On Death, Loss, and Mourning

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Siham Muntasser

 As mental health professionals discussing resilience, we can’t escape from a conversation about the painful aspects of life, which indeed have recently been many. Resilience, after all, is about acknowledging and overcoming hardship.

I ran into this tree in the mountains of the Pisgah Forest. It was a large tree that was perhaps hit by lighting. A big part of it had fallen down, but a smaller part of it was still alive, tall and growing with bright green leaves. The part on the ground was still oddly attached to the earth. The space which was once the canopy of the older tree was wide and empty. This majestic tree made me think of all the elders  we have lost, and the void they have left. Part of them is still so very alive, and not just in the memories.  I read the book, the Silent Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, then Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, and more recently and most fittingly The Overstory by Richard Powers, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. These books made me realize that  forest life is an amazing hub of enchanted resilience!  

Beloved Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron in Welcoming the Unwelcome, acknowledges that just talking about death makes us feel uncomfortable. Yet, to be able to bear the discomfort helps us come to terms with our own mortality, and with losing loved ones.  How we live now is how we die, she says. If we are at peace now, we will be strong facing the future, whatever it may entail.

Pema Chodron says the stage in which something hasn’t ended and the new has not yet begun, is the chance of a lifetime, full of opportunities for growth.  This is the best metaphor for now, in between winter and spring. It is  a phase of preparation, full of possibilities. Spring is the best time to start our gardens, and the garden is the original metaphor says Bahnson.  Oliver Sacks also highlights the healing powers of gardens.As we start our new gardens, choosing the seeds we want to plant is very  important. Thich Nhat Hahn in his book The Art of Living talks about the importance of “watering the wholesome seeds that lie in each of us and avoid watering the bad ones.” Buddhist psychology speaks of consciousness in terms of seeds, he says. There are many different types of seeds that lie inside us. Gratitude, kindness, and compassion are wholesome seeds, but we also have seeds like anger and jealousy that are a source of suffering for us and our loved ones. We have control on which ones we want to grow, just like in a garden. 

This parallel between plant seeds and soul seeds is highlighted by St. Teresa of Avila when she talks about the Lord planting the seeds of faith in her heart. She details ways of watering her gardens. She describes moving from doing for God, to being with God, to simply resting with the Lord of the garden, from action to contemplation, from doing to being, bringing peace to the heart and soul. Vendana Shiva also talks about the importance of seed. Seed is the first link in the food system. Without seed there is no food, she affirms. 

Any good garden needs to be fertilized. Composting is a fascinating and a deeply philosophical aspect of gardening. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about life and death as ephemeral aspects of each other. Composting is the perfect metaphor of the interface between life and death. Agriculture is about turning the earth. What dies gives origin to life. Life starts with death. Bacteria, worms, and fungi, the least among us, are mighty powerful. Just as the earthworm digests and then releases organic matter to create more fertile soil for future plants, we can compost metaphorically by examining our own prior experiences to allow us to extract lessons and truth, preparing a base for future experiences. In composting grief we turn waste into the good stuff for the lifecycle. The concept of entropy applies to how our shared collective evolutionary epigenetic trauma  is also part of our evolutionary protection and our generational affinity.  Composting food waste is one of the most important things you can do to help save the world. Moreover, soil bacteria is good for our for mental health. 

 Forest Trees, Air, and Whole Health for Life

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 Siham Muntasser

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, part of the Nantahala National Forest, is a very special place in so many different ways. It is dedicated to the memory of Joyce Kilmer, a soldier and a poet, who died in France in 1916 in a combat mission during World War I.  He is the author of the poem Trees. To immortalize his love for trees, the forest was saved from timbering by an act of Congress. This park is one of the very few remaining places in the United States with trees as old as 400 years. It has more than 100 tree species with some more than 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall.

The forest is unique in many different ways. It is out in the wilderness, and the vegetation is thick and ragged. Then you see these enormous trees, although few are left. What is most striking is how tall they are; they have large knots, and the wood is beautiful.  There is so much beauty in these tall, dignified beings with all their knots, aging so gracefully.   Trees in the winter have their own special magic, magnifying the knots and the bark. Nature is so very evocative! Getting older is a scary process. It is reassuring to realize that we  can be beautiful with all our knots. 

