The Druid's Garden

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

Druidry for the 21st Century: Plant-Based Spiritual Supplies and Global Demand March 24, 2019

Can you even imagine druidry without plants or trees?  Plants and trees are some of our strongest allies for the work that we do, and are often connected to almost everything that we do spiritually. Plant spirits are teachers, guides, and allies.  From before we had recorded history in any culture, the plant spirits were there, growing with us, guiding us, healing us, and supporting us on our journey. Today’s modern druid practice continues that tradition: we burn plants for smoke cleansing, clearing, and helping to energize spaces. We use trees as part of divination and sacred rites. We use plants as healers, for magical healing and physical healing, and to connect with on deep levels.  Plants have long been friends of humans–and have long walked beside us, hand in hand, as we do our sacred work.  And today, we’ll explore ways we can offer that same kind of honor, respect, and nurturing in return–on both a local and global scale, given that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.  For other posts in this series, please see Druidry for the 21st Century, Druidry in the Anthropocene, and Psychopoming the Anthropocene.

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, given the strain on many ecosystems and species, it is necessary to be an “ethical” consumer–both reducing overall consumption, and when it is necessary to buy, knowing where our goods come from, who makes them and in what conditions, and what we are really supporting. This behavior, in turn, helps certain ethical products and companies succeed and creates less demand for unethical and damaging products. In the progressive circles, the idea of “voting with your dollars” comes to mind.  We see this movement in food (local eating), clothing, electronics, and many more kinds of goods. There are good, bad, and ugly choices out there, and making ethical choices helps promote better livelihoods and protects ecosystems.

 

Ginseng my family grew

Ginseng my family grew

With over half of the world’s species in serious decline, threatened, or endangered, I don’t think we can simply enjoy using whatever we find in the local pagan shop (even if we want to support that shop!). When you walk into one of these shops, or start browsing online, you can find literally thousands of places that are selling palo santo, white sage, sandalwood, and many other critically endangered plants.  These plants are critically endangered because of their overuse, particularly by people who are far disconnected from their growth, harvest, and ecosystems. I’d like to suggest that we take the wisdom of the “ethical consumer” movement and apply it to the purchasing spiritual materials.  This is particularly important for druidry and neopaganism, where it isn’t just about the physical, but also, the spirit. Ethical plant use, where we know where the plant comes from, how much of it remains, and how our own choice of using this plant is a necessary part. While I’m focusing on plants today, I want to add that this really applies to any goods we may use as part of our spiritual practice from two angles: the physical and spirit.

 

The Physical: Land, livelihood, Indigenous Practice, and Ecosystems

I already grow and use a lot of my own herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes, but occasionally, still enjoy the choice rare ingredient that I purchase or that is given to me as a gift. For example, the other night, I was burning a piece of Palo Santo that a friend had given me as a birthday gift and got the distinct question, “do you even know me?”  The answer was, shamefully, no, I did not.  So I started to research it, I found a host of material that suggests that the ethics of Palo Santo are all about the sourcing:  it can be harvested ethically and be used to support native peoples and ecosystems, or it can be stripped bare.  In holding my own piece of Palo Santo wood, I realized I couldn’t answer the important questions: where did this come from? How was it harvested? Who harvested it?  Who profited from it? A few days later, after doing some research, I saw a post shared by a friend on social media.  This post came from a woman native to Colombia who said that Palo Santo was being stripped from her forests, and begging people to stop using it.

 

Palo Santo is hardly unique in this respect–there are so many plants that are now in global demand due to their uses for medicine or spiritual purposes. The work of Kelly Ablard is useful here.  Her website details information on essential oil plants and their conservation status. As she describes, as global demand for certain plants rise, the plants become so lucrative that are over-harvested and can be poached, reducing biodiversity and threatening local people’s traditions and livelihoods.  As the link I shared in the last paragraph about Palo Santo harvesting suggests, in purchasing plants for spiritual supplies, you can make choices that encourage biodiversity, enhance people’s livelihoods, and support life.  Or you can make unknown choices, which are almost *always* the bad ones.  Knowledge of sourcing is critically important.

 

I have witnessed the vicious cycle of over harvesting driven by global demand firsthand here in the Appalachians, such as the case of wild ginseng. When I was a child, my grandfather used to come back with beautiful wild ginseng roots, and we would brew up ginseng tea and enjoy it as a special treat.  I remember those roots–the look of them, the feel of them, the energy of them.  He would only every bring back a small amount, as he was tending his wild patch long-term so that, as he told me once, “my grandkids will be able to harvest this as I did.”  However, the patch was stripped bare by ginseng wildharvesters (I call them poachers) ages ago–every last root was taken.  A good quality dried American Ginseng root, wildharvested, currently goes for between $500-$800 a dried pound, and there are many ginseng dealers that will pay top dollar for anyone who can deliver.  They don’t care where it comes from, only what they can make from it (and the demand for ginseng is growing). So what happens is that people–usually poor people, out of work due to our poor economy–literally scour our mountains for Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Reishi, and other in-demand medicinal plants–and when they find them, they harvest all they can. Over the years, I have covered thousands of miles of forests, nearly all of them here in the Appalachians.  And I’ve never seen a single wild ginseng plant.   The demand for ginseng is primarily from China–a far off place wanting to pay top dollar for high quality ginseng.  Chinese people buying American ginseng have no idea what it is doing to the  wild ginseng populations here.  And so locals here don’t even get to see the plant, much less, build a relationship with it–it is no longer part of our forest ecology. That same story can be told about many, many of these in demand sacred plants–and I think its useful to see that this overharvest problem can happen anywhere, even in “developed” nations like the US. (In the case of ginseng, I will also note that a new forest-grown initiative is helping change the way ginseng is harvested, which is great–but not enough to restore wild populations).

