A guide to being invited in

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I remember walking into the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve for my first session as a volunteer on a warm June day in 2019.

I’d been living near the site for many years and finally plucked up the courage to show up. Of course, on that first day, all the usual insecurities also showed up: Am I good enough to be here? Do I know enough to be any help? What can I bring to the table with my limited knowledge? But, I swept these thoughts aside and walked in.

We sat in a circle and the two people running the session talked us through some of the chores needed around the site. I chose to work in the medicine garden, where one of the jobs was removing ground ivy. Embarrassingly, I had to be shown what ground ivy was as I wasn’t familiar with it. Then there was some harvesting of comfrey for salves that were to be made by another part of the Nature Reserve who do medicine making. Comfrey leaves were also to be used for the nettle-comfrey fertiliser, so we harvested those. The session was gentle and it felt to me like a first step towards getting to know the place. We ended the morning with a tea tasting of plants from the site. On that first day, we drank tea made from plaintain leaves, sometimes known as ‘healing blades’ for their many benefits. We also added plantain flowers to our brew while we all tried to pronounce the word ‘mucilaginous’! This is a property of plantain that means the leaves, when left in water, create a gelatinous consistency. I remember how tasting the plantain tea felt like such a tonic. The site had invited me in and here I was inviting it into me, literally. The symbiosis was beginning.

I started to go regularly as a volunteer to the Nature Reserve and slowly, slowly I got to ‘know’ it a bit. It wasn’t so much an active feeling of ‘learning about it’, but more a sense of simply allowing the medicine garden ‘in’, just like I had with the plantain tea. I was becoming more familiar with the slant of evening light over the pond, the appearance of pipistrelle bats just as the sky got to its blackest blue, the smell and feel of woodchip freshly laid on the pathways, and the innumerable plants and birds were becoming familiar. I was learning names of plants and their properties.

After a whole year of volunteering, I appreciated the circularity of my time there – the planting of seeds and seedlings, the watering, the harvesting, the weeding, the gathering of seeds for future plantings, the making of salves and teas from plants we had grown. There is something so reassuring and so life-giving about experiencing the cycle of the seasons, especially in a large city where we are so removed from nature. An intimacy developed between me and the site, and then Covid hit. The Nature Reserve became a refuge for some of us. Masked, keeping our distance and when we were allowed to by government regulations, we met and worked and tried our best to steward the site. Some of the plants and animals seemed to thrive as the airplanes and cars and the busy humans quietened. The devastation of what the virus was doing to people in our midst could be somewhat relieved by being in the Nature Reserve. The space became a therapeutic refuge.

Being able to experience the seasons and their shifting patterns due to human-made climate disruption, is hard to witness, but it is also a privilege. You can see how the heat affects certain plants in negative ways and how even a pond can’t seem to support as many insects as it once would have. The sadness of the Earth seeps into one. This can be difficult to shoulder, but the space can also take on the role of a safe space, a sort of haven, where emotions around our sick planet can be felt and shared. After the severity of the Covid pandemic had lifted somewhat, the drought of 2022 hit London hard. The grass in the parks was yellow and brittle. The riverbeds all around the country were dry. Birds were dying in droves from dehydration as were bees and other animals. It felt apocalyptic. As I was in the Reserve on an evening thinking about the terrible situation our planet was in, I noticed the light from the setting sun had just hit the tips of the marshmallow plants.

Their purple flowers went translucent in the golden light. I thought back to some of the volunteering sessions when we had been learning about the properties of various plants, and I remembered that marshmallow, like plantain, was known for its mucilaginous quality (that word again). I harvested some leaves and flowers and went home.

I popped the leaves and flowers in a jug of cold water. The following morning was intense. Temperatures were in the low thirties and we were still in the grip of a heatwave. I hadn’t refrigerated the marshmallow water, but I poured myself a small glass. I instantly felt better, cooler, calmer, less frantic about the heat and the rise in global temperatures. Throughout the following days, I kept drinking the marshmallow water and over those days, the plant saved me. Its mucilaginous properties quenched my thirst like nothing else would. Its healing nature did profound work on me. And I realised that without even knowing it, in my time in the Nature Reserve as a complete novice to the world of medicine gardens, I had learned to listen to the plants, to observe them, to think about what I had been taught about their various properties. I had internalised the space. The setting sun had picked out the marshmallow for me. I had listened. And in this simple act, I realised that the benefits of nature, of the plants in our midst are there for us all. It just takes some quiet, some listening, and some trusting in oneself and in the plants themselves. That small discovery for me was huge. It reminded me that if we let nature into us she will reciprocate by inviting us into her. She will say, ‘Come in, come in, I can help you, if you let me’. I am so grateful to the humans and more-than-humans in the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve and all they have given me and all they have allowed me to give in return just by ‘showing up’.

Written by Joanna Pocock

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