With the windows down, sunny blue sky on the horizon and Third Eye Blind on the radio, I drove up the New York Thruway the first week of August for my second visit to Raven Crest Botanicals, an organic herb farm.
I arrived Monday afternoon to the open arms of Susanna and Thomas, eager to have more help harvesting the over 3,000 medicinal and culinary herbs and plants on Susanna’s property. Before going out to the terraces to collect calendula, chamomile, blue cornflower, Mauritian mallow, I passed some interesting looking rocks on the table in the sun room.
While collecting herbs, I learned that, depending on the time of year and the type of herbal remedy needed, there are different parts of the herb that are harvested: aerial parts, root, blossoms, leaves, and buds. Thomas explained that midday is the best time for harvesting because it is when all of the chemical processes and energy is present in the plant.
Also on Monday, Thomas gave me a tour of the strawbale house on the property. It was an existing structure when Susanna bought the farm and a few friends are clay plastering the walls. The building is made of straw, sand and clay. It is a breathing, natural house and it is beautiful.
Susanna and Thomas spoke with wide eyes about Burning Man throughout the day, a spiritual celebration on the Playa in the desert that they were attending in a few weeks. Later that night, we talked about “the lost language of plants” over a bonfire and I listened to Susanna and Thomas play the didj and Susanna sing and play the Shruti Box. I couldn’t have been happier to be back.
Shortly after I woke on Tuesday morning, I learned why farmers love the rain; watering crops takes a long time! I watered the permaculture beds, tree guilds, strawbale gardens, vegetable garden and potted plants for almost two hours that morning. I enjoyed it though. It was soothing to be among the honey bees, butterflies, locusts, hummingbird moths and all different types of birds: Cedar Waxwings, warblers, goldfinches, and hummingbirds.
I spent some time reading on the hammock outside under great, big trees and met Susanna’s friends Ashley and Peter that day. Peter is from Denmark and has the kindest eyes I have ever seen. He listens to every word you say with genuine interest and sincerity and has a remarkable aura. Ashley, his soul mate, goes by “Rainbow Goddess” when she is cooking her amazing raw food, but I think she is more like a ray of sunshine. Her happiness is contagious and her presence can brighten any room.
Thomas and I harvested some holy basil and thyme and planted some herbs in the pasture. I swam in the ice-cold pond water and we went up to The Vines to humanly take care of the Japanese Beetle problem on the grapes. We would tap them off the leaves and into a bucket of soapy water. The soap in the water breaks the surface tension and creates a painless exit for the invasive species.
By Wednesday, I had settled into a morning routine. I would get up around 7-8 AM, post a few photos on Instagram, go for a run on some country roads of Albany County, and then come back to the farm and water the herbs.
Thomas and I harvested sage and chamomile and “garbled” the herb Eclipta (the oil is great for hair). Garbling involves removing the stems of dried plants and crumbling them into smaller pieces for storage…and it’s so much fun!
Racing alongside deer on the ATV, Thomas and I went up to The Vines and to the pasture. Susanna, Thomas and I went on a peaceful walk through Susanna’s natural “medicine cabinet” in the pasture. Although none of the herbs felt ready to harvest, we did befriend a praying mantis.
On Wednesday, I met Ben, a natural builder from the East Coast. We got along right away and he told me how he went to “university” in the UK as we humanely got rid of Japanese Beetles on The Vines. Ben explained how he has been in the construction trades for around a decade, but got started in natural building a few years ago when he grew tired of “pouring concrete all over the world.” He is currently helping to organize a community farming project in upstate New York and plays some mean Led Zeppelin on guitar.
I had one of many full-circle moments on the farm on Wednesday when I realized I had harvested almost all of the ingredients of my favorite tea that Susanna makes, her Happiness Tea, made from anise hyssop, Tulusi, and calendula blossoms. On my first visit, I had planted some medicinal herbs, now I was watering and caring for them and also harvesting and drying them. I was slowly seeing the whole process come together.
After my morning routine, Ben, Thomas and I began putting lists together and calling stores for the supplies we needed to build the new rocket mass heater. We were looking for recycled and refurbished items where possible, although one store did tell us, “If it ain’t kick your ass beautiful we ain’t got it.” We didn’t go there.
It took all day to find the supplies we needed; even specialty stores told us that our do-it-yourself project had a “weird set up.” When we stopped for lunch half way through the day, it took us a good twenty minutes to find a restaurant that wasn’t a corporate chain. Look for small business owner restaurants next time you’re on a main road; it will take longer than you think.
It was an exhausting day, but it was fun driving the pickup truck around Troy and broin’ out with Thomas and Ben, and we came home to an incredible raw food dinner with raw lasagna and cucumber and zucchini noodles.
On Friday, it finally rained! No watering for me. Instead I got to make some medicine, Elder Wisdom tincture and aromatherapy sprays; Lovely Lavender Facial Mist, Peace and Calm Facial Mist and Sacred Mountain Facial Mist. I made some jewelweed oil with Susanna, which is used to treat poison ivy, skin irritations, rashes and insect bites. As we made medicine, we talked about fracking and what it would mean for Susanna’s farm if they opened Upstate New York to the natural gas industry, the Obama Administration and the pace of society.
Susanna received some excellent news on Friday, so I went into Middleburgh, NY to the liquor store to get some wine. I had no idea I would be driving right into the town that time forgot. It was refreshing to see families out on their front porches and folks walking from mom and pop store to mom and pop store.
On Saturday, I hung out in the strawbale house with Thomas and Ben and we listened to The Beatles. That morning though, I had an epiphany while eating breakfast alongside a ruby-throated hummingbird.
On Susanna’s front porch, there are two rocking chairs and a hummingbird feeder hanging on a post near one of the chairs. After my run in the morning, I liked to eat my granola and yogurt breakfast on the porch and watch the hummingbirds. On Saturday morning, a particularly bold hummingbird kept flying over near where I was reading, about three feet from my face, stare at me, and fly off. He would come and go, cock his head to the side at me, like a dog, and fly off. As I watched him, I realized he was as curious about me as I was about him. In that moment, I was made to feel small by a creature no larger than my palm. Not in a bad way, in a mind-opening kind of way.
We coexist with millions of beautiful creatures on this planet who are just as curious about our existence as we are about theirs; and that is something we must always keep in perspective.
On Sunday, after visiting the rock lady (more to come soon), running and watering the plants one last time, I left the farm to go back to New Jersey. I drove away with an insatiable appetite to contribute to the world and make it better, and I have my friends at Raven Crest Botanicals both to blame and to thank.