Artemisia Journal

ARTEMISIA | Vol. 49 No. 2

What Is, and What Can Be

Traditional Regenerative Horticulture in Syuxtun (Santa Barbara)

Fall 2023

By Julia Cordero-Lamb, Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation

“H ow long did it take you to make that basket? How did your ancestors figure out which medicinal plants to use? How were your people capable of living here for so long without ruining everything?”

They are simple questions.

My Relatives and I have our pat answers—sometimes friendly, sometimes salty—that we’ve developed over years. I have fumed over people not engaging with the really important questions: “How can I help your Tribe get your land back?” Or, “How can I add my voice, money, and body to Indigenous efforts to protect land and water?”

Those are the questions allies ask, and that our advocates act on.

But one day, the person who asked me one of those questions (the frustrating ones) was a child. I could not just toss out one of my pat answers to this innocent child. So, I told her the real story: how the plants taught all our ancestors—dinosaurs, birds, animals, fishes, humans, and insects—over eons of time. How the plants are the experts, and they are in charge of everything here. How they literally make the air, and regulate the water. I said to her, “You know the mushrooms? Their roots are huge, like a gigantic web of stars under the ground, like the brain of the forest.” She responded as one should: “Whoaaaa.”

Beyond merely responding to external stimuli, plants also decide. Their consciousness is different from ours, but more and more plant scientists are learning about plants’ ability to demonstrate agency.

Members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective, tending khapšik or white sage (Salvia apiana) in the Los Padres National Forest in 2019: Julia Cordero-Lamb, Andrés Loyola, Andy Amaya, Isa Saldivar, Hana Aqiwo, Chimaway Lopez, and Casmali Lopez.

Traditional Indigenous regenerative horticulture is the science of discerning what the plants tell us they need in the current season of coiled-in winter dormancy, or unfurling abundant spring growth, or season after season of drought. It is the art of listening—with all of our senses—to what is. Not what we think should be. Or what was and what we want to go back to. It is the science of being in an intimate relationship with these elder, wiser, and unfailingly honest family members. 

We make mistakes when we decide what is and what can be. For example, modern humanity has made decisions about farming that in two generations have wiped out carbon-capturing wetlands, and degraded arable soils, aquifers, and pollinators, all of which are the sources of life on our planet. 

When we are listening and doing what the plants tell us is necessary—regenerative horticulture, which my ancestors tested millennia after millennia by assigning primary agency where it belongs—with the plants and the land, provides food and medicine for all without ruining anything. Its name speaks its power. Our methods consistently regenerate life.

 

It is the art of listening—with all of our senses—to what is. Not what we think should be.

The First Instructions

If you have participated in long-term, regenerative, seasonal caretaking with a garden, or while pruning fruit trees, berry canes, or grapevines, you know how that collaboration grows and shifts with each passing year. It changes the way the plants grow and, when done properly, improves the soil. It changes us as individuals. We learn things about our role here, and about our responsibility. We learn over time that while we might control the skill and the timing of our contribution to what is now happening, many, many more factors are entirely beyond our control. 

Now imagine this regenerative dance writ inconceivably large: your seasonal instructions from the trees and shrubs, grasses, flowers, berries, medicinal plants, lichen, and fungi. All that your hands cultivate with knowledge and love is coming from the entirety of the regional landscape where you and your family live. Imagine that it’s California. And if you’re thinking, “That’s too big. I can barely keep up with my little patch of land. No one can prune California,” of course you are correct. No one can. 

But families, Nations of people who remember that this is their primary collective work, can. And, when we have access to our traditional Homelands, we do. 

Indigenous Californian basketweavers and herbal medicine practitioners are the master horticulturalists of California. I and many other California First Nations People first learn to tend the land by helping basketweavers, food cultivators, and herbalists cut, coppice, prune, and squelch our toes in the sandy mud of the riverbanks where sedges and rushes grow; massaging rhizomes into the long, strong, and clear materials that they eventually grow into—rain willing. 

