The Druid's Garden

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

The Lessons of Nature at the Winter Solstice December 16, 2018

In the fall, I always feel like I’m fighting against the coming dark at the time of the winter solstice, and each year, I have to learn the lesson anew.  This year proved particularly challenging for a few reasons. After the time changes at Daylight Savings time, and the sun starts setting at 3:30pm.  It is down by 4:30 and completely dark by 5:15pm. As a homesteader, in preparation for spring planting and the winter to come, there always seems to be so much to do.  Bringing in the harveset, preparing the greenhouse, preparing and clearing garden beds, stacking wood, cleaning gutters, shoring up the hen house, and doing all of the necessary multitude of other preparations for the coming winter.  As the fall deepens, each day, the light continues to wane, and there is less light each day to work with. On many days when I go to work, I rise before the sun rises, I am on campus all day in a windowless office, and I leave campus after the sun has set–literally never seeing the sun, sometimes for days on end. These “lack of sun” issues were certainly heightened this year, by our region having the rainiest season on record.  Many of us in Western PA felt like summer never happened; an extremely rainy and cold July and August meant that the warmth never had a chance to seep into our bones. These climate changes are the new norm, but they certainly make it difficult to adapt! Finally, and perhaps most salient, I think the cultural darkness has also left its mark on many of us in 2018; it was a hard, dark year.  No wonder as the light wanes, I found myself really mentally fighting the coming darkness of the winter solstice.

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Snowfall at our homestead

But whether or not we want to face the darkness, it is now upon us, as it will be each year of our lives.  Earlier, I wrote about embracing the darkness at the winter solstice on this blog.  I’ve also written about enacting a winter solstice vigil during the darkest night of the year and about sustainable and magical activities for the winter solstice.  In re-reading these, I remind myself that the lessons of this year are powerful, and perhaps, each year, we must learn to embrace the darkness anew. So today, I offer three additional insights for the lessons of the winter solstice and thinking about embracing the darkness during this time.

 

Lessons of Darkness, Again and Again

The irony is that in my earlier posts about the winter solstice, they seemed so certain, so firm, as if I had found the answer that helped me embrace the dark.  The truth is, for this druid at least, there is no “one” answer to addressing the coming of the darkness.  I am in a different place as the wheel turns again, and the darkness of each year finds me in a different mindset, different life circumstances, different present time.  Such that, particularly for this holiday, learning how to work with the Winter Solstice must be learned and deepened each year anew.  Each holiday on the Druid’s Wheel of the Year offers us this same lesson–a chance to deepen our experiences with the magic of that sacred time.  For Alban Arthan, the darkness requires a different kind of interaction and engagement with the world–a time of quietude, slowness, of otherness.  And we must simply let ourselves be present in it and embrace it.  And for some of us, we have to teach ourselves this lesson again each year.

 

Perhaps, saying that we have to learn a lesson is not the right way of thinking about it.  It is almost like we have to come to a place of acceptance of this time, this dark, this cold.  There is something so joyful about the light of summer, and that light is so far away. As the light wanes to nothingness, those of us who are stuck indoors at jobs may notice that all of our “light hours” are gone during the working week.  Further, the cold and dreary days set in, and some days, it hardly feels like the sun is there behind the clouds at all.  Darkness requires us to step away from “business as usual” and re-orient ourselves to this time.  Culturally, this re-orientation is extremely difficult because the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is in full effect. If anything, our lives are the most busy this time of year, yet nature is telling us hey, you’ve got to slow down.  I think this is part of why there is so much depression around the holidays: we are fighting our natural instincts. And perhaps that’s why each year,  it seems of all of the wheel of the year holidays, I find this one to be the most difficult to adapt to, to embrace, and to accept.

 

Indeed, my first lesson is that the darkness may always be difficult for many of us.  In the same way that nobody wants to have bad things happen in their life, experience pain or loss.  But like the dark, these things are inevitable, just as the darkness of the winter solstice is inevitable.

 

The Lesson of the Seed

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

In the last week, two seed catalogs arrived, reminding me that while it may be dark, planning for the coming season offers hope.  As I browse the seeds, thinking about their magic and life, I realize that we can learn a lot about embracing the darkness from starting seeds.  I think about all of the seeds of the self-seeding annuals, perennials, and nuts that the squirrels buried this past fall season: those seeds are there, covered in dark soil, awaiting the spring. Awaiting warmth, moisture, and a chance to grow. The darkness holds these seeds, preserves them, allows them to be in  a time of stasis before they spring forth.