 

Sacred cedar

Sacred cedar

The “Wildharvest” label is fraught with problems. I have spoken to a lot of people in teaching herbalism classes who think it’s better if its wildharvested. I say, “better for who?”  Certainly not better for the plant population!  Wild harvesters who are harvesting for profit have a wide range of practices and ethics. You have no idea what the total population of the plant is, you have no idea how many different wildharvesters came through an area, or how many they take.  A farm, on the other hand, is growing and harvesting there for the long-term, harvesting each year and conserving populations.  Here, most of our wild harvesters looking for ginseng are folks that are out of work and pretty desperate for cash, particularly because of the long decline of the rust belt economy.

 

Knowing which plants are of particularly concern and how they are harvested is also an important part of this process. One good source of information on some plants in North America is the United Plant Savers; just this year, White Sage was added to their list due to wildharvesting and overharvesting.  Ablard’s notes critically endangered plants by region. These include Palo Santo (Peru), Juniper Berry (from Morocco), Sandalwood (Timor Leste), Spikenard, and Agarwood. Her lists also include sweet almond, olive, cedar, elm, and sassafras (in certain locations), and Eastern Hemlock here in the USA.  A lot of plants that are endangered are “whole plant” harvests; ginseng being a good example–if harvesting wood or roots, or all of the aerial parts of a plant, what is left of that plant afterwards?

 

The other piece of this is cultural appropriation. While smoke cleansing (what are commonly called smudging or smudging ceremonies) of all kind are used widely in global traditions (such as this delightful German practice that Christian Brunner describes on his blog) the use of particular plants for smoke cleansing is tied to certain indigenous practices.  White sage has been in the spotlight recently as one such plant. Increased demand for white sage use are driving up the prices of white sage, and reducing native access to wild white sage (due to commercial wildharvesting), and putting white sage plants themselves at risk. Even the term “smudging” is coming under question as a term that appropriates a native practice; see this perspective shared here. I think the key takeaway here is that some of these plants are tied to indigenous traditions, and should be respected as such, particularly when it comes to specific ceremonies and/or wild populations under use by indigenous peoples.

 

In the end, the questions I keep coming back to are: Is it right or ethical that we use these plants to the point of their extinction? Is it right to create such demand for plants that native peoples who depend on them for spiritual practices and cannot find them to use?  Can we find a better way?  These are important questions, but just as important are the spiritual implication of sourcing of plant material.

 

Spiritual: Energy, Honoring, and Connections

Even if we put every physical consideration aside, there is still the matter of spirit–honoring the spirit of the plant, working with the spirit of the plant, and connecting to the spirit of the plant.  Attending to our connection and relationship with the spirit of a specific plant we are using spiritually matters if we want our spiritual practices to have effect.  Sure, I could wave some rosemary and sage around to “clear” my room before doing a ritual, but if my relationship with sage is one rooted in blind consumption, and not connection, is that sage really going to want to support my efforts? What energy tied to the plant’s harvest and sale, is being brought in at the same time?  The way in which the plant was obtained has a direct relationship with the connection–and depth of connection–I am able to have with the plant.  If I purchase a plant from an unknown source, I am bringing all of the energy of that source into my spiritual practice.  Who harvested it, how it was harvested, how it was handled, how it was sold, how it was transported–and in the case of poaching and overharvesting, that may be energy I very much do not want to have in my life.  What was that plant’s life–and harvest–like?  Was it done respectfully? Was it done in a sacred manner?  If not, do I even have any hope of connecting with it spiritually? These questions are critical in developing spiritual practices surrounding plant use.

 

Anytime we use a plant as part of our sacred practices, we are building relationships with that plant.  Plants work physically and spiritually, but for many of the deeper spiritual uses, they really do require a deep connection.  For example, many herbalists, understand and quietly share about entheogenic properties of Calamus (Sweet flag). You can’t get there with a single huge dose of Calamus. You have to connect with the spirit of the Calamus, build a relationship with it over a long period of time.  As part of this, you have to work with the plant, tend it, plant it, spend time with it, meditate with it, and ethically and respectfully harvest it. At some point, sometimes years or decades later, Calamus open you up for visions and experiences. This isn’t something you can buy or purchase or force to happen–it is something you cultivate over time.  Calamus offers you a process of initiation–and it must be done with the utmost respect and patience.

 

The need to cultivate deep relationships to really “know” a plant and use it for good spiritual effect is necessary for  every plant we might work with spiritually.  Each plant offers us an initiation into its own mysteries, teachings, and magic; and having those initiations will allow you to use the plant to its full magical or spiritual effect.  However, we have to build that relationship.  It’s hard to build a relationship with a plant that has had suffering, death, and pain as part of its sourcing. In the case of some plants, sure, you can use them spiritually, but you aren’t ever going to breach that barrier into deeper work if these other concerns are present.  I can burn my piece of Palo Santo, and it smells nice and produces a calming energy.  But that experience is very surface.  But under no circumstances, could I ever build a deep relationship with that particular wood, given the conditions under which it was harvested and the energy that it now carries with it.

 

Ethical Plant Use in the Anthropocene: Purchasing, Growing,  and Wildharvesting

 

Given the above, I’d like to advocate for the key practice of ethical plant use in druidry and other neo-pagan paths.  By the term “ethics,” I draw upon permaculture‘s three ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share.  People Care encourages us to think about the sourcing of the plant (if you are not growing it yourself) and how the harvest of this plant is tied to local communities and local labor.  Earth Care asks us to consider how the harvest of this plant may have affected the plant and plant species itself as well as the broader ecosystem where the plant grows. Fair Share  asks us to take only what we need of the plant, and certainly, to make sure this plant is available to indigenous peoples who might depend upon it–fair share can take place both on and individual level or a cultural level. Now let’s consider a range of alternative practices to simply “consuming” plants.

