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.



Comments are closed.