“What Would Gene Stratton-Porter Do?”

After years of saying, “We should tour the Gene Stratton-Porter homes,” we finally visited two historic sites in the northeast corner of our state last week. We went to Rome City and Geneva to tour homes inhabited by Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th century author/conservationist/nature photographer.

You can be forgiven for not knowing her name, though she was beloved by our grandparents’ generation for her romance novels set against the backdrop of a disappearing wilderness. Even most Indiana residents are unfamiliar with the work of our state’s most widely read female author of all time. But in her day, she was embraced by enthusiastic fans all over the world.

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Portrait of Gene Stratton-Porter, via Creative Commons

Stratton-Porter married a well-to-do businessman who must have been a brave man to wed such an independent-minded woman. She “shed social conventions like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon,” to quote a book I’m reading about something completely different.

Hubby didn’t want her to explore the vast Limberlost Swamp, though they lived right on the edge of this intriguing wilderness. At that time the marshland (later to be drained for farming and drilled for oil) was dangerous uncharted territory—teeming with Massasauga rattlesnakes, boggy muck, swarms of insects, and the occasional unsavory character.

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Limberlost Cabin in Geneva, where Gene Stratton-Porter began her writing and photography career. Her many-windowed conservatory is facing us.

But Stratton-Porter’s love of the natural world compelled her, and in the end her husband relented, accompanying her on expeditions to photograph wildlife and collect specimens.

Her best-known book A Girl of the Limberlost, among others both fiction and nonfiction, brought this place to life for people worldwide. One of our guides told us that she’d worked out a deal with her publisher: I will write you a crowd-pleasing story as you require (heavy on nature details), and then I will write a nature book of my own choosing. Rinse. Repeat.

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She helped build this low stone wall around Limberlost Cabin, with openings for wildlife.

We learned that she wore what was considered mannish clothing, that she served her husband dandelion and horseradish stew with hambone (he dubbed it “fodder”), that she organized a bucket brigade the night her husband’s businesses were threatened by fire while he was away. This woman was, in modern parlance, fierce.

I went on this trip mildly interested in her as a part of Indiana’s literary history, having read A Girl of the Limberlost sometime back. But I came away as full-on fangirl. I jokingly told a friend that my new philosophy should be “What would GSP do?” (except for the ironic not-driving thing—apparently she was afraid to drive, and in fact was killed in a car wreck at age 61).

So, what would she do?

  • She’d hyphenate her name as her nom de plume, well before the time when women commonly retained their family names.
  • She’d drop out of high school, but attend Chautauqua meetings for her own edification.
  • She’d monitor all the bird nests on her family’s farm as a child, honing her powers of observation and her connection to wild creatures.
  • She’d teach herself photography, developing early box-camera pictures in a bathroom that she converted into a darkroom.
  • She’d purchase a piece of land on a mile of lakefront, and design her own home, and supervise its construction, rowing across the lake every morning to check on the workmen. (Husband came on weekends.)
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Wildflower Woods on Sylvan Lake, the house that she designed and used as creative workshop.

  • She’d collect stones from her friends’ travels, from all then-48 states, and build a fireplace using them, creating images in the stonework’s artful placement.
  • She’d sleep with cocoons, so as to be ready when the butterfly emerged. She’d live in a houseful of winged creatures. (Later, she would write of her realization that the only ethical way to interact with these creatures was in their native habitat, so presumably she no longer kept them indoors.)
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Where she slept with cocoons. Note them hanging from the bedframe and gathered on her bedside table.

  • She’d be exacting in the execution of her creative vision. If a photograph didn’t come out right, she’d return as many times as it took to get the one she wanted. No matter how treacherous or buggy the territory might be.
  • She’d carry on with her work even as literary critics and scientists alike dismissed her; she’d see herself as a defender of the places and animals she loved.

From What I Have Done with Birds:

“This is the basis of all my field work—a mute contract between woman and bird. In spirit I say to the birds, ‘Trust me and I will do by you as I would be done by … I shall not tear down your home and break your eggs or take your naked little ones from the nest before they are ready to go … I shall come in colors to which you are accustomed, and move slowly and softly about, not approaching you too near until your confidence in me is established. I shall be most careful to feed your young what you feed them; drive away snakes and squirrels, and protect you in every way possible to me. Trust me, and go on with your daily life. For what small disturbance is unavoidable among you, forgive me, and through it I shall try to win thousands to love and shield you.’”

I found loads more information on this fascinating figure in an Indiana Historian article. And of course we bought several books that I’m looking forward to diving into.

