The Druid's Garden

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

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

Save

 

The Druid’s Prayer for Peace: Shifting from Exploitation to Nurturing as a Spiritual Practice November 10, 2015

Working with the land, in harmony and peace

Working with the land, in harmony and peace

One of the things I’m hoping to do on this blog, in addition to my usual “how to” posts, permaculture, and tree work, is give us a set of working tools and philosophical lenses through which to see and interact in the world.  Today’s post does just this–explores two concepts underlying much of industrial civilization and various reactions to it, and does so with a distinctly druidic lens.

 

In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Wendell Berry discusses two approaches to living and inhabiting the world–the practice of exploitation and the practice of nurturing. Berry wrote The Unsettling of America in the 1970’s as a small family farmer’s response to the rise of “Big Ag” and industrialized food systems. The book was truly visionary, and, if read today in 2015, rings even more true than it did in the 1970’s. Berry argues that exploitation and nurturing are are two terms that can describe mindsets and actions in our present industrial society.

 

I find these two concepts particularly useful to help tease out the idea of everyday sacred action through earth-based spiritual practice.  If our goal is to develop a deeper relationship with the land and enact that relationship in every aspect of our lives, then these concepts are useful as a baseline set of principles. So let’s take a look at both of them and their implications for earth-based spiritual practice and sustainable, regenerative living.

 

Nurturing

The nurturer is one whose livelihood, goals, and interactions are as much about healing and care as they are about getting the job done. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, the nurturer is concerned with the long term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. She asks: “what is the carrying capacity of the land? What can be grown and how can it be tended in ways that will allow it to endure?” Berry writes that the nurturer is also concerned with health–not just of her family and their immediate land–but of the broader community and world. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned as much with efficiency or profit as with working “as well as possible” and who is concerned with care, health, and quality.

 

Now of course, nurturing can go far beyond just farming or working the land–nurturing can be woven into every aspect of our lives. Permaculture design’s ethical system, as described above, includes people care, earth care, fair share, and self care. Caring for others well-being and health is one way to be a nurturer, and for some, that’s a much more obvious and concrete kind of care. But earth care, which is what I primarily focus on on this blog and in my daily living, is certainly another–and the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.

 

Making chocolate the traditional way in Costa Rica

Making chocolate the traditional way in Costa Rica

In the same way that clothing, food, or anything else can be created in a system that exploits people and the land and takes more than its fair share (see below), it can also be crated in a system that has the ethic of care.  As a great example of this, I visited a chocolate farm in Costa Rica during my trip last year where nurturing (and educating others about that nurturing) was a key focus. This farm had taken waste land, built up a healthy ecosystem, and grew their chocolate in a way that cared for earth and people.

 

 

I think we see these same ethics of care present at nearly every farmer’s market around the country–the idea of growing better food, making better products that people need, and giving people alternatives that aren’t set in a system of exploitation.  We can produce food, clothing, shelter, whatever we need in different ways.  Not all ways are created equal, and not all ways have to exploit the land and its inhabitants in order to make a profit or serve us.  Its not an ethic we think about, but its an ethic with great potential. A lot of what I’ve been posting about in this blog since the beginning focuses on nurturing–not just establishing relationships but taking steps to actively nurture the land as part of spiritual practice.

 

So now that we know how good things CAN be, lets look at the reality of how things are, in many cases.

 

Exploitation

Berry describes exploitation in a general sense, but I’ve found that breaking exploitation into two categories greatly helps parse out these concepts for earth based spiritual practice.

 

Active Exploitation. Exploiters, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner, abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits (using words like “efficiency” or “cost savings”; the exploiter often uses quantification and hard data to measure his goals). Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land: when we think about how workers (especially those in minimum wage jobs) are treated, how animals are treated–the entire mentality and conversation is in the language of exploitation. If you can stomach American politics, look at the language of the debates–they are all framed in terms of economics (America’s current “sacred cow”) and in terms of the “bottom line.” The language of current economics and of politics is not the language of care or nurturing, it is the language of exploitation. This kind of thinking allows children to go hungry, the land to be stripped and poison pumped deep into the earth, and people to close their hearts and minds to others.

