I wander through the tall tree forest on a small island on the edge of the city, where concrete meets the wild. I remember that, in this lifetime, I haven’t been here before. I came to harvest resinous buds off of fallen branches from the ground, the Cottonwood Tree an old friend who has summoned me here to connect. I ask permission while the words of my teacher ring through my ears: Newtonian physics tells us of cause and effect, the duality of yes and no, but permission is more than that. It’s a relationship that we create with the land and Spirits. Having never visited this place before, I don’t want to be like a colonizer; to go into a new place and take from it without giving back. I’ve been taught that one must first create relationships to the land through all of the seasons before harvesting anything. Being a traveler as I am, and standing on land that is a protected park, from which I have walked the surrounding areas many times before, I listen to what the Spirits are speaking to me.
I leave my offering of Tobacco and I pray that the medicine all around my feet give of its healing Spirit to those who it will heal. I am silent, I am listening. Then the wind takes me on my walk, always looking with a clear vision and a good heart. The branches, with their sticky resinous buds, appear in front of me and all around me. When I look up to the sky I see the tree family spread abundantly, their bud-laden branches preparing to leaf. The air is cold on my skin, but I’m excited by the work that I am doing, and that warms me to my core. I hear the wind whispering that I am welcome, that I belong here, and that this medicine is important. The trees feel happy that I acknowledge them, that I recognize their beauty and presence. Nature wants us to connect, like a long-lost relative waiting patiently to be found again. Mother Nature is not in a rush, not hurried by an overactive mind.
I receive confirmations of my support, through the curious friends I’ve made on the trails; the humans, their stories of being in the Beaver’s home, Ayurvedic medicine traditions from their homelands in India, and the family of Eagles watching from above. As I walk further into the bush trusting my internal compass to show me the direction I am to take, more medicine shows herself, she gives herself to me, and I promise to take care of her.
My Ancestors walk beside me, they speak to me in thoughts, in feelings, through dreams, visions, and nature. The words of my teacher remind me that what empowers me empowers them too, they want to see me thriving, they want to help me make the world a better place. On the vision quest the Old Ones were standing in a circle around me, and they were guiding me in every action, in every word. Never alone, no fear of the unknown. Life becomes easier to live when we are aware of our Ancestor’s presence and love. The more we communicate with them, the stronger the relationships become. It’s the same with our plant and animal relatives, the Rock People, and the Water Spirits. You say tansi (hello) and the tree shimmers in the sunlight, shining her stars for you to remember. Mother Nature is so generous, she teaches us to give in a good way.
Michael Yellowbird speaks of the colonial mind as a mental illness that has misguided the colonized people into believing in separation, fear, and unhealthy ways of relating. What he calls neuro-decolonization involves culture as the antidote. Through traditional contemplative practices akin to mediation such as: creating art and music, sitting in a ceremony, or collecting food and medicine, one can learn to come back to our true nature in that place of balance and wholeness. I ask myself once again: how can I live in an Indigenous way in a modern world caught by two seemingly opposite ways of being; Indigenous and Western? I am taught in one way through the books and institutions that I am a student of, but I practice real living in the bush with my hands in the dirt, and the Spirits guiding me, sometimes in different directions than my mind is able to make sense of. Overthinking, overanalyzing, and overriding my inner knowing at times.
The intellect asserts its power over the heart, and I allow it, just like they taught me in school. The old fight creeps up inside of me, but I’ve worked so hard to let it go. To allow my heart to lead, no matter what adversity wants to test. Martin Prechtel speaks of the human journey of remembrance, being born into form as an amnesiac who begins to remember what it means to be alive in this existence, and all the journeys our Souls have walked before. When you become an Elder you are a full-grown adult, a lifetime of learning and awareness behind and in front of you. I know that when I hold the Poplar Buds in my hand I am holding an ancient part of myself. The part that can speak the language of the plants, the part who sat in a circle with my tribe and shared medicine, and the part of myself that’s longing to be back in that circle once again. The Cottonwood is my reminder to give my gifts, while my Spirit wanders looking for a place to give, which has been a lifelong journey up until this point in time.
The Cottonwood has special meaning for the Plains Cree, and many other Indigenous nations, such as the Lakota: when cutting diagonally the wood shows a five-pointed star, the morning star of light and wisdom. Black Elk spoke to the star as follows:
“Morning Star, there at the place where the sun comes up, you who have the wisdom which we seek, help us in cleansing ourselves and all the people, that our generations to come will have light as they walk the sacred path. You lead the dawn as it walks forth, and also the day which follows with its light which is knowledge. This you do for us and for all the people of the world, that they may see clearly in walking the wakan – holy – path, that they may know all that is holy, and that they may increase in a sacred manner…”
The morning star reminds me of Star Seeds: advanced spiritual beings born into human form, to heal humanity and teach balance and harmony. I remember the vision from a far-off land, when I was once in a community of light beings, we all looked the same, and there was no form or boundaries between us. But in this world, trees are our Plant Elders who hold the knowledge from time immemorial, they have lived it, and as my teacher says, they are the libraries of nature. The Cottonwood, as waga can (rustling tree) it prays, singing in the wind to Wakan-Tanka (Great Spirit). In the Sundance ceremony, the sacred tree is Wakan-Tanka joining earth and sky, as Wakan-Tanka is the center of the universe (Petaga Wakan). When I work with Cottonwood medicine I remember dancing in the arbor and touching the tree, a direct connection to Spirit through my hands, which are not my own, but a part of everything.
The Mikisew Cree used Balsam Poplar leaves as a poultice to draw out infection, and a poultice of the sticky buds to stop bleeding. The Black Cottonwood that I work with on the west coast is used by many Indigenous nations for a variety of ailments, some of which include: a remedy for pain, bruises, soreness, boils, as burn dressing, and skin healer, as well as a remedy for cough, sore throat, and colds. This information is only a small picture of the vast medicinal value found in this tree. It is as multidimensional as every human being on the planet, and we have so much to learn from it. If you are interested in working with this medicine you can go find it on the land and create a relationship with it. Stay tuned for upcoming Black Cottonwood remedies in the webshop not too far down the road. Mahsi, thank you for reading, until next time may we go out and give some love to the land that sustains us and allows us to thrive.