Thursday, September 27, 2012
Sitting With Plants
"If you were to sit under an oak tree for an entire day, you would have enough information to write an entire book." ~ John Burroughs
So my first class at the conference was with my herbal hero Paul Bergner. He's absolutely brilliant and has an utterly profound connection with nature and plants that will bring tears to your eyes when you hear him speak about his experiences.
The class I took with him was called How to Sit With a Plant.
"In the grasping utilitarian model of herbalism, we want to know what the plants are 'good for'. In a vitalist model we want to know the plant on its own terms just for the sake of love and connectedness. Uses or powers of the plant may be revealed, and will be for the most, but for the herbalist, what is learned by not using a plant may be more valuable than any medicinal use. Love and connectedness themselves may be more important to the healer than one more item for the materia medica. We will practice methods of clearing and stilling the grasping self, of perception in the 'middle world', and attunement to a plant on every level."
Now all that may sound a little esoteric and woo woo to some, but the actual practice is exceedingly simple and practical.
Paul discussed sit spots, slow walking, wide angle vision and mind's eye drawing.
A Sit Spot is a nature awareness technique of finding a spot in nature, visiting the same spot every day for a minimum of 20 minutes and observing the environment over a prolonged period of time to gain a sense of understanding of self and place and witness the natural progression of seasons, changes in patterns and interactions of different elements in a system. The two main requirements of a sit spot are that it be close to your home and that it is a safe space to visit. Ideally it will have a good view, biodiversity and be wild in the sense that the area is uncultivated, but it doesn't have to be in a remote, rural area. One should visit their sit spot during daylight and darkness, wind, rain, snow and sun. Paul tells many profound stories of his sit spot that he visited daily for seven year (missing only 11 days), including one time when he found himself in the middle of a herd of deer. He was able to be so close to them because he had witnessed that generation of deer being born and raised and they were completely familiar with him in their environment.
Slow walking is exactly what it sounds like: walking sloooowly, taking soft, measured steps and moving lightly across the landscape, observing your surroundings and engaging all the senses in becoming increasingly aware of yourself and the environment.
Wide angle vision is simply the practice of using your peripheral vision to see as much area as possible. Try extending your arms out to the side and wiggling your fingers. Can you see them? That's wide angle vision and an excellent technique to recognise patterns.
Mind's eye drawing is the practise of looking closely at an object (like a plant), observing fine details and then closing the eyes and 'drawing' the plant in your mind. When you get to an empty spot where detail is missing you go back to viewing the object to fill in the detail. This allows you to intimately know the object in a way that you simply can't achieve by looking at a picture or drawing alone. The best way to do this with a plant is with your belly on the ground!
Paul talked about some of the barriers that get in the way or keep people from these practices like boredom, loneliness, mosquitoes etc. He said that often our own internal stuff keeps us from seeing a plant and veils our perception and that it is important to become aware of our own agenda and drives that might be getting in the way.
According to Paul, in order to sit with a plant you have to be from nature and to be from nature you have to give up the desire to get something, which requires letting go of the grasping self.
I know from my own experiences of wildcrafting and foraging that sometimes it's hard not to see a stand of plants and think 'oh jackpot!' and in my enthusiasm, rush in and gather more than I need or without even a clear intention of what I would use the plants for.
Paul took us out into the ponderosa pine forest to try it all out. I really like how the practices encourage slowing down and connecting with plants and nature without harvesting, focusing on the utility of plants, or acquiring botanical knowledge from books.
Within a couple of days of returning from the conference I found my own sit spot by the river and have made daily visits for about a week now. It's still early days yet, but so far the practice has been wonderful, even in the pouring rain! At first I thought it might be hard to sit for a whole 20 minutes, but there's so much to observe that I'm often there for twice as long without even realising it. The amazing thing is, each day I witness something completely new and utterly delightful. I've watched the bees gathering pollen from the New England asters, and the wind carry off the seed fluff of Joe Pye Weed into the gracefully bending cattails. I've seen great blue herons, cormorants, gulls, crows and many species of ducks including hooded mergansers. One day a red dragonfly landed on the tip of my nose then sat on the back of my hand for at least five minutes; plenty of time for me to do a mind's eye drawing! This morning I watched a crayfish get into a tussle with something while a little fish hovered nearby. Then a muskrat or otter (hopefully I'll figure out which) plopped into the water right at my feet, looked up at me and speedily dove off into the middle of the river.
Paul Bergner's class was a fabulous start to the conference, that introduced me to a joyful practice that I hope to make a daily routine for a long time to come.
Here are some pictures of my spot over the last few days.