Category Archives: Permaculture

The Practice of Deep Gratitude

At the heart of the challenges, we face in transitioning from a life-destroying culture to a life-honoring one is to disentangle the many underlying myths and narratives that subconsciously or consciously drive our behaviors.  These myths include the myth of progress, the myth of infinite growth, the lure of materialism, and the assumption that nature is there only to serve our needs. These myths have, in part, been the underlying forces that have driven us to the present challenges of our age. I believe many of these myths are rooted in colonialism, and if we are ever to end this awful practice and its centuries-old impacts, we must address them. They drive both larger systems at play as well as each of us. And while we can look to broader

A nature mandala offered in thanks for our land that provides so much to us.

systems of power and privilege that sustain these myths, it’s important to realize that they are as much embedded in our individual hearts and minds–and thus, are worth countering directly. But here’s the thing: even if you understand these myths on a mental level, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy to be rid of.  Thus, while meditating on these myths and coming to understand them is fundamental to us creating a better future and vision for the future, it’s also in our actions where we can begin to address them.  That’s the whole principle of “sacred action” that I talk about in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Based Sustainable Practices: engaging in behaviors that help us live in a more sustaining and sacred way. That’s also part of what I see as the necessary de/un-colonizing work we all must do.

One of the most important myths to counter is the idea of nature being at our disposal to use as we see fit–and for this, a counter practice that I share today is what I call “deep gratitude.” Deep gratitude is developing a consistent, mindful, and sustaining gratitude practice for the world around you.

Three Reasons to Practice Deep Gratitude

If you want to get right to the practice, skip this section.  If you want to hear why I believe deep gratitude is critical and some of the things we need to counter, keep reading!

Nature Loyalty over Brand Loyalty. One of the problems with industrialization, consumption, and materialism is that we lack a true sense of gratitude for the earth that provides for us. The system purposely disconnects us from our food and the sources of our food and the land that sustains us. The system disconnects us from the sources of nature which provide the goods we use (e.g. the “distributed by” label). Instead of having gratitude for nature, which literally provides our every need (even very indirectly in this current age), we have brand loyalty. Companies and corporations steal that loyalty, cultivate it, and we somehow feel beholden to them.  But the true source of our clothing, housing, food, and possessions is the earth, and thus, we need to cultivate gratitude and loyalty to the earth from which everything is derived. So one way we might realign ourselves with the correct loyalty (to the living earth) rather than the things that strip the earth of resources (Walmart) is by simply practicing deep gratitude.

Gratitude for the sun, rain, and mists that provide sustenance to the land

The other thing here is that brand loyalty erases the other part of this equation: the people whose labor makes these things we consume happen. The hands that grow, and pick, and package, and ship, and sell. These people aren’t just cogs in a machine, their labor–which allows us to eat, have clothes, etc–also matters.

The Lure of Money. I another reason that gratitude matters is because of the disconnection and greed that money fosters. Money disconnects us and, like brand loyalty, cultivates a deep love and desire for money. If you think about it on an abstract level, the system is kind of bonkers: you labor for someone, and they give you money.  Then you go to the store and use the money to buy what you need (clothes, food, etc). That whole exchange privileges money and wealth; what it doesn’t privilege is natural abundance or the earth from which all flows. Money disconnects us.  Money creates a whole lot of intermediaries that distance us from the earth and from our fellow humans.  We are the only beings on the planet who live in such a way.  Everyone else for the most part (unless they are domesticated and live with us) depends directly on the natural earth for everything. At the same time, we can be grateful for our own labor that has produced the funds necessary to procure the goods that sustain us.  Self-care and self-love is certainly part of the deep gratitude equation.

Nature is not Walmart.  But what about things that don’t involve money or aren’t part of the larger industrial system?  We still need gratitude.  I have seen the ramifications of this lack of gratitude in many places, but perhaps none so glaring as in the wild food foraging community.I used to teach a lot of wild food foraging classes locally and regionally, and I’ve paused those classes (the verdict is still out on whether I will again in the future).  Despite my best efforts, I watched people descend upon nature like pirates raiding a merchant ship.  Nature was the treasure and they were treasure hunters.  I watched a group of people–who I had just spent 20 minutes talking to about ethics, reciprocation, and gratitude–strip a patch of woodland nettles down to their roots before I could stop them. I’ve seen people I’ve taught in my previous plant walks posting on social media unsustainable harvests. I feel at least partially responsible for those actions. I’ve been kicked out of multiple foraging groups on social media for talking about the lack of sustainability of harvesting five gallons of ramps with the bulbs intact (my blog readers will know I have a deep love for these endangered woodland medicinal species!)  I offer this example of wild food foraging because getting into the woods isn’t enough–the myths and materialistic forces that drive us there.  So what’s the alternative?

Practicing Deep Gratitude

This all leads me to the practice of deep gratitude as a way of countering these myths. What I mean by deep gratitude is this:

Taking small moments to acknowledge what nature has provided to you and be in gratitude for those gifts. Thinking about the natural resources as well as the human hands that created, moved, and sold things to you so that you can be healthy, comfortable, and well-fed. Slowing down enough to be grateful for what you have and how it has come to you.  Acknowledging the lives and labor that have produced what you will consume and giving thanks.

The practice itself is simple.

If you are consuming anything, have take a moment for gratitude.  If you eat something, have gratitude.  If you purchase something, have gratitude. You want to honor the life or resources that was given (because something is almost always given when we consume).  Take a moment to simply express your gratitude and thanks for what nature has provided you.

Gratitude for the abundance of nature!

For example, let’s say you are having a banana for breakfast. Spend a moment honoring the tree that that banana came from, the soil web that sustained it, the hands that tended that tree and harvested it, and those people who helped get it to you. If you are engaging in repairs to your house, be grateful for the materials–where they came from, what was given (the life of the tree for the board for your home), etc.  Simply take the time to honor and acknowledge the earth that provided, the hands that provided, and be thankful.

If you harvested something directly, either from a garden you grew or from nature in the wild, be grateful.  Before you harvest, ask permission.  If you can, leave a small offering before you take anything.

Try this practice as often as you can–I suggest starting for a week and seeing how it goes. Even if you don’t do it for everything, start with one thing, like what you eat or what you wear.  Practice gratitude at your meals, for example, or for anything new that you buy.  I don’t think you can do this all the time, but if you do it some of the time, that is enough to help cultivate this gratitude within you.

