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Karen Brooks, Part 2
Karen Brooks

This is a continuation of the interview with Karen Brooks on December 30, 2021 by her daughter, Jennifer Andrulli, in Soldotna, Alaska. In this second part of a four part interview, Karen continues to talk about the harvesting, processing and use of plants for traditional medicine. She describes how she makes oils, essences and tinctures from nettles, artemisia, sundew, and cottonwood buds, and their medicinal uses, and discusses the deep spiritual relationship between humans and plants. Karen shares her personal journey of discovering her Yup'ik heritage and drumming as a way to enter the spirit world and communicate with the past and with plants.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-02-31_PT.2

Project: Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine and Traditional Healing
Date of Interview: Dec 30, 2021
Narrator(s): Karen Brooks
Interviewer(s): Jennifer "Jen" Andrulli
Transcriber: Stefanie Burich
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Ethnobotany Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Connecting with her Yup'ik heritage, and learning about medicine plants

Making essences from plants and flowers

Vibrational medicine, and connection with ancestral knowledge

Learning from Elders

Role of plants in everyday life

Harvesting and processing nettles

Harvesting and using sundew

Timing of when to pick plants

Observations of climate change, and connections between traditional knowledge and western science

Journeying to the spirit realm through drumming

Using the drum to communicate with plants

Effect of colonization on traditional spirit medicine

Interconnectedness and relationships between plants

Picking and using cottonwood buds

Doing a cottonwood drumming journey

Finding the nutrients we need in the plants around us, and learning to live with nature

Honoring Elders and their knowledge

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JENNIFER ANDRULLI: This is a continuation of the oral history interview with Karen Brooks on December 30th, 2021. You were talking about artemisia and spirit medicine.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, you know, during that time, I had been seeking, ah, spirit. You know, I was looking for who -- who I was, what was in my blood.

And when I discovered that I was Yup'ik, it was at the gathering of the tribes, you know, every February in Fairbanks at UAF. And they would have the dancers come on.

And I went by myself this one year, and I watched all the dancers. And when the Yup'ik dancers got up, I could feel it in my blood. And that's when I started asking questions.

And I wanted to be that dancer up there. I wanted to know this -- the spirit of -- of -- the essence of my people.

I -- and so, that started the journey and spirit work, and -- and such.

I started making essences with plants and flowers, like Bach Flower Remedies. I studied that, and I thought, "Well, you know, I can make my own."

Because my -- from my studies, when you eat food that is grown around you, it has the nutrients in which your body needs. That goes for medicine, as well.

If you pick and process the -- the plants that live around, that grow around you, they're way more powerful than the plants you buy at the health food store.

So, that began my journey into medicine plants and spirit plants. Um, spirit plants are used to help heal emotions, um, energy in the body.

And I made lots of 'em. A lot of di -- as many as I could. I just went out there and I made -- made 'em and used them, because it works on a different frequency, a different level, uh, then regular, let's say plant tincture.

Plant -- you know the chemicals from the plant itself. It's a higher vibration.

It's -- it -- it, you know, you take a swig of a homeopathic, it doesn't matter if you take a swig or drink the whole bottle -- bottle. It's not going to harm you, um, in that way 'cause it's working differently. In a different way on your body.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: So, this is beautiful. You started to blend traditional Alaska plants with Western homeopathy, Western flower essences, blending the ancient and the modern.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: To create remedies for yourself, for your family, for your patients.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Can you tell us a little bit about how you would make an essence?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, first of all, I would have a crystal bowl. And I had a round crystal bowl. And I would go out into whatever plant I was looking for -- go out where it is not around people, not around vehicles, just out in nature as far as I could possibly go.

And then, I would place the bowl underneath the plant. And depending on how much time -- it would usually be about an hour, I'd leave it there and I'd say a little prayer, I'd burn artemisia, Alaskan sage, uh, so that -- and ask that the spirit of the plant go into the water.

I would use distilled water. Distilled water is water with no other energy in it. It's just water. There's no other influences like iron or sulfur or anything. It's just water.

And then, to set it or seal it, I would then pour one part brandy. And that is what holds the medicine. So, it would be three parts water, one part brandy.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You would label it with what information?

KAREN BROOKS: Ask again the question?

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: (Louder) What would you label the essence with?

