Sage Mountain News

Begin in the Garden

Winter Solstice on Sage Mountain
Interview with Rosemary Gladstar for Yankee Magazine

Winter solstice, and the woods around Sage Mountain are quiet under a sky gone dusky by mid-afternoon. There is no wind, little sound, few tracks among the snow-laden conifers.

The air has the rarefied feel of elevation. Everything is built into the Vermont hillside-gardens, outbuildings and yurt; even the log cabin lit against the encroaching dark rests on sloping ground.

Inside, the cabin is as noisy as the outside is not. Rosemary Gladstar is making tea, which in any case is more than a simple matter of submerging a bag of Lipton in water. She is choosing herbs from the over 200 jars in her apothecary, but mostly she is contending with the dogs that mill around her legs. The dogs crowd to be petted, bark indignantly for turns. Two of them are Rosemary's, another lives nearby, the third arrived today for a two-week visit. The visitor, an adolescent pup that belongs to Rosemary's step-daughter, keeps disrupting a tenuous equilibrium.

"Barkley, you may not bite Diva! No." Rosemary sidelines the miscreant, initiates a session of sit-stay-lie. The other dogs hang back, even when Rosemary produces Barkley's reward-a wholegrain biscuit she admits he'd trade for a milkbone if he could. She is cheerful in the face of recalcitrance. "I love training animals. I wish I'd learned puppy training before I had my son."

As Barkley nudges his biscuit, Rosemary turns back to assembling ingredients for a tea that will have "mild nervine properties." In one motion she unscrews a lid, scoops and crushes the herbs within and drops them into a bowl. The contents accumulate: lemon balm and spearmint, stevia for sweetener, chamomile for its relaxative properties, blue malva for color. Clearly, there is something of art in the process. Rosemary mixes and tosses, gathers a handful, sniffs.

"It's going to be insipid." She adds rose blossom and a handful of orange peel. "Mmm. Better." The casualness with which Rosemary Gladstar makes tea belies, or perhaps suggests, her expertise. She has founded several herb-products companies and is a nation-wide leader in herbal education. Her nine books include Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal, a substantive tome of wide-ranging advice and recipes. She is also founder of United Plant Savers, an organization dedicated to the conservation of endangered native medicinal plants.The botanist James Duke calls Rosemary a driving force behind the herbalist movement. "She may not have chlorophyll," he says, "but she certainly has green charisma, green passion, green wisdom and green spirit."In 1988, Rosemary opened Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center on 500 acres near Barre, Vermont.

Those who know Rosemary and her Sage Mountain gardens contend both share a certain wildness. Shatoiya de la Tour, whose book The Herbalists' Garden features Rosemary, says it is "almost impossible not to notice the wild nature spirit that is her center."So too with the gardens. The casual observer might have difficulty discerning where cultivation ends and the forest begins.Rosemary admits she finds abundance and exceptional diversity in the margin between the tame and the wild. As for the wildness within herself, she says it's only a part of the whole. That seems true. She is a person of unusual juxtapositions-intense yet laid-back, an active woman with a quiet center, a back-to-basics minimalist who relishes the convenience of email and the Internet.

In spite of her accomplishments, Rosemary remains surprisingly disengaged from commercialism.Tea-making, for example. Although she originated some of the most popular formulations marketed today-Traditional Medicinals'Breathe Easy, Smooth Move and Gypsy Cold Care among them, she walked away from the company years ago. "IfI'd stayed with it, I'd have been rich today', she says. "I don't care a bit. It was time to move on, so I did"

This afternoon's tea turns indigo when Rosemary pours hot water on it; it smells and tastes of wildflowers. It is soothing, and when her partner Robert shows up, the scene remains tranquil, dogs sprawled by the fire. Robert's eyes widen. "Wow."

On one of their first dates, Rosemary seated Robert in a chair, submerged his hands in scented water, covered his face with a clay mask and massaged his feet. Robert understands Rosemary's power. He laughs. "I believe you."

~Rosemary grew up on dairy farm in northern California. Horses were her "other love."Her first? "Plants, absolutely." She learned about herbs from her grandmother (my other grandmother's name was Rose, my father's mother) Mary, an Armenian emigre who taught her to knit with chicken bones and rubbed bay leaves on her skin to prevent insect bites.Mary had a remarkable story of her own: She met the man who would become her husband on a ‘death march' during the Armenia Genocide. He was a leather artisan who traded his skills for the freedom of himself and two others- Mary , whom he had seen but hardly spoken to, and her mother.Mary maintained that it was her belief in God, she was a devout Christian, and her knowledge of the plants that saved their lives.

