Greta de la Montagne: The Herbalist Who Fell into A Ditch and Found Her Calling by Ellary Allis
Like the fable about the Astrologer who Fell Into a Well while stargazing, Greta de la Montagne was wandering around a farming community in the mountains above Kumamoto, Japan, looking up at the moonlight when she stumbled into ditch of 12 foot high mugwort. The astrologer’s fall was an admonishment to keep mindful of the earth; Greta’s fall was a message to commit to the path she’d begun as a child growing up in the wilds of Montana’s Yellowstone country, wildcrafting plants for her mother’s candle making business. Greta was 19 years old when she went to Japan, pondering the purpose of her existence on the planet, when the spirit of grandmother mugwort answered her query: “I feel like she snatched me off the roadside. It was my first experience with a medicine plant. She sat me down and talked to me, and it was a decisive moment for me. ‘Ok,’ I said. I guess this is my path. I’m going to be a healer, to study herbs.'” And study she did, with luminaries like Michael Moore at his Southwest School of Botanical Medicine and Dr. Vasant Lad at his Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico. Greta is also a massage therapist who believes that bodywork in tandem with herbal medicine is vital to the healing process. Years later, Greta is a lynchpin of the folk medicine community in Northern California. She lives in redwoods territory, in the coastal city of Arcata, where she runs a healing practice called Gentle Strength Botanicals and Massage Therapy and stewards a micro-farm that supplies herbs for her apothecary.
Greta’s father was a soil scientist, but her own approach to the natural world is much broader than the western scientific model; she’s not a botanist, she’s a holistic herbal healer and relies on older methods of interpretation for plant identification and prescription. She develops relationships with plant spirits, and since her childhood days solo expeditioning in Yellowstone, has cultivated the ability to listen to them speak. In her decade spent dedicated to wildcrafting, she had countless experiences of plants counseling her on which specimens to harvest. They would point out the grandmother plants who had reached their maximum growth and were ready to go. They would thank her for harvesting them. “They would tell me that they hadn’t been tended to with such care since the indigenous tribes of the region were forced out of their territory. They would tell me their purpose for living could now be fully expressed through the ways I planned to transform them, allowing them to be of service to the planet through healing people,” Greta says, as if remembering conversations with old friends. Mugwort, Greta’s personal power plant, is an anti-spasmodic, eases bruising and diarrhea, is a digestive stimulant and a liver tonic. The benefits don’t end there, though: the spirit of mugwort opens the third eye, ushering us into dreamland. Greta describes the spirit of mugwort as a wise old crone, a deeply clearing and nurturing presence who can also be a bit of a trickster.
It was this sensitivity to the subtle planes of reality that steered Greta towards Ayurveda. Unsatisfied with the western assessment models used by the doctors she visited following a broken back sustained during Olympic training in Nordic skiing, Greta sought out training in Ayurveda. She’s studied Ayurveda under the tutelage of Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the leading experts on the subject in the United States. For years, Greta has run herbal first aid clinics at ecological demonstrations and direct actions, tending to earth warriors bruised and cut, doused in tear gas, and generally suffering adrenal fatigue. Recognizing that her patients required a multi-pronged approach, Greta decided to attend massage school. “There would be people I’d be giving herbs to till I was blue in the face, when what they really needed was body work. Bodywork is like sculpting. We need lymphatic system drainage. It’s a big problem for Americans: our rivers are all stopped up.” Rather than compartmentalizing the physical body, the Ayurvedic system comprehensively addresses the physiological, emotional, and spiritual imbalances of the patient. In Ayurveda, a system that developed on the Indian subcontinent at least 5,000 years ago, everything is composed of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. These elements represent properties and forces in a dynamic state of play. Every individual’s mind-body constitution is a result of the unique combinations of these elements at work within them, and the Ayurvedic assessment model is one of determining the patient’s elemental makeup. Greta sees health and wellbeing through the Ayurvedic lens, but rather than reaching for herbs from the Indian subcontinent first, she attempts to find locally available analogues to prescribe and combine for her patients.
Greta has devoted much of her energy in recent years to the MASHH (Medicine for All Seeking Health and Healing) Clinic Collective, an association of women healers who run clinics at environmental action events, hold trainings and workshops, and seeks to empower people to take their health back into their own hands. The MASHH clinic practices bioregional herbalism, or using native or locally available medicinal plants, aiming to create a symbiotic relationship with the slice of earth that one calls home. To refrain from over harvesting while wildcrafting, bioregional herbalists often cultivate their own plants for medicinal use. Greta sees medicinal gardens everywhere: in the cracks in the sidewalk where chickweed sprouts through, in the vacant lots lush with mullein and plantain and lavender. When I ask Greta how I might learn to listen to the mullein, the lavender, the calendula, the mugwort, she has this advice: “Get as far deep as you can, alone, and feel that sensation of what that’s like to be able to hear a sound three mile away, or see something twenty miles away. Expand your awareness so that you can feel when a grizzly bear is five miles away because the hair on the back of your neck is telling you it’s there. That’s cultivating that really deep intuitive sense of awareness.”