This October women will gather in Black Mountain, NC, just outside of Asheville for the 11th annual Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference. These women will learn how to make and use herbal medicines in the Wise Woman Tradition. They will also dance, sing, laugh, and generally have an awesome weekend focused on the conference theme “Celebrating Women and Plants.” I recently had the chance to converse with Corinna Wood, Southeast Wise Women founder and director of the conference, about her extensive experience with herbal healing and what conference participants can expect.
Era: Let’s talk a little bit about the Wise Woman Tradition. What exactly is it and what attracted you to working with herbs in this way?
Corinna: I work in the Wise Woman Tradition when approaching herbs and women’s health. This is a woman-centered tradition of embracing our physical bodies and our emotional bodies as well. In the Wise Woman Tradition, we see women as whole and healthy beings, rather than looking at our bodies as something that is dirty or in need of cleansing. So we’re moving away from the denial that is present in a lot of alternative health today, what is often considered the “Heroic Tradition.”
One of the ways that Susun Weed– the leading modern-day voice of the Wise Woman Tradition– describes the tradition is by drawing the symbol of a circle. A lot of times in the Heroic Tradition, we’re trying hard to stay in this white, light, “good” circle and trying to keep all the bad, dark, difficult things out. In the Wise Woman Tradition, we’re opening that circle into a spiral, allowing ourselves to recognize and acknowledge all of the aspects of who we are as integral to our health and wholeness. So the Wise Woman spiral is the spiral of both light and dark.
Some of the favorite tools in the Wise Woman Tradition include local plants–working with the common local plants and food-like forms, where lines between food and medicine blur–and deep nourishment. Rather than the focus on cleansing and what we’re keeping away, we turn our attention to feeding our bodies in a way in which we’re optimally nourished and our bodies are receiving what we need. Deep nourishment applies to feeding ourselves on an emotional level as well. Another tenet of the Wise Woman Tradition is valuing the community of sisterhood and of women.
I’ve just been amazed how powerful it is over the years for women to come together in that space of sisterhood and safe, sacred space with other women. I started by seeing this in my classes teaching herbal medicine over the last 25 years. At first, I offered classes for both women and men, and it turned out that it was mostly women who showed up. And then I found that when it was all women, we were able to go deeper and discuss aspects of our bodies and of our day-to-day and life-journey experiences as women, which we may not be able to do or comfortable doing in a mixed group. So then I moved to teaching women-only groups and expanding that over the years, to now a thousand women at the Herbal Conference. It just continues to unfold in such a powerful way–watching the magic of women coming together, and experiencing the deep opportunities for healing, connection, growth, and learning from one another.
Era: That was actually one of my follow up questions. What are the benefits of maintaining the Herbal Conference as a women-only space? And on the flip side of that, have you ever experienced a drawback from excluding men and the herbal experience they might bring to the table?
Corinna: No, that really hasn’t been an issue. There are certainly other herbal conferences and schools out there–in our area, and around the country–which do bring together the expertise of men and women. Of course, that is also very valuable and is accessible for anyone who chooses to attend those events–many of our participants attend some of those as well.
This women’s herbal conference is a more specialized offering. There have been so many inspiring and knowledgeable teachers that just started popping out of the woodwork as soon as I began the conference in the Southeast–and sometimes we even bring in presenters from beyond this region. But even just in the Southeast, we have hundreds of wonderful teachers we’ve been able to bring in through the years. So, no, there’s not a sense of anything missing.
And, yes, we find that the all-women environment creates a deeply enriching experience on many levels, from the class subjects to the special events, from just relaxing into the safe, sacred space of sisterhood, to celebrating through dance, song, and drumming.
Era: Let’s talk a little about the Herbal Conference specifically. Tell us who the conference is for and what participants can expect.
