The Druid's Garden

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

A Guide to Farmer’s Markets: Avoiding Fraudulent Farmers, Building Relationships, and How to Buy from the Best March 26, 2015

A trip to the local farmer’s market has become one of my very favorite activities.  Here you can sample a variety of locally-produced, high quality goods, meet interesting people, and come home with bags and bags of fresh veggies, meat, eggs, and more. But, not all farms are created equal, and its really important to have a critical awareness of who is selling what–and when–at a farmer’s market.  This post is meant as an introduction to how to support the *right* vendors at the farmer’s market and avoid people selling industrialized food who are masquerading as farmers.

 

I write this blog post based on my regular attendance at over a dozen farmer’s markets in three states as well as my experience in vending at our local area farmer’s market for the last two seasons, where I happened to get stuck next to what I eventually realized was a “Fraudulent Farmer” most weeks at the market (so I was able to covertly observe his shady activities). Its also based on conversations I’ve had with several friends who are local certified organic and naturally grown farmers and my own various experiences in homesteading over the last six years.

 

A beautiful display of homegrown veggies and herbs from my dear friend, Nature's Harvest Organic Farm!  Photo by Sarah Angelini

A beautiful display of homegrown veggies and herbs from my dear friend, Nature’s Harvest Organic Farm! Photo used with permission (Taken by Sarah Angelini)

Going in with the right expectations

A farmer’s market focuses on locally grown and handmade products–fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, various prepared foods, meats, eggs, handcrafted goods (like jams), honey, local art, and much more.  Even small towns can boast impressive farmer’s markets, with a wide variety of produce and locally made goods. A farmer’s market promises a different experience from the grocery store–everything there should be produced or grown locally, which means that your local farmer’s market is the antithesis to the grocery store.  It also means that the face of the farmer’s market changes as the season progresses.

 

Beware of Fraudulent Farmers

The biggest thing to watch out for at farmer’s markets is what I call “Fraudulent Farmers” — practically every farmer’s market I’ve been at has them, although some markets have them more than others (I have found them to be much more prevalent in larger city markets, like Detroit’s Eastern Market or Flint’s Farmer’s Market than in small markets, but even my local market has one–who I will describe below). Purchasing from a fraudulent farmer is no different than purchasing from the grocery store–this is because Fraudulent farmers aren’t farmers at all, they are distributors.  Better fraudulent farmers at least go to local farms and buy their stuff, serving as a middle man.  The worst of the bunch go to larger distributors (like Gordon Foods) or port areas where stuff is brought in (like Detroit’s Eastern Market) and buy produce wholesale.  Then they go to your nearby farmer’s market, set themselves up a booth, and sell with everyone else. You end up getting one thing (industrialized, GMO, pesticide-laden food) when you are expecting another (fresh, local, chemical free food).

 

How can you tell if a farmer is a fraudulent farmer? Let’s start with a story, which will illustrate many of the tell-tale signs you can look out for. “Farmer Fred” (this is also the name of his booth, name changed for the purposes of this post) is a farmer who vends regularly at my local farmer’s market. When I first started going there and didn’t know about fraudulent farmers, I often bought things from him because he had beautiful looking fruit and vegetables, a very wide selection, and fantastic prices. In fact, Farmer Fred routinely undersold everyone else at the market. If the going rate for nice, plump red pepper was $1.00, Farmer Fred would be selling them for 75 cents. He also never made claims about the organic nature of his vegetables but he did list things like “Farm Fresh Vegetables” (which is really kind of meaningless). When I started asking Farmer Fred questions about his produce, I got really vague answers. I asked, “Do you grow your own vegetables?” and he would say, “No, my family does.” I responded, “Where is their farm?” His response, “Up north.” I said, “What’s the name of their farm?” He responded, “They don’t have a name. Do you want to buy something?”  Then, when I started looking at his vegetables–what was he doing with cantaloupes, tomatoes, and watermelons in early June in Michigan? These plants are seedlings in the ground then–not even more than a few inches high. And I noticed something else–he was opening boxes that had been sealed, full of vegetables. I started asking around, and sure enough, among the other vendors, Farmer Fred had quite the reputation.

We are looking for the REAL thing!

We are looking for the REAL thing!

 

One of my dear friends who also vends at this market had been a farmer for thirty years. She was a one-woman operation–certified organic, all biointensive farming methods. Her vegetables were beautiful. She grew her plants with love and care–but could never charge so cheap a price as Farmer Fred. In fact, in the five years that she had been selling her produce seriously at this market, she had yet to turn a profit. But, she loved what she was doing, she loved educating others, and so she kept on doing it. But here was Fraudulent Farmer Fred, underselling her at every step…and he wasn’t even a farmer at all.

 

Spotting Fraudulent Farmers

So, what do we learn from this tale? Don’t give one’s business to Fraudulent Farmer Fred’s…give it to real, hardworking farmers. You can spot fraudulent farmers with observation and tact:

 

1) Out of season veggies and fruits. You want to learn what fruits and veggies should be in season and buy from people who clearly are offering veggies in season. Note that if a farmer has a hoop house or poly tunnel, he or she may be a full month or more ahead of the growing season (this shelters the plants from extreme temperatures, so I’m taking that into account in my list below). In my bioregion (Zone 6 Michigan), here’s what you can expect at the different points in the year.

  • Year round (with a hoop house or cold storage): spinach, lettuce, arugula, minzua, kale, various other leafy greens, carrots, celery, kohlrabi, cabbage, potatoes, apples, onions, winter squash, microgreens, garlic, sprouts.
  • Spring and early summer crops: primarily leafy greens and peas, chives, some wild edibles.
  • Mid summer: garlic, garlic scapes, herbs, green onions, strawberries, some early berry varieties
  • Late Summer (July – August): corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, watermelon, cantaloupe, raspberries, blackberries, plums, pears
  • Fall (October – November): Greens, cabbage, onions potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, squashes, apples

    A typical mid-July harvest!