KAREN BROOKS: Label it with, um -- I would just say, for instance, oh gosh, fireweed essence.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You would add more information though.

KAREN BROOKS: Well, in my flyers, I would say what it meant metaphysically or symbolically.

It would be what time of year, what phase of the moon, because I started u -- um, including that in my remedies. That would be, uh, the oils as well as the tinctures as well as the essences.

Use -- using planetary aspects, like full moon, new moon, or if Pluto went into a sign, which was particularly powerful, or a conjunction of two planets.

Or there was, uh, an essence that I made, it took me hours to set it up. And that was when the asteroids were hitting Jupiter in '96, I think, and they showed it on -- on the television.

And I prepared for that. And I prepared by setting up a matrix of -- of crystals that were double terminated and -- and I asked that this -- the energy from this particular event be put into this water.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's beautiful. And so, this is truly vibrational medicine?

KAREN BROOKS: Vibrational medicine, yes.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Including the plant medicine, the element of water, and the cosmic rays of our solar system?


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And as Yup'ik people, we are imbedded in the cosmos and the universe and awareness of it. And you really pulled this all together in the work that you do with plants.

KAREN BROOKS: You know, now that I think of it, in my DNA, I have that information, you know.

It's -- I had this vision of -- I think I told you, remembering when, you know, you remembered. And it just is an automatic thing, freeing --

I spent my life freeing myself up to not go this way or that way, because someone says so. I just go the way that, oh gosh, my inner self tells me to go.

When to harvest, when -- when to go and pick this, because it -- it just is an automatic thing now, to do that.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: It's a knowing?

KAREN BROOKS: It's a knowing. I, and -- and, I think it's a combination of doing it every year for the last 40 years. Plus, the knowledge that my ancestors have passed on.

Because in my search of -- of knowing or knowing who I am, I would go and I would ask the little old Yup'ik ladies, you know, if they knew my grandmother. And I would listen and ask questions to any Elder.

When we lived in Manley, I would -- that's Athabascan country and I would have -- my job was to pick up the Elders and bring 'em to the meetings.

And -- and then I would ask them, "What would you like to do?" And most of them didn't have vehicles and they'd say, "Oh drive -- drive me down to the river."

And so, as we're driving, I would ask questions like "Did your -- did you pick plants?", and "What did you do with them?"

And -- and I got information from -- from asking questions for stinkweed, you know, fireweed, and different things. And I listened very, very closely.

And -- and the Elders are all passing away. So, a lot of information has -- has gone. But it's rediscovering -- is what -- it isn't dead. It isn't gone, because it's --

I'm finding that each family holds a family herb or a plant that has followed them, that has not been forgotten. And that now is being gathered into books.

Many of your -- many books you know, there's like what five or six books on -- on, um, Alaskan -- or this polar plants, um, on -- on Earth.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you. Thank you for asking those questions when you were young.

You continued to ask the questions and talk to the Elders, and take the time to listen and to remember and to pass that information down to your children. And your children have continued to pass the information.

KAREN BROOKS: Right. And that's what it's about.

Now, if -- you know, the children today don't go out and play as much as the children of yesterday. And we used to pick spruce, um, sap and chew it.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: What is the role of plants in your everyday life now?

KAREN BROOKS: In my everyday life, plants play a very important part.

I use -- I pick nettles. Nettles is a very, very special plant. It's -- oh, it's so special. My friend, my herbalist friend Debra, she always had nettles.

I -- nettles is high in protein. It's amazing if you dry it and sprinkle it on food. It just looks beautiful.

And the -- uh, nettle vinegar. Oh gosh, it tastes -- it's really earthy and dark. And it's just really yummy. Nettle vinegar.

Uh, I make it both for putting -- using on salads to eat internally. And I also make nettle vinegar to put on your scalp, because it promotes growth -- hair growth. It makes your hair shiny and soft. It's -- it's an amazing plant.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You use that every day. Your hair is beautiful and shiny.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, you harvest -- you have a harvest schedule, and that's part of your cycle of the year. You travel to harvest your plants.

KAREN BROOKS: Correct. I live in Manley Hot Springs, which is in Interior. It's actually in the middle of the state.

Nettles doesn't grow readily in Interior. There's a few secluded spots that you can find it, but not to the extent of what I pick. I pick bushels.

