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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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.