On an autumn Tucson day, herbalist John Slattery sits in the backyard of Desert Tortoise Botanicals. The sun shines warm as butterflies flit around herbs growing in planters and birds come to rest on branches of a mesquite. Slattery never thought Tucson would be home.
Slattery didn’t grow up with knowledge of plants, but when he was in his late 20s, he took a trip that forever changed his life, his perspective, and led him to the work he does today: making herbal products, foraging from the wild food forest, and helping others gain knowledge of the bioregion’s offerings.
Slattery’s first experience with the medicinal properties of herbs was in his early 20s when a friend in New York City recommended yucca root to help with his knee pain; Slattery noticed the difference almost immediately. His interest in plants was piqued. By his late 20s, Slattery wanted to let go of everything unnecessary, to make room for his life’s purpose to be revealed. He says, “I needed to empty myself out. My intention was to leave [the United States] forever.” He gave away his car and almost all his belongings, picked up a backpack, and began a year of travel throughout the Americas—beginning by stepping over the border in Nogales.
“That trip helped solidify something I was dabbling in,” he says. That something was his commitment to and desire to work with plants and healing.
In his travels, he crossed paths with herbalists and healers of the Rarámuri of Copper Canyon, of the Mixtec in Oaxaca, of the Tzeltal & Tzotzil in Chiapas, with Cakchiquel in Guatemala. This time, he says, was marked by “being available to what caught my attention and listening to an internal voice and developing a feeling sense.” The city of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, is shaped like a phoenix, he says; in its north wing, he connected with a community of indigenous herbalists and healers that became like family. He says, “I recognized what I was meant to do.”
After six months of living on a Brazilian farm, Slattery woke up four mornings in a row having dreamed of Tucson. “I tried to shake it off and eventually I knew I couldn’t,” he says. “The following day, I booked a ticket.”
That began his second growing up, he says. “In some ways, I feel like I’m from here now, the relationship I developed with the place and all the life forms around here. The people have been intrinsic in developing relation to the place,” Slattery says. When he felt compelled to return to Tucson, he had no idea that the region including Baja Arizona and Sonora was one of the most botanically diverse places in North America.
He sought someone with experience with folk herbalism and a relationship to local plants but was unable to find anyone in Tucson teaching in the field rather than in a classroom. He studied with Michael Moore at the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, but he also spent time educating himself by going on hikes in local mountain ranges and exploring the plants that grew there.
Slattery says, “Being out there and available to what caught my attention was a big part of it—not having preconceived ideas of ‘I’ll go to this place cause there are hackberries there.’ That was too rigid. I had learned in that year of traveling being available to what’s there, which you can’t predict.”
When he returned from Brazil in 2003, Slattery says there were perhaps 10 herbal medicine programs in the country. Today, he says, there’s a new one every week. “Most people that work with herbs in Tucson are of a Chinese or Ayurvedic heritage and don’t know much about local plants,” Slattery says. “There’s a schism and disconnect. They’re intrinsically limited by having a relationship with a bottle on a shelf or a bag of herbs that comes from thousands of miles away.” Slattery calls his method bioregional herbalism and says, “My lineage or heritage is through indigenous tradition, awareness of place and plants.”
In the years following his return, Slattery began to develop relationships with indigenous healers in Sonora. One such healer is Doña Olga Ruíz, who is now 75 and began gathering herbs when she was just 9. He calls her his Mexican mom; they met when Slattery volunteered at an orphanage in Imuris, Sonora, and heard of a woman who was knowledgeable about plants; a girl at the orphanage brought him to meet her. Doña Olga represents a cultural subset of Sonora known as los pajareros, or “bird people”; they are traditionally seminomadic, moving with the seasons to gather wild foods like acorn and cactus fruits; hunt squirrels, rabbits, turtles, and deer; and barter for fish or shrimp to sell inland. Slattery also studied with an elder named Hortensia and her daughter Maria Luisa Molino Martinez, both of whom are Seri, or Comcáac.
Because of what he has learned from indigenous healers, particularly those he has a close relationship with in Sonora, Slattery tries to honor their work in several ways. He purchases plants they gather to use in products sold through Desert Tortoise Botanicals, the company he founded in 2005. He’s brought apprentices down to Sonora to learn from them. Slattery has tried to provide a cultural bridge: “We occupy the same bioregion but two different ways of life.”
People from Tucson who visit these indigenous herbalists “are touched at the heart level and have emotional healing, and for the hosts, it is also healing to get recognition for their work,” Slattery says. “They have a relationship with the place and the plants, and I feel like they’re still guided by inner voice, not thinking about the price per pound. Part of the idea was to help support them to be able to continue to do that.”
Slattery started Desert Tortoise Botanicals in 2005 to provide people in need of healing access to herbal remedies. He started a booth at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market. Today, local stores like Alfonso Gourmet Olive Oil & Balsamics, 5 Points Market and Restaurant, Native SEEDS/Search, Good Oak Bar, Exo Roast Co, and Boyce Thompson Arboretum carry products. Through the online store, products are sold to people all over the world.
After 11 years in business, in late 2016, Slattery brought on a business partner for Desert Tortoise Botanicals, and will transfer all production to Utah in early 2017. In this new iteration of DTB, Slattery will be a part-owner and chief herbalist, and will continue to develop new products and source raw materials from the Sonoran Desert.
“I’m excited to take the company to the next level,” he says. With the Sonoran Herbalist Apprenticeship on hiatus for 2017, Slattery plans to hone his skills as an herbalist, educator, and forager. He also hopes to open a community clinic. “I’ve managed to see and help hundreds of people in Tucson at the farmers’ markets for 11 years, but I could only rarely go in-depth with them. With a community clinic, we can see more people, spend more time with them, and put our wide array of local medicinal plants to work on the population,” he says.
Slattery believes that the growing interest in herbalism over the last decade began as a slow shift in consciousness since the 1960s. He says this paradigm shift is represented as well in movements like the water protectors at Standing Rock. “I feel like those at Standing Rock have a recognition, something Europeans have lost touch with,” he says. “The concept of connection to and relationship with place that they are showing there. They’re not saying, ‘We’ll go somewhere else when it gets bad,’ but ‘This is the place where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going to be, and we want to make sure it stays … It’s not a resource, it’s a relationship.”
In addition to making and selling products, Slattery leads workshops on herbal medicine and foraging local foods, and guides apprenticeships. He hosted a monthly series at the Southern Arizona Work Space on seasonal foraging in the Sonoran Desert following the publication of his book Southwest Foraging.
Slattery would love to see more local farms growing herbs. He tries to buy chamomile, holy basil, calendula, and oats locally. These herbs grow well in the Sonoran desert, but when they aren’t available, he must import them from Egypt or Hungary. He says, “If more local farmers or neighborhood growers were trained on this, I’d be willing to pay more for something local.”
He’s also writing a book on bioregional herbalism. “The point is to help people develop a feeling in working with plants, and not just analytical and reductive. Empowering aspects in opening up like that, understanding through relationship,” he says. “That’s the undercurrent of what I receive from all indigenous people: wholly present, largely unspoken.” ✜
Desert Tortoise Botanicals. DesertTortoiseBotanicals.com.
Lisa O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Tucson. Her work focuses on intersections of social justice issues including sustainability and food security. Visit Lisamoneill.com.