To Know A Place

Can I say something to feel complete?

Thank you.

During our graduation call, Nadine asked our group to envision our experience of becoming a guide like many droplets of water on a silver spider web, lit up by the sun. We were asked to choose one droplet to talk about but we all had So. Many. Droplets. One droplet that came to mind for me is a moment during the training in Victoria, British Columbia (May of 2019) where, after a few days of walking in the forest, our guide Ken began the walk in an open, sunny meadow. It was early May and the sun was very welcomed. During Pleasures of Presence we were invited to put our hands on the Earth. I am pretty sure a few more invitations followed, but on that particular day, I took the word invitation to heart and did not move my hands from that soft, green clover. It was so soft and inviting and it felt so grounding to my whole body to have my hands resting and still on the ground.

During What’s in Motion, we walked from that meadow, through a forested area, and into a small moss-covered rocky bald next to the lake. This rocky bald would become a somewhat significant spot for the group during the training—the chosen location for tea ceremonies and sit spots. The combination of the sunny, moss-covered rocks and the view of the lake are naturally inviting to us humans. Sitting in this mossy open area by the lake, I noticed that there were bundles of Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), a non-native shrub known to dominate prairie and meadow habitats, tucked away under the snowberry bushes and Douglas-fir trees that line the edge of the rocky bald. There were tiny seedlings of Scotch broom, native to Europe, scattered around the bald as well. People had worked here, probably extensively, likely very recently (the weekend before?) to remove the shrub and keep the meadows and rocky balds open—not just for us humans to put our hands on the ground and drink tea in the sun, but for the myriad of other species that rely on these more open habitats as well--such as native grasses, wildflowers, birds, and butterflies.

An open, rocky bald next to Mary Lake which became a natural spot for tea ceremonies and personal reflection. Bundles of Scotch broom were tucked under the trees along the edge. Active removal of this shrub had occurred to keep this area open.

As a forest and grassland ecologist, I am trained to name things and to manage landscapes. During the eight-day intensive, one of the biggest challenges for me was to notice the world around me without managing it, without naming everything in scientific terms. And also, to try to not see the effects that Euro-American culture has had on these landscapes. What a relief... and what a challenge! But herein lies the duality of these two paths and the work I have been doing during my practicum to find a convergence.

The question I have been asking myself these past six months is this:

How can we as guides, as forest therapists, and in some countries, as descendants of people who have not been residents of this land for very long... how can we both be in acceptance of What Is and see the beauty of What Is, but also be informed enough to know that the plants we have brought with us, do not always leave room for the plants that are considered indigenous?

The more I have thought about this idea, and have seen the detrimental effects of certain plants (like Scotch broom in native prairies) the more I have come to believe that not removing some plants is indeed a different form of colonization. It is another form of European culture coming into a new land and, in some instances, wiping out the native diversity that existed before we arrived. I believe, as guides, it is important to be knowledgeable about the different plant species we come across and to be able to see when the effects of a certain species are detrimental to a landscape. What if people in the southeastern United States had realized, early on, that kudzu (an introduced vine that now smothers approximately 200,000 acres of forestland) was taking over and had spent time removing it early on? How many trees, how many acres of native forest could have been saved?

If each ANFT cohort has their own symbols (like state flags), I would venture to say that Cohort 37’s plant is salal (Gaultheria shallon), the cohort bird is the great blue heron, and our cohort book is Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. As I continued going over this question in my mind: acceptance vs. active stewardship, I came across the chapter in her book, like a gift, titled “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place.” As an ecologist herself, with a deep spiritual connection to the More than Human World, Kimmerer’s words resonated so acutely and helped me begin resolving this question.

What Kimmerer helped clarify for me is that this question, like Nature itself, is obviously not black or white. It is not “accept everything as it is” nor is it “pull all plants we consider not indigenous to this place.” It is a more nuanced conversation that can only be had when we have spent the time developing a connection to and understanding of the land where we live and where we guide. Speaking as a descendent of Europeans living in unceded Coast Salish territory in what we now call the San Juan Islands of Washington state, my culture is so very new to this part of western North America, there has been very little time to understand the complex, dynamic Web of Interbeings. The dynamic relationship of fire and weather and disease and can we possibly fully understand? Like Georgia O’Keefe’s sentiment about flowers:

“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time—like to have a friend takes time.”

