By Maura Ewing
Photographs by Jonathan Laurence
With lessons learned in Asia and plants grown in Maine, Deb Soule educates and
inspires those around her to enhance their quality of life with herbal remedies.
Nestled into a pastoral oasis in Rockport, Avena Botanicals feels worlds apart from nearby Route 90—and even farther from the hustle of everyday life. Inside the farmhouse apothecary, community herbalist Deb Soule wanders among rows of glass jugs filled with herb-infused concoctions arrayed on large, rustic wooden tables. She rubs her short, shaggy hair and lifts a bottle to admire its contents. “Sacred basil improves the quality of the respiratory system,” she explains.
The grounds surrounding the farmhouse create a fitting East-meets-West atmosphere. A simple yet elegant octagonal building with a pointed roof and an Asian aesthetic sits next to a traditional New England barn. The extensive garden accentuating the scene is where Soule can often be found tenderly caring for and harvesting herbs.
Soule founded Avena Botanicals as a one-woman operation when she was twenty-six years old. At that point, she gathered herbs from her small domestic garden and crafted blends in a friend’s tiny kitchen. She had no career aspirations, just a strong belief in the power of organic remedies. A quarter-century later, her herbal apothecary, educational nonprofit, and three acres of gardens compose the largest center for natural healing in Maine. Herb enthusiasts, remedy seekers, and garden dwellers flock to Avena Botanicals throughout the year. Soule has ten employees working hand in hand with her, and an expanding circle of apprentices, students, and clients who incorporate her knowledge of herbal healing into their way of life.
“Deb’s gift as an herbalist reaches far beyond her skill as a gardener,” says Kiira Heymann, who spent five months as Soule’s apprentice last summer. “Her passion for herbalism, and her ability to translate that knowledge to others, makes her a true teacher,” she says.
In the farmhouse, Soule walks across well-worn floorboards to a steaming pot. Her petite frame moves with careful, noiseless steps. She describes the tea in a soothing, though authoritative, tone: “There are calendula flowers in here, which are very gently supportive to the immune system and the lymphatic system. Nettle is high in iron and a rejuvenating herb, and it’s one of my favorites for springtime.” She continues to list herbs and their benefits as she pours the tea into a ceramic mug. She takes a deep sip, relishing the steamy vapors that rise around her face.
Soule’s practices are influenced by a variety of traditions: Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, Native American, and old-time rural Mainer. Her life path was inspired by her grandmother, who taught her to forage in the forests of western Maine when she was a child, and by the traditional healers she studied under in Nepal while a student at the College of the Atlantic.
In harmony with the agricultural rhythm of her ancestors and the lessons of Eastern philosophy, Soule believes there are many benefits to be derived from attuning our consumption—food, drinks, and remedies—with the natural flow of the seasons. One of her favorite plants for transitioning into spring is more commonly known as a weed: dandelion root. “Old timers used to gather dandelion roots to make tea or soup,” she says with a hint of nostalgia. Generations of Mainers ate the nutrient-filled roots to help kick-start their metabolism as they emerged from their winter hibernation. “It’s a fantastic tonic for the liver, which works harder through the winter to process the heavy foods our bodies crave,” she says.
Some come to Avena with a specific ailment, but many more are simply looking for ways to maintain their health and enhance their well-being. “I think one of the challenges is that when people think about medicinal herbs they only think about being sick. It’s a very reductionist way to think about medicine,” Soule says. Her recommendations to clients are a far cry from Western medicine’s tendency for quick-fix solutions administered after we are already ill. At Avena, the distinction between client and student is frequently blurred, since Soule will work with people for long periods of time, teaching them methods to prevent future illness.
Soule believes that the cultural debate between Western medicine and natural healing is counterproductive, and she hopes people will embrace the need for both approaches. She even works closely with several family physicians and nurse practitioners who integrate her methods into their treatments. “I think of myself as a bridge between the world of modern Western medicine and traditional herbal medicine,” she says.
Dr. John Woytowicz, a family physician in Augusta, has collaborated with Soule for the past eight years. During the early stages of his medical career, Woytowicz became disheartened by the confines of Western diagnoses and prescriptions, and he began to study integrated holistic medicine. “There are basic and common problems that are often very well treated by lifestyle changes, dietary choices, and herbal remedies,” he explains.
Woytowicz comes to Soule for consultation on patients and uses the apothecary as a supplemental pharmacy—he jots down a blend and Avena creates the tincture. “It’s wonderful that we have such a high-quality company close by. Deb has done a lot to teach people about how they can take care of themselves and come to understand the benefits of plant medicine. Her sincere love of what she does really comes through,” he says.
In the farmhouse, Soule looks at the packed shelves of tinctures, teas, and salves, and she seems almost humbled by the quantity. As one of the fortunate few who have found a passion, vocation, and lifestyle that blend seamlessly into one another, it’s ironic that Soule never set out to become an herbal guru—it was merely the result of a lifetime spent following her beliefs. “The word ‘career’ isn’t so much how I think about my work. It just grew step by step. Avena has grown as I’ve grown myself.”