A found poem that summons us to respect plants, listen to their wisdom, and learn their names.
WORDS AND IMAGES Lee Beavington
my grandfather was an expert
my father only learned some
……….I know almost nothing
we hunt, see, pick, smell, gather, use, boil, taste
red sap of the root
bladder of seal wild celery
wad of moss sea-lion stomach
octopus by the tentacle
to the stranger’s eye purposeless
the original secret society
weakened by neocolonial cash crops
Plants are a gift of God.
their knowledge formidable
wood medicine —
difficult to articulate in a classroom,
infinite in all directions
planted by birds
supplanted by machines
cross section of consumers
Shaman Pharmaceuticals —
in the Western world
The plants must also be paid.
15 tons of ground leaves
wrung from nature over millennia
to produce a single ounce
flowering only immediately before they die
the child tree
eulogized in song
the death of every old medicine man
preserved in chants poetry legends
only two living Manu’ans remember
my grandfather was an expert
..my father only learned some
…………I know almost nothing
All phrases and lines in this found poem were chosen and assembled from the following texts:
Alcorn, J. B. (1981). Huastec noncrop resource management: Implications for prehistoric rain forest management. Human Ecology, 9(4), 395–417.
Balick, M. J., & Cox, P. A. (2020). Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. Garland Science.
de Laguna, F. (1972). Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Smithsonian Institution Press.
Gottesfeld Johnson, L. M. (1994). Wet’Suwet’en ethnobotany: Traditional plant uses. Journal of Ethnobiology, 14, 185–210.
Patron, E. J. (Ed.). (1980). Some Native Herbal Remedies: As Told to Anne Anderson by Luke Chalifoux. University of Alberta.
Shankar, D., & Majumdar, B. (1997). Beyond the biodiversity convention: The challenges facing the bio-cultural heritage of India’s medicinal plants. In G. Bodeker, K. K. Bhat, J. Burley, & P. Vantomme (Eds.), Medicinal Plants for Forest Conservation and Health Care (pp. 87–99). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Sheldon, J. W., Balick, M. J, Laird, S. A., & Milne, G. M. (1997). Medicinal plants: Can utilization and conservation coexist? Advances in Economic Botany, 12, i–104.
Turner, N. J., Thomas, J., Carlson, B. F., & Ogilvie, R. T. (1983). Ethnobotany of the Nitinaht Indians of Vancouver Island. Government of Canada.
About the Poem
Plants harness the secret of life, and they forge the foundation of the animal kingdom. Yet our plant blindness easily distracts our sight with tweets, tiks, and toks. I studied cheetahs during my biology degree. Later, my focus shifted from the fleet of foot to those that move at a pace even my scientist’s eye struggles to fathom. The gentle unfurl of deer fern, the subtle creak of red alder.
As a child, I could distinguish weeds from edibles in Dad’s garden and delighted at Aunt Helen’s voracious raspberry patch. The nameless trees, however, held no stories. A sizable tree grew up outside my bedroom. I ran around this conifer, nailed ladder-boards into her stripy bark, watched raccoons scurry along her branches, and filled twenty years of imaginative play in her presence. Not until I taught ecology and created a plant guidebook for university students, did I learn her true name.
Western red cedar. Tree of Life. Canoe cedar. Long-life maker.
Later still, I realized that Coast Salish Indigenous Peoples have more than 250 traditional uses for this species. A deep understanding of diversity, both biological and cultural, requires a relationship with plants. I recently discovered that my lawn holds medicine for bites, stings, and warts. The common dandelion, the mascot of weeds, actually promotes the health of both pollinators and my family.
Plants harness the secret of life.
Indigenous ways of knowing can show us the way. Every breath a plant exhales nourishes our lungs. The plants we eat become part of our cells. They are not only the foundation of our bodies, but the medicines we take, the clothes we wear, and the houses we build. We must learn their names, tell their stories, and cultivate healthy ecosystems for them to thrive. Many fossil fuels, such as coal, are very old plants. They are seen as a commodity, measured in profit margins. Their stories, millions of years old, are long forgotten.
We are more likely to respect those we know by name. To see plants as mentors and appreciate their seeds of wonder, we must slow our pace and heed the whispers of leaves. Only then can we listen for the wisdom that root and chlorophyll have to share.
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Lee Beavington is a biologist and interdisciplinary instructor living in British Columbia, Canada. He is co-developing a stɑl̓əw̓ / Fraser River Field School and spearheading Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Wild Spaces project to promote place-based outdoor learning in postsecondary education. His poetry has appeared in Refugium, Sweet Water, Ecopsychology, Enchantments of Place, and Scientists and Poets #Resist.