The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds July 7, 2019

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of land.  How the town had serious stormwater issues, and more vegetation could help slow the water from entering the stream as quickly. But how her neighbor, and the borough, refused to allow any deviance from the 6″ high law, and wouldn’t listen to any reason.  Yet, she was doing her best to not only heal this small patch of land, but do good for the larger ecosystems in our county.  In other words, my friend wasn’t just thinking about her small patch of land, but how that patch of land might be interconnected with other ecosystems and cycles more broadly–and how decisions she made there had impact beyond her.

 

The web of life

The web of life

The earth, on the largest level, is an interconnected system and web of life.  As we move further into climate change and ecological destruction, we are starting to see how true this really is: what people do in New York City can have a strong effect on the melting of glaciers in the North Pole and Greenland. What acid mine drainage pollution goes into a river in Western Pennsylvania makes its way to the Chesapeake River and the Gulf of Mexico. Indingenous peoples in the Pacific are being driven from their homes due to rising oceans from glacier meltwater on the poles. This concept—that earth is a whole and interconnected system—is critical for understanding land healing both locally but more globally as well. Today I want to talk about ecosystems and interconnectivity as critical concepts in relationship to land healing. Thinking in terms of systems, and ecosystems, is more challenging for us because these are often large scale and not localized. And yet, for doing good land healing work, its important to reflect upon these larger levels and understand the broader systems present.

 

This is a new post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices.  Last week’s post explored creating a healing grove for long-term land healing work. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing.

 

In today’s post, we’ll explore two interrelated ideas critical for land healing: ecosystems (and systems in general) and interconnectivity.  After exploring these concepts, I’ll share some things to consider from a physical land healing perspective.  Next week’s post will look at ecosystms and land healing from a ritualistic and awareness building perspective.

 

Ecosystems and Land Healing

On the broadest scale, Earth is made up of many smaller ecosystems.  An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms that are interconnected and depend on each other for life; ecosystems include both the biological community as well as the physical environment. Many different ecosystems exist; with several major types: forests, grasslands, desert, tundra, freshwater, and marine. These can be broken down into much more specific ecosystems based on the latitude, geology, soil composition, water composition, altitude, topography, and larger climate patterns.  Regardless of where you live on earth, you will live in one—or on the border of more than one–ecosystem. It’s useful to learn what your dominant ecosystem is where you live, so that you know what a healthy ecosystem looks like.

 

For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, we live in a forest-dominant ecosystem that has several different types.  In my region, it is either considered a “Northern Hardwood” forest, made up of Beech, Birch, Sugar Maple, Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine). Or, it is an “Oak-Hickory Forest” made up of Oak, Hickory, Tulip, Red Maple, and prior to the 20th century, American Chestnut.  Each of these ecosystems are carefully evolved: the species of plants, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects live in careful balance with each other and all are necessary for the broader functioning of an ecosystem.  If we remove just one species, particularly a keystone species (say, Eastern Hemlock through logging or American Eagle through pollution), its not just that species that suffers, but every other species in that ecosystem. (This information was freely available through my state extension office.  Anyone living in the US will have a state extension office, and they will offer many free publications and materials on these topics. Other countires often have similar offices focused on conservation and public education on natural resources. Field guides and other books on natural ecology may also be useful here.)

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

This interdependency is critical for understanding land healing: all life depends on other life for survival.  In many cases, that life has very specific needs.  A well known example is the monarch butterfly that needs various species of milkweed in order to survive: it has adapted to an abundance of milkweed, and now that milkweed is in short supply, its numbers are radically declining. Just like the monarch, all life has these needs.  Part of the reason “invasives” can be damaging (such as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid) is that they aren’t part of the ecosystem, and they do not have the check and balances that native species have to live in harmony with each other.  Thus, all life depends on other life, and healing one part of life (even energetically) can help heal other parts of life.

 

Understanding Interconnectivity

Ecosystems teach us a powerful lesson about interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is everywhere, but the enormity of how it functions ecologically is hard to wrap one’s head around.  I like to think of it in a few different ways to make it manageable. One is through the hydrologic cycle:  as I write this, I have a glass of spring water (from the spring on our property, which is our primary water source) that I am drinking.  Where did this glass of water come from?  From the ground and land surrounding my home.  But where was it before that?  Perhaps this water soaked in through the last few spring rains, and those had melted from a glacier and moved from the artic across the land.  In otherwords, these same molecules of water that I am drinking right now have been cycling through the earth for potentially billions of years.  Thus, how we heal–or harm–water in one place will cycle in many other places.  This is part of why I like to focus on water as a land healing practice: unlike earth, which remains stationary across the course of our lives, water moves and the water we heal or bless in one case can make a major impact across the globe.

