Connectedness

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”   – John Muir

On October 30, 2018, feeling disconnected and fragmented, I left my family, my friends, and my home to embark on a bucket list adventure to the remote, Inupiaq community of Wainwright, Alaska, a place far north of the Arctic Circle.  I worked as the middle and high school science teacher in the small, village school. The kids were tough and I was an outsider.  Even as a seasoned educator, my first day in the classroom with the 6th graders was indescribably difficult.  Reaching to connect with them, I decided our first lesson would be comparing the animals found in the Arctic tundra to the animals found in Richmond, Virginia.  They spoke of the majestic raven and I of the sweet songbirds of the temperate climate.  As the weeks passed and we continued to learn from each other, I felt trust taking root and relationships budding.  We were growing our connections to each other, intertwining our cultures, much like plants use the tiny network of fungal roots to connect and communicate.  One day, one of my most difficult, female, 6th grade students handed me this traced drawing – of a songbird.  To me, it was a simple sign of peace and acceptance.  We are all the same, no matter our climate or culture.  We all need the same things – a connection to others and an acknowledgment of our inner beauty and wisdom.

Edward O. Wilson defines the hypothesis of biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature.” Connecting ourselves with nature can provide us the space and breathing room to unearth our own inner beauty, find our voice, celebrate our gifts and confront our fears. Sitting amongst even the simplest setting in the natural world has positive effects on the physical body and can move one from a state of thinking to a state of mindful being where peace, joy and clarity are sustained. Discovering our place in nature, our interconnectedness to all living things, fills us with humility, gratitude, and awe. We step outside of our stifling small world into the Big Picture where we can exhale. Backyard garden or bucket list outdoor adventure of a lifetime, our relationship with the natural world challenges us to practice our patience, boost our bravery, and raise our resilience as we learn to go with the flow and connect to life’s circle, reminding us we never have to do this alone.

This essay is published in Wild Roof Journal (Issue 10) available on-line at http://www.wildroofjournal.com

                                                                                                                 

Breath

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathe in, breathe out. Inhale, exhale.  A simple exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide. We breathe an average of 23,040 breaths a day.  Most of these breaths are involuntary, controlled by the brain stem, varying with our level of activity, anxiety, or excitation.  They come and go without us even taking notice.  When we breathe without thought, our breath can become shallow, irregular, and inefficient.  Our body attempts to shift our breathing pattern when we are disappointed, defeated, frustrated, bored, anxious, stressed, or wishful by emitting an audible, forceful exhale –  the sigh.  Materializing several times a day, the sigh is often interpreted negatively as a form of passive communication by those around us.  However, the sigh is not a means of communicating our emotions to another.  It is simply a big exhale, a point to be present, a moment of mindfulness, or a fraction of time to re-focus. It is our bodies response to our unconscious rhythm of breath, a reminder for us to breathe out and let it go.

Plants use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen in the process of photosynthesis.  Larger plants, like trees, process a lot of carbon dioxide and in turn, manufacture a lot of oxygen.  In essence, they are the lungs of the planet.  Scientists have observed fluctuations in the levels of global atmospheric carbon dioxide over a 12 month period.  The two hemispheres of the planet have opposite growing seasons. Seemingly, the influence these opposite growing seasons have on global carbon dioxide levels would  cancel each other out.  However, the Northern Hemisphere has more land area, and therefore more foliage, than the Southern Hemisphere.  The growing season in the Northern Hemisphere, especially during the warmer months of the summer, has an effect on the amount of carbon dioxide measured in the atmosphere.  Plants use more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they photosynthesize and grow, lowering global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  As deciduous trees lose their leaves in the cooler months and photosynthesis ceases, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase.  These fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are equivalent to the  Earth taking a giant inhale and exhale – a planetary sigh. 

Our breath is our anchor, our tether, our connection.  When we our conscious of our breath, we can bring our awareness and focus out from the confusing and chaotic clouds of our head down to our calming, compassionate, loving heart center. The simple practice of breathing, the gentle exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, can help us restore relationships, foster forgiveness, strengthen our capacity for self-love, and create space to hold thought and connection to others and to our environment.  

