The Druid's Garden

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

A Spring Equinox Message: The Gifts of Druidry in the World March 20, 2016

Today marks the Spring Equinox, Alban Eiler, a time of new beginnings, of the balance between light and darkness, between summer and winter, between hope and despair.  Given the energy of today, and the challenges before us, I’d like to take some time to frame what I see as some of  druidry’s gifts to the world–the things that a druid path can do for the land and its peoples. I’m particularly  motivated to write this post today because today marks the end of my 10th year as a druid and I am moving into my second decade along this path–and so I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve had along the way.  I want to start with a disclaimer–as the adage goes, if you ask 5 different druids what druidry means to them, you’ll get 10 different answers. I am not speaking on behalf of all druids or for all of druidry, but here today, I am speaking my own truth and path, as I am apt to do on this blog :).

 

Early Sunrise

Early Sunrise

Look around at the land and waters that–in whatever shape that landscape is in.  At one time, that land was deeply loved and respected. Humans who lived there cultivated a sacred connection and awareness with it. All indigenous cultures have cultivated such relationships, and all of our bloodlines trace back to some indigenous culture or another if we go far enough back. Before industrialization, or even agriculture, our relationship with the land was much, much different. Our ancestors, rooted in the places they were, knew every inch of the edge of the river and how to build rafts to navigate the rocks and fish. They knew the medicine of root and stem and seed. They knew where the harvests came at what time of the year, and how not to take too much. They knew the names of the trees, the spirits of the animals, and were intimately connected with their surroundings. They knew that their own survival depended on the delicate balance that they had the privileged and responsibility of maintaining. The plants evolved with humans, so much so, that many of the most food and medicine-rich plants depend on us for survival, for nurturing, for scattering their seeds. How did that happen? Over countless millennia, we evolved together, creating mutual dependencies. This is why Pennsylvania forests used to be 30% chestnut–that wasn’t by accident, that was by human design (for more on this, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild). Imagine being the land, the spirits of the land, and holding those memories of the time before.

 

And then, many things changed and time moved on. Knowledge and sacred connections lost, so much so that today, most people can’t identify more than a handful of plants or trees and do not even have basic knowledge of the world around them.  Instead, humans today in industrialized countries are sold a myth, the myth of progress ,strong as any other of religious belief, and embraced with the same kind of furor (see John Michael Greer’s works, particularly Not the Future we Ordered for more on this perspective). Wrapped up the myth of progress are myths of the importance of consumer goods, of smartphones and electronics that must be replaced every two years, of chemical-ridden pesticides that lace our foods and invade our bodies.

 

Supporting that myth allows the whole-sale pillaging of the land and its inhabitants. Supporting that myth allows national forests to be fracked, the same patches of forest to be repeatedly logged for two centuries, our waterways to be filled with poisons, our mountaintops removed. These are things that I witness every day here, in my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western PA. If relationships to the land were a pendulum, we humans of toady have swung so far in the other direction from our indigenous ancestors, or even those living closer to the land a few centuries before.

 

Our lands, waters, and plant spirits still hold the memories of those who came before, of the relationships that once were cultivated.  There is, among them, a great mourning and loss collectively. They hold memories of humans who used to care for them so carefully. Here in the Americas, at least here in Pennsylvania, that sacred relationship between land and human was abruptly severed several centuries ago with the driving out of the native peoples and the re-settlement of Pennsylvania by those of European decent. With the new humans, the last centuries saw tremendous amounts of pillaging and destruction, fueled by the myth of progress.

 

Since that time, and to today, the myth of progress changes our behaviors and relationship radically with nature. Humans, here in the US, now spend 87% of their time indoors and another 6% of their time in automobiles or other forms of enclosed transit.  That means just seven percent of the average American’s life today is spent outside. And of that seven percent, how much is spent mowing the grass? Spraying dandelions? Walking on pavement among tall buildings?  How much of that seven percent is spent with our heads in our phones rather than looking around us?  And beyond these statistics, I think there’s a general disregard for life, for nature that is dominant in our collective cultural understanding.

