Deb Soule, herbalist, gardener, and founder of Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine, was the first herbalist I met. I had recently returned from living in rural Nepal while conducting research for a doctorate in anthropology and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to be back in the U.S. Deb introduced me to the world of traditional herbal medicine, a world which, I came to see, was based on many of the principles I most valued about what I had learned in rural Nepal: a sense of the sacredness of the earth; an understanding of the limits, not the extent, of our control; and a sense of respect and constraint in our actions on the earth. In introducing me to herbal medicine, Deb helped me find a way home and for that I am forever grateful.
Deb was also the first person we interviewed for NUMEN and her plants were the first filmed. They gracefully took our cameras and questions in stride. I visited Deb again this past fall as part of a new book project on the presence of spirit in herbal medicines and spent several days harvesting Ashwaganda with her staff and visiting Avena’s newly completed state-of-the art medicine making facility. I have visited larger herbal products companies before. They are impressive – and yet the medicine-making facilities often feel more industrial than herbal, more efficient than spiritual. I knew Avena’s products when they were made in Deb’s kitchen, a note taped on the oven door to check for oils steeping before turning it on. I was curious to see Avena’s new building and how the pressures to pay them might impact the company’s medicine-making practices, particularly their commitment to the spiritual dimensions of herbal medicine.
I was amazed. The building is beautiful: open and light. There are lots of windows. It feels clean and efficient, yet warm, not industrial at all. Plants are harvested with intention and care. I was even more impressed then I expected to be. I’ll write more about my impressions at another time. For now I wanted to share some highlights from my conversation with Deb about these changes.
Ann: Can you talk a bit about your vision in creating Avena and how it has changed over the years?
Deb:I moved to our current farm in 1995 and that first year I didn’t do anything. Ijust observed. The morning before I signed the mortgage at the bank, I went to the eastern corner of the land and hung Tibetan prayer flags and I introduced myself to the spirits of this place. I stated aloud my intention in coming here. That was seventeen years ago. In the simplest of language, I introduced myself as an herbalist and gardener: We’re coming here to walk in this really ancient way of making medicine. And then I went to the bank, and did what I had to do for that aspect of things.
And then that first year I just watched. Watched the light. There were no gardens here, only an open field, the beautiful willow trees by the farmhouse. After being here those first few years, I realized, gosh these trees are amazing, they have this really holding energy. A lot happens underneath them and over time people have really come to recognize these very magical, beautiful trees that hold things significantly here. I love that. But it isn’t like I moved here thinking about that. I moved here and as I was here… as the spirit of the place, as it came to trust me, kind of showed itself more. I think that’s true. As I came here and began to walk and wander and observe and sit, I feel like the spirit of this place really rose up to allow me to meet the energy that was here.
We then talked for some time about what it has been like to create a business over the years, the teachers who had helped her, the challenges in creating a small business, what has been important to her. She talked about the visits by the FDA that eventually convinced her to upgrade her medicine-making facilities so that she no longer had to fear being closed by them. Some of the things that stand out from this part of the conversation:
So it’s interesting, many people who work here already have an orientation toward healing. We all come and spend eight hours a day together doing work that is healing. My philosophy is very intentional and it has really developed and grown over the years as Avena has grown.
No one paved the way for me, I had no models whatsoever, no one showing me how to do this with integrity and intention, how you do this so that everything is done from a good sustainable place. I mean it’s only really in these last few years that we’ve had support, in the last four years, since I was accepted into a state grant program, that Avena has had many different people’s support. It’s been amazing.
I wish I’d had a business mentor, but that’s okay. I’ve had it for the last four years. If a young person starting a business asked me, I would say, find mentors, find a state-supported program, find both a spiritual mentor and business mentor. Be sure that your business or organization’s mission includes caring for the Earth’s ecosystems, that you offer programs or items that are nourishing and sustaining to the local and global community, and that the health and inner happiness of the humans involved in the company are valued and supported.
Ann: What was your intention in starting Avena?
Deb: When I was twenty-five I didn’t have that language of intentions or the experiences I have now. Deep in me was a passion and calling to work with medicine plants, but I never had a calling to run a business. I had this calling to work with the plants and the only thing I could figure out about how to do this was to start making herbal remedies and to offer them out into the world.
