Showing Up With A Plant Teacher

Several months ago I decided to apprentice myself to a plant.  In this case, it is a particular Hawthorn in our “front yard” (an area of the farm close to the road).  I didn’t have a list of logical reasons for choosing this particular Hawthorn, just a sense that if I was to take my herbal learning to its next level, I needed to commit to listening and being–with every cell and ounce of myself–with a particular plant.  For various reasons Hawthorn spoke to me.  I’m not sure why I was drawn to this particular one, except that I can get to it quickly.

So, each day I can, I show up.   At first I nibbled a hawthorn berry at each visit–my version of Holy Communion, I suppose.  I engaged in my various Sit Spot routines (opening my senses, thanksgiving).  These days, I just connect with my heart, sensing its beating, feeling grateful (Hawthorn offers nourishing heart medicine on all levels).  I sit here, am curious.  Sometimes I sing.  Now I nibble on any edible plant I see around the feet of Hawthorn — tiny Cleavers, new Dandelion, a bit of grass, Blackberry leaf.  And I find that Hawthorn — a tree that generously produces glorious little (edible) flowers in spring, and all those red dry berries in fall, is coated with a generous amount of lichen in winter.  I nibble on the lichen, too, a survival food.

Hawthorn In Winter - photo by Jane Valencia
Hawthorn In Winter - photo by Jane Valencia

When one commits to a plant, magic truly happens.  I’m finding myself absorbing Hawthorn’s calm, beautiful being.  It’s changing how I respond to my children when I would normally get urgent or exasperated.  I (at least this morning) responded more like a tree.  Loving, present, with a deep focus and openness.  I didn’t try to be like Hawthorn.  I just felt (today at least) that I didn’t need to try to not respond in my usual fashion.  I just felt differently.

Ever since I listened to herbalist, poet, and activist, Sean Donahue‘s interview on HerbMentor Radio in which Sean described his practice of gifting Hawthorn (an ally of his as well) with milk and honey, just as his Celtic ancestors did, so I too have been doing so each morning.

This morning at Hawthorn I decided on the subject of the next Paloma And Wings (my kids herbal comic).  As I nibbled a Hawthorn berry, I suddenly realized that instead of spitting out the pit I would take the pit indoors and attempt to start it.  I had a vision of planting Hawthorn–and other herbs–at my other Sit Spot, a tangled place where dead trees were shoved aside some years ago, and where Elder, Red Alder, Birch, and Canadian Thistle are growing in wild profusion.   I might tend that garden.

When you ally with a plant, engaging in a conversation with nature and spirit on many levels, and seeing through the eyes of the plant (and it seeing through you) little urges drop into your being.  This is how gardens grow.  This is how you grow in ways that are bright and true to your deepest soul.

When we open to being in relationship with nature, to engaging in silence and story, our truest self blossoms.  We know it is authentic–who we really are.  And it becomes all the more astonishing and exciting when we begin to create together.

We grownups may end up being surprised.  A child, when nourished to be outdoors, will discover these friendships naturally.  These days the challenge is to give our children plenty of opportunity to be outside, and inspire their curiosity and connection.  Yes, we can send them to a nature program (I encourage you to find one that practices what’s known as coyote mentoring.  I’ll humbly note here that Wise Child Learning is grounded in these practices!), but, honestly, the very best is to get outside ourselves, unearth our own benuine curiosity and sense of wonder.  To apprentice ourselves to the Dandelion or the Chickadee or the twirling cloud.

What wise, alive nature awakens when you unearth your own singular, expressive, expansive connection with just one tree, or herb, or stone?  What do you begin to discover about your — and your children’s — birthright as a human animal on this bright gem of a planet, Earth?

Wise Child Learning In The 21st Century

Wise Child Learning aims to revise our idea of education, by expanding it to include learning of our whole nature and deepening awareness of our truest nature.  We want our children–and ourselves!–to grow the skills. perceptions, and resonant imagination that we need to be fully alive, fully human, and to thrive in the wild new world that is the 21st century.

I focus on herbal learning because it’s one of primary passions!  I love plants, am fascinated by them, by the journey in which they lead us.  As the tides shift, I’m finding that as a parent and family member, I’m eager to deepen my learning with herbs–not only to nourish our health and well-being, and to be able to respond when illness or a health crisis arises–but also as a gateway (one of many) into intimacy, companionship, and alliance with the natural world.  The earth is our first home and we are exquisitely part of its nature.

For myself, herbal learning is an adventure filled with discovery, wonder, fascination, beauty, grace — with its moments of frustration and desperation too (“why can’t I understand how to do this more effectively?”).  But in those crazy-making moments, that’s me trying to do something with the plants and the people involved.  I’m not listening to what I truly know, not open to what healing wants to emerge — which may not be what I’m trying to accomplish.

