I like my garden best when it gets rather wild, with the plants spilling over each other, finding their own space, going to seed, rabbits burrowing under the comfrey, the berry brambles so thick you can’t see through them, the cucumbers and sunflowers and beans all intertwined, tomatoes spilling over the ground because the suckers grew faster than I could trim them, and herbs tucked in everywhere.
I planted mustard greens for the first time along with kale and spinach and collards last fall, and this spring the young mustard greens were a delightfully spicy addition to my spring salads. Then they rapidly went to seed, and since I didn’t need that space for any other plantings yet, I let them go. And go they did, rapidly reaching over six feet tall, proud, and strong. Now they are bursting with bright little yellow flowers that keep blooming more and more as they grow taller, pregnant with seed pods on the stems below.
Mustard is so common that we don’t think about it much, but it has been cultivated by humans for over 5000 years as well as easily growing in the wild. It has been used medicinally for millennia as well; it increases blood flow and draws out toxins. Our grandmothers and all those before them used a mustard plaster as a tried-and-true remedy for lung congestion and more. The seeds, of course, make one of our favorite condiments, and these seeds come in hues ranging from light yellow to black – with the amount of spiciness increasing with the color of the seed.
The mustard seed is also connected to the bible, because the parable of the mustard seed is one of the most widely known, and it is usually translated along the lines of the kingdom of God growing from the tiniest of seeds of faith. But I think the mustard plant itself explodes this parable with its very life force from our Mother Earth being far stronger and more deeply rooted. What if the parable of the mustard seed was about our prayers and how the tiniest seed of an intention is like the mustard seed? Nourished with daily prayers and petitions and gratitude, it grows exponentially in ways we could not have imagined so that gifts we had not even known we were asking for, start to nest in the many branches of its blossoming and it explodes into a heart’s desire so much bigger than we even dared to ask for? THAT is how we get back to the garden, the proverbial kingdom of heaven, rather than the patriarchal kingdoms that demand endless growth, consuming more and more of the earth’s resources without thought for sustainability. How glorious would that be?
In a tarot reading I had a few days ago, one card – the five of pentacles – came up for me saying that I often only allowed myself a certain amount of happiness and never ask for enough. The message was that I should sit on my wishes until they are BIG enough, full of joy; to allow my heart’s desire to GET BIGGER. That really resonated with me. And it mirrored the message of the mustard flower essence that I had made a few days before. Mustard said to me, “It doesn’t matter how small you think you are; your soul knows how big you can grow when you follow your heart’s desire. Joy is your birthright!”
The Divine Mother has shown me over and over again that I never ask for a big enough heart’s desire, that I limit myself. What my soul knows it really wants is MUCH bigger. My petition often evolves as I dig deeper to get at the root of what is holding me back from what I am REALLY asking for and didn’t fully realize. Or She sees what the real block to my heart’s desire is, that I couldn’t see, and proceeds to stir things up for me a bit to help remove it.
It is time to rise up from the earth like the tiny mustard seed and explode into the world with all of who we are, our hearts on fire, pregnant with thousands of seeds. To nourish the world with our spiciness, our passion, and spread like prolific weeds, as we are nourished by the dirt itself.
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” How many of us have heard this over and over growing up? Perhaps it was a southern thing, perhaps it was a generational thing, but I heard it over and over.
Recently when I asked my 92-year-old aunt what she remembered her grandmother saying about her dad’s experiences with his family split on both sides of the Civil War, she said: “I wish I could help you more, but I do not remember hearing Mammam talk about any of this. That doesn’t surprise me. She was one who talked only about nicer things! I do not ever remember hearing her say anything negative or bad about anything or anyone.” My great-great grandfather’s family was a classic brother-against-brother family in the civil war, and no one talked about it? Just astounding.
Looking back now to my childhood, my little girl head was just very confused. Quiet by nature anyway, and prone to figure everything out before I spoke at all to begin with, and now I had to figure out if what I was saying is nice or not before I said it? I just remember being in a social fog in elementary school. It was easier to just keep my nose in the book I was always reading, and more interesting too.
And so, I grew up learning to never say what I really thought, keep the peace, don’t make waves, don’t yell. The “only say nice things” dogma might sound like applying the golden rule on the surface, and therefore a good thing. But the worst part was that not SAYING anything often translated into don’t THINK anything, and that often meant I [MK1] didn’t know how to discern my feelings. We learn so much about life from the stories of those who have gone before us. If we only know the good stories, we are leaving out the most important teachers, where the worst mistakes were made. And then we are likely to repeat those mistakes.
When Amanda Gorman, our new Poet Laureate spoke her mantra last fall, I felt compelled to write my own. She said: “I am the daughter of Black writers who are descended from freedom fighters, who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.” So powerful. But the first thing that came to me was: “I am the daughter of strong but silent women.”
The silence with the women runs deep in my family. There is no personal writing, no journals from my mother, or any of my grandmothers. I did recently learn my mom’s sister wanted to be a doctor! But for all the others who have died, it is so hard now to try and learn what they really thought, what their traumas were, what were the turning points in their lives, what were their passions, their sorrows? What did they dream of? Most of them were wives and mothers which is PLENTY, but almost none were artists, or did any work outside the home. Did any of them question getting married? Did they want to do something they couldn’t because they were a woman? Did they want to help the suffragettes, but didn’t dare? Were they upset at the slavery in the midst of many of them? Were they afraid during the World Wars, Civil War, Revolutionary War? What atrocities did they see? Did they feel separated from other women or did they find solace there?
My grandmothers generation especially, and those before, were good women, but taught to be silent by their mothers, and their mother’s mothers. They did this to protect their daughters, an instinct ingrained through generations of fear likely still carried from the days of the inquisitions and witch trials, 10 to 15 generations before. My mother line goes back to Germany and Scotland, the two worst places for the witch trials in the 1500s and 1600’s. The fear engendered by these persecutions is in my DNA as well as my cultural history. Women were even afraid to trust each other, definitely afraid to speak their minds, and deeply afraid of being labeled a witch, or of being called hysterical and sent to an asylum or worse.
Another likely factor in the mantra of silence was that many may have become unknowingly complicit in things their families did or stood for, especially slavery. When you grow up with a culture, it is imbedded in you before you learn to discern what is right and true for yourself. And then, when you might start to question it, it feels like it is too late. Your love for and loyalty to your family was too strong to speak up against, especially 150 years ago. And so, you become silent. And say only nice things.
This mantra of silence is another form of scourging. Suppressing our own feelings to make others feel better is a rape of our voices, our desires, our dreams; of the gifts we can bring to the world. It is vitally important to learn to know our own hearts, to speak our own hearts desires, to no longer abandon ourselves; otherwise, we become lost and forget who we are, and lose our spark, our light, our desire for life.
Footnote on the image of the chair: This is a highchair, made by slaves owned by some of my paternal ancestors. I was always told just as a matter of fact, “This chair was made by slaves”. It is hard to write that word owned. That part was never discussed in my family. I keep the chair, so I don’t forget, and so my children won’t forget.
When I came upon the sea of mottled green and purple leaves with a chorus of delicate yellow flowers bowing their heads, my jaw dropped open and I felt such deep awe and wonder that I couldn’t speak. The sheer number of these flowers astounded me. With sunlight in the early spring air coming through the naked trees in the forest, these delicate beauties simply shimmered. Each flower held six yellow leaves bent back to the sun, making them appear like they were ready to dive into deep water; arms – (the stamens) – outstretched, heads down, wings flying behind with a wide-awake reverence for the Earth, and the purple tint on the back of their petals perfectly matching the coloring on their leaves. These lovelies are Trout Lilies, and only the mature seven-year-olds make a flower, one to a plant, with two leaves, and the younglings only having one leaf are gathered around them.
I felt like I was witnessing a secret gathering; old, ancient, with even older stories and grandmothers and great grandmothers leading the way. I felt honored to be with them, to sit with them, to hear their wisdom. The flowers, like a gathering of faeries or young girls dancing by the stream in pure devoted delight, a dance of reverence, greeting the spring sun and celebrating their coming of age – seven years to grow the strength to join this dance. The coloring of the mottled leaves mirrors the light on the surface of the stream they grow beside. It looks and even feels like the water is literally flowing through them, as if the stream had overflowed its banks, and left this sea of water-colored leaves behind. They are named Trout Lily because their leaves also look like the skin of a brook trout that often swims by them in the stream they live beside.
The Trout Lilies said to me: “Come dance and skip with me on the forest floor as the bees do, let my yellow radiance infuse you with delight. Come play with me in the sunlight. Then follow the deep colors in my purple spotted leaves through the door to my roots where my strength lies. There is no need to rush anything. The way to be strong is to go slowly, and to build strength and resilience a little bit at a time. That way you can weave your roots deeper and deeper, becoming stronger and unable to be uprooted. Our deepest strength is our beloved community.”
It so hard for our human mind to really comprehend the nature of community in a stand of wildflowers that grows slowly over several hundred years, most of its life underground and each plant only able to produce a single flower after seven years of growth! What is it like to wait seven years to bloom into motherhood, only to fade about 10 days later, knowing your best work is done? You were able to fly for a few days, but now your deep satisfaction comes from feeding the community and becoming seeds for the future.
A little research tells me that as trout lilies spread over the forest floor, hundreds of plants can result from a single beginning seed. All these little plants are genetically the same organism, and this group of related plants, this clone, can persist for decades or even centuries. Many 200 to 300 years old, and in one study, such colonies were found to be as old as 1,300 years!
The trout lily flowers are the mature mamas, making babies, watching over everyone. It is their time. They said “YES” to the call to procreate. I came to visit them three times before their flowers had all faded, the leaves already starting to disappear in the later spring growth. These plants are also ephemerals, like the bleeding heart, dying back to live only underground by late spring.
These seemingly small wildflowers and others like them hold the world together. If they can live in such vibrant communities on lands disturbed not so long ago, growing synergistically with the mycelium and streams and deer and people then there is hope for our own communities as well.
These communities of trout lilies are old, but they also live in a seven-year cycle. As the older plants die off and new ones are born, all part of and supporting their community, their root system – they feed off their dead and gain their wisdom and strength from their dead. They such a glorious example of nature’s enduring life cycles of deep time where the dead support and sustain the living.
As I drive to our city park that has forest trails in its valleys, my mind is paying attention to the road, checking off mental notes on my never ending to do list, arranging priorities. I always think if I can just get one more thing done, THEN I will feel spacious and free to do what my heart desires. Oh, the fallacy of this never-ending trick of the mind! Checking those things off my to do list has always been a relentless pull and a way I falsely feed my self-worth. How many gold stars did I earn this week? So, for reprieve from my mental agenda, I am headed to the forest, one of my favorite respites.
The first thing I was amazed at in my new rosary practice (no, I am not Catholic, but I have fallen in love with the rosary) last year was its incredible ability to STOP my mind from endlessly looping, especially on problems it couldn’t fix, like coronavirus anxieties. Meditation had never allowed me to achieve these same results as consistently or quickly. Just a few beads and prayers, and my mind is quiet, I become present in the moment, and my brain waves drop into a theta state, like when I am daydreaming. Entering a forest trail has the same effect on me.
Finishing my car ride to the park, going through traffic, driving up the road to the park, over the speed bumps, past the construction crew, into the parking lot, parking my car, locking it, gathering my water bottle, phone (for the camera), my car key, locking the car, and WHEW! I made it. Now I can set my sights on the trail head.
As soon as I drop into the forest trail, and head down through the trees, my whole presence shifts, like when I pray the rosary. The contrast between the world that is formed and paved and manicured to make things easy for people, and the forest left to be wild and grow how it wants to be, is like stepping into another world. It is almost literally a veil I have stepped through, from the ordered human world into Her world, the wild complex harmony of the forest that only our Earth Mother fully understands. The forest does just fine thank you, without all that manmade control.
There is something primally connecting about praying the rosary while walking in the forest. Walking becomes a prayer, a conversation with the earth. The rhythm of the walking mirrors the rhythm of the prayers. I think of our ancestors who walked everywhere they wanted and needed to go, of how the rhythms of walking were fundamental to their everyday lives.
When I arrive at my favorite spot, there is a special silvery afternoon light from the way the sun spills through the trees that have just barely begun to leaf out. I fall into a revelry…. Full of awe and devotion…. Is it possible to describe this Beauty, this life force, Her essence?
