Herbal Medicine Brings New Light to Coalfield Communities

 

Peach Tree Falls. Photo by Shannon Voss

This past week changed my life.

I have never felt such strong feelings toward a group of people or community in my life. The mountains drew me into a comforting, bear hug and won’t let go. But that’s alright, I don’t want the Coal River Valley to let me go. The mountains whispered quietly into my ear, “This is your home. These are your people. You are meant to do great things here.”

When the week started I was hesitant and skeptical. A group of herbal medicine students from Texas and other states were going to be joining Jen and I on a trip to Coal River Valley to provide herbal clinics to the communities of Naoma and Whitesville. Being a West Virginian, you’re automatically skeptical of outsiders. It’s not to be taken negatively. It’s simply a barrier we put up to sift through the folks that are worth our time and energy. New-comers are put through subtle tests to assess their worth of being accepted into our hearts. Boy, when you’re accepted, you’ll know it. West Virginians are some of the most kind-hearted, giving folks you’ll ever meet. In many cases, those with the least will give you the most. But I was skeptical. I was concerned these folks from other states wouldn’t understand our way of life. I was concerned these folks wouldn’t be able to relate with the community. I was wrong. I am so glad I was wrong. We were blessed with the company of healers. These students are compassionate, understanding, and nurturing. The students took the time to talk with community members and listen to their stories and their ailments. Each person walked away from this experience with a better understanding of the simpler way of life in small, West Virginia towns. I am so blessed to have met these amazing healers. I learned lessons from each of them.

Students are prepping for clinic intake

The first few days of clinics were slow, as to be expected. Again, you must understand rural West Virginia. Flyers and press releases and social media posts can only do so much. Word of mouth is your best publicity in a small town. I was confident, once the days passed and clients started to see improvements in their ailments, positive word would travel around and more community members would be coming in to check out what all the fuss is about. The number of clients coming into the clinics increased with each passing day. By the end of the week, we had clients asking us how they could get refills on their formulas because they’ve noticed significant improvements in their ailments. Folks were interested in learning more about wild plants that can heal and how to continue using herbal medicine to benefit their families. There were many folks that came up to our team to say thank you for coming here and providing help to their families and community. Chris Prater, the city manager, passed along a teary-eyed thank you to all the herbal medics who came through and a thank you for wanting to help Whitesville. He said the city building was all a buzz over the clinics presence in town and it had a very positive affect for the people. He offered his support for anytime we decide to plan another event. Teary-eyed thank you’s were common. People were so thankful that someone is taking the time and energy to help them. The Coal River Valley is a secluded area with few notable tourist attractions. The people who come to Coal River Valley are either residents, have family in the area, or are just passing through. To have a group of people with no connections to the area come in and offer help is significant and speaks measures for the camaraderie and love of these healers. This won’t be the last of our involvement in Whitesville and Naoma. We’re just getting started.

I’d like to address some of the main concerns we saw during our clinic week. I had many conversations with Dr. Kyla Helm, a family medicine physician and participant on the herbal clinic trip. In her practice, she focuses on preventative measures and addressing why people are getting sick rather than masking the symptoms. Kyla suggested most of the illnesses and ailments are centered around the gut. If the gut is unhappy, others things are going to be unhappy. We chatted about a few reasons as to why these folks’ guts are unhappy.

First, there is inadequate access to fresh foods. When people are excluding fresh foods from their diet and replacing that need with processed foods, they are missing vital nutrients. Both communities of Whitesville and Naoma have a long drive to a fully-stalked grocery store. The closest store to these communities is a Dollar Store, which does not carry any significant amount of fresh produce.  In essence, these communities are in what most would call a ‘Food Desert’. Bradley Wilson, an Associate Professor of Geography at WVU and founder of WVU’s Food Justice Lab, was interviewed on NPR’s Inside Appalachia about his work regarding food deserts in West Virginia. “A desert is a natural formation and there’s nothing natural about food deserts. A food desert is the retreat of grocery stores from a particular area for particular reasons which then leaves the existing population without access to nutritious, adequate, available, affordable food,” says Wilson. Wilson continues about food deserts in the interview, explaining that grocery stores move out of small communities because of competition between retailers, decline in income, depopulation, demographic shifts, and other economically-driven downturns.

