Permaculture means different things to different people, but at root it means taking natural ecosystems as the model for our own human habitats. Natural ecosytems are by definition sustainable, and if we can understand the way they work we can use that understanding to make our own lives more sustainable. Patrick Whitefield, The Earth Care Manual
I have been fortunate to work with Jewels Wingfield, a menstrual teacher based in the Forest of Dean. I would like to introduce you to Jewels’ teachings, specifically focusing on her unique approach to the menstrual cycle and the seasons of the year...
Practising permaculture involves observing natural cycles and using them to inspire and inform our actions to build sustainable systems. Ultimately, it’s about working with nature, rather than against it. Using the seasonal cycles of food growing and the apple tree as inspiration, this article focuses on recognising the menstrual cycle as teacher in achieving a more sustainable life.
Let’s face it, the menstrual cycle has received plenty of bad press over the years. It’s one of the last taboos in even the more open-minded, still considered to be ‘the curse’ and a shameful inconvenience to us getting on with our busy demanding lives. Meanwhile, women often put all their energy and passion into the external ‘production’ of life: working, growing food, taking care of the family, whilst overlooking their own bodies, pushing their energy resources, getting tired and wondering why.
Has the Answer Been Inside Us All Along?
We often lead busy lives and even if our work is governed by the seasons, working and living on the land, it’s easy to override our own internal wisdom. There is always so much to do! But where we might ignore our own needs for rest and recuperation, we seldom question the seasonal requirements of the plants and trees we tend.
The apple tree is a good example. It moves through distinct seasonal phases, changing in appearance and production throughout the year. We know not to expect apples in the middle of winter, instead looking forward to the blossom, leaves and fruit at their proper time. As women, we have our own monthly cycle, and the journey of the apple through the year can help illustrate the changes we regularly go through in our internal seasons.
The tree stands naked and dormant, resting and regenerating, right down to the roots, deep in the soil. This is the same for the winter of our cycle, the time of bleeding when we shed the lining of the uterus and let go of the potential of life. We are invited to deeply rest and regenerate ourselves. It is a time for visioning and dreaming the possibilities while we rest and stop ‘doing’.
In early spring the tree puts out tender shoots and blossom, whilst in our ovaries follicles are ripening as we can feel our energy and creativity returning. It’s a time of potential and vulnerability, from the apple’s seeds many tiny shoots may come but not all will grow into trees. As we come out of the darkness of our bleed time, we may feel our energy returning and wish to capitalise on this. But just as heavy handling can damage tiny seedlings, so too can pushing ourselves too hard or too fast in our own springtime. Instead we can nurture our seedlings, protect them as they grow, and not expect too much just yet.
The tree is vigorously growing, fruit fattening on the branches. Meanwhile in us ovulation occurs with all the potential of new life, felt as energy and passion for life. It’s the most familiar season, the one where the tree is bursting with growing fruit, the picture of abundance. And we can be full of energy and excitement for life, able to achieve a great deal. Best loved by many as a time of plenty, it’s not surprising we want to stay here all the time. But how could a fruit tree survive if forced to bear fruit all year round?
The tree gives its fruit, dropping any uneaten to the ground below, storing seed for the future and food for growth to come. In our own autumn, when the egg is not fertilised, it is our time for taking stock, reflecting on what we gave in our attempts to be everything to everyone. Autumn is an often misunderstood time in the menstrual cycle – the time associated with PMT and all the discomfort it can bring. But this time of taking stock, deeply respecting what we actually can and can’t do, can be hugely empowering. Perhaps we struggle premenstrually because we are forcing ourselves to carry on being all things to all people, when our bodies are asking us to slow down and start to go inwards. It is autumn that can show us what we really desire and believe.
And Back to Winter...
The drop into the bleed. How many of us actually take time out of our lives to bleed? No matter how we may want to, or how strongly our bodies may call us to (aching belly, foggy mind?) there is seldom space in our lives for this drop. But the apple seed knows this wisdom. Try and force it open before it is ready and it won’t grow and flourish. It needs that dormancy in the dark to prepare it for growth in the spring.
Each season is vital for the life and vitality of the tree, winter is as important as summer in the production of an abundance of fruit. If we can recognise the flow of these seasons within us we can use them to live in a more sustainable way, respecting and nurturing the ecosystem of our own body, not forcing it into continuous production.
How then do we bring this into our lives? As a culture, we force ourselves into spring and summer all the time, constantly producing and achieving. It’s not surprising how hard it is to honour our internal seasons. But we can use our cycle to inform us and shape sustainable ways of being for ourselves, especially in the face of all our existing responsibilities.
The most powerful way to start, as a woman, is to track your cycle. Observe how you feel each day as you move through your own inner seasons, notice what’s happening in your inner world. Track how you move through your day, be aware of why it’s so much harder today than it was a week ago. Just this awareness alone can be hugely empowering. If you can’t change what’s happening externally, you can change little things – like moving around in a way that honours where you’re at, finding ways to take a rest, to be more aware, perhaps do things differently.
If you’re bleeding when you come home from work, consider a bath and an early night rather than going out to socialise as you might have planned. You may have more energy in the middle of the cycle, around ovulation, so save big projects for this time if you can put them off, rather than pushing yourself through whilst you’re in the depth of bleeding. Even consciously taking a few hours of down time when our bodies need it in winter can be hugely beneficial.
If your experience of the menstrual cycle has been challenging, making friends with it can be hard, and learning how it can inform our lives is a journey. Like anything, it starts with a single step, and this relationship will always be evolving, right on into and through menopause. Ultimately, by understanding and connecting with our menstrual cycle, we can realise that it is truly a blessing, not a curse.
Tracking Your Cycle
This can be done is any way that works for you – with a journal or an app on your phone, or your computer. Start with Day 1, recording how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally, your needs and desires, how you interact with the world, how well you can concentrate, your production and effectiveness. Each day make a record, as long or short as you like. When you come back to your bleed time, start back on Day 1, recording this month below the last again so you can compare them as you progress. You may find you see a pattern emerging over time.
Emily Stewart lives in Bristol with her husband and young daughter. Having transformed her own experience of her menstrual cycle, she is constantly inspired by how our bodies' wisdom can help positively shape our lives as women.
Earth Heart, run by Jewels Wingfield, is a centre in the Forest of Dean that explores how to work with women and their menstrual cycle in the context of permaculture and living on the land. ‘Earthing The Moon’ is an experiential course held through the four seasons of the year about how to marry the inner and outer seasons, with nature and the menstrual cycle as teacher. See:
Alexandra Pope’s work with the menstrual cycle: www.redschool.net
‘A Celebration Day for Girls’, an empowered and positive start to menstruation: www.celebrationdayforgirls.com
The Wild Genie: The Healing Power of Menstruation, A Pope, Authors Online Ltd (2014).
The Woman’s Quest: Unfolding women’s path of power and wisdom, A Pope, self published (2006). A thirteen-session self-guiding course, available from: www.wildgenie.com
A Blessing not a Curse: A mother daughter guide to the transition from child to woman, J Bennett, Sally Milner Publishing (2002).
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