The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Primer on Physical and Energetic Land Healing, Part I February 12, 2016

Nature's cycles

Nature’s cycles

As we are all so fully aware, our lands are increasingly under duress in ways unprecedented in recent human memory. At least here in the USA, the systematic pillaging of every resource these lands have to offer continues unabated. And within this context, many individuals have recognized a problem and have taken up spiritual paths focusing on the earth itself in various ways. The question becomes–what can I, as one person, do?  As you’ve noticed, a good deal of my time in the last year of blogging (or more) has been exploring this question in various angles and details. And so, I want to share a bit today of the different angles from which we might consider the answer to this question both energetically and physically–providing a roadmap for this kind of work and specifying its dimensions. This means we are going to delve not only into physical land healing through things like permaculture, but also the frameworks of druid magic and ritual to understand the different kinds of healing that can be done.

 

The Idea of Healing

Its useful to start by defining the thing we are undertaking before actually undertaking it. And so, we begin with definitions of the word “heal”, compliments of Merriam Webster. For the word “heal”, we have three definitions:

  • : 1 a :  to make sound or whole <heal a wound> 2b :to restore to health; 2 a :  to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome
  • 2b :  to patch up (a breach or division) <heal a breach between friends>
  • 3 :  to restore to original purity or integrity <healed of sin>.

All three of these definitions are directly applicable in different ways to the idea of healing the land.  So, in definition one, we can identify that the land is in a damaged state, and we talk about that damage in various ways: its physically wounded, in ways we can directly see. But its also energetically wounded in ways we can sense. The land is in a damaged state, both physically and energetically (what I mean by energetically, I’ll get to in a minute), and in need of healing. This is really no different than thinking about a person who has been the victim of a violent crime–there are physical wounds you can see, but there are also mental and non-physical ones. The physical wounds have to be treated in a much different way than the non-physical ones, and treating only physical woulds will not make a person “sound and whole.”

 

This leads us directly to the second definition: to patch up a breech or division.  With the maiming and exploitation of the land comes a loss of trust, a division between the earth and humanity on a systematic and large scale. We are certainly the earth’s children, but we have lost our way and in that process, violated the sacred compact between humans and the land that achieves balance and ensures everyone’s continued survival. Trust, then, is something that needs to be rebuilt. This can be done through a number of means, and I’ve found the best combination is working both physically and energetically.

 

Nature healing a stump

Nature healing a stump

And now we come to our 3rd definition, which is that healing is often about restoring something to its wholeness and completeness.  That’s the ultimate goal of land healing, but its not necessarily something that we can do in every place at this time.  This third definition is important to keep in mind as we consider the different types of healing we are able to do, given our challenged circumstances.

 

As Above, So below: A Consideration of Planes

To understand fully how we might heal the land, and the options for doing so, we need to have a framework that accounts for the different levels of reality, commonly referred to in the western magical traditions as “the planes.” Nearly all spiritual practice and magical practice is based on the understanding (explicit or implicit) of the fact that realities and energies exist outside of what we can perceive with our five senses. This is, of course, something humans throughout time understood clearly, but something that has been lost and squashed in modern Western Society by scientific imperialism, materialism, and disenchantment in the western world). Understanding a bit about the nature of these different levels of manifestation, or what as known as “the planes” can help our healing work along quite a bit. However, just within the western esoteric traditions, the idea of “the planes” is complex, with a number of different models describing different kinds of planes. Each model we have for these different realms of perception and experience is an attempt to simplify and explain more complex phenomena–and so each model is with its limitations, but all are still useful as an illustrative tools. I’m going to use a fairly standard one in magical practice in the West to frame my discussion today. Drawing from Greer’s, Circles of Power, we can see some of these planes in this way (note that Greer presents a 5 plane system; I’m drawing upon the first three here for the purposes of this discussion):

  • The Physical Plane (outer): What we can experience through our 5 physical senses. This is the physical reality of our existence. When we think about land healing, this is the physical nature of reality that we can see: cut trees, poisoned rivers, dead bees, starving polar bears, toxic waste, and so on.
  • The Etheric Plane: Often, when people talk about “energy” in a room or space, they are sensing the etheric plane. The etheric is also experienced through our senses, but not the same senses that experience the physical plane. The ethieric is very closely connected to life on earth; Hindu Yoga would identify this as “prana” while Asian martial arts would call this “ch’i” or “ki.” From a land healing standpoint, our senses of the etheric helps us say, “wow, there is a bad feeling here” or a “heaviness” or “stagnation.” Its on the etheric that a lot of the “energy” work can be done.
  • The Astral Plane: The level of our consciousness that transcends matter and although they manifest as imagination, emotion, memory, will, or intellectual facilities. This level, of course, also transcends what is inside of our heads. Much journeying work (whether its called astral projection, shamanic journeying, or pathworking) happens on this plane.

Both the etheric and the astral are considered “inner” planes (for a variety of reasons) and there are planes other than those as well.

 

The reason I present the planes here is that they are critical to framing any kind of land healing work.  Part of this is because healing works along the lines of the hermetic adage, “As above, so below. As within, so without” (I’ve discussed this before, for example, my discussion of it in relationship to waste streams) The principle of this adage is the basis of many spiritual practices and religious observance throughout the ages–and the adage is simple. What is on the outer reflects inward to the other planes, and likewise, what happens on the inner planes and within us reflects outward. This means, of course, if you are to do physical healing on the land, that healing work can work its way within and have an energetic healing as well (even if all you are doing is physical work). But even if you aren’t able to do physical healing work, you can do other kinds of energetic healing through ritual, energy work, setting standing stones, and the like, and you can have this more positive energy trickle outward, manifesting on the material plane and providing one of the tools for the land to heal. Understanding this principle is the key to understanding the entire framework of land healing that I am presenting here.

 

The Ways of Land Healing

Examining the above definitions and levels of existence has given us a roadmap of the kinds of healing that can be done on different levels. When we think about “land healing” this is a very wide category, and in it, I see a number of potential practices, some of which are direct physical healing, some of which are indirect, and some of which are energetic.

Physical Land Healing - converting a lawn into a garden!

Physical Land Healing – converting a lawn into a garden!

#1: Regenerating Land: Direct Physical Healing. This is the healing of the physical land on the material plane.  These practices include a wide range of things: replanting, regenerating, tending the wilds, cleaning up toxins, river cleanup, converting lawns into food forests or organic gardens, conserving and restoring wild lands. Lots of people are doing various things on this front, and certainly, permaculture design, as well as restoration and conservation activities fall into this category. A number of my recent posts have been in this area: my series of posts on refugia, weeds, healing hands, permaculture practices, etc. Of course, the land has to be in a damaged state, in the process of healing, or in need of healing for this kind of practice to be effective.  I think that this kind of healing, combined with energetic healing, is one of the best things you can do to heal our lands–if you are able and if the situation warrants it.

 

#2: Healing human-land connections. An indirect method of healing the land, which can lead to work in these other areas, is working to build your own relationship with the land and to help others do the same. This includes everything from herbal practice to earth ambassadorship, creating community, or advocacy work. So here are two examples of this: a series of classes I’ve been recently teaching in herbalism, for example, not only empower people to take care of their own health, but reconnect them with plants immediately in their landscape and help restore that human-land connection (and I also teach them the three permaculture ethics as part of herbal practice). A second way I’ve engaged with this work is by co-founding a permaculture meetup where we brought people together each month to talk about sustainable practices and reconnect with the land. Is this direct healing of the physical land? No, but it is working directly to heal the disconnection that has happened between the land and her children, and so I also consider this healing work. Its extremely important to heal these connections for long-term viability and stability, especially if we go back to the definition 2b under “heal” above.

 

#3: Energetic healing work. Now we move into direct healing that can be done on the non-physical planes. This kind of healing is a fantastic compliment to the two areas above (and ideally, healing of the land should include all of these firs three areas), but can also be done independently of direct physical healing work. Performing healing ritual and engaging in magical work to help heal our lands is a particularly useful tool where recovery and regeneration is a top priority. You might see this as a way to restore the energetic drain of a long sickness or weakened state–you are raising energy to help it recover. Lots of possibilities for this kind of energetic healing work exist. You might performing various kinds of ceremony, which can take place and connect to the etheric or astral planes, working with various currents of energy for healing work.  You might engage in energetic healing like reiki, which works on the etheric plane.  You might journey inward to speak with the spirits of the land to understand what physically or etherically needs to be done. I’ll be talking about these practices more in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

 

Dancing a Maypole - one of many energetic ritual!

