Blending and Belonging with Yellow Dock
- Asia Dorsey
I tread lightly through an abandoned lot, an in-between place at the edge of a kidney dialysis center and an apartment complex. Half of the lot, the medical side, is perfectly subdued and manicured, while the other half runs wild. The contrast beckons me. The chaos of this place feels like me. It speaks a language of kinship that says come hither.
The site is home to a prolific family of Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus), and it offers the potential for a rich understanding of her companions, her soil medicine, and the wisdom of community. So to the lot I go, making this community of plants—of beings—my study. Let us begin.
Yellow Dock (she/they) takes root in acidic soils, and her height reflects the degree of acidity present (Pfeiffer 2016, 34). Acid-loving minerals that abide in a lower-pH soil, especially iron, can be found here. When one understands these patterns of nature, they can be used to nurture the body.
Yellow Dock roams the body with the same intelligence with which she roams the earth. She makes herself available for many ailments, but especially to nourish those who need to build their blood. As a digestive tonic, she can release the iron stored in our livers out into our bloodstreams. Her bitter action encourages the proliferation of probiotic microorganisms who produce beneficial acids for the body. These acids lower the pH of our internal environment the same way they lower the pH of soil, making the extraction of iron from our foods more efficient. Where one has an excess of iron, Yellow Dock helps to move it out through the bowels with ease.
Folks who regularly lose blood through menstruation and those who are actively building bodies through pregnancy will find a strong ally in Yellow Dock. Those who refuse nourishment from animals and those who live at high altitudes where oxygen is in short supply will also find support from her. The iron that Yellow Dock makes available is essential to the proper functioning of our respiratory systems because of its leading role in oxygen transport, a point of particular relevance for those of us who live in the Colorado bioregion. The peoples who have lived in this region for hundreds of years, especially the Cheyenne, from whose unceded land I write, use Yellow Dock as a respiratory agent.
As I sit side by side with Sister Dock, I look upon the abandoned lot and the punctured leaves of her children, consumed by pests. This ravaging of her progeny has disturbed me for weeks now. I ask her what it is to see her children distressed.
My question draws a comparison between these plant bodies and Black bodies and acknowledges the ways that human societies have intentionally and disproportionately positioned Black bodies in “sacrifice zones” (Bullard 2011, A266). Environmental racism exposes Black people to more respiratory distress than any other group. The labor of Black bodies is disproportionately deemed essential for frontline work, but—paradoxically—these same essential bodies are treated as worthless. They are targeted by parasitic police. Punctured. Made breathless. So I come to Yellow Dock looking for instruction.
“Sacrifice is a human construct,” she replies. “It assumes an Other. It assumes that becoming food is somehow an imperfection, a marring. It forgets the ways that death begets more life. The beings that you see as broken and battered are part of the abundance that we have to offer. They are a perfected aspect of our wholeness and the service that we stand for in this community. We are not your metaphor. We are not beholden to your social constructs of supremacy, oppression, revolution, or counterrevolution. There is no Yellow Dock with a discernible identity or ego. We are a community of beings, moving together as a coordinated force with a beauty that you have yet to discern, Little One. We have been here long before you. And we will be here long after. Spend time under our service and protection. Learn our ways; we are so much more than what meets the eye.”
“Look at me,” Yellow Dock petitions. And I do.
Her ruffled, spear-like leaves dance. I see her, an elegant, bioaccumulating, phytoremediating plant with origins in Europe, fulfilling her sacred contract, restoring the torn landscape as she is torn up herself. I see her dancing in her divine design, even though I can’t fully comprehend that design.
“What else do you see?” she entreats.
And there at her feet is Dandelion, beaming and shining up at me. Oh, Dandy, my love, my ally, my greatest healer! She is another being who restores disrupted ecosystems. In fields where you find Yellow Dock, Dandelion can always be found nearby. These plants form a symbiotic plant guild, amplifying each other’s power and their potential benefit to the soil and to our bodies. While Yellow Dock’s roots act as releasing agents for the body’s iron, they hold a surprisingly sparse amount themselves. Dandelion’s leaves offer equilibrium, as they contain the highest edible source of iron in the plant kingdom (Walters 2006, 205). In this way, Yellow Dock and Dandelion are complementary medicines. I see them as siblings, bound by their shared love and shared service.
Sister Dock sees my expression soften and my resistance release. She muses, “Weave me into the love that you have for Dandelion. I want you to love us as a community.”
