The Big Green Plant Book

Of the many plant & language resources I use on a near-daily basis, one of my key go-to books is Plants Used by the Great Lakes Ojibwa (by James Meeker, Joan Elias, and John Heim). I think of it as The Big Green Plant Book. Published in 1993 by my local treaty authority, GLIFWC (Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission), it is a compilation of data drawn from historical ethnobotany texts. Each page covers a single plant species, with botanical drawings, range maps, and notes, added by Jim Meeker. Meeker was working for GLIFWC at the time & teaching at his long-time post, Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. (Meeker and Elias were a married couple, and Heim was a student at Northland – now working at GLIFWC I believe.) I never met Jim, but he is remembered quite fondly around here. Must’ve been quite a guy.

In the introduction to the book, the authors appeal to readers to supply ojibwemowin names where they are missing or unrestored. Unrestored names are those listed in the text (not in bold, usually in parentheses), copied directly from the source texts without being transcribed into modern orthography. They’re difficult to read and understand, nearly impossible to know how to pronounce. I’ve been going through the book and attempting to transcribe as many of them as possible. I’ve also been adding names from other sources that were not included. One roadblock I hit is when there is an unrestored name in a source I don’t have access to (and can’t find the same name recorded in any other source). Often the source texts include a meaning or other details about the plant and its use, giving context clues that help me figure out the root words of the name. Eventually I’d like to get access to all those old sources – but it’s exciting to have found so many additional sources which either corroborate a listed name or supply a name that was missing. Some of these sources were around at the time of publication, and some have been published more recently. Ojibwemowin is a living language, and while there are not many speakers here in northern Wisconsin, there are fluent/first speakers with plant knowledge across Anishinaabe-akiing.

The text is almost 30 years old and I think it’s time for a second edition, not only to expand on the language. Taxonomy has changed a lot, especially in the past 5-10 years with genetic testing. The plant range maps (which cover the ceded territories of Lake Superior Ojibwe in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, & Minnesota) also need updating as more thorough information is now available but also as plants migrate due in part to climate change. And it could include photos, many of which I’ve taken. It’s a project I would love to be involved with, but for now I just keep chipping away at restoring the language. I’m planning to publish my notes online as a little commentary that can be used as an appendix of sorts, adding to the wealth of knowledge in this great book.

aaniin, waabigwaniin!

That means “hello, flowers” in Ojibwemowin, the Ojibwe language, and it’s how I start all my little plant pronunciation videos on Instagram. It’s the equivalent of “hey, guys” at the beginning of every video on YouTube, or my version of “hey, all you cool cats and kittens” if you will. It’s also the hashtag you can use to find all these videos on Instagram – or just click right here!

I started making these videos after several people asked about pronunciation for the plant names I was sharing. They should really be taken with a grain of salt, because I’m a language learner, and my pronunciation isn’t perfect by any stretch. There can also be regional variation in how we say words and even in what we call plants, because Anishinaabe-aki (Ojibwe country) stretches hundreds of miles away from me in different directions. Even though I’m not qualified to teach the language or anything, I figured I can at least post videos of how I learned to say these plant names. Some plant names are simple and widely known, like giizhik for cedar, but some are a little more intimidating! So even if I don’t get it perfect, it’s a start.

Since each video focuses on just one plant, they are really short. You could binge all of them in just 10-15 minutes.

One other hashtag for all these videos is #ojibweplantnames which also pulls up all my plant pics with text overlaid, showing the names (and their literal translations) along with the flowers, berries, leaves, or other plant material. I’ve made about 150 of those images so far.

My life list of plants + Ojibwemowin

Over the past five+ years of documenting plants in Ojibwe country, specifically the western end of Lake Superior, I’ve built up a pretty long list. Up until now, it wasn’t published online, but I would share the link with anyone who wanted to scroll through it via Google Drive. At this point, it’s been so widely shared, that I may as well just publish it. So, here it is!

The final tab lists resources I’ve used both to identify plants and to find their names or descriptors in Ojibwemowin (the Ojibwe language). Since I’m just a language learner and not a fluent speaker, I always recommend folks check out those sources in addition to my work.

When I come across names recorded by non-speakers using archaic phonetic spelling, I transcribe those names into the modern orthography commonly used in Wisconsin and Minnesota, known as double-vowel or Fiero. While this makes the names easier for learners like me to read and understand, it also opens the door to me making mistakes.

This list isn’t a compilation of the existing literature published by others. Rather, it is a list of plants (and other beings!) I’ve encountered, photographed, identified, and researched. It’s built around my interactions with the land. For that reason, there are many plants listed without names, and many plants not listed. But I hope it will still be helpful to others, if nothing else, whenever possible, to greet our plants by name.

waabigwaniin

This is a story about pearly everlasting. Coming up on the end of summer in 2012, I was at something of a crossroads in my life. I didn’t know which way I wanted to turn next, and I was pretty agitated about it. I ended up talking about my uncertain and unsettled feelings with my CSA farmer when picking up my veggies – which might sound a little desperate, but she’s also a doula and just has a really welcoming, comforting nature. She gave me solid advice that changed my life.

She pointed out that it was going to be a full moon that weekend & said I should spend as much time outside, alone, as possible, and just reach out to the moon with my heart and ask for guidance. I already had plans to spend that weekend out at my dad’s place in the country – it was Labor Day and his birthday. Lots of people were around, but I slept in an RV with my kids, who were small, so I had some solitude.

I got up and went for a walk while everyone was sleeping, and I saw a plant I had never noticed before. It was pearly everlasting, waabigwan or baasibagak in the Ojibwe language. The white and yellow flowers are like little moons themselves, and I felt connected to that plant. That was my message, which I grossly misinterpreted, but that’s okay! Because no matter how badly I messed up, another way opened up ahead of me, every time.

I’m still making my way. But I guess I’m not on just one of two straight roads that crossed – it’s more like a spiderweb. And everywhere I turn, I’ve got waabigwaniin with me.

Self-guided wildflower walk

I created a little map of one city block in Bayfield (with an inset of a wildflower garden on the corner) and a list of wildflowers currently in bloom there. Originally, I made these for a wildflower walk that I led, but because it includes pictures of the 21 flowers and a labeled map to show where they all are, I realized people could use it for self-guided plant walks! I want to make it available but first I have to figure out how and where to make the files available for download. Ha.