Wild Food Profile – Eastern Hemlock Buds: Fresh Eating, Tea, and Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing

Eastern Hemlock is one of my very favorite trees.  The tall, regal personal, the needles and branches that offer a bluish light beneath them as the sun shines, the cathedral-like quality of the ancient ones. This time of year, you can see the bright green buds on the Eastern Hemlock that represent the growth of the tree for this season.  As the buds grow older, they darken to the beautiful viridian green that is characteristic of the Eastern Hemlock tree. But, for the short window of time when the trees are budding–right now–Eastern Hemlock buds are a delicious treat.

Harvesting Eastern Hemlock buds

We happen to have many of these trees on our property, and some of the branches are starting to grow into our paths and have to be trimmed back. There are thousands of beautiful tiny green buds on each of the branches to be trimmed, which offered a good opportunity to create some new delicacies and experiment with a larger-than-usual volume of Eastern Hemlock buds.  In this post, I’ll share three ways to enjoy the buds as well as some harvest instructions.  If you want to learn more about the Eastern Hemlock’s magical and medicinal qualities, you can check out my earlier post.

Harvest

If you are going to eat these delicious treats, you need to first know how to harvest buds.  You will want to get the buds as they are emerging–you have usually a 1-2 week window each year, and the exact timing will depend on the warmth or coolness of your spring (for us here in USDA Zone 6 in Western PA, that’s usually sometime in May).

The buds will first emerge in little casings; wait until they have fully emerged, like in my photo below. I recommend the buds when they are fully spread out but still bright green.  They are prime when they have emerged and spread out a bit but haven’t gotten to the darker green color yet or too large.

Buds at perfect harvest time

You will want to be very careful about how much you harvest, as each bud is potential new growth for the tree.  If you are trimming a tree branch I am, then obviously you would harvest all of the buds on the branch that will be cut.  But if you are harvesting from a tree without any trimming, you want to make sure you aren’t compromising the growth of that tree.  I would suggest never harvesting the buds on the ends of the branch (this will prohibit future growth) but rather, harvest a bud or two per branch from further down the branch.  I would also recommend harvesting from mature trees, not small trees (who need all of their growth). Finally, please be aware that the hemlocks are under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, which may or may not be present in your area (do not harvest from any tree that is fighting this terrible pestilence–these hemlocks need all the help they can get! Instead, how about some ritual for them? )

Of course, like any other harvest from the land, harvest with gratitude.  Offer something in return.

Flavor

Buds ready for eating!

In my opinion, the Eastern Hemlock has the best tasting “tips” in my bioregion. The tips have a strong lemony taste with a hint of pine and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  They are really delicious for fresh eating or in recipes.

They can delicious and quite strongly flavored in bulk, so they are really useful as a marinade or dressing, where the flavor can really have an impact.

Eastern Hemlock buds, like most other conifers, are high in Vitamin C.

Recipe 1: Fresh Eats, Salad, and Garnish

The first recipe is not really a recipe at all–you can simply nibble on the hemlock buds as a trailside treat.  You can add them to fresh salads or as a garnish. They are amazing when sprinkled on top of meats or roasted veggies.  Harvest them fresh and add whole buds to the salad.  Harvest them fresh and chop them up as a spice. I really like them as a garnish for a baked or pan-fried fish!

Recipe 2:  Tea (Hot or Cold)

Hemlock buds make an amazing, light, and refreshing tea.  You can dry them or use them fresh (you can also use the mature needles, which have a stronger flavor that is also amazingly delicious).  Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 TBSP fresh buds or 1/2 TBSP dried buds/needles.  Cover and let seep for 5 minutes.  Add fresh honey to taste and enjoy!

Recipe 3: Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing / Spread / Marinade

This is a recipe that my sister and I created this season and experimented with to find just the right combination.

The base is:

  • 1/2 cup of Eastern Hemlock buds
  • 1/2 cup of good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fire cider vinegar (or regular apple cider vinegar)

I would strongly suggest adding:

  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 3 TBSP maple syrup or honey (to taste)

Start by adding your olive oil and Eastern hemlock buds to a food processor (if you don’t have a food processor, you can chop finely and stir everything by hand).  Process them until they are fairly chopped up.  Add your apple cider vinegar and maple syrup and pulse a few times. If you are going with the base dressing, then you are done and it is delicious!

After some processing, this is your base dressing

If you want to make a spread or thicker dressing, add your tahini. If you pulse this a lot, you will end up with a thick spread, almost the consistency of mayo (good for spreading on a sandwich). If you stir it by hand or pulse it only a little, you will end up with a lovely dressing for salads, marinades, and more.

If you process it for a minute or more with tahini, you get this great spread

We had a nice salad and then a lunch of sauteed veggies (asparagus, celery, summer squash, broccoli, and kale) with the delicious dressing as a marinade and drizzle over some rice. I hope you enjoy this delightful wild-foraged treat and spend time communing with the beautiful and majestic Eastern Hemlock, my favorite of the trees.

Delicious as a marinade and sauce for veggies

Have it on a fresh salad!

Making Acorn Ink – Instructions and Recipes

Acorn Ink! (Great color!)

Acorn ink, derived from the mighty oak tree, can be a wonderful addition to your druid practice or art studio.  Inks can be used for all manner of useful things, from drawing and artwork to the creation of sigils, writing in a druid’s journal, or engaging in other magical work.  In this post, I’ll share a method for making an acorn ink as well as a rust garden (that you can use to strengthen the color of this and other natural inks, like walnut).  I’m posting this now because I have found that acorns are best gathered for this not right after they drop, but after they’ve sat on the ground for some time (such as over the winter months).  This is a way for you to use acorns pretty much year-round, connect deeply to the energy of the oak tree, and localize your practice.

Ink making was once a common practice before the advent of commercial inks.  It was a sacred practice, for the arts of literacy and materials for drawing, writing, and painting were rare and hard to produce.  Toady, with the over-abundance of everything at the expense of nature, it’s wise to practice some of these older ways and reattune with the balance, wisdom, and joy of our ancestors. Ink making is actually quite simple and very rewarding and you will get colors that you can’t purchase commercially.  If you are interested in this topic, you might also want to check out my earlier post on berry inks.

The Magic of the Oak

Oak trees are special, particularly to those in the druid tradition.  The ancient druids did their rituals in groves of oaks. The ancient Irish considered the oak one of the seven sacred trees.  Many cultures around the world venerated oaks, which we can see from the use in military symbols and coats of arms throughout the world. The oak is a symbol of strength, persistence, courage, wisdom, and honor.

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns in the fall months

According to John Michael Greer’s Natural Magic Encyclopedia, Oak is “the preeminent tree of power in ancient symbolism” being of particular use to those who channel high levels of energy, for weather magic, and for earth magic.  Acorns themselves are symbols of fertility in ancient times to the present. In the Ogham, Oak is represented by the word “duir”.  In ancient Sanskrit, duir literally means “door”.  Oaks, then, are not just symbols of strength but doorways to many other things (the inner worlds, worlds of spirit, new journeys, etc). It is tied with the time of midsummer.  The oak has very strong wood and was often employed as the Yule Log (where the oak’s power would allow the light to return to the earth once again!) In the Hoodoo traditions, oaks is used to remove hexes or jinxes, usually through a wash.  Oak galls (which you can also make ink with, also using iron) are specifically used in the hoodoo tradition to lend power to any other working.  So you can see how having some oak ink might be a useful tool!  What better opportunity to honor the sacred oak than by making some high-quality ink that can be used for drawing purposes, spiritual journaling, or magical uses.

Making your Ink

Making acorn ink is simple and requires a few basic ingredients and tools

  • Acorns, older are better
  • Something to crush your acorns with (mortar and pestle, hammer and plastic bag, etc)
  • Vinegar (preferably rust garden vinegar, see below)
  • Water to cover acorns
  • Strainer

Gathering Acorns. I like to make acorn ink early in the spring.  The reasoning here is simple–you can easily find last fall’s acorns, and whatever is left, wasn’t a viable food source nor will sprout. So you are using the true “castaways” from the oak–probably acorns that had a few worms, etc.  I also find the ink is stronger if you are using older acorns.  As always, ask permission to gather and make sure to leave an offering in thanks.  To make about a cup of ink, you can gather 2 cups acorns (a cup of ink is a LOT of ink, just FYI!)