 

We can see this exploiter mentality in so much of the United States history–and in most of Western Civilization long before the US was even founded. Here, in PA, exploitation appears in every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry. These actions are concerned with only one thing–the bottom line, the profit, the question of how much can be extracted from the land and its people. I think that exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, in our society, in our norms, that its not even seen as exploitation. I have started to look for land here, and listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, mineral rights sold” and I see it as the previous owner getting every bit he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains. And this is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable.  One of the things I’m doing in this post is talking about these practices for what they are and giving them a name.

 

Passive Exploitation. Passive exploitation is when you are a participant and passive supporter without actually engaging in exploitation yourself.  In our society, that even if we aren’t making active exploitative decisions or the one at the chainsaw, we are still participating in passive exploitation of someone or something, very infrequently with our knowledge. This is where the lines get a bit grayer, but make no mistake–when you purchase a product, you purchase everything that goes along with that product.

 

ustainably raised Cacao for Chocolate Making in Costa Rica

Sustainably raised Cacao for Chocolate Making in Costa Rica

So, let’s look at a few examples. Let’s go back to my example of chocolate. Many mainstream companies that make that chocolate (Hershey, M&M/Mars, Godiva, etc) are exploiting child slaves in order to produce it. Imagine trying to offer that chocolate as an offering (which I wouldn’t suggest); imagine taking that energy of suffering within you.

 

Another example is clothing. You need to wear clothes; you need decent clothes if you are going to keep a good job. But all along the way, exploitation is occurring: the store where workers, often at minimum wage rates are being exploited; the farmers that grew the cotton; the land that suffered pesticides and poison in the act of growing, processing, and dying it; the factory workers who turned that raw cotton into your fabric and then later, your shirt; the people who packaged that shirt and prepared it for shipment (I worked in such a factory once, so I can speak about this experience firsthand), the list goes on and on.

 

Unfortunately, purchasing anything at the typical store opens us up for potential passive support of larger exploitative systems. Exploiters exploit the exploited and the exploited in turn exploit others, and down the chain it goes. And yet, you have to live, you have to eat, you have to work, and thinking about all the exploitation that’s happening for profit, and on your behalf, is overwhelming–read on, friends, and we’ll see how to rectify these issues.

 

Ethics and Eliminating Exploitation

Active exploitation is a problem, yes, but its usually a fairly obvious one that any discerning person can spot, especially if you are attuned and aware to these concepts. Passive exploitation is an entirely different matter–it is designed to be hidden. Thanks to the Internet, fewer things stay hidden these days–its all a matter in looking in the right places and being aware of issues. Exploitation of either variety creates a particular kind of nasty energy; when we purchase a product or support a practice that is exploitative in nature, that energy enters our lives. Think about that mass produced chocolate–you are literally eating the suffering of child slaves if you eat that typical chocolate bar.

 

The questions I have, then, are these: can we live in a system designed and consciously engaged in exploitation at almost every level without ourselves also exploiting others? Are there degrees of exploitation? Does unknowingly participating in exploitation make it less evil? These are tough questions, questions that each of us has to wrestle with ethically.

 

My ethics come out of permaculture design, as mentioned above, and they are simple and direct: people care, earth care, and fair share. For me, ignorance is not bliss–I believe I have an ethical obligation of knowing where a product comes from and how it is produced. This leads me in three directions. First, my ethical system encourages me to avoid even passive exploitation as much as is humanly possible, and knowledge is power, so I keep myself educated, change my consumptive behavior (by reducing it), I endeavor to keep very well informed on the products that typically exploit people or degrade the land (food, clothing, and electronics, for starters) and make sure that if I need to buy something, I’m buying the best thing I can. This practice also involves being hesitant and mindful in my purchasing decisions—I try to avoid “quick” purchases and instead dwell on it, research it, and give it time. This work doesn’t happen overnight–as always, I recommend small, conscious, meaningful, and permanent shifts slowly over time. Take one product you typically buy, research it carefully, make better choices, and rinse and repeat.

