When someone gifts you beans, by golly, you gotta plant them.
2 years ago, a beautiful sage, whose hair is spun with silver, and whose gardening wisdom and experience is hard to match, passed these beans on to me and told me there was a story in them. A story? But what kind of story could a bean tell? What does ‘heirloom’ even mean? I held those beans in my hands and there was a little flutter in my heart, and then, of course, I planted them.
They were Mr. Tung’s Pole Beans.
I typed into google, and what I found was actually a really good story. In the early 1900s, Mr. Tung, a Chinese immigrant, brought these beans to BC, where he worked on a small family farm for many years as labourer. He was loved by the family, and he planted a little garden, and it wasn’t long before his beans became a family favourite. Year after year, prolific seasons of Mr. Tung’s beans, until the second world war happened, the family farm lay dormant. The beloved beans were forgotten until many years later when a few were found in a basket. Someone recognized them, and they were planted. Well, those beans remembered the earth and they grew once again. They have been saved and traded around BC for years since. And this, in one story, is what it means to be an heirloom bean.
I planted a small 6 ft row along the garden fence, and even with significant watering neglect during our hottest, driest summer on record, these beans flourished. I didn’t harvest any green beans, because I was intent on drying them, but I have heard that they make a most excellent green bean. The have a thick, meaty pod and I don’t imagine it could ever dry out properly outdoors in this end of season climate, so I picked the long wrinkly pods and brought them in to dry. Even this was a long shot, and I ended up shelling the beans before they rattled because they were getting mushy rotten spots, and I pretty much just couldn’t wait. They were still soft but fully mature, and they dried nicely out of their shell turning from a very light grey (think deathly pallor) to a light mushroom brown or taupe, and they tasted great – nice firm, creamy texture, similar to a yellow potato.
One bean planted turns into: Food. Story. Gratitude.
Thank you Mother Earth, thank you Mr. Tung, and thank you, Jeannie, for passing them my way.
And with that one bean inspiration, last summer I managed to plant 20 different varieties of heirloom beans, each with their own unique story that honours the act of saving, the art of remembering, and the beautiful act of planting a seed and watching it grow. (metaphor!!)
Growing a crop of drying beans is a long and intimate relationship with each different variety. There’s ways in which you’ll come to know their unique characteristics of growth; the habits of the plant, the speed at which it germinates, the race to the sun, and when they flower. You’ll learn about hardiness, tolerances, tenacity. You’ll discover what beans bear prolific pods, the characteristics of each pod, the size and shape and texture and feel, the thickness, the way it dries, the way it lets go of its beans. You’ll pick favourites.
But the best part? The best part of all, are the baskets of beans. Submerging your hands in the silky glistening morsels. The weight, the softness, the swishy clicking of hard shells falling between fingers. The colours, the way each bean is a jewel. Each bean a painting, a work of art. Each bean saved, passed down, remembered. Each and every bean, a story.
One time, I was standing in my garden with my friend Jill, when she reached into her dirty farm pants pocket, and handed me about a dozen beans. I’m not sure what they are, she said. I think they’re Russian. And just like that, the long slender black and brown mystery beans passed from her hand to mine, were dropped into my dirty farm pants pockets, and from there, they bore another generation, and another chapter in their story began.
These pods were particularly fleshy and firm, long and slender. They gripped their beans ever tighter as they dried. But with each pod I tediously shelled, I started to find a rainbow. There were pods containing white, gold, burgundy, purple, and blue, all the way to black.
A mysterious rainbow, from the mysterious beans!
All of the beans are pure delight to my boy too…as long as he doesn’t have to eat them— my cruel irony, I know! He just loves to dive his little hands into the beans, and bury his toys, and sift and pile and scoop and pour. He always promises not to spill the beans… but nevertheless I’ve learned that spreading a bed sheet out under the baskets is a smart way to avoid dog hair and dust bunnies mixed in. And let me tell you, there’s never an instance of me vacuuming or sweeping my house without finding at least one little dried bean hiding somewhere.
But I gotta say, if this is how his relationship with beans begins, then I think it’s a mighty solid start.
Now, how do you choose which beans to grow?
