Judith Elliott, longtime Bolinas resident and internationally celebrated herbalist known for her dedication to healing, passed away from colon cancer on August 10. She was 66 years old.
Born on September 13, 1946 in Philadelphia to Harry Elliott and Betsy Jane Barlow, Judith moved around a lot growing up. Her father was in the military, and each time he was re-stationed, she and her three younger siblings, Steve, Glenn and Joan, had to leave their school and give up their friends and start again in a new town.
The family had lived in Florida and New Mexico before moving to California in 1958. In the late 60s, Judith decided to hitchhike to San Francisco. She arrived in the Haight Ashbury at age 20, and soon became involved in the local music scene. Janis Joplin was a regular patron of the coffee shop where Judith worked, and she got to know other musicians in the burgeoning artistic milieu leading up to the Summer of Love.
An excellent seamstress, Judith sewed costumes for performers throughout her life, and in the 60s she lovingly sewed a jacket for Bob Dylan—she was a big fan—although she was never able to deliver it.
While she was in her 20s, Judith traveled to Europe, and through her Haight Ashbury connections wound up as part of the entourage touring with the Rolling Stones. She was beautiful, and worked as a model. She also lived for a brief time in Mexico and Canada, where she worked as a ranch keeper.
Back in San Francisco, she became interested in the dawning of social movements for the betterment of mankind, and she began her studies of herbs and natural medicine. She married, and in 1979 gave birth to her daughter, Sephira.
“She wanted me to like the wind,” her daughter said. “My parents lived in the penthouse of a tall building, and she did part of the delivery on the patio, in the wind.”
But a mere four months after Sephira was born, Judith was diagnosed with breast cancer and began chemotherapy treatments. Undaunted, she became known for her dedication, sacrifice and hard work in efforts to heal herself and anyone in her community who needed to be healed, through her work with herbal medicine. She remained intent on curing herself, even after her husband abandoned the family when Sephira was still small, and Judith struggled to care for herself and her young daughter.
When Sephira was three, a friend stumbled upon Bolinas while looking for a place to get a cup of coffee in West Marin. Both the friend, who also had a little girl, and Judith and Sephira decided to move there. They lived down the street from one another.
Judith continued to undergo chemotherapy treatments for the first seven years of her daughter’s life.
“I was constantly afraid that I would come home and find her dead,” her daughter said. “My mom was sick and so frail.”
Her ribs were brittle from the radiation treatments, and would break as Judith coughed or pulled a weed. Still, during her seven years of treatment she received degree in nutritional sciences from New College of California.
“She was sick all the time, and yet she fought so hard to make sure I was okay,” Sephira said. “Because it was just me and her. She did everything she could to make sure I was warm and had food. She was really a dedicated mom, even throughout her disadvantages and struggles. Her life was so hard and she was in so much pain, but she did such a good job.”
When Judith’s breast cancer was declared in remission, her doctors were shocked. Sephira said her mother credited her recovery to herbs and natural medicine. After she had recovered, when Sephira was 8, the two began hand-picking herbs from the garden and the wild to make into poultices and tinctures. They gathered calendula, yellow dock, borage and plantain. At first they shared and sold their products out of their home. Little Sephira enjoyed coloring in the labels and grinding up the dried plants.
The two were close, living harmoniously together and cozying up in the same bed until Sephira was 9. “She said that she thought she and I must have been sisters in a past life,” Sephira said.
When business got to large for their small home, Judith opened up her shop, Lotions and Potions. Later, as business expanded, she would call it Judith’s Herbals, and customers came from as far away as Hawaii and Europe to buy her wares. She led walks in the wild, where she educated people on which plants were edible, which were good for what ailments, and what was poison. She worked as a docent for Audubon Canyon Ranch, specializing in edible plants, and hosted field walks as fundraisers for charity. In 1991, she led a walk called “Foraging for Wild Edibles” to benefit the Bolinas Museum.
“There is so much to know,” she told the Light of the walks. She had participants run homemade insect repellent on their ankles, and advised that dried Mugwort stuffed in a pillow could enhance a person’s dreams.
In the mid-80s and into the early 90s she worked as the cook for the Bolinas Children’s Center, and was proud to introduce organic food into the school. She loved children, and delighted in seeing the toddlers in town grow up eating her cooking.
“The children loved it,” Sephira said.
When Sephira was just 13, she suffered major head injuries when she was struck by a pickup truck while walking on a moonless night. Her initial prognosis was not good, but Judith nursed her daughter back to health with love and remedies. When townspeople were calling to shame the driver of the vehicle, who was charged with drunk driving, Judith urged them to show compassion and put themselves in his shoes.
“It is cruel to blame him,” she told the Light at the time. “I’d like to remind people to think of how they would feel if they had made the mistake.” While Sephira eventually recovered and regained her short-term memory, she suffered nerve damage in her feet and hands. She moved to Stinson in 1999, and married in 2007. She and her mother remained close through it all.
“She was my best friend,” Sephira said. “When I was little I didn’t want to be apart from her. I was literally attached to her hip.”
Over the years, Sephira said her mother “desperately tried to write books,” to record her remedies and recipes. But she was always too ill, or had too much to do as a single mother.
In early 2010 Judith was diagnosed with colon cancer. Due to her illness, she was forced to give up her store earlier this year. She packed up her remedies, and moved into an apartment next door to her daughter and son-in-law. This time it was Sephira who was the caregiver.
On September 13, friends and family will gather in Bolinas to celebrate what would have been Judith’s 67th birthday, sharing food and stories of a vibrant and loving mother, healer and friend.
Judith Elliott is survived by her daughter, Sephira Kelley, and son-in-law, William Kelley; her brothers, Glenn and Steve Elliott, and her sister, Joan.