The Druid's Garden

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

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part IV: Slow Movements and Slow Spirituality March 12, 2017

When I lived in Michigan, each Christmas, a local church just down the road from me put on a drive-by nativity scene. Cars full of people would line up for over half a mile and drive around this circular loop surrounding the church, where church members dressed up and enacted various kinds of nativity scenes.  I’m sure from the perspective of the church (who, clearly, invested a lot of time and resources, taking weeks to build the sets in the bitter cold in the time leading up to the event), it was a way to reach people who might otherwise not come through the church doors.  This same church also offered “speedy sermons” and other “quick” ways of getting busy people in the door. The idea behind these different initiatives was reaching out to people who were otherwise too busy to come to church–a reasonable and rather creative thing to do, given the time crunch everyone seems to be in these days. But for all that was gained (new members, new donations, etc) what was lost in the process of converting religion into a drive-through experience? Of course, just like the burger at McDonald’s vs. the burger you grill at home with time and care, there are likely some big differences not only in taste but also in presentation, nutrition, and energy.

 

In my last three posts in “Slowing Down the Druid Way”, we explored the history of time and our relationship to our working hours, and how we might begin to honor our time more fully.  This directly leads me to the topic of my final post on time and work: looking at the slow movements as a way of slowing down, making slowing down a conscious choice, and embracing leisure time.

 

The “Slow” Movements

The term “slow” has been increasingly used to describe many of the movements connected to sustainable living: you might have heard of slow food (as opposed to fast food or industrialized food) or slow money (in terms of investing, saving, and spending and in opposition to current derivatives/investment market).  We now also have slow schools, slow books, and even (in my own field) discussion of slow writing! The slow movement has, in fact, been around since the 1980’s; it was started by Carlo Petrini, who protested the opening of the “fast” food joint, McDonalds, in Rome, Italy. Since then, the movement has spread and deepened, connecting now to all aspects of life: travel, food, parenting, education, working, gardening, and more. Of course, you won’t see any discussion of this movement in mainstream culture–mainstream culture, here in the US, is focused on the idea that more and faster is better, and that kind of thinking takes some time to overcome.

 

A good slowing down spot!

A good slowing down spot!

The slow movements suggest that we are all the victims of “time poverty” and the slow movements are deliberate attempts by people to live at a reasonable pace (rather than a frantic one).  But these movements are more than just about slowing down–they recognize inherently that the faster we move, the fewer connections we make: with ourselves, with each other, with our creative gifts, and with the world as a whole.  So let’s now explore some of these slow movements and what they provide.

 

Nature Spirituality and Slow Spirituality

I’m going to start by introducing my own kind of “slow” movement: slow spirituality.  Cultivating a deeper relationship with time is certainly a principle that seems inherent in the druid traditions and in related nature-spiritual traditions. Anyone following the wheel of the year is certainly concerned a tremendous amount with time: the eight holidays on the wheel of the year are all about timing and the sun and it’s slow movement across the sky.  The phases of the moon reflect this on a monthly cycle. We focus on the interplay of light and dark, the slow changing of the seasons, the minute changes from day to day of weather patterns.  All of this takes observation and interaction with nature and a lot of time dedicated to understanding this larger cycle of the seasons.  Sure, there are ways of going about these practices that are “fast”, but moving fast means you miss most of the important pieces. In the AODA, for example, we ask that all members spend weekly time in nature, daily time in meditation, and time just observing and interacting with the world. This time is critical–and it is through these activities that deepest understandings are often cultivated.

 

In fact, I think part of the reason that so many people are drawn to meditation, ritual and other druid practices is that it offers a way to slow down and change pace. The more time you spend with these practices, the deeper they will go and the richer the rewards will be.  There is much room for exploration in linking the slow movements to the druid tradition and key practices within it.

 

Slow Travel

Another aspect of these slow movements is “slow travel.”  Slow travel refers to the idea, again, that efficiency is not always the best way to travel to new places and that we miss a lot if we don’t take opportunities to slow down. We are conditioned to work to get to a place as fast as possible: it’s how our GPS technology works and when we sit down to plan a trip, it is often getting from point A to B quickly.  But what about everything between point A and B?  Is that worth seeing?  What might be discovered there?

 

And so, here are a few simple ideas for slowing down: rather than taking the 70MPH highways for a whole trip, consider some 55MPH back country roads and see what there is to see.  This allows you some exploration time as well as gives you much better fuel efficiency!  Or, rather than default to taking flights everywhere, consider taking the train or a bus to get where you are going.  Train travel, in particular, is my favorite: you have ample room, you get to see a lot of the countryside, and you don’t have to deal with extremely intense security situations and screening and blaring televisions.  It also is a more earth-friendly way to travel. When you plan your trip, plan in a few “extra” stops that you aren’t planning. Give yourself some wiggle room so that you can explore and see what is out there.

 

The same applies to hiking and travel by foot–if you’ve ever been on any of the big trails, I’m sure you’ve seen the hikers with their poles, hiking like mad to get where they are going.  Most of them are so intent on their goal that they forget the journey itself!  I have the opposite approach; much to the frustration of some speedy folks with me, I like to take the time to wander, get lost, explore the woods, and more.

Things you see when you slow down!

Things you see when you slow down!

Even here in town, I budget a little extra time for my walk anywhere I am going so I can literally stop and smell the roses, visit the bramble bush each day to observe how it is changing and growing through the seasons, watch the flight of birds overhead, and so on.  Even that extra 5 minutes that I take on my walk to work or to the bank really gives me peace of mind.

 

I think in our travel, there are times we do really need to get somewhere, and there are times when we do not.  Finding a balance is one of the keys to this part of “slowing down.”

 

Slow Food

It is no surprise that the slow movement started as a resistance to fast food.  Fast food and industrialized food processes embrace the current ideas of efficiency and profit at the expense of all else, perhaps in some of the most egregious ways possible. But, as Wendell Berry points out in the Unsettling of America, industrialized farm systems’ emphasis on efficiency ends up exploiting the land for profit. Industrialized food treats nature, animals, plants, and humans all as machines, trying to get the most out of it in the fastest amount of time possible. In other words, if efficiency is the only metric by which we measure our food production and cheapness is the only metric that we use to measure its consumption, we lose much.

 

The slow food movement was born from a rejection of these industrialized food values: we should know where our food comes from, have relationships with our farmers or our own land, and grow food that is healthful and that is grown in a way that is healthful to the land. Wendell Berry writes that small family farmers aren’t concerned with efficiency as much as they are concerned with the long-term health of the land, the idea of doing things well, and building in nurturing practices. When we purchase their food at farmer’s markets, directly from them, or even in grocery stores (which are increasingly carrying more of these kinds of options), you are not only purchasing something better for you but also better for the land.

 

In addition to the rejection of fast food and other convenience foods, slow food focuses on cooking one’s own food from whole ingredients, growing food, knowing one’s farmers, and supporting businesses who are engaged in nurturing and healthful practices.  Those in this movement often have potlucks to break bread and share.

 

One of the things I like to do is a “slow food” metric and ask myself: how long would this take to produce at home? Can it be produced at home? That helps me stay away from too much processed stuff. Since I cook a lot from scratch, I’ve been learning how to make foods I like to eat from their base ingredients–this teaches me a lot about how processes something might be.  For example, I like to eat tortilla chips and hummus. Making my own tortilla chips was an incredibly gratifying, but intense, experience (I will be working on this again, hopefully, this year with better equipment!)  Even if I don’t want to make my own tortilla chips all the time, making them once has me much better appreciating what went into it.

 

Another aspect I see connected to slow food (although others might disagree) is fermentation of various kinds.  Most often, I make homemade sodas (using a ginger bug), dandelion wine, or saurkraut.  These foods simply take time and it is really exciting to see how they transform as they go through the stages of fermentation.  Slow food at its best!