Ann: What are some of the ways you measure success?
Deb: Spiritual, ecological, and financial. From the financial situation: meeting goals and budgets. Success also is measured by people’s stress levels and we’ve been working on this through team-building and weekly staff meetings, offering a daily meditation time at noon, brief check-in’s during staff meetings, choosing a community based volunteer project to do together as a staff, walking in the garden or woods together as a staff.
I’d love to think about adding a way of talking about the spirit of the place. At every staff meeting, there’s an office report, garden report, could we add in the spirit report, or something like that? We could have a check in about how the garden feels, how is it going in the medicine making in terms of the spirit… Now that we’re through the incredible push of the construction of the building, I finally have some freedom and spaciousness again to think about how to incorporate the spiritual health of our work and place into how we interact and operate.
I commented on how impressed I was with the way the intention to attend to the spirit of the plants really is present in the details of how things are done, in the way everyone took a moment to sit with the Ashwagandha before beginning to harvest, a practice that was done before harvesting each new bed, which I didn’t realize, much to my chagrin, in the rhythm and pace of the work, at the ways this intention is expressed as a different way of approaching things, that it was captured in how they did the work, not just as something on their mission statement.
Deb: Part of the rhythm is the time of the year. You are visiting us at the end of the season. In the summer, we move more quickly from one task to the next. But we still bring that same attention to the spirit of the plants. It is very intentional here. With the recent expansion and the added financial challenges, we have set ourselves up to be able to provide more medicine so that we can be sustainable on many levels. Avena is like a blossoming flower, each petal being a different income stream. We want to develop these other sources so that the pressure isn’t to just grow one aspect of what we do here, but for the apothecary, educational programs, the garden, and our community clinic to all mutually support each other and the larger community.
In the early stages of everything with the FDA, I couldn’t imagine Avena not existing, but I didn’t know what to do. A very close friend, a very spiritual person, very deep and very attuned said, “Well, perhaps the life of Avena as you know it has really come to an end, all good things come to an end.” I listened to him. As the whole FDA thing started to heat up around me one day I asked the spiritual world, “What do you want me to do? It was probably five or six years ago. “Is Avena really to close the doors here?”
I was inside at the time. There were no windows open. And there was this incredible wind that I felt come through and I literally got this message that said, “Don’t you dare think of closing your doors.”
I was kind of in a place like, what do I do? I was in this wide-open space like: what’s supposed to happen here? And it was amazing. And that energy has stayed with me this whole time. The feeling of the wind and that voice saying, you are not to close down, you are meant to move forward.
And right after that was when that grant application came across the desk and I got into the state program. In my own deep personal life I interact closely with the spirit of the plants, but in the external world I have had to learn how to write grants, to work with different state people, to handle the FDA showing up, all kinds of things. These conversations about the spirit of the plants aren’t ones I have with most people. I realized that I needed to become more open and expansive in the world of grants and people and finances and business plans and all that kind of stuff.
I had to learn how to be more visible. The reason we’ve never been able to actively really promote Avena is because we were under the scrutiny of the FDA. I didn’t want to draw any more attention to us. And now we’re not. Before, energetically, there was a veil for us to stay hidden behind.
And we did it. We met the FDA on our own terms; we did not cave into them.
There is a way that as herbalists we can go into kind of the victim place, the history of being persecuted as healers and herbalists, there are centuries of that. Any of us who have found our way back to herbalism in this life have some connection to that, we know that, whether we were or are an indigenous person or healer who was persecuted. And the story of persecution is an intense one. And it definitely has lived in me. This process of going through with the FDA regulations helped me shift that. And what made it really possible was that I did not go through this process isolated and alone. I went through it with a lot of people who were really committed to helping us. They didn’t need to know the spiritual story. They didn’t need to know the story of persecution. That story is not important. What they saw was wow, this is an interesting group of people working together on behalf of their community. They make really decent products, let’s help them!
What is important is how we each step into our full power and contribute to the well-being of our planet. Stories can drag us down and we can get caught in them. I know for years I was caught in a fear story, so I know that territory really well. I worked hard to shift my awareness from fear to joy and gratitude.
All photos used with permission from the Avena Botanicals website