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Botanizing Zanzibar

The lights of Mkoani were just blinking on when our bus pulled in to the docks.  A crescent moon hung like an Arabian scimitar over the blue-black waters of the Indian Ocean where the tramp steamer awaited my departure, the first voyage of a journey that would bring me home.  I’d been botanizing the islands of Zanzibar for a month and three days, and I was returning home with journals filled with writing, a grain sack stuffed with dried spices, and a precious bundle of about 70 species of dried seeds, tightly packed in a red flour sack, the bounty of a month’s worth of delving and dealing, picking and preening, separating and drying, buried now deep within my goods.  Politely refusing many offers of assistance with the luggage, I disembarked, stood briefly in line at the ticket seller’s, and purchased a one way ticket on a first class berth to the island of Unguja.  I would share the cabin with a family of curious cockroaches, but would be spared the raucous company of revelers that otherwise packed the noisy,  oily, cramped and humid second and third class levels of the steamer.  It was the first night of Ramadan, a religious holiday observed by the vast majority of the population.  During the day people fasted.  At nightfall special foods were laid out, and people feasted.  I pocketed my ticket and swung my bags to a resting place against the trunk of a friendly hardwood tree that overhung the tin roof of the ticket office.  Then, I seated myself against the aromatic bulk of my bag of spices and watched as the parking lot came alive with activity.  Food sellers made two sinuous lines from the barricades at the dock up along toward the rows of claptrap busses and taxis.  The women sat or crouched, opening baskets filled with fried octopus and squid, fishes on skewers, samosas and soft rolls, bright candies, oranges, green coconuts and the omnipresent banana.  People crowded around these food sellers and gave them eager business, bringing the food in folded newspapers to benches and low walls that surrounded the parking, eating voraciously after the day’s fast.  A murmur of happy conversation welled up from the docks, and there was much rumpling of newspaper and smacking of lips.  I was hungry, too.  Surmising that my luggage was too heavy to be easily carried off by miscreants, I left it propped there against the tree, and sauntered over to a girl who had soft, newly baked rolls and tough fried squid, purchasing the warm viands with colorful local currency and returning safely to my seat.  Having finished eating, I was approached by a large man dressed in black pants and a white shirt.  The pants were held up around his jolly belly with a knotted string.  The shirt was pulling apart at the buttons, revealing a smooth black belly that pillowed out like overstuffed sausage. 

                “What are you doing in Zanzibar?” he asked in standard Swahili.  I was glad that he wasn’t using the local island slang, which I’d never quite picked up on.  “I’ve been botanizing,” I answered. 

                “Oh,” he said, “do you know the local plants?”  “Some of them,” I answered.  “And I use them, too.  I’m a witch doctor.”  “Well then,” he replied, only half believing me, and smiling challengingly.  “What tree is this where you are sitting?” 

                I looked up into the darkened branches and just discerned the pointed, compound leaves of a neem tree.  “It’s mwarobaini,” I said, and needlessly explained that this meant “treats 40 diseases” and proceeded to list as many of them as I could think of at the moment.  “The leaves can be chewed to heal rotten gums and improve the breath,” I said.  “And the twigs make good toothbrushes.  The fat from the seeds will kill scabies and head lice.  The bark can be made into a cold infusion to cure the fever of malaria.  And the bark can be cut away from the tree to make the soles of shoes.” 

                All throughout this recitation the man remained unimpressed, as if I was telling him nothing new.  But at this last statement, he visibly brightened.  “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t know you could make shoes out of the bark of mwarobaini!”  Then, in order to illustrate my point, I indicated  the trunk of the tree above my head, where two foot-shaped scars revealed the spots where somebody had harvested a handy pair of sandals from this giving tree.  The man laughed until I thought his shirt buttons would surely pop.  Then someone called to him, so wishing me safe travels, he melted back into the crowd.  I settled down to wait for the steamer, and as I sat there, undisturbed, my mind roved back over the plants and trees I’d learned to identify and utilize to treat myself and local people during my travels.  They were ingrained in my memory, and I recounted them mentally, and this is what I was thinking about . . .   

A walk through a spice plantation. 

Mixed crop systems are very common, with groves of cinnamon and clove interspersed with towering nutmeg trees and an understory of bananas, cardamon and vanilla.  The people have made a business not only of growing and preparing spices for export, but in giving taste-test tours and showing off the plants and trees that have earned Zanzibar the “Spice Islands” adage.  Once you get to know the local people, they will inevitably ask “Have you gone on spicey?” This means,  “Have you toured a spice plantation yet?”  If the answer is no, then they will enthusiastically recommend that you do so.  And I would recommend this, too.  It’s amazing to see and taste the plants and trees that produce the familiar spices of world cuisine. 

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum).  The Swahili is “mpilipili manga” which means “Arabian pepper.”  I had imagined that this would grow on a tree but was surprised to find that it grows on a vine.  The farmers train the vines to a post, and harvest the drooping clusters of fruits at different times and process them in various ways to produce three grades of peppercorns:  white, red or black.  These are mainly given over to export, although the pepper is sometimes used locally,  to preserve and/or spice various dishes, mostly containing meat.

Cardamon (Elettaria cardamomum).  The Swahili is “iliki.”  At least two varieties exist:  small cardamon and giant cardamon.  This is an herbaceous plant that grows much like ginger and has extraordinary flowers that give way to the pods filled with sticky, aromatic seeds.  The pods are used as a spice, as a flavoring for tea, and as a carminative medicine.  Although many of the spices of Zanzibar are used very sparingly in local cuisine, cardamon is an exception.  It is commonly used in chai, and my guides (and I) chewed the pods as we walked. 

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum).  The Swahili is “mdalasini.”  The trees are very fast growing and can be allowed to grow singly, in which case they attain the form of a midsize, fountaining hardwood, or they can be planted in a line and trimmed to a hedge, for the purpose of privacy and as a wind break.  The bark is reddish and thick, and can be rossed, then peeled back from the trees in vertical strips so as not to kill the tree.  The bark is then sun dried whereupon it curls into quills.  Thick and ugly bark is ground up into powdered cinnamon.  Thinner, higher grade bark is dried into cinnamon sticks.  Let the buyer beware–Cassia bark is often substituted for true cinnamon.  But in Zanzibar, I saw only true cinnamon growing.

