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.

 

Permaculture: Design by Nature and the Magic of Intentionality September 25, 2016

I’m sure each one of us have had times where we hadn’t through though something, the thing happened, and it took a direction we hadn’t intended it to take. A little bit of forethought could have made all the difference, perhaps turned a failure into a success. My early attempts at gardening were like this–I didn’t have a plan, I put seeds in the ground without knowing how tall or wide the plants got, and then they came up and things went wild quite quickly!  Sometimes, serendipity took over and I had great successes, if I could manage to weave my way through the thicket of tangles to the harvest. Other times, my plants were crowded out or strangled by each other or my harvest only lasted for a short time. What I learned, through permaculture and organic farming courses was this: a well thought out plan maximizes your yields, minimizes your time, and creates beautiful spaces. I started creating plans, working with nature, and suddenly, my gardens greatly improved!

 

Patterns of nature in a thistle!

Patterns of nature in a thistle!

When people talk about permaculture, they talk about it as a “design system.” One of the definitions of permaculture I work with goes like this: “Permaculture is a design system, rooted in patterns of nature, that helps humans restore and regenerate ecosystems while providing for their own needs.” What does it mean to be a designer? What do we do when we “design?” Why do we care so much about design? And how can design”in a permaculture sense be woven into our other spiritual practices? In this post, we’ll explore the principles of design and  magic of intentionality as two of the cornerstones of the intersection between permaculture, and nature-based spiritual practice.

 

A lot of us feel really lost and confused with what’s going on in the world.  We feel very reactive rather than proactive.  We feel like we need to keep responding to things coming at us, rather than intentionally addressing, in advance, our own circumstances.  Things move so quickly, stuff happens, and we find ourselves always trying to keep our balance. Its the nature of things, you might even say, its by design–just not our own. As a culture, we focus on problems, not on responses to problems–we are always hearing and focusing on everything that is going wrong.

 

But, what if we could reverse those scales a bit, and begin by designing our own lives and designing our interactions with the world?  That’s essentially, what a big part of permaculture is about, and why we use the concept of design. The idea of design, of intentionally and thoughtfully planning in advance, can be of great service to all of us. Design gives us power, in the sense that it gives us a plan to address problems we see. If more of us were able to take the energy we invest in problems (reading about them, experiencing them firsthand, etc.) and turn that into designing responses and enacting change, our world would be a very different place!

 

Design and the Flow of Awen

There are a lot of fields and practices that use design in some way, and if we are going to dig into what permauclture design is and why its useful to us as druids and others on nature-centered paths, let’s start with a few definitions. Merriam Webster Dictionary suggests that to design is to:

  • to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully
  • to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose
  • to think of (something, such as a plan) : to plan (something) in your mind
  • to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan:
  • to assign in thought or intention; purpose:

From these definitions we get a few key pieces: design includes the practice of planning, in the mind or on paper, for some purpose.  Design is about goals–what we set in advance and bring into being. We use our minds, our creativity, our artistic skill, and the powers of observation to conceive of some kind of plan, which we can then execute and adapt as necessary. Part of this design work is, of course, setting intentions and following through with those intentions.

 

There’s also, implicit in these definitions of design, that design isn’t simply about planning ahead, but rather, that there is an art to the process.  Creativity, the flowing of awen, must be part of our designs. Designs in permaculture aren’t just simple plans, they are creative responses we can use to better adapt human needs to natural ones.  In this sense, it ties to the entire line of bardic arts–those of working with the hands, with the mind, with the flow of awen to design spaces, places, communities, and more.

Natural Building Inspired by Nature's Patterns and Designs

This flow of awen comes, in permaculture, and in druidry, from the living earth herself.  Patterns in nature teach us patterns we can replicate in our more well-tended spaces.  Principles in nature teach us principles we can encact in our homes and lives.  Nature, then, is the ultimate designer and teacher: all that we can hope to do, and do well, is replicate her understandings.

 

Design and Magic of Intentionality

Further, in druid practice and other earth-centered spiritual practices, I think we can also tie design directly to the concept of intention in the magical sense of the word.  You often set “intentions” when you begin a ritual–the goals for the ritual, why we gather, why we open the space. Intentions help us direct activity and actions–these are things we want to accomplish. In magical work, we often leave the designs itself to the universe/spirits/diety/etc. We set intentions, raise energy, and send it out. But in permaculture, we take a more focused hand. Designs give us the plans that we need to move forward in collaboration and communion with the living earth.

 

I’m not saying that inteintionality and design are the same: they are not.  But I am saying that they are related acts, and come from the same place in the heart: the desire to accomplish good in the world, and to enact positive change.

 

Nature’s Designs

Nature's designs....

Nature’s designs….

