Returning Home through an Act of Grace - Communion and Connection to Place
“You are incredible”, he says to me. My heart shudders with the burden of that word. I’m walking my neighbor through an edible garden, overwhelming him, I think, with plant names, uses, stories. I pass him handfuls of abundant, volunteer peppermint for smell, taste, and tea, all while telling him how I was finally able to get a group of women from my circle into the garden, several times, last Sunday. I laugh at myself, mockingly, explaining that it only took me a year and a half.
“A year and a half!! That’s nothing!!” , his voice always expressive. He continued: You did it. You got people into the garden and showed them what’s here. We are in the suburbs - People don’t want to leave their houses. He sweeps his arms outward: You connecting to this place is an act of grace.
I feel the tears rise but remain contained by the levee of skin. “No, I’m not that special”, I think to myself, as my cut-throat self-deprecation rears up. But tears also for the grief and heart ache at the lost connection between people and place. For the work that it will take to restore engagement with and connection to nature - already decades of work done and so much left. For the enormity of it all - overwhelming and exhausting. And yet…….and yet, there’s hope, Love, and resilience…….
This piece, like most of my writing, has been with me for months prior to me sharing it. Not necessarily in true, pen to page, written word, but in synchronicity and whisper, deep ache and quick notes jotted on paper, phone, and margins of books. Fearful of getting it wrong (because how can you ever get writing right?), I held on to the piece, committed to procrastination and avoidance.
What is your relationship to place? To land? How do you know if you truly belong to a place and a place to you? What does it mean to love a place, and “Do you know what it’s like to live someplace that loves you back?” (Danez Smith)
As a part of my commitment to procrastination, I read all.the.books. Reading, always reading, to determine what others have written about human connection to nature and experience of Place. Authors like bell hooks, Wendell Berry, John O’Donohue, Sharon Blackie, Robert MacFarlane, Toko-Pa Turner, David Abrams, Stephen Harrod Buhner, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Mary Oliver, others. Every author taking me to another. And they were all saying essentially the same thing: We ache to Belong, and we’ve forgotten, fallen asleep, become amnesic to the source of our belonging – connection to nature, to Place, to soil-under-foot.
“Reflecting on our present-day relationship with nature, you could say that we are collectively and chronically disoriented. I believe a great deal of the lostness we feel as a culture is a result of how alienated from the natural world we’ve become. Not only are we disconnected from nature but anaesthetized to the enormity of that loss. Many people don’t even realize what is missing because they’ve never known it, but underneath our preoccupations with getting ahead and being accepted, there is a deep well of pain: our unbelonging to the earth itself” (Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging; emphasis mine)
I knew this ache, a familiar hollow longing I have carried with me for my adult life, maybe longer, an impossible amount of time, made more prominent after I moved across the country. There was a word that approximates this lack of belonging I felt, and writers Need words - monachopsis (deep sigh).
How would you act if you felt that you truly Belonged to Place?
“There is a collusive madness here, irrationality on a planetary scale. A civilization which can do this much damage to the planetary fabric on which it depends, and which can continue to do so in spite of unambiguous signs pointing to the catastrophic direction in which we’re heading, is nothing less than pathological. But our insanity springs from the fact that we have constructed an exclusively human world for ourselves, and in so doing, we have cut ourselves off from the source of our belonging: The land, and the non-human others who occupy it with us. We have lost touch with the sense which our ancestors had of being a part of the natural world, of living in our bodies, embracing the cycles of the seasons, fully present in time” (-Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted; emphasis mine)
I am a scientist by training, ecology, and later, human anatomy. The scientific process and its currency of logic, data, observation, manipulation, repetition feels steady, solid, reliable. As an ecologist, I worked at nature centers, a university, and an NGO, all sharing the same intentions – getting people to care about the natural world and commit to reversing its destruction. We pushed facts: habitat loss, species names, climate change….repeat ad nauseum.