Standing here by the stream listening to the gurgling of the water as she flows under the rock shelf she carved into the side of this hill, the air itself seems to pulse. This stream of life-filled water, carrying an endless prayer, has sculpted a safe and sacred womb in the face of the rocks, where birds nest and the light glimmers with a wink. A small hemlock grows on the vertical face of the rock and literally spirals its trunk down and then around and upwards to the sunlight, knowing the circle of life is feeding its roots. Ferns hang down, and moss clings to the face of the rock, circling a mandala of bright green creeping Charlie that holds my eye like a central focus point. There is a presence here, a song that I’ve heard before, ancient and calling to me, and I find myself singing. A portal has opened, the gurgling water a mantra, a hail mary. A yellow swallowtail butterfly flies gently into and through this womb, like a song note.
Time starts to move again, and I come slowly out of my revelry, steeped in gratitude for this gift. Suffused with deep devotion I almost feel like I am floating. But it starts to fade, and it is time to leave.
As I return up the trail, an unmistakable phoenix bird greets me in a dead tree branch. Not an ordinary face in the tree bark! It feels like a confirmation that this wasn’t just an ordinary walk in the forest; it was a transformation, an everyday miracle, a glorious mystery!
Following the dirt path back the way I came, each step, like each bead, is a prayer. As I step back through the veil at the edge of the forest and go back to my car, I ask our Earth Mother to be with me in both worlds and to bring them closer together so I can experience Her magic everywhere as easily and surely as I do in the forest. And I hear the message again to “Pull up my skirts and show the world my passion! Be full of courage!” as Bleeding Heart said to me. This is how to bring the worlds together.
One minute I was Mr. McGregor. The next minute I was Peter Rabbit…
I have a garden that is fenced to keep out the deer, and one day recently I left the gate open all night, and a rabbit got in. We have lots of rabbits in our yard, and they sniff around the edges of the fenced garden all the time but had never gotten in – that I knew of. This poor rabbit was SO scared when I came into the garden – I had a mental flash of me as Mr. McGregor from the rabbit’s perspective, and then I was empathizing with this poor terrified rabbit and I was Peter Rabbit for a moment.
My grandmother read the story of Peter Rabbit to me a lot when I was little, so my first memory of Peter Rabbit is being held in my grandmother’s lap. But the story is really about how Peter learned to be afraid because he didn’t listen to his mother who told him he would end up in a stew like his dad if he didn’t stay out of the garden, and he almost did. “Scared as a rabbit” is a common saying because they are mostly defenseless and are pursued by predators such as hawks, coyotes, and foxes daily. We think of rabbits as full of fear, and they are – but are we much different?
We may no longer have to worry about being eaten by a mountain lion, but modern physical fears, as well as daily mental fears such as what other people think, how they might shame us, reflexive fears from ingrained stories and traumas, are just as real as the rabbit’s fear. And when rabbits come into our life, often it is to help us realize deep fears that we are covering up.
For me lately these include fears of stepping fully into my creativity, my heart’s desire and being vulnerable. What will be asked of me when I do? What will I show to the world? Will I be shamed, dismissed, my words twisted, thought a little crazy, called a witch or idol worshipper? What might I be asked to give up, to let go of, to step into? What is at the root of these fears?
I recently found a rabbit pelvis bone by a creek, the day after the rabbit was in my garden. Clean as a whistle, just sitting there for me to find. It felt rather prophetic or at least like a message of some sort. And I realized that Rabbit had been showing up a lot in my life lately. Several rabbits have come into my paintings this past year, and I have two works of art in my house I purchased from other artists of rabbits recently, and there is also my favorite rabbit fur hat. And lastly, two (or maybe more) baby rabbits had been nesting in my garden unbeknownst to me. Rabbit is clearly everywhere in my life lately and wanting to speak to me. Or another way of looking at it is that our Earth Mother, is giving me messages through the rabbits.
When I first found the rabbit pelvis, the message I sensed was around her womb, the fertility of the rabbits, the abundance, and the joy of their hopping mating dance. Rabbits are given great fertility, fecundity, passion, and ability to bring forth life with relative ease in return for being so vulnerable to their predators. Their cycles are deeply tied to the moon cycles. Their babies gestate for about 28 days and then they are tended in the nest for another 28 days – two moon cycles – just like my prayer novenas, where I gestate my hearts desire for 28 days and then tend it with gratitude for another 28 days.
But while I was enjoying these ties of the rabbit’s fertility, the shadow side of Rabbit started to nudge me and resonated deeply. This quote from a Google search sums it up well…
“Rabbits are guides into the shadow world, where our personal fears lie. When the rabbit shows up it is time to examine those deep reflexive fears that hold you back from growing. Do you keep bounding for the safety of your old patterns every time something new or challenging presents itself? If the answer is yes, the rabbit asks you to face your fears with compassion for yourself.” — Ina Woolcott
Rabbit messages may feel like a paradox, but really, they are not. Although fertility, abundance, and creativity may be the opposite side of the coin from fear, when I faced my fear and stepped THROUGH it, rather than bouncing around like a rabbit in my old patterns of avoidance, the erotic abundant fertility of my creativity began to fully gestate. My soul is singing more often and once I acknowledged my big fear and put all my options on the table and stepped into them, I realized I was no longer giving my power away to the fear like I had in the past. I opened the door of possibility, and soon I found myself held in the warm womb of creativity, nurtured by Mama Rabbit, another name for our Great Mother of course. To step in, lean in, and see THROUGH our fears to what we want, our hearts desire, is like when a karate student learns to break a board. They are taught to see THROUGH the board to what is on the other side, to not see the board as a barrier.
Now I can allow myself to consider some tough questions that I might have avoided in the past. What do I really want? What am I afraid to ask for? Will that desire ask too much of me? Am I afraid of not getting it? Or afraid that I will? If it breaks open my world what will that mean?
Images: 1) Peter Rabbit running from Mr. McGregor, 2) “Rabbit” by Robin Quinlivan, 3) Rabbit pelvis found by the creek, 4) Rabbit painting by Mary Kerns
The term “bleeding heart” has become quite a derogatory term in our culture and refers to one who feels “too much”. Dictionary.com says it means “a person who makes an ostentatious or excessive display of pity or concern for others”, and it has even become a political term. Most people want to be known to have generous hearts, but not bleeding hearts. Sadly, “feeling too much” is something women have often been shamed for, and in men it is practically forbidden. I have found that the flower Bleeding Heart has much to share with us about the right balance for our feeling hearts. In traditional flower lore, Bleeding Heart is a symbol for speaking freely about your feelings.
This unique plant was brought from China in 1846 by a man named Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, who, working for the British East India Company, disguised himself as a Chinese merchant and illegally brought this plant out of China, along with tea plants and many others. But that is another story of empire in and of itself, for another day.
At home in cool temperate climates, and earlier than most plants, Bleeding Heart emerges from the dirt barely thawed from the dark of winter, with seemingly delicate fronds that quickly push up to the pale spring light and soon the buds of her first blooms appear. Like a young maiden naively sure of the beauty of the world, she has no fear of the frost. She loves the early light of the sun that is not strong yet, that teases her out of the ground with promise. Like the ancient virgins she is sure and strong, sensuous, and regal.
The original meaning of the word virgin was simply young woman, not married, and hence whole unto herself, and this plant holds that essence as she appears early in the spring. And she brings us hearts. Her heart. Our Earth Mother’s heart. Lots and lots of hearts, that pop up right out of the earth, naked, not in a body, but visible for all to see, hanging in a row on display. These bright, beautiful pink and white hearts lead the way into spring for others to follow. Just like Joan of Arc, it takes a huge heart to lead and give others the courage to follow.
Courage is a word so closely tied to the heart… The root of the word, “cor” is the Latin word for heart. Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart”, and perhaps this is what Bleeding Heart leads us to do. To be both strong and vulnerable enough to share OUR heart first, to seek and know our heart’s desire before we “bleed” and worry about others. To ferret out and follow our hearts desire takes courage indeed!
Upon closer inspection, the most immature flowers at the tip of the graceful arm they hang from, are small hearts with a larger arrow shaped structure that hangs down from them. As they mature, the arrow shaped structure splits in two, opens as if it is pulling up its skirts, and pulls its heart open to expose the delicate inner blood drop bleeding from the tip of the heart. And then that tip expands by growing wings as it fully matures. It is like the hearts know when they need to protect themselves, when they are ready and strong enough to open, and when they are secure enough to pour their love out into the world. Rather than protecting their hearts from fear (of the spring frost), these hearts are bursting with love and gratitude and seeds ready to be shared with the world, with the force of their joy and exuberance naturally protecting their hearts, firmly grounded in the dirt and life force of the Mother Earth.
Bleeding Heart nudged me to make a flower essence from it on a recent sunny day, the first flower that called to me this year, and I was honored. The process of making a flower essence captures the energetic essence of the flower with sunlight in water, and the essence is preserved with a bit of brandy. Flower essences effects are very subtle, and I like to sit with the essence to see what the flower has to say to me. This is a process my thinking mind always questions and doubts, but every time, a message comes from the flower that is unique and quite powerful.
Bleeding Heart brought to me an image of May Day and Beltane dancing. Festive girls and women with garlands of flowers in their hair, lifting their skirts, dancing barefoot in meadows and gardens, full of the confidence of youth, with cheeks blushing, the excitement of spring, sensual flirtation with all of creation, and the scent of desire in the air.
I heard Bleeding Heart say: “Let your passion and exuberance overcome your fears of sharing your heart. Your very life force will protect you from giving away your essence unintentionally or unconsciously. Bleeding heart says it is time to dance with all the power of the life force of Mama Earth. Pull up your skirts and show the world your passion! Be full of courage!”
And don’t waste any time starting your dance, because Bleeding Heart is an ephemeral… a magical sounding word that means short-lived, transitory, fleeting; and in the plant world this means that it dies back in the heat of the summer. The passion of this plant is only for the bright new light of spring and its cooler days and nights. Its faint delicate fragrance is equally fleeting, only shared if you put your nose right next to the flowering hearts. It steps aside in late spring for the bolder stronger plants that draw their primary strength from the summer sun, while Bleeding Heart draws hers from the dirt of her mother’s womb – The Earth. And then she returns to that dirt for the next 9 months to nurture the hearts she will bring into the world the next year.
I recently learned that in French these flowers are called ‘Les Coeurs de Marie”- the Hearts of Mary. Of course, they are – our Mother’s hearts indeed. Given freely to us to remind us to have the courage to speak our mind by telling all of our heart.
What is it about that white fluffy puffy sticky pillow of sweetness that we call a marshmallow? I have lots of childhood memories, squishing marshmallows between my fingers, seeing how many I could stuff in my mouth, making smores around a campfire at girl scout camp.
Today’s marshmallows are far from a health food, being made with corn syrup. When I learned that there is a PLANT called marshmallow and that the first marshmallows were made from it, and that it can be a medicine for sore throats and coughs, well, to say I was intrigued was an understatement.
In the spring of 2020, realizing I would have months at home without travel, I jumped at the opportunity to have a medicinal herb garden for the first time in my life. Growing marshmallow was definitely on the list. There is a whole family of plants called mallows, including the Rose of Sharon and the Rose Mallow that I already loved and grew for flowers. Marshmallow leaves and roots have properties that loosen mucus, and this same property makes a gelatin like substance that is also sweet and was used to make the first marshmallows.
Marshmallows as a treat date back to as early as 2000 BC and were considered a delicacy deemed worthy only for gods and royalty. During these times, Egyptians made individual marshmallows by hand by extracting sap from a mallow plant and mixing it with nuts and honey.
Marshmallow plants grow to 5 or 6 feet tall, and their best feature is their oh-so-soft leaves which are like velvet to the touch, and soft enough to caress my cheek. And the flowers, while small, are so very delightful. Five white petals, with a lovely purple center of stamens arising from a green tinted center, each lasting just a day like their cousins. The bees are very fond of them too.
When their blooms were abundant last summer, I made a flower essence with them, a process that captures the energetic essence of the flower with sunlight in water. The essence is preserved with a bit of brandy. Flower essences effects are very subtle, and it takes a quiet space to properly sit with them to experience the vibration of the plant, through a process that Asia Suler taught, called an attunement.
