By Kate O’Connor
Sometime around Midsummer, my husband will ask me, “When is your retreat?” I find his reference rather quaint. But, yes, I do slip away every autumn for a long weekend. I leave my quotidian concerns behind me and drive out to Lake Eden to be with my Sisters.
They are doctors and doulas, accountants and artists, students and say-at-home moms—wise women, all. And although I go to spend time in reflection and contemplation—to walk in the woods and breathe in the serenity—I’m not retreating. I’m running into the arms of a grand celebration of Women, in all their strength, beauty and complexity. I am going—as I have for the past seven years—to the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference.
I don’t go because I’m an herbalist (although it’s great to know how to make a plantain poultice for a bee sting) or because I’m in the healing professions (if I were, I could get education credits for many of the workshops).
I go because it feeds my soul.
That’s what Conference Director Corinna Wood had in mind when she conceived the event nearly 10 years ago. “Our conference is focused on the Wise Woman tradition. It’s about earth-based healing, local plants and women connecting with themselves and with each other,” she explains. “Those are the cornerstones of the program. And it resonates on so many levels. “
“The first year, we had 200 women attending and although I had the intention of making it an annual conference, I was waiting to see how it was received. During that first weekend, I had no doubt. It was completely clear. What those women were experiencing was amazing. They were receiving something that went beyond herbs. It was about loving ourselves, nourishing ourselves with food, embracing our bodies and our sexuality… tools for healthy and joyful living in these challenging times. I think that’s why there has been such a positive response. We’re expecting 1000 participants this year.”
One thousand women in community—some with bells at their ankles, some with babies on their hips, some leaning on canes. “It’s an environment that helps to break down the barriers that women are acculturated to create with one another,” Corinna observes. “I’m always struck by the power of women coming together in this way.”
Corinna became aware of that power over 20 years ago when she attended the New England Herbal Conference with her mentor, Susun Weed, the noted herbalist, author and founding grandmother of the Wise Woman Way. “I remember saying to Susun that I could see myself teaching at a conference like this someday,” she recalls. “Susun said, ‘Yes, I can see you doing that too.’”
The exchange proved to be prophetic. After her apprenticeship with Weed, Corinna went on to found Red Moon Herbs at Earthaven Ecovillage, an intentional community outside Black Mountain, and to begin teaching herbal wisdom to small groups locally. She began to present at conferences and symposia in other areas of the country and says, “it came to a point where I felt that this area was ready for a women’s herbal conference of our own. The Appalachian Mountains have such a rich history of herbal medicine. I wanted to connect women with other regional herbal teachers.”
And the teachers came to share their wisdom, including Susun Weed. As keynote speaker of the first conference, she gathered the attendees together and had them arrange themselves by age order, hand-in-hand, youngest to oldest. Gesturing to the empty space beyond the octogenarian grandmother at one end she said, “there are all the women that ever were,” and to the space beyond the pre-pubescent girl at the other end, “there are all the women who are yet to come. You are a part of an incredible continuum—this is an unbroken circle.”
From its inception, the SEWHC has been circular in its energy. Having made the decision to initiate the conference, Corinna turned to her own community to help manifest it. The four women who make up the core administration live in and around Earthaven Ecovillage and are dedicated to creating a lifestyle based on integrity, honesty and respect. “We have shared values and experiences around communication, consensus and living in harmony with the earth,” she observes.
Program Director Lee Warren agrees. “We homestead and farm and raise children in the context of a close relationship to the natural world. It’s an atmosphere of sisterhood and empowering each other. We have very integrated lives—we see the benefits and the beauty of making our choices within the Wise Woman spectrum. That’s the flavor of this conference: a strong energy of acceptance and celebration of women’s choices. It comes from our individual choices as women.”
Lee is charged with creating the curriculum that will provide participants with a range of options, allowing them to customize their conference experience. This year, there are nine tracks ranging from herb walks and medicine making to sacred sexuality to self-empowerment and ritual. In conjunction with the American Holistic Nurses Association, healthcare professionals can receive CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for the more advanced classes, which help to integrate holistic practices into the western medical model.
