By Joyce White
Brenda Lynn Gould, an herbalist specializing in medicinal mushrooms, tries to empower interested people to learn and use what’s in their own back yards to create and maintain good health. Just as she learned from her parents, grandparents and other elders, as well as from the plants themselves, she’d like to help people reconnect with the knowledge about folk healing traditions that many elders still remember.
She emphasizes, though, that good health isn’t just – or even primarily – about treating symptoms with plants and mushrooms. Rather, it involves several aspects of how we live. Movement and joy, she believes, are essential to a healthy life; add clean air and water, whole foods, right livelihood and a connection to the natural world, and we have a recipe for keeping people healthy. Everything else, even plant medicine, she considers a stopgap, a band-aid.
During a discussion at her Bear and Bumblebee Herbals in West Paris, Maine, she talked more about the philosophy that underlies her life and her work. “My mission,” she said, “is to help people take back their power.” Historically, knowledge of medicinal plants was part of the power of everyone’s heritage, but in the past century, people have been more and more culturally conditioned to look only outside themselves for information about health and healing. They’ve been taught to disrespect their own knowledge. So, as each year passes, as more elders leave us without having been respected and heard, more knowledge is lost. This pattern of looking to “experts” for all knowledge concerning health has left many people feeling helpless to take care of their own health.
So whether seeing a client in consultation about health, teaching about plant medicine or just in casual conversation, “I’m doing the same thing—teaching people that they have the capacity to relate to the natural world; they don’t need an outside authority.” She reminds people that most of us have some knowledge of local plants and healing traditions in our backgrounds—dandelion greens as a spring tonic, for example, or using crushed plantain leaves on a bee sting—from grandparents’ stories if not from our own experiences. “Herbs have always been people’s power, and if people begin to relax and respect their own memories, more memories will come back.”
Gould emphasizes that herbal medicine is not substituting herbs for pharmaceuticals but is instead a different philosophy of health care. It aims to prevent and/or treat root causes of illness, not suppress the symptoms. The best use of herbal medicine is to support health and prevent illness, but if illness occurs, herbal medicine supports healing the whole person. People shouldn’t expect herbs to be cure-alls. Sometimes other methods are needed, but even then, herbs can help support the healing process.
She reminds people that even though plant medicine has an excellent safety record and though she believes interested people can learn to use a variety of herbs safely for themselves and their families, some herbs do have potential side effects. Many of the herbs used today have been in successful common use for hundreds or thousands of years, with most being safe for most people. Still, she uses the idea of a continuum, with herbs that are safe for most people on one end, and those that are dangerous in unskilled hands on the other end. Many herbs with varying degrees of side effects occupy the middle. All herbs, even those generally considered safe, should be used with intelligence and respect, she says, and others should not be used at all without extensive training.
A Circle of Learning and Teaching
Gould has built upon the learning established in childhood through a wide variety of classes, workshops and apprenticeships, first with Deb Soule at Avena Botanicals in West Rockport, Maine. “Whether it’s lessons from people or the plants themselves, I never stop learning; it’s an ongoing, lifelong process,” she says. Michael Moore, Rosemary Gladstar, William LeSassier and James Duke are a few of the many herbalists with whom she has studied. In 2002 Gould completed a Clinical Herbalist Program at the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, Arizona, and she teaches a course there every spring in Medicinal Mushrooms.
In addition to offering her programs around the state, including at Wildgathering, Herb Fest and the Common Ground Country Fair, she and her husband, John Haney, offer programs in traditional and wilderness skills along with botanical medicine. They call their center “Completing the Circle,” because Gould believes that as they help people reconnect in a loving, respectful way to our elders and the oral tradition, the earth and all living things, they contribute to the whole circle of life. She has studied Passamaquoddy medicine and traditions with Fredda and Leslie Paul, and the Pauls offer their programs in Native healing traditions at the “Circle” center.
Evidence of Gould’s vocation is everywhere in their farmhouse. One room houses boxes and jars of dried herbs and mushrooms. Another holds two dehydrators, a comprehensive library of books about natural healing and the colorful display materials she uses in teaching. One area is equipped for making tinctures and other plant preparations. Deep Immune Tonic Soup, which Brenda says is her version of an old traditional recipe using reishi, turkey tail chaga, maitake, shiitake and other mushrooms, cooked with astragalus, burdock and codonopsis roots plus marrow bones, carrots and celery, gets prepared on the kitchen stove and frozen in ice cube trays for later use.
Countering Fear of Fungi
On a September mushrooming expedition into their woods, Gould says that despite the long history of using mushrooms for medicine, a lot of fear of fungi exists. Considerable writing about medicinal mushrooms has come out of China, Russia, Poland and some from other countries, but until relatively recently medicinal mushrooms have been vastly underappreciated in the United States.
A good time to look for the softer kinds of mushrooms is a few days after a soaking rain, she explains, adding that anyone interested in collecting mushrooms should have at least three excellent field guides as well as a knowledgeable human guide. “If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it!” she emphasizes.
“Once you start looking for mushrooms, you’ll be truly amazed at how many you’ve been walking by without seeing,” she continues. Fungal species are estimated to outnumber plant species by 6 to 1, and only a small percentage has been scientifically identified.
Many of the mushrooms she uses in her medicines grow on dead or dying trees. Because of their toughness, they are not edible in the usual sense. Gould extracts the medicinal properties, usually after drying, by cooking, as with the immune soup. Another type of mushroom preparation is the double extraction, created by combining an extremely condensed mushroom tea with an alcohol tincture of the mushroom solids.
The hemlock reishi, Ganoderma tsugae, is a very important medicinal mushroom that grows on dead hemlock trees. “They start as a little doorknob in April or May,” Gould says, “and mature from August through September, depending on local weather conditions. You have to harvest them at or before full maturity, but you wait as long as possible for maximum square footage.” They start to mold and decay soon after maturity, and she suggests noting where we find decayed ones so that we can come back to that spot in future years. While particular mushrooms may not grow in the same place, the likelihood is good. The fruiting bodies may be annual or perennial, depending on the species, but the mycelium—that part of the fungus within wood or soil that you usually don’t see—is perennial. Other medicinal Ganodermas grow on hardwoods, including the common Ganoderma applanatum (artists’ conk) and the rare Ganoderma lucidum (hardwood reishi).
Gould collects fungi in waxed paper to let them breathe without drying out, then puts them in a paper bag carried in a basket, taking only a small percentage of what is growing in any one place. She leaves the rest to keep growing and for others to enjoy. This is not only considerate but enlightened self-interest, she notes, because many critters, including squirrels and insects, help spread spores and keep fungi going. “Two-leggeds need to remember we are just a part of a complex and interdependent living earth. We aren’t the only people here.”
That day in September, she collected perennial conks including artists’ conk (Ganoderma applanatum), amadou (Fomes fomentarius) and birch polypore (Piptoporous betulinus). She also pointed out turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)—some from last year and some “just babies” with a little more time to grow before this year’s harvest. Growing on dead wood, the new ones were soft and velvety, while those from the previous year were hard. Their fruiting body is annual and therefore only good to harvest for medicine their first year, she said, although the old, decaying fruiting bodies may still be visible for a year or two afterward.
Gould calls wild fungi “a gift without end.” Even when we don’t see them, they are everywhere. “Intertwined within every aspect of our lives and all life on earth, the fungi quietly do their work, internet of forest and field.”
You can contact Brenda Lynn Gould at [email protected], 207–674-2606.
About the author: Joyce White is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G. She lives in Stoneham, Maine.