If you ever get the opportunity, jump off of Highway 51 in Wisconsin and start driving on County D toward Cunard Lake. In April, the trip takes you along a tree-clad isthmus flanked by still-icy lakes of such striking glamour that we have to slow down to hug the road’s curves to avoid literally dying of distraction.
Although winter’s hand still rested on the landscape, we traveled to Cunard Lake in order to talk about (and taste) plants with Wendy Makoons Geniusz, the editor of a book of botany and history that explores the natural world through the lens of centuries of Ojibwe tradition and knowledge.
“Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask” is the book’s title, but it’s also a profound introduction to the complex relationship between humans and the living natural world. The book is a remarkable collaboration between author and Ojibwe medicine woman Mary Siisip Geniusz (who died shortly after the book’s publication) and her daughter Wendy, who is an assistant professor of Ojibwe language at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.
The book, which was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2015, sports the subtitle “Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings.” And while that’s accurate enough, this marvelously ambitious document is steeped deeply not just in botany, but also history and culture all interwoven in such a subtle and natural way that it’s difficult to disentangle where one discipline ends and the other begins.
“Plants” is partially an outgrowth of Wendy’s dissertation, which focused on, as she describes it, “how you research from an Anishinaabe perspective, and how you can connect academia with indigenous communities and how they can work together to revitalize culture and language.” That cross-cultural approach deeply informs “Plants,” which, while well-organized and highly useful as a book, also incorporates oral history in ways that bolster its insights into the natural world.
Not only is the text a collaboration between mother and daughter, it’s also a project that reaches deeply backward in time and broadly in space; Mary draws on knowledge imparted from her Anishinaabe mentor, Keewaydinoquay, who herself traced her knowledge back through multiple generations of medicine people. In researching the book, Mary and Wendy also reached out to sources as far-flung as Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada to track down botanical knowledge and the sometimes-elusive Ojibwe names for particular plants.
“When you’re gathering plants, it’s really important to address them as you would a human being,” says Geniusz. “When you go to an elder, you say who you are and address them—‘Can you help me?’—and you explain what you’re there for. With the plants, that’s really important, too. The teaching is that you’re going to be using this botanical knowledge from generations of Anishinaabe people, so you address the plant in Ojibwe.”
Thus, the book identifies plants by their Ojibwe names, common English names, and Latin (genus and species) names, while weaving them into a greater botanical, scientific, and sacred context. Northern woodlands are not just an attractive blanket of greenish-brown scenery—they’re a mosaic of plants that can heal and/or nourish those who know and respect their power.
A Walk in the Woods
Despite an unexpectedly brutal northwestern wind that made Cunard Lake feel just a few clicks more hospitable than Alaska in February, the plants were already making their presence felt during our visit.
Minutes into our walk through the woods, Geniusz reached down to point out little three-leafed sprouts covering the forest floor, often growing just feet from the last remnants of winter snow. “These are wintergreen plants,” she said, “and you can just chew the leaves if you like.” After waiting for her to make a pre-foraging ritual offering of sacred tobacco (known as kinnikinnick or asemaa), we picked some leaves and were startled by how clean and crisp the flavor was—it was like chewing wintergreen gum, down to the leaves’ texture after repeated hard chews.
She also clipped some sprigs of balsam (which imparted a clean, bracing, almost citrus flavor when brewed with hot water) and harvested several stalks of Labrador tea, also known as mashkiigobag or “swamp tea.” The latter, an evergreen plant that retains its leaves over the winter, offered up a pleasingly funky flavor akin to stewed pumpkin or ripe mangoes after it was steeped into a fireside tea.
Drinking swamp tea casts into a tangible form the challenge of the book, which is depicting the relationship of humans and plants as something more than simple extraction. The walk, the offering, the kindling of the fire: they all made the tea more than just a flavored beverage.
Beyond tea, plant stores, medicinal insights, and the compelling tellings of Anishinaabe stories, “Plants” includes a number of recipes for the home chef to tackle, including everything from Violet Sherbet to Peppermint Lip Balm to Rosewater Cheesecake and Dandelion Gravy. The recipes are a vital bridge for the reader to cross—they take the book’s stories from the realm of the written word into the intimacy of the kitchen, bringing the communication with nature out of the domain of the theoretical into daily life.
That “Plants” gives us an opportunity to start to know and accept the riches that grow all around us is a gift to everyone who lives in the region, passed down to us from some of the first people to inhabit and explore its bounty.