On Not Gendering Plants

I recently gave a talk at the 2018 Good Medicine Confluence on the myriad ways in which queerness can inform and better herbalism. It ended up being a lot about the way we think, and what it means to hold space in our thoughts for multiplicity and nuance. When we make space for complexity and a reality not bounded by binary thinking, the whole world expands. How we move in the world, the vast possibilities of who we might be and become, are a series of self.sustaining and empowering choices.

There is a story that binary duality is a fundament of life. I think about this false narrative a lot these days, as I steward a clever and inquisitive child through her first years on earth. The notion of opposites, of binary reality, is drilled into us from the time we’re small. And it’s a convenient thought project – small children learn to understand new abstract ideas by virtue of learning their relationship to one another: the opposite of light is dark, the opposite of up is down, asleep and awake, big and small… Through no effort on our part, my daughter has probably three or four different books dedicated to opposites, with some examples that I would call somewhat suspect (happy and sad / young and old). I totally cede the linguistic value of the semantic project of opposites: I see my child’s brain working out these oppositional ideas in real.time and her conception of the world growing.

The problem arises when we use these binary foundations as a jumping off point from which we interpret the whole of the world and of life. The world is vast and complex and sometimes overwhelming in its multiplicity, and we succumb to the [ultra.human] temptation to simplify and compartmentalize so we are left with as few options as possible.

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Enter: false binaries.

 

A false binary (also known as a false dichotomy) is a logical fallacy in which two and only two options are presented, when in actuality there may be a spectrum of options between two extremes (or a variety of options that lie outside / beyond a binary). A false binary is a failure in reasoning, often utilized in debate or political argument to make one choice seem obviously superior to another. Classic examples from popular culture include the Vietnam War era “America: love it or leave it,” a fallacy because, obviously, citizens who don’t believe in the actions of their government have a variety of other options, including civil disobedience, protest and activism, as well as the simple choice to not love it and also not leave it.

The most ubiquitious and insidious cultural false binary is gender. Children are taught from birth, first, that they have no choice as to their gender, but also that there are only two gender options – the girl box and the boy box. My good friend Jess Clark is a [talented, charming, v good at what he does] violence prevention educator here in Santa Fe with Solace Crisis Treatment Center [and happens to have just published this awesome piece about the role that gender & misogyny play in the perpetuation of sexual violence] talks about the work he does in schools, with kiddos as young as 5 [and I use a bunch of his exact examples here / am so grateful for his knowledge and eagerness to share resources & expertise]. 

By the time they are in kindergarten, our children have already been bombarded with messages about gender roles for so long that they have a deep awareness of what is allowed and not allowed. They understand that women are allowed to have all of the emotions (except anger) and that men are allowed anger and no other feelings. They can recite the way girls eat (salad, diet coke, water) and boys (meat, steak, beer), the clothes that men and women are allowed to wear, the way they are allowed to hold their bodies, how much sex they are allowed to have, what they should look like, and on, and on. And of course, these standards and rules are dictated by patriarchy, but also by white supremacy and capitalism. The beauty standards our school children strive to meet are Eurocentric, the way we conceptualize and value gender roles is based on productivity and success within a capitalist (choleric) system. Children know the danger if they stray outside of both assigned sex and gender roles. But we can begin the dismantling of those norms by engaging with the question of how gender roles impact the way we interact with one another, with our communities, and with bigger social structures.

 

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So how can queerness and queer culture help?

 

First, I would say that, of course, queer culture and relationships can be marred by patriarchy and misogyny and ableism and racism just like any other communities and people, so part of what I present here is the ideal of queer community at its best. That is to say, it is a group of radically minded people who are working together toward a goal of mutual liberation and equity, to build relationships that are based on the truth of our interconnectedness, that value humans beyond their capitalist utility: communities based on healing wounds together, on owning our mistakes, on repatriation and resource sharing…

Queer culture teaches that the false binary of gender is a lie we’ve been fed, and makes space for self.determination in all things, especially gender. That is, lots of people have genders that don’t fit into the limiting binary construct, so our language should adapt to recognize and make space for everyone.  It is also important to note that binary gender is a hallmark of European & JudeoChristian culture – many non.European cultures recognized multiple genders as a part of their philosophies and cosmologies. And because gender identity is lived in the construct of culture, it is bound up in cultural mythologies and norms. That makes it difficult to unravel the layers of gender identity (an internal sense of gender / who we are in relation to gender) from gender expression (how we interact with gender – from how we look to how we signal or display gender) from gender roles (sugar and spice and everything nice). But we make all of these little assessments all day, taking cues from the way that people look and hold themselves and sound, and checking the boy box or the girl box, and totally subconsciously along with those assessments come expectations of who someone is.