Gather up some old acorns

Crushing Acorns. After you’ve harvested your acorns, you will need to crush them.  If you have a large mortar and pestle, this works great.  You can also crush them easily by getting a thick plastic bag (like an old used feed bag) and using a hammer.  Or just crush them up on a large stone.  Make sure you save the small bits.  The more that you crush, the more effective extraction you will get.

Crush up acorns and add them to a small pot with water

Cover acorns with water. Barely cover your acorns with water, just enough to fully cover them in a small pan.  The more water you add, the less of an extraction you will have.  So go for a small pot and barely cover them.

Soak overnight.  Soak your acorns overnight if possible.  While you don’t have to soak overnight, the ink is stronger and more potent if you do.

Simmer. You will want to simmer your acorn mixture for a few hours.  It’s better to go long and slow than fast and quick.  As you boil, keep a good eye on the water level.  Early in my boiling, I might add a little water, but later on, especially in the last hour, I let the water boil off.  The more it boils off, the more high-quality ink you will have.

Simmering acorns

Strain.  Next, using a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth, strain your ink.

Acorn ink is finished boiling and ready to strain

Add Rust garden vinegar or regular vinegar.  If you take the time to make a rust garden (highly recommended, see next section), you can add a few tablespoons of rust garden vinegar (about 3 tbsp per cup of ink) to your mixture.  This darkens the color and helps preserve it.  If you aren’t going to make a rust garden, you still will want to add a tablespoon or two of vinegar to help preserve your ink.

Adding rust garden vinegar to the ink

Storage. You can store it in a mason jar with a lid.  I recommend keeping it in the fridge as it will last longer. You can keep it in the fridge for quite a while (several years).  It is likely that over time, it will develop some bluish mold.  Just get a strainer or a fork and remove the mold–the ink is still good.

Mold is a common occurrence with natural inks–just strain and keep using!

 

Optional: Making a Rust Garden

Making a rust garden is a way to improve the quality and color of your acorn ink (it also allows you to make oak gall ink and walnut ink; I’ll cover oak gall ink in an upcoming post). All that you need to start your rust garden are some rusty objects (like iron nails) and some vinegar (any kind will do).  Gather up your rusty objects and cover them in vinegar.  If you want to help speed it along, you can actually remove the objects, let them be exposed to oxygen for 24 hours, and then put them back in the vinegar vat.  I find this to be a little tedious, so instead, I just shake up my rust garden every once in a while and let time do the work. You can start your rust garden in a mason jar. As the items continue to rust, the rusty bits get suspended in vinegar, eventually creating a beautiful dark brown shade.  In a few months, you’ll have a very rusty, brown-black vinegar and it will be awesome for making natural inks!

Finding some rusty objects with Pythagoras the Rooster’s help!

Adding objects to vinegar in a jar

The completed rust garden! Look at all that rust!

However, this practice takes some time – at least 3-5 months–so keep that in mind.  You can always make the ink, then store it in the fridge while your rust garden “grows” and then return to it later (that’s what I did in creating the ink shared in this post).  Or you can start your rust garden now, and it will be ready for when this year’s batch of acorns drop in the fall.  Be aware here that over time, the jar lid itself will actually rust away–you can see that already happening to my jar here.  Thus, I recommend putting either a plastic lid on the jar or else a piece of plastic in between the lid and the jar can help preserve it over time (it will take a few years for the lid to rust away due to the corrosion of the vinegar).  Not that I have ANY experience with this happening, haha!

If you use some of your rust garden, you can just add more vinegar and keep letting it rust further.  Keep it on a shelf and then anytime you want to make natural inks like acorn, oak gall, or walnut, it will be ready for you!

Using your ink

Once you have your ink, it is ready to use!  Here are just a few possibilities for using your ink:

Acorn ink dyed leather pieces in progress…these will be bag flaps for leather pouches.

  • Pen and ink:  An old fashioned dip pen works great with this kind of ink, provided it is well strained.  You can use your ink on journals, magical sigils, drawings, and so much more.
  • Sigils and other magical work.  Consider saving this ink for a special purpose such as writing in your spiritual journal or making sigils.
  • Natural arts.  You can do a lot of interesting things with such high-quality ink: ink drawings, ink washes, and more.
  • Leather and Wood dye.  This ink will also dye a lot of surfaces (if you want to use it in this fashion, you’ll have to make large batches, which isn’t unreasonable in mast years when you can harvest abundant acorns).  I’m experimenting now with it as a leather stain and its been great!

I hope this post inspires you to try to make some of your own acorn ink!  I feel like acorn ink making is a great practice for the aspiring bard or druid!

 

PS: I hope you like the new look of the Druids Garden Blog!  I’ve been using the same theme for so long, I thought a change was necessary.  Blessings!

Forest Regeneration at the Druid’s Garden Homestead: Forest Hugelkultur, Replanting and More!

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

The property was almost perfect: in the right location, a natural spring as a water source, a small and nice house with a huge hearth, areas for chickens and gardens, a small pond and a stream bordering the edge of the property….pretty much everything was exactly what we hoped.  Except for one thing: right before selling the property, the previous owners did some logging for profit, taking out most of the mature overstory of trees on 3 of the 5 acres. This left the forest in a very damaged place: cut down trees, lots of smaller limbs and brush, often piled up more than 5-8 feet high in places. I remember when I went to look at the property and started walking the land and just saying, “Why would they do this?”  It hurt my heart. Could I live here, seeing what had so recently been done?  But I’ve always been led to such places as part of my spiritual path, particularly places that have been logged.

 

A continual theme of this blog is land healing.  In some recent posts,  I have been sharing some details about physical land healing: what to do, how to do it, what ecological succession is and how that matters and also why you might take up the path of the land healer as a spiritual practice. In today’s post, I’m going to put these pieces together and share a specific example from the forest regeneration work we are doing at the Druid’s Garden Homestead. In the last two years, we have been developing methods to help support the ecosystem and foster ecological succession. With careful choices, ecological succession can be done faster and more effectively, helping shift our land to a mature ecological sanctuary for life. This is by no means a complete project but does offer a glimpse into what we are doing, some of the choices we made, and hopefully, after some time passes, I can offer some updates!  The goal then is to offer you a model and ideas for work that you can do to heal in your own ecosystem from a physical land healing standpoint.

 

One of the questions that sometimes come up for people interested in land regeneration is this-if nature already knows how to heal herself, why would any person want to intervene? Why do the work of healing an ecosystem if nature can just do it herself on a slower scale?  Most of the answers to these questions I shared in my earlier post on land healing as a spiritual practice.  But I will share my reasoning for this specific piece of land: I feel the need to use things like permauclture to help the land regenerate because of the broader challenges we are facing environmentally and the importance of peacemaking with the spirits of the land.  Given our situation here, it would take anywhere from approximately 50-100 years for this land to fully heal.  But there is a question if it could ever fully heal due to the loss of certain woodland species from our immediate ecosystem–species that belong here like ramps, trillium, American ginseng, and more are not easily spread and may take hundreds of years to return, if at all.  Further, our intervention could provide faster healing of this land and could build critical ecosystems and create a sanctuary for life in a time when it’s definitely needed.  Our land here is a small patch of woods surrounded by many farmlands growing corn, soy, and cabbage.  We are our own refugia here, and so, bringing this land back into a healthy place ecologically means that this can be a better refuge for life and support more animal, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile and plant lives.  Also, by using the grove of renewal strategy (which I developed as part of this work), we can radiate this healing energy out to the broader landscape–where it is sorely needed.

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

Observation and interaction led to the discovery of this choked out sassafras grove

Each landscape is unique.  If you are coming into a new land or working with land you’ve known for years, the first step is to observe, interact, and practice some deep listening. Observation and interaction are just as they sound–this is a principle from permauclture that says in order to work to regenerate land, you have to come at that work from a place of knowledge and wisdom.  In order to know that land, you need to study that land–observe the land in different seasons and in different times of day, interact with the land, be present there always, seeing what there is to see, and coming to know it deeply. Understand what is already growing there, if it’s native or opportunistic (I don’t like the word “invasive), who lives there, what the ecosystems surrounding your land look like, what pollution and other pressures there might be, and more.

