The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part II: Nature Wisdom July 14, 2018

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

As any mushroom hunter knows, mushrooms are tricksy little buggers.  What one looks like in one setting may not necessarily be what one looks like in another, depending on soil conditions, moisture, sun, size of the mushroom, insect damage, and/or regional variation. Mushroom species can vary a lot, even from one small region to another, and that variation can spell trouble for someone who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to understand such variation.  Mushroom books offer perhaps 1-2 photos of mushrooms, and a good book will also offer a mushroom hunter the “keys” (features that distinguish one mushroom from another, like attached gills, color, etc).  However, only lived and true experience can help you not make a dangerous mistake when it comes to the mycelium kingdom.  The difference here, I think, epitomizes two key things: the different aspects of nature wisdom, specifically, the difference between book knowledge and lived experience.  But also, it epitomizes the importance of being rooted firmly in one’s local ecosystem and learning that ecosystem and from sources as connected to that specific ecosystem as possible. In last week’s post, we explored the four ways in which we can connect deeply through nature: through nature wisdom, nature activity, nature reciprocity, and nature reverence.  This week, we’ll delve deeply into the idea of nature wisdom and its three aspects: knowing nature, understanding nature, and probing nature.  We might frame this as a triad:

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

Knowing nature includes the basic skills of identification and naming–all of which can be started to gained through reading and study or from learning from others. For humans, being able to recognize something, and know its name, is a powerful act. For building my own nature knowledge, what I’ve done over a long period of time is commit to learning 15-20 new plants, trees, animal tracks, rocks, or other aspects about nature each year.  After a few years, you will be able to learn more and more trees, plants, animal tracks, and so on–and this knowledge really empowers you. In 5 years with this method, you could know 100 or more plants and trees!  Slow and steady over a period of time is the best way to learn.  However, reading about plants and trees and so on in books is only half the battle of learning them–the other half is actually finding and experiencing them.

 

I’ll give a nice example of this process.  For years, Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest and Nature’s Garden have been my two favorite wild food foraging books.  I’ve read them cover to cover; in the wintertime, I’ve studied them extensively.  Some of the plants he lists in the book, like wild rice, I’ve never seen, but I’ve at least got a basic idea from his books about what they might look like in the event that I can come across some. In May, I visited a friend who just moved to some new property and she wanted me to help identify some things.  We walked through and there was a lot of great things growing–including what I believed to be some highbush cranberry.  I hadn’t ever met this plant, but I wanted to very badly, so I had studied it extensively and when we found it, I knew what it was. It was growing on a giant rock pile in the middle of a field and had some little leftover dried cranberries.  We took photos and a few sample leaves, and sure enough, it was highbush cranberry. This kind of nature study is so useful so that when you are out and about, you can do some identification.  Had I had my books with me (I did not), it would have been even more useful!

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Before the modern era and the general loss of this knowledge in westernized society due to industrialization and commodification, a lot of this knowledge was shared, it was cultural, it was part of the body of knowledge that was taught to people in order to survive and thrive in connection with the natural world.  Largely, that’s not the case anymore, although you will find people here and there who really know a lot about nature and are willing to share ( a lot of these folks I’ve found in the herbalism, woodcraft, and bushcraft movements). I absolutely delight when I find anyone who can teach me something new about the natural world and take every opportunity to learn from them!

 

To learn any aspect of nature, books and resources are critical, and classes/teachers are even better if you can find them.  Here are some of my favorite books and resources to get you started:

  • Botany in a Day is my favorite book (recommended to me some years ago by one of my blog readers).  This teaches you basic plant identification through pattern recognition.
  • I aslo love Newcomb’s Flower Guide for an easy method of plant identification for any flowering plants. For animal tracks, Animal Tracking Basics by Tiffany Moore and Jon Young is a great book to start with.
  • Other books by Jon Young, like What the Robin Knows  are also excellent for understanding how nature works and the signs in nature.
  • Otherwise, the many field guides out there offer much with full photos and information.
  • Other books I love that teach about relationships are three books by John Eastman –The Book of Swamp and BogThe Book of Forest and Thicket; and The Book of Field and Stream.
  • Finding Your Way Without a Map and a Compass is an absolutely fabulous book about nature awareness.
  • There are also a number of great plant and nature identification apps like Leafsnap that can be quite helpful. Finally, purchasing a Loupe (Jeweler’s Loupe) as a small magnifying glass can aid in learning and observing nature.
  • And for wild food foraging, Samuel Thayer’s books, which offer detailed information on how to find plants, when to find plants, and how to prepare plants (more on this in next week’s post!)