Indigenous Californian basketweavers and herbal medicine practitioners are the master horticulturalists of California.

The information we gather is multisensory—not merely population numbers, but the tensile strength and flexibility of willow, the squeaky sound of healthy vines, sap viscosity, flavors, bark and flower color, insect interaction and infestation, tightness of wood grain, and medicinal effectiveness. 

We learn our traditions, including our principles of economy and trade, through this hands-on practice of learning the seasonal round of listening, observing, and adjusting our expectations and our goals, based on what the plants are telling us. An increasing number of practitioners are doing what it takes to bring back the good fire practices of our ancestors, an essential piece of what the fire-adapted plants here have always needed.

Members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective harvest qayas or blue elderberry at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in 2018: Chimaway Lopez, Marissa Velez, Gloria Lopez, and Diane Martinez

Land Back

But while this is a story about how my Coastal Chumash family and our adopted allies are practicing regenerative horticulture in the Syuxtun region, this is not a story about our unbroken relationship with the land. This is not a paper that contains hard, multisensory, up-to-date information on how the plants are changing during a time of unprecedented climate disruption.

Our intimacy with our lands was violently broken by European and Anglo-American settler colonists who removed the knowledgeable humans from the land, and, further, who continue to actively contest our right to enact our most important responsibilities by dividing our families based on invasive, archaic ideas about blood purity, family lineage, and Tribal membership. The land is gated. Our access to the dance of renewal that ensured our ancestors’ economic, spiritual, and physical health through periods of massive upheaval (including the last Ice Age) has been overwhelmingly denied to the Coastal Chumash. The Coastal Chumash families are organized into several bands, none of which are recognized by the federal government as Tribes. This means that for the past century and a half, we have had no land base. 

The colonization and coerced removal of our families to the Spanish Missions—and for far too many kidnapped Indigenous children, to the Catholic residential schools—economically and educationally marginalized us until, in stark contrast to our wealthy and intellectually respected Chumash ancestors, we now carry the trauma of genocide, and too many of us continue to suffer economic, educational, and linguistic poverty. And the land suffers in even greater measure. 

Over the past several decades, and against all odds, the Coastal Chumash have shown tremendous determination to revitalize key aspects of our culture. With the support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, we recovered our canoe-building and navigation culture. Our traditional foods are making a comeback through the dedication and innovation of many of our best gatherers and chefs. We have at least one basketweaver whose level of artistry matches that of basketweavers who practiced a century ago. Chumash family members in our northern unceded Tribal territories near San Luis Obispo are making tremendous headway in establishing further vital marine protected areas. But our lands and waters continue to suffer. So, these tremendous efforts must be seen as starting points. 

Tribal territories near San Luis Obispo are making tremendous headway in establishing further vital marine protected areas. But our lands and waters continue to suffer. So, these tremendous efforts must be seen as starting points.

The immense economic pressure of living without a land base in one of the most expensive coastal cities in the world has caused many Syuxtun families to move away, including my own. In search of a life immersed in nature for our children, my family moved to a small farm in western Washington. If my people were still the caretakers of our lands, I and many others would be home. This is what is. 

You cannot talk with Indigenous Californians about Traditional Ecological Knowledge and practice without talking about our current lack of access to our lands, and about how both we and the land need us to return permanently. For us, conversations about traditional plants and climate change are hardbound to the current realities of the colonial occupation of our unceded Tribal territories and the destructive overdevelopment and extraction of raw materials by the capitalist-driven global marketplace. This, also, is what is

Humanity’s entire relationship to nature and the nature of economic health is in need of a complete overhaul. But what does this actually look like in practice? Are we truly fated to continue our relationship with the land in this abusive and narcissistic vein? We take what we want, and we give nothing back. We treat nature as an object, literally a resource that needs nothing in return. And when nature pushes back, we are infuriated and seek to control the narrative about what it’s doing. Not only do we not learn from the natural consequences, we lie about them. We continue to say that what we are doing is working. This is an abusive relationship. The evidence is all around us, and inescapable.

