Alive, Astounded and Winded

Somehow, in the midst of it all, the fireflies have returned.  I noticed them again last night as I caught up with Santos and he shared news of the latest tragedy in Uvalde, TX.  In that moment I had to look up, towards the horizon, away from the pain being reflected back to me in my brother’s eyes.  “These tender human hearts hold so much” I said, wondering how much more mine could withstand.  It was then that I saw the tiny bright light that holds the promise of life, of summer, of children frolicking bare feet on grass, running free.

My heart breaks open as I hold the tremendous loss and beauty that this world offers up so readily.  Once again, we bear witness to the atrocities that can result from a wounded human soul and wonder how could this be?  We are left behind, alive, astounded and winded from what feels like a relentless series of catastrophes. Grateful to be spared, certain of our mortality.

In the breaths between shedding tears, I recommit myself to the love that connects and heals us all.  I hear the song of Eastern Towhee and I remember the many other realities co-existing simultaneously on our planet Earth. I try to find my center, among the trees, feet rooted in the lush green moss, allowing space for my emotions, realigning myself with the flowing of the creek.

I send prayers with my daughter as I dropped her off at school today.  I send prayers to the families of the children and adults that were abruptly taken from us yesterday.  I send prayers to the gunman who was undoubtedly suffering and pray that others in similar situations find peace.  May we all have the space we need to grieve, to heal and to see the bright light of the fireflies.

For The Love of Bees

The gift/challenge with opening your heart to the more-than-human world and making a commitment to listen is that you then have to prepare yourself for the messages that will come. Because come they will.  In June of 2021 I had my second formal run-in with the order of insects called Hymenoptera (which includes bees, wasps and hornets). I was on my bicycle—completely lost in the bliss of the moment.  Refreshing wind caressing my face, feeling high on the freedom of movement during a time when everything else our lives felt restricted. All my cares dissipating with each mile ridden.

This made the sudden encounter with a stinger on my right cheek all the more abrupt. I felt the sharp and very distinct pain before I fully realized what was happening.  The swelling began almost instantly as I felt the insect’s protective serum make its way through my body.  Fortunately, I wasn’t too far from home and I quickly pedaled my way back.

Although it had been over a decade since I had first experienced a wasp sting, the body memory was still very fresh.  One small prick would soon turn into a hive (the irony of this word does not allude me).  The hives would then begin multiplying and spreading across my body, joining together, until all of my skin was covered in red itchy welts.  Then, the lightheadedness and the wheezing–my breathing constricted, requiring horizontality as my body processed the venom and histamines.  Apparently, this is all part of an allergic reaction to these insects.  Fortunately, mine was not severe enough to require medical intervention, but definitely more than just an itchy bump to contend with.

As I lay in my bed groggy and disoriented, both from the venom and the antihistamines I had taken, I wondered if there was a message for me in this incident or was this just an unfortunate collision of bodies in motion? If there was a message trying to be delivered, I must have missed it because 5 months later I had another unexpected rendezvous with our Hymenoptera kin.  This time it happened in November, the day after Michaela Harrison, the Whale Whisperer visited Earthseed.

I was sitting quietly at one of the meditation spots in the forest near an elder Scarlet Maple tree.  I heard the buzzing approaching and the first thought that crossed my mind was breathe deep, remember how Michaela calmly engaged with the bee, but before I could even finish that thought the bee (this time I had a better sense of the type of insect I was engaging with) landed on my forehead, just between my brows–on my third-eye chakra[1]– and stung me.  There was no provocation on my part, no sudden movements, and still the bee felt compelled to deliver this powerful message.

I knew what was coming.  Once again, my body’s response was swift, but this time there was something different in my mental and emotional state.  I walked back from the forest at a calm and intentional pace.  Repeating to myself “may I receive this message with an open heart”—like a mantra, a spell, a wish spoken clearly to the wind and all of the other witnesses that surrounded me.

I made it home safely with a deep knowing in my bones:  this was more than just another random occurrence.  Our Hymenoptera kin were communicating across species, trying as best they could, to get my attention. Their mission was accomplished.  My attention was captivated, yet what was I to do with the message? How could I use my human capacities to benefit our Hymenoptera kin?

