Down to Earth: The $10,000 Lecture

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In 1987, I sold a life insurance policy, bought a computer and began a quarterly herb newsletter, The Ozarks Herbalist. Thanks to The Ozarks Herbalist, I was invited in 1992 to write for The Herb Companion and I began hosting an herbal festival, Herb Day in May. Herb Day in May was a festive event, with workshops and vendors selling plants, soaps and teas.

Over the years, we had a wide range of speakers. Betty Wold, with her outrageous garden hat and hilarious plant stories, spoke, and one year we had Crescent Dragonwagon, famous for her cookbooks and children’s books. Another year it was Tina Marie Wilcox from the Ozark Folk Center with her folksy “Yarb Tales.”

But the speaker who should win a prize for “Most Sacrifice in Spreading the Word” is Billy Joe Tatum. She is one of those energetic, entertaining people whose extensive knowledge just pours out like good wine. To this day, her first book, Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook and Field Guide (Workman, 1976), is one of the best wild foods guides you can find.

Billy Joe liked to lecture on common local plants and their uses, and her method was to pull a flower from a bouquet of roadside plants on the lectern and launch into a story about the botanical, medicinal and culinary properties of each plant.

The last year of Herb Day, Billy Joe was again our main speaker. The vase on the lectern was full. The tent was filled with an enthusiastic audience seated on straw bales as they finished off their hibiscus flower tea. Billy Joe was late and began to speak as soon as she reached the lectern.

“It cost me $10,000 to be here today,” she began. She immediately had the attention of the room.

She had recently received an advance from the publisher of a new book she was writing.

“I’ve always wanted a really nice diamond ring,” she said. “So this week I bought myself a present with my advance for working so hard on the book.”

The audience smiled in approval.

“This morning I went to the creek to look for herbs to show you,” she continued. “I was only gone for about an hour and washed off in the swimming hole before coming home. When I got out of the water, my ring was missing.”

Everyone looked horrified. Surely this was going to have a happy ending. Billy Joe went on to explain she’d rushed to the house and gotten her husband, a grown daughter and a grandson to help her scour the creek, using swimming masks, a metal detector and a sieve.

“But,” she said, holding up her empty fingers, “the ring is gone. I enjoyed it while it was there, but it’s gone and that’s why I say, it cost me $10,000 to be here with you today.”

With that, she plucked a Spigelia marilandica out of the bouquet and told us it was also known as pinkroot and Indian pink and was an important medicine for early pioneers in the Ozarks. And the show went on. 

Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens in the Ozark Mountains.