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In the shadow of Wildflower Woods cabin, looking over Sylvan Lake.

Cocooning and Re-Forming

I’ve been cocooning. I’m on a news fast. I don’t check Facebook very often.

It’s just: I’m healthier this way. And I can best hold space for others if I let go of both outrage and fear.

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“Feather” by Nathan, via Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes this might look like disinterest, or disconnection from the political realm that holds sway over so many people’s lives. I recognize that real people will be affected by the decisions coming out of Washington, and most of it won’t be pretty for a lot of us.

But if I rest in equanimity despite all that, I take back power and authority from those who would steal it away. I don’t have to give away my solid, grounded sense of basic OK-ness, no matter what dire outcomes are predicted.

And maybe by staying centered, I can be part of a cadre who will see a way to make real societal change. (I realize that my privilege insulates me from the worst of the proposals, which could have devastating impact. All the more reason to stay focused on transformation, as best I can.)

Instead of following the latest issues around health-care reform, I focus on ways to re-form myself and my approach to my own health and care.

This is something each of us can do. And we can help each other. And we don’t have to wait for anyone else to make that possible. It can happen now and now and now.

Not to oversimplify the real risks to people with major illness, disability, mental illness, and others in danger of falling through the cracks. I appreciate every single person who agitates for the little guy.

Still, surely everyone, regardless of politics, can support empowerment towards personal/community wellbeing. Especially if it costs nothing.

What costs nothing, yet enhances personal/community wellbeing? Some ideas:

  • Following Youtube videos from Lee Holden, who offers chi gong instruction to calm body and mind
  • Connecting with likeminded folks, say at one of Kheprw Institute’s many civic-minded forums and gatherings
  • Offering a smile to a stranger, chat with a neighbor, hug for a friend
  • Noticing beauty
  • Paying attention to one’s inner emotional state, and being kind to it
  • Being kind in general
  • Giving undivided (device-free) attention to a child, an animal, a friend
  • Connecting with my Facebook group, A Transformative Space, where we play with personal/planetary transformation
  • Enjoying deep breaths
  • Dancing
  • Walking in the woods
  • Forgiving someone else or yourself
  • Taking a break from media, or at least social media
  • Your idea here
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“Cocoon” by Louise LeClerc, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

My sense is that more of us could benefit from a measure of quiet introspection, even if it’s just for a few quiet moments each day. And certainly all of us could benefit from more real and caring communication.

I would love to hear what you are doing to re-form yourself, whether or not you find yourself cocooning in this fraught political season. Please comment below if you feel so led!

Picking Up the Healing Trail (Guest Blog)

It’s been a while since I hosted a guest blogger. This week the marvelously observant Katherine Hauswirth, a nature writer from Connecticut, contributes this post. (She also invited me to write a piece for her blog, and it will come out soon!)

Guest post by Katherine Hauswirth, author of The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail.

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Today, Shawndra is allowing me to visit her blog and contribute my own words, and I have gratefully received some words of hers to share at First Person Naturalist. I’ve gotten to know Shawndra a bit through her writing, and was drawn to her work because of its clear awe of nature—the topic I like best. Her admirable, dual tagline of Writer/Energy Worker conveys connection—connecting words, ideas, people with ideas, energies, the body with the mind and the soul.

Shawndra introduced me to the work of Gaian teacher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. She wrote about her here. Macy talks about “The Great Turning”—shorthand for our current age, one that’s suspended between a society shaped by industrial growth and the possibility of a new one that is life-sustaining. I examined Macy’s words a bit in The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, which launches this month:

Macy transmits hope for our ailing world in many ways, but she wonders aloud about the direction in which we will collectively turn. I, too, am unsure, but I seek out comfort in gestures of both adoration and action performed by those who, like Macy and me, are smitten with love for the world.

I continue to hold out hope that the many smitten folks out there will help our world to turn in the right direction. But today it occurred to me that love for the world also acts as a tonic for me, personally. I need to be smitten with that love in order to heal. And by “heal” I mean to feel like I am whole, like I am closer to my best self.

I had recently been sick with a minor illness, and while I was “cured,” in the sense of no longer coughing and sleeping more peacefully, I still needed to heal. The illness seemed to spark a pattern of not caring for my needs very well (or could it have resulted from such a pattern?). My schedule was off; my mind was off; my spirit was off.

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For me, time to myself and time in nature are essential for thriving, and if I can get both at once, all the better. So, despite a long to-do list, I’ve been taking myself on walks.

