Renowned herbalist Michael Moore lived his life exploring a passionate fascination with medicinal plants of the Southwest. Similar to the cacti, shrubs, and roadside weeds that were his expertise, Moore was rough around the edges but had an inner reservoir of knowledge to share and kindness with which to help others.
Moore, 68, died February 20, 2009, from complications related to kidney disease.1 Moore made an immeasurable impact as his life’s work influenced many in the herbal community. He taught and inspired hundreds of students, many of whom have gone on to bring herbal medicine into a variety of botanical and complementary medicine fields. His research and books have informed thousands and helped many non-mainstream herbs of the Southwest, such as osha (Ligusticum porteri, Apiaceae), become better known and appreciated. He also had a talent for music, writing compositions that were performed by the Orchestra of Santa Fe and the University of New Mexico Symphonic Band.2
Similar to his herbal intellect, Moore had an unmatchable personality. His endless storytelling, dry sense of humor, political incorrectness, and compassion touched many lives. Since his death, numerous former students, friends, and acquaintances have written tributes in his honor, making the memory of Moore even more palpable.
“[Michael] truly was one of the great herbalists of our time,” said noted herbalist and author Rosemary Gladstar (e-mail, March 11, 2009). “He was a fully original character and a brilliant mind who left his indelible mark on most everything herbal and had a most profound influence on American herbalism. His teachings live on through his books, many students, endless work to make resources available, and beautiful music.
“It’s hard to comprehend that that big, kind hearted, brilliant character is gone, but his place in the circle will be long honored and his place as ‘grandfather’ of the herbal community will be held in the circle as long as we all live.”
Born in Washington state, Moore grew up in Los Angeles and later studied music at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and California Institute of the Arts, where he received his degree in musical composition.1,2 He became interested in herbs and built up his plant knowledge through many different outlets, recalled Adam Seller, director of the Pacific School of Herbal Medicine, who knew Moore for about 23 years (oral communication, March 4, 2009). For instance, he would read all the medicinal plant entries in the Indicus Medicus and study the writings of the Eclectic physicians.
Moore eventually opened several herb shops in Southern California, but he had difficulty getting people to take what he did seriously.3 Tired of being stigmatized as a drug pusher, he packed up and moved to the desert.
In Taos, New Mexico, Moore reopened his herb shop in 1970 under the name Herbs, Etc., and moved it to Santa Fe one year later.1 He continued to read herbal books and journals and further expanded his knowledge by learning from the region’s Native American and Latino cultures, as well as people who ran local herb companies, Seller said.
“As Michael Moore sought to learn herbal medicine, he respectfully spoke to everyone. And he listened,” Seller said (written communication, December 11, 2008).
Moore went on to write several significant herb books, including Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (1979), Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West (1989), Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest (1990), and Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West (1993), all currently published by the Museum of New Mexico Press. He also taught at several herbal schools, co-founded the Institute of Traditional Medicine with Stuart Watts, and founded the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine (SWSBM, www.swsbm.com ), which he directed into the last year of his life.
The SWSBM was based on Moore’s herbal residency program, which he initiated in the mid-1980s and developed into a 500-hour course by 1991, said Donna Chesner, Moore’s wife and partner of many years (oral communication, March 24, 2009). For 2 decades, he trained 25 to 30 people each year and also held summer courses. Moore’s classes included large amounts of field and classroom work, as well as a focus on the system of constitutional evaluation based on Western physiology that he created.
Moore brought alive this system of Western energetic herbal medicine and made it incredibly accessible to people who didn’t feel drawn to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda, recalled herbalist and ethnobotanist David Winston (oral communication, March 24, 2009).
“In my mind, Michael is one of the 3 most important figures in the late 20th century renaissance, of not only American herbal medicine, but of constitutional/energetic herbal medicine worldwide,” said Winston.
The American Botanical Council’s Education Director Holly Ferguson was one of Moore’s many students at SWSBM. Two years out of the University of Arkansas, Ferguson found Moore and his classes to be a refreshing change from academia.
“I was absolutely, utterly, and completely amazed by his teaching style,” she said.
Describing his approach as “profound and profane,” Ferguson said Moore would stand in front of the class and let his stream of consciousness flow for hours, covering a multiplicity of subjects while taking brilliant diversions that all came back to a central point. He had an ability to weave together the physiology of plants within larger historic, political, and social contexts.
Moore taught his students to understand a plant so deeply that you formed a relationship with it, she continued. One of the most meaningful and enduring things that Moore taught her was a genuine love for the less pretty things in nature.
“I started to realize that the desert wasn’t barren and the weeds weren’t meaningless,” she said.