But I never witnessed behavior change or the click of new awareness or empathy. The public mostly knew these facts, indeed, they had become numb, deaf, and shut down from facts. The facts of harm to and demise of Earth feel overwhelming and alienating – fracturing human from the natural world with blame and shame. People deaden themselves to the gravity of what we, collectively, face as a result of environmental destruction. Logic and facts aren’t the right tools to get people to care or change. Science could feel cold, distant, impersonal, utilitarian and production oriented, leaving out the emotional, intuitive, perceptual, and subjective, and in doing so, much of Life is missing. To get people to care and change requires facilitating relationship, reciprocity, and love with/for the earth. An emotional, mythical, spiritual connection. We wouldn’t be so endlessly, blindly destructive if we truly felt part of the earth (rather than apart from). Relationship, love, deep gratitude - these will cause lifestyle change. Not the brow-beating of heart-numbing facts.
Does reading an article about the dying polar bears or the climate crisis call you to change or make you feel dead inside? What about sampling tea of wildflowers you harvested? - ingesting and becoming earth, feeling a part of and intimate with your surroundings, and wanting more?, learning how challenging it is to locally forage safely and pesticide free?, planting your own edible lawn that now becomes a carbon sink and pollinator friendly habitat?, desiring even more of ‘this’ and joining a csa or supporting a farmer’s market?, participating in forest bathing and submersing yourself in the sensual and emotional details of Place?, knowing the local myths, legends, smells, and sounds of plant, animal, and place rather than just species name to make memory and significance?
It starts with where you are
This ^^^ , the emotional/intuitive/sensorial connection to place, is what I am trying to do with *our* women’s circles and children and nature events, where our teas and ritual items are crafted from an organic garden just steps away. This^^^ embeddeness and sense of interbeing is what groups like The Resiliency Institute are doing through their course offerings of herbalism, edible wild plants, forest bathing, and permaculture. This ^^^ is what many of the authors I referenced earlier speak of. We are inherently and intimately, a part of, not apart from, our environment. Nature brings restoration, recovery, joy, resilience. It awakens you to the world around you, connects you to the place under foot, literally grounding you through place-based medicine. Nature does all it can to call us back to Belonging, back Home. Have you noticed?
“You can learn to belong anywhere…if you choose. It’s an act of creation, and like all acts of creation, it’s also an act of love, and an enormous leap of faith…….If the world is alive, if nature has consciousness, then I am not just some singular, solitary being plonked on a lump of inert matter surrounded by inert space in an inert universe. Everything around me is alive – there is no such thing as ‘inert’. I am standing in the midst of an aliveness, and that aliveness deserves my attention, my respect, my care. It deserves my awe and reverence. The stars are no longer cold, unknowable objects, scattered shining but ultimately lifeless across the vast empty distances of black space: they are active participants in their own journey of becoming…….What does it mean, to live in a way which acknowledges our embeddedness in the world, and our relationship with everything which participates in it along with us? It begins with remembering that, when you are in a relationship with someone or something, communication goes in both directions” (-Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life; emphasis mine)
Place-based medicine – Finding my belonging to Place
My family and I moved to the suburbs of Chicago in July 2017 from Atlanta, a choice made at the time for improved quality of life with small children and affordability.
I lived in Atlanta (or nearby Athens) for approximately 14 years. Even though I wasn’t born there, in many ways I consider it my hometown, if only because it was the city of choice - I moved there out of my own volition, not for a parent’s job, a spouse, or a place of default. Over 14 years, Atlanta, and the southeast in general, got under my skin, enmeshed in blood and bone and intuition. The smell of the air, humid and sweet, became my familiar. The cycles of nature became backdrop to calendar, orienting me to time, seasonally and daily – the subtle lemon fragrance of daphne in the winter, the redbud and cherry that bloomed around my daughter’s birthday in February, the epic pine pollen drop around March, the leaves of big leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) that my children turned into umbrellas and weapons in the fall. A Cooper’s hawk and Barred Owl rotated as my early morning meditation company – I knew the individual birds by call and marking. The moon foraged familiar tracks through the night skies, predictable above my home.
I would like to think that I wove myself into the tapestry of Atlanta in some meaningful and ecological way. That I reciprocated the familiarity and love I felt for place. But I am not sure I did, fairly at least. I was greedy and indulgent, consuming beauty and relying on the predictability, but did I give my chosen place the honor and respect it deserved? No. I felt that Atlanta belonged to me, but it is possible I never allowed myself to belong to it. I fantasized about a better life elsewhere – less traffic, less crime, less….more….whatever, all ultimately barrier and excuse, keeping me separate. I was certain the grass was greener……..maybe in suburbs of Chicago, near my birthplace.
