Working with Bio-Intelligence of Plants for Healing and Guidance During Insane Times
How can conscious engagement with plants, with which we’ve co-evolved since the dawn of our species, support healing in the physical, emotional and spiritual realms and help mend our separation from nature? Three brilliant herbalists/botanists, long on the cutting-edge of re-empowering the plant-human bond, share their insights. Hosted by Kathleen Harrison, plant person extraordinaire, President of Botanical Dimensions. With: Pam Montgomery, world-renowned herbalist, educator, spiritual ecologist, founder of the Organization of Nature Evolutionaries (O.N.E.), organizer of the Green Nations Gathering, author of Plant Spirit Healing and Partner Earth; Jolie Elan; founding Director of Go Wild Institute, deep ecologist, ethnobotanist, and global educator; Kami McBride, author of The Herbal Kitchen, with 25 years’ teaching experience, longtime leader of the beloved Earth Connection herb walks at Bioneers.
Listen to the panel, or read an edited transcript below.
KATHLEEN: Welcome everyone. Thank you for coming to this panel on the bio-intelligence of plants. We have with us today three very experienced plant women who each have years and years of learning about plant medicine and practicing it. I’m Kathleen Harrison, an ethnobotanist and founder of Botanical Dimensions, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to ethnobotany education. We have an ethnobotany library in Sonoma County and offer classes, and tonight my daughter and I will be showing a teaser for a film that we made about my fieldwork with Mazatec Indigenous people in Mexico, in this very room at 7 tonight.
We are living in a period we all recognize as a time of crisis, a crisis in nature, a crisis of course of the climate, and a crisis in culture marked by intense divisions based on suffering, fear and ignorance as well as a widespread sense of being disconnected from nature and disconnected from each other. My approach to this is that I like to look at what we humans know and what we might remember that we’ve known before but forgotten, the wisdom that comes to us from the ancestors, all of our ancestors, all of whom had to be tuned into nature in order to evolve and survive. Their survival got us this far, into this 21st century creative, teaming madness, but we’ve mostly lost the ability to listen and to be connected to all the other life forms that kept our ancestors alive. We have to remember those ancient skills and relearn to weave them into our decisions and our actions.
Every child is born with those instincts still intact. We see it in children, and you might remember it in yourselves when you were little children, but within just a few years we begin to forget. That connection to the world around us sort of gets squeezed out of us. It seems like a magical way of being that only attends early childhood, and then we take our place in this modern, displaced, disconnected culture. But if we can remember to go back to that childhood wonder, the childhood belief that everything is alive and can communicate, and that we have the capacity to hear it; if we can find that little touchstone inside ourselves, we can reawaken that way of perceiving, receiving, and reciprocating with the natural world all around us.
And some of us have. If you’re in this audience, you probably have found some aspect of that consciousness, whether through your love of gardening or in food plants, or in herbal medicine, or through some crisis in your life that required the intervention of plants, or maybe through a powerful experience with a psychedelic plant or mushroom, an experience that made you realize “oh my gosh, they’re all awake and paying attention.” How did I not notice that before? But if we focus solely on the spectacular effects of the big so-called “plant teachers,” we can miss a subtler but more important reality. To mend the world and to weave it together, we need to know how to listen on a daily basis. We need to know how the quieter plants speak, and how all species live in community. We need to remember that we are one little voice and set of ears, one being in that network of all the beings. We need to cultivate the kind of humility that allows us pay attention.
Robin Kimmerer, the Native American biologist and wonderful writer, says: “Attention is the doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, and the doorway to reciprocity.” Leslie Gardner, now passed on, said in her book, Life of Medicine: “One thing seems certain and that is that the plants desire to be in relationship to us, and are taking opportunities to help us recognize the kinship…If you seek it, your own individual path into the garden of the spirit will reveal itself.” And with that, I’d like to introduce our warm-hearted, wise plant women, starting with Pam Montgomery. Pam is an herbalist, author, teacher, and practitioner who has passionately embraced her role as a spokesperson for the green beings, and has been investigating plants, trees, and their intelligent, spiritual nature for more than three decades. She is the author of two books, including the highly acclaimed Plant Spirit Healing: a Guide to Working with Plant Consciousness. She operates the Partner Earth Education Center in Danby, Vermont where she teaches classes, does plant research, and leads ceremonies. Pam also teaches internationally and is a founding member of United Plant Savers and more recently of the Organization of Nature Evolutionaries, or O-N-E. You can learn more about her work at her websites: wakeuptonature.com and NatureEvolutionaries.com.