Rosemary herself was brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist. At 13, she was baptized in the Russian River near her home. She recalls rushing water, people singing on the banks, and a profound sense of discomfort....Already, she says, she preferred a more "direct" experience of the holy, which she found backpacking in the mountains and, later, on vision quests-four days alone in the wilderness, no food, no journal, no distractions. "Eventually the world slows down. Your senses become attuned. You realize time isn't going fast. You are." There is, she maintains, a poverty of spirit in this country. "All too often spirituality consists of little more than dressing up and tithing. People are starving for the substance of life."

Conversation with Rosemary is a curious thing: the personal has a way of becoming the universal, and the particular, general. Ask which herbs she takes and she will get around to an answer (garlic, elder, ginkgo, echinacea, valerian, and mushroom extract), but not before framing it in context: "Plants are a way of life. Using herbs isn't about medicine or healing. It's about breath. About faith and belief.Plants live together in community. They give out more than they take in."

On the face of it, Rosemary's views are pleasingly contrary-she does not affiliate with a political party, for example, believes in theory that conservatism is a good thing and opposes welfare: People need meaningful work. Whenever possible, don't just give people food, teach them to plant a garden-although certain consistencies emerge. That same alchemy of hardy self-reliance and community she so admires in medicinal plants is the measure by which Rosemary has constructed her own ideology. "Decisions in this country are based almost solely on economics," she says. "To view the environment as just another resource is incredibly short-sighted. We'll be left with a pocketful of change and nothing else. The real bottom line is ‘in the green' of the earth, not the green of the dollar bill which is basically worthless."

Plants as a way of life:"Begin in the garden," Rosemary says. "That teaches the process. You plant, tend, you get a harvest. You also get a wellness of spirit that's more than just ‘absent of disease' and which is difficult to obtain if separated from the earth and the web of life."

Accustomed to a mild climate, Rosemary at first found the prospect of northern Vermont's truncated growing season daunting. To complicate matters, the land around her cabin had not been cultivated for as long as anyone could remember. And certain herbs-cohosh, clintonia, dog's ear violet and wild leek-already grew there. Rosemary doubted she could do better, and so, for three years, her garden was sown and tended entirely by nature. Finally, at her students's urging, Rosemary put spade to soil and laid out a medicine wheel garden. She also planted some of her favorite Mediterranean plants, which flourished until October then vanished.

"I learned," says Rosemary. Several famous New Englanders influenced her-including the late Adelma Simmons, who founded Caprilands in Coventry, Connecticut, and the late Adelle Dawson, an across-the-mountain neighbor. But Rosemary was most inspired by Tasha Tudor, whose Corgi Cottage gardens in southern Vermont reflect "thirty years of tilling, planting, and dreaming."

All the plants at Sage Mountain are now sturdy, independent members of Zone Three. They seldom need covering or pampering and, Rosemary says, they thrive on light, air, energy, and a sprinkling of good soil. Her favorite is nettle because its personality reminds her of a menopausal woman. "Nettle is wise, forgiving, nourishing ... and has a bit of a bite to its very green nature. It teaches people how to listen to plants. If you don't, you get bitten."

Over the years, as deadfall was cleared and plants introduced, even the land outside the immediate domain of Rosemary's gardens woke up."It became charged," she says. "People remark on its energy. Sage Mountain wasn't particularly beautiful to begin with, but it took on a magical feel."

~The kitchen smells of vanilla and patchouli, base notes for a face cream Rosemary is making. She pours water into a blender filled with ingredients. "Sloooowly. It's a bit of a challenge because oil and water don't normally mix." The blender whirs, chokes, stops.Rosemary reaches in and smoothes cream onto the backs of her hands. "Ahhh." The kitchen is a compact, busy place. Rosemary cooks in it, tests recipes, prepares remedies. She also uses it to make spirulina- and ginseng-laced energy balls or-as she did for some older neighbors who were going on a cruise-super-aphrodisiac balls, with such passion-promoting flavors as black cherry liqueur, guarana, and bittersweet chocolate. What did you put in those? the neighbors asked when they returned.

For the coming year, Rosemary has cut back on the courses she will teach at Sage Mountain. She will focus instead on conservation efforts: expanding the scope of United Plant Savers to set up preserves across the country, and, closer to home, attempting to raise money to place several thousand acres near Sage Mountain into protectorship. She also wants more time for introspection. "As you get older, you start raising those questions you asked when you were young. There was a whole period when I couldn't even find time to postulate them... those all important questions like, why am I here? What am I doing?"And then, in her trademark narrow-to-wide focus: "How did it all start?"No doubt she will seek answers in nature, in the frisson between the tame and the wild, in the abundant frontier that is her life.

Posted by: Jason

Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center & UpS Botanical Sanctuary

P.O. Box 420, E. Barre, VT 05649; 802.479-9825;;