Nesting: A Ritual for Mothers

Tanika Williams

Image by Alan Winslow

Nesting. In a broad sense, nesting is an attempt to house, conceal, protect, shelter, and regulate the temperature of newborns. In the most widely understood meaning, animals nest to prepare for the arrival of their offspring. While all animals nest—in broader cultural understandings—the term is usually applied to the nesting of birds and human women. Here, I recall my journey through nesting—particularly of birds, specifically of my own. My memories of plant walks and the writings of Stephen Harrod Buhner, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Malidoma Patrice Somé help to imagine nesting as physical and psychic ritual medicine for mothers.

I still struggle to find logical answers for the transcendent experiences of the pregnancy, labor, and delivery that produced my daughter. One moment, in particular, dissolved the imaginary wall between my sense of self and other sentient life. I became enmeshed in nesting and underwent my transformation four weeks before my May 9th due date. I stacked the living room with everything my mom made sure I had when she was expecting me–dozens of stiff cloth diapers, piles of onesies, muslin blankets, and tiny socks. I called my mom and collected recipes for the foods she ate when she was pregnant with me. The apartment smelled like a terrible concoction of gelatin made from cow's hooves, sea moss boiled to gel, mackerel, and every type of Jamaican herb to build stamina. Finally, after weeks of scarfing down big scoops of strawberry-flavored cow jello and mentally preparing to handwash cloth diapers and muslin burp cloths, I was ready to deliver this baby the way my mother delivered me.

I rolled my huge stomach into a nearby Nigerian restaurant and asked them for their spiciest dish because I needed to start my labor. Everyone in the 20-seat restaurant turned and watched as the cautious staff brought a goat pepper soup. I was two weeks away from my due date and done with being pregnant. I was sure that the soup would induce my labor and prayed that the fire lining my mouth and throat would yield the desired result. The staff wished me good luck with wide eyes as I hobbled from my seat to the door. The following day I was rolling in the deep of a heartburn and indigestionI didn't know humanly possible. Finally, I felt like the soup did its thing, and it was time for me to do mine. Crouched on the floor, wailing, I called my doula when I saw the mucous plug. A sign that labor is near but not quite ready.

Hormonal, hot, and hangry, I cried to her about feeling like something wasn't right, like I wasn't ready. Searching frantically for the missing piece, I finally realized that it was the pile of cloth diapers I still hadn't prepped. Thankfully, I had a community that did not minimize my requests. My doula understood that I could not go into labor until my nesting was complete. She picked up my diapers and began washing and drying each diaper three times with special soap. She delivered enough prepped diapers to fill a large black garbage bag when she finished. After preparing my diapers, my nest was finally ready. I went into labor two days later.

Nesting made my labor and delivery possible. It was the space I carved out to unpack the physical and psychological impact of the transformation that was underway. Nesting was a therapeutic endeavor that empowered me with the necessary tools to wade into the uncertainty of birthing and motherhood. In addition, the process of my nesting helped me to connect nesting in the broader sense as a physical and psychic ritual medicine for mothers. I nested for hours in the company of my mother's stories of her pregnancy with me. In my solitude, I folded each baby item and heard her talk about holding each dress, diaper, and sock with joy. The peace I felt looking at each item, lovingly sourced and carefully selected, reminded me of the peace I often saw when she talked about her experience of expecting for the first time. The sweetness we shared was bound up in the rounded edges of tiny socks and the gentle waves of muslin weave. I recalled the stories of my grandmother traveling to other Caribbean Islands to source my clothes and infant formula and my first set of earrings made of precious stones. Walking in the way of my mother, I procured clothes and accessories from across the globe and worked with numerous artists to make their heirlooms. The small acts of love spread across the repeated action of counting diaper pins, smoothing fluffy blankets, and carefully registering every bottle became my entry into a secret world.

