In Memory of Frank Cook 1963-2009

I am deeply saddened by the news that Frank Cook (plant teacher and herbalist) died on Wednesday, 19th August 2009.

I met Frank Cook while filming him in September 2008, that meeting and numerous email exchanges had a life-changing impact on me.

His gentleness and depth of plant knowledge was truly inspiring, and it was via these e-mails that he always encouraged me through EatWeeds to spread the plant knowledge.

Frank Cook 1963-2009 by Tim Toben

Pearson Garden, Asheville NC, August 19, 2009. Just hours after his passing, Frank’s brother Ken spoke from the circle of nearly 200 friends holding hands around the garden. “I think he saw us all as plant beings and he certainly was one himself.” Muffled laughter mixed with tears. Frank Cook was the Banyan Tree.

If the name is not familiar, you’ll remember the man. Frank stood 6’3” tall with piercing blue eyes and waist length dreadlocks. He wore simple clothes and sandals and carried a satchel over his shoulder. In Chapel Hill, his home was a loft bed at the residence of Beth Williams and Alan Dehmer. He walked everywhere, once across the entire state of North Carolina, foraging for food along the way. Most of us in these modern times would die attempting such a trek. Frank feasted – both physically and spiritually.

Someone once said that we are born with two beings – one that dies and one that lives forever. That is certainly true for Frank Cook. Frank will always be known around the world for his plant knowledge and his journey to “meet” the 5000+ genera of plants. At 47 years old, he was 70% of the way to his goal. He’d chucked a promising career in computer science 20 years earlier to follow his heartsong, traveling to Namibia to meet Omumborombonga, the ancestral tree of life, and to India to meet Buckuchurbu, used to treat stomach upset.

Those of us lucky enough to cross His path were reacquainted with the native plants we loved as children. Frank could hang with the best Linnean taxonomist, but he “understood” plants more deeply – their medicinal qualities, their nutritional values, and their unique role in the interdependent ecology of nature. And he clearly loved them.

Frank would lean down and shade his small subjects with large hands and begin telling their story. The breath from his deep baritone voice seemed to lift the plantain or pipsissewa from its roots, as he brushed the leaves from around their base. “Choose me, choose me,” you could imagine them saying. In those moments, we were children again, finding a long lost love. And he was an “indigenous” teacher.

The meals between walks were just as vibrant. Reminding us that most Americans eat just 25 species of plants a year, he’d make fresh bread and soup with at least 25 species gathered during his walk. The flavors and energy in his food were life giving. He’d make teas by day and meads at night, always sharing a batch from last year in a pass- around bottle. Frank’s blueberry and sumac meads were my favorite. His gatherings built benevolent communities — families with native knowledge and skills.

His “business model” baffled most. He worked for donations. You paid what you could, and that was enough to fund Frank’s travels to meet plants across the globe. He’d recently completed a Masters Degree at the Schumacher Institute in the UK and written a book titled “Emerging Planetary Medicines.” His subject matter had expanded to include “transition cultures” – those preparing for not a low-, but a no-carbon economy.

Frank had just returned from teaching engagements in the Southwest US, and before that in South America. What he thought was travel weariness was apparently a spreading parasitic infection, which spread rapidly this week and this morning claimed his sinewy body. Thousands around the world, and several hundred in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Asheville weep quietly at the loss of their friend and teacher. We are ever so grateful for his many gifts, for the many seeds he planted.

If he’d ever stayed in one place for more than a few months, I’m convinced that Frank’s cascading dreadlocks would have taken root, like the Banyan Tree, and grown other Frank Cooks. And if so, what a better world this would be. Then again, as I looked around Pearsons Garden this damp August night and reflected on past gatherings at LEAF and Pickards Mountain, I thought…that’s precisely what has happened.

More Information On Frank Cook Can Be Found At…