The Druid's Garden

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

Establishing Sacred Land, or, A Home-Coming October 29, 2017

There has been a lot of talk in the American druid scene in the last few years about establishing sacred spaces, creating sacred groves, and really staring to re-enchant our land here. I think druids and other earth-centered spiritual traditions around the world, particularly those living in places shaped by colonization, face these same challenges: how do we create our own sacred spaces? What does that look like?  I wrote earlier this year, for example, about Stones Rising at Four Quarters farm, and the raising of standing stones. A few years ago, I’ve also written a series on sacred sites in the US and how to build some sacred sites. This post continues those conversations.

White Oak by the Creek

White Oak by the Creek

In my Stones Rising post, I talked about how establishing sacred spaces, as a community, was certainly an “American” challenge because of the history of colonialism and the genocide of native peoples here.  I commented how we were living on “someone else’s sacred land.” And there is certainly truth in that statement. However, upon further reflection and meditation, I think this statement is much more complicated and problematic. Here’s the thing: as long as we think about the land where we were born, and where we live, as someone else’s sacred land, it continues to be inaccessible/unavailable/distant from us.  We feel like we are outsiders, inhabiting a place to which we do not belong. And the truth is this–we are here now, we are working to rebuild, we are working to reconnect, working to understand the sacredness of nature, her magic, her medicine. If we work to create sacred spaces, learn about ecology, uses of plants, and so on (a lot of stuff I advocate here on this blog), I think that this kind of work very much honors the ancestors of the land and the relationships they had with the land. In other words, we learn the land, we let the land teach us, and we connect with it on the deepest levels.

 

Obviously, its not ok to visit someone else’s sacred site and claiming it as your own–that is cultural appropriation.  What is also inappropriate is not acknowledging the many ancestors of the land who came before–we have to recognize what happened here, on this soil, and help the land and spirits to heal.  Given these two points, I believe that what we need to do is forge new connections for a new time.  We have to build, from scratch, both our relationships with the land and the sacred spaces we need to honor the land.

 

And yet, “re-enchanting” or our land, so to speak, and connecting with it is a multi-generational process.  It will take lifetimes of work, generations of people, individuals and groups.  But I believe that work begins here and now–and for many of us, has already begun. The danger of not creating sacred spaces and making this land our sacred land means that we will never be fully connected to it.   The danger of not seeing the land where you were born as your own means that you have no place to call home.

 

So in today’s post,  taking this “sacred space” concept more to the practical level, I’d like to explore the work of establishing a piece of land, of any size, as sacred land–that is, establishing and maintaining a permanent sacred space, a sacred sanctuary, a place of magic, contemplation, reflection, and renewal (and many other things). This post coincides with my purchase of new land and my own moving to a new home, and so I’ll use myself as a case study.

 

Sacred Land/Landscapes

What do I mean when I say “sacred land” or a “sacred landscape”? How is it different than a “sacred site?” In both cases, we are cultivating a relationship with the land, but the scope of that relationship differs. The way that I see this distinction is as follows.

 

Sacred Sites: We can establish a sacred site, like a stone circle, sacred garden, shrine, altar, and so on, as a stand-alone space. These are single constructions that offers a particular kind of blessing to the land or has another kind of use (or series of uses). They may be hidden away or created in a place that has many different purposes. The point here is that something is set aside for purposes only to be used as sacred (like a stone circle).

 

Sacred Landscape - room to regrow

Sacred Landscape – room to regrow

Sacred Landscapes: When I say sacred landscape or sacred land, I am talking about a potentially larger piece of land with many smaller sacred sites/spots/items contained within it. The idea here is that the entire piece of land or property is a dedicated sacred place where you can engage in various kinds of sacred actions to reconnect with nature. It is certainly a step above a single dedicated space, but rather,  We have some public examples: Circle Sanctuary, Four Quarters, Dreamland.  But any person can choose to do this as well on a smaller piece of land of their own–and it is to this work today that I will begin to attend.

 

One metaphor you might think about this ties to permaculture design. I might create a small raised bed for raising veggies and focus my efforts solely in that direction, or, I might create an integrated design that had many different kinds of features including an orchard, herb garden, outdoor kitchen, butterfly garden–the whole design, which took years to enact, works together as a cohesive whole to meet a variety of shared purposes. A sacred shrine is like that single raised bed growing tomatoes.  A sacred landscape is the entire design, working together, to feed, house, and nurture all who call that place home.

