Gears in Motion, Benefits of Local Ecological Knowledge…

It was just this past winter that I traveled up to Keene, NH to defend my dissertation on the “Loss of Ethnobotanical Knowledge in the Bull Run Mountains of Virginia”. The night before I had spent the evening with Rosemary Gladstar, snowed in at Sage Mountain. We had a deep discussion not about the loss of plant knowledge but its reemergence, as she has witnessed the growth and demand of herbalism and thus the need to establish United Plant Savers, as a non-profit organization, to be a voice for the plants.

The theme of my dissertation is that knowledge is not necessarily lost but instead dormant, waiting to re-emerge. Thus it seemed synchronistic that the morning of my defense, as I was sitting there eating breakfast at a small inn in southern Vermont, there on the wall was the most serene painting of a winter day in New England. I sat there gazing at the painting’s simplistic snow covered field with a small wooden fence as the only sign of life besides the sky’scolorful blues and pinks in the far distance. There were moments when I mourned the loss of local ecological knowledge in my study in which I interviewed elders in the Bull Run Mountains. Ironically, though, in the final year of writing up my research I realized that it is important to understand the process of loss, because it is through a deep understanding of how and why the way in which plant use changed historically around the 1940s that we gain a more thorough understanding of the importance of the role plants play in local communities. It is through this research that I devised the illustration, “Gears in Motion, Benefits of Local Ecological Knowledge in Regards to Plant Use”. I discovered through the interview process the powerful and also inspirational way plant use drives social and community benefits. Social benefits revealed themselves in the stories that evoked pride in being self- sufficient, such as growing one’s own food and knowing where and how to harvest plants for food and medicine and many other valuable skills. Another social benefit is the intangible feeling of sense of place that grounds a person who knows the ecology of one’s home. The community benefits were clearly demonstrated in stories from the Great Depression. Locals were protected from the economic recession because small self-sufficient homesteads provided critical food security. Then there were the stories of community cohesion, especially surrounding the local mill, where farmers came together and where locally gathered products were bartered, such as wild harvest cress and pokeweed in spring.

The Bull Run Mountains were at the time of settlement a remote outpost long abandoned by Native Americans. Land grants were given out in parcels starting around the late 1700s. What grabbed my attention as I gathered the folkloric stories and ways in which plants were used or economically significant was that it was only within a hundred years or so that a strong knowledge of plant use emerged. The interview data collected documented local folklore, agricultural and foraging skills, and ecological interactions such as intentional use of fire. This was significant to me because as I mourned witnessing the loss of knowledge, or the transmission that could be broken in a single generation, on the flip side it seemed that this connection could come back from the realm of dormancy in just a few generations. I learned from studying the folklore of the Bull Run Mountains that this endemic culture attached to a small geographical area developed a connection to plants that was profound in a very short time period relative to indigenous cultures. This concept is important to grasp because it validates our ability at this critical time in human evolution to heal ourselves and Gaia. One folkloric tale that seemed to exemplify the connection that the settlers of the Bull Run Mountains made with spirits of those plants was a story called, “The Growing Tree”.

The story begins with an old woman who lived by herself and “had a gif’ o’ doctoring wi’ herbs and roots she got herself and th’ proper time t’ use ‘em” (Beale, 1941). This woman was the midwife for the mountain, and many said she had a lot to do with the future health of newborn babies that she helped deliver. One of her rituals to ensure a healthy baby was performed right after the baby was born and before the baby was washed: she took a piece of the newborn hair, and as soon as she could find a young tree she would cut a slit, put the hair into the slit, and then chink the tree up. She would most often choose a poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) because it grows fast and straight. Because poplar did grow fast and straight, there was a risk that the tree would be cut before the child finished growing, and in this case it was bad both for the person who cut the tree and the child. In the case of Simon Kenton (1755-1836), who was born in the Bull Run Mountains, she chose a gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua), which grows slowly and is sometimes malformed. This particular gum tree was hit by lightning, and a limb was taken to make gun-stocks. Both of these events should have caused the tree to be stunted, but it grew tall and straight nonetheless, just like Simon Kenton, who later in life traveled out west and was known for saving Daniel Boone’s life and escaping numerous near death experiences.

This folk legend is so rich because it ties the history of midwives and the use of herbs and roots to life in the mountains. The legend also provides a link between local folklore and the necessity of herbal medicine. The legend reveals the folk magic/trick of a midwife admired for her abilities, reflects a unique belief system that connects human life to one’s relationship to the growth characteristics of specific tree species. It also reinforces the idea of how knowledge can be perceived as power; in this case, the midwife’s knowledge of plants gave her presumed power. This knowledge existed because during Simon Kenton’s time plant use and the role of midwives were of necessity. This is important to the next insight into the concept of dormancy, because it is out of necessity that critical knowledge takes on the role as social power. Time wise it is important to point out that the social status of midwives shifted dramatically by 1935, when it was estimated that 37% of women in America were having hospital births, and by 1950, that number grew to 80% (Rooks, 1999).

In finishing my dissertation on the theory of dormancy, meditating on the beauty of the winter painting I had stumbled across, it could not seem more perfect that I embark on a new journey as the Executive Director of United Plant Savers. The organization’s inception grew out of a concern to be a watchful eye for those native species that were in danger of over-harvesting due to the rise in demand for herbal medicine. UpS has not only championed the cause, but more importantly it has been a grass roots organization connecting plant people to each other and vocalizing the spiritual wisdom that goes along with respecting our plant elders. Thus we are like the sun rising on a winter’s calm landscape, silently awaiting our reemergence out of dormancy into the gears in motion of the interactions between plants and people. Join us in this journey!

Green Blessings,
Susan Leopold, PhD Executive Director, United Plant Savers.


Beale (1941). Barden, (Ed). (1991). Virginia Folk Legends. The University of Virginia Press. Charlottesville, VA.

Rooks (1999). Midwifery and Childbirth. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, PA.

Leopold (2011). Dormant Ethnobotany: A Case Study of Decline in Regional Plant Knowledge in the Bull Run Mountains of Virginia. Ph.D. Dissertation. Keen, NH: Antioch University Department of Environmental Studies.

Susan Leopold is the current Executive Director of United Plant Savers. She has her Doctorate in Ethnobotany from Antioch, and her Masters in Environment Landscape Design from the Conway School. She has studied Amazonian ethnobotany, and been involved for the past ten years with a traditional medicinal clinic among the Bribri in Talamanca. Currently she lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where she raises goats and grows medicinal herbs.