The adage that we are what we eat will come to life again, perhaps in some surprising ways, during the 15th annual Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference at the Kanuga conference and retreat center near Hendersonville. More than 1,000 women of all ages and backgrounds are expected to gather Friday-Sunday, Oct. 11-13, to study herbal cures, traditions, nutrition and personal growth, with over 50 classes, workshops and intensives on offer.
This year marks a significant change in the event: Founder Corinna Wood is scaling back her involvement, though she’ll still be a presenter. She declined to be interviewed, saying she prefers to keep the spotlight on the conference itself.
Annabeth Hardcastle, who’s attended nearly every year, sums up the event this way: “It’s a thousand beautiful women who gather for plants, the planet, love, acceptance and affirmation.”
Woman to woman
Asheville author Byron Ballard, a Pagan priestess, blogger, urban homesteader and lecturer who has attended most years, will offer a workshop on traditional Appalachian healing methods.
“There are things in your own backyard that are more effective and better for you than pharmaceuticals,” says Ballard. “And commercial interests are trying to patent some of them.”
One example she cites is fire cider, a mix of vinegar and spices, garlic and hot pepper. The tonic, she says, alleviates congestion from colds, flu and allergies and also boosts the immune system.
Ballard doesn’t advocate shunning modern medicine, but she does enjoy teaching people, particularly women, how to find common plants right near home that treat various ailments while helping maintain health.
Part of the problem, as Ballard and other women’s health advocates see it, is that most medical research is male-oriented: Historically, the model for most drug studies has been an average-weight male.
“The focus of the conference is woman to woman, kind of kitchen to kitchen,” Ballard explains. “It’s about women being together in a women’s space and being free to talk, to do, to teach and to learn from each other.”
Other presenters will also offer alternative visions of both nutrition and medicine.
Sally Fallon Morell is the author of Nourishing Traditions, a bestselling cookbook that challenges conventional wisdom. “I believe the human body benefits from old-fashioned animal fats,” she says. “I’m talking about whole milk and meat and eggs, real butter.”
Fallon Morell is the founding president of The Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to returning nutrient-dense food to the dietary forefront. She also recommends bone broths, organ meats and meat from grass-fed animals as part of a diet rich in unprocessed and lacto-fermented foods such as traditional pickles, sauerkraut and sourdough breads.
Recent studies have suggested that meat from animals eating a diverse mix of plants is likely to be lower in saturated fats and that the phytochemicals those animals ingest might help fight low-grade inflammation in humans that can lead to heart disease and other illnesses. According to information from the National Institutes of Health, the rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes corresponds to the rise in industrial farming and the practice of feeding grains or monoculture grass to cattle.
In other words, says Fallon Morell, eating a healthier animal makes for a healthier human.
“These are the foods that kept our ancestors healthy,” she maintains. “Every culture has a history of fermenting foods. These foods help to feed the biomass in our gut — something we’re just now learning about.”
Her three-hour intensive class, “Nourishing Traditional Foods: The Key to Vibrant Health,” will be offered on the first day of the conference.
A major focus of the conference is nourishment, which Wood sees as including more than just food.
“In the Wise Woman Tradition, we turn our attention away from ‘fixing’ or ‘cleansing’ ourselves, and we move toward nourishing ourselves — such that our bodies respond by moving toward optimum health,” Wood wrote in explaining the conference’s content and focus.
Other related classes will include “Phytonutrients and Food as Medicine” with Dr. Crystal Dawn Silas; “Deep Immunity” with naturopath Rebecca Word; and “The Flavor and Nature of Herbs” with Chinese medicine expert JulieAnn Nugent-Head.
Naturopath Jody Noe will share the most recent science behind cannabidiol, or CBD oil, clinical applications of medical cannabis, and the human endocannabinoid system. Noe’s course description says that with medical marijuana now legal in 33 states, we’re beginning to rediscover the power of a plant that various cultures have used as herbal medicine for thousands of years.
For many women, though, the conference is about more than just the classes: It’s about a tradition of wise women helping others discover natural remedies and folkways.
Kathryn Waple began attending the conference in 2009 and has missed only one since. “It was the same weekend as my wedding,” she explains.
Waple attends with her daughter, Ruthie, now 5, because she enjoys learning from a variety of people, whether it’s “a hippie woods witch or a clinical practitioner.”
Rather than treating women as “less than,” says Waple, the conference highlights women’s wisdom and warmth. “This is my retreat,” she declares. “It’s my annual reset. It’s so rejuvenating, and I love that my daughter will grow up with it being a part of her life.”
You are enough
For her part, Hardcastle loves the diversity of conference attendees, particularly the number of teenagers and girls.
“I have the great privilege of working with teenagers, and I love watching them become aware and grow,” she says. “We have a circle of grandmothers who sit with these teenagers. … We teach them that they are enough. We tell them, ‘If someone tells you you’re not something enough — fill in the blank here — well, yes, you are.’”
The conference also addresses racism, with classes on “Southern African-American Rootwork,” “Overcoming Racial and Social Determinants” and “Healing Historical Trauma and Grief.”
“We have a fire circle devoted entirely to racism,” notes Hardcastle. “Women discuss privilege, guilt and more. It’s powerful and healing.”
And as Wood steps back, neither conference organizers nor longtime participants seem worried about the beloved event’s future.
“Corinna and others have been strong, strong people who created the vessel of the conference, and that will continue in the same spirit,” Ballard predicts. “It is a place with a caretaking, loving, nurturing atmosphere, and I don’t think that will change.”
WHAT: 15th annual Southeast Wise Women Herbal Conference
WHEN: Friday-Sunday, Oct. 11-13
WHERE: Kanuga conference and retreat center near Hendersonville
COST: Registration costs $345. Regular classes are included in the price, but workshops are an additional $20 each, and intensives are $40 apiece. Food and lodging are also extra, except for camping, which is free. For more, visit conference.sewisewomen.com.