Friday, August 13, 2021

Will We Accept The Gifts They Offer?

As I walked to school last week, I pinched off a sprig of bright yellow fennel flowers and popped them in my mouth. The intense, mid-summer licorice sensation filled my mouth and nasal passages, and then, as I crushed them between my molars and swallowed, I stopped in my tracks as the sensation enveloped my body. This fennel plant had reached out to me with its bright blossoms, right at waist level, imposing itself across the sidewalk, offering its flowers as a gift. By accepting that gift, I was, in a moment, transformed, irrevocably, in mind, body, and soul.

You might imagine I'm exaggerating. After all, it couldn't have been much of a transformation. It was just a tiny sprig from a roadside weed. But that's what struck me. It's not normal for us to be aware of these moment-by-moment irrevocable changes in ourselves, yet I'd felt it. Fennel provides the body with potassium, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and iron, but I didn't know that until I later looked it up. Fennel is used medicinally for all manner of digestive problems. It contributes to bone health, lower blood pressure, reduces inflammation, and even may have anti-cancer properties. Again, I was unaware of any of these things at the time, although, generally speaking, I know that vegetables are the centerpiece of any healthy diet. 

I was attracted by the flowers and further motivated by my past experiences with the flavor, of which I'm fond. So I pinched off a sprig and popped it in my mouth without much of a thought. What stopped me, honestly, was the sudden urge to say "thank you."

I've always been a forager of convenience. It's high blackberry season in Seattle right now and any walk of more than 15 minutes takes me to places where fat berries hang invitingly. I'll also accept the gifts of rosemary, lavender, and other herbs. Occasionally, I'll come across a stand of wheat grass and chew the berries into a paste. Earlier this summer, there were wild strawberries. Later there will be sour apples. I recently found a fig tree that was so heavily ripe that I couldn't actually walk on the sidewalk because it was sticky with fallen fruit. 

But I'm not just foraging for flavor. I take the leaves of laurel or rhododendron between my fingers, feeling their waxy smoothness, or the soft fuzziness of lamb's ear. I rub the bark of birch and cedars. Often the only thing I take away from a plant is it's fragrance on the palm of my hand (there are few flavors I enjoy more than a sweet blackberry eaten from fingers scented with rosemary). I shake hands with grasses as I pass, often pulling off the seeds they are offering me, then letting them fall on bare soil farther along my way. There are few sounds more soothing than the rustle of cottonwoods. And, of course, I stick my nose into flowers and breathe.

I've done these things since I was a child. My mother was a forager, so I come by it honestly. But as I've gotten older, I've forgotten to be present for it. Having recently read Robin Wall Kimmerer's book Braiding Sweetgrass, I've reawakened to the relationships I have with the plants in my world, even as I live in the heart of a densely populated city. The plants are still there, where they have always been, where they were when I was a child, offering me their gifts and all they ask in return is gratitude. The plants have been constant in their relationship with me; it's me who has been neglectful.

I was with children in our playground garden yesterday. As we ate blueberries, tomatoes, and cucumber, coriander seeds, and the pods of radish plants that had not been harvested for their roots, as we nibbled from our herb garden, we talked of flavor, of texture, of fragrance, and of other plants that had reached out to us.

This morning, Seattle is already too hot and there is a blanket of forest fire smoke rendering the air "unhealthy for sensitive groups." Every day, we read about how we are either approaching the point of no return with regard to the environment or that we've already passed it. The best time for us to have addressed our role in this was centuries ago, but now is all we have. Kimmerer's book closes with indigenous prophecies and stories that speak of our relationship with nature in general, and plants in particular. Our failure, which has been foretold, is that we've forgotten that plants are people too, and despite our neglect, they continue to reach out to us, irrepressibly stretching their fronds across our paths, catching our eyes with their flowers and fruits, filling our noses with their fragrance and our ears with their sounds. They are offering us gifts, they are seeking relationships. Like human children, they know that without connection all is lost.

The news is full of urgency about the enormous, dramatic sacrifices we must make, or that we should have made. We drink from paper straws and sort our garbage and try to avoid driving our cars, but we all know that these are drops in a bucket with holes in the bottom. Meanwhile, the plants reach out to us, like human children, telling us clearly, that if we love them, individually, right now, and with all of our senses, we will finally begin the process of restoration. They are telling us it's not the planet that is in danger, but rather us humans. They are reaching out to save us. Will we accept the gifts they offer?

Pinch off a sprig of fennel and pop it in your mouth. Feel it change you. Then turn to that roadside weed and say "thank you." That's the only way it begins.

"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
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