The Druid's Garden

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

Embracing the Bardic Arts: A History of Making Fine Things July 23, 2017

One of the changes that humans have experienced with the rise of industrialization, and more recently, consumerism, is a shift away from creating our own lovingly crafted objects, objects created with precision, skill, high-quality materials, and care and into using things that instead are made by far away people and machines. I wrote a little bit about this before in a post on wood. In speaking of the 17th century, Eric Sloane writes in the Reverence of Wood:

“In 1765, everything a man owned was made more valuable by the fact that he had made it himself or knew exactly where it had come. This is not so remarkable as it sounds; it is less strange that the eighteenth-century man should have a richer and keener enjoyment of life through knowledge than that the twentieth-century man should lead an arid and empty existence in the midst of wealth and extraordinary material benefits” (pg 72).

I know that a number of us on the fringes (and growing increasingly towards the center) are picking up these old skills through the process of reskilling and supporting craftspeople in their trades. The craft brewing movement, wood carving movement, and fiber arts movements are several such examples.

 

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Recently, I’ve been learning a few new skills including making candles from the beeswax from my beehives, learning how to make my own leather shoes, and learning basic woodcarving techniques (some of which I’ll write about at some point). But what has struck me in the process of trying to learn these things is the lack of specialized, accessible knowledge on the subject, especially in my local area. What I’d ideally love to do is to sit with a master and learn the process from him or her here in my local community–but there are no masters to be found locally. Youtube, old books, and an occasional class where I drive a long way to learn is the most common way of gaining this knowledge these days.

 

And so, I wanted to step back a bit from the specific crafts, and today, spend some time reflecting upon the idea of making things as both a functional handicraft and as a bardic art that cultivates the flow of awen. I think this is important for a few reasons. For one, as someone on the druid path, supporting the bardic arts, which includes various functional crafts, is an important part of that path: finding one’s own creativity and being able to do something with that creativity is central. But second, that learning how to make my own things that will last, from local materials, helps us minimize our footprint on the living earth. Third, making our own things helps me slow down and reconnect with the earth and her gifts. Plus, there is simply a lot of fun to be had in making your own shoes, paper, jams, spoons, or whatever else! (Of course, all of this requires time, which is a challenge I also wrote about earlier this year).

 

The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

At one time, humans in communities provided nearly all of their own needs: there were coopers, cobblers, tanners, barm brewers, blacksmiths, wainwrights, apothecaries, tailors, as well as bustling home economies that produced many other things that a family needed. A list from Colonial America offers a description of some of these jobs here.  What strikes me about this list is the amazing number of specialized professions there were for making everyday objects and tools for human use, everything from brewers’ yeast to barrels, from medicines to wagon wheels. In other words, humans in a community used to make things for that community–the expertise was centered in and around that community. My example of making shoes, or the art of cobbling, falls into this category: every community had a local cobbler to make and repair shoes–this required specialized knowledge, tools, and practice.

 

The second kind of economy in these times was, of course, the home economy. Homesteads were places of constantly bustling activity: bread baking, cheese making, tool making, farming, candle making or rush light making–providing so many of a family’s own needs.  My candlemaking experiences, here, certainly fall into this category.  I’m not going to talk too much about the home economy today (although I likely will at an upcoming point).

 

The system I outline above was no perfect system, but it was a system that employed highly skilled people working with more local materials in their local communities, making things for the use of that community; combined with highly adaptable home economies that produced the bulk of a household’s needs. This system allowed people to monitor how supplies in the local ecosystem would last and to understand their direct ecological impact when they made new things. Further, this general system has worked for most non-industrial agrarian cultures around the globe for millennia. Its especially interesting to note, too, that this system actually seemed to be less work intensive than current systems; one such presentation of this is through Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and in Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto.  Both of these books explore the issue of work, showing how many of our ancestors had plenty of time for 12-day feasts and much revelry and worked fewer hours than we did (a topic I explored earlier this year).

 

Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

Tucked into quiet places, you still may find the remnants of these locally-based, highly skilled trades: odd tailor who makes his or her own suits, the local wood turner, and so on. Today, we see the remnants of these older ways of life in antique shops and other nooks and crannies: hand-hewn and worked wooden objects, iron tools clearly forged by an expert blacksmith, homemade buckets, spinning wheels with various small repairs, handmade clothing and quilts, and so on. In fact, my town still has a cobbler who fixes shoes (but doesn’t’ make them; he tells me his grandfather from who he learned the trade from did). At a thrift store visit last year, a dear friend of mine found an incredible green suit made by a tailor right here in town (and obviously, no longer in business).

 

But with the rise of consumerism and industralization, we left behind many of these skilled trades and we left behind our home economies to buy things. We also, unfortunately, left behind even the idea that craft was something to take seriously and that a high-quality product was worth paying more for or to spend a tremendous amount of time to make.

 

The Decline of the Skilled Trades

As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the rust belt/flyover zone, I have always lived in a time of declining small businesses and large corporations. Each year of my life, I’ve watched more family businesses and local shops close up for good and be replaced by large corporations on the edge of town reachable only by car (rather than in town, reachable by foot). In fact, I lived this firsthand, watched my parents’ own graphic design home business steadily lose their local customer base as one business after another closed their doors, or relocated, or were bought out by a bigger corporation who were headquartered in a far off state and not interested in offering work to local graphic designers. The first Walmart came to my area while I was still in middle school, driving many local establishments out of business within only a few years’ time.

 

At this point, exploring the landscape of most places in the US shows the most boring monotony of the same businesses selling the exact same things (an issue I took up last year). I had, of course, read in various places about the engineering of American society to be consumerist in the times following WWI. This general pattern was well underway long before I was born, and in fact, was several centuries in the making. To understand this phenomenon better, I spoke to some older family members to try to understand their firsthand experiences. My older family members attribute a large number of factors to the loss of our small trade businesses and creation of handicrafts locally, but I’m going to hone in on three that seemed to arise with the different conversations: 1) the rise of large corporations (which is the fairly obvious one), 2) the lack of new apprentices to carry on the family businesses; 3) the loss of the blue laws and 4) the cultural disregard for handmade things.

 

Obviously, when large corporations like Walmarts and Targets come to town, economics has a lot to do with the issue. For one, because they buy and ship in such bulk, they can undersell local businesses on the same products. But they also sell cheap products in snazzy packaging with fancy words masquerading as good products. This has been talked about a lot in other places and is fairly well known, so I won’t belabor the point here.  This decreases the demand for these locally-produced crafts and trades.

 

The second reason was the lack of young people wanting to go into these traditional crafts and trades–which has a lot to do with economics, but also with interest. When my parents attended the closing of our local shoe store in Johnstown (called Yankee Shoe Repair), they spoke with the owners, who said that there was nobody who wanted to carry on their business and that was one of the reasons they were closing. They purchased a good deal of leatherworking supplies for me, and that’s how I got my start in leatherworking.

 

Third is my mother’s “blue law” theory. Blue Laws, which used to protect family time, also contributed to the downfall of the trades here in our region. The Blue Laws governed, among other things, when businesses had to stay closed to ensure adequate time for families and religious services. After the blue laws were removed, family businesses often kept with those traditions (and still do, in limited places) while big corporations remained open for longer and longer hours, making it more convenient for customers. Today, we are seeing the real effects of these pushes with the loss of Thanksgiving day and the push for being open on Christmas day. The limited hours made shopping at these stores (and their associated value systems) less convenient and, in an age of convenience, folks less likely to visit the family owned business.

 

Finally, the idea of something being handmade (rather than store-bought) after World War II took on a negative connotation for many Americans. Handmade objects were looked down upon and seen as less desirable. My mother shared with me stories of wearing “hand me downs” or “handmade” clothes rather than purchased ones and how she was teased as a child. Even in my own childhood, I experienced this. My paternal grandmother was a maker, going to church sales, picking up huge bags of old clothing and drapes, and repurposing them into toys, skirts, doll clothes, and more. When I went to school with my handmade clothing lovingly crafted by my grandmother, I was mocked (which, to the other children, suggested poverty). Today, “handmade” still has some negative connotations (especially if it’s done in a less-than-sleek manner).

 

Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

So now that we have some understanding of what happened to the skilled crafts and trades, I want to briefly explore a few problems that this has created. These are key problems for both individuals, communities, and our broader lands.

 

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

The Loss of Highly Skilled Workers and Educational Opportunities. First is that the highly skilled labor required to produce these objects has shifted to mechanized low-skilled labor. This means that these highly skilled trades employing people in every community that offered a good living have now vanished. These skilled trades had offered young people educational opportunities and career opportunities through apprenticeships. Now, these positions are largely relegated to lower-skilled or unskilled factory workers in a single community (likely these days, overseas). We’ve taken 100,000+ cobblers located all over and have replaced them with 10 factories each employing 300 low-paid, unskilled employees in far off locations. Pressing a button on the shoe cutting machine is a lot different than the custom measuring, cutting, and fitting of a pair of  shoes for a specific person in terms of the skill, care, and precision necessary for the work.  Not to mention that you end up with a much better product if the shoe is made for your feet. Finally, a pair of shoes made in a factory vs. one made by skilled hands fundamentally changes the nature of the work we do, and I believe, makes it a lot less meaningful. 

