Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Mother, My Teacher

It 's Mother's Day - a day that we remember and honor our mothers. For me my mother was also my best teacher, my best mentor and my best field guide for the forests and fields of Southern Illinois.

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t recognize my best teacher, mentor, and the woman who instilled in me a deep love of the forest and the fields and all that they contain today.

That woman was my mother, reserved and stoic woman who didn’t talk much about feelings or memories.; Occasionally sharing stories of the difficulties of living in the Depression, brothers who left home to join the CCC, and literally living out of what could be gathered, found, dug, caught and brought from the woods.

Her adult life was not an easy one – filled with farm work and houseful of children that had the oldest and youngest 21 years apart. But when she stepped into the woods, she was a different person. My mother knew the woods and the fields intimately. She understood the relationships between the plants, creatures, weather patterns.; She taught me to notice how the ground felt under my feet, how the air felt on my face and how the scents of plants and fungi would carry on the breeze.I still use and carry her field guides, with their hastily scribbled notations in the margins of things like "found in Mae Ketchum's creekbottom" and "Ward (her brother) was wrong about this ".

I dig out her field journals and notes when I'm stumped about something; looking for an answer that I can't find via all of the resources we have today.

The endless days we spent wandering about were filled with hidden lessons. A sudden firm tug downward on the back of my shirt meant that I should sit down and be quiet – then she would point at the raccoons, rabbits, turkeys and other creatures that we would encounter during our travels. Silently we would sit watching them go about their business, and then she would explain their role in “big circle of things” to me.I didn't realize at the time that what I considered going to the woods to play was my mother's way of insuring that the traditions and knowledge of living out of the woods would be passed on. If asked what a plant was - she handed me a field guide and early on taught me how to "key it out " - once I had found the plant in the field guide, only then would she commence to explain it further.

Because I developed a love for snakes before I ever got to school, she made a point of teaching me which ones I could pick up and which ones I could not. This became necessary after I brought a cotton mouth home in my bucket one day. I was pleased as punch with that snake; my father was horrified at the thought of what could have happened.I can still hear him shouting at her, “You have got to do something about this!! She’s going to wind up dead!” Looking back that was a frequent exchange between my parents, with my mother simply answering, " Oh she'll be fine.. she knows the woods..stop worrying."

My mother taught by example which plants solved the most common problems – always I got a good rub down with jewel weed smashed into a paste when I came out of the woods. She made a point showing me that jewel weed nearly always grew in the same spots as vicious poison ivy – an example of nature taking care of us.

She taught me which roots and leaves and flowers were best and which ones should not be given in certain circumstances. Squaw root – Don’t give it to pregnant women – it causes contractions and could cause a miscarriage; this advice offered with an arched eyebrow and a direct look that explained the hidden meaning behind it. Squaw root could also be used to "bring on" a woman's menses if she was concerned because they had stopped. Watch how much yellow root you take in – it’s a powerful diuretic. Comfrey has tremendous wound healing properties. Valerian can be used as an anti anxiety and sleep aid. St. John's wort would help lift a depression. The list was endless it seemed.

Mom was also a conservationist making sure that I understood when wild foraging, hunting, fishing, anything that could be consumptive use , I was cautious to always put back, not over harvest, and leave some to grow for next season.

She inherently knew where the most endangered plants were. I always felt like she was going to make me sign in blood that I would never reveal their whereabouts. She maintained a woodland garden at her home so that visitors could see the rarest of the native lilies, orchids and gentians without having to give away their whereabouts to strangers.

The day she finally felt I was old enough to understand about the rarity and preciousness of the yellow Lady Slipper orchids was a rite of passage. Although, getting to them required a machete and hacking through thickets of bittersweet vines and scaling bluffs that seemed endless. At one point I simply sat down a refused to fight the bittersweet any longer. With a stern and somewhat solemn look, she told me, " Listen here missy - nothing worthwhile in life is ever going to be easy, so get off your fanny and let's go." And I did. And I continue to hear that statement in my head when the going gets rough and ragged and hard in the woods.

I remember with clarity the look she gave me as she began to enter her golden years, when I suggested she wear an orange vest so we could find more easily find her if she fell or had problems in the woods. Her bright blue eyes suggested that there was place for that vest I had in my hands it wasn’t on her back.

When she was diagnosed with leukemia she was a good sport and tried the chemo that modern medicine offered her. She didn’t like it and announced to her oncologist one day that there would be no more. It made her too sick to go to the woods, and the woods would heal her, thank you very much.

And the woods did heal her. Inexplicably to the medical community she went into full remission and stayed that way for over ten years. It was simple to us – the woods is good medicine and the woods provides good medicine.

At the end of her life she developed a particularly aggressive and fast growing cancer, but she continued to travel to her favorite creek bottom until about a month before she died. When we expressed concern that maybe she was too frail , too weak, she gave use a glaring look filled with lightning bolts and simply said “ I’m going to die at some point, probably sooner than later. So what if it’s where I’m happy in the woods? “

We buried her ashes under a cedar tree next to her brother who had traveled the country spending his life in the woods as well.

Happy mother’s Day Mom, and thanks for taking the time to pass on all you knew.


Deb said...

What a wonderful story about your mother, she sounds like she was a fantastic teacher and someone I would LOVED to have know and had teach me about herbs, since I've been interested in them, but don't know all that much about them. I'd love to be able to gather what grows on our property, and know how to find them and use them. I do hope you have been able to pass all that on to your kids and even nieces and nephews, so it will hopefully be carried on into the uncertain future by someone. This is really a wonderful tribute to your mother. I hope you have a wonderful Mothers Day!

Gila said...

Maude was a fabulous teacher! She used to take us on field trips to the woods and taught us what was good to eat and what was not, what plants would heal us and what would make us sick. Our third grade class got the low down on which snakes were which and what I could take in to study on and which ones I should leave my hands off of.
Growing up my grandmother called on her for home remedies she was not quite sure about. And in my grandmother's later years Maude brought her back to life when her heart stopped and everyone else said she was gone. She was a true healer from the word go.
Maude also taught me to say what was on my mind, to stand up for what I believe in, and to always be good to the people and nature around me. And always be honest a respectful no matter what.
Your mother was a wonderful teacher Gretchen, a teacher of all things. She nutured my abilities in and out of the school room and stood up for me when others didn't.
It was a pleasure and an honor to know her and although she is gone from this earth now, she lives on every day you. And while you may not have any two legged children of your own, you have been a mother and nuturer to many and just like your mother you are gifted that way.

Happy Mother's Day Gretchen!

Stacy Dvorak said...

Beautiful Story Gretchen!! It reminds me so much of my own Mom - I see a totally different women in the blind, in the field or on the lake.

Stacy Dvorak
Pro Staffer Women of the Wild Outdoors

Gretchen Steele said...

Thank you ladies for your wonderful comments. I think we are lucky to have the strong smart female mentors that we've had in our lives!

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