The Druid's Garden

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

Lessons of the River: Nature Connection, Health, and Healing April 23, 2017

Sometimes, natural places call out to us, and we heed their call and journey within these wild places–often gaining profound insights along the way. For some time, I have been called to a particular creek. I would drive over a bridge as I was leaving town to visit my parents, and I watched the creek flow–its gentle water lapping at the shores, ducks swimming, stones and water babbling. I didn’t know the name of the creek, but I knew I wanted to connect with it. Then, one day after a storm last year, I saw some people kayaking on it when it was higher and a bit muddy.  Having just purchased my own kayak, I grew very excited and began asking people about the creek. Eventually, I learned where I might put my kayak in and where I might take it out, resulting in about a six mile paddling trip.

 

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

Truthfully, the whole journey was a bit of a leap of faith–I had talked to others who had been out on the creek sometime before, but it had been in prior years, and I knew conditions often change. I have a very good kayak that can handle just about anything and have taken some lessons and training to address emergencies, and this was known as a calm and quiet river. I packed some supplies and did a small ritual to protect the boat and off I went. This particular trip offered me several deep insights–but one I’d like to explore today is humans connecting to nature and land/river health (and I think this is a very appropriate post following up from last week exploring Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition).

 

The start of my journey was absolutely incredible–the water was pure, the scenery was beautiful. I could see evidence of many people’s interaction with the creek: in a quiet forest you could see benches lining the river, I saw several fishermen was fishing for trout, I saw bikers by the river taking a short break to enjoy the water, and even at one point, I passed a lovingly built small cabin the creek. I could tell from these signs that the river was well loved and appreciated by many in the area, even in some of its more hard-to-reach and secret places.

 

Miles passed in this serene way. I enjoyed my journey immensely and it allowed me to see so much life.  As I came closer to Homer City, which was the town where I had parked my car and was traveling to my “pull out” place, I turned a bend and saw this waterfall rushing into the creek. From a distance, it looked beautiful–I was excited to get up close. But as I started to get closer, something about that waterfall appeared very, very wrong. As I arrived near it, I realized that the waterfall was full of acid mine drainage (AMD), and it had bright yellows, oranges, and metallic spots all over the rocks and was pouring extremely acidic water (probably about a PH 2.5) into that creek.  Later investigation revealed that this particular stream–quite small–is coming out of a series of abandoned mines some 3 or so miles north with no AMD remediation.

 

AMD Waterfall - note the color of water change

AMD Waterfall – note the color of water change

Where the waterfall fell into the creek, the hue of the river changed–it grew cloudy and sickly pale yellow.  The waterfall left this cloudy trail in the water, a very distinct change from before. At first, only the edge of the river where the waterfall was running in was polluted, but as I went down the last mile of the creek, soon, it all took on that color.  Truthfully, as soon as I saw the waterfall and what was happening, I didn’t want to be on that river any longer–I racked my brain to see if I had a place I could pull out of the river early and call a friend to pick me up instead of paddling back to my car. But I decided to go ahead and finish my journey because there was clearly a lesson to see in all of this.

 

In fact, not so many years ago, this entire creek had once been filled with AMD. Acid mine drainage is a very serious issue anywhere where we’ve had coal mines. The earth’s blood and bones are torn up, and in the process, she bleeds, and that pain spills into our rivers. In this area, we have thousands and thousands of abandoned coal mines.  Most of these mines were put in prior to the laws of 1970 that required that mines clean themselves up, prevent runoff into streams, and replant the land. So we have a lot of problem mines that are from pre-1970 that are continually polluting the streams (in fact, this problem can go on for 1000’s of years–some mine runoff in Europe spans back to the time of the Romans!) Around here, due to the high acid content , AMD kills all of the life in and around streams.  The stream has a characteristic orange color, with all of the stones also turned orange and the water itself orange, cloudy, and toxic. In Pennsylvania alone, we have over 3000 miles of AMD-polluted creeks.  They are so prevalent in my area that when I was child, we had so many creeks and streams like that I thought that’s just how all waterways looked.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

What I didn’t know was that all of Two Lick Creek that I was paddling had similar problems at one time. However, local conservation efforts by several groups have made good headway in the northern part of the river. One a group called the Evergreen Conservancy has been working to clean up one site nearby–and their efforts show!  The other (where I put my kayak in) is the Waterworks Park, that offers an AMD remediation site and wetland. Without the signage indicating that AMD remediation was happening at the Waterworks Park, I would never have known that the northern part Two Lick Creek had ever had an AMD problem.  The creek banks were beautiful, the creek itself full of life and vibrant.  This speaks, among other things, to the power of humans to heal.

 

And so, I simply observed what the AMD waterfall was doing to Two Lick Creek.  The environmental effects were clear.  As I continued to float downstream, the rocks grew tainted and orange, the river grew cloudy and I could no longer see the bottom.  As the river flowed, the tainted water slowly worked its way into the creek–and entire water grew cloudy and the rocks took on an orangish hue.  It wasn’t a serious case of AMD (like my photo above, another creek that nobody interacts with).  Still, nobody was fishing here, that’s for sure.

