I lived and worked on a 35-acre organic vegetable farm in northeast Pennsylvania for a couple years in my mid-twenties. One sunny early March morning I pulled on my muck boots and went out to the root cellar to prepare vegetables for our winter farmer's market table. I pulled out a green plastic crate labeled “carrots”.
Months earlier, back in frosty November, we had harvested hundreds of pounds of root vegetables and carefully packed them away in sawdust inside this concrete cavern built into a hillside. I opened the crate, scraped back layers of newspaper and sawdust and pulled out a handful of carrots. The carrots, tucked away without sunlight or dirt four feet underground, had sprouted wispy, light green tops, about an inch long. They were growing again.
Holding these growing carrots in my hand was one of those rare moments in life, the ones I can count on one hand, of a total epiphany. How did the carrots know, tucked away in a plastic box in a concrete cave that it was time to grow again? That spring was coming? Who told them? How could they make leaves without sunlight? In that moment—perhaps it was the quiet of that hillside, of having been steeped in farming for many months—not just my mind but my entire being was flooded with wave of understanding of what it meant to be alive.
I understood that this vegetable had its own life-force. That this small object twice the size of my fingers had its own intelligence and its own destiny. That it was a part of something larger than itself, and somehow could sense the rhythms and changes of the earth from inside its own body. That it had work to do and a life to live. And if I ate these carrots did that not mean that I too was a part of this?
I stood there in the door to the root cellar feeling blown over. The sun shined shyly on my face, my feet sank into icy mud. For whatever reason life chose this morning to burst into new meaning. It wasn’t the first time that I had witnessed a root vegetable growing new shoots. I had been farming for a while by then. Throughout my life I had likely had many a bag of grocery store carrots, garlic and onions sprout tops in the recesses of my refrigerator. Yet these growing carrots, this quiet display of life force in my hand mattered deeply. These carrots were a talisman magically instructing my body to send a deep tap root down into the earth and to send my own feathery shoots into the sky, taking up my place in the order of things.
I slowly took a bite of a carrot. I took this mysterious and wise living being into my own body. I ate that carrot in a way that never had I put food into my body; with attention and respect and wonderment. I merged with it, timidly and with a bit of fear, asking that its power and wisdom continue to live through me.
I grew up in the 1990’s, the era of fluorescent-colored, packaged food that also doubled as entertainment. Yogurt changed colors when you mixed in the sprinkles. Fruit Roll Ups could be wrapped around your thumb and sucked on for hours. Instant oatmeal came with tiny pastel eggs that hatched into dinosaurs when you added hot water. Oreo cookies were a breakfast cereal. Ketchup was purple.
My mother cooked a good dinner every night and I had a relatively balanced diet, but we also had many of these foods in our cupboards that my sister and I ate as snacks. My friends did too. This was a normal part of our childhood.
As a teenager I was smart, strong and “healthy” according to my pediatrician. I was also overweight, struggled with depression and hormone imbalances and would get large oozing cysts under my armpits. I was prone to yeast infections. I could get into a dark stormy mood that would last for weeks. I was desperately unhappy with my body and the way I looked and felt. I understood from an early age what “dieting” was, that eating less meant that I could lose weight. I had a terribly hard time doing this, though it was a constant preoccupation. I thought I could eat as many Snackwell’s Devils Food fat free cookies as I wanted because they were a diet food. No one talked to me about the quality and types of food I was eating, about the chemicals, food dyes and preservatives that were in my diet. That the disjointed, manic, irritated feelings I had could be related to what I was putting in my body and was not just bad case of teenage hormones.
I went to college in New York City. My freshman year I had a meal plan in the dining hall and I ate three meals a day there. I was an athlete, rowing on the crew team and practicing twice a day. I was burning a lot of calories. After practice the crew team went the dining hall together, piling two or three plates with Belgium waffles, French fries, cheesy salads, tacos. We would scarf down our food amidst loud conversations about which of the guy rowers we thought were cute, or our classes, or all the things one talks about at 18. Then there were the midnight trips to the snack bar for chicken fingers, bags of chips, cookies. Despite hours of exercise a day, I was still marginally overweight. My body was strong (and, looking back, beautiful!) but I was still struggling with my body image. I felt out of control, like there was something that needed to be fixed and balanced but I didn’t know where to start.
In the spring of my freshman year I began to feel irritated by the constant presence of the other members of my crew team and our hours spent together on the water and in the dining hall. An urge was rising in me that I couldn’t understood but I had to follow. I needed to be alone. After practice, rather than continuing to the dining hall with my team, I started heading out into the city by myself to walk and think.
