Socrates infamously argued that in order to be wise, one must know oneself. John Calvin underscored the absolute necessity of accurate self-knowledge to knowing God when he wrote: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Calvin argued that one could not truly know God without knowing oneself and that one couldn’t truly know oneself without knowing God.
This seemingly mysterious cycle appears to lack and entry point. There appears to be a missing foundational element to this work of gaining self-understanding and Divine-knowing. I believe that through cultivating a sacred relationship with the natural world, we cultivate an in-road into the mutually informing cycle of Self/God knowledge that dismantles its inherent anthropocentric, ego-centricity, and demands a more eco-centric approach that broadens our understanding of our selves and the Sacred to include the soil and stars.
In seeking restorative relationship with the natural and other-than-human world, we create capacity for deeper understanding of both the self and the Sacred. It becomes a third way into the wisdom cycle that doesn’t conflate and confuse the sought after entities, but rather informs them both in an organic and connected way.
I am in a forest phase of my life, where soul growth is related to both deep rootedness and profound interconnection. When we enter a forest phase in our lives we enter a period of rooting and a time of potential soul growth. Here it is possible to find what we have been cut off from, to remember once vital aspects of ourselves that required an interdependence with the natural world. We may uncover a wellspring of creativity and Sacred connection that has been hidden for some time underneath the trappings of a busy and overly domesticated life. In this time of recovering my more wild self, my understanding of who I am is expanding to use an ecological lens to discern meaning through interconnected relationships and a deeply presenced place. I find that what is driving my soul growth and understanding of holy mysteries are the questions: How do we be “of a place” once more? How do we become apart of the ecology of a place and of the planet? The answers to these questions come through a growing attunement to the rhythmic seasons of the natural world, and the phases of the wonder-filled sky, which ultimately invite me into insight and knowledge of myself and how I experience God.
Irish theologian and philosopher John Scotus Eriugena understood that Christ was revealed through two forms of revelation: scripture and the natural world. He believed that “Christ wears "two shoes" in the world: scripture and nature. Both are necessary to understand the Lord, and at no stage can creation be seen as a separation of things from God.” I want to establish rhythms and personal practices that honor and cultivate richer connections with the interrelated biological and cosmic systems that have meaningfully existed for billions of years as a way to root my sense of self and the Sacred in the very real soil of my daily existence.
I want to learn from the sacred scripture of creation.
I have started doing monthly nature mandalas as a spiritual practice, as a way of developing a framework for exercising my senses to awaken to the Sacred wisdom that resides within nature. Theophanies, or God-showings-are synchronistic signs that reveal significance and meaning, as well as reveal something of the character of God. By going outside to co-create a nature mandala, I have sought to develop the capacity to receive Divine symbols and experience the mysterious presence of God within the natural world. This practice, while relatively easy, has become a way that I attune to who else is residing and growing in my garden. As I slowly walk around my house and neighborhood, I begin to see anew with gratitude the vast biodiversity with whom I live.
Naming and Knowing: Words Sharpen Sight
This is a practice of remembering, remembering and reacquainting with the presence and names of the plant-life within one’s homescape. This is a time when the seasons’ reveal who shows up and who has been there all along but whose shape has shifted as the months turn. This is an invitation to transform a stranger into a Thou by the practice of learning and saying their name. This is a process of knowing so that respect and love can emerge and transform how we live upon the land, for it has been said that one cannot love what one does not know.
Beyond the beauty and gratitude that emerges from the creation of a nature mandala, there are deep truths, profound invitations, and mythopoetic metaphor that reside within the design as well. To discover these aspects, it is well worth the time to discover the names and characteristics of those with whom we share our landscapes—you may find you reconnect with neighbors in the process! When I was collecting plants for my November mandala, I could see the orange orbs of my neighbor’s persimmons above the tall fence across from my home. Sadly, this fence has created a sense of disconnection between our families. However, my desire for one of those persimmons for my mandala was strong enough that I quickly devised a plan that would hopefully find this fruit not only in my basket but also strengthen neighborly relationships. I went to my cupboard for a quart of raspberry lavender preserves, put up this summer from our yard’s bounty. My daughter and I crossed the street, basket and jar in hand, and unlatched our neighbor’s gate. In response to our knock on the door, our Cambodian neighbor Bhun answered, accepted our jar of jam in exchange for some of his persimmon fruit! Despite our language barrier, the joy of sharing the fruit of our land as neighbors was mutual.
This ritual act has reminded me that there is an inherent respect and reciprocity that is demanded with the taking as well. We all know the story of Repunzel’s father who called forth a curse when caught taking too much and without asking. As we collect our items for our monthly mandala, it is critical to do so with a spirit of grateful exchange, being careful to not take too much or take carelessly. And then there is the question of what can be given in exchange for the berry, leaf, or twig being taken? In many ways the mandala itself is a temporary gift to the natural world. And maybe this posture of mutuality invites action based commitments to more deeply care and come alongside the natural world in solidarity.