 

A final aspect of slow food, in my opinion, is the act of eating itself. I have a number of friends who are mindfulness practitioners, and they have taught me much about enjoying a good meal. I think we are so accustomed to rushing through everything that meals aren’t an exception. Learning how to slow down, pay attention to the meal, chew your food well, and enjoy the company is a part of this slow food process–and a powerful one!

 

Slow Money

Slow money is a recent offshoot of the other slow movements–it is focused on slowing down the current derivative/investment banking and creating alternative systems of cash flow that are based on ecological and nature-honoring principles.  An organization tied to Slow Money is working to line up a variety of people to invest in ways that “bring funds back to earth.”  This movement is focused on investing locally, avoiding “too big to fail” banks and businesses, and investing in the health and fertility of our land (so you can see clear ties to the slow food movement above).  Groups connected to slow money are popping up all over the world! In fact, a whole range of alternative structures, particularly for financing, exist: land contracts arranged between buyers and sellers (so we don’t have to deal with big banks), micro-investments and loans, and so much more.  I’ve been happy to pursue some of these options in my own life and they have worked out really well!

 

Slow Living

A lot of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog over the years can be classified as slow living.  For example, living by candlelight naturally allows you to slow down and changes your life rhythms in subtle–yet powerful–ways. Using a compost toilet helps bring your own waste back into the cycle of life, as does various forms of composting. These are simple techniques, yet allow us to slow down and cycle nutrients.  Hiking and foraging, especially when you aren’t in a hurry and are willing to get lost in the woods, is a wonderful way just to slow down and take it easy.  There are so many options here–and each of us may find our way into slower living differently.  When we combine these physical things with the spiritual practices of meditation, regular ritual, honoring the seasons, and so forth–we can really bring our life more into a healthy balance.  One small step at a time helps you slow down and bring you more fully into the present moment.

 

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

A Slower Mindset

As I work to shift into “slower” ways of living and doing, the most important thing I’ve found to remember is that I need to shift my expectations. I can’t get a giant “to do” list done on my only day off from work. If I did that, I’d not have enough time to just sit in nature or spend time in my sacred garden. And so, a re-focusing of my own expectations helps me slow down and realize that there are things I just don’t have to do at this moment (and learn to put less of them on my plate to begin with). Once we begin to mentally adjust our schedules, plan not 100% of our waking hours but less of them, then we have an opportunity to slow down and enjoy what nature brings. Now, I schedule “open” weekends where I have nothing on my agenda, nowhere to go, and see what happens (usually, I end up in the woods and in the art studio–and these are amazing days!)

 
A second part of a slower mindset is recognizing the difference between doing something efficiently and doing something well.  Do we need to get all those things done, or can we just get one thing done well?  This is a question I am always asking myself: how can I do this one thing well?

 
A third part of a slower mindset has to do with cultivating patience. Impatience is widespread these days (try driving the speed limit around town, lol!)  One of the big shifts I’ve worked to make in the last few years is calm down and silence my inner “impatient” dialogue when I found myself waiting for people, waiting for things, etc.  It was a big issue for me, but I’m happy to say some progress has been made!

 

The Return of Creativity

I have a number of friends that practice “unschooling” with their children.  The stories they have shared with me all have many features in common.  Unschooling is self-directed learning–children decide what and how they want to learn and go about learning it. What my friends report happening in the transition to unschooling (especially out of public school, where children get no self-directed learning at all), is that the children, when given freedom, begin with a variety of electronic binging behaviors: excessive watching of TV, playing 12 and 14 hours of video games, and so on. But soon enough, usually within a few weeks, they get bored of playing video games and watching TV all day and their natural curiosity returns. Suddenly, they are inquisitive, questioning, and active in the world around them. Some of them begin to undertake considerable projects–building and launching weather balloons, understanding how to grow crystals, learning how to grow vegetables and learning about the biology of soil, making baskets, and so much more. I think this is a nice example here about the nature of unstructured leisure or play time, and how humans, when given the opportunity, naturally will find useful things in which to pursue if they have the time and energy to do so.

 

What unschooling does for children, leisure time can do for adults.  We once were those naturally curious and wonder-filled children, asking questions, being curious, being constantly at play, being able to move from playing music to making mud pies to building forts in the woods.  And then, modern life crushed our creativity with bells and demands and suddenly time wasn’t ours and our work consumed our lives and…yeah. The loss of our creative spirits and the loss of our creative selves happens as more and more demands are placed upon us. I believe this wonder-filled, creative, and curiosity-filled place to be one of our natural states of being.  One of the reasons retired people are often so interesting is that they find a hobby and pursue it with relentless passion–because they can.  I believe that slowing down and cultivating more unstructured/leisure time can allow us to get back to that place of creativity, curiosity, and wonder we had as children.

Here is just a small list of the things that leisure can get us:

  • A rest from daily stress (family, workplace, health-related, political, environmental); the ability to rebuild, nourish, support and heal the physical body
  • Time to think carefully and with a sound mind
  • Time to think about opposing ideas and carefully wrestle with the ideas they contain
  • Time to explore the wilds
  • Time to travel to other places
  • The ability to build and enjoy community and friends
  • Time to explore and experiment with options for sustainable living
  • Time to plant a garden (annual and perennial)
  • Time to gaze at the stars and clouds
  • Time to engage in spiritual practices of all sorts (meditation, outdoor activity)
  • Time to develop relationships and connections: with other humans, with plants/trees, with bodies of water, with the living earth
  • Time to get lost in the woods
  • Time to pick through trash to find treasures
  • Time to go foraging
  • Time to heal the land and scatter seeds
  • Time and energy to do all the things we say we “wish we had time” or “wish we had energy to do”
  • The time to engage in various bardic arts and learn new bardic arts / time to dedicate oneself to a craft or skill in seriousness
  • Time to read books and to ponder, meander, and think about them
  • Time to pick berries and can them
  • Time to do some home food preservation
  • Time to brew up some good ferments and good wine
  • Time to do all the things.  All the things.

 

I believe that we can fully embrace our human gifts if, and only if, we make the time and build in more unstructured time in our lives to do so.  This is about all I have to say at the moment on slowing down and thus, this concludes this post series at present.  Thank you to everyone who had such wonderful things to share as we worked through these issues–I gained much from reading your stories and from our conversations.

 

Urban Homesteading in a Rental House: Late Winter/Spring Updates! March 5, 2017

Last year, I explored the idea of “growing where you are planted.” At this stage in my journey, I am working towards living my spiritual principles through permaculture practice within the bounds of a rental house within walkable distance to my workplace. Last year, I shared some general tips for how to do this kind of work, as it is a situation that so many of us find ourselves in at the present time. Even with seemingly “limited” options as befitting a renter, much opportunity abounds! I thought I’d share a few of the projects I’ve been working on in the last few months and give a general “update” about where things are. (Note: next week I’ll return to the conclusion of the “Slowing down” series!)

 

Food Forest Project: Planning and Soil Preparation

This year, I’m undertaking a new gardening adventure with a good friend of mine to start a food forest using permaculture principles on some land she has access to. This land is about 5 minutes out of our town and is on old pasture land. We expect this to be an “incubator” project for a larger project we are starting to plan for the coming months and years. But for now, we are engaging in some serious work to grow plants and design a welcoming and sacred space.

Some of our plans for the space...

Some of our plans for the space…

We are using permaculture design principles for the entire project, and we are designing not for the short term, but to bring healthy soil fertility and to engage in people care, earth care, and fair share. At this point, we’ve done our basemapping and planning the food forest over the last few months, and now we are in the process of starting seeds and preparing the soil. I hope to share some of that garden planning/basemapping work on the blog as we work to develop this site further.

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil...