 

I have firsthand experience of this factory work: when I was in high school, I worked for a summer in a bra and underwear factory; we didn’t produce bras or underwear (they were made in sweatshops overseas), but we hung them, packaged them, and shipped them off to various big box stores all over the country. It was the most wretched four months of my life. At the factory, anyone could do the work; it could be learned with minimal training, usually less than a few hours. There was no craft, no care in the work–and how could there be? People worked in rough conditions, for minimal pay, and there was no need to be skilled or invest time in the quality of our work done well. This isn’t to say that people at the factory were lazy–they worked hard, but the nature of that work was much different than our skilled shoemaker fitting a person for a custom pair of shoes.

 

Environmental Health and Health of Ecosystems. One of the things about goods being made right in your local community is that you know what goes into those goods and where those goods come from. The local tanner and hunters have some idea of the level of the deer population; the local woodworker knows about the health of the forest; the local farmer can speak about the quality and health of the soil. When the creation of goods is removed from our vision or done on the largest industralized scale, we no longer can assess the health of those places where raw goods are coming from nor the impact of those goods on the land.  Sure, we may hear stories, but it is a “far away” problem that we pay no mind. Further, those producing goods as a family profession are going to care about the health of the land from which those goods come (and continue to come) as their livelihood depends on it. Not so with the large-scale production factory, who can often just find a new source of raw materials to exploit (this, also hidden from view from the end consumer).

 

The truth is, I have no idea where my goods really come from when I’m purchasing something at the store; they are hidden behind various “distributed by” labels on packaging and even writing a company often does not lead to any deep understanding. This means I can’t really assess their real costs to myself or to any community that may be involved in the extraction of resources nor production. And I certainly have no idea what the environmental costs of those goods are (and I suspect they are generally quite high).

 

Product Quality and Comfort. On the consumer end, the quality of the products has declined with the loss of our skilled trades and crafts; in many cases, options in many cases is to choose between low-priced junk and high-priced slightly better junk. While factories can certainly produce these objects more “efficiently”, they certainly can’t do it better or of a higher quality. Shoes are a great example here. A pair of shoes fitted to an “ideal” foot is not a pair of shoes fitted to my foot, and my feet nearly always hurt because they are different than the factory-produced ideal. I have never liked shoe shopping and it usually takes me many tries to find a decent pair of shoes that are comfortable. The factory standardizes human feet in a way they shouldn’t be standardized, and my limited experiences with cobbling have already taught me that human feet don’t come in simple digit sizes. Tracing my own and others’ feet on paper as part of learning to make shoes has taught me that feet are as unique as we are, and shoes, therefore, also need to be. Goods designed in a specific local context or body in mind are simply better than those that are not!

 

Variety and Weirdness. The standardization of goods also comes with the loss of diversity (and anyone who has studied evolution knows how important diversity is to any system!) A local shoemaker in one town might produce a very different kind of shoe than one three towns over depending on his/her skills, training, and creative approaches. With a factory pumping out 10,000 shoes a day that are identical, we now have much less choice, less quirkiness, and less all around creativity.

 

Suffering, Joy, and the Energy of Goods. As I’ve stated on this blog before, the things that are near to us, including physical goods, bring their own energy and that energy impacts us. A shoe produced in a sweatshop invariably brings some of that suffering into your own life–it carries the energy with it from how it was extracted and made. I highly suspect that the cobbler enjoyed his or her work much more than, say, the under-paid and chemically-exposed factory worker. Whose shoe would I want to wear?

 

The “Real” Costs. I think the real lure here is the idea of a cheap good and its overall value. Cheap products are not better ones, ones that are of quality and that last.  It’s true that Walmart and Payless Shoes other bargain stores can sell a cheap pair of shoes for $25, while the local shoemaker sells a much better and high-quality pair of leather shoes for $150. This doesn’t seem very competitive on the surface to the average consumer. However, given that the whole purpose of consumerism is to consume as quickly as possible, and so, the $25 pair of shoes you wear every day have barely a year shelf life.  You’ll have to replace those cheap, uncomfortable shoes 10 times in a decade.  This ends up costing far more than the $150 pair of shoes that last a decade with minimal maintenance and repairs.

Where do we go from here?

Industrialization isn’t going to go away tomorrow (and it would be very bad if it did for those of us who still depend on it).  And yet, I think there are a lot of things we can do to cultivate the bardic arts, both within ourselves (as my earlier posts in this series suggested) and to cultivate a culture in which the bardic arts are valued and profitable.  Let’s look at a few of those things now!

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!

 

Supporting Skilled Trades

I think the very first thing all of us can work to do is to support those folks who are still around, still engaged in their skilled trades.  My town has a cobbler–he doesn’t make shoes (unfortunately, I’d love to learn from him!) but he does repair them, and I’ve been glad to visit him every few months with small shoe repairs. I honestly know enough about shoemaking at this point that I could manage some of the repairs–but I want to give him business (and his repairs will be nicer than mine!)  There’s a local wood turner who I’ve been buying wooden bowls and plates from, and so on. The more we can seek these folks out and help them thrive, the better. On the more fine arts side, the same thing applies: finding local artists, local theaters, local musicians, and supporting their work as much as possible. Each town and community has its own quirky, unique scene of great people creating great things, and supporting that work is so critical to returning to a bardic-arts enriched culture.

 

Reskilling, Time, and Community

We just don’t have time like we used to have to engage in these functional crafts; our ancestors who were making these things in pre-industralized cultures had a lot more time to do so.  (Pre-industralized cultures worked a lot less and played a lot more than people do now). The time and “productivity” suck we are all facing means that we simply don’t have the life energy to really invest in these skills and get good at doing them. I feel this really harshly because I have lots of things I want to do–a wide variety of skills to learn and master–and more often than not, I’m exhausted with my work (and paying off those darn student loans) and don’t have the energy or time to do many of them. This is a cultural problem that faces anyone who is trying to earn a living within our current system.

 

I think that this time crunch we are all facing means that we don’t necessarily have the energy to figure things out or to fail in order to learn.  The way we learn as humans, even when there is someone teaching us, is by trying, testing things out, failing and re-trying, and fiddling with things till we get it right.  Its like a slow spiral, working ever inward and deeper.  We need a lot of time to hone our crafts, to take them from beginner attempts into things that are functional that we can be proud of.  This means we have to invest a lot of time in them–the one thing that we don’t currently have.  Without investing the time, we can’t get good at them and turn them into an art.

 

Still, these skills are worth doing and worth preserving, and finding ways of doing so (living arrangements, working arrangements, defending vacation time, etc) are important things we all need to figure out how to accomplish.

 

My solution at present to this is twofold.  For me personally, it is a matter of making the time and keeping with it. I’m working to make the most of the small amounts of time that I might have available (e.g. stitching up a hand-bound book while talking with friends or waiting for my car to be repaired, similar to what knitters do).  But also, setting aside sacred days and times to do that work.

 

The second is community–I’m working hard to find friends to learn these skills with and working on building a network of folks who have different skills.  Like the mini-villages of old, finding people who can teach and who are willing to trade is a great way to keep these old skills alive and vibrant.  And so I have a friend who carves spoons, and we trade for artwork, another friend makes really great jams, and so on.

 

The third is to pick a craft and really hone it.  I’ve been such a dabbler for a lot of my life, and I really want to start making a few things and doing those well.  I’ve suck with my painting and writing longer than anything else, and the results of those efforts show.  I’m really getting into leatherworking and some primitive woodworking, and I know those skills will both take me years of time to develop and master.  These seem like enough: both in term of the time investment, but also in terms of the materials/tools investment (which is considerable).  But picking one, or two, and really working at it is important.

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

As I’m involving myself deeper in my own reskilling, I’m also seeing the serious cracks and edges of this movement from a knowledge perspective. While knowledge of how to do many things used to be widespread, local knowledge about many of these more complex skills  seems to be absent almost entirely. Skilled knowledge about these things may be out there in the world, but it is often contained in small pockets, or inaccessible in faraway places, or offered only at considerable cost (I could travel to a master shoemaker and learn, but it would cost me over $1000 to do so). Or, knowledge is contained in good books, many of which are out of print.

 

Another issue with this is that many of us no longer have this knowledge or access of where to find it, and we are learning a little bit and bumbling about in that learning and sharing what we learn.  But the truth is, you can’t just replace a master craftsperson with a short online tutorial and expect the product to come out the same way.  I am learning this the hard way with shoemaking–I tried what looked like it was a decent online tutorial, but my shoes didn’t really come out and the key aspects of the tutorial I needed were lacking. I invested in a kickstarter campaign to learn from a master craftsperson and his course is incredible and deatiled–and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first pair of custom shoes!

 

And so, in terms of reskilling movement for more specialized skills, we need to continue to build first-hand knowledge. I think it would behoove us to seek out the teachers of these kinds of skills, learn from them, and work hard to pass it on and to keep those traditions alive.  I can’t stress this enough–seek these folks out, learn from them, document that knowledge, share it, and preserve it.  The internet is great for this!  Share, share, and share!

 

Localizing Resources

Another strategy that you might try to start bringing more handcrafted functional things into your life is looking at what resources already exist in your community or local ecosystem.  Here, there are always places being logged, and those loggers leave behind so much good wood.  Straight branches, curved interesting pieces, green or drying out.  This is part of what prompted my interest in woodworking: the materials are so abundant and easy to find here that it seems that all I need is to put some time and hone the skill of doing it.

