The pine stays green in winter…wisdom in hardship.
The time between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice is my favorite time of the year. The days decrease in their duration of darkness until we celebrate the return of the Sun and the stretching of solar seconds, lengthening our lot of light. My time living in remote Alaska was life-changing and being alone in the depths of darkness was a trigger for transformation. Darkness lends to our longing to slow down – restore ourselves in rest, reconsider our purpose, rekindle our passion, and root ourselves in the rhythm of nature through reflective time outdoors. Many of us bring the outdoors in, decorating our spaces with a selection of seasonal, celebratory plants. Reconnecting with nature through these beautiful, bountiful botanicals can cultivate a deeper sense of discernment, desire, and direction as we depart from darkness to light.
Conifers, particularly pine, spruce, cedar, fir, and juniper, are symbolic of the winter season. Many of these species live in cold climates and their glorious shades of green are refreshingly restorative juxtaposed to the sleepy, surrounding scenery. Each are delightful in their scent and texture and can arouse a multitude of memories. Beautiful and sensuous, conifers are also resilient. Their needle-like leaves preserve water. Flexible branches bolster the ability of the persistent perennial to withstand the weight of snow, bending, rather than breaking.
The holiday season and the ensuing winter months can be difficult for some. Colder days, a deluge of decorations, dollar signs, and other duties can weigh us down with worrisome thoughts and wavering self-worth. We are brittle with burden. In the season of lessening light, let us purposefully bring nature in. We can rejoice in her beauty, rest in her peacefulness, reconnect to her rhythm, and release the heaviness of what no longer serves us, restoring our resilience. Like a graceful collection of conifers, we bend without breaking.
“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”
Most of my career has been spent in science and outdoor education. As an educational consultant, teacher, curriculum specialist, and program developer, I have had many incredible opportunities to design and execute a multitude of creative, science-based, experiential programs for a range of grade levels in an assortment of settings. My goal is to inspire others, ignite their curiosity, creativity, and connection to the natural world. Since earning my Master of Science degree in 2015, something inside me has been smoldering. Like the continuous calefaction within a compilation of compost, I could sense a recalescent, re-ordered purpose. In the last few years, there have been experiences that have truly expanded my creativity and growth. Rising from my renewal is From the Outside, LLC, a series of plant and nature-based lessons and activities designed to cultivate connection and well-being. I invite you to peruse my newly designed website and ask yourself how can I, my students, my staff, my clients, or my patients, benefit from spending time with nature? How can I connect them more deeply to the natural world, themselves, each other, and the community? Please share this site with friends, counselors, teachers, mental health professionals, and others working in the field of human connection and healing. I will continue to write as it is the seed for From the Outside lessons. As always, I appreciate your continued support and would love to connect , so please feel free to reach out anytime. Be kind, be well, be wild.
“Three things cannot long be hidden: the Sun, the Moon, and the Truth”
Since November 2021, I have felt hidden away. My life has unfolded in moments of overwhelming joy, undulating uncertainty, quiet solitude, and a significant shift in the path to fulfilling my purpose. Life has been so busy and my seclusion has not been purposeful. It feels good to slow down and to have the time and head space to create, whatever your passion.
Recently, I spent some time hiking the Colorado Plateau region centered in the Four Corners area of the western part of the United States. Living along the East Coast for the last few decades, I was delighted to discover the distinctively different desert flora. The spectacular species of succulents, copious collections of cacti, and prolific populations of scented sagebrush and lush lavender were captivating. Equally as engaging, was the curious, caliginous crust that conceals the colorful, terra cotta soil. This biological crust, or cryptobiotic soil crust, is a complex community of living organisms on the soil surface that is a critical component in shaping arid and semi-arid ecosystems across the globe. Cryptomeans “hidden” and biota refers to ‘life.” Surprisingly, this seemingly superficial surface is significant in retaining soil moisture and preventing erosion. It is often referred to as the Protector of the Desert.