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil…

On the matter of soil preparation, we are incredibly lucky to have access to animals at the farm, specifically, a pig. We put Saavik, the pig, along with her goat and chicken friends in the area where we will be planting. Saavik is doing an incredible job in turning the soil and digging up the roots. This is a very large area, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get the whole thing done in time to plant (we have a grand vision!) But giving the animals a go at the land over the last part of winter and early spring means that they will have done most of the work for us, tilling it up, eating the grasses and roots and grubs, and creating beautiful manure. I have never seen a pig at work before–she is absolutely incredible.  The entire pasture will have no grass and we will have the opportunity to rake up whatever is left, put in our paths, use a garden fork to address any soil compaction, and plant.

Go pig, go!

Go Saavik, go!

Seed Starting for Gardens

This past weekend, my friend and I recently started the first of the annual seeds for the food forest. We are up splitting the seeds that we need to start–I’m working on all of the herbs and she’s working on the veggies; most of the perennials will need to be purchased or sourced some other way. We are using my light system, and my friend also is working to setup her own light system modeled after mine.  We hope the two light systems will allow us to have enough plants both for my refugia garden as well as for our project here. I can’t tell you how much I love starting and caring for seeds! Already, the little sprouts are beginning to show. You can start seeds in just about any space if you have soil and light. The key is figuring out where to plant them afterward!

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Maple / Hickory / Walnut Trees and Syrup

There is something about the magic of the early spring that is truly unlike any other period of time. One of my favorite activities has been, for years, to tap maple trees and make maple syrup. The problem was that I didn’t have the evaporating system like the group of us had in Michigan nor did I have access to abundant trees. But, in permaculture design, the problem is the solution, and I started looking around to see what I could do…and so I decided to pursue “urban” maple sugaring.

A tree tapped in my backyard!

A tree tapped in my backyard!

It began with a single maple tree in my backyard, which I tapped a few weeks ago in early February. I wanted to drink the sap from the tree, which is nutritious, delicious, and very rejuvenating. A careful review of my lease showed no violation if I tapped them (I mean, do landlords really think about whether or not you can tap a tree? Likely not!) I tapped one of the trees and made an offering and the sap just started dripping out! All that wassailing we did is already paying off!

 

I inquired about tapping a few walnut and hickory trees at the garden site and we decided to do so. Then I tapped a second maple in the yard and the tree offered a half gallon or more of sap most days….this was getting to be a little too much to drink!

 

I realized that doing a “mini” sugaring setup would not be too difficult on my porch (you can’t evaporate that much maple sap indoors or everything will get sticky). I had purchased a very high-quality burner for a different project at a yard sale last summer for $3. I poured the sap into a large stainless steel pot and checked it every hour.  In one weekend, I manged to boil down 4 gallons of maple sap, adding more as the pot began getting down further until all four gallons were reduced in the pot.  Yes, it is true.  You can make small amounts of maple syrup in a rental house!

Turning sap into sugar!

Turning sap into sugar!

What I found is that with this small of a scale, I really needed to pay close attention to the syrup as it gets near finishing.  I burned the first batch (so sad) but the 2nd batch came out just beautifully!

Finishing off Maple Syrup

Finishing off Maple Syrup

A Triad of Composting

I am delighted to have a triad of composting activity happening at my rental house, which is allowing me to re-use a good deal of the waste I would otherwise produce. The first thing I have, where the bulk of my food scraps go, is my outdoor compost tumbler. I brought the tumbler with me from my homestead. For brown matter, I typically add fall leaves or shredded up newspaper–it works like a charm, even if it gets only afternoon light. At this point, I’ve produced about 20 or so gallons of finished compost that has mostly gone to my refugia garden and to my friend’s land.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.  One composts down while one is filled.

The second method I’m using to compost is my vermicompost bin. After messing around with a prototype five-gallon bucket vermicompost system for about 9 months now (which went through several iterations), I am back to the tried and true bin system. I had hoped the bucket system would take up less space, but what I found is that the five-gallon buckets couldn’t handle much compost at all,  because the worm population was small, it took longer, and the worms didn’t seem as happy.

Vermicompost bin system

Vermicompost bin system

The third method, which I shared a few months ago, is the compost toilet. that is, composting my own human waste and urine. This is working out splendidly, and I’m delighted to no longer need to flush the toilet (it has become a nice book stand!).  I’ve really started to enjoy “making deposits” and cycling my nutrients.  I’ve been experimenting with different materials, and am finding that a combination of sawdust, mulch (free from tree work), and shredded office paper and/or leaves are the perfect combination to hold in liquids and cover up solid waste. All of these materials are fairly easy to come by and are yet another way to turn waste into a resource!

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Growing Community

My friend and I are also starting to bring permaculture into the community by starting the Indiana PA Permaculture Guild.  I’m very excited to see how this new endeavor goes, and if it has anything like the success of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup, we will be able to do a lot of good in our community. Our first meeting is just around the Spring Equinox–a good time to begin anew. The goal of this project is to bring people together to learn about permaculture, teach each other new skills, and grow as a community.  I’ll share more as this initiative gets further underway 🙂

 

Refugia Garden and Seed Scattering

I started a refugia garden a year ago on my parents’ land and shared some of my earlier plans and results. Last year, this garden allowed me to grow some herbs for healing purposes as well as start a “seed bank” for healing the wild lands and bringing back key native medicinals to our ecosystem here. I’ve delighted in doing this work, and have created seed balls from a number of the seeds in this garden and have given them to many friends to help spread.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

One of the kind of humorous challenges of last year was that the refugia garden was “squashed”; my parents had thrown compost in the spot the year before, and the squash seeds sprouted at some point in June. I live about an hour from my parents, and I was travelling for a few weeks and didn’t make it out to check on the garden. I came back to find my garden literally covered in squash I hadn’t planted! The squash were doing well, so I tried cutting back the leaves to make sure the other plants had gotten light, and then I just let them be. Most of my medicinal plants did fine, but I lost a few key ones as part of the garden being squashed.  And so I am starting those plants from seed again this year (and enjoying a number of squash dishes this winter!)

Squash happens...

Squash happens…

A few weekends ago, my parents and I were driving past many of the abandoned strip mines and boney dumps in this area. As we drove and stopped in various places, I threw out a number of seed balls and spread other kinds of native wildflower seeds to help those lands heal. The mining companies are required to replant the landscape, but their idea of replanting is some basic grasses, vetches, and red pines.  And there is very little actual soil–most of it is slate and refuse from the dumps. I hope the seed balls themselves will allow for some new plants to take root and the compost and clay help build topsoil. We’ll see!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Magic seed balls ready for tossing!

The Walking Commute

I must say that I really enjoy walking everywhere–especially when my car is recently giving me trouble or during the big snowstorms.  Walking allows me to slow down, to take in nature on my walk.  For example, there is a bramble patch, several wild hedges, and a small stream on my walk to campus. It also allows me time for slowing down and decompressing at the end of the day on campus. This is one of the main benefits to living in town–the ability to walk to the bank, to get some tea, to hang out or see a jazz band, to visit friends, and more.  I didn’t realize how much I depended on my car until I could set it aside!

Campus after my "birthday" snow :)

Campus after my “birthday” snow 🙂

So these are some of the current practices I’ve got going on and some of the plans for this year.  I’m hoping to hear from some of you–tell me what you are planning, dreaming, and working to bring forth this year!

 

I hope this demonstrates that you really can “grow where you are planted” and even if that growth doesn’t include land of your own, there are still a lot of wonderful things you can do to live in line with the earth.  The best thing of all is that everything I’ve outlined above is manageable and enjoyable!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

Save

Save

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way: Part III: Time-Honoring Strategies February 26, 2017

This past week, a friend and I were discussing options for starting seeds for a new joint major gardening project (more on that in an upcoming post).  We talked about several options, and deciding we wanted to stay away from plastic ready-made planting pots, opted for a paper pot maker (a little wooden device that makes it stunningly easy to create paper pots from recycled newspaper). This choice, of course, is an excellent one from a permaculture perspective: it takes an extremely abundant waste product and turns it into a resource. Of course, in order to make these pots, you need the time to collect the paper and the time to create them. This simple choice–paper or plastic–along with the investment of time illustrates an underlying principle that seems to me to be near-universally true in my experience: the further away from fossil fuels we get, the more time things take. And here, of course, is the crux of this entire blog post series: if we want to do anything beyond our work (practicing permaculture, developing deep relationships with the land, developing bardic arts, or whatever it is we want to accomplish), we have to find the time to do so.

