Agriculture, Specialty/Niche March 01, 2023
Traditional herbal medicine taps family heritage.
Melissa Meyer is a healer. It's evident in her work in community health care at the Tahoma Indian Center and Nisqually Nation in Washington's Puget Sound area. It's deep in her experience working with victims of residential school trauma in her native Canada and as a traditional plant medicine practitioner in Seattle. And it blossoms around her at Rose Island Farm, the acre in Tacoma, Washington, where she has created a thriving community of medicinal and traditional plants.
Meyer was surrounded by native medicine as a child of western Canada's Tsimshian Nation. She grew up fishing and harvesting seaweed and native plants around her village of Lax kw'alaams. After earning degrees in indigenous governance and anthropology, she realized she wanted to reclaim the songs and ceremonies of her heritage, and tap into deep native knowledge of plants and medicine.
"When I started working with the plants, what I found was that it was just so gentle and accessible and immediate," Meyer says. "It brings you back into your present straight away—the fragrance, the flavor just brings you back. And I thought, 'what a gentle way to work with people.'"
Rose Island Farm seems to draw people as readily as it attracts honeybees. Spreading mulch, weeding rows, harvesting beans and fruit, or canning produce, people bring their energy and passion to the place.
Cool down. It's hard to believe that just two years ago, this space was a dried-out horse pasture and neglected garden surrounded by a tangle of laurel hedge.
The laurel really rankled Meyer.
"Laurel is not meant for a farm," she says. "It's not a community builder. It was great privacy. It was a great sound barrier. But it was robbing this garden. It was breeding moths that were just doing nothing here. The laurel was not giving anything back. It was not part of the natural cycle.
"I come from the Northwest coast," she adds. "I read the landscape. I can see what this used to be, who wants to be here. This was salmon-bearing waterways. I said, 'we've got to do our best to start putting in those trees and shrubs back in these spaces to cool it down, and bring back pollinators to be able to grow food.'"
Berries, tomatoes, and peppers line the edge of the property where Meyer pulled out hedges. Tobacco, vervain, bee balm, and echinacea bloom beside the house. Fuzzy mullein leaves are harvested to make tea that's good for the lungs. Comfrey heals the skin.
Mission. The wide range of plants represent more than a garden to Meyer. They're a mission. "My first focus is always about supporting the plants and the natural cycle of what exists here," she says. "The second thing is, how do I serve the displaced indigenous people who are here, who don't have access to their medicines, who don't have access to their foodways? How could we make that accessible?"
Many community members come for Work as Medicine days. Others come for classes, taught by Meyer and others monthly in the barn, where tables on casters create a flexible teaching space.
"A big part of our mission is centering on Black and Indigenous skill sharing," Meyer says.
Classes can range from distilling herbs to skinning rabbits.
"When we teach rabbitry, I'm always thrilled that folks who you'd never think are their family hunters rise to the top," she says. "This memory comes over them and they go, 'I remember my granny used to do this, but I haven't had access. And now I remember, yeah, we used to eat rabbits.' And it's so wonderful to see them, and they do it so well."
Community. A stone's throw from the barn, past the chickens and rabbits, grow the "three sisters"—corn, beans, and squash.
The ancient combination—which Meyer learned from Mexican-American members of the community—works in synergy. Corn acts as a trellis for the climbing beans. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil. Squash spreads out to suppress weeds. And together, the three sisters provide more calories and nutrients from the space than corn alone.
The milpa is more than a metaphor for community. It's a living testament to Meyer's passion not just to teach, but to learn.
"The milpa is definitely not my tradition, but I saw the need for it, and we have the space," she says. "I've been learning a lot from Mexican and South American farmers about seed saving and how they use the big corn leaves to wrap food and the tassels for medicine and how they boil the stalks into these nurturing, healing broths."
All that teaching and learning is expensive. So is paying apprentices generously. Grants are scarce and small, so Meyer has to fundraise hard and keep her focus.
"The very first year, I was asked, 'could you provide your natural teas to our store?' 'Could you do this at our coffee shop?'" she recalls. "No. No. I'm dedicating my time and energy to elevate and equip indigenous people to be able to have access again and to remember their traditions."
The community has responded—with gifts, work, and love.
"People say, 'thank goodness I found you,'" Meyer says. "And I go, 'it's not me. These lands and these medicines have been waiting for you to come and share.'" ‡
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