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The Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan

Arty Mangan / Bioneers

Gary Paul Nabhan is a renowned ethnobotanist and author focused on the confluence of cultural and biological diversity. His innovative writings and projects have raised awareness of the economic and social benefits, as well as the culinary pleasures, of local food. He currently serves as Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona.

Author of more than thirty books, including the upcoming Against the American Grain: A Borderlands History of Resistance, Nabhan recently launched his latest project: The Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative. Sacred plants used in spiritual traditions all over the world are at risk from warfare, climate change and overharvesting. The mission of the multicultural, interfaith, intertribal Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative is to safeguard, restore and “rematriate” these sacred and ceremonial plants. Arty Mangan, Director of Restorative Food Systems for Bioneers, recently spoke with Nabhan about how he came to this project, what makes a plant “sacred”, and the prospects for conservation and restoration for sacred plants around the world.

ARTY MANGAN: What called you to be a Franciscan Brother, and how does that inform your work as an ecologist, a botanist, author and activist?

GARY NABHAN: I am so very much a person of both science and spirit that I sometimes can’t untangle the two. I’ve just never seen any intellectual or ethical divide between being in love with the natural world and all things spiritual. And fortunately, I have good friends who feel that same way.

I’ve been a Franciscan Brother as a professed member of an Ecumenical Order of Franciscans for 22 years now, but the roots of that spiritual path go back to when I was barely of legal age. I took a backpack and went with a bunch of friends and did a silent three-day retreat, and animals came up to me in every imaginable form, as well as plants that were out of season. I just felt overwhelmed by the mystical experience of being in contemplative silence and seeing the world welcome me.

And within the first 20 minutes of being back in civilization, I saw a Look magazine that had a feature on St. Francis, a beautiful essay about him becoming the patron saint of ecology. There was one line of text that struck me: “All which you used to avoid will bring you great sweetness and exceeding joy.” From then on, I was hooked, and I’ve done silent retreats in Assisi many times since then.

ARTY: That’s absolutely wonderful. In addition to that initial revelation, have you had personal experiences with sacred plants?

GARY: Yes, in a few different ways. I define a sacred plant as any plant that’s used in personal or collective rituals, ceremonies, seasonal rights, or sacramental traditions, so it includes not only psychedelic plants, many of which are sacred in their original traditional settings, but many other species. For example, I have a very special relationship with the cedars of Lebanon.

My family’s Lebanese. My father didn’t speak English until he was about 7. My aunts and uncles were refugees from the Ottoman War, and the first chance I had an opportunity to go to Lebanon on my own, I did a pilgrimage to its famous but endangered cedars. Since then, I have helped in an assisting role with efforts to restore them to the mountain tops of Lebanon in ancient terraces made many decades, if not centuries, ago, places where the terrace microenvironment is almost perfect to buffer the cedars from climate change, so that connection to my own heritage runs very, very deep.

But I’ve also had the blessing of being involved in the rain-making ceremonies of desert peoples here in the Sonoran Desert and in efforts with them to protect the saguaro cactus from damage by construction projects (such as Trump’s border wall).

ARTY: I want to get to that, but first I wanted to ask you what makes a plant sacred.

GARY: What makes a plant sacred is our relationship to it, not the plant itself. In other words, we’re not talking about something in the genetics of the plant per se, but more in how we respond to its fragrance, its texture, its ritual meaning and its position in bringing us peace, so it’s relational, not informational. Also, plants are whole assemblies of communities that are in symbiotic relationships that include people, so that a plant isn’t just a single species. The sacredness of a plant has to do with the complex interactions surrounding it, not in matter itself.

ARTY: People may be familiar with some of the sacred ceremonial plants used in North America, such as psilocybin mushrooms and peyote, and you’ve given another type of example of a sacred relationship with the cedars of Lebanon. Can you give us some other examples in other traditions of sacred plants?

GARY: Let’s go back to a few from the desert here in the Southwest. Saguaros and organ pipe cactus fruit are used by several tribes for rain-making ceremonies and drunk as a sacrament to bring on the clouds that bring the rains that allow desert washes to flow and renew the earth. There are rituals that Indigenous people do in the Sonoran Desert to give the first taste of the first mature fruits to a rare owl that lives in the flesh of the cactus underneath the fruit. So that’s a beautiful relationship that reminds us that the onset of the rainy season is sacred to so many people.