I have baskets that -- of different sizes. And I would say like a -- a clothes basket, I pick about 10 of those a year.

And when you -- I dry 'em and I dry 'em -- The first couple of years, I dried them in a sauna. I turned an outdoor sauna into a drying shed.

And that was the fastest, uh, way to get the plants dried and put away.

Because, yes, there is a time schedule there, because it's right around the time of -- of arnica. And, you know it -- depending on the winter, you gotta pick when it's ready, because you gotta pick that nettles before it flowers.


KAREN BROOKS: Because of the chemical in the plant. It is not good.

Um, so, you -- you pick it young. You know, you pick it when it's about 12 inches and smaller.

You know, and it's -- it's a big deal. It takes like -- me about five days to pick that much, you know.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Five days to pick, five -- and dry at the same time? KAREN BROOKS: Right.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And process. Processing looks like cleaning the plant, then drying it, then putting it in bags.

KAREN BROOKS: And I put it in bags, uh, paper bags. I don't put it in plastic. I don't like plastic. Paper or glass jars.

Now, I pick for you, I pick for Molly. I pick for my family, uh, first. Then I process, uh, however -- you know, if I need more vinegar. You know, I always make nettle vinegar.

And depending on how much I get that year, depends on how -- what I'm going to do. Sometimes I don't get enough to make much of the hair rinse.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you for your help and picking nettles.

Mom also picks the nettles for our classes that we teach at UAA and other work that we do around the State of Alaska.

It's such a precious plant -- it -- you might pick 10 hampers, and it shrinks down to the size of two hampers.

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, smaller than that. Not even full paper grocery bags. Maybe one-and-a-half bags is what that ends up. So, three half bags of nettles is what it is.

It's a very succulent plant. And you keep just the leaves.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And to clarify, you harvest the nettles before they flower for internal use?

KAREN BROOKS: Right. JENNIFER ANDRULLI: For food and medicine.

At the end of the summer, if you're in a nettle patch, you can look deep next to the ground, and you'll find fresh nettles throughout the summer and fall, that have not flowered yet. It's just harder to pick at that time?

KAREN BROOKS: I -- I think so. And we're so ready to eat fresh green food that, you know, while nettles is in season, you know, at --

When you, uh, steam it, it's -- it's just as good as spinach steamed with -- oh gosh.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Well, and it's -- Uh, like you said earlier, more mineral rich and it has trace minerals in it.

KAREN BROOKS: Right. Yes, it's very nutritious.

It's one of the seven sacred plants and, um, everyone knows nettles. Everyone on the planet knows nettles.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: There's another plant that you work with, called sundew.

KAREN BROOKS: Oh, sundew is a nice, wonderful little creature. You know, you get to know each plant's personality by when you harvest them, where they grow, what they look like, how hard it is to harvest.

You know, sundew is one of those little tiny plants that is a pain in the butt (laughing) to pick, 'cause they're only like a -- what, an inch and a half tall.

And they are -- it's not like you can get on your hands and knees because you're in a bog picking. So you have to bend over, and to pick a quart jar takes a long time.

So, you have to really be in that zen place of patience. You can't be in a big hurry. You can't be like -- you have to be really in a meditative sundew place. (laughing)

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Sundew is a carnivorous plant that grows in the bogs throughout Alaska. It's a beautiful red color and it puts out a little sprig that's about three inches of a flower and seed.

KAREN BROOKS: Right. It's a very cool plant. Um, very little, and when you – and -- and you learn how to pick it 'cause you gotta nip it -- you -- with your fingers, you know, with --

Or after it flowers, you take that stem and you can pull it right up. That's when you -- it's effortless. I've learned that after, you know, picking -- that's really easy 'cause then you don't have to bend over quite so far.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You'll notice that certain types of moss and certain types of bogs release the sundew easier than gravel or harder more compact tundra?

KAREN BROOKS: Uh, yeah, they do because they're so -- it's so -- I think of moss as being loose, whereas gravel is a little bit more compacted, so it's a little harder, 'cause it's -- it won't pull right out like in the gravel as it does in the moss.

But, you still have to hold it really secure with your fingers. And what happens is you get this -- the, the Sundew -- it's the dew from the -- the plant that attracts the bugs.

