The Druid's Garden

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

Foraging for Pigments from Local Rocks: Making Watercolors, Oils, and Egg Tempera Paint from the Land! May 12, 2019

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

When I walk along the landscape here, I am greeted with the deep oranges and yellow oxides of our soils laden with heavy amounts of clay and iron.  These colors are reflected each time I dig into the subsoil, and as I drive through the countryside where mountains were cut through for roads. In other places, I might be greeted with reds, blues, or greens, all reflected in the geology of the land. Each region carries its own colors, and you can find the palate of the land in every stream bed.  Even an hour drive in any direction puts one in a new geological region–and this changes the colors of the stones and the soil.   You might think about these colors like a language–each landscape has its own language that you can learn to read and speak. Each landscape has its own unique set of colors, found in every stream bed. Today, we can think about expressing that language in visual form.

 

In today’s post, I’ll talk about how to forage for local pigments and learn how to grind them and prepare them as paint. That’s right, you can make your own paint from locally foraged rocks!  What is amazing about this process is that each landscape is unique: your own land’s palate will depend on the local geology.  As you forage for pigments and then turn them into your own paint, you know exactly what goes into the paint, where it came from, and you know that any paint water or other materials can return to the land. You might discover things only you, in your unique ecosystem, can discover!

Boney Dump iron oxide - my favorite pigment to date!

Boney Dump iron oxide – my favorite pigment to date!

 

Getting into Pigment Making

Everything is derived from nature, but in the 21st century, consumerism practices and “distributed by” labels often mask manufacturing processes which almost never tell us how something was made, where the raw goods came from, who produced it and under what conditions, or, what it even contains.  Art supplies are notoriously bad; labels tell us almost nothing about the pigments, and art supply companies are very tight lipped about how they produce their paints. You don’t know what chemicals are in your paint, unless they are *really* bad and carry a CL warning or other kind of warning label. These kinds of warning labels mean they are toxic to you and should be used with care: but no labels tell you about the toxicity of your products for the planet.  This means, in my art studio and in studios all over the world, people often have no idea what they are using to produce art with or what the environmental cost of those materials may be.  And for something like paint, paint water and paint byproducts often get dumped down the drain, making their way into local water systems. When I use commercial paint, I literally have no idea what I’m putting down my drain–and by way of my septic drain field–out into the land and local waterways.  Since our spetic field sits about 40 feet above a local (clean) stream, this is of serious concern to me.

 

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Given these realities, as a serious practitioner of the bardic arts, I am always looking for better ways to practice my visual art that does not require me to consume, pollute, or create demand on fragile ecosystems. Before, I had played around with various natural arts, including making my own berry inks and dyes.  The berry inks and dyes are not usually lightfast, though, and can’t be taken with me in my watercolor palate. But most of the time, my artistic medium of choice is watercolor, so I wanted to learn more. After my favorite watercolor paint supplier no longer offered watercolors in the US late last year, I started researching alternatives.  One of the things I came across were tiny watercolor companies that sourced natural ingredients and charged quite high prices for their paint.  I was intrigued, and figured that if they could do it, so could I.  I wanted paints that were more sustainable and less questionable in terms of ingredients.  So this post will share some of my successes and ideas for how you can do this yourself!

 

 

Sourcing Natural Pigments

 

A stream bank behind the homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments....

A stream bank behind our homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments….after each flood, new stones wash up on the bank!

Natural pigments literally everywhere, and if you travel, you can find a wide variety of colors.  Most of these are colors of the earth; colors of soil and of sand and of stone.  Deep greens and oranges and the colors of sunrise and mountains.  Deep reds and browns, blacks, and grays. You can also get into other kinds of pigments (lapis lazuli has long produced blue pigment; malachite has long been used for green), but for our purposes here, I’m assuming that you are working to source things locally and are going to find stones in your ecosystem.

 

You can find pigments in a lot of places, but some places are particularly good.  Pigments can often be found in exposed edges of streams, rivers and lakes; the water will expose clay banks and stones, making it easy to find pigments. Around here, fabulous places to look are what we call boney dumps; these are old piles of rocks and other mine waste that have lots of different rocks on the surface. You can find some pretty neat colors in these places  (finally, a sustainable use for a boney dump!).  The boney dumps are particularly useful for pigments becuase they would set the mines on fire and somehow use fire to process certain ore; so you also get stones changed by fire (and fire can certainly change pigment colors).  You might not have these (and be thankful you don’t), but looking for other sites where earth and stone have been dug up or exposed is good (the exposed bank that was cut in for new construction, for example).  Anywhere that a lot of rocks are exposed is potentially a good site to pick up some pigment stones.

