"The shaman uses the power offered to him not only by the animals, but also the plants of garden Earth."
—Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman
My family and I live on a homestead called Twa Corbies Hollow, which is back in the northwoods of the Canadian Maritimes. It is deep in a region of Nova Scotia called the highlands, which is a continuation of the Appalachian mountain range that runs from the middle of the province up through the isle of Cape Breton. Twa Corbies Hollow is tucked into a little valley atop one of the many low mountains of the region, and the country is mostly wild—a mix of woodlands, glades, sequestered brooks and rocky outcrops, with the odd homestead or blueberry farm scattered about. The homestead is semi-remote, having access to a couple very small towns about forty-five minutes north and south. And there is an infinitesimally tiny village—all of about two dozen cottages—tucked into the woods an hour's horse ride down the battered old road that can't quite be called blacktop and can't quite be called dirt.
The region was settled centuries ago by the Gaels of Scotland, and in fact some folk in these parts still speak Gaelic. Many of their traditions still run strong, such as the ceilidh, a festival of Celtic music, stories, and Scots country dancing, done up with a good beer and sometimes even a little haggis. And the old beliefs survive, too, though they are faded. Yet the forests are still rumored to be haunted by faerie spirits and many folk fear to tread the wild lands by night.
We have called this place home for years, and from the beginning we have sought to live in harmony with its land and spirits. To that end, we grow most of our own food, or harvest wild greens, fruits, and mushrooms from the surrounding woods. Aiming to make our impact minimal upon the land, we have sought to find ways to live side-by-side with the local wildlife and found means to redirect the animals from our gardens and livestock rather than simply driving them off. And we determined, from the beginning, to live well with the spirits of the land. Come the High Days, we set out faerie plates with little gifts of bread, cheese, and home-brewed ale, and I spend a fair bit of time in the wildwoods, communing with the spirits as I pursue my own shamanic path.
One of the things that living close to Nature has taught us is that magic is very, very real. It emanates from the forest, the meadows and hedges, the brooks and rain. It is a thing of born of Nature, moving with the ebb and flow of the old gods and wild spirits. And never are we closer to it than when we are doing something immersed in the natural world. Then, it sneaks up as if upon quiet cat's paws and visits with frissons and leaves in its wake a sense of rightness and wonder.
So it was that my wife, Daphne, our two daughters, and I were working out in the gardens just yesterday. It had been dank, cold, and misty for the better part of the last two weeks of June, but with the turning of July the weather had shifted to clear and unseasonably hot. Here in Canada, where winter is a long and dark reality, we tend to welcome a stint heat, but June's heavy mists had left the ground saturated. Over the first two weeks of July, the strong sun baked that moisture from the soil, and the air became so thick with humidity that stepping out the cottage door felt like walking into a sauna. The biting insects loved it. Normally, near the middle of July, the last of the black flies and mosquitoes and their ilk are fading away, but the humidity had rejuvenated them and a haze of insects reveled in the sweltering sun, so many the meadows and forests were filled with an incessant hum and the horses bolted constantly from one end of their pasture to another trying to escape the buzzing, biting nuisance. It would have been nice if we could have just holed up indoors for a few days until the heat and bugs passed, but we've committed to keeping organic gardens because it's good for Earth, and the gardens needed work. June's dankness had fostered the growth of innumerable weeds and snails were ransacking the greens. So, one stifling mid-July morning we dosed ourselves in bug repellent and donned denim jackets and hats despite the heat, and set out to work the land we have given our hearts to.
I've been accused of being a herbalist, and I suppose there is some truth to it, though I would tend to describe myself more as an aficionado of wild plant lore. But we did not simply pull and toss those weeds from the immense gardens' beds. Many of those "weeds" had uses. We plucked lamb's quarter, easy with its shallow roots, pinched off the dirty lower stems, and tossed it in baskets—to be blanched and frozen for later meals. It is one of the best vegetables I know, with a pleasant flavor like broccoli and asparagus and chard, all in one. We pulled up ox-eye daisies and nipped off unfurled blossoms and stripped the leaves. The blossoms could be pickled or sauteed and the leaves would be dried to make a tarragon-like spice. Daphne set aside a mound of yarrow and mature plantain leaves. Yarrow makes a superior styptic and plantain, fine in stews, can also be crushed into a poultice and applied to wounds to sterilize them and stimulate healing. Burdock petioles and shoots were cut and would be stripped, diced, and steamed for dinner. Buttercups, mildly toxic, are fine for garlands for the little fey spirits of the woods. Shamrock we set aside for tart greens or to be steeped into cold tea. Curly dock was left to grow when it was encountered in spaces between the beds so that it could shoot and go to seed, for the seed makes a lovely grain once the calyxes have been beaten and winnowed. On and on it went, gathering wild mint and chives and creeping charlie, and many other things, as well.
