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Chatfield writes about natural medicine

Cory Fisher

The next time you’re out hiking and find yourself admiring a juniper tree, dodging manzanita or fighting your way through a willow stand, take a moment to reflect on the fact that many of the Sierra Nevada’s plants have much-overlooked medicinal properties.

You might also take into account that without the recent efforts of a South Tahoe resident, much of that valuable Native American plant knowledge could have be lost.

For example, the Maidu chewed juniper berries to relieve fevers and boiled the bark for colds. In the lower Sierra, paste made from manzanita leaves were used as an antidote for swelling caused by poison oak. Many tribes used willow as a stomach tonic, anti-asthma medicine and bark tea as a treatment for lower back pain.



Acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine Kimball Chatfield has spent the past four years conducting research for his newly published book, “Medicine from the Mountains: Medicinal Plants of the Sierra Nevada.”

After moving to Tahoe seven years ago from Santa Barbara, Calif., Chatfield’s background spurred him to learn more about the plants of the Sierra Nevada. He approached administrators at Lake Tahoe Community College about teaching a trial course in botanical medicine.



The response was overwhelming. Chatfield’s courses, including “The Medicinal Plants of the Sierra Nevada,” continue to be among the college’s most popular.

“First I wanted to write the book simply as a text for my classes,” Chatfield said. “Then I began to see more reasons.”

More than 10,000 years of medicinal plant knowledge gathered by the many Native American tribes of the Sierra Nevada runs the risk of being lost, Chatfield said.

“I talked to many elders from seven tribes,” he said. “Many of the families aren’t interested in this stuff anymore. Kids are interested in kid stuff. I felt an urgency to get that knowledge down on paper – they have a lot to teach us.”

Chatfield says his book is now “the only single source of information on the Sierra Nevada’s tribal use of plants as medicine.”

But that wasn’t enough for Chatfield, who has included in his book the latest research on these plants – a result of poring over more than 2,000 studies. “I talked to researchers and botanists around the world,” he said. “I did computer searches for scientific journal articles.”

His biggest challenge, Chatfield said, was to weed out the scientific jargon and make the book an interesting, accessible read.

“It’s in plain English,” he said. “This allows people to walk outside their doors and know what plants are good for preventing or curing disease. But it’s important to know the dosages, how to use it and how to grow it – I don’t want people to pick all the plants.”

Chatfield’s formal interest in plants was first piqued while he was an undergraduate in San Diego.

“While some students had other grubby work-study jobs, I got to be out in nature gathering plants for biology courses,” he said. “I lucked out.”

Finally, with a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management from San Diego State University and plans to become a naturalist for the National Park Service, Chatfield, 44, discovered soon after graduation that the position would be eliminated.

It was then that he began exploring alternative medicine.

“I met an acupuncturist and he let me watch him treat people,” Chatfield said. “I saw great results. My undergraduate studies taught me about the importance of balance in nature and the world. I wanted to go on to study that same balance in people – a sort of natural resources management of people’s bodies.”

Chatfield spent the next five years studying acupuncture and herbal medicine, and graduated from the California Acupuncture College in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“This was during the late 70’s,” Chatfield said. “At that time there were only two colleges in the country teaching acupuncture and herbal medicine.”

Chatfield went on to become a board certified acupuncturist and doctor of oriental medicine. He taught clinical nutrition at the Santa Barbara College of Oriental Medicine before moving to Lake Tahoe.

“Plants are inexpensive, effective and tend to have low or no toxicity,” Chatfield said. “Unlike synthetic drugs, plants contain chemicals that our bodies have seen for thousands of years.”

A book signing for Chatfield is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 2, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Alpen Sierra Coffee Haus, 822 Emerald Bay Drive in South Lake Tahoe. Next week, “Medicine From the Mountains” will be available at bookstores around the lake. The following week it can be found in Reno and throughout the Carson Valley.


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