*There is a moving documentary that I have watched a number of times called: “My Octopus Teacher” about a man who befriends an octopus who in turn becomes attached to him… A naturalist who is thrilled by the wonder of his experience with this animal he remains stuck in the colonized western thought process. “An octopus shouldn’t be this intelligent” he states after saying that 2/3rds of the octopus brain is in its tentacles, only a 1/3 in actual brain – here we see the colonization. Humans are STUCK on brains and measure every other species by brain capacity – refusing to acknowledge that many creatures don’t even have brains and yet they do fantastically intelligent things – if we have brains – brain and body create intelligence as a whole. BODY carries everything intellect does not – inner knowing – intuition – feeling – sensing – experiencing ALL WAYS OF KNOWING THAT COMPLIMENT THE BRAIN IF THERE IS ONE – Materialistic science calls befriending ‘ lower animals’ nonsense – informs me that receiving communication from a tree or dog or fern is just fantasy – when I am using ALL MY DESNES TO DISCERN WHEN OTHERS DO NOT… IF CREATURES HAVE BRAINS IN THEIR SKULLS FINE – IF THEY ARE LIKE THE OCTUPUS THEIR BRAINS ARE IN THEIR TENTACLES. I use my brain and all my senses…This man falls in love with his octopus but doesn’t acknowledge it beyond saying he feels wonder and grief… This film could show us other ways of seeing if we would just allow ourselves to move beyond the stupid brain box we are stuck inNot all species are interested in technology – humans are – that’s fine – we have created marvels but just because animals choose NOT to doesn’t make them less intelligent… human have brought the earth into crisis – not the rest of nature – does this give us a hint?
The other night I had a dream of princess pine, the clubmoss that looks like a perfectly formed miniature tree that was shining like a cascading emerald in the snow. Reflecting on the dream I realized that I had not written about Lycopodium, a family of vascular plants that are not mosses but appeared on earth around the same time, 400 million years ago
Mosses are non- vascular plants that have neither roots or stems that come from the family Bryophyta. According to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant scientist, they were the first green plants to colonize land after lichens (pictured below).
Clubmosses (Lycophyta) are vascular plants that have shallow roots, true stems and one of the ways they reproduce is by developing sporophytes. These look like furry candles as they rise out of the top of the plants. Look for the spores or ‘candles’ to rise above the plant on a single stem during the late summer or fall.
The family is closely related to ferns.
It is a mystery to me how Lycopodium got the name club moss. The two don’t resemble one another at all except for the fact that both are green all year long. Club mosses are a few inches high and have runners with roots attached that snake along the surface of the earth in areas free of foot traffic. Real mosses hug the earth or tree attaching themselves with rhizoids. Learning how to recognize ground hugging plants with fuzzy evergreen bristles (small simple needle -like leaves that cover the stems), trees or umbrellas whose roots creep along the forest floor will help Licopodium survive because heavy hiking through areas where they grow will kill them just as heavy foot traffic kills forested mosses. Logging, of course destroys not only the plant but its connection to the mycelial network that is itself annihilated. In this area we are fortunate to have one species that is very rare that I have identified in my favorite forest.
The ones I am most familiar with occur frequently in coniferous forests, some in hardwood forests, and others in mountainous areas as well as marshlands (running club moss is more common in most places around here), my favorite being princess pine because it looks like a miniature tree. This species likes to grow in lowlands in rich moist soil. All clubmosses need some protection from the heat of the summer sun, so tree thinning can put these plants at risk.
When I first came here forty years ago there were no clubmosses anywhere in the woods, but the trees were saplings except for the hemlocks; now I have an abundance of running clubmoss, ground cedar, and princess pine probably because the trees have grown and I have left the forest alone, allowing it to re wild itself/ herself/ himself. (I have developed a bias against our need to “it” plants, to keep them separate from ourselves, believing it’s one way we continue to give ourselves permission to use nature as a commodity).
We share more than 50 percent of our DNA with plants. The building blocks and shape of DNA molecules in humans, plants, and every living thing is the same. It’s the order of A,C,G,T that differs. All plants are our relatives – literally. Would you refer to your child or beloved relative as an ‘it’? Somehow, I doubt it.
When I was a child I made Christmas wreaths from ground cedar, the club moss that looks somewhat like an umbrella, because In Pound Ridge we didn’t have balsam. I didn’t know then that harvesting ground cedar would become a commercial business with overharvesting creating a need for these plants to be protected. Now many states including Maine have restrictions on collecting club mosses because of human greed.
Clubmosses are important in the fossil records (today we have approximately 1000 species world-wide). In the past these plants grew as tall as trees, eventually dying, compacting and forming the coal and oil deposits that we draw from today. Finite. Resources, that we will soon run out of. This family is the oldest group of vascular plants that remain extant. Just imagine what they could teach us if we were capable of listening…
One fascinating aspect of these plants is that they can be used to make sound waves visible. Another curious fact is that when water is covered with the spores’ powder if a person inserts a finger into the mixture, it will come out dry! A third quality is that the dry spores are quite flammable and can be used to start a fire or create a magical illusion.I think these ground covers are often overlooked; they are fascinating plants – and many people don’t even know they exist.
The next time you are in a healthy forest – one that has not been logged recently – (after the snow disappears) pay attention to what’s going on beneath, around your feet and you will be rewarded by seeing these most ancient relations of ours creeping across the woodland floor.
THIS ESSAY IS TOO IMPORTANT NOT TO POST – ANYONE WITH ABUSE ISSUES NEEDS TO READ IT
(NOTE: I posted this essay on Facebook this past November and have since been asked by many to make it more easily available to read. As I am currently navigating the kind of autoimmunity mentioned in the first paragraph, it feels even more important to speak about. This essay is excerpted from a book of essays I am currently finishing about healing beyond the human.)The Body is a Doorway
The body is a doorway. And for survivors of early trauma and abuse that doorway is always open. Wide open. Hypersensitivity (both cognitive and physical) has been tied to early trauma and sexual abuse time and time again. A 2019 study published in the journal of Rheumatology showed that in a sample of 67,000 women, those with the highest incidence of childhood abuse, were at a three-fold greater risk of developing lupus than those who had not experienced abuse. Survivors are also at an increased risk for developing serious autoimmune illness, chemical sensitivity, and allergy disorders. The correlations between early abuse and illness, disability, and neurodivergence are too many to list. The takeaway would seem to be that childhood experience of trauma registers not only emotionally, but physically.