I’ve been practicing this for some time now, and it has done a few things for me.  First, I have paid a lot more attention to the steps and ways in which things get to me: if I’m eating a banana (which obviously doesn’t grow here in Pennsylvania), I think about the steps it took to reach me and offer gratitude to everything from the living earth to those who grew and sold it.  Second, it affirmed the need to source everything as locally as possible (which I already do) so that I can offer my gratitude directly.  For example, I buy milk from my local farmer.  I can take a moment to thank the farmer and when I visit to pick up the milk, thank the cows and the grass that sustains them. Another thing this practice does is center permaculture ethics in my life: I am constantly thinking of the triad of earth care, people care, and fair share as I go throughout my day. I’m thinking about these ethical dimensions and drawing attention to both the earth-based and human-based ways in which others have touched me, nourished me, and helped sustain me. I’m stripping out loyalty to oppressive systems and instead focusing on what actually provides for me: the living earth and those others who are directly involved. Finally, this practice has created more joy in my life. Rather than rushing through a meal, I take the time to savor it, being grateful for a full belly and the beautiful asparagus from the garden.

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep gratitude is a fundamentally transformational practice. It encourages you to slow down, pause, and be grateful. Being grateful makes things more meaningful, and our experience is richer for it. It roots us in the here and now and re-aligns our minds and hearts with the living earth. I think  I hope you’ll give it a try (if you don’t do something like this already). I would love to hear your thoughts about how you practice gratitude in your life!

PS:  I have a few updates on my new book!  Thanks to all who have already supported me by purchasing it!  First, I was featured on the latest Druidcast (episode 171) talking about my new book Sacred Actions.  The book also has a number of reviews: one from Nimue Brown at Druid Life, one from Bish at the Druid’s Network, one from Dean Easton at A Druids Way, and one from James Nichol at Contemplative Druidry, one from Regina Chante, and more out soon!

Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices

Sacred Actions book!

I’m really excited to announce that my new book through REDFeather / Shiffer Publishing is now availableo!  The Book is titled Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices. I wanted to give you an introduction to the book and the concepts behind the book.  If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you’ll see a great deal of familiarity: my explorations and writing on this blog shaped this book, although the book goes well beyond the blog.  In a nutshell, Sacred Actions presents a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainable living, and permaculture practices and ethics.   I can’t wait to introduce it to you in today’s post!

Order in the US or UK from the Publisher (available now). Pre-order from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK).  Pre-Order in Australia from Booktopia. 

As I’ve written on this blog before, I believe that we are possible of creating a better future–a healed, nurtured world where humans, animals, plants, and all life can live in harmony and balance. Not only is this possible, but it is also critically necessary for us to survive. Perhaps this seems like a far-off fantasy, but I have hope in this future. To build this future for our descendants and for all life on earth, this work starts with both a vision and starts in the lives of each of us who desire to take up this work.  Consider Sacred Actions a manual of personal empowerment for those who want to integrate nature spirituality, sustainability, permaculture, and earth-honoring approaches and build a better tomorrow.

Graphic from book: creating a sacred space in your home through signs and reminders

Graphic from book: creating a sacred space in your home through signs and reminders

It’s no secret that it’s extremely hard to practice any nature-based spirituality in an age where the destruction of nature is a product of daily human activity.  The deeper that you go into any path of nature spirituality, like Druidry, the more you experience this dissonance.  How do we practice nature spirituality when we are experiencing ecological decline: extinction, pollution, global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, and much more? Seeing news reports and dealing with ecological issues in our own region and communities can leave people feeling lost, confused, and stuck in a place of inaction. People come to paganism, Druidry, and nature spirituality because they want to reconnect with nature. But in the process of doing this, they also struggle with the integration of spiritual practices with their everyday lives and balancing their lives with the harsh ecological realities we face. As we are increasingly confronted with the catch-22 of holding nature as sacred but participating in a culture that is harming nature and threatening ecosystems globally, the question that so many of us ask is: how can I integrate an earth-based spiritual practice with an earth-honoring lifestyle?

Inside of book – Food and Nourishment / Summer Solstice Chapter

To address these challenges, I wrote Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices.  What is sacred action? Sacred action is the principle through which we can solve the challenges I’ve shared above.  Recognizing that everyday, mundane life can be an opportunity for deepening our spiritual practices and connections with the living earth by living in a way that honors nature through those everyday actions.  It is the process of transforming our lives, through our intentions and action, where we turn the mundane through a wide set of new practices, skills, and activities.  It’s about taking small steps towards a brighter future.

Graphic from book: Three sacred garden designs

This book was born here on the Druid’s Garden blog. For years, as part of my own path, I explored a wide range of practices and worked to integrate my own path of druidry into my everyday life by learning sustainable living, organic gardening, permaculture, herbalism, and so much more.  In time, I learned to teach these things to others, organize community groups, and start to spread the word further. I have written the book to be accessible to anyone, regardless of their living circumstances, resources, or life path.

Book Overview

Sacred Actions offers a wide variety of sustainable living activities, rituals, stories, and tools using an eight-fold wheel of the year approach. Thus, this book is a synthesis between nature-based spirituality and sustainable living practices through explorations of a wide variety of topics.  Each chapter, tied to one of the eight holidays, offers a specific theme, rituals and activities for sustainable living, stories, and fun graphics.

Graphic from Book: Permaculture’s Principle of the Zone

One of the core aspects of the book is that I use permaculture ethics (people care, fair share, and earth care) to weave through the book. People care focuses on making sure ourselves, our families, and those around us have their basic needs. Earth care focuses on attending to sustaining our earth and all life on earth through our own actions. Fair share focuses on taking only what we need so that others may have what they need too.  Through the presentation of these ethics of care from permaculture, we are able to re-see a number of everyday life practices through the lens of sacred action.

The eightfold wheel of the year is the framework through which I present stories, practices, rituals, activities, and much more with the goal of helping readers further practice sacred action. The book begins at the Winter Solstice, where I offer core rituals and activities surrounding an ethic as care as a core foundation of sacred action using permaculture’s three ethics of care as a foundation of the book: people care, earth care, and fair share.  At Imbolc, we focus on the principles of drawing upon the wisdom of the ancestors through reskilling and knowledge building.  At the spring equinox, I present one of the most challenging topics: addressing consumption, materialism, and waste, and I show many alternatives to typical living such as worm composting, ecobricks, and spiritual tools and rituals for various kinds of spring cleansings.  Beltane focuses on our homes and everyday lives–exploring sustainable options for cooking, heating, water usage, cleaning, lighting, and so much more.   At the Summer Solstice, we think about the energetic and ethical dimensions of food, developing seasonal food rituals, and honoring the land through our daily eating choices.  At Lughnasadh, we explore sacred gardening, planting by the signs, growing food indoors and outdoors, lawn conversions, and so much more (this is my favorite chapter, haha!).  At the fall equinox, we explore how to take things into our community: in our workplaces, creating and organizing groups, transportation, rituals and tools for our broader action in the world.  Finally, at Samhain, we explore how to create more sustainable ritual tools and working with nature outside of our door.

