I learned about plants as my Trentino ancestors and relatives learned: orally, seasonally, and in the forest and meadows. Erin Kenny, my teacher, is an ethnobotanist whose knowledge derives from decades of observation and foraging experience in the forests of the Northwest United States. Kenny has recorded her observations and plant wisdom in her book A Naturalist’s Journal although her primary and preferred teaching method is experiential. Her classes are held in the forest at Camp Terra, an internationally-recognized outdoor school where she teaches children and trains teachers. In the forest classroom, we experienced the plants in context of where and how they grow, observed them changing over the months, and eventually learned to discern differences among numerous plants that at first appeared similar. We also touched, tasted, and smelled the plants, gathering wild edibles for a lunchtime tea, brewed in water heated over a small open fire at the center of a stone circle. Continue reading
As in any meaningful relationship, my initial encounter with a special tree remains in my memory. I first met Maggiociondolo in Trentino, Italy in 1995 while visiting my cousin Angelo. Soon after my arrival, we were walking one day when I saw the most beautiful tree in bloom, heavy with golden yellow blossoms that hung in grape-like clusters. “Che cos’è?” I asked in awe. “What is it?”
“Maggiociondolo,” Angelo replied. It was a difficult word to master, and I had to repeat it several times, until he explained that it was “Maggio” – May, “ciondolo” – pendant. Of course, the pendant of the month of May! May’s Necklace. It felt like this Golden Tree was personally welcoming me to Italy for my extended stay, as I wrote down its name in my spiral notebook of important vocabulary.
The following May, when I was back home in the Northwest US, I was astounded to see this tree, laden with yellow blossoms, growing on the nearby school grounds. It grew on the Island where I lived! I learned that its common name is Golden Chain, although I always greet it by its Italian name, Maggiociondolo. Embodied seasonal memories of delight rush in when I first see the blossoms appear in the canopy of spring growth.
One autumn for my birthday, my friend Theresa gifted me with a Maggiociondolo tree, knowing the story of how much I loved it. With loving intentionality, she planted it so that my kitchen window perfectly frames its seasonal beauty.
When May arrives, the first blossoms begin to form, often coming into fullness right on Theresa’s birthday, when the days are long and warm. It feels meaningful that Maggiociondolo blossoms in the month that Angelo left this world, and that Theresa entered this world. Seeing its flowers fills my heart with golden memories of Trentino, and with gratitude for this living expression of friendship.
Decades ago, after my grandparents had died, I felt called by my ancestors to visit my ancestral homeland and to find my grandparents’ birthplaces. From the years of genealogical research that followed, I know that I am the daughter of Lena, granddaughter of Edvige, great granddaughter of Felicita, and great great granddaughter of Margerita. It is these women in my motherline who beckoned me to retrieve my cultural heritage with a focus on folk women’s culture.
On the eve of February 2, 2007, the midway point on the solar cycle of the year between the longest night and the spring equinox, I opened El Meledri, the periodical from the village of my maternal grandmother in northern Italy, named for the river that borders the village. Inside, there was a photo of three women: my great grandmother, at the center, and her two oldest daughters, Emma and Erminia on either side. Their eyes seemed to look straight across the ages into mine and say, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Knowledge of my culture was not handed down to me explicitly, as it was for centuries from mother to daughter, parent to child, for a number of reasons including early deaths, immigration to the United States, discrimination, and the missing link of stories tied to particular places.
Much of the oral history was lost due to language. My mother could understand her mother’s spoken dialect (a particular variation of Italian), but she responded to her in English. Here in the United States, my grandmother’s language—the very medium of agency through which her culture had been communicated for generations—became a source of shame, due to her inability to speak “good English.” Her oldest daughter, my Aunt Annie, told me that my grandmother brought her along as a translator in shops to conduct transactions. Through language courses, and with time, my grandmother mastered the English necessary to pass the difficult exam for citizenship, which became a source of pride.
Three years before I was born, my grandmother died while sitting in my mother’s kitchen. As a result, I did not hear a single word of my grandmother’s language growing up. Only in 1981, when I traveled with my mother to Italy so that she could see the birth village of her mother, did this hidden language that she held inside for thirty years tumble out.
In this unfolding story of my heritage, I have sought to recover and make more evident the folk wisdom of my ancestors, particularly of my female ancestors. The arrival of the photo of my bisononna by mail on the sacred day of Santa Brigida, also known as Candlemas, while I was deep in coursework for my dissertation on my ancestral heritage, seemed to be an auspicious affirmation of my Ancestor’s desire to be known.
From my studies and travels, I now know – and thus can appreciate more fully – the numerous ways that cultural values have been transmitted to me in everyday family life, including through food, clothing, medicine, religious practices, acts of service, and celebration.
I am standing under the light of the full moon near the apple tree in the backyard of my home. Suddenly the light of the moonbeam begins to lift me up, off the ground, towards the moon. I awake, frightened, my heart beating fast.