Of course, they would be in a bog. There's all kinds of bugs in a bog, and they get little bugs. And, of course, they would be right next to the blueberries, because blueberries grow in bogs, you know. So, everything is related to everything.

So, I think about that -- those things when I'm picking plants -- is what is the relationship to, you know, what else do I look for if I'm -- I mean, sundew is little, uh, blueberries patches are big.

So, if I see blueberries, I'm gonna look for sundew because they are together, or moss, or alder, or -- you know, I mean, there's things that I pay attention to in my head, that I didn't know I was paying attention to. And I'll go, "Stop, let's go see if there's --" 'cause I noticed a big patch that looked like a bog. And there's sundew.

I think you've done the same, you know, with looking for plants.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: I -- I say there's 10,000 shades of green. And it's -- we learn to differentiate the shade of green that is raspberry plants. And there's a different shade of green that is nettles.

So, I can -- we could be driving 35 miles an hour down the road, and I'm like, "Stop, there's a raspberry patch! KAREN BROOKS: Right.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Let's go see how the berries are." You know, check in on them, see when they're going to be ready.

I do that with, uh, fungus, too. My grandparents taught us how to identify certain culinary mushrooms, and I can see the shape of boletes or shaggy manes driving -- driving around and --

KAREN BROOKS: So, there's a time, you know, we're all -- you know, during the growing season, because Alaska doesn't have a real big growing season, you have to be on top of it, you know.

And those that do the same, you share that information. You know, you call them, "Hey, I'm noticing that such and such is giving, you know, -- is starting to bloom." Or --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: What's wonderful is now there's Facebook groups for mushroom hunters and for traditional plant harvesters to --

KAREN BROOKS: Right! JENNIFER ANDRULLI: -- support each other and -- in accessing these wild foods and medicines.

KAREN BROOKS: Right. There is a large and growing -- it's growing. People are wanting to, um, eat --

They're becoming more educated on the nutrients of the food that they do eat, and people are choosing to eat food that is grown around them.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Farm to table as well as moving plants from nature, from nature's garden and from the forest garden closer to their home.

And their home garden to start blending domesticated plants with wild food plants.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes, nature does that on its own and -- and transplanting it just moves it a little bit faster. Kinda like John -- Johnny Appleseed, you know. He went around planting apple trees.

Well, you know, we can go around and -- what did I pick? It was, uh, -- nothing is ever a failure. Because if you fail when you're processing, you can just turn it into something else.

And the arnica that I was drying last year, it -- it turned to seed. I picked it too -- too late. And yet, I had these big huge bag of arnica seeds that we gave -- that we gave in our packets so -- and I gave them away.

So, I think of that. Okay. Again, I shared the seed, so hopefully there'll be a whole bunch of new arnica patches this year in people's yards, alongside the roads where they never grew.

Um, I'm always paying attention to what's blooming, um, around me, and when it blooms.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: What are you noticing about climate change?

KAREN BROOKS: (Sighs) First thing, yarrow also grows on the side of the road. And it used to be kind of rare that you would find pink yarrow or even white fireweed. Now, I'm seeing it all the time.

In Chinese medicine -- and my friend Debra, Western herbalism, you know, plants grow, ah, in large amounts naturally, because they're following, or preparing themselves to be used for what people need -- than that -- for the next season.

So, if you see a lot of yarrow growing, and I've been seeing lots. Every year, there's so much yarrow. More than I've ever seen. And it's indicated for lungs and colds and upper respiratory.

And so, I find that very fascinating that nature is trying to tell us by just being who they are in abundant, "Use us! Use us! Use us!"

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Our old stories are -- have been passed down and it says, well, we live in relationship with all living things.

And this is animism, traditionally, our religion is animistic. And we know and believe and experience communication between human beings and animals, and human beings and plants.

And so, plants are part of our relationship. They're there to support human beings and plants.

And then we as human beings also support nature, through our work, our spreading of seeds, and our harvesting of roots, which break up the soil and the mycelial network, and help roots grow stronger, and the plants larger because their roots are -- have more, uh, air, and movement around the roots.

So, this is this reciprocal relationship that we're in. Blended the old with the new and then we have these cultures from China and Western herbalism coming in.

They're saying the same thing in a different way. It's this beautiful dance of blending culture, ancient and modern.

KAREN BROOKS: It -- you know, it is. And scientists are now saying, you know, grandma's, uh, remedies are kind of right on.

