The Druid's Garden

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

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

 

Life in the Extraction Zone: Complex Relationships of Livelihood and Land November 13, 2016

As I write this, threats to our lands, our environment, our oceans, and life on earth seem greater than ever before. As I write this, water protectors in North Dakota are getting beaten, arrested, tear gassed and jailed. As I write this, many folks are having difficulty understanding the decisions of so many Americans, decisions that potentially threaten our lands. As I write this, community after community find themselves in a place of needing to take a stand to those with more power and resources to defend their rights to clean water, personal safety, and a clean environment. But in many other places, people have different views–they have welcomed fracking and other energy extraction into their communities and they welcome logging and industry. It seems hard for those who are in an earth-centered and earth-honoring viewpoint to understand what would possess people to support–or even welcome–life in the extraction zone.

 

The “extraction zone” is a metaphor that I’ve heard a few friends and colleagues use here in Western PA. It suggests that we no longer live on land that is whole or protected, but that everything is up for extraction and removal–at severe cost to the land and the people’s physical, spiritual, and mental health.  It is when the removal of resources, of any kind is promoted actively over the well being of humans and lands. People too, can have their own resources–time, energy, money–extracted at the benefit of others. I think this is an unfortunately useful way of thinking not only about our experiences here among the fracking wells, but what is happening across our entire planet, of which resources are being extracted at an alarming and unsustainable rate.

 

In the druid tradition, a common exercise is working to find alternative perspectives.  One of the ways we do this is working to turn a binary into a ternary; that is, finding a third perspective. Another way is to look for understanding beyond our immediate frame of reference.  In honor of the druid tradition, today’s post explores some of the reasons and issues acceptance of life in the extraction zone and helps to, I hope, humanize those that fit on the “other side” of this debate. While I’m focusing my comments on fracking and energy extraction because that is the physical reality in which I live, I think you’ll see parallels between this analysis and more broader social patterns and political decisions about extraction of all kinds.

 

I’ve been working on the thinking behind this post for a while, and I decided this week was the time to share it, especially given the major shifts and upheavals in the political climate. (Note: This is another post in my fracking series which I haven’t been writing on too frequently because these are hard posts to write, and, I’m sure, to read. Earlier posts on this series are here: lines upon the landscape and a druid’s perspective on fracking – why we should care.  I’d suggest reading those two posts first!)

 

 

Worldviews that Support Extraction Zones

A multitude of worldviews exist at any point in time, but several dominant ones have emerged at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.  Wendell Berry, in his Unsettling of America, talks about these as the difference between nurturing worldviews and exploitative ones.  Now–I want to distinguish here that these are worldviews and actions and not people. Many modern humans exist somewhere in the nebulous (or unaware) spaces between these two worldviews or only semi-consciously support an exploitative worldview.

 

Regenerating ecosystems!

Regenerating ecosystems!

Cultivating a nurturing worldview, especially in these times, is a very conscious choice; it manifests core values and work in the world (through goals, livlihood or interactions) as healing, regenerating, and maintaining. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, but applicable to anyone, the nurturer is concerned with the long-term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned with efficiency or profit as she is with working “as well as possible” with an emphasis on care, health, and quality. Those of us seeking an earth-based spiritual path and making lifestyle changes understand how hard this nurturing work is to do in the world, but we keep striving to do so!

 

Exploitation, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner (and I would add those activities nearly any other fossil fuel or resource extraction), abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Unfortunately, this is the model that capitalism has given us, and the model that is dominant in industrialized cultures throughout the world, certainly here in the US since the first European explorers landed. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits—the land is literally viewed, and used, like a machine.  Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land, rather, exploitation works throughout all levels of a system: workers in minimum-wage and factory jobs producing and selling goods, the procurement of raw materials, the disposal of waste streams, the treatment of animals.

 

Exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, society, and norms that it’s not even seen as exploitation any longer.  It is seen as normalcy. For example, in starting to look for land to purchase a new homestead, and I see listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, no mineral rights.” Here we see it as the previous owner making as much money as he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains—stripped and bare. This is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable on a cultural and community level.

 

Case Study: Western Pennsylvania

 

One of the things that confuses is many (especially those living in more wealthy urban areas) is why a community would willingly allow fracking or other extraction activities, especially in communities that otherwise  embrace the land through hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pastimes.  The complexities of this are where we now turn.

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!

Here in Western PA, fracking supported in most communities wholeheartedly as are any other forms of resource extraction. We also have various other kinds of noxious plants and factories, including two coal-fired power plants within 15 miles of where I live (one of which is listed on the super polluter lists). When I first got to Indiana, PA, I asked local progressives about organizing around the plant. I was told that we couldn’t say anything about the plant, even the very mention of opposing it was met with fierce–and institutionalized–opposition.  I’ve also heard plans for an ethanol plant being built, without resistance, in a poor rural community about 30 miles away.  Some progressives quietly talk about their fears in organizing any kind of resistance, but that’s as far as things typically go in this area. It is nigh impossible to address an issue like poisoned waterways without community  support.

 

So why exactly do people support life in an extraction zone? It is a complex web of economic, historic, and physical roots;  I’m going to cover each of these points in turn, using Western PA as a case study but also talking about broader US and global patterns.

 

Economic Views

 

Where I live in Pennsylvania, exploitation fuels every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff and miners dying of black lung, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry that cares nothing for the quality of water systems or streams. These systems and practices are concerned with only one thing: extraction of resources to drive profit.

 

This is why I believe the most important reason that extraction is so embraced here is simple: the people in most rural areas here have no other means of sustaining themselves economically.  Neoliberal policies that essentially stopped USA from protecting its own industries (see JMG’s discussion here for a good introduction) have gutted most of the rural parts of the US and sent the once proud working class into spiraling poverty. This economic disempowerment gives them few choices other than embracing extraction and the jobs that it brings.

 

People in rural Western PA laugh at the national statistics that talk about hundreds of thousands jobs being created–they certainly haven’t seen new industries open up that are outside of the energy industry. In fact, most of rural America is in the same boat. Working class people–including many of my own family and grandparents–were proud to earn wages for a hard day’s work and proud to support their families and knew that they had a job in that industry for life.  They didn’t want handouts; they wanted to stand on their own two feet and do good work. With the industries all leaving this area in the 1980’s and 90’s to move primarily to Mexico (thanks to neoliberalism) combined with the decline of coal and steel, the once proud working class have been relegated to low-paying service jobs and folks struggle to make ends meet. When this happens on a regional level, when the town you grew up in sees factory and mill close one after another–it hits not only individual families hard, but whole communities hard. Depression sets in, drug use rises, and suicides go up. Where are folks to go? What are they to do?  How can they provide for their families? And so, when the oil and natural gas companies come in and offer good paying jobs for extraction of resources, they are welcomed with open arms.

 

Ultimately, it comes down to economics–people are willing to put up with a lot of environmental pollution in order to put food on the table for their families. They are willing to give up a lot, and tolerate a lot, in order to have work.  This, I believe, is the single most important driving factor fueling the lack of resistance to any kind of extraction activity.  This same factor, I believe, was part of the major shift in US politics this last week.