But I’ve also gone to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the hills above the “Empty Quarter” and harvested frankincense, which at one point was globally the most extensively traded plant-derived commodity, all the way to Central Europe. It’s the gum of a tree in the Boswelia family, a resinous sap that comes out of wounds in the plant like tears (in fact, in Arabic, the term used is the same as for tears). It is carefully collected by hand and accumulated in small pouches and bags and then brought into trade networks that have lasted upwards of 3500 years along the same trade routes that were used in ancient times.

I think aromatic plants are often considered sacred because they’re a tangible expression of the spirit being present, even though it’s not a visible presence. You might see a waft of smoke, but we remind ourselves, when we use incense, be it frankincense, myrrh, or the wonderful elephant tree resins used throughout Mexico, that those are a palpable ritual of our connection to the spirit world through the fragrance that soars up into the heavens, so, while I said earlier that the sacredness isn’t in the matter, I meant we can’t save it by saving genes or seeds. It’s in the smoke, it’s in the aromas, it’s in the touch, it’s in the taste.

ARTY: What a wonderful definition of plant sacredness. In the photo that accompanied your press release, there is what looks to me like a priest standing by a frankincense tree. What’s happening in that photo?

GARY: My wife, Laurie Monti, and I had gone up to a protected area for frankincense that was in really deep canyons, so we had to do a lot of boulder-hopping, like you might do in Northern New Mexico or Southern Utah, to reach the plants. As we came back down from the mountains, we saw an Imam, a Muslim spiritual leader, shooing goats away from a lone frankincense plant that was the tallest of any I’d seen in Oman. It was 14 or 16-feet tall. All the lower branches had been browsed by camels or goats because the foliage is very aromatic. The man in the photo is the protector of these more isolated patches of frankincense in Oman.

It was a very moving for me to see a caretaker of frankincense because my own Arab family came out of Yemen and Oman, and I’ve met distant relatives who were spice traders and frankincense sellers in the souks (the old, traditional market places) of Muscat, Oman. So, ironically, after having an affinity with aromatic plants for decades, I had never learned that in my own family history there were generations of spice and incense traders who deeply revered sacred plants.

ARTY: One of the things that struck me about the photo, like many of the images of the Mideast that I’ve seen – I’ve never been there – is how, unlike the highly diverse Sonoran Desert around the Arizona/Mexico border, the landscape seems really barren, with very little plant growth and biodiversity. Is that an accurate impression of that region?

GARY: Not for the entire southern region of Oman where frankincense grows. I have to say that he was a caretaker because of increased settlement of that area by people, not just from other parts of Oman, but from Pakistan, India, Eritrea, and other places where people grew up with wild foraging skills. Then they became wage workers for wealthy Omani families who, as they gained material wealth, often invested it back into camels, and the higher number of camels than in historic times results in more heavy browsing of frankincense, so I think you’re seeing not a desert that’s characteristic of all deserts where frankincense grows, but one where there’s been overpopulation of not only people but of camels that love to browse the plants. It’s a place that he’s trying to help recover.

ARTY: We need more people like that running around wild places.

GARY: We do. There’s a wonderful pre-Islamic tradition that was embraced by both Muslims and some Orthodox Christians of reserves that are much like the Ethiopian church forest. I’ve recently seen them in Islamic communities in Morocco, where a patch of dense forest near a cave or a canyon where a saint had a contemplative practice and healed people, after the death of that saint was protected for hundreds of years and continues to be protected by the people who revere that saint. There’s a form of conservation done for spiritual reasons that I’ve seen in Southeast Asia, in China, in the Indian subcontinent through Central Asia, and down through the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa that I find deeply touching. Now it’s getting additional support from formal conservation organizations who actually understand that community-based conservation has integrity through time, as a site’s protection is not just dependent on federal budgets.

ARTY: And obviously those people are the experts in terms of being in that place, observing day-to-day, and knowing what’s happening in that environment.

GARY: I agree. I think traditional ecological knowledge and spiritual inclinations go together in a lot of countries. While you and I clearly celebrate our Native American friends and their Indigenous ecological knowledge traditions, we have to remember that there are many other cultures that share those values and have palpable practices that keep some of these plants that may indeed be rare naturally from becoming endangered. In the case of frankincense, it could be a combination of over-harvesting and camel browsing in parts of Oman, but in other places, it’s very well protected.

