Singing with plants, St. John Wort’s magic, and the 10 best lessons I learned in 2021

This year, instead of the usual New Year resolutions – which, puts me in “goal-setting” thinking and life doesn’t feel full when I live like that – I decided to reflect on the best lessons that have helped me grow this past year.

Lesson #1 – Speaking with plants!
I was caught by surprise by this because I’ve always thought talking to plants was a bit too woo-woo (even for a flower lover). Even though the idea intrigued me, I dawdled for awhile feeling too awkward and self-conscious about it. Then on one summer afternoon while I was pushing River on the swing tied to a fir branch near the orchard, I hummed and sang, mostly for River. He hummed with me and as the words came to my mind, I felt it… A very subtle and very resounding approval. It was clearly not from River, but from the trees. They liked our singing.

I left that day not thinking much more about it. Until, it happened again. The second time, I was in a much different mood. I was angry and overwhelmed and was coming to sit in the garden to calm down. I had my pen and notebook ready to journal, but instead, I held the pen in hand and started humming. It was a sad tune, mostly letting out my feelings… and yet, I felt it again, the plants’ approval. I listened more this time and I learned that plants loved singing, but not just any singing – it’s the genuine, deep-hearted kind, and this is the language that we can use to communicate together, if we wanted to.

I found out not long after that this experience is deeply woven into our history and culture and it used to be very real for many people. Talking with plants was once common and it was how we understood a plant’s healing gifts, our interrelationship with the natural world, our spirituality, and how we understood our own existence. The lost of this knowledge has made us all a bit more lonely…

But, what inspired me most of all was that this knowledge still lives inside all of us, like a seed waiting for spring. If you’re interested in tending to this seed with me – start with Stephen Harrod Buhner’s “Learn to Think with Your Heart in 4 Steps” (scroll to the bottom, though the entire article is also fascinating!). And if you want to dive deeper into how this knowledge was used (and still used) by indigenous peoples, read Martin Prechtel’s The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic.

Lesson #2 – St. John’s wort works wonders!
So, speaking of plants’ healing gifts… the world of plant medicine is just awe-inspiring. St. John’s wort (which is a very common and inconspicuous roadside weed) has been in our medicine cabinet for years now thanks to Noel. It hasn’t been on my radar much until this year, when I burned my hand quite badly on the stove. I used to run the burn in cold water and then pretty much just suffer through the throbbing pain until it heals. This time, I tried St. John’s wort salve. And OMG. Why aren’t we all using this?! It was instantly soothing and with regular application, I felt zero throbbing, zero burn. The wound turned into a scab (not a horrible blister) and that was that. I mean, the burning pain just goes away? My mind is still blown.

Lesson #3 – Managing feelings.
Phew, ok, this is a big one, and I don’t want to write an essay for every lesson because we’ll never get to #10. Don’t worry they’re not all like this.

Honestly, this is a lesson I should’ve learned when I was two! It’s only made clear to me now because my two year old son is teaching me what it means to truly manage feelings. By the way, “managing feelings” doesn’t mean ignoring them and keeping your cool (I actually used to believe that). It means letting yourself feel, especially when the emotion is particularly scary. For me this means top of the lung, blood-boiling screams (I usually do this alone and/or with advance notice to others around me).

It’s not easy. It didn’t really feel good at first. It still feels weird, like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to (because that’s what I was taught). But the few times I allowed myself to, what came after was relief. Calmness. Composure. Without the “stuff it away”, knot in my throat that turns into knot in my stomach and then bitter resentment. The anger doesn’t just mutate, it dissipates.

Lesson #4: Growing eucalyptus and lavender from seeds. Both are really easy to grow and fast-growing! And of course, you can get a lot more out of a seed packet than buying plants from a nursery.

Lesson #5: Wild turkey tastes just like farmed turkey (better in fact). Yup. Wild turkeys are as prolific as deer here and they were coming around to eat our chicken food. Learning how to eat them means we don’t have to raise meat or buy farmed meat anymore. We’re a step closer to inter-resilience (I like this word better than “self-reliance” because there’s no such thing. After all, we rely on turkey for nourishment.) My cooking tip for a succulent, tender wild turkey: braise the meat!

Lessons #6: Perfecting sourdough. This only took me 5 years! Persistence really does pay off. I also just kept trying because even a subpar sourdough loaf was still delicious and better than any store bought bread. Now, of course “perfect” is relative in the world of flavor, but for me, the aim was a combination of tang, thin & crunchy crust, and soft, springy, airy dough with large air pockets. I could manage one of these, but not all three usually. I tried a lot of different recipes and methods and over time two discoveries helped me: 1) kneading using wet hands and pulling the dough upwards then just let it drop into the bowl and 2) keeping the moisture just right so the dough is wet but holds its shape. Both of these really take practice to get the right feel but once I was in the right general direction, I was getting consistently better bread.

Lesson #7: Identifying Mushrooms. This is perhaps one of the most enjoyable lessons of 2021! We’ve dabbled with mushroom hunting and read a few books, but it wasn’t until we attended a local hike with Williams Community Forest Project and got to pick up actual mushrooms, feel their texture, smell their aroma (they have incredibly distinct aromas!), notice the bruising color and milky sap, observe the environment in which they grow, and so on, that we really got into the wild world of mushrooms. It’s fascinating and now we have a lot of delicious, nutritious food squirreled away for a whole year and we understand a little more about the complex web of life upon which we depend.

Lesson #8: Overwintering Dahlias. I love dahlias but growing them in a climate that they are not adapted to is a tedious process. Up until last year, I had diligently dug up the tubers and stored them over the winter to replant in spring. But this had its challenges – primarily, I couldn’t keep them from rotting in storage. Then I learned from a local flower farmer who never dug them up that you can leave them in the ground! I mulched the beds thickly and crossed my fingers and toes. Lo and behold, them came up wonderfully in the summer. The only thing I still need to work on is removing all the mulch when the weather warms so the slugs don’t make their homes in there.

Lesson #9: Tai chi. I began private tai chi lessons two years ago in hopes to improve my posture and learn more about how to use my body more efficiently (something that became obvious to me when I started gardening and carried my son a lot). What I’ve been gaining is so much more! As I dive deeper, I began to see myself in a different light – as a person who tends to “go with the flow,” which in tai chi means I’m very “yin.” And this reminded me of an injury that happened to me a few years ago when I was at the beach and a wave literally knocked me over and I crashed neck down onto rocks. I couldn’t turn my neck for days. I realized that I live much of my life like this – being pulled this way and that and sometimes battered by life’s currents, and if I just pressed on like that I’d likely injure myself. Tai chi has been teaching me how to become more rooted and without getting into too much detail, I feel like I’m beginning to comprehend how to live harmoniously in my body, mind, and emotions. Though that idea has always made sense to me, practicing it is a different matter. Tai chi is giving me concrete ways to becoming a “whole” being.

Lesson #10: Cleaning as medicine and broom-making. I don’t know why this only occurred to me recently, but I really love sweeping. If I feel stressed about something, picking up a broom and sweeping would instantly make me feel better and clear my mind. I got curious about making my own brooms and found a few simple tutorials online and now I’m hooked. It’s much easier than I thought and satisfying to have brooms I made myself. I decorated them with dried flowers and colored rope and I felt like I was satisfying some deep ancestor inside of me. This year I plan to grow my own broomcorn and take it to the next level!

That’s a wrap for 2021! Hoozah!

None of these lessons were “resolutions” I made the year before. They all just happened, much like life. That’s why I no longer make resolutions. I am, however, adamant about being curious, growing, and learning something new every year. Now back to you – what have you learned in 2021?

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