The Druid's Garden

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

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

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


The Niche Analysis

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


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


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

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

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


The Personal Niche Analysis

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Creating your Personal Niche Analysis

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Dana's Personal Niche Analysis

Dana’s Personal Niche Analysis

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


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


Permaculture Principles for the Inner Landscape (Mind, Spirit, and Heart) October 16, 2016

Patterns in Nature

Patterns in Nature

Let’s start today’s post with a short exercise. Take a look at your hand–look at the patterns of veins under the surface. What does that remind you of in nature? Now, look at the creases on your fingers, again, looking at the patterns of nature.  Turn your hand around and stretch out your fingers, pointing your hand in front of you.  What does that remind you of in nature? Next, make a fist and  keep your arm pointed out. What pattern in nature does your knuckles remind you of? Finally, turn your fist to face you. Take a look at the spiral there, in your fingers. What this exercise shows is that the outer patterns of nature, the patterns we work with in permaculture that I described in my last post in this series, are literally embodied within us. I only just shared a few of nature’s patterns you can find on the human hand: the pattern of the river or leaf (veins), the pattern of the waves/clouds/sand (creases in hand); the pattern of the river delta or branching tree (hand outstretched with fingers apart); the pattern of the mountain range (knuckles); and the sacred Fibonacci spiral (closed fist). Our bodies replicate so many patterns of nature, as we are, after all, part of nature. But we only need to look to our own bodies to remember this important fact.


The landscapes of our inner lives are rich and varied. Moving within, our minds are rich landscapes of thought, experience, wisdom; conscious and unconscious realms; these realms allow us access not only to our selves in this life, but our higher selves.  Some of us don’t like to go within our inner worlds, for the fear of darkness or pain we might find there. As we grow older, time creeps up, and more experiences pile on us–things we don’t want or didn’t ask for enter that can weigh us down. But as the ancients understood, and certainly as many magical traditions today explore, the rich landscape of the inner realms knows no bounds and has no limitations–only those we place upon ourselves. It is another landscape, the landscape of our inner lives, and one that very directly reflects outer landscape–the inner and outer worlds are reflections of each other, two parts to the whole.


And so, the inner landscape, the landscape of our immediate souls and inner worlds, is well worth considering through the permaculture design principles. Our bodies, and our lives, are a different of landscape from the external one that a permaculture designer would typically explore, but the principles can apply all the same. Today’s post explores some tools for working with our inner landscapes and the possibility of permaculture as a framework for some of the inner work that we can do there. (If you haven’t read my post on design principles, you might want to start there and then return to this one).



Bee on a sunflower!

Magic of the bee!

Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee

On the inner landscape, the principle of spirit and the magic of the bee asks us to do the work of transformation. We do not live in perfect bubbles of happiness where everything always goes as planned, and one of the key ways to stay healthy and happy is by learning to transform negative experiences and inner states into growth and healing.


Observe, Interact, and Intuit. On the inner landscape, this first principle is critically important. We don’t spend much, if any time, stepping back to fully observe our own patterns, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings because we are typically up close and living those experiences.  Stepping back and simply understanding those patterns is key. I want to clarify here the difference between observation and evaluation (evaluation is covered under “reflect and revise” below). Observation here is simply the act of non-judgmental understanding and acknowledgement. There are many ways to do this, including druid retreat, meditation, deep and open listening of loved ones who know you well, stepping back in an intense moment to re-see a situation, or keeping a journal of our thoughts and feelings (which can help us understand patterns in our lives). Any of these are all observation techniques that can begin to better understand ourselves and our own patterns. Once we have a sense of our own patterns, conscious, subconscious, and unconscious, we are better in a position to do inner landscape work and healing.


Reflect and Revise. Stemming from the first principle, the ability to critically reflect on our experiences and patterns and “revise” is tremendously helpful as it facilitates our own transformation, growth, and healing. This is where evaluation comes into play. It might be that we need to re-see painful or difficult experiences in our past and work to transform them. There are lots of ways of doing this, depending on the nature of a painful experience.  For example, I find it helpful is to revisit an old would and explore what good has come of it (for example, I have experienced a number of traumas in my life, and it has really helped me to heal by recognizing the harm/wrong that was done, but also how I was able to transform it and use it to help others in my own life). Reflection and revision also asks us to look at where we, perhaps, wronged others or wronged ourselves and allows us to think about how we can grow to ensure that never happens again. Revision allows us to move forward with the promise of change for the future.  Meditation on these issues is one of the primary tools I use for this work, although I also use the visual arts (and art journaling for healing) when I feel led.


Work on Multiple LevelsInner landscape work, like all work, works on multiple levels within our lives. One such level is the relationship between our inner worlds and outer realities: how we manifest inner hurts or joy as our outer realities; also, how inputs from the outer realms become our inner states (see my discussion on waste for one example of this). A second way to consider this principle from an “inner landscape” perspective is that of the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious (which I consider a connection to the higher self).  When we are pained, we are often not only pained consciously, but that pain works deeply within us, causing us to behave in ways that we aren’t always conscious of. Sometimes, we have to work on things consciously for a time, to do some deep inner healing work.  And then our subconscious and unconscious take over, facilitating healing at those multiple levels.  Yet another way to think about this principle is the connections between the mind, body, heart, and spirit–understanding that all of these levels need our attention. This principle asks us to understand that we are multiple-leveled individuals, with multiple kinds of levels, and these levels always present. We can maximize our own growth by attending to them and working with them through healing, reflection, and ritual work.


Hawk flying high!

Hawk flying high!

Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk

The air principles on the inner landscape ask us to use our knowledge and logic to work through inner problems before us.  The hawk flies high, and it allows us to gain a new perspective through the application of wisdom.


The Problem is the Solution Sometimes, limitations in our thinking prevent us from moving forward. We become stubborn, using words like “can’t” or “impossible.” Some people are defeated before they begin. They go to face a problem believing they will already fail, and they haven’t taken the time to find the solutions through the problems they face.  That, in itself, is a magical act that disempowers them! Or people use words like “I can never change” or “these problems are too big” or “this is how I live” accepting the situation and feeling defeated.  We don’t just hear these on the outer landscape, but we also apply these ways of thinking to our inner worlds.  This is self-defeating talk, and with this talk, the problems really are insurmountable–but they need not be.  There is always way forward, and this principle asks us to turn the problem on its head, look for the solution within that problem, and use this as an opportunity rather than a hurdle. I like to use discursive meditation to work through problems of this nature and see the various perspectives.


Mushroom Eyes. One of the unfortunate cultural sicknesses we have at present is what herbalist David Winston calls a “hardening of the mind.” The mind, like the heart, can harden to the point where we become so set in our ways that we can’t see beyond it. We close down, we refuse to see anything other than what we want to see (and for evidence of any of this, I point to the US election at present).  Mushroom eyes asks us to get beyond hardening of the mind by applying multiple lenses and many approaches with which to see the world.  This can mean working to see something from someone else’s point of view, or someone else’s set of experiences. Or to see something with our own lenses removed. It asks us to cultivate an openness and wisdom to see into the heart of issues within and without. This reseeing, through new perspectives, helps guide our inner growth with wisdom and grace. A second way of considering the principle of mushroom eyes for inner work is through the importance of the ternary and ternary thinking within the druid tradition. Western civilization loves binary thinking and often, issues are framed as having only two “sides” when the reality is that three, four, or even dozens of different perspectives may occur. I try to cultivate this practice in my own life by talking to those of diverse perspectives about their experiences, practicing deep listening, and really trying to put myself in other people’s shoes. Speaking to those of different cultural backgrounds and experiences, and even visiting other cultures and places can really help us develop inner mushroom eyes!