Traditional practices have never been more important. They are invaluable tools tested since time immemorial that can help humanity adapt our economies and ways of life to survive the coming decades, and perhaps even centuries. We are inspired by the First Nations who possess or have found the financial means to conduct large-scale data-gathering that supports our traditional ecological practices. My own family is indebted to the organizations and individuals who have supported us as we pick up these tools our elders kept sharp for us, tools that have been shown again and again to demonstrate their importance and power to bring us back into balance with our planet. These are the tools of good ancestors.

The Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective

I come from a Tribal community whose traditional economy lasted in place for many millennia while feeding thousands of people, and provided ample leisure time for the deep development of science, art, and trade. This way of being persisted through periods of global climate change, pandemics, and invasion, and could have continued indefinitely. 

What worldview grew such an economy? And what future economy can we collectively imagine and grow with this worldview as the seed?

I can’t answer that second question alone. But I can tell a story about how the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective has begun to replant this worldview in ourselves by embodying the practices passed on to us by our elders. 

In February of 2016, while I was back home in Syuxtun visiting family, several of the young people in our community asked me to take them on a medicinal plant walk in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where I had worked as the education program assistant from 1996–2001. 

What worldview grew such an economy? And what future economy can we collectively imagine and grow with this worldview as the seed?

After 30 years of study and practice, I’m now a community herbalist for my family at home in Syuxtun, and for many others where I now live in Washington state. I know the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden intimately, and am still close friends with some of the gardeners and botanists there, so our access was free and anticipated with great enthusiasm. Many knowledgeable people were on hand to facilitate this important effort for Chumash youth. 

Our two-hour walk turned into a six-hour exploration of our ancestors’ seasonal round of tending the land. We talked about medicines and basket, tool, and canoe plants. We talked about how to correctly identify species, and how vital it is to get it right. We spoke all the Šmuwič names we remembered for all the plants we could (Šmuwič is one of seven Chumash languages). I listened to these brilliant young people talk about the nongendered nature of nature, marvel at the decidedly queer reproductive strategies of some plants, imagined what an economy based on regenerative principles might look like today, and discuss how the plants themselves will be, as they have always been, our best teachers for the years to come. 

By the end of that springtime walk, we had formed the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective. It was deeply sobering for us to realize that during the past decade, we have lost far too many of the Syuxtun elders who kept our pre-Mission traditions alive. We knew that if we didn’t pick up their pruners, digging tools, and gathering bags, gain access to the natural areas that have escaped development, and put into practice the instructions they left us, all our knowledge of our 15,000-plus-year-old materia medica (material used for medicine) and Traditional Ecological Knowledge would continue to fade out of existence. We know of practitioners in Indigenous Nations to the north and south of us, but we could not find anyone who could teach us the deeper ecological practices unique to this place, our home. We found this unacceptable.

Severely drought-stressed qayas or blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve after initial pruning by members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective in 2016.

Qayas

Our work to remember the instructions of our plant elders has borne literal fruit. We have countless stories to tell about many plants that have taught us how to listen to their needs, and that have in turn provided our families with a taste of the abundance enjoyed by our ancestors. Here, I tell the story of one plant that has been perhaps our most consistent teacher: qayas or blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana). 

By the end of 2016, after a long process to gain access through Santa Barbara County, and raise money for my travel back home several times a year, we had for the first time in generations completed the first community-led seasonal round of regenerative plant tending that our family had performed in the perennial bunchgrass oak woodlands area now called the San Marcos Foothills Preserve. 

