The Druid's Garden

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

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical 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 the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It 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).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea 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. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. 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.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. 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. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Pandora’s Box and Tools for the Future March 3, 2019

The story of Pandora’s box has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I was little.  Pandora was so curious. She just had to open the box. She just had to. And when she did, she let out all the bad things in the world: suffering, pain, war, famine, pestilence, betrayal….but she also let out one good thing: she let out hope.

 

I think when we start talking about the present and the future of the world-its kind of like being inside Pandora’s Box. It seems that more and more reports come out, more and more news comes out, and the longer that things go on, we keep being surrounded by all the bad things. Ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps these things could be ignored.  But today, I don’t think there is any more time for that. The reports, like the recent National Climate Assessment, don’t often offer a lot of solutions, just a lot of facts about where we are and the harsh present and even harsher future we face. The reports, combined with global inaction on issues of critical importance, the backpedaling by world leaders to set hard limits on carbon emissions, to stave off ecological collapse–we are in that Pandora’s box, the box full of bad things. I’m teaching a sustainability studies class for the first time in five years, and even among the young, 18-22 aged population, there is a considerable shift.  When I taught a very similar course 5-7 years ago, students were upbeat and ready to engage.  When I’m teaching it this term, students are less empowered, more quiet and somber.

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

I think one of the most important things we can do as druids is maintain hope–hope about our own lives, hope about the future.  Today’s post offers some tools: thinking tools, processing tools, and tools that offer us new perspectives and ways of engaging with today–in a way that empowers us, that gives us ways to act, and helps us get into a better space about it all, rathe than being demoralized about the future. If you haven’t read earlier posts in this series, you might want to do so to see where we’ve come from and where we are heading: druidry for the 21st century, druidry in the Anthropocene, and psychopoming the anthropocene.

 

A Thinking Tool: Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern

A framework that I think is really important for druidry and other action in the age of the Anthropocene is the Sphere of Influence vs. the Sphere of Concern tool. This framework is adapted from the work Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I think its a *really* useful tool for personal empowerment and hope in the Anthropocene. The graphic below shows the difference between a person’s circle of concern (which could be global and long-term) vs. a person’s circle of influence (which is local and immediate).

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

 

Your Sphere of Concern is what you are concerned about–and often, due to media and the Internet, this is often global. For all of the potential benefits that a globalized world may offer,  it creates an enormous sphere of concern, which given the world’s predicament, is psychologically really challenging.  News is almost always outside of our Sphere of Influence, but exposure to the news encourages us to have a huge Sphere of Concern.  We have very little power to leverage change in systems that are large and distant–cutting down of rainforests, the plight of polar bears or whales. This creates a sense of general disempowerment, which can lead to apathy or frustration.  However, before modern globalization, people mostly were concerned with what was around them.  News was local and quick, news from afar took a lot of time to arrive, if it arrived at all.  Local concerns were often able to be acted on by local people.  One’s sphere of concern was probably a lot smaller–likely, for many, within one’s sphere of influence.

 

Today, despite many of us having an enormous Sphere of Concern, we have a fairly limited Sphere of Influence.  A Sphere of influence is what you have power to control: and this usually revolves around the spaces we find ourselves in frequently: our homes, our daily lives, our workplaces, our communities, our local governments, our families, our spaces where we spend time.  When we are bombarded by news from Pandora’s box, we feel powerless because the things we want to change, the big things, are not really changable by individuals (they can be changed by collective action).

 

I think it’s really important to frame these things when we are talking about hope and change over time. This framework offers us a powerful thinking tool: recognizing the difference between our Sphere of Influence and our Sphere of Concern (and maybe, making modifications so that our Sphere of concern is closer to our sphere of influence–that which we can control).  I have found that using this framework helps give me a better sense of where I should invest my energy and time: in those things that I have influence over, in those things where my efforts will produce results.

 

 

A Feeling Tool: Giving Voice and Allowing Processing Time

As I shared in the first post on this series, the reality of the Anthropocene can be overwhelming, intimidating, or even cause distance and withdrawal, apathy. Joanna Macy’s beautiful work Coming Back to Life offers a lot of discussion of the importance of not letting ourselves get into an apathetic or disempowered state.  Apathy is the root of disengagement, and we need people in this day and age ready to engage and face some of these challenges.

