Chickadee Teachings and Sunflower Medicine
Chickadee Teachings and Sunflower Medicine

Chickadee Teachings and Sunflower Medicine

Everyday through the fall and into the snow filled month of December we had the great pleasure of being visited by a living stream of Black Capped Chickadees. The short explanation is that this year, we grew about 1000 square feet of Daytona sunflowers.

Usually I grow a small patch, maybe 100 heads of Mammoth Russian, for snacking and sprouting. These lovely giants were hybrid in Russia, in the 1700’s. It’s said that Peter the Great is responsible for the sweeping popularity of Sunflowers in Russia and the Ukraine. Sunflowers have dramatically boosted the economies of many countries because they would grow where grains wouldn’t, being more tolerant to poor soil, drought, heat, frost, fungi, mildew and pestilence.

Sunflower seeds made their journey across the ocean to Europe, three hundred years ago when the hundred and fifty year old pine trees, whose trunks made the house I’m now sitting in, were tiny seedlings scattered through the understory of Pikwakanagan.(Great pines walking to down the hills to the lake). They were highbred into the Mammoths during the eighteenth century. Mammoths are named for their huge seeds and seed heads (over a foot wide), and for their daunting height of over ten feet. In 1880, these giants made their way back home to North America. Just over a hundred years later, the seeds came to me through Seed Savers in 1989 and I’ve grown them for 27 years.

This year for the first time we grew about 3000 heads of another ‘oil’ type of sunflower, bred in Vermont, that’s very high in oleic oil. We’ve never produced our own vegetable oil on the farm here. And it’s probably the biggest industrial food dependency that we have. We could, and do cook with lard and butter, but for health reasons and taste we mostly use coconut, olive and sunflower oil. Unfortunately, these oils we use aren’t made locally. So, even if they’re organic they cost us (the Earth) incredible amounts in their processing and transportation. The plan is to de-hull our own sunflower seeds, mash them and extract the oil. Then, use the leftover sunflower meal to make flour. If the de-hulling proves too difficult, we’ll press the seeds for oil with hulls and then feed the pressed mash to the chickens. Or, with the hulls on and without the press, you can just mash the seeds and simmer them for a couple hours to extract the oil, then strain out the plant material and skim the oil off the top.

I think Sunflowers are an unsung hero. They seldom rank among the pantheon of food staples that are known to be at the foundation of civilizations, like wheat, rice, potatoes and corn. But they should be, because they too have sustained millions of our ancestors for thousands of years. Unlike the others in the pantheon of complex carbohydrates, sunflowers have a much broader range of proteins, fats and oils, minerals and vitamins. And, unlike any of these others, you can live and stay healthy by just eating sunflower seeds, as they are so rich in all the nutrients humans need, including vitamin C if they’re sprouted!

Sunflowers are big medicine and are truly a super food. They, like the other protogenic plants that were the transformative agents in the creation of civilization, became an essential staple for those cultures that first grew them and all those to follow. The origins of these co-creators have been lost to the waves of conquest. The amazing truth is, we don’t know where our staple foods come from. We say we do, we have a time and a place, but as archeology has proven to itself over and over, one find changes all our hard facts, theories and dates. Makes them all wrong. So what are the chances that what we know now is right?

Based on archaeological evidence, Sunflowers were a staple food for people who lived in what is now the New Mexico area 4600 years ago. Since before that time, when the gods and goddesses walked the Earth, when Sunflower was first born, many peoples from the Anasazi to the Zuni (and Russians!), had Sunflowers at the centre of their culture. As was corn, squash and beans for many First Nations people of North America.

