The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part II: Nature Wisdom July 14, 2018

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

As any mushroom hunter knows, mushrooms are tricksy little buggers.  What one looks like in one setting may not necessarily be what one looks like in another, depending on soil conditions, moisture, sun, size of the mushroom, insect damage, and/or regional variation. Mushroom species can vary a lot, even from one small region to another, and that variation can spell trouble for someone who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to understand such variation.  Mushroom books offer perhaps 1-2 photos of mushrooms, and a good book will also offer a mushroom hunter the “keys” (features that distinguish one mushroom from another, like attached gills, color, etc).  However, only lived and true experience can help you not make a dangerous mistake when it comes to the mycelium kingdom.  The difference here, I think, epitomizes two key things: the different aspects of nature wisdom, specifically, the difference between book knowledge and lived experience.  But also, it epitomizes the importance of being rooted firmly in one’s local ecosystem and learning that ecosystem and from sources as connected to that specific ecosystem as possible. In last week’s post, we explored the four ways in which we can connect deeply through nature: through nature wisdom, nature activity, nature reciprocity, and nature reverence.  This week, we’ll delve deeply into the idea of nature wisdom and its three aspects: knowing nature, understanding nature, and probing nature.  We might frame this as a triad:

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

Knowing nature includes the basic skills of identification and naming–all of which can be started to gained through reading and study or from learning from others. For humans, being able to recognize something, and know its name, is a powerful act. For building my own nature knowledge, what I’ve done over a long period of time is commit to learning 15-20 new plants, trees, animal tracks, rocks, or other aspects about nature each year.  After a few years, you will be able to learn more and more trees, plants, animal tracks, and so on–and this knowledge really empowers you. In 5 years with this method, you could know 100 or more plants and trees!  Slow and steady over a period of time is the best way to learn.  However, reading about plants and trees and so on in books is only half the battle of learning them–the other half is actually finding and experiencing them.

 

I’ll give a nice example of this process.  For years, Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest and Nature’s Garden have been my two favorite wild food foraging books.  I’ve read them cover to cover; in the wintertime, I’ve studied them extensively.  Some of the plants he lists in the book, like wild rice, I’ve never seen, but I’ve at least got a basic idea from his books about what they might look like in the event that I can come across some. In May, I visited a friend who just moved to some new property and she wanted me to help identify some things.  We walked through and there was a lot of great things growing–including what I believed to be some highbush cranberry.  I hadn’t ever met this plant, but I wanted to very badly, so I had studied it extensively and when we found it, I knew what it was. It was growing on a giant rock pile in the middle of a field and had some little leftover dried cranberries.  We took photos and a few sample leaves, and sure enough, it was highbush cranberry. This kind of nature study is so useful so that when you are out and about, you can do some identification.  Had I had my books with me (I did not), it would have been even more useful!

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Before the modern era and the general loss of this knowledge in westernized society due to industrialization and commodification, a lot of this knowledge was shared, it was cultural, it was part of the body of knowledge that was taught to people in order to survive and thrive in connection with the natural world.  Largely, that’s not the case anymore, although you will find people here and there who really know a lot about nature and are willing to share ( a lot of these folks I’ve found in the herbalism, woodcraft, and bushcraft movements). I absolutely delight when I find anyone who can teach me something new about the natural world and take every opportunity to learn from them!

 

To learn any aspect of nature, books and resources are critical, and classes/teachers are even better if you can find them.  Here are some of my favorite books and resources to get you started:

  • Botany in a Day is my favorite book (recommended to me some years ago by one of my blog readers).  This teaches you basic plant identification through pattern recognition.
  • I aslo love Newcomb’s Flower Guide for an easy method of plant identification for any flowering plants. For animal tracks, Animal Tracking Basics by Tiffany Moore and Jon Young is a great book to start with.
  • Other books by Jon Young, like What the Robin Knows  are also excellent for understanding how nature works and the signs in nature.
  • Otherwise, the many field guides out there offer much with full photos and information.
  • Other books I love that teach about relationships are three books by John Eastman –The Book of Swamp and BogThe Book of Forest and Thicket; and The Book of Field and Stream.
  • Finding Your Way Without a Map and a Compass is an absolutely fabulous book about nature awareness.
  • There are also a number of great plant and nature identification apps like Leafsnap that can be quite helpful. Finally, purchasing a Loupe (Jeweler’s Loupe) as a small magnifying glass can aid in learning and observing nature.
  • And for wild food foraging, Samuel Thayer’s books, which offer detailed information on how to find plants, when to find plants, and how to prepare plants (more on this in next week’s post!)

 

Bringing nature knowledge into your nature interactions allows you a much deeper sense of the natural world–it empowers you. Getting to know nature can literally last a lifetime.