 

Bringing nature knowledge into your nature interactions allows you a much deeper sense of the natural world–it empowers you. Getting to know nature can literally last a lifetime.

 

Understanding Nature

As my opening discussion of the challenges of mushroom hunting illustrate, there are two kinds of nature knowledge–the knowledge that comes through reading and study, and the understanding that comes through experience in both the inner and outer worlds of nature. Both are critical to developing ovate knowledge about the natural world and “nature wisdom.”

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

The understanding that comes through direct experience cannot be replicated by reading books. All the books in the world cannot help you gain the deep understanding of nature as you observe the unfurling of a frond of a fern or watch ants busy at work removing soil from their nest. This is the kind of “knowing” that comes from regular engagement in the natural world.  Any engagement is good; in AODA, we recommend at least 15 minutes per week in nature, some of it spent in stillness and focus.  I’ve used this practice for over a decade and not only has it helped me know nature, it has certainly helped me be at peace and connect to it.  Earlier in this blog, I detailed the “druids anchor spot” technique; this is a great way to learn a single place and deeply connect to it.  This, combined with journaling and regular meditation in nature can be of great aid.

 

What I have found to be the most effective in aiding my building of understanding nature is to shift frequently between book knowledge and real-world experience.  Read some books the night before I go out on a journey, then take a book or two with me (like Newcomb’s) and then cross reference what I am seeing with what I’m learning.  Or finding a new plant, photographing it carefully, and working to identify it and learn what I can about it.  Remembering where it grows, checking it through the season and its life cycle.  Knowing and understanding, then, become like two sides of the coin of nature wisdom–it is necessary for us to have both to fully embrace this kind of connection with nature.

 

Probing nature

A final way in which you can build nature wisdom is in the tradition of the many naturalists who have contributed scientific knowledge of the natural world: Leopold, Darwin, Audobon, Humbolt, etc.  This kind of nature wisdom, which I am calling “probing nature” is engaging in the study of nature in some way.  Most of the time, we think about study in the form of systematic observation with notetaking (think the field journals of the naturalists) or through experimentation (think gardening experiments to see which plants produce a higher yield.) Most of the time, people think that this kind of thing is left only to scientists working in the field, but everyday people can also engage in a number of different kinds of things.

 

On the most basic level, this is simply a matter of satisfying your curiosity, and seeking answers to questions like, “I wonder what….”  or “Why does this…”  I recently did this on my property after seeing trees that had a hazel-like leaf and I was excited to discover that I potentially had “beaked hazelnuts” (a tree I hadn’t encountered before).  Now I can systematically observe this tree each day as it goes through its life cycle and see if the hazelnuts actually appear in the fall!  In order to do this, I’m observing the trees carefully 1-2 times a week and looking at them throughout their life cycle.  A second example is through my “potato bucket” experiment.  I had a bunch of sprouting potatoes back in March and it had been still so cold and the ground was frozen.  But these potatoes wanted to grow!  So I put some of them in buckets and large planters with holes and put them in the greenhouse to see what happened.  Would I get any yield? Now, it is mid June and I’m able to harvest the potatoes from these buckets.  As I have grown this variety before, I am certain that the harvest is not as great, but it is still something and is a very fantastic early potato crop.  This was a simple gardening experiment, and I learned a bit more about how to grow potatoes.

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

A second avenue for “probing nature” and one I highly recommend is citizen science, where you help contribute to a larger dataset of observations that are then used to build an understanding about the natural world.  I wrote about this here. These are projects, like Project Budburst, that help track different things happening in the ecosystem: the flight of the monarchs; the sighting of birds; the arrival of buds in the spring; the movement of wildlife, the various potential effects of climate change.  These, to me, are very important ways for druids and others who are committed to nature spirituality to get involved and help build our knowledge about the living earth.  I think this work is even more critical today than ever before: funding for climate change research and basic science surrounding the natural world is continuing to be cut; people like you and I can help fill in these gaps as volunteers and contribute to larger studies that make a difference.

