The Druid's Garden

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

Reparation and Healing the Land as part of American Druidry December 10, 2017

Sunrise over the land

Sunrise over the land

Two weeks ago, I talked about what American Druidry looks like. One of the big issues that came up in conversations here on the blog in the comments and also in the comments on the Druid’s Garden Facebook page was guilt from those of non-indigenous heritage. Guilt about the legacy of abuses against Native Americans in this country–a legacy that continues to this day. Guilt of being here on this land, knowing that many of us who are here now are here because of three centuries of genocide. Guilt about knowing that despite all that we may do now, this past bloodshed colors the way that we interact with the land, our relationships with the spirits of the land, and everything else we try to do to connect with the land and build sacredness.  In the last two weeks, I’ve heard how people feel the spirits of the land aren’t open to them because of this legacy, how they don’t even know what to do to begin to rectify it, or they don’t think they have a right to do anything to the land, or how they are afraid to act because they might do more damage. For some people, these feelings of guilt are literally preventing them from doing much of anything because they don’t feel they have a right to the land. I’m glad we are having these conversations, and I think these are the start of understanding a way forward.  This week, I want to more deeply share my perspective.  That is, I want to talk about moving beyond guilt and doing reparations: the work of repair.

 

The Right to Speak?

These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially today, and there’s a lot of question about who even has the right to speak on a topic. Before I begin this conversation, therefore, it is useful to know who I am. I’m a druid, and I have been walking this path for over a decade. I’m a permaculture designer, an herbalist, an whimsical artist, a land healer, a teacher of many things.  But maybe when we say”who I am” what we mean is what blood I carry. On one side of my family, I am a fourth generation descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the US after the potato famine forced many farmers to leave Ireland. These proud Irish came, settled here in Western PA, and mined coal. On the other side, my family has a very…colorful past. We have in the same generation (mingled in later bloodlines) a very well-known historical figure, a prominent general, who successfully defeated the Native Americans on their own soil and slaughtered thousands in his lifetime. We also have Shawnee man of whom little is known (as it is a taboo topic to the older generations in my family, but DNA records demonstrate that this “unmentionable fact” is true). We also have Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, PA German) ancestry. This pretty much makes me a mutt with direct ancestral ties both to this land and the bloodshed that happened. Does this mixed ancestry give me the “right” to speak on this issue? I have no idea, but at least, now you know where I’m coming from and can evaluate what I say based on that, if such things matter.

 

To me, my own ancestry or what my ancestors did or didn’t do isn’t as important as the work I do today. What was done before me were other people’s lives, decisions, and choices.  I live in the shadow of those choices, and I certainly have to deal with them, but I can’t change the decisions of my ancestors or others here that caused these things to happen. I can’t change the bloodshed that was caused by General George Custer and his contemporaries.  I can’t change the pillaging of the Allegheny Mountains for coal, steel, and iron. I can’t change the past. The only power I have is the work I can do in the present.  I think that this is the best response I can have: to help repair the damage that was done, to help put balm on these centuries-old wounds, and to rebuild my own relationship with the land. And so, I focus my energies on that work, rather than lamenting the past or my ancestors’ place in it.

 

The Work of Repair

When we hear the term “reparations”, most frequently in the US it is tied to discussions and activism surrounding the monetary compensation for past horrible crimes (genocide, slavery, war crimes, etc).  But this term has a lot of meanings, and its useful to explore those, especially in the context of nature spirituality on American soil.

 

Merriam Webster’s is a good place to start to think about this term and what it can offer us:

  • 1 a : repairing or keeping in repair
    • b reparations plural : repairs
  • 2 a : the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury
    • b : something done or given as amends or satisfaction
  • 3 : the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation usually used in plural

All three of these definitions give us something to consider in terms of the work of repair.   We do need to be active in the tending of the land (definition 1a-b).  We also do need to make amends for the wrong or injury that has been done to the land and her peoples.  And finally, we do need to find some way of compensating those who have been wronged.  And unlike ancestors’ actions and the choices of past generations, which is inherently disempowering and makes us feel bad without anything to be done, the work of repair offers us the ability to actively engage in this work today.

 

A Framework for Repair: Nurturing, Care, and Peace

On this blog, I’ve long talked about three ideas that I think offer us a framework for the work of repair: shifting from exploitative practices to nurturing ones, the permaculture ethical system of care, and peace-making as a spiritual practice.  My long-term readers will recognize the currents that run into this conversation, but I’ll also summarize for those of you newer to the blog:

 

First, Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in the opening chapters, Berry describes two orientations toward the land: that of the exploiter and that of the nurturer.  He describes the exploiter as the agribusiness person who seeks to extract as many resources as possible from the land for profit.  We might easily point to any number of colonizing activities, stealing land from native peoples, pillaging natural resources, fossil fuel extraction activities, mountaintop removal, etc.  In other words, he describes the behaviors and activities and unfortunate cultural heritage of the present day United States, a cultural heritage that each of us have inherited.  The nurturer, by comparison, is a small family farmer in Berry’s estimation, someone who is as much concerned with the health of the land as he/she is with its productivity.  The nurturer, then, makes care a primary concern and thinks not only about what is taken now, but how those actions impact the health of the land and her people.

 

Expanding on this notion of care, the permaculture ethical system offers us further tools.  The ethics of people care, earth care, fair share, and self care are interwoven: to care for the land is to care for the people, to take one’s fair share is inherently to care for self and others, and so on.  The point here is care as a primary virtue. Within permaculture is the idea that humans can be a force of good.

 

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

This leads me to the third thing: we can tie care and nurturing directly to the work of druidry through the tradition’s emphasis on peace, the work of reciprocation, and the work of honoring the spirits.  I think this is critical: its not just that the land is somehow under our care, but that we are in direct relationship with it.  Its a deep reverence and respect that druidry offers this conversation–the work of peace.

The Work of Repair

In my experience, it is necessary to show the spirits of the land that I’m a different kind of human: the last four centuries, particularly on the East Coast of the US where I live, have primarily involved people who look like me pillaging the land.  When I walk into the woods or enter any other natural place, how do the spirits know I’m a different kind of human?  Certainly not by what I say–the cultural legacy of the US has shown, time and time again, how words can’t be trusted.  No, the spirits of the land will know me based on my actions: what I do, directly, to care for the land and engage in the work of repair.   It is through this work, I believe, that I have continued to develop a very deep relationship with the spirits of my landscape, of the Allegheny Mountains, and of many other places that I have visited.

 

And I’m not just talking about doing ritual in the woods.  I think that doing rituals and that kind of land healing work is critically important (and I’ve advocated for it myself, led large group rituals, etc). But rather, I’m talking about the physical labor of helping to plant trees, heal land, clean up trash, reseed the landscape, etc.  And so, what I believe the work of repair is work that is:

 

  • both psychical and energetic in nature
  • offers healing and strengthening to the land
  • puts the land in better physical shape than it was found (i.e. engages in activity that directly speeds the healing of the land; such as many permaculture techniques)
  • offers these actions from a fundamental place of care, nurturing, and mutality

 

I can’t sit here and tell you what you should be doing to do the work of repair. Each of us has to find our own way forward with this work given our limitations and resources–but the above philosophies and orientations and the above definition can certainly help put you in the framework for the repair work.  What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve been doing and how that fits the above framework.   I’ve talked a ton about energetic repair already through my long land healing series from last year, so I’m going to now give some physical repair examples.

 

Some Examples of Repair

I wanted to share three recent examples of the work of repair work that will heal and strengthen not only the land here, but my physical connection to the land.