 

With so much of our land subject to logging, we spent some time observing, interacting, and in connection with the spirits.  What did the land spirits want us to do? What could we do that would be respectful to the land, that would help and not hurt further?  The general sense we had was that to respond to this situation, we knew that there were places we were going to let nature heal in her own way, but there were also plenty of places that we could help heal faster by applying permaculture techniques. Observation and interaction is the physical component of this and deep listening is the spiritual component to this practice. But I also want to share here that observation, interaction, and deep listening is a continual process. As you work a piece of land, you will keep working with it. What the land may ask you to do changes as you complete earlier work.  So keep on listening, every chance you get. I’ll now consider each in turn.

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

Being on the land after moving in was honestly overwhelming. Much of the land was impassible due to the huge amounts of leftover treetops, branches, and brush. The loggers had just bulldozed brush into large piles, taking much of the forest floor with it.  The first thing we did, even to begin to observe and interact, was to re-establish paths by moving brush so we could walk and be present on the land. Since this was so-called “sustainable logging” what we ended up with was most of the largest trees being taken and a smattering of mature trees left–some oaks, hickories, maples and black cherries. Thus, we have some mature trees.  But many of the mature trees that find themselves exposed to wind are experiencing secondary loss, where they lose their crowns.  These trees grew up in a mature forest with close crowns, without the protection of other trees, they are very susceptible to wind damage.  This is one of the things we are observing now–losing a lot of the remaining crowns of the largest trees, which is very sad.  We also have a good understory of hickory, oak, sugar maple, cherry, and a bit of sassafras–these trees will eventually be our new overstory, I think, once the secondary loss of the larger trees concludes.

 

The amount of brush also made it harder for smaller trees to grow and come up in a healthy way, and the brush is covering the trunks of many of the existing trees that were not logged, creating wet spots that can cause the trees’ bark to rot.  The forest floor wasn’t very abundant–we weren’t seeing a lot of the plants that should be growing here, particularly woodland medicinal species.

A good example of the “clearing” work to do–if we don’t remove this brush, it will rot out the trunk of this mature tree. There are several black elder in here that can also use some room to expand and grow.

 

At present, after logging, the dominant plant that has grown up on our landscape is the Rubus allegheniensis, the common blackberry, native to this area of our land.  We now have large thickets of blackberry. We also have Devil’s walking stick, wild cherry, elderberry, spicebush, and beaked hazels growing up in very dense thickets.  We also have a lot of poison ivy, as it thrives on disturbance. These plants have quickly come into the spaces left by large trees to fill the void.  But if we want to support ecological succession, we’d work to plant and foster the hardwood trees as much as possible and help cultivate them towards adulthood along with supporting a rich understory of shrubs and woodland plants of more diversity than the opportunistic species that are present.

 

Our land is on the eastern side of a small mountain, so we get good morning/early afternoon light and get more shade in the evenings.  The soil is wet and fertile. The bottom of our property borders Penn Run, a stream that is clean and flowing where we live, but most, unfortunately, less than 1/4 mile from where we live downstream, we have acid mine drainage causing serious pollution. Thus, cultivating the health of our stream is of utmost concern as it fosters habitat that is degraded further down.

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

The second part of this equation is deep listening. For generations, this land been the object of someone else’s desire–in the sense that whatever humans wanted to do to the land, they simply did, with no consideration of the will of the spirits of the land. As druids, we recognize that the land has agency–it has a voice, and we listen. Thus, part two of the observation and interaction is simply finding out what the spirits of the land want and desire–and following that will.  I really believe this is one of the most critical parts of land healing and any other spiritual work we do–and failing to do this part means we are no different than others who have come and did whatever they wanted.  For the last two years, we haven’t done much beyond our gardens, chicken coops, and infrastructure (fencing for garden, etc). We wanted to listen to what the spirits of the land wanted for the healing of the rest of the property, especially the forested sections.  Over time, a clear message emerged–certain areas to let “rewild” without any intervention and without any human interaction, while other places on the property places for spiritual activity, replanting, and active regeneration. The spirits gave us a map of the land and how they wanted us to proceed–and we listen.

 

 

Goals and Interventions

Most people who are working on conservation, permaculture design, forestry, and so on recommend developing clear goals that help you decide how to create a plan moving forward and make sure your actions align with that plan. I also think this is a really good idea. To replant our land and heal the forest, we started by identifying clear goals for our forested areas and for ourselves.  These goals include:

  1. Honor nature in our actions and in our intentions and work with nature as a partner in the regeneration process.
  2. Support ecological succession to help re-establish an overstory of hardwood nut trees and sugar maples in 3 acres of forest. This will include supporting a diverse ecosystem, modeled after old-growth ecosystems of the “Northern Hardwood Forest” type.
  3. Maximize habitat and food sources for wildlife and humans (including amble supplies of wild berries and nuts) focusing on perennial agriculture
  4. Establish a sanctuary for endangered woodland medicinal species in our 3 acres of forests in the understory (American ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, trillium, bloodroot, ramps, etc, as established by the United Plant Savers)
  5. Designate “wild areas” (zone 5 areas, to use the term from permaculture design) that are untouched can regenerate in whatever direction spirits will.
  6. All human-focused and agriculturally-focused areas will be designed and enacted based on working with nature using permaculture design.  Human focused areas have the emphasis of people care, earth care, and fair share. Spiritual areas are designated for our grove and spiritual community.
  7. Learn how to support riparian and wetland ecosystems. We have a special emphasis on wetland areas and riparian zones, since our land contains both a small spring-fed pond and a clean stream.
  8. Learn how to use all of the materials on our land so that nothing is wasted. We have a lot of secondary tree loss right now, and we don’t want to add to the brush on the ground.  Thus, when a tree drops, we are doing our best to use it in some way, either for woodworking/arts/crafts, for natural building projects, or for firewood or hugels (see below).
  9. Build resiliency for ourselves, our domestic animals, and all life on our property.

 

These goals are evolving as time passes, but they represent our general desire to be good stewards of this land, allow for us to live here in harmony with life, and support more diversity of plant, bird, animal, and insect life.

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

The following are some of the main strategies we are using at present for regeneration.  We are still very much in the early stages here of this regeneration project, but we’ve got good momentum and are making progress!

 

Tree Replanting and Cultivation. We’ve been working to replant as much of the understory as possible so that we can establish, in time, a healthy and diverse overstory.  This included planting 25 American hybrid chestnut trees (blight resistant, 95% American chestnut genetics), to plant oaks and hickory nuts throughout the areas we could access, as well as establish a paw-paw understory.  There were very specific reasons for these choices: according to my own historical research, chestnut used to comprise about 30% of our forests here in PA and PawPaw were quite common.  The logging gave me a chance to try to establish a mature chestnut overstory in the long run. These trees are still small, but we are keeping them clear of brush and debris and doing our best to make sure they are established.

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

Tree tending and thinning.  When there are dense thickets of small trees regrowing, only the strongest or fastest-growing will survive.  We have identified different patches of regrowing trees and are trying to cultivate those which will contribute most to a mature oak-hickory overstory and a wide diversity of trees.  One of the most recent projects was clearing the brush (through hugelkultur techniques, see below).  We cleared brush from a large patch of sassafras trees (the only on the property) and making sure they had room to grow. We have been thinning the dense thickets of the weakest trees to ensure more rapid growth, especially of the beaked hazels, which grow very, very quickly and can overpower our slower-growing hickories, oaks, and chestnuts.  This process of tending and thinning has created a lot of branch and pole material we can use for garden stakes and other spiritual building and crafting projects.  And doing some thinning like this helps tend the ecosystem. We never cut anything back without permission–and listen carefully to what the spirits of the land and forest ask.

