Annie McCleary is a teacher, naturalist, and plant lover.
She is the founder and director of Wisdom of the Herbs School, an 8 month certification program “that focuses on local wild herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees, sustainable living skills, healthy lifestyle, skillful use of intentionality, and profound connection with Nature.”
Many people ask me how I got started on my journey in organic farming, homesteading and organic living. I’ve had many teachers along the way, Annie being one of them.
I was a student in Wisdom of the Herbs in 2012, and recently Annie and I got together for tea and an interview. We talked plants, how she got started as a teacher, why she doesn’t actually call herself an herbalist, and the most important lesson she’s learned from working with plants.
We talked a lot! Read the edited version of our conversation below. To listen to the full version, click below.
Kate: Your Wisdom course book opens with this message, and I’ll just quote it: “Photosynthesis is a transmutation of Love. It is an energetic magic that suffuses the world with a vibrant emerald energy, vibrating first within the cells of the plants, and continuing to vibrate within the cells of the beings that eat them.”
Annie: So let me give you the background of that. That was a plant spirit message that George Lisi received. George was, as you know, our co-teacher in the school, my dear friend for many years, a poet, a meditator, and a naturalist, and he passed about 3 ½ years ago.
And what that brings for me, is just a very beautiful way of how connected we all are. We are deeply connected. When we eat something, the vibrations go into us. We are connected to the plants. The plants are connected to the soil, the water, to all the beings on all levels. Thank you for bringing that out.
K: It’s such a powerful message to open Wisdom of the Herbs with, and also this conversation, too. I want to get into more about Wisdom, but first for anyone who’s not familiar with you, I’d love to ask questions of your time before Wisdom.
How did you become an herbalist? Did you grow up with herbalism infused into your life, or what was your journey to becoming an herbalist and a teacher?
A: Well first I’ll say it’s sort of confusing to call me an herbalist. And I know I’ve used that language myself, but just to define what I am and what I am not: I am a plant lover. I specialize in the local wild plants—which may not be so wild, maybe it’s the garden legacy given by our native ancestors here.
But anyway, I’m not a medical herbalist.
K: I remember you making that distinction when I took Wisdom. The distinction between the clinical/medical side, and the folkloric aspect of the plants as well.
A: Right. I include botany and natural history, and certainly home remedies that everyone should know how to do, and wild edibles.
I certainly love the cultivated garden herbs, they’re good buddies of mine. I was known as “Echinacea Annie,” and I’ll tell you that part of my story. It’s really the weeds, the wild guys, the trees and shrubs around the edges of the fields that is my focus.
So how did I get to this? No I didn’t grow up with all of this.
I grew up certainly loving plants. I remember thinking, “well, maybe I’ll be a landscape architect,” but that wasn’t the quite right thing. But I went to college and majored in philosophy, and then went on to get a masters in early childhood education, which was wonderful. I taught for 22 years, little kids in public and private school—kindergarten, first grade, and nursery. Which was actually great training for teaching Wisdom, because we’re all little kids at heart.
The real shift came for me when I moved to Vermont. I can just picture the day I was walking down this mile long dirt road from the hundred acre farm that I was renting with other folks, with 300 acres behind it of absolute delightful wilderness.
And I just looked around and said, “I’m going to get to know every single one of you plants!” And I’m working on it.
K: When did you start Wisdom of the Herbs?
A: Before I moved to Vermont, I studied with Susan Weed in upstate New York for 3 years. I was hooked—that was it, I was just going to learn all these plants. When I came to Vermont, I did two courses of study with Rosemary Gladstar, actually the same course, but I did it as a student and then as her assistant. And of course Rosemary’s fabulous, but I remember listening around the edges—you know, what was the wisdom she was imparting. What’s the wisdom of the plants instead of just the content of the program.
Oh, and I had my own herbal extract business, I don’t know if you knew that.
K: Yeah, can you tell me about that.
A: Purple Coneflower Herbals. I started that in 1983, 85’
K: And that’s the “Echinacea Annie”
A: That’s the Echinacea Annie part, right. I was enthralled with Echinacea. It was a saving grace for me as a school teacher. I was dealing with colds and bronchitis and that sort of thing, so echinacea was very core, and I wanted to share it with the world.
I started a small herb company called Purple Coneflower Herbals, and made extracts of echinacea, goldenseal—which I was growing— burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, yarrow. I had them on the shelf of Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier and all the little health food stores in the area. I enjoyed it very much. It was very sweet.
I was at one point up at Riverside Farm in East Hardwick, and I built a little hippy house up there, and every year I grew 2500 echinacea plants. Not just for Purple Coneflower, but for other herbalists as well. I harvested seed, and I tinctured seed, flower, and root in the fall. I sold to other local organic herbalists as well, and it was all organic of course.
And as I was doing the tincture business I was teaching. In my little hippy house up at Riverside Farm, I had an herb lab, I had gardens, and I had wonderful wild places, so people came and I just started teaching. Not only individual classes, but I did a summer program, and then I think it wasn’t until I moved to Lincoln, VT, that I started the 8 month long program.
I took a page from Rosemary’s book of doing an ongoing class, which is really lovely. The students can settle in, you know where you’re going, and then you get to see the plants from emergence in the spring through the blossoming, and then as they go down in the fall. It’s gratifying, and you get to integrate between the classes. I started my first Wisdom class in 2003 in Lincoln, where I was living at the time.