 

I have a friend who makes these incredible pieces of art from buckthorn vines in Michigan.  Buckthorn is everywhere in Michigan, and townships often have clean up days where they pull them out and burn them.  She takes them home and turns them into baskets, picture frames, and more. My other friend, Deanne at Strawbale Studio, uses the clay, sand, and silt in her soil combined with phragmites reeds to make houses and natural structures.  Again, she is capitalizing on resources that are already present there in the landscape. Yet another friend has cultivated abundance by growing bamboo for flutes and whistles!

 

So rather than picking a hobby that requires you to bring resources in, perhaps look at what resources are there and use them, if you can. This is the best synthesis of nature-oriented spiritual practice and the bardic arts and crafts.

 

I think that the edges are starting to wear thin for a lot of us concerning the lure of consumerism with its flashy gizmos and cheap gadgets. It’s exciting to see the rise of the reskilling and maker movements, where people are realizing the potential of their own creative gifts and working again to create functional and lovingly made crafts. I think that many of these movements are not yet mainstream (perhaps craft brewing and the tech/maker movement being the most mainstream at this point), but I do see them as gaining momentum, at least among the fringe groups focusing on sustainable living, permaculture, transition towns, and the like.  While this post explored some history and problems, our next post will continue to get us deeper into the relationship of the self with the idea of craft and the bardic arts–and how we can embrace this work as part of our own spiritual and sustainable path.

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Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition April 16, 2017

It seems that religions or spiritual paths have a set of core orientations or philosophies that form the underlying foundation upon which the religion and practice rests. This core philosophy is like the seed from which the entire “tree” of the religion grows–the tree might branch in different directions, but all of those branches eventually lead back to that single seed. For example, in many forms of Christianity, we might see that core seed as salvation; this seed forms the bulk of Christian thought, belief, and action. In some forms of Buddhist thought, the seed is freedom from suffering. This underlying seed makes that particular path unique, form the foundation of what is considered right thought and right action on that path, give the path purpose, and that offers particular gifts to its practitioners or to the broader world.  And most importantly, this seed drives a number of underlying morals, values, and assumptions that practitioners of that path hold.

 

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

Druidry is many things to many people, and the joke is that if you ask five different druids about what druidry is, you’ll likely get seven different answers. As scattered and diverse as the modern druid movement seems to be–I believe, we too, have a core philosophy (with at least three expressions of that philosophy), and I’m going to explore this underlying seed of our tradition in today’s post.

 

Sources of Inspiration

The flow of Awen for this post comes from a few places, and I want to acknowledge those first. Part of my insight comes from being in a leadership role in a major druid order in the US. I serve as the Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and in that role, I interact with a lot of different kinds of druids at multiple points along their paths. I interact with people when they find druidry for the first time–what they are seeking, what they hope to find, and later, I see them as they move through our curriculum deepen their own understanding and interaction and the insights they have. I get to read their exams at the end of their time working through parts of our curriculum–so I’m hearing of the experiences of many on the druid path who have taken up this spiritual practice in a serious way. Additionally, part of my inspiration is personal; it comes from my experience in working through the complete curriculum in two druid orders, the AODA (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees) and the OBOD (bardic, ovate, and druid curricula) and coming to deep understandings over decade of time about that work. Finally, I have attended and been part of a lot of gatherings, online groups, and various initiatives. This post represents a synthesis of what I’ve read and conversed with others, and what I’ve generally understood over a period of time. But there is also another piece here– I’m also considering the overall trajectory of the druid tradition itself–not what we are, or were, but where we are heading and what potential exists for druidry in the future.

 

Therefore, this post is my take on the seed of our tradition, the underlying or core philosophy that drives much of druid practice. You might disagree with me, or want to add or subtract from this list–please do so and share in the comments what your own thoughts about what your version might look like.

 

On the Druid Revival

To understand the underlying core philosophy of druidry, we first need to delve back into the history of the druid revival and then move into the present day.

 

It is no coincidence that the very roots of the druid revival came about at the same time that industrialization rose in the British Isles. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories (see, for example, the “Highland Clearances” and “Enclosure Acts” in Scotland). During this time, the rise in machine-based worldviews, that is, that humans are machines (and cam work like machines, act like machines), and that nature is just another machine, became dominant (we see the outcome of this thinking everywhere today, particularly, in industrialized agriculture).

 

Our spiritual ancestors watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress, the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities, the rampant pollution and exploitation industrlization was creating, the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. It was during this time that our spiritual ancestors reached deep–and creatively–into their own history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The druid revival movement sought to reconnect with nature through ancient roots in a time where society was heading in the opposite direction. I believe it is the same reason that people today are so drawn to the druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and it is that connection.

 

Now, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for creating “ancient” texts, drawing upon “found” materials that they had created, I find these attempts to discredit them problematic because they do not understand their context. These early attempts at bringing back the ancient druid traditions had a lot to do with people’s response to living in an age that was quickly stripping the lands of their resources and filling the skies and rivers with pollution.  I think they were a bit desparate, and certainly, were working within the traditions of their age (and not ours). To me, the most important thing here is that druidry we practice today was descended from druid revival tradition and that tradition was a spiritual response that emerged during the very beginnings of this current age of industrialization. That means, these historical roots offers us much wisdom as we are living with the outcomes and consequences of this same industrial force.

 

Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, much harm not only to our living earth, but to the pre-industrial communities and customs of the common people (a topic I picked up in some depth in my last series of posts on “Slowing down the Druid Way”). It is unsurprising, then, at the persistence and growth of the modern druid tradition in these times. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered our tradition sources of inspiration and reconnection. It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is, in some ways, a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world.  In other words, druidry is us finding our way “home.”

 

Overall Druid Philosophy: The Power of Connection

What our spiritual ancestors in the druid revival were seeking, I believe, was (re)connection, a way to have a closer relationship with the living earth and with their own heritage. And it is in this historical view I see as the core seed of the philosophy of the druid movement: connection. It is this same connection that draws so many to the druid path today and keeps so many of us practicing this spiritual tradition.

 

Interacting with nature, learning the plants

Interacting with nature, learning the plants

In the modern druid movement, it is through the power of connection that we rekindle and learn how to cultivate a sacred relationship with nature, how to find our own creative gifts, and how to practice or path in a way that brings us wholeness and joy. When people come to the druid path, this is what they often are seeking. (As an aside: interestingly enough, there are at least two “denominations” of druidry, while all are descended from the druid revival traditions, in the 1970’s, and some went on to seek to reconstruct ancient druid practices and teachings. I think that these two currents of druidry do still share an underlying core philosophy of connection, even if it manifests incredibly differently and may not have the same three expressions I share below).

 

In this way, druidry is a direct response to the disconnection that those living in westernized culture have experienced: seeking to reconnect with nature, with our own gifts, and with ourselves. So now, I’m going to walk through three expressions of this underlying philosophy of connection through nature, connection to one’s creative gifts, creative arts, and connection to one’s spirit.

 

Connecting to Nature

To say that the druid path of nature spirituality is about nature perhaps seems like an obvious thing–but it is more than just being “about” nature. I can read books “about” nature and never step in the forest, I can understand in my mind many things about nature and her systems without ever connecting with nature through the heart. This does not give me a connection to nature, but simply some disconnected facts about it. When people ask what druidry is about, the first thing most share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces nature and relationship to nature at the core of its path, or that it honors nature through various activity (like seasonal celebrations). And yet, an individual druid’s relationship (and aspired relationship) towards nature is multifaceted.  I see this nature orientation having at least three different aspects:

 

Nature is sacred.  One of the key aspects of the druid tradition is the inherent worth and sacredness of nature. When interacting with nature, many humans focus on what is in relationship to us, that is, how does nature help us? What do we get out of it? As one begins to delve deeper and deeper into the druid path, I have found that a lot of that orientation shifts from “what can nature do for me” to “nature has inherent worth.” I see this in the mentoring work I do in the AODA–people begin taking up this path without any clear sense of the role of nature in their lives, but after a few years of druid study, observation, seasonal holidays, and the like, they have a profound shift in their oreintation towards the living earth. The shift here is not just in seeing nature as something that has value to us because it offers us something (which, of course, it does) but rather, valuing nature simply because it exists and because we are a part of it.

 

Sacredness implies care and connection: we have deep respect, reverence, and awe concerning nature. We see it as something to be protected, preserved, and cherished. In the same way that other spiritual paths may see a shrine as holy, or a city, or a church, we druids see the living earth, her systems, and all life upon her, as sacred. As part of this sacredness, druids recognize the importance of living in harmony with nature and that nature provides all of our needs.

 

Relationship to Nature. When we think of how humans treat a sacred thing, a couple of possible iterations occur. One is that we might put it on a pedestal (literally or figuratively) and admire it from a distance, keeping it safe and secure. Although some conservationists take this approach (for very good reasons), this is typically not the orientation that druids take towards the living earth. Instead, most prefer to cultivate a sacred and powerful relationship with nature by interacting with her, connecting with her, smelling the roses and touching them and learning how to tend them effectively instead of just observing them from afar. Part of this relationship is that nature offers us teachings and deep understandings when we connect. This may involve regular visits to natural places and simply being “in nature” and various ceremonies in natural settings. Many druids take further, working to tread more lightly upon the earth and live sustainably, participate in active healing of the land, planting trees, and more.  Relationship implies that we not only take but also give back.

