Medicine of the Birches

At some point in our lives, we have had a relationship with a tree. As small children, even young trees tower over us, and as we are held in arms, placed on a blanket in a grassy park or pushed along in a carriage, the dancing leaves and dappled light of yellow and green are some of the first things we see of the world outside our nurseries. As we grow older, we wrap our own limbs around big branches and see how high we can climb, heeding the call that all children hear...Come up! Up! Up! Sitting in a crook upon high, we are given a vantage point usually reserved for adults, the chance to take in our world all at once, to feel big and suddenly know how it might feel to be tall, to be a bird or even to have the perspective of the sun and stars. It is often in the tween and teenage years that a relationship with a tree can also become sanctuary, not only offering perspective from upon high, but also a way to escape the reach of adults, who often treat us as children but expect adult behavior. 

For part three of this series on deepening nature connection, Milla Prince of The Woman Who Married a Bear calls to you from her vantage point high in the arms of an ancient birch. You had a tree like this, the one in your own hometown that whispered cool secrets on hot July days and beckoned you to step off the sidewalk. Milla is there now, inviting you to re-member your own dear and deep relationship with these beloved ancestors. Milla is a keeper of secrets herself, and it is always a treat to be regaled by her erudite stories, born and rooted in Nordic soil, now woven through with strands of sea, sand and forest from an island in the PNW.

Milla introduces the concept of Tree Essences in this piece. For those of you unfamiliar with essences, be they flower, tree or plant, you can go HERE to read about what they are, as well as their history.

                

When I was younger, for a few years my hiding place was the crook of a large, forked birch tree. It stood in the backyard of an old people’s home, though I never saw any of its inhabitants in the yard, or even in the windows. I found this tree, because on its other side was the squat, tile-walled town theatre, where my mother worked. The tree was old, as far as birches go, in this country of old birches, at least two hundred years, maybe more. Its trunk was too thick for my arms to circle. I was thirteen, a difficult age. 

In May, when the leaves of the birch were barely bigger than my fingernail, “mouse-ears” they’re called in Finnish, the fat catkins still yellow with pollen, scattering it in the wind like magic-dust, I began climbing the tree. From a single, sturdy branch within arms-reach I could hoist myself up to the where the tree split into three trunks, a natural seat. I rested my back against the straight, thick bulk of the Mother Tree.  My feet dangled on either side of the trunk. If I pulled my knees up against my chest, or put them up on one of low braches, my body sort of became absorbed by the tree, each part of it resting on a part of the birch. At first it wasn’t much of a shelter, but as the leaves grew, I became more and more invisible. The Finnish Riippakoivu, the Silver Birch, grows abundant leaf-clusters in the summer, dangling downward in great cascades. I could sit there for hours watching the light move trough the leaves swaying in the breeze. The tree was my refuge, a place in space I created for myself, from where I could observe the world unnoticed, consider things for myself. It was there that I planned for my escape from my podunk little town, my glorious future. Arctic summer nights were long and light, and I had nothing but time.

Had I known then, that there was a way, to distill the essence of that birch, to carry it with me wherever I went, it would have seemed to me like Magic, with a capital M. I was trying so hard to outgrow the idea of such Magic, because it was considered too childish by everyone around me, but on some deeper level I must have known that it was very real. The Tree Essence of Birch is about expanding your horizons, broadening your vision, and opening to new experiences, which is exactly what a thirteen-year-old body yearns to do. I came to that tree to medicate myself, to inoculate myself against the cynicism of Junior High, of pop culture, Top 40 Hits, the adult world. This act of self-medicating with nature, I knew even then, with little formal instruction, was something necessary and important, a reminder that I was intimately connected with the natural world. 

Trees hold a singular place in Finnish mythology, consciousness, and landscape. They are everywhere, they ripple out like evergreen waves from the city centers, into the wilderness. The cold makes the Finnish pines grow tall and skinny, their trunks an orange hew like dusk. We have so many words for groves of different trees: Kuusikko, a spruce grove, Männikkö, a pine grove, Lepikkö, an alder grove, and Koivikko, a birch grove. 

In the old days, most everything we owned was made from them: our homes, tools, dishes, medicines, even our clothes. In tough times my people would augment their bread dough with ground up inner bark of Pinus Sylvestris. Our Gods lived in the trees, our ancestors were trees. In the old lore, each of our trees contained different powers and spirits, had different uses, different medicine, and yes, different Magic as well.

Making Tree Essences, gently placing a living branch into a glass pitcher full of water from our well, or a spring, and letting the sun shine into it, is to me a continuation of that ancient relationship with trees. I rest my head on the trunk of the tree, and think about the countless generations of people before me, who relied on their good relations with these huge beings, their understanding of how to use every part of them wisely, for nothing less than their survival. When I make tree medicine, coaxing the power and spirit of a big, old being into a tiny vial, to keep in my pocket, I feel that I’m carrying on a conversation that’s been going for thousands of years. That’s all it takes, a stroll in the woods, placing some part of my body against the bark, a pitcher of water, an intuition of where to go.

It was in that birch tree that I first read parts of the Finnish National Epic, Kalevala; a collection of song-poems as old the pyramids, perhaps as old as much of human civilization.  Slowly I read through the verses, the ancient songs filling my body. Their central message is the idea that everything around us is part of a kind of universal spell that we can hear if we tune in, strain our ears for the hidden voice of the world: The magpies, the crows, the mountain ashes, the roof of heaven, the murky lake water glittering in the distance, all sang it to me in that tree, and they sing it to me still: 


“There are many other legends,
Incantations that were taught me,
That I found along the wayside,
Gathered in the fragrant copses,
Blown me from the forest branches,
Culled among the plumes of pine-trees,
Scented from the vines and flowers,
Whispered to me as I followed
Flocks in land of honeyed meadows” 
–Kalevala (Translation by John Martin Crawford)

You can find more Milla magic at her virtual home, The Woman Who Married a Bear. Be sure to check out her apothecary, Fireweed and Nettle, where she frequently stocks hand and wildcrafted flower, tree and plant essences. 

