The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

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

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

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

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

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

 

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

 

Economic Views

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Historical Views

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

 

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

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Way Forward

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

 

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

 

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

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Permaculture for Druids: Design Principles through the Five Elements October 2, 2016

Humans throughout history have looked to nature as the ultimate teacher; nature is the sacred text from which all wisdom flows. As druids, we know the more time you spend in nature, the more you align with its rhythms, and the more you discover its many teachings. One of the reasons I am so committed to permaculture design as part of my outer druid practice, is that permaculture design is rooted in that same natural wisdom. The permaculture design principles, which I’ll be discussing today in this post, are the core of permaculture: we use them, along with the three ethics, to help us make every decision, not only for design work, but also for daily living. If we are going to continue our journey into the inner and outer realms of permaculture, and how this concept ties to druidry and other earth-based spiritual practices, a discussion of the design principles is our logical next step!

 

The elements

The elements

The Design Principles with a Druid Lens

I’ll be drawing my principles from three sources: Holmgren’s (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, Mollison’s Permaculture One, as well as from my Kay Cafasso’s Sowing Solutions Permaculture Design Certificate course.

 

I’ve also found it useful to group the principles under one banner of the elements and the druid animals (with my own addition of the bee of inspiration for spirit). The principles don’t all work in the same way, and this grouping helps us understand them in a new light.  In terms of the actual principles, in some cases,  I have kept the principles the same. But in other cases, I have adapted these principles to be shared and most applicable to those following nature-based, earth-centered paths. This meant that I may given them a more appropriate name that will better resonate with our values, and in other cases, I have created new principles that are rooted in the spiritual traditions in honoring the living earth.

 

I want to note that my lens is by no way present in mainstream permaculture, although certainly can be found on the fringes of the current movement and, I believe, is being woven more and more into permaculture as a practice. As people regenerate and heal the land, they are naturally drawn to it spiritually. As a druid, know that these principles go much deeper. I’ve also included the original design principle in parenthesis when necessary.

 

Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee

The principles of spirit, through the magic of the bee, ask us to observe what is around us, to rethink and resee those experiences, and to understand the connections to all things.  Bees are master alchemists; they transform nectar into honey that can stay preserved for 1000 years.  Bees embody the principle of transformation, teaching us that we, too, can work our magic upon our earth, especially if we work collectively.

 

Observe, Interact, and Intuit (Observe and Interact, Holmgren). This principle is simple—it asks you, before you do anything else, to spend time observing your surroundings, interacting with them in a non-judgmental way, and (and this is my addition) using your intuition to guide you. We can gain incredible insight from this simple activity, and using the information before us is a way into all else. All living beings use this same principle: observing, interacting, and working on instinct to survive and thrive.  We do this in the AODA, where members are asked to spend at 15 minutes a week in nature in stillness and focus, for example.

 

Reflect and Revise (Apply self-regulation and value feedback, Holmgren). This principle has two parts, and we’ll briefly consider each. There is tremendous value in when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions—this is the act of reflection. Reflection, through meditation, journaling, and quietude is a cornerstone of nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

Work on Multiple Levels (New principle). There are a few ways to think about this principle, derived from both systems theory and hermetic occult philosophy. On the side of systems theory, we need to have an awareness and engage in designs that allow us to consider and work on multiple levels: the micro/individual, and the macro/system.  When we recognize that a single element is part of a larger system, that changes the way we think about that system and about that element.  Working on multiple levels encourages us to think in these two perspectives at once, and consider the interplay between them. This same interplay also takes place between the inner and outer realms. The bee, as both an individual and as a superorganism, helps us better understand this principle: a solitary bee functions on her own, but does so as part of that larger hive (system of bees) working for collective good.

 

On the hermetic side, this practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on our inner realms. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. It is a principle that is well worth including here, as this principle has been enacted by humans, upon the landscape, for millennia. Outer transformations lead to inner transformations, and vice versa. We heal the land, we heal ourselves.

 

Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

The air principles focus on integrating our knowledge and wisdom to see more paths before us and using the power of air through our logic, intellect, and pattern recognition. These principles ask us to embody the energy of the hawk: first to fly high, take stock of what is before us, and offer us new was of experiencing and interacting as we begin the path towards positive change.

 

The Problem is the Solution (Mollison). This is one of my favorite of the principles, and for good reason. We spend so much of our lives hearing about the problems that plague us and feeling unable to address any of them. This principle turns that powerlessness on its head and suggests that the solution to any problem lies within the nature of the problem itself. For example, lawns are contributing substantially to climate change and the loss of ecological diversity; and the solution is there before us: change the nature of the lawn.  It is often than when we look at problems not as insurmountable obstacles, but as opportunities, we can do a tremendous amount of good.

 

Mushroom Eyes (New Principle). This principle is one I first learned as a wild food forager and mushroom hunter. Before we can act, we must see and in order to see we must understand. Observation and interaction is part of this, but mushroom eyes How we see the world is how we inhabit it and how we interact with it. You might think of this is seeing through different lenses–when you put the lenses on, everything is colored by that experience. But these are lenses of knowledge and wisdom. Think about the hawk here—he knows exactly what he is going for. Nature wisdom is about not only awareness but knowledge. Animals teach their young skills necessary to survive; and humans, part of nature, used to teach these same natural lessons to their own offspring. So there is a knowledge component that is necessary for us to do design, and mushroom eyes helps us be able to see in deeper ways.

 

Design from the Patterns to Details (Mollison). Sometimes, when we are working to solve a problem, we focus on a specific thing we want to do (e.g. I want to build a waterfall) without thinking about the overall patterns (in this case, is there an existing resource flow? What is the overall pattern in the landscape?). Often, designing this way leads to trouble because you have the specific elements you want but you are missing the larger goals and purpose. This principle asks us to start with the biggest picture, like the outer edge of a spiral, and slowly work our way into the details of the problem. We think about the patterns of nature and energy first, and then work or way down to the specifics of that design. We design with the goals first and work our way down to the specific details of how we enact those goals. By starting with the larger patterns that nature provides, we can more effectively design–and attend–to the small stuff.

 

Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag

Fire is about energy and change, and these three principles embody what we can do with energy and the many shifting changes around us. The Great White Stag is present in these principles as he lords over the forest: change is a constant in our great earth, and it is the many cycles such as the path of the sun, that we can harness for better life and living.

 

Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren)We live in a time of tremendous expenditure and waste of energy–this principle suggests that we catch and store that energy instead. If we look at a forest as our example, we see that forests are exceedingly effective at harnessing and storing any energy available: the trees grow in fractal patterns to store solar energy, and that solar energy is used over and over again, cycling through the system. In our own lives and designs, catching and storing energy to put to productive use is a key principle. This energy is any resource: external resources like sun, wind, or water and inner resources like time, joy, or passion.  We can harness that energy and store it, later to be used. Humans currently have an unbalanced relationship with energy, and it is cause devastation throughout our lands. This principle, then, asks us to be mindful and think about existing energy flows and how they can be most effectively used.

 

Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks.  When we enact spiraling changes, we focus on what is managable for us in that moment and how to build momentum over time.  Because, in reality, it are the small things, done over a period of time, that leave the most lasting impact.Rather than starting big and going all out with a 3 acre design, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. The principle of the spiral is critical here. We can’t burn ourselves out with trying to do too much, too quickly, and we can’t maintain our momentum. This principle also asks us to consider, for example, the role of ecological succession: we like to create designs thinking 100 years in the future, not just the immediate goals of tomorrow.

 

Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). Change happens whether or not we want it to; the world is always moving. Rather than see change as a bad thing, in permaculture we anticipate and embrace changes as a way to open up new possibilities and growth. This closely ties to one of the air principles, “the problem is the solution.”  We often see change as a negative thing–we like how things are going, we don’t want things to be different.  But change brings opportunity, if only we can see it.  Here’s an example: I try putting up an arbor and my plants are so abundant that the thing collapses without adequate support.  A creative response to this is to cut the vines back, use the cuttings for wreaths, and build a better arbor that allows me to sit under it!

 

 

Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool

The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—and the three water principles ask us to attend to those connections. In order to be effective as practitioners and designers of permaculture, we have to pay attention to many relationships. Permaculture, like druidry, is ultimately a path of understanding and facilitating connections and relationships, and the energy of water helps do this very thing.

 

Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). When you look at a typical vegetable garden, you see the veggies all in nice little rows, just waiting to eaten by whatever pest enjoys a good monocrop. Permaculture sees things differently: a healthy forest, after all, is never a monocrop but rather an integrated system. By integrating multiple elements in a design, we allow them to work with each other for good. This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs; a diverse ecosystem is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield. So, too, is a diverse group of people more resilent! This principle asks us to consider how each part in a system is related to each other and to the whole system. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together, rather than in isolation. This principle also builds on the spirit principle of working on multiple levels and understanding better how each individual part plays a role.

