By Leona Johnson
As I sit listening to the sweet chatter of birds and the jovial sounds of neighbours playing and pottering in their gardens I am so grateful for the many signs of life around me.
Never have I been more aware of the need for good connection to myself, to others and to nature.
Never have we as a species – unanimously and simultaneously – had the opportunity to experience the very precious nature our relationship and interconnectivity to all things as we do now in COVID 2020. Whether it’s because we have it or because we are having to go without it the need for connection is felt as never before.
For millions around the world, right now, is unparalleled in history. The illusory backdrop of life as we knew it has fallen away and that which truly matters has started to unfold more clearly.
Family, friends and freedom can no longer be taken for granted. The fragility of the system that upholds us has been exposed. Where, in the global north at least, we have previously been able to rely on medical systems, food networks, financial institutions, fuel, education and more, they have recently been exposed as unsustainable, unreliable and failing in many ways.
The veneer of certainly has been peeled away by lockdown. The busyness, perpetual forward motion and the mindless compulsion – or duty – to produce and consume has, in my opinion, been exposed as unbalanced, disconnected and destructive.
This is not what makes life worth living.
Health, relationships and growth with balance and connection are what bring the quality of life that I believe we are all striving for. All humans need to reconnect to the sense of being a part of an interconnected ecosystem. Belonging, meaning, connection, relationships, great mentoring and guidance, opportunities to share joy, opportunities to share grief and be held: these are some of the things that are left or lacking when the societal structure that usually holds us up has been taken away.
For me this time has been a ‘becoming’. A rite of passage. We have left the world we knew behind and now step forward into the unknown. In this process I’ve really been untangling that which really matters and that which serves only to distract me and destroy connection.
Nothing like this has ever happened before. Our primal response when all that we know has been threatened is to want to run, to fight the cause, or to freeze. We have a very sophisticated capacity to deal with pressure and respond due to our human programming, which comes from a time when we really had to survive in the wild. Some of it is healthy and allows us to go into autopilot and get things done. Some of it, is unnecessary and unhelpful, especially in the face of many of our modern-day threats. The fear created by COVID 2020 is unhelpful to me.
Personally, the intensity of my new living situation, my limited free time and personal space, and the lack of externally imposed structure and routine in my home triggered deeply embedded safety mechanisms. I’ve locked myself away at times when I cannot face another negotiation between my children. I’ve raged with my loving partner. I’ve shut down and gone numb in order to get through the day sometimes. I’ve cried a lot.
And yet there is something about this situation that has been such a blessing for me. The word surrender has been forefront in my mind when in a state of panic that can so easily come over me. I’ve met my edges and I’ve seen the habitual patterns of behaviour that I hide behind or often fall into. It’s exposing and makes me vulnerable and yet it’s raw, and for some reason, without all the trappings of the usual distractions, I’m more authentic and more untamed. When I surrender to it, whether it’s the situation as a whole or the shame I feel for something I’ve just said or done, when I accept it as it is, there is a powerful healing that occurs, a kind of peace and I’ve longed to share this with everyone.
This is where the opportunity lies for all of us.
Finding strength and resilience in ourselves is empowering. It has always been there, both for individuals and as a human species, and I’m sure many of us have witnessed and experienced it before. The exciting part of this collective experience could be the evolution that so many have hoped or prayed for. The noticing, the being, the releasing and the acceptance. Surrender is an amazing mantra. Surrender has been my lifeline, my joy, and I believe it could be what brings and sustains the enlightenment, transformation and adaptation we all need in order to face the next and future stages of our ever-changing world.
The strongest catalyst for me finding this strength and resilience has been my time with nature. I am fortunate to live in the beautiful Calder Valley in the North of England. This good fortune has never been felt more keenly than in these last three months. Alongside this nurturing environment though, the force behind my growth has been my relationship to the elements and to other-than-human beings.
Candlelight, showers, my hands in the earth, growing seeds, breathing practice. All have helped. Believing in something mysterious and wonderful which I do not understand but am able to access. These have been my steadying ropes of connection and strength. These are relationships we all can access whether we live in a tower block in the inner city or a cottage in the countryside. Whether we are surrounded by people or going completely solo, with these relationships we are never alone. The elements that lie within us are our integral connection to nature wherever we are.
Finding meaning in the smallest of things has been awe-inspiring. I have turned off the news and social media for days at a time, dropping into a space of presence and appreciation for all that I have. It has been challenging, rich and beautiful. It has brought the peace within that I have needed. It is a peace I want to create for myself and for those around me.
