Sunday, May 15, 2016

Juliette de Bairacli Levy

Juliette, born in 1912 of Egyptian and Turkish Jews, in Manchester, England, was brought up in wealthy circumstances. When the puppies her father brought her sickened and died, she decided to become a veterinarian and was sent to the universities in Liverpool and Manchester. But she was horrified at the vivisection and other experiments on animals, so she left. She determined that the best way to learn how to treat animals was to live among those who raised them in natural ways. Like Matthew Arnold’s “Scholar Gipsy,” she “one summer-morn forsook her friends, and went to learn the Gipsy lore, and roam’d the world with that wild brotherhood.”

Juliette began traveling, learning and working, gathering herbal remedies from America, Spain, France, North Africa and Turkey. She loved especially the herbivorous creatures, sheep, goats, cows, horses, camels and wild deer. She was certain that these creatures knew and ate what they needed to stay healthy. She held a distemper clinic for dogs in London in the 1930’s and was credited with curing many sheep of black scour, feeding them herbs, milk and molasses.

From Edmond Szekely, a Hungarian doctor at Rancho La Puerta near San Diego, Juliette learned that, in human health, the whole body must be treated, not just the local symptoms of a disease. Fasting and herbs were often among the remedies. From nomads, Gypsies and peasants, she learned herbal remedies and the “simple laws of health and happiness.”

After much travel and learning, Juliette published a Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable in England in 1952. Before this, knowledge had only been passed down verbally. She met her husband, Francisco Lancha Dominguez in Spain and they had two children, Rafik and Luz. But Juliette found she could not live in cities, whereas her husband “could not get used to the country life. We warred much concerning this. He thought that it was madness on my part to choose to be alone in an old mill in the Spanish Sierra Nevada for the birth of our second child, and not with him in Tetuan,” where he was a journalist.

Juliette with her baby, right
Juliette lived for a while in the New Forest in England, but then returned to the Mediterranean, where she made homes and gardens for herself and her children in abandoned places, protected by beloved Afghan hounds. She wrote several generous books about her travels and mode of living, particularly Traveler’s Joy, which became a beacon of light for people in the 1970’s who were looking for ways of living closer to nature. We knew that Juliette had lived the life of which she wrote. In America, she gave workshops and seminars on herbal medicine, becoming known as the grandmother of the herbal renaissance.

Juliette’s writing is rich with her love of flowers, herbs and animals. She describes the people she meets and lives with, as well as the insects and rodents and salamanders. In the spring, in the Sierra Nevada in Spain she writes: “I could not forgo our walks despite the snow and rain, for all the terraced slopes of the fertile lower areas of the sierra were in blossom. Fruit trees of every kind seemed as multitudinous as the sierra animals, and the blossom lay lovely upon them, of all colors of white and pink, from the ivory of pear flowers to the darker rose hue of quince and almond, to the green-white, most fragrant blossoms of the orange and lemon trees. Trees in blossom, seen against a turquoise sky when the rains clear, are a fair thing. And later, the carmine of pomegranate flowers against the blue was the loveliest of all.”

In the 1990’s Tish Streeten began filming Juliette, making a documentary entitled Juliette of the Herbs. The film tells Juliette’s biography, but also has much footage of her in the home and garden she made on Kythera, an island off Greece. Juliette’s distinctive voice describes what she has learned in a long, brave life. “The main purpose of having a garden is to have the garden as a teacher and friend. If you have a problem then the garden will give you the plants you need. You are always learning from your garden. I’ve had ten gardens and miss them all,” she says. Clips from this beautiful film can be found here.

Juliette died peacefully in 2009 at the age of 96, in Switzerland, where she lived near her daughter. Her legacy has been preserved and most of her books are still in print. Two of my sisters were herbalists and Gypsy lovers, much inspired by Juliette de Bairacli Levy. I myself, though more scholar than Gypsy, cling to the aesthetics of the natural life and the fine example of health and happiness Juliette set before us.