Learning Nature’s Language

in the forestA heavy rain last night, and now a cool morning.  Tall grasses adorned with seed heads give indication of the slightest breeze, as they dip and swirl as if in conversation.  It’s a language I can’t decipher in words, yet I feel their gentle contentment in the burgeoning sun and the drips of water sliding from their slender leaves.

There is birdsong, as usual these mornings, but I cannot tell you what birds are singing. After 28 years of living, I can identify only the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, crows and ravens.  I can hear the high screech of hawks overhead, but do not know what type of hawk it is.  For a few years I knew the sound of saw-whet owls and the different beats of woodpeckers, but they are memories of my memory now, and I am in need of a new lesson.

In a recent essay titled Landspeak in Orion Magazine, Robert MacFarlane writes about the deletion of nature-based words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and the way human relationship to nature changes as we lose the ability to interact with nature through language.  He writes:

“A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP [Oxford University Press] deletions removed the ‘euphonious vocabulary of the natural world—words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.'”

A few weeks after reading MacFarlane’s essay, I heard a commentary on Vermont Public Radio, titled “Documenting the Decline,” in which Vic Henningson notes MacFarlane’s writings, and says:

“As the number of botanists declines and words relating to nature disappear from dictionaries, the evidence suggests we’re becoming strangers to the natural world, victims of self-inflicted ecological illiteracy. And when we no longer understand nature, no doubt we’ll finally stop worrying about climate change.  We’ll still enjoy looking at nature, but as novelist and naturalist John Fowles noted, landscape alone is a “bare lifeless body” without the flora and fauna that give it speech, movement, and dress. ‘Without natural history’ hewrote, ‘the world is only a fraction seen. [Imagine] not knowing any flowers, any birds. [T]o so many, they are meaningless hieroglyphs.'”

It took me 19 years to begin learning the names of trees, plants and wild animals in a meaningful way.  As a student on the Adirondack Semester, I was immersed in nature, and our ecology class gave us the language to enter the landscape.  Six years later I took lessons in the language of Vermont’s natural landscape through the Wisdom of the Herbs School, and I opened myself to a new world of wild edibles and medicinals.  I learned that the natural world is always open to us; transforming our understanding of nature from a “fraction seen” to a whole web of living beings is a matter of transforming our own relationship with the life around us.  It’s a matter of opening ourselves to the wonder of learning and the mystery of the natural world.

Now I can tell you about the differences between cultivated plant varieties you grow in your garden, and how to increase your yields with organic growing practices, but on the edge of the garden the field begins, and beyond that the forest spreads like a waves over hillsides and mountains.  At the chatter of a squirrel or the call of a bird, my son stops and listens, his mouth forming a perfect circle, his eyebrows lifting his eyes wide open in exclamation as he points toward the sound–Mama, did you hear that?!  

I see in him our natural place in the layers of the world; how we are constantly drawn to nature, to learning those layers and becoming a part of the landscape around us, how this is wired within us.  His curiosity wakes up my own, and I realize the joy and responsibility of teaching him this language.  It means I have to learn it, too, and for that I am grateful.

History, Herstory, Ourstory

All over the news are stories like this, and this, of sexual assault.  Some stories end with a woman raising her voice, some end with a woman losing her life.

This American Life recently aired an episode in which college boys talk about how they learned about sex and what women like (from other boys and porn, not from actually listening to women).

All over the news are stories of drilling, fracturing, contaminating, spilling, plowing, spraying, of people doing what we will to the earth in the name of economics and power.

The way we treat the land and the way we treat women and their bodies are inextricably connected.

Society’s history is built on stories of men in power, of women and land as property.

There are other histories to be re-learned.  As my eighth-grade history teacher taught us, there are herstories and ourstories, too.

It’s time to reconcile the record.

