Thomas Avery Garran sweeps into the classroom at the China Culture Center just as his Introduction to Chinese Herbal Medicine course is supposed to begin. In jeans, a Boston Bruins cap and a silky, short-sleeved Chinese-style shirt, he looks more like someone’s American uncle just returned from a trip to China than an expert in botanical medicine. His two hoop earrings, shoulder-length dark locks and well-maintained facial hair only add to the confusion—Who is this guy?
Garran is a trained herbal botanist, an expert in a field of increasing interest in the West as skepticism grows over the chemicals we consume. Growing numbers of people consider a “back to basics” approach to healthcare that much of the the world never really departed from. According to the World Health Organization, about 80 percent of the world relies on herbal medicines as a primary form of healthcare.
“A few generations ago, people almost never went to the hospital,” says Garran. “Their moms or somebody nearby knew how to treat them.” Today there’s no reason why people can’t learn to treat simple medical complaints with natural alternatives, he says. And at the Cloud Mountain Clinic in the China Culture Center, he works to show both locals and expats looking for high-quality TCM services and treatments how to do just that.
Throughout class, Garran pulls box after box of TCM remedies out of his backpack, explaining the group of symptoms each can treat, pointing out which ingredients comprise the formula and why, sometimes popping a handful in his mouth to snack on.
“For the majority of illnesses, especially chronic illnesses, people should start with herbs,” he says. A licensed Chinese medicine practitioner in the United States, Garran notes that he often treats the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs in his patients over 50.
To the uninitiated, TCM and herbal remedies seem borderline occult. But Garran’s insistence that herbal formulas are effective slowly eats away at the cynicism, leaving one to wonder what the state of one’s own tongue-coating says about one’s health according to TCM.
“Herbs tend to be good for many different things and used many different ways,” he says, adding that putting two herbs together or combining four different kinds can help them work more effectively. “Why is that?” he asks. “Thousands of scientists around the world are working on that.”
Garran’s love affair with plants sprouted early. In 1991, he attended his first class on herbal medicine, a “jaw-dropping, eye-popping” experience, and one that led him to seriously pursue his studies in this field.
He initially began with Western herbalism and later explored Chinese herbalism. Garran has since graduated from the American School of Herbalism and earned a Masters Degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Among many other pursuits, he has written a book on using herbs in medicine and co-founded the Sylvan Institute of Botanical Medicine, which offers resources like webinars and research materials for people around the world studying or practicing botanical medicine. Four years ago he landed in China for eight months of language study. But he soon found a job and a girl. “The job didn’t work out, but the girl did,” he says of his now-wife.
He insists that herbal remedies are not suitable for everything, and that professional medical care should be sought for severe, acute symptoms. “I’m not going to teach people how to treat a miscarriage or HIV,” he says. “I’m not even going to discuss it.”
Garran’s enthusiasm for TCM education doesn’t stop at the Cloud Mountain Clinic. In 2011, he and his wife started the Autumn Reine Learning Garden in Shunyi in memory of their daughter who passed away from SIDS. They grow medicinal herbs, and teach children about herbs from around the world. Volunteers of all ages are welcome to reconnect with nature by working in the 2,000-sq. meter plot that also hosts a greenhouse and irrigation system. A local orphanage has provided land for the garden, which is where his daughter is buried.
“We interact with plants in so many ways—we eat them, wear them, sit on them, live inside them,” he says, “But we’re pretty disconnected from that relationship, especially urban dwellers.”