 

Starting seeds in recycled materials

Starting seeds in recycled materials

In my previous two blog posts, I explored the nature of work both historically and in the present age, which helped illuminate some of the current unbalances we have with our work–and opened up the door for us to consider revisiting our relationship to it. And it is this spirit that today, I talk about re-negotiating and re-envisioning our relationship to work and hence, to our time. As I explored over the last two weeks, historical data suggests that we worked a lot less in ages past, which allowed for more leisure time, feasting, merriment, and the learning of crafts and skills. It also gave our ancestors the necessary time to live without fossil fuels–to do work slower, with more intention, and live at a different pace. In the present age, our time is owned by our employers and continued increases in productivity have occurred with increases in work hours, meaning that we are working more than ever before.  It seems that, in some cases, fossil fuels and the myth of progress is speeding us up so much–and most of sustainable living practices focus in the opposite direction. The tension between them is many things, but one of them is certainly time and different ways of working.

 

Now to be clear, it is not that I’m saying that work itself is the problem–it isn’t.  Work is a necessary part of our lives.  It is a part of being alive: working to provide for our own needs and make sure our loved ones who depend on us are well fed, happy, clothed, and with roofs over our heads. This isn’t just the human condition, but rather, part of life in general–all animals must seek out their food, find shelter, build their nests, and so on.  The challenge comes with the balance between our work and the rest of our lives.  So in this post, I’ll explore both some opportunities and options for us to re-negotiate our relationship with our work, bring more leisure time into our lives, allow us to more fully pursue our passions, and dedicate more time to treading lightly and joyfully on the earth.

 

The Time Audit

When we want to understand a phenomenon that is very close to us, one of the best things we can do is find a new way of seeing that phenomenon (think about the Hanged Man card from the tarot–this is all about re-seeing a new situation). Each day, you spend your time as you’d spend anything else–you might think of it like a bank account, but its a set account of time (and the associated energy that comes with that time). One strategy for re-seeing this expenditure of time is through what I’m calling a time audit. I’m adapting this strategy from Your Money or Your Life, who gives great suggestions for money spending audits.  So let’s look at one possibility for a time audit:

 

  1. Begin by, on a separate sheet of paper, listing all the things you value the most that you wish you had more time to do.
  2. Next, for a period of time (at least a typical week, or longer; I’d recommend a month), keep track of your time and how you spend it. A good way to do this is on an Excel spreadsheet or in a notebook. Try to keep track of things as they happen, not at the end of the day, so that you have a more accurate representation of how you spend your time.  Note: if you spend a lot of time on the computer, some programs exist that also help you monitor your time on the computer–I use one called “RescueTime” which monitors what programs you are running and how much time you spend on it.
  3. After your set period of time, review your records and categorize them. You might come up with different kinds of categories: Time spent with family/loved ones, time in nature, work time (normal working hours), work time (overtime), social media, television, gardening, etc).  If you use Open Office or Excel or something, you can then add up the time you spent on each thing that week/month.
  4. Put a star next to any “things you value the most” (from your earlier list).  Also, note any categories that you consider “wasted” time.
  5. Now, add up your time and consider the following questions:
    1. If your time is your life energy–are you spending it well?
    2. How much of it do you see as wasted time?
    3. How much of the “things you value most” list are getting your time? How much of it?
    4. What are common “time sucks” that you see that you can eliminate?
    5. What do you want to spend more time on in the future?
    6. What percent of your waking hours was spent on that thing?
  6. Make a set of three goals for yourself moving forward and evaluate those goals after each week.

 

You will likely find that the act of monitoring your time itself helps you be more aware of how you spend your time.  Seeing your patterns with regards to time is even more helpful. Setting goals helps you to take the next steps towards reclaiming some of your time.

Re-negotiating our Relationship with Time

Beyond the time audit, it can be very helpful to examine cultural assumptions surrounding time and confront them directly. As I’ve begun paying more and more attention to this issue, I am struck by how powerful and pervasive these cultural assumptions are.  I’m going to walk through a number of these (and I’d love to hear more if you have any!

 

You are not a machine. Modern western industrialized culture makes a very dangerous assumption: that people are just like machines. That is, we are expected to be ultra efficient, ultra productive, and never break down.  We are always expected to work well and always be at the top of our game. Terms like productivity and efficiency are the measures that became the most central and dominant in our culture.  Even today, rather than calling people people, we call them “human resources” like they are simply another cog in that wheel.

 

We are not machines. We cannot work all day long and expect to function at peak efficiency. We are not made to work that long; our ancestors certainly did not, and the current expectations are unreasonable. If we want to build a better relationship with our time, we need to be kind to ourselves and to recognize that this intense culture of overwork is not a normal state of things.  And we can’t expect ourselves to be always working at peak efficiency.

 

I don’t know how many people think they should always be working and perfectly so.  I remember having a doctoral student who was teaching a course for us come into my office in tears–she shared how there had been a very unexpected death of a young cousin in her family and the family was in shock and having to care for the children of this person.  She had gone to several faculty who expressed their condolences and then shrugged her shoulders.  And she said to me, “I don’t think I’m teaching as well as I was before.”  I showed her compassion, and told her she wasn’t expected to, and it was OK to take this time to mourn (and we could find her a sub if necessary).  I was so struck by this situation–especially after she relayed that she had been advised to who had been advised to keep going regardless of what happened.  She expected herself, and expected all of us, to insist she always perform at peak efficiency–like a machine.

 

Slowing down....

Slowing down….

Learning about your own relationship with time. Stemming from the above idea that we are not machines,  it is useful to explore your underlying value systems associated with time and the narratives surrounding your use of time. Most of these are given to us by our culture–and so we likely have some healing work to do. You might consider your own reactions to the following words and phrases: relax, free time, leisure, good sleep, unstructured time, play, productivity, efficiency, accomplish, stamina,  busy, keeping busy (and there are a lot more!)  Exploring your gut reactions as a place to start–and then, question where these reactions come from.

 

For example, I used to get excited at the word “productive” because it meant I was accomplishing so much.  But where did that excitement come from? Was it even mine? Probably it came from my education and current work environment, where being productive meant piling on the accomplishments (which are rewarded) and embracing the insanely packed schedule to keep up the accomplishments. But did I ever consciously choose that value system?  Do I really want that value system in my life? Is it serving me well?  After some long, hard looks, my answer was “no.”  I didn’t want this value system because I felt I gained very little, and lost a great deal.  These kinds of questions can help us unpack these underlying cultural assumptions surrounding time.

 

Letting Go of Guilt. Because we have such an unbalanced relationship with our time and often hold onto the human-as-machine ideology, we feel guilty if we aren’t working or being productive. This guilt can manifest in many ways depending on the kind of work you do, and it takes on different names: academic guilt, productive guilt, work guilt, and so on.  But the underlying feeling is the same: when you want to relax, or do something fun, or just chill out, you have to first convince yourself that it is “ok” to do so, and maybe apologize to a few other people, for doing so. Or you don’t want people to know what you are up to, so you do whatever it is you want, but then hide the fact that you did so when you return to work. One of the manifestations of this is that people try to work even when they know they either won’t get what they need to get done (exhaustion, not the right headspace, etc) or they find work to do that they don’t need to do at that moment.  This is something you can certainly watch out for.

