The New England Women’s Herbal Conference is, in many ways, a demulcent* conference. Rosemary Gladstar spoke this year about how, from the beginning, she wanted the conference to be nourishing and have a sweetness to it. It’s a replenishing event, and a soothing one – not in the sense of tranquilizing, but of healing. The WHC is an inspiring weekend full of engaging teachers and classes, but being an attendee somehow also feels like wrapping oneself up in a nice soft blanket that smells of linden and marshmallow.
You might not be surprised to learn that one of the classes I attended this year was on demulcents, “the slimaceous herbs.” It was taught by Betzy Bancroft of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism and United Plant Savers. I’ve gotten to take a few of Betzy’s botany classes in the past, and loved them. This was even better. Structuring the class around an herbal action was fascinating, and kept us focused on how these herbs work and the generous ways they can help us. The big takeaways for me? First, I should be taking demulcents. Why haven’t I been taking demulcents lately? Second, quoting from Betzy’s handout, “When we ingest [demulcents], the moistening and protective qualities…have a cooling and soothing effect on the surfaces of our GI tract, which is a huge area… Considering also that there is an enormous amount of nervous and immune activity in the GI tract, these benefits can impact not only our gut but other systems as well. I have particularly seen that soothing the gut will in turn soothe the nerves and hypersensitivities.” This was an “ah ha!” moment for me. Soothing the gut as a way to sooth the nerves. Of course, considering all the nerves that give us “gut feelings” and “butterflies” in our stomachs.
Third, marshmallow apple sauce tastes really good. I can’t speak highly enough of having samples to try in class. I’ve always functioned well in lecture-style academia, but I take in more and find it easier to stay present in classes when there are herbs to taste, smell, touch. From Betzy’s marshmallow apple sauce and chia pudding to Robin Rose Bennett’s rose-infused honey to Lupo Passero’s grounding spritzer and Jenn Allen’s chunk of pinon pine resin, there were so many good scents and tastes, even before entering the dining hall.
All that is not to mention getting to camp out in the New Hampshire woods in my sweet little two-person tent that goes up as easy as making your bed. I camped right up against the trees, and in the mornings I woke up to acorns dropping down from above and rolling off the dome of my tent.
Even that’s not to mention the people: Running into friends from previous “herb camps” and chatting with herbalists and students of herbalism from all over. Learning from teachers’ experiences, insights, and stories. Witnessing performances by folks like singer/songwriter Guadalupe Urbina (whose songs have been known to work their way into your dreams), drummer Mz. Imani (who will get you up out of your seat), and silk aerialist Amy Glasser (who has superpowers).
And I’ve hardly touched on the variety of activities: Walking the labyrinth at night. Opportunities to learn about everything from insulin resistance to sacred beekeeping. Hot cups of chai in the morning from Tulsi Tea and gorgeous artwork and herbwork in the emporium. All this in a venue that is set up to protect you from the elements as necessary but is fundamentally outdoors.
I must mention the class that I was, perhaps, most excited about this year: Robin Rose Bennett’s talk on wild carrot. As a woman who has made a conscious choice not to have children, birth control is near and dear to me. At the same time, it can be a frustrating subject: The options are limited and none of them are ideal…but that’s a whole other blog post. I have sometimes thought that I’d love to hear more talk about birth control in herbal circles: How could herbs be used to support one’s body when on hormonal birth control? How can we look at birth control options from a wholistic perspective? Are there any non-mainstream methods of birth control that are viable options? And so on. So, when I saw that Robin would be teaching a class on using wild carrot for birth control, I may have actually cheered, and it was the first class to go on my schedule. I was impressed by Robin’s up front but generous manner in teaching this class, and in sharing the advantages as well as contraindications of this method, as well as by her obvious love for this plant. (If this is something you’re interested in finding out more about, read Robin’s book The Gift of Healing Herbs. There is a section specifically on wild carrot, but I’ll bet you end up reading the whole book.)
One of the most nourishing aspects of this conference is the teachers’ and participants’ willingness to speak so compassionately and passionately on such a range of issues, from prickly ones like contraception to the knock-you-down hard ones like grief, trauma, pain, to the things that mainstream society often dismisses as extracurricular, like fragrance, ritual, dance, drums, song. Considering how safe and comforting this conference feels, it can be surprising to reflect on the ways in which it continues to gently but firmly push aside the status quo. I’ve only been to three years of this 28-year-old conference, but each year I’ve attended has been more nourishing, more inspiring, and also more fun than the last. Here’s to next year!
*“Demulcent” herbs are soothing, nourishing, and protecting, also mucilaginous, emollient, “slimy.”