All winter I sat with this question heavy on my heart.  I went to the library and checked out several books on bees, trying to expand my own understanding of these winged creatures I knew so little of.  During the quiet dormancy of the colder months in unison with much of the more-than-human world, I too went inward.  Letting some of the external noise fall away, spending more time in the forest, limiting my access to the virtual world in hopes that some deeper wisdom would emerge.

The months passed and spring has arrived with its usual breathtaking blossomed beauty.  Life, with its many distractions and possibilities has diverted my gaze, but not derailed my commitment.

The other night as I walked across the yard captivated by the sunset with its purple-orange-pink phenomenal closing act, I felt a familiar graze on my cheek.  I was spared a sting this time, fortunately.  Yet I felt compelled to pick up where I had left off.  I’m still not sure if this will translate into us hosting beehives here at Earthseed or if there will be another way for me to be of service to our Hymenoptera kin.

One thing I am sure of:  I will never again look at a bumble bee, honey bee, wasp or hornet in the same ignorant or human supremacist way.  I am committed to continue opening my heart, apprenticing to the more-than-human world, embracing opportunities to strengthen connections across differences—in species or other superficial categories.   I am listening.

[1] The seven chakras are the main energy centers of the body. The sixth chakra, also called the Ajna or third-eye chakra, is related to our ability to focus on and see the bigger picture. Once you open the third-eye chakra, it becomes easier to connect with the present moment instead of living in the past or future. This extremely spiritual chakra is connected to your intuition, psychic abilities, and higher knowing.  https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-97/Third-Eye-Chakra-Healing-for-Beginners.html

[Photo taken by Zulayka of a bee pollinating our blueberry bushes]

The Whale Whisperer Visited Earthseed

The Whale Whisperer came to Earthseed and with her she brought an ocean-full of blessings. While I had seen her name in Undrowned (by Earthseed Founding Member Alexis Pauline Gumbs) it wasn’t until I read Michaela Harrison’s blog that I came to understand the medicine that she is bringing to this world.  Yes, her voice is like molasses, but there are many people in this world who carry the gift of song.  It is what Michaela chooses to do with her voice that was a blessing to me and to so many others (humans and beyond). 

I will be forever grateful to Michelle Lanier (mother of Eden) for bringing her to this land.  It makes sense that these powerful women would be connected. The first song she offered on the land was to our flock of chickens (and one rooster, Dave). They were captivated by her voice, as were we, the humans in her vicinity.  After sitting and enjoying some ginger root tea (from our garden) I shared Earthseed’s origins story and then we walked the land. 

The same bee that had been caressing Michaela’s hand while she had her tea, came along with us into the garden.  She (the bee) somehow made her way into Michaela’s shirt, snuggled up near her heart.  There was no panic, no urgent reactions, just a calm acknowledgment that the bee was there, and that she was safe.  What else would you expected from a woman who preaches oneness with all beings?  It was in that moment that I understood why Michaela’s presence was so powerful…she embodied light and shared it freely with all who crossed her path.  It wasn’t just her voice that was medicine, it was her entire presence.  

After walking through the sea of greens in our garden (collards and kale) we made our way to the Mother’s Grove.  There I shared why we had designated this area as sacred and pointed out the circle of trees with double trunks.  “Iyami” she said, or “my mother” in Yoruba, representing the feminine creative force in the universe.  Justin had shared with us before that these trees, with their double trunks forming giant V’s boldly rising up to the sky, but it wasn’t until this moment that the medicine sunk in for me. [Side note:  it is not surprising that in arborist (read: white male) terms they are considered a sign of weakness, the point where the two trunks connect sometimes being impacted by rot or disease]. 

We stood there for a moment, breathing deeply, taking in the magic of this moment.  It felt like I was being anointed by the presence of these women, by the songs that Michaela would spontaneously share, by the acknowledgement of the divine feminine in our midst.  

