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.
Hello, everyone, and welcome. Thank you for coming to this panel on the bio-intelligence of plants for healing and guidance during insane times. We’re pleased to be talking about this really important topic, and developing skill set in our culture. And we have with us today three very experienced plant women who each have years and years of learning about this and practicing it, and they are going to share with you what they’ve learned and some of their techniques too.
I’m Kathleen Harrison, an ethnobotanist and founder of Botanical Dimensions, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to ethnobotany education, and we have an ethnobotany library in Sonoma County, and classes.
And I am honored to be the facilitator and moderator for this panel of these three women, all of them whom I personally admire, and I really look forward to what they’re going to share with us.
We are in this period that we all recognize as a crisis, a crisis in nature, a crisis of course of the climate, and a crisis in culture, and divisions based so much on suffering, and fear, and ignorance, and being disconnected from nature and disconnected from each other.
And I’m just going to make a general comment about my approach to this, which is I like to look at what we know, what we have known, we humans, and what we might remember that we’ve already known before and forgotten, and that comes from the ancestors, all of our ancestors, all of whom had to be tuned into nature in order to evolve, and survive, and get far enough to spawn this 20th and 21st century kind of creative, teaming madness that we seem to embody right now. That connection to nature, that ability to listen, ability to be connected to all the other life forms, and to remember that, and weave it into our decisions and our actions every day as part of human evolution, and that’s where this remembering is coming from.
Each child is born with those instincts still intact, and 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 it. It sort of gets squeezed out of us. It seems like a magical way of being that only attends early childhood, and then we become in these modern days, displaced cultures in all of us here except perhaps the indigenous people of this region who are here, all of us are displaced and disconnected, so that’s part of what we’re trying to find. But if we can remember to go back to that childhood wonder, the childhood belief that everything is alive, that everything possibly can communicate, and that we have the capacity to hear that, then that’s a way of finding that little touchstone inside ourselves so we can develop a greater practical, daily awareness of how to be in that way of perceiving, receiving, and reciprocating all the dynamics that are essential in this way of being.
And some of us have something you’re longing to re-find or you have found some aspect of maybe through your love of plants in gardening, or food plants, or herbalism and medicine, or some crisis in your life that required the intervention of plants and then you realized, oh my gosh, they’re all awake and paying attention. How did I not notice that? Or maybe through a powerful experience even with a psychedelic plant or mushroom.
But we have to remember, even with those big so-called plant teachers that can be quite stunning, that really what we need to know to mend the world and to weave it together is how to listen on a daily basis. We need to know how the quieter plants speak, and how all the species live in community and to remember that we are one little voice and set of ears. We humans are one being in that network of all the beings, and that humility allows us to help pay attention.
Robin Kimmerer, the Native American biologist and wonderful writer, said, “Attention is the doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, and the doorway to reciprocity.” And I’d like to quote also a woman who is a good friend of some of us, Leslie Gardner, now passed onShe wrote in 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. There is a recent, broad awakening to Native traditions as well to new forms of communication with veriditas, the great, green force of life. If you seek it, your own individual path into the garden of the spirit will reveal itself.”
With that, I’d like to introduce our warm-hearted, wise plant women that we have here, and turn it over to Pam Montgomery.
Pam Montgomery 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, one of which is the highly acclaimed Plant, Spirit, Healing: a Guide to Working with Plant Consciousness. She operates the Partner Earth Education Center in Danby, Vermont where classes, plant research, and ceremonies take place. Pam also teaches internationally on plant-spirit healing, spiritual ecology, and people as natural evolutionaries. She is a founding member of United Plant Savers, and more recently the Organization of Nature Evolutionaries, or ONE.
Why are we here? We’re here because of plants. [CHEERS] Yes. Our title is about the bio-intelligence of plants, and what does that really mean? We talk about intelligence. We’re not necessarily talking about the kind of intelligence that we are familiar with, that we think about like engaging our brains in order to activate our intelligence. Bio-intelligence is on another level, and it has to do with life. It really has to do with life, and this amazing planet that we live on is full of life. And, as a matter of fact, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the amazing life that’s in this planet, and more specifically, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for plants and trees because we are in a very symbiotic relationship with the plants. We’re actually more connected to plants than we are to animals. Some people would like to say that we evolved from animals. The truth is we evolved from plants. So we have this very symbiotic relationship with them.