 

Clearing brush and turning “waste” into a resource. Perhaps the most intensive of the work we are doing right now is clearing areas of the downed trees and brush.  As long as we have piles of 8′ brush, it makes it very hard to plant young trees, allow the small seedlings to grow, or replant the forest floor with woodland medicinals.  The brush has also been piled near living larger trees, which can create rot at the roots and cause more secondary tree loss.  We have selected several areas to target, being led by the spirits of the land, and have intentionally done minimal work in others, only enough to ensure that small seedlings aren’t trapped and that roots and trunks aren’t covered in downed wood debris. This involves primarily a lot of chainsaw work. We are using primarily battery-powered power tools and some hand tools; the battery-powered tools are charged by our solar panels, reducing our fossil fuel consumption.

 

We go into a brushy area where the brush is, and start clearing.  What we can take as firewood we will take as firewood. Its been two years since the logging, but because a lot of the wood is off the ground, we have a surprising amount of wood still to harvest for firewood.  For wood that is past firewood stage, we have been building forest hugelkultur beds (see next entry). Once the forest floor has the brush mostly clear, we can then plant other kinds of forest medicinals and plants.

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

Forest Hugelkultur Beds. Hugelkultur, which basically means “mound culture” is an old-world technique popular in Germany that adds woody matter to create raised “mounds” that can be grown in.  This is a fantastic technique for us to employ here because we have an over-abundance of partially rotting wood and brush that we want to find a productive use for.  By making the hugelkultur beds, we take areas that are currently prevented from effectively regrowing due to the nature of the bush, clear the brush, and end up with a valuable resource–a new bed that we can plant. Most of ours hugels are in part-shade forest edges where we will plant shrubs and other shade-loving perennials to increase our capacity for food production for ourselves and wildlife: gooseberry, fiddlehead ferns, alpine strawberry, black and red currants, etc.

 

To build a hugel, you decide your location.  You can also decide at this point if you want to sink it into the ground (like a traditional garden bed where you’d dig down) or put it on top of the ground. We are doing above ground hugels primarily because our ground is so rocky and digging it out is almost impossible.  Once you have your location, you start with the largest pieces of wood and begin making a very dense pile of wood the size you want your bed to be (at least a few feet long and a few feet wide, realistically).  As you pile them up, usually to 3-4′ tall, you vary the thickness of the wood, such that the thickest wood should be on the bottom and inside the middle, and thinner sticks, etc, should be on the outside.  After you have your pile, you can add whatever other organic matter you have around–we clean out our chicken/guinea, duck, and goose coops regularly and are using all the straw bedding as another layer.  Stuff that material into any of the holes between the logs.  Finally, we top it with more layers of organic matter (leaves, compost, etc) and top it off with at least 4″ of finished compost.  The final layer is a layer of straw.  These layers, we allow to “season” for at least six months to a year.  By the second year, the hugels have settled enough that you can patch any holes with additional compost and then plant right in them.  Each year, as they season more and more, they grow more abundant.  We have some hugels we did dig down and create as part of our medicinal herb garden and they are incredibly productive and resilient after only two years! The goal here is that the hugels will edge our deeper parts of our forest and provide abundant food and forage for wildlife and humans.

 

I will also say that this kind of hugel building work in the way we are doing it is dark half of the year work.  If you clear in the winter, you don’t disrupt the soil or perennials that are going to come up in the summer months.  For us here, we can do this work from Samhain to somewhere close to Beltane–then we shift our emphasis on other things for the summer months and come back to clearing and hugelkultur work in the winter months.

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

Seed scattering and re-establishing forest medicinal species.  We are working to model our regenerated forest after what an old-growth forest would have looked like, as our goals above suggest.  Thus, we have been replanting many lost forest medicinal and keystone woodland species that are native to our area.  This includes scattering about 1000 ramp seeds, planting over 50 American ginseng roots and planting more wild ginseng seeds, bringing in bloodroot, black cohosh, trout lily and other plants that are adapted particularly for our damp hillside.  We are still pretty early in this process (we have to get the downed wood brush cleared first) but are making good progress and have already scattered and planting the ginseng and ramps.

 

Overstory management.  As I mentioned above,  one of the saddest things happening now deal with the loss of the remaining trees still standing in the forest–we are observing these trees and seeing how many of them can make it. But we also recognize the value of standing dead timber, and since we have a nice woodpecker community (at least four different species, including the rarer Pileated Woodpecker), we are leaving all of the standing dead timber that is safe to leave–which thankfully, is nearly all of it.  For some trees, however, particularly those that may be in a place that if they dropped would cause damage to other trees or the house/structures, we are dropping them and using them for natural building, firewood, and other projects.

What about the inner/energetic work?

Reading all of this, you might notice that I’ve primarily talked about physical regeneration in today’s post.  Yes, I have.  As you might recall from my earlier work, I really see land healing as both inner and outer work.  Because I have the power to do something physical, I think its really important that those things are done.  On the spiritual side, I’m working on the grove of renewal here on the land as well as ongoing land blessing and land healing work.  While we do the physical work, the energetic work is always present.  The two work together, and each strengthens the other.

 

Conclusion

Whew!  That’s a lot going on at the Druid’s Garden homestead.  Its good work to do, especially now with the pandemic. We don’t want to leave the land much, so we are turning in earnest to our projects here that will help regenerate and heal this beautiful landscape.  I’ll work to provide periodic updates on these projects and how they are going.  In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a nice spring and thinking about their own healing projects.  I would love to hear what things you are working on or the plans you have!

Introduction to Sacred Gardening: Connection, Reciprocity, and Honoring Life

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Walking into a sacred garden is like walking into another world, one full of joy, happiness, and wholeness.  Fruit hanging from happy branches, plants coming up from all angles inviting a nibble, a taste, a touch.  The pathways spiral and you get lost, looking at flowers, breathing in the fresh air, and tasting the tart berries on your tongue.  An indoor sacred garden is much the same – a bright window with a chair asking you to sit, stay awhile, and meditate with the plants (or even reach up and take a lemon-scented geranium leaf in your hand and breathe deeply).  Sacred gardens are places that are intentionally cultivated to be in harmony and balance, that are carefully tended by loving hands, and that offer many possibilities for spiritual practice and deeper spiritual connection.

 

It’s amazing to see that this year, so many new people are taking up gardening.  While I’ve written on these topics before (obviously, this blog is called the Druid’s Garden!), I’m returning to this topic today to offer an overall philosophy of sacred gardening that I hope can help you deepen your practice or start a new garden.  I’ve been engaged in these practices for over a decade, greatly aided by my permaculture design certificate and permaculture teacher training, which offered me much in the way of working with nature and developing deep observation, interaction, and ethical skills. I realize that other authors, especially those coming from different spiritual traditions, may have a very different take.  But this is mine :).

 

Sacred Gardening: A Triad of Reciprocity, Life Honoring, and Connection

To define sacred gardening, let’s start by looking at the definitions for the two terms.  A garden refers to a place where ordinary people can grow food.  Beyond that, gardens actually vary pretty widely based on the philosophy and practices of a gardener.  You can have gardens that are organic and holistically managed or those that are full of chemicals, weed killers, and poisons.  You can have gardens that are diverse and support life or those that are focused on keeping all life that isn’t intended out with some pretty violent means.  You can have large or small gardens, indoors or out.  They can be perennial or annual. Gardens, then, are defined by crowing food, cultivating plants for human benefit; they are often (but not always) very human-dominated spaces.

Sacred refers to something that is dedicated to a spiritual or religious purpose, something that is deserving veneration, being worthy of awe; and/or something that is entitled to reverence and respect.  When we think of something that is sacred, it is a special place where we offer honor, respect, and reverence.  Where we tend to our interactions and be intentional in our practices. For thinking about nature as sacred, several concepts emerge that are critically important to our discussion here they are: connection, reciprocity, and honoring life   It is in these three concepts that we can arrive at a useful definition of sacred gardening.

Diverse garden!

Diverse garden!

Actions here represent the third aspect that is important to define.  The ultimate point of most gardening is growing food, using whatever means an individual chooses.  What makes that gardening sacred is how the gardener chooses to interact with the land, the specific choices and behaviors that gardener engages in, and the intentions put forth into the space.  As with many things, while intentions matter a great deal, it is actions that determine our relationships and reality to the land. You can have all of the sacred intentions in the world, but walking into your garden with a backpack sprayer full of Round-Up sends a very different message.

