Older Women and Plants:
Loss, Ecstasy, and a New Communion
It is as if the veil of the ordinary is drawn aside and a mythic world that exists only for our eyes, pristine and untouched, still dripping with the dew of creation, is vouchsafed to us. There is such intimacy in this revelation, such incomparable largesse in the gift, such breath-taking unexpectedness, we cannot help but to surrender to it. Thereafter we will become as infatuated, at some level of function, as a mystic, holding the world as a beloved in our hearts despite the undiminished perils, griefs and trials it presents to us in our everyday transactions.
--Freya Mathews, On Desiring Nature.
If you love it enough, anything will talk to you. --George Washington Carver
Some older women, unknown and unheralded, live in intimate communication with plants and place. They are part of no wisdom lineage and aspire to no mastery, but each day they walk into their gardens, feel the grace, and experience an exquisite interchange of energy and meaning with the living things around them. To the world they appear mundane, but the way they experience the world includes what to most of us would seem like a magical communion with the plant world.
I once knew a woman named Margaret who had a way with plants. Her largest garden was bursting with life--vegetables and flowers growing together in what at first glance looked like chaos but was not. On the rest of her property there were trees, shrubs, flower beds, and mossy corners with unexpected combinations of plants, set with a sense of both fun and elegance.
Slips of this and that were always rooting up or planted in coffee and soup cans along the edge of her porch, on her wooden cellar door, and on the sills of her kitchen windows. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, wearing her home-sewn flowered apron and traditional Pennsylvania Dutch sun bonnet, surrounded by her symphony of leaf and bloom. In her garden she always seemed happy, although her life in many ways was not.
As a young person I felt that there was something transporting or otherworldly about Margaret’s gardens and the way they were planted, in contrast with the orderly and practical gardens of other Pennsylvania Dutch families we knew. It was not until recently, however, as I grow close to the age Margaret was at that time, that I began to understand how some women’s lives propel them into an experience of non-ordinary reality and receptiveness to the spiritual communications of place and plants.
When people describe shamanic initiation they talk about crisis or dismemberment, some experience that completely undoes the self and, usually after a period of anguish in which things hang in the balance, remakes the self into a new kind of being with new perceptions, never to be the same again. In many ways the trajectory of some women’s lives, especially those who live without social support, set them up for similar psychological and emotional disintegration. While some never get past the devastation those changes bring, other resilient souls pass through that ring of fire and emerge transformed into a transformed world. I believe Margaret was one of those women.
I write here about women not because something similar can not happen to a man. Of course it can. But it seems to me that the life of a wife and mother in several ways prepares her particularly well for tuning in to the wordless communications of plants. In my experience at least, the challenges of nurturing and trying to understand an infant can change one’s modes of perception in ways that persist long after the infant is grown and gone.
It is easy to forget when you meet a woman in her sixties, as Margaret was, that her early years are still alive in her, early years of a life completely different from her life at this point. As with any child who is fortunate enough to have good parents, in early years her smiles and childish mannerisms bring delight to her parents and others around her. As she grows, the ways and looks of a young woman are a source of great pleasure and delight to many. People in her community are interested in her and in watching which ways her fancy turns.
If she is intelligent, lively, and lovely or any one of those things, she becomes accustomed to being able to conjure smiles, and if she is open-hearted she takes pleasure in bringing that delight to others. Then when she is courted and newly married, she is the apple of his eye. Just by being who she is, she makes him happy.
When children come along, she is the center of their world. For a while she is their source of learning, safety, consolation, love, and more. She learns to divine before they do, and without benefit of words, what their needs are and what sources of pain or sorrow they have and how to fix them.
By this time she is running a household. In Margaret’s time this included but was not limited to growing food, canning, sewing clothes, doing laundry without electrical appliances and, of course, cooking, as well as refereeing battles among children. During these years some women discover that their greatest pleasure comes from serving selflessly with no hope of return. There is no choice—you either give in and enjoy the challenge and the emotional rewards or turn bitter. Those who choose the first reach a state you could call surrender with love.
Life is completely full at this point. The woman in the house is useful to everyone. Older children need her guidance. The husband and younger children need her love and her body. Everyone needs the laundry and cooking. The work is hard but there are many moments of exquisite beauty and pleasure. Even in hard times, life is full of love, smiles, laughter and hugs.
Then over time the beloved children grow and move away. The house empties. Her beauty is gone. She is delightful or even interesting to no one. All the abilities and tactics she learned to get through the challenges are no longer needed. In Margaret’s case the children moved far away. Her husband, after being laid off, sank into a sullen state we would now call clinical depression. I remember him sitting silently in a rocking chair for long periods of time while we visited. There was also some trouble with members of her birth family that meant they didn’t speak to her. She had never had a driver’s license and there was no public transportation.
