The Druid's Garden

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

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

Sacred Gardening through the Three Druid Elements – Designing Sacred Spaces and Planting Rituals December 5, 2015

A representation of the 3 druid elements

A representation of the 3 druid elements

A number of people have asked me for ceremonies and activities that help facilitate sacred work on the land in various ways. Why would we want such ceremonies? Quite simply, because we can get the most effect by combining actions out in the world with ritual and other forms of magical practice on the inner worlds. For many years, I’ve been using my  druidic practices to help my work with plants and gardens. So in addition to the practical work of growing my own food on my homestead, practicing permaculture, regenerating lawns, and building a healthy ecosystem, I designin with the elements in mind, performing land healing and garden rituals, and engage in other sacred practices.  These two parts form a cohesive whole that unifies spiritual practices with everyday living.

 

Today, I’d like to share the first of a series of  posts on principles from the druid tradition that can be used both for designing sacred garden spaces and for simple rituals and sacred activities that can be used with gardening. And because I’ve decided to spend some extra time in my art studio in the winter months, so I’ve done my best to provide some illustrations for this post :).

 

The Three Druid Elements: Nwyfre, Calas, and Gwyar

In order to craft effective ceremonies to support sustainable activities, we need an underlying theory that helps us work with various flows of energy.  The Druid Revival has a set of three elements (we like to do things in threes) that are quite useful to understanding and enacting some sacred space rituals and building sacred spaces. A lot of current pagan and earth-centered practices use four elements, and there is so much out there about the four elements already, that I don’t really need to say a lot about those (and they are effective and useful for sacred gardening practice–see my elemental tree planting ritual here, for one such example).

 

The three elements are worth considering as an alternative or used in conjunction with the four elements, especially in regards to nature spiritual practices surrounding the land.  These three terms use Welsh words and pronunciations (like many other things coming out of Revival Druidry). They do not cleanly map onto the four elements, so don’t try to see them that way. See them, instead, as an alternative elemental system that emphasizes different properties of the world–all elemental systems do that, generally–they serve as an archetype of things that we can see or experience or know.  They are three archtypes, three ways of representing the inner and outer worlds of our experience.

A second representation of the three druid elements

A second representation of the three druid elements

Nwyfre (NOOiv-ruh): This first druid element is represents the life force and consciousness within each living being.  It is associated with the sky and the heavens; it represents the spirit of things; the mind.  The term means “sky” or “heaven” in the Welsh language.

 

Nwyfre in a gardening/growing/land healing context refers to the spirit of life flowing through each of the plants. This is the spark of life that encourages a seed to grow; it is the magic within the plant; and in some forms of herbalism, this would be the spiritual energy of the plant and the plant spirit itself. Nwyfre is not a physical thing (like Gwyar or Calas, see below); it is the spirit behind the physical thing. Nwyfre is often what we refer to when we talk about things unseen, “energies” of spaces and people.

 

Nwyfre is also the mental processes associated with gardening–its the design work, the thoughtfulness, the planning and careful consideration.  Its the feeling you get when you enter the garden; its the awareness that is awakened with a sacred connection to the plants.

 

Gwyar (GOO-yar) – This druid element represents the principle of flow, of movement, and of change. It is associated with the energy of the water (although is not limited to it); it represents the change that is inherent in all living things. The term means “flow” or “fluidity” in the Welsh language and we can refer to it as energy flows (in physical manifestation) of all kinds.

 

Gwyar is responsible for the change we see in the plants across the season; its the growth of the seed from spout to adult plant and finally into decay; its the flow of the seasons moving ever forward. Gwyar is the flow of the sap in the maple trees that first signals spring; its the growth of the plants; the budding and leafing of the trees; the ripening of the fruit; and the eventual composting and decay at the end of the season. Gwyar is the flows of nutrients in the great soil web of all life.  It is the principle of Gwyar we see in photosynthesis, the conversion of light into energy and oxygen by plants. For homebrewers, it is gwyar that allows the physical fermentation and transformation of grains or fruit into alcohol. It is this principle of flow in herbalism, also, that allows the medicine to move from the plant matter into a menstra (for tea, tinctures, etc). When permaculture designers talk about “catch and store energy” we are referring to harnessing the Gwyar in the land for common good (through rain barrels, swales, solar power, and so on).

 

Calas (CAH-lass) – The final druid element is Calas, representing solidity or substance. Calas is that which is the physical manifestation of things within the world: their form, their substance, and their features that help distinguish them. This is the welsh word for “hard” or “stability.”

 

Calas is the physical being of the plants in the garden, the soil, the microbial life.  It is Calas you feel when you pick up the rich soil and run it through your fingers. It is Calas that is the feeling of your tools in your hand (although its Gwyar that makes those tools work!). Its Calas that is in the vegetables sitting in your harvest basket and ready for your plate. All of the physical manifestations of your garden; the solidity of the pathways, the size of the beds, the physical structure of the plants; the weight of the stones–these are Calas.

 

Mapping the Elements onto the World

You can map these elements onto another triad in the druid path–the triad of earth (calas), sea (gwyar), and sky (nwyfre).  If you are interested in working with these three elements, I would start by suggesting that you spend time meditating on each of them and also spend time examining these principles at work in the world.

 

For example, as I look down my street, I see the Calas in the pavement, in the trunks of the strong trees, in the physical body of the people walking there.  I see Gwyar in the rain falling on the street, in the movement of the branches in the air, in the swinging of the hands and walking of the people.  I see the spark of Nwyfre in the laughter of the children crossing the street holding hands in the rain.

 

Sacred Bee

The bee embodying the three druid elements

As a second example, we can think about the honeybee.  The honeybee’s physical body (legs, wings, abdomen, exoskeleton, eyes, tongue, and so on) represent Calas.  The honeybee’s flight and movement in the hive represent Gwyar.  The magic alchemical process that allows eggs in the hive to have the spark of life, the magical process where nectar is transformed into honey, and the blessing the bees bring to the land all can be represented in Nwyfre.

 

I would suggest that if you want to use these three principles in your sacred gardening work, magical practice, or daily life, you spend time with each of them.  Spend time focusing on one, meditating on one, writing about it, maybe sketching it or creating a song, and observing it in everyday life.  Do the same with the other two–while these three elements are simple on the surface, profound understanding can be found with dedicated study and work with these elements. Now that we have some understanding of the principles behind the three druid elements, we can consider how they can be put to work in a sacred garden space.

 

Using Nwyfre, Gwyar, and Calas in Garden Designs

The other way you can use these elements is by considering their role in the garden design process and think about integrating them physically into our spaces.  Let’s look at two such garden designs where these three elements can play a prominent role.

 

1. The Herb Spiral

The herb spiral is probably the most quintessential design from permaculture; the spiral is built up so that the top of the spiral is above the earth by several feet, making it drier, and as the spiral goes down, it has various small microclimates.  Some spiral designs (including mine here) include a water feature at the bottom.  I like the herb spiral a lot, as its simple to implement, encourages us to think about the plants and their microclimate needs, and looks great.

 

From a magical perspective, we can apply the three druid elements easily into this design: the spiral itself representing nwyfre; the stones, earth, and plants representing calas; and the flow of water and areas of wetness and dryness as well as the encouraged growth habits based on placement through gwyar.  There’s also a really good reason to put a standing stone at the very top, buried 1/3 of the way into the soil–stay tuned for my next post for more on the inclusion of the standing stone.

