The Druid's Garden

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

Lessons of the River: Nature Connection, Health, and Healing April 23, 2017

Sometimes, natural places call out to us, and we heed their call and journey within these wild places–often gaining profound insights along the way. For some time, I have been called to a particular creek. I would drive over a bridge as I was leaving town to visit my parents, and I watched the creek flow–its gentle water lapping at the shores, ducks swimming, stones and water babbling. I didn’t know the name of the creek, but I knew I wanted to connect with it. Then, one day after a storm last year, I saw some people kayaking on it when it was higher and a bit muddy.  Having just purchased my own kayak, I grew very excited and began asking people about the creek. Eventually, I learned where I might put my kayak in and where I might take it out, resulting in about a six mile paddling trip.

 

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

Truthfully, the whole journey was a bit of a leap of faith–I had talked to others who had been out on the creek sometime before, but it had been in prior years, and I knew conditions often change. I have a very good kayak that can handle just about anything and have taken some lessons and training to address emergencies, and this was known as a calm and quiet river. I packed some supplies and did a small ritual to protect the boat and off I went. This particular trip offered me several deep insights–but one I’d like to explore today is humans connecting to nature and land/river health (and I think this is a very appropriate post following up from last week exploring Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition).

 

The start of my journey was absolutely incredible–the water was pure, the scenery was beautiful. I could see evidence of many people’s interaction with the creek: in a quiet forest you could see benches lining the river, I saw several fishermen was fishing for trout, I saw bikers by the river taking a short break to enjoy the water, and even at one point, I passed a lovingly built small cabin the creek. I could tell from these signs that the river was well loved and appreciated by many in the area, even in some of its more hard-to-reach and secret places.

 

Miles passed in this serene way. I enjoyed my journey immensely and it allowed me to see so much life.  As I came closer to Homer City, which was the town where I had parked my car and was traveling to my “pull out” place, I turned a bend and saw this waterfall rushing into the creek. From a distance, it looked beautiful–I was excited to get up close. But as I started to get closer, something about that waterfall appeared very, very wrong. As I arrived near it, I realized that the waterfall was full of acid mine drainage (AMD), and it had bright yellows, oranges, and metallic spots all over the rocks and was pouring extremely acidic water (probably about a PH 2.5) into that creek.  Later investigation revealed that this particular stream–quite small–is coming out of a series of abandoned mines some 3 or so miles north with no AMD remediation.

 

AMD Waterfall - note the color of water change

AMD Waterfall – note the color of water change

Where the waterfall fell into the creek, the hue of the river changed–it grew cloudy and sickly pale yellow.  The waterfall left this cloudy trail in the water, a very distinct change from before. At first, only the edge of the river where the waterfall was running in was polluted, but as I went down the last mile of the creek, soon, it all took on that color.  Truthfully, as soon as I saw the waterfall and what was happening, I didn’t want to be on that river any longer–I racked my brain to see if I had a place I could pull out of the river early and call a friend to pick me up instead of paddling back to my car. But I decided to go ahead and finish my journey because there was clearly a lesson to see in all of this.

 

In fact, not so many years ago, this entire creek had once been filled with AMD. Acid mine drainage is a very serious issue anywhere where we’ve had coal mines. The earth’s blood and bones are torn up, and in the process, she bleeds, and that pain spills into our rivers. In this area, we have thousands and thousands of abandoned coal mines.  Most of these mines were put in prior to the laws of 1970 that required that mines clean themselves up, prevent runoff into streams, and replant the land. So we have a lot of problem mines that are from pre-1970 that are continually polluting the streams (in fact, this problem can go on for 1000’s of years–some mine runoff in Europe spans back to the time of the Romans!) Around here, due to the high acid content , AMD kills all of the life in and around streams.  The stream has a characteristic orange color, with all of the stones also turned orange and the water itself orange, cloudy, and toxic. In Pennsylvania alone, we have over 3000 miles of AMD-polluted creeks.  They are so prevalent in my area that when I was child, we had so many creeks and streams like that I thought that’s just how all waterways looked.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

What I didn’t know was that all of Two Lick Creek that I was paddling had similar problems at one time. However, local conservation efforts by several groups have made good headway in the northern part of the river. One a group called the Evergreen Conservancy has been working to clean up one site nearby–and their efforts show!  The other (where I put my kayak in) is the Waterworks Park, that offers an AMD remediation site and wetland. Without the signage indicating that AMD remediation was happening at the Waterworks Park, I would never have known that the northern part Two Lick Creek had ever had an AMD problem.  The creek banks were beautiful, the creek itself full of life and vibrant.  This speaks, among other things, to the power of humans to heal.