Dancing a Maypole – one of many energetic ritual!

#4: Energetic Palliative care.  As an energetic land healer, its critical to understand the difference between healing and palliative care. Palliative care what we do to help sooth the suffering, to help the land sleep or be energetically distanced from what is physically occurring. Think about someone that you’ve known who is really, really sick, and who is in for a long illness or battle with a disease that is ongoing.  You see them suffering, and the best you can do is try to soothe the wounds, let them rest until the worst is over.  If you try to raise a bunch of positive energy on lands actively being damgae for the distinct purpose of healing, it can be like waking up that sick persno. In fact, the whole reason I was motivated to write this post was to identify this distinct difference.  In my experience in working on a variety of distressed landscapes (logging, toxic streams and waterways, strip mined land, poisoned waters, oil pipelines) I know that healing can only take place where there is opportunity for physical regeneration. The whole idea of healing is to restore and regenerate–you can’t do that if there is active destruction taking place. You still can do energetic work, but you do not want it to be directed towards the purposes of regeneration or recover, but rather soothing the worst of the suffering. I’ll take a whole post to explore this subject in more depth in next week’s blog post.

 

#5: Shifting Actions: Direct and Indirect mitigation of damage.  The last thing I’ll mention today is shifting actions. Shifting your actions to consume less and create less of a burden on the land is not a method of land healing, but it is a method of mitigation and prevention. You might consider this a kind of “preventative care.”This shift is the kinds of behaviors and actions that we do in order to mitigate further damage, to reduce our impact on the land, and so on. This typically happens through various kinds of “sustainable” practices and earth-centered living: a lot of options presented to us by mainstream society fall in here (and many of the not-so-mainstream).

 

 

Of course, this list doesn’t include the work the land itself does to heal–and its doing that all the time.  But here I’m focusing on the relationship between the land and humans–what we humans, as druids, as permaculturists, as people spiritually attuned, can do, here and today to heal our lands. .

Readers–I invite you to help me develop this framework.  Is there any kind of basic land healing strategy that I’ve missed in the above?  How do you enact these or see these enacted?  Thanks, as always, for reading!

 

Seeking Sacred Springs for Inspiration and Healing February 5, 2016

Heffley Spring in June 2015

Heffley Spring in June 2015

The druid tradition–along with many others–is full of stories about sacred waters. From the Chalice Well in Glastonbury to the invocation of the “Salmon who Dwells Within The Sacred Pool,” we’ve got our water going on. Imbolc (which happened earlier this week) is often a holiday associated with flows, and many of us do workings with water and healing with water in various ways. More than this though, water has a number of key places within our conceptual frameworks in the druid tradition.  In the four element system so commonly used in earth-based traditions (that has been part of western thinking for a very, very long time), water represents our emotions, our intuition, and our connection to our spirituality. In the druid revival’s three element system, water is connected with Gywar, the principle of flow. It is Gywar that helps us move forward and to grow–it is the principle of change and fluidity. On a physical level, since our bodies so fully depend on water and water flows, and we are made up of mostly water, the water is a fundamental part of living and being. So, it is fitting for American druids to consider how sacred wells, pools, and springs may fit into our own paths. In fact, today’s post will discuss my experiences of being led to a sacred spring and the work of water upon the landscape.

 

Sacred Waters, Challenging Times

Sulphur Creek

The lifeless Sulfur Creek with Acid Mine  Drainage

While we venerate and work with the water, we also recognize the duress that our waters have been facing for centuries due industrialization and pollution. Perhaps in the United States, Pennsylvania, my beloved home state, has one of the saddest of tales.

 

Our rivers have long been poisoned by mining and industrial activities; in fact, we have nearly 3000 miles of poisoned rivers from Acid Mine Drainage due to abandoned coal mines. I went to high school on the banks of “sulfur creek”; a creek that was a sickly yellow-orange where no life was present and stunk like sulfur.  It was severely polluted about 4 miles upstream from a long-abandoned coal mine.  I completed my undergraduate degree on the banks of the Monogahela River, which was ranked the most endangered river in the USA in 2010.  This poor river is very sick–it had (and still has) this opaque sickly blue-green hue and a horrible smell. No life lives there; it has millions of pounds of toxic waste from factories dumped in it each year. Finally, where I now teach at a university in Indiana, PA, we have tremendous amounts of natural gas wells and fracking, which threatens underground aquifers and all sources of surface water–many people’s wells are polluted and in very bad shape. Needless to say, water is a real issue–and clean water, pure water, is not always easy to find.

 

Further, water has been the focus of a lot of recent discussion and scrutiny–and a challenge many humans face.  Again in the USA, we have the long-standing drought in California and Texas, the complicated “water rights” of the US West, and most recently, the poisoning of several generations of Flint, MI residents. On an international stage, melting ice shelves, warming oceans, and rising waters are a source of continual–and increasing–concern.

 

As a whole, humanity has some major challenges with water. I believe the challenges with water don’t just appear on our outer realms, but on our inner realms as well.  If we poison the very source of life–the waters–how can we not reflect that within?  And so, working with the water, healing the water on all levels, can be part of the sacred work that we do in the world.

 

While we have these challenges with waters ongoing, we also have other challenges in embracing the sacred–as many fellow American druids well know, finding and working with existing sacred sites in an American context can be extraordinarily challenging (due to the many issues outlined in my earlier post).  While trying to avoid tourists, not engage in cultural appropriation, deal with pollution or ‘development’, or find a quiet place to do rituals and venerate the land.

 

Today though, I want to share some insights on my experiences with natural springs. I want to tell a magical tale of unfolding, of discovery, and of a deeper connection with another sacred site that I discovered by accident–and the rich rewards this work has brought.

 

Finding Heffley Spring

Heffley Spring Sign

Heffley Spring Sign

I didn’t arrive in PA and intent on finding a sacred spring–but the universe has a way of unfolding and leading us on a path we are to travel.  Just after I arrived, I was on my way to visit my parents, who live about an hour from me.  There are a few different ways to get there, and I decided to try one that was a little longer, but possibly more scenic.  On my drive in, I passed something on the side of Route 56 just north of Johnstown, PA that looked like a few pipes coming out of the side of the mountain and running into a drain with a few people gathered around getting water. I didn’t have time to stop that day, but I made a mental note to return, and on my next pass through, I did just this.

 

Upon my return, the constructed rock face, a sign displayed “Heffley Spring, Rebuilt 1970.”  When I stopped this time, two people were there.  One was a middle aged woman with a fan literally full of glass jugs, who told me ,”This is the best water around.  It comes right out of the state park in the mountains. I come out here ever two weeks for my family.  I won’t have them drink anything else.” Another older man with a beat-up pickup truck was filling up smaller vessels to pour into two large cisterns on his truck.  He smiled and said, “My family has been coming to this spring for generations. I remember coming here with my grandfather, before it was rebuilt.  This is for me and my chickens.  I won’t drink that crap the city calls water with fluoride in it.”  I asked them both, “Is it safe?” thinking about the many poisoned water sources around. They both nodded emphatically, and the woman said, “I watch out for my kids. Penn state just came down and tested it a few years ago.”  The man laughed and said, “People around here have been drinking it their whole lives. There’s nothing up on that ridge except trees” as he pointed to the steep mountain ridge going up at least 2300 feet.  Just then, a long-distance biker pulled up, nodded to all of us, uncorked his water bottle, and took a swig.

 

And so, following suit, I took my glass water bottle to one of the three pipes and filled it up, then drank deeply.  The water was delicious, cold, refreshing.  But not just on a physical level, on an energetic one.  Druid revival lore speaks of the high concentration of telluric energy (the energy of the earth, the light of the earth) that flows forth from natural springs.  This water had it in abundance–I didn’t feel like it had only nourished my body, but my spirit as well.  I could sense the water rejuvenating and energizing me to my very core.  It was more than just typical water–it was healing and sacred.

 

As I sipped on the water from the spring, I took a look carefully around the site.  The rock face of the spring was in the shape of a Keystone, the symbol of Pennsylvania–a symbol of heritage and tradition for this land, but also one of deep spiritual significance. The patch of hemlock trees, nowhere else along the mountain, grew up from above the spring itself.  This, to me, was a very good sign: hemlock trees cannot tolerate water pollution and like moist areas, so seeing them reassured me that this was a safe source of water.  The cars to and fro on the highway, zipping past behind us.   It wasn’t the first idea in my mind for a sacred site with all of the hustle and bustle, but the seed was planted.

