A man with a mission, with the help of a few friends, turns a 2,000–acre patchwork of forest into a home for herbs—herbs different than the smoking kind raised by neighbors.
Fifty people lined up for a robust hike, behind Paul Strauss, at the grand opening ceremonies for the United Plant Savers Goldenseal Preserve in southern Ohio. It was hardly robust. The fifty of us stopped, intermittently, to identify, sniff, and caress the profusion of herbs along the hillside. Many hikers wore necklaces bearing a small white crescent moon, signifying that they had studied with Vermont herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. One of them pointed to a heavily veined leaf and whispered, "Moon Seed." The discovery echoed down the line.
Strauss stopped and pointed to a place where plants arched over the trail. "Here's a place where it's absolutely impossible not to step on an endangered herb," he said. "You're probably stepping all over the trillium, you sinful people."
This native medicinal herb sanctuary lies in the foothills of the Appalachians, an area of great botanical richness that narrowly escaped the Pleistocene ice which flattened much of the rest of Ohio. My husband and I drove south along the Ohio River, a fat blue ribbon that defines half of Ohio's eastern border, then cut across the top of the boot–shaped wedge of Meigs County that juts into West Virginia. We stopped at the county seat in Pomeroy, where fine old buildings and homes overlook the river and recall bygone fortunes made in coal and salt. Then we let our GPS guide us inland, along roads that dipped and curved and, often, seemed untraveled.
We passed the occasional rusty school bus drowning in avid vegetation, properties bristling with hand–painted signs warning against trespassers, and old dogs waiting for the next car to chase. The county is largely agricultural now, as it was in the days when Meigs had one of the state's most heavily traveled Underground Railroad lines. Many of the hills we passed were once ripped open for strip mining, but the land has been largely reclaimed by hard–working humans and nature herself. Finally, cardboard signs outside Rutland led us to the sanctuary.
Meigs County is an area famous for a different kind of herbal medicine. Meig's Gold has an oversized reputation among pot smokers, and the county ranks high, in Ohio, for the number of apprehended outdoor marijuana plants—in a state that's among the nation's top ten in plant collection.
But Strauss, and others, have given rise to a different sort of herbal flowering over the last 20 years or so. Born in New York City, Strauss was an angry SDS activist who set off cross–country, stopped in Arizona to study with a Shoshone herbalist, then wandered back to Ohio seeking ginseng and goldenrod. He arrived in Meigs County forty years ago and was quickly taken in by a family who taught him to plow with mules, can tomatoes, and make a living in the woods. He bought and worked an 80–acre farm. Worried about development—southern Ohio still has extensive coal reserves, coveted by companies interested in both surface and deep mining—Strauss accumulated another 600 acres. He started a list of nature–loving friends to contact when nearby farms went on the market. Now, he and some fifty people own a 2,000–acre patchwork of largely undisturbed woods.
United Plant Savers and the idea for the sanctuary were born on Strauss's farm in the early 1990s. Strauss was leading a group of herbalists on a hike through what is now called Hydrastis Hill. He looked back and saw Rosemary Gladstar crouched at the side of the path with her face buried in goldenseal, an herb so valued for various remedies that it's chronically overharvested in the wild. "She was crying!" Strauss recalls. "She had never seen a stand of goldenseal like that. I realized that I was a really spoiled herbalist, living at the edge of this bountiful forest."
Strauss cleared trails and made signs on old pieces of barn roofing slate to identify the plants, and he continued to reclaim strip–mined land. The Talking Forest Medicine Trail, now open to the public, winds through 1,200 acres and ten miles of goldenseal, ginseng (unlabeled—at $400 for a dried wild root, Strauss doesn't want to make it easy for the county's busy poachers), black and blue cohosh, white flowering trillium, Virginia snake root, and nearly 500 other medicinal plants.
All is not silent rustication in Meigs County. Strauss has a flourishing trade in herbal concoctions, including the popular Ear Oil and Hemp Oil Salve. In the area surrounding his farm, the hippie diaspora from Ohio University in nearby Athens has welcomed newcomers bringing visitors and high decibels. A few miles away is the Fur Peace Ranch, where Jorma Kaukonen (guitarist from Jefferson Airplane/Starship) and wife Vanessa welcome student and professional musicians. Skatopia is also nearby, a punk skateboard mecca that lures young men from around the world, and throws parties with bands blasting through the night. On a farm abutting Strauss's, his pal and former United Plant Savers intern Joe Viny built a bandstand on a hillside and hosts one of the nation's ten regional Burning Man events. The Meigs version is called the Scorched Nuts Festival.
But I wasn't aware of any of that when I was inside the sanctuary. Walking along the trails, I heard the whoosh of my own legs rustling through the herbs, the occasional creak of a slippery elm, and the call of birds. Even when nearby events are at their loudest, Strauss says that only a tiny thump of bass and the occasional thrumming of drums penetrate the woods. That lush aural curtain muffles everything but its own green noise.
Kristin Ohlson is a Cleveland–based writer with articles and essays published in publications that include the New York Times, Salon, Food & Wine, Vegetarian Times, Discover, New Scientist, Preservation, Wildlife Conservation, and American Archeology. She is author of a memoir, Stalking the Divine, which won the American Society of Journalists and Authors' 2004 Best Nonfiction Book award, and is co–author of the New York Times bestselling Kabul Beauty School . Her article from Gourmet about dining out in Kabul is in Best American Travel Writing 2008.
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