 

Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison). This principle suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions, there are others).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations. The more purposes a single element has, the more effective the design.  Any single plant or animal species in the forest offers an example: an oak tree provides shade, captures the energy of the sun, prevents erosion, drops leaves to offer habitat, offers nuts, and so many more things.

 

Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren). As a wild food forager and herbalist, I know that the margins are always the most abundant and diverse in an ecosystem–that’s where I go for much of my medicine and food. The edge of the pond or forest is where the activity is happening, where the bursting of life is taking place. This same principle can be applied to many other things: it is often at those edge spaces where we find the most interesting things happening!  This can be the space between a forest and a field, the edge of your yard or, even, the spaces between two people, the spaces where we overlap.

 

Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens

The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material things: what we do with the resources that we have and how we gain those resources. The earth principles ask us to manage and understand our own resources so that we can live in an earth-centered way.  The bear, and his medicine, is often of root, seed, and stone.

 

Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This basic principle says that we should work to obtain some kind of yield for our efforts. However, in permaculture, the idea of a yield is not limited to that which benefits humans (like a crop of tomatoes). Yields can certainly include food and medicine (the most obvious) but also intangibles like beauty, harmony, and peace. Yields in the natural environment can include blooms for nectar; fruit, seeds, and nuts for wildlife; habitat; soil fertility; erosion prevention, and more. This principle asks us to go beyond our own immediate needs and understand, ultimately, that the abundance of nature is for all to benefit from.  Nature is a great provider, and intentional design can help maximize the many yields she offers.  This principle also asks us to see a yield beyond that which is immediately physically beneficial to our own lives.

 

Waste is a resource (Mollison): Our culture is drowning in our own waste; I detailed some of the problems we have with waste in earlier posts on waste and humanure. In permaculture, waste (of any kind) is seen as a resource that has not yet been given a proper place.  We can work to, as Holmgren says, “produce no waste” by focusing our efforts on redirecting waste streams towards productivity.  For example, human waste and urine can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Old office paper can be turned into greeting cards using basic papermaking practices.  Spent grains from brewing can be added to the compost pile, and so on. Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling and instead encourages us to re-envision our waste streams.

 

Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): Stemming from the permaculture ethic of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. Our planet has finite resources and the extraction of these resources is causing increasing suffering, destruction, pollution, and habitat loss. In permaculture, we instead embrace things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy).  When we integrate renewables into our designs, we slow and/or eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.

 

 

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

Weaving the Design Principles and Elements into Practice

Just as we weave together the elements in rituals and in our own lives, so too, can we weave the different permaculture principles into our daily living.  As I discussed in my post last week, these principles aren’t just useful to us as “designers” when we are planning, but they also can be useful to us as mantras for meditation and just as principles for daily living–I try to use the principles as I go about my daily practice.  In the past, when I was first learning permaculture, I spent a month intensively studying each of the principles (you could do this for a week or even a day). This meant that for the “problem is the solution” month, I would spend time reflecting on it in meditation and working to embody the principle, seeing where it would work in my daily life, and using it to explore and think through larger societal problems.

 

It has taken me the better part of two years to come to this understanding of permaculture and how it maps onto the druid animals and elemental symbolism. I hope that this framing, along with my new additions and revisions to the principles, are a useful way of understanding these principles and how they can work in your life. In our next post, we’ll explore these same principles from an “inner landscape” perspective and then subsequent posts will move into exploring each individual principle and how we can use it to change our lives, regenerate our lands, and better our world.

 

PS: I especially want to thank David N. for his conversations and feedback on this line of thinking!

 

Sustainable Living in a Rental House: Options, Ideas, and More July 3, 2016

As a follow-up post to last week’s discussion of how anyone, anywhere can live a sustainable life , I wanted to share some of the sustainable living things that I am doing here while I’m renting a small house (with terrible solar gain, lol) in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Through this, I hope to demonstrate that even if you aren’t living the free range fantasy, there is a lot you can do, both in your own life, and for the greater good in your community. I hope that this post inspires you to share your own ideas!

 

1.  The Walking Lifestyle.

Some friends along the streets of my town :)

Some friends along the streets of my town 🙂

One of the primary lifestyle shifts I made was moving to a place where I could walk to work (hopefully permanently, but we’ll see where life takes me). I think this one shift is so huge, for so many reasons, that it probably offsets everything I’m not able to do in my rental that I was doing at my homestead.

 

I decided to see how much carbon emissions I saved by walking to campus rather than driving the 36 miles round trip in Michigan. Assuming I go to campus four days a week, 48 weeks of the year, that comes to just under 7000 miles driven per year to get to and fro from work. And there is also my walking to the post office, bank, to pick up food, and more–and the need to drive much less because everything is located conveniently in town. Assuming the lowest estimate, just the work miles, I have saved 2.87 metric tons of carbon this first year in walking rather than driving (you can get your own carbon estimates from Carbon Footprint Calculator). Now maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider that there are severe costs not just to the carbon going in the atmosphere, but also extraction, refining, and transport of fuel that are harder to use an online calculator to figure out, that’s quite a bit. We’ll add to this that I get daily exercise, I no longer have the horrible stress of Detroit Metro area traffic, and I can get a lot more out of my car by not using it as much (reducing the demand for new automobiles!).

 

And from a spiritual perspective, the walking is amazing.  I have tree friends that I visit every day; I use it as a time to do some walking meditation, speak with the spirits, even a bit of energetic work.  I am observing the changing of te seasons in the cracks of the sidewalks and the edges of people’s lawns, each day in the trees.  I would be flying by these in a car; and instead, I am slowing down, building in extra time on my walk to take it all in fully, to smell the flowers.  It has become something that I look forward to each day rather than dread, and it is now interwoven with my inner spiritual life.

 

2.  Growing Things: Container Gardening, Community Gardening, and Sprouting.

I have been exploring a number of ways to still grow things, which was one of my primary focuses at my old homestead.

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Solar gain and container gardening.  Each rental or apartment is different, and the main issue to contend with is light. How much full sun do you have? How much space in the sun do you have? This really determines to a large extent what you can grow, especially, what will thrive.

 

That is my big challenge here, certainly. The rental house I am living in has real challenges with solar gain; no place in the yard gets full sun.  I have no south facing windows! So I have had some challenges with growing things. And yet, I have really embraced container gardening this year. Last year, I discovered that the light is simply not enough to grow most veggies I like (like Kale) so I rented a community garden plot in addition to the containers and am growing veggies I really want to eat there. But, as a permaculture designer, I am focusing instead on how to turn this lack of light into a productive thing. Herbs are doing fine in their pots with morning sun, so I have rosemary, scented geranium, dill,  and a few other herbs in pots; I’ve tucked some herbs also into the “landscaping” on the front of the property (mint, chamomile, new England aster).  I have also grown several successive rounds of lettuce and spinach in pots, and am going for a 3rd round now–the part sun is a benefit to the spring/fall crops and keeps them from bolting.

 

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden. The community garden has been a great place to go when I’m feeling the need to get my hands in the dirt.  The way ours is setup here is that in addition to individual plots that anyone can rent for the season (for $25, I believe), there are also many community plots that are shared and that anyone can harvest from. So there is always gardening work to do for people like me who enjoy it! Also, I don’t think you how much you know till you start gardening around other people, lol! I have been having a lot of fun out in the community garden and have a lot of chances to learn and to share. I would recommend it to any renters!

 

Indoor Growing and Sprouting.  I’ve tried a few kinds of indoor growing, but they all required light (for example, growing microgreens over the winter).  Since I want to use less, I’m not sure that kind of growing is worth it right now for me.  But one carbon-free/energy free kind of growing I am really enjoying is sprouting.  Sprouting doesn’t require much light; it can be done on a counter.  It doesn’t take long, and the sprouts are highly nutritious and delightful!  I like the alfalfa sprouts the best. You can source seeds that are organic and GMO free, and support good companies while doing so :).

 

I'm proud of these sprouts!

I’m proud of these sprouts!

3.  Curbing Consumption and “Stuff ” Creep

I’ve written pretty extensively on this topic before, in my disposing of the disposable mindset posts, vermicomposting post, and more. But I want to say a few words here today, especially about consumption and waste, especially in terms of renting and small space living.

 

Stuff. Knowing that I gave away so much stuff in my life prior to moving has motivated me to keep “stuff creep” (the acquisition of useless stuff you don’t need and clutter) from happening.  This is really important in small spaces where you don’t have a lot of spare room! There are a few strategies to do this: One of the ways that I’m managing that is by keeping a box in my living room that is the “give away” box. When it is full, I take it to a local thrift store. The second is that I am never, ever buying anything on impulse. If I am interested in something, I wait a full week before making a decision, and that gives me time to decide if my decision was the correct one. Only then will I purchase it, and only then if I can use it.

 

Waste. I’ve been, as ever, monitoring plastics and packaging, working to recycle waste, recycle materials, and so on. People know about that and so I don’t have to spell it out here :).

