Week 27: Motherly Flames

Fire as Creator

All this open time has got me thinking and reflecting, so this week I have another personal piece. Below I speak about my relationship with fire and the lessons it holds for us all.

Another nightmare - I was so terrified I didn't even move while everything burnt around me.
October 23, 2017

We stumble through the pitch black woods: an exodus of bare-foot children with no sight under thick blindfolds. A warm fire surrounded by singing voices and the beat of a drum are our only guidance. Though branches and rocks cut my shins and grab at my 6-year-old face, I am not scared, for I feel the motherly flames growing closer. Fire and drum fade into one; a communal heart beat pulling us home. 

This is the drum stalk at the Living Earth School, a nature connection school in Virginia. Many of Living Earth’s traditions were passed down from a Lipan Apache elder named Stalking Wolf through his apprentice, the ever-controversial Tom Brown and Brown’s apprentice, Jon Young. Fire is the soul of the community at Living Earth and is seen as just as valuable a mentor as any human instructor. Students are first taught to respect the power of fire, then they are taught to build a home for fire, to light fire, to maintain fire, and, finally, to love fire. Through these lessons, the fire raised me from timid student to empathetic instructor.

Respecting Fire

Fire: destroyer of homes, forests, animals, and people, is also the destroyer of self-esteem and dignity. I learned this through the process of making a wooden bowl. In order to make a bowl, you must keep a coal in the middle of a block of wood and blow on it until it burns a deep enough hole that you may carve out the rest. Last year, in my first summer as an instructor, I notice a small boy who sits away from the others, red in the face from both the heat of the coal and his frustration. I remember my own first bowl, when fire scolded me for my impatience by constantly tumbling out of the bowl and burning my skin. His coal too falls to the ground every few seconds, stinging his hands and sizzling out in the dirt below. Just as many animals can sense the feelings of humans, fire knows when you are fearful, anxious, or arrogant. I lead him in a few deep breaths and tell him to put down his bowl for a minute, for fire has sensed his desperation. 

Building Fire a Home

Fire is a finicky guest; she requires a confident, direct, and intelligent host or she will disappear as quickly as she came. Over the 12 years I have been building teepees for fires, I have learned that a happy house guest requires a functional doorway, oxygen, and a roof tall enough that she may reach for the sky. She will not accept any wood that is too green or too wet. This is why you must welcome fire with intentional, honest, and patient hands. In order to teach Living Earth students how to prepare a proper home for this esteemed guest, we practice the art of the one-match fire.  quote about RWK and singing. Today, when I make a one-match fire I sing the Eel River Song, a hymn about a drum stalk through the river. It reminds me to put trust in the earth and my body as I light the fire.

“Lay yourself down on the rocks now

Lay your body down by the river

Listen to the rhythm of the other side

Lose yourself in the meantime

Listen… Listen...

Let your body be your guide

Let the waters decide

Lose yourself in the meantime”

Lighting Fire

At the beginning of every Living Earth session, an instructor creates a live coal with their bow drill kit as a flock of awed children watch. Once the vulnerable coal is safely cradled in a tinder bundle of cedar bark, it is passed around the circle of eager hands; each child and adult giving it a small breath of life. We sing a song as we pass the bundle: “burn fire burn, burn fire, stoke your inner fire, let the coal inside you rise and blow that flame to life.” The resulting fire must then be kept alive for the rest of the week, so we wake in turns in the night to stoke it and collect more kindling. This fire, more so than any meal or debris hut created at Living Earth, is raised and sustained by all hands and hearts.

Bowdrill is an exercise which uses your whole body and mind. In order to succeed, you must let energy flow through every limb. To start, you kneel, as if bowing down to a demanding queen, pressing on the hand-hold to keep it steady, your other arm moving the bow back and forth, and one foot holding down the fire board. The spindle twirls round and round on the fire board until the friction gives way to a small coal. When we teach the students bow drill, the weak of heart or the overly-confident are swiftly humbled and challenged by fire’s keen eye. There is often a young boy who insists he can manage on his own, but as he fights with the bow and his grip on the hand-hold slips, he bows his head to ask for help. To some, bow drill comes easily and they create a coal in a matter of hours, but for others it takes years. 

