The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Establishing Sacred Land, or, A Home-Coming October 29, 2017

There has been a lot of talk in the American druid scene in the last few years about establishing sacred spaces, creating sacred groves, and really staring to re-enchant our land here. I think druids and other earth-centered spiritual traditions around the world, particularly those living in places shaped by colonization, face these same challenges: how do we create our own sacred spaces? What does that look like?  I wrote earlier this year, for example, about Stones Rising at Four Quarters farm, and the raising of standing stones. A few years ago, I’ve also written a series on sacred sites in the US and how to build some sacred sites. This post continues those conversations.

White Oak by the Creek

White Oak by the Creek

In my Stones Rising post, I talked about how establishing sacred spaces, as a community, was certainly an “American” challenge because of the history of colonialism and the genocide of native peoples here.  I commented how we were living on “someone else’s sacred land.” And there is certainly truth in that statement. However, upon further reflection and meditation, I think this statement is much more complicated and problematic. Here’s the thing: as long as we think about the land where we were born, and where we live, as someone else’s sacred land, it continues to be inaccessible/unavailable/distant from us.  We feel like we are outsiders, inhabiting a place to which we do not belong. And the truth is this–we are here now, we are working to rebuild, we are working to reconnect, working to understand the sacredness of nature, her magic, her medicine. If we work to create sacred spaces, learn about ecology, uses of plants, and so on (a lot of stuff I advocate here on this blog), I think that this kind of work very much honors the ancestors of the land and the relationships they had with the land. In other words, we learn the land, we let the land teach us, and we connect with it on the deepest levels.

 

Obviously, its not ok to visit someone else’s sacred site and claiming it as your own–that is cultural appropriation.  What is also inappropriate is not acknowledging the many ancestors of the land who came before–we have to recognize what happened here, on this soil, and help the land and spirits to heal.  Given these two points, I believe that what we need to do is forge new connections for a new time.  We have to build, from scratch, both our relationships with the land and the sacred spaces we need to honor the land.

 

And yet, “re-enchanting” or our land, so to speak, and connecting with it is a multi-generational process.  It will take lifetimes of work, generations of people, individuals and groups.  But I believe that work begins here and now–and for many of us, has already begun. The danger of not creating sacred spaces and making this land our sacred land means that we will never be fully connected to it.   The danger of not seeing the land where you were born as your own means that you have no place to call home.

 

So in today’s post,  taking this “sacred space” concept more to the practical level, I’d like to explore the work of establishing a piece of land, of any size, as sacred land–that is, establishing and maintaining a permanent sacred space, a sacred sanctuary, a place of magic, contemplation, reflection, and renewal (and many other things). This post coincides with my purchase of new land and my own moving to a new home, and so I’ll use myself as a case study.

 

Sacred Land/Landscapes

What do I mean when I say “sacred land” or a “sacred landscape”? How is it different than a “sacred site?” In both cases, we are cultivating a relationship with the land, but the scope of that relationship differs. The way that I see this distinction is as follows.

 

Sacred Sites: We can establish a sacred site, like a stone circle, sacred garden, shrine, altar, and so on, as a stand-alone space. These are single constructions that offers a particular kind of blessing to the land or has another kind of use (or series of uses). They may be hidden away or created in a place that has many different purposes. The point here is that something is set aside for purposes only to be used as sacred (like a stone circle).

 

Sacred Landscape - room to regrow

Sacred Landscape – room to regrow

Sacred Landscapes: When I say sacred landscape or sacred land, I am talking about a potentially larger piece of land with many smaller sacred sites/spots/items contained within it. The idea here is that the entire piece of land or property is a dedicated sacred place where you can engage in various kinds of sacred actions to reconnect with nature. It is certainly a step above a single dedicated space, but rather,  We have some public examples: Circle Sanctuary, Four Quarters, Dreamland.  But any person can choose to do this as well on a smaller piece of land of their own–and it is to this work today that I will begin to attend.

 

One metaphor you might think about this ties to permaculture design. I might create a small raised bed for raising veggies and focus my efforts solely in that direction, or, I might create an integrated design that had many different kinds of features including an orchard, herb garden, outdoor kitchen, butterfly garden–the whole design, which took years to enact, works together as a cohesive whole to meet a variety of shared purposes. A sacred shrine is like that single raised bed growing tomatoes.  A sacred landscape is the entire design, working together, to feed, house, and nurture all who call that place home.

 

Some Background

So how does this look in practice?  This will be my second time working to create a sacred sanctuary, and I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I still have a lot to learn!  And so, over a period of time as I create the space, I’m going to walk through the process  sharing how I am transforming my new 5 acre land land into sacred land–energetically and physically.  In order do that, I want to offer some background on where I’m coming from and where I’ve been. I lived on a 3-acre homestead in Michigan for 5 years (the beginnings of this blog) where I first intuitively learned some of what I’ll share in this post series. Then, 2.5 years ago, I returned to Western Pennsylvania, the land of my ancestors, for a new job and to be much closer to my family. It was a bit of a jarring shift–after working for five years on land both physically and energetically, and transforming it into a druid and permaculture oasis, I was stuck in a rental situation in a small town.  And yet, some of my deepest insights of my druid path came from this work. I had no home base. All the land became the land to which I belonged.