 

However, the environmental effect wasn’t the most surprising thing on the river that day, instead it was the shift in human-nature interactions. As I floated past the AMD waterfall, I witnessed an invisible “line.”  North of the AMD waterfall, people interacted with the river. They had chairs out behind their houses by it, they had benches, they had little docks, they were out fishing and enjoying the river, and so on. However, after the AMD waterfall, people no longer wanted to be near the river, and they worked to distance themselves from it.  The difference was very striking. People put up fences and walls, dumped their garbage and burn piles near the river, and simply didn’t not go near it.  It became a neglected thing. Despite the same kinds of houses and people and access to the river upstream and downstream, after the river had AMD, it was no longer wanted or desirable. I realized that it wasn’t just that the waterfall tainted the physical water in the river–it also tainted people’s interactions with it.  Pollution literally disconnected humans from nature.

 

In other words, even a small amount of pollution turned the river from something people cared about to something people didn’t.  It turned the river into a site of enjoyment and connection with nature to something to avoid looking at or interacting with.

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected (and you can see clear to the bottom–and avoid the rocks!)

 

AMD water...

Downstream: Cloudy, Irony, and human disconnected…(and it’s hard to see to the bottom, and thus, you hit the rocks)

I wonder how often this happens. As lands are polluted or damaged, people no longer want to interact with them.  When people stop caring, stop interacting, even more pollution is allowed to occur.  The pollution itself disconnects us from the land and the more polluted things get, the less we want to interact. Even I, as a druid and land healer, a person who has long faced these things with open eyes and an open heart, had a first reaction of wanting out of that river as soon as I saw what had happened to it.

 

You can see how we have come to the point, in this time of so much pollution and damage, to where people aren’t in nature at all. Why would you want to spend time next to (or on) a polluted river? In a logged forest? Hiking among fracking wells?  (Only crazy druid healers do such things, that that’s spiritual work, not leisure!)  If that’s the only options you have, it is no wonder so many humans are so disconnected.

 

I am left with two profound insights from this experience. First, the work of land healing has an additional dimension that I had previously not realized.  Just like in the permaculture ethical triad of earth care, people care, and fair share: we see these things all entirely linked with the others.  If we can restore nature to a state of health and allow her to thrive, we can help heal not only the land, but the human-land connections (and in doing so, the humans themselves). This allows more interaction with the land, more connection with the land, and helps us grow more “places that people care about.” To me, care and nurturing is an essential quality of helping us, as a species, return to being in a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with nature.  And so, if we heal nature, we can start to heal those connections.

 

But secondly, if we see ourselves and our work as a metaphor for a river, we can gain insights. In journeying down the river, you get to see the growth of the river over time. As each spring or stream flowed into the river, the river’s power and size grew. The creek began, at the start of my journey, about 15 feet across, and by the time I pulled my kayak out of the water 6 miles later, it was spanning 30 or 40 feet. The small “creek” had grown into a river with power, carving out rock faces as it went.  And so, I see the tributaries as people, and all of us, combined as one, could accomplish much more than a single spring or trickle. There is power in these combined currents, just as there is power in numbers of people working together. This is something that I’ve been learning firsthand since taking the first steps to establishing our intentional community here–but also something that I’ve long seen the value of in various kinds of sustainable living (like permablitzes, barn raising or community groups).

 

As much as we, collectively, are the river, we also need to look for the sources of pollution–those things or people that will cloud us and prevent us from being our true and whole selves.  Otherwise, our entire river can become tainted, just like the AMD tainted this river–and that changes everything.  Tainted waterways can be remediated, of course, and perhaps, there are more lessons in this as well.

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A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part VIII: Rainbow Workings and other Palliative Care Strategies for Damaged Lands April 16, 2016

I had the most amazing thing happen to me about a month ago, and it involved the direct (palliative) healing of an active strip mine site.  I was heading to teach an herbalism course at a friend’s business about 15 minutes away from where I live.  My drive this requires me to cross a divided highway and do a u-turn at a site that is a very new active strip mine.  They aren’t fully removing the mountain, but they are certainly cutting into it quite a bit, and ripping up the entire surface of the land in the process. For a while, I’ve been driving past this spot, and energetically, it just feels bad, like in the pit of your belly bad. I knew something was to be done, but I wasn’t sure what. So I kept visiting, listening, and being told “wait” (using the same strategies I’ve shared with you earlier in this series). And so, wait I did.

 

Rainbow Working!

Rainbow Working!

That particular day when I was going to teach my class, we had both sunshine and storms. Rain would pour for five minutes and then it would be sunny again.  These are such fun days to enjoy, and usually rainbows abound.  I hadn’t yet seen one, but I had anticipated it, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.  Just I was turning around, I saw a rainbow–it was right in front of me, on the road ahead. I decided to follow it slowly with my car, and suddenly, it jumped. When it jumped, I looked to my left, and there it was, coming down right in the center of the whole strip mine operation. Now, for anyone who has studied the old Celtic, underworld, and fairy lore, a jumping rainbow is described as an old trick to lead you somewhere–and that’s definitely what happened in this case.

