In Search of Hoolhghulh
This is what I have discovered: Hoolhghulh—Devil’s club—has spoken to me.
Part of my sense of being a poet is paying attention to the world in different and unusual ways. It is what poets do best. Modernists like Ezra Pound called it concentration and Charles Olson wrote on the poet’s ear and the translation of energy through the hand and heart and mouth. Seeing and expressing the world differently is what comprises risk in poetry. It also creates insecurity because when a poet sees or hears the world in a new way, it can be disconcerting. It is unfamiliar and strange. It can haunt us.
Since my last article on Hoolhghulh, I have spent a lot of time with the plant. I have developed a relationship. I know better its patterns of growth, its smell, its shapes, its character. I know better its likes and dislikes, its role in the forest, what it wants and needs, what it is to humans. The word ‘it’ becomes awkward in these last sentences because the plant is not an object—it is a being.
Hoolhghulh has called me—or better yet, hailed me. In our contemporary thinking about plants the idea that a plant might communicate seems a tad delusional. Or perhaps we just aren’t listening.
In my consultations with elders and plant-knowledge holders, especially on a recent trip to Skidegate and Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, the idea that I have been spoken to by a plant has been met with interest and understanding. This openness to the idea of a different relationship between plant and human inspires me.
This new relationship has to do with recognition and respect: recognition of Hoolhghulh (Ts’iihllnjaaw in Haida) as a powerful being with a will and a purpose. This new relationship would involve approaching the plant with respect (with a song, with a prayer, with a drumming moment), utilizing the plant carefully so as to maintain the stand’s long-term health (i.e. only taking small amounts of stems and not returning to the same stand every year), and leaving an offering in appreciation (for example: money, tobacco, or a piece of hair).
Donna Haraway, in a book called When Species Meet, explores a new way to think about species interconnectedness. She mostly discusses dogs and other “companion animals” and engages with philosophers like Marx, Freud, and Derrida. I think her ideas apply to a possible new understanding of plant “natureculture” (as Haraway terms it): relating “in this way takes us to seeing again. . . to the act of respect. To hold in regard, to respond, to look back reciprocally, to notice, to pay attention, to have courteous regard for, to esteem: all of that is tied to polite greeting, to constituting the polis, where and when species meet.”
In Carrier, this notion is expressed in the phrase “en cha huna” and there is a similar expression in Haida: “yah’guudang.” These terms refer to the importance of respect for all living things and the network of interdependence that they comprise. It is this type of respect that I hold dear and that permits me to believe fully in Hoolhghulh’s ability to speak to me; to listen with me.
I give thanks to the words of GwaaGanad (Diane Brown), Gaayinguuhlas (Roy Jones Sr), Vernon Williams, Linda Tollas, Niis Waan (Harvey Williams), and Leo Gagnon. Special thanks to Robert Williams and Vanessa Whiteknife for facilitating my discussions. Snachailya—thank you.