 

4. Verimcomposting, Outdoor Composting, and Liquid Gold

For renting and small space living, there are actually several good options for composting and reycling of certain kinds of waste.

 

Vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is something that anyone, regardless of their living circumstances can do. Since I have limited space here, I opted for a smaller model vermicomposter consisting of a few old food grade buckets that had seen better days. You can read all about how to build a verimcomposter on my blog post.

 

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost Tumbling.  I brought my compost tumbler from my homestead with me to my rental, and boy am I glad that I did!  It has really allowed me to make a lot of great compost without any kinds of rodents or large compost piles in the yard that might upset neighbors.  The compost tumbler that I have (and that I really like) has two chambers for composting.  It claims to be insulated, which I don’t really think matters, lol, but the two chambers of large capacity are super helpful.  I switch chambers about every six months, so I just emptied the first chamber and am getting ready to refill it.

 

Liquid Gold. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the effectiveness of liquid gold for watering my plants, which I covered in more detail in this post.  My plants are happy and so am I!

 

5.  Life by Candlelight.

I wrote about this a bit in my Winter Solstice post (and you can read that for more depth); I have decided to forgo electric lighting at night and instead live by candlelight. This has profoundly changed my own rhythms, encouraging me to slow down, breathe deeply, and reconnect with the quietude of the dark.  I’ve been experimenting with a number of different kinds of lighting and candles to get the most efficiency possible.  I gave a lot of clear instructions for sourcing candles, lighting, etc, in my linked post, so I’ll encourage you to read.

 

One thing I’ll add is that I’ve now been doing this lifestyle about 8 months. It is truly amazing. I love living by candlelight at night; I sleep better, I feel less stressed and frantic, and I just feel more stable overall. It is amazing how such a small shift makes such a big difference, but it really does.

 

6. Haybox Cooking

Good friends of mine (two different sets) taught me about the haybox.  It is a very simple contraption–you heat something up, and then rather than continuing to use heat (like the oven or stovetop) to cook it, you instead pull it out of the oven and put it in a well-insulated box. This saves on fuel.  Here’s a nice introduction to how to build one. A few weeks ago, after finally getting my new dutch oven (!!!!) I started experimenting with the haybox and I really like it!  I have a very rudimentary one that is not nearly as nice as the one in the article I linked above, lol, and it is made of cardboard box with an old blanket as insulation (the hay would obviously be messy).  I have found that for cooking simple things, like a vegetable soup, works well.  My first attempt didn’t have everything cooked the whole way through cause I started it in the afternoon (and I should have started it in the morning). I’m still very much experimenting!

 

7.  Thermostat Changes and Air Conditioning

This is a pretty standard thing, but its important to mention.  Even when renting, you have control over your thermostat and your decisions about whether or not to crank up the AC in the summer or heat in the winter.  I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to move air through the house effectively to avoid the AC using fans in windows–this has been great!  I also invested in some great wool socks and sweaters  and can keep my house a much lower temperature in the winter.  Simple things add up :).

 

8.  Supporting Local Farmers with Chemical-Free Growing Practices

So obviously while renting in my solar-gain challenged circumstances, I’m not growing much of my own food these days.  However, this has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know my farmers at the farmer’s market and support them!  I have found several organic growers that I really like; additionally, I found several offering local pasture-raised meats, cheeses, dairy, and more.  Even in a quiet town in the mountains, there are good options available.  They aren’t as bountiful or divere as the Detroit Metro Area by any means (which is really like a local food Mecca!) but they are there if you know where to look.

 

9.  Plant Education in the Community

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk :)

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk 🙂

So this is one of the things I am most excited to share.  When I got here, I found some people doing some good work with conservation and standard gardening, but not too much else.  I decided to go for it, offering my knowledge as a permaculture designer, herbalist, and wild food forager to the community.  The response has been really great!  I’ll share one story: I began offering plant walks this summer to people who wanted to learn more about the edible and medicinal uses of plants.  I see this as part of my work in the world as a druid–helping reconnect people and nature.  I decided I didn’t want to earn money for them (it is sacred work, part of my spiritual path) so instead I took a donation for a good cause (and each walk is for a different cause). My first walk was a few weeks ago  (my second one is this week) and I had 25 people show up and raised $350 for charity!  They were a great bunch and since then, many are posting about their garlic mustard pesto and dandelion greens!  I opened the walk with a discussion of dandelion, and closed the walk with some tasty treats and a delicious bottle of dandelion wine. It was super exciting!

 

10. Land Healing, Scattering Seeds, Wildtending

Long-term readers of my blog will have noticed my shift in energy and focus: In moving, since I didn’t have land of my own, I shifted my focus instead on tending the broader land around me. This has been really productive for my own thinking, as well as for the land here, I believe. I have written a lot of posts on this subject in more depth: my post on healing hands, my series on wildtending and refugia and seed balls,  my extended series on land healing. Its interesting because I never realized how intently focused my gaze was on that one piece of land till I no longer had it, and it was almost like waking up, looking around, and saying, “ok, now what?!?” I think good things have come of it!

 

11. The Disposables Problem

I have also worked to tackle the disposables problem by starting to carry with me my own take out containers, buying in bulk when possible, and eliminating plastics from my life as much as possible. One of the small, yet important, shifts I made was investing in some stainless steel silverware (a spork and pair of chopsticks) that I keep in my purse.  Now, if I’m at the Chinese buffet, I don’t need to consume another pair of chopsticks. If I’m at tge campus function and there is disposable silverware, I get my spork out instead. This has equal value as an educational tool as it does to reduce waste :). I have a acquaintance who sells them.

 

12.  Slowing Down

A few of these (walking, candlelight, haybox cooking, local foods) have a united theme: the theme of slowing down.  I have been reading a lot more about the slow movements–slow food, slow money, etc.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that these things are “slow” in the sense that nothing ever gets accomplished.  But they are slowing down to the right speed so that we can more fully and meaningfully live!  And that’s good by me!

 

Other Stuff I’m Excited to Try: I have been looking diligently for a large, used fish tank with the hopes of getting an indoor aquaponics system setup.  The fish tank hasn’t yet manifested itself, but I suspect it will when the time is right. I’m quite excited to try this approach!  I’m also working on building a solar cooker and experimenting with a lot of different kinds of gas-free cooking, like dutch oven cooking.  I’m also, obviously, in search of my next property so the real fun can begin again!

 

What are you doing in your spaces, great or small! I would love to hear from you :).

 

Review of the 2015 Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA September 26, 2015

A view of some of the fair from the ski lift ride I took!  This is maybe 40% of the fair.

A view of some of the fair from the ski lift ride I took! This is maybe 25% of the fair.

Last weekend, I attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA for the first time. I’ve been wanting to go for years, but I was always too far away until my recent relocation.  I wanted to share with readers interested in homesteading, reskilling, herbs, organic farming, renewable energy,food forests, mushrooms or more, some key features of the fair and provide a general review of my experience.

 

As I’ve certainly discussed on this blog at various points, we have a group of human beings who have lost their way, primarily due to various circumstances surrounding industrialization and consumerism.  We have so many who have lost their connection with nature and lost their knowledge of how to take care of themselves by forging a sacred partnership with their land.  A lot of people now are beginning to wake up, to want to do something different, but have very little knowledge or skills of how to do so. Mother Earth News, a magazine that has been around for almost 40 years at this point, has long been working to educate people on traditional skills, and in my opinion, doing a fine job of it.  Their focus is mostly geared towards the small-scale homesteader. Some time ago (probably 8 or so years now) they started offering the Mother Earth News Fairs.  There are now six of them throughout the USA–the one here in PA was one of the original fairs they started. The fairs are really reasonably priced (I paid just $20 in advance for my wristband for the whole weekend; I think it was $35 at the door) and offer opportunities to learn and have a sense of community and interaction not possible in any publication.  Mother Earth News is offering really accessible and affordable reskilling for people who are waking up, wanting to live differently, wanting to do something in the face of such challenging times.  I have no idea what they make on these fairs, and I really don’t care–from my perspective, they are doing good work to re-educate people in an accessible, friendly, and affordable way, and for that, they should be commended.  And so, let’s hear a bit about the fair and my experiences there!

 

Location

Seven Springs is a ski resort located in the heart of the Laurel Highlands region of South-Western PA.  The Laurel Highlands the ridges of the Appalachians in PA; lovely rounded mountains with beauty, biological diversity, and some incredible views.  Its really an ideal place for the Mother Earth News Fair, and if you had extra time to stay beyond the fair, you could check out some of the best that PA has to offer: nearby Ohiopyle State Park offers multiple waterfalls, whitewater rafting, kayaking, hiking, rappelling, and almost 80,000 acres of forests; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is just down the road, and Laurel Caverns offers amazing spelunking (caving) opportunities. Seven Springs itself has a canopy zip line tour and some other really fun stuff even for the summer months. While I was lucky enough to have only about a 2 hour drive to the fair, I met people who had come all over the East Coast and Midwest to attend the fair.

