Tag Archives: physical land healing

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole 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 places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we 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 to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.

 

 

A Framework for Land Healing

Ginseng my family grew

American ginseng in our sanctuary

In the next few months, the forest that I grew up in is going be cut and torn up to put in a septic line.  A 40-60 feet path, at minimum, will rip a tear through the heart of it. This is the forest where I grew up, where my parents and I have created a refugia garden, a wildlife sanctuary, and native woodland plant sanctuary.  It is just heartbreaking to tend land carefully, only now, to have this awful thing happen that we have failed to stop. This is the forest that taught me so many of these lessons of land healing. The forest had just gotten to a point where it was once again vibrant, where the ramps started to creep back in, and the mature forest trees now stand, growing above the stumps that have rotted away. I feel powerless, knowing that despite getting a lawyer, writing letters, attending meetings, and banding together with neighbors, this septic line through the woods will go forward. As sorrowful as I am about this happening, I know that this happens everywhere, all the time, and this is exactly why land healing matters. This same situation is being repeated all over the globe as “right of ways” are used to cut through lands for oil pipelines and more. This is one of the many challenges of nature spirituality in the 21st century and one of many reasons to practice land healing.

 

In last week’s post, I offered many suggestions for why we might want to take up the work as a land healer as a spiritual practice.  In this week’s post, I’ll offer my revised framework for land healing.  I first wrote an earlier draft of this land healing framework on my blog a few years ago. I’m returning to it now as my own work with this has gone in some unexpected and interesting directions, and I am feeling the need to deepen and revisit it.

 

Land Healing: A Framework

Land healing work may mean different things to different people depending on life circumstances, resources, and where one feels led to engage. The following is a roadmap of the kinds of healing that can be done on different levels, a roadmap that I’ve developed through my own practices over my lifetime.  I recognize that healing can include multiple larger categories.  Some people may be drawn to only one or two categories, while others may be drawn to integrating multiple categories in their spiritual practice.  The important thing isn’t to try to do everything–the important thing is to start small, with something you can do and sustain over time, and build from there.

 

Physical Regeneration and Land Healing Practices

Physical regeneration refers to the actual physical tending and healing of the land on the material plane.  Most ecosystems we live in are degraded due to human activity and demand throughout the last few centuries.  One of the most empowering things you can do is to learn how to heal ecosystems directly, whatever environment you live in: urban, rural, or suburban. These practices are wide-ranging and include so many possibilities: creating community gardens, conservation activities, regenerative agriculture, restoring native plants, growing plants on your balcony for pollinators, converting lawns to gardens, scattering seeds, creating habitat, cleaning up rivers, putting in riparian zones, helping to shift land management practices of parks in your city, helping address stormwater issues, and much more. Thus, physical regeneration is work we do on the landscape to help the land heal and be restored to a functional and healthy ecosystem.

 

One of the things I want to stress here is that some form of this work is available to everyone–we are all rooted in a local place with the earth beneath our feet. But the specifics of this work will vary widely based on where you call home and what kinds of opportunities might be available. Thus, if you live in a city, your work will look very different than someone who lived in a rural area on land.

  • Building knowledge about ecosystems and what yours traditionally looked like and more broad systems theory so that you can know where and how to intervene
  • Learning and practicing permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other land tending techniques that are focused on regeneration and repair
  • Supporting and volunteering in organizations that are doing conservation and habitat restoration work (this is especially good for those without land or who live in cities)
  • Work with others in suburban and urban settings to develop sanctuaries for life (for good examples of this, I suggest the Inhabit film)
  • Develop refugia on land you have access to create a sanctuary for life
  • Develop wild tending practices for whatever settings you belong to (urban, suburban, and rural)

Physical healing of the land is also deeply healing for the soul.  As you bring life back, you bring those same healing energies deeply into your own life.

 

Metaphysical Land Healing Practices

In this framework, metaphysical healing work refers to any energy or ritual work on the etheric or astral planes focused on bringing in healing energy or removing suffering. There are several basic types of energetic healing you can do, depending on the state of the land.

 

Land Blessing Practices

The first layer of metaphysical work with the land are land blessings.  Ancient peoples engaged in many such blessing ceremonies to ensure the health and abundance of the landscape around them–both for the benefit of the land itself and for the survival of everyone who depended upon the fertility of the land. This is a form of energetic work that raises positive energy for the good of all.

