Category Archives: Cycles

A Walk Through a Sacred Garden

View of some of our gardens at Lughnasadh!  Here you can see our main garden (on the left, annuals) and the meditation garden (on the right; smaller perennials). We also have other perennial patches we are cultivating on other parts of the property.  And of course, our wonderful greenhouse in the center!  Behind the greenhouse is a compost tumbler.  In front of the greenhouse, you can see our duck enclosure (more about that later).  Towards the back in the center, you can see our guinea/chicken enclosure and goose enclosure.  The compost area is off to the back left.

Today, we are taking a walk through the sacred gardens at the Druid’s Garden Homestead.  There are so many lessons to learn with a simple walk in a beautiful garden.  Today’s Lughnasadh garden walk reminds us of the power of nature to heal wounds, strengthen our spirits, and help us through challenging times.  For more on the creation of some of these gardens, please see the meditation garden with hugelkultur beds and creating our greenhouse from an old carport. You can also learn more about the principles behind this garden through sacred gardening principles as well as permaculture design. These principles are what we use to guide our decision making in the space.  With that said, let’s begin our walk….

The way I’ve written this article is that the main text in between the photos offer spiritual lessons, while the captions on the photos describe what you are seeing.  You might choose to read captions first, and then go back and read the main text.  It is a weaving of inner teachings with outer practices.

The mighty mullein, garden gaurdian, standing tall in the back of our vegetable garden!

The mighty mullein, garden guardian, standing tall in the back of our vegetable garden!  Mullein is a medicinal plant that can support the lungs (leaf) and also help address ear infections (flower).

Three sisters garden- corn, beans, and squash. We had trouble with corn germinating due to the drought.  Three sisters is an ancient technique used by the Native Americans to create balanced growth: the beans replace nitrogen in the soil, the corn supports the beans and squash, and all is abundant.

All gardens are always in the process of cycling and change. The cycle and progression of the season are constant.  Each season progresses through seed starting, planting, growth, harvest, and fallow times.  Gardening brings us powerfully back into the cycles and the seasons and reminds us to enjoy the moment, for the change is always afoot.  Plants bloom, they produce flowers and fruit, they go to seed, and they die or go fallow.  This cycle repeats again and again–both in the garden and in our own lives: times of new seeds being planted, times of growth, times of harvest, and times of passing on. Taking part in this in a sacred garden can help us have a deeper insight into these patterns and cycles in our own lives.

Upper garden beds just before the garlic harvest. Weeds got a little crazy this year, but the plants still grow!  We have alliums in our upper beds this year along with perennials: lemon balm, asparagus, strawberries, clove currant, and more.

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden.  It took about three years for it to be this healthy and abundant–the caterpillars kept eating it to the ground. Milkweed is a fantastic edible plant with at least four different harvests–learn more about it here.  And of course, it is host to many butterfly and moth populations, including the endangered monarch butterfly.

While these larger cycles and seasons are always at work, each season is also uniquely different.  A single season is different than the year before, even if there are similarities and broader patterns. For example, this year, we’ve had one of the driest years on record (and two years ago, we had the wettest year on record) and are in a borderline drought.  From this, we learn adaptation, we learn how to grow with more heat and less water–it has been a hard summer.  We learn, for example, that certain plants thrive in this heat (sages, rosemary, monarda, mugwort) while others struggle (annual veggies, especially squash with broad leaves).  This is the nature of gardening now, with unpredictable weather patterns and climate change.  Just like other cycles we humans face–some of us struggle and some of us thrive, depending on the individual circumstances.  Seeing the land respond to this intense sun and heat has helped me respond to many intensities in my own life (and the lives of us globally at present). I learn to take on the quality of sage, basking in the seemingly eternal scorching heat and growing strong despite months with no rain. I learn to grow thick like monarda, to protect my roots with my leaves and flowers.  I learn to bask in the sun like rosemary, with small leaves that can withstand drought conditions. I learn the rest need a lot of water, and I am grateful for the spring that provides.  I learn to carry on.

A medicinal flower and herb polyculture in our meditation gardens: sunflower, poppy, feverfew, st. johns wort, pumpkin and tomato, zinnia, and probably some more!  Polycultures, made up of plants that grow in harmony, are beneficial to the land.  Most of these self seeded from last year and now the garden just flourishes.

Inside our greenhouse. You are looking at the back (north-facing wall) where we have a cob and stone heat sink wall to absorb heat during the day and relase it at night. The shelves hold our seedlings in the springtime. We have hot crops and long-season crops in here: this year, we have two gourds, our hardy fig, a number of white sages, tomatoes, and kale. Everything but the fig and Kale will come out in the fall, where we will plant late fall/winter crops.

Inside our greenhouse. You are looking at the back (north-facing wall) where we have a cob and stone passive heat sink wall.  This wall is most effective during spring, fall, and winter, where it absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. The shelves hold our seedlings in the springtime and can store supplies in other times a year. We have hot crops and long-season crops in the greenhouse at present: this year, we have two gourds, our hardy fig, a number of white sages, tomatoes, and kale. Everything but the fig and Kale will come out in the fall, where we will plant late fall/winter crops.  I let the grass in the paths grow till late in the year, this will provide fresh greens for geese and our tortoise.

Another lesson as we walk through this amazing garden at Lughnasadh is the lesson of reciprocation. I write about this often because its a lesson that is lost to most in our present age. The sacred garden reminds us that we are always in a relationship, as equals, with the living earth.  We tend and honor the land, and the land provides our needs. We can cultivate this same kind of relationship with the garden: the soil web of life, reminding us of the interconnection with all beings.  With the seeds that I harvested from our spinach just this morning–the spinach died back leaving the seeds of hope for a new generation to be born, trusting that I will make sure those seeds are planted and tended. This sacred relationship is why, at Lughnasadh, a time of first harvest, we make offerings.  The philosophy is simple: an offering encourages reciprocal relationships rather than one rooted only in extracting resources.  While we tend and honor the garden, the garden tends and honors our spirits.

Our main garden with tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and chives.  We regularly rotate our annual beds and support the soil web with no-till gardening using sheet mulching. We have multiple supports for the tomatoes, which get heavy and like to fall over this time of year.  Beans are rotated in after the tomatoes to ensure nitrogen and other minerals are put back into the soil.  We top dress with compost each fall.

A walk through a sacred garden is perhaps best at Lughnasadh, at least here in our ecosystem in Western PA.  This seems to always be the time when the garden is at its peak: peak vegetation, so many fruits, and vegetables being ready to harvest.  The bulk of the harvest is still before us, and the plants are just abundant and full.  Its a good lesson and good energy now, when we are in such challenging times.  We are weary.  The garden opens up to us, welcoming us, encouraging us to stay awhile, sit with that amazing energy, and remember that this cycle too will end.

One of the most integrated parts of the garden: duck enclosure on a hill just above the main garden. The ducks require clean pools each day, so all of that duck water is dumped into the swale in front of this “wet bed.”  This is where we grow brassicas and celery and other crops that like it very, very wet!  The duck enclosure also serves as our blueberry patch–so we are stacking many functions with this space.  The bed never dries out, and has been a real blessing during this drought.  Putting the ducks next to the garden also provides us on two sides with a “duck moat” – the ducks eat bugs that would want to fly or hop into the garden and give us trouble.

The garden gander, Widdershins! He oversees everything that happens on the property and guards the land.  He also loves dandelion greens and grapes. If there’s any trouble, Widdershins’ powerful honk lets us know to come outside.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk through the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead!  There are so many lessons to learn and take from any garden you visit.

PS: I will be taking a short writing break from the blog for a few weeks. I have been asked to spend the next two weeks reviewing the galley proofs from my publisher for my book that is coming out in 2021 – Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  I’ll see all of you in a few weeks!  If you have any topics you’d like me to cover when I get back, please let me know!

Pattern Literacy: A Guide to Nature’s Archetypes

The unfolding of the bramble ferns in the spring always feels, to me, like the unfolding of worlds. The tightly packed fronds, formed at the end of last season and dormant all winter, slowly emerge, uncurling so slowly that you can’t see it happen, but if you come back later in the day, you can see clear progress.  I like to meditate with these ferns, as they connect me to the deeper energies of the cosmos.  The unfolding of the fern frond, there in my backyard, is the same pattern as the Milky Way galaxy in which we all reside.  It is in this sacred pattern that I can see the connection to all things and connect with nature deeply.

 

Sacred Spiral in the Spring Ferns

This post is a follow-up to a great conversation about wildcrafting one’s own druidry that members of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) had in April 2020.  In this conversation, one of the topics that we briefly we discussed was how people who were new to an ecosystem or transient might benefit from understanding nature’s patterns.  In this AODA-themed post, I would like to offer some deeper discussion of this concept of pattern literacy and share a few of these “universal” patterns that we can use in our druid practice.  Patterns can be used as themes for ovate work and understanding nature deeply, but also for bardic practices (such as incorporating them in the visual arts) or druid work (using them for magic, sigils, meditations, and more).

 

What are nature’s patterns?

Within the human realm, we are surrounded by patterns. Writers like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have helped us identify some of the archetypes within human life (the hero, the warrior, the mother, the hermit). Many cultures, including Native American cultures here in the US, have identified the archetypes present in animals (e.g. bear, wolf, eagle) and their broader representation. These archetypes are fairly accessible–many of us know someone who fits the mother, hero, or warrior role, and it’s clear to see how a bear might embody strength and protection. Thes archetypes help us make meaning of the world and to map our specific experience onto more general principles that are consistent across the human experience.  Of course these, too, are archetypes ultimately deriving from nature.  But today, we are focusing on another kind of natural archetype in the form of nature’s patterns.

 

Although it’s not always as apparent, the rest of nature also has its own archetypes, patterns that repeat over and over again; these are often explored in the practice of sacred geometry as well as in plant identification. Understanding some of nature’s broader patterns can help us connect deeply with nature, hone our observation skills, and engage more deeply with our own spiritual practice.   Nature is literally full of these patterns–patterns in weather, migration, blooming, wind, plant life, animal life, insect life, and more.

 

The other thing here that’s useful to remember is that ancient people knew, understood, and worked with these patterns in nature extensively.  We see them reflected among our most ancient sacred symbols.  We see them woven into spiritual and religious iconography, such as the spiral patterns present in Celtic knotwork designs.  Connecting with these ancient patterns helps us connect with our ancient spiritual ancestors, which I always feel has great benefit.  So now let’s look at a few of these big picture archetypes that nature offers:

The Spiral

After a cold and wet spring, the land is finally waking up and growing green here on the Druid’s Garden homestead. One of the characteristic patterns that can be found now is the spiral, as I shared above, reflected in the fern fronds. I also see this same unfolding patterns in the petals of Witch Hazel as they open in the fall, or in the petals of the New England Aster blooms as they die back and go to seed.  While we have a number of different spirals in the world, many of the spiral patterns found on the planet emerge from the sacred geometry of a number of spirals, including the Golden Spiral.

Spirals can be part of our sacred practices as well!

Spirals can be part of our sacred practices as well!

The Golden Spiral, and its associated golden angle and golden ratio, were well honored by many ancient peoples, and were worked with extensively by the Ancient Greeks. The Golden Spiral is a logarithmic spiral, derived from the golden mean equation, which has a value of 1.6180339877… (I can’t put the actual formula in here, but you can see it here if you are interested). The Golden Spiral is also known as the Fibonacci spiral because it is derived when you continue to add up the two numbers to derive a third.   0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on.