 

Some Background

So how does this look in practice?  This will be my second time working to create a sacred sanctuary, and I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I still have a lot to learn!  And so, over a period of time as I create the space, I’m going to walk through the process  sharing how I am transforming my new 5 acre land land into sacred land–energetically and physically.  In order do that, I want to offer some background on where I’m coming from and where I’ve been. I lived on a 3-acre homestead in Michigan for 5 years (the beginnings of this blog) where I first intuitively learned some of what I’ll share in this post series. Then, 2.5 years ago, I returned to Western Pennsylvania, the land of my ancestors, for a new job and to be much closer to my family. It was a bit of a jarring shift–after working for five years on land both physically and energetically, and transforming it into a druid and permaculture oasis, I was stuck in a rental situation in a small town.  And yet, some of my deepest insights of my druid path came from this work. I had no home base. All the land became the land to which I belonged.

 

After two years of living in town, I was fairly convinced that urban permaculture was not the route I wanted to take. Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time exploring options of intentional community with a friend.  After exploring various pieces of land, we realized that our visions were different–I was drawn to the wild, wooded spaces and she preferred the hustle and bustle of city (or at least small town) life.  For some of us, living in a town or city and being “visible” doing permaculture is their calling, like my dear friend Linda of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm. But for me, I realized how badly I needed a sacred sanctuary.  Yes, it would be a sanctuary that had a regular flow of friends and guests–but not prying neighbors constantly observing my space. I wanted my home to be a restful space for myself and those I love that was largely invisible to outsiders. I do enough visible work in the world, but I didn’t want my home life on display.  And then, the land came to me–it literally fell in my lap.  I had resolved to start looking for a home next spring and give myself the winter in town. But then in early August, I was visiting some permaculture friends at their amazing food forest and they told me about a house that was going up for sale that I should take a look at. As soon as I saw the pictures online, I knew it was home. It came on a mostly wooded five acres, surrounded by forests and farms. It was 15 min from my work and only 5 minutes from the state forest where I enjoy kayaking and hiking. When I saw the photos, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, and the next day, went out to see it. After a long process, the land is now under my “ownership.”

 

Preliminaries: Establishing Relationship and Doing Away with “Ownership”

Having signed the paperwork making me “the owner” of the land this past week raises all kinds of issues surrounding creating sacred land–and these are useful to explore as part of the process. In truth, the profit-driven western world has encouraged a line of thinking that implies that we humans are the only agents of change in the world–we have the power, we have the control. There is this underlying assumption present, particularly with nature and life other than our own, that we can just do what we want. Of course, the modern conception of ownership of land solidifies the problematic “do what pleases you” thinking.  I just signed paperwork that says I can do just about anything I want to this land, short of some legal issues (like dumping raw sewage on it or building new structures without a permit).  But in terms of what I might do to the trees, to the plants, to the ecosystem–beyond “lawn maintenance” there are no laws for that. I could cut it all down, I could let it grow up–because I now “own it” the land is mine to do with what I want.  And for the record, I don’t really think this is about laws, what is legal or no.  What it really is about is mentality, mindset, approach, relationship.

 

Home: A little cabin in the woods

Home: A little cabin in the woods

I have a druid friend who is a landscaper, and he tells me how prevalent this attitude of “shaping nature to my will” is when he is working with clients on their landscapes. Most of the time, the attitude is “I want it to look nice” and by “nice” it means “in control.” He told me of a woman who owned a beautiful property and wanted to cut down a bunch of trees for no real purpose. He tried to talk to her about stewardship, asking about the people who would own the land after her…and it went over like a lead balloon. People don’t see themselves as stewards of the land, they see themselves as “owners.”  The most salient story I have ever read on this topic was in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss book. It was a later chapter in her book called, “The Owner.”  I think everyone should read it–it was a shocking and horrific story about ownership and what people will do to bend nature to their will tucked in an otherwise wonderful book about mosses and how they grow.  This “ownership” is from this same place and line of thinking that so many of the atrocities that are committed against the land are rooted.

