An Historic Tale

Local writer finds inspiration for her new novel in the late 19th century coal mining town of Cumberland.

In Cumberland’s newest shop there is always a pot of tea brewing.  Today the tea is Thought Flow, made from a variety of ingredients such as lemon verbena, ginko, holy basil, rooibos and rosemary.  “It’s called Thought Flow because it helps increase circulation to the brain,” explains the proprietor, Yarrow Willard, as he pours me some tea into a small Asian bowl.  I sip the hot, delicious tea and peruse the wood and glass shelves filled with product— some familiar to me, some not.

The store, called Harmonic Arts, is something of a botanical boutique.  The smallish space, though well stocked with an eclectic variety of simple yet effective natural remedies, doesn’t seem crowded.  Instead the products are displayed in a manner that exudes calm intent.  The popular tea blends with names like Immune Boost, Relaxing Blend and Digestive Power are arranged with their beautiful green labels in visible rows.

There is a wall filled with an intriguing collection of tinctures and salves.  In a separate corner is a space devoted to delicious edibles such as dried fruits and nuts, honey and spices.  I even spy a package that contains all the separate ingredients one needs to make homemade chocolate.  As I stroll through the shop, talking with Willard and sipping my tea, I realize Harmonic Arts is not your ordinary store—but then again, Willard isn’t your ordinary guy.

Willard’s life has never been run-of-the-mill.  In fact, his early years could even be described as extraordinary.  When asked about his childhood he recalls being surrounded by books and plants.  That’s because both of his parents were trained as master herbalists.  In fact, his father is the famous Dr. Terry Willard, creator of the Wild Rose Herbal Detox and the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing.  Considering his parents, it really is no surprise that Willard is doing what he’s doing—it’s literally in his blood.

Willard also recalls unique childhood experiences such as sleeping in teepees and attending sweat lodges with the local First Nation Tribes.  His father spent a lot of time with and focused much of his learning on the First Nations people, especially their long standing use of local plants and herbs for medicinal purposes.    Dr. Willard tapped into this knowledge because he believed what has the most strength and validity is often what has been used for thousands of years.

Willard’s surroundings while growing up were also unique in that he was practically raised at a college.  Dr. Willard started the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Alberta right around the time Willard was born.   As a young boy, he would spend a significant amount of time at the college.  He’d even listen to his father’s lectures, some of which were conducted outside.

Specifically, Willard recalls learning about the local herbs found around the college during herb-walks, where his father would teach the students about the local plants and their uses.  During these herb-walks, his father would often ask young Willard to tell the students about the plant for which he is named—yarrow.  It’s hard not to smile when you imagine him as a young boy explaining to the students gathered around him that the Latin name for yarrow is Achillea millefolium, named after Achilles who asked the gods to send down a plant to protect his soldiers from sickness and pain.

Eventually, Willard attended the Wild Rose College as an official student and became a master herbalist like his parents.   During his studies he became particularly interested in the medicinal uses of mushrooms and seaweed.  He also met his future wife, Angela, who was studying at the college alongside him.   After their marriage they decided to move to Vancouver Island where they could learn more about the abundance of plants found here.

The couple found Vancouver Island a wonderful place to study and develop their knowledge.  The temperate weather we enjoy on the Island, though sometimes annoyingly wet, is excellent for growing medicinal plants.  We are literally surrounded by what we could call a green pharmacy.  For example, we all know how well weeds grow here on the Island, but plants considered weeds by most are actually valuable to those in the know.  Dandelions, nettles, and comfrey are quick growing plants that oftentimes we pull from the ground while spewing expletives.  But people like the Willards value these plants for their medicinal qualities—nettle for its anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties; dandelion for its liver cleansing properties; and comfrey for its ability to support wound healing.   Willard finds it interesting that what’s typically our best medicine grows so readily and so close to us.  “It’s like the plants want us to heal,” he says.

The moist forest floors common on the Island are also ripe with mushrooms.  In fact, one mushroom, the chaga, considered by many to be one of the most powerful antioxidants on the planet, is also the most abundant and powerful superfood in British Columbia.  Harmonic Arts sells three versions of the chaga mushroom: a tincture, a powder, or slices.  Willard’s favorite way to take chaga is through what’s called a decoction—a concentrated tea-like drink made from simmering the mushroom slices with water for a couple hours.  “It’s delicious,” he says.  “Sort of like coffee but much better for you.”

