The Druid's Garden

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

Life in the Extraction Zone: Complex Relationships of Livelihood and Land November 13, 2016

As I write this, threats to our lands, our environment, our oceans, and life on earth seem greater than ever before. As I write this, water protectors in North Dakota are getting beaten, arrested, tear gassed and jailed. As I write this, many folks are having difficulty understanding the decisions of so many Americans, decisions that potentially threaten our lands. As I write this, community after community find themselves in a place of needing to take a stand to those with more power and resources to defend their rights to clean water, personal safety, and a clean environment. But in many other places, people have different views–they have welcomed fracking and other energy extraction into their communities and they welcome logging and industry. It seems hard for those who are in an earth-centered and earth-honoring viewpoint to understand what would possess people to support–or even welcome–life in the extraction zone.

 

The “extraction zone” is a metaphor that I’ve heard a few friends and colleagues use here in Western PA. It suggests that we no longer live on land that is whole or protected, but that everything is up for extraction and removal–at severe cost to the land and the people’s physical, spiritual, and mental health.  It is when the removal of resources, of any kind is promoted actively over the well being of humans and lands. People too, can have their own resources–time, energy, money–extracted at the benefit of others. I think this is an unfortunately useful way of thinking not only about our experiences here among the fracking wells, but what is happening across our entire planet, of which resources are being extracted at an alarming and unsustainable rate.

 

In the druid tradition, a common exercise is working to find alternative perspectives.  One of the ways we do this is working to turn a binary into a ternary; that is, finding a third perspective. Another way is to look for understanding beyond our immediate frame of reference.  In honor of the druid tradition, today’s post explores some of the reasons and issues acceptance of life in the extraction zone and helps to, I hope, humanize those that fit on the “other side” of this debate. While I’m focusing my comments on fracking and energy extraction because that is the physical reality in which I live, I think you’ll see parallels between this analysis and more broader social patterns and political decisions about extraction of all kinds.

 

I’ve been working on the thinking behind this post for a while, and I decided this week was the time to share it, especially given the major shifts and upheavals in the political climate. (Note: This is another post in my fracking series which I haven’t been writing on too frequently because these are hard posts to write, and, I’m sure, to read. Earlier posts on this series are here: lines upon the landscape and a druid’s perspective on fracking – why we should care.  I’d suggest reading those two posts first!)

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

A multitude of worldviews exist at any point in time, but several dominant ones have emerged at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.  Wendell Berry, in his Unsettling of America, talks about these as the difference between nurturing worldviews and exploitative ones.  Now–I want to distinguish here that these are worldviews and actions and not people. Many modern humans exist somewhere in the nebulous (or unaware) spaces between these two worldviews or only semi-consciously support an exploitative worldview.

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

Cultivating a nurturing worldview, especially in these times, is a very conscious choice; it manifests core values and work in the world (through goals, livlihood or interactions) as healing, regenerating, and maintaining. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, but applicable to anyone, the nurturer is concerned with the long-term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned with efficiency or profit as she is with working “as well as possible” with an emphasis on care, health, and quality. Those of us seeking an earth-based spiritual path and making lifestyle changes understand how hard this nurturing work is to do in the world, but we keep striving to do so!

 

Exploitation, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner (and I would add those activities nearly any other fossil fuel or resource extraction), abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Unfortunately, this is the model that capitalism has given us, and the model that is dominant in industrialized cultures throughout the world, certainly here in the US since the first European explorers landed. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits—the land is literally viewed, and used, like a machine.  Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land, rather, exploitation works throughout all levels of a system: workers in minimum-wage and factory jobs producing and selling goods, the procurement of raw materials, the disposal of waste streams, the treatment of animals.

 

Exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, society, and norms that it’s not even seen as exploitation any longer.  It is seen as normalcy. For example, in starting to look for land to purchase a new homestead, and I see listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, no mineral rights.” Here we see it as the previous owner making as much money as he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains—stripped and bare. This is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable on a cultural and community level.

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

One of the things that confuses is many (especially those living in more wealthy urban areas) is why a community would willingly allow fracking or other extraction activities, especially in communities that otherwise  embrace the land through hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes.  The complexities of this are where we now turn.

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

Here in Western PA, fracking supported in most communities wholeheartedly as are any other forms of resource extraction. We also have various other kinds of noxious plants and factories, including two coal-fired power plants within 15 miles of where I live (one of which is listed on the super polluter lists). When I first got to Indiana, PA, I asked local progressives about organizing around the plant. I was told that we couldn’t say anything about the plant, even the very mention of opposing it was met with fierce–and institutionalized–opposition.  I’ve also heard plans for an ethanol plant being built, without resistance, in a poor rural community about 30 miles away.  Some progressives quietly talk about their fears in organizing any kind of resistance, but that’s as far as things typically go in this area. It is nigh impossible to address an issue like poisoned waterways without community  support.

 

So why exactly do people support life in an extraction zone? It is a complex web of economic, historic, and physical roots;  I’m going to cover each of these points in turn, using Western PA as a case study but also talking about broader US and global patterns.

 

Economic Views

 

Where I live in Pennsylvania, exploitation fuels every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff and miners dying of black lung, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry that cares nothing for the quality of water systems or streams. These systems and practices are concerned with only one thing: extraction of resources to drive profit.

 

This is why I believe the most important reason that extraction is so embraced here is simple: the people in most rural areas here have no other means of sustaining themselves economically.  Neoliberal policies that essentially stopped USA from protecting its own industries (see JMG’s discussion here for a good introduction) have gutted most of the rural parts of the US and sent the once proud working class into spiraling poverty. This economic disempowerment gives them few choices other than embracing extraction and the jobs that it brings.

 

People in rural Western PA laugh at the national statistics that talk about hundreds of thousands jobs being created–they certainly haven’t seen new industries open up that are outside of the energy industry. In fact, most of rural America is in the same boat. Working class people–including many of my own family and grandparents–were proud to earn wages for a hard day’s work and proud to support their families and knew that they had a job in that industry for life.  They didn’t want handouts; they wanted to stand on their own two feet and do good work. With the industries all leaving this area in the 1980’s and 90’s to move primarily to Mexico (thanks to neoliberalism) combined with the decline of coal and steel, the once proud working class have been relegated to low-paying service jobs and folks struggle to make ends meet. When this happens on a regional level, when the town you grew up in sees factory and mill close one after another–it hits not only individual families hard, but whole communities hard. Depression sets in, drug use rises, and suicides go up. Where are folks to go? What are they to do?  How can they provide for their families? And so, when the oil and natural gas companies come in and offer good paying jobs for extraction of resources, they are welcomed with open arms.

 

Ultimately, it comes down to economics–people are willing to put up with a lot of environmental pollution in order to put food on the table for their families. They are willing to give up a lot, and tolerate a lot, in order to have work.  This, I believe, is the single most important driving factor fueling the lack of resistance to any kind of extraction activity.  This same factor, I believe, was part of the major shift in US politics this last week.

 

Historical Views

Historically, since the start of colonization, people here have been employed in industries that focused on resource extraction. Logging stripped this state nearly bare by the turn of the 20th century.  Coal mining has a long history here, of course, as well as other mines (like a salt mine in Saltsburg, PA). Steel mills were located in many towns near prosperous mines–and it is why those towns still stand today.  And so, we have an historical precedent of people extracting resources from the land, making good money doing so, and feeding their families.  I think, to many working class folks here, fracking is seen as just another manifestation of what we’ve always done.

