Interview with Apis Apotheca
“The changes that take place in winter are a kind of alchemy, an enchantment performed by ordinary creatures to survive.” –Katherine May
Winter is marked by the slow procession of days like the slog of our feet through the slush outside. Shuttered in by long nights and colder temperatures, we can easily miss how freshly fallen snow shimmers at dawn or the presence a rush of brisk wind can bring.
Our lives, like the world around us, are a spinning wheel of change ushering in the seasons of our life. This process is different for everyone, which is why we look to those who work with change for guidance. We at Hudson River Exchange have been speaking with our network of makers on their journey through the seasons of their careers.
This week we spoke with Aviva from Apis Apotheca on the themes of beginning with what you have, learning from your weaknesses, and the reciprocal nature between consumer and company.
I'm interested in where the first seedlings of Apis landed, how it got started for you, and what that transition was like.
It began with me farming. Growing up in New York City, I didn't know what that meant. I had a friend's mom who was a farmer, which was kind of my aha moment. From there, that's all I wanted to do: work on farms and be outside with plants. Vegetable and dairy farms are really backbreaking work. I admire vegetable farmers and dairy farmers so much because they're just so hardworking. They're made of steel! I couldn't do it forever. I was also just more interested in the weeds. We were pulling out yellow dock and had this little herb patch for the CSA members, so I would always volunteer to pick those herbs. It was just something that was clearly more my interest. So I decided to go back to herb school, which was actually after I founded Apis. I did Apis as a spur of the moment thing, trying to combine my long term obsession with skincare and healing my skin with this need to be outside in a garden. It started in the shed we lived in, on top of a mountain in Vermont, on this other lady's land. Just a big garden on a beautiful mountain. It snowballed from there.
What were some of your earliest products?
I had a whole different line at the very beginning. I was initially influenced by a brand I apprenticed for a couple months in Brooklyn–the Brooklyn Herborium. They had a cleansing grain, this loose powder, plus hydrosol and oils. I'd already been farming before I did that apprenticeship, so I said, “I don't want to order these things, I'm going to grow these things.” It's funny. I was talking to the people at my apprenticeship, saying, “This is what I'm going to do.” And I managed to do it.
Initially, it was only a cleansing grain and an infused oil, similar to the blend I do now. Eventually I pared it down a little bit. I think a lot of herbalists have a tendency at the beginning to just throw everything but the kitchen sink into formulas. You just get so excited! I started off with 12 different herbs in the infusion. Now what I have is a much more condensed and simple formula. The basis was always whole plant ingredients. I've never wanted to rely on essential oils. I use a few now, but very sparingly because of the sustainability around them. They're not sustainable overall. Whole plants and tending the soil by growing those whole plants was always the mission.
How do you feel from then to now, are you getting closer to that whole vision?
Definitely. I mean, we've already been growing all the plants that go into the formulas up to this point, but it was challenging with the logistics of driving to all the different points before having a garden on our property. Now that we have our own property, we can have really intensive, long-term, no dig gardens that really feed the soil. Plus a proper composting area that we can use to recycle everything. We're lucky that the house we bought has solar panels on it already. We’re mostly running off solar, which is pretty crazy. So yeah, it's feeling very full circle.
Are the plants that you use native?
A lot of them are. It's a tricky word because it's hard to qualify or quantify what is native at this point. So many things were brought over by Europeans. They kind of morphed a little bit and now they've become their own little version of what they were. The short answer is yes. I try really hard to at least use things that are bioregional and do well here, which most Western European herbs do–they're built for this climate. We're going to bring in more tropical herbs in the formulas, which we're going to try to grow in other ways here. It's just a process of experimentation. There's lots unexplored in terms of tropical plants in the Northeast. A friend grew Meyer lemons that I recently harvested from a little tree that she gave me. That tree started in New Hampshire. It's fascinating how much you can grow here.
Just to understand better, an herbalist working in other parts of the country would be working with different plants and formulas, but might have some of the same benefits, is that right?
I don't use chaparral or sage brush or traditionally Western American herbs, for sure. I definitely stick to things that do well here and are naturally here anyway. Then again, everybody can grow calendula, everybody can grow chamomile. So there are some herbs that are universal. I use Ganoderma Tsugae, a reishi mushroom, which grows on hemlocks and is found primarily in the Eastern Great Plains. In this region, it's a specific thing that I wild harvest.
It's fascinating how much we can do together to cultivate this land for the betterment of our communities. We have what we need here.
Yeah. That's the beauty of herbalism globally. People always found what was around and figured out what it did. There's usually enough of a range of activity with whatever herbs are around you, you cover all the bases you need: digestion, sleep, wound healing. Everybody has something for each one of those things across all cultures, which is amazing.
That’s a beautiful thing about herbalism–healing and its place within a community. You start with what you have. The fearlessness it takes to be any sort of maker, creative person, or to jump into your own venture, means looking around and being like, “Okay, I'm not called to these vegetables, but I am called to these herbs. And with my past experience in my life, it coalesces into this one thing for me.” It is so inspiring, not just for other people interested in herbs, but starting any creative endeavor. Do you have any advice for someone looking for that creative endeavor for themselves?
This was born of a kind of pain and a trauma that I was carrying around– feeling bad about myself, feeling bad about my skin, figuring out why it didn't feel good. So I think for a lot of people, it doesn't have to be a healing practice, but taking something that doesn't feel comfortable and figuring out how to make it comfortable, make it feel good. It’s problem solving. I was listening to the podcast How We Built This the other day. They were talking about how entrepreneurs and small business owners see a problem and then solve it. I think that that extends to creative enterprises across all boards. You know, I think even if you're making a beautiful pot, it's a pot that you've never seen before.
I would say examine equally your weaknesses, your desires, what you dream about and combine all of them into something that nourishes you and strengthens you. Because why any of us are doing this is because we enjoy it and it's resonated with enough people that we're able to keep doing it.
I appreciate the thought that when you're doing something that resonates with yourself, you find your audience that way or your community that way. That feels really important. Is there anything coming up next for you that you want to dive into or any message you want to get out there to the world?
We just launched our compostable packaging and it's definitely a trust and responsibility based relationship. I'm asking people to reform their habits, to work a little harder for these consumer products and trusting them to wash their bottles properly. And acknowledging that I have no control over whether they do it right, that's a big one. But just trusting that people will do the right thing and learn things themselves and carve out time to do it. The fact that they're trusting me to create the thing that they're using, it's just a very circular thing. Everybody wants to be lower waste, but nobody wants to put the work in. So I'm really proud of my clients who are already ordering the refills. Because they’re definitely putting their money where their mouth is.
Words + Illustrations: River Wharton
Edited by: Lila Holland & Stella Yoon