Tag Archives: observe and interact

Forest Regeneration at the Druid’s Garden Homestead: Forest Hugelkultur, Replanting and More!

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

The property was almost perfect: in the right location, a natural spring as a water source, a small and nice house with a huge hearth, areas for chickens and gardens, a small pond and a stream bordering the edge of the property….pretty much everything was exactly what we hoped.  Except for one thing: right before selling the property, the previous owners did some logging for profit, taking out most of the mature overstory of trees on 3 of the 5 acres. This left the forest in a very damaged place: cut down trees, lots of smaller limbs and brush, often piled up more than 5-8 feet high in places. I remember when I went to look at the property and started walking the land and just saying, “Why would they do this?”  It hurt my heart. Could I live here, seeing what had so recently been done?  But I’ve always been led to such places as part of my spiritual path, particularly places that have been logged.

 

A continual theme of this blog is land healing.  In some recent posts,  I have been sharing some details about physical land healing: what to do, how to do it, what ecological succession is and how that matters and also why you might take up the path of the land healer as a spiritual practice. In today’s post, I’m going to put these pieces together and share a specific example from the forest regeneration work we are doing at the Druid’s Garden Homestead. In the last two years, we have been developing methods to help support the ecosystem and foster ecological succession. With careful choices, ecological succession can be done faster and more effectively, helping shift our land to a mature ecological sanctuary for life. This is by no means a complete project but does offer a glimpse into what we are doing, some of the choices we made, and hopefully, after some time passes, I can offer some updates!  The goal then is to offer you a model and ideas for work that you can do to heal in your own ecosystem from a physical land healing standpoint.

 

One of the questions that sometimes come up for people interested in land regeneration is this-if nature already knows how to heal herself, why would any person want to intervene? Why do the work of healing an ecosystem if nature can just do it herself on a slower scale?  Most of the answers to these questions I shared in my earlier post on land healing as a spiritual practice.  But I will share my reasoning for this specific piece of land: I feel the need to use things like permauclture to help the land regenerate because of the broader challenges we are facing environmentally and the importance of peacemaking with the spirits of the land.  Given our situation here, it would take anywhere from approximately 50-100 years for this land to fully heal.  But there is a question if it could ever fully heal due to the loss of certain woodland species from our immediate ecosystem–species that belong here like ramps, trillium, American ginseng, and more are not easily spread and may take hundreds of years to return, if at all.  Further, our intervention could provide faster healing of this land and could build critical ecosystems and create a sanctuary for life in a time when it’s definitely needed.  Our land here is a small patch of woods surrounded by many farmlands growing corn, soy, and cabbage.  We are our own refugia here, and so, bringing this land back into a healthy place ecologically means that this can be a better refuge for life and support more animal, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile and plant lives.  Also, by using the grove of renewal strategy (which I developed as part of this work), we can radiate this healing energy out to the broader landscape–where it is sorely needed.

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

Observation and interaction led to the discovery of this choked out sassafras grove

Each landscape is unique.  If you are coming into a new land or working with land you’ve known for years, the first step is to observe, interact, and practice some deep listening. Observation and interaction are just as they sound–this is a principle from permauclture that says in order to work to regenerate land, you have to come at that work from a place of knowledge and wisdom.  In order to know that land, you need to study that land–observe the land in different seasons and in different times of day, interact with the land, be present there always, seeing what there is to see, and coming to know it deeply. Understand what is already growing there, if it’s native or opportunistic (I don’t like the word “invasive), who lives there, what the ecosystems surrounding your land look like, what pollution and other pressures there might be, and more.

 

With so much of our land subject to logging, we spent some time observing, interacting, and in connection with the spirits.  What did the land spirits want us to do? What could we do that would be respectful to the land, that would help and not hurt further?  The general sense we had was that to respond to this situation, we knew that there were places we were going to let nature heal in her own way, but there were also plenty of places that we could help heal faster by applying permaculture techniques. Observation and interaction is the physical component of this and deep listening is the spiritual component to this practice. But I also want to share here that observation, interaction, and deep listening is a continual process. As you work a piece of land, you will keep working with it. What the land may ask you to do changes as you complete earlier work.  So keep on listening, every chance you get. I’ll now consider each in turn.

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

Being on the land after moving in was honestly overwhelming. Much of the land was impassible due to the huge amounts of leftover treetops, branches, and brush. The loggers had just bulldozed brush into large piles, taking much of the forest floor with it.  The first thing we did, even to begin to observe and interact, was to re-establish paths by moving brush so we could walk and be present on the land. Since this was so-called “sustainable logging” what we ended up with was most of the largest trees being taken and a smattering of mature trees left–some oaks, hickories, maples and black cherries. Thus, we have some mature trees.  But many of the mature trees that find themselves exposed to wind are experiencing secondary loss, where they lose their crowns.  These trees grew up in a mature forest with close crowns, without the protection of other trees, they are very susceptible to wind damage.  This is one of the things we are observing now–losing a lot of the remaining crowns of the largest trees, which is very sad.  We also have a good understory of hickory, oak, sugar maple, cherry, and a bit of sassafras–these trees will eventually be our new overstory, I think, once the secondary loss of the larger trees concludes.

 

The amount of brush also made it harder for smaller trees to grow and come up in a healthy way, and the brush is covering the trunks of many of the existing trees that were not logged, creating wet spots that can cause the trees’ bark to rot.  The forest floor wasn’t very abundant–we weren’t seeing a lot of the plants that should be growing here, particularly woodland medicinal species.

A good example of the “clearing” work to do–if we don’t remove this brush, it will rot out the trunk of this mature tree. There are several black elder in here that can also use some room to expand and grow.

 

At present, after logging, the dominant plant that has grown up on our landscape is the Rubus allegheniensis, the common blackberry, native to this area of our land.  We now have large thickets of blackberry. We also have Devil’s walking stick, wild cherry, elderberry, spicebush, and beaked hazels growing up in very dense thickets.  We also have a lot of poison ivy, as it thrives on disturbance. These plants have quickly come into the spaces left by large trees to fill the void.  But if we want to support ecological succession, we’d work to plant and foster the hardwood trees as much as possible and help cultivate them towards adulthood along with supporting a rich understory of shrubs and woodland plants of more diversity than the opportunistic species that are present.

 

Our land is on the eastern side of a small mountain, so we get good morning/early afternoon light and get more shade in the evenings.  The soil is wet and fertile. The bottom of our property borders Penn Run, a stream that is clean and flowing where we live, but most, unfortunately, less than 1/4 mile from where we live downstream, we have acid mine drainage causing serious pollution. Thus, cultivating the health of our stream is of utmost concern as it fosters habitat that is degraded further down.

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

The second part of this equation is deep listening. For generations, this land been the object of someone else’s desire–in the sense that whatever humans wanted to do to the land, they simply did, with no consideration of the will of the spirits of the land. As druids, we recognize that the land has agency–it has a voice, and we listen. Thus, part two of the observation and interaction is simply finding out what the spirits of the land want and desire–and following that will.  I really believe this is one of the most critical parts of land healing and any other spiritual work we do–and failing to do this part means we are no different than others who have come and did whatever they wanted.  For the last two years, we haven’t done much beyond our gardens, chicken coops, and infrastructure (fencing for garden, etc). We wanted to listen to what the spirits of the land wanted for the healing of the rest of the property, especially the forested sections.  Over time, a clear message emerged–certain areas to let “rewild” without any intervention and without any human interaction, while other places on the property places for spiritual activity, replanting, and active regeneration. The spirits gave us a map of the land and how they wanted us to proceed–and we listen.

