The Druid's Garden

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

The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods, or Cultivating Receptivity December 4, 2016

I think we’ve all had periods of our lives where we feel like we are moving like a stack of dominoes; we have so many things piled on us that we have to keep going, going, and going. In fact, I had a hard conversation this past week with a loved one, someone who is close to me and sees the everyday patterns of my life.  As part of this conversation, I realized that I had been, since moving to a new job a year and a half ago, literally zipping about. Most of my days were just like those dominoes–falling one after another. As soon as I completed a task I would move onto the next one, hardly taking a breath in between. Since moving and taking the new job, I find myself still settling in, still finding my new rhythms, and trying to fit my usual things into less time and space.  He recognized this in me, and asked me to take a few minutes to reflect on it. I’ve written about this before; our culture demands and glorifies the busification of our lives, the constant moving, doing, and pressing ever forward. We see this not only in the workplace, but in our expectations of our daily lives. I think this is especially true as we grow closer to the Western holiday season, where everything seems to be moving much more quickly than usual. It seems that celebrations and time off would be the perfect time to slow down, but instead, it seems that everything speeds up.

 

Time to slow down...

Time to slow down…

 

So today, I’d like to spend time focusing on the opposite of the hustle and bustle: the importance of observation and interaction through meandering, pondering, and wondering and the benefits of doing this work for our own health and nature-based relationships.  This post continues my “Permaculture for Druids” series, and focuses on some additional work with the “observe and interactprinciple.

 

Projective and Receptive States of Being

One useful way of framing today’s topic of being too busy too often is through two common terms used in many western magical systems: projection and reception. We can frame these two principles like taking a hike in the woods.  The first way to hike is with a set goal in mind: a trail we want to walk, a particular landmark we want to see, mushrooms to find, or some other goal to achieve.  This is the projective way of hiking: we are going to take X trail for X hours and see X landmarks.  We are going out to X spots to find X mushrooms.  But remember: that trail has been crafted by someone else, there are lots of people surrounding that popular landmark and our own plans can be disappointing. Or perhaps, the mushrooms are just not in the spot you’d hope they would be!

 

The protective principle is that of the masculine, of the sun, of the elements of air and fire. Projection in the world means that we are out there, doing something, working our wills and using our energy to enact change.  When we are projective, we are often setting ourselves a dedicated path and following that path; it implies that we have an end goal or destination in mind. This is the place we are in often–making plans, enacting them, working to push things forward, engaging in our work in the world.  Projectivity implies a certain kind of control–we are the actors upon our own destiny.  A projective view suggests that we have the power, and we are using that power to achieve our own ends.  Projectivity is both an inner and outer state–focus, determination, drive, and mental stamina are all part of the inner projective place while our specific actions towards a goal help propel us forward.  While projectivity certainly has its place, it can be rather exhausting if that is all we are doing. (And, I’ll just note here, that I wonder how much of these busy schedules really control us?)

 

The alternative way to hike, of course, is to enter natural spaces with a different kind of intent: the intent of wandering with no set goal, no set time frame, and simply seeing what unfolds before us.  This means that we engage in many activities that don’t necessarily have a positive connotation in our culture (but really should): mulling about, being directionless, meandering, and simply taking our time to smell the roses.

 

In western magical systems, the receptive principle is connected to the feminine energy of the moon and the elements of water and earth. And like those principles, receptivity means being open to those things, especially unexpectedly, that come into our lives–allowing things to flow in, allowing us to offer ourselves up to the experience without a set expectation or outcome. Receptivity means taking time to wander and wonder about things we aren’t sure of, to give space and voice to those things before firmly deciding any course or action or solution.  The receptive principle is all about creating space enough, slowing down enough, and turning off our projective natures, long enough to allow nature to have a voice and to take us by the hand and show us some amazing things.

 

Sometimes receptivity also means sitting back and not engaging in the world or putting off driving forward with plans; other times it means doing what we can and having faith in things beyond our control.  Sometimes, it means that the time is not right and the best thing you can do is wait. A lot of us have great difficulty in surrendering our control and simply trusting forces outside of ourselves to bring things in or waiting for a more opportune moment.  Sometimes, the more we try to make something happen, the less likely that thing will be the thing we really want to experience or the less likely it will actually occur. Receptivity applies both in terms of our own minds (cultivating a curiosity, pondering, wondering, and openness) and as well as in our outer experiences.

 

Trail into the woods....

Trails into the woods….

Since most of us have difficulty in particular with the receptive principle, I’m going to spend the remainder of this post talking through some specific activities with regards to interacting in nature that I think can help us cultivate receptivity, to observe, and to simply interact without a specific goal or agenda in mind. Nature is the best teacher with regards to most things, cultivating receptivity being no exception.

 

The Outer Work: The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods

I remember a warm summer day several years ago when three druids went out into the woods for the sole purpose of exploration. We literally picked a “green area” on the map and said “we wonder what’s there?” We had no set goals, no set timeframe, and a few backpacks of supplies–and off we went. It turned out that we had stumbled upon a recreation area/park that was no longer quite maintained by the township, and we had the place to ourselves.  The road we wanted was labeled “closed” but we went down it anyways and parked along the edge. We found a number of paths that were not exactly clear to walk on, as debris and fallen trees had come down in places.  The wildness of the place really added to the adventure. We found morel mushrooms growing up among the paths (which later made a delightful dinner). We found a downed sassafrass tree and used a small hand saw to harvest the roots; we also found a huge patch of stoneroot for medicine.  The further in we went the further in we wanted to go. And, best of all, we druids literally found a small stone circle there, tucked away in the forest along one of the abandoned path. We spent time in the circle, amazed at finding such a treasure.  This day, and the magic of it, remains firmly tucked in my mind as one of the most memorable and pleasurable I had had while living in Michigan for the simple fact that it was an adventure and none of us had any idea what we might find next.

 

When I say the art of getting lost in the woods, I’m not necessarily talking about physically getting lost (although that may also happen) but rather, to allow ourselves to get lost in the wonder and joy that is the natural world.  Getting lost with no set direction and seeing where nature leads.

 

I believe one of the best activities cultivate an open, receptive state is to enter the woods (or other natural area) with no set plans, agenda, or time frame–just like my story above describes. That is, to simply let the paths and forest unfold before you, to lead you deeper in, and to allow you to simply be. To slow yourself down, to make no plans, and to enter with an open mind, heart, and spirit. The key to all of this is to cultivate a gentle openness that is not in a rush to get somewhere, not on a time frame, and certainly not out to find something specific. The more that you try to project, the more that your projection frames your experience rather than nature and her gifts.

 

This is especially a powerful practice if you are able to go somewhere entirely new. When we visit new places, our minds are opened up to new ways of thinking, new experiences, new patterns, and new ways of being.  Find somewhere new, even if its local, and explore that place.  Even better–go to an unfamiliar ecosystem and give yourself a few days to explore it.  For example, if you a mountain-and-forest person (like I am), the rocky shore, lowland swamp, or sandy desert would be wonderful new spaces that could help you cultivate receptivity, observation, and peace.

 

If you are going more local, my favorite thing to do is pick a “green spot” on the map, show up there, find a trail, and begin walking (if its a very secluded area where getting lost might mean I don’t get found for a long time, I might get a park map, but often, I find a map itself is too constraining and instead focus on trail marking).  Sometimes I will go out wandering by myself, and other times, with friends.  A compass or finding your way techniques (like those discussed in Gatty’s Finding Your Way Without a Compass or Map) are necessary.  Just use your intuition and go where you feel led to go.  Bring along a hammock and tree straps if its a warm day–you’ll be glad you did!

 

I have also discovered the usefulness of “river trails” for this kind of activity.  This is where a river will decide where it wants to take you and how fast you will go.  For one, if you are used to being on the land, the river or lake offers a very new and delightful perspective.  For two, the river has a path of its own, and you are simply along for the journey of where it plans to go.  A long weekend with a few nights camping on the shore can be a wonderful way to allow nature to lead you in new directions and to new experiences.  The last river trail I did (which was a half day excursion on the Conemaugh river) allowed me to see three bald eagles–the first I had ever seen!  A gift indeed!

 

Unexpected mushrooms!

Unexpected mushrooms!

I’ll also note that winter is a really lovely time to do some of this work.  Put on your wool socks and warm clothes and just go.  If there is snow, you never have to worry about getting lost anywhere as you can simply follow your own trail home (and see the entire journey from a new perspective).  Winter and snow offers its own unique insights and lessons.

 

Sometimes, perfectly good trips are ruined by my strong desire to find some tasty mushrooms (and I have my mushroom eyes on, rather than just cultivating an openness of spirit and excitement for the journey).  Then, all that I do is look for mushrooms and feel disappointed when I don’t find them, rather than just enjoying my trip into the woods with no set purpose in mind.  The best times are when I go into the woods not to find mushrooms but simply to enjoy the journey (and then really unexpectedly come across a boatload of mushrooms).

 

Nature always has things to teach when we open spaces for her to do so, when we take time to get lost in the woods.  It makes it easier if we cultivate this through relinquishing our own control and simply taking the time to experience and explore new spaces with an open mind.

 

The Inner Work: Cultivating Openness and Curiosity

The inner landscape, too, greatly benefits from this same kind of “open space” that is free of both our own self-directed activities as well as other people’s words and ideas. Obviously, the material above on getting lost in the woods is of deep benefit to our inner landscapes as well.  But also of benefit is the simple act of inner pondering, wondering, and rumination.

 

Cultivating openness

Cultivating openness

I think the key here is cultivating openness. And I stress the word cultivation here, because, culturally and educationally, we are quick to make up our minds and stick to it and be in a perpetual protective state.  There is real value in withholding judgement, staying open, and gathering in more information that we initially think we need.  Continuing to ask “what if?” is a good way to start this process along.

 

There’s a lot of value in rumination, in simply thinking through things, wondering, and not settling on any one thing too quickly. Open and boundless spaces allow for creativity and awen (divine inspiration) to flow. Pondering is useful, in that it allows us to spend time asking “what if” over and over again until we reach an idea that we are satisfied.  One of my best teachers, Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio used this technique a lot as she taught natural building–she would take time to simply ask the students questions, come up with possible solutions, and ask for more until the class had exhausted many possibilities–only then would we move forward with a particular design decision or solution to the building problem we were facing.

