The Druid's Garden

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

Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II June 25, 2017

Creativity is the singing of the soul.  When we create, we draw from the deepest parts of who we are and express ourselves to the world.  The act of creation, the drawing forth and connecting to our inner selves, is the joy involved in creativity.  Having something nice in the end, to me, seems like a bonus! I believe this act of channeling the awen is not only inherently spiritual, it is also part of what it means to be human.  But to allow our souls to really sing, we have to grow comfortable with what we create, we have to set aside our judgement, and and to grow our skills as bards.

 

Last week, I explored what the bardic arts are, the cultural challenges associated with the bardic arts, and some ways community groups circumvent said challenges.   We looked at the creative spirit of children, and how that spirit gets repressed by cultural challenges and the langauge of disempowerment.  We looked at the ways that we think about “talent” and “creativity” serve to severely disempower us from pursuing the joy that is the bardic arts. Now that we have some sense of what has prevented more people from engaging in their creative and human gifts, we can now turn towards answering the two questions I posed last week:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

Last week, I also established four broad categories of bardic arts, which we’ll be returning to in this post:

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

And with that background, let’s begin to answer the two questions above and move into a place of empowerment, creativity, and the flowing of awen!

 

The Triad of Bardic Development: Exposure, Technique, and Practice

In the same way that the ancient bards were dedicated to their craft and in the same way that children devote countless hours to their own creative expressions, so, too, do we need to carefully cultivate our modern bardic arts if we are to grow our gifts. I’ll use myself as an example here of how we might cultivate the bardic arts.

 

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

Spirit of St. John’s Wort (painting inspired by nature, part of my plant spirit series)

I have been a visual artist focusing on the theme of trees and whimsical nature art and have been seriously pursuing this work for over a decade. As part of my own development as an artist, I often go to the natural world for inspiration and observation: studying the patterns of leaves, sketching in the woods, taking photographs, and bringing that inspiration back into my art studio. I also regularly expose myself to the work of others who are using different artistic techniques (talking with them, viewing artwork, reading books on techniques).  I go to museums and study, in detail, various watercolor paintings.  I talk to watercolor artsits about their own style and process and inspiration.  We share work with each other and ask about techniques.  Regardless of how “good” I have become, I regularly take classes, read books, watch youtube tutorials, which helps me gain the theories and techniques of a visual artist.  Often, as part of these classes, I get expert feedback on how to improve my work. Finally, I practice my art as often as possible, several times a week (often for several hours), in a space dedicated for this purpose. Practice doesn’t just mean do the same artwork over and over, but rather, I regularly take on new challenging subjects and new media so that I can continue to grow as an artist.  This might mean that I don’t always succeed, but there is much value in the practice.

 

In fact, the way that I develop my skill as a visual artist is no different than the Jazz musician who practices his scales each day, or the aspiring poet who memorizes large chunks of others’ poetry, or woodworker who hones her skills. And this is important: there are things that you can do, regardless of what skill level you begin at, that will help you make good progress on whatever bardic art you choose to undertake.  Further, from my example above, we can see that there are at least three essential paths towards developing bardic skills:

 

The first path of the aspiring bard is immersing yourself  in the thing you wish to master. You have to expose yourself in the world of that particular bardic art and begin to understand how others are already working on that bardic art. How this path manifests depends on the broad genre of bardic arts:

  1. Visual: Visual artists cultivate keen observation skills (of the subject matter) and also expose themselves to others’ artwork.
  2. Literary: Literary artists read copious amounts of others’ work; for poets this may include memorization of others’ poetry and forms.
  3. Performance: A performer would attend many performances and observe other performers practicing their art.
  4. Craft: A craftsperson would study as much of the craft of others as possible.  For example, a leatherworker would study other people’s leather working techniques and finished products, and so on.

 

The second path of the aspiring bard is to learn and practice the techniques of your art/craft. Each bardic art has a set of theories and techniques that you need to understand in order to develop proficiency and eventual mastery. Studying these theories and techniques (on your own and/or through others’ instruction) can greatly assist you as an aspiring bard. Specific bardic arts have their own techniques and their own tools, some of which are listed here:

  1. Visual: Techniques using particular artistic tools, understanding perspective and distance, understanding light/shading, understanding color theory, understanding how paint blends on a page, etc.
  2. Literary: Understanding the structure of a story; studying rhyme, studying different forms of poetry, building vocabulary, studying syntax
  3. Performance: The technical aspects of dance (how to safely perform different moves), how to engage an audience, the technical aspects of acting, singing, vibrato, positioning, lighting a space, etc.
  4. Craft: Technical aspects of the craft, for example, in leatherworking it would be cutting leather, using leather tools, dying and staining leather, finishing, putting pieces together, designing patterns, knowing which kinds of leathers to use for which projects.  Each craft has its own techniques.

Some techniques may transfer from bardic art to bardic art, while others need to be learned anew. For example, drawing skill helps me not only as a painter, but also as a leatherworker when I’m designing and creating leather tooled pieces. But that drawing skill is not so helpful when I’m trying to tell stories around the fire!

Pracitcing the technqiues for some bardic arts also require the tools: for example, as a watercolor artist, I need, at minimum, high quality brushes of various sizes, watercolor paper of a good quality, and a nice set of watercolor paints. Working with sub-par tools leads to a sub-par experience. Having better tools offers me a better “starting point” and eliminates certain kinds of struggles.

 

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree (from the AODA New Candidate Guide)

The third path of the aspiring bard is dedication and regular practice. Each bardic art requires dedication and practice, at minimum, on weekly level. Remember that practice often includes many things that are never seen by an audience (sketches, practicing the tale in front of the mirror, practice scraps of leather discarded, scales upon scales on an instrument, etc.). And because these things are hidden, we forget that they are ever done. However, dedication and practice are the only way we can achieve any form of proficiency, much less mastery. We don’t get good at something by thinking about it–we get good at it through practice (people seem to understand this with musical instruments but with little else!)

 

A second critical aspect of practice is that different kinds of practices are necessary to achieve proficiency. Sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over gives you a lot of skill doing that particular thing, so that you achieve mastery. So, if you make 100 leather bags, your 100th one will be much better than your first. But at some point, there is a diminishing return to continuing to practice the same thing–you’ll get to a certain point and not be able to go any further. It is for this reason that we also need challenges and exposure to more difficult kinds of practice.