Choose your beans by how they inspire you. Choose them by their story. Choose them because they were a gift. Choose them by what grows well in your part of the world. Choose them by what you love to eat. Choose them for fun, and experience, and hope, and joy.
This is Lingua De Fuoco. Fire Tongue. This also was a gift from my friend Jill, from Shorewolf Farm. It’s a bean that I, for some reason (miscommunication), thought was going to be a bush bean. It is not a bush bean! It is a climbing, reaching, vining, pole bean. It was more vigorous than most of my other beans, and last year, (my first year) I did not provide it with adequate support… It’s a producer. So many big red pods, so many succulent beans. I came to understand that pole beans are the big money. That vertical climb means more pods per plant, and in those pods… are bigger beans. So use that fence, any sort of vertical support. And you will see for yourself. A bean wonderland!!
It wouldn’t be entirely fair if I didn’t mention the dedication, the stress, and the hours of work it takes to dry beans in our wet, rainy, west coast climate. You can hope and pray for a warm dry September all you want. That *might* work. You can obsess over the forecast, and go out there everyday, feeling the pods for signs of dryness, or.. rot. You can harvest and bring all your mature beans to dry indoors, which is not ideal, but it will save them if the weather turns wet. And speaking from experience, that just becomes part of the story… your deep attachment, unwavering commitment, (borderline obsession LOL) to this endeavour!
My colourful little trophy jewels, my homegrown heirloom protein morsels, each one a precious symbol of the 2021 season of growth, the hard work, the reciprocity of my garden, the labour of love, our growing self-sufficiency. But I know they are too delicious to just be sitting up there on the shelf.
Indeed, beans take a little forethought to cook up from dry, and that excuse can mean the jars never get opened for supper. So I decided to pressure-can a couple batches so they’d actually get eaten.
And now we have cooked, (though remarkably less colourful and beautiful) canned beans at the ready to add into soups, chilis, veggie sautés, tacos, and, oh, anything else you could imagine! …I love them as a side with eggs in the morning too…
Step by step:
Pour somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 a cup of dry beans in a half-pint jar.
Fill the rest of the way with water, and soak overnight.
Beans should have expanded to fill the jar. Make sure there is 1/2” headspace. Adjust water and bean levels as necessary.
Screw on lids, and place in your trusted pressure canner, (If you know what you’re doing)
Bring canner to 12lbs of pressure, and cook for 90 mins. (Actually, it might be too long for some varieties. It’s perfect for black beans, but others got a little overcooked)
Now. This is important. BE SURE TO LABEL YOUR JARS. They all look the same after cooking.
We’ve been adding beans to soups and stews, tacos and rice. I love them with our homemade tomato sauce, over spaghetti squash. I intended on taste testing, comparing, contrasting, really scientifically investigating each and every kind of bean, and making decisions for the next season based on what we like best. But. We liked them all. And so I made decisions based on trying new ones, ones that promise a high yield and early maturation. And from the ones we’ve already grown, I chose those that were productive and were easy to dry. Ones we enjoyed shelling, beans that we loved to feel, and beans that are just so beautiful.
It’s been a crazy cold and wet spring, but finally the weather looks to be reliable above 10′ over night, so that is time for planting beans. If beans are too cold, they won’t germinate, they will just rot.
We counted down the days to bean planting day. Today, May 29th, we got 1374 beans in the ground. 18 different varieties. Arrowynn plunked them into the holes, and carefully navigated the newly planted rows. It took 3 women 2 hours to plant all those beans, and it’s going to be a beautiful crop. …. But I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to sleep if I don’t plant that one last section, boost my bean count to 1500, and add 2 more varieties for an even 20.
So. I’m not done yet.
And there are so many reasons. Like food security, and plant protein, and baskets of jewels and the pure and simple love of growing and nurturing a life.
Here are the seeds of hope for this year:
The most current update- May 29, 2022, 6:00pm: I did plant 2 more varieties, Calypso, and Jacob’s Gold, but was 6 beans short of 60 on each row, so I am 16 beans short of 1500, and it’s touch and go, but maybe I can sleep tonight. I’ll try and make it a goal, anyway. Because there’s actually no more space for beans in my garden. The beans are bursting at the seams! And I just can’t wait to see those little heads poking out….