 

Journaling and free association activities can be a great way to engage in pondering, as can discursive meditation on an open topic or theme.   Even conversations with the right kind of person, an open minded person who asks good questions and questions assumptions, can help you cultivate openness and receptivity. I use all of these often.

 

In permaculture design, this openness and receptivity is a very important part of the process. We are encouraged to spend a full year observing and interacting with our surroundings before completing a design and modifying any space–and it is really good advice.  Making plans to quickly leads to half-thought out designs. It is through the gentle time spent in nature, observing and pondering, and through focused meditation on key topics, that we might have the ability to craft and create designs that help change the course of our own lives, and our communities, for the better while regenerating our ecosystems around us.  While I think we are all pressed to act, acting too quickly can be worse than acting at all.

 

Finally, I want to mention briefly about screens, since they have become so pervasive and all-encompassing. Screens have a way of bringing in everyone else’s projections–and they literally project them into you.  Cultivating openness and curiosity means, for a lot of folks, seriously limiting screen time (try it with an open mind!)

 

Balancing Receptivity and Projectivity

The key to getting lost in the woods and finding your way back again is finding a healthy balance between receptivity and projectivity and understanding when we need to take control and when we need to surrender it.  I think when people think about doing the work of regeneration, of permaculture practice, of sacred gardening and the many other things I discuss here on this blog, they think about their own actions and plans. However, I have found that sacred healing work in the world, through permaculture practice or anything else is about the interplay between projectivity and receptivity, that is, between ourselves and nature. That is, while we are often those who make plans and initiate changes within a system (a garden, an ecosystem, a home, a community, etc) but also that we observe, creatively respond, and reflect upon what happens beyond us. We have to work both with enacting some changes, and also sitting back and simply observing what happens.  We have to be willing to receive nature’s messages and intentions before setting any of our own.

 

On Being Your Authentic Self, Part II: The Path of the Sun November 27, 2016

In last week’s post, I explored the importance of finding ways of living and being your authentic self. I suggested that there were at least three pathways to doing this work: the first of which is Path of the Moon, which is the quiet path of living one’s principles (or the “what” of the work) while not necessarily discussing the spiritual path (or the “why” of the work).  This is a good path for those who feel restricted in sharing their spiritual path fully in various contexts of their lives. Today, I’ll explore the second path, the shining path of the sun.  The sun path refers to us being more being more out, open, and explicit about the fact that you  follow an earth-based spiritual path.  Those walking the sun path radiate this truth in the world like the sun shining down on a warm summer day. As I mentioned last week, both paths are useful to understand to do the work of integrating our outer life with our inner spiritual paths but both are inherently different kinds of work.  Today, we stand in the summer sun!

 

The path of the sun!

The path of the sun!

 

Path of the Sun: Coming Out and Radiating Brightly

There seems to be a prevailing idea that certain people in the earth-based spiritual community are out, radiantly and brilliantly so, in all aspects of their lives.  And while it is true that some folks manage this, the degree to which druids or others are “out” and open about who they are seems to fall along a wide spectrum. Few of us are blessed with having life circumstances that allow us to be out fully and unabashedly, at least here in the USA. Truthfully, I know of very few druids or who are out and free to be druids in every aspect of their lives. Rather, I have found that being out is a matter of degrees. Maybe you are out to a select group of friends or even your family, but still “in” at your workplace to preserve your career. Or maybe you are out and publicly known in the broader druid community, but life in a conservative community requires you keep your beliefs quiet around town. Or maybe you feel you cannot be out at all; you are new to the path or exploring on your own and aren’t ready to defend practices you are still beginning to understanding (if so, my post last week will be relevant to your position). In acknowledging this spectrum, I acknowledge that each of us must find our own place along these paths.

 

However, I do think that it is important that at least some of us take up the “path of the sun” work.  Given this, I’m now going describe three reasons for doing so.

 

The Path of the Sun for the sake of the land. At many points of human history, spiritual considerations of the land and its sacredness were are the forefront of public discussions. Here in the USA today, and in many other parts of the world, this is no longer the case. And I think that being more open and public about the sacredness of the land can help us, on a larger scale, shift things. I spoke about this extensively in my “earth ambassadors” post from last year: how the land needs ambassadors, full of knowledge and rooted in a sacred relationship, to speak.

 

Being hidden about our spiritual practices means we are not able to engage in dialogue, discussion, and action that directly speaks from a sacred and spiritual perspective. I believe that druids and other earth-centered folks are in a good position to do this earth ambassador work and to support others who are also doing this work, but only if we are confident and able to find our voices, as humans and as druids. This directly leads me to my next point.

 

The Path of the Sun for the sake of our traditions. I remember being present for the dialogue between Philip Carr-Gomm (Chosen Chief of OBOD) and John Michael Greer (then Grand Archdruid of AODA) on the differences between druidry in the USA and druidry in the UK (you can listen to this discussion on Druidcast (Episodes 68 and 69). Philip shared stories of how UK druids are now consulted to bless forests and parks and to be a source of spiritual guidance when it came to human-land interactions. Meanwhile, in the USA, we have far, far to go. I think so many folks stay quiet about druidry in the USA for fear of rejection, intolerance, or misunderstanding on the part of others. And this is a serious, real fear. I recently spoke to several women at a Samhuinn celebration in my town who shared stories of how a small magical shop had bricks thrown through the windows and quiet threats–it forced the shopkeepers to close. Certainly, being out and open as I now am, I wonder and worry about these challenges myself.

 

Sunflowers embrace the sun!

Sunflowers embrace the sun!

For those who are considering how far down the Path of the Sun they want to travel, I want to point to the many social justice movements of the 20th and 21st century for perspective. It was only through invested parties being willing to be “out” and fight for equality that we finally saw tremendous social progress on a number of issues (racism, gay rights, Native American rights, and so on).  Now, I’m not saying that any of these issues are “solved” but we have certainly seen major social movement and increasing tolerance over a period of time because of the willingness of people who belong to these groups, and their allies, to stand and be seen and heard. I believe education and advocacy on the part of druids and other earth-based spiritual paths, like other social movements, is a necessary part of the work we need to do in the world. If at least some of us are not willing to be out, we face a longer, harder road towards social acceptance, which harms us all. Cultivating broader public understanding is a critical issue on a number of levels; the lack of understanding affects all of us in different ways. I’ve spoken to many folks who have difficulty getting their holidays off (with employers seeing their paths as not legitimate), folks not able to wear symbols of their faith while other religious groups can, and issues of child custody in court cases based on religion.

 

One key issue in addition to those I listed above has to do with the core spiritual practices and experiences that we have as druids. Many of the spiritual experiences that are validated, acceptable, and important in our druid community are considered to be mental health issues by the broader establishment. And yet, many spiritual traditions all over the world see and hear spirit communication; its just the present one I happen to live in that utterly rejects this and instead sees it as pathology or worse. Some good writing on this topic has come out recently from the shamanic community, but these perspectives are very far from the mainstream. There’s a reason I don’t talk about my work with plant spirits to most people (although people certainly know I’m a druid, but they don’t know the details about what I do).

 

The Path of the Sun for the sake of ourselves. Beyond the reasons that we might engage in the Path of the Sun for the sake of the land and our traditions, there’s also the inner reason: living an authentic life.  Its important for many of us to feel like we can be open and accepted for who we are, that we can be free to express our spiritual paths and not stay hidden. When I think about this issue, I’m reminded of the line from the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby song, where Eleanor Rigby “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door, Who is it for?”  Many of us don’t want to have a face that we wear that we keep in the jar by the door (or at the edge of our grove, the edge of the spiritual gathering, wherever that edge is). We want to share more of our true face. I think this is particularly important to those of us in certain Western cultures where the current of individualism runs strong.  For certain people, being anything less than exactly who we are, title and all, resonates with an inauthenticity that we cannot abide.  For these kinds of people, the Path of the Sun represents the only possible path towards wholeness of body, mind, heart, and soul.

 

Walking the Path of the Sun

Now that we’ve established some reasons we might want to walk the Path of the Sun, how can we do so?  This next section offers some suggestions for the process of coming into the sun.  I’m drawing a lot from my own experience here, and the slow movement I had from being completely quiet, to moving into the Path of the Moon, and later, into the Path of the Sun in many aspects of my life.

 

Coming out is a process. Coming out is not a single process that you do one time and then is resolved; rather, it is a continual process that we are always cultivating. Timing is so critical with this coming out process. One conception of time in ancient Rome was “kairos” which loosely translates as the ‘right time and right place’ for a particular thing to occur.  And so, as we think about coming out more fully into the sun, we need to attend to the process and timing of doing so.

 

I’ll also add that a lot of the process of coming out as a druid comes down to issues of our own identity: who we are, who we want to be, and the identity we socially construct with others (the face in the jar by the door). This has a lot to do with how comfortable we sit in our skin and how that comfort changes based on the contexts in which we find ourselves. Each moment, we make decisions about who we are going to be, how we share our path with others, and how we come into the sunlight and shine. Each time we have an opportunity, we choose to act upon it or not to act upon said opportunity.

 

Having Key Conversations. One of the ways I believe that the sun path is most effective is in key conversations with individuals who are open to such conversation. I like to show people that I’m not some [enter your stereotype here] fringe lunatic with a crazy spiritual path, but rather a typical person with a job, a home, and the same hopes and dreams and fears as everyone else.  This is why timing is so important; I rarely come out and say “I’m a druid” in big bold statements when I first meet people, but I also don’t keep it a secret.  I find that its easier to have conversations with people after they get to know you just as a person, rather than someone who has a weird spiritual path (which may color their whole perception of you).