If you would like to learn how to make flower essences yourself, stay tuned for a tutorial as the final part of this series, both on how to deepen into communion with plants and flowers, and also how to make the essences themselves. (For the rest of the series: Part One and Part Two).

On Becoming a Henwife

The Hen Wife, related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic "witch in the woods"; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women's mysteries, sexuality, and magic. -Terri Windling

 The sky was still grey dawn when I was awakened by the sound of flapping chaos, a recently familiar alarm bell that meant the chickens were awake and were now walking around the kitchen. Just days before, they had come to the conclusion that the ground was not, in fact, hot lava, and began to bravely venture down from the top of their refrigerator box which had been the horizon of their world for the last 6 weeks. With the coop still not completely predator proof, our little flock was becoming increasingly domesticated. At dinner time, they would peek around the corner into the kitchen and come strutting out, clucking for crumbs and flying up to my shoulder to get a better view of the spread. And this morning, after the sound of crash landing on slippery laminate, I heard it. An unmistakable first crow from our little red rooster, Mr. Brown. "Aaah Errrr" he cried, twice, thrice and I thought This would seem ridiculous to pretty much anyone. But I don't care. To me this just seems right.

Our little red rooster when he was still Mrs. Brown

Our little red rooster when he was still Mrs. Brown

The coop was supposed to have been done weeks before, in timing with full feathering and the end of the brooder light. There were unavoidable obstacles...for several weeks it rained on the weekends, we couldn't afford more hardware cloth until a next paycheck, breaking ground took two weeks. It was mostly on Jeff's shoulders, although I dug trenches and hammered poultry staples, and there's only so much one person can do. But the biggest problem happened right at the beginning, and it belaid all of our plans. It came in the form of searing anxiety that blotted out all the light and caused me to furrow my brow even in my sleep, such that I wore a pronounced crease during the day. It was made of ghosts and little girls, canine hunger and hawk cries, and most of all, the type of broken heartedness that creates a fissure that never quite seals over.

Cheeks

Cheeks

Longtime readers and friends know that I have this thing about chickens. There's the infamous chicken picture from when I was 9, and the soft focus my face gets when I'm around poultry. But the core of it I never speak about, such as we do with things that sleep in the dark. When we walked out of the farm center with that little cardboard carrier full of cheeps and peeps, I was on fire with cold flame as I felt myself walking into a future that I knew contained so much of what I wanted and the possibility of so much I didn't. I knew too well how badly it could go, and I had been choosing to forget about it until the moment when we buckled in the car. I placed the box on my lap with a heating pad and stared, frozen, out the window. Jeff and the kids were all smiles and giggles, and he placed his hand on my shoulder and said "Don't worry. You're a good mama hen.". 

Thingummy and Bob back when they were still Kenny and Rogers

Thingummy and Bob back when they were still Kenny and Rogers

My childhood home in Shasta County came with chickens and at four years old, they didn't really register until I raised a chick in second grade. I named her Pepe, and having imprinted on me, she followed me everywhere. Pepe was a big golden Orpington, all warm heft and soft feathers, and I often felt pinch-myself-lucky at this sweet friend who loved me and I her.  Then one morning when I was 9, I went up to let her out of her pen and discovered she had been killed by a dog in the night, along with her rooster companion. Our chickens were pets at a time when it was unheard of, especially a time before the internet when we could have found like hearted people and experts to help us protect our flock, which free ranged and slept in trees at night. It was the good old days, and if you didn't know how to DIY something, there was no Google or Makers Faire to help you out. Although we lived rurally, our immediate community wasn't agrarian, so when we started having problems with predators, my parents, not really the handy types, were isolated and at a loss. I fell in love with, and attached to, every chicken we raised over 14 years. And nearly every one met a violent end at the mercy of dogs killing for fun, or owl and grey fox mamas feeding their own babies. Pepe was the first to go in such a way and the morning I lost her, I remember wailing and later, sitting frozen and sad on my bed. The same kind of frozen came over me this spring as we drove home with 8 newborns. 

Sorrow, loss, tragedy and death are great teachers, especially if approached with a level of acceptance and consciousness as to their lessons. When you are a child however, repeated loss that is seemingly out of your control makes for wounds that scab over on the surface but never truly heal at their depths. As an adult I have had the opportunity to become well versed in navigating grief, to the point where it is an expertise I use in my field of counseling. Death is an initiation, for the one who dies and the one who stays, and the way it breaks us open leads to the cultivation of richer soil for the self. Over my lifetime, I have developed a type of courageousness born of descending down dark steps to the underworld, and I have returned from the depths with knapsacks full of knowledge and ever increasing trust in the wild realms of my heart. This knowledge dances through all aspects of my work as a healer, from unflinching presence in the midst of a client's breakdown, to comfort with the type of sweet humility required to learn from The Great Ones...plants, trees, insects, animals. Even so, there is still a little girl inside me who hates the reality of death, the seemingly cruel talons that snatch life in its own time and no one else's. My inner girl has been waiting down at the bottom of that scabbed over brokenheartedness.

One of the Blondies, The Chicken Formerly Known as Loretta and Mr. Brown

One of the Blondies, The Chicken Formerly Known as Loretta and Mr. Brown

Our new flock's entrance into our lives was a whirlwind of planning and tending and cleaning and watchfulness. It was not unlike the newborn babyhood of my daughter, where the number one priority is Keep Baby(ies) Alive. There were so many considerations that came into play once we realized that our property, situated in the middle of a working horse ranch, was just not going to be secure enough from dogs to ease the micromanaging panic that surfaced for me in those first few weeks. Any idea I had of not getting attached to our chicks evaporated on the first day. And all that sorrow that had stayed locked inside a moment at 9 years old came flooding out with a fierce dedication to Do Things Differently. Our chickens were not going to free range, they were going to be protected at all times and we were also going to provide them with a high quality of life. This meant building a far larger coop and run than planned, in a different location, on a piece of property that we don't own, along with a mobile chicken tractor big enough for 8 chickens and light enough for someone with very little upper body strength (me) to move easily. This meant reinventing the wheel and finding some sweet spot in between the typical small backyard flock of four hens and larger scale pullet and egg farms. 