Michaela had this dream/vision of singing into a well, and here at Earthseed we have three.  Two of them are functioning wells, not that pretty to look at with their metal pumps and awkward coverings symbolizing their utilitarian purposes.  But there is an old well in the front of the property that hadn’t gotten much attention in years.  Seen as a risk for the younger children —because of the possibility of them falling in and the probability of lead paint— it had been screwed shut and neglected.  

Neither of these aspects deterred Michaela from transforming the moment and the spirit of this well.  The three of us stood around the well, the fourth side left open to the setting sun and our children frolicking feely in the distance, as Michaela sang into the small opening she was able to find where the two doors covering the well met.  Next to her sat the old bucket, with the long chain that descended into the depths of the well in previous decades.  Michaela’s voice carried and reverberated through that small opening, amplifying the blessing of her voice and the medicine of her song.  

After the vibrating dust particles settled, Michelle gifted Michaela a necklace with a small silver well pendant.  To remember the moment and to remember the power of pursuing our visions.  Never will I look at that well in the same way.  

As we said our farewells, Michaela held my hands and said, “may your wells always be plenty, may you always have the water you need”.  

Over the 5.5 years we’ve been on this land, we’ve gotten many visitors, often bringing blessings of love and affirmation.  There are no words that can express the lingering power of these blessings or our gratitude.  Stewarding the 48 acres of land we call Earthseed requires an incredible amount of commitment, follow-through, and work.  Yet these are the moments that remind us why this work is so important, for us and for those who stop to catch a glimpse of the goodness of this vision come to life.  

In our garden (from left to right): Michelle Lanier, Tahz Walker and Michaela Harrison

Reflections on Freedom

It seems fitting that on the day we celebrate Juneteenth, we also take a moment to reflect on our individual and collective relationship to freedom in this country.  In the last few months/years/decades/centuries we have seen the lack of freedom for black people made a spectacle and a rallying cry for reckoning with wrongdoings that have never been righted. We have been here many times before, and still Martin waits for his dreams for our country to be realized.

Then there is our relationship to freedom on an individual level–the sense of sovereignty and self-determination that we experience over our life’s energy, labor, intellect and creativity.  The questions I sit with today are: what do I still allow to get in the way of my sense of freedom?  How much of the barriers to liberation are self-created? 

My spiritual practice teaches me that craving and desire to control are at the core of my suffering, and therefore a barrier to my freedom.  In addition to this are the incessant mental loops that translate into self-created suffering that take me away from the beauty and gift of this present moment.  I have come such a long way to realizing my ancestors’ unfulfilled dreams, and I have also realized a few dreams of my own.  Yet, the next stage of evolution for me, and for humanity I’d say, is to understand that freedom is not truly given or taken away.  Freedom is a state of consciousness, available to us all, always. I believe knowing this was essential to my ancestor’s survival.

There is no denying that the current paradigm we are living within has been incredibly effective at disconnecting us from this truth.  This white-supremacist-patriarchal-profit-rules-everything system we inhabit has been prolific at implementing physical and mental intimidation tactics that deter us from questioning authority, and erase our intrinsic knowledge of our own divinity.  

Many of us are waking up to the realization that it doesn’t have to be this way.  We are clearing the path for those aspects of our lives that are truly important, learning to shut out the noise, choosing to listen to the quieter voices within and without that remind us that life is sacred.  Those of us who do get to choose how to direct our life’s energy (and it is unfortunately too few of us) have a responsibility to do so in ways that uplifts the human spirit, that counters the narrative of competition, violence and destruction. We must continue to find ways to mirror each other’s light in a world that can sometimes seem overwhelmed with darkness.  

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Assata Shakur

Witnessing & Unfurling

“It’s resignation”, he said.  “What I feel as a Black man living in modern-day America.”  I let these words hang in the air and slowly make their way down to the path we walked upon. The sound of dry, crispy leaves underfoot making it harder to hear his words across the distance that the pandemic imposed upon us.  My heart felt the weight of those words, of his in-the-moment reflection, of years and generations of experiencing the constrictions that white supremacy and patriarchy create for the human spirit. I wanted to hold him tight and let the beating of our hearts remind him that he is not alone on this journey. I wanted him to feel the strength of my love.  Instead, I just listened. 

