The Normalcy of Nature in Otherwise Odd Times
by Dara Saville
Some people say they fell in love as their eyes met with their partner’s across a crowded room. They describe it as love at first sight. I know what that is like. Stopping at a roadside pullout in the eastern plains of New Mexico, my eyes feasted upon the utter delight of a high desert sunrise. I devoured endless shades of pink and orange, layered with emerging hues of blue; it was a complex visual symphony creating the bright light of a new day. I was nearly consumed by this heavenly grandeur, yet something else stood out above it all. To my left, I spotted a very small splash of orange near the ground. It was like no other orange I had seen before and it was accentuated by a sparse arrangement of grayish-green leaves on a long leggy stalk that moved in accordance with the air flowing around it. A new color formed in my sensory palette and I was instantly captivated by globemallow (Sphaeralcea). It was love at first sight. Since introducing itself on that dusty roadside 25 years ago, globemallow has embedded itself into my everyday life filling many roles from healing apothecary herb to source of inspiration. We are partners for life. As a common native wildflower in my area and a member of my home garden mosaic, we encounter each other daily but the magic between us never diminishes. It has become normal, ordinary magic that happens all around us every day, if we notice it. Globemallow reminds me that normalcy exists in individual moments, even in odd times.
Life during a global health crisis is wrought with new and evolving concerns as the emergency drones on. These challenges are different for each of us, but a universal respite is offered in the natural world. Through it all, I feel a strange and wonderful lost sense of time. This sensation wrests me from the mundane and affords the opportunity to perceive in more acute ways. Despite the isolation of the pandemic, it has created a sense of connectivity with life that is different, more vibrant, from before; it is an opening of sorts. If we cannot be with people, we can still be present with the rest of the living world. For the urbanites among us, this may come through access to gardens and parks harboring a plethora of plants, insects, birds, and other visiting creatures. Others are lucky enough to have easy access to undeveloped lands that are home to a collective of life forms. In fact, this call reverberates louder now without the din of daily pre-pandemic life. And in our loneliness, we might more easily feel the seductive lure of connectedness. There is comforting normalcy in the sandhill crane standing in the crisp winter field as my breath, my wonderment, my being, drift across the valley in gratitude. Muted, dormant silvery sand sage (Artemisia filifolia) pokes through the barbed wire fence. As I crush some in my fingers, I am invigorated by the aromatic particles entering the air, joining the echo of my presence flowing through the land. The land is summoning us through a multitude of manners—through sandhill cranes, through sand sage, through the pandemic.
Humanity’s connection with nature is dynamic and subject to the effects of life circumstances and societal events. People have always perceived the natural world through a changing lens shaped by cultural viewpoints and conditions of the time. Plants, animals, and the land have been viewed as entities with vital life force, worthy of respect, caretaking, and treated as kin by ancient people and all those who are still connected to those lineages. Historically, nature has also been seen as a worthless impediment to the expansive goals of those wishing to colonize and subdue new and unfamiliar territories. More recently, wild lands have been considered an economic resource with extractable commodities such as prairie grasses for cattle grazing, forest with trees for lumber, earth rich in oil for energy development, rivers with free-flowing water for irrigation of crops, beautiful scenery for recreational activities, and more. Now the pandemic is giving us a new way of connecting, aligning, reuniting with life and land through nature.
As a wildcrafting herbalist and food forager, wilderness has long been a source of inspiration, comfort, medicine, and food for me. While all of these aspects take on new importance during the pandemic, an additional role has emerged. Walking across the mesa near my high desert home in the Southwest, I feel the unrelenting activity of life continuing on as it always has. Giant white clouds drift through the vast unobstructed sky overhead, casting shadows around me while highlighting and then concealing the contours of the mountains across the valley. Insects buzz about in the business of their lives, disappearing inside the occasional desert flower and then flying on to unknown destinations beyond view. Birds fly swiftly from one favorite perch to another along the rocky canyon wall, calling out an announcement of my intrusion. Dancing grasses produce their elaborate seed heads, dispersing new life upon the ever-present desert winds that sweep vitality through the high mesa landscape. Enclosed flower buds on the verge of amazement hold me mesmerized in anticipatory static. Aromatic botanical particles riding the mist from a developing afternoon thunderstorm touch my face, drawing me into the present moment. Volcanic rocks stand placidly, holding space for the raucous activity of life. Nature now represents the normalcy of life unfolding in accordance with its eternal patterns, even in strange times. It provides enduring stability within a societal context now characterized by uncertainty. While normalcy and stability may seem in short supply in our civilized existence, it feels abundant and ever-present in this moment shared with all living things.