And also, to go a little bit deeper, you know, spirit -- plant -- Spirit energy is -- everything has a frequency. And so, when I started to explore that, it was through journeying. To journey into the realm of spirit, the spirit world.

And so, uh, with that we can drum. I can start drumming and -- and through drumming, it -- it -- it alters your brain.

It also frees you up so that you can journey and find out, and find answers to questions, uh, that are complicated sometimes.

And you can get to know the plant spirit, too, as well as the animal spirit. And talk to your ancestors, too.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, as you heard these Yup'ik drummers and dancers in your 20s and that inspired you to continue asking questions, and you found out that we are Yup'ik and this is in your blood and DNA.

You did not become a dancer, you became a drummer.

KAREN BROOKS: That's true. You know, Siberian medicine people, uh, that's the word as shaman is Siberian.

But the medicine people of Siberia, they would drum and journey and they would go up a tree. They would -- you know, they would follow a tree into their -- into their world of spirit to get answers.

And after gathering -- um, I've always gathered information from -- from every realm of anything that I've been interested in, but I've always been interested in -- in religions and faiths and way of being.

And I have found that being closer to the earth, and being closer to spirit is for me -- works for me because I resonate with that.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And this is our old way, the way of -- of your -- of your grandmother.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: The way of your great grandmother was animistic. And our culture, drummed and danced and fasted into altered states of consciousness together with the use of the drum.

KAREN BROOKS: With the use of the drum, and -- And, you know, my journey in doing the drum, was it -- I felt very honored. And it was a very sacred thing to me. I didn't know why.

And so I bought a drum and I hung it on the wall, and I said, "Okay, the -- the right teacher is gonna come and give me permission to drum." And I waited, and I waited, and I waited.

And a year later, I said, "Well, you know, I'm not gonna wait anymore." And so, I started drumming.

That was profound for me. And it represented my commitment to spirit. You know, I honored that by just, you know, waiting.

I was able to drum from the very beginning. Um, one of my cousins, I guess, um, Mary, uh, from Bethel. Uh, she actually talked to me about how she used the drum.

Because I didn't know -- I didn't know these things. And I was very interested. And so, to me the drum -- she taught me that the drum is the world. And we are -- we are the foots steps. We are dancing. he drumstick is us humans dancing on Mother Earth.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: It's our cousin, Mary Stachelrodt.

KAREN BROOKS: Yes. And so, um -- And when we dance, and sing, and, uh, we are telling stories of our ancestors and stories of what we've done.

And I -- I being -- uh, would go around, and I'd ask information about my grandmother and great-grandmother. And they -- these old women would ask me, "Oh, what village you from?" And I would -- I don't have a village and, "Akleng (poor thing in Yup'ik). Poor." You know, and yet -- and yet, I still felt, uhh, Yup'ik (laughing) inside.

And I was seeking, you know, there's a reason for everything. And, um, and that's okay.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, to drum and ask a question, to communicate with a plant, how would you do that?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I would start with the intention, what I wanted to do, what I would -- wanted to do.

And then, I would go and start drumming. I would travel down to the lower world where -- where I would be met by one of my guides, and I would ask my guide to help me with that question.

And then my guide will take me on a journey.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And in this journey, what occurs? If you're asking about a plant, what would happen?

KAREN BROOKS: Well, I don't know. I haven't been on the journey. (laughing)

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Well, what I'm getting at is, it's a visionary experience.

KAREN BROOKS: Well, it's -- Yeah, it is. It's like your imagination takes over. It's like you're watching inside your head, this amazing television show, um, or movie and you're the -- you're the actor, and you don't know what's happening, because you're the one walking, you know.

You just walk forth and then you ask, "Who are you?" And -- and they will answer you.

And animals and plants and trees and birds and fish, they all talk in this realm.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And you -- some people who journey here, some people see vision. It's a communication through these altered states of consciousness that allow you to communicate with the spirit of the plants and animals.

And then there's a bit of interpretation that occurs --


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: -- where there is a symbolic language that is used.

KAREN BROOKS: And, the more you do it -- I mean, we each have our own language that is spoken to us.

You know, I think that sometimes you're brought to the upper world, you know, where there's, you know, they're human guides, you know, and other people, you know, or --

So, um, it really depends on how you journey, you know, you --

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Everybody journeys differently. And as teachers for this cultural experience called journeying.