 

Ancient peoples were particularly fond of the Golden Spiral, Golden Mean, and associated principles. These found their way into many other disciplines, like Ancient Greek architecture or DaVinci’s Last Supper painting.  The use of the Golden spiral in this way was another way that humanity could honor and connect with one of the great principles of the universe.  Speaking of the universe, the spiral pattern found in galaxies is–you guessed it–a Golden Spiral.  As above, so below indeed!

 

Major themes of the spiral:

  • The Microcosm and Macrocosm are present within the spiral.  When you look at the formula and the numbers, what really unfolds from it is like the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm: the small is in harmony with the large, and the large is in harmony with the whole.
  • Harmony is one major theme of the spiral–all things are in balance and all things have their place within the great spiral of the universe.
  • Paths to growth and wisdom. The spiral reminds us that things ever-unfold and ever-deepen.  This is the path from innocence and childhood to old age and wisdom.  This is the path that every living being walks, their own spiral path, the spiral of life, and living.  The spiral reminds us that while this path deepens over time, we can also learn a great deal

 

The Branch

The branching pattern is another very common pattern found all through nature.  As I look outside my window as I write these words, I am struck by the massive, 250+-year-old grandmother black oak that stands tall, reaching into the heavens.  Her branching pattern isn’t random; the branching pattern is 2:5, representing yet again, the golden mean. (This was discovered by an 11-year-old boy in 2011, which shows the power of citizen science and gives us hope that there is so much left to discover about the world around us!)  I see this same branching pattern when I kayak at a river delta, or when I look at the larger pattern of rivers flowing into a larger water basin.  When lightning strikes during a particularly bad storm, the branching pattern is also present.  When we trace evolutionary histories or even our own family histories, they branch out from us like a tree.

Branching patterns in walnut trees

Branching patterns in walnut trees

While branching may not have the ancient esoteric connections of some of the other archetypes presented here, I think that we can come to some conclusions about it simply based on how it functions in nature.  Here’s my own take:

  • Flowing from the source. Branches are inherently connecting while also expansive.  When I look at the branching pattern of the watershed that I belong to, each of those tiny branches becomes a larger branch, and all of those eventually flow into the same source–the ocean.  It reminds me that even though I might be a small branch, I am connected to the greater whole.
  • Collective thought and action. It reminds me too, of the power of collective thought and action–how a million small branches of a river can add up to a very strong current. We can be the river–each small stream can combine to a larger force!
  • Paths and choices: the branch also can remind us of the many choices that have led to the present moment, and ever-branching before us, the choices in the present and yet unrealized future

As you find this pattern in nature and meditate on it, I hope you discover your own meanings.

 

The Pentacle / Pentagram

As spring is unfolding on our landscape here, I look to the blossoms of the fruit trees: apples, blackberry, raspberry, and hawthorn. These blossoms all reflect another sacred archetype in nature, one that has at least a 5000-year-old human history: the pentacle or pentagram (they are the same symbol, the pentacle is simply surrounded by a circle while the pentagram is not).

The first recorded human use of the pentagram was by the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, who lived between the 10th and 6th centuries BC.  Chaldeans were a nomadic people who were known for their skill in magic, astrology, writing, and the arts.  They often inscribed the pentagram into their pottery (for more on the fascinating Chaldeans, check out Chaldean Magic: Its Origin and Development by François Lenormant). The ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who lived in the 5th century BC, likely assigned the five elements to the pentacle: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit/psyche.  We see similar uses of the pentacle in antiquity in China and Japan.  Again, as with the golden spiral, the ancient peoples understood and worked with this symbol as one of nature’s archetypes–long associated with the elements and protection.

I find it ironic that, even in my own mundane landscape here in Western PA, people choose to adorn their houses with 5000 year old magical symbols in the form of “barn stars” or “country stars” or the more elaborate cut-out wooden pentacles that can still be seen on old barns dating to the 18th century.  Most modern folks just see them as a “country symbol” but a quick dive into history tells a very different tale!

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

In nature, you can find the pentacle not only in the blooms of the apple, but later, in the seed pattern.  Cutting an apple lengthwise allows you to see the pentacle pattern reflected there in the seeds.  Once you start seeing the pentacle and other five-fold patterns, you’ll see how abundant and rich they are.  Another cool tidbit–Rubus allegheniensis, the Common Blackberry, reflects this pattern in multiple ways.  You can see it in the spring in the petals, but also in the mature largest leaves (a 5-fold pattern), and, if you cut the stem straight across, the stem itself has a five-pointed pattern.  (And, you can see a Golden Spiral reflected both in the distribution of fruit clusters, leaves and thorns!)  Here are a few interpretations of this incredible sign:

  • Protection. The pentacle and pentagram are all about protection.  They don’t end up on barns in Western PA (or houses or anything else for that matter) without the desire to protect what is inside the barn.  For many early settlers, barns represented their survival: their animals and crops were their life.  Protecting that with the pentacle allowed them to thrive.
  • Unification of the Elements.  For millennia, the pentacle has also represented the union of the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit.

The Wave

A final common pattern is the wave.  This pattern is often on the level of the landscape: we see the wave pattern as waves in the ocean or sea, sand on the ocean floor, the pattern of sand from the wind in the desert.  We can see the same wave pattern in water flowing on a river or in blowing tall grasses in the wind. If we look into the sky, at times, the same pattern is sometimes reflected in the dispersion of clouds.  Waves reflect movement and the intersection of the elements: the sea with the shore (ocean waves, waves in sand under surface), the sand (earth) with the wind; the water in the clouds with the air.  Waves are all around us, showing us that change is constant.

  • Movement and energy. I think of the wave a lot like “The Chariot” card from the tarot—waves signify patterns of movement.
  • Variety–While the movement and energy are constant, the changes present in the wave pattern also teaches us the power of repetition, of pattern, and of predictability of change.  Each wave that crashes on the shore is unique and yet, consistent with other waves. waves remind us that change is all around us, the wind and waves are constantly changing and yet, also, repeating their unique patterns over time.  In the same way that humans have certain characteristics (e.g. two eyes, two hands, two feet) but infinite variation.

Key Plant Patterns

While I’ve just offered four major patterns in nature, I also want to talk briefly about other kinds of patterns, those we can find in plants.  Each plant family has its own patterns–patterns that repeat across species.

For example, the Rose (Rosaceae) family plants happen to mostly follow a pentacle pattern, particularly with their flowers, while the leaves are alternate and usually oval-shaped with serrated edges.  Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) instead, have a square stem/stalk, leaves that grow opposite from one another, seed pods that contain four seeds each, and are often aromatic (e.g. when you crush a leaf and smell it, it has a distinct smell).  Plants in the pea/legume family (Fabaceae) have an irregularly shaped flower that often has two large petals (called banners), two smaller wings, and a single petal called a Keel (similar to the keel on a sailboat). They often have pea-like pods and pinnate leaves.  I share these three patterns to help you see that each plant family has its own characteristics, things that define them, and if we learn those things, we can better understand, connect, and identify with life.  (I’ve mentioned it before, but the book Botany in a Day is the best guide out there to learn plant patterns).

Understanding these kinds of patterns can also help you navigate the world safely and with identification skills that can come in handy. For example, a few years ago, a friend and I decided to camp in the Flordia Keys–we had never been there and wanted to do some kayaking, etc, and get away from winter for a bit When we got there, I noticed a particular pattern that appeared to be what I would consider “Toxicodendron” like (e.g. in the sumac family). And I was right: I had just met a poisonwood tree–which turned out to everywhere in the Keys.  Poisonwood isn’t actually in the Toxicodendron subspecies, but it does belong to the larger sumac / cashew (Anacardiaceae) family.  Because I already knew the pattern of what these plants looked like from my longstanding relationship with Poison Ivy, I was quite good at quickly spotting them–saving my friend and I a nasty bout of dermatitis. 

The other piece here with plant patterns is useful for those that might be traveling and/or moving somewhere new.  If you are deeply connected with your local ecosystem and have to temporarily or permanently relocate, learning these larger patterns of nature can really help you reconnect.  Maybe you can’t find that which was growing in your old home, but you can find plants in the same plant family, which can help you re-establish and build these relationships.

Patterns in Spiritual Practice

Patterns in nature and in plants can offer many different kinds of insights for spiritual practice in the bardic, ovate, or druid arts.  In the ovate arts, plant patterns can help you more deeply connect to nature, identify plants, and work with the land and the spirits of the land.  You can establish deep relationships with plants across similar species by understanding them, identifying them, and looking for patterns.  In the druid arts, consider using nature’s patterns for themes for ritual work, meditations, or sigils.  In the bardic arts, you can use nature’s patterns as themes and inspiration for poetry, writing, visual arts, music, dance, and more!  The sky is the limit in terms of what you can do with these powerful patterns.

I’d also argue that many of the symbols that are developed over time by human cultures have their ancient roots in nature.  We might have advanced writing systems and iconography, but if you go back far enough, nature’s language is embedded within all of our symbols.

Patterns of the World

I hope that this post has helped illustrate the many magical and wonderful patterns present in our natural world.  Do you have any additional patterns to share?  How have you worked with these patterns? Are you working with other patterns? I’d love to hear more.

 

PS: Tarot of Trees 4th edition! I also wanted to announce that we are working to fund the 10th-anniversary edition of the Tarot of Trees.  If you liked the original, please check out the Indegogo campaign here.  We are offering the Tarot of Trees in a larger size with a new design.

Forest Regeneration at the Druid’s Garden Homestead: Forest Hugelkultur, Replanting and More!

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

The property was almost perfect: in the right location, a natural spring as a water source, a small and nice house with a huge hearth, areas for chickens and gardens, a small pond and a stream bordering the edge of the property….pretty much everything was exactly what we hoped.  Except for one thing: right before selling the property, the previous owners did some logging for profit, taking out most of the mature overstory of trees on 3 of the 5 acres. This left the forest in a very damaged place: cut down trees, lots of smaller limbs and brush, often piled up more than 5-8 feet high in places. I remember when I went to look at the property and started walking the land and just saying, “Why would they do this?”  It hurt my heart. Could I live here, seeing what had so recently been done?  But I’ve always been led to such places as part of my spiritual path, particularly places that have been logged.

 

A continual theme of this blog is land healing.  In some recent posts,  I have been sharing some details about physical land healing: what to do, how to do it, what ecological succession is and how that matters and also why you might take up the path of the land healer as a spiritual practice. In today’s post, I’m going to put these pieces together and share a specific example from the forest regeneration work we are doing at the Druid’s Garden Homestead. In the last two years, we have been developing methods to help support the ecosystem and foster ecological succession. With careful choices, ecological succession can be done faster and more effectively, helping shift our land to a mature ecological sanctuary for life. This is by no means a complete project but does offer a glimpse into what we are doing, some of the choices we made, and hopefully, after some time passes, I can offer some updates!  The goal then is to offer you a model and ideas for work that you can do to heal in your own ecosystem from a physical land healing standpoint.

 

One of the questions that sometimes come up for people interested in land regeneration is this-if nature already knows how to heal herself, why would any person want to intervene? Why do the work of healing an ecosystem if nature can just do it herself on a slower scale?  Most of the answers to these questions I shared in my earlier post on land healing as a spiritual practice.  But I will share my reasoning for this specific piece of land: I feel the need to use things like permauclture to help the land regenerate because of the broader challenges we are facing environmentally and the importance of peacemaking with the spirits of the land.  Given our situation here, it would take anywhere from approximately 50-100 years for this land to fully heal.  But there is a question if it could ever fully heal due to the loss of certain woodland species from our immediate ecosystem–species that belong here like ramps, trillium, American ginseng, and more are not easily spread and may take hundreds of years to return, if at all.  Further, our intervention could provide faster healing of this land and could build critical ecosystems and create a sanctuary for life in a time when it’s definitely needed.  Our land here is a small patch of woods surrounded by many farmlands growing corn, soy, and cabbage.  We are our own refugia here, and so, bringing this land back into a healthy place ecologically means that this can be a better refuge for life and support more animal, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile and plant lives.  Also, by using the grove of renewal strategy (which I developed as part of this work), we can radiate this healing energy out to the broader landscape–where it is sorely needed.