Clove (Eugenia aromatica).  The Swahili is “mkarafuu.”  This is the name of the tree.  The Swahili for the pregnant, bright red, swollen fruits that can be planted to produce more trees is “matende.”  The spice is made up of the flower buds, which are colored green at first , then turn bright red, and are then sun dried to produce the cloves of commerce.  The cloves are dried on mats in the sun, and turned several times daily.  Everyone rushes out to cover the cloves when a rainstorm approaches, lest the wetting of the cloves result in a diminution of quality.  Clove wood is used in construction and for fuel.  In local medicine, the cloves are a treatment for vascular disease.  They are ground, mixed with fat, and applied to the skin.  There is also a brisk business in clove oil (a topical and oral analgesic) and in clove soap (delightful).  Cloves as a commodity are controlled by the government of Zanzibar, and the price is very low to the producer and relatively high to the buyer.  Zanzibar produces the majority of cloves that are consumed on the world market.  Locals complain that the work of picking the flower buds is laborious and dangerous (one must climb high up into the trees) and that the wages are inadequate.  I observed many large sacks of cloves being loaded onto a steamer at the docks of Wete, on the northern coast of Pemba, the greenest island in the archipelago.  Higher prices are paid for black market cloves, but they must be exported surreptitiously.  Native dhows  with hand-carved wooden hulls and sails made of sewn-together rice sacks are loaded to the gills.  They brave the seas between the spice islands and the port of Mombasa in Kenya where the cargo is sold at a premium. 

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus/flexuosus).  The Swahili is “nchaichai” meaning  literally “tea-tea,”  which implies “something tea-like.”  The plant is used in local production of crude essential oil and in perfumery.  The dried leaves are used by traditional healers to make an infusion against headache and cough.  They sometimes recommend aspirating the tea through the nose. 

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans).  The Swahili is “mkungumanga” which means “Arab nutmeg,” a name which is generally pronounced with a hushed, conspiratorial, and slightly embarrassed tone of voice.  The reason for this is that most locals know the fruits to be an intoxicating sexual stimulant.  The tree is very large and spreading, a handsome tropical hardwood.  The nut occurs inside a large fleshy pericarp, a presentation not unlike our English walnut.  Around the seed is wrapped a bright red, waxy net-like lattice,  which is the mace.  Basically, this is two commercially recognized spices in one, although the taste of mace, albeit stronger than seed nutmeg, is nonetheless very similar.  Locally, the seeds are ground into powder and used as a flavoring in porridge.  At night, the amorous couple may grind the seeds with anticipatory ardor, and make a hot tea, which is drunk before bed. There is good international trade, although the spice tends to get old and consequently loses much of its kick before it makes its way to the world market.  Fresh nutmeg is astoundingly potent.

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia).  The Swahili is “mvanila” which is pretty easy to remember.  This is the dried pod of the vine of the vanilla orchid and it is an expensive commodity, reflecting the great care and hand labor required to grow it.  The saprophytic vines are mulched with coir and trained up a nurse tree.  The flowers must be hand-pollinated on a dry morning, and if this narrow window of opportunity is missed, there will be no vanilla pod.  It would be like trying to milk your cow without breeding her.  The pods are carefully picked at maturity and fermented and dried to produce the familiar sticky, black spice that one likes to find in very small chunks in one’s ice cream.  Even in Zanzibar, vanilla pods are expensive and somewhat rare.  As an aside, I inquired as to the name of the nurse tree and was told the trees were “mjengaua.”  I thought this was a great find, to know the name of the nurse tree, and wrote it in my notes, and eagerly went back to my little room at Sharook’s Guest House in the little town of Wete to pore over my references and find the Latin name.  But then I leaned back in my squeaky chair and looked at the stained ceiling and murmured “mjengaua, mjengaua, why is that so familiar?”  And in that moment I realized what the guide had done–not knowing the real name of the tree, he’d made up a contraction on the spot.  Mjengaua means “that which hangs the flower!” 

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata).  The Swahili is “mlangilangi,” again, easy to remember.  The “m” prefix simply means “tree.”  Another full-sized tropical hardwood.  On “spicey” I smelled the characteristic, heavenly fragrance, before I even saw the tree.  My guide ordered one of his workers to scale the tall trunk and bring down a flowering branch.  I kneeled down to change my camera lens, which only takes a second, and when I stood back up was amazed to find the fellow standing before me,  proffering a nice branch.  He wasn’t even out of breath.  I’ll never know how he did that so fast!  Anyway, the branch was thickly studded with the star-like, green flowers, redolent with oil glands, and the entire affair smelled so strongly that I nearly went to sleep on the spot.  Later, in the car back from the spice tour, we were all fighting sleep–the whole car was redolent with the fragrance.  Locals make an oil infusion by partially drying the flowers and leaves, then steeping in coconut oil for a day or two in the sun, then straining and bottling up in the usual manner.  This is a potent sexual stimulant, a perfume, and an invitation to deep sleep and Elysian dreams. 

Tropical annuals for planting in the temperate north:

One of the main motivations for visiting Zanzibar (besides pouring cultural WD-40 on the rusty hinges of my dormant Swahili) was to identify tropical annual herbs that could conceivably be successfully grown in the temperate north.  This part of my mission was released to the winds of chance, and with good luck I came across a number of cultivars that turned out to be useful.  These were grown out in our gardens at Horizon Herbs with good success, so that we could produce our own organically certified seed.  They have become popular varieties that are now  grown throughout the US. 

African Bird Peppers (Capsicum frutescens).  The Swahili is “mpilipili hoho.”  These make bright red fruits, pointed, as small as the beak of a finch, occurring on heavily studded, short, globe-shaped bushes.  The fruits are very hot, and they are used sparingly in curries.  A rubefacient oil is made by grinding the dried peppers and making an oil infusion.  The fresh peppers are ground with salt and oil or vinegar to make a condiment, used mainly on rice dishes.  “African Bird Peppers” sold by seed companies in the US represent an astounding number of questionable cultivars.  My hope was to introduce some reliably identified germplasm into the public domain.   

African Tea Basils.  These are widespread indigenous species that take two basic forms.  The first is an upright perennial woody bush known locally as “mtule.”  The Latin is Ocimum suave.  The plant occurs very commonly on roadside and in waste places, and is largely ignored by the populace.  The funny thing is, despite its cosmopolitan nature, I never got a very good picture of it (until we grew it out here in the US).  Every time I saw a good one in Zanzibar, I hesitated to bring out my camera, lest I be labeled a tourist and be obliged to fend off an onslaught of locals asking for handouts, selling trinkets, telling unlikely stories, or attempting to pick my pockets, etc.  Salimbum, who was the highly respected witch doctor I apprenticed to , said that the leaves were dried and made into a tea, used for treating gum disease and were also given fresh and undried to teething children, to kill the pain and to stop their crying.  Since the predominant smell is oil of clove (eugenol) I wondered first why they didn’t simply use cloves, but then realized that cloves were an introduced species, and that the use of mtule would have substantially predated the introduction of clove trees to the islands.  In any case, the use of a clove-like plant for treating dental woes is a good cross-cultural verification. 