 

After two years of living in town, I was fairly convinced that urban permaculture was not the route I wanted to take. Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time exploring options of intentional community with a friend.  After exploring various pieces of land, we realized that our visions were different–I was drawn to the wild, wooded spaces and she preferred the hustle and bustle of city (or at least small town) life.  For some of us, living in a town or city and being “visible” doing permaculture is their calling, like my dear friend Linda of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm. But for me, I realized how badly I needed a sacred sanctuary.  Yes, it would be a sanctuary that had a regular flow of friends and guests–but not prying neighbors constantly observing my space. I wanted my home to be a restful space for myself and those I love that was largely invisible to outsiders. I do enough visible work in the world, but I didn’t want my home life on display.  And then, the land came to me–it literally fell in my lap.  I had resolved to start looking for a home next spring and give myself the winter in town. But then in early August, I was visiting some permaculture friends at their amazing food forest and they told me about a house that was going up for sale that I should take a look at. As soon as I saw the pictures online, I knew it was home. It came on a mostly wooded five acres, surrounded by forests and farms. It was 15 min from my work and only 5 minutes from the state forest where I enjoy kayaking and hiking. When I saw the photos, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, and the next day, went out to see it. After a long process, the land is now under my “ownership.”

 

Preliminaries: Establishing Relationship and Doing Away with “Ownership”

Having signed the paperwork making me “the owner” of the land this past week raises all kinds of issues surrounding creating sacred land–and these are useful to explore as part of the process. In truth, the profit-driven western world has encouraged a line of thinking that implies that we humans are the only agents of change in the world–we have the power, we have the control. There is this underlying assumption present, particularly with nature and life other than our own, that we can just do what we want. Of course, the modern conception of ownership of land solidifies the problematic “do what pleases you” thinking.  I just signed paperwork that says I can do just about anything I want to this land, short of some legal issues (like dumping raw sewage on it or building new structures without a permit).  But in terms of what I might do to the trees, to the plants, to the ecosystem–beyond “lawn maintenance” there are no laws for that. I could cut it all down, I could let it grow up–because I now “own it” the land is mine to do with what I want.  And for the record, I don’t really think this is about laws, what is legal or no.  What it really is about is mentality, mindset, approach, relationship.

 

Home: A little cabin in the woods

Home: A little cabin in the woods

I have a druid friend who is a landscaper, and he tells me how prevalent this attitude of “shaping nature to my will” is when he is working with clients on their landscapes. Most of the time, the attitude is “I want it to look nice” and by “nice” it means “in control.” He told me of a woman who owned a beautiful property and wanted to cut down a bunch of trees for no real purpose. He tried to talk to her about stewardship, asking about the people who would own the land after her…and it went over like a lead balloon. People don’t see themselves as stewards of the land, they see themselves as “owners.”  The most salient story I have ever read on this topic was in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss book. It was a later chapter in her book called, “The Owner.”  I think everyone should read it–it was a shocking and horrific story about ownership and what people will do to bend nature to their will tucked in an otherwise wonderful book about mosses and how they grow.  This “ownership” is from this same place and line of thinking that so many of the atrocities that are committed against the land are rooted.

 

In order to create a meaningful sacred space on any land, or to establish land as sacred, this “Ownership” mindset must be put firmly aside. Sacred landscapes aren’t just about what you want to do on your land or about your vision becoming a reality. Creating a sacred sanctuary must be a collaboration with nature itself–both the elemental forces upon the world, the physical status of the land, as well as the will of the spirits of the land. In fact, the more that you can get into your head this idea of service, partnership, or stewardship for a greater whole, the better all of this kind of work happens. While I legally “own the land,” I do not see myself not as an “owner” but as a steward, here for a period time, here with the sole goal of leaving the land better than I found it and working the will of the spirits of the land while I am present.  Stewardship implies that you are there, for a period of time,

 

Part of this is linguistic: When we use possessive words, like “my land” or “I will do”, it again, establishes a certain kind of relationship–one where I am the dominant force, where I have the control.  I like to instead describe the land as “the land to which I belong.” Its subtle, but powerful, and helps shift the inner subconscious, not only for you, but for anyone else who hears you speak. And so, if we are going to establish any land as a sacred space, it begins in a place of partnership, respect, and conversation.

Further Preliminaries: Honoring, Trust, and History

Creating sacred spaces is a time-honoring, slow process; creating a whole sacred landscape is even more so the case. Like the flow of the seasons or the sprouting of a seed, this kind of work can’t be forced. The work takes the time it takes, unfolding like a spiral. In honor of time and space, before you even begin to shape a shared vision of creating sacred land, there is preliminary work to be done. Think of this preliminary work like the foundation upon which everything else is built–your job, first and foremost, is to lay the foundation and prepare the site. And you do that through honoring and, in a lot of cases, some good old fashioned sweat equity.

 

Before you even begin to shape a shared vision for sacred land, its important to acknowledge all of the folks sitting at the table: ancestors of the land, nature spirits, land guardians, the spirits of the stones, and the trees, and the like. There are a lot of different kinds of “spirits of the land” or “spirits of place.”  Ancestors of the land, human spirits that once lived there and still guard/protect, may be present. Nature spirits, the spirits of the plants, animals, stones, and trees, may also be present. Greater nature spirits, like those of the soil web, the mountain, the river, the whole forest, may also be present. Even greater beings, like a land guardian or deity of some sort, may also be around.  They want to be acknowledged and should be before any other work can begin.

 

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the Nature Spirits of the Land. For honoring the nature spirits of the land, I like to simply sit in stillness and quiet in a place on that land, and make simple offerings. When I arrived on the land to which I now belong, even before it was under my “ownership”, I brought some home-grown tobacco and my flute and played the flute and made offerings around the property.  This was my sole purpose in the visit. I spent time on the land; I brought a blanket and lay in what may become a sacred grove down by the pond. I just breathed in the soil and observed the land around me.  It was beautiful, magical. I could feel the spirits of the land stirring.  Sometimes, the spirits have been asleep for a long while–and they need time to awaken again. This simple honoring work achieves that goal over a period of time. For honoring them long term, I highly recommend a dedicated outdoor shrine–this will be the first thing I build on the new land once I have a sense from the spirits of where to build it.

