Monthly Archives: May 2014

Ode to the Dandelion

I remember a sunny day not too long ago in early May when I was visiting my parents in western Pennsylvania. Everywhere we drove, dandelions were growing, their beautiful, bright yellow heads serenading the sun. After one of the coldest winters in modern history, seeing fields and lawns full of dandelions reflecting back the light of the sun was a blissful experience. “Here we are!” the dandelions cried out. “We are bringing sunlight and spring back into the world! Hear our song!” And I could tell they were doing just that, their sunburst flower heads reflecting the warmth and heat, welcoming spring to the lands once again. As we were driving, I remarked to my parents how nice it was that people were letting them grow instead of mowing them or putting chemicals on them. The photograph is below–this was one of the fields that I saw.  However, I had spoken too soon–not a day later, fields and lawns I had photographed full of dandelions were mowed, one after another.  It seemed that everyone took that day to mow down their dandelions, spray them, and then the fields left their magical dandelion state and went back to mundane green.

Fields of Dandelions...mowed hours later!

Fields of Dandelions…mowed hours later!

The dandelion, perhaps more than any other plant, instills hatred and virility across the US landscape. The dandelion seems to be enemy #1: Americans and other industrialized nations spend millions of dollars and dump millions of petrochemical weed killers on getting rid of dandelions.  In my few short days visiting my parents, I witnessed people digging them out, mowing them down, spraying them, and expressing frustration and anger at the sight of them. In some townships and developments, they are banned from the landscape. A friend tells me how her subdivision has banned the dandelion and anyone who has them growing in their yard can be fined up to $100 a week. The irony of all of this, of course, is that the reason this plant is in the US at all is because our ancestors brought it here due to its highly beneficial nature.

 

Why is there such hatred for the dandelion today, when in previous generations, it was a revered plant? I think there are a number of underlying factors.  First, the perfect (tame) green lawn is an incredibly powerful myth that people hold onto, something they strive to have, for reasons largely lost on me. The dandelion challenges that myth and requires work to remove; it challenges the idea that we can tame nature.  Second, we have a profound lack of knowledge about about the role of the dandelion and how beneficial it can be to the land, the insects, and ourselves.  Third, the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” masks its beneficial nature–weeds are pests, unwanted plants that plague humanity….if only they realized that settlers brought the dandelions here in the first place due to their beneficial nature!

 

In this post, I’m going to present an alternative view to the dandelion, and discuss its important role in our ecosystem and in our own lives.  If we want to shift to more sustainable practices and a more spiritual way of interacting with the land, we need to start seeing dandelions as allies, not enemies.  And allies they are, providing us with land healing, nutrition, medicine, beauty, whimsy, and even wine!

 

What is a Dandelion?

A dandelion (taraxacum officinale) is a hardy perennial wildflower that grows across temperate regions in the Americas, Asia and Europe.  It often appears as one of the first flowers in spring, although can be found blooming throughout the summer months.  The dandelion is naturalized to the North American region, being brought here by European settlers, who found dandelions to be so useful that they  planted dandelions wherever they went.

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

 

Why does the Dandelion grow in your lawn?  What is it doing there? Why is it important?

Before I get into the specific benefits of the dandelion, the issue of the lawn must first be addressed. The lawn itself is an attempt to put nature in an unnatural state that requires fossil fuels and many human hours of labor to maintain.  The lawn is the largest “crop” in cultivation in the USA, yet it produces no food. The dandelion’s role in the ecosystem is a restorative plant: it comes in and attempts to restore the lawn to a more natural state, to heal the damage that has been done.  It does this in at least three ways: through rejuvenating the nutrients in the soil, through reducing soil compaction, and through preventing soil erosion.

 

Dandelions, according to Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture, are helpful plants that rejuvenate damaged and compacted soil.  When we strip the soil bare (say, at a construction site or in a new subdivision where the current practice is to remove all topsoil and sell it), dandelions and other rejuvenating plants (burdock, yellow dock, yarrow, clover lamb’s quarters, ground ivy, etc.) start growing to begin to regenerate the soil. These plants are the first of many that will eventually grow, but these plants job is to bring nutrients from deep below the soil, to pull in nutrients from the air into the soil, and generally build soil health.  If this bare soil was left on its own, eventually dandelions would give way to larger shrubs and bushes, eventually trees and forest would move in (and dandelion would be long gone).

 

In addition to regenerating the land in terms of nutrients, one of the things that dandelion is particularly good for is breaking up compacted soil.  Most of the “lawn” spaces are repeatedly driven over with heavy machinery, causing substantial soil compaction. To see how compacted your soil is, go and try to stick your fingers down in your soil.  If they don’t slide in easily, the soil is likely compacted (compare this to a freshly turned garden soil).  Because of soil compaction, its very hard for many plants to establish root systems. Therefore, one of the most important roles dandelion plays in our ecosystem is to break up compacted soil with its deep taproot.

 

That same deep taproot and carpet of dandelions can help quickly prevent soil erosion and the loss of nutrients from the soil.  Soil erosion is a serious issue–in our nation’s history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was largely caused by poor soil erosion control (wind erosion).  This led to substantial crop and farm failure and contributed to the worsening of the Great Depression.