 

Druidry, I believe, is one good sign that the pendulum is starting to swing back in the right direction. Humans are once again are seeking that ancestral connection to the land that is still in our blood, and in the memories of the forests, the stones, the rivers. Learning how to see, and interact, with nature is critical to helping that pendulum swing back in the other example.  As a very simple example, last week, I was walking back from campus after teaching, and I came across a cluster of cut-back bramble bushes. I looked at those canes, getting just ready to bud, with tiny tufts of green coming from out of the buds, and I could see the promise of spring there. I was looking forward to the Equinox, and also feeling the sadness at seeing things budding a month earlier than usual due to climate change. The tips of the canes, too, held a tremendous surprise–when sliced longways (which someone had done recently to trim them), the cane of the blackberry bush forms a 5 pointed star, a pentagram, not so dissimilar from the pentagram I found in the chickweed plant some years ago. This cultivation of the sacred is, in part, observing sacred patterns of nature, unfolding around me, on my daily walk home from campus. And noticing the nature–the birds, the trees, appriciating them and knowing their names. And its more than patterns–the bramble holds medicine, food, protection–and as a druid, I’ve worked to learn about all of its gifts.  As I look in awe at the bramble, I wonder how many people have cultivated such a sacred relationship with the land in this area? That even would look at the bramble and be willing to look closer?

 

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

As a Druid, you might be the first adult person in several generations to see that land with something other than indifference, profit, or going into the land for the sole purpose of taking. As a druid, you might be the first to enter those lands again, in a long time, to see those lands not only in appreciation, but as sacred spaces. You might be the first who is willing to tend those lands again, to help heal, to help regenerate, to give rather than pillage and take. When I, as a druid, walk into the forest, I am often aware that I am reconnecting with lands that have not been thought of, or engaged with, as sacred for a very long time. What a gift it is to the land, to really see it. To interact with it. To hold it sacred. To be willing to learn and grow with it–in it–through it. To walk and see the buds on the trees, to see the medicine growing up out of the cracks of the sidewalks. I’m not just talking about the wild places here, but all places. You can sense the sacredness of the soil, even below the buildings that sit on it. You realize that there is no unsacred space, that all spaces and places, regardless of their damage, are still part of this great living earth–as you, too, are a natural part of it.

 

For many druids, interacting with the land in a sacred way is one of your gifts to the world–and it is an incredibly powerful gift that takes a lifetime of exploration to truly understand and realize.

 

The act of opening yourself up to these experiences are, for many, the first steps down the druid path. As one of the Archdruids in AODA, I spend a lot of time talking with new druids on the path and mentoring druids who are just starting their journey and studies. I read letters that they write that tell us about why they want to become druids, what they hope to gain from druidry. So many times, it seems that rebuilding that connection to nature is one of the key reasons that they join. To many people, when they first find druidry, are excited.  They often say, “This is the path that describes me, as I already am!”  This gives them a word that finally fits their self-image, the person that they are becoming with each passing breath and each cycle of the sun and moon. And every one of those letters, without fail, talks about reconnecting to the natural world!

 

Another tragic part of the myth of progress, asks us to give our power, especially our creative gifts, up and to let others provide us entertainment.  It saps our creative energy, and we are disempowered as creative thinkers and doers in the world.  Therefore, a second major gift of druidry, I believe, is regaining that creative force, the flow of awen, and using it for good in our own lives and in the lives of others in the world. Even the act of meditation alone allows us to “clear” our minds; the AODA’s sphere of protection or OBOD’s light body exercises allow for the Awen to flow within us again. And we desperately need these creative responses here and now–through music, poetry, artwork, dance, painting, crafts, the written word–to help us make sense of, process, and respond to what is going on. The creative arts help us make sense of the world and what is happening and can reach people meaningfully and deeply in ways that we otherwise could not.  At least in my own experience, my path in the bardic arts helps give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves and to cultivate reconnection through my writings on this blog, my artwork, my teaching, and more.

 

Get out into the world!

Get out into the world!

The world is changing quickly around us, and for many, darkness appears to be settling in. Things are growing more frenzied, more desperate, more terrifying. The true tolls of incessant pillaging of the planet are now so visible and known, and will continue unfold in the years and generations to come. Just a few weeks ago, we passed the 2 degree threshold that so many have said, over the years, that we shouldn’t pass.  Those in denial are, well, still in denial, and the temperature keeps rising. But the rest of us must understand and work with our own grief, our own responses. Many come to druidry because they are looking for some path forward through this mess, and Druidry helps them take such a path, a path deeper into the landscape, into their own creative gifts, and through the difficulty that we are all facing.  Druidry, perhaps, gives us hope and reconnection–exactly the kind of thing, I believe, we need as we move forward into this unknown and terrifying territory. Many druids find themselves integrating spiritual responses with other kinds of responses–permaculture, for example, is a fantastic “get your hands dirty” compliment to this path (and certainly, its a big part of my own druid practice).

