cultivating Intimacy With The More Than Human World
Talking With Plants
In vivid dreams and the oldest stories, birds perch on our shoulders to speak to us of the morning’s events, the mushrooms on the forest floor murmur an answer to a question we have yet to ask, and the scarlet mouths of morning glories open to shower us with vision to heal an emotional wound buried under years of addiction. In the real world, the one right here under our feet. In the real world, beneath illusions we have trained ourselves to see, between rapid-fire moments of rushing from one task to the next, above the wailing roar of our minds, the earth still speaks to us. Though we have struggled to free ourselves from the integral spirals of time, death and dirt in an effort to overcome nature and what we perceive as bondage, we remain inextricably connected to every being, to life itself. It’s not that we’ve left the fairy tale, it’s that we’ve closed our eyes, shoved our hands in our pockets and turned up the ipod.
Before speaking, listen. Listening begins with feeling, by plugging into our larger self, defined by a particular grove of trees, this specific watershed, a bioregion we call home, the country and the planet as a whole. When we come back to here - to the moss beneath our fingers and the leaves falling from the sky, we then better remember our origins and source. Once we are stripped down to vulnerable, feeling flesh we hear more clearly the cool mutter of the Cottonwood and the excited whispers of the Redroot. We sense in a more intense way our connection and relationship to plant and animal as kin. As family. As self.
At times it can feel as if blockages are impeding upon our sense of perception and ability to listen. We wonder if there’s something wrong with us, if we’re mortally wounded because we can’t hear the plants and rocks and animals speaking to us in clear, coherent language. Or in some ways worse, we remain able to hear their tempting whispers but never loud enough to make any sense of it or to participate. As if the earth was going about her daily life, speaking to her children and listening to their songs and stories without us. As if we were cut off.
We’ve all been told to listen to your gut and follow your heart. And it’s true that we would do well to heed our deepest feelings and instinctual urges. Yet one of the greatest tragedies of our world is that many of us have lost touch with our own feelings, we don’t even know what our gut or heart is telling us anymore. This happens through the sensory numbness that accompanies the common overstimulation of rat race living and the deep emotional/spiritual malnourishment of a people with few ceremonies and little value placed on experience, ecstasy and personal revelation.
Sometimes it’s the scars of the life we’ve lived and how we’ve learned to deal with pain. Running away to deep inside our selves every time our parents scream at us, every time our spouse pulls away, every time the news comes on the TV. We’ve learned to cope, to step back, to shut down. And yet healing requires just the opposite of us: engagement, participation, intimacy with the world in every way.
Imagine having the nerves in our hand cut, suddenly we can’t feel or move our fingers. No matter how hot the plate or how silky the fabric, we just can’t feel it. There is a disturbing absence of sensation. If the nerves begin to heal back together, then we have pain and nerve sensations that jump around, burning like electricity and sometimes seeming to originate from a part of our hand different than where we were actually touched. This is how it is with our connection to our feelings, instincts and intuition.
One of the therapeutic approaches to restoring feeling to a numbed limb is to spend time with Stinging Nettles. The painful sting has a miraculous way of assisting in the restoration of feeling. So then, one of the ways we can begin to restore our own deeply feeling selves is to be open to the life-giving properties of acknowledging and experiencing our pain, however prickly or uncomfortable it may seem. As long as we stuff down the hurt of our wounds of our self and our greater self -- of the pavement, the difficult, unresolved divorce, the species gone extinct, the baby that was never born, and the fatigue we can’t seem to recover from -- we’ll be cut off from ourselves, separated by a vast sea of unresolved emotion and unfelt sorrow. The point is not to wallow in the pain, but to deeply acknowledge and experience the pain in a ceremonial way so that we can feel it and then let it flow through us and into the ground to be integrated rather than forcing it into an isolated pocket of despair and depression.
As humans, we are earth’s celebrants -- joyful expressive beings that can dance the rapture of budding trees and birthing stars. When we daily celebrate the awesome beauty that surrounds us we’ll find ourselves closer to our own beauty and source. On a physical level, we would do well to peel off our shoes and wiggle our toes into sensual soothing grass, to stumble over sharp stones and to sink to our ankles in the sweet decay of rotting leaves on the forest floor. To take off the waterproof jacket and feel the rain and wind in all of its messiness, discomfort and ecstasy. To sleep outside without the nylon sheathing of a tent or even the star-obstructing shelter of a tarp, and for one night to feel the ground beneath our body, the breeze on our cheek and the animals that move around us as the stars spin through the sky and we open ourselves to the cellular reality of belonging, connecting and communicating with the inspirited earth we are always a part of.
By removing the physical and emotional barriers to the world, we open ourselves not just to discomfort, but also to the bliss and delight of communion with the world around us, with what we have always called other, but is really a larger part of our own selves.
We take these strippings away of numbness and old skins as the first step towards a greater listening, the first step in the ancient dance between human being and plant.