                                                                                                     

Resilience

“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”

Japanese Proverb

Resilience – it is one of my favorite words. I love the sound of the word when spoken. The order of the letters creates a sound smooth as a weathered stone, a sound that flows like water off the tongue.  The word conjures a sense of calmness, strength, accomplishment, and hope.  You are resilient- it is the utmost compliment.  

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape. It is toughness and elasticity. It is true grit, brute strength, and absolute acceptance.

In ecology, resilience, defined as the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation, or disturbance, predicts how quickly an ecosystem can recover.  Disturbances can originate naturally, such as flood, fire, drought, and disease, or can be the result of human activity, such as pollution, habitat degradation, fragmentation, and destruction. Ecosystems can experience stress from multiple factors, like climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. If an ecosystem is stable in structure and function, it may recover quickly from a disturbance.  

According to the Crisis Prevention Institute, trauma is defined as an event or series of events and experiences, or prolonged experiences, and/or a threat or perceived threats to a person’s well-being.  Traumatic events include natural disasters, violent crime, sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, abandonment, neglect, and poverty.  Trauma is a disturbance, a perturbation resulting in negative impacts to one’s sense of safety, emotional self-regulation, concept of self, physical and emotional health, cognitive thinking and academic success, and interpersonal relationships and social skills.  Traumatization occurs when an individual has inadequate internal and/or external coping skills.  Reactions to traumatic events are individual and subjective, often influenced by one’s history, beliefs, perceptions, expectations, level of stress tolerance, values, and morals.

As with healthy, natural ecosystems, individuals can exhibit resilience in the wake of a single perturbation, or series of traumatic events.  Acknowledging and accepting one’s emotions, implementing coping strategies such as breathing, mindfulness, and grounding, seeking out a safe and comfortable space, and surrounding oneself with individuals who can listen intently, engage compassionately, and love unconditionally builds a strong web of support and strategies that can promote healing, resiliency, and recovery.

Communication and Signaling

There is a path from me to you that I am constantly looking for.”

– Rumi

Communication is a two-way path. As humans, we communicate with others to convey our thoughts, emotions, intentions, and information.  We use four basic types of communication to connect with others – verbal, non-verbal, written, and visual.  Verbal communication is spoken language. Non-verbal communication employs body language, gestures, and facial expressions, intentionally or unintentionally, to disclose and help others understand what we are thinking or feeling. Written communication, often in the form of e-mail or text message, can lack emotion and be assumptive or misunderstood.  In contrast, visual communication can be powerful in its presentation, evoking strong emotion and thought.  When we connect with others, we use a varied mix of these four types of communication.  Many of us show strength in one type of communication over another. 

Signaling is defined as transmitting information by means of a gesture, action or sound. Recently, I attended a youth league football game to watch a friend referee the game. The teams consisted of 9 year-old boys, top heavy with protective gear and still learning the game. The players moved painfully slow around the field, each play fraught with signals from the collective referees.  Hands gesturing, fingers pointing, and yellow flags flying – an exchange of signaling and responding which constitutes the game of football.  Without coordinated communication and signaling, organized sports, like football, basketball, and soccer, would be utter chaos. Ineffective or absent cell communication within living organisms results in cellular chaos, or uncontrolled cell division, that manifests disease. 

Cells signal each other to coordinate actions between multiple cells.  One cell signals and another responds.  Cells respond to change in their microenvironment and signaling plays a role in organismal development, tissue repair, and immunity.  Scientists have studied the two-way communication and signaling pathways between trees. This Intreenet or mycorrhizal network, is composed of the tangled web of the tree root system and the mycelium, the small, hair-like filaments of the fungal root system.  Together, the trees and fungus create an underground, interdependent, communication network that transfers water, nutrients, nitrogen, carbon, and biochemicals between organisms, influencing germination, growth, survival, and reproduction of other trees within the stand.  Moreover, the Intreenet has an enormous capacity to heal, as mycorrhizal networks repair themselves quickly. Fungus and tree are so intertwined and dependent on each other; fungus relies on tree for carbon and tree relies on fungus for  nutrients and water.

