by Janet Kent.
Our world has become increasingly chaotic. Uncertainty is the rule. For many who live subject to the whims of the current administration, fear and powerlessness have become the dominant emotions. Arbitrary and cruel executive orders come down from the oligarchs daily, sending shock waves through an already stunned public. News of the rise of violent racism, xenophobia and transphobia peppers our feeds. Yet we scroll on, bingeing on information, partially to stay up to date on the ongoing crisis, to bear witness to the horror, but also in the hopes of reading that one piece that will explain the mess we’re in, that will provide the clarity we need to make sense of the senseless cruelty rolled out as policy change.
Staying informed, as we call it, has its rewards. We feel abreast of what is happening in real time. We steel ourselves against being taken off guard. We use the information gained for strategy. However, all this intake of news and analysis has its drawbacks. Constant consideration of the effects of this regime (which, after all, is just the latest expression of the American disaster) on humans and the rest of life on Earth can keep us in a near constant state of stress which has immediate and long term consequences for our health. Digestion and sleep are impaired. Our immune systems become unresponsive or over-reactive. These conditions often lead to chronic health problems. We must keep this in mind and find a way to be healthy while still absorbing enough news to feel informed and prepared. I am in no way recommending tuning out entirely. In fact, I would argue that collective lack of awareness got us into this mess. The surprise some felt at the election results exposed a privileged view of contemporary American society. Communities facing structural violence, be it deportation stress, police violence, poisoned drinking water or environmental racism, don’t have the luxury of a post-race fantasy. Now that more of us are paying attention, we must not turn away completely, though a media break can be restorative.
Instead, I suggest balancing the intake of news and analysis, all forms of screen time really, with other activities that connect us to the more-than-human. Our addiction to news stimulates the intellect while neglecting the body, exacerbating a defining problem of modern life. We read, react, ruminate and repeat. All the while our other senses atrophy from lack of use. This state serves the powers of domination. When we are frazzled and fatigued by the onslaught of bad news, we become numb, unable to act. When we prioritize the intellect over the intelligence of the body, when we value the information that comes from other humans over that which comes from the rest of life on Earth, we reinforce the connection that allows for the mass destruction of Life to continue. We need to restore our other senses, to reweave ourselves into the web of life. Fortunately, there are simple, infinitely rewarding ways to reconnect.
We use the word “grounding” to refer to an action or substance that brings us back into our bodies, into the moment. One of the easiest ways to ground is quite literal: sit or lie on the ground. Since the fall, once or twice a week, I have made a practice of laying in the forest by my house. As I lay there, splayed out on the leaf litter, gazing up at the canopy, I turn down the noise of the news and turn up the sound of the birds, the wind in the still-attached dry beech leaves, the crunch of the leaves beneath me when I shift my weight. On a few occasions, when I have been still for long enough, I have seen a barred owl pass silently from tree to tree. Once, a group of deer came down to drink from the spring.
For those of you thinking to yourselves, easy for me to say, I live in the forest. True. But I learned this practice long ago, as a child down on the ground with my beloved violets and bugs. Then in college, I would leave the throng of students hurrying to class, to lie beneath a giant oak tree in the quad by the main street in Chapel Hill. In that magnificent tree lived a Great Horned Owl. When I had the time, or not, depending on the day, I would lie beneath the oak and watch the owl, who watched me back. Eventually, Owl would tire of my gaze and fly off, giant wings spread, silent. During these moments, gone were the worries of exams, petty quarrels, even the pressing concerns of everyday sexism. Just me, the owl and the oak. All the stress of college a blur, erased by this cross-Kingdom connection.
Whether you have a yard or a garden, a park or even an abandoned lot nearby, make a habit of visiting a green place regularly and sit. Observe. Learn to identify the plants there. Listen to the birdsong. See how the place changes through the seasons. Most importantly, breathe. Remember you are part of this. You belong.
