Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
Through her herbalism practice, Natalia Bragg feels she is able to tap into currents of human medicinal and plant knowledge that are both ancient and timeless. She is grateful to live and work in a natural landscape that she finds unbelievably bountiful and healing. For over 44 years, she has gathered, occasionally cultivated, and prepared dozens of plants for medicine. She uses time-honored traditional formulas and also experiments with her own innovative preparations. She estimates that she gathers and uses over 200 plants for medicine and food. Today, she runs a successful herbal business in Wade, Maine. She offers a six part certified beginning herbalist course (one day a month) at the farm in the summer from May- Oct.
Natalia credits her knowledge and her passion for medicinal herbs to elders she spent time with as a child. Now 63, she was a weak, sickly child in a strong, healthy, long-lived family. Her sickliness often placed her in the company of elders, listening to their stories and tales of bodily complaints, even when she was supposed to be coloring. She was fascinated by their stories and only later learned what they meant:
"I didn’t know what diarrhea was, but I was pretty sure it must be an exotic thing. And, by the time I got old enough to learn what that was, I knew who had a propensity to have it in the family."
Spurred by this early listening, she began a self-directed educational program of observation, connecting symptoms with conditions in the people around her. After a time observing and recognizing these patterns, she says,
"When I would see that [ailment] again, I would know that I would be in the right ballpark, and then when I learned the plants and learned what they were good for, then I knew how I could do this,"
“this” being her practice of herbalism, which began for her at age seventeen.
Natalia’s interest in her elders was reciprocal. Once those around her knew she was interested in their plant knowledge, they began to share it. Natalia learned the most from her grandmother, a woman who married at thirteen and later raised eleven children, spending winters alone “on the banks of the Aroostook River” while her husband worked as a cook on winter log drives. As she got older, Natalia’s grandmother relied most on her “Writis solution” – an herbal salve that soothed the arthritis in her hands. Today, Natalia’s ‘pure’ version of this formula (her grandmother’s, which included bacon grease, got “kind of evil smellin’” in the summer) is her best-selling product.
On beginning her practice, Natalia also learned from her neighbors. She frequently found herself sitting in neighbors’ kitchens, sipping coffee while her hosts described old herbal formulas used in the household. She says of these experiences,
"It enlarged my idea for traditions here…the large families that were here had to take care of themselves. [There was] this wonderful Maine tradition of being thrifty and being able to take care of yourself…And before [those families] would see [their medicinal knowledge] disappear, they would give it away to make sure that it still lived."
Again, she saw patterns, this time at the family level: sometimes the same or similar formulas were given to her by several families. Just as she has received knowledge, Natalia also passes it on. Concerned that interest in medicinal plant uses is dwindling, she considers it part of her duty to teach and pass on her own knowledge. Each summer, she leads a series of workshops on her farm where students learn plants, plant uses, and preparation methods, leaving with a salve or other product they make. Workshop attendees often come from towns that are “nearby” only in northern Maine terms: many students drive more than an hour. She has also been a guest speaker at the University of Maine in Fort Kent, the American Folk Festival in Bangor, and various local schools. In the past she’s also had interns who get more in-depth training on plants and methods.
Natalia believes that the plants a person needs will follow him or her, presenting themselves when appropriate, and that a piece of wild ground will yield what a person needs if they take care of it for seven years. She feels that an open, respectful attitude toward plants will attract species that heal. Part of that respect is evident in the way Natalia harvests, as she tries to minimize harm to individual plants or plant populations. For example, when harvesting bark from highbush cranberry (or crampbark) bushes, she harvests well away from berry bracts and other areas of new growth. As she harvests mostly on her own land, she is able to monitor populations of plants, care for them by adding manure, and adjust her gathering practices as necessary.
Herbalism provides some financial security for Natalia with her business, Knot II Bragg Farm. She has about 600 regular customers who depend on her for herbal preparations; 400 in the local area and an additional 200 live elsewhere around the country. In addition, she teaches more than 200 people per year. Her sales and business are increasing, and she even makes some formulas in batches of 100 bottles. As might be expected, the nature of her customers’ demand shifts with the seasons: jewelweed (good for rashes, poison ivy, and insect bites) and insect spray are popular in the summer. For Natalia, knowledge of plant medicines is not proprietary. It belongs to everyone, and it is part of the cultural heritage of a place. As she incorporates the teachings of her elders into healing remedies and passes on her knowledge to those seeking to learn, she keeps the timeless regional body of plant wisdom dynamic and alive.
Information about medicinal plant uses is provided for educational purposes only. It should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for consultation with a licensed physician.
Last Modified: 08/06/2012