The Sacred Herb Spiral, complete with standing stone and sacred pool

The Sacred Herb Spiral, complete with standing stone and sacred pool

You’ll notice in this design drawing I’ve included a number of different herbs, many of them both magical and medicinal.  The top of the design starts with the herbs that like it hot and dry–rosemary and white sage being at the top of that list, perhaps with a bit of accompanying garden sage or clary sage.  From there we move into thyme and dill, who can handle it a bit dryer, along with echinacea (purple cone flower), a wonderful medicinal.  Basil or lovage, too, would work wonderfully around this spot.  Chives, chamomile, and calendula (along with others, like New England Aster) fill out the bottom.  Next, we get to the pool’s edge.  Mountain mint and boneset are two water loving plants that would like that spot, as would any other mint.  Finally, the pool itself can contain horsetail (especially if you are using sand in your pool) or calamus, two rooted and water loving plants.  This design can be modified to your own herbal interest and specific ecosystem.

 

2. A Larger Sacred Garden Spiral

We can expand the idea of the herb spiral to create a larger sacred spiral garden in which things more than just herbs grow.  Here’s a simple design for one that honors these three elements as well as recognizes the importance of an 8-fold wheel.

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

This design is flat, and the stone walking pathways (or mulched paths, etc) form the basis of the design.  I’d keep the beds in the spiral no more than 3′ across; its harder to manage a bed wider than that (I speak from hard-learned experience!)  The center of the garden offers a standing stone (more on that in my upcoming post) as well as a sacred pool with calamus and horsetail.  The edge, like the design above, is for water-loving plants, and then any herbs you want to grow work their way outward from the spiral.  The outer edges (which can continue on, beyond what I drew) can be home to perennial berry bushes, brambles, etc, as well as rotating annual vegetable crops.  I really liked the nettles there, at the entrance, serving as guardians….so many of our forests have those kinds of protectors, and stinging nettle is not only a great guardian of spaces but an incredible medicinal and tasty food!

 

So now that we’ve looked at the three elements in design work, let’s see how we can use them for prayer and planting.

 

A Garden/Land Altar Using The Three Elements

Setting up a sacred space and acknowledging the presence of the elements is an important step; its a way to encourage us away from the strictly practical and into the sacred.  Another way of doing this in an existing garden space is to setup an altar for the three elements.  You can use a flat stone or stump, and on it, place a stone for calas, for example; a bowl of water for gwyar, and some representation of nwyfre (a symbol like a spiral or an awen or else some herbs/incense (sage, mugwort, or lavender are my favorites, but you can also use any blend of herbs that have a strong connection with planes beyond the physical).

 

An alternative is to create a living altar, where you can use three plants to represent them: an earthy or rooty plant for calas (burdock, comfrey, dandelion, or any garden mushroom or mushroom log would be perfect here), a water plant like calamus, horsetail, boneset, mountain mint, arrow root, and so-on for gwyar, and a plant associated with the spirit realm (sweetgrass, sage) or strongly with the sky  (a climbing vine like nasturtium) for nwyfre.

 

A good way to choose symbolism for your altar is to meditate on each of the three elements and/or do a free association with them in order to come to a deeper understanding.

 

Three Element Daily Prayer

A daily prayer at your three element altar can be simple and yet effective. I might come into the garden and say this prayer at morning’s first light or before I begin to work in the garden.

“Calas, the form and the shape
Gwyar, the flow and the change
Nwyfre, the spark of life
Sacred elements spiraling
Bless this [garden’s/land’s/place’s] growing”

As you say the prayer, pause after each line.  You can touch the elemental representation on the altar as you pause.  Then, for Calas and Gwyar use your 5 senses closely to see how that element is manifesting in the garden at each moment. Nywfre will require your inner senses, but it too can be sensed in various ways.

 

A Simple Prayer for Growing Things – A Three Element Blessing

This prayer, or another like it, can be used to encourage many things to grow, anything from sprouts on your counter or seeds you have started to the planting of a new garden.  I use this prayer this after planting my first sets of seeds in the fertile earth, transplanting seedlings, or putting in new trees or shrubs.

Say: “May the essence of the earth support you in strength.”
Action: Pour a small bit of earth or finished compost over the growing plant/seed/tree. Alternatively, if you are planting seeds, plant them at this time.  As you are sprinkling the earth or planting the seeds, chant “Calas” three times and envision the seed’s deep roots and the fertile earth supporting it.

 

Say: “May the flows of the land transmute you in harmony.”
Pour a small bit of water near the roots of the growing plant/seed.  As you are pouring, chant “Gywar” three times and envision the waters flowing to the seed and the seed’s growth and change.
Say: “May the spirit of life bless you in wisdom.”
Smudge the plant with a bit of herbal incense (I like sage, mugwort, rosemary, or lavender for this purpose; see my post on smudge sticks for more ideas).  As you are smudging, chant “Nwfre” three times and imagine a spark of life shining outward from the center of the seed to facilitate its growth.


Say:
“May the triune essence of Calas, Gwyar, and Nwyfre bless infuse you with blessing and abundance.” and chant “Awen” (Ah-oh-en) three times to close out the ceremony.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can see, the three elements of the druid tradition represent a wonderful opportunity to work on a sacred level, creating sacred gardening practices.  These kinds of practices truly contribute to a “druid’s garden!”

 

Healing Hands: Replanting and Regenerating the Land as a Spiritual and Sacred Practice August 14, 2015

Acorns

Acorns

A lone man walks through a field of brambles as the sun rises, a small pouch at his side.  This field was old-growth forest before being clear cut a century or more ago; it was then farmland for 50 years before becoming unfarmable wasteland; over the last 15 years, enough soil fertility has returned enough to support the brambles. As the man walks, every so often, he leans down, takes out a small trowel, and pops a nut in the ground–hickory and oak nuts, primarily, but others like butternut, chestnut, and walnut are also sometimes planted. He is a man on a very quiet and very personal mission–and his goal is simple: to return hardwoods to the cleared lands of Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes, he carries roots instead: the roots of goldenseal and ginseng, plants once common here and are now about impossible to find. This man plants trees that he will not likely ever harvest from, he walks lands that others have abandoned, and he donates his time to this simple, meditative practice. Who is this man? This man is my father, and his work is for generations–human and otherwise–beyond himself.

 

The question our role as humans is in the ecosystem and how spiritual practices and permaculture design allows us to better enact that role is an important one.  In this post, I’ll explore the idea of an earth care ethic through active regeneration of the land.

 

Pick up the Garbage and Get Out

I’ve heard many in the druid community say that the best thing you can do for any piece of land is to “pick up the garbage and get the hell out.” And there are certainly times and places where I think this approach is the wisest–the ecosystem is fragile and nature is doing her own healing. Or, this is a good approach if there are people already dedicated to the cause of healing particular parts of land, like state forests or conservation areas, and you haven’t been asked to help in that existing work. But what about everywhere else? What about the lands that aren’t under protected or conservation status? What about lands that lay fallow and are struggling to come back from a lot of abuse? I’m starting to disagree that this “pick up the garbage and get out” is the right approach in every case and in fact, in many cases.