The only dog I'm not worried about...Gidget

The only dog I'm not worried about...Gidget

Over the weeks, pieces began to fall into place and so did the flock's presence in our lives. Jeff, experiencing chickens for the first time, would send me texts throughout the day inquiring wistfully about them. Our days began to take on rhythms according to feeding, cleaning and visiting times. We didn't go out much after the day the power went out and we came home to 8 freezing and sneezing fuzzy babies with no light. It's like we were grounded, self-imposed and happy about it. We learned that their stinkiest poops happened in the morning, so we waited until the afternoon to let them perch on us. Despite my early insistence that we not name them, it was inevitable and so as our friends' personalities emerged, so did the names: Cheeks, Gregory Peckory, Mr. Brown, Merle (The Chicken Formerly Known as Loretta), Thingumy and Bob and The Blondies (two Buff Cochins we couldn't tell apart). I trained them to come when called, and we learned their language too...the curious choop choop choop? and the happy trill.

As our coop neared completion, my anxiety began to lessen. I tacked up hardware cloth, hammering intention into each staple This one's for my inner girl. Nobody's going to hurt my chickens. I'm the adult now, I'm the parent, and I'm proactive. The chicks stayed out in the run during the day and were so happy. Thrilled to stretch their wings, they had frequent flapping contests, fluttering around with each other like children let out at recess. At night, we loaded them up into a cat carrier and transitioned them back inside where they slept on the wooden rungs to my daughter's loft bed.

Two nights after our little red rooster (Mr. Brown) crowed for the first time, the coop was completed. The hardware cloth was buried around the perimeter and the trench filled in with soil and mulch and planted with sunflower seeds. We installed two-step locks on all doors, to foil even the cleverest raccoon hands. When dusk descended, Jeff and I went out to tuck the chickens into bed. 

Except they were having none of it. Chickens don't like change and new things and as far as they were concerned, the coop was a bad scary box that wanted to eat them. So I climbed inside as Jeff handed them to me one by one. Squawking with alarm and panic, they all huddled in the corner where ventilation let in the light, nearling suffocating each other in their attempt to escape. Mr. Brown kept trying to get out at the top vents, crashing down over and over. I knew that the first night wouldn't be easy, but I did have a moment of concern, wondering if we were destined to have chickens in our house forever. Then I remembered the folkloric figure of the Henwife, and dropped into that intuitive space that every skillful animal caretaker knows. They needed me to be the mama hen, to show them the way.

Gregory. Always Gregory.

Gregory. Always Gregory.

I placed each one on the roost, starting with the rooster, and kept my arm around them, encouraging them to huddle up close together. I brought the tension down by mimcing the choop choop choop that meant relaxed curiousity, rather than fear. As more and more found a seat, they began to answer me, panicked squawking easing into commentary and typical conversation of getting comfortable at night You're stepping on my foot! I need to turn around! I want to be next to Bob, scoot over! and so on until all 8 were perching, albeit with uncertainty. And then, I started to trill. My daughter calls it chicken purring and it means Isn't this good? I am happy, aren't you?

They all began to answer back, first one, then all 8, more at once than ever before. Our little flock, purring, happy, safe and secure in their new home.

This would seem ridiculous to pretty much anyone. But I don't care. To me this just seems right. It feels right to listen to other beings with the same deference that we give to another human. This is the magic of the Henwife, of the Weedwife, of the Witch and the Healer and the Counselor. To be able to exchange self for other, to see with eyes not our own and to be humble enough to walk the world as a fool, always willing to learn. It means respecting the sentience of all beings and stepping down out of the oligarchy of anthropocentrism. Perhaps most of all, becoming a Henwife requires entering the unknown and surrendering to life: getting dirty, becoming unphased by manure, being versed in life and death and letting it call forth ferocity, proaction and wisdom.

Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned from chickens. And I didn't fully realize it until, 25 years after my last pet chicken passed, I held a new fuzzy generation in my hands.

Portrait of a young henwife. This post is dedicated to Pepe, and the little girl who loved her.

Portrait of a young henwife. This post is dedicated to Pepe, and the little girl who loved her.

 

If you don't already follow me on Instagram, you can follow our recent chicken shenanigans here.

For some fun reading about the mythology of the Henwife:

Henwives, Spinsters and Lolly Willowes by Terri Windling

The Hen-Wife and her Cauldron of Wisdom

 

 

Following the Golden Thread

She did not distance herself from the world but embraced it with the deepest part of herself, experienced it, and its living organisms, as kin. And she did so because she approached the world with the part of her that felt more deeply, her childlike self. - Harold Buhner on Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock

The second post of a four part series on participating in the unearthing of your very own innate wisdom, communicating with nature and the rich practice of attunement with wildflowers. 

::A note before we begin::

As a result of growing up in Western culture with its Cartesian dualism, the idea of communicating with non-human others is, at best, the stuff of Disney films and at worst, sure to elicit withering skepticism. Unfortunately, we each have internalized this skeptical voice, some more than others, and it LOVES to pop up when we venture outside mainstream thought. There are many compelling reasons to take the daring leap beyond our sanctified linear and logical mode of thinking into what Naturalist and Earth Poet Harold Buhner calls "the metaphysical background of the world". But dear reader, I cannot provide adequate proof in a blog post nutshell as to why the skeptic might not be the know-it-all it deems itself to be. Indeed, each time I try, I find myself multiple paragraphs into an essay that is terribly heady and tangled and Muggle-ish and honestly, so very boring. Maybe someday I'll still do that post. For now, I offer you the opportunity to try something new, to experience yourself out of the ordinary. The proof will hopefully be in the metaphysical pudding. You don't have to lose your religion of science, either. I'm a naturalist, I love science. It's just not a complete model of understanding. And even if you are like Fox Mulder and you want to believe, but you have a hard time getting out of your own way, don't despair. Because you are human and your capacity for deep perception is part of your ancestry and evolution. Our current state of amnesiatic disconnection is an ill of modern times. 

Come, let's find our way back. 

You will find at the end of this post the following meditation broken down into bullet points. I offer the explanatory bit here as a way to get oriented, but you don't need to keep track of it all. In essence, this is a very simple practice, but our heads like to complicate things.

