Oct. 24, 1949 — Jan. 13, 2015
Carol Jacobs didn’t let anything stop her from following her passion for the Earth and the people who lived on it — not even Lyme disease.
The 65-year-old herbalist died earlier this month at her home in Winona, leaving behind scores of relatives and friends who learned from her wisdom, humility and deep knowledge of and love for plants.
“She was an herbalist before it was cool,” said Jeannine Gilles, a member of a women’s group with Carol. “I swear she was a plant whisperer.”
Carol was born in California and moved to Winona in 1977, where she raised her four children, ran the apothecary at the Famine Foods Co-op (now the Bluff Country Co-op) and completed a degree in psychology and art at Winona State.
An avid outdoorswoman and lover of plants, Carol built and lived in a boathouse in Frog Slough with her kids and took them camping all the time, teaching them about plants along the way.
She worked as an independent contractor for the U.S. Forest Service throughout the Midwest, planting trees and restoring prairies, before studying herbalism in Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies.
Carol’s son, Joshua Jacobs, who now lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids, said Carol’s insatiable curiosity and love for nature made for some adventures growing up. Once his younger sister was brushing her teeth on the boathouse deck and stepped on a loose board, falling into the river and bobbing back up — toothbrush still in hand.
“Her children grew up learning to be as fiercely independent and tenacious as she was,” Jacobs said.
Carol’s jobs took her all over the Midwest, and she took the kids on road trips to see her parents in California or attend rendezvous events.
“We met lots of people from many, many walks of life,” Jacobs said. “It was rich and sometimes confusing.”
Still, Jacobs said, parts of Carol live on in her children. He, as well as one of his sisters, chose to live in a boathouse as an adult, and two of his sisters pursued medicine in a more conventional sense as nurses.
Carol’s life did not slow down as she aged, though she spent more of her time in Winona. As an active member in the North Country Herbalist Guild and the Coulee Region Herbal Institute, as well as Herbalists Without Borders, Carol lectured and led hands-on classes, often without pay.
She served the Winona community as well, building community gardens, teaching in schools, and serving as a member of the peer support network at Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center.
Carol’s friends were unanimous in their praise for her skill with plants. But she was also an inclusive, welcoming community figure, often acting as a mentor and leader to the women around her.
When herbalist Mary Schmidt was a newcomer to the La Crosse area, Carol introduced her to the community. That’s who she was, Schmidt said. “I felt it in her actions for everybody. She was a wonderful woman for community-building.”
Tracy Mangold, an herbalist in the Viroqua area, said she distinctly remembers the first time she met Carol.
“It was at the People’s Co-op in La Crosse, and she’s dressed as Mary Poppins, and she’s teaching a class on cordials,” Mangold said — right down to the little black umbrella and the song about the spoonful of sugar.
Carol modeled an earth-centered lifestyle, emphasizing the respectful use of wild plants for nourishment and healing. She was never as at home as when she was in the woods studying plants or paddling the backwaters in her kayak.
She belonged to an Anishinaabe spiritual community and allowed the traditions of the past as well as the research of the present to inform her use of plants.
She was as inclusive in her teaching methods as in her life. Faith Anacker, an herbalist from the Westby area, recalled that on herb walks, Carol would invite the group members to sit alone with a plant and share what they felt when they returned to the group.
“She taught us all that we have something to offer,” Anacker said.
Carol’s inclusiveness extended to children, too. Trina Barrett, who belonged to Carol’s herbal group in Winona, remembered collecting plants with Carol in the middle of the bluffs, with Barrett’s two young kids in tow.
“We’d be hiking up and down and have these bags full of plants,” Barrett said. “It was good for (the kids) to be part of that, and she was all for it.”
Using plants to heal
Carol’s work with plants, while heavily focused on education, also concerned her own reality of living with Lyme disease. Carol had the disease for the last 20 or more years of her life, likely exposed to the bacteria multiple times during her extensive time outdoors.
Combining her personal experience with traditional knowledge and extensive research, Carol created and self-published a workbook/cookbook called “The Lymelighters’ Café,” intended to be a guide for others struggling with the symptoms of the disease.
Cynthia Thomas, an herbalist and doula in the Twin Cities, said Carol didn’t allow the disease to control her life.
“She worked with it. She didn’t ever talk about it as war,” Thomas said. “She wasn’t afraid to destroy the bacteria, but she really talked about it as a process of understanding what they were teaching her.”
Even as her energy levels fluctuated and symptoms recurred, Carol went to Lyme conferences as a lecturer for both alternative and more conventional approaches to medicine. It was a combination of antibiotics and herbs for her, not just one or the other.
“She always advocated people to do their own research and check it out for themselves,” said Bernadette Mahfood, a friend and member of a women’s group with Carol. “We trusted her, but it was always, ‘Read it yourself—here’s the link.’”
Sometimes, Carol’s recognition of Lyme symptoms led to quicker treatment for her friends, which saved them from further complications.
Members of the Coulee Region Herbal Institute said they want to preserve and publish Carol’s extensive notes, and issue a second edition of her book with all her additional research.
Herbalist Mary Schmidt said the book is too valuable to lose, since Carol kept pace with all the new developments in Lyme disease and co-infections.
“She was forever studying, researching,” Schmidt said. “She was on the cutting edge of new thought on health and holistic medicine.”
“Everybody (in the institute) would love to see more of Carol’s work available to more people,” Anacker said.
It seems Carol would want that, too. Although she didn’t want public recognition, Carol was concerned that people’s connection to the earth was lost in the modern world. That was her work as a community herbalist: to help restore that connection.
Along with Mangold and Barrett, she worked to make herbal remedies available to people for free or with a very low cost. She didn’t profess to cure diseases, but to offer support to the person as they healed.
“That was Carol’s motto: support for the journey,” Mangold said.