A REFLECTION ON RECONNECTING WITH THE EARTH
Robin Rose Bennett
BA, Creative Writing, Founder of WiseWoman Healing Ways, 1986 – Herbalist and Educator – Herbal Medicine and EarthSpirit teachings. Faculty member at NY Open Center and ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism. Author of Healing Magic - A Green Witch Guidebook to Conscious Living and The Gift of Healing Herbs – Plant Medicines and Home Remedies for a Vibrantly Healthy Life.
This essay speaks to the reality of our invisible and visible interconnection with one another and all life on the planet, with a focus on the plants and trees as healers who can awaken us to our authentic selves. It speaks to the necessity of reawakening our connection with the earth no matter where we live, city or country, to help us remember how to attune to and trust our own senses. It is an exploration of the need to reweave experiential wisdom as found and felt in our own bodies with our intellectual understandings, as this is liberating, builds confidence, and evokes joy which is healing in and of itself.
Keywords: earth connection, reciprocity, physical senses, herbal medicine, plants as teachers, web of life
If I could sing the opening of this article, I would start with a chant that I’ve spontaneously opened or closed presentations with when I felt called to do so:
We Are One
With The Soul
Of the Earth
I love Earth — deeply, truly, fully.
Earth loves me — deeply, truly, fully.
The love she has for me is not monogamous.
She freely offers herself to anyone who is open to receive her gifts. She requires no payment for her love, yet responds to respect, gratitude, and affection, like any beloved.
This is not anthropomorphizing. Earth is so far beyond, so much more than just homo sapiens. She is alive, breathing, flowing with movement, birthing and dying in every moment. The earth is comprised of billions of creatures revealing innumerably diverse layers of microscopic to macroscopic forms of life. She has been cast as less than the living, sensate being that she is, but that is not the truth of Gaia, the Earth. Viewing the earth as inanimate has allowed human beings to steal her body bit by bit, chunk by chunk, tree by tree, in the name of industry and progress. It has allowed people to foul and poison her air, water and land, and greedily misuse her creative fire without regard for the mystery of interconnection, and certainly without gratitude and a sense of reciprocity.
And this reciprocity matters. I’ve observed over thirty years of helping people reconnect with the Earth physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, as part of their studies of herbal medicine, that rekindling the awareness of this living connection helps a person to reconnect with and liberate their own authentic self. As it says over the doorway at the temple of Delphi, “Know thyself.” And as Shakespeare reiterated, “To thine own self be True.”
We know the truth of our individual and collective connection with the Earth and one another innately, at a cellular level. But this connection has to be felt to become knowledge. It needs to be more than just a belief or an idea in our minds. We need to experience the reality of it in our bodies. We are living in an evolutionary time, a bridge time between where we have been and where we are going. Perhaps most importantly, this time is about choosing how we will approach the challenges facing us. We are being called to move from relying solely on intellectual understanding to remembering how to reincorporate experiential knowledge. When we embody something, we know it for ourselves. As we have cut ourselves off from the Earth, and from our interconnection with all life, imagining ourselves above all that is not human, or rather succumbing to the fantasy that this is reality, we have also cut ourselves off from our bodies. We’ve learned not to trust our own senses, nor even to consult them. Thus, it is much easier for us to become confused as we are lied to, manipulated, and led to act against our own best interests and those of our fellow creatures. Some even like to imagine that we can leave the earth a mess and rocket off to find a new planet to inhabit and conquer. It is counter-productive to indulge in this kind of immature thinking. We need to grow, to become more like plants and trees, our elders.
Figure 1. Early spring: Welcoming Trillium (Birthroots) in our community medicinal herb garden, created by Robin and her local sustainability group, maintained by volunteers for over a decade. It is on a hilltop where three roads meet, Robin nicknamed it: Education at the Crossroads.
One of my indigenous teachers, Keewaydinoquay taught that of all the Creatures of the Earth, plants have remained truest to their original instructions from Creator, which is to give of themselves generously for the benefit of all beings. And it is true that plants and trees are healers for two-leggeds (us), the four-leggeds, the winged and finned, and of earth, water and air itself. We and the plants are particularly interwoven within the great ocean of air that we all breathe. We breathe out the carbon dioxide that the plants and trees breathe in, and we inhale the oxygen they exhale. How can we not see our mutual responsibility? Why would we deny the beauty of the relationships we can perceive with our own senses and what science has revealed about the relational intelligence of the green life on our planet?