Wilson’s work with the Food Justice Lab has led to the creation of WV FOODLINK, a website designated to help people search for food assistance and workshops in their area as well as learn more about the food security in their surrounding communities. Whitesville is located in Boone County, close to Raleigh County. I browsed through the Boone County Food Security Profile and found this Food Access graphic for the county. Food Access Map for Boone County, WV. Created by WV Foodlink

In the publication, the graphic narrative states, “The WV FOODLINK Access Map uses four factors to illustrate food access gaps in West Virginia. Each area receives a score between 0 and 1 for (a) the quality of retailers, (b) the quantity of retailers, (c) median income and (d) vehicle access. The total score gives a score between 0 and 4. Red scored a 0 meaning they have no food retailers, low incomes and low vehicle access. Areas in Yellow and Orange have few stores often of lower quality and are likely low income and access. Areas in green have stores with high quality foods (often more than one), household incomes above the national median, with access to a vehicle.”

I have marked the Whitesville area with the star so you can orient yourself. Our suspicions of inadequate access to nutritious, raw food were correct. Since folks don’t have easy access to fresh foods, how can they work on making their guts happy? Kyla suggests eating fermented foods, drinking kombucha and kefir, and eating yogurt packed with probiotics. We saw a young child with many health issues. He was constantly taking antibiotics. Kyla suggested that he eat a lot of yogurt and try some sweet pickles. Something as simple as adding a few special items into your diet can have a drastic effect on your health. Yesterday I heard from one of our clients from the clinic. She asked if I could refill her son’s gut formula because it has worked very well. She told me he usually has only one bowel movement a week but in the four days since he started taking the formula he has had two.

The slew of prescriptions people are taking also takes a toll on the gut. Some of the most commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals, along with antibiotics, deplete good gut bacteria and deplete important nutrients from the body. By addressing the core of the problems instead of masking the symptoms, we can hopefully decrease the amount of prescription medications people are currently taking. While we are still on the topic of gut health, Kyla said she recommends a detox to patients with severe gut issues. When the good gut bacteria is depleted, toxins can build up in your gut, causing sickness. She also told me studies have shown that babies are born with all of the toxins their mother has in her system. Kyla stressed that a detox and healthy gut can be the best preventative measure for illness, especially for soon-to-be mothers who are concerned about the health of their babies.

Another issue that was commonly addressed was lack of sleep. People weren’t getting quality sleep, whether it be from existing health problems or stress. We created many sleep formulas last week. Folks in the community have given us feedback about their sleep medication and have told us it has improved their sleep since they started taking it. There are many herbal remedies besides formulas that can be used to help with sleep so I plan to do workshops regarding sleep remedies in the near future.

The completed rainwater flitration and catchment system located on Kayford Mountain. Photo by Shannon Voss. A widespread and common issue in the coalfields is access to clean drinking water. Within our crew last week was a family of four who came from Texas to establish rainwater filtration and catchment systems on Kayford Mountain and in the community of Prenter. The State Journal published an article in January 2012 discussing water quality testing done for the Sludge Safety Project. The article states, “Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, tested 10 of 250 Prenter wells and found antimony, lead, iron, manganese, barium, aluminum, and other toxic materials.” Many of the elements polluting Prenter’s drinking water are colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Stout is quoted as saying, “The community has bad water. Not only should they not drink it, but community-wide, they shouldn’t bathe in it either. You certainly don’t want to expose your children to water like that.”

Residents in Prenter are plagued by many ailments. In 2009, studies centered around a brain tumor cluster within the community. Prenter resident, Jennifer Massey, said six people in a neighborhood with 10 houses were diagnosed with brain cancer. Four of them died. People affected by the tumors ranged in age from 11 to 55. The national average for brain tumors is one per 100,000 people. Another health anomaly found in Prenter pertains to gallbladder removal. On one street in Prenter, 98% of residents have had their gallbladder removed (the statewide rate is 3%). Residents are plagued with various ailments ranging from gastrointestinal issues to rare cancers. The rainwater catchment system for the community of Prenter was setup at the UMWA Union Hall. Community members are welcome to use the system. Members of RAMPS were involved in the installation process of both catchment systems. Hopefully we can build a few more catchment systems throughout Coal River Valley.

Bailey Voss overlooks Coal River Mountain from Kayford Mountain. Photo by Shannon Voss. The coalfields are remnants of the past where folks tend to be forgotten and their needs pushed aside. This clinic week was not a one-stop shop. I am there to stay and I’ll be continuing our efforts to bring herbal medicine and a healthier lifestyle to these communities. I had many great discussions with clinic participants about what we can do to help these communities.

One of the best concepts of herbal medicine is that it is sustainable. The knowledge gets passed on so others can learn, do, then teach. You don’t have to have a college degree to practice herbal medicine for your family’s health. These hills and hollers gift us with many medicinal plants, all to be used with love and good intentions. It is crucial to provide the alternative of herbal medicine that is centered around local, independent action regarding personal health. This independence ties into Appalachia’s deep roots of nurturing the relationship between self and the land. Herbal medicine is empowering in the sense that it allows people to better understand their ailments and become proactive in establishing a healthier lifestyle.