ARTY: Turning to an area closer to your home that unfortunately hasn’t been well protected—the Sonoran Desert borderlands, the home of the Tohono O’odham—have been dramatically affected by Trump’s wall. What are some of the impacts there on sacred plants?

GARY: There are 14 different linguistic groups with reservations and, beyond the reservations, aboriginal homelands within 20 miles on both sides of the border. Most of them felt a good deal of traumatic stress because the border wall damaged plant populations that they and their foremothers and forefathers have used for centuries. Tens of thousands of saguaro cacti were bulldozed and mutilated in a national park. It was an unbelievable horror to most Native Americans from the desert.

After a Stop-the-Wall rally in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, we went toward the border and saw an elderly O’odham woman lying down next to a saguaro and just weeping and wailing and ululating, and moaning, “Don’t they know that these are people too?” That sense of kinship was the root of an effort by the Tohono O’odham to then give the saguaros sacred personhood as an element that they need for their constitutionally guaranteed expression of their freedom of religion in this country. They feel that the plants are requisite to their practice of their Indigenous spirituality.

According to our friend Melissa Nelson, it’s probably one of the first three or four legislative actions like that in the United States, although we know people in Canada and Australia, and New Zealand First Nations that have taken the same steps, either for plants or animals.

ARTY: That’s such a significant accomplishment. The story of the weeping woman is so poignant. The sense of kinship among Indigenous people for other living entities, such as the saguaro cactus, is genuine and inspiring. It’s an important part of who they are.

GARY: For some people who haven’t had the blessing of immersive contact with Native American friends, I need to say that it’s not a contrivance. There’s no fashion or fad in saying saguaros are people. This has been documented going back before the 1860s or 1870s in the Sonoran Desert — the saguaro cacti are seen as sacred people. That’s what I hear from both elders and youth, and the only new dance is trying to use modern legal frameworks to reinforce what they’re already doing and give it more protection from unknowing construction workers building a pipeline or trying to divert floodwaters away from a road.

In the case of something much more sinister, i.e., Trump’s wall, the O’odham didn’t blame the construction workers who, in many cases, make as little in wages per hour as they themselves do in most of their jobs. They blame the government for not better training those people who may have been first time workers in the desert, and who were simply naïve or ignorant of the deep connection that the original inhabitants of that landscape have with these plants.

From my point of view, as someone who crosswalks between many cultures, both in the Old World and in the Middle East in particular, and in Latin America and the Southwest, I help facilitate their access to those legal frameworks that they want to try out, because in their hearts they’re already protecting them, but they need that reinforcement in the public sphere to keep bad things from happening.

ARTY: So, you’ve launched a new type of response to the kinds of risks and threats you just mentioned—the Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative. What is the vision behind that project, and who else is involved in it?

GARY: It’s a multicultural, interfaith and intertribal initiative that works with spiritual elders in the U.S. Southwest, and not only Indigenous leaders, but also Hispanic elders who have folk traditions relating to sacred plants. We want all those elders to have the opportunity to guide youth from their own communities in transplanting those plants that were wiped out on sacred sites, which is not just ecological destruction but also a form of spiritual erasure.

We’ve organized with the National Park Service, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the Hia-Ced O’odham Alliance (a group of people who are in a tribe but off formal reservations and not fully recognized by the federal government). We’re all endeavoring to do that work around Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe National Monument, a site that was badly damaged, not only by bulldozers, but also by groundwater pumping. It was a place where two Native American youth, Amber and Nellie Jo, sat down in front of bulldozers that were disrupting their prayer vigils at Sacred Springs and were taken to court. And in Amber’s case, the judge said that the government had put an undue burden on her attempt to practice her own people’s spiritual traditions. We now have a court precedent that other tribes, and other faiths for that matter, can also utilize.

We’re in the early stages of doing workshops and getting guidance from tribal elders and seasoned ecological restorationists in best practices for how we can put these plants back in the landscape. We’re not at all thinking about putting them in botanical gardens or seed banks. The goal is to have them in their original sacred places under the care of their original caretakers, and it is our view that a sacred plant is not fully back in its original position until access issues for Native Americans are fully honored by our government.