 

One way of beginning to unravel those layers it to not gender the world around us, and it starts with language.

 

We move through our days and see all the places where we make assignments or assumptions, and notice what lies beneath them. The practice of avoiding gendered language can be difficult and eye.opening: it forces us to see all the ways that the gender binary is literally built into our relationship to the world. That is, we didn’t *choose * those relationships, necessarily, but we have been socialized with them and seen them reinforced and regurgitated in media and family structures since infancy. How often do we take ‘cues’ from someone’s dress, appearance, style, voice, mannerisms, and assign them a gender? The more we are able to practice not gendering people, animals, abstract ideas, the more we are able to enter a place of openness and receptivity to deeper relationship and knowing.

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So I propose that we not gender plants.

Yes, that’s right.

Roses aren’t ladies, softness isn’t feminine.

Saguaros aren’t strong, stalwart men. Oaks aren’t a stand.in for masculinity, be it sacred or not.

 

I understand the urge toward gendered kind of language and the concepts that lie beneath it. Like: the story goes that women are mothers and mothers are nurturing and tender and soft and kind. And men are strong, brave, and make the money and support the softness and nurturing of the feminine sex. And of course I’m motivated by the never.ending quest for equity, and the radical dismantling of cis.hetero.patriarchy, but if you are someone who gets freaked out and turned off by the language of the revolution, I can use other words, like: PATRIARCHY HURTS EVERYONE.

 

Yes: patriarchy hurts everyone.

 

The rules that say that girls have access to the full spectrum of emotional experience, save anger, are the same rules that say that men must bottle, stuff, and squelch their emotional world, except anger, which they are free to express in any way they want. When we say that something is soft and nurturing and feminine, we are engaging in an implicit false binary. The options remain only twofold: feminine or masculine - nurturing & soft or strong & stalwart. But here’s the thing: I want to live in a world where nurturance and softness and receptivity are human experiences available to everyone. I want to be able to laud courage and tenderness as human experiences, not as gendered prescriptions.

My good friend jim mcdonald, who recently made a magical bid for life while facing 1 in 1 million chances (read more about the story & donate to his recovery here), talks about a common experience he has of expectation around gender and nurture. With some frequency, he gets praised and lauded for parenting his children. Like, “oh it’s so beautiful to see a father taking part in his children’s lives like you do – your family is so lucky to have you.” And insofar as jim is a standup guy and non.typical white.cis.dude, a kind and loving and gentle man, one of the most magical humans I have had the pleasure to know, a badass herbalist, and more, yes, those things are true. But the story illustrates the obscenity of the assumption: jim gets praise and recognition for doing what he would consider the bare minimum of being a parent, which is to say, spending time with and feeding and clothing his children. Women and mothers, on the other hand, are expected to perform all of those tasks, while sustaining fulfilling careers, making time for self care, performing motherhood for the world, and fulfilling western feats of beauty.

 

When we impose these limits of binary gender on plants, we limit the ways in which we are able to know them and the depth with which we are able to communicate with them AND we perpetuate harmful gender sterotypes in small and very important ways.  

 

So, yes! Make friends and get intimate and learn the plants an allow them to be guides and allies and friends and lover and gods—that’s half the magic of being an herbalist and being bound by those arrows through our hearts to this work! But why gender them? To say that something soft and nurturing and tender and sweet—something like a rose—is a ‘she’ because of a collection of traits bound up with gender roles and limiting ideas of femininity, is not only reductionistic, but also perpetuates the idea that those traits are the purvey of women. And how limiting!

I want to live in a world where folks of all feel the freedom of softness and vulnerability and also the joy and power of action, of leadership, and of physicality?

 

I also make this plea for the sake of clear articulation and being powerful with our words. When I say that a plant has a feminine feeling, what stands behind that? Is it that I feel a softening, that I feel open to the world? That it reminds me of being safely held by my mother? That it brings up questions of how I care for myself? When something is masculine, what does that mean? How can we get more articulate, more careful, more descriptive of the feelings and effects and affinities of plant friends without using the easy shorthand of gender? And don’t get me wrong—I do it, too. And when that response rises in me, “it feels masculine” I try to maintain my curiosity. Does that mean that when I use it, I feel bigger? I want to stand taller? I feel more comfortable asserting myself in the world? That I feel the power and entitlement to take up space where I used to shrink? Does it bring up issues that I have with the role of a father figure? Does it mean that I’m not going to take any shit because of the way it strengthens and bolsters me?

 

Do you see how much more information we get that way? How much richer the experience of plant medicine becomes then?

