Deb Soule is an author and herbalist in Maine, known for her herbal apothecary and biodynamic farm, Avena Botanicals, in Rockport. Her latest book “The Healing Garden” will be available wherever books are sold on March 30, 2021. Previously, she has written two other books: “The Woman’s Handbook for Healing Herbs” and “How to Move like a Gardener.”
In this Q&A, Soule talks about her Maine upbringing, her latest book and how Tibetan monks influenced her approach to life and health.
Q: Tell me about yourself and your upbringing in Maine. How did you become interested in herbal medicine?
A: I grew up in South Paris, and when I was four to eight years old, my grandmother Katherine lived across the hall from us in her own apartment. Katherine had a special relationship with wild flowers and birds, and would take me out with her in springtime, quietly and mindfully sharing the beauty of the natural world with me.
My curiosity, respect and sensitivity to the natural world continued to develop into my teenage years. I read Frances Moore Lappe’s book, “Diet for a Small Planet” at age 15, and became inspired to grow vegetables and learn about gardening.
A year later, I met Steven Foster at Shaker Village in Poland Springs, and he inspired me to begin growing medicinal herbs in my vegetable garden. Soon after, I was gifted my first medicinal herb book, “Common Herbs for Natural Health,” written by Juliette de Bairacli Levy.
Q: You write on your website about being influenced by Tibetan monks. What did you learn from them that continues to influence you today?
A: From September 1980 to December 1980, I did a college semester abroad in Nepal. I lived with a Nepali family near a town with three Tibetan monasteries and a large Buddhist Stupa. I was awakened daily, before dawn, by the [monastery’s] bells calling the Tibetan monks to meditation. I became interested in Buddhism and meditation and was blessed to meet some very wise, old Tibetan Buddhist teachers.
This was my first exposure to traditional Tibetan medicine where prayer and chanting are used when making medicine. Rising before dawn, meditation, prayer and a specific loving-kindness practice are part of my daily life.
Q: Tell me about your company, Avena Botanicals. When did you establish it, and what led up to its founding?
A: I founded Avena Botanicals in 1985. My studies of medicinal herbs continued throughout college through books, and spending time with a wise, older herbalist in Vermont, Adele Dawson. I knew in my heart that I wanted to contribute to helping people stay well with herbs. I wanted to organically grow herbs as there was not a lot of organic, quality herbs available 35 years ago. My time in Nepal inspired me to take up work that I loved and that would help ease suffering for both people and our planet.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to start writing about herbalism and your experience?
A: For a young woman to start an unusual business in 1985 with medicinal herbs, various newspapers and magazines became curious of my work. Early on, I was interviewed and asked to write articles about gardening and medicinal herbs [like in the] Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners [Association’s] quarterly newspaper, and an article on medicinal herbs for Orion Magazine that accompanied photographs of Tibetan herbalists and healers.
Q: How is “The Healing Garden” different from your past books?
A: “The Healing Garden” is the first book I include lengthy and detailed information on drying herbs, including photos and information about how we dry herbs on our farm. The first chapter titled “Gathering with Gratitude” offers inspiration and guidance for people who wish to create a deeper, more meaningful and spiritual relationship with healing plants and gives [detailed] instruction of how to dig medicinal roots and gather medicinal leaves, flowers and berries.
This is the first book I also give detailed instructions of how to prepare a variety of herbal remedies: how to make herbal teas and decoctions from both fresh and dried herbs, tinctures from fresh and dried herbs, non-alcohol glycerites, oils and salves, flower essences, herbal steams and foot baths. The 18 herbs I write about include specific information on how and when to gather and dry, prepare and use them for healing.
My first book published in 1995, now in its third printing, “Healing Herbs for Women,” is focused on herbs specific for women’s health conditions, less [on] gardening details. “How to Move Like a Gardener” contains a long and detailed chapter on biodynamic gardening and spiritual and inspirational writings about my relationship with herbs, pollinators, soil, compost, gratitude and prayer. It is a beautiful and inspirational book that includes a chapter on living in rhythm with the seasons, offering food and herbal support throughout the seasons.
Q: What were your favorite parts about writing “The Healing Garden?”
A: Working collaboratively with [photographer] Molly Haley. The first day she arrived to begin photographing, I was kneeling on the ground with a young hummingbird in my hand that had been caught in my greenhouse. There are three beautiful photos of hummingbirds in the book that she took in my garden. Also, taking the time to contemplate on how to express in writing gratitude for plants. Gratitude is a big part of my daily work with plants and pollinators.
Q: What do you think is unique about “The Healing Garden” when compared to other books about herbal medicine?
A: How I express gratitude and my spiritual relationship with plants. The book is filled with photographs of me at work in the garden — all photos are from Avena, no stock photos, which happens in many herb books. It is written from my 45 years of experiences of growing, gathering, preparing and using herbs for healing. I weave in a unique approach to following the biodynamic planting calendar when planting and harvesting herbs, [as well as] my direct experiences with herbs and my sensitivity with herbs and gardening and pollinators.
Avena is a smaller scale biodynamic farm, so the information on drying herbs can be utilized by individuals looking to learn to dry herbs, or for small scale herb herb farmers looking to set up drying rooms. Also woven throughout the book is my way of speaking for social, racial and land justice through educating people to grow, prepare and use herbs for healing.
Q: In the first pages of “The Healing Garden,” you recognize that your farm is on Wabanaki land. Why was this important for you to include?
A: I am committed to keep learning about the difficult history of Indigenous peoples in Wabanaki Territory. I recognize that I live on land that was stolen from Penobscot peoples. I am interested in being part of ongoing dialogues and actions with people and organizations committed to dismantling racism, patriarchy and all forms of oppression and land rematriation.
I learned almost nothing about Indigenous peoples history, their current lives, and racism when in school. I recognize that a land acknowledgement is a gesture that needs further, ongoing actions beyond the statement.
Q: What’s next for you, as an author, activist and herbalist?
A: Continuing my studies of healing and hummingbirds with my teacher from Ecuador, Rocio Alarcon, [and] helping her with a project to create hummingbird sanctuaries throughout the Americas. Creating a project so Avena can give away more plants and herbal remedies to black, brown and Indigenous herbalists for their communities. Giving away herbs to local food banks. Launching the website for a grassroots initiative, Grow a Row of Calendula, encouraging herbalists and gardeners everywhere to grow a row of calendula, dry the flowers, make calendula oil and salves and donate them to projects serving women and children healing from domestic violence and abuse, and giving oils and salves to a residential center in Texas serving women who experienced sex trafficking. To keep reading and engaging in uprooting racism workshops, learning history and studying plant healing.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.