 

Another managable way to think about this interconnectivity is within our own bodies, each a complex, interconnected system. If we engage in unhealthy behaviors (smoking cigarettes, eating poor food, being sedintary), our bodies as a system can handle that for a while.  At some point though, these poor choices will have done enough damage to our body’s system that they will be disasterous.  You don’t see the effects from one bacon cheeseburger and one lazy day on the couch.  But 30 years of bacon cheeseburgers and lazy days on the couch significantly harms the body’s whole system.

 

Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing

From an ecosystems and ecology perspective, humanity has been metaphorically eating bacon cheeseburgers for three meals a day and sitting on the couch for 30 years, and that long line of bad choices is coming due. The whole earth, as a whole system, is starting to break down. The need for healing is everywhere, it is so extreme, it is overwhelming at times.  We certainly can’t physically heal that whole ecosystem on our own, but we can understand it, and we can use the principle of interconnectivity for great effect.

 

As with all land healing, there are energetic ways of healing and there are physical ways of healing.  In the remainder of this post, I’m discussing physical land healing using these concepts.  In next week’s post, we’ll consider some ritual work and spiritual ways of working with these concepts.

 

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort: nectar and medicine

On the most basic level, when we think about physical land healing, thinking in a ecosystems approach is really helfpul  Thus, its not about individual plants but rather how to support an interconnected web of life.  One of the ways that I find helpful when I’m doing this kind of thinking is to use some terminology and categorization from permaculture design:

 

  • Dynamic accumulators: plants that enrich soil, by deep tap roots that bring nutrients up from the ground, possibly also from the air
  • Nitrogen fixers: plants that “fix” nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air.
    • Some examples: Most legumes and clovers.  More info on these can be found here.
  • Nectary plants: plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.
    • Some examples: St. John’s wort, goldenrod, apple trees.  Here is a more complete list.
  • Habitat and forage plants: those that provide other kinds of habitat (such as the milkweed for the monarch) or forage for wildlife.

When we are replanting a space, like a lawn, its useful to think about how these plants may work in conjunction with each other to form an interconnected web of life.  Not just that we are planting plants that may look good, but plants that can help serve different functions and work together.  This is how we start thinking on a larger (eco)systems level and considering the role of interconnectivity.  In addition to this, of course, there are many other considerations to supporting a healthy ecosystem: clean rainfall, removing pollution, supporting a healthy soil web of life, building soil fertility, and much more.  But these concepts, at least, help us start to think about the ecosystem as a system, rather than plants as individuals! In permaculture, we call these “guilds” where the goal isn’t just to, say, plant an apple tree, but plant a whole ecosystem that helps support that tree and all the life around it.

 

And you might be saying, but what about the animals, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on?  I would respond: if you plant it, they will come.  The whole idea of focusing on plants is that we are building habitat, food, shelter, and places for wildlife–and its that life that bring the other pieces of a more complete ecosystem.

 

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

As a simple example of how this can work in practice, we recently planted two apples and two pears in the back of our garden (on the northern side).  The garden is on a bit of a slope, so part of the role of these trees is to establish good root systems to help hold in the soil in addition to our swales.  But the other idea, here, is that we want to create an ecosystem as part of our garden and support the trees for us and for wildlife.  So rather than just planting apple trees, we did (or are planning to do) the following:

  • Wood chip inoculated mulch around base of the trees
  • Comfrey plants so we can “chop and drop” for extra nutrients; comfrey also functions as nectary plants for bees
  • A variety of nectary plants to support insect life and that are also medicinal in nature: St. johns wort, wood betony, lupine, red clover
  • Nitrogen fixing plants: red clover and lupine

Now, rather than having just some apple trees for good eats, we have a whole mini-ecosystem that supports us with food and medicine, brings good insect life to the garden, and supports life.

 

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the major take aways are these: earth as a whole is a single interconnected system, and as land healers, we can work with any part of that system energetically or physically and help offer healing.  We will always be working at a local level, within one or more ecosystems, but through doing so, because earth is all interconnected, we benefit all of the earth through our efforts.

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part II: Energetic Healing vs. Palliative Care February 20, 2016

In my post last week, I discussed the different ways that we might heal the land including physical land healing, healing human-land connections, and various forms of energetic healing. Today, I want to delve deeply into the  aspects of energetic land healing, and further probe the difference between energetic healing work and energetic palliative care. I think this distinction is critical for how to develop rituals and how to work with the energy of the land in various ways.