I believe that many of us do see, but that we’ve become afraid to feel, terrified of the pain that will ensue if we allow the armor around our hearts to melt. And yet this is exactly what we must do in order to become the fully human, sensate beings we are meant to be. The Earth, along with the cosmos we are all part of is a magnificent mirror reflecting who and what we truly are, and what we can and will become on the grandest scale. We are physically composed of the same atoms as the earth and the stars. We are literally as ancient as the heavens. And though we are not all-powerful, we are still responsible for our choices. We cannot go backwards, but if we choose to reconnect with the Earth we can learn, as spiritual teacher Ram Dass famously wrote, how to Be Here Now, how to perceive and feel in the present moment. The Earth is always under your feet, even under pavement or asphalt, or when you are in an office suite in a high-rise building.
Figure 2. Women making herbal medicine: Three of Robin’s apprentices making herbal tinctures with fresh plants they have just harvested from her gardens and wildcrafted from the land.
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of plants and trees to the living ecology of the earth. Through photosynthesis they provide the very air that we breathe! Plants, both living and dead, provide the primary food source for the soil ecosystem. They hold and nourish the topsoil that provides the nutrients which enable us to grow our food. They feed the animals, insects and birds. Flowers bloom and provide nourishment for an enormous variety of pollinators. Through the natural magic of interwoven relationships on this Earth, flowers transform to become more food: from mangos to almonds, from peaches to cacao/chocolate, to strawberries and on and on it goes.
Figure 3. Robin Rose communing with New England aster before gathering the flowering stalks to dry for medicinal teas.
When I want to learn more about a local wild plant, I don’t start with a book. I read later. I start with sitting in silence and begin consciously exchanging breath with the plant. Sometimes I’ll have a notebook or sketchbook nearby to record my immediate impressions. This deceptively simple exercise is an excellent way to begin the experience of reuniting with nature, one plant or tree at a time. If you approach a plant with an open mind and heart, you will be amazed at what you may feel and what you can learn. It doesn’t require a hallucinogenic/entheogenic plant either. Our most common plants, weeds such as plantain (Plantago spp.), dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), and wild mustards (Brassica spp.) can enlighten you and change your life for the better. I’ve seen this happen for people thousands of times over the years, and it gives me hope. As I wrote in Healing Magic, when I lived in NY City I’d sometimes go to a tiny, mostly paved park next to my apartment and put my feet on a little patch of soil under a planted bush or tree. It seemed like it would be woefully inadequate to be helpful, and yet it was always calming and centering to do this.
When my parents were interred, not in the Earth, but in a public mausoleum, choosing to have their remains put into a crypt in a vault-like wall filled with coffins and niches for urns, I was upset, horrified really. They did not want to give themselves to the earth, not even in death. And yet, and yet…
One day a young filmmaker was accompanying me in the woods, filming as I made offerings in gratitude to the plants and trees of the forest as I was gathering medicine. Later, when we sat down for a cup of tea, she told me about an award-winning documentary she’d made not long before. It had been a heart-wrenching experience for her as she filmed her father’s decline and ultimately his death from AIDS. She shared that her grief was made even worse when her father made the same choice my parents had regarding his entombment. I empathized with her disbelief and discomfort over what to us was an inexplicable distrust and distaste for the Earth who gives us everything. She told me she’d been crying about it to her grandmother, who offered her the following piece of healing wisdom: “Well, my dear, I don’t think you should be so upset. That wall will go back to the Earth eventually, too.” I gently slapped my forehead in recognition of this obvious truth. And I felt immeasurably comforted by it.
When I first began to explore herbal medicine, I was simply seeking to resolve some of my own health challenges. Yet as I delved deeper, I also benefited from many “side effects” that I hadn’t expected nor known to look for as the plants slowly but surely brought me home to Earth and myself. Actually, beneficial side effects often occur when a person takes an herbal infusion to help with a particular challenge then discovers that it supports them in some other way, too. A person may be drinking hot elderflower tea to help with a head cold when they suddenly notice that their skin has grown clearer.
I have seen the evidence again and again - regular use of plant medicines strengthens us and our physical systems. Our bodies recognize plant medicine at a cellular level, as well as at an ancestral level. We evolved with them over millions of years. Our bodies recognize the form in which plants deliver their nutrients to us and are able to make thorough use of what they provide. Reconnecting with the earth through the plants and trees in the wild and in our gardens also helps people open to the realization that what is most mundane and commonplace in earthly reality, namely life, death and rebirth, is pure magic.
