by Ei Ei Khin
“These are called Chinese Houses,” he said as he gingerly held the gorgeous stack of purple and white flowers. It’s amazing how, 17 years later, I don’t remember his name but I remember the flower’s.
He was my sister’s Biology teacher at a local community college. He organized a voluntary field trip for his students every year. This is how I went on my first hike in the United States with our guide, whose thick glasses and stooped posture betrayed his book addiction.
I was 16 years old at the time and wore a lot of make up. My command of the English language was virtually flawless by then. (“You speak so well! I wouldn’t know you were from another country!,” people would say, immediately after, “Where are you from?,” and just before, “How long have you been here?”.) I had a cute skater boyfriend, I was a scholar athlete, and I had income from working at my parents’ ice cream franchise. Plus I had a brand new driver license and a new-to-me sporty little Toyota Celica my dad helped me buy. In short, I had it all.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, my naive belief, that hike opened my Johari’s Window; I glimpsed at what I didn’t know I didn’t know. Through that window I saw the rainbow that is Henry Coe State Park in springtime. (As a friend would say, the clusters of color would give a chameleon seizures.) Even more impressively, those 89,000+ acres helped me find something I had lost in my immigration, assimilation, and general teenage know-it-allness; I found my inner wildness.
I AM WILD.
I am wild like Thoreau’s words and in that wildness is the preservation of my spirit. That spring day I let go of my teenage coolness for seemingly endless stretches of time. I embodied, again, the light and confident child I was before my family “hopped the big pond” from Burma to the US. I learned that I can be bone-tired physically and yet, the wellspring of spirit can overflow. I learned that nature gives.
For 8 hours I hiked up and down those hot dusty hills, even risked falling off the mountain side because some wild boars took out our trail. Then, I went straight into my 5 hour shift of “Sugar cone or plain cone?” without a shower or an ounce of makeup, yet, felt high on life. I had little worry about the superficial and felt expansive. My inner space had grown and so had my generosity. (If you came into the store that evening, you probably got extra large scoops of ice cream. Lucky you!)
I was hooked on hiking but between the SAT’s, AP classes, proms, sports, student government, and everything else that causes dark circles under teenage eyes, I didn’t have much time for a new hobby. So nature waited.
In college I lived with a bunch of activists who actually wore birkenstocks and ate granola everyday. I was the party girl with a subwoofer in her trunk who ate meat. My housemates changed all that and boy, am I grateful.
Thanks to them I swam in the ocean with dolphins (I went to University of California Santa Barbara a.k.a. UC Sunny Beach). Thanks to them I held my breath as the sun peeked over the Eucalyptus grove and the Monarch butterflies woke up in clouds of orange, a scene Barbara Kingsolver describes as silent fire in Flight Behavior. Thanks to them I learned about the struggles of the U’wa tribe in Colombia, Black Mesa coal in the Four Corners, and seed activism in India. Thanks to them I hiked to mountain tops and saw meteor showers. Thanks to them I reconnected with my energy source.
One word sums up my entire relationship with nature: power. A friend of mine told me that in her language the word power has three meanings: to heal, to harm, to dream. When power is present all three potentials are present. We draw on one potential, often unconscious of the other two. It is, indeed, true wisdom to see, manifest, and balance all three potentials.
I am still a fool but I am less of a fool than I was in my 20’s.
In my foolish ways, I learned hard lessons about nature’s power to harm. For me and many outdoor enthusiasts, danger lives in two itchy initials. The first is “P” and the second is “O.” I got systemic Poison Oak poisoning on my very first backpacking trip in college. My college my boyfriend and I had hiked into Ventana Wilderness. Amidst the rolling hills decorated with wildflowers and sidewinding trails we decided to venture off trail. I didn’t think twice about using arm-sized P-O vines to climb up a hill because I had rubbed up against P-O countless times on hikes in the Santa Barbara mountains without a reaction.
It was all fine and dandy, or I thought, until the next day. When I got home from the trip, I showered and shaved. The cuts must have let that powerful fire toxin into my bloodstream because rashes broke out all over my legs within the hour. Then it was on my forearms. Then it was an alarming red dragon crawling toward my lymphs on the inside of my upper arms. That was when I had to take steroids. I also slept with socks on my hands like a newborn with mittens because I would scratch in my sleep.
My skin itches even as I access that archived, yet still vivid, memory file. A year later I would learn at a medicinal plants course that the antidote plant Mugwort and PO are often neighbors and that PO has highly effective medicinal properties for healing a range of ailments. What power that plant has.
The healing powers of nature are infinite and extensively covered by writers whose eloquence I can’t match, so I will borrow from one R.W. Emerson and sum it up as,
Why did I choose that quote out of thousands of quotes about nature? It has to do with the power to dream. In my invincible teenage years and even in my oh-so-mature 20’s, I thought flowers were pretty but insubstantial. (I also had a pet peeve about having to pose with them in way too many pictures because my mother is obsessed with them. The only thing she likes more than flowers is photos of flowers!)
In my 30’s now, I am a tad bit wiser. I now know how crucial flowers are to life, both life as I know it and life in general. All those flowers the Biology teacher painstakingly pointed out, the milkweeds the Monarchs depend on for survival, even the beauteous clusters of Poison Oak flowers in spring, have crucial places in shaping ecology. I don’t mean ecology as in the wilderness preserved “out there,” but ecology in the sense ofmy human habits and habitat, intertwined with the plant beings, the animal beings, and the spirit beings. I mean ecology that lets me be a foodie and frolick in the foliar of New England fall. I mean ecology as in the source of my wild.
“As soon as you step onto a place it claims you. You don’t claim it. When you drink the water you become a part of that place. When you eat you become a part of that place. You become the place.” These are the words of an elder, whose wisdom has guided my relationship to place.
I want to be a place full of flowers. So I plant them, literally and figuratively. I plant flowers because I want my son to know earth’s laughter. I want to pass on a planet that nourishes him. I want him to love berries and the bumblebee-ings that pollinate them. I want to show him how to hold blossoms with reverence and tenderness. I want dolphins and meteor showers in his life. I want him to take a stand when one’s dreams of power becomes a nightmare of pain for another.
Orion Aung San Samai, may you be wise. May you love the Earth and all her laughter. May your own laughter sprout flowers in the hearts of others. Above all, may your namesake spirits help you protect the Wild for your children, all their children, and generations to come.