In addition to our mushroom-filled forests, British Columbia is blessed with a plethora of beaches laden with seaweed— or sea vegetables, as Willard prefers to call them.  Sea vegetables are high in minerals and electrolytes so they’re a delicious and effective way to increase the nutritive value of our meals.  To ensure the quality of the sea vegetables available through Harmonic Arts, Willard only buys from harvesters located on the Queen Charlotte Islands, as the Northern beaches are cleaner than the beaches located close to large populations.  He also offers a few varieties of sea vegetables that are farmed and therefore organic and free of any heavy metal toxicity.  In addition to the very popular Sea Vegetable Blend, which can be sprinkled on rice or in soups, Harmonic Arts also carries popular varieties such as Kombu, Dulse, Nori, Sea Lettuce and Bull Kelp.  If you’re unsure of how to incorporate sea vegetables into your meals, they can suggest plenty of recipe ideas.

The huge variety of medicinal plants found not only on Vancouver Island but throughout the world, coupled with Willards’ belief that we need easy access to these plants, led him and his wife to create their store.  Initially they packaged about 100 products only available through health-food stores and online.  However, it didn’t take long before they realized there was a huge demand for what they could offer.  Now, after three years, Harmonic Arts has more than 1,000 products and more than 300 individual herbs all available for sale directly from the store.  In addition, many of these products are still sold through health food stores—some local and some as far away as Ontario.

Though he produces and packages a large amount of goods, Willard works hard to ensure each item he offers is top quality.  With concentrated products such as medicinal plants and herbs, quality is incredibly important—since poor quality often equals poor results.  Willard believes that the quality of a product starts where and how it is grown, and then how it’s harvested, processed and packaged.  If he cannot grow and harvest the product himself, he uses strict measures to ensure what he chooses to sell is the finest available.  For example, he researches everything he can regarding the growth of the plant, from how it is planted to the treatment of those who harvest it.  In addition, he has a competent staff and a specially designed facility to ensure that once he receives a product, it is prepared, packaged, and stored in the best possible way.

For them, Harmonic Arts Botanical Dispensary isn’t just a store; it’s a portal where people can access the many medicinal plants that have been placed on this earth for our use.  According to Willard, access is an integral step toward empowerment and self care.  “Most people are capable of learning what’s necessary to practice self care,” he says.  “By creating a space where people can access what they need, we empower people to empower themselves.”

Though Willard believes that our modern lifestyle is largely one of disempowerment, he also believes that more and more we are becoming aware of what we’ve lost over the years, and we are beginning to empower ourselves—and heal ourselves—once again.

One way he believes we can empower ourselves is to teach our minds to listen to our bodies.  “Our bodies send out signals telling us what is wrong and why,” he says.  “We just need to become more in tune with those signals.”

He also feels that although the overstimulation of today’s society has caused us to dumb down our senses, it’s possible to retune our minds to hear what our bodies are trying to tell us.  For example, we might initially want to heal a patch of eczema simply because we don’t like how it looks.  We can use a cream prescribed by a medical doctor that will make the rash disappear, but the initial cause of the rash is still with us.  Alternatively, if we pay close attention and listen to our body, oftentimes we can find the true cause of our ailment—such as imbalances caused by stress or an unhealthy lifestyle.

Willard believes that empowerment also comes from learning.  To facilitate learning, Harmonic Arts sells a number of books on a variety of topics, such as wildcrafting, plant identification and herbal body care.  As well, he says the internet is a fabulous place to begin to teach oneself about medicinal herbs and plants.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to get confused by the conflicting information that abounds on the internet.

To combat confusion, Willard suggests a way to ensure the treatment you want to try is right for you—when choosing a medicinal herb, one should look for three sources to confirm the treatment as valid:  one source from the internet, one from a book, and one from experience.  If still in doubt, it’s always possible to ask a staff member at the shop.  In fact, there’s a clinical herbalist at the store most days.

After perusing Willard’s shop and talking with him I feel motivated and excited to learn more about the healing art of medicinal plants.  I feel fortunate to have such a wonderful store nearby where I can access the amazing variety of useful and unique products.   As I walk out the door, I leave with a belly full of tea, my hands full of goodies, and my mind full of positive expectations.

Harmonic Arts Botanical Dispensary, located in Cumberland at 3276 2nd Street, is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am-5pm. For more info call 250-702-3863 or visit

Just imagine, cheap
if you will, the choreography—not to mention the energy—demanded on a daily basis from a woman in her 30s who is married with two pre-school age children (Zoe, six, and Linus, just under two), who works full-time in the North Island College marketing department, and who also manages to set aside two hours each and every day to write.

Oh, and who is, incidentally, a published author, not just a dabbler.

“Where do you find the time?” I asked Kim Bannerman over a recent coffee.  “I get weary just looking at the complexion of your day.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” she says, “but I manage and it helps a great deal to have a fully supportive husband (Shawn Pigott, who happens to be a highly talented filmmaker—creativity runs high in that household) and kids that are easy.  Also, I don’t watch much TV, and we don’t have cable.  And I have pretty good organizational skills.  I think if I can continue to be as organized as I am since I became a mom I can rule the world!”

