Auntie Viv says Tlingits don’t see a forest of devil’s club as an obstacle.
“We see it as medicine,” she sayd. “A forest of devil’s club is a journey of perseverance, a lifetime of intimate connections that bring deep knowledge. We learn respect over and over again.”
We’re teaching and learning these values today.
We pile out of two vehicles — Great-Grandpa Mickey, Grandson Timothy and Grandson Jackson, Oscar the dog and Auntie Viv. The forest surrounds us. Thick berry bushes, ferns and grass grow beneath the trees. And lots of devil’s club, s’axt’.
It’s a beautiful day in Southeast Alaska and we’re about to harvest. The ideal spot is Devil’s Club Alley along this dirt road. “This is perfect,” I say, noting shade and the pullout.
My daughter, Auntie Viv, whom we call the Devil’s Club Lady, or sometimes Devil’s Club Auntie, says the first step to making s’axt’ medicine is to learn to harvest. Preparation is important: “Step one: Getting into the bushes. You should be clothed with fairly impenetrable rain gear or else be very careful in the forest. Harvesting a plant covered in thousands of thorns takes patience and caution.” We wear long sleeve shirts, long pants, hoodies and boots.
It’s important to teach grandson Timothy and Jackson the Tlingit values of patience and caution. I can use those lessons, too. I’ve always wanted to learn to harvest devil’s club, but like those who’ve grown up in Southeast Alaska, I’m wary of thorns. I also want to help teach the next generation in our family. When my daughter offered to teach us, I said yes. There’s so much to learn about s’axt’ that it can take years. Today she’ll harvest the stalks and we’ll help with the rest. Another time, we’ll learn to make medicines.
As we walk, Auntie says to her nephews, “You need to apprentice with a knowledgeable harvester for years.”
“You?” asks Jackson.
“Yes, but I learned from Harlena, Florence and Nora. And Ruth, Irene, Janice … and a whole bunch more.”
“That’s a lot,” Grandson Timothy says.
Auntie Viv nods. “You can have many teachers. You’re learning basketball from different sources.”
We look for straight stalks. Great-grandpa Mickey has already spotted a good patch of devil’s club.
“That’s good,” she says approaching the spot. She turns toward us. “Before we harvest we give thanks and let the plant know our good intentions with the medicine we’ll make.”
“Gunalchéesh,” says Auntie Viv.
“Gunalchéesh,” we say in unison.
A snip and a snap
With her big snippers in hand, Auntie Viv heads through the bushes and disappears. The tops of the devil’s club wiggle. There’s a snap and chopping sound.
“I’m going to toss one out,” she says. “But don’t catch it. It has thorns.” A thorny stalk flies out on the road. She walks up the embankment holding another leafless branch by the end. “Before cutting it’s easiest to scrape a handle first and cut off the leaves.”
Timothy, Jackson and I bring the stalks back the short distance to our parking site. We come back together and walk further on. “Don’t take too much from one area,” Auntie says. “A good rule is a quarter or less of each plant system and then move on.”
“There’s lots of it here,” I comment.
Auntie Viv nods. “There’s plenty of devil’s club but there’s a myth the plant can’t be over harvested. It’s over harvested in Washington and Oregon. And also in Alaska, close to towns like Sitka and Juneau where it’s easily accessible.”
Great-grandpa and Oscar stop on the side of the road. Timothy sets out a lawn chair for grandpa to rest. Auntie Viv reminds her nephews that in the Tlingit culture it’s important to leave easy access harvesting areas for elders and children. “If you have a bit more energy and youth you should harvest farther from the town you live in.”
Auntie Viv heads into the bushes again. Soon Auntie tosses out a couple more stalks. She points the plants out.
“The thorns on the leaves grab everything, making it hard to walk in the woods. Some people clean the stalk where they cut it and sometimes they’ll bring it out for someone else to clean. Either way, it’s easier to clean if you cut off the leaves.”
Cleaning the club
Everything she tells us makes sense. She’s a good teacher. We walk back to the truck where we unpack our lawn chairs and set out supplies on the tailgate.
We each pick a spot and set up our chairs slightly away from one another. Auntie tells us some Tlingit elders say it’s disrespectful to clean devil’s club directly on a trail, a camp or picnic table, or at your house because the thorns can get everywhere and are quite painful.
“Now, let’s harvest the medicine,” Auntie says. She holds up a stalk with a table knife in her hands. She braces her foot, leans down, and scrapes. “Scrape the thorns and the thin layer of brown bark off with the dull side. Sharp knives remove too much medicine.”
Ideally, the thorns and bark will come off and then the bright green cambium layer will peel easily.
“Now, cut a line down the stalk with the sharp side of a butter knife,” she says.
She peels the green cambium down, showing us the inner layer beneath. The scent of fresh devil’s club surrounds us.
“Peel and remove the cambium. This is used to make medicines.”
She shows us how to be careful, steady and patient while pulling the cambium around the knots.
Timothy and Jackson head to their chairs with the stalks and knives. They scrape thorns and bark and peel the cambium off. Even Great-Grandpa Mickey works on a stalk. I do my part, too.
“If the devil’s club is cleaned right away this helps people limit their harvest,” Auntie Viv says. “Some will think ‘I can get 10 stalks and do them at home’ but discover by the time they get the stalks home, they’ve dried and are too much work. Some people throw them away.”
Jackson’s eyes widen. You can tell by his face that they’ve worked hard already and that seems like a waste.
Getting dirt under the nails
After a couple of hours, we have a bunch of peeled sticks and bundles of rolled up cambium.
Harvesting devil’s club is a lot of work.
Auntie Viv says, “Use the sticks to make walking sticks, drum sticks, or beautiful art, but make sure you wipe the liquid off the stalk. If you wipe the stalk with your hands it helps keep them from aching from all of the scraping you did and it prevents the stalk from discoloring.”
We admire the rolled layers of s’axt’ cambium.
Auntie says, “Now, the medicine is ready to make fresh tea, for a sweat, or a bath soak, or to dry to make medicines with later.”
We are so tired and ready to be done with the day.
Margaret Atwood wrote that at the end of the day you should smell like dirt. Smelling like devil’s club, with dirt under our nails, is a wonderful thing. For me and for my grandsons harvesting s’axt’ is the first of many lessons, the first of many scrapes and thorns, the first of many rainy and sunny days, and mosquito bites.
Good memories, all. Good lessons, all.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.