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Skye Botanicals

To Whole Foods and beyond, Monica Skye Miller has grown a line of beauty care products – with roots on the Vineyard, Costa Rica, and around the globe – into a successful business.

Baby Monica Skye Miller was baptized in a Pennsylvania prison by poet, peace activist, and priest Daniel Berrigan. Joan Baez sang, unaccompanied.

That was in the late 1960s: Joan Baez had already had a relationship with Bob Dylan and had become a major voice in the anti-war movement. Berrigan also was a mainstay of the peace movement – though he had yet to co-found the international anti-nuke Plowshares movement, or hit the FBI’s top ten most-wanted list after using homemade napalm to destroy hundreds of draft files.

These two icons of the peace movement were there, at the baptism in the prison, because the child’s father, David Miller, was behind bars.

David was, his daughter says, a “seriously religious pacifist” who was part of the leftist social movement Catholic Worker. He “lived in voluntary poverty and served soup to poor people,” and in 1965 became the first person to unlawfully burn his draft card after a federal law had been passed making draft-card destruction a felony. He received a two-year prison term as a result.

We mention this only because Monica herself does, when trying to explain how she feels “conflicted” about expansion plans for her business, Skye Botanicals, a line of herbal medicinal and beauty care products. It’s that new-age, lefty conundrum of how you measure success, what you weigh in the equation other than bottom-line growth.

“I’m not a capitalist at heart,” she says, sipping her politically, ecologically, and palatably optimal Zapatista coffee in her exquisitely scented home kitchen in Oak Bluffs.

No, at heart, she is an herbalist. And the roots of that are in the maternal line. Both her mother and grandmother were keen gardeners and makers of herbal medicines; in another age, Monica suggests, they might have been accused of witchcraft.

“From my childhood [most of it spent in England], we would always use herbs for healing. We grew our own plants. They were dedicated to the highest quality of anything.”

And, she says, she still is. As evidence, she starts exhibiting ingredients for her products: Here’s some rose-petal wax from France, a very expensive ingredient; she knows only one source for it. The ylang-ylang oil comes from a friend’s certified biodynamic farm in Costa Rica. (She digresses into an explanation of how to fertilize vanilla flowers by hand.)

“This lavender oil and rose oil are Bulgarian,” she says, adding, “we grow roses here on the Vineyard.” (She digresses into a comparison of heirloom roses and hybrid tea roses. She prefers heirlooms. Her favorites are ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ and ‘Charles de Mills’.)

“We grow healing herbs – a concentrated herb extract goes into a number of the products. The beeswax comes from here. We distill our own water. The yarrow comes from Thimble Farm.” (She digresses into a story about Achilles’ mother using it on him.)

She is not sure which country the sea-buckthorn oil comes from, but says it makes a great natural sunblock. (And she digresses into a denunciation of “toxic” commercial sunblock.)

The recitation of where the ingredients come from, their various healing or toning properties, along with the various digressions, takes a long time, but her point is abundantly made: Monica is passionate about her products and her process, from their organic growth to refined purity to their recycled packaging.

“The sourcing of these materials has taken the better part of ten years. Ever since I started being seriously interested enough to make a product.”

The business, she says, “crept up slowly.” The first product was an aromatic healing balm, about twelve years ago, two years after she came to live on the Vineyard. She now makes about twenty skin-care products – face creams, toners, hand and body lotions, cleansing solutions, even a “mandarin face polish” – as well as “herbal medicinal tinctures.” Adjectives like pure, healing, natural, and biodynamic crop up on the ingredients list with extraordinary frequency, along with Martha’s Vineyard, as in “extracts of Martha’s Vineyard healing herbs.”

“I’ve gone from being an herbalist to a cosmetics formulator. It’s much more complicated,” she says. But it’s paying off.

“Whole Foods accepted our product line,” she enthuses. “They have been working on this premium products status for two years [evaluating product ingredients and setting a standard for “premium body care” that looks at four areas: source, environmental impact, safety, and results]. They’ve been researching what goes into cosmetics and deciding what they think are the cleanest, most natural ingredients – and they accepted us.”

Her distributor now has her products in forty-odd other stores across New England and in shops in Kansas, New York, San Francisco, and Hawaii. Here on the Vineyard, Healthy Additions in Vineyard Haven, Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury, and Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown carry her products, and she also sells through her website (www.skyebotanicals.com).

“We like people to order directly,” she says. “It’s a better profit.”

But profit should have a purpose.

“Amassing wealth for the sake of it is not my thing,” she says.

A couple of years ago, Monica got a place in Costa Rica, where she can “go and play with the tropical flowers,” and which presents opportunities for expansion. She also got involved in helping local villagers, making donations to their church and getting classroom supplies. She has a plan to help pay for two girls to go to college next year.

At the moment, she buys raw materials from the farmers there; in the future, maybe the locals will be more directly involved in manufacturing products. “They may be the same products, they may be a little different because they’ll be based on materials we source right there,” she says.

“There’s different ways of growing a company,” says Monica. “But it has to be from a strong ethical base.And with too much growth, even the best companies just start watering it down. I want it to stay an artisanal company. Right now I make it right here, right in this kitchen.”

A witch’s kitchen, she suggests. The word for witch derives, some think, from the old English wiccan, to bend.

“You know,” Monica says, “bend or shape consciousness, bend energy. So it’s making with intent.

Like when you say, ‘What a beautiful meal, you put so much love into it.’ You know, because the energy was literally transferred, and that’s what magic is – it’s a transference of energy. And putting that love into what you do has to make a better product.”

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