By Belle Crawford
Doug Elliott is a naturalist, herbalist, author and performer who uses storytelling to celebrate the natural world and traditional folk wisdom of people living in Western North Carolina. He has shared his stories across the US and from Canada to the Caribbean. He has lectured and performed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and conducted workshops for the Smithsonian Institution.
“Stories are how we make sense of the world,” Elliott says. “The human mind is hardwired for stories.” Elliott grew up on an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. “I spent time exploring the woods and waters—fishing, hunting and catching frogs, snakes and turtles with my ‘swamp rat’ buddies, rougher kids who weren’t necessarily book-learned, but who had a strong connection to nature. They taught me things like how to best use a net to catch crabs and how to wrestle huge snapping turtles out of the swamps.”
Elliott became interested in herbs and useful wild plants in the early 1970s when, after graduating from art school, he was trying to figure how to make a living as an artist. “I planted a garden for food, but all these weeds came up,” he says. “Then I read the book Stalking the Wild Asparagus and realized that a lot of the weeds were edible and even more nutritious than my garden crops, and some were medicinal. That changed everything!”
Elliott spent the next ten years traveling—collecting herbs, teas and remedies, and selling them at folk festivals. “This gave me a sparse income and a rich education from the traditional people I met who knew a lot about plants and their many uses.”
Attracted to the biodiversity and the cultural integrity of the Southern Appalachians, Elliott has been living here for more than 30 years, learning the stories, folklore and traditional ways of the local country folk and indigenous people. “Because the people here have been isolated longer than other areas, there’s a strong subculture with deep connections to the land.”
With titles like Crawdads, Doodlebugs & Creasy Greens, and Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life, Elliott’s five books and his award-winning recordings are filled with humor, excitement and traditional wisdom. They are crafted for children and adults alike and describe processes such as making medicine out of common wild plants and how to properly harvest a persimmon in order to use its seeds to forecast winter. They discuss poisonous plants and what might happen if you eat them. The stories he tells include ancient plant lore, plant riddles and songs about weeds and berries.
When asked for a favorite story, Elliott describes a tale about a neighbor who instructs him in hilarious detail about how to prepare and use all the parts of the groundhog—the meat for food, the hide for a banjo head or shoelaces and the grease for medicine. His motives for doing what he does are simple and straightforward. “You can’t love what you don’t know. And you won’t want to protect what you don’t love. It’s all about love.”
To learn more about Doug Elliott, to order any of his products, or to find out where he’ll be next, see DougElliott.com.