 

 

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

Because you want pigments that are easy to process, especially when you are starting out, good pigment stones are fairly soft.  You can sometimes tell a good pigment stone by rubbing it against a harder rock.  If it produces something that looks like paint or clay on the other rock’s surface, it is likely a very good choice.  You can see immediately what your pigment may look like. You want the consistency of the pigment to get quite fine.  Grainy rocks like sandstone can also be processed, but the processing is a lot more work and some you can’t get down that finely by hand.  Harder stones may be worth processing, especially if they have unique colors. Clays can make good pigments, but not always; you can dig them out, then let them dry, and then grind them up, removing any large or hard rocks. You have to really see which pigments work and which do not–some clays I’ve used have been wonderful, and others haven’t had much pigment at all and create a sloppy mess.  Each geology and ecosystem has something different to offer you, and it requires a lot of experimentation.

 

 

Other pigment opportunities also exist. Both soot and charcoal make great pigments, so keep this in mind if you are having fires indoors or out. Soot produces more of a warm black, while charcoal produces more of a cool black.  I harvested both from our indoor fireplaces. You can also make a “bone black” from burned bones, turned into charcoal.

 

A few years ago,  I visited a mineral spring and found loads and gobs of pigment flaking off the walls from the spring –I dried this and saved it in a tin for later use.  Recently, also, and what started me on this adventure, I was given a container of iron oxide from the Tanoma Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Remediation site.  This iron oxide is what makes many of our streams, creeks, and rivers too acidic; a site like Tanoma creates pools and uses a process called tromping to help precipitate out the suspended particles, clearing the water before it goes back into the stream.  After the iron precipitates, it settles to the bottom of the pools; this can eventually be collected and used by local artists! And it requires very little processing.

 

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Tools for Paint Making

You will need to gather some basic supplies for making your own paints from foraged materials.  While you can make a primitive paint literally by crushing the pigment between two rocks and adding some water or oil, the following supplies will help you create a more refined pigment that would be suitable for paintings. Tools for creating paints:

 

  1. A mortar and pestle, dedicated to this use. You don’t want to use a mortal and pestle that you use for grinding herbs or food; get a separate one for this.  Or you can use something else; two hard rocks from the land can also work great.
  2. A glass muller or other grinding agent  Again, this is not necessary, but most fine pigments need a final ground, and this works well.  if you don’t have a muller, other glass tools may work like the edge of a small round jar. The key is you want a wide, flat surface on the bottom of whatever you use as it grabs the pigment and binder and mixes it well.  This is the most pricey of the materials ($50-$90).
  3. A palate knife, cake decorating knife, or old credit card.  You need something to be able to scoop up the pigment.
  4. A slab of glass or granite.  You need something to spread your pigment out and mix the paints carefully.  Right now, I’m using a smaller granite slab that I’ve had in my studio for various purposes, but I want to use a piece of glass instead, and will get one when I can find something recycled.
  5. A very fine mesh sifter for sifting out larger particles.  This is really useful if you are grinding your own stones.  get the finest mesh you can find. I found a strainer with 0.2mm holes, and this produces a usable paint but for certain stones, may still be gritty. A strainer with 0.1 mm (called a 100 strainer) is even better.  Look for these with sides from a scientific supply.  It is possible to refine your pigment and separate out particles without a strainer through a water suspension method, but the strainer really helps.
  6. Containers for your paint and pigments (shells or containers for paints; jars for extra pigments).
  7. Googles, gloves, and a breathing mask.  Paint pigments are not good for your lungs, and you need to take serious precautions!

 

Materials for Paint Making and How Paint Works

In order to know how to turn pigment into paint, its helpful to know how paint works.  Paint consists the pigment (color), a binder, and usually things to extend the life of the paint or improve viscosity and flow.  A binder is what “binds” the pigment to the surface; if you used only water and pigment, the pigment would flake back off the page after it dried, and your paint wouldn’t last.  In other words, a binder helps keep the paint on the page.  Gum Arabic or Linseed or walnut oil, and egg yolk are common binders.  A lot of modern paints use chemical binders, so we want to stay away from that stuff.

 

Paint Supplies: Watercolors

Watercolors are made with a combination of gum arabic and honey; glycerine can be added as well to prevent cracking.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder; that which helps the pigment stay on the page.  Since its water soluble, Gum Arabic is a great choice for watercolors. Honey helps improve the viscosity and flow of your pigment, and glycerine helps prevent the pigment from drying out or cracking.  I am currently using honey and gum arabic in all of my homemade watercolors.  You can purchase 1 lb bags of gum arabic in powder form, which you can just mix up and store in the freezer.  This is really economical, compared to buying it already prepared from an art store.

 

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

I’m currently researching a more local ingredient than gum arabic.  I’ve read some old books that say you can use wild cherry sap, ground and dried, which makes sense as it is also water soluble.  Pine resins would not be an appropriate choice for this as they are not water soluable (but they have other uses). I’ll report back on the cherry sap once I’ve experimented with it, which will be over the summer once I am able to harvest and dry some.

 

Paint Supplies: Oils

For oil paints you’ll need linseed oil and melted beeswax along with your prepared dry pigment.  Walnut oil may be a more local choice for you, and it will work almost as well as linseed oil.

 

Paint Supplies: Egg Tempera

For this you’ll need an egg yolk, water, alcohol, and your dry pigment.

