The Druid's Garden

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

Imbolc Symbolism for the North Eastern US: Reflections on the Landscape February 2, 2020

Imbolc was traditionally a Gaelic holiday celebrated in the holiday celebrating the first signs of spring. When I first started down the path of Druidry, I never felt very connected to Imbolc as a holiday because there seemed to be this huge disconnection between the holiday’s traditional roots and what I was seeing on my own landscape. Part of this is that the weather in the UK is much milder than where I’ve lived and I’m more likely to see at the Spring Equinox–or later–what might be first signs of spring at Imbolc. I thought it was funny when I’d see rituals where I should decorate my altar with snowdrops when they were still another 1-2 months away from coming forth!

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Reflections on Imbolc

My own issue with Imbolc speaks to what I see as one of the major challenges we have in Druidry, here in North America and globally:  It’s actually pretty hard to take the traditions of ancestors that were rooted in one place (the British Isles) and port it to another place (like North America). Once they are removed from their context, they lose a lot of rich meaning.  But it’s not just a contextual problem, but also a lifestyle one: the ancestors of the druid tradition also lived a non-industrial agrarian life, so different from modern life. Some of the traditional activities don’t make sense to you if you are living, say, an urban lifestyle (like the lactating of ewes!)  Further, as an animist, I don’t get into the deity specific focuses of the holiday, creating yet another kind of disconnection. So there are multiple points of disconnection: disconnection with the way of life of the people who originated the holiday, a disconnection with what is happening on my own landscape, and also, perhaps a cultural disconnection.

 

What I thought I’d do in this piece is share with you some of my own Imbolc symbolism, adapted for someone living in the Allegheny Mountains of Western PA, and talk about the stories behind the symbols and how I got there. I hope this will offer an example of how to adapt a holiday associated with the druid tradition (but maybe one you don’t immediately resonate with) to your local landscape. This allows you to practice a wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry that is more rooted in local landscape and place  I do think it’s important to recognize the difference between activities, observances, and rituals–celebrating a holiday to me isn’t just about doing a particular ritual, but rather, engaging in a number of activities and observances that mark that time of year. Thus, I’m not really talking much about rituals here, but more, my adapted Imbolc themes. And like those original peoples who developed holidays, these choices are very rooted in my own local landscape, regional culture, and my lifestyle.  I hope that you can use them as a guide for developing your own.

 

Weather, Groundhogs, and Prognostication.

This first symbol is rooted in the rodent weather prognostication that happens throughout the US.  Throughout the US in several different states that have German roots, American Groundhogs look to see their shadows and foretell the coming of spring. I happen to live about 45 minutes south of the most famous Groundhog of them all, Punxatawney Phil. Today marks Phil’s 134 years of weather predictions. Yet, this tradition is much older.  The tradition is rooted in Germany, where they used a European Badger to predict the weather this time of year. When the PA Germans moved here to Pennsylvania, they found that the Groundhog (or Woodchuck) was the more appropriate prognosticator, and the tradition has continued on. All throughout PA and now in many other states, the Groundhog is honored this time of year for his service in helping predict the end of winter. There’s a lot of fun that you can have in honoring the groundhog and doing some prediction of your own this time of year. If we broaden this tradition for personal celebration, you might think about Imbolc as being a good time to do some divination for things to come.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: One strategy for adapting your Druidry locally is to look at more local or regional customs that might align with your holiday. Look for annual traditions, large festivals, or other traditions that might take place at or near your holiday. In my case, adding Groundhog Day and prognostication/divination to my wheel of the year was an easy choice, both because of where I live but also because of my own cultural heritage as having many PA Dutch ancestors.

 

Tapping the Maple Trees

 

Tapping maple trees

Tapping maple trees

The second symbol that has become a cornerstone of my own Imbolc traditions is tapping the maple trees. The sap in the trees will run when the temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. For where I live, this almost always occurs in the two weeks around Imbolc. In fact, I consider Imbolc officially “here” the first day when the sap is running and I do my best to tap the trees on that day if possible (which doesn’t always happen, but usually I can get within a day or two!) A big part of my Imbolc celebrations includes tapping the trees, singing to them, making offerings to the trees and doing ritual work, and drinking their fresh sap as a blessing and cleansing. Usually, between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox, we get together with some other friends and do a day of boiling the sap–a way to share in community and the activity of the season.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: A lot of the druid wheel of the year holidays focus on changes in the landscape. Start by observing the time of year and look to see what is happening around you.  What is happening with wildlife? Precipitation and weather? Plants and trees? Through these observations, you’ll see that things can be both very quick (e.g. the changes that happen on the landscape after a hard frost) or quite subtle. It took me a number of years–and access to other people who knew about maple sugaring–to select this symbol and practice. Now, it is absolutely central to my activities this year and is certainly part of our regional culture here.