Design from the Patterns to Details. The hawk flying high asks us to consider our overall goals and patterns, and to use those overall goals and patterns to enact change on a daily or even minute-by-minute detail.  Its not enough to say “I want to change” but rather, we need to set the broad goals that can help us work down to the specifics. Articulating our overall goals, and time frames for those goals, in big terms; seeing how they can weave into the existing patterns of our lives, and then creating a long-term plan are all simple ways to develop inner landscape designs.  There are lots of ways to do this: I like vision boarding, which allows my subconsious and spirit to speak, rather than using my concious mind.  Second, I like setting personal goals for myself–not just what I want to accomplish, but what I want to cultivate (like good listening skills, joy in my life, less tangible things). Setting goals, even for our own inner transformation can help fuel our growth.  For example, if I wanted to work on my own sensitivity to others, I might set that as my larger goal and then set weekly goals of self-monitoring when I am easily upset or offended.  I check in on the progress of my yearly goals during the eight holidays of the year–and set new “yearly” goals for my own growth and development at each winter solstice. 


Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag

Fire is the embodiment of energy and change; it is the fuel through which we enact transformations on our inner landscapes. The stag in the heat of the chase facilitates our own healing and growth.


Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren)On the inner landscape, we should pay attention to our own energy flows and find out how to best harness them–for being masters of our own energy is one way to help us grow. Ultimately, how much energy we have on a daily basis determines everything in our lives: if we can pursue and adapt to our creative gifts, if we are able to meet our goals, how we balance our life and work, how we balance other demands–attending to our energy, and harnessing it for the things we really want to manifest, is key. There are many, many, aspects to this, so I’ll share a few here. First, we need to find out when we can best express our creative gifts or have the right energy to accomplish what we set to accomplish (for example, I like to write creatively during sunrise, and I drafted this post as the sun was peeking through the mountains!). Second, we can also explore ways of balancing our own energy and cultivating the positive aspects of energy in our lives (for this I like the daily protective working of AODA’s Sphere of Protection and OBOD’s light body exercise). Third, I’ve talked at points on this blog about the outer practice of using herbs for healing and support; they can be allies in helping us catch, store, and replenish our own energy. Finally, and most importantly, we need to see how our resources–especially our physical energy–is being replenished. If we are constantly drained and overworked, we are not catching and storing energy for our own growth and work that is most important to us. We need to evaluate our personal lives, work lives, and family lives to see how our energy is being used, and make sure it is in line with our goals (see above, “Design from the patterns to the details.”) A really interesting perspective on life energy and work is found in a book called Your Money or Your Life–it will totally change your relationship with your work!


Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): Spiraling changes also asks us to attend to our energy, but in a different way. This principle suggests that when we make change, we need to make it in a way that is both slow and spiraling; these changes in our inner landscapes are more effective than rash quick ones that can’t be maintained. This principle is about learning to sustain our own energy to  in our inner landscapes and our own healing and growth over the long term.  Spiritual development and inner work on ourselves is a long-term project; think of it like a snail shell where we are every growing, and yet, coming back around to visit things again and again from a deeper perspective.  Keeping momentum going, but momentum you can reasonably sustain, is key here. I’d also mention here the use of small daily reminders and rituals that can keep you on the path of positive change: a five minute daily ritual, even, can offer tremendous growth in your life in the long run.


Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). When I was in North Dakota some years ago, I went on a trail ride near the Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  The horses had walked this same trail so many times, that at points, the trail was at points 5 or six feet deep and quite dusty–we were literally walking in a deep rut in the desert, made by those horses feet over a period of decades.  This, to me, is a physical representation of a deeper truth:  how we can get stuck in the neural pathways of our own thoughts the more we engage in those thoughts. Change is a constant reminder that we either have to learn to adapt or be like those horses, only seeing the rut that we have inhabited for so long. That we are going to encounter difficulty and that things are going to change is inevitable–how we approach and use that change in our own lives determines so much of not only the immediate outcome, but the long-term growth we are able to have. A key part of this work recognizing change as an opportunity for growth. A good book on this subject is Carol Dweck’s Mindsets.  She describes two mindsets that people can have: growth (where change/challenge is viewed by an individual as an opportunity for growth) and fixed (where change/challenge is viewed by an individual as something to be defensive against).  Its more complicated than that, of course, but these two mindsets surrounding change and challenge really do have tremendous long-term implications for our own growth and development.  Seeing change in a positive light and looking for the good and opportunities even in challenging situations can seriously facilitate our own growth as human beings long term.


Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool

The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—this is certainly true of our inner landscapes as much as our outer ones.


Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). There are certainly many ways to take integrate rather than segregate. The one I’ll focus on here, however, is one that plagues so many of those in the druid community: the desire to live a whole, authentic, and unified self. So many of us find ourselves in unsupportive environments where we don’t feel we can be unified, and so, we live fragmented lives. We are “druids” in our houses or forests, and “professionals” in our workplaces and “parents” or “children” in our families…and this fragmentation grates on our souls. It takes facing your fears, cultivating the ground slowly, and really considering all aspects, for us to work to integrate our spiritual lives with our physical reality. Part of this means, of course, is finding ways of being open about who we are that allow us to navigate those tricky boundaries; a second part of this means living our principles and living in honor with the land through regenerative and sustainable living practices.  A third part might involve conversations with loved ones about our paths. This work is certainly not easy, but it is worth working towards: the integration and fullness of living who you truly are. I’ll be working on a post just on this topic in the near future!


Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison).  Layered purposes suggests, on the inner landscape, that many of the things we do can have more than one purpose. One of the challenges I put before me, for any inner work, is to see if I can find more than one take away or outcome from it: perhaps meditation gives me peace of mind, helps me work through a difficult problem, and reconnects me with nature.  Seeing the purpose, and the multiple purposes, of our daily spiritual practices are certainly useful!


Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren).  When I was taking my permaculture teacher training course this past summer, Lisa DiPiano shared the idea of “pushing your edges.” Each of us has an edge space–this is the space where we move from comfort to discomfort, the space where we don’t quite feel as at home, or the space where we are really in new territory.  Perhaps for our inner landscapes, these are the edges between two parts of ourselves (the “professional” and the “druid”), or the spaces between the “light” and the “darkness” within us, or the other places where we feel less comfortable. It is important to safely explore those edge spaces, as those are the spaces of the most change and growth.  Lisa suggetsed that we all bush just beyond our comfort zone–not so far as to get overwhelmed, but just far enough to know we are experiencing the discomfort that comes from learning and growing. You might think about the edge space like the rings of a tree: a tree grows each year, its bark expanding and another layer of life being added. Each time we push our edges, we are like the rings of that tree, growing stronger and more steady the more we are able to engage those edges and integrate those experiences.


Starry heavens

Starry heavens

Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens

The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material aspects of our lves; for the inner landscape, we focus on the outcomes and resources that we have.


Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This might seem on the surface like a principle that wouldn’t fit in inner landscape work, but truly, it is one of the most important.  The “fruits” of our efforts–of spiritual practice, of going into nature, of daily meditation, of inner healing work–can be difficult to measure and take stock in because the “yields” are less tangible–but not less real.  I think its important to consider our yields in our own lives: what do we cultivate and bring forth? Happiness? Peace? Creative gifts? Nurturing of others? Calmness of spirit and mind?  One of the ways I like to recognize the fruits of my efforts is to keep regular spiritual journals (a practice I started over a decade ago in my AODA work).  Then, usually at the Spring Equinox, which was the time when I began the druid path, I take time to review one or more of those journals, and to consider my journey ahead.  It is a tremendously useful practice which allows me to see just how far I’ve come and recognize the yields that I’ve gained. And, just as I discussed in the outer principle in my previous post, we need to expand our idea of “yield” to think about the many yields we can have: clarity, peace of mind, joy, creative projects, self expression, depth and understanding, better relationships with loved ones, and more.


Waste is a resource (Mollison):  As I’ve written about in past blog posts, we have a lot of waste in our culture, in both our outer lives and in our inner realms. On the inner realms this often includes the wasting of our own time and energy on things that do not help us grow.  I can (and have) written a lot on this subject in the past, so I’ll be brief here. Monitoring our own wasted time (for most, especially with electronic devices) and turning that waste into a resource that we can use is a really important part of our inner landscape work and growth. This is not something you do once but rather is a continual process of self monitoring and adjusting. Limiting time on social media, removing television from our lives, all of these things can help us get back in tune with ourselves and turn waste into a productive resource.


Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): On the inner landscape, we might think about those things in our lives that renew and replenish (and that renew and replenish us) vs. those things that drain us (temporarily or permanently) and work to embrace renewing activities.  This might mean that we spend time with certain people or we work to bring in certain activities that we enjoy and that bring us energy and peace. We don’t want any “fossil fuels” in our inner landscapes, burning out and polluting the place!  I think the practice of self-care fits here; it is critically important in our own inner and outer work.  If we are not engaging in renewing activities, we will never be able to have enough energy for the inner transformations and healing that we seek.


Meditation: One Key to Inner Landscape Work


I want to conclude this post by offering a key suggestion for enacting many of the principles above: meditation. Meditation is a practice that can–literally–open up our inner worlds before us.  There are many, many, different practices of meditation, many with different goals.  Most of the meditation I do on inner landscape work is either discursive in nature (a type of focused thought) or inner journeying work.  I find the more culturally dominant “empty mind” meditation or “mindfulness” meditation good for cultivating peace and tranquility, but not good for actually helping me work through various things on the inner landscape.  Now, I need peace in my life and I need to learn to quiet my mind–and these empty mind kind of meditations are really good for that.  But a lot of the work involved in the principles above are about directing your thinking and feeling in particular ways–and this is where I believe discursive meditation really shines.  So if you are going to take up the practice of meditation, understand that there are many different kinds of meditation and that these practices often accomplish very different goals. One meditation style may not yield everything that you need; it is better to have a few different styles available to you for different purposes.


Before you can benefit from any of the deeper aspects of meditation, the first step is establishing a regular baseline practice of breathwork and calming the mind.  Some good preliminaries are found here. For those seeking to establish such a daily meditation practice, I would recommend John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook or Druid Magic Handbook for more information. The techniques which JMG teaches, including color breathing and the four-fold breath (breathing in for four breaths, pausing for four breaths, breathing out for four breaths, pausing for four breaths) are great introductory ways to open the door of the mind to deeper transformation. Once you’ve established a good practice, you can do some of the more advanced inner landscape work.



I hope that you enjoyed this post–I would love feedback on the concept. (As those familiar with permaculture would note that  I am certainly pushing this series, and this post in particular, well beyond the typical uses of permaculture design principles). Blessings!


The Giving Garden: A Permaculture Design Site in the Making October 9, 2016

“We grow where we are planted.” This is the theme of a conversation on an earlier post from this year. All of us have the opportunity to do regenerative work in the world, in the spaces and places we already inhabit.  I want to offer examples of “growing where we are planted” when I am able–and today, I have an inspirational story of a new permaculture site in the making in my hometown.  We can see the permaculture principles at work, which makes a great continuation last week’s post.  Further, this post also will provide some additional ideas and suggestions for those who find themselves practicing sustainable living in apartments, cities, or other urban settings.


The Dust Settles: Opportunities for Transformation and Growth

I met a friend who recently moved into a building in in the downtown area of Indiana, PA. Trinity has owned this building for some time, but only recently began living there due to some challenging and changing life circumstances. Despite being in the building for only several months, she is already doing great work in terms of urban permaculture. Trinity’s long-term goals include the creation of a space to go, learn, create, and learn, both bardic arts as well as regenerative living.


Trinity is the second woman I’ve featured on this blog that has had major life changes lead to a new permaculture design site. Its interesting how some of the best things in life happen when we are overturned, unsettled, or otherwise stirred up from our comfortable places of being and inhabiting.  I’ve certainly understood that feeling well myself, especially in the last few years.  To use the metaphor from the Tarot, the tower crashes down, and once the dust settles, we can clear the rubble and build something new and better. Who wants a tower anyways? What about a rooftop or front yard garden? What about a giving tree?


This principle–of letting go and rebuilding–is a powerful lesson about the interplay between the power of doing good in the world and that of alchemy and personal transformation.  Our lives rarely go as we expect, and sometimes, a lot of difficult things happen to us in a very short period of time. We are left responding in whatever way we can–often, that means, physically moving somewhere new, leaving the beautiful homesteads and farms behind, and finding places to heal. What amazes me is the power of the human spirit to overcome personal difficulty and use it as a creative and regenerative force for good.  There is a powerful lesson in this for all of us–one, in my opinion, of the most important ones I know.  That we will face tragedy and challenge is part of being human.  What we do with that, how we transform it, what we build and grow from it, is what makes us shine.  So let’s spend some time with the bright light that is Trinity, and the space she is creating!


The Giving Garden: Use the Edges, Engage the Community

Trinity has no access to soil; rather, her building is on a main street, shares walls with adjacent buildings, and has concrete or brick on all four sides. Despite these challenges, she has rose to the occasion, “greening” the concrete, growing vegetables in nooks and crannies, and beginning many transformations. I’m excited to follow her journey here and see how her space develops. I think that her work can be inspirational to many of use who are living in very limited circumstances, be those financial, space-wise, and more.


One of the first things Trinity wanted to do was to bring a sanctuary space to the otherwise barren concrete of our downtown area. Earlier in this year, most of the trees on main street were cut down to do some road work, and the downtown has been looking very sad and sparse since.  Truthfully, I don’t even like walking downtown any longer since so many of the trees are gone. Trinity still does have a tree near her building on her street, but the adjacent street is completely barren.


Trinity has brought nature beautifully back into the space with the “Giving Garden.” Suddenly, as you walk, along the street is a burst of flowers, beauty, greenery; a space to sit, to enjoy some veggies, and to respond on a chalkboard to a regularly changing prompt.  We’ll first take a stroll through the giving garden, exploring it through photographs and exploring the different permaculture principles as well as common sense principles.

View from 6th Street!

View from 6th Street!

One of the keys to successfully creating publicly visible spaces (front lawn gardens, etc) is making sure they are beautiful, interesting, and pleasing to the eye. I wrote about this extensively in my discussion of Linda’s Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.  It doesn’t matter how functional it is–if people can see it, it needs to “look nice” and not be “overgrown” as that is associated with distending.  (This whole issue deserves its own treatment at some point–> the cultural assumption is that if we let nature grow unchecked, it is assumed that we no longer care for it!)  And so, Trinity has done a smart thing with not only growing some vegetables and herbs, but doing so in  way that draws people in.  Trinity has put a lovely invitation on the wall, letting people know how the space can be used and shared.

Invitation to share the space

Invitation to share the space

Trinity’s 30′ or so of frontage offers just sidewalk; and so to grow things, Trinity had to bring in soil, create beds, and build the space from scratch. Part of her design includes made many little “niches” in the space, creating a variety of different ways for passerby to interact. Here’s one such niche–a set of vines growing from foraged forest sticks as trellises.  This is not only visually pleasing but also offers free food (squash and beans) and enacts the permaculture principles of layered purposes and using the edges and valuing the margins.  Trinity is growing the vines out of tasteful planters.

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Another small “niche” she has designed is the sitting area, which shows up just after the squash and beans. This is a close up of the sitting area, where there is a blackboard where Trinity regularly updates the question that people can answer (and people do!) The sitting area invites people to come, be for a while, and simply to enjoy the space.  She’s asking people to observe, interact and intuit in this space.


Moving along the front, the next niche is the giving tree itself.  People can take and leave vegetables, gifts, and trinkets. Children come here and leave and take small toys, for example.  Again, there are a few principles happening here: stacking functions (visually pleasing, growing food, offering gifts), functional interconnection (seeing how the parts work together with the whole). There is very creative use of the edge space and margins (in this case, the otherwise unused edge of the building).  This space is also working on multiple levels: in this case, the social/community as well as the ecological.

Giving Tree area

Giving Tree area

Finally, there are the areas near the stairs and leading up to the actual building that have more vegetables, flowers for pollinators, and more.  Trinity is obtaining a yield with her herbs and veggies and also working to redistribute surplus and engage in people care and fair share.