 

In order to create a meaningful sacred space on any land, or to establish land as sacred, this “Ownership” mindset must be put firmly aside. Sacred landscapes aren’t just about what you want to do on your land or about your vision becoming a reality. Creating a sacred sanctuary must be a collaboration with nature itself–both the elemental forces upon the world, the physical status of the land, as well as the will of the spirits of the land. In fact, the more that you can get into your head this idea of service, partnership, or stewardship for a greater whole, the better all of this kind of work happens. While I legally “own the land,” I do not see myself not as an “owner” but as a steward, here for a period time, here with the sole goal of leaving the land better than I found it and working the will of the spirits of the land while I am present.  Stewardship implies that you are there, for a period of time,

 

Part of this is linguistic: When we use possessive words, like “my land” or “I will do”, it again, establishes a certain kind of relationship–one where I am the dominant force, where I have the control.  I like to instead describe the land as “the land to which I belong.” Its subtle, but powerful, and helps shift the inner subconscious, not only for you, but for anyone else who hears you speak. And so, if we are going to establish any land as a sacred space, it begins in a place of partnership, respect, and conversation.

Further Preliminaries: Honoring, Trust, and History

Creating sacred spaces is a time-honoring, slow process; creating a whole sacred landscape is even more so the case. Like the flow of the seasons or the sprouting of a seed, this kind of work can’t be forced. The work takes the time it takes, unfolding like a spiral. In honor of time and space, before you even begin to shape a shared vision of creating sacred land, there is preliminary work to be done. Think of this preliminary work like the foundation upon which everything else is built–your job, first and foremost, is to lay the foundation and prepare the site. And you do that through honoring and, in a lot of cases, some good old fashioned sweat equity.

 

Before you even begin to shape a shared vision for sacred land, its important to acknowledge all of the folks sitting at the table: ancestors of the land, nature spirits, land guardians, the spirits of the stones, and the trees, and the like. There are a lot of different kinds of “spirits of the land” or “spirits of place.”  Ancestors of the land, human spirits that once lived there and still guard/protect, may be present. Nature spirits, the spirits of the plants, animals, stones, and trees, may also be present. Greater nature spirits, like those of the soil web, the mountain, the river, the whole forest, may also be present. Even greater beings, like a land guardian or deity of some sort, may also be around.  They want to be acknowledged and should be before any other work can begin.

 

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the Nature Spirits of the Land. For honoring the nature spirits of the land, I like to simply sit in stillness and quiet in a place on that land, and make simple offerings. When I arrived on the land to which I now belong, even before it was under my “ownership”, I brought some home-grown tobacco and my flute and played the flute and made offerings around the property.  This was my sole purpose in the visit. I spent time on the land; I brought a blanket and lay in what may become a sacred grove down by the pond. I just breathed in the soil and observed the land around me.  It was beautiful, magical. I could feel the spirits of the land stirring.  Sometimes, the spirits have been asleep for a long while–and they need time to awaken again. This simple honoring work achieves that goal over a period of time. For honoring them long term, I highly recommend a dedicated outdoor shrine–this will be the first thing I build on the new land once I have a sense from the spirits of where to build it.

 

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land. Ancestors come in many types. Here in the US, we have primarily two types–the more recent ancestors which may have been farmers, miners, and the like, and more distant ancestors of the land, who were the native peoples. For the native ancestors of the land, I am planning on a specific ceremony to honor them at Samhain. I will build a fire, drum, play my flute, offer my home-grown tobacco and simply be present to listen to their voices.  After I have listened, I will share with them my hopes and dreams for the land. For the non-native ancestors of the land, who I know to have been farmers (thanks to those who lived on the property before me), I have indicated my intent to dedicate a bed in the garden in their honor.

 

Building Trust.  Even if you are stepping onto “well tended” land, most land today has been damaged by the typical practices of westerners: keeping lawns, spraying weeds, burning garbage, driving over the soil and compacting it, and the like. You may find yourself in need of doing some reparation work before you begin any spiritual work. This is because the spirits may need to learn to trust again.  Before you can communicate with them, before you can create sacred land, you must pave the way and demonstrate your intentions.  At my old homestead, I had to clean up the egregious garbage all over the place before I did anything else.  That, and the honoring work, took me far in connecting to the spirits.  At my new sacred land, I have the sense that I will need to do some seed scattering and forest replanting, among other things.

