Sunday 12 January 2014

What makes a good workshop?

Everyone will have their own ideas what contributes to an enjoyable workshop run for adults. I’ve been holding them now since 1998 and many things have changed since the first few years. Mine are held in two very different locations, my kitchen in the Midlands and my Sanctuary in the Cotswolds. 

During the coldest months we spend time using the hob and the contents of my herbal larder to create syrups, cordials, oils and salves whilst considering what we might need to fight winter ailments or bring our bodies back into balance using tonics or bitters to aid the digestive system.

During the remainder of the year the learning happens mostly outside looking at plants, identifying them, sowing, growing and harvesting. We take fresh plant matter to make teas, vinegars, tinctures, honeys or elixirs using the simpler method. Thanks to a slow cooker there is usually the opportunity to make a double infused oil from whatever is abundant at the time.

When I first started offering workshops there were closely defined titles and I wore myself out doing most of the talking, trying to share as much herbal knowledge as I could in a short time. What I discovered was that whatever the subject advertised, participants would ask questions about something else, often leading everyone off down a different path for the majority of the allotted time. This worried me until I discussed it with other experienced facilitators and decided to radically change how I approached the whole experience.

Adults learn best through sharing experiences in small groups. This is not to decry the “chalk and talk” methods, which are superb at delivering large amounts of information to large numbers of people when delivered by skilled educators but whilst such information may well be retained and understood, the individual may not have the confidence to put what they have learned into practice.

Understanding is most easily assimilated when all the five senses can be employed. If people can see, touch, smell and taste a herb in its many forms they will remember more. If they can do something themselves rather than rely on others they will both understand the process and have confidence to do it again in their own environment.

It helps if you have a group of mixed experience so newcomers can benefit from someone who has either been before and feels comfortable in the environment or who knows basic procedures and can share expertise. As a facilitator, I try to assign tasks and explain the overall aims for the workshop early on in the proceedings so people can start doing something, feeling engaged and useful.

The aim of each workshop is to make one or more herbal items for participants to take home with them. During the activities there will be conversations about the purpose of these items, why it is being made in this form rather than another, who you would make it for, how you apply it, what other ways you could do the same thing and which herbs you might combine or interchange to achieve a similar result.

There will be stories about herbs and herbal products. There may be feedback about items made in previous workshops. Have they been strained if they were taken home to infuse? What dosage to use? Were they effective? What else could have achieved the same or a similar effect? For example, last month someone asked to make a muscle relaxing salve for his partner. We combined St John’s wort and agrimony oils with beeswax and everyone took home a sample. It had proved extremely effective for two different types of muscular cramps. When asked if there was anything else that could be used we talked about using a chamomile fomentation introducing a new word, process and concept into the conversation.

As workshop facilitator, I am there for three main purposes, to discover what each participant would like to achieve during the workshop, to support them in carrying out the tasks and answering questions to the best of my ability and to ensure they return home having experienced and learned something new.

When I had access to a photocopier, I would provide paper handouts for everyone. This isn’t possible anymore, so I  may provide one paper copy on the day and either email it to everyone afterwards or, occasionally beforehand. Participants are encouraged to bring notebooks and write notes during the workshop.

In the winter, we finish with a shared lunch where everyone can chat and share experiences. At the Sanctuary we finish later, but I always try to end the experience by asking people to identify and share one new thing they have learned discovered. Yesterday there were a group of three who played with vervain tea as well as making their tonic wine to take home.

“When I came here,” said one, “I was really worried. It’s all gone away and I feel perfectly calm.”

“It tasted like chocolate,” commented another of a tannin-rich bitter vervain tincture made from a twelve month infusion. “I’m sitting here happily away with the fairies.”

Two very new apprentices arrived late for their first workshop after a long journey. They admitted to feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all the ingredients on the table in front of them.

“I spent a while just looking at everything and seeing what I was drawn to. After that it was easy and I realised I could do this! It was so exciting.”

I try to make my workshops financially accessible to everyone, which is why I ask for donations rather than set a price. Participants bring their own alcohol, vinegar or honey and I provide home-grown herbs in different forms. Empty jam jars and bottles are shared. No-one goes home empty handed.