This was something I understood intimately as a child. I seemed to notice more. More bugs. More smells. More texture. More noise. More micro expressions on adult’s faces. More birdsong. More temperature fluctuations. I knew something terrible had happened to me and that I was quite good at keeping it hidden. But I didn’t connect my radical hypersensitivity to the abuse. I just knew that, for better or for worse, I seemed to be highly attuned to my surroundings. Yes, I watched doors, constantly monitored adults around me, and scanned rooms for signs of danger. But I also was transfixed for hours by dirt spangled with mycelia, air scintillating with dust, slugs leaving behind starlight-slick stories on the porch. I could read the breathing patterns of our cats and dogs, keyed into the smallest fluctuations in their wellbeing. Blue was more blue. I could feel a cat’s purr in my belly. Frog song vibrated below my tongue. The blooming lilac was so bright a smell it almost made a sound. A song. Life was often agonizing. But, much to my confusion, it also seemed more available to me than it did to others. Why was this?
Sensory Gating is the neurological process whereby we filter out “redundant” stimuli from our sensual experience to create a homogenized reality. The experience, while necessary to function, has been tightened by patriarchy and civilization. Research at MIT, especially the work of Michael Halassa, has shown that we receive an outrageous amount of sensory data. Yet we manage to hear our name in a crowded room and spot a friend’s face in a sea of people. These stimuli don’t show up more “brightly”. They show up because we learn to “dampen” and gate out the sensory information we deem to be redundant. As a child we learn from our parents and our social environments what information is redundant. And as that sensory information gets classified as “non-goal oriented” we stop noticing it. Children see the world as magical not because they are naïve, but because they are actually more neurologically open to it. They haven’t been taught yet to “gate” out the aliveness of the more-than-human world. One strange aspect of abuse is that it opens those “gates” even wider, showing you that you are permeable. It also creates a need to remain “hypervigilant”. To shut down sensory stimuli would be to put yourself at risk. This is why so many survivors of childhood abuse experience a constant alertness to their surroundings.
For so long I have characterized this as a burden and a failure. And it is true that this constant state of awareness leaves your body exhausted and more likely to develop illness. But if I am tired of how my body and mind are affected by the abuse, I am even more tired of the paradigm that problematizes how I diverge from a normative body and normative nervous system. Yes, the abuse made me hypersensitive and probably led to my genetic illness manifesting so dramatically later on. But my hyper sensitivity and awareness didn’t discriminate between human and non-human stimuli. And this has been my saving grace. While I scanned a room for danger, I also let my eyes take in the gestalt of ecosystems. I noticed minute shifts in cloud formations. I could read the silver-flipping twist of leaves to predict the exact moment when a storm would hit. I could taste the milky-rust flavor of mycorrhizal systems below my feet as I walked through a forest. I was able to notice more. Particularly the very small and the very unacknowledged: molds, mushrooms, tadpoles, pond scum, voids of birdsong where the year before there had been a frenetic chorus.
For a long time, aware that my illness is tied to trauma, I made myself available to every possible healing modality to try and integrate the violent memories. I just needed a little bit more EMDR, a little bit more somatic experiencing, a little bit more acupuncture and talk therapy, to bring my nervous system back into “the window of tolerance”. It was my responsibility to heal this trauma so that my body could finally relax.
It is important to note that westernized somatics and psychotherapy have created a baseline of comfort and relaxation as the goal treatment is supposed to provide. The individual and the individual’s commitment to healing are centered. But when trauma is a multi-causal event caused by a web of relations caused by systems of oppressions, how can the individual possibly untie all the tangles? And should that even be the working goal? Perhaps relaxation and comfort should not be the goal as we confront climate collapse. I’m not sure I believe in wellness anymore. Or healing. I’m increasingly wary of how both terms have been weaponized by institutions of oppression that enacted the harm in the first place, seeding us with the belief that we are ultimately individually responsible for how harm appears in our bodies. This phenomenon is known as “healthism” and is defined as the preoccupation with personal health and personal responsibility for health as primary often at the detriment of understanding that the health of one person is intimately tied to and representative of a whole population. Trauma does not belong to an individual. It is a web that includes someone. It is not an object that can be removed. Your body’s innate ability to dance with harm and with discomfort is not always a problem. It is a relational tactic. An unconsensual opening to both the good and the bad, the human and the non-human. As I release the need to perform completion or healing, I’m more drawn to the idea of alchemical storytelling. If you have a genetic illness with no cure, a divergent nervous system, a wounded heart, if you can’t undo what happened, how can you recontextualize trauma ? How can you tell a new story about it?
What if the abused body didn’t passive aggressively keep the score? What if it acted more like an aperture, capturing pictures of horror as well as also imprinting cosmic light from distant galaxies? What if the body was a doorway open to more than human stories? Just as I realized my connective tissue disease mapped directly onto my love of underground fungal connective systems, so could I understand my trauma to be less of a mortal wound, and more of a compass pointing out of anthropocentrism. What if the shape of your wounding, the exact flickering silhouette of your hypersensitivity, was the shape of the doorway into another being’s pain and experience?
I am allergic to spiritual practitioners who suggest my trauma was an initiation, but I am equally unimpressed by the prognosis of western psychology and colonial somatics that I must dole out hundreds of dollars and years of time to manage and integrate and fix these problems. I have earnestly tried to integrate the trauma. I have spent thousands of dollars trying to come back into a normative nervous system. And I’m done. If I can’t fix this then let me understand how it could be my superpower. If I can’t close my sensory gating, then open me wider. Dilate me like a cervix so that I may be the birth canal for stories that are not about human beings and human progress. Let me become a doorway for viruses and ecosystems and fungi and dove song. Let me become a doorway so big and so open that a new way of being can emerge, one not tied to the fiction of human individuals. One that is equally aware of the agony and ecstasy and is allowed to wildly swing out of the window of tolerance, achieving both the valleys and peaks that our culture has denied us. Let me exceed the graph. Let me swing past wellness into something wilder and less predictable.