So stay tuned! This story isn’t over yet.
I live in secret meadow surrounded by trees.
The branches pull me into their being.
I sleep with my windows open.
The wild air blows into my dreams.
Every night, and
I light a cooking fire,
A warming fire,
A medicine fire.
I love the earth, and she loves me
I tend the soil and plant her seeds
I gather food and herbs and fire wood
This is our sacred exchange
One promise, shared needs
I am a part of all this –
I want to tell stories about all that I love
and all I have learned
River mint and toads
Devil’s Club, Nootka rose
Learning the rhythm,
The thing is
I was born again as a witch
A robin witch; a good witch
That which is connected to the earth
Treasures, plays, and always sees
You see, there are these speckles in my eyes,
There’s these dreams….
Sometimes with a birth of a being, there is a breaking; a complete shattering ,so that all the fibers of that being are released or rearranged, and set free. And so it was with this being.
Her first incarnation was as a child of intense wonder and imagination. She played alone in her own world; dolls, elves, fairylands. She preferred the wilderness of her imagination to all other realms, and spent most of her time there. And as it happens as children grow older, her precious world began to shrink. The strands that held her, connected her to home slowly weakened as she worked and behaved and assimilated her desires into the collective expectation. Though this disconnection filled her with desolate grief, her dreams held strong to the last remaining strands and on the deepest nights she visited that wild and visceral place of true home. It was never and always the same, and upon awakening her longing to return consumed her. So she put a sacred wish out to the universe, a prayer in her bones.
In time, the universe heard her prayer and responded in the most unexpected way; a way that still hurts to think back on, a way that challenged her spirit, shook her up and flung her way up into the clouds, spinning her so fast she couldn’t remember her own dream and she forgot who she was. It was a way of death and rebirth and brokenness and truth. It came as a storm of heartbreak, illusion, unrequited love; a hurricane of emotional betrayal, a catalyst that exposed her, tricked her, and dissolved her sense of security. It was a long and drawn out agony that rendered her so distorted and small that she no longer resembled a woman at all. But so it was. And as her prayer’s answer took this traumatic shape, her eyes swallowed the light of the earth and moon and stars, and despite the unbearable pain of it all, she completely surrendered everything she had. And then everything went black.
When she was able to see again she caught the shadow figure of a man walking away, and she discovered that she had been taken to the woods and left there for dead. As she looked around she noticed mountain and river, spruce and alder, clover and ferns, swamp and moss. There was elk and raven, eagle and bear. She was in a secret river valley meadow, with acres and acres of forest all around. Although there was something familiar about this place, she felt as deeply lost as she had ever been. She felt so alone and cold, and in her head and in her heart she couldn’t see straight, she couldn’t discern beauty, couldn’t find her dreams. She couldn’t find a way past her raw and painful wounds and loneliness.
Little did she know that someone was watching her. From the alder and cascara branches, the old fence posts and the newly turned earth, the rotting stumps and grassy meadow, the robins were witnessing everything. With dark eyes like ancient pools circled by a bright white ring, the robins saw her with great clarity and wisdom. They understood that the woman needed something only they could teach. They knew that endings were in fact beginnings, and this was the time for her renewal. The robins sensed her desire to feel the simple joys again, saw her buried dream in the dim of her eyes, and they collectively decided to become her guides.
Mother Robin took her in, tucked her securely into the fold of her wing, and encased her essence in a protective shell, a bright and hopeful shade of blue. She was placed in a nest woven of all the elements of the meadow and forest, and held within the comfort of a deep deep softness and peace. And from inside this little egg, with the warmth and tenderness of Mother Robin’s love, she was soon reborn.
With a warm and gentle cracking, and opening of light, and guidance from Mother Robin, she had grown the ability to speak from her heart, see clearly into herself, find her voice again, express her truth, and heal the pains of her past. A light-heartedness had replaced her anxiousness, and hope coloured the core of her thoughts and feelings. It was the very first spring of her new life.
