Book Review: A Healing GroveMichelle Singerman July 1, 2010
Author: Stephanie Rose Bird
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books
Book Publication: 2009
Growing up geographically separated from your native homeland can often initiate a deep, emotional distance between yourself and your people’s history. But in the case of Stephanie Rose Bird, reality seems to have fostered quite a different relationship between herself and the Motherland. In A Healing Grove: African Tree Remedies and Rituals for Body and Spirit, Bird continually delves into her historical cultural roots to share traditional healing treatments, all while tracing her life’s path across America.
This book is not a standard “take this, mix that” conglomeration of home recipe healing. So much more than remedies, Bird offers a wonderful history lesson that is native to her roots in Africa. Throughout this personal account of growing up in America and the struggle of what it means to be African American on this continent, Bird frequently found herself finding solace amongst the trees.
It is powerful to note her struggle with trees as a source of comfort, since for her parents’ generation, trees represented very real and scary accounts of racism through lynching. Yet for generations before in Africa, the power of the tree provided sustainability, shelter, medicine, food, protection, and comfort. She writes in the Preface, “This connection between blacks and trees in the New World is a grim story; it is shameful that slaveholders turned tree-loving people against the woods. But for many, that is just what happened.” Bird has been fortunate in her ability to return to her culture’s historical appreciation for the sanctuary of nature.
The snaking story of Bird in America, her account of growing up in a time when racism was still overtly blatant, is beautifully intertwined with her culture’s dependency on African tree medicine. A story of survival prevails, which as she points out, is one that is similar to her ancestors who also conquered survival over snakes, competing clans, and other environmental and social challenges.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about this book, if you are a history or folklore aficionado, is that with each distinctive tree remedy comes the history and tale behind its importance. We learn where in Africa the Shea tree is native to, its growing conditions and lifespan, how it is used, and its societal importance. Or take Foraha, an evergreen tree native to East Africa. Though a familiar and dependable tree in Africa for making oil used mostly for medicinal purposes, Fohara’s antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties also relevant to our lives in North America, as this oil is used for treating athlete’s foot, eczema, infected burns, ringworm, and more.
The fruits of these native trees cannot be forgotten, either. Banana, plantain, pineapple, mango, island fruits, and spices all have a place in healing, as well. Bird explains that the medicinal and healing qualities are derived from almost every part of the tree. In addition to these trees providing some of the world’s most powerful superfoods, she also gives readers a lesson in the cultural and economical significance of these fruits. “Growing indigenous fruit trees helps many Africans preserve traditions and customs, solidifying collective identity and thereby restoring community. The trees support local economies and, because of their high yield for the amount of space used, conserve water, land, and labour.”
To North Americans, the banana is a sweet, creamy fruit that is now commonplace, although nowhere near native. But in African tradition, the banana is so much more. In this respect, the yellow fruit is symbolic, “representing harambee, a Swahili philosophy that roughly translates to ‘let us all pull together.’ ” With this cultural significance, every part of the banana plant is used, as opposed to eating just what’s found inside the peel. And in addition to informing her readers about the native customs surrounding this plant, such as using the leaves for shelter and fodder, or using the peel as an antiseptic, Bird is always careful to relate the subject back to our modern, Western world. She shares the nutritional benefits of bananas in reference to how we in the “New World” eat the fruit. This potassium-packed snack helps to prevent colon cancer, create good bacteria in your stomach, reduce plaque formation in arteries and build bone density.
In A Healing Grove, Bird has stumbled upon a wonderfully creative and inspiring way to share her historical, cultural knowledge with those who are interested. This personal account truly does offer each reader something to take from it. And even if you don’t plan on testing Bird’s historical knowledge out yourself, this book makes for a genuinely inspiring and nourishing read for your brain.