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The Tears of the Earth: A Hike on Sólheimajökull Glacier

Sólheimajökull

Sólheimajökull

It was our final day in Iceland before returning back to the US. We so many great experiences visiting this country of beautiful extremes, but more than anything, what we wanted to see on our last day was a glacier. We talked about it, and decided that we should see a glacier, as we might never be able to see one again. We booked a beginner glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier, a hike that took you way up into the glacier.

 

Where the glacier used to be, 2010. Where I am standing and taking the photograph is where it was in mid 2009.

It was a misty and cool day; small droplets of rain pressed against us at the parking lot at the base of the glacier. Before us, the Sólheimajökull glacier loomed, white and black and gray. After getting fitted with safety harnesses, helmets, crampons, and pick axes, our group of twelve set off to the glacier hike. Our guide, who was originally from the Alps and who had been hiking glaciers his whole life, first took us to a sign as we walked along the edge of an enormous lake. He stopped and said, “In 2010, this is where the glacier was. Each year, it gets smaller. In the winter, it stops melting but never regrows. But we’ve still got quite a hike to get to the glacier as you can see.” The sign he showed us had many different numbers with years. Last year, in 2018, the glacier receded more than any other year: 118 meters. And so, we continued our hike, which took about 15 minutes, walking along the edge glacier’s melt pool.  This link offers a video that shows the melting of the Sólheimajökull glacier from the years 2007- 2015.

 

One of the tours they now advertise in Iceland the “kayak the glacier” experience. There is a kind of horseshoe shaped lake that is made when a glacier reaches its largest size and then begins to melt. You’ve seen this shape before on a map: its reflected in the bowl-shaped bottom of Lake Michigan. That bowl shape is created by the melting of a glacier. As a glacier advances, it  moves earth itself, pushing up stone, soil, and bedrock; the powerful edge of it creating a wall of stone. As the glacier recedes, it leaves that wall of stone behind, and as it melts, that stone creates a natural dam, and the bowl-shaped area behind the dam fills with water. Water that tourists can kayak in. Water that is created, in part, by the 2600 miles it took me to fly to Iceland. Water that is, for all intents and purposes, the tears that the earth cries.

 

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

As I stood at the bottom of the glacier, I realized how small I was in comparison to the massive block of ice. The Sólheimajökull glacier took up all the space, moving into our field of vision, white, black, and sometimes blue, daunting in its appearance. As we got close, you could see the shimmering of the melt water coming off of it, moving into the lake below.  Icebergs, also, floated in the lake–our guide explained that those icebergs crack off the glacier frequently and will likely be gone by the end of the summer.  So much ice.  So much to melt.

 

We carefully put our crampons on our feet and, single file, began our ascent into the glacier.  As soon as we stepped foot on the glacier, my heart grew heavy with sorrow. The most striking feature of the glacier wasn’t the beauty. It wasn’t the black ash from various volcanic activity, or the white and blue ice. The most striking feature was how fast it was melting. Everywhere the glacier was melting. The day we were there, it was around 50 degrees, now a fairly common temperature for Iceland this time of year. And everywhere you looked, the glacier was glistening. Little drips became streams, streams became bigger streams, and eventually, they flowed into quite large rivers, running down the glacier. Standing anywhere on the glacier, you could observe this and watch the ice melt and take milennia of black and gray ash along with it.

 

At one point, our guide stopped and pointed to a mountain quite far off from where we stood. Less than a decade ago, he told us, the glacier reached up to that nearby mountain. Now, that mountain isn’t reachable, the glacier is much lower, and there is a glacial river between us. I stood there and thought about it: that must have been millions of gallons of water in that short time, all melted away into the lake and eventually, ocean nearby.

 

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

The amount of melting made the Sólheimajökull a bit difficult to traverse. The tour company maintained a trail on the glacier, but it was an ever-moving target. As we hiked, we two people working on the trail on the glacier. They would cut a set of stairs, and then, within an hour or two, the stairs would melt and become dangerous and they’d have to cut new ones. This ever-evolving trail was now just part of the experience of walking on a glacier, as our guide explained.

 

The walk was a walk of extremes. The solid white and blue ice. The black and gray of the volcanic ash becoming unlocked as the glacier melted. One of the folks on our walk asked, “can we tell what volcanic eruption this ash came from?” Our guide said, “No, it all just melts together.” You could be standing on ash and melt from 10,000 years ago or even 100,000. Scientists with specialized equipment drilling core samples could tell, but we could not.  Here is an image of the entire glacier, Myrdalsjokull, from 1986 to September 2014.  The glacier we walked was one “arm” of this larger glacier.  You can see how massive it is, and you can glimpse the volcano that sits beneath.

 

Throughout our week in Iceland, I didn’t get a strong sense that the spirits of the land were welcoming or open to outsiders. Icelanders certainly capitalize on their island’s natural beauty as part of their tourist industry. And while you might enter a lava cave and be told of rooms called “the banquet hall of the elves” or “the troll’s den”,  or, you might see the stone stacks throughout the land that are there to appease the little people, the Icelandic people are not willing to talk about those aspects of their land.  They don’t speak of their relationship to the land spirits with outsiders. And neither do those spirits of the land seem interested in saying hello.  So I spent the week in Iceland not engaged heavily with the spirits of the land; things were just quiet.  Thus, I was certainly surprised when even before I walked up to it, the glacier immediately reached out to me and wanted to convey a message.

 

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

As we climbed Sólheimajökull, I connected deeply with the spirit of place. The glacier itself, and the spirit of the mountain—between two active volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. Sólheimajökull first shared with me its anger, so angry that it was melting away. So angry at humans. I could feel the stress and strain as it spoke to me: to tell people what you have seen here. Tell of how the melting will flood their cities. Speak of the truth you have witnessed. I felt the anger in its voice, the anger radiating out of it, as it knew it was dying.

 

We continued to climb the glacier, witnessing its tragic beauty among the melting ice. Then a second voice emerged from Sólheimajökull, this one of sadness. I am losing myself, the glacier said. I am crying tears for the world. How many people who climb me today will speak of what they have seen? How many will change because of it?  How many have made me cry further just to walk upon me? I cry for us, the glacier said, and I cry for the world.

 

We had to climb over a large crevasse with water rushing through it. Our guide explained that this kind of crevasse was very dangerous and could easily drown you if you fell in.  Eventually this crevasse would literally crack a large chunk of the glacier off into the melt pool. As I navigated the crevice, I heard the glacier speak once again, this time, in despair. What is happening is happening. There is nothing to be done.  Our melting will reshape the world. I have been here for so long, and someday, I will be here again. But in the meantime, my waters will travel far and wide.

 

Upon meditation on this experience after returning home, I realized that I was hearing the many voices of this glacier working through the many stages of grief.  I was experiencing the grief that this sacred place was experiencing, conveying to me, perhaps so I could convey it to you.

 

Crevasse in melting glacier

Crevasse in melting glacier

We got to a high point on the glacier where you could see it continue to rise up for many miles into the mist.  Here the glacier flattened out quite a bit. It was here that our guide swung two pickaxes in the ice to create handholds and let us kneel down on them to drink the fresh glacial melt-water. Pure, cold, refreshing. As I drank the water, thirsty from our climb, I could feel the energy of the glacier. As I drank, the emotions that the glacier was conveying to me welled up within me, overflowing. Anger, fear, sadness, despair, acceptance. All at once, those feelings spread throughout me. As we made our way back down, I simply allowed myself to experience the myriad of complex feelings of this place.

 

The next day, on our flight home, we flew over Greenland and the lower part of the Arctic before landing back in the US. I looked down, out of the window of the plane, and saw so many small chunks of ice participating in their own complex patterns of melting, this time, with nobody to hear or witness up close.

 

Melting ice from the plane

Melting ice from the plane

How much damage did this trip to Iceland cost the earth? That’s the part that has been perhaps the hardest for me to process, as I’ve been thinking about and meditating on this experience. I went on this trip for pleasure. I’ve had little chance to travel, and I wanted to experience new things and visit somewhere completely different. But my very engagement with this glacier, my presence there, was part of why it was melting. Sure, you can say, but Dana, you can always offset your carbon for this. And yes, I always do offset my carbon from travel at the end of the year (most of it work related). But does that  offset matter? In the end, I chose to engage in an activity that speeded the melting of this sacred place.helped this glacier melt. One article, I read recently suggested that each trans-Atlantic flight, like the one I took, melts about 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  So for myself, my round trip contributed to 60 square feet of ice melted in the Arctic.

 

Just like the glacier, I’m full of a myriad of complex emotions. I’m glad to have this experience. I’m saddened by it. I recognize my own part in this.  I feel sorrow and anger and acceptance. We are all on the front lines of climate change, the 6th extinction happening, the age of the Anthropocene.  Every one of us is living in a time where we are aware of the problem, many of us trying to do something about it. At the same time, by participating in modern life, we can’t help but contributing to it.  This is the great Catch-22 of our age.  To see the glacier is to destroy the glacier.  To use fossil fuels necessary for modern life is to burn them.  How can I afford solar panels for my home without commuting to work each day in a fossil fuel powered vehicle?  The glacier weeps as I write.

 

But the other thing that this lesson has powerfully taught me is the power of experience. How many people, in seeing that melting glacier could really deny the truth of climate change? How could it be denied that these things are happening, powerfully and directly, before our very eyes?  This experience has changed me. I “knew” about the glaciers melting before.  Knew as in I intellectually engaged in an understanding about the fact that glaciers worldwide were melting. But it was not till I stood upon one, till I connected with the spirit of that place, and until I confronted my own contribution to that melting, could I really have wisdom surrounding it.

 

The glacier

The glacier

As I write these words, I’m attempting to convey some of that wisdom, that direct experience, but my words cannot have the impact of that weeping glacier. Book knowledge is what we engage with intellectually and logically, what we read or hear in order to better understand something. Book knowledge is mitigated by human language, words on paper or spoken aloud. These words, as I write them, are read by your eyes and processed by your brain. But they are a pale representation for the experience of standing there, of seeing the glacier weep, drinking its meltwater, and feeling its pain. But I’ve done my best, dear reader, and I hope it gives you a small piece into this experience and into that of one melting glacier. Can we find these same kinds of changes in our own ecosystems, and use them as local teaching tools? Perhaps we can, and perhaps that’s a message I can leave you with today.

 

PS:  I’m excited to announce that I just signed my first book contract a few weeks ago!  Because of this, I will be taking a few weeks off of blogging so that I can prepare my manuscript to submit to the publisher (which is quite a bit of work).  I’ll keep you updated on the progress, release date, etc.  Thanks for your understanding!

Cultural Appropriation, Plant Relationships, and Nature Connection

As a druid, someone who connects to the local landscape spiritually, I’ve gotten my fair share questions about cultural appropriation and druidry’s relationship to indigenous practices, particularly traditions indigenous to the USA. The conversation may go something like this, “So druidry, is that like Native American?” My response is, “Druids and Native Americans both honor and respect the land, and see spiritual significance in nature.  However, Druidry comes from a different cultural tradition (the British Isles, particularly Wales) and our relationship with the land, spiritual practices, and celebrations are completely different than indigenous peoples in North America”  Another thing that happens with some frequency is that I describe something on this blog, like land healing, building sacred spaces, or other such spiritual work. And someone who has never commented before leaves a comment that says something like “You don’t have a right to do that, this land belongs to Native Americans” or “You need to ask permission from those who used to live here to work spiritually with the land.” In my time in druid leadership in various places, I see a lot of white druids seriously grappling with these same kinds of questions and issues–and so I want to share my thoughts.

