The trees and the broader living landscape of our great earth speak to us in subtle but powerful ways. Many in modern industrial society choose not to spend time hearing the voices of the trees and our other plant allies; they fill their minds with video games and Facebook and TV and Hollywood and various other human-created things. While these things are fine in moderation, many seem to use these to extremes at the expense of all else. This creates distance, disconnection, and allows for many to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the land and her inhabitants.
In this challenging time of destruction, desecration, and disrespect of the land, I think that the land needs a strong voice from those who work with her. Those of us who walk nature-inspired, sustainable, druidic paths may be called to speak for our lands, our plants, and our trees. We may be called to speak on sustainable practices, on how to do something, or be given the opportunity to encourage change. If we feel called to speak for the land and the trees, we must spend time learning what knowledge they have to teach well enough that we can share their stories.
My Recent Experiences on NPR & Local TV
This spring, I had two opportunities to be a visible voice for the trees, the land, and the sustainability work we are doing in the community.
The first opportunity was I was asked to speak on the Hemlock tree on NPR on the Colin McEnroe show in late April. Here I am, in my little corner of the Internet, with some people who read my work here and comment (thank you, readers!). And as you’ve seen on my blog, some of the serious work I’ve been undertaking is a magical study of our native trees; Hemlock was the second such tree that I focused upon. So, yes I had done considerable original research about the hemlock, had extensive direct experience about the hemlock, and blogged about in January of this year. And I have been cultivating a lifetime relationship with the hemlock tree. So when the call came to speak about hemlock’s magic and mythology on the show, I said, sure, why not? Here is a recording of the show (I come in somewhere around the halfway mark).
The second opportunity came a while ago, back in late December, but it was only recently edited and released. A local TV producer, Ellen Warra, films “Earth Talk” for Oxford (Michigan) Community Television. She filmed a show on sustainability and what was happening at Strawbale Studio and our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup. This show featured a number of people in our community doing good things, and you can see it here.
Both of these events were a big steps for me, and after doing some reflection, I’d like to share my insights so that others may benefit from it if they are likewise called to be a voice for the land.
On Walking the Talk
I think there are a lot of people out there who want to tell others what to do in very loud ways and critique others’ practice, but don’t really want to change their own practices. One of the most critical things you can do if you are going to advocate for any kind of change or speak for the land in any way is to begin by examining your own practice. If you want to speak for the land, you must spend time in it. If you want to advocate sustainable practice, you must first live that practice. Advocating and speaking came for me as a natural process stemming from what I was already doing–I was living it, doing it, and then others took notice and asked me to speak. I can’t tell anyone else “this is a good idea for you to make these changes” if I’m not, myself, making and living those changes and being honest about where I’m at and what I’m striving for. Why is walking the talk so important? First, because you understand the difficulty of what you are asking and what challenges there may be, and second, because you have the experience to be able to help others along the way.
The Nature of Expertise
One challenge I faced, especially in regards to the NPR piece, was considering my role as an “expert.” In this world of specialists,we assume that a specialist is needed to speak on behalf of the land, on any subject (read = advanced degrees in the subject). You might say to yourself “I’m not an expert” or “I don’t know enough” or “What do I have to contribute?” And to this I respond–we never know enough. There is always more to know, and a lifetime can be spent on any one subject. That natural world is a university with doors open, always ready to teach, always ready to share. The important thing is to put in your time, learn well what it is you set out to learn, and when you do have something to share and the opportunity arises, share it to the best of your ability. Recognize yourself as a lifelong learner–you can learn from direct experience, learn from books and other kinds of written work, use your intuition, learn from mentors and teachers, and so forth–but recognize that learning is a lifetime process. If you put in the work to learn your subject well, others will take note, they will seek your advice, and you might just end up being asked to speak in very public ways!
As soon as you know more than someone else, you can teach someone about that subject, even in limited ways. When I started gardening, even after my first year, people would ask me for advice on what to plant, when to plant, how to amend their soil, etc. I was honest about my experience and spoke about what I had read, observed, and witnessed in my own garden. For someone just starting out, even a year of knowledge was valuable and more than they had!
When you move beyond individuals and into a community or the broader world, speaking for the land in public ways is much more tricky. It means that you do have to have a good knowledge base, be educated on your subject, and be as prepared as possible. The last thing we want is a bunch of kooky druids sounding crazy on national radio or TV!
Challenges with Communication: Understanding Audiences, Rhetoric, and Seeking Common Ground
If there’s one thing I’ve learned concerning communication, however, its that we often communicate best like-minded, like-pathed people, and its challenging to reach out beyond our own small networks. I’ve witnessed this in multiple communities that I belong to–we are great at talking to each other and working to make changes in our own lives, but we sometimes are challenged in explaining ourselves to others who aren’t in our small communities. This is especially true in the broader political climate, at least here in the USA. Seething anger, divided issues, and a virile hatred for the other side has lead us down a path where collaboration, mutual understanding, and building bridges between various sides is nearly impossible.
