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Contemplations from my first year studying plants

By Shannon Plumb


Editor’s note: The first-year final assignment is an opportunity for students to reflect upon the year and integrate their herbal knowledge with another facet of their life. This post is Shannon’s final project from the 2022-2023 school year.


The bush

My husband, two sons, and I moved into our Brooklyn home seven years ago. After 30 years, running from landlords raising rents, I felt planted. Here, I could tap my roots. One day, I met the neighbor next door as we left our houses at the same time. I introduced myself on the sidewalk. She closed her eyes in disappointment and then slowly opened them. I watched as her gaze rotated like a gun on a tank taking aim at a tall bush in my front yard.  


“You better get that bush removed,” she said.  


I followed those positioning eyes to their target. A giant clump of venomous-like vines grew out of the ground and leaned into her property. I thought she had a lot of nerve to tell me what to do with my bush. I started making assumptions about this stranger. I thought she was grumpy, or maybe she resented the nine months of our renovations. The noise of gentrification: an assault to everyone’s peace of mind. I retreated inside swearing to myself that I’d never take down that bush.  


A heart-shaped cutout in a leaf among a pile of leaves.

As the bush changed through the seasons I often ran into my neighbor coming and going. She told me why this bush had always been a point of contention for her. The vines had a way of creeping around her hand rail. She’d get pricked by thorns every time she came home. She needed that handrail to help her up the steps. She had a bad back. I got some scissors and tried to clip away the branches. The thorns pierced my skin. Blood dropped on the sidewalk. I bought my first set of gardening gloves. Bought my first clippers. Every spring when the bush overextended its reach, I would clip the thorny stems that grew toward her hand rail. The bush was determined to taunt her, and, to teach me a thing or two about bushes and wrong first impressions. Or, maybe it was trying to connect us; in its own thorny, viny plant way. One spring, a few years into our new home, she and I opened our front doors at the same time. With a big smile she said, “I can smell those flowers all the way into the kitchen. They smell so sweet.” 


“I smelled them in my house too,” I told her. 


She said she asked a landscaper what kind of bush it was. It’s a rose bush.


Herbalist

Around the same time that we moved into our new house I started to see an herbalist. For years I was in bed three days a month with migraines. My son was getting into trouble at school and had to be evaluated in the 7th grade. They concluded he had Hyper Active/ Impulsive Disorder. He was labeled, diagnosed, and expected to conform. Therapists and school administrators were encouraging drugs for focus. I was searching for an alternative to Ritalin and Adderall and relief from migraine pain. It was my first introduction to the plants. My son and I were taking tinctures and capsules, not fully understanding what they were or what they did. Vitex? Viburnum? Yarrow? Chaste Berry? (was that the same as Vitex?) Ashwaganda, marshmallow, milky oats. Lavender and magnesium seemed familiar enough. When we’d travel to see our families I’d empty my load of bottles onto the counter and get a whole bunch of googly eyes. The old folks had seen lots of medications in their golden years, but nothing could compare to my pill box.


Body

We got our dog Lucia about five years ago. I always wanted to bond with an animal; to experience a different kind of communication. My own body was a mysterious creature I didn’t know how to talk with. I knew my body only as well as I knew my mom or my cousin or my husband. I was inside my body just like I was inside our new home. I had no idea how anything worked. The toilet flushed but where were the pipes? The lights worked but where were the wires? The house heated up but how?


I loved my body in the same way that I loved our dog. It seemed so strange to think this way but I felt like I really had a friend, my body was a friend. I was learning to communicate with my dog, and she with me. She brings her bowl out into the open living space, sets it down, and sits behind it. She looks at me as she gives her presentation of dinnertime. I repeated the word “bowl” for many days when she did this and then put food in the bowl. She began to connect “bowl” with that thing she carried and plopped down in the middle of the floor which was connected to food. 


“You want to eat?” I’ll ask. 


She wags her tail and wiggles her body with an enthusiastic “yes!” 


Can I communicate with my body? Is there a language that I can learn or that it can teach me? Will I see the signs when it tells me what it needs? Do I have a tail to wag?


