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1 – The Prisoner’s Herbal
Episode 112th June 2022 • The Frontline Herbalism Podcast • Solidarity Apothecary
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Nicole (she/her) introduces the Prisoner’s Herbal book and her story of how she learnt about plant medicines in prison.

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Transcripts

Nicole:

Welcome to the Frontline Herbalism Podcast have with your host, Nicole

Nicole:

Rose from the Solidarity Apothecary.

Nicole:

This is your place for all things, plants and liberation.

Nicole:

Let's get started.

Nicole:

Hello, welcome back.

Nicole:

If you're here again, then I really hope that maybe you've listened to

Nicole:

the first episode of the frontline herbalism podcast and you are back

Nicole:

for more, which is really exciting.

Nicole:

The focus of this episode is gonna be introducing the prisoner's herbal book.

Nicole:

I'm gonna be reading the introduction and the kind of section about my story of

Nicole:

going to prison and learning about plants.

Nicole:

The reason I wanted to kind of like start the podcast off with this is

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mainly because it's like one of the biggest parts of my work in terms

Nicole:

of supporting people, experiencing state violence with herbal medicine.

Nicole:

But also because if you didn't know, there's a war happening right

Nicole:

now the invasion of Ukraine is.

Nicole:

Horrific and affecting lots of people I love.

Nicole:

And I've been very active, starting a project called Ukraine herbal solidarity.

Nicole:

And I'm gonna do a standalone, like episode about the project, but

Nicole:

the, the short version is we have a clinic site in Poland at a gas

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station where coaches come from.

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People like across the different borders, like the different kind of

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like border point, like border crossings with between Ukraine and Poland.

Nicole:

And the coaches kind of go on their way to other places like Warsaw or Berlin.

Nicole:

And they stop at this gas station and people get off and

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they have a 10 minute breather.

Nicole:

They get a cup of tea.

Nicole:

They, you know, maybe they get some toys for their children.

Nicole:

And we have a little space where we have herbal medicine available for people.

Nicole:

So Ukraine has like a really, really, really vibrant, incredible

Nicole:

tradition of herbal medicine and yeah, valerian sold out, for example,

Nicole:

on like day three of the invasion.

Nicole:

So we have different tinctures, like valerian and skull cap and rose and

Nicole:

Hawthorn and different things for like immune support, stress support,

Nicole:

sleep, muscle pain Yeah, I'm already going into too many details, but

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basically I'm gonna do a separate podcast about it really, really soon.

Nicole:

But at the moment, like while I'm doing that project, it's just taking

Nicole:

like my absolute, like body and soul right now, we are trying to

Nicole:

fundraise like thousands of pounds.

Nicole:

We're making thousands of medicines.

Nicole:

Everything is on a scale.

Nicole:

You know, an absolutely huge scale.

Nicole:

Like I'm kind of used to like broader scale medicine making,

Nicole:

especially through the pandemic and working in Calais with the clinic.

Nicole:

But yeah, this is just like unrelenting, huge workload.

Nicole:

Which I'm a bit of a magnet towards people that know me listening to this

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will chuckle, but yeah, it's been a really incredible project, like, and.

Nicole:

Yeah, I'm gonna be going to Poland super soon, but doing the kind of like series

Nicole:

about the prisoner's herbal, it just gives me a bit of breathing space to then have

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time to do kind of like batch interviews.

Nicole:

So meet with different people around the world.

Nicole:

Like I've got a whole spreadsheet of people I'm gonna contact

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and just like fingers crossed that up for being interviewed.

Nicole:

So yeah, the podcast will hopefully become kind of interesting and collective

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and engaging, like as time goes on.

Nicole:

But right now I just really wanted to get it just to get it live.

Nicole:

And I think the prisoners herbal is like a very special project and, you know,

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right now is like really herbal season.

Nicole:

Right.

Nicole:

We're in the summer.

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And all of the plants in the book are in flower.

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It's like peak time to harvest them.

Nicole:

So I think to make it useful for people on the outside, they can hear about the

Nicole:

book and hopefully that can encourage them to order copies for their loved

Nicole:

ones in prison or for themselves.

Nicole:

Yeah.

Nicole:

So that's the plan.

Nicole:

So I'm just gonna be kind of like reading the book.

Nicole:

And then at the beginning of each episode, I'm gonna have some like

Nicole:

shoutouts for different solidarity things.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

All right, here we go.

Nicole:

Hello.

