69 Herbs

Conversation held on May 31, 2020

In terms of 69herbs, what were the immediate impacts of the pandemic? Did you have to close down? Has it affected your order volume, or changed the way you’re handling production and shipping?

Yes, all of those things. Actually, there were a lot of orders when quarantine hit, because people were really needing the medicine. Usually, it’s just me and my assistant lily bo, but they stopped working pretty early into the pandemic, and then we had to abruptly move studios due to COVID. It’s been chaotic but we’re adapting!

What had their responsibilities been?

Lily bo does a lot of our production, like brewing, straining, bottling and labeling our blends, and mail order as well. They’ve been with 69 for over a year now, and it’s been amazing. They have a rich background in the arts and are incredible with plants. They hold everything down at 69 and I’m super grateful for them.

69herbs is a small business, with all of the occupational and financial concerns that come with it—but then, on top of that, herbalism generally seems like deliberate, time-intensive work. To what extent, even pre-quarantine, were those factors built into your business plan? As the project’s grown, how have you been able to retain that level of patience and care?

It’s been interesting thinking through the identity of 69 as the product line has grown and demand has grown, trying to understand what the project wants to be and listening to that. I feel pretty committed to keeping it small enough that I can still touch everything as it’s coming through our studio, so that’s the way it’s been. Even when things fell out, with COVID and everything, I’ve just been like, “Okay, I guess people will have to wait.”

It’s a very different mindset from big business, which is just like, “Sell more, more, more.” I joke with lily bo that I hired them because they were the slowest-working person I interviewed. In our trial phase of the hiring process, lily bo’s way of working was really slow, but they were so intentional with the medicine, and their spirit and energy were so great, and I knew it was the right fit. It’s really beautiful to be able to put so much intention into what we’re doing. When we’re working with these various blends, we really try to think about each one, what it’s used for, and what our energy is while we’re touching this medicine.

It sounds like demand has stayed consistent, despite (or maybe because of) the quarantine. Have particular blends been especially popular under these circumstances? You can just imagine how everyone’s emotional response to this situation has evolved over the past few months: for some, it’s gone from anxiety to grief; for others, it’s shifted from panic to fatigue, and so on. Has that been reflected in the orders you’re receiving?

At the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was ordering immunity support, and then there was a wave of anxiety support. We have a blend, Coat my Nerves, which is for anxiety, panic, and stress, and I think people were looking for that to help deal with the uncertainty of everything. Then there was a huge wave of grief; we actually sold out of our grief blend, Come Undone, which had never happened before. If you think about it, we were collectively settling into this new reality- a wave of anxiety and then a wave of deep grief. In that sense, it’s interesting to have a finger on the collective pulse of our moods through the product line. It’s also comforting to know, even when you’re in isolation, that everyone is dealing with the same things.

There’s also been a collective loss of identity, in a sense. People are grieving the loss of their previous lives, their prior selves. 

I’m teaching a class right now, Angels in the Void, which is an online class on plant and ritual support for grief and joy. Judging from the discussions we’re having in class, I think a lot of people feel guilty about the things they miss; they worry that the things they’re missing are petty or bourgeois, especially in the face of these larger social issues. And I’m always like, “It’s okay.” I think it’s okay to let yourself be sad about what you’ve lost, whatever it is—even if it’s just going to the beach or eating out with your friends, it is a sense of identity and normalcy. We’re losing so many things, and all these little losses can make way for us to feel the bigger losses, like the actual deaths of people that we love, our collective grief about colonialism and genocide, and so on. All these griefs can be connected. 

It seems like you’ve been really active with online event programs during quarantine: along with teaching classes, there’s also Side Effect, a multi-day healing salon that was originally meant to be held in person at Café Forgot. In making the decision to go virtual, did you end up changing or expanding the program to accommodate the new setting? Or was it pretty consistent with what you’d initially had in mind?