If We Could Talk to the (plants and) Animals, Just Imagine It!
::A Meditation::

Go for a walk. It doesn't have to be someplace special, but it helps if there are little patches of privacy where you can go off path or sit on a bench without being interrupted or intruded upon. This does not have to be a day hike, nor does the following meditation need to take long. Giving yourself spaciousness and time to slow down is helpful (I'm a big advocate for slowing down) but if all you've got is your lunch hour, go for it. 

Before setting out, take a moment to check-in. Notice your breath and with a light focus, pay attention to three full cycles of inhale/exhale. Notice your body (remember that old thing?) and become aware of what you are experiencing...tensions or pain, emotions and/or energetic sensations. Especially notice if you are feeling grumpy or resistant. That's ok. Just notice what it feels like in your bod. Take a second to notice your breath again. Now notice the feeling of your feet on the ground. Ready? Set off. 

 

Beginning to walk, remember what it feels like to be curious. Notice where you feel curiosity in your body. As you get curious, you can even add a little prayer-like thought, such as "I wonder where you are?" or "Here I come!". If you are struggling or suffering with an issue in your life, you can also ask for guidance or to come into contact with what you most need. Don't worry about who you're saying that to, the important bit is to craft a sense of openness and receptivity as you walkabout. The questions serve to begin a process of discovering something that attracts your attention, pulls your heartstrings and with which you can come into relationship.

As you walk, begin to look for a flower, plant or tree that you feel drawn to. (I particularly recommend a wildflower, as they only visit for a short time, and it will also be a good transition into the next two posts). Be relaxed about it. It's not a scavenger hunt and you don't have to worry about finding the right one. Trust yourself. You'll know it when you find it. As a matter of fact, you may find yourself drawn in through your own interest before you realize...oh, perhaps it's you! If you get frustrated, pay special attention to that moment where you give up. Probably your new friend is right next to you. Look around with new eyes.

When you find this other being, take a seat next to it (taking care not to completely destroy any other little beings around it). Introduce yourself, literally. Say hi, say your name, just like you would to any new person. And then...STFU. Humans like to babble, but in order to drop in, you're going to need to stop the chatter. Notice your breath again.  I recommend using ujjayi breathing as a way to tune out inner dialogue and relax into this present moment.

Come into contact with the world around you. Notice your environment in terms of its qualities...the temperature of the air or sun, the way the light looks, the texture of the ground, the sounds and smells. Bring this same type of attention towards your new friend. Notice their qualities. Size, shape, color, texture, scent, movement etc. There is nothing to figure out, your only job is to notice. Now, offer another heartfelt thought along the lines of Who are you or I would like to learn from you or How do you feel. Be humble. Most beings on this earth have DNA that was around long before humans were. You are surrounded by your ancestors and elders. 

Now sit back and continue breathing. And notice what happens. You may have unbidden images or thoughts pop into your head. You may feel a new emotion or sensation in your body, or the increase or lessening of a feeling that was already there. Memories may surface. As you remain in a curious, open, relaxed state, you may find that your mind begins to have what I call "revelatory thinking". Almost like daydreaming, but where your consciousness begins to see patterns or interconnectivity. You may even have little A-ha! moments.

If you find that you are checking out and wandering away in the land of "What's for lunch?", recognize that you meandered, and come back to noticing. Eventually you will feel complete. How will you know? That's up to you to understand. Say goodbye and thank you to your new friend. If you felt compelled to pick anything, it is good manners to offer something back. A song, a drink of your water, a heart full of gratitude.

But I thought we were going to have a conversation! you wail. You did, but communicating with non-human others is very subtle. It is the rare individual who has full blown discussions with plants (Oh, how I wish I were you!) Our extra-sensory perceptions pick up information that is often below the surface of our every day consciousness. There are pheromones you smell but don't smell, there is the way your feeling state interacts with the feeling state of the other beings around you, there are cues and bits that your unconscious is noticing but you remain oblivious to. The neat thing is, there is a part of us that puts it all together...call it intuition or clairsentience or empathy or supersecretmagiccrystalpowers...whatevs...you can trust that you received the message. If it's not obvious during your meditation, pay attention to your dreams for the next few days, including your day dreams, since understanding will sometimes surface in this way. Symbols, images, non-linear stories, inklings and feelings...the universal language is the language of dreams and synchronicity. It's fun to try to understand these things with the logical brain but even if you can't, know that your body and heart already get it.

And don't make it too complicated. It truly can be as simple as a warmth in your heart. 

Here's the meditation in bullet points:

  • Do a pre-walk check-in. Notice your breath, sensations in your body, the feeling of your feet on the earth.
  • Begin to walk and get curious. Call out with your heart to whatever wants to meet you in your path.
  • Keep breathing and noticing. Eventually you will feel drawn to something. Go to it.
  • Introduce yourself.
  • Quiet your mind with breathing, notice the qualities of your environment.
  • Notice the qualities of your new friend. 
  • Ask your new friend a question or express the desire to learn.
  • Keep breathing and noticing. Be relaxed, open and curious.
  • Keep breathing.
  • Know when you're done.
  • Say thank you and offer gratitude.

What do you have to lose? If nothing else, you just went for a nice walk. 

Spring blessings!

Soliphilia is still open for registration, but is beginning to fill up! Won't you join us?

Stay Together, Learn the Flowers, Go Light

In the sprouting growth, blooming, fruiting, death and regermination of plants in their relationship with the sun, whose light they are able to convert into chemically bound energy in the form of organic compounds, out of which all that lives on our earth is built; in the being of plants the same mysterious, inexhaustible eternal life energy is evident that has also brought us forth and takes us back again into its womb, and in which we are sheltered and united with all living things. - Albert Hoffmann

Phacelia

Phacelia

In developing a nature based spirituality, I turn to the very ground under my feet. I could begin with the ground of my ancestors, wondering about, and recreating, the connections and rituals born of the Scottish highlands and the green edged Welsh coast. And indeed, I often do turn to the lore, history and music of those places when I want to awaken genetic memory. But I have never lived in those places and my particular ancestors have also now been in America for at least 300 years. Like many white people, I feel like a cultural orphan, and I am also dedicated to not committing spiritual or cultural theft, so while I respect and admire what I have learned and been taught about Native American practices, I take the responsibility to discover my own innate nature based wisdom. What I can say is mine, is the betrothment I feel towards the landscape where I grew up in Shasta County, the sandstone beds with their hidden caches of quartz, the foothill pines with their lanky ways, the mountains that perch as beacons in my own personal compass. These other beings are my kin, and I miss them deep in my blood and bones, such as I would family.