Some trees have been identified as hub trees, or more lovingly referred to as mother trees.  Mother trees are the foundation of communication and signaling in the forest community. They provide opportunity for adaptation and resilience in recognizing and nurturing their own seedlings, sending them excess carbon to increase their viability and conveying messages of wisdom when they are injured, sick, or dying, biochemically signaling to their young to increase their resistance to stressors. Trees can exhibit crown shyness, a growth adaptation where canopy trees keep their leaves a respectful distance from each other.  Trees communicate above ground through the release of volatile organic compounds (VOC) that send a signal warning of danger. Trees can even communicate between species, like the birch and the fir. Communicating and signaling between each other, trees are keenly aware of their connection to others in their stand, their community, their “tree tribe.” They use the mycorrhizal network wisely and effectively to connect, support, and encourage growth, adaption, and resilience. 

As humans, how can we learn to communicate with the clarity, beauty, and positivity of the trees? How do we freely embrace all members of our community and encourage them to germinate, grow and reach for the sun? It begins with our connection. Our communication and signaling connection to ourselves and to each other.  Seedlings germinate and grow with their roots firmly attached to the mycorrhizal network.  They stand under the watchful eye of the mother trees and are nurtured, protected, and provided with what they need to grow and thrive.  We are also born into a family of origin, our stand of family, whose network may not be as integrated or resilient as that of the trees.  As children, the communication and signaling we receive from our caregivers and those in our family guides our development of personal boundaries, encourages us to find our voice, and promotes our sense of confidence and self.  

Perhaps our family of origin suffers wounds, trauma, dis-ease which damages or limits our communication and signaling, stunts our growth and makes it difficult for us to grow.  We find ourselves lost in the forest.

Fortunately, like the birch and the fir, we can receive communication and signaling from those other than our family of origin. We seek out, through our network, our stand of trees, or those in the community who will encourage us to root deeply and grow strong.  As we acknowledge to each other where we are from, we can take each other where we stand and communicate with the clarity, beauty, and positivity of the trees. We can love each other unconditionally  as we gently encourage each other to reach for the sun and mature to our best, authentic self.

Silence

“Nature grows her plants in silence and darkness and only when they have become strong do they put their heads above ground.”   

– Annie Besant

Silence – the absence of sound.   Quiet, hush.  There are only a handful of sounds in the tundra.  The occasional call of the majestic raven, black as night against the stark, white landscape.   The sound of the sea. Sometimes it roars. Today it is silent as it slowly becomes entombed in ice.  The incessant, nocturnal barking of the dogs that often keeps me awake. The  sound of the wind as it blows brutally through the village.  The occasional high-pitched whine of a Ski Doo.  The hum of the prop plane as it approaches the village.  It is my reminder of my isolation and is my connection to the rest of the world.  A few, very recognizable sounds, but mostly a continuum of silence.  

Plants begin their tiny lives in silence.  In the dark, underground, they remain still in the quiet, nestled tight within the seed,  awaiting just the right moment to burst forth.  And in silence, plants communicate with each other and their pollinators using a fragrant language, a collection of volatile chemicals that in combination, produce “words” and “sentences.”  The rich, fresh scent of pine and the blue, smokey haze that gives the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey mountains their names are observable elements of the silent communication in the forest.  Trees communicate silently underground also, through a mycorrhizal network configured between the hairlike root tips of the trees and microscopic fungal filaments.  Through this symbiotic information “intreenet, “ trees share nutrients and water, and send distress messages to each other about drought and disease.  In turn, trees respond to these messages sent amongst each other. Trees and other plants are not growing in isolation. They are connected to the rest of the plant world and receive important messages in silence.

Silence provides a space to listen to what God, the Universe, or the Great Spirit has to say.  It provides the pause to hear our own inner voice of silent knowledge, our intuition.  We can center ourselves in breath, relieving our compulsions that manifest in our head and help us return to heart-centered thought.  It is in the quiet where we can clearly hear the answers to the questions we have been asking and create a silent network of thoughts and intentions that relieve us of our isolation, connects us to others, and helps us regain our bearings that are so often lost in a world of chatter and noise. 

With the end of year upon us, many of us pause and reflect, setting goals or resolutions, as we transition into a new year. Maybe our expectations become larger than life as we bid farewell to a decade and usher in a new one. I encourage you to set aside regular time alone in silence, perhaps in meditation, or outdoors in a quiet space that speaks to you. Listen and let your heart guide you on your journey into the next year and decade.

The beautiful and silent tundra of Wainwright, AK

Darkness

“ The strongest trees are rooted in the dark places of the Earth.  Darkness will be your cloak, your shield, your mother’s milk.  Darkness will make you strong.”  