Like other types of soils, cryptobiotic soil crust is created through the cooperation of countless, small organisms, including microfungi, lichens, mosses, green algae and bacteria. Its most bountiful biological life form is the ancient blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are dormant when the soil is dry. When it is wet, cyanobacteria move through the soil, stitching together an intricate web of sticky fibers and small soil particles that shape the crucial crust. This thick, continuous, cribriform, living layer reduces evaporation, resists erosion, regulates water absorption, and anchors an array of other organisms that promote plant growth. Young soil crusts are lighter in color, but mature crusts, often thousands of years old, appear darker, blackened and bumpy. Crust development varies in time and depends on soil structure, texture, and chemistry, elevation, microclimate, and disturbances to the landscape – including humans. Cryptobiotic soil crusts are far-reaching and extraordinarily fragile. They shield and sustain the unique flora of the desert. As humans, we are also tender. At times, we may conceal our true character under the depths of a dark, cryptic crust.
Often, our inky, heavy crust is a covert, convoluted web constructed from our tiers of unresolved trauma, stories of shame and guilt, layers of self-loathing, and the echelon of our enormous egotism. Like the biological soil crust of the desert, our external encrustation should emerge from our unique, authentic expression. Espoused by our acceptance, compassion, and creativity, our exquisite outer layer expands our resilience, encourages our growth, embodies our vulnerability, and enhances our relationships with others. We remain tender, but grow more deeply in our kindness, gratitude, patience, and love, maturing into our unbroken, best self.
This essay is included in the anthology Gravity’s Grave, Volume 2The World Beneath Our Feet published by Plants and Poetry Journal. Plants and Poetry has been so supportive of my work. Please check out their website and publications.
“Allow nature’s peace to flow into you as sunshine flows into trees”
In Latin, the word “solstice” mean “sun stands still.” On this longest night of the year, I pause to ponder the solemnity of the darkness and honor the sacredness of nature’s cycles. For as long as I can remember, nature has been my sanctuary, my refuge, my sacred space.
Stepping into the forest is an exquisite exhale. The raw reverberation of nature. The saturation of scent and sound soothes my soul. The collective calls of the forest birds beckon me into their world. Cocooned below the canopy cover, the bulwark of branches bolsters me in its being and beauty. The algid air is pungent and profuse with the earthy fragrance of fungi and decaying organic matter. With each breath, the vaporous veil of volatile compounds emitted from the trees as they transpire steeps into my cells, invigorating my immune system and strengthening my spirit. The forest is a fortress to my well-being.
Originally Zion National Park, located in Southern Utah, was given the name Mukuntuweap, a Paiute word that means “straight canyon.” In the late 1800s, Mormon pioneers bestowed the name Zion on the area, an ancient, Hebrew word meaning “refuge” or “sanctuary.” Recently, I visited this picturesque park and stood solely in the sanctity of its scenery. A storm system settled in overhead, enveloping the enormous escarpments as it surrendered its superfluous contents, creating cascades of rifling water mixed with sanguine sandstone. Through the vacillating veil of storm clouds peered the rock faces, respectfully referred to as the Watchman, Angel’s Landing, the Sentinel, and the Temple of Sinawava, named to honor the Paiute’s Coyote god, or spirit. Awash in awe and replete in reverence, I felt the protective presence of these prodigious peaks, like the cradle of an ancestral mother or the amorous embrace of a beloved. My sense of self fell away as I stood in the presence of something bigger.
My revered relationship with the natural world has substantiated my sense of humility and feelings of a smaller self as I am reminded of my interconnectedness to a larger sphere. I am drawn out of self-interest into the concerns of the social collective and whole community. Exposing myself to awe-inspiring experiences, especially those in nature, big or small, leads me to focus on what is truly important. We have the world at our fingertips, but many of us long for a more passionate, healing, engaged, and sacred connection to others. Be intentional in seeking out your sanctuary. Invite others into the reach of your refuge, experience awe collectively and stand in the bigness of it together. Embody your awe-inspiring moments to grow your joy, your creativity, and your community.