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

Observation and interaction led to the discovery of this choked out sassafras grove

Each landscape is unique.  If you are coming into a new land or working with land you’ve known for years, the first step is to observe, interact, and practice some deep listening. Observation and interaction are just as they sound–this is a principle from permauclture that says in order to work to regenerate land, you have to come at that work from a place of knowledge and wisdom.  In order to know that land, you need to study that land–observe the land in different seasons and in different times of day, interact with the land, be present there always, seeing what there is to see, and coming to know it deeply. Understand what is already growing there, if it’s native or opportunistic (I don’t like the word “invasive), who lives there, what the ecosystems surrounding your land look like, what pollution and other pressures there might be, and more.

 

With so much of our land subject to logging, we spent some time observing, interacting, and in connection with the spirits.  What did the land spirits want us to do? What could we do that would be respectful to the land, that would help and not hurt further?  The general sense we had was that to respond to this situation, we knew that there were places we were going to let nature heal in her own way, but there were also plenty of places that we could help heal faster by applying permaculture techniques. Observation and interaction is the physical component of this and deep listening is the spiritual component to this practice. But I also want to share here that observation, interaction, and deep listening is a continual process. As you work a piece of land, you will keep working with it. What the land may ask you to do changes as you complete earlier work.  So keep on listening, every chance you get. I’ll now consider each in turn.

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

Being on the land after moving in was honestly overwhelming. Much of the land was impassible due to the huge amounts of leftover treetops, branches, and brush. The loggers had just bulldozed brush into large piles, taking much of the forest floor with it.  The first thing we did, even to begin to observe and interact, was to re-establish paths by moving brush so we could walk and be present on the land. Since this was so-called “sustainable logging” what we ended up with was most of the largest trees being taken and a smattering of mature trees left–some oaks, hickories, maples and black cherries. Thus, we have some mature trees.  But many of the mature trees that find themselves exposed to wind are experiencing secondary loss, where they lose their crowns.  These trees grew up in a mature forest with close crowns, without the protection of other trees, they are very susceptible to wind damage.  This is one of the things we are observing now–losing a lot of the remaining crowns of the largest trees, which is very sad.  We also have a good understory of hickory, oak, sugar maple, cherry, and a bit of sassafras–these trees will eventually be our new overstory, I think, once the secondary loss of the larger trees concludes.

 

The amount of brush also made it harder for smaller trees to grow and come up in a healthy way, and the brush is covering the trunks of many of the existing trees that were not logged, creating wet spots that can cause the trees’ bark to rot.  The forest floor wasn’t very abundant–we weren’t seeing a lot of the plants that should be growing here, particularly woodland medicinal species.

A good example of the “clearing” work to do–if we don’t remove this brush, it will rot out the trunk of this mature tree. There are several black elder in here that can also use some room to expand and grow.

 

At present, after logging, the dominant plant that has grown up on our landscape is the Rubus allegheniensis, the common blackberry, native to this area of our land.  We now have large thickets of blackberry. We also have Devil’s walking stick, wild cherry, elderberry, spicebush, and beaked hazels growing up in very dense thickets.  We also have a lot of poison ivy, as it thrives on disturbance. These plants have quickly come into the spaces left by large trees to fill the void.  But if we want to support ecological succession, we’d work to plant and foster the hardwood trees as much as possible and help cultivate them towards adulthood along with supporting a rich understory of shrubs and woodland plants of more diversity than the opportunistic species that are present.

 

Our land is on the eastern side of a small mountain, so we get good morning/early afternoon light and get more shade in the evenings.  The soil is wet and fertile. The bottom of our property borders Penn Run, a stream that is clean and flowing where we live, but most, unfortunately, less than 1/4 mile from where we live downstream, we have acid mine drainage causing serious pollution. Thus, cultivating the health of our stream is of utmost concern as it fosters habitat that is degraded further down.

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

The second part of this equation is deep listening. For generations, this land been the object of someone else’s desire–in the sense that whatever humans wanted to do to the land, they simply did, with no consideration of the will of the spirits of the land. As druids, we recognize that the land has agency–it has a voice, and we listen. Thus, part two of the observation and interaction is simply finding out what the spirits of the land want and desire–and following that will.  I really believe this is one of the most critical parts of land healing and any other spiritual work we do–and failing to do this part means we are no different than others who have come and did whatever they wanted.  For the last two years, we haven’t done much beyond our gardens, chicken coops, and infrastructure (fencing for garden, etc). We wanted to listen to what the spirits of the land wanted for the healing of the rest of the property, especially the forested sections.  Over time, a clear message emerged–certain areas to let “rewild” without any intervention and without any human interaction, while other places on the property places for spiritual activity, replanting, and active regeneration. The spirits gave us a map of the land and how they wanted us to proceed–and we listen.

 

 

Goals and Interventions

Most people who are working on conservation, permaculture design, forestry, and so on recommend developing clear goals that help you decide how to create a plan moving forward and make sure your actions align with that plan. I also think this is a really good idea. To replant our land and heal the forest, we started by identifying clear goals for our forested areas and for ourselves.  These goals include:

  1. Honor nature in our actions and in our intentions and work with nature as a partner in the regeneration process.
  2. Support ecological succession to help re-establish an overstory of hardwood nut trees and sugar maples in 3 acres of forest. This will include supporting a diverse ecosystem, modeled after old-growth ecosystems of the “Northern Hardwood Forest” type.
  3. Maximize habitat and food sources for wildlife and humans (including amble supplies of wild berries and nuts) focusing on perennial agriculture
  4. Establish a sanctuary for endangered woodland medicinal species in our 3 acres of forests in the understory (American ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, trillium, bloodroot, ramps, etc, as established by the United Plant Savers)
  5. Designate “wild areas” (zone 5 areas, to use the term from permaculture design) that are untouched can regenerate in whatever direction spirits will.
  6. All human-focused and agriculturally-focused areas will be designed and enacted based on working with nature using permaculture design.  Human focused areas have the emphasis of people care, earth care, and fair share. Spiritual areas are designated for our grove and spiritual community.
  7. Learn how to support riparian and wetland ecosystems. We have a special emphasis on wetland areas and riparian zones, since our land contains both a small spring-fed pond and a clean stream.
  8. Learn how to use all of the materials on our land so that nothing is wasted. We have a lot of secondary tree loss right now, and we don’t want to add to the brush on the ground.  Thus, when a tree drops, we are doing our best to use it in some way, either for woodworking/arts/crafts, for natural building projects, or for firewood or hugels (see below).
  9. Build resiliency for ourselves, our domestic animals, and all life on our property.

 

These goals are evolving as time passes, but they represent our general desire to be good stewards of this land, allow for us to live here in harmony with life, and support more diversity of plant, bird, animal, and insect life.

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

The following are some of the main strategies we are using at present for regeneration.  We are still very much in the early stages here of this regeneration project, but we’ve got good momentum and are making progress!

 

Tree Replanting and Cultivation. We’ve been working to replant as much of the understory as possible so that we can establish, in time, a healthy and diverse overstory.  This included planting 25 American hybrid chestnut trees (blight resistant, 95% American chestnut genetics), to plant oaks and hickory nuts throughout the areas we could access, as well as establish a paw-paw understory.  There were very specific reasons for these choices: according to my own historical research, chestnut used to comprise about 30% of our forests here in PA and PawPaw were quite common.  The logging gave me a chance to try to establish a mature chestnut overstory in the long run. These trees are still small, but we are keeping them clear of brush and debris and doing our best to make sure they are established.

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

Tree tending and thinning.  When there are dense thickets of small trees regrowing, only the strongest or fastest-growing will survive.  We have identified different patches of regrowing trees and are trying to cultivate those which will contribute most to a mature oak-hickory overstory and a wide diversity of trees.  One of the most recent projects was clearing the brush (through hugelkultur techniques, see below).  We cleared brush from a large patch of sassafras trees (the only on the property) and making sure they had room to grow. We have been thinning the dense thickets of the weakest trees to ensure more rapid growth, especially of the beaked hazels, which grow very, very quickly and can overpower our slower-growing hickories, oaks, and chestnuts.  This process of tending and thinning has created a lot of branch and pole material we can use for garden stakes and other spiritual building and crafting projects.  And doing some thinning like this helps tend the ecosystem. We never cut anything back without permission–and listen carefully to what the spirits of the land and forest ask.

 

Clearing brush and turning “waste” into a resource. Perhaps the most intensive of the work we are doing right now is clearing areas of the downed trees and brush.  As long as we have piles of 8′ brush, it makes it very hard to plant young trees, allow the small seedlings to grow, or replant the forest floor with woodland medicinals.  The brush has also been piled near living larger trees, which can create rot at the roots and cause more secondary tree loss.  We have selected several areas to target, being led by the spirits of the land, and have intentionally done minimal work in others, only enough to ensure that small seedlings aren’t trapped and that roots and trunks aren’t covered in downed wood debris. This involves primarily a lot of chainsaw work. We are using primarily battery-powered power tools and some hand tools; the battery-powered tools are charged by our solar panels, reducing our fossil fuel consumption.

 

We go into a brushy area where the brush is, and start clearing.  What we can take as firewood we will take as firewood. Its been two years since the logging, but because a lot of the wood is off the ground, we have a surprising amount of wood still to harvest for firewood.  For wood that is past firewood stage, we have been building forest hugelkultur beds (see next entry). Once the forest floor has the brush mostly clear, we can then plant other kinds of forest medicinals and plants.

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

Forest Hugelkultur Beds. Hugelkultur, which basically means “mound culture” is an old-world technique popular in Germany that adds woody matter to create raised “mounds” that can be grown in.  This is a fantastic technique for us to employ here because we have an over-abundance of partially rotting wood and brush that we want to find a productive use for.  By making the hugelkultur beds, we take areas that are currently prevented from effectively regrowing due to the nature of the bush, clear the brush, and end up with a valuable resource–a new bed that we can plant. Most of ours hugels are in part-shade forest edges where we will plant shrubs and other shade-loving perennials to increase our capacity for food production for ourselves and wildlife: gooseberry, fiddlehead ferns, alpine strawberry, black and red currants, etc.

 

To build a hugel, you decide your location.  You can also decide at this point if you want to sink it into the ground (like a traditional garden bed where you’d dig down) or put it on top of the ground. We are doing above ground hugels primarily because our ground is so rocky and digging it out is almost impossible.  Once you have your location, you start with the largest pieces of wood and begin making a very dense pile of wood the size you want your bed to be (at least a few feet long and a few feet wide, realistically).  As you pile them up, usually to 3-4′ tall, you vary the thickness of the wood, such that the thickest wood should be on the bottom and inside the middle, and thinner sticks, etc, should be on the outside.  After you have your pile, you can add whatever other organic matter you have around–we clean out our chicken/guinea, duck, and goose coops regularly and are using all the straw bedding as another layer.  Stuff that material into any of the holes between the logs.  Finally, we top it with more layers of organic matter (leaves, compost, etc) and top it off with at least 4″ of finished compost.  The final layer is a layer of straw.  These layers, we allow to “season” for at least six months to a year.  By the second year, the hugels have settled enough that you can patch any holes with additional compost and then plant right in them.  Each year, as they season more and more, they grow more abundant.  We have some hugels we did dig down and create as part of our medicinal herb garden and they are incredibly productive and resilient after only two years! The goal here is that the hugels will edge our deeper parts of our forest and provide abundant food and forage for wildlife and humans.