We also engage with plants for healing, and it’s not just physical healing. It’s emotional healing, it’s mental healing, it’s spiritual healing, and there’s a vibratory resonance that the 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 the other thing which is really important for us to remember about plants is that they are helping us to mend our relationship with all of nature, and to remember what it means to be a part of nature, and to come back into the fold, and helping us to just be all we can possibly be. So we’re here because how important the plants are to us.
And so I want you to pay attention to your breath right now, and I want you to be aware that underneath all this building, and concrete and all that, below that there’s the earth, and outside that door, thereare trees, and there are plants, and I want you to become aware of where your breath is coming from. I want to be aware that 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 breath, your oxygen from the green beings. There’s no other source of oxygen. It’s ocean plants, it’s the trees, it’s the grass. Hallelujah for the Amazon. Hopefully it’ll continue for quite a long time. But this is where your breath is coming from. You are receiving your very breath 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 are already in relationship with the plants. You don’t have to work to be in relationship with the plants. You just need to bring your conscious awareness to your breath and you’re in relationship.
People say to me all the time, well, how do you explain to people about being in relationship with plants? And I start right here. Once we really realize how symbiotically we are related, then things start to change, and so it begins with breath.
So 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 the ability to cope with them. That happens on so many different levels. there’s environmental stressors, there’s chemical stressors, there’s biological stressors, there’s psychological stressors, there’s existential stressors. it kind of goes on and on, and has the potential to disrupt our homeostasis. And if it’s prolonged, if we’re in stress 24/7, then it can lead to really severe, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual imbalance leading to what we might want to call the crazies.
So to fully understand the effects of stress, we must look at how non-self works in our body. Non-self is basically an immunological term, and technically what it means is something comes in from the outside like a bacteria, or a virus or something like that, and the body identifies as non-self, and then the immune system kicks in and goes into action.
However, there’s another whole element to non-self which is that humans evolved for millennia with the natural world, and that which is of the natural world is what our bodies recognize as self.
Just as you look at the skyline and you’re seeing squares like this instead of a beautiful sunset. Your body doesn’t recognize those little square buildings. It recognizes a beautiful sunset. And it’s the same with, if you walk barefoot instead of on concrete, your body recognizes walking on the earth. If you drink water straight from the earth—I know there’s not that many places like that. I am one of the fortunate ones that has a spring where water comes right out of the ground, and I drink that water, and my body goes woo hoo, I recognize that. That’s what my cells are surrounded with, wild water. And when we eat processed food, that’s very different than eating wild foods. And our body goes into a major stress response in trying to process processed food, and trying to assimilate processed food, and so it’s a very big stressor.
Smells, smells of the fumes, or chemicals as opposed to smelling beautiful flowers. Our bodies recognize that. And so this whole thing of having to deal with non-self is a huge stressor.
Then there are other things like aspects of nature that trigger memory. Right now where I live in the Northeast, the geese are starting to fly south, and they flow in those beautiful, little Vs, way up in the sky sometimes, and you can hear them coming from really far away. And when I hear those geese, my body remembers that oh, cold weather’s coming. You better put on a couple extra pounds although not too many extra pounds, but a few extra just to get you ready for this wintertime weather. So things like that, like just the geese flying over, my body has a reaction to that. It recognizes that sound. It remembers that sound.
So it’s extremely detrimental to our overall health to continue in stressful life patterns that lead to lack of coherence, erratic signaling, depleted immunity, low vitality, and of course that life-giving principle which sustains us all which I would call spirit. Prolonged stress can lead to spiritual malnourishment, and this is when our spirit flame starts to burn a bit low, and where we no longer recognize our true, essential nature. It’s in that spirit place that we can remember our true, essential nature, and this can lead to a lack of sanity when you forget who you are. 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 how that you actually do know the language of plants and trees. You forget all of that, and that leads to craziness. You become insane because you don’t know who you are.
So now we have this added stress that our world is changing very rapidly every day, and in a very short amount of time, it will look very different than it does today. So our future then becomes one of adaptation to our changing environment. We will not survive with business as usual, or trying things like they’ve always been, but if we could adapt to these changing times, we could not only survive but thrive. So this is my new keyword here, adaptation. During these times, we really need to understand how to adapt.
