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Letters from Siying #18: We are human beings, not human doers

Is your relationship with Nature toxic, practical, casual or sensual?


Dear Friend,

In my last letter, I spoke about being closer to Nature as part of my self-practice.

What is your relationship with Nature? Do you do any activities in the nature or with nature?

The second question appeared in a short survey form that was shared with the participants of a gastronomy experience. It was hosted in a nature preserve situated along one of the borders between Cascais and Sintra in Portugal.

Beautifully set-up brunch
The reserve was also part of the Camino de Santiago trail

I hesitated at the sight of the question.

My husband, Zihui, wrote “Nothing”, probably a little more honest than mine.

“I sometimes do walks in nature,” I chimed.

Perhaps I was trying to blend in, faking it until I make it (as usual). This is after all a very different group of people. A few participants were jotting down notes intently throughout the nature walk.

I convinced myself that I was code-switching.

Just two minutes ago, I witnessed Maria, one of the participants who kindly translated the entire experience for us, smiling at a bug and very gently and gingerly guided the bug off the paper and the table.

She didn’t kill it. I might have.

Nope, I would have.

“The right people people will find you,” my teacher waxed lyrically and affirmatively at the end of our yoga teacher training. I am experiencing this during this trip. Perhaps it has always been happening, but I might not have been made aware.

So we spent an afternoon with these new people who don’t kill bugs and insects, strolling through the reserve under the sweltering heat.

This was a “gastronomic experience” that I chanced upon on Instagram.

I have become more curious about being in sync with what Nature has to offer after being exposed to Ayurveda.

Winding through the labyrinth of Instagram profiles and posts, somehow that indulgent and addictive act led me to Fernando, a herbalist and botanist from Portugal. She posted that she would be in Cascais which I figured is probably maximum an hour from Lisbon by train.

I thought, we should go!

That will be an unique experience and it will be out of our comfort zone. Immediately after I validated my discovery with glee, there was a note of reservation. Would Zihui enjoy such a gastronomic experience? Would the location be hard to get to? Would we disrupting the locals’ experience as they would probably be speaking in mainly Portuguese?

This was not an Airbnb experience nor was it reviewed by any social media influencers. It was discovered through this path of connections on Instagram. This “gastronomy in nature” seems to have its own community and energy.

This was the event post.

Ok it doesn’t look like a very enticing Instagram post.

Would you have gone?

Normally, I would have let this fly past my head, but my curiosity about the herbalist and natural healing got the better of me.

Thankfully we did.

Claudia Solva Mataloto, one of the organisers, studied Food Design (see this link if you want to explore what Food Design is with Dr Francesca Zampollo, a food design researcher who is advocating for her field and discipline)

And no, food design is not just fancy aesthetics and plating. It is FOOD+ DESIGN - using design thinking to solve a problem through culinary experiences.

Maria, our translator, shared that she and Claudia once attended an event where the food designer conveyed the starvation issue in the world through a provocative and shocking gastronomic experience.

It included getting the participants to decide where they wanted to be seated: choose between a posh dining set-up with fine china and a rustic-looking and grubby dining area. They also experienced an episode of the servers shooting the tomato syrup from a water gun violently onto one of their dishes.

Claudia’s starting point for her gastronomic experience is more palatable — no pun intended. She observes that city-folks are getting more and more detached from nature, forgetting that there are “edible landscapes” around us.

What if we pay more attention to the wild species that are easily accessible, could we perhaps forage them and include them into our meals?

With that in mind, she put together, “The Gastronomic Experience in Nature: Roots - A landscape you eat”.

She partnered with Fernando, who guided the group through the trail, explained the origins and functions of the herbs, flowers and fruits we spotted along the way, telling us what could be ingested raw, what need to be cooked, what should be avoided at all costs. The experience concluded with a brunch prepared by Caicais Food Lab with several of the observed wild species.

My favourite from the brunch was this:

This ice-cream dessert was made with nasturtium flowers and Carcavelos wine. I could still remember the delight I felt when I first tasted the ice-cream — it has this crystal-clear refreshing quality that is a standout especially in early summer. Apparently, the recipe could be found here (Someone, please translate this!)

We saw Horsetails (scientific name: Equuisetum), Nettles, Milk Thistle, Elderflower and so many flora and fauna during the walk. One of them left a deeper impression on me, St John’s Wort. This yellow flower could purportedly be used to treat depression symptoms*. It made a guest appearance in a poem I wrote here.

I have a newfound admiration and appreciation for people who live in the woods, or who spend time connecting with nature.

Like Luis who guided us through a levada in Madeira and introduced us this ritual of dipping our wooden pole into levada waters and dragging it through the waters as we walked on the narrow trail (for context: usually on the other side of the trail, if you slip, it could be a very bad fall down the mountain…)

He said in his singsong accent, “The water from the mountain will protect you.”

