Category Archives: Land Healing

Starting a Successful Front Yard Garden and Avoiding Legal Trouble: Interview with Linda Jackson of Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Six years ago, I shared about Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a front-yard garden located in the Detroit metro area. When I shared this post, Linda was in her first year of gardening in this new location, and was regularly selling her produce at a local farmer’s market and engaging with her community.  Here are links to my first two posts about her incredible garden that discusses the original process, design: Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm and Return to Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Linda, I shared some photos of her garden to my social media, and many people responded by saying “she must not have a homeowners association”, “ how did she not get in legal trouble?”, or “my township would make me tear that down!” The questions and comments of this nature just kept rolling in. In fact, Linda is now in her sixth year of her front yard garden with no issues or complaints from neighbors, etc. Thus, I thought it would be useful to interview Linda and learn from her about how she was able to have this incredible front-yard garden in a suburban area, explore some strategies that she used, and share those strategies with others.  If more of us can do the kind of thing Linda is doing—converting lawns that consume resources to gardens that provide food for people and wildlife, nectary sources for insects, and so much more, we can really begin to make positive change in this world and vision a brighter future.

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

Dana: Tell me about your vision for Nature’s Permauclture Urban Farm.

Linda: As I’m seeing it evolve, the word permaculture plays an integral role.  Because we need to build community, protect the environment, and people can also learn how to make a sustainable future, sustainable income, and way of sharing knowledge with others.  That’s why I wanted to convert my lawn.  I wasn’t only about food but about cultivating good habits and activities.

Dana:  You were originally an organic farmer farming 10 acres, right?

Linda:  Yes, so when I moved here, I moved from 10 acres to a 50×50 growing space. I brought a lot of what I knew but here, because it was so visible, I wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make it “landscapey” but not a traditional landscape.  But I knew it had to be very visually appealing to the eye.

Dana:  You are on the edge of a small town in suburbia, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  And you have this front yard garden that everybody can see.  So, tell me about your garden.

Linda:  When I came to the place, I was just thinking that I needed a place to put my hands in the soil. I stood out in the middle of the road and I said, what can I do with this? Its only 50×50.  So I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to create a garden. But it can’t be a boring square garden.”  I’m not into lines, I’m into curves.  The earth isn’t straight, its curvy.  So, it was something where I said—I need food, my community needs food, I want wildlife comfortable here: insects, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, etc. So when I created the garden, I was thinking about both wildlife and people and their needs. And really, I wanted to be happy in nature when I walked out of my front door, rather than seeing the lawn.

Dana: So you essentially transformed this lawn, plain grass, into this amazing garden.  Do you have a sense of how much food you are producing?

Linda:  On average, enough to feed 20 or 30 people from the greens each week, thousands of pounds of produce per year. So for the first five years, every week, I was going to the farmer’s market.  And I had more than enough for that capability out of this garden. Now, I’m doing the market every other week.

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Dana: So you are literally able to go to the farmer’s market each week and sell just from this 50×50 square foot space?  This really tells readers just how much you are able to produce here.

 

Linda:  I do French intensive agriculture methods, which includes succession planting and companion planting.  While I can’t be certified organic here, I use all natural methods for pest control.  These include using yellow and blue sticky plates for bug control, neem oil, cayenne pepper for slugs, dog hair to keep out rabbits, and much more.

We do have 4000 acres of wild lands behind this neighborhood, but the protocols that I use here keep the deer away.  I use onions lining every bed and herbs (sage, thyme, and lavender) lining the garden.  I don’t have any fencing, because that would detract from the beauty of it. I can sell and give the herbs away too, and they keep away the deer, and they also provide food for pollinators.

Dana: Obviously there’s a lot of people out there in similar circumstances to what you are in: they live in suburbia. They have a very small space, maybe 50×50 or even smaller.  And they are looking at this lawn and saying “this isn’t sustainable” and they are looking to grow some food and cultivate some habitat. But at the same time, in this region, we have several examples of families that have put in a front yard garden only to have their township make them bulldoze it.  Can you talk us through the steps that you did to come to this place where you had a very successful front yard garden that is welcomed by your community?  Specifically, how did you navigate the laws, ordinances, and neighborhood requirements?

Linda:  This garden is now six years old and I’ve never had a problem with neighbors complaining or the township.  Basically, when I stood out and looked at my new home, I had about a month to get everything in the ground before winter came.  I realized that I was the new person on the block, so I had to introduce myself to the neighbors.  And some way or another, I had to tell them what I was planning on doing. I had the vision in my mind, and I knew what it was, but I needed them on board. So I took them cookies. I took them lavender lemon shortbread cookies and I opened up a conversation with them.  I told them I was planning on making a garden in my front yard.

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

I also drove around the town to see if there was anyone who was doing something similar in my town.  I saw 2 or 3 places where someone was doing something like this in their front yard, but more landscaped. But I noticed that these didn’t have a focal point, or a flow. It wasn’t beautiful enough. It was choppy. I had to think about the long term: the shade, the rain, the sun, the water, the wind, but also the people and how they perceive it in all of the different seasons.

I next went to the township and I asked them, I’m thinking of putting an edible garden landscape in my front yard.  I didn’t call it a garden, I called it an “edible landscape” which may have helped. I spoke to the head guy in zoning, he says,  you can do that as long as there are no weeds growing. He gave me a piece of paper with the ordinances and I took it home and read it. It said anytime you put more than 5 yards of soil down, you have to have approval.  But soil is not compost. Soil has rock that’s broken down, minerals, etc. Compost is leaves, plants, and brush that is all organic matter.  So, if I put compost down and not soil, I can get away with it.

Dana:  So it was kind of a technicality but it worked.

Linda:  It was a technicality but I could win on it if anyone wanted to challenge me. So once I got the OK from the neighbors (because they could turn me in anytime they wanted) and I got the OK from the township, I went for it.

When I moved in, the front yard had one large and two small ornamental trees. I had these taken down and mulched so I could use the mulch in the gardens and in the paths. In other words, all of that organic matter was put right back on the property.

But back to the landscape. I knew that if this was going to be successful, I had to make something extremely visually pleasing so that the neighbors won’t complain. I decided against raised beds like I did in the past because that’s too constrictive and it’s something they are used to seeing and it may look too much like a garden. I saw how my elevation mattered. The two houses on either side of me were higher, so I was in a low area. And so I had to make it contour.  I did a combination of curves and wood chips, that way if I had heavy rains, I wouldn’t have any issues and the water would be able to soak right in.

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

But when things started happening, people were walking by. They would stand and stare.  Little kids would come, and they wanted to play. The paths were like an energy run for them.  They just wanted to run thorough those curvy paths.

 

What I have found out is that people think its work.  But little children see it a form of play, they want to play and help.  So that makes it fun for them.

