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In all the ways we grow

by Cyd Nova

No matter who you are or what your personality is: inside you, upon your flesh, civilizations live and die. Your armpit is a jungle—with microscopic organisms multiplying within your sweltering  tropics. Your hands dip into soapy dishes, then clay soil, then cover themselves with moisturizer—only the toughest beings like staphylococcus can survive such a whirlwind environment. Inside your guts different colonies of bacteria seek to expand their settlements, while immune cells examine each new immigrant who enters into your body with every breath, every gulp of  water, bite of gas station hot dog, or carrot pulled straight out of ground and chomped into after a  quick wipe on the pants. These new villages of microbes seek to become a part of the 9 in 10 of you that is made of not you—bacteria, archae, fungi—“friendly” or not. To whom? Does the  earth classify us as “good or bad” inhabitants? What about praying mantises, ticks, and raccoons—the other inhabitants on this side of the earth's crust whose behavior we classify as  violent, parasitic, or wasteful? 

Soft, spring yarrow leaves in the spring ground

Likely our inhabitants also do not much consider the flesh that they inhabit, but go about their busy lives (or perhaps it is peaceful under the biofilm) hoping for the space for them and their clones to expand to. Then an antibiotic comes along, a missile bomb, an extinction event—setting stage for the next bacterial epoch. The roughly 11,700 years of the Anthropocene—the  era of human manipulation of nature—is only .00026 percent of the earth's history. A quick eternity. Relatively shorter than those we replicate within our guts and lungs and soft, fleshy thighs as time and medication passes within us.  

The way I have most changed since starting herb school and moving into a quiet cabin to be a  farmer, is that I am constantly within a space/time warp. Somedays I am an oblivious universe,  spread slack-jawed across the bed, my phone in my hand while the creatures within my body  struggle to maintain peace. Then, in the forest I look up at the trees and imagine them as blades of grass. I am an ant climbing determinately through the understory scouring for a food source to bring home to my brethren. The birds zipping through the canopy are flies, their song a vibration of movement colliding with atmosphere, the uncurling snakes are nematodes seeking smaller prey. A dark cloud passes above, is it a foot coming to turn all this into compost? 

If the most primal function of all life is to be units to store elements and energy in a stable manner, then is not the incineration of fossils for energy time travel? Unraveling millions of years of forests in our vehicles as we zip from one city to another, as I go to school, to work, on a hike to marvel at nature. Recently I am developing a sometimes uncomfortable but also grounding understanding of my complicity in destruction, and sometimes in life.  

A hand holds calendula seedlings over a bed of hay

I dig my bare hands into the soil and wrestle out the deep roots of dandelion and spiny thistle, I  whisper sorry and grind my foot, smashing the globular red casings of a cutworm, I pick out yellow slugs from the lettuce and lay them out to certain death for a crowd of pecking chickens. On the farm we sit down to eat polenta cooked in a stock made from the carcass of those chicken’s predecessors. As the spoon heads to my mouth I sometimes remember to be present  with what it means to eat the body of another, but instead of prayer, I mostly I get caught in  conversation or exhaustion. I walk through the forest and despite my slowness trample seedlings just beginning to unfurl, step on crawdads in the creek, disrupt the tiny life within moss forests. I kill without thought constantly. 

And then I also nurture into life. Each flat contains 50 soil blocks, into each one I reverently press 5 passionflower seeds, one for each cardinal direction and spirit. There are 102 flats, and with an average of 75 seedlings growing per tray, that amounts to 7,650 new lives I interact with daily watering, planting, and weeding. Then there are thousands more plants we tend to daily, so many I cannot remember their names but I do remember what they looked like yesterday and make adjustments in my mind of how to serve them better. These plants are  watched not only by us but also by many critters from mycorrhizal- to rabbit-sized, and there is abundance enough for all of us. What lettuce does not make it to our dinner plates this year  becomes compost to support next year's crop. This unholy alliance that humans have made with flowering herbaceous plants to encourage their unlikely dominance over the landscape can be looked at from many perspectives. I remember my surprise to hear one of my teachers, an unnervingly calm and ageless woman named Dina Falconi, plainly state that her herb garden was the place of the most biodiversity in the area, which would otherwise be more of 10 to 15 varieties of trees and shrubs.  

