by Katherine Ziff
“The plants are calling you. They have a rich and diverse vocabulary and speak in many tongues…the plants are calling us now, asking for help. The wild gardens are in trouble, and the precious medicines of the earth are being lost.“
— Rosemary Gladstar, 2000
What inspires stewardship of Earth’s medicinal plants? How to change a resource extraction mindset? One way is reform of political, legal, curricular, economic, and moral perspectives to embrace the inherent value of the richness and diversity of all life on earth (Hayden, 1994; Henderson, 1994). The deep ecology movement provides direction for such reform (Naess, 1973). And what might create within an individual the creative insight and vision to commit to a personal change in consciousness? Opportunities for deep encounters with nature that encourage a relational perspective.
Such a moment, about the vulnerability of nature and my commitment to its care, came to me in 2011. Early on a summer morning I was driving through rural Vinton County, Ohio, my car full of art materials on my way to a community library where twelve children and their families were waiting for me to offer them an art experience. Up ahead in the middle of the two-lane highway stood an owl, a big one, with an injured wing. The owl, unable to fly, looked at me. I had to make an instant decision whether to stop and try to gather up the owl and take it to a place where it could be helped. In my flash calculation of risk, I feared trying to pick up a big wild injured creature and contain it in my car. I had no idea where to find help. And it was hot; I could not leave the owl in my car while working in the library. So I drove on and flashed my headlights at an approaching car, hoping that perhaps this driver would know what to do.
United Plant Savers offered me another such an opportunity in the form of a deep ecology artist fellowship, with the invitation to visit the UpS Goldenseal Botanical Sanctuary in Rutland, Ohio and to make art in response to its presence. In the course of this work, I have met people there, walked the trails, responded to the land and its botanical riches by making art, taught UpS interns about flower essences, enrolled in an herbal medicine class, and come to know a handful of plants. Through this immersion into botanical consciousness I have learned simple things: the joy of a meadow, the wisdom of a forest, the palpable generosity of nature, the enduring nourishment of herbal medicines, and the memories of a landscape. My tools have been a notebook, a Uni-Ball pen (medium) with waterproof ink, drawing pencils (HB, 2B, and 4B), multimedia paper, water soluble oil paint, watercolors, colored pencils, my hands, and my hiking boots.
“What is the first plant that you remember?” asked John Stock, UpS Outreach Coordinator when I arrived on August 18, a question that jolted me away from the workaday concerns that had occupied my thoughts as I drove down to the UpS Sanctuary from Athens, Ohio. A stepped-up vibration on the Sanctuary’s Medicine Trail, a peaceful aliveness, offered further contrast with the work preoccupations I had left behind.
A week later I returned to walk the meadow and the high Reclaim Trail, the first views of which brought a wave of gratitude bordering on joy. Right away I met ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), infused with concentrated sunlight and sunny strength. Back in my home studio, and taking inspiration from minimalist artist and print maker Ellsworth Kelly (Rosenberg, 2012), I made a blind contour drawing of ironweed; this way of working allows you to focus on and experience the plant’s details and gestures without any consideration for the outcome or appearance of the drawing. Next, I met wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), also known as yellow ironweed, a plant with no known important medicinal qualities, but beautiful nonetheless and host plant for the silvery checkerspot and summer azure butterflies.
By late September, it was time to listen to the land. On a sunny afternoon on the Sanctuary’s high Reclaim Trail I “announced” that I was receptive to whatever it had to share. Back in the studio I processed this listening with Touch Drawing, expecting beautiful images from nature. Instead, an old voice from the land expressed pain and despair from an earlier time about damage and destruction from coal extraction. My drawings told a story of the Earth dreaming, followed by the arrival of coal mining and the 1993 flooding of the Southern Ohio Coal Company’s Meigs #31 mine when untreated, toxic acid mine drainage entered streams and creeks of the Leading Creek watershed in which the Sanctuary is located. (Leading Creek Watershed Volunteers, 2011; U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2006). The final image was one of restoration and the “Green Spark” spoken of by Paul Strauss; it portrayed the source of the enormous work done by humans to restore the land of the Sanctuary and preserve the rich biodiversity of its forest.
By late October it was time to expand my experience to the Sanctuary’s forest: settled, ancient in origin, beneficent, and a little cautious about newcomers (most likely my own projection rather than an accurate perception, but then again forests have reason for caution). This forest is intense with its forest floor plants, towering canopy of trees, waters, rocks, hills, small animals and big ones, too. It is majestic in places, and full of healing plants and energies and busy in a different way from the meadow. I imagine that if all the meadows of the world are in some way connected, it is by way of an airborne meadow consciousness that is busy growing, flowering, buzzing, pollinating, blooming, and full of colors—red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, blue, violet, magenta, and all the browns and grays and greens. In my imagination our forests are connected too, deep in the Earth by an ephemeral network of forest patterns created by an original meeting of starlight and a nature force, a Green Spark converting star energy to material form. I imagine that the Sanctuary’s forest pattern holds richness, diversity, and healing. It is powerful and vibrant and precious. As this one forest is cared for and protected, its connections to forests and sanctuaries and their caregivers across the planet are strengthened.
In December, two plants brought in the light of the solstice: blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) and roundleaf greenbriar (Smilax rotundifolia). It took me a while to find Smilax rotundifolia at the Sanctuary, much less to really see its spiraling growth pattern. Once found, it appeared in abundance. Its heart shaped leaves, thorny vine, and graceful beauty kept me company all through the late Fall.
Winter blackberry brings the warmth of the summer sun, sweetness, strength, and the joy of magenta and indigo. Its molecular structure brings to humans, in the form of antioxidants, protection from stress and other toxins of the world. Its roots and leaves are used for medicines—teas, tinctures, decoctions, extracts, and syrups. And from its fruit: pies and cobblers, preserves, wines, and cordials. Truly blackberry nourishes and heals humankind.
My artist fellowship at the UpS Botanical Sanctuary extends through the spring of 2018. I await further teaching from the land and from Nature’s medicinal plants.
Katherine Ziff is a clinical mental health counselor, artist, and writer in Athens, Ohio. She holds a doctorate in counseling from Ohio University and is the author of Asylum on the Hill: History of a Healing Landscape, published by Ohio University Press. Learning from the Sanctuary, Ziff’s online journal for the UpS Deep Ecology Fellowship, may be viewed at https://learningfromthesanctuaryblog.wordpress.com, and her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Gladstar, R. (2000). Planting the future: Saving our medicinal herbs. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press
– Hayden, T. (1994). The politics of nature. In M. Tobias & G. Cowan (Eds.), The soul of nature (248-258). New York, NY: Continuum.
– Henderson, H. (1994). The age of light: beyond the information age. In M. Tobias & G. Cowan (Eds.), The soul of nature (259-270). New York, NY: Continuum.
– Leading Creek Watershed Volunteers, 2011. Leading from the past: Stories from the Leading Creek watershed.
– Naess, A. (1973). The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movement. A summary. Inquiry, 16, 95-100.
– Rosenberg, K. (2012, June 8) Loving flowers + vines to abstraction: Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings at the Met. The New York Times, pp. C34.
– U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Region 3, 2006. Final natural resource restoration plan & environmental assessment for Leading Creek stream system. Reynoldsburg, OH: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Region 3.