The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Sustainable Living

Druid Tree Workings: Connecting with the Tree on the Outer Planes February 27, 2015

Tree climbing = one great way to commune!

Tree climbing = one great way to commune!

The trees themselves present much in the way of mystery teachings. This second post in my “Druid Tree Workings” series explores various methods for listening to the voices of the trees and developing methods of communication, like finding the face of the tree. These are various approaches that I have learned to use over time–and most have arisen through my intuition or have been taught as mystery teachings by the trees themselves.  This is my second post, on “outer” messages from trees–that is, messages that re physically present in the world around us (I will follow up this post next week with “inner ” messages).

 

Basic Courtesy when Working With Trees. I think that one of the greatest flaws inherent in our current society is the lack of respect for the sanctity of life that is non-human in nature. People see a forest and they think about how they can profit from it and rarely respect the right that that forest and its inhabitants have to life.  As long as one engages in the world with such an attitude, one will get little meaningful response from the trees.  So, one of the basic ways we can respect all life, and build a relationship with it, is by recognizing its inherent personhood. While this may be a radical idea to some, this animist philosophy has guided my thinking and spiritual work with plants, trees, animals, insects, rivers, and so on. And so, the idea is that you treat the tree with the same respect and courtesy that you would when approaching a human you don’t yet know–you wouldn’t just lean up against them or pull a piece of their hair.

 

  • Approach tree with respect, ask if you can sit and communicate. You will receive an answer one way or another–it might be a feeling, a quiet breeze, or some inner signal. Respect the tree if signs point to “no.”
  • Ask what, if anything, does the tree want in return.  I wrote about sustainable offerings before and suggested offerings might be way more extensive than just a little bit of food or wine. Traditionally, tobacco, corn paho/corn meal is a common offering in the Americas, but may or may not be appropriate for you to give.
  • Once you have permission, sit and commune using any of the techniques below.

 

Of course, once you’ve made friends with a tree, you should treat the tree in the same way you treat your human friends.  Physical contact and frequent visits strengthen bonds; doing nice things, etc. Now that we have some basic understanding of how to approach the trees, let’s look at some outward communication techniques:

 

Finding the “messenger trees.”  Sometimes, when you enter a forest, you may come across what I call “talking trees.” These are trees whose branches or trunks rub up against themselves or other trees, and when the wind blows, they creak and bang. These are the messenger trees, communicating audibly so that others can hear. I would suggest starting by finding such trees if you can, as they often have much to say, and may be appointed “speakers of the forests.” Listen audibly to their creaking, sit at the base of their trunk and let the creaking reverberate through your body. Put your ear to the trunk and hear the creaking through the tree. Listen, also, with your inner senses, and hear what they have to say. This method of communication obviously works better when there is wind.

 

Hearing the song of the wind. Another way to audibly hear a tree’s message is to listen to the wind and how it blows through the leaves, needles, branches, and so on. While you can do this standing anywhere near the tree, I find this works best when you can put your ear up to the bark and hear the wind blowing through the trees, the banging of the branches. Pay close attention, too, to the direction of the wind and its interaction with the tree. Pay close attention to what happens when you ask a question (either internally or spoken aloud).

Hearing the song in the wind...

Hearing the song in the wind…

 

Putting your Ear to the Tree and hearing “tree echoes.” A third way to audibly hear a tree’s messages is through putting your ear to the trunk of a tree on a windy or semi-windy day. Make sure your ear gets a good seal–so this is often easier on younger trees or those with smoother bark like beech or maple. What you will hear is based on a few factors. First, what you hear will change based on the tree itself–the different wood density between species creates different reverberations; the size of the tree also matters for hearing the tree echoes. The amount of wind, too, will determine what you hear. Finally, deciduous trees sound different depending on the season–bare branches bang against each other in ways that leafed out branches do not. The “tree echoes” have their own kind of music and can be quite pleasant, depending on the tree and the day.

 

Seeing the patterns of light and color. An easy way to see a tree communicate is to watch the wind and leaves in its branches, to watch the patterns of light and color play out on the forest floor. In the fall just around Samhuinn, you can walk through the forest in my region and discover the most beautiful patchwork pattern of fallen leaves and colors. All of these things have messages to share for the intuitive observer.

 

Understanding Trees and Timing. To speak with the trees, you also need to pay attention to the time of the year. I have found that some tree species are most active and engaged when the sap is running in the late winter/early spring or when they are in full foliage in the summer months. As winter approaches, all of the trees, even the conifers, slow down a bit. You can’t do much to commune with deciduous trees in winter—they are at rest, their roots growing deep, their energies focused on the telluric currents of the land. The confers, however, can still be worked with during this time. In fact, some Native American legends, including those of the Seneca people, tell that they conifers stay active all winter to hold the winter at bay. The myth goes that by keeping their needles on, the conifers, led by White Pine, defeat winter and ensure spring’s return. One conifer tree, the  tamarack pine, was weak and lost his needles in the winter. However the mighty oak, who holds his leaves till the spring even though they are brown and rattle in the wind, takes tamarack’s place and joins to aid in the battle for spring. My experiences in working with the trees are quite consistent with this legend. You can easily work with the conifers and the oaks during the cold winter months–the rest will likely be slumbering till their sap begins to run (in my region, Zone 6a in South-East Michigan, they usually slow down by Samhuinn and return around the Spring Equinox).

White Pine: Chief of Standing People

White Pine: Chief of Standing People–holding the winter at bay gracefully and powerfully!  Hail the white pine!

 

 

Tree Observation and Sensing. The final way of communing with the trees is a simple act of observation and using your five senses.  Get close to the tree-see how it smells. Stand out with a tree during the rain–watch how the water runs down the trunk, gets into the cracks, creates little bubbles, and softens and soaks bits of moss growing in the trunk. Look at the tree in moonlight, in sunlight, in fog. Observe the branches and leaves up close and far away.  Notice the patterns that the branches grow out in, how thick they are, how twisted or straight. Notice any effects the landscape has on the tree and its root systems (like wind, a cliff, etc).  You can learn so very much in this simple–and yet profound–act.  Visit the tree every day for a year, observe it in all its seasons and in all weather, and simply get to know it.

 

With these techniques, long-term friendships can develop with trees. There are trees that I go to when having a good day; trees that I visit when my day is bad and I’m in need of healing.  In my next post in this series, I’ll explore various “inner” ways of working with trees as we go deeper into the tree mysteries.

 

Druid Tree Workings: Finding the Face of the Tree February 11, 2015

Sometimes the trees themselves share lessons with us about how to work with them, to talk with them, heal with them. These are often presented to me as mystery teachings from the trees themselves–and I’ll be sharing some of these teachings with you.  The first of these is finding the face of the tree.

Grove of Beeches looking out upon the world

Grove of Beeches looking out upon the world

 

I have found that each tree has at least one face and finding it can teach you a lot about that particular tree’s personality and energy. Finding the face of the trees will show you their individuality and unique personality–and yes, individual trees do have uniqueness of their own, both inside and out. This is similar to humans—all humans are humans, but we come from different ethnicities and different regions and those create variation. In the same way, all oak trees have a strengthening quality to them because of their nature: how they grow, their extensive root systems, their tannins, etc. But like people, each oak has his or her own personality and quirks. Finding the face of the tree gives one insight into those personalities and quirks that a tree possesses and gives mean for communication.

 

What do I mean by the face of the tree?  Usually, somewhere on the bark, there is a face or a part of a face–some variation of the bark that allows you to see a message.  You may see an eye or some other feature that shows you the tree’s nature (one of the images below has a heart in the bark…you get it). The face of a tree is almost always found in its bark—look at the irregularities in the bark, the knotholes, bumps, or other features and you will find the face of the tree. Some trees may have many faces (like beech trees, which I’m using in this post) or smaller face that combine into a large face. If you directly address the tree at its face, you will more likely get a response. How high up the face may be gives you a sense of the tree’s accessibility and friendliness. Faces that are well off of the ground may indicate that the tree does not wish to be approached; faces that are near the ground and clearly accessible may indicate the opposite.  Some tree species, like maple or beech, have many many faces present on their smooth bark. Other tree species, like some conifers, require a bit more studying to see the face.