Another means of reconnection at our fingertips is the rewarding act of gardening. Do you remember, as a child, the first time you saw a seed sprout? That wonder I felt when the bean seeds first germinated in the little paper cups at school, I still feel that. I continue to be amazed that so much potential is packed into a tiny capsule. As the plants grow, I can while away hours with the meditative act of gardening. Caring for plants takes my mind off the bigger picture issues that keep me anxious. Hands in the ground, planting, digging, weeding—I focus on the here and now. The rich smell of the soil, the fragrant emanations of the plants themselves, the sound of birdsong all bring me into my body, back from the disembodied space of digital information. Gardening provides immediate, embodied pleasure. For those unable to garden outside the home, try container gardening. I recommend starting with an aromatic Mint family plant, as their medicine is both calming and centering. A Rosemary, Sage, Lavender or Lemon balm plant brings vitality to a space. Regularly running ones fingers through their leaves is gentle but powerful medicine.
Getting outdoors and walking around, wherever you live, is another antidote for the heavy heart. If you don’t live somewhere safe, then making your way to a park that feels safe may be necessary. The point of this exercise, in all senses of the word, is not only to get moving but to note the presence of the more-than-human in human dominated space. Walking supports the flow of lymph and improves circulation. Paying attention to the plants and animals along our path helps us freshen our perspective. A few days ago, while caring for a beloved kid friend, we took a walk to a nearby playground. She was coming down with a cold and after staying at the park a bit too long, she became fussy. On the way home, we stopped to visit a clump of grape hyacinth that had escaped its original planting and was thriving along the sidewalk. I put her down. As she crouched by the flowers, caressing the purple stalks, her tears dried, she became quiet and enthralled. This is how I feel when I see plants of all kinds in urban or suburban areas. I, too, grow quiet. I reach out, touch them, smell them. For a moment, whatever my thoughts have been drift away, it’s just me and this other life connecting midst the sound of traffic and, in a rapidly gentrifying town, construction.
When you begin these practices, be patient. Think of it as reconnecting with an old friend. At times the mutual recognition is immediate, as comforting as returning home after a hard day. Other times it is more difficult, as it is when we lose touch with a friend due to conflict or neglect. We must warm up to each other, remember how to communicate, how to listen. Be patient, this may take a while. The more-than-human world holds a healthy distrust of most humans on our troubled land. But through regular practice, you will experience a shift. You will learn to listen, see with new eyes, hear past the white noise of commerce. Listening means turning off the music, the eternal backlog of podcasts.
To tap back into the flow of Life as our ancestors did long ago we must put aside human communication for a bit. To engage as part of Life, rather than an outsider, we must relearn the old ways. We must ground ourselves in the time outside of time, become attuned to the cyclical flows that know nothing of our clocks, slow down. Listen. This is re-membering, becoming a member of Life once again. As this is an embodied practice, each of us has what we need to do this work. To heal the split, we must come open, humble, patient and ready for change. The transformation may be slow, but once it starts, we wonder how we survived without this visceral knowing.
To quote my friend and mentor Joe Hollis, “we want to save ourselves and we want to save the world. It’s the same thing.” While we are likely well past the tipping point of saving the world as we know it, his statement still stands. We, as a society, are woefully disconnected from the rest of life on Earth. Were we not, we would not be able to distance ourselves from our destruction. Reconnection medicine is as simple as taking a walk, digging a garden bed, sitting in silence on a patch of grass. When we work to reweave ourselves into the web of life, we take a small but significant step towards healing, healing of ourselves and healing of the whole.
**These concepts and practices are part of the curriculum at The Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine. This essay, about the medicine of Earth, demonstrates our elemental approach to education. Visit our website to learn more and sign up for our newsletter to receive seasonal dispatches.
Coming soon, Part 2 of this piece– Earthwork: Herbs for Grounding. Profiles of a handful of my favorite plant medicines for presence and embodiment.