The course offerings have been evolving and expanding organically over the years. The conference now offers over 70 workshops and intensives that embrace the entire life journey, from midwifery to conscious dying. “We are a weekend dedicated to the Wise Woman tradition,” notes Lee, “and that’s about all the stages of life—embracing the shadow as well as the light. Women are at different places along that continuum. We want to meet them where they are.”
For many who attend, their first contact is with Ema Carmona, a mother of three who is on staff at Red Moon Herbs. Ema is Corinna’s right-hand woman: the Conference Coordinator, who oversees registration, vendors, childcare, lodging and food and acts as the direct interface with the participants. “In our circle,” she says, “I am holding the voice of the people who will experience this conference. And believe me, they are absolutely not afraid to tell me what they want.”
The coordinators respond to those needs and desires. Take the expanded children’s and youth programs, for example. Boys and girls ages two to nine, and girls aged 10-17 are welcome at the conference. For the teenage girls, it is a particularly enriching experience. The Wise Maidens program, for the 13-17 group, comes at a time when these adolescents are establishing a sense of themselves as women.
And they have such fine role models to encounter at the conference. Open-faced and approachable, Ema is the den mother, anticipating individual needs and holding hands to facilitate the best possible experience for the attendees—the go-to person when a car battery dies or someone needs a ride-share. She’s usually seen riding around Camp Rockmont, the conference venue, in a golf cart alongside Renee Conover, the Production Coordinator, checking to make certain that all’s well.
Renee makes it all happen on the physical plane—the tents, the lighting, the sound systems, the chairs… the works. “I’m really behind the scenes,” she says. “The biggest piece of the smooth operation is our work-exchange program, which involves 100-200 women. My focus is on managing them: finding them, getting them committed and getting them trained. We handle everything from arrival—greeting someone when they drive in—to getting their car parked and getting them in to registration to directing them to their lodging and classes. And then, of course, feeding them. We have an amazing kitchen staff.”
For several years the delicious and locally sourced meals that keep participants fortified and ready for their workshops have been coordinated by Val Lowe and Katie Tillman, owners of Friends Food with a Flair, with the cooperation of a team of work-exchange kitchen goddesses. This isn’t your standard summer camp fare; no soggy sandwiches and bug juice for the Wise Women. The fresh, seasonal menu is based on “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon—wholesome, tasty and deeply satisfying.
But then again, the entire event is deeply satisfying. The ultimate joy is in the participants themselves, who complete the web that has been woven by the conference staff. “People come with an attitude of cooperation,” says Corinna. “Those values of integrity, communication and respect for each other as women come through so much in our planning process.”
“When the women arrive, the conference takes on a life of its own,” Ema notes. “Our job is to get it to that point, to set up all the systems so that when the energy takes off, everything is going to run as smoothly as possible. And it does.”
Suddenly, no one is a stranger. Women from diverse circumstances meet each other, laugh together, learn together and celebrate each other. At the Red Tent, an open communal space, they gather in a womb-like environment to tell their personal stories and listen deeply to one another. They sing, they dance, they drum, they dream.
And, if they are anything like me, they leave standing taller and walking with a bit of a sway in their hips, as if the rhythm of the experience is still playing in their hearts. They carry the radiance that they have absorbed from their Sisters. It’s that glow that prompts my husband to ask me, at Midsummer, “When is your retreat?”
The 8th Annual Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference will be held at Camp Rockmont/Lake Eden from October 12th through 14th,. For more information about the conference, the Wise Woman tradition and Red Moon Herbs, visit them on the web at http://www.sewisewomen.com.
Kate O’Connor is an artist, editor and freelance writer specializing in lifestyle and the arts. She lives in Asheville, NC where she tends her gardens and enjoys the company of her husband, Clark Kimball. Each year, she dances a bit further along the Wise Woman path.