The meadow nest was a place of many teachings and lessons. Mother Robin spoke often of abundance and love and faith. She taught many songs of joy and gratitude. Dandelions bloomed into galaxies below, and the night was lit by the same stars above. She was given the love and nurturing she had lost, and so needed. When it was time, Mother Robin encouraged her fledgling to take flight and realize her oneness with the air and the earth. To let go of childhood grief, and to open her wings into her very own wholeness. She was home, she was remembered.
And as she opened into her true self and saw that she was completely at home in that ethereal dream she had so missed, she understood the value of patience. All that she had endured through her transformation she could now look on with compassion and reverence. Her heart was calm, her vision clear. There was a sparkle of magic inside her now, and she was forever changed.
“This is the Robin Witch,” Mother Robin announced to all the creatures of the forest and meadow in the morning chorus. “She is one with the forest that feeds us, and the land that depends on our love. The earth and moon and stars are there, in her eyes. She is a seer of truth, beholder of wisdom and light. She is ours as we are hers.”
And then in a softer voice meant only for her, Mother Robin turned to her and said, “Your eyes shine differently now, you see. Your life will no longer be ordinary.” And as she watched Mother Robin fly up into the trees, the Robin Witch felt her feet plant firmly into the ground, invisibly rooting to the precious earth below.
And so, the young Robin Witch made her home there, a cabin in the trees, a medicine garden in the sun, and claimed her life like she never had before. In doing this, she attracted the very things she needed. One of these things was a handsome woodsman who knew how to hold her heart tight, but in just the right way that made her feel more wild and free than if she were alone. The Robin Witch had such a big and tender heart, and to let in rest in the arms of another was a beautiful relief. With the woodsman by her side, her magic grew even stronger.
As she walked the woods around her cabin, she began to notice and identify all the plants and flowers she met. Before long, she was communing with each of them for they quickly became her dearest friends. The first stars of springtime reflected as speckles in her eyes; the fawn lilies, dandelions, and salmonberry blooms. She inhaled the deliciously soft sweetness of bracken fern and nootka rose, the sharp peppery scent of cottonwood, and the crisp citrus green of cedar and spruce, bonding her to them, and to the earth. Summer brought her sweetness in berries, friendships with toads and choirs of songbirds in the early dawn. Autumn provided the earthy nourishment of mushrooms and roots, rosehips and rain. The trees turning gold, and the mist creeping in led her to winter, when she huddled up in her cabin wrapped in the arms of her woodsman, and her Mother Robin whispering through her dreams reminders of all the gifts she has been given, and all she has given to this land in return….
I made potions in the forest when I was a child. but it wasn’t until I left the city-life I knew, and began this wild, start-from-scratch, off-the-grid life, that I took the first real steps on this journey. And then I took some giant leaps and became totally airborne, ungrounded, and not exactly sure how to put one foot in front of the other. So I listened to a song in my heart that was calling me toward plant medicine.
I had learned the names of the wild things that grew throughout the woods of Robinwood and beyond. I foraged spring greens, summer berries, fall mushrooms, and I dried wild flowers and drank them as teas. One day in late 2016, I came across the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, and took the plunge. It was one of the best decisions I made for myself, and in doing so, I was pulled from the floating clouds of infinite possibilities, down to the ground, the rich soil, the seeds, the medicine of the earth.
Here are some of my favourite photos and memories of this journey.
I began with a loose and ambitious plan and garden designed around tractor accessibility with long straight rows, and the entire perimeter of the garden tilled up to be turned into beds. (Later, it would become apparent that I should have tilled out under and past the garden fence, as there’s nothing like long, unmowable grass and buttercup to seed endless weeds.
I also got busy and planted about 700 seeds in soil blocks in the hoop house, most of which fell victim to rascal mice. So, re-doing many of the seed trays the seedling count was in the thousands. It was so nice and warm in there.
I had all the rows sifted and mulched by April, a gaggle of toads had moved in to the hoop house to keep me company, and I planted 25 blueberry plants.