And it's embedded in all Alaska Native cultures. Is a process and a practice of entering into altered states of consciousness with drum. And it's also a shared animistic culture from indigenous people around the world.

KAREN BROOKS: Correct, you know, it comes to medicine people automatically.

You know, medicine people in -- in different cultures, it's -- they're born with that, uh, in their blood. They -- they just are born that way.

They naturally have plants talk to them from the time they're very young, or they have particular things that happened to them from the first thing that they remember in life. They're -- they're drawn to that particular way of being.

And it used to be that you were allowed -- you went and you did what you were drawn to do. Not made to do anything.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so in our family, your grandmother was born free, as a sovereign indigenous woman. Free on the land.

And then, she was given to missionaries to raise and, at that point, the installation of colonization, shame, guilt, loss of language, that occurred.

And here you are, just two generations later, you have remembered. When you remembered. And you've accessed your inborn gifts, your birthright of being a sensitive, empathic medicine person.

KAREN BROOKS: I think out of all tragedies, there's a gift. There's a gift.

But, in my family, on both my father's side and my mother's side, my ancestors were medicine people. On both sides.

I think in our DNA that helps, you know. We're -- we're more apt to be drawn to that way of being.

My, uh, interest was very, very young. And playing with plants, I remember being a little kid and playing with plants and making teas and I didn't know what I was doing.

Um, but I was -- that's what I was doing. I was practicing making medicine. And that was already in me to do.

It's like, at a certain point in our development as we grow older, and we're free to really choose what we want to be, we go that way. And I've been gifted that that's what I've always done.

Very few times did I have to go and do something else. And when I did something else, is because I wanted to learn that, not because I had to do it.

You know, I didn't have to do that. I did it because I loved to do it. And that's what I did in my life.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's beautiful. Thank you for teaching me that. It's so important, because as I hear that story, I realize that's what you taught me and I've gotten to do what I've loved.

I really loved how you talked about the interconnection between plants. And so, uh, the relationship between blueberries and sundew, that they live in the same community, the same type of ecosystem.

KAREN BROOKS: I think plants support each other. If you were to go into a nettles patch -- you know, nettles is so amazing. That's why it has stings on it -- stinging nettles.

It's so amazing it doesn't want to get gobbled up, so it puts protection on it. It also grows in -- under the cover of cottonwoods where it's wet. So, I always look in cottonwood trees.

Um, there's a real -- you know, you look for -- when you see cottonwoods, you know there's a lot of groundwater.

When I was picking currants, I noticed in the birch forests, that the currants are so -- they look like little miniature grapes. They hang down and they're hidden from -- if you're taller -- If you're tall, like four feet, you know, you can't see. You have to get down and look.

And they grow around the tree with the sticker bushes, meaning the rose hips or the raspberries, the wild raspberries, or the devil's club now and then is protecting it.

So, each -- each plant has a personality, and it wants to grow in a certain place.

And I found this one big birch tree last year and I swear there was probably three cups of currants growing around that birch tree. I was like so wealthy and so abundant with currants, I just -- you know, there was no one to tell. (laughing)

I wanted to say, "Look at this tree! Oh my god, it's so beautiful. Look, there's all those currants around it!" Because in -- in -- and this was in, uh, Wasilla. And there isn't, um, currants that grow that abundantly up there. You have to really look. They're not -- the forest is different. It's just a different kind of forest.

And -- and as you begin to look at different plants, you begin to see the relationship. You begin to see how the ground is, what kind of trees grow, what kind of plants grow around those trees, what it looks like when it's, you know, break up.

Some -- some, um, lands get flooded, like the willows, you know, like the -- the what would you -- sloughs that are off the Tanana River. Some of them were river at one time.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: You -- you talked a little bit about cottonwood.

KAREN BROOKS: Cottonwoods are amazing. They're poplar and Balm of Gilead is actually cottonwood bud oil.

And it -- I also pick cottonwood buds. I pick cottonwood buds from big cottonwood trees after a windstorm. I pick 'em in the southcentral area because there's big cottonwood trees, and when -- you know, there's also big windstorms.

