Getting to the Root
It's been one of the more extreme winters up here on the Northern Plains--plenty of snow and ice, and wondering when it's finally over. Who can relate?! Whether we like it or not, the winter season slows us down literally and energetically. January was a time to go inward and listen for what was calling me creatively.
Last summer, I launched a small series of desert botanicals and connected it to Southwestern ecology. The concepts of "roots" and "home" were sitting with me, and I continue to joke that I have long taproots that reach that area. This was a clue of things to come.
But the lid of my practice blew off just a month later when three things happened: I read "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, took an eco-printing class, and began a foraging practice. My world was changed. I found meaning in what I could create, and it grounded my practice literally and figuratively. It meant making some decisions around my creative identity to accommodate this evolution.
Another element has been at play in my practice since last summer: ancestral healing and connection. Spiritually, this has been both gratifying and necessary. To understand my worldview, I needed to understand where it came from.
Like many of us, I grew up with the teaching of land being for cultivating, shaping, and working to survive; cared for, but not as kin or as a living being. Foraging put my relationship with the land front and center. Like any relationship, I needed to get to know the land beyond practicing the Honorable Harvest principles.
IAll that winter introspection could be reduced to this central question: how can I celebrate and honor the land we call home on these Northern Plains? I planned to bring more realistic botanicals into my work and wanted to try painting on raw, stretched canvas.
Research began for my spring series, "Spring on the Prairie," with my usual internet browsing (my version of 'scratching,' as Twyla Tharpe calls it in her book "The Creative Habit"). I came across a North Dakota Game and Fish directory of prairie wildflowers and grasses of ND, and it was instantly the springboard for this series. It discussed the history of native prairie ecosystem decline, why that matters, and some of the history and folklore.
This is where my ethnobotanical journey began.
From badlands to woodlands, sand dunes to rolling hills, our prairie ecosystem has been one of the most diverse and highly endangered in the world. Much of that diversity is underneath our feet, in the soil. The cause for the loss? Settlement, agricultural development, invasive species, and the near-extinction of many native animals.
Though we have lost so much of our native prairie wildlife, our grasslands are adaptable and tough. We remain an important force in the evolution and restoration of the prairie. Indigenous practices and ways of life must be at the forefront of these efforts--the original stewards of this land. We cannot see ourselves as separate from the land; we are inextricably linked, as Indigenous people have known for millennia.
Ethnobotany studies the interrelationship between plants and people/cultures, and ethnobotanists "have become advocates for environmental justice, applied conservationism, and Indigenous rights." [ Enrique Salmón, author of Iwígara: The Kinship of Plants and People] He continues, "In a worldview based on iwígara, humans are no more important to the natural world than any other form of life. This notion influences how I lead my own life and guides many of my decisions. Knowing that I am related to everything around me and share breath with all living things helps me focus on my responsibility to honor all forms of life. I carefully consider all living and non-living things when making choices or weighing actions I might take. In short, I see myself as one of many stewards of the land and natural world. I share breath with it, so I endeavor to minister to it with appropriate ritual, thought, and ceremony."
Scientific knowledge is just one thread in the ethnobotanical fabric. Natural history, folklore, and cultural implications are also part of the picture. Knowledge and traditions have been passed down predominantly via story and oral teachings; stories are part of our identities as people.
Becoming Indigenous to Place
My most recent ancestors migrated from Western Europe to the Russian steppe in the 1700s to escape war and poverty, answering the call from Russian Empress Catherine for farmers, tradesmen, and artisans of all kinds. They migrated to the U.S. in the 1800s due to land shortages and Russification, leaving the Black Sea region where they built villages with successful farming and trade. Settlers here were required to homestead, and they brought their farming and trade skills with them.
Two hundred years later, I am tracing origins and adopting new views of the land. Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about 'becoming Indigenous to place' in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. She writes, "After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, 'The problem with these new people is that they don't have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat...' For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become Indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore? What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make a home? Where are the stories that lead the way?"
Just as we get to know the names of cities and streets, I seek to know the names of the flowers, grasses and trees around me. In getting to know them, I can connect and celebrate them.
I hope you will join me in celebrating this first series "Spring on the Prairie" and remember their stories.