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How exploring and knowing our place in the ecosystem strengthens resilience Unschooling

Once I lost my son in the woods. We drove home through ferns bigger than his three year old self, he was carrying a harvest of licorice ferns and I was carrying his little sister and some oyster mushrooms. He followed me and when I turned around he was gone. I called repeatedly. I took my steps back. I grabbed a little girl by my chest and started running in a panic, and there he was, nestled in a sword fern, chewing on a piece of licorice fern root. He politely looked up at my battered face and said, “I only have one licorice root.” His trance-like state could have been brought about by the well-known sedative medicine of licorice fern, or it could just have been his joyful state of mind after wandering the woods with his mother and sister for a few hours.

My children and I spent most of their childhood days exploring in the woods. I did that as a mother because I knew it from my own childhood, which I spent here in the same little paradise on the west coast. When my head hurts, I go outside. Maybe I’ll chew an alder leaf like the wild aspirin it is; Maybe I’ll just lift my face out into the fresh air, sun or rain. When my heart aches, I lie in the moss and let it soak up my tears. Licorice fern calms me down; also the feeling of bark or the stream water between my toes. When I’m hungry, I eat grapevine beans on my porch or berries and other goodies from the forest. When I’m hungry for adventure, I go to my medicine forest. I made that word up. Medicine forest. It’s like a permaculture Food forestbut with an emphasis on its healing powers. My parents didn’t give me a medicine forest on purpose, but they gave it to me and I pass it on to my children. Let me explain.

That’s me with our chickens in the early 1980s, the rabbit huts to the right and the winter-covered vegetable garden behind.

I grew up in a pretty typical single-family home – actually a modified double-wide mobile home – on five acres of land my parents bought in 1980. This land was forest when they bought it. We came here and had a picnic lunch on the hillside which they hoped would one day be their construction site. They let my brother and I roam free everywhere, climbing trees, damming streams, digging large holes, and picking and using plants we felt like as they slowly cleared the land and built what is now a developed piece of land. We raised chickens, meat rabbits, and pigs (but only once because the experience was too heartbreaking to repeat). My parents grew food crops and allowed us to set up our own experimental gardens. At the same time, they insisted that we should help with the family businesses. My brother and I were never forced to kill or slaughter animals, but because our parents fed our curiosity, we both knew how to clean a rabbit or a chicken when we were twelve, and when we were fifteen we could do a good one cook family dinners from the foods we had grown or made wild. However, we didn’t even know the word wildcraft. We only “picked nettles” or “found a mushroom”.

My son helped my mother pick nettles in the early 2000s.

Living in and with the forest where our parents were busy turning into a home was just “life”. We could pick native blackberries from the hillside, invasive Himalayan blackberries from where Pappa tried to get them from the stream, or cultivate boysenberries from Mama’s garden. Same difference. They all make great cakes if you don’t eat them all before you bring them home. And whether you make it home or not, your stomach is full of food, your heart is full of joy, and your mind is full of knowing every detail of your home. This is a medicine forest. It is a place where everything lives and grows together – people included. It is a place where you are so connected that life heals you from the inside out.

My daughter reads in a tree that she knows every inch of.

Somehow, through my own teaching and parenting over the years, I have come to realize that just like the best learning happens when we are inspired by connections to our own experience, the best life happens when we are connected to everything around us. Think of it this way: you are much more interested in your own garden than in someone else’s. You are much more interested in your own little potted plant than in the weeds on the edge of the pavement or a tree in a forest far away. Someone teaching you about a baobab tree may have a hard time keeping you interested. But what if this tree was yours? My friend went to Africa and really got to know baobabs – and they became hers. When we connect with things personally, they are important and matter strengthens our nerve pathways. This is great for learning, but how does this relate to my medicine forest? Well this place is important to me. It is so important that I have lived here for about thirty years of my life, both as a child and now with my own near-grown children. I know exactly which part of which slope from which creek has the best clay for sculpting and which part will have a pool of water and some desperately hungry trout in August. I know where the elusive white snails live. I know how the flavors of berries change with the weather and time of day. This deep understanding of my little wilderness is my connection, and therefore this place is my medicine.

My experience exploring this place has not only made me important to my own health, it has also made me resourceful and resilient. We all learn more from observing the people around us than from conventional teaching, and I have learned from seeing my parents develop this country. You have to be resourceful when we didn’t have electricity, toilet, or income. I learned by watching them not only survive here, but also continue to work when they fail to find joy and well-being in what this country and life has to offer. The moss is not my weeping pillow because I’m an idyllic kid from a book about fairies; It’s my pillow because as a child I was just too sad sometimes and the moss was what I found to comfort me. My kids don’t harvest nettles for brownie points or allowances. They put on gloves and harvest them just because we do that at Easter. They get stung and complain about me, but they also like to test their muscles by plucking them with their bare fingers or eating them raw. You build resilience just like I once did. We are in this ecosystem for better or for worse and every day that lies in between. Like plants, we will thrive or die as part of it, so we do our best to thrive.

My children, aged fifteen and eighteen, process wild burdock roots for tea.

The business of gardening and the development of the physical ecosystem is nowhere near as idyllic as I imagine it to be. There are brutal realities in nature that hurt like hell. Our harvests are failing, our chickens are getting sick and I have to put them down; Sometimes we fight and annoy each other about the impact on the ecosystem. Sometimes money is tight, time is running out, and family or world tragedy makes us doubt that we can succeed. But experiencing, feeling and accepting these things is part of the whole picture. My medicine forest is the ecological basket our family lives in, and the love and knowledge we cultivate here, between weeds, grain and chickens, weather and water and our own bodies. When I leave this place, my medicine forest is carried in the knowledge of my body and mind to nourish other ecosystems and grow with them. It is a conscious decision to see my surroundings and to live with them in health as part of them.

In a monoculture garden, an invasion of a particularly voracious insect can wipe out an entire crop without the need to sow anything. The earth itself becomes a barren place that is unable to feed newly fallen seeds without significant human help. In a food forest, insects can devour a plant here or there, but the diversity of the community will keep any plant or insect from taking over, ensuring that enough is left to keep the community alive. The dead plants along with the dead insects and the droppings of all those who have been foraging in the forest will feed the earth and ensure that any fallen seeds have at least one chance to grow. In fact, the richness of the soil actually means the earth contains more water, which makes everything easier to thrive.

My parents asked me how I came to know all of these things and I said “from you” because it was their willingness to be explored that gave me the gift of knowing my ecosystem. It was their willingness to let me grow my own experimental gardens and now rent a piece of their land to us still Let me create my own experimental gardens that gave me the gift of my medicine forest. Sometimes they don’t like the look of my scruffy yard, my son’s experimental tree-growing project, or the piles of weeds I leave lying around. But they let me and their grandchildren continue to live and explore here because they watch our medicinal forest grow. And sometimes – just now and then – we discover things that we can teach them too. Exploratory parenting is like that. It’s about seeing the whole family as a forest, rather than one plant sowing another. Our family is like a forest of opportunity in which everyone lives in community, explores and discovers and balances and shares as we all move our roots lower and lower and our branches higher and higher.

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