Two weeks ago, I talked about what American Druidry looks like. One of the big issues that came up in conversations here on the blog in the comments and also in the comments on the Druid’s Garden Facebook page was guilt from those of non-indigenous heritage. Guilt about the legacy of abuses against Native Americans in this country–a legacy that continues to this day. Guilt of being here on this land, knowing that many of us who are here now are here because of three centuries of genocide. Guilt about knowing that despite all that we may do now, this past bloodshed colors the way that we interact with the land, our relationships with the spirits of the land, and everything else we try to do to connect with the land and build sacredness. In the last two weeks, I’ve heard how people feel the spirits of the land aren’t open to them because of this legacy, how they don’t even know what to do to begin to rectify it, or they don’t think they have a right to do anything to the land, or how they are afraid to act because they might do more damage. For some people, these feelings of guilt are literally preventing them from doing much of anything because they don’t feel they have a right to the land. I’m glad we are having these conversations, and I think these are the start of understanding a way forward. This week, I want to more deeply share my perspective. That is, I want to talk about moving beyond guilt and doing reparations: the work of repair.
The Right to Speak?
These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially today, and there’s a lot of question about who even has the right to speak on a topic. Before I begin this conversation, therefore, it is useful to know who I am. I’m a druid, and I have been walking this path for over a decade. I’m a permaculture designer, an herbalist, an whimsical artist, a land healer, a teacher of many things. But maybe when we say”who I am” what we mean is what blood I carry. On one side of my family, I am a fourth generation descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the US after the potato famine forced many farmers to leave Ireland. These proud Irish came, settled here in Western PA, and mined coal. On the other side, my family has a very…colorful past. We have in the same generation (mingled in later bloodlines) a very well-known historical figure, a prominent general, who successfully defeated the Native Americans on their own soil and slaughtered thousands in his lifetime. We also have Shawnee man of whom little is known (as it is a taboo topic to the older generations in my family, but DNA records demonstrate that this “unmentionable fact” is true). We also have Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, PA German) ancestry. This pretty much makes me a mutt with direct ancestral ties both to this land and the bloodshed that happened. Does this mixed ancestry give me the “right” to speak on this issue? I have no idea, but at least, now you know where I’m coming from and can evaluate what I say based on that, if such things matter.
To me, my own ancestry or what my ancestors did or didn’t do isn’t as important as the work I do today. What was done before me were other people’s lives, decisions, and choices. I live in the shadow of those choices, and I certainly have to deal with them, but I can’t change the decisions of my ancestors or others here that caused these things to happen. I can’t change the bloodshed that was caused by General George Custer and his contemporaries. I can’t change the pillaging of the Allegheny Mountains for coal, steel, and iron. I can’t change the past. The only power I have is the work I can do in the present. I think that this is the best response I can have: to help repair the damage that was done, to help put balm on these centuries-old wounds, and to rebuild my own relationship with the land. And so, I focus my energies on that work, rather than lamenting the past or my ancestors’ place in it.
The Work of Repair
When we hear the term “reparations”, most frequently in the US it is tied to discussions and activism surrounding the monetary compensation for past horrible crimes (genocide, slavery, war crimes, etc). But this term has a lot of meanings, and its useful to explore those, especially in the context of nature spirituality on American soil.
Merriam Webster’s is a good place to start to think about this term and what it can offer us:
- 1 a : repairing or keeping in repair
- b reparations plural : repairs
- 2 a : the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury
- b : something done or given as amends or satisfaction
- 3 : the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation —usually used in plural
All three of these definitions give us something to consider in terms of the work of repair. We do need to be active in the tending of the land (definition 1a-b). We also do need to make amends for the wrong or injury that has been done to the land and her peoples. And finally, we do need to find some way of compensating those who have been wronged. And unlike ancestors’ actions and the choices of past generations, which is inherently disempowering and makes us feel bad without anything to be done, the work of repair offers us the ability to actively engage in this work today.
