There is a jumble of images, sounds and moments I remember from my childhood. Yet I am sometimes surprised at how a distant moment in time can appear in sharp focus in my mind. From time to time a memory will suddenly awaken in me when I hear a song or a sound. When you think about it there are few things that remain constant in our lives. In my case plants, wild flowers and the living landscape are full of images that bring my childhood to life again.
I recently came across a familiar grass like plant that I had forgotten about. This plant is known as Foxtail Barley. It is a tall grass plant, with a bushy like head that droops to one side. It appears commonly in a greyish blue and also a tinge of red. This wild grass grows in open fields especially where the topsoil has disappeared and it has been replaced by human activity with exposed clay or gravel. During the active building and development of Attawapiskat in the late 70s and early 80s, there was plenty of bulldozing and earth moving, leaving open ground for wild Foxtail Barley.
During the late summer, my friends and I played in the open areas around our school. I remember walking by fields of this plant spread about the bleak terrain surrounding our school. When this plant bloomed in the warm days of August, the fine filaments of grass came in reds, blues and greens. At their height, they shimmered in the bright summer sun as they swayed to the motion of the wind thus creating waves of colours. By the time we started school in the early fall the tufts had seeded and turned to yellow bristles that blew in the wind.
In those days in Attawapiskat the moist and undrained soils of our neighbourhood harboured all sorts of strange looking plant life. Wild grasses dominated but on the dry exposed clay and gravel walkways there grew batches of short, heavy, stemmed plants, with small leaves and heads that ended in cone shaped yellow balls. Now I realize this interesting plant was a Pineapple Weed. The image of this wonderful earthy weed takes me back to my backyard or my neighbourhood where my friends and I crawled around on the earth and clay to play our games of hide and seek and as well we created small communities of roadways for our hot wheel cars.
In amongst the grass and Pineapple Weed was another strange looking plant. This short plant was a sprout of broad leaves and upright floweret spikes, which is referred to as the Common Plantain or known in southern Native folklore as
White-Man’s Foot. As it turns out, this plant is an alien species that was brought over from Europe.
Early Native people knew it as a foreign species and every time they saw it, they realized that Europeans had visited the area. The seeds of this hearty plant are wet and sticky and easily attach to the boots of men or the hoofs of animals. It is no wonder the White Man’s Foot effortlessly made the trip overseas to our part of the world. Of course when I was a child playing on the land I had no idea of the stories of the plants and trees.
My friends and I explored the entire community together and we spent a lot of time by the riverbank. Near the church and hospital are a series of deep gullies carved out to drain the community. These deep ditches were home to all sorts of species of wild plants.
One dominant plant we enjoyed was White Yarrow. This tall plant has a heavy stalk and numerous branches that end in clusters of white flowers. In the early fall when these plants had grown over two meters and they were at their end, we played with the heavy stalks and used them as swords in play fights with each other. They were perfect play toys as a hard swing easily broke apart the stalk instead of the intended target.
One evening, we collected the stalks of yarrow and stuffed the hollow branches with wild grass. We knelt down in the tall grass, hidden away from the prying eyes of adults and we lit up our homemade Yarrow and wild grass cigars. Our parents had warned us never to smoke but like any young group of boys we dared to defy our elders. We taunted each other to puff our huge two foot long cigars. As the first one choked on the foul smoke, we had to fulfill our challenges to each other and soon we were all rolling around the grass in coughing fits.
Now, whenever I see the tall stalks of White Yarrow, I am reminded just how much I don’t like two foot long Yarrow and grass cigars and of course I smile when I think of that scene long ago.
Whenever I step into the forest, drive on a highway lined with wild flowers or walk into a field of weeds it brings back a whole set of memories from my past. Back home in Attawapiskat nobody ever planted a garden as Mother Earth took care of that chore for us. These days I like the idea of cultivating plants and I am getting pretty good at it. Still, nothing beats a walk down a trail in the nearby forest. I stop to smell the roses. Wild ones, of course.