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Into the Woods with Fieke Mestdagh

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Words Vidula Kotian Date 21 December 2022

We were lucky enough to meet Fieke Mestdagh, an herbalist and founder of Out. in the Forest, when we hosted the Beyond Being Well panel at the second edition of Cervo’s A Love Beyond, an immersive weekend of music, art, mindfulness, and conversations.

The native Belgian currently resides in Zermatt, where she teaches about local medicinal and edible plants in the area and offers weekly herbal walking tours in the summer. In the winter, she will be offering natural cosmetics and wild fermentation classes at Cervo. The fermentation enthusiast is currently traveling around Costa Rica off road and off grid, but she was kind enough to take time to talk to us about her passion for going out into the forest, reconnecting and being in sync with nature like our ancestors, and what being out there can teach us about ourselves.

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Zermatt Shrouded in mystery

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In the forest An herbal walk for Cervo's A Love Beyond weekend

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Wormwood Used to treat spasms, liver problems and more

How has herbalism changed your life?

I am so grateful to be studying about the human body and nature, and the synergy between them. Learning to understand how our own bodies work has been truly empowering to me. The more you understand and learn, the better you will take care of yourself. Our bodies are constantly communicating with us but often we don’t listen and even ignore the signs they are sending us. To me, herbal medicine is a holistic view on life: Learning the individual parts to understand the bigger picture. It’s not only about using plants as medicine, it goes way beyond.

 

How did you end up Zermatt?

As with many things in life, my move to Zermatt came very unexpectedly. At the time, I had been living in Lisbon for around four years and it was very clear to me that I had to move on from this great city in order to grow and evolve into the next phase of my life. In Lisbon, I have a Swiss friend whose parents own a restaurant in the Alps. So, she invited me to come explore the winter season. The nature left a big mark on me and near the end of that winter season as spring slowly awakened, all my senses were triggered. I explored the cities of Luzern and Zurich for a bit but ended up in Zermatt. It’s kind of funny if you think about it. It’s the furthest and most isolated town you can go to, being car-free and sharing a border with Italy. It is really a bubble filled with nature, peace, and lots of medicinal plants.

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Cervo's herb garden Provides for spa treatments and the kitchen

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Cervo Mountain Resort In the distance

What have you learned from the walks and workshops you’ve been conducting?

We live in times where health and especially preventative care have become the main players. The people who visit Zermatt, especially in the summertime, are looking to spend time in nature. People who join my herbal walks and workshops are those seeking to reconnect with nature, to get to know the nature surrounding us better and learn to live in synergy with it, just like our elders used to. Organizing weekly plant walks through my own project, Out. In the Forest, and for Cervo Mountain Resort has opened a door for me to connect with many beautiful souls. It’s a blessing to share my passion and exchange knowledge. This winter I will host another series of interactive workshops at Cervo focused on fermentation and creation of natural skin care products. Really exciting.

 

What are your tips for winter care?

Historically, wintertime is the time for slowing down and hibernating. Due to the cold temperatures and often lack of sunlight, our immune system weakens especially near the end of winter. As we all know, life these days doesn’t allow us to slow down. I advise you to be true to yourself and listen more closely to that voice inside you. Don’t feel bad about curling up with some blankets and canceling some social events if your body feels like staying home. You’re not boring, you’re just looking after yourself. Eat warm, nourishing foods, such as bone broths, and don’t forget a good quality vitamin D3 supplement to get you through these months.

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Rowan berry Also called mountain ash are great in jams, jellies, soups, and wines

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Visiting the same forest on a regular basis makes you create such a deep connection with it. You learn to understand it, look for signs, and be in tune with the seasons.

Fieke Mestdagh

Which plants are especially dear to you and why?

In Zermatt I love working with yarrow—achillea millefolium—as it is so abundant. It’s a truly versatile plant and has many different applications depending on how you prepare it. Drinking a hot infusion will have a diaphoretic effect, so it helps to break a fever and release tension. When you drink a cold infusion, it will function as a diuretic. The plant is rich in volatile oils, which are antiseptic, and is useful during urinary infections. But I am not a fan of using “this plant” for “that symptom”. Holistic herbalism looks at the bigger picture and works on understanding the person as a whole. The art is to look at every person individually and create a complete wellness plan to restore the overall balance, and eventually find the root cause of any problems.

 

When you’re traveling as you are in Costa Rica, do you usually delve into the plant world there?

I love traveling to places where nature is as wild as you can get. I’m currently enjoying my off-season holidays in Costa Rica. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on the planet with over half a million species inhabiting the country. Herbal medicine is a big topic in the tropics, but I never actively seek places to learn. I love to arrive, feel the place, and if there’s someone I must meet, it will happen. I had the chance to join a private plant walk with a local who learned foraging from the indigenous community in Bribri. I visited a cacao farm with over 1,000 producing trees. I harvested turmeric. And I made my own insect repellent with locally harvested plants.

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On the herbal walk Mestdagh showing the group wild raspberries

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Wild blueberries Switzerland planted berries only in the 1920s

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Wild foraged yarrow Used in the natural cosmetics workshop at Cervo

Which has been your favorite forest exploration so far?

It’s hard to pick one forest as all of them are so different. In the Mattertal Valley where I live, I love to go mushroom foraging, and it definitely isn’t the most wonderful forest I have ever visited, but the one I have visited the most. Visiting the same forest on a regular basis makes you create such a deep connection with it. It’s like you learn to communicate with each other. You learn to understand it, look for signs, and be in tune with the seasons. Last week I had the chance the visit the Corcovado National Park, in Costa Rica. It was a wonderful experience. Just 1% of the 42,000 hectares of protected national forest are accessible to us humans. You arrive by boat on the beach in the early morning. There are only 170 visitors allowed in each ranger station daily. It’s the wildest and most interesting forest I have ever visited. There, I encountered a wide variety of mammals and reptiles including a tapir with its baby, crocodiles, monkeys, toucans, and many other impressive birds.

 

We’re almost at the end of the year, what are you looking forward to in 2023?

I will celebrate my 30th loop around the sun and a lot is in motion for the upcoming year. I am currently enrolled in a 16-month holistic herbalism advanced clinical program in Canada and my studies oblige me to dive deep. I am openminded but very curious where this journey will take me. As in Lisbon, where I had to leave to move forward, I feel a similar transition lies ahead for me. I feel ready to embark on whatever’s coming next.

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Valley view Zermatt has many hidden corners for wild foragers to discover and delight

Images Hanna Bücker

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Cervo Mountain Resort

Zermatt, Switzerland

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