Healing with Mother Magnolia

posted in: Pilgrimage Stories | 6

The small group we call Women’s Mysteries always meets outside in nature. It’s deeply satisfying when our exploration of psycho-spiritual growth includes interacting with nature. On several occasions one or more of us has communed with Mother Magnolia, Magnolia grandifolia, the tall evergreen guardian of the moss garden whose branches drape to the ground to enfold us. When Robin arranged a meeting that would include the aesthetic craft of stitching magnolia leaves paired with spring equinox seasonal awareness of our growth as women, I was all in. Sitting around a table in the green glow of the moss garden under the gaze of Mother Magnolia, sewing together, as women have done for millennia, transported our gathering beyond season into deep ancestral time.

And into deep evolutionary time. Magnolias gave birth to flowers about 150 million years ago. All flowers, the sexual organs of plants, descend from a magnolia ancestor.1 Beetles were around then, but bees didn’t emerge until about 40 million years later, so magnolias offer no nectar. Their strong aroma attracts the beetles to their abundant pollen. Magnolias once flourished all the way to the Arctic, but today are native only to southern China and the southern United States. Getting to know the native flowers and their pollinators where we live is an aspect of becoming more indigenous to our place on Earth.

In the ever-changing drama of the co-evolution of flowers and their pollinators, full of deception and intrigue, the magnolia-beetle relationship is more like a game of hide and seek. The flowers open in the morning, with the female parts (stigmas) receptive to pollen the incoming beetles bring from previously visited flowers. The female parts of the magnolia flower mimic male parts (anthers) to dupe the beetles into spending more time bumbling around looking for pollen, meanwhile pollinating the stigmas. By evening, though, the innermost petals close, trapping the last beetle inside. The stigmas then become unreceptive, and the anthers produce fresh pollen that covers the beetle.2 When the petals open in the morning the beetle is freed to fly out to cross-pollinate another flower.


After Robin had picked up some of the more colorfully-aged magnolia leaves, she arranged them on the table in a circular mandala— a very auspicious beginning. The suggested theme for spring equinox was self-respect and self-honoring.  Robin invited us to explore that theme—and how it might support the personal Intentions we had been working on in our last two sessions—through writing and movement. I resonated with the theme because my intention has been to respect my own eco-psycho-spiritual creative process in all its weirdness and honor my need to dance to allow the somatic energy that is part of that process to flow.

I wondered how Mother Magnolia might join with us. Robin opened a box of intriguing craft materials, including a colorful selection of embroidery threads. We selected leaves we were drawn to, mine being a large leathery dark green leaf and a smaller bronze and gold leaf with chartreuse mottling around the top edge. By this time I had a vague notion that the large leaf is my daughter, and the smaller leaf is the child she is carrying. Whose idea was this—Mother Magnolia’s or mine?

I chose chartreuse thread and began sewing  around the similarly green spots, which resulted in a zig-zag pattern. Seeing these rather chaotic stitches evoked memories of Ellie’s long and difficult pregnancy journey. Often, when the hands draw, or the body dances, a somatic intelligence emerges and does the creating, while the mind simply witnesses, and only belatedly discerns the meaning.

Continuing to sew around the edge, I sewed mother and baby smoothly together, which they are this time, thankfully.  Unbeknownst to me, my body was making a prayer for them. Then I sewed a heart in the middle where they are truly joined. The stitches continued from the heart in a straight line down the midrib of the leaf, the baby’s descent down the birth canal. The chartreuse thread then emerged from the mother leaf and wrapped around the stem of the baby leaf, representing the child’s coming into life as his own person. From there the thread trailed off for a few inches, like an intimation of the path of the child’s unique destiny.

Sitting together in the spring-green glow, working quietly, had been deliciously conducive to surrendering to the creative process. Entering a state of flow, time had expanded to craft the leaves in exactly the amount of time needed. In creative absorption, when hands/heart lead and mind just observes, what emerges is truth. Beyond thought, the authentic creative response is true to form, truly aimed to true north. It’s as if the body’s somatic intelligence can make no wrong turn. My mind had no idea that my hands/heart would make something so symbolic, but when the pleasing pattern of the sewing began to take on meaning it moved from making craft to making ritual. Matter and spirit joined. The poles of instinct and image merged. Body’s instinct created soul’s image.

We shared the words we wrote and the leaves we created, and photographed each of them separately and together, arranged on the moss. Then came the surprise—instead of each person taking theirs home, as I’d assumed, one by one the women silently moved to Mother Magnolia and began hanging them on her arms, like offerings. My heart felt like it would burst; it was almost more than I could bear. Right before my eyes ritual was raised to ceremony. In ceremony wholeness is created. We become whole. Our actions come full circle to a completion which bonds us together and affirms our belonging to EarthSpirit.