    A typical mid-July harvest in my bioregion!

 

2) Out of region veggies and fruits: Under no circumstances can people grow bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, pineapples, coconuts, papayas, and so on in my bioregion. The only citrus that can be grown outside here is hardy kiwi and paw paw (that I am aware of); hardly anyone grows hardy kiwi, and paw paw I’ve only seen at the market twice because it goes bad very quickly. If you see bananas or oranges, you know they are outsourcing their veggies.

 

3) Boxes that appear like wholesale boxes, especially if they are sealed. Note that some real farmers buy such boxes for moving produce, so this in and of itself shouldn’t be the only sign. Its a good idea to sneak around the back of their booth and see how they are unpacking their veg. A lot of the farmers at our market use plastic coolers, plastic tubs, or wooden boxes that are reusable for many seasons.

 

4) Veggies that have stickers on them (or that Farmer Fred tries to skillfully remove). Yeah, that’s not from a real farmer.

 

5) Prices that don’t reflect the real cost of locally farmed food. This is the fraudulent farmers underselling all other farmers at the market–if its cheaper than everyone else, its probably too good to be true.

 

6) Lack of other farm goods. Many farmers make ends meet by selling additional farm products: wool or yarn, homemade jams, baked goods, infused vinegars, honey, beeswax candles, salves and creams, even smudge sticks! A fraudulent farmer has no farm, so wouldn’t take the time to handcraft other goods (but certainly could buy and sell stuff from national companies that offer these kinds of products). Not all farmers do this, but a lot do!

 

7) No dirt on the veggies. Veggies straight from the field often take a bit of the field with them (especially squash, cukes, potatoes, carrots). Some farmers will wash their veggies (although a lot will not due to the extra work involved). If there is not a lick of dirt on the veggies, it might be a sign that you have a fraudulent farmer!

Farmer's market booth--the dirt is real, folks!  (Photo by Sarah Angelini)

Farmer’s market booth–the dirt is real, folks! (Photo by Sarah Angelini)

 

8) No dirt under Farmer Fred’s fingernails, no calluses on his hands. This is pretty self explanatory–if you aren’t farming, you aren’t going to have dirty hands and calluses. Try shaking the Fraudulent Farmer’s hand and see what happens.

 

8) When questioned, give vague answers about their produce or where it comes from. “Area farms” “The Mennonites” or “My family” are all kinda abstract.

 

Speaking of questions….What’s really fun to do with Fraudulent Farmers is to ask them really specific questions about farming that a farmer would innately know, but that a Farmer Fred would not. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “What’s your soil PH like on your farm?”  (every area has a unique soil profile, and if the farmer doesn’t know that, he or she has no business growing veggies. So this can give you a VERY good indication as to whether or not they are fraudulent. My own Farmer Fred failed this question miserably when asked, telling me he had “perfect soil with a perfect PH” when he got to his farm, even though everyone else’s soil around here is Alkali. BUSTED!).
  • “Who do you source your seeds from?” (Good farmers will have favorite seed sources, especially GMO free ones like Victory Seeds, Seed Saver’s Exchange, or Baker Creek).
  • “What varieties are you growing this year? Which are working out the best?” (Good farmers know what they are growing and how its doing).
  • “Wow, these watermelons are really early for Michigan.  How did you grow them?” (Really, even with a hoop house, you can’t have a ripe watermelon in May or June).
  • “How did you get your cabbages to get so uniform?” (Uniformity can be a result of chemical sprays and GMO crops; but some farmers are better than others at achieving uniformity, and they know its an expectation from consumers, so this question may lead to mixed results).
  • What’s your favorite thing to grow? (Fraudulent farmers will give some lame response to this question!)

Ask away and watch them squirm.

 

Another shot of my local farmer's market!

My local farmer’s market!

Getting to Know Your Real Farmers

Most real farmers love what they do and are excited and eager to talk about their farm, their growing processes, and so on. Its a great idea to develop close relationships with a few of your farmers at the market, especially if you want to do some canning and bulk buying or off-season buying. Its also nice to get to know your farmers so you know who you can trust and avoid the fraudulent farmers.

When getting to know your farmer, here are some good questions to ask:

  • What are your growing practices? (e.g. do you use chemicals?)
  • Where are you located?
  • How long have you been farming?
  • Are you certified organic or certified naturally grown?
  • How large is your farm?
  • Do you offer produce in the off-season? (Some offer local pickup services)
  • What’s your favorite thing to grow?

These kinds of questions provide really helpful insight into your farmers. It bears mentioning that some farmers may do more than one market at a time, and may hire people to sell their vegetables at other markets. This isn’t necessarily cause for immediate concern, but it is really nice to talk to the person themselves who grew the vegetables.

 

Certified Organic, Naturally Grown, and Chemical Free

The certifications that farmers can get also bear some mentioning here. Getting “certified organic” is a legal designation that ensures only that crops are grown without pesticides or chemicals (they can still be GMO, they can still be grown on an industrialized scale). Certified Organic is really a certification that benefits large growers, not small family farms, and the USDA designed it so. This is because it requires what I feel is ludicrous amounts of record-keeping (literally down to what tools were used in what field on what day and every input to the farm). It also costs about $1500 or more per year. It takes a typical farmer 2-3 months do to the initial preparation for certification and immaculate record-keeping in the years that follow. Because of this, and given the already tiny profit margin on most small family farms, you won’t find a ton of farmers at the market with organic certification. A few of my farmer friends who have had this certification in the past are instead opting

Awesome organic lettuce!

