It was winter in the land of the People. Snow lay deep in the higher hollows, and the wind howled ferociously from the north, scouring and shaking the mountain peaks with icy gusts. In the sheltered river valley where the village of the People was situated, conditions were less severe, but the land was still held firmly in the frigid grip of the cold. Each morning, the higher ridges near the village were dusted with rime, and the rhododendron leaves were rolled up tight against the bitter chill. The water of the river was the color of cold gray slate, and ice formed in the still pools and in the calmer shallows along the riverbanks.

Despite the cold, it was a pleasant time of year for the People. It had been a good year. The village storehouses were still nearly filled with maize, beans, and squash, along with stores of food gathered from the surrounding woods and mountains. Baskets held white oak acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, and hickory nuts. Dried fruits and berries were stored in large earthen pots. There were also stockpiles of dried meat from the fall hunts and containers of rendered bear oil, hickory milk, and walnut oil. The work of summer and fall was over, and it was a time for relaxation. Families and neighbors gathered by the fire during the long winter evenings for storytelling. These storytelling sessions were not only an enjoyable chance for socializing but were a medium which the elders used as an opportunity to pass down useful lore, tales, and knowledge to the children and younger people— in the same way important information and cultural heritage had been transmitted for countless generations.

Midwinter was also a time for pleasant handiwork: the People made and repaired tools and weapons, wove textiles, tanned deer hides into soft buckskin, and made and decorated clothes with quillwork. Roughed-out bow staves and bundles of arrow shaft materials that had been seasoning in the rafters of the houses were brought out by the men and worked on through the cold days and long evenings.

In addition to their year-round wattle-and-daub houses, most families of the People also had a winter house or “hot house” that they stayed and slept in during spells of extremely cold weather. These snug, circular lodges were partially dug into the hillside. The walls were made from upright tree trunks fitted tightly together and covered with earth almost to the roof on the three sides dug into the embankment. The only openings in the house were a small smokehole in the thatch-andbark- covered roof and a short, narrow entry, which was covered by a hanging deer hide.

On one particular cold evening, the Medicine Man sat on a bench by the fire in his winter house, making arrow shafts. Beside him were bundles of finished shafts of cane and hardwood, and another bundle of seasoned hardwood shoots. A man could go through a lot of arrows in a year, especially during times of war or during long hunting trips, and he always tried to stockpile a large quantity of ready-to-use shafts during the winter months when less of his time was taken up by other, more important work. He untied the bundle of hardwood shoots and began sorting them for stiffness. Years of experience allowed him to gauge the spine of the shoots by flexing them in his hands, and when he had picked out several shoots of the correct flexibility, he selected one and started scraping off the bark with a sharp, curved flake of quartzite. When the bark was gone, he greased a curved section of the shoot with bear oil and held it over some coals that he raked from the fire, constantly turning it to heat it evenly without scorching the wood. When the crooked section of the shaft was hot enough, he held it near the bend, protecting his hands with scraps of buckskin, and gently bent the hot wood into line, sighting down the shaft as he rotated it to judge its straightness. He repeated this procedure until the shaft was straight enough to satisfy him, and set it aside.

Later, it would be cut to length and worked down by scraping with a concave flint flake, then sized and smoothed further with hollowed blocks of sandstone and gritty horsetail reeds until it matched the rest of the finished shafts in diameter and stiffness. Then, the shafts would be rubbed with bear grease to protect them from moisture and re-bundled. They would be taken out as needed, fletched with a pair of turkey or buzzard feathers, and a stone point would be hafted to the business end with pine pitch and deer sinew. As the Medicine Man laid the straightened shaft down and began de-barking another shoot, he was roused by loud cries of alarm outside. He put his work aside and went to investigate. A hunter had stumbled into the village and collapsed; he was wet, nearly frozen, shivering violently, and exhausted almost to the point of unconsciousness. The Medicine Man had the hunter carried to his hot house, where he immediately added more sticks to the fire and, assisted by the hunter’s wife, cut away the man’s soaked, half-frozen clothing. While the hunter’s wife dried him with soft buckskin, the healer warmed another buckskin over the fire and wrapped it around the trunk of the man’s body. He then laid the hunter on a pile of deerskins near the fire and wrapped him in a soft, warm buffalo robe. As the Medicine Man prepared a cup of warm tea for the victim to drink, he noticed that the man’s shivering was gradually beginning to subside and that the bluish color of his lips was beginning to fade. The man was soon able to sip from the cup of tea. Before long, he had warmed noticeably and was able to talk normally, his speech no longer slurred. After more time, the Medicine Man rubbed the man’s arms and legs to help restore circulation, knowing that to have done so earlier could have quickly forced cold blood from the limbs back into the hunter’s body core, perhaps killing him or complicating his recovery. The healer thankfully noted that the man seemed to have suffered no permanent damage from his ordeal and told his wife he should recover quickly given a couple days’ rest. Finally, the hunter began to tell his story. He had been hunting a half-day’s walk from the village when he slipped while crossing a creek on an icy log and had fallen into the cold water. His fire sticks and tinder had gotten soaked, so he had no way to make fire to warm himself. The hunter had decided to return to the village, but soon realized that he was in serious trouble. He had begun to run as fast as he could in an attempt to stay warm and reach shelter, and had run most of the way back to the village, knowing that to stop was to die. Thankfully, he was a strong man in the prime of life, and his stamina had brought him home before he succumbed to the cold. While he was finishing relating his tale to his wife and the Medicine Man, he sat bolt upright and gasped in pain as violent cramps gripped his legs. As the cold, exhausted muscles had begun to warm and relax, they suddenly seized, twisting into agonizing knots and spasms.

