Monday, September 20, 2010

A Modern Herbalist: Sara Thornton

Sara Thornton can tell you how to make two different kinds of wine from woodruff; how coltsfoot helps colds; and how boneset, despite its name, was used not for setting bones but for treating fevers. She knows that bloodroot, like digitalis, is beneficial in small amounts, lethal in large ones. That echinacea, if taken “too long [and] steadily…will basically turn your immune system off, and you’ll come down with the next cold that comes round the pike.” She is well-read and sells herbal supplements, teas, lotions, and the like at her Ravenswood Natural Health store in Simsbury, Connecticut. She has a feline compadre named Flash, and a few hundred years ago, she probably would’ve been executed for witchcraft because of all of this.

But this lady’s definitely not for burning. Thornton’s approach to herbs is not mystical but hands-on and very practical. She draws on centuries of Western herbalism and can discuss famous herbalists like John Gerard (1545 – 1611/12), Nicholas Culpepper (1616 – 1654), and Maud Grieve (1858 – 1941) and their works in such detail, you would swear that she has talked shop personally with each in his or her turn.

Chalk it up to a lifetime of voracious reading and an inquiring mind. Thornton had asthma as a child: at the time, she says, “the only treatment was to give an adult-sized dose of speed to the kid, throw you into some type of steam room – usually the bathroom – and you’d sit there for awhile. You’d be basically high on speed for a week, running around with absolutely no sleep and scaring the hell out of the neighbors.” All that excess energy had to go somewhere, and it found an outlet in reading. Bored with books “about Dick, Jane, Spot, and Fluffy,” she began devouring her older brothers’ and sisters’ books. “When you’re 6-years-old and you’re starting to read John Steinbeck” – her voice starts off matter-of-factly, but laughter soon overtakes her – “you know there’s a problem.” History – and medical practices throughout the centuries in particular -- drew her, and, with “one thing tumbling into another,” she was soon reading about comfrey-root poultices and various other herbs that the Crusaders brought back from the Middle East.

That was part of how it all began. The other part was simply that her parents moved around a lot: growing up, she ended up living in some pretty rural areas, towns that “still had these amazingly backwoods backwards opinions of anything that was female. If you were taken to the doctor at all, it was always ‘Oh, honey, you really just need to get married and have a couple of kids, and you’ll be perfectly fine.’ It was very difficult to find a doctor who wasn’t dismissive of anything that was wrong with a woman.”

So Thornton started looking for self-cures and ended up making “a pretty solid leap to herbs when I was a teenager.” She found that she had an instinctive feel for it. Friends and relatives “would come along and say, ‘Hey, Sara, have you found an ointment for sunburn? I don’t have any aloe.’ Or, ‘The baby has colic – what would you suggest?’ ‘Well, a little chamomile tea.’…I realized that Western medicine wasn’t the be-all end-all and didn’t have the entire answer for every single thing. That I could keep myself pretty darn healthy without having to go to the doctor every time I sneezed.”

At college, it was pretty much the same scenario: the staff at the medical center there showed the same misogyny that Thornton had been all too familiar with growing up. “They were treating women as though they were full of hysteria rather than [having] influenza, sprained ankles, whatever,” she recalls. “So, if I had a new injury, I would look for some alternative treatment rather than running off to the local doctor. Again, it was more out of necessity than anything else.” And once again, friends came to her for herbal teas and remedies for their sports injuries and menstrual cramps.

Then “what seemed to be this really weird bronchitis thing” hit the campus. The center actually stopped dispensing medicine and sent students to Thornton instead, making her an herbal practitioner by default, as it were.

“By complete default!” Thornton laughingly agrees. “I went right over to the health center, and I said, ‘Wait a sec – you told me last year that I was practicing medicine without a license and you were going to have me arrested. And I was doing nothing of the sort! I simply had my own herbs for my own use, my friends would show up, I would give them a cup of tea, and that was it!’” When she questioned the staff about their sudden change in attitude, their response was “Well, we can’t do anything for it, and we know that you keep putting people on their feet.”

After graduating college, Thornton rented an apartment  from a retired English couple.  She was, she recalls, "wildcrafting my own herbs for my cold mix -- mullein, coltsfoot, red clover among them -- and had hung the bunches to dry in an unused closet."  Her landlords, Paul and Joy, dropped by one weekend to take care of a leaky faucet.  Opening the drying closet to shut off the water, the older woman found the bundles of herbs and coldly assumed the worst.   Thornton explained that they were part of her cold remedy: Joy "broke into this RADIANT grin and shouted, 'Oh, Paul, did you hear?  Sara's a WITCH!'  Paul toddled around the corner, peered at me through his glasses, and just beamed....They were so delighted that their tenant was a 'witch,' they dined out on it for a long time."

 in a sense, what Thornton is doing at Ravenswood now is what she has always been doing – listening to people and trying to point them to the right ointment, balm, or supplement. If she has a counterpart anywhere, it is Mrs. Todd, “the learned herbalist” from Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs -- that “ardent lover of herbs, both wild and tame,” who dispenses her remedies to the good folks of Dunnet Landing and who holds her own with the village doctor.

"I moved away from being doctor-centric” – Thornton laughs – “really, really early. It’s not that I feel they can’t do something good, but I don’t feel they can do as much as they want or as much as they profess.” She allows herself one “slightly jaundiced comment”: “When they stop practicing medicine and they get it right, then I’ll go to the doctor more. Because if they’re practicing medicine, then they still haven’t gotten it right.”

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