 

Dana:  I want to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects because these seem to be one of the key aspects that can really help you do this.  It’s not just about growing vegetables and replacing the lawn.  It’s about inhabiting a space in a way that makes it truly beautiful. When people stop, rather than say “look at this garden that looks like an eyesore” they say “wow!”  Can you say more about that?  How do you create that?

Linda:  It’s a good question, because in my previous farm, I had 10 acres that was far from neighbors.  And my farm there was very constricted.  They were square with lines. And I realized that that’s easy because its farming. A lot of arms are really functional, but not necessary aesthetically pleasing.

And so I drew upon some of the things that people would do to a typical lawn and typical front yard.  But to not have it visually dead with lines.  I needed something that would come alive, that the eye would move through the space, just like a nice piece of artwork.   There’s something about the eye enjoying flow, the curve.

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

For example, my feeling was, to have flowers in the front, so when I looked out my window I could see insects and bugs and they would be beautiful next to the house. Flowers with long bloom times so that something was always blooming during the summer.

Dana:  Yeah, you really can see that when you walk up to your garden—your Yarden.  It does take you in.  The waves and the curves really take you in.

Linda:  Yeah! I kept playing around with these designs and the garden evolved.  I tried different angles, to figure out how it would look good from the side, from behind, from within it. The goal was to make it good from all of these different angles and offer a visual experience.

Dana:  That’s really important to people. Because for your neighbors, they don’t want to feel like their home values are being degraded because of someone’s front yard garden or an unruly yard. So, from what you are saying, if you are going to do this work, you have to do it in a way that is very visually appealing to people.

Linda: Yes.  You are right because one of my siblings, when I was planning this, she said to me ‘Linda you are going to have to tear this apart because nobody is going to like it.” So she was a naysayer before I started it. Once it was done, and the curves were there, dark black compost flowing around, and the contrast of the paths, then she said “Well, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”  And then, my neighbors were asking, what’s going to happen in the spring?  And the lady across the street said, “Just watch.”

So the overall design is this: the flowers next to the house are the accent point. The greens are flowing with the paths. You get a lot of eye entertainment.  And I don’t have your typical landscape flowers: there are no lilies, Hostas, etc. That seems to be the go-around for everyone’s yard around here.  I said, Hollyhock! The old-fashioned stuff, pollinator friendly, things that they haven’t seen before.

Dana:  How do you continue to engage in a dialogue with your neighbors about this garden?  We were out there just a little while ago and one of your neighbors stopped by, and talked to you when we were out there!

View from driveway

View from driveway

Linda:  I’ll tell you what.  That was the part I didn’t mentally think about when I started doing this. I started doing this for my own gratification, to keep my energy flowing, and to get my hands in the soil, for my exercise and health. But then the neighbors started asking, “hey, can I have some of your produce?”  For example, one of my neighbors stopped by last night for kale and salad greens. My other neighbor is pregnant and loves cucumbers; I make sure she gets them.  The neighbor girls on the other side here love eating raw cucumbers. So, it was a just a matter of putting it out there. Recently I had some organic farming students from Oakland University come to learn here. East River Organics wanted a design done, which I worked on, and they brought the person who was going to implement the design out to take a look at my garden, because this is what they wanted to do for a new project to do garden outreach to differently abled people.

So I’m at that step now, where, after five years, I know it’s happening and its ok.  And it’s starting to really bring people in! Someone asked me, why am I not in the newspaper? I don’t know! I’m not quite ready for that.

Dana: Well at this point, if you were going to get in trouble for the garden, it would have already happened. And, I think what’s key here, is that you engaged in a dialogue with the right people early on, and you continued to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.  But it sounds like if you want to be successful at doing this, it’s about doing that ongoing engagement work first and foremost, rather than just doing it on your own. You live in a community and you have to engage in that community as you are planning and implementing your garden.

Linda:  Yes exactly.  One the big comments I get is about how much work it is. A lot of my neighbors work and say “I don’t have the time to do this.”  It’s hard, the word “work”.  I don’t really see this as work.

Dana:  Can you talk a bit about the backyard? I know you have a food forest going back there.

Linda:  I have a space about 25×50 back there and its evolving.  I have a sugar maple overstory.  I have three paw paw trees, raspberries, black cohosh, strawberry, sweetgrass, other understory plants.  I have ramps, from you, thank you.  I share how to harvest them with the kids—just take a piece of the leaf.  These are things you don’t see at the store.  When the pawpaw come into fruit, which should be next year, it will be a wonderful chance to educate the kids.

Dana:  It sounds like you have more annual sun agriculture in the front and shaded perennial agriculture in the backyard.  And you’ve gotten rid of almost all of the lawn.

Linda:  Yes, just enough to have some paths or for someone to park their car if necessary.  But there’s no reason for more lawn—I am converting every bit of it into something that benefits nature and the community.

Dana: I know you are transitioning away from the farmer’s market and working to make this more of an educational space in the future. Can you share more about that?

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

Linda:  Yes, that’s where I will be needing to do more promotion.  I’ve already connected with many people in my area who are interested in organic practices. The garden is also a big draw to children; children see vegetables in the grocery store, but I’m growing some different things that are really exciting to them. Like the Asian long bean, it’s over a foot long. The kids come up, I give them a bean, and they walk away happy. It’s like candy to them!

So for me, the next step is working less on the market gardening and more on educating, promoting, teaching others how to do this.  If someone wants to break up their landscape, there are so many things that they can do that will still look visually appealing and move them away from the lawn.  For example, blueberries.

Dana:  Let’s return to this idea of work and a garden being “too much work.” So tell me about the work of this?

Linda:  Well, you don’t have to mow your lawn if there is no lawn to mow! And I get plenty of exercise and have no need for a gym membership. This garden is my workout.  It is physical, but rather than lifting weights, I’m lifting soil or compost! Mulch! Especially as I get older, it’s also a way for me to stay healthy and strong.  I also see it as meditation.  I am out in the sun and getting my Vitamin D.  I am keeping myself moving, I’m not rickety or creaky. I can move 10 yards of compost, even in my late 60s!

Dana:  It does seem like there are so many benefits: food you are producing,  an income, the exercise, educating people, not having a consumptive lawn, meditation, health benefits,  providing a vision for the future.  Showing all of this in a way that demonstrates that it can be sustaining, and joyful!  There just seems like there are no reasons not to do this!

Linda:  Yeah! I love the way you presented that thought. That’s what it is all about for me.  I am so happy that this garden is such a place for joy. I have a tendency to be modest, but I do think that the front yard garden speaks for itself. I am speaking through the language of my garden.

Dana:  Well, thank you so much for your time and expertise, Linda!

To conclude, Linda’s garden is really a source of joy for all who visit it.  And somehow, she has found a “magical formula” to living in a suburban area with hosing restrictions, codes, and township laws—through cookies, through making it visually appealing, and through always thinking about the needs of her community.