Now here’s the good news. The good news is that we have help because the plants have been adapting since day one, which is about 2.3 billion years ago, billion not million. So it’s important for us to wrap our heads around this, that adaptation has been happening on this planet for a very long time, and it’s primarily the plants have been adapting to continue to create a life-giving, oxygen-rich atmosphere, and of course you know that that process happens through photosynthesis.
Plants established a life-giving atmosphere 2.3 billion years ago. So this means that they have the long view, and they carry that in their makeup. So this includes sustaining life over the long haul. And even now, it’s part of what the plants are doing. It’s called the Gaia effect. They’re adjusting their carbon uptake to keep the best possible ratio so that it continues life giving. Now we’re kind of pushing the edges here, and so that’s why it’s so important for us as humans to make a change around all this.
So when we enter the dream of the green beings, we remember how to live with Gaia in a sustainable way, and we begin to remember our wild hearts and our indigenous souls. It’s 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.
There are some specific plants that I want to talk to you about. There’s a couple that I really love, and these are called adaptogens, and they help us cope with non-self and with the spiritual malnourishment, and ultimately they help us return to our true, essential natures.
Let’s look at what it means to be an adaptogen. So there were a couple of scientists in Russia—in Siberia actually—and this was back in 1948, Dr. Lazarov and Dr. Breckman. They were both researchers for the Siberian Academy of Sciences, and they tested 158 herbs known in folklore to be super herbs. And they found that certain herbs support the healthy function of every system in the body and protect it from biological, chemical, environmental, and psychological stressors. So they coined this term adaptogen, and that’s where that word came from, back in 1948, to describe this class of herbs.
They established three criteria to identify an adaptogenic herb, and the first one is called non-specific resistance. Non-specific resistance basically means the herb has to increase the body’s resistance to broad range of agents, including physical, chemical toxins like heavy metals, biological like bacteria and viruses, so it has to have a non-specific response, so it addresses a broad range of agents. Then it needs to have normalizing action, and normalizing action means an herb that normalizes whatever the pathological changes or reactions that have occurred meaning that it’s a balancer, so it balances. So it could be like burdock that’s either for hyper- or hypothyroidism, or maybe high or low blood sugar. So it’s a balancer. Then the third aspect of an adaptogen is innocuous effects. Innocuous effects means the herb must cause a minimal, if any, physiological disturbance or side effects, so no side effects, very low toxicity. So these are the three main things that identify an adaptogen.
Since this time, more work has been done on adaptogens, and many, many have been identified. Probably the big one you know right now is ginseng. That’s an adaptogen, so that’s kind of the big, famous one. A true adaptogen is one that modulates the body’s stress response so that it reacts appropriately to the level of stress presented. So that’s the key: it helps you to really moderate that response, and it helps you to cope with stress.
I want to share two of my favorites with you. The first is rhodiola rosea. This one might be one that you’re not super familiar with because this one originates in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, and for many years, a lot of the original research was not translated into English. It was in Russian, so 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.
So rhodiola is considered a panacea really. It’s also called golden root. Rosea is the particular species. There’s lots of species, but the one we’re interested in is rosea, and it’s got a light, little pink color to the root, and it smells like roses, so that’s the rosea. That’s how it gets that name.
Much of the research in the Soviet Union was particularly focused on the effects of cosmonauts that went into space, and it was found that rhodiola helped them withstand the extreme stresses of weightlessness, and lack of exercise, and physical challenges of confinement and need for mental alertness.
So this plant does a lot of things. It really helps enhance memory. What I notice with rhodiola is that stress just kind of rolls over you, and it gives you energy, so it vitalizes you, and it helps you cope, so it’s a really fabulous herb. It’s being using now for Alzheimer’s and those kind of memory and brain impairments. There’s a big, long list of rhodiola.
It’s also used for cancer. It’s really good protecting the healthy cells whenever you’re doing chemo or radiation. So it helps protect the healthy cells, which is really important. On a spiritual level, this plant is a really big protector plant. So that’s important to remember because we all need protection. And it really helps with spiritual malnourishment as well.
The other big one I want to mention is sacred basil, otherwise known as holy basil, sacred basil, tulsi. It’s another one that’s considered to have a long list of things that it does for us. It’s called the mother of the world. And of course you know this plant comes from India, and in India, it’s revered as a goddess. Tulsi was a goddess, 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, so that’s how much she loved Vishnu.