 

Countering Black Friday with Tree Planting

Some of the trees planted!

Some of the trees planted!

I think Black Friday is the most horrific day of the year, it is an anti-holiday that pays homage to mass consumption and cycles of waste.  I went out once when I was 17, and have never participated in it since then.  And so, to counter the consumerist frenzy that takes place on Black Friday, I always like to do something in line with people care, earth care, or fair share on that day.  I think this is a wonderful way to show the spirits of the land that you are a different kind of human and reject the lure of consumption.

 

This past Black Friday, a friend and I planted 45 trees on my new property.  Earlier on this blog I mentioned how the land here has been timbered four times in forty years, and how I was working with the spirits of the land here to help heal.  As part of that work, I have been working to replant the forest–both with seeds as well as with small trees.  After consulting with the spirits, we’ve decided to try to bring this forest back to something more akin to what it would have been before my white ancestors arrived: in PA, that’s about 33% chestnut with other hardwood nut trees and an understory of PawPaw, Elder, Spicebush, and more.  And that’s exactly what I worked to plant: 25 chestnuts, 20 paw paws, and a few other assorted nut and fruit trees (persimmon, hazel, and, to anticipate more climate change, Pecan).

 

It was a long day of backbreaking labor, but at the end, it was a day well spent.  Rather than engaging in activities that took from the land (through the manufacture of consumer goods, the spending of fossil fuels to visit stores, etc), I used only my own human energy to move trees, move compost, plant the trees, and more. After that day, each day, I walk out on the land and see the many blue tree tubes and smile with joy.  And since then, I’ve also done ritual to support their growth and health.  The spirits of the land are happy that this kind of work is happening here, and that brings me into a closer relationship with them.

 

Waste as a Resource: Humanure Composting

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Last year, I wrote about Humanure composting and shared my design for a humanure toilet (modeled after the “Lovable Loo” design from the Humanure Handbook).  In that post, I described why people compost their waste and how to do it.  I have continued to engage in this practice and I believe it is a wonderful way of engaging in repair work.  I have decided to compost down and then return all of my own waste to the wild areas on my land since so much had been taken from them with regards to logging.  I find that this brings me back into cycle with the land and honors the land by putting resources back (rather than sending them “away” to mix with municipal septic systems). One of the things I’m doing now that I’m on my new land is to take this a step further by switching my cats from a clay-based litter to a wood based litter (made of recycled waste wood).  Once this proves successful, I will also compost all of their waste in their own compost bin, and again, after two years of composting, return those resources to the land. The point here is simple: what my household eats (my household being myself and my two cats) is taken from the land and therefore, in any form, should be returned to it.  That’s the work of care and nurturing, and that brings balance.

 

Sheet Mulch, Lawn Liberation, and Web Soil Repair

A final way that I’ve long engaged in the work of repair is cultivating a healthy soil web and replacing lawns with gardens of all kinds.  As I’ve discussed before, the lawn is a site of consumption: it does not offer a healthy ecosystem, it does not offer food or forage to wildlife, and it certainly is not healthy from the perspective of nature.  Developing gardens (for wildlife and humans) and converting lawns into other things is inherently repair work.  It repairs not only the relationship between the spirits of the land and the human, but also helps repair the human’s spirit.

 

There are lots of ways to do this: a common one is through sheet mulching (which I wrote about here and here).  You simply add a weeds suppression layer (cardboard most often) and then layer on organic matter (fall leaves, manure, finished compost, wood chips–many things that other people see as “waste” and leave on the side of the road for you to pick up).  This takes away the grass and immediately gives you a good growing media. This isn’t the only technique to do this (I’ll be talking about another–hugelkultur–in an upcoming blog post) but it is certainly a great one to get started!

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

 

Supporting Native Peoples

I also want to talk about people care here before I conclude today’s post. There are no longer tribes of native peoples where I live; all that is left of them are the place names that once represented them. However, in other parts of the US, primarily out west, we certainly do have many native peoples still actively fighting for the rights of the land, the water, and their sovereignty and dignity as people.   Further, we have indigenous people all over the world who also are fighting similar battles.  And if we care about the work of repair, we also have to care about–and fight for–them. I think part of the work of repair can also be supporting native peoples: writing letters to representatives, offering monetary donations to causes, and being informed on what the issues are and how you can help.

 

Closing

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought in terms of how we might continue to shape a distinctly American Druidry through the work of repair. The work in this post, I believe, is necessary if we are to deepen our own connection to the land and her spirits, but also work to get beyond the guilt of the past and work to actively remedy, as much as we are able, the wrongs that have been done.   It is through this deep work that I believe we can cultivate deep–rather than surface–relationships with the land and especially with the spirits of the land, those who have been here for millennia.

 

I also want to conclude by saying that I am under no illusion that the work I’ve outlined here is enough to repair all of these old wounds. I believe that that the full work of repair will take generations of people.  But what I do believe is that someone has to pick up that work and start doing it, and that someone can be me–and perhaps you as well!

 

Awakening of the Heart: Permaculture’s Ethic of Care September 11, 2016

Love the earth

Love the earth

As I write this, a brave group of Native Americans are standing in support of the earth and protesting yet another oil pipeline that threatens water supplies, health, and home. Here, we see the clash between those defending their mother in care and compassion, and those representing profit and pillage. It is in the care for our lands the tribes take a stand; it the understanding of sacred connection of all things, all life, that helps them brave the dogs, pepper spray, the intimidation and much worse abuses. In some ways, the situation unfolding in North Dakota is a representation of similar circumstances that peoples and communities find themselves all over the world facing: fighting giant corporations who seek to pillage and profit while paying little attention to the human and environmental costs involved in their actions. I believe that many of today’s problems stem from a lack of care, compassion, and connection for ourselves, for others, for the living earth and all of her inhabitants. And since care, itself, is at the heart of permauclture design, it is fitting that the second post in my “permaculture for druids” series be about just that: care and connection.  (For earlier posts in this series, see the following: Permaculture as a Spiritual Practice; Permaculture Design Site, and Sankofa).

 

A Deadening of the Mind and Heart

Industrialized cultures seem to have lost our ability, on an individual, community, and societal level, to care and be compassionate—towards other people, the land, the animals, the insects, the plants, even towards themselves. Joanna Macy in Coming Back to Life suggests that the greatest issue preventing general movement toward a life-sustaining society is in the deadening of the mind and the heart.  It is an “apathy” (literally, non-suffering) or inability or refusal to feel.

 

When we look at conversations and actions driving much political change and laws being enacted in the early 21st century, care is an essential quality missing. In part, it is the lack of care and compassion that can drive ordinary citizens to oppose feeding hungry children in the name of tax cuts (which I witnessed firsthand when living in Michigan); it is the lack of care and compassion that can allow public lands to be sold off to the highest bidder and fracked for natural gas while others turn a blind eye; and it is the lack of care and compassion that make people keep buying products even though they know those products are being made at the extreme expense of others. I have witnessed this many times living in Western Pennsylvania—the economic issues overshadow all others. And so, our lands are fracked, the waterways poisoned with acid mine runoff, the people drinking the radioactive water—and the economics of it all are the only thing that people point to or are concerned about. I’m certain that readers throughout the world could share their own examples here–because they are everywhere right now.

