Sanctuary Steward: Susun S. Weed
The realtors couldn’t believe their eyes. I wasn’t interested in how many baths the house had, or how recently the kitchen had been remodeled (though I did give the views a glance) during my search for land in 1977-78. Instead, I was checking out the plants. When realtors took me places, I looked outside first, then inside; I wanted to walk in the woods and the fields, not see how many closets there were. What was growing there was more important to me than what had been built there. I wanted a woodlot, preferably with a sugar bush. I wanted water, running, if possible, on the land. And, most of all, I wanted to find a place already rich in medicinal herbs.
I envisioned a sanctuary for plants and a safe place for women who needed to be wild, to discover and love all parts of themselves. I imagined I could cherish that place and protect it into the future beyond myself. I dreamed of safe space for growing plants and people. I wished to create a place where the plants could nourish people on many levels: physical, psychic, emotional, artistic, sensate, intellectual, historical, indigenous, storied, and connected—something wild, yet within reach of New York City.
My journal of plants at the for-sale farms I visited lists plenty of useful invaders from Europe: burdock, chicory, dandelion, evening primrose, goldenrod, jewelweed, mullein, nettle, plantain, poke, Queen Anne’s lace, red clover, wild chives, yellow dock, and so much more. But it was the indigenous medicinals that I was really looking for.
It took over a year before I found the place I have called home for the past 33 years. When I first saw it, there was three feet of snow covering everything. But the legal proceedings necessary to transfer the property to me dragged on for over a year, so I had three seasons to find and catalog the plants I would be giving sanctuary to, including wood anemone, celandine, pipsissewa, goldthread, pink lady’s slipper, trailing arbutus, boneset, queen-of-the-meadow, wintergreen, gentian, witch hazel, round-leaved hepatica, St. Joan’s wort, cardinal flower, lobelia, moneywort, partridge berry, forget-me-not, dwarf ginseng, mayapple, elder, bloodroot, skullcap, slippery elm, false hellebore, and lots of violas.
The land I bought was formerly a quarry. That’s why I call it Laughing Rock Farm. It took dandelion fifteen years to get a toehold here! The quarriers left behind dozens of pits, now filled with water.
My herd of dairy goats scatters fertilizer freely, encouraging many new plants, and I harness red worms to help me turn their bedding into rich compost, allowing me to build raised beds and add some cultivated herbs, such as comfrey, mug/cronewort, wormwood, black cohosh, blue cohosh, Solomon’s seal, Oswego tea, shiso, hops, marsh marigold, ginkgo trees (thanks to Stephan), schisandra, a chaste tree (from Jim Duke’s garden), goldenseal, and wild yam (thanks to United Plant Savers).
My gardens raise weeds: stinging nettle, purslane, lamb’s quarter, amaranth, garlic mustard, winter cress, wild chives, motherwort, cleavers, black nightshade, ragweed, catnip, lemon balm, thistles, ground ivy, self-heal and so many more. I can harvest wild salad greens year-round, except when the snow is deep. My students and I create wonderful medicines from them, too.
Laughing Rock Farm (55 acres, most of it wooded) is part of three conservancy organizations. In the late 1980s, I became a historical site in the Roundout-Esopus Land Conservancy. My deed is modified so no one can ever subdivide the land, create any roads, nor build any further structures here.
In the 1990s, I registered Laughing Rock Farm as a National Wildlife Conservancy property. Now, in the 2010s, this sacred and special land is a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary as well. I am so honored. I am so glad to be more deeply involved with an organization that is helping me remind us all that herbal medicine is people’s medicine.
Laughing Rock Farm, in its guise as the Wise Woman Center, has been a teaching center for over thirty years. Most weekends find people on the land learning to identify, harvest, prepare, and use the wealth of weeds and medicinal plants that I protect here.
I feel great contentment. I have fulfilled the dream I had in the 70s. I do offer safe space to women and plants, and I have done so for 33 of my 66 years. With the blessings of the Goddess, I hope to be allowed to continue for another 33 years. I am so privileged to steward this beautiful piece of the Hudson River Valley, in the foothills of the Catskills, a magical space where the plants heal minds and hearts. Green blessings.