Thursday, March 31, 2016

Good Relationship and the Unfolding of Spring

I love every part of every season but I have to admit that for me at this time of year it reaches a whole other level as most of the living world reawakens from winter slumber. It begins very slowly at first, gradually accelerating into a symphony of living splendor!

One of the tragedies of our modern world is how cut off most us are from all of this. We are Nature and Nature is us. Connection to the world that we are part of is an essential human need that is not nurtured in modern society. This disconnect is the major reason why modern humanity is so out of balance in body, heart, mind and spirit. It is also why we hang on the edge of a global ecological catastrophe.

One of the fundamental characteristics of indigenous cultures is their connection to the Land where they live. They recognized that as human beings we are one strand of a web of connection and interdependence that includes the rocks, plants, animals, humans, landscape, weather and other beings that inhabit the Land where we live. This rootedness in the Land where we live is essential to who we are.

We can not erase our history. No matter who we are we all have indigenous roots. However, in the modern world very few of us live in the Land where our indigenous ancestors lived. Those who still do have often suffered the weakening or loss of their traditions under the onslaught of imperialist and modern cultures. Nevertheless, we all live somewhere. If we nourish our relationship with the Land where we live the Land and it's inhabitants will speak back to us. This is something that anyone who wishes to live a healthy, harmonious life must realize. Health is not about taking drugs or supplements or herbs. Nor is it about eating the right foods. Health is a state of being in right relationship with the World.

One of the things that traditional peoples know is that everything is interconnected. Whenever one person – human or other-than-human – or aspect of the World is out of balance it is all out of balance. Healing isn't just a personal journey.

We now live in a global society. This necessitates a global vision. It doesn't mean that we should stress out about all of the local and global challenges that we face as human beings. As individuals we can not save the world. What we can do is do our best to be in good relationship; listen to our heart; connect with our purpose; and play our part to the best of our ability. This process begins right here and now where we stand on our Earth Mother.

The Land in late winter.

One of the most important ways that we can bring our life back into balance and connect with the necessary strength and vision to play our part is by connecting with the Land where we live. Since most of us now live in urban and suburban areas this can be challenging – but it is not impossible! No matter where we live the Land is beneath our feet and the Sky above. No matter how much asphalt and concrete we lay on the Earth life comes bursting through. This journey can begin in our backyard, a local park or ravine, and whenever possible a larger park or conservation area in the surrounding rural landscape.

I live in an island of wilderness surrounded by the suburban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area. It consists of 40 acres: 20 acres of woodland; 10 acres of open field; 10 acres of mixed transition areas. This island is surrounded by farm fields interlaced with hedgerows and here and there dotted with small woodlots. The surrounding area is itself an island that is rapidly being encroached by suburban sprawl.

I have lived here for 18+ years.  It takes many years to develop a relationship with the Land. Many years of watching, listening and being on the Land: day after day; season after season; year after year. It takes patience and diligence, but over time the Land gradually reveals more of herself. In the process my life is enriched and expanded and I come to know myself better and my place in the World.

Sasha on the Land.

Working together with the coyotes and deer we have made trails through this Land. Every day that I am not travelling I walk the Land. Some time in the mid to late afternoon when it's time to take a break from my work Sasha and I go for a 60-90 minute walk. While she roams around exploring the latest smells of the landscape I walk, look, listen, smell, feel, sit, contemplate, and make offerings of prayer and tobacco. To simply take from the Land is to be in imbalance. I must always give something back, whether it's prayers and tobacco or picking up a some garbage dragged into the woods by a raccoon that raided someone's garbage on the main road or blown in by the wind. I also sing songs and perform ceremonies to honour the Land and her cycles.

At this time of year, beginning around the time the coltsfoot (Tussilago fargara) goes into flower and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) arrives, there is so much happening on the Land that I also take a walk in the early morning ­­– without Sasha so she doesn't scare off the birds and other animals. Initially it might only be for 30 minutes, but as spring goes into full swing it increases to 1-2 hours until late May when all of the birds have arrived, the leaf canopy has fully opened and the rate of change on the landscape starts to slow down. I do this to increase the likelihood that I'll see the various bird species when they arrive. I walk slowly a few steps at a time, stop, and scan the landscape for the movement of birds and animals in my peripheral vision. I always have a good pair of binoculars!

