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Decade in Reflection Part Three: Plant Medicine for People & Planet


In honor of our ten year anniversary, we’re taking a trip down memory lane in a new multi part series. Through archival photos and retrospective writings, we’ll revisit forest gardening, water management, plant medicine, and other pursuits we’ve explored over the last ten years at Fields Without Fences with the kind of nuance and cosmic humor that only hindsight provides. 

Memory forms in a relational context, and looking back on the past ten years, it becomes difficult to parse apart one moment in time from all that came before it, and all that happened after. In this regard, these reflections do not follow a strictly linear presentation, or timeline of the farm. They are not a list of perceived achievements or failures, but travel instead the way memory does in the mind’s eye, layering and folding in on itself, constantly reconfiguring itself into a cohesive narrative.

I once heard someone say, the past does not generate the present, it streams out behind it. What is, at any given moment, is determined by the position of the observer at present. Spooky action at a distance…

Past and present, as it turns out, is a bit of a to and fro.

Read Decade in Reflection: Part One: Forest Garden Farm

Read Decade in Reflection: Part Two: The Way of Water

Circa 2013, Johann & Lindsay, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Photo by Sean Walsh.

Plants & Place

My first walk across the field was a long trudge, marred by thorny brambles that kneaded and tore at my clothing as I rocked my boots back and forth to dislodge them from the sinking sludge, with every progressive step. We had moved into the abandoned house on a ten acre plot for what we intended to be a three month stay in late November of 2010. By the time February arrived, we had patched the missing floors, rid most of the critters living in the walls and rafters, and were slowly coming around to the realization, that our short stay at Barbertown Idell Road (BIRD, as we call it), would likely extend well past that long and insufficiently heated winter. In the cold February air, boots filled with icy water and ensnared in the tangle of a brier, I began to wonder with greater urgency, where am I?

Thorny plants like multiflora rose and wild blackberries are able to thrive in adverse conditions common to old farm fields. As fast growing early successional woody species, they tolerate compaction, water inundation, soil depletion, and nutrient deficiencies in a persistent way where other species cannot. Their sharp edges are dissuasive to predation, and in areas like ours where the large deer population has a disproportionate impact on the species makeup of our local ecosystem, they are concurrently disproportionately abundant. 

Plants tell the stories of place, hold memories in their composition and invent futures in their wake.

The plants that dominated this abandoned agricultural landscape; a simplified palate composed primarily of brambles, autumn olive, and sedge were the natural expression of a landscape responding to circumstance and stimulus. Pathologies and imbalances broadly develop in the earth body in the same way they develop in the human body. Chronic deleterious stimuli move functional cycles into dysfunctional states. Our interest in healing plants (healing here and elsewhere further, harkening to its etymological origin, the Old English “restoration of wholeness”) relates to the material restoration of a functional ecology, and also concurrently, to the biochemical and philosophical orientation of human beings to their habitat.

We removed a detrimental stimulus and erected a deer fence. We worked with water to improve circulation, retention, and flow through the vasculature of the landscape. But the deep nutritive healing would be made possible by the slow alchemy plants enact on their environment, converting the energy of the sun into the stuff of all living creatures on earth.

January 18th, 2014, Lindsay Napolitano (author), Local Delaware River Trail

The medicinal herbs were Johann’s idea. In college he spent a semester studying phytochemical concentrations in medicinal plants with University plant scientist, James Simon. As an annual vegetable farmer he tucked tulsi and lemon balm in with adjacent crop plantings. By the time he was running a ten acre annual vegetable CSA near Princeton in the late aughts, he was simultaneously maintaining a large and robust culinary and medicinal herb garden, and selling bags of chamomile flowers to local chefs. In 2010 he spent a week in Massachusetts learning at Goldthread Herb Farm, and came back with aspirations for starting a similar herbal medicine CSA program here in New Jersey.

My journey into the world of healing plants was wholly circumstantial, related inextricably to one specific time and place. I went to art school, spent my early twenties in the city making and showing experimental film and video, living in a Brooklyn arts collaborative while running the gallery downstairs, and bouncing around on various documentary film projects as a freelance producer. I grew up on the Jersey shore, all sand, and water and sky, and intended on returning there when Johann suggested we spend a few months working on the old abandoned house his mother had purchased as a retirement spot on ten acres, near the wild wooded edges of the Delaware River. My entry into this unfamiliar landscape was intense, sudden, and fully immersive, not at all dissimilar to the exhilarating experience of falling in love.