 

To do this, I’m going to share with you a few different kinds of sites in my immediate surroundings in Western PA and look at the circumstances under which these sites might be healed. In fact, I’m picking some of the worst sites I know of physically on my present landscape here in Western PA–I figure that if we can talk about land healing at the worst kinds of sites that I know of, we can do quite a bit with smaller sites with less damage.  So here we go, with a visit to the boney dump and fracking well!

 

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

Energetic Healing vs. Palliative Care

As I established last week, there are (at least) two different kinds of energetic work you can do on the land:

 

Energetic Land Healing  implies that you are raising some kind of positive energy to help enliven, awaken, and rejuvenate the land. One way to think about this energy is like giving someone who is has had an extended sickness some good chicken soup and herbs that are restorative and energizing in nature, and helping set them more firmly on their path towards healing. You may help someone who hasn’t walked in a while get up and take a few steps and encourage them in many ways. This energizes them, it enlivens them, and it allows them to more quickly heal from their illness. Energetic land healing functions in much the same way, with the goal being to raise positive energy for the land to help it regenerate physically and spiritually.

 

If you go to a place in desperate need of energetic healing, you’ll often feel a deadness there, a wrongness, either stagnation like nothing is moving, or other energetic problems.  It may be very closed off and skittish, like an abused animal, withdrawing and staying far away from any sign of new potential abuse.  I usually feel these feelings in the pit of my stomach.  Our English language lacks good terminology for how this feels, but its that heaviness and sadness you feel at a site that has been severely damaged and is struggling to heal, and doesn’t want humans to enact any more damage.  The longer the abuse has gone on, and the most serious the abuse, the more you’ll feel it using whatever spiritual senses you have (heck, even people not very attuned usually can feel it at strong sites). The site, as it regrows and heals, eventually resonates differently, feeling healthier and happier as the land can regrow around it. But you’ll also see the first signs of regrowth and life at these sites.  (Most of my experience in this area, by the way, is from logged forests and poisoned rivers returning to health–its possible that different kinds of sites would resonate differently than I’m describing here!)

 

Palliative care is a very different thing.  There are places on our physical landscape that do not need a jolt of healing energy–they need the opposite.  They need to be put to sleep, to be reduced in vibration and awareness, because the pain is just too great. Sites where active pain and suffering on behalf of the land, the animals, and anything else there are good examples: and as I’ll demonstrate in the latter part of this post, poisoned waterways and fracking sites are two of those sites.

 

Energetically, sites in need of palliative care often feel differently than those in need of energetic healing.  Usually, sites in need of palliative care feel like they are actively suffering.  They are awake through a horrific experience, and they actively suffer and mourn.  For example, once I was driving to a friend’s house on a new route and I was struck with this awful feeling–suffering, pain, misery, all through my stomach.  I had to pull over, and as I did, I got out of the car and climbed up on the ridge to see what lay beyond it.  There was an enormous strip mine that was stripping the land for gravel–hundreds of acres, horrible pools of chemically treated water.  It felt utterly horrible (nearly all of these kinds of mines do, I’ve found in the time since).  I uttered a short prayer for the land, promised to return, and went home and decided my next course of action (I didn’t feel prepared that day, and I had to meditate on what to do for the mine). This was a site not in need of energetic healing (as it was actively being destroyed) but palliative care.

 

Actively destroyed sites aren’t the only ones in need of palliative care, however. The most tragic, perhaps, are the sites that are fine at present, but are destined to be destroyed or stripped in the near future.  These are the hardest cases, in my opinion, because you are powerless to stop what is going to happen and the vibrant, living beings there are trapped and powerless–fear and mourning often radiates these sites. But here, you can do something, and that something is palliative care. You might think about a forest that is about to be logged or is in the process of being logged, but the loggers haven’t yet gotten to the area where you are at. The last thing you want to do is inject this space with healing energy and light–you want to put it to sleep, to soothe the wounds, to try to provide some energetic distance between the forest and the chainsaw. I’ve found myself in the position, many more times than I would have liked to experience. I shared suggestions for individual trees here, but I will add to those suggestions at the end of this article.

 

The key for energetic land healing vs. palliative care is in the nature of the damage, the nature of the healing, and the current situation of the site. To illustrate the finer points between them, let’s take a walk through Western Pennsylvania and see two critical situations that call for very different kinds of healing responses: the boney dump and the fracking well.

