silent hot spring pool overlooking breitenbush river

Last weekend, I went to the Breitenbush Herbal conference. Both the resort and the conference were really great and I learned a ton. I have been hearing about the resort for years and years. People have been telling Preston and I about how magic it is and we should totally go there. Then I got a flyer for the conference held there and decided what the heck, I’d give it a try. The conference was marketed to herbalists and folks who know quite a bit more than I do about alternative medicine and health, so I knew I would be overwhelmed by all the information and classes. I went with the goal of just remembering one thing from each class. That worked out pretty well. There were classes where I probably picked up a few things, but I got at least one from each class. Here’s what I took, and what I learned:

(if you are reading this in a feed, I don’t know how that “more” tag works for you, so sorry if this ends up being a gigantic e-mail in your inbox)

Native Foods and Medicine For Diabetes Prevention

I took this one because of the native foods. I’m not particularly interested in diabetes stuff, although it actually turned out to be pretty relevant. My whole family tends towards hypoglycemia, and Preston’s grandfather was diabetic. My one concrete piece of info from this class was that salal makes great fruit leather. I’m really motivated to pick some salal and make some dried fruit leather from it this year. I think there’s still some salal left. (Sherry, are you reading this? Does the lot next to you still have a bunch of salal bushes, and are there still ripe berries on them?) It just seems really simple and like a quick win.

There was also a lot of cool information about food in general, particularly local native food. The instructor was from Olympia and works with the local Skokomish Tribe, so had really local information.

Keynote Address

Friday evening was the Keynote Address, which was given by this guy who has some sort of crazy high-level degree in plant biology, and maybe mycology. Apparently, since they’ve been able to sequence genes, there’s been a lot of upset in the land of plant classification. For instance, did you know that plantain is actually in the snapdragon family? neither did anyone else until the sequenced it’s genes. As herbalists, that seems relevant because the family that a plant is in can give you a lot of information about its characteristics, even if you don’t know that particular plant.

However, the really important bit of information that I got from that lecture was about this thing called “polyploidy” which I need to learn more about in order to understand. It has something to do with meiosis not working out the way they taught you that it would in high school biology, so the resulting cell ends up with double the number of chromosomes that the parent cells had. The polyploid cell is larger than its normal counterpart, and the resulting fruits are also often larger and brighter and whatnot.  Apparently this happens really commonly in plants, both in the sense of whole species (like domesticated strawberries are polyploid version of wild strawberries, which is why they are so much bigger) and in the sense of individual plants (in a field of valerian, some of the plants might be polyploids, but the only way to know is to look at the cell under a microscope). It’s relevance to herbalists is that polyploid plants can have completely different chemical constituents, while still looking pretty much the same and being technically the same species. The relevance of that, for me, is how important that makes it to know where your food and medicine comes from and have an actual relationship with it. If I want to regularly enjoy nettle tea, I should probably have a patch of nettles that I know intimately. I need to know how those particular plants interact with my system, because nettles from Hungary (which is where the ones I got from Mountain Rose Herbs came from) or even from the other side of town, might be completely different from the ones near here. There’s no way to be sure how a food or medicine is going to interact unless you actually *know* that plant.

Having Fun with Fungus

Again, I had a hidden motive for taking this class. I’m not really that excited about fungus in general. I don’t really like mushrooms. The whole fungal world does lots of really important stuff, but it doesn’t particularly call to me. however, since I’ve started offering my own nature skills class, I’m really interested in taking classes that have similar formats just to see the teaching style. So in terms of teaching style, I really learned something important. At WAS, the focus is so much on getting the teacher to hand over the reins to the students that there aren’t a lot of situations where someone models just knowing their shit. So it was cool to have Christopher, who was leading the walk, just be able to throw out the common and Latin names of every single fungus we came across, tell you how their chemical constituents work in the body, and several functions as medicine. If people are there for information, it’s okay to just give them information. Folks at WAS say this, but I haven’t had a chance to be in classes where that happens much.

I also learned a couple useful things about the various fungi also. There’s been a lot of talk about usnea lately. Apparently it’s all the rage in the herbalist community, and it’s even permeated outside of that community to the extent that my mom gets some sort of usnea tincture to soak her horses feet in to prevent thrush. Anyway, it’s a lichen that’s really common around here. I learned how to identify it (by the stretchy cord in the center) and what it’s good for. It’s an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-everything (pretty much), and also has all sorts of great essential minerals and stuff. The hitch is that it isn’t absorbable by the human digestive system, so it’s really only useful as a topical anti-biotic. The chemical component that makes usnea what it is, is called usnic acid. According to Christopher, any lichen that has that same grey-green color as usnea has some level of usnic acid in it, so even if you can’t find usnea, you can use another grey-green lichen. According to him, there is only one really toxic lichen and it’s bright orange.

And speaking of grey-green lichen. I learned about a lichen that I’ve wondered about for a long time. in fact, we saw some on the plant walk that I did at my Knit-N-Nature program, although I didn’t know what it was called then. It’s called lobaria pulmonaria, and here’s a picture of it:

lobaria pulmonaria

It’s usually attached to a tree, but this large piece has fallen to the ground. It’s also called lungwort and historically was used to treat lung and respiratory afflictions. Turns out that it’s very effective against staph, pneumonia, and strep infections. (Just boil it into a tea). Plus it’s got that grey-green color indicating some usnic acid activity as well. It’s also an indicator species, as it doesn’t do well with air pollution. Cool “plant” (actually a crazy combination of symbiosis between an algae, a fungus, and a cyanobacteria).