 

And how much clearer our relationship to it is? And how much more deeply we feel connection? By asking a few simple questions, we are able to not only improve our herbalism, but also we can avoid perpetuating limiting cultural narrative of gender binary in a world where it is rife to begin with (um, don’t get me started about divine feminine and divine masculine, k).

What a better place the world would be if everyone felt safe being their full selves. If boys and men were permitted and encouraged to explore their human softness and vulnerabilities, if as a culture we gave them permission to cry, to be tender? And likewise, if girls were permitted to be their full selves, to be righteous humans who are encouraged to assert themselves and act on the world, to have healthy boundaries, to be wild and boisterous. If women were allowed to be leaders and to reside in their full power without being cast as bitchy, without assessment of their capacity as leaders being contingent upon their prettiness, likeability, and careful consideration of everyone’s feelings?



So, I invite you to practice with me, and let’s have a conversation about what we learn / #stopgenderingplants

 

On Connection and Mettle [and Piñon]

On Resilience and Mettle.

I. On Resilience

Resilience is adaptability: the skills and factors that enable us to bounce back and try again when we experience hardship, stress, or trauma (in all the ways—relationship, work, life, health…). Resilience is a certain suppleness of spirit and heart that enables us to survive adversity, and to continue to grow in spite of it. Of course for many, resilience accompanies privilege: the more access to resources and support, the more likely we are to be able to keep plugging away at life. Factors involved in resilience include stable housing, access to healthcare, economic stability, etc., so you can see how race, gender, ability, privilege, and institutions of oppression play a monumental role in how we are able to cultivate resilience.

And yet, because resilience is also a set of skills that can be learned and refined, we all have access to growing our resilience repertory. Nurturing resilience is the north star of my clinical practice, my research, and my own personal life.goals: mettle. Plant medicine provides a special and powerful magic that has guided my own discovery of greater and greater mettle.

That is, plants model resilience. The healing capacity of medicinal plants grows ever more potent when they survive stressful conditions like drought, lots of sun, and poor soil. When things get stressful, they double down on those inborn tools that help ensure their survival. Yarrow or chamomile that grow contented in garden beds with dark, fertile soil and ample water in ideal conditions have medicinal powers that match their domesticated experience (so, still awesome, but not the most potent) while chamomile that pops up in parking lots and roadsides and the yarrow that grows in rocky scree are stronger medicine.

I live in a piñon-juniper woodland in the high desert of northern New Mexico. The land around my home is exposed: 300 days of high desert sun every year, breathtaking wind, snow, frequent drought, and often, bitter cold. So I get to see resilience in action: the plants here stay close to the ground, they have spines and spikes and scales—they are tough and sinewy. High desert plantlife also have remarkably sophisticated techniques for conserving water and resources: the juniper that surrounds my home has the ability to fully stop its growth cycles abruptly during drought and resume again once the rains come. Both piñon and juniper thrive in poor soil, where other plants would flounder. Not only do they grow where other plants could not, but they also improve the quality of the soil, making way for new plants and increased ecological diversity. All this mettle and magic lives in small, unassuming packages: junipers and piñons much older than I stay small – they may not reach heights any greater than 20 feet, and live for hundreds to thousands of years.

The hardship these plants survive makes them not only stronger in discrete ways (more and stronger constituents!), but also more makes them more resilient in relationship to their ecosystem. Greater resilience in response to the stresses of life means that the towering piñon in front of my home survived the worst drought in New Mexico in 130 years--something that might have meant the end of a less hardy tree. As it lives longer and grows bigger and fuller, it also fosters the growth and survival of a complex ecosystem. 

Of course, the analogy between human struggle and plant resilience has its limits and I don't idealize or fetishize the struggle of oppression. But I do appreciate having allies in the natural world whose survival can serve as a guidepost for my own, especially when survival feels impossible. While I am grateful for the fact that resilience has entered mainstream vernacular, becoming the centerpiece of so many conversations around trauma, survival, identity, and systems of oppression, there is something about the way that resilience is often communicated that rings hollow to me. Most often we hear about resilience as a means to be better faster, stronger, harder; resilience as a reimagining of the old and misguided American bootstrap mentality; resilience as a call to action that doesn't account for the ways in which our world is no longer life.giving. The refrain of "resilience building" feels like an exhortation to get better faster, to adapt ourselves to our trauma in whatever way makes it possible for us to continue to move through the world without sacrificing our productivity. 

We are bombarded with this message that in order to be happy (look better, feel better, heal, accomplish greatness) we need to be something other than we are. This is the incessant forward march of capitalism (more on that by Rebecca Altman here and even more by Sean Donahue here and here). It is capitalism whose messages burrow deep into our subconscious and when the world feels unbearable, they rear their little heads, telling us that if we were only different then we wouldn't feel so badly. If we were only more resilient, then we could bounce back, return to our old selves, recover what was lost and simply pick up where we left off.