Though Bannerman spent her childhood years in Royston, she is fully a Cumberland girl at heart and when she moved back to the Comox Valley after a number of years living in Vancouver, it seemed like a natural move.

It also seemed natural that her latest published book—her fourth (the others are The Tattooed Wolf from 2003, The Wolf of Gilsbury Cross 2006, and the Fire Song 2011)—Bucket of Blood should be set in Cumberland.  It’s a work of fiction, she says, but it bears testimony to fact and to her heritage.

“When I was researching for the book I drove around Cumberland with my dad so he could point out some sites and their stories that I might be able to use. That’s why the book is dedicated to him, and I’m only sorry he didn’t get to see it,” she says.

Her father, Ron Bannerman was a well-respected Comox Valley educator and, on his retirement he and his wife Cindy ran heritage tours throughout the Valley.  They were also instrumental in the development of Cumberland’s No. 6 Mine Heritage Park.  He died unexpectedly in November, 2009.

But, having been born and raised in Cumberland, he knew the community like the back of his hand, and Bannerman cherishes his legacy.

“Dad helped me with this book quite a bit,” she says.  “In fact, he was integral to my research process.  When he died so suddenly I put it away for a while.  But then I got back to it, and ultimately it was to become part of his legacy to me.  Both of my parents always supported me.  They were and are, in the case of mom, kind and generous people who always believed in me.  That’s invaluable.”

Bannerman’s background led, in a roundabout way, to where she is now.  After graduating from GP Vanier, she headed out to the metaphorical ‘big city’ to study anthropology at the University of BC.  Initially interested in forensic anthropology—crime scenes, corpses, causes of death and other CSI stuff—she branched off more into historical anthropology.  More specifically, she became intrigued by Celtic history and this led her to study for a time in England in 1998.

“I became intrigued by the character Boudicca and her role in that whole Roman period in England,” she says.  Boudicca was the leader of the Iceni peoples of East Anglia and mounted a campaign against the Roman legions in AD 60 in which she and her army burned the Roman capital of Colchester and went on later to capture London.  She is a huge folk hero in that part of England.

“It was just fascinating to me and I got really involved in her story, both while we were in England and then after we returned,” Bannerman says.  “In fact we went back to England and France in 2001 to do more research.  The end result was a huge manuscript of about 600 pages.  It might become a book someday.  Mainly it was a learning process and was good for my self-confidence.  Of course, by this point in my writing career I can also see the flaws in the manuscript.”

As life evolved, Bannerman and husband Shawn spent more than 10 years living in Vancouver, during which time she had an eclectic array of jobs, including working for the Vancouver Public Library, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, and Opus Framing and Art Supplies.  And then the two of them decided it was time to decamp for the Comox Valley.

Her first big literary break came in 2003 when her lupine saga The Tattooed Wolf was e-published.  When she was seeking publication at that time she was cognizant of Canada’s uninviting publishing reputation.  It’s simply a huge challenge for a first-time, agent-less writer to get published here.  So, she decided to go with the science-fiction e-publisher Double Dragon.  It worked, and Bannerman has no regrets about taking that route away from the conventional format of paper between covers.  Now, in the age of Kindle and Kobo it has become even more acceptable.  After all, 2003 was nearly a decade ago, and that’s about a millennium in terms of the rate of tech-advances these days.

“Electronic publishing makes it easier for new writers to be published,” she says.  “In that sense it promotes new writing.  Also, it’s gratifying to get comments from your readers immediately.  There’s an actual dialogue.”

The werewolf saga, The Tattooed Wolf, grew out of a childhood conversation with an uncle who attempted to scare the bejesus out of his young niece (as uncles will sometimes do) by filling her head with tales of supernatural lupines.  The message stuck with Bannerman, and ultimately it was translated into her first book.

What is Bannerman’s process?  Well, unlike some famous literary procrastinators such as Dorothy Parker who once said, in effect, she didn’t like to write, she liked “having written”, Bannerman actually likes to write.

“Truly I love to write,” she says.  “I’ve been like that all my life.  I started writing when I was in elementary school.  In fact, my friends and I would all write and then we’d critique one another.”

Her favorite subjects?  The place in which she lives, or places she has lived.  Consequently, Bucket of Blood, is set in Cumberland and that came out of a realization that it was “odd to be living in this community and to not have fully realized what amazing stories there were in the Cumberland area.”

Even more of an oversight, she says, considering her huge family connectedness to the old village, going back to her grandfather and father, both of whom were born there.

