In the Land of Lost Gardens
Tireless in her quest, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner works with indigenous elders to preserve plant knowledge dating back to the First People in the New World.
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The neatness, the orderliness, the sheer scientific preciseness of the death lying at our feet is impressive. It is a sunny spring day near the mouth of the Big Qualicum River on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island; Nancy Turner is hard at work. With long, straight, graying hair tucked behind her ears, brow slightly furrowed, the 69-year-old ethnobotanist arranges hundreds of newly cut plants, 20 to a bunch, into two neat green lines along a gravel lane. Turner straightens, satisfied. The greenery arrayed below is death camas. Its teardrop-shaped bulb contains enough poison to kill a child, maybe even a small adult.
For centuries, indigenous people here carefully cultivated meadows like the one where we are standing. Among the grasses, they tended a host of edible plants—from field strawberries and chocolate lilies to one of the staples of Northwest coast life, a starchy root vegetable called common camas. These wild-looking gardens yielded food in abundance, but a century and a half ago, government officials began pressuring the local First Nations to adopt European agriculture. Reluctantly, they complied, grazing cattle and growing hay in their gardens, until weeds invaded the meadows, and knowledge of their valuable plants began fading.
Today, some want to reclaim their traditional foods. A few days ago, elders from Qualicum First Nation asked Turner for advice on restoring one of these lost gardens. She was happy to oblige. This afternoon, she and two old friends, Kwaxsistalla (Clan Chief Adam Dick) and Kim Recalma-Clutesi, have combed the meadow, searching for the remnants of the edible plants that once thrived here and halting the spread of a lethal intruder, death camas. After flowering, death camas looks almost identical to the edible variety; harvesters could easily make a fatal error. The fruiting stalks at our feet contain more than 55,000 death camas seeds—thousands of averted possibilities for further dispersing the toxic plant.
For Turner, it is an afternoon well spent, the kind of afternoon that she has prepared for nearly all her adult life. For more than 40 years now, driven by a kind of steady, unwavering zeal, the ethnobotanist has worked closely with coastal First Nations to preserve their traditional knowledge of native plants. Journeying in small planes and boats, by horseback and in her trusty old Volvo, Turner, a professor emerita at the University of Victoria, has logged hundreds of thousands of kilometers on this quiet quest, sitting down with elders in remote kitchens and recording their ancient learning. She has helped them dig roots, pick berries, prepare ancient foods; laughed with their grandchildren; attended their celebrations; made lifelong friends. Many have come to see her as one of them, even a sister.
“She so deeply understands and respects the culture,” says Leigh Joseph, an ethnobotanist and a member of the Skxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation.
To preserve indigenous botanical knowledge, Turner has written dozens of books with titles such as Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples or Plants of Haida Gwaii, and published nearly 100 refereed scientific articles, many coauthored with elders. She has given public demonstrations of pit cooking, led guided forest walks and field trips, taught an entire generation of university students—an increasing number of whom are indigenous—and served as an expert witness in land rights trials. Her curriculum vitae, updated in 2016, is a hefty 90 pages long. “Nancy,” says Cecil Brown, an anthropological linguist and professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, “is an incredibly productive person.”
For Turner, conserving this traditional knowledge has become a deeply personal act of reconciliation. In a country where government officials once scooped up indigenous children and placed them in residential schools to “take the Indian out of the child,” she has spent her career trying to reverse that process, gathering essential knowledge from elders who are now gone, and passing it on to their descendants. At a recent celebration of her work in Victoria, many indigenous leaders stepped forward to publicly thank her for the vital role she has played.
Turner, said Tsawout elder Belinda Claxton, is “a big knowledge keeper for all of us.”
In her second floor office at the University of Victoria, Turner swivels in her chair and welcomes a visitor with a radiant smile. Warm and sunny in manner, open and plain-spoken, the scientist is quick to put people at ease. And she never forgets a friend. As comfortable as she is in the modern scientific world, her office is a memory room. On tall shelves are cherished gifts and mementos: birchbark baskets, a yellow cedar hat woven by the renowned Haida artist Florence Davidson, a traditional baby cradle, a child’s bow, digging sticks, a framed copy of a saskatoon specimen. Every object, she says, has a story, a kind of voice that speaks to her, often from the dead.
Take the saskatoon specimen. “It’s a collection that I made in 1973, up in the Fountain Valley,” Turner says. An elder named Sam Mitchell from the Stl’atl’imx people had begun teaching her about the edible plants that grow on the British Columbia plateau; as she listened, she marveled at the richness of his knowledge. University-trained botanists had identified and named just one or two species of saskatoon, a shrub that produces edible berries. But Mitchell had a more intimate lore. He recognized and named not just species, but five or six different varieties of saskatoon shrubs, each with subtly different characteristics.