 

Let’s look at a few examples:

You can clearly see the beech's face here--not to far up the tree.  Beech trees are one of the best trees to start this practice with.

You can clearly see the beech’s face here–not to far up the tree. Beech trees are one of the best trees to start this practice with.

An oak and a beech--notice the many "faces" here!

An oak and a beech–notice the many “faces” here!  the oak, too, had a single face, high up, but it was harder to see.

This beech has a heart--another kind of message in the bark.

This beech has a heart in its bark–another kind of message in the bark.

To find the face of the tree, sometimes you must sit across from the tree, and observe the tree. Observe it from different angles, observe it in different light. When the tree is ready, the face will be revealed to you.

 

There are trees that guard themselves closely, or don’t usually have faces that are accessible  There are also trees that are well known within the esoteric and nature-spirituality communities as having energy that is not compatible with humans–yew and elm being two such trees.  I’ve found that hawthorns, also, take a bit of work–the hawthorn guards herself well and does not like being touched by most beings–but she will reveal a face after meditation and study.  Again, the face of the tree can give you insight into the nature of the individual and the kind of work you can do (more on this in an upcoming post).

 

Like our faces, which bear the brunt of our lifetimes—scars, lines, weathering and age—so, too, do trees exhibit such patterns on their faces. Faces may also be created due to cutting or other kinds of force–these faces often reflect the tree’s pain and can be used for land healing work.

 

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Once, when I was visiting a six-acre old growth hemlock grove in South Western PA, in the Laurel Ridge State Park, I was shown the face of a tree. The old hemlock, over 5 feet across, bid me to come closer. He had a burl, and it had grown to have a lot of loose and dead bark on it and it was ready to fall off. He asked me to pull away a small part of the bark that was hanging and ready to fall—I did with very little effort, and when I stepped back, there was his face, clear as day in his wizened old trunk. There was the face of a wizard tree, an old man, looking back at me.  I’ve since returned to visit this tree several times–the last time I was to visit, the tree gave me instructions which lead to me finding a much-needed gift for a friend.  In this case, revealing the face of the tree lead me to a deeper relationship with the tree.

 

In a second story, I met an ancient maple while living in Michigan.  The ancient maple, bearing the scars of time, had many faces upon her weathered bark. I found that in meditating upon those faces, stories of the tree would flow into me.  Different faces had different stories to tell.

 

I encourage you to use this technique to find the face of a tree, and use the face to help connect to it.  Spending time with trees is good for the soul.

 

The Sound of Silence: Mass Extinction and the Music of the World February 2, 2015

I recently came across an article from The Guardian in 2012 detailing the work of scientist Bernie Krause, who has spent his life recording sounds of nature. Krause’s major finding is simple: the loss of biodiversity, from the depths of the reefs to the rain forests, can be clearly tracked by listening to audio recordings over a 40-year period. He reports that he now hears deafening silence in so many ecosystems that once teemed with life. The article detailed his book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I bought the book, compelled to read more, the cryptic words of Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence echoing in my ears. This blog post is a bit different than some of my others, in that it is simply a response, a real and human response, to the growing sound of silence upon our landscape.

 

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

When I was a child and teen, I embraced dystopian science fiction. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, E.M. Forrester, Aldus Huxley, Marge Piercy, Suzette Hagen Elgin, and George Orwell enthralled me and horrified me with their tales of dark futures, where humanity was oppressed and the land stripped bare. But these were just stories, I’d think to myself. And growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they really did seem to be stories–we had plenty of resources, this was America’s heyday, when everything was booming. Of course we were were protecting the land as we grew and prospered, there were no costs to our progress…at least, that’s what we keep being told.  But these tales often made me wonder–what was the cost? And how quickly were we headed to a future, say, like what Marge Piercy describes in Oryx and Crake?  Perhaps faster than I realized.

When I was 14, I witnessed firsthand of the destruction of the ecosystem of my own beloved forest in the name of profit. I remember the deafening roar of the loggers’ machines as they pillaged that forest. I remember the eerie silence in the weeks following their departure, and the devastated landscape they left in their wake. Where a once-vibrant forest stood–and chirped, buzzed, skittered, and slithered–only silence remained.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The silence of the forest after it has been logged, or the silence of the reef after it has been bleached, is only one kind of silence–there is another, just as tragic, in our own conversations as a culture and as a species. The silence that pervades us is a silence of fact, of truth, and of reality. We hear people talking without saying anything–the nightly news and national media do their best to continually report on nothing of substance, all day and all night long. When they attempt to address an issue of real substance, it is reported is a shallow husk of reality. The narrative we hear from those who speak loudly is that everything is fine and will continue to be fine, that mass extinctions don’t matter, that we can continue to pillage and plunder. Chris Hedges does a brilliant job in identifying these issues in his Empire of Illusion.

When people do hear about the work of scientists like Bernie Krause, they do not listen. They make excuses. They close off their ability to comprehend what is actually being said, or attack the credibility of science or or a scientist’s character in order to protect and preserve that their own internal mythologies. I think about the final comments of the authors of The Limits to Growth when they say that, despite the massive amount of evidence they compiled and presented, they weren’t heard at a regional, national, or international level. They, too, could not have conversations because the conversations were not able to be had. But they could talk and work locally, and that gave them hope. Still, so many others, also silenced.

And the silence is becoming institutionalized. And now, parts of the legislative branch in the USA are working to silence science. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 that effectively bans the use of scientific data in making predictions about sea level rise. Congress just this past year made it illegal for the Pentagon to address climate change and told them to ignore that it was occurring. Our very governments, those that are supposed to protect the people, are instead, protecting their own silence. And its not just our government–we, too, often turn away from the things we don’t want to hear, from the realities we face. We, too, offer silence.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

Even as someone who has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, who teaches effective writing as my profession, I am at a loss about how to address the silence, how to engage in conversations that enact real change. I’ve certainly taken my best step at some analysis of the tools we could use to address humanity’s current predicament on my little corner of the web. Still, I don’t know how we can break the silence of a larger system where power and privilege control nearly all dialogue and discussion. I, too, like so many of you, feel silenced.

 

Truthfully, in reading and reflecting upon the research of Bernie Krause and others like him, I am struck by the enormity of the loss of life that is occurring, of the silence that remains behind. I think about the little things I am doing in my life, the things I talk about on this blog, and I know they aren’t enough. But the really truly difficult things, like better options for transportation and housing, are still out of my reach at this point, partially because of lack of resources and partially because of the laws themselves. I make excuses, like I just did, and wonder what the best way to actually move forward is. I question how I can even be part of the system at all. I get upset, and angry, and frustrated with myself for my lack of real response. I engage in internal dialogue with myself….and get tripped up at this point…because I’ve just written two paragraphs that say, I don’t know, and I have nothing more to offer. From the outside, all one would hear is my silence. Meanwhile, the broader echoes reverberate in Bernie Krause’s recordings and the silence grows with each extinction and tree felled.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

All the while, we worship the the neon gods, bowing to them and honoring them with our time, energy, and passion. But the neon gods cannot grow our food; the neon gods cannot provide us with water, or shelter, or warmth. In fact, the neon gods provide us with nothing that we actually need to survive. But they can certainly fill our minds with distractions so that we can’t hear the growing silence. Perhaps its time we turn away from the neon gods long enough to start to listen and to understand, on multiple levels. Perhaps its time to break that silence.

 

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part II: Places to Gather, Ethical Harvesting, Avoiding Pollution, and Foraging as Spiritual Practice January 25, 2015

This is my second in a two-part series on how to wildcraft and forage successfully. The first post dealt with supplies for foraging, resources and how to learn the skills, and understanding timing. This post will talk about places to gather, avoiding contaminants in the landscape, the ethics of harvesting, and the spiritual side to foraging and wildcrafting.

