Lewis County herb farmer bids fond farewell to West Virginia

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ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. (AP) — Driving down the dusty gravel road to La Paix Herb Farm in Lewis County is like traveling back in time — surrounded by meadows and mountains, streams, wildflowers, forest creatures as well as the splendid scents and sounds of nature.

Just when you start wondering if you've taken a wrong turn, a reassuring signpost, then another, point the way. Finally, the tight view ahead opens to a freshly mowed front lawn nestling a colorfully painted Victorian-style farmhouse between the blooms of a fuchsia rhododendron and a large holly tree.

You've arrived at the Lavender Fair held on the grounds of a 110-acre organic farm that has yielded herbs, vegetables and friendships for 35 years.

La Paix, which means "peace" in French, is the home of 80-year-old Myra Bonhage-Hale and the place where organic farmers, herbalists and others interested in a more spiritual connection with the earth gathered for the final Lavender Fair — the last of 10 — held May 9.

There were demonstrations and workshops on making lavender soaps, repurposing wood and aluminum arts, dowsing (an ancient form of divination used to find water and other items hidden underground), herbal medicine, making lavender and rosemary plugs for transplanting, meditation, walking the labyrinth (a type of maze) and aromatherapy.

There was even a sneak peak at a documentary film on fracking in West Virginia by Keely Kernan called "The Hills and Hollows" in which Bonhage-Hale is featured.

Moving from Maryland, where she was a social worker in the Baltimore area, to the little unincorporated town of Alum Bridge, near Weston, more than 30 years ago, Bonhage-Hale worked in the psychiatric rehabilitation department of the Weston State Hospital (formerly the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum) for 10 years.

In fact, La Paix is the original homestead of German stonecutters who were employed during the construction of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the mid-1800s. The farm, which includes the original log cabin, now surrounded by additions, a root cellar, apprentice apartment, multiple gardens, a labyrinth and woodland paths, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

While she cherishes the history that surrounds her home, her private and public passion was always the land itself.

"Gardening is so much a part of who I am," said Bonhage-Hale, who's been tilling the soil there since her first spring on the farm.

She has also put her experience at community organizing from the 1960s to use by getting others involved with organic farming.

Instrumental in the establishment of sustainable gardening groups, herb associations and marketing organizations over the years, she has made quite an impact on the community. It's those community connections that have helped make the Lavender Fair possible, bringing in vendors and crafters, friends and customers.

She explained that this is not an annual event, however.

"This is the 10th Lavender Fair — I skipped a couple years because I thought I might be getting old," she laughed. "We've had a research garden, vegetable garden, fragrant garden and feng shui garden."

She has completed research on lavender, other herbs and sustainable farming techniques with funding assistance from several USDA grants, working hand-in-hand with apprentices who inevitably return and are greeted with open arms and familial sentiment.

"I tried different types of lavender plants to see what did best in West Virginia," she said. "Turns out it was one called Grosso, after a man named Pierre Grosso, who went up in the mountains in France when there had been a blight on the lavender and he found this one growing.

"It usually grows, at best, for seven years. Mine grew 11 or 12 years here in some extreme winters. And what I have left, I'll be making plugs with it and rosemary — which has also grown here for many years — so that then my lavender and rosemary will grow all over West Virginia and beyond.

"Isn't that lovely?" she smiled.

Although she has an essential oil distillery on site to process natural extracts, she said, "I won't say it's herbal medicine. I will say there are a lot of stories about what good things my salves and hydrosols do."

She said her Comfrey Comfort salve — infused with plantain (sometimes called snake weed), witch hazel, violet leaves and more — helps with arthritis and prevents bruising after a fall. She said her lavender spray helps relax people.

"It's very soothing to the mind. It's been used frequently as a sleep aid, for nursing mothers, for babies with colic. And it also smells beautiful."

She also sells hand creams, lip balms and other products at her greenhouse shop and online at lapaixherbfarm.com. You can also read more about the research projects and historic register on the website.

There won't be any more distilling at La Paix. Bonhage-Hale is leaving.

The farm is up for sale as she's decided it's time to move on. She's moving closer to family, but she'll never move away from the land.

"I'm going back to northern Baltimore County, near where I grew up," she said. "I have family there, and I found a place done by a landscape architect — grown organically. They have herb gardens — beautiful gardens — but there will be much less to deal with.

"I'm getting old. I'm very happy to feel this good, but, you know, it's time."

An environmentalist opposed to fracking, she said, "This has been a journey for me to make everyone understand how beautiful West Virginia is and how very diverse in its plants and its trees, and that we need to preserve that, not destroy it.

"I want someone to buy it who will cherish it, keep it, maybe even have another Lavender Fair! I hope dearly that they keep it the same way, as a place people can enjoy nature and understand all the beautiful weeds that are good and the herbs that are good.

"Rosemary is for remembrance," she said, quoting Shakespeare. "So, this festival has been called the Fond 'Fair'well, just another play on words. The rosemary is to help people remember La Paix."


Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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