Why are we here? We’re here because of plants. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for plants and trees. We evolved from them and we have a completely symbiotic relationship with them. When we talk about the intelligence of plants, we’re not talking about the kind of human brain-based intelligence that we are familiar with. Bio-intelligence is on another level. It has to do with the essence of life. We engage with plants for healing and not just physical healing, but emotional, mental and spiritual healing. There’s a vibratory resonance that plants have that we can tap into, and there’s a form of communication through that resonance that we can tap into with them. And plants can help us mend our relationship with all of nature, to come back into the fold and help us be all we can possibly be.
Mostly we just breathe because that’s what we do. We’re not conscious of it. We don’t pay attention to it, but I want you to pay attention to your breath right now, and I want you to be aware that underneath this building and its concrete foundation, below that there’s the earth, and outside that door, there are trees and plants, and I want you to become aware of where your breath is coming from. I want to be aware that all those and all those plants are breathing out oxygen. And I want you to become aware that you are breathing out carbon dioxide. So you are being given your oxygen from the green beings. There’s no other source of oxygen. It comes from ocean plants, trees and grass. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day you’re breathing, and the source of your breath is the green beings, so you’re already in relationship with the plants. You don’t have to work to be in relationship with plants. You just need to bring your conscious awareness to your breath, and you’re in relationship, so be in gratitude. Always remember to thank the plants and trees for giving us life.
As the title of this session suggests, we are indeed living in pretty insane times, and one of the biggest causes of lack of sanity is stress, and stress comes in many forms, but basically it’s when the demands of life exceed our ability to cope with them. There are environmental, chemical, biological, psychological, and existential stressors, to mention only a few. All these disrupt our body’s homeostasis and can lead to really severe, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual imbalances. To understand the effects of stress, we must look at the concept of non-self. Usually that’s an immunological term that describes things such as bacteria and viruses that the body identifies as invaders and activates the immune system to repel them.
However, there’s another aspect to what constitutes “non-self.” We humans evolved for millennia with the natural world, and our bodies recognize features of that natural world as an extension of our self. But our modern world is filled with cars and buildings and noise and dirty air that, deep down, the body instinctually reacts to as “non self” and unsafe. When we walk on concrete with shoes on rather than barefoot on the earth or eat processed food or drink water filled with chemicals, our bodies experience stress. Our co-evolution with the cycles of the natural world has conditioned us to rely on nature’s cues. Right now where I live in the Northeast, in Vermont, the geese are starting to fly south. They flow in those beautiful little Vs, and you can hear them way up in the sky sometimes coming from really far away. When I hear those geese my body remembers that cold weather’s coming and instinctively knows I’d better put on a couple extra pounds just to get ready for wintertime. My body recognizes that sound and reacts to it. The result of losing our connection to nature’s cycles and to living surrounded by “non self” threats is that our body is in a state of almost constant stress.
And these stressful life patterns lead to lack of coherence, erratic signaling, depleted immunity, low vitality, and spiritual malnourishment. Our spirit flame starts to burn a bit low, and we no longer recognize our true, essential nature. This can lead to a lack of sanity when you forget who you are. And when it’s prolonged, you end up in this place of amnesia where you really can’t remember what it means to be close to the earth. You can’t remember that you actually know the language of plants and trees. When you forget all of that, you become insane because you don’t know who you are. And an additional stress factor is that our world is changing more and more rapidly every day. To survive we will need to adapt to our changing environment.
But there is good news. Living organisms can help because they have been adapting for some 3.7 billion years (and land plants for roughly 470 million years). So adaptation has been happening on this planet for a very long time. Organisms and plants have been adapting to continue to provide a life-giving atmosphere through photosynthesis through countless cataclysms. They have been around for a very long time, way longer than we have, and they have that long view that they carry in their makeup, this impulse to sustain life over the long haul. And obviously we humans are pushing the edges of the biosphere, and we all know here that we have to make huge changes to cut the carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere, and we’re going to need all the help we can get. To tap into that wisdom, we need to re-enter the dream of the green beings and remember how to live with Gaia in a sustainable way. We need to begin to remember our wild hearts and our indigenous souls, that part of our self that never left the earth. It’s still here. It’s inside us, and we just need to come back to the plants, come back to the earth and remember that.