I want to note that you can also make your own acrylics, but acrylics are plastics, polymers, and those go right back into the ecosystem when you are done. The materials above are more naturally sourced and based and represent more traditional sources.

 

Preparing Your Pigments

To prepare your pigments, you will need to get them ground finely while not breathing in any dust. Connect with the energies of the earth during this process and embrace the time it takes to do this. I use the following approach:

 

1. Break up rocks into smaller pieces.   First you need to break up your rocks into pieces that can be finely ground down with a mortar and pestle.  I usually use a hammer for this and a plastic bag.  Break the rocks up as fine as you can using this method.   In my case, I am using a thicker bag that is non-recyclable (this is a bag that chicken and guinea fowl treats come in). This process gives this bag a bit more life!  Put the rocks in the bag and start the breaking down process. You should do this outside and if it isn’t windy, consider a breathing mask.  If the stones are particularly strong, you might want several layers of bag (or a thicker feed bag, old tarp, etc).

Rock breaking.

Rock breaking.

 

2. Grind the pieces down in a mortar and pestle as finely as you can.  After you get the pieces much smaller with the hammer, you can start to get them finely ground. I have a granite mortar and pestle of a fairly large size for this purpose.  I grind down the pieces, working in very small batches.  You can see this reflected in the photo below–I work with smaller and smaller batches as I work the stones down into a fine pigment.  Again, use a breathing mask and do this outside if you can.  Here I am grinding down the local slate stones a friend and I found on a hike.  You might notice that the color has changed from the stone to the pigment–that often happens!  Everything is a surprise.

Slate pigment at various stages

Slate pigment at various stages.  The pigments often are a slightly different shade than the rocks themselves.

3.  Sift.  Sifting is probably the most critical part of the paint–if you don’t have a fine enough strainer, your particles will be too big and your paint will be gritty.  The goal is to get the finest particles possible–below I am using a .02 mm x .02 mm sifter.   I will take whatever won’t go through the strainer back into the mortar and pestle for a while. You can sift multiple times to get a fine grind.

 

In this case, whatever isn’t sifted is put back in the mortar and pestle for more grinding.  You can also store the extras in a jar for the next time you want to make paint. I’ve been talking to other natural paint makers, and the grinding and sifting is really an art form in and of itself–some are easy to do, and some are quite difficult–depending on the stone. It all takes patience and can be a very meditative practice.

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar/pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter (I might add some simple "walls" to it at some point!)

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar and pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter.  Since taking these photos, I purchased two additional sifters that are even better than this one!

Another option if you can’t get your particles fine enough is to do the long route using water.  If you grind up a lot of pigment, you can put it in a glass jar with a lid (I use a 1/4 pint or 1/2 pint jar for this).  Shake the pigment up well, and then quickly pour off everything but the very heavy particles that sink to the bottom.  The lighter particles are suspended in the liquid; they will likely precipitate out to the bottom.  (If they don’t, some paintmakers use a bit of alum to help them drop out).  Otherwise, if you have a small amount of water, put it in a greenhouse, dehydrator, or other sunny location and it will dehydrate.  What you are left with is a *very* fine pigment, fine enough to be a high artist quality grade paint.  The heavy particles can be dried as well and further ground up.

 

Making Your Paint

For watercolor: Place your pigment in the center of your glass plate.  Add about 1 part Gum Arabic for every 2 parts pigment, and then about 1/8 part honey. Some paintmakers are also adding a drop or two of clove essential oil for preservation, but I don’t have any so I’m not using it at present.  You can pretty much eyeball this.  If the pigment is too dry, add more gum arabic.  If its too wet, keep working it and the air will dry it out in a few minutes.

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Next, move to a muller or other tool that you can use to spread out and grind the pigment further. If you don’t have a muller, try something that can help grind the glass–like a flat glass bottomed jar. The muller is completely flat, and you can easily rub it over the surface to mix the pigment.  After you spread it out, use a palate knife to scrape up the pigment and use the muller again (see second photo, below).

Mulling pigment. This one doesn't have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.

Mulling pigment.

This first photo doesn’t have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.  If your pigment looks like this, it needs a finer grind and will be very gritty when complete.  You might need a finer sifter or to separate it with water.

What you are looking for is a very smooth grind.

The difference between these the above photo and this one is striking–and so are the results.  The second pigment here (iron oxide) has a very, very fine ground!

 

Here's the slate pigment--it turned into a pretty nice paint!

Here’s the slate pigment–it turned into a pretty nice paint because I was able to get a very fine grind and sift.  It still had a little bit of graininess to it, but works great.  A water separation or a finer sifter would have helped get the particles even smaller.

 

You may have to mull it for quite a while to get all of the pigment and binder together.  Usually 5-10 min. Once you see it as completely consistent, you can scrape it all up with a paint knife and put it in small containers to dry.

 

I have been using sea shells that I’ve had sitting around to put my paint in, but anything that has a lid (like an old Altoids can or lip balm can) would work just fine. I also had some empty plastic half pans I picked up at a yard sale, and I have also been using them.  If you want a full container of pigment, you usually have to make paint several times and add layers to the pans (as the pigment dries, it shrinks and cracks).