 

Historical Views

Historically, since the start of colonization, people here have been employed in industries that focused on resource extraction. Logging stripped this state nearly bare by the turn of the 20th century.  Coal mining has a long history here, of course, as well as other mines (like a salt mine in Saltsburg, PA). Steel mills were located in many towns near prosperous mines–and it is why those towns still stand today.  And so, we have an historical precedent of people extracting resources from the land, making good money doing so, and feeding their families.  I think, to many working class folks here, fracking is seen as just another manifestation of what we’ve always done.

 

Other areas may have different histories, but throughout the western world, extraction at the expense of others is a common occurrence.  When its “just what we’ve always done” it becomes more acceptable and allowable, especially in poor communities.

 

Boney dump runoff pile

Boney dump runoff pile

Physical Normalcy

The final piece I’ll discuss today has to do with the “physical normalcy” of degraded ecosystems.  I’ve written on this blog before about the boney dumps and sulfur creeks that dot the landscape, of the forests routinely logged (even our own public lands).  This is not someone else’s back yard–this is our own. We had a sulfur creek running across the street from where I went to high school; I played on boney dumps and went past them every day on the bus.  When you grow up in this environment, this idea of these remnants of life in an extraction zone becomes part of the “normalcy” that one experiences.  I remember when I left Western PA for the first time and couldn’t understand why the rivers were clean and there were no boney dumps.  Now, by this time, I had graduated summa cum laude from a good state university–and still, this physical normalcy of a damaged landscape was so built into me that it took time for me to understand that not all landscapes looked like where I grew up. I can’t help but believe that part of the acceptance of fracking here and its environmental consequences, has to do with growing up with this stuff being part of the physical landscape.

 

The truth is, at least here in the USA, few of us know what a landscape that hasn’t had severe degradation due to human extraction activities.  All around the world, we see these ecosystems: farms that are monocropped, lawns, logged forests, concrete wastelands, polluted rivers and factories.  This is very much part of our physical realty, and growing up with this physical reality and seeing it every day makes it feel more “normal” and sane.

 

A second piece of the combination of physical reality and history here concerns rights to the land itself.  Many of the “mineral rights” to the land no longer are attached to the right of physical occupancy; mineral rights were historically sold off in huge chunks for pennies on the dollar, and now with the fracking boom, new mines and new wells are being created.  Because people don’t own the actual physical right to their lands, there is nothing that can be done.  This is part of why some of our Alleghney National Forest here in PA is being fracked–the conservationists did not secure all of the mineral rights when they bought the property. Around here, if you don’t own the mineral rights, you only own the surface of the land and anyone who does own the mineral rights has a right to disrupt the surface, as they see fit, to get at the minerals.  Its a complex part of our physical reality; I suspect that other places have similar complexities.

 

A Way Forward

I think that if we are going to work to end these exploitative cycles that seem to continue to loop back around again and again in our own history, its not enough to “raise awareness” or go “protest” some new fracking well or other extraction.

 

If we want to solve these issues, we have to address the roots of them, and those roots are economic, historical, and physical.  Historically, it is useful to understand the complexities that have shaped our physical landscapes and ownership of those landscapes.  Physically, it would be helpful for us to work to regenerate landscapes, even on a small scale, to demonstrate possibilities and offer alternatives to degraded ecosystems. Economically, if people had other viable options for making a decent living with an honest day’s work, I believe we could really put a stop to many of these destructive practices.  In permaculture terms, we have to not only engage in earth care, but people care as well. I think a lot of us are trying to figure out right now what that might look like–certainly, localizing economies, localizing food systems, and building stronger communities are part of that work.  Other parts include education of others about the land, spiritual practices and pathways.

 

To close, I’ve seen a lot of well intentioned people, both within the earth-centered communities and outside of them, say things like, “why would people ever allow this?” I hope I have begun to answer this question.  There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to help address these issue, not only in terms of awareness raising but also in terms of economics and regeneration.

 

Permaculture for Druids, Part I: Sankofa and a Weaving of Past, Present, and Future September 4, 2016

Sankofa. This was the first principle taught to me during my Permaculture Teacher Training (from which I’ve just returned), by the incredible teacher Pandora Thomas. Sankofa is a word from the Twi language in Ghana that refers to the idea of it not being wrong to go back and finding something that has been forgotten, or literally, “go back and get it.”

 

Symbols of Sankofa

Symbols of Sankofa

Sankofa, the art of finding again what has been lost.

Sankofa, the importance of understanding our past to live regeneratively in our present and shape our future.

Sankofa, the knowledge of the ancestors manifest today.


Sankofa
deeply resonated within me as a druid and as a human being, someone trying hard to regenerate our lands and tread lightly upon the earth. When I look at the many movements that have touched me–of reskilling, sustainable living, natural building, community building, herbalism, permacluture, druidry–I see this principle woven into much of my current inspiration. For we are a people who have lost our path; we’ve lost the wisdom of our ancestors, of earth and water, seed and stone.  Sankofa says that its ok, that we can go back and get it.  Collectively, we can emerge from the fog of capitalism, consumerism, and industry to see that the tools and practices we need are still there, within us and found in our histories, waiting once again to come forth.

 

Sankofa, the act of finding our way again, with wisdom and guidance from the ancestors.

Sankofa, finding and renewing the ancient bonds between humans and the living earth.

Sankofa, a principle of living and being.

 

Sankofa certainly describes the work we do as druids following an earth-based spiritual path. Druid spirituality was inspired by the ancient druids and modeled, as much as we are now able, from their teachings and traditions. Druidy focuses on bringing us back to a closer relationship with the earth and rediscovering those ancient connections that humanity has always had, and still has, deep within. Druidry gives us old practices (nature observation, meditation, ritual, seasonal awareness) that are rekindled, and that help us reestablish that sacred relationship between humans and nature that had been forged over the millennia. Sankofa as a principle is fitting to describe part of what the druid tradition is about.

Regeneration

Regeneration

Likewise, sankofa is an excellent fit to describe Permaculture.  Permaculture is a system of principles and ethics, rooted in nature, that help us regenerate ecosystems and connections between ourselves, the land, and each other.  Permaculture is rooted in the idea that we can live abundantly and richly while also improving the land and ecosystem around us, that we can be in partnership, working with nature, rather than against it.  Permaculture design principles are not new; they are old principles with a new presentation fitting for today’s age. Humans through the centuries have understood–and enacted–these principles based on nature and tempered by common sense (observation, producing no waste, obtain a yield, value renewables, etc.). Before fossil fuels, these principles, implicit or explicit, were how humans lived and survived. But, for modern humans living in post-industrial times, these principles are new in the sense that we haven’t had these ways of knowing or stories shared with us in our upbringing, in our family traditions, in our educational system. The principles are no longer part of our cultural tradition or knowledge. Part of our response to the challenges of today that we collectively we face is, of course, remembering that the land is our greatest teachers, learning principles from that land, and enacting those principles again in our present reality.  What we are discovering along the way is that this practice is not only necessary, it is fun, empowering, and meaningful work. Permaculture design is a new way of framing old knowledge.

 

One of the questions I’m often asked is why I practice permaculture, as part of my druidry, and why I work to integrate these two principles. What I have found through my interweaving of permaculture and druidry is this:

 

Permaculture aligns beautifully with an earth-honoring, earth-centered spiritual practice.  Because permaculture focuses on designing from natures patterns, it helps better aligning us to the rhythms of the seasons, and regenerating landscapes intersects with spiritual and earth-centered seasonal celebrations, meditations, and studies.  It gives me additional layers through which to understand my spiritual connection to the living earth.