At the start of today’s walk I was tense, ruminating about a million pending chores and the little annoyances of family life that were stacking up in my mind like dirty dishes. Soon, though, I was happily distracted by a pair of Mallards in the cemetery pond. The female was curious about me, and floated quite a bit closer than her spouse dared. I watched her rubbery orange feet paddling for a while and moved on.

A drab-looking sparrow looked much more exciting when I trained my binoculars on her—I could see bright yellow marks by her eyes. (Later, a little research suggested she was a White-Throated Sparrow). An Osprey couple has taken up residence at Pratt Cove, a freshwater tidal marsh, on the same platform that yielded chicks last year. The female called from the nest in her familiar, high-pitched whistle. And front and center across from the viewing deck nearby sat a Mute Swan on her sizeable, cushy-looking nest, her neck folded over her body, her eyes idly watching her mate, who meandered the channel.

White Throated Sparrow by John Flannery

White-Throated Sparrow courtesy of John Flannery on Flickr

Healing feels like expanding. I am no longer “trapped” in the container of my intellectual mind, with its thoughts bouncing off the walls noisily. I am using all senses to connect with the larger world. I take it in and feel refreshed, open to new possibilities.

Awesome “side effect”: I think more generously about others when I have had these restorative moments.

Nesting Mute Swan by Mike Scott

Nesting Mute Swan courtesy of Mike Scott on Flickr

We all lose the trail sometimes. We forget to even take the time to figure out what we need. When we get our feet back on the healing path we feel more whole and hopeful. And we have more to give.

How lovely, this spring, to turn toward the sun and to watch the natural world turning in the same, light-loving direction. No doubt there is much to do for Mother Earth, but spending time with her is, in and of itself, a crucial act of love. As usual, she bestows much in return.

Katherine Hauswirth’s writing focuses on connection and contemplation inspired by the natural world. She has been published in Christian Science Monitor, Orion online, Whole Life Times, and Connecticut Woodlands. Her blog, First Person Naturalist, reflects on experiencing and learning about nature. Her awards include artist residencies at Trail Wood (Connecticut Audubon’s Edwin Way Teale memorial sanctuary) and Acadia National Park, and first place in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. She lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Her book, The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, comes out later this month.

The 100-Foot Salad

(Or: “Eats Shoots, Blooms, Weeds, and Leaves.”)

You’ve heard of the 100-foot diet? Proponents strive to eat food grown or produced as close to home as possible. Much of the year, that is my goal. And the farmers of central Indiana offer much of what I need, from meat to eggs to dairy to fruits and veggies. There’s even a local oil option now, and certain grains and beans can be sourced locally as well.

This time of year though, I’m enjoying my 100-foot salads.

Every spring I plant salad greens in my Garden Tower and an old salvaged sink. My tradition is to go to the winter farmers market and buy starts from a farmer of my acquaintance, Laura Karr. I wrote about her farm, KG Acres, for this Farm Indiana piece. She was also the source of my perennial sorrel plants, which give a lovely lemony flavor to salads in early spring.

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OK, so the lettuce itself did not originate within 100 feet of my kitchen, but once a plant is in the garden, I claim it.

Even before the lettuce and spinach are ready to eat, I feast on chickweed that grows in my yard. Well, “feast” might be an overstatement: I graze. This succulent little salad green got its own shout-out in a Hoosier Locavore blog post, as the foraged food of the month. In February. Back then I was snitching chickweed from a farmer acquaintance’s fields, but now I have my own little clump growing next to a raised bed, and I pinch off the tips for every salad I make. Yum.

I also have chives (and chive blossoms!) that come back year after year just outside my back door. (The potted chives has developed a modest wintertime Facebook following of sorts, because I post photos of her on snowy days as Lady Chives of the Pillbox Hat, just to be silly.)

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“Lady Chives” in February, with an undignified mullet peeking out from her pillbox hat.

My catnip reseeded itself all over the yard last fall, as did arugula, as did lamb’s quarters. (Don’t think me weird, but I eat catnip leaves in salads. It’s a bit cheesy tasting. And suits my feline nature.) The young lamb’s quarters add pink interest to my salad plate, but I’ll let several of them grow tall  so I can eat them as cooked greens later in the summer. And who doesn’t love the peppery taste of arugula, especially if it’s free?

Pea shoots are another thing showing up my garden, and I think they reseeded themselves from last year’s Austrian winter peas. I am a lazy gardener, but sometimes that pays.

