Local Mother, Poet and Wildcrafter Helps Vets Heal, Restore With Words
By Emma Castleberry
Mary Ellen Lough and her five children live in an old farmhouse outside of Asheville. “The land here is loving and generous,” says the poet, teacher and wildcrafter. “My children have had such a beautiful foundation in life growing up here, and have a strong sense of community, belonging, social responsibility and love for nature.”
This connection to the land is a central theme in Mary Ellen’s life. After living here with her parents as a teenager, Mary Ellen left North Carolina for over a decade. “I returned home very broken and burnt out,” she says. “I remember driving out into the mountains from my parents’ home in Haywood County, where we were staying at the time, and finding a small patch of grass beside a little stream and getting on my knees and asking the mountains if they remembered me, and if they would take me back, if the land could heal me. And slowly and surely, it has.”
When Mary Ellen felt the encroaching burnout from work and the stress of being a single mother, she started researching the folk magic traditions of Old World Europe and Appalachia. “The first time I sat down to make my own herb bundles, it was like something in my bones knew what I was doing, like ancestral remembrance,” says Mary Ellen, a descendent of West Virginia Germans. She started making the bundles as gifts, and the practice has grown into a fully fledged business: Appalachian Sacred Smoke.
The practice of burning herbs is used across cultures, and Mary Ellen’s bundles are based on what would have been burned in her ancestral home for purifying sick rooms, blessing, purification, prayer, protection and personal ritual. She grows or wild harvests most of the plants she uses, and tries to source all the others from local growers. “It’s almost as if the path almost chose me,” she says. “The plants nurture and care for me, and have supported me in the ways I most needed.”
Mary Ellen calls her writing classes and workshops poetic medicine. “It is a very liberating way of approaching poetry,” she says, “as we are discarding the frameworks of trying to write a good versus a bad poem, and are simply reading and writing poems as a way to illuminate the interior.” This style of poetic pedagogy lends itself well to the online course she’s currently teaching for veterans involved with the VA’s recovery program. “There is a dual action of grief and restoration constantly at work, and this is vital to how I approach my work with veterans, who have lived the very worst humans can do to each other, and experienced inner loss beyond comprehension,” she says. “Staying closely connected to the natural world keeps me from despair.”
Mary Ellen says the individual facets of her life—growing and foraging plants, wildcrafting, poetic medicine, motherhood—come together as a cohesive whole. “They work together to create a more balanced and harmonious way of being in the world,” she says. “We tend to divide life into ‘profession’ and ‘hobby,’ but a true human vocation and fully expressed human life is more complex than that. Poetry, prayer, healing, contemplation and plants would all have been part of a traditional role of a healer or a village wise woman—a role I identify with.”
For more information about herb bundles or poetic medicine, visit AppalachianSacred.com.