Here are some of the points I have found to help provide a happy experience for everyone.
            Set a subject area and programme for the day
Be clear in your mind what your teaching objectives/outcomes are for the workshop
Know the subject area thoroughly before you try to share it with others
Have any handouts prepared and available but don’t give them out until needed
Deal with housekeeping issues and introductions at the beginning
Discover from each participant what their best hopes for the workshop are
Try to tailor the needs of each participant to what happens in the workshop
Be aware of what each participant is doing so you can step in if necessary
Be available to answer questions and queries
Make sure the workshop has a definite ending session
Make sure everyone takes something tangible away with them
Get everyone to help clear up before they leave

Holding workshops can be very tiring and sometimes can be very hard work. My philosophy is that the people who need to be there will attend. My biggest pleasure is to watch the people who arrived with the cares of the world on their shoulders begin to laugh and share stories. They leave with smiles, hugs and a desire to return.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Looking back and looking forward

January is always a two-faced month. It’s hard to do otherwise, given the nature of the god, Janus, from whom the month takes its name. There are two schools of thought when it comes to looking back. One philosophy teaches that you cannot move forward effectively without learning the lessons of the past, whilst the other recommends moving forwards and releasing what is left behind lest you carry it on your shoulders for eternity. Both ways of thinking have their merits and, like everything in life, a balanced approach to both of them should support an onward journey.

For me, 2013 felt as if my life had been put on hold because of my mother’s continuing deterioration. For the first six months she had two hospital admissions, each time becoming more debilitated. Then in July she suffered another ischaemic episode and became bedridden. Thankfully there have been carers brought in to manage her physical care four times a day which my father has to pay for. I provide the majority of their food so they can continue with a diet they enjoy and we visit at least once a fortnight to enable my father to leave the premises if he wishes.

This has meant there has been no time to physically tend the Sanctuary since my time at the farm is taken up with cooking, feeding, washing clothes and sitting with my mother. The workshops have continued once a month and they have been my only opportunity to spend time with my herbs. The 2013 apprentices all started off with great enthusiasm in January but had all disappeared to lead their own lives by the end of June, apart from one, who is a continuing joy to have around. Their lack of physical commitment to the Sanctuary was a great disappointment and as a result none of the herb beds were properly weeded or managed and the field plants have begun to take back the land wrestled from them over the past years.

It’s not all been doom and gloom. New people have emerged and given their time to help cut down trees and overhanging branches. Although the festival in September was poorly attended, new friendships were forged and those who came were deeply moved by the experience and are looking forward to this coming year. For me, the most positive issue to emerge from the festival was the request from a local beekeeper to keep her new hives at the Sanctuary something I have been trying to achieve for ten years!

So, what new things happened during 2013?

Flower essence
I was asked to write an article for Herb Geek on favourite summer recipes and as a result, I created two new cordials, rose and mint, which have been very popular at family celebrations and social gatherings and there are still bottles in my freezer. This inspired me to create further hot winter cordials using the surfeit of cooking apples on my garden tree – spiced apple and apple and rosehip, which were both a great success.
Some of you will be aware of my writing exploits. I belong both to my local Solihull Writers’ Workshop, which has a set annual programme and to the Pub Club sub-group where we read and critique newly emerging novels. Writing is an emotional task, full of peaks and valleys. Sometimes the dark times are hard to break through when the creative spark is missing.

One of our members was going through a bad patch when I read about the properties of peppermint flower essence which has a specific relationship with improving stuck mental creativity. This was in early September when most of my mints were flowering. It seemed the ideal time to make the essence which was subsequently given to group members as Christmas gifts.

Herbal Ally
My ally this year was Agrimony but I was very lax in getting to know this plant properly. I did move all the plants in my home garden into a designated bed and made my first double infused oil from their aerial parts at the end of summer. Although the plant appears to have no identifiable scent, the oil had a significant fragrance which really surprised me. Matthew Wood uses goldenseal and agrimony together for pain due to tightness, so I extrapolated his use to create a salve for constricting muscles by joining the agrimony oil with St John’s wort. I am waiting to hear how the recipient got on with her remedy.

I also used agrimony tincture as part of a personal tonic to try and clear up some bowel issues associated with stress. Things did improve but I should really have tried the plant alone rather than mixing it with other nervines. It’s hard to make your own medicines and take them when you’re suffering with overwhelming stress!

