Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefit on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life and so on. While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.
In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought it a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.
Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places. In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America covered by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions.
In the Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America. But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to their own duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered. As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.
Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.
Creating Refugia: Goals
We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.
In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.
Working to actively create refugia can add and compliment these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).
I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “whether the storm” and a place which we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly. I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act, but as a sacred and spiritual practice.
I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.
The refugia garden will contain plants that:
- Native or naturalized to this region.
- Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
- Slow growing or hard to establish.
- Offer some key benefit to the ecosystem (nectary, nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
- Offer some key benefit to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
- Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self seeding annuals).
- Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
- Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.
The refugia will be:
- A teaching and demonstration site for others
- A site of peace and beauty
- A sacred place for humans to commune, reconnect, and grow
- A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life
Refugia: Functions and Outcomes
The Refugia garden is, of course sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.
The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again. I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason! We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas. Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on. The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back. Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).
Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. Its amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!
Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years. There are more than enough to go around. This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.
Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference. You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.
Refugia Garden Plants
You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland? The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.
Since we are thinking long term with this principle, I think its a a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change. How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century? Will it get hotter, wetter, drier? Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA. I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!
Here are some design lists to get you started for at temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At risk and To Watch Lists):
- Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
- Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
- Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
- Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
- Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trilium
- Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion. For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!
Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without. I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post, when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).