By Herbalist Shana Weddington
In the 1994 publication “Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children,” authors Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac tell the Aniyunwiya-Cherokee oral tradition of when plants and animals were first created. It is said that they were tested and told to stay awake and keep watch for seven nights. Those that were successful would be granted special powers. All of the animals and plants wanted to try.
The first night passed and all of them stayed awake easily but when the next night came, some could no longer fight off sleep. By the fourth night, nearly all of them slept. When the seventh night ended, only a few had passed the test.
Of the animals, only the panther and owl had not slept and so were given the power to see in the dark. Among the plants, only the pine, the spruce, the hemlock, the cedar, the laurel, and the holly had remained awake and watchful. They were given the power to remain green all year round and their leaves would hold great medicine. All of the other plants would lose their leaves each winter and would have to sleep until the warmth of spring came again.
When a person goes out to fast on the hill and pray for their medicine, they remind themselves that they must stay awake like the evergreens. They must look into the dark with vigilance like the owl and the panther. According to the oral tradition, “For great medicine never comes to those who are not watchful.”
In Native North American cultures, medicine means more than a substance to cure an ailment. Medicine refers to a person’s source of power and healing—physical, emotional, and spiritual—and is often symbolized by a particular plant or animal.
When the evergreens receive “great medicine,” they are given a great gift indeed. In addition to their place in Aniyunwiya-Cherokee oral tradition, evergreens have long held a position of great honor among many Native North American cultures. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) planted a white pine long ago to safeguard the League of Peace. The presence and strength of the white pine has been characterized and sought after for centuries in oral traditions, literature and art. As an herbalist, the white pine has come into my study and practice not only for its phytotherapeutic benefits, but also for the lessons that it has offered through quiet observation.
“When we open our eyes, we see beyond ourselves. When we open our ears, we listen beyond ourselves. When we give over to this attraction, we grow in self-awareness,” said author Twylah Nitsch Yehwehnode.
As humans, we have the unique ability to perceive information through both our senses and our imagination. You often see this ability exercised with our pets. They may not speak the same language as us, but we perceive their needs, personalities, and other information from them by spending time and being in close proximity with them. Plants really are no different in some regard. If we take time to sit with a plant and become close observers of it, we can almost hear the whisper of what it has to say.
I had the privilege of diving deep and spending time among a white pine grove. A teacher of mine, Erika Galentin of Sovereignty Herbals, led a group of us through the process of direct sensory/imaginary perception and taught us that our subjective experience is valid. The lessons that came through for me during an observational experience of white pine had threads of connection, protection, patience, strength and community. There was distinct sense that all of the pines in that grove stood together in community to offer each other strength and protection and, judging by the enormous size of most of them, it took an incredible amount of time and patience to get there.
Steps to Exercise Your Powers of Perception
- Select a plant that offers a powerful magnetic attraction.
- Look at the plant from a distance.
- What does its overall form suggest to you?
- Walk up to the plant and stand a short distance away. Close your eyes. Can you sense its energy?
- What word would you use to describe this energy?
- With eyes still closed, touch the plant. What sensation does it convey?
- Sit down by the plant. What awareness does it produce?
- Is there an energy exchange experienced?
- Can you identify the personality of the plant?
- Do you sense comfort or a flow of power?
- What lessons do you feel this plant has to offer?
Anyone can engage their senses and imagination in order to have a direct experience with a plant. Just remember that your subjective experience is valid.
Shana Weddington is a Michigan-based herbalist, writer, and local food systems champion. Recognizing the impact that herbs and diet had on her own health, Shana dove deep into study and practice over a decade ago and has primarily worked with the youth and elder communities. Now a graduate of The Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine’s Clinical Intensive Program, Shana is growing a community-based herbal practice in Chelsea, Mich. You can find Shana teaching classes, offering consults, and hosting community events at Agricole Farm Stop in Chelsea.