 

Understanding Nature

As my opening discussion of the challenges of mushroom hunting illustrate, there are two kinds of nature knowledge–the knowledge that comes through reading and study, and the understanding that comes through experience in both the inner and outer worlds of nature. Both are critical to developing ovate knowledge about the natural world and “nature wisdom.”

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

The understanding that comes through direct experience cannot be replicated by reading books. All the books in the world cannot help you gain the deep understanding of nature as you observe the unfurling of a frond of a fern or watch ants busy at work removing soil from their nest. This is the kind of “knowing” that comes from regular engagement in the natural world.  Any engagement is good; in AODA, we recommend at least 15 minutes per week in nature, some of it spent in stillness and focus.  I’ve used this practice for over a decade and not only has it helped me know nature, it has certainly helped me be at peace and connect to it.  Earlier in this blog, I detailed the “druids anchor spot” technique; this is a great way to learn a single place and deeply connect to it.  This, combined with journaling and regular meditation in nature can be of great aid.

 

What I have found to be the most effective in aiding my building of understanding nature is to shift frequently between book knowledge and real-world experience.  Read some books the night before I go out on a journey, then take a book or two with me (like Newcomb’s) and then cross reference what I am seeing with what I’m learning.  Or finding a new plant, photographing it carefully, and working to identify it and learn what I can about it.  Remembering where it grows, checking it through the season and its life cycle.  Knowing and understanding, then, become like two sides of the coin of nature wisdom–it is necessary for us to have both to fully embrace this kind of connection with nature.

 

Probing nature

A final way in which you can build nature wisdom is in the tradition of the many naturalists who have contributed scientific knowledge of the natural world: Leopold, Darwin, Audobon, Humbolt, etc.  This kind of nature wisdom, which I am calling “probing nature” is engaging in the study of nature in some way.  Most of the time, we think about study in the form of systematic observation with notetaking (think the field journals of the naturalists) or through experimentation (think gardening experiments to see which plants produce a higher yield.) Most of the time, people think that this kind of thing is left only to scientists working in the field, but everyday people can also engage in a number of different kinds of things.

 

On the most basic level, this is simply a matter of satisfying your curiosity, and seeking answers to questions like, “I wonder what….”  or “Why does this…”  I recently did this on my property after seeing trees that had a hazel-like leaf and I was excited to discover that I potentially had “beaked hazelnuts” (a tree I hadn’t encountered before).  Now I can systematically observe this tree each day as it goes through its life cycle and see if the hazelnuts actually appear in the fall!  In order to do this, I’m observing the trees carefully 1-2 times a week and looking at them throughout their life cycle.  A second example is through my “potato bucket” experiment.  I had a bunch of sprouting potatoes back in March and it had been still so cold and the ground was frozen.  But these potatoes wanted to grow!  So I put some of them in buckets and large planters with holes and put them in the greenhouse to see what happened.  Would I get any yield? Now, it is mid June and I’m able to harvest the potatoes from these buckets.  As I have grown this variety before, I am certain that the harvest is not as great, but it is still something and is a very fantastic early potato crop.  This was a simple gardening experiment, and I learned a bit more about how to grow potatoes.

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

A second avenue for “probing nature” and one I highly recommend is citizen science, where you help contribute to a larger dataset of observations that are then used to build an understanding about the natural world.  I wrote about this here. These are projects, like Project Budburst, that help track different things happening in the ecosystem: the flight of the monarchs; the sighting of birds; the arrival of buds in the spring; the movement of wildlife, the various potential effects of climate change.  These, to me, are very important ways for druids and others who are committed to nature spirituality to get involved and help build our knowledge about the living earth.  I think this work is even more critical today than ever before: funding for climate change research and basic science surrounding the natural world is continuing to be cut; people like you and I can help fill in these gaps as volunteers and contribute to larger studies that make a difference.

 

Conclusion

Knowing nature is one of four ways I’ve outlined that we can cultivate a connection to the living earth. In the years that I’ve been practicing druidry, I have come to believe that it is my knowledge of nature that has helped me develop a much deeper connection to the living earth in so many different ways. It’s one thing to go out in a natural setting and appreciate and respect what you are seeing; it is a completely different experience to go out and be able to identify plants, animal tracks, stones, be able to read the water movements of a river, or predict weather changes by observing the clouds and wind.  You have a deeper appreciation of it, you are closer to it, and it is this deeper knowing that connects you in all kinds of new ways. Suddenly, you know plants names, their uses, how rare or abundant they are, if they are endangered, and even from this information, you can begin to ascertain their magic and spiritual connection.  And so, to me, the foundation of all of this rests in respecting the earth and in knowing her.

