This diary records my personal pathway to becoming a Student of Nature.
It can be anyone’s journey, but this one is mine.
I came back to the land on my quest to bring healing and meaning into my life. And sure enough, Nature was here waiting for me. Nature waits for you, too.
This path began during a year-long adventure in a little converted minivan, where I began healing from an injury that changed the direction of my life, leaving me unable to work and needing a great deal of self-care.
It was during this cross-continent journey I discovered the healing power of sitting beside the ocean, howling at the moon, talking with the cacti and sleeping under the skies. All of these actions calmed an overstimulated nervous system and helped me breathe more deeply.
Following the sun and moon helped restore balance. When I returned “home” it was clear I no longer wanted to live in a city. I had developed an appetite for the outdoors. I was hungry for knowing about nature.
So the road journey ended with a new beginning – the purchase of 60 acres of woodland and meadow on the beautiful Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, in unceded Mi’kmaw territory.
This blog is for those of us who feel depleted, over-stimulated, discouraged and at times a bit hopeless in an urban environment. Who maybe feel isolated or disconnected in our day-to-day lives and aren’t prepared to accept that as normal.
It’s for those of us determined to find more meaning in our lives, to live with our eyes and hearts wide open and longing to discover what it means to live in community.
This is a place for those of us who refuse to coast through life, swept into eddies of consumerism, information and incessant social media. For those of us who hope for better and want to do something creative with that hope. For those of us who need to get our hands dirty with it.
This is a little blog about finding ourselves amidst the noise of today’s culture of consumption, and finding peace and balance on our terms; as a Child of Nature.
Pull up to the fire and let’s face life together, with curiousity and wonder. With a spirit of openness and childlike abandon. Let’s play 🙂
With our whole hearts.
But it was just a tree.
Or it might have been just a pet. Or a cup. Or someone you didn’t even know that well. Why do these losses sometimes crack us open so deeply?
If Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and songwriter, had heard the crack of the plum tree’s trunk as the wind took her down, he may have said this:
I’m beginning to understand how my reluctance to accept the cracks of life has contributed to a lot of suffering. Not pain – pain is inevitable. But suffering – I’m learning that’s optional.
Seems to me when I try to jump the cracks in life, I disconnect from the entire experience of living: The joyful, magical, complex, messy and magical lift of life itself.
The thing is, I want the obvious, predictable living part, but I’m not so open to the behind-the-scenes, unexpected dying part. But in my effort to side-step loss, I must say “no” to opportunities for joy. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
We say no to the puppy, even when our nightly prayers are for companionship. We don’t visit a dying parent, despite our need for resolution. We don’t plant a tree, because they all seem to be burning anyway and we don’t volunteer at the animal shelter because we will “just get attached.” We fall into the habit of saying “I can’t take one more loss” and this becomes our truth.
When I was at my most unwell, I was quite unable to say yes to life, and I see how it was also a time of great disconnection from Nature. I no longer think this is a coincidence.
I refused to have living things in my home. It was painful to be with people, and I refused a cat or a dog. I even rejected a cactus, when suggested as a “safe place to start” by a caring therapist. Between the fear of killing something and the knowledge it would eventually die anyway, I had love-paralysis. No way, Jose. I wasn’t going to play that game. I was pretty sure I was playing with cheaters.
This week someone asked me how I began to heal. Truly, it was Nature who laid out my wellness plan. Nature gave me place to understand “death” as change, rather than loss. She also gave me a safe place to practice letting go of my “perfect offering” and to stop imagining I was in control all the time.
Mother Plum was so important to me because she was my first teacher at the farm. These are the lessons she gave, even as she was transitioning.
Attend to the Death. I picked the plums, even though I didn’t want to look at the tree. It was hard to feel the plums clinging to her even as her leaves wilted. I certainly didn’t feel like making jam. But Nature asked me to stay.
Having lost my own mother at a young age (too young to understand or process the loss) I didn’t learn about recovery and healing. Harvesting the plums from the fallen plum helped me find a bit more comfort with transition – from the standing to the lying down – and to see that although she was gone, something of her remained. Nature can help us to deal with grief of the past too. She helped me see that I , too, was my Mother’s plum.
Choose an action that helps you move through the grief. I didn’t feel like making jam, but I did. It helped to engage my body – my senses – in the sadness. We didn’t have electricity because of the storm, but Indigo and I used our emergency water to prepare them. This was my emergency. Indigo was sad too, but her sadness had more buoyancy than mine. If you can find sadness buddy with just a bit more float than you, do get in their boat for a while. See that smile? It was wind in my sails.