 

When you want to use your paint, rewet it and use it like any other watercolor.

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board.  This is a fireplace soot paint.

 

For Egg Tempera, you will want a small jar.  Start by removing the egg yolk from the white.  Egg yolks have a sack that holds the inner yolk; break the yolk and remove the sack.  This is accomplished by either puncturing the yolk and letting it drip in, or simply fishing out the sack after you’ve gotten the yolk punctured.  Add a small amount of water (1 tbsp) and put a lid on the jar, shaking your paint until everything is mixed.  Now, place your pigment in the center of your glass plate or other non-porous surface.  Add small amounts of alcohol to your pigment, and grind it or use your knife or muller (see photos above).  Finally, add enough yolk water to you get to the consistency you want and grind it some more.

Egg tempera is best used within a week; without preservatives it will go bad fairly quickly.  I will keep mine in the fridge between uses.  I don’t make these very often, but they are nice for certain applications (like traditional folk painting).

 

For Oil Paint, The process for making oil paints is the same as above, only instead of gum arabic and honey, you are adding linseed oil and a small amount of melted beeswax.  If exposed to the air, oils will eventually dry out within a week or two (just like commercial oil paints).  A lot of people will purchase metal tubes so you can keep your paint in a metal tube, just like commercial producers do ,when making oil paints – as it would be hard to mix up a whole palate anytime you wanted it!

 

Using Your Paint

Once you have your paint made, you can use it on anything!  I like the watercolors best for this process because they don’t require special storage–you just dry them out into cakes, and then they can be used and rewet as needed.  If you get a fine grind, you can make watercolors and other paints even *better* than what you can find in the store: rich, inviting, and completely made by you!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

The Water Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle; The tan paint in the roots is from my own handmade watercolors: the AMD Iron Oxide–the first paint I made using this method!

 

watercolor swirl painting--all of the browns were from foraged paint!

Watercolor swirl painting–all of the browns were from foraged paint!

I hope this has been inspirational and informative. Now that spring is here, I am excited to see what pigments my landscape offers and do some western PA specific paints with this local and eco-friendly palate of colors!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging as I am in the final preparation for releasing my Plant Spirit Oracle deck, plantng out our gardens on the homestead, and attending the MAGUS druid gathering and doing some camping.  I’ll resume posting in early June!

 

Lines Upon the Landscape: Spiritual and Energetic Ramifications of Oil Pipelines and Fracking July 17, 2015

Sacred Circle in Michigan

Sacred Circle in Michigan

I’ll never forget May 1st, 2014. I came down to the sacred circle at my homestead in Michigan and with the intention of performing a private Beltane celebration ritual I had prepared. As I began the ritual, something felt very, very wrong. Wrong in the deep, gut sense. Behind the circle was a ley line (in an energetic sense) held by a number of hawthorn trees in a growing in a straight line. I had built the circle before I had found this line, and was delighted when I found it years later. This pathway created an abundance of positive energy upon the land. This ley line ran a good ½ mile or more.   But on Beltane over a year ago, the energies of the line had substantially diminished from even the day before when I had visited the circle. On Beltane, line felt stifled or dampened, and was weakening by the minute. This change had been going on slowly for some time, but this new development was immediate and intense. I knew that a company called Enbridge was putting in an oil pipeline and a compressor station; the pipeline ran less than half a mile from my land and the compressor station was about 3 miles north of my home. I knew that this was the worst kind of oil with a horrific environmental toll—the tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. But what I didn’t know was that that pipeline was turned on that exact day–Beltane of 2014. Instead of performing my planned ritual, I investigated the energetics further, and I found that where the now-active pipeline crossed the ley line, the line’s energy just stopped, cut off, and that the pipeline was corrupting and weakening the line tremendously. As I observed in the time since, the line literally became non-existent. This isn’t to say the magic of the land was gone, but the magic of that sacred place that I had created was different and altered. The line had shifted the energies, and they are still shifting in the time since. I think its significant that Enbridge (likely unknowingly) chose the day celebrated in my tradition, and in many others, as the day when blessings, abundance, and fertility were returned to the land.

 

In many places and across many time periods, ancient humans created a sacred network across the land*. Lines of stones, sacred roads, stone circles, wood circles, cursuses, ancient old straight paths provided networks are all examples of these lines. From the Incan lines radiating outward from their greatest city, to the spirit roads of the Chinese, to the henges, trilithons, hills and old straight tracks in Great Britain, humans developed physical energetic pathways for specific purposes along the landscape. Using mathematical principles from sacred geometry and the sweat equity of countless humans, some of the lines, curses, mounds, stone circles, and even groves of sacred trees were local occurrences, and yet others went for hundreds of miles and even today can still be viewed from space. Whole cities were built with their holy sites in alignment with the stars, the city and travel ways aligning to sacred wells, stones, and hills. This weaving and creating of a sacred landscape was a defining feature of so many ancient cultures—from South America to North, from the British Isles to China. Most theories suggest that these lines had numerous cultural functions, including emphasizing channeling down the sun into the land to bring abundance, communicating with spirits or ancestors, and in overall blessing the land. The lines upon the landscape, the old straight paths, were a consistent feature upon the landscape for well over a millennium or more. Humans lived, played, ate, loved, breathed, slept, and eventually died on landscapes where the sacredness was set into the very stones.