 

Permaculture offers us tools for empowerment and change that are not culturally appropriated, tied to any person or belief.  This is really important in a day and age where everything seems to be culturally appropriated or disconnected from its original context.  These are universal principles, used all over the world, applied uniquely in different contexts, for regeneration.

 

Permaculture offers us hope.  I get demoralized, as you’ll read from time to time on this blog, with what is going on beyond my control.  As I think anyone who is awake and alive and paying attention now feels.

 

Permaculture is one outer practice to compliment the inner practice  of druidry.  The druid tradition gives me many tools for working on my own inner landscape and spiritually aligning with the living earth; permaculture gives me the tools to do the same on the outer landscape.  As a druid and permaculture designer. I stand with my ancestors, those who understood the land and the patterns of the land, behind me, with me, weaving, and growing.

Permaculture for all!

Permaculture for all!

Last year, I wrote about the power of permaculture design as a way to regenerate the land, human-land, and human-human connections. I followed that post up with a discussion of my own five-year design site (which I moved away from last year to return to my homeland of Pennsylvania, land very much in need of regeneration). And I’ve done a smattering of posts on the topic: an introduction to the ethics of permaculture (which I’ll be returning to and expanding) and a post on the practice of self care from a druid/permaculture perspective and permaculture design sites and practices within permaculture (like sheet mulching).  These posts wove between the inner and outer landscapes, offering suggestions and thoughts on how permaculture and druid practice can be intersected and connected.  And while this entire blog has been, since its inception, dedicated to weaving between the inner and outer work of druidry as a sacred, regernative practices and has been heavily inspired by permaculture design, I think I haven’t done the underlying principles of permaculture itself enough justice.  So now, we are ready to dig into the design principles more explicitly and see how they can offer us some navigation and grounding in the time to come.

 

It is a good time to begin this series, as I have just returned from my permaculture teacher training course, with Pandora Thomas and Lisa Depiano, and feel empowered to write, grow, and learn with all of you!  With the ancestors behind us, and the possibility of the future ahead of us,  this post starts an extended series on “Permaculture for Druids” where I’ll weave principles from permaculture design with druid wisdom and explore permaculture’s place in both our inner and outer landscapes.  Like my other series (Druid Tree Workings, Sacred Trees, and Land Healing), I’ll do this over a number of months with some other scattered posts on non-permaculture topics woven in between.  Blessings!

 

A Spring Equinox Message: The Gifts of Druidry in the World March 20, 2016

Today marks the Spring Equinox, Alban Eiler, a time of new beginnings, of the balance between light and darkness, between summer and winter, between hope and despair.  Given the energy of today, and the challenges before us, I’d like to take some time to frame what I see as some of  druidry’s gifts to the world–the things that a druid path can do for the land and its peoples. I’m particularly  motivated to write this post today because today marks the end of my 10th year as a druid and I am moving into my second decade along this path–and so I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve had along the way.  I want to start with a disclaimer–as the adage goes, if you ask 5 different druids what druidry means to them, you’ll get 10 different answers. I am not speaking on behalf of all druids or for all of druidry, but here today, I am speaking my own truth and path, as I am apt to do on this blog :).

 

Early Sunrise

Early Sunrise

Look around at the land and waters that–in whatever shape that landscape is in.  At one time, that land was deeply loved and respected. Humans who lived there cultivated a sacred connection and awareness with it. All indigenous cultures have cultivated such relationships, and all of our bloodlines trace back to some indigenous culture or another if we go far enough back. Before industrialization, or even agriculture, our relationship with the land was much, much different. Our ancestors, rooted in the places they were, knew every inch of the edge of the river and how to build rafts to navigate the rocks and fish. They knew the medicine of root and stem and seed. They knew where the harvests came at what time of the year, and how not to take too much. They knew the names of the trees, the spirits of the animals, and were intimately connected with their surroundings. They knew that their own survival depended on the delicate balance that they had the privileged and responsibility of maintaining. The plants evolved with humans, so much so, that many of the most food and medicine-rich plants depend on us for survival, for nurturing, for scattering their seeds. How did that happen? Over countless millennia, we evolved together, creating mutual dependencies. This is why Pennsylvania forests used to be 30% chestnut–that wasn’t by accident, that was by human design (for more on this, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild). Imagine being the land, the spirits of the land, and holding those memories of the time before.

 

And then, many things changed and time moved on. Knowledge and sacred connections lost, so much so that today, most people can’t identify more than a handful of plants or trees and do not even have basic knowledge of the world around them.  Instead, humans today in industrialized countries are sold a myth, the myth of progress ,strong as any other of religious belief, and embraced with the same kind of furor (see John Michael Greer’s works, particularly Not the Future we Ordered for more on this perspective). Wrapped up the myth of progress are myths of the importance of consumer goods, of smartphones and electronics that must be replaced every two years, of chemical-ridden pesticides that lace our foods and invade our bodies.

 

Supporting that myth allows the whole-sale pillaging of the land and its inhabitants. Supporting that myth allows national forests to be fracked, the same patches of forest to be repeatedly logged for two centuries, our waterways to be filled with poisons, our mountaintops removed. These are things that I witness every day here, in my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western PA. If relationships to the land were a pendulum, we humans of toady have swung so far in the other direction from our indigenous ancestors, or even those living closer to the land a few centuries before.

 

Our lands, waters, and plant spirits still hold the memories of those who came before, of the relationships that once were cultivated.  There is, among them, a great mourning and loss collectively. They hold memories of humans who used to care for them so carefully. Here in the Americas, at least here in Pennsylvania, that sacred relationship between land and human was abruptly severed several centuries ago with the driving out of the native peoples and the re-settlement of Pennsylvania by those of European decent. With the new humans, the last centuries saw tremendous amounts of pillaging and destruction, fueled by the myth of progress.

 

Since that time, and to today, the myth of progress changes our behaviors and relationship radically with nature. Humans, here in the US, now spend 87% of their time indoors and another 6% of their time in automobiles or other forms of enclosed transit.  That means just seven percent of the average American’s life today is spent outside. And of that seven percent, how much is spent mowing the grass? Spraying dandelions? Walking on pavement among tall buildings?  How much of that seven percent is spent with our heads in our phones rather than looking around us?  And beyond these statistics, I think there’s a general disregard for life, for nature that is dominant in our collective cultural understanding.

 

Druidry, I believe, is one good sign that the pendulum is starting to swing back in the right direction. Humans are once again are seeking that ancestral connection to the land that is still in our blood, and in the memories of the forests, the stones, the rivers. Learning how to see, and interact, with nature is critical to helping that pendulum swing back in the other example.  As a very simple example, last week, I was walking back from campus after teaching, and I came across a cluster of cut-back bramble bushes. I looked at those canes, getting just ready to bud, with tiny tufts of green coming from out of the buds, and I could see the promise of spring there. I was looking forward to the Equinox, and also feeling the sadness at seeing things budding a month earlier than usual due to climate change. The tips of the canes, too, held a tremendous surprise–when sliced longways (which someone had done recently to trim them), the cane of the blackberry bush forms a 5 pointed star, a pentagram, not so dissimilar from the pentagram I found in the chickweed plant some years ago. This cultivation of the sacred is, in part, observing sacred patterns of nature, unfolding around me, on my daily walk home from campus. And noticing the nature–the birds, the trees, appriciating them and knowing their names. And its more than patterns–the bramble holds medicine, food, protection–and as a druid, I’ve worked to learn about all of its gifts.  As I look in awe at the bramble, I wonder how many people have cultivated such a sacred relationship with the land in this area? That even would look at the bramble and be willing to look closer?