 

I think this “deadening” of the mind and heart manifests as a a numbness, or disconnection, a deadness of spirit. Its like our brains are constantly overloaded, in a matter of speaking, and our hearts are continually silent. It is inserted into us at an early age with the removal of play, nature, and creativity from schools; it is connected to ingrained and automatic actions and cycles of consumerism that we are quickly socialized into being part of. It comes from the “disenchanted” world we live in, where edges are harsh and experiences are cold.  It also comes from the increasingly difficult realities so many face: people barely scraping by, working three jobs, trying to put food on the table and take care of their families in increasingly uncertain times, not having health care, not having steady transportation, living in places without stable heat, and so on.  It comes from the inundation of various screens sharing calamity after woe after calamity.  Its this monstrious pile that makes people “turn off” cause it is easier than trying to feel your way through it.  And so, we stop caring. It hurts to much.  We close our eyes, allow it all to flow from us, and go about our lives, burying ourselves in work, stuff, screens, drugs/alcohol, whatever.

 

Or if we don’t, its not necessarily any better. Even for those who do care deeply, compassion fatigue is a common problem. Those living in industrialized cultures are constantly bombarded with demands for time or resources—people grow numb to the amount of need and end up shutting down. I believe part of this has to do with the fact that we don’t have a cultural understanding of care; that we aren’t in an environment that encourages or facilitates care of any kind, and the current environment burns us out.

 

So, what can we do?  I think it is a matter, for me, of understanding care and seeing it in a new way.  Its about not just feeling, but directing that energy that we have, those deep emotions, into ways that help change the things that cause the world, life, humans, and ourselves harm.  If we can productively direct our own efforts and feelings, then our deep, open hearts become a source of tremendous strength and passion rather than something that just hurts.

 

This is where the concept of permaculture comes in, and why permauclture is ultimately rooted in the ethic of care.  I think that the synthesis of permaculture as a practice for living and druidry as a practice for inhabiting give a nice balance to help us feel deeply while avoiding the burnout and deadness that can otherwise consume us.  So now, let’s take a look at the ethic of care as a whole, and where we might head with it.

 

Connecting humans and land in harmony!

Connecting humans and land in harmony!

An Awakening of Heart

In the deadness of the heart we find the roots of so many problems of industrial culture. It is in the reawakening of heart spaces that helps us live lives that are regenerative and nurturing. We start waking up, reconnecting, finding the paths back to our own souls and to the living earth, our mother.  Its often a slow process, a gradual one, and the ethics of care can help us arrive there, and understand our journey.

 

The herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner is one of many recent authors to point out the disconnection in our modern culture between the mind and the heart. In his Sacred Plant Medicine, he discusses the challenges with modern industrialized society in that we always “live in our heads” which allows cutting logic to dominate and decisions to be made without feeling out their consequences (as it is different to understand a situation rationally vs. feel a situation firsthand). Our education system encourages this rational thought at the expense of all feeling, so by the time we make our way out of formal education, there isn’t always a lot left of the heart. Further, the traditional symbolism in the tarot associated with “heady” actions and the mind is the suit of swords that cut all in their path. So much of our cultural value systems place emphasis on economics, on personal gain, on possessiveness, and on profit—all of which reside in the head. As Buhner describes, Native American indigenous cultures believed one’s consciousness resided in the heart and care and compassion, especially towards the living earth and one’s community, were critical values. It is in returning to a heart-centered space that we can begin to understand, more fully, the ethic of care and why it is so central to permaculture as a living practice and design system.

 

The practice of permauclture is, ultimately, rooted in an ethic of care. It is from care and connection to things that are not ourselves that interest in regenerating ecosystems and living gently. It is from regenerating ecosystems, communities, and much more that we can work to develop our sacred connection with the land.  It is in living from the heart, and being present in the world, from the heart, that this work is most effective.

 

You see, from this discussion, that the drive towards a practice of permauclture is likely not much different, for many of us, than finding the path into druidry.  Both stem from an awakening and inhabiting of the heart.

 

A Heart-Centered Life: Four Ethics for Permaculture Design

And so, we come now to the four ethics for permaculture design–all rooted in care and an open heartspace. These ethics are the foundation upon everything else in permaculture is based–without them, the permaculture as a system has no heart and no spirit. The ethics of permaculture are like the glue that binds everything else together.  The ethics are as follows:

 

Regeneration in the forest

Regeneration in the forest, on her own time, and by her own methods

Earth care: Caring for the earth, in all her forms.  This means that we honor the earth through our actions and work to regenerate her damaged places, protect her wild places, and live our lives in a way that treads lightly upon her. Our goal, with this ethic, is to heal more than harm and recognize that we can be a force of good in our lands!  Earth care is as much a spiritual practice as it is a physical one—and I would argue that they are one in the same—when we care for the earth, that we hold sacred, it is spiritual work. I think when we first get into nature-based spiritual paths, we tend to think that “spiritual work” in meditation, ritual, magic—but earth care is as much a part of that spiritual practice as is a ritual, and learning how to integrate these are keys for sacred action.

 

People care: Caring for people, in all their forms. A critical link exists between earth care and people care. If people don’t have their basic needs met, they will often strip them bare in order to survive out of desperation—or allow it to be stripped in the perception of economic gains. Poverty, further, leads to disempowerment and lack of agency over one’s lands, livelihoods, and more. And so, if we are going to care for the earth, we must also recognize that our basic needs, as humans, need to also be met.  This isn’t selfishness–it is life.  But people care goes well beyond the basic needs: Maslow’s hierarchy is useful here.  We have basic needs  like food, clothing, shelter, warmth, fresh water, clean air, security of body.  Up the hierarhy we have belonging, community, expression, and more.  All of these things are part of what people need–and people care considers all of them. The earth has more than enough to provide for us, if only we let her!

 

Fair share: Taking only what we need and redistributing any surplus. Fair share is the basic idea that we should only take our “fair share” so that others can also live comfortably and fulfilled (and by “others” I mean all others, not just other humans).  Taking too much is one of the big problems we have, with the accumulation of wealth and stuff. This is a tremendously challenging principle in a world that has difficulty separating “wants” from “needs” and where excess is expected and commonplace. And yet, if we lived by this principle, we certainly can make an enormous positive change in our world!  Fair share applies to every aspect of life–from herbalism and foraging to eating a reasonable amount of food to minding how much stuff we bring into our lives.  To live more simply and richly so that others also may live.

 

Self care:  A final ethic is self care, or the care one needs for oneself in order to engage in the care of people and earth. Ethical self care realizes that we can’t engage in any other kind of care if we, ourselves, are not taken care of first.  Otherwise, we burn out and cannot shine brightly in the world where our light is needed. Nature spirituality is a path that allows us much in the way of self care, as I’ve written about several times recently, including in Permaculture’s Ethic of Self Care as a Spiritual Practice, the Druid Retreat series, and the Spiritual Practices in finding Equilibrium through the Chaos.

 

Now this is just a brief introduction to the ethics of permaculture–we will see, as I continue this series of posts–how these practices are woven into the principles and actions of permaculture.

Permaculture Ethics for Spiritual Practice

Many ancient and modern spiritual movements have a set of ethics or morals attached to them—however, due to the newness of modern earth-based spiritual traditions, the fragmentary nature in which they were developed and evolved, not all of our current traditions do have an explicit ethical system, although ethical systems are certainly implicit. In druidry, perhaps it is best summed up as “nature is good, therefore, nature is good.” Useful, simple, but from my perspective, not enough to live by. To supplement the simple druid adage, I have found that the permaculture ethical system forms a perfect system of ethics for both my outer work as a human being living in these times and the inner path of druidry.