 

For example, how many times have you felt guilty for resting for a full day and not doing work? Or perhaps, enjoying a book for several hours in the afternoon? Taking time off on weekends? I see this often in my own workplace: we are meant to be always working. To do otherwise is not acceptable. I once thought this was unique to academia, but in fact, it is not–friends who work at home, friends who are self-employed, homemakers, and so many others tell me of their guilt at not working. The one exception to this is people who are retired: they are expected to simply enjoy life because “they’ve earned it” (having already put in the work).

 

So take a few deep breaths and let go of the guilt.  Go ahead.  You can do it. It feels really good :).

 

Seeds take their own time, never in a hurry

Seeds take their own time, never in a hurry

Beware of “efficiency” substances as ways of letting you go on longer.  There’s a difference between liking coffee for its flavor and enjoying a cup every now and then vs. depending up on it to get a tired and overworked body out of bed and moving again. Coffee, energy drinks, and other stimulating substances (even things like Ginseng) often act like a boost of coritsol to our systems–giving us a temporary “high” so we can keep moving just a bit longer or get to the weekend and crash.  However, this comes at a substantial physical cost. If we stop drinking it, even for a while, we will see what the “true state” of our bodies are.  These substances are like credit cards: sure, you can raise your limit and spend more now. But you do so at an extraordinarily high interest rate, and paying back that extra debt over time is so much harder.

 

Beware of cultural peer pressure. One of the things I’ve noticed is that certain really detrimental things are glorified–and it is easy to get wrapped up in other people’s time narratives. Overworking, being extremely busy, not getting enough sleep, being overwhelmed and overworked–these states of being are seen as at best, normal, and at worst, very positive places to be in.  I hear my colleagues speak with pride about how well they can function on 4 hours of sleep, or how they worked all weekend to prepare for their conference, or how they worked all through break. Uh, no. I have learned to resist these narratives firmly by sharing an alternative time narrative of self-care and balance.

 

We are more than our work. As I mentioned in my last post, at least here in the US, work is firmly tied to our own identity. But, your work is not your identity.  It is what you do for pay. It might be good work, you might really enjoy doing it–but it does not represent you or the whole of who you are. It is simply work. This was a particularly hard lesson for me to understand due to the amount of time and energy I had invested in getting to the point of being able to do my current work (dissertations and advanced degrees and all). But realizing that my whole being is not, and should not, be tied up with my work helped me broaden my perspectives and re-negotiate my relationship to my work. As an added benefit–now, when something goes wrong at work, it doesn’t crush my soul because there are more parts to me than just work.

Some Healthy Alternatives

So now that we’ve gotten past some of the negative assumptions with regards to time, I want to focus on a few positive alternative narratives that can help us move forward.

 

Understand that physical and mental health is wrapped up in time.  As I shared last week, the adrenal system and the other bodily functions are directly tied to the amount of stress and overwork in your life–which is tied to how you spend the time.  The sympathetic/fight or flight nervous system is what we use to keep us going, going, going. This has a measurable, strong link to our physical health.  Stressed bodies are not healthy bodies–many of their systems are functioning minimally under chronic stress. Long-term results of this can be quite serious indeed.  By learning to let go of some of the insanity and learning to rest, we can much better take care of ourselves. Likewise, our mental state is also determined, to a large extent, by how we spend our time.  Not having time to simply sit and process things that happen, being engaged in meaningless work, not slowing down enough to give our minds a chance to rest–these, too, strongly effect us. In other words, our time is our health.

 

Amaranth sprouts growing on their own time...

Amaranth sprouts growing on their own time…

See time and life energy as precious resources.  Our time is one of the most precious resources that we have.  This is simple: anything that we want to do requires–at the most basic level–the energy and time. There is no getting around this fact. Other issues, like physical resources, finances, lack of skill/ability, etc, have multiple solutions. But if we lack the time and energy to do something, nothing else is going to get that thing done.  Linguistically, this is now how time is framed in our culture. Typically, we “spend” our time (like spending down a bank account) or we “save” our time (like a savings account, note the efficiency metaphor again).  But we don’t necessarily “protect” or “cherish” our time with the same positive qualities.  This is part of why I’m talking about “time honoring” here–honoring this precious resource and all that it offers to us.

 

Evaluate your options. It might be that you can find ways of balancing your work and your life and coming into a more healthy relationship with it using the time audit and exploring other cultural assumptions. And for some people working some kinds of jobs, this is totally possible. But it also may be that you want to make some choices about your life (new work, part time work, new living circumstances) that lead you to less work and more living. This is certainly an option  not to be discounted.  Or, if choices present themselves for you to take on more work with higher pay–consider them carefully.

 

Promote Positive Narratives Surrounding Time.  This, for me, is a really important part of my own relationship with time–and that is serving as a good role model to others. I’m honest when people ask me how I spend my weekend: I was out in the woods, I was in my art studio, I was reading or writing or playing my flute. I don’t buy in to the glorification of busyness, and I don’t make excuses for not working constantly.  Because my current work  has me mentoring lots of advanced doctoral students, I am working hard to model my own more healthy relationship with time with them and encouraging them to take time off when they need it. I think that the more of us who are willing to gently but powerfully share alternatives and show that we can still be functional in our work, the more we are able to help others around us also think through these issues.

 

Conclusion

I share all of the above with a caveat: I am not pretending to be a master of my time and energy.  I am just another human on this path, working to balance a demanding career (which at this point due to my earlier life choices, is necessary) with the ability to have enough time and energy to live my spiritual path and live my truth. The above things are strategies that have worked for me.

 

The next post in this series will look more carefully at leisure time and explore the “slow movements” of various kinds, and offer some additional insights.  I very much look forward to hearing from you with your own suggestions and time-honoring strategies!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part II: Relationships of Work and Time February 19, 2017

In the US, it seems that the first question people ask is, “what do you do?”  When they say that, of course, they are not talking about how you spend your leisure time, but rather, the work that you do for pay. This is the most defining characteristic of modern lives–because this is tied to the thing our culture holds as most sacred: money.  Money is the only metric that has any real value and the pursuit of money drives all else. If you aren’t working in the workforce earning pay, either the work are doing is devalued (as any stay-at-home parent can attest) or there is something very wrong with you (as in, why aren’t you out there earning money?). This current economic system, driven by industrial mindsets surrounding profit and efficiency, gives us a rather poor metric through which to measure ourselves and our value.

 

Last week, I explored a bit of the history of our current cultural value system with regards to work by examining humans’ earlier relationships with work and time. In today’s post, I’m going to bring us into the present age, and explore some of the issues surrounding modern relationships with our work and how these relationships are tied to underlying cultural value systems of exponential growth, the love of money, and the myth of progress. I do so because our modern relationships with work and money are directly linked to our ability to slow down and engage in anything else meaningful: a spiritual path, sustainable living, communing with the trees, etc. I also want to take a moment to thank so many of you for your incredibly thoughtful and useful comments in last week’s post–I hope we can continue to discuss these issues!

 

Modern Overworking and Productivity

As above, so below

As above, so below

David Graeber wrote a controversial essay in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (this essay is free online, but the site that typically hosts it seems to be down, so I found it on the Internet Archive here if you want to read).  He outlines how, for almost a century, with the rise of fossil fuels and the various technologies, we’ve had reports that increased technology combined with more fossil fuel use would lead us to an increase of leisure time.  In fact, in the 1930’s, John Maynard Keynes suggested that by the year 2000, we could have work weeks as little as 15 hours a week.  For those of you keeping track, this assumption is also wrapped up in the myth of progress that I described in detail in last week’s post.