Graphic from the book: how to create a root cellar barrel to store garden produce!

Here is a list of just some of the topics covered in this book:

  • The ethics of care: people care, earth care, and fair share
  • Rituals for harvest, planting and growing
  • Rituals to honor food
  • Composting methods (vermicompost, compost piles, humanure, liquid gold)
  • Lawn liberations and conversions
  • Sacred gardening techniques (Planting by the signs, preparing soil, using available resources, swales, hugelkultur, organic gardening, pollinator-friendly spaces)
  • Indoor sacred gardening techniques (container gardening, sprouting, sacred herb windowsill garden)
  • Developing ritual tools and materials sustainably and locally
  • Turning waste into resources (ecobricks, trash-to-treasures, upcycling)
  • Cooking by the sun or sustainably (hay boxes, solar cookery)
  • The home as a sacred space
  • Ethics of food and how to work with times of local abundance
  • Honoring food through ritual and ceremony
  • Energy and transportation
  • Food storage and sustainability (pantry, root cellar, root cellar barrels, canning and more)
  • Community organizing, groups, and earth ambassadorship
  • Developing workplace sustainability practices
  • Rituals for sacred activity and bringing the sacred into everyday life
  • Reskilling and honoring ancestral wisdom

Inside of book -rituals and activities section

Thus, through reading this book, readers will gain access to rituals, philosophies, ethics, tools, practices, and activities that they can use to integrate, and expand, their own spiritual practices and tie these to earth-honoring living.  It is, ultimately, a manual of empowerment for neo-pagans wanting to make more earth-honoring lifestyle choices.

If you want to hear more about the book, you can also view my recent interview with Chris McClure on Facebook live with Shiffer/Red Feather here.  You can also listen to the upcoming Druidcast (releasing in June with Philip Carr Gomm) or the Carrowcrory Cottage Podcast with John Wilmott (Woodland Bard) on June 27th at 9am EDT!   I’ll share more links as they come through.

To order: Order in US or UK from the Publisher (available now). Pre-order from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK).  Pre-Order in Australia from Booktopia. 

Thank you, readers, for your longstanding support, comments, and faith in me. This book exists because you have supported me for so many years! If you have enjoyed this blog and this journey, please consider picking up a copy of sacred actions. I am in gratitude for your support.

 

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Hazel (Corylus americana) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

American Hazelnuts in a cluster getting ready to ripen

For three years, I have had my eye on our American hazel bushes here at the homestead. When we first moved to the property, much of the understory was damaged with the logging the previous owners did and it took time for the hazels to recover.  Thus, for the last few years, I’ve watched the hazels grow taller and larger each year and kept looking excitedly for any signs of nuts setting. This past fall, I was delighted to find handfuls of delicious wild American hazelnuts and connect with the incredible wisdom that they offer.

While Hazel is a critically important tree in the mythology and magical tradition of Druidry and in Europe more broadly, The Hazel is one of the sacred trees identified by the druids as a tree tied to wisdom and the flow of Awen, and it is one of the sacred trees found in the Ogham.  But here in North America, despite having our own native hazels (American Hazelnut and Beaked Hazelnut), we often turn our eyes towards Europe’s mythology and understandings. Thus, in this post, I’d like to share more about the American Hazelnut, and the ecology, uses, herbalism, magic, and myths of this most sacred tree.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

The American Hazel is an understory tree that is native to the eastern half of the United States and into the Eastern half of Canada. The second native Hazel we have is the Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), which has an even wider range in North America–both have fairly similar growth habits.

As a deciduous tree, the American Haze produces brownish-yellow foliage in the fall and is in the birch (Betulae) family. It can tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions, including acidic or alkali soil and full sun to part shade.  I’ve primarily seen it in the Allegheny mountain region of Western PA either as a full shade understory tree or along part-shade edges of damp deciduous forests.  It has simple, alternate leaves that are shaped like a heart or oblong (which have some variation from region to region) and tiny little hairs running up the branches.  The leaves are toothed and soft to the touch.

Hollie and Ivy Goose help me with this year’s hazelnut harvest!

The Hazel only reaches a height of about 12-15 feet at maturity and spreads in a thick cluster where many smaller hazel trunks will grow out of a single root structure and span 10 feet or more.  Thus, when you find one American Hazel tree cluster, you will often find many more  Hazel grows quickly once planted; it can grow 12-24″ in a single season.  Within seven years (planting from seed), it can produce its first crop of hazelnuts and most of these trees can produce nuts for over 40 years.

While hazels will produce both male catkins and female flowers on the same plant, they are not self-fertile, and thus, require several in order to properly reproduce.  Thus, if you are planning on planting some, keep this in mind.  The male catkins are visible all winter.  In early spring, like spicebush, tiny red clusters (the female flowers) burst forth.  After pollination, the male catkins dry and drop off leaving the female flowers to transition into nut pods that feature two large green bracts (one of the characteristic looks of the hazel).  When the nuts are ripe in the fall (here, this is sometime in September), the green bracts start to go yellow and then brown. An easy way to spot these in the fall as just as the leaves are beginning to come down, you can

Not only are the nuts delicious for humans, they are also highly sought by wildlife including squirrels, deer, turkey, woodpeckers, grouse, pheasants, beavers, fox, quail, and even blue jays.  The male catkins, which stay on the trees all winter, are foraged by ruffed grouse during the lean winter months.  Of course, like all other nuts in the region, nut weevils may be present (in this case, hazelnut weevils, curculio neocorylus).  When you harvest hazels, its a good idea to let them sit for about 7-12 days and let the weevils come out.  I return those to the land and enjoy the rest!

Food Uses

Most obviously, American Hazel produces delicious nuts and they are well worth seeking out if you do any foraging.  Here is a great blog post on foraging for either variety of hazelnut that grows wild in the Americas: beaked hazel or American hazel.   It is important to realize that the wild American Hazelnut is going to be smaller and more flavor intensive than the domestic counterpart; this is because most commercial hazelnuts sold are either European Hazels (about twice the size of American Hazel) or are hybrids.  This is a very common thing among wild foods: the domestic varieties have been bred for size or hybridized, but often at the expense of flavor.  A wild hazelnut will be so rich and flavorful compared to what you will find in the store (also true of wild strawberry, wild raspberry, etc).

Hollie and Ivy can’t wait to try the hazelnuts!