 

Once those conversations are ready to take place, framing and definitions are critical. Most people completely lack a frame of reference of who we are and what we do. If I tell people “druid” they think I might be a World of Warcraft character. The questions immediately begin, “Is that like a witch or something?” “Is that some kind of video game thing?” or “Are you a pagan?”  The person asking the questions is trying to fit you and who you are into their previous sets of knowledge and experience (and this is a normal process; it is how we learn as humans). However, this means that, if you come out or someone finds out you are a druid, the very first thing they try to do is to fit who you are and your path into their existing knowledge base. Please note that it is extremely likely that they don’t have an existing knowledge base that is an accurate representation of your path. Simply allowing them to fit what they understand of your path into their own knowledge base encourages and perpetuates ignorance. This is because we don’t have spiritual paths or practices that are well understood; recognizing that people’s existing knowledge base either is absent, or is present but insufficient, is an important part of moving beyond stereotypical or absent knowledge bases.

 

The Path of Druidry

The Path of Druidry

And here’s the thing: if you don’t fill this void, then imagination, representations on television, fear-mongering, or their own limited experiences are likely to do so.  So, if you see this happening, you can say, “hey, I know you are trying to fit this within your knowledge base, but the truth is most people don’t have any idea of what I do. But if you are interested, I’m happy to sit down with you over a cup of tea and talk to you about it so that you do understand it more. And I’m delighted to hear more about your path and what you do as well.” This kind of strategy can lead to productive conversations and mutual understanding.

 

Of course, key conversations often begin with those closest to us. I remember the difficulty of the first key conversations I had with my own mother, with whom I am very close. These conversations occurred just after I felt empowered by placing the Awen stone in my office as my first act of “coming out” (see last week’s post). I sat my mother down deep in the woods (which is her sacred space), and I spoke to her about my spiritual path. I attempted to outline the parallels between her own Christian path (which involves praying in the woods each day and seeing signs from God in nature) and my own path (which involves meditating in the woods each day and seeing signs from the spirits in nature). She was very quiet, and afterwards, did not say anything for a long time. I didn’t push it, and finally, nearly two years later, I asked her if she had anything to say. She looked at me and said, “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say.” After that, the ice was broke and I was able to occasionally share things with her that had seemed impossible before. Still, even into my second decade as a druid, the conversations with my family are still challenging, and the process of coming out to my family, still presents a lot of difficulty because of the issues I raise above. People think they know all there is to know about me, without ever having a single conversation about me, and it is difficult to find how to fill that gap.

 

The Quick Statement. A second part of the key conversations, I believe, is what I will call the “30 second elevator pitch.” Imagine yourself in an elevator, and someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, I heard that you are a druid.  What exactly does that mean?” I have found it helpful to prepare–and practice–a 30 second or less response to this question. This will require massive oversimplification. But a simple, yet accurate description is better than a winding and complex description that is hard for someone to wrap their heads around. Mine goes something like this:

“Druidry is a path of nature-based spirituality that honors the seasons, works with the cycles of nature, and finds spiritual guidance rooted in the living earth. Modern druidry is inspired by the Ancient Druids who were astronomers, philosophers, teachers, and diviners. The modern druid movement is about four centuries old and includes practitioners from all over the world, including many here in the US. We live by the seasons and work to heal and regenerate the living earth.”

Feel free to use this statement or adapt it for your own purposes. As someone who is fairly in the Path of the Sun at this point, I find myself using something like this quite often!

 

Community Work.  If you have a group of people (grove, study group, seed group, etc), it is often helpful to do the Path of the Sun work together.  One of the things a group of us did while I was still living in Michigan was to pair up with the only other non-Christian group in the area (a Buddhist group) and do some joint community service work. We let ourselves be known and open, and showed those in the community that we were part of it, there to do good work for the benefit of all. That worked really well, and I’d encourage it for others.

 

Hemlocks in the Path of the Sun

Hemlocks in the Path of the Sun

Other ways to shine. The Path of the Sun is often one of seeing opportunities and choosing to take them on, rather than deciding to retreat.  For example, some NPR folks found my blog post on Hemlock a few years ago and asked me to talk about the Hemlock tree mythology.  I was terrified of this and thought, “Oh no! People will know I’m a druid!  Nobody actually reads the stuff I write on this blog!” After some meditation and reflection, decided to go ahead with the interview.  It ended up being a great deal of fun, and I was able to share my knowledge of the trees with a much wider audience. This is all to say that each of us can find our own opportunities to shine and do our own Path of the Sun work in the world.

 

Closing Thoughts. Whether you take the Path of the Moon or the Path of the Sun, or perhaps walk the dawn or dusk that sits between them, the ultimate goal of this two-part series is to explore how we can be more authentic and comfortable in our own skins. Because that’s part of what a spiritual path is meant to do–to illuminate the path before us, to show us the ways to go and the ways not to go, and to help us feel like more fully actualized, vibrant people.  May you walk your path, sun, moon, dawn, dusk, or otherwise, in peace and fulfillment.

 

On Being Your Authentic Self, Part I: The Path of the Moon November 20, 2016

One of the struggles that has marked my own path of druidry, and the path of many others that I know, is the challenge of being and living our authentic selves. For me, this is the act of somehow balancing a spiritual path that is largely not accepted or outwardly disdained by broader society (including many of my own loved ones) with the need to be true to my own heart and soul and walk my path openly. There is a lot of fear in the druid community, and certainly in the broader earth-based spiritual communities, about being one’s authentic self, or being “out” of the broom closet, as some may frame it. I don’t think this fear has lessened of late, but rather, perhaps increased due to a toxic political climate, where intolerance and bigotry seem to be culturally more acceptable than in the previous decade.  The effects of this are that many of us feel crushed and unable to really be open about who we are. Going to any spiritual gathering, you can see this clearly: many people are just breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to hide who they are, what they believe, from a difficult outside world.  So the question I explore today is this: How do we live our authentic selves in a world that largely doesn’t accept our paths?

 

misty_forest

Why does living as our authentic selves matter?

I think that its critical that we find some way of balancing, expressing, and cultivating our inner spiritual paths in our outer realities of life. I’m sure many of my readers have felt the tension that you feel when you are, literally, feeling like two people living two separate lives in a single body. It makes you feel small and, perhaps, inauthentic. For example, some time ago, I briefly dated someone who wasn’t on my spiritual path, but who I otherwise liked a good deal. As I tried to share pieces of my spiritual path, I found him to be a brick wall on the subject, unwilling to engage with me at all, and unwilling to really even hear what I was saying. As our short relationship progressed, the longer I felt unable to share and unable to be supported by this person, I felt myself getting smaller and smaller, shriveling up like a raisin.  You can imagine how this relationship worked out! In a second example, I’ve found this same experience reflected in my relationship with my immediate family at points—how inauthentic I have felt when I’m not living my true self, when I have passively bowed my head at the meal rather than risk a confrontation with my father about my path. I don’t do this any longer, but for many years as a druid I did because I felt it would have been too hard to change the situation without conflict.  In my case, not able to be authentic self in intimate relationships took a serious toll on me.

 

Beyond our immediate relationships, it can be very hard to inhabit and see the world differently on an everyday basis. Core values of my culture (exploitation of earth’s resources) are at direct odds with my own values (nurturing the earth and helping her heal). Further, I have found it challenging to live in a culture that views my spiritual paths and practices as “crazy” or “nonsense” (a topic that I’ll discuss in much greater detail in next week’s post). On my way to work, I might commune with a tree spirit, honor the rising sun, or look for signs in the birds flying overhead. And then walk into my office and start my work—pretending these experiences and things are not part of my life.  Given this, maintaining that balance and feeling authentic is difficult.

 

One source of the difficulty is that this path helps us to shine so well.  When we spend time in nature, she heals us, wipes off the grime from us, and really helps us to feel more whole and complete. The beauty of who we are, the inner gifts that we have (that in other cultures would make us seers, shamans, leaders, healers), need to be expressed in some way that we feel matters. Failure to find ways of channeling those gifts, those passions, and that bright light that our spiritual path does leave us feeling more like the raisin than the lush juicy grape shining there in the sun.

 

Given all of this, I see essentially three paths forward to help cultivate more authentic selves: one of this is a “quiet” path of authentic living or what I’ll call the “Path of the Moon” and the second is a more “loud” path of being fully out about one’s tradition, or what I’ll call the “Path of the Sun.”  And of course, there is the Path of the Dawn, that straddles the two I’ll present.  I’ll explore the Path of the Moon in this post, and next week, I’ll explore the Path of the Sun.  Both deserve treatment on this topic, but both are inherently different work.

 

The Path of the Moon: Cultivating Authentic Living

Justice - balancing Inner and Outer Truths (from the Tarot of Trees, www.tarotoftrees.com)

Justice – balancing Inner and Outer Truths (from the Tarot of Trees, http://www.tarotoftrees.com)

One way to cultivate our authentic selves has to do with cultivating actions in the outer world in a gentle yet powerful way. Those that are familiar with the Druid’s Prayer for Peace (which has a few derivations) might recognize those words in the peace prayer: “Gently and powerfully, within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.” We can gently, yet powerfully, radiate the expression of our spiritual path without necessarily being uncomfortable with being “loud” about our paths or blazing like the sun.

 

You might think about this work like the quiet light of the moon—the moon reflects the sun (our true selves) but does so in a way that is subtle and intuitive.  This path allows us to be non-confrontational, not to take up the path of the sun because we are either uncomfortable with the role, are private about our paths, or don’t feel that we are in circumstances which allow us to do so.  Whatever the reason, the path of the moon is a quiet path of living authentically in the world yet still allows us to live our true paths.

 

Why the Path of the Moon?

When I think about my own trajectory of being a druid, of living my own path and finding my way deeper and deeper into the forest, a lot of it had to do with my own comfort and growing experience. When I came to Druidry, I was coming out of years of growing up fundamentalist Christian, and then several years of being a secular humanist and agnostic.  I had a long road to walk, within my own heart and mind, to even take on the word “druid” in any public setting. I wasn’t ready; I didn’t really even know what I meant by druidry, so how could I explain it to anyone else? How could I defend it, if I was called to do so? This, then, is obviously one reason that you might take up the path of the moon.