She had gone from being a source of delight to many and capable manager of a complex operation to an aging woman in a silent house isolated at the edge of the forest. What happens to an intelligent and lively woman under those circumstances? It may be different now--with the internet no one is that isolated. But this was the nineteen fifties. All she had about her were the gardens and the woods.
Everything she loved and everything she was had been taken away, but since it was in the natural course of things, no one grieved with or for her. She was helpless to change her situation. A dismemberment or disintegration of self would naturally take place.
I use Margaret as one example. Women lack social support and lose their sense of self for many reasons. Young families move far from family and friends for jobs, and when the children grow and move away and the husband leaves or dies, the woman can be left similarly isolated.
What it is that allows some people to come out of struggles and grief over loss, and find new life, while others linger in hurt and disappointment forever, is difficult to say. One of the hardest journeys we can make in life is to finally get beyond hope. Some childhood experiences can create hidden sources of strength that appear only when desperately needed, strength that permits the individual to reject a life of bitterness and pain.
Sometimes it is communications from the plants and place themselves that find their ways in through cracks in a broken heart and help to restore or at least heal it. We have all seen or heard of cases like this. For another piece I wrote I had occasion to ask people about stories or experiences involving what seemed to be nature, the world, God, or gods communicating with bereaved people through plants, animals and the elements. The response I received, and this was not from a pre-disposed crowd, was stunning. Stories of unusual behavior on the part of birds and butterflies after deaths of loved ones are extremely common. Other kinds of distress can open the same lines of communication.
Some will of course say that grief just creates overactive imaginations and arouses wishful thinking, but one can just as easily say that loss and grief break through the shell that we learned to build as children in order to block the communications we were told were not real. We are all so caught in the hypnotic state induced by modern life that something in us must be breached in order for the greater reality to break through.
Imagine our isolated and broken-hearted woman walking out into the sunny garden. Bees buzz from flower to flower. A breeze carries fragrances of herbs and flowers, Roses bloom on the trellis while larkspurs, gloriosa daisies, and other flowers sway before her. Food plants and herbs are in full early summer growth. Bird songs from the nearby wood reach her ears. Here and there she sees some plant that requires her care. Maybe this has happened before many times and she chose to hang onto her bitterness and sorrow, but today she is tired of feeling bad. Subtle communications are knocking on the door of her heart, which is so familiar with love. When she opens up she finds herself in the midst of beauty, among happy and loving friends. Age and loss drop away—those she communes with see only her authentic self. Such an experience can change everything, and turn a situation that feels like a prison into a blessing.
Men do have similar experiences. Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement, “but tho' an old man, I am but a young gardener" is particularly evocative. Still, I think historically women have been connected in people’s minds with plants because aspects of being a mother and wife can prepare a woman especially well for seeing and understanding plants as persons.
The knack for intuition and receiving unspoken communications that an attentive mother develops in order to reach the timeless wordless world of the infant is an open channel to spiritual communications, and the delicious elation that comes from seeing the growth and fullness that is the outcome of the collaboration of the gardener with the garden echoes a mother’s delight in her child. That pleasure she found in being of service to the beloved in direct physical ways carries over very well to working with plants. An even greater intimacy with plants and place arises from the fact that no human shares her bits of knowledge or the thousands of moments of grace and ecstasy she experiences over time. It is her private world.
Her invisibility to the other people and their disinterest in her, once painful, morph into freedom. There is nothing to stop her from walking further from the world of people and into this world of wonder. The plants are always eager to befriend and to share delight.
Soon her closer relationship with plants informs and changes her gardening methods. The plants now have input. The gardener is likely to allow seedlings of garden plants to grow where they start unless there is good reason to pull them. Even weeds are given a chance to grow big enough to show what they are and, if approved for their flowers or for use as herbs, to become part of the garden family. Pollinators are welcomed warmly as suitors. A once ordered garden, although still kept weeded and healthy, turns into a riot of color and form, expressing the joy that both gardener and plants feel.
And that, I think, is where I met Margaret in those days when I was young. That sense I had of something transporting or ecstatic in her gardens was the expression of the spiritual unity she had with the place and the life in it. The whimsical but exquisite combination of ferns, mosses, wildflowers, houseplants and bedding flowers I recall seeing along a tiny creek that ran across the property no doubt arose from the deep joy and playfulness of a woman in love. The wonder that I felt came from seeing love expressed.
I think also of my mother in her last years, by any measure a broken-hearted woman. She had a tiny garden, but so beautiful that strangers would stop to tell her so if she was outside. Every morning she would sit on the step outside the door, smoke a cigarette, drink her coffee, and look at the garden, dispersing the dark thoughts and images that often troubled her at night.