This date, 2600 BC, like all our pre-historic dates is tricky. Yes, even with modern dating analysis. Because while we might have the date of what we’ve found correct (which gets labeled as the ‘first evidence of species’), we’ve likely only found the most recent of ruins that have survived the passage of time, in a long line of cultures that came before. So, our association with saying this seed was from this culture is a convenient assumption based on a random find. The truth is we seldom find cultures that predate these large civilizations, not because they didn’t exist, but because most cultures before that time four or five thousand years ago were ‘nomadic’. This meant that they were less materialistic. You don’t make and accumulate things if you’re going to have to leave them behind, or carry it all several times a year. Especially rocks or heavy objects that might last thousands of years in the ground for us to find! And generally, these earlier cultures weren’t stone monument builders. Even when we happened to find seeds or cultural artifacts older than those we attribute to the seed’s culture of origin (and they have), we don’t recognize them because we are looking through the eyes of materialistic monument builders. And so, even when seeds have been found from nomadic people we have difficulty legitimizing their existence scientifically, and fitting the finds into our history models.

Image: Catherine Howe

Ok, now back up and apply that perspective to those Sunflower seeds found in a New Mexico village setting, 4600 years ago. I would contest these dates by a couple thousand years, at least! As I said, any found seeds that we have ‘legitimized’, were held by a huge (stationary) ancient culture that was carrying them at the time. And part of what makes the ‘find’ legitimate is because we have a grasp, an inkling, of who these people were and where they fit into our history. For us to recognize an ancient culture, it was likely already fully developed at that point in time. But the truth is when we’re finding undisturbed storerooms and houses with food, it represents the end of that specific culture’s arc in history. As with these Sunflower seeds, apply this thinking to the earliest ‘warrior king’ cultures we recognize in Sumer, the Nile and Indus Valley, who we see as the progenitors of wheat and rice. But, as with Sunflowers, it goes to figure that there must have been a much earlier and much greater swelling culture who actually co-created the seed strains. So why don’t we know about them? Because, they weren’t warrior king cultures. The people who actually created the seeds were semi-nomadic cultures. These people, the unknown progenitors of our distant ancestral cultures, created living monuments that were seeds and agricultural methods that have fed hundreds of generations that followed them, including us. As opposed to the Warrior king cultures, that we accredit with the creation of these plants. Our own history should show us that these Warrior king cultures were interested in creating a different kind of wealth, dead monuments of conquest and power that could stand outside the living flow of time, made of stone and concrete.

So, what we historically identify as the start of humans domesticating a particular plant (or animal), is actually long after the end point of a more ancient culture, that we have little or no inkling of, who co-created the seed through means that we don’t know anything about. An older culture that was so intimately involved with the Earth and co-creation, that they made something we are still not capable of — healthy food staples — for millions of people and the land. Not even with two centuries of scientific research, and billions worth of equipment, can mega-corporations like Monsanto ‘genetically engineer’ anything even close.

These ancient peoples co-created a sustainable food source and way of growing it that honoured the land and created prosperity for thousands of years after their culture existed, that we are still living off of. If there are signs left from these cultures I think we might recognize them, not by monuments of conquest and dominion but ‘art’ and ’stories’ of mythical co-creation, of interspecies marriage, sacrifice and rebirth. And this is where we must return, for we are spending the last of the wealth those old ones left us.

About twenty years ago I felt driven to find and grow-out the ‘proto’ seeds of many North American foods. ‘Proto’ simply means first or original, the one from which all the varieties we have now came from. I collected proto-corn (which was a like type of grass with a line of kernel-like seeds on top), proto-squash (not even edible), and proto-beans (scarlet runners), as well as proto-sunflowers. I found the sunflowers in a Park in Zuni territory. I left an offering before I took the seed, but in my questing to understand the origins of these foods, I regret now that I took the seeds without thinking to ask the First Nations people of that land, who were likely the modern caretakers of these seeds, for the seeds and their stories.

When I grew them out they were very tough, short-season, small seeds that were hard to process, but the birds loved them. They were about four feet tall, with heads the size of my palm, not so different from the oil seeds I grew this year. It’s worth noting that Sunflowers are also a close relative of another native of North America, the Sunchoke (Jerusalem Artichoke), that grows in many different regional forms. Sunchokes were also a big staple food and medicine for many Native people in the Americas, and like corn, they were likely highbred from some productive wild strains in a pre-historic time (before 3000 BC). Like Potatoes, Sunchokes want to grow in slowly expanding perennial patches. Because of the Sunchoke’s frost hardiness, it’s likely they originated from the highlands in Central America where it gets cold, but they would not freeze underground, and so could grow year-round. Samuel Champlain brought the Sunchoke to Europe in the 1600’s from Canada, where it became know as ‘the poor man’s potato’. Our prejudices are deeply rooted toward this amazing perennial food.

