Skip to main content
Join Member Login
Home2019 Birzer: Grant Summary

project summary: BAEE Native Plant Award, “Gathering from the Land"

awarded to Sharon Birzer, 2019


Purpose of Project

“Gathering from the Land” involved creating a series of native plant illustrations for a book titled Yungcautnguuq Nunam Qainga Tamarmi: All the Land’s Surface is Medicine: Edible and Medicinal Plants of Southwest Alaska. Written by cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan and colleagues, the book features edible and medicinal plants used by the Yup’ik residents of Southwest Alaska.


This project centered on the preservation and celebration of the utility of plants. Its focus was on documenting and describing Yup’ik traditions, making it possible for this knowledge to be passed down to continuing generations. It is intended as a field guide, but also as an enduring record of what Yup'ik elders know and value about plants and the roles plants continue to play in Yup'ik lives. More than one hundred elders shared stories with Fienup-Riordan:

“They spoke eloquently about time spent gathering and storing plants and plant material during snow-free months, including gathering greens during spring, picking berries each summer, collecting wood, harvesting tubers from the caches of tundra voles, and gathering a variety of grasses which they used for everything from boot insulation to house construction.” 



Iitaat or Tall Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) watercolor, 18” x 12”, ©S. Birzer, 2019.

My illustrations assist in materializing this traditionally verbal knowledge, enabling its preservation and therefore contributing to the sustained life of this knowledge. The plants have varied and wide uses, from medicinal tea to soups to smoke cleansers for purification. The plants depicted are of central importance to the Yup’ik community, and their many applications and purposes were documented, along with folklore surrounding these plants.


The importance and beauty of these plants were celebrated and conveyed through the written word and brought to life with illustrations, photographs, recipes, and stories. The illustrations document the natural splendor of these useful edible and medicinal plants, and include fungi as well as flowers illustrated in watercolor and colored pencil.


Project Approach and Method

It’s a challenge to work remotely with indigenous plants, due to limited access to live or fresh specimens. Some species of plants for the book I found in the Pacific Northwest, such as the pungent Anuqtuliar or Yarrow (Achillea millefolium ssp. Borealis.) For the poisonous brilliant Pupignat or Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) I began the illustrations in autumn as these brilliant orange mushrooms begin popping up locally so I could work from a live specimen. Others such as Kapuukaraat or Pallas' buttercup (Ranunculus pallasii) are only to be found in the far north or in the vast and imposing landscape of sub-arctic Southwest Alaska, making them difficult collect. For these, I referenced photos taken in the field, herbarium sheets, and I invested time thoroughly researching them.


Outcomes and Achievements of the Project

1.    An exhibition of the original illustrations titled “Gathering from the Land,” took place in June 2020 at the University of Washington’s Botanical Gardens Center for Urban Horticulture, in the Miller Library Gallery. The combination of Yupik native and medicinal plants with the lichens and other botany from Tebenkof created a diverse collection of botanical illustrations. I indicated that the project was made possible in part by funding from the American Society of Botanical Artists through the BAEE Native Plant Grant.


2. Here is an excerpt from a review of the book by Fienup-Riorden et al. published in Arctic Anthropology, 2022. Nancy J. Turner, Professor Emerita, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, BC, Canada, wrote:


“I truly love this book! I have to say that right up front. From the beautiful photographs of plants and peoples on the front cover and throughout the book, to the exquisitely painted “plant portraits,” to the rich text featuring Yup’ik plant names, terms and phrases throughout, the book is, to me, exactly what a “peoples’ ethnobotany” should look like. It gives the reader a glimpse, through the photographs, descriptions and stories, of what life out on the lands of Southwest Alaska is like—and would have been like for countless generations.


“Yungcautnguuq Nunam Qainga Tamarmi reflects the deep relationships between the Yup’ik peoples and the plants on which they rely. Right at the outset, before the Contents, is a page of acknowledgement to the plants: “Naucetaat quyavikluki,” or “Thanks to the plants,” with a delicate portrait of cotton grass by Sharon Birzer, one of the two talented artists—the other being the late Richard W. Tyler—whose paintings enhance the photos and text throughout.

“The book is infused with biocultural knowledge. It reflects—in the words, the stories, the illustrations— a respect and love of plants and the land for the Yup’ik people. With input from across Southwest Alaska, from almost 100 Yup’ik knowledge holders, language experts and plant gatherers from diverse Yup’ik communities, the information transcends almost a century of collaboration and sharing. To me, it represents the very best in research partnerships. Yup’ik teachers and cultural experts have been the guides in the project, sharing their beautifully grounded knowledge with cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, language specialists Alice Rearden and Marie Meade, and ethnobotanist Kevin Jernigan.”


3. The book received the 2022 Annual Literature Award from The Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries. I received a note in 2022 with the following text and was very honored to be part of the team who made the book.

“It gives me great pleasure to tell you that Yungcautnguuq Nunam Qainga Tamarmi, All the Land’s Surface is Medicine has been voted as the winner of the 2022 Annual Literature Award from The Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries. Congratulations – this is our highest award! The committee was very strong in their appreciation of your book and see it as a model for future guides for other regions.”


4.   Finally, because of a collaboration with teachers in Alaska, the illustrations I created for the book are being used in local Alaskan public school districts to aid in teaching the traditional uses of Yup’ik Native edible plants and how to identify them by sight.

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

Powered by ClubExpress