 

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land. Ancestors come in many types. Here in the US, we have primarily two types–the more recent ancestors which may have been farmers, miners, and the like, and more distant ancestors of the land, who were the native peoples. For the native ancestors of the land, I am planning on a specific ceremony to honor them at Samhain. I will build a fire, drum, play my flute, offer my home-grown tobacco and simply be present to listen to their voices.  After I have listened, I will share with them my hopes and dreams for the land. For the non-native ancestors of the land, who I know to have been farmers (thanks to those who lived on the property before me), I have indicated my intent to dedicate a bed in the garden in their honor.

 

Building Trust.  Even if you are stepping onto “well tended” land, most land today has been damaged by the typical practices of westerners: keeping lawns, spraying weeds, burning garbage, driving over the soil and compacting it, and the like. You may find yourself in need of doing some reparation work before you begin any spiritual work. This is because the spirits may need to learn to trust again.  Before you can communicate with them, before you can create sacred land, you must pave the way and demonstrate your intentions.  At my old homestead, I had to clean up the egregious garbage all over the place before I did anything else.  That, and the honoring work, took me far in connecting to the spirits.  At my new sacred land, I have the sense that I will need to do some seed scattering and forest replanting, among other things.

 

Understanding the History of the Land. Part of trust building is learning, what you can, about the history of the land.  If you have access to the previous owners, that is a good place to start.  If not, you can look for signs on the landscape–old fence posts and barbed wire, for example, is a common sign in these parts.  I think it is useful to use any tools you can–in the US, the US Geological survey also offers historical maps of many regions and that can help you get a sense, back into the 1950’s, of what the land may have looked like.  Court records and deeds are also very common!

 

This post has gotten quite long, so I’m going to go ahead and close for this week.  In my next post on the series, we’ll continue into this work!

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Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!

 

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part II: Relationships of Work and Time February 19, 2017

In the US, it seems that the first question people ask is, “what do you do?”  When they say that, of course, they are not talking about how you spend your leisure time, but rather, the work that you do for pay. This is the most defining characteristic of modern lives–because this is tied to the thing our culture holds as most sacred: money.  Money is the only metric that has any real value and the pursuit of money drives all else. If you aren’t working in the workforce earning pay, either the work are doing is devalued (as any stay-at-home parent can attest) or there is something very wrong with you (as in, why aren’t you out there earning money?). This current economic system, driven by industrial mindsets surrounding profit and efficiency, gives us a rather poor metric through which to measure ourselves and our value.

 

Last week, I explored a bit of the history of our current cultural value system with regards to work by examining humans’ earlier relationships with work and time. In today’s post, I’m going to bring us into the present age, and explore some of the issues surrounding modern relationships with our work and how these relationships are tied to underlying cultural value systems of exponential growth, the love of money, and the myth of progress. I do so because our modern relationships with work and money are directly linked to our ability to slow down and engage in anything else meaningful: a spiritual path, sustainable living, communing with the trees, etc. I also want to take a moment to thank so many of you for your incredibly thoughtful and useful comments in last week’s post–I hope we can continue to discuss these issues!

 

Modern Overworking and Productivity

As above, so below

As above, so below

David Graeber wrote a controversial essay in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (this essay is free online, but the site that typically hosts it seems to be down, so I found it on the Internet Archive here if you want to read).  He outlines how, for almost a century, with the rise of fossil fuels and the various technologies, we’ve had reports that increased technology combined with more fossil fuel use would lead us to an increase of leisure time.  In fact, in the 1930’s, John Maynard Keynes suggested that by the year 2000, we could have work weeks as little as 15 hours a week.  For those of you keeping track, this assumption is also wrapped up in the myth of progress that I described in detail in last week’s post.

 

In fact, we are technically capable of working a lot less, at least by modern economic metrics (which, for the purposes of this post, I’ll take at face value). An analysis from Eric Rauch of MIT suggests that today, the average “productivity level” of a worker (that is, how much a worker gets done in a day) has gone up tremendously over the last century, particularly since the rise of modern communication systems.  Today’s workers get done in 11 hours what the average worker in 1950 got done in 40; productivity levels have been on a steady rise for the better part of 70 years.  Graeber reports that as late as the 1960’s, people were still expecting those future 15-hour weeks. Yet, the average work week is now over 50 hours for at least half of Americans (and for some, considerably over 50 hours). So where is all of the extra time going?  Why do we seem to be the most unhappy, and most productive, of workers?

 

Most of this seems to stem from our relationship to consumerism and money, not necessarily from work itself.  Julie Schor, economist and author of The Overworked American: The Decline of American Leisure demonstrated that  workers unions often will nearly always choose higher pay and benefits over shorter working hours. The same is true of non-unionized workers: if faced with the choice between less work and more pay, workers almost invariably choose more pay and give up their leisure time as a result. The idea of not taking more work for more pay seems unfathomable to many. This is, I believe, due to the underlying value system that privileges money and little else combined with an assumption that growth (in wages, in standing at one’s job) is a desirable and necessary pursuit.

 

I have a good example of this from my own life: a few years ago at my previous university position, I was asked to consider stepping into a major administrative role much higher up the food chain so to speak, overseeing a large and growing major. This job offered almost a 40% pay increase from what I was currently making. However, this new job was not appealing to me in the slightest. For one, would take me away from all the things I enjoyed about my job, namely my teaching my students and the discovery I was able to do as a researcher, and replace it with more work I didn’t enjoy. For two, it also meant losing my flexible schedule, working many more hours, and it would require that all my working hours be on campus. Consequently, due to the longer daily working hours, I would have had to deal with rush hour traffic twice a day that I had learned to otherwise avoid.  This meant even less time on my homestead, and in winter months, leaving before the sun rose and getting home after the sun set (think of the chickens!).  And so, I gently declined the position. When word got around that I had declined what was clearly a “step up” in my career, my colleagues couldn’t understand why.  No answer I could give was sufficient. Finally, I came up with the one answer always acceptable to academic audiences: I wanted to focus on my research (that is, I preferred the noble goal of making new knowledge and sacrificed higher pay to do so). Giving people the true answer: that I liked the work I currently did,and that I didn’t, gods forbid, want even more work on my plate or a more restricted schedule, was simply not an acceptable answer and giving it would have considerably harmed my reputation. This is because more money and higher status is always the choice you should make given the cultural value system that privileges earnings above most else.