 

Understanding a bit about the soil quality, soil compaction, and soil erosion, we can now understand why dandelions show up in so many lawns!  They are attempting to heal the soil so that other plants can grow.

Other Benefits of Dandelions for the Land

In addition to building healthy soil, the dandelion has numerous benefits for other creatures in the landscape.  Bees and insects of all kinds depend on it for survival, as do various other animals.

As a beekeeper, I welcome the dandelions at the start of spring.  After a long, cold winter, all of the bees are hungry; dandelion provides them with the earliest source of nectar and pollen. Pollen is a critical part of the bees’ diet; pollen provides protein that the bees use as a food source and to raise their own young.  Without the pollen in the early spring from dandelions and other flowers, bees might sacrifice protein in their own bodies to raise their young.  Considering the plight of the bees, especially the honeybee, anything we can do to aid in their survival (such as letting dandelions grow) is critical.

Furthermore, if one mows a field of dandelions in full bloom, one risks killing thousands and thousands of bees–domesticated honeybees as well as wild pollinators like bumble bees or mason bees.  We need those same bees to come along and pollinate our tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and many other plants later in the season, and they form a vital part of our ecosystem!  For the sake of the bees, don’t mow down that field or lawn of dandelions!

 

Harvesting Dandelion

In the sections that follow, I’ll describe some recopies using the different parts of the dandelion plant–this info on harvesting will help you understand how to ethically and safely harvest. When harvesting any wild food/medicine, you want to be very careful about where you harvest.  Harvesting from your neighbor’s lawn, when your neighbor sprays every few weeks, is a very bad idea.  Likewise, harvesting too close to an old house (that may have had lead paint) or by the roadside (that once had cars with leaded gasoline) is likewise not a good idea.  I usually harvest my dandelions from inside my organic garden–encourage their growth on the edge of my garden to attract pollinators, and when the stray ones grow up in my beds, I pull them out.

 

If you are going for the root, you’ll obviously be harvesting the whole plant.  I suggest harvesting roots early in the spring or late in the fall if you can do so–the energy of the plant is in the root during these times.  Once the root sends up its greenery, you lose some of the energy of the plant into the greenery and seed production.  With that said though, roots can be harvested all through the spring, summer, and fall.  To clean the roots, you can wash them easily with a big bucket and a hose outside–rinse them off till the dirt is gone.  I usually go through several changes of water and use a scrub brush and they are clean.  What you do with the roots at that point is up to you (see “Dandelion as Medicine” and “Dandelion as Food” below).

 

The greens are best harvested in the spring, as the plants are shooting up their new growth.  If you are harvesting greens, the rule of thumb is that the younger the greens, the less bitter they are.  The energy of the plant is in the greens at that time. You want some of the bitter nature of the plant (more on that below) but too much bitter may not be so palatable!  Again, you can harvest from any safe place and then wash them lightly.

 

I don’t really think in most places you can overharvest dandelion to the point of threatening the plant.  Do be aware, however, of how many dandelions are in the immediate area (especially if you are digging roots) and harvest only as many as you need.  Do also be aware that bees and other insects need them as a food source, so harvest with that in mind.  I have an abundance of dandelion in my yard, so I harvest as much as I’d like, knowing there will always be more!

 

Fields of dandelion

Fields of dandelion

Dandelion as Medicine

The way that I use dandelion most often is as a medicine.  Dandelion’s entire plant has medicinal qualities.

Bitters. One of the primary medicinal qualities of a dandelion is that it is a bitter. Bitters are found quite a bit in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll get exactly what I mean).  But when we cut bitters out of our diet, our digestion began to suffer.  My herb teacher, Jim Mcdonald, describes bitters as stimulating all digestive functions, including the stomach acids, saliva, stomach enzymes, hormones produced in the stomach, bile, and so on. Each of these, in turn, help break down food and add to digestion and overall gastrointestinal well being.

Bitters should be seen as a tonic, that is, they are something we don’t take only when we are sick, but rather something we take every day to help keep us in optimal health.  I take my dandelion bitters before each meal–in order for the bitters to be effective, you have to taste them.  A few drops of my dandelion root tincture on my tongue (see recipe) will help my digestion each day!

Beyond the immediate physical benefits, I there is also a spiritual side to the bitters.  You are taking and extracting the essence of a plant, preserving it in alcohol, and then taking that plant as medicine.  This puts you in communion of the plant (even more so if you harvest/grow the plant itself).  This has powerful spiritual implications for those who choose to seek them.

 

Dandelion Root Tea

Another way to take your daily dose of dandelion is through tea.  Here are two kinds of recipes:

Fresh tea: The fresh tea is simple to make–dig up a number of roots (which shouldn’t be too difficult). Wash your roots, chop them up, and bring them to boil with several cups water (think about 1/2 tablespoon root per 1 cup water). Boil for 40 minutes and then enjoy.

Dried Tea: The dried tea can be enjoyed the same way as fresh.  After harvesting, you can chop and dry out the dandelion root.  I usually just let it air dry, but you can also use a dehydrator.  The dried root tea can be prepared like the fresh tea.  Also consider adding other medicinal herbs to your blend!