But that's just not the way it works - when we survive unthinkable things, when we suffer at the hands of other humans, when we are hurt by those people who were meant to protect us - we change. We adapt in powerful ways, learning to protect ourselves by whatever means are available. What differentiates trauma from the still.pervasive and unavoidable pain of living human lives is a lack of agency. A painful event becomes writ in our memories and spirits as trauma when we are unable to take action to get ourselves safe. So we become shape-shifters, acquiring magic that allows us to go somewhere else. Trauma sharpens our other.where talents - we become adroit at using imaginative prowess or analytical dexterity to reside somewhere other than our bodies. Those same skills, combined with the loving.kindness of our human brains, allow us to tuck away memory, sensation, and other fragments of ourselves, safe within the recesses of our spirits.

Then, on the other side of that trauma, is the confusing and labyrinthine process of determining which of those clever adaptations work in the context of our newer lives. Trauma recovery is, to my mind, a patchwork of practices focused on connecting to our bodies in a way that is safe and resourced, welcoming and nurturing those tiny forgotten selves that emerge, and culling of those life.saving adaptations that no longer serve our whole.hearted living. This is the place from which we can re.call and re.integrate those parts of ourselves that were relegated to the depths, a process which is much closer to a rite of passage than a resilient return to those people we once were. 

So I like METTLE. Mettle recalls something different to me - it evokes the slow.growing piñon and the deep truth that sometimes resilience is about the patient, gradual process of coming to see ourselves as changed by what we've survived, rather than contorting our selves that we may live as we always have. I want to be like that piñon. I want to learn to measure growth not by how much I've grown, but by the ways that my life has become fuller and wiser. During that draught I mentioned, the worst since the mid 19th century, the piñon in its abiding plant wisdom, turned quiet and still. I want to have the wisdom and skill to double down on patience and kindness toward myself when things are hard.

We can start by naming all the ways that we have already practiced mettle in surviving, in getting ourselves to this point. Seeing and naming the clever ingenuity we have exercised, the skills and prowess that have provided for our survival are an antidote to the feelings of inadequacy that bubble up while we are in the muck with our own [old] mythologies or society’s demand for MORE. We have shown so much resistance and grace and power having gotten ourselves this far. We are already making it. We are already so powerful. We have practiced patience in the quiet ways that we learned to go underground, to allow pieces of ourselves to hibernate and wait it out until the storm passed. 

 An image of resilience: the first burgeoning life following wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest

An image of resilience: the first burgeoning life following wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest

II. Reclaiming Connection.

Part of what's so insidious about trauma is the way that it leaves us bereft of connection. When we lose connection, and we lose function. Lose connection to place and nature, and we lose some of our humanness. Lose connection to self, and we lose the ability to self-regulate, to cope with stress, trauma, and our emotional wounds. Lose connection to our physicality, to the earth, and we lose our heart, our breath, and our roots.

Survivors of trauma sometimes often describe feeling like ghosts - half in the realm of the living and half in the realm of the dead, drifting through the world without the felt sense of being oneself or being a part of anything bigger. The feeling of being oneself, of knowing who we were, is something that trauma had taken from us. Connection to people, to other humans, is something we craved but it was also the most sinister wish. What would happen when people came to know us, with our darkness and shame? 

The felt wisdom of connection is our birthright as humans, but when our hearts and minds have been occupied with surviving the unthinkable, connection can feel vulnerable and dangerous. Unfastening our hearts and tending connection is a scary and uncertain path, especially when those heart wounds are bound up in relationship to other humans. Nourishing connection, whether to our bodies, to the earth, to one another, or to the wee and tender parts of ourselves that we've buried to help protect them, is the very first, unsteady step toward reclaiming our lives. It is a path of courage to return to the vulnerable places where we hurt the most, and try again to find our roots. 

But if we aren't safe - if our hearts know that story so well - then where do we start? I propose that we start with the earth and with plants. Developing relationship to nature doesn't require unspoilt wilderness or fancy training. It really is as simple as practicing connecting, returning again and again to the scent of the dirt, the feel of the air, the wetness of water, the presence of plants. Plants nourish connection. They allow us to reclaim connection to the earth, to our hearts and spirits and selves.

Our earliest mythologies and cosmogonies account for how we landed in *this* particular place, our bodies nourished from the dirt, the plants, the animals of *this* land, which has provided for our survival and growth for as long as we have lived on the earth. We human creatures evolved not separate from our environment, but in sophisticated concert with it. Our survival depended—indeed, still depends—on relationship to the earth, on learning to understand ourselves as a part of a beautifully elaborate ecosystem, and being able to *feel* our place within it.

