The Druid's Garden

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

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob September 8, 2019

Happy feet mixing cob!

In a meadow under the summer sun, a group of dancers laugh and fling mud.  Beneath their feet, clay, sand, and water become mixed together, creating a sticky earthen blend that sticks to their feet, their legs, and, after some play, faces and fingers! This is a cob mixing party, one of the best times you can have with good friends. After the cob is mixed, it is added by others to the bench and more soil is added and the dance continues.  In last week’s post we explored some reasons to consider exploring natural building as a potential way to build sustainable structures and be more attuned with the energies of earth.  In this week’s post, we will get into how to test your soil and how to make some cob!

 

One thing I want to share about cob–you don’t have to build big things, like houses or ovens, with cob.  You can also build really small things–candleholders, paperweights, primitive statuary, and so on.  You can do an earth plaster on a wall in your home, or build a small cob bench overlooking the woods. I think the underlying practice with cob is simply to work with the earth in this very earth-honoring and embodied practice.  This post explores how to test your soil and make cob, which you can then use to shape your world!

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

Soil horizonsMaking cob requires you to understand a bit about soil horizons and how soil lays on the earth.  If you dig a hole in the earth straight down, you’ll see that soil show up in layers (horizons).  The first layer, the O layer, is an organic layer–where dead and rotting organic matter can be found.  This is the layer that is created when leaves fall and rot, creating dark, rich, humus.  This is what we want to grow plants in, NOT what we want for natural building.

 

The second layer, the  A Horizon, is the surface layer.  It is usually less dark, but still contains nutrients and organic matter. It usually appears lighter in color. Again, this is for plants, not for cob.

 

The third layer, the B Horizon, represents the sub-soil.  It is here where we find clay, sand, and silt; our basic building blocks for cob construction.  You’ll notice another break in your soil as you go down–in my region, the soil gets quite orange, representing the high iron content that we have here.

 

The fourth layer is the C Horizon, or sub-stratum, where you get quite rocky before hitting the final layer: the R layer, bedrock.  We don’t really want that for cob either.  Depending on where you live, the bedrock may be very close to the surface or dozens of feet down, so you may never see it.  Here in Pennsylvania, however, you can get a good look at the C horizon less than a foot down!

 

The amount of O and A Horizons you have is based on your own soil ecology as well as the long-term land use and land history. Parts of the world were stripped to bedrock by glaciers.  Other parts have a 15 foot A Horizon due to long-term patterns of beneficial animal herd grazing.  The same is true of the B, C, and R layers–the depth of these layers is based on a lot of land history factors spanning back tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

 

The good news is that in many parts of the world, clay and sand are fairly abundant and easy to get to with only a shovel!  You can learn more about soil horizons in your area by looking at recently dug up areas–a fallen tree that has taken the roots with it as it fell offers one such opportunity; new construction into a hillside offers another.  Or, you can simply get out a shovel and start digging–the secrets of the soil horizons will be revealed to you with a bit of sweat equity.

 

The Soil Jar Test

To find out how much sand, clay, and silt you are working with in your subsoil, you can perform a simple soil jar test.  Dig down into the subsoil and get yourself a good cupful of subsoil.  Break it up well if it is compacted as much as you can (this might mean letting it dry out for a few days in the sun and then breaking it up that way). Place this in a quart mason jar and fill with water to the top, leaving about an inch or so to shake it.  If you have animal helpers, this is a good time to enlist their help. Shake it very well.

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

Now, let your jar sit somewhere undisturbed or 24 hours.

  • The sand (a large grain particle) will immediately sink to the bottom, within a few minutes.  Mark this with tape or a marker if you can, or mentally note where it is.
  • A layer of silt (a medium particle) will settle on top of the sand in about 30 min.  You should .again mentally note where that ends.
  • Over the next 24 hours or so, the clay (a vey fine-grained particle) will settle out of the water.
  • You will also see any organic matter floating at the top of the jar.

24 hour later, all has settled.

You can look at these ratios as a way to determine if you will need to source some off-site materials to make an effective cob blend (2 parts sand, 1 part silt/clay).  As you can see from above, I am blessed in that I have an excellent ration of sand to clay/silt, and the cob from my land is almost perfect without any additions.

Any organic matter will settle on top (or float) but if you are using subsoil and you dug below the A horizon, you shouldn’t have much of that. (As an aside, you can use this same test for garden soil on the surface and it will tell you how much organic matter is in your soil, which is a very good thing!)

 

Clay Ribbon Test

Another good thing to do to test your clay in your subsoil is to do a ribbon test.  This gives you a simple test that lets you know how pure your clay is and how it will hold up over time.  A good example of how to do this is here. You mix up your cob as usual and work to create one of those clay snakes (like you may have done as a kid). When you have it mixed, you see how well it can be worked (bending) without breaking.  The higher the clay content, the more bendy it is.

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

Not all sand is created equal and it is very good to know what kind of sand you have in your subsoil. Some sand has very soft edges; you can think of beach sand here. The waves and water over a long period of time have softened the sand to the point where it is smooth. It is possible that the sand in your subsoil is like this–it is very soft because at one time, it was on a beach somewhere! Sharper sand contributes to a stronger cob. If you are doing major load-bearing building projects, you might consider adding some “builders sand” (which is a sharp, coarse sand) to your mix.

How to Make Cob!

Without further delay, let’s mix up some cob!

To make your own cob, you will need the following tools:

  • A shovel to dig out subsoil, wheelbarrow
  • Subsoil
  • Straw (chopped up), aged manure, or other grassy things (this adds strength)
  • A mixing tarp (any tarp will do, at least 6′ across  so you can move the cob around on it
  • A water source (hose, bucket, etc.)
  • Some happy feet for cob dancing (you know you want to!)
  • A large wooden screen sizes (use 1/2 or 1/4″ screen; see “tools” below)
  • A rock or small board to help sift subsoil

 

Tools

Probably the only tool you will need to make is your screen sifter. For general cob applications, you will want a 1/2″ screen for coarse/building cob. For finer cob applications (finish plasters, earthen candleholders or statuary, etc) you will want a 1/4″ screen. I made my screen by making a simple wooden frame out of scrap 2×4″ board. Then, I used a good amount of staples to staple my hardware cloth (1/2″) to the frame. The process took about 30 minutes, which mostly involved cutting and stapling the hardware cloth.