 

Other areas may have different histories, but throughout the western world, extraction at the expense of others is a common occurrence.  When its “just what we’ve always done” it becomes more acceptable and allowable, especially in poor communities.

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

The final piece I’ll discuss today has to do with the “physical normalcy” of degraded ecosystems.  I’ve written on this blog before about the boney dumps and sulfur creeks that dot the landscape, of the forests routinely logged (even our own public lands).  This is not someone else’s back yard–this is our own. We had a sulfur creek running across the street from where I went to high school; I played on boney dumps and went past them every day on the bus.  When you grow up in this environment, this idea of these remnants of life in an extraction zone becomes part of the “normalcy” that one experiences.  I remember when I left Western PA for the first time and couldn’t understand why the rivers were clean and there were no boney dumps.  Now, by this time, I had graduated summa cum laude from a good state university–and still, this physical normalcy of a damaged landscape was so built into me that it took time for me to understand that not all landscapes looked like where I grew up. I can’t help but believe that part of the acceptance of fracking here and its environmental consequences, has to do with growing up with this stuff being part of the physical landscape.

 

The truth is, at least here in the USA, few of us know what a landscape that hasn’t had severe degradation due to human extraction activities.  All around the world, we see these ecosystems: farms that are monocropped, lawns, logged forests, concrete wastelands, polluted rivers and factories.  This is very much part of our physical realty, and growing up with this physical reality and seeing it every day makes it feel more “normal” and sane.

 

A second piece of the combination of physical reality and history here concerns rights to the land itself.  Many of the “mineral rights” to the land no longer are attached to the right of physical occupancy; mineral rights were historically sold off in huge chunks for pennies on the dollar, and now with the fracking boom, new mines and new wells are being created.  Because people don’t own the actual physical right to their lands, there is nothing that can be done.  This is part of why some of our Alleghney National Forest here in PA is being fracked–the conservationists did not secure all of the mineral rights when they bought the property. Around here, if you don’t own the mineral rights, you only own the surface of the land and anyone who does own the mineral rights has a right to disrupt the surface, as they see fit, to get at the minerals.  Its a complex part of our physical reality; I suspect that other places have similar complexities.

 

A Way Forward

I think that if we are going to work to end these exploitative cycles that seem to continue to loop back around again and again in our own history, its not enough to “raise awareness” or go “protest” some new fracking well or other extraction.

 

If we want to solve these issues, we have to address the roots of them, and those roots are economic, historical, and physical.  Historically, it is useful to understand the complexities that have shaped our physical landscapes and ownership of those landscapes.  Physically, it would be helpful for us to work to regenerate landscapes, even on a small scale, to demonstrate possibilities and offer alternatives to degraded ecosystems. Economically, if people had other viable options for making a decent living with an honest day’s work, I believe we could really put a stop to many of these destructive practices.  In permaculture terms, we have to not only engage in earth care, but people care as well. I think a lot of us are trying to figure out right now what that might look like–certainly, localizing economies, localizing food systems, and building stronger communities are part of that work.  Other parts include education of others about the land, spiritual practices and pathways.

 

To close, I’ve seen a lot of well intentioned people, both within the earth-centered communities and outside of them, say things like, “why would people ever allow this?” I hope I have begun to answer this question.  There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to help address these issue, not only in terms of awareness raising but also in terms of economics and regeneration.

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part IX: Healing Our Lands Physically, Energetically, and Spiritually May 29, 2016

Alternative Front Yard full of healing and habitat

Alternative Front Yard full of healing and habitat!

As I walk through my neighborhood in this quiet Pennsylvania town, I am struck by the contrast. On one hand, many of my neighbor’s lawns are monocropped with grass–one after another, green expanses stretch on and on. Dandelions are quickly sprayed, and uniformity reigns supreme. This is the language of “progress,” the look of industrialization, and the announcement of humanity’s dominance over nature. But yet, on many blocks, one or two households have embraced a different paradigm: kale and strawberries along the front green area between the street and the sidewalk growing for any who want to harvest, pumpkins climbing through hedges, a completely alternative lawn full of herbs that requires loving care, but certainly not mowing. A fully abundant 1/10th of an acre with fruit trees, raised beds, grape arbors, and beautiful carved wooden sculptures. This is a sign, to me, that change and hope are possible and that the language of healing, the language of regeneration, touches the hearts and souls of so many here.  Part of this is facilitated by community groups: this town has held an Herb Study Group for over 30 years as well as an avid group of gardeners, and alternative lawns and growing spaces are accepted here (although still not the norm by any means). The contrast between these two spaces, both energetically and physically, is quite impressive. And this isn’t the only kind of regenerated space you can find nearby: after the strip mines complete their work, they are now required by law to return the landscape. Usually, this means planting scrub pines and watching the goldenrod come back in with very limited biodiversity, but occasionally, you find a druid wandering among those places, spreading magic seed balls infused with the energy and light of healing or planting nuts in the bare soils–and the seeds of biodiversity that can help this land transform and regrow the many things that were lost.  Now, new ecosystems are being reborn in those places that were once stripped bear.

 

And, a place I’ll be visiting this summer to do some backpacking is the PA Wilds region, an area with almost 1.5 million acres of forests. These forests were once desolate, logged areas, with almost 100% of the forests being clear cut about a century ago, much of the logging to fuel industrialization and expansion. While these forests are still under threat from fracking and oil exploration (especially in the Allegheny National Forest), many of these lands are regenerated with abundance and life. Even wild elk roam once more!

 

Truly, as a land healer, being part of spaces that can be, or are being, actively regenerated–and healed– is my favorite kind of work. I say it’s my favorite work because the other work I’ve talked about, in the last four or so posts in this series, where you are witnessing, holding space, sending energy deep into the heart of the earth is all really hard–energetically hard, emotionally hard, and can be physically draining.  Its even hard to write about it, which is part of why this has taken me so long to finish what I thought was going to be a short series on the subject!  But the work of regeneration, of taking damaged lands and helping them heal–the work of this post: it is work that regenerates the spirit. It grows as you grow, it unfolds and you unfold with it is perfect harmony.  This work allows us to share our gifts of creativity, nurturing, healing, and joy and reconnect with the living earth around us.

 

Layers of regenerating forest!

Layers of regenerating forest!

I’ve really been talking about this subject of land healing seriously for over a year now from different angles, especially focused on the physical regeneration of the land through my posts on healing hands, on refugia gardens, on seed saving and spreading seed balls, on alternative front and back lawns, and even further back on homesteading and my own regeneration work in Michigan. As you can see, I’ve written a lot on this blog about physical work of land healing as spiritual work, and I want to talk today about the linkages between the physical and spiritual dimensions and the more energetic aspects of this work.  Because while the land always has the power to heal–energetic work on our lands can help it heal much, much, faster.  Consider this like a burst of healing energy to get the land abundantly growing again!  This is, for now at leats, the final post in my Druid’s Primer for Land Healing series, although I do have some more specialized topics planned in the future. You can read the full series of posts here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII.  And once you’ve done that, come back, and we will talk about how to heal our lands!

