Tag Archives: forest regeneration

Land Healing at the Druid’s Garden: Replanting, Forest Healing, and Refugia Update

Ramps planted in my Grove of Renewal

Today I wanted to take some time to share some of the updates on the land healing and permaculture practices we are enacting at the Druid’s Garden Homestead.  As I’ve shared in earlier posts, when we purchased this land four years ago, the family who owned it just before us selectively logged about 3 acres, leaving the forest an absolute mess.  The land otherwise was perfect–we have our own spring, a nice sunny area for gardens….and three acres of land in desperate need of healing.  Since land healing is one of my primary forms of spiritual practice, I rolled up my sleeves and purchased the land! As this ongoing land healing project takes shape, I try to check in on the blog every once in a while to share new insights, techniques, and experiences.  Today I want to spend some time offering updates on our refugia gardens and some of the clearing and replanting work that is necessary when you are dealing with these kinds of conditions.

Why Engage in Land Healing work?

As I’ve shared before, in order to do effective land healing work, you need to know a few things: first, you need to have a sense of what a healthy ecosystem looks like so that you know what your goal is and what to do.  While book knowledge is useful, what is really ideal is if you can spend a lot of time in the same ecosystem in a place that hasn’t suffered logging, clear-cutting, or whatever other damage you are trying to heal it from. So since we live on a north-east facing slope that is wet and mostly deciduous, ideally, to help heal this land and know what I am aiming for, I need to study north-east facing slopes with wet, rich soil and mostly deciduous cover within 1-2 hours of where I live.  Lucky for me, I grew up on such a slope, and I can return to my family’s land often to study and gather seeds.  Because of this deep knowledge, I know exactly what ideally should be growing here both in terms of the forest and on the forest floor.  Because I’ve lived in Western Pennsylvania most of my life, I’m also aware of what is no longer present: the American Ginseng roots, in particular, have been badly stripped from our land by poachers and foragers who sell them at a profit. I’m leveraging this knowledge to create a set of practices that allow me to help this forest heal.

When I’ve shared this ongoing healing work with others, sometimes people will say things like, “Yeah, but the forest will heal without you.” Yes, it will physically heal, given enough time. The trees will regrow, you will see the old wood rot down and the forest will return.  However, and this is really important–a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th growth forest is not the same as what was originally here before white people came and stripped it bare. This is especially true if it is regrowing from something like old farmland.  On a physical level, one of the things that the forest can’t do is replace ecological material that once grew here and that has since vanished–like the trillium, black cohosh, blue cohosh, ramps, ginseng, trout lily, mayapples, and more.  These woodland species don’t survive logging or greedy humans, and they are very slow to spread (and are absent in many other places due to human overharvesting).  So, even if I were to let this forest stand here and grow for the next 150 years, I doubt you’d find a ramp or blue cohosh growing.  Ecological succession in this area takes about 300 years–and even after 300 years, we don’t always find what was once so prevalent.

Trout Lily (another native flower that has suffered overharvest)

But there’s another side to this, the metaphysical side.  Humans are currently destroying our planet–there is not an ecosystem on this planet that isn’t tremendously threatened.  It is the responsibility of those who are not brainwashed by capitalist and colonialist mindsets to do something to heal and turn this tide. Yes, I might primarily be focusing on 5 acres that I own–but for those 5 acres, and for the miles and miles around me, the spirits of the land take note. I do this as a way to bridge to the land, to remind the land that there are humans who are here to be in service and to heal.  That’s part of what we have to realize about land healing:  if people have intervened in the path of a forest, cutting it, stripping it bare, changing the basic ecology of the place–people need to be part of that healing and regrowth.  That offers reparation work, and that certainly is the most ethical thing to do and, as I’ve argued before, should be part of the path of those of us who practice nature spirituality.

Goals for the Druid’s Garden Homestead

With all of this said, I had a pretty good idea going into this work what I was setting out to accomplish: first, the goal of replanting and healing this land, through physical and metaphysical land healing. This includes planting trees, shrubs, roots, seeds, and tending those plants till they grow. But it also includes regular rituals, offerings to the spirits of the land, and simply being in deep service to the land.  The second goal was to establish what I call ‘refugia gardens”, or places that generate an abundance of seed/plant matter that can then be moved to other places that need healing.  Refugia are as the name says: they are refuges for life, where life can grow and when there is abundance (seeds, roots, extra plants to split) I can share these with others doing this work or work to replant forests nearby.  As part of this work, I am really careful about obtaining seeds and plants from ethical sources as I do this work.  For example, all of the black cohosh and black elder we have growing here I dug up on my parents’ property because we had an awful septic line come through–so we saved those plants and I replanted them here.  All of my ginseng seed I am planting comes from a certified forest-grown verified program through the United Plant Savers.

Trillium roots ready to go in the ground!

The first refugia garden we created, a full sun meditation garden, is doing great.  We have healthy populations of New England Aster, Echinacea, Saint Johns Wort, Milkweed, Pleurisy root, Hyssop, and a range of other native medicinal plants that are increasingly rare on our landscape.  I chose plants for this garden based on my local ecosystem–plants that are native here, plants I used to see a lot of, and are growing increasingly rare for a variety of reasons (spraying, farming, foraging, etc).  The refugia garden plants are now producing boatloads of seeds each year–most recently, I gave my parents four giant bags of seed to replant the septic line that came through and we scattered them far and wide. Before the pandemic, I also taught some local kids at the UU how to make seed balls with the seeds and they spread them!  I’ve shared these seeds with friends in this region. It is exciting to see how, in only a few short years, these plants produce such abundance.