Honoring all beings

Honoring all beings

Everything that is happening in the world, like climate change, is really hard.  I’d argue it’s doubly hard for druids who really love land because we hold the land sacred, and so much of it is under threat.  People have different emotional responses to what is happening, but one of the most common and destructive is apathy–trying not to feel, because feeling is too hard. Ignoring it, not letting ourselves feel.  Given this, if we are going to return to feeling things about the world and the future, we need good spaces to process our feelings, safe spaces.  We can do this in the context of our spiritual practices, like druidry.

 

Once we’ve dealt with some of these feelings, we can move forward with actions and empowerment–we can turn our own lives and influence the lives of others into creating the present and future we want to see.  We can offer hope.

 

Macy’s book offers a number of rituals for individuals and groups that allow us to give voice to feelings, to process our feelings, and allow us space to move forward.   One of her rituals which works particularly well in a druid setting is called the Council of All Beings.   Beings help us process and give voice to what is happening now.  This is a particularly powerful ritual where people prepare to speak on behalf of animals, plants, and natural features and give them voice, while others take turns listening as humans.

 

Another one of Macy’s rituals that we’ve adapted for druid ritual work is a 7 generations ritual.  People form two circles. The ones on the outside are today’s humans. The humans on the inside are future humans, 7 generations from now.  Today’s humans speak about everything they are concerned about; the future humans listen, and then, offer hope.  It is a very powerful way to process and think about what is happening now.

 

This kind of processing can also take place in the context of spiritual practice: talking through things with others, engaging in regular spiritual journaling, and discursive meditation are all ways that we can process emotions.

 

I think the key thing here is recognizing if we are going to be effective and productive, we need emotional processing tools–we need to recognize that these feelings are important and necessary, and we need to work with our emotions regularly.

 

 

An Action Tool: Permaculture

Now that we’ve considered thinking tools and emotional processing tools, we can come to tools for action. There are lots of tools out there that encourage us towards various kinds of action; my tool of choice is permaculture.  Permaculture offers a complete system of planning and action; it is a design system that teaches us to use nature, and work with nature, to regenerate and build ecosystems, gardens, and communities. Through three powerful ethics (people care, earth care, and fair share), design principles, and an emphasis on ecologically-rooted techniques, I think tools like permaculture can help us go from thinking about a problem to action.  One of the most important philosophies in permaculture is that humans can be a force for good (not just harm) and that we can always leave a piece of land in better shape than we’ve found it.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

I’ve written pretty extensively about permaculture on this blog.  For an introduction to permaculture ethics, see here.  For the principles of permaculture, see here, here, and here.  For background on permaculture and ways of thinking about it, see here and here. .  For an example of how permaculture can be used in urban and suburban areas, see here, here and here.  For an example of a five-year permaculture design on my old homestead, see here.  Books I recommend are Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway and Rosemary Marrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture.  You can do a free online permaculture design certificate, which will immerse you in many good things, through https://openpermaculture.com/.  There are lots of other ways to learn–check it out!

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

When I did my permaculture design certificate in 2015, which I did through Sowing Solutions at Sirius Ecovillage in Massachusetts, I had already been practicing permaculture for many years. The PDC helped me really leverage a lot of skills I picked up here and there into a cohesive whole and gave me the design skills to really plan and execute a variety of projects.  More importantly though, it empowered me.  It was probably one of the most empowering things I ever did.  It gave me hope, it gave me real tools, and it showed me that the solutions to many problems were right in my hands (the problem is the solution is a permaculture principle). If everyone practiced permaculture, we’d have a very, very different world.

 

Conclusion

The last few weeks have explored a lot of topics with regards to Druidry for the 21st century.  Not all of it has been particularly easy to digest or think about, but I think if we are going to practice nature spirituality in the age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary for us to have these kinds of conversations. I will keep returning to this topic throughout the year!  I hope this series has given you some food for thought, if nothing else–and some tools for empowerment and change.