Herbs and veg in front edge space

Herbs and veg in front edge space


Front edge spaces

Front edge spaces from another angle.

One of the things you can see here is how she used rocks and built a bed to build soil. The other thing she did (which I’ll describe in more detail below) is use old feed bags, straw, and small amounts of soil to grow a real vegetables! This is embracing renewables and freely available resources.

And finally, after walking past this delightful space, you feel welcomed as you enter the building.

Welcome to the building!


What I like about this as a permaculture demonstration site is that it is intensive, functional, and engaging.  Each day, it brightens the downtown area and community, while clearly demonstrating many of the principles that can help us live more rengeneratively. This is a wonderful example of how people in urban settings can do so much!


The Rooftop Garden: Obtain A Yield

The other outdoor space that Trinity is intensively working is the only space where she has full solar gain–the rooftop.  She has a serious start to a lovely rooftop garden, even getting her vegetables in late (late June) due to her recent move.  Recently, when I visited with her, she fed me celery and tomatoes from this very rooftop garden!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Trinity has re-used old feed bags as planters. They hold water, are extremely light (to not put undue stress on the building roof), and are otherwise using waste as a resource.  Essentially what she did is use the “strawbale garden” technique in feed bags instead–planting her veggies in a small amount of soil in the center of the bed, but growing primarily in straw as the growing media.  This technique does require the plants to be watered fairly frequently, but it works well (and Trinity and I have talked about the possibility of drip irrigation for her garden next year).

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view from the rooftop garden–again, the green is an incredible contrast to the urban concrete and buildings.  This rooftop garden could be expanded quite a bit to grow tons of food.  The light colored roof will also help reflect the heat and keep the veggies cooler in the hottest months.  Trinity is consulting with an engineer to see the possibilities long-term for the garden in terms of weight, etc.

Rooftop garden beds!

Rooftop garden beds!

Trinity’s tomatoes are trellised on some old antenna cables and wiring–also repurposed. As you can see, she is certainly getting a great yield out of this garden!  And this is only the beginning–I can’t wait to see what she continues to do next year🙂.



This is just a small slice of some of the outdoor things that Trinity has been doing in her new abode–I’m excited to see where she goes next.

Gift Exchanges and Sharing: People Care and Fair Share

Another fun thing that Trinity recently did to engage the community and encourage alternative narratives surrounding sharing and “stuff.”  A few weeks ago, our town hosted the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival; it includes music, food, vendors, and a variety of classes (I offered a vermicomposting class, for example). Trinity put out a whole “free” spread in front of her building that encouraged people to take anything they like, leave anything they like, and make a donation.  Many people didn’t know what to think of this (it is so far outside of mainstream capitalism today!) but caught on and joined in on the fun!

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

On the broader scale, this kind of action links with the gift economy movement. Gift economies and circles are springing up all over the USA, and certainly, have been in place in many parts of the world.  It functions entirely different set of assumptions: it is about care and support, not exchange. I linked above to Charles Eisenstein’s discussion of the Gift Economy, which I think is a good place to understand this philosophy better.


Growing Where We are Planted

Trinity is embracing the idea of “growing where she is planted.”  Every space we inhabit has its limitations–in the case of Trinity, she has no soil.  Instead, she has turned the problem into a solution by capializing on what she does have: frontage, visability, and a beautiful roof with solar gain.  Trinity literally grows where she is planted on many levels. Its a beautiful representation of the three permaculture ethics: earth care (growing things, pollinator plants, bringing greenery back into concrete); people care (offering free food, sitting space, beauty, community), and fair share (giving to others any surplus).  I hope you have found her work to be inspirational on your own paths, especially for those of you in limited living circumstances. I will continue to follow her on this blog as the space develops and grows!


Permaculture for Druids: Design Principles through the Five Elements October 2, 2016

Humans throughout history have looked to nature as the ultimate teacher; nature is the sacred text from which all wisdom flows. As druids, we know the more time you spend in nature, the more you align with its rhythms, and the more you discover its many teachings. One of the reasons I am so committed to permaculture design as part of my outer druid practice, is that permaculture design is rooted in that same natural wisdom. The permaculture design principles, which I’ll be discussing today in this post, are the core of permaculture: we use them, along with the three ethics, to help us make every decision, not only for design work, but also for daily living. If we are going to continue our journey into the inner and outer realms of permaculture, and how this concept ties to druidry and other earth-based spiritual practices, a discussion of the design principles is our logical next step!


The elements

The elements

The Design Principles with a Druid Lens

I’ll be drawing my principles from three sources: Holmgren’s (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, Mollison’s Permaculture One, as well as from my Kay Cafasso’s Sowing Solutions Permaculture Design Certificate course.


I’ve also found it useful to group the principles under one banner of the elements and the druid animals (with my own addition of the bee of inspiration for spirit). The principles don’t all work in the same way, and this grouping helps us understand them in a new light.  In terms of the actual principles, in some cases,  I have kept the principles the same. But in other cases, I have adapted these principles to be shared and most applicable to those following nature-based, earth-centered paths. This meant that I may given them a more appropriate name that will better resonate with our values, and in other cases, I have created new principles that are rooted in the spiritual traditions in honoring the living earth.


I want to note that my lens is by no way present in mainstream permaculture, although certainly can be found on the fringes of the current movement and, I believe, is being woven more and more into permaculture as a practice. As people regenerate and heal the land, they are naturally drawn to it spiritually. As a druid, know that these principles go much deeper. I’ve also included the original design principle in parenthesis when necessary.


Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee

The principles of spirit, through the magic of the bee, ask us to observe what is around us, to rethink and resee those experiences, and to understand the connections to all things.  Bees are master alchemists; they transform nectar into honey that can stay preserved for 1000 years.  Bees embody the principle of transformation, teaching us that we, too, can work our magic upon our earth, especially if we work collectively.


Observe, Interact, and Intuit (Observe and Interact, Holmgren). This principle is simple—it asks you, before you do anything else, to spend time observing your surroundings, interacting with them in a non-judgmental way, and (and this is my addition) using your intuition to guide you. We can gain incredible insight from this simple activity, and using the information before us is a way into all else. All living beings use this same principle: observing, interacting, and working on instinct to survive and thrive.  We do this in the AODA, where members are asked to spend at 15 minutes a week in nature in stillness and focus, for example.


Reflect and Revise (Apply self-regulation and value feedback, Holmgren). This principle has two parts, and we’ll briefly consider each. There is tremendous value in when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions—this is the act of reflection. Reflection, through meditation, journaling, and quietude is a cornerstone of nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.


Work on Multiple Levels (New principle). There are a few ways to think about this principle, derived from both systems theory and hermetic occult philosophy. On the side of systems theory, we need to have an awareness and engage in designs that allow us to consider and work on multiple levels: the micro/individual, and the macro/system.  When we recognize that a single element is part of a larger system, that changes the way we think about that system and about that element.  Working on multiple levels encourages us to think in these two perspectives at once, and consider the interplay between them. This same interplay also takes place between the inner and outer realms. The bee, as both an individual and as a superorganism, helps us better understand this principle: a solitary bee functions on her own, but does so as part of that larger hive (system of bees) working for collective good.


On the hermetic side, this practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on our inner realms. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. It is a principle that is well worth including here, as this principle has been enacted by humans, upon the landscape, for millennia. Outer transformations lead to inner transformations, and vice versa. We heal the land, we heal ourselves.


Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

The air principles focus on integrating our knowledge and wisdom to see more paths before us and using the power of air through our logic, intellect, and pattern recognition. These principles ask us to embody the energy of the hawk: first to fly high, take stock of what is before us, and offer us new was of experiencing and interacting as we begin the path towards positive change.


