For the past 3 weeks I have had a nasty upper respiratory infection. I know, SUPER glamorous and exactly the correct way to start an article, right? Last week as I walked around the Farmer’s Market, my awesome community of vendors all checked in on me, wished me well, and sent healing vibes. It was great. When I stopped and talked to our local herb lady, Katie Beacham she said, “You know I have something that’ll help you. Let’s meet up this week and I’ll get you some.” Since my antibiotics had failed, I was excited at any prospect of relief and jumped on the offer. I also knew that if I was going out to Katie’s, that she would be my farmer for the week (even though I didn’t tell her that until Tuesday, a few hours before I showed up to interview her). As I was driving out to Katie’s place I was getting more and more excited. Herbalism has been a long-time interest of mine, but I always find it so intimidating. Probably because I assumed it required a 10-year long apprenticeship with a shaman on top of a mountain somewhere. I mean we grow our own cilantro, put lemon balm in our tea, and I never make potatoes without Rosemary but beyond that? Forget it. I pulled up and hoped out of my car.
Katie walked out to greet me. Giving into my anticipation, I said “Alright! Show me what you got.” Katie immediately started pointing at little patches of greenery all around me and telling me their names, common uses, and funny folklore. To the left of her front door she pointed out this column of fuzzy, sea foam colored, broad leaves and told me its name (which I wasn’t quick enough to write down). Katie then told me it was more commonly referred to as Cowboy Toilet Paper and laughed. A google search would later reveal it to be Mullein and it has many uses outside of emergency toiletries. I hurried to keep up with her. Plants I wouldn’t have even noticed, Katie pulled leaves off of and would hand it to me to munch. As I ate my deconstructed salad, Katie would tell me the nutritional values and health benefits. One such plant was Purslane, which looks like a weed but has an amazingly high level of Omega 3 fatty acids and a delightful peppery taste. At this point I think she could tell my head was spinning, so she walked me over to the more common culinary herbs. I’ve never been so happy to see Mint in my life. I finally realized that all my basic knowledge was woefully inadequate for the desert shaman Katie Beacham’s beginning field course.
Throughout our walk, she referenced several times the way her mother and father had the landscape when they were alive. Through a convoluted path of questioning I found out that the property had been acquired by her father long before she could remember. “If you had to guess, would you say the 50s?” I asked. “Oh no, way before that.” Katie answered. She then described her father Don Beacham, who worked for the city of Santa Clara, as a quiet man who believed in conservation. He kept his head down and worked hard. Over time he and his wife Ellen bought patches of land throughout the city to grow on. “They were so wonderful. They kept everything beautiful. I don’t have their green thumb.” Katie said. I laughed thinking it was obviously a joke. Katie also expressed how she thought the goodness of her father had kept the property safe. “There has been times where everything around us has flooded out, but the water never comes near this house,” she said. What a great feeling to have. Since gardening was a family activity, I asked if she had learned about herbs from her mother. “My mother was a great gardener, but I learned a lot on my own. I was really sick a while back and all of the prescription medication they gave me made me sicker. I had to find another way, so I started reading about herbs.” A sentiment I related to so well because that was the exact reason I was even at Katie’s to begin with.
After touring her amazing yard, Katie explained she also had a partner she worked with in the neighborhood and that there were a lot more herbs over at Janice Chandler house. The house was only a few blocks away, so we decided to hop in my car and head over. As we drove, Katie pointed out local landmarks and gave me some background information on the town. She walked me through the intricacies of her part of the community like only a true local could. We pulled up to Janice’s and were greeted with amazing beds of herbs in full bloom. It was awesome to see this little industry of herbs was blossoming throughout the community. She walked me through the clusters of plants and patiently answered all my questions. Holy Basil, Curry, Rosemary bushes the size of baby bears. I felt like I was rushing through my 10 year apprenticeship. I fumbled trying to take notes and pictures at the same time. Still struggling not to miss any of the wisdom that Katie was sharing. When we got back to her place, Katie walked me over to a gigantic Fig tree on the edge of an open field. She started pointing out the ripening fruit and told me she was toying with the idea of bringing them to the market. I salivated at the prospect.
We turned and looked out at the huge empty side lot and our conversation began to wander. We covered city happenings to corporate mergers. This is how I found out that Katie had refused to sell her lot to a developer who wanted to build condos. When I asked her what her dream for the property was, she said that for years she’s wanted to turn it into a community garden. We walked over to where the neatly tilled rows started, and she pointed out the water line she had running from the irrigation ditch. Katie looked at me, “I just really want people who don’t have the space or access to a garden to have a place to grow. I’d only charge them for the water.” Chills ran down my arms and I immediately envisioned the bustling community garden of the future. It wasn’t hard to get completely swept up in the idea and we began spit balling ideas. Katie talked about dividing the lot into plots. I started listing off people who could help her get it off the ground. Katie pointed out where fruit trees could go. I started listing off the year round activities that could be held there. We sat there for a few magical moments totally entrenched in her dream.
We kept talking it through and the more we did, the more I realized that maybe Katie was the magic and not the idea. I began to see that Katie didn’t just sell at the Farmer’s Market because it was fun. She sells there because it’s what she believes in. Her dream is to stay small, local, and give back. What’s more shaman-esque than that? We walked back up to the car and I was trying to find the words to thank her for all the things she has done for the community and all the things she’s going to do. Instead, I promised I would try to help her figure out how to get her community garden up and running. A promise I intend to keep. If you have any interest in starting a plot out at Katie’s or helping it get off the ground, feel free to email her at email@example.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and as always, if you need good local herbs you can find her every Saturday at the Downtown Farmer’s Market 9 am- noon.