 

Understanding the History of the Land. Part of trust building is learning, what you can, about the history of the land.  If you have access to the previous owners, that is a good place to start.  If not, you can look for signs on the landscape–old fence posts and barbed wire, for example, is a common sign in these parts.  I think it is useful to use any tools you can–in the US, the US Geological survey also offers historical maps of many regions and that can help you get a sense, back into the 1950’s, of what the land may have looked like.  Court records and deeds are also very common!

 

This post has gotten quite long, so I’m going to go ahead and close for this week.  In my next post on the series, we’ll continue into this work!

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Coming Home July 16, 2017

Rocky shore of Maine at sunrise

Rocky shore of Maine at sunrise

My heart sings as I look out upon rocky shores where the clean waters meet the rising sun. I watch as the waves crash upon the bladderwrack-encrusted stones. Further inland, the land is vibrant, wild, and beautiful. The rivers and brooks rejoice as they cascade down from the mountains. The stones covered with lichen and mosses dripping with the recent rain. The lakes are so clear you can see 40 feet down. Visiting such pristine places are like a balm for my weary and tired druid heart. And yet, these wild places are not my home. The rocky coast of Maine is not the land of my blood and birth. Despite the singing in my soul, the healing and energy pouring into me from this beautiful landscape, I know I’m not home.

 

On my train trip back to Western Pennsylvania, my spirit grows heavy. I know that an invisible line exists between the states further north and my own state. In large parts Pennsylvania, including where I live, the land is far from pristine. Due to its richness in natural resources and lax environmental policy, it has been polluted, fracked, sprayed, and poisoned. This is an all-too familiar story for many such resource-rich places around the globe.

 

I know that once, that the Allegheny mountains sang in a way that the land still sings in the more remote and wild places I had just visited. Many centuries from now, it is likely that the Allegheny mountains will sing again after nature and humanity have done the necessary healing work. I have witnessed the potential of such healing in secret places, hidden places, places like an old growth Hemlock Grove that somehow was spared the destruction that ravaged these lands in the name of progress. I have also witnessed it in the regrowth of logged forests closer and dear to my heart.

 

However, knowing that nature can heal from widespread ecological destruction at a future point doesn’t change what I feel now, heavy. My heart is torn in two directions: both excited to be welcomed home by my beloved mountains and saddened to once again take up the burden of witnessing and living in these times. As the train rounds the famous Horseshoe curve outside of Altoona, I see new strip mines and logged areas appear since the last time I took the train several months ago. As the train nears my final destination of Johnstown, I feel the weight of the ongoing ecological destruction of my own home lands returning in full force. I am at ground zero: the extraction zone. This term that was told to me by residents of my area, friends who were working in envornmental activism for many years. It is, unfortunately, a fitting one. This is a place where the sacredness of nature is so far from the human mind, in part, due to the economic harsh realities.

 

Solastalgia is a term coined by Albreight et. al. that refers to the psychological distress caused by environmental damage. And the term fits well: there is a general distress (that is, depression, melancholia, powerlessness, hopelessness) that people sense when they see the environment around them being damaged, when they lose their sense of “home” because the “home” they knew is no longer there. The environment has been altered and damaged so much that it seems like an entirely different place, or the home site itself is gone due to mountaintop removal, strip mining or other tragedy. For someone who follows a path of nature spirituality and views the land as sacred, solastalgia isn’t just a psychological thing; it is a spiritual dilemma. One cannot only physically see the suffering of the land to experience solistalgia, but one can experience this energetically. It would be akin, perhaps, to someone burning down one’s church or mosque—an utter disregard for the sacredness and sanctity of life. A number of fellow druids who have visited me from other parts of the country have remarked on the “deadness” that is present here in what we call the telluric currents, that is, in the patterns of energy that run deeply within the land. This land’s deadness, from the many extraction activities, is particularly hard to those sensitive to such patterns. But I think, maybe on a semi-conscious level, the land is also hard on those who don’t have such sensitivities. There is a general “run-down” nature of folks around here, and it stems from many things, but I think this is one of them.