In my work, I have an activity in which I ask my students, if you could be a plant, what plant would you be and why? My students are often hesitant to answer, so I begin – I would be a tree – never a specific species of tree, but strong, sturdy, wise, grounded, and deeply rooted, nonetheless. After returning from a short respite in remote Alaska, I find myself living in a small cottage with a large yard surrounded by forest. In my front yard, grows a gnarled, old white oak tree, Quercus alba. After observing the life of this time-worn tree over several seasons, I have decided that the queenly Quercus alba is the tree I would most like to epitomize.
Quercus alba, the white oak, is a deciduous tree native to eastern and central North America. Most grow to a height of 80-100 feet and live for 200-300 years. If undisturbed, some trees can reach a height over 100 feet and thrive for 600 years. Although both its common and species name (alba means white) indicates ivory attributes, the names actually refer to the lighter, ash-gray color of the bark. The bark of the white oak is its most distinguishing detail. Its exquisite, exfoliating exterior is a pattern of imbricate, protruding plates, a thick, vigilant veneer encircling and protecting the vital, living, inner sanctum of this stately species. This aesthetic armor acts as a shield, a physical adaptation to protect the tree from fatal fire damage. The wood of Quercus alba is heavy, hard, strong, durable, and naturally water and rot resistant. Artfully used in the construction of ship hulls, wine and whiskey barrels, caskets, and furniture, white oak is a valuable resource that withstands the test of time both in structure and story. In addition, its acorns are sweeter than those of other oak species, making them the most palatable and preferred food source for forest-dwelling animals, including white-tailed deer, black bear, squirrel, several species of bird, rabbit, and mouse. Native Americans ground the white oak acorns into flour. The white oak is a species strong and persistent in presence. Wrapped in its picturesque, protective bark, the white oak’s majestic form grows in grace and beauty.
Like the worthy white oak, I stand strong and deeply rooted. My unconditional love, unremitting joy, and intuitive wisdom spread out from my sacred center to others, like the farthest-reaching branches of a tree. At 57 years of age, my exterior, a pastiche pattern of wrinkles, laugh lines, age spots, and stretch marks, is as exquisite as the beautiful bark of the white oak. My silver hair is akin to the ash-gray color. Like the queenly Quercus alba, I am wrapped in a resplendent, but resilient skin. Grounded in gratitude, and sustained by self-love and compassion, powerful and persistent, I continue to age authentically in grace and beauty.
This essay is published in Plants and Poetry Journal’s Plant People An Anthology of Environmental Artists (August 2021) and on their website, www.plantsandpoetry.org
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
Carolus Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy,” was a Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, and physician who detailed the binomial system of nomenclature. Nomenclature is a set, or system, of names used by a particular individual or group. This modern, two-name system classifies organisms to Genus and species. These are the two most specific levels of classification included in the taxonomic system of living things. Scientists use this universal system to confirm the true identity of organisms with multiple common references. General, or common, names, often describe the distinguishing characteristics of an organism and are not necessarily dedicated to one distinct creature. The Latin-based, binomial arrangement of Genus and species is also descriptive and detailed, but unlike its common counterpart, is dedicated to a single organism.
Houstonia caerulea is the scientific name assigned to a petite, perennial species native to eastern Canada and the United States. Clusters of these plants produce small, blue flowers with a yellow center. The species name, caerulea, means blue, describing accurately the aquatic, azure color of the dainty blooms. Commonly, this species is called “Bluets” by some, and “Quaker Ladies” by others. The first name is an ode to its clumps of cerulean-colored sepals. The second name likens the flower color to the shade of blue fabric often used by Quaker women to sew their dresses. Both the common and scientific name specify scrupulously this sweet, woodland, wildflower that welcomes Spring.
