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A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part V: Nature Reciprocity

The principle of “seven generations” comes to us from the Iroquois nation, where is considered to be the “Great Law of the Iroquois.”  This principle said that each decision that was made needed to consider not just the immediate future but the 7th generation, those yet unborn. This principle has become closely tied with modern sustainability movements, where there is a growing understanding that for any society and ecosystem to endure, they must be treated in a way that nurtures and sustains, rather than pillages and depletes. This is a fairly radical idea to a Western culture, where concepts like manifest destiny and the relentless pursuit of growth that have driven westerners literally spent centuries pillaging the land, colonizing new places, driving out native peoples, stripping forests bare, and so forth. This idea of recirpocation is essentially foreign to most growing up in the shadows of that exploitative past.

 

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Of course, those living nature-based spiritual paths, like druidry, are struggling with the dissonance between this cultural path and finding a new relationship with nature.  And so, going to connect with nature deeply, however, and we come from a cultural heritage where the kinds of behaviors I listed above are normalized, and where we benefit from them, whether or not we want to, then reciprocation becomes even more critical to understand and embrace.  In the last few weeks, we’ve been delving deeply in to the different ways that druids and other earth-honoring individuals can connect with nature. We’ve looked at nature wisdom, how to learn about nature in various ways and nature engagement, where we can learn to use nature to build value and connection. We’ve also considered nature reverence last week.  This week, we think about reciprocity, where we learn to give more than we take, and create a sustaining and regenerative relationship with the living earth.

 

Reciprocation

Inherent in the use of nature (which we discussed two weeks ago) and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. The term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves in time (with or without human help). But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good and it doesn’t necessarily take the view that humans have taken too much.  Here in the USA; white settlers to this land found it full of incredible richness and abundance–all the while omitting the people and practices that made that abundance happen–these lands were carefully tended Native American tribes for millenia. In a few short centuries, the old forests are gone, the extraordinarily productive food forests are no more, and many species are dwindling.  It is for this reason that it isn’t enough to “sustain” what exists, but instead, give more than we take, help regenerate and heal, and do good on the land–all the work of reciprocation.  I believe that this kind of work helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs–and ultimately, our own survival.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

The principle of reciprocity with nature:
Conserving life and natural spaces;
Regenerating and healing ;
Making offerings within and without

 

Conserving Nature

I honor the conservationists of the 19th and 20th century in the US as ancestors: each time I am able to visit wild lands, public lands, and national parks, I see the tireless work of their hands and hearts present in each stone placed upon the path, each tree that was protected and not felled, each natural wonder that is still present and public for me to witness. And so, one way to connect through nature and do the work of nature reciprocation is through conservation activities.

 

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Multiple schools of thought exist within the larger conservation movement; the US National Park service offers these two different definitions: conservation focuses on protecting natural resources and regulate the sustainable use of nature; preservation focuses on protecting landscapes and protecting nature from any use and eliminate human impact entirely. As druids and nature-spirituality oriented people, part of our own ethic and interaction with nature must come to terms with these two perspectives, and perhaps, seek a third perspective that is more fitting with our own ethics and path. For me, neither of these perspectives deal with the inherent sacredness of nature or reciprocation, and so in the end, I find both to be lacking for various reasons. I don’t have a better word than “conserve” nature, and people know what I mean by that, so I’ll set this debate aside (but its good to realize that this debate exists when using the term!)

 

Conservation can take on many different forms from independent individual action to getting involved in groups to donating to causes.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Sanctuaries for Life. If you own land, you can work to create and maintain various sanctuaries.  Organizations like the World Wildlife Federation and Monarch Watch, as well as possibly your State Extension program (if you live in the US) offer tools and information to help you establish wildlife sanctuaries, butterfly habitats, and so forth.  I have found that doing this kind of work has several benefits: one, it is educational for you as you learn more about these practices; two, once you gain the signage, it is good information for neighbors and others who may be wondering why you are doing something obviously different with your land; three, it is excellent “awareness raising” for those same neighbors, who ask questions and want more information. Finally, it supports good organizations doing additional conservation work.
  • Join a local organization and participate. Nearly everywhere, local organizations are dedicated to helping conserve and preserve the natural ecosystem.  Where I live, there is a lot of work being done on rivers, and one of the organizations I frequently donate to and assist is an organization called the Evergreen Conservancy, who has funded several large projects to clean up acid mine drainage from local rivers (including one that I now enjoy kayaking on). I love the work this organization is doing, it is local to my county, and I can easily get to know folks and participate.  You can physically see the results in the clean flowing water.
  • Learn about a species or two and focus your energy. Another way of thinking about conservation is to focus in on a few species, or one species, and learn about how to protect that species. I’m really interested in some of the species that United Plant Savers works with, particularly, Appalachian herbs that are so quickly disappearing from the ecosystem like American Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Trilium, and more and I’ve been focusing my energy on those herbs.
  • Attend Clean ups and other events: Often, communities, parks, and local organizations will arrange for various clean up activities–river cleanups, trail cleanups, tree plantings, removing invasive species, etc.  They often need a lot of volunteers, so this is another way to engage in conservation.