 

I will also say that this kind of hugel building work in the way we are doing it is dark half of the year work.  If you clear in the winter, you don’t disrupt the soil or perennials that are going to come up in the summer months.  For us here, we can do this work from Samhain to somewhere close to Beltane–then we shift our emphasis on other things for the summer months and come back to clearing and hugelkultur work in the winter months.

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

Seed scattering and re-establishing forest medicinal species.  We are working to model our regenerated forest after what an old-growth forest would have looked like, as our goals above suggest.  Thus, we have been replanting many lost forest medicinal and keystone woodland species that are native to our area.  This includes scattering about 1000 ramp seeds, planting over 50 American ginseng roots and planting more wild ginseng seeds, bringing in bloodroot, black cohosh, trout lily and other plants that are adapted particularly for our damp hillside.  We are still pretty early in this process (we have to get the downed wood brush cleared first) but are making good progress and have already scattered and planting the ginseng and ramps.

 

Overstory management.  As I mentioned above,  one of the saddest things happening now deal with the loss of the remaining trees still standing in the forest–we are observing these trees and seeing how many of them can make it. But we also recognize the value of standing dead timber, and since we have a nice woodpecker community (at least four different species, including the rarer Pileated Woodpecker), we are leaving all of the standing dead timber that is safe to leave–which thankfully, is nearly all of it.  For some trees, however, particularly those that may be in a place that if they dropped would cause damage to other trees or the house/structures, we are dropping them and using them for natural building, firewood, and other projects.

What about the inner/energetic work?

Reading all of this, you might notice that I’ve primarily talked about physical regeneration in today’s post.  Yes, I have.  As you might recall from my earlier work, I really see land healing as both inner and outer work.  Because I have the power to do something physical, I think its really important that those things are done.  On the spiritual side, I’m working on the grove of renewal here on the land as well as ongoing land blessing and land healing work.  While we do the physical work, the energetic work is always present.  The two work together, and each strengthens the other.

 

Conclusion

Whew!  That’s a lot going on at the Druid’s Garden homestead.  Its good work to do, especially now with the pandemic. We don’t want to leave the land much, so we are turning in earnest to our projects here that will help regenerate and heal this beautiful landscape.  I’ll work to provide periodic updates on these projects and how they are going.  In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a nice spring and thinking about their own healing projects.  I would love to hear what things you are working on or the plans you have!

Spirital Lessons of Ecological Succession for the Pandemic: Healing the Land, Healing the Soul

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

Ecological succession is nature’s approach to healing.  From bare rock, ecological succession allows forests to eventually grow.  Ecological succession has much to teach us as a powerful lesson from nature, and it is a particularly useful thing to meditate upon during the pandemic.  As we can look to how nature heals, it offers us guidance and stability during this challenging time.  Thus, today’s post introduces the idea of ecological succession and how these lessons can be helpful to us as spiritual lessons for thought and reflection. This post is part of my land healing series.  For earlier posts, you can see a framework for land healing, land healing as a spiritual practice, a ritual for putting the land to sleep, and a primer for physical land healing.

 

Ecological Succession

Because nature works on larger time scales, its not always obvious that nature is engaging in healing and transformative work in every moment, all across the land.  We are seeing this even with the shifts in human behavior during the pandemic: sea turtles coming up to lay eggs on abandoned beaches, air pollution levels going down, oceans and waterways clearing.  These processes are part of nature’s great power, much of which is driven by the process of ecological succession.

 

All of nature works towards “ecological succession”, a process by which an entire ecosystem changes and grows, eventually reaching something called a climax community. Climax communities are stable ecosystems that have a diversity of species, nutritional and energy balance, tolerant of environmental conditions, the kinds of species are stable and do not change.  This ecosystem thus is diverse, tolerant of diverse climate conditions, and abundant.  Climax communities obviously look very different in different ecosystems, bioregions, and parts of the world.  A tropical rainforest is one kind of climax ecosystem,  as are boreal forests, tundras, deserts, and more.  You can find these by visiting parks that have old-growth forests or other longstanding natural features.

 

Example of primary succession: lichen and moss-covered lava flows in Iceland.

Primary Succession. To start from the very beginning, in what is called primary succession, we might have bare rock with no soil, such as those situations left by the retreat of glaciers, lava formation, recently-formed sand dunes, or even boney dumps from old mining sites like we have around here.  So we start with bare rock–and rock itself, while it is part of soil, is not soil and does not contain organic matter that plants need to grow.  So ecological succession begins with the lichens who slowly break down the rocks and helps form soil.  This process can take a very, very, very long time (centuries or millennia). Once we have soil, we have small annual plants and lichens, giving way to perennial grasses and flowers.  At this point, our bare rock has turned into a field and the more that grows, the more organic matter is produced, allowing for a richer organic basis for larger plant life. Most of this kind of ecological succession was done in the time of our ancient ancestors, and so we usually start with the point where we have soil, perhaps a lawn of grass, or like our opening example suggested, an empty field that has been over-farmed.

 

Secondary Succession.  Once the soil is established, this is where we get into the second kind of ecological succession:  secondary succession.  Secondary succession is what has happened in the example I shared above – a forest was removed for farmland, and now the farmland is ready to return to forest. Secondary succession is typically what you are dealing with as a land healer, as the scale for this can be within one’s lifetime and we can see nature’s regrowth even in a few short weeks or months.

 

To explore this process, we might consider what would happen if a person stopped mowing their lawn. If this person lived along most of the Northeast part of the US, ecological succession would eventually move that lawn to a Northern Hardwood Forest, the pinnacle ecosystem in this region. Immediately, the grasses would grow tall along with any other plant life currently inhabiting the lawn, like ground ivy, docks, plantain, dandelion—most of these “pioneer” species are well adapted for growing in disrupted ecosystems. Within the first few years, we’d see seedlings from shrubs and trees that are shade intolerant wold take root (red maple, black birch), spread by the wind, birds, and animals. We’d likely see autumn olive (which spreads quickly), birch, aspen, staghorn sumac, and lots of blackberry, raspberry, and other rhubus species moving in.  For a long time, this lawn would be a field populated by sun-loving annual and perennial plants, but with each year, the trees and shrubs would get taller.  As these plants started producing seeds, berries, and foliage, animals, including larger animals, would return as there would be food for them to eat.

 

If you were walking through this piece of land when it was a wild field in mid-succession, you might not realize the rich history of the land before you. You might also not realize the powerful, yet quiet process you are witnessing as the land returns to its most abundant state. Ecological succession and forest healing is a long process, well outside the human lifespan. Yet nature’s healing is there, we only need to know what to look for.  If you returned to this place again and again and perhaps scattered some seeds and popped some acorns and walnuts in the ground, you’d see this transformation over a period of years would learn a lot about how nature heals.  You’d also find spiritual healing for yourself in this place.

 

Eventually, those tree seedlings in the field would start to grow tall, discouraging full sun perennials and grasses and shifting to part shade as the trees filled out their crowns. Within 50 years, depending on local conditions, the tree canopy would cover the entire area, allowing the soil to retain water and cooling the temperature on the ground.  Woodland, shade adapted species would then dominate the forest floor.

Forest regeneration

 

Within about 150 years, the canopy would change from short growing trees (maples, birches, cherries) to longer-growing trees (oaks, hickories, walnuts, butternuts, maybe even chestnuts), as smaller trees wait underneath the forest canopy for a break in the canopy.  offering more long-lived hardwoods, and reach the end of ecological succession—the climax community of oak, hickory, and other hardwoods with a rich and diverse understory (pawpaw, hawthorn, serviceberry, sassafras, spicebush, etc). Thus, it is not a single species that cause ecological succession, but rather, an entire community of species working together in an interconnected web of life–one coming after another, until we the forest once again reaches the climax ecosystem.

 

Where I live, the only places that are at their climax are ones under some kind of permanent and long-term protection: state parks, conservation areas, or other protected lands.  If you enter these places, you’ll, of course, notice the energy first: they are calm, restful, very vitalizing places to return to again and again.  They are vibrant, alive, and functioning at their peak.  Everything in the ecosystem is cycled in perfect balance.

Spiritual Lessons of Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is nature’s primary driving force for healing the land and ecosystems. It’s a powerful process that has shaped this land again and again.  Thus, I think it is a critically useful thing to understand, interact with, and meditate upon.  It offers us numerous lessons, some of which I will share here (with many others ready to discover).  I also think these lessons are particularly relevant and valuable to us during the time of the pandemic when so much disruption is at play.

 

Disruption is a natural part of life. That nature is so good at adapting, healing, and ecological succession suggests that disruption is part of life here on earth.  It is part of the life of a forest as much as it is a part of the life of a human. If we apply this same issue to our own lives, we may have minor disruptions (selective logging) or major disruptions (lava, forest fires, etc). These disruptions cannot heal overnight, but we will heal.

 

This is a particularly valuable lesson for us right now. Most of us are experiencing a major disruption in our lives–on a cultural scale, probably the largest we have ever seen.  Nobody knows what the new normal will be or how long the disruption will last.  But this lesson from nature is clear–disruption is a powerful opportunity for new growth.

 

Healing Begins immediately. As soon as the disruption ends, healing begins immediately.  If you’ve ever been to a fire-dependent ecosystem, within 1-2 weeks of the end of the fire (or after the first good rain), you’ll see tiny little seeds sprouting and plants coming to life.  This, too, is part of nature’s healing process.  It will take time for the ecosystem to return to the state before disruption, but it will. Having faith in that process is the start of the healing process.  Perhaps our own healing has already started, and we don’t even know it!

 

Healing takes time Nature reminds us that healing takes the time it is going to take, and there is no rushing the process.  From lava to mature forest could take 1000 years or more.  When I visited Iceland last summer, we saw the lichen-encrusted lava fields, looking like piles of green.  Some of them had names tied to historical events in the middle ages or before–some of them were thousands of years old, and due to Iceland’s extreme climate, it would take a few thousand more years for anything else to grow. This was nature’s healing on an epic timescale.  Even in more temperate climates, of we start with bare soil such as a construction site or farmed field, nature’s full healing may not take place for 250 years. While human time is obviously different in scale, we can use this lesson of nature to realize–and accept–the healing process.

 

Perhaps we are all feeling like there is a lot of bare soil, scorched earth, here in our own inner and cultural landscapes now.  But just like that lichen, nature will heal–and as we are part of nature, we will also heal in time.  And that healing is ongoing, subconsciously, whether or not we can see it.

 

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Look to the lichen for Slow and Steady Healing. Nature reminds us through the lesson of ecological succession that healing can happen in quiet, small ways.  Lichens are one step in complexity above algae, quite simple in their structure, and yet, they have a tremendously important role in our ecosystem in offering the first building blocks of life.  This is a reminder to us that it’s not just the “big” things we do, but the small, invisible, and quiet practices that can make a difference.

During this time, perhaps that means attending to our spiritual practices and things like daily interaction with nature, daily meditation, spending time just being with ourselves, spending time with our creative practices.  Its the small, gradual things that have the biggest difference in time.