 

Another observation: here in the US, white people who are trying to reconnect to their land spiritually carry around a lot of baggage. Guilt about the atrocities that were committed so that we could live on this land, guilt about what was done before we were born, guilt about always being an “imposter” here on the land, guilt about living here now. Even if you don’t know your family history, if you are white, the cultural history and legacy of the broader US are more than sufficient. There’s also a lot of fear–fear of connecting deeply with nature, fear of appropriation (even inadvertent appropriation), fear of doing something wrong, of somehow doing more damage than has been already done. I never realized the extent of this fear and guilt–even within me–till I met druid who had recently came from Europe and moved to the US. I connected with her at a druid event where I was leading a workshop and ritual. After the workshop, she said to me that she felt that Americans were so afraid of their land. After her comment, we had more discussions and I started to pay attention, and I realized how acute her observation was, even within me.  I’m afraid I will do more harm and dishonor the ancestors of the land that came before me.  I want to do good. Culturally, there’s also this idea that if you are a white person, you really don’t have the right or privilege to connect with the land here. So the guilt sets in, the fear sets in, and people do nothing.  How, then, can white American druids build a relationship with nature, given these cultural complexities?  How can we build a relationship rooted in honoring the ancestors of the land and recognizing culturally, what work we have to do? And, do we have a right to do so? And why should we? Those questions are the subject of today’s blog post.

 

Building connections with nature

Building connections with nature

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual path is ultimately about connection and relationship building. People who find druidry and take up the druid path are concerned with building deeper connections to nature, physically and in spirit, and in living a life that is nurturing of the earth rather than destructive of her. People from all walks of life, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc, can join the druid tradition; it is open to anyone who seeks this path. I want to frame this entire discussion about cultural appropriation in terms of relationship, as I think it is a useful and productive lens. So let’s start by thinking about the definition of relationship. Here are a few dictionary definitions, useful to get us started. Definition A: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected” and B: “the way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave toward each other.” In the case of druid practice, we are exploring ways that we, as 21st century human beings living in specific ecosystems, and coming out of specific cultural and historical traditions, connect spiritually with our living ecosystems around us. My definition here, then, accounts not only for a specific person, but that person living in a specific context, and bringing specific history with them.  And it is this “cultural and historical context” that has everything to do with appropriation–but also, nature relationship.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, prior to white colonization, old growth forests covered the land, producing massive amounts of mast crops (acorns and chestnuts) with about 1/3 of the total forest cover in hardwood nut trees; streams were clear and full of fish; animals and hunting lands were abundant. Native Americans, as M. Kat Anderson describes in Tending the Wilds, tended these lands and had them in a very healthy state of abundance. As non-industrial societies, they depended on the land, build spiritual practices surrounding their relationship to the land, and many tribes had rich animistic traditions surrounding the land and her spirits. Traditions that, in some cases, spanned hundreds or thousands of years.  Framing this in terms of relationship–generations upon generations of Native Americans were tending the wilds and cultivating a sacred relationship with their landscape. Every person in that tribe gained strength from those ancestral connections to land, established over generations upon generations. Even for a native person today, those connections are still present, and I think they are beautifully described in the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer, among other native authors.

 

But a white person’s cultural relationship to our local landscape here in the USA is completely different. Let’s take a look at my own cultural relationship as an example.  As a white person living in Western PA in the 21st century, I can trace my ancestors back to the late 1600’s and 1700’s arriving on American soil.  My ancestors were some of the first people to arrive in what is now known as Pennsylvania; and some of the first to push westward into Western PA and settle the Laurel Highlands region. My family heritage is Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English (about 75%) and German (25%). The strongest cultural heritage I grew up with was Pennsylvania German (Dutch) traditions, passed on to me in some small ways by my grandmother. This makes me very, very white, and the descendant of coal miners, farmers, steel mill workers, loggers, and other people who worked hard to colonize and extract the rich resources of Pennsylvania to fuel growing industrialization. In our family records, and in my own ancestry research, I know that when my ancestors first arrived, these lands were a cornucopia of abundance and were pristine. Within less than 150 years due to their efforts, these lands were desolate wastelands, extracted of their wood, coal, iron, tannins, animals, fish–anything that could feed the industry.  I know from a copy of the Department of Forestry’s Annual Report from 1898 from PA, that less than 4% of forest cover remained by the turn of the 20th century in counties where my ancestors settled. Further, in less than two centuries, Native peoples who made these lands their home were slaughtered to extinction (Susquehannok) or forcefully relocated to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma (Shawnee). When I look upon the lands where I was born, lands that are still the subject of many extraction activities, I have to recognize the colonialist legacy that produced me. That’s the cultural and historical reality of the blood that moves through my veins.  Regardless of how much I have personally worked to reconnect with the land, I cannot deny or change this history.  My ancestors directly participated in these atrocities.  I reap the benefit of them today.  My ancestry offers me little positive spiritual “connection”, historical or otherwise, to this land.  So I return to my original question, “How, then, can I, as a white druid, build a relationship with nature?”

Acid Mine Drainage--a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

Acid Mine Drainage–a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

 

Probably the worst way to answer these questions is to engage in cultural appropriation. When we look at the above–it makes sense that no white person wanting to connect spiritually with nature wants the cultural and historical baggage that being white on this soil brings. (For the record, it doesn’t matter if we want it, it is ours and we need to acknowledge it and work to right these wrongs). And so, a white person might be drawn away from their own cultural traditions, which offer no spiritual connection to the land, and instead, attempt to shift themselves into a different relationship with nature. Some people choose to do this, most unfortunately, by trying to appropriate various Native American traditions. Some have tried to spiritually practice like a Native American, of appropriate Native American traditions or beliefs as their own, or, in the most extreme cases, even claiming to be offering ceremony in a Native American way or in the way of a specific tribe. I have seen some Native Americans call such people who appropriate their traditions “plastic shamans”; and I think the term is apt. In other words, these white people are attempting to claim the relationship to the land that only Native Americans have a right to. Understanding this issue as tied to relationship, the appropriation is not just about appropriating specific ceremonies or traditions, but really, it is an attempt to claim that indigenous relationship to the land and her spirits. (There are exceptions: in some limited cases, a white person has been welcomed into a tribe or by an elder and taught with intention.)

 

The relationship metaphor is a really useful one here for breaking down why cultural appropriation is so problematic and why cultural appropriation should have no place in the druidry–or any nature-based spiritual practice–of white people. You might think about your current relationships you have with other people: each one is unique, each one is different. Your immediate and extended family and friend network are all relationships cultivated over a long period of time. Each person in you know has a different relationship with you than any other person. Maybe one friend is fun to hang out with and chill out, but another one is a good travel partner, and still another you can share your deepest secrets with. If you have a partner or spouse, certainly, that relationship is very sacred and very unique.  You wouldn’t want another person to try to barge in and claim your spouse as their own–you would rightfully be defensive, angry, and demand that person stop. That’s essentially what I think appropriation is–taking someone else’s relationship with the land and claiming it as yours. It is no wonder that people whose traditions are subject to such appropriation are rightfully upset about it.

 

Further, relationships are complex and nested. I’m an individual, yes, with my own ethics, spiritual path, and decisions to make. I’ve worked hard to build my relationship with my local land over time.  But I bring with me–in the very blood that flows through me–the DNA of my ancestors. I bring with me, for good or for ill, that cultural legacy and that history, the choices that they made, and I am living the benefits and consequences of those choices. As a white person, I simply cannot hope to have the same kind of relationship that a Native person has on this land today–because relationships aren’t just about individuals, they are about cultures and generations of people. Under no circumstances could I *ever* replicate someone else’s cultural relationship to the land, even if I tried.  Not only is trying to do so problematic from a cultural, ethical, and historical standpoint, it is deeply problematic from a spiritual one (and I don’t think the land spirits are having any of it).

 

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Now, let’s take a look at a very specific plant example here, to further illustrate my point. A few posts ago I wrote about the issues surrounding white sage and other at-risk plants. Let’s dig into white sage specifically, as it is an American plant used by a number of native traditions. There are a lot of different perspectives surrounding white sage and whether or not white people should use it.  These perspectives range from “don’t even look at this plant if you aren’t native” to “buy white sage from natives and support them” to “anyone can use this plant for any purpose.” I think the first line of reasoning suggests that only one culture can have a relationship with a plant that grows broadly, thus, cutting off that plant medicine and spirit to anyone else. As a druid, I see all of nature as sacred, particularly, the nature growing in my own ecosystem, and I think each person and culture can build new relationships with plants. At the same time, I also think the last perspective is problematic, as that is the source of white privilege and cultural appropriation.  What I see as the thing here is acknowledging that other cultures and people may have a specific relationship with a plant, and it is not ok to try to mimic that relationship with a plant. Instead, white druids and others can build their own relationships with plants–relationships that are their own. White sage certainly has chemical properties that may help clear and heal. However, native tribes, such as the Luiseno and Cahuilla people in California, built up a very sacred relationship with white sage over millennia. Someone who is not part of that cultural legacy has no right to try to claim that specific relationship with white sage. This goes back to why indigenous peoples get upset when white people try to appropriate their plants and ceremonies–it’s trying to lay claim to a spiritual relationship that belongs to a culture.  If the plant’s use comes from a cultural tradition that you can rightfully access, then great, access it.  But if it doesn’t, those doors are closed to you, and you will never have a key. But it will be yours.  But what you DO have the ability to do is to create your own relationship.  It will be a different door.  It will be a different relationship. It will be a different key.

 

 

The land, her spirits, here in the US, even after all that is happened culturally, welcome relationships with white people.  But for white people living here, these must be *new relationships* and they need to be built upon acknowledging and honoring the past, building trust, and about reparations, accountability, and building trust. It is up to each of us to forge those connections, and for larger druid groups to start to do that on a broader, generational level. In other words, white people have build those relationships ourselves, and they are going to be inherently different looking because of our own identities, cultures, and histories. This is why talking about cultural appropriation matters–because we have our work cut out for us, and there are no easy short cuts. If we want to build deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with the land here, we’ve got to do the work from the ground up. If we are appropriating someone else’s culture and spiritual practice, we aren’t doing the hard and necessary work of relationship building for our own tradition–hence, we are perpetuating more colonizing behavior.

 

So, as white druids living in 21st century American soil, we have a lot of work ahead of us.  I see at a number of things that we can do to build our own traditions and relationships with this land, and offer this list as a starting point.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Become a nurturer and healer of the land. Reject the cultural values of exploitation and colonization that have shaped white people’s legacy here on American soil. Instead, work to reduce your own ecological footprint, learn to heal the land (through permaculture, sustainable living, conservation, other means), and develop a very different relationship with the physical landscape than other white people, past or present. Relationships with spirits are mirrored on the physical world. To get the land and spirits to trust you, to recognize you are different than other white faces that have come before, you have to behave differently–outside of the typical behaviors of exploitation. This is part of breaking down the past cultural legacy and establishing new patterns.

 

Honor the ancestors of the land and recognize those who came before you on this soil.  I think there are lots of ways to honor the ancestors of the land, and here are a few of those that I use.  First, learn about who the ancestors of the land where you live. Learn about who they were, what they did, how they lived, their stories, and what happened to them. For example, the peoples who lived where my home is located now were Osage, Shawnee, and Susquehannock. Today, the Osage and Shawnee are in Oklahoma, which is where they were forcefully moved by the US government. The Susquehannok are said to be extinct. (To find out who used to live in your region,  you might start with this site.) Once you know about them, find some way of honoring them regularly: perhaps say their names at the start of your rituals, create a shrine, or do an honoring ceremony as part of your practice.