Engagement & Immersion
Down on our bellies on the grass, we take a flower’s view of the world. The huge blue sky, the ancient sheltering trees, the dance of the wind with every being and the rain drizzling down -- iridescent drops spilling onto skin and petals and fingers and roots. From this perspective we’re children again, speaking in the primal wordless hum of ancestors and plants, animals and delighted babies. We’re here, in the truest sense of the word, in this moment and place. Immersed in the fragrance and feeling, engaged in the timeless exchange of human being and earth.
Once we’ve begun the process of opening up to our own connections and relationship with the plants, we can begin to engage on a deeper level. Engagement comes from the 17th century French word engager which means “to pledge”. So then, to engage with the plants is to pledge to them, to commit to being present and fully ourselves when with them, which is always.
Perhaps the simplest and most effective way to begin this process is simply to spend time with the plants we feel called to. Seek out plants in as natural a setting for them as possible. For a Wild Rose this may mean a green riverbank and for a Dandelion it may mean a sidewalk crack outside a gas station. Meeting the plant in its chosen habitat helps to provide a context for our experience and the building of the relationship.
Many exercises, suggestions and books have been written or spoken on the subject of how best to spend focused time with the plants. What I recommend and practice is that we each find a meaningful way to consistently spend time with the living plant. This could be simply sitting with the plant for some, performing some kind of personally significant ceremony with the plant for others, or even sleeping outdoors with it for a few nights for some. Whatever we find that works for each of us, do it on a consistent basis. Just as with human relationships -- while love may spark at first sight, the relationship depends on time invested and commitments made.
It is only when we are aware of the earth and of the earth as poetry that we truly live.
In the knowing of vine and tree, earth and stone we come closer to our selves, our own innate and authentic beings. And the better we know ourselves the less likely we are to project or anthropomorphize upon our fellow beings, and the more we appreciate the unique being of the plant as well as the threads that weave us all together. Time spent in communion with our allies allows us to nurture our knowings of both self and plant, teaching us the balance that is so integral and yet so fragile. From the plants and the earth, we remember how to be human being in relationship with the world that is our larger, and more comprehensive, being.
When we have been with the plant for a while, but before we begin to speak, we practice feeling the plant’s presence with us wherever we go. This may at first sound a bit silly or new-agey, but most of us carry a sense of our children, or siblings, lovers and friends with us, and often posses some awareness of their well-being at all times. In this, is the great beauty of the intense connectedness of all things. This evolved yet often unconscious awareness is one that children innately embody and that our culture often smirks at -- as media propaganda constantly reinforces the great human fear that we are, in the end, all completely alone in the world. That we are separate and lonely beings lost in a dark void where the only possible meaning stems from consumerism and competition. As adults, we often fear we’ve left behind something important and valuable, something magical, in order to survive or succeed in the “real world”. And yet, that lost something, that joyful connected child isn’t gone but only submerged.
To practice feeling the plant with us means simply opening ourselves to the recognition of its presence. At first, this may feel like pretending because of the programming most of us have endured, but after some time --a few days, weeks or even months and years-- we’ll start to notice the naturalness of having other beings connected to us in intimate, constant ways.
Ways of facilitating this connection can include carrying a bit of the plant around with us, or sleeping with it under our pillow. We can create special pouches or containers for the plant piece in whatever feels most appropriate to us. Natural materials seem best for this so that the plant piece can more freely share its scent and energy with us.
Plant communications are like stones in water. The ripples they create move throughout ecosystems; they wash up against us. That we take plant words in through our nose or our skin or our eyes or our tongue instead of our ears does not make their language less subtle. or sophisticated, or less filled with meaning.
Now that we know the plant on a more energetic level, we immerse ourselves physically in the experience of the plant. If the plant is one that can be ingested, we might consider eating small portions of the plant on a daily basis. Michigan herbalist jim mcdonald recommends carrying about small chunks of root and chewing them. This works especially well with herbs such as Calamus, Osha and even Burdock. Herbal baths, footsoaks, massage oils and tiny or diluted doses of the tincture or provide us with myriad ways to envelop ourselves in the physical presence of our ally. Whatever way we use, we try to engage every sense. Awash in the essential, sensual immediacy of the body of the plant, its essence is pressed into our very being, recorded in our cells and spirits.
If we feel called to work with a potentially poisonous plant such as Sacred Datura, or a less than palatable ally it may be preferable to experiment with homeopathic doses used externally or in a bath. A single Datura flower floating on the bathwater is a wonderful way to evoke the magic and power of this intense spirit without inviting the physical malaise possible with larger doses.
When we find the ways we feel most able to connect and hold on to the presence of the plant, then we use these methods as a meditation, a discernible practice upon which to build a lasting relationship. An internal map to the terrain that leads us back to the awareness of the spirit underlying all things.
Up in the trees with our face pressed against leaves, as dandelion seeds float effortlessly past, we remember what it is to be whole, with roots deep in the warm, wet earth and our wings spread out on flower fluff. We remember what it is to be home.
