cedar leavesI seem to have unleashed a thirst for learning the names of all the trees who live with us on this land to which Margy and I belong. Today, I am exploring the cedar tree in our southeastern boundary area. I had always wondered about the difference between cedars and arborvitaes, and now I know that they are the same, really, here where we live.  There are a lot of names for this species which is native to southeastern Canada and northeastern United States–Eastern White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, White Cedar, False Cedar (because it is not related to European cedars).  Its Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.  

Cedar trunkIt was first called Arborvitae by French explorers when Indigenous people gave them tea  made of its leaves as a treatment for scurvy.  Arborvitae means “tree of life.”  Now, arborvitae is the name used by horticulturists, and there are many cultivars of the tree that are sold for landscaping.  The Anishinaabe people called the tree Nookomis Giizhik or Grandmother Cedar, because of its importance as a sacred and medicinal tree, associated with one of the four directions.

This has been a special tree to me personally in most of the places I have lived–Michigan, Chicago, northern New York state, Massachusetts, and Maine, and I appreciate that my matrilineal ancestors also knew this tree in Quebec/Nitassinan.  The Innu word for this tree is Massishk.  The tea from its leaves contains an abundance of Vitamin C, and can be used as a medicine.  (Note–being cautious, it is recommended that pregnant women should not use cedar tea because the compound thujone within it.)

From Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen):

The tea of simmered branches is used to treat fevers and rheumatic complaints, chest colds, and flu. This brew is delicious warm or cold and is simple to make. Just simmer 2 cups of fresh cedar in 4 cups of boiling water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes a golden color. Strain off the cedar and sweeten with maple syrup, to taste.



Red Pine

Red Pine[Edited: I learned 2/12/18 that this is actually a pitch pine. See my new blog post.] There is a red pine in the middle of our back yard… the only big tree (40 plus feet) that is not at the edge of the yard. But I have been struggling to create an affectionate relationship with this tree. I have had other very special trees in my life, and I loved the many trees that surrounded our home in North Yarmouth.  So why is this one hard?

I have been reading a lovely book, The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds, which is focused on creating a relationship with our land. She talks about trees as the guardians of the land.  So if we want to go deeper with the land, we need to go deeper with the trees.  That got me thinking again about the challenge of the red pine.

Perhaps it started when we first moved here, and were concerned about trees possibly shading the solar panels.  Or perhaps it is tied to my grief about the maple tree that was by the side of our house which we did have to take down because of dangerous branches and solar shading.  I loved that tree, and felt the contradiction so acutely: even though the maple tree was willing, and its wood became the ground layer mulch for our future orchard.  We decided that the solar panels would be okay with the pine tree’s slight shading, but it did get us off to a wary start.

So here it is.  It was identified as a red pine by an arborist who came by.  Right now, I have an intention to go deeper with this tree.  I want to understand all the dimensions of this relationship.  Some things that feel difficult to me:  The branches are all too high to reach, so it feels rather aloof.  When the pinecones drop, and there are lots of them, the ground underneath becomes difficult to walk on.  All around the tree there are old pinecones half buried in the grass from many years past.  If I could pick one word to describe my feeling of the tree, it would be “prickly.”

What helps? Last spring, we held an introduction to permaculture design course at our house, and many of the participants commented on the loveliness of the pine tree. There is a beautiful asymmetry in its branches. Their appreciation of the tree helped me to see its beauty.  The red pine is native to North America.  They can live up to 350-500 years.  Some sources said pine trees are symbols of longevity and wisdom.

Red Pine BarkOne website mentioned that its roots “are moderately deep and wide spreading. The lateral root masses also send down “sinkers” which anchor the tree very well in the soil. Red pines are very wind firm because of this dense root system.”

Okay, deep roots and anchors in the soil. I like that. I am investigating medicinal uses: one might be pine needle tea, which is good for immune function, bronchitis, and many other ailments.  More to research here.  This morning, I took pictures of the pine, and stood next to it, leaning against the bark.  What do you have to teach me, dear red pine?


Finding Inner Wisdom

Woodstove Fire

Wood stove Fire-Photo by Margy Dowzer

During our ritual celebration yesterday evening for Imbolc/Groundhog Day, we scryed with the magic of the fire in our wood stove.  Scrying is a form of seeking wisdom, by gazing into some sort of medium–such as a crystal ball, tea leaves, a bowl of water, a candle flame.  It gets a bad rap on Wikipedia as “unscientific.”  But as one person mentioned last night, while meditation may sometimes be difficult, there is something about quietly staring into a fire with each other that brings one to a state of stillness within.