I am not perfect; I get many things wrong, but I am whole and human and I love life and I learn. Knowing that I can learn and listen hard when things don’t quite work and then feel into a solution-focused way of being has enabled me to thrive.
It is possible to struggle and grieve and get things wrong and thrive all at the same time.
When a sapling grows and encounters an obstacle it doesn’t stop growing, it changes its path or alters course then keeps growing. When a river flows and meets a boulder it doesn’t stop flowing, it splits or rises up or changes path and keeps going. This is the stuff of life.
In practising many ways of connecting to the elements around us – earth, air, fire, water and spirit – I feel that we all have the capacity to develop and strengthen our relationship to ourselves and our inner wisdom. We have the capacity to listen and learn, surrender and grow with support from the natural world around us. If we choose, we could all be resourced by the elements and enter into a sustaining and purposeful relationship of connection in order to resource us enough to be truly helpful to creation.
Breathe, sit with a tree, light a candle, plant some food in the ground, savour each drop you drink, take each moment as a gift. This is my hope for the world.
Dedicated to the next seven generations I throw this dream into the world. Health, happiness and growth.
Whilst searching for ways to deepen my skills in community grief tending I came across Azul Valerie Thome. One look at her website and a short scan of the internet showed me a powerful woman with such deep intent and connection that I just had to go and train with her. Azul’s commitment to constant evolution in thought, relationship, creativity, sacred communion with nature, grief and love and many other routes into an authentic and meaningful relationship with the other than human world is apparent in her every living breath.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her and witness a wise women Elder who is truly there to serve for the benefit of all beings. I feel honoured to be with her and honoured by her. She holds impeccable ceremonial spaces where I have witnessed remarkable transformation and deep connection occur.
Something truly inspiring is the way that Azul can answer the calls she hears from natures beings and create accessible ways for everyday people to engage with it. She listens and responds to the inspiration and the messages that come to all of us from nature all the time when we pay attention.
We all have that capacity but we don’t always listen. I believe it’s like a muscle, when we practice it we become more fluent in the language of connection. The more we commit to listening, asking the deep questions and truly offering ourselves in service to the whole then the more our prayers and questions are answered in a way that makes sense to us. Azul has made this her life work. Listening and responding and helping others to do the same. It’s not dogmatic or prescribed. It’s not traditional or predetermined. Its ceremony and ritual as we as humans have the power to create.
Ceremony and Ritual should not be separate from our everyday lives. Ceremony and Ritual are the portals for connection that I believe we are all longing for but have not been taught in modern-day culture. Practices that can be as simple as making a beautiful offering with intention or drinking a glass of water in gratitude can be the profound access points for a more connected way of life.
In this podcast episode with Azul, we discuss ways in which we can bring ourselves back into alignment with the Earth. How do we learn to listen? How do we learn to understand and trust the direct connection to Earth and all beings and nurture our innate ability to communicate beyond the world of our understanding? This is a deep, nourishing conversation with a powerful healer, creative and ceremonialist.
I hope you enjoy it.
Please do share your thoughts on our Connection Matters Podcast Facebook Page.
Six years ago, as a mother of two small children, I went through something that previously I couldn’t have imagined. I went through something that I now know many women face after having children; I lost my sense of self. I lost my sense of confidence and seemed to develop low self-esteem, which was pretty new to me. I didn’t seem to know anymore, outside of being a mother, who I was in the world.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved being a mother. I loved the freedom I had to be with my two gorgeous children in those precious years while they learned about the world through their expanding senses. It was magical. I enjoyed making informed and empowered choices about our lifestyle. More than ever, I recognised the need for healthy living and a sustainable world, and now I was a mother I was more inclined than ever to make good choices.
What I didn’t expect was the alienation I felt from everything else that was going on in the world. I couldn’t engage with friends and family in the ways I had previously. I was exhausted and overwhelmed; I sometimes felt lost, lonely and decidedly confused about who I was and what I wanted to do next.
I used to be able to go on breaks away, or sit up late talking it through with friends. I used to have a job that gave me freedom. I didn’t resent motherhood, but I craved something that I could do that would give me the sense of space and connection I so needed. I didn’t just want to do what I’d always done. Maybe before I’d have gone for a drink to let my hair down, now I just wanted something peaceful and healthy without children. It had to be free, and of course, easy to do because I was not working and was always so tired.
