If there is a time to haul out the gnarly old verb behold, then surely it is now, standing before this behemoth of the ancient world. Press your hand against its bark rippled like jerky. Crane your neck to watch it vanish above. Note the J-shaped swoop of its boughs. Feel its leaves scaly like dragon skin. Peel away a strip of bark and inhale the dark fertile scent.
We are speaking of the Western red cedar, giant of the Pacific Northwest forest. Native Cascadians called it the tree of life, and they were not embellishing. Their uses of this tree would astonish us moderns who know cedar only as fencing and deck furniture.
Some of those uses: canoes, paddles, bows, totems, skirts, harpoon shafts, spear poles, barbeque sticks, fish racks, bent-wood boxes, drum logs, rattles, benches, rakes, combs, whistles and fuel (excellent for drying fish because it burns with little smoke). And cradles, and coffins.
Native tribes of Cascadia used cedar in every season of their lives. A young girl learned to gather cedar bark from her mother and grandmother, the women trailing into the forest until they found a suitably sized tree, upon which they offered a prayer. With wedges they peeled off 20-foot strips of bark, which they dried, beat and pulled into soft layers, from which they formed rope, fishing nets, crib blankets, dresses and baskets so tightly woven they could cook soup in them.
You can learn about this in Northwest Herbs, a Bastyr University class in which adjunct faculty Heidi Bohan leads students out of the classroom, across the medicinal herb garden and into the campus forest, where they stand face-to-trunk with giants and take a moment to behold the tree of life.
In a natural health education, there is a time for laboratory research, molecular biology, human anatomy and all sorts of endeavors best pursued indoors. But Northwest Herbs is a time for stepping into the forest, breathing in its dank fertile song, and learning something of the creatures who dwarf us and the people who arrived before us.
From Northwest Native Americans we can learn the diverse medicinal uses of Oregon grape and licorice ferns. We learn that stinging nettle, among the first green shoots to rocket from the ground each spring, makes a fine tonic tea. We learn that ripe pink salmonberries in early summer mean salmon have returned from the ocean. We learn that blooming dogwoods mean the clams are ready for harvest. We learn that the dense wood of Western yew makes a halibut hook sink to the bottom of the Salish Sea and that lighter yellow cedar, the other half of a halibut hook, flips the lure after it sinks to attract the massive bottom-dwelling creatures. Today halibut fishers use modern materials but the same sound design.
From natives of Cascadia we learn that camas bulbs and salal berries make nourishing cakes for the winter. We learn that soapberries can be whipped into a delicious frothy dessert. From the elaborate festivals known as potlatches we learn of the inescapable human need to feast now and then. We learn the central truth of potlatch ceremonies: That a person is wealthy in proportion to what he gives away — smoked clams, herring eggs, salal cakes or, in Bohan's case, vast stores of knowledge about indigenous people.
"We've disconnected from our relationship with plants," says Bohan, who has immersed herself in ethnobotany and native culture, marrying into the Haida tribe, learning woodcarving and basketry from tribal elders, and reconnecting people with plants at Northwest schools and nonprofits. Much of her knowledge and passion is captured in her book, The People of Cascadia. It gets passed on to her students, who see the land with new eyes after her class.
For students in Bastyr's undergraduate herbal sciences program, Northwest Herbs is one last hurrah in the spring quarter of their senior year, a reminder that the teas and tinctures they learned to wield have their roots, always, in the earth. For students in the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program, the class is a chance to consider exactly how the vis medicatrix naturae— the healing power of nature — sprouts and grows and towers above us.
For all of us, the class is a chance to dip a toe in a deep river of knowledge. Over 11 weeks we take walks and hear Bohan's stories, such as the first European settlers who struggled to find a place to dock their ships, the shore so dense with ancient cedars and firs. Or the copious leisure time that native tribes enjoyed, their streams thick with salmon, which let them devote hours to elaborate headdresses and other art. Or the simple story of the forest's succession: Fire or storm disrupting the canopy, red alder leaping up first in a clearing, followed by slower-growing fir, then cedar and finally Western hemlock, the climax tree of the Northwest coastal forest. Salal and ferns and a thousand other things form the understory.
Toward the end of the quarter, we research what it takes to build some of the traditional tools of Cascadia. We meet in the campus gazebo and construct (or attempt) baskets, ladles, clam-digging sticks and canoe paddles. Bohan shares her traditional carving tools, acquired over decades of study. We press blades to bare wood, feeling the yield of cedar offering up one more gift.
It's little more than a taste, a handful of berries. Yet it's enough to know there's a feast awaiting those who seek it.
By Jonathan Hiskes, senior marketing communications coordinator
Learn more about Bastyr's programs in herbal sciences and naturopathic medicine.