When I collected medicinal tundra plants for a cyanotype series during the summer of 2013 it never occurred to me that I would ever rely on those plants to heal myself. I had attended a wonderful workshop on how to prepare medicinal salves and tinctures using arctic tundra plants at the National Park Service office serving the Western Arctic National Parklands in Kotzebue, Alaska. As much as I had enjoyed collecting those plants and learning the processes of making tinctures and salves, I mostly intended to add those botanical images to a much larger compendium of arctic sun prints consisting of found objects--bits of net, bones, gloves, trash on the beach--my attempt to be a visual gatherer I suppose. I had a month of nothing but sun and a lot of time on my hands waiting for pilots to decide when we could fly again so it just made sense to fill my time in the village collecting objects and taking them home, mixing the chemicals in a windowless bathroom using a borrowed, broken scale (darkness was hard to come by in mid-July), and laying the prints out in the sun at any hour of the night, washing them in the sink of our rented house. For all its seeming relentlessness the arctic sun actually conveys less energy--the light has to travel farther from the sun due to the sharper angle of the earth as it reaches the polar regions--which meant the processing of each image took considerably longer than they would have farther to the south.
And then there I was a year and a half later, on a flight from Anchorage to Kotzebue jammed with people who had been stuck in Anchorage overnight waiting out one in a series of real winter storms battering the Chukchi coast--high winds and heavy snows--listening to the sound of the woman across the aisle sneezing repeatedly. I could feel the cold coming on almost immediately and my host generously treated me to her personal supply of what some believe is a potent antiviral elixir--"stinkweed" made from wormwood leaves. Every time I knocked back of shot glass full of wormwood vinegar I could swear I felt the virus shrink a little. My grandmother was a devout practitioner of Ojibwa medicine for much of her life and so I suppose I'm primed to trust so-called "folk cures," which might have boosted the efficacy of that tincture, but then again I've come to respect the wisdom of people who still know how to live strictly upon the resources of the the landscape they inhabit. Thousands of years of accumulated experience passed from generation to generation has its own kind of veracity, not of the double-blinded placebo-controlled variety, but a powerful form of proof nonetheless.