 

"A Pennsylvania Desert" of the late 19th century

“A Pennsylvania Desert” of the late 19th century

I’ll use Western Pennsylvania as an example, and I’m sure readers in other places can think of their own local examples. At one point in Pennsylvania’s history, about 100 years ago, the forests were almost entirely gone (see photo, right). Today’s logging looks harmless by comparison (and is ecologically much more sound, but still extremely disruptive). Trees that were 15 and 20 feet across were cut down during this time, and other resources the land held were also sought, such as coal. Since that time, regrowth (ecological succession) has been successful in some places and the forests that have returned are now mostly protected by being a state forest, wild area, or game lands (although game lands still allow fracking and logging, so I’m skeptical about this “protection”). Other forests never returned, and instead went to farmland, subdivisions, cities, airports, or something else. Even for the forests that managed to return to forest, the logging and clearcutting significantly and permanently alters the what is growing there long-term. Hardwoods like hickory, walnut, chestnut, or oak, especially have had difficulty regrowing because they grow much slower than other trees like black cherry, beech, or birch. Forest herbs on the floor also have difficulty recovering or spreading quickly, especially those who spread slowly by root or rhizome. Much of the land no longer holds the fertility or nutrients needed to support a forest. Other land still hasn’t grown back, and was farmland till the fertility in the soil was removed to the point where little is growing there–only pioneer species working to bring nutrients back into the soil.

 

Ecological Succession is the process of nature regrowing from a damaged state. What it regrows into is largely a matter of the ecosystem and region–around here in Western Pennsylvania, the final state of succession is a forest. In the Great Plains states, it is, as you may suspect, grass plains and savanna. The damaged state could have been caused by a fire, flood or other natural occurrence, but in our era, its predominantly caused by human destruction, as in the case of the forests of Pennsylvania, or more recently, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, or boney dumps in Pennsylvania. Sometimes, ecological succession fails to happen almost entirely, even over a period of decades or centuries, because the land has been too damaged by human activity to begin that healing process (of which I’ll be speaking more about next week).

 

As an example of this can be seen through the chestnut tree. Prior to the chestnut blight of the early 20th century, chestnuts made up anywhere from 5-15% of most forests in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania decided to cut down *all* of the chestnuts (even non-blighted ones) to try to stop the spread of disease, essentially preventing evolution from happening–the chestnut trees could not evolve blight resistance if they weren’t given a chance to do so. The result is that very, very few chestnuts remain–hence why my father works to plant them.

 

Ecological succession well underway!

Ecological succession well underway!

Approaches to Human Intervention in Ecological Succession

The idea of human intervention on the landscape, in a positive direction, is not one well known in present culture. The conservationist approach, developed as a response to things like the clear-cutting that took place in Pennsylvania a 100 years ago, has done much to help re-introduce and protect forests and wildlife–and for the places that are protected, the protection generally works. I visited the Pennsylvania Wilds (a protected area spanning 1.5 million acres of forests in North-Central PA) two weeks ago and I was amazed to read of the story of conservation there on that land.

 

But I do think that the conservation mindset creates some challenges. The conservation mindset  is rooted in the idea that when white settlers arrived here, they found a pristine landscape, untouched by human hands. The goal of conservation, then, is to get the land back to that state and to not let anyone touch it again (because human touch is seen as problematic, and in most cases today, it is). Every day, I’m thankful that early conservations decided to set aside millions of acres of forests in my home state.  Some conservationist efforts do work towards restoring native ecosystems or at least creating balanced ones. And that’s all good work.

 

But at the same time, the situation is radically different now than in 1492–more species are here and are naturalized, animal species patterns are different (which is critical–see this video of the wolf changing rivers at Yellowstone), and I’m not sure that simple restoration to the way things were and then leaving it alone is always the best approach. I’m also not sure that leaving this regenerative work only in the hands of the “experts” is the best either because it disallows collective responsibility and action. But it certainly is an understandable response, given what has been going on for the last 150 or so years.

 

Another approach, one I have heard expressed in druid retreats and by various practitioners earth-based spiritual traditions is “letting the land alone to heal.” But I don’t think this approach is entirely ethical either. For one, leaving a forest to regrow on its own will never re-introduce species that have been largely lost to our forests, like chestnut, because there aren’t enough of them left to spread. It will never re-introduce ginseng, goldenseal, or ramps, all of which have been over-harvested to critically endangered stats–and all of which are slow-spreading root crops. It won’t address the damage caused by erosion or soil loss–eventually, given a long time, the earth can heal from these things. However, even while ecological succession is slowly occurring on nature’s own timeline, other damages and pressures may be happening, like acid rain, mine runoff, poaching, and more. The two real issues with the idea of “letting the land alone to heal” and that, first and foremost, is that it removes our personal and collective responsibility for the damage that was done. And second, just as humans caused quick destruction, we can also help jump start and guide the healing process more quickly. This kind of work tremendously deepens our spiritual and physical connection with those lands.

 

The Power of Human Touch: Positive Human Intervention, Spiritual Interaction, and Regeneration

White mythology suggests that when settlers came to what was to become the United States and Canada, they found pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. The truth is, the lands such as those that would later make up the USA were never “untouched by human hands” as is commonly thought.  Yet, the nature of the touch was much, much different. In fact, M. Kat Anderson, in a book called Tending the Wild provides a rich body of evidence that Native Americans tended the land extensively to maintain balance and abundance. Anderson learned from the Native elders she was interviewing in California that some native plants have literally evolved with human intervention and they need humans to survive and thrive—this puts an entirely new perspective on the idea of earth care and stewardship.

 

If you think this idea that the land evolved with human touch is a bit radical, consider domesticated vegetables or animals. This idea is really no different than farm animals or even annual vegetables you plant in your garden, who also have evolved with humans and depend on them for protection and nurturing. Anderson’s work breaks down the distinction between what is cultivated and what is wilderness–all lands were tended in some way.

 

One of the things I recently learned from Walker Kirby, a man teaching us at my Permaulculture Design Certificate who was coming out of the work of John Young’s Wilderness Awareness School, was the fact that “wilderness” as a term was quite negative in the native cultures of the northeast USA. Wilderness was it was land that had been abandoned or left untended by its people–and that was a tragic thing. This is such a different view that most humans have in industrialized nations–we have seen so much damage, we just want to leave nature alone and protect the wilderness.  But in creating “wilderness” we are, essentially, abandoning our responsibility to tend that land; its not really different than abandoning elderly relatives, children, or animals in our care.

Planting Hope

Planting Hope

 

The other piece to all of this is, of course, that this damage we currently have is largely human caused. Humans have some substantial Karmic debt that we can work to help payoff by directly taking action. Some humans are still causing active destruction; many more are complicit and passively supporting that destruction passively through their choices, purchases, and inaction. They turn their head and shut their eyes because they do not want to see.  But for those who walk an earth-based spiritual path focused on rebuilding a relationship with nature and those who are awake and alive–we are seeing. We can help make right what was damaged, and by doing so, we rekindle the ancient bond between humanity and the land. Many of our ancestors further participated in this destruction (as their livelihoods, but still, they were participating in it), and we carry the that karmic debt as well.  My grandfathers and great grandfathers worked in the coal mines and the steel mills because those were the jobs available here–and the environmental costs of those mines and mills are still very much present on the landscape of Western Pennsylvania today. Who better than their granddaughter or great granddaughter to go out and help regenerate the lands after the mills and mines closed down but their scars remain? All of us, in some way or another, are directly energetically connected to that damage which we see on the landscape–and all of us can do something, even something small, to work to heal.

 

Anderson’s Tending the Wild gives us a radically different model for what humanity’s relationship with nature can look like. It shows that humans have been active tenders of our landscapes, engaging in regeneration and healing, and co-evolving with nature. I believe it is this same mindset that my father has for bringing in more hardwoods–it is a desire to heal the land. Imagine if there millions and millions of us, all across the lands of this great planet, actively healing the land as part of our spiritual practice. What a difference we could make–in both inner and outer worlds.

