Credit: Andrea Bauer

A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

“I left Chicago during the Vietnam War and went to Mexico for seven years. The boyfriend I had at the time was a draft resister. We were way back in the bush, about 14 hours’ walk from a village that was a 20-hour bus ride from
the highway. It was a self-sufficient homestead we started. We could do everything except weave cloth and make paper. We had a fruit orchard, and we cared for that, and it was just the two of us and our two children.

“That relationship broke up, and it was time to move on. My parents were adamant that I should get a degree. I went to Chicago and entered a college of naprapathy, and that’s where I met my current husband.

“In the 1980s, there was kind of a campaign against natural healers and herbal practitioners. I wanted to live and work in peace and heal people and take care of them, and that was becoming against the law in America. So I went to Belize in 1982. It was for medical freedom, and a year-round growing season, and wanderlust. Those are always my reasons.

“I was trying to find someone who could teach me about the medicinal plants of my adopted country. ‘The most famous healer is this Maya shaman Don Elijio—but watch out for him,’ everybody said. ‘He’s a lecher.’ It wasn’t true. I’m glad I didn’t pay any attention to that.

“So I made an appointment to visit him. I had to walk miles—across the river, through the jungle, down the road—to get to his village. I asked him if he would teach me, and he said no, and I kept asking him, and he said no and no and no.

“Exactly one year later, I got there very early in the morning, and he said, ‘I have no time for you today. I have to go harvest my corn.’ I said, ‘Well, let me help you.’ He said, ‘What do you know about harvesting corn? You’re from Chicago.’ I said, ‘I lived in Mexico for seven years. I can harvest corn. Let’s go.’

“In the middle of the morning, he looked at the pile of corn I had pulled, and he was impressed. He said, ‘Tell me, what do you want? What is it?’ I said, ‘Don Elijio, I just want to learn about the plants. If you take me as your student, I promise to work hard.’ So he did. I became his constant companion and his disciple for 15 years. He died in 1996 at age 103.

“We still live in Belize, and we grow bananas, chocolate, lots of fruits, and vegetables. I’m here in Chicago for five months, helping my daughter with her new baby and leading herb walks in the city. I’ll be back every summer.

“Right now I’m finding plantain, which is excellent for wounds and cuts. And dandelions—those yellow flowers make a wonderful cough medicine. There’s burdock; that is a blood tonic for people just coming off long-term illnesses. And there’s yellow dock, which is the natural antidote to poison ivy. These plants have been here for thousands of years. Anywhere there’s a crack of dirt in the sidewalk, a medicinal plant will grow.”