This is the tragic wound of modernity: we have lost our connection to the earth, to place. White supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism presuppose that the earth with its minerals, plants, and people are assets with monetary value that can be stolen, owned, and sold. Those whose home and cultural inheritance have been stolen, whose land has been violently wrested, know that connection to place is part of what makes us human. Those of us who descend from colonizers, from their violence, know the inheritance of violence and placelessness. Building connection to place and to land is a tool we have to heal some of that violence, to heal the rift between ourselves and the earth. [To be clear, the other requisite actions are a total dismantling of capitalism, white supremacy, and partriarchy, along with decolonization and repatriation of stolen land, all topics that are important to deconstruct within the context of herbalism, though not in this piece as they deserve greater focus and attention.]

Healing our disconnect from the earth starts with cultivating connection. And maybe that sounds abstract, but that feeling of connection is anything but an abstraction. We already know how to feel ourselves on the earth. That wisdom is in our bones, in our blood, and needs only to be gently uncovered, the dust of forgotten memory brushed away. We know the feeling that comes when we smell the peculiar brisk of autumn on the air for the first time - that elated magic. Or the first deep and jagged breaths we take on a hike, when we realize just how incompletely we breathe in our day.to.day lives. The wonder and awe we feel when spring paints an otherworldly verdance upon the stark of winter. Each of those moments is a tiny enchantment that helps us remember the ways in which we are a part of the earth, relations of this place. 

So much of trauma recovery literature emphasizes the necessity of connecting to body sensation - what can I feel, touch, taste, hear? Hence the [sometimes rote] insistence that deep breathing exercises, meditations, and grounding practices are a mandatory component of the recovery process. Now, I agree that in a very general way, re.developing those connections to body, heart and breath are crucial to developing better self.regulation, yes. But for so many survivors, especially folks who have experienced sexual abuse, connecting deeply to the body can be scary and, worse, can bring up felt sensation and memory that we aren't yet equipped to deal with. Quieting our minds competes with the wizard.skills we've developed in fractioning off, leaving our bodies behind. 

Befriending plant medicine offers an alternate option - a pleasurable gateway to enhancing felt sensation. Rather than feeling deeply into the body, we get to connect with the conduit, the plants, and observe in whatever way feels good. Plants also enhance our feeling of connection in specific ways, some by strengthening and protecting the spiritual heart (hawthorn / Cratageus, rose / Rosa, devil's club / Oplopanax, motherwort / Leonurus, wood betony / Stachys). Others bolster our sense of self and heighten our connection to spirit (basil, holy or otherwise / Ocimum, reishi / Ganoderma, black cohosh / Actaea). Herbal medicine can calm the anxieties that keep us disconnected from the simple joys of presence. Plant medicine quiets our minds and enables us to direct our attention to other, sometimes more important things, like the tender care of our precious hearts. Herbs that lift the weight of physical pain can go a long way toward increasing feelings of safe embodiment.

Medicinal plants in particular enhance connection by way of their varied physiological actions on our bodies and hearts, but also by their mere presence they enhance communication networks. The ways in which herbs foster connection are myriad and almost all gentle medicinal plants can help us begin to feel our bodies, simply by encouraging us to connect with our own sensory experience. For example, almost any aromatic plant can help to improve nervous system regulation. Smelly and delicious things, then: a cup of tea that you feel inclined to sniff and cooking herbs that elicit a big, deep breath both actually increase the malleability of the nervous system.

Focusing on sensation in this way is a powerful tool in the treatment of trauma because it asks the thinking brain (the pre.frontal cortex) to join a conversation with other parts of the emotional brain (limbic system) that are highly specialized in assessing for danger. So when our brains adapt to a world that's unsafe, a particular neurological pathway gains speed and power. The brain becomes highly skilled at a specific and sophisticated cascade of hormonal pathways, neurotransmitter signals, and nerve synapses designed to get us safe. We move swiftly from sensation (someone's raised voice), interpretation (I'm not safe, danger), and reaction (defensiveness, lashing out, retreating, shutting down) because that pathway is so well practiced, so habitual.  The more specialized the brain gets at the getting.us.safe pathway, the smaller and smaller a part the thinking brain plays in the whole process. And it's important to know that the thinking brain isn't just *thinking*, it's also responsible for reading body language of other people, perceiving the mood of a room, sensing the feelings of others, accessing empathy, and weighing the potential outcomes of our actions. So the limbic system works from instinct, which itself is often specialized in seeing and hearing danger, and it becomes gradually more difficult to pause between the sensation and the reaction, to make the space to ask, "What do I want in this moment? What am I feeling right now? Is there a part of me that's activated? How can I communicate what I'm feeling? How can I be kind to myself in this moment?" 

