My life has been a love affair with nature, and I’m not sure I could write a more passionate love story. There is no place more sacred in my experience than the landscapes of wild nature. The woodlands where I have spent most of my life have become places filled with such depth of life, history, and wisdom for me. Over the years living in New England I have been relearning how to listen to the voices and intelligence of the earth here. What most cultures and peoples in the world have understood for thousands of years, I am continuing to remember and discover.
As a deep ecologist I see all life as sacred and equal, each species a unique part of the larger whole, the living and breathing biosphere. Ancient wisdom comes from our rivers, the rocks and plants that have been here for millions of years before us. And though we carry their knowledge within our cells, in our body’s intelligence, our mind has strayed far beyond the truth of interconnection, interdependence, and intimate relationship with source. What I hope to write about is finding our way back, and my journeys with the forests and plants of my home that have helped me remember.
I continue to be awed by what the New England woods teach me. The forests here teach me of solitude, partnership, and of community. Entering the forest, leaving behind human struggles, the trees greet me with wisdom, perspective, stillness… My mind quiets and relaxes as I walk, soft needles under my feet, watching the sun scatter light through the leaves of the trees onto the forest floor. Running my hands along the ferns, watching the ground for plants I know, sitting on blankets of moss. Entering the classroom, my temple, the house of my greatest teachers.
The forest has always been where I find solace, a retreat away from the realms of human activity. The woodland plants have a quietness and strength to them, protected and held by the trees above, they remind me of turning inwards, and finding shelter in the larger community. Each community of trees and plants in the forest has their own personality and presence I am coming to understand. Each holds hidden secrets; a patch of black cohosh blossoming white, Reishi growing on an old hemlock stump, a bright orange newt moving slowly underneath the leaf cover, Lady’s Slippers growing quietly beside the trees.
These forests are the reason I continue to return to New England to build home. I watch the plants and trees change over the seasons, living together in intimate inter-species partnerships through the seasons. In the early spring I walk through the low canopies of witch hazel and chestnut, their large leaves surrounding me in the bright green of new growth. I watch as the leaves turn a darker green as the summer unfolds, and prepare for the cold as all the trees blush their fireworks of color, and fall in release. Leaves surrendered to the winds as they blanket the ground, feeding the life of the forest floor, their bodies becoming food for many creatures in the months to come.
Falling in love with the forests of New England began when I was a child. Hiking the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, camping by lakes, canoeing in the Adirondacks, backpacking in our protected woodlands. I spent many days of my childhood in the Blue Hills, Mount Monadnock, and beloved Walden that I have watched go through so many changes. My family raised me with a lasting joy of spending time in the wilderness. Over time the natural world became as much a part of my family as the parents who have walked beside me through the woods.
Over time I came to understand that the rocks, the sea, and the living earth, is more deeply a part of me than anything in the built world. I began to understand a silent but living language spoken by all of the earth’s creatures. I craved the peace that came from spending time in nature, often wanting to leave the noise of the modern world and enter the forests with a few possessions on my back. The time I spent in New England’s wild areas taught me to live closely to nature, discovering my home and an emerging understanding of self in relationship to the earth.
Nature is not only my place of worship; it is the closest I have come to understanding the face of God. In nature I am asked to surrender all things, to bring only myself. Greeting my family of green skin without assigning them truths of my own, but allowing them to reveal themselves to me slowly. Learning from the ancient texts written in their veins and blossoms, in their memories millions of years old.
My grandmother and mother passed on to me their passion for plants. I watched their love affairs with plants over the years, all the seasons of gardening, and came to see the magic that they saw in the green world around them. My father brought me closer to nature than most go, always seeking to journey further into the beauty of the wild earth, away from built things of man. My father showed me how to enter the natural world with few possessions, in favor of encountering nature in the raw. My grandparents have always carried with them an awe and love of the wild. Much of the pleasure they found in life came from time spent in closeness to the natural world. From a very early age, their love became my own.
My mother’s side of the family spent summers on a small island off of the coast of Freeport, Maine, called Bustin’s Island. The island was a visit back in time, with no electricity, no running water, no showers or flush toilets. Undisturbed by the pace of the outside world, the buzz of electricity was left across the sea on the mainland, muted out by the waves. There we were free to meet nature skin to skin. As a child each summer on Bustin’s Island, I began to learn how to enter the natural world quietly, and be filled.