 

 

Goals and Interventions

Most people who are working on conservation, permaculture design, forestry, and so on recommend developing clear goals that help you decide how to create a plan moving forward and make sure your actions align with that plan. I also think this is a really good idea. To replant our land and heal the forest, we started by identifying clear goals for our forested areas and for ourselves.  These goals include:

  1. Honor nature in our actions and in our intentions and work with nature as a partner in the regeneration process.
  2. Support ecological succession to help re-establish an overstory of hardwood nut trees and sugar maples in 3 acres of forest. This will include supporting a diverse ecosystem, modeled after old-growth ecosystems of the “Northern Hardwood Forest” type.
  3. Maximize habitat and food sources for wildlife and humans (including amble supplies of wild berries and nuts) focusing on perennial agriculture
  4. Establish a sanctuary for endangered woodland medicinal species in our 3 acres of forests in the understory (American ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, trillium, bloodroot, ramps, etc, as established by the United Plant Savers)
  5. Designate “wild areas” (zone 5 areas, to use the term from permaculture design) that are untouched can regenerate in whatever direction spirits will.
  6. All human-focused and agriculturally-focused areas will be designed and enacted based on working with nature using permaculture design.  Human focused areas have the emphasis of people care, earth care, and fair share. Spiritual areas are designated for our grove and spiritual community.
  7. Learn how to support riparian and wetland ecosystems. We have a special emphasis on wetland areas and riparian zones, since our land contains both a small spring-fed pond and a clean stream.
  8. Learn how to use all of the materials on our land so that nothing is wasted. We have a lot of secondary tree loss right now, and we don’t want to add to the brush on the ground.  Thus, when a tree drops, we are doing our best to use it in some way, either for woodworking/arts/crafts, for natural building projects, or for firewood or hugels (see below).
  9. Build resiliency for ourselves, our domestic animals, and all life on our property.

 

These goals are evolving as time passes, but they represent our general desire to be good stewards of this land, allow for us to live here in harmony with life, and support more diversity of plant, bird, animal, and insect life.

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

The following are some of the main strategies we are using at present for regeneration.  We are still very much in the early stages here of this regeneration project, but we’ve got good momentum and are making progress!

 

Tree Replanting and Cultivation. We’ve been working to replant as much of the understory as possible so that we can establish, in time, a healthy and diverse overstory.  This included planting 25 American hybrid chestnut trees (blight resistant, 95% American chestnut genetics), to plant oaks and hickory nuts throughout the areas we could access, as well as establish a paw-paw understory.  There were very specific reasons for these choices: according to my own historical research, chestnut used to comprise about 30% of our forests here in PA and PawPaw were quite common.  The logging gave me a chance to try to establish a mature chestnut overstory in the long run. These trees are still small, but we are keeping them clear of brush and debris and doing our best to make sure they are established.

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

Tree tending and thinning.  When there are dense thickets of small trees regrowing, only the strongest or fastest-growing will survive.  We have identified different patches of regrowing trees and are trying to cultivate those which will contribute most to a mature oak-hickory overstory and a wide diversity of trees.  One of the most recent projects was clearing the brush (through hugelkultur techniques, see below).  We cleared brush from a large patch of sassafras trees (the only on the property) and making sure they had room to grow. We have been thinning the dense thickets of the weakest trees to ensure more rapid growth, especially of the beaked hazels, which grow very, very quickly and can overpower our slower-growing hickories, oaks, and chestnuts.  This process of tending and thinning has created a lot of branch and pole material we can use for garden stakes and other spiritual building and crafting projects.  And doing some thinning like this helps tend the ecosystem. We never cut anything back without permission–and listen carefully to what the spirits of the land and forest ask.

 

Clearing brush and turning “waste” into a resource. Perhaps the most intensive of the work we are doing right now is clearing areas of the downed trees and brush.  As long as we have piles of 8′ brush, it makes it very hard to plant young trees, allow the small seedlings to grow, or replant the forest floor with woodland medicinals.  The brush has also been piled near living larger trees, which can create rot at the roots and cause more secondary tree loss.  We have selected several areas to target, being led by the spirits of the land, and have intentionally done minimal work in others, only enough to ensure that small seedlings aren’t trapped and that roots and trunks aren’t covered in downed wood debris. This involves primarily a lot of chainsaw work. We are using primarily battery-powered power tools and some hand tools; the battery-powered tools are charged by our solar panels, reducing our fossil fuel consumption.

 

We go into a brushy area where the brush is, and start clearing.  What we can take as firewood we will take as firewood. Its been two years since the logging, but because a lot of the wood is off the ground, we have a surprising amount of wood still to harvest for firewood.  For wood that is past firewood stage, we have been building forest hugelkultur beds (see next entry). Once the forest floor has the brush mostly clear, we can then plant other kinds of forest medicinals and plants.

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

Forest Hugelkultur Beds. Hugelkultur, which basically means “mound culture” is an old-world technique popular in Germany that adds woody matter to create raised “mounds” that can be grown in.  This is a fantastic technique for us to employ here because we have an over-abundance of partially rotting wood and brush that we want to find a productive use for.  By making the hugelkultur beds, we take areas that are currently prevented from effectively regrowing due to the nature of the bush, clear the brush, and end up with a valuable resource–a new bed that we can plant. Most of ours hugels are in part-shade forest edges where we will plant shrubs and other shade-loving perennials to increase our capacity for food production for ourselves and wildlife: gooseberry, fiddlehead ferns, alpine strawberry, black and red currants, etc.

 

To build a hugel, you decide your location.  You can also decide at this point if you want to sink it into the ground (like a traditional garden bed where you’d dig down) or put it on top of the ground. We are doing above ground hugels primarily because our ground is so rocky and digging it out is almost impossible.  Once you have your location, you start with the largest pieces of wood and begin making a very dense pile of wood the size you want your bed to be (at least a few feet long and a few feet wide, realistically).  As you pile them up, usually to 3-4′ tall, you vary the thickness of the wood, such that the thickest wood should be on the bottom and inside the middle, and thinner sticks, etc, should be on the outside.  After you have your pile, you can add whatever other organic matter you have around–we clean out our chicken/guinea, duck, and goose coops regularly and are using all the straw bedding as another layer.  Stuff that material into any of the holes between the logs.  Finally, we top it with more layers of organic matter (leaves, compost, etc) and top it off with at least 4″ of finished compost.  The final layer is a layer of straw.  These layers, we allow to “season” for at least six months to a year.  By the second year, the hugels have settled enough that you can patch any holes with additional compost and then plant right in them.  Each year, as they season more and more, they grow more abundant.  We have some hugels we did dig down and create as part of our medicinal herb garden and they are incredibly productive and resilient after only two years! The goal here is that the hugels will edge our deeper parts of our forest and provide abundant food and forage for wildlife and humans.

 

I will also say that this kind of hugel building work in the way we are doing it is dark half of the year work.  If you clear in the winter, you don’t disrupt the soil or perennials that are going to come up in the summer months.  For us here, we can do this work from Samhain to somewhere close to Beltane–then we shift our emphasis on other things for the summer months and come back to clearing and hugelkultur work in the winter months.

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

Seed scattering and re-establishing forest medicinal species.  We are working to model our regenerated forest after what an old-growth forest would have looked like, as our goals above suggest.  Thus, we have been replanting many lost forest medicinal and keystone woodland species that are native to our area.  This includes scattering about 1000 ramp seeds, planting over 50 American ginseng roots and planting more wild ginseng seeds, bringing in bloodroot, black cohosh, trout lily and other plants that are adapted particularly for our damp hillside.  We are still pretty early in this process (we have to get the downed wood brush cleared first) but are making good progress and have already scattered and planting the ginseng and ramps.

 

Overstory management.  As I mentioned above,  one of the saddest things happening now deal with the loss of the remaining trees still standing in the forest–we are observing these trees and seeing how many of them can make it. But we also recognize the value of standing dead timber, and since we have a nice woodpecker community (at least four different species, including the rarer Pileated Woodpecker), we are leaving all of the standing dead timber that is safe to leave–which thankfully, is nearly all of it.  For some trees, however, particularly those that may be in a place that if they dropped would cause damage to other trees or the house/structures, we are dropping them and using them for natural building, firewood, and other projects.

What about the inner/energetic work?

Reading all of this, you might notice that I’ve primarily talked about physical regeneration in today’s post.  Yes, I have.  As you might recall from my earlier work, I really see land healing as both inner and outer work.  Because I have the power to do something physical, I think its really important that those things are done.  On the spiritual side, I’m working on the grove of renewal here on the land as well as ongoing land blessing and land healing work.  While we do the physical work, the energetic work is always present.  The two work together, and each strengthens the other.

 

Conclusion

Whew!  That’s a lot going on at the Druid’s Garden homestead.  Its good work to do, especially now with the pandemic. We don’t want to leave the land much, so we are turning in earnest to our projects here that will help regenerate and heal this beautiful landscape.  I’ll work to provide periodic updates on these projects and how they are going.  In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a nice spring and thinking about their own healing projects.  I would love to hear what things you are working on or the plans you have!

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.