Ashwagandha was the subject of my last blog post but is included here because I have been able to undertake several new plant products this year, notably a ground root honey, a root tincture and a cordial with nettle and rose.

Ashwagandha cherries are used as bitters. It makes sense for a plant which is renowned for its stress relieving properties to act upon the digestive system.  For other parts of the plant to also be bitter is not surprising. This was born out by the extreme bitterness of a tea made from stems. I may try making this again using less plant matter and see how much of a difference it makes.

Educational activities
Although there has been no income this year from herb-related articles, I have delivered two talks to new organisations. The first was Finstall and Coughton Hackett WI where the members enjoyed making and tasting hawthorn-related products as part of their Hedgerow Herbs talk. The second was just before Christmas when I talked about Herbs and Honey to the Solihull Beekeepers Association. The latter request came a discussion at my stall at the Solihull Go Green Faire in June (fairly disastrous in terms of general public interest since there were very few visitors!) which was situated opposite the Beekeepers’ exhibition. Again, members sampled infused honeys, herbal tea, oxymel and elixirs and several asked for the handout to be emailed to them later.

I also started a new part-time activity teaching singing to four and five year-olds in a nearby infant school. For three hours every Tuesday during term time we sing nursery rhymes and play circle games (60 nursery children in 4x 15min blocks) and sing seasonal songs and folk songs and practice rhythm (90 reception children in 3x 30 minute blocks).

My elixirs are often unique productions because the herbs infused together always change. At the beginning of the year Chris suffered with a dreadful cough and the sage and thyme elixir was the only medicine which seemed to help. The original elixir was made in 2010 and the bottle was almost empty so by the end of October, it was time to create a new one from the remaining healthy gardenplants before the frost came. The new elixir comprised purple sage, lemon and flat-leafed thyme, marshmallow leaves and a few hyssop strands. Thankfully it has not been road tested yet but I hope it will be as effective as the last one.

International Mentorship Scheme
For several years I’ve been a member of the Down to Earth Forum where I’m known as a herbwife. Most of the members live in the southern hemisphere so could never become full apprentices. It seemed sensible to offer a long distance mentorship scheme to encourage people to learn more about herbs, especially those growing in their locality. There are currently twenty-one people from Europe, US, South America and Australia sharing their herbal experiences.

Family members
Our daughter, Kathryn, became engaged on Christmas Day 2012 so there has been great excitement choosing a wedding venue and her dress. The date is set for 6 May 2014 and our grandson, James, will be a pageboy.

James had a new brother on 7 November, Thomas Daniel. He slept through the entire home birth while Chris and I were hidden away in the upstairs bedroom until everything was cleared away and we could emerge for a cup of tea and cuddles. Their mother, Laura, is amazing and Thomas has gained over three pounds in his first seven weeks. He’s a very long, strong, happy baby.

Looking forward to 2014

Eight new women have joined the apprenticeship to make nine in total. Three have already been workshop attenders and understand the challenges of the Sanctuary. Several are making commitments to travel long distances to attend events and I hope it all works out for them. I am looking forward to watching them grow and develop.

Herb Festival
This year’s Celebrating Herb Festival has been brought forward to the last weekend of August. We are hoping this date change will enable more people to attend. For the first time we are offering a special creative writing intensive on the Friday afternoon where authors and poets can showcase their creations during the evening’s Open Mic session. The workshop will be led by the wonderful Charlie Jordan.

Herbal Ally
My ally for this coming year is ashwagandha. It amazes me how much there is to learn about this plant so I want to spend time increasing my knowledge and understanding.

Henriette Kress very kindly sent me a copy of her Practical Herbs 2 Book which I am intending to read and review here shortly. I also received “Every day herbs in spiritual life” by  Michael J Caduto as a Christmas present so I’m looking forward to reading this and adding to my energetic and ritual knowledge. Then, of course, there is “The Herbwife’s Apprentice” which I started writing early last year and came to a complete halt about March. I fully intend to start it up again and have the first draft ready for the festival with frameworks for Years 2 and 3.

Workshops and workdays
We’re looking forward to welcoming both new friends and old to our monthly workshops held here in Solihull and at the Sanctuary in the Cotswolds. No matter what else happens in the world around us there will always be herbs to guide and support us.