 

Lodging and Transportation

Because the lodging at the fair itself is super expensive ($250/night to stay at the lodge itself), I reserved at campsite at the nearby campground, Laurel Hill State Park, which cost me $60 for the entire weekend for up to 3 tents on one site.  Laurel Hill State Park is a smaller park but still amazing, and its also home to my favorite patch of forest possibly anywhere in the world–an old growth hemlock grove. The Laurel Hill Campground is a really economical option that is less than a 10 minute drive from the fair–and most of the people camping there are there for the fair, so you can meet fun people at the campground that weekend.  I learned from others attending the fair that the other cheaper option if you don’t want to camp is to try to get a cabin nearby, like one of the lodges for Seven Springs (which is a ski resort during the winter); one friend was able to rent a lodge in walkable distance for only about $125/night.  If you don’t mind a 30 minute drive to the fair, there are ample hotels in nearby Somerset.  Do note that if you arrive anytime to the fair after about 8:30am, parking is an issue, and you’ll have to park pretty far away and take a shuttle bus back and forth—which is fine unless you wanted to keep food in the car or take purchases back to the car.

 

Presentations

Sandor Katz shows us some fermentation techniques.

Sandor Katz shows us some fermentation techniques.

One of the big draws to the Mother Earth news fair are the presenters.  Mother Earth News does a good job in finding presenters that are knowledgeable (and that already have books, in most cases).  The presentations each have an hour slot, which allows only for a certain amount of depth and specificity (although they sometimes do put two-part series back to back in the schedule, this year, there was one on renewable energy). The biggest problem is that about 15 presentations are going at the same time, and you may want to be in more than one place at once (really, how can you choose between building an electric bicycle, winter beekeeping, medicinal mushrooms, and food forests?) Since I came with my mother and father to the fair, the three of us split up, each going to different workshops, then meeting up and sharing the information that we learned. This worked well for us. The quality of the presenters and talks was generally quite high, and I really enjoyed the presentations that I attended.  Here are a few highlights:

 

Tradd Cotter (Mushroom Mountain) gave my favorite talk of the fair on the medicinal value of many mushrooms. He has been doing a lot of fantastic research on medicinal mushrooms and showed us photographs and described his lab research with chaga, reishi, maitake, even jack-o-lantern mushrooms. While I have been interested in mushrooms for some time, the level of depth and specificity he went into about mushrooms fighting illnesses, mushrooms being the next penicillin, and so on, was really exciting and has encouraged me to take up the study of medicinal mushrooms more seriously. As an added bonus, each day he did a mushroom walk at 7am (not to interfere with other fair activities) and that was a ton of fun.

 

Seeing Dan Chiras (Evergreen Institute) was another highlight of the fair for me. I’ve been reading about his work on passive solar, greenhouse design, and biological natural water filters through some of my permaculture courses and organic farming courses for some time. I attended his talk on Chinese Greenhouse design, and, in less than an hour, was  convinced that conventional hoop houses/green houses (or heated greenhouses) have it all wrong, they are super energy inefficient, and by taking inspiration from the Chinese and building passive solar greenhouses, we could do a lot better.  The design that Chiras is currently testing includes double glazing (standard on any hoop house), orientation of east to west to maximize the south side of the greenhouse, glazing only on the south side of the greenhouse, a heatsink wall in the back of the greenhouse (with stone, most likely), having the greenhouse sunk into the ground on the north side or, at minimum, a big pile of earth piled up behind the north side for heat control, solar powered fans to move air and sink more heat, and even big automated insulating blankets for the greenhouse at night. This is such a smart design in so many ways and I’m excited to hear more about how Dan is able to implement various iterations of it as his site.

 

Petra Paige Mann (Fruition Seeds) gave an absolutely outstanding talk on how to select and create new varieties of open-pollinated seeds. While I have always been working with seeds and seed saving, this gave me a new perspective on what you can do to better cultivate your own varieties that are adapted to your specific site. Her perspective includes spotting natural variation of plants to create new varieties, cross pollinating, deciding the best way to select fruit or veggies to save for seed, using a flagging system, and working with farmers and their specific needs. I really enjoyed her discussion of de-hybridization, something her seed company specializes in, where they take an F1 hybrid and over successive generations, create an open-pollinated variety with that as a start.  She’s really enjoying that work, and has created some unique things not found anywhere else!

 

Sandor Katz (Wild Fermentation, the Art of Fermentation) was also really exciting to see, given that I’ve been reading his books for years and so many of us learned to fermet from Wild Fermentation.  He did a live fermentation demo and a few other workshops–I attended his fermentation demo.  It was certainly crowded at the demo and he was covering just basic principles, but I came away with a number of new tips for fermentation (like using an air lock to avoid mold at the top–why didn’t I think of that? LOL).

 

Tradd Cotter's 7am unscheduled mushroom walk was one of the highlights!

Tradd Cotter’s 7am unscheduled mushroom walk was one of the highlights!

A few issues with the presentations was that the presenters are often booked for multiple talks (sometimes in a single day) and they may repeat themselves a bit in their talks if you attend multiple talks. The other big issue with the Fair presentations was simply that there were a lot of people at the fair, and the seats filled up fast.  They had a lot of seats, a lot of tents, but it didn’t seem to be enough for everyone who wanted to hear and listen.  They had TV screens setup that projected images and information from the presenters, but unless you were close, you often couldn’t see them.  While this is a bit of a problem, its also nice to see how many people want to learn this stuff!

 

Vendors/Shopping

You know, generally, I really dislike shopping, and I avoid stuff and spending unnecessary money. I spent more at the fair than I probably did anywhere else the entire year. Why? Everything that I use to help me homestead, forage, and otherwise live cleanly was there at the fair. The Livestock tent featured farmers with their alpacas and amazing weaves, hand-dyed and spun wool and yarn, and so much more.  The vendors outside and inside of the building offered a huge variety of things: from electric powered bicycles to heirloom seeds, from beekeeping equipment to healthy snacks, from locally brewed mead to ferments, and from t-shirts and wool socks to hard-to-find medicinal plants. Mushrooms were also a big thing at the fair. There were people demoing solar hot water systems, storage containers converted into houses, log splitters, and more.  Mother Earth News also had a huge bookstore.  Uh, yeah.  I purchased all of the gifts for my family and close friends I needed for the next year and gifted myself with some amazing things (like a great 6′ tall, 24” across air dehydrator for dehydrating bulk medicinal herbs and tea plants–super useful, several new books that I’ve been hoping to get, wool socks, and a bunch of medicinal plants !)  I also had a chance to meet and see some of the people whose products I often do purchase and ask questions (like the Bushy Mountain Beekeeping people, who I use for beekeeping supplies–I talked to those guys for a solid 45 minutes). I can hardly even believe I’m saying this, but shopping at the fair was a ton of fun–and one of the reasons was that the vendors were cool people passionate about what they were doing and working to create the best products to make the world a better place.

In the Livestock Tent

In the Livestock Tent

Aplaca gets ready to demo packing supplies up a mountain

Alpaca gets ready to demo packing supplies up a mountain

Some baubles from Plant-it-Earth Greenhouse (located very close to me here in Indiana, PA!)

Some baubles from Plant-it-Earth Greenhouse (located very close to me here in Indiana, PA!)

Did I mention mushrooms?

Did I mention mushrooms?

They brought their cob oven with them!

They even brought their cob oven with them!

Community

The overall community and vibe of the fair is great. Everyone was happy to be there, people were super friendly (as is the case generally in Western PA), everyone was interesting to talk to. When you’d be getting lunch, or waiting to hear a presenter, or even at your campsite at nearby Laurel Hill, there are people to talk to and learn from. I really enjoyed this aspect of the fair–just meeting people, hearing their stories, hearing their plans about life. It was so delightful to be around a concentration of people who really cared about the health of the land and in regenerating the land, building connections to nature, and sharing.

 

Fun Stuff

Riding the ski lift.  I am such a nerd.

Riding the ski lift. I am such a nerd.

In addition to the regularly scheduled events, Tradd Cotter offered mushroom hunts in the wee morning hours of the fair. Nearly 75 of us took him up on the offer on Saturday morning, and we went all over the woods, bringing whatever mushrooms we found back for identification and insight.  It was a great time to be out as the sun was rising, talking mushrooms, the big group of us ignoring the “closed” signs at the gates to the fair and heading off into the woods.

 

The other fun thing my family and I did was ride the ski lifts up and back.  This seems kind of silly, but it was a wonderful view, a fun experience, and after a long day of intensive learning, it was nice just to have the wind on your face for a bit!

 

Conclusion

All and all, I had a wonderful weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair, and came away with some really exciting information not yet available in books or published online.  I spent way too much money, I made new friends, and I got to hear their stories.  Perhaps, the most important thing that happened, is that I came away energized and invigorated and ready to keep on healing and regenerating our great earth mother, and working to teach others to do the same!