K: So I want to circle back to botany and being a friend to the plants. As a student in Wisdom there were the botany lessons, and the understanding of scientific names and really getting to the scientific aspect so we can all understand what we’re talking about accurately while identifying wild plants—there was this very scientific base. And right next to that there was the plant-spirit communication. I’d love to hear you talk about why that is important, as it feels to me a very big foundation of what you teach.
A: I totally agree, and I make that clear to students coming in. The science, the botany, the information that’s in books that other people have figured out about plants is invaluable. We can’t start reinventing the wheel. We have so much that we can gain from people who have known and loved the plants in the past.
And botany just fascinates me. The more botany I learn, the more I’m loving the plants. It gives me a way in. It’s like getting to know another person. The more you know about them, the more you love them. It’s just an amazing depth that you go to, so that’s how I feel about the science part.
I started out actually much more intuitively connected to the plants. I wasn’t terribly scientific early on. It just is in me to talk to plants, to hear plants, to thank them, to work with them in that way. And I also totally get it that if you’re just doing intuitive work with the plants, you run the risk of becoming ungrounded and airy-fairy.
I really encourage people to do both. We have a right brain and a left brain for a reason. They work very well together.
If you get very high on the spiritual aspect of the plant, and don’t have a base, don’t have a ground, it’s kind of scary actually. But if your feet are on the earth and your head is in the clouds and you are grounded—that’s the way the plants are. They’ve got their feet in the ground and their heads to the sky. It’s a beautiful way to work with them, so that’s how we proceed and how I encourage my students.
K: When I came as a student I was in my 2nd or 3rd year of farming, but had also not grown up with this. I grew up hiking and being immersed in nature, but not necessarily in a way to get deeper into communication with it.
I think the way we’re taught in our culture, we’re taught to separate things out. In Wisdom, what we typically think of as being separate, I found all the sudden became connected. An example of that being a cultivated garden and wild edibles, and how both of those play a role in our diets.
One of the things in the Wisdom book that you talk about is the foundation of true health. I’d love to hear you talk more about how we get to a foundation of health through that connection.
A: Well what I find interesting, Kate, is that you know how I have students write an essay as you apply for Wisdom: tell me about your background, and your interest and your goals for taking the program. So many people will write, when I was child, I heard the plants. When I was a child, I had my plant friends. When I was a child, I went and sat in trees and hugged them.
Kids know this intuitively. It’s simply the culture we’ve been mostly raised in here in this part of the world that either ignored it, or actively repressed it. But probably the dire straits we’re in now are awakening more people to it, frankly. That this is real, and is not some airy-fairy thing.
It’s real that plants have energy and personality and they have gifts, and we need to honor them, and we’re here all together on the same level. No one’s more important than anybody else. We work in synergy. When one is moved around then something else happens, and it’s a chain reaction. We have to really be mindful of the synergy and energy of the ecology.
K: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from working with plants?
A: Oh my. That’s like asking me what’s my favorite plant. Oh my goodness. Well, what comes to me is their consistency. They’re my dear friends. They are truly inspirational and so solid.
I just feel incredible gratitude to these beings. They’ve been through a lot, too. The trees got cut here by the invading colonists. The hemlock got stripped for bark for tannins for the tanneries. We no longer have 250′ white pines, they’re much smaller individuals now, because the tall ones were taken by the British Navy for the masts.
And they’re still here, and they’re so consistent, and they’re so available and so open and so loving. I feel an incredible kindness from the tree people and all the people.
All the plants are so openly loving and giving. That to me is a lesson: that one can be in that modality of kindness and of openness and of lovingness no matter what.
Right now it is especially so important for us to maintain our integrity, our values, and our way of being. Because we certainly have lots of examples around of not.
The simple thing of kindness. My mother just passed at 97 in October. She was kind. She was very kind. Not only to me and my siblings and my father, but to everyone around her. It’s a huge thing. I mean she was talented, she was a musician, she had all kinds of other wonderful qualities, but the one that rings out to me is her kindness.
So that’s what I would like to offer up from the plants, their kindness.
K: That’s so beautiful. Thank you. Okay, one last question: What would you tell someone who’s intrigued and wants to get to know plants better, but isn’t sure where or how to start.
A: What better place to start especially in winter than with the trees? Humans seem to relate easily to the trees – we all have our favorite trees to visit and commune with.
And I would suggest finding a teacher – of course! Besides the Wisdom of the Herbs Certification Program which you attended, Kate, I now offer one-on-one In Person Tutorials in the warm weather and Home Tutorials which can take place in winter.
Plants have essence as well as physical presence, so work from both sides of your brain: learn botany, natural history, wild edibles and medicinals AND remember you can talk to the plants – in any way that works for you.
Getting to know your local trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants is a part of basic literacy of life. Can you even imagine anyone in an intact indigenous culture being oblivious to the surrounding plants? Hardly!
I’d like share a poem from George Lisi’s book, Through the Gate of Trees.
is a world of trees
they are the deep
of the forest web
the green men
of the hills
spreading their arms
to welcome in
the flood of life
if you want
to travel deeper
in your troth of love
into the trees
the walls of ice
have scraped the landscape clean
and always they return
bringing the hum of bee
the song of thrush
and the slap
of a beaver’s tail
on a still pond
ringed with flowers.
K: Thank you so much, Annie.