Friday, August 28, 2020

The Medicine Forest my Parents Gave Me: how exploring and knowing our place in the ecosystem builds resilience


Once I lost my son in the forest. We were heading home through ferns taller than his three-year-old self, he carrying a harvest of licorice ferns and I carrying his baby sister and some oyster mushrooms. He followed along behind me, and when I turned around, he was gone. I called repeatedly. I retraced my steps. I gripped by baby girl to my chest and started running, panicking, and-- there he was, nestled into a sword fern, chewing on a piece of licorice fern root. He looked up blandly at my stricken face and said "I'm just havin' some licorice root." His trance-like state may have been induced by the well-known calming medicine of licorice fern, or it may have been just his joyful state of mind after a couple of hours spent wandering the forest with his mother and sister.  

My kids and I spent part of most days of their childhood out in the forest, exploring. That's what I did as a mother because it's what I knew to do from my own childhood, spent here in this same little west coast paradise. When my head hurts, I go outside. Maybe I chew an alder leaf like the wild aspirin that it is; maybe I just lift my face to the fresh air, sun or rain. When my heart hurts, I lie in the moss and let it soak up my tears. Licorice fern soothes me; so does the feeling of bark, or the creek water between my toes. When I'm hungry, I eat beans off the vine on my porch, or berries and other treats from the woods; when I'm hungry for adventure I go exploring in my medicine forest. I made up that word. Medicine Forest. It's like a permaculture food forest, but with emphasis on its healing power. My parents didn't purposely give me a medicine forest, but they did give it to me, and I'm passing it on to my children. Let me explain.

That's me with our chickens in the early 1980's, rabbit hutches on the right, and winter-covered veggie garden, behind.

I grew up in a pretty typical single family house - a modified double-wide mobile home, actually - on a five-acre piece of land that my parents purchased in 1980. This land was forest when they bought it. We used to come up here and have a picnic on the slope they hoped would one day be their building site. They let my brother and me free-range all over this place, climbing trees, damming creeks, digging great big holes and picking and using whatever plants we felt like, as they slowly cleared the land and built up what is now a developed property. We raised chickens, meat rabbits, and pigs (but only once because the experience was too heartbreaking for all of us to repeat). My parents grew food crops and allowed us to plant our own experimental gardens, while also insisting that we should help with the family food operations. My brother and I were never forced to kill or butcher animals, but because our parents nurtured our curiosity, we both knew how to clean a rabbit or chicken by the time we were twelve, and by the time we were fifteen we could cook a good family meal from the foods we'd grown or wildcrafted. We didn't even know the word wildcraft, though. We were just "picking nettles", or "finding a mushroom."

My son helping my mother pick nettles in the early 2000's.

Living in and with the forest our parents were busy turning into a home was just "life". We could pick indigenous trailing blackberries from the hillside, invasive Himalayan blackberries from the place Pappa was trying to get them out of the creek, or cultivated boysenberries from Mum's garden. Same difference. They all make good pie, if you don't eat them all before getting them home. And whether they make it home or not, your belly is full with the food, your heart is full of the joy, and your mind is full of knowing every detail of your home. That's a medicine forest. It's a place where everything is living and growing together -- humans included. It's a place you've grown so connected to that just living there heals you from the inside out.

My daughter reading in a tree she knows every inch of.

Somehow through my own teaching and parenting over the years I have come to recognize that, just like the best learning happens when we're inspired by connections to our own experience, the best living happens when we're connected to everything around us. Think of it this way: you care much more about your own backyard than someone else's. You have a lot more interest in your own little potted plant than in the weed at the edge of the pavement, or some tree in a forest far away. So somebody teaching you about a baobab tree might have a bit of a tough job keeping your interest. But what if that tree was yours? My friend went to Africa and really got to know baobab trees - and they became hers. When we connect personally with things, they matter, and mattering strengthens our neural pathways. That's great for learning, but how does this have to do with my medicine forest? Well, this place matters to me. It matters so much that I've spent about thirty years of my life exploring here, both as a child and now with my own nearly-grown children. I know exactly which part of which slope of which creek has the best clay for sculpting, and which part will still have a pool of water and some desperately-hungry trout in August. I know where the elusive white slugs live. I know how berries' flavours change with the weather and with the time of day. This deep understanding of my little wilderness is my connection, and it's why this place is my medicine.

On top of being important to my own health, my experience of exploring this place has made me resourceful and resilient. We all learn more from observing the people around us than from being taught conventionally, and I learned from watching my parents develop this land; their need to be resourceful when we had no electricity, no toilet, or no income. I learned from watching them not just survive here, but keep working even in the face of failure to find joy and wellness in whatever this land and life had to offer. The moss is not my weeping pillow because I'm an idyllic child from a book about fairies; it's my pillow because sometimes I was just plain too sad, as a child, and the moss was what I found to comfort me. My kids don't harvest nettles for brownie points or allowance; they don gloves and harvest them just because that's what we do for Easter. They get stung and they complain at me, but they also delight in testing their brawn by picking them bare-fingered or by eating them raw. They're building resilience, just like I once did. We're in this ecosystem for better and worse and every day that falls in between. Like the plants, we'll thrive or die as part of this, so we're doing our best to thrive.

My kids at fifteen and eighteen processing wild burdock root for tea.

The business of gardening and developing the physical ecosystem is nowhere near as idyllic as I imagine it sounds. There are brutal realities in nature that hurt like hell. Our crops fail, our chickens get sick and I have to put them down; sometimes we fight and resent each other's impact in the ecosystem. Sometimes money is short, time runs out, and family or world tragedy makes us doubt we can succeed. But experiencing these things, feeling them and accepting them is part of the whole picture. My medicine forest is the ecological basket that holds our family, and the love and knowledge we cultivate here, among the weeds and the crops and the chickens, the weather and the water and our own bodies living. When I leave this place, my medicine forest is carried in the knowledge of my body and mind, to nourish and grow with other ecosystems. It's a conscious choice I make to see my surroundings and live in health with them, as a part of them. 

In a monoculture garden, one invasion of a particularly voracious insect can wipe out a whole crop, with nothing remaining to re-seed. The earth itself becomes a barren place, unable to nurture new-fallen seeds without significant help from humans. In a food forest, insects may devour a plant here or there, but the diversity of the community will discourage any one plant or insect from taking over, and thus ensure that enough remains to keep the community thriving. The dead plants along with the dead insects and the droppings of all those who foraged in the forest will feed the earth, ensuring that all the fallen seeds have at least a chance to grow. In fact, the richness of the soil even means the earth will hold more water, making everything thrive more easily.

My parents have asked me how I came to know all these things, and I said "from you", because it was their willingness to let me explore that gave me the gift of knowing my ecosystem. It was their willingness to let me grow my own experimental gardens, and now to rent us a piece of their land and still let me grow my own experimental gardens that gave me the gift of my medicine forest. Sometimes they don't like the look of my unkempt yard, my son's experimental tree fort project, or the weed piles I leave laying around. But they let me and their grandchildren keep living and exploring here, because they're watching the growth of our medicine forest. And sometimes - just once in a long while - we discover things we can teach them, too. Explorative parenting is like that. It's looking at the whole family as a forest instead of one plant seeding another. Our family is like a forest of possibility, where everybody lives in community, exploring and discovering and balancing and sharing, as we all put our roots further and further down, and our branches further and further to the sky.





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