Monday, March 29, 2010

All Life Is One Life

I've had fragments of this conversation with a number of different people over the years and have finally decided to put it together all in one place. The tag line: I may be the only person in the world who quit being a vegetarian after studying Buddhism.

OK, you're either laughing or cringing in horror now (or maybe both at the same time). Please take a deep breath and allow me to explain.

I grew up in a world of violence. I was beaten and abused daily; my parents proudly supported every military action the U.S. ever thought to propose and gleefully watched horrific, bloody images on the news every evening; my relatives fought with each other constantly, occasionally escalating the battle from scathing words to actual blows. And I helped on my grandparents' farm when we slaughtered animals.

Bear in mind, this was a small family farm, not a big industrial operation. The animals were treated well, respected while alive, and killed swiftly and without suffering. But by the time I reached high school, my personal 'violence meter' had reached epic proportions. I became a vegetarian because doing so affected the only source of violence in my life over which I had any control. Of course, my decision generated even more conflict within my family (surprise, surprise) but I stood my ground.

Over the years I came to believe I was doing the right thing, choosing not to eat meat in order to respect other life forms. Friends encouraged me to expand my mindset in this direction by studying Buddhism, which has nonviolence as one of its central tenets. So I did. I learned the history of the different sects, read Buddha's teachings, practiced mindfulness. Then one day, a little fragment stuck in my head: All life is one life. What a fascinating concept.

I was so fascinated, in fact, that I devoted a full year to meditating on that idea. To say I was changed at the end of that year is a serious understatement.

That year also happened to be the year I started studying herbalism with two very gifted teachers. One of them did something that astounded me, and opened doors in my worldview that I didn't even know were there. At a weekend herbalism retreat she pointed to a plant in the side garden and said, "Go sit with it. Meditate on it. Tell me what you find out."

I have to admit, at that moment I thought she had gone off the deep end. I was used to learning about plants from books or from presenters in workshops, not from the plants themselves. But I had deep respect for her so I undertook the assignment. I felt really silly at first, sitting there staring at a plant (it was a yellow dock, but I didn't know that at the time). Then I began to feel at home with the plant, feel a connection with it. I felt its life force, so similar to mine.

On a whim I thought at it, "How can you help people? What are you good for?" Immediately it responded, "Good for the blood. Good for healing burns, too." I reeled. I was communicating with a plant and I was completely sober.

I had a number of similar experiences over the course of that weekend, then over the ensuing weeks and months as I explored the green world around me. I began to understand why the Hindus say every plant has a deva, a living spirit. I watched as a neighbor had two pine trees cut down in her back yard, one healthy and one diseased. I felt a huge sigh of relief from the diseased tree as it fell to the ground. The healthy tree, though - I still get cold chills as I remember watching the final cut, feeling in my bones that it was screaming.

So I continued to meditate on All Life Is One Life. And I started doing a little research, looking for scientific articles that might shed light on this concept (or perhaps dispel it so I could shake the uneasy feeling that kept growing in me, the feeling that I needed to pay more attention in more directions). I learned that every living thing on earth has DNA, from the tiniest bacterium to the hugest whale and everything in between, including plants. I learned that the only difference between a chloroplast in a plant and a hemoglobin molecule in a human being is that the chloroplast cradles a nitrogen atom at its center while the hemoglobin holds iron. I learned that plants have something that looks like a nervous system ( and they respond to stimuli as if they could sense temperature, pressure and pain.

All life is, indeed, one life. I had to examine my choices, then, everything from what I ate to what clothing and household goods I preferred, my mode of transportation, everything. I came to a single conclusion: Any choice I might make is a value judgment. Choosing to eat plants but not animals says that animal life is more valuable than plant life. Choosing to eat grain-finished beef rather than grass-finished beef, or to eat any meat in large quantity, says that my tastes are more important than the natural cycles of the land I live in. Choosing to buy new, sweatshop-produced clothing rather than gently-used clothing from a consignment or thrift store says my fashion desires are more important than the health of the environment and the well-being of my fellow humans. Choosing to purchase a packaged CD, made from petroleum and trees, rather than downloading an MP3 says the same thing. And on and on it goes, with the embedded refrain of personal responsibility echoing throughout.