 

In fact, we are technically capable of working a lot less, at least by modern economic metrics (which, for the purposes of this post, I’ll take at face value). An analysis from Eric Rauch of MIT suggests that today, the average “productivity level” of a worker (that is, how much a worker gets done in a day) has gone up tremendously over the last century, particularly since the rise of modern communication systems.  Today’s workers get done in 11 hours what the average worker in 1950 got done in 40; productivity levels have been on a steady rise for the better part of 70 years.  Graeber reports that as late as the 1960’s, people were still expecting those future 15-hour weeks. Yet, the average work week is now over 50 hours for at least half of Americans (and for some, considerably over 50 hours). So where is all of the extra time going?  Why do we seem to be the most unhappy, and most productive, of workers?

 

Most of this seems to stem from our relationship to consumerism and money, not necessarily from work itself.  Julie Schor, economist and author of The Overworked American: The Decline of American Leisure demonstrated that  workers unions often will nearly always choose higher pay and benefits over shorter working hours. The same is true of non-unionized workers: if faced with the choice between less work and more pay, workers almost invariably choose more pay and give up their leisure time as a result. The idea of not taking more work for more pay seems unfathomable to many. This is, I believe, due to the underlying value system that privileges money and little else combined with an assumption that growth (in wages, in standing at one’s job) is a desirable and necessary pursuit.

 

I have a good example of this from my own life: a few years ago at my previous university position, I was asked to consider stepping into a major administrative role much higher up the food chain so to speak, overseeing a large and growing major. This job offered almost a 40% pay increase from what I was currently making. However, this new job was not appealing to me in the slightest. For one, would take me away from all the things I enjoyed about my job, namely my teaching my students and the discovery I was able to do as a researcher, and replace it with more work I didn’t enjoy. For two, it also meant losing my flexible schedule, working many more hours, and it would require that all my working hours be on campus. Consequently, due to the longer daily working hours, I would have had to deal with rush hour traffic twice a day that I had learned to otherwise avoid.  This meant even less time on my homestead, and in winter months, leaving before the sun rose and getting home after the sun set (think of the chickens!).  And so, I gently declined the position. When word got around that I had declined what was clearly a “step up” in my career, my colleagues couldn’t understand why.  No answer I could give was sufficient. Finally, I came up with the one answer always acceptable to academic audiences: I wanted to focus on my research (that is, I preferred the noble goal of making new knowledge and sacrificed higher pay to do so). Giving people the true answer: that I liked the work I currently did,and that I didn’t, gods forbid, want even more work on my plate or a more restricted schedule, was simply not an acceptable answer and giving it would have considerably harmed my reputation. This is because more money and higher status is always the choice you should make given the cultural value system that privileges earnings above most else.

 

One book that really helped me make sense of this decision to keep a lower paying, lower hour, more flexible position was a book called Your Money or Your Life.  This book puts out, in direct terms, a system for monitoring the relationship between your time and your work and draws clear the distinction between the two.  In a series of exercises, you calculate your “real” hourly wage (not what you are paid, but what you actually make after you subtract work-associated costs, transpiration, transportation time, and the downtime/recovery time that is lost after work that you need to recover from it). It also has you monitor your spending and identify ways in which that spending is or is not in line with your value system. When you do these activities, it really helps you change your relationship with your work and your finances.  I’ll talk more about this approach in my third post on this series–but suffice to say, this book helped change my own relationship with money and made me realize that I made the right decision.

 

Another major issue contributing to overwork is that the current work system intentionally privileges overwork. For one, many people fear losing their jobs such that they have to do whatever their employers tell them to, and will, and that means among other things, much longer hours at lower pay (hence one of many reasons that the middle class is shrinking and pay is stagnant). For two, most workers no longer possess much autonomy over their work, and so the amount of work they do is no longer determined by them. With the rising income disparity, more funding is going to boated administrative positions at the cost of the average and lower-paid workers who then suffer  more administrative oversight (see next paragraph).  Finally, the more “productive” one is compared to one’s peers, the more one is rewarded. For those working hourly rates, the situation is even more dire: extremely low pay per hour requires them to work tremendously long hours at unpleasant jobs to take home a pittance. I think the underlying thing that is happening here is that we are supposed to want to work, we are supposed to want to earn good pay, we are supposed to be growing our salaries and our careers and we should be sacrificing all to do so.

 

David Graeber offers his own interpretation to some of the above: the creation of “bullshit jobs,” primarily of the administrative kind. He describes the new jobs like telemarketing and financial services and the “ballooning” of administration” in many areas. In terms of why this is so, Graeber writes, “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).”  He argues that many people find large portions of the work they do as meaningless, even if they do this work for pay (and often for a lot of it). Graeber notes that the resentment and “psychological violence” that builds up for those doing “bullshit jobs” and is inflicted upon those actually doing meaningful work.  Those who are doing meaningful work are often doing it for less pay, furthering resentment between all involved. A good example of this is the teaching, nursing, or social work professions: all folks engaging in really important work who do it for less pay and over overseen, increasingly, by administrators in bullshit jobs. Whether or not you buy Graeber’s argument, there is no doubt that today, people feel overworked, underpaid, and generally strained–all the while carrying around an unconscious value system that tells them they should keep earning profits.

 

Another piece of this I’ll note is the rise of the super-specialist system. Wendell Berry discusses this system briefly in the early chapters of the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. In the specialist model, we have replaced generalist workers that are good at a lot of things and are well rounded (like a small family farmer, handy person, etc) with super specialists who are really good at one thing. Increasingly, we feel the need to go to specialists for every little  thing (finances, health, food, haircuts, you name it). The rise of the specialist system reduces individual autonomy, flexibility, and freedom, requires infinitely more specialized (and in many cases, less meaningful) work.  But I also think that the rise of the specialist system makes us think that we can only be good at one thing (our specialized work) and so we must do that well above all else.

 

I could write more here, but I think my points have been sufficiently made: that workers in today’s system are both products of the system beyond their control (one engineered to make sure they don’t have leisure time), but also often make choices to maximize wealth and thus undermine their own leisure time due to tightening economic circumstances coupled with underlying cultural myths about growth and progress.  This system works such that we are exhausted at the end of the day, and we can’t do much else rather than spend all our time in front of screens pumping advertising that makes us buy things to keep the system chugging right along. Further, we depend on that system and many of us are in serious binds due to economics and decisions we made earlier in life. So now, I want to turn my attention to the costs that this system has on our emotional, spiritual, and physical well being.

 

The Physical Cost of Overwork: Our Nervous System

Physically, the amount of work we are doing, without much downtime and festivity (as explored last week), means that our bodies are less able to handle stress or any serious endeavors beyond just keeping going to our jobs. We begin “living to work” rather than “working to live.” I think the increased productivity levels means that most workplaces are more demanding, fast paced, and intense than even 10 years ago–so when we go, we are working harder, faster, and with less rest. I know in the time I’ve been in the academic workplace, the university is demanding a lot more for a lot less compensation. And this causes us physical harm and daily stress. Additionally, as we age, our bodies are different and cannot always work as much as we want them to. A recent study suggested, for example, that people over 40 are better workers with a three-day work week as opposed to a five day work week.

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

 

I’m going to put on my herbalist hat for just a moment and talk about the automatic nervous system, because it helps illustrate a few key things important to this issue of stress and overwork (and for more on this, I point to Hoffman’s Herbs for Stress and Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy). The automatic nervous system (which is outside of our conscious control) maintains and governs the vital functions of the body like digestion, circulation, heart rate, and breathing. It has two modes: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Earlier in human history, the sympathetic nervous system was used to get us out of immediate danger (oh noes! A big bear is chasing me!) In this state, anything that’s not immediately needed for survival, including our digestive system, our immune system and inflammatory responses, and our sexual system, are essentially shut down.The problem for those of us living as modern humans in these work-intensive and difficult times is that stress doesn’t work like it did in earlier points in human history. Most stress is not stress we can just run away from and relax—rather, its continual and grating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and isolated are three key signs of a continual sympathetic nervous system state. Due to modern demands, we make things worse by pushing our bodies to go even further using various common stimulants (sugar, coffee, caffeine, energy drinks—in fact, caffeine mimics adrenaline in the body). Prolonged stress responses encourage the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called Cortisol into the blood, which again mobilizes stored glucose and fat, suppresses the inflammatory response (how the body can heal from damage), and taxes the liver.