 

One book that really helped me make sense of this decision to keep a lower paying, lower hour, more flexible position was a book called Your Money or Your Life.  This book puts out, in direct terms, a system for monitoring the relationship between your time and your work and draws clear the distinction between the two.  In a series of exercises, you calculate your “real” hourly wage (not what you are paid, but what you actually make after you subtract work-associated costs, transpiration, transportation time, and the downtime/recovery time that is lost after work that you need to recover from it). It also has you monitor your spending and identify ways in which that spending is or is not in line with your value system. When you do these activities, it really helps you change your relationship with your work and your finances.  I’ll talk more about this approach in my third post on this series–but suffice to say, this book helped change my own relationship with money and made me realize that I made the right decision.

 

Another major issue contributing to overwork is that the current work system intentionally privileges overwork. For one, many people fear losing their jobs such that they have to do whatever their employers tell them to, and will, and that means among other things, much longer hours at lower pay (hence one of many reasons that the middle class is shrinking and pay is stagnant). For two, most workers no longer possess much autonomy over their work, and so the amount of work they do is no longer determined by them. With the rising income disparity, more funding is going to boated administrative positions at the cost of the average and lower-paid workers who then suffer  more administrative oversight (see next paragraph).  Finally, the more “productive” one is compared to one’s peers, the more one is rewarded. For those working hourly rates, the situation is even more dire: extremely low pay per hour requires them to work tremendously long hours at unpleasant jobs to take home a pittance. I think the underlying thing that is happening here is that we are supposed to want to work, we are supposed to want to earn good pay, we are supposed to be growing our salaries and our careers and we should be sacrificing all to do so.

 

David Graeber offers his own interpretation to some of the above: the creation of “bullshit jobs,” primarily of the administrative kind. He describes the new jobs like telemarketing and financial services and the “ballooning” of administration” in many areas. In terms of why this is so, Graeber writes, “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).”  He argues that many people find large portions of the work they do as meaningless, even if they do this work for pay (and often for a lot of it). Graeber notes that the resentment and “psychological violence” that builds up for those doing “bullshit jobs” and is inflicted upon those actually doing meaningful work.  Those who are doing meaningful work are often doing it for less pay, furthering resentment between all involved. A good example of this is the teaching, nursing, or social work professions: all folks engaging in really important work who do it for less pay and over overseen, increasingly, by administrators in bullshit jobs. Whether or not you buy Graeber’s argument, there is no doubt that today, people feel overworked, underpaid, and generally strained–all the while carrying around an unconscious value system that tells them they should keep earning profits.

 

Another piece of this I’ll note is the rise of the super-specialist system. Wendell Berry discusses this system briefly in the early chapters of the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. In the specialist model, we have replaced generalist workers that are good at a lot of things and are well rounded (like a small family farmer, handy person, etc) with super specialists who are really good at one thing. Increasingly, we feel the need to go to specialists for every little  thing (finances, health, food, haircuts, you name it). The rise of the specialist system reduces individual autonomy, flexibility, and freedom, requires infinitely more specialized (and in many cases, less meaningful) work.  But I also think that the rise of the specialist system makes us think that we can only be good at one thing (our specialized work) and so we must do that well above all else.

 

I could write more here, but I think my points have been sufficiently made: that workers in today’s system are both products of the system beyond their control (one engineered to make sure they don’t have leisure time), but also often make choices to maximize wealth and thus undermine their own leisure time due to tightening economic circumstances coupled with underlying cultural myths about growth and progress.  This system works such that we are exhausted at the end of the day, and we can’t do much else rather than spend all our time in front of screens pumping advertising that makes us buy things to keep the system chugging right along. Further, we depend on that system and many of us are in serious binds due to economics and decisions we made earlier in life. So now, I want to turn my attention to the costs that this system has on our emotional, spiritual, and physical well being.

 

The Physical Cost of Overwork: Our Nervous System

Physically, the amount of work we are doing, without much downtime and festivity (as explored last week), means that our bodies are less able to handle stress or any serious endeavors beyond just keeping going to our jobs. We begin “living to work” rather than “working to live.” I think the increased productivity levels means that most workplaces are more demanding, fast paced, and intense than even 10 years ago–so when we go, we are working harder, faster, and with less rest. I know in the time I’ve been in the academic workplace, the university is demanding a lot more for a lot less compensation. And this causes us physical harm and daily stress. Additionally, as we age, our bodies are different and cannot always work as much as we want them to. A recent study suggested, for example, that people over 40 are better workers with a three-day work week as opposed to a five day work week.

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

 

I’m going to put on my herbalist hat for just a moment and talk about the automatic nervous system, because it helps illustrate a few key things important to this issue of stress and overwork (and for more on this, I point to Hoffman’s Herbs for Stress and Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy). The automatic nervous system (which is outside of our conscious control) maintains and governs the vital functions of the body like digestion, circulation, heart rate, and breathing. It has two modes: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Earlier in human history, the sympathetic nervous system was used to get us out of immediate danger (oh noes! A big bear is chasing me!) In this state, anything that’s not immediately needed for survival, including our digestive system, our immune system and inflammatory responses, and our sexual system, are essentially shut down.The problem for those of us living as modern humans in these work-intensive and difficult times is that stress doesn’t work like it did in earlier points in human history. Most stress is not stress we can just run away from and relax—rather, its continual and grating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and isolated are three key signs of a continual sympathetic nervous system state. Due to modern demands, we make things worse by pushing our bodies to go even further using various common stimulants (sugar, coffee, caffeine, energy drinks—in fact, caffeine mimics adrenaline in the body). Prolonged stress responses encourage the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called Cortisol into the blood, which again mobilizes stored glucose and fat, suppresses the inflammatory response (how the body can heal from damage), and taxes the liver.

