I just finished reading Martin Prechtel's new book, The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaqic. The ideas he expressed in this book led me to realize why I was originally enraptured by foraging for wild plants--because when I eat a wild plant I am literally eating the consciousness of the wild, coming into contact with the earth's wisdom in a way that I cannot when I eat food produced by agriculture, even food grown organically with the best intentions to not abuse the earth. By living on Block Island, walking the trails and beaches and tidepools for years, some ancient part of myself awoke and told me to pick up a field guide and begin researching what the plants I'd passed for years had to offer to a belly and spirit hungry for true sustenance. Since then, every bite of plantain, bladderwrack, sea rocket, wild violet, chicory, lamb's quarters, laver and milkweed has been leading me backwards and down, down, down into my primal self where I am not ashamed to live on the earth because I am in right relationship with the holy beings who live inside all that sustains me.
Prechtel, who if you don't know his story, lived with the Tzujutil Maya in Guatemala before the death blow of war in the 1980s fell on their indigenous, life-affirming culture, founded on respect for what he calls the Holy in Nature, and maintained in secret for hundreds of years under the yolk of colonial oppression. The Tzutujil kept their seeds alive, meaning they didn't buy them from the store every spring, but harvested and saved and replanted, year after year, in a sacred manner that fed the Holy in Nature. As Prechtel writes, human culture was founded because of the contract we made with the Holy when we stopped foraging for our food and domesticated wild seeds into crops like wheat, corn, and barley, clearing forests and plowing fields, disturbing the balance that had existed between animals, plants, humans, and stones. This contract was shattered by industrial agriculture, causing us to feel, ever since, like we are not at home on the earth, making "nature" something outside ourselves. I agree with Prechtel, that while the current trend toward organic farming is a positive step toward healing the physical damage we have done to the earth and to ourselves, unless it includesan attempt to repay the unpayable debt to the Holy in Nature through ritual, we will never feel at home on the earth and will continue to feel broken and hopeless deep in our souls.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an auto-immune disease that affects the digestive process. Always one to look for the symbolic in the physical, I began to ponder the reasons I manifested this disease, through my personal story and on a meta-level as a human being at this time on earth. My personal story I prefer to keep sacred for now, but on a meta-level I can see now that it makes sense that I would have an auto-immune disease, the immune system being what protects the body from intruders. I see my dis-ease as a reflection of the sickness of the earth's body as it has been weakened by thousands of years of exploitation by human intruders. In a way, my dis-ease is an act of empathy, taking on the earth's pain in the most direct way possible. As a metaphoric thinker I am attracted to holistic medicine which looks beyond the allopathic paradigm, which believes that disease is strictly a physical process, to incorporate emotional and spiritual imbalances that lead the body to manifest a dis-ease in order to come back into balance by healing non-physical wounds. One of the first "alternative" ways to heal ulcerative colitis that I encountered, considered a chronic diagnosis by allopathic physicians, was the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, devised by a woman named Elaine Gottschall. The premise of the SCD is that some people can't completely digest complex carbohydrates. The undigested particles that remain in the intestines attract bacteria which begin to feed on the body. At this point, the immune system kicks in to gear by attacking these bacteria, creating inflammation and the resultant sores in the digestive tracts of those with UC and Crohn's. By eliminating complex carbohydrates, the bacterias' food source is killed. Once the bacteria are gone, the inflammation ceases and normal digestion resumes. The main source of complex carbohydrates are grains, the crops we domesticated from wild seeds about 12,000 years ago.
At the time I discovered the SCD I didn't connect my need for a grain-free diet to the evils of industrial agriculture (I hadn't eaten enough wild plants yet, perhaps), but I do remember wondering at the epidemic of gluten-intolerance sweeping the western "civilized" world. Could gluten intolerance be a result of eating wheat that has been stripped of integrity on the physical and spiritual level by industrial agriculture? My thought was yes, this must be the case, and a disease like mine which required the absence of all grains was the extreme wake up call my lazy, modern self t needed on a physical level in order to truly feel the damage that had been done since we broke the contract with the Holy in Nature, since we let our seeds die through hybridization and spiritual neglect, casting us out on the surface of the earth as homeless wanderers, even though most of us live in very comfortable houses.
I needed those wild plants, quite desperately, it turns out, to awaken from the trance of consumerism that says that the earth is an unlimited resource over which we have dominion. I have wandered, eating handfuls of green along the way, sharing my food with butterflies and birds, but I am human after all, and I long to come back home to a community which recognizes I have learned something out there in the wild, which has a role for me besides that of outsider. I want to feel at home.
I have heard the mythologist Martin Shaw say that in today's world, the hardest part of the initiatory journey is coming home, the reintegration into what he terms "the village," simply because we have no place for souls that have fed on the wild. While a part of me truly longs to go feral--to live in the woods with lynxes and wolves, another part knows that I won't be home there either. I've been despairing about this for a few years now, aware that I haven't made it back. I'm not sure if I'm not strong enough to make it through the initiation or if there just isn't a place for me. Whatever the case, I'm learning to trust my soul, and perhaps it's learning to trust me--and while I still don't have a clear vision of how I can embody my soul in human society in a particular way, perhaps because I haven't been able to let go of the worries of surviving on a physical, financial level, thus pushing the vision away through my constant fear and anxiety, I was given hope by Martin Prechtel's book that I can come home in every way by planting seeds, literally, in the ground, by tending for the plants and harvesting them, and by replanting those seeds in the ground in a holy way, over and over again until the Holy Beings inside them awake and begin to speak to me, and to you, because we are the seeds, flowering and dying so that life can go on. I'm not sure of how I am going to plant this garden since I have chosen to live in a place where I can't have my own garden. I suspect my garden will include a fair amount of the wild! But for the first time ever, I can see a way that I can plant myself in the human world that will not feel shameful. I'm hoping that others will want to join me, and that our gardens will rebirth an awakening to the Holy in Nature in the hearts and minds of my fellow humans that will ensure we recreate a human culture founded on praise and beauty, reverence and awe at the ecstasy of life on Earth! I don't want to give up foraging, may always be slightly more wild than human. It is my love for watercress, wood sorrel, yellow dock, and cattail shoots that has led me closer to understanding who I am and what I can offer to the world. I know there are so many distractions that could pull me away from the truth, and I pray that I can be worthy of what I have learned from wild plants. They will always have a place in my garden.