 

 

Dandelion as Food

Dandelion can be ingested in many ways, the health benefits of which I discussed under “dandelion as medicine.”  The nutritional value of dandelion plants are also quite high–they are high in vitamins A, B, C and D, and contain potassium, zinc, and iron.  This makes them an all-around great food and drink.  Again, remember that dandelion is a tonic plant, which means we want to be taking it often!

Roasted Root Coffee: The dried and roasted roots also make a great tea (although its a little more like a coffee, and some people drink it as a coffee substitute–coffee, like dandelion, is also a bitter that “moves” you!)  Again you’ll want to dig up as many roots as you’d like.  Now you’ll want to chop them.  To chop them quickly, you can use a food processor.  Set your oven to 250 degrees, and lay your roots out on a baking sheet (or several).  Over the next two hours, check on them fairly often, stirring them to ensure an even roast.  When you have them to the desired darkness, you can pull them out of the oven.  Before serving, I usually grind them up further in a coffee grinder so that I get a nice ground.  You want to store the grounds  in an airtight container (like a mason jar).  You can use 1 tablespoon (level) for 1 cup of coffee. You’ll want to boil it for 10-15 min (not just brew like regular coffee).  Add cream and honey!  Delicious!

Dandelion Wine:  I have also had the joy of making dandelion wine, detailed in two posts here and here.

 

Dandelion wine fermenting....

Dandelion wine fermenting….

There are many other ways to enjoy dandelion in the spring, especially the leaves, which can be used in salads, stir fried, sauteed, made into fritters, etc.  An online search will reveal many more recipes!

 

Shifting Consciousness: Dandelions, Whimsy, and Magic

I remember as a child how I would go out into a field of dandelions, pick one seed head after another, and blow them all away.  Dandelions have a very whimsical quality to them.  As they take flight, they appear like little fairies.

Dandelions are truly a plant of the sun–their flowers open when the sun is out, and close at night or in overcast or rainy weather. The seed heads, however, have a lunar quality–they appear like a full moon, and stay that way regardless of the weather or light or darkness, until the wind (or some child) comes and blows them away.  At this point, the seeds take flight; a delicate umbrella carries off the tiny dandelion seed to new ground.

What I’ve been attempting to convey in this book is the importance of shifting our own consciousness, of understanding dandelions as more than just a “pesky weed” but an incredibly important plant ally that gives so much to the land and to us if we only allow it.  I encourage you to spend some time and sit with the dandelion plant.  Watch her softly move in the breeze.  Watch her seeds take flight.  Dig one up and examine her deep taproot, turn it into medicine, and see the dandelion as a magical, incredible plant that she is.

Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Update – Restoration Planning at Strawbale Studio

Site of decomissioned earlier pipeline

Site of decommissioned earlier pipeline; next to where the new pipeline is being dug.

The question of how to respond to events beyond our control, the broader events and decisions that continue shape the world, is an important one. So much destructive and exploitative human activity is taking place (fracking, mountain top mining, tar sands oil) and its hard to respond when we feel so powerless. Its even harder to respond when we know that we are complicit in these events’ creation–by driving cars, heating our homes with gas, and so on, we are shaping the events that take place.

 

The kinds of responses we generate in the face of such events is an issue well worth pursuing.  Each area has its own local challenges, my area being no exception. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the area in South-East Michigan where I live (less than 3 miles north of my house) has a tar sands oil pipeline being put in (this line is an alternative to Keystone XL, which has generated substantial attention in the media).  While there is nothing that the citizens can do here to prevent the pipeline from being completed due to the history of this particular pipeline and previous permission being granted, we can certainly decide how we respond, how we work with the land, and what we do after the pipeline crews leave.  How we choose to respond can shape conversations about these activities for decades to come, and can demonstrate that there are many ways to work with the land and address change.

 

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Last fall, I discussed the Enbridge Oil Pipeline digging project that was going through my good friend Deanne’s land at Strawbale Studio. In the fall, I went and worked with the trees and documented what was happening on her land.  At this point, the land has been cleared for the crews, and the pipeline will be dug within the next few weeks.  Those of us involved with Strawbale Studio been thinking about what to do when the crews leave, how we might encourage sustainable thinking and practices.

 

Last night, 35 members of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup spent time looking at the site in its current form and brainstorming ideas for restoration once the pipeline project is done. I wanted to post an update about some of our ideas and suggestions to A) document the progress of this project and our response and B) share the ideas if others are facing a similar challenge in their communities.

Exploring Strawbale Studio

Exploring Strawbale Studio

 

We began with a tour of the Strawbale Studio property, ending at the pipeline.  Using principles of permaculture design (observe and interact) we examined the site, explored the margins, noted the existing flows of energy (like a wetland area on the western part of the pipeline and a rising slope on the eastern part of the pipeline).  Deanne also pointed out the existing resources, including a huge pile of mulched wood chips from the trees that were cut (which will likely become a compost water heater in the fall) and numerous logs and stone piles which could be used for various natural building projects. After reviewing the site, we went back to the house for discussion about possibilities. We also noted the distance from the house (about a 3-5 min walk) and noted the severity of last winter would mean that the site might not be accessible year round.  We also noted which areas needed to remain clear of large trees (where the pipeline is) and which areas could be “anything goes” areas (the staging areas where they cleared to have their equipment move in and out around the area where the pipeline is being dug).