The second form is a diminutive annual plant known locally as “kivumbasi.”  The Latin is Ocimum canum.  This, too, is a very common plant on the islands, usually found in patches where the ground is moist.  The plant goes quickly to flower and seed, smells minty, and is somewhat variable from place to place.  On the island of Unguja, I discovered a patch of citrus smelling kivumbasi, a unique accession that turned out to be quite valuable.  Since I discovered this plant while in the act of assisting some locals who were suffering from various complaints, I really saw this discovery as a bit of instant good kharma.  If only we could package that.  In Zanzibar, witch doctoring requires a communion with the physical (herb) and the aetheric (magic, if you will).  This herb kivumbasi bridges any perceived gap.  The tea is used to treat stomach ache and as a general panacea, a kind of African adaptogen.  The dried plant is used as an incense to welcome in the newborn and to banish evil spirits from the house.  It is used by the witch doctors in divination.  One of the divinatory methods I observed was exactly the same as the Gypsy method known as “reading the tea leaves.”   

African Culinary Basil (Ocimum basilicum).  In Swahili, this is known as “mrihani.”  I’m convinced there must be other cultivars, but the predominant one I found was a midsize, sweet basil with ruffled leaves and a rich, true basil fragrance.  A beautiful plant both to behold and to taste.  This is used by local people to flavor curries, and it is dried and hung about the neck in a locket known as “manukato.”   We grew the plants out here in the US and found it to be a reliable annual cultivar, previously unknown.

African Marigolds (Tagates erecta).  In Swahili, this is known as “tururu.” One of the standard ethnographic references for Swahili plants (Kokwaro, 1976) gives a straight-faced documentation of an indigenous use for this plant that was probably a joke hatched by a playful informant.  “Roots eaten with oyster nuts (Telfaria pedata) to relieve pain in the sexual organs.” If you’ve ever tried eating the woody roots of a marigold, you will know one of the reasons why this is probably a joke!  Now, I have friends in the seed breeding trade who have worked hard to create new cultivars of African Marigold, and I’m sure what they’ve come up with is very nice.   But I wanted to go the opposite direction and find the plant that started the whole business, and my thought was that this should be a midsize, upright plant bearing  orange and yellow flowers arrayed as singles (not doubles), giving forth the strong and characteristic smell of marigolds.  American herbalists (including myself) tend toward using calendula in their salves, but I’ve always been interested in trying out marigold, which is a similar flavonoid-rich medicinal flower that was a traditional salve-making ingredient (and dye plant) from the European tradition.  I shied away from doing this, because all the marigolds I could find were hybridized or heavily selected.  I was keeping a sharp eye, but all I’d seen so far as I toured around first Unguja, then Pemba, were a few marigolds growing roadside.  Then one day, walking up the road toward Kinyasini in Pemba, I stopped at a roadside stand selling fresh cane juice, and noticed behind the stand a yard, and in the yard a garden where grew hundreds of African marigolds.  These plants perfectly fit the description that had been developed in my mind’s eye!  Would the cane juice seller be willing to pick some dried seed heads for me?  Yes, he would.  He picked three, and gave them to me.  “Fine,” I said, and “thank you,” but knowing I needed a much broader genetic platform for good seed saving, I offered him a nice reward if he would give permission for me to go through and get seeds from the entire patch.   The fellow called to some neighborhood children, and as a team we picked every dried seed head, putting them in paper bags that I had handy.  “By the way,” I said as the pick neared its end.  I want to grow these in America and send the seed out to gardens all around the world.”  He stopped, smiled, looked up at me and said “That is good.  All gardens need flowers like these!”

A Sampler of Medicinal Herbs and Trees from Zanzibar:

Aloe (Aloe kirkii, A. vera).  The Swahili is “mshubiri mwitu,” which means forest aloe.  An alternate name in Swahili is “mzimakilio” which means “to make whole the crying” or “to stop the crying” a reference to the practice of dropping the aloe juice in the infected ear of a crying infant (and what happens afterwards).  Other common uses include boiling the plant and drinking the liquid to treat stomach afflictions or diabetes.  The plant is also used for treating the sting of the poisonous sea snail (koa) (Heine & Legere, 1995).  One of the most satisfying experiences of my entire Zanzibari sojourn was coming across a wild Aloe vera on the pristine tropical island of Misale, off the coast of Pemba.  Misale is a nature preserve, and you’re not supposed to pick anything, but I confess to having done a bit of guerilla gardening.  The Aloes were growing pathside not far from the beach where we landed our dhow. Finding wild Aloe instead of propagating it on my windowsill at home  was like knowing a prisoner and meeting her  for the first time in the outside world–I saw  her in a new light.  The radiating clusters of juicy leaves were borne up on writhing, succulent stems covered in a papery bark.  Emanating from the base of the stem were many small “pups” which I knew to be good starts.  Carefully removing them from the mother, I went across the path and planted them in likely spots on the opposite side.  I hope someday to return to discover that my charges have grown as big and healthy as their parent.  Aloes are respected by all the local people, and would never be harmed or overharvested.  In fact, among the general populace, people demonstrate an innate sense of conservation, protecting plants and taking only what they need.  On several occasions, when picking seeds with the help of indigenous people, they demanded that I stop, even though it seemed like there was a surfeit, simply because something told them that it was–enough.     

Annatto (Bixa orellana).  The Swahili is “mzingefuri.”  This is a showy shrub that is commonly planted as a hedge.  It yields prodigiously.  The lovely flowers give way to red-tinged, spiny capsules that contain the soft and brick-red seeds.  These are water extracted to produce a universal coloring agent that is frequently used in the food industry.  A little goes a long way in turning white cheese into yellow cheese, for instance.  The plant is used by the Swahilis against fevers and infections.  The Vedic populace uses annatto for making the third-eye bindi mark habitually worn by married women. 

