Cascade Anderson Geller: A Tribute

I knew about herbalist, teacher and all-around good soul Cascade Anderson Geller long before I’d ever met her. It was in passing, in a class my teacher Kathleen Maier was conducting, after an herb conference she had attended. I cannot recall exactly what Kathleen said, but whatever it was, I knew that someday, I wanted to take a class with Cascade. Even transmitted through another person, she just sounded wise, knowledgeable and kind.

Mostly, I wanted to go on a plant walk with her and I got that opportunity in 2011 at the International Herb Symposium when she led a walk through the woods on the campus of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

I am sorry that I and other herbalists—long-time or aspiring—and just anyone who cares about Earth will no longer have the opportunity to meet, see, listen to or spend time with Cascade. She journeyed to the ancestors last Saturday. I was stunned when I heard this, because it’s so hard to believe that someone with such vitality could be there and then, not there. So, I’d like to share some of the things I learned from Cascade, because these kinds of things need to be shared and because it is a fitting way to honor her.

Cascade Anderson Geller at the ruins of Inca Pirca, Ecuador, February 2012

Cascade Anderson Geller at the ruins of Inca Pirca, Ecuador, February 2012

On that walk at Wheaton, it was immediately obvious that Cascade loved trees—and for good reason, for, as she pointed out, they have long provided humans with some of the safest medicine around. She approached a witch hazel, which had galls in the leaves. These galls are made by a wasp. She explained how the leaves with galls would actually be higher in medicine, tannins perhaps, than others, because of the tree’s production of secondary metabolites—the things a plant typically makes to defend itself and which humans often use medicinally.

Tannins, she said, are a good place to start in one’s herbal education. So, if you have poison ivy, she said, you can make a strong black tea or a witch hazel wash. Both are high in tannins and “tannins precipitate proteins,” which means they form a seal or a scab.

So, trees/shrubs are the “first line of protection” and most are ‘non-toxic.’

Speaking of “toxic,” Cascade related a story from a 1996 visit to Ecuador. The group was visiting a shaman and someone asked a question about psychoactive plants and which were “toxic.”

The shaman had nothing to say…at the time.

The next day, though, he came back with, “No toxic plants—only fools.” In other words, know what you’re doing when you’re using plants in any way, even if you’re using them for food.

Cascade shared many such stories and I was fortunate in February 2012 to be able to travel with her, herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, and Kathleen Maier on a visit to Ecuador co-led by ethnobotanist/herbalist Rocio Alarcon, a native of Ecuador. I had many a “back of the bus” conversation with Cascade, who spoke about the importance of activism within the herbal community and the natural products industry. In fact, that was the subject of the last talk of hers I attended at the Medicine of the People conference (a.k.a. Herbal Resurgence) near Flagstaff, Ariz., last year. Cascade’s activism—whether on behalf of plants or people or the waters of her adopted home town of Portland, Oreg.—was a reflection of her deep love for this place we call home.

Cascade, Rosemary Gladstar and Rocio Alarcon, Ecuador, February 2012.

Cascade, Rosemary Gladstar and Rocio Alarcon, Ecuador, February 2012.

I’d like to share some of the things I learned from Cascade:

“If you have nature, you have your life—no matter what happens.”

Speaking of the protective waxy cuticle that trees and shrubs form early in the spring season: “Wax before going into the sun; people learned from plants.”

On the “courting” relationship of human and plant: Say, “ ‘I’m interested in you. Would you like to share your medicine?’” This is a daily practice, Cascade said. “What’s necessary is the heart connection—learning how to ask the right questions. And just like a child again—start over.”

“ ‘The most important thing for human beings is to sing and dance,’” she said, quoting an Ecuador shaman.

On harvesting plant medicines: “Don’t pick the first—bless it. Take some good, leave some good.”

The oil from poison ivy can stay viable up to five years, she said. If you’re harvesting in an area full of poison ivy, be sure to bring along some isopropyl alcohol and make sure you wipe everything down once you return to the car.

Hot water makes a better extractor for things that fight infection, she said.

Cascade recounted how growing up in her household, someone with a headache would have their head wrapped. She said they would use sassafras leaves to encircle the head, but that we could also use lobelia or tobacco leaves, and then wrap the head with a “headache scarf.” This was not only to help resolve the headache, but also to indicate that the person wearing the scarf was not feeling well and should be left to rest.

About marijuana as medicine, Cascade said it was “Not taken by smoke. There was no smoking in the old world that we can find.” The chillum pipe, she said, was designed by Caribbean Island Indians and was used in Asia for opium, where they would “eat smoke.” The point of smoke was communication: You would inhale and ask a question and release the question in the smoke. Instead, medicinal use of marijuana involved extracting the medicine in fat—“whatever was high-quality fat of the land,” she said, and this could have been an herbal oil. This, Cascade said, was taken by rectal or vaginal injection. Taken orally, it broke into its components and was “more confusing,” so Cannabis tinctures are not as effective.

For heat stroke, she noted that it’s helpful to make sunflower seed tea with honey, with slightly crushed seeds, soaked for 15-20 minutes minimum or overnight.

So many more teachings of Cascade’s I could share. But perhaps the greatest one was her simple presence. On our last full day in Cuenca, Ecuador, after I and many others of our group had not been feeling well, I awoke early feeling better. I wanted to go out and have a look around.

This night-blooming cereus grew in the courtyard of a convent in Quito, which was our "home base" in Ecuador. This was one of many plants we met that Cascade seemed to really love.

This night-blooming cereus grew in the courtyard of a convent in Quito, which was our “home base” in Ecuador. This was one of many plants we met that Cascade seemed to really love.

Cascade was up, too, and we ended up walking to a church on a hill. It was too small to be called a cathedral, but more ornate than a simple church. It was Carnival season and a band outside the church was playing jazz. We popped in to have a look and just be, but that whole time I was with her was about just being.

I know many others, no matter how much or how little time they spent with Cascade, feel the same. Such a loss for our herbal and Earth-loving community. And yet, those of us who take this presence we felt—and feel in our memories—to heart have a huge opportunity to carry on Cascade’s work and her Spirit.

My heart goes out to Cascade family, to her husband and children. And love to you, Cascade, and the kindest and sweetest of blessings on your journey.