Conversation with Jean Willoughby

31.08.2017 - Pressenza New York

Conversation with Jean Willoughby

By Jhon Sanchez

I have a sore throat, a cold, for sure. If I were in Colombia, my mother would be looking for herbs in her kitchen garden, or probably she would go out to the local market to find the perfect mixtures of leaves and roots to make a beverage. Fortunately, I had on my kitchen shelf Nature’s Remedies written by Jean Willoughby and illustrated by Katie Shelly. I looked under sore throat, and I found five entries: Black Cohosh, Echinacea, Ginger, Marshmallow, and Witch Hazel. After some ginger tea, I cleared my throat to talk with Jean, who I met in 2009 in an artist collective called Surreal Estate. Jean is now in North Carolina, and I’m very thankful to her that I least I can talk without feeling much pain. (I cannot forget to give thanks to the God Ginger as well.)

JS: Jean, tell us a little us about your background — I found it very impressive.

I tend to unravel when people ask me this question, but I’ll do my best. I spent most of my childhood and early teens growing up in housing projects in and around Little Rock with a single mom who was being treated for mental illness, which could be fairly severe at times. I also lived off and on with different family members until I left for college in Connecticut. I was made a ‘ward of the court’ when I was 15. Around that time, I moved to Los Angeles to live with my sister and her husband and finish high school. For years, my mom and I struggled to make ends meet on the $581 in welfare and disability payments she got each month. But I managed to invest a few dollars in some fun. Basically any extra money I had growing up went to the local roller skating rink. I’m still pretty badass on skates to this day, so I think of it as government cheese well spent.

Fast forward a bit, and the tables have turned. Now I’m a caretaker, too. I’ve been my ‘mother’s keeper’ for about ten years with the help of my partner, who has been there the whole time. My mom is about 75, so we sometimes joke that we have a septuagenarian kid in the house. It’s been hard at times of course, but I’ve enjoyed helping her get back on her feet now that I have the knowledge and ability to be an aid to an older person. Getting to know my mom again as an adult has been rewarding, and in general it’s very satisfying to see this level of positive change someone’s life.

Taking care of my mom has been motivating because by helping her I’ve learned to never give up on other people. It’s easy to forget that people change. My mom often says that she wouldn’t have made it without us. Her ability to feel and show gratitude after all the ups and downs in her life is something of a triumph. When she laughs, it fills the room with pure joy.

JS: I told you the other day, that for me it wasn’t a surprise that you wrote a book about herbs–well, to be honest, you can write a book about anything. Anyway, I think all of this is connected with your life project. Don’t you think so?

I hope so. It’s nice to hear that something in my life makes sense to someone else. Thanks for the affirmation and for asking me about my life project. Okay, so what I really want to say is that herbal medicine is an age-old global tradition. It’s the people’s medicine. When done well, it can complement and counterbalance our prevailing system of healthcare, which doesn’t offer nearly enough preventative care or holistic care focused on the individual person.

I take part in what is usually called “community-based herbalism.” This is loosely defined as a practice of promoting health and well-being by using herbs and other tools within specific communities, as with your friends and family, a circle of people you know, or through a small group or organization. Here’s where you can find a good definition.

Herbal medicine has an impressive history. It’s part of the cultures of immigrants and indigenous people all over the world. People everywhere have always sought to find solace and healing from plants and the natural environment to survive difficult times and conditions. There’s a lot we can learn from this tradition right now.

JS: Tell me a little more about your book. How is it arranged?

We often describe Nature’s Remedies as a “starter kit” or a tasting menu. The book has nine chapters covering herbs that have been traditionally used for some of the most common ailments and health concerns people have. It covers a number of general health topics such as immunity, digestion, stress management, pain relief, skin care, and sleep. Readers get to learn about each herb’s cultural history, its medicinal compounds, and how each plant has been used over the course of hundreds or thousands of years.

JS: Katie Shelly illustrated the book. How was your collaboration together?

Katie did an amazing job bringing the herbs to life on the page. Her paintings are really what people notice first about the book. We collaborated on this project from the very conception of it a few years ago, so she’s been there since the start. She’s a mighty fine illustrator and a good friend, and I’m happy we had the chance to work together. We also worked with an awesome team at Tandem Books, Katherine Furman and Ashley Prine, and they helped us find the best publisher for this book, Chronicle Books.

