“People are just drawn to me,” Linda Conroy said and laughed. “Maybe it’s my hair?”
The 51-year-old herbalist and forager does have cool hair. She wears it down — long, wavy and gray, a few pieces tied into braids.
She returned as a speaker at the annual Mother Earth News Fair last weekend in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, to give talks on herbal first aid (she recently became a wilderness first responder), and herbs and fermentation for digestion. These were her scheduled talks at the fair, but she said she could talk about herbs all day and was open to doing just that at her Moonrise Herbs booth, full of her homemade salves, tinctures, organic and wildcrafted herbs and seaweeds, as well as brooms handmade by her partner, John Holzwart.
Maybe it begins with her hair, but Conroy knows the attraction runs much deeper. Put simply, people want to live the way she lives, she said: connected to the land, knowing how to be healthy naturally, wildcrafting and foraging and making herbal medicine. Does she still shop for food? Of course. But she incorporates wild foods into her diet to bring diversity and nutrients. Her rule of thumb is to eat something wild with every meal, even if it’s just a pinch of seeds sprinkled into a dish.
“I think it gives us that wild edge that we need,” she said, “and more creativity and more aliveness, more health, more diversity. … Diversity actually prevents disease.”
Fall is the season of roots, seeds and berries. Though Conroy is based in Wisconsin, she said plants there are very similar to those you’d find in Frederick County.
This time of year, you can harvest seeds from evening primrose, amaranth and lambs quarters, she said. Also highbush cranberries and nannyberries; and burdock, dandelion and chicory roots. Conroy also forages for autumn olive berries, high in lycopene, and makes her own ketchup with them because they are similar in taste to tomatoes.
For Conroy, there is a thin line, or no line, between food and medicine.
“I started as an herbalist and quickly became fascinated with wild edibles,” she said. “The foundation of health is nutrition. Focus on wild foods and whole foods to build health. Herbal medicine is a tool.”
She began her studies over 20 years ago when she was a medical social worker in Seattle. A coworker at the time was living with HIV and ingesting plants for health.
“It was really inspiring,” Conroy said. “She was working full-time … and back then, (HIV) was a death sentence. That spoke volumes to me.”
Scared of picking up tuberculosis because of the nature of the work she was doing, Conroy started taking St. John’s wort, a well-known herbal antiviral, at her coworker’s recommendation.
“At the time, I didn’t realize I had a low-grade depression, a functional depression,” she said. It lifted a few weeks into taking the St. John’s Wort, which Conroy then realized is also used for mild depression.
Conroy apprenticed under the coworker, who is still alive today, and went on to study under Susun Weed, EagleSong, and others. Now she teaches several students online and in Wisconsin, and often they provide feedback that helps Conroy continue learning.
“It takes a lifetime,” she said. “I feel like I have an incredible amount to learn.”
While still living in Seattle, Conroy began holding potluck dinners, asking friends to bring a wild edible or a wild dish for a meal. But nobody brought anything. Instead, Conroy started preparing the meals herself, and after a while, there was a little bit of pressure to wildcraft something interesting and come up with a new recipe — so she was continually challenged and creating new dishes with the foods growing in nature.
She now leads the dinner four times a year in Wisconsin, continuing to find wild foods to harvest and prepare, like wild leaf pesto, anything that can be pickled, and acorns (last year, she processed more than 30 pounds of acorn flour).
“I think it changes your perspective on life,” she said. “I think we need more creativity, and I think wild foods open the door. … It really shifts who we are.”
Learn more about Linda Conroy at http://www.moonwiseherbs.com.
Originally published Sept. 19, 2014, in The Frederick News-Post.