 

Snow Spirals and Ice Observations

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Snow spiral in sacred grove

The weather this time of year is very dynamic, perhaps more so than most other times a year, at least in this ecoregion. We have periods of snow, periods of ice, and periods where the temperatures thaw. I like to do a lot of work with snow and ice this time of year, tied to what is happening in the landscape. I pay attention to the snow and ice, I make snow spirals to bless and protect the land.  I also like to spend extra time at our stream and pond observing the melting and freezing of the waters.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: For each of the eight holidays, I like to spend time in observation of the landscape. I usually change the focus of my observations based on the holiday–for this holiday, the waters are the most dynamic and hence, where I spend some of my focus.

 

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow)

The newest addition to my own Imbolc celebrations is the creation of the Butzemann.  My

Butzemann from 2019

grandmother used to keep a scarecrow in her garden, and I always thought it had a life of its own–in fact, traditionally, many scarecrows did! The Butzemann is another tradition that comes from PA Dutch culture and is, essentially, a magical protective scarecrow.  You build the Butzemann at Imbolc, out of things that will burn, preferably, materials from last year’s garden and from the land around you.  At the spring equinox, you walk the Butzemann around the property and invite a good, protective spirit into the Butzemann. You give the Butzemann a name (there are some fairly complex traditions around naming, but essentially each year, you add a new name to your Butzemann, but keep all the older names as additional names.  Eventually, the name gets quite long indeed, demonstrating the Butzemann’s legacy over the years). You hang the Butzemann somewhere prominent for the remainder of the year, where it can protect your crops, flocks, and home for the growing season. I also like to make offerings to my Butzeman at each of the major holidays where he is active (Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, and the Fall Equinox). At the end of the growing season, by no later than Samhain, you burn the Butzemann so his spirit can go on the wild hunt.  If you don’t burn the Butzemann, the good spirit will leave anyways and your Butzemann could become possessed with a bad spirit.  At the end of the season, you may also save some special materials to construct your Butzemann the following Imbolc.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: I was so excited to learn about this practice from the folks who are developing Urglawee (PA Dutch Heathenry). I was looking for a practice that helped tie the growing season together and that would protect our flocks and land.  Wassail traditions are part of the blessing and protection fo the land but are very orchard and tree focused. This tradition offers another layer and is a wonderful way to tie the seasons together and offered me another great bioregional and cultural practice.

 

Sowing the First Seeds of the Season

Catnip seedlings!

Catnip seedlings!

On the full moon nearest to Imbolc, we start our first seeds of the year for our garden (other than garlic, which you plant the previous fall).  I think this is an important part of our traditions surrounding Imbolc because it lets us focus not on the remainder of winter (all six weeks of it, according to Punxataweney Phil) but rather, this pulls us into the light half of the year.  Tending the seeds, watching them grow, and planning for the future is a powerful reminder that spring will come again.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: This one is fairly pragmatic.  We have big gardens on our five-acre homestead and Imbolc is usually about 12 weeks out from our first frost–the first opportunity to start seeds for the year. This is when we start slow-growing herbs like Lavender and Sage, our allium crops (onions, shallots, leeks, and chives), and our greenhouse starts. It’s more meaningful to do this work tied to a druid holiday.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can hopefully see from this list, I’ve rooted my own Imbolc practices and activities in a way that is tied both to my specific life (as a homesteader growing my own food in a rural environment) but also to my specific landscape and local/regional culture. While it took me a number of years, the effort and intention I put into making Imbolc “mine” has really enriched my experience of this holiday and, honestly, took it from being my least favorite to one of my favorites.  I hope these symbols and activities are useful and inspirational to you on this most sacred day.

