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The great importance of a little bog

Text by Millie Knapp

On the way up to the Limit in Kitigan Zibi, there’s a little bog by a lake. Medicine plants grow there. Sun, soil, and water create a spot from which staples grow for Catherine Cayer, knowledge keeper, to make mashkiki (or medicine) the Anishinabe way. 

“If you notice all the medicines we picked, they all grow together. They reciprocate. They help each other out. They work together,” says Cayer, after our autumnal medicine walk in the little bog. “It seems like every time you need a certain medicine—it’ll be all there—whatever you need for that ingredient for that tea.” 

Rich soil surrounds the goldthread roots as Cayer pulls it from the earth in the little bog. IMAGE/ Millie Knapp

Thirty years of medicine walks with her mother-in-law, her grandfather, and other elders now gone gave Cayer her knowledge. 

As our walk starts, Cayer points out an existing scrape on a hemlock tree she made to gather its bark. We step cautiously, hoping not to sink in the marsh. Nearby grows creeping snowberry, Labrador tea, goldthread, wintergreen, and goldenrod. 

Creeping snowberry grows close to the hemlock. Cayer makes tea with creeping snowberry and hemlock bark to cleanse the lungs. 

She stoops, picks Labrador tea, and makes a bouquet.

“They used to make that a long time ago. Say there is a death in the family, they would make tea to help them relax and help them sleep,” she says. That’s how the remedy was passed down through generations.

Cayer rubs the spot on the hemlock tree where she’d taken scrapings before. IMAGE/ Millie Knapp

Labrador tea and wintergreen work together. The round, waxy leaves of wintergreen taste like peppermint. Anxiety may cause nausea. Labrador tea calms the anxiety, while wintergreen calms the stomach. 

Stepping further, Cayer digs a clump of dirt from which the legs of goldthread sprout. Goldthread, an antibiotic, combined with hemlock bark and creeping snowberry, works as a lung medicine.

Goldenrod grows nearby. Mixed together with horsetail, their tea helps bladder or urinary infections. Plants grow together in their ecological niche. The pH balance of soils and water is right for this niche of plants.

Near the hemlock tree and creeping snowberry grows Labrador tea which Cayer gathers in a bouquet. IMAGE/ Millie Knapp

Growth in the little bog makes things easier on the gatherer.

“That’s nature’s way of making sure you’re picking what’s needed. If somebody’s sick and somebody has to go get medicine, it’s a matter of time. You have to get something fast to cure them, to help them. You can’t spend a whole day going from one end of the reserve or one end of the forest to the next to gather. It would take you forever to get the medicines,” says Cayer.

Everything is meant that way for a reason because, when making medicine, time is of the essence. It’s all there. A right combination of earth, water, and sunlight make a place to gather plants for many remedies.

When she gathers there, she has purpose.

“I’m thinking of the babies that need it. I’m coming home, I’m going to have medicine for the babies. I’m going to have medicines for the people that have problems with their throat, their sore tooth. I’m thinking of many ways this medicine will be used. It seems to me like what’s all there, the bog, it’s almost everything that’s necessary for my main staples of medicines,” she says.

The bog is a necessity. 

Sunlight showcases creeping snowberry in Cayer’s hand. IMAGE/ Millie Knapp

“It’s not just any old plants growing there. It’s only those medicines. They’re all there together. There’s nothing else that you see there—just those,” she says. 

In the small bog, the medicine plants and the hemlock trees neighbour each other and, like good neighbours, they work together. 

BIO/ Millie Knapp, Anishinabe kwe, writes about arts, culture, and Mino Pimadzawin, the good life.