 

 

Diary of a Land Healer: January

It is late January. We had a very bout of cold weather these last few weeks, as I’m writing this, the weather broke and I’m out in the land for a longer stay since since the sub-zero temperatures hit. When I came to my new home and new land in the fall, there was so much to do, just moving in and getting ready for winter, stacking wood, unpacking, painting, fixing things, building a greenhouse, and settling in that I didn’t have the time I wanted to spend with the land. But winter is good for such quiet communion, and so, I’ve been seeing what there is to discover.

A snow spiral, one of many I walk while the snows fall!

A snow spiral/labyrinth, one of many I walk during the winter months.

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, in purchasing this land, I knew that part of my work here would be in documenting the regrowth of this land after the previous owners had about 3 acres of it it selectively/sustainable timbered. Regrowth and regeneration is an incredible thing to bear witness to, and I excited to experience and document it up close. And so, this year, I’m going to write one post a month in a series I’m calling “diary of a land healer.” The goal of this series  is to document observations, interactions, and spiritual lessons from watching this beautiful ecosystem heal and regenerate–and the possibilities we have, as humans, to intervene in that process. Because land healing is a process, and because the inner work that facilitates healing is also in process, the thoughts that I present in these posts will also likely be in process.

 

As person whose spiritual work centers on trees and land healing, I’m more often than not paying attention to what is wrong: the fallen trees, the timbering that was done, polluted streams, gas fracking wells, and so forth. As someone with a deep spiritual relationship and love of trees, seeing any of them cut down is horrible. And yet, why this land chose me was because I was to bear witness, and help to regenerate, this forest ecocystem. And today, the land wants to offer me a lesson on nature’s regenerative processes.

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond.

And so, as I walk, my eyes naturally first gravitate to the stumps or some of the downed brush that the loggers left behind. But this land is not asking me to pay attention to the damage. It is asking me to pay attention to what is happening in terms of regrowth. That same giant oak stump, beautiful, powerful, grows mushrooms that weren’t there in the fall, but are here in January are bursting forth, even for a few fleeting warm days. Mushrooms are opportunists; at even the smallest amount of moisture, temperature change, they take advantage.  These mushrooms have done just that and are magnificently emerging–in the cold of winter–from this huge stump.  That’s the magic of the microcosm: the work of the cycle of nutrients, of life and death, of decay and rebirth.  Not only in nature does this happen, but also in our own bodies: many mushrooms, including turkey tail, growing here on this land, are used quite effectively for fighting cancer and free radicals in the human body.

 

Mushrooms!

Mushrooms!

 

I reach down to touch a mushroom and feel my hand go moist and slimy–even the slugs are out on this fine January day. We think the world is so cold, so frozen, so devoid of life after weeks of fridigly cold temperatures, but a single warm day proves this to be an illusion. Beneath the frozen pond, beneath the ice and snow, life awaits. It is a good lesson that nature teaches me every year–the land is always awake. Even two warm days encourage the emergence of insect life, the sprouting of mushrooms and the movement of buzzing beetles in the pond. When the cold hits again, they simply slow down and wait it out.

 

This same lesson is a useful one in our own lives. I think sometimes we have periods of cold and dark where it seems like we are barely moving. Perhaps, we too, are waiting it out. But beneath that waiting, our roots are reaching deep, the germination of the seed is already begun. Life is ready, at any moment, to spring forth.  And in the most unexpected moments and ways, it does.

More mushrooms!

More mushrooms!

 

When all the snow melted away, the skeletons of the plants from last season are still there, their dried bodies moving against the breeze. I recognize the dried lobelia, goldenrod, and wild lettuce; three potent healing herbs. Lobelia serves as a powerful antispasmodic in small doses (dealing with cramps and spasms) and yet functions as an emetic (that is, makes you puke) in large doses. Goldenrod serenades the fall sun and waves goodbye as the sun sets upon the light half of the year. Goldenrod is a wonderful anti-inflammatory (internally and externally) and really useful for allergies as an anti-histamine. Wild lettuce has psychoactive properties and can be used for pain relief. As I look at the skeletons of these plants, I reach down to the dried lobelia.  As I touch her, hundreds of tiny seeds spring forth, black specks upon the melting snow.  Her children, soon, will arise in the spring.

Grasses by the flooded creek

Grasses by the flooded creek.

 

As I walk, I check on the trees that I planted in the fall on Black Friday (what I call “buy nothing, do something” day). So many of the stakes of the tree tubes have gotten heaved up from the ice and cold, and I push them back into the earth. I look forward to seeing how many of the little seedlings take root and flourish here, their presence forever changing the make up of this land. Their planting is my first move to help this forest return to a pre-colonial form, an abundant food forest: chestnuts, paw paws, hickories, and oaks that will one day produce a tremendous amount of abundance. It was the logging that cleared the way for me to replant. In permaculture design terms, the problem was the solution. In fact, everywhere I look, my permaculture design training kicks in. I have many things I want to do, so many ideas for this land.  But when my head starts racing, I am told simply to “wait”. I know that whatever I don’t get to do in my time here, nature will do herself, in her own time and in her own way.

 

As I continue my walk, I come to a maple tree.  The split in her trunk is quite large, yet she grows strong. An imperfection has made her perfect, in the sense that she is still alive and growing because she was not a good candidate for logging.

Imperfection saved this tree!

Imperfection saved this tree.

It is the same with the Guardian Oak in the Eastern part of the property overlooking the creek; a giant burl on the tree allowed this tree to survive.  The burl, an imperfection, allowed this massive and ancient oak the ability to thrive. There are deep lessons here. If we are too perfect, if we strive to be too straight and tall and narrow, the loggers may come for us. Better to be weird, different, quirky, and certainly not commercially valuable–that is how we survive, and thrive, in these difficult times.  It reminds me of the Wendell Berry poem “Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” where he writes “Your mind will be punched in a card / and shut away in a little drawer. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know. / So, friends, every day do something/ that won’t compute….Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction.”  Wiser words were never spoken, and perhaps, the oak and the maple have their own last laugh, for they are still growing strong, quirky as ever.

A mighty fine burl indeed!

A mighty fine burl indeed!

Another interpretation: the burl, which many would see as an imperfection, something wrong or diseased, is also the greatest strength for this oak.  It asks us: how might we transform our sorrow/pain/suffering into a strength? How might our inperfections be our greatest gifts? The lesson of transformation whispers through the oak’s dried and still present leaves as they crackle in the January air.

 

I continue to look around, seeing the powerful life and strength here. This land, despite having been logged four times 40 years, is not a victim. The mushrooms growing in sub-zero temperatures laugh at the idea that they are anyone’s victim. The overflowing stream, Penn Run, that flows at the edge of my land babbles in joy at the ability to wash away the old and bring in the new. There is no pain here, only life. There is nothing here that should’t be just as it is.  Being here is an honor and a gift.

Acorn in the brush!

Acorn in the brush!

 

PS: I have two annoucements for this week:

 

I want to thank everyone for their patience while I took a blogging hiatus for most of January.  I spent the month working on my article studying the bardic arts for the OBOD’s 2018 Mt. Haemus Award.  I’ll be sharing more about that piece in next week’s blog post!

 

Also, if you are looking for a good druid gathering, consider joining me at MAGUS (the OBOD’s MidAtlantic US Gathering).  It is open to members, guests, and friends of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) as well as those with an interest in druidry. I will be the keynote speaker for MAGUS this year and will be doing a workshop and leading the main ritual (another form of the Galdr we did last year). MAGUS takes place at the beautiful Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, an amazing place where we raise standing stones. Registration is now open for the event. Find out more information here.

 

A Druid’s Anchor Spot

Current statistics from the United States EPA suggest that Americans spend almost not amount of time outside: the average American now spends 93% of their total time enclosed (including 87% of their lives indoors and 6% enclosed in automobiles). A UK-based survey indicated that children now spend less than 30 minutes or less outside and 20% of children don’t spend any time outdoors on an average day (which is less time than prisoners spend outside per day). I think that the reason that a lot of people find druidry is because of statistics like these: increasing work and life demands make it harder to get outside, increased urban sprawl makes it harder to find “wild spaces”, and our relationship with nature is at a deficit that has implications for our health, happiness, and well being.

 

If (re)connection with nature is a clear goal for those on the druid path and those on related nature-based paths, then it seems that one of the most important things we can do is get outside and spend quality time with nature. But we druids know that not all time spent outdoors is the same. The above surveys aren’t even looking at specific activities tied to nature or quality time in nature, simply the minutes spent outdoors. Riding your lawnmower (which I suspect accounts for a good portion of outdoor time for many people) is not the same as quietly observing and interacting in a natural setting, nor will it give the same spiritual, health, or emotional benefits. There are, of course, lots of ways we might seek connection with nature. Today, I’m going to suggest one strategy that I’m calling the “Druid’s Anchor Spot.”