After preparing the plums, we covered them in sugar and decided to take a break. But not before Indigo named our project.
Allow yourself joy alongside sadness. Because they are two sides of the same coin, give yourself permission to feel both, and chase away as much of the guilt we have been taught to feel when they unexpectedly show up at our front door – together.
After we prepared the plums, we went to the beach, because it’s ok to invite sadness to the beach! We can teach it to walk beside our joy instead of swallowing it. Allowing part of yourself permission to smile while another part cries gives joy a chance to remind us of important things. Like how life is not black and white. Not black or white. It is both. Don’t be afraid to laugh-cry. Laugh-crying reminds of this truth.
Lean into what scares you. Nature suggests there may not be such things as “bad guys” and “good guys.” The same wind that flies our kites, takes down our plums. The wind on the beach made us giddy, and lifted our spirits at the same time it reminded me how unpredictable life can be.
Do something helpful. While on the beach, we collected garbage that was blown onto the normally pristine shore by Dorian’s high waves. It felt good to be part of Nature’s Cleanup Crew. Cleaning helps me organize chaotic thoughts. While I clean I am reminded that as a part of Nature, I can be a helper, offering my energy when it is needed.
Celebrate what has changed. Nature made this easy, and we made a sweet treat with the plums. Celebrations add ritual and meaning. Meaning – the story we tell about what has happened – is so very important after a significant loss or change.
Much love was stirred into the plums as they transformed into jam. Cooking is a form of alchemy and I love being close to this magic. Because we remained without electricity, we took the plums all the way to Halifax, where we cooked them at my daughter’s house.
Share the Love. This was new learning for me. When I lose something, I tighten my grip. I imagined my pantry full of Hurricane Plum Jam, and for a moment felt better. Then I felt anxious.
What about when the jam is gone? Am I prolonging the pain? What is the point of that? I would then have to re-live this day all over again.
Faced with impermanence, I want to control something/ pretty much everything. But this is not how my healing has worked. I am learning about letting go.
We decided the jam would be given to friends and family at Winter Solstice; a way of ensuring the plum’s life was shared with others. It felt good to let go of my grip on it.
Finally, I learned about the nature of plums. Turns out they are tenacious and often grow back from their cut stumps. Turns out that in tree-magic, they represent the ability to face adversity. I learned I could collect the seeds, dry them, force dormancy, and plant them. So I prepared the seeds.
I discovered their reddish-coloured wood was valued for making kitchen utensils and a neighbour helped me to cut her branches into workable pieces for future projects. She gave me this to look forward to.
Mother Plum is what I call #gonenotgone. She will show herself in a myriad of ways; on a slice of toast at my neighbour’s kitchen table, as a shoot growing from the bottom of her stump, or maybe in a wooden spoon I make myself. I also laugh now, realizing that an alternative meaning for the word “plum” itself is “something desirable”.
Finally, I am reminded that without Mother Plum Tree I would not have a story to tell at all, and in telling her story, she will always live. What a plum lesson that is. 😉
I hope you take time to listen to the song below, written by Leon Dubinsky of Sydney Nova Scotia, performed in the highlands of Cape Breton by Canadian musicians Anne Murray, Rita McNeil, The Rankin Family and Men of the Deep.
Sometimes a good song just helps a lesson move from your head to your heart.
If you didn’t drop this class after enduring my stint as the rambling substitute teacher yesterday, I have the distinct pleasure of re-introducing the Plum Tree today.
I know what you’re thinking; having met the plum couple yesterday, why aren’t they presenting together today? I find dramatic foreshadowing almost unbearable, but as your narrator, want to reassure you.
It’s going to be OK in the end. If it isn’t OK, it isn’t yet the end.
So, let’s return to those two arching plum trees where I decide, on-the-spot and full of goosebumps, to make this place my new home.
Speaking of parents, I want to provide just a little additional backstory to my decision to come here. The reality is, goosebumps weren’t the only factor.
I’d journeyed to Cape Breton many times and was increasingly – and inexplicably- drawn to the west side of the island. People often asked why I was compelled to travel so far, so often, to visit such a little place.
I would smile, telling them in a matter-of-fact fashion that I’d clearly been stolen from The Rankin Family as an infant, and denied my rightful musical journey. If it eventually “came out” there was actually a “lost Rankin” I was definitely her.