 

I grieve what has happened to these lands, but I don’t blame the people here who have sold their mineral rights or timber rights to prospectors in order to feed their families. Most who grew up in this region share a similar cultural ancestry—people who settled here did so because work was plentiful in an expanding industrialized economy that demanded timber, coal, and steel. I drive past the abandoned Bethlehem Steel Mills where my grandfathers worked. I drive past the old mines in the Alleghney ridges where my great grandfathers mined coal. They stripped the local forests bare to create support beams to keep the mine from caving in so they could go home to their families safely each day. This is where the old growth forests went. A century later, these minds, long abandoned, still pour acidic water into the streams, polluting them for hundreds of miles. The stripping and pillaging of this land, too, is part of my own ancestral heritage.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

On my drive back from the train station, I lose count of how many conventional and deep injection/fracking wells I see. They dot the countryside, showing up in nearly every field and forest along the way. These wells are not only on private lands, but also on public lands, and so even a hike on a public trail puts you in close contact with them–there really is no escaping it. With a heavy heart, I think about the plans I and some friends have been making to possibly start an intentional community. It is devastating to be looking for land for a new home and see property after property with fracking wells, stinking of gas and toxins, pipes from each well under the skin of the earth. No mineral rights, they say. No timber rights, they say. The rights to these things long ago sold separate from the land, so land here is only for the surface and sometimes, even that has been sold as timber rights. After looking at everything available for the last few months, I’m not sure such a clean “refuge” exists. But maybe I will yet be surprised.

 

I say to myself: how could I live here and not be drained? How could I live here and not feel weary? How could I live here and not need a refuge? The solastalgia is certainly present, and acknowledging that and engaging in good self-care is certainly necessary.

 

But other questions, arise, as well. How could I live anywhere else when this is my home? How could I abandon this land when it has never abandoned me?  How could I leave when my own ancestors contributed to what is happening at present? I am not a powerless victim here. None of us are. We fight the hopelessness and despair with tools, knowledge, and spirituality. My path of druidry offers me tools to energetically heal the land and support my own self care. My knowledge as a permaculture designer gives me the tools to engage in physical healing and regeneration of the land.  I have everything I need to care for myself and for this land.

 

And so, as I round the last bend and come into the valley where Indiana, PA rests, I feel a growing sense of clarity, purpose, and vision. I might not be here forever, but I am here now, and I will continue to learn how to best respond and heal the land. I drive past the farm where I and some friends have been putting in a garden rooted in permaculture principles and hosting events. I drive past the community garden, a source of much light and activity in this community. I see a sign for an upcoming natural health fair. I think about our permaculture guild meeting this month, and the plant walks I’ll be hosting that will be full of people wanting to reconnect with nature. And my heart gets lighter.

 

And so, I must grow where I’m planted. Not wishing to be somewhere else, some distant rocky shore where the land is pristine and beautiful, not allowing the solistalgia to creep within my bones and lodge deeply in my heart. The pristine lands I visited were well loved, and that land has no need of someone with my knowledge and skills. But rather, I must be rooted in my own own heritage, be rooted in the lands where I live, be connected with my people who have done what was necessary to survive.

 

Hope

Hope

I can feel the blood of my ancestors flowing within me. They, too, know that it is time for this land to heal. They, too, knew the sadness of the crash of the ancient hemlocks, hickories, and pines. They, too, saw the tears of the river flowing as pollution made it too acidic to fish.  They planted apple trees and hoped for a better tomorrow. They too, wanted a better life for their children, and their children’s children, where black lung didn’t take them early and where they didn’t die of poisioning from the mills. Their spirits are here, in these lands, looking to set things right.

 

To those who are saddened by the deadness of the telluric currents and the raw destruction of the land present in this place and in so many other places, I say “go deeper.” To myself, in my tired and weary state, I say, “go deeper.” The magic of nature is still here, even if it is more hidden, more quiet, more still.  It waits. It has all the time in the world to wait. It is like the lichen, who can survive 100% desiccation. Lichen can literally survive the vacuum of space, being buried in a crypt for 500 years, living in the harshest and coldest places on earth, and yet still thrive when exposed to water and light. The lichen teach a powerful lesson of hope, of patience, and of nature’s incredible ability to heal all.

 

I, and others here, are finding ways to live, in the words of Wendell Berry, in this ruined place, renewing it, and enriching it. So that someday, the rivers will run clear as we will never know them, and someday, families will be singing in the fields while healthy forests once again stand. So that someday, this place will be sacred to all of those who live here again. The words of Wendell Berry resonate like an anthem deep within me. I realize there is still more work to do. The blood of my ancestors flowing within me, the land of my birth around me, the hope of a brighter future in front of me, I ready myself for the journey ahead.

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