 

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

As a Druid, you might be the first adult person in several generations to see that land with something other than indifference, profit, or going into the land for the sole purpose of taking. As a druid, you might be the first to enter those lands again, in a long time, to see those lands not only in appreciation, but as sacred spaces. You might be the first who is willing to tend those lands again, to help heal, to help regenerate, to give rather than pillage and take. When I, as a druid, walk into the forest, I am often aware that I am reconnecting with lands that have not been thought of, or engaged with, as sacred for a very long time. What a gift it is to the land, to really see it. To interact with it. To hold it sacred. To be willing to learn and grow with it–in it–through it. To walk and see the buds on the trees, to see the medicine growing up out of the cracks of the sidewalks. I’m not just talking about the wild places here, but all places. You can sense the sacredness of the soil, even below the buildings that sit on it. You realize that there is no unsacred space, that all spaces and places, regardless of their damage, are still part of this great living earth–as you, too, are a natural part of it.

 

For many druids, interacting with the land in a sacred way is one of your gifts to the world–and it is an incredibly powerful gift that takes a lifetime of exploration to truly understand and realize.

 

The act of opening yourself up to these experiences are, for many, the first steps down the druid path. As one of the Archdruids in AODA, I spend a lot of time talking with new druids on the path and mentoring druids who are just starting their journey and studies. I read letters that they write that tell us about why they want to become druids, what they hope to gain from druidry. So many times, it seems that rebuilding that connection to nature is one of the key reasons that they join. To many people, when they first find druidry, are excited.  They often say, “This is the path that describes me, as I already am!”  This gives them a word that finally fits their self-image, the person that they are becoming with each passing breath and each cycle of the sun and moon. And every one of those letters, without fail, talks about reconnecting to the natural world!

 

Another tragic part of the myth of progress, asks us to give our power, especially our creative gifts, up and to let others provide us entertainment.  It saps our creative energy, and we are disempowered as creative thinkers and doers in the world.  Therefore, a second major gift of druidry, I believe, is regaining that creative force, the flow of awen, and using it for good in our own lives and in the lives of others in the world. Even the act of meditation alone allows us to “clear” our minds; the AODA’s sphere of protection or OBOD’s light body exercises allow for the Awen to flow within us again. And we desperately need these creative responses here and now–through music, poetry, artwork, dance, painting, crafts, the written word–to help us make sense of, process, and respond to what is going on. The creative arts help us make sense of the world and what is happening and can reach people meaningfully and deeply in ways that we otherwise could not.  At least in my own experience, my path in the bardic arts helps give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves and to cultivate reconnection through my writings on this blog, my artwork, my teaching, and more.

 

Get out into the world!

Get out into the world!

The world is changing quickly around us, and for many, darkness appears to be settling in. Things are growing more frenzied, more desperate, more terrifying. The true tolls of incessant pillaging of the planet are now so visible and known, and will continue unfold in the years and generations to come. Just a few weeks ago, we passed the 2 degree threshold that so many have said, over the years, that we shouldn’t pass.  Those in denial are, well, still in denial, and the temperature keeps rising. But the rest of us must understand and work with our own grief, our own responses. Many come to druidry because they are looking for some path forward through this mess, and Druidry helps them take such a path, a path deeper into the landscape, into their own creative gifts, and through the difficulty that we are all facing.  Druidry, perhaps, gives us hope and reconnection–exactly the kind of thing, I believe, we need as we move forward into this unknown and terrifying territory. Many druids find themselves integrating spiritual responses with other kinds of responses–permaculture, for example, is a fantastic “get your hands dirty” compliment to this path (and certainly, its a big part of my own druid practice).

 

To wrap up, some of the greatest gifts I see of druidry are (in true triad form):

  • A gift to the land through the cultivation of a sacred relationship, awareness, and active healing work, but also through recognizing, confronting, and doing something about the predicament we face as a planet.
  • A gift to its people through the cultivation of the creative human arts, to give the land voice in the world through music, story, song, artwork, dance and more.
  • A gift to ourselves and to the nurturing of our souls, to give us tools, and outlets of response and the freedom to engage in bardic arts that reconnect humans and their landscape.

 

Finding the druid path is a gift, a blessing, and the ramifications of it go well beyond just ourselves. Often, for the first few years down this path, you are absorbing, like a sponge, all that you can–and things are very inward focused. You have a lot of healing work to do on your own inner landscape, and that’s critical work to do, work that will take a lifetime. But at some point, that sponge becomes full, and you are now ready to reverse the process, and give those gifts back to thee world. Druidry is a gift to the world, if we make it so. And on this sacred day, when so many things hang in the balance, it helps us re-balance our own lives, hearts, and souls.

 

Wildtending, Earth Healing, and Gathering and Sowing the Seeds January 2, 2016

Calling all land regenerators, earth walkers, and friends of the weeds!  You can help heal our lands, today, with the resources you have and the love you have to give.  What if, instead of doing less harm or less baad, we could do good?  We could work to heal?  In this post, I’m going to talk about the process of gathering, scattering, and sowing seeds, nuts, and roots in regenerating our lands. This perspective is of the wildtender, the seed scatterer, the weed wise wo(man). This is four-part series on Wildtending that I’ll be presenting over the next month–the first giving the “how to” and philosophy (this post) spiraling from my earlier writings throughout this year. So, grab a handful of seeds, nuts, and roots and let’s get started.

 

The Man Who Planted Trees

I recently came across a story called “The Man who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness” by Jean Giono. His story talks about the actions of one man, Elzéard Bouffier, who planted trees in a barren plane, and over a period of years, planted a huge forest on the barren landscape where he lived–the forest brought back water, people, and abundant life. One man’s small mission ended up transforming the lives of so many. Before you continue reading my post, I really, really, really suggest you stop and read his story.  (A PDF of the full story is here: The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness; A Youtube Animated Video is here.)  This story is empowering–it shows us that the actions of one person, determined, over time, can really regenerate a whole ecosystem.

 

Wild crafting and wild tending

I talk a lot about wildcrafting on this blog, both in terms of wild food foraging and healing medicine. And I firmly believe that gathering from the land is important. Wildcrafting is the half of the equation that gets people into the woods or into a field of weeds–going off to find wild mushrooms or berries, reconnecting to nature, and taking nature within ourselves. Its the half that encourages people to help protect wild lands and places.  Its the half that allows nature to heal us through her mere presence and through her medicine. Its the half that helps people appreciate nature and her bounty–but its only half of the equation and that’s an important piece to understand.

When you forage in lands that are abundant and healthy, you can’t see the need for doing anything but being present and thankful, maybe taking a handful of the seeds from what you are harvesting and scattering them a little further as a sign of thanks. However, when the plants that you found in abundance in one area are non-existent in another, you start to see patterns of problems that emerge. In fact, it was my wildcrafting practice in PA, in such damaged and pillaged lands, that has led me to this line of thinking and understanding.