Screen with soil

It is necessary that you screen your cob in most locations–you don’t want those happy dancing feet to step on sharp rocks, sticks, or other stuff.  If you are taking your cob down to the 1/4″ level and have really rocky and uneven subsoil, I suggest starting to screen it at 1/2″ and then rescreen it down to 1/4″.

Making Cob

Dig your soil. The first thing to do is to dig out a good amount of subsoil.  I usually mix two medium wheelbarrows full at a time.  If you mix too much at once, it becomes unwieldy, particularly if you are mixing it yourself.  You can see how rocky our subsoil is!

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

Screen your cob. Now, screen your cob. To do this, break up the hard chunks as much as you can with a shovel.  Wet soil will not screen.  Really dry soil (as in, you haven’t had rain for quite a while) may get hard to screen as well, so there really is a sweet spot for soil moisture (experiment, you will see what I mean). Put a few shovel fulls of cob in your screen and then start moving it around. After you break up the big stuff, you can use a rock or small piece of board to really push the soil through the screen. Once you’ve screened all of the cob, place the stones and other debris in a bucket, and continue with more subsoil.

Using a stone to work out the last bits of subsoil/clay chunks from stone

Make your cob. Once your subsoil is all screened, you can dump it into the mixing tarp. Make a well in the center of the subsoil, and just like you’d do making a dough, place water in the well in the center.  Don’t overdo it, just fill up that well.

The well with water

Now, start mixing the cob together with your feet. As you mix, grab an edge of the tarp and pull part of the soil over on itself. Add more water. Mix with your feet again, and continue the process–flipping over the cob, adding water, etc, until all the cob is firm yet pliable. How wet you want your cob depends on the application. If you are using cob as a mortar for a stone wall or brick rocket stove, you will want it much wetter. If you want to make bricks and build with it (like an earth oven), you will want it more firm.

Work it!  Mixing in the straw.  Sprinkle lightly to prevent clumps.

Optional: Add straw. At this stage, if you want your cob to have extra strength, you can mix in some straw or other grassy matter. This addition is excellent for building cob ovens, walls, and so on. The straw will suck up some of the moisture in your mix, so you may have to add a bit more water till you get a perfect consistency!  For fine applications, a lot of cobbers actually use dried out horse or cow manure–the cellulose stays in the plant matter as it moves through the animal, giving a really nice soft strengthener.

 

In my photo here, I am using this cob as a mortar for my greenhouse back wall, so I have added straw to help strengthen it.

A good mix!

Create anything with your cob! Now, you have a wonderful building material that you can do anything with!  If you don’t have anything to build yet, consider not adding the straw and instead, making some primitive statuary, cob candleholders, paperweights, and so on.  I love the way that some cob statuary and candleholders look on an altar!

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

The photos in this blog post show two different locations–at my permaculture design certificate program, where the soil was more brown/gray and then here in PA, where we have beautiful yellow-orange iron-rich soil.  One of the other delightful things about cob is that it reflects the land where it comes from–we can truly see the colors of the land through this practice.

I hope this post was inspirational to you and you consider experimenting with this amazing building source!

 

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth September 1, 2019

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds July 7, 2019

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of land.  How the town had serious stormwater issues, and more vegetation could help slow the water from entering the stream as quickly. But how her neighbor, and the borough, refused to allow any deviance from the 6″ high law, and wouldn’t listen to any reason.  Yet, she was doing her best to not only heal this small patch of land, but do good for the larger ecosystems in our county.  In other words, my friend wasn’t just thinking about her small patch of land, but how that patch of land might be interconnected with other ecosystems and cycles more broadly–and how decisions she made there had impact beyond her.

 

The web of life

The web of life

The earth, on the largest level, is an interconnected system and web of life.  As we move further into climate change and ecological destruction, we are starting to see how true this really is: what people do in New York City can have a strong effect on the melting of glaciers in the North Pole and Greenland. What acid mine drainage pollution goes into a river in Western Pennsylvania makes its way to the Chesapeake River and the Gulf of Mexico. Indingenous peoples in the Pacific are being driven from their homes due to rising oceans from glacier meltwater on the poles. This concept—that earth is a whole and interconnected system—is critical for understanding land healing both locally but more globally as well. Today I want to talk about ecosystems and interconnectivity as critical concepts in relationship to land healing. Thinking in terms of systems, and ecosystems, is more challenging for us because these are often large scale and not localized. And yet, for doing good land healing work, its important to reflect upon these larger levels and understand the broader systems present.

 

This is a new post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices.  Last week’s post explored creating a healing grove for long-term land healing work. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing.

 

In today’s post, we’ll explore two interrelated ideas critical for land healing: ecosystems (and systems in general) and interconnectivity.  After exploring these concepts, I’ll share some things to consider from a physical land healing perspective.  Next week’s post will look at ecosystms and land healing from a ritualistic and awareness building perspective.

 

Ecosystems and Land Healing

On the broadest scale, Earth is made up of many smaller ecosystems.  An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms that are interconnected and depend on each other for life; ecosystems include both the biological community as well as the physical environment. Many different ecosystems exist; with several major types: forests, grasslands, desert, tundra, freshwater, and marine. These can be broken down into much more specific ecosystems based on the latitude, geology, soil composition, water composition, altitude, topography, and larger climate patterns.  Regardless of where you live on earth, you will live in one—or on the border of more than one–ecosystem. It’s useful to learn what your dominant ecosystem is where you live, so that you know what a healthy ecosystem looks like.