 

Lines Upon the Landscape: Spiritual and Energetic Ramifications of Oil Pipelines and Fracking July 17, 2015

Sacred Circle in Michigan

Sacred Circle in Michigan

I’ll never forget May 1st, 2014. I came down to the sacred circle at my homestead in Michigan and with the intention of performing a private Beltane celebration ritual I had prepared. As I began the ritual, something felt very, very wrong. Wrong in the deep, gut sense. Behind the circle was a ley line (in an energetic sense) held by a number of hawthorn trees in a growing in a straight line. I had built the circle before I had found this line, and was delighted when I found it years later. This pathway created an abundance of positive energy upon the land. This ley line ran a good ½ mile or more.   But on Beltane over a year ago, the energies of the line had substantially diminished from even the day before when I had visited the circle. On Beltane, line felt stifled or dampened, and was weakening by the minute. This change had been going on slowly for some time, but this new development was immediate and intense. I knew that a company called Enbridge was putting in an oil pipeline and a compressor station; the pipeline ran less than half a mile from my land and the compressor station was about 3 miles north of my home. I knew that this was the worst kind of oil with a horrific environmental toll—the tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. But what I didn’t know was that that pipeline was turned on that exact day–Beltane of 2014. Instead of performing my planned ritual, I investigated the energetics further, and I found that where the now-active pipeline crossed the ley line, the line’s energy just stopped, cut off, and that the pipeline was corrupting and weakening the line tremendously. As I observed in the time since, the line literally became non-existent. This isn’t to say the magic of the land was gone, but the magic of that sacred place that I had created was different and altered. The line had shifted the energies, and they are still shifting in the time since. I think its significant that Enbridge (likely unknowingly) chose the day celebrated in my tradition, and in many others, as the day when blessings, abundance, and fertility were returned to the land.

 

In many places and across many time periods, ancient humans created a sacred network across the land*. Lines of stones, sacred roads, stone circles, wood circles, cursuses, ancient old straight paths provided networks are all examples of these lines. From the Incan lines radiating outward from their greatest city, to the spirit roads of the Chinese, to the henges, trilithons, hills and old straight tracks in Great Britain, humans developed physical energetic pathways for specific purposes along the landscape. Using mathematical principles from sacred geometry and the sweat equity of countless humans, some of the lines, curses, mounds, stone circles, and even groves of sacred trees were local occurrences, and yet others went for hundreds of miles and even today can still be viewed from space. Whole cities were built with their holy sites in alignment with the stars, the city and travel ways aligning to sacred wells, stones, and hills. This weaving and creating of a sacred landscape was a defining feature of so many ancient cultures—from South America to North, from the British Isles to China. Most theories suggest that these lines had numerous cultural functions, including emphasizing channeling down the sun into the land to bring abundance, communicating with spirits or ancestors, and in overall blessing the land. The lines upon the landscape, the old straight paths, were a consistent feature upon the landscape for well over a millennium or more. Humans lived, played, ate, loved, breathed, slept, and eventually died on landscapes where the sacredness was set into the very stones.

 

But over time and in many places, the old knowledge of sacred geometry and the power of the straight line, of setting of stones, were lost.  Eventually, the sacred worldview under which these lines were created and maintained was replaced**.

A very different pattern upon the landscape

A very different pattern upon the landscape

 

As time passed, and the world became disenchanted. With the industrialization, mechanized processes, and rationality, the lines that had held the enchantment of the world slowly began to be replaced with modern highways, rails, and subdivisions, who by their very nature are the antithesis of sacred geometry. The ancient henges were dug up in the name of science, the ancient curses and old straight roads were plowed over to make room for “development.” People like “Rock Breaker” farmer discussed in Alfred Watkins’ Old Straight Track purposefully destroyed the stones that had stood for thousands of years because they were inconvenient for his fields. The idea that the land could hold magic was abandoned; the land was physically, mentally, and spiritually disenchanted.   New energy lines, very different from the sacred ones of the distant past, are now a permanent part of our landscape.

 

Like the lines our ancestors once set, these profane oil and gas energy lines are the legacy we leave our ancestors. What energetic pattern do these lines create? What will this new energy line system to do our lands long-term? If our ancient ancestors spent generations upon generations building sacred lines to ensure the peace and prosperity of our lands, what legacy do these new lines leave behind. The disenchanted worldview doesn’t even acknowledge, much less understand, the ramifications of what I write. The photo below shows these new energy lines weaving across the landscape.  For anyone that doesn’t think this affects you or for anyone who thinks that if you just move, you can somehow avoid this….I think this map tells a different story.  When you combine this with mountain top removal, fracking wells, refineries, and more–its pretty much impossible to avoid.

Pipelines across the USA - 2.8 million miles of them (map from Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration)

Pipelines across the USA – 2.8 million miles of them (map from Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration)

As I read a story after story about people fighting to stop yet another pipeline through their backyards, I think about how these pipelines and wells are built manipulation and misinformation perpetuated in communities. I never even knew about that pipeline or new compressor station in Michigan until well after my township had already given them their rubber stamp of approval without any real public notice or opportunity for response. I think about what that pipeline in Michigan did to the landscape, I attempt to understand the deep ramifications of the loss.

 

Machinery preparing for pipeline in Michigan

Machinery cutting down trees and preparing for pipeline in South-East Michigan

If nothing is sacred, then nothing is sacred. Profit becomes the driving motivator of all change, to the short-term profit of few and to the long-term detriment of all. While the world has been largely disenchanted for well over a century or more in most industrialized areas, at least, we are now in a time period where the toll of the profane actions upon landscape is coming due. Among the many other challenges, the drive to put in more and more pipelines, frack anywhere that holds a bit of gas or oil, and continue to consume fossil fuels has led us down such a dark path. I read a few days ago how fracking companies have been spreading their toxic wastewater upon almond and pistachio fields in California, and I think about the long-term ramifications of the disenchantment of the world. Even the way the article reporting on the new practice for fracking wastewater and farmer’s fields is written is disturbing and disenchanted. It speaks of “conservation” and “recycling” in an industry that is literally poisoning our lands and water on a massive scale, and now, apparently, dumping even more poison (likely radioactive and certainly carcinogenic) on our food system. Of course, an 8 million dollar pipeline for the fracking wastewater was just approved to ensure the quick passage of their toxic slurry to your dinner table.

 

In the last week, I helped a friend who is fighting a natural gas compressor station and gas pipeline revise a survey and flyer that will help alert people locally to what is happening. I read stories from all over the country about other groups doing the same—and I pray for their success (I may blog about this group soon–they are using impressive resistance tactics!)  I think about my own experiences in Michigan. I think about my experiences in going hiking after returning to my beloved mountains in Western Pennsylvania, now deep in the heart of fracking country. Fracking didn’t exist when I moved away in my early 20’s after graduating with my BA, but now, it is a permanent feature upon the land, a feature I’m still trying to grasp, understand, and personally respond to.

 

When we hear the news of yet another species extinction, or the poisoning of yet another waterway, or the spill of yet more oil in another ocean, or the release of yet another set of toxins, culturally there is no real response on a widescale level. The industrial machine plows forward with reckless abandon. There seems to be no limit—or care—about how things like fracking, oil pipelines, chemicals, and toxins are changing our landscape. This is because, culturally, we would need radical shifts towards more sustainable living and with a lot less stuff or fossil fuel to make a real difference, and that is something that many modern disenchanted minds cannot currently conceive.

 

Even given this, I believe there is hope. The gas lines and oil pipelines and fracking wells exist upon our landscape now because there was demand and need for them.  By transitioning our own daily living, the demand for such things diminishes. As much as seeing the alternations upon my homelands have saddened me, I know there is hope, both for our physical lands and for the re-enchantment of those lands. We have tools, already in existence, that can help us transition to lower or no fossil fuel living and ways of regenerating our landscapes and lives.  There is also spiritual work we can do to help, at least energetically, engage in the start of healing.  Given these possible tools of response,  I’ll be posting regularly on both the physical and the energetic responses that we can have.  The important thing, I think, it to feel empowered and to do something.  We never truly know how far we can go, and what we can achieve, until we try.   *For readers wanting to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend Lines Upon the Landscape by Paul Devereux and Nigel Pennick. **For readers wanting to understand the shifts in worldview, the first chapter of The Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer serves as an excellent introduction.

 

Living the Wheel of the Year: Spiritual and Sustainable Practices for the Summer Solstice June 19, 2015

The Summer Solstice, what we call “Alban Hefin” in the Druid Revival tradition, marks the beginning of high summer in my part of the world, and many activities of this time period focus on harvesting and honoring the power of the sun and thinking about the energy present in our lives.  This is the time of light, laughter, growth, and movement!  This is the time when people are outside, doing things, enjoying the warmth that the sun provides.  The summer solstice gives us many opportunities to deepen our awareness and connection with the land and understand the relationship between earth and sky. (For my blog readers living in the southern hemisphere, see my post on the Winter Solstice for more appropriate activities for your Solstice!) Here are some activities that allow us to live in both a spiritual and sustainable manner:

 

Gathered herbs for drying!