Because I am an herbalist, I do want to mention a few specific plants that I really love, some so called “adaptogens,” that I think can really help us cope and return to our true, essential natures. An adaptogen is an herb that helps support the healthy function of every system in the body and protect it from biological, chemical, environmental, and psychological stressors. Such herbs have long existed in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines and in various folk healing traditions, but the term adaptogen was introduced into scientific literature by Russian toxicologist Nikolay Lazarev in 1948, and the main Russian researcher who worked on adaptogens subsequently was Israel Breckhman. Russian scientists tested 158 herbs reputed in various folklores to be “super herbs” and found a few that really did have a broad range of positive effects on the entire body, and that newly coined term, adaptogen, described this class of herbs.
Breckhman established three criteria to identify an adaptogenic herb. The first one is non-specific resistance, which basically means that the herb has to increase the body’s resistance to broad range of agents, including physical, chemical toxins such as heavy metals and biological threats such as bacteria and viruses. It has to have a non-specific response, so it can address a broad range of stressors. Then it needs to have normalizing action, which means that it seeks to balance the body, to bring it back to homeostasis. Burdock, for example, can be either for hyper- or hypo-thyroidism. An adaptogen would tend to lower high blood sugar or raise low blood sugar. The third aspect of an adaptogen is that it has to have innocuous effects. The herb must produce only minimal, if any, physiological disturbances or side effects. It has to have very low toxicity. These are the three main traits that identify an adaptogen. Also, a true adaptogen is one that modulates the body’s stress response so that it reacts appropriately and helps you cope effectively.
Since 1948 more work has been done on adaptogens, and quite a few have been identified. The most famous one is ginseng, but I want to share two of my favorites with you that are less well known than ginseng. The first is Rhodiola rosea. It grows in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, and for many years, a lot of the original research on it was in Russian and was not translated into English. It was not that well known in this country until recently, and now in the last few years, it’s become quite popular, and it’s really wonderful. It’s also called golden root and Arctic root. There are lots of species in that family, but the one we’re interested in is rosea. Its root has a light pink color, and it smells like roses, hence the name rosea. I take it every day, by the way.
Much of the research in the Soviet Union was focused on boosting the health of cosmonauts in their space program, and it was found that Rhodiola helped them withstand the extreme stresses of weightlessness, lack of exercise, and confinement, and it boosted their mental alertness. This plant does a lot of things. It helps enhance memory, it gives you energy, and it helps you cope. Some people are trying to use it to alleviate Alzheimer’s and other memory and brain impairment ailments. It’s reputedly good at protecting healthy cells for people undergoing chemo or radiation. It really helps with spiritual malnourishment as well. It’s a protector plant.
The other main adaptogen I want to mention is Sacred Basil, otherwise known as Holy Basil or Tulsi, another herb I take every single day. In India, it’s revered as a goddess. Tulsi was a goddess, the legend goes, and she loved Vishnu so much that she turned into a plant so she could be one of the eight sacred herbs that were given to Vishnu every day.
To finish up, what we are seeing on the planet right now is a green revolution, but I’d like to suggest it’s a re-evolution. When we move into right relationship with the natural world around us, we become nature evolutionaries. We begin to live in co-creative partnership with plants, trees, animals, water, air, land, and all the beings of nature that we recognize as having equal rights to thrive. We engage in sacred Earth activism informed by nature consciousness, and we recognize the sacred in all of life and honor it every single day and in all that we do. We engage in cooperation not competition, which includes both/and instead of either/or thinking. This leads to what Julie Morley calls creative synergy, a natural, intrinsic ability to cooperate toward mutually beneficial solutions. When we root our lives in interconnectedness, healing, compassion, listening, transformation, and the bio-intelligence of nature consciousness, a path opens, and we can move toward authentic peace that can live in each individual heart. This is our new story, which is being told here at Bioneers in almost every single presentation we listen to, and as we continue to live this new story, culture shifts and a new paradigm emerges. Thank you so much…and be sure to take your Rhodiola and Sacred Basil.