Nuts and bolts-wise, over the course of the book’s development, I put together a long list of the herbs with the common and botanical names, and Katie consulted the list and put together images of each plant to work from. I’d review her images and drafts to make sure they were the correct species. Our editors made sure that the herbs were depicted at a visually engaging stage for readers, often in flower, going to seed, or fruiting. Editors are smart like that.

JS: You’ve worked with farmers for many years now. How did you start working with farmers and get into herbs and writing books?

Career-wise, I’ve mostly taken the scenic route. Like a lot of people born in this country in the late 1980s, I went to college, graduated right in time for the Great Recession, moved to a big city, and then had your typical quarter-life crisis. Anyway, my partner and I soon left the big city for an existence that seemed to us to be more grounded in nature and community. I’ve worked in agriculture for most of the last decade. I learned about herbal medicine and found that I loved growing and turning herbs into useful remedies. I studied at the Herbal Academy of New England, and that’s where I got my certification in herbal medicine.

My partner and I both mostly read and write for a living, for a life. I write and edit a lot of things for work, and now I write books, apparently! I also write poems, and my partner is a wonderful poet and editor. I’ve been working on a novella and a couple of screenplays this year. I love to read good writing, and I’d like to think that at least some of my writing is getting pretty good these days.

JS: And where does your work with farmers come in?

I’ve worked with farmers for about seven years and for five at my job at a nonprofit that is focused on promoting social justice and sustainability in agriculture. I’ve helped run a grant program for small-scale farmers for most of that time. Since last year, I’ve been the communications manager. I’ve done a lot of documentary work through my job: filmmaking, audio docs, photography, videography, writing and interviewing. I’ve also gotten a lot of experience talking about plants with different people and could probably talk about things like pepper or melon varieties for hours with the right person.

I’d say my interest in herbs grew out of my interests in plants, agriculture, and health more generally. I’m also interested in the concept of food as medicine. Diet and nutrition play a major role in our health and herbs can complement that.

JS: The other day during a dinner someone said that parsley was good to prevent kidney failure if you drink a tea of it every morning. My friend said, “I don’t do that. I put it in the soup and it has to be the same.” How we should take herbal medicines?

That’s a good question. It often depends on the herb, and it always depends on the person. Some herbs have compounds that can be extracted with hot water, so making a cup of tea works well. Other plants are best extracted using an edible solvent like alcohol, which also helps both to isolate and to preserve the compounds in a liquid that can be stored for up to a few years in most cases.

Various parts of herbs are used for making remedies, and you can find herbs in different forms: dried, fresh, whole, chopped, powdered, etc. Sometimes fresh herbs are preferable. Sometimes dried herbs do the trick.

You might want to use the leaves (as with basil), the roots (marshmallow), or the flowers (St. John’s wort). Sometimes you might be grinding up the seeds, as with milk thistle. So, it really depends on the plant material you’re working with, what you want to make, how you want to store it. You also have to think about the person consuming the herbs. Do they tend to enjoy drinking tea? Would they do better with capsules? Could the herbs be incorporated into meals or snacks?

It’s best to read up on the herb and check out some recipes, talk to an herbalist, or visit your local herb shop to ask questions. There are usually several ways to prepare and enjoy your herbs. It’s worth experimenting, too.

JS: I know you have strong opinions. Is there a need for policies that facilitate the incorporation of herbs and herbal medicines in our diet and everyday life?

I’m not sure if I would say policies exactly, but it would be nice to see herbs discussed more often as part of our education on diet and nutrition. I’ve read about doctors prescribing vegetables to their patients, which is amazing. Hopefully, it becomes standard practice to have dietitians work alongside doctors for every patient.

Medical schools should consider training students in what is usually referred to as “integrative medicine” or “complementary medicine” for several reasons. It can only help doctors, and other health practitioners, to become more literate about herbal medicine because they’re inevitably going treat people who are using herbs and supplements, especially as the popularity of herbal medicine continues to grow.

A good model for med schools to follow might be the Yale School of Medicine, where a student named Aviva Romm, who is also a long-time herbalist and doula, proposed a few years ago that the school implement a formal integrative medicine class. It was added to the curriculum and is now required for second-year medical students, as far as I know.

JS: I met you at Surreal Estate. Actually, you were the person who welcomed me to the collective during a freezing Martin Luther King weekend in 2009. Tell us about that project.