The sensation of falling in love is a diametrical experience in which the world all at once expands into the outer reaches of the emotional continuum, and collapses into singular focus. I suddenly wanted to know everything about the beloved, and barely noticed as everything else diffused and receded into the background. I came to know the plants first by sensation… hue, and fragrance, and feel. Watched them as they came into form across the arch of seasons, emerging, blooming, and fading in rhythmic waves. I read books, learned common names, Latin names, Chinese names, and made up names to grasp onto the inarticulable experience I was having with my environment. I took classes, taught classes, and spent five years in intense study with the renowned and widely revered herbalist David Winston. I grew the plants, harvested the plants, and created herbal recipes that my community came to call upon. My work in the plant world was and is a deep exploration into the most fascinating medium I have ever encountered as an artist; a mutable medium, with living desires of its own.

April 18th, 2021, South Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. The lowly and common, like ubiquitous violet and ground ivy, are elevated when their medicinal qualities are investigated.

June 18th, 2018, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Summer Solstice herb harvest. Interacting with plants across the arc of the seasons, and learning their behaviors, stages of growth, and proper harvest times has the effortless effect of connecting us to the larger seasonal patterns of the earth.

March 10th, 2016, Johann Rinkens, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Processing barberry roots for home use. The outer root bark, rich in berberine (an antibacterial alkaloid) is slowly peeled off the roots in a painstaking process. How herbs are grown, harvested, processed, and consumed are particular to each unique plant and associated medicine tradition.

August 22nd, 2018, South West Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Plants intermingle with one another in naturalized plantings on the farm. Pictured here, Catnip, Yarrow, & Anise Hyssop grow in the understory with ‘Pink Champagne’ Currant, below Elderberry.

Plant Medicine for People

That plants provide the necessary nourishment for maintaining human biology is not particularly controversial. But from the perspective of the prevailing hegemony, the suggestion that plants may have further therapeutic function is only to be mentioned couched in caveats and qualifiers, and adorned with an air of hocus pocus. At the farmer’s market, customers would roll a plant extract bottle in their hands, palm a jar of tea, and lean in with one eyebrow raised to say, I totally believe in this stuff. Belief is useful, but often unnecessary. The phytochemicals in your coffee beans will wake you up without demanding entry into the occult.

And yet there is a sacredness that surrounds medicinal plants. A deep reverence embedded in the knowledge human cultures have passed down through plant medicine traditions. Growing medicinal plants, crafting herbal preparations, and continuously learning and sharing knowledge through our work over the years has placed us within an ancient continuum, that for most of human history was part of a common and shared lexicon. A colorful tapestry of know-how necessary for navigating survival. Utilizing plants in a therapeutic context is not a trait distinct to the human species, as the field of zoopharmacognosy widely demonstrates. But, human beings in their capacity for diverse art and expression, have uniquely created traditions, recipes, stories, and mythologies to honor, remember, and articulate from generation to generation, the healing power of plants, necessarily elevating their stature and enveloping them in a shroud of mystique.

Even when we forget their stories, and their names, humans must always return to plants by necessity. To eat, to breathe, to heal. And so too, over time it seems, likewise all the earth returns to plants.

The first plants to emerge in the freshly worked compacted bare soil on the farm were weeds; tough, fibrous rooted docks and dandelions. Their abundant seeds already present in the soil milieu, they sprout to cover the ground quickly, trapping moisture under their wide leaves and returning it to the soil. Their roots penetrate the earth and swell to crack the surrounding soil, creating tiny caverns for water, and air, and insects to inhabit the substrate, and infuse it with life. When they senesce, their rotting parts provide fodder to a consort of microbes and microscopic creatures to feast on, whose comings and goings shift the soil composition toward increasing complexity, creating the basis for a functional ecology.

These widely available weeds are ripe to consume. Their sour bitterness on the tongue increase salivary action in the mouth. Bitter receptors in the gastrointestinal tract initiate the release of digestive enzymes, and phytochemical interactions with the vascular system moderate systolic and diastolic blood pressure, in a collective set of actions that support the healthy circulation of fluids within the body and enable nutrient uptake. The fibrous roots, rich in the prebiotic inulin, provide fodder for a consort of gastrointestinal microbes to thrive on, the comings and goings of which support healthy digestion and elimination, along with improving a complex suite of diverse biologic processes, creating the basis for a functional physiology.

