic farms run by young privileged kids is another example of cultural appropriation. But how do I explain this? How do I both celebrate and challenge what we are doing? I do what I know and I write a blog that goes in all directions and begin to name what I think helps—knowledge of herbs. Knowledge of plants. I can “Robin Hood” this information and start to share what I know, redistribute my social currency. Food justice can start right here in my heart.
“From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.”