Rachel Carson, the pandemic, and George Floyd

Before COVID I was reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The book is a testament to how we damaged the earth and interfered with its natural cycles during the 40’s and 50’s. Man had waged another battle against nature. Corporations were creating chemicals to kill insects and weeds. They were poisoning the earth. With her book, published in 1962, Rachel was calling the corporations out.


But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. - Rachel Carson


Human carvings into tree bark.

In March 2020, when COVID came around, I, like many others, wondered if the earth was trying to say something. Was this another body trying to communicate to another body? How can the earth let us know our living habits are killing it? Was COVID the result of not listening? Did we not understand the translation from earth to human? Stop the destruction, stop overcrowding, stop abusing nature? How can a body cry out when it has no mouth? How does a species hear when so many can’t listen?


We were afraid to even go to the park. If you touched something out in public you might die. We weren’t supposed to leave the house. I’m not one to stay inside a house. Maybe if a house didn’t have walls or a roof… but they tend to come that way. Everything got canceled except the spring. During lockdown, I sat in the backyard a lot. I stared at a tree with a vine creeping up its trunk. My neighbor came out back, watch those vines. They’ll kill your tree. The vine was slowly strangling the only tree in my backyard. It was the spring of George Floyd’s murder. And the saying “I can’t breathe” took on many meanings.


I walked every day around the block. Around and around and….the circles and cycles started to reveal themselves. It WAS a Silent Spring. Humans, machines, and slaughterhouses all took a long pause. You could almost hear the tulips grow in their designated pots of soil on abandoned sidewalks. The air cleansed itself in the absence of traffic. Colors were brighter. There was silence for the birds to be heard. As I walked my circles on rectangular sidewalks, I listened to an audio recording of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I absorbed the idea of reciprocity with nature. 


In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’ Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond. - Robin Wall Kimmerer


I felt an obligation to help nature in some way. I ran home and tore off the vines that were strangling our backyard tree. This wasn’t necessary, as I could have just cut them at the base. Instead, I gave a show to my neighbors as I wrestled the vine like a comic book hero in a battle with Octopus Man. The bark started to peel off as I pulled the vine away from the trunk. Was I harming the tree by trying to help it? I stood back regretting my impulse to save the day. I hoped my gesture of protection was understood by the tree. About a year later I noticed a sapling growing right next to the mother tree.


During COVID lockdown, when homes became schools for children and workplaces for adults, I often looked to our backyard to witness change, growth, movement. The little bit of green behind brick houses offered hope and courage. I started a small garden. My son helped me. We got our hands in the soil. We focused on new life. We saw movement and progress every day. We witnessed the collaboration of sun, earth, and rain. We harvested cherry tomatoes and serrano peppers. My son made his own hot sauce. We fed the birds and in return they brought new seeds to our soil. There was always something to look forward to when we opened our back door.


The rainforest

Two years later, in March of 2022 my family and I visited Belize. My husband had hired a travel agent to help us plan the trip. We received a bag of promo gifts from their company. There were three books in the bag. One of them was called Sastun by Rosita Arvigo. I packed it and started reading it on the plane. Rosita becomes an apprentice to a traditional Mayan healer, Don Elijio Panti. She follows him as he collects plants in the rainforest. He teaches her the healing qualities of the plants and the magic of an ancient tradition. 


During our visit to Belize we ate soups with seed bases, we visited Mayan ruins, we met locals who told us “anything that moves in that jungle we eat.” I continued to read Satsun. One day we hiked through a dense part of the rainforest. We swam across three rivers. We survived the fast currents by holding onto ropes tied to trees that connected one piece of land to another.  The rain was coming down. Our destination was a ceremonial Mayan cave where, in the 3rd century AD, the Mayans made human sacrifices to the gods. This was the entrance to the Mayan underworld. 


When the rain stopped the world quickly dried up. We walked through the forest in wet clothes. We stomped through mud puddles and followed our guide down a long, narrow path. I kept looking into the depth of the forest. It had so many layers. It appeared to be like a million autonomous pieces and yet felt like one whole being. It had a spicy smell. It seemed to inhale and exhale. As we cleared a path with the machete the forest started growing back within seconds. 


