All of your caffeine is imported. Just let that "steep" for a minute...
Your coffee is imported from countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Indonesia. You’re getting teas from as far away as India and China, matcha from Japan, and Yerba Mate from Argentina and Paraguay. Even synthetic caffeine is imported to the U.S. at a rate of 7 million kilograms per year for use in sodas and energy drinks. This often-essential element of our daily lives is so far-reaching with so many ecological, sociological, and even moral implications we are unable to see from the other side of the coffee bar. As with any agricultural staple in high demand, the side effects follow close behind: mono cropping and the destruction of land, unethical labor practices, and the immeasurable emissions it creates to process and transport it all. It’s an incredible irony: the energy-for-energy exchange—the land tilled, the natural resources consumed; all that energy literally poured into a 12oz styrofoam cup. But Yaupon can change all that. It’s our invitation back to this land. Most of us are strangers here, and we’re part of a centuries-long displacement project, thrusting plant and animal strangers onto the landscape and into the food chain; eradicating others entirely. Yaupon is an opportunity to close that loop of global impact and local degradation. We can bring it all home, back to our ecology, back to our history, back to the wild, and still maintain our modern morning ritual.
Most of us have cleaned up our morning caffeine ritual the best we can. We’ve got our hipster infusion trinkets, our Chemex and our cold brew, we’re amping it up with butter and chaga and we don’t leave home without our reusable travel cups. We purchase products that are as fair-trade and organic as possible, but our choices—our vices—still have a powerful ecological impact. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “the United States is the single largest importer of organic coffee, accounting for 40 percent of worldwide imports” and coffee is the single most valuable organic import in this region. While it is certainly beneficial to support organic and fair trade products over the conventional options, it says a lot about our culture and our mindset that imported coffee is what we seem to value most. There are companies raking in money selling t-shirts and mugs that say “But first, coffee” capitalizing on the ubiquitous attitude of necessity we maintain about our coffee.
Above even our morning caffeine rituals, we should value interaction with nature, plant medicine, foraging and self-sufficiency, vibrant health, and supporting local ecology. Yaupon aligns with all of these values. It is itself deeply ingrained in ritual use by indigenous cultures of North America. From the Cherokee meaning “the beloved tree,” Yaupon was once revered as a treasured offering from the land. We still see it that way. (We also tried fitting “But first, a ritual of gratitude for the plant medicine of the beloved tree” on a t-shirt, but it felt a little facetious…)
If it seems a bit like Yaupon is a dream come true, you’re exactly right. The coastal Carolina natives’ story of discovering Yaupon all began with a dream. “According to this story, an Indian man had been plagued by a lingering illness that none of the Indian doctors could cure. One day he fell asleep and dreamed that if he took a decoction of the tree that grew at his head, he would be cured. When we awoke he discovered the Yaupon tree growing there even though it had not been there when he had fallen asleep. The man followed the directions of his dream and was quickly cured” (from Black Drink, Hudson, 1979). In time, Yaupon became one of the most valued plants to natives from as East as the coastal Carolinas, as South as Florida and Alabama, and as West as central Texas. The decoction—called “Black Drink” or “Cassina”—was used in ritual ceremonies preceding important events like battle or trade transactions, taken as a biliary medicine, or drunk as a social peace offering with early settlers. After generations of ambiguity and misrepresentation, we are waking up to Yaupon yet again. It fulfills our dream to reconnect with our landscape and integrate with our local ecology. It offers us a way to engage with meaningful and nutritive ritual—not as an appropriation of a far-off culture, but as a respect for the land we call home and the history of the very soil we stand on.