With the delay in Iqaluit, there has been quite a bit of botany going on. We have to wait get under way in order to look for whales, birds, and fossils. However, plants are accessible everywhere – including right here in town. Today I twice botanized the yard outside the residence we are staying in, with two separate small groups. It is not quite the tundra expanse I imagined, but even a square metre of ‘waste land’ can be a jungle of biodiversity when you are carrying a hand lens.
Speaking of which, yesterday we hiked along the Sylvia Grinnell River. I loaned hand lenses to a small group of students who were game for a plant-focused walk. We set out with a destination and a deadline: the students were to be back in time for a barbecue to welcome their guests and the citizens of Iqaluit. Furthermore, someone had arranged for an Elder named Aalasi, the author of a book I had brought along in my expedition kit, to meet us and teach us about the plants around the venue. Hand lenses and deadlines do not mix well, but somehow we made it.
Aalasi wore a kerchief on her head and bustled among the rock outcrops like some grandmothers bustle around their kitchens. When I arrived on the scene, she was rubbing Wintergreen flowers between her palms, explaining that the blossoms had a very special purpose: when a young woman wanted to feel a bit more attractive, she would rub hands perfumed in this way on her cheeks and neck. I showed her my copy of her book and she posed with it for the camera.
Aalasi asked if I had any questions for her. I study mosses, and the closest moss happened to be one scientists call Polytrichum. Many books say that moss is traditionally used to extend tobacco, insulate, absorb, scrub pots and so many other uses. In anticipation of these answers, the Polytrichum I handed over was, for the moment, just moss.
As Aalasi spoke, she raised her glasses up and brought the tiny plant very close to her eye. I started to offer her my hand lens, but was interrupted by Aalasi who told me that the Polytrichum had a very special purpose. “We use it when someone has something in their eye that we can’t get out with our fingers. It’s soft enough that it doesn’t hurt their eye but strong enough to remove what’s there.”
Aalasi then continued on, seeking a certain tasty and nutritious root. Along the way, we who followed learned a lot. Having finally harvested the elusive Bistort with a blue plastic trowel from her pack, and sharing the nut-flavoured treat, Aalasi was ready for lunch. Before we left she rubbed a few parting Wintergreen flowers on one of the grateful faces in her group.
What luck to have even a little time in this wise, humourous, practical presence! Thank you, Aalasi!