Nature Healing Through Sensitivity, Whiteness, and Shame

Reviewing: Mirrors in the Earth by Asia Suler

Though it took a few chapters to relax into, Mirrors in the Earth ended up being exactly the book I needed for a key moment of transition in my healing justice journey. Asia Suler’s writing met me exactly where I was this September and October—grappling with a return to my own sensitivity as I detoxed from a decade on unnecessary antidepressants, fumbling to build an intimate relationship with the earth, and longing for connection while also nervous about my own ability to stay in integrity without the support of a rigid (but ultimately self-harming) approach to social justice.

This book encouraged me to accept myself as I am—both as a white person who’s passionate about justice but exhausted by internalized punishment dynamics, and and as someone who longs to connect with the land but often feels too sensitive to do so. Reading about Suler’s experiences, including many stories set in the western North Carolina mountains my ancestors have occupied for several hundred years, helped me to reconnect, to forgive myself for my own nature as a neurodivergent person who is often seen as naive and immature, and to further embody some of my values of self-acceptance and spiralic healing.

Suler’s prose is richly textured with sensory detail and the magic of her own connection with the land and its inhabitants. Alternating between stories set in North Carolina, Florida, and even a tiny Brooklyn garden, she invites the reader on a non-linear journey through her personal experiences of re-membering in nature. These range from fumbling attempts at learning how to cultivate plants to mourning the passing of a wasp population to processing the trauma of a car accident on an icy mountain drive. Through her stories, Suler guides us into her understandings of the human experience, and particularly into how we can learn from the processes of the natural environment as we heal from physical pain, from disconnection, and collectively from the massive wounds of colonization and capitalist greed.

I admit to having been a little nervous about this book at first, with my antennae pricked up for “spiritual white lady bullshit.” But as I settled into the writing I had to admit that my nerves were in large part a symptom of the binary social justice thinking I want to heal from, and a projection of my own anxieties. It’s easy for my fear-voice to perk up, and to get skeptical of any white person doing this work as a mask for more internally-focused questions: what right do I have to act as a healing justice practitioner when so many people are struggling, and when my people’s legacy is one of disconnection and harm?

Fortunately, I know that this kind of internalized punishment dynamic, even when applied in the name of justice, comes directly from capitalism and white supremacy. This fear-voice encourages us into shame, rather than healing, and pushes us to police others from a place of fear of our own moral toxicity. It’s easy to dismiss white folks in the healing space from this place, and I think important to note that an account like this laced with personal stories may not resonate as deeply with some BIPOC readers. But it’s also important to remember that we white folks are an audience that needs quite urgently to reconnect with the land, and to engage in our own healing, so that we stop projecting our pain onto others and onto the land.

From this lens books like this one are critical to reach white readers who share Suler’s experience of disconnection and burnout from years of doing social justice work in spaces that often replicate the harm they’re trying to address, and who are also grappling with generative ways to process the guilt of settler colonialism. I see this book as falling within the healing justice and emergent strategy traditions in how it applies the lessons of nature to human challenges and takes embodied individual healing as a fractal of collective, planetary repair. I thought it hit a somewhat unique note for folks like myself and Suler who are not just “sensitive,” but also naturally playful or childlike, and may frequently be made to feel embarrassed about that. Suler’s perspective encouraged me to reclaim some of the magic of my supposed naiveté and find a little more gentleness with myself, without abandoning the very serious need for justice and the work of collective grieving.

It’s not just about gentleness, a childlike spirit, or optimism, either, but rather about being open to what is good in us, rather than focusing entirely on what we’ve done wrong, whether as individuals, as white people, or as a species. “The ability to recognize our goodness is essential to becoming creative, compassionate, and inspired forces of change in the world,” Suler writes. “Seeing ourselves in the mirror of the Earth empowers us to take care of this place we call home and bring forth our gifts for the benefit of the whole.”

Suler’s personal stories spiral around her developing relationship to elements of the natural world as she moved to North Carolina in her 20s to study herbalism, found her way through DIY punk mountain culture as a tragically uncool sensitive nerd, became a teacher and founder of One Willow Apothecaries, and healed from pelvic pain, trauma, and relational damage. The thread of sensitivity runs throughout her narrative, but I found it much easier to connect with than many accounts of highly sensitive people or empaths, as she doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda compared with some other authors.

Suler engages primarily with the practical implications of sensitivity, from describing how learning to weed a garden taught her about personal boundaries and discernment to sharing how she worked through guilt as a teacher skipping out on the communal opening ceremony of a large camping event in order to find space from an overstimulating environment. She connects sensitivity to intuition and magic, but is also honest about the way she struggled with her own nature and the way others saw her as uncool and naive. Though she doesn’t mention any personal relationship to autism, I do think a lot of autistic readers will relate to her experience and the need to find a certain defiance in embracing one’s own way of being—special interests, supposed “immaturity,” sensitivity, and all. Many of the lessons I describe as neuroemergent or neuromagical come out in this book, even without that explicit frame.

The topics Suler engages through her stories will generally be familiar to students of any healing or spiritual practice, from boundaries to personal power to self-compassion. I found them to be well-rooted here through the immediacy of the storytelling but also the use of poetic language alongside strong research. Suler borrows from Traditional Chinese Medicine, Taoism, and contemporary research on trauma and the body, as well as ecological research and authors familiar to nerds on this subject such as Robin Wall Kimmerer and Brené Brown. I was somewhat shocked that Suler wasn’t directly informed by adrienne maree brown or emergent strategy, but there are certainly emergent strategy principles embedded throughout.