 

What is the Druid’s Anchor Spot?

My new Druid Anchor Spot!

My new Druid Anchor Spot!

The Druid’s Anchor Spot is is an outdoor place that is easily accessible to you in all weather where you can deeply connect with the living earth through observation, focus, and interaction. The Anchor Spot is as the name intends: it is a regular focus or “anchor” to nature and can be used as one of the key components of your growing spiritual connection with nature. Seems simple enough, right? Yes, it is. The rest of this post will share how to find your Anchor Spot and make the most of it.

 

In order to find your perfect anchor spot, there are at least four considerations:

 

Accessibility. Your Druid’s Anchor Spot should be very easily accessible by you as part of your normal patterns in the day. Perhaps this is a stone by a stream behind your house, an edge area “overgrown” on your walk to work, a butterfly garden in your own backyard, the tree line outside of your workplace that you can visit on your breaks, a stone circle you build in the woods. Wherever it is, you should be able to easily access it several times a week.

 

Quietude. The second consideration is that you should be able to go to your anchor spot and be relatively undisturbed as much as possible (for those with families and in urban environments, this may be more tricky). For children, helping establish a “family anchor spot” is a great activity that can encourage connection with nature with the whole family, but you will still want to have time alone in nature at your anchor spot when possible.

 

An Ecosystem. Third, if at all possible, you want your spot to have some wildness to it or to have an ecosystem beyond a lawn, somewhere that nature has been allowed to grow and thrive. In other words, you are looking for a place that is not a monoculture but a polyculture. The more “natural” and diverse the spot is, the more you’ll have a chance to interact with many different species and grow in your own connection with the land. Lawns do have a bit of life in them, but not much comparably speaking. If you had a choice between a wild hedge on the edge of a field and a lawn, the wild hedge is a much better choice.

So much life to see and find in nature!

So much life to see and find in nature!

A Spirit Welcome. Finally, I think its important to be in a place where the spirits of the land are happy and want you there. Some places don’t have the right feel, you might not feel welcome or the spirits want left alone.  This is not ideal for your sit spot.  This is something you feel out intuitively. You might use some of the strategies outlined in my last post or in my two druid tree working posts on tree communication for help as to how to ascertain if you are welcome and if this will be a place of mutual healing and growth.

 

Visiting Your Anchor Spot

After you select your anchor spot, try to visit it often, preferably every day. Part of the Anchor Spot’s magic is that you get to see the same spot in all kinds of weather, seasons, and conditions.  Because of this, to do this activity, consider committing to regularly coming to your anchor spot for a full cycle of the sun-that is, a full year year. A lot of people don’t like to go out in anything but sunny weather, but with the anchor spot, I’d encourage you to go see it in different kinds of weather. Look at it during a storm, look at it in the morning, observe it in the night, sit with it in the snow (if you get snow). Nature is such a dynamic experience that every moment—every day—will offer you something new. The idea here is to see this spot, in all of her seasons, in all of her faces.

 

What to do at your Anchor Spot

Now that we’ve established what the Anchor Spot is, how to choose a spot, and how often to visit, we’ll explore what you can do at your anchor spot.

 

Honoring the Land and the Spirits

Your druid’s anchor spot is going to teach you so much over a period of time, and it is always a good idea to give back. I would suggest making a simple offering for the land and the spirits before you begin any of your anchor spot work, and at regular intervals. Leaving a simple offering, for example, to show appreciation to the living earth is certainly one possibility (I advocate for liquid gold offerings as they offer nitrogen directly to the plants, but I’m a bit weird). Building a small shrine (even something as simple as three stacked stones) or tying a ribbon around a tree is another great way to make a simple offering, to designate this spot as something very sacred. You can also do various kinds of energetic work (light body from OBOD, Sphere of Protection from AODA).

 

Observation

You can observe in a variety of different ways in your Anchor Spot. All of these observations are are meditative in nature—in this case, quieting your mind and simply letting nature fill it with her own richness.

 

Sensory Observation.  Observation and interaction in nature are some of the foundational building blocks to a spiritual connection with the living earth. Observation can offer us a sense of curiosity and wonder about the living earth, and, in so doing, cultivate a deeper connection with the land. Even within a tiny patch of land like your Druid’s Anchor Spot, there is a tremendous amount to know and discover. And because nature is dynamic, each day brings changes, each season offers new experiences, and much can be gained from this process. Breathe deeply, feel the land beneath you and under your fingertips, observe all that you can. Use not only your eyes for this work but your other senses are appropriate: touch, smell, taste, and hearing.

 

Focus. A second way of observing the land around you is by focusing in on the minute details of something. For this, you might choose a single leaf, a single flower, a single small drip or eddy of a stream—whatever catches your eye. And for the next 10-15 minutes, you simply observe it, carefully. Pay attention to the growth habits of the leaf, the complexity of the flower, the interplay of light and color. Also as part of your focus work, engage in your other senses—pay attention to smell, touch, and if appropriate, taste. Each of our 5 senses has something to offer us in terms of learning about nature. The first time I did this focus activity, I spent about 20 minutes with an all heal flower (Prunella Vulgaris) also known as wound wort or heart of the earth. I smelled it, paid attention to which of the blooms was emerging, nibbled on it (as I know it is edible and medicinal) and looked at its growth pattern. By the end of those 20 minutes, I really knew that plant in ways I hadn’t before—just because of the sensory experience.  And so you can do this: zero in on a particular part of the ecosystem in your sit spot—a single flower, a leaf, or a plant ,and observe the details of that plant for a period of time. This work can be greatly aided by bringing a Loupe (a Jeweler’s Loupe, which is a small magnifiying glass).  If you do this with various plant, insect, and fungal life in your sit spot, soon, everything there will be like an old friend to you.

 

Stillness, Melding, and Meditation

Stillness and Melding. When you visit, spend a good portion of your time in stillness—simply sit and be present with the land around you. Be quiet, don’t move, just simply be. Take it all in. The Anchor Spot technique asks us to slow down and be present with the land, to reduce our pace to the pace of nature. You can further this by working to blend in, to become one with the land, a full part and participant. I call this “melding.” You become part of the landscape rather than separate from it.

 

Melding is critically important to see animal life. Humans are often very noisy, and when you spend all of your time walking or hiking through the wilds, certain animals or birds signal a warning and everyone else that is there goes into hiding. When you sit still for 20 or so min, you blend in and you will have a chance to see a lot more animal activity. The more that you are able to meld with this spot, the more that the land—and her many creatures—will open up to you. Both because they will become used to your presence, but also, because in sitting still and quiet, you become part of the land rather than simply traveling through it.

 

For example, I remember the time a vision quest where I was sitting against a tree in stillness and worked to meld, and had been doing so for about an hour, and it was getting dark (dusk and dawn are great times to see animal movements). And I heard this rustling on the forest floor: it was a huge flock of wild turkeys. They never saw me, and I had this amazing opportunity to observe them for almost a half an hour—I saw their tom turkey, the pecking order, the foraging behavior, their communication with each other, and so on. If I had been walking through the woods, I never would have had that experience because they would have ran away.  But sitting next to the tree, the turkeys walked right by me and never even noticed I was there. Practice blending into the anchor spot, being part of it in the quiet way that animals and plants do. Recognize that you, too, are an animal here in this ecosystem.

 

Close observation of an aster

Close observation of an aster

Nature Meditation. While you are in your druid anchor spot, this is also a very appropriate place to do some simple meditation and breathwork. Lots of possibilities exist for this: I like to engage in simple discursive meditation or color breathing (techniques both described in detail by John Michael Greer in The Druidry Handbook).

 

 

Reflection and Study Surrounding Your Anchor Spot

Beyond the above techniques, you may want to engage in any of the following activities that help you deepen and reflect on your interaction with this spot:

 

Anchor Spot Notebook or Photo Journal. You may want to start an Anchor Spot notebook (or keep your observations recorded in your druid’s notebook or spiritual journal). Documenting nature through sketching and writing observations is a time-honored human tradition to learn more about the living earth. For example The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell describes a biologist’s observations of a square meter in old growth forest for a year. Your notebook will help you keep track of what you are seeing over a period of time and gain deep insights about the land and her inhabitants. These simple observations often lead to profound truths and understandings. You could write about it, sketch, take photographs, and so on to help develop your understanding of this space.

