I just spent the last week helping a friend with a spring break camp for young girls deep in the headlands of Marin County, California. The camp took place on the most magical land. I really had no idea I would be landing in such a place to do this work. The land is a place called Solstice Grove, an unintentional community of sorts, whose landscape is wide and varied. Redwood trees and their botanical understory companions skirt a cool flowing creek up a steep canyon next to the main house. California Bay, with its twisting fern covered trunks released pungent oils into the air during the rainy week. The cleansing rain released the scent. It was the first thing I smelled when I woke early in the morning to walk out onto the deck to dip into the cedar hot tub. A tub smelling of ancient wood, reminding me of the hot springs I found deep in the wilderness of Idaho a couple years ago. The Redwood grove meandered into an Oak-y savannah with open Poison Oak and Yerba Buena filled fields. The top of the land and into Open Space shared by the public featured a mixed chaparral ecology. Live Oaks and Spruce skirt the tips of the ridge right at that place that you feel a noticeable wind, right at the old gate that you have to tug hard over a tree root to maneuver open. When we hiked with the girls, we creaked a 'cah-coo-cah-coo' sound to make when we 'felt' such noticeable differences in wind or temperature while we were traversing the woods and using all of our senses. All along this range, from the Redwoods by the main house up to the open and expansive ridge, were yurt homes and cottages tucked away with quiet hermit-like residents. Certain elements reminded me of other communities I have been to or lived in over the years- Eartheart Mountain next to the Daniel Boone NF in Kentucky, Wildcat Community in New Ipswich, NH, Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, CA, Dancing Springs in Barnardsville, NC, Mountain Gardens in Celo, NC, and Earthhaven Ecovillage in Black Mountain, NC. I tend to grab onto the feelings other places have created in me in order to try to orient myself in someplace new. Or maybe just the smells or the aesthetic commonalities.
I came with blind faith and a hunch that helping my friend Suki, someone I met a few years ago at the Firefly Gathering in Barnardsville was what I needed and what the world needed at the moment.
This week at camp was focused on a slew of hopeful and ambitious projects. Communicating the idea that the spirits of the forest are real, first and foremost. Time for play and awareness games. As well as crafts that use materials from the land or deepen a connection with plants and place.
We had a day of wet felting under a pop-up canopy where the girls worked hard at rubbing the wool into felt with soapy cold hands. Adults have a hard time sticking through such a process but these kids made it. On the other side, they all created wonderful felt bags to decorate with natural dyes or needle felting. We made straps by hand rolling wool to felt it and it only halfway worked. We were mending them the next few days to make them sturdy.
We meditated with Rosemary, which on the land forms a dense hedge practically covering a whole hillside, thriving in this Mediterranean climate. In the moist mornings along with Bay, the waft of Rosemary floated through the air, the purple flowers opening in mass. We then made a flower essence together with Rosemary, which was flowering profusely. We actually never got a chance in our busy week to explain totally what Rosemary's flower essence is for, but when the kids went to their sit spots to watch the land, they all took a few drops and came back with feedback that fits the description exactly. No need to tell them, the young ones already know.
We made wild tea of Douglas Fir tips and Lemon Balm, drank together quietly in small clay teacups and took a short group nap by the trees via the girls' request. Rosemary essence, Lemon Balm tea, felting, so much excitement. Integration time for the mind and soul is important. I realize this in my own life even more as the days roll on.
The group did a storytelling session with Leah, one of the yurt dwellers and a magical storyteller and healer, and in it they acted out a saga that they created. It entailed a visit from a scientist of the future that came to tell them the world was dying and gave advice on how to save it. In the saga, they discovered the tools they needed to work with the elements, and therefore save the earth from dying. They made this us without adult input. What world do our children think they are entering?
We made 'fairy food' or offerings for the fairies that guard the plants, that inhabit the crevices, that sit on mossy rocks. We encouraged them to ask before harvesting plants or mushrooms for food or medicine, and to offer something whether it was gratitude, prayer, a piece of hair or the fairy food offering, which was a blend of special herbs Suki made.
On the 4th day, we set out for a hike and plant walk in the forest. I had spotted a beautiful log of turkey tail mushrooms a few days before that I wanted to harvest from but hadn't yet. We decided that harvesting with the kids would be a great experience in teaching about Turkey Tail, about sacred, mindful and sustainable harvest. And, to get us all some exercise among the Redwoods!
We started up the switchbacks, with loud abandon as the kids pointed out Maidenhair Fern and Miner's Lettuce. There was chatting, playing, aweing over giant slugs eating wads of wild greens right in front of our eyes. Luna the white blue eyed wolf-dog, of whom the girls adored, came along to be a part of the pack and to get some exercise herself. We made our way up the muddy path, jumping puddles, a mist hanging in the air. Leah decided to join us for a short part of the walk.
