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  • Writer's pictureCalyx

Ancestors of Place

For those of us who were not raised with the stories of the plants, without elder knowledge passed down, it can feel tricky to find our footing. As one grows in their knowledge of plants, people will begin to seek you and and say "What can you tell me about this plant?" and because we’ve learned from a fragmented system it’s tempting to respond with, “Well, it’s good for XYZ.”

I still catch myself doing this. It is, after all, what most people expect for an answer when they're speaking with an herbalist, even though an answer like that always leaves the inquirer with a sense of incompleteness... because the information isn’t rooted in anything. I’ve spent several years resisting this type of shallow, allopathic, fragmented response, but it’s taken some time to develop an understanding of what comes in place of it. From an herbalists perspective, we could discuss it in a more holistic fashion and a less utilitarian way. But that still reduces it to a shadow of its true being. It is our relationships with the plants and with the places which they are a part of that fills in the missing detail and grounds it. When we take the time to develop those relationships, we are gifted the stories of the plants. And though without elder knowledge those stories can sometimes be laborious and time consuming to digest, as we assimilate them we weave our own unique stories in with them.

Questions like these are best answered with stories and further curiosity. While their uses or history may be part of that story, it’s important that we cultivate the stories that come from our own relationships with the plants.

Mitchella repens, or Partridge berry, is known as a reproductive remedy, particular as a parturient or labor preparation remedy. But the plant is much more than it’s medicinal applications. Partridge berry embodies “the whole is greater than the sum of its part” in a very tangible way: two tiny white flowers form into a single fruit. To me, the partridge berry signifies union in relationship. The moment when two individuals cross paths and share something that bonds them together, whether only for a moment or for a lifetime. Partridge berry, like all plants, can also teach us about interplant relationships. Partridge berry thrives beneath the canopy of Tsuga canandensis, the Eastern Hemlock. As a child I was always drawn to the one hemlock tree in our wood. The hemlock provides shelter; beneath the canopy of a hemlock tree is a quiet, dark place. It creates a sense of safety and comfort. It is within this space that trust gestates. These two plants have a lot to teach us about relationships, community, and how we interface with the world due to our own preconceived notions, social conditioning, and traumas. They are also both evergreen, and for that I am thankful because it takes many hours of sitting with them to deeply understand their stories.

Stories are not just musing or theoretical sound bites, though. Place based stories contain real and practical wisdom. When we reintegrate back into the land and back into place based practice, we invite these local plants back into our lives as ancestors. Hemlock is no longer a metaphor for security, it literally shelters us in the rain and nourishes us in the winter. Partridge berry is no longer a mere representation of reproduction, it literally feeds our mothers and strengthens their womb's as their children gestate. These plants not only become part of the stories of our children, they become part of the children themselves, in a very literal sense. They become ancestors.

Bioregional herbalism is about living in accordance with the land instead of bending it to our will, however it is not merely about reducing our carbon footprint, supporting local growers, or utilizing under-appreciated weeds. It isn't just about ethical sourcing, avoiding cultural appropriation, or protecting endemic plants. It isn't about self-sufficiency or individualism. It is about the rebellious act of building community. It is about decolonizing our minds so that we can decolonize our actions. It's underpinning is the act of rooting ourselves into the land. Until we can see the land as material and spiritual sustenance, see it as kin, and see ourselves as part of it, we will continue to seek feeling whole in places that cannot ever fill the void homesickness. When we acknowledge the ancestorship of the land itself we become better ancestors ourselves.

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