Honor Among Leaves

Honor Among Leaves
Winter Tree
winter tree at night

On the first day of the new year Joseph and I walk all over our ten acres on a twofold mission. On the practical side we note projects that need doing. On the ‘why we live here’ side, we glory in the abundant beauty of the fields and forest.

We saw the tips of snowdrops sprouting under the lilacs, ate carrots that made it through frost, and picked a few of the already blooming Christmas roses.

All winter I read and reread seed catalogs, draw page after page of maps of my garden on graph paper, and add and edit endless plant lists. I try to figure out rationally what I ought to plant this year, preferring plants, trees and bushes that fulfill more than one function and provide the most bounty. Making lists throws me into all that analytical left brain activity.

But when it comes down to what plants actually make it into our gardens in spring, my right brain has a lot more to do with it and I’d save myself many hours if I just accepted that logic really doesn’t have the final say.

I’m just reading “Plant Spirit Medicine” by Eliot Cowan. In the book the author tells the story of an ethnobotanist who visited a small tribe in the South American rainforest. On the way through the woods one of the tribe members walked alongside him pointing out 20 different plants, telling him what healing properties they have.

After they got back to the village, the ethnobotanist approached the man and asked if they could go back into the forest, this time with him bringing along his notebook, so he could write down what the man had told him.

The tribesman found this hysterically funny, as did his family. When they all finished laughing, he told him that wasn’t the way it works. He said, “That was just to introduce you to some of the plants. If you actually want to use a plant yourself, the spirit of the plant must come to you in your dreams. If the spirit of the plant tells you how to prepare it and what it will cure, you can use it. Otherwise, it won’t work for you.”

As they describe it, that’s why pharmaceutical companies searching the rainforest for cures don’t often find them. The scientists take samples home, divide them into single components and try to isolate the “part” that has the cure, without ever engaging the plant’s spirit for help. The active ingredient in plant medicine, these tribe people believe, is friendship with the plant.

Have you ever been inexplicably drawn to a certain plant with no regard for its appropriateness? I certainly have. In my mudroom is an enormous asparagus fern sitting in exactly the wrong conditions who is this very minute putting out flowers and berries to celebrate the brief morning light it sees at dawn. Outside the living room window a hardy clump of calla lilies sends up shoots and even flowers in the dead of winter. Go figure.

I can’t point to logic or even common sense in what wants to go where because it’s clearly illogical.

After reading this book, I’m thinking that when I get a sixth sense about a plant wanting to come and live with us, it sounds like the plant (if I may be so bold) may be tendering its friendship. When we choose to do something with that plant, even in spite of rational thought, we are honoring that connection. Which I think is pretty cool.

Some plants grow in our garden spectacularly well that my neighbors can’t grow, and other plants do poorly for no good reason. (Am I the only person in the northwest who can’t grow zucchini?)

Beyond the normal constraints of soil quality, nutrition, moisture, sunlight and tilth, I tell myself to listen to that little intuition when it says a plant WANTS to grow in our garden and let it. Might bring a surprise!

Four years ago I grew two side-by-side borage plants for their tiny tasty blue flowers I put in salads and for the seeds whose nutritious essential fatty acids are good for us to eat.

Two years ago I found a bunch of borage sprouts in one of my raised beds up in the field. This was rather mysterious since the borage I’d grown was in my herb garden 200′ away on the far side of the house.

I let the borage plants grow and of course they spread from there. No logic involved since I clearly didn’t need more of them. But if I admit it, this furry-leaved plant with shooting star-shaped flowers simply makes me happy each time I see it, so this year I neglected somewhat intentionally to pull up a dozen shoots and in short order they took over places I’d planned to put more normal food crops.

Eventually many beds were overrun with the softly prickly blue flowers. Did I stop them? No.

Call me foolish but I couldn’t bring myself to yank them up and toss them on the compost pile. Instead I kept finding places to transplant them so they could grow more flowers.

By June effusively large borage bushes grew here and there in half my raised beds. I need to tell you that in MY garden borage isn’t the delicate flowering plant you see on seed packets. My borage are dense three foot tall bushes that bloom from late spring right into frost. And even after frost, the lower branches keep putting out those little blue star flowers.

There’s just no way I can eat that many little blue flowers and, not surprisingly, they don’t tolerate canning in any manner so I couldn’t even pretend they’d contribute to my winter pantry. One day in early summer I looked around and suddenly realized I’d somehow let my “pet plant” become the most dominant and prolific plant in my food garden. Oh dear.

But then I had a remarkable insight.

Years ago I decided to take up beekeeping. I wanted bees to ensure good pollination, harvest honey for food, have bee pollen and propolis as preventive medicine, and so I could make sweet-smelling beeswax candles.

My gardening girlfriend told us about a house with a beehive in the backyard. The new tenants didn’t want bees! So in the dark of night when the bees had gathered in the hive, Joseph and I and our friends wrapped the buzzy hive, drove them north and set them down in our south field.

When the bees woke up the next morning, they immediately found a thicket of borage flowers and made it a daily stop on their pollen tour. Since the bees were already in our garden, every time a new squash, pea or tomato blossom bloomed, a bee was on hand to pollinate. My garden was abuzz and I thank the borage for making sure everything came to fruition this year.

Yes, I am illogical and, I admit it, driven by whim. My vegetable garden never comes close to looking like the neat, organized maps I draw all winter. If I’d been logical, I would have confined the borage to a reasonable amount of space in one or two locations and most likely the bees wouldn’t have staked out territory like they did.

But if I didn’t pay attention to my whims I’d never have planted gangly, sunflowers that took up way too much space yet fed birds all winter. I would have mulched my garden in November and missed out on the teeny bouquets of miners lettuce that found the open dirt and are blooming now. They taste wonderful in a fresh January salad!

And if I was firmer about sticking to a plan, I certainly never would have let so many tomatillo volunteers haphazardly take root wherever they pleased. Luckily my laziness won out and at the end of the season, with not a speck of coddling from me, I picked 200 plump salsa-makers, the last of which we cooked and ate just last week.

I’ll probably draw 20 more garden maps before spring planting starts and get it out of my system, even knowing I won’t follow them. Once planting begins, the plants and land will have their say and I’ll try my best to hear what they want to do, even if their voices are fleeting as the scent of lavender on the breeze.

I walk lightly in my garden, knowing my plans can change in the time it takes to snap a pea pod.

The food is far more delicious than anything I could buy and I know it’s organic and healthy and that gardening is good exercise and it’s fun being outdoors watching things grow, but more than all that is the pure, effervescent enjoyment of being touched by Nature’s benevolent, bounteous, generous spirit.