 

Connecting to Nature’s cycles.  Another major part of the orientation towards nature is becoming an active observer and participant in the cycles of nature. And nature has many cycles through which we can observe and participate cycles of the celestial heavens (the cycles of the sun or moon) that are tied to the land (seasons).  These might involve the cycle of nutrients through plants, fungi, and soil, or even the cycles of water upon the land.  The cycle is a critical part of the way that druids think about nature and build our sacred holidays and sacred activities around it, as is gardening and foraging and other such activities.

 

And so, connection with nature is certainly at the core of the druid tradition, but there at least two other pieces of connection that also seem central to this path.

 

A simple awen painting I did a while ago

A simple awen painting I did a while ago

Connecting with One’s Creativity and the Flow of Awen

A rekindling of our creative gifts, the bardic arts, and our human gifts is a second core part of the druid path.  In fact, one of the core symbols of revival druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is “Awen” (another Welsh term pronounced “Ah-Oh-En”). Awen means “creative and divine inspiration.”  It was “Awen” that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs and delivered them to audiences all over the British Isles.  It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hands, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole.  It is the “Awen” that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow commercialized creations to take the place of our own.  And it is the inspriation of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creativity gifts and expressions.

 

Let’s again tie this to how druidry itself came to be and what it responds to. Industrialization and modern commercialization and commodification teach people how to be good consumers rather than provide for one’s own needs.  Today’s entertainment industry is a trillion dollar affair. Our core birthright, that of telling our own stories, songs, poetry, dance, music, visual arts, sacred crafts–have been stripped away by these industries.  We pay for mass produced entertainment as commodities rather than create it ourselves. It is a sad thing, I think, to sit around a fire with a group of people in the 21st century and sit in silence because nobody knows what to do or how to entertain themeslves (insetad, the pull out the cell phones!). The fire is silent, the stories and songs are stilled–the Awen has yet to flow into the hearts and spirits of those there.  But each person has an inherent ability to let the awen flow–through music, drumming, dance, song, stories, artwork, woodwork, and so many more things.  In fact, if you come to a druid event and you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant Eisteddfod (a Welsh term pronounced EYE-STED-FOD). An Eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts.

 

If you come to a druid event and you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant Eisteddfod (a Welsh term pronounced EYE-STED-FOD). An Eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts.

 

Connecting to Individual Truths and a Personal Path

Most traditions have a set of core teachings, a sacred book, and a big part of the transmission of that tradition is to teach these materials to others and ensure that the set of beliefs and rules are followed by practitioners. In druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each human’s relationship and interaction with is different–we live in different ecosystems and climates, we are engaged in different kinds of work with the land, different cycles and seasons, and different needs. Because of this, we recognize and cultivate the development of and pursual of a personal path, and in the druid tradition, these differences are celebrated rather than minimized. If you join a druid order descended from the druid revival, we do have some common frameworks and practices, of course.  In AODA, we have a common set of practices that gives us a framework; these include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working the sphere of protection, engaging in lifestyle changes, planting trees, observing nature, discursive meditation, and practice of the druid, ovate, and bardic arts.  However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest, and are central to what additional practices are taken up.

 

This is to say, druidry is a spiritual path that takes creativity, inspiration, and work: it is up to the individual to establish his or her own personal practice, his/her own personal cosmology, and no two druids are the same.

 

And so, while most religions tell you what to believe and how to believe it–this is not the case with Druidry. I have found that this particular aspect of the druid tradition is really difficult for new druids and non-druids to wrap their heads around because to them, “religion” or “spiritual practice” requires adherence to a rigid, prescribed set of beliefs and behaviors.  It takes a lot of conversation to explain the difference, that a religious practice could actually be something different. The question, “What do druids believe” doesn’t seem to be right question to ask (but it is the question that most people start with). Two druids likely have the same larger philosophical orientations (as shared here) but not necessarily the same specific belief systems with regards to the nature of divinity, the possibility of life after death and reincarnation, the belief in spirits, and so on. For many druids, there are some common themes, but these common themes don’t extend to all druids.  But what certainly seems to extend to all druids is the seeking of a personal path and connecting with that personal path at the core of one’s being. And this is an honored and sacred thing within our own tradition.  (And so, better questions might be “what do you as a druid belive? or What do you do?)

 

I see this finding and following one’s own path as inherently connecting kind of work: you develop a personal druid path by exploring your own meanings and what resonates with you, what connects to your own beliefs, your lifestyle, the work you feel you are to do in the world. It is through exploring these connections that you are able to settle upon a set of beliefs and practices that ring true. The more that you practice, the deeper those connections become. You might think of this like a path through the forest–there is underbrush when we begin, but the more we walk the path and establish what that path is, the easier the path becomes and the more it is open to us.

 

A Triad of Druidry

You might notice that my own presentation of the “connection” philosophy in druidry comes in a three-part form. The following is a triad of this presentation (a triad common teaching tool in the druid tradition descended from Welsh tradition, it is used heavily in the OBOD’s teachings).

Three philosophies of druidry:

Connecting to nature

Connecting to our creative gifts

Connecting to our souls

 

It is through the connection to nature that we can be inspired, foster our creative gifts, and ultimately, find our own paths deeper into ourselves and our core beliefs, practices, and work in the world.

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On Being Your Authentic Self, Part I: The Path of the Moon November 20, 2016

One of the struggles that has marked my own path of druidry, and the path of many others that I know, is the challenge of being and living our authentic selves. For me, this is the act of somehow balancing a spiritual path that is largely not accepted or outwardly disdained by broader society (including many of my own loved ones) with the need to be true to my own heart and soul and walk my path openly. There is a lot of fear in the druid community, and certainly in the broader earth-based spiritual communities, about being one’s authentic self, or being “out” of the broom closet, as some may frame it. I don’t think this fear has lessened of late, but rather, perhaps increased due to a toxic political climate, where intolerance and bigotry seem to be culturally more acceptable than in the previous decade.  The effects of this are that many of us feel crushed and unable to really be open about who we are. Going to any spiritual gathering, you can see this clearly: many people are just breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to hide who they are, what they believe, from a difficult outside world.  So the question I explore today is this: How do we live our authentic selves in a world that largely doesn’t accept our paths?

 

misty_forest

Why does living as our authentic selves matter?

I think that its critical that we find some way of balancing, expressing, and cultivating our inner spiritual paths in our outer realities of life. I’m sure many of my readers have felt the tension that you feel when you are, literally, feeling like two people living two separate lives in a single body. It makes you feel small and, perhaps, inauthentic. For example, some time ago, I briefly dated someone who wasn’t on my spiritual path, but who I otherwise liked a good deal. As I tried to share pieces of my spiritual path, I found him to be a brick wall on the subject, unwilling to engage with me at all, and unwilling to really even hear what I was saying. As our short relationship progressed, the longer I felt unable to share and unable to be supported by this person, I felt myself getting smaller and smaller, shriveling up like a raisin.  You can imagine how this relationship worked out! In a second example, I’ve found this same experience reflected in my relationship with my immediate family at points—how inauthentic I have felt when I’m not living my true self, when I have passively bowed my head at the meal rather than risk a confrontation with my father about my path. I don’t do this any longer, but for many years as a druid I did because I felt it would have been too hard to change the situation without conflict.  In my case, not able to be authentic self in intimate relationships took a serious toll on me.

 

Beyond our immediate relationships, it can be very hard to inhabit and see the world differently on an everyday basis. Core values of my culture (exploitation of earth’s resources) are at direct odds with my own values (nurturing the earth and helping her heal). Further, I have found it challenging to live in a culture that views my spiritual paths and practices as “crazy” or “nonsense” (a topic that I’ll discuss in much greater detail in next week’s post). On my way to work, I might commune with a tree spirit, honor the rising sun, or look for signs in the birds flying overhead. And then walk into my office and start my work—pretending these experiences and things are not part of my life.  Given this, maintaining that balance and feeling authentic is difficult.

 

One source of the difficulty is that this path helps us to shine so well.  When we spend time in nature, she heals us, wipes off the grime from us, and really helps us to feel more whole and complete. The beauty of who we are, the inner gifts that we have (that in other cultures would make us seers, shamans, leaders, healers), need to be expressed in some way that we feel matters. Failure to find ways of channeling those gifts, those passions, and that bright light that our spiritual path does leave us feeling more like the raisin than the lush juicy grape shining there in the sun.

 

Given all of this, I see essentially three paths forward to help cultivate more authentic selves: one of this is a “quiet” path of authentic living or what I’ll call the “Path of the Moon” and the second is a more “loud” path of being fully out about one’s tradition, or what I’ll call the “Path of the Sun.”  And of course, there is the Path of the Dawn, that straddles the two I’ll present.  I’ll explore the Path of the Moon in this post, and next week, I’ll explore the Path of the Sun.  Both deserve treatment on this topic, but both are inherently different work.