On this day, in this seasonal cycle that had become a circle of wholeness, Mother Magnolia gave us beauty; we co-created with her beauty, making lovely leaf-images; then we gave her beauty back to her when we bestowed on her the beautified leaves, swaying in the breeze, mirroring her beauty back to her. This was answered prayer! In my morning prayers I thank Mother Earth for the endlessly generous beauty she gives us and pray, May we, may I, learn to co-create with your beauty.  My night prayer, from the Tewa people, is called Song of the Sky Loom which says, “Weave for us a garment of brightness that we may walk fittingly where birds sing, that we may walk fittingly where grass is green.” This is my affirmation and my aspiration as a child of EarthSpirit: You clothe us in your beauty, that we may walk in beauty, and in gratitude reflect your beauty back to you.

It seems to me if contemporary humans were to truly value the incredible beauty of the Earth and, in everything we do, according to our unique interest and talents, foster her generous beauty, and co-create with her generosity, we would be restored to our true role as human beings, belonging indigenously to the planet.


Sitting around the table with the other women, each of us quietly absorbed in our own crafting,  was a deeply satisfying experience of being part of the sisterhood of women, making things for loved ones, through all time. My father’s mother—my beloved grandmother—and her sisters, my great-aunts, were all avid seamstresses who seemed to delight in making colorful clothes for me, the only granddaughter. In one photo, aged three, I’m wearing a large-brimmed black felt hat with a flamboyant bright turquoise feather, a matching turquoise crocheted sweater, and black velvet pants. There are other photos in equally dashing outfits that I imagine channeled their desires for full freedom as women.

I think it was my fifth birthday when they gave me a whole wedding party—bride, mother-of-bride, bridesmaid, flower-girl and a chubby crawling baby in a silky smocked “onesie”—all except a groom, that is.  Everything: bodies, faces, hair, hats, clothes, underclothes, wedding ring and flowers, all except shoes, was made by them. Now, for the first time, I imagine them sitting around a big dining room table, talking, sewing, sharing inspired ideas of fabrics, stitchings, and laces, maybe even laughing together about the absence of a groom and the presence of a baby!

My mother’s mother was a fiercely independent woman, a dancer and a swimmer, and in her later years a good cook, but wanted nothing to do with sewing. My mother didn’t make me clothes, although not many years before she died she crocheted for me a lovely vest the color of autumn leaves with hand-crafted buttons like acorn caps. It makes me sad to think she might have felt the need to make up for lost time and lost grandmothers out of guilt that, despite her clear feminism, she didn’t carry on that female-centric sewing tradition and pass it to me. In high school I tried to make myself some clothes, but, lacking mentoring, they either didn’t fit properly or were entirely the wrong kind of fabric for the pattern. That discouraged me.

But it’s a relevant footnote that when I was a designer bookbinder, the books I crafted always featured visible sewing in both structure and imagery, perhaps as an honoring of my aunts, of all women. It does seem like it’s going to require women—and the feminine in other genders— to rise up in our loving and life-creating capacities to take Earth’s well-being, the well-being of magnolias and beetles and children, out of the hands of patriarchy and the authoritarian penchant for destruction, hopefully, before Mother Earth does it for us.

Soon it will be Earth Day. People will gather in the garden to celebrate the spring flowers and thank Mother Magnolia for birthing them. As we co-create with her, hopefully she will inspire us to craft her leaves into prayers for healing our relationship with Earth.



Magnolia grandifolia photo courtesy unsplash.com

1. Vallejo-Marin, Mario, August 1, 2017, The First Flower Looked Like a Magnolia , The Conversation,

2. Evich, Philip, March 12, 2021, The Botany of Magnolias, Smithsonian Gardens,  https://gardens.si.edu/learn/blog/the-botany-of-magnolias/

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6 Responses

  1. Marilyn McNamara

    Marilyn writing to say thank you, Betty Lou, and thank you, dear Magnolia!

  2. Nancy

    Thank you for writing and sharing this absolutely beautiful and inspiring story about Mother Magnolia and the women in your family. I love the way your crafting activity with the magnolia leaves evolved into ritual and then into ceremony. I also appreciate how somatic intelligence (using our hands to craft something) can guide us to soul image and meaning. I’m trying to trust this more in my life. Creating the beautiful, stitched magnolia leaves showing the mother and child heart connection and the thread extending downward, symbolizing the child’s unique destiny, is such a lovely way to await the birth of your grandson.

    Sometime, I’d love to see the photo of you at age three wearing the dark, wide-brimmed hat with the flamboyant turquoise feather!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Nancy, I appreciate your enthusiasm for the ritual itself and for the story. Jung guided us on the importance of honoring the instincts, and Mary Louise Von Franz connected the poles of instinct and image. I believe you are right, trust in the process is crucial. I’ll try to find that photo for you!

  3. Diantha Rau

    This writing is exquisite, Betty Lou. You so penetratingly perceive, experience and express in vibrant words the earth-granted creative process which I know so well, and have fallen away from. I drink your words as a return to myself and send you much heartful gratitude. I know too that it will take only one trip outside with pure intent to recover this all-important communion, for renewal and for the peace of being at home in myself and my earth mother. Thank you!

    • Betty Lou Chaika

      Diantha, thank you for your kind words about the writing. We have writing work,”earth-granted creative process,” and communion with earth mother in common. I have been moved by your workshops, and I wonder if you would consider offering something here.

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