A small plot of dirt containing mostly weeds and some very old fruit trees hold me in my home. This plot of dirt keeps me connected with the earth. Each day I can remove my shoes and feel dirt beneath my feet amidst this concrete jungle that was built around this ancient house as the East Bay boomed in the 21st Century. My sweet old house lined with asbestos shingles. It's kind of ironic that it's this toxic lining that keeps this old house alive. In many ways I have the city's efforts against toxicity to thank for my housing. Tearing the house down would be too much of an economic endeavor for the wealthy man who owns this house. He lives many miles away and I have never seen his face. He's waiting until the city approves his plans to develop the entire block to make any changes to this place.
I pray that he is waiting a long time. I pray these plans never go through because for the first time since I have moved to the bay I have access to dirt—large chunks of earth that I can dig and turn and plant inside. I arrived here unsure how long I would be living in this house. My time here began as a sublet which has grown into a more permanent living situation now that it’s clear my roommate and I can co-habit well. And now, after living here almost a year, I look out at this beautiful island of earth swimming in a sea of concrete and admire the determination of the weeds that have grown to my waist in the backyard. The Oatstraw have dried up and no longer offer their soothing milk. Their long stalks lean back in the breeze like ghosts. The ghosts reach out and tickle one another offering assurance that what was once their bodies will once day give life to more of their kind.
The mint is just beginning to flower. The sweet mint that has taken over the far back. The honeybees alight the flowers as the sun shines through the wind, collecting pollen to take back to their hive nestled up against the metal fence dividing this island from the cement parking lot just beyond the determined rusty border. This summer I read Aldo Leopold for a class on "Environmentalism and Religion in American Culture" at PSR. Leopold pushed me to explore more deeply my ideas about a "land ethic". He challenges readers to see that a “system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided”. As I look out at one of the last places in the neighborhood where the earth can breathe without the constraints of concrete, I wonder, what does it mean to be in relationship with this small plot of land in a way that does not reinforce systems of use and abuse?
I have been a container gardener for many years. As a “city witch” with little access to soil where I can plant roots, I have kept my friends in pots—prioritizing their captivity because there seemed to be few other options. Looking out into the garden, there is only a small plot that has been tended. In that place lies some of my formerly potted friends. It was the right thing to do, to offer them soil to spread out their roots. The Angelica has grown 4 times the size she ever was in a pot. Her long stalks spread out reaching across to the Calendula which has grown from 2 plants to at least 8 in a few short months. I look over at the endangered plants. Black Cohosh has drooping leaves crying out for more shade. This California climate is not her home and the air here is much drier than her native lands of Virginia and the Appalachian mountains. I haven’t had the heart to put her in the soil here. I don’t know that she would make it and yet I can feel her longing to put her roots into the ground.
The soil here is reflective of the century of industry that has sprung up around this island of soil. As I dug through the dark hard ground this year I found small pieces of glass and some cigarette butts, evidence of the “land ethic” of those who have come before. The large old trees in the back have yellowing leaves indicating a need for more nitrogen in the soil. I’ve noticed this with the Raspberry starts I placed in the ground. So I fell into the “trap” Leopold details in his essay of supplementing the soil with manure. Although I did not use Guano imported from South America, as Leopold critiques, but local organic chicken manure. It was so fascinating to hear his voice from over 60 years ago talking about the degradation of the soil. I paused as I read his words realizing that I don’t know that I have ever planted in a garden without first supplementing the soil.
Scanning though my memories, I land on my first experience “wild planting”. Many herbalists and herbal training programs focus on “wild crafting” and how to best harvest medicine from the woods. My teacher, Karyn Sanders, told me that in my first 7 years of practicing I should focus on planting rather than harvesting medicines. She’s an elder Choctaw woman filled with stories about how the American Ginseng and the Cohosh grew in abundance in the woods when she was a child. Her eyes gaze off into the distance when she tells these stories. Behind her gaze I’ve seen tears held back by reverence as she tells of the endangered ones in generations past.
My first “wild planting” experience was in the Appalachian Mountains near Boone, North Carolina. It was my first year of studying with Karyn and I wanted to honor her teachings. I brought with me seeds of Wild Yam and Black Cohosh. It was the first time I had returned to the Appalachians in many moons. This was the bottom end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. These were the mountains off to the west that looked over my childhood. It felt right to begin my planting in the Appalachians, mountains that held so many memories of my first experiences of “the wilderness”.
I found a place near a lake on the map. It was relatively accessible, just a mile hike from the road. I wandered down the trail and found a creek leading into the lake. I followed the creek up stream through overgrown Willow and Rhododendron. I tromped through the mud, walking in or close to the creek. The air was thick and heavy. As sweat dripped down my back, my arms, the backs of my legs, I welcomed the familiar humidity of the southern United States. Many Californian cool summer nights of my adulthood have been spent lingering in the memory of the hot sticky summers of my childhood , and so I relished the wetness at the crux of the exertion of my body and the heat of the season.
There was a clearing with ample shade and a small patch of Solomon Seal. I didn’t feel hopeful to find many of my seedlings other family members. Habitat devastation due to mountain top removal and development, poachers eager to make some money on the increasingly lucrative medicinal herb trade, and over harvesting by herbalists eager to collect their medicines from the woods are the primary reasons there are few non-cultivated communities of Black Cohosh’s and Wild Yam’s family left. I looked around and felt called to stop. I sat down and sent my roots into the earth grounding into this place.
I pulled out my pouch of tobacco and made an offering to the spirits of the land. The earth felt inviting here. I sat patiently listening as the birds chirped above the constant hum of the cicadas. The wind was still but mosquitoes cast breezes across my skin as they circled their potential prey praying patiently to the earth. I sat and after what seemed like a long time I felt a breeze gently slip past my skin. I asked the Solomon Seal if I could plant these seedlings here. I was surprised at how quickly I heard an answer.
Aldo Leopold questions our “Ecological Conscience” and asks if it is not only the “volume” of conservation education that is needed but also the “content”. I believe that this is a critical question to be asking and that it is highly relevant over half a century since it was first asked. Most herbal education focuses primarily on the efficacy of plants and their the ways they can be used. Many programs detail ways to prepare medicine from the plants and how to harvest them but teach little to nothing of the ways that we can plant these medicines and tend to them in our gardens and in the wild. They reinforce a take-take relationship with the land and reflect a relationship with the land that fits Leopolds words, “The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations”.
We all need to examine our relationship with the land and consumption. When we approach the land, are we there for profit? American dominant culture teaches us to approach other beings and often other people as objects for gain or profit. Whether it is a visit to the woods for to collect some beautiful medicine or an online date with the potential for a relationship or sex, we are taught to first approach the other as potential for gain. How do we shift our relationship with the land to one that sees the land as a subject rather than an object for profit?
I believe that the answer to this question is different for each one of us. Within us all runs the blood of ancestors who once lived closer to the land before subject/object thinking pervaded all aspects of our human existence. We all carry the blood of human beings that were once animals living in a good way with the earth. For some of us those ancestors are closer and for some those ancestors are many many generations back. But we all have that blood and we all have the ability to remember right relationship. Each of us has the potential to imagine a world where the next generations can be in right relationship with our mother and with all beings.
To read more by Aldo Leopold, follow this link or go to Powells Books to order a copy of "A Sand County Almanac"