Wednesday, June 12, 2013

herbal survival: a preface

In late April, I spied my moose-friend at Riverlot. At first I thought the tree had ears...

But no, it was my yearling moose-friend, who I'd been seeing all winter with his mama.

He's all grown-up now with his little antler-buds, and he's set off to eat saplings on his own...

* * * 
I have been absent awhile now, I realize, but the PhD has now been written and I wait for a defense, so (as unreal as it seems to me) I hope to rekindle my blog-writings in the meantime. While there were so many things I wanted to write about, I could not seem to muster or divert any energy and words away from my thesis. At the moment I can't quite believe that I am done that particular document, but already the impetus to write little things (and post a few months' worth of photos) is slowly returning. 

I have a lot of feelings right now that aren't really ready to be shared, but I'm feeling quite compelled to write about useful things, like plants. It's spring, almost summer now, and I am in my homeplace at this time of year for the first time in four years. The woods have kept me sane over the last few months, and now they are so alive and vibrant, all the old bones of winter streaming into green. I'm thinking a lot about my dad, and my baba, and how much I miss them. How far away I feel from them at times. But I've also realized that I can draw them much nearer to me when I focus on what they have taught me, imparted to me, and so much of that has to due with survival. I want to write about the emotional aspects of this eventually, but at the moment I want to pass on the knowledge they've bestowed regarding physical survival. My baba has taught me much about garden and semi-domestic plants, and my dad's teachings have connected me so deeply to the wild ones growing on this land. And so I want to pass along some of this knowledge, because it is not even so much the remembering of this knowledge that keeps them close to me, but the teaching and sharing of what they always shared with me. 

Over the summer, as everything blossoms, I will create my Alberta Herbal. The plants that grow here, with a focus on the ones that will keep you healthy and nourished, should you want or need to consume them.  And then, perhaps some other surviving-skills. But first, a long story about how I came to the idea. 

In the last month or so, likely due to PhD-related (which also includes the anticipation of being post-PhD) stress and a penchant for watching ridiculous National Geographic documentaries at 3am about people who are getting ready for doomsday, I've had a few apocalyptic dreams. The details of the cataclysms are usually vague, but the main flavour is extreme anxiety, coupled with a strange blend of frustration and annoyance. In these dreams, I am usually trying to finish writing the thesis, but am interrupted by having to organize things or figure out how to find my next meal, often whilst trying to cajole others to help me or teach them what needs to be done. 

In one dream I come down from where I have been trying to have a nap, in an upstairs bedroom in a large mansion, where I am hiding from the external chaos. This unfamiliar house is full of other people (some I know, most are strangers), and when I emerge from the room, they ask me where the food is, because everything in the cupboards has been eaten. I suggest that we'll have to go foraging, because apparently there are no more grocery stores. My comrades are not pleased. To gloss over some dull negotiations and strange twists of dream-logic, it turns out I have to go evade fast-moving rabid animals alone to find some wild salad greens and fishes. I manage to make it across a very vast lawn to a stream without meeting my doom, and I fish with a long twig and twine, and a fish hook that magically appears, and soon catch a fish. It's a pike, slippery and toothy but nice and fat. Good for dinner. I am going to cut it open, to clean it, flipping it over on its belly when I panic, remembering that's not the best way to clean a pike. They are incredibly bony, and I am terrified of choking on fish bones. But then I blank, forgetting where to start filleting. I start to panic. What if I cut it wrong and ruin all the meat and everyone dies with bones lodged in their throats? 

I wake up, glad that it not the end of the world, but the dream-remnants are still rattling about in my head, and I start to worry because what if I had to start fishing for my food and the river here is full of pike and what's that trick again that my dad taught me--I haven't cleaned a fish in nearly two years now, what if I forget... And I feel a wave of anxiety, not so much about the nonexistent cataclysm that would test my skills, but because I am terrified of forgetting what he has taught me. So I look it up on YouTube--how to filet bony fish--and begin the day looking at fish guts. It reminds me of my dad, of catching my first fish, a jackfish in Thunder Lake, and the sour-weedy smell of blood and viscera in the fish-cleaning stand, the grit on my knees in the bottom of a canoe. It's strangely calming, because of the memories, and because I instantly remember what to do as soon as the first cuts are made. And then I think a bit more about survivalism, and remember just how much my dad has taught me. 

This knowledge--of how to survive in the bush--is deeply important to me, and so incredibly valuable. Not necessarily because I'm waiting for a societal collapse, but because I strongly believe that the skills he has passed on to me are something that everyone should have. My dad, who grew up basically outside, supported that too, developing the first outdoor education program in the city when he first taught junior high in the early 1970s. He taught those kids what he later passed on to his own children. He took kids winter camping, taught them to ice fish and build a kwinzhee, introduced them to wilderness first aid, built canoes in the summer and showed them how to use a compass, read topographical maps, identify edible plants and learn their uses. They made fires with flint and even a bow-drill. Those kids could probably make it a few days at least, if they had to.

And I start wondering how many of those children he taught had children, and if they ever passed along any of the knowledge he imparted to them. I think of the kids now at the school where he taught, where they still have something like outdoor education but it's all focused on the sporty-ness of outdoor activities, and very little on learning how to live in the bush. Those kids there, at the school where my mother still teaches, could they name ten plants that grow around them? Would they know what to do with them?

(Or, says the curmudgeonly old woman in me, are they glued to their stupid phones and don't realize that if civilization collapses, so does wi-fi? And that you can't just look something up on wikipedia or youtube if you're stranded on a mountain somewhere? And even barring disaster, how do people live in a place and not know, or desire to be aware, of what else is living and growing around them?) 

It hurts my heart, I admit, that this knowledge is no longer esteemed. I strongly believe that alongside all the digital technology skills we should be taking kids outside in school and teaching them to plant a garden and build a fire and catch a fish and dig medicinal roots-- both for a deeper appreciation of the land but also for their own well-being. I am incredibly lucky that I had my father teach me so much over the course of my entire life, and instill in me an early value system that focuses on these types of skills.  Even my sister, who does not like to camp anymore at all, can still identify a yarrow plant, and could (if in dire need) chew it up to activate the clotting agents, and heal a cut. 

Despite my overactive dreaming-mind, I'm not anticipating an apocalypse, or planning for one. But I can't say that I don't feel a certain peace knowing that I could take care of myself, and others, in the forest if I had to, and a deep gratitude and closeness to my dad for teaching me all he knew about the land. And right now I really feel I need to pass that on,  all of the things he taught, because that ensures his continuing survival, too.

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