Medicine Man: Saving the Earth One Acre—One Wildflower—at a Time
Paul Strauss remembers the day his life changed forever. He was in Taos, N.M., where he’d been staying the summer of 1970 with Carl, a Shoshone Indian who had taken him under his wing to study natural medicine.
A native of New York City, Strauss had dropped out of college after just one year and joined some friends who were headed for California. He’d decided that participating in street protests against the Vietnam War was not the most productive way to create a saner world, and neither was college, so he had gone west in search of a better way.
Little did he know that his search would lead him to the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, where he would become a botanical farmer, and to an appointment as Xavier University’s Visionary in Residence. In both capacities, he would advocate that a saner world, for him, meant returning to the earth for sustenance and hope.
In Taos, mesmerized by the Shoshone man, he’d grabbed his backpack from his friends’ van and told them he was staying. He spent the next six months with his new mentor, studying the benefits of medicinal plants. The outdoor lifestyle included a three-sided adobe shack and scratching sustenance from the arid landscape. The experience gave Strauss a new appreciation for Native American spirituality and for his own budding ties to the earth. After six months, however, Strauss got antsy. It was time to move on, but he didn’t really know why or where he would go. All he knew was he had to start heading back east—not to New York, but somewhere.
It was late summer the day he left. He told Carl of his plans. They were both sad, and Strauss struggled with his decision, but in the end he knew he was right. He said goodbye to Carl and his family, pulled his pack onto his shoulders and walked down the hill to the highway. His heart was heavy all the way down. At the bottom, he lifted his head and looked upon the ribbon of pavement. A green panel-sided Ford van was parked on the side of the road and two guys were struggling with a tire. This, he thought, would be his lucky day.
“I have been fortunate that my life has been stitched together by random moments,” Strauss says. “It was like they were waiting for me. Why else did they have a flat tire?”
Strauss helped them change the tire and learned they were going back to school at Ohio University in Athens. He asked them, what’s it like there? Does it have forests? Does it have goldenseal? Yes, they said. Lots of forests and goldenseal, all over the place. They invited him to ride to Ohio with them, and together they spent the next two weeks driving, camping and sleeping in the back of the van, eating oats, brown rice and carrots.
“I was being pulled into this life,” he says. “It was meant to be. I believe in that strongly, that if you view life in a positive manner and you give back to make a better life, then life is made better for us.”
They arrived in southeastern Ohio late at night, at the house of one of the young men’s friends in Meigs County about 30 miles south of Athens. They spread out their bedding and fell asleep on the floor. But Strauss, always an early riser, was up before the birdsong began. He quietly made himself a cup of tea and stepped outside to take a look around. The sun was coming up, and he started walking up a hill toward the sunrise.
Strauss remembers how the birds were starting to sing, and that he was the only one up when the sun popped over the top of the hills and illuminated a landscape that filled his eyes with the color and contrast of green carpeted hillsides, leafy forests and wild plants in their late summer bloom. Purple balls of allium, lavender blooms of Joe-Pye weed, deep green leaves of goldenseal, yellow blooming goldenrod. A smorgasbord of his favorite edible and medicinal plants lay before him in an endless buffet of rolling hills and forests.
“I was stunned by the beauty of that moment—the birds and forest and plants struck me, and I thought, I’m going to stay for awhile and see what this place has to offer me,” Strauss says. “I already had a new group of friends, all from this gorgeous morning that changed my life. It was like a higher power saying, ‘Look at this beauty. Make something of it.’ And I have.”
It was September and still warm, and he and a friend found work restoring a house for the fall. He began to meet people and the more he met, the more he realized he’d found a place where he could set down roots, a place where people got their living from the soil and were connected to the earth. He began to develop a theory of living, what he later would call “the green spark:”
“The sanity of the earth, I realized, lay in the earth, in nature. I’d always had a notion of the mad world we live in, and it seemed the sanest thing to do was to get the skills to live on the earth and not have to depend on anyone else for my well-being—my water, food, manure—I wanted all of that, and it seemed to be the only way to have a sane lifestyle in a mad world and a chance to make a difference for myself and the whole world.”