The Problem is the Solution (Mollison). This is one of my favorite of the principles, and for good reason. We spend so much of our lives hearing about the problems that plague us and feeling unable to address any of them. This principle turns that powerlessness on its head and suggests that the solution to any problem lies within the nature of the problem itself. For example, lawns are contributing substantially to climate change and the loss of ecological diversity; and the solution is there before us: change the nature of the lawn.  It is often than when we look at problems not as insurmountable obstacles, but as opportunities, we can do a tremendous amount of good.


Mushroom Eyes (New Principle). This principle is one I first learned as a wild food forager and mushroom hunter. Before we can act, we must see and in order to see we must understand. Observation and interaction is part of this, but mushroom eyes How we see the world is how we inhabit it and how we interact with it. You might think of this is seeing through different lenses–when you put the lenses on, everything is colored by that experience. But these are lenses of knowledge and wisdom. Think about the hawk here—he knows exactly what he is going for. Nature wisdom is about not only awareness but knowledge. Animals teach their young skills necessary to survive; and humans, part of nature, used to teach these same natural lessons to their own offspring. So there is a knowledge component that is necessary for us to do design, and mushroom eyes helps us be able to see in deeper ways.


Design from the Patterns to Details (Mollison). Sometimes, when we are working to solve a problem, we focus on a specific thing we want to do (e.g. I want to build a waterfall) without thinking about the overall patterns (in this case, is there an existing resource flow? What is the overall pattern in the landscape?). Often, designing this way leads to trouble because you have the specific elements you want but you are missing the larger goals and purpose. This principle asks us to start with the biggest picture, like the outer edge of a spiral, and slowly work our way into the details of the problem. We think about the patterns of nature and energy first, and then work or way down to the specifics of that design. We design with the goals first and work our way down to the specific details of how we enact those goals. By starting with the larger patterns that nature provides, we can more effectively design–and attend–to the small stuff.


Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag

Fire is about energy and change, and these three principles embody what we can do with energy and the many shifting changes around us. The Great White Stag is present in these principles as he lords over the forest: change is a constant in our great earth, and it is the many cycles such as the path of the sun, that we can harness for better life and living.


Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren)We live in a time of tremendous expenditure and waste of energy–this principle suggests that we catch and store that energy instead. If we look at a forest as our example, we see that forests are exceedingly effective at harnessing and storing any energy available: the trees grow in fractal patterns to store solar energy, and that solar energy is used over and over again, cycling through the system. In our own lives and designs, catching and storing energy to put to productive use is a key principle. This energy is any resource: external resources like sun, wind, or water and inner resources like time, joy, or passion.  We can harness that energy and store it, later to be used. Humans currently have an unbalanced relationship with energy, and it is cause devastation throughout our lands. This principle, then, asks us to be mindful and think about existing energy flows and how they can be most effectively used.


Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks.  When we enact spiraling changes, we focus on what is managable for us in that moment and how to build momentum over time.  Because, in reality, it are the small things, done over a period of time, that leave the most lasting impact.Rather than starting big and going all out with a 3 acre design, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. The principle of the spiral is critical here. We can’t burn ourselves out with trying to do too much, too quickly, and we can’t maintain our momentum. This principle also asks us to consider, for example, the role of ecological succession: we like to create designs thinking 100 years in the future, not just the immediate goals of tomorrow.


Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). Change happens whether or not we want it to; the world is always moving. Rather than see change as a bad thing, in permaculture we anticipate and embrace changes as a way to open up new possibilities and growth. This closely ties to one of the air principles, “the problem is the solution.”  We often see change as a negative thing–we like how things are going, we don’t want things to be different.  But change brings opportunity, if only we can see it.  Here’s an example: I try putting up an arbor and my plants are so abundant that the thing collapses without adequate support.  A creative response to this is to cut the vines back, use the cuttings for wreaths, and build a better arbor that allows me to sit under it!



Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool

The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—and the three water principles ask us to attend to those connections. In order to be effective as practitioners and designers of permaculture, we have to pay attention to many relationships. Permaculture, like druidry, is ultimately a path of understanding and facilitating connections and relationships, and the energy of water helps do this very thing.


Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). When you look at a typical vegetable garden, you see the veggies all in nice little rows, just waiting to eaten by whatever pest enjoys a good monocrop. Permaculture sees things differently: a healthy forest, after all, is never a monocrop but rather an integrated system. By integrating multiple elements in a design, we allow them to work with each other for good. This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs; a diverse ecosystem is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield. So, too, is a diverse group of people more resilent! This principle asks us to consider how each part in a system is related to each other and to the whole system. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together, rather than in isolation. This principle also builds on the spirit principle of working on multiple levels and understanding better how each individual part plays a role.


Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison). This principle suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions, there are others).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations. The more purposes a single element has, the more effective the design.  Any single plant or animal species in the forest offers an example: an oak tree provides shade, captures the energy of the sun, prevents erosion, drops leaves to offer habitat, offers nuts, and so many more things.


Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren). As a wild food forager and herbalist, I know that the margins are always the most abundant and diverse in an ecosystem–that’s where I go for much of my medicine and food. The edge of the pond or forest is where the activity is happening, where the bursting of life is taking place. This same principle can be applied to many other things: it is often at those edge spaces where we find the most interesting things happening!  This can be the space between a forest and a field, the edge of your yard or, even, the spaces between two people, the spaces where we overlap.


Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens

The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material things: what we do with the resources that we have and how we gain those resources. The earth principles ask us to manage and understand our own resources so that we can live in an earth-centered way.  The bear, and his medicine, is often of root, seed, and stone.


Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This basic principle says that we should work to obtain some kind of yield for our efforts. However, in permaculture, the idea of a yield is not limited to that which benefits humans (like a crop of tomatoes). Yields can certainly include food and medicine (the most obvious) but also intangibles like beauty, harmony, and peace. Yields in the natural environment can include blooms for nectar; fruit, seeds, and nuts for wildlife; habitat; soil fertility; erosion prevention, and more. This principle asks us to go beyond our own immediate needs and understand, ultimately, that the abundance of nature is for all to benefit from.  Nature is a great provider, and intentional design can help maximize the many yields she offers.  This principle also asks us to see a yield beyond that which is immediately physically beneficial to our own lives.


Waste is a resource (Mollison): Our culture is drowning in our own waste; I detailed some of the problems we have with waste in earlier posts on waste and humanure. In permaculture, waste (of any kind) is seen as a resource that has not yet been given a proper place.  We can work to, as Holmgren says, “produce no waste” by focusing our efforts on redirecting waste streams towards productivity.  For example, human waste and urine can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Old office paper can be turned into greeting cards using basic papermaking practices.  Spent grains from brewing can be added to the compost pile, and so on. Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling and instead encourages us to re-envision our waste streams.


Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): Stemming from the permaculture ethic of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. Our planet has finite resources and the extraction of these resources is causing increasing suffering, destruction, pollution, and habitat loss. In permaculture, we instead embrace things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy).  When we integrate renewables into our designs, we slow and/or eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.



Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

Weaving the Design Principles and Elements into Practice

Just as we weave together the elements in rituals and in our own lives, so too, can we weave the different permaculture principles into our daily living.  As I discussed in my post last week, these principles aren’t just useful to us as “designers” when we are planning, but they also can be useful to us as mantras for meditation and just as principles for daily living–I try to use the principles as I go about my daily practice.  In the past, when I was first learning permaculture, I spent a month intensively studying each of the principles (you could do this for a week or even a day). This meant that for the “problem is the solution” month, I would spend time reflecting on it in meditation and working to embody the principle, seeing where it would work in my daily life, and using it to explore and think through larger societal problems.


It has taken me the better part of two years to come to this understanding of permaculture and how it maps onto the druid animals and elemental symbolism. I hope that this framing, along with my new additions and revisions to the principles, are a useful way of understanding these principles and how they can work in your life. In our next post, we’ll explore these same principles from an “inner landscape” perspective and then subsequent posts will move into exploring each individual principle and how we can use it to change our lives, regenerate our lands, and better our world.


PS: I especially want to thank David N. for his conversations and feedback on this line of thinking!