 

At the same time as actions speak intentions into the world, it is also important to recognize that the physical and metaphysical are affected by each other and that there are many metaphysical aspects that can affect a physical space and vice versa.  Thus, we can think about sacred gardening as being about both inner and outer practices, practices that help not only support the physical presence of the garden but also the spirit.

 

Thus, I see three guiding principles, a triad in the druidic sense, that can help us with a full definition of this practice:

Three principles for sacred gardening:
Deepening inner and outer connections with the garden
Engaging in reciprocity with the garden
Honoring and creating spaces the diversity of life in the garden

Thus, sacred gardening is a practice of cultivating a space (indoors or outdoors) that allows for not only growing food but also spiritual connection, reciprocity, and honoring life through both inner and outer practices.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll explore these three concepts and offer both “inner” (metaphysical) and outer “physical” practices

 

Connection: Building a Relationship

The first principle is connection.  Sacred gardening is connected gardening, where a big part of the goal of sacred gardening is to cultivate a deep relationship with the garden: which might include plants, soil, bird or insect life, stones, and other features.  Connection allows us to learn and grow in the garden by building a deeper relationship with that garden. Connection can mean many things in a garden setting, from developing a long-standing relationship with seeds that you carefully harvest and save each year to learning more about your space.   So now let’s look at three “inner” and “outer” connection practices.

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Inner Connection Practices for sacred gardening. These three practices don’t have to be taken up all at once. I suggest you start with one of them and build to others over time–it can take years to establish deep connections. Think about inner connection work as taking a seasonal approach: each season you can grow and deepen your practice

.

  • Plant Spirit Communication. Learning how to directly communicate with your plants and the spirits of your land is a fantastic way to build deep connection.  By practicing and learning these communication techniques, you can learn from nature and grow in deep ways–as plants have been teachers of humans long, long, before recorded history.  Many of our garden plants, especially the culinary herbs like rosemary, lemon balm, and sage, have extremely long relationships with humanity and are almost always willing teachers.  For more on plant spirit communication techniques, see Plant Spirit Communication 1, Plant Spirit Communication 2, Plant Spirit Communication 3, and Plant Spirit Communication 4.
  • Meditation. Meditation techniques, including walking meditation and meditation where you are in stillness within the space, are excellent ways to build connections.  Consider doing your regular meditative practices in your garden as often as you can.  Even taking 5 or 10 minutes a day in your garden to meditate and connect can be a very positive experience–for you and for the garden!
  • Planting and Harvesting Rituals.  Relationships are built, in part, by recognizing the spirit in the plants and honoring that spirit.  I have found that planting, blessing, and harvesting rituals are a great way to build a spiritual connection between yourself and your garden plants.  Here are a few rituals for you to try: land blessing, planting ritual 1, planting ritual 2.

Outer Connection Practices.  Outer connection practices help signal to the spirits of the land your intentions.  Humans in this age often take the easy and quick ways out (e.g. plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers), and those easy and quick ways are often at a high ecological cost.  By taking things differently, and slowly, we can demonstrate sacred intent.

  • Supporting the soil web and soil health.   One critical physical connection in gardens is the soil and building soil health.  I would suggest as part of your connection to the garden, you work to attend to your soil–of which there are many different practices.  One of the most important is, for outdoor gardens, taking up the practice of no-till gardening, for example, using sheet mulch or hugelkultur approaches.  Supporting a healthy soil web begins with avoiding tilling a garden; tilling each year destroys the soil web and is quite destructive on the soil bacteria, nematodes, worms, mycelial networks, and more.  Adding rich compost (finished compost, coffee grounds, etc) and natural amendments help cultivate rich soil.  Here’s more on a few compost techniques: composting for city dwellers, composting options for outdoors, and vermicompost.
  • Observation and interaction. One of the first principles of permaculture design is a very useful one to list here.  To build a connection, you have to interact, to be present, and to do so frequently throughout the season.  Observe your plants as they grow.  Spend time with them, watch how they grow.  Look at them at different points in the season and at different times of day.  Take a full moon walk and see the glistening of the dew in the early morning.  This kind of walking meditative practice, where you are simply present with your garden, will offer you much.  More on observation and interaction. 
  • Seed starting and seed choices. Another connection practice focuses on seeds.  Seeds today can be difficult to navigate and choose because of the proliferation of GMO seeds (which I don’t recommend for sacred gardening)–this guide offers some suggestions for seeds.  Once you’ve selected some good seeds, you can start some for yourself (even starting a few will really give you a connection with the plant).  And I would suggest saving at least some varieties of seed from year to year.  For example, I have tobacco seeds that I use for ceremonial purposes and I’ve cultivated a many-year relationship with those seeds. At this point, each time I welcome up the new tobacco, it is greeting an old friend!

Connection allows us to begin to establish deep relationships with our sacred garden both in inner and outer ways.  I believe that connection is a basic requirement for sacred gardening–and the other two steps begin with this one.  Let’s now turn to the second principle–reciprocity–and see how it leads directly from connection.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Reciprocity: Giving Back

Reciprocity refers to the ongoing relationship that is mutually beneficial where each side continues to gain positive benefits from the relationship.  In the case of a sacred garden, abundant land produces yields to sustain you.  In the case of the gardener, the gardener does things to improve the diversity and health of the land and ecosystem–not only for the direct benefit of growing food but beyond.

Inner Reciprocation Practices help us to shift our mindset from those commonly assumed and indoctrinated in our culture to something more sacred and reciprocal.

  • Offerings and Gratitude.  In a sacred garden, whether it is indoors or outdoors, I like to have a space reserved for gratitude and practice gratitude regularly–this is the first step.  I usually build some kind of small shrine (whether that is on the windowsill or in a corner of a larger garden) and leave regular offerings. Offerings may be physical, musical, or spiritual (energetic).  More on gratitude practices from an earlier post.
  • Meditations and critical thinking work. Another good practice here is to spend time dismantling (though discursive meditation or other thought processes) the underlying assumptions about nature that we might not even consciously be aware of.  Our present culture has a constant assumption that 1) nature is there for our benefit and profit and 2) we can take from nature heedlessly and constantly.  These kinds of assumptions run through everyday life in unexpected ways and it can take some serious work to distance ourselves from them and to develop more healthy and productive beliefs about our relationship with nature.  For some good reading on this topic, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings of the LIving Earth.

Outer Reciprocation work helps us create gardens and plans that give back as much (or more) than we take, and establishes balance and harmony with us and the living earth.

  • Closed-Loop Systems and replacing what is taken. One of the reasons that chemical fertilizers are so popular is that as we remove nutrients from the soil, they have to be replaced (even so, we know that these kinds of farming techniques have caused a considerable nutritional decline over the decades).  Ultimately, the loss of nutrients permanently from the soil is a problem with reciprocation.  At minimum, we need to be replacing nutrients that are lost through erosion and harvest–but I’d argue that we need to do one better and add even more than was originally present. Practicing composting is one way, and for more radical folks, humanure and liquid gold offer ways to have a truly closed-loop system. Adding healthy amendments (I especially like to get coffee grounds from nearby coffee shops and interrupt other waste streams to divert to my garden).  Gathering up fall leaves and using them as part of your gardening practice is another resource.
  • Reduction or Elimination of Fossil Fuel Use. Another issue with reciprocation has to do with our over-dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence upon which is literally killing life on our planet and threatening our very existence as a species. As an act of reciprocation and acknowledgment of the problems with fossil fuel, I make it a point to do as much of my gardening by hand as I possibly can (even in a 1000 square foot garden!).  When I must make use of fossil fuels (such as to bring off-site compost to establish new beds), I make sure that I am making minimal and conscious use of these resources.
  • Scattering Seeds and Wildtending. As part of the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have a “refugia” where grow a number of rare medicinal species and regularly scatter their seeds to wild and untended places, particularly places that have suffered ecological devastation after logging or other disruption (common where we live).  We grow both full sun perennials (like St. Johns Wort and New England Aster) as well as shade-loving woodland medicinals (wild ginseng, blue cohosh, black cohosh, ramps, goldenseal, bloodroot).  We also make sure to give seeds and seedlings out to others as much as we possibly can.  This is a direct response to many of these plants being lost in our local ecosystem and offers one way to give back.

