A Language For Grief

Encounters with life and death as a deep ecology artist-in-residence at United Plant Savers
Language For Grief Rose Leonardi
Photos by Colleen Leonardi
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)

It’s a green day in early June with blue sky above and 379 acres of botanical sanctuary below. These Appalachian foothills at United Plant Savers (UpS) in Rutland, Ohio rise and drop with enough horizons to watch storm and sun coexist. The fortitude that brings me here is some brand of the divine comingling with animal desire, driving me to commune with a pulse stronger than my own — the land a body to be with. My intellect wants to understand the language of plants to speak something other than sorrow. My heart wants to find my father. He slipped out of his body when his heart failed one May morning three weeks ago, and now I wander through my life fatherless. In the spring of my first year on Earth my father would take me outside. On the forested hill that was our home, he would settle me in the Vermont clover and let me nibble on the weeds. Any instincts I have for the wild come from him.

UpS is a sanctuary for the wild. As a deep ecology artist-in-residence, I’ve come here to ask the land permission to work with me. Hard to believe that what is most essential and vital about the planet needs a sanctuary. Yet to walk the land here is to feel what makes nature more than a place. It possesses a beingness, and I have come here to be. Grief breaks you open to the terror of loss and the beauty of love. I have come to crawl on my hands and knees in the clover, swim naked in Heart Pond, whisper and cry to the moon at night, and listen to the plants speak their language. I want to become creature to feel past my grief and find friends who will not judge me for how deep my emotions run. Surely here in the forest where living and dying are perpetual, what is verdant will offer some poetry to uplift my loss.

Surely, the wild at UpS can cool this madness, I think, as I walk the meadow. I can name this plant, blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), I think, as a bumblebee circles the flowers, entering and exiting the violet canals up and down the stalk. I cannot name this one, daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), a small, plentiful, and hairy flower with light pink petals radiating from a sunny center. Here is multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), I marvel, as sunlight washes over the white body of one rose, the sight holding me still, long enough to then notice the redbud (Cercis canadensis), which blossomed magenta on my first visit, before my father’s death. Now its apple green leaves are spongy with life, the magenta gone.

I weep into the meadow. Will this land receive my tears? Will they help more flowers grow? I see the shape of a heart in each leaf of the redbud. Hiking deeper along the ridgeline to the wildflower hill, I look out over the meadow. Dusk settles around us. A big bush of wild olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) rises up along the path. I turn past it to head to Heart Pond, and a warning shoots through its leaves. As prehistoric as the bush is big, I slowly back away from the animal cry and take the same path down the ridge to the yurt. A wild sound I cannot identify, a small terror now lodged alongside my grief, yet curious, as perhaps there is a creature on the land with me that is more frightening than the pain I bear within. Perhaps on this milky, stormy night we will meet at midnight, and it will be the bigger shadow to my grief. Perhaps I will let it eat me. 

A mist envelops me. Up the bend in the hill that leads to the yurt, the black night thickens. I say a little prayer for light. .

Looking up at the ceiling of the yurt from my bed below is dizzying, a basket-like weave in the way the beams join together at the central axis of a skylight. The circular structure makes me feel like I’m inside a drum, but when the wind blows at night with all the windows open and rain falling, the drum is at sea.

It’s morning. Today, I’ll walk the Medicine Trail. The power has returned after a sudden outage last night, and so did a wolf spider (Lycosa), her eyes glinting above me as she hides in the elbow of a beam. I let her be for a while, flashing my high-beam headlamp her way.

“Sovereignty,” my dad would say in his all-knowing way. “Do you know what that means?” 

I would say, “No,” and roll my eyes.  

“Every being is sovereign. And my sovereignty depends on your sovereignty. You take away my sovereignty by trying to control me, and you’re taking away yours.” 

I would agree, a teenager not yet understanding what I was agreeing to.

Yet now, with both the wolf spider and my father above, I am beginning to understand. If I destroy her, then I breach the contract that makes us both us, and perhaps some nimble, spinning, fertile aspect in me, too. If I take her, then I trespass against not just her but the law of sovereignty, a natural law like gravity designed to preserve the wholeness of each and every being, element, and place on the planet. If I kill her, I create a tear in the fabric of this forest, a wound in what, for now, is my home. If I invite her to leave, I maintain the law of sovereignty. So I do, if nothing less than as an offering to my father that I am trying to understand. As big as my hand, she hops like a toad when nudged out of the yurt. 

