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.
In 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.