 

Communities matter. Ecological succession is a wide variety of species working together for the same goal.  We heal better when supported and surrounded by others who are also healing, and also working towards our healing.  Nature teaches us that we aren’t meant to do this work alone.  This is, perhaps, a hard lesson during the pandemic when communities are the very things that are no longer as present in our lives.  But although we are isolated physically, we are still all together in this. And being supportive of each other, hearing each other, and growing together will get us through.

 

Healing is dynamic.  Just as different plants fill ecological roles and are replaced by others as the ecosystem heals, we might apply this same concept to our own healing.  At first, we need the pioneer species–those plants to come in quickly, cover up bare soil, and help get healing going.  But as time passes, what we need changes as we process, understand, and move through our challenges.  This suggests that healing is a dynamic and mutable process for us–and being aware of that will help us from getting in a rut.

 

In the pandemic, many of us are finding that our typical practices for healing aren’t always working–requiring us to shift directions.  I’ve been speaking with many others who have firmly established bardic arts/creative practices, and they are having a hard time engaging in them–but they are finding other things that work. I know that is true of me. In honoring the dynamic nature of healing, some of the things I usually do to ground and heal have to be set temporarily aside as I explore things that help me in this moment. Healing is dynamic, and what we might need changes.

 

All heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle – time for some healing!

Conclusion

 Nature is our ultimate teacher, and I think she has a lot to teach about the ways in which ecological succession can heal us as participants in this larger web of life.  By meditating on, understanding, and engaging with nature’s primary healing process, we can help make a difference in the lands around us and in our own lives during this challenging time.  Once I’m back to blogging, I’ll share a very practical application and example, showing how we at the Druid’s Garden Homestead are working with nature to support and speed up ecological succession after logging.

 

Finally, like many, I’m struggling with focus during this time. This is affecting my writing practice and I’m having a lot of difficulties getting my regular blog posts out. I always take a blog break in mid-May each year, but I’m going to take my blog break now for a few weeks. My plan is to be back in 3-4 weeks with regular content.  Thank you for understanding and supporting the Druid’s Garden blog! 🙂

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.

 

 

Finding Balance at the Spring Equinox: A Sun Ritual Using the Three Druid Elements

The Spring Equinox, Alban Eiler, is the time when the light and the dark in the world are in balance. The timing of the Equinox is fortuitous–this time of balance–after such turmoil in the world. Here in the last two weeks here in the US, we’ve been on a whirlwind of change where nearly every person’s life has been radically disrupted and changed due to the global pandemic. Given the circumstances of where we are, today, I’d like to offer a balancing ritual for Spring Equinox that you can do personally to help bring balance into your life.  (I’m posting this a few days early from my usual weekly post so that you have it in time for the Equinox!)

 

Preliminaries

A representation of the 3 druid elements

A representation of the 3 druid elements

This ritual uses the three druid elements: Gywar, Calas, and Nyfre, drawn from the druid revival for the ritual. These three terms, deriving from old Welsh, represent three principles in the universe.  I think they are particularly useful for a spring equinox balancing ritual.

 

Nwyfre (NOO-iv-ruh) literally translates as “sky” or “heaven” and refers to the life force or vital energy that is in each of us.  Nywfre is the spark of life, that which separates an inanimate thing from an animate being.

 

Gwyar (GOO-yar) literally translates as “blood”, and refers to the concept of flow, flexibility, fluidity, motion, and general change. This is the element that acts like water, flowing around obstacles rather than hitting up against them.

 

Calas (CAH-lass) is tied to the old Welsh word “Caled” and literally translates as “hard”.  This is the element of solidity, stability, and grounding.

 

What’s interesting is that to truly have balance, we can’t just focus on Calas (grounding), which might be the first thing that would come to mind.  A situation as unstable as what is before us requires us to balance the three elements together: we do need Calas to help us be stable and rooted, but we also need a great deal of Gwyar, as the situation is evolving rapidly and nobody knows what is next.  Nwyfre is life itself–and embracing life during this challenging time focuses our energy not on the chaos and fear of death but on the energies of life, thus bringing us into greater harmony.

 

This ritual also uses three prayers (two from the druid tradition and one I wrote) and uses the chanting of another welsh term, Awen.  For more on Awen, see this post.

 

The following ritual would ideally be done in three parts: as the sun rises, at mid-day, and as the sun sets (this is the first version of the ritual I present). The second variant of the ritual still uses the energy of the sunrise, noonday, and sunset times of the sun, but in a metaphorical sense. Thus, I will offer two variants of the ritual.

 

The Ritual: Balancing of Gwyar, Calas, and Nyfre: A Three-Part Sunrise – Noonday and Sunset Ritual

The solar current rising at sunrise

Sunrise

Select a sacred place that you can return to at three points in the day: sunrise (or early morning), noon, and sunset.  Ideally, this should be a place that you can open up a sacred grove in, leave, and return to throughout the day and one where nobody else will disturb for the day (e.g. a spot outside or a spare bedroom). If you would like, you can set up an altar in this spot.

 

For this ritual, you should also have an offering for the land and her spirits. See this post for more on offerings. In terms of your offering, I think what you do, and how you offer, are very personal things. Offerings should be personal and tied to those spirits/deities/powers/lands/places you work with.

 

Sunrise:

Either in the early morning or just as the light is beginning to come into the world, go to your sacred space.

 

Open up a sacred grove in your tradition. For this, I suggest using whatever grove / sacred space opening you have in your tradition or using the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening. If you do not have a dedicated spot for the three stages of ritual, I instead suggest doing the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual around yourself to start the ritual.

 

Make your offering in your own words. Leave your offering in your space.

 

As the sun is beginning to rise (or observing the rising sun), say, “Sunrise is a time when the sun rises from the earth.  The promise of the day is before us.  The balance between light and dark is here.  We enter the light half of the year, full of promise and possibility.”

 

Pause, continuing to observe the sun. Then say, “As the sun rises with possibility, I call upon this moment to provide me fluidity, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a radically changing world. I now intone the ancient word for flow: “Gywar (GOO-yar), Gywar, Gwyar.” (Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

Stand facing the sun, and feel its rays upon your skin. Observe how the light continues to change as the sun rises. Feel the possibility of this moment. Pay attention to how the winds flow upon the land, and how the land awakens. Spend some time in mediation as the sun rises, drawing upon the fluidity and flexibility of this moment.

 

Say a Prayer of Flow (By Dana O’Driscoll):

Let me be like the waters,
Let me move like the sea,
Let me flow with the currents,
Let my spirit be free

Let me fly like an eagle
Let me buzz like a bee
Let me swim like an otter
Let my spirit be free

When the world is crushing
And I am unable to see
Let me flow like the river,
Let the awen flow in me!

 

When you are finished, leave the sacred space and go about your day until the mid-day sun.

 

Noon:

Enter your sacred space. Take a few moments to come back into your ritual mindset through deep breathing and quieting your mind.

 

Say, “Noon-day is when the power of the sun is at its zenith. This is when the sun’s rays offer life and vitality to all.  As the sun is at its height, I call upon this moment to provide me vitality, strength, and energy.  I now intone the ancient word for the lifeforce, “Nwyfre (NOO-iv-ruh), Nywfre, Nywfre.”

 

At this point, spend some moments in the light of the sun.  Soak in the sun’s vital rays, and observe the leaves and plant life upon the landscape and their interaction with the sun.  You might feel led to do some movement meditation, dance, or another vitalizing movement at this time.  when you feel the work is complete,  say the Druid’s Prayer:

 

Grant, O Spirits, your protection
And in protection, strength
And in strength, understanding
And in understanding, knowledge
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it
And in the love of it, the love of all existences
And in the love of all existences, the love of earth our mother and all Goodness.

 

Chant three Awens (Ahh-oh-en) <As you chant the Awens, feel this vitalizing force settle deeply within you.>

 

Leave the sacred space until sunset.

 

Sunset: Arrive just as the sun is setting, where it is just beginning to touch the edge of the horizon.

 

Say, “Sunset is a time when the sun meets the earth.  As the sun enter’s the earth’s embrace, I call upon this moment to provide me grounding, stability, and peace.  I now intone the ancient word for grounding: Calas (CAY-lass), Calas, Calas.”(Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

At this point, if you can, lay or sit upon the ground.  Feel the solidity of the ground beneath your feet.  Feel the deepening darkness on the landscape.  Spend some time in meditation as the darkness comes.  As the darkness comes, feel the womb of the earth supporting you, grounding you, and providing you peace.

 

When you are finished with your meditation, say the Druid’s Peace Prayer (this is my own variant):

 

“Deep within the still center of my being may I find peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within you>

“Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within this space>

“Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace emanating from you outward.”

 

Close your sacred space (using your own tradition or using the AODA’s solitary grove closing ritual).

Single Moment Variant

Sunset

The above ritual uses three moments in time to call upon the druid elements and uses druid prayer (mostly traditional, one new one) to help connect to those energies.  I suggest removing the first two druids prayers, finishing instead with just the Druid’s Peace Prayer, and using visualization techniques for each of the moments where you would otherwise be in the sun. I also suggest using a drum, bell or another instrument to shift between the three points of the sun’s path across the sky.

 

Here is the adapted ritual.

 

Open up your sacred space and make your offering.  For this, I suggest using whatever grove / sacred space opening you have in your tradition or using the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening.

 

Make your offering in your own words.

 

Say: “Sunrise is a time when the sun rises from the earth.  The promise of the day is before us.  The balance between light and dark is here.  We enter the light half of the year, full of promise and possibility.”

 

“As the sun rises with possibility, I call upon this moment to provide me fluidity, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a radically changing world.  I now intone the ancient word for flow: “Gywar (GOO-yar), Gywar, Gwyar.” (Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

Envision the most beautiful sunrise you have ever seen. Feel the possibility and anticipation of the sun at the start of the new day.  Bring this possibility, flow, and energy into your life.

 

Pause, play a few notes on your instrument, ring a bell or singing bowl.  When you are ready to proceed:

 

Say, “Noon-day is when the power of the sun is at its zenith. This is when the sun’s rays offer life and vitality to all.  As the sun is at its height, I call upon this moment to provide me vitality, strength, and energy.  I now intone the ancient word for the lifeforce, “Nwyfre (NOO-iv-ruh), Nywfre, Nywfre.”

 

At this point, envision the sun at its highest point on a warm summer day.  Envision yourself soaking in the sun’s vital rays. You might feel led to do some movement meditation, dance, or another vitalizing movement at this time.

 

Pause, play again a few notes on your instrument, ring a bell, or use a singing bowl.  When you are ready to proceed:

 

Say, “Sunset is a time when the sun meets the earth.  As the sun enter’s the earth’s embrace, I call upon this moment to provide me grounding, stability, and peace.  I now intone the ancient word for grounding: Calas (CAY-lass), Calas, Calas.”(Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

At this point, if you can, lay or sit upon the ground.  Feel the solidity of the ground beneath your feet.  Envision a beautiful sunset, the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen, in your mind’s eye.  Envision that sun setting, and feel the deepening darkness on the landscape.  Feel the womb of the earth supporting you, grounding you, and providing you peace.

 

When you are finished with your meditation, say the Druid’s Peace Prayer (this is my own variant):

 

“Deep within the still center of my being may I find peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within you>

“Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within this space>

“Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace emanating from you outward.”