 

Honoring Life through Sacred Gardening

Garden with sacred statuary

When you start thinking about connection and reciprocation, this is all leading to the most important sacred principle of all: that of honoring all life.  This is tricky–gardens are traditionally human-dominated spaces and the goal is traditionally to grow food for humans.  When the potato beetles or squash borers come knocking, “honoring life” is probably the furthest thing from your mind as you literally watch your hard tended squash plants wither and die on the vine.  This is when you might be tempted to go to your nearest big box store for a chemical solution. But it is exactly these situations that test us as sacred gardeners, druids, and nature-honoring people.  Nature herself has ways of bringing those squash beetles in balance, and there are many things we can do.  The principle here of honoring life is so critical because it is this principle that is so broadly lacking.

Inner Principles focus on cultivating a diversity of life principles as part of our gardening practice.

  • A full season of blessing rituals. Offering regular rituals in the space that bless and welcome life is a great way over time to affirm your relationship with the sacred garden and raise positive energy for the space.  Here’s one such approach based on land healing.
  • Inviting others in. One of the ways to honor the life of your garden is by inviting others in, sharing with them, and helping others understand these basic principles.  Once you’ve done enough that you have something to share, invite others in to learn, grow, and enjoy the space.  I try to do this often, and as I offer a “garden tour” I share not only what is going, but the life-affirming philosophy that is present in the garden space and how we bring that into reality.
  • Permaculture ethics. Meditations on the three ethics of permauclture (earth care, people care, and fair share) can really help one develop a mindest that honors life and the resulting behaviors. I like to regularly meditate on these concepts and also create signs for my home that remind me of these concepts.

Outer Principles

  • Welcoming the diversity of life – pollinator hedges and more.  When designing for spaces and when planning, I think its important to design just not for what we want to eat but to welcome in diversity, particularly insect and amphibian diversity.  Insect diversity can help us with integrated pest management (below) but also just with cultivating spaces that have room for life.  A simple way to do this, for example, is to use a pollinator hedge–fill it with perennial species like borage, mint, comfrey, sage, milkweed, and more.  These pollinator hedges help welcome in insect life into your space and create habitat, food, and forage for non-human life.  Another common feature is a small frog pond and bee drinking area; a place for frogs, toads, and other amphibians to lay eggs, shelter from the hot sun, and get a drink.  A final thing here to consider is that life-honoring gardens are usually a little more “wild” than their human-dominated counterparts!
  • Integrated pest management. There are so many ways to deal with pests naturally.  Planting pollinator species, particularly the kinds that attract parasitic wasps, can help you with a host of pest problems.  Letting your chickens or ducks run through the garden.  Using cayenne pepper or copper tape to address slugs–the list goes on and on.  Most garden pests have several natural solutions in the short term.  In the long term, fostering a healthy ecosystem allows the predatory species of insects to handle the ones that could cause you trouble.  This approach does take more work and knowledge than a chemical one, and you are likely to lose some crops along the way–but in the end, it will be a much more life-respecting and affirming choice.
  • Making full use of the harvest. Another aspect of reciprocation is to use fully what is harvested and not contribute to food waste.  I think its really important that, in a time where up to 50% of the food grown is wasted, we make every effort to honor what was grown and produced in our gardens. This often means taking up some kind of food preservation, such as canning or drying produce.  Another way of thinking about this is also offering the harvest up to other life–e.g. if I can’t eat all my tomatoes, can some of my neighbors or friends enjoy them? What about offering leftovers to my chickens who convert that garden produce into eggs and manure?

Beautiful patio garden

Conclusion

I hope these principles will help those of you who are starting gardens with the intent of having sacred gardens or for those of you who already have a gardening practice and want to make it more sacred and intentional.  I would love to hear from you in the comments about other ways that you’ve engaged in sacred gardening techniques and things that you do.

 

 

 

Spirital Lessons of Ecological Succession for the Pandemic: Healing the Land, Healing the Soul

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

Ecological succession is nature’s approach to healing.  From bare rock, ecological succession allows forests to eventually grow.  Ecological succession has much to teach us as a powerful lesson from nature, and it is a particularly useful thing to meditate upon during the pandemic.  As we can look to how nature heals, it offers us guidance and stability during this challenging time.  Thus, today’s post introduces the idea of ecological succession and how these lessons can be helpful to us as spiritual lessons for thought and reflection. This post is part of my land healing series.  For earlier posts, you can see a framework for land healing, land healing as a spiritual practice, a ritual for putting the land to sleep, and a primer for physical land healing.

 

Ecological Succession

Because nature works on larger time scales, its not always obvious that nature is engaging in healing and transformative work in every moment, all across the land.  We are seeing this even with the shifts in human behavior during the pandemic: sea turtles coming up to lay eggs on abandoned beaches, air pollution levels going down, oceans and waterways clearing.  These processes are part of nature’s great power, much of which is driven by the process of ecological succession.

 

All of nature works towards “ecological succession”, a process by which an entire ecosystem changes and grows, eventually reaching something called a climax community. Climax communities are stable ecosystems that have a diversity of species, nutritional and energy balance, tolerant of environmental conditions, the kinds of species are stable and do not change.  This ecosystem thus is diverse, tolerant of diverse climate conditions, and abundant.  Climax communities obviously look very different in different ecosystems, bioregions, and parts of the world.  A tropical rainforest is one kind of climax ecosystem,  as are boreal forests, tundras, deserts, and more.  You can find these by visiting parks that have old-growth forests or other longstanding natural features.

 

Example of primary succession: lichen and moss-covered lava flows in Iceland.

Primary Succession. To start from the very beginning, in what is called primary succession, we might have bare rock with no soil, such as those situations left by the retreat of glaciers, lava formation, recently-formed sand dunes, or even boney dumps from old mining sites like we have around here.  So we start with bare rock–and rock itself, while it is part of soil, is not soil and does not contain organic matter that plants need to grow.  So ecological succession begins with the lichens who slowly break down the rocks and helps form soil.  This process can take a very, very, very long time (centuries or millennia). Once we have soil, we have small annual plants and lichens, giving way to perennial grasses and flowers.  At this point, our bare rock has turned into a field and the more that grows, the more organic matter is produced, allowing for a richer organic basis for larger plant life. Most of this kind of ecological succession was done in the time of our ancient ancestors, and so we usually start with the point where we have soil, perhaps a lawn of grass, or like our opening example suggested, an empty field that has been over-farmed.

 

Secondary Succession.  Once the soil is established, this is where we get into the second kind of ecological succession:  secondary succession.  Secondary succession is what has happened in the example I shared above – a forest was removed for farmland, and now the farmland is ready to return to forest. Secondary succession is typically what you are dealing with as a land healer, as the scale for this can be within one’s lifetime and we can see nature’s regrowth even in a few short weeks or months.

 

To explore this process, we might consider what would happen if a person stopped mowing their lawn. If this person lived along most of the Northeast part of the US, ecological succession would eventually move that lawn to a Northern Hardwood Forest, the pinnacle ecosystem in this region. Immediately, the grasses would grow tall along with any other plant life currently inhabiting the lawn, like ground ivy, docks, plantain, dandelion—most of these “pioneer” species are well adapted for growing in disrupted ecosystems. Within the first few years, we’d see seedlings from shrubs and trees that are shade intolerant wold take root (red maple, black birch), spread by the wind, birds, and animals. We’d likely see autumn olive (which spreads quickly), birch, aspen, staghorn sumac, and lots of blackberry, raspberry, and other rhubus species moving in.  For a long time, this lawn would be a field populated by sun-loving annual and perennial plants, but with each year, the trees and shrubs would get taller.  As these plants started producing seeds, berries, and foliage, animals, including larger animals, would return as there would be food for them to eat.