 

In fact, many of the seeds of some of the most rare and medicinal plants require “cold stratification.”  The seed packets tell you to put the seeds in your refridgerator for a period of time, usually some weeks or months, for without this period of cold, the seeds will not grow. Black cohosh, a critically endagnered forest medicinal plant, is one such plant that requires cold stratification.  For years, I attempted to do just as the seed packets asked–putting them in the fridge in a damp paper towel for three months, as requeted, then planting them indoors with my other seeds and hoping they would grow.  For years, no sprouts happened. The seeds simply would not grow.  Last year, I stuck the seeds right in the ground in the fall, after clearing away and marking little areas.  Sure enough, in the spring this year, the seeds came forth and now I have several beautiful black cohosh plants growing on the property in addition to some live plants I had purhcased and planted.

 

I wonder: how many of our most sacred and magical ideas are just like that Black Cohosh, requiring that darkness and incubation period? There are seeds we plant that must have their own time of darkness and cold before they can spring forth into the light of day. We need the darkness, just as the seeds need the darkness.  We need the quiet, the slowness, the time for reflection and introspection, before the seeds of our ideas can sprout in the spring.

 

The Lesson of the Roots

Another aspect of nature reminds me of another important lesson about darkness. Roots on trees and plants are extremely sensitive and require darkness to live. If roots are exposed to air and light, they will almost immediately be damaged.  Enough exposure will kill the roots, thereby killing the plant. I remember the first time I was planting trees as a new druid.  I had no idea how sensitive roots were, and I had left a number of trees’ roots exposed to light and air while I dug holes.  These little planted seedlings struggled mightily, I hadn’t realized that I had damaged their roots by exposing them as such.  They eventually did live, but only after a tremendous amount of care: water, singing, sunlight, and sitting with them. This was certainly a powerful lesson for a new druid!

 

Roots go deep

Roots go deep

Even many root crops, like potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes, prefer to stay in the darkness and space within the soil.  When exposed to too much light, these crops go “green”; this greening produces Solanine.  Solanine is actually slightly toxic to humans, creating symptoms of nausea and upset stomach when consumed. How ironic that that which we want to embrace–the light–is so detrimental to the root crops.

 

But there is a deep lesson here about darkness and why we need this winter solstice time. Our own roots–that of our spirits, that of our creative practices, that of the core of our beings–are in need of the same kind of darkness.  Our roots are our grounding, the place of spirit and of the soul.   If the dark offers us a time for quiet contemplation, for rest, for rejuvenation: all of this is necessary if we are to bring any fruit into the world.  Fruit will not happen without strong roots, and strong roots do not happen without darkness.  Otherwise, we are just producing Solanine.

 

Concluding Thoughts

The seed needs dark soil to spring forth.  The roots cannot be exposed to light without damaging or killing the whole plant.  Potatoes go green in the light.  Maybe we are the same. The roots of our being are found only in the times of darkness: within ourselves, in our dreams, in the promise of a new beginning, in the quietude that can only be found in rest and open time.  We need the darkness as we need the air to breathe.  Blessings to you on the upcoming long night–may your spirit soar.

 

PS:  I’ll be taking a few weeks off of blogging for some travel and deep spiritual work over this period of darkness.  I will resume blogging again in mid January!  Blessings of the snowy white pine and sheltering Eastern hemlock upon you!

 

PPS: Larisa White, who is a fellow AODA druid and fellow OBOD Mount Haemus scholar, is working on a World Druidries Survey for her 2020 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture. If you haven’t already taken it, please consider spending time taking her survey!  Here is a link.

 

White Picket Fences, Free Range Fantasies, and the Many Paths of Sustainable Living June 26, 2016

We live in a time of grand and sweeping narratives, powerful narratives that tell us who to be, how to live, what to buy, and what to believe–and these shape our actions and identities. When I was a child in the 1980’s, the narrative of the American Dream, complete with the white picket fence, was compelling. A beautiful suburban home, a middle class lifestyle, a loving partner, 2.5 children, a large house, a beautiful lawn, the husband with a well paying job, and generally peaceful existence were the cornerstones of this dream. Of course, there’s a lot of critique of the white picket fence today, spanning from racial injustice and socioeconomic realities to sustainable living issues. In the sustainability community, in particular, the white picket fence has become a sense of what we are working against, as the white picket fence surrounds the chemically-treated and weed free grass…and certainly, that’s not what is going to help us transition to earth-centered living.