Stories like “The Man Who Planted Trees” remind me of the importance of balance, a principle resonated in the ying-yang, or the sun-moon, or any other balanced pairing.  This is that wildcrafting (that is, ethically harvesting from  from nature) must be balanced with wildtending (that is, returning to or giving to nature). Our lands desperately need wildtending.

 

A Partner in Healing the Land

The web of life

The web of life

The most important thing to understand about wildtending is this: Nature already knows how to heal herself.  All we have to do is to help setup the right conditions for healing. We need to literally sow the seeds and help the soil–and nature will do the rest!

 

The problem we face today is simple: nature doesn’t always have the seeds or resources she needs to heal. We have a tremendous loss of biodiversity (both plant and animal life) caused by severe damage to our lands, from clear-cutting or logging forests, to creating of monocrop industrialized agriculture and lawns, to spraying and toxins. Mines and factories are polluting our rivers. Our topsoils are being eroded at an alarming rate. On top of this, our infrastructure (roads, fields, cities) and human activities prevent the natural spread of seeds and roots; further, the decline in bird populations and wildlife that would spread the seeds mean that less seeds are spread. At literally every point in our ecosystem–something is causing damage.

 

Finally, humans themselves, who used to tend the land and spread seed regularly, no longer engage in this practice.  We don’t know how, for one, and most of us are afraid to do so, for fear of causing more harm.  Even for those who see the land as sacred, who hear the land’s call–we are so afraid to do anything that might harm her further.

 

And yet, the need is great. Most of our forests and lands–even those that *appear* healthy when you walk into them, are currently devoid of may major medicinals and botanicals that once grew abundantly there.  Many critically endangered plants don’t thrive on disturbance like their weedy cousins–rather, they thrive in areas that are undisturbed.  And what forest or field has remained undisturbed in the last few hundred years, at least in the USA? Very, very few. This means we have a situation where its harder for nature to heal because she lacks the seed stores and biological diversity to do so.

 

I’ll give you an direct example here of what I mean–in the forest below my parents’ house, almost 90% of it has been repeatedly logged–except for about a 5 acre section which, for whatever reason, has been largely spared.  This section is perfect for growing certain wet and dark-loving forest plants due to its wet conditions and small early-year springs.  Abundant ramps, along with blue cohosh, white and red trillium, may apples, and trout lilies are all over this small piece of land. Everything I’ve listed, with the exception of trout lilies, show up on one of the United Plant Saver’s “at risk” or “to watch” lists–endangered medicinal and key species of plants, now disappearing from our lands. An invisible line is present in that forest–as soon as you step into the areas that have been logged within the last 30 years, the forest floor is no longer carpeted with these spring plants–instead, its mostly bare on the forest floor. Now to be clear–nothing else appears to be changed–the forest canopy is still there, the larger trees grow around.  Only knowing the history of this land, and where has been disturbed, and where hasn’t been, allows me to understand the dividing line between ecological sanctuary and ecological wasteland.

 

A carpet of magical plants...this is the area that hasn't been logged recently

A carpet of magical plants…this is the area that hasn’t been logged recently

There are lots of spaces just like this forest–spaces that used to have important plants and biodiversity, and due to various human activities, no longer do.  Only knowing what once grew there can help us bring it back. The practice of wild tending and seed scattering is putting the tools–the plants–back in nature’s hands for healing work.

 

 

Principles of Wildtending: What to Do?

Wildtending can take many different approaches, but the one we’ll talk about today is the magic of the seed. The magic of the seed is something that each of us can know. A simple practice is to start a seed on a paper towel and to simply watch it grow.  The lessons within the seed are profound. You get this same experience when you watch sprouts on your counter–that magical seed breaks forth from its casing and sends roots down and a shoot up.  Some seeds are so special that they pull moisture towards themselves and retain it for earlier and easier sprouting. It is embracing this magic of the seed where we can start our work.

 

How do I know what do do?  The first big question in wildtending is this–how do I know what to sow? How do I know it will be beneficial and not harmful? The two keys are the act of careful observation and second is ecological knowledge.

 

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

Careful observation. As I grow more and more deeply into my herbalist practice, it has given me perspective on the number and abundance of plants of many different kinds. Where you can find calamus (sweet flag), skullcap, or lobelia; how rare plants like goldenseal or even black cohosh are to see.  As a permaculture designer, I also know how to look at ecosystems and understand their needs–how they function, the different roles of plants, and how to encourage ecological succession and healing.  These two perspectives, I think, help me answer this question.

 

This question must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depend on what they are lacking, and you figuring out what that might be.  There are, however, a few places to begin. I want to draw your attention to an organization that has been around since the 1970’s, started by Rosemary Gladstar called The United Plant Savers.  They have a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings.

 

I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been reseeded with native plants that you can go visit and learn from? These are good places to look.  For example, a set of local books (nearly all older) helped me fill in the gaps.  About six months ago, I found key information on what PA’s forests had been like prior to clear cutting in an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to logging.  I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 20% of our forests!  I don’t think this was by accident, but by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans who lived here and tended the wilds).

 

How do I know I won’t do more harm than good? I also want to speak here about fear.  A lot of people don’t want to do this kind of thing cause they are afraid of screwing up nature, planting something “wrong.” Let me tell you–so many people are doing things wrong right now, and very little of it has anything to do with wanting to be of service and help.

 

I suggest using your mind and your heart.  In terms of using your mind,  As long as you research carefully,stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), its hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil–pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with (milkweed or pleurisy root are great first time plants for my bioregion) and start there. Its also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Principles of Wildtending: How do I know what to plant?

 

Different ecosystems require different kinds of seeds and approaches. I have divided up my efforts here based on the ecosystem and immediate need. Let’s start by examining the concept of a “plant guild” in Permaculture and then move into some specific approaches based on different ecosystems.

 

Understanding Plant Communities (Guilds): If you know enough about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work together (I think about the spring ephemeral plants in the patch of forest I discussed earlier–ramps, dutchman’s breeches, trillium, mayflowers, and blue cohosh along with woodland nettles, all under maples, oaks, and cherries primarily).  Our goal, as land tenders, should be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (the horizon). For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, patrtidgeberry); vining (ground nut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers. (For more on this in a home gardening/home ecosystem context, look at material found here and in the really great free PDF here.).

 

Likewise, permaculture recognizes that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere else is not a monocrop but a set of plants that often work in conjunction (that’s not to say there isn’t competition, but there is also a lot of collaboration). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” These could include nitrogen fixers (most legumes), nutrient accumulators/dyanmic accumulators (those that pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, like burdock or comfrey); nectary plants (pollen and nectar plants), biomass plants (those that create carbon-rich soil; like leaves from the fall); along with any edible or medicinal qualities. Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

A field of milkweed--a rare sight today.

A field of milkweed–a rare sight today.