The interactions between plants and nearly every living organism on the planet are so numerous and complex that it may be difficult to conclusively quantify. As a species we use our tools to try. Part science, part tradition, part mystery, plant medicine lives in phytochemical compounds, time honored recipes, mythologies, and the naturally unfolding succession of nearly every disturbed landscape.

July 18th, 2015, Medicinal Herbs in the Field & Garden Workshop, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ.

Our first medicinal herb class on the farm, Medicinal Herbs in the Field & Garden, was a heavily attended gathering that brought participants all the way from Philadelphia, rural Pennsylvania, across New Jersey, and everywhere in between. We corralled and crowded into the aisleways of the young forest garden, bursting with flowering plants in high summer. I remember being genuinely surprised by how many people were interested in learning about medicinal plants, and somewhat flustered when we had to cap registration for the first time.

Up until then our interfacing with the public around medicinal plants had been a mixed bag. No, no one had heard of elderberry, unless, oh wait, yes, their grandmother grew it; Yes, the teas sold nicely, but the straight runs of dried calendula, licorice root, chamomile, and the like mostly went unnoticed. No, sorry, we explained many times, we were not selling essential oils. Everything was complicated. The insurance company did not want us using the term “medicinal herbs,” but, “traditional herbs,” was tolerable. We did a lot of public education, and digested more than a recommended helping of weed jokes regularly lobbied our way.

In time we found an appropriate niche for a lot of the plants growing on our medicinal forest garden farm. We sold medicinal herbs and berries to adventurous chefs and product makers interested in their culinary quality. Our herbal product line, which started with two herbal teas, three balms, and retail packs of dried herbs, eventually grew to over 35 different herbal teas, body products, and plant extracts at its height. We worked to supply our community with seasonal herbal remedies and education through an herbal CSA program for five consecutive seasons. The bulk harvests and straight runs went to wholesale buyers, and we eventually started contract growing for larger herbal product makers.

I’ve always enjoyed the wild complexity of a class like this in the field. Between participants, plants, and all manner of buzzing creatures, dynamics of exchange emerge with an intricacy that can’t be fully accounted for prior. Bringing medicinal plants from the field to market over the course of the last decade was a lot like that. But, where ecologies thrive on wide spread delegation, I eventually found all the complexity under my auspices grew taxing, and overly burdensome. Since becoming pregnant with my son, I’ve been engaged in the process of evaluating what dispersion of energy is appropriate and where that’s possible. I look forward to returning to the field like this again, when the time is right.

2015, Edible Jersey Fall Issue, Print Publication. A feature article on the overlap between food and medicine in the Garden State. Pictured on the article cover page are a collection of our herbal teas.

May 9th, 2016, Jamil Nazy & Andrew Geller, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Flowering Chervil harvest.

August 28th, 2019, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Lemon Verbena & Tulsi harvest baskets.

August 12th, 2017, Lindsay Napolitano (Author), West Windsor Farmers Market, West Windsor NJ. Behind the table at the market, slinging our farm grown herbals and talking shop with customers.

Plant Medicine for Planet

On the rocky outcropping that lines the canyon down the road, trees grow out of rocks, with their roots snaking and wrapping into the folds of bald stacked shale where debris gathers. In the most minor presence of soil the trees charge toward the sun, bathe in the mist lifting off the river, and drop leaves every winter, which fall to the ground to become the earth. Plants are the soft tissues of the planet. Plants are a bridge to the living world. Plants are a conduit. Plants are alchemists, performing a special transformation on light and water to make carbon manifest into the diverse expression of all living creatures.

The collective biochemical processes and life cycles of plants hold a cumulative planetary intelligence all our scientific instruments and woefully insufficient grammar are only ever scratching at the surface of. Isolate a species, name it, dissect it by its parts and constituents, and glean only a modicum of insight at the expense of having, by design, tampered with the source material, and muddied the experiment. An interconnected ecology only makes sense in context.

On the farm this message has translated as increasing humility toward the emergent plant composition taking shape in the field. We’ve introduced crops, species we thought would do well both ecologically and economically, and encouraged their proliferation by seed, cuttings, divisions, and intermittent antagonism toward competing species. By this process the plants move around the farm by crawling across the ground, lifting on the wind, and repeated redistribution by human hand and bird alike. In this way it becomes a collaborative process of growing, a to and fro, a medium that kicks back, expressing desires to which we respond.

