Holding Extreme Tragedy and Finding Beauty Again
Spring is coming to Ukraine, despite the desecration of its country. We do not hear about the beauty of the natural world unfolding from its winter slumber because so many horrific things are happening to people, buildings, and homes. It is hard to find beauty when everything around seems burnt, bombed, and dangerous. The only reference I hear about the landscape was first frozen ground to enable tanks, then mud to slog them down, and lately about leaves returning to provide camouflage.
The people AND the land of Ukraine are being severely harmed. They are the principal supplier of wheat and sunflower oil to many countries, particularly in Africa. What is being planted? What is being destroyed?
Our Wilderness Guides Council held another zoom call to witness the stories of our Ukrainian colleagues.
We from the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Africa listened. The first Ukrainian speaker reported relief to see the faces of his countrymen—a confirmation that they are each still alive. One by one they took up the invisible talking piece.
“I wait every night for the call from my son who is fighting to find out if he is still alive,” reported one man.
“My home was bombed. I have confirmation of this now. My mother has been captured by the Russians in Mariupol, but at least I have word that she is alive.”
Barely able to speak through her tears, a young woman said, “Hate. I did not think I was so capable of hate. That we must prove what the Russians are doing is unthinkable,” she said in reference to the fact that Russians are claiming the atrocities being discovered have been staged by the Ukrainians.
“Thank you for listening,” they each said at the end of their speaking.
The call dropped me to my knees, brought tears to my eyes, left me grasping for what else I might do besides being a listener and sending money to the World Central Kitchen https://wck.org/.
How do I hold these stories?
After the call, I walked outside to see my garden.
I could see the beauty before my eyes. But I was not staring into a bombed landscape. So much sadness filled my soul. How could I integrate the stories I had just heard and make space again for joy? How could I remain grounded in my own reality and resources so I could be a witness for those who needed it?
Nature is always my refuge, my restoration, but I needed more than just a meander in the woods. I needed something tangible to do. I had been thinking about collecting nettles this spring. There is about a two-week window when they are big enough to cut and not so big that the stems become woody. Perfect, I would “armor up” to harvest nettles.
The tiny- pointed hairs covering the leaves and stems break off when touched and release formic acid—the same venom found in bee and ant stings. So, NO bare skin for this harvest. Many people consider them a superfood, a super medicine. Nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. They contain more iron than spinach, antihistamines that help alleviate allergy symptoms, and serotonin, which imparts a feeling of well-being.
Dressed in heavy pants, long sleeves, thick gloves, I carried two 5-gallon buckets down a path and off into a huge nettle patch near the state park parking lot. Within 20 minutes I had snipped two buckets full of nettle tops. The patch was so big, looking back behind me, I could not tell that anyone had been here harvesting. Nettles grow in Ukraine. Would anyone even be safe harvesting them? My thoughts would wander, then I would refocus on my task. Harvesting nettles requires attention—a wrist bared or sock top exposed means miserable itching.
Coming home, I sat on a chair on the patio and carefully snipped the leaves off the stems and into a gallon pot. Two five -gallon buckets consolidated down to one gallon of leaves to steam. It took about 20 minutes of steaming for the nettles to cook down (the steaming destroys the stinging hairs) to a small serving dish size. Sauteeing some of last summer’s garlic and sunflower seeds in olive oil, I added the steamed leaves turning them over and over, adding lemon juice and balsamic glaze. Presto! A vegetable dish for three.
It made me so happy to honor the earth’s bounty in that way, to feed my family. Action empowered me to do something good and tangible. It brought me joy and purpose. By day’s end my heart was again open.
The connection between food and land and hope
The work of holding the complexity of these times is immense. We all do it in different ways. Let us not forget that the earth is helping us, too. Leaves are returning to the trees in Ukraine. May blooming flowers rise in the shattered cities and surprise those most in need of beauty. May someone be planting a kitchen garden on their porch. Stinging nettles grow worldwide. Maybe one of the local chefs working with the incredible organization of the World Central Kitchen is preparing nettles in some Ukrainian village this very day.