In my current chosen home, also in Northern California,  I am devoted on a daily basis to cultivating new and enduring love. I learn the natural history of this Valley of the Moon, I learn the stories, such as I can find, of the Pomo and Miwok, but I don't take them for my own. I research, forage and eat the wild foods that jubilantly stretch towards light that rises up over those eucalyptus trees back there and nestles down in the grove where the Great Horned Owl lives. I harvest medicine for health and curing and find that much of what I need is within a 3 mile radius. I grow a garden and marvel at who comes to eat it, even if it's not me. I invite and tend native plants around my house and I ask them "teach me" and I say "I care for you". I say this regardless of what I receive in return. Perhaps most importantly, I go for walks.

Sometimes I walk with receptivity, noticing what calls for or catches my attention. Sometimes I walk with intention, to notice breath, birdsong, blooms. Sometimes I just walk. But my favorite way of walking incorporates all three : the receptivity, the mindfulness and being guided by spontaneous curiosity. It is my primary spiritual practice, aside from meditation, and if I go too long without it, I get crispy pretty fast. As we approach May, I am simultaneously giddy and drunk with delight during these walks, as well as dogged by an urge to keep it all from going by so quickly. My favorite friends have all arrived, and they stay for such a brief, sweet time, I almost have no choice but to sit with them in a ritual to make time stand still. You know of course, I'm talking about the wildflowers.

I invite you to experience coming into relationship with these joyful, radiant expressions of plant life with a meditation I will share with you this coming week. Following this I will be sharing other goodies, including a Flower Essence how-to, as well as a guest post by The Faery Queen herself, Milla Prince from The Woman Who Married A Bear. 

Nature is always in communication with us and my desire is to help you hear that voice, to inspire spontaneous delight and fidelity to your own little patch of green on our beautiful blue dot.

Happy Beltane!

Psst: In case you missed it, something magical is happening.

 

We Are Not Alone

Gliding about in their shady forest homes, keeping well out of sight, there is a multitude of sleek fur-clad animals living and enjoying their clean, beautiful lives. How beautiful and interesting they are is about as difficult for busy mortals to find out as if their homes were beyond sight in the sky. - John Muir

I'm slowing down in my old age. I am every tailgaters worst nightmare. They should just call me Backroads Granny as I go 10 miles under the speed limit, braking for birds and fallen branches. It's the same when I go hiking. I'm as frustrating to my family as a toddler at the beach, who plops down, satisfied with mixed gravel in the parking lot while the parents cajole and plead with promises of juice and cookies as soon as we get there. On a recent hike to the waterfall at Sugarloaf Ridge, I was meandering down side trails, stooping down, looking through the undergrowth while my daughter howled in frustration, eager to get there. 

She's learned by now, however, that I'm usually looking at something cool. Like Bird's Nest Fungus.

She's learned by now, however, that I'm usually looking at something cool. Like Bird's Nest Fungus.

I hope her tendency to rush past the present moment wasn't implanted by my own example, but it probably was. I did not have infinite patience with her 3 year old dawdling ways, and neither do most parents. I frequently see groups of preschoolers on park trails, one adult at the front, one at the back, engine and caboose pushing the train along, god forbid they should stop. If you're a parent you know exactly why. Forward trajectory is so hard to get with young children, and once you've obtained it, you'll use it to your advantage to get as far as possible before you're stopped again by the quagmire of curiosity over said gravel and/or the need for snacks.

Poop fairies

Poop fairies

Are we there yet? in some variety is on repeat in the background of most people's minds. In observing groups of people hiking, I have noticed that their pace is usually quick and that their interest is on each other and the sharing of their jibber jabbering minds. The point seems to get from A (the parking lot) to B (the waterfall) and all that stuff in between is as uninteresting as the highway median. But slow things down just a notch, and turn down the volume on the chatter and suddenly the world emerges all around us. It's an old platitude, but what if life really isn't about the destination, but the ride?

Air brakes. Going slow also means you don't send up as many alarms, so the geese pay you no mind and come in for a landing right there.

Air brakes. Going slow also means you don't send up as many alarms, so the geese pay you no mind and come in for a landing right there.

You have probably noticed by now that we live in an overstimulating world. Vehicle and machine noise, media, smart phones, bright lights, screens everywhereallthetime...I seriously don't understand how we're not all crazy from it. But actually...I do. We have this neurological capacity called sensory gating that protects us from being overwhelmed. If you imagine that stimuli is a fire hose of information coming in, our brains quickly select out what we have been conditioned not to pay attention to, or what we deem irrelevant, and we only take in that which our thalamas thinks we need in that moment. And folks, we have been taught to 1. Ignore the natural world because it's "irrelevant" and 2. We think that we're alone. With these two ideas as our basis, no wonder we hike rather than meander...arrive, rather than explore. We spin out into the world of thought, barely aware of our feet on the path. 

What if it could be another way?

Half way through our hike, my family realized Granny's wisdom and slowed down. What a good thing too, because otherwise we would have missed these little mud turrets and tunnels. My daughter thinks it's fairies. A total possibility. Could also be ground nesting bees. But I like fairies better.

Half way through our hike, my family realized Granny's wisdom and slowed down. What a good thing too, because otherwise we would have missed these little mud turrets and tunnels. My daughter thinks it's fairies. A total possibility. Could also be ground nesting bees. But I like fairies better.

How fortunate that the adults in your life took you by the hand and walked slowly with you everyday through meadows, forests and mountain paths, in sweet and silent reverence. Remember how special that was? The way that your grandfather taught you that everything was sentient, and that you could connect and talk to trees, rivers, birds, plants and insects. That all you had to do was slow down, learn how to listen beyond the internal chatter until you could heart the slow silent language of everything? Aren't you glad?