Permaculture: Design by Nature and the Magic of Intentionality September 25, 2016

I’m sure each one of us have had times where we hadn’t through though something, the thing happened, and it took a direction we hadn’t intended it to take. A little bit of forethought could have made all the difference, perhaps turned a failure into a success. My early attempts at gardening were like this–I didn’t have a plan, I put seeds in the ground without knowing how tall or wide the plants got, and then they came up and things went wild quite quickly!  Sometimes, serendipity took over and I had great successes, if I could manage to weave my way through the thicket of tangles to the harvest. Other times, my plants were crowded out or strangled by each other or my harvest only lasted for a short time. What I learned, through permaculture and organic farming courses was this: a well thought out plan maximizes your yields, minimizes your time, and creates beautiful spaces. I started creating plans, working with nature, and suddenly, my gardens greatly improved!


Patterns of nature in a thistle!

Patterns of nature in a thistle!

When people talk about permaculture, they talk about it as a “design system.” One of the definitions of permaculture I work with goes like this: “Permaculture is a design system, rooted in patterns of nature, that helps humans restore and regenerate ecosystems while providing for their own needs.” What does it mean to be a designer? What do we do when we “design?” Why do we care so much about design? And how can design”in a permaculture sense be woven into our other spiritual practices? In this post, we’ll explore the principles of design and  magic of intentionality as two of the cornerstones of the intersection between permaculture, and nature-based spiritual practice.


A lot of us feel really lost and confused with what’s going on in the world.  We feel very reactive rather than proactive.  We feel like we need to keep responding to things coming at us, rather than intentionally addressing, in advance, our own circumstances.  Things move so quickly, stuff happens, and we find ourselves always trying to keep our balance. Its the nature of things, you might even say, its by design–just not our own. As a culture, we focus on problems, not on responses to problems–we are always hearing and focusing on everything that is going wrong.


But, what if we could reverse those scales a bit, and begin by designing our own lives and designing our interactions with the world?  That’s essentially, what a big part of permaculture is about, and why we use the concept of design. The idea of design, of intentionally and thoughtfully planning in advance, can be of great service to all of us. Design gives us power, in the sense that it gives us a plan to address problems we see. If more of us were able to take the energy we invest in problems (reading about them, experiencing them firsthand, etc.) and turn that into designing responses and enacting change, our world would be a very different place!


Design and the Flow of Awen

There are a lot of fields and practices that use design in some way, and if we are going to dig into what permauclture design is and why its useful to us as druids and others on nature-centered paths, let’s start with a few definitions. Merriam Webster Dictionary suggests that to design is to:

  • to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully
  • to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose
  • to think of (something, such as a plan) : to plan (something) in your mind
  • to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan:
  • to assign in thought or intention; purpose:

From these definitions we get a few key pieces: design includes the practice of planning, in the mind or on paper, for some purpose.  Design is about goals–what we set in advance and bring into being. We use our minds, our creativity, our artistic skill, and the powers of observation to conceive of some kind of plan, which we can then execute and adapt as necessary. Part of this design work is, of course, setting intentions and following through with those intentions.


There’s also, implicit in these definitions of design, that design isn’t simply about planning ahead, but rather, that there is an art to the process.  Creativity, the flowing of awen, must be part of our designs. Designs in permaculture aren’t just simple plans, they are creative responses we can use to better adapt human needs to natural ones.  In this sense, it ties to the entire line of bardic arts–those of working with the hands, with the mind, with the flow of awen to design spaces, places, communities, and more.

Natural Building Inspired by Nature's Patterns and Designs

This flow of awen comes, in permaculture, and in druidry, from the living earth herself.  Patterns in nature teach us patterns we can replicate in our more well-tended spaces.  Principles in nature teach us principles we can encact in our homes and lives.  Nature, then, is the ultimate designer and teacher: all that we can hope to do, and do well, is replicate her understandings.


Design and Magic of Intentionality

Further, in druid practice and other earth-centered spiritual practices, I think we can also tie design directly to the concept of intention in the magical sense of the word.  You often set “intentions” when you begin a ritual–the goals for the ritual, why we gather, why we open the space. Intentions help us direct activity and actions–these are things we want to accomplish. In magical work, we often leave the designs itself to the universe/spirits/diety/etc. We set intentions, raise energy, and send it out. But in permaculture, we take a more focused hand. Designs give us the plans that we need to move forward in collaboration and communion with the living earth.


I’m not saying that inteintionality and design are the same: they are not.  But I am saying that they are related acts, and come from the same place in the heart: the desire to accomplish good in the world, and to enact positive change.


Nature’s Designs

Nature's designs....

Nature’s designs….

The other side to permaculture, of course, is that it is a design system that replicates the many patterns and connections already present in the natural world. Whether you believe in higher hands guiding natural development or simply in evolutionary processes doesn’t really matter–what matters is that nature has an incredible wealth of information to teach us, patterns to show us, if only we are ready to see them.

In Permaculture Design, we use nature’s designs in at least two ways:


Conceptually, we design using principles and patterns in nature.  This means that we try to replicate the natural processes that already occur: designing with ecological succession in mind (I design for 100 years, not 1!), trapping and using existing energy flows, designing polycultures (groups of diverse plants) that support each other, and so on.  When we look to nature as our master designer, what we create is more effective.


Visually, we design using patterns in nature.  A leaf keyhole pattern in a garden means maximized space and beauty; a wave pattern is visually asthetic and offers many edges and margins; a spiral pattern replicates ancient truths.  We visually create designs rooted in nature and that replicate her patterns.


What are the Design Principles?

In the tradition of many hermits, one day in the early 1970’s, Bill Mollison got fed up with society, went into the forest, spent a lot of time observing and simple being present, found wisdom there, and came out with his first draft of the design principles. Of course, as I wrote about in an earlier post on this series, Mollison was giving a new treatment to ancient truths. The design principles are, in essence, those small lessons that nature has taught humanity over and over again, its quite and yet profound way.


I see them a lot like lights and markers along an otherwise dark path—we stumble in the dark, but the light of the principles helps guide our way. But to me, the design principles are more than just “design” principles—they are principles for living and being in the world. I use them from everything from themes for discursive meditation to mantras for daily living—here are three ways they can be used:


Wave Pattern in Garden

Wave Pattern in Garden

Good Decisions. First and foremost, the design principles help us make better, smarter decisions that are earth-centered and earth-honoring. When I’m deciding how to do anything, the principles are there, helping me guide my decision. For example: I’m faced with the prospect of a bunch of leftover food after an event on campus. The design principles offer some simple solutions through “produce no waste” or “waste is a resource.” How then, can I turn this waste into a resource? Take it home, compost it, feed it to a friend’s chickens, and so forth.


Good Design. Of course, beyond immediate life decisions, the design principles offer us much in the way of good design. I’ll be going into the principle of design more in an upcoming post, but in a nutshell, one definition of design is, “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object” ( This is to say, if we use the design principles for good design, we can live our lives and create/inhabit our spaces with intention and forethought in an ethical, nature-centered way.


Meditation Mantras. The third way the design principles work (at least for me) is as mantras for meditation. Deep meditation and reflection upon the nature of the design principles can lead to a more robust understanding not only of how to use them in your life, but in interacting and understanding nature. For example, “use the edges and value the marginal” leads us to understand nature’s patterns but also my own spiritual practices.


Designing the Inner and Outer Realms

What I love so much about permaculture as a system of design is that it can be applied just about anywhere.  Just as the permaculture ethics (which I wrote about in the last post in this series, and in the distant past) can be applied to both inner and outer work, so too, can the entire permaculture design system be applied to both our inner and outer realms.


Here’s what I mean: one permaculture design principle, which we’ll talk more about next week is: observe, interact, and intuit. This principle is exceedingly useful in considering for our outer landscapes, in that we can observe through the seasons to come to an understanding about how to create beautiful and regenerative spaces. We can observe the flows of nature and energy, note the challenges before us, and pay attention to the changing light, heat, and flows to understand the best approach to developing and regenerating this particular piece of land.


