Sometimes the hardest stories to share are the ones worth telling. It was 2013 in Homer, Alaska when I met Steve Johnson, the founder of Alaskan Flower Essences. For several years I had seen the training he offered, but lived in Seattle and then Livingston, Montana. So, I couldn’t swing the long trip to Homer.
In a strange and bizarre twist of events, I found myself unexpectedly living in Anchorage, Alaska. In 2011, we were forced to move after a series of unfortunate events from our home in Montana.
But, that is a different story.
When I saw the training was happening again in nearby Homer, I jumped-in because I wanted to add the essences to my potent vegetable juices. Little did I know, driving the four and a half hours to Homer from Anchorage would change my life in ways I still shake my head at today. I was one of the last students enrolled that busy summer.
Two other students and myself arranged to drive down together. Once we arrived at the tranquil location where students from as far away as Pennsylvania, New York, and California gathered – our stories were all eerily similar. Everyone had seen the training multiple times over the years, weren’t able to make it for various reasons, but found themselves committing at the last minute to the 2013 training.
I went to the training under the auspices of enhancing my company product, Life Jus, but found something deeper instead. On the first day we sat down in a circle and Steve non-nonchalantly said, “You’ve come here for personal transformation.”
I tipped my head slightly at this notion and internally said, “No, I’ve come to learn the essences so I can use them in my juices.”
I had done a lot of transformation and at that juncture I’d had about all the personal transformation I felt I could handle. I wasn’t really about doing internal work, processing, or dealing with past issues. I thought I’d healed. As a friend recently reminded me, sometimes divine timing steps in and while painful, it is perfect.
(Homer, Alaska) The first day Steve went through all the instructions, agenda, and schedule for the days ahead. At the close of the first day he asked us to sit quietly in a circle, ground our energy, and let a plant come to our mind’s eye. While I had a little knowledge of plants having studied a few, I wasn’t nearly as versed on the local flora having recently moved to Alaska. Despite being in unfamiliar territory, I closed my eyes and set my intention, “stay open”, I told myself. I may as well go through the process.
It didn’t take long for a shaggy fraggle rock (The Muppets) green spiny haired plant to appear. This was very exciting. Steve continued to guide us through this plant ‘meet and greet.’ I held the image in my mind and visited with it.
I didn’t know it’s name and it didn’t tell me either. What it did do was tell me what it was good for. How it helped humanity, animals, and other species of the boreal forest. I listened to the long list of information flooding in through my mind slowly shutting it off as Steve closed out this exercise. Dumbfounded, I headed toward the door. As we stepped down the yurt steps, I spied the plant growing by the walkway. I asked the naturopath of our group what it was and she said, “Horsetail.”
I replied, “I thought horsetail grew up straight and looked like a snake.”
She agreed, “Yeah, it looks different in its vegetative form.”
It was magical. This plant had picked me. It came instantaneously and told me it’s purpose in healing in only a few minutes of reflection. While I wanted to say logically this was only my mind conjuring up a scenario, I had no idea it was the same plant. It looked utterly different in these two growth stages.
It took about twenty four hours for this to sink in deeply. Once I realized I’d just successfully talked to a plant, a flood of emotions came next. It was if I had to grieve the loss of this amazing connection since childhood. Our tasks moving forward were to ‘sit’ with the plant and commune with it. Be patient and talk to it. Horsetail just kept insisting that I needed, “To remember.” When I thought back on my childhood I remembered sitting in the Pennsylvania woods as a child talking to the trees, bright red salamanders, and looking up into the skies. I remembered laying down on the pine needles in the woods behind my house thinking how tall the pines were there and then questioning, I wonder how tall the redwoods of California are?
These memories all came rushing back. As I continued to learn about horsetail, this plant’s medicine started to make a lot of sense. Horsetail is one of the inter-species communicators of the forest. It is also a plant for clearing inner awareness. Essence of horsetail will help communication between animals, humans, and the levels of consciousness within (bringing unconscious awareness into consciousness).
Of course Steve already knew this. He was the creator of Alaska Flower Essences, he’d probably used horsetail medicine a thousand times in his work.
By the second day my grief was palpable. I couldn’t hold in the shudders of emotions welling up into my chest and heart. How could I have shut off this crucial connection with the forest and its medicine for so long?
We convened at the table for breakfast the second day. I sat there trying to control the sudden and inexplicable feelings of sadness welling up inside me. One of the participants, a psychologist noticed my grief welling up and asked me, “Are you missing your children?”
Yes, sure I was, but it was something else that was unleashed. Something I’d pushed away for a very long time. Horsetail was helping me find the answer, but it wasn’t easy. And it was painful. Not only did I need to accept this healing was real, but that I had a role in understanding why.
I tried to answer the doctor’s question, but found I was incapable. Instead I pushed my chair over to Steve who sat at the end of table quietly eating his breakfast. I looked at him, tears streaming down my face and whispered, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”
He smiled at me and responded in careful tones, “Don’t think you can make what?”
“I don’t think I can make it through the week. Look at me.”
Steve got my meaning, “Well, you need to realize there is a bigger part of you that brought you here to this space so you could deal with this. Don’t you think?”
I tried to stifle my tears, “Yes.”
“Then, you need to trust in yourself that you needed this experience and this was the place to do it safely.”
I countered, “Yeah, but I’m crying so hard. It might bother the others.”
He put a hand on my arm, “By allowing this to come out you are saying to the others, ‘it’s okay’.”