Any process that allows us to stay connected to our bodies, thoughts, and feelings helps prevent us from going down the well trod road of trauma activation in response to a stimulus that may or may not be dangerous. It isn't that the emotional brain has it wrong, or needs to be overridden. On the contrary, our limbic (emotional) brains have observed and deduced brilliantly – they have seen that for so long we were not safe. The problem is that the way we judge intent can be tricksy when we've learned that the world is never safe, and it can become more difficult to tell the difference between safety and danger. The limbic brain works so speedily that it outpaces the thinking brain, engaging strong responses to get us safe when we haven't had a chance to *think* about moving yet. Honing our ability to feel our bodies keeps the prefrontal cortex engaged, enabling communication between the two parts of the brain, which in its turn empowers us to make a little more space, to slow down and observe.

We take plants inside ourselves and we learn to listen to our senses. Feeling the way they interact with our bodies and spirits is itself developing relationship. What does it taste like? Warm, cool, spicy, pungent, sour, sweet? Does my mouth feel dry or moist? How does my skin feel? Do I feel warmer or cooler than when I started? Do I sense movement in any particular direction - upwards, downwards, outward, inward? Where in my body do I feel it - in my legs, in my chest, in my heart, in my head?

By building a relationship with plants as conduits we get to circumvent the discomfort of leaning into those wounded places. Instead we allow plants to accompany and support us as allies on the journey to greater embodiment. Simple and radical acts of self care - nourishing ourselves with delicious smelling baths and floating petals, drinking relaxing tea before bed, taking bitters before a meal, using oils to calm our skin and our nervous system - bring us back to the present and allow us to feel our bodies in a way that is not only secure, but also one of delight. 

 New Mexico Piñon in all its mettley beauty

New Mexico Piñon in all its mettley beauty

III. Mettle & Piñon

So we spend time out of doors, sitting on the earth, warming our bones in the sun, listening to the wind, feeling our feet on the ground. As we nurture our connection to place, we get to know our neighbors. And I guess all of this is to say that mettle is everywhere, and allies for building our own mettle are also wherever we choose to look. Piñon is one of the most ubiquitous and dominant plants in my ecosystem, and it's not necessarily known as a nervous system remedy or somatic guide, but its magic touches on those places - bringing breath, easing grief, and supporting grounded and safe embodiment. It gifts the feeling of home, both in the way that place is home, and in the way that our bodies can [again] be home. 

So not only do plants model METTLE by their very existence, but in their infinite magic, they also help increase, nurture, nourish our own non.plant mettle. The piñon outside my front door offers some of the richest medicine I know. Its leaves make delicious syrup, tincture, elixir, and tea, all of which can be used as warming, enlivening medicine during the cold of winter. Its aromatic nature helps improve sluggish digestion by bringing heat to the belly. It also warms the lungs and moves stuck, goopy phlegm, making it a super helpful medicine for rattly wintry lung.grunge.

Twigs and leaves infused in oil or fat and warmed make for the most gorgeous green body oil, grounding to an overwrought nervous system, and smelling like the heady petrichor of the piñon forest. It's my favorite body oil for the long, dry winters because the aromatic resins extracted in the oil also help to provide a layer of protection from the jittery wind of the southern Rockies. Of course, in addition to being generally protective and grounding, it is also powerfully medicinal. That warming quality also helps to increase blood flow to the skin and joints, so it can be just the thing for old nagging injuries or itises that are better with warmth. And! The resin! Trementina salve (a traditional preparation made with pine resin and oil or fat) is an old standby remedio for drawing things out of the skin. Trementina is powerfully antimicrobial, traditionally used to help draw out foreign objects (splinters, desert pokies) and treat infection, especially for wounds with poor blood flow or circulation.

Those same resinous aromatics responsible for piñon's effect on skin and breath and belly, the bright notes of citrus and luminous green, also provide the felt memory of groundedness - a sensation that is not in the repertoire of so many survivors. It's a different grounding than being rooted in one's own body (sometimes frightening, that slowness). It's as if we get to feel what it is to be that patient, unshakable tree. It imparts a sustenance, the feeling of sending roots down into these rolling, rocky hills, where time dissolves and we are left with the quiet, unceasing warmth of the sun on the rocky clay soil. The groundedness of piñon is somehow beyond time - it reminds us that sometimes the timeline of healing is more expansive than we know (and sometimes slower than we would hope). The piñon's push toward new life is an unfurling that happens in earth time. The cone develops over the course of more than two years, the product of so many seasons of work. Contained within are the astonishing bundles of new life, piñon nuts, rich and fat. Their unhurried unfolding is in itself a lesson: sometimes growth is a halting cycle of expansion, rest, reinvigoration, a winter's stillness, and one final flourish. After all the stowing away of energy and nutrients for that last push, a mast year with so many cones and so many nuts, the tree rests, taking several years to be still and restore its resources.   

