My Walk with the Plants

Perhaps it was having a pond at our house growing up that eventually led me to become a plantwalker. One of the most intriguing ecosystems to lead a child back to nature, I would sit, walk, swim and wade for hours in that pond, watching tadpoles, catching frogs, being nibbled on by fish, arranging aquatic plants into buoyant fairy houses, avoiding snakes, feeling squishy mud between my toes, catching bream and bass, floating on my back, listening to a heavenly voice that calmed and supported me. I wish I had a photo of that pond, but here is at least a picture of the house that held me as a child.

Eventually, I stepped away from the pond into the woods nearby and began building fairy forts in the forest. I remember vividly sitting under those trees, after collecting all kinds of leaves, twigs, moss, and nuts, and being overcome with a feeling of love and protection while I was creating these fairy villages. It was, at the time, my unconscious way of communing with Earth Mother and Sky Father. I climbed trees, explored the river bank, ate dirt, looked for skulls and bones of animals, dug holes, and hid inside huge azalea bushes for fun. All this time, I was hearing the pulse of earth but had no human mentors, teachers or guides to help me understand how to steward these things with care.  Still, being engaged everyday like this with the outdoors, I was building a relationship with the plant and animal people, that would, as the years went on, inform my heart and mind of how to be a loving citizen of the world.

I do know my father had a strong love of nature and was outside more than in. I followed him around and saw that he picked white pine needles and chewed on them as he walked around the woods, so that was my first introduction into eating something wild! He was an avid hunter and thus I grew up on venison burgers, sausage, stew, and steak; eating frog legs, quail, wild turkey roasts, snapping turtle and catfish stew, and I attribute all that to feeding my wildness.

In high school, I veered away from these things, thinking city life, fake nails, tanning beds, fancy outfits, rock concerts and aims for a showy car and a highfalutin job would be a much better way to live my life. This went on for some years, until I ended up in Bellingham, Washington, at Fairhaven College. I suddenly had a strong pull to get the hell out of dodge and applied to 3 far away universities within the US, not quite brave enough to travel out of the country yet. My mom and I drove across the country so I could have my red Bronco II there with me on campus, and I was quite a sight, I am sure. Dressed in a polka dot mini skirt, jelly flats, polka-dot shirt with padded shoulders, hair and make-up all done up, unloading all my pumps, fancy dresses, matching bedroom decor and several caboodles of makeup— I stood out in the mossy granola setting of Western Washington like a foreign implant.

Once there, it took about half a year, but suddenly I remembered my connection to nature again, and found a role in the student garden and fell in love with Joules Graves’ music about people of the earth tribe and became a member of the food co-op and learned about quinoa and submerged myself regularly on top of Sehome Hill, a forested sanctuary inside the city, and started to hear voices again from the plant world.

Oh, Stinging Nettle was the first one to talk. “You didn’t think I could sting like that, did you? I am not an ant! But I am the plant version. Drink me, take me home. Eat me.” I did, and I still didn’t really know what I was doing.

Soon after, I was at a friend’s house and had a terrible stomach ache. She offered me chamomile tea, and I thought she meant Lipton Tea, which was the only thing I associated with the word tea. Sweetened or unsweetened tea, with ice or without? This question had been posed to me at every restaurant I grew up going to, at my grandmother’s, at any church event- basically anywhere I went in the South. And I thought tea was the grossest thing, sweetened or unsweetened. I didn’t want to drink any of it! So I told her no, but she explained this was an herbal tea, reminded me the story of Peter Rabbit, and to give it a try. She poured hot water over the Celestial Seasonings tea bag and while it steeped, I held that warm mug in my hands and after drinking it, my tummy ache was completely gone! I couldn’t believe it. But I was now a Believer.

I was around 19 or 20-years-old at the time, and as I write this, I am almost at the half a century point of my life. The walk I have had with the plants has been a combo of crawls, climbs, hikes, runs, meanders, glides and strolls. I have walked behind, beside and under so many human, plant, animal and celestial teachers, that I couldn’t possibly recap them all in this story. To all of you not mentioned, I am indebted to you. To all of you that stand out in significant enough memory to include here, I bow to you for holding my hand and heart on this glorious journey of becoming a plantwalker.

My college companion, Leif, showed me you can buy bulk herbs at the Food Co-op and brew them up into tea. Dandelion, Burdock and Licorice roots decoction sent my DNA into memory recall. Cameron, head of the Fairhaven community garden, first introduced me to cultivation. But I thought having a garden was more about writing graphs on paper of what to grow, when and where, than actually doing it! Then Alison, my roommate in a Bellingham duplex, taught me how to ‘just do it’ without all that nerdiness, and we grew an abundant garden out back! As an intern with Michael Pilarski, aka Skeeter, of Friends of the Trees, in 1993, he made me conscious of the work that needed to be done to help provide for the next seven generations. Balm of Gilead, Cottonwood tree, led me into medicine making and soothed my earthly wounds. Taylor, the boy who stole my heart, opened me up to watching trees leaf out and flower and how to capture those moments with a camera. We spent many an hour in the darkroom developing prints of nature.

