“That you need a land, if only for the pleasure of leaving it. Your own land means that you’re not alone, that you know there’s something of you in the people and the plants and the soil, that even when you are not there it waits to welcome you.”

Cesare Pavese, The moon and the bonfire, 1950

Francesca Castagnetti Baù
Francesca Castagnetti Baù

Being an ethnobotanist, a researcher in Indigenous Studies, a student of spiritual and religious traditions by training, and someone who regards storytelling as both an object of inquiry and a methodology, has taught me to thread between worlds, between the dissecting, materialist and distancing language of science, of taxonomy and botany, and that of relationality, kinship and respect found in Indigenous worldviews, old stories and songs, and the wisdom of mysticism. My approach is rooted in community-based participatory methods and storytelling and centred around what I call hieroecology, that is a field of inquiry that seeks to understand our land and home as sacred.

When I was a little girl still bathing in puddles and mostly living in trees I would help my grandmothers pick the bright yellow tips of St. John’s wort in June, or forage bitter herbs from the slopes of our garden in Springtime. I have felt drawn to plants since my early years. I have always been in awe of the diversity found in the kingdom of Flora, of the many varieties of medicine, food, fibre and beauty on the land. Growing up I would ask people about what they foraged, and although I collected many stories of wild foods around me over time, it soon occurred to me that the local knowledge of plant appeared eroded and veiled by a certain skepticism, and occasionally fear. This filled me with a longing that later motivated me to specialise in ethnobotany. Plant knowledge is the thread weaving together my most important life experiences.

After studying Sanskrit and South Asian religions as part of a degree in Religious Studies at Edinburgh University I moved to Sápmi, the Sámi homeland, Norwegian side, where for two years I trained in Indigenous issues and methodologies through art history, literature, history, anthropology, political science and law at the Arctic University of Tromsø. A training fellowship in ethnobotany and environmental anthropology at the Centre for Biocultural Diversity in Kent, and training in Soundscape Studies at Goldsmiths University further deepened my reflection on the many ways of relating with the land and the living world.