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The Break-In Before Christmas

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Fishing net on pier

Getty Images/ Andres Victorero

Yesterday, I went out to a distant corner of the property to put some lumber inside an old steel shipping container and discovered that the two padlocks had been cut and one of the latches broken. Around here, shipping containers are often used to dry and store cannabis, so I suspect the thieves came for pot and were disappointed to find the kind of junk that normally gets forgotten in attics. Alas, nothing was missing. I loaded the wood into the container and left the doors unlocked, feeling violated and dissed at the same time. I also felt silly. I had locked up stuff I didn’t want and wasn’t even worth stealing. Why?

So, I took a short walk to sit on the Storytelling Stone that overlooks the Rogue River at Ti’lomikh Falls. The Storytelling Stone is one of two stone chairs associated with the Takelma Salmon Ceremony, and a place I often go to sit and watch the water and contemplate such great mysteries as the stuff of life. The giant stone chair is itself a bit of mystery. We moved it to the cliff a few years ago for Indigenous Peoples Day and already it shows up on Google as an historic marker. Visitors now think the stone has always been there—a kind of instant ancient history. Ironically, the story has turned out to be truer than anything we could have made up.

Why? Next to the stone chair is a pollinator garden that we planted with flowers, but the main plant in the garden was already there: Apocynum cannabinum, or Indian Hemp, a relative of cannabis that’s native to North America and isn’t psychoactive. To most people, it’s just a weed, rather than “weed”, and it’s poisonous. I was tempted to dig it up along with the poison oak, but I remembered an odd exchange with a medicinal plant specialist who came to visit. He had noticed the plant years before during the Salmon Ceremony. He called to say that the roots were a valuable heart medicine, and I told him he was welcome to come dig it up. Then at the last moment he changed his mind. He said he didn’t feel right digging up the plant even though he had driven more than an hour to do just that. He gave me a large bag of dried seaweed in exchange even though he did not take anything—and could have easily dug up the entire patch of hemp without asking. It all seemed weird. I don’t particularly like seaweed so the valuable gift just sat in the cupboard, a reminder of a mystery.

So, before I dug up the plant, I decided to figure out why the expert didn’t. It turns out that Indian Hemp fiber was used to make fishing nets, the latex sap was used for chewing gum, the seeds are edible, and the roots will slow your heart. So, it’s no coincidence that there’s a large patch of the plant overlooking the site of the Takelma Salmon Ceremony, the most famous Native American salmon fishing spot of the Rogue. For thousands of years, people sat on the riverbank and wove nets and chewed gum and munched seeds and if all that proved too stressful they made tea to calm their hearts as they contemplated a magnificent river so full of salmon that a net dipped into the river during the spring run would take two men to lift.

To learn that story, all we had to do was move a giant boulder to the site and call it the Storytelling Stone. Maybe it is the real Storytelling Stone?

In any case, that stone is a powerful place to sit and contemplate the real value of stuff, and when I did, I got caught up taking inventory: There was plenty of hemp in the pollinator garden to make rope; a piece of deer skeleton just down the road could be carved into a net hook to weave a net; and willow branches along the cliff could be cut for the frame. Alas, any fishing at Ti’lomikh Falls is now illegal and fishing by dip net is illegal anywhere in Oregon. Nevertheless, I could store the net in the container, where it would be completely safe. Or I could sit on the stone and be grateful that nothing is missing.

Read more from Stephen Kiesling.


Stephen Kiesling is a former Olympic rower, co-creator of the Nike Cross Training System, and editor at large of Spirituality & Health. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.


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