The Druid's Garden

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

Druid Gratitude Practices – Nature Shrines and Offerings November 25, 2018

Black Raspberry in fruit

Black Raspberry in fruit

Every year, I look forward to the black raspberries that grow all throughout the fields and wild places where I live. These black raspberries are incredibly flavorful with with crunchy seeds. They have never been commercialized, meaning no company has grown them for profit. You cannot buy them in the store. You can only wait for late June and watch them ripen and invest the energy in picking. Each year, the black raspberries and so many other fruits, nuts, and wild foods are a gift from the land, the land that offers such abundance.  If I would purchase such berries in a store, my relationship with those berries would be fairly instrumental–I pay for them, they become part of a transaction, and then I eat them. There is no heart in such a transaction.  But because these berries can’t be bought or sold, when I pick them, the land is offering me the gift of sustenance.  Gifting is a much different kind of relationship, a powerful and connected relationship, a relationship that asks not only for reciprocation but gratitude.

 

Gratitude is an incredibly important aspect of reconnecting and reciprocating with the living earth. Given the recent cultural holiday of giving of thanks, I wanted to reflect on the idea of gratitude practices and share ideas for what we could do in the druid tradition to offer gratitude to the living earth and her many aspects. So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to develop a gratitude practice and why it matters.

 

What is a gratitude practice?

There are lots of words you might use to describe a gratitude practice: honoring, venerating, giving thanks, respecting, and so forth. What I’m calling a “gratitude practice” puts us in regular contact with the living earth and allows us to express our respect, gratitude, and offer our thanks to the living earth and various aspects of nature.  Nature provides everything for us–even if we are mostly disconnected in the western world from that process.  Re-imagining our relationship as one full of gratitude helps us reconnect to the living earth in incredibly powerful ways.

 

There are many, many ways to engage in gratitude practices–speaking them, writing them, saying them. One common gratitude practice is ancestor work, which I wrote more about in an earlier post, and where we are in gratitude towards those who came before. Today, I’ll explore a long-term strategy for gratitude practices surrounding the living earth–through choosing aspects of nature to honor, creating shrines, and making offerings.

 

Choosing Aspects of Nature to offer Gratitude

The word “honor” refers to treating someone or something with admiration, respect, and recognition. If we think about the way we honor humans–soldiers, guests, or dignitaries–we may offer gifts, set aside special spaces for them (statuary, memorials, etc), or hold various kinds of celebrations for them. For example, in American culture we have presidential monuments, days honoring Martin Luther king and others of importance, monuments to fallen soldiers, and we offer regular respect to those humans who have done something extraordinary. If we use this same kind of thinking to honor nature and aspects of nature, we can develop a deeper relationship to nature over time and make this a core of a gratitude practice.

 

Some druids may choose to honor all of nature or focus on “the land” or “the earth” as the center of a nature honoring practice, while other druids may choose to focus and work with a specific aspect of nature intensively. Working to honor that aspect of nature—say, an element manifested in the world, an animal, a tree or plant, a mountain, a river, a natural phenomenon (storms), etc, can put you in a very deep relationship with that particular aspect. Thus, choosing who or what to honor in the natural world is important and is highly individual. Some druids may have already been drawn to a particular animal, plant, place, or other aspect of nature, while others may need to seek out different aspects to honor. Perhaps you have a plant species you have always been drawn to, or perhaps an animal species frequently visits you.  Perhaps you’ve had powerful experiences in a particular place, or along a particular mountain ridge.  Perhaps you feel energized and excited by the storm. You can select one, or multiple aspects of nature, to honor. As you choose to work with nature or aspects of nature, recognize that gratitude is work of the heart. The most important choice, then, deals with your own personal connection to the living earth and her spirits. What aspect of nature is deeply meaningful to one person may not be to another—the point of all of this is to develop, for yourself, deep relationships. Follow your heart and intuition.  In this section’s activity, a specific ritual is given that can help you choose which aspects of nature you want to develop a devotional practice towards.

 

In an animistic perspective, we recognize the difference between matter and spirit, and in this case, both can be honored. For example, one druid decided to honor the black bear, so she begins by bringing in black bear imagery and statuary into her home; learning about the black bear; and creates a small shrine in the woods near her home to honor the greater spirit of the bear.  She also learns about a local movement to protect bear populations and volunteers her time. In doing these kinds of honoring activities, she is able to deeply connect with the bear energies and bring those energies into their life. In a second example, a druid chooses to honor the local mountain range where he was born and raised. He learns about this mountain range, its history, and what lives there and grows there; he spends time hiking and backpacking on various parts of the mountain range; and he does regular ritual to protect the mountain from harm. He also carries a piece of wood in his pocket from the mountain and places a second piece of wood on his home altar. He connects to the spirit of the mountain through deep meditation and journeying work.

