Today I have been planting willow, small whips that have been happily (relatively) rooting and living in a bucket of water. Cut from a friend’s willow den, made for a daughter grown big, the willow has patiently waited for me to have time and energy to find it a place. And the place is around the edge of the front garden – my wildflower and herb garden. Open to the road, frequented by cats and overlooked by anyone and everyone (or so it feels when I’m out there), the garden needed a boundary. Hopefully the willow will grow into a sort-of screen, one that can be productive and so part of the garden; I don’t want any willow trees, so it will be necessary to cut it regularly, and the cuttings could be used for crafts or for medicine. Or rooted and passed on…
Apparently willow is good for cleansing and detoxifying the soil. It is my back garden where all the buried rubbish was and is, so maybe I should just turn that into a willow forest – but surely the medicinal and edible herbs, and the wildflowers, self-heal, yarrow, oxeye daisies and poppies, surely they can benefit even if on an energetic level from the cleansing of willow.
So as I dug each hole, dropped in compost and carefully nestled the little-but -strong roots into the soil, I thought about healing. The healing of the ground – my little strip of wildness in a very non-wild, housing estate environment. The healing which plants offer us. The healing which seeps into my being from time with plants and earth, despite the aches and soreness afterwards, and the fact that I can’t kneel for long, or dig much, or crouch without my hips locking. More and more, it seems to me that there is reciprocal healing between us and the earth – which makes sense, in the context of a reciprocal relationship with the earth. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about reciprocity in ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ and describes the deep importance in her Indigenous culture of not just giving gifts to the earth, but receiving them back – if we do not do this we miss something fundamental and things are all askew.
‘Every time we heal, the earth heals through us’. I wrote these words (the last line of a poem) some time ago, and although I might still struggle somewhat to explain rationally what that means, I believe them deeply and intuitively. We need to heal the earth, for Her own sake and for the sake of the billions of species who depend on Her, ourselves included. And, it starts with healing ourselves.
My body is part of nature. Nature is not some separate entity, some vast landscape that I wander through in a bubble, wondering at it. Nature surrounds me and more than that, permeates me. I am a bit of nature. I am made of rock and rain. I have evolved as part of a complex, interdependent ecosystem.
I sit in my house, separate from the outdoors; hear the hum of heating or appliances, feel the warmth of my bed – and feel cut off from the wildness and the natural world. I can see trees from my window, and houseplants on the side, but the concrete slabs of wall that surround me are solid and unyielding.
I know nature is there, beneath the car park, beneath my neighbour’s plastic grass that makes me laugh and feel sad. I think about bringing nature indoors – plants and stones and cuttings and bits of wood. It seems split: outside, nature is to be found – persistent and all-pervasive, pushing through the cracks in pavements and walls; inside – human, warm and cosy but ‘not -nature’.
But what if that’s not completely true? What if it’s not that simple? What if we ourselves are parts of nature – what if bringing nature indoors means tending to our own bodies as if they are nature?
I’m not exactly sure what that means but it has something in it of blurring the boundaries between indoor and out, built environment and natural, wildness and domesticity.
We still need to go outside! We are nature; we need sunlight and air and earth underfoot and the smell of grass and leaf-mould, and to put our hands on a tree trunk and hear birds sing.
But we don’t take off nature, along with our boots and coats, when we come through our front door. We stay nature. The ivy of our hair and the heartwood of our bodies, the buds of our ears, the root systems between our toes, the suckers and runners on our finger-tips. The water flowing, pulsing through us. We are animal, we are plant. We need what they need: nourishment, not neglect; love and care, not exploitation or dismissal.
How might this change us, change our ways of being? What might it mean, to relate to ourselves – wherever we are, whatever state we’re in – as nature?
This is a Long Read! I considered splitting it into separate posts as it’s so long – but it resisted, and insisted on hanging together, so here it is…
It is Imbolc, 2020. I’ve lived in this house for 6 months now. A corner plot, there is an abundance of outdoor space – scrubby grass mainly, some gravel, trees. A birch that has grown with multiple slender trunks and dances gracefully. And stones – I can see how stony the ground is up here, chunks of limestone scattered around among the hill-top grasses.
I have an idea that the long front garden, open to the road and passers-by and which gets sun most of the day, could be given over to community herb-growing, and maybe fruit and vegetables in time. A herbalist friend and a few others, people I don’t know but who turn up with enthusiasm and spades, help me mark out beds, lift the first turves, begin to gather stones. We have enough stones to build a spiral herb bed, enough to make paths – enough, probably to build a second house. The sound of metal hitting rock becomes a backdrop.