The coolest part of my 100-foot salad, though, lies across the street in a greenspace by the creek.

 

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Trout lily, in a photo snapped before my “salad bowl” across the street was mowed by an enterprising neighbor. Dandelion says “Hey, I’m here too!”

I can pick trout lily, violet flowers, and redbud blooms while they last. Maybe the fleeting nature of these delicacies gives them their aura of specialness. The redbuds are already on the wane, and last weekend a neighbor mowed the greenspace, so my trout lily salads are done for.

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Redbud blooms, the pinkest salad topper ever.

I also love to pick baby leaves off of a basswood (linden) tree over there. There’s something so novel about eating tree leaves in a dinner salad. They’re heartshaped, succulent (if picked small), and delicious.

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Seriously yummy basswood leaves. Later in the summer (actually very soon) it will be hard to find a small leaf this shiny and new on the low branches of “my” tree.

For a while I had sweet Jerusalem artichokes that I dug up in early spring and sliced like water chestnuts, but they’re gone now. But there’s plenty of other wild goodness in my yard and surrounding area. Small dandelion leaves (bitter!) and wood sorrel (tangy!) round out my salad bowl.

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I love to go out foraging with my little colander.

Eating a salad like this nourishes me twice, kind of like Thoreau’s wood chopping warmed him twice. It’s a delicious outing, carrying my colander out into the world to pick nature’s tenderest.

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I give you the 100-foot salad.

Preserving Timeless Arts

Last weekend I had two encounters that felt like variations on a theme.

One was at Kheprw Institute, where we were discussing Charles Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.  Kheprw co-founder Imhotep Adisa suggested that our over-reliance on technology compromises our more intuitive ways of communicating and knowing.

“Reality is not limited to that one way of knowing,” Im said, speaking of scientific inquiry and measurable phenomena. (Besides: Who determines what’s worth being measured? Who sets up the arbiters, institutions, and gatekeepers of scientific findings?)

It’s definitely possible to communicate instantaneously without benefit of a text. Many of us have had that experience from time to time. And for those of us in the energy work arena, merging with someone else’s energy field is a skill we cultivate.

But the more we rely on texting to do the work of instantaneous communication, Im suggested, the more we atrophy our native abilities.

Speaking for myself, I know that distracting myself through technology can seriously gunk up my intuition. To be quiet and still enough to sense information differently, I have to spend time away from the addictive barrage of information and communication.

Later it struck me that Im’s words had their parallel in an earlier encounter, with a friend who’s devoted to preserving another dying art: traditional willow weaving. Viki Graber, a fourth-generation willow basket weaver, spent the weekend constructing a living sculpture at Salamonie Reservoir.

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The tunnel will grow thicker and more elaborate with time.

We drove up to see her, and she told us about the project. She received a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to build living willow structures at three parks this year.

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To make her baskets and sculptures, she grows her own willow bushes—14 different species!—on her property in northern Indiana. For this project though, she harvested wild willow shoots from along the lakeshore. She planted these in the ground about eight inches deep along the muddy bank of a pond, where they should take root. She bent the willow into a tunnel, complete with round windows.

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Me and my old friend Viki

For the next few years she will come back to weave new growth into the structure. A true collaboration.

Viki is passionate about sustaining traditional folk art in general (and willow-work in particular). She wants to keep these skills alive and pass them on to the next generation, and she loves to teach others.

As a functional artist, Viki makes beautiful objects that people want to use. Surely we all have the aptitude to create beauty for each other, whether that’s through physical creations or acutely attuned knowing.

Penney Peirce, in her book Frequency, suggests that we are all equally sensitive, with the very human ability to feel and sense and know things instantly. It’s just that some of us are consciously sensitive, and others unconsciously so.

I would add that some of us, like Viki and Im, are consciously invested in preserving useful, beautiful, timeless arts that the dominant culture tends to devalue.

What traditional, lost, or dying arts/skills call to you? Where do you make your mark in preserving ways that aren’t supported by our acquisitive go-go-go culture?

Microscopic Truth

My yoga teacher sometimes says “Feel the hum in your body,” when we are near the close of class.

Do you, ever? Feel that hum? Your energy body. It’s quietly there with you.

Someone told me recently that I have a sort of “presence” that seems to come from being fully in my body. I was honored, and told her that for many years I was NOT in my body. I wouldn’t even have known what that meant.