Somehow, I never took the time to sit down with this Marshmallow essence until this week. I must have known it would be a special winter treat when flowers are few and far between. As I sat, and put a few drops under my tongue, the marshmallow essence settled directly into my heart area quite distinctly and mixed memories came to me, some were nurturing, like making pies with my mom, and some were quite the opposite, hard things that my ancestors have gone through.
When I asked what Marshmallow wanted me to know, her words came to me as I wrote: “Dear Mary, I want you to know that there is a soft pillow always ready for you, that carries no judgement. I am stronger than you think, and I can hold you and compost and digest all the judgement and anger and fear that you carry. While I hold you, I can pull those no longer needed feelings down through my tall stem and into my sturdy root and the sweetness there will dissolve those feelings into new food for the earthworms. Then you can take my hand and stand beside me knowing we are stronger together. Let some of my velvety softness soothe your body. Let the slippery mucus of my roots slide into your being so that what is no longer needed can easily slide out.”
The last part of the attunement process is to summarize the themes into a short statement for others, to give with the essence as a gift. I wrote as I heard:
“Marshmallow is for someone who has been too hard on themselves and is holding on to bitterness. Let the sweetness and slipperiness of marshmallow loosen those old fears and resentments and let them slide out to be digested by our Mother Earth.”
I know in my heart that this is how our ancestors, and those we call indigenous peoples today, learned how to use the plants as food and medicine. They sat with the plants and explored them and listened to them and asked them what they wanted them to know. Yet, my inner critic is screaming at me that I will be judged as crazy or … (fill in from a long list of shaming words) for sharing this conversation with Marshmallow.
My body sings with this knowing. Our Earth Mother speaks in many voices through each living thing here on this sacred planet. It is up to us to slow down enough to listen and start the conversations again. This is part of our journey back to the garden – no longer letting the main stream culture shame us for listening and being in conversation with the plants and the animals.
Images: 1) Marshmallow in my garden summer of 2020, 2) Marshmallow root
When we were kids, we would play several car games on the way to Myrtle Beach each summer. A favorite was who could be the first to spy the big old trees with the Spanish moss. I fell in love with the live oak trees then, although at the time I didn’t know they were oaks and related to my favorite tree in West Virginia. Today a live oak tree at our home in Florida greets me with her big open arms whenever we visit here.
The biggest difference, in addition to growing wide rather than tall, between the live oak, and the red and white oaks of the mountains, is that these live oaks are nearly evergreen, not deciduous. They do drop their small shiny bright green leaves, but only right before the new growth starts in the early spring. And the acorns on the live oak trees are much smaller that their northern cousins, perhaps a quarter of the size.
When a live oak is allowed to grow to her full majesty, she becomes a Great Mother tree beckoning everyone to come rest under her branches. With a sturdy, spiral trunk and deep roots that intertwine with neighboring trees, a live oak is quite a force to be reckoned with and they have survived centuries of hurricanes in the coastal states. I can’t quite imagine what the glory of a whole native forest of live oaks would be like. I have only ever seen them lining a road or one at a time in a large yard or park, or at an old plantation, planted for aesthetic beauty.
In the whole forest that I imagine in my dreams of these beauties, I see a glorious party, both above and below ground. Interweaving in her roots are the mycorrhizal fungi, insects, and bacteria all dancing and singing. Birds, sapsuckers, mallards, wild turkeys, squirrels, black bears, and deer are all feasting on her bounty of acorns. And the squirrels are special guests who in return spread her seed by tucking acorns into secrets stashes far from the mother tree where some forgotten ones germinate in the spring. Not least, the Spanish moss is a favored party decoration, gracing them all with beauty as well as providing nesting for the birds.
It’s impressive that these trees have managed to survive at all after 400 years of settlement, urban development and especially the logging during the era of wooden shipbuilding. Having nearly exhausted the European continent of oak wood for their fleets, the British, French and Spanish rulers coveted the broad expanse of the original live oak forests in the southern states. As early as 1700, shipwrights recognized that the near impenetrable wood of the live oak was perfect for the timbers (long beams) and knees (angular joints in the hulls) of ships. The USS Constitution was made of live oak and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” after her hull survived repeated cannon fire during the War of 1812.
A large mature grandmother live oak tree stretches and bends my normal understanding of time. They are the largest and oldest trees east of the Rockies, often 300 to 500 years, perhaps even up to 1000 years in a few instances. Their lives extend far beyond the ancestors we can remember or even tell family stories about. A 300-year-old tree would go back about 10 generations in my family. While I may be able to find the names of those ancestors, I have no real understanding or knowledge of ancestors past 175 years ago, or 5 generations, to my great-great grandparents. Yet here is a living being that knew them and holds their stories today.
There are many live oak trees living now that were alive before our industrial age, before our population began to explode from 500,000 in 1725 to 300 million today. Imagining these trees witnessing our lives for all those generations brings forth an image of them holding ALL these generations in their arms, and looking back to THEIR tree mothers, and on back. And then time starts to really slow down, and the short amount of time that we live in now starts to come into focus.
These trees undoubtedly have been privy both to the best and the worst things humans have done. For example, being a common tree in southern states with large low horizontal limbs, some of these beautiful trees standing today would have been used to hold a rope not so long ago, as an angry mob unleashed its anger on an undeserving man, usually with darker skin than the rest. Perhaps these grandmother trees are key to helping us heal even these deepest of wounds.
Their presence as Great Mothers for us is so important. They have been able to withstand untold storms, diseases, changes in climates, and changing human civilization and other atrocities. They have much to teach us about how to move forward and survive in our own changing world.
As I listen to the tree in my own yard, I hear, “My child, I am here, I am always here. My arms are always open and through my roots I reach out to all the life around us and call in who is needed right now. I will provide for you. Each season the squirrels come to feast with us and take our babies out into the world. Some take root. Some are eaten. Some decay and feed the mushrooms. Because I cannot walk away, I stand. Here. Now. Witnessing all that you and others bring to me. Let your laughter and your tears both fall on my body and I will absorb them and let the earthworms compost them.”
What a glorious day it will be, when these Great Mother trees are truly recognized for the wisdom they have to share with us, from their viewpoint of the centuries they have seen. May there always be a Great Council of Grandmother Trees that we can call upon.
Images: 1) Angel Oak Tree in Charleston, SC 2) the live oak in my yard in Florida
Have you ever wanted to go on a pilgrimage? Following in other pilgrims’ and ancestors’ footsteps sounds so romantic, noble, sacred, ancient even; with the idea that at the end you will be changed or have learned something or have deepened your devotion.
My husband and I visited Santiago de Compostela during a cruise around Spain a few years ago – the end point of the famous pilgrimage route of The Camino de Santiago. We visited the cathedral where the pilgrims go to pay homage to St. James at the end of their journey and see his relics. In speaking to a few of the pilgrims as they were getting their final stamp in their book, we reveled in their sense of accomplishment. It was palpable – a gleam in their eye, a satisfied smile.
Dictionary.com defines pilgrimage as either 1) a journey, especially a long one, made to a sacred place as an act of devotion or 2) any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest for a votive purpose. Related words include crusade, (which is scary), mission, trip, and wayfaring. Wayfaring is defined as traveling on foot, but its synonyms are drifting, rambling, vagabond, nomadic. Hmm… to be a pilgrim or a wayfaring nomad. One is revered, the other is feared and watched with a careful eye. One thing about the word pilgrimage is that it implies a goal or purpose. Does a pilgrimage have to have a specific goal? Does it have to be a set period of time, in a set place?
What we really need is a new word for a pilgrimage, a word for a journey that is taken one step at a time, without knowing the end point or goal, or having a set time frame, but is still a sacred one.
I was in Australia once many decades ago, at Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is called by the Aborigines. When I first heard about how the aborigines do a walkabout, walking their dreamtime, their storylines, I couldn’t wrap my head around it, being so schooled in linear thinking. Walking a story; what a lovely way to describe a pilgrimage.
When I was a child, we would visit Myrtle Beach every summer and my biggest memory is the daily walks I took on the beach with my dad or by myself, with the walks growing longer as I grew older. In those days I was reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I remember loving that book, although it seems rather cheesy now. But perhaps for a 10-year-old in 1970 who didn’t fit into social circles very well, it was the beginning of a pilgrimage.
As I walk the beach today, the waves are washing over the seashells like laughter, and each one is like an ancestor rolling in to greet me and nurture me. Endless millennia of ancestors; human ancestors, tree and plant ancestors, animal ancestors. Walking the beach every morning that I am at the ocean has become a ritual that runs through all the years of my life, listening to the waves, pondering the dance between the sea and the land.
Each beach walk, each year, overlaps the next with a shimmering ribbon running through them that undulates on the wind, catching the light in different ways each time I look at it. A ribbon that becomes an ongoing pilgrimage of my life, and becomes woven into and around my ancestors, family, and friends; more spiral than linear, like the whelks that wash up onto the shores.
This pilgrimage of walking the beach becomes the pilgrimage of walking the forests, walking the streets, and walking all my memories. Glimpses flash through my mind from pictures that have recently come to me. Absurdly disconnected, except for the ribbon of my life that connects them. One day standing with my coloring books, blue rimmed glasses, and long funky hat, still strong in my six-year-old self. One day a punk wanna-be outside a London Tube stop, trying to look cool. One day a pregnant nun in a funeral parade party accompanied by my 10-year-old son in a vampire cloak. Just a few of many random points on the tapestry that is my story-journey-pilgrimage, bookended by walks on the beach.
Unlike a traditional pilgrimage, I don’t know the end point, the goal. I only know that I am on this journey one day at a time as my devotion deepens, and all I need to know is the next step. And that each step is a prayer. If I listen to the waves, to our Great Mother, and to my heart’s desire, I will hear what the next step should be. And that is all I need to know. And to say YES.
Images: 1) My footsteps in the sand 2) a picture of my six-year-old self recently given to me by a cousin 3) another picture recently resurfaced taken in 1980 while in a college semester in London at a punk photo shoot with my classmates. 4) a picture sent to me just last week by an acquaintance I don’t even know well, of me pregnant with my now 28-year-old son, dressed as a pregnant nun during a festival funeral parade, accompanied by my older son dressed as a vampire.
I am standing in the dense fog, at the edge of the ocean, as the wind is blowing the wetness into every part of me, seeping into my skin, clothing, hair. The edges between the ground, the sea, and the air are blurred. As I stand in this fog, time stands still and I am held in a cocoon where the sound is muffled, and I feel the caress of the fog on my cheek. And I taste the salt. The salt is everywhere – in the sand, in the sea, in the air, carried on the fog. The fog is reminding me that salt itself is one of our oldest ancestors. There is something so primal about SALT.
We humans and our fellow land animals all need salt to survive. Until we settled into living in one place around 10,000 years ago, we would get our salt from the animals we ate, and we would follow the animals to find sources of salt when we did not live near a sea. Salt is found in various forms all over the world as testament to the millennia ago that various seas covered the earth. Salt is the only rock we EAT. It is literally our deepest tie to the very earth that has formed us and brought us into being. Perhaps this is why many religions have used salt in rituals, usually associated with purity, and devotion. The root of the word salvation is sal or salt.
I recently learned there is an ancient ocean under the mountains where I live in WV. In the Kanawha Valley of my home are some of the early salt works in our country. Settlers in 1755 report that the native people were boiling brine for salt, and so of course they got the idea to follow suit in a bigger way and by 1800 large scale production was under way by pumping the brine water up from under the ground. Today only a small craft salt operation remains. I learned from their website that there is an inland ocean under my beloved mountains in WV, known as the Iapetus Ocean and it is 400 million years old. How incredible to know even in the mountains I am near the sea.
It is hard to think of another substance, that is both completely necessary for life as well as able to quickly kill it, all depending on the balance and concentration. The procuring of salt has been essential to humans ever since they started settling down and developed a need to preserve food. Preserving is a form of “beneficial destruction”. Salt can kill by pulling too much water out of the surrounding cells, killing the bacteria and fungus that would decompose the food otherwise.
This term “beneficial destruction” catches my heart… it pulls me the to the cycles of life, death and rebirth that we live every day, and visit in the mysteries. When is death beneficial? When is it harmful? Is it only in our perspective that a difference exists? These are the mysteries indeed. Our Great Mother’s body of the Earth both brings forth life and returns life to Herself in the elaborate dance of birth, death and rebirth.