 

To wrap up, some of the greatest gifts I see of druidry are (in true triad form):

  • A gift to the land through the cultivation of a sacred relationship, awareness, and active healing work, but also through recognizing, confronting, and doing something about the predicament we face as a planet.
  • A gift to its people through the cultivation of the creative human arts, to give the land voice in the world through music, story, song, artwork, dance and more.
  • A gift to ourselves and to the nurturing of our souls, to give us tools, and outlets of response and the freedom to engage in bardic arts that reconnect humans and their landscape.

 

Finding the druid path is a gift, a blessing, and the ramifications of it go well beyond just ourselves. Often, for the first few years down this path, you are absorbing, like a sponge, all that you can–and things are very inward focused. You have a lot of healing work to do on your own inner landscape, and that’s critical work to do, work that will take a lifetime. But at some point, that sponge becomes full, and you are now ready to reverse the process, and give those gifts back to thee world. Druidry is a gift to the world, if we make it so. And on this sacred day, when so many things hang in the balance, it helps us re-balance our own lives, hearts, and souls.

 

The Work of Regeneration: Taking a Stand on Your Land September 9, 2015

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

As I write these words, I look out my window at at rounded, weathered, Appalachian mountain, topped with trees, rising up from behind the houses in my small town. This mountain, and the many others in Western PA, are part of my blood–the nutrients that came from these soils are what built the very structures of my bones. These mountains are where my ancestors walked and toiled; generations and generations of them, going back two centuries (which is quite a long time for the USA) and in one particular family lineage, much much longer. And now, finally, after most of my adult life away, I have returned home. The funny thing is, Western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a place people are moving to, and in fact, its a place many are running from. The mountain that stands north of my small Pennsylvania town is a nature preserve–and yet, at least a dozen cleared locations, many fracking wells are present there, even in the wild spaces. Heck, the community garden has a well sitting less than 30 feet from the vegetable patches in this town, if that give you a sense of things. These wells are just the newest iteration of the long-abused land’s history: from the logging industry that nearly wiped Pennsylvania’s forests out a century ago to the mining industry who left their toxic mountain-size piles of coal waste and whose long-abandoned mines continue to pollute our streams, to the farmer’s fields that are now so toxic that even the plants on the edges of the roads cease to grow there–it seems there is no end to the toll that this land takes on behalf of the natural resource demands of industry and humanity.

 

Because of the environmental issues present in PA, I think that some question my move–why did I return to a place with such active fracking and other environmental challenges? Why, especially when more and more stories each day show the seriousness and destructiveness of the practice and the toll on both human life and nature? Why would I endanger myself in that way, when I could have stayed where I was or found another job I would enjoy somewhere else? It is for a simple reason–this is my land and I was called home.

 

Two months ago, I spent time in New England while I was doing my permaculture design certificate. On my journey there, I stopped in Western New York, at an amazing organic vegetable farm. I had lunch with the farmers, and we spoke of their land and the work they were doing. They revealed that many people were flocking from Pennsylvania to New York to escape fracking, selling their homesteads and farms and starting anew. In a second visit on my trip to New Hampshire, I spent time with a group who was working hard to prevent a natural gas pipeline and compressor station going into their community. When plans for the compressor station were revealed, a number of houses immediately went up for sale on the market, and others I spoke with said that they would be leaving for certain if the station went in.

 

These issues are hardly unique-the Amish in Ohio and Illinois, who are cashing in and getting out due to the disruption of their lives. I’ve seen firsthand the oil boom in North Dakota and what it did to the communities there. I think about recent reports of horrible environmental devastation in China and those who are helpless just to live in the pollution. The list could go on and on. When I think about stories from around the world, I can’t help but wonder what percent of humans today are facing the issue of living in environmentally degraded land and witnessing, firsthand, that devastation. When we see our lands degraded, or even threatened with such acts (as in the community I describe above), I think one of the big questions to ask is–If I have the capacity leave the environmental destruction where I live now, can I go somewhere that’s better? Or, as in my case, am I willing to move into an area with known environmental destruction?