 

Conclusion

Knowing nature is one of four ways I’ve outlined that we can cultivate a connection to the living earth. In the years that I’ve been practicing druidry, I have come to believe that it is my knowledge of nature that has helped me develop a much deeper connection to the living earth in so many different ways. It’s one thing to go out in a natural setting and appreciate and respect what you are seeing; it is a completely different experience to go out and be able to identify plants, animal tracks, stones, be able to read the water movements of a river, or predict weather changes by observing the clouds and wind.  You have a deeper appreciation of it, you are closer to it, and it is this deeper knowing that connects you in all kinds of new ways. Suddenly, you know plants names, their uses, how rare or abundant they are, if they are endangered, and even from this information, you can begin to ascertain their magic and spiritual connection.  And so, to me, the foundation of all of this rests in respecting the earth and in knowing her.

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part I: A Framework July 8, 2018

A lot of people find druidry because they want to “connect” with nature.  They want to attune to nature, feel part of it, gain knowledge and wisdom about it. But what does “connecting” to nature look like in practice?  Going out in the woods and feeling good?  Knowing the name of trees?  Walking with sacred intent in a natural place?  Spending time in nature?  All above the above? And so, over the next few posts, I want to spend more time with the concept of “connecting to nature” and share some strategies for what people can do to connect with nature in a multitude of ways.

As I’ve written about earlier, part of what I see as the core of druidry as a spiritual tradition is the work of “connection.” In that post, I talked about connecting to nature, connecting to the spirit, and connecting to the creative practices as three ways in which connection is manifest in this tradition. And, I believe, it is this search for connection that underlies so much of the interest in nature-based spiritual paths like druidry and the growing amount of druids worldwide.

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

 

A Framework for “Nature Connection”

I find that older books on nature can really offer perspectives that we’ve sometimes forgotten about. For example, The Field Book of Nature Activities and Conservation (1961) by Wiliam Hillcourt, five nature-oriented actions are outlined in the opening chapter. He suggests that we can know nature, probe nature, use nature, do nature, and conserve nature. I think this offers a beginning of a useful framework for thinking about this topic.

 

Drawing upon his five categories, and adding in my own definitions and additional areas that are pertinent to druids gives us a nature connection framework with four major areas with three specific activities for each area.

Nature Wisdom

The basis of much of nature connection is rooted in building an understanding and knowledge of the living earth. This first category, which I call “nature wisdom” helps us do just that.

  • Knowing nature – Knowing nature includes two aspects: knowledge, that is, learning about nature and being able to identify aspects of nature, ecosystems, ecology, botany, and much more.  This knowledge is typically gained from books, classes, and teachers.  It is knowledge that is passed on to us as part of human wisdom.  While knowing about nature used to be something that every human had, and was part of the formal or informal knowledge that was passed to each generation, for many of us living in western contexts, this often needs to be learned anew.  From my perspective, if I am going to honor nature, I better know something about her as well, and that “knowing nature” helps me begin to do that.
  • Understanding nature – As the druid’s prayer suggests, there is a distinction between knowledge and understanding. Knowing is having a piece of information in your head (e.g. wild yam is a forest-dwelling vine that has heart-shaped leaves). Understanding is the kind of knowing that can only be gained through direct experience in nature.  (Wild yam grows up this tree in this particular pattern and has these variations in the leaves. And it has a good energy about it.) Direct experience leads to understanding. I truly believe that both knowledge and understanding are necessary for building “nature wisdom.”
  • Probing nature – Probing nature is not something that everyone does, but it is something that everyone could do.  This can mean anything from scientific observations and interactions where we build knowledge about nature to well as building your own understanding of nature through systematic nature journaling, observation, and so forth. This is what the great naturalists did as they built systematic knowledge of nature; this what every citizen scientist does as she logs the first blooms through Project Budburst. This is also what any organic gardener does as he carefully tracks yields of vegetables based on different soil amendments. Asking questions and seeking answers about nature is what “probing nature” is all about.

Abundance of harvest

Abundance of harvest

Nature Engagement

Nature Activity is the second broad category that helps us establish a connection with nature by engaging with and through nature. This category includes how we use nature, interact with nature, and do things in nature.

