I first met Gus sixteen years ago as a first-year student of traditional Chinese medicine at Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz, California. He was a couple years ahead of me, and with his long flowing hair and imposing stature (Gus is well over six feet tall), he made quite an impression. But what impressed me more was the depth and breadth of his knowledge. One afternoon during that first year of school, Gus led an herb walk in the alleys around the school. From the gnarled albizzia tree that greeted me every morning as I arrived for class, to the tenacious passionflower vines that took over entire neighborhoods and astounded passers-by with their blooms of alien ultraviolet, to the humble prunella that grew on the edges of dusty walkways, Gus knew the medicinal uses of all these plants. As a newbie to the world of herbal medicine, I was surprised first of all that these plants I had taken for granted had medicinal uses at all, and secondly by how much there was to know about them! For Gus possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of healing plants, and his unrehearsed lectures gave me a first glimpse of how his mind worked – synthesizing Chinese energetics with biochemical understanding and mixing in a dollop of Ayurveda here and a tidbit of medieval alchemy there.
As I got to know him better, I came to understand that Gus’ mastery of herbs came from his own intense curiosity about the world. His passion was the rich, deep realm where mind, spirit, and plants overlap and interact and play. His company, Shamanic Tonics, specialized in “spirit herbs,” and each and every one of his formulations was only offered up to the public after rigorous in vivo testing conducted on himself (and his lucky friends!). I remember one day Gus announced, quite dramatically for him, that he had “tamed the wild mahuang!” Back in those days ephedra was still legal, though the FDA was taking an interest in it due to a few unfortunate incidents in which people had abused it as an “herbal upper” to the point of death. Gus wanted to tone down mahuang’s stimulant properties, and hit on the combination of mahuang and reishi (a spirit-calming and immune system stimulating medicinal mushroom) to do just that. I remember some really fun and interesting hikes trying out that stuff. It came to market as Fungalore, and became quite the hit at dances and parties before mahuang was banned.
Gus was a very spiritual guy, a true seeker, whereas I was and am more of a skeptic. Yet, we had great discussions about everything from Tibetan Buddhism to Shinto animism to Amazonian shamanism. Regardless of our fundamentally different orientations, we shared a deep interest in religion and consciousness. I took an anthropological interest in history and religion as a record of humanity’s attempts to understand the world; for him spiritual traditions were a practical guide for his own explorations of mind and nature. He revealed to me once that he thought we had known each other in a past life. Though I would ordinarily shoot down such a statement in my usual rational way, at the time I paused and savored it, because I had to agree that we shared a bond that, whether or not it involved reincarnation, demonstrated some kind of karmic connection that I could not deny. And, not insignificantly, I took it to mean that he considered me his friend, and that made me happy.
In the years after we finished our master’s degrees in Chinese medicine, Gus moved away from Santa Cruz, settling in Northern California near Mendocino. I think the slower pace of life and immersion in lush forest suited him well. We kept in sporadic touch by email and phone, and every now and then I’d find a package in the mail stuffed with fresh matsutake (Gus and I shared a love of mushrooms), or a sample pack of a new herbal formulation, or an article on kanna or blue lotus or whatever else was occupying his interest at the time. This was typical of Gus: so generous, so giving.
Some years ago Gus gave me a piece of writing he had authored. It was about his fascination with the young god Dionysus. I wish I had kept it, so I could read it over again in my effort to understand him better, to try to understand why he is gone. Because I still don’t understand. I saw Gus a couple of months before he died. We went on a hike in the Berkeley hills with our friend Andy. He was in the process of moving from Mendocino to the Bay Area, and was excited about some new prospects for his company, about reinventing himself and his business. He seemed content. We had a great time; it was like old times, Andy driving like a crazy man, Gus with his long stride leading the way as we hiked, pointing out flowers, talking about plants. He would have made a really great teacher at any Chinese medicine or naturopathic school.
Soon after we became friends, Gus gave me a baby gotu kola plant. Gotu kola is an Ayurvedic herb that is revered for its effects on the brain and nervous system, circulation, and skin. It has since become one of my favorite herbs. Gotu kola is easily propagated, as it spreads runners that put down new sets of roots and establish babies that can be dug up and given away. Over the years I have given away many such babies, to friends and patients, as well as tinctures and teas that I made from the harvested plant (I’ve eaten quite a bit of the fresh leaf as well). I think of the gotu kola as Gus’ good influence, spreading outwards in an infinite web, doing good, humans and plants working together for the betterment of all. Like I said, I’m not so sure about reincarnation. But if anybody would consciously reincarnate as a plant, it would be Gus. Perhaps his consciousness is spreading through the world as gotu kola. Perhaps, every time I take a nibble, I re-enter that Dionysian wave. Perhaps, as I graze, I will get my friend back, just a bit at a time, in subtle explosions of metabolism and neurology, as plant and mind merge and my grief (I hope) slowly diminishes to be replaced entirely by a love and appreciation that grows only deeper with time.