 

Walking Meditation Garden with Hugelkultur Beds June 24, 2018

As a practitioner of permaculture and as a druid, I am always looking for ways to work with the land to create sacred and ecologically healthy spaces.  That is, to create self-sustaining ecosystems that produce a varitey of yields: create habitat, offer nectar and pollen, systems that retain water and nutrients, offer medicine and food, create beauty and magic.  But conventional gardens, even sheet mulched gardens, can falter in water scarce conditions.  So building gardens long-term for resiliency and with a variety of climate challenges in mind is key.  At the same time, I am also looking to create sacred gardens, that is, not just places to grow food (which is simple enough) but to develop sacred relationships and deepen my connection with the living earth. Given all of this, I developed a design for a butterfly-shaped garden that would use hugelkultur raised beds and allow for a space for walking meditation and ritual.

 

Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden

When I came to the new homestead late last year, one thing was clear–any gardening was going to be rough going with the acidic, heavy clay soil full of rocks.  Digging down into the sunny part of the yard that was once excavated for a pool revealed virtually topsoil or humus content–basically, I was going to have to grow on clay subsoil.  A soil test revealed practically no phosphorous either.  Becuase I also have abundant wood on the property, digging down and creating some hugelkutur beds seemed like a great idea.

 

Hugelkutur beds were popularized by Sepp Holzer and discussed in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. They are used widely around the world as a way to create beds that are enormously productive due to their ability to create vibrant soil biology and hold copious amounts of water. The key to these beds is sinking a good amount of wood–large pieces–that slowly rots down over time. As the wood rots, it becomes a spongy mass ready to hold water.

 

The Hugelkultur beds certainly take some sweat equity, but they will pay out dividends in the long run. Each year that passes, more and more moisture will be held in the bed from the wood.  Microbial life will flourish in this wonderful, undisturbed system of nutrients and roots. Each year with the hugels is more abundant and productive than the last as the underlying soil structure grows more connected and diverse.

 

Choices for Hugels

One of the challenges with Hugelkultur is doing it without heavy equipment or fossil fuels. I’ve seen people make amazing hugels using a backhoe, tractor with an attachment, etc. They dig a big hole then use the machinery to pile up even more wood, making these enormous hugels. I don’t have knowledge of how to operate such machinery, so I was going to do mine on a smaller scale by hand. The question is–what can we do by hand, given these conditions?  Can we still make abundant and productive hugels on a smaller scale?

 

One of the key conditions for us was the heavy clay soil–when it rained, the water pooled in the space.  I thought that if we dug down, then the water would pool in there a bit, being able to be sucked up by the rotting wood.  After digging out the hugels (but before wood was added) this proved to be true–the water literally just laid in the heavy clay, forming pools that took days to dry out.  Yes!

 

Others, however, may find it more beneficial to go up rather than down–the key is to get the wood in it and get some layers of compost and such on top.  Your own conditions beyond that determine a lot of how you want to create your beds.  Here’s how I created mine!

 

Choices for Garden Design

In permaculture, one of the principles is “stacking functions.”  The idea behind this is that you should try to get as many different functions out of a single space as you can.  For example,  the greenhouse offers not only a great growing space for fall and spring crops, it offers shelter from frost for seedlings, and it offers a wonderful place to hang out when its 35 out and you want some sun.  Its multiple purposes, then, contribute to the overall goal of the greenhouse.  In the case of desginging a garden itself, this is also critical. The title of this blog is, after all, the “druid’s garden”–implying not only a garden but a sacred space.

 

The Lawn and Potential Space

The Lawn and Potential Space

And so, I think it is really important to consider the role of the sacredness and design in a garden space.  It’s not just a space to grow things in, to serve the pollenators and create ecosystems….but also a place of sacredness, where the act of gardening is sacred work and considered sacred practice. As is the act of being in the garden for non-gardening purposes, such as meditation and ritual.  To me, making garden spaces that can “stack functions” in this way is an important part not only of gardening, but of living a sacred life more generally and building connection and communion with nature.

 

So for this garden, I had a limited 2/3 circle space after putting in the greenhouse.  I toyed around with a large number of designs before settling on a tree of life theme.  As the garden developed, I realized I didn’t just want a set of “branches” but rather a space to do walking meditation like a labrynth, so the tree transformed more into a moth/butterfly design.

