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  • Jennifer Jewell


“....Wild and precious life....” ....California native iris meadow at John Whittlesey's Canyon Creek. #NativePlantsofCalifornia #iris #PacificCoastIris #Mary Oliver

In the garden and in the fields, meadows and verges, it's the native plants that are waking - luxuriously - this month here, where I cultivate place. The Vernal Equinox is almost upon us, and it's a time in this place that I'm particularly attached to - the slow unfurling of the wildflowers a very tangible demonstration of the great diversity and beauty of the Northern California valley and foothills environment. It's a so-called Mediterranean climate characterized by dry hot summers and (generally) damp winters. From the oak woodlands of the foothills, the grasslands of the valley floor, the amazingly new-to-me vernal pools and rich riparian corridors along the rivers, streams and creeks - this landscape felt familiar right away when I first arrived ten years ago. It was different enough from the much higher elevation Ponderosa Pine forests of my home as a girl in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, but somehow it still read or spoke of home as much or more than my birth place.

For a longer term project I am working on - and which you will hear more about in the coming months, no doubt - I've had occasion to ask a wide variety of people "If you have a Spirit Landscape - what would it be?" What do I even mean by spirit landscape? Some people have a good enough idea of what I mean right away and think about the answer and begin articulating it; others get a little uncomfortable and respond something like: "I am not much of a spirit landscape kind of person" and dismiss the question. But then, when I perhaps use slightly different language and come at the concept from a different direction, they - like all of us - are absolutely spirit landscape people. I have yet to meet a person who does not have one or two landscapes to which they feel particularly drawn - safe and nurtured in the embrace of. Some people have several - and fair enough.

This last month's episodes of Cultivating Place had us hearing from quite a range of people - and without asking the question - they all had a larger natural "spirit" landscapes in which they all felt most at home. And many of them found these home landscape environments as adults - Loree Bohl came to meet the desert and its very particularly constellation of plants, air, soil, climate and she's been trying to create this sense of home in Portland,OR ever since. Similarly, Hunter Ten Broeck in Albuquerque, NM met the high desert and knew he was home. For Clare Cooper Marcus, this place of comfort and embrace - of physical and spiritual integration - was on a rugged, blustery island off the coast of Scotland.

What is it exactly that speaks to us and connects us to places we've never been before? How does this connection happen?

The native plant garden begins to wake, California Lilac (Ceanothus sp) looking splendid. Home Garden - Cultivating Place, 2018

I find this fascinating. And I am curious about the pathways and mechanisms of such connection.

I am something of a podcast listener at this stage in life. I don't listen all the time, but they keep me company on long drives and when I'm doing longer daily tasks like folding laundry or even cooking dinner on my own. Over the past month I have listened to two programs that have sparked this particular curiosity and they are rolling around in my head the way these things can. These include Radio Lab's Smarty Plants episode, about scientific research into how plants learn - which you sort of know intuitively if you tend to plants, I think, but the lab-based research studying it, was cool.

Another was a beautiful conversation between Ayana Young and Brontë Velez on the For the Wild Podcast, which is both a remarkable program in and of itself, and this conversation was as much within the entire series. The moment that stopped me in the conversation was at a point when the two women are discussing the concept of epigenetics.

A short primer from Dr. Seema Yasmin on epigenetics: "If DNA contains instructions for making eyes brown and hair curly, epigenetics refers to ways in which those genes are turned on and off. Genes are the blueprint for creating proteins, while epigenetics is the study of how genes are read. At least that’s the original definition of epigenetics. Nowadays, the term is also used to describe gene modifications that are passed on from parents to children. Some scientists say we transmit more than our genes. We also pass on molecular switches and information about how those genes should be expressed." For instance, the broader conversation that I've followed is around the ways in which trauma can be passed down on a cellular level through generations - for instance in populations of people who've been historically oppressed, abused, enslaved or otherwise traumatized.

In their provoking and challenging, human, lovely conversation, Ayana and Brontë talk about how if trauma CAN be passed onto us genetically and through information and history stored in our cells as well as through language and cultural history transmitted to us, why can't resilience also be transmitted this way? Now there's a great deal of debate as to if any of this kind of "cultural" information is in fact transmitted through us and to us in this way, and I will not weigh in on this, nor engage in debate about it.

As Brontë so cogently observes, it is not unlike how salmon know where to spawn HOME, how birds and butterflies know where and how to migrate for their survival. And after listening to the Radio Lab Smarty Plants research and thinking to myself, well of course plants learn and adapt, how and why can still need to be tangibly demonstrated to some people.

But for me in this moment of absorbing epigenetic resilience, a lightbulb went off in me as to gardening and place: if knowledge of resilience and home were epigenetically as well as culturally passed to us - this would be an interesting expansion of understanding the human impulse to garden. As I was listening and folding laundry, I thought - that's it! or part it? My (and your) love of this great soil and plant rich world could just as easily or more easily be built into my (and your) cells as a tool of resilience as it is built into the cells of the salmon swimming home, as it is (or isn't) transmitted to us culturally.

It brings up interesting questions about good access points for continuing to cultivate plant love and land stewardship in all people; and it brings up distressing questions of how that epigenetic knowledge of resilience could be diluted if it's not continued and reinforced in both our experiential and cultural learning.

Above: Fiddlenecks, a California Spring Wildflower of the fields, meadows and verges. Some of my favorites - Amsinkia menziesii - sunshine unfurling on a stalk.

Just the thinking of it, scientifically proven or not, underlines for me the importance of not ignoring, missing or misinterpreting the signals our cells (and planetary companions) are sending to us: that we will in fact know what is home, and how to take care rather than advantage of it. And how in this caring interdependent relationship, we not only increase the health of our planet, but we increase our own health perhaps directing our genes towards resilience and away from the trauma of disease, violence, devastation.

I can guarantee you I'm no scientist let alone rocket scientist; and I am not even the millionth person or gardener, or mother/parent to have such thoughts regarding how we know what we know and are predisposed to do what we do.

As I watch the wildflowers of my region unfold and the native and introduced plants in my garden start their next cycle of life, I am reminded of the same kind of awareness that came to me when listening to Jason Dewees talk about the history of palms companioning the human species for our entire history on this earth - how they have been signifiers of life, water, fruit as we made our way around this globe.

We still have so much to learn - but maybe we know more than we think - we just need to continue to unlearn our own misuses and misunderstandings. Maybe that starts in listening more carefully to our companions and to our own internal tools of resilience?




In March of 2018, Cultivating Place, we have some wonderful guests and surprises (look for a community announcement mid-month for your musically minded listeners). Place and home and connection are on going themes starting with today's conversation with Jason Dewees and his new book "Designing with Palms"; Benjamin Vogt joins us from Nebraska to talk about his zealous commitment to a "New Garden Ethic"; we chat about the beauty of tending to houseplants in urban lives (really any lives) with Maria Failla of Bloom & Grow Radio; we end the month leaping into spring with a wild-foraged eating and drinking fest hosted by Pascal Baudar (be warned: the protein content of grubs is involved...).

Thank you as always for listening, your comments and emails, and for your support. Cultivating Place is a deeply grateful community and listener supported endeavor.




Above: Last citrus harvest in front of a week of hard frosts. Delicious to look at and consume. Think of all the Vitamin C!

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