 

Sacred Landscapes, Part III: Ley Lines and the Energy of the Earth April 1, 2018

Over the last two weeks, we’ve been exploring the idea of re-enchanting the world. Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of re-enchantment through a discussion Max Weber’s claims that the world has been “disenchanted” by industrialization. Re-enchanting, then, is potential work that we as druids and earth-centered spiritual people might do. If we want to do this re-enchantment, however, we need to draw upon and better understand the ways in which ancient humans created sacred landscapes. In last week’s post, we explored the historical understanding of “ley lines” and alignments on the earth to understand some of the physical tools that ancient humans worldwide used to enchant the world. Today’s post continues this discussion in a more metaphysical sense–understanding the more modern “ley line theory” as it applies to earth energy and considering the energetic work we might do.

 

Ley Lines as Energy

Line of stumps in January - strong telluric energy.

Line of stumps in January – strong telluric energy.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, many people today in the metaphysical and druid communities think that ley lines are only energetic in nature, as in they are lines of energy flowing across the earth’s surface.  But ley lines have much more ancient roots that were also physically embodied upon the landscape through old straight tracks, mounds, marker stones, trees, stone circles, sacred sites, and much more.  The picture is a bit complex: it is clear that ancient humans had energetic/metaphysical/spiritual purposes for their ancient physical alignments (which I will explore more in this post) but, as “leys” were rediscovered, the physical and metaphysical features were also considered in isolation.

 

The modern conception of the ley line as an energetic line is traced by Pennick and Deverux in Lines on the Landscape. They argue that this conception began with a footnote that Dion Fortune read in W. Y. Evans Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries published in 1911. Wentz discusses in his footnote how fairy paths that “circulate the earth’s magnetism.” Fortune expands upon such an idea in her Goat Foot God (1936), where her characters are having a discussion of how to purchase a house for a ritual to invoke the Old Gods. This discussion includes a discussion of the lines of power that go between sacred sites, and how the house should be located along one of these lines of power (but not that close to the sacred sites themselves, due to tourist energy). By the 1960’s, with the publishing of John Mitchell’s The View Over Atlantis, Mitchell also picks up on Wentz’ footnote and expands this ley theory with the influence of Feng Shui and the dragon paths (lung mei), which he notes must be part of the earth’s natural flow of force or magnetism. Another term he uses for these energetic leys is the concept of “dragon currents” which I have heard also used in the modern occult scene. The View Over Atlantis led to many other discussions of energetic ley lines; this idea spread far and wide.  For example, dowsers picking up on the idea of earth energy and dowsing for ley lines. Another place that this energy of the earth as metaphysical reaches back into the old druid revival texts, although I haven’t seen it referred to as “leys” (the druid revival pre-dates this) but as “currents” of energy–the three currents: telluric (earth), solar, and lunar.

 

Of course, scholars working in a disenchanted worldview would dismiss the above discussions as hogwash and focus primarily on, physical features, but we have already established that western civilization is the only civilization in the world who has abandoned the metaphysical entirely–and look what a mess we are in!  Dion Fortune, W. Y. Evans Wentz, John Mitchell and other occultists were certainly onto something important–and something that ancient humans clearly knew and understood. The idea that ancient peoples knew and understood–and worked with–energy is certainly there in the historical records. Let’s now look at three ancient peoples and how they conceived of these “energy lines” to better understand the energetic side to ley line theory.

 

Ancient Chinese: Qi and Spirit Roads

In China, the concept of “Qi” or energy is still known and worked with.  Qi to the Chinese is understood as “universal energy” and they believe it flows in patterns similar to water.  We druids would call Qi by another name–Nywfre–the spark of life. In Ancient China, the long-standing practice of Feng Shui included working the landscape for harmonious living and being. Feng Shui literally means “wind-water” and focuses on the harmonization of features (physical and metaphysical) for the working of Qi. The Chinese believe that Qi is concentrated in the landscape in varying amounts, depending on the shape and features of the landscape and how humans have built into that landscape. The Chinese, then, can subtly shape landscapes over time with human-created features to bring the flow of Qi into harmony.

