First Peoples

The Art of Fall Medicine

Choke cherries have long been used to heal respiratory ailments, by drying inflamed tissues. One might as well say that in the fall, choke cherry goes black, with black leaves, black fruit and black twigs on the edge of the night with twigs branching out at open angles, usually in pairs, and a few fruits left by birds on stems that appear no different than twigs. Twigs, leaves and stems all erupt directly out of the bitter bark of the tree: a constricted flow of sap opens, branches out, and even forms spheres, like alveoli in a lung. The darkness that collapses all of these stories into a single plane, that brings them all together, is part of the story.

I have long been troubled by arguments that traditional medicinal knowledge was arrived at by trial and error. My Indigenous friends tell me that the plants taught the people. I believe them. My hunch is that this was an art, now largely lost, like watercolour painting or even poetry, or dance. If so, it started with the plants and listening to their language. I tried to open a bit of the language of choke cherry above. To make this clear, how about a little look at Red Willow at the same time of day, 100 metres from the choke cherry above.

Dogwood has been traditionally used to treat fevers, as an astringent, and as an emetic. Look how different its power is from choke cherry, and its different relationship to light. It’s not the fruit that tells the story here but the leaves. They are the real crop. Here they are on the next bush to the right:

That’s the difference a little bit of light makes! I’m going to bet that knowing which dogwood leaf to collect, and which purpose to use it for, is part of the art of medicine that incorporates these leads, so good at storing, expelling and isolating concentrated compounds. Look at the complex leaves, deeper into the shade to the left:

Well, one berry is left here this late in the year.

Note which colours are held by the stems, and will be held through the winter, to double in intensity with the warmth of spring. Note as well how the fruit is held out in a separate structure, that ends a twig that otherwise ends by splitting in two twigs. That’s quite the pattern: two twigs unless there is fruit, then one twig (two in one?), which splits into miniatures of the plant, each twig of which holds a white berry. The bush has recreated itself to hold out at its farthest extension this berry that contains its essence. You’d think the essence of the plant rises from this principle, but look at those leaves! They tell an even richer story, like counterpoint or harmony in music. I’m no practitioner of the art that can read and dispense these plants, but I can see that the art is there: not painting, not music, but something of them both living in the world. As for choke cherry, if you look up, you see darkness, but if you look within, away from the sky, suddenly you see blood flowing into the lungs from the sun.

To understand the choke cherry, I’m going to guess, both views are needed here: the dark and the light.

One of the active ingredients in choke cherries (not the fruit itself) is cyanide: medicinal in tiny quantities, even giving a sense of well-being; deadly otherwise. Surely, through their relationship with darkness and light, the trees are telling as much, as are, perhaps, the red willows.

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