 

Where You Gather: Kinds of Property

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wildcrafting obviously requires you to go out into the land and find what you need. There are different kinds of places you can go—your own backyard/land, parks, abandoned lots, friends’ land, and so on. Each location has some benefits and as you start wildcrafting and foraging, you will find your own spots that you will return to again and again and again. Here are some of the kinds of places that I go:

 

My own land. Since I know it best and am out there every day, I can observe the changing landscape as the seasons pass. I know the history of the land, I know how much of a particular plant is usually in season, and I can know how much to ethically take since I’m the only one taking. So obviously, if you have your own land, this is a wonderful place to harvest. A lot of people don’t have access to some acreage, however, and this leads us to….

 

Friends/Neighbors/Family Private land. If you can’t harvest on your own land, or don’t have your own land, finding other private land (such as that of friends, family, or neighbors) you can harvest from is really a great thing. You can ask them about the land’s history; you can harvest without anyone else around, you can know just how much to take, and you can share the joy and abundance of the harvest with others. I have found that if I approach a friend or neighbor about wildcrafting from their land, they are often not only willing to let me onto their property but also interested in learning more (and yes, this often even works with complete strangers!) This creates a space to teach them about the sacred medicine of their own landscape, which only deepens their appreciation for the land. I have also found that for those who already value their land, they love it when you appreciate and value it also. For example, there is a spot I harvest cattails from along a road for making paper each spring, and a couple walking there had the land across the street. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them, and they invited me into their property. I was not only able to gather more cattails there, but also found a bunch of recently dropped willow branches to make a basket and some cattail shoots for making a nice stir fry. They were excited to learn about their property and invited me to come back anytime. I’m reminded here of my 85 year old neighbor who has an 80-acre farm; we tap trees, harvest apples, forage for herbs and berries, and so much more there—and he’s so happy that someone else values it.Of course, one does need to be careful of who one asks—some people just don’t want others on their property. There also might be a gender bias in this—my good friend, who I harvest with often, says that people are much more likely to say yes to me than to him alone (he has long hair and a beard and maybe he looks a little unscrupulous).

 

Public lands. Not that long ago, the idea of a “common” land (or “the commons”) was quite a strong one. However, in the 20th century that idea largely shifted and now the emphasis is on pristine preservation (Wendell Berry discusses this concept much further in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture). The idea is that the land will be soiled if someone takes something from it—and this is true, in a manner of speaking, because few people today know how to harvest and take ethically. Yet these intensive obsessions with pristine preservation sit side by side with the push to sell of public lands, to allow logging, mineral rights, fracking, and more. These are all products of industrialization–the disconnection of people with the land, the commodification of goods and wealth into the hands of the few. So when one enters public land, one needs to be aware of the laws surrounding that land. If you are to take nothing, take nothing. A lot of state and local parks have this kind of arrangement–do not take anything. However, most state game lands function more like the old commons—you can limited amounts of game, you can cut limited amounts of fire wood, you can pick mushrooms, and so on—and they are great places to wildcraft. Many local parks, likewise, have no laws against harvesting. However, to be an ethical harvester you do need to be aware of overharvesting, of chemicals, the lands history, and so on.

 

Secret harvest spot

Secret harvest spot

Where You Gather: Kinds of Ecosystems

In addition to the kinds of property that you are gathering from, you also want to think carefully about what ecosystems you will be gathering from. For example, a swamp or marsh is simply going to have a different ecosystem and plants than a deep secluded forest or an abandoned farm field. This is why I mentioned I have several “spots” that I like to go to–many of them with multiple ecosystems. Another thing to think about, stemming from permaculture design, is the understanding the value of the edges and margins. That is, the edge where the forest meets a field is often a very rich and diverse ecosystem.

 

Here is just a short list of where I find what plants that I gather to give you a sense of this:

  • Edge of Pond/Lake/Near Water: blueberries (in a bog); highbush cranberries (edge of a bog); horsetail (medicinal, edge of lake where there is a sandy soil), beach plums (beach on great lakes), cattail (edge of pond, swampy areas), boneset (edge of water, medicinal), marshmallow (edge of water, medicinal), joe-pye weed (in shade or swamp, medicinal)
  • Edge of Forest: black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries (all edibles), mulberry trees (edible), stinging nettles (edible and medicinal), staghorn sumac (medicinal; also good for smoking blends), autumn olive (edible), violets (edible, medicinal), poke (medicinal, great dye plant), dryad’s saddle mushrooms (edible),
  • Deep in the Forest: black birch (medicinal); chicken of the woods mushroom (edible), reishi mushroom (medicinal), blueberries (bush style, edible), maple sap (edible), acorns (edible), hen of the woods mushroom (medicinal/edible), stoneroot (medicinal), mayapple (edge of forest, edible), ramps (edible, over-harvested so only gather if they are abundant)
  • Fields/Wastelands: St. John’s Wort (medicinal), goldenrod (medicinal), milkweed (edible), yarrow (medicinal), scrub red pine trees (resin for incense making), blackberries (edible), elderberries (medicinal/edible), new england aster (medicinal), dandelion (medicinal/edible), burdock (medicinal/edible)
  • In the Suburbs/Landscapes: walnut (edible, medicinal), serviceberry (edible), various crabapples (edible), various other crab fruit trees planted as decorative (edible), eastern white cedar (often planted as an ornamental; medicinal and for smudges); plantain (medicinal, be careful the lawn wasn’t sprayed)
Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Now I think the above categories are fairly self explanatory, all except the last one. The suburbs, the exerbs, the little strips of plant life along the strip mall, in the cities, etc., are typically NOT prime foraging grounds. Primarily this is because of pollution (see next section). However, people sometimes plant really nice trees there—various crab apples and serviceberries (and serviceberries are WELL worth finding and making into jam and baked goods). One of my favorite serviceberry spots is literally at the start of this posh subdivision, about 30′ back from the road. Another favorite serviceberry spot is in the parking lot of the library…you get the idea :). So while there are limited foraging to be done in the city and suburbs, fruit is one of your best bets. Tree fruits are also one of your best bets because trees are rarely sprayed where things on the ground, like plantain or dandelion, are usually heavily sprayed.

Toxins, Chemicals, and Pollution

If you are harvesting anything for internal use (medicine, edibles), you want to be aware of any chemical toxins in the landscape or area you are harvesting from. Toxins are not always easily to spot and can reside invisibly in the soil, so it takes some creative thinking and sleuthing to understand what may or may not be safe to eat.

 

Around houses and buildings. Soil near foundations of older houses and buildings often has lead because lead paint was used at one point and flaked off. You don’t generally want to harvest anything next to an older house that will be eaten (or plant anything, for that matter, that you are going to eat). Obviously any factory sites are really off limits for foraging.

 

In Swamps/Wetlands. Roots can often concentrate toxins and chemicals, and roots in swampy areas or lakes are particularly suspect.  Remember that plants like Cattail function as the cleansing plant for a water system–this means if there are toxins, they are going to be heavily concentrated in the cattail plant roots.  So, if you are harvesting roots or edibles, especially in swampy areas, look for the nearest body of water and see what is sitting upstream (like a polluting factory).  Even in what appears to be a pristine swamp or wetland, you might not realize that a factory 10 miles up the river is dumping into the waterways. Using maps (and especially online maps) is really helpful for this.  This is why I like to harvest catttails and other such roots and tubers from private lands that I have vetted well and from very small wetlands.

 

Pesticides, Herbicides, and other Sprays. There is also the issue of home and agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While most tree medicine is off the ground, I would not harvest anything on the ground a subdivision where everyone poisons their lawns with chemicals weekly. Likewise, I would not harvest too close to any industrialized, conventional agriculture (e.g. huge fields of corn or soybeans or other chemically-sprayed and GMO crops). These fields are covered in chemicals and those chemicals can easily drift to the surrounding landscape.  And this sometimes sucks, because the best stand of staghorn sumac I know is right in front of an industrialized agriculture soy/corn field.  Alas, that’s how it goes sometimes.