 

Better than here? Really?

Better than here? Really?

I don’t think the answer to these questions are simple–not for anyone who faces them. And unfortunately, more and more people ARE facing the harsh reality of environmental devastation at their doorstep. So let’s break down the issues that contribute to how we can better answer these questions if/when the need arises:

 

First, there is the privilege of being able to leave, which very few actually have. For as many humans as may have the privilege to leave, there are many more humans and others who are forced to stay whether or not they want to. Just as importantly, the land does not have the privilege of leaving; the trees are rooted where they are, the streams ebb and flow in their valleys, the plants grow each year in the soil, and all of the land is exactly where it is. What happens to everything and everyone else when you leave? They are still there.

 

Second, there is the matter of humans’ existing displacement and a lack of connection to the land we are on. Many people that are alive today, at least in the USA, have decided or been forced to move elsewhere and may already have been displaced 4 or 5 times from the land of their birth. So we also have the issue of living on land that doesn’t resonate with us in the way that our birth lands do. This is not to say that we don’t care about the lands where we end up living–we very much do. But they don’t always feel like “home” and when they aren’t home, its easier to leave them. This problem isn’t a new one. For a long time, people have being displaced from their birth land and with that displacement comes distance–and most importantly, less care and concern. Many modern thinkers (Wendell Berry and John Michael Greer come to mind) have posited that the goals of industrialization were to mechanize labor, to essentially replace people with machines, to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and to displace people from their land. And it worked–people flocked to cities for work, and slowly, farmers left or were forced from their farms and those farms were mechanized so many less people were needed to live there and work there.  You treat land differently if you think you’ll be on it your whole life, and you’ll pass it onto your children, and your children’s children.  The land is not a commodity–its part of the family. Today, we are at an all-time high for people being disconnected from their land–and part of it has to do with these displacements.

 

Third is the issue of scale. To me, the most important question for those thinking of leaving land that is under threat or actively polluted is simply “How do you know that where you are moving to, in the long term, is going to fare any better?” Part of the issue we face is that climate change and environmental degradation are not local problems. They may manifest differently in local settings, but ultimately, they are a problem on a global scale. Everywhere you live, everywhere you go has something that is harming you and the land; some resource that someone wants to extract, some existing toxins, or some factory or plant producing something. This might be mining, mountaintop removal, acid rain, city pollution and smog, oil extraction, gas fracking, oil pipelines, various industries and abandoned industries, polluted waterways and oceans, Superfund sites, polluted soil, illegal dumping, an unexpected environmental disaster, and so on. Look at the effects of extracting fossil fuel energy–on this continent, at least, we have all sorts of issues that span every state and challenge so many: pipelines, fracking, oil spills, oil wells, offshore drilling, power plants, coal veins and acid mine runoff, and many others.  I point to North Dakota as a good  example–when I first visited it over 10 years ago, it was a beautiful, serene, and very unpolluted place to be.  Now? Its one of the fracking capitals of the USA, and everything is different about it. Could the North Dakotans ever have imagined this radical change over such a short period? I think not. The truth is, that all of us, on a global scale, are facing environmental degradation, likely of multiple kinds and likely over a period of our lives. I’m not convinced that moving anywhere “special” solves the problem–you move away from one thing and move toward something else. I left region plagued with oil pipelines and a lot of leftover toxicity in the soil because of industry and went to a region with acid mine runoff, boney dumps, and fracking. Both have their challenges–and the truth is, anywhere I would move will have its challenges, and things like climate change are affecting us all with increasing intensity.

 

And so, we come to the precipice and stand on its edge. Behind us, the lands we know and love, being ravaged by something we cannot stop. We maybe have tried, and failed to stop it, or we have learned about it to late to stop it.  Before us lay, potentially, options of moving somewhere new, somewhere “better”? Do we stay? Do we bear witness? Do we hold space for this land and share in its fate? Do we leave? Do we even have a choice?

 

If a choice is available–the choice is for each individual to make.

 

I’ll share mine: I specifically chose to come back to this very environmentally challenged region because it is the land of my blood and my birth. I was honored that I was able to have the opportunity to choose to come–and I took it.

