It’s been more than 300 years since Salem, Massachusetts sent its last witch into the great beyond, but the town’s dubious history with purveyors of the dark arts did not stop a HarperCollins editor from snagging a hand-made zine from an eclectic Salem shop called Hauswitch some years back, a decision that changed Kalispell author, herbalist, artist and, yes, witch Spencre McGowan’s life.
McGowan opened an email from that editor one day and, at first, didn’t think it was real.
“I thought it was my friend playing a joke,” McGowan recalled with a laugh.
It was no joke, and now the 28-year-old’s zine is becoming a book, “Blotto Botany,” scheduled for release by HarperCollins on Sept. 4. The book is a colorful combination of McGowan’s writings about herbalism, hand-made collages and recipes for cordials designed for healing specific ailments, just like the original zine.
“There’s a digestive brandy, there’s an aphrodisiac, there’s a Bloody Mary base and then there’s these syrups that you can add to and mix with other things,” McGowan said of the book.
The well-traveled McGowan said her interest in herbalism — the study of the use of plants for medicinal purposes — began as a teenager in Massachusetts and expanded when she took courses at the California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville, California. McGowan later taught classes at Hauswitch, spent time in her ancestral homeland of Sweden, started a website focused on herbalism (www.gingertoothandtwine.com) and settled in Kalispell a little more than a year ago.
McGowan writes a blog on her website and sells zines, including the original “Blotto Botany,” alongside tinctures she creates with names like Bitter Babe, Boss Blend and Lonely Heart.
“In (the book), you’re learning how to make cordials,” she added. “And the difference between a cordial and a tincture could be argued, but the purpose of a cordial is to be consumed by itself or put with cocktails.”
Bitter tinctures, on the other hand, are sold in small bottles and are commonly consumed by placing a few drops on one’s tongue. Both the tinctures and cordials, McGowan said, can be used to make a tasty alcoholic drink, hence the “blotto” in her book’s title. The result is a book full of remedies that she believes serve the dual purpose of healing and entertaining.
“All of them are really good in cocktails,” she said with a smile.
McGowan acknowledges the uniqueness of her field, and the blend of spirituality and science behind herbalism. She self-identifies as a witch, although not one who practices witchcraft.
“(Witch) is a word that has so many negative connotations to it because it can be seen as super new-agey or just weird, and, you know, what I do is weird,” she said. “It is (weird) but it’s so natural at the same time. These are plants, and that’s one of the most natural things.”
HarperCollins has not shied away from that aspect of McGowan’s work either, calling her a “witchy healing expert” on its website, and retailer Urban Outfitters’ desire to carry the book in time for Halloween helped push up the release date, McGowan said.
Even before the book is released, McGowan already has big plans for the future. She hopes to create more artwork to sell on her website and is currently in the process of converting a van into a tiny house and mobile herbal apothecary. The plan is to take the van in search of customers in Missoula and eventually to California.
Until then, McGowan will continue to grind away on her website, build her social media presence and create her tinctures, all while holding down a day job and preparing to promote her book. She may identify as a witch, but that’s not all.
“I’m also a writer and a businessperson, so that’s also really important to me,” she said. “And being taken seriously as both of those things, because I do run my own business by myself and it’s hard sometimes — and a lot of work.”
“Blotto Botany” is now available for pre-order through online retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and more. For more on McGowan, visit www.gingertoothandtwine.com.