Awesome organic lettuce!

Some farmers may opt for another certification called “Naturally grown.” This is a much more reasonable option for small family farmers–its a peer-review system where farmers who are Certified Naturally Grown visit other farmers and ensure their practices meet the standards. Naturally grown uses the same practices as organic, but without the price tag (in other words, no chemicals, no sprays, etc.)  It also doesn’t require the extensive paperwork or intensive record keeping or financial burden. Either Certified Organic or Certified Naturally grown are excellent indications that your farmer is engaging in good farming practices.

The final thing that can happen, which is the case with a lot of new farms, is that they may opt for no certification and say they are “chemical free” or “no sprays or pesticides” and you have to take their word for it. If they seem trustworthy and passionate about what they are doing, that’s really not an issue. And you can use the other methods in this guide (like understanding what is in season when) to visually evaluate their produce. Apples and fruits are something to watch out for–a lot of organic integrated pest management systems are harder with orcharding, so I would be especially careful about apples and fruit.

 

The Look and Feel of the Booth

Another thing I pay attention to to evaluate a potential farmer is the name of the farm and how the booth looks and feels. The name of the farm can sometimes give you great insights into the mind of the farmer. “Peace Farms” for example gives a much different vibe (sounds like a farming collective or intentional community) than “Jackson Farm” (which sounds like a family farm). Its also nice to take a look at the care and creativity put into a farmer’s market booth.  Is it clean?  Do they display their veggies with pride?

Sodas and Sundries Booth I shared with a friend.  Good times!

Sodas and Sundries Booth I shared the last two years. Good times!

 

Appreciate Your Farmer!

I’ll conclude by mentioning that these farmers are growing your food–the food you put in your body for sustenance and survival–and they are doing it with the love and affection that only a small family farmer can. So thank them for their hard work, respect their efforts, and be grateful to them that you aren’t stuck shopping at the grocery store for produce that comes from who knows where and has who knows what chemicals sprayed on it.  They are regenerating the landscape as they grow, providing ecosystems and habitats, and growing food in a system that has the decks stacked in the opposite direction.  Small family farming is a thankless job and a difficult one to make ends meet due to the unreasonably low cost of industrialized agriculture–so let’s show them some love!

 

The Wheel of the Year and Sustainable Action: The Spring Equinox March 19, 2015

I began this series of posts with examining sustainable actions for the winter solstice. Today’s post celebrates the current holiday–the spring equinox–and suggests activities for sustainable and spiritual actions that are appropriate for this delightful season. (I will note that these activities are appropriate for readers who reside in the Northern Hemisphere who are coming into the springtime–for those in the Southern Hemisphere, look forward to my Fall Equinox post later in the year!)

 

A few words about the spring equinox–the spring equinox is a time of balance, when day and night come in equal parts. The spring equinox is a great time to clear away the old habits and clutter that no longer serve us and that pull us back into unsustainable patterns and behaviors. The spring equinox is also a great time to start new activities, hobbies, actions, or even reorient our way of seeing. Given the energies of the Spring Equinox, I’ve compiled a list of things that you can do to help engage in more sustainable and earth-centered practices during this most sacred time!

 

On Personal Rituals

I like celebrating the eight-fold wheel of the year because it brings a sense of ritual and consistency into my life. I have crafted a series of “personal rituals” for each of these sacred days (like the inner spring cleansing, the first item below), and doing these with regularity each year gives me some balance and focus.  So you might also think about how your own personal ritual and spiritual work fits with the season at hand.

 

Beautiful spring violets!

Beautiful spring violets!

Spring Cleansing/Balancing (Inner). The spring equinox is a time when the darkness and light are in equal balance. And truly, this is a time of balance, a time of introspection when we can understand how to achieve inner balance in our lives. I think this is important because so many of us don’t take the time to do such balancing and cleansing work in this busy world, and an inner imbalance can lead us towards all sorts of outer imbalances and cause chaos and pain for us. How does one seek inner balance?

 

One suggestion is a practice I started few years ago on the spring solstice: I started with a list of all of the things that make me happy: writing, painting, being outside, being with family and friends, growing things, spiritual practices, sitting by the fire, spending time in the woods, teaching, mentoring my students, etc. And then I kept track of how much time I spend on everything for one week–its like a time diary. I kept track of it as precisely as I could (if anything took more than 5 minutes, I wrote it down). After one week, I evaluated how I did and how many minutes, of my 24 hours in each day, I spent doing things I really loved. I also meditated on the list, trying to work through my week, and worked to eliminate anything that wasn’t helping me. The following week, I tried to increase the time I spent on my favorite things by 5%; then I again evaluated my successes. Slowly, over time, I was able to clear extraneous things and time sinks (like Facebook!) and focus really on what made me happy. This led to inner balance and, honestly, a new way of seeing and living. To keep myself on the right track, I do this activity each year for at least a week as part of my spring equinox celebrations–to reinforce my goals and spiritual path.

