While Passion Passport seeks to bridge communities and expand experience through travel, we’re aware that adventuring to far-off places can leave quite the carbon footprint. Our Sustainable Travel Series celebrates eco-travelers, low-impact ways of living, and explorations that honor both people and places. We hope it inspires you to travel with the environment in mind.
In the world of sustainability, Molly Helfend wears many hats. Enchanted by the power of plants and dedicated to the study of indigenous ecology, she is committed to earth-saving projects that span communities around the globe.
We caught up with her to learn more about her ethnobotany work in New Zealand.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am an herbalist, an ethnobotanist, an environmental activist, a writer, a world research traveler, and a lover of life. I continually use all of the technicolor in my paintbox to creatively illustrate the beauty of the Earth. I write and teach about my passions, which range from environmental sustainability and herbalism to health, wellness, and travel. I graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor of Science Degree in environmental studies and a concentration in holistic health, and recently completed my Master’s in ethnobotany at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. I have interned with Urban Moonshine and Greenpeace, worked to stop Arctic drilling and progress on the Keystone XL Pipeline, and received my herbal training by apprenticing with Spoonful Herbals. Currently, I am the head writer of the conscious living magazine House of Citrine, and a freelance writer, contributing and dipping my toes in many genres and publications. On top of all this, I’m also an avid traveler, journeying anywhere that plants and cultures speak to me. In short, I look through my kaleidoscope of life and try to wander where the wind blows me.
Have you always been drawn to environmentalism/conservation?
I grew up in Monte Nido, California, a beautiful neighborhood nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains. I spent my days escaping from reality, running off into the Mediterranean woodlands. While hiking to a special Manzanita tree that looked over the valley, I would feel a deep connection to nature and, marvel at how perfect the sunny weather and vivid sunsets looked from there. Monte Nido is an especially unique place, as it is one of those rare locations where an east-to-west mountain range meets a north-to-south mountain range — it’s no wonder that the Chumash Indians cherish this land! The energy is serene.
But I’ve learned that with that beauty, comes ecological threats. With water shortage and drought omnipresent in Southern California, and intensifying every year, plant loss is imminent. Once I began to fear for the health and safety of my home and for the health and safety of its surrounding ecosystems, I realized that I wanted to save the world’s forests. I grew more and more passionate about learning about woodlands that do not have loud voices to protect themselves from anthropogenic climate change and deforestation, and I became invested in researching the Sumatran Rainforest and how to stop palm oil plantations. In the end, I ended up working with Rainforest Action Network on their 2013 campaign.
What are you studying now?
I am doing ethnobotany research in New Zealand and studying the correlation between the Māori concept of Kaitiakitanga — translated as “guardianship over nature” — and plant life.
Was there a defining moment in your schooling that made you want to pursue what you have?
I explored many facets of environmental studies, including environmental education through work with kindergarteners, environmental activism with Greenpeace, and food system justice through farming in the British Virgin Islands. I just loved learning about sustainability and nature. But it wasn’t until I took a course called Plant-Based Healing Medicine with one of my role models, professor Barbara Raab, that I discovered my deeper connection with nature. It was then that I understood that healing was possible through the art of plants (herbalism). With the recommendation from Barbara, I applied for an internship with Urban Moonshine. From there, studied herbalism for years, both in college, independently, and with Spoonful Herbals.
I loved it, but there was still a missing piece of the puzzle. I felt so inclined to learn about plants and their magical properties, and I wanted to learn from people and absorb their wisdom while also trying to giving back to my community, but I didn’t feel that the medical track was the direction I wanted to pursue. I was reading a book called “Ecotherapy” as well as various wild foraging books of California when I came across the word “ethnobotany” in the summer of 2016. I began researching and realized that this was what I was passionate about. It combined all of my interests and allowed me to branch into other subjects like ecotherapy, ecopsychology, food system health, holistic healing, herbalism, etc… I felt there was more room here for travel, creativity, and personal growth.
What has been the single greatest takeaway from your time in New Zealand?
Other than the appeal of a quiet, calm lifestyle, I have always admired the intersection of the Māori and Kiwi cultures.
Indigenous cultural rights are treated with high esteem in New Zealand. Yes, there is always progress to be made, but compared to the relationship I observed growing up between the U.S. government and the Native American people, New Zealand is a dream. After driving through reservations in the States and seeing the horrible treatment of our native peoples first-hand, I realized how hard the Māori have fought for the respect that they deserve. But, no country is perfect, and it is important that I don’t romanticize New Zealand as a peaceful paradise. Although the natural world is vast and beautifully scenic, there is still a lot of environmental degradation caused by farming and agricultural pollution. Interestingly enough, the hole in the ozone is actually over New Zealand!
What’s a lesson we could learn from the Māori?
The importance of heritage. The Māori consider nature just as important as human life, because nature is inherently ingrained in their livelihoods and kinship structures. Without it, they cannot pass down their lineage. Māori care for the whenua, “land,” so that they can pass it down to their taha Māori, or “Māori heritage.”
And so, spirit, nature, and community exist and connect with stones, plants, places, and people, to create a healthy balance and connection with the Earth. I am fascinated with how the Māori tend to the land — folk taxonomy is an important aspect of the culture and various medicinal plants, such as harakeke, kawakawa, or kōwhai, are used to heal both humans and the land itself.
What can we learn from indigenous people regarding conservation efforts?
We should be listening to what kind of conservation techniques are viable for each community through their own words and needs. Then, we should be implementing help as needed.
Many indigenous cultures have connections to the land that stem from their spiritual, physical, and cultural relationships with nature; we should be listening and believing that these bonds exist. Interconnection with nature should be the same as interconnection with society. We need healthy ecosystems to survive. Political ecology teaches us to that there are three main philosophies of conservation — fortress, co-management, and neoliberal. I lean toward co-management community-based conservation, which combines indigenous traditional knowledge with modern science and protects biodiversity while promoting the management of protected areas.
How will you apply what you’ve learned to your own career?
This recent research forced me to recognize my own cultural competency and make sure that I never exploit or steal from any culture I work with. I want to connect people with the beauty of plants, to feel and understand why we are all interconnected! I want to learn more from the wisdom that plants exude.
There are endless people, plants, and places to discover across the globe that will help broaden the collective consciousness and influence positive outlooks on ecology. I hope to bring plants closer to people’s lives and share the principle that the innate act of being immersed in nature will heal a person’s body, mind, and soul. I have so many directions I want to take my love of plants. For now, it is connecting the creative with the academic through writing and research travel.
What is your ultimate goal?
I want to make sure that my work has as low of an ecological footprint as possible, and I hope to continue discovering and adapting to what interests me. Career-wise, I would rather be living penniless as a writer in a caravan in New Zealand with the love of my life than ever be anything short of happy. I feel so connected and rewarded contributing to a small, tight-knit surf community and using whatever funds I have to travel, help my community, and research ethnobotany.
I also want to explore the realm of ecotherapy and create healing gardens or indoor spaces. Basically, I’m open to exploring it all subjects that fascinate me and seeing where the wind takes me!
How will you use your creative talents to further your conservation pursuits?
In terms of conservation, I think that we should be listening to what indigenous people and local communities need. We cannot force our modern forms of conservation upon anyone or any land. I am not sure if conservation is the route I am working toward, but if my research can help implement positive change regarding conservation, then that is something I am very interested in.
I feel more inclined to work on smaller-scale projects within communities and focus on plants growing around each region. I think my creativity will help me continue to travel the world researching plant-human relationships while educating others on the transformational alchemy of nature. I also have some big creative projects and exciting travel assignments lined up that I cannot wait to share with my community as the year continues — so stay tuned!