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

 

Substitutions: Yes, palo santo, frankincense, sandalwood, and so on smell amazing–but do I really  need these specific plants? Can I instead use local plants that are growing in your own ecosystem, or even backyard? For example, I brought back a small amount of Frankincense when I visited Oman a few years ago and have been slowly using it, but learning what I have about Frankincense and the disappearing frankincense trees, I will not purchase any more.  Frankincense cannot be cultivated commercially, and overharvesing is killing trees–and will severely impact cultures that depend on it as part of their cultural and religious traditions.  I have already replaced Frankincense  with locally harvested white pine resin, which has a similar smell and similar energetic qualities–and which I can harvest myself, thus, cultivating a deeper relationship with white pine and my local bioregion.

 

Ethical Purchasing: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Purchasing is still on the table, but it should be done with ethics in mind.  Some purchases are very good, and can support initiatives that help honor the plant and build livelihoods and ecosystems for local peoples. If you are buying locally or online, before you buy, ask some good questions to ensure an ethical and sustainable harvest.

The questions I like to ask before purchasing are:

  • Where does this plant come from?  (Look for places engaged in sustainable harvesting, like this example from Fair Trade Frankincense)
  • How is this plant harvested? (Learn about your plant. Root or wood harvests are most damaging, and can often kill the plant, but other harvests, like leaf or resin, may also be extremely damaging, particularly if they harm the plant or prevent it from going to seed.)
  • Who harvested this plant? Under what conditions? (How are individuals, cultures, and communities impacted by this harvest?  Be skeptical of a “wildharvest” label, recognizing the lack of oversight for many wildharvesting operations.)
  • Who is profiting from this plant?

If purchasing locally, if the shop owner can’t tell you the answers (especially to the first three questions below), perhaps encourage that person to consider a different source.  If buying online, you can ask the same information if it is not available.  For Palo Santo, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs describes exactly where they get their Palo Santo and their conservation efforts. If I wanted more Palo Santo and it was very important to my practice, I’d want to get it from this kind of source–where I am not only supporting a local farm in Equador, but also supporting the replanting of Palo Santo trees.  To me, this is critical–a good purchase can do a lot of good and support people care, earth care, and fair share.

 

Ethical Growing: The easiest way to manage a population and cultivate deep relationships is to grow it yourself, if you can. For example, I never buy white sage, but I love the smell and I do like to use it as part of certain incense blends that I make and use regularly.  Thus, I grow it myself, and try to let some of my plants to go seed so that I can sustainably grow it in the future.  Even if you don’t have land to grow large amounts of plants on, you can still grow a number of your own magical herbs.  In fact, many garden herbs are potentate magical allies and readily available for purchase in the spring.  A pot of rosemary, sage, white sage, bay laurel, thyme, or lavender would all be a very useful culinary, magical, and medicinal ally–and you build your relationship considerably with each time you tend the plant.  You can also grow many things outdoors, if you have the space.

 

Ethical Wildharvesting: Some plants, and trees, are harder to grow in pots in your windowsill or garden but certainly can be wildharvested ethically, taking only what you need, helping populations grow by spreading seeds, and tending the land that supports the plants.  I like to wildharvest plants on private lands (asking landowners, developing relationships with them) so that I know exactly how many people are harvesting there and how much is being taken.  Harvesting on public lands presents a much larger problem because even if you take only a little, you are never sure how much is being taken by others (hence, my ginseng example above).  For more on tree incenses and resins you can harvest from North America based on my own research, see this post.  For more on how to create wildharveted and home-grown smudge sticks for smoke cleansing, see here and here.  For more on how to learn foraging and wildharvesting, see my series here and here.

 

I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how to respond to the Anthropocene–it might seem like a small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is a piece we have a lot of direct control over. For these populations of plants, communities, and ecosystems, making ethical choices, reducing our demand, and practicing people care, earth care, and fair share may make all the difference.

 

Awakening of the Heart: Permaculture’s Ethic of Care September 11, 2016

Love the earth

Love the earth

As I write this, a brave group of Native Americans are standing in support of the earth and protesting yet another oil pipeline that threatens water supplies, health, and home. Here, we see the clash between those defending their mother in care and compassion, and those representing profit and pillage. It is in the care for our lands the tribes take a stand; it the understanding of sacred connection of all things, all life, that helps them brave the dogs, pepper spray, the intimidation and much worse abuses. In some ways, the situation unfolding in North Dakota is a representation of similar circumstances that peoples and communities find themselves all over the world facing: fighting giant corporations who seek to pillage and profit while paying little attention to the human and environmental costs involved in their actions. I believe that many of today’s problems stem from a lack of care, compassion, and connection for ourselves, for others, for the living earth and all of her inhabitants. And since care, itself, is at the heart of permauclture design, it is fitting that the second post in my “permaculture for druids” series be about just that: care and connection.  (For earlier posts in this series, see the following: Permaculture as a Spiritual Practice; Permaculture Design Site, and Sankofa).

 

A Deadening of the Mind and Heart

Industrialized cultures seem to have lost our ability, on an individual, community, and societal level, to care and be compassionate—towards other people, the land, the animals, the insects, the plants, even towards themselves. Joanna Macy in Coming Back to Life suggests that the greatest issue preventing general movement toward a life-sustaining society is in the deadening of the mind and the heart.  It is an “apathy” (literally, non-suffering) or inability or refusal to feel.