 

Close your sacred space (using your own tradition or using the AODA’s solitary grove closing ritual)

Taking up Land Healing as a Spiritual Practice

Sometimes, spirit offers you a call and its a call that can’t be ignored.  Part of the reason I write so much about working physically and energetically with land healing on this blog is that its clear to me now that a large part of my call is in this direction. When I was a child, it was the logging of my forest–and my eventual return to that forest years later. At my first homestead, I had to spend years working to connect with the spirits of the land and heal the land physically.  When I found the current land where I live, everything was perfect about it in terms of features I wanted–except that three acres had been logged pretty heavily. I put my head and my hands and cried–how did I find a perfect piece of land that just had been logged?  The spirits laughed and said, of course, Dana, it is the perfect piece of land for someone like you.  And thus, the lessons of a land healer continue to spiral deeper and deeper as my own spiritual practice grows. I realize that while I’ve written a lot about land healing in my previous series in 2016 and beyond, my own understanding of these practices–for both individuals and groups–has changed a lot. I’ve been refining my thinking about these topics, especially as I keep finding myself in a teaching role to others and with my return to my ancestral lands where the healing need is very strong. Thus, I’d l like to offer a new series on Land Healing practices and go deeper than my previous coverage some years ago (all of the links to my original series can be found here).

 

I feel the impetus for talking about these things now more than ever because of what is happening in the broader world. I’m continuing to reflect on what the 21st century brings for all of us practicing nature-based spirituality. Many of you can probably easily witness the impetus for doing land healing work in your immediate areas: a forest or tree friend being cut, spraying, pollution in the skies or waterways, the loss of species that you used to see, and so on.  In this post, I’ll start with a plea, if you will, for why I think that nearly everyone practicing any kind of earth-based, druid, or nature spirituality should consider taking up land healing practices as a core spiritual practice. After that, throughout this year, I’ll be sharing posts filling in some of the gaps from my previous writing and offering deeper practices.  Next week’s post will offer my revised and expanded framework for land healing practices, which include everything from physical land regeneration techniques to energetic work, witnessing work, apology, land guardianship, shifting your own practices to reduce your footprint on the earth, and self care.

 

The Impetus for Land Healing Practices as Spiritual Practice

There are so many reasons that I think that those practicing nature-based spirituality, like druidry, should consider integrating land healing into their regular spiritual practices.  If you are already convinced that this is a good idea, then you probably want to wait for next week’s post for my revised framework.  But if you are still wondering, here are my reasons why I think land healing should be a core practice for nature spirituality (And you may feel free to disagree.  Nature spirituality is wide-ranging and broad, and different people have different foci.  But let me do my best to convince you!)

 

Sacred Nature

Tending that which is sacred. What is nature spirituality without nature? If we are going to hold something sacred, it is right that we tend it and work to preserve it. Right now, given the state of nature, there is a lot of healing and preservation work to do.  If we begin to treat the land as sacred from a perspective of daily practice, we begin putting our practices and daily life in line with our values.

 

Deeper connections with the land and her spirits. If you are interested in establishing deep connections with the land–this is a clear path forward. I’m an animist, and so to me, my relationship with the local spirits of nature is one of my most critical spirit relationships. Learning about how to tend and heal nature in multiple ways allows you to share with the spirits local to you and gain their goodwill. This will happen to a much deeper level on land you are actively working to tend and heal the same land you are looking to connect with spiritually.

 

Inner and Outer Tools for the 21st Century. One of the core reasons to take up the path of land healing as a spiritual practice is simply that it is good work to do, offering you the opportunity to ‘do something’ and engage in positive change where, right now, the bulk of humanity is going off in a less productive direction. Land healing as a framework that I’m expressing here encompasses not only physical regeneration but also energetic work and self-care. Thus, it offers a number of tools that work together to help you bring balance and harmony to the land–and to your own inner spiritual life.  And I think, given where this world is unfortunately heading, we are all going to need them to bring balance, harmony, and wisdom to our own practices and the world around us.

 

 

Healing the Soul. This reason is a bit hard to put into words in a brief way, but I’m going to do my best.  I have found that the more I allow myself to get into the quagmire of 21st-century culture here in the US, the more hollow and numb I feel. Its everything: the explosive politics, the over-consumption, the extreme demands of work, the lack of balance, the constantly being connected but never actually having a connection, etc. Being out in the world, it’s hard to look at people. They look so sad and miserable, many radiating exhaustion and suffering. I do a lot of mentoring of young adults because I’m a college professor: our campuses are literally exploding with mental illness. So much of what this current US culture offers people is suffering: being overworked, overcommitted, overstimulated, overconnected, always angry or outraged, and having an utter lack of inner life.  When you focus your attention away from this quagmire and into the natural world, it can be hard there too. I remember a day when I just wanted to take a quiet walk in the woods near campus after a particularly difficult day. I picked a new trail in our local forest and set off. My hike turned in an unexpected direction as I came across so many fracking wells, all of which had only recently been installed. After coming across about well #5 on what would otherwise be this beautiful landscape, I broke down. I laid under a giant tulip poplar tree near the well and I cried into the earth. Not even in nature, here in my beloved home state, could I just get away from what was happening  I felt lost, like the landscape of my ancestors had been turned into some kind of extraction dystopia and I was stuck in the middle of it.

The aftermath of that experience, made me really start thinking about land healing practices not just as something I did when I felt the need, but as one of my core spiritual practices.  I needed a set of tools to combat what I was seeing and feel like I could do good, rather than just cry about it and feel bad. This experience really helped me begin to form the framework that I’ll present next week and see why this matters.  I went back to those woods a few weeks later with some land healer’s tools (seed balls, sigils, etc) and rituals that I had developed through meditation practice. I walked up to the fracking well where I had cried, and I worked deep ritual for sleep and healing with the land here. I could sense the land settle, the spirits calm.  I was tired, but felt better about the whole thing.  Then the spirits invited me to lay back down in the spot where I had cried a month before.  I did so. And they gave back, this beautiful healing light, and I could feel my own stress and strain settling.  It could only be described as a healing of the soul.  Land healing work offers this deep soul healing to those that need it.

 

Protecting against and responding to Biological Anhilliation. As I’ve been sharing–and processing–on this blog, over the last decade, scientists have been clear that the world’s sixth extinction-level event is underway. Scientists use the term “biological annihilation” to describe what is happening–since 1970, at least half of the world’s animals are gone. These numbers are but a small part of a larger picture, where ecosystems around the world—including right here in your backyard—are under serious decline and threat. Now, put this in context. While we enjoy nature’s benefits and her healing, the above challenges are being faced globally. When we are honoring nature, celebrating the wheel of the seasons, this is happening. It is happening in every moment of every day. This is part of our reality, as nature-honoring people (and all people on this planet). Given that this is the reality, responding to this in some capacity can also be part of our spiritual practices. Land healing practices can help you “do something” about this tragic problem–in the case of some physical land healing practices, it can be something powerful indeed.

 

Addressing the decline of ecological carrying capacity. All ecosystems have what is called a “carrying capacity.” That is, given the resources available (sunlight, soil, plant matter, water, weather, etc.) the land can reasonably sustain so many lives of different kinds: so much insect life, so much plant life, so much animal life, so much human life.  Ecological collapse refers to when an ecosystem suffers a drastically reduced carrying capacity–that is, the ecosystem can no longer support the life it used to because of one or more serious factors. These factors are usually compounded and may include the loss of a keystone species, general pollution or degradation, deforestation, ocean acidification, over-hunting, or over-harvest. The demand humans are putting on ecosystems is pushing the land beyond carrying capacity in many places in the world, especially with global demand for products. It’s like a domino effect–sometimes, all it takes is one core species to go for the entire ecosystem to collapse. Climate scientists call this the tipping point–think of it like a chair.  The chair is being held at 45 degrees, and just a fraction more, and it will crash.  It is almost certain that we are heading into a nosedive to broader-scale ecological collapse. Ecological collapse doesn’t just affect all of nature–it affects humans too.  So, while we should care about even one life, a single species, we also need to be concerned deeply for all life here on the planet. And, we should be in a position to know something about how to heal the land if it does.

 

Reparations for ancestral activity. The present certainly gives us enough impetus to engage in direct land healing work—but for some of us, particularly white people in the US (like me) cultural and ancestral backgrounds may offer an additional motivation. Certain cultures have a history of exploitation that has led to the situation at present, and thus, the work of repair (or reparations) necessary. I am certainly one of those people. I am from the United States, and my ancestors have been on this land since the start of colonization in Pennsylvania. My family is rooted in Western and Central Pennsylvania, and has been for generations—I can trace one family line back to landing on the Mayflower and founding the state. My direct ancestors were part of the mass genocide and removal of native peoples, peoples who were tenders of the land and had maintained it in healthy balance for millennia. The Susquehannock who used to live right on the soil I now reside are extinct, killed off primarily by disease (smallpox) and being slaughtered by white settlers (despite the fact that they had peaceful treaties in place). With the removal of the native peoples came the removal of the idea that nature was sacred and honored, but rather, that it was a thing to exploit and profit from to drive progress. Thus, my own ancestors were players in the three-century extraction and exploitation of the natural and destruction of native peoples. The lands they stole were tended abundant with rich natural resources—in less than two centuries those resources were almost stripped bare, in some counties in PA, 99% of the forest cover was removed by the turn of the 19th century.  I feel that I have an ancestral obligation to heal these lands and bring them back into a healthy place of abundance and life.

 

Seeds for new traditions!

Planting seeds….for hope and a better future

Connecting to the energies of life. The last few points are difficult to read for many, and certainly, they aren’t fun to write.  Tied to the healing of the soul, I think that part of the reason that practices like organic gardening and permaculture are so powerful is that they connect us with nature’s healing energies of life, the energy of regeneration and hope, rather than the broader problems with consumption and land destruction.  When you plant and grow a seed, and tend it, you are honoring life.  You are bringing the energy of life into your world–and that has a positive impact on you and on the world.

 

Offering a new path forward.  Ultimately, humanity has to develop a different paradigm if we are going to survive beyond the next 100-200 years.  A paradigm not based on consumption, growth at all costs, and greed, but rather, one built on building a healthy and sustaining relationship with nature, perhaps similar to what Wendell Berry laid out in “Work Song 2: A Vision and rooted in indigenous wisdom. That work starts today, now, with each of us in our own way.  Learning a path forward that allows us to sustain and enrich our earth mother.  Land healing practices, for me, have been a way to distance myself from the paradigms that no longer serve us and into a mindset and set of practices that are sustaining.

 

 

Anyone can practice land healing in some capacity—as we all live on this beautiful planet, and as we all are connected to it, so, too, can we learn to heal it. It is for these reasons that I believe that anyone who is taking up a path of nature spirituality should make land healing of some kind part of the core of their spiritual practice.  Our land and spirits of the land need us. Our world needs us.

Imbolc Symbolism for the North Eastern US: Reflections on the Landscape

Imbolc was traditionally a Gaelic holiday celebrated in the holiday celebrating the first signs of spring. When I first started down the path of Druidry, I never felt very connected to Imbolc as a holiday because there seemed to be this huge disconnection between the holiday’s traditional roots and what I was seeing on my own landscape. Part of this is that the weather in the UK is much milder than where I’ve lived and I’m more likely to see at the Spring Equinox–or later–what might be first signs of spring at Imbolc. I thought it was funny when I’d see rituals where I should decorate my altar with snowdrops when they were still another 1-2 months away from coming forth!

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Reflections on Imbolc

My own issue with Imbolc speaks to what I see as one of the major challenges we have in Druidry, here in North America and globally:  It’s actually pretty hard to take the traditions of ancestors that were rooted in one place (the British Isles) and port it to another place (like North America). Once they are removed from their context, they lose a lot of rich meaning.  But it’s not just a contextual problem, but also a lifestyle one: the ancestors of the druid tradition also lived a non-industrial agrarian life, so different from modern life. Some of the traditional activities don’t make sense to you if you are living, say, an urban lifestyle (like the lactating of ewes!)  Further, as an animist, I don’t get into the deity specific focuses of the holiday, creating yet another kind of disconnection. So there are multiple points of disconnection: disconnection with the way of life of the people who originated the holiday, a disconnection with what is happening on my own landscape, and also, perhaps a cultural disconnection.