Summer 2017 was all about the garden. I focused on two rows of vegetables, and the rest was flowers and herbs, mostly perennials. Every seed I started was loved and became a part of the garden. Most of the perennials, like the echinacea, wild bergamot, valerian didn’t grow more than a few inches high. But the annuals, like California Poppy, Calendula, Borage, and the mints and catnip grew like crazy and I dried so many herbs that summer. I took advantage of the natural abundance in the meadow and harvested rose petals, self heal, red clover, yarrow, plantain, dandelion, cottonwood, burdock….
You can’t see in the basket, but it was full of Self-heal, (prunelis vulgaris) which grows wild through the meadow.
Cleaning and cutting up dandelion root down at the office. My apprentice watching and learning. And we found an eagle feather!!!
Even Doug is intoxicated by the lovely scent of Elderflower!
Down at the office again, which is also the wild mint garden.
Earliest of springtime foraging; the sticky resinous cottonwood buds for Balm of Gilead.
And here it is, “The Herb Bus” and it worked pretty well for drying the herbs, although it was very vulnerable to weather and temperature changes… that is; it got very damp in there on cool rainy days, and hot as can be when the sun shone bright. Maybe not the best drying conditions.
Catnip and yarrow drying in the Herb Bus
I can’t even describe how lovely this was.
I set up this huge screen in the bus to dry the rose petals, but the bus got way too hot I think and the petals all ended up losing their colour and fragrance. I left them there too long.
After 2 failed attempts at propagating echinacea from seed, (ya ya, dang mice) and then waiting a whole year to see these blooms, you can believe I was pretty thrilled! It was the first time growing it, and I had no idea that the cone was so spikey and hard!
A garden’s best friend. Comfrey! I harvest this a couple times per year. A full morning sitting with the bees, hacking down the comfrey and then cutting the leaves off the stalks for mulch for the other plants in the garden. It is also, as you may know, a potent healing medicine for wounds and injuries.
My Happy Place, a jungle of nasturtiums!!! (Where are those tomatoes and cucumbers even???)
I made a ton of this pesto; Wild mint, Lemon Balm, Tulsi, and Calendula. It was pretty great.
I did not anticipate the romance with flowers that blossomed with this course!! (Along with my belly 🙂
Making California Poppy Tincture, which is good for anxiety and sleep.
Monarda Fistulosa. First year I planted it they only got at most about 12 inches high, with no blooms. Second year, they are HUGE! You can smell this patch from a long ways off.
Kind of in love with the Wild Bergamot.
So, second year, being pregnant, I did not have such a prolific drying operation, I just used my little cabin kitchen. Here is the Wild Bergamot drying.
So. many. jars.
Here is a bountiful harvest of Usnea, and liquorice fern root. Can’t go for a walk in the woods without a basket around here! I have a friend who is a naturopath, and she told me that this Usnea tincture was one of the best, and most medicinally potent she’d ever tried. Woohoo!!
Relaxing after a long day in the herb garden…. 😉
And here is my certificate…. I hope that all these photos inspire you all. I started out not knowing much at all. And now I have a massive herb garden, and a fully developed passion for getting down and dirty in the garden, nurturing and growing food, herbs, and flowers for the bees, a love of foraging, plant identification, and finding magic in the beautiful earth.
I now grow echinacea, lemon balm, valerian, vervain, marshmallow, licorice, witch hazel, arnica, california poppy, wild bergamot, catnip, elderberry, calendula, tulsi, hops, lambsquarters, thyme, sage, rosemary, motherwort, forsythia, elecampane, spilanthes, astragalus, lavender, daylily, fennel, tobacco, comfrey, chamomile.. oh there’s more I’m sure, as well as what grows wild around here. I’m in a state of abundance, and pure joy.
There are way more photos of the garden and life in general out here, in the month by month archives… if you have nothing else to do!