When we find that stillness, we have access to our own deeper wisdom, and the wisdom of the deeper mystery. Some people see images in the fire. Others notice whatever thoughts or feelings emerge in the stillness of gazing.

Here is what I noticed on the way to the wisdom in me:  First of all, a sense of deep weariness.  Then, a desire to stop doing so much out there in the world, to pay attention to what is happening within.  Then, a feeling of how difficult it is to say no to invitations to activism on issues that are important.  There is so much hard stuff in our world right now, and so many good people are responding.  How do I know when I should be taking action, and when I should be in stillness?

Then, a fear that if I choose to say no, I will disappoint people, lose their love and acceptance. Then, a realization that that motivation, that fear, is not a source of wisdom, but rather a wound that needs healing.  I sat with the fear for a while, gazing still into the fire, opening my heart to the healing energies of the mystery.  We were celebrating Brigid after all, who is a Celtic goddess of healing. We had brought into the circle a small bottle of water from one of Brigid’s wells in Ireland, and I anointed my forehead and heart and hands with some of that water.

Deeper still, I realized that I am in the midst of a profound change.  I am shifting from one identity, one chapter of my life–as the minister of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, to another identity, another chapter–as yet unknown.  What I most desire is something like a cocoon in which to make that transformation, just as the caterpillar encloses itself for its transition to the butterfly.

This “enclosing myself” is not the same as doing nothing at all.  There are activities that directly relate to this transition–processes of ending, closing down, completing the work. I notice how hard it is to turn my attention away from the usual activities of my current/former self, to pay attention to the transition.  And in understanding this, I realize that I have to be courageous enough to say no to some good and important activities and activism. I have to say no, so that I can be courageous enough to say yes to the transformation.

Groundhog Day


We’ve made it half-way to the Spring Equinox–Groundhog Day, Candlemas, Imbolc according to the Celts… Whatever we call it, I have always liked this festival. Even the birds seem to know that something is up.  On my walks the last couple days, they have been singing so that I notice it.  The height of the sun? The change in the light?  Even though it’s been cold, and today snow was covering everything, they sing.

Today, in my neighborhood, the groundhog would not have seen his shadow–so that means that spring will come early.  But in fact, groundhogs are still in hibernation here, and since technically, it will still be six weeks until spring no matter what, I don’t actually count on the groundhog to confirm the weather.  But this day still awakens the hope that winter won’t last forever.

I was happy to learn that the Groundhog Day tradition comes from Americans with German ancestry–since that is part of my own heritage.  Back in German-speaking lands, it was instead a badger, and originally a bear, whose emergence would predict the weather on Candlemas Day.  Candlemas was a Catholic feast, but was retained even after Protestant Reforms, likely because it was an even earlier pagan feast that had been Christianized. There are sayings in English, French, and Latin as well that correspond to the myth: “If Candlemas is fair and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” This attests to its antiquity as a European tradition.

Imbolc is the feast of Brigid, the goddess of smithcraft, poetry, and healing.  When Margy and I visited Ireland, we visited more than one Brigid’s well where the waters are known for their healing properties.  But I also think of this festival as a celebration of fire–fire is the key component of welding and smithcraft, and it is also a symbol of creativity–the inner fire that inspires poetry and art and music.  It is the fire which inspires social change, transformation, and healing.

Years ago, this came together for me in the poem by Cherrie Moraga, “The Welder,” in the book, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.  It concludes with these lines:

I am now
coming up for air.
Yes, I am
picking up the torch.

I am the welder.
I understand the capacity of heat
to change the shape of things.
I am suited to work
within the realm of sparks
out of control.

I am the welder.
I am taking the power
into my own hands.

Thank you Cherrie Moraga!  And thank you to the singing birds!  Thank you dear neighborhood groundhog for not eating my kale last summer!  And to all of you reading this, may your day be filled with creativity and healing.

Wounds Remembered

View from our tent MD

[View from our tent Friday morning, photo by Margy Dowzer]

Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island was a powerful, moving, four-day gathering, with teachings and ceremonies led by Indigenous elders from near and far.  It included the stories of so many people, many of which are not mine to tell. But I want to share some of my own story at the gathering.