 

Now, every day, as part of my AODA practice, I connect with the three currents (a strategy I’d suggest in preparation for this kind of work; I’ll talk more about this later in this post). I’m pretty adept, at this point, in channeling down the solar current. I connected with that rainbow, with the sun’s rays reflecting off of those droplets of water and pulled it down, deep down, into the darkness and suffering of that strip mine. I sat for quite a while and channeled down that energy, and as I did, the rainbow grew brighter, and more brilliant.  At some point, the work felt done.  The land felt cleaner.  More at peace with what was happening.  The worst of the bad energy was gone. Each time since I’ve visited that spot, the effects of the rainbow remain.

 

Now, obviously, a rainbow working is not really something you can plan!  But, I did want to share this as a potent land healing strategy to open up today’s post. And I think what I can share is that even if you don’t have the blessing of a rainbow over the spot you want to help heal, you do have the energy of the sun frequently, and it can be used in various ways–as we’ll explore today, along with other strategies for palliative care.

 

Why Palliative Care?

When I started this land healing series, I started with descriptions of the different kinds of healing work you can do: physical and energetic land healing for sites that need active regeneration and healing (which is where things like permaculture fit) and palliative care (for sites that cannot yet be healed and are underging active harm).  Today’s post is going to explore specific land healing strategies for palliative care that you can engage in–these are specific strategies for sites that are just like the rainbow working above: these sites have ongoing active destruction or are far from what nature intended. As before, if you haven’t read the earlier parts in this series, I would strongly suggest that you do so, as the series builds from the previous posts: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI and Part VII.

 

I think that Palliative Care for sites that are currently experiencing destruction and suffering is just as hard to deal with as the impending destruction of a natural site (which I talked about two weeks ago); both of these give you a sense of powerlessness that is difficult to deal with. You want to look away.  You want to disengage.  But instead, I suggest you try to engage, to help, to heal.  Because I can tell you this–nobody else is doing this work on our landscapes. If we, as druids and those who love the land and hold her sacred can’t do it, then who can?  Even when looking at that strip mine, that logged landscape, that fracking well, that acidic river (the ones I deal with here most often), know that that what I am looking at is still the living earth and it is still sacred land.  This kind of stuff is not one a druid meandering through the woods wants to find, but it is unfortunately a common reality that we face in the age of 21st century industrialism.

 

I believe that every age has its own spiritual challenges, and that our spiritual practices are often born from what we experience; I certainly see responding to this kind of experience as necessary for a druid living in such times. And to me, we are in a unique position to do something, and I believe, even for sites that are actively being destroyed and harmed, that something can have very long-term implications.  Consider palliative care like the first stage in the healing process–you are setting the stage for what is to come.

 

Palliative Care and Energetic Changes

I want to start by saying that nearly all of the strategies I outlined two weeks ago for sites that are going to be destroyed also work for palliative care. These include: working with the stones, working with Indian Ghost Pipe as a plant ally, putting the land in hibernation, and saving seeds. These are strategies that can do tremendous good for sites that are undergoing active harm.

 

At the same time, there is a large energetic difference between these two kinds of sites: namely,  a site that is not yet destroyed doesn’t have this energetic darkness and active suffering that a site that is destroyed carries.  Its that energetic darkness that is the focus of some of my work in palliative care, and so, I generally find myself doing a lot more energetic cleansing work on actively destroyed sites, and hence, that’s what today’s post will mainly focus on.

 

I’d also like to share that the energetic nature of active destruction changes over time, and I think, is due in part to where in the process things are occurring.  If a site has been actively destroyed for a long period of time, you often encounter this energetic deadness or a complete lack of vitality. A lot of the rivers around here are like that–they have been acidic and poisonous to life for half a century or more–this means that they are largely “dead” feeling, where the active strip mine site (a new operation less than a year old) is energetically very dark and intense.

 

What I do depends on a number of factors. I generally don’t do much with the dead sites unless I know active healing can happen–I think that the deadness is better than most other things, in that there is no active suffering, and the land has figured out how to numb itself and the spirits have retreated.  So for these, I might say a small prayer or blessing, but otherwise, leave them be. I am certainly not going to do anything to “wake” that site back up or call those spirits back until it is time and active healing work can begin. When it is time for real healing to take place though, the “deadened” land then needs you to come in and give it a burst of light and life (see upcoming post!)

 

Most sites actively under siege, instead, have this really dark intensity to them and feel really “wrong” and “awful” just being near them.  For example, when I was visiting a friend in West Virginia not too long ago, I was driving and was struck with this horribly awful feeling as I rounded the bend.  Turned out, just around the next bend was a huge gravel/sand pit, cutting into the mountainside–and that was the source of the suffering.  This is exactly the kind of site that could benefit from palliative care. And so, my real focus today, is on active suffering and sites that have that energetic darkness, sickness, feeling of absolute wrongness, that pervades them.

