Tag Archives: integration

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection

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?

What Learning Research Teaches Us About Druidry and Integration

My friend and fellow Druid John Beckett  blogged about the importance of integration a few months ago.  I wanted to add to his discussion and elaborate on some of my comments I posted to him.  In a nutshell, his post looked at how compartmentalization (or separating one’s self into different pieces, not all of which is revealed all the time) is a normal practice in our culture.  He argued that seeking integration is a worthwhile goal for druidry, where we can seek to integrate all aspects of ourselves into our druidic path.  I’d like to pursue this idea of integration further, and also bring in some learning theory that might give us tools to think about how to work to integrate ourselves in meaningful ways.

So what is this thing we call integration? What does it look like? How does it work? The concept of integration, at its base, is taking what appear to be disparate parts and unifying them into a cohesive whole.  The term has a long, rich history: integration worked to end racial segregation, integration is also used as a concept in mathematics, psychology, life sciences, and electronics (and in the esoteric traditions, alchemy). So in Druidry, one way of seeing integration is by working to bring your spiritual philosophies in line with your everyday actions and interactions.  For example one way of thinking about integration would be looking at the concepts in the Druid’s Prayer (strength, understanding, knowledge, justice, the love of all existences, etc.) and working to integrate them into daily life in every way.  This concept of integration  is not easy to do by any means.

I want to talk about a set of theories from educational research and writing studies that might help us understand the principle of integration. In my career as a university professor, my primary research emphasis is as a learning researcher–specifically, I examine how people learn and use/adapt their knowledge to diverse circumstances (I study writing, but the concepts can be applied to just about any subject).  This concept is called “transfer of learning” and it continues to be one of the most critical challenges we have in educating people–that they’ll actually use that knowledge in new places. This concept has a lot to do with integration and compartmentalization, but it will take me a while to explain it, so bear with me.

What we find in learning research is that often, when people learn something, they over-contextualize it (or as John might suggest, the compartmentalize it). I see this all the time in my research on college-level student writers–a student will learn how to write a particular genre really well, say, a business proposal.  What the student doesn’t often realize, however, is that the broader skill of writing a proposal is embedded within learning the genre of a business proposal–there are lots of things about proposals, and about good writing in general, that can be learned from this single assignment. The problem, which I and other transfer researchers see time and time again, is that these broader lessons–about proposal writing, about writing in general, about processes and their own skills–aren’t emphasized and are lost to the student.  In other words, the potential for learning and integration is great, but it is often not actualized (and the causes for why this is are numerous).  From the perspective of writing, this is why often after 4+ years of higher education and potentially 100’s of written papers in a variety of genres, students go into their first job and seem like they’ve never learned to write anything at all.  This same thing happens all over the place, where something is learned and compartmentalized, where integration fails to occur, and we are left with fragments rather than a whole.

What does successful integration from a learning perspective look like? The most successful learners are those that are able to assume a certain kind of mindset–a mindset of integration (transfer researchers have different terms for this, including “mindful abstraction” or “metacognition” or the “spirit of transfer”).   The knowledge and experiences are are still there, still occurring, but what really changes is the learner’s relationship and mindset concerning that knowledge. So to go back to the business proposal example–the learner learns about the business proposal either way, but in the first circumstance (where you fail to transfer), the business proposal is compartmentalized and unless he encounters the exact same kind of situation in terms of writing, he’ll not use it again. The worst case scenario of this is when a learner fails to see their learning as useful to future circumstances at all and chooses to consciously forget it entirely (yes, this does happen more than one might think). But in an integrated view, the business proposal knowledge is seen in a broader perspective and is  generalized as it is learned so that it can be applied in a variety of ways; additionally, the learner actively seeks to build connections to other kinds of writing and other areas where the knowledge is useful. Now when that person goes out into the world, that knowledge is at his fingertips rather than buried in a box in a dark corner of his mind (or forgotten entirely). In the end, successful learning is all about integration and mindset.

So how can one achieve the shifts in thinking required for successful learning and integration? Well, making a mindset shift is not an easy process. One of the primary things that comes out of the transfer rsearch is the idea of extensive self-reflection–reflecting as you learn, reflecting on your own habits/processes, and working to actively build those connections.  This reflection can be used to give one a set of tools to adapt knowledge, to integrate knowledge, and to interact with the world.  This might be as simple as stepping back after an event and taking the time to journal or meditate about it, seeing what was done and how things could have been done differently.  It might also be about reflecting during an event or process–taking a moment in the midst of what is happening to ensure you are going in the direction you’d like to go.

So in the end, we learn that integration is rooted in one’s mindset; its about seeing everything as connected to the whole, its about being about to integrate those experiences and beliefs and actions into a single, unified world view rather than a set of disparate compartments. Its about active monitoring of our experiences, thinking about how the pieces fit, and deeply reflecting on those experiences.

Temperance - the integration of elements into perfect harmony

Temperance – the integration of elements into perfect harmony

To step back and apply learning research to druidry, we might look at the tree: trees must do a lot of integration in order to survive.  In the tarot, we have the card of Temperance, which, in some decks (including my tarot deck) is a card about integration–its about bringing the elements into perfect balance and harmony.  If you look at the image of temperance here, you can see that it is the tree itself who is able to bring the waters up from the depths, use the rich nutrients of the land, bring in the carbon dioxide from the air, and transmute the fire of the sun into an integrated whole. This is one way of seeing integration, as bringing together all parts into harmony and balance (and certainly, this is one of the main goals of the OBOD’s Bardic Grade).

Integration, ultimately, is a process, not an end product.  Its a process of being, rather than a state of being.  I can never achieve “integration” and then sit back and relax–it is an ongoing process that requires me to monitor everything I do and constantly seek ways of bringing my spiritual perspective into my daily life. To remind myself about the need and importance of integration, one of the mantras that I’ve developed is the following: “Everything I do, I do as a druid.” This means that every interaction and action, from choosing what I throw away to how I treat someone who has treated me poorly, I do as a druid.  This mantra has helped me make this mindset shift and seek integration.  Of course, there are times I fail in living up to the mantra, but even my failures can be used as experiences for learning and growth.