The Rebel Herbalist
My indigenous Northern ancestors believed that the land was alive, that the hills and waters and trees are animated by living spirits who we are always in relationship with.
In this way, the land itself taught and shaped my people.
As I study more about diversity in cultures, religions and ecosystems I am coming to see how this is true of all people. The land itself has shaped us, informed us, raised us like a Mother.
I have come to believe that the trees especially are the Great Shapers, crafting ecosystems that give rise to more and more complex forms of life.
Within my body lives the intact teachings of the trees, the stones, the plants, the fungal networks and bacterial colonies of this land that I now live on, as well as the lands where my ancestors' bodies were formed and animated for thousands of years. My body is made of the memory of the Swiss Alps and the Rhine River, my bones vibrate with the ancient stories of the Black Forest and the salt air of the North Sea.
For generations, my people have been making their bodies of the dust of the civilizations of the First Nations People. Their bones have become our bones. The lands and waters that inspired the Way of Beauty are now animating my way of living on Earth, and my children's. Within our bodies, worlds are mingled. The stories of the spirits of the land are trying to find resonance with one another. The violence of the destruction of the Native American way of life lives inside our marrow. Like all things in nature, it seeks to heal and to find balance.
The land that has been worked by the suffering hands of imprisoned and enslaved black and brown people, the land holds their songs. It holds their laments. It holds the homesickness and the brutality. The song of their pain and exile from their own Singing Lands becomes a part of the song of this place. It grows in the crops we eat. It vibrates in the water we drink. The pain of anyone becomes the pain of everyone.
Just as the land absorbs our bodies at death and returns them to us in the form of new life, nature calls for alchemy, for transformation, for death to become life and for pain to find healing.
This land has been imprinted with oppression, exile, suffering, genocide, enslavement, violence, and those songs live in our bodies now. Each of our bodies in its way is seeking to heal and reconcile these songs, to find harmony and coherence again.
Just as the trees and the stones and the waters and the grasslands taught our ancestors how to navigate the perils of life in a body on this Earth, I believe that these same sentient beings can teach us how to navigate the songs of pain that live inside of us and that we blindly continue to perpetuate through our unwillingness to heal.
Life strives for balance. Life knows how to heal. Life always makes a way where there appears to be no way.
How is Life instructing us to heal the songs of Exile and Racism and Genocide? I watch plants like garlic mustard or dame's rocket or autumn olive. They aren't native to the land that I live on, they were brought here through the activity of humans, and they don't know their place. They are prolific, growing anywhere that they can find a roothold, and spreading rapidly. The native landscape struggles to hold its delicate balance with the rapid spread of these new plants.
I have heard diverse ways of thinking about how to help heal ecosystems that are impacted by non-native species. Some people take the approach of war. The non-native species are called invasive or invaders, they are looked on as the enemy that must be uprooted and destroyed. This way of thinking feels purist, it reminds me of the agenda of the third reich. It seeks for purity and a return to a pristine landscape. To me, this mindset is violent and dangerous and ultimately impossible.
The other extreme is the do-nothing approach. Let nature figure it out. We just wash our hands of any idea of co-creative partnership with Life and allow the ecosystems to be overrun with new species until nature "figures it out." I have no doubt that at some point nature will find a balance without human intervention. I also know that we are part of nature, and we brought these new species to our ecosystems, so we will be impacting the ecosystems through our living and dying whether we do it intentionally and co-creatively or not. This approach is what I call "willfull ignorance." A refusal to participate. This reminds me of the people who put their head in the sand and pretend everything is okay.
This leaves a middle way, the way of co-creative collaboration with the natural world that doesn't demonize or evict the new species of plants. Here in the Grove, we spend most of our time watching and listening. How is the water flowing? How healthy are the trees? Is the soil rich and well structured? We don't think that we have an answer, but we are willing to deeply listen to see a way that we can participate in the healing of the ecosystem. We have removed ancient grape vines that were pulling down trees in the emerging hardwood forest. We have built dams in the waterways to help hold top soil that is washing through our valley from the ridge above. We have listened and looked and helped where we could in ways that we felt asked and invited to participate.
I believe that the healing of the human ecosystem is a mirror of the healing of the land. Those of us who are new to this continent, those of us whose bones are made of the stones and dust of Turtle Island for only the past three hundred years, we are a new species in this place. We are like autumn olive. We are vigorously spreading and we have actively displaced the native ecosystem.
I believe that there is a way that we can all integrate into this human ecosystem in a way that gives our gifts without choking out the life of others. You know, looking at a tangle of non-native species with a tiny little trillium struggling to live in this alien world, it can be heartbreaking. How can we honor and protect the trillium, creating an environment for this plant to thrive once again, without villainizing the tangled web of non-native life that also fixes nitrogen and holds soil in place and creates food for insects?
I believe that it is through deep listening. Whether we are healing a forest ecosystem or a human community, we must hear all of the diverse voices who are carrying their own unique song and destiny. We must learn to actually hear and understand these voices, and to move into action when we are invited and our help is needed and warranted. In simple terms, we White people need to learn to deeply listen to the song of the Black and Brown voices, and to move into action in ways that we are invited into. We cannot, must not, direct these conversations.
In our deep listening, in allowing our hearts to be stirred, in allowing our grief to rise, we are allowing the songs of these voices that ALEADY live in our bones to rise, and to bring the grief and the pain that we ALREADY carry, because we are one people. The land has been feeding us the grief of the exiled, murdered and enslaved for three hundred years. This memory is deeply alive in our bodies, whether we are intentional about healing it or not.
In closing, I feel a call to action for all of us is to deeply deeply listen. To listen to the voices all around us. To listen to the birdsong and the water song and the song of the oak leaves in the wind....and with the same reverence and wonder, to listen deeply to the voices of people who don't look like what you look like. Whose ancestors stories are different than yours. Whose bones and marrows were sung into being by a land that is different than the land that birthed your people. And in that space of deep listening, recognizing that we are all in exile together now. We are all displaced people, struggling to find our places in an ecosystem that we have deeply damaged and that requires our help to heal.
As I type this last paragraph, a tufted titmouse has come to sit within three feet of me. He rubs his head on the branches and lifts his tuft high, like a Mohawk, like the hairstyle of peolple who were also native to this land. May the spirits of the land teach us, and may we be teachable.