What’s Growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens: Earth, Sky, and Plants

What’s Growing at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens: Earth, Sky, and Plants
By Adrien Rawley, Horticulture Assistant and Educator

The changing of the seasons is a powerful experience, especially when we choose to pay attention. We forget, amidst the busyness of our lives, that what is happening in the natural world around us is mirrored within us as well. Spring is an explosive celebration of new life, sometimes overwhelming in its displays and intensity. Summer is a time of growth, moving us upward and forward with great energy. Autumn finds us harvesting the literal and metaphorical fruits of our labours, knowing that soon we will turn inwards. Winter offers a chance to rest, recharge, and appreciate dormancy. It allows us time to collect ourselves to start anew when the strength of the sun returns.

Despite the seasonal signposts around us, we often forget that we are nature. We forget that the greatest gift we can give ourselves is to actively remember this truth. To remind ourselves we need only step outside, slow down, open our eyes, and learn from the natural world. Every breath of fresh oxygen is a gift from the plants, every exhalation we release is our return offering. We are alive in this very moment because of our reciprocal relationship with plants! On a journey to remember and understand this relationship, twenty Acadia students gathered around the bonfire at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens alongside Melissa Labrador, a Mi’kmaw artist and teacher of traditional medicine. Melissa grew up on the land, and lives at The Wildcat Reserve, near Kejimkujik National Park. She is a beacon of Mi’kmaq knowledge, and we were all deeply honoured to be in her presence.

The chilly, November wind did nothing to thwart the excitement within the group and we began by introducing ourselves around the circle with the help of a handmade talking stick. We stated our names, what had pulled us to the workshop and anything else we felt like sharing. Many programs of study were represented, from music to community development to biology and beyond. Our interests were just as diverse, but one thing remained universal: we wanted to receive these teachings as an act of embracing the first understandings of the natural world in Forest Wapane’kati, the Acadian Forest Region.

Interestingly, all of us in attendance were women. Melissa made note of this as we set out on our medicine walk and the first plant she brought to our attention was partridge berry, Mitchella repens. A beautiful, creeping ground cover with bright red berries, it forms a textured, tidy cushion in mixed and coniferous woodlands. To truly see this plant, one must kneel on the forest floor and get very close. It is revered as powerful medicine for women in regulating cycles, supporting hormonal balance, and encouraging one needing its medicine to sit and connect to the earth. Melissa spoke several times of the fact that we can benefit from the medicinal properties of plants simply by being near them and sitting with them. As a new baby, she was laid on the bare ground by her mother so that she might form a relationship with the earth, the original mother. In turn, she has done the same with her children so they know where they can always return to and always find a home. This struck a chord: the earth is our first home, our first mother. No wonder we all feel better after going outside and reconnecting with the land!

As we moved through the botanical gardens learning about uses of plants and taking several moments for mindfulness practice, a grounded hush fell over the group. We all knew we were experiencing something special, every moment to be cherished. By the stream, Melissa offered a song for our spirits with her voice and drum, singing with the babbling water in the background, a metaphor for change and regeneration. Melissa described the ritual of making tea; intention and medicine infusing the very water our bodies are made of. Something so simple can be a gift equally in times of stress or joy. Making our way back to the fire, we gathered teaberry leaves. They were added to cheesecloth parcels filled with sweetfern and rosehips gathered from the botanical gardens earlier in the season. The tea would boost our immune system and warm us as we moved into the second portion of the workshop.

As the tea steeped over the fire, we prepared smudge sticks using sweetgrass, mugwort, and thread. Binding the dried plants into little bundles gave the opportunity to imagine making everyday moments sacred. We can cleanse, let go, and release with the act of focusing on the smoke, resetting ourselves before moving on to our next task, job, assignment, or conversation. The tea was served, and we warmed ourselves by the fire while each of us offered a closing comment or thought about our experience. Melissa’s partner, Corbin Hart, joined the circle playing his handmade flute, and the words “grounded,” “relaxed,” and “grateful” were echoed around the fire. There were goosebumps, and not because of the falling temperatures. Corbin’s haunting and beautiful notes filled the space between our words, threading them together into one beautiful message: the plants give, the plants receive, and we as humans can always remember to do the same.

One by one, we filled our mugs a final time before moving off to the rest of our evenings. We had created medicine together from common plants surrounding us. The healing power of plants had been revealed to us, having been there all along. It had never been a secret, we just needed an opportunity to learn. Give yourself the gift of reconnecting to nature during this busy holiday season. Get outside and enjoy what the natural world will offer if you simply remember to receive.

Image: Melissa Labrador.