 

For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, we live in a forest-dominant ecosystem that has several different types.  In my region, it is either considered a “Northern Hardwood” forest, made up of Beech, Birch, Sugar Maple, Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine). Or, it is an “Oak-Hickory Forest” made up of Oak, Hickory, Tulip, Red Maple, and prior to the 20th century, American Chestnut.  Each of these ecosystems are carefully evolved: the species of plants, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects live in careful balance with each other and all are necessary for the broader functioning of an ecosystem.  If we remove just one species, particularly a keystone species (say, Eastern Hemlock through logging or American Eagle through pollution), its not just that species that suffers, but every other species in that ecosystem. (This information was freely available through my state extension office.  Anyone living in the US will have a state extension office, and they will offer many free publications and materials on these topics. Other countires often have similar offices focused on conservation and public education on natural resources. Field guides and other books on natural ecology may also be useful here.)

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

This interdependency is critical for understanding land healing: all life depends on other life for survival.  In many cases, that life has very specific needs.  A well known example is the monarch butterfly that needs various species of milkweed in order to survive: it has adapted to an abundance of milkweed, and now that milkweed is in short supply, its numbers are radically declining. Just like the monarch, all life has these needs.  Part of the reason “invasives” can be damaging (such as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid) is that they aren’t part of the ecosystem, and they do not have the check and balances that native species have to live in harmony with each other.  Thus, all life depends on other life, and healing one part of life (even energetically) can help heal other parts of life.

 

Understanding Interconnectivity

Ecosystems teach us a powerful lesson about interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is everywhere, but the enormity of how it functions ecologically is hard to wrap one’s head around.  I like to think of it in a few different ways to make it manageable. One is through the hydrologic cycle:  as I write this, I have a glass of spring water (from the spring on our property, which is our primary water source) that I am drinking.  Where did this glass of water come from?  From the ground and land surrounding my home.  But where was it before that?  Perhaps this water soaked in through the last few spring rains, and those had melted from a glacier and moved from the artic across the land.  In otherwords, these same molecules of water that I am drinking right now have been cycling through the earth for potentially billions of years.  Thus, how we heal–or harm–water in one place will cycle in many other places.  This is part of why I like to focus on water as a land healing practice: unlike earth, which remains stationary across the course of our lives, water moves and the water we heal or bless in one case can make a major impact across the globe.

 

Another managable way to think about this interconnectivity is within our own bodies, each a complex, interconnected system. If we engage in unhealthy behaviors (smoking cigarettes, eating poor food, being sedintary), our bodies as a system can handle that for a while.  At some point though, these poor choices will have done enough damage to our body’s system that they will be disasterous.  You don’t see the effects from one bacon cheeseburger and one lazy day on the couch.  But 30 years of bacon cheeseburgers and lazy days on the couch significantly harms the body’s whole system.

 

Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing

From an ecosystems and ecology perspective, humanity has been metaphorically eating bacon cheeseburgers for three meals a day and sitting on the couch for 30 years, and that long line of bad choices is coming due. The whole earth, as a whole system, is starting to break down. The need for healing is everywhere, it is so extreme, it is overwhelming at times.  We certainly can’t physically heal that whole ecosystem on our own, but we can understand it, and we can use the principle of interconnectivity for great effect.

 

As with all land healing, there are energetic ways of healing and there are physical ways of healing.  In the remainder of this post, I’m discussing physical land healing using these concepts.  In next week’s post, we’ll consider some ritual work and spiritual ways of working with these concepts.

 

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort: nectar and medicine

On the most basic level, when we think about physical land healing, thinking in a ecosystems approach is really helfpul  Thus, its not about individual plants but rather how to support an interconnected web of life.  One of the ways that I find helpful when I’m doing this kind of thinking is to use some terminology and categorization from permaculture design:

 

  • Dynamic accumulators: plants that enrich soil, by deep tap roots that bring nutrients up from the ground, possibly also from the air
  • Nitrogen fixers: plants that “fix” nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air.
    • Some examples: Most legumes and clovers.  More info on these can be found here.
  • Nectary plants: plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.
    • Some examples: St. John’s wort, goldenrod, apple trees.  Here is a more complete list.
  • Habitat and forage plants: those that provide other kinds of habitat (such as the milkweed for the monarch) or forage for wildlife.

When we are replanting a space, like a lawn, its useful to think about how these plants may work in conjunction with each other to form an interconnected web of life.  Not just that we are planting plants that may look good, but plants that can help serve different functions and work together.  This is how we start thinking on a larger (eco)systems level and considering the role of interconnectivity.  In addition to this, of course, there are many other considerations to supporting a healthy ecosystem: clean rainfall, removing pollution, supporting a healthy soil web of life, building soil fertility, and much more.  But these concepts, at least, help us start to think about the ecosystem as a system, rather than plants as individuals! In permaculture, we call these “guilds” where the goal isn’t just to, say, plant an apple tree, but plant a whole ecosystem that helps support that tree and all the life around it.

 

And you might be saying, but what about the animals, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on?  I would respond: if you plant it, they will come.  The whole idea of focusing on plants is that we are building habitat, food, shelter, and places for wildlife–and its that life that bring the other pieces of a more complete ecosystem.

 

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

As a simple example of how this can work in practice, we recently planted two apples and two pears in the back of our garden (on the northern side).  The garden is on a bit of a slope, so part of the role of these trees is to establish good root systems to help hold in the soil in addition to our swales.  But the other idea, here, is that we want to create an ecosystem as part of our garden and support the trees for us and for wildlife.  So rather than just planting apple trees, we did (or are planning to do) the following:

  • Wood chip inoculated mulch around base of the trees
  • Comfrey plants so we can “chop and drop” for extra nutrients; comfrey also functions as nectary plants for bees
  • A variety of nectary plants to support insect life and that are also medicinal in nature: St. johns wort, wood betony, lupine, red clover
  • Nitrogen fixing plants: red clover and lupine

Now, rather than having just some apple trees for good eats, we have a whole mini-ecosystem that supports us with food and medicine, brings good insect life to the garden, and supports life.

 

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the major take aways are these: earth as a whole is a single interconnected system, and as land healers, we can work with any part of that system energetically or physically and help offer healing.  We will always be working at a local level, within one or more ecosystems, but through doing so, because earth is all interconnected, we benefit all of the earth through our efforts.