This March, we got away from Robinwood!! The thick of the winter took its toll, so we snuck away for 10 days to a different kind of paradise. We were lucky enough to be the spoiled guests of my dear high school friends, Dave and Michelle who are both talented designers and down to earth really good humans living in the Caribbean. Lots of laughs, great food, awesome company, fun in the sun (and the shade), and ohhhh it was so nice and warm!!! The ferrel chickens and roosters, the parrots and grackles, the super swift little lizards, and that one night when a scorpion crossed in front of me, as I was taking Arrowynn to bed. (We captured it, honoured it, and decided it’s fate… what else? leave it to wander the suite where little feet were pitter pattering??) and the only thing missing was a chance to take photos of the underwater world that we explored almost every day. We swam with a sea turtle and stingrays and tarpins and parrot fish, needle fish, barracuda, ocean trigger fish, angel fish, cera, box puffers, grouper, barjacks and many more colourful and beautiful fish.
We came home under the wire as the pandemic started to explode, and are all healthy and happy to be home in this secluded paradise of our own. I’ve been since busy expanding our garden, and Byron continues to work away at the house. In these uncertain times, we certainly have a lot to do. Much love.
I take so many photos, and some of them capture magic, capture my heart, or capture a moment so perfectly, that they become favourites. In my idea to make a compilation of these, it was going to be a Top 10 list, but it turns out, I have waaay more 2019 favourites than that. I’ve pared it down to Top 25.
1. This tiny little person, climbing into his ‘playroom’. His wool vest, his wool slippers, his little blue corduroy pants. We are so lucky to have this magic school bus parked so near to the garden, where we can play, nap, and just get out of the cabin once in a while.
2. Hitching a ride with the garden harvest, two-fisting the tomatoes. This is the greatest gift of gardening. Duggy not missing a moment, waiting for his hand-outs.
3. The love between these two souls is the strongest kind of love there is.
4. In black and white, there is something epic about this photo. A mysterious story in the furrowed brow, the blind love in mumma’s kisses.
5. Before he could walk, this boy wanted to climb. Pulling his tiny lil body up the back of the chair, always moving, exploring, reaching up up up…
6. He couldn’t quite stand on his own at this point, but this photo says otherwise. He was practicing balance, and the camera clicked at the right moment, we are in our very special spot, the light is magic, the forest so alive and Duggy, always sitting by.
7. Tri-colour September harvest! Such beauty in abundance, don’t you think? Can’t you just taste the juicy sweetness? The burst of fresh-from-the-garden deliciousness?
8. And more beauty of summertime. berry picking love forever.
9. This look, this garden baby with his bonnet… I can’t even…
10. Maybe this is a biased pick, maybe it’s a photo for a mumma to love best, but this adorable sweet baby, sleeping with his favourite little black piggy clutched in his tiny hand goes straight to my heart. I could stare at his angel face forever.
11.This one captures not just a moment, but a whole summer of watching Byron build our house, a little nakie bum, blankets and baby toys scattered in the shade.
12. A pensive consideration of PB&J. This guy has taken slowly, independently, and stubbornly to solid foods. No baby mush for this dude.
13. Home. Colorful, magical, tiny little home. Simple life, simple pleasures, and laundry.
14.Oh mother Robin, a nest so low to the ground, a nest I could peer right into, so trusting, and so vulnerable. This made my eyes well up with tears.
15. A barred owl!! Oh how I love my big camera lens!
16. Do you think this will embarrass him when he’s older?
17. A head like a peach, a look that says a thousand uncertain words. And the grass, oh my god.
18. It’s all about angles with a 4 month old. This sad little monkey-elf blob, is the same boy as the next photo, taken on the same day even!
19. Life. Happiness. So frickin pure.
20. The alders. The misty cool magical alder grove. Looks endless. It’s really not.
21. And this moment, this snow day scene. These are the cozy moments and the days that are treasured so deeply in all the cells my heart.
22. There’s a world of magic in every book. Look how the light seems to come right out of the book itself. And the book they are reading?!! I don’t set this stuff up, people! This is real life.
23. This one could be the winner, for me I think. Out of all of them, this face, this delight, joy, innocence and sweet mischief. This sparkle. This is my boy. This is my heart.
24. This was Arrowynn’s first Halloween costume, and he was the perfect adorable puppy dog.
25. And, this HILARIOUS photo shoot, with my little Gino. I couldn’t pick just one photo from this set, so here are 6. LOL
Thanks for indulging me, and having a look at my faves of this year!!! What are your top picks?
