Once or twice in a lifetime, one meets a truly exceptional personality who changes your life forever. In my lifetime, that exceptional person was Hortence Robinson, the greatest herbal midwife of our times. I just can’t say enough good things about this woman. She had the qualities of all true traditional healers. She was a charming story-teller and a lot of fun to be with. She taught me to see the funny side of trouble and strife. She had humility, and would never big-up herself; in her own words, “you could never too humble”. She believed that it was her faith in God that did the healing in her clinic and never took credit for herself. Like other natural healers, she cared more about the welfare of others than she did her own. She birthed nine children and adopted fourteen others. The little blue house on Dawn Lane in Ladyville was always full of people. Some came to be healed, others to bask in her warmth and hospitality, children passed right though her living room and kitchen taking a shortcut on their way to school. Hortence’s door and her cooking pots were as open to humanity as was her heart.
Hortence felt great love and abiding affection for her children. You, William, Concha, Patricia, Emily, Steven, Orlando, David, Phillip and Patrick were always on your mother’s mind and in her heart. Your troubles and strife were hers. Hortence was devastated and nearly broken in spirit when William died in the United States in a highway accident and then again when her grandson, Steven Velasquez, died on a motorcycle crash. Her love and concern for you, her dedication to her duty as a healer helped her to find the strength to get back up on her feet. In her own words, “Death is a part of life and you just have to accept it.” She prayed for all of you everyday and wanted you to love and care for each other. She was proud of you. As adults, you are now fine contributors to Belizean society and a living tribute to Hortence’s love. Concha, you made her very proud when you decided to follow in her footsteps to work as a midwife in the south of the country. Concha, Emily and Patricia, you cared for your mother during her sickness and finally Emily, you sat faithfully at her side until she died. Hortence is survived by nineteen grandchildren, fifteen great grandchildren and 2 great-great grandchildren. Her dog Fancy, a little brown daschund, was her playmate and faithful companion for many years.
Miss Hortence was known in the healer’s community as “Mil Secretos” or A Thousand Secrets. El Secreto, that special ingredient, that special preparation that makes a herbal remedy dramatically effective. She was a living library of knowledge about medicinal plants, home remedies and spiritual healing. She delivered thousands of babies, many of them on her own bed. She cared for tens of thousands of sick people in her lifetime using only simple herbal remedies, prayers and massage. She was a specialist in gynecology, obstetrics and pediatrics but also worked as a family physician. Much of her knowledge was gained by observation and experience of the natural world. Some came in the form of dream visions in which she was shown which herb to use and how to prepare it, “I put it all in my head and kept it there.”
This magnificient woman was born in 1923 on Cozumel Island during the days of chicle camps. Her mother and grandmothers were midwives there while her father worked the chicle trees. By fascinating co-incidence, Cozumel is the ancient home of the Maya Goddess of Medicine, Ix Chel and where the Maya had their school for midwives. Hortence’s ancestry was a true Belizean Boil-Up. She had a grandfather from Scotland, another grandparent was an ex-slave from the United States. There were Maya, Creoles and East Indians on her family tree as well. She was the only girl in a house of seven boys. Her mother, a busy midwife, kept her daughter out of school to do the washing and cooking. So, although, she never learned to read and write it was no impediment for she had an encyclopedic memory and the sharp, retentive mind of a genius. Her first teachers were her childhood playmates on Cozumel, the Maya children. She told me that they spent a good deal of their time collecting medicinal plants for their parents and were then allowed to play and run free. She had a spiritual relationship with plants. They were more than leaves, flowers and chemicals. She taught that they, too, are spiritual beings in a physical body and deserve our respect and, especially, our care. She worried about the destruction of the rainforest, for she said that a “Healer without plants is like a mechanic without tools.”
Hortence was a dynamic public speaker. In her life time, she addressed professors, scientists, doctors and nurses sharing her wisdom and hard-earned knowledge with them for the benefit of people from all nations of the world. Invitations to speak came from the University of Massachusetts, Carnegie-Mellon University, The National Cancer Institute, the Women’s Herbal Conference, the International Herbal Conference and The New York Botanical Garden. As a major contributor to the Belize Ethnobotany Project, it was Hortense who decided where the team would collect plants for research. She identified more than three hundred medicinal plants which were scientifically recorded at the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, NY and the Belize Forestry Department. There we have recorded for the future generations their names and uses. She was given the National Treasure Award by the Traditional Healers Foundation in 1990.
Hortence was a person who from a very early age knew what her path and purpose in life would be. Plants and trees were her passion and healing was her path. In fulfilling that calling, she found great internal peace, and I know an eternal home in heaven with her Creator.
Hortence’s daughter, Patty Forman and I felt that it would be a most fitting eulogy to share Hortence’s charm and humor by telling stories of the precious times we spent together. We were friends and companions for more than ten years while we traveled around the world. Our first adventure together was in 1990. At that time, we spoke at several different venues and she met hundreds of Americans on this, her first visit to the United States. On the plane returning to Belize, I said to her, “Well, Miss Hortence, this was your first trip to the United States at the age of seventy-two. What did you think of the United States and its people?” She looked at me sideways, sighed deeply and said in her pure and simple manner, “POOR PEOPLE, so lost and troubled!”