 

Learning about Nature. Another activity that is a great one for your anchor spot is to work on identifying some of the life you observe there. Field guides for trees, plants, insects, birds and mushrooms are all readily available for most bioregions. Animal droppings or animal track guides are also useful for this purpose. Bring your guide with you and spend some time seeing what you can learn about the names and ecology of the life in your sit spot. If you want to take it a step further, learn what human uses these plants once had (medicinal, edible, crafting, and so on). Identify any trees that are there and learn about their woods and what they are used for. Identify the composition of the soil, of the rocks, of the geology present. Listen for bird calls and learn how to identify them. Identify any animal tracks or droppings that you see present. Learning about all of nature can be very challenging, but taking a small slice and zeroing in on it in your sit spot is very useful.

 

Nature's cycles - mushrooms even grow in the winter months and are fun to see in your anchor spot

Nature’s cycles – mushrooms even grow in the winter months and are fun to see in your anchor spot

Conclusion

While the Anchor Spot seems like a very simple practice, it can profoundly and powerfully shape your connection to the living earth. You will learn a tremendous amount about the world around you and be much more intimately connected to the fabric of the landscape. Further, rooted in the idea of the Anchor Spot as I have presented it is the assertion that the more you know about nature and the more you are able to connect with her, the deeper your connection to nature will be. This opens up possibilities not only for your deepening connection with the living earth, but the kind of magic, healing, and regeneration you can work with her.   If you decide to use this technique–or already do–please share in the comments! 

 

* Note: This idea comes from two places, and I want to acknowledge them here.  First, it is inspired by the Wilderness Awareness School’s “sit spot”. Second, it has arisen from the many conversations I’ve had with druids—this seems to be a natural practice that evolves over time for many.

The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods, or Cultivating Receptivity

I think we’ve all had periods of our lives where we feel like we are moving like a stack of dominoes; we have so many things piled on us that we have to keep going, going, and going. In fact, I had a hard conversation this past week with a loved one, someone who is close to me and sees the everyday patterns of my life.  As part of this conversation, I realized that I had been, since moving to a new job a year and a half ago, literally zipping about. Most of my days were just like those dominoes–falling one after another. As soon as I completed a task I would move onto the next one, hardly taking a breath in between. Since moving and taking the new job, I find myself still settling in, still finding my new rhythms, and trying to fit my usual things into less time and space.  He recognized this in me, and asked me to take a few minutes to reflect on it. I’ve written about this before; our culture demands and glorifies the busification of our lives, the constant moving, doing, and pressing ever forward. We see this not only in the workplace, but in our expectations of our daily lives. I think this is especially true as we grow closer to the Western holiday season, where everything seems to be moving much more quickly than usual. It seems that celebrations and time off would be the perfect time to slow down, but instead, it seems that everything speeds up.

 

Time to slow down...

Time to slow down…

 

So today, I’d like to spend time focusing on the opposite of the hustle and bustle: the importance of observation and interaction through meandering, pondering, and wondering and the benefits of doing this work for our own health and nature-based relationships.  This post continues my “Permaculture for Druids” series, and focuses on some additional work with the “observe and interactprinciple.

 

Projective and Receptive States of Being

One useful way of framing today’s topic of being too busy too often is through two common terms used in many western magical systems: projection and reception. We can frame these two principles like taking a hike in the woods.  The first way to hike is with a set goal in mind: a trail we want to walk, a particular landmark we want to see, mushrooms to find, or some other goal to achieve.  This is the projective way of hiking: we are going to take X trail for X hours and see X landmarks.  We are going out to X spots to find X mushrooms.  But remember: that trail has been crafted by someone else, there are lots of people surrounding that popular landmark and our own plans can be disappointing. Or perhaps, the mushrooms are just not in the spot you’d hope they would be!

 

The protective principle is that of the masculine, of the sun, of the elements of air and fire. Projection in the world means that we are out there, doing something, working our wills and using our energy to enact change.  When we are projective, we are often setting ourselves a dedicated path and following that path; it implies that we have an end goal or destination in mind. This is the place we are in often–making plans, enacting them, working to push things forward, engaging in our work in the world.  Projectivity implies a certain kind of control–we are the actors upon our own destiny.  A projective view suggests that we have the power, and we are using that power to achieve our own ends.  Projectivity is both an inner and outer state–focus, determination, drive, and mental stamina are all part of the inner projective place while our specific actions towards a goal help propel us forward.  While projectivity certainly has its place, it can be rather exhausting if that is all we are doing. (And, I’ll just note here, that I wonder how much of these busy schedules really control us?)

 

The alternative way to hike, of course, is to enter natural spaces with a different kind of intent: the intent of wandering with no set goal, no set time frame, and simply seeing what unfolds before us.  This means that we engage in many activities that don’t necessarily have a positive connotation in our culture (but really should): mulling about, being directionless, meandering, and simply taking our time to smell the roses.

 

In western magical systems, the receptive principle is connected to the feminine energy of the moon and the elements of water and earth. And like those principles, receptivity means being open to those things, especially unexpectedly, that come into our lives–allowing things to flow in, allowing us to offer ourselves up to the experience without a set expectation or outcome. Receptivity means taking time to wander and wonder about things we aren’t sure of, to give space and voice to those things before firmly deciding any course or action or solution.  The receptive principle is all about creating space enough, slowing down enough, and turning off our projective natures, long enough to allow nature to have a voice and to take us by the hand and show us some amazing things.

 

Sometimes receptivity also means sitting back and not engaging in the world or putting off driving forward with plans; other times it means doing what we can and having faith in things beyond our control.  Sometimes, it means that the time is not right and the best thing you can do is wait. A lot of us have great difficulty in surrendering our control and simply trusting forces outside of ourselves to bring things in or waiting for a more opportune moment.  Sometimes, the more we try to make something happen, the less likely that thing will be the thing we really want to experience or the less likely it will actually occur. Receptivity applies both in terms of our own minds (cultivating a curiosity, pondering, wondering, and openness) and as well as in our outer experiences.

 

Trail into the woods....

Trails into the woods….

Since most of us have difficulty in particular with the receptive principle, I’m going to spend the remainder of this post talking through some specific activities with regards to interacting in nature that I think can help us cultivate receptivity, to observe, and to simply interact without a specific goal or agenda in mind. Nature is the best teacher with regards to most things, cultivating receptivity being no exception.

 

The Outer Work: The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods

I remember a warm summer day several years ago when three druids went out into the woods for the sole purpose of exploration. We literally picked a “green area” on the map and said “we wonder what’s there?” We had no set goals, no set timeframe, and a few backpacks of supplies–and off we went. It turned out that we had stumbled upon a recreation area/park that was no longer quite maintained by the township, and we had the place to ourselves.  The road we wanted was labeled “closed” but we went down it anyways and parked along the edge. We found a number of paths that were not exactly clear to walk on, as debris and fallen trees had come down in places.  The wildness of the place really added to the adventure. We found morel mushrooms growing up among the paths (which later made a delightful dinner). We found a downed sassafrass tree and used a small hand saw to harvest the roots; we also found a huge patch of stoneroot for medicine.  The further in we went the further in we wanted to go. And, best of all, we druids literally found a small stone circle there, tucked away in the forest along one of the abandoned path. We spent time in the circle, amazed at finding such a treasure.  This day, and the magic of it, remains firmly tucked in my mind as one of the most memorable and pleasurable I had had while living in Michigan for the simple fact that it was an adventure and none of us had any idea what we might find next.

 

When I say the art of getting lost in the woods, I’m not necessarily talking about physically getting lost (although that may also happen) but rather, to allow ourselves to get lost in the wonder and joy that is the natural world.  Getting lost with no set direction and seeing where nature leads.

 

I believe one of the best activities cultivate an open, receptive state is to enter the woods (or other natural area) with no set plans, agenda, or time frame–just like my story above describes. That is, to simply let the paths and forest unfold before you, to lead you deeper in, and to allow you to simply be. To slow yourself down, to make no plans, and to enter with an open mind, heart, and spirit. The key to all of this is to cultivate a gentle openness that is not in a rush to get somewhere, not on a time frame, and certainly not out to find something specific. The more that you try to project, the more that your projection frames your experience rather than nature and her gifts.