 

If I don’t stand for this land, if I don’t hold space for it, if I don’t understand the long history here of humanity’s pillaging of natural resources, if I don’t begin the process of energetic healing and regeneration–who will? We all have choices to make each day and each moment.  How we spend our time is particularly critical in a time when our world is hanging on the precipice of so much change–how the world is shaped in the years to come, is largely based on the actions of each of us, today.

 

A healthy ecosystem!

A healthy ecosystem!

People write to me a lot on this blog, and one of the questions I frequently get asked is: how do you develop a deep and spiritual relationship with the land?  My response is this: go where you are needed most. Find the most degraded place you can find, a place that really needs you and the healing that you–and possibly only you–can provide. And take a stand on your land. Love that land. Do the healing work there, on the soil, on the rivers, on the waters. Fret not about what you can or can’t accomplish, just do everything that you can. Learn, grow, listen, use your intuition. Mimic the patterns of nature, bring abundance and biodiversity back. Do what it takes. Work with the soil. Understand the soil. Understand everything you can about that land and what is growing there. And most importantly: commit to staying. Our lands need us, to be there, to be present, to do something, even if that something is small. Take a page from the Native Tribes on this continent, so many who see no difference between their identity and their land: they–and their lands–cannot be bought for any price.

 

To me, this is where the path of of my nature spirituality lies–in really making a commitment to be in and with the land, to understand it, to teach others about it, to heal and regenerate it. Nature is not there just for my benefit–its not there just because I want to have a special relationship with some trees or walk into the forest and be healed. It is not there to please me. Nature gives so much to me, but I believe I must have a relationship with it in order to create a deep spiritual connection. Relationship, by its very nature, implies a give and take. If I want to walk in that forest, or walk up to that tree, and really connect with it, I must treat that forest like any other family member–and when that family member is in need, I must recognize that need, hold space, and be willing to help as I can. I must realize that my actions, each of them, can be sacred actions in communion with that place.

 

One of my favorite poets and writers is Wendell Berry. A man well ahead of his time, he has been writing about the ramifications of industrialized agriculture long before any others–and he continues to hold a sacred vision of a different kind of relationship with the land. His poem, called “Work Song, Part II: A Vision” deeply inspired my post this week. I close by sharing it here, in its entirety:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are gone
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, a new forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

– Wendell Berry

 

The Power of Permaculture: Regenerating Landscapes and Human-Nature Connections July 24, 2015

Regenerating our lands for pollenators

Regenerating our lands for pollinators

As a species, we are facing a number of challenges that can be overwhelming—from global climate change to failing ecosystems, to mass deforestation and substantial water stress. Many who care deeply about the earth, who see the earth as sacred, finds themselves in a state of perpetual mourning and apparent powerlessness when reading the headlines or seeing destruction firsthand. The sense of being overwhelmed can be stifling, limiting, leaving you unsure as to how to do anything but strongly wanting to do something. It can leave you feeling that nothing that you do is good enough and nothing that you do as an individual matters.

 

The environmental movement doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way response because its largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate. Environmentalism teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine forests; to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively caretake them (the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection.  I also think the environmental movement, at least as I have participated in it, is fairly reactive rather than proactive.  I think there’s a place for the kinds of work the environmental movement does, and I think they are helpful, but I don’t think they are “enough.”

 

Sustainability as a concept, I am realizing, is also problematic. (I’ve been using this word myself, but am now transitioning away from it in favor of regeneration for reasons described in this post). Sustainability, which means a “capacity to endure” essentially seeks ways of sustaining what is there.  This may mean to sustaining our current lifestyles and levels of consumption (or near similar lifestyles and levels of consumption) while also working to mitigate any further damage to the planet.   Yet, the current lifestyle got us into this mess. Why do we want to sustain that? What are we really protecting when we are “sustainable?” Furthermore, it has become another term commonly used by companies to sell their products and services, rather than an ethic or principle for many. I’m not sure of the ethics that fuel sustainability–desire to do less harm? desire to protect and preserve? They are often not very well articulated.

 

I’ve struggled with both environmentalism and sustainability as meaningful responses because they made me feel like something was missing. Being a better consumer of environmentally friendly goods, or my early attempts at sustainably, still made me feel not so great because I was mitigating problems. I’ve expressed that struggle quite a few times in posts over the years here, and I’m sure that so many of you share it—so the question is, what else is there?