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

Land Healing at the Druid’s Garden: Replanting, Forest Healing, and Refugia Update

Ramps planted in my Grove of Renewal

Today I wanted to take some time to share some of the updates on the land healing and permaculture practices we are enacting at the Druid’s Garden Homestead.  As I’ve shared in earlier posts, when we purchased this land four years ago, the family who owned it just before us selectively logged about 3 acres, leaving the forest an absolute mess.  The land otherwise was perfect–we have our own spring, a nice sunny area for gardens….and three acres of land in desperate need of healing.  Since land healing is one of my primary forms of spiritual practice, I rolled up my sleeves and purchased the land! As this ongoing land healing project takes shape, I try to check in on the blog every once in a while to share new insights, techniques, and experiences.  Today I want to spend some time offering updates on our refugia gardens and some of the clearing and replanting work that is necessary when you are dealing with these kinds of conditions.

Why Engage in Land Healing work?

As I’ve shared before, in order to do effective land healing work, you need to know a few things: first, you need to have a sense of what a healthy ecosystem looks like so that you know what your goal is and what to do.  While book knowledge is useful, what is really ideal is if you can spend a lot of time in the same ecosystem in a place that hasn’t suffered logging, clear-cutting, or whatever other damage you are trying to heal it from. So since we live on a north-east facing slope that is wet and mostly deciduous, ideally, to help heal this land and know what I am aiming for, I need to study north-east facing slopes with wet, rich soil and mostly deciduous cover within 1-2 hours of where I live.  Lucky for me, I grew up on such a slope, and I can return to my family’s land often to study and gather seeds.  Because of this deep knowledge, I know exactly what ideally should be growing here both in terms of the forest and on the forest floor.  Because I’ve lived in Western Pennsylvania most of my life, I’m also aware of what is no longer present: the American Ginseng roots, in particular, have been badly stripped from our land by poachers and foragers who sell them at a profit. I’m leveraging this knowledge to create a set of practices that allow me to help this forest heal.

When I’ve shared this ongoing healing work with others, sometimes people will say things like, “Yeah, but the forest will heal without you.” Yes, it will physically heal, given enough time. The trees will regrow, you will see the old wood rot down and the forest will return.  However, and this is really important–a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th growth forest is not the same as what was originally here before white people came and stripped it bare. This is especially true if it is regrowing from something like old farmland.  On a physical level, one of the things that the forest can’t do is replace ecological material that once grew here and that has since vanished–like the trillium, black cohosh, blue cohosh, ramps, ginseng, trout lily, mayapples, and more.  These woodland species don’t survive logging or greedy humans, and they are very slow to spread (and are absent in many other places due to human overharvesting).  So, even if I were to let this forest stand here and grow for the next 150 years, I doubt you’d find a ramp or blue cohosh growing.  Ecological succession in this area takes about 300 years–and even after 300 years, we don’t always find what was once so prevalent.

Trout Lily (another native flower that has suffered overharvest)

But there’s another side to this, the metaphysical side.  Humans are currently destroying our planet–there is not an ecosystem on this planet that isn’t tremendously threatened.  It is the responsibility of those who are not brainwashed by capitalist and colonialist mindsets to do something to heal and turn this tide. Yes, I might primarily be focusing on 5 acres that I own–but for those 5 acres, and for the miles and miles around me, the spirits of the land take note. I do this as a way to bridge to the land, to remind the land that there are humans who are here to be in service and to heal.  That’s part of what we have to realize about land healing:  if people have intervened in the path of a forest, cutting it, stripping it bare, changing the basic ecology of the place–people need to be part of that healing and regrowth.  That offers reparation work, and that certainly is the most ethical thing to do and, as I’ve argued before, should be part of the path of those of us who practice nature spirituality.

Goals for the Druid’s Garden Homestead

With all of this said, I had a pretty good idea going into this work what I was setting out to accomplish: first, the goal of replanting and healing this land, through physical and metaphysical land healing. This includes planting trees, shrubs, roots, seeds, and tending those plants till they grow. But it also includes regular rituals, offerings to the spirits of the land, and simply being in deep service to the land.  The second goal was to establish what I call ‘refugia gardens”, or places that generate an abundance of seed/plant matter that can then be moved to other places that need healing.  Refugia are as the name says: they are refuges for life, where life can grow and when there is abundance (seeds, roots, extra plants to split) I can share these with others doing this work or work to replant forests nearby.  As part of this work, I am really careful about obtaining seeds and plants from ethical sources as I do this work.  For example, all of the black cohosh and black elder we have growing here I dug up on my parents’ property because we had an awful septic line come through–so we saved those plants and I replanted them here.  All of my ginseng seed I am planting comes from a certified forest-grown verified program through the United Plant Savers.

Trillium roots ready to go in the ground!

The first refugia garden we created, a full sun meditation garden, is doing great.  We have healthy populations of New England Aster, Echinacea, Saint Johns Wort, Milkweed, Pleurisy root, Hyssop, and a range of other native medicinal plants that are increasingly rare on our landscape.  I chose plants for this garden based on my local ecosystem–plants that are native here, plants I used to see a lot of, and are growing increasingly rare for a variety of reasons (spraying, farming, foraging, etc).  The refugia garden plants are now producing boatloads of seeds each year–most recently, I gave my parents four giant bags of seed to replant the septic line that came through and we scattered them far and wide. Before the pandemic, I also taught some local kids at the UU how to make seed balls with the seeds and they spread them!  I’ve shared these seeds with friends in this region. It is exciting to see how, in only a few short years, these plants produce such abundance.

Replanting and Refugia at the Druid’s Garden Homestead

Last year, after two years of getting our homestead gardens, greenhouse, and animal housing done and establishing the first refugia garden, I knew it was time to turn my attention to the forested areas that had been logged.  This logging was not clean, and it was not kind.  It viciously ripped through the forest, leaving massive amounts of severely damaged trees, debris, and damage to the landscape.  In order to even formulate a plan,  I had spent the first two years on the land prior to engaging in permaculture practice of observing and interacting, taking notes, and simply listening to the spirits of the land.  I tried to identify every plant and tree, see how the birds and wildlife behaved, and identify areas that I could target for healing. In 2019-2020,  I had worked to establish my first few forest hugels to help an area of the forest regrow.  And so, in the spring of 2020, I invested a considerable amount in seeds, various roots, and planted so much (and THANK YOU to anyone who bought the Plant Spirit Oracle or Tarot of Trees–they help fund this work!).  Feeling quite good about the hard labor I had achieved, I waited for my small plants to come up and my first to regenerate.

And then we had one of the worst droughts in the last 50 years; our region was in a severe drought for almost 3 months (and a moderate drought for 5 months).  The land grew so cracked, parched, and dried.  Since I was planting over a 3-acre area and didn’t mark all of the plant matter I planted, I wasn’t able to water everything.  Many things never came up. The ones that did, I worked to water diligently (using the water from our goose and duck pools). But I lost so much due to the drought–hundreds of plants.  Setbacks are, of course, an important part of any healing and regrowth.  We grow through adversity and struggle. So I ordered more plants and waited for spring.

