This interview is part of our "Wisdom" series, which will include conversations with modern wisdom keepers, interesting tidbits from historic herbals, and other resources and insights that align with our human connection to "deeper knowing." Today, we share an interview with Herbiary founder, Maia Toll - presented by Staff Writer, Jessica M. Lambert (née Sisk).
What is wisdom? There is not one answer to that question. My poetic answer: being able to sense the larger web, yet pluck a single strand. My somatic answer: listening with your whole body, not just your mind, so that you can live in relationship with all that is. My practical answer: recognizing true joy when you stumble across it.
- Maia Toll
She is sitting in a rustic rocking chair on the porch of an early 18th-century house near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The late summer cries of the crickets and cicadas surround us after we’ve enjoyed the simple lunch she prepared: a sort of gluten-free savory crêpe of pear and smoked mozzarella dusted with cinnamon, all gently beribboned with a maple-balsamic vinaigrette. The day is hot and still, making questions stick and linger.
Maia may be an herbalist, a partner in an innovative herbal business, and a teacher who uses plants in the classroom and in her coaching practice, but she is simply not all about the botanical, even if she resembles some wild plant twisting upwards and out into one direction and then suddenly into another. She is a specimen not easily identifiable and one not at home in a pot, a self-professed cinnamon junkie and tea-snob who, as we begin to rock in our chairs, cheerfully remarks:
If I wasn’t seeing the individual transformations that take place, I’d lose interest very quickly… I’m not a person who sees life as a destination. As long as you’re still journeying, you can always go somewhere else.
She does not possess an early memory of her first Plant Encounter, like so many plant practitioners do, nor is she a grower of plants so much as a figure standing at the crossroads between people and plants. She also went outside of her own country and comfort-zone to do her initial apprenticeship study in Ireland. Situated at this moment in Philadelphia, she is not settled at all. Part of her will not do so; part of her curious drive appears to flourish not from a single-minded focus on plants so much as a wide and abiding interest in the natural world and its interactions with human beings.
I very distinctly remember sitting in English Lit class - junior year in high school - and hearing the teacher introduce the theme of man versus nature. And I’m thinking: how can you have man versus nature? We are part of nature. Where we fit into the natural order of things has always fascinated me, and how we create platforms for interaction, whether that’s by having buildings use the same mathematical sequences as the spiral of a conch shell or whether it’s bringing herbs into your house and transforming them into medicine.
I think, for me, herbalism has always been a tool for leading people towards personal transformation. I’m not as interested in the herbs in the abstract, I’m interested them in the context of how people can use them and how they can help people to see the world differently.
Let’s go back to Ireland. Oh, let’s she swiftly shoots back with laughter (I was leaving for the Green Isle myself, in a matter of days). Wisdom often comes in the form of the unexpected and in unfamiliar spaces and Maia’s time as an apprentice abroad was one such transformative experience of receiving it and one that was an impetus for her multi-faceted career.
Ireland was one of those experiences that changed my way of seeing the world in a really core way. And it wasn’t always fun and it wasn’t always enjoyable, it wasn’t always traipsing through the fields gathering up herbs…Having time where I was really removed from everything that felt familiar to me and having that spaciousness to view things that I thought were… written in stone. The things that we grew up with we often don’t even question…so having time in which I was just completely removed from that gave me the spaciousness to look at things wholly differently.
A lengthy immersion in any foreign place helps grant the space to move beyond a romantic vision because it also creates disillusionment and a kind of deprivation, which Maia views as important for this kind of transformative experience. When asked what one thing she’d give her own students on their journey, and what one thing she’d take away from them in order to help create such transformative space, there is silence, which a passing hawk fills with its high and slender call. It is not an easy question. But in mulling this over, the question resurrects remembrance of her own teacher in Ireland, Gina McGarry.
My teacher didn’t actually take away our cameras, but she severely dissuaded us from using cameras. She thought we should experience the moment and not photograph it for later use.
Presence emerges as another powerful signpost along the path of wisdom. Other than taking away one’s technological apparatus, Maia suggests another way for the student to be present, one which is in some ways profoundly Goethean:
In the moment of working with the plant, I truly think that the best thing to be doing is drawing it. I think that engages your deepest facility for observation. People really resist that, too…but in the moment of sitting with the plant, it doesn’t matter if you draw it well: it’s not the drawing that matters, it’s the act of drawing and the act of observation it takes to draw.
And the great lesson (among many others) in her herbal work?
The biggest thing that the plants teach you is to observe the world around you and to observe it closely…and to assume relationship. We tend to assume lack of relationship with the world around us. We assume that…trees and plants are just doing their thing and we’re doing our thing, and it’s separate, right? But once you realize you’re in relationship…there are messages everywhere.
The new Herbiary website has recently been launched. I asked Maia how she was feeling about that and the evolutions that are now coming into focus, and to talk with us a bit about how the Herbiary is set apart from other herbal businesses. She was already noticing, in the time before the business was born, that her students simply couldn’t find all the materials that they needed.