 

Building a Hugelkultur Walking Meditation Garden

Now that we’ve talked through both the mundane and sacred aspects of this particular garden design, let’s take a look at how to build one of these gardens!

 

Step 1: Observe, Interact, and Create a Design

I already had a good sense of the sunniest part of the land that was near the house and easy to access; this, was where the old owners had once had a pool.  It was here that I decided to place both the greenhouse and the walking meditation herb garden.  I observed this space in rain and sun, and also measured it out, thought about how I wanted to move among the garden, how big the beds should be, and so on.  To do this most effectively, you can get some garden stakes or sticks and then string–actually map out the location of your beds, see how it will be as you walk it, etc.  If you don’t have this, some old flour also works, just pour the flour down where you want the beds to be in lines, so that you are essentially “drawing” with flour.

Once I had a plan and was ready to proceed, I called out some friends to help get me started.

 

Step 2: Dig Down

I was blessed with some serious help from friends one weekend just after I moved in to help dig out the hugels.  First we had to remove a burn pit the previous owners left.  Then, we dug them down about a foot and a half–as far as we could go. The clay will be used for a cob wall project(more on that later in the year) that will go in the back of the greenhouse. This doesn’t look like much, but it was literally about 5 hours of work by six people!  Clay is heavy and doesn’t play nice.

Clay garden beds dug down

Clay garden beds dug down

 

 

Step 3: Add Wood

The next step is to add wood to your hugel bed. A lot of it.  As much as you can fit in it.  Here you can see me completing one half of one of the hugels. I used a lot of medium sized logs, some sticks, and also large huge logs along the bottom (not all of which you can see in the photo). The bigger logs will take much longer to break down, but that’s ok!

 

Most wood is fine to use with hugels, but you want to avoid a few kinds.  First, don’t use any woods that have chemicals that prevent the growing of other plants (black locust, walnut and alanthus come to mind). You also want to avoid rot resistant woods (cedar, black locust) as the point is to get it rotting down quickly. My beds primarily consisted of maple, cherry, and oak, as that was what was available.

Adding wood

Adding wood

Step 4: Add Additional Soil-Building Materials

The next stage is to cover the wood with anything else you can–any non-weedy garden waste, leaves, fresh or finished compost, manure, and so on. I threw some old pumpkins that were rotting in there, coffee grounds, a good pile of leaves, mulched grass, horse manure, and more.

 

In traditional hugel building, you would replace the topsoil upside down on top of the logs and keep adding more materials.  The issue I have with that is that I have 100% clay, and I don’t want to have any additional clay in my beds.  So I instead removed it for another project.

Adding leaves and materials

Adding leaves and materials

Step 5: Add Borders (optional)

A lot of people make hugel mounds and don’t add borders, but I find that the borders are really helpful to get them higher, especially with the design I was using (which consisted of fairly small beds.  Also, the borders give a clear demarkation line bewteen what your path is and what a bed is–and for good garden design, this is critical.  Paths determine garden space, after all.

 

After seeing my two friends who made a cool hugel garden with uprightlogs as borders, I thought I could do something similar.  In fact, this does not work:

I put the logs upright and then sunk them in the clay.  But…frost heaving in the winter knocked them all down.  I couldn’t dig down far enough to get them firmly in the soil without some kind of auger…. So I scrapped this idea and went to shorter beds with a rock linked edge.

This looks cool, but won't survive the winter!

This looks cool, but won’t survive the winter!

Since there is copious amounts of stone on the property (I just have to go digging and searching for it) and so I instead spent a lot of time hunting for stone on the property and moving stone for these beds.  It is empowering work!

Stone is quite heavy and moving it is a very good workout!

Moving stone is a very good workout!

 

Leaves and Stone

Leaves and Stone – I lined the beds with stone before adding the final layer. I packed the stone in with clay.

 

Step 6: Top with Finished Compost

The final step for the bed creation to top the bed with finished compost–I added about 5-6″ of compost over everything and then let it rain and settle, then added more.  This gives the plants you plant some room for growing. The beds, being so young, are otherwise difficult for the plants to take root.  Even so, the first year of the hugels as things are just starting to rot down can be not as abundant for plants.  You also want to suppliment with nitrogen–as carbon starts to break down (which is what most of your woody material is) it does suck the nitrogen out of the soil.  The most readily available form of nitrogen is, of course, liquid gold!

