CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Sarah Shepherd, outside her Burns Road home, with a rose bush behind her blooming in late October and no sign of black spots. Her secret: “It’s just a happy plant,” she said.
Sarah Shepherd, Island-born and Island-bred (she’s actually a Harelegger), has accomplished something at age 34 that few people ever manage. She’s carefully and successfully braided together each and every one of her loves — herbs, plants, flowers, babies and all growing things — into a sturdy chain, strong enough to satisfy her personally and professionally.
She’s supporting herself through her interests. “I’m open to different ideas, from birthday parties, working with plants, helping kids, to teaching workshops in my home, to working with different people and not in just one capacity of who I am and what I am,” Sarah said of her working life. “It’s been a little frustrating, trying to bring it all into harmony and into what I want to be and do. I am an herbalist, and I am a ‘doula’” — a natural- and home-birth assistant — “and I feel confident in saying those words now and maybe I wasn’t years ago. I’m still learning, forever learning, but to be paid for what I do?”
Her work and training as a doula has “evolved,” she feels, from her love of plants. “I’m there at the beginning, there at the home, I go with the couple or the mom to the hospital and I’m with them the whole time. I get to work with the medical system and help to bridge that gap for women to have a natural birth as opposed to a medical birth.”
She’s been working on getting certified through DONA, Doulas of North America, taking birth training and natural childbirth classes. “I haven’t assisted at a home birth yet but that’s something that I’d like to do.” Referrals come through word of mouth and networking through other areas.
The word “doula,” she points out, derives from the Greek for “handmaiden” or assistant. “Women have always been with women during childbirth and that’s something that I like to be a part of, to be an advocate for, to explain how the medical system works when women get to the hospital. A doula helps a woman stick to her birth plan as much as she can and be that support when things can get sort of crazy at the hospital,” she said. She said that Long Island hospitals have a 90-percent epidural (anaesthesia) rate and 50 percent of all births end in caesarian sections.
She has deep roots here, born in her parents’ home on Burns Road next to where she lives now. Among her many family relationships, she’s Gene and Valerie Shepherd’s daughter, Gene Jr.’s sister, Paul Shepherd’s niece and the late Edith Shepherd’s granddaughter. Her own daughter, Mary Isabella, 7, was born at home as well, and visits her father, no longer living on the Island, every other weekend. “Some things just don’t work out,” Sarah said.
Her interest in plants and gardening began early in life. She remembers her vegetable garden, maintained when she was in high school here, and how much she missed it when she went away to Eastern College outside of Philadelphia.
“I would read a lot of books, go to the library,” she recalled. “I missed my garden so much that I would read about gardening all the time and I would start to read different things about gardening, like the spiritual part of healing.” She loved the fact that plants had their own histories as well as uses. “I had a woman say to me once, when I was buying a lot of rosemary, ‘You know that goes very well with chicken,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I know that. Do you know that if you keep it next to your bathtub, you can take a sprig of it and wash yourself with it as the Romans did?”
She studied plant medicine, its art and traditions and, in the process, travelled extensively, nationally and internationally, visiting, collecting and learning in areas as far away as the rain forests of Equador. Her major teacher was Rosemary Gladstar, who founded the California School of Herbal Studies, one of North America’s oldest centers for herbal education, and the Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center & Botanical Sanctuary in Vermont, one of New England’s foremost learning centers for herbs and earth awareness.
“I did her apprenticeship program in 2008,” Sarah said. “It was home schooling and then traveling to her mountain, a weekend a month for eight months. I got a certification in herbalism and I’ll be working on an advanced one next spring, again with her. She’s my most important mentor and friend.”
Sarah loves learning. “I’m a dedicated student but love to be able to share, to take back to my community,” she said. She teaches workshops and gives demonstrations about herbal medicine, bringing her herbs in baskets along with her collection of mortars and pestles. She has worked with the Girl Scouts, the Historical Society, the Senior Circle and the Women’s Club. She recently made a presentation at Sylvester Manor’s “Plant and Sing” annual festival and works on both the North and South forks as well.
“I explain how early colonials used these plants,” she said. “Kids and their parents ask me all kinds of questions. I get them to open up, to touch, smell, taste the plants, and they’re not afraid to. It brings things to a different level when you understand what something” — the herbal ingredient of some tonic or treatment — “actually looks like, as opposed to the contents of a little bottle.”
She often brings little pouches so that participants can take herb samples away with them. “The kids can take the herbs and fill the pouches and take the pouches with them. It’s a hands-on thing,” Sarah said.
And she loves using plants as well as talking about them. “I love to make products with plants so I make salves and oils. I would come home from college and it was about gathering things at certain times of the year and I would know where to go here on the Island to get my St. John’s Wort, so I could make my oil with it, and then I would have it for the winter and share it with friends or family.” All this, of course, eventually led to vending and she now sells at craft fairs both on and off the Island.