KATHLEEN: Thank you, Pam. Jolie Elan, our next speaker, is a deep ecologist, ethnobotanist, and educator. She is the founding Director of Go Wild Institute whose educational mission is blending modern science with the ancient awareness that the earth is alive, sentient, and sacred. She has brought her work around the world including the restoration of sacred, forest groves in India, and development of the herbal-medicine sector in wartime Kosovo. Jolie has helped thousands of students bond with our magnificent Earth through her education programs at conservation organizations, field institutes, herbal-medicine programs, and schools from university to elementary level. Jolie is also a certified spiritual director, and mentors people wishing to deepen their relationship with nature and spirit. Even with a master’s degree in forest ecology, oak trees are still her greatest teachers. She’s based right here in Marin County, and you can learn more about her live and online offerings at GoWildInstitute.org
So my love affair with the oak trees began on my honeymoon, and it outlasted my marriage. In 2007, my new husband, David, and I were honeymooning in Napa Valley, and the oak trees were dropping acorns by the barrel-load. You couldn’t step anywhere without stepping on acorns. I knew that the majority of Native Peoples of California ate acorns almost every single day as a staple food, and I’d also tasted acorn food at a workshop, and it tasted like oatmeal mixed with walnuts, and it got me wondering if acorns could make a comeback as the original California cuisine, so David and I gathered 20 pounds in 20 minutes, and my acorn adventures began. And in my wildest dreams, I never would’ve guessed that the oaks would commandeer my life, convince me to do their bidding, heal me in dreams, and open up stores of Earth wisdom that I thought was not accessible to me being non-Native.
When I first started eating acorns, I wanted a gluten-free, viable, local superfood. Don’t we all want that? But I also had other motivations. I had my spent an itinerant activist life living all over the country working on sacred site and environment campaigns, and having committed my life to David, I wanted to commit my life to the land, to the spot-on Earth where I was living.
I knew that it was possible to have really deep, intimate relationships with nature, and I wanted that for myself, and so I figured I can eat my way into the web of life, but I felt a little conflicted. I’m a Jew from New York, and the last thing I wanted to do was appropriate anybody’s culture. My grandma ate chopped liver. She didn’t go for acorns, so I know I’ll never be indigenous to this land, but I was not okay with being a tourist anymore, so I threw myself into the oaks, and I learned everything that I could about them.
If you weighed every single living thing in North America, 20% of that biomass would be oak trees. I had to check that fact. I called the researcher, and I was like, are you sure? And she’s like, yes, I’m sure. And if you go to Mexico, 30% of the biomass is oaks. Oaks are major ecological players around the world. Oaks grow in Central America, in North America, throughout Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and throughout Asia. In many places where they grow, ancient people ate acorns and honored the oak tree before they were domesticating grains. So my great, great, great ancient ancestors were most likely eating acorns in the Fertile Crescent. Maybe your people were eating acorns too. It could be the case.
2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder, who was a Roman naturalist and general, said acorns constitute the wealth of many nations because they are incredibly nutritious. Just 10 ounces of acorns can give you all of your carbs, all of your fat, and one-third of your protein for the day. The 20 pounds that David and I gathered in just 20 minutes could provide most of my nutritional needs for the month. Acorns are not only nutritious but they’re incredibly abundant. One large, valley oak tree can produce 500 to 1,000 pounds of acorns in a year. Our great California Central Valley that provides one-quarter of all the food we eat in the U.S. used to be a massive oak ecosystem. I cannot even imagine how magnificent that was with all of the wildlife that came in to eat those acorns. It just breaks my heart thinking about it. That acorn crop was estimated to be in the billions of pounds a year. If oaks were solely interested in reproduction, they would be more frugal, but oaks are incredibly generous creatures. They support an entire web of life. If you take the oaks out of the system, everything else goes downhill including the soil that’s held in place by their deep roots.
So the more I learned about oak ecology, the deeper I fell in love with the oaks, and this is one of the ways that we work with the bio-intelligence of plants. We fall in love. That’s the prerequisite. So I fell in love with the oaks, and my friends were getting a little sick of the conversations, so I had to spread the love. At the Go Wild Institute we launched our Wisdom of the Oak program, which is about restoring our relationship to the land and what feeds us, and I love teaching kids in inner city Oakland. We teach all kids K through college, but usually 4th or 5th grade, and I love saying to the kids, what town do you live in? And they’re always so proud. Oakland! And I say, what tree is that named after? And they—you can see it click for the first time ever. And they’re like, oaks.