 

If there are “unfortunate” features in the landscape that would make Qi sluggish (which would cause a loss of vitality and fertility to the land) or flow too fast (which would cause burnout to the land), the practice of Feng Shui has means of altering the landscape through various techniques to remediate these unfortunate features. Straight mountain ridges or artificial straight lines (such as streets, railways, and so on) speed up the flow of Qi, and the termination points of these places (such as the end of a straight street) are considered to be problematic as the Qi flows too quickly and breaks up harmonious accumulations there.  These lines are also known as the “secret arrow.” The secret arrow is mitigated by dispersing the straight line with a wall, water fountain, building, windmill, and so on–these features will channel the Qi to the surrounding landscape in a more harmonious way.  Only the Chinese Emperor himself was able to harness the full power of Qi in the form of straight lines and straight tracks due to his rulership–which is critical also to understand the “energetic” aspects of leys.

 

Rulers, Royals, and *Regs

Sun rising over a straight ridge

Sun rising over a straight ridge

Many of the ancient ley lines were also connected to kings and rulership–as we see in a number of myths, a king or leader figure can literally represent the embodiment of the land and help hold the land’s fertility (this, for example, is the root of the ‘Great Rite’ ritual).  In fact, Pennick and Devereux argue that Kingship itself derives from a “straight movement” through the etymology of the indo-european root word *reg (to set straight).  Reg becomes regal, regency, regime, regin, realm, royal, rule, regulation, or regiment (p. 247).  A “ruler” can be both a straight edge and a king; these etymological connections take place in many languages other than English including German, Dutch, Old Saxon, Latin, French, and Hindi. The etymology is fascinating, and some researchers have surmised that the Indo European *reg traces the whole way back to the European Neolithic period where nomadic peoples began to transition to agricultural ones and the regs were those who led their people straight (the most ancient form of *reg may be some kind of ley surveyor) (p. 249).

 

Sacred alignments, likewise, were used in China, Egypt, and by the Aztecs all to “radiate” the king’s energy outward for rulership and to bring fertility of the land (p. 255).  For example, as Pennick and Devereux describe, the Emperor of China, sitting in the middle of his throne in the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden city, has a series of four cardinal gates, opening outward in the four directions–the energy of the Emperor himself radiating outward to his kingdom (p. 250).  Pennick and Devereux also note that the Imperial tombs have “spirit ways” that have long straight roads; it is said that spirits travel along straight roads.  These roads are not meant to be used by the living.

 

The Inca, likewise, used a Ceque system (a system of lines, radiating outward, appearing like a sunburst) from the Inca Temple of the Sun, where the Coricancha (the ruler of the Inca) sat, just like the Chinese Emperor. The Ceques were physical roads that radiated outward like rays on a sun; it is likely that the Cueques were laid out based on the Milky Way galaxy (p. 253).  The Ceques were leys–that is, they were marked straight paths- that led to huacas (shrines).  These Ceques led to 333 shrines, with 170 of those being springs or stones (p. 253). As Pennick and Devereux write, “The fact that ceques, like all ley-style alignments around the world, had multiple functions, with various degrees of utilitarian application.  The only common factor is that they all seem to have had some holy or magical quality…the straight line in the landscape was seen as a sacred line, whatever other function it had or came to have.” (p. 254).

 

Leys as a Vehicle for Spirits

As the Chinese example above describes, the Chinese knew that Ch’i (or spirit), flowed through straight lines. Pennick and Devereux also describe other cultures where the leys are seen as a vehicle for spirit: on Bali, for example, small “spirit walls” were built behind temple entrances to prevent certain kinds of local spirits (travelling in straight lines) from entering (p. 255). Fairy paths, likewise, were straight line roads between sites that were used exclusively by the “good people” in Celtic world, predominately, in Ireland.  To build a house or to sleep on one of these paths would surely draw misfortune. For example, in The Secret Country, Janet and Colin Bord describe a number of problems that people have had in Ireland with fairy paths: owners of a house built over a fairy path  would need to have doors on opposite sides, which could be opened to let the fairy through. In other cases, a corner of a house that was on a fairy path was knocked off to appease the good folk. W. Y. Wentz, in the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, notes that the Welsh Fairy, the Twylwth Teg, put to death humans who walk on certain paths.  These pathways are only for the spirits to use.