 

Spring Cleaning (Outer Living Spaces). Now is also a great time for outer work–work that can help you live simply and more meaningfully. Part of the reason we have “spring cleanings” is that spring is really a great time for all kinds of cleansing work. The accumulation of excess stuff that we don’t need can energetically hold us back and keep us from moving forward. For example, I had a friend who had a serious accumulation of things–a lot of it was junk, but it had piled up in his living space to the point where he couldn’t walk or really do anything. He would spend many countless hours and days organizing his things, but the stuff always seemed to get the best of him because while he shuffled it around, he never actually got rid of anything, so the clutter and energy remained. Eventually, he was forced through external circumstances to do some serious spring cleaning–and energetically, his creativity started to flow again.I found this to be true with myself as well–after some life changes, I ended up unloading about 40% of my stuff–with each bag or box I donated, I felt lighter and happier. I’m in the process of unloading even more stuff to prepare for some more big life changes this summer. The more I donated and rehomed, the easier it was to let go of more. The clutter really does stagnate us energetically and harms our living spaces and inner work. Once we’ve done such an external spring cleansing, we can evaluate what is really needed for a happy and fulfilling life and only bring those things in that fulfill us, not bog us down.

 

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Foraging for Spring Greens. Depending on where you live and the temperatures in the year, in the next few weeks, you can likely begin foraging for the first spring greens. In my neck of the woods, these are cattail shoots and poke shoots (both to eat like bamboo shoots), dandelion greens, nettles, burdock root, and a bit later in the season, ramps. For the poke, you can have them as long as there is no pink or red coming up the stalks.

 

Spring Tonic Greens and Tonic Teas. Unsurprisingly, once you are able to find those spring greens, they make a great spring tonic blend. The idea behind a tonic tea is that the winter would leave one rather malnourished–so the early spring greens and roots often helped to nourish and revitalize the body. This is not a “cleanse” in the popular sense of the word but more of a revitalization for long health. There are lots of ways to make a tonic blend using the early spring greens–you can make up a spring greens stir fry (with dandelion greens, nettle, and burdock root) or you can just make yourself up a dandelion root-nettle tea. Regardless, the early spring greens can be consumed early and often and will leave you feeling revitalized for the coming months!

 

Evaluating Spending and Reducing Excess. Part of the challenge for those of us living in western industrial civilization is that everything encourages us to spend, buy, and consume, very often when we don’t need it.  think there is often confusion over what is a need and what is simply a strong want. This is a good time to year to analyze spending habits and work to reduce excess (a great book for this is called Your Money or Your Life and it will help you break down your necessities and what you really need–a fascinating and highly recommended read).  Evaluating spending and reducing excess in our lives is well-suited to be combined with any external or internal spring cleaning we are ready to enact.

 

Sacred space

Sacred space

Planning a sacred space. Early spring is still a great time for thinking about creating outdoor spaces–either on your own land or in out of the way nooks and crannies in public lands. I have found that the longer I hold an intention of creating such spaces in my mind, the better such spaces become when I enact them in the world.  Meditation and visualization to plan the right kind of sacred space is useful as well. I have several posts on sacred spaces: developing sacred spaces, stacking stones, bee and butterfly gardens, stone circles and spirals, shrines and more.

 

Reskilling. While any time of year is a good time to reskill, the spring is fantastic because it is a time of new beginnings, a very good time to clear away the old and bring in the new. Reskiling, or the practice of learning skills that allow for more sustainable skills, can help us begin to make the transition to lower-fossil fuel and lower-impact living. I have a post on reskilling where I cover the basics of this practice.

 

Seed starting. At this point in the spring, if you haven’t already started your seeds or are considering a veggie garden, this is a great time to start those seeds!  A lot of farmers and gardeners in my zone (Zone 6) plant their gardens on the 31st of May, so this is the time to start the plants that have an eight-week indoor growing time–and that includes most of the nightshades, such as the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Some info on seeds and seed starting is found here and here!

 

Learning Homebrewing. There are a fantastic array of spring beverages that one can craft–elderflower wine, spruce tip ale,  ground ivy gruit, and my favorite, dandelion wine. If you want to learn about some of these unique brews, you can check out Stephen Harold Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Ancient Art of Fermentation. You won’t be disappointed!  There are also many recipes to be found freely online, such as at the winemaking site.

 

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Early Spring Observations. I recommend that you take every opportunity to be outside, to live and breathe the spring air, to watch the ice melt, and generally experience the seasons.  The melting ice, the rise of the crocuses, the running of the sap, the unfurling of the leaves–there is just so much magic in the land this special time of year! Spending time walking outdoors, being still, and focusing your awareness on the landscape and the tiny details can reveal profound insights and draw you closer to the land. I think one of my very favorite moments of the year is when we have the big melt, and being outside as much as possible during those amazing days!

 

Reading and Study.  Like the Winter Solstice, for many of us, the spring equinox still has much snow on the ground and its an excellent time to read a few good books. I have a list of books recommended for homesteading here, and I also have listed some books for sustainability and druidry here.

 

May the blessings of this Alban Elier be upon you! /|\

 

Other Sites: Costa Rica as a Model Sustainable Living and Permaculture Design in Action March 14, 2015

In February 2015, I took a 12-day trip to Costa Rica (my first real vacation!) Part of the reason I decided on Costa Rica was that this culture is well-known for emphasizing sustainability in a way that is well beyond lip service, and I wanted to experience it for myself and see what I could learn while I was there. I want to touch on the many things I observed and learned on this journey with regards to sustainable living and permaculture design. I traveled to four areas and drove across large portions of the countryside: the Monteverde region (high in the cloud forests), the urban and suburban San Jose region; the volcanic La Fortuna region, and the costal Manuel Antonio region.  One thing to remember about the Costa Ricans–they are one of the happiest countries in the world. I don’t think this is a fluke–I think its directly tied to the ways in which they live sustainably, have protected and preserved their own landscapes and local economies. So I’m going to look at some of those ways, envisioning Costa Rica as an alternative model for living. Along the way, I’m going to discuss  permaculture design from its three ethical principles: Care for people, Care for the Earth, and Set Limits/Redistribute Surplus.