As humans, we are bestowed our legitimate name at birth. Chosen with purpose by our parents, our name is the keystone of our character. It is the essence of our emerging existence. As we expand our presence on this planet, our interactions with numerous individuals expose us to a system of unremitting names and endless epithets that inters our intuition and smothers our unsullied spirit. Labels laden with judgement and laced with rancor leave us rootless in our purpose and unresolved in our own physical body, mental acuity, and emotional awareness. The chaste connection to our elemental essence and our deep-seated divine spirit is lost. It is buried under murky layers of misrepresentations and myths, saturated by our own acrid appellations, or the callous characterizations from others, sowing us deep in the rumination of shame, loathing, fear, and unworthiness. Pushing upwards through the terrain of trauma, acknowledging our affliction, cultivating our consciousness, and extricating ourselves from the entangled untruths of our inherent identity restores the path to our sacred center. In claiming and cultivating this divine space, we can unearth our authenticity. We propagate our own peaceful power, cultivate our creativity, flourish in our freedom from the opinions of others, widen our intuitive wisdom, and thrive in our intrinsic truth. Richly rooted in relevance and nourished by our own heart and tenderness, our life becomes luminous.
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
Cornered by grief and perhaps fenced in by ego, it can be hard to extricate ourselves from the heaviness of our thoughts. I began my week with my heart steeped in sorrow. By leaning into my feelings and Mother Nature, I ended my week with my heart awash in gratitude.
When my heart is hurting, I can……
Sit outside in solitude to create space around me to grieve freely Walk in the woods to untangle my thoughts Wade in the creek to cleanse my soul Hug a tree to feel safe and included Step barefoot in the grass to ground me in gratitude Raise my face to the sun to welcome warmth and light Rest in the rain to recharge and regroup Talk with a friend to give voice to my feelings Listen to nature’s songs to soothe my anxiety Gaze at the stars to sit silently in humility and awe Grow something from seed to cultivate my compassion Inhale deeply to center my awareness Sift soil through my hands to affirm my sacred bond to nature
Nature provides us with a vast variety of landscapes in which to immerse and restore ourselves. Her remedies are limitless. A daily dose of the outdoors saturates our senses, encourages emotions like compassion, gratitude, humility, and awe, clarifies our thoughts, centers our awareness, and calms our anxiety. Nature’s countless concoctions connect us wholly to ourselves and our well-being.
In our garden of life, many people come and go. Our interactions with others can be beneficial or detrimental to our well-being, growth, and development. I have always carried a very romanticized view of love and relationships. Only in the last few years have I become to understand and appreciate those who grow nearest to me within the borders of my garden. Like herb and vegetable varieties that may be planted together for mutual benefit, the perennial presence of my closest companions cultivates a clear capacity for collective encouragement, strength, protection, and love.
In gardening and agriculture, companion planting is the practice of growing certain plants in close proximity to each other. These garden ”friends” improve intake of nutrients, promote the presence of pollinators, preclude pernicious pests, and bolster biodiversity. Growing gracefully together, these companion plants complement each other. Tomato and basil are savory partners both in and out of the soil. Alongside each other in the garden, the aromatic basil deters pests from the tomato, allowing the tomato to bear fruit more bountifully. Moreover, many gardeners have noted that neighboring basil brings about a noticeable sweetness in the tomato. In the kitchen, these two plants mingle together deliciously in a variety of Italian dishes.
Another familial trio of garden companions is known as the Three Sisters. For centuries, these three culinary crops, corn, climbing beans, and squash, have been celebrated in Native American tradition and cultivated together to complement each other both in and out of the garden. Corn provides the stalk to support the climbing beans vertical growth. As nitrogen-fixers, the beans take nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth, from the air and convert it into a form that can be absorbed by the corn and squash roots from the soil. In addition, with taut tendrils twisted lovingly around the corn, the beans provide stability and support to corn in stormy weather. Growing lush and low, the big leaves of squash shade the ground, retaining moisture in the soil and suppressing weed growth. Outside of the garden, each member of this time-worn triumvirate brings to the table specific vitamins, minerals, and macromolecules to concoct a delicious, nutritionally balanced, culinary creation.
