Once upon a time all of us were indigenous. At some point in the past we all had ancestors who came from a very particular place, a land where our stories lived, where we birthed our babies and buried our grannies, a place where we picked the herbs that healed the hurt and gave us life. Even if our ancestors were largely nomadic, there are stretches of land that simply live in our bones.
As someone who is of settler descent, I didn’t grow up in the landscape of my ancestors. A few years ago, however, I started a series of journeys to visit the places of my indigenous roots. I began last year with Ireland. One of my strongest memories from that first trip was the moment I met the plants. Jetlagged and floating with happiness to be with the elders, hawthorns and nettles, I was struck by how much being with these herbs felt like coming home. I spent those first few hours in a kind of fairytale, wandering the hedges outside of a small Irish town, meeting many species for the first time on their own indigenous ground. Over the course of my trip, I began to understand these plants in a much deeper way through interacting with them in their ancestral landscape, and it naturally helped me to refind my roots as well.
This past month I got to visit England, the land that my mother’s mother’s people are from, and it completely revolutionized my relationships — not only to my ancestors, but to the plants they called kin.
Most villages in the UK are embroidered by fabled hedges filled with hawthorn and yarrow, and left wild for all good things to grow in. There is a rule of thumb that for every plant species you count within 100 feet of a hedge, you can add one hundred years of growth. So, if you see four species in a hedge, it’s likely that humble stretch of shrub might be upwards of four hundred years old. Start counting and you’ll notice that some hedges are truly ancient. The first thing I did after I settled into my first place in England was visit the hedge, and the small patch of green it hemmed. There, in the wild in-between, I met with some old friends: dandelion, mugwort, dock, plantain, and blankets of nettle gone to seed. There was also the rosy-faced buds of red clover, bramble beginning to fruit, and chickweed. I greeted them all as long-lost kin, and they me.
So many of these plants crossed the seas with European settlers that they are now some of the most common weeds of America. Growing up, I never gave much thought to any of these herbs. It wasn’t until I started learning about herbal medicine that I began to see that a yard full of “weeds” was a source of powerful, and prolific, medicine. Similarly, as an American living in a place shaped by colonialism, I often disregarded my English heritage, viewing it as something too common to be interesting. Or even, as some people see dandelions, ecologically invasive and therefore problematic.
When I began to learn about the medicine that weeds can carry, my whole concept of the plants changed. Similarly, the deeper I went into learning about ancestry, the more I could recognize that my English lineage too contains its own kind of magic, specialness and deep-rooted medicine. Common though it may be, when I dug deep into the reality of my European indigenousness, I realized it held much wisdom— and that no matter how buried the old ways become, the knowledge of how to reconnect lives on, always, in the plants.
Throughout my journey in the UK, it was nearly always the plants that helped me open the gateways to speak to the ancestors, approaching the wisdom of these indigenous roots. Whether it was meditating in the old twisted oak groves of Dartmoor, or harvesting tips of nettle to sip quietly in the morning, each ancestral plant was a gateway into understanding. Being able to travel to a place of my heritage was a gift, but you do not need to take a physical pilgrimage to be able to talk to your ancient earth-wise ancestors — all you have to do it start conversing with the plants.
In my new video, Ancestral Herbalism, I talk about how to develop a relationship with the land-based ancestors of your lineage, the ones who embodied deep earth wisdom, by working with the plants of their homeland. In the video I give specific tools and practices to help you forge a strong bond, no matter where you are in the world.
As we move beyond the Fall equinox, tipping ourselves into the portal of Autumn, we open a gateway to work with not only the ancestors, but all the wise ones and ways of the Otherworld. Known as the realm of the ancestors, the fairies, and the way beyond death, the Otherworld is a place of deep and life-changing knowledge. This time of the year the Otherworld, and all our ancestors, draw closer, asking us to develop a relationship with the invisible aspects of our earth lineage.
Interested in deepening your ancestral relationships and exploring the contours of the Otherworld this autumn? Come join me for my online class: Herbs for the Otherworld.
In the course we go even deeper into ancestral herbalism, exploring the plants that act as visionary gatekeepers to this realm. Every year it is such a powerful experience to dive into this material… I hope to see you there.