This connectivity with life, or opening, is approachable in other ways, too. Intimacy with individuals in the landscape is more available than ever. Arriving on the scene in a distracted state of disarray, I am quickly drawn to plants and animals for a dose of interconnectivity and stripping away the residue of daily life. Juniper (Juniperus monosperma), ever-present in my local environment, is a universal remedy for me. Solid and stable in stature, enduring and reliable throughout the region, juniper’s medicine is as quintessential for the desert herbalist as any plant can be. Walking the mesa, it affords a rare shady respite in an otherwise exposed landscape capable of drawing out the vital energy from the hardiest among us. Protective, dispersive, relaxant, purifying, and restorative, I know my relationship with this shrub is deeply alterative. The practice of wildcrafting, or harvesting wild plants, is primarily about breathing, walking carefully, tending to the plants, and sharing stories. As is my custom, I leave a gratitude story that will reside in the woody heart of juniper’s trunk, flow through its aromatic greenery, and ride upon the wind in a state of persistent and eternal movement. I smile as I recall the day I laid in the warm sand underneath juniper branches while the Palafoxia bloomed. Looking up through branches, the intensity of graduated shades of blue from horizon to deep sky bordered on the unbelievable. A hummingbird zoomed by and tiny insects swirled around by face. It was another perfect moment gifted to me. As my happiness spills over, it beams across the land and I pull a pair of hand pruners out of my bag. I politely gather a few springs of aromatic greens, offering my deepest regards, and daydream of the heavenly infused herbal oil this will make. Juniper’s infused oil is a protective caretaker and purifier, capable of helping one to realign, release, relax, and prepare for what comes next. It is medicine for attunement to the moment and for the road ahead. The strangeness of pandemic life dissolved, supplanted by the perfect normalcy of me and a lone juniper on a wind-swept mesa.
As an herbalist, I am most susceptible to the allure of plants around me, but connectedness with nature has many pathways. Animals sometimes present themselves for undeniably potent encounters. Since the pandemic began, there has been an abundance of tales of unusual and revitalized wildlife activity. Deer and other animals from the countryside have been seen roaming subdued urban streets around the world; sea turtle nesting has increased as beachgoers quarantine at home; whales have been singing and socializing more in the absence of cruise ships and other disturbances. Perhaps animals feel freer in their daily lives with humans on their heels. Accordingly, I had the unexpected experience of observing a deer browsing riparian vegetation near a highway crossing of an urbanized stretch of the Rio Grande. But back on the mesa, another story unfolds. With my head in the clouds and my thoughts lost in juniper, I am ripe for the rapid realignment that only a rattlesnake can bring. Having known these creatures through many years of professional fieldwork in rocky environments in the desert, I was particularly surprised by this meeting. One of the largest I have seen in recent years, the coiled creature stood in the middle of the trail rattling with the kind of urgency intended to avoid an unwanted physical encounter. I am immediately transported from the branches of my beloved shrub into the abrasive warning of rattlesnake, who invites me to shed lofty emotions in favor of awareness of the here and now. In this moment, our connectedness is undeniable. Our breath, our movement, our vitality flows together as we share this sandy path through life. Once again, the perceptual adjustment offered through present moment nature encounters is at hand. Wild creatures seem to be presenting themselves with messages that we are left on our own to decipher. Such observations or encounters might be perceived as a reminder of our shared existence, our intertwined destinies, the need to walk carefully, and the clarity that every action matters. I cannot think of more relevant realizations for a pandemic or anything more normal than rattlesnakes rattling their tails on a hot desert mesa.