 

What it seems we really need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools that go beyond the above approaches and into envisioning “what’s next?” or “what’s better?” So many of the structures of our daily lives don’t work: our homes require too much energy for heating and cooling; our waste is treated as waste; our landfills fill up with things that still have value; fresh water runs from the streets of our cities and into the sewer system; our bodies are pumped with poison and chemicals; and our landscapes are barren and toxic. We need tools that help us facilitate the deep work of healing our damaged lands, to re-evaluate and develop better ways of living, and in directly rectifying the damaged relationship we have with nature.  We need an ethical system that is simple to teach and yet profound. We need tools to help us envision the future today–what will our next iteration of lower-to-no fossil fuel living look like? What if we could design for that now? What if we are the ones building what the next iteration of human living could look like?

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

 

One set of tools to help us do this is permaculture design. Two Australian designers, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, developed permaculture, or “permanent agriculture” in the height of the sustainable living movements of the 1970’s. Permaculture was developed in response to the growing awareness of the damage humans were causing and the dwindling resources of our planet. Permaculture is a design theory using a whole systems approach modeled in natural patterns; it is a set of ethics and principles that we can use to help us design anything from an outdoor landscape or organic garden to a workplace or a community of people. Millions of people around the world are using permaculture design to revitalize their relationship to the land, enrich their lives, and enhance their communities. To design effectively using permaculture ethics and principles, we must carefully asses, observe, interact, measure, study, and analyze the existing site before we can begin to consider change. The act of interaction, analysis, and observation prior to making change is in itself a powerful tool—it asks us to go from reaction to mindful and directed thought and action.

 

What makes permaculture different than other things, like environmentalism?  For two, permaculture gives a clear ethical system that actually makes a great deal of sense, and that can be directly applied to any design. Permaculture rests upon three primary ethical principles: people care, earth care, and fair share (which I covered in more detail earlier). A goal of any design is to address them all at the same time. We, therefore, design with the understanding that caring for the earth and caring for people are one in the same. Stop and think about that for a minute. The earth’s needs are equal with our own, and both can be satisfied with careful planning and analysis. Furthermore, also a matter of ethics, one of the things permaculture design can do—and do well—is to help us regenerate even the most damaged and poisoned of lands. In fact, many permaculture designers purposely select abused lands as these are the lands that can benefit the most and this is where they can do the most good.

 

Permaculture can be learned by anyone (most of what you need is freely available online) or through books or courses.  Despite its straightforward principles, yet it allows for a lifetime of study and practice. It can be applied to any site or community–from apartment living to rural farmlands.  It puts the power into the hands of the individual and the community, rather in the hands of others.   It also considers the role of the design in the larger ecosystem and community.  Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of permaculture, described four goals for landscape design: ecological as well as economic; repair and conserve all systems; provide a unique and essential service for the bioregion; and creating something inter-generational (considering current generations as well as future).  So while economics is there, for something like the farm; so is repair of land, conservation, and considering the future.

 

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

The actual design principles  from permaculture are all rooted in nature (and some will be quite familiar to my readers, as I integrate them often into these posts). I have found these principles to be so useful that not only have I integrated them into my life in terms of my living and landscape, but I have used them extensively as themes for meditation and personal growth.

 

Furthermore, the act of any designing work involves intentionality—something sorely lacking today. Many of permaculture design’s principles used in the natural landscape work to improve existing conditions: keyline design, for example, uses water catchment and keyline “plowing” to quickly build soil, sequester carbon, and effectively manage water. A multitude of techniques unfold from the principles and ethics.

 

Does permaculture actually work? Yes, it really appears it does! Sites around the world demonstrate just how powerful this approach can be in multiple settings. I’ll share a few examples here from across the spectrum: from large-scale farming to community design to urban settings: permaculture can be applied effectively.

 

Permaculture’s answer to traditional, large scale farming. Just over 40% of the available land in the USA is used for farming, over 95% using conventional agricultural methods (read: fossil fuels, GMOs, and poisons). Current industrial farming practices emphasize only thing: the amount of food grown for the plate (and hence, the profit of the farmer). The food is grown with absolutely no sense of earth share or fair share, and these practices essentially chemically shut down any natural processes that don’t immediately contribute to the crops and kill the life in the soil. US farms are currently losing topsoil at a rate of 3 cm per year (and topsoil is where life grows; where the nutrients are concentrated).