 

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Its incredible what happens when you get 35 people in a room who want to make change.  We came up with a number of good and worthy suggestions–short term and long term. I’m not sure yet which ones we’ll decide to move forward with, but I think a number of these are worthy of consideration.

 

Short term suggestions:

Our short term suggestions focused on the immediate needs to restore the land and how to make use of any resources the pipeline company might be willing to provide:

  • Seeing if the construction crews would create swales for water trapping and the like, be willing to shape the landscape so we could more effectively catch and store energy (this would be a first response)
  • Seeing what kinds of resources for restoration the company offers (they are required to offer some, based on Michigan Department of Natural Resources and EPA guidelines).
  • Once the crews leave, we need to immediately get something immediately planted in the bare soil to help restore the land and rebuild the soil ecology.  Ideas ranged from  a cover crop of rye, clover, alfalfa to something with a tap root.  This suggestion is particularly important because the soil ecology has been largely destroyed and now the soil will have substantial amounts of compaction due to the heavy machinery going over the site.  A tap rooted crop will help break up compaction and add nitrogen and other minerals back into the soil.

These three areas are the first we will address in the action plan.  Once we see what resources we have, what, if anything, we can do to shape the land, and how to get something in the soil to restore it, the longer-term projects can get underway.

 

Group discussion indoors about site

Group discussion indoors about site

Long-Term Potential Projects:

The long-term projects ranged substantially, and many have a lot of merit!  Which projects end up taking place depends on the community, the resources, and Deanne’s vision for the site.

  • A camping area (perhaps combined with a yearly gathering) where interns or visitors can camp.
  • A pollinator sanctuary with native wild grasses, plants, flowers, etc., as well as beehives for honey and a cob beehive for wild bees (like mason bees).  We like this idea a lot because it doesn’t require a lot of daily maintenance (like animals would, see below), and it contributes back to the land.
  • The use of the land for natural building materials for other strawbale projects–establishing trees for coppicing (hazels, willows), perhaps other materials
  • Some kind of co-op: wine/grapes, orchard/fruit; goat/sheep; chicken/egg; or herbs.  The idea is that the community would contribute to the work of the co-op and reap some of the rewards.
  • An education area for children/school groups to come and learn about energy and restoration–it would have signs about oil pipelines, what was done and how the oil is used, encouraging reduction of fossil fuel use and teaching about sustainability (this could be done with any number of our ideas)
  • Orchards of fruit and nut trees (Hazels and Apples were specifically discussed)
  • A grazing area for chickens, goats, horses, or the like (we decided that if this were to be, someone would need to be down there in a little cob building as a caretaker!)
  • Alfalfa as a cash crop that can be baled and sold to nearby farmers (to bring in steady income for other projects)

These are just some of the ideas the community came up with.  This was a wonderful meeting, to see so many people invested in planning for the future, in reclaiming the land and in working to put something in that encourages a different worldview.

 

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Final Thoughts

Throughout our country and world, there are a lot of bad things being done to the land in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel energy.  Any of us who participates in modern consumerist society (myself included) is contributing to the problem of the exploitation of our lands for oil.  And most of us live near some kind of activity–from mountaintop removal to fracking to oil pipelines (and many of us live in areas were multiple kinds of activity are taking place).

 

While we can reduce our fossil fuel use and look for alternatives (as many of us are doing), how we respond to these kinds of issues, especially when we are directly confronted with them can empower us and bring about broader change in the world.  That we will turn the oil pipeline site into a sustainable, model site for other kind of restorative work is empowering–and its something we *have* the power to do, while stopping the oil pipeline is something that we really don’t have the power to do (this one was leased in the 1960’s, so its a done deal as far as any of us can tell).  I’d be interested in hearing of any other communities’ responses to these kinds of issues.

Approaching the Sacred Through Nature: Sustainability and Sacred Action (Pan Druid Retreat Talk, 2014)

I was blessed to attend the Pan-Druid Retreat in Gore, Virginia this past weekend.  As part of the retreat, I served on a discussion panel about “approaching the sacred through nature.”  We were asked to prepare 10 minutes for discussion.  I used a series of past blog posts and current thoughts to prepare my remarks on “Sustainability as Sacred Action.”  I thought I’d share my talk with blog readers.  Enjoy!

 

Introduction. The common bond that unites druids, and other earth-centered spiritual paths, is a deep respect and reverence for the living earth. We celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons, we revere the plants, and we speak to the forest spirits.  But what does having that connection with nature mean, and how can we deepen that connection into every aspect of our lives? How can we ensure our actions nourish, nurture and support in all ways, especially when live in a culture that exploits and actively harms.

 

For my own practice of druidry, building a more sustainable life and teaching others how to do the same is the cornerstone of my druid path. Yes, I engage in ritual and meditation and all “spiritual” stuff, but I believe that beliefs must be accompanied by actions. For me this means an emphasis on sustainability, on treading lightly, and in helping to change humanity’s destructive practices. Why? First, because the more deeply in tune with the natural world I’ve become through my druidic practices, the more I’ve realized that my own relationship with the land started out more passively damaging than actively nurturing.  With this series of realizations, I began to radically shift my own life to align with my spiritual beliefs. For anyone who has been attempting to live more sustainably, the odds are stacked against us in a culture of consumption—but it is possible with knowledge, determination, and a community of support. I’ll talk about what this can look like and provide some philosophies and resources for making this happen.

