Category Archives: Respecting Earth

Building an Earth Oven Part I: Foundation, Dome, and Structure

An earth oven is an oven made of cob (a mixture of clay, sand, and straw) with insulating features (firebricks, bottles).  It is an extremely efficient and sustainable method of doing any baking you might need to do. One firing of your earth oven can allow you to bake different things for hours (pizzas, breads, casseroles, vegetables, etc), and it takes only a small amount of wood to heat.  We fire ours by simply picking up deadfall sticks and branches, cutting them up, and that’s all we need. An Earth Oven is fully sustainable to build and to cook with, and you can locally source literally all of the materials for the oven (and in fact, minus fire bricks, you can probably harvest everything you need from your own land or the land around you).

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

An Earth Oven allows you to connect deeply with the earth itself, encouraging you to slow down, root, and ground.  It is certainly a nice example of “slow time” and “slow food”, as the oven takes a few hours to fire before you can bake in it, and it requires some learning.  With that said, the rewards of this approach way outweigh any challenges you might experience as you learn and grow.

 

The other thing about your oven that is rarely discussed is that it is truly a sensory experience.  Your earth oven will allow you to bake any number of delicious creations–and when you bake in it, the smell of the bread permeates the clay itself, and it has this incredible smell, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  Even on cold days, being near your oven will keep you warm (and your oven will stay warm for literally hours–possibly all night).  It is just such a wonderful thing.

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Earth ovens are a wonderful kind of “hearthspace” where we can cook foods for ourselves and loved ones, use natural materials to build from the land and honor the land, and create a very sustainable and low-input cooking method that is a joy to make and a joy to bake in.  In this new series, I’ll offer full details about how to build an earth oven step by step!  This series will have three posts–today’s post covers materials, preparing the foundation, preparing the base, and creating the dome.  Next week’s post will explore insulating the oven and finishing the oven through a mosaic/cob, finish plaster, and options for doors.  The final post will explore how to cook in your earth oven and some tips and tricks I’ve learned in my first year with the earth oven.

 

Preparation: Materials

In order to build your earth oven, you will need to prepare some materials and do some prep work.  Earth ovens are not expensive to build–most of the investment is in your own time and labor.

Materials for building:

  • Stone and urbanite: You will need some kind of base for your oven; most people use local stone or even urbanite for a strong foundation.  Urbanite refers to waste materials like broken bricks, broken concrete blocks, etc.  You can use urbanite to “fill” the inside of your base and create a stable foundation.  I have also seen people build ovens on old large stumps or platforms.
  • Subsoil / cob: First, you will need access to your subsoil (that’s the soil that is not full of organic matter, but the soil below it). You will need quite a bit of subsoil, so make sure you have easy access. Once you have access to the subsoil, you will want to do some soil testing (which I explain in the link) so that you can be sure you have good subsoil to work with.  To access subsoil here, I found a tree that had gone down and uprooted itself–the roots and ground below it was full of all of the subsoil I needed.
  • Straw:  You will need a bale of straw for your cob.  Straw adds strength, can provide insulation, and can help hold your structure together.
  • Sharp sand. You may also need some sharp sand (known as builder’s sand) depending on what your cob tests reveal. You can get this from a landscape supply or building supply place.
  • Sand: In addition to the sharp sand as an additive, you will need sand to build your sand dome.
  • Newspaper: You will need 3-4 newspapers for your dome.
  • Bottles: You will need at least 20 wine bottles for insulating your base. These can be foraged from recycling bins, saved by friends, or even found at local restaurants. Depending on your structure, you can also use smaller recycled bottles to help with insulation (I did this, but some people use an only straw).

Tools for building:

  • Wheelbarrow or cart: You need something to move materials around your site.
  • Shovel: A shovel for digging subsoil and moving cob around.
  • Screen.  To prepare your subsoil, you will need to screen it of larger items (stones, debris, etc).  For this, you can build a simple soil screener (this also works great for screening compost!).  Make your soil screener large enough that it will sit over your wheelbarrow or cart that you will be using to move it.  I built mine with scrap lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth.
  • 5-gallon buckets: A few buckets are super helpful.  They can move cob from where you mix it to your oven.  You can fill some with water to rinse your feet.
  • Tarps:  A small tarp will allow you to mix your cob.  You might want several, especially if you are doing the work yourself (I found that when I was doing the work myself, I would gather materials – screen cob, gather rocks, etc, on one day and then build on the next, so tarps were able to keep my cob screened and protect it from the elements).  You also will need a tarp to cover your cob oven until you can have a structure built for it.
Source of clay / subsoil - a tree that uprooted during a storm

Source of clay / subsoil – a tree that uprooted during a storm

Cob screen in action - this was built with scrap lumber and 1/2" hardware cloth

Cob screen in action – this was built with scrap lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth

Other Tools and Materials:

  • Pizza peel (I created one from an old aluminum pan and an old rake handle)
  • Firing door and baking doors (more on this in an upcoming post)
  • Shelter structure

We’ll cover these last three in an upcoming post.

Preparation: Oven Size

You can decide how large of an earth oven you want to build.  There are many measurements in the Build Your Own Earth Oven which I used as a reference.  Here’s a simple diagram of the oven and dimensions that I used.  These allow you to figure out how large of a foundation and base you need and will determine the overall structure.

For example, to get good airflow, I created an oven that was 27″ in diameter, which included an 18″ high dome.  Your door should be 63% the height of the oven, or 11.5″ high.

Your oven can be larger or smaller, of course, depending on your needs.

Preparation: Selecting a site

I think it is really important to spend time selecting the right space.  Your space needs to drain well (especially if you are in a temperate climate that has snow/ice).  Your space also needs to be protected from the elements as cob is a natural material that will weather quickly if left without protection.  Your space should also align with your landscape (see setting intentions with nature).

Your oven should be somewhere easily accessible.  You will need to tend a fire every 20-30 minutes for four hours in order to have an earth oven hot enough for pizzas or other baked goods.  Thus, you don’t want to put it so far away from your house that its hard to tend the fire (but not close enough to cause any insurance issues!)

For my earth oven, I decided to build in a little nook on the edge of the property that leads into forest.  That provided both shelter from the elements (and it will get a permanent roof this year) as well as being pretty close

Preparation: Clearing and Foundation

To build your earth oven, it begins with a good foundation. Any cob structure should have “a good hat and feet”, and the foundation is the “feet” part of that equation.  Here is step by step how I built my foundation.

I began by measuring out my foundation – 46″ based on the height of my oven.   Then I removed all of the plant material (as described in this post); I worked to replant any material that needed to be replanted, etc.

Clearing the space

After clearing, I dug down 1.5 feet and added a gravel base for drainage.  Its hard to tell from these photos, but we are on a slight incline, so I made a drainage area to the left of what you see here.

Foundation of gravel

Foundation

Preparing and Mixing Cob

The next step is to screen and create your cob.   I went to my site with my wheelbarrow and put a 5 gallon bucket at a time in my screen.  Using a rock, I worked the cob through the screen. (More details about making cob here).

Screening cob

Screening cob

After that, I moved it to my building site and prepared to mix the cob.

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

To mix the cob, you will need an old tarp, two or more buckets of water (I like to use warm water!), and some happy feet.  First create a well in the center of your cob and, just like making noodles or dough by hand, then start mixing the cob with your feet.  You can use the tarp to flip the cob and keep working it.

For building, you will want to also add handfuls of straw (I cut the straw up so it’s a little shorter) and work that in.  Ideally, you want something with a good consistency that sticks together and isn’t too wet and crumbly.  You can add more water or more soil as you mix.  I have more detailed instructions on mixing cob in an earlier post.

Mixing cob

Mixing cob

You can also get others to help you–friends, children, or even geese.

Goose helpers

Goose helpers

Building your base

In addition to the cob, you will also need something to build your base up that is fireproof and stable–rock or brick is a very good choice for you. For my foundation, I used a mixture of cob along with locally foraged stones and urbanite (old concrete bricks that were broken and strewn about the property.) A good foundation and good base are critical to the success of your oven. You want to build your base high enough that it’s comfortable for you to fire and use the oven.  I kept mine pretty low cause I like to sit on the ground when I work!

I began by mapping out a circle (using a string and some chalk) and building the outside of the circle up using the cob as a mortar.  On the inside, I added my urbanite brick pieces and filled in all holes with smaller stones and cob.  Here’s the first layer.

Building the base.

Building the base.

As I worked, I continued to build up the stones on the outside.  Since I also planned some decoration, I had stones I had already added mosaic to that I wanted to include.  These pieces were made of mosaic materials leftover from both from doing my mosaic bathtub a few years ago + broken pottery and plates that I save.

My mosaic stones

My mosaic stones

It took me two building sessions, but the base continued to grow.

Base after adding mosaic stones

Base after adding mosaic stones

You can see that I’m building up the inside of the base as I build up the outside of the base.

Base before insulation layer

Base before insulation layer

At this stage, I have the base at the top level and as high as I want it.  You can see I am using a piece of wood and a level to check to make sure everything is level as I work. The next step is to add the insulation layer to the base.  The insulation layer is made up of a straw-rich cob combined with wine bottles.  Bottles offer insulation, which keeps heat from getting absorbed by the stone below.  Insulation is really an important feature of these ovens–investing the time to do insulation will allow your oven to be used in colder temperatures, hold heat longer, and heat up sooner (meaning you use less wood to make that happen).

Thick layer of cob in base

Thick layer of cob in base

I started this with a thick layer of straw-rich cob. Straw itself is insulating as it traps small amounts of air in it as it is worked into the cob.

Next, I layered the bottles with more cob in between each to create a solid foundation.

Bottle insulation

Bottle insulation

Here’s the bottles with more cob added

Bottles getting covered

Bottles getting covered in cob

After the bottle layer, I used the board to smooth out the layer and wait for the base to dry about a week before continuing.

The base is done!

The base is done!

Except that we have powerful raccoon activity, and that night, someone tried to dig up my base to see what was in the bottles!

Coon activity

Coon activity

I repaired the cob and then started putting a tarp over it at night to deter the raccoons until my base was a bit more dry.

Laying your firebrick

Firebrick layout

Firebrick layout

To start your hearth, you want to put down a fresh layer of cob so that you can set the bricks in carefully.  Slide the bricks against each other and make everything perfectly level.  To make an oven that is XXX” inside (which is enough to cook a few breads and two small pizzas, perfect for small groups or families) you can use fifteen firebricks in the following pattern (the two firebricks in the back were redundant and I removed them later).

