Today I want to share an interview I did with my son Hudson about my life growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and how that influenced who I am today. We talk about where I grew up in Eastern Oregon, how I made salve with my mom, how I learned about plants through foraging, and more. Watch the interview, or read the transcript below. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy!
Suzi: I'm Suzi Kelley, and I am the owner of Suzi's lavender. And I'm here today, I'm super excited to have my own son, Hudson, who is working on the design team of the company, interviewing me today. Just asking some questions regarding, you know, what it was like when I was a kid and some of the things that kind of led me to where I am today. So I'm ready if you're ready, go ahead!
Hudson: Great, that was a good introduction. So I'm part of the marketing team, at Suzi's. And so we thought we just do this little conversation. So just to get started with, I think that something that often influences people is where they grew up. Today you happen to live in now a similar region, more or less, from where you grew up. But you grew up in Eastern Oregon. So maybe you could say something about growing up in Eastern Oregon. What was that like?
S: Eastern Oregon is the dry part of the state. I grew up in the Blue Mountain area and La Grande Oregon. And that area is fairly remote compared to the larger metropolitan area like Portland where I am today. And so as a kid growing up in Eastern Oregon, we had a lot of freedom. Back in the day, we had bikes to tear around on, and we raised horses, we lived on a farm/ranch, and my sister and I raised horses. So we had a lot of responsibility out there, watching our baby colts being born and training them up to enjoy them as adult horses.
We were out wild harvesting quite a lot. We lived on a mountain where there was elderberry and huckleberry and all kinds of wild things that could be eaten. And basically what we learned was what was safe to eat what wasn't. A little experimenting there! And then we basically just had to be home for dinner. So we had a really free lifestyle growing up.
We lived outdoors, absolutely spent tons of time outside. You know, my father (your grandfather) was a forester. A big outing for us would be just to go up into the woods and watch Dad work. We would spend a lot of time running along the logs, and running out into the forest. And you know, I think our first pet was a chipmunk.
H: Oh yeah! Because you guys would lure them in.
S: Yeah, we did. Our dog actually helped us catch them. And he had a really soft mouth, so he would catch the chipmunks and we could take them home and pretend like they were our pets. And then on our excursions to the woods, you know, it was our duty to let those go. We had a good time being leased out in more of a wild kind of place where we had a tremendous amount of freedom. We learned how to swim in the rivers. And in the winter, we learned how to ice skate on those same frozen rivers.
H: I want to ask about the time that Danny built a cabin up behind the house. Because that kind of gives a really good picture of what you guys got up to.
S: Yeah, and that wasn't the first! We initially dug a hole in the ground, a deep hole. And we tried to build an underground house. And we accomplished that pretty well. But we didn't seal the roof and one day it flooded completely.
Before I knew it he had us convinced to drag all these logs and all this lumber up this gigantic hill to this premium spot. So he had a view.
H: Didn't we go and check that side out when we were up there?
S: Yeah, there's not a whole lot left of it! But yeah, that's a pretty good example of I grew up!
H: So back in those days, I think you said that you kind of got into doing some foraging and collecting and berries and stuff like that. To you, it probably was just, you know, it was just normal. I mean, you ate what you found in the woods. But as you got older, did those lessons kind of carry along with you into your love of plants? Because growing up, you've always had a garden everywhere we've lived, and you put just tremendous amount of time into it. And then the lavender.
S: I think you know, if you grew up out in the natural world, you just automatically grow closer to plants. We actually spent a lot more time out with each other and exploring than we did in town with other kids. And you know, also our parents, your grandparents, taught us how to identify plants, and then how to smell the difference between conifer trees—like in the bark of a pine tree, it smells like vanilla. And so we always just knew how to find different things out there.
I do think it influenced me because it was a natural connection to the natural world that I just always felt comfortable with. Sometimes I felt more comfortable out there than I might in the city. So growing up that way, you know, we learned a lot about how to live when we're young. S that tends to kind of stick with us as we get older. And of course we harvested elderberry, so that we could make the family salve once a year. Mom had us all set up to know when to do that.
H: Wow. So you learned that process. How old were you when you first made the salve?
S: Well, yeah, I believe that when we got involved, I was more like third or fourth grade. And by the time I was fifth or sixth grade, we were kind of on our own. Mom would crack the whip and out we'd go to get that elderberry.