 

Solar Blessings and Getting Rid of the Worst of the Energetic Darkness

A sacred pool uniting heaven and earth, the solar and the telluric

A sacred pool uniting heaven and earth, the solar and the telluric (see below)

So about 5 posts ago in this series, I shared information on the three currents and how ancient peoples, and modern ones, can use the currents to help heal and bless the land.  In the case of palliative care, nearly all of the problems we have are with the currents of energy in the earth, the telluric currents. The telluric currents govern what is on the land and of the land, what is on and of the earth, and that’s where the bulk of the problems for industrialized cultures, great and small, arise.  It is the uncontrolled fossil fuel use, an earthly treasure, that has our world’s climate in chaos; it is the pillaging of earthly resources that are really causing so many palliative situations to occur. These telluric currents become easily corrupted by the many earthly activities that pervade industrialized society: gravel pits, strip mines, regular mining operations, pesticides and industrialized farming, fracking, tar sands, logging, typical lawn care, and more. And so, I have found that attending to the telluric currents, by way of ancient knowledge, can tremendously help in palliative care.

 

I have found that you can effectively use the solar currents to clear away, or purify, the worst of the energetic darkness of sites under active destruction.  There are lots of ways to do this, and one of them was how I opened this post: a rainbow working! There are many, many ways to channel the solar currents down into the telluric, and this is an excellent way to get rid of the energetic crud, the worst of the suffering, and provide some respite.  I kind of see this work like providing a healing balm to soothe the energetic effects of active destruction.  You aren’t solving the problem by any means, but you are certainly doing something that really helps.

 

Most of my strategies for channeling the solar (sun) down into the telluric currents (the energy of the earth) for purification and blessing involve using specific rituals within the AODA framework.  These include the AODA’s sphere of protection (which I use most often), our seasonal grove rituals (found in the Druid Grove Handbook) or the communion ceremony from the Gnostic Celtic Church (found in the Gnostic Celtic Church Handbook).  Each of these rituals establish the space and then, as the core work of the ritual, connect to the energy of the sun, the earth, and awaken the telluric current.  I’ll share one simple derivations here, but I wanted you to understand where a lot of what I do comes from and where you can get more extended versions.  I’ve been working in this tradition for over a decade, and I think, in its own way, maybe it led me to this work by putting the perfect tools in my hands!

 

So a simple way to channel the solar down into the telluric is through AODA’s Sphere of Protection working as a basic framework.  I’m giving a simplified version of it here, and you can add and adapt as necessary.   I would begin by going to an area that needed some palliative care, and, as I mentioned before in earlier posts, ascertain the nature of the work at hand.  If I felt led, I would do the following:

  • Grounding and centering myself for the work at hand.  Part of this is opening myself up for the flow of energies, breathing deeply, and feeling rooted in the living earth. As part of the grounding and centering, I would open up some kind of protective space (even if its as simple as drawing a circle on the ground, or in the air as white light).
  • I would next go to the east, and call in the positive qualities of the east to aid the land and me in the working.  Then I would banish in the east, driving away any harmful or disturbing energies. I’d then go to the south, west, and north, doing the same thing: calling upon the positive qualities of the element and banishing the negative ones.  As you get used to doing this, you’ll find you can banish the negative qualities in larger and larger regions and areas–and this is super helpful for clearing work.
  • At each of the quarters, I would use my senses to experience that element in the world around me, identifying the influence of those four elements on the landscape: in the east I might look at the movement of the air, pay attention to the smell of the air, the birds in the sky, seeds blowing in the wind, and so on.
  • Then, I would invoke the three currents:  I would first draw a circle on the ground and invoke the telluric current, envisioning it rising through the circle as a greenish-gold light.  I would assess its purity and flow.  Then I would trace a circle in the air and pull down the solar current, envisioning it as a yellow flame coming down from the sun and the celestial heavens.
  • I would intone the “Awen” and then draw upon everything I had called: the four elements and the currents to unify the currents, awakening the lunar current and sending the solar deep within the telluric.   I would envision energy coming from each of the four directions, from the sky, and down, into the telluric.
  • I would envision this work as long as necessary, sometimes for several minutes, sometimes for a half hour or more.  Usually it doesn’t take too long, but it depends on the area.  When I felt the work was done, I would close the space (but would not send away what I had called).

That’s it in a nutshell–there’s more to it than that, but I think that’s enough for you to work with, and adapt, as you see fit.  I would say that there are more elaborate rituals and workings using these energies, but doing something basic, to start, is a good way to begin.  Some of you, who are new to ritual work, might say, “yes, but does it work?” The truth is, I cannot believe the potency and usefulness of the Sphere of Protection alone in much of this work.  I find its an extremely versatile for a lot of different kinds of land healing (and other healing) work.

 

Standing Stones

As I wrote about in my third post of the series (which helps set up today’s post) as well as my recent post on sacred gardening, humans have long been using standing stones, temples, trees, ceremonies, and more to channel the solar energies into the land for healing and abundance–but I have found these work fantastically for palliative care.  The reason is simple–setting a standing stone or using some other key marker to help channel down the solar current is a working that takes time and space to achieve.  Unlike a ritual, which radically alter a space and its energetic profile quite quickly, a standing stone is slow work, over time, over potentially a lot of time.  This lends itself well to palliative care, because its like a slow-releasing healing agent.  I’m having difficulty putting into words exactly what I mean here, but I hope you get my meaning.

 

Setting the standing stone in the pool!