Notice here that I’m also planning a lip to pull my pizzas in and out of the oven.

Circle for dome

Using a string, I made a circle to show me where to build the sand dome for the oven itself.   Now I’m ready to build the actual oven.

Creating Your Sand Dome

I think the most labor-intensive part of this entire process is building the dome and cobbing the dome. Everything else can be done in stages, but this really has to be done all at once. This part is a great time to invite some friends or family to help you if you are doing this on your own.

Start by mixing 1-2 large batches of cob (with straw reinforcement) and tarping that while you build the dome.

To build the dome, you will want a ruler (to test the height of the dome), newspaper, and a few wheelbarrows of sand.  I mixed my sand right in the wheel barrow and got it to a consistency where it would build up well.

Mixing the sand

Mixing the sand

Building the dome

Building the dome

So then, start building the dome, using the guide you drew.  I stuck a metal art ruler down the center of the dome so I would know exactly how tall it was (with a goal of 18″ tall).

As you get further along, you can take a small board and smooth and shape the sand dome.  PUll out the ruler, and you are ready to build!

The completed dome

The completed dome

Go head and coat the whole sand dome with a layer of thick wet newspaper (this creates a barrier both to keep the cob from sticking to the sand and gives you a sense of where to dig out later.

Now, you want at least a 2-3″ thick layer of cob all around the dome.  You dont’ want to press the cob into the dome, but rather, shape the walls downward with your hands.

Building the oven

Building the oven

Keep working your way up.

Oven build continued

Oven build continued

A lot of ovens have some kind of door area. We used old bricks to build our door area (planned out in advanced).  To keep the door balanced, we added two pieces of packing foam that we cut to the right size.  These were later pulled out when the structure was dry.

Building the arch

Building the arch

The arch proved a bit tricky–we layered sticks in between the sand dome and the foam arches and that provided enough stability until the oven dried.

Here is our completed first layer of the cob oven.

first layer of cob finished!

first layer of cob finished!

At this point, you will want to give your oven some time to dry.  We put a little pavilion over it and allowed the summer sun to dry it out.

Digging out the oven

The next step is to dig out your oven and light a few small fires to help dry out the inside of the oven. You can just use your hands, a small trowel, or a stick.  You want to be careful as you dig out so that you are not digging into the cob itself (hence why the newspaper barrier is so useful).

Digging out the oven

Digging out the oven

I used my shovel to remove the bulk of the sand and then got in there with my hands as I got closer to the walls. I let the oven sit another week after I pulled out the sand, and then I lit a small fire for a few days to get the inside dried out.  Here’s the very first fire.

First fire

First fire

Alright! That’s over half of the oven build.  In my next post, I’ll show how I added layers of insulation, a final plaster, and also decorated it with more mosaic pieces that were salvaged from broken pottery.

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

One final thing I want to say now is this is an incredibly good way to connect with the element of earth.  There is nothing more grounding than having your feet and hands directly in the soil, shaping it, honoring it, and getting to know it.  I really enjoyed my time building this and felt incredibly grounded afterward!

Druid Tree Workings: An Initiation from the Trees

In the western esoteric traditions, and traditions tied to them, like druidry, initiation is a powerful method of transformation and energetic work. While features of initiation and their overall goals vary widely by tradition, many initiations do follow some basic patterns, and those are worth exploring. In Inside a Magical Lodge, John Michael Greer notes that the outcome of initiations are to enact specific and desired patterns of change in a person and to connect new members to the group and to the group’s overall egregore (that is, the energetic patterns that a group collectively creates). The initiation then, as he writes, is the magical framework that is put in place in a candidate from which all other things derive.

I believe that we can apply this same practice to working and reconnecting with nature, and today, I’ll share my thoughts on initiations through nature–tree initiations. A tree initiation often results in a very deep, mutually beneficial relationship between you and the trees. Nature and humans cultivated such relationships for most of human history; this is obvious from our mythology, from our own history, and from existing indigenous cultures. It has only been in the last few centuries that those of us in western industrialized cultures lost our ability (and desire) to deeply connect with nature.

Tree cradling moon in the roots

Tree cradling moon in the roots

Tree initiations are one way of helping us to re-establish those deep bonds with a specific kind of ceremony.  In the same way that some dedicate themselves to working with a particular deity, I have found great value in connecting myself deeply with certain tree species.  One of the ways into this work is through initiation.  That is, you are making a conscious commitment to connecting with a tree or tree species in a sacred manner. You can think about this as a magical act that will help jumpstart a much deeper relationship to the tree and to the species.

With tree initiations, this goes beyond a friendly acquaintance, but rather, is a gateway into the deeper mysteries of nature and of that particular tree or species of trees (or plant, for that matter). A tree initiation, then, is a way of establishing a life-long relationship with a tree species, in the same way, that one you are initiated into a druid order or other magical group, you typically will always be a member of that group as long as both you and the group exist.  This kind of ceremony can allow you to connect with the trees in a way. Like any other initiation, the initiation works deeply within you, and through you, and has long-term and lasting effects.  Perhaps what I write here is appealing to you, and you have been called to a specific tree, you will find it of use to continue to use some of the strategies I include here.  I will also note that while I am describing “tree initiations” you can do the same thing outlined here with plants and other features of nature.

Please note that this is a post in my longstanding series on working with trees in a sacred manner.  Earlier posts in this series include finding the face of a tree, working with trees on the outer planes, working with trees on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, offering tree blessings for abundance and wassailing trees, considering the role of the seasons and seasonal the breath of the earth in tree work, cultivating deep connections with trees, connecting to trees in urban settings, working with the Nywfre/energy flows of trees through sap flows, deepening relationships with trees, seeking out and working with grandmother trees, cultivating reciprocity in tree relationships, creating intuitive tree sigils and tree magic, and witnessing the death of a tree.  I list these out here because much of the preparation for doing a tree initiation, which is a very advanced practice, can be found in these other posts where you get to know trees, support them, and work with them in various ways.

Druid Tree Workings: An Initiation from the Trees

Before we can delve into the specifics of tree initiations, I’m going to start by describing some features of initiations so that we can see how we might begin to craft tree initiations:

Preparation. There is typically a period of time when the candidate prepares for their initiation. The specifics of this vary widely. This might be a longer period of time: like a period of learning and growing in that tradition, a period of growing up (as in years). But there is usually also some distinct time set aside for the preparation for that exact ceremony (a silent vigil, period of meditation, special bath, etc). This certainly applies to tree initiations; there often is a long period of preparation (and you might not even know you have been being prepared) while you learn and connect with your tree.  Most of the work that I outlined in my previous posts on Druid Tree Workings (see full list above) is much of the prep work for such initiatic work.

Timing. Timing often plays a critical role in initiations. For coming of age rituals and initiations that mark the passage of an important life event, the timing of them is obviously based on marking a key point in someone’s life. For initiations into magical traditions, path of the sun in the wheel of the year, the placement of the stars, or the phase of the moon may be important (e.g. having an initiation on the equinox). For tree initiations, paying attention to the seasonal cycles is particularly critical. I have found that different trees have their high energy times at different points; apple is most powerful when she is full fruit, witch hazel is most powerful in late fall when she is blooming; and maple is most powerful in early spring when her sap is running, as three examples. See this post earlier in the druid tree workings series for some general timing suggestions on when trees have their highest energy (because that is a very good time to do this work).

Roles: Common roles include the Initiator(s) who are performing the initiation, the candidate (those being initiated), and, depending on the initiation, observers/community who are there in support of the person being initiated. Anyone with any role in the initiation (even spectator) take part in the experience, and all are changed by it.

A good tree to get to know--Chestnut!

A good tree to get to know–Chestnut!

Receptivity. Typically, initiations involve somehow putting a candidate into a receptive state so that other work can be done. This can vary widely; in indigenous cultures, fasting, not sleeping for a period of days, and/or ingesting psychotropic mushrooms are ways to place the candidate in a receptive state; in other magical traditions, the candidate may be blindfolded, exposed to startling noises, or other things to get them out of their normal working state. With tree initiations, I believe that this receptive state comes after basic energy exchange and sitting in quietude with the tree.

A fundamental shift of some kind. The whole point of initiation is to enact some change in the candidate and to mark some important milestone; as such, effective initiations are accompanied by some fundamental shift. The shift may be subtle or dramatic, but it is present. The lack of such a shift likely means the initiation “didn’t take” due to a variety of reasons (e.g. the candidate is not ready for that kind of shift).

Now that we have some idea of the features of initiations more broadly, we can begin talking about specific tree initiations.

Preparation

Just like any other initiatory experience, it is important to prepare for a tree initiation for a period of time. For one, both the tree and you have to be ready for it and willing for it to happen, and that isn’t like putting a date on a calendar. Rather, this should be something that you come to understand over a period of time, that you are called to do or a specific tree you feel called to really deeply work with. Sometimes, the preparation for initiation can take years.  Trees work on their own time and it may not be your time.

I have personally found, and this might be different for you, that tree species will call to you.  A particular tree might be your main contact (e.g. the oak in your back yard) but you will find yourself as you are out on the landscape continuing to be drawn to the same species.  Over time, this is a species you might end up having an initiatic experience.

Establishing a relationship.  Most trees and plants want to have relationships with us; they miss our ancestral connections, and they are looking to re-establish them. The first step on this journey is working with trees, recognizing that they are our elders and that they have much to teach us. Practicing respectful communication with them, recognizing and honoring their agency, and a lot of other basic steps (again, outlined by my other posts).  If you are going to prepare for initiation with a tree or ask a tree for such an initiation, you need to lay the foundation and groundwork. This can take time, perhaps a lot of time, but it is time well spent.

Observe, interact, and commune. As you are preparing for this work, you want to spend time with your tree or tree species as much as you can.  Observe your trees in different seasons.  Interact with your trees.  You might find that a species all has a particular mentality, although individuals differ (think about this like culture–all people from certain cultures share certain features but are still individuals).  Spend a lot of time talking with your tree, getting to know your tree, hearing their story, and sharing yours.  Find out what you have in common and how you might work deeply together.