 

Localized Economies

I want to start with the economy, because A) its the sacred cow of US politics and really the only thing anyone talks about these days, but also B) Costa Rica shows that there are viable alternatives for localized systems of wealth that empower people and protect the land. One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica was the localized economy–and how this manifested in the landscape. Literally everywhere we went, towns, stores, and businesses were different. They had different stores, small businesses, different kinds of food, artist-owned co-ops, wonky weird places and much more. In the USA, we are literally drowning in Walmarts, McDonalds, Rite Aids, TGI Fridays, Holiday Inn, Chase Bank, Subway, TJ Max, etc. Each town is a replica of the previous town, with the same 40 or so corporations promoting their wares.  Its like a rubber stamp; town after town looks the same. Each has this long line of strip malls with bad traffic and noise pollution, and you are supposed to WANT to go there and shop and purchase the same industrialized food.  Occasionally, a town or city will try to break out of it and have a “weird” core which is locally owned and unique (I think about Austin, TX, or Ann Arbor, MI) but even with their weirdness, the mega corporations are still there, just around the corner. I never realized how bad this was until I went to Costa Rica and drove all around the countryside.

 

In Costa Rica, the businesses are generally all locally owned, unique, and charming. I stayed in small B&B’s, farms, and small hostels everywhere and they were operated by the people who owned them and employed local workers (chain hotels weren’t even an option most places I stayed). A lot of these places were farms or sustainable living centers that also offered a bed to weary travelers. The accommodations were simple and wonderful. I ate food made and grown by locals (you didn’t even have to ask where it came from–you could just taste that it was fresh), I bought local art, and enjoyed locally-based attractions (like an orchid garden with 2000+ orchids or a sustainable chocolate plantation). It was amazing because everything was different, unique. Many places also embraced the landscape–they had gardens, walking paths, big trees, and the business “flowed” with the landscape so much more. And it was economically successful.

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

This really gets at the permaculture design principle “Care for People.” People are empowered–they can own businesses, hire each other, and determine their own economic realities. I think they are rooted in their communities, they also care more about what happens in them (than say, Walmart, who really couldn’t give a damn about the local town or their local workers they are in because their economic reality isn’t firmly rooted there). And when the people are cared for, they can focus on caring for other things, like the land and each other.

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

 

Housing.

By American standards, most Costa Ricans live in, as one snarky American I met on my travels called them “shacks.” The houses have metal roofs, outdoor living areas, and rather small interiors. I would say that the Costa Ricans live simply, and there is much to like about how they live. Because really– how much space does one person need? We have large houses here in the states to accommodate the “stuff” that we purchase and store as part of consumerist culture. But simple living, with fewer and more meaningful things, has a lot going for it, as the Costa Ricans demonstrate. The only American-sized houses that I saw were owned in areas where Americans lived–the signs were in English, the lawns were present, and the houses were enormous in those resort areas. But everyday life in Costa Rica doesn’t look like that–typical dwellings are probably about 800 or so square feet, on dirt roads, colorfully painted, gated, with clothes hanging outside and goats in the front yard. I think this really gets at both the “Care for people” and “Care for earth” permaculture ethical principles: the houses are small, they are integrated into the landscape, but people don’t take or have more than they need, so the earth is cared for at the same time.

Rancho Makena - The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

Rancho Makena – The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

It also “sets limits” to the size of the habitation, the amount of space one takes up in the world–and I think these are very, very good things.

Typical Costa Rican Housing

Typical Costa Rican Housing

 

Lawns & Everyday Interactions with the Land

Typical Costa Rican homes, at least in the areas that I stayed in and drove through, did not usually have lawns.  If there were grassy areas (such as outside of the front of my bungalow at the sustainable ranch where we stayed), the grass that was planted sometimes was a variety that did not grow more than a few inches high and did not require mowing. That grass was mixed with other low-growing plants including plantain (so nice to see my plant ally there!) and some sort of violet. But other homes’ lawns were pastures–and the cows would occasionally be let out to “mow” the front of the pasture near the road.  What I like so much about the “lawn as pasture” idea is that it redistributes the surplus–green growth–into cattle and horses, which can then be utilized in various ways (for food, transportation, milk, companionship).

Lawn Mower - no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Lawn Mower – no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Many homes had food forests in their yards–banana trees, mangoes, coconut palms, and various veggies like corn, lettuce, kale, and tomatoes. Nearly everyone was growing something, and most had quite a lot.  In the areas closest to the road, sometimes long grasses grew. I saw them employ three techniques to handle this–on some steep hillsides, I saw a few instances of men with weed whackers, I also saw most that people would bring in cattle or horses to graze grassy areas as I already mentioned; finally, some employed controlled burning. The only kinds of houses that had lawns were the homes that appeared to be much larger and much more wealthy–larger homes emulated American lawns and American sizes (and, where I saw the most, around the Arenal Lake’s northeastern side, the land was clearly being purchased by and catered to Americans).

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

 

Livestock.

Costa Ricans keep a lot of livestock–a type of cow that does well on the very hilly pastures.  Many also kept horses, and used them for transportation. This is true whether you live in the middle of San Jose or out in the middle of nowhere–everywhere livestock is legal and everywhere people have chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and horses.

 

We stayed on a small family farm in the Monteverde region that was a working ranch; they had various kinds of cattle and horses. They also kept pigs as “biodigestors” for compost and kept chickens for eggs. We were able to observe and take part in ranching and farming activities while we were there, such as see the greenhouses, feed the chickens, walk the fields and pastures. The buildings were simple and functional; the land rich, green, and well-tended. As was the case with earlier times in the history of the US everyone seemed to keep some kind of animals, even in the middle of the city you could hear the roosters crowing up the morning sun.  The ranch was great because they had intentionally designed it to care for people (human and domestic animal habitations), care for earth (half the ranch was forest and wild areas, with walking paths or just fully wild) and to redistribute surplus through composting and other techniques.

