For an illustrated version, see pages 13-15 in The Environmentor, vol. 5, no. 6.
Long ago, an orphan boy named Kingkunku was adopted by his uncle, who already had five sons. The six boys grew into up together, happy and well cared for. But when drought destroyed the uncle's crops, he borrowed money from a rich man to plant again. And when these crops also died, the uncle could not repay his debt.
"I'll just take one of your boys in payment," said the rich man.
The uncle couldn't bear to give up one of his own sons, so he sent the orphan Kingkunku.
The rich man demanded hard work but gave Kingkunku barely enough to eat, dirty rags to wear, and a grass hut to sleep in. Still Kingkunku did his best, hoeing weeds in the fields and carrying firewood from the forest. With no friends or family to help him, he sometimes sighed his troubles to the river that ran past the fields.
One night, Kingkunku dreamed that the river was talking to him. In a gentle, rippling voice it said, "You deserve a better life! Come down to the river at dawn and you will see three baskets floating by. You may take whichever one pleases you, but I tell you the smallest one is the best."
What a strange dream! He ignored it.
Still, the next night he had that dream again; and again on the third night. On the fourth night, the dream voice was loud like a river rushing in flood. And it added, "I won't wait any longer. Nor will your life! It is rushing by, like a river."
Kingkunku realized that his life was rushing by, in slavery to the rich man. He got up before dawn and went to the river.
Indeed, a huge basket came floating by! It was packed with guns: rifles, stuck barrel-down in the basket.
Kingkunku realized, "If I take that basket, I can take over this town. I can get revenge on my uncle, and my rich master, and all the people who have abused me." But vengence and violence did not fit his heart. He let the big basket float by.
Then came a medium-sized basket overflowing with bolts of bright-colored cotton cloth. "If I take that basket I can sell the cloth for enough money to buy my freedom! I could have land and a house of my own." But he was not a greedy young man. He let this basket float by.
Finally a small basket with a tight-fitted lid, no bigger than a melon, floated by. "Is that all?" Kingkunku thought. "I can't even see what's in it!" but he remembered the river's advice. He waded into the water and caught the smallest basket.
By now day was dawning, time to start work. He hid the basket in the grass walls of his hut and hurried to the fields where he worked long hours. At last, he could open the basket.
It was filled with packets of dried leaves and bark, small cups and knives. "Medicine things," he realized. "I don't know how to use this -- it's useless to me! If only I had taken the basket of guns, or the cloth!"
That night in his dreams, the river taught him the names and uses of the herbs. The river wanted him to become a healer: unlike guns or cloth, medicine could help all people. Now he understood the life the river wanted him to lead.
The next day as he worked, he discovered that he could recognize each plant growing among the crops and by the roadsides. He knew how to use each one as medicine.
[The story* goes on to tell how his new healing skills enabled him to cure many people and buy his freedom, thanks to following the river's advice. That smallest basket wasn't useless after all!]
Weeds: who needs them?
Weeds have been defined as any plant growing where you wanted something else. A rosebush in a corn field would be as unwanted as a corn stalk in a rose bed!
But as weeds we're usually thinking of those hearty self-seeding or invasive plants, both native and imported, that aggressively volunteer to grow in our lawns, gardens, and crop fields. They crowd out the plants we want! They're unsightly when they go to seed! Who needs them?
Sometimes our beloved iconic critters need them.
Monarch butterflies, those orange and black beauties whose image comes to mind when we think "butterfly," absolutely require milkweeds in order to raise another generation. Milkweeds are the obligate (required) food for Monarch caterpillars. Although the adults feed on nectar, which they can gather from any suitably shaped flower, their babies can't live without milkweeds.
Oklahoma has 26 native species of Asclepias.** The most abundant are orange butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) and pink common milkweed (A. syriaca). They thrive along roadsides and fencerows, and in fields -- if they haven't been dosed with chemical weed-killer or mowed down before they can set seed! These treatments, plus the conversion of pastures into suburbs and the expansion of farm fields into mile-long monocultures, have drastically reduced the supply of milkweed for Monarchs and the other insects that can live on it.
But we can help -- with "useless" weeds! By planting milkweeds for the baby caterpillars to eat, and lots of flowering plants to feed the adult butterflies with nectar, we can recreate the habitat they need. For advice on what to plant, where to find it, and how to grow it, go to Monarch Watch http://monarchwatch.org.
Even if you don't have a yard or a garden, you can help with plantings in your town. Oklahoma already has 177 "Monarch Waystation" sites registered. In addition to milkweeds for the caterpillars, these plantings provide nectar food for migrating adults when they're on their way north from Mexico in the spring, or south in the fall.
Although Carl Linnaeus named the milkweed genus after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, I didn't find medicinal uses of Asclepias approved for humans. In fact, the cardiac glycosides that discourage most other insects from dining on milkweed, are not recommended for human consumption. However, it was nice to find a folktale that hinged on something "useless" that helps with healing, to pair with "useless weeds" that can rebuild Monarch butterfly habitats.
"The Young Man Protected by the River" from Angola, Africa, in Mightier Than the Sword: world folktales for strong boys collected by Jane Yolen, Harcourt Inc 2003.
Monarch Watch http://monarchwatch.org.
** http://kerrcenter.com/publication/native-milkweeds-oklahoma/ Illustrated guide to 26 different species of native milkweeds found in our state. They are beautiful!