One day I’d just had enough, I was tearful and, dare I say it, emotional. My partner was around, and I asked him to take the kids so I could go for a walk alone. Once I was out, I managed a hundred yards before I just sat down under a tree to cry. I sat there for forty minutes, just watching and listening and being still. I listened to the birds, I watched the squirrels dive about on their essential missions, and I breathed in the vitality of nature. At the end of it, I felt decidedly restored.
I was surprised just how energised and happy I felt from that short interaction with the outdoors. It was quite profound. So from then on, I decided to find ways for me to do that every day.
Sometimes it was just 15 minutes before breakfast or half an hour before bed. For the next weeks and months, I committed to myself, for the benefit of everyone around me, that where possible I would do this as a practice every day. As a result, I can honestly say that I felt my sense of belonging soar and my happiness and sense of purpose with it.
Now if that was all, I could stop writing here. Hopefully, it would be a sweet story and a useful suggestion to support women in their emergence from the early years of mothering, and that would be it. But the thing I most want to share is what happened one day after I’d been doing this for a few months.
I was at the same tree, the one I’d made a point of returning to, the one where the birds seemed to know me now and where I felt quite at home. I was sat there mid-afternoon on a sunny mid-spring day when I heard my son chattering away to his Dad as they made their way along the path on the other side of the wall. He couldn’t see me, but it was nice to know he was there.
All of a sudden I heard him again shouting ‘Mummy, mummy I see Mummy’. My partner tried to guide him away from the gap in the fence where he’d spotted me, but we both knew that now that he’d seen me he would not want to leave without me.
It was then that I decided to invite my nearly 3-year-old to join me. My partner took the baby away for a walk. I explained to my little one that I was doing a special thing and if he wanted to join me, he could, but he’d have to sit very quietly and very still, and we were to look out for exciting and magical things around us. To my surprise, he agreed and seemed to sense the air of reverence and magic. He sat there still and quiet for about 7 minutes. Now, if you have ever known a 3-year-old, you will understand that 7 minutes of stillness and quiet at this age is quite a feat. Still, he really did manage this and when he finally spoke it was with a sudden burst of excitement about a little robin he’d spotted on the far bank of the gully.
It became a thing from then onwards to do a little ‘sit spot’ whenever we were out for walks to see what we could see if we were quiet and didn’t scare the wildlife away.
One day a few years later while we were out for a walk, both my children ran up and asked, ‘can we do a sit spot mummy, can we do a sit spot’. I had a tremendous sense of fulfilment and satisfaction. I honestly felt at that point that if I do nothing else for my children for the rest of their lives, I can almost say my job is complete. Well maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but really, I feel proud, I feel so so glad. They have discovered and still have a deep connection to nature in a way that it took me years to re-learn. They have a practice that they can always go back to, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. And with this also comes that sense of belonging, peace, ability to find stillness and pure joy that this practice brings. If you know me, you will know how much this means to me. Nature is a healer. This was my discovery, and now this is my passion.
For more tips of simple things to do in your everyday life to build your connection to nature for healing or restoration or even just for joy, or for simple ideas of ways you can effortlessly nurture that sense of connection to nature in your children I offer 1-to-1 nature mentoring and a programme of personal mentoring to raising nature connected children linked to the model of the Eight Shields.
In this episode with Andres Roberts we talk about his inspiring work in Bio-leadership and Nature Connection. Andres explains how he works to create new forms of human progress by working with the principles of living systems and the wisdom of nature. He describes how we can support more generative, adaptive and responsible human systems by working in partnership with the systems we are part of. A strong believer that the revolution starts within Andres’ work with global leaders is part of the revolution to a more conscious approach to leadership and living.
Live Wild exists to reconnect people of all ages to nature and create a sense of community and belonging for everyone through interaction with the natural world. The current coronavirus pandemic means that we are thinking creatively about how to do this based on the new circumstances, but we remain committed to supporting the local community and helping people to connect with nature, which feels more important now than ever.
We have been reading all government guidance carefully as it is released, and are also tuning into updates from national networks such as the Forest School Association. The decision about whether to run programmes and courses, which are all outdoors and with small groups, is currently in our hands (although this may change).
Safeguarding and supporting the vulnerable in our community is of the utmost importance to us, and all of our programme teams are currently conducting risk-benefit assessments. We will inform those who have already signed up to Live Wild events about our decisions as soon as possible.