 

A second direction I take in response to exploitation of either variety involves stuff like this post–working to educate others consciously and compassionately. A lot of people just don’t know about what they are buying, and if they did, they’d be horrified. But there is no use guilt tripping anyone–we are all living in a very difficult period of time. We do the best we can, and what I try to do is to open up good spaces for conversation and growth.

 

A third direction I am taking is in my immediate community. Communities, as groups, can also respond to this system and the power of a small but committed group is often much greater than the power of a single individual. One of the things I’ve been working toward in my new town over the last four or so months is starting a community owned food co-op–this will allow us, as a community, to have much better control over the products we buy and where they are sourced. Even if we aren’t successful in starting our co-op (I hope we will be), the conversations, group interaction, community education, and establishment of ethical principles is worth its weight in gold. We are meeting tomorrow night, and when I look at our set of principles, I am filled with hope and joy–they are nurturing principles that seek alternatives and a firmly democratic process.

 

Nurturing as a Lifestyle and Spiritual Ethic

Druid's Prayer for Peace Painting (original version)

Druid’s Prayer for Peace Painting (original version)

This is leading me towards suggesting that much of what we can do to live regeneratively and wholly is to think not just about what we do on a daily basis, but what we support–this isn’t a new idea of course, but its one that is still not very mainstream.

 

These two mindsets are not mutually exclusive; Berry argues that each of us the capacity for both mindsets and they are often conflict with one another, especially living in industrialized societies. In my various studies, both magical and rhetorical, I’ve been taught to stay away from binary thinking–binaries can lock us into false pathways, make it seem like only two options exist, when many more do. And while I don’t necessarily see this as a false binary, in the sense that you are either are a nurturer or an exploiter, I think that there are degrees of exploitation vs. nurturing based on each practice, or a continuum that we all sit upon. There’s also degrees of conscientiousness–I may do my best to be a nurturer and support nurturing products and practices (or cut out the consumption all together) but there are times when choices are limited, finances are limited, or other issues are present and I’m forced to buy or participate in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. Even if that’s the case, there are still things we can do, like writing letters, activism, and encouraging better ethical practices, raising awareness, sharing with others…there’s a lot you can do even if you are forced to purchase something you disagree with due to finances, lack of options, or otherwise.

 

At this point, even if you can’t make any physical changes, I do advocate for putting yourself in a nurturing mindset and beginning to see this as part of a spiritual ethic. The mind is an extremely powerful tool. Seeing ourselves as nurturers helps us be nurturers, even if those changes are slow.  It allows us to be in the right mindset to seize opportunity (like, say, my experiences with the food co-op). I’m not saying we can, or should, passively think this way forever, but its a very powerful start.

 

I also see the concept of the nurturer as one that is really accessible to many, and appealing to many, who follow earth-based spiritual paths. We want to help and heal, and a lot of us just aren’t sure how to start walking down that path. Given this, I’d like to conclude by thinking about the role of the nurturer with a specific modification to a prayer that many druids say–the Druid’s Prayer for Peace. This is a prayer developed by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD); members of the order, including myself, often say this prayer every day. But years ago, I decided that it wasn’t quite working for me because it didn’t fit the permaculture ethical system quite enough and it while it started to embrace the role of nurturer, it didn’t take it far enough. So I made some modifications. The original prayer goes like this:

Deep within the still center of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.

My modified version reminds me of importance of peace to all life and cultivating a nurturing mindset:

Deep within the still center of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of all life
May I radiate peace.

What I like about this simple everyday prayer, is that it reminds me that my spiritual path, Druidry, is a path of peace, of care, and of nurturing.

 

Healing Hands: Replanting and Regenerating the Land as a Spiritual and Sacred Practice August 14, 2015

Acorns

Acorns

A lone man walks through a field of brambles as the sun rises, a small pouch at his side.  This field was old-growth forest before being clear cut a century or more ago; it was then farmland for 50 years before becoming unfarmable wasteland; over the last 15 years, enough soil fertility has returned enough to support the brambles. As the man walks, every so often, he leans down, takes out a small trowel, and pops a nut in the ground–hickory and oak nuts, primarily, but others like butternut, chestnut, and walnut are also sometimes planted. He is a man on a very quiet and very personal mission–and his goal is simple: to return hardwoods to the cleared lands of Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes, he carries roots instead: the roots of goldenseal and ginseng, plants once common here and are now about impossible to find. This man plants trees that he will not likely ever harvest from, he walks lands that others have abandoned, and he donates his time to this simple, meditative practice. Who is this man? This man is my father, and his work is for generations–human and otherwise–beyond himself.