Even though I've bird watched since childhood, motherhood placed a new filter on my sensory preceptors and opened a new dimension to my engagement with the world around me. I used to walk my daughter to nursery school. We would go on long adventures, watching fall turn to winter, spring, and summer. We used to name the colors of the flowers as they shifted across seasons, hug the trees, and call out the names of the birds. She was late every day. Back then, she was so small she used to wrap all five of the fingers on her right hand across my sole left index finger. We used to look for bird nests in London Planes and Sycamores during afternoon walks after school. I still remember her curiosity,  wanting to see inside the nests.

I realized then that I had looked at nests but still needed to study them. My daughter's curiosity led me to deconstruct and plot them visually. Soon, I discovered that birds build their nests with intentionality that I had overlooked. The nests dotting our neighborhood formed a grid. As I watched the nests from year to year, I realized they were built on specific branches and at particular heights. Birds favor some trees more than others and return to them to construct new nests yearly. I've even witnessed birds reconstructing nests disrupted by other animals or the weather.

One spring, I watched a Starling pick over and through Morningside Park plant material. She picked up single strands of brush, slowly and methodically inspecting them and putting them down before swift flight with her choice selection. The Starling sighting called forth memories of my nesting. I imagine she poured over plant material much like I poured over baby items. At that moment, I was grateful for the equalizing force I found in the nest building. Watching her warned me that mothers of all forms have the same primary care and concerns for their offspring.

Later that spring, I participated in a group for natural medicine enthusiasts. We would meet at various parks for an herbalist-led plant walk to identify local herbs and learn of their applications. We read the writings of Stephen Harrod Buhner, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Malidoma Patrice Somé. Sometimes my daughter would come along too. She was always excited when she met plants from gardening class or our neighborhood growing freely in the recesses of large parks. I would often bend down to bring her in, and inadvertently, constantly meeting her at her level changed my line of sight for the better. I developed a curiosity about the birds I saw flitting about and filtering through the medicinal plants in the park.

“Plants are, in essence, ecological medicines.” In The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Buhner points to indigenous wisdom that recognizes “plants heal the animals, plants, and other living organisms in their communities.” He bridges a gap to western thought by offering that “plant chemistries are used not only for the plants themselves but are created and released to heal disease throughout the ecosystems in which they grow.” To illustrate his point, he writes that birds sift through plant materials and weave medicinal plants into their nests—selecting plants to prevent pest infestation, boost the immunity of their young, and prevent infections. 

Buhner cites Starling's wisdom, sharing that she seeks plants with volatile oils and terpenes (aromatic chemical compounds) to construct her small fortress for her young. I often think of the first Starling I noticed, intentionally inspecting plants on the ground. I would love to know what she was looking for and what kind of medicine she found.

As I took more notice of the abundant healing medicines populating parklands around me, I began to notice patterns in the locations where certain plants grow. I grew curious about the physical interconnectedness of plants and places. “Every tree, plant, hill, mountain, rock, and each thing before us emanates or vibrates at a subtle energy that has healing power whether we know it or not,” Malidoma Patrice Somé calls us back to the land. He directs our attention to the animate and inanimate objects that populate our environs and charges us to find the spirit in them. Deeply aware of the connection between a person and their place of birth, he maintains that “we are more or less the function of the part of the earth we are born into.” Somé declares that places heal, much like Buhner states that plants heal.  

As I took more notice of the abundant healing medicines populating parklands around me, I began to notice patterns in the locations where certain plants grow. I grew curious about the physical interconnectedness of plants and places.

I encountered nests high in trees, above my head, and on a power pole. As I mentally mapped the many nests I saw on my regular walks, I became more aware of the ideal linear placement of nests. An aerial graph of my neighborhood nests would reveal the coordinate geometry of a chessboard. Suddenly, I understood that the birds nested in selective proximity. Furthermore, I finally understood the many Starling sightings on my nursery school walks. Sycamore trees fill the streets of my Flatbush neighborhood, providing a home for the Starling community. Together, the Starlings and Sycamores found themselves in a symbiotic relationship.