 

A challenging piece/performance requires you to gain new skills, to push your skills a bit beyond what you can handle, and encourages new growth. With challenge is the possibility of failure, but failure is not something to fear.  Failure is a regular and consistent part of the learning process, and all proficient people practicing any bardic art have had their share of failure.  How we handle failure here is key–letting failure be an opportunit to learn, rather than an opportunity to shut down, is critical to our own development (for more info, see Carol Dweck’s TED talk and research on mindsets.  Dweck’s work explores two mindsets for approaching failure–when we can learn and grow, we gain much.  But when we shut down and fear/avoid failure, developmentally, little growth happens). A common saying is that the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried, and this is a very true of the bardic arts.  In this view, as we cultivate our bardic art, we must also cultivate the understanding and openness that is required for long-term growth and success. Embrace failures as part of learning and for the value that they offer. Of course it is frustrating to make a mistake, but mistakes are a sign of growth because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

 

My father and mother offered powerful lessons to me concerning mistakes and failure when I was a small child learning painting.  I remember working on a piece very hard, only to have a huge paint drip go into the middle of the sky.  I was ready to cry.  My father stopped what he was doing, and came over to me, and showed me how to turn that paint drip into a colorful cloud.  He told me that mistakes were an opportunity to try something unplanned, something different, and that some of his best work had been a result of such a mistake.  When this happened again, my mother reinforced the lesson several weeks later. As I continue to learn new things, I am always appriciative of that lesson and what it taught me.

 

And so, is through the triad of exposure, technique, and practice that we can develop proficiency, an eventual mastery, in the bardic arts. Notice that “talent” is not on this list. Anyone, given enough of the triad above, can develop at least a basic proficiency in a bardic art of their choice.  Talent might help speed things along, but it is is not necessary.  If the purpose of the bardic art is the process, the journey, the ability to connect with our hearts and spirits, then the end result seems but a secondary consideraiton.

Developing a Community and Culture of Bardic Arts

What may not be immediately obvious to the aspiring bard is that the triad above is embedded in a broader culture of bardic arts and also embedded in a specific community of practice. Bards need a community to share their work, talk to others about their work, to receive feedback, and to share their bardic gifts. Each community of bards has their specific techniques and tools, practices that are unique to that community. Further, a bard is often incomplete without an audience of some kind, whether that is the reader of a text, the audience of a performance, the viewer of an artistic creation, or the user/receiver of a craft.

 

In the same way that bards need communities in order to develop effectively, so, too do communities need bards. We cannot rebuild the bardic arts on an individual level without also rebuilding the communities in which these bardic arts are shared. Those engaged in the bardic arts need to feel needed; as though their work is important and it matters. Because it does. And so, we have to recognize that our communities are richer and better with our bards present and being bards. Imagine sitting around a fire at night with a dozen or so people—the more of those people engaging and sharing their bardic arts, the more interesting of an evening is shared by all. If nobody has a bardic art to share, the community suffers (and the evening is dull). This, too, is supported by learning research: we know that when people join communities of practice (see, for example, the work of Wegner and colleagues), those communities strongly support overall devleopment in a particular skill.

 

And so, the questions that remain to us now are: How do we build communities without inhibitions against the bardic arts? How do we nature and support people in those communities?

 

Children. As mentioned in last week’s post, children are natural bards, and the first thing we can do in terms of cultivating communities of bardic arts in the long term is to let children be children and to help them retain and cultivate their creative gifts. Children should be free to create, explore, make messes, make music, and collaborate with friends. As parents and loved ones, finding ways of supporting, reinforcing, and cultivating their creative gifts should be encouraged, especially to help provide a balance to mass education systems which discourage creative expression and creative thinking. As children grow up, they should be encouraged to continue to pursue whatever bardic arts inspire them.  They should also be encouraged to view mistakes as an opportunity for growth (which, according to some of the resaerch I included above, is a very teachable thing). These children, then, can grow up to help lead bardic communities of the future.

 

Adolescents and Adults. In terms of the adolescents and adults, some remediation likely needs to be in order, based on the cultural and educational disempowerment so prevalent today. The overall goal is to help adolescents and adults take down their barriers and inhibitions and reconnect to their creativity in the spirit of the freedom children have but tempered by the focus and ability of an older generation.

 

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

First, adults/adolsecents must have opportunities in their material and social contexts for practicing their bardic arts, in the same way that children have. For example, storytelling is a common thing that can be practiced daily. Children are constantly telling stories to each other and to their families. Adults could cultivate the same opportunity. For example, perhaps each member of the family around the dinner table tells the story of their day as part of that meal. This simple family ritual allows for the building of a storytelling culture within a family and gives each opportunity to learn to be a storyteller. The same can be true of many other bardic arts: creating social opportunities for bardic arts to be shared and practiced is an important part of cultivating them. Another option here is the Druid’s Eisteddfod, a circle of bardic arts around the fire.

 

The second thing, also tied to children and creativity, is the fostering of “play time”, that is, unstructured leisure time in which to explore and engage in the bardic arts. As with children’s play, at least some time should not be dedicated to accomplishing a particular task, but simply exploring materials, techniques, and enjoying the process of figuring things out. (This, of course, means we have to reconsider our own relationship with time and make time for these things, which ties directly to my earlier series on “Slowing down the Druid Way.”)

 

The third thing adults/adolsecents need are the tools to engage in the bardic art and access to expertise. Tools can be procured usually fairly directly (a materialist culture lends itself well to such a thing), but expertise might be much harder to come by. Given that, I encourage those interested in a particular art to seek out a local community, or, online community if no local one is present. These things can be learned on one’s own, but it is often more effective to learn from another.  Chances are, anyone who has developed mastery in a bardic art has had plenty of mishaps and mistakes along the way, and its useful to talk about those mistakes as much as it is to talk about the successes!

 

The fourth thing is to reframe our language within that community of practice.  Aspiring bards need both support as well as constructive feedback, and the challenge in a community is finding methods of doing both in ways that nutrure the overall development.  Some communities offer competitions or critique days that allow people to seek feedback to improve their work. These structured forms of critique and feedback are generally a safe space for those who want that kind of feedback.