I have never forgotten this childhood dream. As a young girl, I did not yet know that I had a lunar legacy in my cultural history. In years to come, I came to understand the power of the cycle of the moon: the potency reflected in its darkness and the manifestation of that potential energy in its fullness fourteen days later. Continue reading
Today the glittery orange Ancestral Box on my desk caught my eye and I opened it. The images of my Grandmothers I had cut out and pasted in it were there to greet me, along with my great grandmother and other women in the family who influenced me. When I started my Ancestral work as part of an academic program, I created this sacred box on Halloween – the time of year when we remember those who have died – to ask for help and guidance from them. It is full of intention and hope, beauty and promise. Continue reading
Today I am finishing the last bit of the honey I hand-carried home from my most recent trip to Trentino. Sun yellow in color, it is made from the nectar of mountain flowers. Its label tells its origin: di montagna, of the mountains, and its type, mille fiore, often translated as “wildflowers.” Literally, however, it means “a thousand flowers.”
The valley where my maternal grandmother was born, Val di Sole, is renowned for its honey. In Croviana, one of the villages in the valley, new honey is celebrated in July with a sagra, a communal food festival. There are more than a dozen different types of honey from Trentino, including apple, chestnut, and rhododendron. These are plants of place – nature’s gifts that appear in the folk stories and are present in everyday life.
Honey appears in recipes for traditional food, beverages, and medicines. My preference, however, is a taste of honey all by itself, with no other competing flavors or textures. This intentional act of eating honey feels like a direct connection with the mountains of my grandparents’ homeland. I imagine I am taking in the wisdom of my ancestors, the healing of nature, and the essence of place. With a taste, I am in union with the exquisiteness of a thousand wildflowers in spring bloom. Continue reading
As I wandered the Island roads today, wild Forget-Me-Nots lined my path, bringing a delightful and immediate heart-connection with the Anguane, the magical women of the waters in the Italian Alps. With the appearance of “their” flower, the Anguane seemed to be asking me to remember them, as they do in the folk stories of Trentino, Italy. Continue reading
The other night
with the Moon’s light
veiled in her dark
the wilderness sky revealed
a dome of dazzling stars
I gasped with delight,
a familiar memory
Around the rim where sky touches earth,
in every direction,
lightning danced in soft spreads of light
messengers of potent possibility.
With Her dark spaciousness
this Star Mother
tells me that
She will hold my troubles.
“Offer it up,” She says,
just as my birth/earth Mother used to say
when my childhood sorrows felt too much to bear.
“Offer it up.”
In memory of my mother, Lena Pearl Moser, who left this world on March 26, 2014, and of my friend, Lydia Ruyle, who departed on March 26, 2016.
The blackberries are fermenting on the vine, fallen leaves blanket the picnic table, and the slice of sun on my clothesline arrives later each day. With the arrival of fall, the days of being able to hang my laundry outside are growing fewer. Lately I have been pondering my passion for this ritual of outdoor clothes drying. Is it only the sensual pleasure I crave, or something more? Continue reading
My ancestral calling began decades ago with a curiosity about my heritage. Growing up, I knew only that my four grandparents, immigrants from Europe to “L’America,” were from “The Old Country.” Their early deaths, differences of language, and the pressure for immigrants to the United States in the 20th century to assimilate all contributed to a loss of transmission of cultural identity. As a result, I was raised without an explicit knowledge of my cultural heritage. In my twenties, when I first located my grandparents’ villages in the northern Italian region of Trentino, and walked on the paths there, I felt a stirring of recognition, a genetic memory of a long connection to that land. Some part of me came alive and felt connected in a different way than I had experienced in my Colorado birthplace.
My initial research took the form of on-site genealogical research in the village churches, carefully paging through centuries-old, hand written documents, a thrilling and sometimes frustrating endeavor. Years later, while on a sabbatical to do family research in Italy, I encountered a rich spiritual heritage in the folk Catholicism embodied in the form of the Black Madonna, which became the focus of my graduate studies and master’s thesis. Through mitochondrial DNA testing, I realized more fully that my very body carried the knowledge of my family tree, one that extended much further back than the 500 years I had managed to research so far, to my oldest known mother – and the mother of all humans – in Africa 150,000 years ago. The paths of my research, both genealogical and spiritual, led to a Dark Mother.
After several research trips to document Black Madonna sites throughout Italy, my Ancestral Mothers called to me once again to know more about them. As part of a PhD program in Women’s Spirituality, I researched and studied my cultural history, with a focus on women, spirituality, and folk culture. It has been a deeply meaningful work to discover and uncover the layers of my story across time. Although I lamented having no material possessions of my grandparents, I realized that their values – including caring and sharing, respect for elders, honoring the ancestors, and care for children – have been passed down. These values, still present in the living culture, became evident in my oral interviews in the US and in Italy, and in the folk stories told across the ages.
In the days and months to come I will be sharing more of what I learned. While my stories draw from my specific cultural heritage, viewed from the perspective of a third generation Trentino American woman, I hope they will provide guidance and inspiration, just as I have been informed by the culturally specific stories of others. My cultural history – that is, the story of my culture – roots me to the past, unites me to others, and grounds me for the future. This particularity of my history, one that often has been submerged under other stories, enhances my understanding of self and others. Through this endeavor, I feel connected to the spiral of life.