I also have my desk in a bay window that looks out over our yard so that I can regularly give my eyes a break from looking at a computer screen and gaze out to see what's going on. Many of my bird sightings occur from my desk. Of course, I always have my trusty binoculars close at hand!

Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) overwinter on the Land – unfortunately for the other birds that they eat!
This photo was taken from my desk through my front window.

Nurturing and deepening my relationship with the Land is essential for my health and well-being, and for my work as an herbalist and healer. As relaxing and healing as it is this is not leisure time. It is my life and my work. It took decades for me to create a life that supports who I am and what I do. It requires living simply: no chasing after material wealth; no smartphone; no social media. Anyone can do this. It requires commitment and clear priorities: nurturing what is really important in life rather than chasing after the innumerable distractions of our consumer society. This is where healing begins.

Developing a relationship with the Land where we live requires that we create space for it in our life. By listening to our heart we will find appropriate places on the landscape to walk and relate and be. Having a place to roam is important, but having a place to sit is even more important – even if it's just sitting under that old grandmother maple tree in our backyard. This is what, to anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jon Young, Tom Brown and other teachers of Nature awareness, we call a sit spot. It is a safe place on the landscape where we feel called to be with the Land; where we can observe the unfolding of life through the seasons. I have many sit spots on the Land where I live and throughout the region in places that I regularly visit to be with the Land and to harvest medicines. However, although it's great to have a special place or places out in the country that we can visit once in awhile, it is most important to have a sit spot very close to where we live so that we can visit it often – at least a few times per week whenever possible. Here we can begin to sink our roots deep into the loving skin of our Earth Mother. Here we can begin to get to know the plants and animals that inhabit the Land that we live in: who is present through the seasons and how their lives unfold and intertwine.

Although any time will do, early spring is the one of the best times to begin this process of connecting. There's a lot of change happening, but it begins slowly, allowing us time to become acquainted with the landscape and it's inhabitants. Also, things are much easier to observe before the leaf canopy opens.

One of the useful methods that I have learned to help facilitate connecting with the Land where I live is to record everything. This is something that I had already been doing for years with the plants that I harvest for medicines. I needed to know this information so that I could anticipate when they would be ready to harvest from year to year. However, the community that I live in includes more than just the species I use as medicines.

During the first few years that I lived here I was constantly making a mental note of what was going on. I remembered a lot of it because I observed it every day. Then in 2005 I started recording the key changes that I observed: what birds stay or migrate here in the winter; when the species that fly south leave and return; which species nest here and which just pass through; when the various species of amphibians, reptiles and mammals that hibernate became active; which of the herbaceous plant species overwinter as a rosette; when the remaining species first sprout from the ground; when the woody species begin to leaf out; when each plant species goes into flower. This is a pretty left-brain activity but it force me to be more aware and hone my powers of observation. It also forced me to continually identify new species and learn more about them. Through this process and the other ways that I engage with the Land I can say that after 18 years I am finally beginning to know the Land – at least a little bit!

This year we had two uncharacteristically warm weeks at the beginning of March followed by a roller coaster of weather changes ranging from normal to 5-10 °C (9-18 °F) above normal. Consequently, the arrival of the various bird species started earlier than usual but is a bit more spaced out. Some plants are also ahead but they are coming out in short spurts with dormant breaks in between.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) overwintering rosette.

As a result of the (for the most part) unusually warm weather the snow disappeared early and the plants that overwinter beneath the snow as a rosette were revealed earlier this year. These include many members of the Rose family such as our three species of avens (Geum spp.), our two species of wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.) and sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta); a few members of the Mustard family such as shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis);  a few members of the Mint family such as motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and heal-all (Prunella vulgaris); a few species of aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) and other members of the Aster family such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), rough-leaved goldenrod (Solidago patula), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale); and a variety of others such as herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta), shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica), common speedwell (Veronica officinalis), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), red clover (Trifolium pratense), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), sweet violet (Viola odorata) and large flower hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum).