 

The Path of the Moon: Cultivating Authentic Living

Justice - balancing Inner and Outer Truths (from the Tarot of Trees, www.tarotoftrees.com)

Justice – balancing Inner and Outer Truths (from the Tarot of Trees, http://www.tarotoftrees.com)

One way to cultivate our authentic selves has to do with cultivating actions in the outer world in a gentle yet powerful way. Those that are familiar with the Druid’s Prayer for Peace (which has a few derivations) might recognize those words in the peace prayer: “Gently and powerfully, within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.” We can gently, yet powerfully, radiate the expression of our spiritual path without necessarily being uncomfortable with being “loud” about our paths or blazing like the sun.

 

You might think about this work like the quiet light of the moon—the moon reflects the sun (our true selves) but does so in a way that is subtle and intuitive.  This path allows us to be non-confrontational, not to take up the path of the sun because we are either uncomfortable with the role, are private about our paths, or don’t feel that we are in circumstances which allow us to do so.  Whatever the reason, the path of the moon is a quiet path of living authentically in the world yet still allows us to live our true paths.

 

Why the Path of the Moon?

When I think about my own trajectory of being a druid, of living my own path and finding my way deeper and deeper into the forest, a lot of it had to do with my own comfort and growing experience. When I came to Druidry, I was coming out of years of growing up fundamentalist Christian, and then several years of being a secular humanist and agnostic.  I had a long road to walk, within my own heart and mind, to even take on the word “druid” in any public setting. I wasn’t ready; I didn’t really even know what I meant by druidry, so how could I explain it to anyone else? How could I defend it, if I was called to do so? This, then, is obviously one reason that you might take up the path of the moon.

 

A second reason has to do with life circumstances–so many of us are in places where it is detrimental, personally or professionally, to be “out” about our paths.  Maybe your professional life is one that it would be severely detrimental for you to be out and openly a druid; maybe you have a very conservative family and you are worried that they won’t leave you alone if they found out; etc. The point is, at least here in much of the US, we do not live in a world that is kind to those of our path. There is good reason for taking up the quiet path of the moon, as many of us choose to do in our personal, civic, and professional lives. This is not something to be ashamed of, but rather, it is often the work of self-preservation.

 

But it is precisely this tension that can cause us to feel like we are living two lives–the inner life of druidry or our other spiritual practices and the outer life of your “average” person.  And so, we need to find a way to balance those scales, to help us feel more authentic while still hiding away a large part of who we are.  So now, let’s look at some of the work of the Path of the Moon to see how we might live quietly, yet powerfully, and express our path:

 

1: Quiet yet Powerful Actions: Or, Beliefs Manifest as Actions.

One of the ways that I’ve cultivated being my authentic self more quietly yet powerfully is by engaging in external expressions of druidry that are not clearly or inherently “spiritual” to the casual observer.  In other words, while these activities are clearly expressions of my druid path in my mind, they are not immediately linked with such to others, and may be simply seen as “hobbies” or “interests” or “causes.” In this case, the actions are the outer manifestation of my inner beliefs; and people don’t need to now the why of what I am attempting to do, just the what of actually doing it.

 

For example, I can teach wild food foraging and herbalism classes through a lens of reverence and respect for the living earth. This doesn’t scream to people, “look at this druid doing this stuff” but it is fully in line with my druid path and I consider it some of my spiritual work in the world. Teaching people about how to carefully and joyfully interact in the ecosystem and teaching them about nature is a key focus in my own personal druid path.

 

Or for another example, in the last month or so, I have been asked to come and speak on behalf of ordinances for chickens and beekeeping in my small town; I ended up sitting across from a factory farmer who was opposed to both and had to defend small-scale urban beekeeping and chicken keeping. I did so because, for me, chicken and bee ordinances mean that more people can live more sustainably, and intuitively, these kinds of practices can raises awareness and connection with the living earth.

 

awen2_sm

2: Small Signs of Your Path

I remember the time I first came out as a druid in a quiet yet public way. After a powerful ceremony with fellow druids at a gathering,  where I had been led by the spirits to start attending to being less “closed”, I had returned home with a beautiful flat stone. I painted an Awen on the stone, and I decided to put it in my office at work. I didn’t say anything about it to anyone, but placed it there with a simple prayer. There it stood, as a symbol of my faith, in a very public setting. And when I eventually moved universities, the stone came with me, and it sits now in my new office, quietly radiating the light of my path. That was my very first step, that was my first step to being more public and out there about who I was. Every day, I would walk in my office and just say, “wow”, there I am with the symbol of my faith there on my shelf. Of course, most people don’t know what an Awen is, but that didn’t matter, because it mattered to me. Even a small act, like this one, can help us feel like we are bridging the inner spiritual realms with our outer spiritual living.

 

I think there are lots of subtle things you can do that are outer, yet quiet, reflections of your path.  Maybe its the carefully cultivated shrine in your back yard, the symbol you wear around your neck, the quiet prayers you say before each meal in the company of others.  Whatever it is, doing even these small actions can tremendously help you feel like you are living a more authentic life.

 

3: Shifting Daily Living Practices

The third thing that can help us live more quiet and authentic lives has to do with shifting our daily living practices towards honoring the living earth and treading gently. I’ve written a lot on this topic on the blog, from seed saving to recycling and reducing waste, to vermicompost and natural building, to reconsidering gift giving. Each small shift brings our own outer living in line with our inner spiritual practices.  These kinds of shifts can make us feel much more alive and attuned with our own spiritual beliefs.

 

Druid's Peace Prayer

Druid’s Peace Prayer

4: Cultivating Peace and Other Core Values

Even if we don’t feel we can fully be “out” about druidry while walking the Path of the Moon, we can certainly work to cultivate core values of our tradition.

 

For example, in druidry, one of the central values is peace.  We declare peace at the start of our ceremonies and we have prayers, like the druid’s prayer for peace,  that offer us as mantras for living.  I have spent a tremendous amount of time meditating on this particular prayer (along with the druid’s prayer), and thinking about how I can cultivate peace each day in my own dealings with others. As a reminder, I have the painting of the Druid’s Prayer for Peace hanging in my office at work, a quiet reminder to me to always work to cultivate peace even in what can often be some contentious politics in academia.  But I also work to cultivate peace with each of my relationships, and with my relationship with the living world (not killing bugs, for example).

 

5: The Hermitage of the Heart

In the Gnostic Celtic Church, which functions as the arm of the Ancient Order of Druids in America that focuses on clergy preparation and ordination, we have a concept called “the hermitage of the heart.” Its a simple, yet profound, concept that essentially says that we can maintain the inner joy, clarity, and peace our paths provide in a way that offers us some quiet distance from the typical everyday materialist life. In other words, it encourages us to see that distance between our culture and ourselves not as detrimental but as necessary for the preservation of a rich spiritual life. This philosophy can be useful when it seems the chasm is wide indeed, and can help us realize that authenticity comes not always from outer actions, but from deep within and how we frame the interplay between the inner and outer.  I find this principle is useful to use for regular meditation and reflection.

 

Conclusion

I believe there is a lot that we can do in the world that helps us live more authentically even when we don’t feel we can be fully open with who we are and what we believe. It is the quiet path of the moon that gives us some way of balancing our inner beliefs with our outer living in ways that we feel good about ourselves and our paths. I also want to stress that, ultimately, how we navigate this issue of living as our authentic selves is very personal choice–each of us must figure out how to navigate these dark waters and find our own inner peace on the issue. Its not appropriate to judge others for the work they appear to be doing (or not doing) with regards to their own paths. I know that each of us struggle with this in our own way, and each of us are in different circumstances that may or may not allow for certain visible actions. Just because a person is walking quietly by moonlight on the path of the forest doesn’t mean he or she is not walking there–so be kind to your fellow forest path walkers. Next week, I’ll look at the Path of the Sun, or being much more open as a way of cultivating an authentic self.  Blessings!

 

Embracing “First Aid Responder” Plants July 17, 2016

As I grow ever more in tune and aware of nature’s gifts, I keep coming back to one of the tragedies of our age–our incredible misunderstanding of the natural world, the sacred living earth from which all things flow. One of the things I’ve been working hard to do in this blog, and in my own community here in PA, is to restore and reconnect humans and nature. My particular way of doing it has lately been through the teaching of healing plant medicine, edible wild foods, and the like.  This means breaking down some assumptions, but really, building new knowledge and empowerment for many people in the community.  Since moving to my small town I’ve been really busy as an ambassador offering presentations on permaculture and vermicomposting, summer plant walks (wild food/medicine), herbalism classes, and most recently I am teaching children at the local UU church how to make medicine from plantain! I am finding that here, there is a great need for this kind of plant education in the community, certainly, and great interest.

 

What I am learning is that people have very limited vocabularies, frameworks, and understandings when it comes to plants. One of the things that often comes up from people, and that they latch onto, is the idea of the “invasive” vs. “native” plant. When I share a plant, they want to know if its invasive or native, and I rarely want to use those terms. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject (which was rather controversial), the concept of invasiveness is, in itself, a real problem. And I think, more than anything, it is because all invasive plants are put into a little box. If these plants were human, attaching such a label would be considered racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc.  But apparently, we can do it as much as we like to plants–and when we pigeonhole plants into an “invasive” or “native” category, we make assumptions about them without knowing their true nature, understanding their spirits, or their medicine and magic.