Wabanaki means people of the dawn, and there were ceremonies at sunrise each day led by Bobby Billie, a spiritual leader from the Seminole in Florida. I am also a person called to the dawn, so I was present each day for that time.

The first day, several of us had gathered near the arbor in the mist around 5 a.m., but no one had yet arrived to lead the lighting of the fire.  So I prayed my own dawn prayers, and felt this message from the sun–“You are all bathed in love.”  Later that morning, Anishinaabe women from the Midewiwin Lodge sang a song about the love the Sun has for all of us.  I was so moved by the melody, the voices, the drumming on the Little Boy drum.  It went straight to my soul.  They said it was about the first woman to walk the earth, expressing her joy at seeing everything in creation.

The first day was devoted to healing the wounds carried within the hearts and minds of the people from our long history of violence.  The wound that became clear to me was a Great Forgetting:  first there was a great disconnection of my ancestors from their connection with all of creation, and then there was a great forgetting so that the people would be unaware that they were wounded, disconnected, and thus never realize that they had once been connected.  At the end of the ritual, we each were invited to offer tobacco to the fire and make a solemn promise.  My promise was to remember, to remember the wound and to remember the connection.

Also coming into my thoughts was the herb that has appeared on our land–St. John’s Wort–which has traditionally been understood as useful for depression, and also as a wound healer.  I seemed to hear in my mind, this plant can help when you remember the wound of disconnection, when you open to the pain underneath the great forgetting.  I had harvested some of the plants earlier in July, and they were infusing in oil at home–the oil turns red from the plants.  When I got home, I also harvested more of the plants and hung them to dry in our garage, for making tea.

I know that there will be many more rememberings, lessons I carry from this time, but perhaps that is enough for now.  I do want to offer my thanks to Sherri Mitchell who has carried the dream of these ceremonies for many years, and who called us together and enabled it to come alive.


Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island

Margy and I are packing up this morning to drive north for a special ceremony.  It has been difficult to pull everything together.  This packing, the 2-3 hour drive, finding the strength it requires to travel–all of this is really a part of the ceremony.  We bring our complete selves, with our own wounds and brokenness, our own love for the earth.  We ask that our participation may be a blessing.  Send us your blessings too.  It is quite an amazing gathering and hundreds of people from around the world will be together from July 14-17. Here is the call and description from the event page posted by Sherri Mitchell:

Prophecy of the Eastern Gate

Our ancestors tell us that the Eastern Gate is where we will gather to begin the healing of this land. It is here in the East where first contact was made between the Native peoples and the newcomers. It is here that the first blood was spilled between our people, and our history of violence began. So, it is here on this same land that the healing must begin.

The Wabanaki, the people of the first light, are the keepers of the Eastern Door. We are the first peoples to greet Kihsus, the Sun, each morning, and Nipawset, the Moon, each evening. Now, we open our hearts and our homes to greet all of you, so that together we may begin to heal the wounds of Turtle Island and set a new path forward for all life.

This ceremony will be a coming together of people from all over the world, to acknowledge the common wound that we all carry from our shared history of violence. No matter where we come from, we all carry the wounds of historical trauma within us. Whether we were the victims, the perpetrators, or the witness to that violence, that wound is imprinted on our spirits. Now, the time has come for us to acknowledge that wound, together, so that we can heal it and begin working together to heal Mother Earth.

Structure of Ceremony
The first day will be for healing the wounds carried within the hearts and minds of the people. The second day will be for healing the wounds of Mother Earth. And, the third day will be for healing the energetic and spiritual imprint of that wound that lays over the Earth.

The ceremonies will be conducted by spiritual elders from Indigenous communities around the world, and by spiritual leaders from other traditions. We will be gathering on healing ground, along the Penawahpskek (Penobscot) River, at Nibezun in Passadumkeag, Maine.

People from every corner of the world, and from all walks of life are welcome. We ask that you come with a good heart, and good mind, and carry the intention of healing with you.