Turner’s fascination with plants began at a tender age. As a child in Montana, she loved exploring the woods and picking wild strawberries. She came from a family of distinguished scientists. Her entomologist grandfather was an expert on the ants of the Philippines, collecting data that would later assist renowned Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson and his colleague Robert MacArthur in formulating a theory on species diversity on islands. Turner’s father, also an entomologist, studied bark beetles and the role of chemicals known as pheromones in insect communication. “He predicted the mountain pine beetle epidemic before it even happened,” says Turner. By the time she was nine, she was following in their scientific footsteps. In Victoria, where her family had moved, Turner joined a natural history club for children. “I was interested in edible plants and how to make dyes,” she says.
As a young university student, she elected to write her honor’s thesis on the effects of air pollution on lichens. But her heart wasn’t in it. She wanted to focus on ethnobotany—the scientific study of a culture’s relationships with plants. So in the late 1960s, she contacted a local elder, Christopher Paul, who agreed to teach her about the edible and medicinal plants of the Coast Salish people: she paid him $2 an hour for his time. The resulting paper was published in 1971 in the prestigious journal Economic Botany. Turner had discovered her calling. She enrolled in a PhD program in ethnobotany and began contacting linguists working in First Nation communities to preserve their indigenous languages. The linguists assisted Turner with introductions, and soon she was paying regular visits to many elders’ homes. “The people who still speak their language tend to know a lot about the culture,” she says.
From the start, the work was a race against time. On one memorable trip in 1977, Sam Mitchell took her to a small stand of sandbar willows growing along the side of a highway. As a child, Mitchell had learned how to twist the willow stems into a tough, springy rope used to build pit houses or construct suspension bridges across rivers. Mitchell showed her how to do it. “The bark breaks up longitudinally, and it becomes more flexible,” says Turner. A decade later, when she returned to the spot, the entire stand was gone: heavy machinery had taken out all the shrubs to widen the road. Today, she says, few people in the region know anything about sandbar willow rope.
For Turner, it was an object lesson. When a community loses a culturally important wild habitat, critical information about its plants can be lost swiftly, too. Even if someone comes along a few decades later to restore the habitat, no one who remembers how a plant was once prepared or processed may be left.
On a bright March afternoon, Turner leads the way through a small woodland just a short walk from her campus office. She ambles contentedly along the trail, peering down into the green tangle of the forest floor and scanning the treetops. She gazes with delight at the deep-rose-colored flowers of salmonberry, whose green shoots can be peeled and eaten as a springtime vegetable, then scoops up a fallen cottonwood branch. Its buds, she says, are filled with a sticky resin and can be made into a salve or a brilliant yellow paint. “I usually come and collect the buds every spring, after a storm,” she confides.
But Turner’s deep interest in coastal flora goes far beyond practical matters. An avid reader, she has long scoured archaeological reports and linguistic studies for clues to the antiquity of plant knowledge along the coast. Shedding light on ancient plant use can be difficult, but Turner’s research now links a remarkable shrub known as soapberry to one of humanity’s greatest adventures—the southward migration of Paleoamericans along the Pacific coast near the end of the last ice age, a time known to geologists as the late Pleistocene.
Soapberry, Turner explains, has a natural affinity for rocky shorelines. It is one of the first plants to follow lichens and mosses in colonizing the moraines left by melting glaciers, and studies show that it took root along the Northwest coast soon after the great ice sheets retreated. At one of the oldest known archaeological sites in North America, the Manis site in northwestern Washington State, researchers detected the pollen and seeds of soapberry and several other plants near the remains of a mastodon hunted by humans nearly 13,800 years ago.
Did these early migrants take an interest in soapberry? The shrub, which reaches up to two meters in height, produces clusters of sour-tasting red or orange berries. These can be eaten fresh, as a snack, Turner says. But soapberry is prized for something else today. The berries contain trace levels of natural detergents known as saponins, and when squeezed, they produce a sudsy foam. If the berries are added to water and sweetened with other fruit, they can be whipped like egg whites to make a frothy, rose-colored confection. Today in some First Nations, families serve this dish at parties and celebrations: many call it “Indian ice cream.”
Linguistic studies suggest that this popular dish has been around for a very long time. The evidence comes from a large family of endangered languages, Salishan, that once extended from southwestern British Columbia to Oregon. Among the 23 languages in this family, 19 contain names for soapberry, and all these names derive from a root word meaning “to foam or froth.” Intensive analysis has revealed that the oldest name was part of the earliest Salishan language, which was likely spoken in southwestern British Columbia some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. But from there, the linguistic trail goes cold.