Livestock

Livestock

 

Farms and Gardens.

We visited many gardens and farms while in Costa Rica–they were quite easy to find and very abundant.  I will be writing about two of them in upcoming blog posts. Many of them advertised their sustainable activities right on their signs, being “carbon neutral” or “100% organic” or “sustainable farm.” But this wasn’t mere talk–Costa Ricans live sustainably, care deeply about the environment, and really mean what they say. In a nutshell, we saw all of the techniques for sustainable organic farming being enacted everywhere we turned: no chemicals or big sprayers, rainwater harvesting, composting, bioferments, perennial crops, effective soil management, integrating livestock, vermicompost, trapcrops, terracing, reusing materials, using principles of permaculture design, closed loop systems, and more  ( The one exception to this was the palm oil farms–and I’ll talk about those in another post.)  These sustainable, organic, bio-intensive farms are doing it right–in small spaces, they are caring for the land, the earth, and redistributing surplus back into the landscape.  I’ll also note that Costa Rica banned all GMOs in their country as of January 2015.  This is a major victory!

Hotel Belemar Garden

Hotel Belemar Garden- one of my favorites that we visited.  More on this soon!

Handling Waste.

You know you are in a place that values sustainability when its harder to find a trash can over a recycling bin, and when recycling bins look like this.  Note that there IS no trash can here–and these were the options you had available to you.  Talk about redistributing surplus and setting limits!

Recycling Bins - All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Recycling Bins – All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Local Food.

Costa Rican fare was simple, local, and delicious. The “typical” Costa Rican plate had a generous portion of rice and beans, sweet fried plantains, a meat/fish/avocado and cheese main portion, steamed vegetables, and a salad. All of this food was locally grown (except the rice, as far as I could tell). Everywhere we went, food was being fed to us right out of the farms, everyone kept livestock, the eggs were fresh off the farm, etc. Here, its nearly impossible to eat like this every single day if you aren’t growing it yourself–you can’t figure out where the food comes from and it takes considerable effort to source all local ingredients. In Costa Rica, I ate organic, wholesome, delicious food every single day. We saw very little in the way of fast food, especially any kind of fast food chain, although they still were present, especially in the city, where McDonalds and KFC are trying to weasel their way in. One day, I went white water rafting, and was told that “lunch was included.” In the States, this would be some sandwiches, industrialized food for sure.  In Costa Rica, they took us to an organic farm and we had the most amazing meal, a farm-to-plate meal complete with locally grown coffee, fresh sugarcane juice, and amazing vegetables. Here it was:

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Transportation.

As I mentioned before, horses are in wide use in Costa Rica as a means of travel. The public transportation system, even in the most remote areas, is quite good–there are bus stops on nearly every major road and many are using the bus system. One can travel most of the way across the country on a bus for less than $50. Many also use small, fuel-efficient motorcycles. Gas is about $5/gallon, so that alone makes people purchase and employ fuel efficiency. I witnessed more than one electric scooter, in addition to the bicycles and plain old walking, which Costa Ricans do a lot.  This demonstrates a lot with regards to “care for earth” and “setting limits.”

Walking home from work

Walking home from work

Respecting the arts.

Beautiful, colorful Costa Rican art, was abundant everywhere we went–from the streets of San Jose to the smallest town and village. The art was nature-themed, vibrant, and full of positive energy–not full of the ennui of modern life, but that which reflects the surroundings. Much working of wood, stone, inspired by nature. And its valued—and everywhere!  I will be writing more on the value of local art and local artists and how that enriches a culture at some point in the coming months!

Art for Sale in a Hotel

Art for Sale in a Hotel – You also saw artists setup on the streets and even in the airport!

Inside "Luna Azul" in Monteverde - Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

Inside “Luna Azul” in Monteverde – Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

 

General Happiness.

Costa Rica is, by multiple measures, one of the happiest nations in the world. Some would say that this is because they are a tropical paradise–but I point to other countries in Central America, like Mexico or Honduras, which do not measure anywhere near the happiness levels.

 

I think this is not only the result of much of what I’m describing in this post, but also because of a few other cultural things.  First, because the Costa Ricans seem to be moving at a different speed. There is siesta, a two-hour nap/rest/break in the middle of the workday. There is a general and deliberate taking of one’s time, especially in the areas outside of the big city. WE all stop and watch as a man herds his cattle down the road–nothing to do but enjoy the experience. Its not assumed that we eat and run, rather, that we should savor the meal–the bill is only brought AFTER we ask. These are values in many Latin American countries and families–and to my mind, certainly better than the insane/mad dash/race to nowhere that comprises so much of the modern American lifestyle.

Rainbow in Monteverde

Rainbow in Monteverde

Another reason that I think Costa Ricans are so happy has to do with some cultural values, specifically, a collective rather individualistic mindset.  A while ago on this blog, I talked about individualism vs. collectivism as mindsets (based on the work of sociologist Geert Hosfede* ; whose work  you can look at here). Costa Ricans care about each other and about the group much more than Americans–they have a collectivist mindset (this is that they think in terms of “we” rather than “I”). On Hosfede’s scale, the US manifests at a 91 for individualism (which is extremely high) and the Costa Ricans have a 15, which is very low.  I suspect, although I haven’t yet researched this theory, that issues of collectivism also relate to environmental protections, because a collectivist culture who sees their land as inherently one with themselves will extend it the same protections they extend their families and cultures. This thinking was apparent in many of the conversations I had with Costa Ricans about their interaction with the land.