So it's possible that she taught me a lot about being a scientist as well. And I really wasn't aware of time.
H: I guess I didn't know that she measured it all out and everything like that. That's pretty cool.
H: And so I guess as life went on. You moved away from there, became a teacher for more than 30 years. And then you were in Nebraska, trying to grow lavender in a region where it was pretty difficult. How did you get into lavender?
S: I had been exploring the therapeutic properties of essential oils about 15 years ago, I got interested in it. And I love the color blue. And I may have landed on lavender by mistake. But when I saw the plant itself, I thought, man, I'm going to grow this stuff. I'm going to grow this stuff and learn everything I can about it. And that's when we set up the in-town trial. We had 13 different varieties and four different soil types.
It turns out that lavender will knock pain down. So I discovered that when I made my very first salve, and I had lavender in it (because I love the smell), oh my gosh, I'm like what is different about this salve? The pain is gone. So lavender will decrease inflammation and decrease pain. That was my first lesson on you know, how do you build a product that can help yourself and other people. So I basically got started there, in town, before we moved to the farm in Nebraska, and ended up transplanting the stronger plants to the farm. I got started just falling in love with the color and the smell and then digging a little deeper doing my research.
H: That's really cool. That's interesting you came to it from just loving that plant. But I guess that really speaks to your kind of penchant to be a gardener in general. Do you hope to have lavender growing en masse again?
S: Right now we have about 50 plants in the ground. And we're scoping out one little area to do this summer. Right now with my condition with arthritis, I like to keep things manageable. Yeah, and the farm, was not as manageable.
The other thing I learned after giving up the farm was that working cooperatively with other people was really magic. Learning from them. Harvesting with them. Right now we're working with yet another farm up in Washington for some of our hydrosols. And it's just really been a community building kind of exciting thing that I really wasn't expecting.
So yes, I have my own lavender, just enough to get me by for culinary kind of needs. And then I have it hanging all over the house, of course. But I love lavender. And I always like to share my love of that very nurturing and therapy boil.
H: That's great. I guess one of the coolest things for the last couple years is a collaboration between you and Lavender Hill Farm on Vashon Island with Cathy MacNeal. So maybe you could talk a little bit about the hydrosol you get from them.
S: Cathy grows a great variety of just gorgeous plans on her farm Lavender Hill Farm on Vashon Island. We go up once a year at least for the harvest and the process of steam distillation of the plants. You'll see in pictures, if you look online, how that's done. And then there's a byproduct. And the byproduct is the hydrosol. The hydrosol is an emulsion of water and oil. So when you think about it, water and oil don't mix, the oil is lighter. So it sits on top. So that I was drawn to that immediately because of my super dry skin. Wow, I'm going to try this on my skin, I thought. This is all organic, how can we get better? It's unfiltered. It's organic. It has all the turpenes, all chlorophyll. The goodness is there from the plant. So we started working with Cathy, after the year that you were there. Just asking her: "Is there any way I can buy this from you? And how much can I get?!" And then one year I did some planting for her and just developed a really great friendship. And now it's just an annual thing. Just we talk to each other a couple of months out and we're ready to go. And we're always getting more hydrosol from her and also wreaths and stems of lavender during the season.
H: I remember, it's actually really fun to go there. When I was when I was working there, people would show up and it was so funny: they'd just sit down on a bench. And then look at the lavender plants which kind of go down to this little cove, an inlet in a bay. And they would say "I feel so relaxed." (laughs)
H: Which is great, because, I mean, people need that.
H: Speaking of that kind of thing, you were a teacher for over 30 years. What kind of lessons did you take from teaching, or what have you applied to your company, you know, in terms of understanding people?
S: Well, there are probably more things and we have time for one learns from teaching. There's so many facets to it. But I think the biggest takeaway is community. Learning how working together as a community, a learning community, is very beneficial. Learning how to work with other people, especially how to listen, and how to show that you're present. All of those things a teacher is either really good at or not so great at. (laughs) And I think students can benefit from having a teacher who's a great listener, who gets right in there, I learned how people love to be active, and not complacent. I learned how people don't really, always enjoy being a spectator, that being active is a better way to learn. I was able to do some pretty crazy things with the freedom I had as a teacher, with students that I felt were beneficial to their ability to learn about themselves.