 

The ethics are simple enough to learn and remember, and yet profound in their wide-ranging applications. If I walked through life with only these ethics, I would still have a compass, a guide, from everyday living to the big choices! If the goal of an ethical system is to give us some idea of how to live, act, and be, the permaculture ethical system certainly fits. But more than that, these outer truths are also represented on the inner realms. It is the interplay between these ethics, the of druidry, and the principles of permauclture that form a beautiful synthesis of ethical, caring, and meaningful everyday living. I don’t know if these would fit everyone’s path, but I have found them to be incredibly helpful for my own, as I grow and learn and find my way forward.

 

A Druid’s Perspective on Fracking, Part I: Why We Should Care June 12, 2016

As my blog readers are aware, a year ago, I returned back to my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western Pennsylvania after living in other parts of the country for most of my adult life. Now let me be clear–this is home for me, and in returning, I knew I was entering an area with some severe environmental challenges.  And regardless of what is happening here with regards to fracking, acid mine runoff, logging, strip mining, mountaintop removal, or anything else, there is something about being in your home ecosystem, near family, and near where your ancestors are buried.  However, I did not return to the same Pennsylvania that I left.  In the time I’ve been gone, a massive shift has occurred on our landscape here because of natural gas exploration–both conventional gas drilling and deep injection well (fracking) drilling–which is destructive to our lands, waterways, and health. Since returning last year, I’ve been working to understand why fracking is happening, what is actually happening to the land energetically, and what we can do about it.

 

Since I haven’t seen many other druids or earth-centered folks writing about this topic who are actually living near these kinds of situations, I think its an important one to cover on this blog. I plan on doing this in a three part series (not all necessarily back to back; these posts are hard to write)–this first post will tackle why fracking isn’t just a problem for people living in areas of fracking, but it is everybody’s problem from an environmental, social, health, and spiritual perspective. The second will take a deeper look into the energetics of fracking and what we can do about it as land healers and energy workers, and the final post will report some good news from two groups who have been actively fighting fracking and oil pipelines. I may have another post in there as well–we’ll see how it goes, but that’s the current plant.  I know these are tough topics, but I think much good can come of these posts, and our discussion, about what to do.

Wells as of 2012, map with my modifications

Wells as of 2012, map with my modifications

Fracking as a “far away” problem…

When I lived far away, in Michigan, I had heard about fracking, everybody has. I had felt bad about it, but we were dealing with pipelines of our own there and some other issues, and fracking seemed like a “far away” problem.  I think this is how a lot of people feel about it if they aren’t living in the immediacy of it. When it appears to be a far away problem, you can be mentally invested, and say “wow, that sucks” and do what you can (in our case, our grove over fracking arranged through the Warrior’s Call group).
What I’d like to suggest today, however, is that it is a close-up problem that matters to all of us. Through this exploration, I’ll show the ethical, social, environmental, and spiritual implications of fracking and why each of us should be seriously concerned about this issue.

 

Reason #1: No land is immune to energy (or other) exploitation. Resources abound in our great planet, and resources are getting more and more scarce. It is likely that you live in an area that has some resources and is under some kind of duress: mines, mountaintop removal, factory, industrial agricultural runoff, tar sands, pipelines, nuclear power plants, the list goes on and on. And in fact, gas drilling of many kinds (including fracking) is quite common. I’m sure each of my readers can share a story of something happening nearby, something that is worrisome or destructive. It might be that fracking is one of the more egregious of these practices, but by no means the only one.

 

From a spiritual, ethical, or community standpoint–I argue that the fine details aren’t actually as important as the bigger picture implications: someone is trying to extract some resource from the land for a profit, and usually doing it in a manner that is harmful to all life around that extraction and taking shortcuts for higher profits.

 

I believe we have a lot to learn from fracking, as a case study, for all ways in which the earth is damaged and desecrated. In the coming weeks, I’ll share a case study of two communities who used a variety of tools to fight back against fracking and oil pipelines–and win. Just like the abolitionist movements, and many other social movements across the history of time, we need to be better equipped to stand up to companies who want to pillage our land’s resources, pollute our rivers, or whatever else. In other words, we should care about fracking because this can teach us a lot about how to protect our lands everywhere and everywhere is under potential threat from these, and other similar practices.

 

And the alternative is that as one practice becomes acceptable and tolerated, other destructive processes can follow. Suddenly it’s ok to do all kinds of destructive things, and we need to hold firm and say, no, it is very much not ok.

 

Screenshot of Alleghney National forest (from Google Maps)

Screenshot of Allegheny National forest (from Google Maps)

Reason #2: Public lands, lands that we collectively own, are at the most risk and need our protection. In the USA (and I hope readers from other places will comment and share about what is happening in their countries) a lot of fracking is happening on public lands. Those are lands that belong to each of us, that are there for the good of all, to preserve and protect–not for the good and profit of energy companies.

 

If you want to see some of this firsthand, follow this link, which takes you to GeoCommunicator, a map service of the US Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management. This shows you all of the “energy” exploration, pipelines, wells, and more that are located on public lands. A second case in point not so far from me is the Allegheny National Forest, which is being extremely threatened by this exploration (here’s a one overview of drilling on public lands  and here is a second article about the Allegheny National Forest).  The Allegheny National Forest is, as the name suggests, a national forest, set aside for preservation and beauty.  That was, until fracking.

 

Public lands have a long history of exploitation. Our present model of public lands makes no sense to me.  It combines ethics of conservation for individuals (don’t touch it, leave no trace, don’t interact with it, stay on the paths) with plenty of opportunity for exploitation for companies and corporations (logging,  fracking, bottling water, and other activities are OK).  For example, I’m not supposed to pick any wild blueberries, but logging companies can come in and log 15,000 acres sustainably on those same lands.  The gas and fracking wells here strip the land all around the well, making roads, bringing in heavy machinery, which requires clear cutting, and then maintain the wells by spraying all around the wells with chemicals every few weeks.   The wells themselves, of course, are subject to spillage.  When you get within 20 feet of a well, with it’s toxic and keep away signs, the well really stinks.  I have seen this firsthand both with traditional gas wells as well as fracking wells.  Traditional gas wells are smaller, but still have this kind of cutting and spraying.  Fracking wells are much larger, and take up a lot of space for roads, clearings, etc.

 

One older version of a public lands model used the framework of the commons. A commons, at least in Western heritage, developed in several places, including in feudal England. A commons may have been owned collectively or by one person, but each person had “rights” with regards to the common–most often these included grazing rights, foraging rights (for food, firewood), fishing rights, and so on.  But today, we might re-envision the idea of a commons as a place where all of us (including plants and animals) have rights, and those rights include the right to life and the right to spend time there. If these are common lands, owned by the public–that is, you and me–than it seems that personal profits, like through fracking, are simply unacceptable.  We all have a stake in these public lands and their long-term preservation for ourselves, for the land’s inhabitants, and for future generations of all life.

 

Reason #3: Fracking has severe implications for health of people and lands far and wide. On the broadest sense, the issue of fracking matters because, in permaculture design terms, it is an ethical issue spanning both people care and earth care. Obviously, the most immediate issues are the health challenges for those humans, plans, animals, birds, insects, etc who live immediately around the wells, and those humans who work at the wells. This has all kinds of implications: we know fracking chemicals are radioactive, we know they are linked to severe health effects, and they have tremendous impact on the land (air pollution, water pollution, earthquakes, and more). We also know that not nearly enough research has been done exploring these implications and connections due to a host of factors, many of which span from unknown and propriety chemical mixes in fracking water.
And yet, despite the lack of lots of research, the health issues (human, environmental) are are well known, and severe. They are also common sense–dumping billions of tons of chemicals, poisons, and radioactive wastewater into any ecosystem is a sure way to make that ecosystem sickly. A lot of people think that these issues are only connected to local ecosystems, but that’s not the case–see my next few points.