 

If you were walking through this piece of land when it was a wild field in mid-succession, you might not realize the rich history of the land before you. You might also not realize the powerful, yet quiet process you are witnessing as the land returns to its most abundant state. Ecological succession and forest healing is a long process, well outside the human lifespan. Yet nature’s healing is there, we only need to know what to look for.  If you returned to this place again and again and perhaps scattered some seeds and popped some acorns and walnuts in the ground, you’d see this transformation over a period of years would learn a lot about how nature heals.  You’d also find spiritual healing for yourself in this place.

 

Eventually, those tree seedlings in the field would start to grow tall, discouraging full sun perennials and grasses and shifting to part shade as the trees filled out their crowns. Within 50 years, depending on local conditions, the tree canopy would cover the entire area, allowing the soil to retain water and cooling the temperature on the ground.  Woodland, shade adapted species would then dominate the forest floor.

Forest regeneration

 

Within about 150 years, the canopy would change from short growing trees (maples, birches, cherries) to longer-growing trees (oaks, hickories, walnuts, butternuts, maybe even chestnuts), as smaller trees wait underneath the forest canopy for a break in the canopy.  offering more long-lived hardwoods, and reach the end of ecological succession—the climax community of oak, hickory, and other hardwoods with a rich and diverse understory (pawpaw, hawthorn, serviceberry, sassafras, spicebush, etc). Thus, it is not a single species that cause ecological succession, but rather, an entire community of species working together in an interconnected web of life–one coming after another, until we the forest once again reaches the climax ecosystem.

 

Where I live, the only places that are at their climax are ones under some kind of permanent and long-term protection: state parks, conservation areas, or other protected lands.  If you enter these places, you’ll, of course, notice the energy first: they are calm, restful, very vitalizing places to return to again and again.  They are vibrant, alive, and functioning at their peak.  Everything in the ecosystem is cycled in perfect balance.

Spiritual Lessons of Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is nature’s primary driving force for healing the land and ecosystems. It’s a powerful process that has shaped this land again and again.  Thus, I think it is a critically useful thing to understand, interact with, and meditate upon.  It offers us numerous lessons, some of which I will share here (with many others ready to discover).  I also think these lessons are particularly relevant and valuable to us during the time of the pandemic when so much disruption is at play.

 

Disruption is a natural part of life. That nature is so good at adapting, healing, and ecological succession suggests that disruption is part of life here on earth.  It is part of the life of a forest as much as it is a part of the life of a human. If we apply this same issue to our own lives, we may have minor disruptions (selective logging) or major disruptions (lava, forest fires, etc). These disruptions cannot heal overnight, but we will heal.

 

This is a particularly valuable lesson for us right now. Most of us are experiencing a major disruption in our lives–on a cultural scale, probably the largest we have ever seen.  Nobody knows what the new normal will be or how long the disruption will last.  But this lesson from nature is clear–disruption is a powerful opportunity for new growth.

 

Healing Begins immediately. As soon as the disruption ends, healing begins immediately.  If you’ve ever been to a fire-dependent ecosystem, within 1-2 weeks of the end of the fire (or after the first good rain), you’ll see tiny little seeds sprouting and plants coming to life.  This, too, is part of nature’s healing process.  It will take time for the ecosystem to return to the state before disruption, but it will. Having faith in that process is the start of the healing process.  Perhaps our own healing has already started, and we don’t even know it!

 

Healing takes time Nature reminds us that healing takes the time it is going to take, and there is no rushing the process.  From lava to mature forest could take 1000 years or more.  When I visited Iceland last summer, we saw the lichen-encrusted lava fields, looking like piles of green.  Some of them had names tied to historical events in the middle ages or before–some of them were thousands of years old, and due to Iceland’s extreme climate, it would take a few thousand more years for anything else to grow. This was nature’s healing on an epic timescale.  Even in more temperate climates, of we start with bare soil such as a construction site or farmed field, nature’s full healing may not take place for 250 years. While human time is obviously different in scale, we can use this lesson of nature to realize–and accept–the healing process.

 

Perhaps we are all feeling like there is a lot of bare soil, scorched earth, here in our own inner and cultural landscapes now.  But just like that lichen, nature will heal–and as we are part of nature, we will also heal in time.  And that healing is ongoing, subconsciously, whether or not we can see it.

 

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Look to the lichen for Slow and Steady Healing. Nature reminds us through the lesson of ecological succession that healing can happen in quiet, small ways.  Lichens are one step in complexity above algae, quite simple in their structure, and yet, they have a tremendously important role in our ecosystem in offering the first building blocks of life.  This is a reminder to us that it’s not just the “big” things we do, but the small, invisible, and quiet practices that can make a difference.

During this time, perhaps that means attending to our spiritual practices and things like daily interaction with nature, daily meditation, spending time just being with ourselves, spending time with our creative practices.  Its the small, gradual things that have the biggest difference in time.

 

Communities matter. Ecological succession is a wide variety of species working together for the same goal.  We heal better when supported and surrounded by others who are also healing, and also working towards our healing.  Nature teaches us that we aren’t meant to do this work alone.  This is, perhaps, a hard lesson during the pandemic when communities are the very things that are no longer as present in our lives.  But although we are isolated physically, we are still all together in this. And being supportive of each other, hearing each other, and growing together will get us through.

 

Healing is dynamic.  Just as different plants fill ecological roles and are replaced by others as the ecosystem heals, we might apply this same concept to our own healing.  At first, we need the pioneer species–those plants to come in quickly, cover up bare soil, and help get healing going.  But as time passes, what we need changes as we process, understand, and move through our challenges.  This suggests that healing is a dynamic and mutable process for us–and being aware of that will help us from getting in a rut.

 

In the pandemic, many of us are finding that our typical practices for healing aren’t always working–requiring us to shift directions.  I’ve been speaking with many others who have firmly established bardic arts/creative practices, and they are having a hard time engaging in them–but they are finding other things that work. I know that is true of me. In honoring the dynamic nature of healing, some of the things I usually do to ground and heal have to be set temporarily aside as I explore things that help me in this moment. Healing is dynamic, and what we might need changes.

 

All heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle – time for some healing!

Conclusion

 Nature is our ultimate teacher, and I think she has a lot to teach about the ways in which ecological succession can heal us as participants in this larger web of life.  By meditating on, understanding, and engaging with nature’s primary healing process, we can help make a difference in the lands around us and in our own lives during this challenging time.  Once I’m back to blogging, I’ll share a very practical application and example, showing how we at the Druid’s Garden Homestead are working with nature to support and speed up ecological succession after logging.

 

Finally, like many, I’m struggling with focus during this time. This is affecting my writing practice and I’m having a lot of difficulties getting my regular blog posts out. I always take a blog break in mid-May each year, but I’m going to take my blog break now for a few weeks. My plan is to be back in 3-4 weeks with regular content.  Thank you for understanding and supporting the Druid’s Garden blog! 🙂

Wildcrafting Druidry: Getting Started in Your Ecosystem

One of the strengths of AODA druidry is our emphasis on developing what Gordon Cooper calls “wildcrafted druidries“–these are druid practices that are localized to our place, rooted in our ecosystems, and designed in conjunction with the world and landscapes immediately around us. Wildcrafted druidries are in line with the recently released seven principles of AODA, principles that include rooting nature at the center of our practice, practicing nature reverence, working with cycles and seasons, and wildcrafting druidry.  But taking the first steps into wildcrafting your practice can be a bit overwhelming, and can be complicated by a number of other factors. What if you are a new druid and don’t know much about your ecosystem? What if you are a druid who is traveling a lot or is transient? What if you are a druid who just moved to a new ecosystem after establishing yourself firmly somewhere else? This post will help you get started in building your own wildcrafted druid practice and will cover including using nature as inspiration, localized wheels of the year, pattern literacy, nature and relationship, and finding the uniqueness in the landscape.