I'm very talkative.

I'm very talkative.

Yeah I know. But as Tom Robbins says It's never too late to have a happy childhood.

You are your own best parent now. And you can walk with yourself in sweet and silent reverence, and you can disbelieve that lie you were told. The one about how nature is just a bunch of dead matter, here for our using and abusing. How it's ridiculous to grieve over the clearcut or to worry over the fate of the ants on the sidewalk. That lie about how we're alone. You can stop by the many armed oak, the one with the branches like individual trunks, and rest your forehead on her mossy trunk. You can accept the initial twinge of feeling foolish, because the next thing that happens is you feel like you are being held by the most ancient of grandmothers and she whispers visions through your inner sight of what it is like to be her, standing here in this fraction of her long life, and you will feel running in your marrow the delight of receiving birds and wind and lichen and water and sun. And you will know joy.

 

(p.s. Folks who can't filter out as much stimulation as others have lower sensory gating and there's a name for it. Highly Sensitive Person. They also tend to more creative but need solitude, as Franz Kafka said, "not like a hermit, but more like a dead man.")

(p.p.s. The title is obvious but what actually went through my head is that song from The Breakfast Club by the same name. The other lyrics are: If we dare expose our hearts, just to feel the purest parts, that's when strange sensations start to grow.)

Truth.
 

Feast and Famine

As I drove home from kindergarten drop off this morning, it was slow going on the flooded backroads. In the little valley where I pick rose hips, the fields were largely underwater. Something blowing across the road caught my eye, and only as it narrowly avoided being crushed by a truck's tires did I realize what it was. A little person of the meadow, a mighty earth mover and soil aerator. A gopher, soaked to the skin, fleeing her flooded home and risking life and ruin crossing from one newly created lake to another. I stopped and watched until she was safely across, dissapearing into the freshly lush grass. I thought of all my dear medicinal herbs I lost last Autumn to gophers...my mugwort, poppies, motherwort...and tried to muster up an attitude of "better off with one less". Instead, what stayed with me was the sight of wet grey fur parting to show cold pale skin, and compassion for what must have been a frightening and narrow escape amidst the rising waters. With a tender heart, I wished her well and reminded myself to use more gopher wire when planting this spring.

The rains of El Nino have officially arrived and with the greening hills and soggy pastures comes a remembering. This used to be normal. On the daily I have memories surface of childhood tromps through mud, or early years in the city listening to the ping ping ping of the flagpole chain announcing the wind and wet. On our excursions into the wild and wooly forests and oak savannas, we discover another kind of remembering. That of the fungal mycelium and also its BFFs...the algae and bacteria that combine with the mycelium hyphae to create lichen in an I'll scratch your back you scratch mine kind of relationship. (Lichens are so awesome). We wear our muck boots, forge streams and tramp on soil that our feet remember as being brown hardpan just a few months ago. After years of drought, the land is softening, receiving and expanding, sponge like and fertile. Everywhere we go, there are So Many Mushrooms, so many expressions of exuberant, joyful life.

I don't know what you are, but I love you.

I don't know what you are, but I love you.

Elfin Saddle

Elfin Saddle

Lace Lichen

Lace Lichen

We drive into Guerneville over the historic truss bridge, the Russian River gushing bellow in swollen glory, the river's voice bloated like a cartoon wino guzzling a bottle. In the redwood forests, the Usnea lichen drapes luxuriously, glowing grey green in the dim. I collect ridiculous tangled wind strewn bunches and take them home. When I take them out of my collecting bag, their scent fills the kitchen as a forest spirit, all electrified rain and glory. Some I immediately tincture, and feel suddenly sorry to put all that zippy life into vodka. The rest I save and add to my stash of delicious medicinal things to put in soup, nestling in with the jars of seaweed and chickweed vinegar. Outside, the wildflower seeds I planted have also swollen, and are bursting through the soil with hopeful plans. It is early spring, and the earth is happy and every time there is another shower we all sing praises to the clouds, while quiet and deep in the pit of my belly there is a small alarm that chimes.

My little Calendula suns that shine despite the weather.

My little Calendula suns that shine despite the weather.

Last week, we returned late one evening to strange balmy winds, clear skies and chorusing spring peepers. The undeniable turning of the seasons was in the air, part of the night sky tapestry, along with the distant twinkling lights of Santa Rosa and the sickle moon overhead. Smelling the warmth, I was reminded of other recent Springs, and how the smell of awakening soil brought dread. Too Little Rain is an ominous whisper that is always there, a ghostly tickertape in the back of my mind. This past summer was insufferable, with heat and dryness so insistent that it began to seem like it had never been any other way. Groundwater reserves dwindled, the Central Valley sank even further...along with everyone's spirits...and folks in my home town stood on the shore of what used to be Shasta Lake and posted photos on Facebook of a dry and dusty bowl.

Shasta Lake on January 5th. Still at a "historic low" for the date, despite the recent rain.

Shasta Lake on January 5th. Still at a "historic low" for the date, despite the recent rain.

On a recent walk with a new friend, she spoke of how her soul began to mourn last summer for rain, for wet, for winter. And for respite, for a season of turning inward and going fallow, resting. For me, signs of the season are like light switches for my spirit. I need my touchstones of the ritualistic succession of spring peepers to wildflowers to babies fledging to peaches and I grieve when we reach November and the days are still hot. With the steady rains of the last few months, every cell in my body wants to open and receive it like the spongy earth.

Crane Creek, burbling and happy

Crane Creek, burbling and happy

Yet I find myself holding the reigns tightly, only allowing the waters to flow through me in measures of austerity. The drought will return the ghost of Climate Change whispers. Don't be fooled into complacency. And I realize the folly of this. It's imperative I allow myself to be tricked, to let myself settle into familiar rhythms, to soak up the rejoicing earth like the spring greens shooting towards the sun. There's no way I'll become complacent. I care too much and my finger is forever on the pulse of our changing world. But just like the seeds that stay dormant until the rain comes, I need to soak up the sustenance of normality and abundance whenever and wherever I can. It's how we can adapt and change. Take it when we can get it, and store it up in our souls, a reserve to quench our thirst through the dry days to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Elevator Speech

 There is one place in all the universe that has been made especially for you and that is inside your own feet. - Stephen Harrod Buhner

I finally figured out my Elevator Speech. You know, that speck of dust in the center of the entrepreneurial snowflake, around which your entire business shtick crystalizes. It's your 15 seconds of fame, when you are riding up to the fifth floor with someone and they turn to you and say "So, just what is it that you do, anyway?" 

