Syringa vulgaris, Gerard, & Me by Kate Brunner

katebrunnerA vast array of massive issues are affecting the Land today. Rampant pesticide use, trademarked GMO seed, fracking, mining, illegal dumping, indigenous sovereignty, water rights, accelerating extinction rates, municipal waste management, clear cutting, increasingly extreme weather patterns, and on and on. Every one of them, big issues affecting our world. The arguments raging around these issues overwhelm & confuse me. (Why, for example, were some of my former Texas neighbors actually opposed to recycling?) Grappling with these questions, I sometimes find myself with an enraged mind, not to mention an aching heart, as I struggle to understand how we got here & why we aren’t doing more to address these and other grave environmental challenges that are, day-by-day, becoming increasingly necessary to confront.

Entire rivers run orange, mountains have their tops blown off, gaping holes in the seabed gush millions of gallons of crude into the world’s waters, acres of forest burn, & cities drown. We are entering the 6th mass extinction, but the first one we’ve played an active role in triggering. Two months ago, I listened to a top field ecologist cite statistics from NASA climatologists that predict at the current extinction rate, only 50% of all animal species will survive into the next century.

I wonder when humankind will remember that we ARE, in fact, one of those animal species. NASA just gave my great grandchildren a 1 in 2 shot of surviving the 21st century.

Living through my ordinary days with all of that kicking around in my head & heart can honestly be a challenge sometimes. It is my ecofeminism and my earth-rooted paganism that sees me through this crises of faith in my species.

Right now, I am just beginning to enter into sacred relationship with a new-to-me patch of Land. After nine years of dwelling in mostly subtropical climates in central Queensland & Gulf coast Texas, I recently relocated to southwest Colorado. I am getting reacquainted with a Land that moves through much more distinct seasonal changes than the Land of my most recent experiences. Instead of just summer and not-quite-summer, I moved in to a true spring for the first time in quite a while.

Settling into our new home over the last few months included a good bit of time in our new gardens; weeding, composting, mulching, learning about the community irrigation system, pruning, transplanting, and of course, identifying the assorted flora & fauna making appearances all around us. It turns out, this has been a heck of a year for lilacs & garter snakes. They’ve both made exceptional showings around here throughout this spring & early summer; fat, lush, numerous, & bringing their lessons into my life full force with the power of nature’s own magic.

Photo by J.N. Stuart
Wandering Garter Snake – Photo by J.N. Stuart

While we’ve seen many of them throughout our new cohousing community, there seem to be three garter snakes in particular who are partial to living in our front garden. All three look to be Thamnophis elegans vagrans — Wandering Garter Snakes.

At first, my eldest daughter found them highly disconcerting. So, we spent a decent chunk of time learning about them in an effort to use herpetology to demystify these slithery little garden dwellers. We discovered they give live birth, have the most toxic saliva of all the garter snakes (but aren’t a great risk to humans), & that they eat the widest variety of prey for their species. We also learned they get their common name from the belief that the tend to be the subspecies of garter snake that travels the farthest from bodies of water in their search for food and a home. But all that study only made a relatively small difference in her apprehension around then. I also offered to discuss the symbolism & mythology of snakes and their connections to various spiritual traditions. She rolled her almost-teenage eyes and declined, choosing to remain wary & unimpressed.

One morning over breakfast, she informed me the medium-sized one now had a name. Gerard, she told me. His name is Gerard. Why Gerard, I asked. Because. And that was that. Once named and regularly greeted when seen during her comings & goings throughout the day, the fearfully foreign became the familiar and (at least a touch more) friendly. She’d found her own way to connect & begin cultivating relationship.

Gerard & his pals spend a great deal of time hanging around under the cool shade of our deliciously fragrant lilacs. I regularly apologize for disturbing them as I go about my garden chores, which clearly inconvenience them. They don’t make too much of a fuss about it, instead just slithering further back into the base of the shrub where I can’t bother them.

