“Señor San Juan…started back when he saw me, lifted up his hands with a stare of terror and surprise, and uttered the ejaculation, Adios! In two minutes, he had half a bushel of onions in the ashes, and as soon as they were roasted, he swathed my feet up with a parcel of them. I could not have lifted my feet with both hands. They were bigger than a bull’s head. The old man stayed with me all night, changing the onions for fresh ones at intervals, and I have no doubt that it was old Mr. St. John who saved my feet for me…”
– From Albert Pike, Prose Sketches and Poems Written in the Western Country, 1834. Calvin Horn Publishing Inc., Albuquerque 1967
Black Lake, NM 1831 – Out of meat and caught in a snow storm up Ocaté Creek, Albert Pike’s partner Aaron B. Lewis decided to keep going to Taos, just across the mountains. He took a chunk of fire and a gun and a recently-made pair of buffalo hide mocassins. A grueling hike of several days through bitter cold and more snow finally put him in the Don Fernando drainage. From there he made his way to “an adobe” at the edge of Taos. So frozen were his hands he could not use them and his feet were “all cut to pieces by my hard mocassins.”
Lewis was lucky that Nuevo Mexicano Señor San Juan found him first. Any 19th century doctor would have scraped or burned off all the frostbitten skin, taken 12 or so ounces of blood for good measure and removed both feet as well if gangrene had set in. Señor San Juan, on the other hand, came from a tradition of curandismo, healing through the use of medicinal herbs and plants.
Spanish colonists came to the Southwest with little more than a few household goods, domestic animals and knowledge of medicinal herbs. Some cures they derived from plants native to the Iberian peninsula; other rarer ones that would have been prescribed by a medieval doctor were imported from India, China or Persia. Colonists would have had a limited supply of these exotics, and instead depended on what they could harvest from nature. Living in isolation, they were more likely to go for medical help to curanderos, healers expert in herb lore and native spiritual traditions.
Remedies depend almost entirely on boiling water and making poultices for afflicted parts. Mountain remedies lower fevers, soothe cramps and headache, promote easy sleep, aid digestion, combat colds and sore throats, cleanse the system and keep snakes away. Some, like comfrey, are wrapped in towels and steeped in hot water for a few minutes, then applied to head or knee or chest as a poultice against inflammation.
Remedies are of great character and infinite variety, so much a part of New Mexican culture that they can be gathered by hand from local pharmacies and herb stores.
Remedies and healing is about ritual, a ceremony that you perform for yourself or anyone who’s sick, sad or stressed. Decide on a process, organize the ingredients, line up the tools – cups, honey, spoons or clean tea towels for poulticing. The loving care taken with remedies is as much a part of the cure as the herbs themselves.
When the dark clouds roll across mind and body, put the kettle on and break open the dried leaves of yerba buena, spearmint. It’s a way of feeling effective in the face of pain and fear and sometimes that’s close enough, and it is cherished as a tea for easy sleep or indigestion, and given to babies for colic.
Chile was cultivated religiously by the Aztecs as a nutritive condiment as well as a medicinal plant. Heavy in vitamins A and C, it can expel a cold, bedbugs, rheumatism, inflammations of the kidney and brain, heart pains and witchcraft.
Sagebrush or wormwood, said by the Sioux to clear the mind and dispel negative influences, was commonly used for intestinal and digestive complaints.
The flowers of Manzanilla (chamomile) are widely used for colic, stomach problems, fever and cramps; oregano de la sierra is boiled and drunk hot for a cough; and the peoples of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos use it to treat fever and headache.
Osha, a member of the parsley family, is used to soothe sore throats and gums, heal wounds and combat colds and cough. Shepherds would carry a piece in the pocket to repel rattlesnakes. Jars of herbs line the shelves of many local stores waiting for the chance to put the spring back in your step.
– From healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande by L.S.M. Curtin, Southwest Museum of California. Los Angeles 1965. Weiner’s Herbal Dr. Michael Weiner, Stein & Day, New York 1980.
High Country 2004