Hazelnuts are able to be enjoyed directly from the tree.  When you harvest them, simply peel off the catkins and you will be left with a nut surrounded by a thin (and easy to crack) shell.  This is for American hazel specifically; the beaked hazels are much harder to shell and you usually have to rot the catkins away (Sam Thayer discusses this technique more in his  You can eat them like this and store the nuts for up to 18 months in a cool place.  If you want to take it a step further, you can  I prefer to roast them slightly in the oven.  To do this, you can crack the nuts and then roast them at 275 for 15 or so minutes–you want them slightly brown but not scorched.  Or, if you have a wood-burning stove, you can just put your nuts on the top of the stove for 10 -15 minutes in their cracked shell and roast that way.  If you have enough, you can grind up your roasted nuts and make incredible nut butter. Beyond roasting, you can use American Hazelnuts in any recipe that would call for commercial hazelnut:  cookies, ice cream, sprinkled over salads, etc.

In Edible Plants of Eastern North America (1943), Fernald and Kinsey note that American Hazels were harvested extensively in the country and ground into a meal, which was then baked into a cake-like bread.

John Eastman in Forest and Thicket notes that the hazelnut oil, when pressed, can be used for perfumes and that the wood has traditionally been made into charcoals for drawing.

Other Uses

Within the permaculture community, Hazelnuts are an important crop for food forests and to support perennial agriculture.  The entire idea behind perennial agriculture is that we can plant trees or other crops once and then gain many harvests, and cultivate a food forest rather than an annual vegetable garden.  This has made nut crops, like chestnut and hazelnut, important symbols in that movement.

Beautiful Hazels

American Hazel, like all other hazels, has the ability to be coppiced.  This means that once established, you can cut the tree back to the roots and harvest the thin trunks. There are coppiced hazels in parts of Europe that have been a continual source of raw material for centuries; this is a very sustainable and regenerative practice. Within a few years, the hazel will send up new wood and regrow.

Because Hazels are understory trees without thick trunks, most of the wood applications in Hazel have to do with their ability to produce lots of small, flexible branches and be coppiced. Hazelwood has been traditionally used for building small structures like fences, in wattle and daub natural construction, in building the traditional coracle boat, or for creating supports in a garden.

Native American Uses

American Hazel in Winter with large Catkins

Erichsen-Brown notes in Medicinal and other uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes the extensive uses of Hazelnut among Native Americans in North America. Archeological evidence demonstrates Hazelnuts at an Iroquan site and in caves in what is now Ohio in Pennsylvania; this evidence dates from 800-1400 AD that large amounts of nuts were consumed by the tribes living here.  Hazelnuts were dried, ground up, made into meals and gravies, and used to create mush.  The oil was also used for hair and mixed with bear grease by the Iroquis.  

Medicinally, the Hurons used a bark poultice of the hazelnut tree for ulcers and tumors.  The Chippewa used hazel and white oak roots combined with the inner bark of chokecherry and the heart of ironwood for hemorrhages or serious lung conditions.  Similarly, the Ojibwa used the bark poultice on cuts.

The inner bark was used by the Chippewa (along with butternut or inner bark of white oak) as a dye for blankets, rushes, and more.  A recipe given in Erichson-brown is to use the hulls from the nuts to set the black dye of butternut when boiled with tannic acid.  The Chippewa and the Ojibwe also made drumsticks of hazel along with brooms and twig baskets.  The bark was also used to expel worms, in a similar fashion to walnut.

Hazel does not appear to feature much in the legends that I have read of Native American traditions. Since so much was lost due to the cultural and physical genocide of many tribes, however, it is hard to say what magic the Hazel may have had to these amazing peoples.

Hazel in the Western Magical Traditions

Simple Hazel wand

In Celtic mythology, Hazel was an extremely important tree and tied directly to the mythology of the druid tradition. In Irish mythology in the Finnean cycle, it is written that the Hazel tree is the very first tree to come into creation and that all of the knowledge of the world was contained in the Hazel tree.  The Salmon of Wisdom (An Bradán Feasa) lived in the Well of Wisdom (Tobar Segais) which was surrounded by nine sacred Hazel trees with their wisdom-containing nuts. The nuts of the trees dropped into the water and eaten by the Salmon. The first person to catch and eat the Salmon would gain this knowledge.  While many tried and failed, Finnegas spent seven years fishing and finally caught it. Finnegas sets his apprentice, the young Deimne Maol, to prepare the fish but not to eat it.  Deimne sets the fish upon a spit and begins to cook it. In the process of cooking when the fish is nearly prepared, Deimne burns his thumb and puts his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain–and, of course, acquires all of the knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom. Deimne becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fin McCool), the leader of the fabled Fianna and hero of many Irish tales. Those students of Welsh druidry will note the similarities between this story and the one describing how Gwion became Taliesin.  In modern revival Druidry, the wisdom of the hazel and the Salmon of Wisdom in the sacred pool remains very important symbols of our tradition.

Greer notes in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic that Hazel has been used by magicians extensively throughout the West.  Hazel is best used for wands and various kinds of divination rods and sticks (including dowsing).  Cut the hazel with a single stroke with a consecrated knife at sunrise on a Wednesday for the best effect.  Hazelwood makes an excellent wand and transmits energy effectively. Greer also notes that the nuts are excellent for communing with Mercury or connecting with Mercurial energies.   One area that I disagree with Greer about, however, is that he says that Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and American Hazel are interchangeable. In my own experience, while witch hazel became the traditional wood for dowsing rods, I do not believe these woods serve similar functions on the landscape, and thus, I have found them to have different magical qualities.

In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the wood was used for dowsers extensively in the British Isles.  In the Ogham, hazel is noted as the “fairest of the trees” and is tied to the flow of Awen, divine inspiration, particularly for the crafting of poetry.  The other thing Blamires notes, which I have not been able to find an original source for, is that there is a ritual by the druids called “Diechetel Do Chenaid” where chewing hazelnuts were used for inspiration or to learn of something lost.  I’m not sure if this ritual comes from myth or is speculation, so if anyone knows more about it, I would appreciate them sharing!  Finally, Hazel wands (probably due to their Mercurial connections) were used as a symbol for a herald.

Hazelnut does not appear to have any uses within other folk traditions in the Americas, such as Hoodoo.

The Divination and Magic of the Hazel

American Hazel Harvest

Given everything above: the ecology, food uses, and mythology surrounding hazel, I’d like to propose the following three divination and magical uses for American Hazel.

Wisdom.  While the mythology surrounding wisdom and creative inspiration comes from the British Isles, I think that mythology is strong for those of us practicing druidry in the US today.  Thus, the American hazel is associated with Wisdom and knowledge, just as the British counterpart.

Creative Inspiration and the flow of Awen. Flowing inspiration of all kinds comes from working with the Hazel tree.  Be inspired by the joy and connection this tree offers.  Eat of the hazelnuts and find your inspiration!  Bring hazel into your life through the crafting of wands, amulets, and more to encourage that flow.