Observing Gerard’s habits under a cascade of lilac blossoms led me to want to write about them this month. About how they are both helping to connect me just that much more to this Land I now live on. About how they restore my practical & spiritual commitment to environmental stewardship. So, I set about beginning to research Syringa vulgaris, the Common Lilac.

Syringa vulgaris, a hardy, drought-tolerant, deciduous shrub, is actually a member of the Olive family and a native of the Balkans. It has a long-standing reputation in this country for being a low maintenance, easy to grow plant. A gardening article from a late 1950s newspaper extols the virtues of Syringa vulgaris suggesting if “you are a person who likes to make an occasional list of your blessings, be sure to include lilacs [because they]….aren’t at all demanding.”

Syringa vulgaris by another Gerard– Dutch botanical painter, Gerard van Spaendonck

Lilacs arrived in North American thanks to the British who began cultivating them in the late 16th century. The gentleman who is credited with that cultivation is one, John Gerard.

Yes. Gerard.

Gerard was an herbalist who wrote extensively, publishing his Herball in 1597, including an examination of his abundant Syringa vulgaris, which he referred to as the Blew Pipe. Gerard grew, observed the botanical properties of, & wrote about lilacs.

This is how natural magic works in my life. I watch. I listen. I taste, touch, & smell the natural world around me. And then I work to learn. In my Tradition, we use an old Celtic Triad that speaks to the Three Foundations of Spirituality: Hearth as altar, work as worship, and service as sacrament. My hearth extends to the piece of Land I inhabit at any given time. In this space, my home & the Land I am connected to become my living altar. My work to observe, connect with, learn about, & experience synchronicity through this Land is my worship. Gerard & the lilacs remind me that everything is connected. This is what makes my stewardship of the Land, a sacrament of service.

And so, while I may not know what to do about all those enormously complex & dire environmental issues we face today or how to convince others we need to do something about them in the first place, I do know that I can do my best to serve as a guardian of sacred Land at my own Hearth today.

Everything is connected; garter snakes, lilacs, dead British herbalists, gifted Dutch painters, my daughter, and me.

Even the smallest acts of stewardship are steps in the right direction. Can you imagine? What if everyone performed a small sacrament of service to our sacred Earth today?

What would yours be?

Now go do it.


Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a brand-new resident of Colorado & a homeschooling mother to her three children. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitates labyrinth rituals, and leads workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2016, she will be presenting at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Conference in Boston, MA, at the SOA’s first open online conference, AvaCon 2016, & at the inaugural Ninefold Festival in Orange, CT. 

Author: Kate M. Brunner

Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon. She is a resident of Heartwood Cohousing & a homeschooling mother of three. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, priestesses labyrinth rituals, and facilitates workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2017, she will present at the SOA’s annual online conference, AvaCon, & at the second annual Ninefold Festival in Colorado. She is also published in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.

11 thoughts on “Syringa vulgaris, Gerard, & Me by Kate Brunner”

  1. Thank you so much for the story of Gerard and Gerard. It is through such particularity and love that the beauty and perils of the planet become real, that minds and hearts open, delight and ache.

    I once lived near a sacred spring where every year the garter snakes emerged from hibernation and basked together (and with me) in the spring sun. They had no fear of the human in their midst and would glide over my bare feet. When one day I found a dead snake, I buried it under the leaves and lit some incense. One by one snakes glided and gathered until about twenty snakes and I held what seemed like a snake wake. I miss them in my new home.

    I have not seen but know an enormous snake lives somewhere near. The snake periodically sheds her skin in the hollow of a 300 year oak. We think it is a black snake.

    Long live snakes and lilacs and love for this planet.


  2. Very fine environmental post, thanks Kate. Here I’d like to respond to your last line where you say:
    “Even the smallest acts of stewardship are steps in the right direction. Can you imagine? What if everyone performed a small sacrament of service to our sacred Earth today?”