 

The question our role as humans is in the ecosystem and how spiritual practices and permaculture design allows us to better enact that role is an important one.  In this post, I’ll explore the idea of an earth care ethic through active regeneration of the land.

 

Pick up the Garbage and Get Out

I’ve heard many in the druid community say that the best thing you can do for any piece of land is to “pick up the garbage and get the hell out.” And there are certainly times and places where I think this approach is the wisest–the ecosystem is fragile and nature is doing her own healing. Or, this is a good approach if there are people already dedicated to the cause of healing particular parts of land, like state forests or conservation areas, and you haven’t been asked to help in that existing work. But what about everywhere else? What about the lands that aren’t under protected or conservation status? What about lands that lay fallow and are struggling to come back from a lot of abuse? I’m starting to disagree that this “pick up the garbage and get out” is the right approach in every case and in fact, in many cases.

 

"A Pennsylvania Desert" of the late 19th century

“A Pennsylvania Desert” of the late 19th century

I’ll use Western Pennsylvania as an example, and I’m sure readers in other places can think of their own local examples. At one point in Pennsylvania’s history, about 100 years ago, the forests were almost entirely gone (see photo, right). Today’s logging looks harmless by comparison (and is ecologically much more sound, but still extremely disruptive). Trees that were 15 and 20 feet across were cut down during this time, and other resources the land held were also sought, such as coal. Since that time, regrowth (ecological succession) has been successful in some places and the forests that have returned are now mostly protected by being a state forest, wild area, or game lands (although game lands still allow fracking and logging, so I’m skeptical about this “protection”). Other forests never returned, and instead went to farmland, subdivisions, cities, airports, or something else. Even for the forests that managed to return to forest, the logging and clearcutting significantly and permanently alters the what is growing there long-term. Hardwoods like hickory, walnut, chestnut, or oak, especially have had difficulty regrowing because they grow much slower than other trees like black cherry, beech, or birch. Forest herbs on the floor also have difficulty recovering or spreading quickly, especially those who spread slowly by root or rhizome. Much of the land no longer holds the fertility or nutrients needed to support a forest. Other land still hasn’t grown back, and was farmland till the fertility in the soil was removed to the point where little is growing there–only pioneer species working to bring nutrients back into the soil.

 

Ecological Succession is the process of nature regrowing from a damaged state. What it regrows into is largely a matter of the ecosystem and region–around here in Western Pennsylvania, the final state of succession is a forest. In the Great Plains states, it is, as you may suspect, grass plains and savanna. The damaged state could have been caused by a fire, flood or other natural occurrence, but in our era, its predominantly caused by human destruction, as in the case of the forests of Pennsylvania, or more recently, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, or boney dumps in Pennsylvania. Sometimes, ecological succession fails to happen almost entirely, even over a period of decades or centuries, because the land has been too damaged by human activity to begin that healing process (of which I’ll be speaking more about next week).

 

As an example of this can be seen through the chestnut tree. Prior to the chestnut blight of the early 20th century, chestnuts made up anywhere from 5-15% of most forests in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania decided to cut down *all* of the chestnuts (even non-blighted ones) to try to stop the spread of disease, essentially preventing evolution from happening–the chestnut trees could not evolve blight resistance if they weren’t given a chance to do so. The result is that very, very few chestnuts remain–hence why my father works to plant them.

 

Ecological succession well underway!

Ecological succession well underway!

Approaches to Human Intervention in Ecological Succession

The idea of human intervention on the landscape, in a positive direction, is not one well known in present culture. The conservationist approach, developed as a response to things like the clear-cutting that took place in Pennsylvania a 100 years ago, has done much to help re-introduce and protect forests and wildlife–and for the places that are protected, the protection generally works. I visited the Pennsylvania Wilds (a protected area spanning 1.5 million acres of forests in North-Central PA) two weeks ago and I was amazed to read of the story of conservation there on that land.