Many of the lessons here are about embodiment on a personal scale, but they also engage with our current state of apocalypse. One of the most poignant tales for me concerned the fate of the American Chestnut, which I knew nothing about before reading this book. This majestic tree would have been an integral part of my ancestors’ lives, as it blanketed the Appalachian forests until a blight killed off the population by the early 1900s. Suler describes how white settlers hastened the demise of this crucial species through ordering remaining trees cut down in hopes of saving the wood before its destruction, and perhaps thereby killed off whatever small population of resilient individuals might have remained. She frames this story in the context of capitalist greed, but also the violent removal of Tsalagi peoples.

Within a single generation of Jackson’s 1838 Indian Removal Act, this entire population of trees was gone, along with most of the Tsalagi from their ancestral lands. But in parallel to the resilience and continued survival of the Tsalagi despite white attempts to make Native life a thing of the past, the chestnuts do in fact survive in these mountains—entirely underground. Their root systems persist, and while saplings now die of the blight before they can repopulate the region, Suler describes contemporary efforts to develop blight-resistant strains that form a glimmer of hope in the story. She reminds us that “magic is simply the recognition of life’s possibilities,” and more accessible than we might think.

While it’s important not to over-romanticize such a story in the context of an ongoing genocide, I was particularly moved by this tale as someone who is exactly seven generations removed from an ancestor who directly participated in the forced removal of the Tsalagi stewards of these lands. I read this chapter of the book in the context of my own struggle not to see myself not as a “thank God it’s over” final member of most of my ancestral lines, but rather as someone who might carry hope, and perhaps a seed of healing from these violent ruptures, through to another cycle of seven generations. While several of my “lines” will in fact die by the standards of a racist culture obsessed with documentation of blood ancestry, lineage is in fact far more complicated, and I’ve learned that the race to erase or escape my own destructive lineage is in fact just another artefact of inherited nihilism and disconnection, rather than a healing force.

I believe that while it’s crucial to acknowledge that as settlers, we are in fact inheritors of a legacy of genocide and planetary destruction, we also need to accept our critical role in restoration, renewal, and reconnection. Rather than replicating the pain of previous generations, we have an opportunity to disrupt the cycle. But to do this we must reconnect to the land and to our physical bodies, not simply disappear. We also can’t do it through “cancelling” online racism, while continuing to see ourselves as one-dimensional perpetrators and using that self-hatred to mask our own deep wounding. I found myself inspired by Suler’s story to consider how my own role as a perpetual teacher-student, working with neurodivergent folks to support their healing but only able to do so through deeply embodying my own lessons, might contribute to this shift—not as a means of bypassing my own complicity in harm, but as a response through the often surprisingly difficult mode of grace and self-acceptance.

Though I’ve certainly encountered the lessons I describe here many times over, something about Suler’s writing helped it click for me in a new way. One major breakthrough is that I found myself starting, as I read this book, an extremely simple practice of just going outside and spending a few minutes chatting with plants—pulling a few up from the ground, resting in the shade of others, and observing the behavior of the plants themselves and the living things that interact with them. And then I contracted COVID for the first time, 2-1/2 years into the pandemic, having been extremely isolated throughout, and had to put my burgeoning practice on pause, but even that experience contained a lesson.

Given my illness, I read much of Suler’s narrative in bed while struggling to breathe and unable to even open windows to continue my conversation with my plant-friends, as nearby fires clogged the breathable air with smoke. This was a profound experience, as I’d also just reached a turning point in my detox from mood-stabilizing medication, and with Suler’s book as my only real connection to the natural world I found myself tearing up every other paragraph from the beauty of her words in the final chapter—one that engages with my personal closest natural ally, the mushroom, as well as with the liminal (or, you might say, non-binary) space of alchemy that I find to be the deepest signature of my own work. This final chapter engages poignantly with the magic of transformation and composting, and I was especially struck by the language of the reishi tree (a story I’m afraid you’ll just have to read for yourself!) I needed that story so badly, both as a tether to the natural world and to my own humanity, the specificity of my magic. It was a reminder that even when all my practices fall by the wayside, including the most simple act of taking a deep breath, I’m still allowed to experience beauty.

Before this season I hadn’t been physical able to cry more than a handful of times in the past decade, due to the effects of my medication. So there was something incredibly sacred about this physical release, but it also felt very connected to the nature of the book. Like Suler, I went through a time of viewing numbing as maturity, and my tears felt symbolic of a shift away from that place. As I realize the gifts of my sensitivity and tragic uncoolness, I’m forced to reframe this model of growth meaning becoming more serious. This has been a deeply impactful transformation and an opportunity to reconnect with a child self who loved rock-jumping through creeks and scrambling up trees, but it’s also been a painful grieving process. This dual nature was of course quite sharply highlighted by the blend of feeling sparkly and magical and connected to nature on the one hand, and being physically isolated and removed from all of my practices on the other, a journey I continue to travel as improvement has been slight even two months into the experience.

Suler’s words remind me to be gentle with my body and with my process, but also to trust it. This book was a formidable ally as I moved through the opening weeks of what might have been a terrifying illness, but experienced very little fear. This process, of course, was my own, and rooted in my own magic and my own healing and spiritual journey, but I was very glad to have Asia as an ally though her words in this book. I may never be much of a gardener, and I’m not sure I’ll ever quite find my way to easefully sleeping on the ground. But nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel the sense of a kindred spirit in her words. Thus whether or not you consider yourself a “nature person,” I’d recommend giving the book a try. You might surprise yourself!

ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!

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