Adding finished compost to the bed

Adding finished compost to the bed

Step 7: Establish Paths

Becuase I wanted this to be a walking meditation garden, I needed to also think about the paths between the beds and creating them with something that would last.  I have done a lot of paths in the past at my old homestead with cardboard and wood chips; they are excellent choices, especially for a vegetable garden. Eventually, the wood chips and cardboard breaks down, and you end up with great soil you can move into your beds, then add another layer in.  However, these kinds of paths require regular yearly or at least every-other year maintenance and the paths quickly get lost.

 

But for this garden, which was more permanent and meant to also be a sacred space, I chose to use landscape fabric (which has a 20-25 year life and is breathable) and pea gravel from a local supplier. You could do a lot of things here for paths: brick work, stone work, other kinds of gravel, cardboard and wood chips, etc.  The key is to create something that you like and that fits the vibe of the garden.

 

So I laid the landscape fabric down and used steel pins to pin it in place. This fabric allows water to permeate but will not allow grass or other plants to grow.

 

Laying out the landscape fabric

Laying out the landscape fabric

Finally, I topped this with a 2-3″ layer of pea gravel (locally sourced) for walking paths.

Pea gravel going in

Pea gravel going in

 

Step 7: Plant!

The hugels can have both annual and perennial plants, trees, shrubs, etc.  I opted for this garden as a walking meditation garden filled with healing plants and some food plants.  There are three inlets and you can walk a figure eight or a loop in the garden and commune with the perennial plants.  The garden is planted with a variety of perennials and a few annuals: calendula, yarrow, horseradish, basil, thyme, new england aster, wood betony, garlic, chives, tomatoes, chamomile, rue, echninacea, St. John’s wort, and much more!

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Another view of the garden

Another view of the garden

It is amazing to see how far this beautiful garden has come from the green, consumptive lawn.  It will now produce food, medicine, habitat, nectar, beauty, and a wonderful space for ritual and meditation work. This is just one variation–of countless others–to combine solid permaculture design techniques with sacred gardening.

 

Diary of a Land Healer: January January 28, 2018

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.

 

 

Recycled Seed Starting Materials: Paper Pots, Watering Bottles, and Venetian Blind Labels April 9, 2017

Seedlings growing in recycled materials!

Seedlings growing in recycled materials!

The spring is a wonderful time to begin starting your seeds–and here in Western PA, we just crossed the “eight weeks before last frost” threshold, so it is a bit of an urgent matter! This means that this weekend is the time to start many of the warm season crops and perennial herbs. Today’s post takes a “recycled” spin on seed starting to share with you a number of tricks for seed starting all using recycled and repurposed materials (drawing upon the permaculture principle, “waste is a resource”). For these seed starting options, we are making use of many typical “trash” and “recycle bin” products: newspaper, styrofoam take-out trays, two-liter soda bottles, and Venetian blinds. Even if your household doesn’t produce this stuff yourself, a simple walk down any suburban or town street will likely yield more of these materials than you’ll likely ever need.

 

If you want to know more about seeds and how to develop a good seed starting setup, you can visit my earlier post. I also have written about the kinds of seeds to start and my spiritual insights on seed starting in earlier posts.

 

Recycled Two-Liter Soda Bottle Seed Waterer

For really small seeds that need to be sown on the surface (like chamomile), watering them with a regular watering can or small indoor plant watering can dislodge the seeds. Then, the seeds flow to the edges of your pot and then sprout along those edges. However, a good farmer friend showed me this trick to create a very effective seed waterer using a two-liter soda bottle.  This waterer offers a very gentle watering system that doesn’t dislodge seeds (it also allows for uniform watering quickly of many different seed starts).

Materials: A drill with a small bit, a two-liter bottle with cap

Instructions: You simply take a very small drill bit and drill in a series of holes, like below.  The more holes you drill, the faster your water will come out (so you might want a few different options).

Drilling holes in the lid of a soda bottle

Drilling holes in the lid of a soda bottle

Once you’ve drilled your bottle, you fill it with water and water away!

