Someone visiting the land once looked at our trees through the eyes of the market. He looked at our sweetgums and said: gum trees are useless. I’d just bulldoze and burn them.
I didn’t tell him how in that moment my heart immediately reached out to the nearest sweetgum tree silently reassuring it that it absolutely belonged here, that I was grateful for it, that I would never call it useless.
Thirty-five years later, May, 2052:
it barely matters to us that the new virus rippling through our bodies is antibiotic resistant, as most of us can’t afford to go get antibiotics anyway; but we are not helpless. Many of the sweetgums were lost to the heat and flooding and drought and new diseases, but we’ve protected the healthy ones remaining like grandfather oaks. They have become our most cherished medicine trees. In addition to the styrax resin we use for coughs, wound disinfection, and as copal incense for our rites, we have invaluable bottles of the alcohol extract of immature sweetgum balls from the last five years and even a sweetgum mead to mend our spirits. The shikimic acid in sweetgum balls is the same as the one that used to be used to make a corporate drug called Tamiflu, ages ago; but as a whole plant medicine, there’s much more than an isolated constituent to help us heal. There is a friend, an ecstatically perfumed ‘useless tree’ that now has given us hope enough to share with our neighbors and surrounding communities. We give our medicine away as freely as the tree gave it to us, grateful for this light through the dark
Meanwhile, today in May, 2017:
I found a study showing that sweetgum has both strong antiviral and antibacterial effects. It can work on MRSA, the notorious hospital-incubated antibiotic resistant virus.
Sweetgum, our ‘useless’ tree, has been a medicine plant for a long time. It was traded around the Americas as the sacred offering of copal incense. The seeds in the seedballs provide food for wildlife. Its ability to grow in our injured soils has held the soil life in place, stopping further erosion. When I do take the life of a sweetgum, I can use their hardwood bodies for grade A shiitake logs. We intend to work with the beautiful wood of smaller ones as railings for our deck. I know this friend tree has many uses beyond this.
Taoist wanderer Chuang-tzu tells a story about a useless tree. Because it is not good for anything, the tree does not get cut down. It grows large and old and many enjoy its shade. I am sure, too, that its branches, roots, bark, leaves, and flowers were full of life. Now, I’m also sure that it wasn’t useless. Sweetgum has taught me to trust my intuition that no living thing does not have an ecological role to play in the system it is found in nor does any not hold a lesson for us to learn. All living things are teachers; all living things belong.
Bonus points: how would this all differ if we thought of sweetgum as an ‘invasive?’