We talked about what it means to really know yourself, and if it is actually possible to truly know another human being.  Of what it means to feel at home, and what it takes to listen to and heed to the needs of our souls. Of the discernment that is required to distinguish between a real need and a want, the incessant never-enoughness, striving-for-something-else that saturates our society. 

All of this was a byproduct of a group conversation we had in early December with our compañera in joy and struggle, Beatriz Beckford. She helped us to create a space where we could share with each other glimpses and glimmers of who we are, of what supports our thriving and what inhibits our growth. The seemingly simple prompts that she offered us created ripple effects in our hearts and in our connections with each other that we are still discovering.  This conversation was but one of the side-effects of the medicine we received in that two-day gathering. 

It’s been almost two months since that initial conversation took place, and I can’t say that I have any clear answers to the questions that were sparked, but I am moving closer to being at peace with the not knowing.  It’s taken me 9 years of being in relationship with the founding members of Earthseed Land Collective, and 4.5 years of living on this land to realize that we are just now beginning to really know each other.  

It brings me back to the importance of our mission statement, and it’s abiding wisdom that will bolster (and perhaps haunt us) for years and decades to come:  remember and reimagine our relationship to ourselves, each other and the land in pursuit and practice of collective liberation.

This has not been and will not be a linear journey.  This work of letting people into our hearts, being vulnerable, disclosing our hurt spots and growing edges is challenging (to say the least).  I am learning that building beloved community is not for the faint of heart, and that it requires a daily recommitment to our greater work and an ability to check our egos when they start to get in the way of our growth.  Yet the gift of this hard work is immeasurable:  the ability to connect deeply to another human being, to be supported and loved along this treacherous path called life, and if we’re lucky, to get to witness the unfurling of our spirits.  

May we all move closer to experiencing and witnessing the unfurling of our own and each other’s spirits.  

The Beginning of The End

As we commence the last month of a very tumultuous year, I feel my whole being yearn for the respite and introspection of the winter ahead. These months have held so much for our tender human hearts that I have found it challenging, impossible at times, to sit and write about the impact of these experiences in my life. I’m sure I’m not alone with these feelings.

This is the beginning of the end: of a calendar year, of a hurtful and hate-filled presidency, and hopefully… of our forgetting how deeply interconnected we truly are. 

As the sun set last night I made my way to our garden, to close up the chicken coop and harvest some kale for dinner.  The clouds were hot pink in their last dazzling hurrah before darkness.  While there I ran into Tahz, one of our master farmers and soil wizards at Earthseed.  He reached out to touch me, to show me how cold his fingers had gotten while tending to the garden.  

Much to my surprise he wasn’t at all disgruntled by the frigid weather, instead I saw a twinkle in his eyes, I would even say he was excited about the upcoming season.  When I asked if this was due to the promise of rest that winter offers a farmer, he said that was only a small part of it. What Tahz was more excited about was what cold weather meant for the soil.  

Winter also means the soil gets a moment of rest, he explained– a reintegration of sorts.  I wondered if like us, the soil also takes a moment to reflect on all that it has held and to prepare for whatever may come. 

We get to experience endings all the time in microscopic and monumental ways on this land.  Oftentimes with regret, but sometimes with sweet release and celebration. I am certain that there is more heartbreak to be experienced, more loss to grieve in the months to come. And right now I am grateful that in this in-between time, where we simultaneously get to honor the goodness and the necessity of the sacred pause.

Laughter Is Immeasurable

“Breathe, Zawadi, Breathe!” These words expressed as intervention, not during a time of distress, but because laughter had overcome my daughter.  She was turning purple, her eyes full of tears, she was laughing so hard that her basic bodily functions (like breathing) were momentarily derailed.  