I pointed to a plant and asked the guide what it was. “Jackass bitters, gets rid of worms,” he shouted. 


Everyone continued walking as I stopped to examine the plant. I stood still and alone while they rounded a bend. Me and the rainforest. There’s something about being alone with the sun, the moon, the forest. It’s like being born of a mother who is busy with a trillion children but for these few minutes she’s devoted to you. The forest got seriously quiet as if it were waiting, or getting ready to say something. No wind, no more rain. Who was going to start the conversation? My senses sharpened. In all the stillness I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. I quickly turned thinking it was a jaguar running by. It wasn’t a jaguar. It was a single leaf spinning a couple feet off the ground. I felt the need for a witness. I yelled for one of my sons but they were far up ahead. No other leaves were moving. Was it the wind? No wind. A drop of rain? The leaf kept twirling. I was resigned to believe it had a simple explanation. I ran up ahead, we swam through flooded caves, we saw the fractured skull of a child, we left the underworld perhaps a little different than when we came. 


A beautiful pink magnolia flower in bloom.

On the return flight back to Brooklyn, I read the last chapter of my book, Sastun. Rosita was about to be introduced to the plant world. The Mayan healer was performing the ceremony. They needed a sign from the plant spirits that Rosita was accepted into their sacred world.  Rosita stood in the rainforest waiting. She asked, “How will I know when the plant spirit is here?” 


The Mayan healer told her to look at the forest. She scanned the forest around her. All was still. Except… there, at the edge, where forest and cleared land met, there was a leaf twirling on a bush. No wind, no rain. The only leaf moving. “They’re here, and they accept you.”


When we got back home the boys said they wanted to purge. They heard some locals in Belize talk about how the children have to purge every month or so to get rid of worms. They drink epsom salts to rid the body of parasites. The boys insisted we do what they do. I needed time to look this up. Wasn’t sure about drinking a lot of epsom salts. I also had to get back to my work. I had to write a comedy show. I sat at my desk and tried to focus on anything funny but I kept thinking about healing. I stared at a book that had been sitting on my desk since fall called Classical Chinese Medicine by Liu Lihong. I hadn’t read it yet. It was 700 pages.. I opened the book somewhere in the middle just to have a peek. The paragraph began with parasites.


Healing with plants began to consume my mind. 


Return to New Paltz

I went to college at SUNY New Paltz. That was 33 years ago. Some old timers from the town told me there's an Indigenous saying about the water. That if you drink from this river you'll always come back. My first weekends at ArborVitae I drove down Main St and entered a montage of memories. There was the bar I’d stumbled out of on a few drunken nights, there was the gas station where I could get two hotdogs for 99 cents, there was the bench where I listened to a friend play guitar who had now passed, here was the street I endlessly searched for romance, adventure, and destiny. I was wild then, 19 years old, the future a dream; unlimited choices. I had come to this town seeking independence from my mom, from my childhood, and from the comforts of familiarity. 


Sunlight glimmers off of the hairs of a tomato plant stem.

Now, I was returning as a 52-year-old woman. I didn’t have as many years to “figure it out” as I did back then. This time I was a mother, who shopped for groceries once a week and went to teacher conference meetings and yelled at her teens to get off their devices. I was a wife telling a husband to pick up his dirty socks. I had compromises I had to make. And yet, I returned to this town still searching. This time it was to find  that person i’d left behind;  before raising two boys over 19 years. They wanted their independence now. Once a month, on a journey to study plants, I would relearn who it was that walked alone with these two feet.


Unmasking

The school year started. It had been a while since I socialized in big groups. I learn quickly that I like being with people in person. Body to body. Heart to heart. Energy! I learn who I am in who others are. For the first time in my life I was one of the oldest in the room. How did that happen? After two years behind a mask I was unmasking and I looked 10 years older. What a shock! Why does my age keep coming up? Once the reckless maiden, then the full time mother, now the aimless crone. How can I slow down the pull toward the grave? I want to dig my heels in the dirt as death tugs my rope to the end.