It is fun to play with some common sayings about salt:
If salt preserves food by preventing natural decomposition, then perhaps becoming a pillar of salt, rather than being punished for our past, is preserving the past, perhaps until a later time when we are ready to digest it, and properly compost it and return it to the earth.
Salt was the first major commodity and in ancient times it was more valuable than gold, which meant it was used for power, control and was literally used as money. The word Salary comes from salt. Not worth his salt, means not worth your wages. Many wars were fought over salt before it was widely available from mining.
Salt on the wound is a saying first used to mean further punishment after a flogging. And in warfare, salting the fields was done to kill the land itself so it could not be used to grow food. This act is probably one of the deepest early intentional betrayals of men against their Mother Earth.
Some people made their quest for salt a religious and coming of age rite of passage. Southwest American native young men went on salt pilgrimages to find salt far from their homes for their people.
Salt of the earth is a phrase that in Dictionary.com means you are a good and honest person, or an honest laborer, working close to the earth. It is also one of the more quoted bible phrases. But the origins feel deeper, wilder, going back into the depths of deep time before written history; before salt was commoditized.
What if instead, we thought of our Great Mother as the Salt of the Earth? Our Earth Mother, essential to our life, who holds us close to the Earth, to Her, in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. And especially when She joins us in our salty tears, as we witness and experience the sorrows of this life.
Images: 1) Salt crystal from dried sea water 2) Iapetus Ocean being subducted over 400 million years ago 3) Salt from the old family salt works in the Kanawha Valley of WV 4) Salt crystals
I love watching their arms reaching down for the rich brown, wet, primordial muck at the edge of the bay, their fingers outstretched with dark brown tips almost like nipples, yearning to be sucked into the wet earth. They are longer every time I visit, visibly showing their increasing fervor for the brackish back bay water. These are the Red Mangroves, whose intimacy with the edge of the seawater is that of a fiercely protective mother.
When we decided to come to Florida for two months this winter, I knew I would miss my West Virginia forests. But here in Florida, the mangroves have pulled on my heartstrings, and as mothers of all types know, there is always room for more love. From afar, as we zoom over the causeway to the island, the mangrove forests just look like green bushes on the edges of the bay. Once there, I can only see the mangrove preserves from their back side along the road showing an impenetrable wall of green. After entering a preserve area, however, there are boardwalks that have been built into the heart of these magical mangrove forests to provide access for humans so that we can be with them up close and personal, something we could not do easily otherwise. And the Florida winter is the most pleasant time for humans to visit the mangroves – not hot, buggy, or muggy.
These mothering mangroves, that hug the warm seacoasts of the world, are sometimes called walking trees because, well, they rather look like they are walking. Their jumble of “prop” roots extend over each other, every which way, making for quite an entanglement that does a good job of keeping people out while providing lots of hidey places for many types of fish, insects, crabs; birds, like herons and cormorants; reptiles, invertebrates, and untold amounts of microorganisms, algae and fungal life. It is quite a glorious party!
Literally weaving the sea and the edges of the land together in a three-dimensional mothering web, the roots look like they are hugging each other. They reach down through layers of decayed and rotten plants and animals and microbes, recreating all the dead matter, the dead ancestors, into new life. Having recently read Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, these mangrove roots look like I imagine the almost microscopic mycelium must look if we could see the full extent of them with the naked eye. And surely the mycelium are thick in the mangrove!
The prop roots of the Red Mangrove also look like the branches of a lung, which is quite appropriate because these roots do literally breathe for the tree’s roots below the ground that can’t breathe for themselves in the waterlogged soil. And they are breathing for all of us, literally, as they pull carbon out of the air, and the habitat they create becomes a breathing space for all the different life they protect. I love seeing them as lungs, Mother lungs breathing for us.
Our human lungs love breathing in the salt air, and it must be the same for mangroves. But the mangroves actively live IN the salt. This adaptive genius, the mangrove, has figured out how to live in the harshest of environments – saltwater and waterlogged muck, subject to the whims of the waves and winds and tides. She has learned to thrive where few other plants can. She knows her boundaries and when to close the door to the salt.
Until recent decades when we humans learned that mangroves are key to seacoast ecosystems, and that they protect our coasts from erosion, wave action, hurricanes and other threats, mangroves were considered useless and were destroyed at random. They were looked at as gnarled and impenetrable. While they are now increasing in Florida, due to environmental protection laws and warming climates that allow them to grow farther north, worldwide they have decreased 35% in just the last 10 years. One big destroyer of mangroves is shrimp farming. These shrimp farms feed the American average of 4 pounds of shrimp per person per year, totaling over one billion pounds of shrimp for the United States, and 90 percent of it comes from shrimp farms in southeast Asia and Central America. Do we really need to eat shrimp when we don’t live near the sea?
Mangroves are WILD, unmanageable, and not hospitable to “normal” human habitat, and that is their beauty. They are connected to the earth and are of the earth in wild uncontrollable ways that we desperately need more of. We need their tenacity, their wildness, their ability to adapt to the edges, to environments that most no one else is interested in. They have so much to teach us about survival, starting with the need for deeply interwoven relationships with all the life around us.
I hear the Mother Mangroves say: “Breathe. Breathe with Me.” And as I watch those prop roots that are literally breathing, I say “YES, thank you, I will breathe with you”.
In the Victorian era of the language of flowers, the black or burgundy color Dahlia flower symbolizes betrayal. Black Dahlia’s symbolism is extremely strong and has been present for centuries.
It is not every day that you come across a picture of your great-great grandfather in a newspaper article written in 2017, with a picture of him 100 years before, in 1917 at age 75, holding a sword, dressed in his Civil War uniform going to register on the first day of the draft for WWI! He wasn’t accepted, but his grandson was. This picture mirrors the only other picture I have of him, from when he was 21, and in both pictures, he is in uniform, holding a sword, ready for war.
My first thought was (setting aside any judgements or politics) that it is good to know I have an ancestor, Captain Edwin D. Camden, who is ready to fight battles for me, uphold the family honor, never say die, hold the boundaries. But it brings up a lot of questions too. What was it in his character that kept that fighting spirit alive, well into old age? During the civil war he was badly injured, left for dead, taken prisoner and intentionally starved. Despite that, in his later years, what is still driving this spirit? Is he still defending his family and home, standing for what he believes in? Is he proud of his place in history? Is he still angry at perceived betrayals and still willing to fight over them? Perhaps it is simply that he was a bad ass and is still ready to prove it to anyone who crosses him. Likely, it was also about HONOR, that sometimes hard to understand line in the sand.
I learned in my research that Edwin Camden was one of 14 children (eight living) of a hotel and tavern owner, John S. Camden and his wife Nancy, in Sutton, WV, whose hotel was burned to the ground in December 1861 in a skirmish between the Confederates and Union armies. He, his dad and two younger brothers were Confederates while his two older brothers and uncles were Union sympathizers. His parents died of exposure and exhaustion after being rendered homeless from the fire that burned the whole town. And the siblings were in court 12 years later suing each other over their father’s estate, with Edwin as the lead plaintiff. The divisions, betrayals, and utter destruction these family members experienced must have been completely overwhelming.
The word betrayal started to really stand out for me the more I read into his history. There are few words that conjure up a deeper cocktail of anger and hurt than the word betrayal. Betrayals often happen with those you trust the most, with the ones you have let close to your heart. Even saying the word betrayal feels like a sword thrust.
In reviewing Edwin’s war record, after 3 years of fighting, he was badly wounded, left for dead on the battlefield, and taken prisoner by the Union Army. He was a prisoner for a year, was intentionally starved, used as a human shield by the Union Army, and became one of the Immortal Six Hundred – men who as POWs never took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States after the war. From Wikipedia: The Immortal Six Hundred prisoners became known throughout the South for their refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance under duress. Southerners have long lauded their refusal as honorable and principled.
With betrayals so deep, a code of Honor so deeply imbedded, it’s no wonder that the brick walls of family divisions grew so large. I imagine their mothers would have loved to have said, “JUST COME HOME RIGHT NOW AND STOP THAT. We are family. Work it out. Love each other.”
Most of us have experienced betrayal against ourselves, like a close friend revealing a secret, or a teammate at work taking credit for our work, or sometimes worse…. But if we dig a little deeper most of us will also find we have been the CAUSE of a betrayal, usually an unintentional one. It is these unintentional betrayals that are the hardest, often hurting those we love the most.
When I asked my 92-year-old aunt about all these divided families in my Camden ancestry, she tells me she never heard anything was amiss, and that her grandmother, Edwin’s daughter Kate, would never say bad things about anyone. And so, all this was “swept under the rug” as they say. I know they meant well, trying to “keep the peace” by suppressing disturbing dramas and conflicts. But what really happens is the other famous saying “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it”. When we don’t hear the stories of why the brothers split sides in a war, of why a brother left for the other side of the country, of why one brother sued another, then the next generations don’t have an opportunity to learn from those mistakes, and hopefully not repeat them over and over like in the movie Groundhog Day.
Edwin went to his grave carrying those divisions and betrayals I am sure, his honor intact, but at what cost? How often did he have to choose between honor and love? Now I see Edwin as a champion for healing divided families from his much wider vantage point on the other side of the veil, making confetti with his sword of any long-held resentments and anger, helping us dissolve the bitterness of betrayal.
Images: 1) Edwin Camden at age 75, dressed in his Civil War uniform 2) Edwin Camden at age 21, ready to go off to the Civil War.
When I was a young girl, we always went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas eve. She had a lot of magical old-fashioned decorations and we would gather in the formal living room and drink eggnog made with real whipping cream and sing Christmas carols. Over the mantle of the fireplace, a very large portrait hung of my great-great grandmother. Born in 1820, she lived to be 100, and this year is the 100th anniversary of her death. I was named after my grandmother who was named after her. And I even have features like her – high forehead, small chin and cheeks, long nose, and blue-gray eyes. I learned recently she went by her middle name Eliza. Now she resides in my dining room and has been there for the last 35 years.
The funny thing is, she is SO BIG in my house that she became largely invisible to me. When I printed 4×6 pictures of a lot of my other ancestors to frame and gather for an ancestor altar, I didn’t print one of her. And when I started a class working with ancestors in June, Eliza didn’t come to mind much until recently. Which is so odd really, based on how much she is literally in my life. I walk by her every day. Lately though, she has been coming to mind a lot and she clearly wants to be heard.
She lived in Port Royal, VA, was the wife of the town doctor and had 5 children. She was 41 when the civil war exploded all around her. A family story says that her youngest son, my great-grandfather, was crying in the basement of their house while it was being shelled by the Union army. And this portrait of her was stored down there too. Until today, I never thought that Eliza must have been with him. What was it like for her? Her husband had left to be a surgeon in the big hospital in Richmond during the war, leaving her alone to protect her children in the middle of combat. I wonder so much about her life during those years in the middle of more chaos than we can possibly imagine. Did the war silence her or release her voice? Did it crush her soul or make her stronger? Or both?
In this portrait, she is a young woman of about 20, not yet married, with her life ahead of her… waiting. I like to think that she was a spirited young woman behind the strictly shaped curls and the barest of smiles. That she longed for passionate love and swooned over roses. Did she desire to be something other than what society allowed her to be at the time? Certainly, she had no idea she would be in the middle of a war zone some 22 years hence.
What is her message to me now, in the last month of the year of the 100th anniversary of her 100th birthday, at the winter solstice and a great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter as a Christmas star? It is like I am hearing her voice across the years, like she is my grandmother whispering in my ear at bedtime. I seem to hear her say: “Wait and listen, and the land will let you know what to do. Always be a mother first, and last. Everything needs mothering. Find time to rest and let the earth rest. She was so tired after that war.”
In 2014 I created an artwork titled “Waiting”. There is a feeling that resonates for me between this image and Eliza’s portrait. Like they both are waiting with open hearts for what wants to be born. To let seeds that are dormant, while still vibrantly alive, germinate and gestate. Seeds that are sleeping and resting and waiting, held on the wings of angels, as we approach the winter solstice and Christmas. May we be able to follow her lead and rest also, even if only for a day or two, as we wait for what wants to unfold.
Another chemical explosion in our valley greeted me the morning of December 9th, 2020. Another wake-up call. In the past I have been lulled into thinking we no longer have pollution issues in our valley, that the chemical plants have been cleaned up, that most of them have moved to Houston, and that our water is clean now.