Hermes is setting the standing stone in the pool!

So just this past week, two druids snuck into the woods into the park north of town and worked to set a standing stone in the forest; the same forest where many gas wells are present. We did this because here is a place, in the heart of fracking country, where the waters and forests and lands are under active duress. We had come across a natural spring earlier in the week on a hike, a tiny spring that pops up only in the springtime of the year or after heavy rains.  It was barely noticeable, but eventually flowed into a small stream with moss-covered stones. We carefully cleared away the leaves and sticks to see what we could find, and were excited with the discovery of three trickles of water welling up from the earth, almost in the shape of an awen.  The next day, we came back better prepared and set some rocks below the spring to created a small gazing pool.  Then we went off in search of a standing stone–and sure enough, within about 10 minutes, we were delighted to find a perfect standing stone for the pool.  We set that stone as a long-term healing presence, to bless these waters, those that flow past so many of those gas wells, and later, one fracking well.  To help bless all these waters that are under duress from the many fracking activities here, to cleanse and nurture the telluric currents, the spirits of these lands, and the physical forest during this difficult time.  The interesting thing about this particular spot is that its right along a fairly well-used path, so if passerby are looking in the right direction at the right time, the pool and standing stone will be quite evident!  Now, we didn’t do any ritual work at the spot–we just wanted to set the stone and let it do its good work for  a while.  However, we could come back at a later point, when we felt it was time, and do that work.

 

Land Shrines

Even if you can’t set a standing stone, I have found that a small shrine, carefully placed and tended, can work wonders over a period of time. Perhaps you create a simple stone cairn and pour blessed waters (see below) over it every season.  Perhaps you plant a rare native plant and surround it with stones.  The actual shrine, and what goes into it, can be intuitive.  But these small places are healing, they are like a light in the dark. For land that is suffering, what your shrine does is give it a focal point, something to hang onto, something to direct its attention and let the spirits of that land know that someone is thinking about them, wishing them well, and saying that we are here in support.  I have made many such shrines over the years–small places, hidden places, that I quietly go and visit.  You will get a sense, from the land itself, about how often you need to come and what you can do while you are there.

 

Music and Song

Playing the panflute for the land

Me playing the panflute for the land

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the wonderful (and often subversive) nature of music and singing for any land healing work. This is healing work, of any variety, that can be done publicly and openly. I have found that certain songs, especially old folk songs, work particularly well for soothing the land, and allowing it to prepare for what is to come, and putting it to sleep.

If you use this technique, you will develop your own songs that that have meaning and may even be given songs to use with the land–but I would start with the melodies of old folk songs, songs that have been sung in your lands for several generations at least–and use those. I found a book once, at a local cave that was open to the public, called “Back Porch Melodies” and it had almost 50 folk songs–many of these I found useful and adapted them to my practices. I may change the lyrics or play them on my panflute, but the songs resonate deeply and the music can soothe and help pave the way.

 

Blessed Waters for Damaged Rivers

Another thing that I have done over a period of time is to collect and bless sacred waters (see this post for a ritual to create them).  I usually do this work at Imbolc or the Spring equinox each year–when the waters are flowing and the spring is returning. I began working with blessed waters many years ago,as part of my work with water over a period of years.  Now, I have this sacred water, used for countless ceremonies over the years, and from countless places all over the world, that I use as part of my land healing work.  Because the rivers, the lakes, and the oceans are one of the things tremendously under distress, a little bit of healing water goes a long way.  I have placed a few drops of my water into the headwaters of various rivers, so that as they go and become more polluted, the healing waters are still there, flowing. I also place them into the polluted rivers themselves, dropping a single drop or two in with prayers (think homeopathic doses, here!).  I use the sacred waters to drip on the roots of trees and plants, to lathe stones, to pour over healing altars and standing stones, and much more.  I have found that carrying a little bit of this water with me anywhere I am means that I am always ready and able to do some healing work. And I can give it away to others, and then they can do good work as well!

 

I replenish the sacred waters, adding to them, by visiting springs and other local healing wells.  These have an abundance of good telluric energy and you can multiply the sacred waters you create as much as you need to.

 

Moving Earth

This last strategy I’m going to share today for palliative care is one that I’ve used only once, but I think its an important one,  and some of you may find yourself also as needing to do this work.  When I first moved to MI, there was this big shopping mall area–it had a stadium, all these highways, buildings, even a big giant garbage mountain that they were doing as a dump.  But the area just felt sacred to me, in ways it normally wouldn’t have.  Every time I was there (I had to drive past it on my way to campus each day), I would see the most amazing things: spirals of birds, the light of the sun peeking through the clouds, interesting cloud formations, etc.  It was just slightly more magical, more sacred, than everywhere else around it.  So one day, I went to the site, climbed up on a big hill near a big box home improvement store, and lay among the weeds, listening with my inner and outer senses, and observing.  I saw a vision of the site, what it had been (indeed, a sacred place for peoples before), and how much it was suffering now–it was very much awake and alive, and being used in a very unsacred manner.  I was asked, very clearly, to gather up a small handful of soil from the site for a year period–at each of the solstices and equinoxes.  I did this and then, had the bowl of soil at my house for some time on one of my altars.  Finally, I was led to move the soil to a very sacred place, an old growth forest.  When I next drove by the shopping mall area, it wasn’t sacred any longer.  I had somehow…transferred…what was sacred there to a place it could reside.  This was certainly a kind of palliative care, but in this case, it was literally transferring something sacred to somewhere else.