Language For Grief Butterflyweed Leonardi

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

The Medicine Trail is a 5-mile wooded hike through protected, hardwood, Southeast Ohio forest, the lip of Appalachia. It’s home to goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), and over 500 native plants of the region. Before European settlers claimed the land, what the Western world now calls the Native American Hopewell culture lived here. From 100 BCE to 500 CE, these First Nations people created a home in union with the forest. Today, trees fallen stay, plants propagate on their clock, and insects and animals habituate and rest as instinct dictates. The forest is wild, the way a forest should be, and one of the few botanical sanctuaries of its kind in the U.S. 

Walking the narrow path, web after web breaks over my face, a sign the trail hasn’t seen anything the height of humans in a while. UpS narrates some of the plant life for you, so I stop at a small tree to read a laminated information sheet tucked in a wire basket. 

The name: black haw (Viburnum prunifolium). It is a twiggy, unassuming tree with finely toothed leaves. The base twists up into three branches that diverge towards the taller trees in the canopy. In herbal medicine, plants carry signatures, meaning the way the plant looks, how it is designed, is an indication of its medicine. Yarrow flower (Achillea millefolium), for instance, a multi-faceted floret with tiny buds woven close together, mimics the medicine it provides of knitting wounds back together. Named after the Homeric hero, Achilles, who healed soldiers with it, yarrow is purported to both cleanse and close wounds and stop hemorrhages. Native Americans used yarrow for spider bites. “Historians estimate that 46 different tribes used yarrow for as many as 28 disorders,” writes Porter Shimer in Healing Secrets of the Native Americans. A language to plant medicine, then, is how it is designed to reveal all it knows. 

Standing before the black haw, I wonder what of its signature speaks to me. I learn that the tree bark was used to prevent miscarriages in early folk and European medicine. “A cousin of cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), but possesses more depth,” writes herbalist Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal. Then the passage parts into how the bark was used by slave owners in America for female slaves who attempted abortions with cotton root bark (Gossypium herbaceum) while under ownership. Black haw is said to soothe uterine cramping. Slave masters had a vested interest in procreating, refusing to let mothers take their unborn slaves from them, often violating and raping them to produce more offspring.

An 1886 report in the British Medical Journal by John Henry Wilson states, “On some of the plantations in America, it is the popular belief a woman cannot abort if she be under the influence of black haw, although she may be taking medicine with a criminal intent.” 

Chills run through me the way ants run up and down the black haw. The history of slavery mixed with the medicine of this plant is overwhelming. A breeze kicks through the forest. The black haw’s leaves flutter. My imagination opens. I feel the indescribable wailing of women, strong and vital, giving birth to babies they know will become slaves, women tortured by their wombs as workstation. I hear the cold hack of axe meeting bark as slave owners take medicine from a tree. Medicine doled out and given not as an option but as a prescription.

My own memories of suffering through an abortion bleed through me still. My father was the only one I told about it, a refusal on my part to invite women family members into the crisis so as not to face the motherly state I was forsaking. Now instead of carrying a child I carry grief. “Black haw is an opening medicine,” writes herbalist Erika Galentin, “indicated for those who tend to face the world with clenched fists.” The signature of its slim, leafy stature offers lightness to open the blood vessels, releasing its patient from resistance. 

And it is true. I am a fist of grief, shaking the universe down from its mountaintop for taking my father from me too soon. Our love wasn’t perfect. His Sicilian melancholy, dramatic lectures, and addiction to motorcycles and the lifestyle they engendered drove me crazy some days. Still, 64 and gone, and now I stand a woman alone.

My black haw medicine, however, is not for my body, not now. Can a tree be a victim, too, I think, like I was? Can extraction be forgiven? Can signature be spiritual?

Black haw tells me to story her, to story us.

I walk the wildflower hill again, the one where the prehistoric sound lives. It is dusk. Tiny pom-poms of red clover (Trifolium pratense) bounce in the remains of a breeze. Vetch (Vicia spp.) leans, full of bumblebees. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) ablaze in the dying light attracts butterflies and moths. The space in my broken heart makes me buoyant, enchanted by the Medicine Trail, the black haw. And then I see her, a fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) curled into a circle of stones, camouflaged against the mossy rocks and so still my animal instinct senses death. Yet her ears are pricked and the longer I look at her the more she moves, her belly breath a scant billow among the tall grass. Witnessing what is wild turns one invisible, as if your body must become tree to gain passage to the realm where sleeping fawns lie. Yet a friend once told me deer know when they are being watched. Stand and stare at one, and you will see. Still, I want to know the fawn’s mother is near, so I stare and stare and the fawn stares back at me with never a blink. Then I hear the doe, not the gentle crush of hoof meeting mud, but that prehistoric, wild olive cry, a warning to stay away from her child. And so I leave. 

