At the Cibolo Center for Conservation, my role as the Farm Programs Coordinator at Herff Farm is to educate the community about the benefits of organic gardening and the many ways we can use plants and nature for both food and medicine. From facilitating yoga classes every Saturday on the back porch of the Herff House, to teaching gardening classes, to hosting the Farmers Market at Herff Farm where our community can purchase healthy organic food, we promote overall well-being through our programming, both for ourselves and for the land.
Nature is a powerful tool for staying healthy. Studies have shown that time spent outdoors improves both mental and physical outcomes. We can exercise in nature without even noticing that we’re doing it, and just a few minutes outdoors in nature is shown to significantly reduce stress. On top of this, healthy diets and medicines can be found both in the plants we cultivate in our gardens and the ones that grow wild on the land.
My path to my current role at the Cibolo was circuitous, but nature was a common thread through all of it. I worked abroad as an ESL teacher after graduating from college, and while backpacking around the world between teaching jobs, I began to work on organic farms in exchange for room and board as a way of traveling cheaply and further immersing myself in different cultures.
Unexpectedly, I fell in love with organic farming. Many small farms abroad are organic not by design, but simply because they are still using manual farming techniques. Meals are local and seasonal not to reduce carbon footprints but because there is no superstore within 200+ miles. I experienced real physical labor for the first time and found that I slept much better when both my body and mind were tired. Seeing this alternative way of living was incredibly eye opening: it was more in tune with the rhythms of nature, and it was on a human scale. I saw how plants were used in daily life: an aloe vera cutting was used in place of shampoo and palo santo was burned inside to keep the mosquitos away.
During my time abroad, I also spent a lot of time in nature staring at or swimming in waterfalls, trekking up volcanoes, and camping in canyons. I had the experience of learning how to cultivate plants at the same time that I was realizing that time outdoors was empowering, energizing and even necessary for mental health.
After returning to the United States, I received my Wilderness First Responder certification, which teaches you how to provide first aid in situations when you are far from medical care. I learned how to diagnose and treat common injuries and illnesses that occur in the backcountry using traditional medicine. I learned how to set bones, fashion splints out of whatever is available, and treat common illnesses. Plant remedies, however, were not taught. This seemed like a glaring oversight, as common plants could be all you have available in such a situation.
I began working as a field guide for a wilderness therapy company in Oregon in 2016, and it was while there that I truly learned the therapeutic value of nature. It was a trauma-based program that treated teenagers and young adults who were struggling with myriad issues: addiction, depression, attachment disorders and countless other issues stemming from trauma.
Our students camped in the wilderness around Bend for an average of three months at a time without ever going inside. I spent more time sleeping in a tent than in my own bed for the two years I spent in Oregon. We carried water, food, cooking utensils, hatchets, saws, tents, and everything else we needed to survive in the Oregon wilderness on our backs. Winter was the most challenging season, but also the most rewarding. Layover days when we weren’t hiking to our next campsite were spent gathering downed branches, processing them for firewood, cooking group meals and boiling water over campfires. When our students were feeling lost, we told them to look to nature for examples of how to live. Our job was just to keep our students safe while nature did its healing work.
After getting chilblains on a particularly cold shift, I started to experience shooting pains whenever my toes warmed up. This went on for months, and I tried everything I could find. Finally, I went to a botanica in San Antonio and explained my cold injury in Spanish to the woman working behind the counter. She recommended soaking my feet in arnica flowers steeped in hot water. I was willing to try anything, and to my shock, the pain went away within a few days (although I still can’t feel the tips of my big toes to this day). I realized that plant medicine isn’t just a weak substitute for modern medicine. They have powerful constituents that can be very effective when used correctly. In fact, plants often provide the active compounds in many medications.
Plants became my favorite source of nature metaphors to help struggling students. We worked in Ponderosa Pine forests around Bend that depend on wildfires for their overall health. Their jigsaw-puzzle bark is thick and fire resistant, and they sprout after wildfires. There is so much to learn from this tree’s adaption to fire, which feels destructive in the moment but is serving a necessary function for the good of the ecosystem when allowed to run its course.
Because they can’t run away from predators or get in the shade when they’re too hot, plants have had to develop incredible adaptations in order to play the hand that’s dealt them. They are survival geniuses, and over time, humans have learned how to harness these adaptions as medicine. We pass down remedies and recipes, building on the knowledge of our ancestors to extract the constituents from the plant that will benefit us. Take Aloe Vera, a staple of our regional gardens. This plant survives in the desert, and so naturally it has adapted to withstand harsh sunlight. It is no wonder, then, that it is so effective at soothing sunburns and other minor burns.
Anyone who has ever taken a wilderness first aid course has probably been told that there is no cure for altitude sickness except to trek back down to where you came from. If you’ve ever gone for a high-altitude hike in the Andes of Peru, however, you will know that it’s common practice for your guide to provide coca tea to help you acclimate. Again, it is no coincidence that this plant grows at high altitude and also provides its cure. It is the plant’s own will to survive that we benefit from to improve our own health.
All of my experiences with nature, first aid, teaching and gardening came together at the Cibolo, and we are able to address so many facets of wellness through our educational programs at Herff Farm. I have the incredible opportunity to teach both children and adults about the healing power of nature, whether we are learning about edible and medicinal native plants along our trails, making first aid salves from the cultivated herbs and plants of the one-acre Teaching Garden, or learning how to grow our own healthy, organic food. We practice mindfulness as we walk through the forest, listening to the birds and the rushing creek and living entirely in the present moment while we are here. There is so much to learn from nature, and so many alternative methods for staying healthy to be found growing all around us.