We can’t talk about sunflowers without at least a nod toward Van Gogh. When Vincent painted his famous sunflowers, he captured something of the Sunflower’s medicine, the majestic other-worldliness and forceful character of the plant. I think many people associate sunflowers with Van Gogh’s madness, because he seemed obsessed with them. There is some truth here. Not that they caused or drove him mad, but the opposite, that they were a balm for his madness. That they were saving him! That’s why they were his favourite subject at the end of his life. And indeed this aspect of the Sunflower medicine is like Saint John’s wort — they bring the nurturing beauty and purifying light of the sun into the depths of our murky being.

‘Sunflowers’ Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

While madness is seen to be ‘in the head’, which the medicine of the heavy headed sunflower speaks to, the brain is often the last organ that is really affected by disease and illness. That the heart and brain are last to go, is our design for obvious reasons. Without them there is no coming back. But the root of mental illness often lies in imbalances or degeneration of the organs responsible for processing toxins, and in the organs we use for pulling energy or ‘chi’ into the body.

These organs are the kidneys and adrenals, liver and lungs, and they are all greatly aided by regularly ingesting Sunflowers or by drinking Sunflower tea from the pre-flowering or flowering heads. Harvesting these to dry them for the year’s tea, is a good way to thin your patch mid summer. We can see Sunflower’s medicine-signatures in his large leaf surfaces, yellow flowers and brown bear-paw like roots that keep the tall heavy plants stable and grounded. This balance and grounding medicine reminds me of Burdock, that also shares some Bear medicine and physical traits with Sunflower.

Burdock and Sunflowers tap into deep resources to replenish our deficiencies and balance us. Part of their magic has to do with their ability to vertically move materials from one dimension (sub-soil) to another (plant material and top soil); transmuting elementals into rich organic forms. The rebuilding and cleansing medicine of these plants can be seen in the way they both enrich and pull toxins from the ground. This deep-drawing medicine gives them the ability to help our blood and liver pull and transmute the toxins we’ve stored in our bodies.

We can also bring Sunflower’s shining radiance to our skin, topically. To make a healing salve, cream or ointment from Sunflower, there is an easy traditional method. I came across this as a Russian practice, but I think it’s likely that every culture that grew this generous being figured this one out because it’s dead easy. The whole heads are used to make an oil; for skin ailments, stiffness and rheumatoid arthritis. Harvest the flower heads as they begin to loose their petals, so seeds have formed on the outside but are also still ripening in the centre, (I also throw in leaves and small young heads in full-petal as well). Break them up a bit and fill a clay, enamel or glass pot with them. Add just enough spring water, so that they will boil down to a mash. If you don’t have spring or well water, then first, leave out an open cloth covered bowl of city water for a couple days. Most of the additives evaporate from the water in that time if there is adequate surface area. Keep the mash on a low simmer for a day or sun-infuse them for a couple sunny days, until the plant material looks visibility sapped. Strain out the plant material with a fine mesh sieve. Of the liquid left, the oil will float to the top. Skim off the oil. Store in cool area, fridge or freezer until you need to use it. The green water part, will make the oil go funky if left in, but has medicine and can be added in as the water portion when making salves or creams. This is not just sunflower oil but a powerful herbal infused liniment, all in one. Ready to rub, or be added as an oil into salve mixture. Truly a miracle plant.

This year we harvested and hand rubbed the seeds off the heads we grew, then dried the seeds inside on huge drying screens over the wood stove, (which are already set up for drying herbs and mushrooms). This makes the seeds more stable for storage or processing, as it brings their water content down (so they won’t go rancid). If you can dry them in the field that’s ideal. But back here in the bush and zone 3b, between the short season, weather and birds, it generally wouldn’t work out in this region.

