One wall of Anne Louise Burdett’s office, a small, sunny space above the Western Saloon, is lined with what she calls an “abbreviated apothecary.” Jars of various shapes and sizes pack long shelves, their contents shades of deep browns and amber. Indian ginseng sits alongside holy basil, waiting to be administered.
Ms. Burdett is an ardent herbalist but considers herself a multi-modal healer. She has worked as a doula, an acrobat and a farmer, and has trained in practices of Hatha yoga, somatic therapy and sex education. She is used to wearing a whole haberdashery of hats as she goes about her work and generally utilizes a stack of them in each client’s case.
Before a new client comes in, Ms. Burdett spends time researching their ailment, be it physical, emotional, or—as is often the case—a mix of the two. Then comes the process of dialoguing with a patient, figuring out what blend of treatment—tinctures, bodily exercises, new thought patterns—could best aid their recovery. Ms. Burdett explained that her practice isn’t just about giving someone a tincture and sending them on their way. Instead, she seeks to holistically address everything from a sprained ankle to the entrenched presence of grief.
“I find her approach to be very question-based, sort of intuition-plus-clinical,” said Sophie Wood, a friend and client of Ms. Burdett, who treated Ms. Wood for a variety of ailments. She recalled the way Ms. Burdett aims for a symptom’s roots, “asking questions that are more like, ‘How are you feeling about your cycle, about the cycle of your year in relation to your life, your relationship, your fertility?’” Ms. Wood said. “Questions that are more emotionally based, but that are physically linked or can have physical [manifestations]. If you’re experiencing a lot of tension at work and having terrible menstrual cramps, that might mean your whole body is tense.”
In December, Ms. Burdett moved across the country from western Massachusetts in a renovated school bus with her partner, Maurico Abascal, and her cat Cenisa. Massachusetts winters were beginning to wear on the couple, and they were looking for a place that was close to Ms. Burdett’s parents, who live in Marin, and ensconced in natural beauty. Ms. Burdett is no stranger to Northern California: she grew up in Oakland and made trips to Bolinas while attending high school in San Rafael.
Ms. Burdett has been practicing herbalism for 16 years. While she has always been interested in plants and their uses, she said that when she was younger she had “an aversion to California hippie liberalism.” In a field that can easily veer into the mystic, Ms. Burdett wanted to make sure that she had a background in hard sciences, partly, she said, “to feel like I could back up what I was talking about.” She took classes in everything from anatomy and physiology to plant identification at the San Francisco Botanical Medicine Clinic and the Northeastern School of Botanical Medicine before opening her own practice.
The name of her clinic, Zell, is taken from her maternal great-grandmother, Zell Maude Crews. “She was a very silent and stoic woman, so a lot of her stories weren’t shared,” Ms. Burdett said. “I know they’re out there—I know there’s more out there to learn. I feel that way about my work, too: I’m always hungry for more and always, always investigating and always learning. It’s a really satisfying process.”
Before moving to Inverness, Ms. Burdett had a thriving practice in New England, which she built largely by word of mouth. She hopes to cultivate her fledgling practice in West Marin through the same method. “I love growing it that way,” she said. “You know that people are coming to you based on someone else’s good recommendation.” She also garnered students through teaching classes and workshops, a practice she hopes to resume in West Marin.
Mira Weil, a doctor of Tibetan medicine in western Massachusetts who has collaborated with Ms. Burdett to develop sexual-education curriculum for elementary schoolchildren, said she admired Ms. Burdett’s integrity. “If she’s going to do something, she’s going to do it well,” Ms. Weil said. “She’s informed, she’s up to date on the latest research, she’s really keeping herself well educated about what it is she’s doing. If there’s a place she’s not confident, she totally says that and either finds someone who does have that skill or info or educates herself about it. I can really trust that what she brings to the table is high quality.”
Ms. Burdett uses a sliding-scale payment system and is open to barter or payment plans for clients who otherwise could not afford her services. “I wish I could do it for free,” she said, but explained that the work is both expensive and labor-intensive.
Although Ms. Burdett rarely turns a client away, she has done so with patients with advanced cases of cancer who wanted to use herbal remedies instead of chemotherapy. “I’m not comfortable with the assumption that it’s a replacement,” she said.
Yet she does not shy away from challenges. For Lyme disease—common in western Massachusetts—she addresses neurological symptoms as well as physical ones, such as joint pain and fatigue. For a less tangible ache, like grief, she helps clients build rituals to process their pain. Such rituals can include coming up with a daily prayer, writing down messages and burning them, or creating an altar.
Laurel Butler, an artist and activist, approached Ms. Burdett about her struggle with depression. Ms. Burdett sent her a customized tincture regimen, including a bottle of holy basil, rhodiola, lavender, milky oat and codonopsis; she called it “Laurel’s anti-burnout, anti-exhaustion activist self care.” Another tincture, dubbed “Laurel’s tissue repair and nervous system tonic,” was created to aid Ms. Butler’s recovery after getting stitches. “They’re customized in a way that’s really sort of magical,” Ms. Butler said. “They turned my health around.”
Though many herbalists prefer to have a longer initial consultation and shorter meetings thereafter, Ms. Burdett believes that such frontloading is antithetical to building a relationship with a person; she prefers to have take her time during each meeting. When someone first comes to her, Ms. Burdett begins with a conversation. “If you see an M.D., people don’t feel comfortable pushing back on what they’re told,” she said. She believes that all forms of medicine—whether administered by a medical doctor or holistic teacher—are too often practiced within an imbalance of power.
“I was really noticing that my strategies for dealing with anxiety and depression, situated in a Western context like talk therapy, weren’t quite getting at the root of the thing,” Ms. Butler said. “It’s so healing to be asked questions that aren’t the typical doctor’s office questions but meaningful questions about the way you experience your body and inner life on the day to day.”
Ms. Burdett believes in leveling the playing field, seeing herself not so much as a teacher but as a receptacle through which people can learn about themselves: a conduit for journeys of healing. “I want people to know I’m here,” she said, “here to facilitate a safe journey.”