When I was a child, some days, depending on the wind direction, we would wake up in the morning to an awful chemical smell. It was just “normal”. The nickname for our area was Chemical Valley. Later when it became “not normal” we would still have alarm sirens go off every so often, and many areas of the valley had to shelter in place. Everyone acted like it was normal and being trusting by nature I asked few questions. I did not let myself feel and see the deepest issues of the harm being done, including likely to my own health as I was “sickly” as a child from age 3 to 8. It was way too big for me to do anything about and so I shoved it aside, ignored it and mostly dismissed it. Right in my own town of Charleston, WV.
A recent post by Clark Strand titled “The Summer of Love” about the Superfund site in his hometown triggered an interesting reaction. First, I felt “oh wow, how awful. Glad I didn’t grow up somewhere like that.” And then I realized I did. A vague memory of “I think we had a Superfund site here”, came first. Which we did- I googled it and the name came back to my memory – Fike Chemical.
Then, I realized another layer of the ramifications in my life of an incident here in our valley in January of 2014. That month we made national news because of a chemical spill that happened 1.5 miles upstream from the water intake for the water supply for nine counties of 300,000 people. And there was no backup intake. A bizarre licorice smelling odor came through the water pipes. We were instantly in the middle of a water crisis and had to use bottled water for drinking and bathing for weeks. The chemical was technically “non-hazardous”, as it didn’t kill fish, but several dozen people got sick, and no one wanted to drink the nasty smelling water or be a guinea pig. And we learned a lot about how little testing is done to determine a chemical is “non-hazardous”.
For me, it was more personal. I was the owner of our family insurance agency, and Freedom Industries, the owner of the tank farm that leaked, was my client. Even though I wasn’t responsible to make sure their tanks were safe, I still felt somehow guilty, like I was a bad person for insuring them and having them as a client. And while I had increased their coverage and finally got them to purchase pollution coverage a couple of years before, it was only $3 million of coverage. A drop in the bucket of the actual damages. I was also afraid I would be drawn in legally, and potentially lose our business, or that the news outlets would find out I was the agent and drag me into the news. I did have to testify in court. It was all too much, and it was the final straw in my decision to sell part of the family insurance business later that year.
I realized on a new level after Clark’s post, what a pivotal turning point that water crisis was for me. Not only did it start the process of selling the family business that was no longer viable for several reasons, but I see now, it was also the point in time where I started allowing myself to fully see the depth of the environmental problems created by so many industries, rather than only seeing the economic benefits of how many jobs it was creating and how it was helping the economy. Raised by a small business owner, a very good-hearted father, this was always gospel; people need jobs and they need to earn a decent wage, this is how the economy grows. This chemical spill allowed me to start really seeing what was still being shoved under the rug. I started really opening my eyes and asking questions. I could finally see the longer story of the Land itself that supports us only if we support Her. The Freedom Industries water crisis was a gift of new eyes for me, to see our Earth as a gift we must care for so She can care for us.
Today, December 19th, everyone has already forgotten this recent explosion, except of course, the family and friends of the man who died. It hurts to see and to be reminded of the ongoing danger some of the long-time businesses of this state still expose the land and all Her beings to. A lot of work has been done to make them safer and cleaner since the 1980’s, especially after the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984, which garnered a lot of attention because we had a plant here that produced the same chemical. But incidents continue to happen and remind us of the incredible cost to ourselves and our environment to produce these dangerous chemicals that our industrialized world requires. There is so much beauty in this state with more forests, mountains, rivers, and less people than most places these days. It is a true reservoir of natural beauty, in the middle of several major metro areas in surrounding states, a place that people from those areas can escape to and rest. We must keep healing this land for the next generations. The Earth has more capacity for healing than we know, especially with a little more help from us. I keep watching the vultures and the vines who are nature’s cleanup crew, watching how to follow their lead because they know how to dig in and clean up what has died and make it useful. And I remember that I have heard the land herself call to me, “HEAL THE LAND”. It is important to not get overwhelmed. Just one tree, one garden, one prayer at a time. It matters.
I can’t carry a tune. Or so I have been told, ever since my voice cracked in the Christmas Chorus performance at church when I was young. And since I somehow volunteered to sing Jingle Bells in a zoom caroling party, I also started thinking about how in December of 2012, I took a hymnal and sang my heart out at the Alzheimer’s unit where my mom was living, and it didn’t matter one bit if I was off key. By the time I started the 3rd song the whole unit of patients was gathered around, and many were able to sing along. Their eyes shone, and my mom especially was the happiest I had seen her in a long time.
My mother spent the last year of her life in that unit and I visited her daily. At first it was the hardest thing I had ever done because there was always so much chaos and the normal ways of relating to others was not possible. I would see her clothes on other patients and other people’s clothes on her, but it didn’t bother her. Cherished photos we thought she would want to have with her ended up all broken because possessions no longer mattered to her. Her roommate would rock back and forth and make these loud moaning sounds. I quickly learned to not care about any of that. What did matter was that she always got a big smile on her face when I came, although she would call me many different names. I learned to relate to her on a purely emotional level, and gradually I started to see what a gift that was. We were sharing a relationship of pure unconditional love with zero judgements or expectations, something that is not usually possible in even the most ideal of parenting relationships after a child is no longer a baby. It was amazingly beautiful when I could set everything else around us aside and just be in that love with her.
Recently, a friend forwarded to me some notes she had on the Empress tarot card and one sentence stood out to me on a list of 5 things under a title of Embodying the Empress: “Unconditional love or bust!” When I allowed myself to say, “I want to be nurtured” in my prayer petition as it bubbled up in my heart a couple of weeks ago, I knew it meant nurturing of myself as well as receiving nurturing. And I am learning that this unconditional love is a key component, both of myself, from others and for others, of being nurtured.
Perhaps the hardest place to practice unconditional love is with ourselves. Turning off that inner critic is tough sometimes – it can be very sneaky. The never enough voice. The must accomplish stuff voice. I am learning in my prayer practice that if I nurture myself, the nurturing and unconditional love become a circle that feed each other. Nurturing allows unconditional love. And unconditional love encourages more nurturing. And when I can remember that we are all the face of the Great Mother, then I can remember that loving myself unconditionally is to love Her. Maybe if I think about doing an exercise program for my body that is part of Her body too that will motivate me a little more!
I have written before about the process of making a flower essence and the accompanying “attunement” or meditation that I do with it. Magnolia spoke to me very specifically about unconditional love. She said to me in the meditation: “I am ancient, deeply fragrant, open hearted Love. Feel my primordial unconditional Love being offered to you….” I have found that being outside in Nature is also a place that I experience unconditional love. And understanding that the Earth is literally our Great Mother lets me fully understand these experiences. I always felt this incredible awe and life energy and aliveness in the presence of nature, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Knowing that nature is the body of our Great Mother, now I can truly allow myself to let this knowing settle into my heart as Her unconditional Love and let it nurture me. One of my favorite quotes from a favorite book of mine – Way of the Rose – says: “You do not live in a random universe because you do not live in a Motherless universe.”
I think my earliest memory of huge jungle woven vines is from a Tarzan movie. Traditionally spiderwebs are more closely associated with weaving, but for me it is the wild vines in the woods that wind their way around trees and each other, and go from one tree to another, connecting them. The sheer life force and voracious growth of the vines is something I feel in my bones and it rises through my feet and into my fingers who are never happier than when they are weaving. So naturally, the vines themselves have ended up in my weaving. The spiraling vines hold so much of the organic life force of the Earth that it takes my breath away. For me, the curve of the vines twisting around each other or another plant is sensuous and erotic, and it captures the very life force of our Mother Earth.
In my first blog, It Starts Here, that I wrote in August this year, I talked about how at first the vines in my backyard forest were the enemy, killing the trees, but then I realized that they also were what drew me TO the forest and that was their first gift. I also collected many of the best vines as I was cutting them back. Their curves were so eloquent, and I learned they hold their shapes as they dry without snapping. I have piles of them in my studio waiting to be used in weavings.
Vines often get vilified because they tend towards chaos rather than structure. They don’t grow in an orderly, nice and predictable fashion and they don’t keep to themselves, and their slithering crawling nature often reminds people of snakes. Because vines don’t have to put a lot of energy into upright support structures, they can put all that energy into growing very quickly, searching for the quickest way to the light. And like anything that grows quickly, they often find themselves out of balance, taking over and killing the very host that is supporting them. Kudzu in the south and Bittersweet in the north are two of the more notorious vines that tend to get out of balance in disturbed areas.
Vines can be viewed as smothering their host plants and trees, or they be seen as growing in the forest community in ways that allow the wildlife of the forest to be more connected, allowing animals to travel between trees without touching the ground and generating a massive amount of green matter quickly. The sheer amount of green leaf mass does a hero’s job of carbon sequestration, helping reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere. This balance between the “good” and “bad” natures of vines is like any good story, a mixture of both. There are scientific studies about how the total mass of vines IS in fact increasing in tropical and subtropical forests in the Americas. And how that is probably indicative of rising carbon levels and human interference in the forests, giving the vines more opportunities to grow in disturbed areas.
What if the vines that we see “taking over” are just part of a larger regeneration scheme of the earth that we can’t see the pattern of yet? Perhaps the vines are weaving us together in ways we can’t understand now. What if we saw the vines as prayers for weaving the forests back together? What if they are one of the ways our Mother Earth is rejuvenating our world? When ruins are left to nature, it is the vines that most visibly start the regenerative work of breaking down the structure to be reclaimed by the earth. They are part of earth’s demolition crew at work, like vultures of the plant world.
My best gift from the vines has been to lead me to the name of the Lady who came to me in my artwork in 2015. I had had an arched vine on my altar over Her image for a couple of months, and another twisted vine frames the woven mask I made this summer that became Her also, and both were on my altar. When I asked again one day with an open heart, “My Lady, what is your name?”, I got an immediate answer. “Our Lady of the Vine”, she told me. OF COURSE. I felt a little silly for not seeing Her name sooner. And so now more than ever, when I see lovely twisting vines, I see Her. And after all, roses also grow on vines.
Vines are prayers from the Earth, and for the Earth. They pull Her life force up from the earth, entwining themselves with everything they touch, bringing Her deep knowledge and prayers up from the dark womb of the forest soil to be shared with us all.
Have you ever woven potholders on those little square metal looms with the stretchy colorful loops? When I decided I needed potholders a few years ago I ordered a kit to make them with my granddaughter, which was fun, but I’m the one who became obsessed with it, ordering more loops and becoming enraptured by the patterns and colors. And an epiphany washed over me. I HAD to learn how to really weave, and I had most certainly done a lot of weaving before, like a déjà vu or a prior lifetime. With only a little reading and a couple of videos, I was off and running. My fingers knew what to do. Lifetimes of weaving. Millennia of women and ancestors who sat in weaving and spinning circles were cheering me on, and I could feel their ancient wisdom surrounding me.
These ancient arts of weaving and spinning literally hold the very fabric of our dead, our ancestors, because our bodies, our DNA, hold cellular memories of the spindle and the loom. There is evidence that at least 27,000 years ago people were spinning fibers. The “Venus of Lespugue” is a voluptuous ivory figurine found in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in France. She is shown wearing a loin cloth made of twisted strands, indicating that people were twisting or spinning fibers together at least as long ago as wooly mammoths were living. And weaving is at least 10,000 years old. So, for at least 100 centuries, and likely much longer, our ancestors have spun and woven their cloth by hand. It is only the last 2 centuries or so that weaving has been industrialized.
Before 1775 or thereabouts, weaving literally wove families and their communities together. Every girl and many boys from the youngest of ages knew how to spin yarn on a spindle and most everyone participated in the process of weaving fabric in a family. It is extremely hard for us today to imagine the immense amount of work that went in to spinning thread and yarn and weaving cloth for a family. In England around 1700, It took three carders to provide the roving for one spinner, and up to three spinners to provide the yarn for one weaver. The process was continuous, and done by both sexes, from the youngest to the oldest. It was what families did all through the long winter months when they couldn’t work the soil, and some did it as a full-time occupation. This history gives us a sense of the enormous effort and focus that spinning and weaving used to have in our ancestor’s lives. It is no wonder that weaving speaks so powerfully to us; that it permeates a myriad of stories, myths, and metaphors.