We could say the climate itself is out of its window of tolerance. How then can I ride these nervous system oscillations in wild solidarity? How does the body of an abuse survivor act as an expert barometer for shifting ecosystems and temperatures and weather patterns? It is important to note that the temperate conditions human beings consider optimal are an actual rarity in the history of deep time. What if the window of normalcy that trauma survivors are expected to re-enter isn’t normalcy at all? What if it’s just an anthropocentric model that gates out the wily and often ecstatic experience of being ecologically alive and aware?
I am tired of the word survivor and the personal responsibility of coming back into cultural legibility. I want a better word and a better story. What if those who survived trauma and early abuse could call themselves doorways? Too big and too wide for binaries of good and bad. What if we could honor that our nervous systems and our bodies are openings to stories that are vital right now as we confront cultural chaos, mass extinction, and climate collapse?
HOW AM I DIFFERENT? severely directionally dyslexic, so dyslexic with numbers I never made it beyond arithmetic, ACUTE FEAR and ANXIETY, hypervigilance, image based learner – so right brained that audio learning remains a challenge, acute perceptive abilities, sensitivity to NOISE acute, phototropic (acute sensitivity to light) dreamer/includes precognition etc.
DREAMS AND NATURE HAVE HELPED ME NAVIGATE THIS LIFE
WHAT IS NEURODIVERGENCE?
No two brains are alike – function varies – the brains in some people work differently from the average “neurotypical” person.
NEURODIVERGENCE IS NOT A DISEASE.
IT DOESN’T REQUIRE TREATMENT; IT REQUIRES UNDERSTANDING THAT WE ARE AL DIFFERENT
HOWEVER A NEURODIVERGENT’S BODY IS A DOORWAY THAT IT ALWAYS OPEN FOR GOOD OR ILL
SEVERE INFANT, CHILDHOOD, ADULT ABUSE OPENED THE DOOR AND KEPT IT OPEN IN MY LIFE.
IN MY CASE NATURE FOLDED ME IN AND I FOUND SANITY, TEACHERS AND PEACE ONLY IN THE WILD PLACES WHICH FOR A BRIEF MOMENT IN TIME I SHARED WITH MY LITTLE BROTHER BEFORE HE DIED, OR WITHIN THE SIMPLE HOMES I HAVE CREATED FOR MY ANIMALS AND MYSELF.
IN TIME MY LOVE FOR NATURE TAUGHT ME TO HONOR MY BODY AND TO LISTEN TO HER. TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN FROM WITHIN OR THROUGH THE NUDGES I EXPERIENCED IN NATURE.
ONE MAN HAS HELPED – BEEN MY FRIEND – MY VET, THE ONLY HUMAN I TRUST ON THIS PLANET – HE HELPS ME BY BEING – EMOTIONAL PRESENCE, AN ABILITY TO HEAL ARE ONLY TWO OF HIS GIFTS… AND HE IS ALWAYS THERE FOR MY ANIMALS…
THIS PROCESS CONTINUES TODAY AS I CHOOSE MY TRUTHS, MY EXPERIENCES, MY INTUITION, MY SENSES, MY FEELINGS, MY DREAMS OVER WHATEVER THE COLLECTIVE SAYS IS TRUE UNLESS THE TWO OVERLAP.
OH, I CONTINUE TO BE CHALLENGED BY AN OPPRESSIVE CULTURE THAT HAS FORCED ME INTO THE ROLE OF ‘OUTSIDER’ BECAUSE OF MY DIFFERENCE. BUT I CONTINUE TO LEARN…
GLOBAL WARMING HAS DEVASTATED ME IN WAYS IMPOSSIBLE TO ARTICULATE BECAUSE I AM SO SENSITIVE TO THE CHANGES THAT ARE OCCURRING TO AN EARTH THAT HAS BEEN BOTH MOTHER AND FATHER – THE SOURCE OF MY BELOVED.
FORTUNATELY I DISTRUSTED COUNSELING SO MUCH I AVOIDED IT – BECAME A JUNGIAN PATTERN ANALYST INSTEAD SO I WORKED WITH OTHERS. THE PEOPLE THAT CAME TO ME, FOR THE MOST PART, WERE ABLE TO GET SOME RELEIF BECAUSE THEY WERE TRULY WITNESSED.
THE CULTURE’S OBSESSION WITH PERSONAL HEALING IS YET ONE MORE INDICATION OF IT’S PATHOLOGY. EGO – CENTRIC TO THE EXTREME.
MEANWHILE MOST REMAIN INDIFFERENT TO NATURE AND THE CRISIS WE ARE IN.’
PERSONAL HEALING IS ANOTHER FORM OF DELUSION, YET ONE MORE WAY TO KEEP PEOPLE FROM THEIR OWN TRUTH.
It’s another gray snowy day with large white flakes falling from the sky… January lasts “forever” every single year. I feed chickadees on my window ledge until the squirrels show up; then I scatter seed on the ground. Chickadees begin their day just before 7 AM when it is still dark, coming to the ledge. Today the turkeys are absent, fluffed up monks still hidden under hemlock boughs. The blood male cardinal appears with his usual message. I peer into the forest as the turkeys make their way across the brook and start up the hill while gazing at sage green shield lichens and two pure white birches that stand out like sentries, peeling white skin. Some maples and many hemlocks border the brook that is running clear of ice. A multitude of twigs and evergreen spires sway, branches twist and bend filling every inch of space, a comforting sight, even though all the deciduous trees are bare. Global warming turns snow to rain and back again in every storm creating ice bound paths, easily traversed by my little dogs. Dangerous for me. Often now I am housebound.
This gray world of mine needs animation from within…
The birds and my little night- flying squirrel remind me that flight can be a good exercise, even if it is only in my mind – but any flight I may make must be attached to my body. My body needs solid grounding and the separation I feel from rich brown earth, now covered by snow threatens to sever one from the other, I know. That I need extra protection at this time of year is sharply etched in my psyche. I light sage daily as I invoke the Four Directions. Following my dreams closely I receive nudges like those I feel and sense when I am free to roam through my favorite forest. I meditate on a dream of a blue green serpent with red crosses on his back. Blue green earth and betrayal behind my back. I am forewarned…
Paying close attention to my beloved dogs, dove, and indoor plants, I take deep pleasure from the fact that all are thriving. Twice now two plants have spoken; one imaged an offering I needed to make for personal protection. Another produced an illumination: The root connection to my children remains, part of the great underground mycelial network, regardless of their behavior. I feel ambivalence around this news having suffered for so long, and finally being purged of want or need, the latter a Life Blessing.