 

In a similar way, Pennick and Devereux describe the spirit path that is established between a Native American sweat lodge in the Sioux tradition. According to Lame Deer, a Sioux Medicine Man, the sweat lodge itself is believed to house the spirits of all living things.  The hole in the center of the lodge, the hole that will hold hot stones and have water poured to create steam, is considered to be the center of the world.  The soil from this hole is made into a mound outside, an unci mound (grandmother earth) about 10 paces from the lodge in a straight line.  Another 10 or so paces, also in a straight line, the fire burns.  This is known as a spirit path. When the ceremony begins, the power of the Great Spirit, as well as a powerful, beloved, ancestor (relative) will also be present in the pit. None can cross the line between the fire, the unci mound and the lodge itself.

 

Some paths can be walked, and others cannot

Some paths can be walked, and others cannot

Aboriginal Songlines & Singing Paths Act of Creation

Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines, which explores the Aboriginal Australian’s mythology surrounding the sacredness of the world, the creation of the world, and energetic “songlines” that cross the landscape.  These songlines, according to Chatwin, were “the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as “dreaming-tracks” or “songlines”; and to Aboriginals as “Footprints of the Ancestors” or “The way of the law” (p. 2). The Aboriginals’ world creation myth included the ancestors as singing the land into being. Because of this, the Aboriginal Australians believed that the entire landscape of Australia was a sacred site. One of Chatwin’s informants, for example, also told him that the Aboriginal words for “country” and “line” were the same word–the Aboriginals saw the lines on the landscape as a sacred typography that was sung. His informant explained how “each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes…a song was both map and direction finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country” (p. 13).  The Aboriginal Ancestors’ songs were the acts of creation; those modern Aboriginals who went on ‘walkabout’ were making a sacred journey, a singing of re-creation, singing the original song and walking the original path of their ancestors who created the world.

 

Arkady, Chatwin’s primary informant, also describes the Aboriginal philosophy about the land as follows, “To wound the earth is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors sang the world into existence” (p. 11).

 

Remembering and Re-Creating the Sacred on the Landscape

What these examples above have explored is the idea that physical leys, in a number of places, are connected to energetic understandings of the world and the sacredness of the world.  In the case of the songlines, the leys do not even need to have physical markers–the songs themselves help determine the pathways.

Pennick and Devereux conclude by making the argument that, as the songlines themselves suggest, that the straight line ley is a universal concept, an archetypal one, that all major peoples understood and enacted in some way. They conclude their book with the following, “The straight line in the landscape, the result of another kind of human awareness interacting with a differently-percieved environment, reminds us that we have forgotten certain things.  We have forgotten about our inner life; we have forgotten that the land is sacred, and we have forgotten the interaction between them both” (p. 262). Ley lines, and their associated metaphysical connections, is ancestral knowledge.  Not knowledge of a particular people or tribe, but knowledge that all humans once had.  This is the deepest kind of ancestral knowledge, the kind that cannot be fully eradicated by a disenchanted world.

 

We all know of the sacredness of the land, in some way, even if our conscious mind in its disenchanted cultural conditioning disallows such knowledge. We know, subconsciously, of the magic woven into the fabric of the land by countless generations of human ancestors that came before us. Even today, people would rather look out their window at a forest than a busy street. People “vacate” to natural places, to hear the rhythmic crash of the waves or the splendor of the mighty waterfall, to feel themselves being restored and renewed. It’s why natural wonders of the world have millions of tourists each year coming to witness their splendor.  It is why, when I spend time in the old growth hemlock grove that is such a rare and wonderful place, hikers go silent upon entering.  This knowledge may have been largely forgotten of in the conscious mind, but it is still present with us in our blood, in our bones, in our spirits.  The ancestors whisper–it is time for re-enchanting our land.  It is time for us to understand, sense, and create the subtle flows of energy upon the landscape.

 

Our ancestors have left us a roadmap–a roadmap that I’ve been working to share over the last few posts. This roadmap is clear: there is magic and sacredness in the landscape, and we can connect sacred points within it, over short or long distances, with both physical and energetic means.

 

And so,  ancient people wove physical and metaphysical aspects of the sacred into their landscapes through stones, through songs, and through sacred sites.  The question is, what will we create? What will we do? What does our re-enchanted world look like? How do we, as individuals, as groups, as humans, take up this work again?

 

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.