As for myself, not only isolation but every regret, every loss, every death of someone I loved, and of course the approach of my own death, pushes me into that present moment where plants and place always live. Sometimes these days it’s hard to tell whether that ache in my chest is sorrow or love, but I have never before been so aware of the vibrations of the world, of the plants, the birds, the insects, the soil, even the stones. We are alive together, companions in a beautiful place. Recently I glimpsed my garden from someone else’s property and realized it is beginning to look little like Margaret’s. Just a little, but it is evidence, I think, of a change in progress. Maybe I should get out the sun bonnet she once gave me and see if there is any of her magic left in it.
This is what I wonder—did visiting and spending time with Margaret and in her gardens when I was a child have a part in giving me my lifelong love of and fascination with plants? Was that otherworldly feeling I felt there actually the communication of plants and place capable of stronger expression because of their relationship with her? When someone looks at gardens created by someone so deeply in touch with the plants, does the garden suggest the relationship and the ecstasy to them in some subtle way?
Most intriguingly, if we take children to meet these women and to see their gardens, will some wordless communication enter and lodge in the children’s hearts, making some change in their feelings and helping them to find in plants a joy in all seasons and a refuge in dark times? It might be worth respectfully seeking out solitary older women who garden in order to try it.
Women like Margaret did not set out with the goal of seeing the world a new way, but set out as young women with open hearts, bright minds and eagerness for life. Only after the door was closed to one world did it open to another, only after traveling a path no one would choose did they arrive at ecstasy and a new communion. Although they are and were unknown, the world is better for the lives of these women, the little corners of heaven they create during life, and the heart-to-heart connections with the green kingdom that go on resonating after they are gone.
As soon as we allow ourselves to think of the world as alive, we recognize that a part of us knew this all along. It is like emerging from winter into spring…. We are reborn into a living world. –R Rupert Sheldrake, from The Rebirth of Nature
Nancy Wisser, a writer and gardener in eastern Pennsylvania, explores the topic of spontaneous moments of non-ordinary reality experienced by ordinary people, and the possibility that spiritual technologies like vision quest and shamanism may have been developed from them. Her articles Coming Up from the Land, and This Moment Returns to Me, published elsewhere, address the topic of childhood moments of transcendence in nature. She acts as part-time administrative assistant to the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania.
Poem by Jared Smith
A Mythology of Our Own
Some say our country has no belief system, no unity.
Yet we do, we have built our own confused mythology
here where men go down to concrete seas in cars,
where we meet in fast food sacristies at edge of time,
where our smelly hides run into each other at each turn
and our music bought from someone else is tuned too loud
yet rumples our hair and jerks our legs as if they were our own.
We know this place we live where no man can hurt us,
where it is the nameless that roll stones to stone us in.
We have the fire in our eye and key chains in our pockets
and a maze of doorways lying open behind us singing
in the winds gathered from urban alleys and aspen mountains
connected by a road of crushed stone and melted tar and time.
How could some say there is nothing left within to open the doors
and creep out wild upon our cities when the sun goes down.
Jared Smith is the author of ten published volumes of poetry, including his Collected Poems: 1971-2011; two multimedia stage adaptations of his work, presented in New York and Chicago; and two CDs. His poems, essays, and literary commentary have appeared in hundreds of journals in this country and abroad, and he has appeared on both NPR and Pacifica networks. He has served on the Editorial Staff of several of the country's leading literary publications, including Screening Committee Member and then Board Member of The New York Quarterly, Contributing Columnist for Home Planet News, and three time Guest Poetry Editor for The Pedestal, as well as serving as the past Poetry Editor for the Colorado Mountain Club's Trail & Timberline Magazine. He as well remains a member of The Advisory Board of The New York Quarterly. He also served as host of several poetry venues in New York's Greenwich Village, President of the non-profit Poets & Patrons in Chicago, and is active in a number of local and regional literary and arts organizations. He is currently a contributing editor for Turtle Island Quarterly.
Poem by Eric Greinke
6AM morning campfire, orange
firing up the dawn. Fresh
green spearmint by a clear
stream. Water flows from
cold springs to feed the blue
lake. Minnows gather in
curtains of light. A ski boat
circles, sending waves to smash
the shore, throwing light
skyward, projecting brief
rainbows. Weeds grow from
cracks in an old pier. Rusted
steel upangles from white
sand. Two old dogs play at
waters edge, puppies
at heart. A whoosh of wings
pumps over the lake: white
swans in explosive flight. Down
flutters down to float
on a fluid surface. Boats
sit at tilt on a pebble
beach. A seagull worries
a dead fish, its eyes
long gone, sockets staring at
a sky that stretches out
over clueless cities, by seas
that birth tidal waves aimed
at distant shores, where
campfires blink innocent eyes.
Eric Greinke’s new collection is For The Living Dead - New & Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2014). His poems appear in journals such as Abraxas, California Quarterly, Ginyu (Japan), Green Door (Belgium), New York Quarterly, Main Street Rag, Paterson Literary Review, Prosopisia (India) and The South Carolina Review. He takes his inspiration from the woods and cedar swamps of his native Michigan.