A Framework for Repair: Nurturing, Care, and Peace
On this blog, I’ve long talked about three ideas that I think offer us a framework for the work of repair: shifting from exploitative practices to nurturing ones, the permaculture ethical system of care, and peace-making as a spiritual practice. My long-term readers will recognize the currents that run into this conversation, but I’ll also summarize for those of you newer to the blog:
First, Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in the opening chapters, Berry describes two orientations toward the land: that of the exploiter and that of the nurturer. He describes the exploiter as the agribusiness person who seeks to extract as many resources as possible from the land for profit. We might easily point to any number of colonizing activities, stealing land from native peoples, pillaging natural resources, fossil fuel extraction activities, mountaintop removal, etc. In other words, he describes the behaviors and activities and unfortunate cultural heritage of the present day United States, a cultural heritage that each of us have inherited. The nurturer, by comparison, is a small family farmer in Berry’s estimation, someone who is as much concerned with the health of the land as he/she is with its productivity. The nurturer, then, makes care a primary concern and thinks not only about what is taken now, but how those actions impact the health of the land and her people.
Expanding on this notion of care, the permaculture ethical system offers us further tools. The ethics of people care, earth care, fair share, and self care are interwoven: to care for the land is to care for the people, to take one’s fair share is inherently to care for self and others, and so on. The point here is care as a primary virtue. Within permaculture is the idea that humans can be a force of good.
This leads me to the third thing: we can tie care and nurturing directly to the work of druidry through the tradition’s emphasis on peace, the work of reciprocation, and the work of honoring the spirits. I think this is critical: its not just that the land is somehow under our care, but that we are in direct relationship with it. Its a deep reverence and respect that druidry offers this conversation–the work of peace.
The Work of Repair
In my experience, it is necessary to show the spirits of the land that I’m a different kind of human: the last four centuries, particularly on the East Coast of the US where I live, have primarily involved people who look like me pillaging the land. When I walk into the woods or enter any other natural place, how do the spirits know I’m a different kind of human? Certainly not by what I say–the cultural legacy of the US has shown, time and time again, how words can’t be trusted. No, the spirits of the land will know me based on my actions: what I do, directly, to care for the land and engage in the work of repair. It is through this work, I believe, that I have continued to develop a very deep relationship with the spirits of my landscape, of the Allegheny Mountains, and of many other places that I have visited.
And I’m not just talking about doing ritual in the woods. I think that doing rituals and that kind of land healing work is critically important (and I’ve advocated for it myself, led large group rituals, etc). But rather, I’m talking about the physical labor of helping to plant trees, heal land, clean up trash, reseed the landscape, etc. And so, what I believe the work of repair is work that is:
- both psychical and energetic in nature
- offers healing and strengthening to the land
- puts the land in better physical shape than it was found (i.e. engages in activity that directly speeds the healing of the land; such as many permaculture techniques)
- offers these actions from a fundamental place of care, nurturing, and mutality
I can’t sit here and tell you what you should be doing to do the work of repair. Each of us has to find our own way forward with this work given our limitations and resources–but the above philosophies and orientations and the above definition can certainly help put you in the framework for the repair work. What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve been doing and how that fits the above framework. I’ve talked a ton about energetic repair already through my long land healing series from last year, so I’m going to now give some physical repair examples.
Some Examples of Repair
I wanted to share three recent examples of the work of repair work that will heal and strengthen not only the land here, but my physical connection to the land.
Countering Black Friday with Tree Planting
I think Black Friday is the most horrific day of the year, it is an anti-holiday that pays homage to mass consumption and cycles of waste. I went out once when I was 17, and have never participated in it since then. And so, to counter the consumerist frenzy that takes place on Black Friday, I always like to do something in line with people care, earth care, or fair share on that day. I think this is a wonderful way to show the spirits of the land that you are a different kind of human and reject the lure of consumption.
