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Ann Armbrecht, writer, anthropologist, filmmaker

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Ann is a writer and anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) whose work explores the relationships between humans and the earth, most recently through her work with plants and plant medicine.

She is the co-producer of the documentary Numen: the Nature of Plantsand the author of the award winning ethnographic memoir, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Homebased on her research in Nepal. She is a student of herbal medicine and was a 2017 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar documenting the supply chain of medicinal plants in India. She is currently completing a book, From Seed to Shelf: Following Herbs Through the Supply Chain, to be published by Chelsea Green Publishing and is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. She lives with her family in central Vermont.

From Ann

I’m a writer, anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) and mother living in central Vermont. I was born and raised in West Virginia, where the mountains were being emptied of coal to fuel far-away companies and the air filled with chemicals to make plastics for use by people in other places. I lived in a state that was on the dark side of ‘progress’. I imagined that other places, those that were on the bright side – or were beyond the reach of ‘progress’ – must still be enchanted, even if the one where I lived was not. And so I went, like so many before me, to the Himalayas, searching elsewhere for what I failed to find at home, believing that indigenous people must hold some wisdom about how to live on the earth that we had lost.

What I found of course was more complicated than what I imagined from afar (I’ve written about it in my ethnographic memoir, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home), but what I experienced in the upper Arun Valley, Nepal led me to Sage Mountain to study herbal medicine with Rosemary Gladstar. At the heart of herbal medicine as taught by Rosemary, I found something similar to what I encountered in Hedangna: Like the ways of knowing at the heart of the Yamphu healers’s relationship with the ancestors, herbal medicine is based on a sense of the sacredness of the earth, a quality of respect and restraint in interactions with the environment, a focus on relationship rather than ownership, and an understanding of the spiritual and cultural dimensions of healing. To me, studying traditional herbal medicine was a way to practice those qualities in my own cultural tradition, a way of finding that far off, enchanted place at home.

And yet, as I learned more about herbalism, especially about the business side of things, I came to see that this tradition, like every other, is fraught with contradictions and complexities, that things aren’t always as they appear. I began to fear that what most drew me to herbalism was being threatened by its very success. And so with filmmaker, Terrence Youk, I co-produced, Numen, to celebrate the values at the heart of herbal medicine so consumers can understand there is more to plant medicine than little brown bottles on a shelf.