Cold Snap in a Heat Wave

I had seen a recent picture of them in the paper, and I had heard on the radio of several sightings around Vermont, but still I was surprised on Sunday morning, as I walked across the UVM campus, to see a flock of robins playing in the wind and bouncing about on the thinly veiled ground.  My teeth chattered as I headed toward the Davis Center, where the Northeast Organic Farming (NOFA) conference was gearing up for its second day, and in the single-digit air I felt my neck stiffen, my arms shiver, and my feet quicken their pace.  In this winter that has been so mild, all of the sudden 9°F sends a deep cold into the bones.  Then I think of the robins and wonder at their agility and speed on a day like this, when they should be at least in Massachusetts, if not further south, where food is more abundant and temperatures are warmer.

Food, though, it seems is one of the reasons some Robins stuck around: there is enough food to be found this winter, due in large part to the warmth of the season.  Last week, Jane Lindholm, host of Vermont Edition on VPR, spoke with experts and callers about the effect this winter is having on Vermont.  One woman called in to ask why the variety of birds at her feeder has decreased, and the answer was because there is more wild food readily available right now.  Another reason we’ve seen more Robins is due to the subtle but steady climate shift.  In his essay “Bear”, Craig Childs states: “Climate zones are shifting north across the globe at a rate of a few feet every several hours, and species are steadily following, sending out scouts to find fallbacks and future niches.”  Though we’ve known about climate change since at least the 1980s, and though I studied it in college and have seen the graphs and charts, these physical reminders—robins and the flow of sap in early February, a tropical storm ravaging Vermont land, an autumn posing as summer—these are the things that shock me into knowing how deeply we have altered the world we depend on.

It takes a few moments for the warmth of the Davis Center to seep into my bones, softening my neck and relaxing my arms.  I welcome the heat into my body, and see others streaming through the doors to find relief as well.  As a species, we have adapted to cold climates through clothing and shelter, and as a society we have designed vacation packages to Oceanside resorts, where we can lay in the sun and absorb its energy.  Sometimes I wonder if the American people would care more about climate change if we were going into an ice age instead.

I walk up the stairs to the fourth floor, where Wendy Johnson, a Buddhist meditation teacher, gardener, and environmentalist, is waiting to give the Key Note speech on resiliency.  I take a seat in the front row, and when Wendy stands up to the podium, she looks out with clear blue eyes and says, “Gratitude.  First I want to start with gratitude.”  She then asks us all to stand and face east, and leads us through the four directions, grounding us in place.  “It takes groundedness in to be present in this world,” she tells us.  When Wendy speaks of resiliency, she speaks not only of the physical earth, but also of the necessity for we as people to slow down, to go deep into life, and to “plunge into bearing witness.”

I share this with you now, in part to bear witness to changes that may devastate the world, and in part to bear witness to the beauty of the world.  Both are at hand.  Robins and winter, cold and hot, harmony and discord.   Like all animals, we depend on this climate, and as it shifts so does our food, our livelihoods, and our home.  Let us bear witness together, share in gratitude for this world and our lives, and ground ourselves like trees into the earth.

What the Heart Knows

“Always trust what the heart knows” ~Hafiz

It is the year of the Black Water Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac.  Yesterday in yoga class, my teacher Margaret Pitkin talked about the power of the Dragon and invoking our hearts to dream and to fulfill those dreams.  She shared a story of going into Staples and seeing everyone walking around looking half dead, as if their energy was being sucked from them.  When she walked out of the store, she imagined a world where everyone you meet is inspired and energized.  She said to us, “imagine a world where you wake up every morning, jump out of bed, and shout YES!”  To this, the class laughed and smiled, and I breathed into the joy of the moment.  We spent the rest of the class opening our hearts through shoulder stretches and back bends, making our chests broader and energizing each part of our bodies, from toes to fingertips.