The goddesses of weaving are numerous. Some of the most well-known are Athena, Isis, Net, Spiderwoman, Brigid, Holda, the Three Fates, and Penelope. And Mary Herself was said to be a weaver. It is quite a party in the goddess world of weaving. I like to think of them all sitting in a circle together weaving the Earth, fretting about the wisdom we have lost since the industrialization of spinning and weaving, and dancing and celebrating every time someone new takes up the craft.
Some favorite gatherings I have coordinated are community weaving projects on an EarthLoom – a large loom designed by my weaving teacher, Susan Barrett Merrill. She says, “the EarthLoom is a living symbol of our intention to weave together the fabric of community.” An EarthLoom event brings the ancient craft of weaving into a group or community, having them weave together around a common intention or prayer.
My husband made my seven-foot-tall EarthLoom for me a couple of years ago, and it easily breaks down to be transported to a community event site. It is a simple loom, warped with garden twine, and magic happens as everyone in the group takes turns weaving a couple of rows with either strips of cloth, large yarn, vines, long stemmed flowers, colorful paper, and prayers. Beautiful, unpredictable things are created. When we weave in community, weave AS community, weaving our prayers together, we are literally weaving ourselves together. Just like what is happening here, with this incredible Way of the Rose community, weaving ourselves together in our prayers.
Perhaps you have heard the Sioux story of the Old Woman in the Cave who has been weaving a blanket for as long as the world has been in existence. She weaves and weaves, but when she gets up to stir her pot of soup, her dog unravels what she has woven, and she must start over. And so, the ongoing weaving of the world happens in a circular fashion over and over and never ends.
We have had a flowering bush called Clethra for years that flowers with these rather unremarkable white flower spikes made up of lots of smaller flowers. But the fragrance of these flowers completely undoes me. I swoon. I want to spend my afternoon right beside them with their elixir wafting over me. I close my eyes and I am carried away. The bees feel the same way – they swarm all over these flowers; so much so, that I must compete for a safe space for my nose. This bush is also called Summersweet, which is a good starting point to describe its fragrance which is sweet like honey and rich from the earth.
A year ago, when I took a class called Intuitive Plant Medicine from Asia Suler and learned to make flower essences, Clethra called me to make one from her blossoms. (Unlike essential oils, which are concentrated distilled oils of the plant, flower essences are an energetic imprint of flowers captured in water at the height of their bloom.) It is fun making the essences and using them, but I discovered the real magic for me is sitting with the essence after it is made and doing an “attunement”, as Asia calls it, which is a meditation allowing the flower’s essence to come through and speak. The process includes sensing them in my body and feeling what memories and emotions arise and then asking the flowers what they want me to know.
Clethra said to me: “I am Clethra, ancient Garden Goddess of Desire. I am calling you to let yourself sway in the breeze with me and dance with the bees. Open to receive your hearts’ desire with your whole body, feeling deeply into your soft animal belly. Let my ancient, sweet scent intoxicate you with yearning for deep connection to the Earth.”
Although I know many people receive messages from all sorts of beings in all sorts of ways, I wasn’t really ready for the depth of the communication I received and my worthiness to receive it. But none the less, when I sat with the Clethra essence for the first time and did the attunement and wrote what Clethra had to say to me, I felt incredibly alive, and on fire with her life force flowing through me, literally full of desire. It was so erotic, that I was even a little embarrassed. I think this desire to be with Nature as a lover, to feel the sensuality She brings to us, is a deep longing that we learn to suppress in our culture. She is so alive, and when we allow Her life force to flow through us, it can arouse us in ways that we don’t know how to express or share.
It awakens in me a deep heart desire for this joy to be with me always, this embodied desire to be fully aware of and connected with Her body, the Earth. And I realize that I don’t have to limit my joy. No matter what else is happening in the world, I can still experience unlimited joy, wherever I find it. It is like a resurrection, a realization that joy is our birthright and something we are worthy of. There is no joy ceiling!
For five years I have practiced intuitive painting with Chris Zydel and I have learned to be in touch with my feelings and intuition where I only have to know what the next brush stroke is and what color. And just like praying the rosary, one bead at a time, both practices help me to be able to drop out of my chattering mind and hear my heart and my intuition. In this way I am sometimes able to hear Her guiding me.
A recent intuitive painting I did seems to express this feeling of connection from the Divine. Often and usually these intuitive paintings don’t make literal sense, but rather speak from what we are feeling in our hearts and bodies. These rings around my neck have shown up several times, and rather than feel restricting, they are empowering and releasing my voice. And the taproot growing out of my third eye and the birds speaking to me? Well, I can’t help but see the message that perhaps I do experience the Mystical in everyday miracles like the scent of the flowers and the birds whispering in my ear, and life force of the Mother Earth that I feel rising up through my feet. Little by little I am learning to trust Her and know that She is truly with me, whether it is the voices of the flowers, my paintbrush, words on the page, or nudges in my heart.
After a discussion on dolls in Perdita Finn’s Take Back the Magic class recently, I remembered a doll I have of my mothers. A lovely Effanbee doll about 18” tall from the 1930’s that she got as a child and was very devoted to. Someone had even sewed a hand-made red velvet cape for her. It is the only doll I have in my house at all except for two that I have woven myself in the last couple of years.
I did not know my mother had kept this doll until I found it in her things after she died in 2013. When I was seven years old, my mother gave me her doll collection. There were dolls from all over the world, many of them old and they were very special to my mother. We arranged them in a stacking bookcase with glass fronts. But the thing is, I never played much with dolls as a girl. I would try and play Barbie’s with my friends, but I didn’t really enjoy it. And I never did much with my mom’s doll collection. It just sat in the bookcase in the basement. When I was in my 20’s and my mom moved her house, I remember her asking me if I wanted the doll collection, and I said no, not really. And so, my mom gave those dolls away, being an overly practical, clutter free woman of the 1980’s. That is a painful memory, as I would dearly love to have that connection to my mother today. And realizing now from the class this week that they most certainly held either a literal or figurative connection to my ancestors makes it even more painful.
For a long time, I have told myself a story that since I was a good baby who never cried, and with the advice given in the sixties to not spoil your babies, that perhaps that was why I don’t have any memories of being held or being cuddled on my mothers’ lap, although I know she loved me dearly. But I had an epiphany after the class this week. What if it was more that I came into this world rejecting my feminine self? What if I didn’t cry because I had already lost my voice before I came into this life? Perhaps I was already determined to be independent so no one could hurt me ever again? Perhaps it was me who would not let myself be mothered.
And suddenly I saw that my rejection of the feminine throughout the first half of my life started much earlier than I previously imagined. Realizing that I rejected her dolls, and that I never played with dolls as a young girl connected my memories with other realizations I have had about myself before around denying my feminine self. I went to work for my dad in the family insurance business and modeled myself after the men in that industry for over 25 years. I had few close female friends and no hobbies except gardening. Until about 12 years ago when my son got sick, I had even convinced myself I was not creative, even though I was a Studio Art major in college. Long story short, I had denied the Mother most of my life until then.
This story of mine around the dolls is only a small snippet of the larger story of our society’s rejection of the feminine and the Mother for the past 500 years (or 5000 really). And this rejection of our feminine nature is not always something that is done TO us I have realized. It is also a particular type of scourging we do to ourselves when we deny ourselves access to the Mother. The denial of the feminine in our culture is so intimately related to the scourging we do to the Earth, and the trivializing of mainstream dolls is part of that.
Another insight, that I have to credit Polly Paton-Brown for, is that doll making is very important and powerful because handmade dolls have real power to connect with mothers, grandmothers, ancestors and the land in a forgotten language of the heart. Dolls are another way the land, and the ancestors can speak to us. As we make them, and sit with them, opportunities for memories and other thoughts will arise, and if we allow them, we realize they are whispering to us, perhaps only as a nudge in our heart. I had started making dolls myself a couple of years ago, but I had not put all the pieces together about how powerful their connection to working with our ancestors and the Earth is until I heard Polly’s comments!
In 2018, I took up weaving with a passion, and it was something I knew I had done in many lifetimes. I barely had to learn it because really, I already knew how. And then I took a class called Weaving a Life and learned to weave dolls among other things, and I have taught a couple of classes on weaving what I call Wisdom Dolls. In those classes I talked about the tradition of women weaving in circles for millennia and the dolls as connection to our elder wiser self because that is what I learned in the Weaving a Life class. But I had never really made the connection to working with the dolls to reclaim our feminine selves and to connect with our ancestors. And to help our daughters remember their ancestors.
This teaching of doll making may be much more important than I realized. Perhaps one way to wake up from being asleep is through making hand-made dolls one at a time. What if doll making became as common as baking homemade cookies?
Today I got my mothers’ doll out again, and I cherished her. I am asking her to tell me her name. I am savoring the devotion my mother had for her. And grateful for the healing that she has brought me in realizing more deeply my role in my relationship with her. I will let the dolls show me the way to reclaiming a deeper relationship with my ancestors, the land and how to let myself be mothered.
Usually, magic drops in quite unexpectedly. I had just finished spreading out a white row cover over a bed of kale in my garden, when a red-tailed dragonfly dropped onto the cover and just sat there, mesmerizing me with his radiant red tail and lacey wings, each with one spot. I had never seen a red-tailed dragonfly, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. We sat still in each other’s presence for about ten full seconds – a long time in a dragonfly’s world. And then I foolishly broke my gaze for a split second, and he was gone, like he had vanished. This unexpected wonder caught my breath and took me to a space where time shifts and moves with the flit of a wing, and the light feels more luminescent.
I didn’t get a picture at the time, but I did look him up while he was still fresh in my mind and found a picture that was exactly like him, which seemed like another gift. Most other pictures I found of this type of dragonfly were not as good. He is called a Red-Tailed Pennant dragonfly.
I had heard before that dragonflies can symbolize change and transformation, and since we were closing on the sale of our family business in a couple of days, it felt very timely. And then a few days later, after we had just arrived in FL for a vacation after the sale, a huge swarm of several hundred dragonflies greeted me as I walked out to the beach. Their aliveness as they darted everywhere was certainly a wonder to behold. And then the next morning after that, they showed up again in large numbers, fliting around the same large hedge, but that was the last day they came to be with me. So much dragonfly energy can be quite overwhelming and that is still proving to be true for me!
As gorgeous as dragonflies are, they spend over three-fourths of their life as aquatic nymphs – little unremarkable bugs in the water. This stage typically lasts from one to three years. Then one day it is time, and they poke their head out of the water and attach to a solid surface and the skin at the back of their head cracks open and they emerge, let their wings and legs dry and harden for a bit, and then take off! It is hard to imagine going from a swimming life to a fast darting flying life in a matter of an hour or so. How scary that seems to me because any sudden change is hard for me. I am a creature of habit. I like to be nested, to be home, to know what is going to happen next. Even after years of working on letting go of control, when change happens unexpectedly and suddenly it can be overwhelming for me and I feel very ungrounded. A strength of the dragonfly – to adapt to changing situations quickly- is something I surely need!
When the dragonfly showed up in my life, I was excited at first. Transformation! Change! How exciting! The recent sale of our family business has been a transition four years in the making; clearly expected and planned for. And yet now that it has happened, many things are changing in ways I hadn’t foreseen. Expectations, resistance, control all are calling to be released in many other areas of my life as well. Suddenly, surprisingly, I am getting very different messages about how and where to live my life than I have been for the past year. Darting about like the dragonfly looking for new grounding feels oddly familiar. This releasing feels like the mystery of the Ascension- letting go of the gifts that have been given, to clear the way for more gifts to come. How hard that can be!
There is a wonderful story called IxChel and the Dragonflies. IxChel is the Mayan moon and fertility Goddess, and this story especially resonates with me because we have vacationed on Cozumel for many years, which is the traditional home of IxChel. As late as the 1500s Mayan women from all over the Yucatan would travel to Cozumel to visit Her and receive Her blessing for fertility. The ruins of her primary temple are still there on the island at a site that is now called San Gervasio. The old Mayan name is Tantun, which simply means “flat rock”. The temple site is a very powerful place, and I can feel the presence of the Great Mother there – IxChel being another of Her many names.
IxChel and the Dragonflies is a tale of love and loss, and at the end of the story, four hundred dragonflies pick up the pieces of IxChel’s dismembered body and place them in a canoe and take her back to her moon palace and then the dragonflies cover Her body with theirs and hum and hum and hum over Her body for 13 days and 13 nights, and then She arises whole and healed from the life force of their song and the sound of their wings humming over Her.