It was such a joy to put Side Effect together, even though it had to go virtual. There were a couple of people who couldn’t teach anymore, but then there were also a few people who we’d wanted to include and were now available because it was virtual, so it ended up working out really well. That series came together in a really special way: I had pitched a program to the Café Forgot girls, who I adore, and so had Cara [Marie Piazza], who I’d actually gone to herb school with. So the Café Forgot team was like, “Let’s put these things together.” Cara does natural plant dyeing, and I do herbalism, so there was some overlap, and then working with Café Forgot added this third element. I’m really interested in merging these worlds of fashion and art and healing, and they’ve already been doing that a little bit: for instance, they host workshops with Luke Simon, who does breathwork, so his classes got pulled into the Side Effects lineup, and that was great. So yes, maybe it wasn’t what we’d originally planned, but the whole thing worked out really well. We hope to do it in person one day.

You and Cara had studied together at an herb school set in the Hudson Valley. What was that experience like?

It was such a special time. One of my teachers at herb school, Lauren, who is now a dear friend of mine - was my first stockist of 69 and I feel immensely indebted to her. Lauren’s background is rooted in harm reduction and health justice, and that was amazing to have in a teacher. My favorite part of school was the many plant walks we did; it’s such a pleasure and privilege to get to meet the plants in their living form in nature. You’d be surprised: at a lot of herb schools, you don’t ever work with living plants, especially not in the woods—you work with dried plants and look at slideshows in a classroom. It’s a shame because there’s so much we can learn from meeting them outside and getting to know their names. The Hudson Valley is unimaginably lush and there are an infinite number of plants and fungi to meet, I’m just beginning. 

It’s interesting to me that prior to your studies at herb school, your background was largely in small-scale production farming. Outwardly, it seems like that approach differs from medicinal plant farming in some fundamental ways; even pragmatically, when the emphasis was on growing plants for food, much of what you approach today as medicinals would have been considered undesirable weeds. On a cultural or even philosophical level, what was that transition like, to go from one to the other? What do you see as the biggest differences between the two?

I’d been working on organic farms for almost ten years when I got more into herbalism, mostly in Vermont, New Orleans, and here in NYC.  The production farming culture that I was in was ultimately focused on the bottom line of poundage and what we had produced. It was rigorous and tough on the bodies of the workers, and also almost completely devoid of plant spirit connection. With non-profit farms, they’re often grant funded and focused on meeting deliverables. We were definitely pulling a lot of medicinal weeds every day. 

Right—which in practice leads to bending natural elements to one’s own will, towards a given end. That’s not inherently problematic, but it does seem at odds with the approach you’ve taken with herbalism, where you’re really meeting these plants on their own terms. 

Exactly. For a time, I had totally internalized some of that logic, too. I was trained to think that growing food was more important than growing herbs, and it’s not: it can all be medicine and it can all be food. It’s just a matter of bringing a different level of attention to the plants that we’re working with. I’m still farming now but I’m bringing a different energy to it. I work on a small farm upstate in the lower Hudson Valley; it’s a family farm, not a production farm, and I can grow medicinal herbs there as well as food. Now, even in growing the food, it feels like my intention is different: I can work slower and really be with the plants and get to know them in the way that feels important to me. So you’re right, there was sort of a transition that took place. But I like that my background is in working with the land as a farmer, because I feel a deep root in knowing the plants intimately. Having that experience definitely made the transition into herbalism smoother.

Your approach to herbalism seems almost collaborative, working with plants rather than imposing on them. In that sense, how are the treatments and techniques you use to grow the medicinals for 69 different from conventional product farming? Are you working with different kinds of lighting? Are you preparing the seeds in particular ways? How have you had to accommodate the specific plants that you work with?

