Ancestor Work

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico at dawn on the winter solstice.

“Tell me about the first plant you remember.”

This is how I often start consultations and classes. It tells me how people developed their senses and their sense of relationship. Do they remember the scent, the taste, the person who showed them the plant? Do they remember the color, the texture, the place where they found the plant?

I remember being quite young when I learned to climb the pine tree in the neighbor’s yard… and yes, there was a person involved. My little brother. I don’t know if he knows this, but I started to climb this tree so I could hide from him and read my books in peace. I was an introspective child and he was, from my perspective, the wild child. I looked down from my pine on this dirt child who had to get his hands into everything.

Pine trees in the mountains of California.

The pine tree inevitably left sap on my hands, sometimes in my hair… I tried not to get it on my clothes so it wouldn’t betray my climbing habit to my mother. (I’m sure she wouldn’t have approved. And even now I’m not sure she knew how much time I spent in the tree.)

Another early experience I had was with the family tree. By the time I was in first grade, my parents had divorced. When I was told to fill out the family tree, I cried. I didn’t know my dad’s name (he was just dad). I didn’t know his parents’ names. My mother was adopted so I didn’t know how to fill out her side of the tree either. I’d been very good at school up until this point, so I walked home full of dismay. I loved trees but my own tree was truncated. As mom said, her tree only had roots through her children.

Me with a blooming yucca just outside my hometown.

I set the family tree aside for much of my life. It didn’t seem important. But as I learned more about world history, herbalism, and ancient traditions I became curious. And I live in a time and place where ethnicity, race, and gender are deeply examined and held up as identity.

The strange part is that before all of this I’d been training as an herbalist and had set myself on a path to dissolve my identity. Identity is a barrier. If I hold too closely to my identity and my memories, they obscure or distort my perception. I need to see my clients and students clearly, as who they are, even if they remind me of an old friend who betrayed me, or a school yard bully. I can’t let that sense of betrayal or fear infiltrate the consultation.

I learned to drop my personal history in order to develop clarity.

But, I realize that my outsides have an affect on the people I work with. And not everyone has interest in dissolving identity – many people work very hard to develop identity. And how they see me is partly a result of how they perceive my ethnicity, my skin color, my gender, my identity. Thus, I began a journey into ancestry.

Yerba santa, herb of the saints.

This isn’t about DNA tests or family trees – although those things can be helpful. I decided to think about ancestry in terms of indigenous cultures, going back in time a long ways to a time when my ancestors walked with the cycles of the Earth and its elements. The plants follow every step of the way.

My childhood was scented with yerba santa and sagebrush, and creosote bush. My grandmother’s garden was scented with roses and lemons. My father talks of his grandmother’s garden, edged by the woods and the earthy scents of ramps and ginseng.

The further back I go, the depth of the plant history unfolds with motherwort, yarrow, wormwood, and rue. Oh, and the trees. So many trees.

The stories of the plants become the stories of my ancestors.

Again, I say, “tell me about the first plant you remember.”

More plant stories:

Herb of the Saints

Liquid Courage

Off with Their Heads

Spotted St. John’s wort, one of the species native to North America.