And you tell them that you're an Ecopscyhologist, and they have no idea what that means, and honestly... on somedays, neither do you. From there the conversation rarely goes any further. As a pioneer in a burgeoning field that has been primarily theoretical until fairly recently, how do you describe the frontier you are only just beginning to map out for yourself? Picking a point out of the kalediscope to explain your work leaves you tongue tied. To be honest, probably the only people who read this post will be other Ecopsychologists (and I know all three of you). 

It's true I could tell you to Google it and wikipedia does a pretty good job. Maybe I should just memorize it, but development of the professional self, and all that. 

 Ecopsychology studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. The field seeks to develop and understand ways of expanding the emotional connection between individuals and the natural world, thereby assisting individuals with developing sustainable lifestyles and remedying alienation from nature. Theodore Roszak is credited with coining the term in his 1992 book, The Voice of the Earth. -Wikipedia 

Before I give you my pitch, there are several basic truths that I hold to be self evident as an ecopsychologist:

  • Interdependence, not independence, is the name of the game for all life on earth. Everything functions in this way and is demonstrated in our knowledge of ecology, chemistry, astrophysics, neurology, etc. Because of this interdependence, the human psyche cannot be truly understood separate from the environment from which it evolved. This includes the culture and emotional health of the family of origin, but on a macro scale also means the natural world.
  • Not only can we not separate the human psyche from the environment, but our physical separation due to the demands of civilization and culture, the western way of life, creates a fundamental wounding that starts in childhood. The modern form of our species has been on earth for 200,000 years, but civilization is only 6,000 years old. That's 3% of our time on earth. The industrial era started just 200 years ago. Our separation from the natural world is something that, when looked at through the lens of Deep Time, has only been occurring for a few seconds. 5 minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock etc., etc.
  • While an incredible amount of the suffering of humankind is due to injustice, oppression and scarcity of resources, there is a basic level of suffering linked to the disconnect not only from the ground upon which we stand, but also the ground of our own being. Simply, this means peace and ease in our body. Not only does industrialized society disdain nature, but it also looks down its nose at our animal nature. We've been ingrained from childhood to disown our bodies and "lower" animal selves. When I remind client's of their true human nature in session (whether it be by normalizing exhaustion in the Autumn as a signal from their body to follow the season and slow down, or by noting that with the dawning of Spring they are finding themselves more flirtatious and open to contact) the response is always the same. Relief. Finally permission to just be an animal. As M. Oliver says "You only have to let the small animal of your body love what it loves.". Peace and ease in our heart and mind immediately follows. It is not idealistically Utopian to wonder what it would look like to live in a society where most people felt at ease in themselves.

 As a theoretical framework, there are juicy ideas about the interbreeding of our relationship with the earth and trauma, violence, depression, anxiety and I could fill out those bullet points up there with So Many Ideas. But as a practicing therapist, applying ecopsychology in the moment is not a lofty technique. In sitting with another, I don't make a distinction between whether or not their experience is somehow interlinked with what is happening on, and to, our Earth. I hold the basic assumption that it IS. In fact, considering the pretty pickle we all find ourselves in due to climate change, I think we can no longer call a separation between eco or not. Ecopsychology IS pscyhology. There's nowhere to hide and from here on out. 

What does that look like in session? Well, it can have many different faces, but in my office it commonly looks like Finding Love, or Everything I needed to know I learned from Sitting Outside. Low self-esteem is met with self-compassion. Depression is met with spacious patience. Anxiety is met by coming home to the heart. Nature deficit disorder is met by falling head over heels for one's own little patch of dirt. Rage and violence is met with mindfulness. Grief is met by active allowance. It's making contact with one's own body and feelings, extending kindness and noticing what a nourishing act this is. That contact is then extended out into the world, with the surprising result of finding connection, belonging and kinship within our human relationships, with the place where we live and with the non-human others that share our space...the roly poly crossing the sidewalk, the dandelion greeting the sun or the Robin standing still in the backyard, head cocked, listening. Not surprisingly, both of you find satisfaction when he plucks the worm out of the soft earth.

So since we're almost to the fifth floor, can I give you my elevator* speech?

"What do I do? I'm an Ecopsychologist. It does sound interesting doesn't it? What is it? Well, to put it as simply as I can, Ecopsychology is the practice of re-embeding the human animal back into nature using holistic psychotherapy. How does that work?  Honestly, it works best when I can take my clients outside. Yes, for real! Well, this is my floor and I have to get out now, but here's my card. I'm guiding a hike next weekend for folks who want to increase their nature awareness using mindfulness. Why don't you come?"

*To clarify...I would probably never have this speech in an elevator, since this isn't Mad Men. But it could totally happen in a cafe, or while picking up my daughter from school, or while sitting in a theater waiting for "This Changes Everything" to start, or while peering under forest duff on a mushroom hunt. True story.

Of Singing Mice and Silence

"Would you rather be happy because of something or because of nothing?" - Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

When I try describe my home to others, I often default to descriptors that make it sound like I'm Goldilocks, living the Tiny House Dream. "Where do I live? Oh, just this cute little 540 sq. ft. converted barn in the middle of a horse ranch. It's truly just the right size for us. We don't have a living room, or even a couch, but we don't mind.". And I'm not lying, but there's not much I can say that truly describes our living conditions. Our home is quaint and so very sweet, but the experience of being here is not housed. This little barn is where we take refuge, but similar to the way in which Noah took refuge on the Ark, bobbing about on the waters with mixed company,

Our home doesn't have walls so much as it has membranes. Porous boundaries that we, and the rest of the surrounding natural world, pour in and out of. We've established ourselves as professional cohabitators, scooting over to make room for the earwigs and jerusalem crickets that announce their presence every night with concerned scrabbling across the floor. We dedicate corners to spiders and they pay rent by catching flies, who have unbearable presence in the summer, but who we kind of miss in the colder months. The mice began to move in when the weather got cold, and despite dedicated live trapping, there always seems to be just two more. There's a large wolf spider that lives under the stove, and I've stopped trying to put it outside, because seriously...it just comes back in. I figure it's probably keeping the earwig population down. We have starlings that live in the walls and provide a steady stream of beat boxing, there's something that lives in the attic, and we recently just gave up with the pretense of out vs. in and have been letting the pet goat come in for visits when he "Maaaaas" plaintively at the door.

