Growing Nature’s Garden with Herbs that Heal

By: Roberta Binder


Listening to the many-sided journey of clinical herbalist, Cynthia Stacey, also known as Thea Summer Deer, one can’t help experiencing her deep love of all things growing on and in Earth Mother. I first met Thea briefly last fall at the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference, with just a small opportunity to listen to her herbal wisdom; yet I knew there was so much more to her story. Sharing with others now during Earth Month and the beginning of the season of planting—and nature’s own garden pushing forward once again—is exciting and inspiring.


Thea was born and raised in the Seminole Village of Musa Isle (Island of Bananas) at the headwaters of the Miami River. Her maternal grandfather took ownership of the land that had been a Seminole trading post. Thea notes, “He told the tribe that they could continue living in their traditional manner, ‘but now you work for me.’” They lived in their chickees and added a museum and curio shops, where the Indians sold their piece work. Some of the men wrestled alligators, and exotic animal additions made the village a major tourist attraction by the time Thea was born. The Seminoles were her playmates, and she quickly absorbed many of their traditions which remain true to her being today. “Since we never wore shoes, we ran unfettered and free; this was home. I learned a lot viscerally.”


During these early years, her interest in plants began. “I remember having an elementary school science project. I was fascinated with how plants bled, so I gathered a collection of saps in little vials and became absorbed in describing their different consistencies, colors, and smells.”


When Thea was eight her parents sold the Village and moved to a new home in the rural countryside. Her new home, in rural Florida, took her away from her Indian playmates, but the family had horses which soon became her new playmates, along with imaginary friends as her fertile imagination grew. In retrospect, she feels fortunate to have spent a great deal of time alone in nature developing her natural gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience.


When Thea was ten she began attending an eight-week summer camp at Lake Junaluska. Many interesting activities captured her attention.


Excitement fills her voice as she recalls “. . . a whole cabin dedicated to nature studies and folklore. We gathered herbs and made teas and decorations with them.” This was the beginning of her lifelong herbal studies. Thea’s love and writing of poetry was encouraged by a counselor who read amazing poems before bedtime, such as the Desiderata and poetry books like Apples of Gold.


She originally went to college to study art, but life took her in a new direction that became her true calling. Thea apprenticed with a local doctor and certified nurse midwife to become a lay midwife. Since 1978, she has been involved in some aspect of midwifery; Thea explains, “At that time, lay midwifery was legal in Florida. All you needed to do to become licensed was have a doctor attend 15 births and sign off that you had caught 15 babies.” As the movement grew, the women she worked with felt that there needed to be more structure. They gathered together, formed a coalition, and lobbied for years; their victory was a law requiring more formal education requirements and training. Thea became one of the founding mothers of the South Florida School of Midwifery and one of the original instructors in their two-year program.


Through the Midwifery School, Thea met Susun Weed whose knowledge of herbs was a most valuable resource to women catching babies at home. “She taught everything from stopping a hemorrhage with herbs, to bringing up a stubborn low hematocrit, to preventing and healing perineal tears. She came regularly to teach, and this was my first exposure to true clinical herbal training.”


Along the way, Thea left Miami and married a man who was a doctor and a Shaman, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona. Together they operated and traveled worldwide with the non-profit Resources for World Health. Thea’s ambition to develop her music was put on hold when she became Executive Director of the organization. Traveling as director of R.W.H., and later as a musician, had many pluses for Thea because it enabled her to study with amazing herbalists from divergent traditions and backgrounds.


As life has a way of bringing change to our lives, the couple divorced. Thea kept the Healing Retreat Center, based in Tucson, Arizona, active with workshops, equine therapy, and holistic retreats. Her herbal studies and exposure continued as she brought in herbalists like Willie Whitefeather and Pam Hyde-Nakai to present workshops.


Thea soon heard the Appalachians calling again and returned to the mountains she had loved so much growing up. The book she had started writing on herbs was slowly maturing, and here in the mountains she met Patricia Kyritsi-Howell, director of BotanoLogos School for Herbal Studies. Patricia suggested that Thea take her one-year herbal studies program. Thinking that the class might be useful when she was shopping the book for a publisher, she agreed.


Thea thoroughly enjoyed her time in the class, and remarks, “The manuscript happened to get me into the class, and I’m grateful for that. It broadened my knowledge and is responsible for my decision to start practicing as a clinical herbalist. It expanded my studies into medical herbalism and energetic medicine, both of which expanded my original manuscript.”