 

And so, I simply observed what the AMD waterfall was doing to Two Lick Creek.  The environmental effects were clear.  As I continued to float downstream, the rocks grew tainted and orange, the river grew cloudy and I could no longer see the bottom.  As the river flowed, the tainted water slowly worked its way into the creek–and entire water grew cloudy and the rocks took on an orangish hue.  It wasn’t a serious case of AMD (like my photo above, another creek that nobody interacts with).  Still, nobody was fishing here, that’s for sure.

 

However, the environmental effect wasn’t the most surprising thing on the river that day, instead it was the shift in human-nature interactions. As I floated past the AMD waterfall, I witnessed an invisible “line.”  North of the AMD waterfall, people interacted with the river. They had chairs out behind their houses by it, they had benches, they had little docks, they were out fishing and enjoying the river, and so on. However, after the AMD waterfall, people no longer wanted to be near the river, and they worked to distance themselves from it.  The difference was very striking. People put up fences and walls, dumped their garbage and burn piles near the river, and simply didn’t not go near it.  It became a neglected thing. Despite the same kinds of houses and people and access to the river upstream and downstream, after the river had AMD, it was no longer wanted or desirable. I realized that it wasn’t just that the waterfall tainted the physical water in the river–it also tainted people’s interactions with it.  Pollution literally disconnected humans from nature.

 

In other words, even a small amount of pollution turned the river from something people cared about to something people didn’t.  It turned the river into a site of enjoyment and connection with nature to something to avoid looking at or interacting with.

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected (and you can see clear to the bottom–and avoid the rocks!)

 

AMD water...

Downstream: Cloudy, Irony, and human disconnected…(and it’s hard to see to the bottom, and thus, you hit the rocks)

I wonder how often this happens. As lands are polluted or damaged, people no longer want to interact with them.  When people stop caring, stop interacting, even more pollution is allowed to occur.  The pollution itself disconnects us from the land and the more polluted things get, the less we want to interact. Even I, as a druid and land healer, a person who has long faced these things with open eyes and an open heart, had a first reaction of wanting out of that river as soon as I saw what had happened to it.

 

You can see how we have come to the point, in this time of so much pollution and damage, to where people aren’t in nature at all. Why would you want to spend time next to (or on) a polluted river? In a logged forest? Hiking among fracking wells?  (Only crazy druid healers do such things, that that’s spiritual work, not leisure!)  If that’s the only options you have, it is no wonder so many humans are so disconnected.

 

I am left with two profound insights from this experience. First, the work of land healing has an additional dimension that I had previously not realized.  Just like in the permaculture ethical triad of earth care, people care, and fair share: we see these things all entirely linked with the others.  If we can restore nature to a state of health and allow her to thrive, we can help heal not only the land, but the human-land connections (and in doing so, the humans themselves). This allows more interaction with the land, more connection with the land, and helps us grow more “places that people care about.” To me, care and nurturing is an essential quality of helping us, as a species, return to being in a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with nature.  And so, if we heal nature, we can start to heal those connections.

 

But secondly, if we see ourselves and our work as a metaphor for a river, we can gain insights. In journeying down the river, you get to see the growth of the river over time. As each spring or stream flowed into the river, the river’s power and size grew. The creek began, at the start of my journey, about 15 feet across, and by the time I pulled my kayak out of the water 6 miles later, it was spanning 30 or 40 feet. The small “creek” had grown into a river with power, carving out rock faces as it went.  And so, I see the tributaries as people, and all of us, combined as one, could accomplish much more than a single spring or trickle. There is power in these combined currents, just as there is power in numbers of people working together. This is something that I’ve been learning firsthand since taking the first steps to establishing our intentional community here–but also something that I’ve long seen the value of in various kinds of sustainable living (like permablitzes, barn raising or community groups).

 

As much as we, collectively, are the river, we also need to look for the sources of pollution–those things or people that will cloud us and prevent us from being our true and whole selves.  Otherwise, our entire river can become tainted, just like the AMD tainted this river–and that changes everything.  Tainted waterways can be remediated, of course, and perhaps, there are more lessons in this as well.

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Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part II: Relationships of Work and Time February 19, 2017

In the US, it seems that the first question people ask is, “what do you do?”  When they say that, of course, they are not talking about how you spend your leisure time, but rather, the work that you do for pay. This is the most defining characteristic of modern lives–because this is tied to the thing our culture holds as most sacred: money.  Money is the only metric that has any real value and the pursuit of money drives all else. If you aren’t working in the workforce earning pay, either the work are doing is devalued (as any stay-at-home parent can attest) or there is something very wrong with you (as in, why aren’t you out there earning money?). This current economic system, driven by industrial mindsets surrounding profit and efficiency, gives us a rather poor metric through which to measure ourselves and our value.

