by Nejma Belarbi
“All things in creation are sacred and have a diversity much beyond our understanding.”
―My grandmother, Fakhita Jazouli
“Get on your hands and knees on the side of the dirt road and look down to find medicinal plants. A square foot will do.” I immediately felt that would be all but impossible. When my herbology mentor Carol McGrath asked us, her apprentices, to do this, I thought: “How could medicinal plants grow in this environment? And in a square foot no less!” But we did what we were told, and on we knelt.
Initially I only saw dirt and some blades of grass—some greenery I couldn’t identify. Then there was a moment when, unknowingly, the run-on commentary in my mind stopped, most likely to just catch its breath, and I saw a violet. Impulsively, in my surprise, I thought: “Hello!” I had been kneeling for a good ten minutes before violet made herself known. And then following her came plantain, couch grass, and a tiny dandelion. All of these plant people I hadn’t noticed! This was very puzzling to me. I had been taught their shapes and their properties, had handled them, had seen them growing in the meadow—and yet I had failed to recognize them, even though I had been staring at them for ten minutes.
Perhaps the reason I didn’t see them is that they were very small and dusty. It was hard to identify the shapes of their leaves. Some of them had been run over by cars and trampled by my shoes and those of others at some point or another. But later I thought that perhaps I couldn’t see them because my eyes were figuratively closed, as I had a preconceived idea as to how medicinal plants grew and where: in a meadow, of course, or in the forest—anywhere but on this driveway on which I walked weekly! What lived in my mind was entirely segregated from an experience of connection or relatability. Teachings from my Elders came back to me, however, anchoring all the sayings I had heard throughout my childhood regarding our connection to all living things through the light that animates us. An echo of experiencing this connection resounded back to me from childhood.
Teachings from my Elders came back to me, anchoring all the sayings I had heard throughout my childhood regarding our connection to all living things through the light that animates us.
In a way, the taught paradigm separated me from nature. I had lived in cities my whole life, followed conventional educational models that were entrenched in Western history, and was taught to think of nature as a resource that dwelled somewhere else. Although I longed from a very young age to be immersed in the natural world and flee the industrialized human world, there seemed to be no possibility to do so aside from learning about it in the way I was taught. Nature and even medicinal plants were something I read about, saw pictures of, and related to as something “other.” Even in my handling of them, I perceived them in my mind rather than within my experience. I realized at that moment just how “illiterate,” like many others, I was—the missing element being earth’s language, which in my mind is present in all of the world’s tongues. I speak three languages and have heard earth’s language whisper through all of them. That language is part of the foundational concepts and experience corresponding to nature and our interconnection with it.
The short window when my faculties retreated to the background allowed a pull of my intuition to deeply recognize these plants as people, as intelligent beings. It was as though a mirror was held up, whereby “seeing” these plant people triggered a reflection of the web of interconnections between all existing beings and myself and an understanding of just how much wealth that connection holds. The urban industrial paradigm, which I had so resisted and yet is so prominent in the world, came apart, and I felt the rebirth of communication through intuition rather than cognition.
“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or to the mind. Hence, it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”
Often, when I looked outside, there was a disconnection. I saw a sea of green, the word TREE written on all the standing giants, SHRUB on all the shorter plants, but mostly the color green and some texture. Even though I memorized the botanical names and common names of species, their medicinal properties and habits, for me the concepts were purely intellectualized and sterile. Regardless of the language, it was the learning process that was integrally embedded in concepts of separation rather than experiential relation.
Diversity is present in everything we see, and there are innumerable species that share this planet with us, each of them supporting the continuity of life just by their mere existence. Krill and whales have a relationship that decreases atmospheric carbon. Earthworms are imperative to the growth of plants. Plants have medicine in them that balances soils, animals, and people; they are a fundamental part of the food web that supports everything. This symbiotic relationship is readily apparent—yet, although the current leading paradigm may recognize it intellectually, the experiential and most important facet of it is often disregarded.
Still, this diversity is intrinsic to our existence and is often a mirror to our very selves. A mirror because, if the world is so diverse in its makeup, where no single species stands alone without symbiotic relationships with other species, perhaps our own cultural and linguistic diversity can be seen as a reflection of that very same process. Through culturally diverse perspectives that foster our interconnection with all other species, we mimic the symbiotic relationship that allows us to live in balance. As each language and culture holds knowledge of the place in which it dwells, it is a reflection of a given ecological niche permeated with specific instinctive knowledge that allows its denizens to survive symbiotically.