Corinna: There are classes on herbal medicine and women’s health, and other aspects of women’s wisdom as well, including our relationship with our bodies, with our food, and also with nourishing ourselves emotionally and spiritually. There’s a class grid where there’s nine tracks happening simultaneously, and then there’s eight classes in each track throughout the weekend, so there’s plenty for any woman to choose from. In addition to the classes, there are special events in the evenings, including discussions, dancing, singing, and fire circles.
This year in particular, our focus is on “Honoring the Grandmothers.” We have Rosemary Gladstar coming from the Northeast, who is internationally renowned and considered one of the grandmothers of modern American herbalism. Rosemary is actually doing a slideshow about her herbal elders. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to have this connection with Rosemary and honor and learn from her wisdom, and then also to hear about foremothers who have inspired her in herbalism.
And in focusing on honoring the grandmothers, we’re also looking at the range of women from many cultures, races, and heritages from all around the world. So we are also bringing in Amikaeyla Gaston from the World Trust Organization who does training around racial equity. We will offer a large group discussion on Friday evening around addressing racial equity in our natural health communities, which is a subject we’ve been exploring over the years.
We’re in such a powerful location in the country, here in the South with the history of slavery as well as the displacement and genocide of the Cherokee people. So as we’ve been evolving the conference, we’ve found that we’re greatly enriching ourselves as women, as well as herbalists, by creating opportunities for honest and open interracial dialogue. We have a sanctuary space for discussions and classes of special interest to women of color, as well as embracing our multi-cultural world as women in the class schedule for all. This year we’re also bringing a larger discussion about understanding white privilege and dynamics of racism.
Era: You touched on this briefly. I noticed when I was at the conference two years ago that several presenters make reference to the Goddess in their conference presentations. How does spirituality play a role in the Wise Woman Tradition?
Corinna: We do see women and the Earth and the plants–as an expression of the Earth–as sacred. At the same time, the community of women who attends also weave together a lot of different spiritual paths. We have Christian women, Pagan women, women who follow Oshun paths (an African spiritual path), Native American women, and women from various paths from around the world. We focus on “Celebrating Women and Plants,” and we’re doing that on every level, including the soulful level. We do have a lot of diversity: spiritual diversity, racial diversity, age diversity. We have young women’s programs and elder women who are attending in their seventies or beyond.
Era: I was poking around on the schedule for the New England Women’s herbal conference, and I noticed that they have a session on herbal strategies for transgender and gender non-conforming people. Is the SEWW conference open to attendance by transgender women?
Corinna: That’s something that we’ve been exploring. Our facilities aren’t all that easily conducive because of some of the shared cabins and showers. At the same time, I’ve had dialogue with some transgender women who have been interested in attending. So as long as they understand the limitations of our facility, they’ve been welcome to attend. We have had [transgender] women who’ve come and have had a really positive experience.
Era: What sets Southeast Wise Women apart from other Wise Woman groups around the country? Is there anything uniquely Southern about what you do?
Corinna: Well, there certainly is that diversity of the lineages here in the South, like I was saying, where we’re weaving together people from a lot of different heritages. But there are actually not that many Wise Woman groups! Susun Weed does a whole lot around the country and the world, and I’m very much in her lineage. I apprenticed with Susun over twenty years ago, in my early twenties, and my work is very much about carrying on and spreading the Wise Woman Tradition. I am standing on her shoulders, for sure.
Era: What is your vision for the future of SEWW? Where do you see it going in the next 5, 10, or 50 years?
Corinna: Yeah that’s a big question I ask myself too. [She laughs.] At this point Southeast Wise Women has grown far beyond what I imagined, and I’m really delighted to be continuing on in this way that we are.
A lot of how the expansion and evolution has happened so far has been by feeling it out as we go along, watching how things are received, and listening to feedback. I mean, the whole focus around racial equity came out of our participant base, from voices within this community of wise women, as well as the way that we design the class schedule within the event and certainly the growth of the conference and the spring Herbal Immersion. So, absolutely, I am continuing to watch and listen, in order to discern the ongoing evolution of the offerings and the organization.
To find out more about Southeast Wise Women and programs they offer, go to www.sewisewomen.com