Tessa Scheele transferred to Sterling two years ago and self-designed a major in Natural History. Her major focuses on exploring the intersection of cultural and natural histories on the land — how has ecology informed culture, and how has culture used ecological knowledge to interact with and manage the landscape? The following is an interview I conducted with Tessa about wholistic self care.
Can you tell me a bit about your background in herbalism?
The desire to learn about plant medicine came out of a love for connecting with the plant world through foraging for food and craft material. These were my entryways into the study of natural history and botany, which I really just began dedicating myself to before finding Sterling.
It wasn’t until experiencing a pretty traumatic injury into my first semester here that I started to feel compelled to be a healer. I felt to wronged and depreciated by the western healthcare system, in more ways that I could express here. There was a lot of grief and sense of loss, being left with so many unanswered questions about my pain, which continued for more than a year, and which was totally exacerbated by such bureaucratic inanity and this sense of helplessness and dependency in a failing system. Herbs were definitely a source of empowerment for me in that.
Meanwhile, the answers that I sought only began to manifest when I began to ask different questions, and restructure my conception of health and healing altogether, understanding that physical injury can be a symptom itself of other traumas or imbalances that compromise our body’s innate healing system.
That experience so strongly affirmed the imperative for a holistic model of health care, and for the empowerment and socio-politically radical act of pursuing the medical knowledge needed for self and community care. Part of the power of herbalism is that it is held within long histories of folk tradition, and has the ability to provide equitable, autonomous healthcare for those that seek it out.
For me, herbalism is one piece, embedded in a philosophy of health that runs counter to that of western allopathic medicine, but the two can work harmoniously together. It is important to say that allopathic medicine is really incredible at treating acute and life threatening illness and injuries, and I’m certainly grateful for the option to go to the hospital if needed, but I think the health philosophy that upholds that doctrine of medicine is really damaging in so many ways. Other forms of medicine that take the whole person and their entire context into account, and aim to treat the cause(s) of disease, whether they be physiological, emotional, etc. rather than the symptoms thereof, medicine that is available to people in their backyards, and having the knowledge of that medicine in our homes and communities — that’s healthcare.
How has going to Sterling influenced your growth as an herbalist?
The Herbs and Wildcrafting position just began this fall, so I am the first person to have this job, which means that much of my job is setting up the systems and resources for the next person to come along. This position came out of the senior project of alumna Erica Feinberg who did so much work to make this, and the Herbalism course, possible. Both her project and the course that ran this fall set me up with some solid resources.
I was also given the opportunity working on garden crew last year to dedicate a lot of time to starting herbs from seed and working with them that way, and that definitely supported me coming into this position. This semester my job has been mostly harvesting and processing herbs, updating the wellness board, redesigning and restoring the herb garden, and making wellness teas for the community. I’ve tried to make opportunities to participate available to students, and will be hosting an event in the near future.
Ideally, for the Herbs and Wildcrafting position, there would have been someone working with me that I could be a mentor to of sorts, so that there can be a common knowledge base and continuity. Continuity is really important here, and difficult to attain. We don’t actually have an apothecary right now or any dedicated space or financial resources to be working with herbs, but we are moving in that direction.
I transferred from Warren Wilson College, which has an established multi-person Herb Crew, which is a sub-crew of the Garden Crew there. They have student built cabin that they work out of, with a sink and stove and counter space to make preparations, and lots of cabinet and shelf space, and a fridge/freezer for storing, as well as drying attack upstairs. It’s pretty dreamy. They make remedies that are available to students who need them, and they sell products at the college craft fair to get some funds for the crew. They have five or six people so there are always folks to train in new members. So there is totally precedent for a student-run apothecary at a work college. We may not have the resources or student body to have quite that, but we could totally have a space that is open to students to come in during certain hours and get specific help or work on herbal projects or just sit and have a cup of tea. And we could make a lot more remedies than I’m able to now. I think there is a hang-up around the idea of medicine and diagnosis, but the plant-based remedies that we would have are just as safe as the teas in Dunbar. I think it would also be helpful to have an herbalist from the greater community to be able to support the folks in the work program position, to know that there is a solid knowledge base there working with healing plants.
Please discuss a few of the plants that really resonate with you.
My favorite herbal blend is tulsi (holy basil), lemon balm, and milky oats. It’s so yummy and so nourishing to the nervous and adrenal system, a total de-stressor, and adaptogenic as well, so it helps the body be more resilient to stress over time. We grow all of these in the gardens. Tulsi is an annual here, and we had it planted in the lowers this year. Lemon balm is a perennial in the upper herb garden. Milky oats refers to the seed of the oat plant in its milky stage of development, and can be harvested from our cover crop in the lowers. I like to make a strong infusion of those herbs, sometimes with a little milk and honey. I also make them into a tincture that is really nice.
Is your relationship with plants and the natural world an important part of your evolution as an herbalist? How would you describe yourself as a herbalist?
I don’t know that I would call myself an herbalist just yet. I say that because I want to honor the experience and knowledge that goes into that title, and I think I need more time with the plants, to be able to speak from direct experience working with them. But I am definitely learning and moving in that direction. And after I graduate in January, I will be beginning the first year of a three-year clinical herbalism program at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism in Montpelier. I’m looking forward to that, to deepening my studies.
Are there wild plants that you use that are non native/invasive to the area?
There are so many non-native wild plants that we use as mainstays in herbal medicine—dandelion, burdock, St. John’s wort to name a few. Interestingly, plants that are considered invasive and targeted for these enormous biological battles can have very potent and timely medicinal properties. I’ve heard and read quite a bit about Japanese knotweed currently being used to treat Lyme disease, for example. Those plants are here, and I don’t believe in the philosophy and rhetoric of eradication and combat, with these costly unwinnable battles. And I certainly don’t believe in villainizing the plants. Humans brought them here. They’re just good at what they do.
Just to switch up the perspective — perhaps there is a timeliness to it. I remember an herbalist in NC talking about the death of hemlock trees to the woolly adelgid, saying that maybe reishi mushroom, which grows on dead hemlocks, is the medicine for our time. I can’t tell you how deeply sad I am to witness the loss of our local biota due to invasive diseases and encroachment by non-native species, but I think there are constructive perspective shifts available that might prove to inspire more creative applications and ways of addressing these issues.