An idea I have become excited about exploring is community-based wildcrafting. Wildcrafting is simply harvesting wild plants for food or medicinal value. In Appalachia we are blessed with many medicinal plants, some of which are not found in other regions. I would like to setup connections with small herbal apothecaries or schools that would be interested in purchasing high quality medicinal plants. I would then teach locals how to wildcraft specific plants, starting with non-sensitive plants such as Stinging Nettle, Mullein, Dandelion, Colts Foot, and Raspberry. A tiered system would be in place so wildcrafters could advance their knowledge through certifications. With each higher certification, the wildcrafter would be able to harvest more valued plants until finally working up to the Master Wildcrafter certification, signifying the persons’ capability of sustainably harvesting plants such as Ginseng, Goldenseal, Black/Blue Cohosh, and Solomon’s Seal. In an area where unemployment is high, this could be a great way to earn extra income. Not only will this provide an income for folks but it will create a deeper connection between self, community, and land.

I would like to start a series of workshops offered in the area. Workshop topics will include basic herbal medicine, raising rabbits for meat, fermentation, food preservation, personal gardening, and sewing. I believe the best way to revitalize a community is to give the folks in the community the tools to make the improvements themselves. Along with workshops, we will continue offering herbal clinics to the communities. During these clinics, I will begin teaching folks in the community how to work various aspects of the clinic. When the clinics are community-based there will be more value in the services provided. Neighbors will be caring for neighbors.

As I mentioned earlier, this area has very low access to fresh, raw foods. This past week we helped RAMPS establish a community garden in Whitesville. We were able to plant medicinal herbs so they’ll have time to establish their roots for next spring’s growing season. They have plans of planting fruit trees and vegetables in the garden plot. I have high hopes of community members becoming active and involved in the garden. I would like to see more people growing their own food, whether it be in a small garden plot or potted plants on the porch. I believe there is a crucial need for a food bank in Coal River Valley. When I say food bank I don’t mean processed, canned foods. This food bank would provide fresh vegetables and fruits, depending on what is in season. Winter squash, root crops, and dried beans would be stored for use in the winter. Fermented foods would be collected through workshops and stored for folks to use during the winter months when fresh foods aren’t available. We would have a collection of preserved foods that community members have learned to make and have stored for others to use. Again, community-based support is empowering and will strengthen the overall health within the community.

Hannah mixing up a formula for a client. Photo by Carol Jones.I walked away from this week as a new person. I have changed. Coal River Valley changed me. I was able to learn what the community needs, what we can offer, and how we can get started. My heart overflows with happiness when I hear back from folks asking if we can get them refills on their formulas. I grin from ear to ear when folks tell me they’re interested in learning more about herbal medicine and becoming a member of our Herbal Medic Chapter. I have been so blessed to meet all of these beautiful souls. Upon returning to Morgantown, I was reading a bit about the full moon that occurred on the night I left Coal River Valley. Within the passage, these words stood out: “From the wound emerges the teacher, your wisdom, your wholeness.” I have been given the direction I so desperately needed and I now know what I need to do. The work of the Aurora Lights Herbal Medic Chapter is just beginning. I welcome you all to join us on this journey and make some positive change in communities that need some light. After all, we here at Aurora Lights are in the business of building solidarity for a healthy Appalachia.

I’d like to extend huge THANK YOUs to Herbal Medics for organizing this trip and helping the Aurora Lights Herbal Medic Chapter get off on the right foot, to all of the Clinic trip participants for giving your hearts to communities that need your love, to RAMPS for helping with rainwater catchment installation, clinic outreach and setup, and a fantastic dinner on Thursday night, to Coal River Mountain Watch for your outreach, planning, and generosity in letting us setup the clinic and house our participants in the Judy Bonds Center, to Keeper of the Mountains Foundation for allowing us to install a rainwater catchment system on Kayford Mountain, and to all of the community members in Whitesville and Naoma who spread the good word about our clinics. We appreciate all of you and we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without you. Thank you.

