Altamont (Grundy County) & McMinnville (Warren County), Tennessee
Year of Award
Grant or Fellowship
Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship
Yvonne Harbin is a traditional herbalist, folk medicine maker, and teacher. “Five generations back, my great, great grandmother was a mid-wife and folk doctor,” explained Harbin. “In the days before big herbal industry and internet, my tools were the tools of the common housewife, mostly found in an average kitchen of the day, and my supplies volunteered themselves heartily in our mountain lawn and forests. I know the medical/healthcare landscape is changing drastically, but I want to believe there will always be a place for women like me.”
“I've remembered, all my life, the look, the deep color, and the smell of sassafras root tea, from the first time my Dad made it for me [when I was about three years old]. Okay, it was really for him, but the smell drew me to the kitchen stove. Normally, he would shoo me away from anything hot, but that day he pulled the pot from the stove and lowered it so I could see in. Suddenly, I was in love with something besides my Daddy, and he was smiling. He pulled a chair over and let me stand and watch him stir and brew, while he talked about the sassafras. I don't remember his words, just the feeling emanating from him. His love and fascination for the earth and the plants gave me air to breathe! If we were fishing with cane poles in the creek, Daddy was showing me edible weeds. If he was carving initials into a birch tree, he was instructing me on how to use the fragrant leaves or to notice the bark and how different it was from the other trees. His tales were of people who were born in the 1800s, which included my grandpa, who was born in 1885 and lived until I was almost eleven years old. Old men and old women were my guardians and protectors and teachers, but most of all they were my family. I was in awe of the strength, tenacity, and knowledge they carried.”
As a young wife and mother, Harbin and her family lived in her husband’s family’s home place and had a limited income. “The only valuable thing it had was a well...and trees and weeds. We grew a garden, organically, and I did what I knew how to do...pick the plants and make the medicine. A few years later, and in better fortune, I was still doing what ‘came naturally’ to me. One day some ladies came to see some work that was being done on our house. I happened to be putting up tinctures for winter, drying herbs/weeds for storage, and was making a couple of pimiento jars of salves for boo-boos. They got so excited! They started trying to convince me I should teach what I know, but I was shy back then. But they just kept talking until one of them hit my soft spot. She said, ‘You know, there's not a hospital in this entire county and most of the people are very poor. There's only one doctor. What about the old folks and the children? Don't you think you could help them if you taught them what you know?’ That was it. A few short months later, I was nervously presenting my first workshop at the Beersheba Community Center.”
Harbin’s two-pronged lifelong learning plan begins with creating an "herb central” online and at her home to teach classes sharing her experiences and stories. She hopes to create a website and develop online programming. Harbin also wants to connect with other herbalists to collect and document their stories, remedies, and knowledge. Supporting and expanding the community of traditional herbalist is central to her continuing work.