That place was a labor of love, a performance art project, a weird experiment, and a huge pain in the ass. We became de facto property managers of a pair of buildings and got to oversee who moved in and so on. But we also had to deal with rent, conflicts, sanitation, a never-ending list. We also held a lot of parties and fundraisers for local organizations, like the Brecht Forum, which is sadly no longer around but was an amazing place to be and learn (a couple of us also interned there). At one point, we had about 30 residents contributing to all of this artful wackiness. We were spread over six floors in two buildings, but it was a lot of people to have living in a collective household of sorts.

I got another place with some folks in north Brooklyn after that, and we started a garden in our backyard. We had our soil tested for heavy metals, and it came back showing high levels of cadmium and lead. We weren’t surprised that there was some level of contamination, but it was sobering nonetheless. Suddenly our backyard was reframed as a toxic site, and we began to wish for dirt we could feel good about getting dirty in, growing food in.

It was that experience, along with the understanding that we would probably never find a place to live in the city without playing into the plans of gentrifying developers, real estate brokers, politicians, and so on, that made my partner and I want to move somewhere less, hmm, let’s say ethically questionable.

A friend of mine once called called the process of recent grads moving to a big city for a year or two, then realizing that it doesn’t feel right and leaving shortly thereafter, a “gentri-vacation,” which I think sums a lot of it up pretty well.

JS: Correct me if I wrong, but I think your mother came once or twice to visit us at Surreal Estate. Was she an influence on your writing or your life in any ways you’d like to share?

I’m sure that, if I thought about it for long at all, my mother’s influence on my life would be something I’d struggle to put into words. Then this might turn into a ‘session,’ and you’d all have to charge me money. So, do we really want to go there?

But, for real, if we go there, all I can say for sure is that my mom has never wasted a thing! This might be because she grew up farming. She chopped cotton and grew vegetables. She churned butter and made biscuits with her grandmother. She is very much the daughter of parents who lived through the Great Depression. This is gross, but I remember from when I was a kid that she would wash her dental floss and reuse it a couple times. For the love of god. It was like 1998, and she was washing the damn dental floss to reuse! If I can be said to take after my mom at all, it’s in my frugality. But I use my dental floss one time, once.

JS: In New York City, we still have the Botanicas, mostly in the Bronx and Washington Heights, but where else can we find good quality herbs?

There are many good options for y’all New York City folks interested in herbal medicine. I actually come back up from time to time to go to my favorite herb shops in Chinatown. I like to drop by Kamwo Meridian Herbs for good tea and harder to find Chinese herbs.

Karen Rose is a master herbalist based in Brooklyn. Her shop is called Sacred Vibes Apothecary and is in Flatbush. Go there! Also in Flatbush, there is the Third Root Community Health Center, which has an apothecary. Actually, the illustrator for my book, Katie Shelly, recently did a set of herbal product designs for Third Root.

JS: Finally, which herb didn’t you include in your book that you wish you could have included?

I’ve thought a lot of about this question actually. I ended up making a list of dozens of herbs that didn’t make it into the final book. But the one herb I wish was in there the most is probably sage, which is a versatile and powerful culinary and medicinal herb. I would have also really liked to include cilantro. I’m kind of obsessed with growing it and eat some every day, if I can get my hands on it.

There are a lot of culinary herbs that I didn’t include because people are likely already familiar. No encouragement is needed for herbs like cinnamon or basil. You know, the next time I have a spare minute, I’d like to go harvest some cinnamon basil from my garden. Smells like cinnamon and tastes like wonderful. Too bad you can’t scratch and sniff the picture here.

JS: Thanks for the interview, and let’s meet again, for tea, ginger tea.

Cinnamon Basil, Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’

Nature’s Remedies is available

Chronicle Books:


Jean Willoughby is a writer, accidental techie, and wannabe farmer who admittedly knows more about creating websites and writing books than repairing tractors. Through her work as a project director and documentarian at the Rural Advancement Foundation International, where she’s worked since 2012, she has visited more farms than most Americans will probably see in a lifetime. Jean attended the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (Video Institute) and the Herbal Academy of New England. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University (BA, Sociology).

Katie Shelly: is an illustrator whose work can be found Here

Jhon Sánchez: A native of Colombia, Mr. Sánchez immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum. Currently, a New York attorney, he’s a JD/MFA graduate. His publications in 2017 are available in Swamp Ape Review, Existere, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, 34thParallel, Newfound (forthcoming), Caveat Lector (forthcoming), and Gemini Magazine (forthcoming). His work has been nominated for The Best of the Net 2016 and for a Pushcart Prize in 2015 and 2016. He was also awarded the Newnan Art Rez Program for summer of 2017.

Categories: Culture and Media, Health, Interviews, North America


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