Another member of ABC’s family was also impacted by Moore. ABC’s Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal met Moore in the early 1970s when he visited Herbs Etc. in Santa Fe. Moore would later become one of Blumenthal’s greatest influencers.
“I was struck by his biker-Buddha appearance, and as I got to know him over the years, I saw him manifest traits of both,” Blumenthal said. “Michael was a larger-than-life figure in the lives of many people. He became the ‘godfather’ of the American herbal movement, at least among the hundreds of herbalists he trained.”
When training and teaching his herbalism students, Moore was a storyteller. Dimid Hayes, who studied herbal medicine with Moore in 1982, recalled that he used these stories as the vehicle for a larger message (oral communication, February 26, 2009). “You quickly became aware that you were in the presence of a remarkable person,” said Hayes, owner of Nova Natural Consultants. Though Moore’s research, writing, and teaching made significant contributions to herbalism, he often went unrecognized by the
mainstream herb industry and was known as an herbalist’s herbalist, Hayes continued.
“He was this great, crazy genius who didn’t care about how he was perceived and didn’t care about putting himself out there for mass consumption,” Hayes said.
This meant that Moore didn’t make a great deal of money from his work. But that didn’t bother him much, said Phyllis Hogan, a friend of Moore’s for 34 years, owner of Winter Sun Trading Company and co-founder of the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (oral communication, March 9, 2009).
“Michael used to say, ‘It’s not about the money; it’s about being out there with the plants.’”
As Moore stayed away from publicly promoting himself, he also saw it important to not exploit the peoples and knowledge of the Native American and Spanish cultures of the Southwest.3 Moore learned much from the traditions of these older cultures and worried that this could lead people to pester them for herbs or herb-related information. As a result, he encouraged his students to respect indigenous groups by teaching about their public health needs and political and social histories, Seller said (oral communication, March 4, 2009).
While most remember Moore as a teacher, others also knew him as a practitioner. In this setting, Moore often showed his kinder side by using a great level of carefulness and gentleness, focusing on the tenderness of a client’s life, Seller said.
Stuart Watts, an acupuncture specialist in Austin, Texas, recalled Moore often providing services for poor patients at little or no charge in his herb store and at the large health clinic that they mutually ran (oral communication, March 2, 2009). Watts knew Moore as a teacher, business partner, and friend; the two were founders of the former Institute of Traditional Medicine. Watts claimed that knowing and spending time with Moore changed his life, as Moore taught him how to be respectful, humble, and strong in oneself.
Moore’s generosity also carried over into his teacher-student relationships, Watts said. Because Moore was committed to education, information, and treatment strategies, he frequently handed out many classic texts, study guides, and handbooks, and later posted this material on his Web site so that students could obtain the material inexpensively or freely.
“He always gave everything he ever had.”
Moore’s deep understanding of herbs made him stand out from others in the herbal community, Watts continued. Often times they would be driving down the road when Moore would claim he smelled or detected the presence of a specific herb. When they would pull over, Moore would walk about 100 feet away from the road to find the exact herb that he had sensed.
“He was very much one with the plants,” Watts said.
While recognizing all of his accomplishments, Moore’s down-to-earth personality really made him special, Hogan said. He was an amazing friend who was always dependable and fun, she continued.
Sometimes Moore and Hogan would drive his less-than-reliable Volkswagen van with the windows down, their long hair blowing in the breeze, near the San Francisco Peaks and headed toward the Grand Canyon to pick the roots of Oregon grape (Mahonia repens, Berberidaceae). “There won’t be a day that goes by that I don’t think of him,” she said.
“He made such a contribution to my life and to all of his students. There will never be anybody like Michael Moore.”
Though very ill, Moore spent the last 2 years of his life creating a DVD-learning course of his life’s teachings, which continue to be offered on the SWSBM Web site.
“The legacy of his lifetime of knowledge and wisdom are the long distance programs,” said Chesner. “These programs will continue to offer people who can no longer study with him in person an opportunity to do so in the future.”
In addition to his wife, Moore is survived by his daughter Victoria, son Adrian, 5 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
- Sharpe T. Herbs Etc. founder, the ‘godfather of American herbalism,’ dies at 68. The Sante Fe New Mexican. February 24, 2009. Available at: http:// www.santafenewmexican.com/SantaFeNorthernNM/Michael-Roland-Shaw-Moore-. Accessed March 2, 2009.
- Music. Southwest School of Botanical Medicine Web site. Available at: http://www.swsbm.com/Music/MMMusic.html/. Accessed March 9, 2009.
- Moore M. Medicas y Medicos: A healing tradition in the Southwest – Chapter 6, Part 1. Video available on Youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=eBCC1IL_Y6o. Accessed March 9, 2009.