Encounters in gratitude and a chance to listen

A long time ago, Anne and I traveled to Ireland. We vagabonded slowly down the west coast from hostel to hostel, over green hills to ragged seaside cliffs, stopping at standing stones and the ruins of circle forts, visiting old-growth forests left intact for hundreds of years. One day we were wandering in the southwest corner of the island with the goal of reaching one of those old forests. We crossed over a small waterfall. We walked between two ancient, massive linden trees whose roots and branches had grown together, leaving an almond-shaped opening just wide enough for us to cross. And finally we came to the oak wood we'd been seeking. The trees were old, yes, but not very tall: craggy, leaning at odd angles, with moss covering their trunks up to the lower branches. This forest is still part of a protected area, Killarney national park, bounded to the north by Lough Leane and to the west by the rocky wilds of the gap of Dunloe (we'd gotten our car stuck up there the day before). So perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised to see a small red deer moving through the trees ahead of us--after all, there is no hunting in the national park. Still we stopped, transfixed, as did she. For a while we all stood there. Then, in a slow and almost deliberate dance, we circled towards each other--the humans moving from tree trunk to tree trunk on the right, and the deer stepping slowly through the underbrush on the left. At the end of our dance, we were almost face-to-face, separated only by a rhododendron whose leaves left just enough gaps for us to see the hind's face clearly--and for her to see us. We shared this intimacy then went our separate ways. I still have some leaves from those old oaks.

Oak Leaf

The world is alive! Not just in the sense that it's populated by living beings, but also in the sense that it moves, thinks, and communicates like any living being would. Anne, the forest, the red hind, and I--all entangled in that green afternoon--came together as the voice of the land in that instant. The encounter we shared was personal: it resonated for all of us, and each of us perceived it in our own way. But it was bigger than each of us, too: it was a revelatory, charged moment, colored with the radiance of a shared consciousness that was moving through all of us right then and there. Have you felt this? Colors are bright; you can detect faint wind on your skin and smell the traces of scent moving past. Time changes, as if things had always been this way and will continue forever. You look at your friend, certain you're thinking the same thought. Then we move from this place, and our thoughts gather back into their more familiar confines. But our day stays brighter, our hearts more open, our spirits more grateful. Every time I look at those oak leaves, now pretty brown but still soft and rounded at their lobed margins, I feel that gratitude again.

The world speaks! Not with our human words, of course. But the drive to share, to reach out, to simply communicate suffuses our environment. If there is life all around us, then surely there is song too: for sharing the joys and sorrows, the struggles and discoveries of life, is essential to life itself. Without communication--this connection to the rest of the environment--life cannot adapt, cannot sustain itself. So it should be no shock that the world speaks, and it speaks to us, too: we are not cut off from this song. How can we not be thankful?

The art and science of herbalism holds much wisdom, but I value most how it has taught me to resonate and sing with the tone of the world. Tonic herbs do just that: through a song of fairytale and phytochemistry, we link up with the cycles of the world's music. But what starts as a cup of tea, or the crisp bite of a bitter root, can continue as an ongoing experience of the living, communicative quality of nature. Herbs, in this sense, aren't just pharmaka, or "remedies". Taking herbs is an initiation. They are the threads that keep us linked to the ecology. They can help keep us healthy and strong, too--but that's almost a side effect. Plants, mushrooms, forest and field want to share their stories--and if we listen, we can benefit. But in an interesting twist (at least from a medical perspective), the benefit isn't the immediate goal for the herbalist. It's the practice, and that practice is about singing, together with nature.

Forest Light

Herbalists, farmers, and those who spend time outside say that, in late fall, it gets easier to communicate with what dwells outside our doors. After the leaves are gone, and the harvest is in, we get to walk through a world less preoccupied with doing and more willing to listen. The traditions that raised me talk about how the spirit world is closer and more accessible during this time of year: we can visit our ancestors, offer gratitude, and ask for advice. We can wander both wild and familiar places with the knowledge that magical, synchronous encounters are more likely. We can engage in reflection on summer's whirlwind and know that the world wants to hear all about it, wants to engage with us, wants to celebrate with us at our harvest table.

Summer brings work, growth, and expansion. After gathering the fruits of this growth, we have a chance to reflect back on the arc of the year. But another impulse comes to the fore, too: the drive to share these experiences, and to partake of the abundance with those we hold dear. Perhaps this is why they say that the spirit world is close now: all of nature wants to share, too--this is not unique to humans--and, as she reflects on her own season, she reaches out. “Listen!” the whole world exclaims, through mists, frosted mornings, falling leaves, migrations, roiling waters. “Listen, we have stories to share. Soon it will be time to sleep--but we want to celebrate with you first.”

So herbalists take to wandering again this time of year, because we love to hear these stories. We may tell you that we're out looking for more roots, or for the last elusive mushrooms of the season, but a big part of what we're after is the voice of the world. Fall, especially late fall, is perhaps the best time to find it--because the voice is loudest now. Instinctively we know this. If plant experiences in the summer allowed us to open our connection to this living, speaking world, then fall allows us to gather these experiences, share them, and deepen the connection by merging our song with the songs seeping out of every hollow, every back alley, every stubbly field, every city square. This is the next step on the herbalist's journey: tasting and using herbs is followed by an earnest desire to listen and engage with the living, speaking land. One way to start is to follow the unexpected--the flash you see out of the corner of your eye, the path you always walk by but never take--during this time of year. If you try it, the rewards will follow: this part of the herbal practice teaches us how to find our sources of deep nourishment, spirit-food to last all winter, and helps us gain the skills to access these sources anytime.

Many years after the oakwood of Killarney, I found myself on a fall afternoon in a younger forest of maples, hemlocks and red oaks with their pointy-lobed leaves. I jumped over a fallen hemlock log and finally found what I'd been looking for (or thought I’d been looking for): a bank of reishi mushrooms, varnish-red, across the downslope side of the log. As I pulled my knife out to start the harvest, I paused just to take in the scene. Then, an unmistakable feeling came: "Turn around". It caught me by surprise. I tried for a few moments to interpret the message, but in the end, I just turned around. There, not ten feet away and staring straight at me, was a white-tailed doe.

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