Wildcrafting

(Story by Michael Dax / Photographs by Stephen Lang)

Most simply, wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting wild plants that are typically intended for medicines, foods or other practical uses. But for Tomas Enos, who founded Milagro Herbs nearly 30 years ago, this relatively simple explanation only scratches the surface. For Tomas, he more aptly describes his life’s work as the “sustainable harvest of wild foods.”

“We’re not only gatherers, but we also study the plants and how ecosystems are doing, how they’re growing, what their populations look like and what impacts there are,” he says. “So it’s a little more involved than just harvesting.” It is this perspective that helps Tomas stand out. It’s not just about making a living, but rather, teaching people to interact with and integrate themselves into their environment while providing an opportunity for them to better understand the cultures that have shaped Northern New Mexico for more than a thousand years.

More than ever before, Americans have become wholly disconnected from the natural world, and as the impacts of climate change, as well as residential development, roads, overgrazing and other human impacts have degraded our natural landscapes, we are less and less equipped to understand and combat this ecological deterioration. So although outdoor recreation is experiencing a historic boom, people are not necessarily engaging in deep observation or forming the kind of meaningful relationships with the plant and animal communities around them.

This is where Tomas comes in. Sixty percent of his products, which include hair and skin care, nutritional supplements, pain relievers and dried herbs, are locally harvested. But for him, this is just the first step. More than anything, he hopes these products will help spark an interest and inspire people to learn more about the native plants and herbs growing from the Rio Grande to the highest ridges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And with this curiosity for knowing how to harvest, process and use these plants in a responsible and sustainable manner comes a deeper appreciation and understanding for the natural world and humankind’s place in it.

Like many people, Tomas’s initial interest in wildcrafting began with spending time outside and wanting to learn the names, applications and cultural histories of the plants around him. But soon, his hobby became a passion and as he studied more, his interest grew beyond just knowing when and how to use these plants, but also, as he puts it, “how to live at the level that all other living things can tolerate.”

Part of this process is knowing when and when not to harvest, and for Tomas, his joy comes not from harvesting, but rather the opportunity to be out in the woods gaining knowledge. “Each time, it’s like a pilgrimage just to see what’s going on, maybe with the intent to harvest, but certainly with the intent to be in that environment,” he says. “It’s listening and the environment communicating.”

Perhaps no example better illustrates how seriously Tomas takes this ethic than the dilemma he faced during 2018’s historic drought.  “Last year, we had an incredibly dry year and things weren’t as viable and the plants were stressed, so it wasn’t an optimal time to do much collecting, and I had to adapt my business and life activities around that,” he says. “I’ve made a pact that if I’m going to live this kind of life, I have to live according to the natural ways. I can’t let business practices dictate my activities in the forest or else it will negatively impact the plants.”

As much as he laments how climate change and other human impacts have altered our natural landscapes, making certain plants increasingly hard to find, for Tomas, adjusting to those new realities is part of the point. Nothing in nature is ever static. Although the idea of living “sustainably” has become increasingly fashionable, often manifesting in such actions as installing home solar, driving an electric car or using recycled products, for Tomas, many of these efforts largely miss the mark. “Technology doesn’t provide the deeper answers to sustainable living,” he says.

More than anything else, Tomas views our fundamental disconnect from the environment as the largest overarching threat, and in many ways, wildcrafting both as practice and process offers a path forward. “We can’t take it for granted that those things are going to be there,” he says. “We have to be on our toes about what’s the right thing to do and our relationship with the natural world—finding our place and being aware and sensitive to that.”

While the impacts of climate change may have made last year particularly difficult, they have also engendered a growing interest in wildcrafting and the larger ethic of self-reliance that it represents. To meet this demand, Tomas offers a variety of classes and workshops focused on topics like herbalism, the cultural contexts of healing and making herbal medicines. He even has a six-month certification course in the foundations of herbal medicine.

While some of the classes can be fairly intensive, Tomas also leads a series of casual two-hour walks that provide a softer introduction to some of the fundamental principles of wildcrafting. In addition to what he describes as “a beautiful walk in the forest,” these classes also include overviews of identifying plants as well as when and how to harvest plants and herbs in order to promote future growth and not damage the plant. In the spring, these walks take place at lower elevations where participants might find commonly used medicinal plants like yerba mansa, which has a variety of uses, from reducing inflammation to easing stomach pain to curing common skin ailments.

As summer approaches, Tomas’s walks move up into the Santa Fe Ski Basin where people might find plants like osha, which Indigenous tribes have used for centuries to treat a variety of different aches and pains. Tomas will even lead walks around town to help demonstrate how many common plants we see growing as weeds can actually be quite useful. Yerba de negrita, also known as globe mallow, is a particular favorite. Blooming in July and known for its beautiful orange blooms, both the root and the leaves have long been used to treat sore stomachs, cover insect bites and condition hair and skin.

No matter the course, it’s not merely about teaching students about the plants and their uses, but about instilling an understanding and appreciation of how we, as humans, employ them in a respectful and ecologically responsible manner. Tomas is aware that in the wrong hands, certain herbs and plants can be overexploited and harvested at unsustainable levels. “We teach it very carefully,” he says. “It’s sacred information and we don’t want people using the knowledge and over extracting.”

To this end, he makes a point of incorporating plants’ cultural and human histories to better contextualize their practical applications. “We can’t always predict how people are going to use the information, and yet it is really important to get [that knowledge] out there, so along with teaching about the information, we have to work with people’s state of understand and being,” he says. “Without cultural meaning, the plants become just a commodity.”

Despite the mounting impacts of climate change and our increasing dependence on technology, he has found reason for hope. More and more, young people have become especially interested in wildcrafting and all the principles of self-reliance it embodies. “People are feeling a strong sense of wanting to reconnect with the natural world and wanting to know what all the uses are for plants,” he says.

In this movement, he sees a growing sense of community and shared experience among people who value that foundational connection to open spaces, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems he considers so essential. Wildcrafting’s prevalence may still be relatively small, but for Tomas Enos and his fellow enthusiasts, its potential to imbue a deeper sense of reverence for the plants that have sustained us for centuries is boundless.

Milagro Herbs is located at 1500 5th St. in Santa Fe, 505.820.6321, milagroherbs.com.

 

 


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