grieving with elderberry
"are you sure you want to go all the way up river to the elderberries?", I asked as my 7 year old and I paddled our kayaks upstream. We'd been going for about 30 minutes already, and I could tell he was getting tired pulling his own pint-sized kayak along in a zigzag path through the water. "Yes. I'm definitely sure!" He yelled back, and so we continued another mile up river, with many stories and songs to distract him from his biceps, until we finally docked at the spot we knew to be a short walk to several laden elderberry trees. His determination to get them, and get them this way (not by car) was clear, so I followed. We approached the heavily fruited trees slowly, but the birds moved off anyhow. We asked for permission to pick, offered strands of hair, a song, and picked up trash. Each snip of the berry umbel sent the limbs flying towards the sky with an exhale of freedom, and we sang as we harvested. After some time of tickling the berries from the stems into the jar we aimed to fill, the birds began to come back. We continued our silly songs and humming as the birds got braver and closer. Soon it felt like we were just two in a tribe of many, gathering berries for the collective. one bird even pooped a little dark purple mess right into the hat we were collecting in, sending us laughing and making jokes about harvesting etiquette. I felt a nurturing satisfaction from the trees as we sat in their shade and did as they bid: take this fruit and spread these seeds. I made a little silent promise to do so before I left, and my child belted out a happy thank you song as we made our way back to our boats with a full jar of dark purple goodness. I don't often harvest elderberries in my area, because they seem too few compared with the amount of people interested in taking, but this patch felt welcoming and abundant. I didn't realize how much I needed to feel that from the earth, the gladness that we'd come, the welcome of our presence.
Growing up in the 80's, there was this sense that we could save the planet, we could change things if we just recycled our glass bottles and didn't throw trash and cigarette butts out the windows anymore. But here and now, things feel different. I'm now raising kids in a world that has given up trying to turn the train of destruction around, and mostly we are all just standing around dumbfounded at the fact that things are changing, and faster than the scientists expected. I now live with the reality that fires and thick smoke are a part of every summer season where I live, just as my extended family has to run from hurricanes every Fall on the East coast. It's dismal when I let my brain take it in, and physically heartbreaking when I let my body actually feel it. But here we are, making our way to the elder to give thanks and take what is offered. Here we are teaching our little seeds how to connect and tap into the utter joy of living on this earth.
After our time with the elders, the paddling was hard. It was hot, the tide was pushing against our boats, and my little one was wilting visibly. Then came the "I just can't do its", then the whimpering, then the tears. But all the while, somehow, my child kept paddling. He knew there was no other way, that he had to keep going through the exhaustion and pain and finally, tears. I saw his struggle, and felt my own as my heart swelled to fix it for him, but I couldn't. We sat in the grief together, and kept paddling. It felt like a tiny part of the bigger picture, the one where we are all allowing our collective grief to rise and flow as we continue on. It reminded me that elderberry holds an affinity to the lungs, and our lungs hold grief. Perhaps it's no accident that she fruits in the Fall, supporting the grief of the earth: the scorched hillsides, the spent sunflower, the heavy hearts.
As we move forward, making our way in this season of fire and Fall, the image of the hovering hummingbird comes to mind, it's little solid body utterly calm and still in the fury of wing flutters.