Caught up in Blackberry Bramble: Herbal Music, Art, and Magic

My “Blackberry Bramble” illustration is now complete. Yes, the melody notated is playable, one that Blackberry shared when I became entangled in this mischievous, merry, and medicinally and nutritionally potent plant! Blackberries are high in flavanoids, notably anthocyanins, which are high in antioxidants and help lower cholesterol and reduce inflammation.

Blackberry Bramble - Illustration
Blackberry Bramble – Illustration and Melody by Jane Valencia. Gouache and pen & in.

One of this herb’s super-powers is Astringency, the ability to tonify and tighten tissues, thus reducing or stopping unwanted release of fluids. The leaf as a poultice (don’t include the prickles/”thorns”!) or a very strong tea can help stop bleeding, and is helpful as a wash in any weepy skin condition.  Decoction of the roots can help slow diarrhea when that function has ceased to be useful to one’s body (such as clearing pathogens and allergens).

This is just a very short glimpse of the power of Blackberry. Of course much of Blackerry’s magic are this plant’s gifts of delicious berries, which reignite our wild child nature, leading us into adventure and feasting amidst the beauty and bounty of summer! Next time you’re involved with Blackberry (such as cutting back the brambles or attemping to remove the whole plant), I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate this plant, to consider ways you’ve enjoyed Blackberry.

Consider its ways of growing and thriving. What can we learn from Blackberry’s ways? What benefits from Blackberry’s presence (birds, insects, companion plants? Who do you notice?). What does Blackberry tell us about the land and ecology in which it grows? Blackberries can be deemed and experienced as invasive, but what is that expression telling us about the land and our human involvement with it? How might we listen, observe, mindfully work with the soil and the plants to restore a balance? In our society most of us don’t know beneficial stewardship practices, so take restoration slowly, mindfully — starting from a place of respect for all life, for all of nature, and for us humans as nature, interwoven.

Journaling Himalayan Blackberry - photo
Journaling Himalayan Blackberry – photo by Jane Valencia

“Brid one Brere”: Bird Song, Solstice Song, Your Song

My sit spot — a place outside that I return to again and again, and which I know as a dear friend — has become a secret nook indeed. With the passing of the years, the sapling Red Alder and Birch have grown to be tree “teenagers”. Canadian Thistle declares that “none shall pass” to the place where I sit. Red Elder dangles her ripe tiny super-tart berries.

Black-Capped Chickadee - art for one of my students.
Black-Capped Chickadee – art for one of my students.

Hidden away, I listen to the birds for awhile: Cheery-up, cheeri-lu — American Robin to the southwest, perhaps in one of the Doug firs across the meadow. See me, pretty pretty me! — White-Crowned Sparrow. to my west. And so on. Soon I turn to listening to recordings of my recent practice session with the awesome Erin Durrett.

Erin is Music Director at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit on our island. She is also iamazingly knowledgeable about medieval and Renaissance music, and she is great at improvising. Erin and I have put together some beautiful music for the Solstice Labyrinth Walk taking place Friday evening, from 7-9PM at the Episcopal Church (more info below). I’m intoxicated by the music we’re playing and singing: a medieval English song “Bryd one brere” (“Bird on a Briar”), as well as other medieval songs that range from France to Spain. These songs in their older languages are so beautiful and restful — perfect for a labyrinth walk.

As I listen to the Cantiga de Amigo, Ondas, I suddenly become aware that the birds around me are in full, varied melodic song. I hear the melismatic phrasing of the lyrics, and as I listen to the birds and their own wandering melodies, I realize that how much medieval music — especially chant and other sacred music — are like weaves of bird song.

And why not? Surely the European composers of many centuries past spent much time outdoors. And surely birds were regarded, as they are cross-culturally as messengers of the Divine, creatures who sing in celebration of Creation.

At that moment, a hummingbird zips over to Red Elder, perches for a whole two minutes on a stem. Then flies over to check out the berries. Even the movement of birds is music.

Red Elder & Hummingbird
Red Elder & Hummingbird

Next time you’re outside — especially at this time of the Summer Solstice — take a few minutes to listen to the symphony of song and other nature sounds (and no doubt many human-made as well!) moving like water all around you. This is a great time to listen to the celebration of the birds, and to at the same time celebrate your own shining and that of your loved ones on this good earth — here at the full, long sun time of year.

Please share your bird and nature song tales in the comment box below!

firAre you on the Island? Please join me if you can at the following events!

Solstice Labyrinth Walk

The Labyrinth at the Church of the Holy Spirit will be open to all who would like to come and enjoy a meditative walk to celebrate the summer solstice, June 19th between 7 and 9pm. There will be space on the lawn for meditation and quiet music of harp, flutes and singing bowls to infuse the garden with peaceful sound. The walking of the labyrinth is a sacred tradition that is thousands of years old and comes from many different areas of the world. It’s a practice that has become a way for people of all faiths or from no faith tradition to walk in contemplation of healing, gratitude and peace.

The Church of the Holy Spirit is north of town on Vashon Highway just south of the Vashon Community Care Center where you see the big bell tower. This event is free and all are welcome. For information call 206-567-4488.