 

When we look at conversations and actions driving much political change and laws being enacted in the early 21st century, care is an essential quality missing. In part, it is the lack of care and compassion that can drive ordinary citizens to oppose feeding hungry children in the name of tax cuts (which I witnessed firsthand when living in Michigan); it is the lack of care and compassion that can allow public lands to be sold off to the highest bidder and fracked for natural gas while others turn a blind eye; and it is the lack of care and compassion that make people keep buying products even though they know those products are being made at the extreme expense of others. I have witnessed this many times living in Western Pennsylvania—the economic issues overshadow all others. And so, our lands are fracked, the waterways poisoned with acid mine runoff, the people drinking the radioactive water—and the economics of it all are the only thing that people point to or are concerned about. I’m certain that readers throughout the world could share their own examples here–because they are everywhere right now.

 

I think this “deadening” of the mind and heart manifests as a a numbness, or disconnection, a deadness of spirit. Its like our brains are constantly overloaded, in a matter of speaking, and our hearts are continually silent. It is inserted into us at an early age with the removal of play, nature, and creativity from schools; it is connected to ingrained and automatic actions and cycles of consumerism that we are quickly socialized into being part of. It comes from the “disenchanted” world we live in, where edges are harsh and experiences are cold.  It also comes from the increasingly difficult realities so many face: people barely scraping by, working three jobs, trying to put food on the table and take care of their families in increasingly uncertain times, not having health care, not having steady transportation, living in places without stable heat, and so on.  It comes from the inundation of various screens sharing calamity after woe after calamity.  Its this monstrious pile that makes people “turn off” cause it is easier than trying to feel your way through it.  And so, we stop caring. It hurts to much.  We close our eyes, allow it all to flow from us, and go about our lives, burying ourselves in work, stuff, screens, drugs/alcohol, whatever.

 

Or if we don’t, its not necessarily any better. Even for those who do care deeply, compassion fatigue is a common problem. Those living in industrialized cultures are constantly bombarded with demands for time or resources—people grow numb to the amount of need and end up shutting down. I believe part of this has to do with the fact that we don’t have a cultural understanding of care; that we aren’t in an environment that encourages or facilitates care of any kind, and the current environment burns us out.

 

So, what can we do?  I think it is a matter, for me, of understanding care and seeing it in a new way.  Its about not just feeling, but directing that energy that we have, those deep emotions, into ways that help change the things that cause the world, life, humans, and ourselves harm.  If we can productively direct our own efforts and feelings, then our deep, open hearts become a source of tremendous strength and passion rather than something that just hurts.

 

This is where the concept of permaculture comes in, and why permauclture is ultimately rooted in the ethic of care.  I think that the synthesis of permaculture as a practice for living and druidry as a practice for inhabiting give a nice balance to help us feel deeply while avoiding the burnout and deadness that can otherwise consume us.  So now, let’s take a look at the ethic of care as a whole, and where we might head with it.

 

Connecting humans and land in harmony!

Connecting humans and land in harmony!

An Awakening of Heart

In the deadness of the heart we find the roots of so many problems of industrial culture. It is in the reawakening of heart spaces that helps us live lives that are regenerative and nurturing. We start waking up, reconnecting, finding the paths back to our own souls and to the living earth, our mother.  Its often a slow process, a gradual one, and the ethics of care can help us arrive there, and understand our journey.

 

The herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner is one of many recent authors to point out the disconnection in our modern culture between the mind and the heart. In his Sacred Plant Medicine, he discusses the challenges with modern industrialized society in that we always “live in our heads” which allows cutting logic to dominate and decisions to be made without feeling out their consequences (as it is different to understand a situation rationally vs. feel a situation firsthand). Our education system encourages this rational thought at the expense of all feeling, so by the time we make our way out of formal education, there isn’t always a lot left of the heart. Further, the traditional symbolism in the tarot associated with “heady” actions and the mind is the suit of swords that cut all in their path. So much of our cultural value systems place emphasis on economics, on personal gain, on possessiveness, and on profit—all of which reside in the head. As Buhner describes, Native American indigenous cultures believed one’s consciousness resided in the heart and care and compassion, especially towards the living earth and one’s community, were critical values. It is in returning to a heart-centered space that we can begin to understand, more fully, the ethic of care and why it is so central to permaculture as a living practice and design system.

 

The practice of permauclture is, ultimately, rooted in an ethic of care. It is from care and connection to things that are not ourselves that interest in regenerating ecosystems and living gently. It is from regenerating ecosystems, communities, and much more that we can work to develop our sacred connection with the land.  It is in living from the heart, and being present in the world, from the heart, that this work is most effective.

 

You see, from this discussion, that the drive towards a practice of permauclture is likely not much different, for many of us, than finding the path into druidry.  Both stem from an awakening and inhabiting of the heart.

 

A Heart-Centered Life: Four Ethics for Permaculture Design

And so, we come now to the four ethics for permaculture design–all rooted in care and an open heartspace. These ethics are the foundation upon everything else in permaculture is based–without them, the permaculture as a system has no heart and no spirit. The ethics of permaculture are like the glue that binds everything else together.  The ethics are as follows:

 

Regeneration in the forest

Regeneration in the forest, on her own time, and by her own methods

Earth care: Caring for the earth, in all her forms.  This means that we honor the earth through our actions and work to regenerate her damaged places, protect her wild places, and live our lives in a way that treads lightly upon her. Our goal, with this ethic, is to heal more than harm and recognize that we can be a force of good in our lands!  Earth care is as much a spiritual practice as it is a physical one—and I would argue that they are one in the same—when we care for the earth, that we hold sacred, it is spiritual work. I think when we first get into nature-based spiritual paths, we tend to think that “spiritual work” in meditation, ritual, magic—but earth care is as much a part of that spiritual practice as is a ritual, and learning how to integrate these are keys for sacred action.