These activities are only some options–there are so many more out there! are about establishing and engaging in relationship; by working with healing any part of the land, you are working to reciprocate.

 

Regenerating and Healing Nature

The above conservation activities are based on existing ecosystems–protecting them, making sure they remain in good condition, offering care. But many of our landscapes are not pristine or in need of conservation–they are in need of regeneration and healing. And so, taking a more permaculture design perspective, we might think about reciprocation as land healing work–both physical healing as well as spiritual/energetic healing, as both are necessary. Usually, these places are right outside of our doors: the lawn, the little strip of abandoned land between the road and the back of your workplace, the recently logged forest behind your house.  I’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog detailing this practice already, so here are a few of my favorite

  • Making and Scattering Seed balls: Scattering seeds of rare species (such as those on the United Plant Savers’ list) using seed balls, or planting species out in places where they are needed. This work requires quite a bit of knowledge (as you want to make sure you are planting native plants, not spreading ones that may cause harm). As part of this, I have developed a “refugia” garden that are designed to produce seeds and cuttings that I can then propagate elsewhere.
  • Lawn Regeneration and Yardens: A second regeneration activity is working to create ecosystems in place of lawns.  Lawns are often places of consumption; they offer little to wildlife or insect life.  By converting some sections of lawns to various gardens (pollinator-friendly gardens, even with good eats) you can help develop more robust ecosystems for birds, wildlife and insects to thrive.  Here is an example of a larger site using permaculture principles (my former homestead in Michigan).
  • Carbon Sequestration: Home-scale and community-based carbon sequestration This is something that is only beginning to be talked about.  We already know that forests are one of the best carbon sinks–so planting trees and allowing trees to grow is one way to contribute. In Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, 1/10th of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Oasis in the City, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates describe their work with carbon sequestration – through composting initiatives and biochar, they calculated that in a few years, they had sunk about 400 lbs of carbon into their soil.  Increasing soil fertility often increases the carbon in soil.
  • Composting:  A lot of active healing of the land focuses not only on planting things but on keeping the land we have healthy. Landfills are a serious problem, both in terms of land space and land use, but also in terms of what goes into them.  By starting a composting pile or joining a composting initiative, you can divert some of your food waste and turn it into productive soil–that can then be used to convert lawns to gardens, grow tomatoes, and more!
  • Larger Initiatives that regenerate and heal: There are a lot of larger initiatives that are worth considering–many of these would fall under “regenerative activities”.  One that I’ve been interested in lately is stormwater runoff.  Stormwater is a huge problem for most of the temperate places in the world that have roofs, parking lots, roads, etc.  Most communities, counties, or states have laws that govern how stormwater must be handled before it goes into rivers and streams–but many of these laws are not upheld. By working in groups and as communities, we can install rain gardens, more friendly surfaces, living roofs, and other ways of protecting and keeping waterways clean from further damage.

 

Using permaculture principles and practices, and using sound judgement, we can land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health.  I have primarily focused on the things you can do in the mundane/outer world in terms of healing and regeneration; next week, we’ll talk more about inner things you can do that also focus on reciprocation and blessing. I also want to note that if the above kinds of things appeal to you, consider studying permaculture design further–I found this to be one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done, and it really helped me shift my own mindset and know that I could be a force of good and make a difference in terms of healing the land. There are permaculture design certificate courses that you can take all over the world, including some totally free ones that can be done virtually.