 

Closing

I hope that this set of strategies proves useful to you in your ongoing land healing work–and please comment and share your own strategies, thoughts, and experiences.  I’m especially interested in hearing from you about my last two weeks of posts–and the many specific strategies that I’m sharing.  I believe I have 1-2 more posts to write to complete this series, at least at this time. Blessings to all!

 

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part II: Places to Gather, Ethical Harvesting, Avoiding Pollution, and Foraging as Spiritual Practice January 25, 2015

This is my second in a two-part series on how to wildcraft and forage successfully. The first post dealt with supplies for foraging, resources and how to learn the skills, and understanding timing. This post will talk about places to gather, avoiding contaminants in the landscape, the ethics of harvesting, and the spiritual side to foraging and wildcrafting.

 

Where You Gather: Kinds of Property

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wildcrafting obviously requires you to go out into the land and find what you need. There are different kinds of places you can go—your own backyard/land, parks, abandoned lots, friends’ land, and so on. Each location has some benefits and as you start wildcrafting and foraging, you will find your own spots that you will return to again and again and again. Here are some of the kinds of places that I go:

 

My own land. Since I know it best and am out there every day, I can observe the changing landscape as the seasons pass. I know the history of the land, I know how much of a particular plant is usually in season, and I can know how much to ethically take since I’m the only one taking. So obviously, if you have your own land, this is a wonderful place to harvest. A lot of people don’t have access to some acreage, however, and this leads us to….

 

Friends/Neighbors/Family Private land. If you can’t harvest on your own land, or don’t have your own land, finding other private land (such as that of friends, family, or neighbors) you can harvest from is really a great thing. You can ask them about the land’s history; you can harvest without anyone else around, you can know just how much to take, and you can share the joy and abundance of the harvest with others. I have found that if I approach a friend or neighbor about wildcrafting from their land, they are often not only willing to let me onto their property but also interested in learning more (and yes, this often even works with complete strangers!) This creates a space to teach them about the sacred medicine of their own landscape, which only deepens their appreciation for the land. I have also found that for those who already value their land, they love it when you appreciate and value it also. For example, there is a spot I harvest cattails from along a road for making paper each spring, and a couple walking there had the land across the street. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them, and they invited me into their property. I was not only able to gather more cattails there, but also found a bunch of recently dropped willow branches to make a basket and some cattail shoots for making a nice stir fry. They were excited to learn about their property and invited me to come back anytime. I’m reminded here of my 85 year old neighbor who has an 80-acre farm; we tap trees, harvest apples, forage for herbs and berries, and so much more there—and he’s so happy that someone else values it.Of course, one does need to be careful of who one asks—some people just don’t want others on their property. There also might be a gender bias in this—my good friend, who I harvest with often, says that people are much more likely to say yes to me than to him alone (he has long hair and a beard and maybe he looks a little unscrupulous).

 

Public lands. Not that long ago, the idea of a “common” land (or “the commons”) was quite a strong one. However, in the 20th century that idea largely shifted and now the emphasis is on pristine preservation (Wendell Berry discusses this concept much further in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture). The idea is that the land will be soiled if someone takes something from it—and this is true, in a manner of speaking, because few people today know how to harvest and take ethically. Yet these intensive obsessions with pristine preservation sit side by side with the push to sell of public lands, to allow logging, mineral rights, fracking, and more. These are all products of industrialization–the disconnection of people with the land, the commodification of goods and wealth into the hands of the few. So when one enters public land, one needs to be aware of the laws surrounding that land. If you are to take nothing, take nothing. A lot of state and local parks have this kind of arrangement–do not take anything. However, most state game lands function more like the old commons—you can limited amounts of game, you can cut limited amounts of fire wood, you can pick mushrooms, and so on—and they are great places to wildcraft. Many local parks, likewise, have no laws against harvesting. However, to be an ethical harvester you do need to be aware of overharvesting, of chemicals, the lands history, and so on.

 

Secret harvest spot

Secret harvest spot

Where You Gather: Kinds of Ecosystems

In addition to the kinds of property that you are gathering from, you also want to think carefully about what ecosystems you will be gathering from. For example, a swamp or marsh is simply going to have a different ecosystem and plants than a deep secluded forest or an abandoned farm field. This is why I mentioned I have several “spots” that I like to go to–many of them with multiple ecosystems. Another thing to think about, stemming from permaculture design, is the understanding the value of the edges and margins. That is, the edge where the forest meets a field is often a very rich and diverse ecosystem.

 

Here is just a short list of where I find what plants that I gather to give you a sense of this:

  • Edge of Pond/Lake/Near Water: blueberries (in a bog); highbush cranberries (edge of a bog); horsetail (medicinal, edge of lake where there is a sandy soil), beach plums (beach on great lakes), cattail (edge of pond, swampy areas), boneset (edge of water, medicinal), marshmallow (edge of water, medicinal), joe-pye weed (in shade or swamp, medicinal)
  • Edge of Forest: black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries (all edibles), mulberry trees (edible), stinging nettles (edible and medicinal), staghorn sumac (medicinal; also good for smoking blends), autumn olive (edible), violets (edible, medicinal), poke (medicinal, great dye plant), dryad’s saddle mushrooms (edible),
  • Deep in the Forest: black birch (medicinal); chicken of the woods mushroom (edible), reishi mushroom (medicinal), blueberries (bush style, edible), maple sap (edible), acorns (edible), hen of the woods mushroom (medicinal/edible), stoneroot (medicinal), mayapple (edge of forest, edible), ramps (edible, over-harvested so only gather if they are abundant)
  • Fields/Wastelands: St. John’s Wort (medicinal), goldenrod (medicinal), milkweed (edible), yarrow (medicinal), scrub red pine trees (resin for incense making), blackberries (edible), elderberries (medicinal/edible), new england aster (medicinal), dandelion (medicinal/edible), burdock (medicinal/edible)
  • In the Suburbs/Landscapes: walnut (edible, medicinal), serviceberry (edible), various crabapples (edible), various other crab fruit trees planted as decorative (edible), eastern white cedar (often planted as an ornamental; medicinal and for smudges); plantain (medicinal, be careful the lawn wasn’t sprayed)
Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Now I think the above categories are fairly self explanatory, all except the last one. The suburbs, the exerbs, the little strips of plant life along the strip mall, in the cities, etc., are typically NOT prime foraging grounds. Primarily this is because of pollution (see next section). However, people sometimes plant really nice trees there—various crab apples and serviceberries (and serviceberries are WELL worth finding and making into jam and baked goods). One of my favorite serviceberry spots is literally at the start of this posh subdivision, about 30′ back from the road. Another favorite serviceberry spot is in the parking lot of the library…you get the idea :). So while there are limited foraging to be done in the city and suburbs, fruit is one of your best bets. Tree fruits are also one of your best bets because trees are rarely sprayed where things on the ground, like plantain or dandelion, are usually heavily sprayed.

Toxins, Chemicals, and Pollution

If you are harvesting anything for internal use (medicine, edibles), you want to be aware of any chemical toxins in the landscape or area you are harvesting from. Toxins are not always easily to spot and can reside invisibly in the soil, so it takes some creative thinking and sleuthing to understand what may or may not be safe to eat.

 

Around houses and buildings. Soil near foundations of older houses and buildings often has lead because lead paint was used at one point and flaked off. You don’t generally want to harvest anything next to an older house that will be eaten (or plant anything, for that matter, that you are going to eat). Obviously any factory sites are really off limits for foraging.

 

In Swamps/Wetlands. Roots can often concentrate toxins and chemicals, and roots in swampy areas or lakes are particularly suspect.  Remember that plants like Cattail function as the cleansing plant for a water system–this means if there are toxins, they are going to be heavily concentrated in the cattail plant roots.  So, if you are harvesting roots or edibles, especially in swampy areas, look for the nearest body of water and see what is sitting upstream (like a polluting factory).  Even in what appears to be a pristine swamp or wetland, you might not realize that a factory 10 miles up the river is dumping into the waterways. Using maps (and especially online maps) is really helpful for this.  This is why I like to harvest catttails and other such roots and tubers from private lands that I have vetted well and from very small wetlands.

 

Pesticides, Herbicides, and other Sprays. There is also the issue of home and agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While most tree medicine is off the ground, I would not harvest anything on the ground a subdivision where everyone poisons their lawns with chemicals weekly. Likewise, I would not harvest too close to any industrialized, conventional agriculture (e.g. huge fields of corn or soybeans or other chemically-sprayed and GMO crops). These fields are covered in chemicals and those chemicals can easily drift to the surrounding landscape.  And this sometimes sucks, because the best stand of staghorn sumac I know is right in front of an industrialized agriculture soy/corn field.  Alas, that’s how it goes sometimes.

 

History of the Land. Its also really useful to know the history of the landscape. If there used to be a factory that is now abandoned and torn down, you may not want to harvest there.  This is actually one of the biggest impediments to urban farming in places like Detroit–so much of the land was poisoned with factories that people aren’t sure if its safe to grow in their soil.  Regardless, use your common sense and intuition to figure out where is safe to harvest.

 

The Ethics of Wildcrafting/Foraging: Taking and Giving Back

Ethics are another area of concern to the forager and wildcrafter.  Why?  Because in the last 150 years, humans have done a very good job at taking and taking and not a very good job of giving back.  And as I mentioned in part I of this series of posts, humans have largely lost our understanding of the ecosystem, knowing how to live in balance from the land.  Most of us live completely disconnected from it, and we haven’t developed an innate understanding of the land’s rhythms or ways.