Massive oak tree

Build understanding. Its also a great idea to learn about your tree.  Find out information on the tree’s ecology, role in the ecosystem, growth habits, how tall it grows, how long it lives, what you can make from it.  Get a bit of the wood and see how it is to shape it.  Learn how to make medicine, cordage, food, drink, whatever you can from the tree.  I have a whole series on druid trees that you can draw upon if you are anywhere near my ecosystem (see the top of this post for a complete list).

Establishing commitment.  Once you’ve done that preliminary work, there will be a time where your work deepens, where you grow committed to each other.  It is at this point that crafting a tree initiation ceremony will be appropriate.

Planning Your Initiation

Once you feel it is appropriate and you get a clear signal from your tree, you can begin planning your tree initiation, a ceremony you craft together with the tree that helps connect you deeper and leads you into the deeper mysteries of the living earth.  I’m going to now offer some possibilities from my experience, but understand that each of these ceremonies are different.  Above all, work with the tree itself and hear what guidance they have for you.

Taking the Tree Within

Unless the tree is poisonous (like Yew), I have found that taking the tree into yourself in some way and offering something in exchange is an important part of this process. Your tree research should have revealed if the tree is poisonous or if it was used as medicine/food. In my ecosystem, few actually are poisonous and most have edible leaves or needles, but it might be different in yours. It also might be the case that part of the tree can be eaten but the rest is poisonous (for example, black locust flowers/beans can be eaten safely). Or it might be that eating it may require some preparation (certain tannin-rich acorns). Many of the hardwood trees (maple, birch, linden) have leaves that are edible, especially earlier in the season when they are young and tender. If it is poisonous, obviously, don’t eat it. If it isn’t, poisonous, however, I would suggest that you start consuming small parts of it (with permission and with an offering). This allows part of the tree’s life force and energy to work its way into your physical body.

Always listen to what the tree tells you regarding whether or not you can take a piece of it.  Honoring that tree’s request, and not taking something if it is not allowed/offered, is one of the most important and meaningful ways of building a relationship.  Many trees have been abused by humans, have lost their elders to humans, and some can take time before they are willing to give.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Eating leaves, flowers, seeds, nuts. You can eat flowers, leaves, nuts, and seeds fresh off the tree certain times of year.   Each tree has a different cycle. May tree leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious when young and tender). Nuts can also be enjoyed. Flowers and nuts are very potent because they contain the lifeforce of the tree.
  • A Tree Tea. Many trees make a pleasant tea that you can drink. I enjoy conifers for this quite a bit—eastern hemlock, white pine, blue spruce all make delightful teas.   To make a simple needle or leaf tea, I will gather the leaves/needles (leaving an appropriate offering) and pour boiling water on it and let it sit for a while (30 min or longer for needles, 10-15 min for tree leaves or flowers). If you want, you can instead use sun tea and allow the sun to heat up the needles. Strain and add a bit of honey for an amazing treat.
  • A Tree Bud or Leaf Essence. Some trees are not healthy for you to eat or don’t want to be damaged or have their parts removed, but you can create a flower or leaf essence. You simply go out on a sunny day with a bowl of spring water and put the bowl right up to the leaf/flower and let the leaf/flower sit in the bowl of water for a time (use your intuition). This creates a “mother” essence that you can then water down and store (some people put a bit of brandy in their essences to preserve them).  And you can take the “mother” essence for a long period of time.
  • Tree Sap. Some trees (walnut, birch, hickory, various maples) also have sap that runs and that can be tapped in the spring. With permission and copious offerings, you might be able to tap a tree and drink their sap directly (all of the above saps can be drank directly or boiled down into syrup/sugar). This is an extremely powerful exchange (you are essentially drinking the lifeblood of the tree) and should be done with respect and honor. To drink their sap, you don’t even need to tap them—I remember a year I was harvesting birch branches. It is best to do this in the spring right as they are budding. I harvested a branch from one tree and it was still running. I sat under that branch spot and it dripped every 15 seconds or so, and I allowed it to drip right in my mouth for a time and then made an offering (you know what!) to the tree in thanks. Don’t waste a drop!
  • Tree Resin. Some trees also produce an edible resin (like white pine) that you can consume with great care. White pine is the tree I most frequently do this with; again, this is the lifeblood of the tree and should be done only with deep respect, permission, and offering.

All of these offer possibilities to take the tree within, and much deeper work can manifest once we have a stronger physical connection to the tree.

Discover the tree’s time of power

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In order to perform the tree initiation, you will need to discover the tree’s time of power during the year.  Most deciduous trees are in their power at some point in the light half of the year, while conifers may have a longer time you can work with them. When is this tree at the height of its power? What I mean by this is–when is this tree at the peak of its vitality and presence on the landscape?  For example, Maples has two major times of power–when they are flowing in late winter/early spring and when they are in full fiery form in late fall.  Oaks seem to be in power throughout the light half of the year–once they have a full crown of leaves and are perhaps at the height of their power at the summer solstice and into the fall as they are dropping thousands of ripened acorns.  I’ve found most nut-bearing and fruit-bearing trees seem to be at their peak when those nuts and fruits are ripening and falling.  You can intuit this and ask the tree.

The point here is that you want to perform your ceremony at a time when both you and your tree are at their peak (e.g. no good will come of you trying to perform a ceremony with a maple tree at the winter solstice!)

Exchange and offering

You want to think about what exchange you will make, what you will offer the tree.  While a physical offering here can be used, I would recommend some kind of longer offering (e.g. I will gather your nuts and plant them in places each fall).  Here, the exchange should be something more meaningful (your time, energy, and service) for this tree.

Journey, lessons, or teachings

As part of an initiatatic experience, you will want to create space for direct communion with the tree. Depending on who you are and what methods you use, this part can vary but could include: an open conversation with the tree, meeting the tree on the inner planes and having a spirit journey (see more here), using divination tools to receive messages from the tree, or using sacred dreaming to receive messages.  Create space for these lessons and teachings from the tree (and continue to create space for them as time passes beyond your initiation).

Finding the right space

Obviously, you also need to seek out the right place to hold your initiation ceremony.  This should be somewhere private where you can be near the tree species.  This might be easy for some, and for others, you might have to do a bit of searching.  Consider this part of the process!

Putting it all together: Crafting Your Ceremony

Your ceremony will obviously be unique to you, so I cannot give you a specific ceremony here, but I can offer what one may look like.  If we put the various pieces above together, here is one option.  This is for a sugar maple tree in the fall.

1. In the space you selected, set up your space in any way you feel is appropriate.  In our sample ritual with a maple tree (in fall), this would include making a mandala of leaves around the base of the tree and creating an altar in front of the tree.

2. Open up a sacred grove in the space you selected, near a tree that you want to have a tree initiation with.  (I would use AODA’s solitary grove opening for this purpose).

3.  State your intentions for the ceremony and give space for the tree to offer their own intentions (see last week’s post!)

4. Take the tree within you in whatever manner specified.  For our sugar maple ritual, this would be a tablespoon of maple syrup.

5.  Go into a deep meditative state, meeting the spirit of the tree, and asking the tree to take you on a journey and offer you initiation and teachings

6.  Make a commitment and an offering to the tree (of time, energy, etc).  Make sure to do something during the ceremony to begin that offering and commitment.  For example, you might sing a song to the tree (I have a maple song I would sing) and then make an offering of liquid gold to the tree as well as an herbal blend.

8.  Close the ceremony, ground, and journal about the experience.

This is just one of many examples that you could use–the point being that you are carefully crafting a ceremony to bring you much closer to the sacred maple tree.  The last thing I’ll share is that sometimes these initiations aren’t planned–they simply happen!

PS: The Druid’s Garden blog will be going on hiatus for a few weeks while we do a site upgrade.  We will be moving to a new domain and doing some scheduled website maintenance, so you may also experience some intermittent downtime.  No worries–the blog will be back up and running soon!

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Druidry for the 21st Century: Setting and Co-Creating Intentions with Nature

Colorful tree with spiral roots into the earth

Nature has so much magic, it benefits us always to work with her!

Intentions are powerful things. They allow us to shape our force of will and set a path forward.  They help us figure out what our own goals are. And I think because of that, we often see them as very personal. This is something that we do for our own purposes. In many western occult traditions, and even in druidry, intentions are often framed as highly internal things: things we set, things we want to manifest, things that help us shape our vision.  You’ll see this very frequently in any ritual work–set your intentions for a ritual, a creation, a space, a new piece of land, and so forth. I think a lot of this is influenced by western occultism, which unfortunately puts the practitioner in a place of power and at the center of a working. I also think a lot of this is culturally influenced–westerners are inherently individualistic and self-focused, and this individual focus is both subconscious and conscious. This self-focus is an enormous problem when it comes to building reciprocal relationships with nature.  Westerners also have a view of the land that implies ownership–ownership of lands gives full rights to do anything you want with it. Thus, it’s hard to say you are respecting the agency of the land and her spirits when you pretty much go in and do whatever you want to the land at any time.

I wanted to share an alternative approach that I’ve done with our land here, a way of moving me out of the center of my own intentions and instead considering intentions as a mutual and shared thing that I create in relationship with the living earth (for more on reciprocity and nature, see this post). If we open up our intentions and let the spirits of nature be co-creators in shaping intention, it can lead to some amazing results and allow us to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature.

Reciprocation and Intention

I’ve been arguing that reciprocation should be a core value that we build into nature-based spiritual traditions. It is through reciprocation that we can build a stronger nature-based spiritual tradition, that we can work to repair the wrongs of previous generations (particularly those in relation to lands and indigenous peoples), that we can work to reverse colonialization, and that we can build a better future for all life on earth.  It is through reciprocation that we can begin to understand that humans are not above nature but are part of nature.  Reciprocation is also built into the Ancient Order of Druids in America (see our vision statement, here), the order where I am currently serving as Grand Archdruid.

I think that reframing intentions as something that can be reciprocal can move us a few steps in the right direction, both through our magical practices and our intentions for the living earth.

Intentions are the spark of an idea; they are an early commitment to moving in a particular direction, and they are often the beginning of a magical, spiritual, and/or physical practice (or something of all three).  So now let’s look at two ways we might shift intentions to a more reciprocal relationship.

Preliminaries: Nature Communication

In order to do any of the work I’m suggesting below, you will need ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and the land around you.  If you’ve been on a nature-based spiritual path or practice any kind of deep nature awareness, you probably don’t need anything I’m going to say and can skip this.  But if you are newer to this or unsure, I wanted to give you some options and resources.

