Panacea: The promise and pitfalls of a smuggled plant
This essay was written as part of Kincentricity, a collection of map-based woodblock prints and writing which explores the relational archetypes present between humans and the ecosystems which surround us.
The elusive ginseng plant was exclaimed by the eastern Cherokee as a sentient being, becoming invisible to any seeker not worthy of its medicine. Across native people of North America, through frontier communities, and into the present day, this slow perennial offers healing for immunity, the mind, and the nervous system. A cure for all that ails you.
As global trade expanded, it also became a way to rise out of poverty — a secret dug from hidden hollers, hoarded from neighbors, handed over for astounding amounts of cash. It is for this reason that Billy Joe Hurley (and his brother) were carrying 800 of the plants when apprehended by a ranger at the foot of Noland Creek in the Great Smokies. Some of the plants had been growing for 40 years.
This would become Billy Joe’s fifth prison sentence for smuggling. Many poachers take only a portion of the plants, but Billy Joe had started wiping out entire watersheds, more cavalier each time. In court, he sits silently and serves his sentence willingly.
One might say that the Hurley brothers — despite their disregard for its destruction — were found to be worthy of ginseng’s medicine. Who, after all, is not worthy of healing? Perhaps the plant recognized them as descendants of those who lost their land when the park was created through eminent domain. Perhaps it simply recognized a man looking for a roof and a few good meals.
What is this belief that requires harm before we can be helped? What is this need to have it all, even if it takes away tomorrow’s? Ginseng is the canary in the coal mine — only growing where certain levels of diversity and forest immunity are present. Are societal patience and generosity also necessary for ecological resilience?