About once a week I travel the 40 minutes out to where my family’s ranch is located, to harvest medicinal native plants. I had been looking forward to this trip because it had been a few weeks since I had last felt its solstice due to the holidays. I had a late start to the morning, and arrived out there right before noon.
There was some paperwork that had to get done before I could walk among the plants (yes….I do have to work out there, too). I sat with my father at an old moldy picnic table on our cabin porch, downwind to the comforting smell of his cigar. As he reviewed the inventory of 4 native plant companies, we talked about plants. Simultaneously, I scrolled through tens of thousands of pictures he had on his computer of the ranch. Some dated back to when we first got it. The bittersweet pictures of us young kids with shovels in our hands were interspersed throughout the years. I was compiling a folder of “the best” ranch pictures that I was going to save and possibly use on my website. Watching the years go by on iPhoto, I saw my son re-born and re-grow up on the ranch, driving the tractor on my brother’s lap before he could walk and fixing the road before he was mature enough to understand why it needed to be fixed. Amongst the nostalgia, I found what I was looking for; some of the best medicinal plant photographs out there, quality comparing to reference books. Scrolling down through one of the many controlled burns we have on the ranch, I almost missed the blood red pedals of the native medicinal Cardinal Flower. I stopped, enlarged it, and engaged my father in some more “medicinal plant talk”. I mentally noted where he vaguely remembered the photos being taken, and saved the ones I was looking for to later be transferred to my computer.
Eventually the echo of a 22 rifle, pulled us out of our conversation, and my father and I exchanged knowing looks. My son, JW, had found my brother and convinced him to do some target practice. Now, my son is only 4, and my brother having no children of his own (yet), does not understand that just that one target practice alone, is enough for JW to talk about it for the next 3 weeks. Every day. All day. Even at his hippie private school. Great.
My dad and I gathered our things and began to prepare for the second half of the work schedule for that day. We wrangled JW away from my brother (who JW idolizes), we loaded up with rakes, shovels, and burlap bags of Coreopsis (7 of the hundreds of species are native to Florida, one of which is our state flower, often referred to as Tickseed). As always I had my head in the native plant books and JW sat on Papa’s (my father) lap driving to our seeding location. The breeze was cool because of the typical South Florida winter cloud coverage. We drove to the front gate and got out of the truck. The hogs had done so much damage because of the Red Root (Lachnanthes carolinana), which to them is an intoxicating candy. The long days and summer sweat that was put into some of these locations…. It had been completely destroyed because of hogs. But that is what I was there for.
Dragging the burlap bag of Coreopsis behind me, my eyes scanned the ground for medicinals. Some of them peeked up from the disturbed mud (Gotu kola), some flourishing in the newly disturbed site (Caesar weed), but most were dying back for the “winter” (goldenrod). Multi-tasking I snapped pictures, planted seeds and stomped them down to secure their place in the earth, pulled out Caesar weed so the seeds would have a chance, and picked a few plants to later identify.
At the last planting site for the day my father had wandered off somewhere and it was just JW and I. He was getting tired, and I was getting tired of his fussing. I was just about to snap at him when I glanced down and saw that the entire site was covered in tiny Red Root stalks (a spiritual euphoric). Not only did the hogs miss these, but them not being eaten seemed to infuse them with some sort of driving force to continue living, despite the torn up landscape. I was shocked that I had been so busy keeping my mommy calm, that I had not noticed them at all! I got down, my knees pushing into the mud, and hooked my arm around JW’s waist and pulled him close. “Shhhhhhh…..listen” I said softly. There we both were, the only two people in the world at that time, in the most spiritual place- a native Florida pinewoods. The slash pine’s (Pinus ellioti) firm branches protected us from the direct wind, the frogs echoed behind us, the crickets in front. The true spirit that is Mother Earth flooded us, relaxing every muscle in our mind. We were completely in the Now. I said a prayer in my head, thanking the Earth for this moment, that I could share it with my son, and that I raised him well enough to know how to notice and appreciate the loud silence of nature. Without a word we eventually made our way back to the truck.