Nicole:

The book actually starts with a dedication to my best friend,

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Sam who is still in prison.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

So it says for Sam to my best friend who is still in prison, you brought me

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joy every day in the prison gardens.

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One day you'll be free and we will, we will gather plants

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together on the outside.

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This book is dedicated to you, and I'll probably talk about Sam

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sometimes soon on the podcast.

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It's having a really hard time again now with her cancer.

Nicole:

But yeah, that's in the introduction of the book, which I'm gonna read now.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

So welcome to the prisoners herbal.

Nicole:

This book has been put together to create a resource for prisoners who would like to

Nicole:

learn more about plants growing in prison.

Nicole:

Courtyards.

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It will be distributed to prisoners around the world via supportive

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individuals and solidarity projects.

Nicole:

Contains detailed descriptions of plants, the medicinal and edible

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uses how to use them and what health challenges they can support.

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There is also a section on how to use items that can be brought on

Nicole:

canteen for health uses such as salt, pepper, tea powder, and more.

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So this is like the, the prison-y bit.

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When I was 21 years old, I entered one of Britain's highest security

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prisons for women and began a three and a half year prison sentence.

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This book shares stories of the relationships I built with plants

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in the prison gardens the profiles in this book highlight their edible

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medicinal and other traditional uses.

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And most importantly, how to use them in a prison context with limited access

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to resources or common medicine, making ingredients such as alcohol or oil.

Nicole:

The prison where I did my sentence was a privatized prison, meaning I

Nicole:

wasn't able to access the spices and the vegetables available in some UK

Nicole:

prisons, but certainly not all, you know, like not all prisons have.

Nicole:

This stuff, if that makes sense.

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However, I have asked friends inside to send me copies of their canteen

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sheets, and I have created a section of the book with remedies from these

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ingredients that are available.

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I also did some research into what is available in prisons in the United

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States, which seems even more limited than what I call prison island, UK.

Nicole:

I.

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Just a side note, prison island UK is like a name of a report about

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prison expansion in England Wales.

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So if you didn't know, the state wanna build like 18,000 new prison

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places here because you know, prison's very effective, you know, it's like

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all, all profit driven of course.

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But anyway, I'm gonna hopefully have like a episode about prison expansion soon.

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All right.

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Back to the book.

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This is really important.

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I'm painfully aware that prisoners will all have different access to plants.

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A minority may work in the prison gardens and may even grow many more plants than

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those that are, are detailed in this book.

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However, the majority will only see a prison courtyard once a day, or even once

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a week, if they're lucky, many others still will not see the outside at all.

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Contesting with years and years of solitary confinement, for those

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that can access our courtyard and may have some grass, but more

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likely it will just be concrete.

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Hopefully with some defiant plants growing through the cracks.

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In some prisons, they actively poison all plants with the chemical spray Roundup

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to maintain a sterile environment, to further dehumanize prisoners.

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If you are a prisoner reading this, then I hope at whatever level of access you

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have, this book is interesting and useful.

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And it's really important to emphasize about the access, cuz like COVID

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has been like such a game changer.

Nicole:

You know, prisoners like across England, Wales, and Scotland, I

Nicole:

mean, across the world, right have been doing really extreme lengths

Nicole:

of bang up, you know, look, you're looking at like 23 hours a day.

Nicole:

Sometimes people don't get unlocked at all.

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If they're like short of staff, I think my friend Sam had like three or four days

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where she didn't get unlocked at all.

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And it's just absolutely horrific cuz they had, you know, the whole

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wing was shut down from COVID.

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So like slowly things are kind of like changing, but like the prison officers

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are like very happy with this new model of like constant bang up, cuz it's

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just like less work for them, even though it really harms prisoners like

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increases self harm in prisoner suicides.

Nicole:

Okay.

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I have also organized information in an index so that you can see

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a list of common health issues and which plants are recommended.

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I thought for many people who are new to her and this can

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often be an easier way to start.

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You will also find a gloss of terms.

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I have tried to limit botanical and medical jargon as much as possible,

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but certain words are very specific in understanding actions of plants.

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So please just look up any that are not clear.

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The final pages offer a resource section with recommended books and

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herbal schools that offer distance learning programs, including one that

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Sam's course materials completely free to prisoners in solidarity.

Nicole:

Nicole.

Nicole:

So that program is actually with the Commonwealth herb school in Boston,

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in the so called United States.

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And they are absolutely amazing.

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They've like transcribed hundreds of hours of courses so that

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people in prison can read them.

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I think it's like not ideal in the sense that like, because

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prisoners can't watch the videos.