 

History of the Land. Its also really useful to know the history of the landscape. If there used to be a factory that is now abandoned and torn down, you may not want to harvest there.  This is actually one of the biggest impediments to urban farming in places like Detroit–so much of the land was poisoned with factories that people aren’t sure if its safe to grow in their soil.  Regardless, use your common sense and intuition to figure out where is safe to harvest.

 

The Ethics of Wildcrafting/Foraging: Taking and Giving Back

Ethics are another area of concern to the forager and wildcrafter.  Why?  Because in the last 150 years, humans have done a very good job at taking and taking and not a very good job of giving back.  And as I mentioned in part I of this series of posts, humans have largely lost our understanding of the ecosystem, knowing how to live in balance from the land.  Most of us live completely disconnected from it, and we haven’t developed an innate understanding of the land’s rhythms or ways.

 

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Understanding Abundance and Scarcity. One of the first things that important to understand from an ethical standpoint is the concepts of abundance and scarcity. There are, at times, great amounts of abundance in the landscape. There are also times of great scarcity (e.g. winter, less abundant seasons, droughts).  When things are abundant, we must remember that we are not the only ones who depend on that abundance and that whatever we take is being taken from others that may need it for sustenance. This is why I so strongly suggested in my first post that you begin learning how to forage or wildcraft by understand ecology.  Even if things are very abundant, you want to limit what you take.

 

How much to harvest: the 30% guideline. I use the 30% rule for most harvesting of non-endangered, very abundant, native plants. I generally will never take more than 30% of something that is in an area for one harvest (e.g. if there is an apple harvest, I will take no more than 30% of the apples). However, this rule is not a hard and fast one to be applied in all circumstances but rather a guideline. If a plant is not very abundant in the area, I might only harvest 5% or even less. Sometimes even a 10% harvest can do substantial harm to a plant that isn’t very abundant. For example, if I’m harvesting roots, depending on the plant, it might kill the plant, so harvesting roots is very different than harvesting berries (which are designed to be harvested). If I’m harvesting leaves, like nettle, I can harvest a few from each plant safely and leave the plants themselves intact (in fact, nettles can be bent down to the ground and then they will regrow new shoots you can harvest!) So I’m constantly thinking about the individual plant, what I’m harvesting, how resilient it is, and what I can do so to cause the least amount of disruption to an ecosystem. At the same time, some plants, like garlic mustard or autumn olive, can be harvested in greater abundance due to their current dominance in the landscape (I talked about my take on invasive species here). For these plants, I harvest all that I can. You can also think about seasonal harvesting–if its the end of the season and a big frost is on the horizon, you can safely harvest more than the usual 30% (especially if you are only harvesting leafy material, and not seeds or roots).

 

Leave spaces how you found them. Another ethical issue involves how you harvest–and here, the guideline is to leave areas as you found them. If you are digging roots, dig your roots, and then when you are done, put the soil back and scatter leaves on the forest floor. The idea is that you want to be as least as a disruption as possible on the landscape. This is true in general every time we enter an outdoor space, but its particularly useful when foraging or wildcrafting. The idea here is that we need to be mindful stewards of the land.

 

Help the Plants Along. Another method I use to engage in ethical harvesting is to help the plants I’m working with propagate themselves further. For example, if I want some young milkweed pods for eating (they are awesome, and you can treat them just like okra) then I will return later in the year to that spot and as the milkweed seeds are turning brown, I will scatter them carefully. This means that while I have taken limited pods to enjoy in my curry, I have returned to the spot to help the plant propagate. If I’m gathering berries, I may throw a handful of ripe ones into a new space to help them establish there (especially when nothing else is growing there). This not only pleases the plants but ensures future abundant harvests for all.

 

I think with each of these categories, the key is approaching the landscape with knowledge, with reverence, with respect, and with an understanding that you are not the only one who is taking or depending upon that land for sustenance.

 

Foraging and Wildcrafting as a Spiritual Practice

My foraging partner and dear friend wrote an article last year for the AODA’s new annual publication, Trilithon, that examined the spiritual implications of foraging from a druidic perspective. He argued that foraging allowed him to practice two key spiritual aspects important to nature-based spirituality: cultivating stillness and cultivating focus. I’d like to explore those implications for a bit here and consider some additional areas.

Choice dryad's saddle

Choice dryad’s saddle mushroom–easy to spot with mushroom eyes!

As meditation. I find no greater joy than picking berries from a bush in the summer or fall. I remember last year, I spent many hours sitting with autumn olive bushes and harvesting their delightful berries. This was a meditation, where the repetition of picking the berries and putting them into my blicky (see last post) allowed me to still my mind and simply be in the moment. In my spiritual tradition, we recognize both sitting meditation and walking/movement meditation–I think this can classify as some of the latter.

 

As Communing with the Plants. A second thing that harvesting gets you, whether you are harvesting violets for tea or medicine, or harvesting thousands of autumn olives, is time to simply be with the plants.  To touch them, to give an exchange, to commune with them. This is really valuable–and the plants love giving of themselves to those who revere them. And we take that bounty within and it sustains us; it allows us to further build our connection to them.  The power and importance of this act of communion cannot be understated.

 

Understanding Nature as a cycle. When you get into foraging, you begin paying much more attention to the rain and temperatures (especially for mushrooms), when the weather warms up and the ground unfreezes, or when the frosts come.  Foraging asks us to really pay attention to the weather and seasons in ways that we do not normally do; this can give us deeper insights into the landscape around us, into the cycles that govern our lives.

 

As a way of seeing. One of my mushroom teachers taught us about “mushroom eyes” that is, we had to focus our gaze to see the mushrooms in the forest rather than seeing other things. You can walk through a forest without seeing any of the mushrooms in it (especially those that are small, on the ground, and non-colorful). This practice of putting on one’s mushroom eyes has profound spiritual implications, in that it asks us to shift our vision, to see differently, to see with intent.

 

As self-education. Knowledge is an important part of any nature-based spiritual practice. Foraging and wildcrafting allows one to learn about the landscape and become attuned with it. Its also an amazing way to learn in a way that others can benefit from.

 

I hope the information I’ve provided in the last two posts is helpful for you on your wildcrafting and foraging journey!

 

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part I: Equipment, Resources, What to Learn, and Timing January 18, 2015

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about various wild foods and other kinds of wildcrafting and foraging on this blog, and I wanted to talk today about the principles of wildcrafting and ethical foraging more broadly. This post is the first in a series of two that focuses on introducing the reader to how to effectively wildcraft/forage, and is built upon my extensive experiences foraging and wildcrafting, which I have been doing in some form since childhood, but which I took up quite seriously about 7 years ago. This post offers definitions, supply lists, resources, what and how to learn, and information on timing. My second post in this series will discuss locations, avoiding environmental pollutants, and ethics.

 

Deep in the blueberry bog--an abundant harvest!

Deep in the blueberry bog–an abundant harvest!

Defining Wildcrafting and Foraging

Defining Wildcrafting: Wildcrafting is a modern term for an ancient practice. For as long as humanity has existed, we have gathered from the natural world for our food, shelter, medicine, clothing, ritual items, arts, and much more. Wildcrafting today refers to gathering materials from the land that you will use for various purposes, most frequently food or medicine, crafts, household items, natural building, carpentry, ritual items, clothing, and more. I often see the term associated with medicinal herbs, but there are many other possibilities for the wildcrafter. Non-food uses of wildcrafted items that I’ve covered in this blog include wildcrafted medicines such as jewelweed salve or various medicinal tinctures, smudge sticks, inks, baskets, and incense.

 

Defining Foraging: Foraging is a type of wildcrafting that is specific to finding food: wild food foragers hunt for food throughout the year (and I’ve covered many of my favorite foods one can forage for: burdock, black raspberries, violets, rampschicken of the woods mushrooms, and autumn olives, to name a few).