A second dream tells me to add a frog to my enclosure, a place where a child that is also me lives …
The next dream reveals that this child is no bigger than a little red berry (berries contain seeds) and that living inside a protected space allows her to thrive because she is safe.
Yet another dream reveals an emerald evergreen princess pine, a diminutive forest ground cover shimmering through the snow. The meaning behind this plant dream remains obscure until I spy the spore bearing tuft in my winter bouquet. Severing the ‘candle’ from the plant I carefully spread the seed dust on the moss of my terrarium. Seeds! Offering or Intention – I am not sure – probably both.
My terrarium is bursting with life. Last fall I collected wild plants from the beloved forest, where my little brother roams free, to fill a container…. By creating a miniature woodland without conscious intention, I created a safe space, not just for a child but for me.
Every morning I open the doors to mist the air and let the sweet earth scent of a forest in miniature remind the adult that winter is but one of four seasons and spring will come. Inside this oasis a partridgeberry catches my eye immediately. Little stone frog sits at the edge of the pool, the She Bear is in the foreground, head bowed, her red heartline hidden. Both Zuni fetishes. Lichen and mosses abound, dripping from lichened wood. Hemlock heartwood, driftwood from the deep lies against the glass; two hemlock seedlings are planted just to the right. Death to Life. Rotting leaves curl, brown edged, like Pulmonaria, once common now a rare lichen. Gradually a few stones move in, chert from Changing Woman’s Mountain, granite from my friend an Oglala Sioux Medicine Man. The first two offerings I was instructed to leave here for Winter Protection… A few wispy turkey feathers lay against the back glass wall. The child directs who and what enters this space; plants and my dreams fill in the blanks.
Imagination turns the key.
Until this morning I thought we were finished with offerings, but I was wrong. As I read an article that Carolyn Lee Boyd had written about witch stones*, I suddenly recalled my brother’s Algonquin amulet, one he used to wear around his neck. Rummaging through my old jewelry bag I discovered the leather thong, but inexplicably it had been cut. The round stone with its hand drilled hole was gone. How could this be? Bereft, I tore through everything I had before finding lost treasure. Clasping the stone in hungry hands it suddenly hit me. The anniversary of my brother’s death was five days away. Every year for the last 51 years there has been something that re -attaches me to him in a visceral way… Here was the final offering. This one for the dead. When I examined the petroglyphs etched on the stone I remembered the fish, the sun, and the arrow on one side. The opposite side held the end of the story picturing a teepee – like structure, a place to hang fish, and stars falling to earth. A prayer for good fishing? A Witch Stone.
When I looked at the rounded edge I was stunned. I didn’t remember that a serpent circled the periphery, meeting up with a lizard, face to face. Serpents and Lizards – north and south. Both grounded, both sleeping under the earth during the cold months of the year. I smudged the stone before placing it in the terrarium; at last the enclosure held all the objects it needed for Great Mystery to work. It makes perfect sense to me that the little girl would need a talisman of her brother in the terrarium created from bits of our beloved forest because she lives in there and misses him so. Now we both have what we need. This terrarium has also become my bridge to Refuge and the forest when I can’t be there during the winter. When I open those doors, I join the child and am pulled into a magic place.
It was a little more than a year ago that I dreamed that my brother, whose ashes were buried below the house, had moved and roamed freely through the forest I had come to love not just because it was wild, bursting with some 200 year old trees and fertile ground but because it was protected – all 12,000 acres of it. This dream held a ring of unshakable truth for me because Davey and I spent our childhood and adolescence in the woods. Over the past ten years the Powers of this Place (my home) have been fractured. I believe the fragmentation of natural power is due to this small parcel of land being sandwiched in between others that have been heavily and carelessly logged. The perpetual noise created by constant traffic, the whine of man’s machines drowns out the voices of Nurturing Nature Spirits.
In what I have come to call ‘my forest’ it is blessedly still at least in the spring and fall. During the spring there are so many birds singing at the edge of the river that I slip into an enchanted state unable to do anything but look and listen… The Powers of Place are palpable, all day long. Frequently I experience the amorphous presence of my little brother. I have also found my burial place in Hemlock Hollow among the tangled roots of the Mother Trees sung to by the river.
During the months of silence the Powers of this Place seem to strengthen despite winter fear that comes out of the knowledge that I am too old to be safe here because of the ice. Yet I take joy from the frost carvings etched into my porch windows, gaze lovingly at the overflowing brook, feed birds all day long, and in the late afternoons light the fire and curl up on the couch with my dogs bringing in the night drinking raspberry tea amidst tiny lights, stars appearing on my fading fragrant balsam wreath.
This is when I read, listen to podcasts, or reflect upon the day, and much of the time I feel gratitude flowing as my mind wanders… sometimes I have ideas about the little post I will write the next morning with whatever pictures I might have taken. These posts on FB are my way of beginning each day with an offering to anyone who might need an image of nature’s beauty or someone’s thoughtful questions (most of the time – at other times I complain!). These posts are for the public, available to anyone, my solitary venture into social media.
Last night I was sitting by the fire listening to a podcast by Robin Wall Kimmerer- “Good Medicine…” Kimmerer, a plant scientist and well known author of Braiding Sweetgrass asks important questions, ones that I ask all the time: How do we de -colonize plant/animal knowledge? What has to shift in peoples minds so that we can attribute Personhood to plants, to animals? To see them as the sentient beings they are? Would making this shift allow us to see plants/animals as our Teachers?
Kimmerer believes as I do that according Personhood to plants and animals is utterly necessary if we are to make a paradigm shift from nature as resource to be used (timber/ agriculture/ animal slaughter) to plants/animals as Living Beings that need our respect, compassion, love. All are teachers. I am not anthropomorphizing here; I am saying that we need to respect plants and animals for who they are in their right, having their own lives and purposes while acknowledging that they are also our relatives – we cannot do this unless we see them and accord them with intelligence, feelings, beings who also embody ancient knowledge
We both feel that it is possible to make this shift by developing personal relationships with individuals and the context in which they live but we can’t do this unless we accord each plant or animal with Personhood. Every biome is sentient. Forests like mine are whole communities composed of trees, plants and animals that all interact with each other above and below ground. We will continue to need wood products and foods but it’s the way we use our forests and fields (the ocean etc) that must change. If we believed that plants and animals were our esteemed teachers and relations (after all they are 400 – 300 million years old while humans have been present for only two hundred thousand years) we could no longer “it” them forcing them to become ‘Other.’ Separate, less than human. Oh, the hubris.