It’s been such a cool learning experience working with medicinal herbs at the farm, because many of them have a really wild spirit and haven’t been nearly as domesticated as conventional food crops. It’s relatively easy to grow Western food crops that have been domesticated and bred for centuries; the germination’s 90% or whatever. But when you’re growing a lot of the medicinal plants that we use in Western herbalism, their germination rate will often be 30% or 40%, they’re largely undomesticated and unruly. There are all these unique, special treatments that the seeds require. You’re basically just trying to mimic whatever nature would be doing to the seeds—so some of them need sandpaper scraping, which simulates the digestive tract of an animal; some of them need freezing, to recreate the process in which seeds drop to the ground and the winter freezes them, but then the ground thaws them out. It’s really interesting, because you’re scraping together these techniques, and you’re completely at the mercy of the seeds and plants. Who’s domesticating who. 

I don’t grow everything that we use in 69—I still buy in a lot. I have a couple favorite small farms that I like to buy from that I love.. I like to grow as much as I can myself, but I just don’t have enough time or space to grow everything we use in the product line. That would take many acres.

Yeah, access to land seems like a big part of it. With something like teas, or certain tinctures, the amount of raw material needed to produce even a minimal amount can be pretty surprising.

Oh yeah, definitely. The great thing about making most tinctures—or in my case, glycerites, which is just the alcohol-free version of a tincture—is that it extends the plant material. That’s why they’re such ancient forms of preserving plant material, they’re super efficient ways of making medicine. A tincture is an extraction method, so out of a small amount of plant material, you can actually pull out a lot of medicine. But even then, you still need a lot of land, and that’s part of why I want to keep my product line on the small side. I think that after you reach a certain size, the ethics get trickier—like, where are your plants coming from? Who’s physically making your medicine? Is it being made in a factory? I feel like a lot of the spirit would be lost at that point.

So you feel like you’ve struck the right balance between volume and scale? 

For now. Right before the pandemic, lily bo and I had a meeting about this, and they were like, “69 is growing; we might need to think about how we can meet the demand.” And I appreciated that perspective, because they’re right: maybe we need to re-evaluate, maybe we need to hire another person. I mean, it’s definitely grown. When I started in December of 2018, I had zero stockists. Now I have thirty.

How have you approached that side of things? Are you researching potential stockists and reaching out to them? Or are you relying more on word of mouth? 

Most of them have approached me. Lauren was my first stockist when I was right out of herb school, and she totally invested in me, stocking my products at her store, Good Fight Herb Co in Hudson, NY. There have only been a handful of stockists that I’ve approached myself, usually when there’s someone that I really relate to and want to work with, or if there’s a region that I want to be in. For example, I’m really excited about being in the South, especially with medicine that is specifically for queer and trans people.

It’s a tricky thing to balance, though, because I don’t want to outgrow my capacity or my intentions. I actually have a waitlist at this point, because I’ve been getting so many inquiries. That’s one way that I’ve managed the growth. I’m just trying to stay intentional and checking in with myself about where the project is at, but also—and this may sound kind of twee—really trying to listen to the project and seeing what it wants to be. I feel like 69 wants to be what it is now, which is an art project slash people’s-medicine project. It doesn’t want to be a corporation, it doesn’t want to be on Amazon. So it’s like, “Okay, we’re not going to grow so big that we’d need a bunch of people—but sure, maybe I can hire one more person. I could probably start making the blends in gallon size instead of half-gallon size.” There are still steps we can take. 

More than anything, having stockists has been great because it helps make the medicine available in so many different places and spaces. I’ve been excited about being in fashion spaces and art spaces as well as apothecaries; we were at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and we’re stocked at places like Café Forget. I’m interested in taking herbalism in that direction—bringing medicine into spaces in which it’s not usually found. 

Totally. The question of settings, and of communities served, seems central to the project. From the outset, 69 was designed to center wellness for a range of underserved communities: people of color, trans and queer, disabled and sick, those struggling with mental health and trauma, sex workers, drug users, sober folk. As you were establishing the brand, what was your impression of herbalism’s status within these various communities? Did you feel like it was under-acknowledged or under-utilized? Or did you feel like your medicines would be making a contribution to active and ongoing conversations? 