An area of the forest cleared of debris and multiflora, now ready for replanting!

This winter, I also worked to start clearing some of the invasive species from the forested areas that quickly took hold after the logging.  This will take some serious time. Thankfully, most of the areas are growing the native blackberry (rubus allegheniensis). These blackberries form thick mats but also allow for other things to grow. The bigger problem I’m facing now is the increasing amount of multiflora rose, which crowds out other pants. Clearing Multiflora rose is really difficult–she demands a blood sacrifice for every root you pull out.  The work is slow going, but I absolutely refuse to do this by any other means–no chemicals (this land has seen enough trauma). Just sweat equity and a very good thick pair of leather gloves!

A Movement Meditation (or Sweat Equity)

In the last two months, I’ve planted several hundred roots: black cohosh root, red trillium, blue cohosh, and more.  These supplement roots planted in the previous fall after the rains returned: American Ginseng and ramps, among others.  These roots are very special to me–they represent the forest medicinals that are quickly pillaged from the landscape by those seeking a profit and they represent slow-growing roots that may never return without human intervention. These were the plants that graced the forest in my ancestors’ time, in my grandfather’s time. They have a right to live and not be pillaged. They represent, to me, a promise of healing to this land.

Plant and honor the root

Now to be clear, planting a hundred roots or more in rocky, clay, compacted soil is tough work.   But I see this as part of the service–I don’t mind offering my energy to the land.  Once you recognize that this replanting practice will take a long time, you give yourself permission to not be in a hurry. You simply move into the practice. It might be more work than you ever thought it was going to be, but that’s ok.  It becomes a movement meditation, an offering of your own energy and spirit to the land, to bring healing and life.

And I also take my time with each root I plant. I use my intuition and the voices of spirit to find the right spot to dig a hole on the forest floor. I dig, often hitting rocks, pulling them gently aside. I prepare the root (dipping the root in a bucket of water that I have blessed).  I take the root and more water with me. I welcome the root, telling the root that I am looking forward to getting to know them, that this is a good place for them to grow, where they will not be harmed.  I tell the root that when they produce seeds or offspring, I will make sure to spread their offspring far and wide.  I gently cover the roots with soil, watering the spot, and offering my gratitude.  This is a meditation and a magical practice.  Each root gets a slightly different prayer.  And then I move on to the next place in need of planting.

An art offering in the forest I created for the plants

This is a way of serving the land in joy.  It is simple, yet powerful.  As I stand there, with my water buckets, fresh roots, and shovel, I am filled with gratitude to be in a position to help nourish this land.  To me, this is the best kind of spiritual practice that I can think to do–the direct healing of the land.  To supplement this physical work, I engage in extensive rituals and ceremonies to metaphysically bless and protect all of the new life on this land.

Perhaps, if you are willing, say a prayer for all of my new rootlets and plants.  That the rains will come this year, that they will grow bountiful, and that their offspring will be able to live to old age and see the coming of days when they are honored, revered, and left to grow and die naturally.

Nature Mandalas for Inner Work, Rituals, and Blessings

A woman comes to a clearing in the recently burned forest with a basket of stones, sticks, nuts, and flowers.  She begins to sing, laugh, and dance as she creates a beautiful circle with the materials. As she weaves her healing magic, the design of the circle grows more complex, spiraling inward and outward.  She finishes her work and sits with it quietly for a time, before leaving it in place to do its own work.  A healing mandala has been made on that spot, to help the forest recover after a fire.

Nature mandalas can be used for a variety of inner work, healings, blessings and rituals and are a wonderful addition to a druid or natural spiritual practice. Nature mandalas are an intuitive magical and bardic arts practice that works with the connection of your own subconscious to the living earth.  You use materials that are local to you, in season, to create beautiful patterns with sacred intent.

On writing about mandalas, C. F. Jung, the esoteric psychologist, spoke of the benefits of creating mandalas as a way of seeing deeply into the psyche and allow for the cyclical process of self-development. Mandalas have been used in a variety of traditions, as he describes, primarily for inner spirit work—as the mandala is constructed, understanding, enlightenment, or healing may come. A mandala can be done in combination with other practices (ritual work, meditation, land healing and/or blessing) or they can be done on its own. Mandalas can also be done by anyone at any point in their practice, regardless of their ability to raise energy, visualize, or engage in any other advanced ritual techniques.

Creating a Nature Mandala

Space Selection. To create a mandala, select a flat space where you are able to lay out a pattern: a flat river bank or shore, a sandbar, a bare spot in the forest, a space in the lawn in your backyard, a dirt patch, a large stone, etc. Mandalas can be large or small and can be done in places where water can wash them away (a beach at low tied, the edge of a stream that will eventually flood, etc.), in the snow that will melt, etc.

Ephemeral nature. In fact, I would argue that their very ephemeral nature is part of that magic of the nature mandala: the mandala is created in the moment for a sacred purpose using materials local to the land.  After creation, it is left in the natural world, and nature’s processes will claim it again tomorrow.  As that claiming takes place, the mandala’s magic unfolds.

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Design and Creation. In terms of the design of the mandala, many options are possible, some intentional and some intuitive.  There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. You can create intuitive designs, setting your intention, putting yourself in a meditative place, and letting your subconscious guide you to create the mandala. If you are going to do this approach, I suggest before you begin, spending time communing with the land. Walking with the land, hearing the voices of the spirits in the wind, in your inner mind, feeling the energies present. Attune with those, and when you feel connected and centered with this place, create. This approach allows you to connect with the land and bring forth a design that is unique to the land, to your interaction, and to the place. This can lead to some really amazing designs and experiences.  I really like creating intuitive mandalas. They don’t have to be circular, they can weave around existing material in the landscape. They can be full of nature’s patterns: spirals, leaves, waves, circles, and more.  You can make mandalas to fit a landscape and space of any size or composition. Go in without a plan.  Connect to the world around you.  Just start laying things in a pattern. See what unfolds.  Smile, dance, and be happy.  Breathe.

On the intentional side,  Jung noted that many mandalas in other cultures unfolded in a circular four-fold pattern, tying to the four elements and other four-fold patterns in the universe. While we see a four-fold pattern in nature (in the flowers of a dogwood tree or in the small flowers in the arugula plant), this is only one possible pattern nature provides. The flowers of apples and hawthorns show us a five-fold pattern, the shell of a snail shows us a spiral pattern, and the flower of a trillium shows us a three-fold pattern. These and many other patterns can be used for inspiration. For more on nature’s patterns, see this post.

The alternative is to plan it out. I would suggest planning only if you are doing it with a group as part of a larger ritual or practice and/or if you are creating mandalas that will be of a more permanent nature. Planning your mandala can include sketching it in advance, planning out and gathering your materials, and preparing the space. The photo here is of a magical mandala that we created for a ley line ritual at the MAGUS Gathering in 2018. This was obviously intentionally planned in advance so that we could have it at the start of our ritual.