Modern times

How could I incorporate this knowledge of living a natural, healthy life with the realities of American living? American life is the “get it now and fix it fast” culture. Americans have gotten impatient. Results need to be seen right away. Sweet n’ Low for sun tea, Mr. Clean and Fantastic for housecleaner, more suds is better soap, antibiotics for fungus toe, fast, cheaper, better, a fix-everything pill from the doctor, don’t get sick, colds are bad. I remember telling a relative that a fever was a good thing. She thought I was making my son suffer by not giving him Tylenol. How could I incorporate the pace and the philosophy of the natural world with a synthetic world of fast working pharmaceuticals and doctors who instill fear rather than knowledge? We don’t know our own bodies. As a result we rely on western medicine to tell us what to do with our bodies. I wish there was a class in school that taught us about our bodies. I wish it were required from grade 1 to grade 12 like history, English, and math. Imagine the empowerment if we knew the body we lived in. The word doctor comes from the Latin verb docere, which means “to teach.” I've never had a doctor who tried to teach me about my body.


What was that herb? What was it used for?

All of a sudden, raising my sword to the sky, I wanted to lead my people to healing. Mom has sciatica. (Didn’t know that’s how it’s spelled!) I raise my hand in class. What’s good for that? St. Johns Wort! A relative has diabetes, kidney disease, neuropathy in his feet. Can’t touch that yet. A cousin has lupus, afraid she’s losing her vision. What about the liver and the eyes? What was it they said? Me and my boys scratch our skin all winter. Eczema. Burdock. But oh….burdock seed. Or, burdock and a diaphoretic to release the toxins. Calendula soak. Something sticks; the flowers to my son’s foot. Am I learning?


My dad waits for a biopsy on his pancreas. Oh, that thing. What does it do? I don’t know enough quick enough. I’m surrounded by books with the secrets of herbs and their healing. The herbs speak to each other in whispers through the pages. They speak too softly for me to hear. I try to recall an herb that we studied, that might help my dad, the books go silent. My hair is falling out. Spearmint tea? Calm down…you can’t learn that fast.


Puberty and acne. My sons are at battle. They’re trying to maintain confidence while their faces erupt. Have to help. Chaste tree. Calendula hydrosol. Yarrow hydrosol. Dermaclear capsules, (artichoke, burdock, lady’s mantle, plantain, pansy, clary sage, rosemary, evening primrose) omega 3 supplements. All efforts diminished by a dermatologist. My son tells the doctor he quit sugar to calm the acne. Doctor said diet doesn’t do anything. I tell him I’m studying plant medicine and when I figure out how the plants can help acne then “I’LL BE BACK.”


“You do that,” he said.


I go down with a migraine. Again and again. Ingrown toenail, toe fungus, blepharitis (what? Is that “itus or “itis”?) Lyme, restless leg syndrome, COVID, colds, boxer’s fracture. The amount of ailments in just one season. I felt like I was my own ambulance, a superhero with a siren strapped to her chest. Once I arrived I couldn’t always perform. I wanted to help. I wanted to match a plant to every loved one. But the knowledge just wasn’t available yet. Western medicine was fast. Western medicine was winning.


Halfway

Since I was in my late 20’s I’ve been making comedy. I make my own films, with myself in them. Inspired by Lucille Ball, Whoopi Goldberg, Buster Keaton, Jaque Tati, I made short films that were exhibited in the art world. I made a feature that screened at festivals and select theaters. I made my own way, making my own movies. Now I’m in my early 50’s. I don’t have a “career” but I do have experience trying to make people laugh with my films. The herbalist I’d been working with introduced the idea that I was a healer too. That my comedy and experience made people laugh and that laughter was medicine, was healing. I wanted to believe her. 


A white bird holds a fish in its mouth with a lake in the background.

Halfway through the semester and halfway through my life, I realize how valuable experience is. Our teachers have had decades with the plants. I just started being able to keep a plant alive five years ago. Our teachers talk about their early adventures walking through forests, administering medicine, talking to clients, listening to plants, making fermentations. So much experience gained. I asked myself many times during the school year: When can I actually help people using plant medicine? Maybe in 15 years? How old will I be? I’ll be 70! What am I doing studying plants? Shouldn’t I take an acting class, or try auditioning, or schmooze with art galleries, or learn how to write a story?