 

People care: Caring for people, in all their forms. A critical link exists between earth care and people care. If people don’t have their basic needs met, they will often strip them bare in order to survive out of desperation—or allow it to be stripped in the perception of economic gains. Poverty, further, leads to disempowerment and lack of agency over one’s lands, livelihoods, and more. And so, if we are going to care for the earth, we must also recognize that our basic needs, as humans, need to also be met.  This isn’t selfishness–it is life.  But people care goes well beyond the basic needs: Maslow’s hierarchy is useful here.  We have basic needs  like food, clothing, shelter, warmth, fresh water, clean air, security of body.  Up the hierarhy we have belonging, community, expression, and more.  All of these things are part of what people need–and people care considers all of them. The earth has more than enough to provide for us, if only we let her!

 

Fair share: Taking only what we need and redistributing any surplus. Fair share is the basic idea that we should only take our “fair share” so that others can also live comfortably and fulfilled (and by “others” I mean all others, not just other humans).  Taking too much is one of the big problems we have, with the accumulation of wealth and stuff. This is a tremendously challenging principle in a world that has difficulty separating “wants” from “needs” and where excess is expected and commonplace. And yet, if we lived by this principle, we certainly can make an enormous positive change in our world!  Fair share applies to every aspect of life–from herbalism and foraging to eating a reasonable amount of food to minding how much stuff we bring into our lives.  To live more simply and richly so that others also may live.

 

Self care:  A final ethic is self care, or the care one needs for oneself in order to engage in the care of people and earth. Ethical self care realizes that we can’t engage in any other kind of care if we, ourselves, are not taken care of first.  Otherwise, we burn out and cannot shine brightly in the world where our light is needed. Nature spirituality is a path that allows us much in the way of self care, as I’ve written about several times recently, including in Permaculture’s Ethic of Self Care as a Spiritual Practice, the Druid Retreat series, and the Spiritual Practices in finding Equilibrium through the Chaos.

 

Now this is just a brief introduction to the ethics of permaculture–we will see, as I continue this series of posts–how these practices are woven into the principles and actions of permaculture.

Permaculture Ethics for Spiritual Practice

Many ancient and modern spiritual movements have a set of ethics or morals attached to them—however, due to the newness of modern earth-based spiritual traditions, the fragmentary nature in which they were developed and evolved, not all of our current traditions do have an explicit ethical system, although ethical systems are certainly implicit. In druidry, perhaps it is best summed up as “nature is good, therefore, nature is good.” Useful, simple, but from my perspective, not enough to live by. To supplement the simple druid adage, I have found that the permaculture ethical system forms a perfect system of ethics for both my outer work as a human being living in these times and the inner path of druidry.

 

The ethics are simple enough to learn and remember, and yet profound in their wide-ranging applications. If I walked through life with only these ethics, I would still have a compass, a guide, from everyday living to the big choices! If the goal of an ethical system is to give us some idea of how to live, act, and be, the permaculture ethical system certainly fits. But more than that, these outer truths are also represented on the inner realms. It is the interplay between these ethics, the of druidry, and the principles of permauclture that form a beautiful synthesis of ethical, caring, and meaningful everyday living. I don’t know if these would fit everyone’s path, but I have found them to be incredibly helpful for my own, as I grow and learn and find my way forward.

 

Permaculture’s Ethic of Self Care as a Spiritual Practice November 15, 2015

Permaculture Stars - Painting done on Lughnassadh, 2015 after returning from my PDC!

Permaculture Stars – Painting done on Lughnassadh, 2015 after returning from my PDC!

I’ve already talked on this blog some time ago about the three permaculture ethical principles–these are simple ethical principles that allow us to live life in a way that is fair, equitable, and sustaining to all life. I use these ethical principles as “mantras” to live by and they are deeply woven into my druid practice.  I have them hanging in my house, as small reminders, each day.  As a review, the principles are people care (caring for others of our own species); earth care (caring or all life) and fair share (ensuring that you only take your fair share and that all life has theirs too). Today, I want to talk about the fourth ethical principle–self care and show how principles from druid practice can help us engage in better self care.  I do so by describing three self-care strategies rooted in druidic practices: the bardic arts, sitting quietly with plants, and celebrating the wheel of the year.

 

The Challenge and Dominant Narratives of Self Care

We have a really contradictory culture when it comes to self-care–on one hand, we are supposed to “treat” and “indulge” ourselves and take what we need while, on the other hand, we are admonished for being “selfish.” On top of this, there is the glorification of busyness and work that pervades most of our culture: if you are taking regular rest, this is seen as somehow bad. I’ve seen this a lot in my academic career–I’m supposed to be wedded to it, working nights, days, and weekends and not really doing anything else. I manage my time and commitments carefully so that I don’t have to do this–but keep it quiet because others would look down on me and I’d get harassed. Finally, there’s this idea that in order to get rest and relaxation, we must get “away” from our lives and go on vacation.  Why do we need a vacation from our lives? Can we instead work to take better are of ourselves in each moment?

 

Self care, like many other aspects of our culture, has been co-opted by mass consumption. Now the narratives suggest in order to care for yourself, you must do so by consuming X product or service–bath salts, a day at the spa, drinking a designer tea, buying yourself a nice dress, and other ways you “treat yourself.” After all, a corporation doesn’t’ care one bit about you–only the stream of economic resources from yourself to them. I’d suggest resisting corporate narratives of self-care and instead listen inward.  We can have self-care that is nurturing to ourselves and to other life and not consumptive.

 

Ethical self care, within the context of the permaculture ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share encourages us to think about how our actions care for the earth and not take too much. Ethical self care realizes that we can’t engage in any other kind of care if we, ourselves, are not taken care of first. Nature spirituality and druidry is a path that allows us much in the way of self-care, if only we don’t get in our own way.