For Aspiring Bards

And so, now we’ve come to it–how do I begin to take up the path of the bard?  Here are two questions to get you started:

 

Which of the many bardic arts (visual, performance, literary, or craft) seem interesting to you? 

Select something that appeals to you, that is interesting to you and that inspires you.  Find one that sings to your soul. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or can’t do this thing or if you know anyone else who does it—all bardic arts take dedication and work. Try it out for a bit making sure that you have given the practice enough time to get past the very beginning difficult beginner parts. I’d suggest spending a minimum of 20 hours on it over a period of time to see if it fits you well (this is the practice we use in the AODA curriculum and it works tremendously well).  Twenty hours is enough to know if you will enjoy it, it is enough time to have some small successes, and it is enough time to get past the 10 or so frustrating hours (or more) of learning where not much is accomplished. If this bardic art turns out not to be a good fit for you, try something else until you find your right fit. In this process of exploration, you might borrow the necessary tools/equipment for practicing the art rather than buy them to minimize financial investment until you are sure you will pursue this particular bardic art.

 

Where is there a community with whom you can connect?

Seek out a community that is engaging in the same bardic art that you have interest in.  Once you find that community, show up. I strongly advocate for finding a physical community of people who are engaged in your bardic art (or a range of bardic arts) that you can share with. This community should meet regularly (1/month, at minimum). If you can’t find a community, consider starting one (ask friends to come over once a week and play music or share stories by the fire, etc.). Online communities are a way to supplement local communities, but we encourage you to not stop at online communities. Online communities that have some physical component (e.g. art that is traded through the mail, performances that are given, in-person conferences that are present) are much more effective.

 

The Flow of Awen

The Ancient Druids understood that the flow of awen, the divine spark of creativity or inspiration, was a magical thing (and a topic I talked about in depth several weeks ago). And the Ancient Druids weren’t the only ones to recognize this sensation: many cultures recognize a muse or deity that is associated with creativity (the Greek Muses; Sarasvati, Hindu Goddess of the Arts; Hi’aika, Hawaiian Goddess of Dance/Chant; and so on).  Whether you see the awen as a kind of abstract power or something that comes from a diety, the idea is that this creativity flows through a person when he or she is engaged in her bardic art.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: it is a powerful sensation.

 

Personally, I see awen a lot like the flow of a river.  If you are opening up those channels for the first time, it is like water pouring into an area: the river will need to make work to flow effectively; there might be obstructions to work through, and so on.  But the longer the water flows in that spot, the more effectively it can flow and the more channels the water makes. Expressing creativity and channeling the flow of awen is a lot like using a muscle—it can atrophy if it is not used. And yet, any muscle can be brought back into health with enough practice; you might see this like a kind of “bardic therapy.”

 

This is where everything in this post comes in: we need tools, practice, and skill to allow the awen to flow through our lives and inspire us.  And when we are in a place with our own skills and abilities as a bard, the awen can flow strong and we can create incredible works.  We need the basic skills and approaches so that we can forget about the technical details and instead just let the awen flow.  It is once we’ve achieved a certain level that we can really let loose, let our subconsious and muscle memory take over, and just flow with the awen.  The things outlined in this post can help the awen flow into your life permancently and powerfully.

 

May the awen flow within you in your pursuit of the bardic path!

 

(PS: Thanks to David N. for long discussions on this topic and working out many of the details that appear in these two last posts!)
(PPS: I have this set to auto-post while I’m on some camping and hiking adventures in rural Maine.  Please comment, but know that I won’t be responding to comments for another week or so! )

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I June 18, 2017

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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On Keeping a Spiritual Journal April 30, 2017

Stack of some of my journals....

Stack of some of my journals….

Recently, I took some time to go back through the many spiritual journals I have kept on my journey deeper into the mysteries of the druid tradition and my relationship with nature. These journals spanned over a decade. They included a bit of everything: garden interactions, meditations, nature observations, events in my life of deep spiritual significance, recipes, notes from gatherings and visits, stories, experiences with rituals, and much more. I am so grateful to have kept these journals and re-reading them allowed me to rediscover so many pieces about that journey. They allowed me to see not only my own growth over time, but reminded me of important events and encouraged me further on my path.

 

Journaling and writing down one’s journey doesn’t come easy for many, and I, too, have to work at it!  Further, in working with those new to the druid path through my work as an Archdruid with the AODA, I’ve come to realize that many folks don’t know how to keep a spiritual journal nor what it can be used for or why they should do it. In my professional work as a writing professor, I know how difficult it is for some people to write anything because they lack the tools, motivation, or inspiration to do so. So, given this, I thought I’d take the time today to write about spiritual journals, why we keep them, and tips and strategies for keeping them (and keeping them well).

 

Why keep a spiritual journal?

When you are engaging in a spiritual practice of any kind, it is really helpful to document that practice. So let’s start by exploring the reasons why you would want to keep a spiritual journal.

 

The difference between sacred spaces and mundane spaces. One of the aspects of spiritual practices is that we are in a different head space for the duration of those practices than we are in the regular world. This is true not only of meditation and rituals but also of visits to natural places. We may gain deep insights or have moments of clarity and awakening and retaining those insights are critical for our development. If we don’t write them down, we are very apt to lose them.

 

I have found that in order to “not lose anything,” I have to write down my experiences in ritual or meditation immediately after they happen (often, I will write in my journal before I even close a sacred grove in ritual or before I leave the forest). This allows me to write about these experiences while they are fresh and in the forefront of my head. If I put off writing down my experiences, the longer that time goes by, the less I will remember and remember accurately–especially because visits to wild places and rituals alter our consciousness.

 

Inaccuracy of memory. Our memories are imperfect instruments and we can forget many things. If we write our experiences and understandings down (or use one of the other methods I share here), we offer our future selves a record of those experiences, which is a powerful spiritual tool. Trying to keep everything in our heads is a sure way to lose some of the critically important details or insights we gain as part of our spiritual practices.

 

Some journals that are mixed media/collage with spiritual themes...

Some journals that are mixed media/collage with spiritual themes…

To illustrate this, I’ll share a story here. I was out foraging for the day by myself, and I ended up in a really brushy area that required me to slog my way through about a two-acre bramble and brush patch. During this experience, I was in a deep meditative space. I had a critical number of keen insights about nature–all in a row (it must have been the stars aligning). The problem is, I had too many at once! (One of those keen insights about nature became my earlier discussion of weedtending, weedwalking, and weedcrafting while a second became my discussion of first-aid responder plants). I had recently lost my small journal I usually carried in my crane bag (to a river–it carried it away!), so I didn’t have anything to write down my insights on that particular day. And so, lacking any other means, I tried to commit as many as I could to memory. When I finally got back later that evening, all had escaped except the insights on the two posts I included above. Try and meditate as I might, I could not find the other insights anywhere in my brain–they were left in the bramble patch!

 

Keeping a Record. Documenting your practices and experiences through journals offers your future self a record about what you are feeling, experiencing, and the things you are engaging with at that particular point in time. This is a wonderful tool for tracking and understanding your own spiritual development. I love going back and reading my old journals and seeing just how far I have come! It’s also helpful to look at the journals and get a sense of what I was struggling with then, what I’m still struggling with, and what new things have come up.

 

Focusing, Expanding, and Reflection on Your Thoughts.  Journaling is not just a process of writing down exactly what happened or what the insights were, but it’s also a powerful tool and opportunity to ponder or sit with those experiences further.  And so, we gain a double benefit from this work. Reflecting on experiences that just happened allows you another way, which I see as another form of meditation, into those experiences. First, I have found often that after I finish a physical journey, spiritual journey, meditation, ritual, or whatever, writing down what has happened and my thoughts and insights about what has happened allows me to further shape and expand those thoughts (and actually, this is why I got into blogging!)  Part of it is that you are not just getting the initial insight, but taking the time to think about it deeper and focus on it through the journaling experience. This helps the insights and experiences come into sharper focus. Second, reflection also allows us to slow down and think about what we experienced, synth sizing our experiences and our own understandings. We can pick things apart, turn them around, wonder about them, and really gain the ability to see them from multiple angles there in our journal.  It might be that this kind of work needs to happen over a longer period of time than one entry, and that is perfectly acceptable as well.  I’ll also mention here that research in writing studies strongly supports both of the above–we learn through writing and we gain much from reflection!

 

Content of the Journals: What to Write

The question of what should go into a journal is obviously a very personal one.  Here are some possibilities for you to consider:

 

Documenting regular practices. In many of the esoteric traditions, keeping a “magical journal” is a required practice. It’s very helpful to document regular practices and their effects, especially over time. For example, each day I do the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual. In the years I was really learning it, I wrote down daily what happened. Now that my practice has stabilized, I no longer find it necessary to write down each day’s sphere unless something out of the ordinary happens during the sphere; but I still find myself writing about it regularly. I do write about my regular meditations, and that’s part of my habitual journal practice.

 

Some more spiritually-themed journals with colorful watercolor pages...

Some more spiritually-themed journals with colorful watercolor pages…

Salient, important things. I once spoke with a woman who told me she was spending more time writing in her journals than in her spiritual practices and was frustrated with the length of time it took to journal. I inquired further and discovered that she was writing down literally everything she was doing. While this certainly is an approach that you can take to spiritual journaling, I’m not sure its one I’d advocate. You’d spend more time, as she did, writing than actually engaging in your spiritual practices! Instead, what I advocate is writing down things of meaning, of salience, and of significance. In other words, I don’t write down every little thing (“I drove to the park”) but I do generally document what I did, what happened, and what I thought about it (“in my walk in the woods, this struck me because of…”).

 

Ideas, Plans, and Goals. I have found it useful to write about goals, ideas, and plans. If you write goals, check in on them regularly and see how you are progressing with them (a simple goal might be to develop a regular daily protective practice, or to spend more time in nature, or to observe the full and new moons in some way).

 

Nature observations. I have found it particularly helpful to document my observations and interactions with nature, given that I’m on a path of nature-based spirituality. For this reason, I almost always take a journal when I’m going out and about (even a small one I can carry with me, although I have a propensity for small journals getting eaten by bodies of water!)

 

Some nice leather journals (both filled!)

Some nice leather journals (both filled!)

Reflections over time. At the end of the journal, when I have only 10-20 or so pages left, I find it really useful to go back through the journal and record any patterns in my thinking, any changes, anything that sticks out of significance to me. It may take me a year or more to fill a journal, but is a very good practice and then helps me “launch” the next journal with a vision and goals in mind.

 

Photos, drawings, plant matter, and memorabilia. You don’t have to be limited to words alone–consider adding drawings, photos, plant matter, and other memorabilia.

 

The Look and Feel of Your Journal

Especially when you are starting out, the finding or making the right journal is really important. There’s something about opening up a fine journal, one that you are attracted to, and writing in it. It’s nice to see it sitting on our shelf, nice to hold and cherish. Your journal might be something you make or something you buy. (I can write a post on bookbinding and spiritual journal making if there is interest. Let me know!) You may also find that you may develop certain preferences (thickness of paper, lined or unlined, etc).

 

I think that there is something special about keeping a physical journal and I would strongly recommend you keep your journal physically. For one, if you are taking it into nature and into sacred spaces with you, the last thing you want is an electronic device in those spaces. The screens have a way of pulling you away and into them rather into the space. If the purpose of the journal is to record words, I would suggest using old-fashioned methods.

 

On the outside: If you are going to go with a purchased journal, You want a journal that lays flat, that is enjoyable to write in, and that is well constructed.  One place to look is on Etsy and similar places and seeing if you can purchase a nice journal that was handmade with care and love.  You’ll support an artist and also have a wonderful journal.   Some journal makers (especially those working in leather) can make a journal cover that you can then replace the insides. This means that you could buy one journal + cover, and then when you are done, put the cover on a new journal and keep going, placing the old journal on your shelf. This is a nice option and represents a limited investment.

 

On the Inside: One of my very early spiritual journals was a simple affair, but homemade. I began by purchasing some hot press, low quality watercolor paper and folding them in half, making signatures. I bound the journal using a Coptic stitch technique with two boards. Then, in each of the pages, I did a simple watercolor wash. The watercolor pages dried and then, when I opened the journal, I had a variety of colorful surfaces on which to write.

My first dedicated spiritual journal (made when I joined the AODA)

My first dedicated spiritual journal (made when I joined the AODA)

You can do the same thing with cheap watercolors and any journal designed for multiple media or mixed media (these are readily available in arts and craft stores). These kinds of journals will be thicker and contain less pages, but will be sturdy and wonderful for colorful washes and bold printing.

 

Mixed media is anothe option.  Mixed media refers to any two media that are not traditionally put together (so photographs and drawing), and this is a wonderful way of expressing more than just words. For example, perhaps you want to sketch, find an image, imprint a leaf, take a photo, and so on. Any of these can be readily incorporated into your journal. Sometimes, a picture helps capture the event or experience in ways that words cannot.

 

Keeping Different Journals

One thing that I have found works well for me as a more avid journaler is to keep different journals for different activities. For example, I have a journal that I use to record important dreams. That’s a separate journal from my everyday/meditation journal, and also separate from my nature journal. At other points in my life, I have found too many journals burdensome and only kept one that held everything within it.  Here are some of the different kinds of journals you might keep:

  1.  Meditation journal. For regular meditation practices (especially if you are using discursive meditation and/or spirit journeying as meditation).
  2.  Nature journal. For experiences in observing outdoors (taken when you go outdoors, do nature observations, hike, etc). This journal can be small (a small Moleskine (SP)) journal works well for this purpose. You might want to keep it in a small plastic bag to protect it from the elements.
  3.  Gardening journal. Keep track of your gardening adventures!
  4.  Seasonal celebration journal. A journal that documents your seasonal celebrations and merriment.
  5.  Work with spirits journal. A journal that documents inner journeys and connections to the spirit realm.

Or you might keep just one journal and use it for everything! There is no right or wrong way to journal.

 

The inside of my "Garden Journal" that detailed both knowledge about gardening and farming I was learning as well as my early attempts at homesteading

The inside of my “Garden Journal” that detailed both knowledge about gardening and farming I was learning as well as my early attempts at homesteading

Getting in the Habit of Journaling

One of the most tricky things for people starting out is to get in the habit of journaling. Here are a few tips and suggestions.

 

Perfectionism doesn’t matter. You do not need to have proper grammar, full sentences, correct punctuation, or even really legible handwriting in your journal. This journal is for you and you alone, so as long as you can read it, that is what matters.

 

Stream of consciousness writing can work. Many people write journals in long paragraphs or entries that are in the style of “stream of consciousness”; that is, they write what immediately comes up in their minds. You might see this similar to how some forms of meditation work—thinking about an idea and seeing where it goes. In the case of your journal, I think the most important thing is to get the information down that you want to get down, and it doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece.

 

If writing doesn’t work, audio record (and transcribe).  Some people find that when they sit down to write they have difficulty putting any words down on paper. They stare at blank page. If you fall into this category, one suggestion I have is to use a small recorder and record your thoughts in audio format (like you are talking to a friend or to yourself) and then, later, transcribe those words into your journal. This adds a step, but it might be good to help you get going.

 

Keeping a journal is about habituating practice. One of the other challenging things to do for new journal keepers is just to get in the habit of regular writing. Above, I suggested writing as soon as you are finished with a practice or experience that you want to document. I also would suggest that if you aren’t doing anything else, setting aside a time to journal once a week is a good way to start. Once you have gotten in the habit of journaling, it will become easier to do.  Start taking your journal with you anywhere you go–on a trip, out into the woods, into your sacred space–and then work to use it!

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this post was helpful to those who are interested in starting a spiritual journal or in kicking their own journaling into a higher gear.  After a period of years, I can say with certainty that this practice has really helped me deepen my own awareness, my focus, and helped me progress along my spiritual path.

 

As an aside, I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging while I do some travel and get our big garden in for the year! I’ll return in late May with additional posts on my permaculture for druids series, information on the bardic arts, and so much more!  Blessings on this Beltaine!

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Recycled Seed Starting Materials: Paper Pots, Watering Bottles, and Venetian Blind Labels April 9, 2017

Seedlings growing in recycled materials!

Seedlings growing in recycled materials!

The spring is a wonderful time to begin starting your seeds–and here in Western PA, we just crossed the “eight weeks before last frost” threshold, so it is a bit of an urgent matter! This means that this weekend is the time to start many of the warm season crops and perennial herbs. Today’s post takes a “recycled” spin on seed starting to share with you a number of tricks for seed starting all using recycled and repurposed materials (drawing upon the permaculture principle, “waste is a resource”). For these seed starting options, we are making use of many typical “trash” and “recycle bin” products: newspaper, styrofoam take-out trays, two-liter soda bottles, and Venetian blinds. Even if your household doesn’t produce this stuff yourself, a simple walk down any suburban or town street will likely yield more of these materials than you’ll likely ever need.

 

If you want to know more about seeds and how to develop a good seed starting setup, you can visit my earlier post. I also have written about the kinds of seeds to start and my spiritual insights on seed starting in earlier posts.

 

Recycled Two-Liter Soda Bottle Seed Waterer

For really small seeds that need to be sown on the surface (like chamomile), watering them with a regular watering can or small indoor plant watering can dislodge the seeds. Then, the seeds flow to the edges of your pot and then sprout along those edges. However, a good farmer friend showed me this trick to create a very effective seed waterer using a two-liter soda bottle.  This waterer offers a very gentle watering system that doesn’t dislodge seeds (it also allows for uniform watering quickly of many different seed starts).

Materials: A drill with a small bit, a two-liter bottle with cap

Instructions: You simply take a very small drill bit and drill in a series of holes, like below.  The more holes you drill, the faster your water will come out (so you might want a few different options).

Drilling holes in the lid of a soda bottle

Drilling holes in the lid of a soda bottle

Once you’ve drilled your bottle, you fill it with water and water away!

Filled bottle

Filled bottle

 

Squeezing the bottle gently gives you a wonderful sprinkle that is just the right size for your seedlings and is kind to the tender plants.  Here I am watering some st. johns wort plants.

Watering St. John's Wort plants (plants for my refugia garden)

Watering St. John’s Wort plants (plants for my refugia garden)

 

Recycled Venitian Blinds as Seed Labels

Venitian blinds made of plastic are in widespread use but often end up being a waste product. Personally, I can’t stand the things, but I’m glad to have found a real use for them. If one or two of the smaller flimsy plastic blinds break, they are typically thrown away.  Larger ones eventually also are discarded. We see this here a lot in my college town–you can probably pick up a dozen or so of the discarded sets of blinds within a year’s time if you keep an eye out. What a friend of mine taught me some years ago was a simple trick to create labels for your seedlings and outdoor plants: using Venitian blinds and marker.

 

Cut up Venetian blinds actually make a wonderful choice for labels because they are hardy and don’t break down.  The only potential challenge is that if you use a sharpie on them, the marker will eventually fade in the sunlight (not a problem for seed starting, but can be a problem for planting out).

 

Materials: Venetian blinds of any size, scissors, sharpie marker.

Cutting up a larger blind into smaller segments for labels

Cutting up a larger blind into smaller segments for labels

To make the blinds: 

Any kind of blind works: you can use both the larger blinds (as in the photo) or the smaller blinds; both cut with a simple pair of scissors. Once you’ve cut them, simply label them and stick them in your pots (paper or plastic; In the photo below have some hand-me-down plastic pots with Veneitan blind labels–some of the seeds I started this week).

A finished tray with labels

Smaller Venetian blind labels

Smaller Venetian blind labels

The labels can be used year after year; even if the marker fades, you can simply replace it.

Recycled Paper Pots

This year, a friend and I experimented with these paper pot makers from the UK. They are nice–you roll up the pot, and then, the pot maker kind of crunches up the bottom as you twist it on a wooden base.

Paper pot makers (commercial)

Paper pot makers (commercial)

After some experimentation and modification, however, we found an even easier way to make these pots–with an added benefit of a bottom watering option using recycled take-out trays.

Paper pots ready for planting!

Paper pots ready for planting!

The process we developed doesn’t even need the paper pot maker–any jar (like a vitamin jar or spice jar) will easily do the trick.

 

Materials: Newspaper (preferably black and white, as this has soy-based inks), stapler, recycled styrofoam or plastic tray.

 

The process:

First, you fold your newspaper into the right size.

Folding newspaper for a smaller seed starting pot

Folding newspaper for a smaller seed starting pot

After folding, you need to roll it on something.  So here we go…

Rolling the paper around the pot maker (jar works fine as well)

Rolling the paper around the pot maker (jar works fine as well)

Now, you staple it or fold in a corner to hold it together.

Staple the pot - one staple is more than enough! You can also use a paperclip here (can be reused)

Staple the pot – one staple is more than enough! You can also use a paperclip here (can be reused)

Now, we place the pot, with the open bottom, into a recycled take-out tray and fill each with soil.  A spoon works really well for this purpose (although I prefer to get my fingers right in the soil).  If you put your soil in a bucket and make your soil wet (getting it to the consistency of brownie batter) your pots will fill very easily and then you don’t have to try to water the seeds after planting them (dislodging them).

Filling the pots with soil!

Filling the pots with soil!

These paper pots hold up pretty well over time.  We’ve noticed that when the plants outgrow them, they start to break their roots through the pot (see photo below).  This is a good sign to plant out or transplant into a bigger pot!

Ready to plant--roots coming out!

Ready to plant–roots coming out!

Not to mention they look really cool by comparison to other plastic options.

Beautiful trays of paper pots!

Beautiful trays of paper pots!

And don’t forget–seed starting is serious business! Someone needs to check your work. Here is our inspector general, Acorn.

Acorn inspects the watering.

Acorn inspects the watering.

 

I hope that the blessings of the spring are upon each of you!  If you have any other good tips for recycled/repurposed seed starting or growing ideas, I’d love to hear them :).

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Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

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!

 

The Way of Wood January 22, 2017

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Imagine sitting down to your holiday meal with loved ones and family. There is a feast before you–ham, turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, gravy, and various other family favorites. The table is decorated with colorful red tablecloths, the lights are low, the lights on the tree are twinkling….and you are given a Styrofoam plate! I’m sure this has happened to all of us over the years–and to me as well! What if, instead, you were given a beautiful hand-carved wooden bowl or plate to eat from? How would that change the experience of eating your meal? What if the meal was by candlelight, with engaging conversation, and took my time with the meal?  In fact, if you had lived in an earlier time, you likely would have had this experience, and it would have been the “norm.”

 

In fact, Eric Sloane describes the shifts in our relationship with lovingly crafted, wooden things in his On Reverence for Wood. In this passage, he describes America before the Civil War: “Wood was not accepted simply as the material for building a new nation—it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘A substance with a soul’. It spanned rivers for man, it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.” (Pg. 72)  I think this quote beautifully expresses humans’ relationship with wood in previous generations, and to me, helps fill a gap that I didn’t know was missing.

 

A lot of things I talk about on this blog are what I might frame as “big” things: working on land regeneration, sustainable living and permaculture, growing food, natural building, beekeeping and more…these big things seem important and relevant. But there are also the more subtle ways of shifting living and communing with nature that may be less obvious, but no less profound. I think that there is value in exploring alternatives to the everyday objects that fill our lives and that we interact with. How many times, for example, do I encounter plates, bowls, cups, and silverware each day?  How many times do I put my feet in a pair of shoes, or put a pair of pants on, or put my head on a pillow in a typical week?  How many times do I sit down to enjoy a simple meal? How do those simple, daily patterns, unfold?  And so, today, I’m going to explore a rather simple concept, in honor of the many feasts most of us attended as part of the holiday season over the last few months. I call this concept the way of wood.

 

The Way of Wood

What I’m calling “the way of wood” refers to, in a literal sense, spending more time and contact with wood that has been lovingly shaped by careful hands.  Wood that has a soul.  The wood’s origins are important–ethical resourcing of the wood is critical. These wooden objects come into your life either by trading/purchasing/commissioning it from those who work with wood or by honing your own skill in carving/woodworking/turning, etc.  So far, I am in the first category, having found woodworkers whose talents I wish to support, although I hope to turn my artistic sights on this beautiful art form quite soon!