Gathered herbs for drying!

1) Solstice herb gathering and medicine making.  Some of my favorite plant allies are coming into bloom at the solstice and are ready to harvest–garden herbs like mint, lemon balm, sage, and thyme.  Many leafy allies like strawberry leaf, raspberry leaf, plantain, and violet leaf–four of my most important leafy herbs for healing. Elder flower is typically also in full bloom–a critical medicinal. I always gather these on the summer solstice.  These are all gentle herbs: strawberry leaf is a gentle astringent, great for conjunctivitis; violet leaf is a gentle demulcent, which coats and soothes (also good for conjunctivitis); plantain does a bit of everything (more on this plant soon); raspberry leaf is great for women’s issues; elder flower aids the body during influenza (and these plants all do so much more). I harvest these, tincture them, or dry them in a dehydrator or solar dehydrator.

 

2) Explore solar cooking. Solar cooking was quite a big deal back before electricity, and even in the 1970’s in the USA–and for good reason: anytime we can use the sun over gas, electric, or wood, we will have minimized our impact on the land. Even more–since we now cook with gas, and a lot gas is extracted through fracking, the less demand we can create for gas, the better. One of my friends has a great solar cooker oven from the 1970’s and we’ve had fun cooking beans, casseroles, and more in it–I hope to build one of my own sometime soon.  Even a super-simple design, a cardboard box with tin foil, can make a very effective solar oven.  I’ve been working on such an oven (using plans found here) to process my beeswax from my bees–solar approaches work best!

 

3) Making an energizing, herbal sun tea. Because the sun is an energizing force of nature, and because it is at its height on the day of the solstice, I like to make an energizing sun tea from some of those herbs. To make a sun tea, you simply place your herbs in a glass mason jar with water and let it sit in the direct sun for 4-6 hours. Dried herbs work better for teas than fresh because when they are dried, the cell walls break down. If you are using fresh herbs, you can grind them up a bit with a mortar and pestle to break down the cell walls (or put them in the freezer for about an hour–both will do the trick!). Obviously, your tea is being cooked by the energy of the sun rather than fossil fuels, which is sustainable. But its more than that–energetically, the solar current infuses the tea, allowing you to take its cleansing rays within. What I like to do is make a few different teas that day in mason jars, then leave them in the fridge and drink them over the next few days.  Its a lovely, simple ritual to do with candles, hot baths, etc–have your daily herbal energizing tea.

 

The Sun from the Tarot of Trees (my tarot deck)

The Sun from the Tarot of Trees (my hand-painted tarot deck)

What kind of tea do you want to make? As a traditional western herbalist, I believe that the tea should fit the person, their energetic state, and their needs. Here are a few possibilities based on what you are needing at the time.

 

A general revitalizing tea could include any of the following revitalizing herbs: Astragalus, nettle, ginseng, fo-ti, milky oats or oatstraw, reishi. (I usually use herbs more local, and not all of these are).  I would most certainly add raw honey after the tea was made. I would make the tea with one or more of the above and then add any of the following herbs based on what you wanted to accomplish:

  • Mental clarity/revitalizing: holy basil, lavender, sage, rosemary, passion flower
  • Rest/relaxation: Catnip, Lemon balm, blue vervain (for people who take on too much and are always busy and just need to stop), chamomile
  • Emotional revitalization: St. John’s Wort, Hawthorn, Hops, Wood Betony, Skullcap
  • Physical exhaustion: Licorice, Schizandra, Kava Kava (will be tingly in the mouth), Chamomile

So, if I had just gone through a divorce or breakup and really wanted some healing, I would start with nettles, gathered locally the day or two before the Solstice, and then, add hawthorn, st. johns wort, and lemon balm (for example). If I was really physically tired, I’d do astragalus, nettle, ginsing, and schizandra.  And so on. You can mix and match–but be warned, not all of these herbs taste awesome (reishi, for one, is an acquired taste; not everyone likes licorice, and so on). Not all of them taste particularly awesome together, so you might want to get a few jars and see what combinations you like or test in advance. You can also add less of the herb that tastes not so great–tea making is an art into and of itself!

You can also add some kind of regular tea to the herbs–like a green tea. I use red rooibos or green rooibos for this sometimes. For the herbs that aren’t locally available or ethical to harvest, you can get them from Mountain Rose Herbs.

 

Sunflower and bee!

Sunflower and bee!

4) Put up a clothesline.  There is nothing quite like the freshness of clothes that have been hung out on a line to dry. When I visited Costa Rica, families washed their clothes by hand and everywhere you went, the laundry was hanging out to dry and was beautiful in the breeze. We see this less and less in the states, and its a sad thing! This very simple act can save tremendous amounts of fossil fuel energy over the course of a year–and your clothes are blessed by the energy of the sun and wind.

 

5) Build a solar dehydrator. Solar dehydrator plans are abundant online and function on some simple premises: collecting and directing the heat of the sun for drying purposes. I have built several working prototypes of solar dehydrators out of thick cardboard and was impressed by how well even these worked (plans can be found here at Mother Earth News). My friend with the solar cooker also has built a full-scale solar dehydrator and I’ve visited farms with various sizes and models–if you have a garden, do any foraging, or practice any herbalism, these are well worth your time to construct!

 

6) Explore solar showers and hot water heaters. Solar showers and hot water heaters are another fantastic way of harnessing the sun’s energy for your comfort and to reduce your dependency on fossil fuels. These run from very simple systems; a black bag or bucket (perhaps connected to a rainwater harvest system) that has a valve, hose, and shower head, to fully elaborated systems that are integrated into someone’s house and attached to the roof. In each case, water is cycled through tubes with a black surface and then is stored till use. I’ve experimented mostly with the simple “camp” showers thus far, but I have plans for more elaborated solar shower systems in the future! If you have any kind of solar shower, the solstice is a great time to take an “energizing shower” that day!

 

The Mushroom Garden

The Mushroom Garden

7) Mushroom logs and mushroom bed cultivation. Another great activity to get into during the summer months is mushroom cultivation.  This may mean creating mushroom logs or establishing mushroom beds (see my blog posts on mushrooms here and here).  I have experimented with three kinds of mushroom cultivation: inoculating freshly-cut logs; creating a mushroom bed; and growing oysters indoors.  Kits are available for you to get started!

 

8) Rainwater harvesting. Before you begin rainwater harvesting, check the local laws in your area.  Some places have made it illegal to harvest your own rainwater (which I find abhorrent; most of these restrictions are due to lobbying by industrialized agriculture and unsustainable uses of water). Rainwater harvesting can be done in two ways: 1) through the catchment and cistern system and 2) through diverting water in the landscape itself using a raingarden or swale system (building swales to collect passively is not illegal anywhere, as far as I know).

 

I’ve been wary using a rain catchment system on my home because I had to put a new roof on the house only a few years ago and I’m not sure about the chemicals in asphalt shingles (everything I’ve read indicates its not good). When I visited Costa Rica, everyone used metal roofs and many had simple rainwater harvesting systems that diverted into their gardens.

 

The second option, the swale, is a feature you can build into the existing landscape, often on a hill.  I built mini swales into a hill behind my barn in Michigan to provide my fruit trees I planted there with extra nourishment.  I also built a runoff trench to harvest water from my gravel driveway into a mushroom garden–these worked so well, and the year we were in drought, those trees were still strong and healthy because of the extra water.

 

9.  Stormwater runoff awareness raising and monitoring. Stormwater is a huge environmental issue that has gotten little attention or notice, and with high summer comes more and more storms. As we create more and more houses, more and more paved streets and parking lots, water has less chance to absorb directly into the ground and more toxins run from the streets into our waterways. This causes substantial problems for our water, and as we have become so painfully aware of in recent years, water is a scarce resource worth protecting.  One way we can protect our waterways is with better stormwater management. We can address this in our own landscapes and also in our communities by educating ourselves and taking action.  Part of the reason this is a good idea in the summer months is because this is when a lot of new construction happens, and new construction often damages rivers and streams. For example, in my local community, they were building a new bridge and had inappropriate protections for water runoff from the concrete on the site.  A friend of mine who was educated in stormwater taught me about what was going on and showed me the site, and was actively involved in educating our township about what they needed to do differently. Sometimes, you can learn and become the eyes and ears for a whole waterway–an activity well worth pursuing.  A good site to learn more is Stormwater Awareness.

