This past year was like no other. The winter of the COVID 19 pandemic was long, very long. In fact, my family likes to joke that the year of the pandemic was the longest, yet the shortest year of our lives. When humans paused in March of 2020, it was as if we all held our collective breath, and waited(some more patiently than others). After almost a year of hibernation and retreat, I decided to mark the shift into Spring with a camping trip in the backroads of the Desert SW. I almost saw it as a type of pilgrimage to follow the roads that my teacher, Michael Moore and his partner Donna Chesner had followed for so long and shared with us in classes.
I was thrilled to move in a sort of small Desert caravan, with one of my mentors and friends Greta de la Montagne of the MASHH clinic in Northern CA, and a new friend, Rose Madrone(founder of Mtn Rose) and documentary filmmaker. We were self-contained, and able to easily socially distance(we just had to prepare a lot beforehand). The one thing that the pandemic has reminded me over and over was that we can still spend time with the plants and in Nature. If I hadn’t had that great privilege, I am not sure how I would have fared in 2020.
We met up in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness near Ajo to camp. Pre-spring in the Desert is dry, dusty, sunny, and sometimes very windy and cold.
Luckily, it was still and warm and beautiful, with a waxing moon at night. We made our way into Tucson and met up with Donna Chesner, herbalist and former administrator of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.
I was so fortunate to be able to sit and help document stories about Michael, and their travels through the Desert SW and all the way into the Ozarks. My friend Greta will be writing a biography and is in charge of updating Michael Moore’s site, who we both studied with. Part of our trip down memory lane was so that Greta could capture and update the site to reflect our teacher’s legacy better. We spent time listening to stories and recording and documenting them. We also visited the Michael Moore Memorial Garden that Donna has been working on for a few years. The garden was full of so many amazing medicinal plants! I highly recommend a visit to it if you are in Tucson.
We went on to camp by the Gila River and greet the runners coming in from the courtroom battle to protect Oak Flats, a camping ground Michael had brought us to, and sacred land of the Apache People. We were thrilled to learn that after 4 years of protests, the tribes had won a stay on the mining operation that was planned there. You can support the protest here.
We made our way West covering 100s of miles of Desert, and went to visit one of my favorite Desert State Parks, Anza Borrego that Michael had introduced me to over 20 years ago. We took some full moon hikes and said hello to some wonderful medicinal plants like Elephant Tree, Yerba Mansa, Yerba Santa, White Sage, and Desert Willow.
One of the most important parts of the conversation for me centered around the drought in the Desert SW, and just how badly it was impacting plant populations. From me and Greta’s assessment, no one should be foraging wildcrafted native medicines from the Desert SW. There are a couple of reasons for this.
- the Drought. Donna let us know that around her the wild areas have been suffering for about 5 years, and at this rate Saquaro cacti will become endangered. Leave the wilderness to the wild when there is extreme pressure from lack of water. This is lack of water includes pumping underground water supplies that are being drained to support large cities or agriculture.
- There are too many foraging enthusiasts that can access Native, wild plants without understanding the ecology and needs of the region. With the advent of the internet, YouTube, and other social media, there has been a resurgence of interest in wild plants. Just because you think you may have found a native medicinal plant, and you think you know what a plant does and how to use it, doesn’t mean you should use it. Do you know the differences in the needs of plants like Chapparal, compared with Crucifixion Thorn, or even Yerba Mansa? Do you know what your impact of harvesting will be? Do you really need to take from a fragile desert ecosystem?
- The Desert is extremely delicate. I remember being shown 20-year-old clipper marks pointed out long ago, in the Sonoran desert and no other growth around the branch. When an area hangs in delicate balance and survives on 2-12 inches of rain in a year, it simply can’t handle additional pressure from well-meaning herbalists. We visited a part of the Desert that had only had 1.28 inches of rain that entire year.
- Whose land are you on? Do you have permission to be there, and are their Native practitioners that may be taking care of and using the plants you found? Many public lands are also sacred to tribes in the area. It’s important to make sure that your impact doesn’t exacerbate the settler mentality of taking because you can, especially on very delicate land.
So how do you get to know wonderful desert medicinals if we can’t wildcraft them? Cultivate them!
I have met several people growing White Sage now, as well as many other lovely Desert medicinals like Yerba Mansa, and Ocotillo. We are so excited to have herbalist Carla Vargas-Frank, from Tucson AZ, putting together a Desert Botanical Bioregional Series for our Online Learning platform on not just what plants grow in the Deserts around her, but how to garden in the Desert. You can sign up here to get more information when we have it ready!