 

Overcoming Fear

Many alternative communities, whether they are druids or other healers use some form of energy healing. In the druid traditions that I practice, our seasonal celebrations raise positive energy through ritual and song and send it into the land for a blessing. Energetically, we are doing the work of regeneration–but this invisible line exists that we don’t cross; we often don’t physically do much beyond that. Because we are afraid to do harm. Because we don’t feel we have the knowledge of how to do anything else. What exactly can we do? What exactly should we do?  How do we know we can do it better?  How do we know we won’t cause harm? Where should this work be done?  How should it be done?

 

Part of the fear of interacting with nature, especially in a physically regenerative capacity, I think stems from the fact that we want to do no more harm.  But I would argue that not doing anything is worse than the potential of doing harm in many cases. Anderson writes in her introduction to Tending the Wild, “The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with—that one should respect nature by leaving it alone—by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or animal” (xvi).  The work of physical land healing can bring us the power to heal the land and the responsibility of doing so.

 

The Way Forward toward Land Healing as a Spiritual Practice

As my last few posts on the blog describe, this kind of work directly aligns with the tools and practices of  permauclture design.  Through permaculture, we have many examples of aiding in ecological succession faster and helping nature in this healing process. With careful observation, planning, and knowledge, we can actively help ecological succession along, actively help our lands heal.  This work takes a lot of knowledge, dedication, and commitment–but it is so worth doing and worth doing well.  Through many years of study and practice you’ll have more effective strategies to address larger problems, you can begin now, in this very moment.

 

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

For those interested in starting the work, perhaps start by enacting the principle of “observe and interact” from permaculture design. Go into the places that are in most need of healing that we can reach. The damaged lands, the degraded soils, those places abandoned by others. Lawns are a good place to start, as are abandoned fields, abandoned lots on your city streets, logged areas. Learn about that land, learn about the soil, look at what is already growing and learn about why it is growing there, don’t be immediately angry if you find out its “invasive” (many “invasive” plants are healers, in their own way) and think about how you might help ecological succession along. And more than anything else, listen and observe, with your inner and outer senses, and see what the land has to tell you.

 

I realize I’ve been doing this work for a very long time (as is evidenced by this early post), but the regenerative work I was doing was almost entirely focused on my homestead.  I knew I was regenerating the land there, doing good healing work. Selling my homestead and being “landless” during this transition to a new state has shifted my eyes to the broader landscape.  I realized that its not just about what I do on a small site, but what I do in many different places and spaces. I think that’s the work this post is trying to do–explore the broader call to heal the land beyond what we generally “own.” Its trying to cast a wide net, seeing the land differently, realizing that all of the land is ours to tend, if not legally so, than certainly, ethically so.

 

I’ll be spending more time in upcoming posts on different ways of approaching how physical land regeneration as a spiritual practice may happen. For now, I wanted to share my thoughts about why–as druids, as people who care, as whoever you are as you are reading this–we could consider this as part of our spiritual and ethical work in the world. Perhaps sit with the idea, like a hot cup of tea made from pioneer plants in a field in need of regeneration, and consider whether you are called to walk this particular path.

 

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead) August 1, 2015

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

 

The Power of Permaculture: Regenerating Landscapes and Human-Nature Connections July 24, 2015

Regenerating our lands for pollenators

Regenerating our lands for pollinators

As a species, we are facing a number of challenges that can be overwhelming—from global climate change to failing ecosystems, to mass deforestation and substantial water stress. Many who care deeply about the earth, who see the earth as sacred, finds themselves in a state of perpetual mourning and apparent powerlessness when reading the headlines or seeing destruction firsthand. The sense of being overwhelmed can be stifling, limiting, leaving you unsure as to how to do anything but strongly wanting to do something. It can leave you feeling that nothing that you do is good enough and nothing that you do as an individual matters.

 

The environmental movement doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way response because its largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate. Environmentalism teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine forests; to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively caretake them (the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection.  I also think the environmental movement, at least as I have participated in it, is fairly reactive rather than proactive.  I think there’s a place for the kinds of work the environmental movement does, and I think they are helpful, but I don’t think they are “enough.”

 

Sustainability as a concept, I am realizing, is also problematic. (I’ve been using this word myself, but am now transitioning away from it in favor of regeneration for reasons described in this post). Sustainability, which means a “capacity to endure” essentially seeks ways of sustaining what is there.  This may mean to sustaining our current lifestyles and levels of consumption (or near similar lifestyles and levels of consumption) while also working to mitigate any further damage to the planet.   Yet, the current lifestyle got us into this mess. Why do we want to sustain that? What are we really protecting when we are “sustainable?” Furthermore, it has become another term commonly used by companies to sell their products and services, rather than an ethic or principle for many. I’m not sure of the ethics that fuel sustainability–desire to do less harm? desire to protect and preserve? They are often not very well articulated.

 

I’ve struggled with both environmentalism and sustainability as meaningful responses because they made me feel like something was missing. Being a better consumer of environmentally friendly goods, or my early attempts at sustainably, still made me feel not so great because I was mitigating problems. I’ve expressed that struggle quite a few times in posts over the years here, and I’m sure that so many of you share it—so the question is, what else is there?

 

What it seems we really need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools that go beyond the above approaches and into envisioning “what’s next?” or “what’s better?” So many of the structures of our daily lives don’t work: our homes require too much energy for heating and cooling; our waste is treated as waste; our landfills fill up with things that still have value; fresh water runs from the streets of our cities and into the sewer system; our bodies are pumped with poison and chemicals; and our landscapes are barren and toxic. We need tools that help us facilitate the deep work of healing our damaged lands, to re-evaluate and develop better ways of living, and in directly rectifying the damaged relationship we have with nature.  We need an ethical system that is simple to teach and yet profound. We need tools to help us envision the future today–what will our next iteration of lower-to-no fossil fuel living look like? What if we could design for that now? What if we are the ones building what the next iteration of human living could look like?

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

 

One set of tools to help us do this is permaculture design. Two Australian designers, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, developed permaculture, or “permanent agriculture” in the height of the sustainable living movements of the 1970’s. Permaculture was developed in response to the growing awareness of the damage humans were causing and the dwindling resources of our planet. Permaculture is a design theory using a whole systems approach modeled in natural patterns; it is a set of ethics and principles that we can use to help us design anything from an outdoor landscape or organic garden to a workplace or a community of people. Millions of people around the world are using permaculture design to revitalize their relationship to the land, enrich their lives, and enhance their communities. To design effectively using permaculture ethics and principles, we must carefully asses, observe, interact, measure, study, and analyze the existing site before we can begin to consider change. The act of interaction, analysis, and observation prior to making change is in itself a powerful tool—it asks us to go from reaction to mindful and directed thought and action.

 

What makes permaculture different than other things, like environmentalism?  For two, permaculture gives a clear ethical system that actually makes a great deal of sense, and that can be directly applied to any design. Permaculture rests upon three primary ethical principles: people care, earth care, and fair share (which I covered in more detail earlier). A goal of any design is to address them all at the same time. We, therefore, design with the understanding that caring for the earth and caring for people are one in the same. Stop and think about that for a minute. The earth’s needs are equal with our own, and both can be satisfied with careful planning and analysis. Furthermore, also a matter of ethics, one of the things permaculture design can do—and do well—is to help us regenerate even the most damaged and poisoned of lands. In fact, many permaculture designers purposely select abused lands as these are the lands that can benefit the most and this is where they can do the most good.