There were four of us in the circle that day, three girls ages 8-13, and myself as their host and informal facilitator. It was a relaunch of our ‘black girl magic club’ that we began last year, but had been put on hold in the last few months due to the pandemic. We had opened our circle talking about the impact the coronavirus had on our lives. One of the things we all missed most was being able to be together in this way, telling stories, sharing what was on our hearts, and laughing so hard we forget to breathe.

We gathered outdoors, under the cedars, just above the pond.  We had all been holding so much in the first half of 2020. In addition to severely restricting our lives, we had all, in some way, been feeling the ripple effects of unnecessary violence and the corresponding demand for justice it had inspired.  

Our world is on the precipice of either unraveling or resurrecting—both equally uncertain and possible. In that moment there was nothing more important for us to do than be in each other’s company, remembering the divinity of our bodies, reconnecting with drum rhythms that were gifts from our ancestors, affirming our connection to a strong and resilient lineage of people who had learned to fly. 

I have made a decision not to live cloaked in foreboding darkness. Not in rejection of darkness itself, because that too is a part of life, but in an acceptance of the gloriously complex and light-filled beauty that is life.  Every single moment offers us an opportunity to choose joy—a state of being so much more deeply abiding than it’s more fickle and evasive friend, happiness.

In that moment, under those cedars, wind caressing our skin, the choice became so very easy. We reconnected with our breath—letting the waves of laughter wash out all of the unnecessary gunk. It was a full body experience of joy, just what our weary hearts needed most to survive the end of the world as we know it.

Expect the end of the world.
Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
from Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry

Slowly and Carefully, We Emerge

And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.
[From “At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver]

For a while the turtles kept crossing my path on my daily walks at Earthseed. Then came the snails. Both reminding me of a few important and relevant aspects of surviving this life: 

1) Slow can be good, and sometimes slow is essential. Although we live in a society that would have us believe otherwise; a society that indoctrinates us into thinking that we are only as worthy as what we produce or achieve.  We are conditioned to behave like a polar bear I once saw trying to survive captivity at the zoo.  His fur turned gray and long, swimming in tight circles, over and over on the same path, because it was the only one available to him.  Because the sensation of pushing through cold water, the feel of it against his fur, was the only thing that kept him connected to his wildness. I wonder if he stopped moving, what would he have to face? How long will it take to realize, this trauma, these wounds, those questions, would have to be dealt with inevitably?

2) Only our exoskeletons need to be hard and calloused.  This world can often be cruel and hell bent on convincing us (People of the Global Majority) that we are disposable. Developing our shells and choosing to retreat into them as often as possible is part of our defense, and part of how we keep our tender-bright-hearts intact. And they are not the whole of who we are. We are so much more than our defenses. We eventually make the choice to emerge from our shells, to share a bit of who we are with others, to be vulnerable. We risk being wounded for the possibility and delight of real connection, of beloved community.  As Audre Lorde says, “without community there is no liberation.” 

3) Even the slimy creatures are holy.  It’s so much easier to wax poetic about a gorgeous flower, or a baby bird than a snail–so moist and strange. In the human realm, it is often easier to discount, disregard and demonize fellow humans that disagree with us.  Their ‘slime’ justifies our categorization of them as enemy. Enemies not worthy of our love or our vulnerability. We chose to retreat to our shells, or allow a part of our hearts to harden. The menacing questions for us to face are: when will we re-emerge? When will we allow our hearts to soften again? What are the real costs of hardening our hearts in this sometimes stone cold world? 

Yet on their shell snails carry an emblem to garner our respect, and to remind us that they too are ‘part of holiness’.  The fractal, with its precise mathematical equation, replicated on the micro and macro scale throughout the natural world, and even in the Milky Way galaxy that is home to our solar system. It is/they are here to remind us of the divinity that surrounds us, and the divinity within us. It is/they are here to remind us that it/we all belong/s. 

[Photos and Story by Zulayka]

Wood As Art Medium

On the full moon in June the all-black-man-crew of Earth-Bound Building arrived at Earthseed Land Collective.  With them they brought a trailer full of timber framing, equipment and supplies.  Enough to create a solid foundation for a 16×32 outdoor learning center just below the fire circle that has held so much for us in the last 4 years of being on this land.  