Baobab (Adansonia digitata).  The Swahilis call this “mbuyu,” which means “the tree that bears gourds.”  Many of the plants I’ve spoken of so far are spices originally imported to Zanzibar to grow on planned plantations.  Baobab however is native.  In fact, the current Genus name, which belonged to the white explorer Michael Adanson might reasonably be changed to mbuyu.  Mbuyu digitata–it flows, and such a name, if allowed, would put more emphasis on the genuine African origin of the tree.  Regardless of its name the tree is fantastic–looming, with a swollen barrel of a trunk reaching out with a few humanoid branches attempting to clasp the blistering sun.  The gourds themselves are elongated and hang pendant to the undersides of the branches.  They are filled with rocklike seeds suspended in a crystalline matrix.  This material dissolves readily, and a spoonful stirred into a glass of water produces  a delightful,  brightly sweet/tart beverage loaded with vitamins.  This is merely one of the uses of the tree, which also provides twine and herbal medicine.  Not to mention shade in a scorched landscape.    

Castor (Ricinus communis).  The Swahilis have various names for this member of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) including Mbarika and Mbono. This is another native, and it is well respected, left alone where it grows in open places near roads and in waste areas. The plants grow long, woody stems up to 15 feet, and the frilled flowers give way to rubbery, softly spiny capsules wherein the  seeds develop slowly.  When mature and dry the plant forcibly ejects them out into the environment, where they are left to lie, because they are quite poisonous, although only if ingested.  In native witch doctoring, the broad, smooth, palmate leaves of this plant are steamed until hot and then laid on problem areas as a poultice.  We had grown several species here on the farm for over a decade, but it was in Zanzibar where I generated sufficient confidence to actually use the plant.  In Unguja, local acquaintances were suffering from plantar warts, and I performed some minor surgeries.  I used the oily endosperm of the castor seed to pack the craterous site of extraction, then followed up with steaming castor leaves that pulled out the infection, the whole disallowing recurrence by destroying the viral core.  People recovered quickly.   

Coral Tree (Jatropha multifida).  This handsome bush to small tree is variously known as “mbuluki” or “miodine” which means “the iodine tree.”  Apparently the plant has been relatively recently introduced, since the main ethnographies of the East African region ignore it, and it was difficult for me to find out much about it from the villagers, many of whom dismissed it as an “ua ya bustani” which is a general term for any garden flower.  Another Spurge family member, mbuluki  builds up its fleshy branches with impressive rapidity.  When the bark is slashed, out oozes a soothing oleo-gum-resin that can be rubbed onto wounds to make an antiseptic and protectively latex-like natural bandage.  The leaves are deeply palmate and as pretty a thing as you’ll ever see on a plant.  The flower is a cluster of coral red goblets.  The fruits are large and yellow, feeding and protecting  the meaty seeds that when fully ripe become filled with fat.  With care, these could probably be rendered into biofuel. 

Curry Leaf Tree (Murraya koenigii).  The Swahilis name this one “mvuje” or “mpolio” because they say it treats polio.  Small children wear a sewn bag of the dried leaves around their necks as a charm, to discourage childhood diseases.  It is common practice to burn the dried leaves in order to drive away sickness from the house.  The witch doctors use the plant to expunge  evil spirits.  The strangely musky leaves, when  fresh,  are used by the Vedic population to flavor special curries.  India, remember, is just across a relatively small ocean.  If you’re in East Africa, and you get a yearning for India, you can take a tramp steamer across the ocean and perhaps even stopover at the heavenly  Seychelle islands, but watch out for Somalian pirates–they are active in these seas! 

Henna (Lawsonia inermis).  The Swahili name is variously “mhina” or “muhina.”  This is mainly used as a lovely conditioner and dye for the hair.  The dried leaves are ground to powder, then hydrated and applied to the hair like a mudpack, allowed to sit for several hours, and then rinsed out to reveal the new you.  Mixed with a solvent, this same leaf powder can be applied to the skin in order to stain it bright red.  In Swahili culture, this is often done in elaborate scrolls on the soles of the hands and feet, where the skin is light enough to show the decorative touch.   

Jequirity (Abrus precatorius).  There are at least 17 Swahili names for this little vine, including such descriptive terms as “macho ya tipitipi.” This means “eyes of the white brown Coucal” which the seeds resemble.  They are hard, globular, and bright red, with a large dark spot.  The powder of the seeds is potently poisonous but it is also used by the witchdoctors.  I visited two of these dynamic healers, and both of them showed me the seeds to this plant.  Supposedly the poisonous properties are rendered harmless once the seeds are boiled in water. 

Love Apple (Solanum taitense).  Defining this plant under “Love Apple” might be a stretch, because it is not the usual species that is mentioned, but to my eye it is very, very close.  This is a lurid smelling tomato-like bush, a perennial that grows in dry ground and makes patches in waste places.  The plant is fast-growing and frequently adventitiously re-sown by the dropping of its own fruits, which resemble small, green tomatoes.  The Swahilis know it as “mtunguja” and it is used to address various dental woes.  The roots are shredded and soaked in water, which is then pulled into the mouth and retained for some time, and finally spit out.  This addresses gum infection and cleans out and slows down dental caries.  The smoke from the burned plant is likewise used to fumigate the mouth against infection.  The man who taught me about this plant demonstrated how it could be used to flush worms out of the teeth, squeezing his eyes shut and  leaning over the imaginary smoke, baring his teeth like buck goat in heat.  It was quite graphic. 


Kokwaro, J.O. 1976.  Medicinal Plants of East Africa.  Kampala, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam:  East African Literature Bureau.

Heine, B & Karsten Legere, 1995.  Swahili Plants: an ethnobotanical survey.  Rudiger Koppe Verlag.  Koln, Germany.

Healing White Paws

I ran over my favorite cat.  White Paws was born in the Oregon Coast Mountains on Treestar Farm and came with us when we moved down to the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon.   Then, he shadowed the family for five more years as we knocked around from farm to farm here in the Williams Valley, until we finally were able to sink our roots into the rocky soil of Horizon Herbs Seed Farm, here above the banks of Munger’s Creek, a clear mountain stream that chortles to me in my dreams. 

White Paws had the annoying habit of hanging out by the door and trying to squeeze inside every time someone passed in or out.  He knew that he wasn’t allowed inside, but never gave up trying.  Beyond that, he was a likeable cat, and contributed the usual things that cats contribute.  Like, uh, what do they contribute, anyway? Umm, I don’t think he ever ate mice.  Actually, this is discouraged here at Horizon Herbs, because, you see, we must preserve our mascot.  In general, the value of cats is mainly decorative, I think, as they lend a certain tranquility to the landscape, draped somewhere in the sun.   Or, they contribute a little tension to the landscape, sitting on a fencepost, watching the tall grass, twitching only the tiny tip of the tail.  Cats are pettable and purr nicely.  They are entertaining members of the family. 

