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Bush Medicine and Blue Hole Botany on the National Geographic Abaco Cave Diving Exploration and Survey Project

Maria Fadiman is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and an associate professor in Geosciences at Florida Atlantic University. She is an ethnobotanist, focusing on the conservation of human ecological knowledge and the ecosystems in which we all live.

“I found it!” the student from the local school exclaimed as she stuck a crumpled leaf under her nose. Such shouting and foliage shoving couldn’t have made us happier. She was learning the bush.

So, what was an ethnobotanist doing as part of a team of expert divers with the Abaco Blue Holes Expedition? Although I hope to experience the caves one day (apparently brushing up on my snorkeling skills won’t quite cut it…whatever), the outreach includes not only the intricate world beneath the ground, but also what grows on top. We are working with local experts from the Dept. of Forestry and the Bahamas National Trust to re-connect students (and teachers) to their cultural knowledge about their own country’s plants. When people know how to use their plants, they value the forest.

Part of my learning about this world included the nights I spent camping at the entrance of the blue hole, all of us taking turns throughout the trip. I was lucky enough to be paired with Tom Morris, an expert diver and biologist who is also a dynamic storyteller (ask him about the rattle snake…or the cougar…or…right, you get it). As the sun set I lowered myself into the clear water at the mouth of the cave while ferns and limestone rock surrounded me. When the moon came out later and I craned my neck back I saw the tops of the pine trees floating up against the inky black sky with stars bursting with a glimmering intensity and I felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss world. I then looked down, brushed off my feet and got into the tent as the sand flies thought the night, and my skin, looked pretty good too.

“Chicken Toe” Marcus said to me the next morning. He is a local bush medicine expert who works with the Bahamian National Trust. I scribbled the name in my Rite in the Rain Notebook, and repeated “Chicken Toe”. Not only is it the local name of a plant (Tabebuia bahamensis), it was also fun to say. “Or Five Fingers,” he added. “You make a tea to strengthen the five senses.”

“Cool,” I thought. I could always use some help with any of my senses.

After a day of collecting, I marveled at what had looked to me like a mish mash of green in the morning, emerging through Marcus’ teaching as a medicine chest by evening. We then cut up the plants, stuffed them into pots and set them to boil. As I tasted each tea, and felt healthier by the gulp, Marcus let me know that the best tea he made was the “21 Gun Salute.” Apparently I would have to try that one next time, as it took 21 (surprise!) plants and extra time to prepare.

The next morning, Terrance Rodgers, who works for the Forestry Service, helped me brush up on my plant names, walking me around the forest above the blue holes. I quietly repeated each one to myself, practicing as I stood with the two experts, Marcus and Terrance, behind the table laden with plants and the containers of bush tea.

As the children came to the table we explained how to rub a soap leaf (Petitia dominguensis) on their arms. Some scrubbed right away, while others looked warily until their friends placed the leaf on their skin and exclaimed “It really does feel soft!” then all would give it a try. They crushed Sweet Margaret (Byrsonima sp.) under their noses and brushed their teeth with White Sage (Lantana camara). Each student then held out a cup to taste the teas. Amidst excitement, curiosity and some fear (which adding sugar usually assuaged), for many it was their first taste of their own country’s bush medicine.

The students then scrambled away from the table to identify plants, viscerally diving into the bush world. They reached out to touch palm fronds, laced fingers through bracken ferns, and with dogged determination smelled crumpled leaves looking for Sweet Margaret.

With some groups we would shout “Into the Bush!” and they would clamber further up a slope (only about five feet from the port-a-potty actually). At the end of the fourth day, the first to arrive at the top of the hill was a student who had shied away from the plants when he first came to the table. He now clutched a Soap Bush leaf in one hand and a piece of Chicken Toe in the other.

Balancing on a log he shouted, “I could live in the bush!”

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