Filled bottle

Filled bottle

 

Squeezing the bottle gently gives you a wonderful sprinkle that is just the right size for your seedlings and is kind to the tender plants.  Here I am watering some st. johns wort plants.

Watering St. John's Wort plants (plants for my refugia garden)

Watering St. John’s Wort plants (plants for my refugia garden)

 

Recycled Venitian Blinds as Seed Labels

Venitian blinds made of plastic are in widespread use but often end up being a waste product. Personally, I can’t stand the things, but I’m glad to have found a real use for them. If one or two of the smaller flimsy plastic blinds break, they are typically thrown away.  Larger ones eventually also are discarded. We see this here a lot in my college town–you can probably pick up a dozen or so of the discarded sets of blinds within a year’s time if you keep an eye out. What a friend of mine taught me some years ago was a simple trick to create labels for your seedlings and outdoor plants: using Venitian blinds and marker.

 

Cut up Venetian blinds actually make a wonderful choice for labels because they are hardy and don’t break down.  The only potential challenge is that if you use a sharpie on them, the marker will eventually fade in the sunlight (not a problem for seed starting, but can be a problem for planting out).

 

Materials: Venetian blinds of any size, scissors, sharpie marker.

Cutting up a larger blind into smaller segments for labels

Cutting up a larger blind into smaller segments for labels

To make the blinds: 

Any kind of blind works: you can use both the larger blinds (as in the photo) or the smaller blinds; both cut with a simple pair of scissors. Once you’ve cut them, simply label them and stick them in your pots (paper or plastic; In the photo below have some hand-me-down plastic pots with Veneitan blind labels–some of the seeds I started this week).

A finished tray with labels

Smaller Venetian blind labels

Smaller Venetian blind labels

The labels can be used year after year; even if the marker fades, you can simply replace it.

Recycled Paper Pots

This year, a friend and I experimented with these paper pot makers from the UK. They are nice–you roll up the pot, and then, the pot maker kind of crunches up the bottom as you twist it on a wooden base.

Paper pot makers (commercial)

Paper pot makers (commercial)

After some experimentation and modification, however, we found an even easier way to make these pots–with an added benefit of a bottom watering option using recycled take-out trays.

Paper pots ready for planting!

Paper pots ready for planting!

The process we developed doesn’t even need the paper pot maker–any jar (like a vitamin jar or spice jar) will easily do the trick.

 

Materials: Newspaper (preferably black and white, as this has soy-based inks), stapler, recycled styrofoam or plastic tray.

 

The process:

First, you fold your newspaper into the right size.

Folding newspaper for a smaller seed starting pot

Folding newspaper for a smaller seed starting pot

After folding, you need to roll it on something.  So here we go…

Rolling the paper around the pot maker (jar works fine as well)

Rolling the paper around the pot maker (jar works fine as well)

Now, you staple it or fold in a corner to hold it together.

Staple the pot - one staple is more than enough! You can also use a paperclip here (can be reused)

Staple the pot – one staple is more than enough! You can also use a paperclip here (can be reused)

Now, we place the pot, with the open bottom, into a recycled take-out tray and fill each with soil.  A spoon works really well for this purpose (although I prefer to get my fingers right in the soil).  If you put your soil in a bucket and make your soil wet (getting it to the consistency of brownie batter) your pots will fill very easily and then you don’t have to try to water the seeds after planting them (dislodging them).

Filling the pots with soil!

Filling the pots with soil!

These paper pots hold up pretty well over time.  We’ve noticed that when the plants outgrow them, they start to break their roots through the pot (see photo below).  This is a good sign to plant out or transplant into a bigger pot!

Ready to plant--roots coming out!

Ready to plant–roots coming out!

Not to mention they look really cool by comparison to other plastic options.

Beautiful trays of paper pots!

Beautiful trays of paper pots!

And don’t forget–seed starting is serious business! Someone needs to check your work. Here is our inspector general, Acorn.

Acorn inspects the watering.

Acorn inspects the watering.

 

I hope that the blessings of the spring are upon each of you!  If you have any other good tips for recycled/repurposed seed starting or growing ideas, I’d love to hear them :).

Save

Save

 

Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!

 

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

Save