I love Earth and Earth Loves me.
She loves us as part of herself.
Touch the Earth and remember who you are.
Don’t wait. You are stone and soil,
You are white birch and sea kelp.
You are part of this diverse community of life that is constantly
Birthing, dying and being reborn. It supports and nurtures you.
You belong within it.
What is good for the Earth is good for you.
What is good for you is good for the Earth.
I already had an intellectual grasp of the fact that we are one in infinite forms because physics fascinates me. I also had a spiritual sense of this because I’d experienced it in moments of transcendent joy and deep heart openings that my meditative practices had led me to. But those moments were not sustainable. They came and went, like a rush from sugar, chocolate, or caffeine, albeit they were richer and more multidimensional. They also enticed me to want to transcend my physical life, to live in my head and soar through the universe unfettered by all the messy challenges and limitations of being an incarnated human being living on the earth.
In order to discover what was truly good for me, and thus for the Earth, I needed to come down into the body I’d always kept myself at least somewhat disconnected from, whose vulnerability I’d always been fearful of and for, especially as a woman. Through exploration, sometimes brave, sometimes timid, sometimes through pleasure and sometimes through pain and illness, I learned to feel the oneness and have my feet planted firmly on the ground. To embody and experience both. After thirty years of delving into this exploration, it is no longer a question of believing, it is a way of living. It is knowing. A belief is something separate from us … knowing is internal. It is something that is central and calming and that plants a seed of peace within that is unshakeable no matter the circumstances. And yet, like a seed, it is not static, but dynamic, pulsing with life force, ready to grow.
Figure 4. Robin Rose’s apprentices learning to make flower essences from the cherry blossoms in the foreground. They’d gathered the flowers earlier and put them in a bowl of fresh water to sit in the sun for several hours.
Reconnecting with the Earth through plants, plant medicine and earth spirit teachings has invited me into a daily experience of the joy of being alive in a body on our planet in a way that I’d never experienced before, even with all my devoted spiritual work. Of course, it also opens me to deep grief over what we are doing to the Earth and to each other. Grief over cruelty and violence, grief over the level of suffering and loss that seem to be necessary to wake our species up. Of course, I feel anger, too, but I recognize that anger is easier to bear than the feeling just underneath it, which is grief as deep as the ocean. As I said earlier, many of us are afraid to feel our grief. Our anger can feel terrifying, yet it can also be empowering when used wisely. Our grief can loom bottomless; if we dare to let go, we fear we may never be able to resurface. We understandably seek self-protection, so perhaps it is safer to stay numb. The truth, however, is that descending into grief deepens us, grows our compassion, matures us as human beings, and opens us to rise up in joy.
A young relative of mine whom I love very much once shocked me when he said, “Why would I care about them? I don’t know them.” He couldn’t fathom my concern, he felt disconnected because the people who were in trouble were not his friends, not his family. However, when the same young man was with me and a group of herbal students one day, he took me aside with a bemused smile on his face, part delighted, part envious, and said, “Robin, you green witches are so lucky! All you have to do is go outside and wham! You’re happy!” He shook his head in wonder. Well. It may not be quite that simple, but it always does help to plant your feet on the earth and breathe fresh air into your lungs. And aren’t we all standing on the same ground, all breathing the same air?
You don’t have to be an herbalist or green witch to experience this. What I see, over and over again, is that when people reconnect with the earth, whether they live in urban, suburban, rural or remote, isolated areas, they come home to themselves. And it becomes easier to know without so much effort or confusion who they are and what they really want to do. This inevitably contributes to the whole of life. When people awaken to their gifts, they naturally desire to express and share them. I see an enormous awakening of poetry, painting, weaving, story-crafting and more in my students, even ones who were not consciously looking to express themselves artistically in those ways. Liberating one’s authentic self is the best creative response to our individual and collective anger and grief. It is how we will be able to move forward in a healthy way at this pivotal moment in time. And in opening to ourselves, our hearts inevitably open to others.
Everything depends on us joining our unique talents together in ways that will lead to the redesigning of our social and political institutions so that they support all beings fairly and abundantly. This is vital. The solutions already exist, whether in the few remaining indigenous societies living in harmony with their environments or via the genuinely ingenious technological approaches being implemented in pockets and experiments everywhere today, technology that is based on biomimicry, watching what Nature does and emulating her as closely as possible. We need to follow her lead to reweave the tapestry of life, to resume living on our Earth in a good way. We cannot supplant Nature. That is a fallacy. We cannot replicate ocean water, nor compose another version of the air we breathe. But we can and must learn to work with and support nature, recognizing that like all of Earth’s species, we are supported by the complex living systems that we belong to.