Those days I worked at Herb Pharm and drove my four-wheel drive Toyota truck back and forth to work.  I was coming home late with groceries and decided to drive up to the house.  White Paws ran ahead of the truck, welcoming me home.  He was very personable that way.  My attention was diverted and I glanced sideways, but the cat chose this exact instant to stop in his tracks and meow at me “You’re late and I’m hungry!”  The sensation of those knurly wheels bumping over his soft body was something I will never forget.  My heart dropped out of my body and I fell out of the door of the truck and crawled up to White Paws.  He was flopping about, but only his front end could move, because his pelvis was crushed.  Both of us were in shock.  Not knowing what to do, I left him on the lawn and went inside and prepared some canned cat food and then smothered it with comfrey tincture.  By the time I came back out, he’d quit flopping and was lying there on his side, panting.  I set the bowl of food in front of him.  His nose twitched, the light of life came back into his eyes, I held my breath, and he pulled himself forward on his front legs, the back legs dragging behind. I exhaled, and hope flooded into my heart.  In an instant it came to me that this cat would be healed.  I knew he would walk again.

 I scooped him into a bed in a box and placed it in the kitchen.  Finally he’d done it.  He’d managed to get inside!  I fed him comfrey laced food every day, morning and night.  It was clear that his pain was reduced and that his crushed pelvis, albeit flattened, was knitting together again.   Still, I could not trust that his innards would work, and what with eating all that food, he was getting a distended abdomen.  I laced his next food with a cathartic dose of Castor Oil. That night he pooped his box and I was never so happy to see cat shit in my life!  (In fact, its the only time I’ve been happy to see cat shit!)   Eventually White Paws got tired of his box.  I was there when he decided to get up.  His rear end wobbled, stabilized, and then, miraculously, one rear leg followed the other, tripping over the edge of the box, taking steps unaided across the kitchen floor.   I hurried to open the door to let him pass through to the outside!  He lived on for years.

A Short History of the Plant/Human Relationship

We humans owe plants our very existence.  For starters, we are completely dependent on plants for every breath we take.  Plants are the primary producers of oxygen, the byproduct of photosynthesis.  In addition, we are completely dependent on plants for every bite of food we eat.  Either directly or through the food chain, we nourish ourselves solely by consuming plant-produced carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Also, plants give us fresh water, humus, building materials, fuel, fiber, cloth, dyes and don’t forget shade… 

Evolved over the last 450 million years from the lowly ancestral cell known as blue-green algae, plants are unique among biological forms in their ability, through photosynthesis, to convert sun energy into food.  Partly as a response to the complexity of living on land as opposed to floating around aimlessly in the great nourishing soup of Mother Sea, simple-celled plants learned to create specialized structures, eventually organizing their cells into roots, stems, and leaves.  In a leap of adaptive strategy, the Angiosperms learned to produce luscious fruits in order to tempt the newly emerging mammalian life forms into disseminating a spiffy new invention—the seed.  Meanwhile both seaweeds and terrestrial plants had evolved the ability to produce multitudinous secondary compounds that served them in communication, protection and procreation.

You see, scientists are particularly interested in secondary compounds as unique natural molecules that they think might do something really cool.  Herbalists are particularly interested in whole herbs because they use them on people, and herbs tend to heal in a somewhat predictable fashion.  For both parties, making sorties into the other’s territory is usually harmless and can be exciting, fruitful, and even revolutionary.  Anyway, both scientists and herbalists know that plants contain complex admixtures of secondary compounds, and they also know or at least strongly suspect that the type and concentration of these compounds may well vary according to where the plant is grown, or even the time of day, weather, season, locality or especially degree of stress it is under.  Stress factors would include being eaten alive by insects and browsers.  Human harvesting activities and some would say even the vibes (in other words the mood, or intent, or some would say consciousness) of the harvester or medicine maker will also affect the kind and concentration of secondary compounds found in plants.  And when it comes to this cause and effect relationship, it goes both ways.  For instance, many plants are decidedly on the altruistic side, such as certain members of the Araliaceae (Eleutherococcus and Panax) that produce compounds that act as “adaptogens.”  Ingesting such herbs assists in normalizing blood sugar and blood pressure, also increasing energy and helping alleviate the negative effects of stress, largely by promoting the adrenal gland.  Since adaptogenic compounds confer no added survival advantage to the plant, we infer that they are present solely to assist humans.  This lends such plants a certain degree of sentience, I think. 

Plants produce bitter compounds as a self-protective mechanism, to make them be less tasty to would-be eaters.  Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is so bitter that it is rejected as a food source by most insects and mammals.  But when taken by humans in measured doses, wormwood acts as a valuable medicine.  Bitters of this sort stimulate production of essential digestive enzymes.  Truly, humans and plants co-evolved their need for bitters—the plant to limit predation, the human to build digestive force.  In return for this kind of friendly cooperation (with a few exceptions), humans have done little in recent history to earn the respect of plants.  I hope it is not necessary here to record the deterioration of earth’s plant habitat.  Suffice it to say that the way we’ve acted, it is difficult to understand why plants are still so nice to us.  But one thing is for sure—by gardening we return the favor.

When people finally arrived on the scene, it didn’t take too long before they noticed that certain plants were sweet-tasting and nutritious, while others (while they might taste bitter or strange), produced specific effects.  We know that primates self-medicate.  For instance, chimpanzees suffering from intestinal parasites have been observed consuming antiparasitic plants that healthy chimpanzees will not eat .  This is known as zoopharmacology, and the follow up investigations on animals that self-medicate shows a high rate of success.  Chimpanzees know that herbs work.  I believe early peoples self-medicated, learning from watching other beasts and by tasting  green things to learn their hidden mysteries: stimulating, sleep inducing, digestive, eliminative, purgative, poisonous, psychoactive, etc. 

Early peoples took note of the way plants grew, spread, and adapted, and soon discovered the advantages of scattering the seeds of their favorite wild plants at the periphery of the settlement.  Many succulent species found the decomposing rubbish of human occupation to be nutrient-rich ground for growth, and followed humans on their wanderings.   Humans learned to coddle these plants until their tissues became even softer and more readily digestible.  The wild carrot, for instance, is botanically identical to the cultivated carrot—the only difference is that over generations, humans have selected carrots for color and edibility.  The plant/human relation was deeply intertwined from the start, green blood nourishing red blood, then red blood nourishing green blood, back and forth, ingestion and cultivation, to weave the cloth of early agriculture.  As human population increased, wild food and medicinal herbs became difficult to find and increasingly distant.  The domestication of wild plants allowed early peoples to keep their most useful plants near to home.  This was such a useful arrangement that from early times people carried edible and medicinal plants and seeds with them on their journeys, promoting the distribution of useful plants throughout the globe. The study of ancient people’s use of medicinal plants is known as paleoethnobotany.  

