The Cherokee discovered long ago that many native plants in the Southeastern United States hold remedies for a range of ailments, from burns and bug bites to migraines. My guest this week, naturalist, survivalist and author Mark Warren, has studied and experienced firsthand the effectiveness of Cherokee healing practices and shares them in his books and workshops.
Mark owns and runs the nationally renowned Medicine Bow Wilderness School in the Southern Appalachians of Dahlonega, Georgia, where he teaches nature classes and primitive skills of the Cherokee. He has taught survival courses to thousands of schools and groups all over the country, and in 1980, the National Wildlife Federation honored Mark as Georgia’s Conservation Educator of the Year. In 1998, he became the U.S. National Champion in whitewater canoeing, and in 1999, he won the World Championship Longbow title. Mark has written many books, including novels and works of nonfiction, and he joins me mainly to speak about one specific book, “Wild Plants and Survival Lore,” the first of four books in his Secrets of the Forest series.
I first met Mark in a woodland walkup in the north Georgia mountains. A close friend had invited me to hear Mark speak, and after I did, I knew I wanted to have him join me on the podcast.
Mark, now 75 years old, grew up south of Atlanta, Georgia, in College Park, which was an old small town before suburban sprawl reached it.
“I feel like I was born into this world without really much choice about this,” Mark shares. “I just had a passion for the forest.” He says he felt like the forest was a masterpiece painting, and he was allowed to enter that painting and move through it as a participant.
“It was completely aesthetic,” he continues. “I didn’t know most of the things that I was seeing. I grew up in a place where we had your classic post-war neighborhood with yards large enough not to feel crowded and yet close enough for you to have great friends.”
His family’s house was the first on a dirt road that grew into one of those neighborhoods. There were patches of forests, some that seemed quite big to him when he was a child. “My mother, who was my saving grace, recognized this in me, and though she could not relate to it at all, she allowed me the freedom of being in those woods,” he says.
Mark says he was more or less the black sheep of his family because no one else felt a draw toward the forest. His family never camped or even went on picnics. “I entered all that type of world really as a solo effort, which has always been a special way for me to enter all things,” he says.
The small-town boy that he was, he didn’t learn that Georgia had mountains until he was 14 years old. He soon fell in love with them, hitchhiking to the mountains on weekends to camp by himself. “Those were important learning days for me,” he says.
Around when he turned 18, he got an overwhelming hunger to learn about the trees, herbs and boulders that had become his friends, and that set him on the path to becoming a naturalist.
He spent his first two years of college pursuing art and became interested in the human body because of his involvement in sports — he was on the track team — and because of his time spent drawing life models, which gave him an appreciation of the miracle of the body and its ability to heal, he says.
Mark changed his major to pre-med and was accepted to medical school but the summer before he was set to start, he realized that there was no way he could spend as much time indoors as being a physician would require.
During that summer, the draft for the Vietnam War was in full gear, he notes, and by turning down his acceptance to medical school, he opened up the possibility that he could have been drafted. However, he was pole vaulting for the Atlanta Track Club that summer and had an accident that damaged his spine, which meant he wouldn’t be drafted.
And as an aside, he also started writing music at 18 and thought for a time he would make a career out of it, visiting Los Angeles twice, but that plan never came to fruition. But he did get to do fun things like score plays and write for a choir and the Atlanta Symphony.
“I considered my profession at that time ‘adventurer,’” Mark says. “That goes from age 7, I believe. All I wanted to do was have adventures.”
He has, in fact, been on wild canoe explorations and has descended rivers that have never been descended before. “Still, the greatest adventure that’s possible to me these days is the ability to be able to walk into a forest with your hands empty and just live there for a week,” he says. “You know, live off the land and know how to do that.”
Today, he teaches survival skills to others that he has researched or learned firsthand.
“Usually I failed, and then I would go to a reference book and see where I went wrong and be enlightened by some unknown person of the past and so that’s how I got started in this work,” Mark says.
Though his first interest in the forest was nature itself, he explains, he quickly learned that if he wanted to truly learn the essence of the natural world he would need to study the people who were once so intimate with it.
“That was the Cherokee,” he says. “So I got very involved in Cherokee history and I saw the importance of that intimacy because that’s what our culture lacks. And that’s why we don’t care about clearing an area of trees. It’s just a mechanical thing that we do. We don’t connect it to the important equation of life, which is exactly what photosynthesis is. The trees and the other green plants serve as our agents to trap energy here so that we can use it. Otherwise, no life.”
Studying the Cherokee
Where Mark now lives was once exclusively Cherokee territory. He says that in studying the Cherokee he learned of a big gold rush that occurred there, leading to historically embarrassing mistreatment of the Cherokee.