Replanting and Refugia at the Druid’s Garden Homestead

Last year, after two years of getting our homestead gardens, greenhouse, and animal housing done and establishing the first refugia garden, I knew it was time to turn my attention to the forested areas that had been logged.  This logging was not clean, and it was not kind.  It viciously ripped through the forest, leaving massive amounts of severely damaged trees, debris, and damage to the landscape.  In order to even formulate a plan,  I had spent the first two years on the land prior to engaging in permaculture practice of observing and interacting, taking notes, and simply listening to the spirits of the land.  I tried to identify every plant and tree, see how the birds and wildlife behaved, and identify areas that I could target for healing. In 2019-2020,  I had worked to establish my first few forest hugels to help an area of the forest regrow.  And so, in the spring of 2020, I invested a considerable amount in seeds, various roots, and planted so much (and THANK YOU to anyone who bought the Plant Spirit Oracle or Tarot of Trees–they help fund this work!).  Feeling quite good about the hard labor I had achieved, I waited for my small plants to come up and my first to regenerate.

And then we had one of the worst droughts in the last 50 years; our region was in a severe drought for almost 3 months (and a moderate drought for 5 months).  The land grew so cracked, parched, and dried.  Since I was planting over a 3-acre area and didn’t mark all of the plant matter I planted, I wasn’t able to water everything.  Many things never came up. The ones that did, I worked to water diligently (using the water from our goose and duck pools). But I lost so much due to the drought–hundreds of plants.  Setbacks are, of course, an important part of any healing and regrowth.  We grow through adversity and struggle. So I ordered more plants and waited for spring.

An area of the forest cleared of debris and multiflora, now ready for replanting!

This winter, I also worked to start clearing some of the invasive species from the forested areas that quickly took hold after the logging.  This will take some serious time. Thankfully, most of the areas are growing the native blackberry (rubus allegheniensis). These blackberries form thick mats but also allow for other things to grow. The bigger problem I’m facing now is the increasing amount of multiflora rose, which crowds out other pants. Clearing Multiflora rose is really difficult–she demands a blood sacrifice for every root you pull out.  The work is slow going, but I absolutely refuse to do this by any other means–no chemicals (this land has seen enough trauma). Just sweat equity and a very good thick pair of leather gloves!

A Movement Meditation (or Sweat Equity)

In the last two months, I’ve planted several hundred roots: black cohosh root, red trillium, blue cohosh, and more.  These supplement roots planted in the previous fall after the rains returned: American Ginseng and ramps, among others.  These roots are very special to me–they represent the forest medicinals that are quickly pillaged from the landscape by those seeking a profit and they represent slow-growing roots that may never return without human intervention. These were the plants that graced the forest in my ancestors’ time, in my grandfather’s time. They have a right to live and not be pillaged. They represent, to me, a promise of healing to this land.

Plant and honor the root

Now to be clear, planting a hundred roots or more in rocky, clay, compacted soil is tough work.   But I see this as part of the service–I don’t mind offering my energy to the land.  Once you recognize that this replanting practice will take a long time, you give yourself permission to not be in a hurry. You simply move into the practice. It might be more work than you ever thought it was going to be, but that’s ok.  It becomes a movement meditation, an offering of your own energy and spirit to the land, to bring healing and life.

And I also take my time with each root I plant. I use my intuition and the voices of spirit to find the right spot to dig a hole on the forest floor. I dig, often hitting rocks, pulling them gently aside. I prepare the root (dipping the root in a bucket of water that I have blessed).  I take the root and more water with me. I welcome the root, telling the root that I am looking forward to getting to know them, that this is a good place for them to grow, where they will not be harmed.  I tell the root that when they produce seeds or offspring, I will make sure to spread their offspring far and wide.  I gently cover the roots with soil, watering the spot, and offering my gratitude.  This is a meditation and a magical practice.  Each root gets a slightly different prayer.  And then I move on to the next place in need of planting.

An art offering in the forest I created for the plants

This is a way of serving the land in joy.  It is simple, yet powerful.  As I stand there, with my water buckets, fresh roots, and shovel, I am filled with gratitude to be in a position to help nourish this land.  To me, this is the best kind of spiritual practice that I can think to do–the direct healing of the land.  To supplement this physical work, I engage in extensive rituals and ceremonies to metaphysically bless and protect all of the new life on this land.

Perhaps, if you are willing, say a prayer for all of my new rootlets and plants.  That the rains will come this year, that they will grow bountiful, and that their offspring will be able to live to old age and see the coming of days when they are honored, revered, and left to grow and die naturally.

Healing Hands: Replanting and Regenerating the Land as a Spiritual and Sacred Practice

Acorns

Acorns

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

 

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

 

Pick up the Garbage and Get Out

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

 

"A Pennsylvania Desert" of the late 19th century

“A Pennsylvania Desert” of the late 19th century

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ecological succession well underway!

Ecological succession well underway!

Approaches to Human Intervention in Ecological Succession

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Planting Hope

Planting Hope

 

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

 

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

 

Overcoming Fear

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

 

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

 

The Way Forward toward Land Healing as a Spiritual Practice

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

 

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

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

 

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

 

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