It’s November and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. All of nature is saying it’s time to let go of what you’ve been holding on to. So, I am working on letting go of my worries. At least for now.
I’ve been worried a lot lately. Worried about the earth. Not the earth in the great, big, wide, global sense, but earth in the heart-achingly local sense; as in the woods and fields right here in Maine where I live. This particular bioregion – my little corner of the world.
It’s the woods, and in particular, the delicate woodland plants that inhabit our woods, that I’m particularly concerned about. They are under enormous pressure. Their habitats are shrinking daily. We’ve got logging operations here in Central and Northern Maine like you wouldn’t believe. If you stand on Route 201 or any other major thoroughfare in Maine for just one hour, you’ll see truck after over-laden truck filled with spruce, fir, pine and birch logs cut from our forests rolling by in a never-ending stream.
Our woodland ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate. As the dead bodies of trees are dragged, one by one out of our forests, they are raking up precious soil and uprooting delicate woodland plants and scraping them all indiscriminately out of the forest floor. We’re destroying amazingly fragile ecosystems in a few hours that took eons to create. This is happening every day and has been going on for many, many years.
As if that wasn’t threat enough, we’ve now got overly enthusiastic aspiring herbalists all over the place, eager to show off what they know about little known plants, writing and talking up the delicate woodland medicinals in our forests as if they were in a candy shop raving about tootsie rolls and lollipops. No wonder I’m worried!
Oh, I know, if you’ve just arrived here from somewhere like Kansas or New Mexico, it looks like we have plenty of trees. Trees are everywhere. But if you’ve been here for thirty five years, or a life-time, and have been aware of the constant procession of those logging trucks rolling through at a steady clip for the entire time, you’d be as convinced as I am that there is a silent disaster going on all around us.
Ever hear of the beauty strip? That’s a 20 foot wide swath of trees left along the roadside so that you, the uninitiated, will think those trees go on forever. They don’t. In fact, in many places now, they only go on for about as far as your eyes can see, literally.
What trees we do have here in Maine are young. Many are planted in monocultures, single species tree plantations managed by the paper companies. Most, if not all, of our old growth forests are long gone. And with them the mycorrhizal networks that extended beneath tree and woodland plant roots for hundreds if not thousands of acres, creating a network of nourishment upon which all life depends and sustaining the rich diversity and ecological balance that is also, unfortunately, long gone.
As a practicing Community Herbalist who’s been serving my rural Maine neighbors for the past thirty plus years, I’ve done my fair share of wildgathering all around this area. But I’m proud to say that you would never know I’ve even been here to take a look around. The wild stands I’ve been quietly managing for decades have grown and spread and flourished. But then, the plants that I’ve been gathering have been the wild plants of the open fields, mountain meadows and woods edges. Abundant plants like red clover blossoms and yarrow, St. John’s wort, red raspberry, self heal and plantain, dandelion and yellow dock. Potent healers, all.
Sure, there are lots of medicinal plants in the woodlands here. In our cedar grove there are expanding stands of Smilacina racemesa, False Solomon’s seal, and Veronica, a common creeping woodland medicinal that is dear to my heart, also referred to as Speedwell. Along the stream we find bunches of Gaultheria procumbens, known as wintergreen or tea berry, and Coptis trifolia, commonly called goldthread or canker plant.
And we’ve planted Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh; Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; Hydrastis Canadensis, goldenseal and Sanguinaria canadensis or bloodroot here.
But these wondrous woodland plants are the plants I tend to sit and learn from, meditate with, employ as teaching tools and use exceedingly sparingly, if ever. In my humble opinion, this is the only ethical and respectful course of action when it comes to our woodland medicinals. I think the same kind of “hands off” policy is called for regarding teaching and writing about these plants as well. Turn off the spotlights, please!
It has been my strict policy over the years to avoid bringing undue attention to our precious woodland medicinals, other than to point them out on an herb walk, discuss their medicinal benefits as well as the challenges they face for survival, and suggest other plants that may have similar properties and actions.
Why write exciting and enticing essays about the stunning medicinal uses of delicate woodland plants that are not commercially grown and available? Plants that we desperately need to survive and do not want to see disappear? Why focus attention on these forest medicines when there are so many others to write and talk about? And why, in the name of the blessed earth, lead the ever-growing numbers of people who are interested in herbs to such delicate, fragile ecosystems and plants? It just doesn’t make sense. In fact, doing so is just how the procession begins; it ends with the same sad ending we’ve seen over and over again; the decline of one precious, irreplaceable plant after the other.
Just think about what happened to American ginseng, once abundant, plentiful and easily found in forests throughout the Northeast down into Appalachia. Then the word got out. Try to find a wild ginseng root now…it’s a very hard thing to do. The ginseng we have growing in our woods has been deliberately planted there and is being carefully protected. Once in a while, I dig a root or two for medicine. The rest remain to nourish the forest floor, the other plants nearby and to spread eventually, so that at least our little woodland areas will once again be plentiful in this amazing healing plant. But what about all the other plants and forest fungi?
Suddenly there’s a flurry of interest in medicinal mushrooms. People are out in the woods hunting for Chaga and Ganodermas, birch Polypores and Reishi, and they are finding them. And gleefully harvesting all that they find. But where will the spores come for next years fruiting bodies if we take all we find this year?
Here’s the thing: Delicate woodland plants like Coptis trifolia and fungi like Piptoporus betulinus (birch polypores) may not currently be listed on Maine’s endangered or threatened lists, but why wait for that to happen? We already know that the places where these abundant woodland medicinals grow are shrinking daily. If there are 5 polypores going up a birch trunk, will you need all five or will just one suffice? If you find a beautiful, lush, abundant stand of Coptis in the woods somewhere, ask yourself, do I really need to dig any of it up? Maybe you could use a bit of oak bark or witch hazel instead.
Wouldn’t it be better to just sit, learn from and admire the plant, absorb the beauty and the medicine energetically? To go home knowing you defended the right of this sweet woodland medicine to continue to thrive, completely undisturbed? Now that is good medicine!
If you’re an herbalist or wildgatherer in the state of Maine you have a responsibility to our Maine ecosystems. This is true wherever you are. You have a sacred trust to protect our lands and the life forms that inhabit it. Please realize the power you hold in your hand, in your pen, in your voice. Please don’t misuse it, thinking these plants are abundant because you’ve happened upon a particularly lush growth. Please don’t be fooled into thinking these plants are not threatened or endangered because they are not listed on official lists. ALL our woodland medicinals are threatened here in Maine. All of them, bar none.
Soon a soft protective layer of snow will fall and the woodland plants will be safely tucked beneath it for the winter months. I’ll rest a little easier then. And my worries for the earth will perhaps become dormant too, like the plant roots, only to rise up with fresh new growth again next spring when life begins to stir anew. For some worries can be appreciated as valuable messages from the wild heart of the earth herself. They are calls to action and must be revisited time and time again.