I’d conclude my explanation as they laughed on cue, simply stating I’d been away too long and was finally going home.
When I told people I suspected I might be, could be or probably was a “lost Rankin” (the italics are mine) of course they assumed I was joking. Sometimes I would use the expression “distant Rankin” as this seemed more plausible, but I felt “lost” more probable.
They also instantly knew why I longed for Cape Breton. Because, ask any Canadian music-lover, The Rankin Family provides the world with musical shorthand about soul-truths in a language the non-musical can not speak.
Referencing these beloved Canadian musicians provided a short but super-effective cultural touchstone instantly illuminating the complexity of my longing for Cape Breton. I’d see a tide of understanding ebb across their faces, and in no time they were licking salt-water from their lips and tapping their toes.
But I’m only half-joking; a disclosure I’m somewhat hesitant to lay bare now that I live here. But it’s my truth, and to offer only half of it robs my life of it’s taste and it’s texture.
I have tested my “stolen as a baby” hypothesis repeatedly but now acknowledge there is surprisingly little supporting evidence to suggest I actually hang on their family tree. Despite a lifelong effort to cultivate some (any) musical talent, I have yet to sing even a measure of it, and last year’s attempt to become a step dancer yielded results that were out-of-step, at best. Surely, I couldn’t be both lost and cursed!
Finally, I have no evidence, to date, suggesting any of them are actively searching for me. Regardless, I am enjoying my new Ancestry.com membership, which includes public sharing of my results. Just in case. I’m not delusional, after all. One needs hard evidence and I’m all for relying on the facts.
Let me add this small additional detail though, which I also call a fact, before I conclude this short deviation from the primary story. It is not insignificant (to me) that upon my very first visit to the local eatery, owned and operated by their family, I was mistaken (ever so briefly) for a member of their family.
So, while I have reluctantly accepted my status as a not-Rankin, Fate still insists I travel Rankinville Road each day to reach the land, and I live on a river made famous in their much-loved song “The Mull River Shuffle.” I’m not sure I’m fond of Fate’s sense of humour, but I do so love a good plot twist. I knew neither when I stood under the trees that first time.
I’ll now take so us back to the Plum, so together we can arrive in that place where these two stories meet.
Within two months, I was carefully hand-cutting onto the land. Big equipment would eventually be needed, but this required gentle hands on the ground. Settlers had a home here 75 years ago and I wanted to find their driveway. If they built their home in this spot, there would be good reason for it, and I planned to follow their lead. I also hoped to find their well.
But first, I located those two plum trees.
These were not the single-trunked, straight-limbed trees I remembered – the kind you draw that represent trees, but aren’t actual trees. This tree, with multiple trunks and eyes on the back of her head, this was the many-armed Mother Tree.
We cleared encroaching bushes to give her room to stretch. We pruned dead limbs so she could breathe more deeply.
She and Father Tree were heavy with plums, despite a late June frost that killed the apple blossoms. Without kitchen facilities, I didn’t harvest the fruit but ate one or two each time I passed. And soon the entire working season had passed too.
I travelled to the desert last winter, leaving the land and the plums to sleep, but dreaming of returning to create a home I would share with others who also wanted to learn from the land.
Upon returning, I planted gardens beside them, adding compost around their roots. The tiny house site was levelled and prepared. Blooms set on both trees and they fruited as if it were their last chance to be parents, and they were determined to get it right.
When the tiny house frame finally arrived, it was a tense day, with the driver not being convinced it would pass through the trees. Having given birth twice, I knew it would, and it did. I’m learning to let instinct have the final word. I was relieved to finally have my window to the world right where I imagined it.
The plums were at their peak ripeness in mid-September, and this is where one story ends and another begins. This is often where many a story turns; at a peak.
Nova Scotia was about to be battered by Hurricane Dorian, and it was the first time I’d ever felt anxious about a storm.
My daughter was visiting, and we spent the day preparing for an inevitable loss of power. One could feel the air pressure change as the storm approached. I consulted the house builders to ensure the half-built house was secure. I was living at church annex, but when the winds also peaked, I insisted we move into the sanctuary, where I felt safer.
My daughter humoured me, but yet unwrinkled, didn’t quite grasp what wind might do. Despite the howling, we slept, and I accepted that Mother Nature would continue her work through the night even as I left my post.
When morning came, I wanted to go to the farm right away. The winds were still blowing, but the sky was clear. We had planned to make plum jam, so my daughter and I took bags to collect what we knew would be a bumper crop of wind-falls.
