The Alchemist’s Kitchen Book Club: The Illustrated Herbiary

The Illustrated Herbiary

In Maia Toll’s The Illustrated Herbiary, the plants and herbs come alive with color, ritual, and poetry. The symbolism of plants has fascinated us for centuries and in this magical book we are welcomed in to connect and learn more about these beings with leaves, roots, flowers, and fruits.  Each plant is paired with an intention and an invitation to forge a deeper relationship.

Maia Toll is the founder and owner of Herbiary, a natural products store with locations in Asheville, North Carolina, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Maia has taught Botanical Medicine at West Chester University and at the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research in the Peruvian jungle. She lectures at hospitals, universities, and herbal conferences and runs her own Deep Magic Retreat in the North Carolina mountains during the witchy twilight of autumn. She blogs to an international following at maiatoll.com and lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

What is your writing process like? How did you begin this book, and did it end the way you expected? Where do you like to write? Do you have any rituals?

Let me start by saying: there’s no one right way to write. I know one woman who writes in the closet (she literally sits in her closet with her laptop!) and another who needs a walk by the ocean to get her juices flowing. I need stillness. I wait until my partner has taken the dogs to work and the house has settle into silence. And then I sit down at the keyboard (I’m always surprised that I’m a typer not a hand-writer) and listen to the quiet. Something— a plant, an animal, a crystal, a character— is always lurking in the solitude, waiting there for me to notice it.

The Illustrated Herbiary began as a memoir of my time training with a traditional medicine woman in Ireland so, no, it didn’t end the way I expected at all!🤣 A memoir became Oracle Cards, Oracle Cards became a book (with an oracle deck in a special pocket in the back)…. it was a long and twisting road. It took almost three years to get that first book deal. After the first, they’ve been coming fast and furious. I’m currently between book projects and tapping my foot impatiently as my publisher mulls over ideas.

I have many rituals… and none. It’s a daily and ever changing landscape. What I return to over and over again is tea. Pausing and making tea, consciously, is probably my most consistent form of relaxation.

 

Was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while writing? What people, music, books, and art influenced you?

Most surprising to me was where the writing was easy and where it was hard. When I’m tapped in, it’s almost like I’m channeling: words flow through me and I just write them down. I never thought of myself as a channel but that’s what the writing experience often feel like.  Understanding the larger structures of my books— particularly the chapter book— was a mind bender. I’d get stuck in the writing weeds and not be able to get to that hawk’s eye view. Luckily there are these wonderful people called editors who can help with bringing a concept to clarity.

While writing I take music breaks and dance around (part of the reason I like to be totally alone!). While writing The Illustrated Herbiary it was more swaying than dancing: I got totally into Antje Duveokot’s Long Way which is a bit too slow for anything than a shuffle and snap. But I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains which often feel like a hug. So the line from the song “you can ask the Mountain, but the Mountain doesn’t care” always resonates. These mountains here are so rich and diverse; living in them is a daily gift. But we’re no more than mayflies to Mama Mountain. There’s a tension to being both held and insignificant that I love to sit with (or sway to!).

The Herbiary was also influenced by animated movies in general. My partner pointed out that each plant felt like a personality, a character. My brain then made them characters in an animated movie. I’d invent scenes and describe them on our afternoon dog walks. Imagining how a plant would walk or talk helped me to slide into deeper understanding plus it’s totally fun to imagine how the plants would stage a revolution against Monsanto. So who knows? Herbiary, The Movie coming to a theatre near you.

Lastly, what was the last thing you read that you loved, and why?

I’m just finishing The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. It’s meant for young readers, and it follows a fairytale format, so the sentence structure is simple. Deceptively simple in a book that is otherwise nuanced and layered. So layered! It builds slowly so you don’t realize at first what a complex narrative the author is weaving. In the midst of this gorgeous tapestry, the language is whimsical, the descriptions fresh, and the character arcs well crafted. (Okay, yes, I’m studying it a *little* bit. ‘Cause I need a new writing project, remember? It feels joyful to be expansive and allow that all sorts of unexpected and previously undreamed possibilities may be coming down the pike.)
Purchase your copy of The Illustrated Herbiary here!

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