Renewable tools.  Hazel offers many tools and gifts for those seeking a sustainable lifestyle and to transition to more sustainable practices.  Thus, Hazel offers the knowledge and uses of its many tools and the idea of sharing these practices widely.  Hazel offers much hope for us to think about how to transition from mono-crop agriculture that is destroying the land to instead, work with the energy of the hazel, a tree that can be infinitely renewable and incredibly generous.

Friends, readers, I would love to hear your experiences with the Hazels where you live!  What have you experienced or discovered about them?

Beyond the Anthropocene: Druidry into the Future

Druidry into the future

Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots, and there have been several distinct “phases” of druid practice historically. While it’s not critical that the practitioner of the modern druid traditions know what I share, it is helpful to have a sense of where the tradition comes from and the forces that shaped it–particularly so that we can think about where we are going.  I want to talk today about both the past of druidry in order that we might talk about its future.  How do we shape our tradition today so that we become the honored ancestors of tomorrow? What is the work that we might consider doing now, as druids, to create a tradition that endures?

Modern druidry is inspired by the Ancient Druids, a group of wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The Ancient Druids lived in areas of Britain and Gaul (modern-day France) as well as in other parts of Europe; the earliest records of the Ancient Druids start around 300 BCE and go about the second century CE, when they were wiped out by the Romans. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors. The druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments of what their tradition looked like. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.

Centuries later, at a time when industrialization began to rise in the in the British Isles in 18th century, a new group of people in the British Isles became interested in the Ancient Druids. Modern Druidry’s spiritual ancestors watched as the wheels of industrialization radically and irrevocably changed the landscape: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; deforestation and pollution becoming commonplace; and the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. Modern druidry’s spiritual ancestors began to shape a new druid tradition, inspired by the ancient druids, and beginning with the fragments that had been left behind by the ancients: texts and stone circles alike. The Druid Revivalists reached deeply and creatively into history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The Druid Revival movement, therefore, sought to reconnect with nature through ancient and ancestral roots in a time where the broader wheels of industrialization was pushing humans into a very different kind—and ultimately destructive—relationship with nature. It is for this same reason that people today are drawn to the modern druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and what is missing is often rooted in that lack of connection with the living earth. (Note: This discussion of the rise of modern druidry is heavily influenced by the work of John Michael Greer in the Druidry Handbook.

It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world. Despite the early promise of industrialization and, later, consumerism, we are now living in a world on the brink of ecological collapse. Many of us recognize that we must make a different way forward, and druidry offers one such way. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered modern people sources of inspiration and reconnection. The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry, then, is helping us find our way “home.”

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

Stone Circles – Honoring the ways of our ancestors and creating the sacred spaces for the future

Sharing historically where the druid tradition came from helps us get to what I see as the core of druidry today: focusing on what an ecologically-centered, wildcrafted, localized and living druidry today can look like, how it can help us reconnect, and how it offers us spiritual and practical tools for responding—and taking care of ourselves and the living earth—during the ecological crisis of our age. 

Descending in spirit from the Ancient Druids and descending in principle from the druid revival several centuries ago, the Druid tradition in the 21st century is shaping up to be a vibrant one that focuses both on drawing deeply from the past but also creating a living tradition, and evolving tradition, that meets the needs of both druids and the earth today. I really want to push us to deepen and extend druid practices and the druid tradition—not by eliminating or removing pieces from the existing tradition, but building upon it.

Druidry, as a tradition in its current form (that is, as a path of nature spirituality) has been around less than two centuries. Many druids are scattered around the world, being in small groups or always as solo practitioners. Communities of druids are formalizing, expanding, and establishing their own traditions and paths, rooted in the frameworks of the druid revival tradition.

Druidry is a language that we are starting—only now—to learn how to speak. The metaphor of how a new language is formed is a helpful metaphor in terms of the druid tradition. New languages often form from what is known as a “contact zone.” This is when two established languages come into contact (say, through trade, resettlement, or colonialization) and speakers of each language intermingle and have to figure out how to communicate. What initially forms is what linguists call a “pidgin” language, a language with limited vocabulary from both languages, simplified grammar (usually borrowed from one of the languages, often the dominant one), and limited ways of communicating. This is not anyone’s native language, but something created out of a basic need to communicate. In time, typically a generation or two, the pidgin language becomes a creole language. This happens when children are born hearing the language and acquire it as native speakers. These new native speakers help shape the pidgin language beyond its initial simplified form with more elaborate grammatical structures that can allow for more complex meaning, a richer vocabulary, and so on. Eventually, given enough time, the creole language becomes its own language that is distinct and fully independent from either the parent languages.

Learning how to speak a new language of connection

Many of us are speaking druidry as a pidgin language—we began to walk this path within a contact zone of other dominant religions and childhood religions that have shaped our thinking, reactions, and beliefs. And the basic forms of druidry, like those published in many pioneering books and early curricula from this tradition, helped us get the job done as we developed our unique nature spirituality.  These included basic practices like connecting with nature, celebrating the seasons, practicing the bardic arts, working with spirit. But as we grow into our own druidry, both as individuals and as communities, the kinds of material and practices becoming part of this tradition are expanding considerably.

I believe that druidry as a community is in the place of transitioning from a pidgin to a creole language. As more and more people find our tradition and practice it seriously, and as children begin to be born into and grow up in this tradition, as we are increasingly surrounded by groves and communities, we are able to fully develop and expand various parts of the druid tradition to fit these expanded needs. I’ve witnessed this here in the United States on the East Coast, for example, with tremendous growth not only in the number of druid gatherings per year and number of people wanting to attend, but also the kinds of activities we now do at gatherings: community building, coming of age ceremonies, bardic competitions, croning, and saging rituals, the development of permanent sacred spaces and the creation of widespread energetic networks, and more. Our language of druidry is expanding, and each new voice and perspective has much to offer.

So then, how might we “expand” the language of druidry?  I think every single person on this path, from those new to those who have been walking it for a long time has the opportunity to do so.  Here are some of the ways we might engage in this practice:

1. Develop and Share Wildcrafted and Localized Druidries. While druidry originated in the British Isles, there are more people who practice druidry worldwide and here in North America than ever before.  While I think we should see the British Isles as part of the wisdom and background, it is part of that original contact zone language for those of us who are not in the British Isles.  We will certainly be inspired by the mythology, sacred sites, and spiritual practices–but we must embrace the idea of creating something new that is specifically adapted to where we are rooted today.  For those who don’t live in the British Isles, it is very important to develop locally-based and wildcrafted practices.  The Ancient Order of Druids in America is very committed to a wildcrafted druidry path and has an entire curriculum built around wildcrafted druidry as a core principle. Through learning about ecology, planting trees, spending time in nature, and exploring nature through the bardic, ovate, and druid arts, druids get a deeper sense of place and are able to thus, create a wildcrafted druidry that fits their own immediate ecosystem.