 

Last week, I explored a bit of the history of our current cultural value system with regards to work by examining humans’ earlier relationships with work and time. In today’s post, I’m going to bring us into the present age, and explore some of the issues surrounding modern relationships with our work and how these relationships are tied to underlying cultural value systems of exponential growth, the love of money, and the myth of progress. I do so because our modern relationships with work and money are directly linked to our ability to slow down and engage in anything else meaningful: a spiritual path, sustainable living, communing with the trees, etc. I also want to take a moment to thank so many of you for your incredibly thoughtful and useful comments in last week’s post–I hope we can continue to discuss these issues!

 

Modern Overworking and Productivity

As above, so below

As above, so below

David Graeber wrote a controversial essay in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (this essay is free online, but the site that typically hosts it seems to be down, so I found it on the Internet Archive here if you want to read).  He outlines how, for almost a century, with the rise of fossil fuels and the various technologies, we’ve had reports that increased technology combined with more fossil fuel use would lead us to an increase of leisure time.  In fact, in the 1930’s, John Maynard Keynes suggested that by the year 2000, we could have work weeks as little as 15 hours a week.  For those of you keeping track, this assumption is also wrapped up in the myth of progress that I described in detail in last week’s post.

 

In fact, we are technically capable of working a lot less, at least by modern economic metrics (which, for the purposes of this post, I’ll take at face value). An analysis from Eric Rauch of MIT suggests that today, the average “productivity level” of a worker (that is, how much a worker gets done in a day) has gone up tremendously over the last century, particularly since the rise of modern communication systems.  Today’s workers get done in 11 hours what the average worker in 1950 got done in 40; productivity levels have been on a steady rise for the better part of 70 years.  Graeber reports that as late as the 1960’s, people were still expecting those future 15-hour weeks. Yet, the average work week is now over 50 hours for at least half of Americans (and for some, considerably over 50 hours). So where is all of the extra time going?  Why do we seem to be the most unhappy, and most productive, of workers?

 

Most of this seems to stem from our relationship to consumerism and money, not necessarily from work itself.  Julie Schor, economist and author of The Overworked American: The Decline of American Leisure demonstrated that  workers unions often will nearly always choose higher pay and benefits over shorter working hours. The same is true of non-unionized workers: if faced with the choice between less work and more pay, workers almost invariably choose more pay and give up their leisure time as a result. The idea of not taking more work for more pay seems unfathomable to many. This is, I believe, due to the underlying value system that privileges money and little else combined with an assumption that growth (in wages, in standing at one’s job) is a desirable and necessary pursuit.

 

I have a good example of this from my own life: a few years ago at my previous university position, I was asked to consider stepping into a major administrative role much higher up the food chain so to speak, overseeing a large and growing major. This job offered almost a 40% pay increase from what I was currently making. However, this new job was not appealing to me in the slightest. For one, would take me away from all the things I enjoyed about my job, namely my teaching my students and the discovery I was able to do as a researcher, and replace it with more work I didn’t enjoy. For two, it also meant losing my flexible schedule, working many more hours, and it would require that all my working hours be on campus. Consequently, due to the longer daily working hours, I would have had to deal with rush hour traffic twice a day that I had learned to otherwise avoid.  This meant even less time on my homestead, and in winter months, leaving before the sun rose and getting home after the sun set (think of the chickens!).  And so, I gently declined the position. When word got around that I had declined what was clearly a “step up” in my career, my colleagues couldn’t understand why.  No answer I could give was sufficient. Finally, I came up with the one answer always acceptable to academic audiences: I wanted to focus on my research (that is, I preferred the noble goal of making new knowledge and sacrificed higher pay to do so). Giving people the true answer: that I liked the work I currently did,and that I didn’t, gods forbid, want even more work on my plate or a more restricted schedule, was simply not an acceptable answer and giving it would have considerably harmed my reputation. This is because more money and higher status is always the choice you should make given the cultural value system that privileges earnings above most else.

 

One book that really helped me make sense of this decision to keep a lower paying, lower hour, more flexible position was a book called Your Money or Your Life.  This book puts out, in direct terms, a system for monitoring the relationship between your time and your work and draws clear the distinction between the two.  In a series of exercises, you calculate your “real” hourly wage (not what you are paid, but what you actually make after you subtract work-associated costs, transpiration, transportation time, and the downtime/recovery time that is lost after work that you need to recover from it). It also has you monitor your spending and identify ways in which that spending is or is not in line with your value system. When you do these activities, it really helps you change your relationship with your work and your finances.  I’ll talk more about this approach in my third post on this series–but suffice to say, this book helped change my own relationship with money and made me realize that I made the right decision.