So what we are seeing on the planet right now is a green revolution, but I’d like to suggest it’s a re-evolution. We move into right relationship as we become nature evolutionaries whose growing and expanding relationships are ones of co-creative partnership with plants, trees, animals, water, air, land, and all beings of nature whom we recognize as having equal rights to thrive. We engage in sacred Earth activism where we are informed by nature consciousness, and the sacred in all of life is recognized and honored every single day and in all that we do. We engage in cooperation, not competition, which includes both/and thinking instead of either/or. This leads to what Julie Morley calls creative synergy, a natural, intrinsic ability to cooperate toward mutually beneficial solutions. When we are rooted in interconnectedness, healing, compassion, listening, transformation, and the bio-intelligence of nature consciousness, a path opens moving us toward authentic peace, the kind 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 new paradigm emerges. So thank you so much, and be sure to take your rhodiola and sacred basil.
Thank you, Pam. Thanks.
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.
Jolie, welcome. Thank you.
There we go. [APPLAUSE] Alright. Hi, everyone. [AUDIENCE: Hi.]
So my love affair with the oak trees began on my honeymoon, and it outlasted my marriage. [LAUGHTER] 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. And 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. Seeing acorns dominate the landscape so magnificently, it got me wondering. I wonder if acorns can 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 had other motivations. I had been an itinerant activist 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, [LAUGHTER] but I felt a little conflicted. I’m a Jew from New York, [LAUGHTER] and the last thing I wanted to do was appropriate anybody’s culture. My grandma, she ate chopped liver. She didn’t go for acorns. [LAUGHTER] I know I’ll never be indigenous to this land, but I am not okay with being a tourist anymore, so I threw myself into the oaks, and I learned everything that I could.
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 players around the world, major ecological players. Oaks grow in Central America, in North America, throughout Europe, Middle East, North Africa, throughout Asia, and in many places where they grow, ancient people ate acorns and honored the oak tree before they were domesticating grains. So my grandparents, great, great, great ancient ancestors, they were eating acorns in the Fertile Crescent. Maybe your people were eating acorns too.
2,000 years ago, Pliny the Elder, who was a Roman naturalist and general, said acorns constitute the wealth of many nations, and the reason for that is because acorns 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 20 minutes would be 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 an acorns in a year. Our Great Central Valley that provides one-quarter of all the food we eat 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. That acorn crop was estimated to be in the billions of pounds per 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 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.
Go Wild Institute 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. They have such pride. Oakland! And I say, what tree is that named after? And they—you can see it click for the first time ever. [LAUGHTER] [LAUGHING] And they’re like, oaks. [LAUGHTER]
We start with a lesson on oak ecology and natural history, and then we go outside to prepare acorn food. And we crack, and grind and leach acorns. And basically acorns are just like tree nuts, but they’re a little more bitter 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. Like why would you do that? 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 and says 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. [LAUGHTER] 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. [LAUGHTER]
Soon after I started and doing their bidding, they began to come to me in dreams. In this 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 one point the tree just could not hold that energy anymore, and it flashed as lightening, 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. And I woke up electrified, like what was that? Was that my subconscious? So I had a research assignment, and what I found out is that lightening is five times as hot as the sun, and it fixes atmospheric nitrogen that’s usually unavailable, and it 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. The old adage goes beware of the oak, it draws the stroke. So, wow, I just dreamt that. That’s amazing. This can really happen. But 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 top Norse god, is associated with lightning and thunder. He’s considered an oak god. Zeus, the almighty Greek god, he’s an oak god associated with lightning and thunder. Learning this, I began to research ancient cultures, ancient oak cultures. In ancient Greece, the priestess would listen to the oak trees, the wind rustling in the oak trees, and they would interpret the word of god through the oak tree. And then the word druid, the ancient priests of the Celtic people, the word druid comes from the word deru, tree, oak, to know. So the high, holy people were the ones who knew the oaks.
The druids, and Zeus, and Thor—they’re sort of foreign to me. The oaks play a pivotal role in my Jewish mythology. Abraham, the father of the Jews, who’s also the father of Christianity and Islam, the Abrahamic religions, he first saw what became the Jewish god underneath an oak tree. The oak of Moreh, teacher tree, teacher oak. It was not just some random tree. It was an oracle tree where people throughout time went for wisdom and healing. Throughout history, oaks have served as a portal to divine wisdom, to tap into that sacred intelligence of our Mother Earth.