In the landscape of my life, I have cultivated a variety of relationships. My perennial companions are steadfast, rooted deeply in trust, loyalty, and love. We expand, mature, and thrive together. We nourish each other with understanding, acceptance, grace, laughter, and joy. Supporting each other in growth, we celebrate the unfolding of our beauty bursting forth from our authentic selves. In times of disturbance, we encircle each other tightly to weather our sorrow.
In recent years, I have tended thoughtfully to an assortment of seasonal relationships. These annual allies settle close to me quickly and spark my passion, generosity, and vulnerability. They sway me to stay in the present moment, share their spirit, and alter my aspect. It is through their ephemeral existence that I renew my purpose and root deeper in my authentic self. Seasons change and it is hard to let go. As I push through the layers of compacted grief and sadness, I acknowledge and honor the wisdom, support, and unconditional love so freely shared by those with whom I have spent time, no matter how brief. I continue to grow in compassion, gratitude, and patience for others, myself, and my journey.
“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
In lawns and other manicured green spaces, weedy species of plants are undesirable and burdensome, often a mark of disgrace, bringing judgement upon the gardener. These misplaced plants are denounced for their pervasive, prolific, and pushy presence in every plot of land that humans attempt to propagate. Ecologically, weeds are referred to as “naturalized species,” or plant species that have successfully reached level one of ecological function by establishing and maintaining a population outside of their assumed, indigenous, habitat range. In natural systems, they are recognized as the hardy, ground-breaking, resilient, pioneer species that are the first species to colonize a new ecosystem, or re-establish an area that has been disturbed by flood, fire, or other perturbation. They are the widespread generalists, bountiful and beautiful, adept at adaptation, and experts in expansion. Weeds are only undesirable invaders in areas of human disturbance. Looking beyond the gardener’s pristine plot, these plentiful plants are powerful.
As children, many of us discovered the wonder of weedy species wandering our back yard lawn. Chickweed crept through the thick, green turf with its ear-shaped leaves, “hairline” along its stem, and tiny, delicate, star-like, white flowers, a refuge for the garden fairies. Common clover, its white flowers buzzing with bees, brought us to our bellies in hopes of discovering a single stem with the rare and fortuitous fourth leaf. The simple, common “dandy lion,” or dandelion, with its bright, yellow flower head composed of countless tiny, single florets morphed mysteriously into a silvery, soft sphere of seeds, scattered by a single, wish-laden blow. Through a child’s perspective, these pesky perennials had magical properties. They brought joy, luck, and hope. Without judgement, their persistent, misplaced presence was valued.
Like the undesirable species growing in a utopian garden, many members of the human species are judged and devalued. Social stigma germinates around various populations; people with mental illness, substance use disorder, differences in learning styles or intellect, or a criminal background. It is through society’s lens of benightedness and burden that many of us may collectively be perceived, or perceive ourselves, as less worthy than others. However, this is only one perspective. Just as a child appreciates the bewitchment and beauty of the backyard lawn weeds, we can learn to acknowledge and embody our own power when we are feeling misplaced. Our orientation may not be what we envisioned, but in our novel position we can stand proud in our own story. We can root ourselves firmly in the fertile ground of gratitude and self-acceptance, expand our extent to encourage others, scatter the seeds of hope and healing, nurture our natural talents, and mature wholly into our own magic.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Two months have passed since my father died. I have spent many hours in solitude mourning the loss of his physical presence, reminiscing with old photos, reflecting on his generous spirit, quiet creativity, conscience connections with others, and his overall unremitting optimism and love for life. Moreover, I have thought deeply about my own sojourn on this planet. In his 85 years, my dad created and lived his best life. In honoring his presence, I am intentional in creating my own authentic life. A makeshift experience is not acceptable. As I was shuffling through some papers, I found this keynote address that I was honored to deliver at the Brook Road Academy Commencement Ceremony in 2013. The words I shared with the senior class then are still reliable and significant as I continue on my journey today.