 

Offerings to Nature

Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. In some cultures, failure to make such offerings had dire consequences for those who depended on nature for survival–famine, pestilence, and so on might occur.  For other cultures, offerings were more symbolic in order to help facilitate a good harvest. And so, while first two areas with regards to nature reciprocation are things you can physically do, the final area is much more energetic and magical in nature–it is primarily a gesture of goodwill and honoring nature.

 

There are lots of ways that we can build offerings into our practice as druids and nature-centered spiritual practitioners.  Since the tradition doesn’t have a specific way of making an offering (as other traditions may), the choice of offering is very much up to you.  I wrote more specifically about sustainable and meaningful offerings here, so I’ll only briefly summarize in this section and offer some suggestions.

  • Offerings of physical things: The general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  Many things that can be purchased are problematic because they put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging, etc).  I believe it is better to either gather your offerings, make them, or grow them.  They could be as simple as acorn caps that you have gathered in the fall and painted a symbol on (I used something like this for many years).  I currently use a sacred offering blend that I grow myself; I posted a recipe on my blog for my sacred herbal offering blend this not too long ago.
  • Offerings as Rituals: Offerings don’t just have to be physical things. Many offerings can also be ceremonial in nature; like a land blessing or healing ceremony.  A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of a ceremony that enacts the principle of reciprocation, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.
  • Offerings as Time/Life Energy: The above areas (conservation and regeneration) are also offerings–they are offerings of your time and life energy.  If done with sacred intent and intentionality, I believe these are some of the best offerings you can make to the land and her spirits.
  • Offerings of Creative Gifts: You can make an offering by playing music (which plants respond to), drumming, or dancing as well.  These can be gifts offered to the land itself, or gifts shown to humans in honor of and inspired by nature.

When it comes to offerings, I think that your intentions are what matters most–that you are genuine, that you have given the offering considerable thought, and that you offer something that is meaningful.

 

Conclusion

As the Great Law of the Iroquois, the law of seven generations, suggests, reciprocation can be not only an activity for individuals, but also a cultural value, something that a group of people accept to be right and true.  If the earth is sacred, we can treat her in a sacred manner that does not deplete her, and practice reciprocation in our interactions with her. To me, reciprocation is at the core of what nature spirituality can offer, what it can aspire to be, and what its potential is–creating life-sustaining and life-affirming values, people who live those values, and someday, perhaps, life-affirming and nurturing societies.

Creating Sacred Spaces: Bee and Butterfly Sancturaries

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

In the depths of the winter, I like to do my planning for next year’s garden, organize my seeds, and start seeds for the coming season. This year, I’m thinking a lot about perennial spaces and planning more bee and butterfly plants to attract butterflies and give my bees more forage.  In this post, I’ll talk about the process of developing a bee and butterfly garden as a sacred sanctuary.  I currently have two small ones near my house, but I’m ready to expand it into much more of the landscape, especially into my front yard.

 

I’ve been interested in bees and butterflies for a long time, but it wasn’t until the township took issue with my front lawn and I started keeping bees that I started to really understand the nature of the issue.  The nature of the issue, as I see it, is this: Americans keep lawns and those lawns are like deserts to a pollinator–there is literally nothing for the bees and butterflies to eat in a typical lawn.  Dandelions might pop up, which is a great early pollen source for bees.  But as quickly as the dandelions pop up, they are mowed or treated with chemicals.  Monocrops are also a problem–where there are crops, they are often GMO with chemicals and insecticides bred into their DNA.  A third problem is in the greenhouse industry–a lot of flowers that you buy in the spring for planting come out of greenhouses covered in insecticides–if you plant those flowers, you are exposing the pollinators to poison and harming the bees even more.  All in all, its a sorry state of affairs for our pollinators and butterflies, and part of the reason why we are seeing such declines in bee populations (wild and domesticated) and in butterfly populations.

 

Bee and Butterfly Gardens as a Sacred Space

Native bee

Native bee

Given these rather dire circumstances, I want to turn our attention once more to the idea of the sacred space and sacred site, and I’d like to suggest that bee and butterfly sanctuaries might be another kind of sacred space we can create.  Because I think that sacred spaces for function for more than just humans–a sacred space, especially one created in an earth-centered tradition, hopefully will serve for many different kinds of life.  I’ve already discussed creating sacred spaces in this blog pretty extensively–from Understanding and Developing Sacred Sites in the US to how to create various kinds of sacred spaces such as stone circles, stone cairns, and other projects. I’ve also explored the garden as a sacred sanctuary.

