Whispers from the Woods: Plantlife, Wildlife, Blacklife

Last summer I was blessed enough to be among the first cohorts for Now Memories: Spiritual Anthology of Black Herbal Wisdom, hosted by Nana Catherine’s Apothecary. Each week we would gather, a gaggle of passionate Black femmes, budding spiritual herbalists, to introduce ourselves to various herbs and plant life, as dictated by spirit and the ancestors. Rose and lavender, licorice root and maypop, bonset, mugwort, mint. We became well acquainted, for better or bitter, with these plant elders, nestled in the laps of Philly’s sprawling greenery, her woods, gardens and riverbanks. It was one of the most moving and frighteningly affirmative experiences of my past decade. 

For one particular lesson, we meet under an elder-tree (a Maple?) a short walk below Belmont Plateau. Now Memories facilitator, my darling friend and badass Black healer Desiree, instructed us to sit comfortably in the sun, facing the wood’s treeline. She reminded us that this spot, this treeline, this mansion, was for many enslaved Black folk coming North the last stop before entering the smoggy hive of Philadelphia. “Imagine what that must have been like,” Desiree’s voice was incense smoke intertwining fingers with sunlight, “To step out of these woods 300 years ago and looking at that skyline. What do you imagine our ancestors felt in those moments?” She name-dropped the infamous Harriet Tubman. What was she thinking exiting these woods? Desiree invited us to meditate on that moment and then, when we felt comfortable, go and introduce ourselves to the woods, the same woods that our ancestors traversed, and open ourselves to the lessons it had to teach us.

At that time, my mind was bombarded with persistent thoughts and messages regarding time, freedom, and death, inviting me to reconsider my relationship to these things. But now, reflecting on that moment six months ago, my thoughts turn to the woods itself, it’s plantlife and animal life, the protection and challenges it offers. 

In February, I attended a number of webinars and panels on African diasporic and Black Atlantic foodways. One particular webinar was just… everything. Museum of Food and Drink’s Sustaining Gullah Geechee Cooking boasted an evening of virtual group cooking while listening to Black food folks exchange stories of home and legacy. Amid this wild chattering, laughing and swappin’ lies, one line in particular jumped out at me: “some Black folks stopped their migrations when they came across recognizable plants.” It was one of those “ahhh… duh” moments where I’m reminded of a truth I didn’t realize I’d known. Because, of course, it makes sense that finding the familiar was a sign of safety; a clear message of “this can be home.”

So, now I was wondering: in these woods, in my own backyard, what foods were found along the way? What foods do we continue to find along the way? What roots, leaves, weeds, and seeds looked familiar enough to define home? How do we continue to define home by the offerings of the earth? Shouldn’t we continue to honor and define home by the offerings of the earth?

As Black folks journeyed along the Atlantic coastal plains and beneath the godly gaze of the Appalachian range… Was it the presence of burdock that signaled safety? Were the roots dried and powdered for medicine or strung around the neck for protection? Were the leaves stewed into potlikkers and teas? Did the pokeweed sing songs of home? Was the onion grass a friendly reminder of Southern wild garlic? Did the spotting of chicory and dandelion elicit a knowing smirk? And it must have been the same for animal life. What did the Schuylkill or the Delaware offer these Southern and Mid-Western refugees? Was the trout and muskie a welcome sight? Did roasting quail or rabbit stir up memories of warm fires and auntie hugs? What tools of survival does the earth offer us? What gifts did the Lenni Lenape land (and the many names this land has been gifted across the eons) offer my peoples?

Cover: Harriet and the Promised Land, by Jacob Lawrence

In the gorgeous children’s book Harriet and the Promised Land, Jacob Lawrence wrote of the escaped enslaved, “Good people gave / Them food to eat / and a chance to rest their weary feet.” And surely, there were a good amount of free folks and allies that opened their doors and welcomed these fleeing Black bodies around their fires, filling their bellies, and for a lonely moment allowing for some form of rest. But we cannot, ever, ignore that vast amount of innate and learned wisdom of the natural world that these once enslaved Black folks held. Engaging in this research it is maddening to run across academic, peer-reviewed articles, written by so-called researchers and scholars that completely diminish the scientific expertise of Black / African diasporic communities. While the knowledge “carried over on ships” is begrudgingly acknowledged, I’ve often seen the awareness of herbal medicines, edible plants, growing, fishing and hunting reduced to nothing more than “folk practices.” The inability to read and write in white American English has been equated with the inability to grasp the science behind engaging with wildlife.

But for Mama Harriet or whomever the “conductor” of the journey was, awareness of the woods and forest, streams and rivers was crucial. What plants are edible, how to catch animals for food or supplies, even knowing which plants can be used for shelter, what rivers are too dangerous to cross. For our ancestors, this familiarity with the natural world was the difference between having the choice of berries, wild greens, and wild radishes and eating nothing but acorns. It’s the difference between life and death. White America has put much effort into blocking the access that Black and brown communities have to knowledge. At the same time, it is the ancestral insight and scientific awareness that white plantation “owners” relied on for their own health and well-being. It is the constant push and pull that Black folks have experienced since the plague of globilzed Westernization. Even so, the observation and awareness of botany, geography, weather, astronomy, biology… so many sciences have survived the ages, passed down through folklore, dance and song, yes. And also through intentional teachings, through apprenticeships and simple “watch me” moments. However, through the lens of white history and academia that fact is often overlooked.

Once we acknowledge the vital role plant and animal life (truly wildlife) has played into the survival of our ancestors, we would be arrogant to ignore that we are the same as them, and a familiarity with wildlife is crucial for our communities to thrive. We hold this intelligence in our DNA, in our blood and bones, our dreams and prayers. And we have gotten really good at surviving in this so-called “free world,” with all its chrome and smog and cement. But this past year gifted the vast majority of us a chance to re-consider what it means to really live, to thrive. It was in the midst of the isolated COVID summer that I wrote that tenet, boldly across my mirrors: “Be committed to living; know that living is thriving.” Now, following the lessons gifted by trees and ghosts, in the midst of this research into Black American foodways, I can boldly say this: honoring and practicing that ancestral knowledge, plants as both food and medicine, animal life as both sustenance and ecology, the spirituality of it all, growing up alongside this wildlife, being wild ourselves… that is living. That is thriving. Honoring the plants that fall and root, sprout and seed, just as the people do.

I love how the further I delve into foodwork, the deeper I am pushed into the soil. I’m like a seed, right? Being buried, awed and overwhelmed by the process of ancestral re-membering, under pressure… and ready to burst and brag the colorful tales and memories of my folks. What plant would I be, were I a seed? How would I contribute to our survival?

Copyright 2021 by Khaliah D. Pitts. All rights reserved.

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