 

This is especially a powerful practice if you are able to go somewhere entirely new. When we visit new places, our minds are opened up to new ways of thinking, new experiences, new patterns, and new ways of being.  Find somewhere new, even if its local, and explore that place.  Even better–go to an unfamiliar ecosystem and give yourself a few days to explore it.  For example, if you a mountain-and-forest person (like I am), the rocky shore, lowland swamp, or sandy desert would be wonderful new spaces that could help you cultivate receptivity, observation, and peace.

 

If you are going more local, my favorite thing to do is pick a “green spot” on the map, show up there, find a trail, and begin walking (if its a very secluded area where getting lost might mean I don’t get found for a long time, I might get a park map, but often, I find a map itself is too constraining and instead focus on trail marking).  Sometimes I will go out wandering by myself, and other times, with friends.  A compass or finding your way techniques (like those discussed in Gatty’s Finding Your Way Without a Compass or Map) are necessary.  Just use your intuition and go where you feel led to go.  Bring along a hammock and tree straps if its a warm day–you’ll be glad you did!

 

I have also discovered the usefulness of “river trails” for this kind of activity.  This is where a river will decide where it wants to take you and how fast you will go.  For one, if you are used to being on the land, the river or lake offers a very new and delightful perspective.  For two, the river has a path of its own, and you are simply along for the journey of where it plans to go.  A long weekend with a few nights camping on the shore can be a wonderful way to allow nature to lead you in new directions and to new experiences.  The last river trail I did (which was a half day excursion on the Conemaugh river) allowed me to see three bald eagles–the first I had ever seen!  A gift indeed!

 

Unexpected mushrooms!

Unexpected mushrooms!

I’ll also note that winter is a really lovely time to do some of this work.  Put on your wool socks and warm clothes and just go.  If there is snow, you never have to worry about getting lost anywhere as you can simply follow your own trail home (and see the entire journey from a new perspective).  Winter and snow offers its own unique insights and lessons.

 

Sometimes, perfectly good trips are ruined by my strong desire to find some tasty mushrooms (and I have my mushroom eyes on, rather than just cultivating an openness of spirit and excitement for the journey).  Then, all that I do is look for mushrooms and feel disappointed when I don’t find them, rather than just enjoying my trip into the woods with no set purpose in mind.  The best times are when I go into the woods not to find mushrooms but simply to enjoy the journey (and then really unexpectedly come across a boatload of mushrooms).

 

Nature always has things to teach when we open spaces for her to do so, when we take time to get lost in the woods.  It makes it easier if we cultivate this through relinquishing our own control and simply taking the time to experience and explore new spaces with an open mind.

 

The Inner Work: Cultivating Openness and Curiosity

The inner landscape, too, greatly benefits from this same kind of “open space” that is free of both our own self-directed activities as well as other people’s words and ideas. Obviously, the material above on getting lost in the woods is of deep benefit to our inner landscapes as well.  But also of benefit is the simple act of inner pondering, wondering, and rumination.

 

Cultivating openness

Cultivating openness

I think the key here is cultivating openness. And I stress the word cultivation here, because, culturally and educationally, we are quick to make up our minds and stick to it and be in a perpetual protective state.  There is real value in withholding judgement, staying open, and gathering in more information that we initially think we need.  Continuing to ask “what if?” is a good way to start this process along.

 

There’s a lot of value in rumination, in simply thinking through things, wondering, and not settling on any one thing too quickly. Open and boundless spaces allow for creativity and awen (divine inspiration) to flow. Pondering is useful, in that it allows us to spend time asking “what if” over and over again until we reach an idea that we are satisfied.  One of my best teachers, Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio used this technique a lot as she taught natural building–she would take time to simply ask the students questions, come up with possible solutions, and ask for more until the class had exhausted many possibilities–only then would we move forward with a particular design decision or solution to the building problem we were facing.

 

Journaling and free association activities can be a great way to engage in pondering, as can discursive meditation on an open topic or theme.   Even conversations with the right kind of person, an open minded person who asks good questions and questions assumptions, can help you cultivate openness and receptivity. I use all of these often.

 

In permaculture design, this openness and receptivity is a very important part of the process. We are encouraged to spend a full year observing and interacting with our surroundings before completing a design and modifying any space–and it is really good advice.  Making plans to quickly leads to half-thought out designs. It is through the gentle time spent in nature, observing and pondering, and through focused meditation on key topics, that we might have the ability to craft and create designs that help change the course of our own lives, and our communities, for the better while regenerating our ecosystems around us.  While I think we are all pressed to act, acting too quickly can be worse than acting at all.

 

Finally, I want to mention briefly about screens, since they have become so pervasive and all-encompassing. Screens have a way of bringing in everyone else’s projections–and they literally project them into you.  Cultivating openness and curiosity means, for a lot of folks, seriously limiting screen time (try it with an open mind!)

 

Balancing Receptivity and Projectivity

The key to getting lost in the woods and finding your way back again is finding a healthy balance between receptivity and projectivity and understanding when we need to take control and when we need to surrender it.  I think when people think about doing the work of regeneration, of permaculture practice, of sacred gardening and the many other things I discuss here on this blog, they think about their own actions and plans. However, I have found that sacred healing work in the world, through permaculture practice or anything else is about the interplay between projectivity and receptivity, that is, between ourselves and nature. That is, while we are often those who make plans and initiate changes within a system (a garden, an ecosystem, a home, a community, etc) but also that we observe, creatively respond, and reflect upon what happens beyond us. We have to work both with enacting some changes, and also sitting back and simply observing what happens.  We have to be willing to receive nature’s messages and intentions before setting any of our own.

Observe, Interact, and Intuit: The Personal Niche Analysis

In my last two posts in this series, we explored permaculture design principles from the perspective of our outer and inner landscapes. We now move into a series of posts exploring different aspects of these specific principles.  Today, we start with the inner work of the principle observe, interact, and intuit (I will also note my post from last year on “Mushroom eyes” which is part of the outer work of this principle and explores nature observation).   Today’s post explores the personal niche analysis.  The Niche Analysis also connects with many other principles, such as layered purposes and can be useful both for designing spaces as well as inner work.

 

The Niche Analysis

A niche analysis is a tool that we use as permaculture designers to understand the many aspects and connections of a single element has within a larger system. We are using “niche” in the ecological sense here, which is defined “a position or role taken by a kind of organism within its community.”  (I’ll also note that the word “niche” comes into English by way of French, originating in Latin (nidus or “nest”; this etymology also teaches us a deeper meaning of the word).  In permaculture design, we see each element having its own “niche” in an ecosystem, a number of things that element does well.  We design intentionally, placing elements in the system that fill the multiple roles.

 

A typical niche analyses can include yields, needs, and behaviors.  I also add predators and allies to my niche analysis (see below for more details on each of these things).

 

Let’s take a look at my rooster, Anasazi, who lived at my homestead in Michigan.  I considered Anasazi one of the critical components of my land there.  Here’s Anasazi’s niche analysis:

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

What this does is help me understand how Anasazi functions in the system–what he offers, what he needs to be protected from, and who his allies are. I see his behaviors, and I’m able to use them for the greatest good and see his role. This is a really useful way to think about any element. (As an aside, if you want to know about specific trees and plants and how they function in the broader system, and you live anywhere in the Midwest or East Coast of the USA  you can check out John Eastman’s books, Book of Forest and Thicket; Book of Field and Stream; Book of Swamp and Bog.  They are delightful books and really describe these “niche” relationships quite well!)

 

The Personal Niche Analysis

We often learn to do a personal niche analysis as part of a permaculture design course, and I think its a useful activity for everyone to consider as a part of our own growth and inner work. In this context, I present it as part of the “knowing ourselves” piece of observe, interact, and intuit: the work of understanding our own role (that we determine), what we need, and what we offer.

 

The standard niche analysis asks you to start with your name in the center of the map, and then map three things: Yields, Needs, and Behaviors.  One I learned this summer offers two more choices: Predators and Allies.  I’ll cover each of these below and then show you a sample map that I created as part of my recent Permaculture Teacher Training course.

Yields: That which you produce. Remember that, just like in an ecosystem or garden, each element often has many different kinds of yields.  Yields for a human being can certainly be physical things like producing food or earning an income, but they can also be much less tangible, like offering love and support or bringing joy.