We start the year reading ☄️
January 2, 2018

 I practice bow drill almost every day, and every day, as I push and pull my bow and the spindle dances on the fire board, my energy and excitement build, but eventually the spindle shoots out of my bow and I gasp in anger. I can produce a swirl of sweet smoke, but never a coal. Kimmerer writes that you can not force a bow drill fire, “It must unfold in the right way, when all the elements are present, mind and body harnessed in unison” (362). 

Tending Fire

Another Living Earth Tradition is the Temple of Fire. Students are asked to collect sticks and when night falls are asked to build a fire and light it with a single match. Then they must keep fire alive for 3 hours, or until a leader gives a wolf’s howl. For my first Temple of Fire as a 12 year old camper, I had a blazing flame that burnt through the hours easily, so when I am asked to do this again, 6 years later as an instructor, I feel confident. This time I have 30 minutes to collect enough sticks to last me the hours, and when the timer goes off I am pleased with my heaping pile. However, when night falls I find that my fire is voracious and in an hour has eaten up my entire store of kindling. I grab around in the dark for something, anything to feed her, but find nothing but dry leaves, which will not satiate her. And because her home was built in haste, it is crumbling, and she has nowhere to climb. Even as I stick my hand in the flames to rebuild her house, I see the tall sparks of my neighbor’s fires and feel self-doubt creep in. I blow and blow on the coals until I am too faint to continue and I slump onto the ground, in tears. Though I beg her not to go, my fire slowly loses light and succumbs to a bed of coals, leaving me to sit with only blackness and failure for company until I hear the wolf’s cry calling me home.

Loving Fire

Many religions have assumed that fire either destroys or creates, but she also changes. Cherokee storyteller Robert Lewis tells the story of the first fire, which was created by lightning striking a tree. Lewis says that bear sent animal after animal to attempt to capture the fire, and each came back unrecognizable. Fire gave the raccoon his stripes, the snake his dark scales, and the rainbow raven his pitch black feathers (Cherokee nation). Today, when a log is burned in the fire, it is not destroyed but rather reincarnated into a piece of the person it warms or the bug for which it lights the way. In fact, many forest fires leave fertilized soil in their wake and allow young, native species to come back to the area (Hancock). Fire is the great liberator of the forest, for she releases seeds from plants, allows saplings to reach the sun, and burns away violent, invasive species. 

Fire has also changed me. She has given me community, broken down my ego and challenged my confidence. She has made me cry, sweat, faint, and remember things I did not know I had forgotten (Kimmerer preface). I have realized that fire does not care if certain skills are difficult for me. She cares only for the effort, love, and vulnerability I have sacrificed to give her life. And just as in any relationship of reciprocity, as I breathe out my anger and sorrow, she recycles it into warmth and light. 

In the closing circle of my first summer as an instructor, an elder tells us to envision the forest where we sit 10 years from now, still alive with laughter and community. Tears run down my face as I hold this small coal of radical hope and love for the future. Sam did not know that only a year later, the land Living Earth has called home for over 20 years would be taken away. But his vision is not lost, for we will not let the fire go out on our anger and grief; we will sing and carry her forward, together. 

It’s incredibly hot again, here in Barcelona, and I caught a summer flu. Being sick during a heatwave has been one of the worst experiences I’ve had in a while. I also broke my phone 🙃
August 11, 2019

Thank you for reading. This week, think about the elements that we so often take for granted: air, water, fire, soil.

Week 26: Daughter of the Earth

This week I am sharing another original piece, but this one is a bit more personal. This piece is about coming to terms with my familial history and somewhat ‘unnatural’ conception.

How Much did Your Father Cost?