 

 

Free, Herbal Clinics in Coal River Valley

Herbal Medics, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing botanical medicine and sustainable solutions to communities in critical need, is responding to a call for help from area nonprofits in Coal River Valley, West Virginia. They have been invited in by area nonprofits hoping to create solutions for the healthcare issues in their communities.
“The Coal River Valley region of West Virginia is a prime example of our need for local, sustainable options for health care. Because the coal industry is prominent in this area, many community members struggle with health issues directly linked to environmental contaminants. Although there are many health issues within the community, there is an alarming lack of access to health infrastructure, forcing people within this area to drive an hour or more to receive health care. We believe it is crucial to provide the alternative of herbal medicine that is centered around local, independent action regarding personal health. This independence ties into Appalachia’s deep roots of nurturing the relationship between self and the land. Herbal medicine is empowering in the sense that it allows people to better understand their ailments and become proactive in establishing a healthier lifestyle.” – Hannah Spencer, President of West Virginia Nonprofit Aurora Lights

Communities of the Coal River Valley–situated deep in the coal country of the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, –are in crisis. The smothering of freshwater streams and the steady accumulation of potentially toxic compounds leaching out of area coal mines, along with dust filled air from exploding mountains, and waters heavily contaminated by coal slurry are severely impacting the health of the community and the local ecology. These issues were compounded by a massive toxic spill of 4-MCHM (define) into a primary water source, the Elk River, in January of 2014. Contaminated water, increased flooding, dangerous coal slurry impoundments, along with a significant increase in rates of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease, are just a few of the daily challenges facing the people in this region.

Herbal Medics will be working with area nonprofits Aurora Lights, Radical Action for Mountain’s and People’s Survival, and Coal River Mountain Watch, in the towns of Prenter, Naoma, and Whitesville. They will be leading a community workshop in Prenter on how to build and maintain a bio sand filtration system that will help the communities create safe, clean water. They will also be holding community herbal healthcare clinics and educational classes during their week-long mission, along with visits to the homebound. Herbal Medics will work with the Coal River Valley communities from September 12th – September 16th.
“The goal of our Herbal Medics team in West Virginia is to help the local underserved population by providing sustainability-based alternatives to a lack of medical care and environmental destruction. This includes a variety of approaches on our part that address not just the health concerns themselves but the sources of the health concerns. We will be applying our years of experience in remote environments outside the USA to help build and teach rainwater collection, slow-sand water filtration, provide herbal medicine clinics, sustainable agriculture projects for food and medicine, nutrition, gardening and herbalism classes and more.” – Sam Coffman, Clinical Director and Co-founder of Herbal Medics

Herbal Medics is seeking the support of those with generous hearts and philanthropic spirit to help fund this mission. Herbal Medics is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and supporters will receive a tax receipt for their donations. Any size donation is welcome; all support is appreciated. To make a donation go to: https://www.gofundme.com/herbalmedicWV16.

 

About Herbal Medics: The underlying mission of Herbal Medics is to integrate botanical medicine into mainstream medicine and to assist in post-disaster, inner city, medically underserved, and 3rd world environment situations in a sustainable and supportive manner of the community being assisted. To learn more about us go to www.herbalmedics.org

Herbal Wilderness First Aid

 

April 8 – 10, Chestnut Ridge Park, WV

Aurora Lights is partnering with The Human Path (www.thehumanpath.org) to host this event. 

Sam Coffman from the Human Path will teach this 24 hour course over 3 days (8 hours per day). It includes both a conventional 16-Hour Wilderness First Aid (WFA) Certification through Emergency Care and Safety Institute (ECSI) as well as more than 8 hours of herbal first aid training.

Herbal First Aid information is integrated into the curriculum every day in order to create a holistic model of remote or post-disaster care that emphasizes the essentials of first aid care while also introducing fundamental plant-medicine concepts that apply to austere or post-disaster environments.

I Love Mountains Day

I Love Mountains Day is a celebration.

It is a celebration of the mountains and of springtime.

It is a celebration of our mountain culture, of mountain lives and livelihood.

But it is also a privilege.

In celebrating this day, we must recognize that many of us have the privilege to do so. For some of us, springtime might represent life and spending time outside with the sun. We go hiking, birding, kayaking, biking, and running. We enjoy our time with the mountains, and we celebrate them because we can.

Because we don’t live at the foot of a blasting zone.

Because our school doesn’t sit under a slurry pond.

Because our water lacks an orange hue or a dark smell.

To some in other parts of the state and region, however, springtime might also represent fear, flooding, and slurry spills. Springtime might mean your children sleep with their shoes on in case they need to flee their home from a flood. Springtime might mean your favorite hiking path or stream has been contaminated or covered by the overburden from a mountaintop removal site. We must always remember this as we continue to love the mountains.

But what does it even mean to love mountains, to celebrate them?

Does it mean to love culture and our people? Is loving the environment and world the definition? Is being a good steward the answer? Does it mean to recognize your connections with the land and to stand with it?

If this is what loving mountains means, then just having this moment of awareness right now—for this one day—is not enough. What (else) are you going to do to ensure the mountains will always be there for all of us to celebrate and live with? How can you walk away from this day, this moment, as a changed person, as a constant lover and steward of the mountains?