  • Gut feelings and intuition. A lot of nature communication is based in feeling and understanding the signals that our body tells us.  In other words, when you walk into a forest, how do you feel? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel unwelcome and like the forest doesn’t want you there? Those initial gut feelings are a critical part of communicating with nature–particularly in listening.
  • Divination. Divination tools such as ogham, tarot, pendulum, geomancy, etc. are great ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and are particularly useful for those who are still developing other methods of spirit communication.  For setting intentions, I recommend that you use something very simple that has a yes/no function, thus, a pendulum is most appropriate (things like tarot or ogham get more complicated in their interpretation, where a pendulum will be very direct).   To use a pendulum in this way, I would suggest creating one with something from nature (a stone from the land around you and a string).  Then simply ask it to “show me yes” and “show me no” and now you know how to interpret it.
  • Spirit communication. More advanced practitioners can develop more direct ways of communicating with spirit through their inner vision: visuals, conversation, sensing energy, etc.  This method is what you will want to work up to–being able to converse with a tree, for example, allows things to be quite clear.  I have a series on how to cultivate plant spirit communication, so please check out these posts for more information: part I, part II, part III, and part IV.

The only other preliminary thing I suggest you do is to prepare some kind of offering for your work with the spirits of the land.  I’ve written more on offerings here, here, and here.

Setting Intentions for a Space or Project

The earth oven project

The earth oven project

Let’s say you have land and you want to create a new project on that land.  It might be a sacred grove, a druid’s anchor spot, or a sacred garden.  Here’s another great opportunity to set intentions collaboratively.  As one of the first things you do, reach out to the land

I would suggest that this should not be a one-time practice but rather a practice that is done on a regular basis.  The practice is simple: go to the spot and simply say, “I’d like to set shared intentions for [this space, the project, etc].” Then have a conversation, use divination, or any other means to set those intentions.  It may take some time as nature often works on a different timeline than we do.  But this work will unfold and you’ll see how rich the collaborative intention setting can be.

Intentions in my druid’s anchor spot. In one example, I’ve found that my druid’s anchor spot likes to set new intentions with each season, so I make it a point to do that work at the solstices and equinoxes.  Usually, at the Winter Solstice, the intention is simply “rest” but in the other seasons, we set intentions together for the work to come.  These intentions can vary pretty widely: last year in the fall, the shared intention was to share a story of the day, and as it grew dark, each of us would tell a story and listen to each other’s story.  The year before, the land was very intent on having some of the biodiversity returned, so we worked together on various approaches to bringing in biodiversity (specifically through cleaning up certain areas that had garbage, bringing in new soil, and planting new trees, understory, and woodland medicinal species).  I am excited to see what this season’s intentions will be!

Intentions for the earth oven project. In a second example, I’ll share how to set intentions for a project.  The Druids Garden homestead is a 5-acre homestead in Western Pennsylvania, run by two druids.  We spend a lot of time prior to engaging in any project setting intentions with the land in collaborative ways.  On a larger scale, this includes figuring out what parts of the land want to be wild, which want cultivation, and where we can create gardens and more human-tended spaces (in permauclture terms, this is about setting up our zones of use, among other things).

Thus, when I decided to build the earth oven, I sat with the land over a period of months and asked, where can I build this oven?  Once both my partner and I had a clear sense of where to build, I began to narrow down the spot to the specific work at hand.  I was given permission to create a small path about 15′ into the brush and to create my oven there.  I was also shown a clear space for a shrine that would sit on the path to the oven.  I explained to the land that this would require me to move/cut some plants and remove the topsoil, and the land told me that I could ask each individual plant what to do (compost, replant, pot up and give away) as well as any stones in the area.  So I began that work–it took me a few sessions, but it was very rewarding. Some of the plants wanted to be harvested and made into medicine (blackberry roots).  Others were rhizomatic (like mayapple), and wanted to simply be composted.  The small cherry tree (also abundant) wanted to be made into pendants and gifts.  The wild yams wanted to be replanted and showed me where.  Spicebush wanted to be potted up and given to a specific person. The fledgling sassafras made it clear that she was the boundary and that I needed to situate the oven in a way that did not disturb her growth.  By the time I had “cleared” the land, every specific plant and tree that was there had the opportunity to state their intentions, and those intentions were honored.  After that, I could begin building the earth oven knowing that the land was fully honored and included in the intention of that space, and because of it, we would be able to work deep magic with the oven in the years to come.

Now imagine the difference in this experience if I had just come into the land, started pulling up plants, piling them up, and then clearing the land. The end result–a physical space for an earth oven would have been the same.  But my own relationship with the land would have suffered; the land being a victim at my hands.  Thus, when I talk about reciprocation, this is exactly what I mean.  We include the land, we not only as permission but we ask what we should do, how we should do it.  I think that its important to recognize that the land loves us, and wants to help us meet our goals.  This reciprocation puts nature in equal partnership with us, and the blessings flow from that relationship.

Setting Intentions for a Magical Working, Ceremony or Ritual

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Perhaps the most common means through which people set intentions are at the start of magical working, ceremony, or ritual.  I would say that co-setting intentions for rituals really depends on what the ritual is for–for yourself, for the living earth, for something else?  Whoever is involved should be involved in setting the intentions for the ceremony.

If it is a ritual that is primarily focused on you and on something tied to yourself, I would still suggest connecting with the spirits of nature for their guidance and wisdom.  Here’s a simple approach: anytime before you begin the ritual, take a short walk in nature.  Find a place to sit (such as your druid’s anchor spot), and describe to the spirits of nature what you are planning on doing.  After you share, make an offering and see if they have any guidance.

If the ritual is on behalf of the living earth or tied to the land in any way, you need to take whatever time you need to set intentions in a collaborative way with the living earth.  This is not always a simple process and may take quite a bit of time. Begin this with a conversation that is open to the spirits of nature.  Rather than saying, “I want to do this ritual,” instead, go to nature and simply say, “What do you need?”  “How can I support you?”  and see what comes from that conversation.  Don’t assume you know what the spirits of the land want and need, but rather, allow the spirits of nature to collaborate with you to co-create the ritual.  You can also reach out and say, “I’d like to offer a healing ritual for the land.  Do you think that would be a good idea?”  The point here is that if you go in telling the land what you are already planning on doing, that’s not very reciprocal.  Rather, create space for a conversation and a shared vision to come forth.

You can do this essentially on any level–individual, group, or even with a larger group. Here’s a recent example of a larger group practice that we recently completed. A few years ago, AODA had released our Vision Statement, and it became clear to some of us n leadership that we wanted to do something order-wide that was reciprocal with the land.  Individual members already do a lot in our curriculum in terms of tree planting, earth path lifestyle changes, and so forth.  But we wanted something that was community-based.  And so, a few of us began speaking with the lands around us.  What could AODA do, on an order-wide level, that would support the living earth where we lived? What would the land need?  Through our own work over the next six months, a very clear picture emerged of what we, as an order could do–a summer solstice land blessing and a winter solstice waterway blessing using AODA’s frameworks (here they are if you are interested!)  These rituals were not just created by humans in AODA, but rather, in conjunction with meditations and collaboration with the lands around us. I’m really excited that these rituals will be starting this year in 2022, and you are most welcome to join us in this endeavor!

In these examples, we can again see how setting intentions–magical and mundane–in conjunction with the living earth allows us to reciprocate and collaborate in ways that we cannot do if we only set intentions within ourselves.  I hope you found this post useful and inspiring.  I would also love to hear from readers about how you may already set intentions in co-created ways with the living earth!

Druid Tree Workings: Witnessing the Death of an Old Tree

Oak friend - one of my first interactions with this incredible friend

Oak friend – one of my first interactions with this incredible friend and mentor

Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to trees–so very close.  What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go?  In this post, I share the story and passing of one of my dear tree friends, a White Oak with a giant burl. After I share the story, I offer some general thoughts about how we, as humans, can support and honor the natural lifespan of our tree friends. This post is meant to be a compliment to my earlier post: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass.  My earlier post talked about trees who were cut before their time–while this post honors those who have the privilege of living a full life and dying naturally.

The Story of the Big-Burled White Oak

When I first came to the new Druid’s Garden Homestead here in Western Pennsylvania I was extremely drawn to a White Oak tree.  She had an enormous burl on her and was easily 200 or more years old. She sat holding back the bank of the stream at the edge of our property.  At her roots was even a seat from two stones–I would come down there and sit every day, observing the stream.  I created my first sacred grove on the property just below where she grew and did many of my rituals and journeys there for my first two years on this land.  As I observed and spent a great deal of time with this magnificent oak, I found a large stump–it was clearly a second oak tree that had been cut, probably 20 or 30 years ago.  The previous owners had done selective logging throughout their time living here, at great cost to the forest. The more I observed my White Oak friend, the more I realized that she had lost a companion, someone important to her. I could tell from how she grew–her branches grew in a way that at one time, you could tell she was sharing space with another tree. I could sense this in her, a deep sorrow, from time to time.  She would not speak much of this companion, but I sensed her sadness.

My burl oak behind our goose pair

My oak friend and I would talk often about many things.  She taught me much about the land, of the Genus Loci (spirit of place) here, and the history of the land.  She shared how happy she was that we came and that we brought other druids to meet her. She told me she had waited her whole life to meet humans who cared and who remembered their own ancestral ways, who were reconnecting with the living earth.  I told her that we were so young, we were learning, and we had so much further to go. She said we were doing our best and she said that was enough.

Two years ago, in Fall 2019, she asked me to find a new place on the property to do my ritual work and not to use the grove by the stream again for some time.  She asked that I not raise or direct any energy near her or to her. She told me that she was passing, that she had lived a full life, and that it was time for her to go.  I cried and was so sad, and I asked her if she might not stay a bit longer.  In this age, we have so few good elders of any kind, I shared–human, tree, or otherwise–and I selfishly wished that she would stay.  She said gently and kindly, no, my time has come. She said she was very pleased that she could live a full life and die a natural death–when so few trees, even here on the property and in the region due to such extensive logging–could do so.  She felt it was an honor to live, an honor to die in this way, and she was ready to go.

