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  • MP

December: Oh, To Be Alive!

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

We had our first real snow this week--the really beautiful kind, big flakes, glistening, coating or dusting everything in sight. Winter is fully here. I’m the odd bird, I love winter. I look forward to it, and I am energized by it. It replenishes me.

I was walking down a garden path and stopped at the echinacea in the image above. I don’t cut back plants in the fall. I leave old growth until new growth starts to appear in the spring. The echinacea at this time of year is so different than in the summer, but to me still enchanting. And I thought: Even dead echinacea has its own beauty, especially when capped with snow. But wait, is it dead? Well, since echinacea is a perennial, the plant itself is not dead. The power of the plant has shifted to its roots. If you want echinacea root for tea or medicine, you want these roots; this is a time of powerful life force consolidation. But what about the brown, dry head and stalk? Several weeks before, I had harvested similar dried flower heads to collect seed for next year. And so much seed comes from even one head, each seed an embryo of life. This spiky bit of brown is a vessel of life; it is holding food for birds and the beginning of many new plants. It literally is full of life . . . in a dry brown package.

I walked around the garden more, now focusing on all the dried seed heads. Why did I automatically look around and see death instead of life? I collect seeds and grow plants from seed. Every year I experience the wonder and magic of tiny seed powerhouses. Once put in good growing conditions, these dry, seemingly dead (sometimes speck of dust small) things spring to life with a vigor that is amazing. Even with this knowledge and the knowledge of the underground winter life of the perennials, my automatic response was to see death. I thought there was beauty in it, but my mind’s quick description was dead. This awareness made me pause.

I thought of lawns. One of my earliest ah ha moments in my garden as I was letting it get wilder was just how alive it was. It wasn’t because of how it looked, but because of how it sounded, how it felt. It buzzed, it hummed, it vibrated around me, it gave off aromas as I brushed past things. I felt life. I started noticing that in many pretty lawns and even in some pretty flower beds, I didn’t feel life. My mind thought alive, vital because it was bright green or clear colors, undamaged, peak. But, when I started tuning in, I realized that no matter what my mind’s conditioned response was based on sight, some very pretty places actually didn’t seem very alive in a vibrant life force sort of way. Why was I automatically defining life in my garden based on “pretty”? Well, we often define optimal life for ourselves based on pretty, undamaged, “peak”. Was there some similar preconditioning or pre-framing that was interfering with how I was viewing my garden? I started trying to be curious and open to what life and healthy meant in my garden. I look at it differently now.

Was my echinacea moment something similar? Even after my buzzing mindset change, I still had walked around in the fall and winter and seen death. The garden no longer hummed. Most aromas were gone. Things were brown and dry. Staring at the echinacea flower head and switched on with the question, though, I emphatically saw life. So much life. I thought of the roots below, strong enough to be frozen and buried under snow and yet strengthening to come back bigger in the spring. I thought of all of the seeds tucked in between the brown spikes that each carried the potential for a whole new plant. My winter garden is strong and powerful, it holds the established roots and the new beginnings. It is life, even if it is not traditionally pretty.

I’m at a stage in my life where the summer flower has faded, and I search for what this means. I’m aware of conditioned views. I’m aware of my changing appearance even as I feel vital inside. Maybe this is why the echinacea struck me now. Why I stopped to ponder how we define life, death, and vitality generally. My winter echinacea has me thinking that as we look at nature, our view is similarly blocked or pre-framed not only by human/other nature questions but also by more superficial appearance ones. As I go forward, I’ll think of this winter echinacea as I seek to be more aware of and challenge such potential biases so that I can better view my garden in all its seasons for what it is.

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