The accompanying practice of naming the natural elements that form the mandala exercise the sense of seeing. You will find that once your mandala is complete, you will begin seeing the selected plants all around you! This is the beginning of a vital and fun interrelationship with creation; there is so much to learn from the natural world when we allow it to be our teacher!
My November mandala was created with the following plants, trees, and fruit found within my homescape, all of whom have much to offer by way of food, medicine, or cross-cultural understanding.
· Nootka Rose or Wood's Rose hips (Rosa woodsii nuts): did you know rose hips are very high in vitamin C and are delicious when made into a jelly or used with the leaves as an herbal tea. Rose hips are also lovely dried as a winter holiday garland.
· Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium niponicum): this is a shade-loving plant that looks as if it has been gingerly painted by a fairy's hand in silver, blue and maroon.
· Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina): in the wild, Lady fern loves moist woods. Our back yard blends into a wild woodland where we have Lady Fern surrounding our fire pit.
· Pacific western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla): a favorite native evergreen tree, we have planted hundreds of hemlocks in our neighborhood woods. Hemlock's small egg-shaped cones are a favorite with the children.
· Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Ancient English lore told one to place a rosemary sprig in the pocket of an errant lover to remind them of their vows. Studies have shown that indeed rosemary increases memory and improves test scores significantly. That this herb will remind us of where we have been unfaithful to our kinship with the earth.
· Common Sage (Salvia): This summer I was drawn to Sage like never before, much because of my research of Hildegard of Bingen (read more here!). This entheogenic plant is used in traditional folkloric medicine to wean infants. At the time, this use was completely unknown to me...and yet, as I was in that season with my youngest, my body knew what it needed from the garden!.
· American beauty berry (Callicarpa americana): This beauty sits near our front door, inviting birds to come dine off its edible berries. We can enjoy these berries too! Indigenous tribes used root and leaf tea in sweat baths for rheumatism, fevers, and malaria. Root tea used for dysentery, stomach aches.
· Purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria): Purple smoke bush is quite drought tolerant, which means that as our region is experiencing the effects of climate change, this species is useful in xeriscaping, which is a landscaping method developed especially for arid and semiarid climates that utilizes water-conserving techniques, such as the use of drought-tolerant plants, mulch, and efficient irrigation. Our micro-climate yard sees moist woodland habitat in our back yard, but our front yard is like a different zone entirely in the summer so we must mind what we plant so to honor our water supply.
· Japanese Persimmon (Diospyros kaki): While I don't know the exact cultivar, what I know is that this glowing orb lights up our winter street-scape and that ultimately the desire for this fruit brought me in contact and relationship with a neighbor who I do not know very well. There is a great wisdom in the act of sharing of our harvest; when we do, we share what sustains ourselves.
· Witch Hazel (Hamamelis): With blooms of honey yellow that bloom throughout the winter, Witch Hazel's bark, leaves, and twigs can be used to distill an astringent that is calming to enflamed skin.
· Wood sorel (Oxalis): We have planted oxalis in our back yard as the children enjoy snacking on this forgeable native plant. You can prepare wood sorrel by picking off the leaves, flowers and seed pods. Some of the whispy leaf stems are delicate enough to use but tough stems should be discarded. Wood sorrel should be used fresh. In addition to making a great seasoning and salad ingredient, it's also good as a tea. To make wood sorrel tea, pour boiling water over the leaves and flowers and let steep for half an hour or so. Wood sorrel pairs well with fish and sauteed onions.
· Red and Yellow twigged dogwood (Cornus alba): In winter, the bright yellow and red twigs of this shrub flame out in our yard. Twig trimmings are great for crafts and weaving.
· Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea): Lingonberry is planted in our yard to honor my Swedish heritage. I remember my Aunt Laura making meatballs and serving them with a mouth-watering tart lingonberry jam. When I studied in Sweden for a year, a favorite snack was knickabread slathered in lingonberry jam. Before the use of refined sugar became common in Sweden, lingonberry jam was prepared with lingonberries as the only ingredient.
Disclaimer: The brief mention about the uses of plants and other resources does not provide enough information to begin using them for those purposes. Please research further and consult with an expert before harvesting, preparing and using any of these resources for personal use.
 I define homescape as the natural landscape that makes up one’s home—yard, neighborhood, even local parks and open spaces. These are critical natural areas that create habitat for a whole community of life with whom we interact. Learning about our homescapes invites us into more intentional knowledge and understanding of those with whom we share life and resources.