 

The Boney Dump: A Call for Physical and Energetic Healing

All through the landscape in Pennsylvania you can find what is known locally as a “boney dump” (they are also referred to as spoil tips, boney heaps, pit heaps, or gob piles in other parts of the world). They are common in areas where any kind of deep mining took place, and they basically represent everything that came out of the mine that wasn’t what was actually being mined. Because theses sites are near old mining operations, they may also have water ponds designed to collect some of the worst acid mine runoff (which pollutes local streams and makes them, in our neck of the woods, sulfurous and poisoned).

Boney Dump from Google Maps

Boney Dump with runoff pools (from Google Maps)

In the photo above is a really bad boney site, compliments of Google maps–it has various nasty colored ponds and pools full of various kinds of sediment they are trying to keep out of the waterways (which doesn’t usually work) along with the boney pile itself (which you can see in the bottom left of the image as well as in the bottom right–the areas that look like a pile of gravel with only a few trees or that look mostly bare). Most of the mines around here closed in the 1970’s or so, but some of these piles are much, much older than that. In 45+ years, they have not regrown in all of that time. After 1978, the US government required that companies “clean up” old mining sites with the passage of the Mine Reclamation Act. But a lot of these sites were there long before the cleanup act took place. And even for new sites, there is the letter of the law and the actuality of the law in practice. Let’s take a look at a site that was “regenerated” by the mining company. These are photos from the same site, just on the ground.

Runoff from a boney dump

The photo above shows a runoff area from a boney dump and some of those pools; poor management means that this is never regrown because it floods each year. Trees, plants, and so on can’t get enough traction to regrow. Of course, there is no soil at all on this site, so nothing can get traction even without the floods (see next photo).

Not much grows on a boney dump (this site has been "regenerated" by mining companies 30+ years ago, and still this is all that there is here!)

This is an area that doesn’t get flooded and is relatively flat, and yet, it still has not regrown either (this site was “regenerated” in the late 1970’s).  The site has no soil to speak of, and it lacks the biological diversity and scattered seeds to even begin to regrow soil.  They did plant some scrub grass, some red pine trees (see the trees in the background there), which barely make it on the soil.  Even the grass struggles to survive here, growing on straight rock.  Over fifty years, and still nothing is really growing.

 

So in terms of healing, we certainly have our work cut out for ourselves at these sites that span hundreds of acres and are dotted all over the landscape. I think its sad because when I was growing up, because these sites were all over the place, I never gave them much thought–its just how it was.  I think a lot of people feel that way–you don’t really talk about the sulfur creek or boney dump, you just kind of ignore them and avoid them.

 

And so part of the active healing work is simply acknowledging them and spending time with them, recognizing that these lands are in need of healing and of human touch.  However, given the enormity of these problems at these sites, if it weren’t for my druid path and permaculture design, I’d be at a complete loss as to what to do, and would probably cry for it and move on, or ignore it like the other locals. But no! We are going to do something to heal these damaged lands (and I feel a particular resonance with the old mine sites, given that so many of my own ancestors were miners). Around here they are abundant and take up thousands of acres–driving 5-10 miles in any direction is likely to have you encountering one or more of them.

 

How would we classify this boney dump in terms of the healing work at hand?  We must classify it both in terms of its relationship with people at present as well as its ability to regenerate. The good news is that the people doing the damage got what they want and are, for the most part, long gone, and with the exception of the acid mine runoff (which is a problem being actively addressed by a number of municipalities in the area), these sites are pretty much left alone. The mines aren’t here any longer and most of this land is essentially a no-man’s land.  Because nobody visits these sites, these are places that nobody cares about. This means, to me, the boney dumps represent the exact kind of place where you can heal on the physical and the energetic levels and do so effectively.

 

I truthfully feel more confident, at present, in my energetic healing abilities for these sites and that’s where the bulk of my first set of efforts have been going. Due to the lack of life and extremely long-term suffering, and the stifling of nature’s own ability to heal, these sites have a kind of numbness and deadness. These are the feelings that comes from lands that have been stripped bare for centuries–there is hardly any stirring of the earth energies, what is known as the telluric, in these sites. I’ll share too that before these sites were mined, they were clear cut, as I discovered from old photos of many of the sites.

 

This means we are talking, likely, several centuries of damage on the part of humans. What these sites need, then, to help jump start the healing is the burst of energy that can help these lands energetically and later physically heal (going back to the as within, so without principle). Given this, these lands are prime targets for some of the energetic healing work discussed above: they won’t be damaged again, nobody bothers with them, they are many, they are remote and open, and they are in prime need of healing. I’ll explore some of the ways of doing this at the end of this post and in my next post.