 

If the body continues to face stress, the body responds with what is known as  “general adaptation syndrome” – which is essentially a chronically stressed system—with the adrenal glands releasing all of the cortisone they can for as long as they can. Long-term exposure to Cortisol taxes the liver and can lead to digestive problems, muscular tension, poor joint health, high blood pressure, various reproductive system issues. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, the body is exhausted and suffers what is known as “adrenal burnout” or “adrenal exhaustion.” Our bodies cannot go forever on and on, and at this stage, we have severely decreased ability to deal with stress, severe mental and physical exhaustion, and higher susceptibility to illness and disease.

 

If you are feeling exhausted when you are relaxing, you know that your body has been running in sympathetic mode long term. A few other common signs are waking up tired and not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep or getting sick as soon as you go on vacation. Because so many people are running on General Adaptation Syndrome, when they finally do get back to a parasympthetic state (say on vacation), they immediately fall ill and feel exhausted—this is feeling the true state of affairs in the body. In 2015, for example, 24% of Americans were experiencing “extreme stress” and general stress levels have continued to rise. Given healing, self care, and downtime, the body can fully heal.

 

I believe that the above information is likely why television and other media are such huge attractions.  Adrenally depleted people cannot muster the energy to do much–getting something to eat and crashing with Netflix is what a lot of folks do at the end of the day because they are physically incapable of anything else.  This, too, is a cost of our work.

 

The Non-Physical Costs of Overwork

Schor notes that the decline of American leisure time has resulted in what she calls “loss of independence.” Likewise, literary figure Herman Mellville wrote in a letter to a family member, “Whoever is not in possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence.” The more that our working hours are wrapped up in our jobs or other responsibilities (meaningful or not), and the more time we spend outside of that work as exhausted and adrenal depleted zombies, the less we are able to engage in any meaningful activity that doesn’t have to do with earning a living.  Independence is critical to our success in any endeavor or path beyond our work.

 

The second cost of overwork is wasted potential. This independence, this unstructured time, offers us potential and possibility. We have to determine how we enact that potential, of course, but the potential itself will never be there without the time and energy to do so.  In other words, overworking closes off potential and possibility for us all. Free time is like a bed of soil, freshly prepare for seeds and planting. We can choose to leave it barren or we can choose to cultivate something. But if we don’t even have access to that bed and the energy to plant anything, there is no way anything can grow. I think that humans have the potential for so much–creative gifts and tapping the flow of awen, doing good work in their communities and healing each other, healing the land, spiritual self discovery, deeper understanding–all of the things, really, that make us human.  But we need to the unstructured time to make that a reality.

 

A third thing I think we lose is the ability to learn and grow fully. Having leisure time means you have time to make mistakes, ponder about those mistakes, try some new, experiment, tinker, and so on. This is a really critical part of  learning anything, but certainly, its critical to develop any skill in the bardic art or in homesteading or planning a garden. We have to have time not only to learn, but practice, and on occasion, fail at things so we can get better. When are strained for time, we don’t have the space to do that. Because every bit of time is so precious, failure leads not to introspection but to seeing the time as “wasted” and to frustration.

 

A fourth thing that we lose is the ability to reflect an think carefully  about what is happening in our own lives and in the world around us.  For example,  how many people have you talked to (and maybe this has happened to you) where something major occurs and rather than process it and deal with it, they keep working and never really think about the issue. Maybe this thing is a tragedy and they bury the pain of it, or maybe it is something really wonderful–and neither can be thought about or processed. Losing our ability to be reflective means we don’t integrate lessons and experiences and grow as people. I think this work so critical to us–both in terms of our spiritual paths, but also in terms of our humanity.

 

A fifth thing we lose is the ability to connect with each other or the land. Harried work schedules coupled with adrenal fatigue means we don’t have time for others in our lives: to reach out, to send a card, to have a nice cup of tea by the fire, or to commune with the non-human aspects of the world. It takes time to build and maintain connections, and without them, we are isolated and alone.

 

And I think at this point, I’ve come full circle to the issues that I opened with in my last post: wanting to live in line with my principles and never seeming to have the energy and time to do so.  I’ve explored some of the problems and causes that I think are contributing to these phenomenon (in my own life, in the lives of my friends, and broader for many people).  Next week, we’ll move to the next stage of this process: what to do about it.  In the meantime, friends, I hope you can find some leisure time and enjoy it!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time February 12, 2017

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.

 

A Druid’s View of Cartography: Rewriting Maps and Nature-Human Relationships December 11, 2016

This fall, I took a number of weekend hiking and camping trips into different parts of Northern Pennsylvania; to navigate these new areas, I found myself often referring to both physical maps as well as using my GPS for guidance.  As I navigated using various maps to new locations, one striking thing occurred–I noticed the the ways in which nature is (mis)represented on these “everyday maps.” By everyday maps, I mean the kinds of basic navigation maps that are common: Google Maps, Bing Maps, GPS maps, and physical printed car maps and atlas maps.  Today, I’d like to offer a druid’s perspective on cartography, do some local “remapping”,  and offer some alternative perspectives to every day mapping.  I’m also going to offer some resources for those interested in tracking how land use has changed over a period of time.

 

Mapping as (Mis)Representational

Cartography is the science, study, and practice of making maps.  Cartography is a basic system where we can understand our physical landscape and spatial relationships within that physical landscape. We use maps to represent our spaces (especially on a broader scale than we can typically see), to share information about those spaces, to better comprehend them, and to navigate those spaces. In our most basic sense then, the practice of cartography is one of the important ways in which we interact–and represent–our natural world and the things we build within it.