Her face was slightly thinner than mine, her cheeks a bit more pink, and her hair a shade yellower, but the girl staring back at me was undoubtedly my sister. She was a shy five year old at the time and as I, an intrepid six year old, bounded toward her, she shrunk back into her mom’s arms. 

I reach out with my pudgy two year old hands, grabbing for the wide-eyed fawn that looks back at me. My mom gently pushes my hands away as she carries us, one babe in each arm. 

I was born into a family of two mothers, three dogs, two rabbits, and endless acres of land to run and tumble until my face was caked with mud. My mom who gave birth to me and my mama who just held her hand. Life in our old red and white farmhouse was as sweet as the persimmons we picked on long walks. 

Family, Provincetown, MA, 1982
February 15, 2019

My birth mom and birth “father” have never met. We do not know his personality, his face, or his name. Spread across the country there are an unknown number of children with the same tangled, dirty-blond hair as me. We have hazel eyes on a good day, brown on a bad day; we love mac & cheese, we are sensitive to a fault, and we share a father. But, as a child these facts did not settle in my mind. My mothers were my only parents, and my dogs, Ally, Twyla, and Pekoe were my only siblings.

I climb from branch to branch, the boxwood tree swaying under my seven year old weight. A hidden world of deep green and silence. 

I sit at the kitchen table of our new beige house. I am 14, and in a month I will start high school. My moms have been divorced now for 7 years and another girl has made an imaginary world in the big boxwood. The news that I have just been told is swirling and tightening in my stomach and my head feels heavy and then so light I’m scared it might fly away. 

Dirty kids and good friends
November 11, 2019

My donor supposedly came from good stock. In fact, my two moms chose him based on his intelligence, family history, interests, similarity to my non-birth mother, and mental health. Yet, as I sit at the table, my mom explains that as more of my half-siblings have appeared around the country, the parents have expressed struggles with their children’s mental health. A common theme began to form with each facebook message lamenting about identical issues. We have been deemed anxious, ADHD, depressed, even autistic. Doctors told Wyatt he has ADHD, Pierce is on the spectrum, and Ellie and I take the same anxiety medication. My mom squeezes my hands and tells me the parents believe that the donor did not disclose a history of his mental illness.

I hang onto the side of a mountain in North Carolina. My fingers are worn and bloody as I try to pull myself up to the next notch. Suddenly, everything falls away and I'm grasping desperately for a divet in the rock to hold onto until the rope pulls taught and I slam into the cold stone.

Who is excited about the prime conditions? 🙌🏼 Or a you rather a comfy sunny summer days climber? ☀️ 📸 @banditbouldering
#mantleclimbing #mantlechalk #climbingchalk #chalk #grip #primeconditions #perfectconditions #friction #power #rockclimbing #bouldering #climbershands #holdon
September 25, 2019

 I was supposed to be perfect; supposed to only inherit the good qualities of my parents. Instead I am a product made with malfunctions in a factory. An experiment gone wrong. With this recognition comes the question of whether I am meant to be here at all.

I sink down into a bed of moss, my body fits into the contour as if I have lain here before. The downy earth swallows me; welcoming back what always belonged there. 

Father. The word feels lumpy and burdensome on my tongue. I seldom have to use it and have never particularly cared to. When friends and acquaintances ask me about my father, I say I don’t have one. Their faces drain in confusion, “Is she a medical anomaly?” They probe until I tell them I have a donor, and the relief floods their face, “oh so you do have a father.” My donor is not my father. The word implies at least a face, at least the possibility of a reunion some day. Too often, when donor children try to contact a donor, they never receive a reply. Countless articles detail the devastation of these failed attempts. I don’t know if I even want to meet him, for that would transform him into a human being.

I sit in a stroller and my mother’s strong legs propel me through the woods. We break out of the muddy mess of trees into a field and stop to watch the Monarch’s flocking to the Milkweed bush. I reach for a leaf and the ichor is sticky on my fingers. My little face scrunches up in awe of the natural connection between plant and insect.

