Apr 022008

For the Blog Party hosted by Ananda of Plant Journeys: Plant Myths and Archetypes

One of the ways I first came to herbalism was through stories, and especially fairy tales. The many volumes of such stories I owned as a child were read so often that eventually most of them completely fell apart, their spines broken, pages creased and worn cover beginning to crumble. Many of these tales did not present the plants and trees as benign, friendly assistants but as powerful entities capable of both generosity and what could sometimes be considered cruelty. I still remember of some of the horrifying images from a few of the oldest stories, of corpses hanging on Briar thorns, babies tortured to screaming by a cradle made of Elder wood and of ancient forests obscuring a young girl’s safe passage back to her village.

In other, or even the same, books, the plants cured blindness, provided shelter and food, or created transformational magic. Sometimes the plants were metaphors or representations of goddesses, monsters or giants. Whatever perspective the narrative took, it was clear that the plants, and especially medicinal plants were complex, varied with a life and language that is the root of our own. The European forest, still a powerful living force when these stories were first birthed, represented a complex organism that permeated human consciousness and had to be dealt with by rural people and travelers, and touched even those tucked safely away in walled cities and cozy agricultural towns.

These days, children’s books and movies tend to show cheerful woodland scenes with singing animals and helpful flowers. This is an easier approach to take now that many of the great archetypal forests of the world have become but mere shadows of their previous selves, and some have disappeared altogether. We’ve reduced our understanding of these places to whitewashed animation and culturally censored fables. Yet, there’s a special power to old growth areas, a palpable presence of the spirit of the place that is far fainter in fourth growth woodlands, mined mountains, plains stripped of their great migrating herds and whole continents deprived of their predators. This isn’t to say that there’s not magic in every area where the natural world is still present and pulsing up through sidewalks, burned out wastelands, clearcut strips and oil slicked beaches. These places are still important, beautiful and capable of healing. In fact, I feel that wounded land holds special gifts for us humans, we who are so often wounded ourselves. Yet no matter how lovely they may appear or how quickly they grow, they lack the intensity and complexity of the vital force that is present in places where the ecosystem has been allowed to grow, spread and bloom without radical interference for millenia.

The heart of the forest has long held special significance for humans as a magical place that few human ever have the courage or skills to navigate. From the lyrical tales of Tolkien to the enchanted forests of Miyazaki’s movies, we find remnants of this powerful place that still holds a profound sentience, and also the great mystery once so central to the human experience. This is the place at the very center of oldest trees, a place where it is still easy, even unavoidable, to feel and hear the forceful personalities of some of the world’s most ancient beings. How many of us have been there? More importantly, how many of our children have wandered with us through the primal wildness of a place unaltered by development, chainsaws and roads. Not just unaltered for the last fifty years, but for the last five thousand years? Will our little ones grow up to know, recognize and honor the power of these special places?

For most of us, experiencing these places will require conscious action, a pilgrimage of sorts. This is an effort, but it is only through personal relationship with these places that we will remember their importance, their magic and the necessity of preserving them, both for our benefit as living parts of the land and for the diversity of other life that depends on their existence. No matter how far we retreat into concrete, insulated particle board and reinforced steel, we are still a part of the ancient wild places, connected at the roots and bound by the very breath we breathe. The Heart of the forest is our own.

The First Forest

Carry the knife
Carry the dress
Between your teeth
Crawl through
This cold water
Knowing that
You may never
The other side

This is the myth
This is the story
No one tells
I am the girl
Who will kiss
Your mouth
And be gone
Back to never
Never land
Not so long
Before dawn

Peel this calico skin
Can you see who I am
Can you taste
My body
Taste the sweet
Bite of tree sap
And the tang
Of running blood

I’ll take you back
To the trees
To the first forest
The myth held
Inside stone
and the liquid
of the human

Whisper then
Walk closer
to every edge
the spiral
Down to earth
to the mystery
of water
Rising to cover
You have
Ever known

Listen to me
Let me
Bring you back
to the first
Human home
the original
Wood still
with stone
that rises
from the earth

with the
Ache of fire
the birth
of myth
and landscape
the human
Hands spiraling
Stone and water

Touch me
Until I turn away
Only a mound
of leaf mould
and a million
Flowers still
of honey
and the
Sweet scent
of new decay

Hold these
of scarlet
Petals and
Give my
Body to
the sky

the stories
that all these
Faery tales
are true

  6 Responses to “The Heart of the Forest”

  1. I love it. My parents are Europeans (eastern) and my mother always had that fear, awe respect and inter tingling on the skin when having to walk through the ancient forest of Eastern Europe. I never quite understood it until recently when I’ve recaputured the handed down knowledge of folklore, herbs and plants. It all came full circle. How sad it is that not only in our own country, but world-wide, ancient forests are stripped to the core and left naked to plunder. Even working with herbs, tinctures, organic skin care products, my customers still don’t fully understand it. Everyone is still looking for quick fixes, (and a quick buck) without fully understanding the scope of living in harmony with mother nature. Organics is still just a buzz word for the day. Hopefully, we’ll all get on the same boat before it’s too late.

    I really enjoy your emails. It’s refreshing to read the passion of your teachings.

  2. mmm… nice poem

  3. I don’t know if it’s because I’m french and grew up next to a wood but I have a strong connection to the forest. Now that I live by the California coast, I especially miss the forest…It’s where I feel good and where I feel at home.
    Once you steep in, you’re entering another realm. Trees are not only wise and knowledgeable but they know everything there is to know about you even if they see you for the first time. They’re all linked and communicate with each other even to groves far away.
    I don’t understand why people nowadays are so afraid of the forest and of the silence…Are they afraid of spirits? Animals? Creatures mentioned in myths & legends? Or are they simply afraid that the forest will reveal a part of themselves that they are not proud of or even their wild & dark side?
    We all come from the forest and to the forest we shall return…

  4. Your piece here sent a shiver up my spine….oooo…. you have such a gift with words, you are utterly inspiring to me!!! Thanks for all the great work!!! and btw thanks for the nice comment about my ode to Manzanita.. yes, she is a mighty force here in the foothills. Very special. (: Sasha

  5. I grew up around the great lakes. I always envisioned the place covered in the forests that used to be there. Echos of which could be found in the old stands and the fallow fields that were regenerating to forest again. Later, I started practicing a first forest meditation which I still use today.

    We have removed ourselves so far from it, that it is a good part of why we have lost ourselves. The forest echos in our souls yet many of us cannot understand it anymore.

  6. Kiva – I read your poem and ode to the ancient forests, and find myself feeling very unbrave about entering these environments ~~ all the fairy lore and myths (truths) about elves, elementals, the nature devas (remember Findhorn?) don’t paint that saccharine Disney picture of Snow White…. the tales caution us to not anger the faeries, they can be very spiteful, and yes ~ no babies in an Elderwood cradle. So how are we to know where it’s safe to walk and explore and not anger these beings or encroach on them? Something about it being very dangerous to walk where three Thorn trees all grow in a row. It would seem only a true forest soul such as yourself would be knowledgable enough to know how to not harm nor offend the elementals and Wee Folk. Have you had any experiences with this realm?

    I tread so cautiously…. perhaps that is my biggest challenge to overcome.


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