Another shot of our beautiful oak

Another shot of our beautiful oak

This is not the first ancient White Oak that I’ve observed die naturally. I had another White Oak friend when I still lived in Michigan.  This oak was also old and wise and he, too, told me he was going to pass a few years before he did. Oaks die in stages–the first year, you’ll notice about half the crown is no longer producing leaves.  In the second year, there may only be a small amount of the oak left producing leaves–a large branch or two.  And usually, at the end of that second year, the tree lets out one final breath and passes over the winter.  This is just how my Burl oak friend went.

Honoring her wishes, throughout 2020, I would come to visit, make regular offerings, but keep my distance.  As she came back into leaf, her crown was much thinner, with only about half the leaves of the previous year. I cried and was sad, but continued to hold space for her. I honored her request to do my spiritual work elsewhere on the property. The winter passed, and I hoped secretly that she would come back with a full crown in the spring, having changed her mind.  But this past summer, she had very few leaves left–just one large branch.  As part of my Samhain and late fall ceremonies, I made her offerings and continued to visit with her.  At Samhain this year, she told me goodbye and I could feel her energies shift.

This past week, a month after Samhain, she laid herself down.

I did not witness her fall–I was not meant to witness her fall. It would have been too hard on me, after too many hard years.  My partner did, and that is his story to tell.  But he told me while I was at work, and when I returned, I visited my friend again. Her spirit was transformed, different. It’s not that she’s gone, but the presence she was has altered from a living being to something interwoven with the soil web, the spirits of place.

The Oak has Laid Down

The Oak has Laid Down

The best way that I can explain my understanding is this:  trees that die naturally undergo a spiritual transformation slowly, just as their physical bodies return to the land.  All of the soil beneath your feet contains the nutrients from those fallen trees–after the mushrooms and bugs and woodpeckers begin their slow transformation, the spirit also transforms.  They get woven back into the Genus Loci of the land, the spirit of place.  It will be decades, perhaps, until this tree returns to nature–longer since she’s fallen over the stream.  But that too will be a process that I will continue to observe and interact with, and do what I am asked.

Helping an Old Tree Pass

I am honored to be able to tell you this story of my dear friend passing in a natural way and also share some general thoughts for those of you who come into these kinds of circumstances.  I think one of the most important things to realize is that a lot of trees don’t get to live their full lifespan.  Humans come to cut them down, especially in areas where there is a lot of logging.  Or fires, diseases, etc, can take them before their time.  It is a true honor to work with a tree that gets to live a full life and pass naturally.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

Accept that the tree will pass and honor that passing.  Just like people, trees die.  All things that are currently alive have a natural lifespan. The tragedy is not in their death, which is part of the cycle of nature. The tragedy is when they are not able to live a full life when they are logged and cut without any honor or ceremony or respect.  Thus, to witness the passing of an elder tree, one who has been able to live a full life, is truly an honor. Recognize and respect this.

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak--she was their friend too!

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak–she was their friend too!

Listen carefully to the wishes of the tree. I got the sense with both of my ancient tree friends that passed that they did not want any energetic interference–no rituals to raise or direct healing energy, no energy work of any time.  Offerings of friendship and acknowledgment were fine, as was light conversation. You can’t force someone to live whose time has come.  Thus, ask your tree friend what it is you can do and to that fully–even if they tell you to stay away, as my tree did.

Tell stories and remember. Those that are remembered live on. I will always remember my tree friend, and her remains will be with me on our land for a very long time. Remember your tree.  Remember and tell stories, like I’ve shared here.  Tell others of the life and death of this tree and allow that memory to stay strong. Paint something beautiful.  Create a song.

Consider other tokens of remembrance. With permission, you can perhaps use some of the wood or something else from the tree to create objects, tools, ritual items, etc.  In our case, with permission, I will also cut some of her wood to use, and dig up some of the clay from her roots, and create things that honor her.  For the maples that she took out when she went down, I have asked permission to harvest some of their wood for my ongoing natural building projects (I use wood from our land, but I am not willing to cut any trees down who are thriving, so I try to wait till they pass naturally or are taken down by a storm).

Observe and grow. Our white oak has produced numerous babies, some of whom are already quite large, and some who are still fairly young.  I will do my best to honor my friend through tending her offspring–helping them grow tall and strong, developing relationships with them as they mature, and honoring the legacy of her passing.

While seeing a tree friend pass is certainly a very sad experience, I do think that holding space for our tree friends is no different than seeing a relative who has lived a long and healthy life finally move on.  It gives us a chance to reflect upon the cycles of life, to honor friendships that we have created, and to deeply reconnect with the living earth.  I am honored to have known this white oak in her life, I am honored to have witnessed her passing.

Putting the Garden to Sleep: End of Season Activities and Rituals

Garden bed with scarecrow

The day before the first hard frost. Our garden is still bountiful as the Butzemann watches over all….As the darkness continues to grow deeper on the landscape, it is high time to consider how to put the garden to rest for the winter and honor the garden that has offered you so much bounty and joy for the season. I actually find this one of my favorite gardening activities of the year, both on a metaphysical and physical level. There’s something special about “tucking” your garden in after a productive growing season and knowing that the land will go fallow and rest as the cold and ice come. Here are both the physical activities and sacred activities that you can do to help put your garden to rest.

Do note that my timings are based on the temperate climate in Western Pennsylvania, USDA Zone 6A.  You can adapt appropriately based on your own end-of-season and seasonal changes.

Metaphysical Activities

Metaphysical activities support the garden and the downward/restful flow of energy that allows the land to be fallow before returning to abundance in the spring.  For millennia, our ancient ancestors all through the world did rituals and ceremonies to support the abundance and health of the land; these are intended in the same direction. (For some you can do later in the year, see this post).  Physical and metaphysical activities go hand in hand–everything that we do in the physical world has an impact on the metaphysical, and vice versa.  Thus, by working on both levels, we are able to achieve maximum effect.

Burning the Butzemann

In the Pennsylvania Dutch Tradition, the Butzemann is created at Imbolc and set out to protect your crops and land at the Spring Equinox–and we practice this tradition each year.  At the Spring Equinox, a friendly guardian spirit is invited into the Butzemann to guard the crops and flocks for the coming season. And at Samhain, the Butzemann must be burned to release the guardian spirit and offer thanks.  What we usually do is build a bonfire somewhere near or on Samhain.  Then we take our Butzemann to the fire and once again call the Butzemann by name (the naming tradition being very important) and speak of the good things that happened on the homestead and garden (e.g. you protected our crops well, we harvested 15 pumpkins, our flocks were safe from hawks, etc).  Then we release the Butzemann to the flames and watch it burn (which is always really cool).  This completes the Butzemann ceremony until Imbolc when a new Butzemann is constructed (from the previous garden’s materials and other burnable materials) and the cycle begins again.

Honoring the Soil and Compost through the Soil Web Ceremony

Garden shrine with fall bounty and freshly fallen oak leaves

Compost is a major theme this time of year, as so many things die to have their nutrients reclaimed by the soil web of life. Even perennials, including plants and trees, contribute to this great soil web of life.  Thus, it is very appropriate to honor the soil web this time of year.

For this, I like to do a “soil web” dance.  This is an embodied ritual that involves me dancing (barefoot if possible) on the earth, allowing my footsteps to be my prayer to the earth.  I may be moved to praise the soil web, the nematodes, the worms, the bacteria, the protozoa, and so much more.  My dance always involves dancing in the garden, through the paths, and eventually to the compost pile.  At the compost pile, I leave an offering (last garden harvest food and/or liquid gold are very appropriate here).  I may also make symbols with sticks with leaves as a shrine to the soil.

If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering (see below).

A “Rest Well” Chanting Ritual for Gardens and Land

Inviting the land into peaceful slumber is another way you can put the garden to bed on a metaphysical level.  For this, I particularly like using Ogham and chanting magic (with a drum if it’s warm enough).  I chant the following ogham (you can adapt these to your own ecosystem or needs)

  • Ruis (Elder) pronounced RWEESH: Elder is for endings, cycles, and resolution.
  • Phagos (Beech) pronounced FAH-gus: For preservation, sleep, history, and memory.
  • Quert (Apple) pronounced KWEIRT: Apple is for future abundance, blessings, and harvests.

So the chant would go:

Ruis – Ruis – Ruis
Phagos – Phagos – Phagos
Quert – Quert – Quert

And after this, you can start playing with the syllables of each of the three trees in any order, such as:
QUE–eee—iii–rr–tt – QUERT  QQQQ —EEERRRR —TTT
And so forth.  Just allow your vocal cords and body to explore this expression fully.

End your ritual chant with a focus on Ruis, as Ruis is the Ogham connected to the present moment.

As you chant, really envision the energy of each of these trees coming forth: the Elder coming in to help aid with the end of the season, for closing down, and for resolution.  The Beech carries the garden/land through the darkness of winter, where it is able to rest, the soil is preserved, and carries forth the memory of the past into the future. And finally, the Apple, which offers the promise of future abundance and carries a blessing to the garden/land.  Really project this energy as you chant.  As you feel the ritual is complete, start to wind down, ending with chanting Ruis very softly.

Garlic Ritual: A Land/Sea/Sky blessing

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

The garlic planting ritual is a really nice way of seeding a blessing for the entire season to come.  Garlic is the last thing to be planted in the fall in our ecosystem (at the time you plant garlic, your fall crops should already be being harvested).  And that garlic will stay in the ground for almost 9 months, being harvested in the heat of the summer.  In the winter, the garlic sets deep roots and then, as the spring comes, it sends its green shoots up into the air.

After you plant your garlic, honor your garlic with a simple land, sea, sky blessing. Gather up the following materials:

  • A bowl of hardwood ash (or compost)
  • A large bowl or bucket of clean water (rainwater, snowmelt, spring water, water from a local spring or creek) and a bough of a conifer (Eastern hemlock is what I use, but you could also use white pine, cedar, juniper, etc)
  • A flute or other woodwind instrument (or your breath)

You can put your items on the ground or create an altar for the ceremony.

Sprinkle the ash/compost on the bed and say, “With the blessing of the earth, may you root deeply this winter.  May your roots and bulbs be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Next, asperge the bed with water by dipping the branch into the bucket of water and flicking it all over the bed.  Say, “With the blessings of the sacred pool, may you be nourished and grow.  May your bulbs and roots be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Finally, play your flute/woodwind instrument.  If you do not have a woodwind instrument, you can get down and blow directly on the soil, offering your breath to the soil.  When you are done, say, “With the blessing of the air, may you sprout in the spring and grow strong through the summer.  May your entire being be blessed, and through this blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.