 

Create and engage in the bardic arts

The Telluric Current (Painting from the Fall Equinox, 2015)

The Telluric Current (Painting from the Fall Equinox, 2015).  This is about my 3000th tree–they didn’t start by looking this good!  This is also my “new” card in the upcoming re-release of the 3rd edition of the Tarot of Trees!

The more that you identify as a consumer and fill your life with goods, TV, and the like, the less time you have to express your own creative gifts.  And for many people, finding an outlet for their own gifts, can cultivating them, is one of the greatest ways of feeling fulfilled and happy.  In fact, one of the great gifts of the druid path, I believe, is the emphasis on the bardic arts, the creation of bardic circles that encourage people’s creative gifts and in entertaining ourselves, and the encouragement of individual bardic study in the various arts.

 

So one key way of caring for yourself is by making space, time, and allowing yourself a creative outlet: music, poetry, painting, novel writing, sculpture, singing, storytelling, woodcarving, basket weaving, printmaking, book binding, whatever it is–any of these arts and crafts of any sort are things you do for yourself, often with yourself. It might be that the only person who reads what you write, or hears what you sing, is yourself–and that’s ok. You don’t have to produce masterpieces–if it relaxes you, it doesn’t’ matter what it looks or sounds like.

 

I’ve met a lot of people who want to be creative, but they have imposed their own rigid blocks. We disallow ourselves, disempower ourselves, and talk ourselves into believing that that’s ok not to create. But look at small children–every one of them has a drive to create–and we were once those children. For own long-term self care, it really isn’t healthy to keep blocked up and stagnant. I’ve met poets who haven’t composed poetry in years for fear nothing will be good enough; singers who no longer sing; writers who talk about their books they have planned but never write a word. I was like this too, once, before I had a radical shift in my life and became a druid. For me, the issue was the connection I had between my artwork and poverty. My family didn’t have much money growing up, and my parents were both graphic designers and artists–I was afraid that if I got too deeply into my own art (especially when I was an undergrad in college) I would want to do it all the time and somehow fail at life.  I semi-consciously associated art with poverty and blocked myself from doing it.  When I finally allowed myself to do it, and use it as a healing process, the artwork flowed from me.  After 10 years of art (especially painting trees), I’m pretty good these days.

 

This leads me to the second thing that often blocks us up creatively: the idea that inborn talent is all that matters.  We have this narrative in our culture that suggests we are “gifted” at things and do them well or we shouldn’t do them–but this can’t be further from the truth. Maybe you don’t have the best voice, or you can’t yet draw anything decently, or have difficulty with simple whittling.  But you know what? All of the bardic arts are about sustained practice and skill–not about innate, raw talent. I speak not only from experience, but expertise on this subject (I’m a learning researcher.) In fact, what makes us really good at something and what allows us develop expertise quickly is by sustained challenges and by pushing our skills into new directions (not doing the same comfortable thing over and over again).  You can’t get better at something if you don’t begin and don’t work at it.  Its the challenge, and the ability to rise to the challenge and push our skills from wherever they may be, that makes us grow creatively.

 

 

The third thing that prevents us from our bardic arts is just life getting in the way. This happens to so many of us–we have too much to do, family obligations, work obligations, and things that pile up and up and up.  But again, regardless of the circumstance, we have make the time for the things we love.  I like to schedule it in, just like everything else, that creative time has a place.

 

The Land Loves You (Lughnassadh, 2015)

The Land Loves You (Lughnassadh, 2015)

Take quiet moments with plants

Another basic self care strategy is simply to find some quiet moments–even for 5 minutes–where you sit with plants.  What we have happening now in our culture is that everyone is in a frenzy and in a near-constant sympathetic nervous system state where we are in “fight or flight” mode rather than “rest and digest” mode.  Running from here to there, driving and traffic, horrific world events being broadcast into our homes 24/7, answering emails, disagreements at the office, screaming toddlers, even watching TV requires us to always be “on” and present–our bodies physically can’t take it.

 

Taking quiet moments, with plants, helps us in two ways–it rebuilds the ancient bonds between humans and nature and it helps us slow down and breathe deeply.

 

A quiet moment with a plant ally might be a steaming cup of herbal tea on your porch, looking at the sunrise. It might be sitting by a quiet stream, sitting under a tree, even sitting quietly with a houseplant. The specific situation is really not important–the important thing is that you take the time to do it. I like to take my quiet moments with plants in my gardens–sometimes I’ll take a blanket and just lay among my vegetables, or, take a blanket and lay in a park, looking up at the trees.  Take a sleeping bag out on a cool night and lay under the stars.  Sit with the grass that grows up in the crack in the pavement. Whatever it is, its worth doing.

 

Sacred Days as Days of Rest and Rejuvenation

One of my personal self-care strategies since I became a druid has involved the druid wheel of the year. I arrange to have a day or part of a day, somewhere as close to the holiday as possible, entirely to myself.  It might mean that I go somewhere, or might I stay home, but the important thing is that this is a sacred day. These are the cornerstone of my own long-term self care strategy. Its on these days that I dedicate time to my bardic arts (panflute playing, writing, and various kinds of artwork), I spend time doing ritual and meditation, I spend time in nature, I do all the things that fulfill me and quiet me and make me whole. I turn of electronic devices on these days–they are simply days for me to be with me, not my computer or phone or anything else. Its been very hard over the years to take these days between work obligations, relationships, family issues, school, etc, but its something that I work to do– to ensure that at least 8 days a year, I manage it.  Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but more often than not, it does.

 

There are lots of other self-care strategies, but these three, rooted in druidic practice, have gotten me far.  Does anyone have any they’d like to add to the list?  New things to try for self-care?  Please share!