    A great thing to do is commit to planting a new tree if possible. I live in a densely populated city but a number of years ago, it decided to plant one million new trees. And, now all those trees lining the streets and in various backyards have grown tall, and are getting taller, and so the city has these vast canopies — so beautiful and very healthy, because the trees supply so much more oxygen.

    I linked my name here to a photo of what I see when I look out my window, and looking down at the street below — hard to believe these beautiful backyard trees are located in Manhattan.


    1. That’s amazing Sarah! I am fortunate to be surrounded with trees where I live.
      I think our garter snakes are smaller than Kates but I love them. They eat the slugs who are eating my veggies! Or they were where I lived before and gardened in the actual soil. Now I have to use pots or raised bed so my main love has switched to worms! It’s a wonderful world! May it flourish with the care of generations.


  3. I remember springtime! Although I live in Long Beach, CA (just south of Los Angeles), where we have a Mediterranean climate and our growing season is winter, I grew up near St. Louis, where we had regular seasons and it rained a lot and the Mississippi River has lots of water in it all year round. We had garter snakes, too, though I didn’t become friends with any of them.

    What would I do today for the earth? Leave the land alone. Not dig or blast or poison. I don’t think people can own the land. The planet owns herself, and we can perhaps get a long-time lease and own the house we build on her. I respect the land and the wilderness, but the wilderness doesn’t need to have my footprints in it. Today I will therefore respectfully leave the land alone, do my usual prayer for rain, and send my good wishes to creatures who live where I don’t see them.


  4. Lovely post, Kate. I loved the synchronicity of Gerard and Gerard. It is magical.

    I’ve always loved garter snakes. My dad was a veterinarian and he introduced us to snakes, and bats, and any other animal in our vicinity. Before I moved to the shore of Lake Mendota, I used to walk in a small wilderness area that belonged to the University arboretum. There was a boardwalk that lined the small lake in its midst, and one day, as I rounded the corner back towards the gravel path, I discovered a garter snake at eye level, coiled up around a rush stalk. I walked very carefully up to it, looked it in the eye, even moved my hand in its direction, but left it untouched. It was an amazing experience.


  5. I envy you with your good neighbor snakes. You must be doing something very right in that garden for them to live so comfortably there.


    1. I love your stories about the lilacs. I heard somewhere that in the 19th century women who were moving into a new log cabin, or cottage, or house, would plant a lilac by the door as a way to make it a “home.” I tend to believe this because in my travels I’ve seen so many derelict Victorian homes in which the building was falling down, but the lilacs were still blooming by the door. I live in an 1850s house and I also have a lilac blooming by my door that was there when I moved in almost 30 years ago. I don’t know how old it is, but when I tend it in the springtime I think of the women have managed the household of my house over the years. Originally my house was built to house workers in the textile mill down the street and the family took in boarders for extra money. The work must have been relentless for the women who managed the household and so I often think of how they have left little trace inside the house, but outside, with that lilac, perhaps a descendant of one planted so long ago, we connect across the decades with our common love of nature and beauty.


      1. Beautiful, Carolyn. When we lived in our old house, we had the most beautiful lilac in the neighborhood, planted by someone before us. The reason it was so glorious was because we had our compost heap close to its roots (beauty and ugliness intertwined).


  6. Great post, Kate! My little act of service that I do each day is to feed the birds, squirrels, raccoons, and whatever else comes by. The animals are used to me and often come around me while I put out seed, peanuts, and dog food. Yesterday I put out seed and peanuts at my little meditation spot at the edge of the woods and as I was doing so a chipmunk ran around my feet. Then while I was sitting in my chair there and contemplating Gaia, the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks, a raccoon came to eat. It got within 6 feet of me. Last year we watched one we dubbed Rebecca. One day she brought her child, whom we named Moxie, then another time she showed up with 6 babies. We couldn’t tell them apart so we called them all Moxie. This year Rebecca was here, but then another raccoon came and now we only see that one. We are guessing s/he is one of the Moxies. Perhaps Rebecca moved her family somewhere away from Moxie. Anyway, by feeding the wildlife we are richly rewarded.


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