The Book

Now available!  The book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Communityis being published by my own imprint, Small Bird Press, and available through lulu.com via this link.title-page 

What others are saying:

“Myke Johnson’s beautiful stories from her own journey illuminate the way to reconnecting with ourselves, each other and the entire Earth community. The practices that punctuate the end of each chapter help embody and guide the path of reconnection. A book to savor, it is also a compelling reminder of the legacy of stolen land and genocide, and of the urgency to face the past as a necessary step toward healing and finding our way home.”  Anne Symens-Bucher, Executive Assistant to Joanna Macy and facilitator of the Work That Reconnects

“Myke Johnson’s writings are inspiring, transformative and grounded in the mystic contemplative way of life.  Reading her reflections and meditations gives you a deep sense of connection not only to Mother Earth but to her own personal journey. This is a companion book for all that are seeking a simple but conscious choice of living in peace and harmony on our planet with all of creation.”  Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, Episcopal priest and Curandera

From the back cover:

In this time of ecological crisis, all that is holy calls us into a more intimate partnership with the diverse and beautiful beings of this earth. In Finding Our Way Home, Myke Johnson reflects on her personal journey into such a partnership and offers a guide for others to begin this path. 

Learning from the Indigenous philosophy that everything is related, she found in her plant and animal neighbors generous teachers for a way back to connection: a chamomile flower, a small bird, a copper beech tree, a garden slug, a forest fern. Their lessons are interwoven with insights from environmental science, fractal geometry, childhood Catholic mysticism, the prophet Elijah, fairy tales, and permaculture design. Each chapter includes practices for further reflection and experience.

This eco-spiritual journey also wrestles with the long history of our society’s destruction of the natural world. Johnson investigates its roots in the original theft of the land from Indigenous peoples and in other violent oppressions between human beings. Exploring the spiritual dimensions of our brokenness, she offers tools to create healing. Here is a map into a new relationship with earth, with each other, and with the Spirit within and between all. Lyrically expressed, Finding Our Way Home is a ceremony to remember our essential unity with all of life. 

You can now order the book for $17.99 (plus shipping) via environmentally-friendly Print-on-Demand at this link:  Finding Our Way Home 

Version 2

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Myke Johnson is a Unitarian Universalist minister and earth activist, serving a congregation in Portland, Maine, while practicing and teaching ecological spirituality. She holds a Master of Divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School.

More recommendations:

“I work with Unitarian Universalist congregational, environmental leaders across the United States. I am keenly aware not only of my need, but what so many seem to experience as a lack, a daily rift between functioning well on Earth, and Living with All Earth in ways that sustain our core. The messages and ceremonies of Finding Our Way Home are as essential, I think, as sleeping. But like sleeping, we try to do without as much as our hearts, bodies and souls need to meet demands in these times. This book is welcome medicine for the beautiful, difficult work and love of our lives.”  Rev. Karen Brammer, UUA Green Sanctuary Program

“As a student of Naiyantaqt, I have, over the long journey of my life, come to appreciate the rhythm of the Great Mystery; the wondrous Consciousness, the empowered understanding and meaning of Manitou, that exists everywhere and in all living and immobile matter. Such connections are profound, relevant, and mark the passage to the future awaiting the enlightened. I am aligned to such kinships and Myke Johnson is a long-time kinship, a seeker of the Divine, a companion in the awe of the Great Mysterious. She boldly embraces the Divine and her quest to connect with the All-Encompassing Mystery. Her book is the re-telling, the sharing of her wondrous spirit, life, and the path to her awareness. Her book will empower true seekers on this Path of Life, a path she confirms by our friendship and mutual journey together.”  gkisedtanamoogk, Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commissioner and author of Anoqcou: Ceremony Is Life Itself

“During times of chaos, whether private or public, the human psyche/spirit seeks inner and outer grounding as its home base. Using her own life as a prism of refracted insights, Myke Johnson has created a tool-kit for the rest of us to use in our personal and/or political struggle to survive, and perhaps even thrive. As she shows as well as tells us how to concentrate and tap into our deepest energy and then send it out into the universe in order to affect change, she does exactly that with this book, her own special gift to the world.”  Gail Collins-Ranadive, author of Nature’s Calling, The Grace of Place

“In Finding Our Way Home, Myke Johnson names the many disconnections that modern people constantly experience as the core spiritual issue of our time.  And then through wisely chosen stories from her own experience, she shows us how we might reconnect the inner pieces of ourselves, our relationships in genuine community, and our relationships with the earth into a more integrated whole. She helps us remember our deep belonging with all that is. And that as we engage this process, we are finding our way home.”  Rev. Deborah Cayer, lead minister, Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Durham, North Carolina