Mandalas and other Spiritual Work.  The act of mandala creation is a ritual in and of itself–but you also might want to use it in combination with other practices.  For example, you can use it as an anchor point for other ritual activity in this chapter, creating a mandala around a sacred space that you can sit in, meditate in, do other kinds of ritual in, or even, leave magical tools for further empowerment in.  I like to create mandalas as part of rituals; I use the mandala creation as a way of beginning my ritual work before moving into a formal ritual.  Or, you can simply be present with it for a time, spend a quiet moment in meditation, and then let it be, knowing that work continues on nature’s time.

Possibilities for Nature Mandalas

There are so many possibilities for working with Nature Mandalas.  I offer some suggestions for different ways you can create mandalas.

Nature Mandala with sticks, shells, stones, and other things. Begin gathering the materials for the mandala, using your intuition. A basket here also helps! As you gather, be careful not to disrupt the ecosystem (e.g. use fallen sticks, leaves, small stones, leave big stones where they are). When you have gathered your materials, begin to organize them in some circular or spiral fashion. There is no right or wrong way, just flow with the spirits of the land.  With each piece of the mandala, you can set intentions for the healing of the land (e.g. “this leaf represents the new growth of spring. This stone represents the health of the insect life” and so forth).

Fall Leaf Mandala. A very beautiful mandala can be created using fall leaves.  Just as they fall, gather them, and weave them into patterns to celebrate the autumn and the sacredness of this time.

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Nature mandala with snow. If you are in an area with snowfall and laying snow, the better approach is to weave your mandala into the snow itself. To do this, simply close your eyes and visualize the shape you want your mandala to take—or just start walking. You can use a big open area or you can use a wooded area where you work the trees, stones, and other natural features into your design. Walk your mandala each day the snow is present, if possible, to leave lasting healing on the landscape.

Nature mandala with sand or soil. Another option for a nature mandala is in the sand or bare soil. You might use a stick to trace patterns, adding stones or shells. You might use your feet to trace to walk a larger path of the mandala. Mandalas on the shore, placed at the low tide line, will be taken by the sea, and thus, can be used as a blessing for the oceans. Mandalas placed higher on the shore can bless the land around them. Mandalas on the edges of river banks can be done in a similar manner, as rivers flood.

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Flour or Cornmeal Mandala. You can create a mandala by using flour or cornmeal (and cornmeal comes in several colors). To do this, you will want some kind of vessel that makes it easy to pour a little bit out at once–a commercial dressing container with a larger opening, a gallon jug (use a funnel to get it in there) or even a water pitcher can all work as a basic tool. For this kind of mandala, it is best to have a sand or dirt surface. I often make these in our sacred grove; in the fall months, I rake up the leaves and then work with the bare surface to weave patterns of cornmeal, leaves, and patterns. As fall turns to winter and the snows come, I work with the snow in the grove instead, continuing to layer energies in that sacred space.

Stone mandala. A more permanent option is to create a mandala with stones, leaving it somewhere to simply “be”. I would suggest this only at sites that have already had major disruption, as you do not want to disrupt the ecosystem itself by moving stones.

One last point about the different kinds of mandalas—make sure that in your mandala creating, you don’t disrupt the natural world.  Stones of any size are often home to insects and other life and removing them can disrupt the ecosystem. Don’t remove large stones or remove them from rivers, etc. Pick up and use things that are already ephemeral: small stones that are moved by the river or waves, nuts, sticks, leaves.

Some examples

I’ll offer a few examples of the different ways I’ve used mandalas in my practice recently.  These examples are meant to help spark your own creativity and ideas!

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

The first example is an offering mandala. I made this mandala after creating acorn pancakes on the fall equinox from the acorns being dropped from our ancient oak tree. It is this tree that  I have been working with my Tree for a Year practice, and it’s this tree that I’ve made acorn ink from, and now, the acorn pancakes. As part of an offering practice, I wanted to offer gratitude to this oak.

Grove Mandala

Grove Mandala

The second example was another recent mandala, this one with the purpose of preparing a magical space.  I have been drawn to a particular section of our sacred grove for a while (a Norway spruce tree with a large stone underneath, and a hickory nearby) and had a vision of some visionary and magical work to do there in the coming months.  As part of this, I raked and cleared a small section and made a flour and leaf mandala as saying “hello” to the space and honoring it.  I decided on a flour mandala because I had found some flour infested by flour moths, so I wanted to make good use of it but get it out of the kitchen! Plus, flour mandalas look great against bare earth! The purpose of this mandala was honoring this sacred space and beginning to lay energetic patterns for future ritual work.

Grimalkin cat walks through the leaf mandala!

The final example is one I did simply to bring peace and calm. As the leaves were falling, I simply went out and worked with them, making patterns, and working to provide calm and healing.  And it worked!

I hope that this post has offered you some inspiration.  I would love to see any mandalas that you create!  Please consider sharing them here and/or tagging me on Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Blessings upon your journey!

Drought workings: A Druid’s Perspective on Drought and Dry Weather

2020 is certainly a year to remember for many of us in the human realm.  Here in Western Pennsylvania and up along many parts of New England, we’ve had an additional serious problem affecting the natural world—an extreme drought. This summer, the jet stream is way off of its normal course and so most of the major storms that would typically hit us have been forced south of us, creating the  “moderate” drought that we are now in and causing uncharacteristically dry conditions.  know there are other serious droughts around the world, such as the three-year drought currently happening in Germany.  Climate change is making these kinds of weather events all the more common and teaching us powerful lessons along the way.  In today’s post, I’ll share some drought lessons, drought land healing, and ways of working and honoring water.

Honoring Water and the Scarcity of Water

Altar for water healing

Altar for water healing

I think for people who live in areas that are usually abundant in water, it’s not something that is often at the forefront of your mind.  For example,  here we get about 40″ of rain a year and another 30″ of snow, and have precipitation an average of 140 days a year–so precipitation is a regular event that happens at least once a week, if not more.  I must say, before this year, I was guilty of this–water was just always present.  We had almost no need to water the garden, we would just wait for the inevitable rains to come.  I realize that this perspective must be hard to imagine for people who live in desert climates or other low-rain areas, but for people who live in areas like I do, I think it is quite common.

But a drought lets you reframe your relationship to water because it becomes scarce.  In modern cultures where we can literally buy our way into anything, we have been socialized to see scarcity as a bad thing.  Yet, time and time again, I have found that the lesson of scarcity is important to both cultivating both more connected and sacred relationships and in gratitude practices. Scarcity is a lesson that nature provides through each yearly cycle. Scarce things are sacred things; something that is scarce becomes more valuable and meaningful.  Any mushroom hunter knows this–if you hunt all season for the elusive hen of the woods (maitake) mushroom, and you find only one, it is truly sacred.  You may harvest it or not, but certainly, you would be thankful for the experience.  Perhaps you’d craft a sacred meal and enjoy it with friends. But if you find them all over, they become more common.  For us in a water-rich climate, water and precipitation was so common that you really didn’t think about it.  And then, the drought came. Scarcity came.  And you realized how sacred water really was.