Close your eyes, and pretend this is your first day on earth as a newborn baby. Imagine you've never before seen the brilliant green of the Summer field that rolls across the hills behind your house, imagine you've never tasted a flower petal in all its sweet complexity, or that you've never leaned so close to smell a flower that you lifted your face away smeared with a fine dusting of brilliant yellow pollen.
Or, remember that every sensual act of touching, tasting, smelling, listening and feeling can be as intense, overwhelming and remarkable as sex, as life-changing as psychedelics and as heart opening as prayer.
Humans are masters at adaptation, taking in a change, switching gears and going with it. And yet, a pitfall of this valuable evolutionary tool is that we sometimes allow ourselves to take the everyday for granted, we assume that Sunflower will be there tomorrow and that next year the same pretty Sage plant will bloom in our gardens. We tell ourselves that any day, any day at all, we can stop and take a closer look at that tangle of tree roots by the front gate. If not today, tomorrow, or next month, or surely before the first snow obscures it from view.
But maybe not, eh? Maybe we come home from work and the city has removed the tree, or we die in a car wreck, or we suddenly have to move. Or maybe we just get busy, and forget for a while and suddenly it's all different. The roots have died and broken off and that amazing tangle of tree, moss and earth is gone. This same ability to defer important things, from children to health to basic happiness, is what allows us to daily walk by profound beauty and integral miracle and say, "oh yeah, I've seen that before, I'll take a closer look tomorrow".
When we allow ourselves the eyes of children, the naive newness of the taste of sweet, sun-warmed Clover nectar in our mouthes for the very first time -- then we are at last present enough to talk with the plants. I remember when we took then seven year old Inga to a little canyon where Blackberries cover miles of creek bank, dark green vines twisting down into every earthen crevice, fat black-purple jewels hanging next to just opened white flowers. Inga was so intensely excited that she was instantly on her knees, her hands clasped together and actually shivering with excitement. "Oh mama, oh my goodness, oh mama, I NEVER EVER thought I'd really get to see a real, amazingly alive, Blackberry on the plant." She gasped for a bit of breath, "wow, I can't believe I'm really here, it's better than a dream, and I never thought they'd be that FAT, and that BIG, and that beautiful, dear dark color. I think they sing." And then, in her bare feet and pink sundress, she proceeded to crawl in and out of the maze of canes, carefully picking pints of berries with nary a scratch on her bare little legs.
I try to approach every plant, every day with a similar awe-struck attitude. It reminds me of the feeling I had when I gave birth to Rhiannon, this shock and amazement and throat-tightening gratitude of holding this brilliant, precious being in my arms every day and being allowed to be in her presence every minute, every hour, every day. And no light eating, green growing being is any less a miracle than a human child.
Beyond a deep commitment to paying attention there are certain time tested methods that can help us return to that child-like sensibility and primal presence. One is to put ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, even if it's just a different nook of the back yard that we've never looked out from before. Shifting the view can also help us shift perception. Even better, is going to a familiar place at night. Sitting with the plants by starlight and noticing the tingling awareness in our bodies that awakens nerves we never even knew we had. Some of what we will feel will most likely be fear, but once we work past that, there's more. In the lessened dependence on our usually dominant eyes, the sweet scents of the night-blooming flowers will be more pronounced, the feel of velvet edged leaves more intense and the sound of the wind kissing the trees more subtle, detailed and informative. And the songs and rhythms of the plants more noticeable.
And if we're used to the night and too comfortable with it to notice new sensations we might try staying up all night with them and then greeting the dawn in their presence. Stretching our physical limitations can allow to strip away some emotional and perceptual armor and allow us to see deeper into the obvious.
For some of us, tension and anxiety about money, kids, relationships and work can keep us from relaxing enough be really present. We can then benefit by carefully considering the time of day or night when we're least likely to be stressed and distracted, and by consciously relaxing ourselves with yoga, a flower essence, meditation, or whatever works best for us. The next step might be to enlist the help of a relaxing nervine herbal ally. I have personally found that just a little bit of Blisswort, Sweet Flag or Rose can dramatically help me relax and tune in.
And for a few, it may be most effective to work with a more directly mind altering plant ally to help us strip the illusion of normalcy away. Not as a recreational activity or even an interesting experience, but as a ceremony of intimacy with self, plant and earth. Many people find that doing this even just once can so fully shift perception that there's no need to do it again, or that a little bit of a gentler, shifting plant such as Moonwort is then enough to bring them back to that open, aware and present space.
The plants speak to us from every direction, through the air we breathe, in the taste of the food we eat, through the scent of a spring breeze, through the feel of cotton or linen cloth and from all around us. From forest and desert, garden and field, meadow and river, the flowers and trees sing the song they have known since long before the first human stepped upon the earth and will likely continue long after we have been taken back into the dirt we sprang from. In their wild melody is the wisdom and healing of every age and place. Whether we choose to listen, to participate in the ancient dance, is completely up to us.…