 

A second reason has to do with life circumstances–so many of us are in places where it is detrimental, personally or professionally, to be “out” about our paths.  Maybe your professional life is one that it would be severely detrimental for you to be out and openly a druid; maybe you have a very conservative family and you are worried that they won’t leave you alone if they found out; etc. The point is, at least here in much of the US, we do not live in a world that is kind to those of our path. There is good reason for taking up the quiet path of the moon, as many of us choose to do in our personal, civic, and professional lives. This is not something to be ashamed of, but rather, it is often the work of self-preservation.

 

But it is precisely this tension that can cause us to feel like we are living two lives–the inner life of druidry or our other spiritual practices and the outer life of your “average” person.  And so, we need to find a way to balance those scales, to help us feel more authentic while still hiding away a large part of who we are.  So now, let’s look at some of the work of the Path of the Moon to see how we might live quietly, yet powerfully, and express our path:

 

1: Quiet yet Powerful Actions: Or, Beliefs Manifest as Actions.

One of the ways that I’ve cultivated being my authentic self more quietly yet powerfully is by engaging in external expressions of druidry that are not clearly or inherently “spiritual” to the casual observer.  In other words, while these activities are clearly expressions of my druid path in my mind, they are not immediately linked with such to others, and may be simply seen as “hobbies” or “interests” or “causes.” In this case, the actions are the outer manifestation of my inner beliefs; and people don’t need to now the why of what I am attempting to do, just the what of actually doing it.

 

For example, I can teach wild food foraging and herbalism classes through a lens of reverence and respect for the living earth. This doesn’t scream to people, “look at this druid doing this stuff” but it is fully in line with my druid path and I consider it some of my spiritual work in the world. Teaching people about how to carefully and joyfully interact in the ecosystem and teaching them about nature is a key focus in my own personal druid path.

 

Or for another example, in the last month or so, I have been asked to come and speak on behalf of ordinances for chickens and beekeeping in my small town; I ended up sitting across from a factory farmer who was opposed to both and had to defend small-scale urban beekeeping and chicken keeping. I did so because, for me, chicken and bee ordinances mean that more people can live more sustainably, and intuitively, these kinds of practices can raises awareness and connection with the living earth.

 

awen2_sm

2: Small Signs of Your Path

I remember the time I first came out as a druid in a quiet yet public way. After a powerful ceremony with fellow druids at a gathering,  where I had been led by the spirits to start attending to being less “closed”, I had returned home with a beautiful flat stone. I painted an Awen on the stone, and I decided to put it in my office at work. I didn’t say anything about it to anyone, but placed it there with a simple prayer. There it stood, as a symbol of my faith, in a very public setting. And when I eventually moved universities, the stone came with me, and it sits now in my new office, quietly radiating the light of my path. That was my very first step, that was my first step to being more public and out there about who I was. Every day, I would walk in my office and just say, “wow”, there I am with the symbol of my faith there on my shelf. Of course, most people don’t know what an Awen is, but that didn’t matter, because it mattered to me. Even a small act, like this one, can help us feel like we are bridging the inner spiritual realms with our outer spiritual living.

 

I think there are lots of subtle things you can do that are outer, yet quiet, reflections of your path.  Maybe its the carefully cultivated shrine in your back yard, the symbol you wear around your neck, the quiet prayers you say before each meal in the company of others.  Whatever it is, doing even these small actions can tremendously help you feel like you are living a more authentic life.

 

3: Shifting Daily Living Practices

The third thing that can help us live more quiet and authentic lives has to do with shifting our daily living practices towards honoring the living earth and treading gently. I’ve written a lot on this topic on the blog, from seed saving to recycling and reducing waste, to vermicompost and natural building, to reconsidering gift giving. Each small shift brings our own outer living in line with our inner spiritual practices.  These kinds of shifts can make us feel much more alive and attuned with our own spiritual beliefs.

 

Druid's Peace Prayer

Druid’s Peace Prayer

4: Cultivating Peace and Other Core Values

Even if we don’t feel we can fully be “out” about druidry while walking the Path of the Moon, we can certainly work to cultivate core values of our tradition.

 

For example, in druidry, one of the central values is peace.  We declare peace at the start of our ceremonies and we have prayers, like the druid’s prayer for peace,  that offer us as mantras for living.  I have spent a tremendous amount of time meditating on this particular prayer (along with the druid’s prayer), and thinking about how I can cultivate peace each day in my own dealings with others. As a reminder, I have the painting of the Druid’s Prayer for Peace hanging in my office at work, a quiet reminder to me to always work to cultivate peace even in what can often be some contentious politics in academia.  But I also work to cultivate peace with each of my relationships, and with my relationship with the living world (not killing bugs, for example).

 

5: The Hermitage of the Heart

In the Gnostic Celtic Church, which functions as the arm of the Ancient Order of Druids in America that focuses on clergy preparation and ordination, we have a concept called “the hermitage of the heart.” Its a simple, yet profound, concept that essentially says that we can maintain the inner joy, clarity, and peace our paths provide in a way that offers us some quiet distance from the typical everyday materialist life. In other words, it encourages us to see that distance between our culture and ourselves not as detrimental but as necessary for the preservation of a rich spiritual life. This philosophy can be useful when it seems the chasm is wide indeed, and can help us realize that authenticity comes not always from outer actions, but from deep within and how we frame the interplay between the inner and outer.  I find this principle is useful to use for regular meditation and reflection.

 

Conclusion

I believe there is a lot that we can do in the world that helps us live more authentically even when we don’t feel we can be fully open with who we are and what we believe. It is the quiet path of the moon that gives us some way of balancing our inner beliefs with our outer living in ways that we feel good about ourselves and our paths. I also want to stress that, ultimately, how we navigate this issue of living as our authentic selves is very personal choice–each of us must figure out how to navigate these dark waters and find our own inner peace on the issue. Its not appropriate to judge others for the work they appear to be doing (or not doing) with regards to their own paths. I know that each of us struggle with this in our own way, and each of us are in different circumstances that may or may not allow for certain visible actions. Just because a person is walking quietly by moonlight on the path of the forest doesn’t mean he or she is not walking there–so be kind to your fellow forest path walkers. Next week, I’ll look at the Path of the Sun, or being much more open as a way of cultivating an authentic self.  Blessings!

 

Life in the Extraction Zone: Complex Relationships of Livelihood and Land November 13, 2016

As I write this, threats to our lands, our environment, our oceans, and life on earth seem greater than ever before. As I write this, water protectors in North Dakota are getting beaten, arrested, tear gassed and jailed. As I write this, many folks are having difficulty understanding the decisions of so many Americans, decisions that potentially threaten our lands. As I write this, community after community find themselves in a place of needing to take a stand to those with more power and resources to defend their rights to clean water, personal safety, and a clean environment. But in many other places, people have different views–they have welcomed fracking and other energy extraction into their communities and they welcome logging and industry. It seems hard for those who are in an earth-centered and earth-honoring viewpoint to understand what would possess people to support–or even welcome–life in the extraction zone.

 

The “extraction zone” is a metaphor that I’ve heard a few friends and colleagues use here in Western PA. It suggests that we no longer live on land that is whole or protected, but that everything is up for extraction and removal–at severe cost to the land and the people’s physical, spiritual, and mental health.  It is when the removal of resources, of any kind is promoted actively over the well being of humans and lands. People too, can have their own resources–time, energy, money–extracted at the benefit of others. I think this is an unfortunately useful way of thinking not only about our experiences here among the fracking wells, but what is happening across our entire planet, of which resources are being extracted at an alarming and unsustainable rate.

 

In the druid tradition, a common exercise is working to find alternative perspectives.  One of the ways we do this is working to turn a binary into a ternary; that is, finding a third perspective. Another way is to look for understanding beyond our immediate frame of reference.  In honor of the druid tradition, today’s post explores some of the reasons and issues acceptance of life in the extraction zone and helps to, I hope, humanize those that fit on the “other side” of this debate. While I’m focusing my comments on fracking and energy extraction because that is the physical reality in which I live, I think you’ll see parallels between this analysis and more broader social patterns and political decisions about extraction of all kinds.

 

I’ve been working on the thinking behind this post for a while, and I decided this week was the time to share it, especially given the major shifts and upheavals in the political climate. (Note: This is another post in my fracking series which I haven’t been writing on too frequently because these are hard posts to write, and, I’m sure, to read. Earlier posts on this series are here: lines upon the landscape and a druid’s perspective on fracking – why we should care.  I’d suggest reading those two posts first!)

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

A multitude of worldviews exist at any point in time, but several dominant ones have emerged at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.  Wendell Berry, in his Unsettling of America, talks about these as the difference between nurturing worldviews and exploitative ones.  Now–I want to distinguish here that these are worldviews and actions and not people. Many modern humans exist somewhere in the nebulous (or unaware) spaces between these two worldviews or only semi-consciously support an exploitative worldview.

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

Cultivating a nurturing worldview, especially in these times, is a very conscious choice; it manifests core values and work in the world (through goals, livlihood or interactions) as healing, regenerating, and maintaining. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, but applicable to anyone, the nurturer is concerned with the long-term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned with efficiency or profit as she is with working “as well as possible” with an emphasis on care, health, and quality. Those of us seeking an earth-based spiritual path and making lifestyle changes understand how hard this nurturing work is to do in the world, but we keep striving to do so!

 

Exploitation, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner (and I would add those activities nearly any other fossil fuel or resource extraction), abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Unfortunately, this is the model that capitalism has given us, and the model that is dominant in industrialized cultures throughout the world, certainly here in the US since the first European explorers landed. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits—the land is literally viewed, and used, like a machine.  Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land, rather, exploitation works throughout all levels of a system: workers in minimum-wage and factory jobs producing and selling goods, the procurement of raw materials, the disposal of waste streams, the treatment of animals.

 

Exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, society, and norms that it’s not even seen as exploitation any longer.  It is seen as normalcy. For example, in starting to look for land to purchase a new homestead, and I see listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, no mineral rights.” Here we see it as the previous owner making as much money as he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains—stripped and bare. This is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable on a cultural and community level.