Once you have developed these approaches to druidry, I really want to encourage you to share them.  Put that information out there in the world so that others who live in similar bioregions can learn localized practices.  If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that’s a lot of what I’m doing here–my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, the Allegheny Ogham, how to make Tree Incenses, Acorn Flour, Tree Wassailing, so many more pieces–these are all pieces of localized druidry that I have developed while living in both the US Midwest and the US Mid-Atlantic regions.  If these pieces help others, the tradition becomes richer and more robust. 

2. Put tired debates of authenticity behind us and instead focus on today and tomorrow. Perhaps this is my revival druid path bias showing, but I am growing very tired of talking about authenticity. I don’t think it moves our tradition forward in any meaningful way, and I think it is disrespectful to our direct spiritual ancestors. Yes, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for taking liberties and creating texts; I find these attempts to discredit them problematic for several reasons, particularly for those who practice druidry.  First, they were working within the bounds of acceptable practice within their own age, not ours. This was an age where forgery and plagiarism of texts were common. Second, the practices of the druid revival tradition work—as attested by tens of thousands of druids worldwide.  If it works, obviously, it was inspired. Third, at this point, some druid revival texts, such as Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas, have considerably shaped our tradition for several centuries. And finally, regardless of some of their practices, the Druid Revivalists as a group had an enormous impact in a wide range of fields including modern archeology, poetry, culture, and certainly, nature spirituality.  We have fragments from the ancients, and we have a rich history from the revival–both of those shape who we are today.  But it is modern practitioners–you and I–shape who we are tomorrow. So I suggest we set aside these discussions, acknowledge that the practices work, and think about what we are doing today–and how we can move into a better tomorrow.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

4.  Focus on being a good ancestor. It strikes me that in the age of the present predicament we face, one of the most important things we can do is live today in a way that makes us good ancestors. What can we do today–spiritually, physically, socially, creatively–to create a better world than the one we live in? That preserves the diversity of life on this planet? That helps humans reconnect with the living earth?  These are the kinds of questions that I find really important now, both for my own practice and in the mentoring and support that I offer those in the AODA and broader druid community.  Druidry offers an alternative perspective to the dominant narratives that are currently killing our planet.  It is important that concepts like nature spirituality are rooted firmly now so that these ideas may flourish beyond our own lives. 

5. Create refugia and regenerate ecosystems. As I’ve discussed before on this blog, there are physical and metaphysical practices we can do now, given the challenges we face as a world.  One of the most powerful we can do is preserve small pockets of life and foster ecosystems in any way we can.  Refugia are how so many species–including humans–survived the last ice age.  Small pockets of abundant life not only support the many species on this planet (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, etc) but also offer humans places to deepen their connection to nature.  You can learn more about how to create a refugia or one example of a refugia here.  Another method that is extremely empowering is learning and practicing permaculture design.  These approaches allow us to do more than honor nature or work with it metaphysically, but be a force of good right now, today, and a champion of all life.

6.  Practice resilience.  If events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that the concept of resilience is going to be a critical skill in the years and decades to come.  Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems were those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure.  This same concept, I believe, is central to any spiritual work we do.  We need to become both physically and spiritually resilient so that we can continue to face the difficulties that will only grow in seriousness as we live our lives and continue to walk our spiritual paths.

But resilience isn’t easy–it is a process.  I would argue that it requires both inner and outer work. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave. Practicing resilience requires us to privilege our own self-care, put things in perspective, and continue to work through our own feelings. It requires us to understand our own fears, weaknesses, and shadow selves.  Resilence in our physical lives is something that, thankfully, many more people are attending to now than they were a year ago.  It means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented (like global pandemics or food shortages).  Physical resilience is about having your basic hierarchy of needs met, even in a time of disruption. It is a good time to start growing some of your own food, look into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and make sure that you have a monthm at a minimum, of stores to meet your needs. Physical resilience is also about being flexible and opportunistic, almost like the understory trees I wrote about several weeks ago–learning how to be resourceful and adaptable.  I would argue that resilience is a mindset that you can learn.  Resilience is the great challenge of our age, and will allow us to face any other challenges with strength, wisdom, and peace.  It will certainly help facilitate our work in other areas, and will allow us to thrive even in difficult conditions.

I think these are only some of the things we might do now to help us shape a better future for tomorrow.  But I like to think along these lines, in a positive way, because that allows all of us to do good in the world and keep moving in peace, joy, and hope.

A Walk Through a Sacred Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

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

 

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

 

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

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

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

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

 

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

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

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

 

 

Goals and Interventions

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

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

 

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

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

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

 

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

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

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

 

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

 

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

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

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

 

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

What about the inner/energetic work?

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

 

Conclusion

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

Introduction to Sacred Gardening: Connection, Reciprocity, and Honoring Life

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Walking into a sacred garden is like walking into another world, one full of joy, happiness, and wholeness.  Fruit hanging from happy branches, plants coming up from all angles inviting a nibble, a taste, a touch.  The pathways spiral and you get lost, looking at flowers, breathing in the fresh air, and tasting the tart berries on your tongue.  An indoor sacred garden is much the same – a bright window with a chair asking you to sit, stay awhile, and meditate with the plants (or even reach up and take a lemon-scented geranium leaf in your hand and breathe deeply).  Sacred gardens are places that are intentionally cultivated to be in harmony and balance, that are carefully tended by loving hands, and that offer many possibilities for spiritual practice and deeper spiritual connection.

 

It’s amazing to see that this year, so many new people are taking up gardening.  While I’ve written on these topics before (obviously, this blog is called the Druid’s Garden!), I’m returning to this topic today to offer an overall philosophy of sacred gardening that I hope can help you deepen your practice or start a new garden.  I’ve been engaged in these practices for over a decade, greatly aided by my permaculture design certificate and permaculture teacher training, which offered me much in the way of working with nature and developing deep observation, interaction, and ethical skills. I realize that other authors, especially those coming from different spiritual traditions, may have a very different take.  But this is mine :).

 

Sacred Gardening: A Triad of Reciprocity, Life Honoring, and Connection

To define sacred gardening, let’s start by looking at the definitions for the two terms.  A garden refers to a place where ordinary people can grow food.  Beyond that, gardens actually vary pretty widely based on the philosophy and practices of a gardener.  You can have gardens that are organic and holistically managed or those that are full of chemicals, weed killers, and poisons.  You can have gardens that are diverse and support life or those that are focused on keeping all life that isn’t intended out with some pretty violent means.  You can have large or small gardens, indoors or out.  They can be perennial or annual. Gardens, then, are defined by crowing food, cultivating plants for human benefit; they are often (but not always) very human-dominated spaces.