 

Where Healing Can Happen

I want to return to my very first post in this series briefly, and remind you about the places and spaces that land healing–land regeneration–can happen. This direct healing work should be done not on sites that are actively being damaged outside of your control (repeated logging, strip mines, etc)–this is the work of palliative care, and I refer you to earlier posts in this series. Nor is it the work of a site that is going to be destroyed–this is yet another kind of spiritual and energetic work. Today’s work is for sites that have had damage (whether it is that the ecosystem has been removed because of construction, mining, or even replaced with a lawn) and is in a place that it can now heal again and is free from possible damage in the immediate future. This is really an important distinction to understand, because the wrong kind of energetic work can be damaging. Here’s what I mean: a lot of the techniques I will describe in this post are techniques of the energy of spring and that of fire–its about waking up, getting things flowing again, coaxing the spirits of the land out of deep slumber and hiding.  The last thing you want to do is do this work if the land will end up being destroyed so soon again. That’s like rousing a sick person out of bed, and moving, when all they really need to do is sleep through the worst of it.

 

Preparing for Healing Work and Building Relationships: Feeling Your Way Into the Work

If the land has been damaged for some time, the spirits of that land may have fled, gone deeply underground, or are otherwise closed off. I experienced this on my land in Michigan when I first arrived. I remember standing beneath the giant white pine tree, next to the second white pine stump that was it’s partner and had been cut off haphazardly by the previous owners. I sensed the spirits were there, but there was tremendous sorrow, anger, and resentment of all that had been done to the land. I began, before doing any healing work, with the work of apology and witnessing, acknowledging what had been done and showing that I was a different kind of person and was here to help. I don’t think, at first, I was accepted as someone who would heal. And so, I  my waited, knowing that things would unfold in their own time and in their own way.  The only thing I did during this time was clean up active piles of garbage (like a burn pile) and scattered debris, and then I enacted the first design principle of permaculture: observe and interact.

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!  This is one site I’m working with at present.

Shortly after I moved in, a racoon that had distemper showed up in my yard in the early morning hours. The racoon was out in the day, and after I determined that he didn’t have rabies based on his symptoms, I sat at a distance, holding space with him, knowing that his time was near.  He passed a few hours later. I dug a deep hole, blessed it with flowers and sacred water, and had a small ceremony for him.  I covered him up and piled a cairn of rocks quite high, knowing that if his body was left out, the disease would spread.  Sure enough, over the next few days, a number of critters tried to get into that hole, but were unable to do so due to my careful burial. The distemper was stopped from infecting any other animals.  After the raccoon incident, the land opened up, and the actual healing work could begin.  I realized that the raccoon was a test, and apparently, I had passed.  It was at this point that the spirits of the land spoke to me, shared with me the healing work that was to be done, and I began in earnest.  I will also say that that wasn’t the only test, and they come at unexpected times!

 

A Patchwork of Approaches

No single person’s approach is the “right” approach to land healing work.  You may have a very different skillset or background than I do, so I would suggest that you take the approaches here and use the ones that work for you (and I am very interested in hearing approaches you have used–please share!)  I would also really strongly encourage you to bring others in for the healing work.  For example, my sister is a Reiki Master Teacher, and the way she moves energy is very different than the ways that I do as a Druid.  It was a welcome thing for her to come, after I purchased my land for example, and do her own kind of energetic healing.  Another friend was an incredible musician, and radiated his healing energy out to the land with a series of wonderful folk songs.  And so, you might think about the land healing work you do like a colorful patchwork quilt with different designs: many approaches can work, and the more, the merrier!  So with that, here are some that I have found particularly effective.

 

Physical-Energetic-Spirit Connections

The most important aspect of all of this work, whether you are doing music, reiki, ritual, or other sacred work that I describe below is that you understand the relationship between physical healing and energetic healing.  You might think about this in an analogy with human beings: we have a physical body, we have emotions/heart, and we have a soul. These are all interlinked, and yet, each needs a different kind of healing energy.

  • Our physical regeneration of the land, through tending the wild, scattering seeds, replanting and regrowing, is like the physical regeneration of our bodies.  This is building habitat, reintroducing species, creating spaces for life.
  • The energetic regeneration is a lot like helping heal a person’s emotional scars: this is a completely different kind of healing, done by different strategies or even a different kind of healer. This is rebuilding the human-nature connections that have been severed, reconneciton, rebuilding trust.
  • The healing of the soul–is like the deep spiritual work we do as humans. I tie this analogy to that of the spirits of the land, those non-corporeal beings that reside in our lands and make magic there. River spirits, tree spirits, larger guardian spirits, animal spirits, plant spirits–so many live in our lands.

It is on all three levels that we can work to provide the most benefit; but work on even one of these levels also benefits the other two in the long run.  And, so, today, we explore the healing work we can do on the energetic and spirit levels: that of ritual, sacred spaces, gaurdianship, and more.

 

A Full Season of Rituals: Infusing with the Blessing of the Sun

I’ve mentioned before the method of drawing energy down from the sun and infusing the land with light as a way to clear energetically bad places, and we are going to build upon that method (which I shared in my last post in this series, including a barebones structure of a ritual that you can use).  In the case of land healing when the land is ready for regeneration, I would suggest more than just a single ritual for this work; where in the case of palliative care, one ritual is all you need or want to do. In the case of land healing,  I would suggest either a full year of rituals (four, minimum, at the solstices and equinoxes) and, if possible, the setting of a standing stone to permanently channel that light down and within (I explained the standing stone technique more fully in my earlier post I linked above).

 

In the case of energetic land healing, I find that most of the work I do in this area is drawing energy towards the site and infusing it with healing light.  The ritual that I most often use for this is one from the AODA, our seasonal celebrations, which works directly with the three currents and which serves as a land healing and blessing, drawing down the light of the celestial heavens and the sun.  I’ve shared a barebones structure of it in my last post.  You can purchase the AODA Grove Handbook for a complete version of this ritual for a group (or if you are a member of the AODA, we will be releasing a New Member Guide soon that will include solo versions of the ritual).

 

The power of the sun!

The power of the sun!

You can use the structure I provided in my last post, with one major exception: you are doing a series of rituals instead of just one.  The first ritual you do should be the one I outlined in the last post–clearing away the energetic darkness. Think of this like the pain and suffering that need to be healed, and only once they are healed, then the light can come within the land. I kind of see this akin to a clay pot–when you start land healing work, the pot is often filled with negative energy, with darkness, and the first thing you have to do is clear out the stuff that’s already in the pot before you can fill it with something better.  So the first ritual does that.  You can use any other structure as well, with the intention of clearing the space first.

 

So a yearly ritual structure for intensively providing energetic healing support to the land might look like this (using the energies of the season for a guide).  I’d personally start this work if possible in the Winter Solstice, but starting the work anytime is also appropriate.

  1.  Winter Solstice and/or Spring Equinox: Clearing out the darkness and bringing in some light.
  2. Spring equinox and/or Summer Solstice: Infusing the land with light for a blessing.
  3. Summer Solstice and/or Fall Equinox: A second infusing of the land with light for a blessing; establishing guardianship (see below)
  4. Fall equinox and/or Winter Solstice: A third infusion of the land with light for a blessing; deep listening on the next steps to take.

If you are also setting a standing stone (or even building a stone carin), you can focus your ritual on the stone itself.

 

For the differences in these four kinds of rituals, visualization is effective: imagine the energy coming down from the star, through the sun, and down into the earth, filling the land with light.  Purging of darkness, and then, seeing the light infuse into the land, up into the roots, and so on.