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

One of the things that confuses is many (especially those living in more wealthy urban areas) is why a community would willingly allow fracking or other extraction activities, especially in communities that otherwise  embrace the land through hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes.  The complexities of this are where we now turn.

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

Here in Western PA, fracking supported in most communities wholeheartedly as are any other forms of resource extraction. We also have various other kinds of noxious plants and factories, including two coal-fired power plants within 15 miles of where I live (one of which is listed on the super polluter lists). When I first got to Indiana, PA, I asked local progressives about organizing around the plant. I was told that we couldn’t say anything about the plant, even the very mention of opposing it was met with fierce–and institutionalized–opposition.  I’ve also heard plans for an ethanol plant being built, without resistance, in a poor rural community about 30 miles away.  Some progressives quietly talk about their fears in organizing any kind of resistance, but that’s as far as things typically go in this area. It is nigh impossible to address an issue like poisoned waterways without community  support.

 

So why exactly do people support life in an extraction zone? It is a complex web of economic, historic, and physical roots;  I’m going to cover each of these points in turn, using Western PA as a case study but also talking about broader US and global patterns.

 

Economic Views

 

Where I live in Pennsylvania, exploitation fuels every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff and miners dying of black lung, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry that cares nothing for the quality of water systems or streams. These systems and practices are concerned with only one thing: extraction of resources to drive profit.

 

This is why I believe the most important reason that extraction is so embraced here is simple: the people in most rural areas here have no other means of sustaining themselves economically.  Neoliberal policies that essentially stopped USA from protecting its own industries (see JMG’s discussion here for a good introduction) have gutted most of the rural parts of the US and sent the once proud working class into spiraling poverty. This economic disempowerment gives them few choices other than embracing extraction and the jobs that it brings.

 

People in rural Western PA laugh at the national statistics that talk about hundreds of thousands jobs being created–they certainly haven’t seen new industries open up that are outside of the energy industry. In fact, most of rural America is in the same boat. Working class people–including many of my own family and grandparents–were proud to earn wages for a hard day’s work and proud to support their families and knew that they had a job in that industry for life.  They didn’t want handouts; they wanted to stand on their own two feet and do good work. With the industries all leaving this area in the 1980’s and 90’s to move primarily to Mexico (thanks to neoliberalism) combined with the decline of coal and steel, the once proud working class have been relegated to low-paying service jobs and folks struggle to make ends meet. When this happens on a regional level, when the town you grew up in sees factory and mill close one after another–it hits not only individual families hard, but whole communities hard. Depression sets in, drug use rises, and suicides go up. Where are folks to go? What are they to do?  How can they provide for their families? And so, when the oil and natural gas companies come in and offer good paying jobs for extraction of resources, they are welcomed with open arms.

 

Ultimately, it comes down to economics–people are willing to put up with a lot of environmental pollution in order to put food on the table for their families. They are willing to give up a lot, and tolerate a lot, in order to have work.  This, I believe, is the single most important driving factor fueling the lack of resistance to any kind of extraction activity.  This same factor, I believe, was part of the major shift in US politics this last week.

 

Historical Views

Historically, since the start of colonization, people here have been employed in industries that focused on resource extraction. Logging stripped this state nearly bare by the turn of the 20th century.  Coal mining has a long history here, of course, as well as other mines (like a salt mine in Saltsburg, PA). Steel mills were located in many towns near prosperous mines–and it is why those towns still stand today.  And so, we have an historical precedent of people extracting resources from the land, making good money doing so, and feeding their families.  I think, to many working class folks here, fracking is seen as just another manifestation of what we’ve always done.

 

Other areas may have different histories, but throughout the western world, extraction at the expense of others is a common occurrence.  When its “just what we’ve always done” it becomes more acceptable and allowable, especially in poor communities.

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

The final piece I’ll discuss today has to do with the “physical normalcy” of degraded ecosystems.  I’ve written on this blog before about the boney dumps and sulfur creeks that dot the landscape, of the forests routinely logged (even our own public lands).  This is not someone else’s back yard–this is our own. We had a sulfur creek running across the street from where I went to high school; I played on boney dumps and went past them every day on the bus.  When you grow up in this environment, this idea of these remnants of life in an extraction zone becomes part of the “normalcy” that one experiences.  I remember when I left Western PA for the first time and couldn’t understand why the rivers were clean and there were no boney dumps.  Now, by this time, I had graduated summa cum laude from a good state university–and still, this physical normalcy of a damaged landscape was so built into me that it took time for me to understand that not all landscapes looked like where I grew up. I can’t help but believe that part of the acceptance of fracking here and its environmental consequences, has to do with growing up with this stuff being part of the physical landscape.

 

The truth is, at least here in the USA, few of us know what a landscape that hasn’t had severe degradation due to human extraction activities.  All around the world, we see these ecosystems: farms that are monocropped, lawns, logged forests, concrete wastelands, polluted rivers and factories.  This is very much part of our physical realty, and growing up with this physical reality and seeing it every day makes it feel more “normal” and sane.

 

A second piece of the combination of physical reality and history here concerns rights to the land itself.  Many of the “mineral rights” to the land no longer are attached to the right of physical occupancy; mineral rights were historically sold off in huge chunks for pennies on the dollar, and now with the fracking boom, new mines and new wells are being created.  Because people don’t own the actual physical right to their lands, there is nothing that can be done.  This is part of why some of our Alleghney National Forest here in PA is being fracked–the conservationists did not secure all of the mineral rights when they bought the property. Around here, if you don’t own the mineral rights, you only own the surface of the land and anyone who does own the mineral rights has a right to disrupt the surface, as they see fit, to get at the minerals.  Its a complex part of our physical reality; I suspect that other places have similar complexities.

 

A Way Forward

I think that if we are going to work to end these exploitative cycles that seem to continue to loop back around again and again in our own history, its not enough to “raise awareness” or go “protest” some new fracking well or other extraction.

 

If we want to solve these issues, we have to address the roots of them, and those roots are economic, historical, and physical.  Historically, it is useful to understand the complexities that have shaped our physical landscapes and ownership of those landscapes.  Physically, it would be helpful for us to work to regenerate landscapes, even on a small scale, to demonstrate possibilities and offer alternatives to degraded ecosystems. Economically, if people had other viable options for making a decent living with an honest day’s work, I believe we could really put a stop to many of these destructive practices.  In permaculture terms, we have to not only engage in earth care, but people care as well. I think a lot of us are trying to figure out right now what that might look like–certainly, localizing economies, localizing food systems, and building stronger communities are part of that work.  Other parts include education of others about the land, spiritual practices and pathways.

 

To close, I’ve seen a lot of well intentioned people, both within the earth-centered communities and outside of them, say things like, “why would people ever allow this?” I hope I have begun to answer this question.  There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to help address these issue, not only in terms of awareness raising but also in terms of economics and regeneration.

 

Sacred Tree Profile of Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Magical, Medicinal, and Edible Qualities November 6, 2016

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

I remember when I first met black walnut. My Great Aunt and Uncle lived on a farm, and on that farm was a colonial-era farmhouse. Near their farmhouse sat a massive black walnut tree. I remember going there when I was a young child and picking up the black walnuts for the first time when they were still green, smelling their amazing scent, and sticking a few in my coat pockets. Of course, the weather grew cold and I forgot about those walnuts in the coat pocket, and when I went to use the jacket again in the spring, I was in for quite a surprise when the brown dye of the walnut husk breaking down permeated through my jacket. Ever since that day, I felt like the walnut had provided me with an important lesson, and I am honored to be friends with such a magnificent tree species.

 

This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, and Beech. Today, we will be looking at another powerful tree ally, the Walnut. I’m going to be focusing my comments on the Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) as that is the native walnut in my area. However, most of what I’ll write applies to walnut trees throughout the world.

 

 

About the Black Walnut

The Eastern Black Walnut (or what we just call “Walnut” or “Black Walnut”) is a tree native to the Eastern US with a large range spanning most of the Mississippi watershed. Here in Western PA, I’m actually at the very edge of its natural range (although I know people plant them north of where I am!) Black walnuts are an overstory tree, meaning they need light and grow tall, forming part of the canopy of the forest. They often are found in riparian zones which are the edge spaces between streams/rivers and the land (which typically flood in early spring and offer rich soil due to the flood plains). Black walnuts are pioneer species, similar to cherry, black birch, and black locust: these are some of the first trees to regrow damaged ecosystems.

 

The black walnut typically grows tall and straight, especially in the forest, out-competing other trees for the best lithg. It grows up to 130 feet tall; the tallest one we have on record in the USA is actually well outside of its native range, on the Colombia River downstream of Portland. Walnut leaves are feather-compound, with seven to seventeen narrow, toothed leaflets. They have a spicy smell when they are crushed or rubbed.

Walnut trees produce a very strong wood that is dark in color and is easily worked. It has a straight grain, it holds shape well, and is a solid with few pores. In fact, walnut wood is so valued that sometimes people poach walnut trees (which is, in my opinion, a terrible tragedy!) Because of this, there are less and less walnuts, so we all could do some good by planting more. In fact, in the history of Pennsylvania, black walnut trees growing in groups were often a sign to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) of good soil fertility, likely due to their connection and growth on flood plains of rich soil.

 

Walnut as an Expeller

One of the few things people often know about black walnut is that it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces a chemical called juglone that oxidizes in soil and prevents certain kinds of other plants from growing under or near it. It also can increase the soil alkalinity around the roots. Some plants, like black raspberry or serviceberry, have no difficulty growing under black walnut. Others, like tomatoes, pines, apples, or birches, cannot grow and will be poisoned by the juglone. This has been well known and documented for centuries, the whole way back to Pliny the Elder (the same Pliny that has preserved the famous druids harvesting mistletoe ritual and druid egg lore) who wrote, “The shadow of the walnut trees is poison to all plants within its compass.” Juglone is concentrated in nut hulls, roots, and buds; to a lesser extent, it also occurs in leaves and stems.

 

I want to note, and I’ll come back to, the importance of the doctrine of signatures here.  A traditional definition of this concept is  that the plant heals and works with what it looks like or how it acts.  In earlier posts on this series, I’ve proposed an equivalent doctorine of signatures for the magical properties of trees and plants–and so, we will return to this expelling quality towards the end of the post.