 

The way of wood, in a broader sense, asks us to consider the nature and origins of the objects that we engage with in everyday life–and bring those objects more carefully and consciously into our daily living experiences. This, again, means considering relationships between the object, how it was made, where it was sourced, as part of an energetic relationship.  The way of wood also encourages us to seek deeper connection with nature through the creation (and supporting the creation) of homemade items from local sources over industrial ones.  In other words, we are looking for items that have “soul” and that are, likely created outside of the industrial/consumption/stuff-making system.  Of course, this “way of wood” doesn’t happen overnight, but as things wear out, we might seek to replace them with things of a different nature, a careful nature, a slower nature.

 

The curved spoon and others...

The curved spoon and others…

Why does the way of wood matter? Some history here has really helped my thinking–I hope it helps you too.

 

The Loss of Reverence for Wood

At one time, wood was the most important thing we had: we made everything from it.  It was, as the quote above suggests, “a substance with a soul.” Eric Sloane’s masterpiece, Reverence for Wood, is well worth reading on this subject. I’m going to briefly summarize some of what he shares in that book here to help us understand historically, humans’ changing relationship with wood and its connection to industrialization here in the US–but I encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to read his work.  Its a short book (about 100 pages) and filled with his incredible illustrations–a gem well worth your time.

 

Sloane’s book explores, century by century, in reverse chronological order, human’s changing relationship with wood. Of key importance to Sloane was the drastic shifts between the 18th century, when everything was made of wood (as described in the quote above), and the 19th century, with the rise of the age of iron and industrialization, where wood became used as the fuel of progress.  Much of this shift was firmly settled with outcome of Civil War in the United States, the war not only of slavery, but of an agrarian society vs. an industrial one. With the triumph of the Northern industrialized states, industry quickly transitioned the entire nation (as it was already doing in England and many other former colonies).

 

It was during this transition that wood, according to Sloane, ceased to have its value as something to be lovingly crafted for daily living rather than as a resource to fuel industry.  In fact, it is during this age that we see billions of acres of forests, cut to be “coaled off” to make charcoal for iron furnaces, cut to run locomotives, and cut to literally pave streets for higher volume traffic among many other things. This is certainly what happened to “Penn’s woods” in Pennsylvania, where, by the start of the century, less than 5% of the forests remained in many of the Western counties surrounding the big steel factories. Sloane reports that one English paper during this time wrote, “The English criticized us, saying that the Americans ‘seem to hate trees and cannot wait to cut them down” because the land was literally being stripped bare.

 

But the shift in consumer goods and industry weren’t the only shifts away from this primary wood-filled economy. In the late 1800s, American farmers had walled up their hearths and instead added an iron kitchen stove. Wood was added to this stove as Sloan writes “without ceremony,” shutting it up inside the iron box that didn’t need much tending. This, of course, eventually led to our modern furnaces and use of fossil fuels for warmth. Sloane gives many other examples as well–how the incredible array of objects once made from wood (pails and spiles for maple sugar, meat pounders, churns, knives, sleds, mallets, forks, shovels, spoons, and much more–were turned into iron instead and sold to folks). Wood became quite unfashionable and quaint, something for an older generation and day and iron was now on the rise.

 

To me, the shift from wood to iron represents a profound shift in humans’ relationships with nature as a whole and with trees specifically. In the earlier economical model, wood was a primary resource whereby humans interacted with trees, managed them carefully, cut trees and shaped them for their immediate needs (shelter, warmth, tools), and understood those trees as a resource upon which we clearly depended. Damage to the forest resource would result in direct damage to the ability of those humans to continue to provide warmth, shelter, and tools–and so, wood was deeply respected, coppiced, and managed. Also in this earlier economical model, wood was known deeply and intimately. In the 17th century, Sloane describes how a chair might be made out of as many as 15 different woods, each having their own unique characters and properties. People could tell what kind of tree was being cut by the sound the axe made in the wood.  Each wood has its own unique personality; likewise, people were often tied to tree personalities.

 

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

With the end of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, wood became a secondary resource, cut and shipped “away” for use in some other location and the resulting goods coming back to humans in a new form (iron). Wood was no longer a resource upon which people primarily depended upon for survival–the invisible industrial processes and consumer economy masked its use.  If a forest is cut and shipped to an industry far away, it is of no real consequence to those who live nearby, for they have ceased depending on that forest for their needs. Rather, they depend upon, primarily, that far away industry. This is true of the many things for which wood was used: wood is purchased from a store (who get it from logging and a sawmill); heat is purchased from several sources (with a small amount of people still chopping wood); tools are purchased with handles, sometimes wood, from an unknown source; chairs are purchased of wood from a store, again, from an unknown source.  There is no reason to preserve and protect the local forest because all of your needs come from the store, who gets it from a factory, who gets the raw resources from all over (including that local forest).  This disconnection does much harm, in my opinion. And so, it was during this time of rising industrialization that humans’ rich understanding of wood and knowledge was lost and largely replaced by iron and industry.

 

Over 150 years now, we have a profound loss of understanding of the nature of wood and connection with that part of nature. Most people can’t identify more trees than they have fingers on one hand, much less understand intimately wood and its qualities.  I’ve seen this over and over again when I’m teaching herbalism or wild food foraging classes–identification skills are quite poor for most folks.  The bad news is that some of this knowledge may have been lost–but the good news is that the new movements in sustainable living, woodworking, permaculture, and bushcraft are encouraging folks to begin to learn the way of wood once more.

 

(I’ll mention here wonderful song by fellow OBOD Druid, Damh the Bard, from his 2015 album Sabbat. Its called “Iron from Stone” and it tells this same story of the changes in the landscape and the shift into iron (and the human cost of such a shift.))

Finding our Way back to Wood Again

 

For me, it started with a single, lovingly crafted wooden spoon, a spoon with soul.  A number of years ago, a druid friend of mine had gotten into carving and I decided to commission him to make me a magical serving spoon. This spoon was no ordinary spoon–it was harvested from cherry right off of his land only several miles from where I lived, carved with a spiral handle, and carved with an Awen in the center of the spoon. It was amazing, and after cooking with it, I came to the conclusion that I needed a lot more wooden things in my life.  This, of course, was many years before I had read Sloane’s work or really understood the historical aspects of the loss of knowledge of wood.