My main reason for going out to the ranch is because the Elder Mar is in bloom. (This is what I call our native Elderberry, Sambucus nigra. It literally means Old Mother, which I relate to being the Elderberry tree. Superior to all other berries, her presence demands recognition, yet, soft and gentle, loving, and above all, healing. Just like a grandmother.) Now the amazing thing about the elderberry tree is it blooms and produces berries year round, here in South Florida. I have noticed over the years that even though there is no set time for them to bloom, they all bloom simultaneously, weather in the city on the sides of the busy highway or out on our secluded ranch. When the Elder Mar off of US1 blooms by my house, I know it is time to go to the ranch. Besides the Elderberry flowers (the flowers used medicinally in tea, usually to sweat out a fever), I was there to harvest another small patch of Black Willow bark (Salix nigra).
We dropped the tools and unused seed off at the cabin in the seed shed and now it was my time to harvest some medicinal native plants. My brother drives the tractor, so I questioned him about the locations of the blooming Elderberries, and set off. The first two that I passed were not in bloom, but were hearty enough that when they do bloom, their thick umbrellas of flowers, will turn into multiple heads of shiny black berries. I smelled the Elderberry blooms before I saw them. It must have been the direction of the wind combined with my anticipation, because Elderberry flowers have a faint sweet smell. As I rounded the turn there she was, standing tall in a palmetto head, waiting for me. Even odder was the old palmetto stumps had created a perfect ramp for me to walk up, making the Elderberry blooms reachable. The smell was intoxicating. I thanked Elder Mar for her medicinal bloom, and promised to only take a few. With gentle fingers I pinched off a few heads and put them in my bag. I traveled further down the road, where I came across more, and repeated my small ceremony. I usually do all of this “ceremony” and “intention of the harvest” and praying for the speedy recovery, all in silence, in my head. JW is one of the few who understand my reverence, and plant worship.
The last thing on my list was to harvest a small square of willow bark. I am very careful not to take from the same tree more than once a year, and to always peel the bark off in a small section. Trees heal from small wounds. We pulled up to the short stretch of Black Willows, growing out of standing water where they like it. As always, my eyes were scanning the ground when I got out of the truck. There, amongst the dry grasses, was the prettiest most delicate purple flower. Its four purple pedals turned inward to a cluster of electric yellow pistils! I was bent down taking pictures while flipping through the section on purple wildflowers when I heard a deafening crack. Before I could get around the back-side of the car I knew what was happening and my heart dropped. My father, with all of the best intentions in the world, was “harvesting” by his definitions. With a machete he made deep, soul damaging cuts into a Black Willow branch. An entire branch. The damage was done, and standing there my heart broke.
I know that plants feel pain; that they hold memories and that they talk to one another. That is part of what “harvesting ethically” means to me, only taking what I need and only if it will not harm the plant. I know that my father was helping me the best way he knew how, he’s an old country boy, but I was overwhelmingly sick to my stomach. The world seemed to spin and the birds seemed to quiet. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Lorax popped out of that chopped off branch.
As I fought back the tears, and paced my breath to avoid a panic attack, I felt the willow tree smile. I felt his love. I felt him gifting me the salicin stored in his bark. I telepathically tried to plead with him that it wasn’t supposed to be this way and I am so sorry for the pain he has endured. The Black Willow calmly replied “take it, its my gift”. I could hear my father dragging the huge branch up onto the road and continuing to hack at the bark, breaking the branch down into smaller pieces, so I could easily take it home. But at that moment I didn’t care about the medicine. I didn’t care about helping other people. I didn’t care that I was put on this Earth to be a healer. I ran to the Black Willow and wrapped my fingers around the now-stump. I pushed my strongest apologies into the wound of the tree, I prayed for forgiveness, from him and his neighbors. And I prayed that he would not remember me as a threatening entity. Again: “take it, its my gift”. The Black Willow’s acceptance and love and generosity crushed me. He fully was willing to give his entire physical self, how was that level of compassion possible?
I have faith that the black willow will heal. I believe that out of this experience, we have both grown; him a new branch, and me a greater appreciation for the word unconditional. I believe that that day, he gifted me powerful medicine, and just like in the book The Giving Tree, he will be there when I return, wanting to give even more of himself.