So we start with a lesson on oak ecology and natural history, and then we go outside to prepare acorn food: we crack and grind and leach acorns. Basically acorns are just like tree nuts, but they’re a little more bitter than other nuts, so they require an extra step to process out the bitterness. You have to wash it out or leach it out, so we do that, and I make little acorn cakes, and I give each kid a little acorn cake shaped like an acorn at the end, and then we share our thoughts.
And there’s usually a kid who says something like, these acorn cakes are good but it seems like a pain, so why would you do that? Why would you make acorn food? And so if there’s a tree in their yard, I point to it, and I say, if we were going to grow wheat right where that tree is, what would it take? And one kid raises their hand to—we’d have to cut the tree down, and then another one says, we’d have to dig up the soil, and it goes on. We’d have to plant our wheat, and then we’d have to water our wheat, which is taking water from our rivers and our salmon. And then once your wheat is growing, all of those animals that are starving now because they don’t have acorns, they’re going to want to eat your wheat, so then you have to protect your wheat. You have to build fences, or you have to use chemicals or whatever means, and you just wait until all the animals die off so they don’t bother you, sort of what happened in the Great Central Valley. Then, once your wheat is ready, you have to cut it, and thresh it, and grind it, and then you have to do it every single year because wheat is an annual crop, so I think it’s easier to eat acorns. So I just ask you why not plant oak trees, restore our vibrant ecosystems, and eat acorns? Clearly, nuttier ideas have taken root in California.
Soon after I started doing their bidding, oaks began to come to me in dreams. In one dream I was inside a massive grandmother oak, and the energy was building from all around, pooling from the land all around, and it was electric. And at point the tree just could not hold that energy anymore, and it flashed as lightning, and I saw it go through the branches and the roots, and in my mind I knew this was restoring the fertility to all the land around. I woke up electrified and wondered what was that? Was that my subconscious or are oaks talking to me? I did some research and found out that lightning is five times as hot as the sun and fixes atmospheric nitrogen that’s usually unavailable and makes it available to the earth, hence making the land fertile again. Oaks have incredibly deep roots that go into the water table, so they’re excellent electrical conductors. An old adage goes “beware of the oak, it draws the stroke.” So, wow, I just dreamt that. I felt that oaks were not only downloading to me in my dreams, they were clearly directing me toward oak knowledge that was encoded in mythology.
Thor, the Norse god, is associated with lightning and thunder. He’s considered an oak god. Zeus, the almighty Greek god, is also associated with oaks as well as with lightning and thunder. Learning this, I began to research ancient cultures’ relationships to oaks. In ancient Greece, some priestesses would listen to the wind rustling in the oak trees, and they would interpret the word of the gods through those sounds. And the word “druid,” the ancient priests of the Celtic people, the word druid comes etymologically from the Old Celtic “deru,” which means tree or oak, and “wid”—to know. So the high, holy people were the ones who knew the oaks.
And the druids, and Zeus, and Thor—they’re sort of foreign to my cultural roots, but oaks play a pivotal role in my Jewish mythology as well. Abraham the father of the Jews, who’s also the father of Christianity and Islam—the Abrahamic religions, first saw what became the Jewish god underneath an oak tree, the oak of Moreh, a teacher oak tree. It was not just some random tree. It was an oracle tree where people had long gone for wisdom and healing. So throughout history, oaks have served as a portal to divine wisdom, to tap into that sacred intelligence of our Mother Earth in many different traditions.
So seven years into my acorn adventures and my marriage, David and I separated. We’d had way too many hard times. I was dealing with recovering from childhood trauma that was laying me low, and I was deeply sad. I was sort of brought to my knees, and then my cat of 21 years died, and it was just super hard. I couldn’t find the ground underneath my feet, and that night I looked at my altar that had my wedding ring and a picture of my cat right next to it, and that night, I had a dream. In the dream I was 6, and I was very scared because I needed to have all my limbs amputated, and so I ran out into this storm and I held onto this massive oak tree. I was crying, and the tree said “Aw, honey, do you see how tall I am?” I looked up, and she was indeed 200 or 300 feet tall. I replied: “Yeah, you’re really tall.” She went on “My roots go down that deep and my canopy is very wide, so you can always come to me in a storm if you need me.” When I woke up, I felt the ground under my feet. I felt solid and less alone. I felt healed, and I thought: “Wow, so that’s what plant-spirit medicine is.”
