The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part V: Nature Reciprocity August 12, 2018

The principle of “seven generations” comes to us from the Iroquois nation, where is considered to be the “Great Law of the Iroquois.”  This principle said that each decision that was made needed to consider not just the immediate future but the 7th generation, those yet unborn. This principle has become closely tied with modern sustainability movements, where there is a growing understanding that for any society and ecosystem to endure, they must be treated in a way that nurtures and sustains, rather than pillages and depletes. This is a fairly radical idea to a Western culture, where concepts like manifest destiny and the relentless pursuit of growth that have driven westerners literally spent centuries pillaging the land, colonizing new places, driving out native peoples, stripping forests bare, and so forth. This idea of recirpocation is essentially foreign to most growing up in the shadows of that exploitative past.

 

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Land and ocean worth protecting!

Of course, those living nature-based spiritual paths, like druidry, are struggling with the dissonance between this cultural path and finding a new relationship with nature.  And so, going to connect with nature deeply, however, and we come from a cultural heritage where the kinds of behaviors I listed above are normalized, and where we benefit from them, whether or not we want to, then reciprocation becomes even more critical to understand and embrace.  In the last few weeks, we’ve been delving deeply in to the different ways that druids and other earth-honoring individuals can connect with nature. We’ve looked at nature wisdom, how to learn about nature in various ways and nature engagement, where we can learn to use nature to build value and connection. We’ve also considered nature reverence last week.  This week, we think about reciprocity, where we learn to give more than we take, and create a sustaining and regenerative relationship with the living earth.

 

Reciprocation

Inherent in the use of nature (which we discussed two weeks ago) and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. The term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves in time (with or without human help). But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good and it doesn’t necessarily take the view that humans have taken too much.  Here in the USA; white settlers to this land found it full of incredible richness and abundance–all the while omitting the people and practices that made that abundance happen–these lands were carefully tended Native American tribes for millenia. In a few short centuries, the old forests are gone, the extraordinarily productive food forests are no more, and many species are dwindling.  It is for this reason that it isn’t enough to “sustain” what exists, but instead, give more than we take, help regenerate and heal, and do good on the land–all the work of reciprocation.  I believe that this kind of work helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs–and ultimately, our own survival.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

The principle of reciprocity with nature:
Conserving life and natural spaces;
Regenerating and healing ;
Making offerings within and without

 

Conserving Nature

I honor the conservationists of the 19th and 20th century in the US as ancestors: each time I am able to visit wild lands, public lands, and national parks, I see the tireless work of their hands and hearts present in each stone placed upon the path, each tree that was protected and not felled, each natural wonder that is still present and public for me to witness. And so, one way to connect through nature and do the work of nature reciprocation is through conservation activities.

 

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Butterfly and Bee Attractor Garden

Multiple schools of thought exist within the larger conservation movement; the US National Park service offers these two different definitions: conservation focuses on protecting natural resources and regulate the sustainable use of nature; preservation focuses on protecting landscapes and protecting nature from any use and eliminate human impact entirely. As druids and nature-spirituality oriented people, part of our own ethic and interaction with nature must come to terms with these two perspectives, and perhaps, seek a third perspective that is more fitting with our own ethics and path. For me, neither of these perspectives deal with the inherent sacredness of nature or reciprocation, and so in the end, I find both to be lacking for various reasons. I don’t have a better word than “conserve” nature, and people know what I mean by that, so I’ll set this debate aside (but its good to realize that this debate exists when using the term!)

 

Conservation can take on many different forms from independent individual action to getting involved in groups to donating to causes.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Sanctuaries for Life. If you own land, you can work to create and maintain various sanctuaries.  Organizations like the World Wildlife Federation and Monarch Watch, as well as possibly your State Extension program (if you live in the US) offer tools and information to help you establish wildlife sanctuaries, butterfly habitats, and so forth.  I have found that doing this kind of work has several benefits: one, it is educational for you as you learn more about these practices; two, once you gain the signage, it is good information for neighbors and others who may be wondering why you are doing something obviously different with your land; three, it is excellent “awareness raising” for those same neighbors, who ask questions and want more information. Finally, it supports good organizations doing additional conservation work.
  • Join a local organization and participate. Nearly everywhere, local organizations are dedicated to helping conserve and preserve the natural ecosystem.  Where I live, there is a lot of work being done on rivers, and one of the organizations I frequently donate to and assist is an organization called the Evergreen Conservancy, who has funded several large projects to clean up acid mine drainage from local rivers (including one that I now enjoy kayaking on). I love the work this organization is doing, it is local to my county, and I can easily get to know folks and participate.  You can physically see the results in the clean flowing water.
  • Learn about a species or two and focus your energy. Another way of thinking about conservation is to focus in on a few species, or one species, and learn about how to protect that species. I’m really interested in some of the species that United Plant Savers works with, particularly, Appalachian herbs that are so quickly disappearing from the ecosystem like American Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Trilium, and more and I’ve been focusing my energy on those herbs.
  • Attend Clean ups and other events: Often, communities, parks, and local organizations will arrange for various clean up activities–river cleanups, trail cleanups, tree plantings, removing invasive species, etc.  They often need a lot of volunteers, so this is another way to engage in conservation.