I am entranced by the image of the humming dragonflies bringing IxChel back to life. After having to release all that She was, and being torn into pieces, She was given new life by the dragonflies. If, like the Mayans believe, the dragonflies carry the souls of our beloved ancestors, then well, what a blessing it is to see a dragonfly and know that our ancestors are with us, and ready to carry us.
It has been a long time since I have run across a turtle here in our backyard forest – an adorable ordinary box turtle of medium size, with those amazing patterns on her back. She just looked at me, as if to say, “Slow down there, watch where you are going!” She wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t hide in the traveling home on her back. Rather she invited me to sit with her. And as I sat and gazed at her, I naturally did just as she asked, and my breath slowed and my desire to move on to the next thing vanished. And she gazed back with, “See, that’s not so hard. There is so much to see right here.”
She looks wrinkled and old, which makes her look wise. Turtles can live for decades and she may be older than I am. What has she lived through? What has she witnessed? She most certainly sees the deer as they move about every day between the overgrazed forest to the lusher, more irresistible landscapes and bird feeders in the human yards. She sees the squirrels in their mad dash to collect the most acorns, the birds twittering around the trees, and all the bugs and worms that feast on the fallen trees.
Was she here when our home was built 17 years ago, when the contractors indiscriminately pushed so many trees over the hill while clearing our lot? Did she notice when the highway noise STOPPED in April of 2020? Does she have trouble finding food because the suburban deer overgraze this small, forested area? Where does she go when it gets so dry like it is now? Is the barest trickle of water left in the creek enough for her?
A little research tells me that this turtle is in fact, a “she”. Female box turtles have brown eyes, and males have red eyes. Does she have or has she had a mate? I was surprised to learn that after mating she may lay fertile eggs for up to 4 years! That surely increases the hope that she may have baby turtles in my backyard forest. From October to April she will burrow into the ground and hibernate. I used to find turtles all the time, but I no longer do, and my research says they have declined by 38%.
I love knowing that we have a wise mama turtle in our backyard. Turtles are traditionally a symbol of motherhood and longevity and of the primal mother, our Earth Mama. They are considered a keeper of the doorway between heaven and earth and are a doorway to our ancestors. Because of their sharp eyesight and smell, they are also a symbol of heightened senses and sensitivities. So, it’s no surprise that this turtle appeared in my intuitive process painting recently, and in fact she showed up with quite a scowl on her face!
I can’t paint any longer with a paint brush – I have to get my hands into the paint. It’s a visceral feeling, like having feet in the dirt, like the turtle with her belly on the ground. This painting session felt like I was witnessing like the turtle witnesses. Everything, without any filter. As sometimes happens, a lot of feeling came up while I was painting, and it took me a while to realize it was intense joy from the feeling of aliveness but also grief. Grief that I spent so many years with my feelings mostly shut down. Grief for my willful blindness and complacency and finally allowing myself to fully feel the grief of all the disconnection from our Earth Mother and the collective harm to Her. Grief for all the years I didn’t trust myself, my gut, my intuition, and this deep desire to be connected to Her.
My blinders came from being taught this is the “way it is”. When I did see a “too large for me to fix problem”, like mountain top removal coal mining, or the slag pond just over the hill from the chemical plants, or the chemical spill in our valley in 2014 that shut down water supply for 300,000 people for several weeks, or the trees from clearing our lot just being pushed over the hill; – if I couldn’t see a solution, I subconsciously learned to just shut off most of my feelings from the issue and accept it. If I couldn’t fix it, then I wouldn’t allow myself to really feel it. I would either just loop and loop on how to fix it, or I would ignore it, or justify it. And fixing, if I could, was a way of avoiding and not really witnessing the pain. A personally painful example is my oldest son. He struggles with ADD, and I too often fixed things for him rather than let him fail. When I stopped fixing and had to witness him struggle for 5 years in his 30’s as he lost several jobs, it was one of the hardest lessons of my life.
When I can’t fix a problem, especially one that doesn’t immediately or directly affect me, I often fall into a common trap in our culture of accepting it, or worse, denying it, and before I know it, I go to a place of dismissal, or despair, or ignoring. It can be very hard to allow myself to fully recognize a problem, especially a deeply entrenched problem that goes back generations, and WITNESS IT, and stand with it, like Mary does at the cross, holding the pain. Witnessing when we cannot fix, or help, is the deep work of the Mother.
I have learned that just witnessing is so much more powerful than I have been taught. It lets the person or being know that I see them, and I love them. That I am willing to stand with them, even though they must bear the pain or burden for themselves. I am not always be able to do this, but now I try and do it as often as I can. I don’t want to look away.
My forest turtle is a symbol of the strength from Mother Earth that I draw on when something tough to watch, to see, to experience comes up. She is my reminder that I can be fully present to whatever is put before me if I can hold Her hand. This Mama Turtle will be here to help me bear the hard things and to celebrate the good ones.
The turtle creation stories that are in so many cultures speak of Her holding up the world on Her back. I love knowing that I am also carried on Her back and She is holding me up as well. As I stand and witness with Her at my side, I feel the generations of ancestors under our feet holding me up.
Do you remember the first time you heard the ocean in a seashell? When I was a young girl, I remember visiting my grandmother who had these large shells, that later I learned were whelks and conchs. She told me she picked them up on the beach herself in a faraway place called Florida. I remember being amazed – they seemed like such treasures, so special. And when she held them to my ear, I heard something so much larger than myself. I didn’t know what the ocean sounded like, but this sound was magical, and it carried me to another realm I seemed to vaguely remember.
I was six years old when I went to the beach for the first time, and I went crazy over the seashells. My mother bought me a book about shells, and I learned the names of all the ones I found. I even brought a lot of them home and I made a display and took them around the neighborhood and offered them for sale! They must have seemed so special and valuable to me, that I thought everyone would want one. And these were just the ordinary everyday seashells, not the beauties my grandmother had. It brings me deep joy to remember my six-year-old self who had the unquestioning belief that everyone would see these shells as the messengers of beauty and joy that I did, and I had no doubts or self-consciousness about sharing that with everyone.
We are drawn to the sea like a magnet, the ancient sea water in our blood acting like a homing pigeon. The shells are a touchstone, reminding us of our ancient roots in the sea and the seawater that courses through our veins and cells. Shells are intertwined in the lives of the earliest known peoples. Beads were found made from seashells that are 80,000 years old, and a carving 500,000 years old has been found on a clam shell. Shells hold the memories of millennia of people who have walked the shores and held the shells, been drawn to their beauty, listened to them, and heard their ancestor’s songs in them. They have been used for tools, beads, jewelry, money, divination tools, artwork, and even religious symbols, like the scallop shell on the Camino de Santiago. And shells are found marking ancient gravesites all over the world.
Walking along the seashore, one foot after another, is an ongoing pilgrimage with these ancient beings that have literally seen the world through the millennia of time. Each morning’s walk on the shore reveals a new layer of ancestors as the seas wash the sands. Even during a quick walk on the beach, time stretches out to eternity so easily, and our ears open to hear the stories and songs of each shell. We keep their stories alive when we pick them up and admire their beauty and honor them by decorating our bodies and homes with them. And if we listen closely, they will sing their songs to us, reminding us that we come from the sea, opening a door to the long story of our history so that we may hear the voices of our ancestors coming through their songs.
We are literally standing on our ancestors as the sand washes between our toes at the edge of the sea, the same as when we have our feet in the dirt of the forest. Two seemingly different worlds, they are both made up of our dead, of all the beings who have died and decayed before us. The land has dirt and stones, and the sea has sand and seashells. Each stone and shell tell a story on their way to being dirt and sand, making up of the bodies of the dead under our feet that hold us up literally every day.
At my West Virginia home in the mountains where I have spent almost all of the past year, I have heard the land there speak to me and say “heal the land”, and that has been happening with my gardening and forest tending. Yet I am hearing the sea call to me too, and her message to me is still swirling, not quite audible yet. Perhaps it is the same message, but it feels more about story, about the story of being on the edge of the land and the water. And the seashells are the messengers. On the morning of All Hallows’ Eve, I was on the beach before daybreak, watching the full moon set, and as the dawn came, I found FIVE sand dollars! It is rare to find even one that is whole. I also found a fighting conch, a lightening whelk, a lettered olive and more. It was a gift, an invitation, an answer to a prayer that YES, I am meant to be here too, at the edge of the sea. Each shell felt like a message from an ancestor. Each one a prayer.
The shells – the bones of the sea – are so common that we forget their power. They speak to us. They have voices if we listen. They sing to us. They call us home. Finding a whole whelk or conch or sand dollar on the shore today is like a small miracle. They are hard to find whole and still shiny, yet no longer alive. When one appears at your feet newly washed onto the shore, it is like a flower from our Ocean Mother, a message, that says you are chosen and loved. And as I receive Her gift of grace and pick up the shell and take it home, I am filled with joy. I am saying YES! I accept your gift. It is the sweetest kind of joy, to be offered such a gift, and to be able to say YES, like that devoted six-year-old girl that I was, trusting my heart.
A lush jasmine-like fragrance wafts onto the evening breeze as soon as her petals open, and I am transported to another world like Alice in Wonderland where the flowers talk with me. Memories float through my mind’s eye: swaying in the tops of huge pines at dusk; the sound of rain in the dark hitting the canvas top of the platform tent at girl scout camp; watching meteors steak across the whole of the night sky. There is magic in these memories.
I have grown Sacred Datura moonflower for several years and she easily reseeds herself. But this year, the raised beds by the driveway where she usually grows were completely redone and I did not replant any new seeds. None the less, one little scrawny Datura plant managed to grow by happenstance in the crack between the new flower bed and driveway. Such determination! She only had enough vitality for one flower. And that flower grew as big and beautiful as any Datura flower I have ever seen, six inches across, and she opened on the full Corn Moon. With only one flower, I don’t believe for a minute that she opened on the full moon by chance! They say that moonflowers open in the dark to be pollenated by night flying sphinx moths or other insects. But if that were the only reason, it wouldn’t matter what night her flower opened, would it?
Does the full moon pull her open like the tides? They say that leaves and seeds grow more in the waxing moon, and roots grow more in the waning moon. The moonlight certainly radiates Datura’s beauty, and she glows with an ethereal, ghostly quality. And then, the following morning, she is just another flower, rather pale in the morning light. Moonflowers need the moonlight to be seen in the dark. The bright whiteness of their flower draws down the moonlight to our eyes at ground level and reflects it back to us. Mesmerized with her light and fragrance, our senses open to even more of the evenings’ magic, such as the summer night sounds of the crickets and the frogs, and the stars appearing in the sky. We are enveloped in a velvet cocoon of the evening darkness that transports us to that magical memory place where the busyness of the day is forgotten.
This year I was fortunate enough to be there to watch her flower open. All through the day her closed-up petals slowly emerged from their sheath, pushing up to the sky. Then as the shadows started to lengthen, the tentacles of her petal edges slowly began to release, little by little. It was like watching two lovers’ arms trying to hold tight to each other, but being pulled slowly apart, until the last finger slipped free. Then the white trumpet of her flower mouth flung open, and that incredible sweet perfume rushed out, like opening a window at the bakery, to announce far and wide the feast is ready. And with a little pale green color deep in her throat, and five pale pink stamens holding the offered pollen, she is like a maiden whose radiance needs no additional adornment.
What is the magic of a Datura moonflower? Like a siren call, the impulse to dive deep into her throat is felt. Her fragrance is so sensuous that I am carried to a long-forgotten magical garden where I can almost feel her perfume caressing me. And yet she is highly poisonous, and dangerously hallucinogenic, and her leaves and stems smell like dirty socks. So much contrast in one plant! Her beauty allures us and her poison frightens us. It would be easy to say that bad things often seduce with false beauty and write off Datura as a “bad plant”. Many ranchers have done just that because of how poisonous Datura is to their cattle, and understandably so.
But Datura’s poison is only her way of protecting herself. It is the way she has found to grow proudly and protected, so that she is able to open herself fully and without reservation to the moon when it is time, letting those protections go. Also known as Angel’s Trumpet, when she unfurls at dusk, throws herself open to the light of the moon, and sends out her fragrance, I hear her say to me: “Here, take my hand. Come drink the moonlight with me. Let me soften your fear.” And fears I wasn’t even aware I was still holding, slip away, no longer needed. My body remembers that moonlit summer nights are so nourishing for the soul, renewing a deep sensual connection we have to the Earth.