 

Another major issue contributing to overwork is that the current work system intentionally privileges overwork. For one, many people fear losing their jobs such that they have to do whatever their employers tell them to, and will, and that means among other things, much longer hours at lower pay (hence one of many reasons that the middle class is shrinking and pay is stagnant). For two, most workers no longer possess much autonomy over their work, and so the amount of work they do is no longer determined by them. With the rising income disparity, more funding is going to boated administrative positions at the cost of the average and lower-paid workers who then suffer  more administrative oversight (see next paragraph).  Finally, the more “productive” one is compared to one’s peers, the more one is rewarded. For those working hourly rates, the situation is even more dire: extremely low pay per hour requires them to work tremendously long hours at unpleasant jobs to take home a pittance. I think the underlying thing that is happening here is that we are supposed to want to work, we are supposed to want to earn good pay, we are supposed to be growing our salaries and our careers and we should be sacrificing all to do so.

 

David Graeber offers his own interpretation to some of the above: the creation of “bullshit jobs,” primarily of the administrative kind. He describes the new jobs like telemarketing and financial services and the “ballooning” of administration” in many areas. In terms of why this is so, Graeber writes, “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).”  He argues that many people find large portions of the work they do as meaningless, even if they do this work for pay (and often for a lot of it). Graeber notes that the resentment and “psychological violence” that builds up for those doing “bullshit jobs” and is inflicted upon those actually doing meaningful work.  Those who are doing meaningful work are often doing it for less pay, furthering resentment between all involved. A good example of this is the teaching, nursing, or social work professions: all folks engaging in really important work who do it for less pay and over overseen, increasingly, by administrators in bullshit jobs. Whether or not you buy Graeber’s argument, there is no doubt that today, people feel overworked, underpaid, and generally strained–all the while carrying around an unconscious value system that tells them they should keep earning profits.

 

Another piece of this I’ll note is the rise of the super-specialist system. Wendell Berry discusses this system briefly in the early chapters of the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. In the specialist model, we have replaced generalist workers that are good at a lot of things and are well rounded (like a small family farmer, handy person, etc) with super specialists who are really good at one thing. Increasingly, we feel the need to go to specialists for every little  thing (finances, health, food, haircuts, you name it). The rise of the specialist system reduces individual autonomy, flexibility, and freedom, requires infinitely more specialized (and in many cases, less meaningful) work.  But I also think that the rise of the specialist system makes us think that we can only be good at one thing (our specialized work) and so we must do that well above all else.

 

I could write more here, but I think my points have been sufficiently made: that workers in today’s system are both products of the system beyond their control (one engineered to make sure they don’t have leisure time), but also often make choices to maximize wealth and thus undermine their own leisure time due to tightening economic circumstances coupled with underlying cultural myths about growth and progress.  This system works such that we are exhausted at the end of the day, and we can’t do much else rather than spend all our time in front of screens pumping advertising that makes us buy things to keep the system chugging right along. Further, we depend on that system and many of us are in serious binds due to economics and decisions we made earlier in life. So now, I want to turn my attention to the costs that this system has on our emotional, spiritual, and physical well being.

 

The Physical Cost of Overwork: Our Nervous System

Physically, the amount of work we are doing, without much downtime and festivity (as explored last week), means that our bodies are less able to handle stress or any serious endeavors beyond just keeping going to our jobs. We begin “living to work” rather than “working to live.” I think the increased productivity levels means that most workplaces are more demanding, fast paced, and intense than even 10 years ago–so when we go, we are working harder, faster, and with less rest. I know in the time I’ve been in the academic workplace, the university is demanding a lot more for a lot less compensation. And this causes us physical harm and daily stress. Additionally, as we age, our bodies are different and cannot always work as much as we want them to. A recent study suggested, for example, that people over 40 are better workers with a three-day work week as opposed to a five day work week.

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

 

I’m going to put on my herbalist hat for just a moment and talk about the automatic nervous system, because it helps illustrate a few key things important to this issue of stress and overwork (and for more on this, I point to Hoffman’s Herbs for Stress and Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy). The automatic nervous system (which is outside of our conscious control) maintains and governs the vital functions of the body like digestion, circulation, heart rate, and breathing. It has two modes: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Earlier in human history, the sympathetic nervous system was used to get us out of immediate danger (oh noes! A big bear is chasing me!) In this state, anything that’s not immediately needed for survival, including our digestive system, our immune system and inflammatory responses, and our sexual system, are essentially shut down.The problem for those of us living as modern humans in these work-intensive and difficult times is that stress doesn’t work like it did in earlier points in human history. Most stress is not stress we can just run away from and relax—rather, its continual and grating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and isolated are three key signs of a continual sympathetic nervous system state. Due to modern demands, we make things worse by pushing our bodies to go even further using various common stimulants (sugar, coffee, caffeine, energy drinks—in fact, caffeine mimics adrenaline in the body). Prolonged stress responses encourage the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called Cortisol into the blood, which again mobilizes stored glucose and fat, suppresses the inflammatory response (how the body can heal from damage), and taxes the liver.