 

The Druid’s Prayer for Peace: Shifting from Exploitation to Nurturing as a Spiritual Practice November 10, 2015

Working with the land, in harmony and peace

Working with the land, in harmony and peace

One of the things I’m hoping to do on this blog, in addition to my usual “how to” posts, permaculture, and tree work, is give us a set of working tools and philosophical lenses through which to see and interact in the world.  Today’s post does just this–explores two concepts underlying much of industrial civilization and various reactions to it, and does so with a distinctly druidic lens.

 

In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Wendell Berry discusses two approaches to living and inhabiting the world–the practice of exploitation and the practice of nurturing. Berry wrote The Unsettling of America in the 1970’s as a small family farmer’s response to the rise of “Big Ag” and industrialized food systems. The book was truly visionary, and, if read today in 2015, rings even more true than it did in the 1970’s. Berry argues that exploitation and nurturing are are two terms that can describe mindsets and actions in our present industrial society.

 

I find these two concepts particularly useful to help tease out the idea of everyday sacred action through earth-based spiritual practice.  If our goal is to develop a deeper relationship with the land and enact that relationship in every aspect of our lives, then these concepts are useful as a baseline set of principles. So let’s take a look at both of them and their implications for earth-based spiritual practice and sustainable, regenerative living.

 

Nurturing

The nurturer is one whose livelihood, goals, and interactions are as much about healing and care as they are about getting the job done. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, the nurturer is concerned with the long term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. She asks: “what is the carrying capacity of the land? What can be grown and how can it be tended in ways that will allow it to endure?” Berry writes that the nurturer is also concerned with health–not just of her family and their immediate land–but of the broader community and world. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned as much with efficiency or profit as with working “as well as possible” and who is concerned with care, health, and quality.

 

Now of course, nurturing can go far beyond just farming or working the land–nurturing can be woven into every aspect of our lives. Permaculture design’s ethical system, as described above, includes people care, earth care, fair share, and self care. Caring for others well-being and health is one way to be a nurturer, and for some, that’s a much more obvious and concrete kind of care. But earth care, which is what I primarily focus on on this blog and in my daily living, is certainly another–and the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.

 

Making chocolate the traditional way in Costa Rica

Making chocolate the traditional way in Costa Rica

In the same way that clothing, food, or anything else can be created in a system that exploits people and the land and takes more than its fair share (see below), it can also be crated in a system that has the ethic of care.  As a great example of this, I visited a chocolate farm in Costa Rica during my trip last year where nurturing (and educating others about that nurturing) was a key focus. This farm had taken waste land, built up a healthy ecosystem, and grew their chocolate in a way that cared for earth and people.

 

 

I think we see these same ethics of care present at nearly every farmer’s market around the country–the idea of growing better food, making better products that people need, and giving people alternatives that aren’t set in a system of exploitation.  We can produce food, clothing, shelter, whatever we need in different ways.  Not all ways are created equal, and not all ways have to exploit the land and its inhabitants in order to make a profit or serve us.  Its not an ethic we think about, but its an ethic with great potential. A lot of what I’ve been posting about in this blog since the beginning focuses on nurturing–not just establishing relationships but taking steps to actively nurture the land as part of spiritual practice.

 

So now that we know how good things CAN be, lets look at the reality of how things are, in many cases.

 

Exploitation

Berry describes exploitation in a general sense, but I’ve found that breaking exploitation into two categories greatly helps parse out these concepts for earth based spiritual practice.

 

Active Exploitation. Exploiters, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner, abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits (using words like “efficiency” or “cost savings”; the exploiter often uses quantification and hard data to measure his goals). Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land: when we think about how workers (especially those in minimum wage jobs) are treated, how animals are treated–the entire mentality and conversation is in the language of exploitation. If you can stomach American politics, look at the language of the debates–they are all framed in terms of economics (America’s current “sacred cow”) and in terms of the “bottom line.” The language of current economics and of politics is not the language of care or nurturing, it is the language of exploitation. This kind of thinking allows children to go hungry, the land to be stripped and poison pumped deep into the earth, and people to close their hearts and minds to others.

 

We can see this exploiter mentality in so much of the United States history–and in most of Western Civilization long before the US was even founded. Here, in PA, exploitation appears in every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry. These actions are concerned with only one thing–the bottom line, the profit, the question of how much can be extracted from the land and its people. I think that exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, in our society, in our norms, that its not even seen as exploitation. I have started to look for land here, and listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, mineral rights sold” and I see it as the previous owner getting every bit he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains. And this is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable.  One of the things I’m doing in this post is talking about these practices for what they are and giving them a name.

 

Passive Exploitation. Passive exploitation is when you are a participant and passive supporter without actually engaging in exploitation yourself.  In our society, that even if we aren’t making active exploitative decisions or the one at the chainsaw, we are still participating in passive exploitation of someone or something, very infrequently with our knowledge. This is where the lines get a bit grayer, but make no mistake–when you purchase a product, you purchase everything that goes along with that product.

 

ustainably raised Cacao for Chocolate Making in Costa Rica

Sustainably raised Cacao for Chocolate Making in Costa Rica

So, let’s look at a few examples. Let’s go back to my example of chocolate. Many mainstream companies that make that chocolate (Hershey, M&M/Mars, Godiva, etc) are exploiting child slaves in order to produce it. Imagine trying to offer that chocolate as an offering (which I wouldn’t suggest); imagine taking that energy of suffering within you.

 

Another example is clothing. You need to wear clothes; you need decent clothes if you are going to keep a good job. But all along the way, exploitation is occurring: the store where workers, often at minimum wage rates are being exploited; the farmers that grew the cotton; the land that suffered pesticides and poison in the act of growing, processing, and dying it; the factory workers who turned that raw cotton into your fabric and then later, your shirt; the people who packaged that shirt and prepared it for shipment (I worked in such a factory once, so I can speak about this experience firsthand), the list goes on and on.