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial forest makes us realize how much our forests have changed in the past 200 years. Historical writings describe the U.S. forests with settlers galloping their horses.  In most forests today, such a ride is no longer possible.  The younger trees are too close to each other and smaller in diameter.  However, when you see this forest you clearly see that 400 years ago, the trees were much larger, with much more space in between. The comparison allows us to see the changes in our ecosystem quite clearly.  We have eradicated most of our original native trees in less than 100 years, changing the ecosystem forever. What the consequences are for humanity is hard to tell.  Deforestation is a calamity impacting many places on earth. From the Amazon rainforest, to the Tibetan plateau, to our forests in North Carolina, cutting trees is an ecological disaster of immense proportions. Our forests are very important components of life on Earth. Trees in forests are particularly important. Trees produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in large amounts. Sadly, when trees die, they release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere.  Atmospheric gases trap heat and increase the atmospheric temperature.  Burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the two most important causes of global warming and climate change. 

Trees teach us a lot about resilience. They help each other, they look after stumps. Trees adapt, recover, and sometimes move due to lack of suitable habitat.   

The Dalai Lama warns us that if we don’t intervene, we will see the gradual breakdown of the fragile ecosystems that support us resulting in an irreversible and irrevocable degradation of our planet Earth. He states: “When the forests in Tibet die, a whole nation suffers. And when a people suffers, the whole nation suffers. We need forests for our health as well. When we go for a walk in a forest, fresh air is healing. We need green forests. They are nature’s great gift. Forests are good for our souls. In the forest we find the calm that our brain needs for regeneration. Forests are water reservoirs, home to many creatures and plant species, and are important as an air-conditioning machine. They are a mirror of the diversity of life.”  This is emphasized by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato si’ and says: “The interdependence of all creatures is God-given. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the field flower, the eagle and the sparrow-the myriad of differences and inequalities is evident that creatures are not self-sufficient, but exist only in dependence on each other and complement one another in mutual service.” 

Sadly latest data indicate that global warming is worsening. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its “bleakest warning yet”, saying the climate crisis was accelerating rapidly. IPCC emphasizes that if we take action now, we have a chance of avoiding its worst ravages. Doug Tallamy,  in Nature’s Best Hope, says that homegrown natural parks could be a solution. Paul Hawken in his book Regeneration, affirms that ending the climate crisis in one generation is possible if action and policy are weaved with justice and scientific knowledge of the role of biodiversity.  

David Attenborough in his book, A Life on Our Planet, discusses the Planetary Boundaries Model, based on a study of resilience of ecosystems across the globe. The study has identified nine critical thresholds hard-wired into Earth’s environment, nine planetary boundaries. Four of these have already been pushed beyond acceptable safety. These are: excessive use of fertilizers, excessive conversion of natural habitats into farmland, global warming, and rate of biodiversity loss. Attenborough discusses the importance of achieving a more balanced life with nature, using a more circular economy with less waste while maintaining minimum requirements of human well-being.

The Doughnut Model is an enticing prospect for a safe and just future for all, he says. It consists of an outer circle containing the nine planetary boundaries and an inner circle, which is a social foundation with emphasis on the importance of good housing, healthcare, clean water, safe food, access to energy, good education, an income, a political voice and justice.  

While individual lifestyle changes alone will not help abate the worst impacts of accelerating, runaway climate change, we won’t make the big systemic changes needed, without them. Collective  individual lifestyle changes can really add up, if we ALL do a little. The Jump campaign asks people to sign up to take the following six “shifts” for one, three or six months:

1. Eat a largely plant-based diet, with healthy portions and no waste

2. Buy no more than three new items of clothing per year

3. Keep electrical products for at least seven years

4. Take no more than one short haul flight every three years and one long haul flight every eight years

5. Get rid of personal motor vehicles if you can – and if not keep hold of your existing vehicle for longer

6. Make at least one life shift to nudge the system, like moving to greener energy by insulating your home.

Forest Bathing, shinrin yoku,  is a term created by the Japanese Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to describe a practice of immersing oneself in the power of nature by soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, just like a bath in warm water. This practice highlights the restorative powers of nature for health and well-being. Immersive walks in nature are very powerful ways of relieving anxiety. Natural aromatherapy from phytoncides is relaxing and healing. 