Oak Knowledge. The term druid means “oak knowledge.” But what does knowledge of the oaks mean today? While we have many ways of interpreting “oak knowledge” within druidry, I would argue that a deep understanding of the natural world, an understanding humanity’s ecological impacts, and a knowledge of how to nurture our landscapes and communities is critical “oak knowledge.” And what we do with that knowledge and how we share it is just as important.

 

For most of human history, knowledge about the medicinal virtues of plants, how to grow or forage for one’s own food, how to preserve said foods, how to not take too much, were all critical skills. It has only been in the last century that we’ve lost these skills—and druids have much to offer the world if we can find them again.

 

As an example of a really bit of useful oak knowledge, let’s talk briefly about the typical “American” lawn. The typical lawn is a battlefield between humans and nature. The dandelion pops up in said lawn, and it is mowed, pulled, or most often, chemically treated. But my oak knowledge tells me about that dandelion—it’s a species that is the beginning of the land healing itself. Its deep tap root breaks up compacted soil and is likewise a fantastic medicine for digestion. Its greens are a wonderful spring food; and its beautiful flowers are one of the earliest sources for pollen for bees—not to mention, they make a great wine. All of this “oak knowledge” about dandelion and many other useful plants has come in handy in helping my friends and community shift their practices around their landscapes. The lawn is currently the largest crop in cultivation in America, and yet it produces no food, it produces no forage, it requires extensive chemical and fossil fuels, and substantial human labor. When I can show that there are alternatives to a velvety green lawn that benefit all, shifts begin to happen.

 

I am part of the organizing team for a permaculture meetup in our area in Michigan. As part of this meetup this year, we are working to get 100 people in our community to commit to converting some of their lawn into a productive space for herbs, edible fruits, nuts, and organic vegetables. Knowledge of how to do that, and what plants are beneficial, can really help this process. When you have the knowledge of the oaks, you can show others the value in the landscape around us—and this can go far in helping us become more sustainable.

 

The spaces that we choose to interact with and be knowledgeable about are also important. While we may gravitate towards the forests, the wild places, the quiet streams and rugged isolated mountains, and oak knowledge can certainly be useful there, I would argue that we also need to start using this oak knowledge in the spaces that humans most typically inhabit—our cities, our suburban communities, our workplaces, outside or windows and back yards. The most important work is the visible work we can do every day, in our daily lives. These are not simple choices like “paper or plastic or bring your own bag” (all of which still assume a consumerist mindset, which is a big part of how we got into this mess) but rather deep, meaningful changes, like reducing the need to use bags for the procurement of food at all. The choice of how to tend our yards (will we have grass or medicinal/edibles/wild flowers?); what food to eat (will we grow our own, buy it from farmers, or buy it from Walmart?); how to travel and heat our homes, how we spend our time, and so on, are the important, everyday choices.   Each waking moment can be an opportunity to engage in sustainability as sacred action and reconnect with the world around us through nurturing practices.

 

Where do we gain “oak knowledge”? Teachings in the druid tradition often focus on the spiritual side of things, which provide many gifts, but do not necessarily help us in understanding the practical work of living in a nature-focused, sustainable way. To learn oak knowledge and how to live sustainably, I found myself reaching far and wide. A local sustainable living center taught natural building and alternative energy skills; a friend mentored me through my first year as a gardener; my university offered advanced courses in organic gardening; a prominent herbalist offered a year-long herbal intensive; books from the library taught me about beekeeping and foraging; historical reinactors taught me about cheese making, weaving, spinning, cooking over the fire, sustainable fire starting, and so much more.

 

winter_peasIn addition to the various books and friends and classes, I found it helpful to have a unifying theory that guided my actions, mantras that would help me always live in a sacred manner and seek oak knowledge. I found this in permaculture. Permaculture is a design theory, a set of principles that we can use to help us design anything from a simple landscape or organic garden, to a building, and to a community of people living and working together. When I first encountered the concept of permaculture through a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (2009), I thought it was one of the most Druidic books I had ever read. This book helped radically shift my view and deepen my own Druidic practice by observing nature, using nature’s forms, recognize the cycle of nature and nurture that cycle in my own life, and so much more.

 

In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holgren (2002) outlines three core tenets for permaculture. They are: care for earth, care for people, and setting limits and redistributing surplus. Permaculture design also includes twelve design principles, such as “producing no waste” (spend a year meditating on how to accomplish that!) and “observe and interact.”