There are a few ways to create a sacred space for pollinators, one that provides them with what they need in a chemical-free environment but also one that honors them in other ways. The best part about this is that a bee and butterfly garden is beautiful, functional, and, if you plan it right, always blooming and full of tasty treats and medicinal herbs.

 

Basic Needs for Pollinator Sanctuaries

The basic needs for a bee and butterfly sanctuary are:

 

1) A wide range of flowering plants, trees, and bushes that are flowering at different times to ensure a consistent nectar flow and pollen throughout the season.  Fruit trees provide early blossoms, goldenrod provides some of the last pollen of the year, and the host of wild flowers and bushes in between get them through the summer.  There is typically a “summer dearth” of nectar, so its also useful to plan for that and have flowers blooming during that time.

 

2) Pollinators need shelter. Its useful to study how different bees and butterflies in your region live so that you can provide what they need. Shelters for wild and domestic bees can be built, such as hives or shelters for mason bees. Bumblebees, another wild bee who is declining in population, live in colonies of 50-60 bees underground (the queen alone overwinters, also underground), so you want to make sure there are plenty of places for them to burrow where they won’t be disturbed.

 

Me in front of one of the butterfly gardens!

Me in front of one of the butterfly gardens!

3) Pollinators need water.  You might think about shallow dishes where the water is easily accessible and bees and butterflies can’t drown.  Many beekeepers keep a little bee fountain going–I have a large pond, so I put rocks along the edge near the beehives where they can land easily and get at the water easily without drowning.

 

4) Pollinators need host plants. Another thing that pollinators need, especially butterflies, are host plants.  These are plants, like milkweed, where they can lay eggs and where young will find the nutrients they need to grow.  These plants are things like milkweed (Monarch), spicebush (Spicebush swallowtail, below), clover, snapdragon, alfalfa, fennel (other swallowtails), sunflower, and marshmallow.

 

Options for Structuring Sacred Bee and Butterfly Gardens

Truly, any space will do for a bee and butterfly garden–I’d like to provide a range of ideas for different living circumstances.

 

1) The Pollinator Porch.  Even if all that you have is a small porch, you can make it a place of sacred activity, of reflection and introspection, and welcome the energy of the pollinators to your doorstep.  Pollinators are a joy to watch, and are not aggressive or mean (hornets can be, but they are not what you are attracting with flowering plants).  Even if its just a few pots of flowers and herbs that bloom at different times sitting on your porch, a pollinator porch can be a quiet place for you to relax, meditate, and enjoy the bee and butterfly show.

 

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed (yes, knapweed too has medicinal qualities!)

Butterfly on Spotted Knapweed

2) Pollinator Hedge.  In older European traditions, the “hedge” was an important part of any property–the hedgerows often had closely planted shrubs, trees, and a vibrant understory of medicinal plants and flowers–and a pollinator paradise.  Pollinators need places to rest and avoid the heat of the summer during the day–a hedge can provide that.  You can create a pollinator hedge around the edges of a property (this is what I have) as well as the edges  of a garden.  My hedge along the edge of my property works pretty much like this:  Inside on the property line: trees (including flowering hawthorn), edged by elder, blackberry, wild rose, and black raspberry (also that flower, and produce fruit and medicine for me and other wildlife); amongst this, various flowering plants are included, many of which sprung up wild: sweet clover (some would argue its invasive; I argue its the best food source my bees have at certain points of the year), golderod (medicinal, great late-season feed source), wild bergamot, boneset, and much more.  The hedge also provides me with a good deal of privacy, which I certainly value and makes the whole property encircled and protected.

 

Me running in robes along the hedge!

Me running in robes along the hedge!

3) Pollinator Garden Edges. Gardens are already magical and sacred places, and all the more so if we build spaces for pollinators. I got this idea from a friend who runs our campus student organic farm who planted ever-flowering plants, like calendula and blue queen sage, at the edge of each garden row.  This gives pollinators a place to come to within garden whether or not the other crops are blooming. You can add small shrines, stone cairns, and much more to garden spaces.  I think it adds more magic to an existing garden, and certainly creates space not just for food for people but also for the pollinators.  The alternative is to dedicate a pollinator row or two in the garden that is a permanent feature (or make a pollinator hedge around the outside).