Internalizing a sense of wonder about nature is the third key. For me both have developed because I have had relationships with plants and animals ever since I remember – I tend and care for them, grow them, love them, and spend time simply being with them. I do my best to be emotionally present, to listen. I think anyone can learn to see plants and animals as sentient beings. One can begin in the city with something simple as having one houseplant, a terrarium, some fish, a cat. Maybe a small container garden. All we need is an open mind and heart and nature will do the rest…
Every morning when I open the doors of the terrarium to mist my little forest I peer in inhaling the sweet scent, noting new wild lily of the valley shoots springing up in January (!), the unfurling fern, emerald moss, the crimson partridgeberry always asking the same kinds of questions… How can I stay protected, yet remain open to possibilities? How can I find balance in a culture where extremes dominate? How can I help others see, sense, intuit feel the wonder that is nature? What is the most effective way to reach others through my writing? I could go on here… Entering this forested space I fall into prayer, joyfully, if only for moments. I am happy.
When I began this project last fall – this is a vivarium in the making (someday tree frogs will live here) I had no idea this terrarium would become a place to ground my questions, and my need for protection in an earth space that isn’t frozen over, as well as becoming a way to live through the child, to stay connected to moments of joy until this season passes and with it the threat of physical danger and my fear of being separated from earth, my mother, my father, my Beloved.
Last night I was listening to plant scientist Monica Gagliano who is pushing the boundaries of what we know about plants. She proved that plants respond to the sound of water by moving toward it and cannot be tricked. Bio-acoustics is the study of sound and Monic a is researching other ways that plants communicate. We know they use chemical messengers to warn each other above ground and below through the mycelial network thanks to the work of Suzanne Simard who I shall discuss in a moment. We have learned that plants emit electrical impulses. But Monica is studying another way that plants communicate. She says they listen to all the plants around them and learn from each other so that they do not have to re-invent the wheel with each generation. In one amazing memory experiment mimosa plants taught her that plants remember what happened to them previously and don’t repeat their mistakes. The Mind of Plants was her first book. She also studied with Indigenous healers in the Amazon and discusses this mysterious and compelling journey in her latest book Thus Spoke the Plants.
Suzanne Simard discovered that trees communicate above and below ground through complex mycelial networks, favoring their kin, transferring nutrients, water, and carbon back and forth between broadleaf trees that photosynethize most efficiently during the summer months and share their food with conifers in the fall, when the two types of trees reverse the process and the conifers feed the deciduous trees. Needled conifers photosynthesize for much longer periods (though less efficiently) Trees in a forest live in community and the emphasis is on the health of the whole forest and not the individual tree or plant (competition does exist to some degree but overall, the forest works as a sentient living being with an eye on the health of the whole. The moment a tree falls it begins to nourish other trees and plants on the forest floor. Walk through any forest that hasn’t been logged for awhile and you will be amazed at the ground covers, seedlings, mosses, lichens that spring from one old stump. One fallen log can become a nursery for a whole row of seedlings.
After writing a memoir that every woman should read “Finding the Mother Tree” Suzanne founded the 100-year Mother Tree project that focuses on long term tree research incorporating her graduate student as assistants (some of whom are now scientists as well). In Suzanne’s words, “The Mother Tree project is investigating forest renewal practices that will protect biodiversity, carbon storage and forest regeneration as climate changes. This field-based research compares various retention levels of Mother Trees (large, old trees) and their neighbors, as well as regenerating seedling mixtures, in Douglas-fir forests located across nine climatic regions in British Columbia”.
Suzanne who began her life a logger and comes from a family of loggers has also been working with Indigenous peoples, most of whom are professionals. She discovered that what she learned about trees as a child ‘being part of the forest herself’ is the same way Indigenous peoples learned about nature through their keen senses of observation, intuition and feeling; they listened, they dreamed, and the forest spoke.
Robin Wall Kimmerer another plant scientist is best known for her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Her first book and my favorite because I love mosseshappens to be Gathering Moss. She is also a distinguished Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology and Director for the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York. Kimmerer has Indigenous roots – she is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and successfully blends science with Indigenous wisdom demonstrating primarily through story, personal narrative as well as science an alternative to the life destroying paradigm we are presently living through.
One commonality between all three is that they have merged imagination, keen observation, intuition, feeling, and the use of all bodily senses with rigorous scientific experimentation upsetting the dominant materialistic paradigm that is stuck on objectivity. Since there is no such thing as objectivity because of the well documented observer effect which states that the observer will effect whatever is being observedjust one more indication that we are all interconnected) we must ask why materialistic science is so resistant to these new plant studies that indicate sentience in plants. What would we have to change if for example we acknowledged that plants have feelings? What could we learn from 400 million year old trees?
The second common thread is that all three of these scientists currently work with Indigenous Peoples crediting them with Ancient Knowledge that western science is only recently uncovering using the scientific method. Ask an Indigenous person how they learned about plants, and you will be told the plants taught them.
What does this blending of disparate traditions tell us? The obvious answer is that we can learn from both the Original Peoples of this land as well as from open minded rigorous science. And yet, this has not happened. Instead, these women scientists have been dismissed for the most part. Is this because they refuse to separate their science from their senses?
(my terrarium keeps me green during the winter)!
Because I am a Naturalist I have been asking the same sorts of questions as these female scientists have about plants – how do they know what they know – (and receiving answers, not through words, but through my bodily senses) I am still thrilled that these cutting – edge women scientists are proving what the plants have been teaching me all my life. Like Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer and Gagliano the naturalist’s keen eye can uncover hidden worlds. And like Kimmerer I too have Indigenous roots.
What is very interesting/ disturbing to me is that none of these women all of whom are ground-breaking scientists identifies herself as a feminist, although their stories are remarkable, and all share intimate portraits of their lives along with whatever scientific expertise/ discoveries belong to them. The word feminist is apparently pejorative when it comes to being a female scientist.