We are part of a simultaneous process wherein plants provide us with necessary food and medicine, and we further the proliferation of those plants. We collectively shape our environment, as our environment shapes us, a natural and often unconscious unfolding of one living system. Which plants should grow where is an ongoing and evolving conversation we participate in, along with birds, squirrels, and the cumulative karmic outcome of all things in time. 

Biomimicry, the practice of imitating biological processes found in nature in human design, is part of our process, and the impetus behind planting in polycultures where complementary species grow alongside one another as they do in the wild. The other part involves encouraging and allowing for emergent plant communities to inhabit various niches on the farm by way of natural unfolding. This is anything but a hands off process. Our interactions – planting, harvesting, walking, general interfacing with the landscape – themselves create openings and opportunities into which species inhabit, and we in turn work accordingly with those species in a kind of unaccounted for, but complex, mutualism.

Circa July 2017, Lindsay Napolitano & Johann Rinkens, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Video Stills.

If you were to assume that inviting an element of chaos (chaos here harkening to its Proto-Indo-European root meaning “wide openness”) into an agricultural landscape would impact crop production, you would be correct – in both directions. Over the years we’ve refined our crop list in both the understory and overstory of our forest garden farm to reflect the natural abundance of certain species, and acknowledge the unlikely, if not heavily aided, persistence of others. This process has ultimately enabled us to delegate a suite of caretaking responsibilities to the plants, and farm with minimal inputs of capital and energy expenditure.

This approach, falling on several points within the rewilding, restoration ecology, and agricultural production continuum has also given rise to a farmscape quite unorthodox in composition and appearance. Visitors are often aware that these crops have been planted, but can’t say for sure which ones, or where exactly. On a recent field walk with our new organic certifying officer, she paused at several points to repeat, I’ve never seen anything like this! 

Being different can elicit equal parts celebration and confusion. In the early days I felt unnecessarily scrutinized by the puzzlement our crop list and field composition inspired. I was cagey about our work. But at a certain point I became playful and animated by it… how enchanting it was to walk along the invisible edge of human certainty and the press of the plant world, unrestrained in its capacity for novelty and wildness. There is a medicine in there I return to often, when I find myself ensnared in the thorny tangle of the world.

We’ve talked quite a bit about our work in the field, and still only scratched the surface, because the work itself is perennially in a state of flux and evolution by living design. For all the farm tours, classes, and programs we’ve offered over the course of the decade, there exists very little beyond still images of this time. In the summer of 2017, at the end of a long workday on the farm, I had let my hair down, and settled onto the picnic bench to relax when Johann pulled in the driveway to let me know his friend Alex would be coming by soon with a camera to interview us about the farm for his new YouTube channel. I considered disappearing. But maybe it was the angle of the sun, or being a little burnt, I decided instead to stay and participate. The unedited result is a low key conversation between friends. We barely make our way into South Field, but I’m sentimental about it because it captures a moment in time. The farm doesn’t exactly look like this anymore, things have grown and shifted, and changed into a succession of new forms. Living in succession, becoming animated by the wild spirit of change with a wide openness, to me, is the medicine story of the plant world.

Watch the interview…

July 18th, 2017, South West Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. A Hummingbird Moth, Hornet, & Human buzz around a mesmerizing tangle of Monarda and Elderberry.

August 10th, 2013, Local Trail on the Delaware River, Frenchtown, NJ. When we talk about building soil, we are very basically talking about an accumulation of plant material. The poor quality of our soil on the farm was not singularly destined to be so. Just down the road, in a forest area of the cliffside, dark, dank, friable, top soil lives under the trees.

May 31st, 2015, Center Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Valerian in flower. There are only remnants of this original planting where tall trees and shrubs now grow. However, the species persists overall in the forest garden, mostly as singular plants that are part of spontaneously emergent mixed meadow understory.

August 2nd, 2020, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Our forest garden orchard is composed of primarily medicinal species in the understory and sub canopy. Grouped within our rubric of medicinal plants, are high antioxidant berries with documented health benefits, and traditional medicinal uses including Elderberry, Aronia, Wild Blueberry, & Blackberry. Pictured here is a bright citrus tasting medicinal berry called Seaberry, or Sea Buckthorn.

Where Edges Overlap

There are no singularly medicinal plants. No spontaneously and independently arising plants imbued with other worldly elixirs. The plants are outgrowths of this world. Their medicine is derived in relationship with the surroundings. Phytochemicals, a broad term for the sesquiterpenes, triterpenes, polysaccharides, and phenolics that impart a therapeutic action within the body are forged in response to exposure to solar radiation, interaction with soil microbes, the presence of predators stalking their ranks, adjacency to heat, cold – ultimately, general exposure to, and interaction with, environment.