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Plant-Based Spiritual Supplies and Global Demand March 24, 2019

Can you even imagine druidry without plants or trees?  Plants and trees are some of our strongest allies for the work that we do, and are often connected to almost everything that we do spiritually. Plant spirits are teachers, guides, and allies.  From before we had recorded history in any culture, the plant spirits were there, growing with us, guiding us, healing us, and supporting us on our journey. Today’s modern druid practice continues that tradition: we burn plants for smoke cleansing, clearing, and helping to energize spaces. We use trees as part of divination and sacred rites. We use plants as healers, for magical healing and physical healing, and to connect with on deep levels.  Plants have long been friends of humans–and have long walked beside us, hand in hand, as we do our sacred work.  And today, we’ll explore ways we can offer that same kind of honor, respect, and nurturing in return–on both a local and global scale, given that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.  For other posts in this series, please see Druidry for the 21st Century, Druidry in the Anthropocene, and Psychopoming the Anthropocene.

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, given the strain on many ecosystems and species, it is necessary to be an “ethical” consumer–both reducing overall consumption, and when it is necessary to buy, knowing where our goods come from, who makes them and in what conditions, and what we are really supporting. This behavior, in turn, helps certain ethical products and companies succeed and creates less demand for unethical and damaging products. In the progressive circles, the idea of “voting with your dollars” comes to mind.  We see this movement in food (local eating), clothing, electronics, and many more kinds of goods. There are good, bad, and ugly choices out there, and making ethical choices helps promote better livelihoods and protects ecosystems.

 

Ginseng my family grew

Ginseng my family grew

With over half of the world’s species in serious decline, threatened, or endangered, I don’t think we can simply enjoy using whatever we find in the local pagan shop (even if we want to support that shop!). When you walk into one of these shops, or start browsing online, you can find literally thousands of places that are selling palo santo, white sage, sandalwood, and many other critically endangered plants.  These plants are critically endangered because of their overuse, particularly by people who are far disconnected from their growth, harvest, and ecosystems. I’d like to suggest that we take the wisdom of the “ethical consumer” movement and apply it to the purchasing spiritual materials.  This is particularly important for druidry and neopaganism, where it isn’t just about the physical, but also, the spirit. Ethical plant use, where we know where the plant comes from, how much of it remains, and how our own choice of using this plant is a necessary part. While I’m focusing on plants today, I want to add that this really applies to any goods we may use as part of our spiritual practice from two angles: the physical and spirit.

 

The Physical: Land, livelihood, Indigenous Practice, and Ecosystems

I already grow and use a lot of my own herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes, but occasionally, still enjoy the choice rare ingredient that I purchase or that is given to me as a gift. For example, the other night, I was burning a piece of Palo Santo that a friend had given me as a birthday gift and got the distinct question, “do you even know me?”  The answer was, shamefully, no, I did not.  So I started to research it, I found a host of material that suggests that the ethics of Palo Santo are all about the sourcing:  it can be harvested ethically and be used to support native peoples and ecosystems, or it can be stripped bare.  In holding my own piece of Palo Santo wood, I realized I couldn’t answer the important questions: where did this come from? How was it harvested? Who harvested it?  Who profited from it? A few days later, after doing some research, I saw a post shared by a friend on social media.  This post came from a woman native to Colombia who said that Palo Santo was being stripped from her forests, and begging people to stop using it.

 

Palo Santo is hardly unique in this respect–there are so many plants that are now in global demand due to their uses for medicine or spiritual purposes. The work of Kelly Ablard is useful here.  Her website details information on essential oil plants and their conservation status. As she describes, as global demand for certain plants rise, the plants become so lucrative that are over-harvested and can be poached, reducing biodiversity and threatening local people’s traditions and livelihoods.  As the link I shared in the last paragraph about Palo Santo harvesting suggests, in purchasing plants for spiritual supplies, you can make choices that encourage biodiversity, enhance people’s livelihoods, and support life.  Or you can make unknown choices, which are almost *always* the bad ones.  Knowledge of sourcing is critically important.

 

I have witnessed the vicious cycle of over harvesting driven by global demand firsthand here in the Appalachians, such as the case of wild ginseng. When I was a child, my grandfather used to come back with beautiful wild ginseng roots, and we would brew up ginseng tea and enjoy it as a special treat.  I remember those roots–the look of them, the feel of them, the energy of them.  He would only every bring back a small amount, as he was tending his wild patch long-term so that, as he told me once, “my grandkids will be able to harvest this as I did.”  However, the patch was stripped bare by ginseng wildharvesters (I call them poachers) ages ago–every last root was taken.  A good quality dried American Ginseng root, wildharvested, currently goes for between $500-$800 a dried pound, and there are many ginseng dealers that will pay top dollar for anyone who can deliver.  They don’t care where it comes from, only what they can make from it (and the demand for ginseng is growing). So what happens is that people–usually poor people, out of work due to our poor economy–literally scour our mountains for Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Reishi, and other in-demand medicinal plants–and when they find them, they harvest all they can. Over the years, I have covered thousands of miles of forests, nearly all of them here in the Appalachians.  And I’ve never seen a single wild ginseng plant.   The demand for ginseng is primarily from China–a far off place wanting to pay top dollar for high quality ginseng.  Chinese people buying American ginseng have no idea what it is doing to the  wild ginseng populations here.  And so locals here don’t even get to see the plant, much less, build a relationship with it–it is no longer part of our forest ecology. That same story can be told about many, many of these in demand sacred plants–and I think its useful to see that this overharvest problem can happen anywhere, even in “developed” nations like the US. (In the case of ginseng, I will also note that a new forest-grown initiative is helping change the way ginseng is harvested, which is great–but not enough to restore wild populations).

 

Sacred cedar

Sacred cedar

The “Wildharvest” label is fraught with problems. I have spoken to a lot of people in teaching herbalism classes who think it’s better if its wildharvested. I say, “better for who?”  Certainly not better for the plant population!  Wild harvesters who are harvesting for profit have a wide range of practices and ethics. You have no idea what the total population of the plant is, you have no idea how many different wildharvesters came through an area, or how many they take.  A farm, on the other hand, is growing and harvesting there for the long-term, harvesting each year and conserving populations.  Here, most of our wild harvesters looking for ginseng are folks that are out of work and pretty desperate for cash, particularly because of the long decline of the rust belt economy.

