by Nadia Tan
I met Justin Chatwin a few months ago while weeding my front garden. I was preparing the soil for planting while he was muttering something about giant leaves that were blocking the sunlight from reaching his baby kale. I looked over and saw two small planter boxes brimming full of young seedlings, the giant leaves in question were hostas.
“Those are edible, you know,” I said.
Justin immediately got excited and started asking me questions about how to prepare them. A few minutes later, he had fried up a plate full of hosta shoots with his kale and some roasted potatoes. He invited me in, we tried them together and they were delicious.
“They taste similar to bok choy,” he said, “I can’t believe a few minutes ago I was complaining about how they were blocking my kale.”
Over the next few months, I showed him and fed him some of the edible wild plants in our neighbourhood - goutweed, plantain, goldenrod, rose petals, peonies, serviceberries, stinging nettle, dandelion, chicory, lamb's quarters, balsam poplar - while he told me stories about his adventures through North and South America.
Justin is best known as an actor. Probably his most notable roles being Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds and a character named Steve/Jimmy on Shameless. He has recently been living in Toronto while shooting the show American Gothic. However, as a self-described adrenaline junkie, his real passion lies in adventure.
For the past six years, he has been doing motorcycle road trips through North and South America, traveling in stages from Vancouver down to the southernmost tip of Chile. He has traveled with various groups of people, visiting different communities and staying with indigenous tribes.
One of his favourite activities is free-dive spearfishing. During one of his stories, Justin describes the feeling of satisfaction that he gets from spearfishing. He tells me that his latest adventure did not involve expensive cars or fancy houses - all he had was his motorcycle and he slept in a hammock in a small thatched hut - but at the end of the day, he had never felt more alive and content.
“On our last trip we brought our spears, our flippers, and our masks. There was this one day where we came down Baja and we stopped in Bay of Conception. I remember it was a full moon because it was so bright. My buddy Dave went out and he put his mask on and dove down and caught a bunch of scallops. I went out and shot a couple of fish. And we just cooked that up right there. We all ate and we were full, went to bed and were so content.
“There’s just something primal in us that comes alive when you get to hunt. There's a very spiritual realm to it. I’m not a trophy hunter. I just catch what I want to eat that day. But it’s so satisfying, knowing that you’re living off the land.”
“For me spearfishing is two things: it’s hunting - which is a basic necessity that we’ve always done - and then it’s diving, which is a baptism in the water. You’re forced to be present and you’re in the elements, you’re underwater.
“The diving part is cool because you have to make the most out of one breath. We forget to breathe living in the cities but you have to make the most of one breath underwater - you are diving deep down and waiting for a fish to come by. And you never know what you’re going to get.
“It becomes a meditation, where you have to focus so much on your breathing. And you’re doing it sometimes for eight hours a day. You’re so present all day because you’re just looking into nothingness, into the blue. You’re with your fears, and you’re with your thoughts. It becomes a study of yourself, because you start to see how your thoughts are working against you, they’re not useful for you. Fears come up and you can see how they waste a lot of your energy, so I’ve learned a lot about myself just from diving.”
He tells me that he has his best sleeps on those nights. I imagine it is partly exhaustion from the physical exertion, but he also seems to be describing a feeling of peace.
“There is medicine in nature. Nature heals. For me, there’s something about getting back to where we came from. Whether it’s in the ocean, or whether it’s camping amongst the trees. There’s energy that comes out of the trees, I’ve seen it.”
One afternoon, as Justin is sitting on his porch and I am picking some arugula for dinner, he tells me about the book One River by Wade Davis (which I have yet to read). According to Justin, the book is about indigenous tribes in the Amazon who have remained untouched by modern civilization. He had been curious to learn more about these people, so he traveled down to Sarayaku in Ecuador and stayed with a community called Children of the Jaguar.
“I went down there and lived with a guy named Don Sabino. A hundred years old - just in a different realm. He’s this guy who has never left his tribe. Alcoholism doesn’t even exist. The kids are so happy, they run free. The kids aren’t afraid of where they’re going because they know they’re going to be taken care of. They also know that if they step on something or they get bit by something, they know that that tree over there will heal them. They know which tree will heal you and which tree will kill you. They’re passing on traditions and rituals that have been in their culture for thousands and thousands of years.
“I’m fascinated by rituals and culture because we’re living in a very selfish culture right now. We have short-term antidotes, like pills and new work-out methods and new material goods that will provide a short-term fix but long-term dysfunction. We’ve lost a lot of the real nutrients of old-school religion that people are so afraid of.”
On another summer evening, we are walking through the neighbourhood and I am telling Justin about my interest in learning about herbal medicine, about trying to hold on to that ancient healing wisdom that was traditionally passed down orally, and finding ways to preserve and share that knowledge. He shares a story about his own encounter with some mysterious medicinal plants.
“The elders of the tribe invited us in to see what they were doing and I was interested in seeing the area that I’d read about in a lot of books. They had this tree that was clearly the tree of life. We drank from this tree every morning and felt amazing. I asked, ‘What is that?’ and they said, ‘It’s kind of like garlic. It’s good for you.’ And I was like, ‘Ooookay, yeah the “garlic tree” over there,’ ” Justin says sarcastically, “ ‘People are worshipping it every morning. It’s just a “garlic tree,” right? It doesn’t give me magical properties.’ But we were buzzing the whole time we were there. On a high. It was like the God tree.”
As Justin tells this story, I think to myself, I could really use this tree in my life right now.
“We were building a thatched hut for a new community of people across the river and I was chopping with a machete and I sliced too far. It sliced into my hand and it went into my bone. Blood started pouring out and I could see my bone. Nina (one of the community leaders) said, ‘Alright, just come with me.’ So I walked over and she made me chew this leaf. I chewed it up and she made me put it inside the wound. And she just wrapped my hand in a cloth and said, ‘It will be good tomorrow.’ I took it off the next day and it was totally stitched up. From a plant!”
He shows me the scar on his hand. It is a small red mark, barely there. I am very curious which plant this is. I wonder to myself if yarrow grows in South America - although I've personally never used it this way, I've read about yarrow having similar healing properties. I ask if he remembers what the plant looks like. He says no, “But I will ask Nina.”
“They live on a different frequency. The jungle is their god, their everything, in the same way that the fish have the ocean. It provides everything that they need. But somewhere along the line - the European line - the story started to change and make nature evil. I don’t know whether it was Grimm’s fairy tales, but people started writing stories about nature being evil and evil being in the forest. I think we need to change our mythologies and incorporate new stories in our culture that let people know that nature isn’t evil, nature can provide, nature can save us.”