If I am absolutely honest, although I openly acknowledge that I am an eco -feminist I also make a point of explaining exactly what I mean by the words I use. I never used to feel the need to do this; sometimes I even feel uncomfortable using the word feminist around others. I do believe that what happens to nature happens to women and many men to a lesser degree, and that there is a toxic power structure in place that supports white supremacy, racism, classism etc. I could go on here. Patriarchy is a killer.
If I am willing to query the change in myself, I wonder how other women feel, and if this is a destructive pattern that is developing around our identity as feminists. We have always been marginalized. Are we once again becoming afraid to speak our truths? We may still protest, but overall, the entire cultural structure around feminism seems to be shifting into a downward trend.
I would surely like to know what others think.
(passionflower plant that recently gave me an answer to a question)
Postscript: ‘Womanist’ was Alice Walker’s way of describing feminism. Always loved the term.
With more than 600 species of lichens in Maine photographing and gathering a few, some for wreaths, one for a tincture, is one of my favorite winter pass times. During the cold months I am increasingly starved for color depending upon occasional sunrises, alpine glow, and sunsets for intensity. Once we had deep green evergreen mountains but all that is changing. Drab brown fuzz and skidder marks now cover the stripped mountains around my house. Lichens are an endless source for inspiration during these months because they glow green brown and gold with winter precipitation regardless of whether it is rain, ice, or snow.
In this article I am going to discuss a couple of different lichens that are favorites of mine. We have so many and seeking out these complex organisms can become a passion for others as it has for me! Some lichens are tolerant of pollution, others are disappearing, a result of decreasing air purity in Maine.
What follows is some general information about lichens that are reputed by some to be the first organisms to colonize land roughly 400 – 450 million years ago (the timeline keeps changing). The point is that lichens are ancient living beings who developed incredible strategies for moving from the sea to inhabit the rocks they found on land. Lichens are responsible for creating the first soil because they break down stone.
Lichens are composed of two or more dissimilar organisms that form a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship. Together they produce a new vegetative body that is called a thallus. The life forms are composed of fungi and green algae and/or a cyanobacteria. Fungal filaments make up about 80% of the lichen body. The fungus forms the outer surface to provide support and protection, absorb moisture, and collect minerals from the air. Since the fungus cannot produce its own food, it is dependent upon algae to provide this essential function. Green algae and cyanobacteria possess the green pigment chlorophyll that is essential for photosynthesis. When surrounded by the fungi, algae/cyanobacteria provide the nourishment necessary to enable the lichens to exist and sustain themselves. Neither can survive without the other (s).
Unlike plants, lichens do not have leaves, stems, or roots, or a waxy outer cuticle to control body water content. Lichens continue to grow during periods when dew, mist, and rain water are present but during a summer dry period they often become dormant (photosynthesis ceases) until the next rainfall. Miniscule mineral particles that are carried by the wind during wet conditions are dissolved and absorbed by the lichen. They are able to photosynthesize in the winter as long as temperatures aren’t frigid.
Lichens produce their own food using sunlight, water, and air and do not feed on tree bark. The lichen bodies are attached to the outer bark and remain on the surface. Their rhizines (not roots) typically do not penetrate deep enough into the inner bark to cause harm to the trees they inhabit. This latter information is particularly important because many people associate lichen with dying trees and cut them down. I know I once did…
When I first came to this area I felI in love with a large ‘dying spruce’ that dripped Usnea lichen from every branch. Because I only remove trees that threaten the house, I left that one alone. I had no idea then, that almost forty years later, that this same tree would still be standing photosynthesizing away with Usnea hugging its branches, or wearing beards, casting threadlike tendrils in every direction. It is true that the lower branches of the spruce are bare, (allowing the lichen to absorb more sunlight) but above the limbs and tall spires are covered with needles. My point is that even if a tree is dying, the lichen inhabiting lower branches is not killing the tree. Instead, lichens keep the tree photosynthesizing for many years, so maybe it is best to simply leave the tree alone as I have continued to do. Most lichens like some mosses grow prolifically on trees. I find Usnea extraordinarily beautiful; clumps of silky hair or delicate reindeer -like branches sway in light winds…Often, while gazing up into my spruce’s branches, acclaimed author Terry Tempest Williams words will materialize out of thin air. “Beauty is not a luxury. It is a strategy for survival”.
However, it’s important to note that there are certain fungi that operate independently outside a lichen body that will penetrate tree wounds or dead wood and feed on a host plant. The filaments of the fungal body will reside inside the tree tissue with only the fruiting bodies visible on the surface.
There are at least 13,000 – 20, 000 species of lichens living throughout the world. Lichen species are so numerous and diverse that there are individual exceptions to most general statements made about them. Scientific knowledge about lichens has expanded significantly during the past few decades, and new discoveries continue.
Lichens can be divided into three types. Crustose lichens lie flat on the substrate and are the most tolerant of pollution. Look on any young maple or beech tree and you will see this lichen. Foliose lichens have a flat but leaf-like structure. Fruticose lichens are free standing like Usnea or ‘wrinkled lettuce’ (my name) lichen. The latter two are most sensitive to air pollution and are often found at the tops of trees, the limbs falling to the ground in high winds. Lichens can be seen in various colors -yellow, orange, red, purple, brown, etc. These colors are due to the presence of special pigment containing usnic acid. Most lichen species grow best where there is sufficient light and moisture within a moderate temperature zone. However, some lichen species are very adaptable and hardy.
When left undisturbed, lichens live in many varying climates and altitudes throughout the world. Some species can survive the most unfavorable climatic extremes of arctic, alpine, and desert regions by reducing metabolic activity for extended periods of time. Yet individual species may only exist within a restricted habitat or geographic range. Most lichens are sensitive to air pollution in varying degrees, and like canaries in coal mines, may serve as indicators of air quality.
Most fungi that form lichens produce microscopic spores in sacs. A fungus can produce millions of spores sexually. A new lichen association can be created only when fungal spores come in contact with the appropriate algae or cyanobacteria in the right habitat.
Lichen reproductive parts containing both algal and fungal cells may also occur asexually for dispersal. In vegetative reproduction, any fragment or shred of lichen containing both the algal and fungal components that breaks off the original can form a new lichen body.