We were accompanied during our first work period by Ken Owen, the director of the plant restoration contractors retained by Santa Barbara County to replant the San Marcos Foothills Preserve with plants native to the area prior to European contact, and who had been key to opening the gate between our collective and the county. He came along on our first few trips into the foothills at the insistence of the county, which wanted to be sure that the Chumash “foragers” wouldn’t damage anything. Apologizing profusely for that bureaucratic requirement, Ken was deeply respectful of our history and right to be there, and he carefully and quietly observed our process. 

The land was dry as burnt toast in the height of the drought, but so many of our tough fire-dependent and drought-tolerant plants were hanging on—dark and dusty green against the dead annual grasses. We stopped at the plants we knew, said their names, and talked about everything we remembered about them. All of us had precious pieces to share from our parents and grandparents. 

We kept going, further up and further in, something drawing us to the heart of the hills. Wading through dead poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), black mustard (Brassica nigra), wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), and dwarf malva (Malva neglecta), we encountered a massive qayas untended for a generation. It was nearly dead from the dried and brittle weight of overgrowth, which, now surrounded by the palatial homes of the wealthy, had never had the opportunity to burn. We then knew what our first tending project would be. With our clippers and pruning saws, we needed to be the fire for this Elder. 

With our clippers and pruning saws, we needed to be the fire for this Elder. 

The First Instructions are to listen, to make offerings to the plant (our collective brings water offerings), and to ask the plant Elder permission to tend and gather. In the quiet space of listening, we observed the habitat provided by this tree, as well as its overall symmetry, and where branches were irritated by rubbing and storm damage. 

Everyone in the collective who already knew how to prune began work by teaching the people who didn’t. We talked about header cuts and shaper cuts; how to spot disease, hidden habitats, and unhelpful insect damage; and how to tell live wood from dead by touch. The people who know about soils scooped fragrant handfuls and talked about gut flora, soil flora, and how they both do similar things for the organisms they support. Our insect enthusiasts showed us tiny local bees, as they worked the scanty flower heads on the drought-stressed qayas.

While our collective is led and organized by the most knowledgeable among us, we founded our group and continue our work as a collective for the simple and eternally true reason that it is not possible for any one person to bring all the necessary information and perspectives to the task of tending the vast diversity of this coastal bioregion. Regenerative power structures are horizontal. Our Elders, the plants, taught our ancestors about survival of the most successfully cooperative.

We worked over several seasons to bring this elderly qayas back to health. On some days, depending on the season, we were fortunate to have our family weavers along. Those skilled artists talked about the timing and deeper techniques of pruning, coppicing, and processing, and about the vital role of fire in regenerating the robust health of materials. On other days, we discussed pollinators, bird and insect relationships, and the role of certain birds as seed planters. One of the older members pointed with their chin to a scrub jay and said, “Oak tree gardener.”

But always we talked about medicine—and not only the precious plant medicines that have proven again and again to be exactly what we need with each new medical predicament encountered by current generations, including COVID-19. The big medicine is being on the land, listening, moving our bodies, working in the cold dawn, sweating in the heat of the day, and cleaning up our work during the peace of the evening birdsong. And in the quiet moments of openness, when no one is talking, the plants taught us the dance of listening, observing, and feeling with our bodies how these plants wanted to be. 

[…] in the quiet moments of openness, when no one is talking, the plants taught us the dance of listening, observing, and feeling with our bodies how these plants wanted to be. 

In 2018 came the day that for me represents an inflection point in our community’s revitalization of an ongoing practice of Indigenous regenerative horticulture, particularly with youth. This was that “aha” moment that all teachers live for, years in the making. 

It started like any other day spent tending our gardens. Everyone was happy to be back out on the land in the warm sunshine after the rainy season, ready to sing and work and pray, and just be with our Relatives, human and non-human. And as we quietly chatted our way down the path, we rounded the corner and encountered the absolutely explosive abundance of the plants we had been tending. We slowed down to take it in. The wall of purple berries on the huge qayas tree showed us that our work had produced not only orders of magnitude more than in previous years, but more than enough for everyone, human and non-human. We stood for a moment in awe. I had been part of projects like this before, and I had been anticipating this moment: when things really “pop.” But the generosity of our well-tended earth when we have carefully followed that season’s instructions is never anything but overwhelming. 