ARTY: In the Initiative’s press release, you wrote: “There are lessons to learn from the reforestation of sacred cedars of Lebanon in their montane habitat, the rainforest gardening of ceremonial plants of the Indigenous residents of the Amazon, and from the caretakers of church forest and saint forests from Ethiopia to Morocco.” Are those lessons site-specific, or are there some lessons to be learned that are common to most regions and ecosystems?

GARY: It’s a mix of those two. There definitely are site-specific situations, but the plants and their traditional cultures are also facing the same types of threats all over the world in one form or another, whether it’s mining or gas exploration, or tourist development. Also, many of my Indigenous friends are concerned with the cultural appropriation of sacred plants and ceremonies.

There are some wonderful precedents, for example, among the peyote churches, not just the Native American Church of Peyote users, but also people who they’ve trained and whose use of peyote as a sacrament they sanction. Many peyote groups in the United States and Mexico have come together with their federal delegations to say that root-plowing and road development wipe out whole patches of peyote. We want groups to be alerted who can help salvage them and then replant them in either adjacent landscapes or restored landscapes that had been damaged, so that there’s the possibility of access for future generations of legitimate users.

I’m not the one to identify legitimate uses and users for ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin or anything else; I just know that our deference is for traditional elders who have had serious time with these plants over many decades. We defer to them and help them find the financial resources and the agency agreements to make their work possible in a way that can be transmitted to the next generation of youth, because just as endangered as the plants and habitats is the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, which isn’t just the practical knowledge of how to grow a plant, but all the ethics and the sacramental rituals that goes with it. Those things can’t be learned overnight, so the faster we support these exchanges between youth, who are very interested in these things, and elders of their own cultures, the better off we’ll all be in the long run.

ARTY: You also wrote: “Solutions must divert extinctions of relationships.” Could you expand on that?

GARY: All of us feel some affinity at one level or another for the science of ecology, which is really a science of relationships, of interactions of plants with other plants, with mycorrhizae, with pollinators; as well, of course as predator/prey interactions and how people fit in to it all. And yet, so much of the money in conservation goes to the conservation of things rather than relationships. That’s why we have tended to support zoos and botanical gardens more lavishly than biocultural landscapes where Indigenous people live and knowingly protect those plant and animal relationships.

I do think we’re starting to see a sea change in how conservation is defined now due to the beautiful work of people such as Robin Kimmerer, Melissa Nelson, Lillian Hill and Rowan White, and many more than I can name in the moment. The point is that there’s an intrinsic understanding that those interactions, those relationships, are sacred and that we as people have benefited from them, so we have to invest in those relationships, not just things.

I don’t know if I would ever keep a peyote cactus plant in a pot. My memories of it are out on a landscape in San Luis Potosí where the peyote blended in remarkably in color and texture with the limestone rock of that valley. We can’t protect certain plants without protecting their pollinators, certainly not without understanding and protecting their mycorrhizae and their fungal connections writ large. The most exciting talks I’ve ever heard at Bioneers from Paul Stamets to all our biomimicry friends, to our Native leaders, are about moving conservation into this broader, richer realm of restoring relationships.

ARTY: Absolutely, and a new approach to studying plants called “Plant Humanities” seems to be emerging. What is your perspective on that?

GARY: I first heard the term plant humanities about three years ago, and I immediately wanted to know more about it, and the one who told me more is an extraordinary woman of Greek descent, Yota Batsaki, who directs a plant humanities program at Dumbarton Oaks Historic Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C. that’s affiliated with Harvard.

She trains graduate students and others—artists, historians, humanities scholars in religion, philosophy, ethics and history—to delve into botanical collections, herbarium specimens, botanical illustrations, and boxes full of different seeds and nuts, etc. that have been in museums for decades or hundreds of years, to tease out of those collections the story of those human-plant interactions. Sometimes they’re tragic stories, such as the one of the Native Hawaiian botanists who excelled in knowing both Western scientific and Native Hawaiian names for plants, but whose role was erased when the final publications came out on the flora of Hawaii during the colonial period when efforts to try to name every single plant that grew on newly colonized islands was in full swing.

