I first met Sandra Lory through the delicious, nourishing meals she created with Lydia Russell at Sage Mountain. I was so impressed with the care and attention she brought to every detail: from the quality of ingredients, to the taste, to the presentation. Over the years, as I’ve spent time with Sandra in different circles, my respect and appreciation for all that she brings to the medicine she makes and the classes she teaches has only deepened. I was thrilled finally to be able to hear about the work she has been doing with teen mothers in low-income communities in central Vermont. You can find out more about Sandra, her 9-month Local Healers Program, and her herbal products at her website, Mandala Botanicals. Many of her beautiful images of plants can be found on the Numen site and here, in our blog. Thank you, Sandy!
Ann: I know you’ve been practicing as a community herbalist for many years, teaching your Local Healers folk herbal training program, and have been very involved in the herbalist community in central Vermont and with herbal community projects abroad such as in Haiti and Palestine. You’ve also been working with plants and teens, most recently, with teen mothers. I would especially love to hear a bit about that work. How did you start working with teen mothers in the first place?
Sandra: Young adults are my favorite age group, it is a raw time of transition and opening. For many youth in the United States it seems, it can be a difficult stage of life. Many families have lost the tradition of ritualizing the maturing from a child into an adult.
I come from an immigrant family of mixed heritage and I also suffered the unfortunate loss of herbal tradition, due to pressures of assimilation, colonialism and the explosion of pharmaceutical science in the USA. Luckily it only skipped one generation. My grandparents from southern India (who lived in Kenya for many years) and from the Slovakian/Hungarian border (my grandfather immigrated to Pittsburg in 1908) still practiced the folk healing arts. Although my parents taught me a lot about homesteading, food, cooking, wild harvesting and gardening, the botanical medicine piece was not part of my upbringing except for some food as medicine, like my grandfather’s caraway sauerkraut and my Indian’s family’s spicy curries and carminative teas. We always lived frugally in order to travel, visit family and be in the world as a global citizen. My identity, comprised of eastern and western ancestry allows me to “pass” in many brown skinned cultures and take up space in a different way than if I was white skinned. I have come to embrace it as a gift and blessing. It helps me incorporate a polycultural and international voice of food justice and health justice into classes here in Vermont which is a predominantly white state.
I was 21 when I first began to follow the path of the herbalist, and the first bottle of alcohol I bought was for a black cohosh tincture. I identified with the young woman in the movie Whale Rider whose stirring and calling inside her to carry the medicine torch was unquestionable and not so favored by those around her at first. Yet she did so at all costs even when she felt like a lone wolf on the path. It’s not the kind of modern profession that is yet recognized as valid by mainstream culture. Now, as a 35-year old, I have found so much joy and happiness along this path and I will never waiver from the plants. They only create bridges and connection, and they feed me in rich and wonderful ways. The plants have helped me to find my voice.
The first herbal class I taught was a very basic salve making in Holyoke, MA while I was a student at Hampshire College, part of a STEMTEC Scholars program called Girls Day in the Lab. Upon returning to Vermont to live in 2001, I offered my first herbal workshop after school at my former high school in Montpelier. It was an introduction to first aid herbs including the power of dandelion, yarrow and plantain. I honestly didn’t know a thing about those plants, or at least not much of depth, but I just trusted them to lead the way, as my mentor Rosemary Gladstar wisely suggests time and time again. They were right and so was she! The students had a ton of questions, many of which I couldn’t answer, but we researched them together, zooming in on their ID characteristics, safe administration, garden cultivation, etc. The lines between teacher and student blurred but I held the space with enthusiasm. I find it amazing that to this day I rely on those same three green allies, and they catalyzed my path. I consider them an international first aid kit, they were the emblems of our Vermont Healers logo, which has now become the local chapter of Herbalists Without Borders logo.
Things always come back around. Just as a cycle completes we continue onto the next rung of the spiral. For a year, around 2002 I taught Spanish in the women’s correctional facility in Waterbury, VT. Some of the women in the prison were pregnant or mothers already. Everyone in class loved nature, but being on the inside were severed from that relationship. We weren’t allowed to use any natural objects in the prison, but we ended up studying vocabulary for gardening, health and the body. The women shared with me how difficult it was to be disconnected from the earth, their own bodies, and their families. Many of them had came from poverty and were incarcerated because of domestic violence or substance abuse that was generational. I saw a pattern and negative cycle about how access to healthy and self reliant life choices is missing in large sectors of the community because of the way the system is set up – who it protects and who it targets. Without going into a long-winded political diatribe, lets take an example from the green web. As in any ecosystem, if the soil web terrain is not intact, there is a poor foundation from which to feed each organism that depends on it. If we decolonize our minds and shift toward nourishing and regenerating a healthy web of life, all beings benefit. It’s what Fukuoka style natural farming, permaculture, Transition Movements, and people’s movements (like herbalism) across the planet are doing. It’s not a bandaid, cookie cutter or pill popping methodology, it’s a process that takes time, patience and creative, community-based solutions.