We worked on being peaceful in the classroom, we worked on being unstressed. Like the way we held ourselves: we had five minutes of quiet time at the beginning of every hour. And I feel like I tried to promote a humanistic kind of, "We're here. We're all human. Everybody makes mistakes. Let's learn together."
So I think it helped me build a philosophy around my life, you know what it is to be human? And what is the journey that we're on? Yes, we're going to make mistakes. We're going to learn, and we're going to do it together.
H: Totally. I can definitely see that in the way that it comes through with the warmth that you show, about the company, and all the products.
S: Thank you.
H: Yeah, for sure! So we're getting close to the 20 minute mark. Maybe you could talk a little bit about some goals or ideas for the future? What's next for you and for the company?
S: Oh my gosh yes. That's a good question. This is like a never ending love of life for me.
You know, if I were to write a book, I would have to say I'm already doing it, because this is kind of the story of my life. And I think everyone has a story to their life as they live their life every day. For me, our goals are really embracing communities of people who are looking for, first of all, of course, amazing skincare products at an affordable price that everyone can benefit from, because of the way that we formulate. To help circulation to help decrease inflammation to keep our skin stay moisturized and calm. And calm being the operative word about how I formulate. I see myself helping people learn how to access calm in their daily lives, in their skincare routines, in their daily rituals. And if I had one big hope for the future, it would be to continue to give back to nature.
Also I'd like to give pack to places where people go outdoors. I'd love to be able to promote outdoor schools, from K through 12. Traditionally, outdoor schools are mostly fourth and fifth and sixth graders. I want to see kids outdoors, K through 12! And I'd love to be able to subsidize and write scholarships for those kids. As well as continuing to offer support to women's shelters. And that takes money, and it takes time, and it takes real passion. But we started in a small way doing that when I first started back in Nebraska. And so as we can afford to do these things, I want to promote them as much as I can, each and every new season that we're here.
So those are big goals for me. They feel real, because they're local. And that's also really important. I'm sure I would love to to help the world, but the world is out of my hands. Local is not so much. It's closer. And I feel like we can really build strong communities, even through skin care company by just how we present ourselves, and then invite people to enjoy. For example, we have a really great thing coming up for Mother's Day with journaling. We're handing out free journals: this is one right here. And I actually started writing my own. We want to promote people writing, and scribbling, and painting, and drawing and just expressing and embracing their time in this life. And so I am really excited for the future of Suzi's Lavender and my connection to my community, which is growing. Yeah, so thankful.
H: One last question about being connected with the bio region that you're in: The Pacific Northwest. What does environmental stewardship mean to you? I ask because you were a science teacher, so you studied ecology. And then also you have this intimate emotional connection. So maybe you could speak a little bit about that?
S: Well, that, again, is a really important thing about being local, is we can have local impact on how we address climate change. We can have local impact on how we build communities to create an opening for people to speak to one another about these impending issues with flooding and drought in forest fires. And I have sort of a sense of this pressure that's on the natural world today. And I can actually feel the pressure when I go out on the trails, and I see so many more people and you know, suited for the outdoors, but not really if you're carrying a liter of pop with you! (laughs) And I think to myself, why are we here? And in this natural place? Let's really revere this. Growing up I was taught to revere the natural world. Let's be sure that we're all out here living this life, loving these natural places. But doing our best to be aware of the issues: driving less, carpooling more, taking the bike or walking, and making sure people are out enjoying these beautiful places. Because if we don't have a relationship with it, we don't care about it. So that's the bottom line. We want to develop relationships with the natural world, because then we will protect them. We will protect the natural resources of water, and air, and soil. It's a big job. And it we all have to pitch in.
H: I think that if we can see that each person's committment and energy helps it can feel like we're getting somewhere. If you look at a mountain, you think I have to climb that whole thing alone. That can feel daunting. But I think focusing on the small things every day, it does take some effort, but I think it's absolutely worth it. And yeah, so thanks for that.
S: Absolutely. I heard a person say once "Are we not interesting to one another?" And that's powerful! Because the key is even though we have great differences, we have so much in common. And that's the bridge we need to build.
H: Absolutely. Well I think that's a good note to end on. Build bridges, not walls!
S: Yeah! (Laughs)
H: Alright, thank you very much.
S: Thank you.