Sun Circle and Gratitude Poem Makingfor families

Saturday, June 20, 2PM. This event takes place at the annual Solstice Celebration hosted by the Women’s Red Way Lodge. I’ll be leading a fun kid-focused (but all are welcome!) Sun Circle that honors the longest day. We will then head out onto the land to collect some “gratitude” to create a community gratitude poem. Go here to watch a special Solstice Invitation video about the event and to find out where to get more information (such as the location of the event).

Dirt Time: How Families Can Ditch Stress and Dig Into Fun

Okay! So studies support what gardeners, farmers, herbalists, kids (young ones, anyway), and chickens know: Playing in the dirt nourishes and calms our spirits. Turns out that at least one beneficial bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, thrives in healthy soil, and that this microorganism, when breathed in just through the normal course of handling dirt, activates certain neurotransmitters in our bodies (seratonin and norepinephrine) that boost our moods and reduce our stress. Here’s a fun article about this study.

Great! So working or playing in healthy soil soothes our senses. That makes total sense to me, as humans have enjoyed an intimate, companionable relationship with soil — and Mother Earth — for all but a smidgen of time in our existence. When we were hunting and gathering, when we were living closely with the seasons and working the earth, we were absorbed in this relationship.

The rich smells and sensations of the world around us speak on a cell level to us of right relationship. Our bodies and spirits know that to be in balance, we need to be in harmony with our world. The smell and sensation and taste of soil (as babies experience if allowed) all speak this language to us. We humans are truly children of the living earth. The earth is our Mother, indeed!

But are studies showing that dirt makes us feel good + our ancestral relationship with soil compelling enough reasons to play in the dirt? On a day off from school, my daughter and I discussed this very question ….

This article continues below the comic.

FoxTales 2
FoxTales comic – siblings Govan & Shell muse on dirt. By Jane Valencia

My daughter and I had the whole morning before us. I spoke to her about the article I was trying to write (this one). We made a chart of pros and cons to parents and kids playing outside in the dirt. Here are the “cons” served up by my daughter.

  • kids prefer computers (so do parents, I might add)
  • kids don’t like to get dirty (some don’t, anyway)
  • kids don’t want to do what parents want them to do (!)
  • safety concerns (“ew! the cat used this dirt as a litter box!”, etc.)

But even as she cheerfully offered up reasons why kids might not want to play in the dirt, my family found ourselves serving up plenty of memories of times spent together as kids or with each other playing in the dirt (or at the beach making canals and sand castles and drawing with sticks …). My husband Andy and I grew up in the suburbs, and we have plenty of dirt tales. Heck, all you need is a pot of soil and a little imagination, and you have good stuff coming to you.

Sunbalm Castle: Building & Fun
Sunbalm Castle: a clay pit becomes a world. The kids built walls, houses, and much more with the rocks and clay. Photo by Jane Valencia

Here’s where we’ve enjoyed dirt:

  • making a fairy garden in a flower pot
  • a pile of dirt in a side yard. All the neighborhood kids dug and designed and built in that pile, and the mom let them run the hose for 5 min. every hour to test their waterworks
  • creating a whole story, culture, adventure tale when making a village in a clay pit (see photos of Sunbalm Castle)
  • gardening. Remember that year we grew a sunflower house?
  • mud puddles. What’s not to love about them? Stomping, leaf-boat sailing, …
  • watching front loaders and other construction equipment at work digging foundations, heaping and hurling soil — yeah, you’re breathing in a heady mix of diesel and earth! Worth a good hour+ in free outdoor engaging entertainment.

… And this is just a short list!

Sunbalm Castle: So Many Projects!
Sun balm Castle:
So many projects. Experimenting with fire and cooking on tiny hearths, growing mini-kale gardens for the chickens, and much more … Photo by Jane Valencia

It’s easy to get young kids into the dirt. Less easy with older kids these days. Almost impossible for teens and adults (unless they’re gardening or doing other kinds of work with dirt). Please feel free to dive in and tell me all the exceptions, in your experience, to the statements I’ve just made!

That morning, my daughter and I decided we might make a fairy garden together…. But, it was rainy and cold, and she mentioned that she didn’t like digging in cold, wet dirt, and couldn’t we just go for a walk instead?

I considered this article. Didn’t I want to write about parents and kids enjoying dirt together??? Didn’t I want to write from my actual experience, and a sense of, “Wow, if we can do it, so can you!”?

Sunbalm Castle: Chicks
Sunbalm Castle: The chicks got their own special time in the dirt — within the confines of the walled city. Photo by Jane Valencia

But — I let go of all that. My daughter wanted to take a walk with me — that was her idea today of enjoying our nature. Playing in dirt because it reduces stress is a tidy little concept if you need to have it on hand to get you and your loved ones outside. But honestly, anything you do together where you enter timelessness and into enjoyment of the rich, enlivened world around you and of each other — is really what it’s all about.  That’s gotta relieve stress, and yes — bring in plenty of the good stuff.

How do you share dirt time with your kids or the kids in your life, or just on your own? How did you enjoy playing in the dirt when you were a kid? Please leave your comments below.

The Magic of Dirt
The magic of dirt: Dig into fun!  Photo by Jane Valencia