For children, the adventure is much more straightforward (well, as much as kids are ever straightforward!).  It’s the fun of playing with plants, the fascination and gleeful revulsion of an unusual taste (a bitter herb, for instance).  Some kids know there are flower fairies and look for them, leave them notes.  Some kids climb trees, fast and high.  How many kids make magic potions with plants (and with all kinds of other stuff — mud, lichen, you name it)?    How many kids splash in rain puddles or paint themselves with mud if allowed?

How much of any of this did you do as a kid?

So, in our herbal learning adventures, we are aiming first and foremost to invite kids (if they need invitation!) to befriend the plants — to take charge of their own healing, or at least some of it, by making a spit poultice of plantain for bug bites, stings, or cuts.  By sitting with a plant when you’re sad.  By learning the language of the plant through taste, smell, the plant’s shape, and by one’s own physical, emotional, spiritual response to the plant.  Earth ecology is mirrored in fascinating ways in our own bodies.

So we engage with the ancient, ‘magic’ technologies of our ancestors — of sitting in nature, thanksgiving, full-sense awareness, tracking, mentoring one another and more.  But as children of the 21st century (as we all are) we also may engage (mindfully, imaginatively, with our intellects and curiosity) with the technologies of ‘magic’ (as life coach and author, Martha Beck writes in her book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World) of our new world, one with no boundaries and where all are welcome, at least somewhere — that of the worldwide web and beyond.

The idea I want to introduce is that, for our children and ourselves to thrive and, dare I write, succeed in the 21st century, my feeling is that we would do well to learn the technologies of three worlds (in varying degrees, according to our unique styles, needs, talents, passions).  These three worlds are that of nature, that of the mainstream culture and institutions, such as they still exist, and that of the newly emerging connected world (via technology, shared knowledge, and expanding ideas and opportunities).  My personal feeling is that, unless one’s path clearly lies in the “middle” world — that of mainstream institutions such as academia and professions that really and truly still depend on one following a particular educational path — then many children may need only a passing nod to 20th century benchmarks (high school diplomas, certain standardized tests).

Why the world of nature?  Because our happiness and wholeness arises from knowing connection, communion, with the larger more-than-human world from which we humans emerged.  We are designed to experience ultimate aliveness and intimacy when in deep connection with nature and, consequently, our true nature.  Furthermore, these changing times, demand that we rediscover that which we are truly capable of — our abilities to work with fire for warmth and cooking, with herbs for medicine and food, with nature’s rhythms for our well-being and a cycle of action, rest, play, inquiry that truly serves us.

Why the world of new technology?  Well, again, how much you choose to engage or have your child engage (and I definitely recommend mindfully creating limits and taking care when venturing into this territory) depends on the rhythms of your family, on your ideals.  As someone who grew up with cutting-edge information technology (my dad began programming computers in the late ’60s) , and whose husband is developing a new technology, as well as one who participates in much distance learning and connection with mentors and peers via the internet, I have a deep appreciation and fascination for the openness (with all its pluses and minuses), shared knowledge, and connection we have available to us.  We can truly find tribes associated with our most idiosyncratic, esoteric interests.

Please note that I believe that connection with information technology and its amazing online education opportunties (particularly really good stuff for free) is more appropriate to our teens than to children.   I’m not saying don’t let your kids go on the computer, but do monitor what they are doing, where, and how much of their time is spent on computers and various hand-held technologies.  For teens making their way into the larger world the internet (and beyond) is a different story.  Learning and unofficial mentoring opportunities abound when a teen connects with peers (of all ages) who share the same passions, or find some site/teacher offering something they really want to know.

We’ll explore these ideas and more in coming blog posts.

Thanks for reading!

Did You Ever Play With Plants?

When I was nine, my friends and I discovered that a local weed, “Sourgrass” (Oxalis pes-caprae) was edible. For weeks after, whenever we walked to or from school in our suburban neighborhood, we pulled up hunks of bright yellow-flowered plant, and chewed on the stems. We thrilled at the bold sweet-sour taste, and felt very bold ourselves, chewing on weeds.

Of course we decorated our hair with the bright yellow flowers. And who hasn’t made daisy chains? Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve (adults as well as kids!) have clothed ourselves in Cleavers (Galium aparine) — also called “sticky wicky” around here — or in ivy. And who around here doesn’t gobble up blackberries, salmonberries, and huckleberries when they come ripe?

If we think it’s a good idea to connect kids with nature, we’d do well to look back on our childhood. How did we connect with nature? Did we make magic potions? Did we feast on feral plants? Did we sip honeysuckle, learn from the “big kids” that you can eat that weed? Or maybe we were blessed to have grown up with folks who knew the weeds — and cooked with them, made medicine with them, listened to their secrets, and maybe shared a few with us.

Did you climb trees, and take comfort in your long-armed, strong, generous friend?

Did you ever play with plants? Do you play with them now?

Next time your child plays with weeds, join in!

A Sourgrass Wand, an Ivy crown - photo by Jane Valencia