 

But I do think that the conservation mindset creates some challenges. The conservation mindset  is rooted in the idea that when white settlers arrived here, they found a pristine landscape, untouched by human hands. The goal of conservation, then, is to get the land back to that state and to not let anyone touch it again (because human touch is seen as problematic, and in most cases today, it is). Every day, I’m thankful that early conservations decided to set aside millions of acres of forests in my home state.  Some conservationist efforts do work towards restoring native ecosystems or at least creating balanced ones. And that’s all good work.

 

But at the same time, the situation is radically different now than in 1492–more species are here and are naturalized, animal species patterns are different (which is critical–see this video of the wolf changing rivers at Yellowstone), and I’m not sure that simple restoration to the way things were and then leaving it alone is always the best approach. I’m also not sure that leaving this regenerative work only in the hands of the “experts” is the best either because it disallows collective responsibility and action. But it certainly is an understandable response, given what has been going on for the last 150 or so years.

 

Another approach, one I have heard expressed in druid retreats and by various practitioners earth-based spiritual traditions is “letting the land alone to heal.” But I don’t think this approach is entirely ethical either. For one, leaving a forest to regrow on its own will never re-introduce species that have been largely lost to our forests, like chestnut, because there aren’t enough of them left to spread. It will never re-introduce ginseng, goldenseal, or ramps, all of which have been over-harvested to critically endangered stats–and all of which are slow-spreading root crops. It won’t address the damage caused by erosion or soil loss–eventually, given a long time, the earth can heal from these things. However, even while ecological succession is slowly occurring on nature’s own timeline, other damages and pressures may be happening, like acid rain, mine runoff, poaching, and more. The two real issues with the idea of “letting the land alone to heal” and that, first and foremost, is that it removes our personal and collective responsibility for the damage that was done. And second, just as humans caused quick destruction, we can also help jump start and guide the healing process more quickly. This kind of work tremendously deepens our spiritual and physical connection with those lands.

 

The Power of Human Touch: Positive Human Intervention, Spiritual Interaction, and Regeneration

White mythology suggests that when settlers came to what was to become the United States and Canada, they found pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. The truth is, the lands such as those that would later make up the USA were never “untouched by human hands” as is commonly thought.  Yet, the nature of the touch was much, much different. In fact, M. Kat Anderson, in a book called Tending the Wild provides a rich body of evidence that Native Americans tended the land extensively to maintain balance and abundance. Anderson learned from the Native elders she was interviewing in California that some native plants have literally evolved with human intervention and they need humans to survive and thrive—this puts an entirely new perspective on the idea of earth care and stewardship.

 

If you think this idea that the land evolved with human touch is a bit radical, consider domesticated vegetables or animals. This idea is really no different than farm animals or even annual vegetables you plant in your garden, who also have evolved with humans and depend on them for protection and nurturing. Anderson’s work breaks down the distinction between what is cultivated and what is wilderness–all lands were tended in some way.

 

One of the things I recently learned from Walker Kirby, a man teaching us at my Permaulculture Design Certificate who was coming out of the work of John Young’s Wilderness Awareness School, was the fact that “wilderness” as a term was quite negative in the native cultures of the northeast USA. Wilderness was it was land that had been abandoned or left untended by its people–and that was a tragic thing. This is such a different view that most humans have in industrialized nations–we have seen so much damage, we just want to leave nature alone and protect the wilderness.  But in creating “wilderness” we are, essentially, abandoning our responsibility to tend that land; its not really different than abandoning elderly relatives, children, or animals in our care.

