Where would we be without plants?
We use them for food, clothing, shelter, tools and containers, fibers for tieing. We are connected to this kingdom of species because our survival depends on them. Trees give us oxygen. We give them carbon dioxide. We are interconnected with them. Our ancestors knew this. They were deeply in tune with the natural world, created ceremony and ritual to honor and give thanks for what they used.
Ethnobotany delves deeply into the cultural uses of plants, their contribution to providing that which we need. Ethnobotany is also concerned with lore, the knowledge passed down from one generation to another. We know from John Robbins research in Healthy at 100, once western civilization moves into more secluded areas, community structures break down. The connection to the elders breaks apart, too. Where do the stories go when children leave and seek ‘a better life’?
My first job out of nursing school was in the field of geriatrics. My patients were Jewish, a few were concentration camp survivors. My staff came from Jamaica, African Americans. I am Caucasian with Northern European and Native American roots. We were culturally a blend. I may have been the youngest staff member too.
I enjoyed getting to know my staff and patients. One lady was the neighborhood piano teacher and suffered from dementia. Her stories were lost. Another woman sat by her husband’s bedside crocheting every day as he suffered from a debilitating stroke which left him speechless. She had her own store, a businesswoman who wove her memories into each stitch because her husband could not talk. While I was not into wild edibles and medicinal plants at that point in my life, I valued their wisdom, their adventures, their perspective.
Today, with the exception of grassroots groups like United Plant Savers, herbal
networks, many of our stories on the uses of plants are almost lost. Books like Cherokee Herbal, by J.T.Garrett, offer plant wisdom. Stories are sprinkled throughout the book to bring the message from the plants in a way that strokes our imagination. Euell Gibbons books tell us about his experiences with plants, how he used them with specific recipes. His tales offer practical advice. He busts through some misperceptions too.
My students were interested in my plant stories and that is how At the Garden’s Gate was born. More importantly, I met students very interested in anthropology, and ethnobotany. Ethnobotany, as Dr. Manuel Lizarralde my guest this week so beautifully explained, is about more than just plants. It’s about our cultural uses and our dependence on the plant world: shelter, housing, food, medicine, clothing, tools for living and the lore that comes with them. They contribute to the richness, the mystery, and magic of our life
What stories do you have from your ancestors? Do you continue to weave baskets, make medicine, weave fibers into a rope? Let me know. Send in a short story or two. I would enjoy hearing your stories.