 

Articulating our yields is a critical part of self care and self empowerment. I think that many of us, especially those who are nurturers and healers, do not own our gifts and don’t have self-acknowledgement of the good work we do in the world.  Further, because our culture generally does not hold gratitude as a value, we often spend our time doing important work that is often under or unacknowledged or thanked. Describing our yields, then, allows us to be empowered–to realize what it is that we can and do produce in the world that is of benefit to life: whether that is a dedication to picking up trash in the forest, to being friendly to people at your job, or to simply being a person others can talk to in times of need.  These yields don’t have to be something that is “measurable” by society’s standards, but rather, something that you feel you bring.

 

Needs: This is what you need in order to be stable, functioning, and happy.  Again, these can be physical things but also emotional or spiritual things. Again, articulating our actual needs is something that we often don’t do, and there are at least two challenges and reasons for this work.  The first is cultural: commercials and advertising work very hard to make us believes we have needs that we don’t–needs of products and services–rather than needs that help support and fulfill us.  Many of us, as part of our own spiritual paths, are shedding the layers of consumerism, and re-articulating what are actual needs in our own lives, rather than manufactured needs, is an important part of this process. The second is the intersection of personal and cultural reasons: many of us have a hard time voicing our needs in our immediate relationships (work, family, friend, intimate) or even to ourselves. Part of spiritual growth is recognizing that we have needs, and those needs are valuable.  This involves acknowledgment of the need of others in our lives but also the acknowledgment of our own ability to provide for our needs.

 

Behaviors: Behaviors are those things that you engage in in order to produce your yields.  You should write these as verbsWhat I like about adding behaviors to a personal niche analysis is that it allows us to think about our actions out in the world and what are meaningful to us.  Ultimately, behaviors lead to yields, and if we aren’t engaging in the behaviors we want to be engaging in (or we have behaviors that are detrimental to our goals) we end up not being able to produce the yields.

 

Allies (Optional): You can add two additional categories to your niche analysis (which I think really helps create a fuller niche analysis).  Allies are those things that help you produce yields and facilitate the behaviors that you want to engage in. These, again can be anything from free time to supportive partners, to, in my case, rivers and chickens. Think about your support system external to you: these are your allies.  Those that help you move forward with whatever it is you want to accomplish. We often draw strength by surrounding us with allies, and they are critical to acknowledge and to honor.

 

Predators (Optional): Finally, we come to predators.  In this niche analysis, they are defined as they things that harm or otherwise take away your ability to produce the yields you want to produce in the world.  Predators again can be anything at all: from problematic thinking to certain people to things happening in the world that drain you.  These are “predators” in the pejorative sense, not in the nature-oriented sense (which I discussed in a blog post earlier this year).  Identifying predators in our lives helps us better avoid them or find ways of managing them.

Creating your Personal Niche Analysis

You can create your personal niche analysis any way you like. I will give you some suggestions here that I have found are useful and helpful in creating it.

 

Get a large sheet of paper and markers. I find it is useful to do it on a large sheet of paper with colored markers, each color can represent a different element of the Personal Niche Analysis.  A large sheet of paper gives you more space to be thorough and really explore those different aspects of yourself. You can embrace the inner bard within to get visually creative with markers, paints, etc.   I’ve seen other nice niche analyses that people have done digitally, but that’s not quite my thing!

 

Open up a sacred space. The personal niche analysis is a wonderful spiritual activity: open up a sacred space/grove, say a small prayer, clear your mind with some meditation or color breathing, and then allow the niche analysis to flow from you.

 

Create Time for reflection.  As our first permaculture principle suggests, the personal niche analysis requires time for us just to interact, observe, and intuit our own gifts. Spend time really considering the different things that you bring.

 

Repeat this practice. We are always growing and evolving as people and the niche analysis can help us see that.  You can do a new personal niche analysis every year or few years to see how things have changed (revising the predators and allies, for example, is a really useful activity).

 

Use it to spur change and growth in your life!  Use the Personal Niche analysis as a reflective tool that will help you understand where you are now.  You can use goal setting, journaling, and other kinds of meditative work to help you move closer to your personal, spiritual, physical, social, family, or other goals.

 

Here is my sample personal niche analysis from my permaculture teacher training course this summer:

Dana's Personal Niche Analysis

Dana’s Personal Niche Analysis

In terms of how I used this niche analysis; after doing it, I spent some time meditating on it and thinking about it.  Are there needs I’m not currently having fulfilled?  Are there behaviors that are negative (that I chose not to represent?)  How often am I producing the yields I want to be producing?  This niche analysis can help us engage in deep reflection on ourselves and create a richer understanding of who and what we are!

 

I’d love to hear how this works for you as a spiritual exercise–please share if you end up using this as part of your spiritual work. This doesn’t have to take long, and it is a really useful first step for the inner work of permaculture. In the next post on this series, we’ll explore the same principle from the outer world.

Permaculture for Druids: Design Principles through the Five Elements

Humans throughout history have looked to nature as the ultimate teacher; nature is the sacred text from which all wisdom flows. As druids, we know the more time you spend in nature, the more you align with its rhythms, and the more you discover its many teachings. One of the reasons I am so committed to permaculture design as part of my outer druid practice, is that permaculture design is rooted in that same natural wisdom. The permaculture design principles, which I’ll be discussing today in this post, are the core of permaculture: we use them, along with the three ethics, to help us make every decision, not only for design work, but also for daily living. If we are going to continue our journey into the inner and outer realms of permaculture, and how this concept ties to druidry and other earth-based spiritual practices, a discussion of the design principles is our logical next step!

 

The elements

The elements

The Design Principles with a Druid Lens

I’ll be drawing my principles from three sources: Holmgren’s (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, Mollison’s Permaculture One, as well as from my Kay Cafasso’s Sowing Solutions Permaculture Design Certificate course.

 

I’ve also found it useful to group the principles under one banner of the elements and the druid animals (with my own addition of the bee of inspiration for spirit). The principles don’t all work in the same way, and this grouping helps us understand them in a new light.  In terms of the actual principles, in some cases,  I have kept the principles the same. But in other cases, I have adapted these principles to be shared and most applicable to those following nature-based, earth-centered paths. This meant that I may given them a more appropriate name that will better resonate with our values, and in other cases, I have created new principles that are rooted in the spiritual traditions in honoring the living earth.

 

I want to note that my lens is by no way present in mainstream permaculture, although certainly can be found on the fringes of the current movement and, I believe, is being woven more and more into permaculture as a practice. As people regenerate and heal the land, they are naturally drawn to it spiritually. As a druid, know that these principles go much deeper. I’ve also included the original design principle in parenthesis when necessary.

 

Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee

The principles of spirit, through the magic of the bee, ask us to observe what is around us, to rethink and resee those experiences, and to understand the connections to all things.  Bees are master alchemists; they transform nectar into honey that can stay preserved for 1000 years.  Bees embody the principle of transformation, teaching us that we, too, can work our magic upon our earth, especially if we work collectively.

 

Observe, Interact, and Intuit (Observe and Interact, Holmgren). This principle is simple—it asks you, before you do anything else, to spend time observing your surroundings, interacting with them in a non-judgmental way, and (and this is my addition) using your intuition to guide you. We can gain incredible insight from this simple activity, and using the information before us is a way into all else. All living beings use this same principle: observing, interacting, and working on instinct to survive and thrive.  We do this in the AODA, where members are asked to spend at 15 minutes a week in nature in stillness and focus, for example.

 

Reflect and Revise (Apply self-regulation and value feedback, Holmgren). This principle has two parts, and we’ll briefly consider each. There is tremendous value in when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions—this is the act of reflection. Reflection, through meditation, journaling, and quietude is a cornerstone of nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

Work on Multiple Levels (New principle). There are a few ways to think about this principle, derived from both systems theory and hermetic occult philosophy. On the side of systems theory, we need to have an awareness and engage in designs that allow us to consider and work on multiple levels: the micro/individual, and the macro/system.  When we recognize that a single element is part of a larger system, that changes the way we think about that system and about that element.  Working on multiple levels encourages us to think in these two perspectives at once, and consider the interplay between them. This same interplay also takes place between the inner and outer realms. The bee, as both an individual and as a superorganism, helps us better understand this principle: a solitary bee functions on her own, but does so as part of that larger hive (system of bees) working for collective good.

 

On the hermetic side, this practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on our inner realms. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. It is a principle that is well worth including here, as this principle has been enacted by humans, upon the landscape, for millennia. Outer transformations lead to inner transformations, and vice versa. We heal the land, we heal ourselves.