 

Reason #4: Water Flows. The ethical and health challenges are not limited to where the fracking happens.  Water flows, and water cycles. How far, for example, will those fracking chemicals travel from waterways here in Western PA and other parts?  Nearly all of our rivers here flow into the Ohio River, which flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The other hot spots of fracking include North Daktoa (also traveling into the Mississippi by way of the Missouri), Oklahoma and Texas (much of which is flowing into the Red River, also flowing into the Mississippi).  This means, at multiple points, the waterways are being tainted, eventually ending up in the ocean. Of course, if you are in California, they just dump it right into the ocean or put it on crops (see below). But even if the trillions of tons of wastewater is injected deep in the ground, as it continues to be, there is growing concern that it is very likely not to stay there. Currently, over 30 trillion tons of fracking wastewater sits now beneath our lands, in our aquifers, they may remain poisoned for hundreds of years.

 

I don’t have to tell you, dear readers, that water is sacred, that water is life.  When we poison those waters, what are we left with?

 

Reason #5: Your Food is Possibly being Grown with Fracking Wastewater

How many fruits, vegetables, or nuts have you eaten from California lately?  How many have been labeled organic?  A number of recent articles has uncovered that due to the drought in California, and the increasing challenges oil companies have in disposing their hazardous fracking wastewater, they have instead sold it to farmers to irrigate their crops–including some certified organic farmers.   So in addition to poisoning the waterways, we are also poisoning the soil.  This whole thing terrifies me–we still don’t know what is in the fracking wastewater (see #7, below), and I can’t imagine that any cleaning process really has the ability to clean it fully.

 

Reason #6: Fracking, Mental Health, Spirituality, and Spending Time in Nature. As many have noted, mental health is in a crisis in developed nations, certainly in the USA. A growing number of people have argued that at least a portion of the mental health crisis has to do with the stress in living in a crumbling world and learning to accept that reality. Even if you aren’t explicitly reading or thinking about it, a lot of us know, intuitively, that something is very wrong and that stress manifests mentally in a variety of ways.

 

Close up of park trails - look at all those wells!

Close up of park trails – look at all those wells on public land!

This is part of why returning to nature, and seeking spiritual connection with nature, is so important.  In the words of the bumper sticker on my car: “trees are the answer.” Scientists, who often “discover” truths that those following earth-based spiritual paths already know–and nature certainly heals. You may have recently come across the articles about “nature” as the prescription to the mental health woes plaguing so many people in industrialized settings.  Of course, we druids and earth-based spiritual folks already know this–this is why we spend so much time in nature–it is good for the spirit, the mind, the body, and the heart.

 

But what happens if we can no longer go seek solace in nature? What happens  when you head to public lands, which is where many of us go, and instead, find gas and fracking wells there? I’ve experienced this firsthand so often (and for reasons why, I refer you to the first graphic I posted with this blog). To me, the saddest thing at present is that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy local natural areas without being near gas wells–it seems impossible to have an “escape” from all of it.  You know, where you can go, hike a bit, relax, let the mind settle, and just regain some peace and balance from this insane world being only among the trees.  In my current reality, I go for a walk, and ever 10 or so minutes, I come across another stinky well.  I had this happen to me just last week at a local park, and literally every time I enter most of the parks around here. For a direct example, you can see a full PDF of the map of the park I recently visited at this link; I’ve also included a screenshot above.   If you look at the map, you’ll notice the prominent “Gas Wells.” I’ll note that these are not deep injection wells here, but older gas wells. Other parks do have deep injection wells in the area that I’ve come across. If nature is a place of relaxation and solace, that is simply impossible if our forests are covered in gas wells (and gas roads, and underground gas lines, ec). Nearly all the parks in my area are full of them.  I’ll write more about this issue and its connection to spiritual life in an my second post.

 

I think there are serious implications for not only the mental health, but the spiritual life, of people who live in these areas.  Nature is no longer a sacred sanctuary, but a constant reminder of many of the challenges we face in the world.

 

Reason #7: Regulations are Minimal or Non-Existent (and violated)

One of the big challenges is that fracking happened very quickly, science happens slowly, and the regulations that do exist are woefully out of date.  At this point, we still don’t even know what is in most of the fracking wastewater mixes.  We don’t know if it’s safe to dispose of them as they have been (injection wells). What w do know is that government regulators have repeatedly looked the other way; have taken few steps to do anything to protect the land or her people from these real dangers.

 

In PA, one in six fracking sites have violations (or even more, in some states), and the implications of those violations are severe.  As Jeff Inglis writes in Fracking Failures, there is a lack of regulatory practices, and when regulatory practices exist, they are frequently violated.  He writes, “Fracking is an inherently polluting practice…The evidence bears this out. As demonstrated in this report, fracking operators in Pennsylvania regularly violate essential environmental and public health protections. Even key industry players who have pledged to clean up their acts are still breaking the rules and damaging the environment.”

 

As someone who walks a nature-centered path, I believe that it is my sacred responsibility to protect the land, to be a guardian, a healer, and an ambassador. As part of that work, I feel I must not turn a blind eye towards this. If we don’t pay attention, if we don’t ask questions, if we don’t exert pressure–who will?

 

Reason #8: The Opposition to Silence

I started to write on this topic (not sure if it would ever make it into my blog) because of the silence, even from the progressive folks, on the matter.  Of course it’s not something I want to talk about, or want to deal with, but the implications of this aren’t just about me.  They are about all of the land, waterways, and life, everywhere. I’ve written on the issue of silence before, and in this case, the silence is deafening.  People here don’t talk about the wells that are literally outside their backyards, smack dab in the middle of their community garden, all through their farmlands, through their parks, and behind their schools.  Its like we have turned a blind eye to the fact the wells are even present, that they are a non-issue here.  And so, I break the silence.

 

Now I want to be clear–this stuff is everywhere, and there are millions and millions of tons of fracking wastewater.  I also want to note that this is just what has been reported, what we actually know.  The scary thing to me is that there’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know: what’s in the wastewater, what are the long-term implications; how long whatever is in it lingers in the soil….if you eat, if you breathe, if you drink water–this is a concern.

 

 

I hope, at this point, that it is clear why paying attention to fracking as a “close up” problem matters, and why we all have a stake in this issue.  I’ll be talking a lot more in my next post in this series about what this, and other kinds of energy exploitation, does to damage human-land connections and the energetic implications of this work.

 

 

Sacred Lessons from the Bees, Honey Flows, and Honey Harvesting June 13, 2015

I’ve been making the transition to Pennsylvania and to my new life here (I spoke of this transition in an earlier blog post). Sorry for the delay in a regular weekly post–I’m back on track now, and have many wonderful things to share with you in the coming weeks.  Today I’m going to talk about bees and share photos of my first honey harvest.

Bees moving to their new home

Bees moving to their new home in early May!

I’ve now been a beekeeper for over a year, and I have begun to deeply resonate with the honeybee. Honeybees are the most amazing, gentle creatures–they make everything from the plants, are extremely hard working, and extremely fascinating.