 

Creating a Sacred Space

I have found that establishing a permanent sacred space on the land (even around the entire land that is undergoing healing, if appropriate) is very effective. I have written on this particular thing in a number of posts, so I refer you to my sacred space series of posts for more information on how to do this.  One key here is to listen carefully, and to build a sacred space that you can tend and visit often.  This might just be leaving a small offering, sitting quietly, observing, meditating–the important thing here is that a sacred space is created by the union of yourself and the land, and your presence is needed for it to continue to function.  In the case of my homestead in Michigan, I established the whole property as a sacred space, and worked it diligently in a number of ways.  And you should have seen how it grew!

 

Communing with Spirits

On the matter of healing the soul of the land, we must reach out to the spirits of the land if we are able. Some people have particular gifts in this area in terms of direct communication, while others’ gifts lead them in a different direction.  Divination tools can be useful here. I would say, if nothing else, leaving an offering for the spirits (possibly at a shrine you construct as part of the larger sacred space, above), acknowledge the spirits, and most importantly–welcome them back. Let them know that you are doing work here, that the land is no longer in danger, and that it is safe to return.  They will take their time, perhaps, in manifesting, but be patient. And look for signs of any kinds (see my Druid’s Tree Working posts for how to commune with them, the strategies are very much the same).

 

Re-establishing Eldership

The Ancient Maple - An Elder of the Land

The Ancient Maple – An Elder of the Land

One of the problems that happen, especially with forests and logging, but really with any site that has been destroyed, is that the land loses its elders.  You’ve probably met those elders areas in lands that are whole–the ancient wizened oak, the tall white pines, the ancient elk with a massive rack of horns.  These elders are those who have inhabited the land for many cycles of the sun and moon, and who hold presence and history in those spaces.  They are like a nexus of energy, with many linkages throughout the forest. They have tremendous energy surrounding them, a strong spirit, wisdom.  The English language fails me here, but I hope you understand. The problem that new lands face is that they have no elders, that presence may have been lost.  I have found that part of healing is helping to establish the patterns of eldership. You want to do this carefully and in full support of the land and her spirits, but here are some suggestions.  These suggestions really apply to the plant kingdom; I have less experience with animal eldership (but perhaps one of my readers does):

  • Stones, rivers, and other inorganic features have been around a very long time.  Some stones even hold the patterns of fossils of ancient trees.  They can temporarily hold this kind of energy until a living elder grows and is established over time. Living elders are important, however.
  • Bringing a piece of an elder from another place can sometimes work.  For example, First, find an elder in another place, and see if that elder will let you move a small piece of themselves (like a branch) and place it somewhere you are led to place it.
  • Finding the offspring of an elder who was cut (in the case of a tree, as these elders are often trees) and nurturing that new offspring can also be done.

 

Re-establishing Guardianship

The sacred compact between humans and the land, and the symbiotic relationship between them, is destroyed when the land is stripped bare or otherwise damaged. Re-establishing the human’s role as a guardian and tender of that land is important–and that is something that you can do if you feel led–but only if you feel led.  This involves a few steps.

  • First, feel this out out very carefully, making sure that this is something that the land wants and that you can do.  The land may want to be left alone to heal on its own for a time, and you don’t want to be there if you are unwelcome. It also needs to be something that you are making a long-term commitment to, so make sure you are stable enough, and rooted enough, for that kind of commitment.
  • Two, if it appears appropriate, making an oath to the land establishing guardianship (I will usually do this as part of a regular ritual at an appropriate day, such as at one of the solstices or equinoxes).  Make it clear what you are swearing to, and make sure whatever you swear to, you intend to uphold.
  • Three, regular visitation, vigilance, tending, and time spent–the work of the guardian.  This can be anything: from going to the land and visiting, being open and listening, to picking up trash, paying attention to the needs of the land, to protecting it from those who would seek to harm.
  • Regular work on the land should include gaining knowledge about the land: learning it’s history, learning the dominant species and how they interact, studying botany, learning the names and uses of the trees–enough to know if something is amiss.  Spend time on the land–overnight, in quietude, moving around–in all those ways.  Build sacred spaces.  Bring people there to help heal and grow. Think of this land like your focal point for much of what you do!

The role of guardian of the land is not one to take on lightly, but if you feel compelled to do so, it is a wonderful way of reestablishing those connections and helping the land heal.  It is really a lifetime commitment, and I only mention it here because it is so effective for land healing.

 

The Magic of Seeds

I’ll end my discussion today with two physical healing techniques that I’ve mentioned before: as I discussed in my series of posts on refugia and seed arc gardens over the winter months, land that is physically healing. When the land has been stripped bare, it needs the genetic material to regenerate.  This requires a knowledge of botany and ecology, but you can easily find lists of plants common to your bioregion, including those endangered. The same is true of endangered mammals, birds, amphibians, and bugs–and the kinds of ecosystems they need to be safe.  I very much believe in the work of scattering seeds, of tending the wild, and doing this intentionally as a land healer.

 

These days, I take my magic seed balls–of several varieties–with me everywhere.  The wet woodland blend includes seeds of ramps, stoneroot, blue cohosh, and mayflower.  The fields blend includes New England aster, milkweed, pluresy root, echinacea, and stinging nettle (all of these plants are on the United Plant Saver’s list, save stinging nettle and NE Aster; these two I added because we just need more of them around!)

 

A Permablitz

Finally, there is a tremendous amount of power in a group of people, a community, coming together to enact healing work. While this can be done doing ritual, like I described above, it can also be done through the physical work of healing the land.  In permaculture terms, we call this a permablitz, and it’s a way for people to come together and quickly replant, regrow, and tend the land.  I held a number of permablitzes at my own property and also helped many others in blitzes of their own.  The land appreciates this so much, as it provides a counter narrative to the many hands who had worked to destroy a place for their own gains.  These blitzes are generally focused on a restorative approach–perhaps earthworking (like swales) to hold water, almost always some planting or scattering seeds, and other kinds of work.  People want to feel like they are doing something, and blitzes are not only a great way to heal the land but also to help reconnect many with the living earth.

 

Tree in the fall months!

Tree in the fall months!

Concluding Thoughts (for now)!

This series has been going on for quite some months now–I must say, I was surprised by how much I had to say once I started writing.  It took a while to come forth, as some of the subjects were quite difficult to talk about, but I hope this material was useful.  I hope it is useful as you engage in your own land healing work, whether you’ve been doing land healing for a long time, or whether you are new to this process.  I think this the last post, for now, but I expect that this will be a topic I’ll continue to return to from time to time, as I learn new things and grow in new ways.  Thank you for staying with me throughout this journey, and I wish you the best in your own land healing endeavors!  I’d love to hear from you more about your own land healing work, and also, as you use these techniques covered in the nine posts, I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and experiences.  Blessings!

 

A Druid’s Primer for Land Healing, Part V: The Magic of Witnessing, Holding Space, Apology, and Remembrance March 27, 2016

Sometimes, the hidden, the unacknowledged hurts are the worst kind. These are the kind that you bury, deep within yourself, or that a society pretends never happened. We hear stories of these every day–massive cover-ups of the truth of crimes being revealed, people coming forth after decades of silence, the relief that one feels when one can finally talk about something he or she experienced. If you’ve ever been in this situation, where something happened to you, and you were forced to keep it silent, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here. Having others know, to see, to understand alone are acts of tremendous healing power. And it is in this topic where we continue our series on land healing, and the work we can do as druids and other earth-based spiritual practitioners, permaculturists, and those who fight for a better today and tomorrow.