 

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

I think this is a problem for a number of reasons.  For one, the term is derogatory, and makes a set of assumptions that simply don’t fit for all plants with the “invasive” category.  Second, a lot of plants don’t fit in the whole binary very well. Poison ivy, which is one of my very favorite plants (I will have to write on it one of these days) is a native plant, yet, it doesn’t get privileged status because humans don’t like what happens when they rub up against it. Water hemlock is another native plant which which you do not want to tango. Nearly all lawn grass isn’t native, but humans like it because it mows well and mats well and creates lawn. We have all kinds of stuff we’ve planted (hello wheat, oats, barley, lettuce, onion, radish, leek….the list goes on and on).  How do any of these fit within the categories?  They really don’t.

 

So if the categories don’t fit, why do we still use them?  Probably because they are simple, and they allow people to know something (e.g. plant = good or plant = bad) about the plants.  Part of what I believe we need to do, in order to build more fruitful relationships with nature, is to rethink these terms.  So today, I’d like to present one new category that we can consider as a thinking, teaching, and relationship-building tool: the first aid responder plant.

 

Introducing: The First Aid Responder Plants

Imagine that a person who is in a really bad accident, that the person was unable to move, damaged and broken.  Who would that person want to come to their aid?  A first responder, that’s who! An ambulance and medic, someone who could help stabilize the person, get them to the hospital, and set them on the path for long-term healing and recovery.

 

If we use this same analogy with plants, we can see that this is what happens to our lands every day. I wrote about different kinds of damage extensively in my recent land healing series. Our lands are harmed with our various activities: oil extraction, logging, new construction, conventional agriculture, and so on. These activities really harm certain kinds of plant species that are slow to propagate and slow to take hold. But other plant species, those that have evolved to adapt to these kinds of conditions, can take hold and help regenerate the land. They are plants that are adapted to particular circumstances: disturbance, and the nature of that disturbance is almost always human caused, directly or indirectly. And these are our first responder plants.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of our first aid responders end up on noxious weed lists for a simple reason–they are abundant, as disturbance is abundant. This has people assume immediately that these plants are somehow “out of control” but, given the nature of where these plants grow, they are only responding to human-caused disturbance. As I’ll show here, the situation is far less clear.  For one, people only pay attention to what is happening at this moment, not what has happened or what will happen in the future.  This short-term view means that we cannot account for most of the variables in why the responder plants are here–and that’s a problem for a few reasons.

 

Ox-Eye daisy is a very good example of a first-aid responder plant (and delicous edible and medicinal plant). This plant often shows up in disturbed soil: over-grazed pastures, old potato fields, edges of parking lots, and so on. People see these dense patches of daisy and think, “oh noes! There’s the invader!” without paying attention to why it is growing there or the history of the land.  I observed a very interesting pattern with regards to daisies in my own acre-sized field on my homestead: the first year, the field was all daisy, as the previous owners mowed the field all the time.  I chose not to mow the field but instead only mow walking paths; the second year, the daisy only grew on the paths where I had mowed.  By the fourth year, there were very few ox-eye daisies other than growing out of the paths–the rest of the field had gone to milkweed, st. john’s wort, wild strawberry, and other such plants.  The truth is, you aren’t going to get rid of Ox-Eye daisy in a field–but you don’t need to if you let it do its sacred work of healing.

Ox-eye daisy my first year - this field has practically nothing after six years!

Ox-eye daisy my first year – this field has practically nothing after six years!

 

Sweet clover is another one where I’ve seen a similar pattern–areas of disturbance, especially areas that have been recently dug and mowed. I noticed this a lot in parks–fields of plants with sweet clover only on the disturbed edges.  If there is no longer disruption, it disappears after about five years (fitting my first responder category). Bees make incredible honey from sweet clover, and it is also a fantastic medicinal plant, particularly indicated for nerve damage.

 

Dandelion is yet a third fantastic first responder plant; and I’ve written on the dandelion’s magic and purpose extensively a few years ago on this blog (along with wine recipes, lol). Dandelion breaks up compacted soil and brings nutrients from deep.  It is particularly effective in regenerating lawns.  Dandelions won’t grow once ecological succession happens and the lawn is no longer a lawn–again, they are a first responder plant. And, of course, dandelion is medicinal and edible.

 

Spotted Knapweed is yet another first responder, and one my herbal mentor Jim McDonald taught me extensively about.  Jim showed us his field that used to be full of it.  The more he pulled, the more it came (of course it did, it thrives in disturbance).  He gave up pulling it out and over time, it did its work and now there isn’t hardly any of it left after about 10 years! And, if you are noticing the pattern here, spotted knapweed is also medicinal.

 

Curly Dock/Yellow Dock and Burdock, which are both fantastic medicinal and edible plants, also work with compacted soil well, and will grow to heal disturbance and break up compacted soil if given a chance to do so. Once ecological succession takes place, curly dock and burdock are nowhere to be found.

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

What you have hopefully noticed form this list is not only is this plant a first aid responder for the land, these plants are also healing and medicinal for humans!  We should be thanking them for the services we provide for our lands: healing the soil quickly and effectively, breaking up compacted soil, reducing erosion, offering us medicine and food so freely.  These plants deserve our respect and to be honored. Where would the land be without these first aid responders?  Where would we be without them?

 

I hope this framework is helpful to you as a way to expand beyond the invasive/native binary.  Now, I am full to admit that this is one taxonomy of plants, and there is another group (kudzu, buckthorn) that may rightfully deserve some of the ire that people throw at them (as these vines literally tear down forests; the long-term ecological impacts still yet to be known). I cut buckthorn down by hand when I see it, for sure.  But I don’t think by any means that the first responder plants deserve to be in the same category, not from all of my observations and research. And maybe, next time you see one, thank a first responder plant for the good work that plant is doing on behalf of all.

PS: This link tells you a bit more about how some first responder plants indicate certain soil conditions.

 

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection May 14, 2016

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?

 

A Druid’s Primer on Physical and Energetic Land Healing, Part I February 12, 2016

Nature's cycles

Nature’s cycles

As we are all so fully aware, our lands are increasingly under duress in ways unprecedented in recent human memory. At least here in the USA, the systematic pillaging of every resource these lands have to offer continues unabated. And within this context, many individuals have recognized a problem and have taken up spiritual paths focusing on the earth itself in various ways. The question becomes–what can I, as one person, do?  As you’ve noticed, a good deal of my time in the last year of blogging (or more) has been exploring this question in various angles and details. And so, I want to share a bit today of the different angles from which we might consider the answer to this question both energetically and physically–providing a roadmap for this kind of work and specifying its dimensions. This means we are going to delve not only into physical land healing through things like permaculture, but also the frameworks of druid magic and ritual to understand the different kinds of healing that can be done.

This is the first in a larger series of posts.  Please continue reading the series here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII.

 

The Idea of Healing

Its useful to start by defining the thing we are undertaking before actually undertaking it. And so, we begin with definitions of the word “heal”, compliments of Merriam Webster. For the word “heal”, we have three definitions:

  • : 1 a :  to make sound or whole <heal a wound> 2b :to restore to health; 2 a :  to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome
  • 2b :  to patch up (a breach or division) <heal a breach between friends>
  • 3 :  to restore to original purity or integrity <healed of sin>.

All three of these definitions are directly applicable in different ways to the idea of healing the land.  So, in definition one, we can identify that the land is in a damaged state, and we talk about that damage in various ways: its physically wounded, in ways we can directly see. But its also energetically wounded in ways we can sense. The land is in a damaged state, both physically and energetically (what I mean by energetically, I’ll get to in a minute), and in need of healing. This is really no different than thinking about a person who has been the victim of a violent crime–there are physical wounds you can see, but there are also mental and non-physical ones. The physical wounds have to be treated in a much different way than the non-physical ones, and treating only physical woulds will not make a person “sound and whole.”

 

This leads us directly to the second definition: to patch up a breech or division.  With the maiming and exploitation of the land comes a loss of trust, a division between the earth and humanity on a systematic and large scale. We are certainly the earth’s children, but we have lost our way and in that process, violated the sacred compact between humans and the land that achieves balance and ensures everyone’s continued survival. Trust, then, is something that needs to be rebuilt. This can be done through a number of means, and I’ve found the best combination is working both physically and energetically.

 

Nature healing a stump

Nature healing a stump

And now we come to our 3rd definition, which is that healing is often about restoring something to its wholeness and completeness.  That’s the ultimate goal of land healing, but its not necessarily something that we can do in every place at this time.  This third definition is important to keep in mind as we consider the different types of healing we are able to do, given our challenged circumstances.

