When I was a child, I loved nature walks. I knew the tall oaks, maples, and pines well. Another tree I always recognized was the sassafras, slimmer and closer to my height. Mostly, I recognized its leaves, many mitten-shaped, some plain and some with two thumbs. When a breeze blew, the leaves seemed to wave at me.
Nine years ago I went for a special nature walk at Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum from America’s early 1800s. To visit there is a walk back into time: The oval of the village green is surrounded by wood frame houses, a general store, a meetinghouse, and costumed interpreters who nod their heads and say “good day” as if you are a neighbor, whose family births and weddings they celebrate and whose deaths they grieve. Dirt paths extend beyond the green, leading to a farm, craftsmen’s workshops, a one-room school. Sheep dot the hills, and there isn’t a sign of modern life in sight.
The walk was hosted by “Indian Doctress” Molly Geet, an Abenaki woman (and college professor) dressed as she would be if she were living in 1830. I wanted to see a special place through more special eyes, the eyes of someone whose people walked and loved this land many centuries before mine first saw the coast of North America.
More than a dozen people lined up at the edge of a quiet dirt path on the tree line and smiled at each other. Molly started by taking out a muslin sack and putting brown powder into some of our hands. She put some into mine, and said “Smell it. What do you think of?”
The smell was powerful with childhood memories of a frothy soft drink: root beer. She said her people made tea from the tree, but the Europeans had collected roots, sometimes added sarsaparilla, and brewed an alcoholic drink they called root beer. Then she pointed at a tree and asked if we recognized it. I was surprised. It was a sassafras tree.
Sassafras trees growing in a part of a forest are not scattered individuals. The trees are connected through their roots, a network of neighbors. One reason they can withstand having roots or leaves collected is their ability to nourish one another. I watched Molly teach us to see with her eyes, understand a bit of her tradition, and I saw a healing woman, one who knew how to draw strength and wholeness from the plants and animals of the land, how to live a life in balance despite the constancy of change.
I think about that afternoon often. As a young adult I became a healing woman of one sort, a doctor, until a head injury ended that life. My husband and friends helped me build a new one, become a new person who tried to hold onto the best parts of the old.
There is a tall pine on the top of a hill near our home that is charred on one side from a lightning strike. Both the tree and I were tempered by sudden fire, but we are alive. The pine is not perfectly straight anymore, but it reaches toward the sky almost 20 years after the fire. We have both survived, and perhaps we are stronger than we would have been, not despite our adversity but because of it. We continued to grow, just in a different direction than we would have.
I looked … I continue to look… for a way to live in balance. Although we do not think on it often, many of us are men or women who are healing, learning to live with illness, recover from injury, find a way to pick up lives that have been irrevocably changed and move forward to a new life.
The need to heal doesn’t mean the loss of the ability to help others heal. I combined my experience as a doctor and patient to help other people struggling with chronic illness find tools to guide their medical journeys. Two of the most profound gifts we can give are very simple, merely saying “I’m sorry” or “Can I help?”
The sassafras trees are strong in their physical connections. The Abenaki people and the villagers of old New England knew they needed one another for their communities to thrive. I believe we can learn from all of them, that each of us can help others without hesitation and find the grace to let others nourish us when we need it. We can all be healing people.
I started this blog, began writing as HealingWoman, in 2010. Now, in 2017, the website (healingwoman.net) and blog are being updated to reflect the changes, both those within and those outside. You can read the blog in real time and you can search it as a library of sorts. If you are on Facebook, we exist as a thriving community, which has gone from 11 kind friends to an interactive community of 8000 people.
I still believe well help the world, we all make a difference, through one action, one person, one moment at a time. We can all heal.
There are other people who have an online life as HealingWoman. If you see our sassafras bud, if you read about the value and resilience of networks of people, of life, of human kindness,you are in the right place for this healing person. Welcome.
Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, © 2017