We are all part of one another, part of the living web of life. We need to know this in our bones if we are to survive the challenges we face amid the evolutionary chaos of now. To heal ourselves and bring that healing to our communities so as to live in harmony, we need to return to the use of our animal senses and bring them together with our intellectual understandings. In the herbal world we call this organoleptic learning, learning through our senses. Making connections based on taste and smell, observing through sight and touch. We are the only species on earth who has forgotten how to do this. We may think it’s because we function on higher levels, but it is not so. Or if it is, it is like functioning as if only the upper floor of the house mattered, as if it will not collapse if the deep foundation and stabilizing ground level atrophy and rot from misuse.
If you will take the time to stand with your back against two different species of trees where you live, and especially if you are willing to return to them again and again, you will find that you learn different things from pine trees than from birch trees or from great old oaks. They all “speak Tree” but the variations are not just subtle, they are substantial and offer different teachings.
We belong to Nature and the Earth. Forgetting this has made human beings physically, mentally and emotionally weakened and sick, and also unbearably lonely. For me and for many others the most profound side-effect of studying herbal medicine is the discovery that we have kin everywhere, allies everywhere, seen and unseen. We are at our most fragile and vulnerable, and become the most defensive and destructive when we imagine ourselves to be alone and isolated. We can continue to treat the earth in rapacious ways that result in making each other and our kin ill, killing ourselves off as we are doing, or we can allow ourselves to know the truth. We are interdependent. Everyone matters. We can unite in creativity, compassion and connection to make each other well and strong.
And this is happening, growing at the grassroots level all around the world. We are joining hands and hearts. Remembering we are in this together. Separation is a mass delusion that leads to disaster and mass extinction. The Earth will ultimately be fine with or without us, but in unity there is healing, by gathering ourselves together in the present, we will have a future.
We don’t need to be the same — any more than a walrus needs to be a butterfly. But we do need to slow down, to disconnect from our fast-paced distractions and go outside and touch the ground. It is imperative that we feel our grief over our losses and face our fears, especially our massive fear of scarcity that is continuously stoked and manipulated to justify institutional greed and cruelty. Astonishingly, although there is enough for all, many people have nothing. We sanction starvation, slavery, misery and death. We stifle our concern, close the doors to compassion, unwilling to make room for it out of fear that it will hurt too much or deprive us of what is ours. We keep ourselves in the dark — some are in sheer survival mode at the same time as others are drowning in distracting luxuries while toxic mountains of plastic, electronic and chemical waste befoul our land, air and water. But Earth is adaptable and so are we. Now is the time to rise.
We need to take care of ourselves and tend to each other’s well-being. We cannot continue to deny our power and responsibility nor suppress our grief over the harm we are causing. We must face the losses we are suffering in our families and throughout our increasingly polluted and abused planet.
We need to participate in dismantling the edifices of domination and exclusion, especially if we have been benefiting from them. The truth is they are already self-destructing. Those perched at the top are precariously hanging on to the rungs of a teetering ladder that will inevitably fall. They are holding on tightly to the power of the few over the many, but this moment of authoritarianism and dominion over the earth and her inhabitants will not last. It is crumbling.
We the people are joining hands and hearts together. Awakening. We are many and they are few. And in our unity there is empowerment.
When I have been in despair and asked the Earth what she needs from me, what she needs from us, I almost always receive a variation of the same response. Sing and dance. Gather together. Remember who you are and what brings you joy. The solutions are already here. Joy is medicine.
Consciousness is growing. Rising. Deepening. We are remembering that we are all in this together, along with the animals, the trees, the insects and the rivers. Reconnecting with the earth brings this to light and life, creates the undeniable, heartfelt experience of belonging. Reconnect yourself to the web of life that you may have temporarily forgotten you belong to. Let your heart lighten and fill with joy, then your hands will reach out for mine, and together we will walk, step by step, into the next era of life. Some of us will be limping, some of us will be dancing, but we will be nourished by our compassion and dedicated to healing what has been broken, celebrating the beauty, reveling in freedom, and planting gardens to feed everyone.
And so it will be. And so it is.
Reference for citations
Bennett, R.R. (2021). A reflection on reconnecting with the earth. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y).