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.