 

Permaculture can be learned by anyone (most of what you need is freely available online) or through books or courses.  Despite its straightforward principles, yet it allows for a lifetime of study and practice. It can be applied to any site or community–from apartment living to rural farmlands.  It puts the power into the hands of the individual and the community, rather in the hands of others.   It also considers the role of the design in the larger ecosystem and community.  Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of permaculture, described four goals for landscape design: ecological as well as economic; repair and conserve all systems; provide a unique and essential service for the bioregion; and creating something inter-generational (considering current generations as well as future).  So while economics is there, for something like the farm; so is repair of land, conservation, and considering the future.

 

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

The actual design principles  from permaculture are all rooted in nature (and some will be quite familiar to my readers, as I integrate them often into these posts). I have found these principles to be so useful that not only have I integrated them into my life in terms of my living and landscape, but I have used them extensively as themes for meditation and personal growth.

 

Furthermore, the act of any designing work involves intentionality—something sorely lacking today. Many of permaculture design’s principles used in the natural landscape work to improve existing conditions: keyline design, for example, uses water catchment and keyline “plowing” to quickly build soil, sequester carbon, and effectively manage water. A multitude of techniques unfold from the principles and ethics.

 

Does permaculture actually work? Yes, it really appears it does! Sites around the world demonstrate just how powerful this approach can be in multiple settings. I’ll share a few examples here from across the spectrum: from large-scale farming to community design to urban settings: permaculture can be applied effectively.

 

Permaculture’s answer to traditional, large scale farming. Just over 40% of the available land in the USA is used for farming, over 95% using conventional agricultural methods (read: fossil fuels, GMOs, and poisons). Current industrial farming practices emphasize only thing: the amount of food grown for the plate (and hence, the profit of the farmer). The food is grown with absolutely no sense of earth share or fair share, and these practices essentially chemically shut down any natural processes that don’t immediately contribute to the crops and kill the life in the soil. US farms are currently losing topsoil at a rate of 3 cm per year (and topsoil is where life grows; where the nutrients are concentrated).

 

As a comparison, permaculture thinks about the yields not only to ourselves but also to the land, how farmlands managed differently can also provide: pollen, nectar, and habitat are yields for pollinators, build rather than lose soil, and so on. A farm of this nature would still have plenty of growing capacity for human food production—but it would yield much more. A good example of a larger permaculture farm doing industrial-scale production is Mark Sheppard’s New Forest farm. Not only is Mark regenerating the land and creating soil, habitat, and encouraging biological diversity, he’s out-growing other industrial farms of his size (see his fascinating analysis in Restoration Agriculture). And the yields benefiting people from his farm include honey, wax, propolis, pastured pork, pastured beef, free range chicken, free range turkey, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and more. He shows how perennial treecrops can provide for many of the same caloric needs currently being filled by soy and corn—and they need to only be planted once, as opposed to every year. And, as he writes in his book, he could literally walk away from his farm today and it would still be producing a variety of crops in 1000 years. Now that’s regeneration!

 

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

Urban backyard. On the other end of the spectrum from large-scale farming, so many examples exist of urban front and backyard designs using permaculture.  One example is Paradise Lot, developed by two permaculture designers, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates.  They regenerated a small urban area and actively worked to sequester carbon. Eric and Jonathan bought a tiny duplex on 1/10th of an acre in an urban setting in Massachusetts. Initially, their site was bare, dry and contaminated. Using regenerative permaculture techniques and soil building, the site is now now extremely abundant and fertile. They managed to sequester over 5 tons of carbon over a period of five years (Imagine if everyone sequestered 5 tons of carbon in their back yard rather than produce more from mowing!). They are producing a variety of yields: food, forage, nectar, good soil, beauty, shade, and more. This was all done using the same principles and ethics of New Forest Farm. Like New Forest Farm, if Eric and Jonathan walked away from Paradise Lot, it would continue to be abundant indefinitely.  There are a lot of other sites like Paradise Lot, including one I recently visited as part of my PDC and will be sharing with you in an upcoming post, and my friend Linda’s site in Oxford, MI that I blogged about earlier this year. This is a really empowering and wonderful way to integrate permaculture!

 

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Community-level design. A final example incorporating permaculture principles on a community-wide level was the site of my permaculture design certification course (PDC), Sirius Community near Amherst, Massachusetts. One of the oldest ecovillages in the world, it was modeled after Findhorn in Scotland. Sirius uses permaculture design in every aspect of their living: earth care, people care, and fair share are woven into daily life almost as much as breathing. They mill their own lumber and use it to build structures that are ecologically sound and innovative: greenhouses, a community center, various residences, and more. They use extensive passive solar and heating designs in these structures—when I was at Sirius, several days were 95 degrees, and while it was sweltering outside, it was quite cool in the buildings due to these smart uses of heat and cool (compare this to my townhouse in PA, where anything about 80 degrees inside is completely insufferable). Acres and acres of gardens, including food forests, perennial herbs, and annual vegetables provide a significant amount of the food not only to Sirius’s permanent residents but also to the many guests and visitors (we were fed for two solid weeks from these gardens—a delight!). All waste (including human) is fully incorporated back into the land in some way. Solar, wind, and wood generate much of the power and heating.…I will stop here, as I’m planning a full blog post sharing more about Sirius and detailing more of the incredible things they are doing. But suffice to say, this can be done at a community level, especially from the ground up.

 

If you are interested in seeing more examples of successful sites, the film Inhabit profiles a number of different permaculture sites across the US and the great work so many are doing.

 

A ray of hope….

One of the greatest challenges we face in the western world is responding to what is happening globally. A lot choose to ignore it, and go on living as though nothing were happening. Others weep and lament, and feel disempowered to change anything—and so they mourn but do little else. Still others try, but feel that what they are doing can’t make a difference. Even if everyone today started practicing permaculture, we are still paying the hefty tolls of over a century of industrialization and those tolls are irrevocably changing our culture and our world. Yet some of those changes, if we design carefully enough, can be very positive—the problem is the solution, as a permaculture principle suggests.

 

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage using repurposed materials

At this point, as the earth’s atmosphere has just gone over 400 parts per million of carbon, every ton of carbon that we can put back into the ground matters. Imagine if everyone started sequestering carbon as part of their “lawn care” like Paradise Lot! Every response we can have is a response.  And its not just individual—when we engage in actions that show a different path, they are like wildfire—spreading further than we can even imagine. I don’t think anyone knows what the future will bring—but permaculture, for me, helps light my way on that path. It gives me tools and ethics of empowerment to teach the next generation. What it does is give me the power of hope.

 

PS: Look for my post next week, where I show these principles in action on my 5-year homestead project—another success story of a regenerated landscape!

 

Converting Lawns to Gardens: Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Urban Farm April 24, 2015

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm – Beautiful, biointensive, productive.

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit of coverage about lawn issues, as I really do believe that the lawn can be one of the primary sites of transformation and change for ordinary Americans and others in the Western industrialized world. Not only can the lawn be transformed from a consumptive space to a productive one for growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers to benefit humans and other life, but it can be a site of personal reconnection and healing with our landscape.

 

This is because the lawn is the single piece of nature that the bulk of people, living outside of big cities, encounter on a daily or weekly basis. If we can transform the lawn, we can transform ourselves.

 

This is why I am so excited about this post–through the example of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a new creation of my dear friend, Linda Jackson, I will provide an introduction to how to convert a front yard to a vegetable garden using permaculture design principles. This is Linda’s story, but she’s asked me to report on it for you here to get the word out. I’ll also say that I’m only telling part of the story now–I’ll provide more updates later in the year and talk about what she planted and how its all doing–and more responses from the community.