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Walnut as a Food Source

Walnut is considered a nut of the gods; in fact, the word juglans goes back to “jovis glans” or “nut of Juipter.” I think this speaks volumes about Black Walnut and its power and gifts.

Rather obviously, Black Walnut produces a really delicious edible nut—the black walnut nut is not easy to crack, but is well worth the effort! Like many other hardwood nut trees, most walnuts produce a really good harvest every few years, and need sunlight in order to do so. In years where there is a good crop, you can harvest them in abundance.  I typically will let the outer husks rot down and the little worms crawl out, and then once they have lost their husks, I remove the remainder and let them in their hulls till I’m ready to crack them.  Cracking them requires patience and some determination but is well worth the effort.  I typically crack them with a hammer or small mallet on a stone–one good swing and they will be ready to eat.  Put your cracked nuts in a bowl (shell and all) and then sit down with some friends to pick through them, removing the nutmeats (you might also need one of those small nut pick metal things).  Its nice to do this by a warm fire!

 

In addition to the people who enjoy the nuts, squirrels use them as a primary food source. When you are walking through the forest, you can always find out where the black walnut trees are by seeing how the squirrels have left their beautiful chewed black walnut hulls behind!  These are lovely for crafts and altars and take quite a while to break down and return to the land.

 

You can tap black walnuts similar to how you tap sugar maples (I haven’t tried this because I didn’t have large enough black walnuts). I think this would be just delightful, however, based on the deliciousness of the nut!

 

Finally, pressed walnuts make a lovely walnut oil (which you can find in specialty shops or online). Walnut oil is a wonderful oil for cooking (I like to use it for salads and dressings) with a very rich nutty flavor. Walnut oil also is very useful for sealing wood, like wooden spoons, especially when you’ll be eating from them.  I use walnut oil on my wooden bowls and spoons every few months to keep them in nice shape.  I haven’t tried to press my nuts, and my guess is that most of the walnuts that are pressed are English Walnuts, which are easier to crack and eat.  But you could certainly press the black walnuts if you were able to gather and crack enough of them!

 

 

Making Walnut Ink

One of the things I love to do with black walnuts is to make ink from them. I have a whole post dedicated to the subject of natural ink making, and I’ll direct your attention there for more details and will supplement those instructions here. In a nutshell (hah!), black walnut ink is best made once the hulls have gone brown (and usually wormy!). Put the whole nut – hulls, nuts and all, into an old pot and cover them with white vinegar. Boil them for an hour or so and let cool.  Yes, this will make your house smell very weird. Strain the ink to begin to get out the bits of hull.  I have found that it requires straining over and over again with finer and finer strainers to get all the husk pieces out–but it is well worth the effort. Once your ink is strained, return the ink to the pot and boil it down until you are happy with the consistency (usually about another hour).  You might strain it again at this point with a very fine strainer.  If you want to improve the viscosity of the ink (that is, improve how well it flows, especially through a dip pen) you can add a bit of Gum Arabic to it. I recommend using the commercially prepared Gum Arabic liquid you can get at art stores, not the resin that you need to powder up–the resin produces some lumps regardless of how fine you grind it! Let your ink cool, put it in a jar, label it, and you have a very lovely ink that will stay good for many years and can be used for many purposes!

 

Medicinal Actions of Walnuts

Black Walnut has had a large range of uses within traditional western herbalism: I’ll summarize some of the most common here.

According to M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, the bark and leaves of the walnut are alterative, laxative, and astringent, and are specifically used for skin issues like eczema, herpes, and other skin conditions.   Grieve also suggests that the juice of the green husks, boiled with honey, is really good for a sore throat/gargle. Matthew Wood, in the EarthWise Herbal, suggests a similar condition: the use of the leaves for external eczema, ring worm, itch, shingles, tumors, abscesses, boils, and acne.   The leaves, used internally, can also be used for tonsillitis, sore throat, hoarseness, internal ulcers and inflammation.  In large quantities, Grieve notes that the dried and powdered bark, as a strong infusion, is a purgative (makes you vomit!).

 

Matthew Wood suggests the hulls are useful for a wide range of things, but I have used them most frequently to deal with internal parasites, worms, and so on. A tincture of green nuts is particularly useful for dealing with internal parasites and worms (I have used this for worming animals, like chickens, as well in very small does). Other uses include low functioning thyroid and low functioning metabolism.

 

Mentally, Wood also has a suggestion that is directly in line with the expelling properties suggested by the doctrine of signatures.  He suggests it is useful when you are “too much under the influence of another person, thought, and scheme.”  I fully support this use and have used it this way myself.  Further, when I was at the American Herbalist Guild Annual Symposium, Matthew Wood also suggested that Black Walnut was particularly good for children or young adults who had experienced bad divorces; it allowed them to get beyond the experience. Wood suggests for any use of black walnut, small doses are appropriate (1-3 drops, 1-3x a day).

 

Here’s an old time recipe from Grive’s Modern Herbal:

 

To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’ – (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

 

Walnut in the Western Magical Traditions

Black walnut is considered a “masculine” tree associated with the element of fire and the sun. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, writes, “This is a plant of the sun. Let the fruit of it be gathered accordingly, which as the most virtual whilst green, before it shells.”

 

The forest canopy of walnuts!

The forest canopy of walnuts!

In the American Hoodoo tradition, walnut leaves and nuts are used to put jinxes on people. Walnuts are also used to “fall out of love”; Yronwode in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic describes a ritual where you make a tea of nine black walnuts (husk and all) boiled in three quarts of water; boiling it till the water evaporates down to 1 quart. You bathe in this water, renouncing ties to the former love, and then throw the water out at a crossroads or against the tree. This kind of bath is not one for the bathtub, but usually done in a smaller tub.  Again, we see this expelling or removing quality associated with the walnut present.

 

Cunningham, who I’m not always apt to trust, writes of walnut being tied to mental powers, infertility, health and wishes. He suggests that witches danced beneath walnut trees in Italy during secret rites (although why, he does not say). He suggests that carrying a walnut can strengthen the heart and ward of rheumatism. If you are given a bag of walnuts, you will have your wishes fulfilled. People can place walnut leaves around the head (or in a hat) to prevent headache or sunstroke. Cunningham also suggests that a woman who wanted to remain childless after marriage could place walnuts in her bodice on her wedding day—each walnut represented one year of being childless.

 

Unfortunately, that about sums up what most sources say about the magical uses of walnut, however, we can gain much more insight from exploring some of the lore around this tree, to which we will now turn.

 

Black Walnut in Lore around the World

Walnut Cracker (Native American): Walnut was an important food source for Native Americans; it was also used for talking sticks and flutes. In one story, a man is known as “walnut cracker” who was always cracking walnuts (which makes sense, giving how difficult they are to crack!). Even after Walnut Cracker died, his spirit continued to crack walnuts and would scare people so much that their sickness or illness would disappear. This shows up in several stories in the South East Native American tribes. Again, here is that same expelling quality–this time, the spirit of Walnut Cracker removes sickeness or illness through his very presence.

 

As a talking stick, walnut (along with pecan) represent the gathering of energy or beginning of new projects.

 

Other than that, I couldn’t find much in the Native American lore. Many of the other stories involving walnut primarily focus on it as a food item, including The Ignorant Housekeeper (Cherokee) who doesn’t know how to properly prepare walnuts.

 

 

Walnut Lore: Beating and Ingratitude (Greek, Roman, European):  Let’s now turn to the other side of the world, where we can see stories from the European subcontinent. In fact, walnut features prominently in many tales. There is a long history of discussion of the “beating” of walnut trees to gain their huts—where folks went at walnut trees with sticks showing ingratitude for the nuts that are produced and harming the tree. These fables and references span quite some time. Two Greek Fables, for example, illustrate the plight of the walnut tree; later, Antipater of Tessalonica offered this epigram:

“They planted me, a walnut-tree, by the road-side
to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones
All my twigs and flourishing shots are broken,
Hit as I am by showers of pebbles.
It is of no advantage for trees to be fruitful; I, indeed
Bore fruit only for my own undoing”

This same principle weaves its way into other early Roman poems as well as Aesop’s fable of the Walnut Tree, where it is treated with no respect. Into the 1500’s, a horrible proverb about how women, dogs, and walnuts all benefited from beating was widely circulated. This proverb continued to propagate the idea of walnut tree benefiting from beatings with sticks and rods to produce more nuts.

 

I’m not honestly sure what to make with this.  Some trees benefit from regular pruning, but this is the first instance I’ve seen any reference to just beating the tree with sticks.  Part of me wants to question, again, the difficult relationship we have between humans and nature.  I’ve translated this as “gratitude” below (but I’m open to other interpretations and suggestions!)

 

The Wise Walnut: Hermit Philosopher. In Georgian Folk Tales by Marjory Waldrop (1894), a wise man who lived in solitude came to a old walnut tree in his garden. He questioned why the walnut tree was so tall, growing for over 100 years, yet never producing bigger fruit, while the melons and pumpkins on the ground were so massive. He thought about it, eventually falling asleep under the walnut tree. A few nuts rain down from the tree, and he marvels in how his head would have been “broken” if not for the small size of the walnut.  In this tale, we see the walnut offering wisdom.

 

Small Beings and Things Hidden in Walnut Shell. In the traditional story of Thumbelina, a woman who wants a tiny daughter visits a witch and gets some magic barley-corn. From this corn sprouts a flower, and within the flower is Thumbelina. The woman gives Thumblina a beautiful polished walnut shell (my guess is an English walnut) for a cradle. Thumblina is later whisked away, shell and all, by an ugly toad. Thumbelina’s tale is quite similar to Tom Thumb, who also lives in a walnut shell due to his tiny size. In another tale, called Puddocky, the princes of the kingdom are given a magical mission of finding a small dog that can fit comfortably in a walnut shell, among other tasks, to become the king’s heir. In yet another story, a walnut contains a wasp whose sting is made of a diamond; and the walnut can contain the wasp within.