Finally, cross your arms and bow your head. Say anything else that comes to mind at this point, honoring your garden.  If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering for the garlic.

Physical Activities

Physical activities are probably the typical things that people do in the fall–but some of these have a bit of a magical twist.  I’ll share the physical counterparts and how these are ritualized and connected to the work above.

Putting the Garden to Rest / Fall bed Prep

In the process of fall bed prep--the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

In the process of fall bed prep–the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

Fall bed prep can be any number of things.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we use sheet mulching/lasagna gardening techniques for our annual vegetable garden areas, and so this is the best time to build soil.  After the first hard frost (for us, usually mid-October), we clear away any weedy material and cut back annual plants (leaving the roots in the soil; they will break down and aid in soil compaction).

Then we do some sheet mulching–depending on the bed, this might include a layer of fall leaves and compost, a layer of cardboard (if the weeds got out of control) or simply a layer of finished compost.  If we are starting new beds, we always build them in the fall with layers of finished compost, hot compost/straw bedding (from chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea coops), and leaves.  You can also consider a winter cover crop (which doubles as fodder for your animals).   As you are doing this work physically, you can be doing the metaphysical work I described above.  (If you use this method, in the spring, all you need to do is use a broadfork or garden fork to aerate the bed!).

For perennial beds, we will do our final herb harvest of the season, tying up bundles of herbs in the house to dry.  We will trim back plants that die back during winter (e.g. echinacea, mountain mint, monarda, etc), and cover up plants that benefit from light cover (strawberries). We will also harvest any extra seeds from our refugia garden so that we can scatter them or give them away in the coming months or year.

Garlic is the one crop that you plant this time of year, and garlic can have its own special ritual, as I described above. I have instructions for planting garlic here.

Once all the summer crops and those that died back after the hard frost are removed, then you can do the “rest well” chant above. Obviously, anything that is still growing (kale, lettuce, etc) is covered and protected for the coming cold, and to extend the harvest season (for more on this approach, see Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook).  I like to use these last garden foods through Yule and finish them off for our Yule feast.

Making Compost

Chickens scratching it up!

Compost making is a great thing to do in the fall, as the winter will allow the compost to break down.  At the Druids Garden Homestead, we have chickens to do some of this work for us, but I’ll share a chicken compost and a non-chicken compost method.  Our method is to rake up as many fall leaves as we can and place these in a large pile near the coop (of course, jumping and meditating in them is also part of this!).  Then, as the snow and ice comes down, we layer another layer of leaves in the chicken run.  They don’t like walking on snow and ice, and this keeps them comfortable and occupied.  They scratch the leaves up, poop their nitrogen-rich poop, and are happy chickens.  When about mid-April rolls around and the ground thaws out, I muck out all of the chicken leaves (along with giving all of the coops a thorough cleaning, which gives us a lot of straw).  I layer the chicken leaves/compost with the straw in thin layers, piling this up as high as it will go.  You can add anything else here you like (non-weedy) such as coffee grounds and other fresh compost items. With a warm summer, this breaks down into an amazing pile of compost by late fall—just about the time you are doing your garden bed.

If you don’t have chickens, take fall leaves (preferably mulched) and add them in thin layers with other good compost-making things: manure, vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, all of the old garden plants that died back during frost (non-weedy) and anything else you have.  Keep your layers of leaves pretty thin, especially if you weren’t able to mulch them.  Note that some leaves break down really quickly like maple, where others (oak) take a really long time to break down.  This approach should get you a nice pile of finished compost by next fall.

For either, honor the compost by doing the Soil Web Dance.  You can honor your new piles or your finished piles (or general composting area)

Final Harvest of Summer Crops

Finished compost

The final harvest of summer crops for us comes in the days before the first hard frost.  Some things with a light frost can be preserved, but once we hit about 35 degrees, that’s enough to kill of almost all of the summer crops: peppers, nasturtium, tomatoes, basil, pumpkins, squash, beans, zucchini, etc.  Thus, starting in early October, we pay very close attention to the nightly temperatures, doing row cover as necessary.  But, when our first hard frost is imminent, we harvest the last of the crops: all the green tomatoes that will ripen on the counter for the next few weeks, beans, corn, peppers, basil, etc.  We like to cook a special meal with this (Samhain meal if possible, depending on the year) and make a special offering from this for some of the ceremonies above.  It is a great way to enjoy the last fruits of the summer season and also create a special offering food.

Gathering for Next Year’s Butzemann

As we are clearing the gardens and the Butzemann, we begin to think about next year’s Butzemann.  It is customary to collect some of the materials for use in next year’s Butzemann from this year’s landscape.  As we cut the gardens back, we gather materials that are stowed away in our shed till Imbolc.  I always like to leave an offering for any plant who is going to be part of the Butzemann.  For example, this year, the big patch of Mugwort spoke to me to be included for next year, so I have a large bundle of her saved for next year’s Butzemann.

Conclusion

Late fall is truly one of my favorite times because there is so much richness in how you can engage in sacred gardening and sacred action. I hope that this post has provided you with some ideas for how you might honor your soil, put your garden to rest, and start setting up physically and energetically for the season to come.  Blessings!

Sacred Actions: Doing our Bit in the World

Sacred action is all about us learning how to align our outer lives with our inner core of nature spirituality and connectedness, and ultimately, help us live more regeneratively and with care.  Sacred action is about doing small, slow things in our own lives to better align with our sacred nature-based spiritual practices and the living earth.  It is through these seemingly mundane changes that we create a better today, a better tomorrow, and a better world.

Sacred Actions – A new graphic for the Sacred Actions wheel of the year

Sacred refers to things that are connected, meaningful, reverent, or somehow tied to our sense of the spiritual or the divine.  Most of the time, this word is used in relation to things that are not part of mundane life: these are the special moments, ceremonies, or spiritual insights that impact us deeply.  When we experience a sense of the sacred, it fills us with wonder, awe, and purpose.  Of course, what I’m describing often requires cultivation, it requires us to seek out and manifest experiences and mindsets that allow us to experience the sacred.

Action, on the other hand, implies doing something.  It implies that we offer our time, energy, and effort toward some goal.  We get up, we do, and we act.

The idea of “sacred action” is both an extension and synthesis of these two definitions.  The basic idea is that in order to live more earth-honoring and aligned lifestyles, we can engage in everyday actions that move us from the mundane to a sacred space.  We can work to sustainably and regeneratively live in alignment with the living earth through small, purposeful steps. And these steps can be taken regardless of who we are, where we live, how many resources or supports we have, or any other aspects of our identities and lives.  The important thing is not doing a specific thing, but rather working towards this goal.  Thus, sacred action is about each of us working to make small but fundamental shifts in not only the way we think about the world but the impact of our specific actions in it. Sacred Actions focuses on creating more connected, reverent, and holistic lives.

In the five months since my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices has been released, I’ve heard from many people about their response to the work and in how they are engaging in sacred actions in their lives. I wanted to take some time today to reflect on some of these stories and feedback from people about the book, and share some additional insights that have arisen from this conversation.  I also hope that this post can encourage some of my readers to share their own stories about their sacred action in the world. The ultimate goal of sacred action, of course, is to help us live regeneratively and sustainably today so that we can create a better vision for tomorrow.

Sacred Actions and Small, Slow Solutions

One of the big pieces of feedback I’ve gotten from the book is how simple of a concept this seems in practice, and how it has really helped people realize the importance of everyday, mundane, and simple actions towards making large changes. It puts people in a place of personal empowerment, where they can go out and do their own bit in the world, feel good, and spread that sacred action to others!  Another big piece of feedback is how hard it is to do this, given the many challenges we face as a culture.  What is easy for one person may be impossible for another, and so “growing where we are planted” becomes a resonant theme. Thus, the specifics of sacred actions comprise a lot of the book: how you can use everything from solar cooking and hay boxes to save energy to converting lawns to gardens. The book is a wealth of specific practices tied to sacred practices that you can build into your life in powerful and meaningful ways.

And of course, these practices can be joyful, fun, and extremely rewarding.

Sacred Actions, the Physical, and the Metaphysical

So why sacred action?  One of the big reasons this concept is needed has everything to do with the present problems of our age. The human-driven age of the Anthropocene has put our entire globe at risk: every life, every ocean, every forest, every waterway, every life.  Extinctions are increasing, habitats are being destroyed, fires are raging across the globe–and with alarming and increasing frequency.  Human life is not faring much better: mental health, happiness, and physical health are also challenged globally.  It is abundantly clear that modern ways of living and being are not working for humanity, and that we quickly need to pivot to something new. That’s the physical reason that a concept like sacred actions is so resonant here and now.

But, there are also deeply metaphysical reasons for sacred action, both larger scale, and individual.  On the larger scale, humans metaphysically and spiritually have been disconnected from so much: from the living earth; from our own intuition, subconscious, and spirit; and from our traditional human gifts and awareness.  Mass culture, mass media, technology, and so many other pieces of modern culture work hard to disconnect this from our inner ways of spirit.  And because of that disconnection, as a collective, we need to find ways to deeply return to nature and to our own experience.  We need to find ways of reclaiming and honoring those ancient connections–because the spirits of nature need us to.  Because the metaphysical affects the physical, and a huge part of this predicament we are in will be a realigning of spirit.  We can’t get through this predicament without attending to it both physically and metaphysically.

On the personal spiritual side, there are at least two factors.  First, there’s the disconnection we have with being a whole human being in these western cultures, feeling the need to be true to our paths but also protect ourselves.  Because of the stigma of druidry, paganism, and nature spirituality (at least here in the US), many of us find ourselves in the broom closet, so to speak, and long to show some of our real or authentic selves to the world–and be accepted.  But in many places and settings, we cannot express who we really are, the things that deeply resonate with us, or the real work we do in the world. Doing so would risk confrontation, prejudice, or religious intolerance.  But through sacred action, we can make a dedicated effort to living our inner truths in an outer manner.  This is actually one of the best things someone told me about the book–they loved that Sacred Actions allowed them to be a druid in their daily life without worrying about how they would be perceived.

The other piece is, of course, very personal.  It’s about aligning one’s inner principles with outside activity–not just as an activity in identity, but simply because it is necessary to a deepening spiritual path. The more we align our inner and outer principles, the more that inner spiritual work will flow in new and exciting directions. This is another big part of the feedback I’ve gotten on the book so far–people are excited and enthusiastic to practice that alignment and see what rich rewards it offers.

