Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gardener, Teacher, Healer: Herbal Sciences Alumna on Three Jobs she Loves

Alexis Durham, BS ('08), gardens, teaches and makes herbal medicines in the sun-baked hills of Southern Oregon. She says she's happiest with her hands in her dirt — and teaching her craft to eager students.

Alexis Durham

Alexis Durham, BS ('08), gardens, teaches and makes herbal medicines in the sun-baked hills of Southern Oregon. It's a far cry from her past life at a desk job in Austin, Texas. Durham’s time earning a Bachelor of Science with a Major in Herbal Sciences at Bastyr taught her to combine scientific rigor with her growing appreciation for the healing power of plants. She says she's happiest with her hands in her dirt — and teaching her craft to eager students.

She talked to us recently about her work and her three favorite herbs.

How did you discover that you wanted to be an herbalist?

I was a pre-med student applying to med schools, but my heart wasn't in it. I had a small container garden on my apartment patio in Austin. I kept accumulating more plants, and the more I read about them, the more I realized what they could do. I realized this was a way to work in medicine without being so involved with insurance companies and other business entities that didn't appeal to me. And I could see a need, because people don't know much about herbs. It all feels like an accident — a very happy accident.

Durham harvests angelica seedsHow do you describe herbal medicine to those new to it?

I tell them I teach people how to make medicine using plants. A lot of them are skeptical, so I remind them that most pharmaceuticals are synthesized from plants. I tell them I'm trying to restore traditions that generations and generations of people used. Most people appreciate the history and can sense how much has been lost.

I'm trying to empower people to heal themselves, often by doing things as simple as gardening. People spend so much time indoors on computers. Sometimes I just remind people that there's an outside world. We've been very much a part of it during our history as a species.

Your three favorite herbs: Go.

Hawthorne: It's in the rose family, and it's so healing for the heart, which I think is our most universally wounded body part. It's a tonic herb that's safe for everyone to use, and it makes a very tasty jam.

Yarrow: It's a great healer on many levels. It's kind of a warrior plant: Not only will it heal your wounds, it will also fight for you when you're having trouble getting through your day. Physically, it supports almost every system of the body, aiding with digestion and clearing stagnation in the blood.  It's in the sunflower family and grows almost everywhere.

Finally, the humble dandelion. I think it grows everywhere because we need it. It helps with digestion and the removal of toxins. It's the only plant I know of that embodies the sun, moon and stars during its life cycle: the sun as a flower, the moon as a white puff-ball of seeds and the stars when it blows away. It's a misunderstood plant and I respect its tenacity; for some reason it keeps living even though we try to kill it. The greens are edible, so it's easy to introduce into your diet.

How did you end up at Bastyr?

Again, by accident. I found it online. For a variety of reasons, I was ready for a move and ready for a career change (I was working in business management). As soon as I drove down the campus drive on my visit, with the trees arching over it, I knew that this was where I was supposed to end up. And that turned out to be true.

Clouds gather over the Horizon Herbs farm where Durham cultivated her craft.At Bastyr you had a clinical internship focused on women and children's health. What was that like?

I worked with my professor, Sheila Kingsbury, ND, RH (AHG), at her private practice. I learned a lot about interacting with clients and how to do a proper intake. I went in with all kinds of ideas about what patients should do, and I had to learn that they have full lives and can only do so much. Dr. Kingsbury and my other teachers also helped me develop critical thinking and research skills, which are essential for being able to separate good research from the misinformation that is out there.

What's next for you?

I'm coordinating a symposium in October 2012 for the American Herbalists Guild. It allows me to use a lot of my business skills. As a young herbalist who's new to the profession, it's great to be able to contribute something and meet herbalists whose work I respect so much, whose books I use.

I also volunteer for the Rogue Valley Farm to School program, teaching children about growing, harvesting and preparing whole foods in partnership with small local farms.

My favorite thing that I do is teaching. I teach weekly classes to the interns at the Herbaculture Residential Study Program at Herb Pharm here in Oregon. I teach medicine making and body systems classes. The students make me continue learning. I have to stay current on research to answer their questions. It's great to see people get excited about herbs and education. It lets me plant seeds, literally and metaphorically. Every seed and every student is an opportunity to change the world. I get to share my love with others — what a blessing.

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Learn more about studying herbal sciences at Bastyr.

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