Sacred refers to something that is dedicated to a spiritual or religious purpose, something that is deserving veneration, being worthy of awe; and/or something that is entitled to reverence and respect.  When we think of something that is sacred, it is a special place where we offer honor, respect, and reverence.  Where we tend to our interactions and be intentional in our practices. For thinking about nature as sacred, several concepts emerge that are critically important to our discussion here they are: connection, reciprocity, and honoring life   It is in these three concepts that we can arrive at a useful definition of sacred gardening.

Diverse garden!

Diverse garden!

Actions here represent the third aspect that is important to define.  The ultimate point of most gardening is growing food, using whatever means an individual chooses.  What makes that gardening sacred is how the gardener chooses to interact with the land, the specific choices and behaviors that gardener engages in, and the intentions put forth into the space.  As with many things, while intentions matter a great deal, it is actions that determine our relationships and reality to the land. You can have all of the sacred intentions in the world, but walking into your garden with a backpack sprayer full of Round-Up sends a very different message.

 

At the same time as actions speak intentions into the world, it is also important to recognize that the physical and metaphysical are affected by each other and that there are many metaphysical aspects that can affect a physical space and vice versa.  Thus, we can think about sacred gardening as being about both inner and outer practices, practices that help not only support the physical presence of the garden but also the spirit.

 

Thus, I see three guiding principles, a triad in the druidic sense, that can help us with a full definition of this practice:

Three principles for sacred gardening:
Deepening inner and outer connections with the garden
Engaging in reciprocity with the garden
Honoring and creating spaces the diversity of life in the garden

Thus, sacred gardening is a practice of cultivating a space (indoors or outdoors) that allows for not only growing food but also spiritual connection, reciprocity, and honoring life through both inner and outer practices.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll explore these three concepts and offer both “inner” (metaphysical) and outer “physical” practices

 

Connection: Building a Relationship

The first principle is connection.  Sacred gardening is connected gardening, where a big part of the goal of sacred gardening is to cultivate a deep relationship with the garden: which might include plants, soil, bird or insect life, stones, and other features.  Connection allows us to learn and grow in the garden by building a deeper relationship with that garden. Connection can mean many things in a garden setting, from developing a long-standing relationship with seeds that you carefully harvest and save each year to learning more about your space.   So now let’s look at three “inner” and “outer” connection practices.

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Inner Connection Practices for sacred gardening. These three practices don’t have to be taken up all at once. I suggest you start with one of them and build to others over time–it can take years to establish deep connections. Think about inner connection work as taking a seasonal approach: each season you can grow and deepen your practice

.

  • Plant Spirit Communication. Learning how to directly communicate with your plants and the spirits of your land is a fantastic way to build deep connection.  By practicing and learning these communication techniques, you can learn from nature and grow in deep ways–as plants have been teachers of humans long, long, before recorded history.  Many of our garden plants, especially the culinary herbs like rosemary, lemon balm, and sage, have extremely long relationships with humanity and are almost always willing teachers.  For more on plant spirit communication techniques, see Plant Spirit Communication 1, Plant Spirit Communication 2, Plant Spirit Communication 3, and Plant Spirit Communication 4.
  • Meditation. Meditation techniques, including walking meditation and meditation where you are in stillness within the space, are excellent ways to build connections.  Consider doing your regular meditative practices in your garden as often as you can.  Even taking 5 or 10 minutes a day in your garden to meditate and connect can be a very positive experience–for you and for the garden!
  • Planting and Harvesting Rituals.  Relationships are built, in part, by recognizing the spirit in the plants and honoring that spirit.  I have found that planting, blessing, and harvesting rituals are a great way to build a spiritual connection between yourself and your garden plants.  Here are a few rituals for you to try: land blessing, planting ritual 1, planting ritual 2.

Outer Connection Practices.  Outer connection practices help signal to the spirits of the land your intentions.  Humans in this age often take the easy and quick ways out (e.g. plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers), and those easy and quick ways are often at a high ecological cost.  By taking things differently, and slowly, we can demonstrate sacred intent.

  • Supporting the soil web and soil health.   One critical physical connection in gardens is the soil and building soil health.  I would suggest as part of your connection to the garden, you work to attend to your soil–of which there are many different practices.  One of the most important is, for outdoor gardens, taking up the practice of no-till gardening, for example, using sheet mulch or hugelkultur approaches.  Supporting a healthy soil web begins with avoiding tilling a garden; tilling each year destroys the soil web and is quite destructive on the soil bacteria, nematodes, worms, mycelial networks, and more.  Adding rich compost (finished compost, coffee grounds, etc) and natural amendments help cultivate rich soil.  Here’s more on a few compost techniques: composting for city dwellers, composting options for outdoors, and vermicompost.
  • Observation and interaction. One of the first principles of permaculture design is a very useful one to list here.  To build a connection, you have to interact, to be present, and to do so frequently throughout the season.  Observe your plants as they grow.  Spend time with them, watch how they grow.  Look at them at different points in the season and at different times of day.  Take a full moon walk and see the glistening of the dew in the early morning.  This kind of walking meditative practice, where you are simply present with your garden, will offer you much.  More on observation and interaction. 
  • Seed starting and seed choices. Another connection practice focuses on seeds.  Seeds today can be difficult to navigate and choose because of the proliferation of GMO seeds (which I don’t recommend for sacred gardening)–this guide offers some suggestions for seeds.  Once you’ve selected some good seeds, you can start some for yourself (even starting a few will really give you a connection with the plant).  And I would suggest saving at least some varieties of seed from year to year.  For example, I have tobacco seeds that I use for ceremonial purposes and I’ve cultivated a many-year relationship with those seeds. At this point, each time I welcome up the new tobacco, it is greeting an old friend!

Connection allows us to begin to establish deep relationships with our sacred garden both in inner and outer ways.  I believe that connection is a basic requirement for sacred gardening–and the other two steps begin with this one.  Let’s now turn to the second principle–reciprocity–and see how it leads directly from connection.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Reciprocity: Giving Back

Reciprocity refers to the ongoing relationship that is mutually beneficial where each side continues to gain positive benefits from the relationship.  In the case of a sacred garden, abundant land produces yields to sustain you.  In the case of the gardener, the gardener does things to improve the diversity and health of the land and ecosystem–not only for the direct benefit of growing food but beyond.

Inner Reciprocation Practices help us to shift our mindset from those commonly assumed and indoctrinated in our culture to something more sacred and reciprocal.