If the world is so diverse in its makeup, where no single species stands alone without symbiotic relationships with other species, perhaps our own cultural and linguistic diversity can be seen as a reflection of that very same process.
If we are born on this earth, we are part of it—that much is undeniable, and it is clear that flipping our perspective from “separated from” to “part of” offers a wealth that is incomparable to the value of what we as a species understand “wealth” to be in our current economic worldview. If there is a general malaise as rampant profit-based perspectives throw their weight around, it is because there is not enough “wealth” to saturate the void created by our separation. We could go on desecrating the earth and consuming products made with little integrity, and yet it would never be enough to fill the emptiness caused by the severance of the connection to our environment. Information on our interconnection with land and other species is often found in the tools that traditional knowledge gives us—tools that we have accumulated for centuries to denote this connection and foster it. The sad thing is that the present dominant system of values has us filling this void with constant distractions and systems that create and perpetuate cultural and biological degradation and engender a cognitive dissonance that tears us away from the potential to be fully human.
It was the very experience of finally “seeing” the plant people—the living, breathing, intelligent individuals I had up until then unknowingly disregarded as such—that helped me realize just how the current deep-seated paradigm had influenced this separation. The feeling of connection and recognition was familiar, however; perhaps an essence of it remained from my childhood. Once I felt my kinship with plants, I felt it with all the other beings that surrounded me, a web much greater than myself. The diversity that existed in that small square of dirt grew into not just the medicinal plants, but the ants that used the path, the microbes in the soil, and the insects in and above the soil—all symbiotically related to one another, affecting one another, and together supporting the continuity of life. If life can have such interspecies diversity that mutually supports the general survival of all, surely we could entertain the idea that we have intraspecies diversity for the same reason!
The resilience of these trampled diverse little beings was amazing to me: Why even try to survive when you would be stepped on or driven over at any time? Well, the answer was loud and clear: because life is inherently resilient. Biological diversity is proven to sustain the health of ecosystems, as each species has a role in keeping the balance of the whole. The diversity of languages and cultures follows a similar pattern, as each of them is responsible for a piece of the global mosaic that teaches us how we truly are part of a greater whole.
The separatist paradigm and the homogenizing tendency that have taken over the globe through colonialism, industry, and warfare have led us to believe that this is the only valid perspective. Other perspectives and voices—Indigenous, spiritual, traditional—are still being silenced and invalidated. Our diversity as a species, however, continues to find ways to survive and seeps into our collective conscious.
Historically, there are many cases in which knowledge keepers fled to mountains and other remote places to avoid both persecution and assimilation by colonizers or conquering cultures. In my ancestral story, the Chluh people in North Africa barricaded in the mountains for centuries. In the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, I heard stories from Elder Deb Modeste about how many Indigenous parents fled with their children to the mountains, and even across the U.S. border, to protect them from the residential school system that was used to strip people of their family, language, knowledge, and connection to land and place. In that quest for safety, our cultures have survived and continue to do so. Traditional knowledge is still disseminated to future generations no matter how hard the separatist paradigm tries to eradicate it.
The obvious mirror held up by creation and nature quietly persists, gently opening the eyes of our intuition little by little. Although it may seem unthinkable for some of us that a paradigm and worldview shift is possible, there are many examples that point to the contrary. There is space for voices to be heard and for language like “biocultural diversity” to be created and disseminated. Sovereignty claimed by Indigenous Peoples and policies affirming the Rights of Mother Nature and cultural and spiritual relations with sacred natural sites are leading us all away from a separatist perspective that has now run its course. In each generation there is a growing tendency to claim heritage and connection. The creative force that unleashes our need for diversity and its ability to connect us and heal us from this painful separation can be seen through the rising possibilities that prompt us to open our eyes to nature’s obvious mirror.
Nejma Belarbi, MSc, MH, is a North African–Canadian ethnobotanist and herbalist committed to researching and promoting humanity’s connections to the environment in all of its diversity. She is an advocate for initiatives that address traditional ecological knowledge protection and promote underrepresented voices and perspectives. Her work explores how traditional perceptions in medicine foster connections to the environment.
Buhner, S. H. (2002). The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
King, R. (2010). People on the Move: An Atlas of Migration. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Ruru, J. (2014). Tūhoe-Crown settlement – Te Urewera Act 2014. Maori Law Review. Retrieved from http://maorilawreview.co.nz/2014/10/tuhoe-crown-settlement-te-urewera-act-2014/