As you sit before me this afternoon, I am sure most of you recall your first day at Brook Road Academy. You arrived from different places. For each of you, Brook Road has been a respite, a place to catch your breath, a nurturing community in which to learn, to teach, to re-group, to choose a new path, and to gather momentum to continue your life’s journey. Extending along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park has been a place of inspiration, respite, and relaxation for me for almost 30 years. As an avid hiker, I spend a great deal of time in Shenandoah National Park walking amongst the cascading waterfalls, climbing to the expansive overlooks, and studying the impressive geologic history, rock formations, and wide array of wildflowers. The trail system in the park is extensive and includes areas of designated wilderness and 104 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or AT. Many hikers traverse this trail from end to end, Georgia to Maine. Brook Road reminds me of the shelters that these through hikers encounter on the AT. The protective, three-sided huts are primitive, but welcomed structures after a long, arduous day of hiking on the trail. As hikers stop and rest in these lean-tos, community and camaraderie exist, however long the stay – just like Brook Road.
So here you are – each of you has chosen a new path and the hour is here for you sort through your “stuff,” decide what stays behind to lighten your load and what is worth the weight to be carried with you as you prepare to depart our safe little lean-to. As we are together this one last moment, I feel humbled as the experienced hiker chosen to give you a few words of advice:
For some of you, your path may be clear-cut, for others not so obvious. Walk in stillness and await for something along the path that feeds your purpose. Observe, appreciate, and saturate yourself in nature’s beauty and abundance for what you seek may be revealed in the unexpected.
Be mindful of every step, observe the minuscule moments and the majestic milestones along the way – the spectacular sunsets, gentle breezes, and aromatic wildflowers, as well as twisted ankles, blistered feet, and sore shoulders from carrying a heavy pack. Live entirely in the experience, learn humbly from hardships and happiness, and let go completely of cargo that is holding you back. Keep moving forward.
At times, your journey may seem mundane or boring. Stay focused, savor the familiar moments, and find calmness, peace, and purpose in everyday routines.
Practice gratitude to manifest sacredness in each day.
You will meet many different people on your journey. Every human interaction is a chance to make things better or make things worse. Remember, the most important person, is the one standing in front of you. Be kind – no exceptions.
Take time to rest and recharge on your journey. Do not be afraid to be alone – insist on and cherish times of quiet solitude. For it is in these moments you will hear the quiet whispers of your heart, guiding you deeper down the path to your truth and life’s purpose.
There will be obstacles – every path, however well maintained, still has obstacles – fallen trees, boulders, and water crossings. Stop and pause at each obstacle. Be thoughtful and creative in your solutions to overcome what stops you in your tracks. Sometimes you are presented with a detour or a new path. Point your compass in the new direction and continue on your way with confidence and conviction in your navigation skills. Most hikers will tell you, and it has certainly been my experience, that the most magnificent panoramic views and spectacular waterfalls are reached only after miles of slow, steady, uphill climbs; steep, thigh-burning descents; or precipitous, ledge-balancing maneuvers. These vistas are the reward for lots of hard work, effort, and sweat, while maintaining a sense balance. The pinnacle will absolutely take your breath away.
So, pick your path, know your boundaries, but acknowledge that a little discomfort is a sign you are working hard to make progress on your journey. If your intuition nudges you to stop at a hidden overlook or leads you down a trail that is not marked on your map, explore and lean into the unknown. You may end up on a different mountainside, but the view can be just as beautiful and the experience just as full. This is not the path on which I began when I graduated from high school, but here is where my path has led me in all of its climbs, descents, and obstacles. Let me tell you, the view from where I am standing is amazing. Just know where you are, is where you should be. Ultimately, the journey is yours alone – your path, your walk, your destination. Godspeed.
This post is dedicated to Matthew Stone, 21, a Brook Road Academy graduate whose journey here ended much too soon. His impeccable work ethic, kind-hearted, sweet nature, and playful, happy spirit will be profoundly missed.