Learning about herbs is a pretty heady experince for a lot of us. We read and take webinars, we sign up for online courses and watch loads of videos, and we memorize lots of facts relating to The Plants. All of that takes us into the realm of the mind. Even our early exploratons into magical herbalism are often pretty heady, with loads of reading on the plants from a magical perspective and seeking to understand.
Experience, however, unlocks the deeper medicines that The Plants have to share. Taking herbs in some form, like we do when we use Tea to deepen our connection to the plants, gives us one layer of experience, one in which you invite them into your world. If you want to truly partner with The Plants, it helps to drop in on them in their own homes, too. Wild Observation opens the door to a much deeper understanding of the strengths, wisdom, magic, and medicine of the Herbs.
What is Wild Observation?
Wild Observation is about getting right down in the dirt with your chosen plant and using your senses to experience the world that plant calls home. When we learn about plants without experiencing their environment, we end up with a rather shallow understanding of their expertise. By taking time to get to know what it’s like to be with the plant in the plant’s home, your mind picks up on loads more inforamtion, stuff that you coudn’t get from a book or video or even from making medicine with that plant. When you hear an experienced herbalist talk about plants jumping up or asking to help out with a formula, it’s often because they’ve taken the time to get to know those herbs in-the-field. That same deeper connection is what powers the best magickal workings, too.
What You Need to Connect with The Plants More Deeply
If you’re planning on giving Wild Observation of a plant’s world a go, you’ll want to make plenty of space for being. Being, much in the Zen sense of the word, is all about sitting (or standing or laying or whatever is most comfortable for you) and emptying your mind as much as possible. You don’t need to go full-monk-meditation or even have a particularlly strong skill level with meditation. All you really need to do is remember to step away from your own thoughts and observe, kind of like a scientists observing an experiment in progress. When i sit with a plant in the plants environment, my mind often starts off focused, then gets bored and starts to roam about first the environment and then the stuff I haven’t done back at home. When I notice my mind’s gone off somewhere else, I take a deep breath and bring my thoughts back to the plant and our immediate environment. I ask myself a few questions:
- What does it feel like to be here? Is it hot? Cold? Damp? Dry? Crowded? Lonely?
- How does the ground feel? Is it hard? Soft? Rocky? Sandy?
- How does the air feel? What do I smell? Is it thin or heavy?
- When i close my eyes, what do i hear?
- Likewise, what do I feel in my body? Emotionally? Spiritually?
The question are partily a way to focus my mind, and they’re partly a way to make details conscious so I can better remember them. I like to take a notebook with me so I can jot down observations as they arise.
How to Connect with A Plant: Wild Observation in Practice
Choose an herb or plant you can find in the wild. It doesn’t have to be living deep in a far away forest. The dandelions growing in your front lawn are living in their own natural environment, just like the Oregon Grape that’s growing amid the Douglas-fir forest. It’s okay if the herbs is cultivated, like the sage in my garden, especially when you’re starting out. You’ll want to return to this particular plant and environment periodically through the seasons for the deepest connections, so it helps to choose plants in places that are pretty easy for you to get to all year round.
Once you’ve chosen your plant and your space, set a time to connect when you can have at least an hour to yourself, without interruption. It’s okay of people walk by, so long as you can stay focused. The important part is to make lots of space to let all your daily worries fall away so you can really get to know the plant in its environment free of distraction.
Arm yourself with whatever you need to be comfortable. I like to carry a notebook and a pen or two, a camera, and a water bottle with me. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately, too. There’s nothing more distracting than arriving only to find you’ve forgotten your hiking boots and you’ve got blisters on your feet before you even sit down with the plant or you forgot your umbrella and it started raining as soon as you settled in.
Once you arrive at the location you’ve chosen and found the plant you want to get to know better, take a deep breath and settle in, then make an offering. Many teachers and traditions suggest speciic types of offerings, like corn meal or tobacco. Some suggest specific prayers or mantra or salutations. The most important part of making an offering is to offer heart-felt gratitude to the plant and to the many others in that environment. Thank them for inviting you into their home, for sharing this time with you, and for granting you the privledge of learning from them. This is both an offering of gratitude and an acknowledgement of humility that will help your own mind shift out of the human-centered thought patterns that most of us are habituated to. By choosing to be humble, we open ourselves to a different way of perceiving the world.
After making your offering, be clear about your intention, to cultivate a deeper connection through direct experience of the plant’s home environment. You can say it aloud or speak it in your mind. The Plants will hear and understand either way.
Now, be. Just be.
Notice how the space smells.
Breathe the air.
Notice how the ground feels.
Put your hands on the land and let the texture permeate you.
Listen. Who sings nearby?
See. Really See.
Colors. Shapes. The Quality of the Light.
Close your eyes. Now what do you notice?
Once you’ve given all your senses a chance to observe, let your mind go. Observe what thoughts arise. What most intigues you in this world? Watch the thoughts rise and slide away for awhile, noting the general quality of your mind as you spend time with the plant. Did you notice your mind relaxing? Moving more quickly? Shifting from intellectual stuff toward more sensorary stuff? The other direction?
After letting your mind go awhile, return to the sensorary experience and notice what has changed. Does it seem that the light is different? The sounds more clear? Are you smelling the layers of scent more distinctly? Less so?
Ask the plant to help you experience the aspects of this space that are most important. Reach out and gently touch the plant, or if touching is unwise as might be the case with a toxic or dangerous plant or one that’s just out of reach, touch the ground and imagine connecting with the plant’s roots as you ask for this insight. Then, give yourself some time to notice through your senses what arises.
As you desire, make notes of your experience. I generally wait until I’ve completed my first round or two, giving myself as much time as I can to immerse myself in the world around me before engaging my intellect to write down notes. I often take a few pictures, sometimes as i’m sitting with the plant and sometimes before I settle in or after I’m done. I use those pictures like notes, to help me remember details that would take a lot of words to describe. It’s my way of sketching, since my sketching skills aren’t that great.
When you’re ready to go, gather up your things, tidy up the space, and give thanks. You’ve just completed your first round of Wild Observation with this plant. Get out your calendar and set dates for coming back to observe through the seasons. Every few weeks is a terrrific place to start. If it’s easy to pop by for a quick visit frequesntly, do it. If getting back is rather rough, aim for at least once or twice with each major seasonal shift in your area. Come back as frequently as you can manage until you feel complete with this plant. You can always visit again in future, now that you’re fast friends!