The drought has been a really good opportunity to reframe my relationship with water and honor all water as sacred, both in mundane ways and in ritual ways. Here’s an example.  Our geese have a big plastic swimming pool (our pond is away from the house and is home to snapping turtles and other wildlife, so we opted for this closer pool).  We have the swimming pool out in our front yard where we can easily fill it with the hose and where the geese hang out.  At the beginning of the summer, I used to “bail” the pool–I had a large bucket and would keep bailing water out of the pool and dumping it on the ground until the pool was empty.  The water would just spread all over the lawn and be absorbed. I didn’t think about it much, just checking off one more homestead chore to do before moving on to others.  But as our rainless days stretched into rainless weeks and then into rainless months, the dirty water in the goose pool became sacred. That water became the most precious resource on this drought-stricken land: we could use it to conserve our water supply (we have a spring and cistern), a way to help the many plants in this drying up the landscape, and a way to honor every drop.

I would instead move the water into our wheelbarrow and wheel it around the property–into the gardens, into the perennial beds, into the edges of the woods, into the milkweed patch I was trying to cultivate.  Every two days, I hauled water and prayed for rain.  It became a kind of ritual in itself–offering what I could to this parched landscape, honoring the water, and singing for the rain.  When we “dump” water on the ground, we are literally disposing of it and in that disposal mindset.  If we instead offer water, honor water by pouring it with intention, returning it to the earth, and sending it on its journey back into the hydrologic cycle–this is where your own relationship sifts.

Other small amounts of water, too, became sacred.  The water leftover in our big pressure canner became something to provide the forest plants with relief.  Each drop mattered.  I’ve been thinking about our bathtub upstairs and how to rig a greywater system.  This drought prompted a new connection with water and an opportunity to engage in sacred action through our everyday lives.

Land Healing Practices During the Drought

A healed and restored river (the Clarion!)

The Clarion River

Because land healing is an important part of the spiritual work we can do as nature-based spiritual practitioners and druids, I decided to work to address the drought spiritually. Within land healing, as I’ve outlined before, different kinds of practices exist depending on the situation at hand: energetic healing and palliative care.  It is important to know what you are attempting to do if you are going to be engaging in land healing work.  With regards to a drought, energetic healing is for lands that are damaged but in a place to heal (e.g. the drought has ended and now the land can heal–this is a good time to raise energy for healing). But for a drought-stricken landscape in the middle of a drought, palliative care is most appropriate: in this case, we would work with the spirits fo the land to minimize the worst of the pain and offer hope that rains will return.

The Water Grove of Renewal

If you are living in an area that is experiencing a drought, here is one palliative care technique that you can use to provide some relief.  This is a play on my “grove of renewal” practice that I shared some time ago. For this, choose a small section of land that you have easy access to or that you own, or even a potted plant on a windowsill.  For my water grove of renewal this summer, I had recently planted ramp roots in a small patch of forest.  These were saved from the path of destruction at my family property.  You should select if at all possible, an area that normally would not get watered intentionally by you (e.g. not your garden).  Mark the space in some way (with flags, stones, sticks, etc.) so that you give it some kind of sacred boundary so that you know where to water.  My water grove of renewal had a natural boundary; a small clearing in the forest surrounded by trees, about 3′ across.

This is the place that you will keep watered as a sign of hope and solidarity to the rest of the landscape.  Every few days, bring an offering of water and water the earth.  As I leave the offering, I say a small prayer that I wrote for the grove

Parched earth, dry soil, cracked clay.
Know that the rains will come.
Withered roots dried vines, drooping leaves
Know that the rains will come.
I leave this offering of water here as a sign of hope.
Know that the rains will come.
As this small grove of renewal radiates outward.
Know that the rains will come.
Endure for a little while longer.
The rains will come.
The rains will come.
The rains will come.

Do any other kind of sacred work here as you see fit: I brought my drum and flute and offered some music. I also offered my sacred offering blend.  Spend time in this grove and remember–the rains will come.

Honring the watershed

The Stone Cairn in the Stream

The Stone Cairn in the Stream

During a drought, it is a good time to learn about and honor the watershed that you live in.  There are many ways to engage in this practice, so I’ll share a few of them.  The first thing you should do is learn about your watershed–what watershed do you live in? If you are in the USA, you can use this tool produced by the EPA.  Once you learn your watershed, you can honor the tributaries, visit the headwaters (where the watershed begins) or visit a major river of your watershed.  For me, our homestead is along the Twolick Creek/Blacklick Watershed, a minor tributary of the Conemaugh watershed, which is part of the Ohio watershed.  I have worked during this drought to visit several spots along the watershed and do the following:

  • Water blessing and healing rituals (some of which are offered here).
  • Simply sitting and interacting with the waterway, which could include meditation or conversing with the spirit of the waters or watershed
  • Making offerings of music, healing waters, or herbal blends
  • Spending time in recreation at waterways, such as hiking or kayaking (provided the water levels are high enough).

Honoring the waterways is a fantastic way to attune to water, anytime, but especially during a drought.

Rain Workings

A final thing you may be tempted to try is rain magic or rain workings.  These things can be done, and with great effect, but also, at great risk.  I outlined one such rain working in an earlier post which you can try.  Even something simple, like using a rain stick, calling to the sylphs and undines to bring rain, or making offerings can help.  Rain magic and rain workings are a bit beyond this post, but I’ll pick them up at a later point in more depth!

And the rains come…

And, as things often happen, while I was composing we had temperatures in the 90’s and no rain for over two months.  As I got ready to post this–the rains came. Two beautiful days of storms and gentle rains, courtesy of Hurricane Laura coming through our region.  While two days of rain will not end the drought, it certainly gives much relief to this parched landscape.  The rains will come.

When the rains came over the last two days, I saw it as an event worthy of sacred practice, of ritual action, and of celebration.  I went out into the rain to dance, sing, and be merry.  I stripped most of my clothes and ran through the wet and dripping landscape, allowing the rain to soothe me.  I laid upon the earth and allowed my body to soak up the rains, just like the earth around me.  I felt refreshed and renewed after so many long months of trying to keep everything alive.  I rested in the gentle arms of that blissful rain.

Regardless of what happens in the future, I am in gratitude for the experience that was the drought of 2020–that I could more mindfully honor the waters of life, the waters that sustain us, and that water now holds a deeper and more central place in my practice.  And I understand, more than ever, why my ancestors tied their spiritual practices and lives to the seasons: to honoring the harvest, calling the rains, and bringing abundance and life to the land.  This is a lesson too easy to discount in the 21st century–but yet, the drought brought it to the fore.