 

Like any representation, however, maps are inherently ideological. Brian Harley, a geographer and map historian, first argued this point in depth (see The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography).  In The New Nature of Maps, Harley argues that maps have social, political, and ideological purposes in addition to representational ones. In other words, maps have power and that power can be used to shift ways of thinking and seeing.  Mapmakers can choose to represent the world from a certain angle with their shading, coloring, and legends. He explores how maps, throughout time, are often created with political purposes in mind and the person who creates the maps has a tremendous amount of power.

 

Shifting this perspective to our “everyday maps”, we can certainly see this true in how nature is represented. Even the kinds of simple maps with the label of “woods” or “forest” implies that that’s actually what is there. If the representations of nature we create are accurate, then we we can have a clear sense of how many spaces are dedicated to nature, how many spaces are being occupied by humans, and in what ways.  We can explore the balance between humans and nature and the edges in which they interact. However, if the representations we use in our mapping of our lands are inaccurate, they can seriously misrepresent nature and our representation of our relationship to the natural world.  It can make it look like there is more nature present than is the reality.

 

Re-Mapping Natural Areas

So let’s now explore how representations of “natural areas” within everyday maps are grossly inaccurate and do some additional kinds of mapping work.   I’m going to use a map of my own town where I live because I know it well and have visited the green areas on this map.  I would encourage any of you to do the same exercise with the map of your own immediate surroundings.

Google Map of Indiana, PA

Google Map of Indiana, PA

Above is a screenshot of the kind of map we often see when getting directions from major GPS services and/or web services.  One of the key features of this map is color coding: business areas are in a light orange, roads in white with highways in bright yellow-orange, housing and urban areas in various shades of light gray and light brown; gray for unspecified areas. A key feature of this map, and of many consumer maps, is, of course, the “green” areas which at first glance seem largely representative of more natural areas: parks, forests, and the like.

 

When we look at the green areas on this map, one might be led to conclude that in this area, nature (which is obviously associated with green) is still present in some form or another in about 15-20% of the spaces in and near town.  Let’s now carefully explore the “green” areas on my map and do a bit of more specific mapping to show how mis-representational they can be.

 

Here’s my first attempt at remappping:

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

 

What we can see from my revised map is that not all green areas are “green” at all.  Most of the green areas are nothing more than lawns and highly disturbed spaces.  I’ve broken my revised map into the following areas: parks that are primarily lawn/open/mowed spaces with some limited trees, natural areas that are mostly forests, athletic spaces like tennis courts and baseball diamonds, golf courses, and cemeteries.

 

As a druid and one actively seeking to develop alternatives to lawns, the idea that a forest, a cemetery, and a golf course could be labeled in the same color is inherently problematic. These spaces aren’t the same and shouldn’t be labeled as such.  On the most basic level, lawn spaces spaces consume more than they produce and represent nature in a place of damage and suffering, rather than healing and growth.  These places certainly don’t offer habitat, forage, or shelter for insects, amphibians, or animals. Meanwhile, forests, unmowed meadows, rivers with riparian zones, and the like certainly offer habitat and health of the land.

 

But this representation is only one of many more accurate representations we could do.  Let’s try a second one:

 

Human Disturbance Map

Human Dominance Map

 

An alternative is to look at the “green” spaces in terms of who dominates the surface of the land–do people, houses, buildings, roads, cemeteries, agricultural fields, and lawns (human constructs) dominate, is there a mix, or places in a natural state dominate? On this map, I’ve also indicated what areas dominated by nature have substantial human disturbance. By disturbance I indicate things that directly harm and damage the ecosystem — in my case, I’m referring to the typical resource extraction activities (gas wells, logging, fracking, strip mining, etc). These human-driven activities that are, unfortunately, a regular part of our state and local park system here, and are represented on the map.  These go well beyond simple trails but include massive clearings, gas well pumping, regular visits to the wells by heavy equipment, and more.

 

This new map offers a completely different view of town. Now we see that my town still has one forested area, but that forested area has significant human disturbance.  And to give some other representation to the human disturbance in the park to the north west of town, this is what that disturbance looks like (also courtesy of Google Maps):

Gas wells in the forest

Gas wells in the forest

The question I have, when mapping in this way, is this: what spaces do we have left on a larger scale that are actually free of human harm and damage?  As I’ve written about in a few other posts, even our national forests are under substantial gas and logging pressure; these so-called “green” areas on the map are highly disturbed and contested areas.

 

The two mapped alternatives I present above are both simple, and I’m sure others can expand and explore even more mapping options.  I can see these kinds of maps being useful for arguments about conservation and protection–about giving nature some space in which to thrive. I can also see this as a useful strategy for mapping our own lands and spaces, the ones we directly control and/or own. How much space have we given to nature to grow as she wills?  How much space is fully dominated by us?  In our agricultural spaces, how much land is being used in regenerative ways or large-scale industrial ways?

 

If you are interesed in using this as a tool, the way I created the maps was quite simple: I went to Google and took a screenshot of the map.  Then, I went into Photoshop (you could also use Gimp if you don’t have Photoshop) and pasted in new colors for the areas (sometimes also using the selection tool).  You could also do this by coloring or using marker patterns on top of printed maps.  This could be a great activity to do with children in teaching them more about how humans and nature interact.

 

Maps as Tools to Understand Nature

Beyond consumer maps, other maps offer much more accuracy and precision that can more accurately help us, on a larger scale, see some of these human-nature relationships.

The best mapping service in the USA for these kinds of questions is the United States Geological Survey, who regularly maps many issues of environment, land use, and more (I hope readers will share other services like this from other countries in the comments section!)

