Some friends and I went camping last weekend, and as we were setting up the canopy my friend’s forehead brushed some stinging nettles. She immediately started to feel a prickling sensation on her skin, but before 30 seconds had passed she found a fern and rubbed it on her forehead. The stinging stopped. The sickness and the cure were within inches of each other, but not everyone would have known that. Her knowledge gave her agency.
I had only heard of that particular remedy myself a couple of weeks prior, yet there are some who know the names and uses of all kinds of native plants. Heidi Bohan is one of those people. She’s an ethnobotanist, author of The People of Cascadia: Pacific Northwest Native American History, and she lives here in the Snoqualmie Valley. I attended a foraged cocktail class she taught out of her workshop with her daughter. She showed us how to chew up Oregon grape leaves and press them on cuts for near instantaneous healing. We used knives to strip the brown and yellow bark off the Oregon grape branches to use in making bitters for our cocktails. She told us how to carefully harvest Devil’s Club roots, elderflower, and all sorts of other plants that have practical, medicinal uses, plants that grow all around us. When I take the time to look, there is abundance everywhere. I’m so in awe of this world and the resources available to us when we have the necessary knowledge.
For many, though, this knowledge has been lost. Somewhere along the way, the tradition of passing down wisdom and information from generation to generation broke down, and we abdicated our health to professionals. By no means am I slamming doctors or pharmaceutical companies—they are indispensable for many things—but the day to day ability to care for our own bodies using the resources literally in our own backyards is, for the most part, a thing of the past.
In my community, however, I know of at least four groups who are reteaching people these forgotten skills: Heidi’s Gatherer to Gardener workshops, in which she teaches foraging, basket weaving, wood carving, natural dyes, plant identification and medicine preparation, among other things; Nettle Nonsense helps people immerse themselves in nature, “spending time with the plants and listening to their stories. The plants tell of their lives and habitats, their connection to a greater and larger whole that surrounds us all.”; The Farm Wife Mystery School has classes on preparing plant-based medicines, preserving foods, making soap, and much more; and the Wilderness Awareness School teaches adults the skills to survive in the wild using the plants growing in the forest. All of these teachers are within eight miles of my home, and I’m excited to have a lifetime of learning ahead of me.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t too long ago that I didn’t even know when asparagus was in season. Now that we live in the country, though, we’ve started to notice the rhythm and bounty of the natural world. Three springs in and I can anticipate the return of Swainson’s thrush, its serenade an unmistakable upwardly spiraling trill. I can identify salmonberry and huckleberry by leaf, flower, or fruit, Oregon grape, Devil’s Club, nettles, and I know at least some of the uses for each.
We may have lost much of the knowledge of our ancestors, but it can be found again. We can teach our children and they can teach their children, and perhaps we’ll see future generations filled with persons of agency taking care of themselves, the earth, and each other. It starts and ends with caring.
Rachel Womelsduff Gough and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cheered on by her husband and two blonde babes, Rachel learns by getting her hands dirty, whether it’s gardening, chicken farming, canning, neighboring, or adventuring with soulmates in wild places. She reads constantly, and can’t live without coffee, flowers, and classic mystery stories.