Doing our Bit in the World and Visioning for the Future

I think what a lot of this comes down to for many people is how we can feel good about who we are, how we live, and how we can create a better tomorrow. I’ve written before on this blog about visioning and the importance of visionary work.  If we can start living even a small piece of that vision today, we will be able to bring about a brighter tomorrow. I think a lot of us fear for the future–for our world, for our families, for our young, for this planet and all life on it.  Sacred actions is a small yet powerful way of helping us move forward to a better place, a better vision, and a better future. I hope that it will become one of many tools that we can use to create a better tomorrow.

I would love to hear more from you–if you’ve read the book or are working through it, what is resonating? What is meaningful to you?  What questions or thoughts do you have?

Sacred Gardening: A Druid’s Spiritual Approach to Weeding and Clearing Plants

A shrine for the spirits of nature in a new outdoor kitchen area

Druids revere all nature as sacred–but what happens when you need to weed your garden? What happens when you need to clear a new area for a project where lots of things are growing? Is there a way to clear plants or trees honorably and with reverence?  In fact, there certainly is!  In today’s post, I’ll walk through some simple suggestions for how to weed and clear plants respectfully and with reverence. This is all part of my philosophy of Sacred Action, or bringing earth-honoring, care-oriented activities into our every day life (if you are interested in this concept, check out my Sacred Actions book!).  This is part of what sacred gardening, creating a true Druid’s garden, is all about!

Our big project this year was starting to build an wood-fired, naturally built outdoor kitchen with a maple sap boiler/grill, an earth oven, a small pavilion and set of rocket stoves (this is an ongoing project and I’ll share more about it in upcoming posts). In order to do this, we had to clear a small bit of land. Where we are situating our outdoor kitchen is on the edge of a clearing with a shaded overstory, just as the forest begins. The tentative plan for our earth oven was about 6′ into an area with some brush and small trees. We were hoping to use this spot  for the earth oven because sometimes we get bad winds from the fields that are to the south-west of our home, and by locating it slightly in the brush, it would allow us to provide it some additional shielding from the elements. But, this particular spot required me to clear a small 5′ path and about an 7 foot round area in the brush–assuming the spirits of the land and plants agreed.  I’ll walk through the general principles using the clearing of my earth oven space as an example.

1. Recognize the agency  and sanctity of nature by seeking permission and offering gratitude.

An offering bag near some garden weeds that will be cleared

One of the first things to remember is that if we are going to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature, we must treat nature with respect, reverence and recognize nature’s own agency.  This means we do not take from nature without permission (treating her with the same respect you would do any other person. There are different levels of permission: one-time permission and ongoing permission.

Getting permission for anything is twofold: seeking it and allowing the necessary time for negotiation and conversation.  Don’t expect to get permission to clear a large area of land 5 minutes before you want to clear it.  Seeking permission begins with simply spending time engaging with spirits of the land and explaining what you want to do and why. Explain what you would like to do and how you will do it.  See what results from this converation: sometimes you can get a clear go-ahead, while other times, the spirits may want something in response (e.g. clear this area but leave this area to grow wild; build this shrine, use everything that you’ve cleared, etc).

If you are clearing for a permanent space (such as a garden, outdoor kitchen, home, etc) you can seek a blanket permission statement.  This means that you have the general permission to create the garden and then keep it as a garden, clearing as necessary.

Two months before starting construction of the earth oven, I began by asking permission.  I started by making an offering at the space I wished to clear and speaking aloud what I would like to do, where the boundaries of it were to be, and why.  I asked the spirits to think about my request.  A week later, I returned to the spot and we started discussing. I came back several times over the course of a few weeks and after that, I received the confirmation that I was permitted to proceed. As part of this negotiation, I was told that each plant species would have something different they would like me to do as I cleared.

2. Setting Boundaries for Activities

As part of your request, make it clear what you plan on doing and how long this agreement lasts.  For example, if you are cultivating a garden, make it clear that you would like permission to tend this garden throughout the year and weed any plants that come up in the garden that you haven’t planted, etc.  This allows you to set some clear boundaries for the kinds of activities you will engage in over time.  You can also set boundaries about other things, such as not using any chemical sprays, etc.  The idea here is that you will make a clear agreement with the spirits of the land that you are both satisfied with so that you can proceed.

In the case of our earth oven, I agreed to tend the path and boundaries of our earth oven space and also to cut back some of the surrounding areas if they grew too close to the oven, always asking the plants’ permission.  We established where the areas of the other outdoor kitchen were to be before proceeding.  I was also asked to build two smalls shrines, one to invite the spirits of the hearth to join us (see the first image in this post) and a hidden shrine to honor the earth elementals.

You also may need to negotiate with specific dominant plant species in an area.   For example, in the case of our garden, I’ve made it clear that dandelions are welcome to grow anywhere, but I will be harvesting any within our garden areas for making food or medicine for ourselves and our animals.  But, any dandelions that grow outside of the bounds of the garden will be undisturbed (unless I further sought permission to harvest them for a different purpose, which would be a different negotiation).

3. Clear mindfully and listen to the voices of nature as to how to use cleared material.

Once you have permission to clear an area, establish a garden, or weed regularly, the next step is to start clearing it in a way that is reverent and respectful.  I like to call this “mindful” clearing.  I’m going to clear in a gentle manner, pulling out each plant, checking in with each plant to see how they would like me to proceed (cut you off at the root? Harvest the root? Put you in the compost pile? Feed you to the geese?).  Thus, as I clear, I am also engaging in deep connection with the plants and hearing their voices for how to proceed. As I do this, I continue to make offerings, I sing songs, and I raise good energy for the work I am doing.

Beginning to clear the area for the earth oven

I work to do as much clearing without the aid of fossil fuels as possible, relying on hand tools, as this allows me to get closer to the individual plants I am clearing. Once in a great while, I do have to use a battery-powered lopper or chainsaw, and I let the spirits of nature know what I am doing before I do anything.

So in the clearing of my earth oven space, I spent about 2 hours clearing the space, while I was in a meditative place.  Using movement meditation, I cleared my mind as I cleared down to the soil, making sure that each plant I was clearing had a chance to share what they would like to see happen.  I ended up transplanting several wild yams into another section of the forest.  The Allegheny Blackberry asked me to take their roots and use them for magic (they have been teaching me their magic for many years now) and to compost their stems and leaves.  The small spicebush asked to be potted and given away.  The Virginia Creeper had me pull out enough to clear, asking me to make a small wreath of her and then place that wreath on the altar.  And so it went with each of the plants in this space, where I listened to their voices and did my best to honor their requests.  In the end, I had not only a cleared space but new magical plant knowledge and several roots for my spiritual practices.

I do the same thing in my garden as I am regularly weeding and tending. While I don’t necessarily need steps 1 and 2 each time I got into weed the garden, when I am weeding, I am still listening to the voices of the plants and honoring what they would like me to do with them.  I am treating them in reverence and respect, even as I clear them.

Eventually, you may find that even the most dominant weed can be negotiated with to grow elsewhere.

Doing these practices in this way allows you to both hear what the plant spirits may offer you as well as give you a chance to learn some of the uses of common plants in your area.  For example, if you are clearing a garden, many garden “weeds” have tremendous herbal and edible uses including lambs quarters, ground ivy, pursuance, dandelion, red clover, chickweed, and wood sorrel, to name a few.  If you are pulling out something and you don’t know what it is, take a few minutes to learn and do what you can to make use of that plant for food, medicine, crafts, or spiritual purposes.

4. End in Gratitude

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel, garden weed, delicious food!

Finalize your work each day in gratitude–gratitude for the land itself, the soil, and any plants or materials that were moved or pulled as part of the work you were doing.  Recognize the sacrifice that these plants have made and honor them.  You can practice gratitude by making offerings (such as this offering blend), drumming, dancing, doing a land blessing ceremony, or any other number of things.

In the case of my earth oven, the end of the clearing, I again sat with the space and honored it with flute music and offerings.  I meditated to see if there were any additional messages, and if not, I continued to work on the project.  The next steps in the project were to create a draining gravel foundation to prevent frost heaving, and so when I went back to the site a few days later to start removing soil and subsoil, I made sure to continue to make offerings at the shrine I built and continue to offer gratitude.

Conclusion

As the above explores, the key to honoring nature while also tending spaces, weeding, or clearing land has to do with the approach.  Rather than immediately moving into clearing, spend time honoring the spirits of the land first, the physical bodies of the plants to clear, and take your time to make sure you are engaged in reverence and respect.  This kind of practice integrates spiritual practice with everyday life in the practice of sacred action, and can certainly deepen our own relationship to our immediate landscapes.

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

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

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

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

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

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

 

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

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

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

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

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from driveway

View from driveway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultivating Resilience as a Physical and Spiritual Practice

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

Staghorn Sumac: A tree that teaches us about resilience

Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems are those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure. In other words, a resilient ecosystem can withstand drought, flooding, or other difficulties by being adaptable, flexible, and having redundancies. Which of course, is so critical in today’s ever-changing world fraught with climate change and instability.  Resilient plants are the often-maligned weeds: those weeds who take every opportunity to grow: who find a crack in the sidewalk and take root, who immediately start to grow after disruption, or who outcompete less resilient plants. They are able to be like weeds or opportunistic species, taking advantage of new opportunities, finding niches, and gracefully adapting to change. Think of the dandelion here, growing up through cracks in the sidewalk.  This same concept, I believe, will grow to be more and more central to both getting through the present and the future and central to the spiritual work we do. As humans, we can learn a lot about the concept of resilience from nature, and adapt it in our own lives.

And truthfully, in the wake of the present challenges and an uncertain future, it seems like a most excellent time to start cultivating resilience. When we grow comfortable in life we have worked hard to create, we are resistant to change and often hold on bitterly even after it’s obvious that change is needed. This is part of why we are still seeing so much inaction to climate change–as a species, we need to cultivate resilience, ingenuity, and creativity to step up to the challenges we face.  Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that on a large scale, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. While I certainly advocate doing everything we can to cultivate hope and positive change in the world, there’s a lot that is outside of our control.  Given the age we live in, I’d argue that resilience is one of the most important 21st-century skills we can have and something that we can cultivate within and without.

