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