We stand, considering the work to come. The last few weeks have brought wild weather; rivers bursting, water rushing through homes. In South Wales, not far away, there are landslides and floating shipping containers. A few people have died. My daughter has been finishing a song she has written about the wildfires in Australia; I try to comprehend such searing heat and terrifying destruction. Here, everything is sodden. I am grateful for living on a hill, despite the wind that never seems to stop and that brought down a fence panel on to my baby honeysuckle.
We gather again a few weeks later and this time, nobody hugs. We agree that in this time of an emerging new virus, we’re probably ok outside – fresh air and exercise is surely just what we all need. Several people cancel as they have colds or coughs. We stand again, lost in thought, and a huge bumble bee circles us; all of us turn as one to greet her, follow her path, acknowledge the sudden and vivid presence of a non-human being. Her only preoccupation seems to be navigating the trees as she presumably adjusts to coming out of hibernation and finding a nest.
As the Spring and the virus go on, the others stop coming and here I am, just me now. We have drawn in, hunkered down at home, my girls and I. The last few days before the country locks down, I spend talking to doctors about my daughter’s medical condition and stopping at shops where I buy random selections of whatever is left on the shelves. My vacuum cleaner was taken to be mended but that hasn’t happened and now the repair shop is closing; in a fit of panic I hurriedly buy another vacuum cleaner which I will come to hate.
The back garden becomes our going out, in this pandemic time. It is my birthday and we spread blankets on the grass, even though it’s still cold, and sit in coats and hats to eat cake. Friends and family pop up intermittently on the computer screen which we have to squint to see in the sun. It’s one of the busiest birthdays I can remember, with all the phone and video calls. I look around at the patch of grass behind the house; I have placed some plants in pots, overspill from my sister’s abundant garden, and the honeysuckle seems to have survived the fence impact and is shooting vigorously from its compost-bag home.
This garden becomes my work now. Slowly I start to clear grass and weeds, begin to dig a narrow earth border around the edge. In the grass there is a confetti-sprinkle of tiny plastic shards; the remains of a toy perhaps, that got caught in the strimmer when we moved in and the grass was knee-high. It takes weeks to methodically pick out the bits. In the earth, there is more plastic.
The back garden is full of rubbish; every spadeful I turn contains plastic waste, cable ties, metal wire, polystyrene – I’ve never had a garden like it. There are corners with piles of rusty metal and broken glass. It seems to be a mixture of surface waste left by previous tenants – nails, squashed cans, and a pile of what looks like bits of car engines, that have clearly been set on fire; and the underground waste, which I assume is largely builder’s rubbish from the 1970s, thrown into the garden, covered with mesh that has disintegrated and then topped with the turf that is now rough and uneven. The garden has obviously never been dug or planted. I get used to gardening with a rubbish bag next to me, wearing gloves so I can pull rusty metal from the ground. One piece is so big it takes half an hour to dig out and we use it to block a gap under the fence.
And, there is creeping campanula, there is a holly keeping guard, the birch still gently dancing, and an ash growing crookedly, and there are yellow poppies and wild garlic and roses in unexpected places. I harvest wild garlic and make pesto, with it’s utterly delicious zing. Down in the little wood below where we live there are bluebells coming out and the birds are riotous now. In the mornings I go and sit in the patch of sun by the fence and listen to the quiet. Hardly any cars, and no aeroplanes; just the occasional bus still going past. The human world, confined to home, has gone into slow motion and retreat – the non-human world is having a party, budding and mating and nesting. I discover that there are sparrows – one of my favourite birds – squabbling on the fences and dancing right up to my window. I realise that the thumping I hear in the early mornings is starlings nesting under my eaves.
I am slowly digging in compost, clearing rubbish, planting. My daughters’ father lends some muscle, as the spring turns warmer and warmer. We have finished the herb spiral and some of the beds in the front, and I have edible and medicinal herbs growing. Rosemary, lavender, lemon balm. Rue, feverfew, self-heal in the long grass. The calendula are flowering and there are strawberries ripening and salad leaves growing.
The weather gets hotter and the ground dries out; over a week I watch as a crack appears in a patch of bare earth where grass has wilted away. Slowly, a piece of polystyrene emerges from the crack; a tiny corner at first, that resists being pulled out. By the end of the week the piece is on the surface and as big as my palm. In response to my tending, the earth spews out the rubbish it has been forced to consume.
I listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer reading from her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, about Indigenous traditions and relationship to plants and land. She talks about how we need to find our way back to reciprocity with the earth – a relationship of giving and receiving, rather than taking. I can identify, with what she says about loving the land. However, she brings me up short when she challenges us to let the land love us back. How do I receive love from the earth? This is a new concept to me, but one that begins to make sense when I sit, squashed between the split trunks of a young oak in the wood, letting the tree hold and hug me when I still can’t hug other humans. Back in my garden, I rest my hands flat on the soil and feel the support and the depth. I receive the calendula blooms as a gift of love.
This now, feels like sacred work; letting myself love this garden, this bit of earth – and letting her love me back. Feeling so grateful for the sanctuary of the garden and accepting and learning from what she gives me and shows me. Feeling the love of the earth.
One afternoon, lazily napping in a garden chair, I am joined by a blackbird who hops down next to me and begins to forage, gathering scraps of dry grass and leaves. He seems wholly unbothered by me, stopping occasionally to fix an eye on mine; we hold eye contact before he hops on. He only flies away once his beak is full. I feel awe at being so close to a bird. I hope that he is the blackbird who for weeks on end, was singing his heart out for a mate from the neighbouring rooftop; hope that he is now gathering material for a nest.
As the world begins to open up again, I am still in my garden. There are proper borders now; plants mostly gleaned directly from other gardens, some from market stalls. I have planted roses, giant hebes and Japanese anemones. There are foxgloves that will flower next year, a tub of sweet peas, giant sunflowers and pots of geraniums that we’ve overwintered twice already. Two of my favourites nestle near the house: alchemilla mollis, lady’s mantle, with its soft leaves that hold sparkling water drops like jewels long after the rain has stopped; aquilegia, that will self-seed and spread and pop up in unexpected colours.
In the front garden, the mugwort is up to my waist, and grown at an almost 45 degree angle due to the prevailing wind. She grows generously and guards the end of the path by the pavement, flanked on the other side by the tiny hazel sapling we planted at our house-warming last autumn. This autumn, mid-pandemic, there will be no house parties, no living room full of friends. My daughters are back at school and college, and suddenly I have time to myself again. The garden needs me, still. There is weeding, grass cutting and harvesting to be done. My mother comes to help and we find a rhythm of being together outdoors, quietly working. She scolds me to sit down after a while, to rest my back and hips which can’t manage the bending and digging. As the weather gets colder we plant bulbs in every gap – it feels like a ritual, these little things that are tucked in to shoot in the new year, snowdrops, daffodils, crocus, tulips. A ritual of trust this year particularly, that amidst deepening gloom going into the winter, I am putting my faith in these bulbs to come up in a few months time and bring colour and beauty. I know they will, and in the face of such an uncertain world, the certainties of nature feel precious. I don’t know how much longer I will be able to take those certainties for granted. Already, of course, they have changed; our veg box comes with a note about how the traditional Christmas potato varieties no longer grow so well here, and how the cauliflower crop has been poor, because of extreme weather patterns.
And finally, I stop gardening. Midwinter closes in and all I can see are the jobs I didn’t get to; the wildflowers that were late-flowering gently wither and keel over by themselves. In the back garden one of the sunflowers won’t be pulled up and stays standing; at some point, it falls face-forward on to the picnic bench, where it will stay, an image of despair at the state of the world. I stand and admire the shelf in my larder that holds a row of amber bottles, the tinctures I made from herbs gathered in late summer. I drop hawthorn elixir on to my tongue, the taste taking me straight back to May and overwhelming abundance. Rose elixir made by a good friend feels warm and light in my mouth, making me smile at the sheer rose-ness and beauty of it.
The new year brings some proper snow, and more wind that hurls the water butt into the Christmas tree. It also brings a muddle of grim death-toll milestones, insurrection in America, more floods, vaccination debates and post-Brexit farce. The supermarket has no avocados and the staff member shrugs and just says ‘Brexit.’ I remind my eye-rolling but also incredulous teenagers that I didn’t eat avocados until I was a young adult. What privilege, to be disappointed that I can’t eat them now.
It is Imbolc again, and I’ve lived in this house for nearly 18 months now. My garden is waiting and soon it will be time. During the weeks of quiet and withdrawal, a neighbour’s cat has adopted my borders as her toilet, and I look up ideas for evergreen ground cover. It will be a while yet before it’s dry and warm enough to dig and plant much, but I start to think about sowing seeds and where I could put a propagator. In the wood there is a big clump of snowdrops, and the birds have started to sing again. The garden waits for me, patiently, and the bulbs are coming up, as I knew they would.
I’ve had this phrase ‘resilient vulnerability’ rattling around in my head for a while now – what does it mean, to develop resilience when we live with limitations, weaknesses, and are ‘vulnerable’?
