Spring is coming to the forest. Even as gale winds continue to blow and snow remains a constant presence in the far Northeast that I call home, the birds have started to sing. The sun is higher in the sky, sending strong shafts of light glancing through branches swelling with leaf buds. On a recent day, I’m sure I heard the rushing whisper of sap rising.
In the people around me, I sense a kind of readiness, even an impatience, to burst forth, start moving, rise up, make a plan, get gardens in the ground. Many folks are getting antsy. I’ve even seen t-shirts and shorts when the thermometer approaches 40 degrees! And then there are those who are still enjoying the hibernation of shorter days, richer meals, warm fires. They might be feeling a bit nervous, even fearful about the coming activity, the expectations to jump into action, know the path and get to work on another season of growth. These folks might be getting a bit irritated in their own way, too, as when being asked an important question just a little sooner than you’ve arrived at an answer.
So, there’s early Spring in a nutshell: the dynamic tension between moving ahead into expansive, decisive action and staying wrapped up tight in rest and unknowing, between rest and productivity, solitude and community. You’ve probably noticed that you lean one way or the other, towards wanting Spring to hurry up and arrive in earnest and wishing Winter would stay a bit longer. And since the seasons acquiesce to no one, you might notice that either way you lean, you are not satisfied. Except, of course, if you’re content with just exactly what is, right now–if you’re comfortable being flexible, letting life flow through you, just as it is.
Because the truth about Spring–at least the face it wears here in the Northeast–is that sometimes it’s warm with promise, other times blustering and harsh. The constant, especially now, is change. If you’re one of the folks able to stay present and navigate this time of transition, you may find that you are able to bend gracefully, not break in frustration under these mutable conditions. Like the young maples in the forest, you might find that as the day is warm and night cold, the sap in you rises just as it should, pulsing in rhythm with the fluctuations, even dependent on them. At exactly the right time, your leaves will burst forth, extending toward the light, and arch skyward into the song-filled air.
These are some of the core teachings of Spring. Flexibility. Ability to respond at the perfect moment. Reveling in change. Channeling inner treasures, discovered and accumulated during deep rest, into powerful manifestations of who we are. These are Spring’s requirement of us, as well as its invitation.
Though Chinese medicine can sometimes seem to be a maze of abstract theory to those not accustomed to its language or concepts, in the Five Phases (or Elements), the Chinese elegantly captured what I’ve found to be timeless insights about life on this planet. Essentially, they recorded how the landscape is reflected in the bodies, hearts and minds of humans in an analogous, inner terrain. While this particular tradition is rooted in Taoist alchemical, even shamanic, philosophies and practices specific to China, we can see that the essence of this system bears truth in multiple bioregional and cultural contexts. Identifying the core features which resonate with our own rich experiences and diverse locales, we begin to craft a modern, living, breathing medicine, rooted firmly to place.
No matter where we are, we can see the teachings and invitations of each Phase present in the cycles of our lives. We see ourselves as glints in our parents’ DNA, becoming infants and children, young adults, parents, and then elders, preparing to transition back to the earth. We see the dark of midnight, sliding into dawn, noon-day sun, afternoon’s glow, evening, and night again. We see the plants as they move from seed to sprout, to flower, to fruit, to making seed and letting it fall, beginning the cycle anew. We see our fears, our hopes, our passion, our care and tenderness, and our solitude with spirit. We can universally recognize these cycles as expressed in ourselves and the land, though Spring in one place might have a different face than in another, just as we are each a singular terrain with unique stories. Regardless of place, this living system affirms that Nature, in all its complexity and diversity, is a perfect, self-sustaining whole. In answering Nature’s invitation to become attentive to our inner landscapes, we can experience the same complex, diverse and imperfectly-perfect wholeness. In essence, it is an invitation to dynamic health and to belonging.
So, as the snows recede and ever more green peeks through, as creatures begin to emerge from winter dens and our seed packets start to call to us from wherever they’ve been tucked away, consider apprenticing yourself to Spring. How can you flow gracefully into this season embodying all at once the lithe sapling, the bursting bud, and the birdsong that fills the sky?
Larken Bunce is a clinical herbalist, educator, writer, gardener and photographer. She is a founding co-director of Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism (VCIH) and until recently served for many years as faculty in Goddard College’s Health Arts and Sciences program. She holds a Master of Science in Herbal Medicine from Maryland University of Integrative Health. Her teaching and clinical work draws wisdom from Western herbal medicine, classical Chinese medicine, whole-food nutrition theory, mind-body medicine and social justice advocacy. Larken is passionate about training heart-centered clinicians, bridging traditional health systems with biomedical sciences, and restoring Nature to culture through herbal medicine. For more about Larken’s work or training at VCIH, visit www.vtherbcenter.organd www.larkenbunce.com
Join me at Herbstalk this summer to learn how to engage the wisdom of Nature, embrace the transitions from season to season and bring more meaning and wellbeing into your daily life. If you’re a practitioner, you’ll learn to apply Five Phase concepts to your intake process and assessment of psychological and physiological tendencies and imbalances. You’ll also learn to use your capacity to embody each Phase through engaging your own presence as a healing tool. We’ll discuss how to use attitude and inquiry, as well as select herbal actions and specific plants to support ourselves and others in aligning with each Phase. In short, we’ll think together about how we bring the Phases to life in our practices, by first recognizing how they are alive in us. Our work will then originate in our own healing, and extend powerfully outward in service.