 

If the body continues to face stress, the body responds with what is known as  “general adaptation syndrome” – which is essentially a chronically stressed system—with the adrenal glands releasing all of the cortisone they can for as long as they can. Long-term exposure to Cortisol taxes the liver and can lead to digestive problems, muscular tension, poor joint health, high blood pressure, various reproductive system issues. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, the body is exhausted and suffers what is known as “adrenal burnout” or “adrenal exhaustion.” Our bodies cannot go forever on and on, and at this stage, we have severely decreased ability to deal with stress, severe mental and physical exhaustion, and higher susceptibility to illness and disease.

 

If you are feeling exhausted when you are relaxing, you know that your body has been running in sympathetic mode long term. A few other common signs are waking up tired and not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep or getting sick as soon as you go on vacation. Because so many people are running on General Adaptation Syndrome, when they finally do get back to a parasympthetic state (say on vacation), they immediately fall ill and feel exhausted—this is feeling the true state of affairs in the body. In 2015, for example, 24% of Americans were experiencing “extreme stress” and general stress levels have continued to rise. Given healing, self care, and downtime, the body can fully heal.

 

I believe that the above information is likely why television and other media are such huge attractions.  Adrenally depleted people cannot muster the energy to do much–getting something to eat and crashing with Netflix is what a lot of folks do at the end of the day because they are physically incapable of anything else.  This, too, is a cost of our work.

 

The Non-Physical Costs of Overwork

Schor notes that the decline of American leisure time has resulted in what she calls “loss of independence.” Likewise, literary figure Herman Mellville wrote in a letter to a family member, “Whoever is not in possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence.” The more that our working hours are wrapped up in our jobs or other responsibilities (meaningful or not), and the more time we spend outside of that work as exhausted and adrenal depleted zombies, the less we are able to engage in any meaningful activity that doesn’t have to do with earning a living.  Independence is critical to our success in any endeavor or path beyond our work.

 

The second cost of overwork is wasted potential. This independence, this unstructured time, offers us potential and possibility. We have to determine how we enact that potential, of course, but the potential itself will never be there without the time and energy to do so.  In other words, overworking closes off potential and possibility for us all. Free time is like a bed of soil, freshly prepare for seeds and planting. We can choose to leave it barren or we can choose to cultivate something. But if we don’t even have access to that bed and the energy to plant anything, there is no way anything can grow. I think that humans have the potential for so much–creative gifts and tapping the flow of awen, doing good work in their communities and healing each other, healing the land, spiritual self discovery, deeper understanding–all of the things, really, that make us human.  But we need to the unstructured time to make that a reality.

 

A third thing I think we lose is the ability to learn and grow fully. Having leisure time means you have time to make mistakes, ponder about those mistakes, try some new, experiment, tinker, and so on. This is a really critical part of  learning anything, but certainly, its critical to develop any skill in the bardic art or in homesteading or planning a garden. We have to have time not only to learn, but practice, and on occasion, fail at things so we can get better. When are strained for time, we don’t have the space to do that. Because every bit of time is so precious, failure leads not to introspection but to seeing the time as “wasted” and to frustration.

 

A fourth thing that we lose is the ability to reflect an think carefully  about what is happening in our own lives and in the world around us.  For example,  how many people have you talked to (and maybe this has happened to you) where something major occurs and rather than process it and deal with it, they keep working and never really think about the issue. Maybe this thing is a tragedy and they bury the pain of it, or maybe it is something really wonderful–and neither can be thought about or processed. Losing our ability to be reflective means we don’t integrate lessons and experiences and grow as people. I think this work so critical to us–both in terms of our spiritual paths, but also in terms of our humanity.

 

A fifth thing we lose is the ability to connect with each other or the land. Harried work schedules coupled with adrenal fatigue means we don’t have time for others in our lives: to reach out, to send a card, to have a nice cup of tea by the fire, or to commune with the non-human aspects of the world. It takes time to build and maintain connections, and without them, we are isolated and alone.

 

And I think at this point, I’ve come full circle to the issues that I opened with in my last post: wanting to live in line with my principles and never seeming to have the energy and time to do so.  I’ve explored some of the problems and causes that I think are contributing to these phenomenon (in my own life, in the lives of my friends, and broader for many people).  Next week, we’ll move to the next stage of this process: what to do about it.  In the meantime, friends, I hope you can find some leisure time and enjoy it!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time February 12, 2017

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.