Spring overflows in June 2015

Spring overflows in June 2015

 

Over the next six months, I returned to the spring many times.  Once, I took an old friend who was visiting, and she was so delighted to stop there, sharing her memories.  She hadn’t been to the spring for nearly 30 years, and as she drank the water, she had this smile on her face that stretched from ear to ear.  Each time I visited the spring, I met a few more interesting characters–those who come to the spring for nourishment and renewal.  Once, I met a woman who was dipping her rosary in the pouring water.  She said nothing, and got back into her car quietly.  The last time I visited, to gather water for my Imbolc celebration, I met a man who had a beat-up pick-up truck with huge wheels with a wild beard and a gleam in his eye.  Given that it was only about 20 degrees out, I said to him, “I wasn’t sure if the spring was going to be still flowing, given that its winter.”  He laughed and said, “You must be new to this spring. Everyone knows it never stops flowing.  It doesn’t matter if there is a drought, a blizzard, nothing will stop it.”  I thanked him and we continued to fill up our vessels on that cold late January day.

 

I also asked my family about the spring, and my mother told us that she remembered going there and getting water as a child.  This past Christmas, my parents found an old movie projector (the kind with the reels) and old movies my grandfather had made in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  We watched the movies over a period of weeks–and there, in one of the movies, was my young grandfather and grandmother with their three children (with the fourth, my uncle, still in the belly!) getting water at that spring.  I jumped up excitedly, and my cousin, who has also recently started going to the spring, hugged me.  “Its a family tradition!”  This was particularly exciting for a group of people who had very limited traditions and passed down heritage of their own.

 

Of course, there is still much mystery surrounding this particular roadside spring.  I’m really interested in now in studying more about Heffley Spring and its history.  What did it look like before it was rebuilt in 1970?  A trip to the Johnstown library and discussion with other people at the spring when I visit are next steps for me on this journey.

 

The Spring as a Sacred Site

And so, given these experiences, I have concluded three things:

 

1) This spring is a sacred site to the local community.  I say this because that’s what many sacred sites are:  sites of value that people return to often, spend time at, and that they work to protect.  Witnessing the woman cleansing or blessing her rosary in the waters confirmed that more is going on here than meets the eye.   I’ll return to this in the next section.

 

2) This spring also is the site of a rich family tradition, being visited at least by my grandparents, but my guess is much later.  As I’ve written about before on this blog, I’ve often felt estranged both from my larger family heritage (since I’m not Christian) but also a deep sense of loss of the older family traditions that would have come from the countries of my ancestors (Ireland, Germany, etc).  I am so thrilled to find this small piece of history here.

 

3) This site is rare–so many of our waterways are poisoned.  This one has escaped it for a few key reasons including being outside of the major Marcellus shale zones (so no fracking), not being near any major coal veins (so no fracking) and having its water source within the mountain, the same mountain ridge that holds 13,000 acres of protected lands (Laurel Ridge State Park).  Because of this, it has a tremendous potential for healing in the broader landscape.

 

I believe that many such springs have these same qualities–and seeking them out is a wonderful way to reconnect not only with the sacred waters of the land, but build traditions rooted in local experience.

 

Spring still flowing in January!

Spring still flowing in January!

Sacred Springs and Healing

These experiences have taught me many things about the nature of sacred sites in the US and the importance of these springs.  And so I want to conclude with some general thoughts about the nature of sacred springs and how we seek them out and build them into our own local druid traditions.

 

The Modern Sacred Site.  Vising Heffley spring has encouraged me to expand my understanding of a sacred site. If we work with the definition of it as as a place having significance and value (although not necessarily spiritual value), in a community, then springs that people visit for water certainly fit this bill.  After finding Heffley spring, I’ve begun to seek out other sacred springs in the area. I’ve since visited two springs to conduct more observations and gain more insights.  A visit to Roaring Spring (PA) and Berkley Springs (VW) reveal more of the same patterns–in this case, entire towns are named after the springs, and both of these springs are centerpieces in the towns.  This means that the whole of human activity was once centered around these springs.  And today, of course, people visit these springs, they take the water within, and they value them.  This isn’t probably a radical observation in other parts of the world, but here in the USA where so many are so disconnected, it is profound.

 

What this means, in essence, is that not only is the water coming from these places empowered with the telluric currents, it is further empowered with the visitation, value, and respect that so many ordinary citizens hold for these springs.  In this way, they function as true “sacred sites” in ways few other places may do at present.

 

Waters of Healing and Soothing. This means that we, too, can visit these sacred springs for healing and magical work.  One of the reasons I was visiting Heffley Spring in January was because I needed water for a healing ritual that I had planned on doing at Imbolc.  I wanted to take this rich, telluric energy enriched, pure water and, after blessing it, and take a bit to our most polluted water ways in the area to help do some energetic work.  There’s regenerative work I can do physically, but my research and intuition on these waterways is that this kind of cleanup work, stretching 1000’s of miles, or the ongoing fracking issues, are certainly beyond any single human being.   All that we can do is respond in some way, in a positive way.  These sacred waters can be like a soothing balm to the more damaged waterways.  It is our prayers, our holding space, and our magic that is one of the few things that can currently help these spaces.   I would also mention that for healing work of this kind, make sure you store your water in pure glass jars or jugs–you can find these for reasonable prices at your local homebrew store (I really like the gallon jugs I got there for about $5/each!), use old wine bottles, or use a mason jar.

 

Waters of Physical Healing, Flow, and Creativity. The other side of this is the personal healing and inspiration you can get from these .  Drinking water often from such sources of telluric light can facilitate healing and transformation within.  For one, I have found that in drinking water from the spring, I feel more energized, awake, and alive.  Its hard to explain using words–but my body literally feels scrubbed clean and fully awake, alive, and healed (its not that dissimilar from when I drink a good reishi or chaga tea).  For two, I have found that the water from these springs facilitates the flow of creativity in my own life–such as the writing of this post, which is flowing out of me on Imbolc itself, as I sit and drink deeply from the waters of this spring while I compose these words.  A glass of water from this spring in the morning along with my other daily ritual practices is an incredible start to my day! The water from these springs is truly a gift to be cherished and valued.

 

Gushing water from the Spring in June!

Gushing water from the Spring in June!

Seeking the Springs

I would encourage you to seek out sacred springs in your own region or in places that you visit.  The best place to start is in two directions: first, ask older relatives and friends if there are any springs nearby that people would visit (or even drive to visit).

 

Second, look at the map.  Places like “Indian springs” tells you something of the history of that place–my guess is that at one point, some “indians” had a spring there or other source of water.  This alone has helped me find many potential sites for such springs.  You might find that some springs only flow in the “spring time” (not a coincidence) when the waters are flowing, but other springs, like Heffley, might flow year round.  You may also find that there used to be a spring there, but its no longer maintained–but its still worth finding! I hope others consider finding such springs a worthy endeavor–I’d love to hear your experiences and stories!

 

 

 

An Imbolc Blessing: Energizing Snowy Spaces using Sacred Geometry and Symbolism January 29, 2016

Walking the Imbolc Spiral on the Pond, Imbolc 2015

Walking the Imbolc Spiral on the Pond, Imbolc 2015

In my part of the world, Winter has finally arrived in all of her glory and we are now at Imboc, a wintry holiday of renewal and regeneration (ok, so some people say that Imbolc is the first sign of spring; I consider it a winter holiday and celebrate it as such. There are no real stirrings of spring here till late February or early March when the maple sap begins to run). In today’s post, I’m going to share with you one of my favorite Imbolc activities–unfolding sacred patterns and symbols upon the inner and outer realms, using snow as our canvas. This is a delightful outdoor activity you can do while we have snow coverage during this quiet and most sacred time of the year. For those that are already groaning and saying “Oh no, not more snow!” please scroll to the bottom of this post, to the “Shifting Mindsets” heading and read that first :).

 

A Blessing Within and Without

Fresh snowfall blesses us an incredible canvas upon which to work, to imbue ancient patterns of sacred meaning. The act of creating sacred geometrical patterns, mandalas, or other symbols in the snow allows you to embody those patterns through the simple practice of walking meditation. This act creates not only a blessing from within, where those patterns unfold on the inner planes as you walk them, but also a pattern for blessing our land on the outer planes. This blessing can resonate for weeks, months, and years after the patterns themselves melt away. There are few things we can do in winter that are so simple, and yet so profound.