 

Other associated terms you might hear are bushcraft (a term for a variety of wilderness skills, such as shelter building, trapping, or fire making) and woodcraft (another term for skills associated with the woods).

 

Why Wildcrafting/Foraging?

Abundant harvest of black raspberry--one of my very favorites!

Abundant harvest of black raspberry–one of my very favorites!

This is a good question, and one that I get asked more often than one might expect.  For me, wildcrafting and foraging have numerous benefits, many of which are not material. First, as a druid, I enjoy spending time in nature, in stillness, in focus, and simply enjoying the natural world around me.  Wildcrafting gives me a good reason to get myself into the forest and the fields as often as I can. Second, I’ve been talking a lot on this blog lately about reskilling; developing the skills necessary to transition to a sustainable and earth-centered future. Learning once again to live off of the land, to live in harmony with the land, and to take only what is necessary is an important part of that path. This is what our ancestors did–and this is what we will again do–if we can learn to do it correctly and in balance. Third, I really enjoy the tangible benefits–the medicine, the food, the various craft items. I have tasted more new things and have been able to heal myself right from the land around me–these are empowering things.

 

Knowledge is critical to this path.  Not only knowledge of what you can take and use, but also knowledge of how that taking impacts the ecocystem.  And ethical forager is a knowledgeable one, connected to the land, and knowing their impacts.  So throughout these two posts, I’m really going to stress that you need knowledge to do this effectively.

 

Wildcrafting Supplies

Compiling some basic supplies will allow you to make numerous successful excursions.  Over the years, I’ve compiled the following supplies, which are useful and necessary:

 

Foraging Bookbag. When I got out foraging, I have a special “foraging” bookbag that I take with me with some basic supplies that are useful for finding food, medicine, and other kinds of things. The bag was one I purchased at a yardsale for 50 cents; it needed some minor repairs but works great.

Various storage - canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

Various storage – canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

  • Essentials that are always in the bag include sunscreen, an essential-oil based bug spray, fire starting equipment, an energy bar, a can of pepper spray, a hat that easily folds up, a compass, fire-starting equipment, and basic first-aid supplies. I also bring water; usually I don’t bring much in the way of snacks because I can always find a few trailside nibbles (that is, unless I will be out for some time and then I will bring some other stuff).
  • Tools: The Hori Hori.  If you are only going to have one foraging tool-this should be it.  Its a Japanese gardening tool that has a serrated edge, a sharp edge, and can dig and cut.  I won’t leave the house without it! I purchased mine for $30 and its one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
  • Other Tools in the bag include a small hand saw that folds up to about 7″ in length; my hori hori of course, a pair of scissors, a smaller knife, and a pair of gloves. These are all fairly light. If I’m going out for roots or tubers (like cattail, ground nut, or burdock), I might take a long a little fold-up shovel or even a garden fork if I’m not going far, but those are quite heavy, and I add these only when I need them. The knives are for cutting various plant matter or mushrooms; the hori hori can be used for cutting and also be used for digging roots or limited sawing. The hand saw is for getting branches or barks (useful to cut up roots from a fallen sassafras tree, for example). The scissors are good for harvesting smaller plants or greens, such as yarrow or nettle. I usually use the gloves for harvesting stinging nettles, which I take every opportunity to get when I go out in the summer.
  • Storage. The foraging bag also holds many different kinds of smaller bags for bringing things home–a few larger canvas bags for nuts or mushrooms, a few mesh orange/lemon bags (particularly good for mushrooms because it allows them to breathe), plastic bags of various sizes that I re-use, and paper bags of various sizes. I keep all of these materials in the bag and then when I want to go out (usually at least twice a week in the summer).
  • Blickeys. If I’m going berry picking specifically, I may also bring a blickey or two (see photo), which can be created from a gallon plastic jug. You just cut part of the top off of the jug, so you can easy place things in.  You leave the handle intact, which can go around your belt.  They are super lightweight and free to make.  If you don’t drink anything that would have them, a quick trip down your road on recycling day is sure to procure an abundant supply.  Because I have a friend with a severe dairy allergy that I often share wild-harvested treats with, I only use ones that had water or apple cider (like the one pictured), not milk. So keep that in mind when making your blickey.

    The blickey--fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

    The blickey–fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

Clothing for Foraging. I also always make sure I am wearing long pants and a belt; sometimes I will also include a hat for the sun and my muck boots if I am going into swampy areas.  Long pants are a great idea year round–in the summer they can protect you from poison ivy (even the most experienced wildcrafter sometimes wanders into a patch unawares–like the time I was enthusiastically harvesting St. johns wort and realized that underneath the top layer of plants, there was a lower layer of poison ivy–thank goodness for the jeans and muck boots!)  For shoes I will wear hiking boots or the muck boots (the muck boots are really hot in the summer).  The belt can hold a blickey or my hori hori or both.

 

Company for Foraging. I have found that foraging is much more fun with a friend than by one’s self. If I mention to some people that I’m heading out for a few hours, I almost always can find someone who wants to come with me and see what’s out there.

 

Other Resources. I usually take one or two field guides with me (see the next section for ideas), depending on what I’m going for. Since I’m still learning mushrooms, in the last two years, I was usually carrying a compact mushroom guide and one or two other books, depending on the time of year and what I’m looking for. I often bring more books and leave them in the car, such as Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals.  Field guides are particularly useful for plant ID.  What’s Doing the Blooming has traveled with me far and wide.

 

Resources/Books for Wildcrafting

These are resources specific to the Midwest and Northeast Regions–if you are in another region, I’m sure there are other good guides for you to find (and a local forager friend could be of help here!)

 

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Understanding Ecology. John Eastman has written a really good series of books on the place of many plants and trees in the ecosystem; and I highly recommend these works to anyone who wants to learn how to forage ethically and responsibly.  Why? Because if we are going to take, we need to understand what we are taking and how what we take fits into the ecological system–what insects or animals depend on the plant, what other plants are typically found in the area, and so on.  This is knowledge that our human ancestors intimately knew, and if we are going to engage in these kinds of activities, we too must understand it, first and foremost. The three books I’ve read from cover to cover that provide this information are: The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Swamp and Bog, and the Book of Field and Stream (they are the three tan/white books in the front of the photo). Honestly, this is a good place to start even before you begin gathering anything.

 

Wild Foods. If you are going to be looking for wild foods, I recommend Sam Thayer’s books: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. They are both available from his website (he self-published them, and they are the best foraging books I’ve ever read). I often have them with me out in the field and I study them when I’m not out and about.

 

General Plant ID. For flowers, there is a great and compact book called What’s Doing the Blooming? and its super useful for all manner of blooming plants (good for wild food, medicine, and even dye plants). Blooming plants are often fruiting plants later in the year, so you can identify them early in the season using this. Otherwise, any field guide with photos should be sufficient–there are some produced by the Arbor Day foundation on trees that are also useful.

 

Medicinal Plants. I took a four-season herbal intensive with Jim McDonald and that’s how I learned to ID many plants. I combined this with Matthew Wood’s two volumes, The Earthwise Herbal (vol 1 and 2). Usually if I need to find a specific plant, I’ll study it before I leave the house, locate it in one of my field guides, and then try to find it when I’m out.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root - an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations.  Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root – an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations. Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

 

Dyes. There are numerous dye books and mushroom dye books that are also useful if you are going that route. Some that I like are: Dean and Cassleman’s Wild Color and Bessette and Bessette’s A Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyer’s Field Guide.

 

Native American food/medicine/craft books. Some native American books that cover medicinal or edibles are really useful in terms of recipes and information. I have a few out of print ones on my shelves, and they have taught me much about traditional uses (such as hemlock-hickory tea and how to make pemmican!)