Planting Hope

Planting Hope

 

The other piece to all of this is, of course, that this damage we currently have is largely human caused. Humans have some substantial Karmic debt that we can work to help payoff by directly taking action. Some humans are still causing active destruction; many more are complicit and passively supporting that destruction passively through their choices, purchases, and inaction. They turn their head and shut their eyes because they do not want to see.  But for those who walk an earth-based spiritual path focused on rebuilding a relationship with nature and those who are awake and alive–we are seeing. We can help make right what was damaged, and by doing so, we rekindle the ancient bond between humanity and the land. Many of our ancestors further participated in this destruction (as their livelihoods, but still, they were participating in it), and we carry the that karmic debt as well.  My grandfathers and great grandfathers worked in the coal mines and the steel mills because those were the jobs available here–and the environmental costs of those mines and mills are still very much present on the landscape of Western Pennsylvania today. Who better than their granddaughter or great granddaughter to go out and help regenerate the lands after the mills and mines closed down but their scars remain? All of us, in some way or another, are directly energetically connected to that damage which we see on the landscape–and all of us can do something, even something small, to work to heal.

 

Anderson’s Tending the Wild gives us a radically different model for what humanity’s relationship with nature can look like. It shows that humans have been active tenders of our landscapes, engaging in regeneration and healing, and co-evolving with nature. I believe it is this same mindset that my father has for bringing in more hardwoods–it is a desire to heal the land. Imagine if there millions and millions of us, all across the lands of this great planet, actively healing the land as part of our spiritual practice. What a difference we could make–in both inner and outer worlds.

 

Overcoming Fear

Many alternative communities, whether they are druids or other healers use some form of energy healing. In the druid traditions that I practice, our seasonal celebrations raise positive energy through ritual and song and send it into the land for a blessing. Energetically, we are doing the work of regeneration–but this invisible line exists that we don’t cross; we often don’t physically do much beyond that. Because we are afraid to do harm. Because we don’t feel we have the knowledge of how to do anything else. What exactly can we do? What exactly should we do?  How do we know we can do it better?  How do we know we won’t cause harm? Where should this work be done?  How should it be done?

 

Part of the fear of interacting with nature, especially in a physically regenerative capacity, I think stems from the fact that we want to do no more harm.  But I would argue that not doing anything is worse than the potential of doing harm in many cases. Anderson writes in her introduction to Tending the Wild, “The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with—that one should respect nature by leaving it alone—by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or animal” (xvi).  The work of physical land healing can bring us the power to heal the land and the responsibility of doing so.

 

The Way Forward toward Land Healing as a Spiritual Practice

As my last few posts on the blog describe, this kind of work directly aligns with the tools and practices of  permauclture design.  Through permaculture, we have many examples of aiding in ecological succession faster and helping nature in this healing process. With careful observation, planning, and knowledge, we can actively help ecological succession along, actively help our lands heal.  This work takes a lot of knowledge, dedication, and commitment–but it is so worth doing and worth doing well.  Through many years of study and practice you’ll have more effective strategies to address larger problems, you can begin now, in this very moment.

 

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

For those interested in starting the work, perhaps start by enacting the principle of “observe and interact” from permaculture design. Go into the places that are in most need of healing that we can reach. The damaged lands, the degraded soils, those places abandoned by others. Lawns are a good place to start, as are abandoned fields, abandoned lots on your city streets, logged areas. Learn about that land, learn about the soil, look at what is already growing and learn about why it is growing there, don’t be immediately angry if you find out its “invasive” (many “invasive” plants are healers, in their own way) and think about how you might help ecological succession along. And more than anything else, listen and observe, with your inner and outer senses, and see what the land has to tell you.

 

I realize I’ve been doing this work for a very long time (as is evidenced by this early post), but the regenerative work I was doing was almost entirely focused on my homestead.  I knew I was regenerating the land there, doing good healing work. Selling my homestead and being “landless” during this transition to a new state has shifted my eyes to the broader landscape.  I realized that its not just about what I do on a small site, but what I do in many different places and spaces. I think that’s the work this post is trying to do–explore the broader call to heal the land beyond what we generally “own.” Its trying to cast a wide net, seeing the land differently, realizing that all of the land is ours to tend, if not legally so, than certainly, ethically so.

 

I’ll be spending more time in upcoming posts on different ways of approaching how physical land regeneration as a spiritual practice may happen. For now, I wanted to share my thoughts about why–as druids, as people who care, as whoever you are as you are reading this–we could consider this as part of our spiritual and ethical work in the world. Perhaps sit with the idea, like a hot cup of tea made from pioneer plants in a field in need of regeneration, and consider whether you are called to walk this particular path.