 

I use the strategies I’m going to be sharing today with you as either the main celebration ritual that I do for Imbolc, or as a large part of that ritual.  The photo above was taken at Imbolc last year (2015). My friends and grove members gathered on the frozen pond at Imbolc, where we created an “unwinding” spiral (counter-clockwise) to unwind and de-stress as we went deeper within.  Then we laid upon the ice in the center of the spiral for a time, and, when we felt ready, we “wound back up” and brought the positive energy, rejuvenation, and clarity to ourselves as we went out. This ritual was conducted when I had just been offered a new job in home state of Pennsylvania and was making a decision that would have life-long ramifications–the act of walking this snow spiral helped clarify, for me, the next stage of my journey. I cried as helped create the spiral, unsure of the best path.  But by the time I had walked back out of that massive spiral, I knew the answer to my decision: I was going home. These practices can be profound, indeed!

 

The Process

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Another Imbolc spiral – this one in the sacred circle

So let’s take a look at this process and how it can unfold as a sacred magical practice or ritual.

Your Snow Canvas. First, find yourself a snowy space, of any size.  It doesn’t have to be completely clear–in fact, trees, stones, or other features can add their own beauty to the design.  My favorite place to walk on my homestead was my frozen-over pond, once I was sure it was frozen :).  It was a perfectly flat surface and usually had less snow than the surrounding areas.  My other place that I always traced symbols was my sacred circle.  Since moving to a new state and living in town, I have found that my tiny backyard and even local parks are good spots to do this.  You can even do this on a small porch or balcony.   Even a tiny patch of snow can be used, where you trace the symbol with your fingers rather than your feet.  The snow can be fresh or even starting to melt (as my second photo suggests) Once you have selected your canvas–it is time to select your symbol.

 

Symbolism. There are two ways to go about selecting a symbol.  You can choose to use a symbol for a specific purpose and meaning (see the next section) or you can choose to create an organic symbol from what emerges.  I’ll cover both practices.

  • Selected Symbol. Set forth in your mind the symbol you wish to create. Envision that symbol already traced upon the snow–how large it will be, how you will need to walk to form it, where its boundaries are and spend some time in this visualiation process–it will help you plan things out, especially for more complex symbols. Visualize that symbol in an appropriate color (yellow-green light or white light is a good choice), already there upon the landscape. All that you will need to do, then, is follow the pattern.
  • Intuitive Symbols. The alternative is not to select a symbol at all, but simply to begin walking and see what symbols unfold within and without–I’ve done this numerous times with my eyes closed in an empty field. I also like weaving spirals among the trees in a forest in this manner.

 

Establish Sacred Space, Ground, and Center. As you are ready to begin to create the actual symbol, you can choose to open up a sacred space at this point (I use the AODA’s solitary grove opening for this), but its not always necessary.  Since I usually do these snow symbols as part of a seasonal celebration, I usually will open a space, standing to the side of my selected “canvas” and then include my canvas in the ritual space.  If nothing else, however, you can take three deep breaths, clear your mind, and begin to walk.

 

Walk the shape. The process unfolds from the simple practice of walking.  Walk slow and purposefully.  As you walk, set your intentions for the work you are to do.  It might inner healing or direction (as my opening example suggested).  Or, it might be a strong land blessing.  As you walk, with each step, imbue that energy into the space and into the symbol. Note that you can use the symbol again and again as long as the snow remains on the ground–so it might be that you start with a land healing symbol, and once that’s firmly established, you then walk it again for some personal healing.  Another note here–the more snow, the more challenging walking may be.  I remember a few years ago when I was making one of my pond spirals and it was over a 20″ deep–I had to walk that symbol many times to really have a nice path, but it was a wonderful experience to do so.

 

Return often. Even after you’ve walked the shape, you can continue to come back to it.  A few winters ago, during the year of polar vortexes, I had symbols in the snow that continued to persist for several months!  Each day in the month of February, I would come home and walk the pond spiral before going into the house.  It was a great way to reconnect with my sacred land. You can also rewalk the symbol with fresh snowfall.  The longer the symbol persists, the more energized the space will be.

Vesica Piscis and Cross Design

Vesica Piscis and Cross Design in Recent Snowfall in my backyard in town – this was walked one time.

Symbols, Energy and Intentions

The symbol you choose to create and why you create it is an important part of this process–and like all other magical acts, you should consider this carefully before you begin. When my grove came together last Imbolc to create the spiral, each of us were faced with a major issue in our lives that needed some guidance–and we created the spiral primarily for that purpose.  If you have no direct intentions, then saying you are “open” is a good one!  Also, the land can *always* use a blessing, and certain symbols are particularly good for that.

 

I’m going to now share a few different symbols, primarily drawn from sacred geometry, that can help you see the wide range of symbols available to you.  A few of these images are from a project I’ve been collaborating on with with a friend–a sacred geometry oracle deck and book. I’ll share more about the project as we get closer to the release date–so stay tuned!  But in the meantime, here are some of the symbols:

 

The Pentagram and Pentacle

The Pentagram and Pentacle are symbols over 5,000 years old, used for a variety of purposes, nearly all of them protective in origin. A pentagram is a protective symbol that radiates that energy outward with the five points. A pentacle contains the energy within the five points as it is surrounded by a circle. If you wanted to do a blessing and protective symbol for the entire land, a good choice would be a pentagram. If you had a sacred space you were working on empowering, say, a stone circle or garden, you might choose a pentacle instead to keep the energy contained within that space.

Pentagram (left) and Pentacle (right)

Pentagram (left) and Pentacle (right)

The Spiral

Spirals are my favorite of the snow symbols to create because they can be very easy to create, requiring nearly no thought, and yet profound.  Spirals are likely one of the oldest symbols in human culture, and can be found in paintings in caves and carved in stones as far back as 8000 BCE.  The spiral is representative of many things–to the Ancient Celts, one meaning was the life force or cycle of life.  Spirals reinforce the notion of a cycle or season upon us, and are particularly useful for meditation and walking meditation.  I have found that my snow spirals have a twofold effect–they encourage a deeper awareness and meditative state where I can work out various deep rooted issues, but they also have a profoundly energizing (winding) or clearing (unwinding) energy about them.

Some simple winding (sunwise) and unwinding (desoil) spirals

Some simple winding (sunwise) and unwinding (desoil) spirals

A second kind of spiral, a bit harder to get right in the snow, but no less profound is the one that unfolds from the golden mean. This spiral is created from the Fibonacci sequence (1, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21….).  Entire books have been written on the meaning of this spiral (here is a nice overview)–a most basic understanding of it is that it is what connects the heavens and the earth; we see this spiral reflected in the shape of the Milky Way galaxy all the way down to a simple snail shell.  This same sequence is present in the many ratios of the human body, the notes on a scale, the pattern of a sunflower or the branches on a tree.  When I walk this spiral in the snow, I see it as a connecting spiral, a spiral signifying the universal gnosis, the oneness of all living things.  Walk this spiral and see what unfolds from it.

Golden Mean Spiral

Golden Mean Spiral (with divisions)

The Vesica Piscis

Another symbol for snow workings is the vesica piscis–another ancient symbol drawn from sacred geometry with profound implications.  The vesica piscis is reflected on Glastonbury’s Chalice Well as well as in various religious art and symbolism; it literally means “the bladder of the fish.”  It is a symbol representing unions of many kinds–the union between heaven and earth, between humans and nature, between male and female, between light and dark.  When I create this symbol in the snow, I see it as a promise–a sacred pact between myself and the lands that I serve.  This is the one I walked last week in the snow–a promise of unity with my land.

Vesica Piscis

Vesica Piscis

Awen

Of course, no discussion of sacred symbolism on a druid’s blog can be complete without a discussion of the Awen symbol!  Not nearly as ancient as those above, the symbol still carries profound energy–the energy of creative awakening, divine inspiration, and the arts.  I draw this symbol when I want to bring those blessings into my life or into the lives of those around me.  This symbol is particularly good for workspaces or areas where creativity may flow–consider, for example, using this symbol near a fire pit where the bardic arts are often shared!