Since winter began, I have been quieting my mind and meeting a kind of happiness that I cannot express in words.  The best I can do is to say it emanates, and I feel it around me and in me equally.  At the same time, I have been exploring the winter woods, and my search for wildness has brought the question of what it means to live wildly myself—what does it mean to have a wild heart?  When Thoreau spoke of wildness, he spoke of the Greek word for beauty or order, which was their name for the world.  In our language, that word is cosmos, and we have come to define it as harmonious order.  The author Jack Turner writes, “in the broadest sense we can say that Thoreau’s ‘In Wildness is the Preservation of the World’ is about the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate ‘things’ with the harmonious order of the cosmos.”  The important thing then, is the relationship.  To live wildly, to have a wild heart, one must first wake up to the heart, and then live as part of the earth, recognizing the relationship: we depend on the world for our sustenance and our lives, and the world depends on us to keep a balance and contribute to the harmony.

The heart, the forest, yoga, dreams, wildness, winter, happiness: these are all connected.  To dream is important.  To open the heart is important.  Dreams are realized with an open heart.  An open heart is a wild heart.  A wild heart honors the cosmic connections that keep us alive with energy.

Now I know I am wild, and what is the next step?  I cannot say, but I will trust what the heart knows.

We Can Begin Again

“When you are in tune with the unknown, the known is peaceful.”

emptying out.
filling up.
in and out, up and down: this is the pulsation of the earth and of
my own veins,
of your own veins.
we all move this way.
destruction and creation are the beginning and end
of one breath.
how marvelous it is we can create so much, and we can begin
over and
over and

Growing in Alaska

Interior Alaska.  Many people have come up in search of gold or work on the oil pipeline.  I’ve come here to garden, and to teach students to do the same.  Before driving to Fairbanks, I spent four days in Anchorage and a night on the Elmendorf Air Force Base with my friend Rick and his wife Megan, neither of whom I’d seen since high school.  We reminisced and laughed over memories, they told me of their three years at a base in Italy, I told them of my travels to Northern Ireland and New Zealand.  When their friends came over, Rick introduced me and said, “She’s going to do some gardening thing in Fairbanks!”  General confusion and a look of slight bewilderment crossed each face at this statement.  Why would you come here to garden?  Do things even grow in Fairbanks?

As it is, things do grow here and all over Alaska.  Hardy greens like kale, and most other brassicas, thrive in Alaska’s planting zone of 2-3, and greenhouses help fruits and veggies that like warmer temperatures get a head start in the spring.  This spring has come early, and we may be able to get the first plantings in by mid-May.

On Friday I spent the morning at Hunter Elementary, where I am the School Garden Supervisor, mapping out rows and getting ideas for garden expansion.  Throughout the week I went into classrooms and started seeds with the kids.  Next week I’ll begin broadforking, loosening up the soil in order to plant potatoes with classes before school lets out for the summer.  I feel blessed to be working at Hunter where the teachers and administration are as excited about the garden as I am, maybe even more!

Each time I walk into the school I am welcomed like the first spring flowers that pop up from the ground.  Elementary students call me “Miss Katie” and give me hugs.  They see me in the garden and run to the fence, yelling, “Miss Katie!  Can we help!” when all I am doing is measuring bed feet and borders; I know that 10 children running in the garden will not help me with this but I say yes and they come sprinting in.  “Remember the number 127,” I tell them, and then ask, “Who wants to help me find my pencil?”  They scatter along the rows, eyes darting, racing to see who will find the pencil that fell out of my pocket.

This summer I’ll be working with students from 6th grade up through high school, teaching them how to seed, transplant, maintain, harvest and sell vegetables at a farm stand and through a CSA, but for now I’m still working on understanding how to plan for a CSA myself.  Susan, my boss at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, has been trying to teach us the basics of garden planning, but total comprehension won’t come until we actually do it.  She smiles with enthusiasm when she says, “It’ll all fall into place once you get into the garden and start planting!”

I’m excited to start.  And I’m glad I came here to garden.  The earth fascinates me in its ability to give, especially in places one wouldn’t expect.  As the spring unfurls, the snow is transforming into water and the garden soils are thawing.  One of these days I’ll wake to see greenup—the sudden popping of tree buds that happens all at once, bringing a wave of green to the forests—and I’ll know the garden is ready to plant and ready to give once more.