 

What I thought I’d do in this piece is share with you some of my own Imbolc symbolism, adapted for someone living in the Allegheny Mountains of Western PA, and talk about the stories behind the symbols and how I got there. I hope this will offer an example of how to adapt a holiday associated with the druid tradition (but maybe one you don’t immediately resonate with) to your local landscape. This allows you to practice a wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry that is more rooted in local landscape and place  I do think it’s important to recognize the difference between activities, observances, and rituals–celebrating a holiday to me isn’t just about doing a particular ritual, but rather, engaging in a number of activities and observances that mark that time of year. Thus, I’m not really talking much about rituals here, but more, my adapted Imbolc themes. And like those original peoples who developed holidays, these choices are very rooted in my own local landscape, regional culture, and my lifestyle.  I hope that you can use them as a guide for developing your own.

 

Weather, Groundhogs, and Prognostication.

This first symbol is rooted in the rodent weather prognostication that happens throughout the US.  Throughout the US in several different states that have German roots, American Groundhogs look to see their shadows and foretell the coming of spring. I happen to live about 45 minutes south of the most famous Groundhog of them all, Punxatawney Phil. Today marks Phil’s 134 years of weather predictions. Yet, this tradition is much older.  The tradition is rooted in Germany, where they used a European Badger to predict the weather this time of year. When the PA Germans moved here to Pennsylvania, they found that the Groundhog (or Woodchuck) was the more appropriate prognosticator, and the tradition has continued on. All throughout PA and now in many other states, the Groundhog is honored this time of year for his service in helping predict the end of winter. There’s a lot of fun that you can have in honoring the groundhog and doing some prediction of your own this time of year. If we broaden this tradition for personal celebration, you might think about Imbolc as being a good time to do some divination for things to come.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: One strategy for adapting your Druidry locally is to look at more local or regional customs that might align with your holiday. Look for annual traditions, large festivals, or other traditions that might take place at or near your holiday. In my case, adding Groundhog Day and prognostication/divination to my wheel of the year was an easy choice, both because of where I live but also because of my own cultural heritage as having many PA Dutch ancestors.

 

Tapping the Maple Trees

 

Tapping maple trees

Tapping maple trees

The second symbol that has become a cornerstone of my own Imbolc traditions is tapping the maple trees. The sap in the trees will run when the temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. For where I live, this almost always occurs in the two weeks around Imbolc. In fact, I consider Imbolc officially “here” the first day when the sap is running and I do my best to tap the trees on that day if possible (which doesn’t always happen, but usually I can get within a day or two!) A big part of my Imbolc celebrations includes tapping the trees, singing to them, making offerings to the trees and doing ritual work, and drinking their fresh sap as a blessing and cleansing. Usually, between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox, we get together with some other friends and do a day of boiling the sap–a way to share in community and the activity of the season.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: A lot of the druid wheel of the year holidays focus on changes in the landscape. Start by observing the time of year and look to see what is happening around you.  What is happening with wildlife? Precipitation and weather? Plants and trees? Through these observations, you’ll see that things can be both very quick (e.g. the changes that happen on the landscape after a hard frost) or quite subtle. It took me a number of years–and access to other people who knew about maple sugaring–to select this symbol and practice. Now, it is absolutely central to my activities this year and is certainly part of our regional culture here.

 

Snow Spirals and Ice Observations

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Snow spiral in sacred grove

The weather this time of year is very dynamic, perhaps more so than most other times a year, at least in this ecoregion. We have periods of snow, periods of ice, and periods where the temperatures thaw. I like to do a lot of work with snow and ice this time of year, tied to what is happening in the landscape. I pay attention to the snow and ice, I make snow spirals to bless and protect the land.  I also like to spend extra time at our stream and pond observing the melting and freezing of the waters.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: For each of the eight holidays, I like to spend time in observation of the landscape. I usually change the focus of my observations based on the holiday–for this holiday, the waters are the most dynamic and hence, where I spend some of my focus.

 

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow)

The newest addition to my own Imbolc celebrations is the creation of the Butzemann.  My

Butzemann from 2019

grandmother used to keep a scarecrow in her garden, and I always thought it had a life of its own–in fact, traditionally, many scarecrows did! The Butzemann is another tradition that comes from PA Dutch culture and is, essentially, a magical protective scarecrow.  You build the Butzemann at Imbolc, out of things that will burn, preferably, materials from last year’s garden and from the land around you.  At the spring equinox, you walk the Butzemann around the property and invite a good, protective spirit into the Butzemann. You give the Butzemann a name (there are some fairly complex traditions around naming, but essentially each year, you add a new name to your Butzemann, but keep all the older names as additional names.  Eventually, the name gets quite long indeed, demonstrating the Butzemann’s legacy over the years). You hang the Butzemann somewhere prominent for the remainder of the year, where it can protect your crops, flocks, and home for the growing season. I also like to make offerings to my Butzeman at each of the major holidays where he is active (Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, and the Fall Equinox). At the end of the growing season, by no later than Samhain, you burn the Butzemann so his spirit can go on the wild hunt.  If you don’t burn the Butzemann, the good spirit will leave anyways and your Butzemann could become possessed with a bad spirit.  At the end of the season, you may also save some special materials to construct your Butzemann the following Imbolc.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: I was so excited to learn about this practice from the folks who are developing Urglawee (PA Dutch Heathenry). I was looking for a practice that helped tie the growing season together and that would protect our flocks and land.  Wassail traditions are part of the blessing and protection fo the land but are very orchard and tree focused. This tradition offers another layer and is a wonderful way to tie the seasons together and offered me another great bioregional and cultural practice.

 

Sowing the First Seeds of the Season

Catnip seedlings!

Catnip seedlings!

On the full moon nearest to Imbolc, we start our first seeds of the year for our garden (other than garlic, which you plant the previous fall).  I think this is an important part of our traditions surrounding Imbolc because it lets us focus not on the remainder of winter (all six weeks of it, according to Punxataweney Phil) but rather, this pulls us into the light half of the year.  Tending the seeds, watching them grow, and planning for the future is a powerful reminder that spring will come again.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: This one is fairly pragmatic.  We have big gardens on our five-acre homestead and Imbolc is usually about 12 weeks out from our first frost–the first opportunity to start seeds for the year. This is when we start slow-growing herbs like Lavender and Sage, our allium crops (onions, shallots, leeks, and chives), and our greenhouse starts. It’s more meaningful to do this work tied to a druid holiday.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can hopefully see from this list, I’ve rooted my own Imbolc practices and activities in a way that is tied both to my specific life (as a homesteader growing my own food in a rural environment) but also to my specific landscape and local/regional culture. While it took me a number of years, the effort and intention I put into making Imbolc “mine” has really enriched my experience of this holiday and, honestly, took it from being my least favorite to one of my favorites.  I hope these symbols and activities are useful and inspirational to you on this most sacred day.

Cycles of Nature, Cycles of our Lives: Allowing for Fallow and Abundance in Spiritual Studies

Preamble: Now that I’m the Grand Archdruid of AODA, starting in 2020, I will be doing one AODA Druidry-based post a month. A lot of my posts are already tied with AODA practices as it is my core spiritual practice, but I wasn’t always as explicit about it as I will be now! 🙂  All of these posts, while framed in the context of AODA druidry, will be applicable to many different kinds of nature-based spiritualities and druidries.

 

A beautiful cardinal flower in late summer

The Wheel of the Seasons offers us many lessons and one of the core principles in AODA is the principle of the Cycle and Season. In Western Pennsylvania, where I live, we have a growing season that runs from May to late October. That us, from Beltane to Samhain, during the light half of the year, we can grow vegetables, forage berries, and be in an abundant and lush landscape. Then, the first hard frost hits in late October. In less than a day, the land withers and the annual plants die. The leaves drop from the trees and grow bare. The landscape literally changes overnight and we steadily move into winter. As I write this, its late January and we have a snowstorm coming through. The withered husks of last year’s plants still line the fields and forests. The sun hangs low in the sky, seeming not to have enough energy to rise. Other than the conifers, the land looks completely dead. But deep within the soil, the roots rest. Within the trunks of the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts, the sap starts to run. The seeds that were scattered in the fall lay dormant, waiting for the warmth to burst forth. But I know that spring will return—it is just a matter of time. Without this fallow period, the plants here would not be healthy and grow. The land needs its rest so it can return to abundance once more.

 

This lesson is a critical one for our own lives. Here in the US, there is an “always-on” culture such that people have to work constantly, even when they are sick, when there is a snowstorm, or when we have national holidays. People themselves perpetuate this culture by the glorification of busyness. If you aren’t busy and overwhelmed, you are somehow lazy or unproductive. In a culture that is defined by its productivity and continual growth, this is a price that must be paid. The problem is, this is not sustainable, healthy, or reasonable for any of us. Our culture operates like it is always in high summer, requiring us to constantly be productive. But this is how a landscape grows exhausted, how fields fail to produce yields. And just like an over-farmed field, most people you see are beyond exhausted, balancing too many things and doing none of them well.

 

When people start working on a degree in a druid order, such as the first degree in AODA, the always-on culture can have a detrimental effect. Some people go full steam ahead, eventually burning themselves out. Others find it difficult to make progress because there is no room in their lives for these practices. Still others make good progress, then have something with life get in the way, and then can’t get back on track. When any of these things happen, the guilt sets in. I have heard many newer druids describe their own shortcomings and shame for not finishing a course in a particular amount of time. I think a lot of this guilt and such comes from the “always-on” culture that makes us think, even for our own spiritual practices, that we need to always be moving forward. But as John Michael Greer has said on multiple occasions, “Growth at all costs is the ideology of a cancer cell.”

 

The reason I started this piece with the wheel of the seasons is that it provides us an alternative way to think about our own path of spiritual development. Spiritual development works a lot more like the wheel of the seasons than a straight linear path of productivity (like we may have experienced in our formal education). Depending on what is going on in our lives, our spiritual practices may need to respond in different ways. Fallow periods are as necessary to us and our development as periods of high growth and harvest. As an example from my own life: I’ve been a druid for almost 15 years. I’ve completed the courses of both OBOD and AODA in that time and have studied and grown through other projects and practices. I regularly take fallow periods where I allow myself not to do anything and just fall into the basic nature-based spiritual practices—being out in nature, doing some light meditation, and allowing myself to regenerate. This fallow time, this unstructured time is not when I’m checking items to do off my list, but rather, where I’m simply allowing my spirit and body some rest. This fallow time often leads to very rich understandings and a deeper sense of self. Because just like in nature, the fallow periods have function and purpose—they allow our subconscious to work. When the land goes into slumber, the roots grow deeper. When the human body fasts, within 24 hours, the body is making tremendous amounts of cell repair and regeneration. When we go fallow for a time, our spirits do that same kind of work.

 

Sometimes fallow periods in our spiritual life come because we choose not to plant anything in the soil. But sometimes they come because life sends us a curveball, something painful or wonderful that we did not expect but that takes up a good amount of our energy. Our attention, for a time, may be diverted from our own spiritual development. I think anyone who has been on this path for a period of time has had a fallow period—or several—happen And for those who haven’t yet or those who are going through this now—to you I say—it’s ok. It may be a necessary part of your path. Given time, this fallow period will end and you will find yourself once again in the place of high summer. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize the difference between a fallow period that is temporary and is healthy vs. never accomplishing what you set out to do. That’s a different kind of problem, almost like a multi-year drought.