 

As Above, So below: A Consideration of Planes

To understand fully how we might heal the land, and the options for doing so, we need to have a framework that accounts for the different levels of reality, commonly referred to in the western magical traditions as “the planes.” Nearly all spiritual practice and magical practice is based on the understanding (explicit or implicit) of the fact that realities and energies exist outside of what we can perceive with our five senses. This is, of course, something humans throughout time understood clearly, but something that has been lost and squashed in modern Western Society by scientific imperialism, materialism, and disenchantment in the western world). Understanding a bit about the nature of these different levels of manifestation, or what as known as “the planes” can help our healing work along quite a bit. However, just within the western esoteric traditions, the idea of “the planes” is complex, with a number of different models describing different kinds of planes. Each model we have for these different realms of perception and experience is an attempt to simplify and explain more complex phenomena–and so each model is with its limitations, but all are still useful as an illustrative tools. I’m going to use a fairly standard one in magical practice in the West to frame my discussion today. Drawing from Greer’s, Circles of Power, we can see some of these planes in this way (note that Greer presents a 5 plane system; I’m drawing upon the first three here for the purposes of this discussion):

  • The Physical Plane (outer): What we can experience through our 5 physical senses. This is the physical reality of our existence. When we think about land healing, this is the physical nature of reality that we can see: cut trees, poisoned rivers, dead bees, starving polar bears, toxic waste, and so on.
  • The Etheric Plane: Often, when people talk about “energy” in a room or space, they are sensing the etheric plane. The etheric is also experienced through our senses, but not the same senses that experience the physical plane. The ethieric is very closely connected to life on earth; Hindu Yoga would identify this as “prana” while Asian martial arts would call this “ch’i” or “ki.” From a land healing standpoint, our senses of the etheric helps us say, “wow, there is a bad feeling here” or a “heaviness” or “stagnation.” Its on the etheric that a lot of the “energy” work can be done.
  • The Astral Plane: The level of our consciousness that transcends matter and although they manifest as imagination, emotion, memory, will, or intellectual facilities. This level, of course, also transcends what is inside of our heads. Much journeying work (whether its called astral projection, shamanic journeying, or pathworking) happens on this plane.

Both the etheric and the astral are considered “inner” planes (for a variety of reasons) and there are planes other than those as well.

 

The reason I present the planes here is that they are critical to framing any kind of land healing work.  Part of this is because healing works along the lines of the hermetic adage, “As above, so below. As within, so without” (I’ve discussed this before, for example, my discussion of it in relationship to waste streams) The principle of this adage is the basis of many spiritual practices and religious observance throughout the ages–and the adage is simple. What is on the outer reflects inward to the other planes, and likewise, what happens on the inner planes and within us reflects outward. This means, of course, if you are to do physical healing on the land, that healing work can work its way within and have an energetic healing as well (even if all you are doing is physical work). But even if you aren’t able to do physical healing work, you can do other kinds of energetic healing through ritual, energy work, setting standing stones, and the like, and you can have this more positive energy trickle outward, manifesting on the material plane and providing one of the tools for the land to heal. Understanding this principle is the key to understanding the entire framework of land healing that I am presenting here.

 

The Ways of Land Healing

Examining the above definitions and levels of existence has given us a roadmap of the kinds of healing that can be done on different levels. When we think about “land healing” this is a very wide category, and in it, I see a number of potential practices, some of which are direct physical healing, some of which are indirect, and some of which are energetic.

Physical Land Healing - converting a lawn into a garden!

Physical Land Healing – converting a lawn into a garden!

#1: Regenerating Land: Direct Physical Healing. This is the healing of the physical land on the material plane.  These practices include a wide range of things: replanting, regenerating, tending the wilds, cleaning up toxins, river cleanup, converting lawns into food forests or organic gardens, conserving and restoring wild lands. Lots of people are doing various things on this front, and certainly, permaculture design, as well as restoration and conservation activities fall into this category. A number of my recent posts have been in this area: my series of posts on refugia, weeds, healing hands, permaculture practices, etc. Of course, the land has to be in a damaged state, in the process of healing, or in need of healing for this kind of practice to be effective.  I think that this kind of healing, combined with energetic healing, is one of the best things you can do to heal our lands–if you are able and if the situation warrants it.

 

#2: Healing human-land connections. An indirect method of healing the land, which can lead to work in these other areas, is working to build your own relationship with the land and to help others do the same. This includes everything from herbal practice to earth ambassadorship, creating community, or advocacy work. So here are two examples of this: a series of classes I’ve been recently teaching in herbalism, for example, not only empower people to take care of their own health, but reconnect them with plants immediately in their landscape and help restore that human-land connection (and I also teach them the three permaculture ethics as part of herbal practice). A second way I’ve engaged with this work is by co-founding a permaculture meetup where we brought people together each month to talk about sustainable practices and reconnect with the land. Is this direct healing of the physical land? No, but it is working directly to heal the disconnection that has happened between the land and her children, and so I also consider this healing work. Its extremely important to heal these connections for long-term viability and stability, especially if we go back to the definition 2b under “heal” above.

 

#3: Energetic healing work. Now we move into direct healing that can be done on the non-physical planes. This kind of healing is a fantastic compliment to the two areas above (and ideally, healing of the land should include all of these firs three areas), but can also be done independently of direct physical healing work. Performing healing ritual and engaging in magical work to help heal our lands is a particularly useful tool where recovery and regeneration is a top priority. You might see this as a way to restore the energetic drain of a long sickness or weakened state–you are raising energy to help it recover. Lots of possibilities for this kind of energetic healing work exist. You might performing various kinds of ceremony, which can take place and connect to the etheric or astral planes, working with various currents of energy for healing work.  You might engage in energetic healing like reiki, which works on the etheric plane.  You might journey inward to speak with the spirits of the land to understand what physically or etherically needs to be done. I’ll be talking about these practices more in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

 

Dancing a Maypole - one of many energetic ritual!

Dancing a Maypole – one of many energetic ritual!

#4: Energetic Palliative care.  As an energetic land healer, its critical to understand the difference between healing and palliative care. Palliative care what we do to help sooth the suffering, to help the land sleep or be energetically distanced from what is physically occurring. Think about someone that you’ve known who is really, really sick, and who is in for a long illness or battle with a disease that is ongoing.  You see them suffering, and the best you can do is try to soothe the wounds, let them rest until the worst is over.  If you try to raise a bunch of positive energy on lands actively being damgae for the distinct purpose of healing, it can be like waking up that sick persno. In fact, the whole reason I was motivated to write this post was to identify this distinct difference.  In my experience in working on a variety of distressed landscapes (logging, toxic streams and waterways, strip mined land, poisoned waters, oil pipelines) I know that healing can only take place where there is opportunity for physical regeneration. The whole idea of healing is to restore and regenerate–you can’t do that if there is active destruction taking place. You still can do energetic work, but you do not want it to be directed towards the purposes of regeneration or recover, but rather soothing the worst of the suffering. I’ll take a whole post to explore this subject in more depth in next week’s blog post.

 

#5: Shifting Actions: Direct and Indirect mitigation of damage.  The last thing I’ll mention today is shifting actions. Shifting your actions to consume less and create less of a burden on the land is not a method of land healing, but it is a method of mitigation and prevention. You might consider this a kind of “preventative care.”This shift is the kinds of behaviors and actions that we do in order to mitigate further damage, to reduce our impact on the land, and so on. This typically happens through various kinds of “sustainable” practices and earth-centered living: a lot of options presented to us by mainstream society fall in here (and many of the not-so-mainstream).

 

 

Of course, this list doesn’t include the work the land itself does to heal–and its doing that all the time.  But here I’m focusing on the relationship between the land and humans–what we humans, as druids, as permaculturists, as people spiritually attuned, can do, here and today to heal our lands. .

Readers–I invite you to help me develop this framework.  Is there any kind of basic land healing strategy that I’ve missed in the above?  How do you enact these or see these enacted?  Thanks, as always, for reading!

 

Making a Difference December 27, 2015

I had a long conversation with an older close relative of mine over the holidays. He had overheard my sister, brother-in-law, and I talking about herbalism, permaculture, cultural shifts.  This conversation was framed in the context of the recent Paris climate talks where it appears that world leaders agreed not to do anything for 15 years and in some future time, stave off too much of a temperature rise. After listening to us for a time, my relative indicated that anything that we would do would make “little to no difference” and that when we were his age (he’s in his late 60’s), we’d look back on our lives and regret not being able to do much; we’d certainly regret not being able to hope we had hoped to accomplish.  The fact that we had “little money or resources” made this a certainty. He thought he was doing us a favor by “telling it to us like it was.” While this was certainly a mood killer for an otherwise pleasant holiday, its also a fantastic subject for this week’s post: the idea of making a difference.

 

We hear about “making a difference” all the time, and most often, it is rather nebulously defined in our culture. In fact, when I asked my relative to define what he meant by making a difference, he refused to do so…and yet, its these unstated assumptions and definitions that are in most need of illumination.

 

If I try to define it as it is most commonly understood, making a “difference” seems to imply some kind of very large-scale thing, national or international, that makes substantial impacts on many, many people or ecosystems or whatever. Perhaps “making a difference” means stopping climate change, saving a whole ecosystem, fixing the political system–something drastic, big, and far-reaching. You know, saving the world kind of stuff,. Sometimes, you can find “making a difference” applied to large-scale actions in the lives of many people in a community (but I don’t think this is what my relative was referring to).  And of course, there are the many non-profits telling you to “make a difference” with your dollars.  But it is this first thing, I think, that most firmly is in the hearts and minds of many of us in industrialized society.

