Conversation in an Italian Garden: Traditions are never really lost, ethnobotanist Linda Jones has learned

Versions of this article appeared in 2004 in Indian Country Today and in early 2005 in Slow, the magazine of the Slow Food Movement.

Turin, Italy — At the end of October, ethnobotanist Linda Jones (Catawba), shown left, traveled to Turin, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to attend Terra Madre. At the end of the historic agricultural conference, nearly 5,000 indigenous and traditional food producers from around the planet came together under the auspices of Slow Food, an Italian organization that supports the production and enjoyment of artisanal food worldwide.

Potato growers from the Andes, algae gatherers from Chad, wild rice pickers from the White Earth Chippewa Reservation in Minnesota, piki bread makers from Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico, and many more — some of whom had never before left their tiny communities — aired their common problems, including the pollution of heirloom varieties by genetically modified ones, competition from agribusiness, and land and language loss.

The delegates also brainstormed to find solutions, such as the development of local markets, the formation of cooperatives, and the empowerment of women, who are the majority of the world’s farmers and the keepers of the knowledge that underlies the world’s biodiversity, while, for the most part, toiling in a state of near-slavery.

In the opening session, Carlo Petrini, Slow Food’s founder, called the delegates “intellectuals of the earth,” and in the closing meeting, Great Britain’s Prince Charles said, “I salute you.”

Early in the morning on the first day of Terra Madre, I joined Jones in the garden of the monastery where the North American Native delegation was staying. Mist drifted over the villas that dotted the hills, and church bells rang in the distance, as Jones introduced me to the landscape of my Piedmontese ancestors.

First, we made our way through the main garden, with its central fountain and large rectangular beds crisscrossed by stone paths and bounded by allées of grape arbors. There, Jones pointed out heirloom roses and tomatoes, peppers, thyme, rosemary, sage, and lavender, as well as olive, fig, apple, peach, pine, oak, and chestnut trees.

We then climbed through a fence to take a look at a recently mown wheat field. In the stubble, we found evidence of Mother Nature’s persistence. Sniffing blossoms and tasting leaves as she walked along, Jones identified the herbs and flowers that had sprung up since the harvest, sprinkling the rough-shorn field with bright green wild-mustard leaves, large yellow-and-white chamomile blossoms, tiny blue delphiniums, frilly Queen Anne’s Lace, plumed amaranth, and bee balm.

Later, I interviewed Jones, who is a faculty member at Sitting Bull College, on the Standing Rock Reservation, and a mother of two.

Q: What did you learn at Terra Madre?
A: I found that I am not alone in the struggle to save invaluable, ancient knowledge — and I realized that is our choice, as individuals, to make changes on the small scale, knowing that eventually the small changes will add up to monumental results.

Q: How did you become interested in plants?
A: My grandparents at the Catawba Nation, where I’m enrolled, were always pointing out plants and their uses, so from a very young age it made sense to me to pick leaves to make a tea for stomachache, let’s say, rather than buy medication. Later, while studying botany and anthropology (and English Literature — I had three majors!) at Miami University of Ohio, I was determined not just to learn the science, but also to ensure that traditional knowledge was protected and maintained for everyday use. This idea consumes my dreams and my every waking moment.

Q: You seem to have a plant-centric view of the world.
A: When I say I love my family most of all, my husband always adds that plants are a close second! Plants encompass every bit of culture — language, food, ceremony. Without plants, there’s nothing. In the old days, the Lakota would keep track of what the buffalo ate. When they saw areas with the buffalos’ favorite grasses, they knew the herds would be back that way to graze. Buffalo eat broadleafed plants only when they’re sick, so the people sometimes developed medicines by watching which ones the animals chose.

Q: How do your students respond to this information?
A: Many tell me that once they looked at the prairie and saw just grass. They thought it was “empty.” After studying ethnobotany, they’re amazed by the diversity of the land. They also learn to appreciate the depth and complexity of native science. Chokecherries, for example, have cyanide in the pits, and we do use the entire plant when making a pudding. However, in the crushing process, the acidic flesh of the fruit interacts with the cyanide, causing it to dissipate in the form of a gas.

Q: I’ve noticed that many indigenous foods and medicines are prepared in a similarly elegant manner. It doesn’t seem possible that trial-and-error or the so-called scientific method could have resulted in their discovery.
A: That’s where dreams and visions come in. That’s how the people have always learned a great deal of what they needed to eat well and stay healthy — which we must return to to heal the damage caused by modern, processed foods. Nowadays, we give our young people information, and their hearts and souls will take over. Many elders say that the visions will come back. I get so frustrated when people say traditional knowledge has been lost. Human beings don’t control that information. The spirits do. They are waiting for the right people to come along, and then they will reveal it.

Q: So you’re optimistic about the future?
A: Always. This is the seventh generation. We’re heading for an Indian renaissance. Our youth are as desperate as our elders to save our cultures. Yes, we are still mourning our losses, but we are moving into a healing stage. We’ve always been here, and we always will be.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.