And when all the weeds that were edible or medicinal or magical had been cleared from the garden, then came the tedious process of pulling the wild grasses. The problem is grass has deep, clinging roots and likes to tear out large clumps of soil when extricated. Among the more substantial crops, such as the squash, this was not a problem, and pulling the grass went quickly. We just grabbed a handful at a time, gave it a shake to loosen the earth, and pulled them out of the friable garden soil. But among the slow-growing crops, such as the rutabaga and parsnips, which were now only an inch or two tall, each grass blade had to be pulled one at a time by gripping it firmly at the base with one hand while placing the fingers of the other over the soil and drawing it out smoothly. Only in this way could the grasses be pulled without fatally disturbing the young crops. Weeding each single bed took hours, and it was grueling work beneath the merciless sun and onslaught of biting flies.
The gardens are immense, and between the four of us we worked from sunup to sundown, a very long day indeed in the middle of a northern summer. Our clothes were soon soaked with sticky sweat that held grime, and the insects made occasional forays beneath. The stifling heat forced us inside every couple hours, where we retreated to the cool basement level and each drank a liter of ice-cold wild mint-water. We paused at lunch, sweaty and filthy, but forwent cooking due to the heat, making do with cold chicken and bread. The girls spoke wistfully of hiking down to the Rusalka Brook, a mile away in the deep woods, and swimming in the shaded waters. But the seasonal tasks of a garden cannot wait for convenience, so we returned for an even hotter afternoon, and I carried on with the tedious grass-pulling while Daphne set hundreds of stakes to support the emerging cucumber vines and snow peas, and the girls went off to the berry garden to harvest buckets of strawberries.
Finally, the end of the day came with the sun low upon the western ridge. I had just reached the end of the last bed and pulled out the final weeds. I tossed a handful of grasses into the nearby hedge and stood up and stretched. Despite the lowering sun, the day remained as stifling as ever. I paused and wiped my sweaty brow with my jacket sleeve. I glanced around; the garden looked neat and tidy and ready for vigorous growth now, but the soil was too light in color. That told me it was dry at the surface. It wouldn't faze the larger plants—the broad beans and corn and pumpkins and peas—with their roots dug deep into the moisture down in the earth, but the tiny young plants—the carrots, rutabagas, parsnips and kohlrabi—would quickly parch in such conditions. But I was so hot and tired; all I wanted to do was retreat to the cottage and pour a bucket of cool water over myself. Nevertheless, the care of the plants and animals must always come first, so I said, "We'll have to water the gardens before we call it a day." That meant several hours more work.
Daphne sighed. She knew it, too, but said, "I wish it could wait. I am just bushed." The poor woman looked like she was wilting. She is that rare red-green kind of redhead, complete with fair skin that won't tan, and does not handle heat nor strong sun as well as I, with my darker Cajun complexion and half a lifetime spent in the stifling bayous of Louisiana.
Natalia, our younger daughter, moaned and asked if watering could just wait one more day. I shook my head. "These little plants can wilt away right quick in this kind of heat if they don't have enough water, even after dark."
Arielle, our older daughter, was sweating bullets and enough dirt was sticking to her that she might be mistaken for a walking, talking earth elemental. She took a deep breath and said plaintively, "If only it would rain!"
And just like that, the rain began to fall. We had not even known to expect it. The sky was still bright, and there had been no wind nor change of temperature to herald its coming. I looked up to see a thin gray haze had gathered high and unnoticed overhead, but it was clear in the west so the low sun still radiated unobstructed beneath the clouds. Thus, we had not even noticed a change in the weather. But a beautiful, gentle shower fell, just cool enough to instantly take the heat out of the air and drive away the bugs. We all smiled and stripped off our jackets and hats and let the wondrous rain wash over us, cleansing away the day's grime and sweat. It was sweetly, so beautifully, cool. I raised my arms skyward and welcomed the summer shower. It had come in an instant, as if in response to Arielle's wish—the soft prayer-spell of a girl who'd spent her day working for the betterment of animals and plants. I knew this was no ordinary rain.
Daphne giggled and said, "Guess we don't have to water the gardens after all."
So the girls rambled off into the meadows, Daphne meandered among the apple trees, and I went to the woodshop and got the brush axe (which looks like a small billhook) and set out to the serviceberry trees to do a little pruning and clearing. With the gift of such a rain, none of us found ourselves wanting to go back inside. It was too deliciously cool and clean in the strangely bright sunset.
Some say Nature is cruel and indifferent. There are people on television that are supposedly experts at bushcraft (I won't name names) who present the natural world as a dangerous foe to be subdued and conquered. They eat snakes raw and present themselves as struggling in the wilderness against harsh elements. But, I've lived almost my whole life in natural places, from the Louisiana bayous to the deep subarctic wilderness. What a lifetime of experience has taught me is that Nature is profoundly connected to how we live with her. Shamans know this (and I use the term "shaman" broadly, to refer to all the magical-spiritual paths rooted in the green world), and it is the foundation of their wisdom. The shaman understands how essential it is to co-exist with respect for the land and sky, the flora and fauna and all the spirits with which we share the world. When we live well with them, Earth becomes an ally, and she replies to kindness with magic. It comes in its own way, quietly as upon cat's paws, rarely in the way you'd expect. It may just come as a little girl's wish for a perfect rain.