 

Loving the Land

Loving the Land- in many different ways!

However, what I fear is that sustainable living communities have replaced this white picket fence narrative with our own grand narrative, as equally powerful and as equally limiting. I call this narrative the “Free Range Fantasy” and it goes something like this: you and your perfect partner decide to quit your day jobs, purchase 50 acres in some remote area (which you somehow manage debt free), and build a fully off-grid homestead using an awesome ecological design method (cob, earth shelter, passive solar, etc). This homestead is complete with solar panels, acres of abundant gardens, fields of cute goats wearing daisy crowns, happy free range chickens, and two cute children covered in strawberry juice from your own strawberry patch.

 

The Free Range Fantasy is strongly promoted by a number of sustainable living magazines, events, books and other forms of media. As an example, Mother Earth News does a superb job. For the record, I love Mother Earth News and enjoy reading each issue; I also attended the Mother Earth news Fair in Seven Springs, PA last year and have every intention of going again. But I also recognize that Mother Earth News is promoting a specific kind of ecological living, and that living is not a reality for many of us, and it is in this grand narrative that much of the danger lies. For example, each year, they select a handful of homesteaders to be their homesteaders of the year. You can see articles on the last few years’ picks (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).  Notice a pattern? I certainly did: every “homesteader of the year” is a couple or a family; nearly all are living on large tracts of land and remote locations–and nearly all fit into my Free Range Fantasy. Now, from a sustainable living perspective, these couples  are superheroes. I respect them deeply for the work they are doing, and the way forward they are paving. But I also have to ask: Could a single person ever win this award? What about a non-traditional community? What about someone who is disabled? What about someone homesteading in a big city or in a 1/10th acre plot?

 

When I meet and talk to people who are practicing sustainable living and permaculture, 9 out of 10 times, they simply don’t fit the Free Range Fantasy. They may not be able to afford to purchase a remote 50 acres and live somewhere–perhaps they are already trying to make ends meet just paying their rent and working two or three part time jobs. How would they ever save enough up for a down payment, much less live debt free? Or perhaps they are still recovering from years in higher education and have student loan debt and need to keep their job to avoid defaulting on their loans. Perhaps they have sick parents or a sick loved one and are geographically bound. Perhaps they have a bad back or a serious disability. Or perhaps, they are single homesteaders–trying their best to live sustainably while working a full time job, and doing so without the strawberry-coated children and supportive partner. Maybe they have a partner, but that partner has a different worldview than them, and this kind of living is out of the question.

 

I really commend people whose life circumstances have allowed for them to make the Free Range Fantasy a realtiy, and for the daily work of making that happen. I am inspired by the work that they do. However, for most people, the Free Range Fantasy unfortunately sends the message that the only way to live sustainably is to live by this ideal.

 

Urban Garden early in Season!

Urban Garden early in Season!

I have spent a lot of time in sustainable living communities, and I can tell you that it has a powerful hold, being upheld as the “thing everyone should be doing.” It can get lodged deeply within you, this dream, of a life you *should* be living, rather than one you are living. I hear a lot of people saying “I wish I was able to buy a place in the country….”  or “In my dream world, I would…”; these are the narratives of the Free Range Fantasy. As the Archdruid of Water in AODA, I mentor people through our curriculum.  Part of the curriculum asks them to make three changes to their living to be more earth-friendly.  So many people feel guilty because they don’t feel they are doing enough, when in reality they are doing very good work, and pursuing a better path forward in their own lives. The Free Range Fantasy minimizes the important work that they are doing, in their community, and as individuals.

 

Truthfully, until very recently, I was trapped by this narrative. As a single homesteader in Michigan, isolated on my property, I fell into depression because my life looked different than the Free Range Fantasy. For me, most importantly, it was the family/partner issue–I didn’t have two cute strawberry eating children, nor a stable partner and it was extremely hard on my own to achieve all I wanted to achieve. I also didn’t have the funds, with my mortgage, to really take my property to the next step in terms of solar power, etc. In truth, I was doing everything I could, and still, my life resembled nothing like what I believed it should, according to the narrative. As long as I bought into the narrative wholesale, and I bought into it for a long time, then what I was doing never seemed to be enough, or sufficient, and there were always pieces lacking. In other words, the narrative made me feel like a failure, rather than encouraging me to celebrate my success and continued growth on this path–and I had much to celebrate! The narrative also encouraged me to place unreasonable expectations on myself. For example, when I tried growing all of my own food by putting in a 2000+ square foot veggie garden, I burned myself out and couldn’t maintain it (and started switching it to perennials, a much smarter option!) I now realize that growing all of my own food was kind of ridiculous when I was also working at the university 50+ hours a week. That is not a sustainable approach–and distance and perspective have helped me understand this, and the larger detrimental effects, of the Free Range Fantasy on my own well being.