My conception was a transaction, a test tube, a contract. Artificial and without connection. My donor likely wanted the money and none of the responsibility. He likely has a family of his own; children whose names and faces he knows. But, do his eyes flit around in every crowd like mine do, wondering if each tall, blonde, brown-eyed child could be his?

The picture of our little family, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, far from confusion and upheaval, has developed a stain. It spreads and permeates, changing the picture as it expands. When I was six, my moms explained that I was conceived with a donor. My memory is clouded when I try to remember, but they say I was utterly uninterested. On that day at 14, at the kitchen table, a barrier I had unknowingly put up at six years old finally fell down. 

Ella, 2018
November 25, 2019

I am blindfolded, walking through the forest at midnight, following only the sound of a beating drum. I stretch my arms out to feel for the next branch or stone that will cut into my shins or slash my face, yet I am not scared or alone. I can feel the warmth and watchful eyes of the creatures stirring in the trees around me, and the rich soil cushions my bare feet as I creep along.

Voices saying “blood doesn’t make a family” ring in my head, yet I can not curb my curiosity about my father. Is he kind, does he love to be outside, does he read often? A whole half of my being is unknown. Will attempting to contact my father shatter my perception of who I am? Could it make me doubt my relationship with my mothers? Would I suddenly feel I had been deprived of a father? 

Honey bees surround my head, landing lightly on my outstretched hand and lifting off again moments later. The silent swarm comforts me and my breathing begins to slow. Passersby dip and dart to avoid the feared predators, but I bend, glide, twirl to the rhythm of their composed chaos.

Week 25: Species Loneliness

We are inexplicably interconnected and thus never alone

It feels as though this global pandemic is separating us, making an already individualistic society even more isolated, but what if this didn’t have to be the case? What if we could find community among the trees? 

Moved to the West Coast 18 yrs ago this month.
Can confirm the rumours are true.. we DO in fact eat granola and hug trees. 🌳 .
#tentreeambassador @tentree
January 12, 2020

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Indigenous scientist and author, describes species loneliness as, “a great sadness” which stems from our “estrangement from the rest of Creation. We have built this isolation with our fear, with our arrogance, and with our homes brightly lit against the night.” When humans separated ourselves from nature with walls, technology, and capitalism we became visitors in a place that was once our home. Our connection to other beings became one based on aesthetic and monetary value rather than reciprocity and understanding. When we walk through the forest now, we are surrounded solely by objects, not beings. However, it is not too late to repair this connection, and quarantine just might be the perfect time to do so.

Species loneliness is a disease curable only through humility and gratitude, so keep your mind open, for there are other ways of communicating than through language. Below is an exercise, inspired in part by the Taoist tradition of Chi energy sharing and the Japanese tradition of forest bathing, that might help ease your loneliness during this time. 

Go outside and let yourself be drawn to one of the trees around you

Stand or sit a couple of feet away from the tree

Attempt to clear your mind with a few deep breaths in and out

Then, when you feel ready, ask permission to greet the tree with touch and place your hands on the trunk or wrap your arms around it.

Focus on how the bark and soil smell or feel and on how the light is hitting the leaves above you. Can you hear leaves rustling and the goings-on of the world beneath your feet? 

Now, as The Soul Medic advises, focus on your negative thoughts: worry, sorrow, anger, and imagine this energy flowing down through the tree’s roots to be recycled into soil. 

Then, imagine the renewed energy flowing back up through the roots and into your hands, arms, chest, stomach, legs, and head.

When you feel ready to break the connection, say thank you and say a prayer or send hope for the health and happiness of both you and the tree.

You may even leave an offering, which Kimmerer suggests as an act of gratitude. In the past, I have left a cordage bracelet made out of plant fiber or a simple flower.

You do not have to use this exercise in order to find friends in the forest. You may simply choose to visit a tree, plant, rock, or stream and speak to it or put your hands on it. This practice, whether fulfilled daily or every week on your chosen sabbath day, will balance, comfort, and ground both you and the non-human being, just as your friends and family might do. 

