NATIVES and PLANTS
Specialist Andrew Brother Elk
Our native plant specialist has been studying plants and plant uses since he was a young boy. On trips to nearby Bear Creek in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, he learned the cycles of riverine plants and later followed the creekside plant communities up into the foothills and mountains. His elders helped him understand the important ceremonial plants. He added western science to this traditional knowledge by taking classes in biology, chemistry, and ecology. And he continued to hike all over southern Oregon with groups like Friends of the Earth and and the Sierra Club (as well as solo hikes) to better understand the habitats of native plants.
“I’ve always felt close to plants. When I’m not feeling well, plants are always where I turn for comfort. On the other hand when life is good, it is usually in some way closely connected to plants: in a natural area, a botanical garden, a park, a field, my garden.
I feel fortunate to have learned so much about plants from elders whose knowledge is much broader and deeper than mine. Maybe I will have the opportunity to approach their level of understanding down the path. That would be a great joy.”
At Stanford, he dove into environmental sciences, botany, and the advanced research opportunities available there. And he became familiar with the Bay Area environment. This research process continued through his careers as an educational leader, businessman, and public servant. During the past 20 years he has taken leaves from these careers to lead environmental organizations, work on parks initiatives, devote time as a board member to nature groups, organize trips to find rare native plants, and study plant communities throughout California.
“People intuitively understand the value of plants to their lives. They know they feel better after a walk in the woods. Spring blossoms make us stop and smell, as do beautiful bouquets at weddings and important celebrations. Gardening is one of the most beloved hobbies in America. Some of this may be simple evolution. The rods and cones in our retinas are programmed from thousands of years of human development to respond well to a canopy of trees, attractive flowers, colorful fruit, etc. Our noses send pleasure waves to our brains when a delicious plant fragrance wafts nearby. This is an emotional response, as well as a sensory one. So on some deep level, humans and plants have co-evolved.”
As chair of NACC, he has encouraged interest in native uses of plants by co-sponsoring talks on the subject, partnering with native plant and environmental groups, creating programs for California Indians to talk about plants, and teaching college courses involving plants.
“The point of indigenous people talking about plants is that we usually have a very different perspective than mainstream culture. Even among native plant activists, the way native peoples used native plants is not well understood. In the pre-contact days, an average First Nations person might know over a thousand different plants intimately: their various names, properties, habitats, uses, and spirit powers. Today, with the pressure of modern life, one is lucky to know just one plant in this way. If NACC can encourage just a few people a day to go explore a few plants that beckon to them, I feel like we are doing good work.”
Interview with Andrew Brother Elk by Shauna Jackson, 2003