Features of Resilience Learning from Resilience in Nature

We can begin by looking to nature for guidance about how to become resilient in an age of deep conflict and change.  By observing nature, we can learn some of the qualities that we can then apply in our own lives.  Here are some that I’ve understood through my observation and interaction with nature:

Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback or challenge.  We see evidence of the recovery of nature everywhere–how quickly the opportunistic species grow after an area is cleared by humans for new construction; how quickly a forest that is burned immediately starts to regrow; the ability of the tree to keep on growing even if it was knocked down. Nature is literally full of examples of an innate ability to recover and move forward with explosive growth.  Here on our homestead, three acres were logged before we bought the property–and we’ve really enjoyed seeing how quickly nature can grow back and be bountiful once again. The ability of nature to heal is one of nature’s lessons that I always return to and that I am always in awe of–nature is the master of resiliency, and we can learn so much through observing her at work.

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Adaptability. Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. I look to the raccoons here, who are truly one of the most flexible, adaptable, and resilient of persons living in my own ecosystem. This past summer, the coons and I had an ongoing battle with the chicken coop feed storage in the shed. The regular feed bags I used to keep there were quickly raided. So I bought metal garbage cans for storing the feed. The coons figured how to get them open in one evening. So I bungee corded them together and that seemed to prevent them from getting in most of the time. But, we compromised by leaving them bowls of cat food and hot dogs on the back porch and now they leave the chicken feed alone and actually defend our land against other predators–and everyone wins.  This is a great example of the idea of both adaptation and pivoting–when confronted with one obstacle, they simply changed direction. 

Accepting Change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans.  In nature, changes happen all the time. Forest fires, floods, a tree crashing down during a storm, and so on. Rather than dwelling on what is lost, nature immediately springs to action and moves forward. When the tree drops, nature pivots and immediately fills in that space with new trees growing up to fill the canopy. The mushrooms come in, colonizing and breaking down the tree. 

Opportunistic. A few months ago I shared the magic of the understory, and how certain understory trees (Witch Hazel, Mountain Laurel, Spicebush, Rhododendron) and plants (Mosses, Lichens, wintergreen, partridgeberry) take advantage of the dark and cold months in order to make the most of the winter sunlight.  We can also look to the many opportunistic plants, like dandelion or burdock, who are able to easily take root even in the most adverse conditions. The quality these plants have is that they are opportunistic–they see a change and immediately pivot.  Or, they wait until the right time and then use the current conditions to the present situation. 

The above qualities are present in all of nature–all we have to do is walk outside our door, spend some time in nature, and see how resilient nature can be.  So, to take this a step further, how can we apply these qualities to our own lives?

Physical Resilience

Resilience is something we can work to cultivate and resilience requires both inner and outer work. Resilence in our lives means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented, which is now the norm rather than the exception. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the systems upon which we build our lives are not going to continue to be stable, and it’s up to us to build skillsets that allow us to provide some of our own needs. When we think about our needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start.  We all need food, clothing, clean water, shelter, and in colder climates, heat.  At present, most humans have long depended on others (corporations, larger consumer systems, etc) to provide those basic needs.  Part of cultivating physical resilience is thinking about how to transition at least some of those needs to a community and individual level.

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Humans have always been tribal and social, as many of our animal kin.  Thus, rather than thinking about resilience as an individual problem, you might think about it as a community or group effort.  What can you do now to support a more resilient community?  Supporting a local food system and farmer’s market is a very clear choice–even if you aren’t able to grow your own food, network, and provide resources to those that are; the more strong a local and regional food system is, the more resilient your community is.  This is also where other community groups like permaculture meetups (that share tools, resources, and knowledge), reskilling communities (who work to build traditional skills among members), and earth skills gatherings can come in.  The point here is that you can cultivate a lot of resilience in your life by joining with others.

I do think its a good idea to cultivate some individual resiliency or family-level resiliency so that you can be prepared in the event of an emergency.  Thus, it might be a particularly good time to start growing some of your own food (Indoor or out), looking into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and making sure that you have several weeks, at minimum, of food stores to meet your needs.  Consider how different kinds of disruptions may occur, and do your best to do some minimal planning for them as you are able.  Even a little bit of planning can go a long way in an emergency. My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices offers many more suggestions for resilient living both at a community and individual level!

I also think it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how nature can provide for you directly–what can you ethically forage, harvest, or grow in terms of food, medicine, and your other basic needs? Take up an ethical foraging / wildtending practice, where you are gathering food from the local environment and also giving back. Learn about some abundant local herbs and how you can use them for medicine. Learn what you can eat in your yard or local park. Not only do these kinds of practices cultivate resiliency, but they also allow you to grow closer to the living earth.

Mental and Spiritual Resilience

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

I’m using “cultivation” of resilience in a very deliberate sense. Resilience is a lot like growing a garden. The garden isn’t going to grow without you putting in the time and effort (planting seeds, preparing beds, etc).  Resilience isn’t like an on/off switch, where you are either resilient or not. Resilience is a skill that you cultivate and a mindset that you create, and we can all be on the path to resilience.

When you study any kind of wilderness survival, one of the most important things you learn is to keep a positive mental attitude towards a difficult situation. That is, half the battle is staying positive, flexible, and having a good mindset along with the many skills above: adaptability, recovery, accepting change and being opportunistic.  This is not a skill set that many people are brought up to have. In Western consumer culture, we are purposefully taught to be passive recipients of culture, to buy our way out of problems, to allow others to take care of our needs, and not cultivate creativity in our lives.  In other words, if you live in any western culture, particularly here in the United States, you have been socialized into a set of behaviors that are actually taking you in the opposite direction of resilience.  Thus, it is worth some time to work to cultivate a new set of skills that can help you move in the right direction.

So how might we do this?  Here are three practices that I’ve used to cultivate resilience in my own life:

Meditation and Connection with Resilient Plants and Animals

We have a whole host of plants and animals in the ecosystem around us who are masters of resilience–I mentioned a few located here in Western Pennsylvania: the raccoon, the dandelion, the burdock.  In cities, this might be the pigeon, who has adapted incredibly to urban environments. Every ecosystem has these plants and animals: those cunning animals and resilient plants who are able to grow and thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Choose a plant, tree, or animal that speaks to you and who has some of the qualities of resilience you would like to cultivate and work with that plant or animal however you see fit. If at all possible, spend time with that plant or animal; observe and see how they respond to adverse conditions.  Work to bring that energy into your own life through reflection, energy exchange (if permitted with the plant/animal) and by working to cultivate these same qualities in your life.  If the plant offers, carry a piece with you.

One of the resilient plants that I often look to for guidance is the Staghorn Sumac tree.  Staghorn Sumac is extremely resilient, often able to grow in places that have been disrupted.  We often see him here growing along the highways and persisting even after spraying and heavy chemical use.  I had a wonderful mature patch on the edge of my property and my neighbor cut the patch down, literally bulldozing it with a tractor two years ago.  I mourned this patch and harvested some of the wood to honor and work with as an artist…and then it started to regrow.  Two years later, what had been a mature stand of Staghorn Sumac is now a thicket of 6′ tall new sumac–all that the disruption did was make the patch grow back with more strength and power.  When I am feeling like I need the qualities of resilience, I sit with this patch, who has so strongly rebounded after such a major disruption, and draw upon those energies.  I leave an offering for the gifts and lessons that Staghorn Sumac teaches.  Since staghorn sumac is edible, I often will harvest the flower buds for a sumac aid drink as a magical aid in cultivating resilience (recipe in the link above) and also carry a piece of the wood with me.

Shadow Work and Meditation

It’s very helpful to take an inventory of what resilient skills you already have and which you might want to cultivate.  Knowing yourself and having a metacognitive sense of who you are (e.g. knowing your strengths, why you respond in certain ways, etc) can help you cultivate resilience. You can use a permaculture technique called a personal niche analysis to do some of this basic work or simply spend time meditating on your strengths and areas of struggle as a person. Another meditation that can be useful is to look back at times when you were faced with adversity–how did you handle it? What personal qualities did you bring? What could you have done differently the next time? 

For example, one important skill for resilience is how you handle difficulty or failure. Do you give up? Shut down? Berate yourself? Or do you rise to the occasion, trying something new and taking the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and try again?  Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Culturally, in the United States, the education and workplace systems often cultivate fixed mindsets, creating people who have a great deal of difficulty with failure and struggle, and who believe that any struggle or failure on their part is a reflection of their incapacity as a person.  Conversely, people with a growth mindset see struggle or failure as an opportunity to grow, creating a resiliency that is a powerful force in their lives. (I’ll also note that in my professional life, I am a learning researcher and social scientist who studies this stuff, and it is incredible to see the long-term outcomes of these two mindsets and other core personality traits on people’s development!)

Seeking Opportunity to Practice and Reflect

Once you have a sense of your strengths and areas you want to improve, pick one or two features of resiliency that you want to bring into your life.  Find small ways of practicing these: at work, at home, at school, wherever you are.  Reflect, consider how you responded, and keep moving forward.  Over time, you can cultivate these qualities in your own life by putting effort in that direction.  Every new situation is a situation for you to cultivate the skills to be more resilient and become the person you want to be!

Taking up a Bardic Practice

Another great way of cultivating inner resilience is taking up a bardic practice or some practice that requires you to be creative on a regular basis. When we start learning the bardic arts, and as we engage in more challenging work as a bard, we are regularly confronted with difficult situations where we can cultivate resilience: creativity, adaptability, and take new opportunities. These practices require us to confront our own fears, our own struggles, and occasionally, deal with failures. If we can take what we’ve learned from these practices and connect them to other aspects of our lives, it will cultivate a general resilience that can be helpful. I’ve written a series about taking up the path of the bard, and I’ll refer you there for more details: part I, part II, and part III

Concluding Thoughts

Resilience is one of the most important skills that I think we can cultivate as people in the 21ts century.  It allows us to reconnect with our ancient ancestors, who clearly had enough resilience to survive and thrive in a changing world (particularly before the Holocene, where the climate was not stable) and allows us to become better people living in a challenging world. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave.  Practicing resilience asks us to deeply understand our own fears and shadow selves and to cultivate skills that will help us bring forth a brighter tomorrow.  On the physical side, practicing resilience helps us directly prepare for adversity and abrupt change–and allows us to build a useful skillset that can enhance our lives and our nature-based spiritual practices. 

I would love to hear more about how you are cultivating resilience in your life in the comments!

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

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

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

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