 

I think these concepts stem from a few places–first, here in the USA and in other parts of the Western world, we have an extremely individualistic culture, where individual actions, not collective actions, matter.  Individuals, then, are held to high standards with regards to their own lives and individual impacts (for some cool data on this, check out Geert Hosfede’s work).  Second, in an increasingly global society, our news streams from all over the world–we hear about the “big things” that are entertaining or abhorrent enough to be covered. Generally, local communities and contexts are minimized in this kind of system and are seen as not important, trite, or irrelevant. A final issue at play, and one that I see firsthand in my research at the university, is a fear of failure.  We have become paralyzed with fear that we will fail–and failure is seen as simply not a reasonable option.

 

Given these assumptions and definitions, the problems with “making a difference” are clear. Most people walk around with this nebulous idea of “making a difference” in their heads, and their realities nearly always fall short of what they hope to accomplish.  The problem with this assumption is a matter of scale: we expect to make this enormous difference on a grand scale, all while pretty much ignoring what it outside of our door or immediate to us.  Sure, given this definition, its no wonder my relative wanted to give us a “hard dose of reality.”  Assuming that we need to make a difference naturally leads us to feeling disempowered.  Disempowerment encourages is not to act, to assume that you can’t do anything to change what’s going on, that you are hopeless to change the terrible wave of civilization from crashing down around us.  So then, the most logical solution is to do nothing at all–to be paralyzed with inaction for fear of failure.  What a catch-22!

 

However, there are other ways to define and consider these terms.  We’ll start with the notion that shifting our understanding of what “making a difference” is about can help us move past this dilemma.  Its to this work that we now turn with some help from permaculture design.

 

Zones and Sectors on my Michigan homestead

Zones and Sectors on my Michigan homestead

Permaculture’s Zone

Permaculture design uses a concept of a “zone” to help us design effective and ethical living spaces, gardens, communities, and more.  I find that the zone is particularly helpful for framing our actions and any “difference” they might make.

A zone is simply a designated area (in this example, a physical area) that sees a certain amount of use.Let’s look at the typical suburban home-turned homestead as an example here. A typical home has five zones, each zone getting a bit further out from your center of activity and each getting less visited or maintained. Zone 0 is usually the house itself—where you spend a majority of your time and what is easiest to access. (Even within your house, you can designate zones of use; think about the kitchen or bathroom’s daily usage compared to the basement or utility closet!) But moving onto our subruban yard: Zone 1 is the area you access most frequently and is the easiest to get to and to tend—for our suburban home, this means the places you spend the most time or walk through every day. The path from the door to the mailbox  and the back patio where you commonly enjoy dinner might all be considered zone one. Zone two takes us just a little bit further away—zone two is still visited visit and tended often, but perhaps not in the immediate pathways or energy flows of daily living: for example, kitchen garden just out back, the pathway to the chicken coop (the coop is further from the house, its still considered a lower zone because you are tending the chickens at least two times a day). Zone three might be the inside of the chicken yard itself, your compost pile, your extended perennial garden–you visit these a few times a week, and they still require some care. Zone 4 could be a small back field where you gather herbs or a small orchard where you occasionally prune.  Zone 5 is the wild edges, maybe a forest stretching back further. We may really like what’s in zone 5 and we go there to reflect, to learn, and to grow. Zone 5 receives pretty much no regular attention or tending, however, and doesn’t need it.  The zone doesn’t just apply to our yards–it can also apply to our own living in a community.  Zone 1 is our homes, zone 2, our immediate community and town.  Zone 3 is our state or other geographical region, zone 4 is our country, and Zone 5 is the rest of the world.

 

The principle of the zone is extraordinarily useful in understanding the problematic thinking in our conception of “making a difference.” As this concept illustrates, you have the most power and possibility for changing those things that are closest to you geographically and physically–where you spend the most time and where you are rooted.

 

Putting our Feet on the Path

As the principle of the zone illustrates, and as I’ve often discussed on this blog, its our own lives where the changes are best to start.  Its our own lives where the first “difference” can be made. Of course, this is completely the opposite of our cultural conception of making a difference.  And so, when we think about “meaningful change,” it’s not about waiting for someone else to change Wall Street or Congress to do something—its about making changes in your own life, first and foremost, and its about going outside of your door and changing that which you are closest to and which you have the most power to change.  This is the kind of change that we can do quite successfully–and its this kind of change that can lead to many others!

 

So as a permaculture designer, druid, herbalist, artist, and professor residing in Western PA, I have the most ability to change my own actions, first and foremost. I have some measurable influence on my immediate surroundings and that of my immediate community using my skills (so, there is a group of us trying to start a food co-op, for example, which could really benefit our community and provide food security, resilience, etc). I’d certainly have less control at the county level or state level, and I’d have very little power over Wall Street Executives or Congress, because they are so far away. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t work to change these things, especially with the help of a great many other people, its just that that kind of change is much less likely than me doing something positive in my immediate surroundings.  So, principle one then is that “making a difference” can be focused on our local level, first and foremost, and that we can make a really powerful difference there.

 

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--these stones were set by the work of many hands

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–these stones were set by the work of many hands

Another issue here is the difference between individual and collective differences.  As one person, I can only do so much.  I am reminded of this when I want to stack stones or set standing stones in wild places.  The stones I would like to lift and move are usually much bigger than I am–and I could strain and hurt myself to lift them, which would not be good.  Or, I can take one of two approaches–ask a friend for help, or set my sights on smaller stones.  This is an important point, and one that is often lost on us–we can’t, and shouldn’t, do this work all ourselves.  Its about many people, each doing what they can, and working together, that the work is done.

 

Another factor is in the word “difference” and in defining this in a way that allows us to succeed and sets reasonable goals instead of setting us up for failure. Again, its worth interrogating the term and asking: for who? in what way?  Personally, making a difference means leaving my community, my land, any other spaces better than I found them–improved in some way. For example, when I think about the healing work I accomplished for five years on my homestead in Michigan, it exceeded my exceptions–its a 3 acre piece of land, not that “big” in some standards–but now, it is cleaned up of garbage, energetically and physically healed, and literally bursting at the seams with biodiversity, healing plants, food for all, and–just as importantly–left in extremely good hands.  That’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.

 

Time is another factor that we simply can’t ignore–and time doesn’t play by anyone’s rules. I don’t really know what the long-term impact of  working on that homestead site for five years is–and I might never know. In the same way, my father might never know if the thousands of trees he plants each year will sprout or grow into giant oaks. I also point to my dear friend Linda, and what she was able to do in her front yard farm–she didn’t know what it would lead to, but the important thing was that she did something. Could any of us predict what will happen with our actions in the word?  Likely not, and a lot of things take a while to “take hold.”

 

I’d argue that the outcome of the actions don’t matter nearly as much as the act of doing.  This is all to say that we do not have power or control over the outcomes, what may happen to the work we put out there into the world.  All we can do is do it.

 

Doing the Work

I actually think that things like “making a difference” or “having impact” are great, they make you feel good, but they also are problematic red herrings. I don’t have power or control over the outcomes or other people’s reactions to what I do–I only have control over my actions.

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition

An example from my own life might best illustrate my point about simply doing the work, and seeing what comes of it. Many of you might be aware that about 6 years ago, I finished painting a Tarot Deck called the Tarot of Trees.  I painted this deck over a three-year period for myself for three reasons: I wanted to use the Tarot but didn’t want to use people-based symbolism, I wanted to deeply learn the tarot and work with its archetypes, and I wanted an artistic challenge.  After starting to share my work online as I was finishing the major arcana, a number of people wanted me to publish it, which I eventually did.  Its been quite successful, much moreso than I could have thought possible–it allowed me to help get a down payment for my homestead in Michigan, it allowed me to donate considerably to some great organizations, and when my family members were financially challenged, I passed it off to them and it allowed them to bring in a bit of extra income to make ends meet–and continues to do this.  It also was turned into a cool app by a really great company.  In other words, this project has been a blessing on my whole family and beyond, and continues to be so. Never could I have possibly imagined that when I started painting this project in 2006 that this would have been the result.  And you know what? The results are like icing on the cake–what was important was that I did the work! Most recently, its led to a really exciting collaboration on another oracle deck with a good friend (details of which will be forthcoming in 2016!)  The truth is, I would have been happy just to have finished the deck and used it for myself–I kept my goals modest, and then, they radically exceeded my expectations.

 

Another side of this has to do with working with nature.  Nature can provide her own healing–sometimes, she just needs the tools to do so.  Another way to think about doing the work is that we are planting seeds–and with the right conditions, the wind, light, rain, and soil, the seeds will grow.

 

Moving Forward and Visioning

 

So in conclusion, I think we should pay less attention to the outcomes or what “might happen.”  This stifles us, it makes us feel that we are not accomplishing our goals, especially when we set goals that are impossible or unreasonable for us to achieve. As important as the outcomes are, especially for the kinds of work I often discuss on this blog, they are largely out of our hands.

 

If we focus only on outcomes,  we are losing out on the most important pieces–the immediate journey and insights it brings.  In this case, for all of us, its the journey that matters at this moment in time.  Don’t get discouraged by feeling that nothing is being accomplished, that nothing big is happening.  As we are coming to the close of another year and looking to what 2016 will bring, I would encourage each of us to set some reasonable goals for the work ahead–what do we want to accomplish? What work do we want to do?  Just set your feet upon the path you wish to take, and walk forward.  Just as we sow seeds into abandoned lots to help them grow–the seeds that we sow will sprout in their own time, and good will come of them.