 

One of the decisions I made, in my transition from my 3 acre homestead to small-town renting (renting until I find my new land) was to keep my two beehives. Moving two beehives across three states is no easy feat–it requires state inspections, paperwork, and a good friend with a truck willing to drive you there. It also requires overcoming some of your own fears.  So in early May, a dear friend and I moved the bees–we move about 50,000 of them in two hives. They were moved to a friend’s farm in PA–an ideal spot, 70 acres, full of clover, flowers, and so much more. I’ve been regularly checking on them, and have been thrilled with their progress in their second year. Most new beekeepers don’t get any honey their first year, and certainly, my hives were no exception. But now in their second year, despite their 450 mile trip to their new home, the hives are strong and the nectar flow is steady. So in this post, I’ll talk a bit about my thoughts after a year of beekeeping and my experiences with the first honey harvest.

 

Beekeeping Ethically

I’ve become very vigilant about the protection of bees. After seeing the magic of the hive, and visiting other hives who have not survived for various reasons, I’ve begun working to educate others about the bees–knowledge is power. So you can think about this in two ways: the choices that the beekeepers make and the choices that everyone else makes.  Let’s start with the beekeepers.

 

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeeping class I gave recently!

Beekeepers are faced with a lot of choices and the “standard” approach advocated in many books is not the best–its very similar to the choices one faces with other kinds of farming or animal husbandry. You can farm industrially on a large scale with chemicals and destructive practices, or you can farm organically and holistically.  You can keep chickens locked up in a building suffering, or you can let them free range to eat bugs.  This is all a matter of choice. Beekeeping is the same way–you can engage in industrial beekeeping with plastic foundations (which the bees do not like) and add tons of chemicals to the hive to prevent various diseases and cart them all over the country to pollinate monocrops, or you can work in partnership with the bees using organic approaches and holistic systems design. Similarly, you can choose to harvest ALL the honey from a hive prior to the winter, letting your bees starve and installing a new package of bees in the spring–which brings you a ton of profit. Or, you can harvest only the excess honey and ensure that the bees make it through the winter unharmed. You can choose to kill the queen and put a new one in there the bees are not familiar with at the first sign of trouble (called re-queening) or you can let the bees raise their own queens. The list goes on and on.

 

I see beekeeping as a partnership–I wouldn’t do anything to them that I wouldn’t do for myself or to my land. This means no plastic in the hive, no chemicals in the hive, and ensuring that the hive health is the top priority (rather than my own desire for honey). I mainly use an approach advocated by Ross Conrad in his book called Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. I use this approach with a few modifications, including letting bees build their own comb for their hive bodies rather than giving them pre-stamped wax foundation–this allows them to build cells to fit their needs rather than build cells to fit a beekeeper’s desires. (This is why I take issue with the “flow hive” that everyone is talking about–its very beekeeper centric and not good for the bees themselves). The way that we treat the bees has energetic outcomes: as I’ve argued elsewhere about food, the better we can treat the land and those animals or insects helping to produce our food, the better we feel when we eat it. But more than that, the bees are such a wonderful blessing to the land–its important we treat them as sacred partners.

 

Protecting Bees more Broadly

The problems don’t just reside with the beekeeping practices. Bees, and other pollinating insects like Monarch Butterflies, are in serious trouble on a larger scale. Modern land use–from industrialized farming to maintenance of the lawn–are destroying habitats and exposing bees to destructive chemicals. At some point, I’ll break down these practices in more detail, but for now, suffice to say that pesticides (especially neonicatonids), chemicals, GMOs, all the nasty things so many of us who have a spiritual relationship with the land are trying to avoid–are destructive to the bee. When bees go out into the world foraging, they bring back to the hive whatever they pickup. Pesticides and chemicals build up in the hive over time, weakening the hive and eventually leading to a crash. I’ve seen this firsthand–dead hives of dead bees because of “mosquito spraying” in Michigan. Its a horrible sight. To add insult to injury, companies producing and marketing these pesticides have “greenwashing” sites that make it sound like they care about the bees: no Bayer and Monsanto, I’m not buying it.

 

There are so many things we could be doing differently with regards to our land use. I look at all the places unnecessarily mowed–I look at the swaths of green lawns and the chemicals used. Those could be instead planted with wildflowers and kept without chemicals (or fossil fuels). Keep the dandelions in the ground, plant other kinds of flowers and trees that produce abundance for all–there is a better way! Of course, companies who sell flowers are going to have to stop spraying them with neonicatonoid pesticides first :(.  Its going to require a paradigm shift, but believe me, the bees–and everything else–are worth it!

 

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees drawing their own comb!

Bees as Alchemists

Even with the challenges that we face regarding land use, beekeeping practices, and bee safety–there is so much to learn from the hive. Bees are truly spagyric alchemists, beginning with materials from plants: netcar, pollen, and resin, and making amazing things: beeswax, propolis, and honey. Bees begin making honey by foraging for nectar from whatever plants are blooming–they drink up the nectar and it goes into a special stomach where they add enzymes to begin to break down the complex sugars into simple ones. They bring this back to the hive, where it is further cured to reduce the water content and eventually capped into honey. One pound of honey requires approximately 100,000 visits to plants on the part of bees.

 

The wax comes forth literally from their own bodies. They have wax producing glands that create small wax flakes that they use to build comb. Since the wax also derives from honey, it has the same awesome smell. Even in my first year, I was surprised about how much wax I got from the hive–a lot of it was when they built comb somewhere that they shouldn’t have, or had built cross comb that I had to remove.  I’m excited to process this wax and make candles, creams, soaps, and salves with it!

 

Propolis is “bee glue” and is collected by the bees from plants. Its essentially plant resins, and forms a sticky glue where the bees need to seal something up.  It has incredible medicinal qualities, including as a contact antimicrobial and great for surface issues, like burns.  I took a whole class just on the medicinal uses of propolis–its incredible stuff.

 

Bees are also masters of sacred geometry, producing a lattice of hexagrams.  The Beelore blog has a nice discussion of some of the other geometric connections to bees.

 

Visiting the Hive

When you up the hive, the first thing that greets you is the amazing smell–its hard to explain what it smells like, but its kind of a combination of propolis, beeswax, honey, and something else–maybe the bees themselves.  Its rich. Then you hear the hive– hive has a very low buzzing as the bees go about their work; if you disturb them too much the buzzing increases in volume as the bees buzz louder to sound the alarm. They also buzz louder to fan the hive on a hot day and help regulate the temperature.

 

I am amazed by how gentle the bees are. If you are a careful beekeeper, you can open up the hive and look at the bees and they are quite calm and happy. I don’t smoke my bees, even though most books suggest to do so–I find it just fires them up and I’d rather work with a calm hive. I still have yet to be stung–and if I’m stung, its not due to aggression on the part of the hive but due to my own stupidity.

 

My First Honey Harvest

A visit to the two hives yesterday revealed that the hives are doing tremendously well. They have a full hive of honey and brood, and the “supers,” which are the excess honey stores that we can harvest from, are about half full of honey and wax. While much of the honey not yet ready to harvest (it is not yet cured, which is necessary for long-term storage), we were able to harvest a few frames from the early spring nectar flows.  These frames were a beautiful, light colored and flavored spring honey consisting mostly of autumn olive and honeysuckle. Here we are at the hives:

Getting ready to harvest honey

Getting ready to harvest honey

A full beehive!

A full beehive!

We gently brushed the bees off the comb and replaced it with new frames for them to build.

 

Straining the Honey

We were left with five beautiful frames of honey, the best we had ever tasted:

Honeycomb

Honeycomb

Because honey extractor equipment can run upwards of $700 or more (and depends primarily on plastic foundation we would rather avoid in our hives), we opted for the “crush and strain” approach, which is an old and effective method that yields wax and honey. To do this, we used Joe Lydeck’s instructions on Youtube for a simple crush and strain bucket (the second version in his video). This cost about $30 total and was super easy to construct.