Biodiversity, Native Ecosystems and Whole Health

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Siham Muntasser and AB.

 Plants are generally more mutualist than competitive. They live inter-connectedly with each other in complex ecosystems. Native plants and insects have evolved together with the purpose of creating “a good place for babies to live”. This relationship is best exemplified in the relationship between the Monarch butterfly and the milkweed plant. Unfortunately, humans mostly consider themselves separate from nature and take a dominating and colonizing role. Likely this behavior does not appear to be species specific; it is more of a cultural phenomenon. As such it can be changed, because culture can change rather quickly. David Attenborough defines culture as the information that can be passed from one individual to another by teaching or imitation. 

Wyndell Berry, in his book, The Art of the Commonplace, discusses agrarian life as an example of a culture and a lifestyle less dominated by power, and more focused on building healthy environments for all creations to enjoy. Fred Bahnson in his book, Soil and Sacrament, emphasizes the need to protect our native ecosystems: our mountains, our water supplies, our natural resources, our flora and fauna. He talks about permaculture, i.e., the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient, as a critical element for the health of our planet. This concept is emphasized by Vandana Shiva in her book, Who Really Feeds the World. She discusses that to achieve genuine sustainability, the knowledge of the interconnectedness among species is critical. 

Food insecurity impacts many parts of the world, including our own. Hunger is a problem for many. The United Nations’ efforts to combat hunger and promote food security emphasize the importance of sustainability and biodiversity. Our native flora and fauna clearly play a critical role in the food web of our agricultural ecosystems, the web of life, and should be fiercely protected.  

Planting native plants is important for many reasons. They are easier to grow, use less water, and are less susceptible to diseases and infestations. They are generally more adaptive to local ecology requiring fewer pesticides and fertilizers. Native plants help offset climate change by storing more carbon dioxide than non-native species. Native plans provide critical food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other animal species. Birds, bees, butterflies, and insects pollinate plants by carrying pollen or helping to disperse their seeds. You can turn your yard into an instant mini sanctuary by planting a single goldenrod.  A single goldenrod can support 147 different species of butterfly. Our pollinators are critical part of our agricultural ecosystems. Plants, in general, are the foundation of the ecosystem.

The fascinating  interconnectedness of ecosystems is illustrated by many interwoven and interdependent species.   Usnea, a  type of lichen ubiquitous to many parts of the world, including North Carolina, is an organism with powerful healing properties. It is a combination of a fungus and an algae living together synergistically on a host tree. Trees and fungi have a long evolutionary history. 

Revered Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about dependent origination and inter-being, a term he coined, meaning that nothing comes into being on its own. We and everything around us are interconnected and interdependent. Lewis Thomas discusses how our human bodies are “rented, shared and occupied by countless other tiny organisms”  on which we depend for many important biological functions. Thich Nhat Hahn emphasizes how our body is a community, and the trillion non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. There are no solitary beings. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell with all working parts linked in symbiosis. We and Mother Earth are one. Our inner peace and peace on earth are connected. 

Cultural shifts have characterized human evolution since the beginning of time. Thich Nhat Hahn encourages us to spark a collective awakening for the evolution of the human species from Homo sapiens to Homo conscious, where knowledge, compassion,  mindfulness, and enlightenment fully reach collective consciousness. This is perhaps where the awareness of the difference between intent, action, and impact is finally clear. 

The Healing Power of Water

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Siham Muntasser, Nancy Glander, and APB.

It is perhaps fair to say that water is the most magical of the molecules. Without it there would not be life on earth. It cleanses, heals and relaxes. Water is life! 

