Harvesting therapies of the Earth

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

Helen Abbott-Watkins has had cancer - twice. The first attacked her right breast and was discovered just months after she wed. The second came later, attacking the left side.

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Photos By Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Photos By Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire

And while she has survived the emotional and physical challenges that come with such an ordeal - the mastectomies, the treatments and the aftermath - this Tlingit elder swears by the medicinal potential harbored in the devil's club, a thorny plant that grows locally and throughout the Pacific Northwest. It's the same plant that has been revered for centuries by Native peoples.

From diagnosis through recovery, she diligently drank a tea steeped from the pulverized bark of the plant. She believes so strongly in the "power" of the plant, she carries the bark powder with her daily, just in case she finds someone in need.

"I have a friend," she said. "He had cancer of the larynx. When I first saw him, he could barely speak and he looked weak. I said 'here, more devil's club.' Two months after he could speak again."

Last week the 70-year-old, who has lived in Southeast her entire life, sat on the side of Thane Road and engaged in the annual act of harvesting vital parts of the plant. With weathered but strong and smooth hands, she deftly pulled and stripped the de-thorned, lime-colored bark from its silky, hard interior. It smelled like sage and the earth after a rain. She tossed the stripped sticks to the side and the peelings into a green reusable grocery bag. Perched atop a stump, her leg crossed like a teenager, she smiled often as she thought back through the many years and teachings that brought her to this point.

"Doing this reminds me of spring," she said. "When the skunk cabbage comes up, and when the herring spawn. This is my new year."

Long ago she said, her mother, her teacher, educated her in the ways of many things. Whether it was how to clean and smoke fish, where to find the best wild cranberries or the type of spruce sap best for sealing cuts and wounds, Abbott-Watkins said she still practices those skills today.

She pointed with her index finger.

"See this," she said, as she gestured with her eyes. "I got cut at the base of my nail. But, just now I put spruce sap on it. Oh man did it sting. But, not now. This will heal well because of the sap."

Like Abbott-Watkins, the devil's club has a history of its own.

The plant, known by its Latin name Oplopanax horridus, was first recorded to be in use by the Tlingit in 1842 by Eduardo Blaschke, the chief physician for the Russian American Company who, according to an ethnobotanical review completed by the American Botanical Council, noted use of the devil's club ash as a treatment for sores.

In a 2004 review of the plant, 42 categories of medicinal, spiritual and technological uses by people from 38 different linguistic groups throughout northwestern North America, representing nine language families, was recorded. Devil's club was documented to have antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial and antimycobacterial properties.

The plant is said to be used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, respiratory and digestive tract ailments, broken bones, fever, dandruff, type II diabetes, lice, headaches and as a treatment for cancer - and that's the short list. Additionally, research has shown that not just the inner bark was used. Native peoples, such as the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, utilized the stems, roots and ash of the plant.

Documented uses went beyond medicinal, however, and often delved into the spiritual realm.

"Beads cut from the sticks can be strung on spruce root," Abbott-Watkins said. "To ward off or end bad weather."

Records show it was also used for luck and protection, to name a few. Some regional cultures believed so strongly in the spiritual powers of the wood, entire lodges were built of devil's club.

This day, however, Abbott-Watkins was merely doing what she's done for years, the way she'd been taught.

A few close friends accompanied her, and helped to strip the spines from the sticks with the dull edge of a knife, before handing them to her.

"I know a lot of people who make ointment," she said. "I'm going to try it this year."

She bit down hard on the green edge of the stripped bark and cleaned the 3-foot stick in one pull.

"I've harvested all around Juneau," she said. "Douglas Island is good, but I like this spot best."

She gestured across the road and up the hill.

"You want take the plants that grow in moist areas, the ones next to streams. That way the bark comes right off. And you want to look for the one that's leaning out, as if to say 'take me!'" she said.

Abbott-Watkins never said if the devil's club cured her cancer, or that of her friend. She didn't conclude that the dry powdery bark had kept her youthful all these years. But she does believe in the power of "belief" and trusting in what the land provides.

"If you live in China, Chinese is good medicine," she said. "But if you live in Alaska, it's good to get your medicine from the earth where you live. (Plus) it makes my soul happier."

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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