In 1998, change again appeared for Thea as doors opened for the music and songwriting that had always been such an important part of her life. She found an excellent vocal and musical partner in Chuck Willhide, also known as The GreenMan; their voices blend like whispers on the wind and the spark between them is delightful to witness. Thea’s CD My Mother’s Garden contains beautifully produced original songs and most evenings this is the music playing in the background as I happily prepare and enjoy my dinner.


Chuck and Thea have built a wonderful life together, starting in Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, on the Georgia-North Carolina state line. “Sitting directly on the Blue Ridge Divide, it was a magical piece of property. You could feel its amazing energy as you set foot on the land.” They worked hard to develop the land by planting gardens and honoring the existing indigenous plant population. It was here that the plant devas who stepped into the limelight—and now play such an important role in Thea’s book—began calling her.


Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth, the manuscript that Thea had worked on over the years, finally came to maturity. It was published by Bear & Company in late 2011. I have picked up many herbal books and learned from each. None has ever gained my interest enough to read cover to cover like this one has; it captured me from the very beginning and kept my attention to the very last page. At the same time Thea was completing her book, she was also finishing her doctoral work in Philosophy and Shamanic Psychospiritual studies. While the technical aspects of the herbs are clearly addressed in the book, it is balanced with the individual plant’s divination and then the visitation of each plant deva whose voice Thea channels.


Thea teaches Energetic Medicine and Chinese Five Element Theory online at Wise Woman University. Teaching the Five Element Theory goes deeper than what is considered the traditional use of herbs, “People mostly think about herbal medicines in much in the same way as they think about pharmaceuticals, a mechanistic model of healing which says if you have this symptom take this drug. That is not the model I follow,” Thea clearly explains. “The energetic approach to healing is a holistic model, also known as the Wise Woman Tradition that looks at not only the physical but spiritual, emotional, and psychological as well. While my background is in a Western European herbal tradition, I am really teaching on all these levels, which, to me, represents a more Shamanic approach.”


She continues: “Herbs have system affinities: respiratory, reproductive, cardiovascular, digestive, and they recalibrate these systems. The herbs are allies that have more medicine than their isolated constituents and they also have a psychological and spiritual component to them. This is where the spirit of the plant comes in and that has to do with relationships. As we come into relationship with the herbs, they inform us through taste, smell, color, and texture. Ingesting an herb is a totally different delivery system than taking a pharmaceutical. I personally call it Earth Spirit Medicine because we are connecting our bodies (earth) with the divine (spirit).


“All healing takes place in the context of relationship, and when we come into relationship with a plant we can begin a conversation. This informs us on a deeper level and empowers us to find our own answers and to trust our inner guidance. There is a direct hook-up that happens when we learn to trust this inner navigation system. This is when we discover that we are healers in relationship with others who are also their own healers. The premise is one of mutual empowerment.”


Thea has a private practice with two offices where she sees clients, one in Asheville and one in Sylva. One aspect of her practice that she feels is essential is working communication with other practitioners. “A good working communication with a group of practitioners who can come together as a team provides a full spectrum of resources to the client’s benefit.”


An additional piece of information, which I was unaware of, is the marriage of Chinese and Western herbs. Two mountain ranges, one in China and the other right here in Appalachia, boast the widest diversity of medicinal plants because they survived the ice age. What scientists are now discovering is that similar species live in these two geographical locations—they just happen to have different names!


Thea is a licensed minister, singer-songwriter practicing the meditation techniques taught by Prem Rawat. She is a member of the American Herbalist Guild, American Botanical Society, and Madonna Ministry International. In addition to her recent release, Wisdom of the Plant Devas, her articles have appeared in numerous magazines and publications.


Now living just outside Asheville’s city limits in a quiet farming community, Thea has a garden filled with herbs and vegetables enjoyed through the seasons. She saves heirloom seeds from year to year, a true dedication of honoring Earth Mother and each plant’s bounty and gifts. With a meadow and forest behind her home, Thea is planning weed walks this summer, to explore native medicinals and gather wild edibles that will culminate in a shared meal. In Thea’s world, everyday is a celebration of Earth Day.


To learn more about Thea’s Healing Herbal Retreats, classes, workshops, weed walks, or to schedule a clinical herbal evaluation appointment call: 828-633-0429.


Roberta Binder is a Writer and Editor who enjoys working with authors to bring their words to life: As a Feng Shui Master, she encourages Peace and Balance for Body, Mind and Spirit in clients’ homes and businesses throughout WNC: and FB: featuring wit and wisdom.


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker