Category Archives: polycultures

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

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

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

 

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

 

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

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

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

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

 

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

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

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

 

 

Goals and Interventions

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

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

 

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

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

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

 

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

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

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

 

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

 

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

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

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

 

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

What about the inner/energetic work?

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Diverse garden!

Diverse garden!

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Connection: Building a Relationship

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

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

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

.

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

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

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

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

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Reciprocity: Giving Back

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

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

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

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

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

 

Honoring Life through Sacred Gardening

Garden with sacred statuary

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

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

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

Outer Principles

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

Beautiful patio garden

Conclusion

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Careful observation

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

 

Building ecological knowledge

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

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Overcoming fear

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

 

Fostering Ecosystems

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

 

The Soil Web of Life

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

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

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

 

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

 

Ecological Roles

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

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

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

 

Ecological succession

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

 

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

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

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

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

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

The web of life

The web of life

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ecosystems and Land Healing

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

 

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

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

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

 

Understanding Interconnectivity

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

 

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

 

Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing

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

 

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

 

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort: nectar and medicine

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

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

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

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

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

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: A Healing Grove of Renewal

Reishi growing from a stump!

Reishi growing from a stump in my sacred forest

Many years ago, I shared the story of the “mystery of the stumps“, which was my path into druidry. I grew up spending all my days in a forest that was rich, full, and bountiful.  When I was 14, that forest was logged.  My heart broke, and afterward, I tried to enter the forest but it was horrible: downed trees everywhere, so much damage, so many friends that had been cut and taken away.  I thought the forest would never heal.  I withdrew not only from nature, but from my spirit and creative gifts, and spent a time in numbness and mourning–a period that lasted almost 10 years. I didn’t return to the forest till I was 24.  When I finally went back in, so much had changed–the land was regrowing.  Large thickets of birch, blackberry, and cherries were everywhere, springing up to regenerate the land. It was then that I discovered the Reishi mushrooms on the stumps of the hemlock trees, a testament to the true healing power of nature.  Not only had the forest regrown–but it had produced some of the most potent natural medicine on the planet for humanity.

 

I retell this story today because I think its important to realize how much time it takes nature to heal.  Nature works on “slow time“–seasons upon seasons, cycles upon cycles, each year passing where nature, given the opportunity, works towards ecological succession and more complex and interwoven ecosystems.  When I entered the forest just after the logging, the forest was so damaged.  If I had returned even a few weeks later, however, I would have likely started to see the first stirrings of rebirth and renewal.  Where the forest canopy broke, new plants and trees could spring forth.  The seeds and seedlings were already there, waiting for their opportunity to heal. Every year after, more healing and growth takes place.  Slow, but steady is natures healing pace.

 

Just as nature uses time to heal, so too, can we use ritual and sacred space over a long period of time to help enact nature’s healing. Today’s post explores this idea through the development of a “grove of renewal” that works with time and the seasons and focuses on both inner and outer magical practices and techniques for healing. Using this approach, we might see the druid and the living earth walking hand-in-hand to enact healing upon the land. As nature heals through the seasons, we, too might use this same principle for land healing.

 

(I will also note that this is a post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling over several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing: what it is, different approaches, and different ways we might work with it.)

 

Slow time, Slow Ritual, and Nature’s Healing

Part of the challenge we have in the ecological reality of the 21st century is time.  Our culture moves very quickly, with cycles of consumption and production intense and overwhelming.  Everything is too fast, as I shared in my earlier series on “slowing down the druid way.” Fast food, fast lives, fast jobs, fast relationships; everything moves so quickly. Sometimes, we unfortunately try to apply this same thing to our spirituality and expectations.  One-off rituals or false starts, rather than sustained practices. The speed of the 21st century doesn’t just influence us: it also means that nature is being consumed/destroyed/damaged much faster than she can heal.   Part of the challenge, too, is that the earth takes time for damage to show: melting ice caps and glaciers aren’t responding to today: they are responding to previous years, and we won’t see the full effects of today’s carbon emissions for some time.

 

But nature’s own powerful lesson resonates deeply here:  with healing, time moves differently. This is true of land healing as much as it is true of our own heart healing.  One way nature heals is through a process called ecological succession. Ecological succession, from a mowed lawn to a pinnacle oak-hickory forest (which is the final ecosystem where I live) takes about 250 years.  That is, if lived in my region, and you stopped mowing your lawn today and did nothing else, in about 250 years you’d have a mature oak-hickory forest. Or, maybe you could speed that up to 75 years if you planted all the oaks and hickories in your front lawn (and again, stopped mowing)!  This same lesson applies to us, as we are part of nature: time heals all wounds in ways nothing else will. Time is the ultimate healer.

 

Most of the time when we think of ritual, we think of a single event, a sacred moment in time. We do a ritual, it is good, the energy radiates outward.  This is also true of a lot of land healing: we do a ritual to heal the land, and hope it has some effect.  However, this isn’t the only approach. I’ve been developing a technique that I call the “Grove of Renewal” that uses permaculture design, more than traditional ritual, and works with nature’s ultimate healer: time.  So, rather than thinking about land healing as a ritual or series of actions, I’m thinking about it as a permaculture designer: cultivating a space for healing as an “extended” ritual over time. By focusing efforts on a small space, that healing energy can radiate outward to the broader landscape for the benefit of all.

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

 

The “Grove of Renewal” approach focuses on one small space.  By focusing our energies on this one space, we can help this space heal in a powerful way.  Each day and cycle that goes by, more healing happens both physically and energetically. At some point, your grove of renewal is a healed and healthy space, so much so that you can now direct that healing energy outward in a much broader way. Its important to note that this is slow magic, very slow magic. It unfolds over a period of years, and thus, requires patience, peace, and connection.  You are building a relationship with a piece of land as a healer, observing and interacting, and doing regular work. You are on nature’s time.

 

So let’s look at how you might create your own “Grove of Renewal”!  First I’ll explain the basic steps and then I’ll share my own example so you can see how one of these might work in action.

 

Step 1: Choosing Your “Grove of Renewal” Space.

 

For your grove of renewal, you’ll want to choose a small physical space to help heal. Perhaps it’s a segment of lawn you want to convert to a native plant garden and butterfly sanctuary, perhaps it’s a strip of land behind an alley nobody cares about. Perhaps its a new piece of land you just moved to, and you can now tend. Wherever it is, you can make this place a center of land healing, your own “grove of renewal.”

 

On the physical level, this should be a space where physical land healing can happen.  That is, it should be a space that is protected in some way (in the sense that someone else isn’t going to come and mow down all of your efforts). It should also be a space that you have direct and regular access to, the easier, the better.

 

On the metaphysical level, you also need the “go ahead” from spirit–that you are working in accordance to the spirits of the land and their wisdom.  Thus, you might be directed towards a particular place where spirit wants this grove of renewal to happen.  Use outer and inner listening techniques and make sure you are aligned with the land itself.

 

Selection is so critical, as you will be working this space extensively over a long period of time. Take as much time as you need for this step–remember, this is slow healing, slow time.  Make offerings, visit a number of times, and allow yourself to resonate with the space.  In permaculture design, a year and a day is not unreasonable, and is a generally accepted permaculture design techniques for observation and interaction. That’s the kind of slow time I’m talking about here.  When you are certain it is the right place, move on to step two.

 

Step 2: Create your plan.

Because your grove of renewal will function as a shrine for physical and energetic land healing, you want to consider what kinds of things would work best with that intention and any other specific intentions you may have.

 

On the physical level: Create a plan for the plant life and animal/insect/bird/reptile/amphibian life that you want to invite to the space.  If you are working from scratch, you might be able to carefully design it.  If there is already life there, you will want to work with it and tend it. Learn what kinds of plants are native to the area, what kinds of plants support diversity, and build diversity in. Learn what used to grow there, and think about how you can help restore it to a healthy ecosystem. You might combine this with other physical land healing techniques, like the refugia garden.

 

In order to do this work on the physical level, you will need to carefully observe and interact with the space over a period of time . Think about the space you have already (wind, light, soil, water, potential pollutants) and how you might intervene.  Consider what you want the final result to be in 10 or 50 years: a forest environment, a wetland, a meadow with wildflowers, etc.  Consider what plants may grow there that are rare and endangered. Consider what insect life and wildlife that may need a space to live.  Look at what may already be growing there–what will you do with what is there?  Will you remove it and plant natives? Will you work with what is growing?  These are important decisions!

 

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

On the spiritual level. Since this is also a ritual space, you may also want to mark it ritually in some way. Thus, sacred objects can be included in the plan, but should be naturally-based and locally sourced.  You might create a stone altar, stone cairn, use statuary, decorate the space with found natural objects (shells, bones, stones, etc), hang a flag, etc.  I like to decorate my shrines based on what I can find locally and in the immediate area.

 

Putting it all together. Once you have the pieces in place, create a plan: what do you need to do first? Second? Third? Realize also that the best laid plans can be changed, so also be ready to adapt as necessary.  Nature isn’t going anywhere!

 

 

Step 3: Create the Space, focusing on inner and outer work.

Creating the space itself should be a ritual activity, working on both the inner and outer planes.  I suggest timing your beginning of the work to one of the eight festivals in the druid’s wheel of the year.  When you are ready to begin, take your first step and start the work. You are working both on the physical and the level of spirit.

Spiritual work.  I usually start with the spiritual work.  One of the things I’ve done to help further this work is to create a permanent sacred space.  I do this similar to creating an open grove (or open circle, like the kind you’d use for magical work or celebratory work), but creating it as a sacred space with a particular intention: healing.  Additionally, I strongly recommend putting up energetic/magical protections around the space and renewing these regularly.

Other spiritual work may also unfold, such as creating a shrine or other permanent spiritual focus for the space.

Physical work.  Physical regeneration of land usually involves building soil fertility, planting trees or other plants, and doing any other clean up that is needed.  This work takes muscle, time, and regular tending.  See this work not as a moment in time, but as a process that unfolds (much like growing a vegetable garden–it takes a plan, seed starting, planting out, tending/weeding, and harvesting, all before you begin the cycle again!)

 

Step 4: Visit your space regularly and let it flourish.

After your initial work and once you have things in place (which may take you some time), it is time to let nature do its own healing.  Visit your space often as it grows and heals, pay attention to the ways that the energies of that space may change.  Pay attention to these changes on both an inner and outer way:

  • What is growing there that you haven’t seen before?  Can you identify it?
  • If you planted anything, how are the plants growing?
  • Observe life: insects, birds, animals, etc.  Do you see anything new?
  • How does the space change in different seasons?
  • Energetically, do you sense any shifts? If so, what are they?
  • How do you feel when you are in the space?
  • What messages from spirit might you be experiencing?

This step requires us to be very intuitive.  You come and visit as you feel led to do so. I suggest, at minimum, visit at least once each quarter of the year (for example, at the spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox, and winter solstice).  You don’t have to be visiting every day (although you certainly can).  In my own experience, its almost better to let nature work on her own for a time and then return.

 

Another thing sometimes happens: nature tells you to leave the space alone for a while.  The space needs its own energy and time, and you may be asked to let a year or more pass before you are asked to return.  Honor any requests made to you on the part of spirit.

 

Step 5: When the space is healed, radiate that healing outward.

At some point, your space will have a very positive energy, a sense of peace and quietude that only healed spaces can have.  This may take place across a single season or series of seasons.  Or it may be a very long process, depending on the healing that you are working to enact.  You’ll know when the time is right; this space will be bursting with energy and you will feel it start to flow outward.  At this point, you can do a “radiance” ritual, envisioning the sun and earth’s energy and radiating it outward.  This ritual can be as simple as meditating on the energy in the space and encouraging the excess to flow outward into the landscape and to places where it is needed.  Again, working intuitively here, with spirit, can be helpful.

 

Spirals of energy

Spirals of energy

Example: A Woodland Grove of Renewal

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working to convert a burn pile on the edge of a forest on my own property into a Grove of Renewal.  This wasn’t the first space I’ve tended in such a way, but it certainly is my most intentional of spaces.  My first step was identifying the space: I was starting a fire one day and looking for some extra kindling.  I wandered into a section of the property I hadn’t really explored before. Suddenly, I saw this beautiful circle of stones surrounding a stump–it was calling to me, almost radiating light in my direction. As I got closer, I realized, sadly, that these stones had been used as a burn pile, and had half-burned plastics, lightbulbs, wires, hairspray bottles, and much more all over them (there were many such burn piles on my land when I arrived here).  My first task was to sit with the space for several sessions quietly, meditating on the energy of the space.  In one such session, I brought my drum and drummed a bit, but otherwise, simply listened and held space.  This lasted some months, through the fall, winter, and into the spring.

 

Once I felt the impetus to proceed, I setup a small altar nearby and then cleaned up the space, which had many years of garbage and debris from burn piles.  I chose to start this work at Beltane and conclude it by the Summer Solstice. I recycled what I could and removed what I could not. At the summer solstice, I also stood a large stone upright to bring light and healing energy into the space. I brought in additional materials to help the soil heal from the toxic ashes; leaves I had been composting from another part of the property and some aged manure to increase the soil fertility.  I was planning on adding plants, and I wanted them to have good and fertile soil.  Since this was a woodland environment with already mature tree cover (oak and hickory, yay!), the following season, I decided to populate the shrine with some of the rare woodland species that have been disappearing from the landscape.  Here in the Appalachian mountains, we have many such species under dures due to overharvesting including three I selected for the shrine: black cohosh, ginseng, and goldenseal.  I planted these around the shrine and tended them until they were well established (and I’m still in the process of tending them and adding additional plants).

 

Now, I am in the process of creating a small pathway into the shrine and going through that section of the woods–with the idea that the rest of the woods is sacred, and this path is the only path that should ever be walked by human visitors.  That will further protect my rare woodland species.  I have already created a small pathway into the shrine, planting solomon’s seal (another native woodland medicinal) at the entrance. While this was ongoing, I am continuing to do regular ritual with the space, helping clear it energetically of the “burn pile” energy and bringing it into a more positive place.  I’m also just visiting the space from time to time, saying “hello” and seeing what is going on. Regularly, at the new moon, I work with the space, usually doing some flute or drumming. Since establishing this space, I have a pileated woodpecker pair who have moved into this patch of forest and is now nesting nearby.  I also regularly see Jays, Sparrows, and many others!

 

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

It still has a lot of time before the energy builds enough to radiate outward and send the flow of healing energy back to the land, but I know it will.  At that time, I will work to create a flow of healing energy from that space outward into the surrounding environment (which in the vicinity, includes strip mining, coal mining, and factory farms).

 

Concluding thoughts

The “Grove of Renewal” is a simple yet profound technique to help you establish a space for healing energy: both for an immediate ecosystem in need of healing, but also, as a way to engage in land healing energetically in the broader landscape.  I think this is exactly the kind of work that druids can do who want to “give back” in some way.  Your “Grove of Renewal” is likely to look very different than my own, but any space can be brought back physically and energetically to a place of healing, light, and life. And certainly, this is work worth doing.

Walking Meditation Garden with Hugelkultur Beds

As a practitioner of permaculture and as a druid, I am always looking for ways to work with the land to create sacred and ecologically healthy spaces.  That is, to create self-sustaining ecosystems that produce a varitey of yields: create habitat, offer nectar and pollen, systems that retain water and nutrients, offer medicine and food, create beauty and magic.  But conventional gardens, even sheet mulched gardens, can falter in water scarce conditions.  So building gardens long-term for resiliency and with a variety of climate challenges in mind is key.  At the same time, I am also looking to create sacred gardens, that is, not just places to grow food (which is simple enough) but to develop sacred relationships and deepen my connection with the living earth. Given all of this, I developed a design for a butterfly-shaped garden that would use hugelkultur raised beds and allow for a space for walking meditation and ritual.

 

Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden

When I came to the new homestead late last year, one thing was clear–any gardening was going to be rough going with the acidic, heavy clay soil full of rocks.  Digging down into the sunny part of the yard that was once excavated for a pool revealed virtually topsoil or humus content–basically, I was going to have to grow on clay subsoil.  A soil test revealed practically no phosphorous either.  Becuase I also have abundant wood on the property, digging down and creating some hugelkutur beds seemed like a great idea.

 

Hugelkutur beds were popularized by Sepp Holzer and discussed in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. They are used widely around the world as a way to create beds that are enormously productive due to their ability to create vibrant soil biology and hold copious amounts of water. The key to these beds is sinking a good amount of wood–large pieces–that slowly rots down over time. As the wood rots, it becomes a spongy mass ready to hold water.

 

The Hugelkultur beds certainly take some sweat equity, but they will pay out dividends in the long run. Each year that passes, more and more moisture will be held in the bed from the wood.  Microbial life will flourish in this wonderful, undisturbed system of nutrients and roots. Each year with the hugels is more abundant and productive than the last as the underlying soil structure grows more connected and diverse.

 

Choices for Hugels

One of the challenges with Hugelkultur is doing it without heavy equipment or fossil fuels. I’ve seen people make amazing hugels using a backhoe, tractor with an attachment, etc. They dig a big hole then use the machinery to pile up even more wood, making these enormous hugels. I don’t have knowledge of how to operate such machinery, so I was going to do mine on a smaller scale by hand. The question is–what can we do by hand, given these conditions?  Can we still make abundant and productive hugels on a smaller scale?

 

One of the key conditions for us was the heavy clay soil–when it rained, the water pooled in the space.  I thought that if we dug down, then the water would pool in there a bit, being able to be sucked up by the rotting wood.  After digging out the hugels (but before wood was added) this proved to be true–the water literally just laid in the heavy clay, forming pools that took days to dry out.  Yes!

 

Others, however, may find it more beneficial to go up rather than down–the key is to get the wood in it and get some layers of compost and such on top.  Your own conditions beyond that determine a lot of how you want to create your beds.  Here’s how I created mine!

 

Choices for Garden Design

In permaculture, one of the principles is “stacking functions.”  The idea behind this is that you should try to get as many different functions out of a single space as you can.  For example,  the greenhouse offers not only a great growing space for fall and spring crops, it offers shelter from frost for seedlings, and it offers a wonderful place to hang out when its 35 out and you want some sun.  Its multiple purposes, then, contribute to the overall goal of the greenhouse.  In the case of desginging a garden itself, this is also critical. The title of this blog is, after all, the “druid’s garden”–implying not only a garden but a sacred space.

 

The Lawn and Potential Space

The Lawn and Potential Space

And so, I think it is really important to consider the role of the sacredness and design in a garden space.  It’s not just a space to grow things in, to serve the pollenators and create ecosystems….but also a place of sacredness, where the act of gardening is sacred work and considered sacred practice. As is the act of being in the garden for non-gardening purposes, such as meditation and ritual.  To me, making garden spaces that can “stack functions” in this way is an important part not only of gardening, but of living a sacred life more generally and building connection and communion with nature.

 

So for this garden, I had a limited 2/3 circle space after putting in the greenhouse.  I toyed around with a large number of designs before settling on a tree of life theme.  As the garden developed, I realized I didn’t just want a set of “branches” but rather a space to do walking meditation like a labrynth, so the tree transformed more into a moth/butterfly design.

 

Building a Hugelkultur Walking Meditation Garden

Now that we’ve talked through both the mundane and sacred aspects of this particular garden design, let’s take a look at how to build one of these gardens!

 

Step 1: Observe, Interact, and Create a Design

I already had a good sense of the sunniest part of the land that was near the house and easy to access; this, was where the old owners had once had a pool.  It was here that I decided to place both the greenhouse and the walking meditation herb garden.  I observed this space in rain and sun, and also measured it out, thought about how I wanted to move among the garden, how big the beds should be, and so on.  To do this most effectively, you can get some garden stakes or sticks and then string–actually map out the location of your beds, see how it will be as you walk it, etc.  If you don’t have this, some old flour also works, just pour the flour down where you want the beds to be in lines, so that you are essentially “drawing” with flour.

Once I had a plan and was ready to proceed, I called out some friends to help get me started.

 

Step 2: Dig Down

I was blessed with some serious help from friends one weekend just after I moved in to help dig out the hugels.  First we had to remove a burn pit the previous owners left.  Then, we dug them down about a foot and a half–as far as we could go. The clay will be used for a cob wall project(more on that later in the year) that will go in the back of the greenhouse. This doesn’t look like much, but it was literally about 5 hours of work by six people!  Clay is heavy and doesn’t play nice.

Clay garden beds dug down

Clay garden beds dug down

 

 

Step 3: Add Wood

The next step is to add wood to your hugel bed. A lot of it.  As much as you can fit in it.  Here you can see me completing one half of one of the hugels. I used a lot of medium sized logs, some sticks, and also large huge logs along the bottom (not all of which you can see in the photo). The bigger logs will take much longer to break down, but that’s ok!

 

Most wood is fine to use with hugels, but you want to avoid a few kinds.  First, don’t use any woods that have chemicals that prevent the growing of other plants (black locust, walnut and alanthus come to mind). You also want to avoid rot resistant woods (cedar, black locust) as the point is to get it rotting down quickly. My beds primarily consisted of maple, cherry, and oak, as that was what was available.

Adding wood

Adding wood

Step 4: Add Additional Soil-Building Materials

The next stage is to cover the wood with anything else you can–any non-weedy garden waste, leaves, fresh or finished compost, manure, and so on. I threw some old pumpkins that were rotting in there, coffee grounds, a good pile of leaves, mulched grass, horse manure, and more.

 

In traditional hugel building, you would replace the topsoil upside down on top of the logs and keep adding more materials.  The issue I have with that is that I have 100% clay, and I don’t want to have any additional clay in my beds.  So I instead removed it for another project.

Adding leaves and materials

Adding leaves and materials

Step 5: Add Borders (optional)

A lot of people make hugel mounds and don’t add borders, but I find that the borders are really helpful to get them higher, especially with the design I was using (which consisted of fairly small beds.  Also, the borders give a clear demarkation line bewteen what your path is and what a bed is–and for good garden design, this is critical.  Paths determine garden space, after all.

 

After seeing my two friends who made a cool hugel garden with uprightlogs as borders, I thought I could do something similar.  In fact, this does not work:

I put the logs upright and then sunk them in the clay.  But…frost heaving in the winter knocked them all down.  I couldn’t dig down far enough to get them firmly in the soil without some kind of auger…. So I scrapped this idea and went to shorter beds with a rock linked edge.

This looks cool, but won't survive the winter!

This looks cool, but won’t survive the winter!

Since there is copious amounts of stone on the property (I just have to go digging and searching for it) and so I instead spent a lot of time hunting for stone on the property and moving stone for these beds.  It is empowering work!

Stone is quite heavy and moving it is a very good workout!

Moving stone is a very good workout!

 

Leaves and Stone

Leaves and Stone – I lined the beds with stone before adding the final layer. I packed the stone in with clay.

 

Step 6: Top with Finished Compost

The final step for the bed creation to top the bed with finished compost–I added about 5-6″ of compost over everything and then let it rain and settle, then added more.  This gives the plants you plant some room for growing. The beds, being so young, are otherwise difficult for the plants to take root.  Even so, the first year of the hugels as things are just starting to rot down can be not as abundant for plants.  You also want to suppliment with nitrogen–as carbon starts to break down (which is what most of your woody material is) it does suck the nitrogen out of the soil.  The most readily available form of nitrogen is, of course, liquid gold!

Adding finished compost to the bed

Adding finished compost to the bed

Step 7: Establish Paths

Becuase I wanted this to be a walking meditation garden, I needed to also think about the paths between the beds and creating them with something that would last.  I have done a lot of paths in the past at my old homestead with cardboard and wood chips; they are excellent choices, especially for a vegetable garden. Eventually, the wood chips and cardboard breaks down, and you end up with great soil you can move into your beds, then add another layer in.  However, these kinds of paths require regular yearly or at least every-other year maintenance and the paths quickly get lost.

 

But for this garden, which was more permanent and meant to also be a sacred space, I chose to use landscape fabric (which has a 20-25 year life and is breathable) and pea gravel from a local supplier. You could do a lot of things here for paths: brick work, stone work, other kinds of gravel, cardboard and wood chips, etc.  The key is to create something that you like and that fits the vibe of the garden.

 

So I laid the landscape fabric down and used steel pins to pin it in place. This fabric allows water to permeate but will not allow grass or other plants to grow.

 

Laying out the landscape fabric

Laying out the landscape fabric

Finally, I topped this with a 2-3″ layer of pea gravel (locally sourced) for walking paths.

Pea gravel going in

Pea gravel going in

 

Step 7: Plant!

The hugels can have both annual and perennial plants, trees, shrubs, etc.  I opted for this garden as a walking meditation garden filled with healing plants and some food plants.  There are three inlets and you can walk a figure eight or a loop in the garden and commune with the perennial plants.  The garden is planted with a variety of perennials and a few annuals: calendula, yarrow, horseradish, basil, thyme, new england aster, wood betony, garlic, chives, tomatoes, chamomile, rue, echninacea, St. John’s wort, and much more!

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Another view of the garden

Another view of the garden

It is amazing to see how far this beautiful garden has come from the green, consumptive lawn.  It will now produce food, medicine, habitat, nectar, beauty, and a wonderful space for ritual and meditation work. This is just one variation–of countless others–to combine solid permaculture design techniques with sacred gardening.

Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!