As human beings we fall within that continuum, shaping our environment, and in tandem being shaped by our environment. Throughout our body, a constellation of cell receptors twinkling and going dark in the presence and absence of phytochemicals. Most wholesome, and holy of all is our inextricable relationship to plants. Our dependence on them to breathe, be nourished, and ultimately endure, suggests we are a conditional organism, arising only in tandem with the plant world. 

When plants inhabit a landscape, they have the curious quality of initiating a biological trajectory of increasing complexity. In this way, on the farm, sparse broadleaf biennials became mosaic meadows, which are in the continual process of becoming a multilayered forested ecosystems. The interactions and relationships that emerge all along the way, comprise the components of a functional ecology, and enable a restoration of wholeness to all interdependent forms. 

Our story is just one story in an endless and evolving book of plant medicine traditions.

July 7th, 2013, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ.

Johann and I often talk about the “green wall,” the impenetrable out-there-ness of a landscape covered with ubiquitous plants, from the human perspective. But, when we begin to open up to it, become curious about our surroundings, the landscape explodes into a diverse menagerie of tall ones, short ones, soft tufted skin, and prickly hairs, sea foam green, sage green, and hunter green with an underside of emerald. There are a variety of names, associated traditional uses, and biochemical actions, and at a certain point, a thrilling open secret arises new and fresh as if for the first time, my goodness, everything is medicine!

It was two seasons into my work on the farm, when the verdant luster of new love had already begun to take on the muted patina of routine. Walking around the farm I was confronted with a laundry list of to-dos and minor agitations; the nettle should be harvested before it grows tough and lanky… damn that 80 degree apparition in April that sent the cilantro into early flower… I need to get another cutting of the Monarda before the powdery mildew invariably strikes! I was becoming consumed with the cumulative weight of so many pressing details.

In the waning twilight of a summer evening, we laughed and talked with friends out in the field until the sky fell resolutely dark, without one single porch light to corrupt the blackness. All details were lost. I could only feel the collective landscape, in all its myriad of forms, breathing a rhythmic inhale and exhalation, like a wall of sound pushing a soft breeze right up to the outer edges of my skin. And my body, its inner and outer ecology, an inextricable part of it all. My own breath, by way of carbon and spirit, nourishing the plants that grow up around me. 

This photo is not from that specific evening, but one of the many twilights like it where the landscape abstracted to once again take on a monolithic quality.

On one level there was the business of the day, the temporal quality of to-dos, and the various desires, drives, and efforts that comprise a human lifetime. On another level, where all the details blur around soft edges, the world, in its collective and eternal becoming, takes on a subtle spiritual quality beyond the finite material lifetime of any single being. Here the world turns like a kaleidoscope, collapsing and expanding, in a process of eternal reflection. This, after all this time, is what keeps me returning to the work, and enlivens it with renewed spirit.

September 19th, 2017, Lindsay Napolitano (author), Spring Lake, NJ. Collecting rosehips for seed off a wild sand dune where we parked the car for a wedding down the shore. Plant medicine is everywhere when you have the eyes to see it.

July 7, 2015, South West Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. A mixed medicinal meadow blooms in the understory.

May 28th, 2013, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. “Lullabalm” was one of our first herbal teas, a simple combination of three calming herbs with nervine qualities.

August 14th, 2018, Ninja, High Tunnel, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Rosemary harvest in progress against a backdrop of flowering oregano and climbing Passion Flower.

One Thread Weaves Us Together

Our work with healing plants continues. We’re bringing a similar palette of native and medicinal species to our fields as we plant out the new farm. We’re working with existing plants, introduced plants, and various methods of establishment, both strategic and chaotic in their emergent composition. As we learn from and interact with this landscape, our hands are shifting the ecology, and our biological and philosophical make up is consciously and unconsciously being further shaped by it.

At the heart of this collaborative spirit of interplay is a self reflexive consciousness wherein the world might seek to know itself from the touch of another. As humans, we are a natural outgrowth of plants, but also expressed in complimentary detail, two ends of the same thread knitting the world whole. A healing process.

Authored by Lindsay Napolitano, 2022

Photos by Lindsay Napolitano & Johann Rinkens

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