In 1995, I moved to Lopez Island, on Leif’s family land, with about 11 other people, as we attempted to ‘go back to the land.’ Ironwood, aka Ocean Spray, taught me how to bend its strong branches to make a wigwam that could shelter me for months. Leif and his brother Kier included me on foraging escapes that brought back cedar for smudging, wild onions for seasoning, chickweed, plantain, dandelion and violet for salad, Salal and Salmon berries for breakfast and aromatic pine needle tea.

Living outdoors and under the stars for months on end really got me submerged into the plant world. I was starting to taste everything and once had a close encounter with Death Camas, thinking it was an Allium. I stood before Poison Hemlock, realizing that this plant world could take me on a journey of no return if not careful. I was in awe of these beings who could kill me, feed me, clothe me, house me, make me well when sick, and give me the material for my favorite thing- writing. The influence they had on my life infiltrated every pore of my being. I could live without humans and animals (not that I wanted to), but not without plants.

Western Washington opened me back up to my love of plants, and then I came back South. In 1997, I lived with my grandmother for a summer and began speaking with the plants more. I made a special spot on her land— a place where I would go each morning and pray. One morning, when I arrived at the spot, I heard the plants screaming at me, “Don’t let them mow us down!” I jumped because it was an unfamiliar sensation to hear plants screaming. I told them not to worry— this was the back part of Gram’s land and she didn’t mow it.

I went to work at the roadside stand where I sold peaches and watermelons, and when I arrived back at the house, sure enough, the whole area had been completely mowed down! I went crying to Gram and shouted, “What is going on?!” and she told me that the bamboo was taking over and she had hired someone to clear it all out. I cried as if my friends had died, which they had. And I realized I had a gift to hear the voice of the plants and that I needed to use it well.

Some years later, I found myself in upstate New York, learning from a woman named Naomi who had Paradise Gardens, and witnessed what you could do with a piece of land to turn it into a botanical sanctuary. She taught me how to grow herbs and to celebrate birthdays with the seasonal foods of the garden; how to make beauty with spiral gardens and to encourage frog habitats and to leave some areas for the wild. Behind her house was a forest with a Blue Cohosh patch I’ve yet to see the likes of anywhere else. When I first stumbled upon it one May evening, I began crying. I didn’t know what plant this was, but it had such unusual leaf color and shape and the vibration it exuded was palpable. I sat there and wept in joy. It was one of those significant moments of your life that shifts who you are. I think in that moment, I forever became a plant woman.

I began collecting houseplants and turning my home into Jumanji. I talked to them and listened to them. Sometimes it is too much, hearing the needs of plants. Hearing their desires. It could take up all my time if I just solely listened to that. I would have not time for humans, and sometimes I think I may end up the old lady on the mountain who only talks to plants. And animals, too. I hear animals similarly. But I have sharpened my focus to be with the plant people.

When I found my permanent place on the planet, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, I began planting things outside left and right. I moved in and out of rentals for years, but that didn’t matter. I had the overwhelming desire to plant trees, bulbs, bushes, flowers, vegetables- basically anything that would grow, and tend it with all my heart. Grow a sanctuary and you will end up with a sanctuary. Wherever you go. That was my motto. And look where I eventually ended up- Herb Mountain Farm, one of the most paradisiacal places I have ever seen!

At 32, I began a relationship with Frank Cook, a plant man like no other, an embodiment of the Green Man, and by default, my relationship with plants grew deeper. He taught me to “Eat something Wild everyday.” You are what you eat. He taught me to eat the rainbow- eat foods that have lots of color- red, blue, purple, yellow, orange and especially Green! He took me around the world with him to learn directly from plants and healers and his very presence expanded my consciousness. One of my highlights with him was being in South Africa in a field of huge bushes, as far as you could see, and he said, “Do you know who this is?” and I said. “No.” And he said, “This is Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, in its natural habitat.” And I about passed out as I had only known Ashwagandha as this little struggling annual in my garden. We dug some root and it smelled like a horse, and this smell was euphoric to me. I slept with that root under my pillow for over a year.

Frank Cook in a field of Ashwagandha

Around this same time, I also met Hart, the man who would later become my husband and be the most influential person of my life in my walk with plants. I began working on his farm, at Herb Mountain, where he informally apprenticed me in conscious earth stewardship. And still is to this day.

In the forest, I am beholden by the plants and trees and able to observe and relax and be reminded of the mystery and magnificence of Creation. In the garden, I get a chance to play my hand at this creation. I love my walk with plants in both these ways. Sometimes I say, “I am off to the wild lands.” To get a break from the domesticated lands. Trying to cultivate—ok—manipulate earth into what you want her to be and do is hard work. There must be a balance for me in just observing the glory and abundance that naturally occurs without any human help, in my walk with the plants. I am a plant walker and will be until I die.