Careers and Education: Berkeley's EcoHouse demonstrates the fragrant power of sustainable living
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"There are few things in the world as pleasurable as taking a nap on a chamomile patch," says herbalist Joshua Muscat. "It's an herb that doesn't get a lot of respect. It smells good. It looks good. The flower is cute."
It's a hot Sunday morning in west Berkeley, and Muscat is leading a workshop called Local Medicinal Herbs and Your Health. This session is one of the classes offered by the EcoHouse, a unique residence designed to demonstrate sustainable building and gardening techniques. Wearing a white T-shirt, maroon pantaloons, and Crocs, Muscat has a down-to-earth demeanor and a boundless gusto for herbs. He's been a student and practitioner of Western herbal medicine for the past 11 years, and his five-hour class covers everything from harvesting herbs to practicing holistic health care to preparing medicinal tinctures.
Twelve students gather on stumps, benches, and stones in the EcoHouse's invitingly rambunctious garden. We're here for a variety of reasons. Several people express dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine, while others want to enhance their home gardens by adding beneficent native herbs. One man is preparing for a stint at a Buddhist monastery by planting an organic garden. Another says he's here simply because "the EcoHouse is always inspiring to me. I just like to come here and get a little bit of that."
Babeck Tondre, a permaculture activist and resident of the EcoHouse since its inception, acquaints us with some of the special features of the site. Native plants and edible species grow in garden beds and containers in the ample yard. Bamboo shoots and ginger plants stretch into the air, towering leafily over the flowering parsnip and varietal poppies. A bathtub fountain burbles peacefully beside a straw bale toolshed designed by a local landscape architect.
There's a rustle in the yard and a wiry man with glasses and an outdoorsy look rushes up to Muscat, trailing a freshly plucked specimen of the herb of the hour. As we pass the chamomile around, Paul Johnsen dives back into the foliage to search for another plant. Johnsen knows the garden well. A horticulturist, he became a part of the three-person EcoHouse-hold last year and works with Tondre to continually upgrade the site. Almost everything in the garden has a teaching function, including hand-built structures and animal life, which are part of the garden's ecosystem. The toolshed roof will be renovated during an upcoming workshop on planting a living roof garden. Even the ducks will have their day.
Frances and Nate are brother drakes who waddle about the yard quacking amicably at passers-by on the long stretch of sidewalk that borders the garden's west-side fence. Parents and children greet the two birds by name. In addition to winning the Mr. and Mr. congeniality award, the ducks keep the slug and snail population to a minimum. This month Frances and Nate will star in a workshop about raising ducks and chickens in your yard. Omelet aficionados have doubtless already sniffed out another potential benefit of raising female fowl: harvesting eggs. The EcoHouse did, at one point, foster a female duck, who purportedly laid large and delicious eggs throughout the yard. She died, though, so there won't be eggs in the garden until the mail-order chicks arrive.
But other organic edibles abound, and during the lunch break Tondre encourages us to "forage in the yard." There are low-water apple trees that yield a tart, green fruit and quince trees and raspberry bushes. Someone passes a basket of freshly picked gooseberries around the class. Their papery sheathes enclose a berry the size of a cherry tomato, and the intensity of the sharp, sweet flavor is akin to having a pellet of freshly cut grass applied directly to the taste buds.
Refreshed by garden goodies, we're ready for more learning. Muscat talks about the importance of harvesting herbs responsibly. As medicinal plants such as echinacea and goldenseal gain widespread recognition and use, wild sources can suffer from overharvesting. Muscat recommends patronizing small businesses such as Lhasa Kharnak in Berkeley (www.herb-inc.com ) or Scarlet Sage in San Francisco (www.scarletsageherb.com ), which utilize sustainably grown or harvested plants. A group called United Plant Savers (www.unitedplantsavers.org ), dedicated to preserving native medicinal herbs in North America, provides a list of endangered herbs, as well as one of responsible plant purveyors.
The best way to ensure a good source is to grow herbs in your own garden. Since space is a limiting factor for many of us, Muscat encourages urban gardeners to think collectively when deciding what to plant. As in, I'll grow yarrow in my container garden if you grow lemon balm in your window box.
Devising tactics and sharing resources like this is a primary goal of the EcoHouse, according to Tondre. "Karl would want me to say how this project fits into the larger community," Tondre says. The Karl he's referring to is the late Karl Linn, a community activist and landscape architect who spearheaded the EcoHouse project in 1999. Though Linn passed away last year, his vision and presence remain vividly felt here.
Classes at EcoHouse are $15 and no one's turned away for lack of funds. Expanding its community reach and resources, the EcoHouse recently joined forces with the Ecology Center, a well-known Berkeley nonprofit that offers a wealth of green resources to compliment the action-packed EcoHouse workshops. The center acts as an umbrella organization that hooks green-minded volunteers up to relevant activist organizations and also operates an information desk that answers such practical questions as "Where can I get worms for my worm bin?" The center also houses the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), which offers seeds for free; the price tag is a promise to bring seeds back to the library the following year. Beck Cowles, program director at the Ecology Center, speaks enthusiastically about the partnership with EcoHouse. "One of the neat things is that because it's a demonstration site, people are able to come and get hands-on experience in learning to live more sustainably in the city."
Back to the herbal-medicinal course at hand: just spending time in the garden will help fix what ails you, Muscat says. He opposes the quick-fix, pill-happy culture of mainstream medicine. Muscat advocates for Western herbal medicine as an alternative or compliment to mainstream medical practices. "It just doesn't work within a capitalist framework," he says. While herbal applications can remedy certain short-term problems (lemon balm: great for soothing herpes sores!), Muscat says that his holistic approach is more effective in treating long-term ailments, such as chronic fatigue and sinus allergies. Putting his mugwort where his mouth is, Muscat runs the San Francisco Botanical Medicine Clinic (www.sfbmc.org ), an organization that provides low-cost treatment using herbal remedies and a holistic approach to health care.
After several sun-beaten hours among the plants, our fog-accustomed bodies are responding with proto–heat stroke. So Muscat pitches a canopy and retires to the dappled shade of a prune tree to gleefully demonstrate the mad-scientist-meets-celebrity-chef aspect of herbal medicine: preparing tinctures. His working surface is made up of a warped wooden table, upon which rest a heavy-duty blender, two quart-size bottles of Everclear, and an "I [Heart] My Guru" mug.
As Muscat blends, sifts, measures, and shakes, I inadvertently engage in the ancient practice of urtication, otherwise known as flogging with nettles, as I brush against a prolific member of the genus Urtica growing next to my stump seat. For a moment I ponder seizing the bull by the horns or, um, the nettle by the hair?, and continuing the flagellation. Relieving rheumatism, after all, is one possible application of the plant's medicinal properties, according to herbalists.
And those who find pleasure in pain (including certain members of the kink community and perhaps of Opus Dei) are well acquainted with the nettle's saucy sting. It's just one more example of symbiosis between people and plants. It turns out that plants too can thrive on a bit of rough play. As Shakespeare penned in Henry VI, "The Camomile; the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows." SFBG
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