 

Nature Shrines as a Gratitude Practice

Poison Ivy shrine

Poison Ivy shrine

One way of engaging in a gratitude practice is through creating a shrine or special space inside or outside of your home to honor the living earth and/or specific aspects of nature. In the druid tradition, a “shrine” is typically dedicated to a specific aspect of nature, while an “altar” is typically more of a working tool where you might engage in various kinds of rituals and practices. “Sacred spaces” are larger areas, perhaps containing a shrine or altar, that are dedicated to sacred activity. However, these can blend together, and we druids don’t get too picky about the differences.

 

To create a nature shrine, you need to consider four aspects: where the shrine will be, how you will construct the shrine,  what the goal of the shrine is, and how often you will interact with the shrine. There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions–but you should give them some thought.

 

To start getting your own creative juices flowing, I will now share a few shrines I’ve built over time:

  • Honoring the Fallen Shrine (Outdoor). The “honoring the fallen” shrine was a large shrine on a recently cut stump. The shrine consisted of sticks, stones, and bones, with a stack of stones in the middle. The sticks, stones, and bones came from sites that were damaged or hurting. The shrine honored trees, animals, and others who were passing on due to human interference. I would honor species going extinct, trees and forests that were cut, making regular weekly offerings at the shrine.
  • Protecting Waters Shrine (Indoor). The “waters” shrine was to honor the waters of all kinds: rain, lakes, rivers, streams, springs, and so on. I gathered water offerings from all over the world (and asked friends to bring me water from various places) and I would put the new waters in little glass vials with a label. The shrine held the glass vials. This shrine had a beautiful large bowl of water as the centerpiece, which I kept regularly filled. This shrine was near a large tub I had in my bathroom, up on a little ledge.
  • Poison Ivy Shrine (Outdoor). Everywhere I’ve lived, poison ivy has lived with me, and I’m one of the very sensitive people who get it easily. The poison ivy shrine was created to honor the poison ivy on the property and ask it not to harm me or my guests. I built this shrine in the winter when the poison ivy was more dormant after scoping out a place with the most poison ivy on the property. I created a small shelf with several rocks and then created a clay statue that was my personification of poison ivy. I put the statue on the rock shelf. And then, I let this shrine alone.  As the poison ivy grew back into the space, it mostly covered the stone and statue.  I left this shrine largely be, as poison ivy wanted to be left alone!
  • Land Healing Shrine (Outdoor, Group). I created a land healing shrine with a group of druids was a land healing shrine, also on a large stump. We took fallen wood from the property, cut it into wood rounds, and then woodburned protective and healing symbols and ogham onto the wood. We left these on the shrine along with aspects of the four elements. The goal of this shrine was to send healing out to the land.
  • The Mother Earth Shrine (Outdoor). This shrine was created to honor the entirety of the land and all of her spirits. I would frequently gather new things for this shrine from wild places and add them to the shrine. Over time, the pile grew quite large! The shrine itself was wild—I never cleaned leaves off the shrine but rather let everything layer just like it does in nature. I left regular offerings of cornmeal here as part of my daily spiritual practices.
  • The Animals Shrine (Indoor). I created a small shrine, using only photographs on a wall space, in my office. I wanted to honor certain animals in my local ecosystem and also draw upon aspects of those animals while at work. The cluster of photos didn’t appear to anyone as a sacred space, but I understood the intent of the work.

 

One the things you might notice about the shrine examples I’ve offered above is that the shrines don’t just have a theme—the have an intention or goal. Your goals and intentions may evolve as you work deeply with the spirits of nature, so you can see these kinds of shrines as evolving things. I do think as you create a shrine, the shrine will evolve just as you evolve!

 

Earth Shrine

Earth Shrine

Sourcing Materials for Your Shrine

Sourcing materials for your shrine is also a critical choice, and sends a particular kind of message to the land and her spirits. For outdoor spaces, it is a good idea to make sure anything that you leave will not cause harm or pollution to the land. Further, you want to make sure that the earth was not harmed in the creating of that thing or the taking of that thing. This means you might use more naturally-oriented things or representations: sticks, stones, collected objects, secondhand objects, handcrafted objects, and so on. You can make beautiful shrines, altars, and sacred spaces using materials only from the land around you in many cases. Using things directly from the land allows them to break down and return to the land gracefully.