The lack of mutuality was evident when I moved. I did not recognize the pull of place in my psyche until it was gone, and I was uprooted, unmoored, and hundreds of miles away. With the move, that connection to place was fractured. Un-initiated in the local patterns, plant zones, fragrances, and tracks of the moon, I was disoriented. I had taken the natural rhythms of and connection to Atlanta for granted. I would have to root myself to a new place through relationship and reciprocity, which are emotional and spiritual in nature. This relationship would require more than physical presence and passivity, my default strategy in Atlanta. My new place of being was deserving of time, patience, effort, attention.
“Attention is the beginning of devotion” (-Mary Oliver)
Rooting myself to place, in particular Chicago with its hard, Midwestern winters of Cold and Gray, would take work, like any relationship. This rooting would be a labor of love and commitment to belonging, sensitivity, and passion for place. I found people who sought similar depth with the Place and earth, even though I couldn’t name “this”, the common denominator, at the time – they were the ones that pulled me and anchored me. Permaculturists, naturalists, outdoors enthusiasts, herbalists, I made friendships, continue to do so, and am learning from them.
I reciprocate to Place by gardening and modifying my land for wildlife and hosting nature events for children. I acknowledge mutuality and my responsibility to Place through ritual, for my personal spiritual practice, as well as for *our* women’s circles. Rather than passively relying on time like I did with Atlanta, I am crafting connection and placing myself firmly on the ground below my feet. And through coursework on local plant medicine (herbalism) and edible wild plants, the land answered my call for connection and reciprocity, gifting me with an understanding I did not know I needed.
Herbalism: Have you ever talked to plants or Place? (I’m serious)
Herbalism is the medicinal, even spiritual, use of plant allies. It is said that people indigenous to Place would observe the use of plants by local fauna and also communicate with the plant directly to obtain medicinal information from the plant itself. As a part of my herbal training, we did just this –ingested plants (known to the teacher but unknown to student) to sense into the medicinal properties. Intuitive and organleptic, that is using all the senses, we were all able to capture, at least partially, the uses of the plants. For example, I can recall my experience with mullein. As I ingested the tea, I sensed a respiratory use; this is, in fact, the traditional use of mullein – respiratory ailments.
In addition to sensing plants through ingestion, as a part of my training in herbalism, I had to pick a teaching plant. I picked the river birch – a tree present throughout my life and currently on the eastern corner of my yard, standing stoically outside of the window where I see clients, much like a protective presence participatory in containing sacred space. I’ve always felt drawn to this plant – the texture and subtleties of the bark, the odd catkins and tiny, textured fruits, and the bright yellow of the leaves in the fall. Over the 9 months of the herbalism course, I checked in with the tree listening and meditating for attunement and information. I gathered that birch is clarifying, used for skin as an astringent, is related to willow, and is a protector of people, particularly in Celtic traditions. My instructor affirmed this information, and I wept tears of gratitude for knowledge I was gifted for tending the tree, and in respect for the healing tradition of plants and herbalism.
I have similar stories of synchronicity and meaning from my shamanic apprenticeship training. Plants, indeed all of nature, will talk to you. Are you listening? By slowing down, pausing, noticing, tending, I heard the plants. Now I can’t unhear them, connected to them and nature through Place and heart.
“Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold of textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” (-David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous; emphasis mine)
How do plants, nature, and Place communicate with us? Stephen Harrod Buhner and David Abram write of this ability to reciprocally communicate with the natural world, through the sensorial and meditative/shamanistic consciousness (Abrams) and through entrained heart communication (Buhner). Bill Plotkin in Soulcraft acknowledges how nature resonates with soul – inner world mirroring outer world. Joseph Campbell and Sharon Blackie both write about how nature and Place speak through and are sanctified by myth. Personally, I find truths in all of these ideas. Maybe it doesn’t matter how it works. Perhaps the ‘how’ would make the magic less magical. Regardless, “It”, that is, communion with Place, plant, animal, stars, nature, is based on relationship. And Relationship, along with implied reciprocity, with Earth is integral to our capacity to connect fully to, to empathize with, to care about the world around us and to each other. Place will talk to you, it is talking to you. All you have to do is pause and notice.