 

In my latest post on this series two weeks ago, we explored the first steps towards land healing–that of deep listening, ascertaining the nature of the healing work, and building trust. In today’s post, we explore the beginning of healing techniques: the magic of acknowledgement, witnessing, holding space, and apology. These are techniques that are appropriate for the many different kinds of healing we can enact, including both palliative care and land healing.   These are techniques that I almost always use for my land healing work, sometimes as part of ritual and other work, and sometimes on their own. I find that they are almost universally appropriate, even when some of the techniques we explore further on in this series are not.  So let’s take a look at what these techniques are, why they work, and how to enact them.

 

Rolling Hills and Mountains (small painting by yours truly)

Rolling Hills and Mountains (small painting by yours truly)

Acknowledgement and Witnessing

Many times, in land healing work, we discover something that is in the middle of happening, or something that has already happened. We aren’t all powerful, we don’t command sums of money or influence that can change the destruction of our lands in many cases–and we certainly can’t stop what has already occurred. But what we can do is to bear witness. To see what is happening, or has happened, to remember, to share the memory of what has been lost (see remembering, below). I find myself doing this work often with cut trees—remembering them and honoring them long after they are gone.

 

To go back to the example I opened up with, there is deep healing power in acknowledging the suffering of another.  Acknowledgement is where we start–its the first powerful step we take in healing work of any kind. We cannot address a problem if we fail to acknowledge that there is one.  I believe that  acknowledgement is one biggest issues we have at present–there is this collective blindness, this collective unwillingness to engage, see, or acknowledge, what is happening around us.  I see this a lot firsthand here where we have a lot of fracking and environmental degradation. People don’t really talk about the oil wells, the equipment, except to comment how its “good jobs” for the area (that is the truth, and in an economically disadvantaged area, fracking jobs are very good jobs).  Just as people don’t talk about the continual raping and pillaging of our forests, the damaged and destroyed waterways from mining.  If we fail to acknowledge these things even exist, if we fail to talk about them  or draw attention to them, we cannot being the repair work necessary to heal.  The longer that a painful issue goes unacknowledged, unseen, the more deep rooted the pain surrounding the issue can be.

 

Acknowledgement requires us to both be capable of seeing and be willing to see. These are important distinctions.  Being capable of seeing means that we have enough knowledge and wisdom to interpret what we are seeing and recognizing it is a problem.  I think most of us are capable of seeing, and understanding, many of the challenges we face.  Being wiling to see means that we are capable of seeing and willing to do so-we choose to engage.  We put aside the inner dialogues or cultural baggage that tells us these things are normal, that everything is fine, and instead choose to see destruction, damage, etc. for what it is.

 

There is tremendous power in acknowledgement.  All of our healing work stems from this. Being ready to heal, ultimately, first means being ready to acknowledge. I have practiced being in a state of acknowledgement and openness with each day.  I pay close attention to the land, in whatever state it is in, engage, and interact with it.  If I see something awful, like a forest being cut, I do not look away, but instead, I acknowledge.  Stating it aloud is even more powerful, “I see your suffering.”   This leads us to the next steps:  and holding space. Acknowledgement requires us to directly look, to see what it is that may pain us, and to take it all in as it is.  To see with a compassionate heart, and an open mind, and to simply take in what is happening.

We need to acknowledge this stuff.

We need to acknowledge this stuff.

Acknowledgement alone is rarely sufficient for healing work, but it is the first deeply important step.  You might think about these activities as being on a set of stairs: you have to start with acknowledgement, and then you can move into the remainder of the steps here today.

 

Holding Space

When something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–this is the work of palliative care, as I discussed in an earlier post.  This is especially true with places that have active suffering happening to them–mountaintop removal or fracking are very good examples here, as are polluted rivers with active dumping, etc.  A good metaphor for some of the work we can do with these places is to think about a friend who is very sick, in a hospital bed. You wish you could do something to help this person, but some things are beyond your control. Instead, you do the thing you can do, which is to make sure they are not alone—you sit quietly with them, laugh, talk, and do some energetic work.  You spend the time to help them.

 

The land is no different–when something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–holding space might be appropriate.  Holding space is a powerful form of healing for the land, and goes well beyond just acknowledgement.  You can hold space in many different ways–all of them require presence and active engagement.

 

To give you an example of this, right now, a most of the hemlock trees in my town are fighting the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This is a small, aphid-like beetle that has been making its way east and destroying our hemlock populations. It slowly sucks the sap out of them until they die; and it covers the hemlocks with its little white cocoons and spiderweb looking tendrils. I discovered it only recently, when some branches dropped in front of me on my path. If these infestations are caught early, and if a lot of chemicals are used, some trees can be saved–but these trees have away too many on them already.  In the next few years, they will slowly be drained of their sap, their life energy, and pass on. And, in truth, it is deeply painful to me, since hemlock is one of my most sacred trees–the hemlocks shape the entire ecosystem around here.  Sometimes, I’d rather look away, to take a different path on my walk to work and avoid the hemlocks and their suffering–but I don’t.   To hold space for these trees, I walk by my friends, the hemlocks, each day on my way to work.  I note the branches that drop with the aldelgids.  I put my hand on their trunks.  Sometimes, I bring a little anointing oil for them.  I bring blessed stones, bury them at the roots.  I am collecting their seeds, to go into my freezer, to spread again and plant when I am an old woman in the hopes of bringing these trees back to our forests.  I know that in this act, I’m not just holding space for these specific hemlocks, but all of the hemlocks who are going through this transition–the tens of thousands of them here, in this county, the millions and millions in this state, and more beyond.

 

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

There’s tremendous power in simply holding space for these places.  In recognizing the suffering of another. Your very presence is so important.  Your presence is calming and soothing, you resonate “I am here for you” and “you are loved.”  “I see your suffering, and I am here for you.”  This is tremendously powerful work . We cannot abandon our earth mother during these dark times–if we want to walk the path of land healers, we must quietly and firmly, stand with her even in her darkest times, holding space for her. Holding space is about investing your time and energy. Its being available and simply there, for however long is needed.  Its being strong even when you see suffering you’d rather not see.

 

I also think that holding space is a way for us to work through our own emotions about everything that is happening around us.  Doing the work of land healing in this day and age can be tremendously difficult–but holding space gives us the peace of knowing we are doing something, and that something is important.  In fact, I’d say that’s true of all of the techniques described here–they help the land, which is their primary goal, but they also help us!

 

Apology

Just as there is tremendous power in acknowledgement and witnessing, and in holding space, so too is there power in apology.  Often, in seriously degraded places, like places were whole mountains are being removed (we have one such place not far from here), individual spirits of trees, plants, and animals, the spirits of places have been forced to leave may need an apology, to help pass on, to help heal. Apology is appropriate for any healing work–and sometimes, acknowledgement and apology is all that I do at certain spaces, especially spaces that are not willing to have anything else done.  When I do the work of apology, I apologize on behalf of myself and my species.

 

If your spiritual gifts allow you direct communication with the land and her inhabitants, sometimes as part of the work of apology you will be asked for an explanation.  I find that its helpful to give one, and that, too, is part of healing work.  Even if not, however, standing and witnessing, and apologizing, is a powerful healing act.  I described some of this work in this post–especially at the older sacred sites of others to whose tradition you do not belong, or at sites that are closed off to all human activity, this is the most appropriate healing work.