Leaf Patterns

Leaf Patterns

But the same principle can be equally effective on the inner landscape: we can step back from ourselves and observe our feelings, our interactions, our inner realms–and this can be deeply useful in our own healing and growth as human beings.  In fact, each of the permaculture principles of design, which I’ll be talking about quite soon in my own druidic way, can function on the outer and the inner–both as a way to design outer functional landscapes of any kind (cities, communities, homes, gardens, farms, campuses, etc) but also work deeply within our inner landscapes.  This series will weave between those two aspects of permaculture as a practice and a system of design.



Design offers us a kind of compass and roadmap for the journey ahead.  It takes the guesswork out of things, and instead, helps us plan carefully and effectively before enacting those plans in a meaningful and ethical way.  Design connects directly to patterns in nature, allowing us to carefully understand and replicate those patterns in our own inner and outer landscapes. As simple as design  is as an idea, the actual practice of design takes a bit more work.  In our next post (next week) we’ll explore the design principles as they weave through the four elements and continue to spiral inwards into understanding the relationship of permaculture and druidry.
PS: After posting this, I learned that yesterday Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, passed from his earthly body.  I am delighted to be sharing some of his wisdom with you, and I want to take a moment to honor the work that he has done, and the movement he has created.


Wild Food Recipe: Autumn Olive Fruit Leather at the Equinox September 21, 2016

I can’t get enough of autumn olives. I wrote about them, honoring them, around this time last year and shared my autumn olive jelly recipe. In my area, the sacred time of the equinox is the sacred time to go out and gather–it is just when they start getting really tasty and ready to harvest in large quantity!  This year, I introduced a number of new friends to them, and we gorged ourselves eating handfuls of them for hours.  I wanted to share, today, my favorite recipe for these delightful treats–a fruit leather recipe!

Autumn Olive Close up

Autumn Olive, Close up

So, let’s just start by saying that Autumn Olive is awesome, and it is certainly one of our first responder plants–fixing nitrogen in the soil, bringing health and fertility back to the land, providing nectar and habitat, and perhaps most awesomely, producing bountiful tasty berries that are high in lycopene and delicious.  I know some people crab about it, but that’s not the subject of this post–instead, we are here to celebrate Autumn Olive’s awesomeness with another recipe.


A few words of advice on harvesting–different bushes ripen at slightly different times, and may have smaller or larger fruits. They also have slightly different flavors–taste your way around bushes, if you have options, and find the ones that have abundance and excellent flavor. Usually, the harvest window on these is a few weeks, up to a month, if you have access to a lot of bushes. I have more details on harvesting and finding them in my earlier post.

Amazing Autumn Olive in the Equinox Afternoon Sun!

Amazing Autumn Olive in the Equinox Afternoon Sun! Oh beautiful, bountiful one!

Autumn Olive Fruit Leather

For this fruit leather recipe, you want to get at least 8 or so cups of autumn olives (not hard most years).  Look for trees that have extra juicy and abundant berries–if you look around, you will likely find enough. The nice thing is that this recipe has one ingredient (or two, if you want to add some honey) so you don’t really need to measure anything.


  • Autumn Olives (fresh and rinsed)
  • Small amount of water
  • Honey (if desired; makes sweeter)

Note that this fruit leather recipe works for any fruit–you may have different ways of processing your fruit (removing seeds, pits, etc) but essentially you need cooked (or pureed raw) fruit and optional sweetener.  It really is that easy!


Making Your Fruit Leather: Step by Step

Preparing the autumn olives. You are going to start out by “garbling” your autumn olives. This means you want to make sure there aren’t little spiders, or bugs, or something that isn’t autumn olive in with your mix.  Also pull out any leaves, etc, that might have gotten harvested.  As part of the garbling, I like to give them a rinse and save any little bugs who accidentally got harvested.

Autumn olives after harvesting

Autumn olives after harvesting – like little gems waiting to be eaten

Now, add your autumn olives to a pot and start mashing.  You will likely need to add a bit of water (I added about 1/2 a cup for my 8 or so cups of autumn olives) to get a good mash and make sure they don’t burn.  As they cook, they mash easily.  Here’s a photo after about 5 min of cooking.

Cook them and mash them!

Cook and mash!

As you cook and mash, stir frequently to prevent burning.  You’ll see that as they cook, they turn really opaque and creamy.  Eventually, you’ll end up with some autumn olive puree, that will look like this.

Autumn Olive Puree

Autumn Olive Puree – finger lickin’ delicious!

It doesn’t matter if they are 100% mashed–what I have above is fine for the food mill that I own.

At this point, you will want to let it cool a bit and then remove the seeds.  The best way to remove the seeds is with a small food mill. You can find these readily at thrift stores, garage sales, and the like. Here’s mine in action.

Food mill taking out the seeds

Food mill taking out the seeds

The nice thing about cooking is that it kills the seeds, so you don’t have to worry about thousands of autumn olives coming up in your compost pile. After you have processed all the autumn olive (which takes maybe 5-10 min) you can then add any sweetening agents you’d like.  I find that honey and autumn olive go perfectly together.  In this case, I had some amazing early season honey that was actually made from autumn olives and I added this.  Talk about full circle!  Wow!

Early spring autumn olive honey!

Early spring autumn olive honey.  I can’t believe this survived a whole year of me eating it.

I added honey to taste–for my batch, about 4 tablespoons took the edge off the tartness and added delightful sweetness. To incorporate the honey, the mixture should still be warm (or you can warm it up again on the stove, but stir frequently!)

Transfer the mixture to some dehydrator trays.  Sometimes it can stick, which you can address by slightly greasing the trays (although it will come off).  Wax paper doesn’t’ work nearly as well, and if it dries out too much, can get really stuck on there permanently.

Ready to dehydrate!

Ready to dehydrate – don’t spill your trays!

Then, you dehydrate till the water is gone–typically, somewhere around 24 hours depending on your dehydrator.  You could also do this in the oven on the lowest setting with the oven door slightly cracked.

Autumn olive fruit leather is super flavorful and amazing.  I like to take little bits of it out on the trail with me and eat it with nuts, etc.  It stores well for over a year in a simple mason jar (cool, dark place).  I hope you enjoy this recipe–and happy foraging!


Balance at the Equinox: Magical Crafting a Balancing Mobile September 18, 2016

When I was a new druid, many moons ago, I celebrated my first holiday with another person at the Fall Equinox. During that celebration, my friend had the idea that we could do a holiday craft, what we ended up calling a “balance mobile.”  In the weeks leading up to the Equinox, we gathered up materials representing the four elements and then, at the Equinox, crafted them carefully into small mobiles. We took these mobiles to a river shore, where we did a ritual to bless and empower them.


A beautiful balance mobile!

A beautiful balance mobile!

In the years since, I have often made these little balance mobiles as gifts for druid friends as ways for us to remember to work to balance our lives.  The mobile offers both a reminder for the need to balance our lives, a physical representation, and also a “gauge” for the ways we might be unbalanced. I think its a nice follow-up to my article last month about finding equilibrium in these difficult times.


So, as an equinox activity, I wanted to show you today how to make such a little mobile and share with you the simple ritual for empowering it.  This is a wonderful equinox activity to do with friends, loved ones, or just by yourself to celebrate this powerful day.  It doesn’t require artistic talent, and it can be done with really simple things, like printed out images or photographs.  In fact, the mobile I started to design for this post will be finished with some friends next week as part of our own ceremony for a new group!


Three Versions of a Balance Mobile

The first decision you have to make is to the nature of what the mobile represents.  It can represent either a balancing of the inner and outer realms (version 1) or a personally focused/inner work focused mobile that emphasizes the relationships between mind, body, spirit, and the creative arts (version 2).  Or you can just work with the elements themselves! Choose one you like, or use these as a basis for your own interpretation.