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It's kind of like less of, it's like not ideal as a learning experience

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to just read text and lots of people like me are dyslexic inside or have

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challenges of reading and writing.

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So we'd really like to update materials with like more photographs

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and send more like books to prisoners with textbooks, stuff like this.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

So this is like the, the next level of introduction.

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If that makes sense.

Nicole:

This is, this is actually my story.

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So this is like a little bit, a little bit harder to read, but whatever,

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hopefully this is the only time I'm gonna have to read this on a mic.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

Here we go.

Nicole:

When I was 21 years old, I entered one of Britain's highest security prisons for

Nicole:

women called HMP Bronzefield and began a three and a half year prison sentence.

Nicole:

I was sent down for conspiracy to blackmail after a 2.1 million police

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operation to repress and criminalize the grassroots campaign I was part of

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to close Europe's largest animal testing company who killed more than a hundred

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thousand animals every single day after raiding and arresting more than 32 people.

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The operation eventually put 12 of us through the courts

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and people were sentenced from between a few months to 11 years.

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I was no stranger to prison.

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However, my first boyfriend got sent down when I was just 16 years old.

Nicole:

And so I had regularly visited prisons across England.

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By the time it was my turn to go through the.

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All in all.

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I just spent under two years in the prison itself and the rest under

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strict probation outside for many, this could seem like a long sentence.

Nicole:

However, for many loved ones that I know inside that are serving long sentences,

Nicole:

it really is not friends and comrades are serving life sentences or contemporary

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versions of them and are literally losing their whole lives to prison.

Nicole:

Many do not know when or if they will ever be free.

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since getting out of prison, I have done my best to support my

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close friends that remain inside.

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And you know, like this was published in 2019, but they're still there.

Nicole:

And I will put like call outs or solidarity and stuff on the podcast.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

Over many years I have witnessed their mental and physical health decline.

Nicole:

As a brutality of the prison system has taken its toll from increasingly

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horrifying self harm to frequent suicide.

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Nine years into her sentence.

Nicole:

My best friend Sam was diagnosed with cancer, her literal battle

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between life and death escalated due to serious medical neglect by

Nicole:

the private prison that she was.

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They failed to take her to hospital appointments, failed, to communicate

Nicole:

test results and completely failed with post-surgery after care,

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where she contracted infection.

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After infection, the doctors in the specialist hospital who had operated on

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her, told me that the prison had failed to bring her to over nine appointments.

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Each time they had assembled a surgical team to remove the cancerous tissues from

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her and the prison didn't even call to say that they would not bring her in.

Nicole:

And you know, like just a little ad lib here, but that's like huge amount of

Nicole:

pressure on the NHS, you know, like that's not just affecting Sam but that's also

Nicole:

affecting other people that are waiting for like life, life saving surgery.

Nicole:

And Sam actually has anal cancer.

Nicole:

So it's like a very specific, rare form of cancer.

Nicole:

Where they, they don't operate on it everywhere.

Nicole:

So yeah, the kind of repercussions of this private prison doing that was like

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very significant for all sorts of people.

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It is an absolute miracle that she is still alive after two major operations,

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multiple MRA infection, and years of hell stress fighting for her life.

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The consultant told me if the cancer had grown by even four millimeters.

Nicole:

It would've been game over.

Nicole:

Yeah.

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And just to highlight, she's actually had a third third lot of surgery now

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and we're kind of waiting on her results.

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The cancer unfortunately has come back again.

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She has like a yearly checkup now.

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And yeah, it's very likely that she'll need radiotherapy soon.

Nicole:

Anyway, but again, this is like another really important point now.

Nicole:

So for people reading this in prison, you will not be surprised you'll

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have witnessed and most likely experienced medical neglect yourself.

Nicole:

You all have been in pain and been unable to access painkillers or seen

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people begging for medical attention, completely ignored by prison officers.

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When I was in prison, a girl even miscarried and was left alone to bleed

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out in her cell before being unlocked the next day, it is in part because of

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this intense medical neglect that I feel motivated to put together this book.

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Herbalism is incredibly empowering because plants give us the opportunity

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to actively care for our own health.

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Without fighting an authority.

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We all know that everything is a fight in prison.

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Likewise prison food is awful and wild plants can supplement industrial

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diets, bringing desperately needed vitamin and minerals to our bodies.

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More than anything.

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Learning about plants is fun.

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They become familiar friends and help counter the loneliness of imprison.

Nicole:

When I got sent down, I was expecting to be totally removed from nature.