 

Remembrance

My Asatru friends have a saying: “Those who are remembered live on.” And I have adopted this saying for my land healing work, as I think it provides us with a potent and important form of healing–but also empowerment. Remembrance is an important part of land healing. I think its very appropriate to dedicate a holiday, or a day, to remembrance of places, spirits, trees, whatever it is, that have passed, and to honor them on this day.  Or, to maintain a small shrine for them in their honor.

 

Stack of stones on the stump as an act of remembrance

Stack of stones on the stump as an act of remembrance

Remembrance can be a potent form of healing work, especially when you know lands will be damaged/destroyed.  I remember the first tree I ever worked with in this way–it was a tree that I grew up near, a huge silver maple.  I witnessed it being cut, and was told that the people who cut it were new homeowners who “didn’t like raking up the leaves.”  I was so devastated, did the work of acknowledgement, holding space, and apology, and after the tree was cut, I managed to get a small piece of it. I kept this piece with me, and then, when I bought my property in Michigan, I met a second tree– a tree that had also been cut, the twin to the still-standing white pine tree in the center of my property.  There, I made a “shrine to the fallen” with a simple stack of stones, and around that stack, I placed the piece of the silver maple, and many others.  Over the years, I added much to the shrine, regularly tended it, and, at Samhuinn, made offerings of my homemade dandelion wine and cakes.  Since I left Michigan, I made a new shrine in the woods and have continued the practice.  It was a small gesture, not taking much time, but it has done a lot of good in the long term, I believe.  I felt it was important that I not visit the shrine more than once a week to tend it, and I only make offerings once a year.  I don’t want to focus my energies on the dead all the time (that’s not healthy) but I do want to honor them at appropriate times and fondly remember them, honoring them.

 

There are lots of ways to engage in the work of remembrance.  My shrine example is one such way.  Other ways include creating artwork, stories, songs, poems, and other bardic arts; growing a “remembrance” sacred garden; lighting a candle at a certain time of the year; honoring and remembering through ritual; or even doing acts of service for good in the community or land.  Planting a new tree of the same species to honor one that has fallen, for example (or even using that tree’s seeds or tending that tree’s offspring, for example, is a powerful act of remembrance).  Let your heart lead you on this journey.

 

Closing thoughts

I’m surprised at how long this series is taking me to write–but clearly, there is a lot to say on this subject and articulating all of this is helping many, I think.  Its certainly helping me to put into words the practices that I know and do often.  So thanks for staying with me as this series is unfolding! We’ll continue working deeper into the energetic healing work next week. I also wanted to let you know that I’ll be doing some  overseas travel for work in the next month, so I will likely miss a week or two of posting in April, but will begin my regular weekly posts in May.  Blessings of spring to all!

 

Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds September 16, 2015

As I’ve discussed recently on this blog, one way of rebuilding and deepening our relationship with the land is through the intentional act of regeneration. This regeneration work, in many cases, starts with the soil. The soil is the web of all life, and without soil, we cannot traditionally grow anything (I say “traditionally” because aquaponics and other systems do have soil-less approaches, but those aren’t really useful to say, converting your front yard into vegetables). Our soils globally are degraded, and most estimates suggest that if things keep going the way they are going, we have only 60 years of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes an extremely long time to recover naturally–about 2″ every 1000 years.  What is happening in the case of industrial farming, growing of lawns, and so on is that material that should be cycled back into the soil them now ends up blown away, in rivers or in landfills. Ninety percent of our food depends on soil (even animals we eat depend on soil, as they eat grains). Healthy ecosystems cannot thrive without soil.  And so, from my perspective, if we want to begin the work of regeneration, we begin that work with soil.

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Even if you grow nothing in your soil, sinking carbon and nutrients into the soil is a practice worth engaging in. One soil building technique favored by permaculturists is sheet mulching.

 

Sheet mulching allows us to recycle otherwise “waste” products (cardboard, newspaper, yard waste, grass clippings, wood chippings from tree work in the neighborhood, etc). It allows us to quickly build soil fertility (speeding up that 1000 year process to maybe 5 or 10 years!). Sheet mulching mimics the natural process of continual layering of organic matter on the top of the soil, and not doing much to disturb the lower soil horizons. And of course, sheet mulching rebuilds our soil, adding vital nutrients and organic matter.

 

Therefore, sheet mulching has a few benefits over other kinds of garden bed prep:

  1. It allows you to mimic nature and use a variety of plant matter and other “waste” ingredients
  2. It allows you to suppress weedy material or grass to have relatively weed-free beds
  3. It allows you to quickly build soil mass
  4. It does not disrupt the existing soil web of life, but adds to it
  5. It allows us to quickly sequester carbon

 

Fall is the perfect time to begin planning your garden beds for next year and for doing any large-scale lawn conversions–and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is just about here.  Fall is the best time to work because  its much more enjoyable to work in the cool autumn air compared to the hot July air; for existing gardens, this is when things die off; and when the fall leaves drop, a lot of free and available nutrients for gardening activities!

 

When I was doing my PDC this summer, we visited Ryan Harb’s front-yard garden in Amherst, MA and did a permablitz including a sheet mulch (I will also do a post on Ryan’s front-yard garden sometime this winter after my “harvest” posts are concluded for the year!) I’m going to share his sheet mulching technique, which was a little different from the sheet mulching I used on my Michigan Homestead that I used this in conjunction with other composting techniques. The method I presented on this blog several years ago requires that you have a lot of weed free organic matter (like fall leaves) which may not always be the case.

 

Ryan’s sheet mulch technique presented in this post is really good when you have weedy/seedy material (like say, from weeds in a garden bed) and you want to use that plant material but not have weed seeds popping up.  This technique is also good if you have some woody material, like say some small vines or something.  When I began all of my garden beds in my Michigan homestead, I used a very as my primary technique which involved loosening the soil, adding a suppression layer of cardboard, then layering organic matter (mostly weed free) several feet high in the fall and planting in it in the spring.

 

Materials needed for this technique needed are:

 

  1. A huge pile of weedy or non-weedy material (woody material ok), so material you pulled from your existing garden; even things like manures often contain weedy material (I learned this hard way the year after my first sheet mulching); fall leaves (preferably shredded) or other organic matter. You’ll need a good deal of this to build soil.
  2. Access to a hose/water source
  3. A lot of cardboard or newspaper or both; enough to cover the pile fully with overlaps.
  4. Access to finished compost; enough to cover the pile to a depth of 3-4″.
  5. Some friends to help. Sheet mulching can be a lot of fun with a bunch of people, and not as much fun without them!

Sheet Mulching

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheet mulching to cover up lawn–it feels very subversive (to the status quo) and empowering (hey, let’s get some veg in here!).  So let’s get started!

 

After a good 2 hour harvesting and weeding session, the PDC group had a large pile of weeds.

Some of the weedy material!

Some of the weedy material!

And so, to make use of this material, we converted another 4′ x 20′ part of Ryan’s lawn to a productive growing space. We began by laying down the layer of weedy material–the layer was probably about 1.5 feet thick when we started.

Laying down the material in a pile

Laying down the material in a pile

After each step you water the pile. The water helps the material break down faster. After reading the Liquid Gold book, I would probably, at this step, also encourage everyone to pee on the pile to add additional nitrogen or add some saved urine for the pile….but we unfortunately skipped that step during the permablitz :). After wetting the pile, we began adding compost. We added 3-4″ of compost the whole way over the pile.