Here is a link to the USGS page on environment and health issues.  Their system takes some getting used to, as it offers a ton of data in there once you learn to navigate it. For example, here is a map that looks at the land cover of the USA, zoomed in on my region).  Red shows the “development” density; yellow and brown are farmland, green implies tree canopy or farmland:

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

The most useful map they have, in my opinion, is the historical maps that allow you to view maps of land in the US prior to the current date.  Its kind of like Google Earth but for history.  You can access it here. Not all areas have the 1963 maps (which is usually the furthest back they go) but you can learn a lot about your land and its history by viewing the maps.  For example, my friend Linda found out that her land she is now farming intensively used to be a swamp!

Here are a few other interesting maps:

 

 

I hope that today’s post has been inspirational and useful to think about as we navigate the world and our surroundings with our human-created maps. If you have any other resources to share, I would love to hear them and hear about your own experiences in re-mapping spaces near you. I have found that thinking about these things has certainly helped me better understand the representations of nature that I see when using everyday maps and just broader issues of land use in general. Maps are tools, flawed ones, but tools that we can use to better understand our world and our place in it.

 

Life in the Extraction Zone: Complex Relationships of Livelihood and Land November 13, 2016

As I write this, threats to our lands, our environment, our oceans, and life on earth seem greater than ever before. As I write this, water protectors in North Dakota are getting beaten, arrested, tear gassed and jailed. As I write this, many folks are having difficulty understanding the decisions of so many Americans, decisions that potentially threaten our lands. As I write this, community after community find themselves in a place of needing to take a stand to those with more power and resources to defend their rights to clean water, personal safety, and a clean environment. But in many other places, people have different views–they have welcomed fracking and other energy extraction into their communities and they welcome logging and industry. It seems hard for those who are in an earth-centered and earth-honoring viewpoint to understand what would possess people to support–or even welcome–life in the extraction zone.

 

The “extraction zone” is a metaphor that I’ve heard a few friends and colleagues use here in Western PA. It suggests that we no longer live on land that is whole or protected, but that everything is up for extraction and removal–at severe cost to the land and the people’s physical, spiritual, and mental health.  It is when the removal of resources, of any kind is promoted actively over the well being of humans and lands. People too, can have their own resources–time, energy, money–extracted at the benefit of others. I think this is an unfortunately useful way of thinking not only about our experiences here among the fracking wells, but what is happening across our entire planet, of which resources are being extracted at an alarming and unsustainable rate.

 

In the druid tradition, a common exercise is working to find alternative perspectives.  One of the ways we do this is working to turn a binary into a ternary; that is, finding a third perspective. Another way is to look for understanding beyond our immediate frame of reference.  In honor of the druid tradition, today’s post explores some of the reasons and issues acceptance of life in the extraction zone and helps to, I hope, humanize those that fit on the “other side” of this debate. While I’m focusing my comments on fracking and energy extraction because that is the physical reality in which I live, I think you’ll see parallels between this analysis and more broader social patterns and political decisions about extraction of all kinds.

 

I’ve been working on the thinking behind this post for a while, and I decided this week was the time to share it, especially given the major shifts and upheavals in the political climate. (Note: This is another post in my fracking series which I haven’t been writing on too frequently because these are hard posts to write, and, I’m sure, to read. Earlier posts on this series are here: lines upon the landscape and a druid’s perspective on fracking – why we should care.  I’d suggest reading those two posts first!)

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

A multitude of worldviews exist at any point in time, but several dominant ones have emerged at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.  Wendell Berry, in his Unsettling of America, talks about these as the difference between nurturing worldviews and exploitative ones.  Now–I want to distinguish here that these are worldviews and actions and not people. Many modern humans exist somewhere in the nebulous (or unaware) spaces between these two worldviews or only semi-consciously support an exploitative worldview.

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

Cultivating a nurturing worldview, especially in these times, is a very conscious choice; it manifests core values and work in the world (through goals, livlihood or interactions) as healing, regenerating, and maintaining. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, but applicable to anyone, the nurturer is concerned with the long-term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned with efficiency or profit as she is with working “as well as possible” with an emphasis on care, health, and quality. Those of us seeking an earth-based spiritual path and making lifestyle changes understand how hard this nurturing work is to do in the world, but we keep striving to do so!

 

Exploitation, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner (and I would add those activities nearly any other fossil fuel or resource extraction), abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Unfortunately, this is the model that capitalism has given us, and the model that is dominant in industrialized cultures throughout the world, certainly here in the US since the first European explorers landed. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits—the land is literally viewed, and used, like a machine.  Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land, rather, exploitation works throughout all levels of a system: workers in minimum-wage and factory jobs producing and selling goods, the procurement of raw materials, the disposal of waste streams, the treatment of animals.

 

Exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, society, and norms that it’s not even seen as exploitation any longer.  It is seen as normalcy. For example, in starting to look for land to purchase a new homestead, and I see listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, no mineral rights.” Here we see it as the previous owner making as much money as he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains—stripped and bare. This is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable on a cultural and community level.

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

One of the things that confuses is many (especially those living in more wealthy urban areas) is why a community would willingly allow fracking or other extraction activities, especially in communities that otherwise  embrace the land through hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes.  The complexities of this are where we now turn.

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

Here in Western PA, fracking supported in most communities wholeheartedly as are any other forms of resource extraction. We also have various other kinds of noxious plants and factories, including two coal-fired power plants within 15 miles of where I live (one of which is listed on the super polluter lists). When I first got to Indiana, PA, I asked local progressives about organizing around the plant. I was told that we couldn’t say anything about the plant, even the very mention of opposing it was met with fierce–and institutionalized–opposition.  I’ve also heard plans for an ethanol plant being built, without resistance, in a poor rural community about 30 miles away.  Some progressives quietly talk about their fears in organizing any kind of resistance, but that’s as far as things typically go in this area. It is nigh impossible to address an issue like poisoned waterways without community  support.

 

So why exactly do people support life in an extraction zone? It is a complex web of economic, historic, and physical roots;  I’m going to cover each of these points in turn, using Western PA as a case study but also talking about broader US and global patterns.