So I started eating meat again, but with a different attitude, a gratitude I'd never felt before. I began truly to understand what my Native American ancestors meant when they thanked the spirit of the deer before they ate it, and why they also thanked the spirit of the corn just as sincerely.

Some of us may decide to eat meat, others not. That's a private, personal value judgment and one I won't argue with either way. But the aftermath of that year of meditation has stuck with me, even gained momentum over time. I see connection everywhere; I feel communion all the time. All life is one life. And you are my other self.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Juicy Wildness

I spent several hours in the garden yesterday, pulling weeds and otherwise getting a couple of garden beds ready for planting with lettuce and spinach. As often happens when I'm working quietly in the garden, I started thinking about all sorts of things, especially how we place value on various parts of our world. And, as also often happens, I couldn't stand to toss out a lot of the weeds I was pulling, so I saved them for food and medicine.

Then my ten-year-old daughter joined me in the gentle spring sunshine, wanting to help out with the garden chores. I explained that I was pulling weeds. Sure, no problem, she would help. The catch: The two garden beds we were cleaning out still had cold-weather crops in them (kale and lettuce) that shouldn't be pulled up. Her question: How do I know if something is a weed? Should I throw away everything except the cultivated crops? She cast a suspicious glance at the clumps of chickweed and yellow dock I had carefully piled at the corner of one garden bed. Gee, kid, you sure know how to turn a bit of yardwork into a philosophy debate.

What's a weed? Well, there's a can of worms. Most people will tell you a weed is a useless plant that's making a pest of itself. Some gardeners insist that a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it. By that definition, a prize rose bush is a weed if it's sticking in the middle of your pristine lawn. But to most people, weeds are simply the garbage of the plant world, whose only purpose in life is to be dug up and tossed aside to make way for more worthy plants. To many herbalists, however, especially those with a more (ahem) feminist or militant bent, weeds are valuable food and medicine and powerful emblems of the bits of modern life that civilization has got wrong.

I ran across numerous examples of this dichotomy of values in my naturopathic practice. Take garlic, for instance. It's a fabulous internal and external anti-infective, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol - it's the one herb I would want with me on the proverbial deserted island. But suggest to a client that they chop up and swallow a fresh clove of garlic, purchased from the produce section of the supermarket for mere pennies or dug from their own garden, and they recoil. No, they want a pill, a processed, sanitized, colorfully-packaged pill. Which brand, they ask, is the best? The one that costs twenty dollars or the one that costs thirty?

I soon learned not even to consider suggesting 'yard salad' to clients. Sure, a fresh bowl of chickweed, violet leaves and blossoms, young dandelion and hawkweed leaves and onion grass will give you more vitamins, minerals and micronutrients than you can shake a stick at (tasty, too!). But no, they want something from a store, something processed and extracted and labeled, preferably a pill, though those odd liquid tincture thingies might do in a pinch. Sigh.

When did we learn to value human-processed items over unprocessed ones? Packaged over unpackaged? Cultivated over wild? I've watched people in the grocery store - they bypass the loose produce and pick up the stuff wrapped in plastic. That is, if they buy fresh produce at all.

I have to admit here that my values may be skewed by the fact that I spent much of my childhood on a farm. We picked and ate, out of hand, whatever was around when we were out in the fields or woods. I realize that these days that's an unusual experience, but maybe it's something we need to get back to, for the health of our bodies and the health of our values. You know, eat outside the box. Literally.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend picking a salad from a roadside where the plants have soaked up exhaust fumes and heavy metal-laced runoff. But what about that chickweed in your chemical-free lawn? Or the dandelions and violets in your flowerbeds? Did you know that the entire daylily plant is edible? When did we become afraid of anything that hasn't been sanitized and packaged and presented to us with a slick marketing campaign?

I have to wonder if we're not losing an essential, wild part of ourselves by denying the value of wild stuff in our yards and gardens. Life isn't neat and tidy. Why should our food be?