Buckets for straining

Our honey straining system- two buckets, a honey gate, and a nylon strainer from the hardware store.

Here we begin by cutting the comb off of the frames.  The smell is amazing, the sticky and gooey honey comes right off the comb.

Cutting the comb off the frame

Cutting the comb off the frame

Next, we cut some of it up for comb honey. We also added some comb honey to the jars for our strained honey so that the jar would have a bit of honeycomb in the middle–I saw this kind of presentation in an upscale shop, and thought that we could do it with our own honey.

Cutting comb honey!

Cutting comb honey!

After cutting up the comb, the fun part begins–crushing! You can use different methods for crushing (most use a potato masher, which we couldn’t find).  So we opted for crushing it with our clean hands. This was a lot of sticky, gooey fun!

Crushing up the honey!

Crushing up the honey!

After crushing it up and keeping what comb we wanted, we put the bucket out in the sun for a few hours. This helped warm the honey up so that it would extract from the crushed up comb a bit more easily. After we put it out in the sun for a while, I lifted up the bucket to see what was going on–here is the honey dripping out freely into the lower bottling bucket!

Honey coming through holes!

Honey coming through holes in upper bucket!

After the wait, we strained the last of the honey and ended up with about 20 lbs of honey–which was incredible given we only had five frames. At this point, we began to bottle. We used sterilized mason jars and other assorted fun jars for the honey. As I mentioned before, we added honeycomb to the center of some jars, and other jars just were straight honey–you can see this in the photo below.

Pouring the honey into a jar

Pouring the honey into a jar with honeycomb

We bottled up the honey and were so pleased with the harvest!  I have to make some nice labels for the jars still, but look at all that honey!

Bottled honey!

Bottled honey!

The best part about all of this work is that the equipment needs to be licked clean!

Licking the pan clean!

Licking the pan clean!

 

Shifting Beyond Corporate Exploitation: Meaningful Work and Reconnecting with Ourselves and the Land May 2, 2014

I’ll start by saying that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to post this blog post.  I started working on it over six months ago, and debated posting because it deviated from my usual posts about homesteading, simple living, druidry, and so forth. But as I read and reread this post, I realized that what I had written had everything to do with those things, and are important issues to discuss in regards to sustainable living and spiritual practices–or rather, the things that prevent us from doing such.  So, here it is, in its entirety–the post I almost didn’t publish.

 

Meaningful, Productive work of the past!

Meaningful, Productive work of the past!

The Idea of Meaningful Work

It used to be that for the bulk of humanity, “work” meant daily interaction with the land and the home cottage industry (that is, the work of producing goods for home use, such as clothing, medicine, etc).  In agrarian societies, this work entailed being out every day in the fields and forests, tilling the soil, growing your crops, hunting wild game, harvesting wood for buildings and fencing, saving seeds, milking cows, brewing ale, tending your herds and livestock, cooking from your own pantries, stocking those pantries, rendering soap, doing laundry, and so forth.  Most of human labor was, in fact, wrapped up in food production (with traditional societies engaging in anywhere from 70-90% of the workforce in the production of food) and in providing for one’s own continued survival.  One’s work, then, was directly related to one’s relationship with the land.  If the land was well-tended, those on the land prospered.  Balance and long-term sustainability were the keys upon which survival rested.

 

With the rise of industrialization, people moved from the farms to the factories in the cities, which promised faster production and reduced the input of human labor (for example, the invention of the spinning machine in the UK). As Upton Sinclair describes in The Jungle, however,these positions weren’t always all that they were hoped to be or imagined.  Regardless of the conditions in the factories, the idea if meaningful work drastically shifted, and now, we are at the extreme opposite end of that spectrum.  What is meaningful work today?  How do we engage in it?

 

In this post, I’d like to use the framework of “meaningful work” I want to investigate the issues surrounding work, spirituality, and sustainability in this post today by examining the working lives of two of my friends. Both of my friends walk a druidic path and both were working under conditions that challenge their relationship with the natural world, their sense of well-being, and their ability to maintain a meaningful spiritual life. Over a period of time, they have both shared their experiences and stories with me.  Since writing, both have found different employment, so they are at no risk in my posting these stories. I don’t know how widespread or representative their experiences are on the broader scale, but I suspect that they are pretty widespread, and I want to highlight their experiences and talk about some of the potential consequences to spiritual life and sustainability.

 

Defining Meaningful Work

I’d like to posit a definition–meaningful work is work with meaning and substance, it allows one to be positively emotionally involved, feel fulfilled, and gain benefits beyond financial.  Meaningful work also allows enough time that spiritual pursuits, quality of life, and overall happiness also are embraced.  Meaningful work likely means different things to very different people–we all need to explore our own idea of what meaningful work is, and how we can best engage in it.  What I will say, however, is that a good portion of our society is not, unfortunately, able to engage in meaningful work at this time.

 

The Story of Sage: Exploitation of Persons

One person, who we will call “Sage,” works at a major fabric and craft retailer, one that has a presence in most major cities and small towns around the country. Her retailer has close to 30 employees. Almost all of the employees work between 35-39 hours a week (39 hours a week to keep them from getting benefits, including access to healthcare). The human consequences of the 39 hour workweek are real and severe: rising healthcare costs, no financial security for their future, and not being paid a livable wage puts them in a situation where they are living from paycheck to paycheck with no end in sight (and this is certainly a broader trend within retail workers in the USA).  In fact, despite working hard at her job, Sage is forced to get food stamps to help pay for her groceries. This 39-hour a week practice is very widespread and yet the human consequences of it are not discussed nor considered–rather, we have laws put in place to uphold these practices and maximize profits, rather than having paws put in place to protect workers. For Sage, who has a college education but cannot find work in her field, this means working multiple low-wage jobs in order to make ends meet.

 

The other thing about Sage’s job is her lack of autonomy or control over her schedule. Despite the fact that her retail business is open the same hours each week, have the same shipments and work to do each week, and know well the work that is to be done each week, nobody who works there–except for upper management–has a consistent schedule.  A week before she is to work, Sage gets a schedule–it varies from day to day, number of hours worked, and so forth.  If Sage wants to go out of town, she has to go beg to her manager for time off (months in advance) and be at the manager’s mercy as to whether or not she’ll get the time off (and won’t know till the week she is scheduled to work).  This makes planning trips, family events, doctor’s appointments, even a simple evening at the theater, an impossibility.  She will never know if the manager is in a good mood, and if the manager will grant her request. Likewise, on her days off she is frequently called into work and, if she says “no” too many times, she may not have a job at all. This means that at any given moment, Sage is at the beck and call of an employer who does not even respect her enough to offer her a livable wage nor healthcare or other benefits.  Why does this employer act like it owns Sage?  Does it, in fact, own her?

 

As a druid, Sage’s situation is further complicated because of her holidays.  For example, last year when she asked for Samhuinn off, she was asked “is that real?” and “I don’t think you are telling me the truth.” After providing some documentation that Sage’s holiday was real, the manager said “well if you are getting this ‘new year’ off, you are working all of new years here.” I suspect that many druids in America who are open about our spiritual path have had such uncomfortable conversations, and often are unable to get our basic holidays off.

 

And thus, Sage works. Sage works for a pittance of wages, enough for her to rent and eat, but not enough for anything else.  She dreams of opening her own business, an art studio or a farm, but with little savings because of her working conditions, this dream continues to be far off in the distance.  She wishes for these things to be able to engage in meaningful work, work that is fulfilling and allows her to be prosperous.