PS: I also wanted to share a few updates on publications and the like!  I finished going through the page proofs of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  It should be released sometime in 2021–as soon as I’m able to share more details here, I will!   I also was able to finalize the layout on the updated Tarot of Trees: Artwork and Meanings book.  The 10th-anniversary edition should be available for release sometime in October (we are waiting on the printer to ship everything now).  Thanks for your patience while I took this hiatus from the blog!   If you have topics you’d like to see for the rest of 2020, please reach out!

Land Healing: Distance Work and Levels of Connection

The Laurel Highlands - Overlooking the mountains

The Laurel Highlands – Overlooking the mountains

Often, working as a land healer is very local work: you work with the plants, animals, bodies of water, insect life, and many other aspects of life that are nearby  to you. Depending on where you live, this is often ample enough for any of us to do.  But, you may also feel led to do work at distance on behalf of a place–perhaps a place you visited or one that is calling to you.  Even though you live far away or cannot reach that place, you want to help. This is where distance land healing can come in.

An important aspect of energetic land healing (that is, working in a ritual way to help bring positive energy, blessing, and healing to land, bodies of water, animals, plants, insects, and more) is distance work. Often, land we want to heal (such as those ravaged by natural disasters or animals at risk from extinction) may be physically inaccessible, and thus, being able to work at a distance is important.  Some work is actually better done at a distance, while while other work, like physical land regeneration, must be done in person.

Distance energetic work is necessary for a variety of reasons: lack of access a site due to it being on someone else’s property or in the middle of an extraction zone (e.g. fracking well, mountaintop removal site), mobility and transportation issues, safety, or because the site is too far away for you to reach it physically (like when the fires were raging in Australia and you live on another continent). Thus, employing distance techniques are often necessary for advanced land healing practice.

Distance healing techniques are more advanced techniques that require confidence in a variety of spirit communication and protection techniques:  deep listening, spirit communication, visualization, grounding, and shielding.  You have to be able to  focus for long periods of time and open to the messages of spirit.  You have to be able to protect yourself, as any energetic healing requires a deep energetic connection–and that connection goes both ways. You have to be able to raise and direct energy effectively.  If you are still learning these techniques, you should work on developing them further  before doing serious distance healing work, particularly on sites that have extensive damage or require palliative care.

Any distance work is based on a connection that you establish between the land (be it a piece of land, body of water, specific animal or group of animals, plants or groups of plants, etc.). If it is land you visited before, you can use your own memory or any mementos or tokens you may have gathered. If you haven’t ever visited the site but still want to do healing, it’s helpful to have something that represents the land, such as a natural object, memento, or photograph. The idea behind connecting at a distance is that you will establish some energetic line between you and the land you are working to heal, and through this line, you can send energy, activate sigils, chant, work magic, and much more.

Levels of Connection

There are at least three different energetic levels of connection you can make with the land, and understanding the differences is important for distance work.

Communicative.  The first level is being able to sense and communicate—enough to do deep listening work, enough to ascertain what state the land is in energetically. This is a lot like standing on a peak and overlooking a mountain below or talking to a friend on the phone—you see what’s going on, but you aren’t quite close enough to be affected energetically.  This level of connection allows you to communicate and sense energy, but not actually affect it (which is good for those new to these practices). This connection can allow you to do witnessing, communication, apology, and some space holding techniques, which are all important to land healing.

Energetic. The second level is an energetic connection, where you can send energy to the land and in turn, receive energy back. It is at this level that you can work magic, where you can do chanting magic, raise and direct energy, and do any number of energetic healing techniques

Trees

Trees

Attunement. The third level—what I call attunement—happens only over prolonged contact with the land, where you are always deep connection with the land.  This happens after years of direct working with the land, interacting with it, and a period of time where you have lived on the land or regularly visited.  With attunement, there is always some energetic connection present and that connection can be sensed and activated on either side very easily.  This level requires a great deal of trust.

Doing Distance Work

Preliminaries: To connect with land at a distance, begin finding a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Begin by engaging in shielding techniques, such as the Sphere of Protection or your own that you regularly use. No distance work should take place without shielding—because you are establishing an energetic link between yourself and the land, you will want to have basic protection. Remember that you can send energy through this link, but at the basic level, the connection should be enough to sense the land only.

Once you are properly shielded, make yourself as comfortable as possible (sitting or laying on the floor). If you have any objects or images to connect with, hold them in your hand or place them before you.

Communicative: Finding the thread. Now, envision the land/waterway/plant/animal before you. See it in your mind’s eye, focus on the object or image. Speak aloud, asking to connect.  Sense the connection between you, like a small golden thread, connecting you to that place, being, or species.  If you have been there before, this thread may already be established.  If you haven’t been there before, you might need to establish the thread by reaching out through the object/image with your minds eye and establishing the connection through visualization. Breathe, allowing the connection to unfold out and be established.  If its the first time you’ve connected in this way, just sit with the connection for a while, sensing it.  Then, go about whatever communication you want to do (here are some suggestions for first steps). This connection should allow for basic communication and deep listening techniques, including witnessing, holding space, deep listening, prayer and chanting work.

If you are new to these techniques and in need of doing distance work, I suggest you work with this first technique until you feel comfortable before moving on to a deeper connection.

Energetic: Feeling the Heartbeat of the Land. The second stage of connection establishes an energetic link that goes both ways so you can do ritual at a distance and healing. Connecting to the heartbeat of the land takes you a level deeper, and allows you to work energetically with the land. All land has its own rhythms, and if you focus, you can eventually align with the heartbeat . To do this, once you have connected at a distance, slow your breathing down and quiet yourself as much as you can. Now, feel your own heartbeat. As you listen to yours, widen your range and feel the beat of the land/tree/body of water, etc. If you have an object from the land, hold the object in your hand while you do so.  Sometimes this can take time, and you may not be able to align in this way unless the land/tree/animal/water body wants you to do so.

Once you have the beat, match it on a drum, rattle, gong, bell branch, or any other instrument. If you don’t have any of these, simply clapping or slapping your hand on your leg will work perfectly fine.  Spend some time aligning to this second beat.  This gives you a very deep connection to the land, even at a distance.  From this point, you can do many different kinds of energetic healing of the land including chanting, raising energy, and various kinds of palliative care.

Mountain laurel

Mountain laurel

Attunement: Feeling in the spirit:  Deep attunement requires long-term physical connection to the land, or to a particular species or body of water. This happens when that land/species/body of water gets in your blood and bones, and it becomes a part of you.  You can do distance work on land that you are not physically present on that you have attuned to, but you cannot establish any kind of attunement without actually being present on the land for a period of time.   Practices like the Grove of Renewal and the druid’s anchor spot will put you into these deeper relationships and connections over time.

