Herbalist Thomas Tracey has healed the Flathead with local herbs for over 30 years
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg LindstromThomas Tracey bends his aging frame down to a patch of goldenrods growing just a few hundred feet from Holt Drive in Bigfork. He twists the cluster of little yellow flowers from one knee-length stalk, then grips the plant’s base in his fist. He draws upwards, stripping the soft green leaves. He cups the flowers and leaves gently between his palms and holds them out.
“There’s your medicine,” he said. Later, at Swan Valley Herbs, his shop in Bigfork, he will air-dry the goldenrod. Then he will soak it in a mixture of everclear and purified water, and on the next full moon, he will strain and bottle it as a healing tincture, a diuretic.
Local ingredients work better in the body, and Tracey knows the medicinal use of 300 plant species native to the Flathead Valley and Northern Rockies. He gathers, or wildcrafts, over 60 percent of his ingredients from the region and has a combination of plants, herbs, and flowers to care for almost any malady.
Short trips across town to find plants are easy, but Tracey is 70 and wildcrafting is not an old man’s game. Many tincture recipes call for the plant’s roots, which are difficult to dig up. Some plants grow at high altitudes, others in remote places. He can’t work in the heat for as long as he used to, and this year he missed the opportunity to harvest wild licorice and one species of mint.
He won’t quit wildcrafting until he can no longer pluck a flower from its stem. Customers cross state lines and get on planes for his help. There are too many people who need healing.
“I’m a healer,” he said. “It’s in my blood. It’s my mission.” He needs to heal as much as the people in pain need him. Perhaps, he said, “I’ll just run [Swan Valley Herbs] ‘till death.” Or, he added, chuckling, maybe “I’ll get rid of the shop, travel, and dig gold.”
Many people find herbalism when modern medicine fails them. Tracey was his own first patient. In the 1970s, he was 30 with a Vietnam War injury and more back pain than his doctor could treat. He began experimenting with healing arts. Herbalism’s ancient history and its rich tradition in the United States, which dates back to the early 1800s, inspired him. When it worked, he dedicated himself to learning the practice.
“I got myself out of pain,” Tracey said. “I was very impressed.”
Tracey, who earned a Master of Science from Cal State, has a cloud of shoulder-length hair. He speaks of the earth’s vibrations and uses a crystal to measure health levels. He also likes Donald Trump. (He says Trump tells it like it is.) Tracey’s jokes are cheeky, and he recommends the thrice-daily consumption of milkweed for an everlasting hangover cure. Tom Tracey doesn’t buy hippie nonsense.
In 1979, Tracey moved from his native California to Montana, where he could easily access many of nature’s medicinal gifts. He wanted to share the wonder and potential of nature’s bounty. He also needed a new job. When an herb store declined to buy his homemade tinctures and salves, he opened his own shop in downtown Bigfork.
“Tom and the shop are an amazing resource for the community,” said Marty Michelson, an Evergreen resident who wildcrafts recreationally with his wife, Sandy. Tracey began guiding them in the practice almost seven years ago.
Tracey said he helped one anonymous woman rediscover passion for her husband of 40 years. He also helped Richard Meeks, a car mechanic from Ferndale who struggles with regular, persistent colds. Nyquil and other similar drugs make Meeks groggy without killing the infection. Tracey provided a tincture that Meeks said works nearly every time.
“I need that stuff,” Meeks said. “It’s hard to work when your nose is running and you’re coughing and choking and spitting. I’m self-employed, and if I don’t work, I don’t make money.”
He also helped Kalispell residents Sandy Jo and her husband, Mike, a construction worker, who came to Tracey 10 years ago. Mainstream medicine had failed Mike, who was so sick with heavy metal and chemical poisoning that he was having seizures and motor skills impairment. It took a year, but Mike recovered and has stayed healthy since. Awed, Sandy immediately became Tracey’s apprentice and still works with him today.
To be clear, Tracey does not cure or treat or diagnose. He heals. A series of photos in his office shows the progression of a woman’s melanoma after she began taking bitterroot six years ago. The herb enveloped the malignant tumor, and then the skin spit it out and closed back up. That’s not curing cancer; it’s healing the body.
“There’s no way a doctor would get it out like that,” Tracey said. The healing looked gruesome and messy, but there were no chemicals, no side effects, and no relapse.
The distinction between healing and curing is as legal as it is spiritual. He has run into trouble with the Montana Board of Health Examiners for allegedly practicing medicine without a license. Tracey said he’s not afraid of the law. He believes the local authorities would never shut him down because he says he’s saved too many lives here.
“If there was no Tom, I think [wildcrafting here] would disappear,” Marty said. “He’s a very gifted healer with vast experience. It is his life.”
“We’d be lost without him,” Marty’s wife, Sandy, added.
They won’t be too lost. Sandy Jo has been learning for almost a decade. Then there’s Larry, with a big white beard, the inversion of Tracey’s hair. He runs the front of the shop, where they sell the pre-made “heavy-hitters” – popular tinctures and herbal essences like wormwood, St. John’s wort, and echinacea. He’s been studying under Tracey for 18 years. Tracey also has an apprentice, and this summer, he taught two younger students visiting from the West Coast in a workshop.
And then, of course, there’s the patch of blooming goldenrod right off one of the main roads in Bigfork, where Larry and Sandy Jo and the others know to go to collect medicine before the next full moon.