The midwife and the shaman were almost certainly the first true herbalists.  They knew the most potent herbs and prayers.  The midwife, like the moon, beckoned at the portal of life.   The shaman, like the sun, protected his charges against maladies seen and unseen.  The midwife and the shaman found or cultivated their own herbs, knew when to pick and dry them, maintained an apothecary of dried herbs, ushered in the newborns, prayed for the domestic animals and the crops, and took one or several apprentices to pass the healing lore up through the generations.  In the beginning, the shaman trained fire and the midwife invented tea.

The earthbound lifestyle of village life required work (shelling peas by hand, pounding bark on a rock), but barring disaster, for those who had a land base and were willing to work, plants could be trusted to provide food, fuel, shelter and medicine.  And, these plants were maintained close to home.  This allowed humans to live a bioregional lifestyle in small villages.  They chose places where the soil was good and there were lots of natural resources at hand and they harvested and gardened.  Thus, gardening is at the root of bioregionalism. 

Advanced growers then developed strategies to harness the aforementioned adaptive ability of plants, guiding and accelerating the process of evolution by selecting parent plants that carried certain desired traits—a bigger kernel on the corn cob; a larger and juicier flower on the calendula plant; and my current favorite—a more northern hardy white sage.  In the meantime of course fire had been tamed, which was a really significant occurrence in herbal history that I forgot to tell you before, significant mainly because it made possible the brewing of tea.   

A dark cloud gathered when humans discovered how to extract and harness the energy of fossil fuels.  Soon, the delicately balanced but surprisingly resilient plant-human relationship practiced on many family farms was getting steamrolled by the industrial revolution. As a people, for the most part, we failed to protest, I guess because we were drunk on the fumes.  People moved to cities and started to have their babies in hospitals. The factories belched smoke. Fueled by diesel and fed by fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, the big farms got mean and ate up the little farms.  This signaled the beginning of the end for bioregionalism, since vast monocropping presupposes the need to transport of food and medicine over long distances.  In the process, the majority of our inheritance of heirloom plants (open-pollinated, fecund, robust, and nutritious as they were) quietly fell by the wayside, making way for the very flashy and easily transported, but deceptively less nutritious hybridized monocrops.  We gained tomatoes at our fingertips year-round and we lost the peculiar resiny taste of good tomatoes—it blew out somewhere on the highway, on the way to the grocery store. Growing in vast fields, these over fertilized crops offered up an uninterrupted source of easily accessible food and nitrogen to insects and weeds.  Big agriculture responded with application of toxic pesticides and herbicides that optimized yields for a time, but left the earth in many cases depleted or sterile.  Let me tell you, the worms high-tailed it! 

Despite the industrial revolution, the tradition of organic gardening persisted, as a hobby, a lifestyle, or as a necessity.  Many folks blessed with a land base kept themselves strong and healthy by continuing to cultivate their own food gardens.  Most of them also knew a little about growing culinary herbs (which are actually medicinal plants disguised as food flavorings). But a cogent system of practical earthbound herbalism, independent from allopathic medicine, was practiced by a dwindling few. 

People yearn to return to the land.  Currently there is a groundswell of desire to embrace the old ways of growing our own food and medicine.  People want to serve the earth and salve her wounds, and people simply feel better when they garden.  They know that working in the garden antidotes the looming neuroses of this day and age; that by diversifying their diet with whole, organic food grown by their own hands they bolster their overall immunity and gain personally in beauty and vigor.

Treestar Chili Recipe


5 cups dry hopi red lima beans, scarlet runner beans, or red beans

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

3 large onions, minced

1 entire rosette of garlic (about 11 large cloves), crushed

2 lbs ground raw turkey meat, or 2 lbs cooked turkey hash

5 cups fresh paste tomatoes cut in chunks (skins OK)  (Try Black Plum, a dense, Russian paste tomato with skin the color of mahogany that quickly cooks down to a delightful sauce.) (Available from Seeds of Change)

3 cups fresh low-acid tomatoes, cut in chunks (skins OK) (Try Marvel Striped, a sweet and juicy Zapotec tomato that adds a fruity aroma to this chili. (Available from Seeds of Change)

12 large, fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced (Try jalapeno peppers from Horizon Herbs—medium-hot, thick-walled and northern hardy.)

2 pounds cheddar cheese


1)  Soak dry beans overnight in cold water.  In the morning, drain the swollen beans, cover generously with new cold water, and cook on low heat (or use a crock pot) for about 3 hours until fully cooked but not mushy.  Drain the cooked beans.

2)  Pour the olive oil in a cast iron frying pan on medium-high heat.  Add the turkey meat, the onions and the garlic.  Stir fry until all ingredients are thoroughly browned.  Do not drain, as turkey is not fatty and the juices are good for the chili. 

3)  Combine the beans with the cooked turkey, onions and garlic in a large soup pot.  Add the tomatoes and actively stir them in and smash them around so they make some juice.  Begin cooking on low heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the ingredients are not sticking to the bottom of the pot.  The tomatoes will juice down as the chili develops. 

4)  After about an hour, add the sliced jalapenos and the salt.  Jalapenos do not need to be cored—leave the seeds in (they add character).

5)  Cook on low for another 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until a thick consistency is reached. 

6)  Serves at least 7.  Serve hot, with plenty of cheddar cheese grated on top.  You will be the recipient of great gustatory exclamations!

Creating Medicine Trails

Edges.  The Universe likes edges.  It’s where stuff happens.  If biological entities are going to interact, chances are it will happen along some kind of a margin, usually an area of great diversity where there is an abundance of sunlight and water. This might be the edge of the forest, a ravine, a beach, a stream or a river, or even—a trail. 

Being a kind of a crotchety gardener, I have sometimes entertained the thought that the most destructive entity in gardens is the human!  So I try to make it PATENTLY OBVIOUS where people are intended to step, and where they jolly well better not.  My plants, both the ones in my domestic garden and the ones along the wilder woodland medicine trail, are my children, and like any good mother I protect them, feed them, give them water and instruct them in proper behavior.  I rejoice at their accomplishments
(a new leaf, a flower, a seed, hurrah!) and feel their losses (a leaf eaten, a flower plucked, a gopher at the roots, yikes!) somewhere deep within me—halfway between my heart and my stomach, I think.