 

In another tale, this one from Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasnet (1904), we hear the tale of “Boots and his Brothers.” A king in the land has offered his daughter and half his kingdom if the ancient oak (that grows each time it gets taken to the axe) can be felled and a well dug to hold water. As John (Boots) walks in the forest, he finds a magic axe, a magic pick, and a walnut that spills forth water. He takes these things up, plugging the hole in the walnut shell with a bit of moss. He is able to fell the tree, dig the well, and fill it with water from the walnut—thus securing half the kingdom and the princess. In each of these tales, something important or precious is kept safe within the hard shell of the walnut, suggesting some protective qualities.

 

Overall Magical Themes

Drawing upon all of the above lore and material, I would like to propose the following magical themes and uses for the Walnut tree.  These can certainly be added to, over time, but I hope this is a good start for those of us who want to work with walnut.

 

Walnut as a “container” for many things and as a protector. The stories of Thumbelina, Boots and his Brothers, and Tom Thumb all speak to the magical nature of the walnut to contain or hold those small things which may otherwise get lost. Now, these stories talk about English walnuts, but there is a long tradition of hiding things or keeping them safe within a walnut. This speaks to some protective quality that walnuts have.  One of the ways we might see this is using a visualization of walnut surrounding us to protect us.  I can also see us using a whole walnut as a protective object to carry.

 

Walnut as an expeller. Just as walnut has its protective “within” quality, it also has a very strong “expelling” quality without. Walnut, through its very nature of producing juglone, expels things away. Walnut’s same medicinal qualities expel parasites from the body.  We see this same expelling quality in the lore and magical lore of walnut. Given all of these parallels, it is reasonable to connect these to the spirit world: I would certainly want walnut as an ally on my side when there were things I wanted to be rid of, especially spirit activity.  I’m sure there are many ways you can use walnut for this–what comes to mind most immediately is planting walnuts around a property, or taking a bit of walnut tincture to work to remove something unwanted (like sadness, depression, etc).

 

Walnut and gratitude. The long history of people “beating” walnuts to make them grow better and the problem of over-harvesting the walnut teaches us an important lesson in gratitude.  We humans are so quick to take without consideration: the walnut reminds us of the important lesson of honoring the earth, harvesting that which is offered, but doing so in kindness, respect, and care for the living earth.  I think these

 

Spiraling at Samhain: Building a Classic Seven Circuit Labyrinth October 30, 2016

The final light labryinth being walked

The final light labryinth being walked

In many sacred spaces throughout the world, we see the labyrinth.  It is reflected in the spiral, the pattern in nature that repeats often, and asks us to engage.  It offers us the ability to slow down, to wind around, to wind things up–or unwind them as we walk through and out.  I have done many a ritual in a labyrinth at Samhuinn: one of my favorites is a simple walk.  This is a lovely ritual for this time of year, as the wheel turns and the days grow darker.  A labyrinth of lights, in particular, is a nice way to connect with the energy of this season. In this post, I’ll share how to setup a labyrinth for Samhuinn and how to use the labyrinth as a ritual activity for this time of the year.

 

True to the energy of this season, this past weekend, I was asked to lead the constructions of a labyrinth at our local UU Church for a harvest festival.  I think every druid should have the opportunity to set stones, put in a stone circle, and setup a labyrinth from time to time, so I jumped at the opportunity.  I wanted to share our process for doing so, as it can help you build your own labyrinth: I found that there is not a lot of good information on how to simply and effectively construct a labyrinth, so I hope these instructions are of some use! Our labyrinth took only one hour to setup with four people working–if you were doing it on your own, it would likely take several hours.

 

Walking and Wondering, Meandering and Pondering

Before getting into the labyrinth instructions and how to use it in ritual, I want to share a few thoughts about meandering, walking, wondering and pondering.  There is a lot of value in setting aside time simple to wander, to ponder, to think, to reflect, and to meander.  We don’t do enough of this; our fast-paced culture asks us to pack in so much and always be stimulated with something beyond ourselves.  One of the values of the labyrinth, I believe, is that it physically creates a space for doing just this.  On its most basic level, we walk a physical sacred pattern, and it opens up time simply to move, to clear our minds, or to ruminate about something.  To allow what is within to rise to the surface for consideration.   At the end of this post, I’ll talk about some more intentional rituals you can do using labyrinths at Samhuinn, however, using a labyrinth just to slow down and reflect is a powerful activity in and of itself.

 

Materials and Planning

Materials Needed for a Labyrinth of Lights:

  • 350 tealights; you could use other things as well, but tea lights are movable and easy to use.  We used the little battery operated ones due to the weather issues–they can be reused over and over again.
  • Optional: mason jars, paper bags, or something to set the tea lights into.  Mason jars with a bit of sand work really well–even if you use them only for the gateways and along the outer edge.
  • A 50′ length of hose (rope will also work, but hose is a little better in windy conditions)
  • Several yardsticks
  • At least one tape measure
  • Small flags (like the kind that mark gas lines) to setup your initial grid
  • Plans/Designs (you can print them out from below).

 

Size of the Labyrinth: This process can be done with 2′ or 2.5′ paths; the one we made had 2′ paths and measured around 36′ feet across.  2′ paths is a cozy walk that is do-able for most people.  2.5′ foot paths gives more space, however, it requires many more lights (probably you would need 450 for this design).  2.5′ paths are a little harder to manage in terms of measuring, but still do-able.   The assumption is that you can space a light ever 1′ or so,

 

Review the plans before beginning. If you are setting up the labyrinth with anyone else, it is helpful to review the plans or send them out in advance.  I would also suggest, if this is your first time setting up a labyrinth, you get some grid paper and draw it out a few times using these instructions.  It can really help you envision it and enact it on a larger scale.

 

The Process

The following is a graphic that shows the full process.  I used different colored markers to show each step.  I will refer back to the graphic in the instructions and will also include photographs (you can click on it for a full size image).

Visual instructions for labyrinth

1. Select a location.  You should choose a location that is flat and has at least 40′ of space on all sides.  You can check your circumference by having one person stand in the center and measure out 20 feet with your tape measure.  The person on the outer edge should walk in a circle, making sure you have the 20 feet clear on all sides.  Do this first to make sure you have enough space for your labyrinth.  If you don’t have the space, move till you can get the clear space for the labyrinth.

 

2.  Mark your center point.  You will want to mark your center point in some way–we used three flags for our center point.  In the graphic above, the center point is the center of the red cross in the first image at the top right.

 

3.  Create an 8′ x 8′ grid, with flags at each 2′ interval.  The way we made our grid was to start at the center point and measure out the eight feet, placing our center point at the 4′ mark and then placing flags at 0′, 2′, 4′ (center), 6′, and 8′.  This gave us one line of flags.  We then measured out again, laying measuring sticks along the flags, marking out the 2′ mark, and then using the tape measure to measure out 8′ again.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a grid.

mapping out the 8x8' grid; we placed a flag every two feet

mapping out the 8×8′ grid; we placed a flag every two feet

 

Checking our measurements on the grid

Checking our measurements on the grid

 

4.  Set the first set of lights. The first set of lights forms a cross in the middle, four corners, and the four points. This will allow us to map out the rest of the labyrinth. See the cross and corners in red in the first image.

Setting out lights in our grid

Setting out lights in our grid

5.  Create the first arc. This first tiny arc sets up the rest of the labyrinth. The tiny arc is shown in orange in my first image.

 

6.  Create the second and subsequent arcs. The second arc (and subsequent arcs) all flow from the first.  Here is a graphic that shows all of the arcs in order. You basically make one arc after another, and use the previous arc to make sure your paths stay at 2 feet.

Seven Circuit Labyrinth

Seven Circuit Labyrinth

To make our arcs, we used a garden hose and then checked our measurements after setting the hose.  This is where having multiple people can really help!

Using the hose to map out the arcs

Using the hose to map out the arcs

Making sure the hose is at 2' to keep paths even

Making sure the hose is at 2′ to keep paths even

7.  Check your plans often. As you are working, check your plans, keeping track of what arc you are on.  After each arc, make sure you set your lights about 1′ apart (or less if you are using more lights).

Dana checks the plans!

Dana checks the plans!

8.  Mark your entrances and edges clearly. We decided to leave the hose in place for our last circuit; that way, kids running and such wouldn’t knock it over. We also clearly marked our pathway into the labyrinth so that folks coming into it could see clearly where to start.

Complete (but before jars were set out)

Complete (but before jars were set out)

9.  Encourage people to walk the labyrinth! Of course, a labyrinth is meant to be walked.  It took us about 10 minutes with 3-4 people to turn on the lights and turn them off at the end of the night.

Walking the labyrinth - the entrance is clearly marked

Walking the labyrinth – the entrance is clearly marked

 

Samhuinn Celebration with the Labyrinth

There are many ways to walk a labyrinth and ways to use it for your own spiritual practices.  I’ll share a few ritual ideas here–and please feel free to share more of your own insights in the comments!

 

One of the key features of the labyrinth is that you have an opportunity to “let go” and also to “raise up” as you go inward and outward.  The labyrinth that I posted above starts with a clockwise motion, but you shift between clockwise and counter-clockwise as you go through.  Different designs may offer other perspectives–winding or unwinding spirals, for example.  Given this “balanced” perspective, however, you can use the labyrinth to “unwind” certain things, to “wind up” certain things, or to do a bit of both.  Samhuinn is viewed by many as the new year, so I like to use an “out with the old, in with the new” approach to the ritual.

 

Walking the Labyrinth: Walking the labyrinth should not be a rushed activity.  It is a form of walking meditation, where we work to have an altered or elevated state of consciousness as we go deeper within the labyrinth.  I start with three deep breaths (or more) outside of the labyrinth to mentally prepare me for the work ahead.  If I have intentions (I don’t always), I state them also aloud before entering the labyrinth itself.  Then you can choose one of the following rituals/walks:

 

After the labyrinth has been walked, even after the lights are turned off, you can see the pattern in the grass...