More Datura seeds are arriving in my mailbox any day now so that I can sow them in the garden bed this fall. The winter soil will hold them and sprout a new bed of Datura in the spring, and hopefully there will be more luscious flowers for many moonlit nights next summer. What memories, what prayers will be called? What fears will be laid to rest then?
Fourteen days to feast day and night on your favorite food? Party time! Your only food, the food your mother lived her whole life to find for you, laying her seed right where you would find it when you were born so you would be able to dig in. Chomp, chomp, chomp all day and all night. Ah, the smell and taste of the milkweed! The only food Monarch caterpillars like you will eat. You can’t get enough. You grow so fast that you shed your skin 4 times in 12 days!
With your immature eyes, you can’t really see how beautiful you grow to be, black and yellow and white stripes in a lovely organic pattern rippling over your tubular body, with adorable black antennae on both ends and sixteen shiny black feet with white socks. You have the zebra or tiger stripes of the insect world.
Which generation of this season are you? Do you know? Who keeps track? I have read that generations one, two and three only live two to six weeks as adult butterflies, but if you are the fourth generation? You have won the grand prize of a trip to Mexico for the winter, and back again next spring! So much responsibility – the lives of your children depend upon your return to this precious milkweed that feeds you. When did you become such a picky eater, developing such an intricate relationship with one plant species, the smell of it, the dream of it, drawing you from thousands of miles away?
Four generations in one summer, with the great grandchildren of your first spring babies carrying the legacy and hope for the next year. From our human perspective we can see your long story, the story of the multiple lifetimes your life, even though we usually can’t see our own. Who sees our long story? Maybe our ancestors? What if we could know more about the hopes and dreams, travails and wounds, of our great grandparents and/or our great grandchildren all in one life, one season? What would we do differently?
But first things first. Miracles have to happen. You will dissolve and be reformed into a lovely monarch butterfly. Do you have any idea of what you will become? Do you know that after you get too full to eat any more and get that overwhelming desire to find a safe place to hang upside down, and shed your last skin the 5th time, that the sleep that overtakes you won’t stop until you melt? At least you will be protected in a most beautiful green jewel case trimmed with gold. Is it painful for you to lose your last skin and all that you are? Does it feel like the end? Like death? Or do you just go to sleep with dreams of wings? Do you dream of flying? Do you have any idea of how even more beautiful you will become when you emerge from your sleep?
I have a confession. I go out to my garden every day intending to bask in Nature and connect with the Land, but often I just get caught up in the details of care taking. Pulling weeds, pruning over-zealous plants, planting new seeds, training new vines and looking for pests and diseases. Just a day before, I found a HUGE nasty hornworm that had eaten the tops off of three of my tomato plants overnight. Boy was I angry at him! How dare he! When I found him, he met a very quick demise. So, the next day when I saw a large caterpillar on one of my plants my quick instinct was to grab him and throw him out of the garden. Then in mid-flight, I said, OH NO! That was a monarch caterpillar!!! He was on the milkweed!! I was mortified. I rescued him and returned him to the milkweed plant, and he started munching away again within a few minutes. WHEW.
How quickly I went from thinking this caterpillar was ugly and harmful to seeing his full glory and Beauty. I remember briefly thinking the hornworm was rather lovely, for just a second, in between being grossed out by a horned caterpillar larger than my thumb, and wanting him OFF the tomato plants.
Maybe your mom said what mine always said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. If only we could see the pervasive Beauty in everything and everyone more often. Even if the Beauty is mixed with something that is uncomfortable or even harmful to us, there is usually a Beauty of some sort there. Beauty is not naïve and romantic. It is an essential way of seeing and healing our world.
I can’t wait to see if we have several monarch butterfly hatchlings in a couple of weeks and watch them gather strength for their long journey south. Maybe I can travel with them in my dreams, seeing all the Beauty in the world along the way. For how else can a butterfly see the world but as beautiful, as it looks for flowers to feed on everywhere it goes?
Stillness and serenity. A welcome balm, yet how often do we allow ourselves to fully relax into them? Recently, I stumbled upon a wide still stream, having little idea of the depth of the treasure I would find there when I first found a new path to explore.
There is a city park in our town, not far from my house, with tennis courts and softball fields and picnic areas and even a soapbox derby track. Chattering children, bike riders, happy picnic noises. Community at its best. And the park happens to be on hilly land, so that means there are a lot of forested areas and valleys with creeks in between the developed areas.
I was feeling rather silly that I did not know there were hiking trails in this park, and I went as soon as I could after hearing about them. As I stepped from the parking lot, across the grass, to the trailhead at the edge of the woods, the stillness was already palpable. The woods are such a contrast to our ordered park areas. In the forest everything takes care of itself. Nothing needs mowed, no doctors or nurses are needed to deliver new life, no one is providing food for the birds or wildlife. Stepping into a forest is stepping into a world where life feeds on the dying, and the dying feeds the new life, each and every day.
As I walked down the trail, winding around and over many roots and rocks, around big trees and small, I felt I was going down, going in. A valley in the woods makes me feel hugged and safe. I came to where a wide rock strewn stream bed flattens out, laying open a space where great volumes of water have raced through before. The banks of this creek bed are held and supported by twisted and gnarled roots of trees who have had their skirts lifted and swept away by ravaging waters leaving the stories of their lives exposed for all who come to visit. Have you ever wondered what they have endured? I think of Van Gogh when I see roots like this because Van Gogh’s last painting (unfinished) is of tree roots. He must have been captivated by the tree roots’ stories too.
Today, shallow water is slowly slipping over the rocks, carrying an infinite number of light glimmers on the water’s surface from dappled light coming through the trees. The stream is gently washing this land, soothing it, while laying open to the sky upon the rocks, deep in prayer. The peace and calm belie the days that she has raged through her small valley before. And rage again she will. But today she is still. And serene.
There is something very sensual in the way the curve of the bank is caressed by the gently rippling stream. And I realize my animal body would love to just lay in her warm waters and be gently lapped and washed over, while she tells me her stories. She is like a lover, this stream. If only I weren’t afraid of bugs, getting my clothes wet and dirty, or you know, someone seeing me.
I pick up a heart shaped rock and wonder how long has it been here? Did it just arrive with the last storm, or has it been here waiting a long time? Just for me? And holding it, I get the strong impression that the waters gather here the way blood gathers in our hearts. Today the stream is like a breath held between our heartbeats, a serenity between storms that have gone before and ones that will come again.
What is unleashed on the days that the sky opens? Is it joy or pain or fear or anger that runs through this valley as the land is scraped clean and reshaped by the surging water and dislodged rocks and fallen tree limbs? Perhaps all of those feelings and more. Certainly, on those days this land is anything but still, and the evidence of those days is all around me.
But today, there is only a calm still serenity and a call to just accept this moment, this rock, these waters, with all my open heart. Just be still She says. Accept the Grace. Just for today.
Suddenly, some afternoon thunder rumbles in, breaking up my reverie. A spell is broken that I didn’t realize had slowly woven around me. It is time to go back up the trail, thankful for this gift that allowed me to see the deep joy this Land holds. With my heart shaped rock in my pocket, I walk the path back to my car, offering my footsteps as prayers in return.
August 15, 2020
Have you ever had a day – I’m sure you have – where you realized the way you looked at a little part of your daily world has completely changed? Usually at first it is just a small noticing, but sometimes if you stay with it, you realize that a window has opened. A veil has been lifted showing you a new perspective on your life or a peek into the long story of our Mother Earth.
I have lived at our current house since we had it built for us in 2003. 2 acres, with one of those acres going over the hill into a forested area in the back half of the lot. When they cleared the front half of the lot to build the house, a lot of the trees were just pushed over the hill, and being low on funds and less aware at that point in my life, I remember thinking what a mess they made, but thought I couldn’t do anything about it and it felt unstable to walk on with all the debris. And being busy with 2 kids, running a business, travel, and aging and dying parents, I rarely if ever walked past the tree line at the edge of the yard. For 17 years. I am embarrassed to say that now, especially because I often drive several miles to the state forest to go hiking. I always like being in the woods.
Two years ago I had made friends with the hemlock that lives on the edge of the forest and sometimes sat under her low hanging arms especially on hot days when the cool wind blew up from the creek bed over the hill and I would feel the touch of her fingers whisper to me. But still, I never ventured further. Last fall, I saw a large vine that had grown to the top of a tree on the edge of the yard, and decided it had to go… and that led to spending the next month cutting out huge vines. Once I got back into the forest, I saw they had already pulled down several medium sized trees. This strongly invasive vine is oriental bittersweet, and some of the vines were as large as my forearm.
All during this time and maybe for a while before in the summer, I was hearing “heal the land”. Not actually spoken to me, but a knowing. And it meant “heal THIS land”. And I was like “really?” This suburban lot, near a four-lane highway, home for a few deer, but nothing special? And the answer was “YES, this land. It matters. Start here.”
So somehow, the clearing of the vines was part of that. I was angry at them at first. They were other, they were the bad guy, how could they pull down beloved trees? I hacked and whacked away, careful not to disturb the other plants. Then, I saw the way these twisted vines made beautiful shapes, and I started to collect them and dry them and use them in my weaving.
Then one day I saw the bigger picture.! I had made a path into the forest. I had found a favorite log to sit on. I was walking out to the forest most every day. I had found my way down to the creek. And I realized that the vines that I had been working so hard against had brought me here. And I cried! I cried for the vines.
In one hand I was the instrument of pruning and taming the vines, setting boundaries, while in the other I was developing a deep love for this vine that was strong enough to help heal a pile of ruined tree debris all those years ago. And the curves of these vines now grace my studio with their exquisite spiraling dance captured in the hardwood. And this summer? There feels like more balance in the forest. More air to breathe, room for new growth.
The forest at the edge of my yard is now for me another reality that I can step into anytime I want to, or anytime the forest calls. Like walking into the edge of the cornfield in “Field of Dreams”, It is a veil that I can walk through and be with the heart of our Earth Mother, and instantly everything is a different, -time slows and disappears. The deep time, the long story of the Earth is palpable all around me. And I am so glad She called me to this healing, for me and for Her.
Emerging from the wood,
and the ancient sea, Embodied Beauty
bringing an offering
from the root of time-
A seashell, an acorn, a flower.
for us to accept
and be held in her grace.
in that still space,
between the rising and waning,
waxing and setting.
until the heartbeat of the earth
reaches up into her core
with its raucous, teeming, wild, ragged beauty;
its roots cracking
the hard stone
for her to begin softening into
what wants to be born
and for us.
Trusting the Knowing
In the teeming forest
embodied in shadow,
the ones who know,
holding the wisdom of generations
that is imprinted in my bones.
They are intuition,
myself, but not only myself;
Love, Beauty, Sophia,
They meet me in the quiet places
when I am still
and when I ask.
May the blessing be that
now and again
I set aside my fears,
I trust their voice,
and I know.
Bringing Forth Beauty
between the cocoon of the night,
and the unfolding of the day,
connected by my roots
to the vast aching beauty
that is Creation herself.
And while my roots
hold me and nurture me,
they also release me
to see beyond myself,
to see the blazing sun
in the dying leaves falling to earth,
feeding my roots,
a Beauty so brilliant,
that in those rare moments
when I have the courage
to catch just a glimpse of it,
I learn again
makes us whole.
Dancing with Trees
The late summer heat
shimmers on my leaves,
my sap pulsing and throbbing
in my limbs,
Beckoning to you in the breeze,
come dance with me.
Set aside your trembling,
look deep in your heart.
I have been waiting
Standing strong for you
Feel my sacred life
in your bones.
Trees Dancing with Me
Until I found your buried roots
I had forgotten
this dance of life
coursing in my blood like sap.
winter after winter,
hardened to the cold.
Yet at your core,
with an undying fire
sustained by roots
reaching down to our ancestors.
holding strong your heart,
It is enough.
The Edge of the Moon
The endless music calls from the dark green depths
Softening the edges and
absorbing the burning brightness from the day.
The incessant voice of the wind
tickling, nudging, pulling, generating
to dive in the ancient waves
to dance in the light of the moon
that gives me her strength, my strength
and holds my heart.
licking the edges of the night,
igniting in me
Illuminating radiance prancing
between trees, stars and my heart.
Sacred matter and sacred spirit
forged by the light of the moon.