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But I remember when I entered the prison and first got processed, that's kind

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of like when they like book you in, in reception and counting your belongings and

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make you an ID card and stuff like this.

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But yeah, I remember that first night where I was taken across

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the main courtyard to the house block where the newcomers go.

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And I looked down and I could see dandelions pushing through the concrete.

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I could see mag pies and crows on the prison, walls and fences.

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I knew that I would find comfort in witnessing this world resistance.

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And this book captures these memories and experiences after several

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months of bang up and working in the gym, waiting to get my security

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clearance for a job in the gardens.

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I finally got the slip under my door that I'd been assigned

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to work in the garden party.

Nicole:

It's not actually a party.

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It's just like it's just like the team of people that work in the garden.

Nicole:

I dunno why they call it party.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

This meant I could work outside with a small crew of other girls.

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Most of the labor dare I say, all of it was completely monotonous removing the

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weeds that I'd love from beds or paths or in my case, pretending to weed them and

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always leaving the roots in the ground.

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So they regrow literally did that every time move lines or mowing the grass.

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Occasionally, we would do more interesting tasks, like finally planting up a

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vegetable garden in the main courtyard, as well as building a veg patch and

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herb garden in the new garden of the mother and baby unit of the prison.

Nicole:

That's right.

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They literally lock up mothers and their babies and then they take their

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babies off them and keep them in prison.

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And it is absolutely awful.

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And actually there's been a campaign because I don't

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know if it's one or two, but.

Nicole:

Yeah, I think maybe two babies have like died in that prison since I've left.

Nicole:

And yeah, it was absolutely horrific.

Nicole:

Okay.

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The courtyards were mostly small triangular concrete yards with a triangle

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of grass in the middle, but amidst the grass were some of my favorite plants

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such as yarrow and Daisy in the main courtyard, there were ornamental roses.

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So many that when we had to prune them all in the winter, I got really bad RSI

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in my wrist from working in the cold and cutting them back in these roses.

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I found mineral rich plants like chickweed and dandelion too.

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Another job we had was clearing areas near the inside perimeter fences,

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this mostly involved strimming curbs or pulling plants out of the gravel.

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It was here that I encountered plants like mallow and plantain

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who loved the sandy to soil.

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Of course, I was not allowed to take plants back to my room.

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So began a daily adventure of how, how the hell to smuggle things back.

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We were searched after every shift on the gardens party, which

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involved a packed down by an.

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I learned all manner of tricks of putting leaves in my bra or underwear, carrying

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them in my gloves or doing a bit of a slight of hand before being searched.

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If I had a library appointment after being in the garden, it would

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mean I could even smuggle plants around, press someone into my books.

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Fortunately, I think officers suspected I wasn't a drug user because

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of what I'd been sent down for.

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So they didn't search me as vigilantly as folks they suspected were trading

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or passing drugs around the prison.

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Little, did they know that I'd often take herbs back from my friends on

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the wing or make them cups of tea when they had period pains or tummy cramps.

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Other than bringing things back to my room.

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I'd also just eat plants there.

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And then when I was weed, my pallet became adapted to the

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more bitter taste of wild plants.

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When we built the vegetable gardens in the main courtyard, I asked the prison

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officer in charge of the garden party.

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If we could grow some rocket, this plant is so nutritious, full of

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vitamin and minerals, including zinc and vitamins, a B six C and K it's.

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It is also super easy to germinate.

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It spreads everywhere.

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I soon did some guerilla planting where I would take the seeds and spread them

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the various courtyards of the prison to maintain my supply of fresh greens.

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And so that others could access them too.

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If only more of the prisoners knew what they were and that you can eat them.

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In addition to working in the prison gardens, I was also incredibly lucky

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to access some financial support from a charity to undertake a distance

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learning course in horticulture and permaculture design, as well as a short

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distance learning course in herbalism.

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It sounds so cheesy to write this, but these courses really did change my life.

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On release.

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I learned to grow on a bigger scale and have now taught hundreds of other low

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income families to learn how to grow food.

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The workers cooperative that I started has multiple community gardens, a mushroom

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farm wildflower park, forest garden, more as well as a four and a half acre

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permaculture project where I now live.

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I'm sadly not involved in the workers' co-op anymore.

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Which is called feed Avalon, but yeah, it was definitely life changing

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experience to be involved in it.

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And it's like amazing that they're still going strong.

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Okay.

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My passion for herbal medicine has only grown over time.