I collected myself from the breakfast table and went for a walk. The whole episode was embarrassing. After hiking up the hills around the Homer compound I did feel better and the trees, plants, and flowers were there to ground me in this new reality. Steve was right, this was personal transformation and no matter how hard I tried to deny my purpose in being there, nature had other designs.
(March, 2017) Recently, I felt a deep stirring inside after the long dark Alaska winter. I’d lost my father last November and had been shuttling back and forth traveling across the country. Through January, I’d been sifting through thoughts about my life direction, the darkness of the season, about dad’s life, his purpose, and my own. Then, as I was scrolling through my Facebook updates I saw something shocking. Steve Johnson had passed away in Missoula, Montana.
I was blown-away learning of Steve’s death. He had come to mind in the recent weeks and I’d wanted to send him a note to bring him up to speed on everything that had happened since 2013. I was working with the plants regularly, had been apprenticing with an herbalist, and using plants (including Alaska essences) in my own integrative nutrition health practice. Horsetail had come to mind too, as I was highlighting its medicine in my final monograph for the apprenticeship.
Deep sadness grew around my heart as I read through the brief announcement written by his wife Judith. I remember Steve as vibrant, clear, and healthy. He did share his own personal health challenge at the training, but for some reason I had imagined that he was healed – not still recovering. It had only been three and a half years, just a blink. Steve had a bright, sensitive, and caring soul. His quiet vitality spoke volumes – as did his deep connection with the plants and flowers. He was an expert on vibrational plant medicine. Steve had long since reconciled the skepticism of plant medicine as he used them first hand.
He opened up my eyes, mind, and heart to the natural world’s mysterious depths which I had neglected for a long time. I had not plumbed the healing mysteries of the forest since childhood in Pennsylvania; in the woods where nettle, paper birch, and the bright orange salamanders were abundant. Forest beings and creatures that magically read my thoughts and held me, it was a place where I felt safety and peace.
Maybe I’m just romanticizing this part of my childhood, but I doubt it. I, like others of my family, had to mature early. We had to confront life circumstances head-on, the ‘school of hard knocks’ some called it. Once that process happened, the mysteries of the forest disintegrated in my wake as I moved west.
I climbed, hiked, and stood in awe of the mountainous terrain and beauty that surrounded me in Montana and Washington, but I hadn’t revisited the magic and healing found there intimately – with my heart open. The childhood memories that held the forest’s magic were messages still there in my mind, but they were frozen images co-mingled with the difficulties of youth. They were from another time – before innocence was lost.
It seemed like a century of grueling life experience in between.
Steve rekindled those old memories and guided me to see and eventually believe that nature is never outside of us. We are not separate. It is always within, even if dormant for a while waiting to be discovered. It is a large part of that process of waking up. Dare I say, spiritual process of learning who we really are, and how early life experiences shape us. Into what our parents and society want us to be, what we choose to believe we can accomplish, versus the deep resonant call of who we are.
After I learned of Steve’s passing, I drove to Kaladi coffee to meet with a friend with Steve on my mind and in my heart. I heard Judah and The Lion, Take It All Back on the way. It was a song that seemed to mirror back reflections on Steve’s life, his recent marriage, and his lifelong dreams and pursuits. Maybe it was my transference of witnessing only a small slice of his influence, my rumination on his choices. Specifically, about our life purpose and what I’d held back from living (as a medicine person), while Steve chose boldly to live his.
I drove listening to the song about creating and forging lifelong dreams, about waking up, taking bold steps to create what we want. It foretold about the glory of how public persona is rewarded with fame and popularity. Once we achieve success, we’d take it all back just to have that one person we truly loved.
The mandolin rang out through the car as I turned the volume up.
I arrived at the coffee shop and held Steve in my thoughts. He was a bold pioneer who took many of us by the hand and opened our minds to the fact that nature speaks to us if we will only listen. Steve’s life seemed to be cut short while I imagined him always there, as an expert teacher, ensuring my confidence -all of his students’ confidences that he would be there when we needed him.
His death woke me up to the fact that we are all working with that side of our self that we fear. What would it be like to be bold enough to let it out? To share our stories no matter how difficult? To explore what our personal truth means with others, and risk exposure of rejection no matter what.
Steve being gone from this physical plane made me confront the reality that I’m going to be gone someday too. Maybe someday soon. What the hell am I doing waiting and still contemplating? How do I want to really live my life? Why am I holding back from sharing something I know is so important it might help others like how Steve helped me? For fear, retaliation, or death?
As I sat across the table from Tricia who I’d come to meet, I told her some of this, and she encouraged me gently, “Sometimes we keep looking for a reason to be ready. What if we’re never ready?”
I answered, “How can you never be ready for your life’s purpose?”
She looked back at me quizzically, “Well, if we keep waiting, we might not ever get there.”
I let the moment pass.
She reminded me of something Steve said years before, “Sometimes we just need to start where we are.”
I’m not at the beginning of the journey and for that I am grateful, but where I put my foot down next is surely new territory. The great mystery of the unknown while challenging has helped me grow, like believing I was drawn to the Alaskan essences for a juice supplement and finding a deeper calling. Accepting this personal truth through telling this story has certainly helped remind me of what I was telling myself versus realizing the profound reality that we are deeply interconnected. As I think of Steve and his pioneering work, I’m grateful I’m still alive and for those beautiful friends and teachers who have helped me come along this far on the journey.
You will be missed Steve Johnson. I thank you deeply for all you do and did. As Judah and The Lion says,
I’m waking up. I’m well on my way to my dreams coming true and getting to do it with you….
Dedicated to Steve Johnson, my friend and teacher. To learn more about Steve and Alaska Flower Essences click here.