My praxis as an herbalist focuses on simples: tinctures and infusions that contain a single plant instead of a combination of many plant allies. I’m committed to unearthing the power and uniqueness of each plant, one at a time. Through this study, I learn how each plant acts on the body, and I can relay that information to others. From this position, I am able to build a relationship so deep that—even without plant matter in hand—I can call upon the plant’s spirit for support.
While there are many benefits that come from working with herbs one at a time, I acknowledge that this practice also reflects how I live my life. I see myself as whole and complete. I want to always be enough. I don’t want to second-guess, double-check, or seek affirmation from others. I want to believe that there is a “me” that exists apart from the context of others, and that this “me” owns her power. But who I am is influenced by the memories and affections I share with my loved ones. My power emerges and arises from those relationships. And it’s often the checking and affirming that I receive from others that molds this “me” into something more beautiful than I could have created alone.
Dandelion marks the arrival of spring. She is our first food and makes her body available for our nourishment. Dandelion gives us a rich source of iron and packs a heavy dose of vitamin C, a family of beneficial acids. Years of making love with Dandelion have informed me that her preference is to be used whole: leaves, roots, and flowers. And I abide by her. I harvest her fresh. I pack her into my Mason jar, filling it to the brim with her wonder. I fill in all the spaces with vinegar and allow the mixture to macerate for six weeks in darkness. The acids will pull forth her minerals.
I harvest the entire body of Yellow Dock in early spring or late fall. She is biennial, not perennial like Dandelion, so I must catch her before she seeds and gives way to another two-year cycle of life and decay. I labor to dislodge the clay soils entangled with her thick, yellow taproot. I work the soil around her, tugging until she releases. And when she comes, I carry her home in my arms—microbes and elation my prizes. Her leaves make a tangy cooked green that I enjoy on harvest day, and they, too, are packed with vitamin C. In my kitchen, I work the roots, slicing them like carrots to preserve the patterned beauty of their rings. I fill another Mason jar, pouring 100-proof vodka over the roots to call forth her plant purpose. Like Dandelion, she will rest in darkness, undisturbed for six weeks.
After six weeks, I recombine Dandelion and Yellow Dock, bringing them back into relationship with each other. They have gained experience and wisdom through their time at rest. Together, Dandelion and Yellow Dock will work the soils of my body, so I combine them to taste, trusting that my body knows what it needs. To this combination of bitter tincture and sour vinegar, I add the sweetness of honey and the metallic flavor of molasses. Finally, I add a squeeze of lemon to brighten the brew. I needn’t worry about proportions; nothing in the tonic can cause harm.
I step back and look at my creation, marveling at its relationship to these more-than-human beings and take up my place as a steward of their medicine.
Though I might have infused the Yellow Dock leaves in vinegar and recombined them with the rest of the plant for an independent potion, powerful in its own right, her instruction is interdependence. Yellow Dock reminds me that the individual exists within a community. She wants to be known as part of an ecosystem, as one musician in an orchestra of healing. The power of Yellow Dock is activated by her relationships with others. The same is true with people, and it’s true for me.
And so I can call on Yellow Dock to release the collective trauma stored in my blood. I can call on Dandelion to give me courage to continue when I inevitably falter. Such is the power of community. We don’t have to do the work alone.
As I imbibe the iron tonic, I am transformed. I cease to be an observer and become a participant in Sister Dock’s community. I join in, one more instrument in her divine orchestra, and I play my part by listening and responding to her perfect pitch. By incorporating her wisdom into my praxis, I feel the smallness of my self, but I am large and secure in my belonging.
Bullard, Robert. 2011. “Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States.” Environmental Health Perspectives 119, no. 6 (June): A266.
Dorsey, Asia. 2020. “#13 Yellow Dock, the Grief Doula.” Patreon.com (blog), April 30, 2020. https://www.patreon.com/posts/36579502.
Dorsey, Asia. 2020. “Guarding the Gates with Yellow Dock.” Patreon.com (blog), June 7, 2020. https://www.patreon.com/posts/37973778.
Pfeiffer, Ehrenfried. 2016. Weeds and What They Tell Us. Edinburgh: Floris Books.
Walters, Charles. 2006. Minerals for the Genetic Code: An Exposition and Analysis of the Dr. Orlee Standard Genetic Periodic Chart and the Physical, Chemical, and Biological Connection. Austin: Acres USA.