“The Cherokees had won certain rights in the Supreme Court, but the state of Georgia would not uphold it,” Mark says. “And President Jackson was behind the states because he was all for Manifest Destiny, of course.”
Now the Cherokee are gone from the area, and where they live is now a tourist town focused on gold mining. Mark conceived of an idea to put on a musical benefit to raise funds for a statue of a Cherokee to put up in the town square, but he asked Cherokee representatives what they wanted, and they suggested a different idea. They wanted to replace a historical marker, which had been stolen, that designated the place where the holding station had been for the Cherokee before being taken on the Trail of Tears.
Mark’s reverence for how the Cherokee people lived comes through clearly in his book. The Cherokee just made it work — they didn’t have survival guidebooks and they took nothing for granted. When they took a plant or animal for food, they recognized its importance and sacred value, which we don’t connect the dots on today.
Medicinal Uses for Native Plants
One of the plants Mark uses most frequently is good for treating burns, and that comes in handy when he is teaching people who are new to camping how to tend a fire and cook over it.
The plant is the red maple tree, and the part of the tree that is used to treat burns is the leaves, while they are still green. A solution of green leaves of red maple in just-boiled water takes away burn pain within two seconds, agitates the skin at the border of the burn so it produces cells to start healing, and leaves a film over the wound to act as a bandage and protect from infection.
A blunt tool, like a stick carved flat on one end, is used to crush the leaves, releasing the beneficial chemicals into the water.
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a native plant that grows in low ground, often on a floodplain or the banks of a stream, in partial shade.
“It is a real succulent stem and it’s full of juices,” he says. “I don’t know that they’ve been thoroughly analyzed by chemists. But there’s something in that juice that works like cortisone, and it works immediately.”
Mark is a magnet for chiggers, but he knows that jewelweed or even domestic Impatiens can be applied to immediately relieve the itch of chigger bites. “All you do is crush the stem and smear it on,” he says. It can also cure poison ivy rash in two or three days, he adds.
Jewelweed is fragile and difficult to transplant successfully, so what Mark recommends is taking it home in the dirt it was growing in, then washing off the dirt, throwing it into a blender right away with water, and pouring it into an ice tray to freeze and save.
For migraines, Mark recommends a treatment made from flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) limbs. With a knife, cut through the outer bark and through the inner bark layer. With the tip of the knife, cut a rectangle in the sapwood that approximates the outline of the patient’s little finger. Take the inner bark and cambium layer, put it in a cup, and add boiling water. Let it sit for 20 minutes. Mark reports migraine sufferers get lasting relief within 45 minutes. He believes the active chemical is cornic acid.
Unfortunately, dogwoods in the Southeast are threatened by dogwood anthracnose, which causes leaf blight and cankers. Mark recommends covering cuts made to dogwoods with tree surgeon tar or another substance to prevent fungal diseases from entering the cuts.
Trial and Error, or Instinct?
How did the Cherokee learn these uses of native plants? Did they just stumble upon them through trial and error? Mark doesn’t think so. He believes it was instinct and that everyone’s ancestors from around the globe similarly learned through instinct.
“Everybody started off with ancestors who once hunted with a spear and had a chip piece of stone that they had lashed to that spear,” Mark says. “So we all have that common denominator in our beginnings, and every one of those paleo people was born into this world with all of the instincts as to how to use the plant before them. Sounds almost fantastic, and it’s very hard for some people to swallow that, but all you have to do is ask yourself, well how do the wild animals do it today? It’s the same thing.”
One example Mark likes is the black rat snake: Its mother lays eggs in a rotten log and leaves, but the baby snake comes out of the egg knowing exactly what it needs to know to be a successful hunter.
Mark says humans have lost many of their instincts because of the development of language. The more refined language becomes, we become talkers and not doers, he says.
Mark teaches year-round at his survival school, Medicine Bow, which he calls a primitive school of earthlore. Subjects include how to build fire by friction, how to read tracks, how to approach animals in the wild without being detected, and how to identify and use plants as food, medicine, insect repellants and crafting materials.
“Every skill that I teach, every single one of them has its beginnings with botany, even stalking, tracking archery,” Mark says.
For example, to make a bow, start with a tree cut down in winter because that’s when the sap’s down, he says. “You got to know your trees in the winter.”
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Mark Warren on the native plants of the Cherokee, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you use native plants for remedies? Let us know in the comments below.
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“Wild Plants and Survival Lore: Secrets of the Forest” by Mark Warren
“Fire-Making, Storytelling, and Ceremony: Secrets of the Forest” by Mark Warren
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