Version 1: Balance of the Inner and Outer Realms

  • East – Air – Balance of the Mind
  • South – Fire – Balance in Work/Outside life/outside obligations
  • West – Water – Balance in the Heart
  • North – Earth – Balance in the Home and Hearth
  • Center – Spirit – For centering and balance

In this version of the mobile, you are working to balance both external aspects (your work and/or community life and outside obligations; your home life/family) as well as your own inner mind and heart. This version works well for people who are feeling pulled in many directions, with little time for themselves and their own inner work.  The energy of this particular mobile can help you balance all the many things going on in life.


Version 2: The Inner Work Mobile

The second version of this mobile is fully inner focused, with different representations at each of the directions/quarters.

  • East – Air – The Mind, knowledge seeking and learning
  • South – Fire – The Creative and bardic arts; expressing and exploring one’s gifts and purpose
  • Water – West – The Heart, Intuition, and spiritual life; exploring the inner realms
  • Earth – North – The Body, working on the physical vitality, rejuvenation, replenishment, and restoration of your physical home while on this plane
  • Spirit – Center – The center of all things; connection to the divine

This second version is particularly good for people who are currently doing a lot of inner work or work on themselves in some way; its good for those who are inward focused, whether that is on working on themselves physically, mentally, or spiritually.


Version 3: The Elemental Mobile

If you want, you can keep it more abstract and just work with the elements themselves, allowing them to flow in your life. Here’s some simple correspondences, colors, and animals from the druid tradition for this version.

  • East – Air -Yellow – Spring Equinox –  The Hawk
  • South – Fire -Red  – Summer Solstice –  The Stag
  • Water – West – Blue  – Fall Equinox – The Salmon
  • Earth – North – Green – Winter Solstice – The Bear
  • Spirit – Center – White/Silver – Time of No Time – (Interpretations vary, I use the soil web of all life for this)


Materials Gathering

Now that we have a sense of the mobiles themselves and what they represent.  The next step is gathering up your supplies to create the mobile.  I want to share what you’ll need:

  • Representations of each of the five elements
  • String, wire, ribbon, yarn to hang the five elements
  • Sticks or strong wire (coat hanger, etc) to hold the mobile together
  • Beads, feathers, and other embellishments for decoration


My elemental representations

My elemental representations

Representations of each of the five elements:
The entire mobile is based on the representations you will have at the for corners of the mobile, and if you choose, also at its center.  You want some small objects, of about the same weight, that represent each of the elements as they are manifesting in your mobile (version 1, 2, 3 or some other version you create for yourself).  For my original mobile, I created paintings, and then wrapped them around some air dry clay.  I then sealed the whole thing. My friend created small sewn items that she hung.  Other friends have shaped things of air dry clay, or painted images, or used small rounds of wood and printed out images–it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as they are clearly representative of the element and meaningful to you.


You can, for example, gather four smooth stones, paint them, wire them, and affix them to your mobile.  You could paint and hang four used canning jar lids! You can print out images you really like and glue them to some cardboard.  It doesn’t matter–what matters is that you have something that resonates with you and that is of equal weight. (If they are not equal weight, hanging extra beads to balance them out is also ok!).


For finding your items, I would really recommend repurposed items or found items for these as we all work to tread lightly on the earth.


String, wire, ribbon, yarn, etc.  The look of your mobile is very much up to you.  Some funyky and fun ribbon or yarn can add a lot to your mobile. But even simple string or wire will do!  You can find ribbon, wire, yarn, etc most of these kinds of things at yard sales/thrift shops really cheaply (if you don’t already have a stash).


Sticks for the mobile itself.  For my mobile, I created a hanging apparatus out of river sticks–I had gathered many of them along a river, and fashioned them into a small box-structure, and then my mobile pieces hung from the four corners (see photos).  River sticks work well for this, as do any other fallen sticks or found sticks.  Even Popsicle sticks are fine!  An easy way to do this (which I demonstrate below in the photos) is to find two sticks of about equal length, and drill holes right through the center.  Then you can add a simple string and a knot, and you are in business!

Start with two nice sticks (in my case, two pieces of bark gathered near a waterfall)

Drill a hole right through the center of both sticks. The more centered you are, the more it will hang centered (which matters!)

Drill a hole right through the center of both sticks. The more centered you are, the more it will hang centered (which matters!)

Put a string through both and let them hang. You can now drill more holes for the four edges. You can also put a knot below it, and then let the string hang down for something in the center!

Put a string through both and let them hang. You can now drill more holes for the four edges. You can also put a knot below it, and then let the string hang down for something in the center!


If you want a more elaborate setup, you can construct a little stick box, like pictured below.  I made this one with river sticks and wire.  Apparently, I like to use sticks and things found by rivers in my mobiles!

Elaborate mobile top!

Elaborate mobile top constructed with wire!

Or, you can even use a circular item, like a coat hanger, or a wooden or plastic plate, or anything else.  The key is to have something to hang all of your elemental representations on.


Embellishments.  Beads, feathers, glitter, whatever it is you want to make your mobile a little more pretty. This is highly personal and is part of the fun.  You can use things here that are personally meaningful to you, that you’ve gathered over the years, etc.


Putting your Mobile Together

I like to create a magical crafting space in which to work before I begin.  Before I setup the space, I setup an elemental altar and make sure I have all of the supplies that I need at hand before I start the ritual.


Setting up a magical crafting space is easy–you can just use whatever typical sacred space opening you like (I use the AODA’s Solitary Grove opening, which includes the Sphere of Protection as my go-to magical crafting ritual).


I talked about creating such a space in this post a few years ago. In a nutshell, set the intention of setting aside a space in which to do spiritual work, in this case, crafting your mobile. At minimum, ground and clear your own energy, set your intentions for the space (creating and blessing a mobile), call in the elements that you will be working with, create some kind of protective barrier or shield energetically (or physically, with stones or candles).


Once you’ve created your sacred space, focus on the work at hand. As you put it together with string, glue, yarn, wire, and so on, think about the balance in your life. Consider, as each piece goes on, how that element/aspect manifests in your life, and envision balance in that area.


I find for this, some low key music is also nice. Magical crafting, at least for me, is very much a meditative activity and the music helps set the mood and tone.


If you are doing this with a group of people, you want to set some expectations and ground rules before you begin.  Is this to be a solemn activity, in quietude, or a fun one?  Talk through it and make sure everyone is on the same page.


Blessing your mobile

After you’ve completed your mobile, you can do a simple blessing.  You don’t need a script, just representations of the four elements (in four small bowls: incense/feather; candle; water; and a bowl of salt and/or earth.  Take the mobile to each of the elements (or bring them to the mobile) and speak about your own life.  Talk through what is currently balanced in that domain, and what is unbalanced, and then empower each of the aspects of the mobile with that energy (you might, for example, move the representation of the element around the mobile 3x in a clockwise direction and envision the energy of that element going into the mobile).  You can conclude your ritual with setting some goals for balance and a short period of meditation.  Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this, but the importance of making it a ceremony, and taking the space to do that, is important.


Once you have your mobile made, you can work with it at the two equinoxes.  Each year, at the fall equinox, I re-empower it at the Fall Equinox and think through the progress I have made.  It has become an old friend, journeying with me through the wheel of the year, hanging there and reminding me of the lesson of balance in my life.


Hanging your mobile

The nice thing about this as an Equinox activity is that it gives you something to remember and something to keep with you as you move through the year.  In this case, the magic very much “keeps on going”🙂.


One of the things you might notice, over time, is that the mobile can shift. Take note if it shifts–that might be a sign that one area of your life is particularly dominant (or needs attention) at the moment.  I learned to “read” my mobile over the years and it has always helped me know where I might be a bit out of balance.  For me, if the element is high, it means that element might be dominant in my life–too high and it is out of balance.  If one goes high, one of the other three go low, and then I can see what is suffering.  It has become an excellent little gauge as to how things are going.


Concluding Thoughts

I hope this Fall Equinox activity brings you joy this season! Blessings upon you during this upcoming fall equinox! Next week, we’ll return to the longer series on permaculture (maybe with a post on foraging as well!).