Moments in Time - The Boreal garden of Wood Buffalo
When I was in high school, I enrolled in a hunter education course. There was one particular field trip that I will never forget. I was given a tour of a property by a very wise Aboriginal trapper in Lac La Biche.
Our yellow school bus ground down a long dirt road to a cabin locked in the middle of no-where, isolated by thick trees and bush. Our class stumbled off the bus and clumped together as a group around our host. He was a tall, wiry man, with thick black braided hair, and weathered skin. He seized us with his hawk eyes and pulled out a pocket knife. “You see this?” he asked with a grin. “This is the only tool I need to survive out here. How many of you can say that?”
From that moment on he had our undivided attention. He turned his back to the group and started walking down a narrow trail leading into the bush. With each plant he passed, like a respected university professor, he would tell us its name, comment on its characteristics, its environment, and its use.
“This is Rose Hip,” he said pointing at a sharp red berry shrouded by jagged green leaves. “It is a very important medicine. It can be found almost anywhere in the forest. If you drink it daily as a tea you will never get a cold.”
He moved two steps forward and bent down next to a giant white puffball growing by the root of a tree. “If you ever cut yourself out in the bush like I have on more than one occasion,” he explained, “you can use one of these to stop the bleeding. They’re nature’s Band-Aids.”
He then directed the group to a wild raspberry bush growing in a clearing. “Raspberries are not just good for eating, you know. The leaves, canes, and roots are good medicines. You can make a tea from the leaves that will relax women giving birth. Blueberries are also very good they can be used to treatment cancer.”
The Trapper took a leather pouch out of his pocket. He opened it and took out some tobacco. “Whenever you begin to pick and gather,” he said. “It is very important to leave an offering of tobacco in the hole where the root of the plant was taken and make sure you say a prayer of thanks to the creator.”
“Where do you get the tobacco from?” A pimply boy croaked from the back of the group.
The trapper replied, “A common form of tobacco in this area is Red Willow mixed with the Bear Berry plant. Bear Berries grow in coniferous areas among the moss cranberries.”
Suddenly there was a rustling in the tree above our heads. “There’s a squirrel,” he said happily. “He will run this way. See the fallen tree? That’s his bridge.” The Trapper twisted a branch into a small noose. “This is how you can catch him.”
As we continued down the trails of his property he taught us which plants were good for teas, bandages, headaches, stomachaches, and which plants were poisonous and which ones were safe to eat. He knew the names of every tree, flower, and moss. He explained that everything has its own spirit-from the animals to the trees to the rocks each serving a unique role in the cycle of nature each deserving respect and kindness. The deepest lesson he instilled in me that day was that everything was alive and life is precious. For him the bush wasn’t just a collection of plants but a grocery store, a pharmacy, a flourishing garden where he could find all the ingredients to sustain human life.
Since that day, when I look out over the vast expanse of forest that surrounds our city I see one of the biggest natural gardens in the world. I encourage you to take a walk through our trail systems and discover the splendor, beauty, and magic of our majestic boreal garden.
Photos courtesy of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.