 

As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what seeds to scatter:

  1. The height of the plant and growth habits
  2. The plant’s own needs for light and water
  3. What the plant does and offers (consider for many herbs bloom times and nectar)
  4. The plant’s endangered status more broadly or population locally
  5. The distinct context you are planting; considering long-term growth and other people’s actions

I haven’t given you specific lists of plants here because my lists would not be the same as your lists–this is work that each of us needs to do.  I can share my lists, and  I hope that others can share theirs as well!  I will be sharing some of my typical lists below.  I’d also recommend for those really serious to this work to check out Dave Jackie’s Edible Forest Gardens books–they contain the most detailed information on plant guilds for more cultivated plants (although I am generally distrustful of the herbal information in their books, they are otherwise really fantastic).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Places Nobody Cares About

James Howard Kunsler talks at length about the places and spaces that “nobody cares about” in relationship to urban planning and architecture.   I believe we can apply this same principle to our lands. The strip of bare earth behind a strip mall; the insipid moncrops along our highways; the recent construction site stripped bare of its soil; even the logged forest quickly regrowing.  These places, places that have been exploited and stripped, are prime areas for us to begin our wildtending work.  Why? They are places that nobody cares about, that nobody is tending–and those are the places that need wildtenders the most.

 

Bare Earth, Damaged Soil.  Sometimes you come across a place that has no topsoil and is simply exposed bare earth. These kind of situations, from my perspective, are “triage” situations–and this is where the plants that many call “invasives” thrive (after the soil is re-established, these plants almost always disappear and ecological succession continues). Road construction is a good example; when they are done, they maybe will scatter some seeds or plant some grass, but really, a lot of it just sits bare.  Another good choice is a bare area where logging occurred and its having difficulty coming back.  Or, one that I’ve been studying quite a bit since returning home–a “boney dump” where mine refuse (primary shale, still bare after 50-100 years) was piled up in huge piles and left to sit (I’ll write about these at length one of these days).  Or when the utility company comes through and digs something up, then leaves without planting anything.  There are lots of “bare earth” places in our landscape, and usually they are neglected.  These are *perfect* opportunities to begin our work as land tenders!

 

In these kinds of situations, think really carefully about how far along the ecological succession line you want to encourage this piece of ground to grow.  If its under power lines, planting a bunch of oaks is not the wisest course of action because in 20 years, they will be cut down.  Instead, here, I’d encourage a herbaceous and groundcover plants would work well or shrubbery that won’t get that high and that will provide good nutrition or forage or nitrogen fixing or whatever it is you want to provide. The combinations of plants that I’ve used on these kind of situation are:  butterfly weed (pluresy root) being one of my favorites and on the endangered list, milkweeds, along with burdock, Echinacea (mid-season bloom), New England Aster (for late blooms), Mullein (medicinal), and Alfalfa (nitrgoen fixer, mid-season bloom).  These plants thrive in full sun kinds of situations and once established, are perennial.  Not to mention that if there isn’t spraying happening, you can come back at some point, gather more seeds, and maybe even some medicine if the conditions are ok for it :).

 

Places no one cares about...

Places no one cares about…

The Monocrop. Along our highways in many parts of the USA, we see the monocrop.  Driving to visit friends and observing the highways in different seasons of the year was actually one of the inspirations for this whole line of thinking and practice–I was thinking to myself how many millions of acres are along highways and how so few of them grow anything beneficial to the land. These are also, in James Howard Kunsler’s terms, spaces that nobody cares about.

 

In the case of many of our highways in PA, they only mow the very edges, and many of them are on un-mowable hillsides.  Usually after road construction, bridge building, etc, the highway has been replanted with crown vetch or grass….essentially, a monocrop.  The thinking here is not about the ecosystem at all but about keeping something on the surface to prevent drainage and erosion. But, dear friends, we can do better.  I actually like some of the same mix for this that I shared above–in this case, my focus is really on nectar-producing plants to help our pollinators along.  My other focus is on making sure there are pockets of plants that can function like “arcs” to spread ones that we need more of along. For these spaces, I use seed balls (see my upcoming 3rd post in the series) which can easily be lobbed from a car when nobody is looking or late at night!

 

Another place that’s good for this is along train tracks–again, places nobody cares about.  You can cultivate really incredible and diverse ecosystems here on these edge spaces.

 

The Nooks and Crannies: There are lots of little nooks and crannies, small patches of land without much growing on them.  They are really all over the place–just open your eyes and see what you can add :).

 

Ecosystems in Need of Wildtending: Established Ecosystems

The strips of bare land are only one kind of wildtending that can be done.  After nature begins her own process of healing, you’ll find a beautiful tangle or thicket of wild plants, although, depending on the area, you might not find diversity.  Here, our mission is a bit different–simply to bring more biodiversity and help support waning plant populations.

 

The Recovering Edge of Land. You’ll come across the wild patch that was once barren and has sprung up again–this collection of beautiful plants (not weeds) often comes forth from whatever was there before in the soil and remained or whatever was wind-blown or bird-dropped into that small space.  In my area, these small patches are usually full of goldenrod and late-blooming white aster, maybe some brambles or staghorn sumac.  I like to add a bit of diversity to these small patches and encourage the spread of certain kinds of plants–milkweed is a favorite of mine for these spaces, and if its a little damp, I also like to add st. john’s wort, blue vervain and echinacea.  I also like to plant hardwoods here to help encourage ecological succession long-term.

 

The Recovering Fields.  Then there are the fields that were once farmed, and for whatever reason, are no longer farmed and are slowly returning to forest.  I have a two-pronged approach for this–one is to encourage plant diversity during ecological succession (and my favorite for this are the plants mentioned above as well as berry crops like wild black raspberry), but my longer goal here is to spread hardwood species of trees that are very rare.  My particular selection of trees is based on the context of Western PA–these are the trees that don’t recover well after logging and/or were intentionally cut: oak (especially white oak), chestnut (blight resistant), slippery elm (endangered), hickory (of all kinds, especially shagbark), butternut, and walnut.  I also think about the understory trees and the need for other kinds of fruit, and plant hawthorn and apple trees (and pawpaw, especially, if I can get my hands on seeds).

 

Woodlands. Just because you see a mature woodland doesn’t mean the species growing there are necessarily all the species that once did.  For regenerating this kind of space, I focus my energies on targeted endangered species that need to be re-introduced to our woodlands.  I do this carefully though, depending on the kind of forest I’m in.

In Pennsylvania at least, this land was almost entirely stripped to the bare earth during the logging boom that started in the 19th and carried through till the early 20th century.  Even since then, logging of much of PA continues.  While many of our lands repopulated (as nature has a way of doing that), delicate species may not have repopulated with them.  Delicate species, often those having high medicinal value or having slow propagation times (or both) have never recovered.

Scattering New England Aster seeds....

Scattering New England Aster seeds….

 

Sites that will not be logged again– This is typically where I focus my energies in forests currently.  These are sites that may be actively protected (State Forests or local forests) or other lands that are private but owned by people who won’t cut them. After the devastation of logging 100 years ago, a lot of forests around here are now 2nd or 3rd growth forests.  The 500 acre patch of land here that I often visit here in my town is like that–you can find remnants of buildings and foundations in there, and there are fracking wells in there, but largely, the land has regrown. Its primarily a tulip-chestnut oak-red oak-maple forest, with a lot of birch and a few beeches as well.  Its a healthy forest in terms of trees, but there isn’t a lot of forest floor plants.  So my focus in this area is twofold.  First, I work to bring back chestnuts, which once comprised upwards of 15-20% of our forests.  I do this by planting chestnuts in areas where there is a “gap” with the hopes that they might make it–e.g. a large tree has fallen, allowing a patch for something new to grow up.  I also plant understory trees that can make it–paw paw here is my favorite of these.  Second, I work to bring back woodland medicinals currently under severe threat: goldenseal, ginseng, and black cohosh. There are others, but these are the three I’m learning to grow and cultivate, both in terms of how to help them grow and also in the specific ecosystems they like.