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile - wise placement!)

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile – wise placement!)

Adding compost to the pile

Adding compost to the pile

As we added compost, we used the back of the rake to evenly distribute the compost.

Ryan smooths the pile

Ryan smooths the pile

After that, we worked to flatten the pile by dancing on it. The dancing is critical–I’m not sure this method will work without dancing at some point.  Get in there in your bare feet and go to it!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

After this step, we add the cardboard and newspaper.  This functions as a weed suppression layer–we need to suppress any weeds that may want to poke up through that rich compost!  So while some of us prepped cardboard, others laid it down.

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first....

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first….

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

You can get cardboard and newspaper readily–most big stores will have so much cardboard every day that they are generating from materials coming in. Furniture stores or Appliance/TV stores have really large boxes that work well for this. Last week’s newspapers, also, can be readily available. Or if your neighborhood has paper recycling, just go pick boxes up on the curb.  Regardless of how you procure your newspaper and cardboard, lay down a good amount. We laid down a full layer of newspaper, paying close attention to the edges.

Newspaper on edges

Newspaper on edges

Then we watered the whole pile quite well, again.

Wetting down the pile

Wetting down the pile

The next step is to add the wood chips–this will provide the plants to be planted in this pile next year some mulch, which retains water.  Bare soil is not typically found in nature and so we want to mimic nature by using mulching materials.  The wood in the chips will eventually break down as well, further adding humus and nutrients to the soil.

Adding wood chips as mulch

Adding wood chips as mulch

Wetting down the pile – we’ve finished!

Completed sheet mulch!

Completed sheet mulch!

This sheet mulch area won’t be planted in right away–we made this pile in July, and Ryan planned on planting in it in the spring.  That’s usually how it works: prepare the piles prior to planting.  The reason for this is that the sheet mulch pile can get pretty hot as the green plant material is breaking down and that can be too hot for plant roots to survive.  By letting the pile sit, the pile will break down naturally and create an awesome growing medium.

 

In my own garden at my homestead, in early spring, some of the material from my fresh sheet mulch piles still hadn’t broken down when I went to plant the spring. I added additional compost for around the plant, and the plants did just fine.  By the end of that first summer, there was no more cardboard or material–all was beautiful, rich, black soil.  Nature does try to slowly reclaim your soil and piles–if you find yourself in a thicket of plants you no longer want, sometimes its easier just sheet mulch over them again. So you sheet mulch, grow a few years, get a bunch of creeping weeds, and then just sheet mulch over it again; this doesn’t harm the soil, and continues to add organic material.  Yay for soil regeneration!
PS: If any Druid Garden blog readers are planning on attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA this weekend, do comment and let me know so we can meet up! 🙂

 

Geographies of Nowhere, Regaining a Sense of Place, and Embracing the Local May 4, 2015

I sit and write these words while I’m traveling for my work to a professional conference halfway across the country in another nameless city that is typically a carbon copy of another nameless city I visited the year before. The cities blend together after a while, because there really isn’t much difference between them: same Mariotts and Hilton Hotels with their elaborate and, frankly embarrassing, excesses, same busy streets, the same dead-looking people scurrying about. I’ve accepted this travel as a necessary evil of my profession, but it does give me a good opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and our larger system in which I begrudgingly take part. Today’s meditation focuses on the nature of place: its personal, civic, and spiritual connections.

 

Home-grown lettuce: no comparison!

Home-grown lettuce: no comparison!

In the airport, food options are limited, and I haven’t brought quite enough with me to sustain me for the entire journey in the face of flight delays. I carefully look at my options for food, and finally select a restaurant that has a famous chef’s name attached to it. It has a berry salad on the menu that looked appealing. The salad arrives, looking delicious: fresh greens, feta cheese, raspberry vinaigrette, mandarin oranges, strawberries and grapes. I pause, taking a moment to be thankful for the plants who have given their lives for me to eat this and thankful for the sheep who produced the milk for the feta. And then I begin to think about this salad, how it is so far from being rooted in a local place, so far from being seasonal or local. Where did this food come from?  The vinaigrette does not taste freshly made–it kinda has a rubbery taste to it and has a weird consistency. The oranges, grapes, and strawberries came from somewhere warm. The greens, the feta–do I really want to know?  The food certainly isn’t local to Detroit this time of year. Under what conditions was it produced? The problem is, there is literally no way to find out where this food is produced nor under what circumstances: this is not a question one can ask. My guess is that the food comes from one or more of the big restaurant distributors (like Gordon’s Food service). Tracing these strawberries or fresh greens back to a farm is impossible because the system is designed to prevent such activity. What I do know, however, is that this salad is well branded by the name of the famous chef.  That’s all I’m meant to know–the branding, the distributor. My stomach gone sour, I manage to get the rest of the salad down and walk out of the restaurant, looking at the long line of chain establishments in airport culture. This airport could be any airport; this meal eaten anywhere. This “faceless and nameless” salad is just one symptom of a larger problem, what James Howard Kunsler calls the “Geography of Nowhere.”

 

I’ve traveled to most of the big cities in the USA in the last ten years as I’ve attended various conferences as part of the work of my profession. Some cities make more of an attempt than others to have some local sense of place and unique identity (Austin, San Francisco, and New Orleans being the most successful of those I’ve visited). But that local sense of place is often obscured by the rubber stamped replication of the same stores everywhere: Rite-Aid, Walmart, Wendy’s, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, Subway, Bank of America, Friday’s, the list goes on and on. Most places, big or small, are dominated by the same stores everywhere–and the monotony is deafening. We have gotten to the point, in 2015, where there are still local places to be found in these towns and cities across the US, but they are often harder to find and they are shutting down at alarming rates. When you do find these local gems, you realize that even these local places are often dependent on the industrialized machine for functionality, because that is the only way to stay profitable. The local diner, ran by a local owner, still uses Gordon’s food service for all of their food needs. Local food, of course, is just one casualty of this rubber-stamped replication–I think the others are happiness, localized wealth and economies, and a true sense of community.
I’ve been thinking about this issue of being rooted in a place, of our lost localness and uniqueness, after returning from Costa Rica. The contrast between the US and Costa Rica is so stark: where everywhere you went in Costa Rica, local and unique businesses thrived. You were able to meet the owners–they were serving your food grown on a local farm, they were showing you to your room, and they were excited to sell you the wares that they in many cases had produced themselves. And you could literally taste the difference–every meal was fantastic, locally sourced right there in the community.  Every place you stayed was unique and wonderful.  Could you imagine of things were like that here, as they once were?

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde, Costa Rica

 

James Howard Kunsler’s Geography of Nowhere attempts to make sense of the faceless, nameless, rubber-stamped geographies–what he calls dehumanizing places. He argues that the automobile is to blame for much of this as it allowed for continued expansion (an colonizing mentality); it allowed people to move further and further out into the suburbs and become entirely dependent upon the automobile; and it encouraged the destruction of energy-efficient public transportation. It was GM who systematically purchased and destroyed street car lines in the earlier part of the 20th century, making way for wider roads and bus systems. I have seen the results of this firsthand in the Detroit Metro area, where practically no public transportation exists (and you hear of stories like this man who walked to work 21 miles). The lack of public transportation also results in horrific traffic and mean attitudes on the road–a truely unpleasant experience.