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And in 2018, I decided to apply to train as a clinical herbalist, scared

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that my conviction would be a barrier.

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I finally found a school that that did not discriminate.

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And so I am now halfway through a four year training.

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Meaning that soon I will be able to soon, I will be able to more

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proactively help people with their health by accessing herbal medicines.

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I also started the solidarity apothecary project, which you can read more about

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at the back of the book, the herbal medicine course that I studied in prison

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as incredibly inspiring and interesting as it was made herbalism feel abstract

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for me in the context I was in, I could never make any of the things that the

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assignment suggested, whether it was tin teachers or salves or ointment.

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likewise, most or nearly all the plants they included were

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unavailable to me at the time.

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Therefore, I wanted to write this herbal book as a way of bringing

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herbalism alive to people in prison.

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I know that many people will still read these pages and feel an intense heartache

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because of these plants are still out of reach to them like the ingredients in the

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canteen section, which I would've killed to have access to when I was in prison.

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But I hope for everyone that there is at least one plant there that

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calls to them, which they can find.

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Connecting with plants in prison is not just about making medicine is about

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friendship is about contending with the isolation, despair, trauma, and violence

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is something alive and beautiful.

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A part of, one of the tattoo sleeves on my arm reads never alone.

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I got it before I got sent down because I wanted to remind

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myself that I am not alone.

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During years of state repression, I felt isolated and betrayed by the movement.

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I grew up in.

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I felt like any grassroots or revolutionary struggle to change

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things was ultimately weaker than those in power and control.

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I felt small and vulnerable, but plants reminded me every

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day that they're on our side.

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All the plants, animals, and ecosystems in the world want recovery.

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They want freedom.

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They want health.

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And with them as allies, we are never alone.

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I would therefore encourage people, not just to make things with the

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plants they find or use them for health ailments, but to try and make friends

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with plants in the herbal world.

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They're commonly called plant allies.

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I've written a whole section about this.

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What about what this means in practice?

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The short version is that we can build friendships with plants by simply

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hanging out with them, sitting with them and drawing them and tasting them.

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I know so many of my friends like rinse me for stuff like this.

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Like laughing at me for talking to plants and stuff.

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But yeah, like, you know, it was just like how you got roll, right.

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Anyway.

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Okay.

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In prison, I used to sleep with a dandelion under my pillow.

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It made me feel safer.

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It literally made me feel grounded before I had many herbal books or

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what worked through my coursework.

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I would have vivid dreams about plants.

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I dreamed once about plantain talking to me and telling me it was

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useful for woundage before looking up in a book that it was one of

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the best plants to apply to wounds.

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I would make a mini Altar under my bed with dry plants from the garden

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and bring it out after bangup as something that made me feel comforted.

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As we all know in prison, it only lasted as long as the next cell

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search, but the process of creating that sacred space was so valuable to

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me, the relationships with plants that we build, they stay with us for life.

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Every time I'm driving to a prison visit stressed about being late or anxious

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about the intensity of what might happen.

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I pull up at a motorway services and see a patch of dandelions.

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I feel strengthened when I get bitten by a spider at a gig.

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I know which plants to look for in the city streets, outside the venue.

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Each time I see yarrow now, I feel like I've bumped into an old friend.

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This stuff probably sounds mega hippyish, but is the truth.

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Once you become familiar with different plants, the familiarity

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and comfort never goes.

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I hope that this book can be the start of a journey that you can continue

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and deepen for the rest of your life.

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Creating a relationship with the world inside and out can sustain

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us in live in the darkest moments.

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All right.

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So that's, that's the first chapter.

Nicole:

Next I'm gonna talk about like actually preparing plant medicines in prison and

Nicole:

a little bit about kind of herbal actions and how the plant profiles are structured.

Nicole:

And then, yeah, we're just gonna do like a big, deep dive into, into all

Nicole:

of the, all of the herbs from the book.

Nicole:

So, yeah, it's gonna be really exciting and yeah, once again,

Nicole:

like, please just contact me for stuff you wanna plug on the podcast.

Nicole:

I mean, I can't imagine I have many listeners listeners right now.

Nicole:

Like I said, it is probably me and like six queers of Instagram,

Nicole:

but yeah, if you can share it and support the show in some way, I would

Nicole:

like really appreciate it and yeah.

Nicole:

Okay.

Nicole:

Take care of everyone.

Nicole:

Thanks so much for listening to the frontline herbalism podcast, you

Nicole:

can find the transcript, the links, all the resources from the show at

Links