When we were kids, we let our curiosity take us around the garden, exploring with all five senses and asking any question that wandered aimlessly into our minds. This is the purest form of scientific discovery: desiring an answer to a question based on something we've never observed before.
Behind a high school in the north of Toronto, nestled between busy streets and only a couple hundred meters from the highway, is a community garden. The fence barely contains the greenery within – out of place in an otherwise average schoolyard, as if put on top as an afterthought.
This is the location for the 2nd Instalment of The Healing Hands Workshop, a community-based series founded and orchestrated by Michaela Cruz, providing hands-on lessons that focus on edible and medicinal plants growing in and around the urban landscape.
I had recently moved from a small university town, where being involvement in nature was commonplace, to Toronto, a city of populated pavement. This sudden loss of not only greenery but community led me to engage in this workshop. Standing with the rest of the group, I tried to get a sense of what had drawn the other participants this workshop.
Clair: I was introduced to the Black Farmers Association and for volunteering they gave me a bunch of seedlings. When I first put them I was worried that they were just going to die but they're thriving and ready to be harvested, actually. It's nice for my mom too. It's brought us closer I think. It's helped me through traumatic periods of my life. Learning about food and getting grounded in this connection with the earth is helping me heal that process and put my attention into a more positive and nourishing space. Anything that's about plants and community and connecting with people who are as into those things as well is just reaffirming.
Maryanne: I think I was looking for something to do that would be grounding. My dad died almost 2 months ago last week. It's my first real episode of grief and bereavement – it's a massive adjustment. Prior to my dad dying I was struggling with depression and anxiety and it was already a rough year. I’ve been trying a bunch of different things, branching out to different forms of knowledge as a way to distract myself but also in a way that's humbling. Putting all this energy towards something. That's what led me to herbalism.
Suzzi: And it's nice to be able to explore herbalism and plant world without making such a financial jump. It's really accessible.
In the garden, it’s like being plucked out of the city and dropped into a parallel world.
Even though there are roads bordering the garden, all that can be heard are the sounds of lazily chirping crickets – the calmness only occasionally punctuated by the sound of a car horn or siren.
We all stand in a circle while Michaela begins the introductions; first giving acknowledgement to the Indigenous peoples who originated this land, then describing what lead to her passion of plants and healing.
Michaela: The field of Ethnobotany is showcasing this intersection between Indigenous peoples and really giving acknowledgement to their ancestral knowledge and wisdom. I have a lot roots in the Fillipino medical practices known as hilot, and it's so interconnected in my life - so much more than I previously realized. It's very much analogous to Chinese medicine, with a long history; it’s been practiced by indigenous cultures for many years. Because of colonization it's not as well practiced as Chinese medicine - it's less explicit. It was part of my childhood and healing. All these memories are popping up of the strong women surrounding me, healing me with their hands and plants. It's been a long journey of always loving plants and that interaction and of energies that lead to healing.
Michaela: Caring for plants and being cared for by plants is what I want to practice.
Exploring the Garden
Michaela: In terms of learning about plants, I like making it really intuitive and personalized. It doesn't really stick unless you really get to pick it up, touch it, smell it, even taste it.
We then descend upon the garden; cultivating anything we don’t recognize or find interesting to bring back and share with the group. The garden is expansive and bursting with recognizable staples, and many things I’ve never seen before. It’s like a tiny group of explorers happened upon an uncharted territory, a new venture riddled with excitement and curiosity. We’re rendered children again, returned to this unquenchable curiosity and wonder of our past selves. Questions bubble up in a constant stream – a throng of mini hypotheses.
Coming Together and Learning as a Group
The group reconvenes with our collected botanical goods at a large wooden table, the centrepiece of the garden. Working together with Michaela’s guidance, we share our discoveries while receiving tidbits of wisdom and knowledge.
Learning with all five senses | Robyn (c) 2016
One of the major themes we are trying to tackle is 'What is edible?'
What is it that makes things edible – by our own approximation or by society’s at large?