These activities are only some options–there are so many more out there! are about establishing and engaging in relationship; by working with healing any part of the land, you are working to reciprocate.

 

Regenerating and Healing Nature

The above conservation activities are based on existing ecosystems–protecting them, making sure they remain in good condition, offering care. But many of our landscapes are not pristine or in need of conservation–they are in need of regeneration and healing. And so, taking a more permaculture design perspective, we might think about reciprocation as land healing work–both physical healing as well as spiritual/energetic healing, as both are necessary. Usually, these places are right outside of our doors: the lawn, the little strip of abandoned land between the road and the back of your workplace, the recently logged forest behind your house.  I’ve spent a good deal of time on my blog detailing this practice already, so here are a few of my favorite

  • Making and Scattering Seed balls: Scattering seeds of rare species (such as those on the United Plant Savers’ list) using seed balls, or planting species out in places where they are needed. This work requires quite a bit of knowledge (as you want to make sure you are planting native plants, not spreading ones that may cause harm). As part of this, I have developed a “refugia” garden that are designed to produce seeds and cuttings that I can then propagate elsewhere.
  • Lawn Regeneration and Yardens: A second regeneration activity is working to create ecosystems in place of lawns.  Lawns are often places of consumption; they offer little to wildlife or insect life.  By converting some sections of lawns to various gardens (pollinator-friendly gardens, even with good eats) you can help develop more robust ecosystems for birds, wildlife and insects to thrive.  Here is an example of a larger site using permaculture principles (my former homestead in Michigan).
  • Carbon Sequestration: Home-scale and community-based carbon sequestration This is something that is only beginning to be talked about.  We already know that forests are one of the best carbon sinks–so planting trees and allowing trees to grow is one way to contribute. In Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, 1/10th of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Oasis in the City, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates describe their work with carbon sequestration – through composting initiatives and biochar, they calculated that in a few years, they had sunk about 400 lbs of carbon into their soil.  Increasing soil fertility often increases the carbon in soil.
  • Composting:  A lot of active healing of the land focuses not only on planting things but on keeping the land we have healthy. Landfills are a serious problem, both in terms of land space and land use, but also in terms of what goes into them.  By starting a composting pile or joining a composting initiative, you can divert some of your food waste and turn it into productive soil–that can then be used to convert lawns to gardens, grow tomatoes, and more!
  • Larger Initiatives that regenerate and heal: There are a lot of larger initiatives that are worth considering–many of these would fall under “regenerative activities”.  One that I’ve been interested in lately is stormwater runoff.  Stormwater is a huge problem for most of the temperate places in the world that have roofs, parking lots, roads, etc.  Most communities, counties, or states have laws that govern how stormwater must be handled before it goes into rivers and streams–but many of these laws are not upheld. By working in groups and as communities, we can install rain gardens, more friendly surfaces, living roofs, and other ways of protecting and keeping waterways clean from further damage.

 

Using permaculture principles and practices, and using sound judgement, we can land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health.  I have primarily focused on the things you can do in the mundane/outer world in terms of healing and regeneration; next week, we’ll talk more about inner things you can do that also focus on reciprocation and blessing. I also want to note that if the above kinds of things appeal to you, consider studying permaculture design further–I found this to be one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done, and it really helped me shift my own mindset and know that I could be a force of good and make a difference in terms of healing the land. There are permaculture design certificate courses that you can take all over the world, including some totally free ones that can be done virtually.

 

Offerings to Nature

Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. In some cultures, failure to make such offerings had dire consequences for those who depended on nature for survival–famine, pestilence, and so on might occur.  For other cultures, offerings were more symbolic in order to help facilitate a good harvest. And so, while first two areas with regards to nature reciprocation are things you can physically do, the final area is much more energetic and magical in nature–it is primarily a gesture of goodwill and honoring nature.