When we finished going though the heads, we left the small seeds in the centre for the chickadees who had found our processing area to their liking, and set up their own just beside it. It seemed a small offering, since there is little return in processing these sliver like seeds that don’t want to leave the head.

Our Sunflower patch, 2016

It’s a small thing, but I leave my gardens to their own devices after the final harvest. During the hard winter times, birds feed on all the wild seeds, mice and voles dig through the rich reserves of soil for bugs and roots. Animals like rabbits and deer come and eat the corn and broccoli stalks down to the nub. I love knowing I’m not just feeding myself, my family and guests, but also feeding these beings and the Earth with the garden we co-created. By the tracks, it looks like these inhabitants of the land like hanging out in these gardens too. Like the Chickadees, the presence of deer and rabbit brings me great joy. And in the spring, dense clusters of droppings literally cover the garden from top to bottom, left behind as their down payment on next year’s crop.

Amazingly the birds, even the Bluejays that nested right by the field, left the plants alone this year, while they were growing. Maybe because there were so many other things to eat at the end of the summer here, like fruit! Sometimes the Goddess favours us and in our ignorance we call it luck or look for reason.

But, when we were processing the heads, a host of local chickadees found our site and the word went out. Soon there was a stream of birds from dawn to dusk. And they kept it up everyday for months well into the freezing snowy weather! We also saw the first cardinal here, ever. He must have heard about it from the chickadees, they’re such little gossips.

I’ve never been one for feeding wild animals, something doesn’t feel right about it to me. A power dynamic and familiarity is created. And while I recognize that this is lovely and can be of value, I feel the most vital part of the relationship is lost.

When we ‘randomly’ see birds and animals up close in nature, in our shared habitat, it is almost always a profound experience. This is because when they’re that close, the wild spirit of the Earth is whispering to us. These are visitations of divinity, whether we recognize them for who and what they are or not. I can’t really say the same for my encounters with dump bears or the frenzy at bird feeders. And yes, I do also recognize that feeding the birds can be good for their ‘species’, if you do it consistently and on an ongoing basis. But, there are bigger teachings here that we can miss by controlling our wild encounters. By letting beings come to you of their own accord, without baiting them, and learning to keep a respectful distance from that wild beauty, we preserve not just their biological integrity and habitat, but the access to our own revelatory, mythical understanding of the Earth’s language. She speaks through all her children.

Now, having said that, I have to admit that having a living stream of these bright eyed little-flitting-singing-talking bird-friends with such big wild spirits, like fat little Buddhas, around all fall, brought me many lessons and a sweet lightness of being, that is their signature.

Black Capped Chickadee Image: Christopher L. Wood, Source:

Here’s how Chickadee’s medicine works. Many years ago, when I lived alone deep in the bush, there was a snowmobile trail that swung by the land. It was inaccessible to machines for most of the year, so most of the time I lived in the pure beauty of natural sound. But then, on some weekends in the winter I was inundated with these obnoxious machines billowing toxic noise and smell. I used to get quite upset about things like that when I lived in my hermitage.

Anyway, one day I flopped down in the deep snow in despondency at the mechanical menaces screaming by, one after another on a trail a hundred feet down from where I was. I lay there watching Chickadee, who was hanging out there with me. I was all caught up in my torturous thoughts about the invasive snowmobiles, and then, She flew down fast and landed on my chest; on my heart. She brought me out of my thoughts and fully inside the moment. I let go of everything I was holding onto including my breath. This is how, something so small in Nature can pin us down to heal our restless souls. Another snow-machine flew by down below and she jumped to a nearby tree and looked very ‘ready’ and preoccupied for about one second. And then, as soon as the noise passed, so too did Chickadee’s fear or thoughts toward them. They didn’t ruin her day. She’d heard them before and so only gave them the minimum energy needed, nothing more. She instantly let the unsure moment go, and showed me how to do it.