 

AODA Principles

Prior to this post, I’ve shared some of my earlier ideas for how you might develop a localized wheel of the year, consider the role of local symbolism, and develop different rituals, observances, and practices in earlier blog posts.  The three linked posts come from my own experiences living as a druid in three states: Indiana, Michigan, and now Western Pennsylvania. For today’s post, I am indebted to members of AODA for a recent community call (which we do quarterly along with other online events).  In our 1.5 hour discussion, we covered many of the topics that are present in this post–so in this case, I am presenting the ideas of many AODA druids that flowed from our rich conversation. For more on upcoming AODA events that are open to AODA members and friends of the AODA, you can see this announcement.

 

Nature as Inspiration and for Connection

While the principle of wildcrafting seems fairly universal, in that all druids find some need to wildcraft to varying degrees, there is no set method for beginning to engage in these practices or what they specifically draw upon in their local landscape. The details vary widely based on the ecosystem and the individual druid’s experiences, history, culture, and more. What an individual druid chooses to follow is rooted in both the dominant features of that landscape, what they choose to focus on in the ecosystem, and how they choose to interpret and build a relationship with their landscape. Here are some of the many interpretations:

  • Following the path of the sun and light coming in or out of the world (a classic interpretation) and looking for what changes in the landscape may be present at the solstices and equinoxes
  • Following clear markers of the season based in plant life: tree blooming, sap flowing, colors changing, tree harvests, dormancy, and more
  • Following clear markers of migrating birds and/or the emergence or stages of life for insects (monarchs, robins)
  • Following animal patterns and activity (nesting behavior, etc)
  • Following weather patterns (e.g. time of fog, monsoon seasons, rainy season, dry season, winter, summer, etc)
  • Following patterns of people or other natural shifts in urban settings (e.g. when the tourists leave, patterns of life in your city)
  • Recognizing that some places do not have four seasons and working to discover what landscape and weather markers mark your specific seasons
  • Drawing upon not only ecological features but also cultural or familial ones (family stories, local myths, local culture)

Transient druids or druids who travel a lot may have a combination of the above, either from different ecosystems that they visited or from a “home base” ecosystem, where they grew up or live for part of the year. There is obviously no one right or wrong way to create your wheel.

 

Another important issue discussed in our call tied to using nature as inspiration is viewing nature through a lens of connection rather than objectification.  When we look at a tree, what do we see? Do we see the tree as an object in the world? Perhaps we see it as lumber for building or as a producer of fruit for eating. But what if, instead, we thought about the interconnected web of relationships that that tree is part of? What is our relationship with that tree?  Thus, seeing nature from a position of relationships/connections and not just seeing nature as objects is a useful practice that helped druids build these kinds of deep connections with nature.

One interpretation of the wheel of the year

One of my own interpretations of the wheel of the year

Wheel(s) of the Year: Localizing and Adapting

The concept of the wheel of the year is central to druidry. Druids find it useful to mark certain changes in their own ecosystems and celebrate the passage of one season to the next–practices which we’d define in terms of a wheel of the year. But to druids who wildcraft, the wheel of the year should be a reflection of nature’s cycles and seasons, things that are local and representative of the ecosystems that they inhabit.  While many traditional wheels of the year assume either a fourfold or eightfold pattern and are based entirely on agricultural holidays in the British Isles and the path of the sun, this system does not map neatly–or at all–onto many other places of the world. The further that one gets from anything resembling UK-like temperate ecosystems, the less useful the traditional wheel of the year is. The disconnection and divergence encourage druids to build their own wheels of the year.

 

Druids describe widely divergent wheels of the year in different parts of North and South America. Some reported having only two seasons (rainy and dry) while others reported having up to 7 different distinct seasons in their wheel. Wheels of the year might be marked by some of the kinds of events described in the bullet points above:  the return of a particular insect to the ecosystem, the migration of birds, the blooming of a flower, first hard frost, the coming of the rains, and so forth. I shared my own take on the wheel of the year here, and also wrote about my adaptation of Imbolc to my local ecosystem and local culture–these are two examples that might be useful to you.  Even if you live in an ecosystem that isn’t that divergent from the classical wheel of the year, you still may find that you want to adapt parts of it to your specific experiences, practices, and connections.

 

From my earlier article on the wheel of the year, here are some practices that you might do to start building your own wheel:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming, or what they understand to be the seasons. You might be surprised at the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farms and agriculture. Most traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems. You can learn a lot about important things that happen in your local ecosystem by paying attention to the agricultural wheel of the year and what is done when.  If you have the opportunity to do a little planting and harvesting (in a garden or on your balcony) you’ll also attune yourself to these changes.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs and festivals and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs from much older traditions (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? What is changing?  Observation and interaction will help.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature spirits or spirits of the land and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

Pattern Literacy: Nature’s Archetypes

All druids seeking to wildcraft and connect deeply with the world around them would benefit from understanding what permaculturist Toby Hemingway called “Pattern literacy”.  Patterns are nature’s archetypes;  they are the ways that nature repeats itself over and over through broader designs, traits, configurations, features, or events.  Each unique thing on this planet is often representing one or larger patterns. Learning pattern literacy is useful for all druids as a way of starting to engage with and develop wildcrafted druidries.

Rosaceae – Patterns from Botany in a Day book

 

Let’s look at an example of pattern literacy from the plant kingdom to see how this works. The rose (Rosaceae) family is a very large family of plants and includes almost 5000 different species globally–including blackberries, apples, hawthorns, plums, rowans, and much more.  Members of the rose family are found on nearly every continent in the world. Rose family plants have a number of common features, including five petals, five sepals, numerous stamens, serrated leaves (often arranged in a spiral pattern).  If you know this pattern, then even if you don’t know specific species in the ecosystem you are in, you can still do some broad identification–you can recognize a plant as being in the rose family, even if you don’t’ know the specific species.  This information–along with lots more like it, comes from a book called Botany in a Day, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning plant patterns.

 

For those of you who are transient, traveling, or looking to connect to a new ecosystem, pattern literacy offers you a powerful way to form immediate connections in an unfamiliar ecosystem.  Connections are formed through relationships, experiences, and knowledge–you can have a relationship with one species and transfer at least part of that connection to similar species in a new area. With pattern literacy, you an learn the broad patterns of nature and then apply them in specific ways to new areas where you are at. Once you can identify the larger patterns, you are not “lost” any longer, you are simply seeing how that familiar archetype manifests specifically in the place you are at.  These kinds of immediate connections in an unfamiliar place can give you some “anchoring” in new places.

 

The best way to discover patterns is to get out in nature, observe, and interact.  Reading books and learning more about nature’s common patterns can also help.  In addition to Botany in a Day which I mentioned above, you might be interested in looking at Philip Ball’s series from Oxford University Press: Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts. The three patterns that he covers are: Branches, Shapes, and Flow. Mushroom and plant books also often offer “keys” or key features that repeat over many plant families (e.g. shelf mushrooms, gilled mushrooms, boletes, agarics, etc).  These kinds of books are other good sources of information.  Learning nature is learning patterns–and pattern literacy is a critical tool for druids.

 

Recognizing the Uniqueness in the Landscape

Another useful way of wildcrafting your druidry is thinking about what is unique and special about your landscape.  These can be natural features, beauty, diversity, insect life–and these unique features can be a land’s journey through history and restoration from adversity, the story of that land.  Finding and connecting to these unique features may give you a way of seeing how your land is unique in a very local way.  Some landscapes have old-growth trees, others huge cacti, others endless fields of flowers, and still others huge barren mountains with beautiful pigments.  Each place is different, special, and unique.

 

For transient druids, traveling druids, or druids who are new to an ecosystem, recognizing the uniqueness in the landscape has added benefit. It allows you to focus on what is special and best about the landscape you are in rather than focusing on a landscape that you miss (e.g. being able to appreciate the prairie for what it is rather than focusing on the fact that there are few to no trees).  Thus, this offers a way of orienting yourself in an unfamiliar environment.

Ready, Set, Wildcraft!

Hopefully, this post combined with my previous writings on this topic can help you develop a connection with your landscape, and thus, find new ways of deepening your wildcrafting practice.  Find the cycles, find the patterns, discover what is unique, and discover what changes–all of these suggestions can help you better understand the world around you.  If you have any strategies or ideas that weren’t shared here that have helped you wildcraft your druidry and connect with your local landscape, please feel free to share!

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.