 

Knowing which plants are of particularly concern and how they are harvested is also an important part of this process. One good source of information on some plants in North America is the United Plant Savers; just this year, White Sage was added to their list due to wildharvesting and overharvesting.  Ablard’s notes critically endangered plants by region. These include Palo Santo (Peru), Juniper Berry (from Morocco), Sandalwood (Timor Leste), Spikenard, and Agarwood. Her lists also include sweet almond, olive, cedar, elm, and sassafras (in certain locations), and Eastern Hemlock here in the USA.  A lot of plants that are endangered are “whole plant” harvests; ginseng being a good example–if harvesting wood or roots, or all of the aerial parts of a plant, what is left of that plant afterwards?

 

The other piece of this is cultural appropriation. While smoke cleansing (what are commonly called smudging or smudging ceremonies) of all kind are used widely in global traditions (such as this delightful German practice that Christian Brunner describes on his blog) the use of particular plants for smoke cleansing is tied to certain indigenous practices.  White sage has been in the spotlight recently as one such plant. Increased demand for white sage use are driving up the prices of white sage, and reducing native access to wild white sage (due to commercial wildharvesting), and putting white sage plants themselves at risk. Even the term “smudging” is coming under question as a term that appropriates a native practice; see this perspective shared here. I think the key takeaway here is that some of these plants are tied to indigenous traditions, and should be respected as such, particularly when it comes to specific ceremonies and/or wild populations under use by indigenous peoples.

 

In the end, the questions I keep coming back to are: Is it right or ethical that we use these plants to the point of their extinction? Is it right to create such demand for plants that native peoples who depend on them for spiritual practices and cannot find them to use?  Can we find a better way?  These are important questions, but just as important are the spiritual implication of sourcing of plant material.

 

Spiritual: Energy, Honoring, and Connections

Even if we put every physical consideration aside, there is still the matter of spirit–honoring the spirit of the plant, working with the spirit of the plant, and connecting to the spirit of the plant.  Attending to our connection and relationship with the spirit of a specific plant we are using spiritually matters if we want our spiritual practices to have effect.  Sure, I could wave some rosemary and sage around to “clear” my room before doing a ritual, but if my relationship with sage is one rooted in blind consumption, and not connection, is that sage really going to want to support my efforts? What energy tied to the plant’s harvest and sale, is being brought in at the same time?  The way in which the plant was obtained has a direct relationship with the connection–and depth of connection–I am able to have with the plant.  If I purchase a plant from an unknown source, I am bringing all of the energy of that source into my spiritual practice.  Who harvested it, how it was harvested, how it was handled, how it was sold, how it was transported–and in the case of poaching and overharvesting, that may be energy I very much do not want to have in my life.  What was that plant’s life–and harvest–like?  Was it done respectfully? Was it done in a sacred manner?  If not, do I even have any hope of connecting with it spiritually? These questions are critical in developing spiritual practices surrounding plant use.

 

Anytime we use a plant as part of our sacred practices, we are building relationships with that plant.  Plants work physically and spiritually, but for many of the deeper spiritual uses, they really do require a deep connection.  For example, many herbalists, understand and quietly share about entheogenic properties of Calamus (Sweet flag). You can’t get there with a single huge dose of Calamus. You have to connect with the spirit of the Calamus, build a relationship with it over a long period of time.  As part of this, you have to work with the plant, tend it, plant it, spend time with it, meditate with it, and ethically and respectfully harvest it. At some point, sometimes years or decades later, Calamus open you up for visions and experiences. This isn’t something you can buy or purchase or force to happen–it is something you cultivate over time.  Calamus offers you a process of initiation–and it must be done with the utmost respect and patience.

 

The need to cultivate deep relationships to really “know” a plant and use it for good spiritual effect is necessary for  every plant we might work with spiritually.  Each plant offers us an initiation into its own mysteries, teachings, and magic; and having those initiations will allow you to use the plant to its full magical or spiritual effect.  However, we have to build that relationship.  It’s hard to build a relationship with a plant that has had suffering, death, and pain as part of its sourcing. In the case of some plants, sure, you can use them spiritually, but you aren’t ever going to breach that barrier into deeper work if these other concerns are present.  I can burn my piece of Palo Santo, and it smells nice and produces a calming energy.  But that experience is very surface.  But under no circumstances, could I ever build a deep relationship with that particular wood, given the conditions under which it was harvested and the energy that it now carries with it.

 

Ethical Plant Use in the Anthropocene: Purchasing, Growing,  and Wildharvesting

 

Given the above, I’d like to advocate for the key practice of ethical plant use in druidry and other neo-pagan paths.  By the term “ethics,” I draw upon permaculture‘s three ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share.  People Care encourages us to think about the sourcing of the plant (if you are not growing it yourself) and how the harvest of this plant is tied to local communities and local labor.  Earth Care asks us to consider how the harvest of this plant may have affected the plant and plant species itself as well as the broader ecosystem where the plant grows. Fair Share  asks us to take only what we need of the plant, and certainly, to make sure this plant is available to indigenous peoples who might depend upon it–fair share can take place both on and individual level or a cultural level. Now let’s consider a range of alternative practices to simply “consuming” plants.

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

 

Substitutions: Yes, palo santo, frankincense, sandalwood, and so on smell amazing–but do I really  need these specific plants? Can I instead use local plants that are growing in your own ecosystem, or even backyard? For example, I brought back a small amount of Frankincense when I visited Oman a few years ago and have been slowly using it, but learning what I have about Frankincense and the disappearing frankincense trees, I will not purchase any more.  Frankincense cannot be cultivated commercially, and overharvesing is killing trees–and will severely impact cultures that depend on it as part of their cultural and religious traditions.  I have already replaced Frankincense  with locally harvested white pine resin, which has a similar smell and similar energetic qualities–and which I can harvest myself, thus, cultivating a deeper relationship with white pine and my local bioregion.