We were invited to give a presentation at the Art of Birthing Conference held at the New York Academy of Medicine. The conference was attended by over 700 professionals. They were medical doctors, PhD’s in public health, nurse-midwives and lay persons as well. It was arranged that she would present the Key Note speech, but she said she would not stand up on that stage by herself for an hour, so I would have to stand there with her. During that hour, I asked her questions about her life and her healing practice which she answered elegantly. Then, we took questions from the audience. The first was, “Miss Hortence, do you do episiotomies?” She answered with a simple, “No, I do not”. The crowd broke into whispers and I could hear, “What? How good could she be if she doesn’t do that?” The next obvious question was, “Well what do you do if a woman tears during delivery?” With courage and outrageous self-confidence, she puffed up her chest, looked right out into the waiting audience and declared, “WELL, I NEVER DID HAVE A LADY WHO TORE!” The audience roared, applauded, and gave her a standing ovation. Then, finally, she went about explaining how she would avoid tears during delivery. The crowd was delighted by the depth of her knowledge and experience.
Hortence came to Ix Chel Farm in Cayo on many occasions on short and extended visits. During a Medicines from the Rainforest workshop, a participant had lost a filling from one of his teeth and was suffering a great deal. Hortence took me out into the bush where we collected the sticky white sap of the tree known as Grandfather’s Balls (no kidding). She washed the sap several times between her fingers until she got it worked into a little ball and immediately placed it in the cavity. Within the hour it hardened and the person wrote back a month later to say that he still had it in, it was very comfortable and he had yet to get to the dentist. Finally, a dentist said it was as good as any synthetic material he used and would just love to know what the lady in the rainforest had done.
Hortence grew up with midwives and started assisting her mother and grandmother at the age of nine. As a child she suffered with life-threatening bouts of asthma. Once, in the early 1940s, she nearly died from an asthma attack and had to be air-lifted from a chicle-camp to the Belize City Hospital. She loved to tell of that time because it was a near-death experience in which she got right up to the Pearly Gates and was turned back by an old, bearded man with a stone tablet who said her name was not yet in his book and she had to turn back the way she came. She described heaven as a beautiful place with lakes, ponds, orchards and a thousand colorful gardens. When she was well enough to walk around the hospital wards, she was coming out of a bathroom one day in time to see two men deliver a stretcher to the hospital and place it in the corridor where she stood. Hortence was thirteen years old. On the stretcher was a woman in final stages of labor. She looked over at Hortence and pleaded, “Come here child and catch this baby.” Hortence knew what to do and delivered the infant on her own, waited for the placenta to pass then wrapped the baby and placenta in her own hospital night gown and went to find the nurse. She was thirteen years old. It was on that occasion that one of the nurses gave little Hortence her first cigarette to calm her down, her only vice until the last years of her life.
Wherever Hortence was, animals and birds appeared. During a two-month long winter visit with us in Cayo, we marveled at the increase of sightings of wild animals. We hadn’t seen that many since we cleared the land twenty-five years before. Howler monkeys got so close it was scary. Birds built nests on our front porch. Hortence slept in the downstairs guest room that had a screen door which let out onto a side verandah. One morning, I heard a strange sound and went to the porch to look out and saw a very large black spotted jaguar cross the front of our house and jump into the bush. I ran downstairs to find Hortence and told her what I saw.
She got right up into my face, poked her finger in my chest and said, “You don’t say a word about it, you hear me? That cat is injured and has been sleeping at my doorstep now for more than a week. He’s here to get healed and to rest because he can’t run. He’s limping. No one can know about this. He needs time to heal where he can feel safe.” That night I slept in the same bed with her and sure enough around midnight that jaguar came loping with a limp and with a great sigh, laid his tired bulk of a body down right in front of her door. Through the bars and the screen you could see the slope of his back rising and falling as he breathed heavily. Before dawn, he rose up and loped away into the bush. He slept right there next to Hortence for a full month and just as she said, it was from new moon to new moon.
A few weeks later she was sitting outside in the early morning as she always did smoking and drinking coffee. When I came to sit with her, she said, “It will rain in three days.” “How do you know that,”I asked. “Bouncey, the little bird in the garden turned over a leaf today.”she answered. Like clockwork, in exactly three days the winter rains came. Hortence was that in tune with nature.
With the passing of Belizean traditional healers like Hortence Robinson, Elijio Panti, Thomas Green, Percival Reynolds, and Beatrice Waight, we are reminded how precarious is a nation’s intellectual heritage. They were members of the Traditional Healers Foundation and unselfishly shared their knowledge with the world. Their knowledge was deemed so valuable that the New York Botanical Garden established and maintained a decade long project, the Belize Ethnobotany Project under the direction of Dr. Michael Balick. Yes, plant names, uses, stories, myths, preparations and contraindications were recorded, but traditional healing is a science of the living. It is for the sick, the crippled and the maimed. It is for the troubled in mind and spirit. It is for those who seek help when medicine has no answers for them. Sadly, there are too few willing students. Belizeans, your precious cultural heritage is at a crucial stage. The sun is setting over your jewel. Your healers are dying out. They carried their torches bravely and selflessly for your benefit. What will you do now to preserve their plants, the medicine trees, and how will you contribute to the preservation of their life’s work? It is never too late to start, for in the words of Confucious, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is right now.”
Hortence taught me that when a person dies, their loved ones should pray for them, and light candles for them for a full thirty days because that is how long it takes for the soul to cross The Great Divide. She said that the deceased feel the prayers - that they light the path like little flames to the spirit world. Lighting a candle and saying prayers for the departed makes their passage warmer and safer. Let us all send up a thousand prayers on the wind for the safe and joyful passage of a wonderful human being, a Wise Woman and one of God’s angels. May she travel with the angels to the spirit realms, her path lit by the prayers and love of all those who knew her.