A few months later, I was hiking on Mount Tamalpais right here in Marin County to go to a meditation retreat, and this little tree got my attention. Trees and plants talk to me a lot. That’s not uncommon for me, but I’ve never had a tree yell at me before. And this one said, “Hey you, hey you.” I turned around, and it was a sapling, tanoak tree, and it was so proud, and it got my attention, and I said, “Yes?” It said, “When you get a chance, will you sit with us please?” What are you going to say to that? Of course, yes, I will. A couple days later when my mind was clear, I sat with the tanoaks, and one thing to know about the tanoaks on Mount Tam is that they’re really, really sick. They have a disease called sudden oak death. Many people say that the tanoaks in Marin might disappear altogether. It’s especially sad because the acorns of tanoaks are the best-tasting acorns I have ever tasted. They taste like butter cookies. They’re amazing, and they were very prized for many of the people that lived among the tanoaks, and now they’re very sick.
When I sat with the tanoaks, my mind got very clear, and I went very deep. And the trees said to me, “We’re really sick. Our wisdom is leaving the planet. We’re so sad. We watched our people die, the people who cared for us, people who loved us, and no one loves us anymore.” And I said: “Oh my God, that’s the so sad. What can I do?” And they said, “Well, you could do a ceremony for us.” And I said, “But I’m Jewish and from New York.” And they said, “Yeah, we’re not really happy about that either, but you’re what we have right now. You’re listening to us.” And I thought about that, and I thought this is a very popular trail I was on. Thousands of people walk on that trail every month, and the trees were probably calling out for decades. Many species are calling to us, saying: “Please help us; remember us. We need you to live in balance with us. We need you to hear us. We have things we need you to hear.”
At this point I don’t really feel like I’m working with the intelligence of the oaks. I feel like the oaks are working with my intelligence, and I feel like the oaks are the ones that got me here to talk to you, that want me to talk to you. The oaks are the ones that got me to stand up here to invite you all to come to the 6th Annual Mount Tanoak Ceremony next Sunday, October 27th. It’s on my website (GoWildInstitute.org); it will be a super beautiful day, so please come join us. It was the oaks that got me to make acorn food initially, and I made acorn crackers for you all if you want to take some on your way out.
Let me end by saying that nature is calling to us all the time, and every time we connect with a plant or an animal, we align with the sacred intelligence of our magnificent, brilliant Mother Earth. It’s a way in. Our Mother Earth is wise and brilliant. The Earth has deep intelligence, and if we can align with that intelligence, we will be part of the Earth healing herself, and we will be directed to do what we need to do.
KATHLEEN: Thank you, Jolie. Our next speaker is Kami McBride. At 19 Kami’s passion for herbal medicine was propelled by an excruciating brain surgery that she needed because of a medication’s unexpected side effect. She started to question her upbringing of using pharmaceutical drugs as a primary approach to health, and quickly felt the calling of the plants. Now, her 30 years of teaching herbal medicine has helped thousands of people learn to use herbal remedies as the centerpiece of their healthcare plan. She’s taught herbal medicine at the University of California School of Nursing, and in a health masters-degree program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She’s the author of The Herbal Kitchen, and her live and online workshops help people revitalize their relationship with the plant world and work with herbal medicine for home-wellness care. Here at Bioneers, she is beloved for leading wonderful plant walks for many years now. She’s based here in the North Bay, and can be reached at KamiMcBride.com. Welcome, Kami.
Thank you for being here, and I’m really thankful to be part of this panel with these great teachers. I used to go to Pam’s Green Nation gatherings in the mid-‘80s when I was a little puppy dog, and, Jolie, I’m incredibly inspired by your work. And Kat is someone whose work has taught me so much for decades. I’m so grateful to be here.