We are nature
As an organisation, we take inspiration from living systems in terms of how we operate. Ecosystems adapt to environmental challenges in a connected and supportive way, which is exactly what we intend to do in light of current circumstances.
Getting people outside
There is tonnes of research that confirms what we intuitively know and see every day: deep connection with the rest of the natural world boosts physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing, reduces stress, keeps immunity strong and creates resilience, both on an individual and community basis. In addition to this, the government is recommending time outdoors, fresh air and sunlight.
With this in mind, we are considering new offers that could better enable people to access natural spaces whilst adhering to government advice.
Provisions for Children- Home School and Holiday Club
We now know that schools will close as of tomorrow. Our provisions for children and young people may consequently need to be cancelled, or they may be more important than ever. Many parents with work commitments may be seeking childcare options, and perhaps outdoor provision like ours present the lowest risk. We have a strong desire to support parents and children over the coming weeks and so would like to hear from you about what would be most useful at this time. In answering our Facebook poll, you will help us to get a sense of how we can best bring support and nature connection to you and your family.
With love and gratitude, Leona, Viv, Leonie and Sophie
By Sophie Wren
Spring is a highlight on the forager’s calendar – a time when nature provides a bounty of nourishing wild food that is full of vitality and nutrients. It’s also a time when our ancestors would have been welcoming back the sun and gathering the new green shoots, young tender leaves, flowers and even fungi offered up by the woodland and hedgerows. After the long dark nights of winter, finding these things for the first time would surely have been cause for joy and celebration. As we pass Imbolc, the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, it’s time to get out foraging in West Yorkshire! In this series of blog posts myself and the rest of the Live Wild foraging team will introduce you to some of our favourite wild foods of the season.
Please note, correct ID is essential, and the following is an introduction rather than a guide. We advise acquiring some decent foraging books, doing lots of research, and ideally going out gathering with someone who already knows their stuff. Myself and the rest of the foraging team- Leonie Morris and Miranda Cowan- will be introducing local wild foods and recipes on our upcoming spring foraging courses.
Ramsons (wild garlic)
Pictured: Ramsons in flower, new ramson shoots, ramsons with pine nuts and needles prepared on a Live Wild foraging course, a jar of Leonie’s pickled ramson buds, and Miranda’s ramson pesto
Growing abundantly in the Calder Valley, it’s the smell that gives ramsons away and a rub of the leaves between your fingers will reveal a delicious garlic scent that is crying out to be made into pesto (to me, at least!). A member of the allium family, this plant is also reminiscent of spring onions and can be used as a substitute in salads, sauces and anywhere else you want to add a flavoursome oniony kick. You can eat this raw and I usually end up nibbling on a good amount whilst collecting, which leads to a fiery mouth and wonderful garlic breath. The dagger-like leaves have a subtle waxy sheen and the flowers, which come later in spring, are white and star-like. You can eat the leaves, flower buds, flowers, stems and seeds and I have experimented with pickling and fermenting as well as sauces like pesto. Because the flavour is in the oils, cooking can render ramsons tasteless. Throw them into your soups and stews right at the end and sprinkle some raw chopped leaves on top for extra taste.
Note that there are poisonous plants that could be confused with ramsons, especially the first new leaves of early spring: lords and ladies, daffodils, lilly of the valley and foxgloves. Get to know these and be sure to avoid!
Scarlet Elf Cups
Pictured: scarlet elf cups with collected water, scarlet elf cup and ramson pizza made by Leonie, and scarlet elf cups in the moss
What an absolute joy it is to encounter these vibrant mushrooms amongst the mosses in later winter and early spring, sometimes with little drinks of water still pooled inside them (or is it the magical mead of the elves?). They grow directly from fallen wood, and there are a few spots I know of around Hebden Bridge where they are very abundant. Just looking at them provides me with a lot of joy and entertainment, but eating them is a wonderful treat too. I tend to pick a few respectfully and leave plenty of cups remaining to continue their magic of decomposition, spore spreading and looking delightful. For me, a good way to approach foraging is to ask permission (in this case, I may address the elves), take what feels respectful and always leave some behind. These mushrooms can be roasted or fried, or even added to pizza, as Leonie has done in the picture above.
Note: correct ID is absolutely essential with mushrooms- please don’t take any chances! Also, once you’re 100% sure of what you’ve found, try a small amount first to ensure it doesn’t disagree with you.