 

The suburbs themselves in every place, including both housing and commercial establishments, became areas of isolation not accessible without a personal car. Think about any strip mall or line of stores along a major roadway you’ve visited, and how its impossible to go between them, impossible to walk anywhere between them and how dangerous it feels to be out of your car.  Think about the winding roads of your nearest subdivision–and the repressive laws within. The sprawl encourages isolation.  And thinking about this while you are flying above–you can see how far the sprawl has gone, how visible our sprawl is from the skies…

 

Car-dependent Sprawl....

Car-dependent Sprawl….

Of course, what Kunsler is really arguing is that modern-day America just feels wrong.  It feels wrong, uncomfortable, and yet its all that most of us have ever known.  We have to take vacations to get “away from it all” and when we return, it crushes us.  I have certainly experienced this firsthand–after attending a spiritual retreat for 8 days a few years ago, I remember getting in the car at  with a friend to drive back to Michigan. Our first rest stop, a few hours into our journey, was full of loud televisions, walls of plastic-packaged products, screaming children demanding toys, and food fryers tended by unhappy-looking pimply faced teens.  I literally lost it and could not return inside–my heart was racing, my palms were sweaty; it was a full-blown panic attack, the first one that I had ever experienced. Even when you aren’t dealing with reverse culture shock, it still takes a lot of energy to go out into the world, into the geography of nowhere. Even though I depend on the big businesses a heck of a lot less than I used to, I still need toilet paper or canning jars once in a while. Going into it the world of strip malls and big box stores is uncomfortable; the people who are there shopping have these sad, numb, or dead looks on their faces (pay attention the next time you go shopping–you’ll see what I mean). Now that I’ve largely removed myself from it, it gets harder and harder to return each time. Its hard to explain to people who are still fully entrenched in the system–but sometimes when I tell a few like-minded friends about my difficulty in going out into it, they knowingly nod.

 

I also think the spiritual implications of the “geography of nowhere” are also of critical importance. When a new home in a subdivision out in the suburbs is created, an act of destruction takes place–an immediate destruction of the landscape. This is because the first thing that is done is that “developers” remove the topsoil and strip the land bare to the subsoil. Each teaspoon of healthy topsoil, contains over a million bacteria, 100 grams of fungal hyphae, 10,000 protozoa, hundreds of beneficial nematodes and microanthropods–in other words, so much life, the web of life upon which all other plants and animals depend. The topsoil is turned into another commodity by the “developers” which is bagged and sold to big box stores, and then the new owners of the house have to buy it back, but by then, this soil web of life is long dead. After stripping the life from the land, humans are ready to inhabit the land, complete with fossil-fuel dependent cars and chemlawns. How can a place like this, rooted in so much destruction, have any sense of the sacred? Most habitations and most buildings are constructed in the same way–the land is stripped bare with no thought or care for the life that may already exist there; the homes or buildings are placed not in harmony with it, but in many cases, opposed to it, and then those buildings and homes and their inhabitants continue to pollute and dump chemicals. How can we engage in sacred actions, heal this land, when our habitations have caused such destruction in their creation? I think this accounts for so much of our disconnect from nature–the “nature” of grass inhabiting a chemlawn is not able to be connected with in the same way as that which came before the subdivision. This whole process already, from the time of its beginning, creates a destructive cycle that is only continued with the suburban sprawl. Truthfully, I have a hard time handling the energy of subdivisions or strip malls. They feel wrong to me on a cultural and personal level, but more than that, they feel wrong to me on a spiritual level. And the contradictory thing here is that each time I enter–what happens? I contribute to that destruction. The contradictions of living–in any way–in modern consumerist society are so apparent.

 

The civic implications of such a geography are also important.  When people are kept so far apart and are isolated, there is no sense of community nor democracy. The isolation with means that people don’t interact with those different from them–and this can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and more (think about the war on the poor; the lack of care and compassion for the needy; the cold-hearted approach to so much social justice we see). No sense of community exists when corporations provide all of your needs, and you no longer need to depend upon each other. I think the concepts of democracy have failed our modern age for a lot of reasons, but certainly, our destructive and isolated living habits have certainly contributed.

 

One could say, in thinking about the geography of nowhere and our loss of a sense of local identity and place, that the corporations have stolen our communities. That they have somehow stolen our local identities from us–but I think the truth is much harder to hear. We have willingly acquiesced to their presence in every city and town and rural area in our lives. We have done this at great cost to ourselves, our environments, and our communities. Every time we decide to purchase a house in a subdivision, to shop at a big box store in a strip mall, or eat at a chain store, we are contributing. Perhaps, as someone sitting on the edge of the Millennial generation (born in 1981, graduating high school in 1999), I want to lay the blame at those who rejected the movements toward sustainability in the 1970’s, before I was born or when I was a young child incapable of knowing better. But again, I look towards the actions in my adult life and know the blame sits with every one of us, regardless of our generation or our previous life choices.  And its up to each of us to make a change.

 

The question becomes: what can we do about this?  I think there are individual things we can do, and also larger-picture cultural things that can be done. On the individual side, I think the first thing to do is to recognize that in a capitalist system, there is a simple law of supply and demand. Whatever there is a demand for, whatever is profitable, creates the jobs, moves the markets, and so on, is what is purchased–and purchasing power can have tremendous pull. The craft beer movement is an excellent example of this. At one time, Budweiser had almost 15% of the market; ten years later, it now has just 7%. Why? At some point, people realized that this mass-produced industrialized product labeled “beer” wasn’t really all that great, and instead opted for local breweries full of quirkiness, options, and above all, flavor.  And now there are more local breweries than ever before.  So more broadly, each time we purchase (or not purchase) something, we are essentially supporting not only that product, but that business and the way it conducts itself in the world. I cannot state this firmly enough.  Don’t like the big box stores in the strip malls? Then find local alternatives–you’ll not only get better service, but you’ll get to often go to more interesting areas in town. The same is true of our homes–when we purchase or even choose to rent a particular kind of home (especially one in the suburbs) we are backing that way of life with our own dollars. Now for some of us, we are in homes and those choices are made and we are committed to them because of previous choices–but even then, there are lots of ways to levy positive change within existing communities. But if or when the choice comes again, can we choose a home that is within walkable proximity to a downtown area? Can we choose a home that doesn’t contribute to suburban sprawl?  As I’ve suggested before on this blog, each and every action we take is a chance to make positive change in the world.  And for me, this isn’t just talk–I know how hard what I’m suggesting is to actually enact!

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad

The larger issue here is that intentional planning and selling of a particular ideology to generations past and present has gotten us into this mess, and more intentional planning and education is probably what is needed to get us out. Kunsler suggests something similar in Geography of Nowhere and argues that new urban planners can design smarter, more localized, and more community-driven cities and towns. I think there’s a lot of potential here, but again, it takes groups of people who want these things to manifest them.  I also will mention permaculture design here, as permaculture design isn’t just a design science for lawns–it can also be used to design effective communities. What would happen if we designed spaces using permaculture’s three ethical principles: fair share, care for people, and care for earth?  Transformation!

 

Like most of the more philosophical posts I write on this blog, there are no easy answers.  There are just the hard questions, and the question that each of us can ask: what can I personally do? What can we collectively do?  The answers to these questions will help us continue to navigate into the future yet unknown.