tofino profile - carmen bell

Tofino Profile: Carmen Bell

by Shirley Langer, Tofino


Bottles and jars of all shapes and sizes containing tinctures, oils, salves, teas and balms line the shelves. On other shelves is a “library” of jars of single herbs. All are beautifully labeled. Dangling from overhead lines are bunches of drying herbs: Pennyroyal, Self Heal, Chamomile, Raspberry Leaf, Spearmint. On a large table rest baskets heaped full of gathered plants—a cornucopia of colours and aromas. I’m in the apothecary room of Carmen’s new house, a room dedicated for the preparation of herbs for healing purposes.

Carmen is mistress of this apothecary. In her own words she is “obsessed with herbs”, dedicated to learning about their natural medicinal properties. Though herbal medicine is her prime passion, she is a woman of many sides. This is how Carmen describes herself—“part redneck, part hippy, and on my way to becoming a witch”. We’re talking here about a good witch, of course; one who possesses the knowledge to dispense good medicine.

Carmen herself is a strong dose of good medicine, a unique blend of tall, lean, spunky tomboy, gentle feminist, tough workhand, nature girl and conscientious mother. Throw in a dollop of punk non-conformist and voila! you’ve got Carmen Bell.

We all see Carmen around most days fulfilling her Public Works duties with the District of Tofino. She always seems cheerful no matter what she is doing. I try hard to get her to complain about some part of her job, such as tackling a plugged public toilet—now that can’t be fun. No, plugged toilets don’t bother her. How about macho behavior about her being a chick doing this kind of man’s work? Nope. The guys she works with are all “awesome! And the public is simply curious”. She even finds the wayward dogs of Tofino fun. This redhead is impossibly nice!

She’s also quite thoughtful. Carmen’s predecessor in Public Works was a woman, Zoë Rodocanachi. Carmen says Tofino benefited hugely because “Zoë carved the path of equality” for those following in her footsteps. High praise was heaped too on George Herbert, long time District employee. “George works quietly behind the scenes, can do anything, can fix anything, and is always looking out for Tofino’s interests,” she says. “Best boss I’ve ever had!”

Carmen was raised in Terrace, when industry there was booming—logging, pulp mills, a sawmill and Alcan. This accounts for the “redneck” part. She was serious about soccer and competitive swimming, but also studied ballet and classical music.

Because her mother had close friends in the First Nation community, Carmen spent a lot of time visiting. She helped at harvest time, was taught beadwork, attended potlatches, was treated like family. This early First Nation experience provided her with the spirituality that led to Carmen’s love of the land. That spirituality endures. I guess that’s the “hippy” part.

And the tomboy? In mid-teens, the family moved to the suburbs of Langley. Too much cement and rich spoiled city kids who acted like hoodlums was not her scene, but Carmen found a diversion. She applied for the position of manager of the boy’s rugby team, and got it. “It was a blast!” And the non-conformist? “After games, all the guys came back to my place for hot-tubbing.”

Eventually, the lack of wild natural environment in the city made Carmen too unhappy, so at age eighteen, she took her first tree-planting job on the backside of Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna. Working out on the land, Carmen “fully found herself and did well”. Until she was twenty-four, Carmen planted trees in every type of environment, some extremely challenging—steep terrain, enormous slash. She loved it all, beginning with “living on the edge”, in places like Holberg at the top of Vancouver Island; spending days off at Cape Scott.

Paid by the day for units planted, depending on the effort she put into it, Carmen earned on the average of $300. a day. It wasn’t all roses though. Some loggers don’t much like the planters, labelling them hippies. This sometimes caused tension in the camps, which sometimes spilled over as aggression on the logging roads. It was during this itinerant, tree-planting phase that she began identifying and collecting herbs, and married and brought daughter Sayge into the world.

Carmen first came to Tofino in 1994, on a summer break between contracts. “I was hooked,” she says. “Tofino became my destination after a contract. A place where I could study.” And what was Carmen studying? Phytotherapy—that’s plant-based medicine in plain English. Carmen became a phytotherapist after three years of study by correspondence from the School of Phytotherapy in Sussex, England: a satellite college to Cardiff University of Wales. The course required six weeks at the school each year, and practicums completed on Denman Island and Victoria. Carmen respects every school of medicine, saying “each has appropriate treatments.” However, she disagrees with the tendency of western-based medical practitioners to treat most symptoms with pharmaceuticals.

When Carmen finally moved to Tofino, her first job was at Tofino Botanical Gardens, where among other things, she established a flourishing medicinal herb garden. At Tin Wis two years as a server, she happily re-established her connection with First Nation people. She’s been working three years now for the District, leaving her mark. Look for the young Sequoia tree she planted recently near the public washrooms. And have you noticed the newly planted showpiece floral bed around the Welcome to Tofino sign? That’s Carmen’s hand.

Having moved eighteen times since moving here, Carmen now has a place of her own, a house where she can follow her dream in her own apothecary room. Though not in business, Carmen receives many calls for consultation.

Shirley Langer describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic consciousness.

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Tofino profile of Carmen Bell of Clayoquot Botanicals in Tofino. Written by Shirley Langer for Tofino Time magazine.

tofino time august 2005

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