The other side to permaculture, of course, is that it is a design system that replicates the many patterns and connections already present in the natural world. Whether you believe in higher hands guiding natural development or simply in evolutionary processes doesn’t really matter–what matters is that nature has an incredible wealth of information to teach us, patterns to show us, if only we are ready to see them.

In Permaculture Design, we use nature’s designs in at least two ways:

 

Conceptually, we design using principles and patterns in nature.  This means that we try to replicate the natural processes that already occur: designing with ecological succession in mind (I design for 100 years, not 1!), trapping and using existing energy flows, designing polycultures (groups of diverse plants) that support each other, and so on.  When we look to nature as our master designer, what we create is more effective.

 

Visually, we design using patterns in nature.  A leaf keyhole pattern in a garden means maximized space and beauty; a wave pattern is visually asthetic and offers many edges and margins; a spiral pattern replicates ancient truths.  We visually create designs rooted in nature and that replicate her patterns.

 

What are the Design Principles?

In the tradition of many hermits, one day in the early 1970’s, Bill Mollison got fed up with society, went into the forest, spent a lot of time observing and simple being present, found wisdom there, and came out with his first draft of the design principles. Of course, as I wrote about in an earlier post on this series, Mollison was giving a new treatment to ancient truths. The design principles are, in essence, those small lessons that nature has taught humanity over and over again, its quite and yet profound way.

 

I see them a lot like lights and markers along an otherwise dark path—we stumble in the dark, but the light of the principles helps guide our way. But to me, the design principles are more than just “design” principles—they are principles for living and being in the world. I use them from everything from themes for discursive meditation to mantras for daily living—here are three ways they can be used:

 

Wave Pattern in Garden

Wave Pattern in Garden

Good Decisions. First and foremost, the design principles help us make better, smarter decisions that are earth-centered and earth-honoring. When I’m deciding how to do anything, the principles are there, helping me guide my decision. For example: I’m faced with the prospect of a bunch of leftover food after an event on campus. The design principles offer some simple solutions through “produce no waste” or “waste is a resource.” How then, can I turn this waste into a resource? Take it home, compost it, feed it to a friend’s chickens, and so forth.

 

Good Design. Of course, beyond immediate life decisions, the design principles offer us much in the way of good design. I’ll be going into the principle of design more in an upcoming post, but in a nutshell, one definition of design is, “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object” (Dictionary.com). This is to say, if we use the design principles for good design, we can live our lives and create/inhabit our spaces with intention and forethought in an ethical, nature-centered way.

 

Meditation Mantras. The third way the design principles work (at least for me) is as mantras for meditation. Deep meditation and reflection upon the nature of the design principles can lead to a more robust understanding not only of how to use them in your life, but in interacting and understanding nature. For example, “use the edges and value the marginal” leads us to understand nature’s patterns but also my own spiritual practices.

 

Designing the Inner and Outer Realms

What I love so much about permaculture as a system of design is that it can be applied just about anywhere.  Just as the permaculture ethics (which I wrote about in the last post in this series, and in the distant past) can be applied to both inner and outer work, so too, can the entire permaculture design system be applied to both our inner and outer realms.

 

Here’s what I mean: one permaculture design principle, which we’ll talk more about next week is: observe, interact, and intuit. This principle is exceedingly useful in considering for our outer landscapes, in that we can observe through the seasons to come to an understanding about how to create beautiful and regenerative spaces. We can observe the flows of nature and energy, note the challenges before us, and pay attention to the changing light, heat, and flows to understand the best approach to developing and regenerating this particular piece of land.

 

Leaf Patterns

Leaf Patterns

But the same principle can be equally effective on the inner landscape: we can step back from ourselves and observe our feelings, our interactions, our inner realms–and this can be deeply useful in our own healing and growth as human beings.  In fact, each of the permaculture principles of design, which I’ll be talking about quite soon in my own druidic way, can function on the outer and the inner–both as a way to design outer functional landscapes of any kind (cities, communities, homes, gardens, farms, campuses, etc) but also work deeply within our inner landscapes.  This series will weave between those two aspects of permaculture as a practice and a system of design.

 

Conclusion

Design offers us a kind of compass and roadmap for the journey ahead.  It takes the guesswork out of things, and instead, helps us plan carefully and effectively before enacting those plans in a meaningful and ethical way.  Design connects directly to patterns in nature, allowing us to carefully understand and replicate those patterns in our own inner and outer landscapes. As simple as design  is as an idea, the actual practice of design takes a bit more work.  In our next post (next week) we’ll explore the design principles as they weave through the four elements and continue to spiral inwards into understanding the relationship of permaculture and druidry.
PS: After posting this, I learned that yesterday Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, passed from his earthly body.  I am delighted to be sharing some of his wisdom with you, and I want to take a moment to honor the work that he has done, and the movement he has created.