 

But over time and in many places, the old knowledge of sacred geometry and the power of the straight line, of setting of stones, were lost.  Eventually, the sacred worldview under which these lines were created and maintained was replaced**.

A very different pattern upon the landscape

A very different pattern upon the landscape

 

As time passed, and the world became disenchanted. With the industrialization, mechanized processes, and rationality, the lines that had held the enchantment of the world slowly began to be replaced with modern highways, rails, and subdivisions, who by their very nature are the antithesis of sacred geometry. The ancient henges were dug up in the name of science, the ancient curses and old straight roads were plowed over to make room for “development.” People like “Rock Breaker” farmer discussed in Alfred Watkins’ Old Straight Track purposefully destroyed the stones that had stood for thousands of years because they were inconvenient for his fields. The idea that the land could hold magic was abandoned; the land was physically, mentally, and spiritually disenchanted.   New energy lines, very different from the sacred ones of the distant past, are now a permanent part of our landscape.

 

Like the lines our ancestors once set, these profane oil and gas energy lines are the legacy we leave our ancestors. What energetic pattern do these lines create? What will this new energy line system to do our lands long-term? If our ancient ancestors spent generations upon generations building sacred lines to ensure the peace and prosperity of our lands, what legacy do these new lines leave behind. The disenchanted worldview doesn’t even acknowledge, much less understand, the ramifications of what I write. The photo below shows these new energy lines weaving across the landscape.  For anyone that doesn’t think this affects you or for anyone who thinks that if you just move, you can somehow avoid this….I think this map tells a different story.  When you combine this with mountain top removal, fracking wells, refineries, and more–its pretty much impossible to avoid.

Pipelines across the USA - 2.8 million miles of them (map from Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration)

Pipelines across the USA – 2.8 million miles of them (map from Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration)

As I read a story after story about people fighting to stop yet another pipeline through their backyards, I think about how these pipelines and wells are built manipulation and misinformation perpetuated in communities. I never even knew about that pipeline or new compressor station in Michigan until well after my township had already given them their rubber stamp of approval without any real public notice or opportunity for response. I think about what that pipeline in Michigan did to the landscape, I attempt to understand the deep ramifications of the loss.

 

Machinery preparing for pipeline in Michigan

Machinery cutting down trees and preparing for pipeline in South-East Michigan

If nothing is sacred, then nothing is sacred. Profit becomes the driving motivator of all change, to the short-term profit of few and to the long-term detriment of all. While the world has been largely disenchanted for well over a century or more in most industrialized areas, at least, we are now in a time period where the toll of the profane actions upon landscape is coming due. Among the many other challenges, the drive to put in more and more pipelines, frack anywhere that holds a bit of gas or oil, and continue to consume fossil fuels has led us down such a dark path. I read a few days ago how fracking companies have been spreading their toxic wastewater upon almond and pistachio fields in California, and I think about the long-term ramifications of the disenchantment of the world. Even the way the article reporting on the new practice for fracking wastewater and farmer’s fields is written is disturbing and disenchanted. It speaks of “conservation” and “recycling” in an industry that is literally poisoning our lands and water on a massive scale, and now, apparently, dumping even more poison (likely radioactive and certainly carcinogenic) on our food system. Of course, an 8 million dollar pipeline for the fracking wastewater was just approved to ensure the quick passage of their toxic slurry to your dinner table.

 

In the last week, I helped a friend who is fighting a natural gas compressor station and gas pipeline revise a survey and flyer that will help alert people locally to what is happening. I read stories from all over the country about other groups doing the same—and I pray for their success (I may blog about this group soon–they are using impressive resistance tactics!)  I think about my own experiences in Michigan. I think about my experiences in going hiking after returning to my beloved mountains in Western Pennsylvania, now deep in the heart of fracking country. Fracking didn’t exist when I moved away in my early 20’s after graduating with my BA, but now, it is a permanent feature upon the land, a feature I’m still trying to grasp, understand, and personally respond to.

 

When we hear the news of yet another species extinction, or the poisoning of yet another waterway, or the spill of yet more oil in another ocean, or the release of yet another set of toxins, culturally there is no real response on a widescale level. The industrial machine plows forward with reckless abandon. There seems to be no limit—or care—about how things like fracking, oil pipelines, chemicals, and toxins are changing our landscape. This is because, culturally, we would need radical shifts towards more sustainable living and with a lot less stuff or fossil fuel to make a real difference, and that is something that many modern disenchanted minds cannot currently conceive.