After the labyrinth has been walked, even after the lights are turned off, you can see the pattern in the grass…

Setting a sacred space: I have done rituals that setup the sacred space around the outside of the labyrinth before proceeding inwards (I shared some photos about the snow labyrinth my grove created a few years ago at Imbolc, for example).  In this ritual, we did a standard AODA grove opening, visiting each of the four quarters, and calling in the elements.  One at a time, we went into the center of the snow labyrinth and laid down there for a time, in silence.  After a while, we slowly walked back out, having let go of many things, and working now to integrate and heal.  We closed the grove and enjoyed a feast and fire afterwards!

 

Out with the old, in with the new walk.  The most simple way to walk the labyrinth as a magical activity is thus: On the walk in, you let go of whatever you need to let go of.  Each step or each circuit can have you letting go of various things: this can be a type of discursive meditation, the physical journey of your feet takes you deeper within, allowing you to let go as you walk your way deeper inward.  The physical act of letting go might involve breathing it out, grounding it (barefoot), or simply saying “I release you.”  This is a very, very powerful activity within the space of the labyrinth. Its also a very powerful activity when done with others. When you reach the center, you spend time in meditation.  When you walk out, you re-energize and find your strength and grounding.

 

The Ancestor Walk.  Another good way to use a labyrinth at Samhuinn in particular is to do an ancestor walk.  Open up the sacred space, light up the labyrinth, and ask the ancestors to join you for the walk.  When I have done this, sometimes, I have walked and communed with a single ancestor; other times, each circuit has a new ancestor who wishes to connect with me.  I combine this with an ancestor altar at the center of the labyrinth and/or an ancestor tea.

 

The Ancestor Tea: A variant of the ancestor walk is the ancestor tea.  Prior to the ritual, boil up some water and place it in a tea pot with herbs; place it, along with something to sit on and some candles, at the center of the labyrinth.  Then, open your sacred space.  Then, walk the labyrinth, making sure to let everything go and come into the ritual space as part of the walk.  When you get to the center, you pour two cups of tea–one for yourself and one for the ancestor(s) you wish to commune with.  The tea goes on as long as necessary, until all of those who you have wanted to honor are present and have had tea.  Then, you walk back out and close the space.  The tea that I typically use for this is a mugwort tea (which is very bitter on its own); usually I combine this with hawthorn, sage, or lavender.

 

These are just three of many ways that you can use a labyrinth for a Samhuinn celebration this season.  You can make these indoors or out (although I really love being outside this time of year, as the leaves settle to the ground and the cold winds blow!)  I hope everyone has a blessed Samhuinn and blessings upon the coming season!

The labyrinth builders!

The labyrinth builders!

 

Observe, Interact, and Intuit: The Personal Niche Analysis October 23, 2016

In my last two posts in this series, we explored permaculture design principles from the perspective of our outer and inner landscapes. We now move into a series of posts exploring different aspects of these specific principles.  Today, we start with the inner work of the principle observe, interact, and intuit (I will also note my post from last year on “Mushroom eyes” which is part of the outer work of this principle and explores nature observation).   Today’s post explores the personal niche analysis.  The Niche Analysis also connects with many other principles, such as layered purposes and can be useful both for designing spaces as well as inner work.

 

The Niche Analysis

A niche analysis is a tool that we use as permaculture designers to understand the many aspects and connections of a single element has within a larger system. We are using “niche” in the ecological sense here, which is defined “a position or role taken by a kind of organism within its community.”  (I’ll also note that the word “niche” comes into English by way of French, originating in Latin (nidus or “nest”; this etymology also teaches us a deeper meaning of the word).  In permaculture design, we see each element having its own “niche” in an ecosystem, a number of things that element does well.  We design intentionally, placing elements in the system that fill the multiple roles.

 

A typical niche analyses can include yields, needs, and behaviors.  I also add predators and allies to my niche analysis (see below for more details on each of these things).

 

Let’s take a look at my rooster, Anasazi, who lived at my homestead in Michigan.  I considered Anasazi one of the critical components of my land there.  Here’s Anasazi’s niche analysis:

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

What this does is help me understand how Anasazi functions in the system–what he offers, what he needs to be protected from, and who his allies are. I see his behaviors, and I’m able to use them for the greatest good and see his role. This is a really useful way to think about any element. (As an aside, if you want to know about specific trees and plants and how they function in the broader system, and you live anywhere in the Midwest or East Coast of the USA  you can check out John Eastman’s books, Book of Forest and Thicket; Book of Field and Stream; Book of Swamp and Bog.  They are delightful books and really describe these “niche” relationships quite well!)

 

The Personal Niche Analysis

We often learn to do a personal niche analysis as part of a permaculture design course, and I think its a useful activity for everyone to consider as a part of our own growth and inner work. In this context, I present it as part of the “knowing ourselves” piece of observe, interact, and intuit: the work of understanding our own role (that we determine), what we need, and what we offer.

 

The standard niche analysis asks you to start with your name in the center of the map, and then map three things: Yields, Needs, and Behaviors.  One I learned this summer offers two more choices: Predators and Allies.  I’ll cover each of these below and then show you a sample map that I created as part of my recent Permaculture Teacher Training course.

Yields: That which you produce. Remember that, just like in an ecosystem or garden, each element often has many different kinds of yields.  Yields for a human being can certainly be physical things like producing food or earning an income, but they can also be much less tangible, like offering love and support or bringing joy.

 

Articulating our yields is a critical part of self care and self empowerment. I think that many of us, especially those who are nurturers and healers, do not own our gifts and don’t have self-acknowledgement of the good work we do in the world.  Further, because our culture generally does not hold gratitude as a value, we often spend our time doing important work that is often under or unacknowledged or thanked. Describing our yields, then, allows us to be empowered–to realize what it is that we can and do produce in the world that is of benefit to life: whether that is a dedication to picking up trash in the forest, to being friendly to people at your job, or to simply being a person others can talk to in times of need.  These yields don’t have to be something that is “measurable” by society’s standards, but rather, something that you feel you bring.

 

Needs: This is what you need in order to be stable, functioning, and happy.  Again, these can be physical things but also emotional or spiritual things. Again, articulating our actual needs is something that we often don’t do, and there are at least two challenges and reasons for this work.  The first is cultural: commercials and advertising work very hard to make us believes we have needs that we don’t–needs of products and services–rather than needs that help support and fulfill us.  Many of us, as part of our own spiritual paths, are shedding the layers of consumerism, and re-articulating what are actual needs in our own lives, rather than manufactured needs, is an important part of this process. The second is the intersection of personal and cultural reasons: many of us have a hard time voicing our needs in our immediate relationships (work, family, friend, intimate) or even to ourselves. Part of spiritual growth is recognizing that we have needs, and those needs are valuable.  This involves acknowledgment of the need of others in our lives but also the acknowledgment of our own ability to provide for our needs.

 

Behaviors: Behaviors are those things that you engage in in order to produce your yields.  You should write these as verbsWhat I like about adding behaviors to a personal niche analysis is that it allows us to think about our actions out in the world and what are meaningful to us.  Ultimately, behaviors lead to yields, and if we aren’t engaging in the behaviors we want to be engaging in (or we have behaviors that are detrimental to our goals) we end up not being able to produce the yields.

 

Allies (Optional): You can add two additional categories to your niche analysis (which I think really helps create a fuller niche analysis).  Allies are those things that help you produce yields and facilitate the behaviors that you want to engage in. These, again can be anything from free time to supportive partners, to, in my case, rivers and chickens. Think about your support system external to you: these are your allies.  Those that help you move forward with whatever it is you want to accomplish. We often draw strength by surrounding us with allies, and they are critical to acknowledge and to honor.

 

Predators (Optional): Finally, we come to predators.  In this niche analysis, they are defined as they things that harm or otherwise take away your ability to produce the yields you want to produce in the world.  Predators again can be anything at all: from problematic thinking to certain people to things happening in the world that drain you.  These are “predators” in the pejorative sense, not in the nature-oriented sense (which I discussed in a blog post earlier this year).  Identifying predators in our lives helps us better avoid them or find ways of managing them.

Creating your Personal Niche Analysis

You can create your personal niche analysis any way you like. I will give you some suggestions here that I have found are useful and helpful in creating it.

 

Get a large sheet of paper and markers. I find it is useful to do it on a large sheet of paper with colored markers, each color can represent a different element of the Personal Niche Analysis.  A large sheet of paper gives you more space to be thorough and really explore those different aspects of yourself. You can embrace the inner bard within to get visually creative with markers, paints, etc.   I’ve seen other nice niche analyses that people have done digitally, but that’s not quite my thing!

 

Open up a sacred space. The personal niche analysis is a wonderful spiritual activity: open up a sacred space/grove, say a small prayer, clear your mind with some meditation or color breathing, and then allow the niche analysis to flow from you.

 

Create Time for reflection.  As our first permaculture principle suggests, the personal niche analysis requires time for us just to interact, observe, and intuit our own gifts. Spend time really considering the different things that you bring.

 

Repeat this practice. We are always growing and evolving as people and the niche analysis can help us see that.  You can do a new personal niche analysis every year or few years to see how things have changed (revising the predators and allies, for example, is a really useful activity).

 

Use it to spur change and growth in your life!  Use the Personal Niche analysis as a reflective tool that will help you understand where you are now.  You can use goal setting, journaling, and other kinds of meditative work to help you move closer to your personal, spiritual, physical, social, family, or other goals.

 

Here is my sample personal niche analysis from my permaculture teacher training course this summer:

Dana's Personal Niche Analysis

Dana’s Personal Niche Analysis

In terms of how I used this niche analysis; after doing it, I spent some time meditating on it and thinking about it.  Are there needs I’m not currently having fulfilled?  Are there behaviors that are negative (that I chose not to represent?)  How often am I producing the yields I want to be producing?  This niche analysis can help us engage in deep reflection on ourselves and create a richer understanding of who and what we are!

 

I’d love to hear how this works for you as a spiritual exercise–please share if you end up using this as part of your spiritual work. This doesn’t have to take long, and it is a really useful first step for the inner work of permaculture. In the next post on this series, we’ll explore the same principle from the outer world.