Do you know me? Do you know how I’ve waited my whole life for this kind of love? This deep breath, whole heart, so strong, so vulnerable, so interesting and so safe kind of love? This growing, changing, never *really* doubting kind of love? This laughing dancing, hugging, family making love. This is it, you guys, my time has come. Our time has come.
I’ve rested in these loving arms for quite a while now, but I can honestly say this was the happiest of Thanksgivings yet. He cooked a beautiful feast for me, my dad, and Arrowynn. We sat down to dinner, we began our toasts of gratitude. He said I feel like I’ve loved you my whole life. Everything turned into a blur. He said, this is long over due. I was crying. He said, it’s time to kick it up a notch. Swimming. Rachel, he said, Will you marry me? I said of course. Of course. Of course. Of course.
YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL
But you can have two hungry dogs, restless and pestering for bowls of kibble, teeth gnashing, playful wrestling, and finally the blissed out crunching, water lapping. A blurred line between animal and human, endless battles for space on the couch.
You can have the gentle rustle of a baby waking up slowly, turning, sitting up, smiling and flopping back down into the warm nook of your arm, your own eyes still mostly closed. His little heart beating with energy ready for a new day. And the morning fires, slow boiling kettle, long wait for first cup of tea.
You can’t have time to paint like before, but you can have your camera, and an eye for beauty, and a herd of elk grazing out you window in the dawn mist.
You can’t have running water, but you have buckets and strong arms to bring water from the river, patience to heat it slowly when the weather turns cool, a whole afternoon once a week, dedicated to having a bath.
You can’t have marble and opulence, pristine open space, austere minimalism and grandeur. But you can have your grandma’s crochet afghans, smelling like dog, the old golden chair that your mother nursed you in, and where your father read Goodnight Moon to his two little daughters, one in each arm. You can have a wooden floor that is never clean, the constant movement of dirt.
You can’t have the ones who broke your heart, but you can have the one who won’t let it go, your head buried in his chest that feels like the ocean, holding you safe and unsinkable.
You can have fistfuls of peanut m&ms, Seinfeld DVDs, and sweet banter texting with your dad while you wait for your love, headlights emerging from the trees, the uproar of barking dogs at dusk, the sudden excitement, “Papa! Papa! Papa!”
You can’t have your dearest friends living close by, but you can have the meadow, the ring of familiar trees changing with the seasons, the morning chorus, the watchful mountain, the flooding rain and river surge.
You can’t have sweet nothingness, a day without chores, but you can have cottonwood fluff falling so soft in June, like little snowflakes, wishes, and you can have the swallows and the scent of sweet peas.
You can’t have a garden without getting dirty and you’ll never have enough time to do it all. You have creeping buttercup, and sheep sorrel, slug wars, mouse poo, cabbage moth, mould. You have the sharp prick of thistle underfoot, memories of a sea of them, now few and far between. You have progress slowly unfolding.
You can’t have your mother earthside, to know as a woman, but you can have her visit your dreams, and you can remember her hands, her touch, her soft skin. And you have your childhood, still so alive in you, still so clear.
You can have music and laughter, the sound of rain on a metal roof and shelves of beautiful books waiting to be read. You can have jars and jars of dried herbs, decoctions simmering on the stove. You can have the smell of woodsmoke in your hair.
You can have nostalgia in the turning seasons, especially in summer’s end, when the air becomes crisp again, the eagles chatter, the salmon in the river. Leaves beginning to litter gold, yellow ochre. Spider webs, rose hips, blackberry.
You can have a sore back and you can have doubt and courage at the same time. You can have your baby, as many kisses as you like, you can have every early moment of his life. You can have motherhood in all it’s surrender and joy. But you can’t hold him like this forever.
You can’t have certainty, or control. Ever. But you can have freedom. You can have unpredictable days that nonetheless unfold in series of familiar rhythms. You can have a home that you love, that is built out of your dream, your hard work and effort and your will to never give up, to give it all.
You can’t have it all, but there is this.
****This is my own version of a poem by Barbara Ras, called “You Can’t Have It All” As soon as I read it, I thought, everyone should write this poem for themselves. Thank you Barbara, for the inspiration.
YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL -By Barbara Ras
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so.
You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together.
And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva.
You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa.
And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.
May your childhood be long and glorious
May all your adventures be great
May you do everything your heart desires
Before it gets too late
May you know your true belonging
And never feel alone
May you always love the colour green
May it make you think of home
May you jump in rivers, lakes and seas
And let the sunshine dry your skin
May you know when things don’t work out right,
You can always try again
May your feet be firmly planted
To the earth below
May you live a life of wonder
May you always learn and grow
May you truly be connected
To the stars above
May your heart be brave and unguarded
And open to all kinds of love
May you see the true potential
In every little seed
May you always find abundance
But take only what you need
May you look upon the forest
As if it were your home
And may you feel a deep reverence
For the wild unknown
May you tend a happy garden
And be sure to get a dog
May you know that kind of kinship
May you have that kind of bond
May you see the intrinsic beauty
In the tiniest of things
May you find genuine acceptance
For whatever life may bring
May you look into an animals eyes
And see it’s precious soul
And may you love it’s life so much,
You’ll bravely let it go
May you live a life of passion
Never waste a day
May you work hard at jobs that matter
But make lots of time to play
May you learn the language of birds
And hear the voice of trees
May you know the natural medicine
In all the common weeds
May you trust you’ve got the answers
Deep inside of you
If you listen closely,
You’ll know what to do
May you never live a day
Without knowing how important you are
How much your family loves you
Like the sun and moon and stars
But if there’s only one thing I can wish for you
This is my greatest wish of all,
My darling may you love your life,
May you love your life, if that’s all
“Spring is the mischief in me”. This is a quote by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a writer, storyteller doctor of Jungian psychology, teacher, and reminder to all of us about the beautiful and mystical side of life. If you haven’t read her work, or listened to her stories, and are into the meaning behind dreams and archetypal symbology in folk tales, I can tell you with enthusiasm that she’s the cream of the crop.
I love the simplicity and fun in that quote, and when I go into the woods on any given early spring day, when the sun is coaxing the moisture out of the ground and up into the warming air, tree sap is running and buds are beginning to grow, a green blush moves through the canopy of alders, the cottonwood comes alive with its intoxicating perfume, and I imagine the trees embodied as that quote.
The aroma of cottonwood wafts gently through the sunbeams and birdsong. It smells of newness and sticky mineral-rich liquid amber both peppery and sweet. I read somewhere that Cottonwood trees have been revered as spiritual conduits to some first peoples. Because they are so very tall, and reach way up high into the sky, they are close enough to touch the heavens, and send messages to the spirit world. If I couldn’t love cottonwood any more for it’s scent, its for this beautiful concept.
So, at first sign of spring, I go into the woods and under the giants to harvest the resinous buds from cottonwood windfall resulting from the winter storms. You know, it sometimes takes a while for a fallen branch to realize it’s no longer a part of the tree. It still contains the energy of life and will form buds in a glorious final attempt to show appreciation for the warming days, and the very cycle of the seasons. And this is all received graciously, like a gift, by me.
But not just me. The bees are also gifted these resinous buds as they wake up from their winter slumbers, and they cleverly use them to make propolis which is basically their own medicine and glue to help protect the hives. It probably goes without saying, “a friend of bees is a friend of me.”
So, I collect the buds in late March or early April, and my fingers turn brown and sticky. I bring my hands up to my face often to breathe in the invigorating sweet smell of the wetland woods, the fragrance of the sky and breezes of spring. It smells like my happy childhood out in the bush and the nostalgic energy that comes with days getting longer, and emergent growth all around. I can spend hours out there, communing with the birds and the bugs, all of us happily saying hello to each other, getting reacquainted after a long winter apart, tucked away each in our own little worlds.
Cottonwood buds make a really nice topical medicine. The thick red sticky resin in each bud is packed with antimicrobial properties, anti-oxidants, and contains a chemical compound called Salicin which is an anti-inflammatory also found in willow trees, and is the origin of aspirin. Mixed with oils and beeswax, this resin can be made into a salve often called “balm of Gilead”.
(I have made some salves which will soon be available for order here)
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.