 

Support and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples today. If there are still native peoples in your area or region, find ways of supporting them–if they need someone to come to a fight or take a stand, be that ally.  If there are not native tribes in your area, consider finding a cause that you can assist in that supports the rights of indigenous people regionally or globally. For example, I donate regularly to an organization called Cultural Survival, which fights globally for indigenous peoples’ rights. I also subscribe to their mailing list, which often has items you can take action on and keep you informed about global developments. I also think, as a white person, it is really important to do the “ground work”  to speak up for indigenous rights. Have compassionate conversations with other people about cultural appropriation, indigenous rights, and history.  Talk about these issues.  Recognize your own flaws and misjudgments.  Apologize. Learn and grow.

 

Recognize that we are building relationships, over time, in a new way. Because we are white people on US soil, we have very little to build upon. We are here, inventing and growing this tradition organically, a tradition imported from white ancestors, yes, but from a far off place. While this is a major challenge before us, it is also a really exciting opportunity.  In permaculture terms, we talk about the problem being the solution–in this case, our problem allows us to build something anew.  Something that responds to this time, this place, and honors our own path as white druids in the 21st century while not dishonoring those who were here before us. This requires us to deeply invest our time in learning about the land through building nature wisdom, nature connection, and our own rituals.

 

I hope this piece is helpful for those white druids who are struggling with these issues.  For this post, I am indebted to members of Sun Spiral grove, who spoke with me at multiple settings about these issues, and including members of the grove who read and offered me feedback on this post.  I also realize and recognize that there may be things I haven’t thought about.  This is a tough topic, and I appreciate your respectful feedback. Blessings!

The Ancestors, the Descendants, and the Stones

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

What would our descendants say about this time period? How would we, as a people, be written into their histories? What stories would they tell of us? Perhaps our ancestors would say that this was a time of recklessness, willful ignorance, of extravagance, and of excess. They might mourn the loss of ecological diversity and habitat that we did not protect, they would lament the loss of cultures and languages, the loss of so many things. Perhaps our descendants would say that we pillaged the land and many of its inhabitants by not knowing how to curb our own greed; that we were victims to our own quest for abundance; and that we filled the air with carbon simply because we wanted to move faster.

 

Or, perhaps, our descendants will tell a different story. Yes, they would say, the larger culture and government leaders didn’t want to make change and thereby created a more difficult, less ecologically stable, world. But there were others, their ancestors, who thought differently.  Their ancestors saw with open eyes the destruction surrounding materialist patterns of life, and they worked to change them physically and spiritually. Their ancestors paved the way for a new paradigm of thought and action: one of balance, respect, and nurturing for the living earth and all her inhabitants. And the reason that the descendants are here to record this history was because of their ancestors’ bravery, determination, and commitment to the sacredness of the land and the interconnected web of all life.

 

The stones await their newest additions

The stones await their newest additions

It was with these thoughts of future generations, and what legacy that we might leave them, that I journeyed to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for my second year at Stones Rising. As I wrote last year, as we engaged in the physical activity of raising a very large standing stone to add to the growing stone circle, we created something powerful. Stones rising is not just about us in the present moment, but rather, about building something that will last generations and cultivating a community that allows that work to continue to happen. And so, as I arrived at Four Quarters for Stones Rising, I was on the land once again, I was with my tribe once again, and we had sacred work to do.

 

As we gathered at the top of the mountain in the quickening darkness in preparation for pulling our first stone, we sensed the heaviness of that moment. Our ancestors were watching. Our descendants were watching. In the deepening darkness, by torchlight, we strained at the ropes to guide this new stone carefully, perilously, towards its new home. The magic is in the pull–the quiet on the lines, the breath of anticipation, the stone crew guiding the process. Fire and earth are in perfect synthesis as we complete our journey to the stone circle with the first of our two stones. Our ritual that evening invited us directly to engage with the past and the future.  We call forth and talked with our ancestors in front of the western “father stone” in the circle.  They are proud of the legacy that we are now living.  We then called forth and talked with our future descendants, in the east, near the “mother stone.” We listen to their voices, spanning through the ages, thanking us and urging us to continue our work now, so that they may come into being.

 

The next day, we prepare for the long pull. It is aptly named–we are pulling the second stone, the one we will also be raising this year–and it is a 5 ton stone, two tons heavier than what we pulled the night before and we have to pull it a much longer way. We once again assemble at the top of the mountain; our stone is strapped to a simple wooden sled, ready to join its brothers and sisters in the circle. We take three breaths and pull.

 

We pull for the ancestors, whose DNA floats in our veins and whose song we can hear on the breath of the wind.

 

We pull for the descendants, those young people among us, those in the womb, those yet to be conceived.

 

We pull for the land, our battered and beaten land, who, despite humanity’s treatment of her, still has skies that fill us with air, whose soils still produce our food, and whose rivers and storms still quench our thirst.

 

We pull for our community, strained as though it may be, knowing that this work is good work, and necessary work.

 

The stone does not move.  We strain at our ropes. Living in this time sometimes feels like the first long and desperate tug on that rope–when you keep pulling and pulling and nothing happens. When your feet slide in the grass and sweat drips from your brow and nothing happens.  When you feel your muscles straining to the point of collapse, and nothing happens. When everyone around you is likewise straining, giving it their all, and nothing happens. And then, when you know you can’t pull for another second, the stone finally moves a few inches, and then it moves faster, and you know no matter how hard it is to pull or how much time it takes, you will get there.

 

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Hours later, we arrive with our stone in the stone circle. We break, and have more ceremony, feasting, and song.  The next day, the entire tribe gathers, first to be fed the delicious rolls of bread baked all night by the corn mothers. With nourishment in our bellies, we go as a community into the stone circle, making our commitments to the work, the land, and each other. We hold space as a community, and participate as we are able, to raise the stone into its place in the circle.  People sing, the drummers offer a steady beat, the crones offer a cup of tea, and the most delicious pickles can be found at the snack table. We sit among our tribe, celebrating this moment. Ropes are brought out and we move the stone into position.

 

Everything happens very slowly, ever so slowly, as only a stone can move. The stone raises up, inch by inch, with careful guidance and steady hands. The stone is a lot like the cultural and ecological challenges before us–the stone can only move an inch at a time.  It is a very heavy stone. We can’t expect change all at once. We need to endure, we need to understand that we are beginning the work of generations, and it will take us and our descendants to fully realize the dream of centering us, as humans, back in line with the living earth.

 

The stone is seated into place; a cheer goes up among the community. Now, we celebrate. Now, we feast. Now, through ceremony and song, we welcome the new stone into its home in the east. The East. The direction of the descendants; the direction of spring; the direction of new beginnings and new hopes. There in the east, our descendants stand watching, holding their breath, and dreaming of a tomorrow not yet here.

 

Our newest eastern stone, raised!

Our newest eastern stone, arisen!

The challenges we face as a world are so severe. Sometimes, I can’t fall asleep at night, my spirit heavy with the burden of the now, and even heavier with the burden of the future. When I look at little children, I think to myself, how will this world be for them when they grow up? What can I do now to ensure that they thrive? What about their children’s children?  When we welcome that new stone in the east, I felt my heart lighten. We are in incredibly difficult times, where change seems impossible, but like the slow raising of the standing stone, we–as a an earth-centered spiritual tribe, as a people dedicated to the land–are building a better paradigm for ourselves, our community, and our descendants. Each stone we move is a legacy for those yet unborn and for the stories they will tell, for the histories they will write.

 

We are in the process of becoming ancestors. Whatever our larger culture may offer future generations, we can leave a legacy that offers the seeds of hope, of re-connection to the living earth, and of living in balance. And, we can leave them the stones.

Walking the Path of the Ovate: Building Localized Ecological Knowledge

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Everything changes in this wild place. The ebb and flow of the tides drives the ecology on this rocky shore. The landscape abruptly changes its appearance based on proximity to the sea and elevation. Firs and spruces dominate along with a groundcover of laurel and blueberry. Even old friends, like birch, maple, and beech, take on new skin. The mountain peaks offer a desert-like climate where air and fire dominate. I am in this wild place, letting it seep into my bones, into my breath, into my spirit. Desipte the books on ecology I’ve purchased, I really have no idea what I’m seeing, no real knowledge of the deeper mystery of this land and shore. Books cannot teach that kind of wisdom, only time and experience can. My eyes physically see, but I am seeing without any real understanding of what it is that is before me.

 

Industrialization has taught us that local context is only a marketing tool, a demographic base through which to sell products. We have eliminated much of what made local contexts unique and have replaced them with the same worn-out stores selling the same worn-out products. But nature has her own wisdom. Nature teaches us that the local context is sacred: it is what gives us distinction, it is what gives uslife, it is what roots us in a place. My localized knowledge base, rooted in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA and in the wilds of South-East Michigan, offers me a familiarity and comfort with the plants and animals I know. These are plants and animals that I have developed relationships with over a long period of time. When I enter a forest in my home region, I see my old friends and that relationship deepens. With that deep knowledge of my own ecosystem, an opportunity to visit a new place allows me begin to understand differences, subtle or major, in new ecosystems.

 

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality and connecting with nature through walking the path of the ovate, our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls. These landscapes literally become like a skin that we wear, a skin that comes with us wherever we go.

 

Building Local Knowledge

Indigeneous peoples were woven so closely into their landscapes: their land forms, their bodies of water, the local plants. They ate the fish and animals they hunted, they ate the plants they gathered, they made medicine from what was around them. These elements of their surrounding shaped every aspect of their daily interaction and their culture. They preserved the land and tended the wilds because the land sustained them fully. They understood their landscape in ways no modern human, living indoors, can do. And so, much of that knowledge is lost at present. Certainly, some places in the world, that knowledge still exists–but in places, like where I live, long colonized by those who would seek to destroy native peoples, only fragments remain. In truth, it is likely that modern humans in current western society can never have the deep knowledge, developed from infancy and shared across generations, that humans living in other times or cultures had. But, we can build a start, and we can work to connect once again.  In generations to come, we may once again have that kind of deep knowledge of our world. Part of this connection, to me, is the most sacred work there is to do in this world. And part of this is building our own ecoregional druidries and localized understandings.

 

Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

When we want to learn something today, especially about our local ecosystem, I have found that in person teachers are often hard to find (and if they can be found, expensive).  Books, then, become our teachers, and we can gain much knowledge of the landscape and our local ecology. The knowledge contained in books today was the kind of knowledge we used to have human and non-human teachers teach us: how to identify plants, how to use them for food or medicine, and so on. But there is no substitute for lived experience, the viceral and sensual experience of life–neither of which books can give us. There is no substitute that tells us that the ramps grow in this vally on the eastern side of the mountain where the emphermeal springs open up. Bridging the gap between book knowledge and direct experience is part of what walking the path of the ovate is all about–it is not just about the study of plants, animals, ecology, it is about connecting with that spirit of the landscape, weaving yourself into it, and reconnecting.

 

A basic knowledge identification skills and plant families can lead to many more deeper understandings, magical understandings, understanding the spirit of things. Now that I can identify many plants with ease and know some of their basic features, growth patterns, and uses, I want to understand them deeper. Who do they like to grow next to? What insects live on them? For the trees, what is their wood like? What do they look like at the different seasons of the year? What medicine and magic do they hold? And so, I wonder, wander, and walk through this landscape. A loupe (jeweler’s loupe) in hand offers me a more detailed perspective of the flowers. The more time I spend in the land place, the more I want to simply experience it.