We had a delicious yard salad with homemade pizza for dinner last night. After dinner I scrubbed the yellow dock roots I had dug from the garden, chopped them up and jarred them with vodka to make a mineral-rich tincture that will save me having to buy iron pills. I'm keeping an eye on the baby burdock plant that volunteered behind the side deck, eager for the day this summer when I can dig it up and cook its delicious root in some soup. That will be about the same time that the wild elderberries and blackberries are ripe. Then, in the fall, I'll dig up some of the arrowhead roots from the pond out in the woods and cook them for dinner, along with some sumac lemonade or maybe goldenrod tea.

Weeds? Yeah. Juicy wildness.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

You're Planting WHAT, WHEN??

I thought I got a lot of weird looks when I told people I like to weave, spin and cook over a fire. Turns out, I get even weirder looks when I tell them I'm planting by the signs this year. "You're doing WHAT?" they say.

First of all, I need you to understand that I've been gardening since I was a kid. I spent much of my childhood on my grandparents' small family farm and my parents always had a big garden in the suburbs. Once I was grown and on my own, I gardened in containers on apartment balconies and then in the yards of the various houses I've lived in. Vegetables, herbs, flowers, you name it. I feel naked without a garden. But my gardening hasn't always been uniformly successful.
For some reason I've been unable to fathom, my gardening has always returned mixed results. Sure, something does really great every year. My freezer is still half-full of the green beans and tomatoes that grew like wildfire last summer. But no pumpkin in that freezer, because the pie pumpkins absolutely failed to produce a single fruit. And some of the marigolds came up like crazy, while another planting of them petered out to nothing. One year the corn grew 14 feet tall (really, I have photographic evidence) and other years it stopped at 5 feet and hardly produced a thing.

I do all the right stuff - organically amended soil, plenty of water from a rainwater catchment system, garden beds situated for optimum sun - so I tried to figure out what was missing. And I started thinking back to my childhood, those days on the farm with my grandparents. They always had a calendar on the wall of the living room. It was a freebie given out by the local feed store during the holidays every year. It had all the usual info - dates, holidays, moon phases. But it had something else as well: the zodiac sign the moon was in each day. My grandparents used this information to time the planting of their seeds, both for cash crops and for the family garden. They swore by it.

As a child I never did quite understand my grandmother's explanations about planting by the signs. Then as I grew older and began to study esoteric subjects, I questioned the accuracy of modern tropical astrology. After all, it's frozen in time, based on the positions of the planets thousands of years ago when the sun did indeed rise in the constellation of Aries on the Vernal Equinox. I've found sidereal astrology (based on the current, correct positions of the planets) to be astonishingly accurate but hard to come by. And what about this moon sign issue - how might it affect my gardening?
 My grandparents were hardworking and, as is so often the case with small family farmers, never particularly well-off as far as cash was concerned. But by golly, their crops always did well. Sure, there was the occasional late frost or insect infestation, but as far as the stuff actually growing vigorously and producing copiously, you could count on it. When I asked my grandmother about her gardening success she always credited planting by the signs.

So I did some research. Hauled out my Old Farmer's Almanac and my Foxfire books. Noted all the correct signs for planting each different kind of herb, flower and food crop. Checked the ephemeris and figured out dates for each type of seed. So I now have a date book of sorts, a list of days I'm obligated to go out into the garden and plant things, regardless of the weather. I still remember Grandmother fussing about having to plant in a storm, because it was the right day for it.

And we'll see how the garden turns out. Maybe it won't make a difference. Or maybe I'll have more uniform success. I've already planted broccoli, broccoli raab, English peas and leeks. Next weekend I'll start the carrots, then a few days later the lettuce, spinach and coriander. I'll let you know how it turns out. If it's a success, would you like a few zucchinis and tomatoes in about July or so?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't Believe It If It's on the Internet!

Recently I mentioned to a friend that I had taught my 10-year-old daughter how to look things up on Wikipedia when she wanted to find out more about a subject and had exhausted our home library. He commented that I should have directed her toward a 'more reliable source' and that Wikipedia was known for its inaccuracy because it 'isn't written by experts or published for real.' By a more reliable source he meant something like the Encyclopedia Britannica, that half-ton, multi-volume bastion of elementary school research reports.