 

On the matter of physical healing (also discussed in my last post),  I’ve only returned to PA six months ago, but I’ve already taken my first steps in working out a plan using permaculture design principles to help heal a small patch of one of these sites to see what techniques will be effective. This plan is in its infancy stages, and its is part of why I was so interested in seed balls and refugia! To start my work, I have been scattering seeds for plants that can help build soil if they are able to take root–I believe its the soil-less nature, combined with mostly black shale that heats up and cooks all summer long, makes the sites inhospitable to plant life and susceptible to terrible erosion.  The stuff that is on the surface shouldn’t be there, so the best thing I can work to do is to bury it again! This is a slow process, and I’ll report on the physical angle more after I’ve done more experimentation on the boney dump I’ve adopted for this purpose :). At this point, I don’t know if any of my physical healing methods will work, but I am going to keep trying.

 

The Fracking Well: Palliative Care

Most people these days are aware, at least in a theoretical sense, of the problem with fracking wells and fracking more generally on the landscape.  But seeing these wells firsthand, feeling the horribleness of the energies that surround them, is an entirely different thing. Its like something goes heavy and cold in the pit of your stomach; they have a very toxic, burdened energy.  Many of the wells that have been there for a long time have literally an unsettling deadness that creeps into your bones the longer you stand near them.  But also at the site of the well, so much suffering is taking place–suffering, mourning, and sadness from the life that is stuck near the well.  You can feel that suffering, actively, in the plants and land directly around the well.

 

The active gas fracking well, as well as conventional gas well, is a site of damage to the land, to the waters, to the air, to wildlife, to the human populations–everyone and everything around these wells suffer.  People who are working near them are poisoned. The surface of the land is stripped to put in the well, disrupting the ecosystem. Gas companies spray around the well several times each year to keep the grass down.  They visit the wells frequently, “maintaining” the site, tearing up the land with their trucks and leaving, sometimes, pools of oil near the wells just exposed to the air.  They have huge tanks of water that have poison signs on them that make the air all around the well stink and smell really foul.  The waters beneath the land are poisoned and that poisoning creeps into waterways and into people’s drinking water.  The physical land beneath the site is poisoned. They are all over the place around here–I even found a number of different kinds of wells all through the Allegheny national forest, a site supposed to be “preserved” and instead is being actively desecrated:

View from Google Maps of active oil exploitation in the Allegheny National Forest in North-Eastern PA

View from Google Maps of active oil exploitation in the Allegheny National Forest in North-Eastern PA

Below is a photo of a conventional gas well (still very bad, but not as bad as fracking) on public land near where I live. This area was once all forest, now cleared and mowed to allow for the drilling equipment and the gas pipelines.

 

If you are wondering how this is possible, how so many of these wells of any kind are on public land, the answer is a bit complex and the reasons multiple.  But one of the big reasons has a lot to do with who owns the “mineral rights.” Many mineral rights here in PA are often disconnected from “surface rights” so companies who own the mineral rights have the right to get at them, destroying the surface in the process. There’s a lot of fossil fuel under the ground in the Marcellus shale, and people can make a quick buck by keeping their land and selling the mineral rights to the gas or mining companies: and that’s exactly what’s been happening here for over 100 years. (Its pretty much the equivalent of the water rights issue in the Western USA).

Example of cleared land around active well

Example of cleared land around active well

There are so many of these active fracking wells in Pennsylvania, and because of the active and ongoing damage, there isn’t a lot that you can do at these sites beyond palliative care. Physical land refrigeration, obviously, is not appropriate. But energetic land healing isn’t incorporate either. These are sites that are actively being harmed, over and over again. The pain and suffering is compounded through the systematic poisoning of the land, the water system, the plant and animal life, the human life, and the telluric currents (energies of the earth). And, the full long-term implications are as of yet unknown, and likely won’t be known, for several generations. Physical and energetic healing work will be left for our children, and our children’s children, and generations not yet born.

 

Given all this, palliative care is extraordinarily effective for these sites. For one, palliative care can do a number of things that energetic healing cannot, namely: helping to contain damage (sealing energetically), helping to preserve memories and resonances in the land, helping mitigate suffering on every level, putting the land “to sleep”, clearing some of the worst of the negativity. And, in doing this work, you can witness.

 

This wraps up my discussion of boney dumps and fracking wells and their relationship to energetic land healing.  I’m glad these sites have been used to serve at least a little good, in the sense that they helped convey a critical point on our journey of land healing–which will continue across the next few posts.