 

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Understanding Abundance and Scarcity. One of the first things that important to understand from an ethical standpoint is the concepts of abundance and scarcity. There are, at times, great amounts of abundance in the landscape. There are also times of great scarcity (e.g. winter, less abundant seasons, droughts).  When things are abundant, we must remember that we are not the only ones who depend on that abundance and that whatever we take is being taken from others that may need it for sustenance. This is why I so strongly suggested in my first post that you begin learning how to forage or wildcraft by understand ecology.  Even if things are very abundant, you want to limit what you take.

 

How much to harvest: the 30% guideline. I use the 30% rule for most harvesting of non-endangered, very abundant, native plants. I generally will never take more than 30% of something that is in an area for one harvest (e.g. if there is an apple harvest, I will take no more than 30% of the apples). However, this rule is not a hard and fast one to be applied in all circumstances but rather a guideline. If a plant is not very abundant in the area, I might only harvest 5% or even less. Sometimes even a 10% harvest can do substantial harm to a plant that isn’t very abundant. For example, if I’m harvesting roots, depending on the plant, it might kill the plant, so harvesting roots is very different than harvesting berries (which are designed to be harvested). If I’m harvesting leaves, like nettle, I can harvest a few from each plant safely and leave the plants themselves intact (in fact, nettles can be bent down to the ground and then they will regrow new shoots you can harvest!) So I’m constantly thinking about the individual plant, what I’m harvesting, how resilient it is, and what I can do so to cause the least amount of disruption to an ecosystem. At the same time, some plants, like garlic mustard or autumn olive, can be harvested in greater abundance due to their current dominance in the landscape (I talked about my take on invasive species here). For these plants, I harvest all that I can. You can also think about seasonal harvesting–if its the end of the season and a big frost is on the horizon, you can safely harvest more than the usual 30% (especially if you are only harvesting leafy material, and not seeds or roots).

 

Leave spaces how you found them. Another ethical issue involves how you harvest–and here, the guideline is to leave areas as you found them. If you are digging roots, dig your roots, and then when you are done, put the soil back and scatter leaves on the forest floor. The idea is that you want to be as least as a disruption as possible on the landscape. This is true in general every time we enter an outdoor space, but its particularly useful when foraging or wildcrafting. The idea here is that we need to be mindful stewards of the land.

 

Help the Plants Along. Another method I use to engage in ethical harvesting is to help the plants I’m working with propagate themselves further. For example, if I want some young milkweed pods for eating (they are awesome, and you can treat them just like okra) then I will return later in the year to that spot and as the milkweed seeds are turning brown, I will scatter them carefully. This means that while I have taken limited pods to enjoy in my curry, I have returned to the spot to help the plant propagate. If I’m gathering berries, I may throw a handful of ripe ones into a new space to help them establish there (especially when nothing else is growing there). This not only pleases the plants but ensures future abundant harvests for all.

 

I think with each of these categories, the key is approaching the landscape with knowledge, with reverence, with respect, and with an understanding that you are not the only one who is taking or depending upon that land for sustenance.

 

Foraging and Wildcrafting as a Spiritual Practice

My foraging partner and dear friend wrote an article last year for the AODA’s new annual publication, Trilithon, that examined the spiritual implications of foraging from a druidic perspective. He argued that foraging allowed him to practice two key spiritual aspects important to nature-based spirituality: cultivating stillness and cultivating focus. I’d like to explore those implications for a bit here and consider some additional areas.

Choice dryad's saddle

Choice dryad’s saddle mushroom–easy to spot with mushroom eyes!

As meditation. I find no greater joy than picking berries from a bush in the summer or fall. I remember last year, I spent many hours sitting with autumn olive bushes and harvesting their delightful berries. This was a meditation, where the repetition of picking the berries and putting them into my blicky (see last post) allowed me to still my mind and simply be in the moment. In my spiritual tradition, we recognize both sitting meditation and walking/movement meditation–I think this can classify as some of the latter.

 

As Communing with the Plants. A second thing that harvesting gets you, whether you are harvesting violets for tea or medicine, or harvesting thousands of autumn olives, is time to simply be with the plants.  To touch them, to give an exchange, to commune with them. This is really valuable–and the plants love giving of themselves to those who revere them. And we take that bounty within and it sustains us; it allows us to further build our connection to them.  The power and importance of this act of communion cannot be understated.

 

Understanding Nature as a cycle. When you get into foraging, you begin paying much more attention to the rain and temperatures (especially for mushrooms), when the weather warms up and the ground unfreezes, or when the frosts come.  Foraging asks us to really pay attention to the weather and seasons in ways that we do not normally do; this can give us deeper insights into the landscape around us, into the cycles that govern our lives.

 

As a way of seeing. One of my mushroom teachers taught us about “mushroom eyes” that is, we had to focus our gaze to see the mushrooms in the forest rather than seeing other things. You can walk through a forest without seeing any of the mushrooms in it (especially those that are small, on the ground, and non-colorful). This practice of putting on one’s mushroom eyes has profound spiritual implications, in that it asks us to shift our vision, to see differently, to see with intent.

 

As self-education. Knowledge is an important part of any nature-based spiritual practice. Foraging and wildcrafting allows one to learn about the landscape and become attuned with it. Its also an amazing way to learn in a way that others can benefit from.

 

I hope the information I’ve provided in the last two posts is helpful for you on your wildcrafting and foraging journey!