Later that year, he and some friends rented a house nearby and began raising Huskies for extra income. But he soon learned that not everyone in the county welcomed his arrival. They called him and his friends “dirty hippies.” He tolerated it for a while until one day, he came home to find all the puppies shot dead on his front porch. The mother, lying near her dead pups, had been spared.
Distraught, Strauss didn’t know what to do or how to react. He started walking to clear his mind, and up the road, he saw a farmer plowing his field with a team of mules. He was mesmerized by the sight—the smell of their sweat, their heavy breathing, the farmer’s tobacco. Bill Clontz pulled out a pack of Camel cigarettes and said, “Goddamn, you’re those hippies who moved in down the road,” followed by, “I think I know who killed your dogs.” Then he invited him to dinner.
That evening, as Strauss walked toward Clontz’ house, a pickup truck pulled up beside him and the driver stuck a knife in his face. Strauss expected there would be trouble—until Clontz suddenly pulled up alongside him in his truck and said, “Paul, you reach under my seat and I’m gonna give you this crowbar and I have this hammer and we’re going to kick these guys’ ass.” They raised their weapons, and the pickup peeled out. Strauss says they never bothered him again, but he was forever indebted to Bill Clontz. “Bill protected me without knowing me.”
Strauss knew he now had both a friend and a mentor. The big bear of a man taught him everything about farming—how to plow with mules, grow crops, get water, raise livestock. Strauss knew then he would never leave. He saved enough money to buy an old farmhouse with 80 acres and began learning how to live off the land.
As he restored the old house, he also studied the plants and began cultivating the best for medicinal purposes, learning how to make his own salves and tinctures using knowledge he’d gained from his Shoshone friend in Taos. And as he got better at both, he began buying land contiguous to his farm to protect the wild plants, some of them endangered but which thrive in the region. Some of the 300 or so acres he bought had been strip-mined for coal but was left polluted and toxic. Now restored, the land today is green and lush with pockets of clear streams meandering through.
At the same time, a community of like-minded people developed around Strauss, people who were interested in the back-to-the-land lifestyle. They bought up land from him or adjacent to his. Together, they amassed over 2,000 acres that are now protected and under cultivation. Some has been designated a botanical sanctuary as part of the United Plant Savers, a non-profit group devoted to preserving native medicinal plants in their natural habitat.
In 1998, Strauss donated the first 70 acres of his land to create the Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary, which now numbers 370 protected acres of native hardwood forest and open fields where large communities of at-risk, native medicinal plants thrive. His teaching at the sanctuary and his business, Equinox Botanicals, provide most of his income.
Strauss still grows his own food, keeps some livestock around, including a donkey, plows his fields with mules, drinks from a well and limits his use of electricity. The herbs he grows are abundant, but he’s most proud of the wild plants that he nurtures and harvests for his products. Ear Oil, Golden Salve and Elderberry Syrup are among his best sellers.
Since “Sanctity of Sanctuary” was released, however, Strauss’ business has grown. More people call about internships, and more people are coming to experience the sanctuary, staying in the cabins or pitching tents. His oasis and way of life have been discovered.
He also was given the title Practical Visionary in Residence at Xavier because of his focus on sustainability as a way of life. Strauss came to Xavier’s campus twice last year to speak to students, visit Xavier’s Urban Farm and spread his message about how people can live a more sustainable lifestyle.
During his last visit, he wanted to leave something behind as a teaching tool and a reminder of the beauty of the earth. So with the help of Xavier’s grounds crew and several students, Strauss directed the planting of a prairie along the walkway that runs behind Smith Hall and the farm. By mid-summer, the plants were in full bloom—purple coneflowers, lavender butterfly weed, bright yellow black-eyed Susan, shimmering showy goldenrod, pale blue asters—lightly weaving strands of color alongside oat grasses in the warm breeze.
For Strauss, planting rare and not-so-rare wildflowers is his way of bringing hope to people everywhere, the way he found hope in Taos, and maybe changing the world just a little bit.
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