LJ Talks with Leigh Joseph, Author of 'Held by the Land'

LJ talks with author and ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph about intentionality, plants, and reading.


Your book, Held by the Land, offers an embracing, conscious, meditative reading experience. How did you create that feeling for readers?

I’m so happy to hear these words used to describe the experience of reading Held by The Land because I feel they also describe much of the writing process for me. I carved out periods of time where I went away to write, staying in a location close to the ocean and forests. I felt a deep sense of grounding in the process of immersing myself in thought, memory, and imagination in connection to plants. Each day I’d walk and think about the parts of the book I was working on. Feeling the wind on my face, the trail underfoot, I would experience the lived connection between what I was writing on the page and what I experience when I spend time on the land. I wanted to translate this feeling of being present and held by the land through the reading experience and offer reflections that might inspire readers to consider the ways they have felt this or may want to cultivate it in their own lives. The design process was very exciting as there were two Indigenous artists who did many of the illustrations in the book, Ocean Hyland and Sarah Jim.

You address intentionality in the central practice of harvesting and working with plants and in everyday living. What have you found most beneficial in your practice of intentionality?

Building intentionality and mindful presence into my life has come from years of working on myself and ultimately stems from challenges in my life and the difficulty of facing the intergenerational trauma in my family, my own experiences with racism, and how, as an academic, I saw a big gap with Indigenous voices and perspectives left out in my field of ethnobotany. I turned to cultural practices and other supports to help me cultivate my own culturally grounded mindful practices. This process started when I was asked by a mindfulness teacher to close my eyes and envision a place that brought me a feeling of calm. Immediately I saw a river and the green foliage along the riverside blowing gently in the breeze. This image became my touchstone when I felt stressed or overwhelmed. Eventually, when I started to spend more time on the land to identify and harvest plants, I began collecting these lived experiences in connection to the land and certain plants, and those images started to become ones that I could easily conjure to help feel grounded and calm.

Your Indigenous heritage is central to Held by the Land. Can you share more about how that has shaped your plant knowledge and how you connect with the land?

Growing up with connections to my Indigenous heritage, and also being of mixed Indigenous and European heritage, has led the topics of identity and belonging to being something I often reflect on. Through reclaiming cultural plant knowledge and practices, I have found a path that has led me to the truest ground for my identity as an Indigenous woman and as an individual. Because my learning with plants has been linked to my personal experiences with cultural connection, I find that the two inform each other and help to guide me in all of my endeavors related to cultural plant knowledge. I have learned from Indigenous knowledge holders and the teachings that I carry from these experiences that I have a responsibility to carry out my work with plants in a good way.

What is your experience of being an Indigenous author? Do you have any advice for BIPOC writers working on their first books?

I realized I didn’t need to be intimidated by not being an “expert” but instead could embrace the knowledge I had to share and pave a bit of the path for other Indigenous people who may want to take a similar path to mine. It was, in part, the lack of Indigenous voices and perspectives in my studies that led me to write the book. I wanted to put an Indigenous voice into the ethnobotanical literature and fill a gap that I became aware of when I was first starting out. My advice for BIPOC writers working on their first books would be to not shy away from the difficult places and experiences that often shape how you move through the world and how you approach identity. These challenges, along with the places that you draw your strength from, will inform your writing in beautiful and meaningful ways that will resonate with others.

Are you a pleasure reader, a leisure reader? What books have you most enjoyed recently?

I am, and I aspire to have more time for reading for pleasure! Currently the books on my bedside table include my copy of Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer) that lives there at all times, a copy of The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho), and Two Trees Make a Forest (Jessica J. Lee).

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