“I wanted to be a good mother, that is all.” Robin Kimmerer's introspective opening to her chapter on mothering gives us insight into the physical embodiment of a mother's work. She takes us through her journey of making a home for her kids through her journey to make their backyard pond more livable. She begins to notice the relationship of parent to offspring, mother to child, in everything from single-celled protozoa to ducks. Cleaning up the pond disrupted the existing life forms, causing casualties in the process. Her actions brought her to a crossroads, in which other life lay in the balance. The pond restoration allowed her to recognize ways she disrupted and dominated the mothering relationships of other beings. 

As I took more notice of the abundant healing medicines populating parklands around me, I began to notice patterns in the locations where certain plants grow. I grew curious about the physical interconnectedness of plants and places.

I realized the ways my daughter benefitted by counting nests. Her phenomenal posture grew out of walking in the world with eyes directed upwards, and a chin pointed to the sky. Searching for nests lifted her chest and projected her heart center forward, aligning her spine. Her sense of direction has evolved into a layered biological geotagging in which she mind-maps street signs and trees. Her awareness of being surrounded by plant protection in the form of green medicine for bruises and emergency food sources masked as bushes.

Buhner extolled the medicinal virtues of the yarrow plant in his book. He even went as far as listing the 80 phytochemical compounds found in a single yarrow. Like Kimmerer, I wanted to be a good mother. So, I planted yarrows in my garden as a gift to the Starling mothers who helped me learn how to make the earth my nest.

Each year I add more medicines to the garden. I let the chickweed and wild violets come and thrive at early signs of spring, then watch them give way to the motherwort, valerian, goldenseal, echinacea, lovage, various sages, rosemary, and thymes. Each new herb I add brings a new type of bird. Jays, Woodpeckers, Hummingbirds, and Finches now join the Starlings and Sparrows. The Swallowtail Butterflies have come to enjoy the carrots and parsley tucked away and thriving in sheltered spaces.

The yarrow grew out of control. The neighborhood cats have overtaken it. They come and rub their bodies through the long, serrated leaf clusters. I look out the window and find their kittens resting amid the dense overgrowth, bathing in the medicine there.

A world of inquiry, awe, and wonder has replaced my world of fleeting observation. First, I grew a garden to thank the Starling mothers who taught me how to be. Now I watch sentient life negotiate to the nest to nurture that which they love. I see them find their balance from my kitchen window. The first year the squirrels destroyed the vegetables grown in the garden in search of what they had buried the previous fall. Then next year, I watched them bring their babies from the den high up in my neighbor's Catalpa Tree to enjoy the young winter squash. The trio of Blue Jay brothers now return each year for a short time, scaring away all the other birds with their aggressive triangular flight pattern and sharp dives. In its way, my garden has found its way onto the maps of my neighborhood’s conscious life. It is now a significant place of memory, filled with markers and signifiers for insect and animal mothers looking for nesting places or materials.

My daughter and I still walk, talk, and look for nests. Season to season, we count the nests and dream of the stories of the birds that built them as we walk the earth, this phenomena-filled place we call home.


Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines for Life on Earth. Hartford, VT: Chelsea Green, 2002.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2015.

Somé, Malidoma Patrice. The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual and Community. London: Harper Collins, 1990


Tanika I. Williams (b. St. Andrew, Jamaica; lives and works in Brooklyn, NY) is an award-winning filmmaker and performance artist. She investigates women's use of movement, mothering, and medicine to produce and pass on ancestral wisdom of ecology, spirituality, and liberation.

Williams holds a BA from Eugene Lang College, New School, and an MDiv from Union Theological Seminary. Her films have been screened in national and international festivals and broadcast on American television. Williams has been awarded fellowships and residencies at NYU Tisch School, New York Foundation for the Arts, Hi-ARTS, Cow House Studios, MORE Art, and BRIC. 

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