Poet Kelli Harper stands in a garden reading from her poetry book, Atlas. She has a pink flower in her blonde hair, which falls over her shoulders.
Poet, herbalist, garden designer, educator and doula Kelli Harper (Photo provided)

A Potawatomi writer celebrates a return to the values of Indigenous ancestors in her new book.

Kelli Harper has self-published Atlas: A Poetic Guide for the Fernweh Spirit. She was inspired to write the book during her own journey to reclaim Indigenous practices.

The Higbee family descendant is not only a poet, but she is also an herbalist, garden designer, educator and doula.

“My life revolves around being in service to the feminine. Yes, Mother Earth, but also the feminine in all its many shapes and forms from the pregnant mother to all stages of the feminine life cycle, including feminine values and virtues,” Harper said.

Growing food, medicine

“My journey started as a personal journey of healing myself, but it really took off with gardening,” she said. “I started diving deeper into the plants growing in my bioregion, what can be foraged, and then the medicinal uses of the plants. Because food and medicine are one in the same. Our food is our medicine, and our medicine is our food. Once you start to dive into one realm, the door to the other opens up.”

During the pandemic, Harper started an educational network called LegaSeed Collective, focusing on educating people in her community who wanted to grow their own food in an urban environment.

“There was a lot of interest around growing food, especially with so many people being at home with limited access to grocery stores. I started hosting community workdays where we would go to someone’s house, and I would lead a hands-on tutorial on how to build a garden. Many hands make for light work, and it was amazing to see how much we could accomplish as a collective. We put in a total of 20 gardens in 2020 alone. We also deepened relationships with our fellow neighbors,” she said.

Science supports the viewpoint that gardening can be therapeutic. During the pandemic, many people turned to gardening ornamental, medicinal and agricultural plants.

“It is so therapeutic. There’s evidence that the microbiome of soil is beneficial for your gut health and all your body’s systems,” Harper said. “You have the physical aspects of gardening, the spiritual aspects, and the emotional benefits you get from relating with the natural world in an ancient way. Having that relationship directly with your food and directly with the earth is important. It helps you value all life as sacred and precious, including your place in it.”

Journaling inspired poetry

Harper has journaled for several years. She noticed that gardening continually inspired her writing. From those journals, poetry emerged.

She had always wanted to write a book of poetry, but the coronavirus pandemic presented an unusual opportunity to focus on it.

“I didn’t actually know if I could ever make that dream into a reality. It was really something I just did because I enjoyed it,” Harper said. “Throughout my experiences in the community and learning about social justice issues, climate issues and trying to address that on a local level, I became more inspired to write. When 2020 came, I realized I had the time on my hands and the fire in my soul to do so.”

As she wrote, a theme of healing began to emerge.

“I wanted to highlight the human experience through all different ranges of emotions, but also engage readers with a call to action around how we’re relating to ourselves, to each other, to the planet, social and climate issues, and coming back to reverence, respect and self-responsibility for our planet and our place in it,” she said.

Influenced by family, generations

Harper credits her family’s influence for helping her maintain a connection to the natural world.

“My father would always meditate in the morning. Taking time to be quiet and to listen, I think that’s a great start to having a healthy relationship with the planet. You need to be able to slow down and to listen and to observe, to really appreciate what’s here,” she said.

Harper’s childhood memories include playing in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, another experience that connected her with nature and the importance of protecting it.

“I grew up in Seattle, Washington, so our playground was the forest,” she said. “From a young age, I recall picking fresh blackberries and fresh peas and the abundance of Mother Earth. Unfortunately, that’s not an experience that every child gets these days.”

Relieving the burdens

“I named my book Atlas because — well, it’s continued to reveal its many meanings,” Harper said. “One, it’s a map of my own inner journey through life’s many lessons. It’s also the symbol of carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I feel throughout my 20s, I often carried that weight, as do many of us. We are bombarded with the weight of ever-looming darkness it seems, through all mainstream media outlets. What are we going to do with that weight? Are we going to allow it to freeze us in fear? Or are we going to really use that to fuel our passion, to fuel our love and individual purposes in the world?”

Harper is hopeful readers can take small steps relieve the burden they may be carrying.

“By each of us pursuing our own passions, we really create pathways for other people to do the same, and we lead by example. In the closing of my book, I share that my intention for this is to be a call of action. Everything counts, even the seemingly smallest contributions. The earth restoration, the education around herbalism, around gardening, are tangible things we can do within our own lives and in our own communities to make a positive impact for the next generations to come. It starts with discovering and following our own intuition, our own internal guidance or atlas,” she said.

Harper is grateful for the influence of her Potawatomi ancestors and of other Indigenous people as well.

“I want to give thanks to all of our ancestors, past and present, for really planting the seeds and carrying them forward, both metaphorically and physically. It’s because of them that we remember the wisdom of how to grow our food and how to make our medicine and how to live,” she said. “It is an honor, privilege and sacred duty to continue planting the seeds forward, for the next generation to reap a bountiful harvest.”

Harper’s book, Atlas: a Poetic Guide for the Fernweh Spirit, is available on Amazon. You can follow her on Instagram: @FernBellaBotanicals and @KelliMarieFrances, or contact her at fernbellabotanicals@gmail.com.