When I was a child, I loved nature walks. I knew the tall oaks, maples,
and pines well. Another tree I always recognized was the sassafras,
slimmer and closer to my height. Mostly, I recognized its leaves, many
mitten-shaped, some plain and some with two thumbs. When a breeze
blew, the leaves seemed to wave at me.

Last summer I went for a special nature walk at Old Sturbridge Village,
a living museum from America’s early 1800s. To visit there is a walk back
into time: The oval of the village green is surrounded by wood frame
houses, a general store, a meetinghouse, and costumed interpreters who
nod their heads and say “good day” as if you are a neighbor, whose family
births and weddings they celebrate and whose deaths they grieve. Dirt
paths extend beyond the green, leading to a farm, craftsmen’s workshops,
a one-room school. Sheep dot the hills, and there isn’t a sign of modern
life in sight.

The walk was hosted by “Indian Doctress” Molly Geet, an Abenaki woman
dressed as she would be if she were living in 1830. I wanted to see a special
place through more special eyes, the eyes of someone whose people walked
and loved this land many centuries before mine first saw the coast of North

More than a dozen people lined up at the edge of a quiet dirt path on the
tree line and smiled at each other. Molly started by taking out a muslin
sack and putting brown powder into some of our hands. She put some into
mine, and said “Smell it. What do you think of?”

The smell was powerful with childhood memories of a frothy soft drink:
root beer. She said her people made tea from the tree, but the Europeans
had collected roots, sometimes added sarsaparilla, and brewed an
alcoholic drink they called root beer. Then she pointed at a tree and asked
if we recognized it. I was surprised. It was a sassafras tree.

Sassafras trees growing in a part of a forest are not scattered individuals.
The trees are connected through their roots, a network of neighbors.

One reason they can withstand having roots or leaves collected is their
ability to nourish one another. I watched Molly teach us to see with her
eyes, understand a bit of her tradition, and I saw a healing woman, one
who knew how to draw strength and wholeness from the plants and
animals of the land, how to live a life in balance despite the constancy of

I think about that afternoon often. Years ago I became a healing woman
of one sort, a doctor, until a head injury ended that life. My husband and
friends helped me build a new one, become a new person who tried to hold
onto the best parts of the old. There is a tall pine on the top of a hill near
our home that is charred on one side from a lightning strike. Both the tree
and I were tempered by sudden fire, but we are alive. The pine is not
perfectly straight anymore, but it reaches toward the sky almost eleven
years after the fire. We have both survived, and perhaps we are stronger
than we would have been, not despite our adversity but because of it.
We continued to grow, just in a different direction than we would have.

I looked … I continue to look… for a way to live in balance. Although we
do not think on it often, many of us are men or women who are healing,
learning to live with illness, recover from injury, find a way to pick up lives
that have been irrevocably changed and move forward to a new life.

The need to heal doesn’t mean the loss of the ability to help others heal.
I combined my experience as a doctor and patient to help other people
struggling with chronic illness find tools to guide their medical journeys.
I learned that two of the most profound gifts we can give are very simple,
merely saying “I’m sorry” or “Can I help?”

The sassafras trees are strong in their physical connections. The Abenaki
people and the villagers of old New England knew they needed one another
for their communities to thrive. I believe we can learn from all of them, that
each of us can help others without hesitation and find the grace to let
others nourish us when we need it. We can all be healing people.

The only people who live unmarked lives, who do not have to heal in some way, die very
young and suddenly. Almost all of us have to deal with injury or illness at some point in
our lives. Many people are born with medical conditions or develop chronic problems or
injuries at a young age. For others, personal involvement with illness comes later.