 

Energetic Healing: Raising Energy to Help Heal the Land

Energetic healing is raising positive energy in some form to work to infuse the land with such energy for healing–this is bringing love and light into damaged places ready to heal (think about a forest after logging, a fire, a drought-stricken area that is now receiving rain, etc). Using the metaphor of a sick human can help put the differences between this and palliative care (below) in perspective. In this case, a sick person has recently undergone an illness but is now in the place to recover. This person might need a lot of visits, good medicine and healing food, and positive energy. This is the idea of energetic healing.  Energetic healing most often takes the form of rituals and ceremonies in the druid tradition, but those skilled in other kinds of energy healing like reiki may find that of use.

Listening to the plants

Land healing in all forms

 

Palliative Care: Encouraging Rest, Sleep and Distance

The opposite of energetic healing is palliative care–and much of our world right now needs this kind of support.  This is what I will be doing for our land that is getting cut to put in a permanent septic line. To return to our sick person metaphor, this is a person who has been engaged in a long illness with an ongoing disease or someone who is facing a terminal illness, and they are continuing to suffer. With palliative care, the best you can do is try to soothe the wounds, let them rest until the worst is over. Palliative care, however, should be used for places with ongoing destruction or for sites that will soon have serious damage. Thus, we use energy techniques in both cases, but in one case, the goal is alleviating suffering wherein the other case, the goal is active healing.  You don’t want to be raising a ton of energy in places where active damage is occurring or will soon occur.

  • Rituals that offer soothing, rest, or distance are particularly good for these kinds of cases.
  • Helping put the spirits of the land to sleep is a key skill in this area (I will share more about this in an upcoming post, haven’t yet gotten to writing this set of practices on my blog yet)

 

Witnessing, Holding Space, Honoring, and Apology

A specific subset of Palliative care is the work of witnessing, holding space, honoring and apology. Part of the larger challenge we face in today’s world is the collective ignorance and lack of willingness to pay attention to what is happening to the world, the ecosystems, the animals, ourselves. Thus, choosing to engage, and choosing to see and honor, is critical work–and really, some of the most important we can do. Being present, witnessing, holding space, offering an apology is work that each of us, regardless of where we are in our own spiritual practices and development, can offer. The much more advanced practices, such as psychopomp work, are also part of this category.

  • Suggestions for witnessing, holding space, and apology
  • Some of my recent writings on working with extinct species and rituals for extinction are in this category.
  • Psychopomp work, also, falls into this category, in that it is actively holding space and helping spirits of the land or of dying animals/trees/plants/life move on.
  • Acceptance of our own role in all of this as well is useful.  Joanna Macy’s work on Coming Back to Life and her many rituals I think in that book are really good tools for this category and the one below.

 

Healing Human-Land Connections and Fostering Interdependence

Prevention is the best medicine. Another consideration for land healing work is to “repair the divide” and help shift people’s mindsets into a deeper understanding of the interdependence of humans and nature. For generations, culturally, particularly in the west, humans have been moving further and further away from nature and deep connection and don’t see the land as having inherent value beyond any monetary (e.g what resources can I extract for profit). Many humans in the 21st century have almost no connection to the land, and thus, I believe, are not willing to step in to prevent further damage. Thus, part of land healing work can involve us building and healing human-land connections, but within ourselves and in our larger communities. A big part of this is reframing our relationship to nature and to our broader land, giving it inherent value.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

 

For this, I see at least two direct needs:  the first is making changes to our lives to be more in line with the carrying capacity of the earth and regenerative practices.  The second is to help repair human-land connections through working at the level of mindsets and developing new ways and paradigms for humans interacting with the world.

 

Some ideas in this direction:

 

Land Guardianship

If we are to put many of the above practices together, you might find yourself in a guardianship role.  That is, making a long-term commitment to adopting a piece of land, as a protector, healer, and warrior. Committing yourself to that land, working with the spirits of the land closely, and throughout your life.  I’ll be writing more about this in the coming months as a deeper practice.

 

Spiritual Self-care for Land Healers

A final piece, and one that is critical, involves our own self-care. Digging oneself into this work involves being faced with damaged ecosystems, places that you don’t want to see, statistics that you don’t want to read. It involves taking a hard look at our own behavior, the behavior of our ancestors, and engaging in self-critical reflection on “automatic behaviors” in our culture.  This all takes its toll. So a final consideration for land healing work is our own self care, and how we can connect with nature to form reciprocal healing relationships.

Some practices that help with self care include:

 

Integrating practices

Many of the above practices can be integrated and woven into a complete whole.  I’ve written some of the ways you can integrate, particularly through the Grove of Renewal practices.  I’ll be talking more about this kind of integration in future posts.

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

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

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.