The piñon outside my door have perfected, over thousands of years of living in *this* place, a particular kind of mettle, adapted to the peculiarities of thriving *here*, in this little corner of northern New Mexico. Piñon has shown me, by both its stalwart presence and its special medicine, how to thrive here. It teaches a mettle so well adapted to the harsh realities of a life perpetually exposed. And exposure is what it feels like to live the life of a survivor sometimes - like not having skin, not having a way to distinguish between what is our own and what stories were told to us. Having built a relationship to one of the longstanding residents of this land helps me to understand better what survival and growth look like, and to appreciate all the ways in which slowness and patience are an inextricable part of growing and becoming ourselves. Amidst the many cries for efficiency and productivity, instead of feeling frustrated with my "lack of progress" along whatever trajectory of healing, the plant friends of my home invite slowness and presence.

That's the other thing about becoming part of this ecosystem - the high desert is quiet. The sky is vast and wide, the plants scrubby and low to the ground, masters at conservation and stowing away nutriment for when things get sparse. Their companionship reminds me of how brave and beautiful it is to choose life when survival feels like the least likely thing, because this isn't a story about piñon really... It is a reminder of all the ways in which we can learn mettle by making friends of land and of plants. Of all the ways that the stuff of life, its losses and joys, sorrows and triumphs, are the fertile soil from which we grow and become newly ourselves. The loam from which our mettle blooms. 

On Trauma and Brokenness (and how knowledge is power)

The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness… The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing. ~ Stephen Cope

 

When I first started learning about my own trauma, I was able to piece together from teachers, therapists, and other resources that the residue I suffered through in the form of triggers, flashbacks, mood swings, hypersensitivity, hyper.vigilance, substance use were all “normal” responses to trauma. How I understood that went like this: other survivors of trauma were similarly damaged, matchingly dysfunctional. The ways in which I felt nonfunctional were basically expected of traumatized people. I’m certain that the kind rejoinders were meant as reassurances: “it’s okay—you’re okay. Other traumatized people are just like you.”

But what I heard with my ears ready to hear criticism and judgment, was just that I could be easily classed with other trauma survivors, with our matching brokennesses and volatility and meanness. It also didn’t feel quite true, nor particularly meaningful. It definitely didn’t change the weight of the guilt and shame I harbored for all of my ill.timed outbursts, the morning-after-flashback-hangover days when I was uncontrollably cruel to co.workers and roommates, the devastating self loathing, the abjectness of it all…

I think the well-intentioned helping professionals intended that I would have a breakthrough moment when I learned of my own normalcy. But it was only when I started doing my own research and getting deep into the neurology of trauma I felt any sense of relief from the crushing weight of it. Then I started to understand the mechanisms at work in my own brain. I learned how the brain was designed to deal with stress and how the perception of danger begins a neurochemical cascade that trickles down into the physical body and spirit, which then governed how I felt in the world… Instead of casting the trauma responses that showed up in my daily life as ‘normal’, which didn’t mean particularly much to me, being kind of an edge-walker anyway, I began to understand my brokenness as a biologically appropriate human response to unspeakable horror.

The brain chemistry and neurology also help to define the ceiling of human capacity for horror. That is, my experience of shutting down or getting totally flooded wasn’t rooted in my own incapacity or weakness. Instead, I began to understand the way that our brains respond to unspeakable suffering. I began to see all the way that those jagged and disjunct parts and had protected me. The tendencies that felt so shameful to me: the disassociation, the anger, the mistrust, the volatility and lability, the agonizing upheaval of my identity, were the self.same tools that had kept me safe when I didn’t have any other agency.  My trauma stuff was also the stuff of my resistance and resilience.

That knowledge gave me first a new compassion for myself as a wounded creature, then a growing sense of self.love for the resilience and survival of my scrappy, sometimes.broken heart.

That knowledge granted me a compassion for myself—the gift of accepting myself, the first halting step in a [painful] journey toward truly loving myself. All this because I was able to really metabolize the truth that my mind and body and heart had done the very best they could with the tools they had. It was the difference between understanding my neuroses and wounds as the necessary fallout—the brokenness of trauma—and understanding the patterning of trauma as a set of valuable adaptations for survival. Now that I was an adult with agency, a sense of self, and some capacity for elasticity and change, I had the opportunity to shift the ones that were no

The next step is the one of poring over the shattered pieces and carefully reassembling them into my heart’s own image of strength, one where the light shines through the chinks in the mending. Watch the blog for more soon, and for upcoming classes in Santa Fe!