My grandfather, John McBride was the grandson of Irish-Scottish settlers who settled in Wintu territory in the Vacaville-Davis-Dixon area in the 1850s. They came, they planted wheat, and barley, and they benefitted tremendously from the incredible, abundant place that they landed in. I’ve been trying to unpack that legacy for a long time. That grandfather started one of the first kids’ nature camps in 1969 in that valley, and I went on my first herb walk at that camp when I was 8 years old, and I went on those herb walks until I was 14. But there was a lot of violence in my household, so I have huge gaps of memory. There are big spaces of my life that I don’t remember, but I remember everything about those herb walks. They set me on my path, and throughout my childhood and teenage years, I kept trying to learn as much as I could. I went to the library and found one book on the local wildflowers of the area, and when I became a teenager I went to Berkeley to the used bookstore and was thrilled to find a few books on holistic health and herbs.
Finally, at some point after studying relentlessly for quite a while, I started sharing, and I quickly realized that as I started sharing about herbs and herbal-medicine making, that in our current culture, herbs could easily turn into yet another extractive consumption industry, and that’s not what I wanted to be part of. I kept looking for a wise, elder woman who could teach me the old ways. Unfortunately that never really happened for me in my life, but what I started doing was praying. And I wasn’t raised on prayer. Everyone in my family was an atheist, so I guess I had a clean slate. I didn’t call it prayer at the time. I just started telling the Earth how beautiful she was and started to ask her to please help me, to guide me. I would ask her things like: “Please help me know how to work with you,” “How to do this in the best way,” and “What can I do for you?” And those questions have informed every consultation I have given, every class I have taught. Those same questions have been a guiding force and a grounding of everything I have done in sharing plant medicine for the past 30 years.
And I was guided from the start. I was told to gather women, listen to the Earth, and make medicine. So in 1994, I started my school and I started doing that. And what I learned through listening to the Earth is that she, our mother, is always speaking to us but that we just forgot how to listen. We humans are at the top of the food chain, and over time we got lazy. Our culture just shut down those sorts of experiences of communion with the natural world that they view as appropriate for children’s play but not for adults.
I spend Thanksgiving with this one family every year, and a few years ago, their 4-year old daughter came into the house with a small, green caterpillar that she brought to show her mom and dad, and they were just sort of dismissing her saying, “yes, honey, that’s cute,” but I could see her entire nervous system was just begging for someone to validate her ecstasy of being related to this creature. And when I saw that, I’m in charge of the pies, and I take pie making really seriously, but I stopped what I was doing to try to be with her and validate her feelings of wonder, of love and relatedness to one of Mother Earth’s creatures. We all have those childhood memories, but we have to recover them and re-awaken those senses and nurture them in our children.
I was part of a group of parents at my son’s school that he went to when he was in early childhood. We decided to walk around that school to listen to the land where our children spent a lot of their time. We started where the water came out of the spigot, and we followed the water lines, and we found the source of the water, and we started hearing the water as a group, and after that we were able to bring the voice of the earth and the water to the school board and to the school meetings, and we started making decisions for that school on a much higher level of connection to the land and to each other. So I advise you, if you can, to find your Earth-listening people. If you have no one in your life tuned in to listening to the Earth, find somebody. Whether it’s two of you, or five of you, or nine of you, get together and walk the land that you live on or near, walk around your block, walk near the places where you work, and listen together, because when you listen in a group, it’s far more powerful. Work on your listening skills, and you will get to a point at which you will be able to bring the teachings of the earth into your everyday experience, to help guide and enrich your life.
Close your eyes for a minute. We’re going to go on a little memory walk. This is just about opening to receive, and it’s got its own timing, so it might not come right now. It might come tomorrow, but just begin by bringing your total awareness into yourself, and an easy way to do that is through your breath. Just give yourself the incredible gift of three deep breaths right now, and bring your awareness back to your breath. And just breathe. I’m going to take you on a little walk. No pressures. Imagine yourself on a trail in a forest just walking. Just notice the time of day, maybe the light, maybe you can feel the leaves or sticks crackling under your feet. Just let yourself walk. And just walk until you come to a recent memory. It could have been today, yesterday, the day before, a memory of when something of this Earth—a flower, a plant, a tree, a river, anything—just struck you as so beautiful that you could feel that beauty in your whole body. Stay in that place for a moment. Notice how it feels and notice whatever you can about this place.