Seedlings begin to sprout

This week two new lambs were born. The other ewes had dropped over a month ago and their  children are now round rumped and eating grass and milk. I used to hold them in my lap and  weave my fingers into their soft curls, but now they agilely avoid me—all except for the one young ram, Romulus, who walks up to me daily to have his forehead scratched. Now there are two new bleating figures in the field—mewing mouths on stilts struggling to get to their mother, who chews on grass, labor forgotten. In a scene reminiscent of a TV emergency room drama, we get the family into the barn into a pen so the babies can suckle.

They both struggle. The mom has a small udder, and even after directly placing the teat into their  mouths, I can’t see any swallowing happening. She also seems to have chosen to reject one—the male who started stronger and more active, but is now resting dumbly, too weak to stand. When he tries to suckle she moves away, and unless we restrain her, propels his flailing body into the wall with her horns. How long ago where they born? Did they get enough colostrum, the first milk that sets up their immune system? Does she even have enough milk for both? Should we abide by her unknowable judgment and let him die? 

My co-worker, Laurice, agrees to take him home and bottle feed him. She mixes powder from a bag with water and heats it and we pry his mouth open for the bottle. It seems so unlikely that  he will prosper, the kindness of this form of hospice is perhaps more for us than him. 

I get a text message that Romulus is sick. I go up to the barn when we get home and he is standing hunch-backed breathing heavily. His mother stares me down as I plant a kiss on his forehead that he neither moves towards or away from. 

The next day, we enter upon his cold body nestled into the hay. Sarah, my boss, says he looks like a Botacceli painting—the sun lighting up all the grays within the tight waves of his brown coat. She has placed a dish towel under his head. Who is to say if it is a sadder death than the abattoir? We milk his mother, grabbing ahold of her horns as she tries to buck off this new intrusion, and then bring her back down into the field where she spends days facing the barn calling to her dead child. The milk is given to the rejected newborn, who now faces competing names from those of us who believe in his future again. With real milk he begins to skitter around the kitchen floor, cloven hoofs sliding as he hops against the smooth surface of the wood. 

What I mean to say is that there are hundreds of ways to have relationships with animals, whether they are of our own species or another. There are as many ways as well to have relationships with plants—as spiritual teachers, nutrient providers, invaders, curiosities, oxygenators—if we create the space and language to think of them enough. How many ways are there to approach your relationship with your own body?  

Coltsfoot flower emerges from the ground

Herbalism is now the basis of that language for me: it slows down time and requires thought, it asks me to think about what is happening in my body. Before I have pushed my way into sickness and then pridefully toughed it until I couldn’t. In our culture this is always the way we  are encouraged to treat plants and animals, to use until they give out, and then treat with concentrated pesticides, antibiotics, steroids, fertilizers, disrupting another part of the system. This way of relating to my body is a hard habit to break, it requires simultaneous attention and respect instead of outsourcing responsibility. Sometimes there doesn’t feel like the time, sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is the possibility, sometimes it feels impossibly embarrassing to talk about.  

But I do talk about it. I talk about it with the plants as I gather them and remember to press my  finger against the wound of the stems I snap. I talk about it with my people who were taught that a loving relationship with our bodies is unattainable, and for whom slowing down to notice subtle medicine feels strange. I talk about it with myself and trust when my body begins to feel achy to not push it, to nurture it with food, to have plants dried and tinctured, to thank them as I bring them into me. To care for the parts of me that are animal, that are bacterial, that are plant. To open up space and time. 


Cyd Nova is a writer, ecological fanboy, and trans care worker. You can find him on Instagram at @myplantmatchmaker.


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