As much as I tried to keep a foot in the world of entertainment, I couldn’t stop turning the pages of Matt Wood, of Kat Meir, of putting seeds in the soil, of studying systems and cells, the miraculous world in our bodies. My husband told me we can’t keep buying books. I have towers of them, each book a window in the tower, and each window a view overlooking the natural world. Mother Nature. Was this what I was seeking? Did I want to finally meet and get to know nature, the Earth? 


The park

I moved to the city in my early 20’s. The only time I saw green was on food at the back of the fridge, or on St. Patrick’s day. My feet barely touched the earth back then.  


Now my home is near Prospect Park. Amongst the broken glass, seedlings and roots; past the garbage cans overflowing with celebration debris from a first spring weekend, beneath a child’s rusty scooter abandoned near a tree, away from the helicopters, sirens, and unsettled human souls, there is a place where my foot sinks into soil. 


I use the park to stretch my legs and my imagination. I rush to it hoping it will clear my mind and ignite my creativity. Once I cross the jammed intersection and pass the woman who sells mango on the corner, I enter a world where green life and cement stories coexist. Dry leaves rustle in the wind then descend into colorful words and ideas falling all around me. By the time I’ve finished a two-mile circle I usually have an ending to a funny skit, the beginning of an essay, or just the solution of what to make for dinner. As I walk, the joggers come from behind, breathing heavy, spitting, and grunting as if being chased by a monster I cannot see. Mothers run past pushing strollers that blast white noise from their carriage speakers. In groups of twos and threes bikers in racing uniforms do a multitude of laps. While hunched over, noses dripping, a number on their backs, they speak loudly as they pedal, of stocks and politics. And all around us, on both sides of the road, there is another type of life. Sometimes it’s all red and orange and yellow, sometimes all brown. It drops its curtain in the winter and everything disappears. You can see through to the other side. It dresses itself with new fallen snow. It buds like inspiration, and it grows. It makes itself green. And one day, as I looked at all that green, I had a need to know its name. 


A tunnel leads to the vast green of trees.

As the school year went on and seasons passed my walks in the park changed. I was looking into the forest and seeing what wasn’t seen before. The more I reached in, the closer I became, the more I saw. When I didn’t see anything I knew, I was moving too fast. If I slowed down, nature would reveal itself. Those weren’t just weeds on the side of the road. It was mugwort! When I looked down as I walked iId see, simply a layer of splattered leaves.. But now, when I look down at the leaves on the pavement, I know the names of the trees they’ve fallen from. Gingko! I was learning to see details. To look at the axil of a twig and see where the buds will grow. To observe the texture of the bark on a tree. To understand that the mullein grows low to the ground in its first year, reaches for the sky in the second year. I started to look, not just at the tops of leaves, but at their underside as well. I gave  attention to the surface of a leaf, to the margins, to the feel.  


Shapes! So many shapes in the leaves. All that those shapes could tell me! My eyes were seeing everything!


Circles

I walked circles around my block in the pandemic. I walked a circle at the park. We stood in a circle on the first day of school, and on the last day of year one at ArborVitae. The mullein leaves spiral as they grow as if looking for the end of the circle, or for another beginning. A life cycle seems circular. It starts out with no memory and sometimes ends without a memory. The toilet is circular. The medicine wheel is circular. A mandala. A pancake. The calendar. The seasons. The rings in a stump of a tree. The iris and its pupil. I tell the class, when asked what I learned this year, I say, “something about the circle.”


The bush

My neighbor moved away two years ago. Now, there are loud renovations next door while a new neighbor waits to move in. My husband told me a few days ago a “guy” is coming to look at the rose bush. 


“What kind of guy,” I asked him. 


“Someone who knows how to trim it back,” he said. “It’s out of control.”  


“Do we really have to control it? Let’s just keep it off their handrail.”


I don’t know why I’m studying plants. Maybe to learn how to listen. Then maybe, when I know how to listen, I’ll hear what they’ve been trying to say all this time.


 

Shannon Plumb is a second-year student at ArborVitae. You can find her most recent Chopped Liver comedy show here and additional writing and comedy on her website.

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