 

Building Your Shrine

Spend time planning and building a shrine to nature or to a specific aspect of nature. The process shouldn’t be rushed—often, the process of building a shrine takes time and unfolds in unexpected ways! First, you want to source the right location. Whether indoors or outdoors, it takes time to find the right spot. If it is in the house, you want to think about where it might be, and how visitors and other family members may interact with it (or not), and may respect it, or not. I once created a beautiful shrine in a guest bedroom, which worked except when I had guests who didn’t understand it and didn’t respect it well.

If it is outdoors, you again want to think about other people who may have access to the shrine and how public or private the shrine will be. I prefer to keep shrines as private as possible, unless I’m working with a group of fellow druids and we are co-constructing a shrine (as one example explored above). When sourcing a location, I recommend taking some time and doing multiple visits to ascertain the right location and if the spirits of the land would welcome the shrine. There are lots of considerations for location, particularly in terms of the weather, seasons, accessibility, visibility, and human interaction.

 

Once you’ve selected your spot, now comes the fun part of building the shrine.  I like to see a nature shrine as an evolving thing—just as the wheel of the year turns in nature, so too your shrine evolve as you find new things for it.  Shrines do not have to be complex, even a small stack of stones or ring of sticks works beautifully for a shrine.

 

The timing of initially setting up your shrine also can be important. Choose a day or time that is meaningful—a new or full moon, one of the druid holidays (solstices, equinoxes, cross quarter days) or some other day that lends itself well to the energies of your new endeavor.

 

Tending Your Shrine

After you have your shrine built, you’ll want to think about how you might regularly tend it.  Regular attention to the shrine assures that you are connecting deeply with the energies of the shrine and connecting with that aspect of nature and that you are investing time, energy, and care into the shrine.  Regular tending may include clearing the shrine of debris, replacing objects, and so forth. It may also be quietly sitting with the shrine, meditating near it, and simply observing it during the various seasons (if outdoors).  There are lots of ways you can regularly tend and visit your shrine.

 

Offerings

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Another thing you can do regularly at your shrine is make offerings–this helps you “give back” and engage in a more reciprocal relationship with the living earth.  Offerings are often symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. One of the ways you might think about offerings within a druid framework is that they are part of a larger gratitude practice. That is, through offerings, we are giving thanks, acknowledging, and honoring nature.

 

In terms of what to offer, the general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  These things may be physical or non-physical.

 

On the side of physical things: many things that can be purchased are problematic because their purchase put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging that creates plastic waste, etc.). So you want to give any physical offerings some careful thought.  One of the ways you might get around this is by either growing offerings, finding them, or wildcrafting them. A great offering could be something as simple as acorn caps gathered in the fall with a symbol painted on them in a natural ink. You could gather small stones or pieces of bark and bless them with the elements, and then use them as an offering. Another option is to create or grow a sacred offering blend of herbs (I use home-grown tobacco, lavender leaf, and rose petals as my current mix, see this post for more information).  You can also purchase offerings that are sustainably created—go to a farmer’s market and buy a bottle of locally produced organic wine or locally milled cornmeal or flour, for example.

 

Non-physical things make wonderful offerings as well.  Bardic practices, like drumming, dancing, singing, and so forth can be a great offering of your time, energy and spirit. I will also note here that music in particular is a great offering if you want to honor the spirits of the land while others are around—I like to take my flute to majestic places (which often have other people visiting them) and play a song or two.  The intention of the song is an offering to the land, but it doesn’t hurt to have others hear it too.

 

I hope that this post was useful in thinking about one way–among many–that we might engage in a regular gratitude practice as part of our paths in honoring and connecting with our most sacred earth.

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part IV: Nature Reverence August 5, 2018

Respect.  Honor.  Reverence.  Admiration–these words are often used to describe people, in our lives, afar, or in history that we hold in high regard.  But these same words can also be used to describe many druids’ feelings towards the living earth–plants, animals, oceans, rivers, forests, trees, natural wonders, insects, mycelium–the soil web of all life.  The world is a wonderous, incredible place, and those of us who follow a path of nature-based and nature-rooted spirituality recognize this. Reverence is having deep resepect for something, treating it with value and worth. Those of us who are drawn to druidry and nature-based spirituality inherently have reverence to the living earth–it is part of what sets us on this path and encourages us in this direction. But as we deepen our spiritual connection with nature, I believe that our reverence also deepens over time.