Digestive Health

I went to this one mostly because of Preston’s high maintenance food needs and tendency towards stomach upset if he eats anything other than chicken and rice. It ended up also having a lot of information that confirmed a lot of what I’ve been learning about food lately, as well as some intuitive stuff that I didn’t realize I as already doing.

The number one way to improve your digestion: Say grace. Really. It doesn’t have to be religious or anything, but just taking a moment to approach your meal with thanks and the knowledge that it will make you healthy will make a huge difference in how your body processes it. The number two way: Prepare your food with a sense of thanksgiving. What you put into it really does make a difference. I had already been playing around with that idea, so it was cool to hear it from someone who makes a living at it.

Also, I find that I really never want a salad with my meal. I always feel guilty about it. But it just doesn’t seem right somehow. This was validated by the instructor, who said that you should never eat raw fruits or vegetables with anything else, except maybe some oil and vinegar dressing. This was sort of one of those “no duh” things that I’ve just not thought about, but it turns out digestion isn’t this straight-forward thing where you swallow stuff and then your stomach acid just dissolves it, whatever it is. Turns out that digestion is actually pretty complicated and all sorts of different acids are used and enzymes and such in your stomach. Different foods require different enzymes. Raw fruits and veggies are particularly hard work for the stomach and require a whole different process than, say, rice and chicken. So you should still, of course, eat raw fruits and veggies, which are very good for you. You should just eat them an hour or two before or after a meal.

Teaching Herbal Medicine

Again, I went to this one for the teaching content. I’m not necessarily going to teach herbal medicine, but teaching skills are often translatable. I got some great ideas for herbal bingo, herbal survivor (except no one gets voted off), and herbal jeopardy (which could all be modified for whatever is being taught).

Teaching Plant Walks

I rounded out the weekend with a class about teaching herb walks with this character:

And really, the class was pretty basic. Remember to offer bathroom breaks when it’s convenient for you, so you don’t end up waiting for people in the middle of the walk. Repeat information throughout the walk so people remember it. Pick a theme to limit the number of plants you talk about. But there was one really useful tip:

When you need a break for a minute, let that one know-it-all talk while you get a drink of water or whatever. If you’ve ever taught a class, or even just been in a class, you know this person. (If you don’t, then you might consider whether this person is you…it’s often me.) And Howie’s point was that it’s really important to this person’s learning process to be able to share what they know. So it’s really a great way to accomplish two goals. You allow this person to process information in the way they need to (by telling people about it), and you give yourself a little break. And then, the hard part, getting back the lead of the class after this person has been talking non-stop for a couple minutes. Howie demonstrated by having his assistant go off for a bit about the Latin names of oregon grape and its uses and at some point his assistant said something about dyspepsia and Howie jumped right in and said, “Dyspepsia! That reminds me of rhododendrons, which is what we were going to talk about next. Great lead-in!” And then he went on to talk about the stand of rhododendrons that we were milling about it, which really didn’t have anything at all to do with dyspepsia. (BTW, rhododendrons are really toxic. People die from eating them.)

And that wrapped up the classes that I took. In between classes and the amazing food served at the Breitenbush lodge, there was the resort itself to enjoy. It’s located on geothermal springs, and there are several hot pools that you can bathe in. Clothing is optional in the pools, but not elsewhere on the grounds. One of the pools is the Silent Pool, where there’s no talking. It also has the best view.

(That’s not color-corrected at all. The water also isn’t dyed, it’s just reflecting the color of the sky in this particular picture.)

Several of the pools have this really nice stonework, so you feel like you’re sitting in something organic, while still not sitting in a pool of sulfurous mud.

There are also 4 or 5 pools that are the more “hot tub” feel, rather than the stonework, but I didn’t get a picture because there were always naked people in them. There’s also this amazing steam house.

You can see off to the left is a clawfoot tub which is full of cold water. so you sit in the steam room until you can’t stand it any more, and then step outside and dunk yourself in this tub full of cold water. It’s amazing.

There’s also the main lodge, where meals are served. Meals are all vegetarian, and were all delicious. Even when i put several things on my plate that I didn’t know what it was, I never put any of it in the garbage, but ate it all and loved it. I also discovered quinoa, which was an awesome breakfast grain with dried cranberries, dates, walnuts, and a dollop of yogurt. People hung out at the lodge when there wasn’t anything else going on or they just wanted to take a break.

There were options for bringing your own tent and camping out on the property (in a designated field), renting a private cabin, renting a private wall tent, or renting a shared cabin. I went with a shared cabin. All the cabins are geothermally heated and have electric lights. The shared cabins have four bunks inside and a cupboard and that’s pretty much it. Very basic, but just fine. The bed was more comfortable than I expected.

Every time someone has told me about Breitenbush, they’ve said what a magical place it is. And I agree, it is magic, but it’s an orderly kind of magic. The pathways are kept clean, and there are flower gardens. The pools that are too hot are fenced off. The cabins are orderly and close together.

There is a goddess at work here, but it’s Hestia, not Artemis. It is the magic of the common hearth, not the magic of the wild places. It is good. And I’m also looking forward to a trip to La Push next weekend, where the Earth really could just open up and swallow you whole and no one would ever know what happened to you.