 

Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

When I spent time at Acadia National Park in Maine last year, and recently in the Konza Prarie in Kanas, one thing was clear to me: despite studying field guides that helped me identify plants, to really know either landscape, like I knew my own ecosystem, it would take a lifetime. Prior prior to this, I’ve had no exposure to Maine’s craggy and rocky coasts. I had no experience with the burned out prarie stretching into the distance. Intellectual knowledge in my field guide offers a stepping stone, but true understanding, this weaving into the landscape, would take years of regular interaction and time spent in nature.

 

While in Maine, I spent numberous hours in the same spot, on a place called Otter Cliff, first observing the spot at low tide, and a different day, watching high tide come in. I watched the way that the various seaweed adapted to the incoming waves, how different species lived at different heights and were exposed to different wave action. A field guide tells me that I’m seeing bladderwrack, rockweed, wormweed, barnacles, and mussels. But yet, nothing but observation can teach me how the waves crash into the bladderwrack, or how it feels in my hand, or how it is adapted to move with the waves that would rend my own flesh from my bones against the rocks.

 

And this is what visiting a radically different ecosystem can do. You are out of your comfort zone, the plants and animals may be similar, but not exact. It is an extremely good time to study plant families (like through the book called Botany in a Day). Even if you can’t identify the specific plants, you can certainly identify their families, which teaches you new and important skills. This newness and challenge leads to rich rewards, new learning, and growth.

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs

 

Different regions also have different elemental balances. For example, I live in a land that is dominated by earth and water. The mountains, especially higher up, often have clouds and mist. The forests remain quite damp and the damp-loving trees like Eastern Hemlock are abundant, especially in dark forest valleys where the streams and creeks flow. On the Maine coast, this land is dominated as much by earth and water as it is by air–the winds, of which we have very little, are ever present here as the waves continue to crash on the rocks. High up on the granite-top mountains, fire and air dominate and life barely holds on. In Kansas, fire and air dominated the landscape–particularly fire–due to the recently burned prarie.

 

Visiting a new number of ecosystems has me realizeing just how much power nature has–I understood her power in the Alleghney mountains in PA, but I have no idea of her power in other places. And the homecoming, of returning back to the place where I belong, is powerful and meaningful–all the more so becuase you are back in familiar territory, where the plants and animals and ecology is familiar, safe, comforting.

 

Weaving with Your Landscape

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality, should our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls.  They become like a skin that we wear, literally, that comes with us wherever we go. We know the call of the birds, we know just how hard the wind is blowing and from what direction.  We understand the ebb and flow of the creek and know how the water runs over the stones. The longer we are in the land we are of the land, till we are one in the same.  This is what druidry, I beleive, is really about–becoming woven so deeply with your own place.

Sacred Landscapes, Part IV: Sacred Time, Sacred Space

A woodburned sign bidding druids to enter a sacred space

A woodburned sign bidding druids to enter a sacred space

“This is sacred time, this is sacred space.” At the end of the opening of every OBOD ritual, this powerful statement is made.  But what does “sacred time, sacred space” really mean? What is “the sacred” and how do we know it?  What is sacred in the context of American Druidry, where we do not have an abundance of ancient stone circles or accessible sacred sites? In this post, I want to spend some time today thinking about the ways we might enact the sacred in our own lives and lands as part of building sacred landscapes and re-enchanting our land.

 

In my first post in this series, I talked about the “disenchantment” of the world through industrialization and the rise of a religious tradition that did not acknowledge the land as sacred. And truly, a disenchanted worldview–where only the physical matters, and where the physical landscape is viewed only as a resource from which to extract wealth–literally strips the sacredness from everything: very little is “sacred” in our current culture. In this culture, money, and the pursuit of it, is the most sacred thing. Some of our national landmarks are tourist attractions, and may hold sacredness for someone (like the Veterans memorial for someone who lost a solider at war) but even these spaces are fairly rare. Churches, mosques, synagogues and other such places may also hold some sacredness still, but even that seems fairly minimal. Most major natural wonders are now tourist attractions, and tourists are anything but respectful or reverent. Even sacred places around the world, like Stonehenge, are routinely desecrated through garbage, graffiti, and more.

 

I think that what I’m describing is the reality of living in a disenchanted world, where nothing is truly sacred any longer. If we don’t know how to treat anything as sacred, how can we re-enchant our lands? In this post, I start to explore some of the building blocks and considerations for doing this.

 

The Building Blocks: Intentionality, Time, Meaning, Symbolism, and Energy

In order to create sacred spaces, we need to consider a number of different building blocks that help us pick up the pieces and begin again.

 

Intentionality. The first building block of bringing the sacred into everyday life is about intentionality and acknowledgement.  Sacredness happens in many cases because we choose to make it happen. We choose to offer an event, a place, an object, a mantra or prayer, or even a person some special meaning, some important significance, something that takes it from an everyday “mundane” thing and into something that has meaning beyond the every day. That that object , place, event, mantra, and so forth is something different, something out of the ordinary, something that requires reverence and special treatment in some way.  Individuals can create the sacred, but so can groups, on a different level.

 

Cherish Earth Sign - made from old barn wood

Cherish Earth Sign – made from old barn wood

For example, declaring intentions at the start of a ceremony where you are establishing sacred space and time (such as the OBOD opening) is a sacred act.  Speaking the words is a powerful act that sets your intentions. When I was homesteading in Michigan on my land, I created a lot of signage that also set intentions. My garden had a sign that said “Cherish Earth” (which will go on my new garden this year).  That sign set the intentions for me working in the garden each day–as a place of sacredness, as soil to cherish and nurture.

 

Time. Time helps us build a relationship with space. The more that we acknowledge and engage with a sacred place, thing, object, prayer, and so on over a period of time, the more sacredness it begins to take on. This is both because of human psychology (repeated patterns become individual rituals) but also because of magical reality (the more energy you put into something, the stronger that thing becomes). A simple analogy here might help illustrate this point. Let’s say you start with an empty field, and each time you visit a sacred place, you bring a stone. After 10 visits, you have 10 stones, and have built a stone cairn. After 100 visits, you have four stone cairns at each of the quarters as well as a whole stone circle and spiral labyrinth. Thus, repetition and time can certainly build sacredness in a space. This is an important concept in an American Druid setting and offers us one of the keys to sacred space and time here in the US.  Time, by the way, is one of the pieces often “missing” for American druids. We don’t have that sense of history and presence of old stone circles in the way that our UK counterparts do. Given that, we have different kinds of work and possibilities here on our soil.

 

Meaning. Ultimately, something is sacred because we choose to give it meaning. The nature of that meaning, and the spiritual experiences we may gain through that meaning, is paramount to establishing anything sacred. Part of the reason we have less sacred spaces, times, and places is that the only thing that has real meaning and singificance is money in our culture. Recognizing the meaning and importance of other things is part of establishing the sacred.

 

Symbolism. Symbolism here, also plays a role. We can draw upon existing symbolism (Awen, ogham, the pentacle/pentagram, runes, colors, animals, directions, etc) to bring more meaning to new places/objects/prayers, etc. that we want to bring more sacredness to. Symbolism is connected to meaning–some symbols have long-standing relationships with particular themes (like the pentacle and pentagram, which have been protective symbols for over 5,000 years and are woven into the fabric of our landscape). Symbols, then, help us shape meaning and establish the sacred.

 

Magic and Energy. Sacred space and sacred time is also, ultimately, about magic and about energy. The kind of energy that you can raise in a group setting through ritual (see next section, the kind of inherent energy that collects at the bottom of the waterfall, the telluric energy gushing forth out of a spring. In the hermetic tradition, the simple adage rings true: as above, so below; as within, so without. When we create sacred spaces in the physical world or interact with them, that raises energy on the inner planes. When we raise energy by calling the quarters, chanting, dancing, singing, and more, we bring forth energy, direct it, and shape it in some way. And for many sacred places and sacred landscapes, that energy stays in some way. In the case of the ley lines, as I described last week, the lines themselves faciliate the raising and transmission of energy all across the land.

 

 

Creating Sacred Time and Sacred Moments

Now that some of the building blocks have been covered, we can turn to ways to bring in the sacred on different scales and in different ways.  Sacred moments and time are not permanent sacred places, but ways of powerfully bringing in the sacred to everyday life.

 

Sacred Moments in Everyday Life. Let’s start by thinking about the different ways in which humans experience the sacred in everyday life.  Again, thinking about the building blocks above, we can bring in sacred meaning to everyday life in any number of ways—the key is to take a moment in time, give it meaning, and set intentionality.  When people say a prayer at a meal, for example, they are taking a sacred moment in everyday life.  You can also do this with natural events, as my example will now illustrate.

 

Snowy Oak Tree

Snowy Oak Tree

Here’s a simple example: in late November or early December of 2017, the first snowfall happened. I happened to be at work that day, on the 5th floor of our building (the top floor). I went into this lobby area in my department and began watching it in awe and reverence—the snowflakes were big and lazy and beautiful.  As I stood, another colleague of mine also came to the window. We acknowledged each other and our mutual love of snow, and then we stood, watching it, for probably about 10 minutes. We recognized, in each other, that the first snowfall was a significant and sacred event, and we took a quiet moment in an otherwise very busy and hectic day to revere it. This is a simple example of observing a natural event, in every day life, and taking a moment to respect and honor that event in life.

 

Sacred Times through Ritual. Another way in which we intentionally create sacred space and sacred time is through ritual. A lot of effort in the druid tradition goes into opening and closing a sacred space—usually about half of our ritual time is devoted to this activity. Why is it so critical?  For one, it takes time to do it right and well, to acknowledge the powers and call them forth, to protect the space, to cleanse and bless it.  But really, I think a lot of the time spent is in the mind—helping us come out of the mundane and cross the threshold into sacred awareness. We also declare it in some way, by declaring the space open, declaring sacred space/sacred time, and so forth—the declaration of it, the acknowledgement, that all of us are in agreement (in a group) or that you are doing this sacred thing is critical to the task at hand. We use intentionality, symbolism, and time to do this work.

 

Sacred Actions.  Another kind of sacredness we can bring to everyday life is the idea of living life in a sacred and intentional manner.  This is the kind of ‘everyday’ living that brings sacred awareness to your life.  For me, this involves ecological living and permaculture: I use permaculture principles as a guiding light to help me make decisions and recognize that with each moment, I am interacting on sacred land—my actions can help or harm that land.

 

Sacred Places: Natural and Created

Moving beyond moments, we can think about the kinds of natural and created larger sacred spaces that we might engage with, particularly here in the US, in places were we don’t have bountiful stone circles or ancient sites.

 

Sacred Places: Natural.  There are those places that have such inherent beauty and magic that they are already sacred.  These are places that we may come upon that simply have an existing “energy” about them that is so powerful and potent that you move forward with reverence and awe.

 

I’ve spoken about one of these places at length, here, on this blog: Laurel Hill State Park’s old growth Hemlock grove.  I remember the first time I walked into that grove, it had such a sacred presence about it. It took my breath away.  I had never seen anything like it—the ancient hemlocks, powerful and wise—just stood, waiting for me to do something. It is extremely dark, the understory is minimal, and the trees just go up and up.  Their trunks are so wide and old. It looks nothing like the other forests of Pennsylvania, who have all been logged multiple times and are in the place of regrowth.  Since that moment, I’ve spent a lot of time seeing other people, random people, not just druids I bring there, interact with the space.  They enter the grove, their eyes light up, their mouths open, and they grow quiet. It is spectacular, it is sacred, and it is meaningful to the everyday person.

 

Sacred Places: Intentional. Then there are those spaces that we create, that we build, over a period of time.  This might be individual or small sacred spaces like I’ve written about before: stone circles, sacred gardens, bee and butterfly sanctuaries, etc.  These are wonderful ways of bringing the sacred into our landscapes and everyday lives.