Understanding Audience. Classical rhetorical theory, which I’ve studied and taught for many years, offers us some solutions. First is the matter of audience–understanding one’s audience, where they are coming from, what they hold sacred, how much they know, in what manner they are reading/hearing your words, and so on, is one of the most important pieces to effective communication. If you can understand and adapt your message, you are much more likely to be heard. Case in point–my recent post on the dandelion emphasized dandelion’s utility toward humans in the form of medicine, food, and the like while also emphasizing its role in healing the land. Why? I know that my blog readers care deeply about the land, and are also looking for things to do with plants and ways of interacting. Plus, its cool information. But more broadly, I know that humans are most interested in what is of use to them, so the utility why its not the only approach I take to talking about the land).
On Careful Language Choices. I’ve written before about language, its power and its influence on our thinking, before on this blog. In my post on “English vs. the Planet”, I talked about how certain terms influence our thinking in certain directions (e.g. develop, development, and so on have a positive connotation of human progress, but often come at the expense of habitat and substantial loss of non-human life). This concept draws upon the broader linguistic theory of relativity as well as Burke’s idea of the terministic screen. These theories suggest that the words themselves, with their cultural baggage, shape our thinking and that this shaping creates colored “lenses” through which we view the world. Given this, if we want to be a voice for the land, we must be careful and mindful in our language use, especially given the number of exploitative and negative terms that are now positively framed in our culture. How do I get around this? I pay close attention to my language use and chose to positively reframe or redefine terms. For example, in my aforementioned dandelion post, for example, I discussed the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” setting that term with its baggage aside and choosing instead to discuss it as a plant ally. This use of language, hopefully, has the reader reseeing dandelion as a plant ally, which can alter thinking on a fundamental and important level.
On Your Ethos. Another rhetorical concept that bears mentioning here is ethos, also known as your character or credibility. Ethos comes in two types–invented and situated. Invented ethos is for people who already have established a name (be it good or bad), hold an important position, or have certain kinds of titles. For example, if you meet someone who has a Ph.D. in biology, you’ll likely be more likely to believe them when they talk about plants and cell division (and likely anything else).. This is because they come into a situation with situated ethos. This situated ethos can go both ways, however. If you meet someone who you know is in the KKK, it is very likely that you will immediately see them in a negative light and distrust everything they say.
Most of us don’t have “situated” ethos right away, and becoming a voice in a broader sense means that we need to “invent” our ethos for the occasion. We need to carefully think about the image that we want to convey, the image we want to construct for ourselves. And make no mistake–everything you say, the clothes you wear, how you chose to affiliate, all of that is a choice that can substantially alter how people view you. This gets back to my “kooky druid” comment above–when we talk about our practices and our work, I believe its important to do so in ways that others can understand and respond.
In Coming to Common Ground. I’ve also written before about stasis theory, a rhetorical theory developed in ancient Rome that aids us in coming to a consensus about moving forward on an issue. We live in very contentious, dysfunctional times, when concepts like “consensus” and “collaboration” are practically curse words at most levels of our government. But it is my firm belief that if we can get people of differing views to talk together with open minds and mutual respect, we can come to much common ground. These dialogues can take place in public forums as well as more private settings–and if you are going to be publicly speaking often, its a wise idea to talk to a LOT of people to understand their practices and how they live their lives so that you can relate to them and work to build common ground with them.
On Encouraging Change
One successful approach is to think about encouraging people to “add” practices rather than condemn current behavior (this is the same approach that successful dieting works–add healthy foods and slowly you will shift to more healthy foods…). For example, encouraging people to put in a small vegetable garden is better than condemning them for mowing a large expanse of lawn. As the old proverb says,
Being the Voice of the Trees
There are a lot of loud, well-funded voices out there advocating for a particular way of living, of consumption, of buying things and encouraging harmful practices tied to products. I’d like to encourage more of us in the druidic and sustainable community to educate ourselves fully, to live our practices, and to find ways of reaching out more broadly to speaking for the land, using “oak knowledge” to do so. I think, given enough of us, we can begin to show that there are alternatives to what consumerist culture promotes as the only way of living, and that through living differently, we can create a better tomorrow. Speak with the trees, my friends. Listen to the song of the birds, the drips of rain on a summer day. Hear the soft rustle of the patch of tomatoes in your backyard, and feel the sting of the nettle as you harvest from her stalk. And after you’ve experienced these things, convey their wonder and magic to those who will hear of it.