[NONFICTION] I Pick Medicine: Nibashkwashkibidoon Mashkiki
Part One: Punishment, Featuring Wiingashk (Sweetgrass)
Plucking stray grasses from sandy soil with my face buried in tomato vines I got my first lesson in foraging. It was probably a scuffle with my brother or dogs that got me sent to the garden with a tall basket to fill with weeds. I’d start with the grasses, easiest to tell. Spikey stems shot from the soil. I’d dip my hand in then grip the groups of roots and rip it up. Silence and the garden soothed my hand and built muscle memory.
I was nine when I picked the wrong grass. Big clods of soil arose with each fist-full I plopped into the basket. “Eh what do you think you’re doin?” my dad yelled through menthol cigarette smoke from the deck across the yard.
Sweetgrass is red at the base, one side smooth and the other can shave the dirt off your fingertips. Aromatic like sugar and vanilla when the wind lifts over a patch. Wiingashk is how you say it in Anishinaabemowin, the language that named the things in this place that I live.
Ma always burned sweetgrass braids during our dog funerals at our graveyard back in our woods, the only place I’ve ever seen Dad cry, the edge of the Delirium Wilderness. I treated sweetgrass as a weed when I was young. Now I’ve grown a patch from seed. Somewhere in my parent’s garden, there is a bare patch of earth. Waiting.
Part Two: Structure, Featuring Miinan (Blueberries)
Sweat dripped down my forehead to my eyeball when Fargo the dog got all up in my grill and spilled the bucket of blueberries I had gathered. That’s what I told Ma. That hot July sun made the swamp smell serious, as serious as Ma was about picking a good crop of blueberries. She’d keep watch on my brother, cousins, and me to make sure we weren’t eating the berries we picked for her jams.
That was hard work. Not so much being outside hunched under then sun but resisting to taste berries that we labored over. I got struck with a few knuckles and funny stern looks from Ma when I tried to sneak a berry. I learned quick to delay tasting the harvest.
Every winter, around February, I open a jar of Ma’s Delirium Blueberry jam. I coat my toast with memories of sweating under the summer sun and know I can make it through the harshness of winter and seasonal depression. Miinan is how you say blueberries in Anishinaabemowin, the language that named the things in this place that I live.
I was still young when Ma hollered out to my dog just before he spilled the blueberries. Or I let him. Not sure what Ma did to the dog, but I sure had to pick up every single spilled berry off the ground that time. That was a hard winter.
Part Three: Curiosity, Featuring Shkitaagin (Chaga)
Dad always wandered in the woods, still balances on the edge of Delirium. It must have been his old age that got him interested in Chaga, a unique mushroom that is celebrated as a folk remedy for illnesses, even cancers. It could have been his adopted father’s death that sparked his sudden interest in health. Or his biological father’s death two weeks later. The one he never met. Somewhere between those two passings, I heard my dad laugh that he’d wander Delirium’s Edge to deal with his grief. But maybe he wasn’t wandering, maybe he was searching. Maybe he wanted to find medicine.
During the daylight, he’d scan all the white birch trees he could find in the woods for black charred chunks. He knew not to take all the chaga he found. He left the top pieces and thanked the tree before tossing each solid black and tan chunk into a faded blue tent bag he kept strapped around his waist.
Dad must have put in a lot of hours before he filled up half the tent bag with chaga. He knew it is special stuff and that it is medicine. But he didn’t know how to use it, didn’t even know where to start. Dad gave all his chaga to Daraka, my girlfriend, for her to barter for teachings around her reservation. I could see my dad give up when he handed off his bag of chaga. But Daraka and I knew how much my dad was offering up when he handed us the bag of chaga. Shkitaagin is how you say chaga in Anishinaabemowin, the language that named the things in this place that I live.
I’ve searched everywhere around the Marquette area for chaga since then and I haven’t found any. But the last time I went home, there was a chunk of chaga on a birch across the road from my folk’s house, about knee high. I thanked the tree and gripped the squirrel-head-size shkitaagin. It fell easily into my palm. After some asking around and research, I made five liters of shkitaagin tea. I hope my dad drinks the medicine he taught me to find.
Part Four: Enlightenment, Featuring Waabigwan (Flowers)
Most of the time as a full-time floral gardener, I pick weeds. Between the flashes of maze, salmon, and periwinkle that line US-41 highway that funnels travelers into Marquette, Michigan there are small weeds. Small weeds will become big weeds if not removed. Big weeds compete for the nutrients of the soil and sun and result in less impressive flower shows. Waabigwan is how you say flower in Anishinaabemowin, the language that named the things in this place that I live. Rarely do I stand back and gaze slack-jawed at the flower bed, then shove my face in some lemon gems and sniff hard. My lungs fill with hearty vegetation, the smell of photosynthesis I’m told. But the weeds are the smartest of all the garden visitors. Smarter than me.
I was weeding a big bed of flowers when I came upon some stinging nettles. I might have grabbed the fuzzy green stem and got my hand stung, but I was raised to appreciate the identity of the plants I work with, to listen to their stories, to research their attributes. I read about the plants and weeds I encounter in order to listen to them. “This bed is soggy, no drainage,” says mouse-eared chickweed. I tell my supervisor that we ought to cut back the irrigation schedule. “I’ll sting ya real good,” says stinging nettles. My muscles remember childhood techniques and reach into the soil to grab the roots of the weed, avoiding the stinging bristles on the stem and leaves. I toss the defeated stinging nettles on top of the pile of weeds in my bucket.
Moments later, my left hand splayed out full to compress the heaping weed bucket. Like sticking a fork into a wall socket my palm was jolted by the plant’s bristles. The stinging venom crept into my hand and raised sore red marks on the lines in my palm. In a fervor, I remembered that chickweed can be used as a poultice, a soothing topical ointment for cuts, sores, and rashes. I spotted the nearest patch of chickweed and snagged a handful, crushed it to a pulp in my right hand, and rubbed the green juicy wad on my left palm. Instant minty relief.
Medicines are all over this place. If knowledge is the key to using medicines, then curiosity is the doorway to medicine. I am grateful that my parents cultivated my curiosity of not only plants and place, but my curiosity in language. Mashkiki is how you say medicine in Anishinaabemowin, the language that named the things in this place that I live. Both common chickweed and stinging nettles are invasive species, and I don’t know if they have names in Anishinaabemowin. But bashkwashkibidoon is how you say “pluck it” or “weed it” in Anishinaabemowin. I’m learning that every time I pluck something from the earth–my favorite berry, an elusive mushroom, a stingy or sacred weed–that nibashkwashkibidoon mashkiki: I pick medicine.
Tyler Dettloff is an Anishinaabe Métis, Italian, Cherokee, and Irish writer, musician, teacher, gardener, and water protector raised on the edge of the Delirium Wilderness. He currently lives in Gnoozhekaaning (Bay Mills, Michigan) and teaches fifth and sixth grades at Ojibwe Charter School. He has earned a B.S. in English and a dual track M.A. in Literature and Pedagogy from Northern Michigan University in Gitchinamebineziibing (Marquette, Michigan). Mostly, he enjoys walking along rivers with his wife Daraka and his dog Banjo.