Birdsong marks the morning. Another wolf spider has come into the yurt. This one is smaller and faster, I suspect a child of the mother spider I encountered yesterday. I spend my morning chasing it back into the woods, all my time with the forest floor beginning to wear on my psyche. I crave light, open spaces, sunshine, so I take myself to Heart Pond. Despite my walking stick, my body still trembles like a tear dropping, upright only by virtue of its fall from the great eye of some bird or ancestor weeping above me. Perhaps I am my father’s tears. 

Heart Pond bears traces of some form of algae on the surface, so I forego swimming and sit on the wooden raft tied to the shoreline. Before leaving, I massaged rose and jojoba oil over my heart, a ritual for what is broken to slowly bring back some original sweetness. Its fragrance fills the air around me. Fish pop in the pond. A single dragonfly darts out past the marshy edge close to me, then back into the trees. He continues like this, back and forth, as if he is trying to tell me some secret, and I refuse to listen. Then a butterfly dances into view and lands on my hand. When I walked up to Heart Pond several were flitting around the milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Surely this little friend is just passing through, I think, but it continues to stay with me. 

What begins as a few tickles becomes hundreds of kisses. The butterfly taps, licks, and senses my right hand with its antenna over and over again in minuscule steps so that its butterfly breath somehow blesses every skin cell. Its touch is gentle, vital, and the more it kisses me the more the kisses become electric. A single caress soon elicits a rain of vibration up my right hand, past my shoulder, and straight to my heart. Palm, fingers, wrist, knuckle, this butterfly has fallen in love with my hand, or perhaps the rose oil, but no matter because a smile the size of Heart Pond moves into me, and then tears fall, into my hands, my walking stick, the splintery wood on which I sit. The butterfly does not leave me. It stays. No doe to keep me away, the pond quiet with no wind to move its current, we stay for nearly an hour in an embrace I can only name as kinship.

I cry and call his name, Poppy. Poppy, I miss you. And then my childish heart, the one who knows the taste of Vermont clover, who feels her father as the fawn feels the doe, knows without a doubt the butterfly is Poppy. The creature is a spiritual signature for the story my father knows I have yet to write, the sovereignty I have yet to embody, the languages I have yet to learn, the mother I have yet to become.

There are plants we cannot name, only learn to love. 

“Sovereignty,” he would say. “I cannot teach it to you, my dear daughter. You must go out and claim it for yourself.”

Glossary of Grief Medicine

(in order of appearance) 

Blue False Indigo: the violet one that reminds me of my father’s favorite color, purple 

Bumblebee: the yellow and black one who lives in the flowers and puts the honey in my heart

Daisy Fleabane: the littlest ones who show me how to be joyful

Wild Rose: the white-bodied ones, offering sweetness for my song

Language For Grief Redbud Leonardi

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Redbud: the first-flashes-of-color-in-spring tree, who marks the forest with tiny flames the color of fuchsia to bring back the blood in our veins  

Wild Olive: where the doe hides, where raindrops bead on leaves, where I get lost 

Wolf Spider: the nimble, glinting, fertile one who both terrifies me and teaches me how to spin and hide 

Black Haw: the medicine tree, who lives in myth by both water and land, and tells me to story her

Red Clover: the fullest blossoms in spring who feed the bees and tickle my toes when I walk the meadow 

Vetch: the common ones the shade of the inside of a shell who fill the meadow with bee and butterfly food 

Butterfly Weed: the bright-eyed ones who warm to an orange midday and turn what is vital in them into food for the bees and butterflies

Fawn: the baby who leaps quicker than the wind when found yet knows how to play dead

Doe: the mother who knows how to nest and hunt, who eats the forest to feed the fawn 

Milkweed: the ones who turn from green to pink orbs in one season and then stiffen into seed pods the size of little boats for the fluff that becomes more milkweed

Butterfly: the flying one, the one who teaches me how to fly

References

Thank you to Evan Schlarb, Michelle Ajamian, and Brandon Jaeger for guiding and protecting me during my stay at UpS. 

Colleen Leonardi is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. This article originally appeared in Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, Spring 2020. www.unitedplantsavers.org