 

In the interest of time, I’m going to briefly describe one of the ethical principles and how I’ve used and considered it within the realm of druidry. The principle is “set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.” This tenant affirms that there are limits to what our lands can sustain and that setting limits within our own lives, communities, and broader world is important for long-term sustainability. To understand more about our world’s limits on a larger scale, I highly recommend the book The Limits to Growth: 30-Year Update (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows, 2004). This principle also recognizes, however, that the earth is abundant, and with proper care and tending, she can produce so much for us. I’m reminded of the principles of limits and abundance each year in the fall; the hickory tree in my yard produced an abundant harvest of hundreds of pounds of amazing nuts. I could go and pick every last nut, but if I did so, there would be no nuts for the squirrels and chipmunks that depend on hickory as a major food source. I set a limit of gathering nuts to once every other day and gathered them only from certain areas; this allowed us all to have our share. Permaculture design therefore, focuses on understanding balance—a lesson we Druids are reminded of every solstice or equinox.

 

Permaculture design asks us to see everything in our lives, every object, scrap of food waste, and so forth as something that we can redistribute rather than throw away. Nothing, after all, truly goes “away” as the earth itself is also a closed system. I highly recommend using these principles, or others like them, to guide your path. John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology is a wonderful resource for this.

 

I want to provide you with some resources that I have found helpful in moving towards sustainability and more earth-centered living:

  • General sustainable living: Mother Earth News magazine, Foxfire magazines (1970’s)
  • Herbs and medicine: Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals
  • Gardening and Landscapes: Gaia’s Garden; Grow Biointensive
  • Foraging: Samuel Thayer’s Books

 

I also want to say that if you are overwhelmed with the prospect of making change, and a lot of us are, I’ll turn again to permaculture design for guidance—one of the principles is to “use small, slow solutions.” Start slowly and choose one area. For everyone, the food system is a great place to begin, as so many of humanity’s destructive practices surround it, and we all have to eat. 

 

In conclusion, every action, every choice, however small, can be done in a sacred, intentional manner, a manner that nurtures the earth and allows our practices to become sustainable and nurturing. Each choice for me, is sacred: from growing my own food rather than supporting an industrial food system that burns fossil fuels and destroys life, to picking up “treasures” in my neighbors’ trash to use in a new way, to offering land and knowledge freely for friends to learn how to grow their own food. My actions can’t just be sacred when I walk into a forest and honor the spirits there using ritual—my actions have to be sacred when I am going to work, paying my bills, spending time with my family, when I’m deciding how to spend my money. I started to realize that my offering, and my path, was how I lived my life, each day, and how I interacted with those around me.  Everything became a potential for sacred action.  We are facing increasingly difficult times, where the lands we love are under serious threat from so many forces–including from ourselves. Finding ways of living the sacred of everyday, using and building oak knowledge, seeking more sustainable solutions, and finding ways of engaging in nurturing traditions can help us make this shift. And in that shift, druids can become invaluable resources to their communities and to the broader world.

 

 

Shifting Beyond Corporate Exploitation: Meaningful Work and Reconnecting with Ourselves and the Land

I’ll start by saying that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to post this blog post.  I started working on it over six months ago, and debated posting because it deviated from my usual posts about homesteading, simple living, druidry, and so forth. But as I read and reread this post, I realized that what I had written had everything to do with those things, and are important issues to discuss in regards to sustainable living and spiritual practices–or rather, the things that prevent us from doing such.  So, here it is, in its entirety–the post I almost didn’t publish.

 

Meaningful, Productive work of the past!

Meaningful, Productive work of the past!

The Idea of Meaningful Work

It used to be that for the bulk of humanity, “work” meant daily interaction with the land and the home cottage industry (that is, the work of producing goods for home use, such as clothing, medicine, etc).  In agrarian societies, this work entailed being out every day in the fields and forests, tilling the soil, growing your crops, hunting wild game, harvesting wood for buildings and fencing, saving seeds, milking cows, brewing ale, tending your herds and livestock, cooking from your own pantries, stocking those pantries, rendering soap, doing laundry, and so forth.  Most of human labor was, in fact, wrapped up in food production (with traditional societies engaging in anywhere from 70-90% of the workforce in the production of food) and in providing for one’s own continued survival.  One’s work, then, was directly related to one’s relationship with the land.  If the land was well-tended, those on the land prospered.  Balance and long-term sustainability were the keys upon which survival rested.

 

With the rise of industrialization, people moved from the farms to the factories in the cities, which promised faster production and reduced the input of human labor (for example, the invention of the spinning machine in the UK). As Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle, however,these positions weren’t always all that they were hoped to be or imagined.  Regardless of the conditions in the factories, the idea if meaningful work drastically shifted, and now, we are at the extreme opposite end of that spectrum.  What is meaningful work today?  How do we engage in it?

 

In this post, I’d like to use the framework of “meaningful work” I want to investigate the issues surrounding work, spirituality, and sustainability in this post today by examining the working lives of two of my friends. Both of my friends walk a druidic path and both were working under conditions that challenge their relationship with the natural world, their sense of well-being, and their ability to maintain a meaningful spiritual life. Over a period of time, they have both shared their experiences and stories with me.  Since writing, both have found different employment, so they are at no risk in my posting these stories. I don’t know how widespread or representative their experiences are on the broader scale, but I suspect that they are pretty widespread, and I want to highlight their experiences and talk about some of the potential consequences to spiritual life and sustainability.