This was a great lesson to me, showing me how to let go of my obsessions over things I can’t change. When we can come into the moment and focus on what’s in front of us, there is never anything to worry about. Seriously, because worrying, by its very nature, involves projecting ourselves into the future and not being fully in the present. Mostly worrying about these things makes the situations worse anyway. Because when we worry, we are literally giving that thing we hate our energy, so situations usually get worse. But when we are in the moment, inside time, we will be sensitive enough to know what to do, or not to do, in the next moment, so there is no worrying, there is only time for absorbing and acting. And each moment of full presence acts like a stepping stone to take you to the next moment in crossing the river of time. When we are aware of the currents swirling around us, we don’t look two stones ahead before stepping, we just look to the next stone.

When we are really in that place, inside time, something strange happens. I always imagine that by being in that place, we create inter-dimensional access to helpers and ancestors. To the ones that live there. This is our design, because they can help us, when we can see no way to step forward. They hear our heart-felt prayers. So ironically, things have a miraculous way of working out when we’re not planning or worrying about preventing tragedy, but just fully present in the moment.

This year, the left over Sunflower head’s Chickadee’s gave me couple of new thoughts as I sat with them. One has to do with the gift these wild beings bring us, in the wild and at our bird feeders. And that is — while we think we’re feeding them, it became clear to me that they are feeding us. In a different, but equally essential way. The second insight is that it’s amazing how much food there was for them in something which was just a crop “residue”, on its way to the compost. Three months, two dozen birds collecting all day long, everyday. Compost is nice for the soil but it makes me think about all the beings between our harvest and the compost, who could have benefitted along the way. Many older cultures laid out, or raised up the bodies of their dead, to feed the birds and the land. But we won’t even leave our crop residues to the wild.

As it stands now with commercial growing, many of our wild animal and bird friends are dependent on our crops or crop residues. But they’re seen as vermin. Imagine how many more millions of animals and birds that we could help raise if this was our intention and we did it as a co-creative act. If we could feed them as ‘rent’ for the land we’re using, feeding the deeper relationships with the wild, without expecting a return. Without mauling the outcome.

If we can pay attention and work with the abundance of life generated by these residues, the gift would cycle back around to us in time. Even though we don’t know what the gift may bring, we could make the giving to the Wild part of our plan and in the budget, just like we used to (and some still do) with the Church. Many of our ancestors gave 10% of our earnings to the church, and we sure couldn’t see how that was going to come back to us. But we were indebted to the church and community and had faith. Are we not indebted to the land and the larger wild community?

If our science has shown us anything, is it not that everything is cycling, from atoms to planets, and that the Earth is a closed entity, endlessly cycling, dying and rebirthing Herself? So, faith isn’t even necessary so much as knowledge and patience, because we know what we give will come back. In the case of crop residues, at first it might come back as a bloom in bird or rodent populations. Then, that turns into a predator bloom, foxes, weasels, birds of prey and snakes. Then, the top predators have food too and all of the trophic levels on the land begin to harmonize toward growth as they were meant to, like a musical cord; bringing back a great diversity and fecundity to the land. To feed the wild denizens of the land they’re due, for our rent, may be how we will save our children’s children. To just leave things alone, instead of burning it, composting it or plowing in the plants, might be a step toward re-establishing our relationship with the Wild that sustains us.

I understand there are times and places where leaving the residues would cause big problems down the road with certain crops. But because we’ve been trained, even with organic growing, in an industrial style agriculture, we always strip back the land without question. We work ourselves up about disease or vermin or ‘weeds’, and we just don’t like the messiness, but it never occurs to us how much the land might benefit by just being left alone. By letting the ‘crop residues’ naturally break down through the hungry host of beings that live there or close by, we are feeding that which feeds us.

Even as I use this word residue I am reminded how our language controls our thoughts and feelings. The word residue feels loaded with diminishment. It actually means ‘that which is left behind’, but I think has come to mean ‘garbage’. Maybe we could find a new holy word or phrase for an intentional leaving, as an offering, to the holy body of that which gives us life.