 

Summer sun

The other thing that happens to well-meaning people is thinking that there is some kind of “gold standard” of spiritual practice and trying to measure up to that standard. Again, our own cycles and seasons vary, and these practices thus need to be adapted to each of us. Meditation is a really great example of a practice that is quite varied and one in which many people struggle to establish. For example, a common suggestion in AODA is to meditate while sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair. For most people, this is an excellent suggestion as it keeps them focused and not too comfortable. But, I have a fairly sensitive body and some back issues, and after trying and failing to use multiple chairs comfortably for almost two years, I gave up and started meditating laying down on a yoga mat. What a difference that made! After making the change not only was I more inclined to want to meditate (as opposed to forcing myself), but my meditations also became much longer, more rich, and more focused. As another example, some members of AODA with ADHD have found it impossible to sit still long enough to meditate in any stationary position, and thus, have made walking meditation their core meditative practice. The key here is that while meditation is a core practice of AODA, how you fit this into your own life and make it a workable and regular practice for you may vary. This is *particularly* true in a flexible and self-directed order like AODA, where we encourage you to take the basic practices and adapt them to your ecosystem, local culture, and individual lives.

 

As you are thinking about how to adapt AODA’s practices to the cycle of your own life, some questions you might ask yourself are: Who are you? How do you function? How can these spiritual practices support a better functioning version of yourself? When is your energy the highest? How can you fit these practices into your own cycles of your life? When I look at these questions, I recognize a few things: first, I have a demanding job, and I know at the end of a long day, I can’t to deep spiritual work. Thus, I do most of my deep spiritual work (such as seasonal celebrations or ritual work) on weekends when my energy is highest. Second, because we have a homestead and lots of animals, tending our outdoor flocks in the morning is a regular part of my daily cycle. Thus, I do early morning spiritual practices with our flocks as a movement meditation and I always take about 10 minutes to engage quiet and stillness in our gardens and on our land after I finish tending them. This 10-minute daily practice never fails me because every day, regardless of the weather or my own energy, I have to tend the birds. It is fully built into the cycle of my life. At the end of the day, I perform the Sphere of Protection and use discursive meditation to help focus and quiet my mind before bed. I have found that bookending my day with my spiritual practices has been most beneficial in my life. It took me a while to find this particular approach to my spiritual practice. I also recognize that while this system works for me in my life now, if something radical about my life circumstances were to change, it would likely no longer work and I’d have to find a new routine. At my former job, my cycle was very different. A challenging work environment meant that the first thing I did every day when I went to work was to ground myself, do some deep breathing, and do the sphere of protection. My current work doesn’t require such activity, so I’ve used the SOP in my life for a different purpose. This example, I hope, also teaches another lesson: there are times when adapting our spiritual practices can offer us benefit in our lives. There are also times when we need to adapt part of our lives to our spiritual practice.

 

Tomato Harvest!

The last metaphor of nature’s cycles that I’ll touch on today is the role of a regular period of growth. In our homestead each year, we understand that a yield takes effort.  If we want tomatoes, we have to start the seeds in about March, water them each day, shelter them until they can be planted out, and finally plant them.  As they grow, we make sure they have a healthy and rich soil to grow in, have adequate light and water and are properly supported.  We need to keep an eye on pests and things that would damage the tomatoes and respond appropriately. If we’ve done all this, within 5-6 months, we will get our first yield.  This is a slow process.  It requires us attending to our tomato plants daily, putting a small amount of effort each day so that we can eventually reap bountiful rewards.  This lesson, part of nature’s cycle, is also tied to our own spiritual development.  Spiritual development, like any human development, is a gradual process. People often think that it’s the big events, the big breakthroughs that define us as people. But if you aren’t putting in the work regularly (like watering, weeding, and fertilizing those tomatoes) the big breakthroughs won’t come as readily because you won’t be cultivating that spiritual life.  Regular cultivation of a spiritual practice is the true way in which we grow over time. You can’t have tomatoes without planting them first!

 

To conclude, looking to nature’s cycles can help us understand our own spiritual development and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we aren’t “progressing” as we think we should. Also, we can use the lesson of nature’s cycles to make the most of our own cycles for spiritual practice—recognizing that we have them and working with them, rather than against them. Look at the cycles of your own life and think about when you have time, energy, and built-in existing activities that may benefit from one or more of AODA’s regular spiritual practices. I think there is much to reflect and meditate on here concerning the principles of cycles and seasons—both those in the broader landscape and the lessons they hold, but also how our own cycles and seasons contribute to our spiritual paths.

 

PS: I am indebted to my fellow Archdruids of AODA, Adam Robersmith and Claire Schosser, for planting the seeds of this conversation and encouraging me to write on this topic.

A Tree for Year Challenge

Into the trees

One of the most common questions that people ask when they start down a druid or other nature-based spiritual path is: how do I connect deeply with nature?  Connecting to nature can happen in such a wide variety of ways.  It can happen through connecting with our heads, through learning, study, and engaging with books or classes.  It can happen through our hearts, where we emotionally connect with nature and places.  It can also happen through our bodies when we physically experience the natural world.  It can be through our spirits when we connect with the spirit of the tree.  But regardless of which of our selves and methods we use, it requires an investment of ourselves, our time, and building a relationship.

 

A while back, I wrote about the Druid’s Anchor Spot, which is a spot that you can use to regularly engage and observe nature–a spot that you return to, again, and again, and learn through observation, interaction, and quietude/meditation.  Drawing upon this concept, I’d like to issue a challenge to my readers for this year:  Spend a Year and a Day with a Tree.  The idea is simple: find a tree, commit to visiting it each day for a year (or taking a piece of it with you if you are going to travel) and learn from the experience.  Here’s how to go about this:

 

The Druid Tree Challenge:

Find your tree. Find a tree or plant that you connect with and that is willing to engage with you in this work. This should be a tree that you can have daily access, such as one living on your street or your land.  Choose any tree that you are drawn to.  This tree should be willing to work with you, and before you begin this, make sure this is so (for how to communicate with trees see my communication links below).

 

Establish your relationship. I would suggest starting with communication with your tree and ensuring that the tree is willing to do this deep work with you.  If you are still developing your plant spirit communication skills, here are some possible communication strategies:

As you do this work, ask the tree what you can do in exchange.  The tree may want regular offerings or you to plant some of its seeds/nuts.

 

Visit your tree every day this year.   Visit your tree, even for a few minutes, each day.  Visit your tree regardless of the weather (this is good as it gets you outside). At least once a week, spend at least a half-hour with your tree, including some time in meditation. If you travel, see if you can take a piece of the tree (a leaf, a nut, a stick, etc) so that you can still spend time with your tree, even at a distance.

 

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

Keep a journal of some kind. You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but do document your experiences with your tree regularly.

 

For some, what I’ve written above will be enough to take on the tree challenge.  For others, I have offered some additional suggestions by month so you can keep moving forward and learning and growing with your tree.

 

Tree activities by Month:

January: Offer your tree a blessing or wassail. This week — January 17th — is a traditional day for wassail ceremonies, and thus, anytime in late January is good for offering your tree a blessing. I have a post on two kinds of January tree blessings–I suggest you do one of these blessings for your tree before you move too much further into the year.  This is a very good way to start your year with the tree and ensures health and abundance for your tree.

 

February: Learn about the history and ecology of your tree. Start learning about your tree.  What kind of ecosystem does your tree grow in? What kind of life does it support?  How old might your tree be?  One of my favorite resources for this is John Eastman’s set of books–he shares not only information about trees and plants in terms of growth habits and botany but also, the web of life and key species that are connected to those trees and plants.  Observe.  Identify anything that you can around the tree, such as moss or lichens that may be growing.  If you live in North America, you can also look back through my list of trees that I’ve written about: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, Apple, and Black Locust.

 

March: Learn about the traditional uses of your tree.  How have people used this tree before? How do they still use it?  Books on edible wild plants are good places to start, as are books like Eric Sloane’s A Reverence of Wood that teaches much about the traditional uses of trees.

 

April: Practice deep listening.  Hear your tree’s story. Learn about its history on your landscape.  Simply listen to the tree for this month.  You can use my series on plant spirit communication for guidance: part I, part II.

 

May: Learn and practice the magic of your tree.  Each tree has its own magic.  Some of this you can uncover with books, stories, and legends (such as through my own “Sacred tree” series above) but I would suggest you look beyond the books.  Hopefully, by May you will be regularly communicating with your tree and your tree will be able to teach you some of its own magic.  Ask and see what happens.

A practice you can use if your tree doesn’t reveal one is tree energy work (adapted from John Michael Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn work). If you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, put your back against the tree and exchange energy.  Your nervous system will connect with the tree and slow down, connecting to the tree’s rhythms.  Breathe deeply into the experience.  If you are feeling depleted, do the opposite, by hugging the tree.  Again, breathe deeply into the experience.  This is a useful practice to do often with your tree.

 

June: Engage in spirit journeying with your tree.  A step up from learning the magic of the tree is asking the tree to take you on a spirit journey.  See what happens and what you learn.

 

July: Focus on experiencing your tree with your senses. This month, use your senses to experience your tree. What does your tree smell like?  Feel like?  Look like? Sound like?  Engage in a sensory experience with your tree.

 

August:  Daydream. Plan unstructured time with your tree.  Simply sit with your tree and be this month.  Unstructured time can be one of the most creatively inspiring and engaging.

 

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

September: Create with your tree. See if your tree will offer you a bit of itself, or wait till a branch comes down in a storm.  Learn how to make something, even something small, from the tree.  You can learn an entirely different layer of your tree if you work with wood, nuts, leaves, etc.  Making something from your tree can encourage you to learn about it on another level.  If you can’t create something from your tree, or, in addition to this, ask your tree to teach you its song or offer you some other kind of inspiration. create a dance or painting, or any other bardic art that is inspired by your tree. Let the awen flow.

 

October: Align with the seasons. If you live in a temperate climate, this month will likely have many changes for your tree, physically and energetically.  Pay attention to those changes and work to align your energy with that of your tree as we move into the dark half of the year.  This is a powerful practice that will allow you to more effectively adapt to the changing season and the dark and cold times (if you live in the souther hemisphere, consider doing this in April intstead!)

 

November: Gratitude. Spend time this month in gratitude for your tree.  Again, ask if you can do anything for your tree.  Bring offerings.  Gather up its seeds/nuts/fruits if at all possible and plant them. Hug your tree. Here are some gratitude practices you can try.

 

December: Reflection. Reflect on this experience with your tree.  Look back through your journal, if you kept one, and think about how your journey has changed and this experience has changed.  Decide what the future holds for your relationship.

 

Closing Thoughts

My own plan for the year is working with a large oak on our property.  This is a black oak, the largest and oldest tree on the druid’s garden homestead property. In December, the tree reached out to me and we began these practices in early January, learning and growing from each other.  I’m excited to see what the year brings and how this work deepens my relationship with nature, this land, and of course, this wonderful oak.

 

As a more broad issue, as we move into further into the 21st century, and now into 2020, things are more than a bit uncertain and terrifying. The more obvious it becomes that humans have to radically change our behavior, the more those in power work to send us and this planet into a downward spiral of pain, death, and extremes. I think a lot of us need some grounding.  Tree magic roots us, grounds us, and gives us strength.  Choosing a particular tree to work with for this year will help you bring that tree’s wisdom, magic, and medicine into your life in a time when we all can use it!