After 3 long days of work, they assembled a solid wood structure, an edifice of courage one could say—for what they have endured as black men in a society that has not necessarily invested in their thriving.  Together they defied the forces that have threatened to disconnect them from their inherent divinity.  Reconnecting them with their ability to create and to see the beauty of potential to its natural end point.  

Not that it was easy, and no one ever said it would be.  The amount of physical labor invested was not for the faint of heart.  The equations and precision required would leave those preferring simple calculations by the wayside.  These men understood viscerally that what they were doing had implications far beyond them, and they brought the rigor to match. 

Equally important was that amidst all of the hard work there was laughter, appreciation and celebration.  We know that this too is how we honor the legacy of our ancestors.  That we come to this work by our own choosing, under our own terms, and with a lightness of heart that would make them proud.  Yes, we are the realization of so many compounded dreams.  

It is essential to capture this moment.  It is imperative to tell our own stories.  As we effort to decolonize our spirits and our imaginations.  In attempts to remember how very powerful and capable we are.  May all our children grow up in a world where they are surrounded by enduring examples of the magnificence of black and brown people.  

Everything You Do is Sacred [By: Hafiz]

Now is the time to know

That all that you do is sacred.

Now is the time to understand

That all your ideas of right and wrong

Were just a child’s training wheels

To be laid aside

When you can finally live

With veracity

And love.

…Now is the time for the world to know

That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time

For you to deeply compute the impossibility

That there is anything

But Grace.

Now is the season to know

That everything you do

Is sacred.

[Photos and Story by Zulayka]

Dear Great Blue Heron

[Photo courtesy of NCWildlife.org]

As I walked my daily path in the woods yesterday and came upon my favorite bend in the creek, I was stopped in my tracks by your presence. 

You see, I’ve been a great admirer of yours for many years.  Your exquisite grace, the slow beats of your very broad wings, your long purposeful beak and winding neck.  It seems the whole world pauses to marvel at your beauty when you depart from the earth into the sky. 

The day we encountered each other, we were both taken by surprise.  But you noticed me before I noticed you.  In that moment you took flight, emerging from the shallow creek into the nearby treetop, just far enough to listen in as I shared some words of awe and admiration: 

Great Blue Heron, you have been an essential connector for me and the more than human world.   When I moved back to North Carolina in 2004 after having spent 15 glorious months in the wide open spaces of Sedona, AZ I felt claustrophobic with all of the tall greenness of this state. I didn’t know if I would find the divine as easily as I had in the high desert, with its dramatic red rocks and bright blue sky.  

And then I found you. 

Your beauty emboldened me to spend more time near the river, in the woods, learning to be quiet and observant so as to receive the many gifts the natural world has to offer. 

For this I will always be grateful.  

Thank you for choosing Earthseed as a resting place along your path.  Thank you for allowing me a moment in time to share all of this with you.  Thank you for continuing to inspire and bless my existence with your marvelous ways.  

May we all learn to glide, swoop and soar through life as gracefully as you.  With gratitude and respect, ~Zulayka 

Ardea Herodias: Our most familiar and frequently seen wader, the Great Blue Heron has shown a remarkable increase in numbers across the state since about 1980. In fact, it was very poorly known as a breeding species as late as the 1970’s, with nesting colonies few and far between, mainly in remote swamps. However, with the great increase in beaver ponds, and a smaller increase in reservoirs and other man-made lakes and ponds, Great Blues have taken advantage of these new freshwater wetlands. Birds now nest in most of our counties away from the mountains, and nesting colonies are often easily visible around the upper ends of reservoirs and at beaver ponds. The species forages mainly at freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams; however, they also feed in brackish waters, especially at coastal impoundments, and rarely in salt water. Unlike most other waders, the Great Blue shuns nesting on coastal islands with other herons, egrets, and ibises. Instead, birds nest mostly by themselves, or with Great Egrets and/or Anhingas, with nests placed mainly in living trees — almost always in standing water — to deter predators.

http://ncbirds.carolinabirdclub.org/view.php?species_id=136