Forest bathing meditation: take a look all around you. When you’ve seen all you can see, close your eyes. We take in 80% of our information visually so when we close our eyes, we invite our other senses to awaken. Listen to what you can hear, notice what you can feel, inhale and smell, stick your tongue out and taste....Turn in a circle until you find yourself in a direction that feels good. Give a gesture of greeting to that direction. Then, when you’re ready, open your eyes and imagine that what you’re looking at is looking back at you. #Repost @dearkeely
SUCH A PATH COULD ONLY BE TRAVELLED BY ONE... sensitive to the landmarks of a trackless wilderness.” #thomasmerton art by #olafhajek
April 16, 2019


Week 24: The Fight for Green Space

“Save our park! We don’t go to the Hamptons for vacation, we come here!”

While conservationists battle the current administration to save the National Parks, many urban communities are fighting to save their own small pieces of nature. Access to nature is a human right, not a luxury, yet it seems that poor and vulnerable communities are forced to choose again and again between having green space nearby and maintaining long term security for their families. This tension is especially prevalent in cities, such as New York, where the wealth disparity is extreme. Read on to hear the stories of grassroots organizers and activists who are sorting through the urban green space dilemma. (Illustrations by Callan Burton-Shore)

Tearing Up the Roots of East River Park 

“Save our park! We don’t go to the Hamptons for vacation, we come here!” These words hang on a sign in NYC’s East River Park. Though not as green as Central Park or as tourist-filled as the Hudson River Greenway, East River Park is lined with public housing units whose inhabitants rely on the park for community, fresh air, and time in nature. On any given Saturday, women forage for yucca root, men pull fish out of the water, people sleep in makeshift beds under the pine trees, and families hold celebrations at public grilling sites. In 2018, a plan was made to transform the park into a barrier between rising seas and the vulnerable residents of the public housing units. The plan would both protect the people and maintain a part of the park for them to enjoy, but this plan has now been replaced by one that will not only make the park inaccessible for up to 10 years, but will tear up nearly 100 trees, many of them old growth. The NYCHA said, “We see the City’s push to demolish and bury the East River Park as an assault on our history, and on our continued presence in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.”

Community Gardens in Peril

An abundance of studies show that time spent outside can drastically improve mental and physical health, meaning lack of access to nature is a public health crisis. In New York, community gardens create a system of support and reciprocity with local, low-income communities. According to the Brooklyn Eagle the gardens, “help improve air and soil quality, improve water filtration, reduce neighborhood waste through composting, increase individuals’ consumption of fruits and vegetables...” However, community gardens are often temporary placeholders on abandoned lots and may be torn down for new housing at any moment. Though garden organizers and participants have become used to this reality, many of them still believe it is unjust. But the solution becomes a bit more complex when gardens are replaced by affordable housing: something that NYC is in dire need of. Currently over a dozen gardens are in danger and their volunteers, with the help of lawyers, are fighting the city and private developers to save them. One volunteer, told the New York Times that although garden communities can replant their crops and join a new garden, the damage of uprooting both plants and people is undoable. Another organizer, Aresh Javadi argues that the city should not be able to make these decisions because, “We, the people who are growing the gardens, are the city.”

More Resources:

Thank you for reading! Go outside, stay 6 feet apart, relax.

Week 23: The Sound of the Revolution

Try to Walk Like Thunder, Leaving Footprints that Are Light

This week I wanted to talk about a few songs that share radical perspectives through powerful lyrics. To me these songs carry the energy needed for a revolution to save the earth. Not all of these tunes are explicitly about climate or nature, but human injustice is intertwined with environmental issues; in order to address one, we must address the other. The songs are divided into three sections inspired by the phases of climate grief: accept, mobilize, and heal.