Returning Home (I was always Home)
Although I have a need for regular pilgrimage to the southeast, that need has moved to the background and is more of a low hum. I am finding Home through gratitude and communion with nature and neighbors, human and otherwise. Coming home in this way, through connection to the natural world and place-based medicine, is an act of grace, and I am so fortunate to have a neighbor who called it such, the opening and end to this piece. (I love you, neighbor)
This piece is a story of relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, place-based connection and yearning and learning. About forging connection when there might not be an obvious one to the soil beneath feet. About being open to new ways of perceiving and revisioning your place and belonging to the world. About emotional and spiritual connection to Earth. About the emergence of collective resilience and Love through a new lens of belonging (emergent strategy). About communion and Returning Home.
“To take the world into one’s arms and act towards it in a soul-filled and soul-strengthening manner is a powerful act of wildish spirit” (-Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes)
Questions for self-exploration:
- What is your relationship to Place? To land? Do you have a deep connection to a certain region or piece of land?
- How does this connection present itself?, and how do you know if you are truly connected to Place? Connection is more than just physicality, though that has scientific basis – your body is literally being made of materials from the land on which you live. What of the emotional and spiritual components of relationship to place?
- What does it mean to love a place and ‘Do you know what it’s like to live someplace that loves you back?’ (Danez Smith)
- Are you always looking for your next escape to beach or mountain or can you cultivate gratitude for and belonging to the soil under foot?
- How would you act if you felt that you truly Belonged to Place?
- Where do you feel at Home? Is it a certain Place, nature, with specific people?
- Have you had a spiritual experience in nature? What was it and what was its impact on you?
- If you do not feel a particular connection to plants, do you feel called to some other component of nature?
- What are your favorite myths/legends about plants? (Mine are the story of Queen Anne’s lace and the story of Daphne turning into laurel from the Ovid)
- What are some of your favorite plant allies? And why?
References and Resources for further engagement:
Abram, D. The Spell of the Sensuous.
Blackie, Sharon. The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday.
Blackie, S. If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging.
Brown, AM. Emergent Strategy.
Buhner, SH. The Secret Teachings of Plants.
Campbell, J. The Power of Myth.
Estes, CP. Women Who Run with the Wolves.
Kimmerer, RW. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
Macfarlane, R. Landscapes.
Macfarlane, R. The Lost Words.
Macfarlane, R. The Old Ways.
Mitch, A. Nature therapy blog post: http://wildwomaninthesuburbs.com/what-is-nature-therapy/ Includes a short excerpt about nature therapy, with options to listen to audio about nature therapy and a link to a longer article with research citations.
O’Donohue, J. Longing and Belonging.
Plotkin, B. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche.
Pollan, M. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.
This Mythic Life Podcast, available on iTunes and SoundCloud https://soundcloud.com/thismythiclife
Turner, TP. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home.
For herbalism specific resources:
Authors Rosemary Gladstar and Samuel Thayer are great starting points. There are also meetings and retreats around the country (United States) and internationally that are specific to herbalism, foraging, and wild edible plants.
**Please only try herbalism and consumption of wild plants under the guidance of a trained instructor. There are harmful, even deadly, plants that are look-alikes of edibles. I would never advise someone to try this path on their own. Be safe and be smart**
For local resources and classes to assist you on your journey toward Place connection, see:
The Resiliency Institute: http://www.theresiliencyinstitute.net/ (This group hosts most of *our* women’s circles, workshops, and nature events)
Permaculture Chicago Teaching Institute: https://www.permaculturechicago.com/
Faith’s Farm: https://faithsfarm.com/ (events are more current on FB)
Morton Arboretum: https://www.mortonarb.org/learn-experience/course-guide
Your local parks district and forest preserves
Your local farmers’ market – individuals there likely know about herbalism, wild edibles, and foraging (a special shout out to Copper Fox Farms https://www.learngrowconnect.org/users/connie )
Consider trainings in shamanic practice. I offer limited one on one services at this time. Earthbliss – Lauren Torres offers training programs and workshops (https://www.earthbliss.com/) as does Journey of the Soul with Donna Callaghan (https://www.journeyofthesoul.net/ ) If you are not in the Chicagoland region, Sandra Ingerman is a great resource (see her website and her books). http://www.sandraingerman.com/
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, all writing is copyright protected. Picture by Jana Blue Photography https://www.janabluephotography.com/ and is not to be reproduced.