I’ve searched around quite a bit. There are lots of small places where you can get just essential oils or just flower essences. But there are really very few places out there where you can get a variety of things [raw materials] and also finished products from artisans who have been doing this for a while and have created something with love and caring. One of the things I think I forget, and people who work for us also forget - because we are all immersed - our choice of products is pretty unique. I opened Herbiary as the shop that I wished I could shop at.
When I was in Ireland, anything that came from the plants was fair game under that kind of umbrella title of “herbalism.” So we worked with plants we gathered from the field, with things that were dried that we bought from other sources – we used tinctures, essential oils, flower essences. When I came back to the States and people said to me: Are you an aromatherapist? Are you a flower essence practitioner? I was literally confused! I remember looking up the definition of aromatherapist…we just used things all equally, it came from the plants, so therefore you should know how to use it, if you’re a person who specializes in working with the plants. So the shop really reflected that: all these things come from the plants, they’re all useful in helping you to reconnect with yourself, the natural world, and with your deepest wellness.
Maia was also already seeing clients and teaching classes as the Herbiary first came into existence, and when asked how she made that happen, she simply replies: “Truthfully – that was all Andrew.” Andrew is her husband and the dedicated man in front of as well as behind the daily operations of the Herbiary. But as she begins to elaborate, it is clearly not just all Andrew; the two of them are high-energy counterparts. So what’s it like having your husband as a business partner?
Kind of like studying in Ireland… She lets out a charming peal of belly-borne laughter. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”. There are some things that are absolutely fabulous about it; the reason that we have a good life partnership is that we’re good partners, we’re able to pick up where the other leaves off and compensate for each others’ lesser abilities. But it also means that work often never ends…learning to respect each other’s space and place within the business and not allow anything to carry over into our personal relationship is something we’ve worked out over time.
TOWARDS A NATIONAL DIALOGUE
The way that I see clients has not changed. I’ve been seeing clients for…oh! Coming on a decade. I’m looking at the world around me and trying to figure out how to put things into place so other people understand what I do, and to contextualize, so that someone considering working with me understands what the heck I’m doing.
What surprises Maia most about where she is at now is her personal mindset. When the Herbiary first opened, she felt that it would simply be the little local herb shop. She trails off, lost for a moment in quiet thought, and then:
There wasn’t space in the larger dialogue for anything beyond a little community herb shop, and I’ve really come to realize there’s a national dialogue that is beginning to form…people are learning about herbs in a lot of different ways…from Dr. Oz…from doing Google searches. This is coming into public consciousness and…not in the way I would choose.
I press her on this; there is something here, some greater purpose, and she readily obliges:
The way that I see a lot of people relating to herbs is that they are just being used as a replacement for a pharmaceutical, a medicine. It’s – oh well, if I take X, Y, Z medicine, what herb can I take to replace it? And to me, that’s the wrong question. It’s the wrong premise. Herbs work based on energetics. And so it’s about understanding: is your body running fast, is your body running slow? Is it hot, is it cold, is it wet, is it dry? And these begin to influence which herb you’re gonna choose…working with herbs is multidimensional, truly holistic. There’s a flatness to the conversation our nation is having about botanical medicine, there’s a lack of dimension. The dialogue is being catered to the lowest common denominator of herbal use, ignoring the rich history, the depth, and the texture that herbs can bring into someone’s life.
She sees clearly, then, that the place for the average American to enter into this dialogue is through simply thinking about food. Maia has recently started to expand this vision by embarking on a creative series of videos that showcase herbal recipes in a chic culinary fashion. She points out one pre-existing fact that perhaps keeps many folks needlessly disconnected from the plants: Most of us are not traipsing through the woods. Enter then the realization of an urban kitchen that practically connects the dots between food and medicine.
She gives a simple illustration that goes back to her comment upon how the plant world fosters observation: when one cooks, one may easily see that a particular spice heats the food.
So if you’re a menopausal woman who is sweating all the time, you might find yourself naturally not going out for vindaloo anymore. It’s a place [the kitchen] where we are already instinctively interacting with herbs… calling it to people’s consciousness is a way to help people understand that they already know more than they actually think that they do, and if they just starting thinking a little bit differently, they’re going to be able to start making really useful decisions for themselves in this arena that feels kind of strange and new for a lot of folks.
There are all these subtle dimensions to how your body works and how your body might be feeling a certain way. The more you can get to know yourself, the more you can really pinpoint what’s going on using energetic language…and then the more you are going to be able to choose an herb that speaks to what you are experiencing.
And so the main stem of her work emerges, however varied the direction of the leaves: educating people, connecting them with the plants, and bringing greater awareness of the inter-relationships between the two.
Maia never does say what she’d take away from a student to help open up space for wisdom in the journey. Perhaps you’ll be the next one to find out.
To learn more about Maia, visit her website at maiatoll.com.