One evening in early May I found myself far away from campus strolling down Ludlow street on the Lower East Side. I wandered past a softly lit storefront with a row of wooden stools facing the window that beckoned to me. It was a health food store. I walked in and my nostrils were struck by a blast of foreign smells: spices, oils, old things, rice, herbs, mud, chocolate all blended together. Rows of hand-built wooden shelving held jars, bottles and boxes of things I had never seen before. A few people were scattered about talking in low voices at tables. In the center of the room next to the checkout counter a glass case displayed a dozen or so bowls of mysterious prepared foods. “100% Organic!” read a sign. Kale salad. Piles of roasted vegetables in every color. Seaweed salad. Brussel sprouts. Sprouted lentils. Tempeh.
Several hours had passed since I had been wandering and I was hungry. I ordered a plate of rainbow-colored vegetables and sat down at a stool in the window. I ate slowly and quietly, feeling out of place. I felt far away from the bustling dining hall, the loud pack of muscled women that were my constant companions. I finished my food and quietly set my fork down on my plate and sat there for several minutes not moving. Something was shifting in me. I remember that moment so clearly—the calm that came over me. Feeling that for the first time in my whole life a space was opening, that some debris was clearing that had been in the way for a long time. I had barely taken the edge of my hunger with this plate of food, but I didn’t want to order anything else. I just wanted to hold onto the feeling of peace and spaciousness that had come over me for as long as I could.
That night I took the very first footsteps down my path toward healing myself. Sitting in the window with a plate of vegetables, I lifted a white flag and drafted the beginnings a peace treaty between the parts of myself that had been warring for many years. I saw a way through. I saw that I could heal my relationship with food. I saw this body and I could work together. That I could tend to this body. That I could feel better than I did. I saw how I could be friends with myself.
A couple years later, in the summer between my junior and senior year, I left New York City for the summer to work on an organic vegetable farm in southwest Vermont. For three months I spent my days weeding, planting, pitching hay, mucking out chicken coops, harvesting vegetables, cooking giant pots of soaked beans with seaweed to feed our large crew. I woke up at 5:30 many mornings to feed the chickens. I found an old glass-paned greenhouse in a maple forest back of the property that had been built in the 1930’s. The greenhouse, abandoned for perhaps 40 years, was full of old tiles and paint cans and had a wasp’s nest dangling from the ceiling. I cleaned out the greenhouse, laid down a pea stone floor and decided to let the wasps be. I laid a sheepskin on the stone with a sleeping bag over it and slept on the earth every night. I bathed in a wild river, ate raspberries off the vine until my teeth hurt and stayed up late singing under the stars.
As the months passed, I felt more and more alive. Vital. Grounded. Lean without effort. Changed. A post-college life in the city of internships, career fairs and networking lost its appeal every time I ate a peach off a tree, drank water straight from a mossy spring and heard my own belly laugh at an absurdly shaped eggplant. By the time the nights cooled and the leaves on the trees began to hint at red, I had fully abandoned any other path in favor of chasing a wild, rooted, vital life.
My path of healing and of living over the past dozen years has not been about finding one specific modality, or doing one thing every day, or perfecting the right combination of herbs or foods, or finding the right medicine for a specific diagnosis. It has been about engaging with the life force of nature to reinvigorate and amplify my own life force. Year after year I move closer to nature. As a result, my own true nature emerges, on drop at a time, and I walk more comfortably and powerfully in my own skin.
I have sat at a desk in a 15th floor office in the financial district of Boston dressed in wedged sandals and a suit jacket for a stint and had other various jobs that were indoors and computer-oriented. But I am always pulled back to a lifestyle where I get to be outside with the plants, the sky, the water, hands dirty, heart full. Gathering armfuls of fresh-dug carrots from my garden, their feathery tops brushing my heart, their stringy tap roots tickling my belly, is the most sacred and relevant act I can perform as a human being.
A dozen years after my first foray into a health food store, I have transformed into a human being whose reason for existence is to engage with wild forces of nature that I know heal on every level in every moment. I have specific rituals and practices that I have maintained over the years that have been helpful. But the most important work I have done is to learn to make choices every day that feed my vital force, no matter where I am.
I choose to pull over onto the side of the road half way through a road trip to jump into river. I nibble on wild weeds, I pause to look up at the stars, I whisper my sorrows to a tree. Every year I grow more and more of my own food and choose not to eat pesticide-laden food grown in foreign countries. If I am in city, I choose to kneel and greet the lone dandelion growing up from the crack in the sidewalk. If I fly, I get my shoes off as quickly as I can to hook myself back up to the Earth. I stretch, I take deep breaths, I talk to my body, I talk to my heart, I talk to all of the living beings and forces around me all day long. I still struggle and get caught up and feel disconnected and have bouts of anxiety, sometimes for days and weeks or months. Yet the aspect of me that grows stronger by the day knows there is always a way through.
My primary act of healing has been giving permission to create my own reality on a moment to moment basis. A reality where I walk in relationship with all living things around me, and they help me, and I am guided, and nothing is a coincidence. Where light, health and freedom are always available to me whenever I am ready to let go and let truth in.
Here are truths I am certain of: life force is present in all living beings. All living beings are connected. All living beings can heal each other.