 

Stones at Four Quarters

Stones at Four Quarters

Or, this might be spaces that we create together, with our hearts and hands, like the stone circle at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. Four Quarters has been engaged in an ongoing ritual to create a stone circle for almost a quarter of a century—and it shows. When you walk into the space there, the stones sing to you. They greet you. They each have personality, presence, magic. It is unlike any other place I have been on this land in North America.  There can be a social aspect to creating sacred spaces. The idea of people coming together, for a common goal and vision, and lending their energy to meet that goal is a powerful experience.

 

 

Sacred as Relationship and Co-Creation

Creating sacred space and sacred time is ultimately about relationship.  It is about you being in relationship to something else: a waterfall, a moment in time, a stone circle, your relationship with what it is that you feel is sacred.  It is about you taking time out of regular, busy life to engage with the sacred and to co-create the sacred.  We co-create the sacred with each other, and we co-create the sacred with the power of the living earth. For me, this is why regular visits and regular rituals/moments are a critical part of thinking about sacred spaces and places. Like an old friend, I am building a relationship with a sacred space or place and that simply takes time.

 

Stones Rising: A Reflection on Raising a Standing Stone

We gather to the outstretched rope lines, ready to move the 22 foot long stone weighing thousands of pounds by hand. Our goal is about a half a mile away, through hilly terrain. This stone destined for the a place in the ever expanding Stone Circle at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. All have gathered for one purpose: to move this massive stone using our hands and hearts, and to give it a home in the honored northern quarter of the circle.

Part of the stone circle that has been raised in previous years

Part of the stone circle that has been raised in previous years

So much preparation has gone into this moment; building this sacred space from the ground up, the years and years of work. Countless hours of developing expertise on how to move stones.  More recent preparations, from the “stone peoples intensive” volunteers arriving a week early to prepare the site, building and securing the moving equipment, developing the rituals, preparing the grounds.  And there are the stone movers– the huge group of people who have gathered from far and wide. The evening before, we held ritual around the flame stone and called in our ancestors to bless our sacred work.  The next day, we volunteered on one or more of the many paths of service necessary to help the event take shape.  Anticipation built, especially for those of us who had never done the work before.

Calling in our Ancestors

Calling in our Ancestors

And so, here we stood, on the day of the “long pull.” Our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits ready for the work ahead. Everyone is quiet on the lines except those who are directing the activity. We stood in silent communion with the stone.  The order is given–pull slow and steady.  The stone people work closely with the stone, shouting orders, watching to see how it moves along the path, putting logs underneath so that it can roll along smoothly. The logs are particularly important for rises in elevation and flat areas (as the road we pull the stone down is full of many dips, hills, and turns). The leaders call out commands–we stop, we move left with our ropes, we pull.  We stop, shift again to the right, and pull.  We gather together to shorten the ropes and pull.  We move apart on the longer stretches and pull.  We breathe.  We pull.

A view from the back of the rope lines

A view from the back of the rope lines, the signal to stop.

We are many tribes within tribes gathered here to pull this stone.  And yet, on these ropes, there are no differences among us. Regardless of race, class, vocation, identity, skill, physical appearance, gender, sexuality, political orientation, or ability, we gather as a single tribe with our one purpose–to pull. We have three lines coming from the stone–I was in the middle line, with my small community of druids surrounding me. These druids are dear friends, people with whom I have long shared sacred space, with whom I’ve conducted the work of initiation, with whom I’ve spent many an evening at the bardic fire, sharing mead, stories, and songs. If I fall, I know they will catch me.  But I realize in that moment, looking to the broader tribe of people around me…so would any other person here today.  Whatever differences or divisions there were before this stone pull, they fade away, and with that, our small druid tribe flows seamlessly into the greater tribe, all working as one.

 

Doing the work of raising this stone requires an incredible amount of trust. It requires that we put aside our differences, our disagreements, our pain, whatever we carry with us, and simply trust the other people who are there beside us. You can’t have barriers between you for this work, because you can’t be anywhere but present in the moment. Anything else has no place. I can understand now, in ways that were unfathomable to me before, why the ancients built big things. They built things to build community. They built things to build bonds of friendship and trust that transcend any other boundaries. They built things to bring people together. You couldn’t hold a grudge against your friend or neighbor because the next day, that person you are angry at might be holding the wooden lever that is keeping 2000 pounds of stone from crushing down on you. The ancient monuments that still stand are symbols of that community and trust.

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

In fact, working in a community to accomplish so many tasks used to be a skill that every human had. Communities worked together to accomplish incredible feats, like building stone circles that stand for 10,000 years.  It is no wonder we need our ancestors here to support us–we reach deep within our own blood and reconnect with their wisdom to guide our hands, hearts, and spirits.  We are not a separate people, but one.  Pull, wait, move.  Breathe.  Pull. Pull, Pull!

 

As much as you depend upon your community during the moving of the stone, your community depends upon you. The stone is so heavy; every person is needed. You have to pull your own weight in the most literal way. At one point, we were pulling the stone up a really long hill, and it was really intense. If we stopped, we might not get going again, so we just kept pulling. Our muscles were burning, everyone was sweating, groaning, giving it our all. There’s a temptation at that point to ease up just a little, to not pull quite so hard, to catch your breath. But you don’t. You pull with all of your might because if you don’t, someone else in your community will have to do so, and that might be too much for them as they are already giving their all. This is another form of trust.

 

If there is one thing that can be said it is that anything worth doing takes time. And stones in particular, move slowly. To move a stone quickly would risk serious injury to either us or the stone. The stone forces us to slow down, to be in the moment, to simply be present, and listen, and attend to exactly what is happening right now. I had to be present in each moment to hear what was coming next. For four hours while we moved that stone, I was in an extended movement meditation where my entire existence was focused on listening for those instructions and doing it exactly as asked. We get into a rhythm. The pauses allow us to reflect on the moment, on the beauty of it. I look to my brothers and sisters of the tribe of the standing people, noting the hickories and white pines who send us their blessings as we slowly pass. As we wait, as we pull, as we move left on our rope lines, as we drink the water that other community members provide, we are simply in that moment.

Some of us on the lines--and there I am in blue, pulling on that rope!

Some of us on the lines–and there I am in blue, pulling on that rope!

 

Our bodies grow sore, but the journey has not yet ended.  For some of us, we spend most of our waking hours in our minds, disembodied, our minds focused on screens of information.  Our bodies come to life in the moment where we pull, our bodies are fully, and sometimes painfully present, to let us know that we are still alive.  Our sore muscles remind us that we are here now, and that we are making this living monument that will last for generations.

 

As our sled that the stone rested on broke, as our log rollers broke, as everything seemed to break and we moved the stone up the last rise by sheer determination, we continued to pull. Finally, we reach our destination. The stone is once again celebrated and we come together as a tribe. That evening, the warriors, the veterans among us and others who choose to join, hold vigil over the stone.  We let the stone know that the community is here, this day, and always.  That evening, we released our fears, doubts, pain, and sorrow and came together as a tribe for the great work, the rising of the stone, to begin.

 

Celebrating the end of the long pull

Celebrating the end of the long pull

The next morning, it is time for the stone to rise to its sacred place in the north. We gather in the morning. All night long, while the warriors held vigil, the corn mother tribe baked us bread. They offer it to us to break our fast. It is delicious, slathered with honey butter. This warm gift fills our bellies and hearts. We pull, pull, pull and the stone is in place. We watch as the stone people slowly use leverage to lift it up, inches at a time, building sturdy wooden foundations to hold it. We wait, we watch, we listen. Finally, it is time for the stone to rise.

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Two ropes are laid out, and those of us who are at Stones Rising for the first time are given the place of honor at the front of the ropes so we can watch the stone rise into place. The drummers beat their steady rhythm, while the entire stone circle is decked out in beautiful colors; an outdoor sanctuary to the living earth.  We pull on the ropes, hand over hand, but this is easy work, as we are also using some block and tackle (ropes and pulleys).

The stone rising up!

The stone rising up!

Orren Whiddon, whose vision has created Four Quarters, is leading us in raising the stone.  He tells us that reason we are using block and tackle is because we don’t have the experience of working in a community together. We don’t have enough control.  We would get too excited, and we pull to fast, and so, the block and tackle slow us down. When we are 75% of the way, an additional tool is needed, and it takes time for someone to fetch it from the farmhouse. We hold the ropes. We wait. We breathe. It is not hard work with all of us here; we trust that the community will hold. Then, we are pulling again, hand over hand, as the stone raises up. With a final thump, the stone fits into its hole in the circle. We cheer and hug each other. The great work is done. Children are blessed, the community spends time in celebration, and later, feasting.

 

The main ritual that evening welcomes to the stone to the circle, it is powerful and moving and magic. I catch my breath and look around at my tribe, their faces shining in the dim firelight. I think about so many things there, as we stand in the firelight as a tribe honoring the new stone. Modern humans almost never have the opportunity to experience something like this. We have grown so dependent on fossil fuels and machines that do this kind of work that we have forgotten the most important lessons of trust, forgiveness, community, slow time, and craft. As Wendel Berry writes about in the Unsettling of America, the point isn’t to do something quickly.  It is to do it well. This is especially and poignantly true of building sacred spaces. Fossil fueled powered heavy machinery could never, ever compare to what we experienced here as a tribe. We might gain in efficiency in using fossil fuels, but efficiency comes at an extraordinarily high cost. In the case of building a stone circle or other sacred space, it may come at the cost of the heart and soul of a community. Fossil fuels have made life easier, quicker, but certainly not any more full.  Fossil fuels have stripped us of an extremely important gift–the ability to work together. Raising this stone has given us the briefest glimpse into the power of what that once looked like. And I want more.

 

This experience also has a tremendous amount of value to those of us here in the United States practicing nature-based spirituality. As any druid practicing here knows, we are in a bit of a pickle. We are practicing a nature-based spiritual tradition that originated with the Celts–their land isn’t our land. Some, but not all of us, can trace ancestry back to the British Isles in some form or another. That doesn’t really matter much when we don’t live on that soil. The truth is, here in the USA, we live on someone else’s sacred land. That unavoidable fact puts us in a serious bind–the most compassionate, respectful, and meaningful solution is to build our own sacred spaces. I’ve long advocated before the necessity of creating our own sacred spaces (and have offered some suggestions for how to do so), and this experience radically affirms and extends this idea. Building small spaces with a few friends, or very magnificent spaces, like the stone circle at Four Quarters, is part of our own flavor of what it means to be an American earth-centered spiritual person, an American Druid, an American anything else.

The "Flame Stone", the northern most stone of the circle

The “Flame Stone”, the northern most stone of the circle

The truth is, I’ve been attempting to capture in words an experience so sacred, words can never fully describe its power. But for those who do not have such an opportunity to raise a stone, I hope that my attempt to give the experience voice has given you pause for reflection.  To understand the work of the stones, you must do the work of the stones.  To understand a sacred place, at least the kind we are trying to create here in the USA, you have to take part in the creation of it.  Before I raised a stone, I really had no idea what the circle of stones there at Four Quarters meant, what their power was. I couldn’t hear the singing of the stones. But now, I understand that place. I am connected to it.  It is part of me, and I am forever part of it.

 

And, perhaps, I will pull stone with you next year, on Labor Day Weekend, for Stones Rising 2018! (And for those of you attending the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering this upcoming weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

PS: I am indebted to Patricia Robin Woodruff, who took most of the photos in this blog post.  You can learn more about her and her amazing artwork here.