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Disembodied

These days I don’t always stay there 100 percent of the time, but I know what it is to feel into my body, to honor its communications. After years of dealing with chronic pain and fatigue, drifting along untethered, I have come home. It’s been a long road, but I now feel like I can trust my body.

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says, in this podcast:

“…if people are in a constant state of heartbreak and gut-wrench, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body… And so a very large number of traumatized people…have very cut off relationships to their bodies. They may not feel what’s happening in their bodies… We needed to help people for them to feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of their organism, as I like to call it.”

As I deepen that relationship, I’ve found myself tuning in closer and finer than ever. Exploring the microscopic truth expressed by my body. I’m noticing, sometimes in the wee hours when I wake up from an intense dream, what it feels like to resist whatever’s coming up. I don’t want to feel the old ball of dread descend on me, or the worry, or the anger, or the grief, and I can feel myself wanting to reject it. Here’s a tightening of my scalp, there’s a clench in my neck, a rigidity about the shoulders.

I’m not resisting even the resistance, but allowing it all in. Instead of shutting down with “No, no, no,” I’m reaching for the “Yes.”

The other night I actually mentally said, “Come in, come in, welcome welcome,” as I acknowledged each layer of sensation and emotion. And just in the acknowledgement, they seemed to melt away.

After all, as my mindfulness teacher used to tell me, “It is already here.” And as the poet Rumi says, “This being human is a guest house.”

I’ve lived long enough to laugh at my habitual patterns now and then. Oh yeah, that ball of dread again, there it is! Oh those worry states, stealing my sleep again! There’s that fear of something that may or may not ever happen… There’s despair, I can hold that one extra gently. There’s that contraction that could easily lead to a headache if I don’t breathe into it now.

Finding compassion for all of it—saying yes to all of it—broadens my capacity for kindness to others and to life itself. And as van der Kolk would say, I own myself fully, which makes me more resilient.

Nettle Me, Please!

It’s time to upgrade Definition #3 of “nettle” (to irritate, annoy, or provoke). In my book, nettles offer a lovely antidote to what ails you. 

Of course, you’ve got to handle them carefully. (If you haven’t accidentally been bitten by a stinging nettle plant, maybe you haven’t wandered off the beaten track enough times!)

Last spring I found a big stand of nettles in the untended space above the creek across from my house. With the mild winter, I thought the nettles might have reemerged–and sure enough, I was right.

I’ve been drinking dried nettle tea all winter (sadly not dried by my own hand, but purchased from the bulk bin at my food coop). High time to make some fresh!

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I wear household gloves to snip and prep my nettles.

I also found a few sprigs coming up in a pot dug into the ground in my side yard, where it reseeds itself every year. (I used to have a small nettle plant in the ground, but then it grew into a big nettle plant, and then it reseeded all over the yard and in my neighbor’s grass as well. So it had to go. But so far my little bucketful of stealth nettles (half hidden under a hosta leaf) has not gotten unruly.

It’s an easy enough thing to snip the tops of a nettle plant with kitchen shears. I collect them in a colander, and wash them and pick the leaves off the stems (still wearing my gloves).

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My herbalist friend Greg Monzel says that the reddish tinge is due to chilly temperatures.

At this point you have a couple choices. You can cook them up as greens, put them on a pizza, bake them in a ravioli, make a pesto, etc. etc. Not that I’ve done any of these things, but I’m inspired by this list.

I’m lazy, so I just make nettle tea and drink it as a tonic.

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Fill a Mason jar half full of leaves, and you’re nearly there.

When fresh mint is available, I combine the two, and I’ve also had stevia-sweetened nettle tea (using leaves from a stevia plant). But it makes a fine drink all on its own. Rather green-tasting as you can imagine. You can serve it hot in cold weather, or chilled as iced tea in hot weather.

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Pour nearly-boiling water over the leaves, loosely cap, and let brew for 8-24 hours. Best to drink within a day or so.

Side note: A quick internet search reveals that “self-urtication” (stinging oneself on purpose to relieve arthritis) is a thing.

And my herbalist friend Greg Monzel says that the seeds are one of the only herbs that can restore compromised kidney function. This fact was “discovered by contemporary herbalist David Winston in a moment of plant communication,” according to Greg. I’ve harvested seeds in the fall before, and they make a tasty popcorn seasoning or salad topper.

Another fun fact: nettle fibers can be made into cordage.

The tea itself has too many benefits to list. Actually, I don’t know them all. I just drink it as a pure tonic and health booster, and especially whenever I feel a sinus thing coming on.

So don’t be nettled by this marvelous plant–give it a try!