 

Impetus for Change

Linda was a certified organic farmer, a farmer’s market board member, a board member of a state-level organic farming rganization, and a horticulture teacher for many years. Last summer, through some trying life circumstances, she was displaced from her farm and ended up in a small home in a suburban area in a town called Lake Orion (in South-East Michigan). Linda moved from 10 acres to a tiny 100×200′ plot (with a 50′ x 50′ growing area in the front yard; back yard is full shade). Linda used her background in farming and permaculture design to convert her plain, everyday lawn into not only a place to grow some great vegetables, but also a place of community change and empowerment. Here’s how she did it.

Linda - Before and After

Linda – Before and After

 

Getting Legal

Before one begins to convert one’s yard, the legal aspects must be considered and weighed. As my own run ins with township ordinances have attested, and as protections of small urban farms have been removed in Michigan in the last 12 months (and the legal battles everywhere raging about front-yard farming), Linda decided to take no chances with her plan. She went directly to the township supervisor and spoke with him about her design and plan for her front yard. He told her that as long as she wasn’t growing “weeds” it wasn’t a problem.  She also read through the township ordinances thoroughly to learn what could and couldn’t be done. We are still crossing our fingers that, now that she’s gotten the garden installed, that this will hold true. But so far, so good!

 

For those of you thinking about converting your own yards–do keep legal ordinances (and homeowner’s associations) in mind. They can really sink (and fine, and bulldoze) your hard-earned efforts.  And even a statement like “don’t grow weeds” is tricky–my township, for example, designates common milkweed as a noxious weed (when its a beneficial native plant).

 

Linda at her new farm

Linda at her new farm getting ready to plant some radishes!

Goals for the Urban Permaculture Farm

Before Linda designed her farm and set into action, she created a list of goals to help guide her efforts. She knew farming her front yard in the urban setting was going to be quite different than farming her quiet ten acres in the country. Given this, her goals were as follows:

 

  • Do away with mowing, herbicides, pesticides, traditional lawn maintenance
  • Build a balanced farm ecosystem using permaculture design
  • Grow quick annuals and perennial fruits, herbs, flowers
  • Allow farm to turn a profit by selling produce and farm goods a farmer’s market every two weeks
  • Grow biointensively and organically; use small space gardening and vertical gardening to maximize yield
  • Use my plot as an educational site for community
  • Generate curiosity and excitement in the community
  • Create an aesthetically pleasing, unique space

 

Her triple bottom line was: ecological, social and economic sustainability.

 

Design and Observations

Linda examined her specific site over a period of weeks (she could have waited and observed longer as permaculture design principles suggest, but winter was coming fast and she wanted to get her hands in the soil and start growing first thing in the spring). So waiting a year wasn’t an option!

Plans for the Farm - Overhead view

Plans for the Farm – Overhead view

During these observations, she created a plan of action. In observing her site, she paid attention to the light (recognizing the need to take out several trees); the rainfall (including where water pooled and where it was dry) and the slope of the land and elevation changes.  She also noted the microclimates near her house, where the sun reflected from the house siding and onto the soil, keeping it dryer and warmer than other areas.

 

Preparing the Site

Front Yard Before

Front Yard Before

Two ornamental fruit trees (that did not produce fruit) and a silver maple were first removed to produce full sun on the site. These produced 15 yards of chipped mulch, which Linda put to good use as pathways in her garden. After the trees were removed, Linda also ordered 10 yards of compost from a local compost company and set to work (and she worked full days, 4-5 days a week, for 5 weeks to finish her site).

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Silver Maple Removed from Front Yard

Linda knew she wanted her farm to be aesthetically pleasing and mimic patterns in nature (another permaculture design principle). To do this, she used a hose and the natural contour of the land and laid out her beds and pathways.  She had the idea of “flow” in her mind as she designed, creating a series of soft waves.

Natural contours--shaped with the hose!

Natural contours–shaped with the hose!

After this, Linda laid down brown recycled paper to create a weed barrier (similar to the sheet mulch techniques I shared several years ago on this blog).  Then she laid down her thick mulchled pathways (about 6″ of mulch) and added more weed barrier compost for the beds themselves (eventually making it to 10″ after a neighbor blew leaves all over her farm and she laid down a second layer!). Here are some photos of the transformation as it took place.

Mulched paths established....

Mulched paths established….

Starting to add compost over weed barrier....

Starting to add compost over weed barrier….

Lots of progress being made!

Lots of progress being made!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Front yard shot of the progress!

Many beds now established!

Many beds now established!

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Close to the house- the pine tree makes a contribution

Complete as of October 2014!

Nearly complete as of October 2014–the front area there is a rock garden and rain garden since water pools there often.

 

Some Spring Planting

After the snow melted and the temperatures warmed up this spring, Linda installed drip irrigation lines and began her finishing touches on the garden and the soil composition before planting. I visited her this past week, and together, we planted kale, radishes, and chard: the first of the spring crops able to go into the ground. Linda impressed me with her organic pest control techniques: each kale seedling got a healthy spoonful of cayenne pepper and each chard seedling was popped into a toilet paper tube to protect it from rodents, slugs, and possible frost damage (and this was a good thing, since its really chilled down recently). Here are some shots of the current garden. I was also impressed that we planted nearly 80 kale seedlings in her space, with plenty of room for many other delights! I think she’ll have no problem having plenty of product to take to the farmer’s market and to put on her plate.

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Kale Seedlings with Cayenne Pepper!

Linda plants radish

Linda plants radish

Chard in protective tubes

Chard in protective tubes

Me planting some chard!

Me planting some chard!

 

Promoting a Positive Image in the Community

As Linda put her garden in in the fall and as the weeks passed, the neighbors watched the yard’s transformation and anticipation in the community grew substantially.  Here was someone doing something unique, different, groundbreaking, and exciting. The important thing to understand about this kind of public growing space is that people will talk. They will ask questions, they will be curious, and interest (of several kinds) can take place. I experienced this firsthand when we were planting kale, chard, and radishes this past week.  Multiple people stopped by, took a look, asked what we were up to. We cheerfully told them and they smiled and said they were thinking about doing it themselves.  So far, Linda has been lucky as the response in her community has been incredibly positive. Several people have asked her to put in gardens for them–but Linda wants to empower them to do their own work, not do it for them.

 

Given the above, Linda decided to be proactive about promoting her space, and in addition to talking to the township prior to starting, she decided to create some marketing materials. She went to my friends at Roots to Fruits for some snazzy graphics to share and feedback on her designs. I also helped her create a Powerpoint presentation that she shared in over the winter at a few local and regional events.  I also worked with her to create a brochure that she can give to people who are passing by that explains both the purpose of the garden and resources to get started. The brochure will be housed in a “take one” box on her mailbox so anyone who comes by can learn more about the site.  I’m including the brochure in jpg format here as well (you can click on it to see it full size).

Brochure page 1

Brochure page 1

Brochure, page 2

Brochure, page 2

I think the proactive approach to marketing and community engagement is really the key to a successful front-yard garden, especially one that will stand the test of time.  As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be checking in with Linda later in the summer on a visit back to Michigan to see how things are going!

 

Conclusion

In many ways, the typical lawn is a reflection of our own strained relationship with nature. Its poisoned and modified (as is much of the food we eat), it is unsustainable (as much of our lifestyles are), it has an appetite for chemicals and fossil fuels (as many of us do), and its generally barren with little activity or diversity of life (as nightly TV addictions can attest). Transform the lawn, and in the process, we can transform ourselves, our communities, our world.