A Druid’s View of Cartography: Rewriting Maps and Nature-Human Relationships

This fall, I took a number of weekend hiking and camping trips into different parts of Northern Pennsylvania; to navigate these new areas, I found myself often referring to both physical maps as well as using my GPS for guidance.  As I navigated using various maps to new locations, one striking thing occurred–I noticed the the ways in which nature is (mis)represented on these “everyday maps.” By everyday maps, I mean the kinds of basic navigation maps that are common: Google Maps, Bing Maps, GPS maps, and physical printed car maps and atlas maps.  Today, I’d like to offer a druid’s perspective on cartography, do some local “remapping”,  and offer some alternative perspectives to every day mapping.  I’m also going to offer some resources for those interested in tracking how land use has changed over a period of time.

 

Mapping as (Mis)Representational

Cartography is the science, study, and practice of making maps.  Cartography is a basic system where we can understand our physical landscape and spatial relationships within that physical landscape. We use maps to represent our spaces (especially on a broader scale than we can typically see), to share information about those spaces, to better comprehend them, and to navigate those spaces. In our most basic sense then, the practice of cartography is one of the important ways in which we interact–and represent–our natural world and the things we build within it.

 

Like any representation, however, maps are inherently ideological. Brian Harley, a geographer and map historian, first argued this point in depth (see The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography).  In The New Nature of Maps, Harley argues that maps have social, political, and ideological purposes in addition to representational ones. In other words, maps have power and that power can be used to shift ways of thinking and seeing.  Mapmakers can choose to represent the world from a certain angle with their shading, coloring, and legends. He explores how maps, throughout time, are often created with political purposes in mind and the person who creates the maps has a tremendous amount of power.

 

Shifting this perspective to our “everyday maps”, we can certainly see this true in how nature is represented. Even the kinds of simple maps with the label of “woods” or “forest” implies that that’s actually what is there. If the representations of nature we create are accurate, then we we can have a clear sense of how many spaces are dedicated to nature, how many spaces are being occupied by humans, and in what ways.  We can explore the balance between humans and nature and the edges in which they interact. However, if the representations we use in our mapping of our lands are inaccurate, they can seriously misrepresent nature and our representation of our relationship to the natural world.  It can make it look like there is more nature present than is the reality.

 

Re-Mapping Natural Areas

So let’s now explore how representations of “natural areas” within everyday maps are grossly inaccurate and do some additional kinds of mapping work.   I’m going to use a map of my own town where I live because I know it well and have visited the green areas on this map.  I would encourage any of you to do the same exercise with the map of your own immediate surroundings.

Google Map of Indiana, PA

Google Map of Indiana, PA

Above is a screenshot of the kind of map we often see when getting directions from major GPS services and/or web services.  One of the key features of this map is color coding: business areas are in a light orange, roads in white with highways in bright yellow-orange, housing and urban areas in various shades of light gray and light brown; gray for unspecified areas. A key feature of this map, and of many consumer maps, is, of course, the “green” areas which at first glance seem largely representative of more natural areas: parks, forests, and the like.

 

When we look at the green areas on this map, one might be led to conclude that in this area, nature (which is obviously associated with green) is still present in some form or another in about 15-20% of the spaces in and near town.  Let’s now carefully explore the “green” areas on my map and do a bit of more specific mapping to show how mis-representational they can be.

 

Here’s my first attempt at remappping:

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

 

What we can see from my revised map is that not all green areas are “green” at all.  Most of the green areas are nothing more than lawns and highly disturbed spaces.  I’ve broken my revised map into the following areas: parks that are primarily lawn/open/mowed spaces with some limited trees, natural areas that are mostly forests, athletic spaces like tennis courts and baseball diamonds, golf courses, and cemeteries.

 

As a druid and one actively seeking to develop alternatives to lawns, the idea that a forest, a cemetery, and a golf course could be labeled in the same color is inherently problematic. These spaces aren’t the same and shouldn’t be labeled as such.  On the most basic level, lawn spaces spaces consume more than they produce and represent nature in a place of damage and suffering, rather than healing and growth.  These places certainly don’t offer habitat, forage, or shelter for insects, amphibians, or animals. Meanwhile, forests, unmowed meadows, rivers with riparian zones, and the like certainly offer habitat and health of the land.

 

But this representation is only one of many more accurate representations we could do.  Let’s try a second one:

 

Human Disturbance Map

Human Dominance Map

 

An alternative is to look at the “green” spaces in terms of who dominates the surface of the land–do people, houses, buildings, roads, cemeteries, agricultural fields, and lawns (human constructs) dominate, is there a mix, or places in a natural state dominate? On this map, I’ve also indicated what areas dominated by nature have substantial human disturbance. By disturbance I indicate things that directly harm and damage the ecosystem — in my case, I’m referring to the typical resource extraction activities (gas wells, logging, fracking, strip mining, etc). These human-driven activities that are, unfortunately, a regular part of our state and local park system here, and are represented on the map.  These go well beyond simple trails but include massive clearings, gas well pumping, regular visits to the wells by heavy equipment, and more.

 

This new map offers a completely different view of town. Now we see that my town still has one forested area, but that forested area has significant human disturbance.  And to give some other representation to the human disturbance in the park to the north west of town, this is what that disturbance looks like (also courtesy of Google Maps):

Gas wells in the forest

Gas wells in the forest

The question I have, when mapping in this way, is this: what spaces do we have left on a larger scale that are actually free of human harm and damage?  As I’ve written about in a few other posts, even our national forests are under substantial gas and logging pressure; these so-called “green” areas on the map are highly disturbed and contested areas.

 

The two mapped alternatives I present above are both simple, and I’m sure others can expand and explore even more mapping options.  I can see these kinds of maps being useful for arguments about conservation and protection–about giving nature some space in which to thrive. I can also see this as a useful strategy for mapping our own lands and spaces, the ones we directly control and/or own. How much space have we given to nature to grow as she wills?  How much space is fully dominated by us?  In our agricultural spaces, how much land is being used in regenerative ways or large-scale industrial ways?

 

If you are interesed in using this as a tool, the way I created the maps was quite simple: I went to Google and took a screenshot of the map.  Then, I went into Photoshop (you could also use Gimp if you don’t have Photoshop) and pasted in new colors for the areas (sometimes also using the selection tool).  You could also do this by coloring or using marker patterns on top of printed maps.  This could be a great activity to do with children in teaching them more about how humans and nature interact.

 

Maps as Tools to Understand Nature

Beyond consumer maps, other maps offer much more accuracy and precision that can more accurately help us, on a larger scale, see some of these human-nature relationships.

The best mapping service in the USA for these kinds of questions is the United States Geological Survey, who regularly maps many issues of environment, land use, and more (I hope readers will share other services like this from other countries in the comments section!)

Here is a link to the USGS page on environment and health issues.  Their system takes some getting used to, as it offers a ton of data in there once you learn to navigate it. For example, here is a map that looks at the land cover of the USA, zoomed in on my region).  Red shows the “development” density; yellow and brown are farmland, green implies tree canopy or farmland:

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

The most useful map they have, in my opinion, is the historical maps that allow you to view maps of land in the US prior to the current date.  Its kind of like Google Earth but for history.  You can access it here. Not all areas have the 1963 maps (which is usually the furthest back they go) but you can learn a lot about your land and its history by viewing the maps.  For example, my friend Linda found out that her land she is now farming intensively used to be a swamp!

Here are a few other interesting maps:

 

 

I hope that today’s post has been inspirational and useful to think about as we navigate the world and our surroundings with our human-created maps. If you have any other resources to share, I would love to hear them and hear about your own experiences in re-mapping spaces near you. I have found that thinking about these things has certainly helped me better understand the representations of nature that I see when using everyday maps and just broader issues of land use in general. Maps are tools, flawed ones, but tools that we can use to better understand our world and our place in it.

Life in the Extraction Zone: Complex Relationships of Livelihood and Land

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

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

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

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

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

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

 

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

 

Economic Views

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Historical Views

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

 

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

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Way Forward

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

 

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

 

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

The Giving Garden: A Permaculture Design Site in the Making

“We grow where we are planted.” This is the theme of a conversation on an earlier post from this year. All of us have the opportunity to do regenerative work in the world, in the spaces and places we already inhabit.  I want to offer examples of “growing where we are planted” when I am able–and today, I have an inspirational story of a new permaculture site in the making in my hometown.  We can see the permaculture principles at work, which makes a great continuation last week’s post.  Further, this post also will provide some additional ideas and suggestions for those who find themselves practicing sustainable living in apartments, cities, or other urban settings.

 

The Dust Settles: Opportunities for Transformation and Growth

I met a friend who recently moved into a building in in the downtown area of Indiana, PA. Trinity has owned this building for some time, but only recently began living there due to some challenging and changing life circumstances. Despite being in the building for only several months, she is already doing great work in terms of urban permaculture. Trinity’s long-term goals include the creation of a space to go, learn, create, and learn, both bardic arts as well as regenerative living.

 

Trinity is the second woman I’ve featured on this blog that has had major life changes lead to a new permaculture design site. Its interesting how some of the best things in life happen when we are overturned, unsettled, or otherwise stirred up from our comfortable places of being and inhabiting.  I’ve certainly understood that feeling well myself, especially in the last few years.  To use the metaphor from the Tarot, the tower crashes down, and once the dust settles, we can clear the rubble and build something new and better. Who wants a tower anyways? What about a rooftop or front yard garden? What about a giving tree?

 

This principle–of letting go and rebuilding–is a powerful lesson about the interplay between the power of doing good in the world and that of alchemy and personal transformation.  Our lives rarely go as we expect, and sometimes, a lot of difficult things happen to us in a very short period of time. We are left responding in whatever way we can–often, that means, physically moving somewhere new, leaving the beautiful homesteads and farms behind, and finding places to heal. What amazes me is the power of the human spirit to overcome personal difficulty and use it as a creative and regenerative force for good.  There is a powerful lesson in this for all of us–one, in my opinion, of the most important ones I know.  That we will face tragedy and challenge is part of being human.  What we do with that, how we transform it, what we build and grow from it, is what makes us shine.  So let’s spend some time with the bright light that is Trinity, and the space she is creating!

 

The Giving Garden: Use the Edges, Engage the Community

Trinity has no access to soil; rather, her building is on a main street, shares walls with adjacent buildings, and has concrete or brick on all four sides. Despite these challenges, she has rose to the occasion, “greening” the concrete, growing vegetables in nooks and crannies, and beginning many transformations. I’m excited to follow her journey here and see how her space develops. I think that her work can be inspirational to many of use who are living in very limited circumstances, be those financial, space-wise, and more.

 

One of the first things Trinity wanted to do was to bring a sanctuary space to the otherwise barren concrete of our downtown area. Earlier in this year, most of the trees on main street were cut down to do some road work, and the downtown has been looking very sad and sparse since.  Truthfully, I don’t even like walking downtown any longer since so many of the trees are gone. Trinity still does have a tree near her building on her street, but the adjacent street is completely barren.

 

Trinity has brought nature beautifully back into the space with the “Giving Garden.” Suddenly, as you walk, along the street is a burst of flowers, beauty, greenery; a space to sit, to enjoy some veggies, and to respond on a chalkboard to a regularly changing prompt.  We’ll first take a stroll through the giving garden, exploring it through photographs and exploring the different permaculture principles as well as common sense principles.

View from 6th Street!

View from 6th Street!

One of the keys to successfully creating publicly visible spaces (front lawn gardens, etc) is making sure they are beautiful, interesting, and pleasing to the eye. I wrote about this extensively in my discussion of Linda’s Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.  It doesn’t matter how functional it is–if people can see it, it needs to “look nice” and not be “overgrown” as that is associated with distending.  (This whole issue deserves its own treatment at some point–> the cultural assumption is that if we let nature grow unchecked, it is assumed that we no longer care for it!)  And so, Trinity has done a smart thing with not only growing some vegetables and herbs, but doing so in  way that draws people in.  Trinity has put a lovely invitation on the wall, letting people know how the space can be used and shared.