 

Other crafts: What you are looking for is very dependent on the craft. Books on basketweaving and natural weaving will describe what to get for those crafts; pine-needle basketry will obviously be about pines, and so on.  Natural papermaking books will obviously teach you about what to gather for that (I have a few posts on natural papermaking as well). I haven’t found good books on foraging for incense supplies, but I do have some information on my blog here, here, here, and here about it. My post on smudge sticks perhaps is the most comprehensive in terms of wild plants you can burn that smell good (never fear! I am working on a much longer post on that subject in this upcoming year–still testing plants at this point!)

 

Foraging friend and example of gear

Foraging friend and example of gear

How to Build Knowledge

Only some of my knowledge on this subject came out of books. A lot of it came from learning from others–I walked at my grandfather’s side and later, my uncle’s side and they taught me much about plants as a child. Much later, I attended a full year of my friend Mark’s Eat Here Now” classes where he did a monthly plant walk at various locations. I attended several mushroom hunting workshops to learn the mushrooms (and would like to attend more). And of course, I attended my four-season herbal intensive (which included one day per month of plant walks out in the field).  I also went out with others who knew different kinds of things and we learned from each other. I talk to people about plants often–and am always ready to learn something new or teach someone else.

 

 I have found that focusing your energies on one area can lead you to success and allow you to, over time, build a very diverse set of knowledge about things you can wildcraft. Now, when I got into the woods, I am ready for anything–crafting supplies, dye plants, medicine, wild snacks, and treats, wood to carve, and much more. I focused my energies each year on learning a different set of things and adding to my repertoire–the first year, it was mainly art supplies and incense making–I gathered resins and found every berry I could and tested its dye and ink capacity. The second and third years, I focused on learning all of the wild foods I could and kept looking for dye plants and such. The fourth year, I focused on wild mushrooms and brewing, in addition to food and craft/dyes. Finally, this year, I added medicinal herbs (and will probably continue to focus on them for some time). I made it a point to go out into the field at least six times a month looking for what I was looking for and also paid attention to what was already growing at my homestead.

 

Its also a good idea to learn characteristics of plant families — the book called Botany For Gardeners, recommended to me by Karen (one of the frequent readers and commenters on this blog–thanks Karen!) can really be of assistance.  This way, you can begin to identify plant famillies and even if you find a plant you don’t know, its features will give you some clue as to other related plants.

 

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

A final point about building knowledge–one of the first things you should learn is what can cause you harm. I think first-time foragers should all learn to identify poison hemlock in ALL of its stages before anything else. Poison ivy gets a lot of notoriety, and frankly, can give you a bad rash and a few unpleasant weeks.  But Poison Hemlock WILL KILL YOU if ingested–and it has many look alikes in the Apiaceae family (such as Queen Anne’s lace/Wild carrot).  Even just touching or smelling Poison Hemlock can cause nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.  Recently, I was officiating at a friend’s wedding.  The bridal party were getting ready to pose for photos along a bridge on a trail.  I saw a huge patch of it right where people were standing and watched someone reaching down to touch it (it was pretty, in full bloom). I quickly pointed it out and had everyone move to give it the respect it was due.  Interestingly enough, a few months later, one of the people in the bridal party reached out to me to learn more about this plant and many others. Other plants I would learn quickly include the death angel/avenging angel mushroom, poison sumac, and poison oak. When you start looking for particular plants, also be aware of what plants may look similar to the plant you want ( a good foraging book, like Sam Thayer’s books, will teach you this).

 

What You can Wildcraft and Setting intentions

Truthfully, the better question is–what can’t you wildcraft? I’ve taken particular joy in learning as much as I can about as many plants as possible and their uses. For example, see my extended post on the dandelion. One of the things you want to ask yourself is–why are you wildcrafting? For medicine? For Food? For crafting?  This will determine, to a large extent, what you are looking for and what resources you will need.  You also want to consider the abundance of the plant and who else may be depending on the plant as a food source (more on this in Part II of this series).

 

Setting your intent: Wandering vs. Targeted Harvesting. Sometimes I go out wandering to see what I can find, while other times, I have a very specific harvest in mind. Determining this will indicate where I should go (e.g. a few days after a “weather event” to look for mushrooms; to the outskirts of a housing development to pick serviceberries, and so on). If I don’t have anything in mind, I will go to one of several wild areas and make it a point to return to the same area multiple points in the season to gauge how the crops are progressing.

 

When you are first learning, the other thing is that you might not know where to get certain things. These “wanderings” then, while time consuming, are wonderful times of discovery. They help you establish your “spots” for future harvests–look for abandoned apple orchards, berry patches, abundant fields, and so much more.

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

 

Keeping records. I keep fairly detailed records of harvests and locations.  I know others who draw extensive maps so that they can find their mushrooms again the following year.  All of this is useful as you are learning–looking at your records from one year can help you figure out the locations and timing of where you want to go.

 

Wildcrafting Timing

Timing is a tricky thing in wildcrafting. Generally, the more often you go out, and the more time you devote, the more impressive harvests you will find. Each year can be its own wonky thing, and you can never be sure that the wild blueberries will be blooming at the same time (they, like everything else, can often vary by several weeks depending on the weather)  I find its better to visit early in the season and stop back often for things you really like than to miss the harvest entirely. For example, as I mentioned in my dandelion post, each year there is about 7-10 days of “peak dandelions” where they are blooming and abundant–and this is really the only time to make wine because its the only time they will be in the volume you need. If you miss the harvest–you’ll have to wait till the following season.

 

The other important thing about timing is that not everything is abundant each year. This is why we must take advantage of harvests when we find them and understand how to stretch those harvests out in times of scarcity. I remember, for example, the great apple harvest of 2013; the great st. john’s wort harvest of 2014, and the great berry harvest of 2011 and 2013 (and the lack of any berries to speak of in 2012 and 2014!)  Canning, drying, freezing, and other forms of preservation can allow us to enjoy the bounty even in years of famine.  A lot of people, as i mentioned in my earlier post, don’t really understand this. The supermarket is always abundant, and if you are going to share wild foods with them, I would suggest making them come with you on a trip or two so that they understand the work of it–and also the joy.

 

Stay tuned for my second post next week, where we’ll delve into understanding the ethics of foraging, discussing where to harvest safely, and more!

 

Alternative Housing: Tiny Houses, Campers, and the Road Less Traveled January 9, 2015

For an increasing number of Americans, especially those under 30, the “American Dream” is an absolute joke. For those of us in our 30’s, like me, its still a joke, but a harsh one because lot of us got sucked into believing in this dream and buying houses and such just before things crashed down in 2008. Of course, the joke’s on us, I suppose. Even for college graduates (or those with graduate degrees) finding a way to make a decent living and support a family, much less buy a house or anything else, is a fantasy. Those in the trades that I talk to often also don’t have any work. Many friends of mine in their 20’s are still living at home because its too expensive to be on their own, the job opportunities aren’t there, or the bills are too much to consider moving out. Or, they are like Sage, who I described in a post about meaningful work last year–they work several jobs to pay the bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, having no free time or energy to do anything else. Two days ago a new article described most Americans as being one paycheck away from the street.  And some are already halfway there–I have numerous friends living in homes in Detroit without heating for the winter, running water, and more–because they can’t afford it. So…this begs the question–what can be done and who is doing it? This blog post explores just that.

Freedom!

Freedom!

 

From a sustainable perspective, American Dream, with its white picket fences and perfect sprawling lawns, is one of the most destructive ways of living that there is. Especially when that American dream resides in large, suburban homes far away from workplaces. Now, I got sucked into this too before I had my great sustainable/permie awakening and bought a much larger house than I needed (about 2600 square feet). I’ve since been working with what I have to make my impact as little as possible (the subject of many posts in this blog), given the present circumstances in which I find myself. I’ve made several serious attempts in the last two years to turn my large rural home on 3 acres into a kind of hippy commune/small sustainable community, with the idea that more people in a smaller space = less waste, more opportunity, lots of fun experiences, lots of veggies from the garden, but thus far, its not really been successful–hardworking hippies are surprisingly hard to find, especially long-term, and I’m rethinking the whole plan at present.  I even had a few friends living in a trailer behind my house for a while last summer. And I do think that model can work–provided you find the right people.