Simple awen symbol

Simple awen symbol

 

The Warrior’s Call Symbol

The final symbol I wanted to direct your attention to specifically for land protection is a symbol developed by the pagan group against fracking, The Warrior’s Call. This is is the newest symbol here, but it is being actively used by many around the world to energetically address fracking and protect the lands from fracking activities.  I have found that this symbol is fairly complex for the snow, but its do-able. I have recently used a simplified version of this symbol during our latest snow fall  here in Pennsylvania, near some gas wells, given that I live among the oldest sites of Fracking in the USA.  This symbol works well as an acknowledgement of the land’s suffering and pain. I think this symbol is highly appropriate for snow sigils in areas being fracked or under threat of fracking or other duress.

Warrior's Sigil - Against Fracking

Warrior’s Sigil – Against Fracking

These symbols presented here are few among many, many, many others that you can work with. Be creative and consider what personal symbols or those from the ancient mystery traditions might be most appropriate to your purposes and path.

 

Shifting Mindsets: Embracing the Snow

This special section is for those who want to work snow magic, but have a problem with the snow :).  I am a great lover of winter and the snow, and I find it to be an incredibly magical time of year.  The icicles and shimmery ice on the trees, the gentle snowflakes falling to the ground, the rich carpet of whiteness across the land.  The more that comes, the happier that I get in these cold and wintery months! However, so many people do not share that sentiment. Yet, if you are  are going to do magical workings with the snow, like anything else, you need to come into it with the right mindset.

Small Spiral in Snow

Small Spiral in Snow

For some, winter can be a very hard time due to seasonal affective disorders, managing the snowy weather and work schedules, food insecurity, or other issues. I laid out this fully in my post on cultural challenges surrounding our relationship with snow–if you haven’t read it, its well worth a read.  If you do have serious issues with the snow–I suggest you seek out the root of your discomfort.  Is it that you don’t like driving and have to go to work when its snowing?  That may be an underlying issue with rigid work rules and inflexibility or economic insecurity.  Is it that you don’t like getting stuck in your house with limited food during a storm? Perhaps that’s an issue of food insecurity. Perhaps its the chilling cold–few modern clothes are designed to be sufficiently warm (wool socks have changed my life).  Perhaps, your discomfort isn’t your own, but rather the collective’s continual complaining and demonizing the winter.  We have a copious amount of negative media coverage surrounding natural weather phenomena like snow (a visit to weather.com’s page will demonstrate this in spades–I get stressed just looking at their homepage).  If you are on social media, there’s no shortage of it there either.

 

The problem with all of this negativity wrapped up in snow is that it blinds us to the beauty and magic of this time of year.  And, just as importantly, if you are going to attempt to do the snow workings and sacred activities laid out here–its important to make sure you are putting the right energy into it: loving energy, peacefullness, and goodwill!  As within, so without!

 

Energetic Patterns and Time

This snowy ritual I have shared can be used for an number of different purposes, and can deeply weave patterns of energy into the landscape–both inner and outer. After doing spirals on my frozen  pond for a number of years, I had a druid friend visit me for the first time a few summers ago and he said, “wow, your pond has some spiraling energy going on!” And I just smiled and said, “Yes, it certainly does.” Even after the snow has melted, the energy that I raised in that space becomes part of the energetic underpinnings of the land for years to come. It can be further reinforced with other kind of sacred space, plant, or stone work! The sky is the limit…or perhaps, the snowfall :).

Another shot of the Vesica Piscis

Another shot of the Vesica Piscis

 

Making Seed Balls and Scattering Seeds for Wildtending January 22, 2016

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

This is the last post (for a while) in my series on wildtending. In the last month, we’ve explored the philosophy of wildtending as a sacred action, explored the refugia garden principle, I shared my own refugia garden preparation and design, and finally, we are ready to start scattering the seeds!  Perhaps these seeds were gathered from the wilds, given as a gift from a friend, or perhaps, they were gathered from a refugia garden.  Wherever you get them, now is the time to begin to scatter these amazing little balls packed with life, love, and magic.

 

Seed balls were invented by Fukuokoa and described in the permaculture classic, One Straw Revolution.  They have a number of benefits over other methods for scattering seeds.  First, and foremost, they are easy to throw and toss into spaces you can’t reach.  A lot guerilla gardeners  use them in urban spaces as part of rewilding activities.  Similarly, I have found it so much easier to have a bag of seed balls with me and begin tossing them, seeing where they land and if they can grow.  I also like them because you can imbue them with some magic (even using some of the earlier energy methods I described with minor modification). They also give the seeds a bit of nutrition to help grow, and the ball itself creates a little platform for growth of the seed as the clay and compost spreads out and as the ball breaks down. There are two downsides–first, roots and larger nuts need separate treatment (obviously; I usually plant these directly by hand), and second, the seed balls can be a bit heavier than tiny bags of just seeds. But I have found them to be extremely useful to have in my foraging bag or crane bag when I’m out and about in the world!  So here we go–Let’s roll up our sleeves, find a few friends, and make some seed balls!

 

Designing Seed Balls

There are three pieces to seed balls: seeds, clay, and compost as well as some simple tools to work with.  We’ll talk about each of these in turn.  A bit part of making seed balls is ethical sourcing–if done right, you shouldn’t have to buy anything (or much of anything).

 

Get Some Seeds

The first step is to get some seeds. Deciding what to put into a seed ball depends on what you have access to (like in my case, see below) but also what you want to spread–see my first post in this series for suggestions of endangered and at-risk medicinal plants, for starters. You can spread whatever seeds your ecosystem needs–I’m focusing my energies right now on medicinal plants and tree seeds. You can gather these in the wild when they are in abundance or you can start growing the key plants in a “refugia garden” as I described in a recent post. Or you can find them in…other ways. Since my garden is still in process, I was in the search for seeds this summer. In my last post, I gave some lists of potential plants for different ecosystems–check out this list for more ideas about seeds to spread, but I would strongly suggest studying up on your ecosystem and thinking about where you might share these balls.  Searching out seeds is a longer-term process, something to keep in your mind for the upcoming season!

 

Aster seeds drying!

Aster seeds drying!

Despite the fact that I didn’t find hardly any New England Aster or a few other key plants, like Blue Vervain and Echinacea upon my return to the northern Appalachians, I stumbled across a native plant garden at a local park. And, even more delightfully, they had just trimmed the garden back for the fall, and there was a pile of plants there just going to seed in a pile waiting to be carted off…and so…well, I helped myself. This gave me a wonderful set of seeds–here are a bunch of the aster seeds drying. I also found an abundance of milkweed, boneset, and swamp milkweed to round out my stash.  Perfect!

 

I decided, given my delightful treasure trove of full-sun seeds, to make a set of seedballs geared toward medicinal, hard to find perennial plants that grow in full sun.

 

Finding Your Clay

Now in his book, Fukuokoa used a local clay, “red clay” and there’s been some discussion in various permie forums on whether or not “red clay” is necessary.  No, it is not–any LOCAL clay will do. Please, please, please don’t go buy clay unless you have none in your local ecosystem (and chances are, you do). In most places on the planet, clay will be part of your natural subsoil and its just a matter of finding some.  Look when people are digging holes into the subsoil, look at eroding banks of rivers after flooding, look at new construction–you will see it.  Its heavy, retains water, and is sticky. The reason I say don’t buy any clay is because its very fossil fuel intensive to ship due to its weight. In PA and in Michigan, when you dig down, you can easily find clay. I prefer to dig mine out of banks by streams or the side of the road. I knew of a wonderful bank by a forest stream, so I went on a hike to get some.

Clay bank in stream

Clay bank in stream

I used my hori hori to dig my clay; the hori hori is a Japanese garden tool and is my favorite foraging tool. To dig your clay, literally any little trowel or shovel will do. Since I’m digging it from a soft bank, I primarily took clay  from the bottom of the bank where it already had spilled over to prevent further erosion. I used a doubled plastic shopping bag to put the clay in. After digging, I put it in my bag and lugged it 1/2 mile back up the mountain :).  Of course, not a week later, I saw a bunch of clay deposits on the side of a back country road, having been dug up from last year’s plowing.  Ah well!

Digging the clay

Digging the clay

I pretty much got as much clay as I could carry up the mountain all that way, or about 25 lbs. The recipe I’m going to give you is based on simle ratios, so however much you get is fine.