Most of us have been familiar with stinging nettles since we were kids due to the stinging. They’re incredibly abundant in our valley and the newly sprung plants are absolutely delicious. These vibrant plants seem to be full of life force, and are one of my absolute favourite wild foods due to their high protein and iron content, amazing spinach-like flavour and versatility. Nettle tea, soup, stew, curry, bahjis…the list goes on and on and is making me hungry. Nettles are full of vitamins, calcium, potassium and magnesium- a pretty incredible plant and ally for from a health perspective.
Note: harvest young nettle leaves from the tops of plants before they go to seed. Pick with gloves if you want to avoid stinging, although the ‘grasp the nettle’ technique can also work well. Submerging the nettles in boiling water for a minute takes away the sting.
About the author:
Sophie Wren is one of Live Wild’s foraging tutors, and joined the existing team to work alongside Leonie Morris and Miranda Cowan in 2018. Her initial fascination with the magical kingdom of fungi began around ten years ago when she found a chicken of the woods mushroom on her birthday and discovered it was edible. Mushroom foraging quickly became a general passion for wild food when it became apparent how much of the landscape was edible. She particularly enjoys experimenting with new wild food recipes as well as re-learning the art of traditional preparations.
On a nippy but clear and sunny day last February, I was privileged to join Leona and Damian and a selection of fifteen or so other lovely humans for Live Wild’s Singing in the Woods event, in a secret woodland location in South Manchester combining two of my favourite things; singing and trees. What’s not to love?!
The day began with teas and some freshly made cleaver water to open the throat and clear the system. Then we got on with the business of raising our voices to the trees, combining in song from languages from around the world, encompassing a range of rhythms and vibrations but consistently infused with simplicity and joy.
During our lunch break, we lit the fire with a simple ceremony and accompanying song, and heated some curried soup to warm and soothe us for the afternoon’s activities
The group had mixed feelings about singing in public at the outset of the day. We all wanted to sing, but we had varying confidence about our abilities. When we began, our feelings ranged from unabashed enthusiasm to anxiety, nerves and outright fear, but not long into the day everyone’s inhibitions had been thrown to the winds in the safe and reassuring hands of our enthusiastic, experienced and knowledgeable facilitators. We sang, we danced, we harmonised and experimented and we lifted our hearts and voices to the trees. And actually, we sounded pretty good!
It is emotional and a little magical to sing in nature, it feels like a two-way exchange with the plants and wildlife. It’s well known that plants thrive when gardeners talk to them, I like to think that our vocal efforts were as well-received by our rooted audience as we were healed and nourished by the presence of the trees, the flowers and the accompanying chorus of the birds.
Leona and Damian will be singing again in Calderdale on Sunday 23rd June.
When you delve into nature you delve into yourself
When I give myself the time to connect I allow another world to meet my own. It’s about the slowing of step and of thought into deliberate, coordinated movements. It’s ‘making something’ of time which is different to what I usually might. I will ‘mould’ time into an experience of connection.
Even if it’s just to have a moment to think about time, I will go into nature and slow. Often I ‘take’ some time to do something, but I’d rather ‘make’ or ‘create’ some time for it. This gives me a feeling that there’s ‘enough’ time whereas I could easily tell myself I’m ‘stealing’ a few minutes or on ‘borrowed’ time. Why would I want to borrow time when I can create it myself?
There’s something about time that’s malleable. We don’t simply live in clock time because often a ‘moment’ can feel a lot longer that the clock will tell you. My six year old daughter came downstairs the other night at 10.30pm wondering why it was dark because she was in certainty that it was morning. Sometimes ten minutes can feel like an hour (definitely has happened to me when meditating!) and sometimes an hour can go by fast as a drunken night.
My favourite way to slow time is to walk more slowly, to think more slowly and to sit.
So I go to where I can slow the most.
And that’s where rocks are and trees are, where I can sit and just be. I look at the trees and they tell me to take it easy, that I am who I am, and no matter what I look like, I can sit and just be, rooted to the spot. A tree has one place for all its life and I can call it patient and wise. I sit on a rock and it tells me of storm and rains, water and winds that shaped it through millennia and how it sits there and wants for nothing I could understand anyway. In the moments when I contemplate water – where it’s been and where it goes on its endless tour through air and ground – I feel like a passing breath of this world’s journey, a tiny but significant moment in its story.
We can’t save time in a bottle but we can place as much meaning as we can upon it. Create it, make it, stretch it, speed it up, slow it down, ignore it, whatever! I spend time in nature with intent because there I feel rich and so I spend as much as I can.
Make more time for nature.