This winter, though just beginning, has been hard on trees because all have been weakened by logging, insect damage, extreme temperature changes, and other effects of global warming. With so many broken and severed limbs on the ground it is easy to see that many are covered with lichens. I have already collected enough Usnea for this year’s medicinal tincture, something I normally don’t do until spring. My balsam wreaths are festooned with two species of Usnea and Fringed (‘wrinkled lettuce’) lichen. Every few days I soak these in warm water, so they don’t dry out (I love the shades when they are wet). In the spring I return them to the wild. My terrarium has a few Fringed lichen, tangles of Usnea, and a bit of Lungwort I found on the ground in my favorite forest after an animal had eaten most of what had been a large, rounded lichen.
As a fruticose lichen, Usnea appears as a shrub-like growth on host trees. Unlike other similar-looking fruticose lichens, species in this genus have an elastic chord or axis running through the middle of the thallus that can be revealed by gently pulling a filament apart from either end. In a healthy forest this lichen often cascades in clumps from bare branches, a beautiful sight. Based on a fossil found in amber, Usnea was present about 34 million years ago. Many animals love to eat this lichen (as well as others), so it is an important food source for wildlife.
The only place I have found Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) is in my favorite forest; one that has been left to rewild itself. Lungwort likes humid forested areas with both maturing or old conifers and hardwood trees. It used to be quite common in its ideal habitat, a shady environment, quite literally ‘flowering’ from trees and rocks. Finding this lichen indicates rich, healthy ecosystems with very clean air. Lungwort is large, bright green, and leaf -like. The green algae gives it its startling, almost emerald appearance… attached pockets of cyanobacteria (blue green algae) are darker in color – a drab gray – and appear in sharp contrast to the green. In this forest I have found a number of healthy specimens some quite large and round, but sadly, in general, this lichen is becoming scarce, an indication of too much air pollution in Maine.
Green Shield, a foliose lichen is easy to spot on trees, especially on a cloudy day. This lichen is more tolerant of air pollution. Just this morning I was looking out my window towards the brook and could barely see any lichen because the sun was shining. A few days ago, it was cloudy, and lichens were visible everywhere I looked. I took a photo of Green Shield lichen on a healthy maple tree about 20 feet up and was amazed to discover that in addition to the one I photographed there were about 8 -9 other lichens I hadn’t seen previously! Some I have not yet identified. All were growing in a roughly 12x by 12 area. When I counted all the lichens and the sheet moss growing together a new question popped into my head. Why do different species of lichens grow together and why include mosses? Lichens apparently choose community living. And because lichens and mosses were the first organisms/plants to inhabit dry land maybe they like growing together? Pure speculation. I have no idea, but I want an answer to this question! Of course, needing a similar habitat would be one reason for clustering, but I have sense that there is more to it than that.
The last lichen I will mention is one that grows on top of a rounded stone that looks like mountain top. It could be Peppered Rock Shield, because this cluster likes sun. What I love about this lichen is the way it is slowly spreading over the ‘mountain’. Until the summer heat strikes it is a beautiful luminous sage green with nubbly skin. This lack of certainty on my part brings up an important point. Lichen hunting takes discernment, time, patience, and a willingness to revisit lichens frequently, and at different times of the year, always with a critical eye. I think it’s fitting that I should end this lichen saga with one I am unsure of, because with lichens one is always a beginner! I will be watching this one more critically this spring and summer when I am once again roaming through my favorite forest…
Before closing I am listing some other benefits of these ancient and complex organisms:
Lichens that contain cyanobacteria can fix nitrogen
Lichens cover eight percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface
Lichens provide food for mule deer, whitetails, mountain goats, pronghorn antelope, northern flying squirrels and other squirrels, voles, wild turkeys, slugs, snails, mites, springtails, certain caterpillars to mention just a few animals.
Lichens provide nesting material for 50 species of birds especially hummingbirds
Lichens provide protection and background camouflage for lizards, certain moths, tree frogs. Lacewing larvae cover their wings with lichens
Lichens are sand and soil stabilizers (especially in deserts – I witnessed this with a dark brown crustose lichen in NM)
I hope I have captivated a few peoples’ imagination and encouraged them to meander through our winter forests…
This morning at dawn I quartered the ripe pomegranate that had been sitting in the center of my wreath since early in December, remembering the night my dad brought one home when I was a small child. I swallowed my first seeds feeling a child’s sense of awe and wonder that any fruit could taste so bitter and so sweet. Crimson bedded in pearl. I have a vivid memory of sensing the importance of the act although I couldn’t have been five. I say this because my little brother wasn’t with us. He was almost four years younger than me. Once mobile, Davey, became the love of my life; we were inseparable.
How could I know then that I had entered the myth, and like Persephone would make periodic descents into the underworld throughout my life? Once I understood, I resisted identification with this mythical figure. This resistance lasted throughout my forties and fifties, but eventually I became reconciled to the Fate that was mine to own.
As soon as pomegranates began to appear in stores, I bought one each autumn (for many years reluctantly), understanding that I was repeating a mythical contract and choosing my story at the same time.
I still experience a sense of inevitability.
Now in my late seventies I pick out my pomegranate with care holding the smooth rounded fruit lovingly before buying it, knowing that soon I will settle it into the center of my homemade balsam wreath. I always buy more than one. On January 6th I burn my balsam branches in the fire. Then I cut the fruit out of its nest in the center of my wreath to leave an offering for the animals… this year the first recipients were wild turkeys.
Like blood, I thought this morning as I cut open the pomegranate thinking about the child who once made a contract with the Beyond through my dad. As the crimson juice flowed, I ate one seed from each section before offering the quarters to the turkeys outside my window. Seconds after swallowing the first seed pulsing energy streamed through my body; something important had just happened. Moments later the reasons for eating four seeds surfaced from deep within – a seed for each of the Four Sacred Directions, Four Sacred Seasons. Accepting the bitter and the sweet.
I am always learning.
It’s January 6th, Epiphany in the Christian calendar, and the day my dreams celebrate ‘the first of year’.
Today’s dream informs me that I am releasing old stones… am I letting go of whatever left might be ‘cast in stone’? Possibly. Dreams are so complex that only more living will reveal the dream’s intent.