 

Another reason is just the general laid-back nature of life in Costa Rica. The society lacks the extremely restrictive laws and codes on buildings, lawns, other outdoor spaces, and vehicles and so on.  Costa Rican life is extremely laid back and friendly, and their much less restrictive laws demonstrate that.  When I think about laws in the US, we have all these laws in place not to benefit the people, but to keep us engaging in certain consumptive behaviors or living in certain kinds of structures or having our property look certain kinds of ways because someone profits from it.  In other words, the laws are mostly written these days to benefit some corporate stakeholder, not the people.  We live with the laws and think they are necessities of life–but they are not, and the Costa Ricans clearly get on fine without them.

 

A final reason has to do with how monetary wealth (which I specify from other kinds of wealth, such as rich living or healthy food) is wrapped up into the economics of place.  The US is considered to be a very wealthy nation–we are a nation of consumers and stuff–but that stuff isn’t rooted, isn’t connected to place. The problem is, the more stuff we have, the less happy we are and the more restrictions we have.  Simple living, fewer laws, less stuff, better food, localized economies, love of the land…these are all features that make Costa Rica great.

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

General Thoughts.

While Costa Rica is far from perfect, I do think we have a lot to learn from them in terms of sustainable living and seeking happiness.  I had a very hard time “readjusting” to life in the USA after being in Costa Rica.  After seeing firsthand how different and more aligned with my own value system life could be, it was hard to come back. It was hard to come back to watching people consume poisons, chemicals, and modified foods, to watch them drug their children on ADHD medication, to do battle on the roads on my way to work each day, to just look at how despondent, run down, and miserable everyone is (pay attention next time you enter a grocery store), and to watch people spend much of their lives attached to various screens.

 

But this trip has given me a sense of renewed hope.  Costa Rica, with its sustainable principles undercurrenting so much of life, is thriving.  This kind of living can work, and perhaps, they can serve as a model to many of us who are transitioning ourselves and our communities into something simpler, locally-focused, and more fulfilling.  The question is…how can we build it?

Laundry drying outside

Laundry drying outside

 

 

Druid Tree Workings: Communicating and Connecting with Trees on the Inner Planes March 6, 2015

Fairy Knoll in the forest

Fairy Knoll in the forest

This post is third of a series of posts on Druid Tree Workings–ways of connecting, communicating, and working with trees. In my first post on the series, I described finding the face of the tree. In the second post, I explained some “outer” techniques to working with the trees through using your five senses. In this third post, I’ll describe some “inner planes” techniques–that is, using intuition, knowing, meditation, and senses beyond our physical ones to communicate. These are the techniques of the spirit and the soul, the deep inner knowing, and allow us to go deeper into the Mysteries.

 

On Inner “Listening”

One of my blog readers  asked me in the comments of my first post on the face of the tree about how you know that the tree is speaking or trying to send a message on the inner planes. I’m going to start here, because this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem to people new to this kind of work.

 

Many who work within a druid tradition (or other kinds of nature-based spirituality or esoteric studies) engage in practices that can help one be more open to the messages of the world–and these practices come in many forms. The absolute best and most necessary of these is regular meditation (and by regular, I mean daily or as close to daily as you can get). The reason that this forms the cornerstone of the work is that most of us don’t spend enough time managing our thoughts, directing them, or being in stillness.  We have continual internal monologues that make it difficult to gain messages from anything out in the world. But daily meditation, especially in an outdoor setting, over time can allow us to be in a receptive state. I primarily practice discursive meditation, a western-style of meditation taught by the AODA that focuses on directing one’s mind rather than clearing it. John Michael Greer describes this in more detail in his Druidry Handbook, which I highly recommend. I also practice various mind clearing techniques such as counting one’s breath, mindfulness, and empty mind–all are useful for inner tree workings. Meditation allows you to clear your mind and remain focused in such a way that external messages can come forth.

 

After you’ve practiced meditation for long enough that you have some control over the inner monologue and can quiet your mind even for brief amounts of time, go outside, and ask a tree if you can work with it (or go to a tree that you already have established a relationship with). Sit near the tree and simply quiet your mind enough to to attune to the tree. Don’t go in with any expectations–the tree may not be interested in communicating, or you may not be ready to hear. This practice may take weeks, months, or even years before you get results–but with regular meditation you WILL get results.  Practice, openness, and patience are the keys to all good mysteries.

 

King of the Forest- A Tree in Costa Rica!

King of the Forest- A Tree in Costa Rica!

When you do receive a message, the message can come in different forms. You may hear words, you may get a feeling, you may have a strong “knowing”, or you may see something in your “inner eye.” I have found that in training others to do this work each person has one kind of inner sense that comes easier than the others, sort of a default setting that we start with.  Here’s what I mean–one friend has an empathic gift, so she feels everything–she goes into the forest and feels the energy of that forest strongly. Sometimes she sees lights and colors with her inner eye that blend harmonious patterns when the energies of a forest are pleasant. But for years, this friend never is able to hear verbal messages of any kind. Another friend is a strong verbal communicator–she often receives messages in her outdoor meditations and prayers; they are usually one short word or phrase. Yet another friend can have long chats with trees easily, especially when the spirit of the tree reveals itself to her on the inner planes (see below). So, this “default” way of communicating or sensing doesn’t mean the other forms of communication aren’t open to you, but it does mean that this method comes easiest and the other forms might take some work in order to use. These ways of communicating that come easy should be honed with meditation–like anything else, regular practice creates improvements.