 

Defining Meaningful Work

I’d like to posit a definition–meaningful work is work with meaning and substance, it allows one to be positively emotionally involved, feel fulfilled, and gain benefits beyond financial.  Meaningful work also allows enough time that spiritual pursuits, quality of life, and overall happiness also are embraced.  Meaningful work likely means different things to very different people–we all need to explore our own idea of what meaningful work is, and how we can best engage in it.  What I will say, however, is that a good portion of our society is not, unfortunately, able to engage in meaningful work at this time.

 

The Story of Sage: Exploitation of Persons

One person, who we will call “Sage,” works at a major fabric and craft retailer, one that has a presence in most major cities and small towns around the country. Her retailer has close to 30 employees. Almost all of the employees work between 35-39 hours a week (39 hours a week to keep them from getting benefits, including access to healthcare). The human consequences of the 39 hour workweek are real and severe: rising healthcare costs, no financial security for their future, and not being paid a livable wage puts them in a situation where they are living from paycheck to paycheck with no end in sight (and this is certainly a broader trend within retail workers in the USA).  In fact, despite working hard at her job, Sage is forced to get food stamps to help pay for her groceries. This 39-hour a week practice is very widespread and yet the human consequences of it are not discussed nor considered–rather, we have laws put in place to uphold these practices and maximize profits, rather than having paws put in place to protect workers. For Sage, who has a college education but cannot find work in her field, this means working multiple low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet.

 

The other thing about Sage’s job is her lack of autonomy or control over her schedule. Despite the fact that her retail business is open the same hours each week, have the same shipments and work to do each week, and know well the work that is to be done each week, nobody who works there–except for upper management–has a consistent schedule.  A week before she is to work, Sage gets a schedule–it varies from day to day, number of hours worked, and so forth.  If Sage wants to go out of town, she has to go beg to her manager for time off (months in advance) and be at the manager’s mercy as to whether or not she’ll get the time off (and won’t know till the week she is scheduled to work).  This makes planning trips, family events, doctor’s appointments, even a simple evening at the theater, an impossibility.  She will never know if the manager is in a good mood, and if the manager will grant her request. Likewise, on her days off she is frequently called into work and, if she says “no” too many times, she may not have a job at all. This means that at any given moment, Sage is at the beck and call of an employer who does not even respect her enough to offer her a livable wage nor healthcare or other benefits.  Why does this employer act like it owns Sage?  Does it, in fact, own her?

 

As a druid, Sage’s situation is further complicated because of her holidays.  For example, last year when she asked for Samhuinn off, she was asked “is that real?” and “I don’t think you are telling me the truth.” After providing some documentation that Sage’s holiday was real, the manager said “well if you are getting this ‘new year’ off, you are working all of new years here.” I suspect that many druids in America who are open about our spiritual path have had such uncomfortable conversations, and often are unable to get our basic holidays off.

 

And thus, Sage works. Sage works for a pittance of wages, enough for her to rent and eat, but not enough for anything else.  She dreams of opening her own business, an art studio or a farm, but with little savings because of her working conditions, this dream continues to be far off in the distance.  She wishes for these things to be able to engage in meaningful work, work that is fulfilling and allows her to be prosperous.

 

The Story of Rue: Money as Entrapment

Now we’ll turn to Rue, who, despite having a full-time job with benefits and a much more comfortable salary, suffers at the hands of rather tyrannical employers. He works for a major financial firm who collects debt in the USA; the firm itself has a reputation well known for being unethical and have broken multiple laws (they pay their fines, continue to be in business, and continue to break the law). Rue also describes  the mind games, berating, and other mental abuse that upper management inflicts upon the employees.

 

Rue, who works at a manager at this firm, is in the same entrapped state that Sage finds herself in. Rue works insane hours (often 80-100 per week, including being asked to work several 14-hour shift days in a row or being asked to come in at 7am after working 7am to 10pm the previous day). For this employer, the volume of calls, rather than the quality of work, is what matters, so bringing employees in for longer hours means more profits on their bottom line–again, not caring about the the quality of life for employees. The consequences of this on Rue’s spiritual and personal life are obvious–when he finally is able to drag himself home after a 14-hour work day, he has no energy left to do anything.  He has very little time to spend with himself, his family, or his friends. He has no time to sit under a tree and commune. He becomes, in his words, like a zombie, a half-person, whose soul is ensnared by the corporation and who lacks the most important of human qualities–freedom.

 

There is also the matter of how much the employees make and the circumstances under which they make it–another form of entrapment. Unlike Sage, who makes a pittance and can’t afford much, Rue’s firm uses an opposite and equally entrapping approach–making lots and lots of money and bribing employees to higher performance quotas with lots of glittery consumerist goods, like plasma TVs (Rue tells me has has several of them, unopened, in boxes in his living room). The commission system ensures that workers will do everything in their power to collect the debt rather than seek solutions for those they are calling; with each account they close, they gain bonuses. Rue describes to me the call he made to a single mother who cannot pay her student loans and the ethical challenge is faced with–between giving her a year of deferment or demanding part of her wages she needs to make ends meet. Since “all calls are recorded for quality assurance purposes” if he gives out too many deferments, not only will he be called into an upper-manager’s office and given a talking to, he risks the financial implications of not meeting his monthly quota.