 

There are lots of ways that we can build offerings into our practice as druids and nature-centered spiritual practitioners.  Since the tradition doesn’t have a specific way of making an offering (as other traditions may), the choice of offering is very much up to you.  I wrote more specifically about sustainable and meaningful offerings here, so I’ll only briefly summarize in this section and offer some suggestions.

  • Offerings of physical things: The general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  Many things that can be purchased are problematic because they put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging, etc).  I believe it is better to either gather your offerings, make them, or grow them.  They could be as simple as acorn caps that you have gathered in the fall and painted a symbol on (I used something like this for many years).  I currently use a sacred offering blend that I grow myself; I posted a recipe on my blog for my sacred herbal offering blend this not too long ago.
  • Offerings as Rituals: Offerings don’t just have to be physical things. Many offerings can also be ceremonial in nature; like a land blessing or healing ceremony.  A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of a ceremony that enacts the principle of reciprocation, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.
  • Offerings as Time/Life Energy: The above areas (conservation and regeneration) are also offerings–they are offerings of your time and life energy.  If done with sacred intent and intentionality, I believe these are some of the best offerings you can make to the land and her spirits.
  • Offerings of Creative Gifts: You can make an offering by playing music (which plants respond to), drumming, or dancing as well.  These can be gifts offered to the land itself, or gifts shown to humans in honor of and inspired by nature.

When it comes to offerings, I think that your intentions are what matters most–that you are genuine, that you have given the offering considerable thought, and that you offer something that is meaningful.

 

Conclusion

As the Great Law of the Iroquois, the law of seven generations, suggests, reciprocation can be not only an activity for individuals, but also a cultural value, something that a group of people accept to be right and true.  If the earth is sacred, we can treat her in a sacred manner that does not deplete her, and practice reciprocation in our interactions with her. To me, reciprocation is at the core of what nature spirituality can offer, what it can aspire to be, and what its potential is–creating life-sustaining and life-affirming values, people who live those values, and someday, perhaps, life-affirming and nurturing societies.

 

Finding the Balance in Providing One’s Own Sustenance: The Time-Intensive Example of Canned Corn September 13, 2013

I’ve not been blogging as much as I did a few months ago for a simple reason–the harvest is upon us.  Starting with the black raspberries in June to seeking out wild mushrooms the start of apple and autumn olive season in early September (I will blog on both of these soon!), I’ve been harvesting and preserving food at a feverish rate. One of the things I wanted to spend time talking about today is finding the balance of time and energy to work to preserve food.

 

In my last post, I talked about the sacred relationship that one is able to develop when one grows one’s own food–this sacred relationship is built over time and with much effort and love.  Today I want to spend more time talking about the pragmatics–the sheer work–involved in being self-sufficient, even in limited ways.

 

A few years ago, I went what I called “tomato independent.”  This meant that, at minimum, I was going to grow and preserve all the tomato products I needed through the year. This is my third year as “tomato independent” although since a blight got a good chunk of my tomatoes this year, I did break down and buy some from local farmers to make sure I had enough. Now I’m trying to expand my independence to other foods I eat a lot (egg independence, jam independence, herb independence, and so forth).  The challenge is, each time I add a new thing, I add a substantial amount of new work. Because here’s the truth–growing and preserving food is hard yet rewarding work, just as any other relationship-building is hard work. Any kind of preservation takes dedication and commitment.  It can be tiring and exhausting, especially if you are trying to do it at the end of the day after you’ve worked full-time at your career (like I am). But my thinking is this–I need to learn these skills because they will be needed soon, and I need to be in a place to teach others how to do these things (again, I’ll reference John Michael Greer’s new Green Wizardry book, who argues that we need “green wizards” who can do these things to help us transition into a post-peak oil world).

 

This isn’t to say that the work isn’t important or valuable–it certainly is. But for someone who spent the better part of her adult life hitting the books to get advanced graduate degrees, and now, grading student writing and teaching in the classroom, its work that requires a different perspective on time.

 

Example: Canning Corn

I’m going to illustrate the hard work of food preservation with a recent and unexpected bounty of corn.  My neighbor has a few rows of corn planted at his farm–he had way too much. Last week, he said that I was welcome to come down and pick some corn after I indicated that I was really interested in canning some of it. I went down to his house and I picked for maybe an hour, and came back with a car-load of corn.