Everything else has been revealing itself in it's own time. Here's an example of the kind of information I have been collecting as spring has unfolded on the Land this year:

February 15: The overwintering American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) began singing.

March 3: We had a winter storm on March 2nd. The first lone 'scouts' of the redwing blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) arrived today while it was still cold.

March 4: The temperature began rising rapidly. The first major flocks of redwings began arriving. The overwintering robins (Turdus migratorius) and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) started singing.

March 6: The eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) began venturing out of their winter dens.

March 8: The honeybees (Apis mellifera) from a wild hive in a crack in an old grandmother white pine (Pinus strobus) started exploring the world. They have been flying about every day that it has been 12°C (54°F) or higher since then. I sure hope they have a lot of honey in that hive because it's going to be awhile before there is any nectar available for them to collect!

Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) often hang out in flocks with redwing blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at this time of year.

March 9: The first common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) began arriving with the later flocks of redwings. The first turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) also arrived. They will sometimes overwinter during very mild winters.

March 11: The catkin buds of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) started to open.

March 14: The silver maples (Acer saccharinum) started flowering.

March 15: The overwintering song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) began singing.

March 16: Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) started sprouting.

March 17: Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) and the trout lily (Erythronium americanum) infertile leaves started sprouting.

March 19-20: The spring equinox occurred at 12:31 am EDT on March 20th. In the late evening of March 19th into the early part of the 20th we had a ceremony to honour the equinox; give thanks for the blessings of winter; and welcome spring.

March 26: The overwintering northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) started thumping. Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), cowslip (Primula veris), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioca ssp. gracilis) started sprouting. The latter species actually overwinters as a tiny embryonic plant. Today they started popping out of the soil.

March 27: Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) fertile stalks started sprouting. Coltsfoot began flowering.

Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) sprouting.

March 28: The common horsetail vegetative stalks started sprouting.

March 29: The first eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) and golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) arrived. The latter overwinter in this region but we don't see them on this Land until the ones who migrated further south start returning. The first mourning cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) also awoke and mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) started sprouting.

March 30 (today): The first American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) arrived. Like the golden-crowned kinglets this species also overwinters in the region but we don't see them until more of them start moving north in the spring. Trembling aspen and American elm (Ulmus americana) began flowering.

On March 28th I had the opportunity to welcome a great wind! Fortunately the local trees lost very few branches. While I was walking the Land the following day I found many branch tips from eastern cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) heavily laden with swelling buds on the ground beneath the trees. A couple of years ago I felt called to begin working with the medicine of eastern cottonwood. At that time I made a small amount of tincture of the leaves to experiment with which I finally tried a couple of months ago. The buds of poplar trees are often used and I was wondering about the buds of eastern cottonwood. Unlike it's cousin the balsam poplar (P. balsamifera) which is a more shrubby species, the buds of eastern cottonwood are high up and out of reach. Anyone who is familiar with poplar species knows that they have a strong connection to the wind. What a blessing it was to receive this gift of both the cottonwoods and the wind! I made a couple of litres of tincture to start working with in the near future.

As you can see, there is so much to observe and experience all around us! I strongly encourage everyone to open up the space in their lives to deepen their relationship with it. It is one of the most important things that we can do on our healing journey. This summer I will be offering two different Spirit of Herbs workshops. These are my favourite workshops to teach because they are all about connecting to the plants and Nature. It is a great joy to be able to share this with those who are called to participate and even more so to be present as they are awakened to this awesome world that we live in! I used to offer these workshops in alternate years but in the last few years there have been more people yearning for this experience. I know that there are other teachers out there who are offering related teachings and similarly noticing the growing number of people who are yearning for deeper meaning and connection in their lives. Taking workshops is great and I highly recommend it, but beginning to nurture these relationships right here where we stand on the Earth is far more important – and spring is the best time to start!