I think the work of land healing is important and powerful work, and hopefully these tools will help you best do this work if you are feeling led!

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing Stones at the Summer Solstice

Ancient peoples set standing stones in various places in the world.  In places, such as in the British Isles or Iceland, you can still often find these standing stones, trilithons, stone circles or stacks of stones.  While their many uses are shrouded in antiquity and subject to some speculation, in the Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer describes standing stones can channel the solar current into the earth, which offers blessing and healing to the land.  I think it’s likely that standing stones can do many other things (tell time, point to astronomical features, be places of worship and community). Today, new groups of people and individuals are choosing to set stones. For our purposes, today, setting stones for land blessing and healing is certainly a good thing to do to provide spiritual support for the land.

The Summer Solstice is a fantastic time to raise a standing stone–in your garden, in a natural place you visit, or even in a planter on your windowsill. You can set a standing stone as part of a permanent sacred grove, sacred garden, or other such space of worship and do this as part of your solstice activities.  The full energy of the light of the sun will infuse your standing stone, allowing it to radiate blessing and light to the landscape.

Choosing Your Stone, Location, and Timing

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--rebuilding sacred landscape features

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–rebuilding sacred landscape features

As someone who has raised standing stones with many others at ritual events, I know how hard this work is to do, especially on a larger scale. Ancient—and modern—standing stones and stone circles were set by communities of people working together, often over long periods of time. The size of a stone that a single person, or small group of people, could set is nowhere near the massive stones of old, such as those seen at Stonehenge, Avebury, or other ancient sites in the UK.

And yet a smaller stone, set by one or two people, is no less effective at bringing in that healing energy and light, creating a space for ritual, and allowing you to commune with the land.

Begin by looking for a stone that you could manage to carry and set on your own or with a small group of friends.  I usually look for stones that are long and thin. Standing stones are ideal if they are able to be placed 1/3 in the ground and 2/3 out of it, somewhere that gets sun. Thus, the best standing stones are ones that are tall and somewhat long but not necessarily very wide. That’s a general guideline, however, and your stone might end up being something shaped very differently. Stones that contain some quartz are ideal (as quartz is an excellent transmitter of energy). Where I live, we have mostly shale and sandstone, I’d choose sandstone over shale since the sandstone has a higher quartz content.

Take your time looking for your standing stone. Look for it when you are hiking, in your yard, walking along streams, just being out in the world. A standing stone will find you when the time is right. I find a lot of these kinds of stones when I’m hiking and kayaking, but getting them back to where I might set them can prove difficult–so understand your own limits or move a stone slowly over time.

Once you have your stone, find the right place to set it—a place where you feel inspired by spirit to do so. This could be anywhere—an edge of a forest or field, in your backyard, even on your patio set in a pot with flowers (if you use this option, consider then moving your ‘energized’ soil to places in need of healing.  Like all other aspects of land healing, make sure that you engage in appropriate deep listening to make sure A) setting the standing stone is appropriate and wanted and B) that you have the right time and location to do such work.

Raising stones the old fashioned way

Raising stones the old fashioned way…yes that’s uphill!

To set your stone, choose a fortuitous day and time. The most fortuitous day of a year and timing for setting a standing stone is noon at the Summer Solstice, as you are calling upon the energy of the sun, and setting the stone when the solar energy is at its peak in both time of day and year will be powerful. You can choose any other day or time that is fortuitous, however, but I do suggest you set it at noon if at all possible.

Physically, to set a stone, you dig a hole, place it where you want it to go, and fill it back in, checking to make sure the stone stays in the position you want it as you fill.  Most standing stones go about 1/3 into the ground for the sake of stability.  I really recommend keeping it natural–no pouring concrete.  Just fill it in with whatever you dig out, add some gravel or smaller stones if you like for stability, and your stone should do well.

If you want, you can plant something around your stone (flowers or veggies if its in a garden, seeds or acorns you find nearby where you are setting the stone) and leave an offering.

You might like to use the following ritual for setting your standing stone.

Ritual for Setting a Standing Stone

Materials: Assemble all of your supplies prior to beginning your ritual. This should include tools needed to move and place your stone (such as a shovel) as well as blessing materials to bless the hole your stone will be seated in.  The ritual below uses an herbal tea made from fresh healing herbs: rosemary, sage, oregano, and lavender as well as a blessing sigil (a pentagram or other sigil as appropriate).

The Ritual

Open up your sacred grove in the manner you usually do.

Begin by stating your intentions for the healing to take place.  While I highly recommend you use your own words, you can also use the words here: “Land before me. What a journey you have had to get to this place.  And now, your healing is coming forth. As you regrow, as you heal, know that I am with you.  I set this standing stone today to aid you with your healing, that you may grow bountiful and diverse.”

Now, bless your stone. Pour some of the tea over the stone, and bless the stones in your own words.  Or you can say, “Sacred stone, sacred ancestor who has been on this land for millennia, thank you for lending your healing power as a channel for the solar current.”

Prepare to dig the hole. Say, “Spirits of nature, powers of this land, I offer my energy to prepare this earth.”

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric

Dig the hole.  As you dig, focus your mind on healing for the land.

After you dig the hole, bless the hole with your own words, or say, “Sacred earth, oh cradle for this stone. Hold this stone firm, and be a conduit for healing to radiate forth.” Pour the remainder of the healing waters in the hole.  Place a blessing sigil in the hole as well.

Set the stone, making sure you firmly tamp down the soil all around the hole.

After you finish, say, “From above to below, from the solar to the telluric, may this stone radiate healing energy to all of the lands. Each day as the sun rises until the sun sets, this stone will serve as a conduit to channel nywfre (noo-iv-ruh) throughout this land.”

Visualize the rays of the sun warming the stone, and then envision the stone channeling those rays into the earth, a beautiful golden light emanating from the stone in all directions. Visualize those rays of golden energy helping plants regrow, seeds take root, eggs hatch, and young ones grow.  Imagine the land before you as a healthy, strong, and abundant place for all.

Offer your own vow as a caretaker of the land (optional, if you feel led).  “As I close this ceremony, I offer myself as a force of good and healing in service to this land.  Lead me as to what you need me to do.  Speak, and I will listen.  I honor you and heed your call.”  Bow your head and cross your arms.

Close the ritual space.

Closing

This ritual is most effective if you visit the stone and continue to offer healing and blessing.  After the initial setting of the stone, you might come back every solstice and equinox and do a full season of healing rituals or use it as a focal point for other work.  Or just come by the stone to commune with nature, meditate, and enjoy the energy.  I hope that the long days of summer (or long nights of winter for those in the southern hemisphere) bless you and keep you safe.

PS: If you haven’t had a chance to check out the Tarot of Trees 10th Anniversary Edition Indegogo Campaign, please consider doing so.  We are working to bring the Tarot of Trees in a revised and larger edition.  Thanks for your support!

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.