 

Ethical Purchasing: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Purchasing is still on the table, but it should be done with ethics in mind.  Some purchases are very good, and can support initiatives that help honor the plant and build livelihoods and ecosystems for local peoples. If you are buying locally or online, before you buy, ask some good questions to ensure an ethical and sustainable harvest.

The questions I like to ask before purchasing are:

  • Where does this plant come from?  (Look for places engaged in sustainable harvesting, like this example from Fair Trade Frankincense)
  • How is this plant harvested? (Learn about your plant. Root or wood harvests are most damaging, and can often kill the plant, but other harvests, like leaf or resin, may also be extremely damaging, particularly if they harm the plant or prevent it from going to seed.)
  • Who harvested this plant? Under what conditions? (How are individuals, cultures, and communities impacted by this harvest?  Be skeptical of a “wildharvest” label, recognizing the lack of oversight for many wildharvesting operations.)
  • Who is profiting from this plant?

If purchasing locally, if the shop owner can’t tell you the answers (especially to the first three questions below), perhaps encourage that person to consider a different source.  If buying online, you can ask the same information if it is not available.  For Palo Santo, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs describes exactly where they get their Palo Santo and their conservation efforts. If I wanted more Palo Santo and it was very important to my practice, I’d want to get it from this kind of source–where I am not only supporting a local farm in Equador, but also supporting the replanting of Palo Santo trees.  To me, this is critical–a good purchase can do a lot of good and support people care, earth care, and fair share.

 

Ethical Growing: The easiest way to manage a population and cultivate deep relationships is to grow it yourself, if you can. For example, I never buy white sage, but I love the smell and I do like to use it as part of certain incense blends that I make and use regularly.  Thus, I grow it myself, and try to let some of my plants to go seed so that I can sustainably grow it in the future.  Even if you don’t have land to grow large amounts of plants on, you can still grow a number of your own magical herbs.  In fact, many garden herbs are potentate magical allies and readily available for purchase in the spring.  A pot of rosemary, sage, white sage, bay laurel, thyme, or lavender would all be a very useful culinary, magical, and medicinal ally–and you build your relationship considerably with each time you tend the plant.  You can also grow many things outdoors, if you have the space.

 

Ethical Wildharvesting: Some plants, and trees, are harder to grow in pots in your windowsill or garden but certainly can be wildharvested ethically, taking only what you need, helping populations grow by spreading seeds, and tending the land that supports the plants.  I like to wildharvest plants on private lands (asking landowners, developing relationships with them) so that I know exactly how many people are harvesting there and how much is being taken.  Harvesting on public lands presents a much larger problem because even if you take only a little, you are never sure how much is being taken by others (hence, my ginseng example above).  For more on tree incenses and resins you can harvest from North America based on my own research, see this post.  For more on how to create wildharveted and home-grown smudge sticks for smoke cleansing, see here and here.  For more on how to learn foraging and wildharvesting, see my series here and here.

 

I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how to respond to the Anthropocene–it might seem like a small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is a piece we have a lot of direct control over. For these populations of plants, communities, and ecosystems, making ethical choices, reducing our demand, and practicing people care, earth care, and fair share may make all the difference.

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Pandora’s Box and Tools for the Future March 3, 2019

The story of Pandora’s box has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I was little.  Pandora was so curious. She just had to open the box. She just had to. And when she did, she let out all the bad things in the world: suffering, pain, war, famine, pestilence, betrayal….but she also let out one good thing: she let out hope.

 

I think when we start talking about the present and the future of the world-its kind of like being inside Pandora’s Box. It seems that more and more reports come out, more and more news comes out, and the longer that things go on, we keep being surrounded by all the bad things. Ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps these things could be ignored.  But today, I don’t think there is any more time for that. The reports, like the recent National Climate Assessment, don’t often offer a lot of solutions, just a lot of facts about where we are and the harsh present and even harsher future we face. The reports, combined with global inaction on issues of critical importance, the backpedaling by world leaders to set hard limits on carbon emissions, to stave off ecological collapse–we are in that Pandora’s box, the box full of bad things. I’m teaching a sustainability studies class for the first time in five years, and even among the young, 18-22 aged population, there is a considerable shift.  When I taught a very similar course 5-7 years ago, students were upbeat and ready to engage.  When I’m teaching it this term, students are less empowered, more quiet and somber.

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

I think one of the most important things we can do as druids is maintain hope–hope about our own lives, hope about the future.  Today’s post offers some tools: thinking tools, processing tools, and tools that offer us new perspectives and ways of engaging with today–in a way that empowers us, that gives us ways to act, and helps us get into a better space about it all, rathe than being demoralized about the future. If you haven’t read earlier posts in this series, you might want to do so to see where we’ve come from and where we are heading: druidry for the 21st century, druidry in the Anthropocene, and psychopoming the anthropocene.

 

A Thinking Tool: Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern

A framework that I think is really important for druidry and other action in the age of the Anthropocene is the Sphere of Influence vs. the Sphere of Concern tool. This framework is adapted from the work Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I think its a *really* useful tool for personal empowerment and hope in the Anthropocene. The graphic below shows the difference between a person’s circle of concern (which could be global and long-term) vs. a person’s circle of influence (which is local and immediate).

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

 

Your Sphere of Concern is what you are concerned about–and often, due to media and the Internet, this is often global. For all of the potential benefits that a globalized world may offer,  it creates an enormous sphere of concern, which given the world’s predicament, is psychologically really challenging.  News is almost always outside of our Sphere of Influence, but exposure to the news encourages us to have a huge Sphere of Concern.  We have very little power to leverage change in systems that are large and distant–cutting down of rainforests, the plight of polar bears or whales. This creates a sense of general disempowerment, which can lead to apathy or frustration.  However, before modern globalization, people mostly were concerned with what was around them.  News was local and quick, news from afar took a lot of time to arrive, if it arrived at all.  Local concerns were often able to be acted on by local people.  One’s sphere of concern was probably a lot smaller–likely, for many, within one’s sphere of influence.

