My home-birthing sister introduced me to Julie Bell's website and led me to the herbal teas she lovingly creates. I tried one blend, then another, then another and it didn't take me long at all to realise I was fortunate enough to be in the company of a woman who is wise, authentic and true in her path. I have been honoured to sell her support teas and herbal blends in my community, and I am truly privileged to share with you this insightful interview.
Please pour yourself a pot of tea, find a comfortable seat and delight in the wisdoms and honesty Julie has to share. It is connections such as these that show me I am on the right path, and bring a satisfaction to my role that is beyond measure.
can you please share a little bit about yourself?
I am a 48 year old mother of 4 children aged 17 to 5, all born joyfully at home. I originally trained as a Registered Comprehensive Nurse (includes obstetrics, psych and some 'natural medicine papers') in New Zealand, before spending 18 years in Asia as a volunteer humanitarian worker, which is where I met my American husband. In 2004 we moved to Australia to make our home here and have settled in the beautiful Yarra Valley, where herbs and weeds grow in the sun, wind and rain, platypus swim in the river and deer and wombats think our garden is just for them.
I have served as a doula for over 10 years and my interests are social justice, reading, gardening, outdoor adventure and oysters... oh yes just a tad obsessed about oysters!
how did herbs come to be in your life?
Herbs have always been in my life, but growing up I took them for granted. Parsley, Peppermint, Lemon Balm, Chickweed, Lavender and Calendula grew abundantly around our house in rural New Zealand. Coming from a long line of healers (my grandmother and mother were both nurses and midwives), it was routine to use dock for itchy skin, parsley to moderate menstruation, peppermint for headache and lemon balm to calm the emotions. "Run out to the garden and bring me some plantain" my mum would tell me, which we would pop in the bath with calendula and dock to sooth the itching of chickenpox.
When I did my own nursing training, it struck me that the older generation of nurses had a more holistic training, in the sense that common sense approaches to comfort and healing were still included in the knowledge, whereas by the time I trained, all but strictly allopathic and pharmaceutical approaches were weeded out. At my college, we had the option of doing some 'natural medicine' papers but I remember that these were scoffed at generally as being rather 'flaky' and 'not real medicine'. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating and it confirmed and consolidated knowledge I'd gleaned from my mother and grandmother.
In China I was mentored by a brilliant Chinese GP who also used Traditional Chinese Medicine. While travelling hard-seat on an exhausting long-haul train ride, this woman came up and, noticing my stress and fatigue, began massaging my head using her acupressure knowledge. Right away, I could feel her healing touch and knew I was in the presence of a true healer. My Chinese was not great and her English was limited too, but we struck up a lasting friendship. She was my first experience of a truly 'integrative' GP, one who knew Western medicine but also understood there is more than one approach to healing.
I am currently working towards completing a BSc degree in Western Herbal Medicine. I am doing it part time as I juggle the wearing of quite a few other hats, so it is a slow but steady progress and I will get there!
can you share a little about your work as a doula and how you use herbs in this work?
I was still living in Asia when I had my first 3 children. I used to order my homebirth kits from an organisation in the USA. The kit included some wonderful post-natal bath herbs to speed the healing after childbirth. Well, that fragrant, soothing herbal bath became my favourite part of the birth process - the hard work was over, my petal-soft little newborn in my arms, both of us soaking in the fragrant herbal water together. I wanted my Australian birth clients to have the same blessing. I considered importing the herbal packets, then I realised that if I sourced my own herbs and made up the blends myself, it would be more economical, more eco-friendly and the herbs would be much fresher. So after considerable research and consulting with midwife and herbalist mentors, I put together my own blends, had some willing 'guinea pigs' try them out for me, and eventually, began offering the Post-Natal Bliss bath herbs to my doula clients. Then someone asked "And do you make tea for breastfeeding?" and so in 2010, my 'cottage industry' home business, Blissful Herbs was born.
If you could share a cup of herbal tea with anyone, who would it be?
What a great question! At the moment it would be American herbalist, Sue Sierralupe, who is the founder of an amazing organisation called "Occupy Medical", offering comprehensive, integrative health care to homeless and marginalised people in Oregon, USA. I heard her podcast on Mountain Herbs free radio and it was one of the most inspiring talks I have heard in a long time.
"People are entitled to care. Love heals. Care heals. People deserve love, and they deserve care - no matter who they are." Sue Sierralupe
How do you manage your life when things slip out of balance?
At first I get as scratchy and as friendly as a cactus - this part is not fun, but it is my wake-up call. Recently I posted a meme that said "Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have....." When I push and put pressure on myself, do I end up hurrying and rushing my loved ones? Yes, I believe it's true that commitment to your own self-care is the most important priority in caring for a family.
Nature is my retreat place. Straight out my back door is a beautiful, wild, tree-cloaked mountain with all kinds of paths and trails. This is where I go to walk, run or sit. My garden is another place. Weeding can be so therapeutic. Music is another solace. I sing with a group of amazing musos and I also like to bang the heck out of a bodhran (Celtic drum).