 

The Sound of Silence: Mass Extinction and the Music of the World February 2, 2015

I recently came across an article from The Guardian in 2012 detailing the work of scientist Bernie Krause, who has spent his life recording sounds of nature. Krause’s major finding is simple: the loss of biodiversity, from the depths of the reefs to the rain forests, can be clearly tracked by listening to audio recordings over a 40-year period. He reports that he now hears deafening silence in so many ecosystems that once teemed with life. The article detailed his book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I bought the book, compelled to read more, the cryptic words of Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence echoing in my ears. This blog post is a bit different than some of my others, in that it is simply a response, a real and human response, to the growing sound of silence upon our landscape.

 

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

When I was a child and teen, I embraced dystopian science fiction. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, E.M. Forrester, Aldus Huxley, Marge Piercy, Suzette Hagen Elgin, and George Orwell enthralled me and horrified me with their tales of dark futures, where humanity was oppressed and the land stripped bare. But these were just stories, I’d think to myself. And growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they really did seem to be stories–we had plenty of resources, this was America’s heyday, when everything was booming. Of course we were were protecting the land as we grew and prospered, there were no costs to our progress…at least, that’s what we keep being told.  But these tales often made me wonder–what was the cost? And how quickly were we headed to a future, say, like what Marge Piercy describes in Oryx and Crake?  Perhaps faster than I realized.

When I was 14, I witnessed firsthand of the destruction of the ecosystem of my own beloved forest in the name of profit. I remember the deafening roar of the loggers’ machines as they pillaged that forest. I remember the eerie silence in the weeks following their departure, and the devastated landscape they left in their wake. Where a once-vibrant forest stood–and chirped, buzzed, skittered, and slithered–only silence remained.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The silence of the forest after it has been logged, or the silence of the reef after it has been bleached, is only one kind of silence–there is another, just as tragic, in our own conversations as a culture and as a species. The silence that pervades us is a silence of fact, of truth, and of reality. We hear people talking without saying anything–the nightly news and national media do their best to continually report on nothing of substance, all day and all night long. When they attempt to address an issue of real substance, it is reported is a shallow husk of reality. The narrative we hear from those who speak loudly is that everything is fine and will continue to be fine, that mass extinctions don’t matter, that we can continue to pillage and plunder. Chris Hedges does a brilliant job in identifying these issues in his Empire of Illusion.

When people do hear about the work of scientists like Bernie Krause, they do not listen. They make excuses. They close off their ability to comprehend what is actually being said, or attack the credibility of science or or a scientist’s character in order to protect and preserve that their own internal mythologies. I think about the final comments of the authors of The Limits to Growth when they say that, despite the massive amount of evidence they compiled and presented, they weren’t heard at a regional, national, or international level. They, too, could not have conversations because the conversations were not able to be had. But they could talk and work locally, and that gave them hope. Still, so many others, also silenced.

And the silence is becoming institutionalized. And now, parts of the legislative branch in the USA are working to silence science. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 that effectively bans the use of scientific data in making predictions about sea level rise. Congress just this past year made it illegal for the Pentagon to address climate change and told them to ignore that it was occurring. Our very governments, those that are supposed to protect the people, are instead, protecting their own silence. And its not just our government–we, too, often turn away from the things we don’t want to hear, from the realities we face. We, too, offer silence.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

Even as someone who has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, who teaches effective writing as my profession, I am at a loss about how to address the silence, how to engage in conversations that enact real change. I’ve certainly taken my best step at some analysis of the tools we could use to address humanity’s current predicament on my little corner of the web. Still, I don’t know how we can break the silence of a larger system where power and privilege control nearly all dialogue and discussion. I, too, like so many of you, feel silenced.

 

Truthfully, in reading and reflecting upon the research of Bernie Krause and others like him, I am struck by the enormity of the loss of life that is occurring, of the silence that remains behind. I think about the little things I am doing in my life, the things I talk about on this blog, and I know they aren’t enough. But the really truly difficult things, like better options for transportation and housing, are still out of my reach at this point, partially because of lack of resources and partially because of the laws themselves. I make excuses, like I just did, and wonder what the best way to actually move forward is. I question how I can even be part of the system at all. I get upset, and angry, and frustrated with myself for my lack of real response. I engage in internal dialogue with myself….and get tripped up at this point…because I’ve just written two paragraphs that say, I don’t know, and I have nothing more to offer. From the outside, all one would hear is my silence. Meanwhile, the broader echoes reverberate in Bernie Krause’s recordings and the silence grows with each extinction and tree felled.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

All the while, we worship the the neon gods, bowing to them and honoring them with our time, energy, and passion. But the neon gods cannot grow our food; the neon gods cannot provide us with water, or shelter, or warmth. In fact, the neon gods provide us with nothing that we actually need to survive. But they can certainly fill our minds with distractions so that we can’t hear the growing silence. Perhaps its time we turn away from the neon gods long enough to start to listen and to understand, on multiple levels. Perhaps its time to break that silence.