In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, environmental biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer offers a beautiful meditation on the interconnection of human experience and the natural world. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer uses vignettes from her own life and the history of her Anishinaabe ancestors to introduce us to the teachings of the plants and animals, particularly their lessons about our relationship with Mother Earth. There is much to reflect upon in this book, and I find myself reading sections of it again and again. As a person who is not of Native American lineage, I find there are important messages here for me about my role as the descendant of settler colonialists, as a 21st-century Pagan, and as a student of herbalism.
Kimmerer explains that plants native to this continent formed the basis of indigenous medicinal practices. According to the Anishinaabe, the plants gave their knowledge to Nanabozho, the Original Man, who shared the knowledge with the generations that followed him. Plants from other lands were not only strangers, but also carried unknown lessons and medicine. Even worse, they had the tendency to choke out indigenous plants. “Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regard to limits,” Kimmerer writes. In this way, the invasive plants bore (and continue to bear) a striking resemblance to the invasive humans who carried them here.
Plantain was one of the plants that came to this continent clinging to the shoes, clothes, animals and packs of European colonizers. The Anishinaabe called it White Man’s Footsteps because it seemed to appear everywhere the white people did. But unlike kudzu or its namesake, it did not choke out the indigenous species. “Its strategy was to be useful,” Kimmerer continues, “to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds. Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native.” In this sense, then, plantain offers a lesson for all of us whose families came to this land from somewhere else, whose own roots are not indigenous, but naturalized. We need to be more like plantain, less like kudzu:
“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.” (214-215)
In my family’s spiritual practices, we honor those who walked this land before us. We are white, and since we completed genetic testing via Ancestry.com, we know that our roots are exclusively European. (Well, my mother’s Sicilian heritage makes things a bit more interesting, but at the end of the day, the whiteness is pretty overwhelming.) As a family, we are committed to opposing racism and other forms of oppression, putting our unearned privileges to use where and when we can. This includes in our spirituality. At Samhain, a time when we honor our ancestors, we pray:
At this time, we honor the ancestors of this land. Those who lived in this place before us, who loved in this place before us, who struggled, and fought, and laughed, and celebrated in this place before us. The richness of their lives enriches this place still, blessing us daily. We recognize, too, that our presence here is the result of a long history of violence and injustice. While we did not participate in these tragedies, we benefit from them. We cannot undo the pain of the past, but we can honor the suffering and sacrifice of those who lived through it. As we honor them, we honor this place. As we care for this place, we care for them. In doing so, we become connected to the ancestors of this land, and they become part of us.
When I came across the passage about Plantain in Braiding Sweetgrass, I was deeply moved. Kimmerer introduces Plantain by describing a moment when she realized she had walked by a cluster of Plantain without noticing it. Given my own admission that I not only didn’t know what Plantain was but also had never noticed its abundance in my yard, I understood her embarrassment in “pass[ing] by an old friend without recognition.” (213) In some ways my mistake was more shameful, as I had never even bothered to get to know Plantain in the first place. Now that I had been introduced to Plantain, I am grateful for its presence. It reminds me of my own ignorance and the assumptions I make on a daily basis. It reminds me to slow down, to walk more gently, to take the time to see and know plants and people for who they truly are.
As I indicated in a previous post, Plantain has a multitude of medicinal uses. I didn’t know this until I took an introduction to herbalism course. Determined to learn but still skeptical, at the height of summer mosquito season, I decided to give Plantain the chance to show itself to me. As I sat in the sun, I slapped at mosquitoes. Inevitably, a welt began to form on my hand. I quickly plucked some plantain leaves, chewed them a bit, and then covered the rapidly expanding welt with the now-sticky green leaves. It didn’t feel like much was happening, but I resisted the urge to peek. After ten minutes or so, I finally took a look. The welt was significantly smaller. A few minutes later, it was gone. There was no pain, itching, or irritation. I had witnessed my first Plantain magic.
Plantain became the basis for my first salve. I combined four ounces of Plantain-infused grapeseed oil with 20 drops each of basil-infused olive oil, calendula tincture, and bergamot essential oil, and an ounce of melted beeswax. As I watched the salve cool in the tins, I wondered if the salve would “work.” I distributed Skin Soother amongst my friends. Few reported back, but those who did said they’d found it helpful and soothing for a variety of bites and welts. I have found that I love the feel of it, even when I don’t have a bite or scrape in need of soothing.
Braiding Sweetgrass taught me how Plantain can do more than soothe my skin. Plantain represents a better path forward, a way for those of us descended from the European settlers, from those who trampled their way across the continent, leaving our ancestors scattered across the prairies like Plantain seeds, to embrace our status as naturalized residents of this land. Like Plantain, we don’t have to elbow anyone else out in order to find our place. We can walk gently. We can dedicate ourselves to protecting the land, nurturing it and restoring it as we are able to do so. We can learn to honor Mother Earth and to listen to the lessons from the plants growing in our own backyards.