We are encouraging you to do more. Celebrate the mountains. But also give back to them, for they have always given to us.

The Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) Act is working to halt any new mountaintop removal mining permits and cease the expansion of any current permits. The ACHE Act “directs the federal Department of Health and Human Services to launch a federal health study in Appalachian mountaintop removal communities to determine the cause of abnormal health disparities,” and it also demands the monitoring and reporting of air and water quality around existing sites.

As we celebrate this I Love Mountains Day, Aurora Lights encourages you to find unique and continuous ways to join us in building solidarity for a healthy Appalachia.

Supporting the ACHE Act at www.acheact.org is one way to make sure that we—all of us—can always celebrate every day as I Love Mountains Day.

You may also want to volunteer with a local environmental nonprofit like OVEC, Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Keeper of the Mountains, Friends of the Cheat, the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club, and many, many more.

We are encouraging folks to spend this day celebrating the mountains in meaningful and active ways. Spend time with the mountains, but also spend time with others doing good work for and with the region.

If you would like you to share how you are celebrating with us, please post your stories on our Facebook page with the hashtag #iLoveMountains.

I Love Mountains Day is a celebration.

How will you make sure the mountains are always around to celebrate with?

Not In My Forests (NIMF) sets out to protect WV public lands

Not In My Forests (NIMF) is an educational program that highlights the impacts of extractive industries’ use of public forests in West Virginia. The purpose of this program is to raise awareness about the issues and let West Virginians have a voice and opinion about the use of their public lands.

Currently, we will focus on three main issues regarding public forests within West Virginia.

In Coopers Rock State Forest, a recreation hotspot located near Morgantown and West Virginia University, the largest proposed timber cut in the history of the State Forest is about to become a reality. The Scotts Run-Pisgah Project is estimated to produce around 1.2 million board feet from an area of the Forest that has not been touched since it was designated as a State Forest in 1936. This project will produce over half of the harvest from projects completed in a 27-year period in just one harvest.

In Kanawha State Forest, threats to the ecosystem are being made by coal extraction, commonly referred to as mountaintop removal mining. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a permit to use explosives and blast off over 400 acres of forested mountaintop right next to Kanawha State Forest and less than 5 miles from downtown Charleston, the state’s capitol.

Furthermore, the Monongahela National Forest is threatened by a proposed 42-inch natural gas pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is proposed to stretch 550 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. The section of the pipeline that will be laid within West Virginia, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, will span over 10 counties before traveling into Virginia. The Pipeline is set to be built through some of the most pristine areas of West Virginia that lie within the Monongahela National Forest. It is estimated to carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

NIMF is the platform on which Aurora Lights can spread awareness and education while helping the organizations at the forefront of each issue. Through our Mountain SOL School, we have a student chapter called the Mountain Mayflies. Aurora Lights will be working closely with the Coopers Rock Foundation regarding the Coopers Rock State Forest, the Kanawha Forest Coalition regarding Kanawha State Forest, and the Greenbrier River Watershed Association regarding the Monongahela National Forest.

One year has passed since Elk River coal-chemical spill

Aurora Lights played a vital role in delivering water from the northern region of WV to the area affected by the Elk River coal-chemical spill. Altogether, we delivered water to 11 communities, raised over $12,000 in donations, and organized the distribution of over 5,500 gallons of water. We partnered with over 15 different people/organizations to haul water and supplies to communities in need. We received PayPal donations from folks in 24 different states and received donations from over 300 individuals and businesses within 9 West Virginia counties.

Our water relief efforts couldn’t have happened without you and your continued support of Aurora Lights. We met some great people over that two-month span and were completely humbled by everyone’s willingness to contribute and help out. Thank you all for being great people.

West Virginia women to be featured as Heroes

My Friends are My Heroes is a project created through Aurora Lights. It is designed to showcase the hardworking and dedicated women of West Virginia who work extremely hard to protect the land and its people. This project was created to acknowledge and appreciate the women of West Virginia that work to make our state a better place to live, work, and play. The women of this state deserve to be put in the spotlight, especially since most don’t receive the proper recognition they deserve. This project and the interviews on this website are meant to show others that these women aren’t simply “activists” or “tree-huggers”. These women are heroes, role models, friends, mothers, and your average, busy West Virginians.

Visit www.myfriendsmyheroes.org to learn more about the project and read about our featured heroes.

 

The featured picture is a portrait of Judy Bonds by Robert Shetterly.

Welcome to our new website!

We are beyond excited to unveil our new and improved website created by Fullsteam Labs. Please take a look around our website and learn about our various projects.