And notice how it feels in your body when you feel such love for a place. Say thank you to this place, then put yourself back on that trail, and we’re going to keep walking a little bit. We’re going to walk back in time to another place earlier in your life that called you, that grabbed you, that you were smitten by, and let yourself settle in that memory of someplace on this beloved Earth that awed you by its beauty, and let yourself rest there. What do you notice there? What time of day is it? What do you smell? What are the colors? What is it about this place, and how do you feel here? What does it feel like in your body to feel the love of the Earth and to feel love for the Earth? Once again say thank you and then get back on the trail again.
We’re walking back to an even earlier memory, maybe early childhood, to a time you felt pulled by the Earth. There was something about a plant or a mud puddle or a rainstorm that you could just feel your whole being connected to. Where are you? How old are you? Let this memory permeate your nervous system so you can remember and bring back the feeling of connection. Say thank you again in your own way and then gently bring yourself back, slowly back through these memories into this room.
To be a full human on this planet requires of us that once in a while we lay our belly down on this Earth and listen to what she has to say. She is speaking to us all the time. The message that came to me from the oak outside here before this gathering was “We just want to be loved again. We want you to love us. We want humans to find their hearts again, and remember that we thrive on love just as humans thrive on love.”
Audience member (AM) question: Can you recommend any other adaptogens?
PAM: One that is common and grows all around is Stinging Nettle. I would encourage you to drink nettle tea every day. Ashwagandha used in Ayurvedic medicine is another good one, but I mostly like common herbs that I can grow myself. I advise you to experiment, and when you find a couple of favorites, do those.
AM: What do you recommend for allergies?
PAM: Those adaptogens can be really good for allergies, but it depends on the type of allergy. If pollen allergies? Pollen?
AM confirms that it is pollen, grasses, and all fruits and vegetables.
PAM: Wow. Goldenrod is really good for pollen allergies, and Nettles also.
AM: In that memory exercise, I saw nature as wallpaper.
KAMI: I’ve facilitated thousands of memory walks with people and listened to the go-around afterwards, and one thing I’ve learned is that everybody’s way in is different, and everybody’s doorway is different. You may have an experience that you don’t understand, but the thing is you can dialogue with that experience. It’s not just that you get a message and that’s it. It’s something to be discovered and worked with. You can, for example, gather something that’s symbolic of your experience and put it on your altar and ask for a message to come to you in a dream. It’s a process. You’re building a skill that was shut down and schooled out of you. And sometimes the pain can be so great. We might find an oak tree we feel love for and then see that it’s the only oak tree standing for a long way, and you can feel the clear cut of a whole forest that had been there, and that level of pain can also shut us down once we open up.
PAM: When you’re overwhelmed by the diversity, the texture of everything, if you look in really, really close you might find a doorway, but the doorway can often actually be tiny: a relationship to one place, one plant, one species we really look at, can then open us up to finding a connection to all of nature.
AM: What is the relationship of oaks to wildfires?
JOLIE: Here in California our oak ecosystems evolved with fire, and they also evolved with humans setting fires. Humans had a relationship with the oaks. The oaks took care of the humans with food, and the humans took care of the oaks. And a lot of people say that the reason that we have sudden oak death here is because we’ve taken fire out of the ecosystem. But we’ve taken it out of the ecosystem now for so long and to such an extent that it’s really hard to put it back without catastrophic fires, so we have this problem. If we can reintroduce small, contained fires in the right way at the right time, that would be beneficial for our oaks, but it has to be done very carefully.
AM: How can one develop the skill of plant communication?
PAM: I don’t think communication with plants is a skill set. I believe it’s a basic right, a human right that we have. We inherently know how to communicate with plants and trees because we’re from them. It’s just a remembering process. We’re kin to these plants and these trees, but you have to get to a quiet place and eliminate as much distraction as possible and the static of electromagnetic fields). And then start with your breath, and then you’ll start to hear the messages much more clearly. There are a few chapters in my book about how to communicate, so you can check that out.
KATHLEEN: Thank you all. I’m sorry, we are out of time, but I hope everyone finds that still place and that moment to tune in and explore your plant relationships, and that we see you down the line. Blessings, everybody.