 

The Story of Rue: Money as Entrapment

Now we’ll turn to Rue, who, despite having a full-time job with benefits and a much more comfortable salary, suffers at the hands of rather tyrannical employers. He works for a major financial firm who collects debt in the USA; the firm itself has a reputation well known for being unethical and have broken multiple laws (they pay their fines, continue to be in business, and continue to break the law). Rue also describes  the mind games, berating, and other mental abuse that upper management inflicts upon the employees.

 

Rue, who works at a manager at this firm, is in the same entrapped state that Sage finds herself in. Rue works insane hours (often 80-100 per week, including being asked to work several 14-hour shift days in a row or being asked to come in at 7am after working 7am to 10pm the previous day). For this employer, the volume of calls, rather than the quality of work, is what matters, so bringing employees in for longer hours means more profits on their bottom line–again, not caring about the the quality of life for employees. The consequences of this on Rue’s spiritual and personal life are obvious–when he finally is able to drag himself home after a 14-hour work day, he has no energy left to do anything.  He has very little time to spend with himself, his family, or his friends. He has no time to sit under a tree and commune. He becomes, in his words, like a zombie, a half-person, whose soul is ensnared by the corporation and who lacks the most important of human qualities–freedom.

 

There is also the matter of how much the employees make and the circumstances under which they make it–another form of entrapment. Unlike Sage, who makes a pittance and can’t afford much, Rue’s firm uses an opposite and equally entrapping approach–making lots and lots of money and bribing employees to higher performance quotas with lots of glittery consumerist goods, like plasma TVs (Rue tells me has has several of them, unopened, in boxes in his living room). The commission system ensures that workers will do everything in their power to collect the debt rather than seek solutions for those they are calling; with each account they close, they gain bonuses. Rue describes to me the call he made to a single mother who cannot pay her student loans and the ethical challenge is faced with–between giving her a year of deferment or demanding part of her wages she needs to make ends meet. Since “all calls are recorded for quality assurance purposes” if he gives out too many deferments, not only will he be called into an upper-manager’s office and given a talking to, he risks the financial implications of not meeting his monthly quota.

 

The amount that that these employees take home is in itself entrapping. Most of the people who work at Rue’s company make way more money than they would in other lines of work–money becomes the carrot at the end of the stick. This is a job that can be done with good training but does not require college degrees–so its better money than most people could get doing anything else. Despite the negative nature of the work environment, the mental abuse that they suffer and that they are required to inflict on others, people continue to work there because the money is just too good. Once you start making money at that standard of living, it becomes harder to get out of it, harder to see beyond the glittery objects, plasma televisions, and high class apartments in the big city lifestyle. Its a lifestyle that sucks you in–materialism, consumerism, and the promise of more and more “stuff” to fill the empty void.  Is this work meaningful? Is it rewarding?  According to Rue–not in the slightest.

 

Broader Thoughts

In The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges discusses how corporations and CEOs now exhibit psychopathic behaviors (a discussion alive and well on the web here and here).  Psychopathic leadership in corporations is more common than ever. We see this at work in the stories of Rue and Sage–corporations who treat their employees more like automatons than people, don’t respect them enough to either pay them a living wage (in the case of Sage) or provide them with enough autonomy and consistency of schedule in order to do anything meaningful (in the case of both).  The mental abuse that both describe in their work environments is appalling, and leaves them drained and exhausted when not working.

 

It makes me wonder–how many people out there are working in these kinds of situations, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, being unable to engage in any kind of meaningful work? How many of them do this and have no time for anything else?  I look at my students, many of whom are in this same situation, trying to balance getting an education which is supposed to get them a better life (and lead to meaningful work), and working 2 or 3 different jobs to pay their tuition and living expenses. It is no wonder that television ends up being a big distraction–the mental energy required for TV (even when compared to reading) is much less.  Its a distraction, a way to wind down at the end of the day, a way to get wrapped up in the illusion of something else.  But when you are in this exhausted mindset, unable to make meaningful time for yourself, what else can you accomplish? You don’t have the time for deep spiritual insights, developing deep connections with each other or the land around you.  You don’t have three hours to sit under an ancient maple and hear its stories.  When we depend on the corporation for everything–livelihood, food, water, shelter, transportation, entertainment–we give up our power and autonomy.  We give up our freedom and inspiration.  It is, perhaps, the great tragedy of our age–what we exchange in order to live and survive in 21st century America.  The work is not meaningful, its not fulfilling, and its not really doing anything to better our world or our communities.

 

I think its important to point out that this phenomenon is no different than what we see corporations doing to animals and our lands.  Oil companies engage in unsafe practices that cause oil spills, chemical companies dump pollutants into our rivers and oceans, mountains are removed and ecosystems are destroyed for the sake of profits, natural gas companies inject the very land beneath our feet with toxic chemicals to extract fossil fuel, the list goes on and on.  Livestock, from angora rabbits to chickens to cows, also suffer a similar fate.  They are boxed in, fattened up, and treated as mere objects.  From this perspective, things seem very dire indeed…but are they?

 

Meaningful Work and Viable Alternatives

If engaging in meaningful work is a goal that can help us be more mindful of our world around us, give us time for creative expression, and allows us once again a closer relationship with nature, how do we find such work? Of course, one has to figure out how to pay one’s bills, one’s taxes, and put food on the table.  With land being so expensive, the old American dream of homesteading on the frontier really isn’t viable for many anymore.  And yet, shifts back in the direction are certainly taking place. With the steady rise in farmer’s markets (even year round ones, like we have here in Michigan), people have more opportunity than 10 or 20 years ago to grow/produce products that they love and make a living doing it.  Is local entrepreneurship the answer? Can entrepreneurial opportunities, farmer’s markets and the like allow people like Rue and Sage to reclaim the idea of meaningful work from yet another commodity that a corporation distributes to something that they organically create for themselves? I know lots of people who want to do this, and some that are taking that step and doing it–but its a scary place to step into.  What if the business fails? How will you pay the bills and make ends meet?

 

Farmer's market products

Farmer’s market products

I think about some of the farmers that I’ve met in the last few years at our local farmer’s markets. One couple who regularly come to our local market specialize in organic free range chickens and eggs.  They told me their story about how they were both investment bankers, making six figure salaries. They decided they’d had enough, left their jobs, and became organic farmers.  They are making maybe 20% of what they had made as bankers, but they were healthy, happy and living a life that they dreamed.  Another close friend used to teach, got fed up with the school system and politics, and now is a full-time organic farmer selling some of the most beautiful veggies and herbs I have ever seen. I think about several others I know, people in their mid to late 20’s, who decided that college educations were too expensive, and became landscape designers, drink specialists, mushroom growers, and more.  It seems that there ARE alternatives out there, but that they take the right kind of community and resources to begin.  And they take a very long time to become profitable enough to not need to do other kinds of work.

 

Is the public ready to support these kinds of endeavors on a larger scale–that is, pay the organic chicken farmer 3.50/lb per bird rather than 1.00/lb per bird if that bird is raised ethically and humanely?   I think the ultimate decision about whether these kinds of  shifts that people are taking towards more meaningful work succeed is how willing the broader community is in supporting such work.  With the rise in farmer’s markets and other alternatives, I think that people broadly are starting to “buy local” and recognize the importance of keeping their money in the local community.  And with these shifts, we all gain more opportunities to engage in meaningful work.