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 super, super sad. I was sort of brought to my knees.. And then while I was down on my knees, my cat of 21 years died, and it was just super, super hard. I couldn’t find the ground underneath my feet, and that night, I remember looking 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. I was 6, and I was super scared. I needed to have all my limbs amputated, and so I ran out into this storm, and I held onto this massive oak tree, and I was crying, and this tree says, aw, honey, do you see how tall I am? Just looked up, and she was tall. She was like 200-300 feet tall. I was like, yeah, you’re really tall. She’s like, my roots go down just that deep. She says, do you see how wide my canopy is? I said, yes, really wide. She says, my roots go out that wide, so you can always come to me in a storm if you need me. And I woke up, and I found the ground under my feet. I felt solid. I felt less alone. I felt like I could go through these storms of my times, and I felt healed, and I felt like, wow, I understand about plant-spirit medicine now. These plants were rooting for me. They actually wanted me to heal.
So a few months later, I was hiking Mount Tamalpais, and I was going up for a meditation retreat, and this little tree got my attention. So trees and plants talk to me a lot, and it’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 like 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?” I was like, what are you going to say to that? Of course, yes, I will. So 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. And so they’re really sick, and 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.
So when I sat with the tanoaks, my mind got very, very clear, and I went very deep. And the tree said this 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 was like, “Oh my God, that’s so sad. What can I do?” And they said, “Well, you could do ceremony for us.” And I said, “But I’m Jewish and from New York.” [LAUGHTER] Yeah. And they said, “Yeah, we’re not really happy about that either.” [LAUGHTER] Yeah. “But you’re what we have right now.” [LAUGHTER] [LAUGHS] “You’re listening. You’re listening to us.” And I thought about that, and I thought this is a very popular trail I was on. There’s thousands of people that walk by that trail. They were probably calling out, and calling out, and calling out for decades, right? And nature is doing that, calling to us saying please help me, remember me, come back to me. We need you. We need you to live in balance with us. We need you to hear us. We have things we need for you to hear.
So I know that the title of this talk is Working with the Bio-Intelligence for Wisdom and Guidance in Insane Times, and what I would say is 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.
It was the oaks that got me to make acorn food for the massesu.
So what I want to say is that they’re always calling to us. Nature is calling to us, and every time we connect with a plant or an animal, we align with that sacred intelligence of our magnificent, brilliant Mother Earth. It’s a way in. Our Mother Earth is so smart, and so wise, and so brilliant. I am a speck compared to that wisdom. 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.
Thank you, Jolie.
Our next speaker is Kami McBride. At 19 years old, Kami’s passion for herbal medicine was propelled by an excruciating brain surgery that was needed because of a medication’s side effect. She started to question her upbringing of using medications as a primary approach to health, and quickly felt the clock 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 the integral, 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 fuel the home-herbalism movement to revitalize our relationship with the plant world, and to work with herbal medicine for home-wellness care. Here at Bioneers, she is beloved for leading wonderful plant walks over the years. She’s based here in the North Bay, and can be reached at KamiMcBride.com. Welcome, Kami.
So my grandfather, John McBride, he was the grandson of Irish-Scottish settlers that settled in Wintu Territory in the Vacaville-Davis-Dixon area in the 1850s. They came, they planted wheat, and they planted barley, and they benefitted tremendously from the incredible, abundant place that they landed. And I grew up in that, and my whole life, I feel like, has been trying to understand what that was and unwind all of that.
In 1969, my grandfather said, “The problems with kids today is they don’t spend enough time in nature.” And he started the first kids’ nature camp in 1969 in that valley, and that nature camp, I was all in. And so I went on my herb walk as part of that camp when I was 8 years old, and I went to those herb walks from the time I was 8 until I was 14.
In my household, there was a lot of violence, and so I have huge gaps of memory. There are just huge spaces that I don’t remember of my life, but those herb walks, I can remember the very first herb walk I went on, who said it, what he said, everything. Do you have tunnel vision like that about something that just happens, and you are informed, and you are set on your path, and that’s how my first herb walk was.
And so, throughout my childhood and my teenage years, I kept trying to catch the scent, kept trying to pick up the crumbs in the trail, and I remember going to the library and finding one book on the local wildflowers of the area. And I remember as a teenager going to Berkeley to the used bookstore, and finding one book on holistic health and herbs. Oh my God. [LAUGHS] You know, just like I was being set free.