I feel like herbalism really comes from marginalized people and has been co-opted by the dominant white culture of the “wellness” world. That’s really more of what I’m responding to. I don’t feel like I’m bringing something new to any of these communities; it feels more like a reclamation. And it’s a collective movement, too: there’s this sort of renaissance happening now with a lot of these different skills—herbalism, farming, basket weaving, textiles, ancestral cooking. We’re in this moment where a lot of people are really excited about learning skills that have to do with the land and community care, and I feel part of that. Many of us have already developed the skills to care for ourselves and each other, because our communities have been historically neglected by the medical system and we’ve had to- that’s a big part of queer history, the fight for HIV/AIDS research, and harm reduction history. That’s a legacy that I hope to honor with this work. 

In terms of herbalism’s medicinal applications, it seems like there’s a meaningful distinction between treatments and cures: where so much of Western medicine is geared towards correction, resolution, the eradication of symptoms, there are other methods—plant-based medicines among them—that not only take a broader view in assessing an ailment’s causes (i.e., taking into account non-physical factors), but which also accept the idea that certain situations or states might be livable but not necessarily “curable.” That said, I wonder if you see your work in herbalism functioning as an alternative to mainstream medicine, Western or otherwise? Or could your work lend itself to a more integrated approach, where the two might be used in concert to address different conditions?

This is something I think about a lot - the world of Western herbalism has come to look a lot like the world of Western medicine, which is a shame. It’s as if we’re just substituting pharmaceuticals for plants to solve the problems there. I don’t practice the kind of herbalism that’s trying to cure anything, and I’m not on a trajectory to practice that kind of herbalism. Much of the herbalism that I do is energetic medicine, focused more on immaterialities like dysphoria, anxiety, and trauma. It’s in recognition that our bodies are affected by trauma and structural oppression and our emotions. To answer your question, I see plants as one of many modalities that can for sure be used with others. Though I will say--I would love to study to be a street medic and do herbal first aid at protests.

Right. In those terms, a truly integrative approach wouldn’t necessarily preclude either Western or “alternative” medicines. It just depends on what someone needs given their particular circumstances. 

Right, exactly. I’m not anti-Western medicine—although clearly, the dominant system of Western medicine has operated historically at the exclusion and expense of marginalized people. The US healthcare system especially is a system built on harm. But I also think it’s okay to separate the system itself from what it can offer. We need a lot of those medicines and treatments. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What I’m interested in is a harm-reduction approach: like allowing ourselves to direct the paths of our own healing processes, and that will look different for everyone.

I’m really trying to put this message forward of not being purist about what we put in our bodies, because so much of that language implicitly shames people for their needs. A harm reductionist approach is really about never shaming or blaming someone for their choices; it’s about offering support, offering alternatives if they’re interested, and supporting people to consent to what they put in their body. You can’t separate self-determination from health, or “wellness,” it’s about giving people the means to come as close as they can to their desired state of being. And sometimes that looks like a cigarette in one hand and a green-juice in the other. Or taking a xanax after you tried the milky oats and it wasn’t cutting it. 

So we’re working to make the system better, but we’re also offering alternatives to people who don’t have access to Western medicine—which is partly why herbalism is so beautiful, because it’s so replicable. People can just do the same thing at home. You don’t need a pharmacy to make you the thing; you can make it yourself, or you can get your neighbor’s version of it or whatever. I think that’s really liberatory. 

The idea that one might share such knowledge and resources with their neighbors is an exciting one—not a new one, of course, but one we seem to have lost sight of in this culture. You can imagine the implications, the dual benefits of increasing wellness while fostering community.