Her ‘process’ demands a considerable discipline that she tries to adhere to as stringently as possible.  This includes devoting two hours each and every day to writing.  And this is not a chore.

“Writing makes me feel at one with the universe,” she says.  “The key to happiness is to find the thing you ‘have’ to do. I have to write.  And I know when it’s working and when it’s not working.  When I’m in the mode, I can really focus.  But, admittedly there are some days I really don’t feel like writing, and those are tough.  Of course, not feeling like writing is different from being blocked.  Blocked is horrible and it leaves me unable to sleep.”

She does a few things when she’s blocked.  One is to merely step away from it for a while until her writing mojo returns.  Otherwise, she’ll do a related task—like editing.

“Editing gives you a break and I, unlike some writers, really enjoy editing,” she says. “The downside is you can edit indefinitely.  You can always finds something you can improve upon.  At some point you have to say I am happy with this, and let it go.”

Bucket of Blood was launched last September 21 at North Island College, where Bannerman also works.  A reading from the novel was offered to the public at the launch.

While the book is, as a novel, fictional, Bannerman assures that elements of the tale did not arise in a vacuum, but are based on veracities of the day— the late 19th Century when Cumberland was a booming coal town and indeed the ‘metropolis’ of the Comox Valley, and the smaller communities as Courtenay and Comox were of little consequence.

This is the Cumberland of the Dunsmuir mines and of a Chinatown that was more populous than the European community. The Chinese did, as a character in Bucket of Blood slightly bitterly but realistically states: “twice the work for half the pay” and longed to make that nest egg so they could return to China as rich men and find themselves comely wives.

Those who know the area also know of the brutal conditions in the mines for the Chinese in Cumberland, where in the early days the laborers weren’t even granted the dignity of using their names but were merely referred to using the names of their European overlords, such as “Smith’s Chinaman”.  Old write-ups in the Cumberland Museum attest to the racism of the era.

As a consequence, and understandably, the Asians created their own community in Chinatown— an alien and mysterious place.  Chinatown in the day was opium dens, fan-tan parlors, prostitution, danger and mystery.  It was in that cultural milieu that Bannerman’s characters, English born Lizzie Saunders and her older sister, Violet found themselves on the death of their mother in 1898.

Into this alien mix you find the dominant group, the Europeans: English, Scots, Welsh, all in early Cumberland to toil in the Dunsmuir mines in a brutal and unforgivingly dangerous calling.  Needless to say, the ‘boys’ could be excused for cutting loose when the weekend rolled around, as this expert shows:

Though the midnight hour had come and gone, Cumberland’s main street roiled with life. The steady chuh-chuh of No. 6 mine’s bellows, coupled with the distant clanking of industry, provided a rhythmic beat to the merry-making of the Bank Holiday weekend. Men in filthy dungarees stumbled into the bars for a pint of bitter to slake their thirsts, work-calloused boys drove a new shift of mules along Dunsmuir and women of questionable morals solicited company from drunken louts who loitered outside the flop houses and pool hall. Boisterous piano music, cat calls wolf whistles, and the deafening sounds of nihilistic revelry filled the air.

Such is the pervasive mood and ambience of Bucket of Blood and Bannerman captures it with a crisp and inviting style that does not fail to keep a reader intrigued.  She is also adept at presenting dialogue as it would have been in the late Victorian era amongst those who both toiled in the bowels of the earth as well as with those of higher social pretensions.

But, the point of this piece is not to offer literary evaluation rather than to look at the life and process of an already and deservedly successful Comox Valley writer. Needless to say, therefore, that the reader will find the book moves at a pace, offers a delightful degree of a fictionalized Cumberland (and other spots) that doesn’t deviate far from the reality of the day; it merely enhances it to a deserved three-dimensionality.  It’s a good read, suffice it to say.

Where is Bannerman now and where does she go from this point?

“I’m taking a correspondence course through the London School of Journalism,” she says. “I’d like to pick up more skills in non-fiction, either between covers or online”

She says, in the latter case, she follows Vancouver Province digital journalist Erik Rolfsen and his drive to bring factual information away from ink and into the greater sphere globally.

Meanwhile, she’s mapping out a storyline for a non-fiction work, but declines to say more about it at this time.

Asked if her early research into the life of Boudicca could ever see the light of day in a Kim Bannerman book, she cryptically replies:  “I’m not sure at this point—but it’s always a possibility.”

Find out more about Bannerman at  Her novel, Bucket of Blood, is available locally at the Laughing Oyster Bookstore, the Cumberland Museum, the Courtenay Museum, Blue Heron Books and Abraxas Books and Gifts on Denman Island.