 

Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

The air principles focus on integrating our knowledge and wisdom to see more paths before us and using the power of air through our logic, intellect, and pattern recognition. These principles ask us to embody the energy of the hawk: first to fly high, take stock of what is before us, and offer us new was of experiencing and interacting as we begin the path towards positive change.

 

The Problem is the Solution (Mollison). This is one of my favorite of the principles, and for good reason. We spend so much of our lives hearing about the problems that plague us and feeling unable to address any of them. This principle turns that powerlessness on its head and suggests that the solution to any problem lies within the nature of the problem itself. For example, lawns are contributing substantially to climate change and the loss of ecological diversity; and the solution is there before us: change the nature of the lawn.  It is often than when we look at problems not as insurmountable obstacles, but as opportunities, we can do a tremendous amount of good.

 

Mushroom Eyes (New Principle). This principle is one I first learned as a wild food forager and mushroom hunter. Before we can act, we must see and in order to see we must understand. Observation and interaction is part of this, but mushroom eyes How we see the world is how we inhabit it and how we interact with it. You might think of this is seeing through different lenses–when you put the lenses on, everything is colored by that experience. But these are lenses of knowledge and wisdom. Think about the hawk here—he knows exactly what he is going for. Nature wisdom is about not only awareness but knowledge. Animals teach their young skills necessary to survive; and humans, part of nature, used to teach these same natural lessons to their own offspring. So there is a knowledge component that is necessary for us to do design, and mushroom eyes helps us be able to see in deeper ways.

 

Design from the Patterns to Details (Mollison). Sometimes, when we are working to solve a problem, we focus on a specific thing we want to do (e.g. I want to build a waterfall) without thinking about the overall patterns (in this case, is there an existing resource flow? What is the overall pattern in the landscape?). Often, designing this way leads to trouble because you have the specific elements you want but you are missing the larger goals and purpose. This principle asks us to start with the biggest picture, like the outer edge of a spiral, and slowly work our way into the details of the problem. We think about the patterns of nature and energy first, and then work or way down to the specifics of that design. We design with the goals first and work our way down to the specific details of how we enact those goals. By starting with the larger patterns that nature provides, we can more effectively design–and attend–to the small stuff.

 

Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag

Fire is about energy and change, and these three principles embody what we can do with energy and the many shifting changes around us. The Great White Stag is present in these principles as he lords over the forest: change is a constant in our great earth, and it is the many cycles such as the path of the sun, that we can harness for better life and living.

 

Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren)We live in a time of tremendous expenditure and waste of energy–this principle suggests that we catch and store that energy instead. If we look at a forest as our example, we see that forests are exceedingly effective at harnessing and storing any energy available: the trees grow in fractal patterns to store solar energy, and that solar energy is used over and over again, cycling through the system. In our own lives and designs, catching and storing energy to put to productive use is a key principle. This energy is any resource: external resources like sun, wind, or water and inner resources like time, joy, or passion.  We can harness that energy and store it, later to be used. Humans currently have an unbalanced relationship with energy, and it is cause devastation throughout our lands. This principle, then, asks us to be mindful and think about existing energy flows and how they can be most effectively used.

 

Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks.  When we enact spiraling changes, we focus on what is managable for us in that moment and how to build momentum over time.  Because, in reality, it are the small things, done over a period of time, that leave the most lasting impact.Rather than starting big and going all out with a 3 acre design, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. The principle of the spiral is critical here. We can’t burn ourselves out with trying to do too much, too quickly, and we can’t maintain our momentum. This principle also asks us to consider, for example, the role of ecological succession: we like to create designs thinking 100 years in the future, not just the immediate goals of tomorrow.

 

Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). Change happens whether or not we want it to; the world is always moving. Rather than see change as a bad thing, in permaculture we anticipate and embrace changes as a way to open up new possibilities and growth. This closely ties to one of the air principles, “the problem is the solution.”  We often see change as a negative thing–we like how things are going, we don’t want things to be different.  But change brings opportunity, if only we can see it.  Here’s an example: I try putting up an arbor and my plants are so abundant that the thing collapses without adequate support.  A creative response to this is to cut the vines back, use the cuttings for wreaths, and build a better arbor that allows me to sit under it!

 

 

Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool

The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—and the three water principles ask us to attend to those connections. In order to be effective as practitioners and designers of permaculture, we have to pay attention to many relationships. Permaculture, like druidry, is ultimately a path of understanding and facilitating connections and relationships, and the energy of water helps do this very thing.

 

Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). When you look at a typical vegetable garden, you see the veggies all in nice little rows, just waiting to eaten by whatever pest enjoys a good monocrop. Permaculture sees things differently: a healthy forest, after all, is never a monocrop but rather an integrated system. By integrating multiple elements in a design, we allow them to work with each other for good. This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs; a diverse ecosystem is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield. So, too, is a diverse group of people more resilent! This principle asks us to consider how each part in a system is related to each other and to the whole system. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together, rather than in isolation. This principle also builds on the spirit principle of working on multiple levels and understanding better how each individual part plays a role.

 

Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison). This principle suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions, there are others).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations. The more purposes a single element has, the more effective the design.  Any single plant or animal species in the forest offers an example: an oak tree provides shade, captures the energy of the sun, prevents erosion, drops leaves to offer habitat, offers nuts, and so many more things.

 

Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren). As a wild food forager and herbalist, I know that the margins are always the most abundant and diverse in an ecosystem–that’s where I go for much of my medicine and food. The edge of the pond or forest is where the activity is happening, where the bursting of life is taking place. This same principle can be applied to many other things: it is often at those edge spaces where we find the most interesting things happening!  This can be the space between a forest and a field, the edge of your yard or, even, the spaces between two people, the spaces where we overlap.

 

Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens

The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material things: what we do with the resources that we have and how we gain those resources. The earth principles ask us to manage and understand our own resources so that we can live in an earth-centered way.  The bear, and his medicine, is often of root, seed, and stone.

 

Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This basic principle says that we should work to obtain some kind of yield for our efforts. However, in permaculture, the idea of a yield is not limited to that which benefits humans (like a crop of tomatoes). Yields can certainly include food and medicine (the most obvious) but also intangibles like beauty, harmony, and peace. Yields in the natural environment can include blooms for nectar; fruit, seeds, and nuts for wildlife; habitat; soil fertility; erosion prevention, and more. This principle asks us to go beyond our own immediate needs and understand, ultimately, that the abundance of nature is for all to benefit from.  Nature is a great provider, and intentional design can help maximize the many yields she offers.  This principle also asks us to see a yield beyond that which is immediately physically beneficial to our own lives.

 

Waste is a resource (Mollison): Our culture is drowning in our own waste; I detailed some of the problems we have with waste in earlier posts on waste and humanure. In permaculture, waste (of any kind) is seen as a resource that has not yet been given a proper place.  We can work to, as Holmgren says, “produce no waste” by focusing our efforts on redirecting waste streams towards productivity.  For example, human waste and urine can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Old office paper can be turned into greeting cards using basic papermaking practices.  Spent grains from brewing can be added to the compost pile, and so on. Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling and instead encourages us to re-envision our waste streams.

 

Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): Stemming from the permaculture ethic of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. Our planet has finite resources and the extraction of these resources is causing increasing suffering, destruction, pollution, and habitat loss. In permaculture, we instead embrace things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy).  When we integrate renewables into our designs, we slow and/or eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.

 

 

Elemental Wheel

Elemental Wheel

Weaving the Design Principles and Elements into Practice

Just as we weave together the elements in rituals and in our own lives, so too, can we weave the different permaculture principles into our daily living.  As I discussed in my post last week, these principles aren’t just useful to us as “designers” when we are planning, but they also can be useful to us as mantras for meditation and just as principles for daily living–I try to use the principles as I go about my daily practice.  In the past, when I was first learning permaculture, I spent a month intensively studying each of the principles (you could do this for a week or even a day). This meant that for the “problem is the solution” month, I would spend time reflecting on it in meditation and working to embody the principle, seeing where it would work in my daily life, and using it to explore and think through larger societal problems.

 

It has taken me the better part of two years to come to this understanding of permaculture and how it maps onto the druid animals and elemental symbolism. I hope that this framing, along with my new additions and revisions to the principles, are a useful way of understanding these principles and how they can work in your life. In our next post, we’ll explore these same principles from an “inner landscape” perspective and then subsequent posts will move into exploring each individual principle and how we can use it to change our lives, regenerate our lands, and better our world.

 

PS: I especially want to thank David N. for his conversations and feedback on this line of thinking!