So much corn!

So much corn!

Now, this is a LOT of corn. Probably 200+ ears. I ended up using about 1/3 of this corn for my canning, and the rest went to two other families for their own corn preservation. So I’m going to walk you through the process of canning 20 pints of fresh corn–and the time it takes!

First, I spent about an hour and a half shucking the corn and cutting it off the cob. My chickens came and ate the cobs (and I put the rest into their coop to compost).  When I was done, I had a ton of corn.

Corn ready for canning!

Corn ready for canning!

Next, I spent another hour loading the canner, sterilizing the jars, setting up my towels and tools, and following my instructions to prepare the corn for adding to the jars (which involved adding 1 cup of water for every four cups corn, bringing it to a boil, and  boiling it for 10 minutes).

When the jars and corn were ready, I spent 30 minutes ladling the corn into the jars, making sure they were all full, wiping the rims, sealing them back up, and adding them back to my canner.

Corn is a low-acid food, and it requires pressure canning.  I was canning pints, so this was a 55 minute pressure can (10 psi, for those of you who have worked with a pressure canner before). My canner took just under an hour to reach 10 psi, and by that time, it was late and I was tired.  I spent the next hour and a half monitoring the canner to make sure it stayed at or slightly above 10 psi.  It was now well past 11pm, so I set my alarm for 2 hours later so that I could get up and pull the jars out after the canner was finished naturally depressurizing (which I did around 1am).  Here are my 20 pints of canned corn.

Canned corn!

Canned corn!

So from start to finish, including my “getting up in the middle of the night” time, I probably spent 6 hours on this process.  I got home from work, immediately went to the neighbors’ house, and then continued on till the wee hours of the night till I was done.  All this was done for 20 pints of fresh corn (which I will enjoy IMMENSELY in the winter months and which will be much more tasty and healthy than anything I could buy in the supermarket).  This is all very much worth it.  But it does beg the question–how am I going to balance work with homesteading activities?  I am really starting to see why (as I described in my previous post) Laura Ingalls and her family spent all their time preserving food.  The work of self sufficiency is a full-time job, and holding down a full-time job to have my land/home to be self-sufficient….the math just doesn’t add up.  Its a balancing act that is difficult.

 

Managing Time for Food Preservation

I guess if I have any words of advice it would be this–if you have to make decisions about what you will be preserving, think carefully and make sure you get the most out of your limited time.  So let’s look at the options:

1) Freezing is much quicker than canning, but it does require that one have a continuous supply of electricity (and out here on the edges of Metro Detroit, that isn’t always the case).  I don’t do much freezing at all because its depending on the system, and the system, more and more frequently, can’t handle the strain and we go for 2-3 days several times a year without power.

2) Canning is my go-to food preservation method. It takes a lot of time, so I limit my canning usually to only a few low-acid foods, or find ways to can low-acid foods in high acid environments (like say, pickles). Canned foods will keep for years and everything but the lids are reusable (apparently there are completely reusable lids out there too, but they are quite expensive and I have already invested a ton of $$ in jars this year!)

3) Drying is my other go-to food preservation method. I like to make fruit leathers, dry kale chips, and do dried tomatoes/herbs/fruits. Right now, I’m using a little electric dehydrator, but next year, its my plan to build a solar dehydrator so I can stop using the electricity to preserve these foods. I store my dried foods in canning jars because that keeps the moisture out!

4) Fermenting is another area that I’m just starting to explore. I made some dandelion wine, which is still in process, and I’ve also got a batch of sauerkraut that finally worked out (after 4-5 failed attempts). So these are small steps into the world of fermentation…I want to try making my own miso next.

All of these methods take varying degrees of work–and finding the balance of being able to preserve your foods and do some homesteading/self-sufficency and still hold down a career (all while being single) is a really tough thing indeed!

The Importance of Time Investment

I want to close by discussing the value of time.  My canned corn took no less than 5 hours of time–and I believe that’s time well spent.  Could I just got to the store and buy mechanically canned corn for less than $1 per can? Sure, but that changes my relationship with my food quite a bit.  It means that I’m purchasing and supporting a system that I no longer have faith in.  So, like everything else, how we spend our time is an important thing–by spending this time on corn, I’m making the clear choice of what has value to me.  This is no different than taking the time to support one’s spiritual path, and develop good relationships with our communities and landscapes.  What we value is reflected in how we spend our time.