 

But today I’d like to explore another solution, one that a dear friend of mine has been working towards for the last six or so months. In less than a year, my friend went from renting, working two jobs and barely making ends meet to downsizing her life, owning her own residence, and supporting herself with what she loves the most–her art.  She has no mortgage, no property or school taxes, no nagging boss, no rigid schedule, and few of the other problems that life presents most of us, even those of us like myself trying to live as sustainably as possible. And yet, despite her current status (homeowner, debt-free, mobile, self-supporting, with savings) nearly everyone that she knows thinks she’s crazy and have been trying to talk her out of her “insanity.”

 

What has my friend and her husband done? They have sold 90% of their possessions, purchased a van and a camper, quit their jobs, and have decided to live in in their camper. Why do people think she’s crazy? Because her and her husband have decided, frankly, that they aren’t drinking the Koolaid anymore. They aren’t playing the game. The idea that you could just quit the rat race, that you could find more happiness and fulfillment by not working full time, by not taking on a big mortgage, and so on, isn’t an idea that can even be conceived of by most Americans.

 

My friend’s husband is keeping a vlog (check it out here) where he’s showing off their setup, describing sustainable projects (like the composting toilet) and documenting their journey. In a recent update, her husband (the Earth Bison on Youtube) describes working the insanity of retail over the holiday season and finally getting ready to head out on their adventure. Today marks my friends’ journey from Michigan (where it has gotten quite cold and their little camper has had some winterizing challenges) to warm and sunny Arizona for the remainder of the winter.  I am so proud of them for making such a choice.

 

I want to step back a bit and investigate some of the negative reactions to my friend and her husband’s choice:

If you want to be free...you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

If you want to be free…you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

 

1. It comes down to stuff. A big part of it, I think, is that you can’t take all that stuff with you. But really how much stuff does one person need? I’ve given away about 25% of my stuff in 2014, and I intend on downsizing another 25% in 2015. Things can be hard to part with at first (and at first, I literally had to take the boxes into a room, mourn the loss of it, and then eventually after a few weeks, let it go). The more that I gave away, the better and lighter I felt. I found places to give my stuff away that mattered–expensive musical instruments I haven’t played in 10 years to an after school program (a community partner for a course I teach), clothing and household goods to a place that gives them away for free to those in need, books to friends who are interested in them, art supplies to fellow artists, and so on.  I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but each time I do, I feel better, lighter. The stuff weighs on us, it really does, and we don’t realize it until we start giving it away. Its so easy in our culture to accumulate it–even if we don’t buy stuff, people buy and bring stuff for us, often without our consent.

 

2. Space. Another issue–and a valid one–is space.  We are used to living big and luxurious…but again, if one doesn’t have all the stuff, does one need all the space? The space requires heating (usually inefficiently via fossil fuel), money and time to upkeep, time to clean, and so on.  I’ve been really challenged in this regard with my current living situation.  I do host big events (like our monthly permaculture meetings) in my huge greatroom, and do a lot of other good with the land, but I still feel like I’m taking up way to much space.  I do think, given my introverted ways, I might have difficulty living with a person in such a living situation–but I’ve done it before (dorms in my undergrad years) and seemed to be fine.

 

3. Convenience. I think convenience is another huge issue. Many of us are used to so many modern conveniences and living in a small space sustainably forces you to give up some of those (think about the work involved in a composing toilet, or in hauling your water each day).  To give some perspective, last weekend, I had some unexpected guests, including a number of small children, and they kept asking me why I did things “the old way.”  I didn’t really consciously think about what I did, but they were really intrigued by me and my old ways.  I made them popcorn on the stove with popcorn from my garden in olive oil.  I built them a fire to keep them warm (they all slept next to it).  They made art and watched the fire since I don’t have a TV (give away during last year’s great giveaway).  We played games on the floor (pick up sticks, which they loved). We cooked on the stove since I don’t have a microwave (again, by choice, also given away in last year’s great giveaway). Since I’ve made shifts slowly away from modern conveniences slowly and integrated them into my life fully, I guess didn’t realize how different I now live than others.  But children have a way of pointing out things in ways adults won’t.  I think about my friends–they have made many more shifts than I have–living on solar power and limiting energy use, composting toilets, greywater systems….these are shifts that I’m also planning, but I haven’t yet gotten there!

 

4. Fear. Ultimately, a lot of resistance to my friend’s plan came down to one thing–fear.  Fear of the unknown. And its a big risk, quitting one’s job, leaving a roof over your head, and going off into the great beyond. Others have done it, and many others plan to do it–and as they become the trailblazers for their generation and document their experiences, still others will muster up the courage.

 

But given the economic circumstances that so many of my generation and those younger than me face, I do think this path–tiny houses, campers, and other smaller spaces–is a really viable one. The choice and what it offer can be summed up in one word: freedom. I think many more of us, myself included, are thinking about how to escape at least some of this rat race, how to live sustainably and meaningfully, how do meaningful work in the world. The yurt living movement and tiny house movement is gaining steam rapidly–more and more people are seeking alternative living that is debt-free, sustainable, and fulfilling.  I’d love to hear from others who are considering the same choice or who are enacting it. I have some big life changes ahead for me as well–I might join them one day.  It certainly is a tempting proposition.

 

 

Creating Sacred Spaces: Bee and Butterfly Sancturaries January 7, 2015

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

In the depths of the winter, I like to do my planning for next year’s garden, organize my seeds, and start seeds for the coming season. This year, I’m thinking a lot about perennial spaces and planning more bee and butterfly plants to attract butterflies and give my bees more forage.  In this post, I’ll talk about the process of developing a bee and butterfly garden as a sacred sanctuary.  I currently have two small ones near my house, but I’m ready to expand it into much more of the landscape, especially into my front yard.

 

I’ve been interested in bees and butterflies for a long time, but it wasn’t until the township took issue with my front lawn and I started keeping bees that I started to really understand the nature of the issue.  The nature of the issue, as I see it, is this: Americans keep lawns and those lawns are like deserts to a pollinator–there is literally nothing for the bees and butterflies to eat in a typical lawn.  Dandelions might pop up, which is a great early pollen source for bees.  But as quickly as the dandelions pop up, they are mowed or treated with chemicals.  Monocrops are also a problem–where there are crops, they are often GMO with chemicals and insecticides bred into their DNA.  A third problem is in the greenhouse industry–a lot of flowers that you buy in the spring for planting come out of greenhouses covered in insecticides–if you plant those flowers, you are exposing the pollinators to poison and harming the bees even more.  All in all, its a sorry state of affairs for our pollinators and butterflies, and part of the reason why we are seeing such declines in bee populations (wild and domesticated) and in butterfly populations.

 

Bee and Butterfly Gardens as a Sacred Space

Native bee

Native bee

Given these rather dire circumstances, I want to turn our attention once more to the idea of the sacred space and sacred site, and I’d like to suggest that bee and butterfly sanctuaries might be another kind of sacred space we can create.  Because I think that sacred spaces for function for more than just humans–a sacred space, especially one created in an earth-centered tradition, hopefully will serve for many different kinds of life.  I’ve already discussed creating sacred spaces in this blog pretty extensively–from Understanding and Developing Sacred Sites in the US to how to create various kinds of sacred spaces such as stone circles, stone cairns, and other projects. I’ve also explored the garden as a sacred sanctuary.

There are a few ways to create a sacred space for pollinators, one that provides them with what they need in a chemical-free environment but also one that honors them in other ways. The best part about this is that a bee and butterfly garden is beautiful, functional, and, if you plan it right, always blooming and full of tasty treats and medicinal herbs.