 

A beaver dam in the early fall at Parker Dam State Park, Pennsylvania

A beaver dam in the early fall at Parker Dam State Park, Pennsylvania

In the last month, we’ve explored different ways you can deeply connect with nature–beginning with the overall framework, discussing nature wisdom, nature enagement, and nature reciprocity–we wrap up this series this week by considering the final piece of the framework: nature reverence.    Nature reverence is certainly one of the underlying values that people who practice this path share–and a value that is shared more broadly with those engaged in other kinds of nature-oriented practice.  This could include anything from herbalism, permaculture, organic farming, wilderness enthusiasts, backpackers, wild food foragers, bushcraft specialists, hikers, etc.

 

In many ways, everything that I’ve been writing about in this series is a form of honoring nature. When you develop nature wisdom and learn more about your own connection to the living earth, you honor nature. When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature. When you are healing or conserving the land or making offerings, again, you are honoring nature. Today, we’ll explore several additional ways to enage in nature reverence:

Reverence of the natural world can happen through:
Respecting the sanctity of life and the living earth;
Honoring nature through ritual and intentional action;
Communing with the living earth.

Respecting Nature

If there is one thing that is true of the history of Western Civilization, it has been the disregard through which it has shown just about everything: peoples, cultures, and the living earth. It is this disregard and the cultural values of profit and progress that have led to such disregard for the earth and her diverse peoples. Another problematic western cultural value is individualism–in westernized society, particularly in American society, we are primed to think of ourselves first, and ourselves as individuals with autnomy, disconnected from a larger system.  Geert Hosfede demonstrated this through his “cultural values” where he explored the different ways that cultural values impacted organizations, particularly those doing business internationally.  This individualism manifests as a kind of socialization that encourages us to think of ourselves first: what can I do that best benefits me?

 

Any kind of connection to nature is rooted, first and foremost, in respect.  Without respect, we cannot have reverence. I believe that part of nature respect is working to re-socialize ourselves and re-orient ourselves to also ask the basic question, “what can I do that best benefits nature/the land?” as a primary category in our minds as opposed to “what benefts me?”  I believe that shifting the mind and heart can shift action in the world; and so, if we can bring ourselves into a place of reverence internally, that will help us make decisions on a daily basis that brings that reverence into practice.

 

Nature Wisdom, Engagement, and Reciprocity: How can we accomplish achieving this deep respect of nature? Time, effort and engagement, are three ways that come to mind. Part of respect comes with interaction and time; the more time we invest in connecting with nature, the more our respect will grow for it. Further, by engaging in connection with nature, we learn to value it; the more we value it and the more we engage, the more we are able to shift our internal socialization and build more rich connections with the earth.  In other words, all of these pieces of the framework that I’ve shared work together, ultimately, to build reverence for the living earth.  Practicing any part of the framework can help lead to reverence.

 

Reframing Nature: Another activity that can be helpful here is reconsidering aspects of nature that you don’t like. For example, I have always had bad outbreaks of poison ivy, and never wanted much to do with the plant. In the process of studying herbalism with Jim McDonald, however, he helped open up my eyes to what poison ivy does on a landscape–how it protects wild places, how it teaches us awareness.  I did even more research on poison ivy after that and discovered its role in responding to climate change and higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere. By learning about poison ivy, and sitting near her (and yes, contining to be covered with her all summer long) I learned to respect her.  And in this respect, cultivate an entirely new relationship with her, one that is rooted in respect and reverence rather than disregard. This is to say, take something you may not be as comfortable with and learn about it, let it teach you and guide you, and over time, develop a respectful relationship.  I think in a second example, when my beehives were destroyed by a bear and my chickens were eaten by hawks, it taught me about honoring the predators.

Hawthorn berries, full of medicine and life

Hawthorn berries, full of medicine and life

 

Learning Anew: Finally, a third activity is to learn about something you have no idea about: the life cycle of an insect, observing the slow opening of a flower, and so on.  New experiences and new exposure can lead you to a place of respect and awe.  For example, a few years ago I took up the study of sacred geometry, and began learning about the way in which geometry unfolded in the world (and in my own body) such as through the golden spiral, the pentagram, and more.  One day I was walking and saw some brambles that had been cut (blackberry), and there, both in each flower and in each stalk, was the pentacle reflected.  Since then, I see the pentacle everywhere, and it reminds me of the sacredness of life.