At one point, when I was showing signs of struggle because the pathway was precariously unstable, he looked at me encouragingly.

“You’re doing good. The water will protect you.”

I threaded my pole gently through the water like a needle passing through a thick woven fabric.

My tension melted away.

Or like Tania and Roman who initiated us into this cherished and long-forgotten practice of relieving ourselves in the wilderness. They smiled when we asked where the restroom was. As strange as this may sound, I reconnected with nature at the very moment when a part of me returned back to earth. Bidding goodbye to a part of me that passed out and a renewal of another part of me as I took in the fresh damp air of the mystical forest. Or perhaps I was too cold to feel anything other kind of emotions.

Not the spot we relieved ourselves 😁

These people we met have taught us the lesson of surrendering ourselves to Mother Nature and letting it do the work for us.

“And so we are doers, as human beings, and we do way too much. So much is done for us by just being in the right environment of where we need to be. Mother Nature teaches us that. Go sit in nature. Don’t do anything. Just sit there. Let Mother Nature do it for you.”

A quote from Maya Tiwari that I highlighted in my last letter.

When Claudia hugged me farewell, it was one of the heartiest and sincere hugs that I ever felt recently. She was utterly grateful. And so am I.

After that walk, Zihui and I pay a lot more attention to the wild species and plants during our walks, (We walk a lot in Portugal! Tiffany, if you are reading this, this is for you - I’m doing a lot of cardio, walking on an incline everyday) wondering about their origins, whether they are edible, and finding out how Portugal today still carries the remnants of what it was - a wildly ambitious empire hundreds of years ago.

For example, hydrangeas, the prized flower amongst Singaporeans and Shanghainese which can be found everywhere in the Portuguese landscapes are actually natives of Japan transported to Portugal by their ancestors.

Again, I feel the shift within me. Our relationship as a couple is shifting as well — there’s a wonderful sense of oneness.

Within a few weeks, our very casual and sometimes practical relationship with Nature has intensified and evolved. There were definitely moments of sensuality — you can’t not have that if you’re relieving yourself in the wild.

Let’s hope we continue to cultivate this (not the peeing) when we’re back in Singapore.


I was also impressed with Claudia and her friends, Fernando and Maria’s approach of hosting and designing each of their initiatives so mindfully.

Throughout our conversations with Maria and Claudia, we heard a word being mentioned many times.

“Ah, yes we have this project coming up next Friday... where my student is also designing...”

“Look at them, talking about their next project already!”

“There are a few projects that we are looking into...”

Project.

It is enlivening to hear this word fifteen years after our college days.

It is not a career, monetisation or a side hustle.

It is a project - an experiment that these fifty-something Portuguese women are looking to field for feedback and opinions and looking to iterate and to connect. It represents a commitment but not a bondage or attachment. It has its start and its ending, just like how we understand school projects to be.

These women are thriving.

Is there anything in your life you would like to approach it like a project?

We have gained so much during this trip. These seedlings of ideas are slowly growing into blooms that Zihui and I couldn’t wait to harvest when I’m back in Singapore. Or perhaps he is already looking into them. Our projects.


“Knowledge is like a clock that goes forward and then backwards, like a pendulum. The more you think you know, the less you know.”

Maria mused quite nonchalantly about a PowerPoint slide that she never fails to include in her introductory seminar.

“I’m not sure if my students get it,” she laughed.

They will eventually when the time is right, if I could respond to her now.

I thought I have learnt much about the power of nature three weeks into slow living in Portugal.

I have begun to feel more grounded and rooted. My digestive issues are not acting up as usual. I sing praises of Nature’s wonders/

Just as I thought I know more about the beauty and power of nature, Nature has also reared its ugly head and suddenly, my “knowledge” is challenged again.

I’ll write more about this in the next letter…

On how Mother Nature can give...

and take life.

Love, Siying

// Current obsessions

🔖: A Woman’s Story by Annie Ernaux — wonderfully and beautifully translated by Tanya Leslie — I’ve always wondered about the magic of translation and how the translator would need to have such a strong yet soft grasp of both languages — to be able to interpret it accurately yet flexibly enough to showcase the writer’s original flair and tonality.

Recently, during one of our many conversations about AI, I asked Zihui, why don’t we have AI interpreters (yet). He said apparently the computing power of a human brain, probably specifically, an interpreter’s brain can’t be contested with computer because of our ability to understand and draw contexts and connect. Isn’t that amazing?

💡: Poetry Society of New York rep, Kyle Studstill’s venture into Poetry beyond his vocation as a strategist and trend forecaster and his online sharing (including the Leonard Cohen’s interview below) gives me hope as I explore my Poetry projects.

📹: During a conversation about poetry, when asked, “What does the poem mean?”, Leonard Cohen famously paused for a long while… and then read the entire poem again. 🍃

*This is not medical or health advice. I’m sharing from what I have heard. Please consult medical professionals.

Cover image was taken by Tania.

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