This is not a far-fetched thought. WCK partners with local chefs to create hot, deliverable meals to communities in Ukraine being bombing. (There are many fine non-profits working in Ukraine. I highlight WCK because of the connection to food in this piece of writing.) For example, a small town outside Kharkiv where cows cannot be milked and the grain silo is destroyed have been receiving hot meals. In a monastery in Odesa where 130 seniors live and 10 refugees a day come from Mariupol, the monastery staff bakes bread and shelters homeless animals. People and land working together sustain life.
Plants connect us. Food preparation connects us. The act of foraging in dire need or in adventure awakens gratitude that food is there. I can reach my gloved hand into the nettle patch and feel connection to the life-giving presence of Ukraine and its remarkable people.
Thank you, Ann. I’m sending another donation to WCK now.
You are welcome. They are such a fine organization doing absolutely stunning work in THE hardest of places.
Ann, I so honor the way you and Christina honor what’s going on in the world and somehow manage to lift our gaze about the wretched, turning toward something redemptive. Thanks for this post! And love to you both.
Really appreciate your kind words, Mary Ann. Indeed, I believe it is our job as elders to try and take in the whole picture as best we are able . . . and hold that there is somehow wholeness in the large picture. Ann
Thank you for these words, Aunt Ann. I too love foraging nettles and cooking them, but also drying them for tea throughout the year. I love the way collecting wild plants with care can help us feel more connected to the earth and to each other.
Bless you, Molly, in all of your beautiful journeys on this planet. Your spirit always shines. Love, Aunt Ann
Thank you for this beautiful post, Ann. You expressed a lot of what I feel when I read the news or hear a podcast about what is happening in Ukraine. How powerful that you and others received those stories; how appropriate that you went into nature and skilfully, carefully, worked with nettles. Thank you, also, for news of that particular charity. I made a donation. Sending love, Julia
So very much appreciate your heartfelt response, Julia. As always . . . that is simply who you are. Love,
As Ukrainian Canadian who subscribes to your blog (I come to know of you through Mary Ann Moore of Nanaimo, with whom I participated in many women’s writing circles), I so appreciate this perspective of the situation in my parents’ and grandparents’ homeland. Your blog helped me release tears that I had been holding in for too long. Thank you for opening a portal to my grief – it is a relief.
I always look forward to reading your blogs and I am grateful. Thank you, Stephanie
It means a lot to me that you took the time to write this. Cannot even imagine how you are processing this tragedy. If my writing helped even a little, I am grateful. A bow of respect for you on your journey, Ann
I’m right with you in the absolute heartbreak of what’s going on in Ukraine and many other parts of the world…AND with the need to stay close to the earth for equanimity and renewal. I have supported WCK at many other times and am doing so again on behalf of the (mostly) women, children and elders fleeing the war now. Much love to you and Christina as we all do our part to make our world safe for all to thrive.
Yes, and finding how to hold it all IS the journey of elder hood, I believe. Bless you, Ann
Ann, thank you for bringing us into the community of those struggling to contain the heartbreak right now, and to continue to find joy. I love snipping nettles too and have been tempted to stick my fist into them – yes to relieve arthritis but also to be a companion in some small way with those whose pain at this very moment is hard for me to imagine.
Kate, the thought DID occur to me to remove my gloves while harvesting to be in the solidarity of pain, but it did not seem that would put me into a place of openness—but rather a place of focusing on myself. At any rate, I kept my gloves on!
Thank you, Ann, for hopeful words in a time that feels so void of it. If stinging nettles can be turned into health-full food, maybe some beauty can eventually be found in this evil. I don’t know. Maybe organizations like World Kitchen. I do know you are a most beautiful elder. I’m blessed to know you.
Right back at you, my friend!
Thank you, Ann. There is such overwhelming sadness to think of the atrocities and such overwhelming joy to hear of the helpers. I just knew you would find a way forward. A small, good thing.
And you, wise one, articulated another way forward: focus on the overwhelming kindness being brought forward in Ukraine by all the volunteers. Thank you, Ann
Ann, Robert and I are very grateful for this post. We will be sending a donation to WCK (which we didn’t know about) today. Doing small things from hearts at peace matter, especially when the pain and devastation we are all witnessing is so great. Much love.
Yes, my friend, doing small things from hearts at peace matters a lot! Ann