Like plenty of healers before her, Marisa Hall fell into herbalism initially out of a need to heal herself. Since last year, Hall has been working as an herbalist, and as a yoga teacher for a few years before that, both modalities that bloomed out of community calls and not necessarily a planned or even desired path. But when she emailed her coterie of advisors — aka her mother and sister — about joining an intensive herbalist program last year, the response was simple: get your knowledge, plant witch.
Growing up in Berkeley, California, the peaceful force of nature was a constant in Hall’s early life, but that connection wasn’t something she identified as a standalone skill until much later. “There has been this amorphous presence of plant medicine and plants as a healing modality for my whole life,” Hall explained during a phone interview earlier this summer. “I took it for granted that I grew up in the woods, where nature was always really accessible. I’m most fully embodied when I don’t have any shoes on and I’m not necessarily thinking about my physical body, just excited to experience the beauty of my environment.”
From an early age, she had “an understanding of nature being really calming to my nervous system,” though frequent struggles with severe asthma and allergies sometimes complicated her relationship with the outdoors. Living in a different climate than temperate California is what led to Hall’s first real experiences with and need for plant medicine. After moving to Massachusetts to attend Smith College, the brutal Northeastern winter triggered a bout with seasonal depression that completely disrupted her mental health. “One of the things that really kept me sane and healthy was the greenhouse at Smith College,” she remembered. “In the winter, I would write my papers and take refuge there, because it had different rooms for different climates. I’d go into the tropical room and sit on a bench, and just be there for hours doing work in between classes.”
Even if the greenhouse served as an inventive form of self-medication, it wasn’t enough to ward off the onset of the winter blues. Beginning therapy, Hall also attempted antidepressants for a few months before almost immediately realizing that pharmaceuticals were not part of her healing journey. “I was used to addressing chronic health issues with medication, but not my mood,” she said. “I am in and of the earth, so to be on the opposite end of that spectrum just didn’t work for me and really took me out of that. I felt so disembodied that I wanted to figure out what else was available to me. I stopped taking the antidepressants cold turkey because I couldn’t feel my body — and that felt very strange — and started thinking about other ways I could address staying in my body and prioritizing my mental health.”
Supported by her mother, a social worker with a trauma-informed practice, and her sister, who sent herbal tinctures from California, Hall began to cobble together her own approach to mental health, adding in yoga as another helpful modality. “At no point in that journey did I feel like there was shame in needing to mix and match solutions,” she said. “In terms of an independent practice, that’s where it began. There was a bridge between the ways I’d been cared for as a child and ways I could empower myself to care for myself — and really be curious about what could work for me sustainably.”
After finishing college with a degree in American Studies, African-American studies focus, and another in Studio Art, doing metalwork and sculpture, Hall moved to New York and planned to take a gap year before applying to graduate school. Landing a job in the tech world, it was while working for Etsy — where she’s still employed — that Hall witnessed a plethora of artists who embraced working a day job for the financial support it entailed. “I started to see just how multidimensional and multifaceted one can be as a human, and as a maker and a thinker,” she said. “I really started to think of my job as something I prefer to enjoy, but it’s also not the most important thing. I landed somewhere that I like and continue to like. I wanted to leverage the things that I love and support those dreams with the flexibility that having a job allows me.”
During the next few years, Hall did just that. First by taking a yoga teacher training course at Sacred Brooklyn while working full-time, intending, at first, to use the knowledge strictly to deepen her own practice. “I wasn’t planning on teaching yoga, but when I came out of it, requests came from my community, people in my world and friendship circles,” Hall said. “And even people that I didn’t know and wasn’t expecting, requests from people who wanted to be embodied but often didn’t feel safe in yoga studios. So I started teaching pretty much immediately — in spaces that weren’t studios — for queer and trans folks of color on rooftops around Brooklyn. I did that for two summers, and this past year I didn’t because I was in herbalism training. And now, I’m not teaching because we’re in a pandemic.”
Yoga is central to Hall’s own healing work, and physical practice remains an important method of feeling connected to her body, but when she began studying herbalism in May 2019, something just clicked. “I had this interest in having deeper knowledge that I could share,” she remembered. “I found a program in upstate New York that was partially remote, and for Black and Indigenuous People of Color. It was a six-month intensive program called The People’s Medicine School through Rootwork Herbals in Ithaca. I emailed my mom and my sister to ask if I should do it, and they were both like ‘Yeah, obviously, you’re a plant witch through and through. Please go get your knowledge so you can share with people.’ The premise of the program is that herbalism is the people’s medicine, and that being able to connect with your environment is a birthright that we should all have the knowledge to do.”
After taking that course last summer, Hall started Augustine Herbals on Etsy, her own small-batch apothecary that identifies “plant medicine as an ally.” Named after her grandmother, Alma Augustine DeCoux, who was also an herbalist — and shamed for not embracing Western medicine — the apothecary calls back to older generations of Black women who were feared or ridiculed for their knowledge. In her work, Hall is both honoring that lost legacy and building on it.
“At that time it was so shameful to not embrace Western medicine,” she said. “Using herbs was like admitting or acknowledging the legacy of being Black in the United States and not having access to healthcare, which has ties to class and race discrimination. Being able to pivot that perspective and offer this gentle resource with the knowledge that my grandmother had, and wasn’t able to share, is a really special privilege that I have now. The frame for my herbal products is my grandmother’s middle name, so that’s my tribute to her.”
Part of Hall’s current calling, during a crushing pandemic and this past June’s renewed Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and systemic racism in America, is offering free medicine to Black people. At the beginning of June 2020, Hall had a lot of medicine on hand that she’d prepped to sell at a fair that was canceled due to the pandemic, and decided to start giving it away. Posting what was available just on her own personal Instagram, Hall also shared the option for non-Black people who wanted to support the work to donate and cover the cost of supplies and shipping. (Venmo @ marisa-hall if you feel called to support).
“I’ve started to prioritize my work, and who I’m sharing medicine for the nervous system with is Black folks,” Hall said. “You just have to be Black, you don’t have to be any further marginalized than that. Any funds that I’m raising or able to get from donations go back into the work itself, and any excess funds go to redistribution to Black people, Black trans people specifically. My work in wellness has had Black people at the forefront always, thinking about embodiment, joy, and defense of life.”
Offerings like Calendula Salve, Tulsi + Rose Oxymel, Rose Elixir and Tulsi + Rose Elixir were almost immediately out of stock after Hall posted them. Follow-ups included additional tinctures, like Milky Oat Tops Tincture, a Motherwort and Cinnamon Tincture, and Valerian Root and Peppermint Oxymel and Tincture. Since beginning her giveaways, Hall has had to take necessary breaks to restock and create more products, but overall her experience with the process has been affirming instead of exhausting.
“I’m currently trying to figure out how to scale it,” Hall said. “I feel like I have accidentally started a business in a way, which is really funny, but I’m planning on continuing as long as it feels sustainable. It’s not so much a project as it is a practice that I’m expanding and sharing out. I think that given the opportunity, tools, and time to do so, healing is a possibility for everyone.”
And in her mind, if this work helps even one person cope with warding off white supremacy, then it’s beyond worth it. “Moving through world against white supremacist culture as a queer, Black woman, the best I can do is share what I have to offer in terms of what’s worked for me and hope it might support even one other person,” she said. “I also feel so held and carried by the knowledge and hope from generations before me and my ancestors in this really beautiful way.”
Follow Marisa Hall on Instagram here.