 

As a comparison, permaculture thinks about the yields not only to ourselves but also to the land, how farmlands managed differently can also provide: pollen, nectar, and habitat are yields for pollinators, build rather than lose soil, and so on. A farm of this nature would still have plenty of growing capacity for human food production—but it would yield much more. A good example of a larger permaculture farm doing industrial-scale production is Mark Sheppard’s New Forest farm. Not only is Mark regenerating the land and creating soil, habitat, and encouraging biological diversity, he’s out-growing other industrial farms of his size (see his fascinating analysis in Restoration Agriculture). And the yields benefiting people from his farm include honey, wax, propolis, pastured pork, pastured beef, free range chicken, free range turkey, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and more. He shows how perennial treecrops can provide for many of the same caloric needs currently being filled by soy and corn—and they need to only be planted once, as opposed to every year. And, as he writes in his book, he could literally walk away from his farm today and it would still be producing a variety of crops in 1000 years. Now that’s regeneration!

 

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

Urban backyard. On the other end of the spectrum from large-scale farming, so many examples exist of urban front and backyard designs using permaculture.  One example is Paradise Lot, developed by two permaculture designers, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates.  They regenerated a small urban area and actively worked to sequester carbon. Eric and Jonathan bought a tiny duplex on 1/10th of an acre in an urban setting in Massachusetts. Initially, their site was bare, dry and contaminated. Using regenerative permaculture techniques and soil building, the site is now now extremely abundant and fertile. They managed to sequester over 5 tons of carbon over a period of five years (Imagine if everyone sequestered 5 tons of carbon in their back yard rather than produce more from mowing!). They are producing a variety of yields: food, forage, nectar, good soil, beauty, shade, and more. This was all done using the same principles and ethics of New Forest Farm. Like New Forest Farm, if Eric and Jonathan walked away from Paradise Lot, it would continue to be abundant indefinitely.  There are a lot of other sites like Paradise Lot, including one I recently visited as part of my PDC and will be sharing with you in an upcoming post, and my friend Linda’s site in Oxford, MI that I blogged about earlier this year. This is a really empowering and wonderful way to integrate permaculture!

 

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Community-level design. A final example incorporating permaculture principles on a community-wide level was the site of my permaculture design certification course (PDC), Sirius Community near Amherst, Massachusetts. One of the oldest ecovillages in the world, it was modeled after Findhorn in Scotland. Sirius uses permaculture design in every aspect of their living: earth care, people care, and fair share are woven into daily life almost as much as breathing. They mill their own lumber and use it to build structures that are ecologically sound and innovative: greenhouses, a community center, various residences, and more. They use extensive passive solar and heating designs in these structures—when I was at Sirius, several days were 95 degrees, and while it was sweltering outside, it was quite cool in the buildings due to these smart uses of heat and cool (compare this to my townhouse in PA, where anything about 80 degrees inside is completely insufferable). Acres and acres of gardens, including food forests, perennial herbs, and annual vegetables provide a significant amount of the food not only to Sirius’s permanent residents but also to the many guests and visitors (we were fed for two solid weeks from these gardens—a delight!). All waste (including human) is fully incorporated back into the land in some way. Solar, wind, and wood generate much of the power and heating.…I will stop here, as I’m planning a full blog post sharing more about Sirius and detailing more of the incredible things they are doing. But suffice to say, this can be done at a community level, especially from the ground up.

 

If you are interested in seeing more examples of successful sites, the film Inhabit profiles a number of different permaculture sites across the US and the great work so many are doing.

 

A ray of hope….

One of the greatest challenges we face in the western world is responding to what is happening globally. A lot choose to ignore it, and go on living as though nothing were happening. Others weep and lament, and feel disempowered to change anything—and so they mourn but do little else. Still others try, but feel that what they are doing can’t make a difference. Even if everyone today started practicing permaculture, we are still paying the hefty tolls of over a century of industrialization and those tolls are irrevocably changing our culture and our world. Yet some of those changes, if we design carefully enough, can be very positive—the problem is the solution, as a permaculture principle suggests.