We arrived to the beautiful orange and brown striped Turkey Tail, a different version of Trimedes versicolor than what I usually see out east. We set our handwoven baskets down and explained to the girls that we were going to ask if we could harvest. A few offered up their fairy food and we closed our eyes going silent, no small feat for this excitable and rambunctious group. We stood there in meditation with the Turkey Tail when we hear Luna tumbling out of the distance and the sound of morbid yelps. She jumps over a Bay log, with a big animal in her mouth, a tail we could see. Luna was playing with it, the animal squealing in the silence of our prayers. The kids were mortified. We yelled for her to drop it and she did before arriving back to us. Some started immediately crying in shock and sadness at what they just witnessed.
They were upset with Luna. She came back, a full white coated dog, with blood on her mouth. We as a group decided that this was not a good time to pick Turkey Tail. Birds sounded alarm calls. Suki said to them that these birds are the ancestors of the animal that was just killed and are communicating their despair. We took in the moment and decided not to go look at what exactly it was that Luna killed, across the path from the girls. We assumed a squirrel.
Leah, Suki and I thought it was a baby fox. We walked in silence. We walked a few switchbacks further up the mountain, passing yurt homes and giant Redwood trees. The girls held one another, cried and sometimes whispered their feelings as we all made our way up. We stopped for a mourning circle, a grounding and releasing exercise. The experience was traumatic, yet a normal and natural occurrence: a dog whose nature is to hunt and kill obeys that nature. The sun peaks through the trees, after days of rain. We stand in the sunlight. We told them that sadness is okay. Can they forgive Luna? What we had experienced was a sacred experience, an impromptu lesson on the impermanence of life and the tragedy and beauty of death. We used the experience to explain how harvesting the turkey tails is no different, we were going to take life. That the reason we give fairy food is to pay reverence for that cycle. The Redwoods watching over us are made our dead ancestors, and this is a comfort to know.
I say that this was an 'unexpected event' yet, isn't death something to expect? The death of anything or anyone at any moment? Do we not expect death to come? Our human experience for thousands of years has been to witness and be a direct part of the death of the things we eat, daily. We are so separated by buying food, our eating out of boxes, headless meat and an overall disconnected food relationship. Our food doesn't resemble life or death at all. We used this 'unexpected' experience to gently allow the girls to understand this cycle in a real way. The trauma is real because we are not used to it. The pain of loss is a gift to feel, the bigger problem is when we don't feel the pain of death at all.
Later, Suki and Leah returned to the site and discovered that the animal killed was actually a baby fawn, just a few weeks old, and Luna had pierced the stomach. Born and innocent to the world, life can go, just like that. They did a burial by laying ferns and flowers on the soft fawn's spotted body.
As I sat alone on a remote beach cove this week, wild mist from the ocean flying in the air, I thought about this in response to it all:
a river running through valleys
going on its leisurely way,
surrounded by lush plants and singing birds,
being a single river.
it rushes quietly towards a wild ocean,
and in an instant--gone.
but not really,
just gone of a name 'stream.'
'stream and ocean' are now the same Being.
death is not the end, just a transformation.
it's just the death of a name,
but the essence is never gone.
Later in the week, after our natural dyeing, salve making and needle felting projects, Leah got the group to act out the story of their week. In it, they included acting out the episode of Luna killing the fawn. Though we never told them it was Bambi, we allowed them to continue to believe it was a squirrel. I believe the kind of storytelling that Leah does is really healing and helpful work: it allowed the group to decide how they want to retell the traumatic and unexpected experience in the context of everything else in the week. When we revisit things in this way- not directly experiencing them but witnessing the shadow-- sometimes by embodying a version of the shadow, we can see things in a new way. We can see where we are with processing trauma and grief. We can integrate the lessons of 'unexpected' events and the reality of life and death.
An incomplete plant list at Solstice Grove:
redwoods, bay, yerba buena, california poppy, rosemary hedge, douglas fir, big leafed maple, horsetail, purple dead-nettle, stachys, tan oak, wild iris, scotch broom, toothwort, wild rose, yellow dock, comfrey, plantain, borage, calendula, poison oak, sword fern, maidenhair fern, chickweed, lemon balm, thyme, peppermint, live oak- which?, witch hazel, solomon's seal, thistle- which?, milk thistle, california sagebrush, california buckeye, chickweed, henbit, coyotebush?, spruce, yerba santa.