Previously published in The Essential Herbal
How Women Came to Have Knowledge of Plants
How Women Came to Have Knowledge of Plants
From This Side of the Ocean
Jackie Johnson N.D.
This story was told to me by an elder-mentor many years ago in upstate New York.
Long ago there was an old woman who lived alone on the edge of village close to the forest. Her husband had walked on many years before, and her children were all married with families of their own. She rarely saw them. Although they left food for her, she was beginning to feel useless, cooking only for herself, keeping the lodge for only one. Her thoughts were turning to the land of the setting sun.
One spring day, as she sat alone looking into the deep pine forest, a young man limped out of the darkness and came toward her. He was so thin and badly injured with broken bones, deep cuts, and scratches all over his body. She helped him into her lodge and onto a spare bedroll she still kept. She covered him and as she gave him a drink of water, she fretted. She told him she would run for the village healer and bring him back.
The young man stopped her saying “I know what needs to be done, but I am unable to gather what I need or to prepare the treatments. Can you do this for me if I tell you how?”
Feeling very incapable and inexperienced to deal with wounds of this magnitude, the woman reluctantly agreed to do as he asked.
She went to the meadow to gather the plants he requested…and they were just where he said they would be growing. Quickly she took only what she needed while thanking them for being there for her, and returned to the lodge. The young man was there and still alive. In great pain, he explained to her how to make the plants into medicine and how to apply them. He told her what to put in the water she kept in a pot on the fire and he drank what she offered him. He showed her how to make rawhide casts and how to use them.
The woman was grateful she could help the young man, and he grew stronger each day and his health soon returned to him. She was so happy to feel useful again.
One morning she awoke and found him very sick. Again, he told her to go to the edge of the forest and get what was needed. The plants were right there and she thanked them, gathered some, dug others, and returned with her basket full. The young man told her to prepare these, differently from the first ones, but she learned and he recovered from this illness.
This went on throughout the summer and early fall – an endless cycle. The young man would recover only to fall sick again from a different ailment or injury. He would patiently explain to her the plants that were needed, where they should live, how to prepare them, and how to administer them.
The time passed too quickly. The old woman found herself fulfilled as she cared for the young man; healing him, feeding him, and watching him get stronger and putting meat on his bones.
She found herself laughing at the stories he told of his people (that she thought were a very strange bunch), and she shared stories of her family and of her loneliness.
By fall harvest time, the old woman’s lodge had been transformed. Vines, leaves and berries were hung everywhere drying. Pouches of plant medicines filled her baskets. People of the village were visiting to ask her advice on this or that. She was no longer lonely.
Too soon the trees were bare, their leaves fallen to the ground. The nights were cold. The young man had healed and stayed healed and she was pleased to see the amount of weight he had gained. Her heart knew he would be returning to his own people.
Soon the winds changed. They came from the north and brought snow with them. It was on such a morning the old woman was awakened by a cold blast of north wind and snow by the closing of her lodge door.
Quickly she arose and threw on her warmest robe. She knew the young man had chosen to leave and she wanted to say goodbye. She walked out of the lodge and saw his fresh footprints in the snow. She began to follow them.
Half way to the forest she stopped and tears formed in her eyes and a knowing came into her heart. The human footprints had suddenly ended. One step ahead and disappearing into the dark woods were the tracks of the bear.
And so, it was in this way that the Medicine Bear brought the healing ways of plants to woman.