Absorb + Accept

Driving, Driving, Driving: Kimya Dawson

“Try to walk like thunder leaving footprints that are light”

Kimya Dawson, former member of the Moldy Peaches band, is part of the Antifolk genre. In this solo song, she lets out her climate grief, unfiltered. Although some of the lyrics feel childlike and stray from the central message, this is the one of the only songs about the environment that conveys the gravity of the issue and rawness of our collective feelings about it. “The industry is the master, and we’re all the slaves, and we’re driving, driving, driving to our graves.” Dawson sings about a time when we won’t have to strive for “success,” but can live simply, together and be fulfilled. Oddly, this song which my mom described as “very depressing,” feels like a hug to a tired activist.

Little Wheel Spin and Spin: Buffy Sainte-Marie

“Pray like hell when the world explode”

Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Native Canadian singer. In this song, she comments on the never ending cycles of capitalism and racism. Sainte-Marie was stolen from her Cree First Nation family and brought to the U.S. as a child, where she was abused. The tune is soft but the desperation and anger in Sainte-Marie’s voice are powerful enough to mobilize even the most indifferent person. “Hearts they shrink—Pockets swell—Everybody know and nobody tell.” 

Mobilize + Fight

Resilient: Rising Appalachia

“Let's see this system brought down to its knees—I'm made of thunder, I'm made of lightning—I'm made of dirt—made of the fine things”

Sisters Leah and Chloe Smith who make up the folk band Rising Appalachia are hyper aware of their position as two white women singing songs about revolution. “I'll show up at the table, again and again and again. I'll close my mouth and learn to listen.” Their lyrics provide a community for those who feel alone in the fight. The sisters said they wrote ‘Resilient’  because, “there was a deeper need to internalize and be more private, to sit with the bones of our work and re-envision what we would be doing in the years to come.”

Speak Out: Rising Appalachia

I don’t want your guns—I don’t want your poisons—I don’t want your weapons and tools of mass distractions

In an interview, the sisters said this song was inspired by their, “urge to stand for an empowered and diverse South with an environmental wealth to protect instead of the grey cloud of consumption and capitalism, the distortion of privilege and pride.”

Which Side Are You on: Ani DiFranco

“So, let the way of the women—Guide democracy—From plunder and pollution—Let mother earth be free”

Ani DiFranco, gives a spin on the classic, feet-stomping, union song “Which Side Are You on.” The song was originally written by a union leader’s wife to back up a miners’ revolution, but today it has been used by several movements, including the Civil Rights Movement. This song is extremely relevant for a climate protest. In fact, I first heard it at an Extinction Rebellion protest. There are no two sides to environmental justice. DiFranco adjusted many of the lyrics to address current issues such as climate and advocate for socialism. “So are we just consumers? Or are we citizens? Are we gonna make more garbage? Or are we gonna make amends?” I hope that someday the question “which side are you on” will ring in the ears of politicians and moguls alike.

Heal + Come Together

Pachamama: Beautiful Chorus

“Pachamama, I’m coming home, to the place where I belong” 

As discussed in last week’s newsletter, Pachamama is an indigenous Andean Deity meaning “earth mother.” I was introduced to this song by a counselor at the nature connection school I am a part of. The counselor taught it to the group of kids and it was beautiful to hear them all sing it. Although there is no version of this song sung by an indigenous person on Spotify, there is a song called ‘Sumaj Pachamama’ sung by Native South American La Charo in the indigenous language Quechua.

Child of Nature: The Beatles

“I don't need much to set me free, I'm just a child of nature”

Despite the problematic Indian yogi, Maharishi Mahesh, who inspired it, this lesser-known Beatles song is a light and warming reminder of nature and human interconnectedness. John Lennon wrote it about transcendentalism and his homesick longing for nature. One music reviewer posited, “by surrendering to nature, by accepting himself as just part of this scene around him, he is set free. He is no longer “John Lennon” but a part of something bigger.”

Honorable Mentions:

Thank you for checking in! This week, take some time to just listen.

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