 

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

Life in the Extraction Zone: Complex Relationships of Livelihood and Land November 13, 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

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

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

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

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

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

 

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

 

Economic Views

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Historical Views

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

 

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

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Way Forward

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Druid’s Perspective on Fracking, Part I: Why We Should Care June 12, 2016

As my blog readers are aware, a year ago, I returned back to my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western Pennsylvania after living in other parts of the country for most of my adult life. Now let me be clear–this is home for me, and in returning, I knew I was entering an area with some severe environmental challenges.  And regardless of what is happening here with regards to fracking, acid mine runoff, logging, strip mining, mountaintop removal, or anything else, there is something about being in your home ecosystem, near family, and near where your ancestors are buried.  However, I did not return to the same Pennsylvania that I left.  In the time I’ve been gone, a massive shift has occurred on our landscape here because of natural gas exploration–both conventional gas drilling and deep injection well (fracking) drilling–which is destructive to our lands, waterways, and health. Since returning last year, I’ve been working to understand why fracking is happening, what is actually happening to the land energetically, and what we can do about it.

 

Since I haven’t seen many other druids or earth-centered folks writing about this topic who are actually living near these kinds of situations, I think its an important one to cover on this blog. I plan on doing this in a three part series (not all necessarily back to back; these posts are hard to write)–this first post will tackle why fracking isn’t just a problem for people living in areas of fracking, but it is everybody’s problem from an environmental, social, health, and spiritual perspective. The second will take a deeper look into the energetics of fracking and what we can do about it as land healers and energy workers, and the final post will report some good news from two groups who have been actively fighting fracking and oil pipelines. I may have another post in there as well–we’ll see how it goes, but that’s the current plant.  I know these are tough topics, but I think much good can come of these posts, and our discussion, about what to do.

Wells as of 2012, map with my modifications

Wells as of 2012, map with my modifications

Fracking as a “far away” problem…

When I lived far away, in Michigan, I had heard about fracking, everybody has. I had felt bad about it, but we were dealing with pipelines of our own there and some other issues, and fracking seemed like a “far away” problem.  I think this is how a lot of people feel about it if they aren’t living in the immediacy of it. When it appears to be a far away problem, you can be mentally invested, and say “wow, that sucks” and do what you can (in our case, our grove over fracking arranged through the Warrior’s Call group).
What I’d like to suggest today, however, is that it is a close-up problem that matters to all of us. Through this exploration, I’ll show the ethical, social, environmental, and spiritual implications of fracking and why each of us should be seriously concerned about this issue.

 

Reason #1: No land is immune to energy (or other) exploitation. Resources abound in our great planet, and resources are getting more and more scarce. It is likely that you live in an area that has some resources and is under some kind of duress: mines, mountaintop removal, factory, industrial agricultural runoff, tar sands, pipelines, nuclear power plants, the list goes on and on. And in fact, gas drilling of many kinds (including fracking) is quite common. I’m sure each of my readers can share a story of something happening nearby, something that is worrisome or destructive. It might be that fracking is one of the more egregious of these practices, but by no means the only one.

 

From a spiritual, ethical, or community standpoint–I argue that the fine details aren’t actually as important as the bigger picture implications: someone is trying to extract some resource from the land for a profit, and usually doing it in a manner that is harmful to all life around that extraction and taking shortcuts for higher profits.

 

I believe we have a lot to learn from fracking, as a case study, for all ways in which the earth is damaged and desecrated. In the coming weeks, I’ll share a case study of two communities who used a variety of tools to fight back against fracking and oil pipelines–and win. Just like the abolitionist movements, and many other social movements across the history of time, we need to be better equipped to stand up to companies who want to pillage our land’s resources, pollute our rivers, or whatever else. In other words, we should care about fracking because this can teach us a lot about how to protect our lands everywhere and everywhere is under potential threat from these, and other similar practices.

 

And the alternative is that as one practice becomes acceptable and tolerated, other destructive processes can follow. Suddenly it’s ok to do all kinds of destructive things, and we need to hold firm and say, no, it is very much not ok.

 

Screenshot of Alleghney National forest (from Google Maps)

Screenshot of Allegheny National forest (from Google Maps)

Reason #2: Public lands, lands that we collectively own, are at the most risk and need our protection. In the USA (and I hope readers from other places will comment and share about what is happening in their countries) a lot of fracking is happening on public lands. Those are lands that belong to each of us, that are there for the good of all, to preserve and protect–not for the good and profit of energy companies.

