It’s been lovely to chat with Nicole Telkes about Texas herbalism, and her involvement in several exciting new herbal projects. Nicole is the founder of The Wildflower Herb School, a co-visionary behind Herbalismo! – a brand new herb festival with a unique voice, and the primary clinician in her own private practice, offering services as a natural health practitioner and educator. Nicole chats with Herb Geek about Texas herbalism, and why Austin is the perfect venue for the next big festival in herbal medicine. (All photos courtesy of Nicole Telkes)
Melanie: Can you share a bit about your background in herbal medicine? How did you get started, and what were some of your most formative experiences?
Nicole: I think I got started with my Grandmother, Babtcha. Malgosha was a veteran of the underground army in Poland and had relocated with the family to Toronto. I used to go up to the forests of Northern Ontario every summer as a child and spend them in the woods. She was an avid mushroom and berry picker and taught me to really love getting lost in the woods.
As a young adult, I studied Environmental Resource Management and Botany in college. I also became quite active in the Animal Rights, Environmental, and Feminist Movements. After college, I was left feeling confused and dissatisfied about what to do. I decided to give away everything I owned and travel around the country doing Direct Action in defense of Mother Earth, specifically in the Deep Ecology Movements like Earth First! I spent time sitting in and under old growth trees, reclaiming the streets and meeting amazing Herbalists like Jasmine(who has a school in BC) and Greta who still works organizing the MASHH collective in Northern California. Jasmine and Greta introduced me to the idea of knowing bioregional plants as medicine and familiarized me with herbalists like Michael Moore. After walking in the woods with them and reading out of Michael Moore’s field guides, it was easy as far as dedicating my life to something.
My friend Karen Keaton and I kind of fell in love with herbalism and the green path at the same time and decided to travel the country creating herbal first aid clinics at various political gatherings. This DIY spirit is where and how I still practice today. People often ask “what kind of jobs are available to herbalists” I say “anything you put your mind to”.
Melanie: When I think about Texas, herbal medicine is generally not the first thing that comes to mind. Can you give us some background about herbal medicine in Texas, and share more about how you founded the Wildflower School of Herbal Medicine? What is the current climate towards herbalism in the South?
Nicole: Haha, spoken like a true Canadian! Let me clarify Texas first. I ended up in Austin, which was very different from surrounding cities and towns in the early 90s. Austin was a unique place full of very smart, politically active, forward thinking people interested in holistic health. Don’t be fooled by the few vocal politicians that are backwards rednecks—they have never represented the people here. They just figured out how to get into our government and stay there. Not only were the folks here smart, they were some of the nicest and caring individuals I have ever run into anywhere in North America.
We were a small town surrounded by beautiful swimming holes and filled with easily accessible wild areas. That set us up for becoming the 11th largest city in the nation today and having quite a reputation. Now that we are a big city, there is an echo of that former Austin here, but we are really not too much different than any other big city, save our locavore movement. I had to leave Texas and study with herbalists in other areas to learn my plants. Many things have changed. We live in a very different country than 15-20 years ago. It is very expensive to go somewhere to study, its harder to get lost in the woods(thanks google earth). I started teaching here at a time very few others were teaching and I could count all the herbalists I knew on one hand. I went all over Austin trying to find herbalists. I was still traveling a lot but a firm believer in bioregionalism.
Part of my activism was spent organizing in the Free Skool Movement so teaching and learning was already a passion of mine. I started to have community herbalism sliding scale and free classes by about 2001 in Austin. Those classes were popular, and turned into intensives, which turned into a program, which turned into a school. I balance my same love of making herbalism accessible to the people by offering a few work trade and scholarships available every year as well as seasonal sliding scale or free classes to the community. The truth though, people seem to take their commitments and studies much more seriously when they pay. I also believe strongly that people can and should make a good living doing what they love.
The Wildflower School came into existence to build a strong herbal community and help folks figure out how to make a living doing wonderful things for the world. We now have 5 teachers, regular guest teachers and many others who get to make a living off of herbalism. Texas is big, as is the South in general. People can get very isolated, so forming a school in the area was a community service and attempt to bring like-minded folks together. As far as the attitude towards herbalism in the South—I have encountered more and more folk herbalists than I would have ever even thought existed by traveling outside of cities and reaching out to people. The attitude in Texas—I cant speak for the surrounding areas is one of excitement when it comes to learning their herbs. One of my favorite branches of herbalists is a new sort of renaissance “hippie cowboy or girl” These are folks who live out on land, and want to get the cows off and rewild their land.
In Austin, one of the strongest influences for me has been Curanderismo. There are many folk healers with strong, thriving herbal traditions that come from 1000s of years of practice. Many of those traditions had a strong influence on how I harvest, practice and work with herbs. When I first started teaching, very few folks understood bioregional herbalism. Now, 10 years into the school, we have a thriving field of Wildflowers all over the place. I have had over a hundred students move through our programs at the point. The current climate to me is one of a herbal “renaissance” of sorts. There are many practicing herbalists, herb classes, apprenticeships, and even schools popping up in just Austin alone. Of the 4-5 people teaching at any given time, all of our classes are full. It’s a great time to be a herbalist and watch this really grow into an exciting field.