– George R. R. Martin

Today is the Winter Solstice. It has always been a day of deep reflection and celebration for me. The day where sunrise and sunset are closest together. After living in remote, northern Alaska, 350 miles inside the Arctic Circle, my perspective on darkness has changed.

Until a few years ago, I was afraid of the dark, especially when hiking in the forest.  As soon as the late afternoon shadows began to settle in, I would panic.  My breath became shallow and my pace would quicken to insure I would reach the trailhead before it even remotely became dark.  Darkness changes our perspective.

Living deep within the Arctic Circle, I have gained a real sense of place and position on this planet.  It is humbling.  I have experienced the hours of daily sunlight decrease rapidly since my arrival October 31st.  In the days leading up to the polar night, the 24 hours of darkness from November 22 to January 19, I was excited and a little anxious.  It is a phenomenon that only those living closest to the ends of the Earth experience. As the sun struggled to make its appearance over the horizon, I realized that the daily celestial cycle of sunrise and sunset, an event that that most people take for granted and perhaps never ponder, was not going to materialize for 65 days, here in Wainwright, AK.  As I watched the last bit of pink light drain from the sky, on November 21st, I experienced the familiar fear of the dark.  Darkness changes our perspective. 

In the Plant Kingdom, light is a necessity.  Plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to manufacture oxygen and food in the form of a sugar, glucose.  This series of chemical reactions takes place in the leaves of the plant specifically in structures called chloroplasts. However, most plants begin their life in darkness.  In the darkness of the Earth’s soil, protected and nourished by the seed, the tender, young plant grounds itself with its roots. It slowly pushes through the darkness to spread its leaves to the light and in using the Sun’s energy, begins to grow, bountiful first in flowers and then in fruit.  Plants use the warmth and the darkness of the soil to rest, awaiting optimal conditions for germination and growth.  Moreover, many species of plants are night-bloomers, unfolding their beautiful, fragrant flowers in the dark of night to attract nocturnal pollinators.   

Many of the flowers of the night blooming species are short-lived, but intoxicatingly fragrant.  The Berlandiera berata, the Chocolate Daisy releases a sweet chocolate scent.  Gardenia, Tuberose, and Night-Blooming Jasmine are known for their aromatic fragrance often coveted in perfumes.  The Casa Blanca Lily is a favorite choice for bridal bouquets because of its white color and intensely fragrant blooms.  Spinning open like a pinwheel, the Evening Primrose blossoms at dusk to attract bees.  Datura wrightii, the Moonflower, probably the most familiar night-blooming species, attracts moths with its glowing, nocturnal flowers.  The Queen of the Night cactus, appropriately named, as it only blooms every one or two years, produces several large flowers that unfold on a single night. These species come alive in the dark. 

There is beauty in darkness. It brings quiet rest, solitude, and time to dream.  It gifts us the opportunity to change our perspective.  By enveloping ourselves in darkness, we can cultivate our ideas, germinate our creativity, and grow our fortitude and courage.  We transform ourselves from mediocrity to greatness, unconsciousness to spiritual awakening, and meaninglessness to purpose.  As the veil of darkness is lifted, we return to aliveness as brave, determined, sovereign beings of light. 

This photo was taken from an Alaska Air flight from Prudhoe Bay, AK to Utqiagvik, AK (1/6/19)
Wainwright, AK (1/16/19)

These photos were taken during the period of the polar night. Oh that Sun, she was so close..a reminder that even in what seems our darkest, there is always a little light.

My Relationship with Nature

is sacred and deep.

As a young child, I spent countless hours outdoors. As an adult, my goal is to inspire people to action. Through many professional and personal experiences, I have developed a deep, sacred relationship with plants and the natural world.  The lessons and beauty I have experienced in nature have been profound, deeply healing, and awe-inspiring.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to share my deep appreciation, love, and knowledge of plants and natural systems with others to facilitate connection, community, healing, well-being, and wholeness.

First Post

Welcome

to

From the Outside

Exploring the People-Nature Connection

In every walk with nature one receives more than he seeks.

— John Muir

This is the first post on my new blog! I am excited to share my reflections on the natural world. Please stay tuned for more and subscribe below to get receive notifications when I post new updates.