 

Today, despite many of us having an enormous Sphere of Concern, we have a fairly limited Sphere of Influence.  A Sphere of influence is what you have power to control: and this usually revolves around the spaces we find ourselves in frequently: our homes, our daily lives, our workplaces, our communities, our local governments, our families, our spaces where we spend time.  When we are bombarded by news from Pandora’s box, we feel powerless because the things we want to change, the big things, are not really changable by individuals (they can be changed by collective action).

 

I think it’s really important to frame these things when we are talking about hope and change over time. This framework offers us a powerful thinking tool: recognizing the difference between our Sphere of Influence and our Sphere of Concern (and maybe, making modifications so that our Sphere of concern is closer to our sphere of influence–that which we can control).  I have found that using this framework helps give me a better sense of where I should invest my energy and time: in those things that I have influence over, in those things where my efforts will produce results.

 

 

A Feeling Tool: Giving Voice and Allowing Processing Time

As I shared in the first post on this series, the reality of the Anthropocene can be overwhelming, intimidating, or even cause distance and withdrawal, apathy. Joanna Macy’s beautiful work Coming Back to Life offers a lot of discussion of the importance of not letting ourselves get into an apathetic or disempowered state.  Apathy is the root of disengagement, and we need people in this day and age ready to engage and face some of these challenges.

Honoring all beings

Honoring all beings

Everything that is happening in the world, like climate change, is really hard.  I’d argue it’s doubly hard for druids who really love land because we hold the land sacred, and so much of it is under threat.  People have different emotional responses to what is happening, but one of the most common and destructive is apathy–trying not to feel, because feeling is too hard. Ignoring it, not letting ourselves feel.  Given this, if we are going to return to feeling things about the world and the future, we need good spaces to process our feelings, safe spaces.  We can do this in the context of our spiritual practices, like druidry.

 

Once we’ve dealt with some of these feelings, we can move forward with actions and empowerment–we can turn our own lives and influence the lives of others into creating the present and future we want to see.  We can offer hope.

 

Macy’s book offers a number of rituals for individuals and groups that allow us to give voice to feelings, to process our feelings, and allow us space to move forward.   One of her rituals which works particularly well in a druid setting is called the Council of All Beings.   Beings help us process and give voice to what is happening now.  This is a particularly powerful ritual where people prepare to speak on behalf of animals, plants, and natural features and give them voice, while others take turns listening as humans.

 

Another one of Macy’s rituals that we’ve adapted for druid ritual work is a 7 generations ritual.  People form two circles. The ones on the outside are today’s humans. The humans on the inside are future humans, 7 generations from now.  Today’s humans speak about everything they are concerned about; the future humans listen, and then, offer hope.  It is a very powerful way to process and think about what is happening now.

 

This kind of processing can also take place in the context of spiritual practice: talking through things with others, engaging in regular spiritual journaling, and discursive meditation are all ways that we can process emotions.

 

I think the key thing here is recognizing if we are going to be effective and productive, we need emotional processing tools–we need to recognize that these feelings are important and necessary, and we need to work with our emotions regularly.

 

 

An Action Tool: Permaculture

Now that we’ve considered thinking tools and emotional processing tools, we can come to tools for action. There are lots of tools out there that encourage us towards various kinds of action; my tool of choice is permaculture.  Permaculture offers a complete system of planning and action; it is a design system that teaches us to use nature, and work with nature, to regenerate and build ecosystems, gardens, and communities. Through three powerful ethics (people care, earth care, and fair share), design principles, and an emphasis on ecologically-rooted techniques, I think tools like permaculture can help us go from thinking about a problem to action.  One of the most important philosophies in permaculture is that humans can be a force for good (not just harm) and that we can always leave a piece of land in better shape than we’ve found it.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

I’ve written pretty extensively about permaculture on this blog.  For an introduction to permaculture ethics, see here.  For the principles of permaculture, see here, here, and here.  For background on permaculture and ways of thinking about it, see here and here. .  For an example of how permaculture can be used in urban and suburban areas, see here, here and here.  For an example of a five-year permaculture design on my old homestead, see here.  Books I recommend are Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway and Rosemary Marrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture.  You can do a free online permaculture design certificate, which will immerse you in many good things, through https://openpermaculture.com/.  There are lots of other ways to learn–check it out!

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

When I did my permaculture design certificate in 2015, which I did through Sowing Solutions at Sirius Ecovillage in Massachusetts, I had already been practicing permaculture for many years. The PDC helped me really leverage a lot of skills I picked up here and there into a cohesive whole and gave me the design skills to really plan and execute a variety of projects.  More importantly though, it empowered me.  It was probably one of the most empowering things I ever did.  It gave me hope, it gave me real tools, and it showed me that the solutions to many problems were right in my hands (the problem is the solution is a permaculture principle). If everyone practiced permaculture, we’d have a very, very different world.

 

Conclusion

The last few weeks have explored a lot of topics with regards to Druidry for the 21st century.  Not all of it has been particularly easy to digest or think about, but I think if we are going to practice nature spirituality in the age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary for us to have these kinds of conversations. I will keep returning to this topic throughout the year!  I hope this series has given you some food for thought, if nothing else–and some tools for empowerment and change.

 

The Samhain of our Lives October 28, 2018

Just last week, we had our first hard frost. After homesteading for a number of years, you grow to be vigilant for the signs of the first frost. The air smells different somehow in the two or so weeks leading up to it. The bird and wildlife patterns change.  The nights have a crisp bite to them that they didn’t even a few days before. And then, just like magic one day, the frost is there, glistening in the morning light. The garden radically changes overnight–even for those things you covered–the entire landscape lies in disarray.

 

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

I could feel it on the air, and for the last few mornings, have been going to to see if it had arrived. That morning, I turned the corner and first saw it first on the strawberry patch–white and glistening. The frost is beautiful, magical, and yet, destructive. While the garden was growing powerfully the day before–with the last harvests of our remaining tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash, and gourds all ripening and growing abundantly–this morning, frost covers all.  By mid-day, the garden of yesterday is but a distant memory. The garden of the frost is a disaster zone for summer crops–the tomatoes are wily, the half-ripened crookneck squash spongy on the top where the frost hit, the eggplant fallen over in sadness.  By the second day, the leaves of these plants are withered and dead, former husks of what they had been less than 48 hours before.  The first time you see this destruction, its really something to behold.  It is shocking in how the cold can do so much damage in such a little time period by a temperature difference of only a few degrees.