 

If the body continues to face stress, the body responds with what is known as  “general adaptation syndrome” – which is essentially a chronically stressed system—with the adrenal glands releasing all of the cortisone they can for as long as they can. Long-term exposure to Cortisol taxes the liver and can lead to digestive problems, muscular tension, poor joint health, high blood pressure, various reproductive system issues. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, the body is exhausted and suffers what is known as “adrenal burnout” or “adrenal exhaustion.” Our bodies cannot go forever on and on, and at this stage, we have severely decreased ability to deal with stress, severe mental and physical exhaustion, and higher susceptibility to illness and disease.

 

If you are feeling exhausted when you are relaxing, you know that your body has been running in sympathetic mode long term. A few other common signs are waking up tired and not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep or getting sick as soon as you go on vacation. Because so many people are running on General Adaptation Syndrome, when they finally do get back to a parasympthetic state (say on vacation), they immediately fall ill and feel exhausted—this is feeling the true state of affairs in the body. In 2015, for example, 24% of Americans were experiencing “extreme stress” and general stress levels have continued to rise. Given healing, self care, and downtime, the body can fully heal.

 

I believe that the above information is likely why television and other media are such huge attractions.  Adrenally depleted people cannot muster the energy to do much–getting something to eat and crashing with Netflix is what a lot of folks do at the end of the day because they are physically incapable of anything else.  This, too, is a cost of our work.

 

The Non-Physical Costs of Overwork

Schor notes that the decline of American leisure time has resulted in what she calls “loss of independence.” Likewise, literary figure Herman Mellville wrote in a letter to a family member, “Whoever is not in possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence.” The more that our working hours are wrapped up in our jobs or other responsibilities (meaningful or not), and the more time we spend outside of that work as exhausted and adrenal depleted zombies, the less we are able to engage in any meaningful activity that doesn’t have to do with earning a living.  Independence is critical to our success in any endeavor or path beyond our work.

 

The second cost of overwork is wasted potential. This independence, this unstructured time, offers us potential and possibility. We have to determine how we enact that potential, of course, but the potential itself will never be there without the time and energy to do so.  In other words, overworking closes off potential and possibility for us all. Free time is like a bed of soil, freshly prepare for seeds and planting. We can choose to leave it barren or we can choose to cultivate something. But if we don’t even have access to that bed and the energy to plant anything, there is no way anything can grow. I think that humans have the potential for so much–creative gifts and tapping the flow of awen, doing good work in their communities and healing each other, healing the land, spiritual self discovery, deeper understanding–all of the things, really, that make us human.  But we need to the unstructured time to make that a reality.

 

A third thing I think we lose is the ability to learn and grow fully. Having leisure time means you have time to make mistakes, ponder about those mistakes, try some new, experiment, tinker, and so on. This is a really critical part of  learning anything, but certainly, its critical to develop any skill in the bardic art or in homesteading or planning a garden. We have to have time not only to learn, but practice, and on occasion, fail at things so we can get better. When are strained for time, we don’t have the space to do that. Because every bit of time is so precious, failure leads not to introspection but to seeing the time as “wasted” and to frustration.

 

A fourth thing that we lose is the ability to reflect an think carefully  about what is happening in our own lives and in the world around us.  For example,  how many people have you talked to (and maybe this has happened to you) where something major occurs and rather than process it and deal with it, they keep working and never really think about the issue. Maybe this thing is a tragedy and they bury the pain of it, or maybe it is something really wonderful–and neither can be thought about or processed. Losing our ability to be reflective means we don’t integrate lessons and experiences and grow as people. I think this work so critical to us–both in terms of our spiritual paths, but also in terms of our humanity.

 

A fifth thing we lose is the ability to connect with each other or the land. Harried work schedules coupled with adrenal fatigue means we don’t have time for others in our lives: to reach out, to send a card, to have a nice cup of tea by the fire, or to commune with the non-human aspects of the world. It takes time to build and maintain connections, and without them, we are isolated and alone.

 

And I think at this point, I’ve come full circle to the issues that I opened with in my last post: wanting to live in line with my principles and never seeming to have the energy and time to do so.  I’ve explored some of the problems and causes that I think are contributing to these phenomenon (in my own life, in the lives of my friends, and broader for many people).  Next week, we’ll move to the next stage of this process: what to do about it.  In the meantime, friends, I hope you can find some leisure time and enjoy it!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time February 12, 2017

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.

 

A Guide to Winter Hiking: Walking in the Winter Wonderland February 5, 2017

Recently, I went on a winter hike with some friends.  It was below freezing, with ice-covered trails and the sun shining low in the sky. We came to a crossroads and all felt led to go to the left; eventually, we left the trail and worked our way down a steepish hill and to a beautiful cascading river. The river was incredible–the water had a greenish cast to it and it had so many layers of ice built up. We observed it a while, and then, I felt led deeper and closer, and following some mushrooms, went down very close. The closer I got, the more magical the river was–with ice castles, ice cascades, and a depth of color and energy not experienced in the summer months. A return visit in the winter would reveal a completely different river due to the ever-changing ice and snow conditions.  Each winter visit, the, allows for a brand new experience as the winter snows come and go. This, dear readers, is the hidden beauty of winter, the dynamic quality and ever-changing nature of this dark time of year. It offers a beauty well worth seeking out.

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

I think that most people’s reasonable reaction to the cold and snow is to hole up for wintertime, waiting till the sun and warmth returns before going outside for hiking and such. However, winter has always been my favorite of the seasons for its dynamic and magical nature, and with careful preparation, can be enjoyed like any other season. Taking a hike in the woods during the winter months, especially visiting local waterfalls and streams, offers an array of beauty, stillness, and intensity simply not often found during the summer months. Winter offers us plenty to see, plenty to do, and certainly, plenty to learn–and here, on Imbolc in early February, we are in deepest part of the winter months.  In fact, I can’t enough of winter hiking and find myself out as often as possible!

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

This post explores some simple ideas for taking a walk during the winter months and getting the most out of the experience; I’ll explore clothing, footwear, and gear; timing and safety; winter botany and foraging; tracking; fun things to do; and more. So join me on a walk into the winter wonderland!

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

One of the things that people don’t always understand today is how to properly outfit themselves for a winter hike. Proper clothing and footwear ensure that you have a great time rather than a cold or dangerous one. You can do this with minimal special equipment and investment.

 

Clothing: Clothing is important–you will be out for an hour or more, and it is not the same as a quick walk from the house to the mailbox or out to shovel snow. I advocate for natural fibers (particularly wool) and layers of clothing on the body. Two pairs of thick wool socks, good boots (hiking or snow boots, depending on the depth of the snow), gloves (for extreme cold, I will put a thin pair of gloves inside my warm woolen mittens), a wool hat, wool scarf, and good outer jacket are necessary. For pants, insulated pants, snowpants, or several layers, including preferably a wool layer, are good. The idea is that you can strip off layers of clothing as you heat up–and walking helps keep you warm.

 

Footwear. Footwear is critically important, even for short hikes. You can go far with a  good insulated boot with good traction or a hiking boot with gaters (gaters are a kind of leg warmer that insulates the lower leg and keeps snow out of the boot).  I actually hike most often in the same boots I do in the summer, just with an extra pair of socks.