 

4) Wildflower Fields.  A field of wildflowers, especially native wildflowers, is a wonderful way to dedicate space to for pollinators.  I generally just let my back field (about 1/2 an acre) left unmowed and it has been a wonderful experience to see what has taken up residence there.  The only thing I’ve done is I’ve to plant lots of different flowers in my field (when I arrived, it was primarily dominated by ox-eye daisy).  I’ve gotten St. Johns Wort, New England Aster, Milkweed, Boneset, and Goldenrod to grow there, and am trying for some other flowering and nectar plants this year.

 

Butterfly garden near garage

Butterfly garden near garage

5) Pollinator-friendly lawn. I’ve mentioned this before, but another way to help the pollinators out is to replace the grass with something that doesn’t require mowing and that is friendly to pollinators.  I’ve been working on planting large patches white dutch clover–the honey bees just love it.  I would place a blanket on the edge of the clover patch, read books, mediate, and watch the bees enjoy the clover–which bloomed for almost a month.

 

6) Pollinator gardens. I have dedicated gardens for pollenators, little nooks and crannies tucked in places where the herbs and flowers are abundant and blooming all season long!

 

Plants to Consider (Zone 5-7 suggestions)

There are a lot of opinions out there on what plants to plant (native, non-native, etc). I take a permaculture design perspective, which is to use groupings of plants that all produce different benefits, and form “guilds” that grow in the same areas as other plants.  In other words, I like to plant things that will create a natural ecosytem, encourage pollinator visits, and also enrich and nourish the soil.  One of the things you’ll notice about many of these plants is that they aren’t just good for the bees and butterflies–but many of them are also good for us (either as medicine or as an edible). Here are some of the ones I’m planning for my expanded gardens:

Butterfly Weed!

Butterfly Weed!

  • Sweet clover: I’ve never needed to plant sweet clover; it grows wild everywhere where one mows (you can see it growing boldly along the edges of paths, but not where the ground hasn’t been disturbed).  It also makes a great smudge herb and is an excellent medicinal herb.
  • Butterfly Bush: I’ve had a few butterfly bushes growing in my butterfly garden, and they are truly like nothing else.  They bloom late in the season when there is usually nectar dearth.  They are visited by more butterflies and bees (and even hummingbirds) than anything else growing in my yard.  Truely a beautiful and amazing plant.  They don’t take the cold winters well, however, and the deep freeze of last winter killed my bushes.
  • Butterfly Weed/ Pleurisy Root. A great medicinal plant, late bloomer, brilliant orange.
  • Milkweed. Many species of this exist; you’ll want some common milkweed for the monarchs. This is also a tasty wild edible!
  • Bee Balm / Wild Bergamot.  Another fantastic medicinal; this blooms and blooms and is wonderful for the bees.
  • Orageno.  Another long-blooming, medicinal, and culinary plant.
  • Anise Hyssop.  Delicious for teas, long-blooming, and very medicinal!
  • Blue Vervain. Medicinal, long-blooming, beautiful and tall!
  • Fruit trees. Fruit trees of all kinds provide very early blooms.  This includes hawthorns, apples, pears, peaches, plums, and apricots.
  • New England Aster.  This plant is a stunning purple in the fall, and blooms to give a last source of pollen and nectar.  Did I mention I pretty much cured my asthma with this plant?
  • Goldenrod. A lot of people think they are allergic to goldenrod, but its ragweed, which blooms at the same time as Goldenrod.  Goldenrod is a wonderful medicinal plant and is beautiful in the fields!
  • Purple Coneflower. Medicinal? Check.  Beautiful? Check!
  • St. Johns Wort. Mid-summer blooming plant, this is another one my bees love.  And its highly medicinal.
  • Joe Pye Weed.  A type of milkweed; medicinal and wonderful!
  • Most herbs. Most garden herbs have something the bees like–mints, lavender, sages, thymes, chives, etc!

 

Finally, here’s a shot of before and after with my butterfly garden.  I had friends help me put in the stone pathway from stones found here on the property.

"Before" area for butterfly garden

“Before” area for butterfly garden

"After" area for butterfly garden

“After” area for butterfly garden – year 1

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden from a distance (with arch, year 2); the area in the front is now a clover patch and doesn’t require mowing