That conversation got me thinking about the accuracy and reliability of any source we use for research (online or offline), especially given some things I've read in the EB over the years that are patently inaccurate but that the publishers of that esteemed work wanted people to believe. For my pagan friends, look up Wicca in any but the most recent edition and you'll see what I mean. Even the most recent edition says Wicca's followers 'see it as a religion' (I know, I know) but at least they put it in the religion section of the EB and don't call it a cult any more. And of course we have all the authoritative published sources, from encyclopedias to textbooks to medical journals, that have told us for years that women are weaker, less intelligent and less competent than men. But I digress...

Some people have a notable bias against anything posted online unless it's by one of the old, established in-print names (Britannica, Webster's and so on) since it is assumed that Joe and Jane Public don't know what they're talking about. After all, they usually don't have advanced degrees. They're not professionals in the subject. They don't work for a big corporation that can afford to print warehouses full of books, advertise them all over the place and store them until they get around to selling them. Therefore, the usual logic goes, they must be wrong. There are two hidden, implied 'truths' in this argument and I don't agree with either one of them.

First, there's the assumption that anyone who isn't an expert (that is, a professional) can't possibly have accurate knowledge about a subject. Second, there's the assumption that anyone who is an expert, a professional, an authority figure, must necessarily be right. Do you agree with these two assumptions? I'm betting you don't. So why do we continue to apply them to the information that is disseminated in our society, regardless of its form or source, but especially online?

OK, before you burst a blood vessel, let me assure you that I don't assume everything posted online or printed between two covers is correct. But neither do I automatically assume it's wrong. Do you believe everything in corporate statements, newspapers or government press releases? Me, either. Then again, I don't discount it all out of hand. These bits of information are generated by people and people aren't perfect. They have agendas, conscious and unconscious biases, spoken and unspoken goals and desires that influence what they say and how they say it. This is true of all of us, you and me included.

We've all heard the research about how two different people witnessing the same event will have different 'takes' on it simply because they're two different people. They have different backgrounds, life experiences, attitudes. I run into this frequently when I'm researching a book. My first two books were non-fiction, one centered around earth-based spirituality and one around holistic health. You can bet I found plenty of conflicting information - in print, online and in person - when I was doing that research. Every single person I talked to, every single author I read, was certain they were right. I began to wonder if there is such a thing as an uncontested fact that no one will argue with. I've come to believe there isn't.

I'm working on fiction right now and I'm running into the same issues. Since I'm setting my stories in the real world (not fantasy or sci-fi) I have to do some research about locales, professions, spiritual traditions, even the psychological makeup of my characters. I have a little more latitude in this regard since I can simply choose whichever set of information works best for my story, but still, I have to sift through all the different sources and opinions, and you can bet someone's going to criticize my choices somewhere down the road.

For a while I felt really overwhelmed by all the conflicting information, annoyed at the self-proclaimed authorities and a bit depressed that there didn't seem to be any single source of accurate data. But lately I've come to see this issue as a reflection of the wonderful variety within humanity, the incredible ability of the human mind to form a unique worldview based on experience.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing that there's no single authority to turn to, since I'm not sure we could trust one single source, either online or on paper - or even in person. The myriad of conflicting sources (just google global warming  or women's rights and you'll see what I mean) requires that we use our inborn intelligence to critically examine whatever is put before us and make up our own minds. The fact that someone can write a blog, publish a book or buy TV advertising doesn't make them right, but it doesn't automatically make them wrong, either.

So what have I taught my daughter along with the skills for looking up information on Wikipedia or anywhere else, for that matter? I've taught her about critical thinking, about examining the source bias and the intent of the writing or advertisement. Yes, folks, kids can understand these concepts, and I expect she'll look on the world with a critical eye, not to find what's wrong with it, but to find what's right. Most important, she'll learn to gather information and make up her own mind rather than automatically bowing to any authority, no matter how many volumes they have in print.