Water is magical in its chemical structure and physical properties. It is short of alchemy, or perhaps it is alchemy. They said it was gold, but maybe water is the real Universal Elixir of Life. Water can change from liquid, to solid then to air, and back again. It creates snow, mist, and  rain. It changes form and yet it is still the same. What a metaphor for our existence!  The cycle of life depends on water. Water constitutes a significant component of our cells and the cells of every living organism on earth. It is deeply woven in our being and in the way we transmit our genetic information to future generations. Epigenetic and perhaps genetic  mechanisms are impacted by the water we drink. In the womb, the new creation is surrounded and protected by water. Our DNA unfolds on water.         Water is our past, our present, and our future. 

Masaru Emoto in his book, The Healing Power of Water, emphasizes that water is “Prima Materia” the prime substance of the universe. Water, since the beginning of time, has been seen as the symbol of the soul. Emoto highlights that water has memory, and it is in fact a messenger bringing us information about the universe and the world and about ourselves. Water acts as a liquid tape recorder and is able to receive, store, and transmit electromagnetic vibration, highlighting its importance in spiritual consciousness, he says. The spiritual properties of water have been appreciated since ancient times. Many indigenous cultures consider water sacred and the spiritual dimensions of water are visible in many religions and evident in terms such as holy water, blessed waters, and sacred rivers.  The Bible places water in a very central position, at the beginning there was only water. St. Francis of Assisi called her “Sister Water.” Water is the most important material for the existence and support of life and health on the planet Earth.

“A human being is a water being” emphasizes Dr. Petra  Bracht. Water is the primeval sea in which our 80 billion cells swim. Can you imagine a crowd of 80 billion people and transport within the city is provided by water? Movement is life, and stagnation is death. Like Dr. Martin Luther King said, we must keep moving.

The best possible way for the body to get water is out of fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Bracht. “In this way, all the minerals, trace elements, and vitamins are easily available, as well as all the other plant substances that have benefited humankind for millions of years.” 

To say that water is sacred has spiritual and practical implications affirms Starhawk. If we honor water spiritually, we must also treat it with respect in very ordinary ways. Conserving water and creating systems to protect, heal and clean it, are practical prayers.

In North Carolina we are blessed with amazing waterfalls, lakes, rivers, natural springs, and an amazing coastline.  Yet, sadly our water resources are decreasing dramatically. The need to protect our water resources can’t be more urgent. 

Through love and gratitude, we have the ability to improve our world, and we can actively put a healing process into motion, says Emoto. It is our duty as human beings to contribute to the healing of the earth and its waters. E-motion is energy in motion. This is where our action, commitment, and connection can meet at the service of our Mother Earth. Are we willing to take action? 

The Fairies Magical Garden

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Wild Ones! The Fairies have chosen our home as their residence!

Because of our humble nature, commitment to service, and love for friendship, they said they believe we are a suitable location for their mission of peace and kindness. Their motto is live, love, and laugh. It sounds nice!

They chose a sunny patch of land. They said they prefer to grow native plants, for some reason.  It has something to do with pollinators and the food they eat. But, they didn’t seem to be bothered that the land they chose had plants already living on it. They said  they love integration with non-invasive species and that biodiversity is important to them.

They must be some hard-working Fairies! They brought a bunch of equipment. They really loved the milkweed, the mountain mint, and the Joe Pye weed. They said the butterflies like these plants very much.

They also loved the bee hive. They love honey which is good for them apparently, but this is a complicated story and will need some future explaining.

They even have a little special space for friends gone, and a yellow cat. It must have been one of their friends.

Oddly enough, one of the Fairies chose to live at the end of the patch, away from the others next to the carnivorous plant. Go figure! Apparently, she loves to travel and is always waiting for mail.

A big task for us is going to be keeping a well-balanced situation between the need of the plants for water and the need of the Fairies for cleanness. We have to be mindful of getting their habitat dirty! Keeping good documentation to share with everyone is going to be important- and perhaps a bit of a task for the photographer, since the Fairies have asked not to be photographed. They said they are magical creatures and they only live in our imagination. We must respect their boundaries. We surely look forward to getting to know them and we hope you all will enjoy this experience.