 

Winter Traction.  Winter conditions, especially in this time of warming winter weather, often create ice. I used to have to wait till there was good snow or things had melted, which really limited my ability to get out and about, even with good hiking boots. Then, I recently discovered the incredible world of winter traction devices, and it has really opened up my access to the hilly and more icy trails in Pennsylvania! The right treads make even the more treacherous of trails really passable and enjoyable, and open up a lot of opportunities for winter hiking, so I’d strongly suggest investing in some or making some if you can. With the treads, I can walk (or run) on even the most extremely icy of conditions with stability. A lot of folks add some ski poles or a walking stick for added stability.

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

Snowshoes. I haven’t had the opportunity to snowshoe (due, primarily, due to decreasing snowfalls and very small amounts of snow in the winter months), but this is certainly another possibility for you. Since I don’t have a lot of direct experience, I’ll direct you to sources who do.

 

Water and snacks. Winter hiking still can work up a good sweat and appetite; just as in the summer months, it is a good idea to bring a water bottle and snacks if you’ll be out for a bit.

 

Miscellaneous supplies. A small first-aid kit, a compass and map, fire-starting equipment, a foraging knife–these are things that are good ideas for any hike, and winter hikes are no exception. I often also bring a backpack for gear as well as to shed any layers I might want to be rid of if I get overheated.

 

A Friend. Winter hiking can offer challenges that summer hiking does not–even with the best traction shoes, falling into a river, for example, can mean serious harm to your person. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate always having a hiking buddy with you.

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

Timing and Weather

The timing in winter matters. Each moment of winter, each day you go out, offers a different experience. I would suggest getting out as often as you can. If you are driving somewhere to do a hike, you want to make sure you are able to make it there and back safely.

 

Staying Close or Going Far: It is for this reason that I like to plan hikes in state forests and the like on sunny days or days it won’t be precipitating and plan hikes completely on foot on snowy days or days with winter storms. Interestingly, with the right gear, I have found it much easier and safer to walk on the snow than to drive on it!

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

Snowstorms: As the snows begin to fall and lay on the landscape, you enter a different land. The quiet dropping of the snow, and the stillness of it all, bring a quiet to the landscape rarely present any other time of the year. I love taking it in while it is happening and enjoying walking out in the storm.

 

End of the Storm: Go out as soon as the storm is over–the dynamics of winter mean that nothing will stay the same for long. I remember one day in Michigan when everything was just covered with a powdery snow–every branch of the tree was accentuated and it was magical. About an hour later, the winds picked up and everything changed–I was so glad I took my camera out that day!

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

Icestorms: If you have the really good treads, the ice storms too can be really delightful to go out in. The treads make it so you are stable even on inches of ice, and for that reason, you can go out and observe what is going on! Because nobody else goes out in an ice storm, and even walking around your yard or neighborhood, again, offers tremendous experiences.

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

Winter offers a range of opportunities to deepen nature awareness and spend time getting to know the living earth in all of her seasons.

 

Tracking: Animal movements, tracks and trails are really easy to observe in the winter months. I remember the first winter I had spent at my homestead. I had been trying to figure out the path the deer were taking, and then when our first snow hit, I clearly saw their trail in ways it was difficult to see before hand. I discovered the raccoons who had been visiting my compost pile, and some critter living in my barn (who I later discovered was a possum). While I had glimpses of these animals in the summer, the winter offered much more opportunity to see all of their movements. I followed the deer trail deep into the woods and came to a natural sacred grove there, which was an amazing experience. This is all to say that you can track animals extremely easy and build your tracking knowledge over time. A good book to learn tracking is Paul Rezendes Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

Seeking Waterfalls, Creeks, and Rivers: One of my very favorite things to look for and to hike to in the winter months are moving sources of water. These are incredible–each day, the river changes with the temperature, sometimes being very clear and deep, other times (when it gets bitterly cold) freezing up. They are always well worth your time to travel to (by foot or by vehicle). I like to meditate there, and if possible, explore them from multiple angles. You can learn a lot about the sacred lessons of water from the flows and movements of the interplay of snow, ice, and water.

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

Winter Tree and Plant Identification. Winter offers us an amazing opportunity to learn how to  identify trees by their bark and the shape of their buds and branches (or studying trees that you already know and observing their bark and branches). Another useful thing to do is to look at the dead or dormant plants growing–what do you recognize in a different form? Whose dried seed pod is that? For this, some good references for my bioregion include Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease and Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech and Tom Wessels.

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

Mosses and Lichens. Moss and lichens are really interesting to observe in the winter months–in a forest, the moss and lichens take advantage of the openings and light to do a lot of growing. I have been on hikes that have abundant, bright green moss in late December when the moss is just bursting with color and life.

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Mushrooms. On the edges of winter or in particularly warm times, mushrooms (including oyster mushrooms, some of my favorite) are also good to look for. Oysters can grow when its quite cold and offer a tasty meal. Lots of other mushrooms will pop up as well–so be on the lookout in those warmer winter moments.

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Foraging. Some limited foraging and wildcrafting can be done in the winter months and in fact can be done better then than other times. Pine, spruce, and hemlock needles make a wonderful nourishing and vitamin C-filled tea. This is also a really good time to look for tree resins (see my post on tree incenses from last year). Nannyberry (Virburnum Lentago) can persist in the winter months, and you might find yourself a wonderful trailside snack! I gather certain materials for making handmade paper (like cattail heads) or other goodies during this time of year. (I’m working on some natural panflutes now and just harvested the materials two weeks ago). If you are doing any natural building using thatching, for example, phragmities (reeds) can be harvested in abundance easily this time of year. In other words, the forest still offers abundance to those who know how to look.

 

Things to Do

Beyond communing with nature and learning more about her, there are many fun winter activities to do in the woods.

 

Follow a Deer Trail. Trails made by humans offer pre-determined destinations. This is why it can sometimes be fun to get lost in the woods (but only if you can safely make your way back again–use trail markers, a compass, etc). One way of getting “lost” I rather like is following a deer trail and seeing where it leads. This is nature’s version of your hiking trail, leading you off in new directions.

 

Make some spirals in the snow. I wrote about this in a post on winter last year–you can create spirals in the snow and walk labyrinths for meditation and deep healing. This is a very relaxing activity, and one I like to do as part of my celebrations of Imbolc each year.

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

Enjoy a meal or cup of tea. A simple thermos with a steaming cup of tea can make for a simple winter ceremony or quick way to warm up.  Recently, a friend and I were in search of waterfalls, and I had made a Chaga tea with maple, and brought it with us in a thermos.  There was nothing quite like sipping that chaga tea while sitting by the waterfall, observing it in all its amazing beauty!  Every once in a while, a rainbow would form of the frozen mist–and had we not been enjoying the tea, we may not have stayed in the same place long enough to see it!

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

A second really fun thing to do in the winter on longer hikes is bring a little camp stove (the backpacking kind) and/or forage for kindling and start yourself a small fire for a pine needle tea (see below) or heat up some grub; this is a great way to enjoy winter and warm up a bit. Of course, as part of this you might want to either bring something to sit on (a little foam mat works well, like a gardening mat) or you can use leaves and/or some boughs from a fallen pine to allow you to sit comfortably in the snow.

 

Winter Frolicking. Enough good can’t be said of winter frolicking in the snow. This takes on different forms: sliding down the hill in a sled, making snow angels, dancing around, throwing snowballs, and more.

 

Seed Scattering. Many seeds require a period of dormancy and freezing before they can germinate. I like to scatter seeds using a “frost seeding” technique in the winter months. This technique is based on when the ground has been very wet, and then freezes, and the frozen earth rises up with the water; when you step in it, you’ll get pockets and a lot of crunching. If you scatter seeds when the ground is like this, when it thaws out, the earth will return and the seeds will be buried.  So its a great time to do a little wildtending.

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

I hope that this post has inspired you to go out, get on some trails, and enjoy winter in all of her splendor.  Imbolc is a wonderful time to do this and learn about the depths of winter and her many mysteries–and I’d be delighted to hear any stories you have about winter hikes!

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