To know a place—it takes time. Especially within a culture and time when people are more transient, how do we establish an understanding of the Land around us?

A small opening in the forest I came to during my Medicine Walk at Mary Lake. An area full of shooting star (Dodecatheon) surrounding a madrone tree. Both madrone (Arbutus) and Dodecatheon species rely on open, sunny habitats and generally do not survive in closed forest conditions.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about the plant, Plantago major. The people of her tribe, the Potawatomi Nation who speak the Anishinaabe language, and many other tribes in America, call this plant “White Mans’ Footsteps.” It was given this name because it followed the white man wherever he (and she) went. It grows low to the ground and is rounded in shape, almost like a footprint. Also knows as plantain, this plant contains helpful, every-day medicine and also tends to leave room for others. Conversely, a plant like Scotch broom (initially brought to stabilize soil next to highways), taken out of its native habitat, can completely take over prairies- which are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. They are also some of the rarest. In her discussion about plantain in terms of indigenous plants vs. immigrant plants, she writes the following:

Our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themselves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so that the native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regard to their limits. But Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as a native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plantain is not indigenous but “naturalized.” This is the same term we use for the foreign-born when they become citizens in our country. They pledge to uphold the laws of the state.

Maybe the task assigned to Second Man is to unlearn the model of kudzu and follow the teachings of White Man’s Footsteps, to strive to become naturalized to a place, to throw off the mind-set of the immigrant. Being naturalized to a place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and feed your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.

Perhaps we, as guides, can use the lesson of White Man’s Footsteps to show us how to become “naturalized” to an area. How to leave room for others, how to provide medicine, and how to take care of a place. I believe it is important to understand the differences between various plant species and their effects on native species. And, in addition to understanding the dynamics of individual plant behavior, so too should we be aware of the different types of habitats (forests, wetlands, prairies, rocky balds) and the different functions that all of these habitats play in maintaining a diversity of beings. Though there is a great deal of talk about trees being important for carbon storage (and a great deal of emphasis on trees within the ANFT community), a study published by Dass Pawtok (2018) and others at UC Davis entitled “Grasslands may be a more reliable carbon sink than trees in California” states just this—that, in a time of rampant wildfire, grasslands may be a more reliable carbon sink than forests. I think that we as an Association may find that in some places it may be more appropriate to spread native grass and wildflower seeds than to plant trees. This is why is it crucial to learn as much as we can and to reach out to people who have developed a relationship to a place, through time, in order to better understand the More Than Human World in which we live in and where we guide.

Before Europeans came to Washington state, there were vast prairies and oak savannas that extended south of Seattle, near Tacoma and south of Olympia. The Willamette Valley of Oregon was home to huge native prairies containing species now considered quite rare—species of butterflies, flowering paintbrush, and multitudes of birds that rely on these habitats. Within these amazingly diverse ecosystems of grasses and wildflowers (and soils that can store massive amounts of carbon), grows a plant called camas (Camassia quamash). Camas was a very important food source for native people in the Pacific Northwest. A member of the lily family, it provided an important source of carbohydrates to the people here and was cultivated for thousands of years. When Lewis and Clark first came across a meadow of camas, they mistook the blue flowered plants for water. At first glance, they believed they were looking down on a body of water.

Like many wildflowers, camas needs an open habitat in order to survive. It needs sun, just like madrone seedlings and Douglas-fir. Most wildflower species need disturbance, which historically often meant fire. The native people of this region used fire as a tool to keep meadows and oak savannas open—not only for camas production but for a myriad of reasons such as providing better grazing for deer and for making travel easier across land. Imagine no roads like we have today. As Europeans moved in, well, as soon as the diseases they brought began to utterly decimate indigenous communities, the fires became less and less frequent; the forests marched into the prairies and so did non-native pasture grasses, farms and eventually highways, strip malls...and non-native plants like Scotch broom.