Going to Bustin’s Island was an escape from modern human life, where I was able to learn the ecology of a place directly. The island had no distractions, no technology, no entertainment other than the forest, ocean, a good book, the birds and plants, the presence of each other. On the island we read time by the sun, days stretching out from dawn to dusk, the night a quiet creature full of stars. I spent many days of my life exploring the forest and shore environments of the island. I patiently allowed the island and the sea to show themselves to me. The island and I formed a relationship that was built over many years, with a child’s bare, naked, mind and body meeting the earth.
Through direct experience with nature, I learned about the ecosystems of the forest and the ocean shore. I explored the relationships between the land, the sea, and the creatures that lived where the two meet. In the middle of hot summer days, I would explore the forest of hemlocks in the center of the island, an inner cave I went to be alone and silent, hidden among the trees and the darkness. They held a mystery I wanted to uncover, and I began to understand and treasure the presence of these ancient evergreens, entering their dark chambers in a search of something nameless.
It was on this island that my love affair with the evergreens began. Walking the trails leading into the woods, stopping to lie on soft beds of hemlock and pine needles, studying their roots that pushed up like arms from below. Standing tall above me, their green hands bending down to whisper, giants who knew more than I. The evergreens taught me of silence and stillness, and for the first time I was in awe of elders, feeling my small body sheltered and held. The days exploring the island taught me about the ways of nature, more than any classroom or textbook could. I learned things about the earth that would not have been included in any book, or taught to me by another person. I learned how nature made me feel, how it spoke to me, how the rocks and trees felt under my hands. Through slow exploration, all my senses awakened, I was able to take in the whole of nature into my body and self.
In my explorations of New England forests throughout my life, I’ve found a deep understanding of both place and self. In my adult life, these forests have been a constant companion, providing a strong sense of home. Having traveled to many parts of the world, it is the forests of New England that always call me back. Walking through the rainforests of Hawaii, the tall trees of the Amazon, the forests of East Africa’s mountains, redwoods of the West coast, woodlands of Europe, it is the forests of New England that have become an integral part of me. The thousands of moments I’ve had with the plants and trees of these woods have woven deep into the fabric of my soul.
As an adult, I have been studying the medicine of New England’s plants and trees for the past 15 years, trying to discover the history of our human connection to the plants and trees of these woods. Somewhere in my years of communion with these forests, my heart began to ache as I realized all that we stand to lose as the earth changes around us. It is from my strong feeling of devotion and partnership to the New England woodlands that I write this.
These woodlands are my refuge, where I find healing and medicine for others. They hold an ancient history of people living in enduring partnerships with the land, plants and animals. The native people who walked here before us, whose bones are buried amongst the roots of these trees, echo in the ground beneath my feet. Their memories are held in the plants and trees, in the soil and rocks. Most of us ignore the wisdom they carried in exchange for our religion of science, trading one for the other. We continue to decimate the cultures and peoples who lived here for thousands of years before us if we are not able to consider and make room for their voices and wisdom. They are still waiting for us to invite them in as equal voices in our councils. From the realms of spirit, I have been calling their voices back in.
The plants teach me how to return to the earth we have left. Like growing children who pushed away their mother, we have turned our backs on the mother earth that has nourished and held us for thousands of years. We have fought to distance ourselves from that which nurtures, possibly in an attempt to be free of the need for nurturance, and the vulnerability that arises from such need. Today we face the result of our adolescence, and try to find our way back home.
In the natural world, if we look carefully we can see what it means to be in relationship, what is involved in equal exchanges. An emotionally driven species, we continue to struggle to create relationships with each other in which mutual respect, consideration, equality, and kindness are forefront. I believe that working for the equality of all living beings is the highest form of social justice. All of us have the responsibility to teach ourselves, and each other, how to live in equal, caring partnerships with each other. From the plants, animals, and the earth itself, we can be taught how to return to equal and mutually beneficial relationships.
The relationships I have formed with plants and the ecosystems I’ve explored through my life have been the deepest and most intimate relationships of my life. The plants of New England’s forests have touched me in ways beyond words, most of which could not be described or expressed fully in writing. As my partnerships with plants deepen, I find myself coming home to an ancient family of individuals that have been coexisting together in partnership with humans for millions of years. They continue to teach me of returning to intimacy with wild nature, and rebuilding mutualistic relationships we have lost.
© Sage Maurer