 

Even given this, I believe there is hope. The gas lines and oil pipelines and fracking wells exist upon our landscape now because there was demand and need for them.  By transitioning our own daily living, the demand for such things diminishes. As much as seeing the alternations upon my homelands have saddened me, I know there is hope, both for our physical lands and for the re-enchantment of those lands. We have tools, already in existence, that can help us transition to lower or no fossil fuel living and ways of regenerating our landscapes and lives.  There is also spiritual work we can do to help, at least energetically, engage in the start of healing.  Given these possible tools of response,  I’ll be posting regularly on both the physical and the energetic responses that we can have.  The important thing, I think, it to feel empowered and to do something.  We never truly know how far we can go, and what we can achieve, until we try.   *For readers wanting to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend Lines Upon the Landscape by Paul Devereux and Nigel Pennick. **For readers wanting to understand the shifts in worldview, the first chapter of The Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer serves as an excellent introduction.

 

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

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

 

Home-grown lettuce: no comparison!

Home-grown lettuce: no comparison!

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

 

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

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde, Costa Rica

 

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

 

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

 

Car-dependent Sprawl....

Car-dependent Sprawl….

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad

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

 

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

 

Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Update – Restoration Planning at Strawbale Studio May 22, 2014

Site of decomissioned earlier pipeline

Site of decommissioned earlier pipeline; next to where the new pipeline is being dug.

The question of how to respond to events beyond our control, the broader events and decisions that continue shape the world, is an important one. So much destructive and exploitative human activity is taking place (fracking, mountain top mining, tar sands oil) and its hard to respond when we feel so powerless. Its even harder to respond when we know that we are complicit in these events’ creation–by driving cars, heating our homes with gas, and so on, we are shaping the events that take place.

 

The kinds of responses we generate in the face of such events is an issue well worth pursuing.  Each area has its own local challenges, my area being no exception. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the area in South-East Michigan where I live (less than 3 miles north of my house) has a tar sands oil pipeline being put in (this line is an alternative to Keystone XL, which has generated substantial attention in the media).  While there is nothing that the citizens can do here to prevent the pipeline from being completed due to the history of this particular pipeline and previous permission being granted, we can certainly decide how we respond, how we work with the land, and what we do after the pipeline crews leave.  How we choose to respond can shape conversations about these activities for decades to come, and can demonstrate that there are many ways to work with the land and address change.

 

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Last fall, I discussed the Enbridge Oil Pipeline digging project that was going through my good friend Deanne’s land at Strawbale Studio. In the fall, I went and worked with the trees and documented what was happening on her land.  At this point, the land has been cleared for the crews, and the pipeline will be dug within the next few weeks.  Those of us involved with Strawbale Studio been thinking about what to do when the crews leave, how we might encourage sustainable thinking and practices.

 

Last night, 35 members of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup spent time looking at the site in its current form and brainstorming ideas for restoration once the pipeline project is done. I wanted to post an update about some of our ideas and suggestions to A) document the progress of this project and our response and B) share the ideas if others are facing a similar challenge in their communities.

Exploring Strawbale Studio

Exploring Strawbale Studio

 

We began with a tour of the Strawbale Studio property, ending at the pipeline.  Using principles of permaculture design (observe and interact) we examined the site, explored the margins, noted the existing flows of energy (like a wetland area on the western part of the pipeline and a rising slope on the eastern part of the pipeline).  Deanne also pointed out the existing resources, including a huge pile of mulched wood chips from the trees that were cut (which will likely become a compost water heater in the fall) and numerous logs and stone piles which could be used for various natural building projects. After reviewing the site, we went back to the house for discussion about possibilities. We also noted the distance from the house (about a 3-5 min walk) and noted the severity of last winter would mean that the site might not be accessible year round.  We also noted which areas needed to remain clear of large trees (where the pipeline is) and which areas could be “anything goes” areas (the staging areas where they cleared to have their equipment move in and out around the area where the pipeline is being dug).

 

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Its incredible what happens when you get 35 people in a room who want to make change.  We came up with a number of good and worthy suggestions–short term and long term. I’m not sure yet which ones we’ll decide to move forward with, but I think a number of these are worthy of consideration.

 

Short term suggestions:

Our short term suggestions focused on the immediate needs to restore the land and how to make use of any resources the pipeline company might be willing to provide:

  • Seeing if the construction crews would create swales for water trapping and the like, be willing to shape the landscape so we could more effectively catch and store energy (this would be a first response)
  • Seeing what kinds of resources for restoration the company offers (they are required to offer some, based on Michigan Department of Natural Resources and EPA guidelines).
  • Once the crews leave, we need to immediately get something immediately planted in the bare soil to help restore the land and rebuild the soil ecology.  Ideas ranged from  a cover crop of rye, clover, alfalfa to something with a tap root.  This suggestion is particularly important because the soil ecology has been largely destroyed and now the soil will have substantial amounts of compaction due to the heavy machinery going over the site.  A tap rooted crop will help break up compaction and add nitrogen and other minerals back into the soil.

These three areas are the first we will address in the action plan.  Once we see what resources we have, what, if anything, we can do to shape the land, and how to get something in the soil to restore it, the longer-term projects can get underway.