Words like leafy, lush, colourful, fresh are all used to describe what is edible. In the end, the brainstorm made the group realize how broad the terms are.
Knowable: It seems as though what is edible, at least what grocery stores deem so, is kind of arbitrary. I mean, I’ve never tried many of these things before, mostly because I’ve never seen them in any grocery store I’ve been in. Shows you how much of influence grocery stores have on your general awareness of food and plants.
Michaela: Also there are plants things that seem abrasive inherently, like a stinging nettle, but the leaves are super nutritive. Boiling the leaves and making it into a tea is really good for you.
Michaela: So what I’ve done here is masticate the sumac in cold water, and then it steep in order to let the flavours blossom.
Straining the sumac from the water | Robyn (c) 2016
The water is vibrantly red in colour, and tastes both refreshing and bitingly sour.
The Act Of Cooking Communally
The final act of this workshop is taking ingredients from the garden to use in making dinner for the group. This ritual ingrained into the core of humanity is in its essence communal – sharing sustenance with those around you.
Maryanne: I love the fact that everyone is collaborating and eating food together. I think there's something incredibly important and really primitive about sharing food together - especially strangers. Food brings people together. This whole thing is very comforting. It's a humbling experience I hope to transfer in some way.
Clair: Ideally, I want to be able to get about 80% of my food from my garden. It takes a lot of practice and mindfulness. I'm finding you can use a lot of plants in healing ways, which I want to use for both me and my family. To be in spaces like and be able to support these initiatives is really important.
The Impact of the Workshop
The group begins to reflect on the significance of this workshop.
Suzzi: I've always wanted to be connected back to my childhood, where you do spend more time in nature. You get kind of lost in this city on a day-to-day basis – other things begin to take precedence.
Knowable: It brings me out of the modality of daily life and into one of connectedness and learning. Feeling energized by the world around me. It's a calming experience.”
Clair: It's so easy to get distracted by other things in life and forget that the environment is part of us. You have to be mindful of it and make an effort.
Katrina: Looking through my family history, I realized I'm from a long line of farmers. Growing up in the Philippines, I lived in the city and wasn't really aware of my ancestry. Now I've started connect more with that, and learn the knowledge that my ancestors once had."
What it Means to be Connected with Nature in an Urban Environment
Preparing a dinner containing many old – and newly discovered items from the garden, draws the discussion back to the importance of a connection with food and nature in the urban spaces.
Maryanne: When it comes to natural spaces, I think people in the city are starved of that. I don't think I know anyone in the city will say "I hate nature"; no one does. Every loves it and appreciates it. So there definitely is reception to that sort of thing.
Suzzi: Our society in general has spent so much time apart from it [nature] that this generation especially is realizing that we need to hone in on our ancestral heritage. And we've always relied on the plant world. For me, specifically, it brings peace to my life. It's a good way to bring me back into a calm state.
I ask Michaela again what continues to bring her back to plants and healing.
Michaela: It’s been a long journey of always loving plants and feeling like that interaction with plants is where I get the most fulfillment. We can recondition ourselves in the urban environment by reconnecting with plants and the green landscape that do exist in the city. Although commonly overlooked, we can exist lightly and intently in cities. We can have a space to see ourselves as more than consumers and we can learn to cultivate a humble coexistence with people, plants and each other. I love that people I’ve never met are coming to these workshops and realizing we are pretty much in the same circles of communities.
Maryanne: You feel like you’re part of something outside of your everyday normal life.
Michaela: What I hope people take away from the workshops? A deeper appreciation for plants, a sense of community.
In a city like Toronto, the crucible of urban Canadian society, we rarely consider the plants around us. Through the tireless march of daily life and constant stimulus, it’s important to bring it all back to the basics. Bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and life experiences with a common goal – to connect and reconnect with nature.
Michaela’s website: http://www.healinghands.info/
Thank you to Michaela Cruz and all the participants of the Healing Hands Workshop for access and openness.