As I looked around at the collective members, I saw expressions filled with light and understanding. A few of our members told me later that in this moment they understood down to their bones, some of them for the very first time in their lives, what it means to belong to a place. To be someone the plants are happy to see coming down the path. To be a good ancestor to all species. And that they were learning not what will happen in our climate-altered future, but that they now had some of the tools to bring about what can happen, from year to year, to ensure the survival and abundance of all of the plants that are with us on this unpredictable journey. 

Ken Owen wrote to me later that year, explaining that while we still needed to notify the county about our trips and provide signatures of all current participants, our work had gained the full confidence and deepest admiration of himself and his work crews. They used words like “magical,” “unreal,” and “off the hook.” 

And then came COVID-19.

What Is, and What Can Be

Through the time of the pandemic lockdown, I was stuck at home on my farm in western Washington state. I lived for the texts from the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective youth:

“Auntie. I’m on my day off and I’m at the qayas tree. There are so many birds. The bees are off the hook, Auntie. The little, tiny native ones.” 

“You did that.” 

“Stop. I’m cryin’.” 

“It’s like that sometimes. What else are you doing, mija?” 

“Just sitting and praying, Auntie. And listening. I don’t know if I’d be alive right now if it wasn’t for this place.” 

“I get it. Soak it up.” 

A pause of several hours. And then: 

“Auntie. Can I gather some qayas berries for you? And some eucalyptus?” 

“My family would be really grateful for both of those medicines, mija. COVID is bad up here.” 

“I gotchu, Auntie.” 

Its label covered in original art, the slightly sticky bottle of elderberry syrup I received in the mail is dark purple, nearly black, and smells of raw honey, rich fruit, and lemon peel. The fragrant, dried eucalyptus leaves started their lung-clearing magic before I even got the bag open. The herbalists who rely heavily on this overly abundant, problematic, and destructive plant can be part of the solution to keeping it in better balance. Highly invasive in California, and unlikely to ever be eradicated, eucalyptus is a powerful medicinal plant. It sorely needs to be taught better manners in the landscape. And everyone knows that no one teaches manners better than the Aunties, who are themselves schooled by the land and its old ways.

Highly invasive in California, and unlikely to ever be eradicated, eucalyptus is a powerful medicinal plant. It sorely needs to be taught better manners in the landscape.

The medicine those gifts contain is antiviral, regenerative, pollinator-friendly, locally abundant, bioregional, mutually reciprocal, mad-respect, antiteen-suicide, naturalized, land back, climate-adapted, traditionally ecological. And it can continue indefinitely. A re-Indigenized distillation of what can be

The youth members of the Syuxtun Plant Membership Collective have continued to work toward what can be. They have done so even when, in the midst of the pandemic, the entire foothills area was under threat of development unless millions of dollars could be raised in a breathlessly short time. They chained themselves to the fences to protect the land and were arrested. But between their efforts and local community activism, enough money was raised to save a significant portion of the foothills. To the detriment of all of life, the rest is being supplanted with luxury homes.

Conclusion

“How were the Chumash able to live here without ruining everything?” This is the question that child asked me. The people in my Chumash family group, and our allies, are all recovering the long-term answers to this question. And we are trying to tell you. 

I hope that anyone who has read this essay and is not already in the process of letting go of their cherished but ultimately unsustainable ideas that separate us from all our Relatives—our family—can begin this process. Right now. The ideological separation of groups of human beings from each other, and humanity from our non-human Relatives, is the root cause of the greatest moment of extinction since the Chicxulub meteor strike 66 million years ago. That is what is

Our family is waiting for us to remember who we are. But not for long.

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