 

Basic Needs for Pollinator Sanctuaries

The basic needs for a bee and butterfly sanctuary are:

 

1) A wide range of flowering plants, trees, and bushes that are flowering at different times to ensure a consistent nectar flow and pollen throughout the season.  Fruit trees provide early blossoms, goldenrod provides some of the last pollen of the year, and the host of wild flowers and bushes in between get them through the summer.  There is typically a “summer dearth” of nectar, so its also useful to plan for that and have flowers blooming during that time.

 

2) Pollinators need shelter. Its useful to study how different bees and butterflies in your region live so that you can provide what they need. Shelters for wild and domestic bees can be built, such as hives or shelters for mason bees. Bumblebees, another wild bee who is declining in population, live in colonies of 50-60 bees underground (the queen alone overwinters, also underground), so you want to make sure there are plenty of places for them to burrow where they won’t be disturbed.

 

Me in front of one of the butterfly gardens!

Me in front of one of the butterfly gardens!

3) Pollinators need water.  You might think about shallow dishes where the water is easily accessible and bees and butterflies can’t drown.  Many beekeepers keep a little bee fountain going–I have a large pond, so I put rocks along the edge near the beehives where they can land easily and get at the water easily without drowning.

 

4) Pollinators need host plants. Another thing that pollinators need, especially butterflies, are host plants.  These are plants, like milkweed, where they can lay eggs and where young will find the nutrients they need to grow.  These plants are things like milkweed (Monarch), spicebush (Spicebush swallowtail, below), clover, snapdragon, alfalfa, fennel (other swallowtails), sunflower, and marshmallow.

 

Options for Structuring Sacred Bee and Butterfly Gardens

Truly, any space will do for a bee and butterfly garden–I’d like to provide a range of ideas for different living circumstances.

 

1) The Pollinator Porch.  Even if all that you have is a small porch, you can make it a place of sacred activity, of reflection and introspection, and welcome the energy of the pollinators to your doorstep.  Pollinators are a joy to watch, and are not aggressive or mean (hornets can be, but they are not what you are attracting with flowering plants).  Even if its just a few pots of flowers and herbs that bloom at different times sitting on your porch, a pollinator porch can be a quiet place for you to relax, meditate, and enjoy the bee and butterfly show.

 

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed

2) Pollinator Hedge.  In older European traditions, the “hedge” was an important part of any property–the hedgerows often had closely planted shrubs, trees, and a vibrant understory of medicinal plants and flowers–and a pollinator paradise.  Pollinators need places to rest and avoid the heat of the summer during the day–a hedge can provide that.  You can create a pollinator hedge around the edges of a property (this is what I have) as well as the edges  of a garden.  My hedge along the edge of my property works pretty much like this:  Inside on the property line: trees (including flowering hawthorn), edged by elder, blackberry, wild rose, and black raspberry (also that flower, and produce fruit and medicine for me and other wildlife); amongst this, various flowering plants are included, many of which sprung up wild: sweet clover (some would argue its invasive; I argue its the best food source my bees have at certain points of the year), golderod (medicinal, great late-season feed source), wild bergamot, boneset, and much more.  The hedge also provides me with a good deal of privacy, which I certainly value and makes the whole property encircled and protected.

 

Me running in robes along the hedge!

Me running in robes along the hedge!

3) Pollinator Garden Edges. Gardens are already magical and sacred places, and all the more so if we build spaces for pollinators. I got this idea from a friend who runs our campus student organic farm who planted ever-flowering plants, like calendula and blue queen sage, at the edge of each garden row.  This gives pollinators a place to come to within garden whether or not the other crops are blooming. You can add small shrines, stone cairns, and much more to garden spaces.  I think it adds more magic to an existing garden, and certainly creates space not just for food for people but also for the pollinators.  The alternative is to dedicate a pollinator row or two in the garden that is a permanent feature (or make a pollinator hedge around the outside).

 

4) Wildflower Fields.  A field of wildflowers, especially native wildflowers, is a wonderful way to dedicate space to for pollinators.  I generally just let my back field (about 1/2 an acre) left unmowed and it has been a wonderful experience to see what has taken up residence there.  The only thing I’ve done is I’ve to plant lots of different flowers in my field (when I arrived, it was primarily dominated by ox-eye daisy).  I’ve gotten St. Johns Wort, New England Aster, Milkweed, Boneset, and Goldenrod to grow there, and am trying for some other flowering and nectar plants this year.

 

Butterfly garden near garage

Butterfly garden near garage

5) Pollinator-friendly lawn. I’ve mentioned this before, but another way to help the pollinators out is to replace the grass with something that doesn’t require mowing and that is friendly to pollinators.  I’ve been working on planting large patches white dutch clover–the honey bees just love it.  I would place a blanket on the edge of the clover patch, read books, mediate, and watch the bees enjoy the clover–which bloomed for almost a month.

 

6) Pollinator gardens. I have dedicated gardens for pollenators, little nooks and crannies tucked in places where the herbs and flowers are abundant and blooming all season long!

 

Plants to Consider (Zone 5-7 suggestions)

There are a lot of opinions out there on what plants to plant (native, non-native, etc). I take a permaculture design perspective, which is to use groupings of plants that all produce different benefits, and form “guilds” that grow in the same areas as other plants.  In other words, I like to plant things that will create a natural ecosytem, encourage pollinator visits, and also enrich and nourish the soil.  One of the things you’ll notice about many of these plants is that they aren’t just good for the bees and butterflies–but many of them are also good for us (either as medicine or as an edible). Here are some of the ones I’m planning for my expanded gardens:

Butterfly Weed!

Butterfly Weed!

  • Sweet clover: I’ve never needed to plant sweet clover; it grows wild everywhere where one mows (you can see it growing boldly along the edges of paths, but not where the ground hasn’t been disturbed).  It also makes a great smudge herb and is an excellent medicinal herb.
  • Butterfly Bush: I’ve had a few butterfly bushes growing in my butterfly garden, and they are truly like nothing else.  They bloom late in the season when there is usually nectar dearth.  They are visited by more butterflies and bees (and even hummingbirds) than anything else growing in my yard.  Truely a beautiful and amazing plant.  They don’t take the cold winters well, however, and the deep freeze of last winter killed my bushes.
  • Butterfly Weed/ Pleurisy Root. A great medicinal plant, late bloomer, brilliant orange.
  • Milkweed. Many species of this exist; you’ll want some common milkweed for the monarchs. This is also a tasty wild edible!
  • Bee Balm / Wild Bergamot.  Another fantastic medicinal; this blooms and blooms and is wonderful for the bees.
  • Orageno.  Another long-blooming, medicinal, and culinary plant.
  • Anise Hyssop.  Delicious for teas, long-blooming, and very medicinal!
  • Blue Vervain. Medicinal, long-blooming, beautiful and tall!
  • Fruit trees. Fruit trees of all kinds provide very early blooms.  This includes hawthorns, apples, pears, peaches, plums, and apricots.
  • New England Aster.  This plant is a stunning purple in the fall, and blooms to give a last source of pollen and nectar.  Did I mention I pretty much cured my asthma with this plant?
  • Goldenrod. A lot of people think they are allergic to goldenrod, but its ragweed, which blooms at the same time as Goldenrod.  Goldenrod is a wonderful medicinal plant and is beautiful in the fields!
  • Purple Coneflower. Medicinal? Check.  Beautiful? Check!
  • St. Johns Wort. Mid-summer blooming plant, this is another one my bees love.  And its highly medicinal.
  • Joe Pye Weed.  A type of milkweed; medicinal and wonderful!
  • Most herbs. Most garden herbs have something the bees like–mints, lavender, sages, thymes, chives, etc!

 

Finally, here’s a shot of before and after with my butterfly garden.  I had friends help me put in the stone pathway from stones found here on the property.

"Before" area for butterfly garden

“Before” area for butterfly garden

"After" area for butterfly garden

“After” area for butterfly garden – year 1

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden from a distance (with arch, year 2); the area in the front is now a clover patch and doesn’t require mowing

 

 
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