I just kept trying to catch that trail year after year after year, and finally at some point after studying, I started sharing, and I quickly realized that as I started sharing about herbs and herbal-medicine making, that we could as our current culture, easily turn it into this extractive consumption thing that we do with everything. And so, I kept looking for that grandmother, that wise, elder woman that would come and teach me the old ways, and that never really happened for me in my life, and so I started praying. I wasn’t raised on prayer. My family, and my parents, and my grandparents were atheists, and so somehow I had a clean slate. I didn’t call it prayer at the time. I just started asking, Mother Earth, you are so beautiful. I love you so much. Oh my gosh, your flowers. I just started telling the Earth how beautiful she was, and started to ask her, please help me, I apprentice myself to you. Please guide me. Please help me know how to work with you, how to do this in the best way. What can I do for you? What is your message today as I go forth? And those questions have informed every consultation, every class, and that has been the guiding force and the grounding of everything of sharing plant medicine for the past 30 years.
And I was guided—I was told, kind of like, hey you, [LAUGHS] right, to gather the women, listen to the Earth, and make medicine. And so in 1994, I started my school and I started doing that. And what I learned through listening is that this isn’t just like some kind of new hobby that we’re dropping into. This isn’t something that we’re just pulling out of a hat, and all of a sudden interested in. Every one of us has this continuum of relationship with the Earth. The Earth is our mother. Doesn’t our mother always have something to say? [LAUGHS] She’s always speaking to us, and we just forgot. You start to think you’re top of the food chain, and then you just get a little bit lazy, and think you don’t have to listen anymore, right? Or what I saw with all of my students, and with myself over the years is that we shut down. We had those experiences when we were playing in the mud puddle, right? And then you come to the parents, and they go, oh yeah, honey, that’s cute. Child’s play.Oh God, there she goes again. These are the obstacles. When you feel that kinship, and that relationship, and that beauty, and that love, and it’s never reflected back to you.
When you take your first step, or you say your ABCs, or the first time you do your times tables, right, or go Giants, that’s the neuron. That’s what develops, right? That’s what’s real. And your feeling of kinship and kinship for the Earth, where is that reflected? If you had someone in your life that reflected that back to you, you can just go right back to that person and thank them for that.
We spend Thanksgiving with this one family every year, and a few years ago, their 4-year old daughter, she came into the house [GASPS]. She had a caterpillar, a small, green caterpillar. She brings it to her mom, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom.” Her mom’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s sweet, honey. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She takes it to her Dad. She goes, “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad.” He’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s cute, that’s cute.” And her nervous system was just begging for someone to validate her ecstasy of being related and brother/sister with this creature. And I saw that, and I’m in charge of the pies, and I take pie making really seriously, and I was busy. [LAUGHTER] I saw that, and I went oh, there it is. There it is. That’s what all of us are trying to cultivate for our children, trying to remember, so what did I do? Oh yeah, okay. And you stop, and you drop down, and you say, oh, yes, and you match the child’s energy, and you meet them, and you greet them, and you validate them for their love, and their relatedness of Mother Earth. [APPLAUSE] We have to recover our own memories of that in order to be able to catch it, and then one experience after another, if we catch it, then their nervous systems develop and remember, and they aren’t easily invalidated out of bringing the voice of the Earth to the council.
So we’re going to do a little memory walk here because what I found is that these obstacles of being dismissed, invalidated, rolling the eyes, oh that’s malarkey. It is really—it’s time to bring the listening of the Earth to our everyday structures.
At my son’s school that he went to in early childhood, I was part of a group of parents. We walked the land. I mean, is there anybody listening to the land that holds your children every day at school? Is there anybody listening to the land where you work every day and where you live? And so we started walking the school 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 where the water was, and we started hearing the water, but we processed it as a group, and then we brought the voice of the earth and the water to the school board and to the school meetings, and we started making decisions with the council of the water and the earth for that school.
And so call together your medicine circle. Find your Earth-listening people. If you have no one in your life that validates that the Earth is speaking, you find somebody. Make that commitment right now, whether it’s two of you, or five of you, or nine of you, you get together, you walk the land that you live on, you walk your block, you walk the place where you work and you listen, and you listen together because when you listen in a group, it’s so amazing. And you process it, and you get to where you bring the voice of the earth back into our everyday what we’re doing.
