Mark C. Anderson
Foraging on Orcas Island with Shamanic Herbalist Tara Kim
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Orcas Hotel line cook Tara Kim—who’s also a mushroom enthusiast, shamanic herbalist and self-described “green witch in the Wise Woman tradition”—is talking to a red-tailed hawk.
“Hello Susun,” she says. “Thank you.”
We’re not even out of the driveway—check that, we haven’t even gotten in the car—and the natural wonders are coming early and often.
Before she calls to the hawk, her eyes light up because she spots something many would overlook.
Spoiler alert: This happens a lot.
“Cleavers!” she says, gently severing a segment from a climbing vine with a pinch of her fingernails and throwing it at me. It sticks to my shirt. “They cleave to you!” Juiced, in tinctures or infusions, she adds, they’re great for your lymphatic system.
Then she’s onto the next stop, crouching to inspect a pale blue chicory blossom. A bee promptly perches on it. As we snack on the flowers, Kim rattles off some of the things chicory protects against: high blood pressure, heart failure, constipation, liver disorders, cancer.
I yank a flower to get a closer look because I just ate my first one. Busted.
“Try to sever it cleanly like you would want someone to take your arm,” she suggests. “You wouldn’t want someone to tear yours off. You’d want a solid amputation. It’s a practice in mindfulness.”
She spots little yellow buds—pineapple weed—and hands me one to try. Chefs sometimes pickle them and/or use them as garnish, and they taste like perfume in the best way. Also known as wild chamomile, it enjoys similar calming qualities in naturally sweet teas, and also relieves stomach cramps, intestinal cramps, menstrual cramps and digestive maladies.
“Plants present themselves because they want to be used,” Kim says. “If they’re nearby and abundant, that’s them saying, ‘I'm here with you for a reason: because I want to work with you.’”
Yes, plants talk to Kim. And she talks to plants. She also meditates with them, nibbles on them, cooks with them, and heals with them. She darts inside to grab her leading guidebook for such work, Healing Wise by Susun S. Weed, who hosts a podcast Kim follows religiously.
Weed also anchored a three-month live-in shamanic herbal apprenticeship at a working farmstead outside of Woodstock, New York, that changed Kim’s life.
Kim milked goats, assisted Weed’s work, practiced tai chi, dove deep into psychotherapy, and learned all sorts of techniques for teas, tinctures and more.
“It was an ego death in a lot of ways—you break down all layers and put yourself back together,” Kim says. “It’s hard to put into words.
“That’s where a lot of my truth speaking came about,” she continues. “That’s how [Weed] leads her life. It helped me remember who I am amid a web of women who have been doing this for centuries.”
She returns with the book, grinning.
“My Bible,” she says, “Her slogan is ‘Herbal medicine is people's medicine.’”
That’s when Kim’s eyes shoot to the sky. That's where the hawk glides with its fan of orange tail feathers and noble brow, turning spirals through uninterrupted blue.
“Oh my gosh—it’s her,” Kim says, reverence creeping into her voice. “It’s Susun showing up.”
She may be onto something. Wise is really into spirals.
“Spirals never repeat themselves,” she writes in Healing Wise. “Spirals remind us that life is movement, that each moment is unique, and that form is the essence of transformation.
“The symbol of the wise woman tradition is the spiral. The spiral is the bubbling cauldron, the curl of the wave, the lift of the wind, the whirlpool of water, the umbilical cord, the great serpent, the path of the Earth, the twist of the helix, the spin of our galaxy.”
Ostensibly Kim and I are on a mission to forage flavorful and beneficial herbs to build a craft cocktail around. But as these first few minutes reveal, this operation’s outcomes will range well beyond an herb, because plants have so much to teach us—and Kim is tuned in to their every lesson.
We pick Mountain Lake for our quest, skirting its 4-mile perimeter as it traces the edge of the water. If you’ve heard it’s beautiful, that’s not quite accurate. It’s f**king gorgeous, another one of those is-this-real interplays of water, tree and sky that are an Orcas Island specialty.
Most can traverse the largely flat loop in not much more than an hour. Not us. Not even close. Kim is too alert, too vigilant, too raptured with the forest’s creatures. We stop and admire them constantly.
With the stops emerge steady lessons. Get on the plants’ level, literally, Kim advises, and you can better understand them. Never harvest the first example of a species you encounter, or the last, to help it survive. Don’t wash plants before ingesting because trace soil benefits healthy stomach bacteria. The mint family has square stalks, lipped blossoms and opposing leaves, for instance, and carry antispasmodic qualities that solve digestive issues. Hoof mushrooms allowed ancient tribes to carry embers from camp to camp; Kim later draws a parallel to her carrying the embers of the wise women in her own internal hoof mushroom. Ghost pipes can survive without photosynthesis.
Lessons in resourcefulness, empathy, sustainability, history, health. Check, check, check, check and check.
“Plants want to work with us,” she says, “and be there for us in that way.”
The next revelation is mouse-ear chickweed, which she gently plucks for us to try. “Tastes like salad!” she says, and its young shoots would be great that way. In homeopathy, it can relieve rheumatic pains and psoriasis. It also soothes asthma, blood disorders, conjunctivitis, constipation, inflammation, dyspepsia, skin ailments and obesity.
Then appears a flower Kim doesn’t recognize. “Who are you?” she asks. “Can we be friends?”
As we wind our way through mossy boulders and a sudden forest of fuchsia foxglove (pictured above), Kim gets down to what she hopes to do with plants, with food, with her life on Orcas and in the Orcas Hotel kitchen: In essence, she wants to make more friends like this new discovery.
“I want to understand the wild, and all that plants can teach us,” she says. “I’m all about relationships. I want to understand their relationship with land, and be a steward of that land, and cultivate my connection to it."
As she says this, all around us, relentlessly, poetically, mushroom mycelium connects tree to tree, moisture to root, and humans to history—and reminds us how there is no wise way to separate anything. Not one piece of the ecosystem from another, or anything from the plants who convert sunshine and water into so much more: shelter, beauty, health, food and a vision for self-rediscovery.
“For that relationship-with-land work, a hike is a good start," Kim says. "So is eating a good meal: Once you slow down and eat a plant, it can be a jumping off point for questions that lead to stronger and stronger relationships with the land.”
We eventually complete the loop—pausing to rope-swing into the lake, of course—then stop off at the neighboring waterfalls before turning the car toward the hotel’s employee housing.
To complete our undertaking, I’m hoping to make a yarrow tincture that can lend peppery notes to an adult beverage, but also works on its own in treating inflammation, digestive disorders, anxiety and more. Unsurprisingly, Kim knows a spot where it grows wild next to the road.
We identify a robust grove of it. While I snip the blossoms and fill a wicker basket, she weaves through some of the long history yarrow has in traditional medicine.
“Roman soldiers used it to help heal wounds,” she says.
That’s why it’s known as wound wort—but it also goes by bloodwort, carpenter's weed, devil's nettle, nosebleed, old man's pepper, staunchweed and thousand-leaf.
We pack the flowers into a small mason’s jar and fill it with 100-proof vodka. I fill out a label with the contents, date and location where it was harvested.
The finite amount of tincture will be ready in six weeks.
The infinite lessons plants like yarrow provide, meanwhile, are available immediately—for those who choose to seek them out.
More on Mountain Lake via the Washington State Parks page; additional detail on Susun Wise's work awaits at her website.