Five years ago I was one of five women that co-founded the Metro Way Community Garden in the city of Barre. One gardener said his grandmother was involved with such work during the era of Victory Gardens, and that it was long overdue to bring it back. Cultivating Metro Way led me to learn about the Return House Program and Community High School. CHS is a high school degree program in the Barre courthouse building for young men and women exiting incarceration who are still in the corrections system. The Metro Way garden happened to be located adjacent to the Return House, a program of Washington County Youth Service Bureau, which is a transitional home for young men ages 16-23 to get back on their feet as they reintegrate from prison into the outside. I offered an herbalism, gardening and cooking series at CHS and RH. One day I got a call from the Family Literacy Center, a program of Community Action for expectant and parenting teens about offering some workshops there. We developed a great working relationship and completed a health justice inspired youth mural project in downtown Barre in 2011. I was hired as an educator at the food justice non-profit organization Food Works around the same time, where it has been an honor to work alongside my mentors Joseph Kiefer, Amy Goodman-Kiefer and Martin Kemple. Food Works and the FLC received funding from the Canaday Foundation for a collaborative two year pilot program which we are completing this year, called Nourishing Transitions.
Ann: That’s fantastic and fascinating to hear how one thing led to another. Can you describe the program? What is the objective? What do you do each week?
Sandra: Our program’s name, Nourishing Transitions, inspired by Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions – the importance of nutrient dense food and rejecting the modern corporate, industrial food system. We begin each class by reviewing what nourishes us individually, and what transitions can be eased through using food as medicine, herbs, by the experience of being outdoors and by cultivating the plants ourselves. We look at personal, community and planetary transitions and their interconnectedness. Our original objective was that twenty parents acquire new skills in the growing, preparing, and preservation of fresh foods and herbs. Another objective is that twenty parents expand their food and nutrition knowledge base and make healthier food choices. Our five areas of focus are: affordable nutrition, family herbalism, community gardening, healthy cooking, and leadership skill building, through the seasons.
Ann: How has it been? What has it been like for the mothers? What changes have they experienced or have you observed? Do you have any particular stories to share that might capture the transformations they’ve undergone?
Sandra: Each day of class I feel so much hope witnessing the positive health changes and growth of my students and their young children. Our students are courageous, brilliant shining stars. I believe in them. They enter the program as girls and leave as women. Here are some quotes from our last feedback session. “About herbs- I love their medicinal uses, my infant son likes lemon balm and lavender in his bath. It helps him sleep. The elderberry syrup we made helps me when I am not feeling well. I am pumped to come here today and was singing about it!” From another student: “I am learning how to cook, and about growing food and eating it fresh when it is in season. I like turning the food and herbs into baby food and herbal medicine. I liked the calendula and other salves, ear oil, mouthwash. I ran out and am hoping to make more this year. My son likes the baby foods especially the carrots, with chicken and green beans.
He loves food and is eating healthy food.” And one more: “I used the California poppy glycerite we made for my daughter’s teething and it helps her sleep too. I like to cook but my dad doesn’t like cooking. I have been eating nice salads every night. I love gardening, it makes me get up and move. I love planting and harvesting. When I am sick, I use the echinacea glycerite with loosestrife flowers. I also reach for it for my daughter instead of running to the doctor or the hospital. I trust the plants.”
Ann: How gratifying to get that kind of feedback about the concrete ways they are using this medicine and this knowledge. How has this changed your work as an herbalist more broadly? Both as a teacher and a practitioner/medicine maker?
Sandra: I think a lot about the role of privilege and power – in institutions, in personal relationships, how it is internalized. On the flip side of that coin, oppression exists in the same arenas. For example, I am aware of my privilege today as a college educated, middle class, able bodied, heterosexual, native English speaker, even though I am technically an immigrant, and a person of color who has experienced living in poverty. The unearned advantages I benefit from are many, and lead me to a place of responsibility. I approach my work with others from a solidarity not charity point of view. I aim to create safe, non-violent healing space in my classrooms, whether they be located inside 4 walls of a building, in a garden, or on the sidewalk. It’s a fluid and living process. As an educator I acknowledge I am in a position of power. Seeing a client as an herbal practitioner I am in a position of power. I need to expose the dynamics of privilege in the space in order to allow room for many diverse voices to be heard. Our learning goes a good deal further when trust is filling our hearts.
When I make medicines I thank the plant, the land, the earth, the lineage of wisdom, the hands that helped it make its way to me if I didn’t grow it myself, the whole chain of relationships back to the source. We are such tiny specks in the grand scheme of things. It is hard being a human with such a limited perspective. When I remember to zoom out though, the substance and detail of the periphery can come into view and inform some of my blind spots, and increase my awareness. Stepping back and letting nature run the show gives rise to my best classes, except they aren’t “mine”. Stepping back and letting my students direct the curriculum teaches me so much.
Ann: What lessons/insights do you think this work has for herbalism overall? What can we all learn from what you are learning from doing this work day to day?
Sandra: Every one of us has gifts and privileges to share and offer up for the greater good, for greater justice. If each herbalist follows their inner voice, that undeniable truth that wells up from inside, your purpose becomes perceivable. From that feeling, take action – especially if that action doesn’t seem logical and sounds wildly unrealistic. You will receive help in mysterious and unexpected ways to manifest your path. It is already laid out before you, just take one brave step.
There are so many ways to practice the art and science of herbalism. There is room for every type of herbalist and as long as we all tread lightly on the earth, with good intentions, with humility, and carry with us integrity and Mother nature’s spirit of cooperation, we are in good shape.