 

Group discussion indoors about site

Group discussion indoors about site

Long-Term Potential Projects:

The long-term projects ranged substantially, and many have a lot of merit!  Which projects end up taking place depends on the community, the resources, and Deanne’s vision for the site.

  • A camping area (perhaps combined with a yearly gathering) where interns or visitors can camp.
  • A pollinator sanctuary with native wild grasses, plants, flowers, etc., as well as beehives for honey and a cob beehive for wild bees (like mason bees).  We like this idea a lot because it doesn’t require a lot of daily maintenance (like animals would, see below), and it contributes back to the land.
  • The use of the land for natural building materials for other strawbale projects–establishing trees for coppicing (hazels, willows), perhaps other materials
  • Some kind of co-op: wine/grapes, orchard/fruit; goat/sheep; chicken/egg; or herbs.  The idea is that the community would contribute to the work of the co-op and reap some of the rewards.
  • An education area for children/school groups to come and learn about energy and restoration–it would have signs about oil pipelines, what was done and how the oil is used, encouraging reduction of fossil fuel use and teaching about sustainability (this could be done with any number of our ideas)
  • Orchards of fruit and nut trees (Hazels and Apples were specifically discussed)
  • A grazing area for chickens, goats, horses, or the like (we decided that if this were to be, someone would need to be down there in a little cob building as a caretaker!)
  • Alfalfa as a cash crop that can be baled and sold to nearby farmers (to bring in steady income for other projects)

These are just some of the ideas the community came up with.  This was a wonderful meeting, to see so many people invested in planning for the future, in reclaiming the land and in working to put something in that encourages a different worldview.

 

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Final Thoughts

Throughout our country and world, there are a lot of bad things being done to the land in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel energy.  Any of us who participates in modern consumerist society (myself included) is contributing to the problem of the exploitation of our lands for oil.  And most of us live near some kind of activity–from mountaintop removal to fracking to oil pipelines (and many of us live in areas were multiple kinds of activity are taking place).

 

While we can reduce our fossil fuel use and look for alternatives (as many of us are doing), how we respond to these kinds of issues, especially when we are directly confronted with them can empower us and bring about broader change in the world.  That we will turn the oil pipeline site into a sustainable, model site for other kind of restorative work is empowering–and its something we *have* the power to do, while stopping the oil pipeline is something that we really don’t have the power to do (this one was leased in the 1960’s, so its a done deal as far as any of us can tell).  I’d be interested in hearing of any other communities’ responses to these kinds of issues.

 

Strawbale Studio and Tar Sands Oil Pipelines – The Clash of Worldviews, Part I October 17, 2013

Staked out pipeline

Staked out pipeline

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, we have an oil pipeline going through our immediate area in South East Michigan. The first “phase” of the project went 1/2 mile north of my home in 2012-2013. This was “Line 6B, phase I” according to Enbridge’s site, and was an upgrade/replacement project for one that they originally put in in the 1960’s to send oil from Canada to refineries in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The 2nd phase of the project began a few months ago and will continue into 2013-2014; it will create a new, much higher volume pipeline and decommission the old pipeline currently in that area. One of my goals with this blog, as I have done in the past, is to document such issues and their spiritual and environmental consequences (and long-term readers might recall my coverage of some North Dakota fracking last year).  I’m going to start with an overview about the larger oil pipeline and some environmental consequences–then I’ll get into details about how its affecting one local place, Strawbale Studio.

Tar Sands Oil and Environmental Impacts: This is a short (5 minute) video that provides a good overview of the pipeline in the Great Lakes region, specifically, at Mackinac Bridge (where it crosses the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan).  Mackinac is about 4 hours north of here. Its worth the watch:

 

 

I also have mentioned in an earlier post that this same pipeline was responsible for the Kalamazoo Oil spill in 2010, which put somewhere around 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamzoo river. The pipeline spill is still not entirely cleaned up and just a few months ago the EPA ordered Enbridge back to clean up more of the oil still in the river and surrounding areas. Given Enbridge’s history of environmental ethics in this state, the fact that they are making a larger volume pipeline now is particularly concerning.  One of my colleagues, who has the Line 6B coming through his property on my road, has been blogging about a lot of this at his Line 6B Blog.

 

Also of concern is the source of the oil–the Alberta (Canada) oil sands. This oil sands methods of extraction are particularly damaging to the peat bogs and boreal forests that make up much of Alberta. Water usage, and the release of oil-tainted water, very harmful to wildlife, occurs with tar sands oil extraction. Substantial carbon dioxide emissions are also on the rise (which have increased Canada’s emissions in the last 20 years rather than decreasing them, as per the Kyoto Protocol). In all, these oil sands, and the resulting pipelines, represent serious environmental and ethical challenges.