To be resilient has a sense of some sort of strength about it, bouncing back or perseverance maybe. To be resilient is to keep going, surviving, finding a way. Learning – there definitely feels like there’s an aspect to it of progression, and developing. (I want to say ‘getting better’, but that feels too much of a linear value judgement.) It is not necessarily robustness, which is a quality of sturdiness and solidity. Resilience feels more fluid and adaptable and also more open, more encompassing of emotion and experience.
So what does this mean when combined with vulnerability? Well, vulnerability means openness, not closing off, letting things in for good or bad. To be vulnerable, is to be fully human and to risk all sorts of things to take all sorts of risks. Resilient vulnerability, I think, means an openness to fully accepting our whole spectrum of emotions, patterns and weak points. It means to know our human frailty at a deep level, and to know also that that is where much beauty lies. And to then work within ourselves as well as outwardly to build our own framework of comfort and protection, or physical and emotional regulation, if you like. Resilient vulnerability means to go through the world acutely aware of our pain while also knowing clearly what we need to help us. It means learning to ask for help. It means learning to trust ourselves and our bodies and psyches. It means committing to sustainability, both out in the world and in terms of how we live. Seeking balance.
Resilient vulnerability means that we have a map to remind us of where we’ve been, show us where we are and indicate the way forward. It means having a network of some sort to hold us. It means radical honesty, with ourselves, as well as with that network. It means being prepared to face our traumatic patterns and find ways to change them, acknowledging that we can’t do that alone and that trauma is also collective and sits in a systemic context – and also accepting that there are no complete cures, no magic solutions. It means treading a path of living strongly with our deepest selves. Resilient vulnerability is finding our power, even when we feel weak. It’s about recognising that we may wield a different type of power to the mainstream world.
Resilient vulnerability means recognising that vulnerability is what enables connection, growth and change – and that vulnerability needs holding and safety around it to anchor us and stop us from being overwhelmed.
A story for you to start the new year…the weight of memories we carry can feel heavy sometimes, especially memories of difficult things, but perhaps there is some help available…
I walk slowly into the forest. Feeling the sounds and smells, the crunch of the snow, rustle of the branches, drip of meltwater and pungent leaf scent. What my eyes are fixed on is the house, indescribable as ever. Somehow both new and unfamiliar – and just as it is in the stories. More sombre perhaps, and yet with an air of joy somewhere.
I sit in the house with her. At some point, I forget when, she takes from an old carved dark wood box needles and embroidery threads. She chooses fabric from a pile in an ancient creaking cupboard.
“Tell me,” she says. “Tell me it all.”
And I tell her. All the memories that come flooding in; the stuff of years, washing through, deep griefs, joys, happenings, experiences. If I can’t describe something, I just name it briefly, and she knows what I mean. She takes these memories and hears them, listens deeply, her eyes burning with fierce love and attention. And as she hears and listens, she’s stitching. She stitches the memories in beautiful rich colours and scraps of fabric, making a quilt – my quilt. The colours of the threads change as I look and as she sews; from gold to silver to red to green to blue.
So I sit and tell her the things, and she nods and stitches another panel into the quilt, and I sit with the fire warmth and crackle and the darkness, and float with my body until another memory bubbles to the surface.
“Oh, and also I remember when…”
And she looks at me again with those eyes, burning with fierce compassion and utter presence. She listens and she hears and her deep loving hearing melts something. I feel myself open up and fall into that total attention. And then she picks up the needle in the fabric and starts to stitch again. When finally no more memories are coming for the moment I sit, curled in the great rocking chair, wrapped in a blanket gazing at the fire, and I feel empty and peaceful. She finishes the last finishing stitch, bites off the thread, puts the needle away and sits back with a sigh. “There. It’s done.”
And there is my quilt. I can’t ever say how big it is. I expect when she holds it up that it would be a normal single bed size enough to wrap around you or snuggle under, but somehow I can’t quite get perspective when I look at it as she holds it up and shakes it out. It could be the size of a handkerchief or it could be the size of a planet.
It shifts, and moves. There it is, in Baba Yaga’s hands. I can feel the lightness in me and see the colours in the quilt that come from all the weight being held by her. There is silence still, and then she stands slowly and moves across the room to drape the quilt over an old wooden bench that stretches along one wall, to join an assortment of other quilts, blankets, cushions and shawls covering the bench…the bench, which seems suddenly to stretch and expand, lengthening mistily. She notices me looking at the other blankets and quilts. And with a half-smile, but fierce eyes, she stops the question rising to my lips.