How quitting sugar changed everything: on nourishment, hunger, and stress

There is no one-size fits all eating program. The perfect diet doesn't exist because we are all just people with bodies and each of us is different. Take a moment to let that sink in. There are some broad guidelines and food habits that may benefit many-to-most people, however. Most important of these for me is being really conscious of sugar in all its myriad forms. With all of the press about the latest destructive diet crazes and the rising tide of a culture that is in some cases literally afraid of food (see: orthorexia media hubbub), I wanted to chime in about my experiences with shifting my diet away from sugar and what it's given me. 

I was totally terrified of doing my first sugar detox because I’d always had this really thinly veiled awareness that I had an unhealthy relationship with sugar. It was hard to admit! I am a well-trained nutritionist and herbalist and should have known better. Or I should have had more self-mastery. I should have had more willpower. Whatever it was: it was a problem I shouldn't have been facing and somehow the admission of it felt shameful.

To compound the angst of it all, sugar aside, there is deep stigma that comes with being a woman and eating food. The body that I live in (and love) looks different than the ideal we are fed by the media, and I have felt the harsh gaze of people critiquing my food choices. 

The shaming! The unsolicited advice from EVERYONE about how you should feed your body! The know-it-alls who want to offer up the most recent cure-all diet-fad! The powders and shakes and smoothies and ten.minute.washboard.abs workout plans!

Working to change the way we eat is hard, especially as women. Once you enter the realm of ‘dieting’ and ‘detoxing’ everything begins to feel like a slippery slope that leads right on down the self-sabotage-y rabbithole where happiness and satisfaction go to die.  That is, neurotic measuring of portions and weighing of dry chicken breast and counting calories (or carbs, or fat, or sugar) and the progression onto more and greater desperation.

All this because food is deep and personal. It is about nourishment, which is about love and safety and comfort. And for so many of us, food comes with both fear and reward. It’s a double-edged sword that we use to punish ourselves (starving ourselves into being thinner, better, more deserving…) and to reward ourselves (feeling bad or ashamed or sad about aforementioned extreme-diet failure, and eating to feel better, or so we don't have to feel).

And I think that for all of us there’s a real component of addiction, too. Food is a stand-in for acts of love that we are too self-punishing to take. When we feel beaten down or worn out or underappreciated, we turn to food for comfort. In a deep way, food IS comfort. It is nourishment and self-care and fellowship. For so many of us women, however, the difficulties of managing our relationship with food are bound up with the body-loathing inflicted by media and a real and primal hunger that should be celebrated instead of relegated to the front pages of women's fitness magazines (a weakness to be beaten into submission) and our desire to feel safe in the world. The whole ordeal becomes such a labyrinthine source of fear that we would frankly rather not.

So for all of these reasons, and more, I was scared of cutting out sugar. But the process showed me a whole lot about who I was underneath the sugar cravings and blood sugar 

Sugar bowl.jpg

I didn’t know what I was looking for—just to shift my relationship to sugar somehow. I was totally unprepared for what happened.

After the first few days of cravings wore off (yes, there were cravings), I started to feel more even-keeled. Mood swings that I’d never quite recognized as mood swings lessened dramatically, and I gradually began to realize how much more calm I felt.

Then my sleep got better. I tended to be a light-is sleeper and some mornings just woke up tired, even if I’d slept a full night. About half way through the detox, I felt energized instead of exhausted when I woke up in the morning.

Without the constant feeling of cravings and the sense that sugar was running my life, things began feel simply more manageable. The formerly harried and panicked stresscase gave way to someone more reasonable and resilient. Stress just didn’t seem to touch me in the same way.

It was like I’d been running my life on my animal brain—and after I quit sugar, my thinking brain came back online. And with my thinking brain functioning again I was able to respond to the daily stresses of a busy life from this really placid place.

Another huge piece was that I became more effective at my life. I was getting things done more quickly and efficiently because I could think better.

My relationships improved because I was able to be more present in my life—and I could listen and speak more from my heart. Things that might have triggered feelings of defensiveness or jumpiness or irritability in me before took on a new meaning. My ears felt less eager to hear criticism and my heart felt more willing to understand and communicate instead of jumping to conclusions.

And finally—maybe this is the same shift that changed everything else, too—I just felt more hopeful and positive. I began to see possibility and promise in the world in a way that I’d never quite had access to before.

In part two (upcoming!) I'll be talking about how it all works: why and how sugar affects stress levels, happiness, and how cutting it out may very well improve most-to-all of your personal relationships…