I wrote down some words to reflect this once:
The surge of the ocean, the pull of the moon, the rise of the tide, and the blaze of the full moon,
The sweet of the suckle, the cool of the shade, the moist of the moss, and the hair of the maid,
The still of the dawn, the bark of the log, the damp of the dew, and the swirl of the fog,
The sharp of the gravel, the soft of the grass, the keen and the dim, of memories past,
Confetti of blossom, the glitter of rain, the tinsel of wattle, and the comfort of pain,
There will I wander, there will I lie, out in the open, under the sky.
what is it that inspires you?
The abundance of nature inspires me. The healing of love. Common kindness in everyday folk. The love and connection Aboriginal people show us with the land. And God, who made us all and made all around us.
what are you thoughts around the divine feminine?
Well I have just mentioned "God". I come from a Christian tradition, so my belief is that the feminine and the masculine both reflect something of what/who "God" is, and both are equally needed for us to conceive the fullness of God. So, to my mind, God is our heavenly father AND our heavenly mother, and mothers reflect the heart of God for people just as much as fathers. I believe that Jesus, when he walked on earth, showed us an example of a person with integrated wisdom of the feminine as well as the wisdom of the masculine. I also think that patriarchal culture devalues and dishonours the wisdom of the feminine, and asserts the wisdom of the masculine as superior or more 'valid'. I also believe that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and the wisdom of the feminine finds her voice again in that freedom and she... begins... to ROAR!!!
What are a few of the herbs that you can't live without as a woman?
Red Raspberry Leaf and Nettle. Those two are life-long friends to all women of every ages. Chaste Tree is a blessing too - a brilliant hormonal balancer. Oats and oatstraw - a wonderful tonic for the nervous system, and schisandra, that magical berry from China.
Do you have any advice for women who are finding their way in life?
The stages of our womanly life are: maiden, mother, maga and crone. My advice would be - find your mentors. Have a mentor from each stage ahead of you, and be a mentor for a younger woman in each stage behind you. And keep in mind that you will learn as much from those you mentor, as vice versa! Look to the elders, the aunties, the older women in your life.
Patriarchy would have us despise and dismiss all women who are deemed to not be sexually relevant. Eschew that! Strong inter-generational connections are how women survive in a patriarchal society. Don't fall for the "divide and conquer" strategies of those who fear the collective of women. Don't fall for the "generation gap" rhetoric. Having mentors from the older generations is a blessing. In honouring them, and in validating their life wisdom, we contribute to healing for all womanhood.
The best way to choose a suitable mentor? Look for unconditional love. Look for authenticity, for truth. Trust your instincts. Use your boundaries. Don't give up on finding yourself a mentor - they are out there. Your wise mentor loves herself, she loves women - and men too of course, but she has learned to LOVE women despite the programming of patriarchy. Your mentor will love you too.
I also want to mention the healing power of story. We are maxed out with information overload - "just the facts, ma'am". But the wisdom of the feminine is ignited by story. "Anecdotal" evidence is considered inferior in the medical model, which is strongly in the wisdom of the masculine. There is nothing "bad" about the wisdom of the masculine, it's just that for an organism, individual or organisation to thrive, we need a mutually honouring balance of BOTH the wisdom of the masculine AND the wisdom of the feminine. You will find that your soul yearns for story and the wisdom it can bequeath you. That is part of the way you will know your mentors - they will have a story for you. Don't be impatient... listen to the story....
How does a woman use herbs to support her when finding her way?
It will be a different herb for each woman. When you sit down with yourself, or with another wise woman to reflect with, the right herb for you at this time will become clear to you. I know that if I was to sit with you for a while, or we walked through the garden together, eventually your instinct and mine would make it clear which herb is for you at this particular stage of your journey. I bless you to awaken your instinct, your inner wisdom and to trust it.
How do you believe that we as women can support one another when going through major life changes such as pregnancy, birth, new motherhood and mothering as the family grows?
In a culture of separation, connection is so precious. Look at how we have lost our village, our community, our extended family and our circles of women. We take a woman from her home. We even used to separate her from her husband. We give drugs to divorce her from her own mind and body. We cut the cord. We take the baby from her. We whip out the placenta. We wrap the baby and we place it in a crib - separation, separation, separation. Isolation. Disconnection. So to respond to this, we look to the work of oxytocin, the hormone of love, bonding and empathy. We do everything we can to support the peak flow of oxytocin, to heal wounds from oxytocin-depravation and to foster healing connections. This is truly the work of building communities and safe places.
What are some of the best ways to incorporate more herbs into our daily life?
My advice would be to start with planting a herb garden. Herb knowledge is freely available on the internet and you can start learning more with each herb that you plant. The herbs themselves will teach you, if you take the time to be with them and centre your attention and energy on them. And of course, find the herb mentors close by. They are excited and passionate and love to share their knowledge!
I warmly recommend the book by Australian herbalist Isabell Shipard: "How can I use Herbs in my Daily Life". A copy of this book, and some herbs growing in your garden or pots - and you will be off and away. Eat herbs with every meal, in salads, stews etc. Dry herbs to store in glass jars for years. Add handfuls of fresh herbs to your baths. Add dandelion greens to your green smoothies. Add herbs to your kombucha and your elderberry cordials.
But most of all, go slow and enjoy the journey!