 

I’ve seen this transformation in my friend Linda, who left a very difficult situation scarred and wounded. Through installing this front-yard farm, Linda was transformed and healed. And now this lawn, transformed, is transforming the community. Linda tells me of two neighbors on her street that are considering converting their front-yards to veggies and fruits as well, and I suspect that many more will follow the trend in the years to come. Since she’ll be selling veggies at the farmer’s market, she will inspire so many more who might not walk or drive down her street with her story, and most importantly, her delightful edible goodies.

 

Other Sites: Costa Rica as a Model Sustainable Living and Permaculture Design in Action March 14, 2015

In February 2015, I took a 12-day trip to Costa Rica (my first real vacation!) Part of the reason I decided on Costa Rica was that this culture is well-known for emphasizing sustainability in a way that is well beyond lip service, and I wanted to experience it for myself and see what I could learn while I was there. I want to touch on the many things I observed and learned on this journey with regards to sustainable living and permaculture design. I traveled to four areas and drove across large portions of the countryside: the Monteverde region (high in the cloud forests), the urban and suburban San Jose region; the volcanic La Fortuna region, and the costal Manuel Antonio region.  One thing to remember about the Costa Ricans–they are one of the happiest countries in the world. I don’t think this is a fluke–I think its directly tied to the ways in which they live sustainably, have protected and preserved their own landscapes and local economies. So I’m going to look at some of those ways, envisioning Costa Rica as an alternative model for living. Along the way, I’m going to discuss  permaculture design from its three ethical principles: Care for people, Care for the Earth, and Set Limits/Redistribute Surplus.

 

Localized Economies

I want to start with the economy, because A) its the sacred cow of US politics and really the only thing anyone talks about these days, but also B) Costa Rica shows that there are viable alternatives for localized systems of wealth that empower people and protect the land. One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica was the localized economy–and how this manifested in the landscape. Literally everywhere we went, towns, stores, and businesses were different. They had different stores, small businesses, different kinds of food, artist-owned co-ops, wonky weird places and much more. In the USA, we are literally drowning in Walmarts, McDonalds, Rite Aids, TGI Fridays, Holiday Inn, Chase Bank, Subway, TJ Max, etc. Each town is a replica of the previous town, with the same 40 or so corporations promoting their wares.  Its like a rubber stamp; town after town looks the same. Each has this long line of strip malls with bad traffic and noise pollution, and you are supposed to WANT to go there and shop and purchase the same industrialized food.  Occasionally, a town or city will try to break out of it and have a “weird” core which is locally owned and unique (I think about Austin, TX, or Ann Arbor, MI) but even with their weirdness, the mega corporations are still there, just around the corner. I never realized how bad this was until I went to Costa Rica and drove all around the countryside.

 

In Costa Rica, the businesses are generally all locally owned, unique, and charming. I stayed in small B&B’s, farms, and small hostels everywhere and they were operated by the people who owned them and employed local workers (chain hotels weren’t even an option most places I stayed). A lot of these places were farms or sustainable living centers that also offered a bed to weary travelers. The accommodations were simple and wonderful. I ate food made and grown by locals (you didn’t even have to ask where it came from–you could just taste that it was fresh), I bought local art, and enjoyed locally-based attractions (like an orchid garden with 2000+ orchids or a sustainable chocolate plantation). It was amazing because everything was different, unique. Many places also embraced the landscape–they had gardens, walking paths, big trees, and the business “flowed” with the landscape so much more. And it was economically successful.

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

This really gets at the permaculture design principle “Care for People.” People are empowered–they can own businesses, hire each other, and determine their own economic realities. I think they are rooted in their communities, they also care more about what happens in them (than say, Walmart, who really couldn’t give a damn about the local town or their local workers they are in because their economic reality isn’t firmly rooted there). And when the people are cared for, they can focus on caring for other things, like the land and each other.

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

 

Housing.

By American standards, most Costa Ricans live in, as one snarky American I met on my travels called them “shacks.” The houses have metal roofs, outdoor living areas, and rather small interiors. I would say that the Costa Ricans live simply, and there is much to like about how they live. Because really– how much space does one person need? We have large houses here in the states to accommodate the “stuff” that we purchase and store as part of consumerist culture. But simple living, with fewer and more meaningful things, has a lot going for it, as the Costa Ricans demonstrate. The only American-sized houses that I saw were owned in areas where Americans lived–the signs were in English, the lawns were present, and the houses were enormous in those resort areas. But everyday life in Costa Rica doesn’t look like that–typical dwellings are probably about 800 or so square feet, on dirt roads, colorfully painted, gated, with clothes hanging outside and goats in the front yard. I think this really gets at both the “Care for people” and “Care for earth” permaculture ethical principles: the houses are small, they are integrated into the landscape, but people don’t take or have more than they need, so the earth is cared for at the same time.

Rancho Makena - The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

Rancho Makena – The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

It also “sets limits” to the size of the habitation, the amount of space one takes up in the world–and I think these are very, very good things.

Typical Costa Rican Housing

Typical Costa Rican Housing

 

Lawns & Everyday Interactions with the Land

Typical Costa Rican homes, at least in the areas that I stayed in and drove through, did not usually have lawns.  If there were grassy areas (such as outside of the front of my bungalow at the sustainable ranch where we stayed), the grass that was planted sometimes was a variety that did not grow more than a few inches high and did not require mowing. That grass was mixed with other low-growing plants including plantain (so nice to see my plant ally there!) and some sort of violet. But other homes’ lawns were pastures–and the cows would occasionally be let out to “mow” the front of the pasture near the road.  What I like so much about the “lawn as pasture” idea is that it redistributes the surplus–green growth–into cattle and horses, which can then be utilized in various ways (for food, transportation, milk, companionship).

Lawn Mower - no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Lawn Mower – no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Many homes had food forests in their yards–banana trees, mangoes, coconut palms, and various veggies like corn, lettuce, kale, and tomatoes. Nearly everyone was growing something, and most had quite a lot.  In the areas closest to the road, sometimes long grasses grew. I saw them employ three techniques to handle this–on some steep hillsides, I saw a few instances of men with weed whackers, I also saw most that people would bring in cattle or horses to graze grassy areas as I already mentioned; finally, some employed controlled burning. The only kinds of houses that had lawns were the homes that appeared to be much larger and much more wealthy–larger homes emulated American lawns and American sizes (and, where I saw the most, around the Arenal Lake’s northeastern side, the land was clearly being purchased by and catered to Americans).

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

 

Livestock.

Costa Ricans keep a lot of livestock–a type of cow that does well on the very hilly pastures.  Many also kept horses, and used them for transportation. This is true whether you live in the middle of San Jose or out in the middle of nowhere–everywhere livestock is legal and everywhere people have chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and horses.

 

We stayed on a small family farm in the Monteverde region that was a working ranch; they had various kinds of cattle and horses. They also kept pigs as “biodigestors” for compost and kept chickens for eggs. We were able to observe and take part in ranching and farming activities while we were there, such as see the greenhouses, feed the chickens, walk the fields and pastures. The buildings were simple and functional; the land rich, green, and well-tended. As was the case with earlier times in the history of the US everyone seemed to keep some kind of animals, even in the middle of the city you could hear the roosters crowing up the morning sun.  The ranch was great because they had intentionally designed it to care for people (human and domestic animal habitations), care for earth (half the ranch was forest and wild areas, with walking paths or just fully wild) and to redistribute surplus through composting and other techniques.