 

Outer Plane Checks for Inner Work

The challenge with inner messages is that they are just that–inner messages. The question is: how do we know an inner message we’ve received isn’t just in our imaginations, isn’t just our own minds playing tricks on us, isn’t just us talking to ourselves? I think its wise to always question what we are getting in any form. My mentors have taught this to me as an “outer plane check”; that is, we can and should see external confirmation of something sensed or interpreted internally.

 

Here’s one such example: The face of the tree technique is something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. After a series of meditations and observations, the concept continued to solidify in my mind. But was it just in my mind? A few months ago, while walking with two good friends in the forest, we came across a tree with an unmistakable face–a very human-looking face–and my friends both pointed it out –I didn’t have my camera with me that day, or I would have photographed it for this post! And we all commented on it and spent some time with the tree. I told my friends afterwards about the face of the tree theory and they were in complete agreement. So this experience served as one kind of “outer plane check” to my inner understanding.

 

Here’s a second such example of an outer plane check, this one related to a body of water and a large rock.  A friend and I went to a rock called “White Rock” which used to be a very sacred site for Native Americans; it is located north of Port Huron in one of the great lakes, Lake Huron. She told me she had intuition about the place and that we should go there, but told me little else. We arrived and both sat for a bit and simply listened.  After sharing, we both had the same message–that we were to do a protective working there (we did AODA’s Sphere of Protection, an experience that I wrote about in the first issue of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America).  The key here is that we sensed and experienced first, and then shared, and found strong commonality in our sharing.

 

Outer plane checks don’t always happen so quickly however–sometimes it takes months or years to confirm messages received–but they do come.

 

Druid and the tree!

Druid and the tree

What Kinds of Communication Can I expect? 

I think one should be open for whatever messages come and go into a tree working without expectation. Most of the time, if a tree is willing to communicate with you, its for a reason–they aren’t much for small talk, I’ve found. In my experience, many trees have stories to share, stories they want humans to know. I’ve shared a few such stories on this blog. They may have a request, and it might sound odd (like taking a bowl of earth somewhere else, giving some water to a nearby tree, or spreading their seeds) but a request should be honored.

 

Once you have spent some time establishing relationships, you will find that the trees can provide you with insights and advice; they are quite wise and will guide you as only an elder can. I recently had a very difficult decision about my future and life to make about whether or not I was selling my homestead, packing up my life, and moving to a new state (more on this soon)–and one of the things that were critical in helping me make the right decision were three conversations with trees on my property and woods. The trees helped me understand the decision in the context of some of my broader calling and work with the trees in the world, and they told me where my energies were most needed. They also gave me a sense of what was to come for my current home and land, and the gifts that I’ve shared. These conversations helped lift the burden of such a difficult decision.

 

Trees also have ways of communicating with each other, sometimes over great distances. This is another important thing to understand–conversations with one may lead the way to conversations with others as you establish relationships with them. When you are building a relationship with trees in one place, in some sense, you are building it with many of that species, that region, and so on.

 

"The Hermit" paining (by D. Driscoll)

“The Hermit” paining (by D. Driscoll)

Connecting to the Spirit of the Tree

Some of the deep tree work done through mediation and working on the inner planes can be done by connecting with the spirit of a tree (and yes, they do have spirits).  Go, sit a the base of a tree or hold a piece of the tree in your hand (if possible), work on connecting with it. If neither of these are possible, focus on connecting with the tree at a distance.  You might be able to connect with the tree spirit–the soul that resides within a tree.  I have found that species have a representative spirit, but you can also connect with individual tree spirits.  In other words, there is a chief oak spirit, but also, each oak has its own spirit.  Working with these spirits can be extremely rewarding and fruitful–many traditional western herbalists also talk about working with the spirit of the plant (or their plant ally). You can learn much from the tree by taking this approach.

 

Trees and Ritual Work

Another way to build relationships with trees is by honoring them through rituals and ceremonies. There are numerous traditional ceremonies, such as apple orchard wassailing, that honor trees in various ways. But within the druid tradition, you can also dedicate portions of seasonal celebrations to tree workings (or honor a different tree at each of the eight holidays).  Some traditions (like OBOD) do build various trees into their ritual workings (for example, the battle between the Oak King and Holly King at the Winter Solstice).  In addition to seasonal celebrations, I also like to do ritual work honoring my trees regularly–I use the Gnostic Celtic Church‘s communion ceremony as a land blessing fairly frequently. I also have a small ceremony that I do to bless new trees when I plant them.  These small ways of honoring the trees in a sacred manner do much for inner relationships with trees.

 

Inner and Outer Work as Reflections

I’ll end this post with a statement on the relationship between inner and outer work. If you want the trees and spirits of the forest to take you seriously, you must take the work seriously. This means dedicating time and energy to the work, of course, such as honing your skills through regular meditation. But there is another piece to this, and it is best expressed through the the old Hermetic adage, “As above, so below. As within, so without.” While this adage applies to any magical work or transformation work, it most certainly applies to tree workings. In the case of tree work–if you want to cultivate positive relationships with trees, really deep relationships, you must look at your other behavior and living in the world and what energies you are cultivating and allowing into your life. If one is heavily into consumerism, greed, materialism, and other things that damage and destroy nature, the trees know it. We carry that energy with us….it pervades everything that we do; it works its way into our auras, and any advanced spiritual worker or nature spirit can sense it. By making shifts in our outer world, we open ourselves up in the inner worlds for deeper connections…this point cannot be stressed strongly enough.  But this work goes the other way too–as we transform ourselves with the help of the trees, the outer consumerism and materialism becomes less and less important.

 

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.

 

 
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