Weeds and Weather—Adapting to Climate Change—Advice From Common Plants

Native Earth Teaching Farm, Chilmark, MA
Sanctuary Steward: Rebecca Gilbert

I live on an island where the tides are always turning, and winds of change are born. The dynamic, elemental interaction between land and sea has always meant lots of weather, and islanders everywhere are known to be a tough lot. But as we continue to alter the ecology of the planet, we know that hurricanes and flooding are getting more erratic and destructive, and this trend is going to continue worsening. In other places, it may be fires, mudslides, droughts, tornados. We should all be a little scared, actually. When I get frightened, I like to repeat a comforting mantra to calm myself down. My favorite is: “When in danger or in doubt, run in panic, scream and shout!”

After that, it is best to consider what can realistically be done. I am inspired by other islanders, particularly the herbalist farmers at the Department of Food in Borinquen (which colonists called “Rich Port” or Puerto Rico). They got me started on this train of thought with their presentation about “Herbs and Hurricanes” at the most recent in person International Herb Symposium. And, of course, I am inspired by the common plants— or weeds—that have been some of my greatest friends and teachers in life. Plants are many millennia older than we animals, and they have a lot of experience with adaptation. One definition of a weed is a plant with very successful survival strategies. They have a lot to teach us.

The great advantage of the weedy, common herbs is that they can be found almost anywhere in significant amounts. If you find yourself sheltering in place during a storm or other crisis, it is useful to know a few first aid herbs. They are probably close by. Using herbs for first aid does not require you to be an herbalist. Two weeds, plantain (Plantago spp.) and yarrow (Achilles millefolium), applied externally by poulticing, are enough for a beginner. Both are common, easy to identify, and non-toxic. Of course, slapping on a few leaves will not be sufficient in most emergency medical situations, but the function of these herbs in first aid rests on their ability to prevent infections from setting in. Yarrow can help stop bleeding as well. There were so many trees down across our road after hurricane Bob (a very small and mild-mannered hurricane) that we would not have been able to access medical care or antibiotics for at least a week. That is long enough for infection to take hold and become systemic and difficult to treat. Had we or our farm animals been injured, first aid herbs could have been helpful and possibly even lifesaving.

Once a crisis has passed, damages have been evaluated, and injuries tended, our thoughts turn to the care and comfort of the survivors. One immediate concern is food, and it is soothing to be able to look around and see plenty of edible plants nearby. A “mess of greens” goes well with everything and packs a nutritional punch. Also, a small, monotonous, yet important task is a good way to calm people of any age. Simple, necessary group tasks like picking edible greens are helpful in reducing panic and inertia and focus attention on survival and the immediate future during a time of confusion and loss.

Again, it is not necessary to be an expert forager and to know the Latin name of every plant you see. Learn two or three common and delicious weeds, and you will almost always have something to bring to the table. Which plants to focus on depends on what is common in your region—here, I’d recommend lamb’s quarters, plantain, and the amaranths and mustards.

It is possible but not likely that many of us will find ourselves in extreme survival situations in the near future. However, there is another gift the plants offer us which we can all utilize immediately. Beyond practical considerations like finding first aid and food, paying close attention to the natural world around us has other benefits that contribute to individual and group survival.

The mistaken concept that we humans are separate, conscious individuals acting upon an inanimate universe is completely out of touch with reality and is a big part of our society’s existential problems. Lack of awareness and lack of respect for the other lives blooming and buzzing around us have contributed to the heartless exploitation of the natural world and of the people who live close to it. It is because of the systemic warping of our concept of our place in the ecosystem that we find ourselves, and our progeny, facing a fate filled with storms, plagues, and undeniably powerful natural forces. It is a fate we have chosen and continue to choose for the most part.

Breaking free of such crippling misconceptions is aided and abetted by common plants. Careful observation reveals that they never thrive alone. Plants grow in community—with each other, with their pollinators, with the creatures who eat them, with the soil microbes and the mycelial web, and, if we only recognize it, with us.

In a study about how neighborhoods differed in their responses to disaster after Hurricane Katrina, the best survival outcomes were most strongly tied, not to ethnicity, education, or income, but to whether people knew their neighbors’ names. The more you know about the people, plants, and places around you, the more you will be able to work together when necessary to get everyone taken care of.

Do you know the names of people within walking distance of where you live? Are there kids who might get stranded without an adult, elders living alone, or people with mobility issues? And what if you need help? Do you know a nurse, a person who can fix a generator, or someone who will have food to share if the if food stored in freezers begins to thaw? You cannot offer or ask for help unless you already know these people. Have you and your neighbors developed the kinds of friendly, generous relationships that lead to mutual aid?

According to the plants, this kind of enmeshed, interconnected, diverse community building, or ecosystemic awareness, is a vital part of both individual and species health, enhancing the ability to adapt and survive and even thrive on the breakdown of the old and the constant recreation of reality that change requires. Diversity is essential to flexibility, allowing many options whenever it becomes necessary to evolve unexpectedly. We don’t have to like or get along with everyone, but the denser and more diverse and complex our web of connectedness becomes, the better off we are.

I encourage you to invite some delicious healing weeds into your community circles. Don’t wait for an emergency—these circles can be relied upon to enrich ordinary situations as well. Teach the children to put plantain on their own scrapes and bruises. (My grandma called it “the band-aid plant.”) Bring a mess of wild greens to a potluck or family gathering. You and your community will be safer and more prepared for anything. And perhaps you will find, as I have, that these weeds are loyal, helpful, funny, and unquenchably optimistic—good friends to have whatever the weather.

Rebecca Gilbert is from Native Earth Farm in Chilmark, Massachusetts where they raise the best tasting and healthiest foods and garden plants that they possibly can. At their teaching farm they conduct classes, demonstrate farm crafts, give tours, and host a thriving community garden. www.nativeearthteachingfarm.org