But, in addition to tragic stories like that, there are other stories of people going through herbarium collections and discovering things that help expand our scientific understanding. My friend Paul Cox noticed a feather still embedded in a flower, and that feather was identified as belonging to an extinct pollinator of a lobelia that is endangered in Hawaii. The reason it is endangered, in part, is because it lost its historic pollinators. That weaves back into the science to find surrogate pollinators for the plants, but it also weaves back into the story of history. Who was perceptive enough to notice that there was a tiny pinfeather inside a flower, and why were they so attuned to that, even though a thousand other people may have actually inspected that specimen before?

Plant Humanities is telling the stories, many of which are about the imperialistic exploration of plants by colonial powers, but some of which are also about the sheer joy of innovators in their own cultures who wanted to make specimens and added their own drawings, songs, and stories along with a photo or a dried herbarium specimen of a plant. I think it shows how intrinsically connected we are to plants, that there are hidden stories in nearly every museum waiting to be told of those deep relationships.

ARTY: On the Ethnobotanical Assembly website, it says: “The pairing of the two words “plant humanities” draws attention to what is occluded of plant knowledge when it is confined to plant scientists.” What’s left out or overlooked when we study plants only through a scientific lens and when mainstream science has a condescending view of other ways of interpreting the world, such as that of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge.

GARY: I want to give a shout out to Robin Kimmerer, who last fall had a beautiful article in Science magazine – the most prestigious science journal — that says that it’s time for Western science to embrace the values of Indigenous science. That’s something unsettling to formally trained botanists, but Robin Kimmerer explains how useful the greater respect and even reverence for plants in Indigenous cultures can be in studying them. And one finds those reverential subcurrents in other traditions, such as ancient Western botany and some of the Medieval alchemists. And Rilke and Goethe were extraordinary poets who were deeply engaged in the exploration of the natural world through design, through poetry, and through scientific essays. We’re coming back to that more holistic view of what our engagement with plants may be. I think we’re at a wonderful moment in history where we’re seeing that dance between different ways of knowing, fully sanctioned, at last, rather than being repressed.

Frankly, my only worry is we haven’t all learned from past errors, intentional or accidental, so we risk cultural appropriation with some of the plants that are now the subject of amazing studies about their potential therapeutic help for people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, memory loss, cancer, and heart attacks. There’s a very difficult balancing act trying to sort out recreational versus therapeutic versus genuinely spiritual relationships to those plants.

You can buy peyote and psilocybin in markets in Oaxaca. You can also buy them on the roadside in Mexico. Are sales of those limiting the availability to traditional users, cultures who have used those plants for centuries or even millennia? Will there be competing demands of rare hallucinogenic plants between recreational users and legitimate medical therapeutic users? And who are the gatekeepers? Or will there be open gates everywhere?

It’s a frightening jolt to all of our sensibilities that some of these plants that have so much potential for opening our minds, hearts and spirits are now becoming scarce commodities because of all the attention being given to them. I have to say, humbly, that I have no answers to those questions. As someone who has been helped by medically direct therapeutic uses of some of those plants, I feel I want to help more people be engaged in forums or dialogues about that, but it’s so complex that I feel I don’t necessarily have the answers, and I defer to other people who have much more experience.

ARTY: We have a lot to learn from the Indigenous perspective. The poignant example you gave of the O’odham woman weeping over the destruction of Saguaro cacti, that level of respect and reverence is needed in the general population as an antidote to over-consumption and exploitation of sacred plants.

GARY: Qualitatively, I measure the generosity of spirit of any faith tradition, Indigenous or otherwise, by how generous they are in extending their love and respect and reverence beyond just people of their own in group to those of other cultures and races, and also to other species. The most generous people I know on Earth have that capacity to extend their love to other species. That should be the quest that we’re all on, in any way that we can. What we find out is that when we work together to restore populations of imperiled plants, we’re also being inoculated with something, whether it’s microbial or spiritual, that helps our own health and our wellbeing. That’s what Robin Kimmerer calls “reciprocal restoration.”

Some of my technical studies have shown that when we get kids out into the trenches to heal arroyos and to plant trees and shrubs along the arroyo bottom, they are literally being inoculated with soil microbes that not only help the plants but that reduce those kids’ vulnerability to allergies and hay fever and skin problems because they become active participants in the natural community rather than bystanders.

When we set out to restore a damaged landscape, we’re really trying to re-story it as well. We’re trying to tell a new story about it that connects to the past rather than erases the past. I think that’s a really urgent need at this point in time when so many people feel disconnected from both nature and from traditional cultures.

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