 

If you want to see some of this firsthand, follow this link, which takes you to GeoCommunicator, a map service of the US Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management. This shows you all of the “energy” exploration, pipelines, wells, and more that are located on public lands. A second case in point not so far from me is the Allegheny National Forest, which is being extremely threatened by this exploration (here’s a one overview of drilling on public lands  and here is a second article about the Allegheny National Forest).  The Allegheny National Forest is, as the name suggests, a national forest, set aside for preservation and beauty.  That was, until fracking.

 

Public lands have a long history of exploitation. Our present model of public lands makes no sense to me.  It combines ethics of conservation for individuals (don’t touch it, leave no trace, don’t interact with it, stay on the paths) with plenty of opportunity for exploitation for companies and corporations (logging,  fracking, bottling water, and other activities are OK).  For example, I’m not supposed to pick any wild blueberries, but logging companies can come in and log 15,000 acres sustainably on those same lands.  The gas and fracking wells here strip the land all around the well, making roads, bringing in heavy machinery, which requires clear cutting, and then maintain the wells by spraying all around the wells with chemicals every few weeks.   The wells themselves, of course, are subject to spillage.  When you get within 20 feet of a well, with it’s toxic and keep away signs, the well really stinks.  I have seen this firsthand both with traditional gas wells as well as fracking wells.  Traditional gas wells are smaller, but still have this kind of cutting and spraying.  Fracking wells are much larger, and take up a lot of space for roads, clearings, etc.

 

One older version of a public lands model used the framework of the commons. A commons, at least in Western heritage, developed in several places, including in feudal England. A commons may have been owned collectively or by one person, but each person had “rights” with regards to the common–most often these included grazing rights, foraging rights (for food, firewood), fishing rights, and so on.  But today, we might re-envision the idea of a commons as a place where all of us (including plants and animals) have rights, and those rights include the right to life and the right to spend time there. If these are common lands, owned by the public–that is, you and me–than it seems that personal profits, like through fracking, are simply unacceptable.  We all have a stake in these public lands and their long-term preservation for ourselves, for the land’s inhabitants, and for future generations of all life.

 

Reason #3: Fracking has severe implications for health of people and lands far and wide. On the broadest sense, the issue of fracking matters because, in permaculture design terms, it is an ethical issue spanning both people care and earth care. Obviously, the most immediate issues are the health challenges for those humans, plans, animals, birds, insects, etc who live immediately around the wells, and those humans who work at the wells. This has all kinds of implications: we know fracking chemicals are radioactive, we know they are linked to severe health effects, and they have tremendous impact on the land (air pollution, water pollution, earthquakes, and more). We also know that not nearly enough research has been done exploring these implications and connections due to a host of factors, many of which span from unknown and propriety chemical mixes in fracking water.
And yet, despite the lack of lots of research, the health issues (human, environmental) are are well known, and severe. They are also common sense–dumping billions of tons of chemicals, poisons, and radioactive wastewater into any ecosystem is a sure way to make that ecosystem sickly. A lot of people think that these issues are only connected to local ecosystems, but that’s not the case–see my next few points.

 

Reason #4: Water Flows. The ethical and health challenges are not limited to where the fracking happens.  Water flows, and water cycles. How far, for example, will those fracking chemicals travel from waterways here in Western PA and other parts?  Nearly all of our rivers here flow into the Ohio River, which flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The other hot spots of fracking include North Daktoa (also traveling into the Mississippi by way of the Missouri), Oklahoma and Texas (much of which is flowing into the Red River, also flowing into the Mississippi).  This means, at multiple points, the waterways are being tainted, eventually ending up in the ocean. Of course, if you are in California, they just dump it right into the ocean or put it on crops (see below). But even if the trillions of tons of wastewater is injected deep in the ground, as it continues to be, there is growing concern that it is very likely not to stay there. Currently, over 30 trillion tons of fracking wastewater sits now beneath our lands, in our aquifers, they may remain poisoned for hundreds of years.

 

I don’t have to tell you, dear readers, that water is sacred, that water is life.  When we poison those waters, what are we left with?

 

Reason #5: Your Food is Possibly being Grown with Fracking Wastewater

How many fruits, vegetables, or nuts have you eaten from California lately?  How many have been labeled organic?  A number of recent articles has uncovered that due to the drought in California, and the increasing challenges oil companies have in disposing their hazardous fracking wastewater, they have instead sold it to farmers to irrigate their crops–including some certified organic farmers.   So in addition to poisoning the waterways, we are also poisoning the soil.  This whole thing terrifies me–we still don’t know what is in the fracking wastewater (see #7, below), and I can’t imagine that any cleaning process really has the ability to clean it fully.