 

Other Supplies You’ll Need

Before you set about making your seed balls, you will need some other supplies.  I should also mention that seed ball making is VERY MESSY and should, at all possible, be done outside or in like a dusty garage or something.

Compost: In addition to clay and seeds, you’ll need some sifted and finished compost or top soil (something seed free). Chicken-created compost, as is any home compost or worm castings. Any rich soil will do. If you think you have unwanted seeds in the soil that you don’t want to spread, you can bake the compost at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (but this may kill off other microbial life, so be warned).

A large plastic bucket is necessary for mixing. A 5 gallon bucket works well.

A bucket of water for cleaning your hands and adding water to the mix. If its cold outside, make it warm water!

An old towel is also a good idea for cleaning your hands.

A small tarp or large garbage bag.  This will be for sorting out your clay, adding your seeds, and so on.

A few friends. Good friends make seed ball making fun!

 

The Process

The process is simple enough, and I took photographs of each step to help you along. The first thing you want to do is to make sure your compost and your clay is free of debris, woody material, leaves, or stones. Since my clay was wild clay, we had some sorting to do. It was a little wet, but that was fine. It could have been a little dry as well. If your clay is super wet, you might want to lay it out for a few days to dry out a bit before starting. The key is finding that “just right” texture that is more on the dry side than the soupy side.  Most clay you dig right out of the earth will be the perfect consistency.

Sorting the clay

Sorting the clay

We took out the big lumps, sticks, and rocks.

 

Next, you’ll want to measure your clay. You want to use a ratio of about 2 parts clay to 1 part compost–enough to form nice balls. Part of this will depend on the kind of clay you have (and if it is pure or has anything else in it, like a little bit of sand). We used a flowerpot to measure out or clay (2 parts clay).

Measuring clay

Measuring clay into the bucket

We added our finished compost (1 part) and mixed the clay carefully.

Mixing the clay and compost

Mixing the clay and compost – good to get your hands in the soil!

After mixing, we tested the seed balls to see if they stuck together.  Sometimes, you might need to add a bit of water, depending on how moist the clay was. We added about 1 cup of water to our bucket and then checked to see if it formed a ball. If it forms a nice ball, its ready to go.

Testing the seed ball

Testing the seed ball

 

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

At this point, we found that its helpful to spread the material out on the tarp/plastic bag so that you can get an even amount of seeds in each ball.  After spreading out our mixture,  we have begun to add aster seeds.  You pretty much add as much seed as you like–the balls that we’ve made this time and in the past generally had a lot of seeds!

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

We added a lot of seeds–in this batch, it was what I could find: blue vervain, pleurisy root/swamp milkweed, blue vervain, milkweed, and some stinging nettle.

Our lovely seeds spread out!

Our lovely seeds spread out! The milkweed puffs don’t seem to matter (and in fact, seem to give the balls strength).  Neither do bits of dried plant matter, etc.

Once the seeds were spread out, we mixed everything together and began forming our seed balls.

 

There are a few strategies to make the balls–one that Paul showed us was to roll out a long “worm” (ok, it totally looks like a turd) and then break off smaller bits, forming them into balls.

Forming balls

Forming balls

We made a good number of balls–probably 120+ with the mixture we had made.

Making seed balls together!

Making seed balls together!

Drying your balls

Since its winter here and the weather is generally quite chilly in January, I ended up laying my balls on my seed starting rack that I just put up. It is near a heat register, which allowed them to dry quite quickly. I put them down on some paper bags I had cut up.

Seed balls drying out!

Seed balls drying out!

Blessing your seed balls

Of course, no magic seed ball would be complete without a blessing.  So many things you can do for this, and I think any blessing you give will help set your intentions for the seeds to grow. A few ideas:

  1. A nice blessing oil that you can use to touch each seed ball saying a small prayer
  2. An elemental blessing (four elements) or three druid elements blessing
  3. Put them in the center of your circle during a druid holiday.  I’ll be blessing my most recent batch at Imbolc in a week or so.
  4. You can make these on a full moon, on a holiday (Samhuinn or Yule being a good example) for added effect.

 

Scattering Your Seeds

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Scattering the seeds is a huge part of the fun.  I like to make extra and give them as gifts to those who would appreciate them–then the seeds can go even further.

 

The easiest way of scattering them is just tossing them wherever you want them to grow.  Remember that some seeds need a cold period (cold stratification) so tossing them even in the wintertime isn’t a bad idea!

 

The sky is the limit in terms of these seeds. Make yourself a little bag, take it with you where you go, and have fun!  With each toss, you regenerate the land, bless the land, and scatter abundance.

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

Wildtending: Refugia and the Seed Arc Garden January 8, 2016

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefit on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life and so on.  While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.

 

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought it a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.

 

Refugia

Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places.  In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America covered by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions.

 

In the Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America.  But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to their own duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered.  As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.

 

Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of  us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.

 

A rare woodland lady's slipper--the only one I've ever seen in PA

A rare woodland lady’s slipper–the only one I’ve ever seen in PA

Creating Refugia: Goals

We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.

 

In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.

 

Working to actively create refugia can add and compliment these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).

 

I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “whether the storm” and a place which we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly.  I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act, but as a sacred and spiritual practice.

 

I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.

 

The refugia garden will contain plants that:

  1. Native or naturalized to this region.
  2. Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
  3. Slow growing or hard to establish.
  4. Offer some key benefit to the ecosystem (nectary, nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
  5. Offer some key benefit to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
  6. Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self seeding annuals).
  7. Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
  8. Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.

The refugia will be:

  1. A teaching and demonstration site for others
  2. A site of peace and beauty
  3. A sacred place  for humans to commune, reconnect, and grow
  4. A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life

 

Refugia: Functions and Outcomes

The Refugia garden is, of course sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.

The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again.  I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason!  We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas.  Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on.  The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back.  Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).

 

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. Its amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!

 

Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years.  There are more than enough to go around.  This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.

 

Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference.  You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.

 

Refugia Garden Plants

You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland?  The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.

 

Since we are thinking long term with this principle, I think its a a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change.  How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century?  Will it get hotter, wetter, drier?  Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA.  I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!

 

Here are some design lists to get you started for at temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At risk and To Watch Lists):

  1. Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
  2. Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
  3. Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
  4. Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
  5. Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trilium
  6. Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion.  For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!

Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without.  I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post, when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).

 

Wildtending, Earth Healing, and Gathering and Sowing the Seeds January 2, 2016

Calling all land regenerators, earth walkers, and friends of the weeds!  You can help heal our lands, today, with the resources you have and the love you have to give.  What if, instead of doing less harm or less baad, we could do good?  We could work to heal?  In this post, I’m going to talk about the process of gathering, scattering, and sowing seeds, nuts, and roots in regenerating our lands. This perspective is of the wildtender, the seed scatterer, the weed wise wo(man). This is four-part series on Wildtending that I’ll be presenting over the next month–the first giving the “how to” and philosophy (this post) spiraling from my earlier writings throughout this year. So, grab a handful of seeds, nuts, and roots and let’s get started.

 

The Man Who Planted Trees

I recently came across a story called “The Man who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” by Jean Giono. His story talks about the actions of one man, Elzéard Bouffier, who planted trees in a barren plane, and over a period of years, planted a huge forest on the barren landscape where he lived–the forest brought back water, people, and abundant life. One man’s small mission ended up transforming the lives of so many. Before you continue reading my post, I really, really, really suggest you stop and read his story.  (A PDF of the full story is here: The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness; A Youtube Animated Video is here.)  This story is empowering–it shows us that the actions of one person, determined, over time, can really regenerate a whole ecosystem.

 

Wild crafting and wild tending

I talk a lot about wildcrafting on this blog, both in terms of wild food foraging and healing medicine. And I firmly believe that gathering from the land is important. Wildcrafting is the half of the equation that gets people into the woods or into a field of weeds–going off to find wild mushrooms or berries, reconnecting to nature, and taking nature within ourselves. Its the half that encourages people to help protect wild lands and places.  Its the half that allows nature to heal us through her mere presence and through her medicine. Its the half that helps people appreciate nature and her bounty–but its only half of the equation and that’s an important piece to understand.

When you forage in lands that are abundant and healthy, you can’t see the need for doing anything but being present and thankful, maybe taking a handful of the seeds from what you are harvesting and scattering them a little further as a sign of thanks. However, when the plants that you found in abundance in one area are non-existent in another, you start to see patterns of problems that emerge. In fact, it was my wildcrafting practice in PA, in such damaged and pillaged lands, that has led me to this line of thinking and understanding.