The Medicine Man bade the hunter’s wife to massage the man’s knotted, cramped legs as he writhed on the pallet. The healer quickly picked up the half-scraped arrow shaft that he had been working on when the hunter had stumbled into the village. He scraped the rest of the bark off, collected a palmful, put it in a cup, and poured boiling water over it. After letting it cool and steep for a short amount of time, he attempted to administer it to the hunter, who was still wracked with violent spasms. The man managed to swallow a few sips of the medicinal liquid, and the Medicine Man persisted until he had drained the cup. Within a couple minutes, the cramps began to slacken slightly, and the healer gave him another cup of the medicine to drink. After a while, the hunter lay back on theskins, exhausted, but once more at ease and free from the tortuous cramping in his legs. The healer continued to administer the medicine throughout the night as the cramps returned, but by morning the hunter was no worse for wear save for mild fatigue and a firm resolve to never again attempt to walk across an icy log.

The healing plant used by the Medicine Man was the viburnum. This genus of shrubs and small trees of the Honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) is found throughout much of the temperate world, with at least sixteen
species native to North America. The range of the genus extends throughout most of the United States and Canada in varying habitats. Most native viburnums are small to large shrubs, but some, such as the black haw (V. prunifolium), can reach small tree status. All viburnums have opposite simple leaves with finely- to coarsely-toothed margins. The flowers of most species are white and borne in flat-topped corymbs. Fruits are clustered fleshy drupes, ranging in color from red to blue-black.

Viburnums have a long history of medicinal usage. The medicinal properties vary somewhat between species, but most have antispasmodic, astringent, diuretic, nervine, uterine relaxant, pain relieving, and anti-inflammatory properties. Active constituents include viburnin, scopoletin, salicosides, tannins, saponins, and arbutin. The part of the plant used is the bark of the stem or root. Several species of viburnum are known by the common name “crampbark,” which signifies one of their principle uses. Viburnum is considered to be one of the best medicines for relieving menstrual, muscle, and stomach cramps and spasms. It has long been used in formulas for “women’s medicine.” This plant has also been used for centuries as a preventative for abortions and miscarriages. Slave owners were said to have sometimes given viburnum to their female slaves to prevent them from aborting children who, when born, were considered valuable property of the slave owner. Viburnum contains salicin similar to aspirin and is effective in treating minor pain and inflammation. Other medicinal uses include the treatment of asthma and digestive disorders. High doses of viburnum are suspected of lowering blood pressure.

Some viburnums have food value. The fruits of some species are edible and tasty raw or cooked into sauces and jellies. Some species have berries that are sometimes used as a substitute for cranberries. Others have fruits that taste similar to raisins or dates, while others have bitter, unpalatable, or even mildly toxic fruits. The seeds of the edible species should probably be avoided, as should unripe fruit. Among the edible species, the taste and quality of fruits can vary considerably between individual plants. As there are so many species of viburnum, you should be sure to identify your local species and research their edibility before using them as food.

Viburnums have utilitarian usages. Many species are commonly known as “arrowwood,” as the young shoots tend to grow very straight and have been preferred arrow shaft material around the world for thousands of years. Otzi, the 5,000-year-old frozen “ice man” mummy discovered in the European Alps, had viburnum arrow shafts in his quiver. The wood is strong and dense, with some species having a specific gravity of .80 or more. The species that grow into large shrubs or small trees can be made into bows. Other common names, such as withe rod, suggest the use of the flexible young shoots for weaving and lashing. Native Americans used the bark of some species in kinick kinick mixtures for smoking. Many species of viburnum are commonly used as ornamental plants. They are attractive shrubs, with many having attractive growth habits and colorful fall foliage.

Our ancestors lived intimately with the land and, over time, accumulated much knowledge of which plants to use for different purposes. Before industrial civilization, this knowledge was widespread and necessary for survival. Now, much knowledge has been lost. It is our duty and in our best interests to preserve useful plant knowledge and incorporate it into our lives as well as to preserve our environment and the wild plants that in the future may once again become our very means of survival.


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