 

Instead, that first spoon offered an emotional connection, a soul connection: I loved the way the spoon felt, I loved the way my food tasted when I cooked with it, and I wanted more.  Soon after, he offered me a regular eating spoon for my birthday. After that, I found some really nice old carved bowls at a yard sale, carved by the woman’s grandfather. Then, I met a local wood turner at our farmer’s market with beautiful live edge bowls…over time, I replaced nearly all of my everyday eating bowls and such with beautiful wood–wood that requires care, love, and that brings connection.

 

I’ve watched friends’ delighted reactions as they come to my home and eat from my wooden bowls lovingly prepared food–it makes the meal so much more magical, meaningful, and connected.  Maybe, they, too, are connecting to the soul of the trees that are still very much alive within those bowls.

 

What I have come to fundamentally understand through this process is that the energy that goes into an object infuses that object. And it infuses us.  There’s just something different and sacred about the wooden objects that you don’t get from the standard stuff of unknown origin and manufacturing. Taking up the way of wood is a very simple thing to do–pickup some books on woodworking or take a class and start learning to carve or turn wood yourself.  Or, start keeping your eyes out for woodworkers and wooden objects as you go about life–farmer’s markets are a good place to find some of them!  If you want the wood in your life, the spirit of the wood will find you.

 

Caring for wood

An assortment of spoons and knives

An assortment of spoons and knives

Part of the reason I think that the wooden bowls are wonderful is that they require attention and care. The wood was once a living being, and the wooden spoons and bowls, in their own way, still have spirit within them. The more we interact with them, the more we can understand the wood and connect with that spirit.  The physical aspects of the wood and the spirit of the wood both need our interaction and care.

 

In terms of daily cleaning of wooden objects: you don’t just throw them in the dishwasher–the dishwasher would quickly ruin them. Instead, you wash them lovingly by hand, making sure water/liquid doesn’t sit in them for long and making sure that you dry them carefully once you are done washing them. It is no trouble to quickly wash your favorite wooden bowl after a nice meal!

 

Every three or so months, you’ll also want to re-seal them. I seal my wooden items with walnut oil or of a combination of warmed beeswax and walnut oil. I get a clean rag (that you can re-use) or paper towel (the paper towel can be used to start a fire after you are finished oiling your wood). Add a liberal helping of oil to all your wooden objects and let them sit for about 30 min. You’ll see which of them are thirsty and which are saturated. Give them a second liberal helping of oil.  If there is excess, it is no problem, as you’ll wipe it off. I usually let this sit a minimum of a few hours–even overnight. I check them again, and see who among the wooden things is still thirsty, adding a third layer. At this point, I let them sit, shine/buff them to take off the excess oil, and begin using them again.

 

I remember to tend my wood based on the solstices and equinoxes–as each grows near, I know it is time to lovingly oil my wooden items again.

 

I’ll also mention here that wood, over time, moves and shifts as the seasons change and as time passes (no wonder wood has “a soul”!)  Sloane talks about this as well–how old barns move (even if the stone foundations under them do not, meaning that over a period of years, the barn grows less stable).  The same thing happens to wooden bowls and other wooden objects.  For a bowl, for example, if you had wood with a grain facing East to West, the bowl would slowly shrink on the North-South axis making the bowl more oblong than round as time passed.  In the summer, wood absorbs moisture and may swell and in the winter, it will shrink. Understanding this is all part of the character, and care, of wood.

 

Closing Thoughts

I believe that the small details matter–building these small, sacred, and simple acts into our everyday living can help us engage in more sustainable, sacred actions throughout our lives and reconnect with ourselves and the land around us. I think this kind of thing is like momentum forward–each small thing adds to the whole experience and moves us from a kind of “average” living that is given to us by corporations and industrialization to living to sacred living. Even small shifts, like the shift from using conventional tableware to something handcrafted, creates an energetic shift that reverberates. And when you think about how many times you encounter these simple objects each day, and the energies and spirits of those objects, this small shift really has profound implications.

 

Embracing the Bucket: A Colorful Compost Toilet for Small Space Living January 1, 2017

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

My beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather into toxic municipal septic systems.  Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.

 

And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice).  This post will cover overcoming challenges, basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!

 

Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges

The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenge and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.

 

When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging.  For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day.  There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.

 

Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing.  But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics.  So these things, along with some positive direct experience helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.

 

Yep, that's a bit hard to avoid....

Yep, that’s a bit hard to avoid….

But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before?  How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen.  I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in.  Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!

 

With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom,  I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).

 

My friend's composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

My friend’s composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside.  And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement.  I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!

 

Constructing the Toilet (Collection)

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5 gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket.  Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly.  Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.

 

It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use. Lucky for me, a wonderful man, who I’ll call the Philosopher, has recently come into my life and he has some impressive construction skills (skills that I am sorely lacking).  Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the Philosopher offered to build the compost toilet.  The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).

 

Here is a list of the supplies:

  • 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
  • 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage).  Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5 gallon buckets.
  • Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
  • Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)

The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom.  This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor.  The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.

Box and bucket before painting

Box and bucket before painting

To get the hole for the bucket, the Philosopher simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of painting process

Cat inspection of painting process

Painting the Toilet

After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions.  After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest!  I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.

Painting Process

Painting Process

I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.

 

I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.

Finished lid and seat!

Finished lid and seat!

After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Close up of lid and seat!

Close up of lid and seat!

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Top of toilet inviting you inside....

Top of toilet inviting you inside….

 

The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.

 

Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations

You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be.  These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.

 

The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from the Philosopher’s father’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work).  In the future I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.

 

Now, absorbency is also important.  From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent.  If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary.  Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better.  She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often.  (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experiences using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).

 

Cover material for the toilet

Cover material for the toilet

I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject).  I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecolvillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.

 

Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–its really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed.  So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t’ lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.

 

Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper.  From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket.  But to me, this makes more waste, and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes even little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).

 

In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet.  I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!

 

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

Using the Compost Toilet

Using the toilet is really easy.  You’ll need to do the following:

  1. Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
  2. Do your business. 
  3. Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
  4. When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
  5. Repeat the above steps!

Composting and Storage

Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).

 

For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that covers the pile, then a thick one foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months.  She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.

 

To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse.  Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources!  The Humanure will be very occasionally turned, and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.

 

I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.