 

Sites that will be logged again – I don’t always do much with these sites in terms of planting new medicine or trees, as I’m still learning which plants can recover from this kind of abuse. Right now, most of my work with forests in the logging rotation is energetic healing work (more on this in later posts, some of this is also here).  I think this will change as I discover which plants can survive and which can help a forest recover quickly.  As a simple example of this, I return to the patch of forest behind my parents’ house.  I see what the logging does to those critical woodland species, and I’m not sure trying to bring them back in the face of more logging makes any sense. My point is that sites that have ongoing ecological devastation might not be the best for this kind of work–but there’s still much we can do.

 

Wildtending as Everyday Practice

Now that we’ve talked about what to plant, where to plant it, and all of that, its time to talk about how to build this into your practice.  It can actually be really simple and all it takes is a little extra preparation.  If you are already in the business of going outside fairly often, have some seeds or nuts with you that are appropriate for the areas where you’ll be planting. Seeds are resilient–even if they are planted at the wrong season, they can often survive in the wild and come back up the following spring.  The very first and best thing you can do is start scattering seeds that are appropriate, popping nuts in the ground, and go from there.  If you see small seedling trees coming up that won’t make it where they are sprouting, dig them up and take them somewhere where they will thrive.  This work is simple, and can be built into your existing forays into this great, beautiful planet.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve outlined a number of different ways you might work to be a wildtender as much as a wildcrafter.  I hope you’ll take up the call! Look for the plants that we need in more abundance that benefit our ecosystem, that heal our bodies, that encourage health and forage.  Start with the list on United Plant Savers, and also consider trees that are in need of more planting in your bioregion. These plants and trees…let’s sow them–everywhere.  Scatter them far and wide.  Gather their seeds and spill them out of our skirts and pockets.  Throw seed balls (I’ll talk about these in an upcoming post) into recently grated highway dirt piles, “waste land” or stripped soil. Let’s work with our plant allies to put down the deep roots and begin the healing process.

 

Embracing the Weeds: Weedwalking, Weedtending, Weedcrafting November 29, 2015

A great place for finding some good weeds!

A great place for finding some good weeds!

Weeds. The term conjures up images of plants that are unwanted and unloved, the bane of township “noxious weed ordinances” and suburbanites, and the quiet recipient of so many unfounded assumptions. Yet these are the plants that are the best medicine, that give us regeneration and life in our soils. These are the plants that can grow in harsh conditions (dry conditions, drought, sidewalk cracks, even handle some chemical sprays) when so many others fail. These weeds are the plants that tend our wounds, that detoxify our bodies, that provide valuable forage for pollinators, that break up compacted soil, that heal our lands. Weeds also occupy a really important niche in our ecosystem–these are often nature’s healing plants, those who come in to begin the process of ecological succession so that nature can heal. We do everything to “avoid weeds” and yet, they are there with arms open, waiting for us to sit and learn their quiet teachings.  This post provides some information on the benefits of common weeds: their medicinal, edible, and land regenerating virtues and unpacks our understanding of the weed.

 

A house near my parents’ house has been vacant for some time and was recently on the market for sale.  The bank kept the front of the house somewhat mowed, but the backyard and side yards (about an acre and a half or so) were unmowed most of last year and this year. It was absolutely incredible to see what grew up out of that lawn in a year and a half–so much sacred plant medicine. The magic of ecological succession, rising up there out of the grass, to form a more complete ecosystem. My mom and I spent inordinate amounts of time in that beautiful, wild jungle gathering herbs for medicine: it had abundant chickweed, yellow dock, burdock, queen anne’s lace, hawkweed, ox-eye daisy, wild strawberry, red clover, goldenrod, and much more. A good 1/4 of the medicine I wildcrafted this year alone came from that yard! About a month and a half ago, the house was sold. Before the new neighbors moved in in, we looked at the mowed areas–it was almost all lifeless, the dead plants yellowing, the bare soil exposed. It was awful. Just around the time the new neighbors moved in, someone hit the edges of the property with Round Up. The beautiful goldenrod, still in bloom in the late season, browned quickly to a crisp, dead and done. I came to visit a few days after the spraying, and I sat on the edge of the property and cried for those lovely plants that had so quickly met their fate at the hands of the sprayer and the mower. I thought about the wild beehive living in a beech tree less than 1/4 mile away that had been coming here for food and forage (and bees are much on my mind these days, given my own hive loss). I thought about all the plant medicine now lost, mainly out of ignorance for the land, the adherence to the need for “lawn” without mindfulness for other possibilities. And I was determined to write something beautiful and moving about these “weeds.” So join me on this journey of healing medicine and land healing through the weeds.

 

Unpacking our understanding and relationship to weeds

 

The English Language is just full of problematic terms that drive our understanding of the world–the term “weed” is no exception.  The thing about words is that a single word can have layers of unconsidered assumptions and meanings within it–by labeling a plant a “weed”, we relegate it immediately to something unwanted, unloved, useless, problematic, and noxious. Calling  a plant a weed removes other possibilities–of its healing, of its benefit to the ecosystem and to other life– from our minds. To see the extent of this problematic relationship, let’s look at the OED’s entry for weed: “A herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank, and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation… Applied to a shrub or tree, especially to a large tree, on account of its abundance… An unprofitable, troublesome, or noxious growth.” Yowzas. That’s a pretty condescending description of weeds; no wonder the people who bought the house mowed them down and sprayed the edges! I’ll also note, for those who are regular readers of this blog, how quickly we see the language of exploitation working its way into this definition: note the word “profitable” and also “superior vegetation.” I’d like to meet the person who wrote that entry and take him or her on a weed walk!

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Embracing the Weeds

So the question is, what can we do about it? The good news is that there is a lot we can do and it takes a number of forms: weedhealing, weedwalking/talking, and weedtending. Embrace those weeds!  Learn their medicine and magic!  See them for the incredible plant healers that they are!

 

Weedhealing

Let’s start with weedhealing, or learning about healing our bodies and lands with the weeds. Following Kiva Rose’s lead, I have attempted to create a basic list of those weeds that are frequently found in the Midwest/Northeast bioregion and that are particularly helpful to humans and the ecosystem. This is just a short list–the plants are much more numerous and abundant than this! One other point–nearly all of these “weeds” are those that thrive on disturbed ground and heal that ground–disturbance can mean mowing, scraping off the topsoil, logging, and more. So let’s take a look at a few of these common “weeds” and the benefits they provide to all:

 

Asters (New England, Other Aromatics, symphyotrichum novae-angliae): Asters, belonging to the asteraceae (dasiy) family have a number of benefits to ourselves and the ecosystem.

  • Ecosystem: As late blooming nectary plants, they offer bees and wild pollinators some of the last food of the season.  And have I mentioned that asters make fantastic honey?
  • Medicine:  New England Aster is one of my key plant allies for managing my chronic asthma–it functions as a lung relaxant and lung tonic, opening up bronchial passageways and rebuilding the strength of the lungs.  Here’s another write up on New England Aster’s medicinal potential from Jim McDonald, the person who first taught me about this plant.

 

Burdock (Articum Lappa, Articum Minus): Burdock is an incredible wild food and medicine.