 

The amount that that these employees take home is in itself entrapping. Most of the people who work at Rue’s company make way more money than they would in other lines of work–money becomes the carrot at the end of the stick. This is a job that can be done with good training but does not require college degrees–so its better money than most people could get doing anything else. Despite the negative nature of the work environment, the mental abuse that they suffer and that they are required to inflict on others, people continue to work there because the money is just too good. Once you start making money at that standard of living, it becomes harder to get out of it, harder to see beyond the glittery objects, plasma televisions, and high class apartments in the big city lifestyle. Its a lifestyle that sucks you in–materialism, consumerism, and the promise of more and more “stuff” to fill the empty void.  Is this work meaningful? Is it rewarding?  According to Rue–not in the slightest.

 

Broader Thoughts

In The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges discusses how corporations and CEOs now exhibit psychopathic behaviors (a discussion alive and well on the web here and here).  Psychopathic leadership in corporations is more common than ever. We see this at work in the stories of Rue and Sage–corporations who treat their employees more like automatons than people, don’t respect them enough to either pay them a living wage (in the case of Sage) or provide them with enough autonomy and consistency of schedule in order to do anything meaningful (in the case of both).  The mental abuse that both describe in their work environments is appalling, and leaves them drained and exhausted when not working.

 

It makes me wonder–how many people out there are working in these kinds of situations, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, being unable to engage in any kind of meaningful work? How many of them do this and have no time for anything else?  I look at my students, many of whom are in this same situation, trying to balance getting an education which is supposed to get them a better life (and lead to meaningful work), and working 2 or 3 different jobs to pay their tuition and living expenses. It is no wonder that television ends up being a big distraction–the mental energy required for TV (even when compared to reading) is much less.  Its a distraction, a way to wind down at the end of the day, a way to get wrapped up in the illusion of something else.  But when you are in this exhausted mindset, unable to make meaningful time for yourself, what else can you accomplish? You don’t have the time for deep spiritual insights, developing deep connections with each other or the land around you.  You don’t have three hours to sit under an ancient maple and hear its stories.  When we depend on the corporation for everything–livelihood, food, water, shelter, transportation, entertainment–we give up our power and autonomy.  We give up our freedom and inspiration.  It is, perhaps, the great tragedy of our age–what we exchange in order to live and survive in 21st century America.  The work is not meaningful, its not fulfilling, and its not really doing anything to better our world or our communities.

 

I think its important to point out that this phenomenon is no different than what we see corporations doing to animals and our lands.  Oil companies engage in unsafe practices that cause oil spills, chemical companies dump pollutants into our rivers and oceans, mountains are removed and ecosystems are destroyed for the sake of profits, natural gas companies inject the very land beneath our feet with toxic chemicals to extract fossil fuel, the list goes on and on.  Livestock, from angora rabbits to chickens to cows, also suffer a similar fate.  They are boxed in, fattened up, and treated as mere objects.  From this perspective, things seem very dire indeed…but are they?

 

Meaningful Work and Viable Alternatives

If engaging in meaningful work is a goal that can help us be more mindful of our world around us, give us time for creative expression, and allows us once again a closer relationship with nature, how do we find such work? Of course, one has to figure out how to pay one’s bills, one’s taxes, and put food on the table.  With land being so expensive, the old American dream of homesteading on the frontier really isn’t viable for many anymore.  And yet, shifts back in the direction are certainly taking place. With the steady rise in farmer’s markets (even year round ones, like we have here in Michigan), people have more opportunity than 10 or 20 years ago to grow/produce products that they love and make a living doing it.  Is local entrepreneurship the answer? Can entrepreneurial opportunities, farmer’s markets and the like allow people like Rue and Sage to reclaim the idea of meaningful work from yet another commodity that a corporation distributes to something that they organically create for themselves? I know lots of people who want to do this, and some that are taking that step and doing it–but its a scary place to step into.  What if the business fails? How will you pay the bills and make ends meet?

 

Farmer's market products

Farmer’s market products

I think about some of the farmers that I’ve met in the last few years at our local farmer’s markets. One couple who regularly come to our local market specialize in organic free range chickens and eggs.  They told me their story about how they were both investment bankers, making six figure salaries. They decided they’d had enough, left their jobs, and became organic farmers.  They are making maybe 20% of what they had made as bankers, but they were healthy, happy and living a life that they dreamed.  Another close friend used to teach, got fed up with the school system and politics, and now is a full-time organic farmer selling some of the most beautiful veggies and herbs I have ever seen. I think about several others I know, people in their mid to late 20’s, who decided that college educations were too expensive, and became landscape designers, drink specialists, mushroom growers, and more.  It seems that there ARE alternatives out there, but that they take the right kind of community and resources to begin.  And they take a very long time to become profitable enough to not need to do other kinds of work.

 

Is the public ready to support these kinds of endeavors on a larger scale–that is, pay the organic chicken farmer 3.50/lb per bird rather than 1.00/lb per bird if that bird is raised ethically and humanely?   I think the ultimate decision about whether these kinds of  shifts that people are taking towards more meaningful work succeed is how willing the broader community is in supporting such work.  With the rise in farmer’s markets and other alternatives, I think that people broadly are starting to “buy local” and recognize the importance of keeping their money in the local community.  And with these shifts, we all gain more opportunities to engage in meaningful work.