So I build paths to keep the people in check.  I make paths:  by treading with my feet, by mowing my way through, by cutting grass by hand and mulching it down, by rototilling, by sheet mulching or by laying down sand or flagstones.  I really like to build “people-bumpers” to protect individual plants, beds of plants and sensitive areas.  I use fallen logs and stones.  This article will attempt to cover some of the techniques involved in creating a medicine trail, which is really a pathway through the wild medicinal garden.

Probably the best way to start is by observing the extent of the land and by noting what boundaries and trails already exist.  Then think about the size of your project.  Better to start with a small area and a few species of plants.  That way, the project will at least appear to be something that can actually be accomplished.  The rewards will be more immediate, which means you will probably continue to engage the project and feel good about it.  After all, if space permits, you can always link-in the next piece of land at a later time.  Besides, you’ll learn some things on the first bit that’ll make the second bit better.  Survey the prominent land features and plants (slopes, rocks, water, animal life, trees, groups of bushes, flowers,  medicinals, rare plants, vines, etc.), and determine which of these will benefit from having a path close by.  Keep in mind any themes, as in “medicinal plants” and be sure to include spots of special interest or power.  “I really must run the path next to the old maple with the hepatica and the wild yam and bloodroot,” you might be muttering as you make for the gate with an axe over your shoulder.  Some features (an animal burrow, for instance, or an orchid) will benefit most by being left alone and away from the trail.  Out on the site, try to visualize where the trail will lead and where its construction and use will minimize damage to the land while maximizing the human experience.  For all practical purposes and almost automatically, the trail will follow you where you like to go. 

Paul Strauss is the caretaker of the UpS botanical sanctuary in Meigs County, Ohio, where he and other botanizers built a ¾ mile medicine trail.  According to Paul, the first step in creating this medicine trail was to “Survey and understand the holler.”  This process took 4 or 5 months, after which a U-shaped path was marked out that crossed the creek and the holler, taking in both the north and the south slopes, designed to guide visitors past diverse medicinal plants and trees.  Plants occurring directly in the path were carefully removed and replanted at the sides of the path.  The entryway was marked with a hand-hewn stairway and a table built of giant limestone blocks.  The path was made safer by removing over a mile of barbed wire, which took almost a month to accomplish.  Deadfalls were moved out of the way and used to mark the sides of the trails, where they continued to rot and make good beds for growing herbs.  Bridges were set in place over small hollers or streams.  The bridges were made from boards or logs cut out of dead white oaks. Every spring Paul walks the trail, clearing deadfalls, making sure the markers are still visible, and delighting in the emergence of the seeds that were scattered the previous year in that rich Meigs County loam.  

Although not all of us, like Paul, will have giant limestone blocks at hand, the entryway of the medicine trail must beckon.  If it doesn’t seem to say “enter here” (even without a sign), then it will be your first project to make the entryway look more inviting.  Converging fence lines or rows of trees, a prominently mowed path edged by bedding plants, tall grass or bushes, an archway bedecked in Virginia creeper, climbing roses, wisteria or virgin’s bower, flagstones and a bench, a gate with a tinkling bell, a well-worn footpath leading between two mighty tree trunks—all of these speak the language of welcome. 

“Brochures, signs and maps.  Oh, my!”  There are many schools of thought on this, and the decision to use or eschew these props is yours. Brochures are a lot of work, and as a rule they become outdated about five minutes after they’re printed.  But they can be a good way to tell people how you expect them to act, and they can include a map, which is very helpful.  You can discuss the motivation behind establishing the trail, the history of the land and you can mention a few of the prominent herbs.  A list of species is a great addition, as are photos and line drawings.  Brochures promote the medicine trail, thereby increasing the number of visitors and encouraging cooperation with other botanical gardens, nature preserves, etc.  However,  give out too much information, and you might as well have written a book!  Used correctly, brochures inform;  they stimulate people’s imagination and they can actually reduce the number of signs needed on the land itself.   Hopefully the brochure will not end up forsaken, bearing only fleeting marks of having been read  (perhaps a desultorily penciled underline of “Lobelia cardinalis”)  the brochure folded disrespectfully in half and lost on the side of the path, fallen from a pocket, now shielding slugs.  If the brochure came out of a box at the beginning of the trail, it is good to request that people recycle it back into the box at the end of the trail!   

Signs are educational, too.  If they announce ownership of the land (e.g. Dad’s Medicine Path—No Smoking) this generally encourages people to respect the land. Such signs work best when they are well-maintained (visible, weeded around, peeling paint touched up), giving the impression that the caretaker is nearby.  Regardless, mindless destruction and “sticky fingers” occasionally plague almost any public garden or trail.  Some caretakers like to set a more specific authoritative sign at the entryway (such as Paul Strauss’s “This Land is Being Managed For Medicinal Herbs and Wildlife.  No Trespassing Without Permission.”).  And, for UpS members who have chosen to make their land into a botanical sanctuary, the UpS Botanical Sanctuary signs are a nice touch.  Beyond the entryway, then, the medicine trail itself may be left unencumbered, with the exception perhaps of some artfully placed identification markers that orient the visitor to the map or inform the common name and latin binomial of a tree or plant (e.g. White Oak, Quercus alba).  Tasteful signs made of pottery, wood or metal can harmonize aesthetically.  On my medicine trail, I have chosen to use only small metal tags that I attach to twig or stake with a bit of wire.  I figure if somebody is really that curious, they’ll get down and put their nose close enough to decipher my writing.

The entryway to the trail is best kept well groomed—gardened and mowed where appropriate. The trail itself must be cleared and made safe for hikers, and it is a thoughtful act to make part or all of the trail wheelchair accessible.  According to the degree of openness of the understory, the trail  may be made as wide as several yards or as narrow as three feet. For the most part, it is best to clear the trail in a wide swath to start, since the woods or grasses will encroach back in, and because greater width of trail means more light, thereby increasing available energy which in turn supports greater biological diversity.  Grasslands will quickly erase a trail unless it is kept tilled or mowed and well-traveled. Whether in the woods or in the open, the trail is designed to run through (and in some cases, to remove) common ground covers and guide the visitor to significant medicinal plants, bushes and trees.  