  • Offerings and Gratitude.  In a sacred garden, whether it is indoors or outdoors, I like to have a space reserved for gratitude and practice gratitude regularly–this is the first step.  I usually build some kind of small shrine (whether that is on the windowsill or in a corner of a larger garden) and leave regular offerings. Offerings may be physical, musical, or spiritual (energetic).  More on gratitude practices from an earlier post.
  • Meditations and critical thinking work. Another good practice here is to spend time dismantling (though discursive meditation or other thought processes) the underlying assumptions about nature that we might not even consciously be aware of.  Our present culture has a constant assumption that 1) nature is there for our benefit and profit and 2) we can take from nature heedlessly and constantly.  These kinds of assumptions run through everyday life in unexpected ways and it can take some serious work to distance ourselves from them and to develop more healthy and productive beliefs about our relationship with nature.  For some good reading on this topic, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings of the LIving Earth.

Outer Reciprocation work helps us create gardens and plans that give back as much (or more) than we take, and establishes balance and harmony with us and the living earth.

  • Closed-Loop Systems and replacing what is taken. One of the reasons that chemical fertilizers are so popular is that as we remove nutrients from the soil, they have to be replaced (even so, we know that these kinds of farming techniques have caused a considerable nutritional decline over the decades).  Ultimately, the loss of nutrients permanently from the soil is a problem with reciprocation.  At minimum, we need to be replacing nutrients that are lost through erosion and harvest–but I’d argue that we need to do one better and add even more than was originally present. Practicing composting is one way, and for more radical folks, humanure and liquid gold offer ways to have a truly closed-loop system. Adding healthy amendments (I especially like to get coffee grounds from nearby coffee shops and interrupt other waste streams to divert to my garden).  Gathering up fall leaves and using them as part of your gardening practice is another resource.
  • Reduction or Elimination of Fossil Fuel Use. Another issue with reciprocation has to do with our over-dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence upon which is literally killing life on our planet and threatening our very existence as a species. As an act of reciprocation and acknowledgment of the problems with fossil fuel, I make it a point to do as much of my gardening by hand as I possibly can (even in a 1000 square foot garden!).  When I must make use of fossil fuels (such as to bring off-site compost to establish new beds), I make sure that I am making minimal and conscious use of these resources.
  • Scattering Seeds and Wildtending. As part of the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have a “refugia” where grow a number of rare medicinal species and regularly scatter their seeds to wild and untended places, particularly places that have suffered ecological devastation after logging or other disruption (common where we live).  We grow both full sun perennials (like St. Johns Wort and New England Aster) as well as shade-loving woodland medicinals (wild ginseng, blue cohosh, black cohosh, ramps, goldenseal, bloodroot).  We also make sure to give seeds and seedlings out to others as much as we possibly can.  This is a direct response to many of these plants being lost in our local ecosystem and offers one way to give back.

 

Honoring Life through Sacred Gardening

Garden with sacred statuary

When you start thinking about connection and reciprocation, this is all leading to the most important sacred principle of all: that of honoring all life.  This is tricky–gardens are traditionally human-dominated spaces and the goal is traditionally to grow food for humans.  When the potato beetles or squash borers come knocking, “honoring life” is probably the furthest thing from your mind as you literally watch your hard tended squash plants wither and die on the vine.  This is when you might be tempted to go to your nearest big box store for a chemical solution. But it is exactly these situations that test us as sacred gardeners, druids, and nature-honoring people.  Nature herself has ways of bringing those squash beetles in balance, and there are many things we can do.  The principle here of honoring life is so critical because it is this principle that is so broadly lacking.

Inner Principles focus on cultivating a diversity of life principles as part of our gardening practice.

  • A full season of blessing rituals. Offering regular rituals in the space that bless and welcome life is a great way over time to affirm your relationship with the sacred garden and raise positive energy for the space.  Here’s one such approach based on land healing.
  • Inviting others in. One of the ways to honor the life of your garden is by inviting others in, sharing with them, and helping others understand these basic principles.  Once you’ve done enough that you have something to share, invite others in to learn, grow, and enjoy the space.  I try to do this often, and as I offer a “garden tour” I share not only what is going, but the life-affirming philosophy that is present in the garden space and how we bring that into reality.
  • Permaculture ethics. Meditations on the three ethics of permauclture (earth care, people care, and fair share) can really help one develop a mindest that honors life and the resulting behaviors. I like to regularly meditate on these concepts and also create signs for my home that remind me of these concepts.

Outer Principles

  • Welcoming the diversity of life – pollinator hedges and more.  When designing for spaces and when planning, I think its important to design just not for what we want to eat but to welcome in diversity, particularly insect and amphibian diversity.  Insect diversity can help us with integrated pest management (below) but also just with cultivating spaces that have room for life.  A simple way to do this, for example, is to use a pollinator hedge–fill it with perennial species like borage, mint, comfrey, sage, milkweed, and more.  These pollinator hedges help welcome in insect life into your space and create habitat, food, and forage for non-human life.  Another common feature is a small frog pond and bee drinking area; a place for frogs, toads, and other amphibians to lay eggs, shelter from the hot sun, and get a drink.  A final thing here to consider is that life-honoring gardens are usually a little more “wild” than their human-dominated counterparts!
  • Integrated pest management. There are so many ways to deal with pests naturally.  Planting pollinator species, particularly the kinds that attract parasitic wasps, can help you with a host of pest problems.  Letting your chickens or ducks run through the garden.  Using cayenne pepper or copper tape to address slugs–the list goes on and on.  Most garden pests have several natural solutions in the short term.  In the long term, fostering a healthy ecosystem allows the predatory species of insects to handle the ones that could cause you trouble.  This approach does take more work and knowledge than a chemical one, and you are likely to lose some crops along the way–but in the end, it will be a much more life-respecting and affirming choice.
  • Making full use of the harvest. Another aspect of reciprocation is to use fully what is harvested and not contribute to food waste.  I think its really important that, in a time where up to 50% of the food grown is wasted, we make every effort to honor what was grown and produced in our gardens. This often means taking up some kind of food preservation, such as canning or drying produce.  Another way of thinking about this is also offering the harvest up to other life–e.g. if I can’t eat all my tomatoes, can some of my neighbors or friends enjoy them? What about offering leftovers to my chickens who convert that garden produce into eggs and manure?

Beautiful patio garden

Conclusion

I hope these principles will help those of you who are starting gardens with the intent of having sacred gardens or for those of you who already have a gardening practice and want to make it more sacred and intentional.  I would love to hear from you in the comments about other ways that you’ve engaged in sacred gardening techniques and things that you do.

 

 

 

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

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

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Careful observation

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

 

Building ecological knowledge

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

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Overcoming fear

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

 

Fostering Ecosystems

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

 

The Soil Web of Life

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

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

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

 

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

 

Ecological Roles

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

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

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

 

Ecological succession

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

 

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

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

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

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

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob

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

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!