 

Permaculture!

Permaculture – An Adaptable Philosophy, Ethical System, and Design System

As my own confessional here has demonstrated, the Free Range Fantasy can be as destructive as the white picket fence because it limits your vision to this one ideal. It stifles you, preventing you from doing something now that helps move towards sustainability, rather than dreaming of some far off thing that may never be your reality due to factors, probably many beyond your immediate control. More, if every person wanted their 50 acres, we wouldn’t have enough lands available! Part of the work of living in a sacred, sustainable manner is about living better in the circumstances that make up our present reality, not dreaming of a lifestyle that may not be tenable for that reality.  It is a good goal to work toward if your life circumstances allow, certainly, but there are other ways and means of living.

 

All of this has really been brought to life, and has shifted for me, during my permaculture design certificate and really embracing the alternative perspective that permaculture provided. Visiting small front-yard farms and alternative spaces was highly inspiring! Embracing small, slow and sustaining solutions is the new motto that I strive for. Permaculture isn’t about a one-fits-all model of sustainable living, but rather about applying ethics and design principles that can work for any life situation. It is here, that the power of these principles, that I found my path forward for regenerative, sacred living. And there are lots of books and resources that share alternative paths for such living, for example, how to make a permaculture patio! Permaculture isn’t the only way into what I’m talking about here, but it is certainly a way that has helped me get beyond the Free Range Fantasy in positive and productive ways.

 

I’m now at the point where I’m starting to consider buying a new piece of property after my life transition to a new job in a new state. The urban homestead appeals to me at this point my life, the idea of creating a site where people can walk to, that is easily accessible, that is very visible, and that can host permauclture meetups, herb classes, plant walks, and more. This site could provide sustainability and permauclture education right in the middle of my own community and town. That’s probably going to be the route I go for one simple fact–while I am blessed to physically be able to do this work, my call is to educating others. To me, this education must occur where people, here and now, where people are rooted and where they live their everyday lives. And those people aren’t just those who are privileged with being able bodied, have abundant finances, have perfect partner with which to do the work, or have their 50 acres debt free and ready to go. Rather, they are poor people, middle class people, disabled people, students, single parents, people of different walks of life–and I think its important to meet them where they are, in the places they inhabit, and show them options of sustainable living that they can do right here and right now. I now understand that that the kind of off grid living promoted by the Free Range Fantasy takes a community. If I have no family, partner, or community to bring to a homestead, than it seems that I will bring the homestead to the community and create family right here where I am.

 

But another piece of this is that there are always trade-offs and decisions to make, and each kind of living has its benefits: fossil fuel use and finances being two of them. In my case, I can substantially reduce my fossil fuel dependence if I live in a place where I can walk or bike to work and eliminate most of my car use–and seeing the destruction that fossil fuels have brought firsthand on the land here in PA make me even more eager to go that route. In MI, I used to commute 18 miles to work one way, and although the rest of my living was quite sustainable, nothing I did could really address 36 miles round trip 4 or so times a week. Further, acreage is expensive, and I can also stay out of debt if I live in town modestly; that’s another critical factor.

 

In sum, it’s important to realize that the Free Range Fantasy is an option for certain people who have the means, drive, family, and opportunity to do so.  However, it is certainly not the only vision possible, nor reasonable, given the challenges we face. For many of us, it is only a fantasy, and keeping our heads in a fantasy doesn’t address the importance of living in the here and now. We need a patchwork of unique responses, as many responses and sustainable living practices as we have people. We need people to do everything they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen: abandoned lots in Detroit becoming gardens; apartment dwellers learning vermicomposting; a local school planting a garden; urban beekeeping; whatever it is. We are starting to see those visions emerge, and we need voices doing all of these things. And so, dear readers, I hope you will be inspired by the multitude of ways, the patchwork of options, before us for sustainable living and regenerative, healing lives!

 

PS: I just realized that this is my 250th post on the Druid’s Garden Blog!  How fitting! 🙂