 

10.  Simple Sunbathing Ritual.  In the AODA tradition, we work with three currents of energy: the Solar (sun), the Telluric (earth) and the Lunar (that which is awakened from the elements and the solar and telluric currents). The sun is a purifying and energizing force. As the most simple of rituals on this day, I will go into a natural area and find a place where the sun is shining down (a clearing in a forest or field does this well).  I’ll lay down a blanket in the sun then I will open up a sacred space in my tradition (for those that are new to this, in my tradition this means declaring my intentions, declaring peace in the four directions, purification with the four elements, and calling in the elements, and establishing a protective energetic sphere).  After this, I will simply lay in the sun (I usually cover my face to do this). If the space is particularly private, I may lay in the sun without any clothing; otherwise, I’ll wear a swimming suit. I focus on my breathing during this time, doing color breathing (John Michael Greer describes this technique in several places, including the Druidry Handbook and Druid Magic Handbook).  I often combine this 15 minute practice with my other celebratory rituals for the day, with this coming at the end of a celebration.

 

Just 15 minutes of direct sunlight gives you your vitamin D for the day, especially when the sun is at its height this time of a year.  Even my fair Irish skin doesn’t burn in 15 minutes, once a year, unprotected :P.

Yay for foraging!

Yay for foraging!

 

11. Learn foraging. Wild food and medicine foraging is a wonderful thing to learn around the time of the solstice. The plants are in full bloom, in the weeks following the solstice, in my bioregion, the first of the summer mushrooms and berries are coming in (Mulberry, blackberry, black raspberry, thimbleberry, blueberry, etc).  Its a great time to get outside and see what you can find! I have many posts dedicated to this practice on my blog, and I suggest you start with my two-part posts on how to forage, ethics, safety, and more.

 

12.  Holding a Vigil and Honoring the Sunrise. Another thing I like to do on both of the solstices is holding a vigil and being awake to see the sun rise.  I think on these two days its important to greet the sun, as it is the giver of all life on earth, and on this day, we honor the sun.  For the winter solstice, this practice usually involves an all-night vigil with fire and friends. For the summer solstice, I like to camp, and then wake up prior to sunrise so I can watch the sun coming in. I also make sure I am there to observe the sunset on that day. I have written songs for my flute to honor the sunrise, and I play the sunrise song and sit in meditation and joy as the sun rises over the hills and up through the trees!

 

13.  Make some solstice jam.  One of the things I do every year on the solstice is to make some jam.  The three plants I can harvest that are always ready this time of year are serviceberry (wild foraged), strawberry (grown or purchased from farmers) and rhubarb.  All of the jams I make these days are using Pomona’s pectin, a low-sugar or sugar-free pectin that allows you to can with small amounts of sugar, maple syrup, stevia, or honey. You can get at Whole Foods or other health stores or order online–totally worth it. Usually I use honey from my hives.  Here are the jams I can make that are in season at the Summer Solstice (yours may be a bit different!):

  • A straight serviceberry jam (using a bit of honey)
  • A strawberry jam of some kind; I’ve done strawberry vanilla, strawberry mint, and strawberry ginger (here’s a recipe for strawberry ginger)
  • A rhubarb jam of some kind (here’s a recipe for straight rhubarb; I modify this to add orange juice instead of lemon juice and add orange peels and its amazing! Here’s one for cherry-rhubarb, which I replace with strawberries)
  • An herb jelly (recipe here).

What is so wonderful about canning jam on the summer solstice is that it makes amazing gifts, especially at the Winter Solstice. People LOVE getting a jam that contains the energy of the sun–that’s essentially what you do when you can on this day!  Bottle up the sun’s energy and save it for the dark months.

 

Thank you for reading, and I wish everyone an amazing Summer Solstice!

Rays of the Sun

Rays of the Sun

 

Other Sites: Costa Rica as a Model Sustainable Living and Permaculture Design in Action March 14, 2015

In February 2015, I took a 12-day trip to Costa Rica (my first real vacation!) Part of the reason I decided on Costa Rica was that this culture is well-known for emphasizing sustainability in a way that is well beyond lip service, and I wanted to experience it for myself and see what I could learn while I was there. I want to touch on the many things I observed and learned on this journey with regards to sustainable living and permaculture design. I traveled to four areas and drove across large portions of the countryside: the Monteverde region (high in the cloud forests), the urban and suburban San Jose region; the volcanic La Fortuna region, and the costal Manuel Antonio region.  One thing to remember about the Costa Ricans–they are one of the happiest countries in the world. I don’t think this is a fluke–I think its directly tied to the ways in which they live sustainably, have protected and preserved their own landscapes and local economies. So I’m going to look at some of those ways, envisioning Costa Rica as an alternative model for living. Along the way, I’m going to discuss  permaculture design from its three ethical principles: Care for people, Care for the Earth, and Set Limits/Redistribute Surplus.

 

Localized Economies

I want to start with the economy, because A) its the sacred cow of US politics and really the only thing anyone talks about these days, but also B) Costa Rica shows that there are viable alternatives for localized systems of wealth that empower people and protect the land. One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica was the localized economy–and how this manifested in the landscape. Literally everywhere we went, towns, stores, and businesses were different. They had different stores, small businesses, different kinds of food, artist-owned co-ops, wonky weird places and much more. In the USA, we are literally drowning in Walmarts, McDonalds, Rite Aids, TGI Fridays, Holiday Inn, Chase Bank, Subway, TJ Max, etc. Each town is a replica of the previous town, with the same 40 or so corporations promoting their wares.  Its like a rubber stamp; town after town looks the same. Each has this long line of strip malls with bad traffic and noise pollution, and you are supposed to WANT to go there and shop and purchase the same industrialized food.  Occasionally, a town or city will try to break out of it and have a “weird” core which is locally owned and unique (I think about Austin, TX, or Ann Arbor, MI) but even with their weirdness, the mega corporations are still there, just around the corner. I never realized how bad this was until I went to Costa Rica and drove all around the countryside.

 

In Costa Rica, the businesses are generally all locally owned, unique, and charming. I stayed in small B&B’s, farms, and small hostels everywhere and they were operated by the people who owned them and employed local workers (chain hotels weren’t even an option most places I stayed). A lot of these places were farms or sustainable living centers that also offered a bed to weary travelers. The accommodations were simple and wonderful. I ate food made and grown by locals (you didn’t even have to ask where it came from–you could just taste that it was fresh), I bought local art, and enjoyed locally-based attractions (like an orchid garden with 2000+ orchids or a sustainable chocolate plantation). It was amazing because everything was different, unique. Many places also embraced the landscape–they had gardens, walking paths, big trees, and the business “flowed” with the landscape so much more. And it was economically successful.

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

This really gets at the permaculture design principle “Care for People.” People are empowered–they can own businesses, hire each other, and determine their own economic realities. I think they are rooted in their communities, they also care more about what happens in them (than say, Walmart, who really couldn’t give a damn about the local town or their local workers they are in because their economic reality isn’t firmly rooted there). And when the people are cared for, they can focus on caring for other things, like the land and each other.

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

 

Housing.

By American standards, most Costa Ricans live in, as one snarky American I met on my travels called them “shacks.” The houses have metal roofs, outdoor living areas, and rather small interiors. I would say that the Costa Ricans live simply, and there is much to like about how they live. Because really– how much space does one person need? We have large houses here in the states to accommodate the “stuff” that we purchase and store as part of consumerist culture. But simple living, with fewer and more meaningful things, has a lot going for it, as the Costa Ricans demonstrate. The only American-sized houses that I saw were owned in areas where Americans lived–the signs were in English, the lawns were present, and the houses were enormous in those resort areas. But everyday life in Costa Rica doesn’t look like that–typical dwellings are probably about 800 or so square feet, on dirt roads, colorfully painted, gated, with clothes hanging outside and goats in the front yard. I think this really gets at both the “Care for people” and “Care for earth” permaculture ethical principles: the houses are small, they are integrated into the landscape, but people don’t take or have more than they need, so the earth is cared for at the same time.

Rancho Makena - The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

Rancho Makena – The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

It also “sets limits” to the size of the habitation, the amount of space one takes up in the world–and I think these are very, very good things.

Typical Costa Rican Housing

Typical Costa Rican Housing

 

Lawns & Everyday Interactions with the Land

Typical Costa Rican homes, at least in the areas that I stayed in and drove through, did not usually have lawns.  If there were grassy areas (such as outside of the front of my bungalow at the sustainable ranch where we stayed), the grass that was planted sometimes was a variety that did not grow more than a few inches high and did not require mowing. That grass was mixed with other low-growing plants including plantain (so nice to see my plant ally there!) and some sort of violet. But other homes’ lawns were pastures–and the cows would occasionally be let out to “mow” the front of the pasture near the road.  What I like so much about the “lawn as pasture” idea is that it redistributes the surplus–green growth–into cattle and horses, which can then be utilized in various ways (for food, transportation, milk, companionship).