Invitation to share the space

Invitation to share the space

Trinity’s 30′ or so of frontage offers just sidewalk; and so to grow things, Trinity had to bring in soil, create beds, and build the space from scratch. Part of her design includes made many little “niches” in the space, creating a variety of different ways for passerby to interact. Here’s one such niche–a set of vines growing from foraged forest sticks as trellises.  This is not only visually pleasing but also offers free food (squash and beans) and enacts the permaculture principles of layered purposes and using the edges and valuing the margins.  Trinity is growing the vines out of tasteful planters.

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Beautiful and bountiful vines!

Another small “niche” she has designed is the sitting area, which shows up just after the squash and beans. This is a close up of the sitting area, where there is a blackboard where Trinity regularly updates the question that people can answer (and people do!) The sitting area invites people to come, be for a while, and simply to enjoy the space.  She’s asking people to observe, interact and intuit in this space.

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Moving along the front, the next niche is the giving tree itself.  People can take and leave vegetables, gifts, and trinkets. Children come here and leave and take small toys, for example.  Again, there are a few principles happening here: stacking functions (visually pleasing, growing food, offering gifts), functional interconnection (seeing how the parts work together with the whole). There is very creative use of the edge space and margins (in this case, the otherwise unused edge of the building).  This space is also working on multiple levels: in this case, the social/community as well as the ecological.

Giving Tree area

Giving Tree area

Finally, there are the areas near the stairs and leading up to the actual building that have more vegetables, flowers for pollinators, and more.  Trinity is obtaining a yield with her herbs and veggies and also working to redistribute surplus and engage in people care and fair share.

Herbs and veg in front edge space

Herbs and veg in front edge space

 

Front edge spaces

Front edge spaces from another angle.

One of the things you can see here is how she used rocks and built a bed to build soil. The other thing she did (which I’ll describe in more detail below) is use old feed bags, straw, and small amounts of soil to grow a real vegetables! This is embracing renewables and freely available resources.

And finally, after walking past this delightful space, you feel welcomed as you enter the building.

Welcome to the building!

Welcome!

What I like about this as a permaculture demonstration site is that it is intensive, functional, and engaging.  Each day, it brightens the downtown area and community, while clearly demonstrating many of the principles that can help us live more rengeneratively. This is a wonderful example of how people in urban settings can do so much!

 

The Rooftop Garden: Obtain A Yield

The other outdoor space that Trinity is intensively working is the only space where she has full solar gain–the rooftop.  She has a serious start to a lovely rooftop garden, even getting her vegetables in late (late June) due to her recent move.  Recently, when I visited with her, she fed me celery and tomatoes from this very rooftop garden!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Obtain a yield- yeah!

Trinity has re-used old feed bags as planters. They hold water, are extremely light (to not put undue stress on the building roof), and are otherwise using waste as a resource.  Essentially what she did is use the “strawbale garden” technique in feed bags instead–planting her veggies in a small amount of soil in the center of the bed, but growing primarily in straw as the growing media.  This technique does require the plants to be watered fairly frequently, but it works well (and Trinity and I have talked about the possibility of drip irrigation for her garden next year).

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view of the low-soil, lightweight beds. Onions are doing fine!

Here is a nice view from the rooftop garden–again, the green is an incredible contrast to the urban concrete and buildings.  This rooftop garden could be expanded quite a bit to grow tons of food.  The light colored roof will also help reflect the heat and keep the veggies cooler in the hottest months.  Trinity is consulting with an engineer to see the possibilities long-term for the garden in terms of weight, etc.

Rooftop garden beds!

Rooftop garden beds!

Trinity’s tomatoes are trellised on some old antenna cables and wiring–also repurposed. As you can see, she is certainly getting a great yield out of this garden!  And this is only the beginning–I can’t wait to see what she continues to do next year :).

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

This is just a small slice of some of the outdoor things that Trinity has been doing in her new abode–I’m excited to see where she goes next.

Gift Exchanges and Sharing: People Care and Fair Share

Another fun thing that Trinity recently did to engage the community and encourage alternative narratives surrounding sharing and “stuff.”  A few weeks ago, our town hosted the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival; it includes music, food, vendors, and a variety of classes (I offered a vermicomposting class, for example). Trinity put out a whole “free” spread in front of her building that encouraged people to take anything they like, leave anything they like, and make a donation.  Many people didn’t know what to think of this (it is so far outside of mainstream capitalism today!) but caught on and joined in on the fun!

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

Part of the Gift Economy Display at the Folk Festival

On the broader scale, this kind of action links with the gift economy movement. Gift economies and circles are springing up all over the USA, and certainly, have been in place in many parts of the world.  It functions entirely different set of assumptions: it is about care and support, not exchange. I linked above to Charles Eisenstein’s discussion of the Gift Economy, which I think is a good place to understand this philosophy better.

 

Growing Where We are Planted

Trinity is embracing the idea of “growing where she is planted.”  Every space we inhabit has its limitations–in the case of Trinity, she has no soil.  Instead, she has turned the problem into a solution by capializing on what she does have: frontage, visability, and a beautiful roof with solar gain.  Trinity literally grows where she is planted on many levels. Its a beautiful representation of the three permaculture ethics: earth care (growing things, pollinator plants, bringing greenery back into concrete); people care (offering free food, sitting space, beauty, community), and fair share (giving to others any surplus).  I hope you have found her work to be inspirational on your own paths, especially for those of you in limited living circumstances. I will continue to follow her on this blog as the space develops and grows!

The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part I: Why We Go on Retreat, Preparation, and Herbal Allies

Each of is like a light bulb. No, not one of those new-fangled compact florescents, but rather, one of the old style standard bulbs with the firmament and all.  When we go out into the world and do good, through healing work, through engaging in people care, earth care, or fair share–the inner light of our souls, the inner light of our bulbs, burns brightly, illuminating all of those around us.  As we work through our lives, read the news, hear of suffering and violence, experience tragedy, loss, suffering, and violence–our light bulbs get stuff sloshed on them.  They grow dim, dirty from the world and its evils.  As I wrote about two weeks ago–life seems to be getting harder, with more sharp edges, and so many of us are on edge throughout. Our light bulbs get mired in the everyday grime of living and being in the world. It is important, then, that we maintain the integrity of our light bulbs so that we can do the good work that we are called to do. This isn’t the first time I have shared this metaphor on this blog (and it was taught to me by the brilliant Jim McDonald), but it is one that I find so useful and important that I keep on returning to it.

 

And so, once in a while, we need something more drastic to give us a boost and allow our inner light to shine forth.  And today, friends, I will be writing about a key practice that helps us do just that: the druid spiritual retreat.  It is this kind of retreat, even for only a few days at a time, that can leave us refreshed, whole, and ready to go back into the world with our lights shining brightly.

 

This will be a two-part post series: the first part will introduce the retreat, explain how to set one up, and explain some decisions to make (to fast or not to fast, solitary or companions), options for how to hold the retreat, herbal allies for your retreat, and so on. The second post, next week’s post, will explore how to ease into the retreat, the work of the retreat, and easing back into everyday life–the ceremony continuing on well beyond the retreat itself.

 

Introducing the Druid’s Retreat

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

One of the ways I think about the druid’s retreat is like this: your everyday life, you are hiking a path in a forest. There, you have a long way to go, you rest, you find mushrooms, you see what is before you on the path, you adapt, crawl over fallen trees, and more. What the retreat does is allow you to leave the forest of your everyday life and instead, sit on a mountain cliff, above that forest, looking down at all below. It allows you a different perspective, a broader view, where you can see the everyday patterns in a new light. It allows you to look at the interplay of the different trees, the meandering of the river, the mountains beyond the valley. When you return to that forest path, as you most certainly will do, you have more wisdom about it because you have seen it from a different perspective.

 

In the Tarot, the Hermit card teaches us much about the idea of a spiritual retreat. The hermit has gone off to seek solitude and illumination. He spends much time wandering the land, by himself, and coming to an understanding of life’s great mysteries. Of course, when he returns, he has much knowledge and illumination to share with others. The tarot is ultimately a deck of archetypes, and we see this same arch-typical story of hermitage, of solitude, of retreat encapsulated in mythology, stories, and religious lore from around the world–Jesus, Buddha, Thoroeau, even fictional characters like Obi Wan Kenobi–all retreated and had deep insight and wisdom to share. Another tarot card that is fitting is that of the hanged man–gaining a new perspective offers much in terms of insights, healing, tranquility, and more.  It is when we are able to get this new perspective–from the mountain far away from the valley of our life below–that we gain insight into what to do next and the next part of our journey.

 

Retreats are serious business, for this reason.  They can facilitate inner and outer transformations, allow us to have a new perspective on old problems, clear out old things that no longer serve us, jump-start a new set of spiritual or creative practices, help us clear out old patterns and establish new, more positive patterns, in our lives, among many other things. All of this is deep work, potent work, magical work, that we cannot take on lightly or without clear intent.

 

Breaking the Everyday Patterns

The principle of a retreat is simple: you get away from your everyday life (your home, your family, your work, your other demands) for a period of refreshment, rejuvenation, and seclusion (alone or with select others, see below). Where to take this retreat is a critical thing: I have learned that its near impossible to do this retreat in your everyday living space, because both things/stuff and patterns have a way of creeping in. Your stuff holds energy and puts particular kinds of demands upon you.  For example, your computer is there, beckoning for you to turn it on, maybe browse Facebook or your favorite blogs.  Your bathroom is there, in need of a good scrubbing.  Your phone is there, everything else is there, your pets, family and/or kids. These things are necessary, perhaps, and part of your daily rhythms.  But they work against us when we need to go on a retreat because they pull us back into the experiences of everyday living.

 

Likewise, the patterns of everyday living that we establish are critical for our overall “getting things done” and forward momentum, and our spaces are conducive to supporting and encouraging those patterns. Sometimes, we can get stuck in cyclical patterns, especially cyclical patterns associated with being in indoor spaces that harm us. Getting away from our patterns are also an important part.

 

Stephen Harrod Buhner writes beautifully on this topic as follows, “The daily cares that occupy so much of our time, the demands of work, of social conventions, of family, and of things that we feel we “have” to do often accumulate, filing up our time, taking our attention, becoming toxins to the soul.  The incessant mutter of the television, the continual sounds of technological civilization, the chatter goes on continually in our heads–these things fill us up with distractions and take us away from who we are and who we knew we were to be when we began this journal through life.  As our lives unfold, each of us is often channeled into paths that are not part of living a fulfilled life.  Fasting and retreat in wilderness allows the inessentials of life to be stripped away, allows our souls to detoxify.” — The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.

 

But there’s another aspect to this pattern breaking:  by removing ourselves from the situation for a time, we break the everyday patterns that no longer serve us.  The patterns that no longer serve us, that perhaps we want, and need to, be rid of for our own health, happiness, and fulfillment.  Those are another aspect to the patterns we remove when we go on retreat.

 

Finding a Retreat Space

The space for your retreat is really critical to the overall success of the endeavor–and I consider it one of the more difficult pieces to determine.  A good space facilitates a successful retreat; a poor space (where there are other people, noises, distractions) can really harm your overall retreat and goals and end in frustration.  The important thing is that the healing retreat be secluded, preferably from other people, certainly from life’s demands. Preferably, it will have no Internet service, no cell service, and no television!  The idea is to get away for a bit, have quiet, and be able to be fully present with nature.

