It's that beautifully hard time in Texas where I want to be outside in this gorgeous weather so bad, but if I do, I suffer all night long (& beyond) from Cedar Fever. It's torture really. I hate these trees and wish they would all just go away. So what do I do to combat this (besides the dozen remedies I take daily)? I wonder and learn.
They are not cedar trees, they're actually Ashe Juniper. And every year at this time, I wonder about their history and their benefits, because they surely have none. They're native, but were not nearly as widespread as they are now until cattle grazed all the grasses that competed with Juniper for space, and until fire was suppressed so much (fire killed the juniper, but not the grasses) that they began to spread into all of the now eroded and rocky areas where they thrive best. 100 years later, and they cover the hill country like a blanket; a blanket covered in yellow pollen December through February.
So now I know a little history. Does this horrible plant have ANY benefits to the ecosystem? Well, it's an evergreen, which is comforting in the winter, and it's drought tolerant, which is helpful. As a tree, it provides shade, which provides more moisture for other small plants underneath it that are trying to grow. Both male and female trees form the helpful blue berry-like cones that feed wildlife and give some excitement to homemade remedies. I made juniper gin as gifts one Christmas, and there are a ton of other recipes you can find online, like these. Native groups use the berries in their medicine, and its leaves are burned in their rituals as a blessing, just like sage is used to clear a space. Many people use the trees bark for fires, and rot-resistant wood for tools and construction. Today we see many fenceposts and furniture made from cedar. The scent is also said to repel some insects, though other insects lay their eggs in the tree and feed off its nectar. There is an endangered bird called the Golden Cheeked Warbler that uses the "furry" bark to make its nests, and this area is its only known breeding area.
If you suffer from allergies like I do this time of year, learning these things helps me appreciate this (horrible) tree a little more, and helps relax my fear and anxiety around what its pollen triggers in my body. In nature and in life, when you find yourself afraid of a plant or animal, or just having a strong dislike for it, use a little wonder to learn about it. I guarantee that your wonder and curiosity will lead to more knowledge, which will soften your fear and loathing of it.
Some other examples I've studied recently with my students at school are paper wasps (who ruin our outdoor picnics), and mistletoe, which covers the trees on our playground. Mistletoe is another fascinating plant that has people both loving it and hating it. If you want to learn more about this semi-parasitic plant, check out this article or listen to the Stories Podcast for some fun Norse mythology of this plant.
It seems like every holiday and change of seasons is celebrated with even more enthusiasm in 2020. The passage of time is celebrated, not mourned or forgotten this year, as we all look forward to a new world. This year's Winter Solstice is no exception.
Even people who've never celebrated the Winter Solstice are embracing it's message of welcoming the light, and saying goodbye to the darkness of this awful year. There is further excitement as the rare "great conjunction" of Jupiter and Saturn wows sky watchers all around the world. This is being seen by many as the "Christmas Star," returned after 800 years to remind us of the hope and light that is possible in the world.
My favorite Winter Solstice story revolves around the Deer Mother, who carries the light of the sun through the dark winter night in her antlers, bringing peace and hope. Before the story of Christmas existed, the Sami people followed the reindeer herds throughout northern Scandinavia and Russia. It was the female shamans who traveled by sleds pulled by reindeer throughout the area, and believe it or not, many wore red clothing with white fur trim. Sound familiar?
To my children, I talk about how reindeer have antlers, just like others in the deer family. But with reindeer, many of the females retain their antlers throughout winter to help protect themselves and obtain food, as they are usually pregnant during the winter. So we joke that Rudolph was really a girl!
This story makes me wonder what life was like thousands of years ago. It makes me wonder how the human race could go from honoring the feminine to building the patriarchy. How we could go from living as close knit communities to spreading out all over the globe to fend for ourselves. It connects me to my ancestors, and inspires me to keep moving forward. It rekindles hope and faith for a return to a more equitable, just and peaceful society for all living things.
Our school moved some of the classrooms to 100% outside learning due to rising COVID numbers this week, and yesterday was the first rainy day. As I watched the teachers stress levels get dangerously high, I contemplated my first year teaching outside. It was HARD. I lost my voice several times that first year because I found myself yelling over all the outdoor noises like traffic and lawnmowers. I craved the calm, slower energy of the indoor classroom. I struggled to set up and clean up materials outside. And the plethora of distractions was exhausting. So why was I doing it?
I moved to teaching outside because I enjoy less structure and more impromptu discoveries. Teaching inside I had every minute of the day planned. Outside, I planned a couple things, but really, I got to follow the children and follow the natural flows of nature. I felt healthier outside, mentally and physically. The book, "Last Child in the Woods" was just 10 years old at the time, and already a cornerstone of my foundation as a parent and educator. I knew that being outside was better for all of us.
As a parent, I watched my son grow up outside, curious, focused on things I didn't even notice. It was the image of him that I held in my mind yesterday. At five years old, with his rain boots and umbrella, splashing around in the mud and puddles with the biggest smile on his face. His giggles filled me with joy and ease. His pure energy, connected with himself and the earth, spread to me and to everything around him. This is what life is all about. He taught me to let my guard down and just play and be in the moment. Not think about getting the house wet & muddy, or about the extra laundry, or the need for a bath. It is this moment that I wish I could have conveyed to the teachers yesterday. The connection, the joy, the realization that there are more important things in life then what we had planned for the day.
I've learned to embrace and accept rainy days when teaching. Most of the kids LOVE it. It's just the adults around them that worry and fear the inconveniences of wet, muddy kids. Rainy days mean we all get to put aside our plans and just play for a little while. And boy, does it cause our cups to overflow if we let it happen.