Stories like “The Man Who Planted Trees” remind me of the importance of balance, a principle resonated in the ying-yang, or the sun-moon, or any other balanced pairing.  This is that wildcrafting (that is, ethically harvesting from  from nature) must be balanced with wildtending (that is, returning to or giving to nature). Our lands desperately need wildtending.

 

A Partner in Healing the Land

The web of life

The web of life

The most important thing to understand about wildtending is this: Nature already knows how to heal herself.  All we have to do is to help setup the right conditions for healing. We need to literally sow the seeds and help the soil–and nature will do the rest!

 

The problem we face today is simple: nature doesn’t always have the seeds or resources she needs to heal. We have a tremendous loss of biodiversity (both plant and animal life) caused by severe damage to our lands, from clear-cutting or logging forests, to creating of monocrop industrialized agriculture and lawns, to spraying and toxins. Mines and factories are polluting our rivers. Our topsoils are being eroded at an alarming rate. On top of this, our infrastructure (roads, fields, cities) and human activities prevent the natural spread of seeds and roots; further, the decline in bird populations and wildlife that would spread the seeds mean that less seeds are spread. At literally every point in our ecosystem–something is causing damage.

 

Finally, humans themselves, who used to tend the land and spread seed regularly, no longer engage in this practice.  We don’t know how, for one, and most of us are afraid to do so, for fear of causing more harm.  Even for those who see the land as sacred, who hear the land’s call–we are so afraid to do anything that might harm her further.

 

And yet, the need is great. Most of our forests and lands–even those that *appear* healthy when you walk into them, are currently devoid of may major medicinals and botanicals that once grew abundantly there.  Many critically endangered plants don’t thrive on disturbance like their weedy cousins–rather, they thrive in areas that are undisturbed.  And what forest or field has remained undisturbed in the last few hundred years, at least in the USA? Very, very few. This means we have a situation where its harder for nature to heal because she lacks the seed stores and biological diversity to do so.

 

I’ll give you an direct example here of what I mean–in the forest below my parents’ house, almost 90% of it has been repeatedly logged–except for about a 5 acre section which, for whatever reason, has been largely spared.  This section is perfect for growing certain wet and dark-loving forest plants due to its wet conditions and small early-year springs.  Abundant ramps, along with blue cohosh, white and red trillium, may apples, and trout lilies are all over this small piece of land. Everything I’ve listed, with the exception of trout lilies, show up on one of the United Plant Saver’s “at risk” or “to watch” lists–endangered medicinal and key species of plants, now disappearing from our lands. An invisible line is present in that forest–as soon as you step into the areas that have been logged within the last 30 years, the forest floor is no longer carpeted with these spring plants–instead, its mostly bare on the forest floor. Now to be clear–nothing else appears to be changed–the forest canopy is still there, the larger trees grow around.  Only knowing the history of this land, and where has been disturbed, and where hasn’t been, allows me to understand the dividing line between ecological sanctuary and ecological wasteland.

 

A carpet of magical plants...this is the area that hasn't been logged recently

A carpet of magical plants…this is the area that hasn’t been logged recently

There are lots of spaces just like this forest–spaces that used to have important plants and biodiversity, and due to various human activities, no longer do.  Only knowing what once grew there can help us bring it back. The practice of wild tending and seed scattering is putting the tools–the plants–back in nature’s hands for healing work.

 

 

Principles of Wildtending: What to Do?

Wildtending can take many different approaches, but the one we’ll talk about today is the magic of the seed. The magic of the seed is something that each of us can know. A simple practice is to start a seed on a paper towel and to simply watch it grow.  The lessons within the seed are profound. You get this same experience when you watch sprouts on your counter–that magical seed breaks forth from its casing and sends roots down and a shoot up.  Some seeds are so special that they pull moisture towards themselves and retain it for earlier and easier sprouting. It is embracing this magic of the seed where we can start our work.

 

How do I know what do do?  The first big question in wildtending is this–how do I know what to sow? How do I know it will be beneficial and not harmful? The two keys are the act of careful observation and second is ecological knowledge.

 

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

Careful observation. As I grow more and more deeply into my herbalist practice, it has given me perspective on the number and abundance of plants of many different kinds. Where you can find calamus (sweet flag), skullcap, or lobelia; how rare plants like goldenseal or even black cohosh are to see.  As a permaculture designer, I also know how to look at ecosystems and understand their needs–how they function, the different roles of plants, and how to encourage ecological succession and healing.  These two perspectives, I think, help me answer this question.

 

This question must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depend on what they are lacking, and you figuring out what that might be.  There are, however, a few places to begin. I want to draw your attention to an organization that has been around since the 1970’s, started by Rosemary Gladstar called The United Plant Savers.  They have a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings.

 

I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been reseeded with native plants that you can go visit and learn from? These are good places to look.  For example, a set of local books (nearly all older) helped me fill in the gaps.  About six months ago, I found key information on what PA’s forests had been like prior to clear cutting in an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to logging.  I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 20% of our forests!  I don’t think this was by accident, but by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans who lived here and tended the wilds).

 

How do I know I won’t do more harm than good? I also want to speak here about fear.  A lot of people don’t want to do this kind of thing cause they are afraid of screwing up nature, planting something “wrong.” Let me tell you–so many people are doing things wrong right now, and very little of it has anything to do with wanting to be of service and help.

 

I suggest using your mind and your heart.  In terms of using your mind,  As long as you research carefully,stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), its hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil–pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with (milkweed or pleurisy root are great first time plants for my bioregion) and start there. Its also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Principles of Wildtending: How do I know what to plant?

 

Different ecosystems require different kinds of seeds and approaches. I have divided up my efforts here based on the ecosystem and immediate need. Let’s start by examining the concept of a “plant guild” in Permaculture and then move into some specific approaches based on different ecosystems.

 

Understanding Plant Communities (Guilds): If you know enough about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work together (I think about the spring ephemeral plants in the patch of forest I discussed earlier–ramps, dutchman’s breeches, trillium, mayflowers, and blue cohosh along with woodland nettles, all under maples, oaks, and cherries primarily).  Our goal, as land tenders, should be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (the horizon). For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, patrtidgeberry); vining (ground nut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers. (For more on this in a home gardening/home ecosystem context, look at material found here and in the really great free PDF here.).

 

Likewise, permaculture recognizes that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere else is not a monocrop but a set of plants that often work in conjunction (that’s not to say there isn’t competition, but there is also a lot of collaboration). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” These could include nitrogen fixers (most legumes), nutrient accumulators/dyanmic accumulators (those that pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, like burdock or comfrey); nectary plants (pollen and nectar plants), biomass plants (those that create carbon-rich soil; like leaves from the fall); along with any edible or medicinal qualities. Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

A field of milkweed--a rare sight today.

A field of milkweed–a rare sight today.

 

As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what seeds to scatter:

  1. The height of the plant and growth habits
  2. The plant’s own needs for light and water
  3. What the plant does and offers (consider for many herbs bloom times and nectar)
  4. The plant’s endangered status more broadly or population locally
  5. The distinct context you are planting; considering long-term growth and other people’s actions

I haven’t given you specific lists of plants here because my lists would not be the same as your lists–this is work that each of us needs to do.  I can share my lists, and  I hope that others can share theirs as well!  I will be sharing some of my typical lists below.  I’d also recommend for those really serious to this work to check out Dave Jackie’s Edible Forest Gardens books–they contain the most detailed information on plant guilds for more cultivated plants (although I am generally distrustful of the herbal information in their books, they are otherwise really fantastic).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Places Nobody Cares About

James Howard Kunsler talks at length about the places and spaces that “nobody cares about” in relationship to urban planning and architecture.   I believe we can apply this same principle to our lands. The strip of bare earth behind a strip mall; the insipid moncrops along our highways; the recent construction site stripped bare of its soil; even the logged forest quickly regrowing.  These places, places that have been exploited and stripped, are prime areas for us to begin our wildtending work.  Why? They are places that nobody cares about, that nobody is tending–and those are the places that need wildtenders the most.