Exactly. That’s really how it’s always functioned historically, and that’s what I want 69 to be. I want it to be a resource for people. When I’m teaching classes, I literally try to have the students replicate my skills. I’m like, “Hey, do you want to know how to make the thing I make and sell? Great. Now you can make it.” I try not to feel scarce or precious about it; I want to share the knowledge as it’s been shared with me.  I also work to support other herbalists as they’re launching product lines and pass on some of the knowledge that I’ve learned in the last few years. I know deeply that all of our work is needed and unique, and that we don’t actually have to compete. 

It seems like you have an approach that requires a great deal of sensitivity and attention to emotional nuance—certainly for the healers, and even for those being treated, but also, I’d imagine, for those who are actually producing the medicines. In reading your Instagram posts, it’s clear you’re good at breaking down the more subtle elements that compose an emotion: for instance, in one post, I remember you were talking about grief, but rather than speaking of it in universal terms, you spoke to its variability, noting that it takes many forms and can incorporate a range of feelings over time, be it disassociation, irritation, anger, fatigue, or whatever else. I’ve wondered how that level of insight translates to the way you compose your blends: like, if you’re trying to create one to address grief, are you purposefully selecting and combining materials that reflect that wider range of underlying feelings? In that sense, do the formulas become as much conceptual as strictly medicinal?

Totally. A good example for this is my dysphoria blend, which is called C U Later Dysphoria. In terms of ingredients, there’s ashwagandha and tulsi, which are both adaptogens, a class of plants that supports the body to adapt to stress and trauma. Then there’s rose petals, which are heart-healing and encourage gentleness, self-love.  And then there’s mugwort, which is a favorite plant of mine that acts as a stimulant, moving energy through the body. I put it in there because my own experience of dysphoria is like feeling really dissociated, and I’ve found that mugwort is really supportive for moving you out of the dissociated place. Of course, other herbalists might not see mugwort as the opposite of a grounding plant, because it’s so activating, but that’s fine - that’s why it’s great that there are so many formulas available. I also put some essences in there: there’s ghost pipe essence, which is really amazing for transition and non-binary folks, people living in-between worlds, in-between genders. So the way I combine plants is intuitive; it’s my own formula, based on what I feel intuitively is right. That’s what’s so cool about herbalism: you can have a million herbalists making a million different blends for the same thing. It’s all about finding what works best for you and sharing it.

There’s such an inclusive, inviting feeling to 69herbs, one which translates to every part of the business, including the design and packaging, which I love. On a “visual branding” level, it seems so in keeping with the 69 ethos, in that it’s not austere, dry, or stoic—it’s really fun and approachable.

Thank you! I agree, that’s a very important part of the project’s identity.

I know you handle most of the visuals yourself, but a few of the designs have involved artist collaborations—for instance, you worked with Aidan [Koch] on the loose tea.

Yes, I love collaborating. Aidan did the drawings for the teas and then I just designed them into label form. Then there’s the Narcan stickers I did with my friend Ripley Soprano, who came up with some of the phrasings (like “Suck Dick Carry Narcan”) and then I designed them. I have another series coming out with Ren Cook—a sticker collab that’s going to be a combination of some eco-trans content and some meditation content. We’re going to sell them to fundraise for bail funds. 

Obviously, quarantine has found many people taking stock, reassessing their habits and goals, both personally and professionally. Looking ahead, even in the short term, how do you see 69 Herbs evolving?

It’s so hard to say—everything feels so indeterminate right now. Literally, at this moment, the nation is burning, things are changing—in some ways, hopefully, for the better. But for now, the future seems uncertain, and I guess that’s true for me, too. I don’t know where 69 will go next, but I do have some new blends I’m working on, some new drops. I’m going to redesign my teas and maybe do a topical or a bath thing for the fall and winter. I’m also growing into my identity as a teacher and a grief worker, so there might be more of that coming, too—more programming, more art collaborations. For now, I’m really just trying to be present and do what feels right in the moment. The next steps will find their way.

Photographs by Hannah Metz