Yesterday I spent the day with my elf scientist friend, a man who is capable of bridging the world of science and mysticism with ease, a man who has been adopted into the Oglala Sioux, a Medicine man who wears only egg yellow Hawaiian shirts because when Katrina devastated the lives of so many people, he hoped to bring color into a world made of mud… mud that has only become more oppressive ever since, spreading over entire continents. Compassionate witnessing is as natural to Al as breathing, and in his presence, I am both seen and heard for exactly who I am. A powerful healer in his own right, I am healed by simply being around him. And so grateful to have this man as a friend. Without the usual male agenda. Al loves pomegranates too!
Last night after our visit I slept deeply and well. An unusual gift, for this chaotic, most frightening year has also been the most exhausting I can remember. I am thankful that it has finally come to a natural end.
A new cycle begins on a slate gray day when the snow etches bare deciduous tree branches in eggshell, evergreens in powdered sugar, a day when wind sleeps, and the polypores on dying birch trees act as shelves piling up their bounty.
Although I don’t consider myself a Christian, I am aware that my Indigenous ritual life intersects with my old religion and ‘her story’ in peculiar ways, and I am finally accepting that the blending of the two is a positive marriage. It has taken a lifetime.
I have begun a new year and have grounded my intention. I have eaten the four seeds. I am ready to engage with the future with an open but wary heart.
“Shamans bridge the night flow…” the first lines from a poem I wrote long ago keep coming into my mind. Frustrated because I can no longer access the poem, I accept that the first line is what I need… ‘bridging the night flow’ of intrusive negative feelings/actions on the part of others (as well as myself) is precisely the edge I am on. Even smoke – filled rooms remind me that I need personal protection.
An Indigenous healer and impeccable scientist and naturalist friend of mine reminds me of what I know, spiritual forces are moving. When I told him of my dream his response was to focus on protection, create the intention, and let it go… I tried to do this in my mind with limited success but apparently our discussion around this subject opened a door for me or we both did as I remembered how important it is for me to ground my intentions in something concrete. How had I forgotten?
I have a terrarium that I created from plants and debris from a beloved forest, and it occurred to me to put my need for protection into this square container allowing nature to take the lead. My friend and I are both aware that this is a dangerous time of year – a time when Shadow is on the move. What’s critical is to acknowledge the danger but not to get caught by either extreme (fear or aggression), allowing these forces to dissipate over time. Winter solstice is over, but fire lingers on; the bridge to a new year is in the making, but new year’s eve is still caught in dark revelry – the kind that hides violence under fun… again, a continuation of this dangerous time ( a personal example : last year I broke my foot on new year’s eve shoveling ice away from my door, and that turned out to be the beginning of a negatively charged year, the details of which no longer matter ). Taking an active stance is necessary. As is staying with the process.
After making the necessary offerings, the identity of one of which came to me directly from a plant, the other from a plant scientist’s remark, I continue to hold this awareness of the need for protection close. The child nudged me too and I brought down our spirit animals putting one bear and a frog in my terrarium as she requested, and the rest she directed me, needed to circle my crisped balsam wreath. I recalled the Pueblo Animal Dances beginning on or after the 1st of the year extending into spring. She was right again! Having specific animal protection is necessity. Animals ground us in our bodies.
I peer deeply into the shadows gathered around me with the eyes of the mystic turned realist, a person who seeks solid ground within her own little forest, self and in nature. I heed the warnings of smoke; the fire is not yet out. I make a promise to nature to remember that I am part of earth and sky, and both are always present in me along with humans and their non – human relatives. When bad things happen it is a challenge to keep this door open, but I commit to doing my best not to turn away. And most importantly, I get on with my life…
I will digress into Usneas natural history to use as my example: I spied a tangle of Usnea lying on snow I couldn’t reach. The lichen kept calling, so out the door I went on a quest to gather this lichen that is called “the lungs of the forest”. Indigenous peoples have used the herb for respiratory issues for millennia. Usnea is also useful for wounds helping them to heal faster.
Walking up a dirt road near my house I was impressed by the amount of Usnea present on the ground even though it is only December. Usually, I collect this lichen in the spring on those first rainy days that turn the clusters bright green. Every piece I pick up reminds me that this organism, composed of an alga, a fungus and cyanobacteria (sometimes) was the first to inhabit dry land perhaps more than 400 million years ago (there is an ongoing debate on this issue of the oldest land plants). The alga photosynthesizes feeding the fungus, and in return the fungus attaches itself to rock and breaks it down creating the first soil. Imagine. Today, neither can live without the other. Out of twenty thousand lichen possibilities I found hirta, a branched version and glabrescens, one that looks like hair. It wasn’t too long before I had a whole bag full. I deliberately took some from each fallen branch but left some tufts for the deer. Many animals need these lichens for winter food. I was pleased to see that the heavy winds had also deposited plenty of birch seeds on the snow so birds would not go hungry, at least until the next storm. There are so many trees down so early into the winter season that I cannot imagine what the woods will look by spring. The forests as whole are under so much stress from abrupt weather changes, wind, insects, drought, flooding that they are more vulnerable now than ever before. Broken branches lay everywhere. Usnea likes high places, and not surprisingly I picked most of my bounty from fallen topmost branches – many from pines. Returning to the house I cleaned my lichens while thanking them and tinctured the whole with alcohol – Within a few weeks I will have yet another useful medicine on hand. This helpful diversion helped me deal with my general unease.
I believe that having adequate protection from dark forces within and without becomes a priority during the times when our Cultural Shadow is on the increase. Indigenous and countryfolk historically dressed in masks to protect their identity from being stolen during the dark of the year. Masking is also useful when dealing with personal shadow. Reflecting. Holding oneself close. Saying less not more. Collectively, political and economic forces are intent upon keeping the public unaware of the extent of the ecological danger we are in. Add to this the normalization of violence on every level from noise (that destroys the cells of all living creatures) to rape and murder. All commonplace. Forests are on fire. Weather is just beginning to show her darker face and humans are responsible. We have lost 60 percent of our wildlife, three percent of our forests remain, clean air and water are under assault from pollution. We have lost ourselves because of our belief that we are separated from nature. What happens to one species will happen to the others even with denial firmly in place.
In the hopes that some will take heed of the need for personal protection, I close with this offering to others, while I give thanks for healing plants and nature as a whole.