 

Bare Earth, Damaged Soil.  Sometimes you come across a place that has no topsoil and is simply exposed bare earth. These kind of situations, from my perspective, are “triage” situations–and this is where the plants that many call “invasives” thrive (after the soil is re-established, these plants almost always disappear and ecological succession continues). Road construction is a good example; when they are done, they maybe will scatter some seeds or plant some grass, but really, a lot of it just sits bare.  Another good choice is a bare area where logging occurred and its having difficulty coming back.  Or, one that I’ve been studying quite a bit since returning home–a “boney dump” where mine refuse (primary shale, still bare after 50-100 years) was piled up in huge piles and left to sit (I’ll write about these at length one of these days).  Or when the utility company comes through and digs something up, then leaves without planting anything.  There are lots of “bare earth” places in our landscape, and usually they are neglected.  These are *perfect* opportunities to begin our work as land tenders!

 

In these kinds of situations, think really carefully about how far along the ecological succession line you want to encourage this piece of ground to grow.  If its under power lines, planting a bunch of oaks is not the wisest course of action because in 20 years, they will be cut down.  Instead, here, I’d encourage a herbaceous and groundcover plants would work well or shrubbery that won’t get that high and that will provide good nutrition or forage or nitrogen fixing or whatever it is you want to provide. The combinations of plants that I’ve used on these kind of situation are:  butterfly weed (pluresy root) being one of my favorites and on the endangered list, milkweeds, along with burdock, Echinacea (mid-season bloom), New England Aster (for late blooms), Mullein (medicinal), and Alfalfa (nitrgoen fixer, mid-season bloom).  These plants thrive in full sun kinds of situations and once established, are perennial.  Not to mention that if there isn’t spraying happening, you can come back at some point, gather more seeds, and maybe even some medicine if the conditions are ok for it :).

 

Places no one cares about...

Places no one cares about…

The Monocrop. Along our highways in many parts of the USA, we see the monocrop.  Driving to visit friends and observing the highways in different seasons of the year was actually one of the inspirations for this whole line of thinking and practice–I was thinking to myself how many millions of acres are along highways and how so few of them grow anything beneficial to the land. These are also, in James Howard Kunsler’s terms, spaces that nobody cares about.

 

In the case of many of our highways in PA, they only mow the very edges, and many of them are on un-mowable hillsides.  Usually after road construction, bridge building, etc, the highway has been replanted with crown vetch or grass….essentially, a monocrop.  The thinking here is not about the ecosystem at all but about keeping something on the surface to prevent drainage and erosion. But, dear friends, we can do better.  I actually like some of the same mix for this that I shared above–in this case, my focus is really on nectar-producing plants to help our pollinators along.  My other focus is on making sure there are pockets of plants that can function like “arcs” to spread ones that we need more of along. For these spaces, I use seed balls (see my upcoming 3rd post in the series) which can easily be lobbed from a car when nobody is looking or late at night!

 

Another place that’s good for this is along train tracks–again, places nobody cares about.  You can cultivate really incredible and diverse ecosystems here on these edge spaces.

 

The Nooks and Crannies: There are lots of little nooks and crannies, small patches of land without much growing on them.  They are really all over the place–just open your eyes and see what you can add :).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Established Ecosystems

The strips of bare land are only one kind of wildtending that can be done.  After nature begins her own process of healing, you’ll find a beautiful tangle or thicket of wild plants, although, depending on the area, you might not find diversity.  Here, our mission is a bit different–simply to bring more biodiversity and help support waning plant populations.

 

The Recovering Edge of Land. You’ll come across the wild patch that was once barren and has sprung up again–this collection of beautiful plants (not weeds) often comes forth from whatever was there before in the soil and remained or whatever was wind-blown or bird-dropped into that small space.  In my area, these small patches are usually full of goldenrod and late-blooming white aster, maybe some brambles or staghorn sumac.  I like to add a bit of diversity to these small patches and encourage the spread of certain kinds of plants–milkweed is a favorite of mine for these spaces, and if its a little damp, I also like to add st. john’s wort, blue vervain and echinacea.  I also like to plant hardwoods here to help encourage ecological succession long-term.

 

The Recovering Fields.  Then there are the fields that were once farmed, and for whatever reason, are no longer farmed and are slowly returning to forest.  I have a two-pronged approach for this–one is to encourage plant diversity during ecological succession (and my favorite for this are the plants mentioned above as well as berry crops like wild black raspberry), but my longer goal here is to spread hardwood species of trees that are very rare.  My particular selection of trees is based on the context of Western PA–these are the trees that don’t recover well after logging and/or were intentionally cut: oak (especially white oak), chestnut (blight resistant), slippery elm (endangered), hickory (of all kinds, especially shagbark), butternut, and walnut.  I also think about the understory trees and the need for other kinds of fruit, and plant hawthorn and apple trees (and pawpaw, especially, if I can get my hands on seeds).

 

Woodlands. Just because you see a mature woodland doesn’t mean the species growing there are necessarily all the species that once did.  For regenerating this kind of space, I focus my energies on targeted endangered species that need to be re-introduced to our woodlands.  I do this carefully though, depending on the kind of forest I’m in.

In Pennsylvania at least, this land was almost entirely stripped to the bare earth during the logging boom that started in the 19th and carried through till the early 20th century.  Even since then, logging of much of PA continues.  While many of our lands repopulated (as nature has a way of doing that), delicate species may not have repopulated with them.  Delicate species, often those having high medicinal value or having slow propagation times (or both) have never recovered.

Scattering New England Aster seeds....

Scattering New England Aster seeds….

 

Sites that will not be logged again– This is typically where I focus my energies in forests currently.  These are sites that may be actively protected (State Forests or local forests) or other lands that are private but owned by people who won’t cut them. After the devastation of logging 100 years ago, a lot of forests around here are now 2nd or 3rd growth forests.  The 500 acre patch of land here that I often visit here in my town is like that–you can find remnants of buildings and foundations in there, and there are fracking wells in there, but largely, the land has regrown. Its primarily a tulip-chestnut oak-red oak-maple forest, with a lot of birch and a few beeches as well.  Its a healthy forest in terms of trees, but there isn’t a lot of forest floor plants.  So my focus in this area is twofold.  First, I work to bring back chestnuts, which once comprised upwards of 15-20% of our forests.  I do this by planting chestnuts in areas where there is a “gap” with the hopes that they might make it–e.g. a large tree has fallen, allowing a patch for something new to grow up.  I also plant understory trees that can make it–paw paw here is my favorite of these.  Second, I work to bring back woodland medicinals currently under severe threat: goldenseal, ginseng, and black cohosh. There are others, but these are the three I’m learning to grow and cultivate, both in terms of how to help them grow and also in the specific ecosystems they like.

 

Sites that will be logged again – I don’t always do much with these sites in terms of planting new medicine or trees, as I’m still learning which plants can recover from this kind of abuse. Right now, most of my work with forests in the logging rotation is energetic healing work (more on this in later posts, some of this is also here).  I think this will change as I discover which plants can survive and which can help a forest recover quickly.  As a simple example of this, I return to the patch of forest behind my parents’ house.  I see what the logging does to those critical woodland species, and I’m not sure trying to bring them back in the face of more logging makes any sense. My point is that sites that have ongoing ecological devastation might not be the best for this kind of work–but there’s still much we can do.

 

Wildtending as Everyday Practice

Now that we’ve talked about what to plant, where to plant it, and all of that, its time to talk about how to build this into your practice.  It can actually be really simple and all it takes is a little extra preparation.  If you are already in the business of going outside fairly often, have some seeds or nuts with you that are appropriate for the areas where you’ll be planting. Seeds are resilient–even if they are planted at the wrong season, they can often survive in the wild and come back up the following spring.  The very first and best thing you can do is start scattering seeds that are appropriate, popping nuts in the ground, and go from there.  If you see small seedling trees coming up that won’t make it where they are sprouting, dig them up and take them somewhere where they will thrive.  This work is simple, and can be built into your existing forays into this great, beautiful planet.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve outlined a number of different ways you might work to be a wildtender as much as a wildcrafter.  I hope you’ll take up the call! Look for the plants that we need in more abundance that benefit our ecosystem, that heal our bodies, that encourage health and forage.  Start with the list on United Plant Savers, and also consider trees that are in need of more planting in your bioregion. These plants and trees…let’s sow them–everywhere.  Scatter them far and wide.  Gather their seeds and spill them out of our skirts and pockets.  Throw seed balls (I’ll talk about these in an upcoming post) into recently grated highway dirt piles, “waste land” or stripped soil. Let’s work with our plant allies to put down the deep roots and begin the healing process.

 

 
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