As part of an ever-growing community of individuals that continue to push the envelope in the natural health world, we’re happy to introduce this new monthly series highlighting locals who continually inspire us. - Mary
All photos by Todd Danforth
The bulk herb wall at Cambridge Naturals is often the most bustling section of the store. I love seeing and hearing the connections made between herbal enthusiasts, cooks, and DIY-beauty makers over the table. One of those frequent visitors is local herbalist Steph Zabel. She teaches classes on the art and science of herbal medicine practice and local plants. You may have noticed her very informative blog posts highlighting a different plant each month right here on our blog. Steph is also the founder of Herbstalk, an annual marketplace and herbal education event in Somerville, now going on its sixth year. Steph credits the help and support of fellow herbalists, friends, and neighborhood volunteers for getting Herbstalk started. As they say, it takes a village. And without her knowledge and grace bringing it all together, who knows how long we would have waited for such a brilliant idea to come to fruition! Read on for an interview to learn more about Steph and her work.
CN: What is your favorite place or thing to do in the Boston area?
SZ: My favorite places in the Boston area are places that are filled with trees! In particular, I have two spots that are very special to me. One is the Mount Auburn Cemetery where I love to go walking in every season. It is such a beautiful oasis of plants and animals in the midst of the city. I’ve gone there for years and years and I still sometimes get lost on all the many trails that wind through the property! It is a wonderful and peaceful place to go for a stroll, take in the trees and plants and experience some quiet and calm throughout every season.
My other favorite place in the area is a beautiful grove of beech trees in Brookline. My husband took me to this spot on our first date nearly ten years ago, and later proposed to me underneath the trees, so it holds a very special place in my heart. The beech trees there are very old, very grand and very welcoming. You can walk underneath their towering branches — many of which touch the ground — and feel protected under their leafy shadows.
CN: What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?
SZ: Interestingly, for some reason I don’t read a lot of fiction. Instead, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction books on all sorts of topics, often several at a time! The last good book that I really enjoyed was called Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard was a woman ahead of her time; born in the 12th century she was sent away to live in a nunnery at a very young age. But despite all the restrictions of being a woman in the Middle Ages she had a remarkable life — she was a mystic, a brilliant composer, a leader of women, and of course, my favorite — an herbalist and healer for her community. I loved learning more about her story, strength and vision.
CN: How did you first become interested in herbalism?
SZ: I don’t remember a specific moment when I first got interested in herbs — I think that I just always had a natural inclination towards plants and holistic healing that was fostered in me since I was young. Fortunately, my grandparents and parents are plant lovers and this really influenced me when I was growing up. Also, along the way I had several medical experiences that led me to see how conventional medicine has become so far removed from what I sensed to be truly healthy — and healing — for the whole body, mind and spirit. These experiences led me to search for natural and holistic ways of healing.
When I went to college I decided to study horticulture and biological sciences, and took many outdoor field botany classes which made me fall even more in love with the plant world. This then led me to graduate studies in ethnobotany, which in turn led me to study traditional herbalism. Once I started dedicating myself to learning more about herbs I realized that it was the true path for me. I felt called to help connect people to healing plants, especially for city-dwelling folks who often feel disconnected from the natural world. I have been working with — and continuing to learn about — herbs ever since. It truly is a lifelong path.
CN: What inspired you to start Herbstalk?
SZ: I have to admit that when the idea of Herbstalk first entered my consciousness, it seemed like a crazy, impossible dream! At the time I was in an herbal apprenticeship program and was getting more deeply immersed in the world of herbs. I felt so inspired. And then the idea just popped into my head — why not have a community herbal gathering in the city so that anyone can come and learn more about herbalism?… It felt important to make all the wonderful knowledge and know-how about herbs more widely accessible to a greater audience.
So, I talked to a few friends about it and finally one of them said “You should just make it happen, Steph!” So I mustered up some courage and started reaching out to a bunch of people to see what was possible. After lots and lots of work and planning, and with the incredible support of so many wonderful herbalists, teachers, and local businesses, Herbstalk came to life!
It’s hard to believe we’ve been around for more than 5 years at this point. I’m so grateful to be a part of this idea and the community it created. I feel like I’m just the facilitator or guardian of something that wanted to come to life — and I think it would have been happened in some way or another, no matter what. The incredible thing about ideas is that they can become more than just thoughts — they can become reality if you dedicate yourself to them. And of course none of this could have happened without a lot of local support, our countless volunteers, and the dedicated efforts of our core Herbstalk planning team. Herbstalk truly is a shared dream.
CN: What are your top three essential products from Cambridge Naturals?
SZ: #1 Can I say the whole bulk herb section?! The wonderful range of herbs that are always available at the store is definitely essential to my life, herbal practice and classes that I teach. If I ever run out of an herb in a pinch I am so grateful that I can just run over to CN to stock up. Thank you for supplying so many amazing bulk herbs! #2 Hu chocolate bars. This is the most delicious chocolate bar I’ve ever had. #3 Finally, Rishi teas. In particular, I love their pu-erh tea and drink it in the morning or later in the day. Yum.
Thank you so much to Steph Zabel for taking the time to share a bit about herself with us! Who or what are you inspired by? We’d love to hear your suggestions for the next Monthly Muse!