Then, when you pick after a windstorm, the buds could be up to three and a half inches long. And you can see this drops of oil on this. It's just so -- it doesn't take long to pick much to get what you want.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Cottonwood buds develop after the leaf falls in the autumn, and you can pick cottonwood buds until the leaves start to develop in early spring.

KAREN BROOKS: 'Til the buds leaf out.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, you would make a cottonwood oil, how?

KAREN BROOKS: I would put -- I put them in a great, big speckled, um, enamel pot. The kind that you make -- in like three gallon pot.

Fill it with virgin olive oil, put a cheesecloth over it, and put it in the warmest part where the sun is gonna shine. I do that first two summers.

My cottonwood bud oil does not -- flame does not touch that pot. And after two years, I strain it and squeeze the medicine out of the plants. And it smells just like when you pick it.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Beautiful, thank you.

KAREN BROOKS: And it has all the medicine in that. Nothing is gone from them.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: This is a true sun-infused cottonwood oil.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Two year infusion process.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Well, that's wonderful. Would you like to share a little bit more about your drumming? You said you would drum.

KAREN BROOKS: Okay, what do we want to drum about?


KAREN BROOKS: Okay, let's see. We're gonna just think about -- as I drum, I'll call cottonwood. How's that?

So close your eyes and get comfortable. Allow your body to relax into the chair. Breathe slow and deep. If any thoughts come up while I'm drumming, just allow them to come up and allow them to just gently go away.

And allow yourself permission to let cottonwood come and speak to you. (starts drumming)


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: And so, I saw cottonwoods. I was -- I was facing a cottonwood tree, and I was looking up into the branches. And then it showed me the reflection and the roots and how it looks the same.

The branches and then the roots, and the circulation of nutrients between the roots and the branches.

And then I saw ants. And then I was an ant crawling up the bark of the tree.

KAREN BROOKS: Wow. So, there's the interaction. A -- a female cottonwood tree came to me and she was really busy with her cottonwood-ness. (laughing)

And she said to me that "We -- we like to be close to humans, because we help them." And that she was sad that a lot of people don't like cottonwood trees, and they cut 'em down, because they destroy the foundations of houses.

And that, if -- if people would just understand that they only grow where there's a lot of water. And so don't build your house there. (laughing)

And then -- and then she was scurrying around, because a windstorm is coming up. And she hates losing limbs. And then that was it. (laughing) But she's glad I come and pick 'em.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Oh, that's beautiful.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

KAREN BROOKS: I think it's wonderful, that more and more interest is in plant medicine. I was reading about the plants that we grow. And you were gonna look it up to validate that.

And -- and when we grow plants like vegetables, personally, when we touch the dirt, and when we weed the garden, and when we put the seed into the dirt, when we water those plants that we are growing, whatever nutrients -- and this is any plant that we're growing.

Whatever nutrients our body needs, will be in that plant we're growing. I think that is amazing.

So, that means everyone should help in the garden. Because if everyone helps, then all the nutrients that the family needs is in those plants.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: That's beautiful. And the future is in the soil.

KAREN BROOKS: Right. How this culture has done gardening, especially in this country, has caused most of the problems we're having. And if we can learn how to live in and with nature, then we will prosper.

Get rid of the dams. Don't build by the rivers. The rivers is what puts silt when it floods -- flooding is not a bad thing. Flooding is a good thing. It puts on the land nutrients that comes down from the mountains from -- and goes miles, hundreds of miles with -- that carries the nutrients that grows the foods that we need to survive. And we can do it. I know we can.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you for your time today and for inspiring us to continue our journeys of remembering when we remembered.

You said it so beautifully. It's in our DNA. It's in our genes.


JENNIFER ANDRULLI: It's in the patience that we have and asking questions. Talking to our Elders, talking to the people that know what we'd like to know.

And -- and so, when people come to talk with Elders, do you have any recommendations of -- of that?

KAREN BROOKS: Honor your Elder. Honor their knowledge and do whatever feels appropriate in that honoring.

I always bring gifts. Gifts that I know that they don't do anymore, be it berries or fish or, you know. "What do you want? I'm gonna come visit you. What do you need? What can I do for you?"

Our elders are our greatest treasure that is ignored. Because they have stories that will be forgotten if they're not told or shared.

JENNIFER ANDRULLI: Thank you. Much love, many blessings.

KAREN BROOKS: My pleasure.