 

Economic Views

 

Where I live in Pennsylvania, exploitation fuels every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff and miners dying of black lung, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry that cares nothing for the quality of water systems or streams. These systems and practices are concerned with only one thing: extraction of resources to drive profit.

 

This is why I believe the most important reason that extraction is so embraced here is simple: the people in most rural areas here have no other means of sustaining themselves economically.  Neoliberal policies that essentially stopped USA from protecting its own industries (see JMG’s discussion here for a good introduction) have gutted most of the rural parts of the US and sent the once proud working class into spiraling poverty. This economic disempowerment gives them few choices other than embracing extraction and the jobs that it brings.

 

People in rural Western PA laugh at the national statistics that talk about hundreds of thousands jobs being created–they certainly haven’t seen new industries open up that are outside of the energy industry. In fact, most of rural America is in the same boat. Working class people–including many of my own family and grandparents–were proud to earn wages for a hard day’s work and proud to support their families and knew that they had a job in that industry for life.  They didn’t want handouts; they wanted to stand on their own two feet and do good work. With the industries all leaving this area in the 1980’s and 90’s to move primarily to Mexico (thanks to neoliberalism) combined with the decline of coal and steel, the once proud working class have been relegated to low-paying service jobs and folks struggle to make ends meet. When this happens on a regional level, when the town you grew up in sees factory and mill close one after another–it hits not only individual families hard, but whole communities hard. Depression sets in, drug use rises, and suicides go up. Where are folks to go? What are they to do?  How can they provide for their families? And so, when the oil and natural gas companies come in and offer good paying jobs for extraction of resources, they are welcomed with open arms.

 

Ultimately, it comes down to economics–people are willing to put up with a lot of environmental pollution in order to put food on the table for their families. They are willing to give up a lot, and tolerate a lot, in order to have work.  This, I believe, is the single most important driving factor fueling the lack of resistance to any kind of extraction activity.  This same factor, I believe, was part of the major shift in US politics this last week.

 

Historical Views

Historically, since the start of colonization, people here have been employed in industries that focused on resource extraction. Logging stripped this state nearly bare by the turn of the 20th century.  Coal mining has a long history here, of course, as well as other mines (like a salt mine in Saltsburg, PA). Steel mills were located in many towns near prosperous mines–and it is why those towns still stand today.  And so, we have an historical precedent of people extracting resources from the land, making good money doing so, and feeding their families.  I think, to many working class folks here, fracking is seen as just another manifestation of what we’ve always done.

 

Other areas may have different histories, but throughout the western world, extraction at the expense of others is a common occurrence.  When its “just what we’ve always done” it becomes more acceptable and allowable, especially in poor communities.

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

The final piece I’ll discuss today has to do with the “physical normalcy” of degraded ecosystems.  I’ve written on this blog before about the boney dumps and sulfur creeks that dot the landscape, of the forests routinely logged (even our own public lands).  This is not someone else’s back yard–this is our own. We had a sulfur creek running across the street from where I went to high school; I played on boney dumps and went past them every day on the bus.  When you grow up in this environment, this idea of these remnants of life in an extraction zone becomes part of the “normalcy” that one experiences.  I remember when I left Western PA for the first time and couldn’t understand why the rivers were clean and there were no boney dumps.  Now, by this time, I had graduated summa cum laude from a good state university–and still, this physical normalcy of a damaged landscape was so built into me that it took time for me to understand that not all landscapes looked like where I grew up. I can’t help but believe that part of the acceptance of fracking here and its environmental consequences, has to do with growing up with this stuff being part of the physical landscape.

 

The truth is, at least here in the USA, few of us know what a landscape that hasn’t had severe degradation due to human extraction activities.  All around the world, we see these ecosystems: farms that are monocropped, lawns, logged forests, concrete wastelands, polluted rivers and factories.  This is very much part of our physical realty, and growing up with this physical reality and seeing it every day makes it feel more “normal” and sane.

 

A second piece of the combination of physical reality and history here concerns rights to the land itself.  Many of the “mineral rights” to the land no longer are attached to the right of physical occupancy; mineral rights were historically sold off in huge chunks for pennies on the dollar, and now with the fracking boom, new mines and new wells are being created.  Because people don’t own the actual physical right to their lands, there is nothing that can be done.  This is part of why some of our Alleghney National Forest here in PA is being fracked–the conservationists did not secure all of the mineral rights when they bought the property. Around here, if you don’t own the mineral rights, you only own the surface of the land and anyone who does own the mineral rights has a right to disrupt the surface, as they see fit, to get at the minerals.  Its a complex part of our physical reality; I suspect that other places have similar complexities.

 

A Way Forward

I think that if we are going to work to end these exploitative cycles that seem to continue to loop back around again and again in our own history, its not enough to “raise awareness” or go “protest” some new fracking well or other extraction.

 

If we want to solve these issues, we have to address the roots of them, and those roots are economic, historical, and physical.  Historically, it is useful to understand the complexities that have shaped our physical landscapes and ownership of those landscapes.  Physically, it would be helpful for us to work to regenerate landscapes, even on a small scale, to demonstrate possibilities and offer alternatives to degraded ecosystems. Economically, if people had other viable options for making a decent living with an honest day’s work, I believe we could really put a stop to many of these destructive practices.  In permaculture terms, we have to not only engage in earth care, but people care as well. I think a lot of us are trying to figure out right now what that might look like–certainly, localizing economies, localizing food systems, and building stronger communities are part of that work.  Other parts include education of others about the land, spiritual practices and pathways.

 

To close, I’ve seen a lot of well intentioned people, both within the earth-centered communities and outside of them, say things like, “why would people ever allow this?” I hope I have begun to answer this question.  There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to help address these issue, not only in terms of awareness raising but also in terms of economics and regeneration.