South of Olympia, Washington, a stretch of native, mounded prairie became completely overtaken by Scotch broom in the 1990s. The Nature Conservancy, realizing the immense loss of species that was occurring, began Saturday work parties where volunteers removed Scotch broom by hand—similar to what the caretaker and/or volunteers had done at Mary Lake so that I could sit and feel connected to the Earth again with my hands on the clover, sipping salal tea by the lake with room for a tea ceremony for ten. (The clover I had my hands on is not considered native, but the structure of the meadow (open) remains intact.) After about twenty years of work parties and sweat and labor, the expansive prairie in that area is mostly cleared of Scotch broom now and indeed looks like water when the camas blooms in May. Local tribes are returning to this prairie and holding traditional ceremonial feasts where they roast camas in earthen pits and sing traditional songs. I use this story as an example of what can happen if we accept all plants as having “a right to be there” (especially ones that were brought in by humans from other countries) and what can happen when actions are taken to remove a plant to preserve significant biodiversity as well as culturally-significant native foods.

Camas in full bloom at the Glacial Heritage Preserve near Olympia, WA. Once covered in a sea of 6’ tall Scotch broom, camas blooms return after a twenty-year effort by The Nature Conservancy to eradicate the invasive shrub from this native prairie site. Camas bulbs were not replanted, they laid dormant in the soil awaiting sunlight.

The effects of European culture can also be seen in the removal of predators to protect livestock. This is especially apparent on the island where I live where wolves were hunted off in the early 1900’s, and now there is estimated to be approximately ten times as many deer as there were historically. Very few trees of certain species are able to regenerate here because of overgrazing by the deer. This is also the case in places like Pennsylvania where forest ecologists have studied the patterns of hunters, and have encouraged more hunting in remote areas to protect the small remaining tracts of old growth forest. This year, in addition to working on becoming an ANFT guide, I also became a licensed hunter. A huntress. Along with six other women, I formed the Orcas Island Huntress Guild. In October, on a beautiful sunny fall morning, I shot my first deer—indeed a different type of harvest project, and one I do not take lightly. It has taken me two decades of living in these islands and studying the forests and prairies here to fully embrace the importance predators have in the Web of Interbeings, and to see hunting as a way of protecting the plant life. And who knows if I am right in doing so? I suppose only time will tell. But I am constantly reminded of how long it can take to really know a place, and how recently Euro-American culture came to this part of the world. When we remove an important aspect of the Web of Beings to suit our own cultural preferences, there are huge ramifications within the More than Human World.

The sun rising over Crow Valley, Orcas Island, WA—an open expanse of grassland--where I respectfully harvested my first black-tailed deer in October. My goal is to help decrease the deer population for the benefit of the plant life, and to provide local meat for my family.

Becoming a guide with ANFT has offered me a very welcomed opportunity to be alive in nature in a way my heart craved. For me, the practice of staying in the moment, noticing What Is, and not trying to change it has been a true gift. It is the work (or rather, the non-work) I needed to do to feel connected to the world again. I also think that we, as guides, inherently become ecologists and stewards of the land. To me, this means being informed and developing a deeper understanding of how human actions affect the More Than Human World around us—something that may take more than a lifetime to really develop. Therefore, we need to lean on elders and writers and people who have studied a place, whether it be the member of a local tribe who carries traditional knowledge, a scientist that has studied the ecology of a given area, or an elderly resident who has walked the same trail for forty years. The gift I received during this training is the relearned understanding that I can sit in the forest without naming, and without managing, and hear the silence and the song underneath it all, and to feel the expansiveness one can find in liminality; and that I can also walk through the same forest at a different time as an informed steward—with a protective eye to the native species who were here long before I set foot in the forest.

Feb 18, 2020
Samantha Martin

Samantha Martin is an ecologist who lives in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. She received her Master’s Degree in Forest Ecology and Soil Science from the University of Washington in 2008. She has studied forest and prairie ecology in the Pacific Northwest for twenty years, with a keen interest in rare wildflower species. Sam currently works for the Center for Natural Lands Management which works to protect and restore rare, native prairie habitat in western Washington. She is a mom of two and is also the founding member of the Orcas Island Huntress Guild. Somehow, following a daydream of walking in the forest and drinking tea with others, she found herself in Victoria, B.C. during the spring of 2019, sitting quietly in the forests and meadows near Mary Lake with 30 other amazing souls- both trainers and guides in training.