 

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage using repurposed materials

At this point, as the earth’s atmosphere has just gone over 400 parts per million of carbon, every ton of carbon that we can put back into the ground matters. Imagine if everyone started sequestering carbon as part of their “lawn care” like Paradise Lot! Every response we can have is a response.  And its not just individual—when we engage in actions that show a different path, they are like wildfire—spreading further than we can even imagine. I don’t think anyone knows what the future will bring—but permaculture, for me, helps light my way on that path. It gives me tools and ethics of empowerment to teach the next generation. What it does is give me the power of hope.

 

PS: Look for my post next week, where I show these principles in action on my 5-year homestead project—another success story of a regenerated landscape!

 

Climate Change and Growing Food: Creating Resilient Polyculture Crops for Spring Weather May 12, 2013

In Michigan, last spring (2012) was one of the warmest on record.  By early April, I had beautiful spinach and lettuce crops; the crops were bolting by mid-May.  The warm weather took its serious toll on our fruit crops—most berry bushes and fruit trees bloomed and then had their blooms killed by an early April hard frost; this meant that most of South East Michigan had very little fruit or limited berries last year. Maple sugar/syrup production also was at a standstill in 2012 because the sap didn’t run long—the trees budded out very quickly after the warm weather hit. Farmers, especially those in orcharding or syrup production, had an incredibly difficult year. Our local cider mills had to import nearly all of their apples (luckily, they could do so from the western side of the state, which didn’t get hit with frost as badly).

 

This year, 2013, was very much the opposite. The jet stream shift caused by the melting Arctic ice brought cold air to us for most of February, March, and April (and there are likely a host of factors causing this, but this seems to be one that most agree upon).  In fact, we had three snowstorms in April and several nights of 25 and below–and a hard frost in May (tonight, actually). We’ve had very severe winds (which ripped apart my hoop houses and dropped my greenhouse with seedlings inside!) In the 2nd week of may, we are only now beginning to see buds on our trees. This means we had a most excellent maple syrup harvest (which I’ve blogged about earlier this year) and we should have excellent fruit and berries.  But this also means that our greens are barely growing and many cold-weather crops that can be started in April aren’t yet larger than an inch or two out of the ground in mid-May.  Farmers in the area complain about how they are now 3 weeks or more behind where they need to be in their planting because the ground remained frozen for so long.

 

The national data supports my local observations – the following graphic is a description of March temperatures for 2012 vs. 2013 put out by Climate Central.

Extreme heat vs. extreme cold in March.

When I look at these last two years, I see quite a few lessons in terms of resiliency. Resiliency is a concept used within the permaculture and sustainability movements that describes one’s ability to endure. In the case of our spring weather, a diversity of crops, from greens to fruit to herbs and so on, is critical to provide a good harvest.  This year, I’ve been attempting to grow greens nearly in futility, starting things like lettuce and chard indoors rather than try to grow them outside. But more importantly, I’m staying away from monocropping and from depending too much upon any one crop, because that crop may or may not be here and doing well in the coming years. So rather than planting six cherry trees (or having a dozen different fruit trees) which are susceptible to frost and weather shifts, I’m planting hazelnuts, gooseberries, cranberries, blueberries, beach plums, and currants, all of which bud at slightly different times and which have different cold and drought tolerance.

 

Even within a single crop, I am also testing out the limits.  I did an experiment with some of my tomato seedlings to see which ones are more resilient to drought conditions (which we also experienced in the summer 2012).  I pulled a number of different tomatoes that I was planing this year — Yellow Pear, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Cherry Roma, and Green Zebra–and purposely didn’t water a set of seedlings very much at all, stimulating drought conditions.  And the results were quick and obvious–the Yellow pear tomatoes are by far the least drought tolerant, and the Black Krim and Amish paste are more so.   We’ll see how these tomatoes fare when I plant them in the garden next week!  This also supports Greer’s earlier argument that druids need to take up science, learn how to conduct science, and engage in citizen-research (more on this soon!)

 

So in this way, I’m seeking to build diversity within my own crops, which builds resilience.  I don’t think we can expect “normal” weather patterns from here on out–we have to deal with abnormal weather conditions, be it too much rain or too little, too much heat or too little, and find crops and plants that can function well under a variety of unknown and unforeseen conditions.