In the woodland, great strides can be made in creating medicinal plant habitat simply by removing dead wood from the lower portions of trees and from the forest floor.  A pruning saw might prove helpful here.  Smaller branches and limbs are then piled generously at a distance from the trail, where they become a place of refuge for wildlife—especially songbirds.  Roses and berry brambles cleared from the path may also find their way into these tangled woodpiles.  The birds will not injure themselves flitting around and into the safety of the pile, and now that the thorns are gone from the path, your visitors will not injure themselves, either.

An axe, a garden fork, a shovel, and a heavy hoe may be useful tools for trail making.  The axe is good for severing tree roots when it becomes necessary to pull them from planting areas or the path.   The fork works well in divining where the soil is deep and free of stones and roots, and can then be used for aerating the topsoil in preparation for planting.  The shovel and the hoe may help in grubbing out berries and scalping the trail, making it clear where people are to walk and discouraging the resurgence of weedy species that would overrun all your improvements.     

People-bumpers are best made of natural materials found on site, but if none are available, low wooden or split-rail fences or thick ropes can be installed, designed to keep people from walking on the botany.  A large ginseng plant or a clump of fritillary may need individual protection.  Simply setting a large stone or driving  a long wooden stake next to the plant (taking care not to injure the root system, of course) will significantly increase its chances of survival against unwitting footfalls.  Beds of plants (areas that have been mulched, amended, weeded, watered or otherwise encouraged), may be protected by bumpers made of fallen logs, pieces of firewood or lines of hefty rocks.  Visitors are then advised to keep to the trails.  In my grumpier moods I’ve been known to tell people “Don’t step over anything.”  These precautions are particularly important when the featured plants are in the sensitive, emerging stage.   Once they have matured, they are much more visibly apparent and their tissues become tougher, which means they are better equipped to defend themselves.

Weeding may not be necessary if the medicinals are already well-established along the trail. You can let them go their wild way.  But if you intend to encourage the medicinals by gardening, then you will be weeding, probably by hand. Do it selectively.  There are those plants (such as chickweed and cleavers) that may seem quite aggressive at first, but in reality are very short-lived and generally harmless.  Plants like this are natural associates of many forest medicinals.  They cover the ground and die back and decompose quickly;  preventing erosion, building soil and retaining moisture.  Grasses, common bushes, summer annual weeds, and very common plants that seed freely may need to be removed from around the featured plants.  This activity is most important during the early spring and into the summer, becoming less of a priority as the medicinals mature. In the fall, any parts of the medicine trail that are under deciduous trees will receive a free mulching of nitrogen-rich, humus building and weed-discouraging tree leaves.  However, this thick covering of leaves may obliterate the trail.  Raking the leaves off of the trail  and depositing them on the beds and plants at trailside serves the double function of keeping people on track while increasing the depth of the humus around the plants.  Barring inputs of weed-seed-loaded manure or mulch, a well-maintained medicine trail will require less weeding as the years progress.

Places left bare by the process of weeding become obvious receptacles for seeds and transplants.  There is nothing wrong with anthropogenic seed dissemination!  We were made with fingers that can discern the difference between a mustard seed and a California poppy seed for a reason!  We are good at planting seeds.  When the bloodroot pods are ready, shell a few into your hand and scatter the seed out across that mellow hillside into the thick leaf mulch.  Throw a few more on top of that limestone outcropping.  When goldenseal makes a berry, don’t wait around for the wild turkeys to peck and digest it—squish the shiny black orbs out of the fruit and tuck a few into the bare soil next to that tree, and a few more under those rotted leaves.  Toss a few over toward that rotting stump.  If the seedlings come up too closely, keep an eye out, and in the autumn transplant them to a more reasonable spacing.  Water-in your transplants, or do it in the rain.  Sure, there is a tendency toward attrition in any of these enterprises (only a few seeds actually emerge, a seedling is destroyed by skunk activity) but over the years plant populations will build, and eventually this results in great abundance.

Where does the trail lead?  I will not indulge in schmaltzy imagery here (i.e. it represents your freedom to choose to serve, it saves the plants, it leads ultimately to an understanding of self).  The most important thing is that it leads the visitors back to their car.  Then, you and your plants will be left in peace. You are having pesto for the evening meal (again!), and fresh tomatoes, and a young cucumber.   Now the sun has dropped below the horizon, and the crickets are tuning up in the afterglow.  It is time for a walk. Two large trees close around you at the entryway to the medicine trail.  You look up, and a few stars are visible in the dark blue sky. An owl swoops across your path, startlingly white and as silent as a feather.  You smile and your feet find the way.

Iowa River Song

Iowa River Song

I found myself 2 days ago on the banks of the Iowa River, the same river where I played and canoed as a child.  The weather was sub-freezing, and my path was covered with crunchy snow.  In a recent upsurge, the  river had deposited sheets of ice on the bank, but now the current was sluggish, mired in slush.  My passing disturbed a flock of mallards, which waddled off the bank and splashed into the river, only to reverse as one duck, and swim toward me, apparently in hopes that I had bread in my pockets.  Regrettably, I did not. 

The many hardwood trees on the banks of the river were nude of leaf, their branches skeletal and black against the snowy sky.  Only one tree looked like it had escaped the sleep of dormancy, an age-worn weeping willow that stood alone, its trunk hunkered there on the river’s bank, wrapped in its deeply fissured cloak of bark, protected by its splay-footed mass against wind and flood, giving rise to smooth branches that arched into the sky and then came back down like a fountain of water, with graceful, yellow whips nearly sweeping the snow.  Incongruously, though, the tree had a massive soft spot in its side, filled with decomposed wood, the stump of a rotted branch protruding from its center like the snout of a rotting pig.  

In the Native American tradition, when contemplating the act of taking something from nature, whether it be stone, or squirrel, or tree, one offers something back to the earth, like a little tobacco, or corn pollen, or other sanctified substance.  Regrettably, I had none of these things in my pockets, so I sang to the tree, and asked its permission to take a little in order to propagate many new trees.  At first I didn’t know what I would sing, but when it came out, it was a simple mantra of LOVE.  It felt good to sing to the tree.  Feeling the permission, I broke off several long whips,  snapping them with ease in the bright, cold air, and wrapped them up in a little circular bundle that I would later nestle into my baggage.  Once home, I would cut them into lengths and set the cuttings upright in a jar of water on the windowsill, and watch them sprout roots and leaves. Walking back toward the car, my willow whips in hand, I flashed on myself as a boy of 10, canoeing the Iowa River on past that little willow sapling, and I felt a little sad that we’d both changed so much.  I remembered a song I used to sing, “My paddle clean and bright.”  I had changed.  The tree had changed.  My song had changed.  Now, my song is all about the love.

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