And so what I’d like to do for you today is—I know—I saw all of you raise your hands that you hear the Earth, right, you hear this plant speaking. And so what I’d like to do is I like to take people on memory walks where we just go back find how it feels in our body because one of the biggest questions is like: Well, how do I know if it’s the Earth, and how do I know if it’s me? Your body remembers. Your body remembers, and if you can connect back to the continuum of when you were younger, you will remember what it feels like when it’s true, when it’s really true what is being said.
So I’m going to have you go on a little memory walk. We’re not looking for something. So much of this is about opening to receive, and it’s got its own timing, and 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. Feel it—see—notice it where it comes through in your nostrils. Just get really microscopic in bringing yourself back to yourself.
And just breathe, and breathe. I’m going to take you on a little walk. No pressures. Put yourself in kindergarten. Let’s just play a little bit. And just imagine yourself on a trail in a forest, any forest that you can remember, and just see yourself 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 something of this Earth – a flower, a plant, a tree, a river, anything – where you saw this place or this plant, and you felt, oh my gosh, that’s so beautiful. Just call that up, a recent where the Earth is so beautiful that you could feel the beauty in your body. And just be in that place for a moment. See how it feels. How does it feel in your chest or your head? Just notice whatever you can about this place, maybe the temperature.
And feel again how it feels in your body when you feel love for a place, adoration, connection, and now just a gentle—however you do it—say thank you to this place. Thank you for the memory of this beauty and put yourself back on that trail, and we’re going to keep walking a little bit. Thank you to this beautiful place, and then walk. Go back to your trail. And we’re going to walk back in time even a little further. There’s no specific time, maybe three years, five years, ten years ago, some place earlier in your life where maybe you went on vacation, maybe it was your backyard. There’s another place earlier in your life that called you, that grabbed you, that you were smitten by. Just go back to that earlier place, an earlier memory, and let yourself settle in that memory of someplace on this beloved earth that you felt kinship, a connection, a love, an awe of the beauty of this place, and let yourself reside there for a few moments.
What do you notice there? Is—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? We just have a moment here. You can always come back. And now one more time, I would like you to say thank you. And this may be a time where you are seeing and learning how is it that you say thank you to the Earth, thank you for this beauty, thank you for this being—this touch, being touched by you. How do you say thank you? Let that emerge how you say thank you to the Earth.
And then just get back on that trail, and we’re going to walk back into one more memory. Just get back on that trail, and just walk back a little further in your life. Go back to even earlier memory, maybe early childhood, maybe when you’re in grade school. Go back to an earlier memory when you felt pulled by the Earth, even called, or just you don’t even know what it is, but you have a memory that’s popping up right now for you where you remember the Earth. You were smitten, or there was something about this plant, or this mud puddle, or this rainstorm that you could just feel your whole being connected and related, and let yourself again practice the muscle, the memory, this organ of perception, of remembering what it really feels like in your body to love that place and feel related. Where are you? How old are you? Let this feeling permeate your nervous system so you can remember and bring it back. And just breathing, and just one more moment in this place noticing. Is there water? Are there other creatures?
And now gently, again, on these memory walk, say thank you. What is your way to say thank you for the healing, for the gift, for the beauty of this Earth? Find your way to say thank you. And then gently bring yourself back, slowly back through these memories into this room, finding your breath, finding your breath, finding your place.
Thank you for doing this. We all have—To be a Bioneer, to be a human on this planet is to lay our belly down on this Earth and listen, put our ear in our belly and listen to what she has to say even if we don’t remember how, because it’s just right there. It’s right there. She is speaking to us, and the message that came from the oak before this gathering to me was we just want to be loved again. We want you to love us. We want the human to find their heart again, and remember that we thrive on love just as the human thrives on love.
Thank you very much, Kami, and thank you for that experience. And Pam and Jolie, thank you all for sharing a little bit of what you see, and hear, and have taught before. I really appreciate it.
So we are going to open it up to questions now.
