Plant tips from an Indigenous elder
A Cowichan knowledge-keeper shares what he knows about foraging in the forest.
February 18th, 2022
Reviewer Alexander Varty discovers that Luschiim’s new book introduces readers to the joys of hazelnuts in the wild and other interesting things in the forest – from emergency fire starter (fir pitch) to plumping a blanket with fireweed fluff.
Review by Alexander Varty
Five hundred feet from where I write, in the unceded and traditional land of the Snuneymuxw, a short road slopes down to a small, sheltered beach on the Salish Sea, where my partner and I often swim in summer and well into the fall. This unnamed strand is little known even by locals, and it’s rare that we share it with anyone—although this year we were frequently joined by a red squirrel, who we first noticed scolding us from a stand of green bushes at the end of the road. On closer inspection, those bushes proved to be hazelnut trees, and over the next week the squirrel grew increasingly tolerant of us, often running almost within petting reach as it transferred green nuts to a well-concealed hiding place.
We were too amused by its antics to even consider raiding the trees ourselves, which was just as well: within a few days they were completely bare of sustenance, with only a handful of husks left on the ground to show that nuts had ever been on offer.
But what if the squirrel had been inviting us to share, rather than simply warning us off?
Talking about harvesting hazelnuts with his co-author, ethnobotanist Nancy J. Turner in Luschiim’s Plants: Traditional Indigenous Foods, Materials and Medicines (Harbour Publishing $29.95), Cowichan elder Dr. Luschiim Arvid Charlie has this to say: “When the squirrels start to make noise at this particular tree, it was time to go and harvest. So if you didn’t go harvest right away, in a couple of days [the nuts] would all be gone. So they found out they didn’t have to keep track of when it was ready to pick. All they had to do was keep track of the squirrels. As soon as they start to make noise there, it was time to go and pick it.”
Open Luschiim’s Plants at random, and whether you land on Charlie and Turner’s discussion of seasoning yew bows in kelp tubes, sparking an emergency fire with fir pitch, or plumping up a blanket with fireweed fluff, you’ll learn something about the world in which we live.
And you might learn something, too, about paying attention to that world.
The primary audience for Luschiim’s Plants is going to be those who love to forage for wild food. Foraging is frugal, healthy, and fun, and many of us—even settlers of European heritage—have a family history of going into the woods and fields to eat, drink or seek medicine. My English father, for instance, made a potent but noxious dandelion wine from foraged blossoms, while my Scottish great-grandmother, born in the 1860s, was the village herbalist in an age when over-the-counter remedies could do as much harm as good.
But between the resource-extraction mindset of many settlers and the rapid commercialization of “wildcrafting” it’s helpful to be reminded that wild foods and medicines are gifts, not commodities, and that they should be received both gratefully and gracefully. Turner and Charlie’s conversations, which make up the bulk of Luschiim’s Plants, are themselves true exchanges: Turner receives the gift of Charlie’s traditional knowledge, gives her own time to the task of transcribing and contextualizing his wisdom, and helps to convey some of his Indigenous worldview to us, their readers. And Charlie is a humble yet erudite teacher; unlike many self-styled experts he’s willing to acknowledge that he’s unfamiliar with how some plants are used, notes sadly that much traditional knowledge has been lost and gently cautions that some uses—in ceremony, for instance—are not to be set down in books.
Although too large to be a true field guide, Luschiim’s Plants will join Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon’s Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Lone Pine, 1997; revised 2016), Louis Druehl’s Pacific Seaweeds (Harbour Publishing, 2001; second edition 2016), and David Arora’s All the Rain Promises and More (Ten Speed Press, 1991) in any list of this region’s most essential natural-history reference books. It’s more than that, though: for those who have not been here for thousands of years, it’s a window into what we don’t know about our new home, its bounty, and how we can join in its stewardship. A guide to belonging, in short, and that is most welcome. 978-1550179453
Alexander Varty is a musician, writer and forager living on unceded Snuneymuxw territory.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Luschiim (Arvid Charlie) was born in Quamichan, one of the villages of the Cowichan Nation, in 1942. His mother, Violet, passed away in December 2016. His father, the famous carver and artist Simon Charlie, passed away in May 2005 at the age of eighty-five. Luschiim, his namesake great-grandfather, who was born in 1870, lived until Arvid was about six years old and had a big influence on his life, teaching him about plants and medicines even at the tender young age of three to four years old.
Even as a boy, Arvid was a hunter and fisher, contributing to his family’s meals and provisions. His formal “Western” education ended in Grade 8. He was a canoe puller in Quw’utsun racing canoes from the age of fourteen and over the years he skippered many racing canoes, setting an example of calm, disciplined leadership that continued into the Yulhulaalh Journeys of recent years (2005 to 2017).
He married and started his own family in the 1960s. To support his family he became a logger, learning much about the trees and forests from his keen powers of observation. In the 1970s, he started his employment with the Cowichan Band (now Cowichan Tribes), working on various land- and culture-related contracts.
As his family grew, he realized increasingly how important his knowledge of language, culture and environments was and would be to future generations. He has dedicated the last few decades to ensuring the survival of the Hul’q’umi’num language and documenting, through any means possible, his traditional knowledge of plants and environments so that it continues into the future.
A Distinguished Professor Emerita in Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, Nancy Turner is an ethnobotanist who has worked with Indigenous elders and cultural specialists in western Canada for over 50 years, learning about traditional knowledge of plants and environments and helping to document this knowledge for future generations. She has authored or co-authored/co-edited over 30 books and over 150 book chapters and papers, and has received a number of awards for her work, including the Order of Canada, Order of British Columbia, and fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, as well as honorary degrees from four B.C. universities. She has been delighted to work with, and learn from, Dr. Luschiim Arvid Charlie over the past 15-plus years, and to help produce Luschiim’s Plants in his honour.