 

Unfortunately, purchasing anything at the typical store opens us up for potential passive support of larger exploitative systems. Exploiters exploit the exploited and the exploited in turn exploit others, and down the chain it goes. And yet, you have to live, you have to eat, you have to work, and thinking about all the exploitation that’s happening for profit, and on your behalf, is overwhelming–read on, friends, and we’ll see how to rectify these issues.

 

Ethics and Eliminating Exploitation

Active exploitation is a problem, yes, but its usually a fairly obvious one that any discerning person can spot, especially if you are attuned and aware to these concepts. Passive exploitation is an entirely different matter–it is designed to be hidden. Thanks to the Internet, fewer things stay hidden these days–its all a matter in looking in the right places and being aware of issues. Exploitation of either variety creates a particular kind of nasty energy; when we purchase a product or support a practice that is exploitative in nature, that energy enters our lives. Think about that mass produced chocolate–you are literally eating the suffering of child slaves if you eat that typical chocolate bar.

 

The questions I have, then, are these: can we live in a system designed and consciously engaged in exploitation at almost every level without ourselves also exploiting others? Are there degrees of exploitation? Does unknowingly participating in exploitation make it less evil? These are tough questions, questions that each of us has to wrestle with ethically.

 

My ethics come out of permaculture design, as mentioned above, and they are simple and direct: people care, earth care, and fair share. For me, ignorance is not bliss–I believe I have an ethical obligation of knowing where a product comes from and how it is produced. This leads me in three directions. First, my ethical system encourages me to avoid even passive exploitation as much as is humanly possible, and knowledge is power, so I keep myself educated, change my consumptive behavior (by reducing it), I endeavor to keep very well informed on the products that typically exploit people or degrade the land (food, clothing, and electronics, for starters) and make sure that if I need to buy something, I’m buying the best thing I can. This practice also involves being hesitant and mindful in my purchasing decisions—I try to avoid “quick” purchases and instead dwell on it, research it, and give it time. This work doesn’t happen overnight–as always, I recommend small, conscious, meaningful, and permanent shifts slowly over time. Take one product you typically buy, research it carefully, make better choices, and rinse and repeat.

 

A second direction I take in response to exploitation of either variety involves stuff like this post–working to educate others consciously and compassionately. A lot of people just don’t know about what they are buying, and if they did, they’d be horrified. But there is no use guilt tripping anyone–we are all living in a very difficult period of time. We do the best we can, and what I try to do is to open up good spaces for conversation and growth.

 

A third direction I am taking is in my immediate community. Communities, as groups, can also respond to this system and the power of a small but committed group is often much greater than the power of a single individual. One of the things I’ve been working toward in my new town over the last four or so months is starting a community owned food co-op–this will allow us, as a community, to have much better control over the products we buy and where they are sourced. Even if we aren’t successful in starting our co-op (I hope we will be), the conversations, group interaction, community education, and establishment of ethical principles is worth its weight in gold. We are meeting tomorrow night, and when I look at our set of principles, I am filled with hope and joy–they are nurturing principles that seek alternatives and a firmly democratic process.

 

Nurturing as a Lifestyle and Spiritual Ethic

Druid's Prayer for Peace Painting (original version)

Druid’s Prayer for Peace Painting (original version)

This is leading me towards suggesting that much of what we can do to live regeneratively and wholly is to think not just about what we do on a daily basis, but what we support–this isn’t a new idea of course, but its one that is still not very mainstream.

 

These two mindsets are not mutually exclusive; Berry argues that each of us the capacity for both mindsets and they are often conflict with one another, especially living in industrialized societies. In my various studies, both magical and rhetorical, I’ve been taught to stay away from binary thinking–binaries can lock us into false pathways, make it seem like only two options exist, when many more do. And while I don’t necessarily see this as a false binary, in the sense that you are either are a nurturer or an exploiter, I think that there are degrees of exploitation vs. nurturing based on each practice, or a continuum that we all sit upon. There’s also degrees of conscientiousness–I may do my best to be a nurturer and support nurturing products and practices (or cut out the consumption all together) but there are times when choices are limited, finances are limited, or other issues are present and I’m forced to buy or participate in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. Even if that’s the case, there are still things we can do, like writing letters, activism, and encouraging better ethical practices, raising awareness, sharing with others…there’s a lot you can do even if you are forced to purchase something you disagree with due to finances, lack of options, or otherwise.

 

At this point, even if you can’t make any physical changes, I do advocate for putting yourself in a nurturing mindset and beginning to see this as part of a spiritual ethic. The mind is an extremely powerful tool. Seeing ourselves as nurturers helps us be nurturers, even if those changes are slow.  It allows us to be in the right mindset to seize opportunity (like, say, my experiences with the food co-op). I’m not saying we can, or should, passively think this way forever, but its a very powerful start.

 

I also see the concept of the nurturer as one that is really accessible to many, and appealing to many, who follow earth-based spiritual paths. We want to help and heal, and a lot of us just aren’t sure how to start walking down that path. Given this, I’d like to conclude by thinking about the role of the nurturer with a specific modification to a prayer that many druids say–the Druid’s Prayer for Peace. This is a prayer developed by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD); members of the order, including myself, often say this prayer every day. But years ago, I decided that it wasn’t quite working for me because it didn’t fit the permaculture ethical system quite enough and it while it started to embrace the role of nurturer, it didn’t take it far enough. So I made some modifications. The original prayer goes like this:

Deep within the still center of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.

My modified version reminds me of importance of peace to all life and cultivating a nurturing mindset:

Deep within the still center of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of all life
May I radiate peace.

What I like about this simple everyday prayer, is that it reminds me that my spiritual path, Druidry, is a path of peace, of care, and of nurturing.