[Audience Member (AM) asking question about adaptogens]
I know that was a really short, little blip about those two adaptogens, and there’s a bunch. Another one that is common and grows all around is stinging nettle. It’s a great one, so I would really encourage you to drink nettle every day. I like the common herbs mostly. Although, having said that, rhodiola and sacred basil are not ones that grow wild outside my door, but I can grow them. And I feel like they’re fabulous enough to do that. The other big one is nettle. f you want to do ginseng or something like that, you can do that, but those are my favorites, and that’s what I would suggest is find who your favorites are and do those.
[AM asking question about the relationship between plants and allergies in humans]
Well, I can just say that adaptogens are really good for allergies. So I would consider doing some adaptogens for your allergies.
So is it pollen allergies? Pollen?
[AM confirms that it is pollen, grasses, and all fruits and vegetables]
Wow. Well, goldenrod. Goldenrod where I live is really good for pollen allergies, sinus-y kinds of things. Nettles also an awesome one for allergies.
[AM asks question about personal experience with seeing nature as wallpaper] [LAUGHTER]
I’ve facilitated thousands of memory walks with people, and listened to the go-around afterwards, and one thing I’ve really learned is that everybody’s way in is different, and everybody’s doorway is different. So your wallpaper, if you experience it over and over, you may have an experience that you don’t understand, but the thing is you can dialogue with that experience. So now you can ask what your perception of wallpaper is. It’s not just you get a message and that’s it. It’s now an experiment. It’s something to be discovered and worked with, and you gather something that’s symbolic of what your experience—and you put it on your altar, and you ask for a message to come to you in your dream, or you put it under your pillow, and you ask for you to wake up in the morning. And maybe it doesn’t—You’re building an organ. You’re building a muscle that was shut down, and cut off, and schooled out of you, and belittled, and who knows what happened to your first experiences. Or sometimes the pain is so great. We stand on the earth, and we go, oh, oak tree, I love you so much, and then you look out, and you see that it’s the only oak tree, and then right away, right under your feet, you can feel the clear cut and the genocide, and then it’s just so painful, and there’s nobody to process it with it. Now you’ve shut down on another level, so whatever that glistening, that glimmer, you dialogue with it. You ask it questions, and you keep asking.
If I might add to that a bit. I have advised, and through my own learning experience way back when, that when you’re overwhelmed by the—you might call it wallpaper—the diversity, the texture of everything, to look in really, really close. The doorway can actually be tiny, and it’s giving it time, and giving it attention one place, one plant, one species, just really, really looking, and then that can be a way of opening up to finding one relationship, and one relationship makes it possible to have other relationships in there.
[AM asks question about the relationship between oaks and fire]
That’s such a great question. We have to remember that 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 the 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, and now we’ve taken fire out of the ecosystem to such an extent that it’s really hard to put it back without catastrophic fire, so we have this problem. I think that small, cool fires that are contained will be beneficial for our oaks.
Right now, I know, both in Southern California and Northern, post-fires and even where fires haven’t burned, this is a mast year for acorns. That means a year when an unusually large amount of acorns, like one of you was describing. There are organizations collecting them and planting them appropriately. You need to know where that species of oak grows, but this year, because it’s a year of abundance, probably from stresses, then we can help generate that abundance to be better in the future, and you know, oaks live for decades and decades, and even several hundred years, so it’s a good way of giving something to the future, reciprocating.
[AM asks question about methods of getting into plant communication]
I disagree with you that communication with plants is a skill set. I believe it’s a basic right, a human right that we have, and it’s not only a right, but we inherently know how to communicate with plants and trees because we’re from them. It’s just a remembering process. So what we’re doing is remembering who we really are. We’re kin to these plants and these trees, so what I find—again, starting simply with breath, but there’s so much distraction, so I try to eliminate distraction as much as possible. . But what I have found is in this modern-day life, we are—there’s a lot of static. There are a lot of electromagnetic fields and all of that that are affecting us. In our energy bodies, which are about as big as you can stretch your hands all the way around, this energy body, if it’s full of static, then you don’t hear the message. So it’s like in the old days, we had radios where you turned the dial. And so if you want to hear the message, you need to eliminate the static out of your energy body. I use a marble stone. You might use something else, smudge—use burning of plants might be a way, but eliminate the static, and then you can hear the message much more clearly.
Thank you, Pam, and thank you for your questions. I’m sorry, we are out of time, and so we can’t take your questions, but I hope everyone finds that still place and that moment to settle in, and tune in, and learn more about your plant relationships, and that we see you down the line. Blessings, everybody.
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