Livestock

Livestock

 

Farms and Gardens.

We visited many gardens and farms while in Costa Rica–they were quite easy to find and very abundant.  I will be writing about two of them in upcoming blog posts. Many of them advertised their sustainable activities right on their signs, being “carbon neutral” or “100% organic” or “sustainable farm.” But this wasn’t mere talk–Costa Ricans live sustainably, care deeply about the environment, and really mean what they say. In a nutshell, we saw all of the techniques for sustainable organic farming being enacted everywhere we turned: no chemicals or big sprayers, rainwater harvesting, composting, bioferments, perennial crops, effective soil management, integrating livestock, vermicompost, trapcrops, terracing, reusing materials, using principles of permaculture design, closed loop systems, and more  ( The one exception to this was the palm oil farms–and I’ll talk about those in another post.)  These sustainable, organic, bio-intensive farms are doing it right–in small spaces, they are caring for the land, the earth, and redistributing surplus back into the landscape.  I’ll also note that Costa Rica banned all GMOs in their country as of January 2015.  This is a major victory!

Hotel Belemar Garden

Hotel Belemar Garden- one of my favorites that we visited.  More on this soon!

Handling Waste.

You know you are in a place that values sustainability when its harder to find a trash can over a recycling bin, and when recycling bins look like this.  Note that there IS no trash can here–and these were the options you had available to you.  Talk about redistributing surplus and setting limits!

Recycling Bins - All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Recycling Bins – All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Local Food.

Costa Rican fare was simple, local, and delicious. The “typical” Costa Rican plate had a generous portion of rice and beans, sweet fried plantains, a meat/fish/avocado and cheese main portion, steamed vegetables, and a salad. All of this food was locally grown (except the rice, as far as I could tell). Everywhere we went, food was being fed to us right out of the farms, everyone kept livestock, the eggs were fresh off the farm, etc. Here, its nearly impossible to eat like this every single day if you aren’t growing it yourself–you can’t figure out where the food comes from and it takes considerable effort to source all local ingredients. In Costa Rica, I ate organic, wholesome, delicious food every single day. We saw very little in the way of fast food, especially any kind of fast food chain, although they still were present, especially in the city, where McDonalds and KFC are trying to weasel their way in. One day, I went white water rafting, and was told that “lunch was included.” In the States, this would be some sandwiches, industrialized food for sure.  In Costa Rica, they took us to an organic farm and we had the most amazing meal, a farm-to-plate meal complete with locally grown coffee, fresh sugarcane juice, and amazing vegetables. Here it was:

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Transportation.

As I mentioned before, horses are in wide use in Costa Rica as a means of travel. The public transportation system, even in the most remote areas, is quite good–there are bus stops on nearly every major road and many are using the bus system. One can travel most of the way across the country on a bus for less than $50. Many also use small, fuel-efficient motorcycles. Gas is about $5/gallon, so that alone makes people purchase and employ fuel efficiency. I witnessed more than one electric scooter, in addition to the bicycles and plain old walking, which Costa Ricans do a lot.  This demonstrates a lot with regards to “care for earth” and “setting limits.”

Walking home from work

Walking home from work

Respecting the arts.

Beautiful, colorful Costa Rican art, was abundant everywhere we went–from the streets of San Jose to the smallest town and village. The art was nature-themed, vibrant, and full of positive energy–not full of the ennui of modern life, but that which reflects the surroundings. Much working of wood, stone, inspired by nature. And its valued—and everywhere!  I will be writing more on the value of local art and local artists and how that enriches a culture at some point in the coming months!

Art for Sale in a Hotel

Art for Sale in a Hotel – You also saw artists setup on the streets and even in the airport!

Inside "Luna Azul" in Monteverde - Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

Inside “Luna Azul” in Monteverde – Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

 

General Happiness.

Costa Rica is, by multiple measures, one of the happiest nations in the world. Some would say that this is because they are a tropical paradise–but I point to other countries in Central America, like Mexico or Honduras, which do not measure anywhere near the happiness levels.

 

I think this is not only the result of much of what I’m describing in this post, but also because of a few other cultural things.  First, because the Costa Ricans seem to be moving at a different speed. There is siesta, a two-hour nap/rest/break in the middle of the workday. There is a general and deliberate taking of one’s time, especially in the areas outside of the big city. WE all stop and watch as a man herds his cattle down the road–nothing to do but enjoy the experience. Its not assumed that we eat and run, rather, that we should savor the meal–the bill is only brought AFTER we ask. These are values in many Latin American countries and families–and to my mind, certainly better than the insane/mad dash/race to nowhere that comprises so much of the modern American lifestyle.

Rainbow in Monteverde

Rainbow in Monteverde

Another reason that I think Costa Ricans are so happy has to do with some cultural values, specifically, a collective rather individualistic mindset.  A while ago on this blog, I talked about individualism vs. collectivism as mindsets (based on the work of sociologist Geert Hosfede* ; whose work  you can look at here). Costa Ricans care about each other and about the group much more than Americans–they have a collectivist mindset (this is that they think in terms of “we” rather than “I”). On Hosfede’s scale, the US manifests at a 91 for individualism (which is extremely high) and the Costa Ricans have a 15, which is very low.  I suspect, although I haven’t yet researched this theory, that issues of collectivism also relate to environmental protections, because a collectivist culture who sees their land as inherently one with themselves will extend it the same protections they extend their families and cultures. This thinking was apparent in many of the conversations I had with Costa Ricans about their interaction with the land.

 

Another reason is just the general laid-back nature of life in Costa Rica. The society lacks the extremely restrictive laws and codes on buildings, lawns, other outdoor spaces, and vehicles and so on.  Costa Rican life is extremely laid back and friendly, and their much less restrictive laws demonstrate that.  When I think about laws in the US, we have all these laws in place not to benefit the people, but to keep us engaging in certain consumptive behaviors or living in certain kinds of structures or having our property look certain kinds of ways because someone profits from it.  In other words, the laws are mostly written these days to benefit some corporate stakeholder, not the people.  We live with the laws and think they are necessities of life–but they are not, and the Costa Ricans clearly get on fine without them.

 

A final reason has to do with how monetary wealth (which I specify from other kinds of wealth, such as rich living or healthy food) is wrapped up into the economics of place.  The US is considered to be a very wealthy nation–we are a nation of consumers and stuff–but that stuff isn’t rooted, isn’t connected to place. The problem is, the more stuff we have, the less happy we are and the more restrictions we have.  Simple living, fewer laws, less stuff, better food, localized economies, love of the land…these are all features that make Costa Rica great.

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

General Thoughts.

While Costa Rica is far from perfect, I do think we have a lot to learn from them in terms of sustainable living and seeking happiness.  I had a very hard time “readjusting” to life in the USA after being in Costa Rica.  After seeing firsthand how different and more aligned with my own value system life could be, it was hard to come back. It was hard to come back to watching people consume poisons, chemicals, and modified foods, to watch them drug their children on ADHD medication, to do battle on the roads on my way to work each day, to just look at how despondent, run down, and miserable everyone is (pay attention next time you enter a grocery store), and to watch people spend much of their lives attached to various screens.

 

But this trip has given me a sense of renewed hope.  Costa Rica, with its sustainable principles undercurrenting so much of life, is thriving.  This kind of living can work, and perhaps, they can serve as a model to many of us who are transitioning ourselves and our communities into something simpler, locally-focused, and more fulfilling.  The question is…how can we build it?

Laundry drying outside

Laundry drying outside