Other evidence, however, hints at an even earlier date for this “ice cream.” As Turner points out, indigenous people along the coast developed an elaborate culture based on the soapberry plant. They told origin stories about it and discovered a unique way of gathering the berries—not by slow, individual picking, as they did with other berries, but by spreading a mat below the shrub and beating it with a stick to collect the fallen fruit. They also developed a wide range of special artifacts linked to soapberry: picking baskets for children, birchbark vessels for whipping the berries; sturdy whisks; elegantly carved or painted wooden spoons that people carried to festive gatherings; and cylindrical baskets for carrying these spoons.
All this dessert culture may well have taken millennia to develop. “I suspect that it is indeed an ancient food going back thousands [of years],” Turner says in an email, and “maybe right back to the Pleistocene arrivals of people.” Along a rugged coast newly freed from an icy prison, brightly colored soapberries may have welcomed Paleoamericans as they explored a new world.
In the meadow along the Big Qualicum River, the afternoon cloud begins to roll in and thicken. Turner gathers up the bunches of death camas and packs away her notes. She walks over to say goodbye to Kwaxsistalla, who is sitting in a walker in the meadow. Now in his late 80s, the clan chief has been Turner’s teacher and friend for more than two decades. Never forcibly separated from his family, never hauled off to residential school like many indigenous children of his generation, the elder was hidden away and raised from a young age to be a leader of his clan. Today he commands the floor at potlatches.
And it was Kwaxsistalla who led Turner to a major turning point in her studies. During a conversation between the two in 1996, the elder reminisced about traveling as a young boy with his mother and grandmother to Kingcome Inlet on British Columbia’s central coast. In a tidal marsh there, his family and other high-ranking lineages owned plots of land, which they marked out with wooden posts. With traditional digging sticks, Kwaxsistalla and his relatives gathered edible roots from several species of plants, including northern rice root. He told Turner that harvesting these roots helped the plant “grow better every year,” and described what took place as “fertilizing” and “cultivating.”
At first Turner was a bit baffled by his description. “I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about,” she says with a grin. But eventually the elder took her on a trip to Kingcome Inlet. As she watched, he drove his digging stick into the ground and pried back the moist earth around a mature rice root plant. In the soil, she saw not only the plant’s bulbous root, but also dozens of small sprouts and bulblets. Each of these could grow into a full plant, he told her. So the clan chief and his family gathered the roots, but left behind the bulblets and replanted the sprouts elsewhere in their plot, allowing them to mature in the newly tilled soil. It was a clear example of selective harvesting and sustainable horticulture.
Kingcome Inlet was a revelation for Turner. She had never heard of such systematic planting and cultivation of a root garden before. Fascinated, she began asking elders elsewhere about ancient gardens. In the BC interior, Secwepemc elder Mary Thomas recalled watching her mother and other women harvesting yellow glacier lily. After digging the plant’s edible bulb, the women broke off small attached nodules, known as corms, and replanted them for a future harvest. “That brought me to a whole new way of thinking,” says Turner. Anthropologists had long described British Columbia’s indigenous inhabitants as hunters and gatherers. But these groups were the owners and stewards of gardens. “So I started calling it cultivation,” Turner says.
Today, more than 20 years later, she has found traces of many other horticultural techniques employed by ancient indigenous gardeners in the region. Some tilled and weeded their plots, and fertilized and mulched the soil with rotten wood. Others pruned hazelnut trees, cleared chokecherries of destructive tent caterpillars, and transplanted important plants such as the potato-like wapato from the mainland to the coastal islands.
What is remarkable now is how little notice early European colonists took of all this sophisticated horticulture taking place around them—the seeding, the digging, the pruning, the harvesting of crops. They didn’t really see—or perhaps they didn’t want to see—how carefully the continent’s earliest people were tending the land and its many valuable resources. They had no idea that the wilderness they saw—the meadows, marshes, and forest clearings of the coast—was in fact a giant patchwork of gardens.
On the car ride back from the Big Qualicum River, Turner seems quietly elated by the thought that another camas meadow could be restored along the coast. Increasingly, she says, First Nation leaders are breathing new life into traditional cultures in the Pacific Northwest, teaching their children to speak ancestral languages, perform ancient dances, and prepare traditional foods from native plants.
Now edging close to her eighth decade, Turner sees all this cultural renaissance through the eyes of a naturalist and botanist. Just like the biological refugia that preserve small relict populations of plants and animals until the return of conditions favorable to spreading, she says, the elders have preserved an encyclopedic knowledge of North American plants, passing it down from one generation to the next. Serving as a kind of cultural refugia, they waited out “times of disturbance,” she says, and now are spreading their knowledge again.
Wrapped in thought, Turner keeps her eyes on the road. Like the elders she clearly loves, she is part of this ecology of hope, this ecology of rebirth.