 

  • Using Nature – That humans can–and need to–use nature is a key part of not only our connection with nature, but also for our survival. Using nature is twofold: on one hand, it is about learning how to use the natural world for meeting our needs; on the other, it is about the reciprocation activities that must be present in that use so that it is sustainable over a period of time. So using nature includes learning the uses of many plants, animals, and other aspects of nature and would include foraging, natural building, hunting, and bushcraft skills.  This is about how to work with nature to bring productive abundance to our gardens and lands, how to make dyes or spin cloth from plants we grow, and so many more ways that we can turn a part of nature into something that we can eat, wear, or make.  And, it is also understanding local plant or animal populations, understanding the carrying capacity of the land, and learning how to give back.  That is,  engaging in sustainable (minimally) or regenerative use where we give as much as we get (through tending the wilds, scattering seeds, and doing other regenerative activities, see next section).
  • Nature Activity – These are the various activities that you can engage in  while in nature, such as kayaking, camping, backpacking, skiing, and so on. These activities help us get into new parts of nature and let us have fun and relaxation while doing so. Nature, then, becomes a canvas for some of the ways we engage in healthful activities and learn more about the living world.
  • Creating with/through nature – A third way that nature activity happens is through the flow of awen, through creative inspiration.  This might include finding aspects of nature as a muse for creative acts (poetry, song, dance, music, artwork, etc) or else directly working with nature in terms of creating artistic media (wooden drums, berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, etc.). This category is essentially the synthesis of the bardic arts and the living earth–and there is much to explore here!

 

Nature Reciprocity

Inherent in the use of nature and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. Inherent in the term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves (with or without human help).  But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good–the recognition that humans have took too much (at least here in the US) for over three centuries.  It isn’t enough to sustain, but we must learn to nurture and regenerate. This helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

  • Conserving nature – Working to protect nature and conserve existing ecosystems; such as those that are pristine or those that are actively healthy or healing. This includes a range of “conservation” activities that may include protecting new areas, protecting endangered species, encouraging native plant and pollinator populations, river cleanups, building new trail systems, political action, and so on. Conserving nature can also include exploring our own ways of reducing our impact on the planet as a whole, engaging in actions that help us preserve and protect existing resources from further degradation and exploitation.
  • Regenerating and Healing Nature – Working with the land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health, we might use both ritual means (land healing ceremonies) and physical means (such as permaculture design techniques). In this case, we recognize that a great deal of land has been degraded and we can work actively to help be a force of good and bring these lands to a healthier state ecologically.  For example: turning a lawn into a butterfly sanctuary or a food forest is a good example of this practice.
  • Offerings to Nature: Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of the kind of ceremony I am talking about, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.

 

Nature Reverence

A nature based shrine

A nature based shrine

Everything that I’ve been writing about is a form of honoring nature.  When you develop nature wisdom, you honor nature.  When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature.  But there are also specific activities that are more distinct, more intentional, that put honoring nature as central.

  • Respecting Nature – I believe that honoring nature begins, first and foremost, with a mindset. Most people in Western society are socialized to think of themselves first–what can I do that best benefits me, etc.  Through respect of nature, we can add “what can I do that best benefits the land” as an additional (or primary) category in our minds.  Recognizing and engaging in thought, word, and deed that recognizes the sanctity of life and the living earth  is the first step in honoring nature.  This internal mindset, then, will manifest as outward action in a variety of ways.
  • Honoring nature – Honoring nature also involves offering respect and reverence for the natural world and recognizing the sanctity of all life through ritual and intentional action.  This can be through engaging in various kinds of ritual for benefit of life on the planet and the living earth–such as through seasonal celebration or land healing rituals. Another way we might honor nature is through creating physical spaces in our homes and out on the broader landscape. This may include creating physical shrines upon the landscape, home altars, and more.
  • Communing with nature – Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual experiences for us, experiences that help us understand the land and our place in it in greater depth.  Many traditions facilitate these experiences surrounding rites of passage or coming of age rituals, but these experiences are open to anyone. Having deeply intense and spiritual experiences with nature; experiences that may fundamentally alter your understanding of yourself, your spiritual practice, and the living earth.  May include things like a druid retreat, vision questing, journeys, long-term work on a single site (like a druid’s anchor spot), and more.

 

Looking at this list above, there are clearly a lot of ways that “connection’ with nature can happen. There are likely ways I’m missing,  but I do think that this list is a good start for someone who wants to connect but isn’t sure how to do so beyond the “go into the woods and feel good” kind of thing!  Since each of these four topics can be a post in itself, that’s exactly what I’ll do next–delve into activities for each of these and how we might engage deeply with them.  Blessings as you connect with the living earth!