 

Honoring Nature

While respecting nature is primarly mindset you adopt through experience, honoring nature is an activity.  I wrote a bit last week about offerings, and rituals as a kind of offering, and I’d like to continue that discussion here today. If we think about the way we honor humans–say, soldiers, guests, or digintaries, we may offer gifts (offerings), set aside special spaces for them (statuary, memorials, etc), hold special dinners or other kinds of celebrations in their honor.  I believe that honoring nature in this way is no different–its not even *how* you do that is important, its simply the practice of doing it. The “how” part of the equation can be tied to a particular tradition (and I’ll share ideas rooted in the druid revival tradition), but as long as it is giving back, and not taking (see recprocity post), it will likely be appriciated by the land and her spirits.  (And yes, I take a very animistic approach to druidry, so these suggestions are also rooted in that perspective).

 

Honoring Through Ritual: One way to honor the land is through regular rituals.  From a certain perspective, every seasonal celebration that uses the wheel of the year, the wheel of the sun (solstices, equinoxes, cross quarter days) and lunar events (like full moon meditations) is honoring the passing of the time, which is inherently honoring nature.  We can do more specific things to honor nature as well, including developing local seasonal celebrations and observances (the first snowfall, etc) or land healing rituals (such as this one we did at MAGUS last year).

 

Poison Ivy shrine

Poison Ivy shrine

Shrines and Sacred Spaces. A second way that we can honor nature is through building and tending of shrines and sacred spaces, both indoors and outdoors, to honor specific aspects of nature.  Recently, for example, I was doing in-depth work with the spirit of the black elder tree, and as part of that, I created a shrine inside my art studio and also honored the elder by making offerings. Your shrines or sacred spaces might be bee and butterfly gardens, meditation gardens, stone circles, stone cairns, or other shrines.  Again, the intent here is what matters–intent and making sure that the shrine is healing and not damaging to the earth or the ecosystem.  This is part of why I like using gardens for this kind of work as much as possible.

Honoring through Sacred Action: Another way in which we can honor the land directly is by mitigating our impact on the earth. I’ve written a lot about the different ways this can happen here on the Druid’s garden blog: through shifting our lifestyle choices, our eating, planting trees, recycling, composting, walking rather than driving, reducing our energy consumption, and much more.

Communing with Nature

A final way of engaging in nature reverence is through communing with nature.  Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual and sacred experiences for us that help us understand not only the land but our place in it.  I consider communing to be on a much different and deeper level than simply observing–communing is an intentional act that sets us apart from our regular lives and tied, instead, to the living earth.

Druid Retreat: Doing a druid retreat is a great way to commune with nature and to heal and grow as a human being and spiritual person.  Druid retreats can last a day to several weeks or more, depending on your own needs and opportunity.  They are quiet times for you to deeply commune with the living earth, focus on your own spirituality, and attend to your relationship with the living earth.  More on druid retreats in my two-part series: part 1 and part 2.

 

Vision Questing / Ritual in Nature. Different traditions do longer rituals in nature differently, and so you might look to your tradition or intuition for ideas. I did a 48 hour vision quest with a group practicing the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition and it was an incredible experience that was well facilitated and offered me much insight–even six years later, the experience continues to resonate within me.  Other opportunites I’ve seen have been initiation or coming of age ceremonies where individuals are sent off into the woods for an evening; or women’s circles that drum into the night deep in the woods.  If you don’t have an opportunity to do this with an existing group, consider your own “ritual in nature” over a period of hours or days (and see some of my suggestions for the druid’s retreat, above).

 

Quiet Moments in Nature: Taking quiet moments in nature is another simple way to commune.  Spend a moment watching the passing of a herd of deer, watch the flow of a quiet stream, observe a busy flowering bush full of insects, or to watch the rustle of the leaves in the trees.  These quiet moments need to be only a few minutes, but they will allow you to slow down, breathe, and deeply connect with the living earth.

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the druid retreat

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the druid retreat

 

The Druid’s Anchor Spot: Another technique I detailed earlier on this blog is what I call the “druid’s anchor spot”; this is a place where you go, daily if possible, but certainly regularly, to commune with nature.  You can simply observe the passing of the seasons, the ways in which the space changes over time and in different weather.  You might create a shrine there or do other kinds of ritual activities.  It is simply a space for you to be.

 

Nature reverence is as much a mindset as it is an activity; the deeper we are able to go into our spiritual practice, I believe, the deeper our connection with the living earth is.  This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of the ways that you might practice nature reverence–if any of my readers have additional suggestions or ideas, I would absolutely love to hear them.  Thank you for joining me on this month-long journey into connecting deeply with the living earth!

 

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

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

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

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

 

Nature’s Wisdom

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

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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