But what we discovered was that while we slept, the wind had caused Mother Plum herself to fall.
I don’t cry easily in front of others, but suspect my daughter may have felt the grief burst inside me. Not the polite, dab-your-eye grief one presents at a funeral home, but the snotty, wailing, flailing, crazy-eyed funeral-pyre grief that explodes in your heart and can’t find an exit.
Stoically, I circled the tree, moving about the branches, gently placing the little plums into a bag. Many had been flung, as if from an explosion, some metres away. Some clung to drooping branches. I might have tried to smile or look for a silver lining but I don’t think I managed.
I told you it would be ok in the end, but we aren’t quite there yet. Even as I write this memory four months later, I feel the heaviness of each plum I placed in that bag, and my heart heaves to see the picture of that tree on the ground.
But grief is like that. It requires we speak it more than once. To keep telling it’s story, so as to keep moving it through our bodies so it can be transformed and finally released.
And as grief would have it, a song visits my memory as I am writing this. A soul-gift, reminding me to feel. Not think, but feel. Even as I want so desperately to get to the “it’s all ok now” part of the story, I am asked to pause again, and say goodbye, Cape Breton style.
Is it a surprise that it is sung by The Rankin Family? I think not.
And before you listen, please remember.
It will all be ok in the end. If it doesn’t feel ok yet, it isn’t the end.
And just between you and me, that Mama Plum Tree isn’t finished telling her story.
“The hair on my arms stood straight up and that’s when I knew.”
I asked you to meet me at the plum tree, so it could help explain how I came to live in Cape Breton, but I have something to share before we are ready for that class. The plum will present it’s lesson tomorrow, although it will make it’s appearance before the end of today’s post, if all goes well. Today, we read the pre-amble. Written by your substitute teacher.
First we have to talk about the goosebumps.
As a child, I associated “the goosebumps” with a getting a full-on case of the creeps. Apparently, this physiological response is part of our body’s “alert system” – a flashing light on our master console letting us know that pressure is building and we may need to do something – like perhaps put on a coat, change our phone number or swing a large stick.
I think we associate goosebumps with things that are “creepy” because they often accompany the unknown, and there is sometimes an element of suspense mixed in. Humans aren’t big fans of the unknown, so there is often a bit of discomfort. It’s connected to our survival instincts.
Picture a dog, cozy in her bed, suddenly hearing a loud noise outside the door. Imagine the cocking of her head, gaze locked on the door handle; the little hairs on her neck bristling ever so slightly. It is as if someone has whispered “on your mark” into her ear- and she is waiting for the “get set…go!”
Those hairs that bristled also make her look bigger (Pippa’s don’t do much, being a dog with little fur, but she, too, bristles) which will be helpful if the noise turns out to be much larger than she, is frothing at the mouth, breathes fire or upon entry into her domain, eyes her liver treats with ill intent.
But for now, she is simply on alert. After all, it could be the case of squeaky squirrels she ordered last week on eBay. She is salivating and bristling…. at the same time.
Before that door opens, all scenarios are equally possible. She knows that.
But, if she is a creature who has experienced a disproportionate number of dragons to deliver men, subsequent loud noises might cause her to expect that what will happen next will possibly torch her Kingdom.
We aren’t so different from animals, really. Like that dog, a loud noise or the unknown will put me on full alert. If I have the goosebumps, you can pry an unopened Toblerone from my clenched fist and I won’t even notice. Having met a couple dragons over the years, I know the benefits of being fully focused. But I also know the downsides. The pre-occupation. The slow leaching of joy from my joy-pond. The aching muscles and lack of sleep.
So, I practice being equally prepared for the case of squirrels, and that has made all the difference. It also makes the time before knowing what’s behind the door much more pleasant. I mean, before I open the door, it could be anything. Gram always told me, when I worried about what would happen next, “Don’t suffer before you have to.” I try to remember this.
I have come to experience the goosebumps quite pleasantly. I can allow myself to be bigger, not because I’m expecting the need to protect myself, but because I am preparing to receive something, and that something could be valuable information, the delivery of a gift, a realization, or the arrival of an important person into my life. It might even be a package I specifically ordered last week, but forgot all about. With practice, it seems my instinct now picks up more subtle information. Not just the frothy-mouthed stuff.
I have come to think of the hair on my arms, or the back of my neck, as rising to meet important occasions.