Lawn Mower - no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Lawn Mower – no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Many homes had food forests in their yards–banana trees, mangoes, coconut palms, and various veggies like corn, lettuce, kale, and tomatoes. Nearly everyone was growing something, and most had quite a lot.  In the areas closest to the road, sometimes long grasses grew. I saw them employ three techniques to handle this–on some steep hillsides, I saw a few instances of men with weed whackers, I also saw most that people would bring in cattle or horses to graze grassy areas as I already mentioned; finally, some employed controlled burning. The only kinds of houses that had lawns were the homes that appeared to be much larger and much more wealthy–larger homes emulated American lawns and American sizes (and, where I saw the most, around the Arenal Lake’s northeastern side, the land was clearly being purchased by and catered to Americans).

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

 

Livestock.

Costa Ricans keep a lot of livestock–a type of cow that does well on the very hilly pastures.  Many also kept horses, and used them for transportation. This is true whether you live in the middle of San Jose or out in the middle of nowhere–everywhere livestock is legal and everywhere people have chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and horses.

 

We stayed on a small family farm in the Monteverde region that was a working ranch; they had various kinds of cattle and horses. They also kept pigs as “biodigestors” for compost and kept chickens for eggs. We were able to observe and take part in ranching and farming activities while we were there, such as see the greenhouses, feed the chickens, walk the fields and pastures. The buildings were simple and functional; the land rich, green, and well-tended. As was the case with earlier times in the history of the US everyone seemed to keep some kind of animals, even in the middle of the city you could hear the roosters crowing up the morning sun.  The ranch was great because they had intentionally designed it to care for people (human and domestic animal habitations), care for earth (half the ranch was forest and wild areas, with walking paths or just fully wild) and to redistribute surplus through composting and other techniques.

Livestock

Livestock

 

Farms and Gardens.

We visited many gardens and farms while in Costa Rica–they were quite easy to find and very abundant.  I will be writing about two of them in upcoming blog posts. Many of them advertised their sustainable activities right on their signs, being “carbon neutral” or “100% organic” or “sustainable farm.” But this wasn’t mere talk–Costa Ricans live sustainably, care deeply about the environment, and really mean what they say. In a nutshell, we saw all of the techniques for sustainable organic farming being enacted everywhere we turned: no chemicals or big sprayers, rainwater harvesting, composting, bioferments, perennial crops, effective soil management, integrating livestock, vermicompost, trapcrops, terracing, reusing materials, using principles of permaculture design, closed loop systems, and more  ( The one exception to this was the palm oil farms–and I’ll talk about those in another post.)  These sustainable, organic, bio-intensive farms are doing it right–in small spaces, they are caring for the land, the earth, and redistributing surplus back into the landscape.  I’ll also note that Costa Rica banned all GMOs in their country as of January 2015.  This is a major victory!

Hotel Belemar Garden

Hotel Belemar Garden- one of my favorites that we visited.  More on this soon!

Handling Waste.

You know you are in a place that values sustainability when its harder to find a trash can over a recycling bin, and when recycling bins look like this.  Note that there IS no trash can here–and these were the options you had available to you.  Talk about redistributing surplus and setting limits!

Recycling Bins - All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Recycling Bins – All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Local Food.

Costa Rican fare was simple, local, and delicious. The “typical” Costa Rican plate had a generous portion of rice and beans, sweet fried plantains, a meat/fish/avocado and cheese main portion, steamed vegetables, and a salad. All of this food was locally grown (except the rice, as far as I could tell). Everywhere we went, food was being fed to us right out of the farms, everyone kept livestock, the eggs were fresh off the farm, etc. Here, its nearly impossible to eat like this every single day if you aren’t growing it yourself–you can’t figure out where the food comes from and it takes considerable effort to source all local ingredients. In Costa Rica, I ate organic, wholesome, delicious food every single day. We saw very little in the way of fast food, especially any kind of fast food chain, although they still were present, especially in the city, where McDonalds and KFC are trying to weasel their way in. One day, I went white water rafting, and was told that “lunch was included.” In the States, this would be some sandwiches, industrialized food for sure.  In Costa Rica, they took us to an organic farm and we had the most amazing meal, a farm-to-plate meal complete with locally grown coffee, fresh sugarcane juice, and amazing vegetables. Here it was:

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Transportation.

As I mentioned before, horses are in wide use in Costa Rica as a means of travel. The public transportation system, even in the most remote areas, is quite good–there are bus stops on nearly every major road and many are using the bus system. One can travel most of the way across the country on a bus for less than $50. Many also use small, fuel-efficient motorcycles. Gas is about $5/gallon, so that alone makes people purchase and employ fuel efficiency. I witnessed more than one electric scooter, in addition to the bicycles and plain old walking, which Costa Ricans do a lot.  This demonstrates a lot with regards to “care for earth” and “setting limits.”

Walking home from work

Walking home from work

Respecting the arts.

Beautiful, colorful Costa Rican art, was abundant everywhere we went–from the streets of San Jose to the smallest town and village. The art was nature-themed, vibrant, and full of positive energy–not full of the ennui of modern life, but that which reflects the surroundings. Much working of wood, stone, inspired by nature. And its valued—and everywhere!  I will be writing more on the value of local art and local artists and how that enriches a culture at some point in the coming months!

Art for Sale in a Hotel

Art for Sale in a Hotel – You also saw artists setup on the streets and even in the airport!

Inside "Luna Azul" in Monteverde - Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

Inside “Luna Azul” in Monteverde – Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

 

General Happiness.

Costa Rica is, by multiple measures, one of the happiest nations in the world. Some would say that this is because they are a tropical paradise–but I point to other countries in Central America, like Mexico or Honduras, which do not measure anywhere near the happiness levels.

 

I think this is not only the result of much of what I’m describing in this post, but also because of a few other cultural things.  First, because the Costa Ricans seem to be moving at a different speed. There is siesta, a two-hour nap/rest/break in the middle of the workday. There is a general and deliberate taking of one’s time, especially in the areas outside of the big city. WE all stop and watch as a man herds his cattle down the road–nothing to do but enjoy the experience. Its not assumed that we eat and run, rather, that we should savor the meal–the bill is only brought AFTER we ask. These are values in many Latin American countries and families–and to my mind, certainly better than the insane/mad dash/race to nowhere that comprises so much of the modern American lifestyle.

Rainbow in Monteverde

Rainbow in Monteverde

Another reason that I think Costa Ricans are so happy has to do with some cultural values, specifically, a collective rather individualistic mindset.  A while ago on this blog, I talked about individualism vs. collectivism as mindsets (based on the work of sociologist Geert Hosfede* ; whose work  you can look at here). Costa Ricans care about each other and about the group much more than Americans–they have a collectivist mindset (this is that they think in terms of “we” rather than “I”). On Hosfede’s scale, the US manifests at a 91 for individualism (which is extremely high) and the Costa Ricans have a 15, which is very low.  I suspect, although I haven’t yet researched this theory, that issues of collectivism also relate to environmental protections, because a collectivist culture who sees their land as inherently one with themselves will extend it the same protections they extend their families and cultures. This thinking was apparent in many of the conversations I had with Costa Ricans about their interaction with the land.

 

Another reason is just the general laid-back nature of life in Costa Rica. The society lacks the extremely restrictive laws and codes on buildings, lawns, other outdoor spaces, and vehicles and so on.  Costa Rican life is extremely laid back and friendly, and their much less restrictive laws demonstrate that.  When I think about laws in the US, we have all these laws in place not to benefit the people, but to keep us engaging in certain consumptive behaviors or living in certain kinds of structures or having our property look certain kinds of ways because someone profits from it.  In other words, the laws are mostly written these days to benefit some corporate stakeholder, not the people.  We live with the laws and think they are necessities of life–but they are not, and the Costa Ricans clearly get on fine without them.

 

A final reason has to do with how monetary wealth (which I specify from other kinds of wealth, such as rich living or healthy food) is wrapped up into the economics of place.  The US is considered to be a very wealthy nation–we are a nation of consumers and stuff–but that stuff isn’t rooted, isn’t connected to place. The problem is, the more stuff we have, the less happy we are and the more restrictions we have.  Simple living, fewer laws, less stuff, better food, localized economies, love of the land…these are all features that make Costa Rica great.

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

General Thoughts.

While Costa Rica is far from perfect, I do think we have a lot to learn from them in terms of sustainable living and seeking happiness.  I had a very hard time “readjusting” to life in the USA after being in Costa Rica.  After seeing firsthand how different and more aligned with my own value system life could be, it was hard to come back. It was hard to come back to watching people consume poisons, chemicals, and modified foods, to watch them drug their children on ADHD medication, to do battle on the roads on my way to work each day, to just look at how despondent, run down, and miserable everyone is (pay attention next time you enter a grocery store), and to watch people spend much of their lives attached to various screens.

 

But this trip has given me a sense of renewed hope.  Costa Rica, with its sustainable principles undercurrenting so much of life, is thriving.  This kind of living can work, and perhaps, they can serve as a model to many of us who are transitioning ourselves and our communities into something simpler, locally-focused, and more fulfilling.  The question is…how can we build it?

Laundry drying outside

Laundry drying outside