 

Nature, too, is a critical component of the Druid’s healing retreat.  You want to be somewhere where you can easily commune with nature without distractions.  You need to be able to be in nature, and hear her messages.  You want to be in nature that is whole, pure, and not damaged in some way (retreat is not typically a time for land healing work, but a time for inner healing work).

 

Otherworld forest...

Otherworld forest…

Here are a few models for the healing retreat:

  • Go to a friend’s secluded cabin, yurt, etc.  Ask friends if they have shares in hunting lodges or know of a place you can go for a few days.
  • Backpack into a secluded spot and stay a few days; bring minimal supplies and tent
  • Rent a rustic cabin in the woods somewhere far away from others (*rustic* cabins are hard to find; you may have to do some searching and use non-Internet sources.  Most of the cabins I have been finding on the web are luxury / glamping cabins–not really necessary or needed for retreat).
  • Go into the woods with minimal things (maybe like a tarp); vision quest style.  I did this when I went on my vision quest a few years ago–a tarp, a sleeping bag, a jug of water, my flute and drum, and a journal were my companions.  It was perfect.
  • Plan a “walkabout” journey where you wander for a time on a trail (or do an all night walkabout).  If you do this during a full moon, in a semi-open space, you may not even need a light.
  • Get in a boat/canoe/kayak and do a river trail or go to a secluded lake; camp along the edge of the river and float for a day or two down the river.

 

Before the Retreat

Timing and planning. Take at least 24 uninterrupted hours for your retreat, although several day retreats are even better (I like to do a 3 or 7 day retreat)—and for those who are insanely busy, ask friends to help with watching children or pets, take a vacation or sick day from work, etc. The key here is to make space for your healing retreat.  So you need to plan it in advance, line up your ducks in a row, and be prepared for the distance and space necessary for a healing retreat.

 

Food. If you are going to eat (see fasting, below) I would suggest cooking in advance for the retreat unless cooking is a healing and nurturing activity for you. Then you can focus your energies only on the retreat and not worry about feeding yourself during it.  I will say that even if you plan on eating, I would keep the meals very light: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds.  Too much food, especially heavy meats, have a way of grounding you firmly in the physical realities–and the whole point of retreat is to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from the everyday.  So do plan your food carefully with this in mind.

 

Vision quest altar

Vision quest altar

Consider packing and bringing the following items with on your retreat:

  • A journal for personal reflections and discovery.  I believe this is the most important thing to bring on your retreat!
  • Spiritual objects of significance to you
  • A blanket or something to sit on (I have a nice sheepskin that I like to take into the woods; it was a gift from a good friend)
  • Ritual items (candles, incense, whatever tools you will need)
  • Musical instruments (a drum, if nothing else, is a great idea).
  • Offerings for the land (my favorite offering blend that I make is a combination of tobacco that I grow myself (including leaf, stem and flower) + wild rose petals + lavender flowers.  It smells great).  Urine is also a great offering!
  • Medicine making and harvest equipment (if you will be doing any wandering, foraging, etc.  I always do this on my retreats)
  • A forest hammock (this is an important part of my retreats–I have a great hammock with tree straps that will easily attach to any tree. It is good for resting, looking up at the stars at night, and simply “being” present (and keeping the ants and critters off of you).
  • Things to keep you warm (hand warmers, etc) if the weather is cold.
  • Extra shoes and layered clothing, especially if you are going to be outside.
  • Bring really good water.  I know this kind of sounds silly, but our bodies are made of water, and most of the water that is available is not good water–its stored in plastic, chemically tainted, shipped from who knows where, bottled and chemically ionized or whatever.  I would suggest that you find some really good water (like spring water, locally sourced if possible) and bring that with you for drinking during your retreat. What you will find is that really good water does something to you–it makes you feel more alive, you feel extraordinarily refreshed after you drink it–it works on many levels.

 

Leave the following stuff behind:

  • All electronic devices. Bring your phone in case of emergency, but turn it off and do not look at it or check it at all during your retreat. The world can survive without you for a few days, and you can survive without it (that’s one of the patterns that is useful to break!).
  • Unnecessary stuff.  Minimal packing is good for retreats–you don’t need fancy hair dryers or five pairs of sandals, or whatever.  The more you bring, the more that stuff weighs you down.  Think about needs over wants here.  Its not that I’m saying to be uncomfortable, but I am saying that minimal packing is ok!

 

Herbal Allies for Your Retreat

If you are interested, certain herbal allies may aid and strengthen the work that you do on retreat.  I have found that working with a series of plant allies can  extend the work that I are doing on various levels. Here are a few of them:

 

  • Hawthorn.  Hawthorn is a plant that helps us clear our lightbulbs, to get the grime off, to return to our heart spaces and engage in our own deep healing work.  It is particularly good for retreats. I usually take this as a tincture (berry, or berry/leaf/flower) and/or tea.  You can even rub the tincture on your heart for added effect.
  • Stinging Nettle.  Stinging nettle is many things, but in this context, we are focusing particularly on its regenerative properties for the nervous system and adrenals.  Part of what we do on healing retreat is physical regeneration work and nettle is quite good at this work.  Cold nettle tea is also a good diuretic, which helps flush toxins from the body and does healing on the kidneys.  Stinging nettle: I would not go on retreat without it!
  • Wood Betony: Wood Betony is another plant that works on the central nervous system, and is a tonic nervine plant.  Most of our nervines have very specific qualities, things that they do better than other nerviness.  In the case of Wood Betony, it is good for those who live in their heads, who over intellectualize, over think, and suppress instinct.  Culturally, we are all in this place–privileging our minds over our hearts, suppressing emotions and intuitions, and learning to work in more of a heart space. It is for this reason that I believe that this is always a good plant to take on retreat:  combined with the others on this list, it will allow for powerful transformations!

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

  • Mugwort. Mugwort has been known to many cultures and traditions as a dreaming herb.  I have found that it certainly stimulates good dreams, but also good visions while we are in shifted spiritual states, trace states, in deep retreat/vision quest, and so on.  Consider mugwort like a guide to your unconscious and sub-conscious–mugwort expertly leads the way on the path into the deep recesses of the soul.  There, you can do the work you need.  Mugwort tea is a bit bitter, but you can take it internally.  You also get the exact same effects if you burn it (like a mugwort smudge or mugwort-infused incense).
  • Indian Ghost Pipe. I have written about Indian Ghost pipe or Ghost flower before, and this is a *fantastic* plant ally for your retreat.  The principle of Ghost Pipe is simple: it provides us distance and perspective, both physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  Ghost pipe helps us get into the retreat space and stay in that space, giving us the “up on the mountaintop” perspective we seek during retreat. Ghost pipe can be found and eaten, tinctured, or smoked in a herbal smoking blend. Beware, however-this is a delicate plant, a sacred one, and you need to cultivate a sacred relationship with it. Please take only what you need of this most sacred plant and treat it with the utmost respect.

 

Now, you can take these plants internally (as described above). You can simply make a tea beforehand and take it with you on the retreat, for example.  But you can also just have them with you, maybe in a little medicine bag, or find them and sit near them.  They will do their work on whatever system you need: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Trust your intuition and work with them accordingly.

 

The alternative is to find the plant allies you need while you are out on retreat.  Foraging and seeking the plants–the ones that you need will be there, waiting for you, when the time is right.  If you know how to see them, if you have your mushroom eyes on, they will come to you.

 

The Retreat-Fast

Another option you can add in is the fast for your healing retreat. I have done fasting retreats (and recently completed a seven day fast about a month ago combined with 3 days of retreat). What I found was that fasting adds an additional dimension to the retreat, a very intense dimension, and one that must be prepared for.  A lot of us have never fasted, and a lot of us have never gone into the woods alone.  Combining these things all into one 3 or 7 day journey might be too much for a person the first time.  So consider fasting as an option, but don’t feel you have to do it.

 

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

One of the things that happens when you fast is that you get really weak, so consider a “staying put” and “quiet” retreat if you are going to do a fasting retreat.  E.g. if you lug 50 lbs of equipment into the woods and fast there for 7 days, you will still have to lug that equipment out–and that might not be possible for you after 7 days of fasting.

 

With these caveats, I have found fasting to be an incredible part of retreats, especially retreats where healing and/or releasing is a primary goal.  I would highly recommend that before you take on such a fast, you read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.  This book describes water and juice fasting, including short fasts and extended fasts.  Buhner argues that you can detoxify spiritually through fasting and achieve higher levels of consciousness and awareness (which works partially because food grounds us; fasting puts us in a ceremonial space or deep intuitive space). He argues that because so many of our emotions are wrapped up in food, and because our bodies hold those emotions inside, fasting, and shedding some weight during fasting, can help us clear up emotional trauma. Finally, there are the physical benefits.  Here’s one of the things he writes:

 

“When you are empty, you are ready to be filled.  And you cannot be filled with what you want unless what has been in your way is allowed to pass out…the residual toxins, the side effects of shallow food, have to emerge from the deepest recesses of the self and exit.  Some of these things as they pass out of you might be frightening, some difficult, many boring: some are surprisingly easy to let go of, and some are joyful. ..You are intentionally entering a new territory, intentionally deciding to suffer, not to eat.  You are allowing yourself to empty so that something else, a better food, can fill you up.”

 

Now how he describes these transformations are, in themselves, a journey worth taking in book form!  So read it, consider your options, and go from there.

 

Retreating with Others

I have done healing retreats with others and by myself, and there are benefits to both. Most of what I’ve described in this post assumes a solitary druid healing retreat.  But I wanted to share another model: the retreat with companions.  A dear friend of mine who is a Zen Buddhist often does these kinds of retreats–a group of people, together, support each other with mindfulness practice days.  These retreats are often interspersed with group sharing, teaching, and a lot of quietude.

 

A healing retreat with others–the right others–can add much to your experience.  But it is fundamentally a different experience than a solitary retreat, and you will likely do different kinds of work. With that said, there is room for others on this retreat if they are the right kind of others, those who will help heal and rejuvenate rather than drain us. If you are going to take a friend on a healing retreat, make sure you establish in advance what the retreat will be about (e.g. a full day of solitude with no taking; specific work to be done at the retreat).  If you are going to plan this kind of retreat, here are a few suggestions:

 

  • Have a structure planned out in advance. (E.g. daily retreat times, no talking, ritual planned at night + one shared meal).
  • Have goals for the retreat and a goal-setting session early in the retreat.  The goals may be inward focused (healing and guidance) or outward focused (healing of the land).
  • Consider if one person will function as the “retreat” leader or if all will be equal participants.  A retreat leader is a space holder–their function isn’t so much spiritual healing or journeying, but rather, focuses on facilitating the retreat energetically, physically, spiritually).  A retreat leader may be needed if there are a lot of inexperienced/new people at the retreat.  But if there are those that are experienced, one may not be needed and the group can function cohesively and all can get their own work done.
  • Have a feast at the end of the retreat (perhaps combined with an eisteddfod!)
  • Consider group journeys–physical and spiritual.  Visiting healing springs, etc, are always a nice idea!
  • Consider group healing work.  This is where I would do my most serious land healing work with others–on a retreat weekend dedicated to that purpose!

 

The important thing is to establish and maintain structure prior to beginning the retreat–this will allow all participants to get the most out of the retreat.

 

Closing

Going deep into the woods, wilderness, away from it all has tremendous benefits.  We are coming up on the Fall Equinox, which is a really good time to consider a retreat as we move into the dark half of the year.  As I mentioned above, this is my first of two posts on druid retreats. I’ll be posing the second half next week. In the meantime, blessings upon your journey!