This past Black Friday, a friend and I planted 45 trees on my new property. Earlier on this blog I mentioned how the land here has been timbered four times in forty years, and how I was working with the spirits of the land here to help heal. As part of that work, I have been working to replant the forest–both with seeds as well as with small trees. After consulting with the spirits, we’ve decided to try to bring this forest back to something more akin to what it would have been before my white ancestors arrived: in PA, that’s about 33% chestnut with other hardwood nut trees and an understory of PawPaw, Elder, Spicebush, and more. And that’s exactly what I worked to plant: 25 chestnuts, 20 paw paws, and a few other assorted nut and fruit trees (persimmon, hazel, and, to anticipate more climate change, Pecan).
It was a long day of backbreaking labor, but at the end, it was a day well spent. Rather than engaging in activities that took from the land (through the manufacture of consumer goods, the spending of fossil fuels to visit stores, etc), I used only my own human energy to move trees, move compost, plant the trees, and more. After that day, each day, I walk out on the land and see the many blue tree tubes and smile with joy. And since then, I’ve also done ritual to support their growth and health. The spirits of the land are happy that this kind of work is happening here, and that brings me into a closer relationship with them.
Waste as a Resource: Humanure Composting
Last year, I wrote about Humanure composting and shared my design for a humanure toilet (modeled after the “Lovable Loo” design from the Humanure Handbook). In that post, I described why people compost their waste and how to do it. I have continued to engage in this practice and I believe it is a wonderful way of engaging in repair work. I have decided to compost down and then return all of my own waste to the wild areas on my land since so much had been taken from them with regards to logging. I find that this brings me back into cycle with the land and honors the land by putting resources back (rather than sending them “away” to mix with municipal septic systems). One of the things I’m doing now that I’m on my new land is to take this a step further by switching my cats from a clay-based litter to a wood based litter (made of recycled waste wood). Once this proves successful, I will also compost all of their waste in their own compost bin, and again, after two years of composting, return those resources to the land. The point here is simple: what my household eats (my household being myself and my two cats) is taken from the land and therefore, in any form, should be returned to it. That’s the work of care and nurturing, and that brings balance.
Sheet Mulch, Lawn Liberation, and Web Soil Repair
A final way that I’ve long engaged in the work of repair is cultivating a healthy soil web and replacing lawns with gardens of all kinds. As I’ve discussed before, the lawn is a site of consumption: it does not offer a healthy ecosystem, it does not offer food or forage to wildlife, and it certainly is not healthy from the perspective of nature. Developing gardens (for wildlife and humans) and converting lawns into other things is inherently repair work. It repairs not only the relationship between the spirits of the land and the human, but also helps repair the human’s spirit.
There are lots of ways to do this: a common one is through sheet mulching (which I wrote about here and here). You simply add a weeds suppression layer (cardboard most often) and then layer on organic matter (fall leaves, manure, finished compost, wood chips–many things that other people see as “waste” and leave on the side of the road for you to pick up). This takes away the grass and immediately gives you a good growing media. This isn’t the only technique to do this (I’ll be talking about another–hugelkultur–in an upcoming blog post) but it is certainly a great one to get started!
Supporting Native Peoples
I also want to talk about people care here before I conclude today’s post. There are no longer tribes of native peoples where I live; all that is left of them are the place names that once represented them. However, in other parts of the US, primarily out west, we certainly do have many native peoples still actively fighting for the rights of the land, the water, and their sovereignty and dignity as people. Further, we have indigenous people all over the world who also are fighting similar battles. And if we care about the work of repair, we also have to care about–and fight for–them. I think part of the work of repair can also be supporting native peoples: writing letters to representatives, offering monetary donations to causes, and being informed on what the issues are and how you can help.
I hope that this post has given you some food for thought in terms of how we might continue to shape a distinctly American Druidry through the work of repair. The work in this post, I believe, is necessary if we are to deepen our own connection to the land and her spirits, but also work to get beyond the guilt of the past and work to actively remedy, as much as we are able, the wrongs that have been done. It is through this deep work that I believe we can cultivate deep–rather than surface–relationships with the land and especially with the spirits of the land, those who have been here for millennia.
I also want to conclude by saying that I am under no illusion that the work I’ve outlined here is enough to repair all of these old wounds. I believe that that the full work of repair will take generations of people. But what I do believe is that someone has to pick up that work and start doing it, and that someone can be me–and perhaps you as well!