“Come,” she says, and takes my hand to lead me to the door and for a long moment we stand together. I feel my body’s reluctance to leave – my desire to turn towards the warmth and depth and curl into it forever.
“It is not your time,” she says softly. “These things are safe here. You are known here. Remember that.”
And so I walk out and back down the forest path, without looking back because somehow I know that the house will no longer be there. I am halfway home when I reach into my pocket belatedly wanting gloves, and find the threads. Five lengths of embroidery silk, gold, silver, red, green, and blue. I raise the little bundle to my face and I can smell the woodsmoke scent.
How do we hold such conflicting emotions? Sorrow and grief at the rising high death toll. Anger at inadequate responses and the inequality in our society which brings more suffering. Shame and guilt maybe. Stress or overwhelm triggered by the intensity or busyness of life and all we have to deal with. And, maybe extra peace and tranquility. Enjoyment of the quiet and lack of doing. Gladness at the resurgence of nature. Encouragement at the community resourcefulness and compassion of others. Hope?
This little hazel came home with me from Waterloo Bridge last April, after a tree ceremony I took part in as part of the Extinction Rebellion uprising. Tree of wisdom and magic and the bards, I planted it in front of my house in the autumn, the week after it lost its last leaf – and it has burst back into leaf enthusiastically in the last few weeks.
Hazel, teach me how to pace myself
Last April, a bit like this one, was a mixing-bowl of states. The exhilaration and inspiration, grief, anger, hope, going through a very difficult situation in the background, an ending, a beginning.
My tendency is to question and reason and try and make sense. And, I know that the only way through this turbulence and the only way to hold such extremes of contrast, good and bad, light and dark, is through anchoring in my breath and body and looking to nature. When the anxiety rises, when I’m in pain, when I stare at a screen too long, when the hope surges suddenly, when I feel content and satisfied and then guilty…Hold on, hold on.
Hazel, teach me how to hold on
The hazel has put down its roots and with the support and sustenance of the soil and water, is just following its natural cycle. Nature keeping on keeping on. Unhurried, untroubled, yet in tune.
Hazel, teach me how to keep being
(How blessed, to live where I do and have the holding of nature so accessible.)
We say it’s the life line, the crease and fold of skin…our hands can tell the story of where we have been, what we have done – a series of self-portraits, an embodied autobiography.
“These are hands that write..” you said, as our intertwined fingers danced and stroked, enacting a life of their own on the table in front of us.
These are hands that have created, nurtured, cradled life – found strong sensitivity to comfort and hold. These are hands that have been grasped by smaller, trusting ones, and now long to keep hold as those hands move away…
These are hands that have played notes on strings, turned pages, with delicate touch opened up and reached out, stroked and explored, clasped others’ hands strongly.
These are hands that have grasped, hung on doggedly, survived, without noticing what else was hanging on too
These are hands that know anger, and power, and strength – that have found their limits and boundaries. And hands that have pushed away.
These are hands that have planted and dug, sinking in to connection with Earth, drawing in the elements, invoking the Goddess of land and soil. Hands that have lit fire, cleaved through water, danced in the air.
These, my hands, the story of me. An edge where I meet the world. I bless my hands, these easily-overlooked records of my existence.
Lots of photos in this post, which is inspired by working with Look Again and practising Mindful Photography – a gentle and profound journey of looking slowly and in detail at the world, of focusing in and taking time to respond to things I might normally look past..
And then suddenly, the creamy bulk of the cathedral falling back, we are by the river. The tide is high and as ever on this particular journey, I gasp inwardly at the play of light on water, wavelets pushing together as sea and river mingle. Across the other side, in the distance, a familiar silhouette; tracing the ridge with its tree-topping my eyes find the old break in the wood, followed by a stretch of open hill. How many times have I seen that marker of home, and how many times in my life have I stood over there on that flat hill-top, with the skylarks and rough grasses and orchids, and looked out over the river to here?
Something in me lurches with tender joy as I realise how I know this landscape. All my life these have held me; the hills at my back, east and north, the river to the west, snaking and encircling.
Along next to the train track there are small beech trees with last year’s leaves still clinging on. I love this land and what it has embedded in me since childhood – how much it has nurtured me, grown me. As the Earth does. I don’t know what to do, in the face of potential environmental collapse; but I know it starts with deep connection to myself, my body and to the land, with spiritual practice and ritual and re-learning skills of plant medicine and tree wisdom and seasons and animals. With grounding, speaking truth – and love.
For now I am going West, to the sea that calls me; skirting the purple-brown mountains in my father’s land, turning from the river Goddess until She claims me again on an ocean shore, with her embrace of wild power and nourishment. I will return..