I don't make this stuff up.

I don't make this stuff up.

It is the heart of midwinter here in northern california, which means that the spring peepers have begun their rain chants and evening is announced in chorus, a steady thrum that vibrates through the windows. With the arrival of El Nino to our parched state, the hills have begun to green and our Christmas dinner included sauteed nettles on the pizza and fresh salads of miner's lettuce and chickweed. We bring the outside in, with mud tracked in on our boots, greens in our bellies and friends that frequently stop by...crows looking for peanuts, farm dogs looking for treats and the kaleidoscope of migrators who find sustenance in our garden.

Baby nettles.

Baby nettles.

While there is lively activity within and without, the arc of our days is still held by that Earth element that predominates in winter...Earth, with its qualities of silence and stillness, darkness and dreaming, waiting and rest. Today is twelfth night, January 6th, the formal end of the holiday season. I could see it in the faces of the other parents when I dropped my daughter off at school, a scattered and dishelveled look, like someone who has just gotten out of bed and is not quite ready to be awake. The capitalist machine has declared it's time to get back to business as usual, seasonal rhythms be damned. And so we stumble, bleary eyed and blinking, out into the world to, you know...be all productive and stuff. New year resolutions demand high energy and go getting, and god forbid you be left behind.

Winter magic that arises out of the fertile darkness.

Winter magic that arises out of the fertile darkness.

But surrounding the artifice of human made calendars, there is the fertile darkness that schedules what will emerge. Slam down your double shot of espresso, turmeric, coconut oil power smoothie and forge ahead for the paycheck if you must, but meanwhile the quiet scheming of the waiting seeds invites you to remember spacious patience. Winter is the time of dreaming, and despite constant feedback as to the opposite from media and advertising, this meandering through the fairytale forest of the psyche is essential for creativity, vitality and overall health. Here in our little barn house, we light candles in the morning instead of chasing away the night and in the evening we let the silence of the stars contain us all...the frogs and the owls, the earwigs and the mice, our thoughts, our fears and our dreams.

Winter spiral.

Winter spiral.

We caught another mouse this morning. A male, and one we have grown quite fond of, because he "sings". Chirping and chattering for the ladies, we have heard his serenade from under the refrigerator and last night, from his perch above the counter. In the hush of the darkened kitchen, I crept up next to him and asked "What are you doing, little one? What are you talking about?". To which he replied, in steady boldness, a long series of high pitched refrain. We paused together in the dark, both of our feet undoubtedly cold from the night, and let all agenda and effort be suspended. He sang his song of desire, his longing for satisfaction a dream to give to the night. Then he disappeared behind the stove and I crept back to my own warm nest. In the morning we released him to his fate, with hopes that his dreams come true.

Today the rain falls in persistent glory and I summon the courage to not rush ahead. Instead I spend some time in meditation, daring to rest back with my own heart and let my body and mind become the open sky. Rather than collapsing around my goals like a manic architect, frantically pursuing perfection and structure, I am walking through the soul's terrain, becoming porous, letting out become in and in become out. I am reminded of those times when I have felt the happiest and the most connected. It was always during those moments of rest, when I heard through the silence that surrounds all life, the song of my own joy.

The joy of knowing love for this body, this being, this earth and this life.

 

In the Tradition of the Great Mother

"This is a soup as only the women of Roan Inish knows how to make...Learned it from my mother, who learned it from hers, all the way back to the first...if you're out in dirty weather, it's like the life blood flowing back into your veins." - from The Secret of Roan Inish

It is the height of midsummer, and my steep walk down to the beach is accompanied by coastal plants in fervent bloom. The air is filled with the dry, pungent scent of white yarrow and yellow tansy, and the dusty path has a barbed fence of blackberry and purple italian thistle. My steps feel light and unencumbered, a rare experience in this sixth year of motherhood. I feel strange without a little hand to hold, yet I am also reveling in the opportunity to move with my own rhythm, to go at my own pace.

As I look out across this little pocket of the Pacific, I see a sleek, dark head pop out of the water, with even darker eyes. A harbor seal. My heart smiles as I think of the Selkie myth...a creature half seal, half human. She can walk on land as a woman, but only at great risk, as she must take off her seal skin. If it is stolen (and in the stories, it usually was) she will be landlocked. Sometimes she may still have a happy life as a wife and mother, but the pot hanging over her hearth will always have seaweed soup simmering, her gaze straying out to sea.

Feather Boa seaweed

Feather Boa seaweed

I left daddy and daughter still slow and sleepy in the early dawn to go on this solo foraging adventure. May to September is when seaweeds are abundant on the California coast, and the tides around the new and full moons of June are at their lowest. An extremely low tide is essential for gathering seaweed, since the blanket of water needs to be pulled back enough to reach some of the most choice edibles. It is towards this slippery terrain of rock, anemone and algae that I now head, moving past the frontier of the comfortable known, to tide pools containing their own secrets. 

The intertidal zone is a place of dynamic interaction between rock and wave, a fertile edge where change is constant, and many stressors call for literal resiliency. The plants that grow here exemplify adaptability, sometimes drying out completely for half a day, waiting for the nourishing waves to return. Rather than roots at their base, they have what is called a holdfast, and it anchors them to their place in life. The stem, or stipe, is at once rigid and totally flexible, topped with fronds that sometimes come with their own little buoys in order to stay afloat and receive light for photosynthesis. Some sea plants, like nori, don't have a stipe, instead waving their fronds directly from the holdfast and choosing to live in shallower waters.