Born in the industrial city of Chester, Pennsylvania, I lived in a cookie-cutter row house with a matchbox size front lawn. Agriculture was not part of my childhood, but there was one experience of the natural world that I remember vividly. Carrying a metal kitchen bowl I walked one day out of the house to the alley behind. Deliberately I sat in a patch of weeds and gathered the long stems that grew in abundance. Entranced by the seeds that grew along these stalks, I rubbed the thumb and fingers of my right hand along the stem against the grain. The seeds fell off in response to this slight pressure and began to accumulate in the bowl.
Dipping my hand into this primordial essence the most pleasurable experience ensued. I delighted in this touch as I herded the seeds from one side of the bowl to the other. A peace emerged from the motion and seemed to radiate out the way prayers flow out from prayer wheels. There was an affirmation that in touching these seeds I was complete and the world was whole. I didn’t notice the iron fence that separated me from the large cemetery abutting the alley. Nor did I think about the tent erected over a plot where three gravediggers were preparing for a burial. I was only attentive to the seeds in my bowl.
Now I recognize this weed as plantain and when I see it growing, I reach down, pluck a stem, and rub the seeds off the stalk. It’s also our ‘go to’ medicinal plant on the farm. When a bee stung me, Anna Fialkoff picked some plantain leaves, chewed them up, and globbed the macerated green paste on my leg. It soothed the ache and my ankle didn’t swell. Its long list of medicinal uses includes everything from cleaning the liver to treating fungal infections. Plantain teas, tinctures, and salves help with rashes, itching and irritations. It’s a universal cure.
Today I fear for the future of the polar bear, struggling to survive because the ice is melting and for the toothless African frog, endangered because its streams are dammed. Mountaintops are flattened and the erosion of topsoil is destroying our best agricultural land. I wish I could chew some plantain and heal the earth, but I know it’s not that simple.
However this common plant grows in vacant lots, between sidewalk cracks, in fields, along streams, and especially in poor or disturbed soil. As long as there is sunlight, plantain thrives and we can use it as medicine. You might try picking a stalk, running your fingers against the grain to remove the seeds, and offering them to the wind. I like to think these seeds will carry our prayers.