 

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Going after tar sands oil is an indicator of the fact that oil is a finite and quickly depleting resource, past its peak of production.  Companies wouldn’t have considered mining these patches for oil years ago when other oil fields were still easy to access and full of oil.  These tar sands oil fields are now mined, despite their environmental consequences, because few other options exist to keep oil flowing at the rate of demand. The energy returned on investment (EROI) on tar sands oil is somewhere between 2.9 to 5.1 by more liberal estimates (so for every 1 energy unit we put into the process of mining, we extract 2.9-5.1 units of oil). (Some have suggested its closer to 1:1 if one considers the whole lifecycle of the production of tar sands oil, and things like the upkeep of pipelines). Compare this to conventional oil fields, which today offer a 25:1 EROI (fields of years past offered much higher EROI). In other words, this tar sands oil cruising through pipelines in South East Michigan isn’t even worth much investing in from an EROI, even if one were to overlook the substantial environmental impacts.

One example of strawbale studio's work!  Here is a living roof/wood shed

One example of strawbale studio’s work! Here is a living roof/wood shed

Strawbale Studio in the path…..Back to the matter at hand. Endbridge is now moving onto their 2nd phase of the pipeline project, and this is very unfortunately intersecting with a place near and dear to my heart–Strawbale Studio and Sustainable Living Center (run by Deanne Bednar). Strawbale Studio is a place that, from a sustainability perspective, is doing everything right: teaching and empowering people who want to learn how to live more sustainably, building community, and sharing skills. I’ve been honored to take numerous workshops there and have learned a great deal of information on more sustainable living skills, such as cob building and artwork, strawbale construction and natural building, growing mushrooms, barn raising, rocket stoves, composting, food preservation, candle making, and so much more.  I’ve also been excited to meet so many people from around the world who are interning or taking classes at Strawbale Studio.

Another example of Strawbale Studio's work - A composting toilet!

Another example of Strawbale Studio’s work – A spiral chamber!

On the back part of the Strawbale Studio property spans the old oil pipeline that Enbridge built in the 1960’s; now they are decommissioning the old line and destroying more land for their larger, new pipeline.  A few months ago, we got the word that Enbridge would be clearing the trees near the existing pipeline–about 80 or so feet of trees, 4 acres long. They also required Deanne to dismantle one of the natural buildings that was nearly finished–it was an amazing, quirky guest house. I hate to think how many thousands of hours of labor went into building that guest house.

 

A few weeks ago, Deanne got word that the tree clearing would be occurring at a rate of 1 mile per day, and that it would be occurring soon at Strawbale Studio. I went out to the property to honor the trees and document what was occurring before the crews were to come through. Here are some photos of this patch of lovely forest, thick with many kinds of sacred trees and plants: hawthorn, apple, oak, maple, cherry, brambles, and so much more.

Guest house taken down before logging

Guest house taken down by volunteers before logging

Tree line happy and vibrant

Tree line happy and vibrant; these trees are all gone now

Path through the woods

Path through the woods; most of these trees are gone too

Hawthorn and Apple

Hawthorn and Apple; these trees are no more

I must say, that this was one of the hardest visits I ever had made to a forest.  Why? Because I knew it was doomed and had no hope of survival.  Nothing that any of us could do would permanently stop the great wave of oil that would wash through its path. The trees knew it was coming and had already accepted their fate with a dignity that few humans can ever achieve. They waved at me in the gentle breeze, knowing that they were experiencing their last sunsets, their last ever fall equinox.  When I arrived, I immediately noticed that the workers, in marking up their areas for clearing, had knocked over a small living hawthorn tree, a very sacred tree; we gathered up the berries and will dry them and use them this winter.

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

There is another part to this visit though, the darker part.  This visit was also very hard because I drove there, using fossil fuels that very well could have been extracted and sent down that same pipeline, and I was contributing to the problem even in order to make my visit.  The contradictions were rooted deep within me as I spent time there with the trees.  I’ve been seriously reading on how to reduce my dependence on fossil fuels in an efficient and cost-effective way, but I haven’t yet come up with a solution that I can afford and enact.  So knowing that I was using the oil that is driving this project was particularly difficult.

 

Enbridge clear cuts: A week and a half later, Enbridge did their initial “clearing” of the trees in order to make room for their pipeline. We weren’t sure when exactly was happening when (Deanne was out of town) but when I came back later that week, I was able to document what had occurred this far. Here are a number of photos:

Former oak

Former oak

Machinery clearing "brush"

Machinery clearing “brush”

Former life....

Former life….

Trailer tracks

Trailer tracks

Devastation

Devastation where life once stood

Giant pile of brush

Giant pile of brush

Patch of cleared land

Patch of cleared land with stumps and logs

Where do we go from here? There are ways to be reactive to what is happening and there are ways to be proactive.  This is not just the story just of destruction.  I’ll continue to document what is happening at Strawbale Studio, and talk to some of the people there about the “clash of worldviews” as I am calling it; the sustainable living skills that are attempting to be taught while the heavy machinery rolls ever onward and oil pipeline is built within earshot of our workshops.

 

What this story will hopefully be, however, is a story of what we do with this space after they clear out.  How this space is transformed into something new; how the wood is used, how the land is regrown, and how we all grow in the process.  As they continue to put this pipeline in for the next year or so–and as we brainstorm our next moves in producing something amazing in this space that has now seen such suffering. I hope you’ll follow us and see what happens next.