 

Samhain is certainly here, and already, my garden has gone through increasingly hard and bitter frosts. The temperatures continue to plummet, the leaves drop from the trees, the animals and birds fatten up, hibernate, or fly south–and winter sets in.

 

This year though, this Samhain, it seems a little different. Maybe its the general collective despair and demoralization present right now, at least here in the US, which is affecting so many (and what I was responding to in my post a few weeks ago). Maybe its the latest UN report that suggests that–if we are lucky–we have about 12 more years to stave off the worst of climate change, but only if we act now. Maybe its reading that report and knowing that action, at least in my own country, won’t happen.  And, knowing, I will have to live to see the results of inaction, results that will irrevocably harm the live and lands I hold sacred. Maybe its the growing open conversations I am having with my new college students about their own futures and their fears.  I’ve been teaching college for over a decade, but it has only been in the last 1-2 years that I’ve heard my college age students start to openly discuss these things and their impact on their futures.

 

This Samhain, the changes in the landscape and in my garden, seem to reflect the changes going on culturally.  We’ve had more than a few hard frosts.  We’ve had bitterly cold days.  Some of our favorite summer plants are dying off. I think a lot of people are asking–is this a sign of things to come?  Are the darkest times, at the Winter Solstice–still to come?

 

Kale loves the frost!

Kale loves the frost!

In my frosted garden, I turn my eyes away from the summer crops, the eggplants, squash, and tomatoes that cannot handle even a 33 degree night with cover. Instead, I look to the carrots, onions, spinach, lettuce, celery, kale and cabbage that we had planted in late July. These plants are much more resilient, and all of them are doing fine despite the glistening of frost on their leaves. Some, in fact, had been enhanced by the frost–the cabbage leaves are more succulent, the kale more sweet. Rather than harming the plants, the frost had simply made them better versions of who they already were. This, too, seems to be a powerful lesson, both for the garden and for our larger culture.

 

It seems that I’m not the only one smelling frost on the air more culturally, and processing what to do about it. A few days ago, I saw a new thread on a permaculture forum written by a 22 year old girl who was asking serious questions: “Given the state of the world, do you really think permaculture offers us what we need to save the world?  If the older leaders refuse to act, can individual action save us? And if you are using permaculture this way, how do you stay focused when all of this is happening around us?” It was a good question, a reasonable question, and had a range of useful responses. One of the most powerful responses was from a man who had seen a world war, had worked industry, and had retired to a little one-room cottage in the woods. He shared some of the things he had seen in his life and said, “Its the cycle of life. The reason we practice permaculture is that it gives us hope. This is a season, others will come and go. I always ask is how do I respond.  And my response is to hope.” I wonder, too, if that’s why so many of us practice druidry.  It gives us connection, it gives us peace, but most of all, it gives us hope.

 

The practice of druidry, of living by the seasons, helps me process the inevitability of the crisis of climate and culture that seem to be bearing down at present. Samhain is in the air, both for us this year, but also for us culturally.  It might be that this time will pass and spring will arrive quickly.  Or, it may be that the world will have to endure the difficulties of winter, for some time to come.  Most of us think, or already know, that we are in for the latter, but I must remind myself of all that I learned as a druid gardener, all that I learned from celebrating the wheel of the year is present here this Samhain.

 

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

As a druid homesteader, I respond to the frost–and the incoming winter– by good planning and good design. The “problem” of winter  becomes a “solution” if I simply plan accordingly. I choose my plants more carefully for the fall and winter season–knowing some are resilient and designed for the cold, and others, like the tomato, fall at the first brush with frost.  I start these plants in July, when summer appears to be endless.  But soon enough, the fall will come, and these plants will thrive.

 

Using shelter and layering, the plants can survive much more than a bit of frost. Our little greenhouse will have a third layer of protection this wee, and our spinach, lettuce, bak choi, and arugula will be able to be continually harvested till January or later. Carrots and potatoes will stay in the ground waiting to be unearthed anytime the ground is unfrozen enough for us to do so. The greenhouse itself, combined with a second inner hoop house and then a thick floating row cover offers shelter. Embedded stones and a back covered wall allow the design of the greenhouse to be even more resilient, pulling in the warmth into the stones when the sun is out. The stones radiate that heat into the soil in the cold nights. Nothing will succumb to the frost or cold in that greenhouse unless it goes considerably below freezing. And if it does, we will make our final harvests, put wood on the fire, and wait till mid February or early March when the soil to warm enough to plant again.

 

Further, as a druid gardener, I think about the “problem is the solution” from the permaculture principles.  With the right plants and planning, we can thrive and grow.  Our world *needs* to change. The current course of our society is radically unsustianable, and every bit of communication from this wonderful earth is letting us know that with in creasing frequency.  Finding new ways to live, to be, to inhabit this world will require us to adapt to the harsh realities that Samhain brings.  We can’t be tomatoes in the coming years to come: we must be kale, cabbage, carrots, tatsoi, arugula, spinach–all of the plants that can withstand the harsh winter and still offer abundance.

 

As a druid, likewise, I have many lessons that help me think about and process this difficult time. I have celebrated the turning wheel of the year and the seasons for many, many years. I know that looking to my ancestors and honoring the season in the moment brings me quietude and peace.  I also look to my ancestors to re-learn how to live more sustainably and simply, in line with the living earth. I know that winter is coming, and it will be dark, and harsh, and cold.  But somewhere in my bones, woven into my DNA, I know my ancestors got by with much less than I did, and they thrived–if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.  I also know of the beauty of winter when it arrives; I know of the freshness of the snowfall and the cold nights where the stars glisten.  And most of all, I know that spring will come once again.  The maples will once again begin to run, the crocuses will once again bloom.

 

 

In the meantime, I’m going to shore up this greenhouse and plant more kale.

 

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!