I recently shared my musings about goosebumps with a friend and she lit up like a Christmas tree, happy to meet someone in her tribe. She said her goosebumps tell her when “Spirit” is in the room. “Spirit” being who she calls the caring, guiding force in her life. Some people call this “God” or “Higher Power” or an Angel. When we think of it in relation to animals, we might call it instinct. Regardless, it is mostly invisible, and easily missed. I added her musings to mine, and enjoyed the mingling.
Anyway, on the occasion of meeting the plum tree I am finally about to introduce, I am standing at the edge of a meadow, close to a river, in a place that I don’t yet know the name of, but will soon call Hillsborough. I’m looking for my forever home.
There is heavy spring rain pooling in my eyes, a burr stuck to my sweater and frigid river-water in my boot. I have been walking for a couple hours through thick brush and forest, following old trails with a local man who I suspect is assessing my suitability for life in his neighbourhood, and, I imagine, my capacity to appreciate the special nature of the land on which we stand.
He takes a break from this important task, and turns his assessment skills to a naked tree. It’s very early spring, and because I haven’t yet met the trees, it has no distinguishing characteristics to my eyes aside from simply being a tree. No leaves yet; no fruit. No cones, notable bark, or name.
I watch his hands measure it’s girth and I observe his internal measuring tape as it reaches the top branches. After a long moment he says. “This must be it. This is it. I ate plums from this tree as a boy; best plums I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
He knows this tree. Among all the others, that to my eyes seem all the same, this one is special.
And that’s when it happened; an all-system alert. Both arms, fully bristled. I’m sure hair on my arms isn’t just standing up, it’s growing.
I stand at attention, wipe the rain out of my eyes and flick off the burr. Another tree -with the same seemingly nebulous characteristics – is growing about twenty feet away. They grow toward one another, their branches curving until they touch one another above our heads. They are clearly a couple, and I am in their arms.
I gaze out to where I know the road to be, and feel, with absolute certainty, that I will live between these two plum trees. I will see the next chapter of my life unfold through this archway; out this plum-window. Embraced in a plum-hug.
I turn to my guide, this stranger who will soon become a dear friend, and pass my hand over my arm, all goose-y and bumpy, and a little shiver runs through my body.
Yes, this must be it. This is it.
OK, Children of Nature, it’s time! I’ve been preparing for your arrival, and on this eve of 2020, I’m so very happy you are here. Classes start tomorrow at “The Farm on Mull River” on U’nama’kik/Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada!
Throw on a pair of old rubber boots, zip up a warm jacket, gather your wits and whimsy and meet me at the old plum tree along the upper driveway; the one that remains. I will tell you how I came to be here in this classroom, and that plum tree will help me tell the story.
This farm-retreat-teaching centre is Mother Nature’s classroom. Were kicking’ it old-school, where kids of all ages and abilities (and sometimes, inabilities!) learn from each other under a common roof – the sky. We have so much to learn and no time to waste, so let’s get at it.
Your instructors are world class, and include (but are not limited to) red squirrels, bald eagles, owls, coyote, deer, beaver and countless members of a vast mushroom kingdom. Weather will make presentations on occasion, although (as of yet) I have been unable to entice them to provide their workshop schedules. By the time this year passes through our fingers, we will see ourselves in the trees and know ourselves in the stars.
We will use all our senses; practicing active curiosity in the presence of the basic elements: water, fire, earth and air. A sub-terranian network of roots will be our internet; the forest pathways (used by deer and coyote) our search engine. We will browse pond-scum and save bird calls. Together, we will learn about the Nature of Things on our bellies, in the meadow or peering into the river. There’s no cell service down here, but if your curiosity is at one bar or more, there’s a good chance you will be able to pick up what Mother Nature is laying down.
Along our shared journey, we will sip from the deep, cool living waters of local folklore, traditional teachings, experiential wisdom and storytelling. We will learn from our neighbours- all species- and each other.
2020 will be our “Year of Living Naturally”. And it doesn’t matter one iota if you currently live in a high-rise apartment in Toronto or Winnipeg or New York City. Most lasting change happens first in the heart, and then in the imagination. You want to get closer to nature? Close your eyes and dream it with me.
Here’s what the classes looks like, followed by keywords I will use to help you find what interests you most. You can attend part or full time. Or just drop in once in a while and audit a class for fun.
The Earth needs us, and we need each other, so let’s get to work. The bell rings at dawn tomorrow; see you at the plum tree!