Melanie: You have a very impressive list of teachers for the Herbalismo! festival, several of whom are traditional practitioners of Native American and Mexican herbalism. This makes for some dynamic and engaging lectures. Can you share a bit about the fundamentals of this conference and the story behind why it began? Do you feel that Herbalismo! will have a unique voice that isn’t properly represented elsewhere?
Nicole: Herbalismo! was conceived by myself, Neely Ashmun and Nita Kotroski Durant. Nita and Neely are some really amazing, strong women, who took the community herbalist program at the Wildflower School. From this relationship we ended up at the Traditions in Western Herbalism gathering together in Arizona. We had such a great time there we thought, why not do this in Texas? Getting to Arizona is costly and time consuming. The only way a festival of this size could even begin to happen was through teamwork.
One of the core inspirations for me was the Festival de las Plantas Medicinales I went to in Michoacan Mexico with practitioner Filiberto Delgado. People often ask me where to go study herbalism. I say South of the border, where it is still popular medicine. The Festival I attended in 2003 in Mexico was extremely influential. It blended the old with the new, as this one does. 1000s of practitioners came together to celebrate the many ways plants are being used in various areas of the country by different practitioners. My main role in the festival was finding the teachers and creating the curriculum. The teachers you see are an extension of not just the Wildflower School, but the larger region into the Ozarks, swamps, deserts and coasts in the Deep South and many of them came through word of mouth, not the internet. I am lucky if I can even get ahold of any number of them over the phone, let alone email. I call it herding feral cats.
The unique voice of Herbalismo! is that it the majority of presenters are from this region. As far as proper representation, I can only say you reap what you sow. The classes you see are classes I chose based on how interesting they were to me as a herbalist and what I thought others would want to know. The disaster herbalism classes will be actual people who have gone into disaster zones and helped. The classes taught from a Tribal perspective come from folks practicing that tradition. I believe in herbalism, not herbology. This is the practice of herbalism in the Deep South, coming from my perspective and experience, no more. This is the first time this group has ever come together and met each other, so for me it promises to again build a stronger community which helps build and educate folks on herbalism everywhere. My goal has always been to have “a herbalist on every corner” so this fits nicely towards this goal.
Melanie: I love how you say that “If there’s one thing that we’re known for in Austin, it’s how to have a great festival” – which, by the way, I believe is absolutely true. How is this conference going to be different than other herbal events, and can you describe the unique Texan flavor of Herbalismo?
Nicole: Well, Austin has been built on festivals like SXSW and ACL. We seem to have a festival every weekend. I call the area the “Peter Pan” City where you can live like your 21 forever and everyone fully supports it. The area is kind of like a healthy hedonist mecca right now. Our festival comes from the creators all being long time Austinites who also like to have a lot of fun.
We want the conference to be more than a bunch of classes. We wanted it to be the experience of a lifetime. Something that could not be replicated. I feel we have set it up for that. We are not only bringing together some amazingly talented presenters, but some amazing performers, and ceremonies to celebrate one of my favorite holidays “Dia de las Muertos”, Day of the Dead. At this festival we are bringing celebration to this darker time of the year, which is hard concept for western culture, so hopefully it will not only be educational but feed the spirit. On top of the festival aspect, the subject matter for classes was carefully designed to include not only herbs in clinical practice but folk traditions from the area, botany and plant id, material medica of regional herbs, preprations anda new category based on my own background “herbalism for Social Change”. This category exemplifies herbalists doing work with herbs that creates positive change in their communities. For example we have guest Thomas Easley talking about his work in Haiti with herbs after the earthquake.
As far as unique “Texan flavor”, our flavor is one of fun and hospitality. We are a region of many flavors, and I guess what you will find the most here is spice. We are spicy, warm and generous, and passionate about what we do. All three cocreators come to this with a deep love for what they are doing and as a offering to our larger community.
Melanie: You seem to have a full plate between directing an herb school, maintaining a busy clinical herbal and massage practice, and launching a new festival. How do you balance it all, and what have you found to be the greatest challenge in getting a new project off the ground?
Nicole: Good question. I am always struggling with balance. If you ask my husband and good friends, they would laugh and say that I am insane with my work schedule. My husband helps to balance me. He reminds me of what is important in life. My personality is to work hard then play hard. I thrive off work, especially community work. I love herbs and bringing people closer to the green path.
I feel like some of my balance comes from being a bodyworker. I really enjoy the quiet, yin like balance of working on someone in silence. I also meditate and get lots of treatments myself to keep myself both giving and receiving. The festival took a lot out of me and my cohorts and I can only hope we all have a lot of downtime to recover from it afterwards. It will be nice to go back to having 2 full time jobs and not 3. The only way that this festival was possible was that there were three of us working on it nonstop for a year, so I must reiterate that launching this was the hard work and dedication of all three of us.
The greatest challenge, has been communication. Everyone these days has a different way of communicating. Some like email. Some like phones, some only facebook, some only text. It is exhausting trying to accommodate everyone and the way they want to be communicated with. Technology seems to make things more complicated, rather than easier. I remember organizing a women’s gathering before the internet was used much and I feel like it was so much easier to gather folks and organize.
Melanie: It’s such an inspiration to learn more about your exciting projects and I can’t wait for your new herb festival to premiere on October 24th 2013! Where can we all go to sign up for Herbalismo!?
Nicole: You can sign up for Herbalismo! right here on our website.
Thanks Nicole for taking the time to chat with us here at Herb Geek!!