 

Reason #6: Fracking, Mental Health, Spirituality, and Spending Time in Nature. As many have noted, mental health is in a crisis in developed nations, certainly in the USA. A growing number of people have argued that at least a portion of the mental health crisis has to do with the stress in living in a crumbling world and learning to accept that reality. Even if you aren’t explicitly reading or thinking about it, a lot of us know, intuitively, that something is very wrong and that stress manifests mentally in a variety of ways.

 

Close up of park trails - look at all those wells!

Close up of park trails – look at all those wells on public land!

This is part of why returning to nature, and seeking spiritual connection with nature, is so important.  In the words of the bumper sticker on my car: “trees are the answer.” Scientists, who often “discover” truths that those following earth-based spiritual paths already know–and nature certainly heals. You may have recently come across the articles about “nature” as the prescription to the mental health woes plaguing so many people in industrialized settings.  Of course, we druids and earth-based spiritual folks already know this–this is why we spend so much time in nature–it is good for the spirit, the mind, the body, and the heart.

 

But what happens if we can no longer go seek solace in nature? What happens  when you head to public lands, which is where many of us go, and instead, find gas and fracking wells there? I’ve experienced this firsthand so often (and for reasons why, I refer you to the first graphic I posted with this blog). To me, the saddest thing at present is that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy local natural areas without being near gas wells–it seems impossible to have an “escape” from all of it.  You know, where you can go, hike a bit, relax, let the mind settle, and just regain some peace and balance from this insane world being only among the trees.  In my current reality, I go for a walk, and ever 10 or so minutes, I come across another stinky well.  I had this happen to me just last week at a local park, and literally every time I enter most of the parks around here. For a direct example, you can see a full PDF of the map of the park I recently visited at this link; I’ve also included a screenshot above.   If you look at the map, you’ll notice the prominent “Gas Wells.” I’ll note that these are not deep injection wells here, but older gas wells. Other parks do have deep injection wells in the area that I’ve come across. If nature is a place of relaxation and solace, that is simply impossible if our forests are covered in gas wells (and gas roads, and underground gas lines, ec). Nearly all the parks in my area are full of them.  I’ll write more about this issue and its connection to spiritual life in an my second post.

 

I think there are serious implications for not only the mental health, but the spiritual life, of people who live in these areas.  Nature is no longer a sacred sanctuary, but a constant reminder of many of the challenges we face in the world.

 

Reason #7: Regulations are Minimal or Non-Existent (and violated)

One of the big challenges is that fracking happened very quickly, science happens slowly, and the regulations that do exist are woefully out of date.  At this point, we still don’t even know what is in most of the fracking wastewater mixes.  We don’t know if it’s safe to dispose of them as they have been (injection wells). What w do know is that government regulators have repeatedly looked the other way; have taken few steps to do anything to protect the land or her people from these real dangers.

 

In PA, one in six fracking sites have violations (or even more, in some states), and the implications of those violations are severe.  As Jeff Inglis writes in Fracking Failures, there is a lack of regulatory practices, and when regulatory practices exist, they are frequently violated.  He writes, “Fracking is an inherently polluting practice…The evidence bears this out. As demonstrated in this report, fracking operators in Pennsylvania regularly violate essential environmental and public health protections. Even key industry players who have pledged to clean up their acts are still breaking the rules and damaging the environment.”

 

As someone who walks a nature-centered path, I believe that it is my sacred responsibility to protect the land, to be a guardian, a healer, and an ambassador. As part of that work, I feel I must not turn a blind eye towards this. If we don’t pay attention, if we don’t ask questions, if we don’t exert pressure–who will?

 

Reason #8: The Opposition to Silence

I started to write on this topic (not sure if it would ever make it into my blog) because of the silence, even from the progressive folks, on the matter.  Of course it’s not something I want to talk about, or want to deal with, but the implications of this aren’t just about me.  They are about all of the land, waterways, and life, everywhere. I’ve written on the issue of silence before, and in this case, the silence is deafening.  People here don’t talk about the wells that are literally outside their backyards, smack dab in the middle of their community garden, all through their farmlands, through their parks, and behind their schools.  Its like we have turned a blind eye to the fact the wells are even present, that they are a non-issue here.  And so, I break the silence.

 

Now I want to be clear–this stuff is everywhere, and there are millions and millions of tons of fracking wastewater.  I also want to note that this is just what has been reported, what we actually know.  The scary thing to me is that there’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know: what’s in the wastewater, what are the long-term implications; how long whatever is in it lingers in the soil….if you eat, if you breathe, if you drink water–this is a concern.

 

 

I hope, at this point, that it is clear why paying attention to fracking as a “close up” problem matters, and why we all have a stake in this issue.  I’ll be talking a lot more in my next post in this series about what this, and other kinds of energy exploitation, does to damage human-land connections and the energetic implications of this work.

 

 

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection May 14, 2016

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?