  • Ecosystem: In the ecosystem, Burdock accumulates nutrients from its deep tap root, offers long-term forage for pollinators, and working to prevent erosion.  Burdock, along with dandelion, is often the first to pop up and cover bare soils, beginning to address compaction and break up hard soils.
  • Medicine: This delightful plant has so many medicinal uses (too many for this short list), but in a nutshell, burdock is an alternative tonic, that is, it reliably helps the body detoxify by supporting liver function and supports the liver over time in a nutritive and regenerative way. It has a tonic action also on the metabolism, supports and nourishes the body, and has a substance known as inulin, a prebiotic that aids digestive processes. The theme here is that burdock supports a healthy digestive system in a variety of ways. Burdock is also really useful for skin conditions like eczema.  More on medicinal qualities of burdock from Jim McDonald can be found here.
  • Food: The Japanese treat Burdock root (which they call “gobo”) as a vegetable–take a look for it at Asian markets. Have I mentioned that its tasty and delicious? I treat it pretty much identical to a carrot or parsnip in dishes.  Young burdock shoots (before they get hard and flower) are also quite delicious–you cut them, peel off the outer bark, and eat fresh or sauteed in butter. Note that the root taste is determined, to some extent, in the soil they are growing in.

 

Chickweed (stella media): This gentle, creeping herb that is abundant in the fall and spring is one of my personal favorites.

  • Ecosystem: Chickweed blooms for a very long time in the spring and fall, providing nectar and forage for insects; seed-feeding birds eat chickweed seeds.
  • Medicine: Chickweed is one of my primary ingredients in my healing salve (along with couple of other plants on this list), which demonstrates its ability to help heal cuts, scrapes, bug bites, and other wounds.  Another way that Chickweed is used is that it is an alterative, metabolic tonic (it is thought to work on underactive thyroids, drying and causing the release of fluids).  I’ve used it in this way quite successfully!
  • Food: Like Burdock, Chickweed can be eaten as a food and you can gain medicinal effect. My favorite way to eat chickweed (leaves and stems) is just as a fresh salad green although you can also lightly boil it and serve similar to spinach.  Chickweed is high in vitamin C, iron, and phosophorous.

 

More than enough dandelion here for wine, jelly, dye, food, and the insects!

More than enough dandelion here for wine, jelly, dye, food, and the insects!

Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale): Oh dear dandelion, you are so maligned but so amazing for us and the land.

  • Ecosystem: Similar to Burdock, Dandelion’s long taproot (up to a foot or longer in younger plants) help break up compacted soil and bring up nutrients.  Dandelions are some of the first spring pollen for wild pollinators (this is a protein source used to reproduce; without dandelion pollen in spring, pollinators might be forced to sacrifice protein from their own bodies for their young).  Over 100 pollinating insects frequent dandelion flower heads along with deer, rabbits, pheasants, and grouse.  Seed heads are favored by many birds, including goldfinches, sparrows, and indigo buntings.  All this from the lowly dandelion, and I haven’t even gotten to medicine yet!
  • Medicine: Dandelion is one of the premier “spring tonic” plants, working specifically on the kidneys and bladder (diuretic action) and the liver.  It also offers a delightful bitter taste, which is extremely important for healthy and functioning digestion.
  • Food and Drink: Dandelion flowers make a great wine, the roasted roots can be used for a coffee substitute and to stimulate the digestive system; the fresh greens can be sauteed, used as a salad, or added to various dishes.  Dandelions, like chickweed, are dominant in the spring and sometimes have a second growth spurt in the fall.

 

Goldenrod (Solidago Spp): Goldenrods are native perennial flowers of the late summer and early fall.  They are abundant and native to North America.  Here in PA, they are the dominant fall flower

  • Ecosystem: Goldenrod is host to a very wide variety of insect life–Eastman suggests that few other plants host so many different insects in North America (one study suggested over 240 insects).  These range from katydids,parasitic wasps, honeybees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, wasps, and a wide range of butterflies: giant swallowtails, monarchs, common sulfurs and the goldenrod stowaway moth.  This variety of insect life, of course, attracts birds and mammals higher up the food chain.
  • Medicine:  Many people believe that they are allergic to goldenrod, when another less showy plant is to blame–ragweed. In fact, Goldenrod is a wonderful antidote to the ragweed; in tincture form, it functions beautifully as an anti-histamine.  An infused oil of goldenrod will help with sore muscles, arthritis, and the like; tincture can also be used internally for this purpose.  I use goldenrod for muscle soreness and spasm–my infused oil of goldenrod applied frequently really helps soothe muscles.
  • Food and Drink: Dark, rich, goldenrod honey is one of my favorite of the season–due to Goldenrod’s abundance, the honey is also abundant.  I’ll also make mention here that goldenrod is a fantastic dye plant!

 

Plantain (Plantago Major; Plantago Lanceolata):  I like to call plantain my “gateway herb” because it is such an easy plant to identify and build a positive relationship with.

  • Ecosystem: Like the other plants on this list, Plantain hosts a variety of insects, butterflies, and moths.  Animals also forage on plantain including white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, and ruffed grouse.  Northern cardinals and grasshopper sparrows feed on plantain seeds.
  • Medicine:  Plantain is a premiere mucus membrane plant; it is very mild yet effective as a mild demulcent (it wets tissues) and mild astringent (it also helps tone tissues). It functions as a drawing agent for (splinters, drawing out infections, drawing out debris from a dirty wound, puncture wounds). For these uses, fresh plantain poultice is the best. Plantain (poultice, fresh) works very well on poisonous snake bits and spider bites. Plantain can be safely used with animals (so for cuts and scrapes from a cat fight). A plantain infusion can be used as an eye wash (conjunctivitis) if you add a little salt to it (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup plantain tea). Plantain is very effective for inflamed tonsils, bleeding gums (just keep it in the mouth and chew it).
  • Food: If you’ve ever done any gluten free cooking, you might be familiar with “psylium husk” — this is the seed pod husks from an Asian species of plantain. 

 

Yellow Dock (Rumex Crispus): Another fantastic medicinal plant and land regenerator.

  • Ecosystem: Eastman suggests that Yellow Dock is one of the top 5 widely distributed plants in the world, thriving on disturbed ground.  Many insect foragers are present on this plant including several species of butterfly and bumblebee. The seeds are a favorite of birds and ring-necked pheasants.
  • Medicinal: Yellow dock leaves are a great antidote to the sting of nettles or other bug bites or insect stings.  The root is a fantastic alterative working on the liver (specifically, it stimulates bile production); this is how I primarily use.  Yellow dock root decoction (strong tea) or poultice has also been used to treat various skin sores and ringworm (due to its astringent action).
  • Food: Young yellow dock leaves are only slightly bitter and lemony; you can eat them in salads.  They are full of protein, zinc, and vitamin A.

 

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus Carota).  This is a more tricky one than most, because the carrot family also includes poison hemlock and water hemlock, two extremely deadly plants.  But once you get to know and correctly identify queen anne’s lace, she’s a fine plant ally!

  • Ecosystem: This plant is a favorite of the black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar.  200-300 separate insects pollenate Queen Anne’s lace including beetles, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, and flies.  Bumblebees also collect their pollen. Humans, too, are attracted to the delicate and heavenly scent of the Queen Anne lace flower.
  • Medicine:  Queen Anne’s Lace is used for a variety of ailments–it is an antiseptic, diuretic, and verimcide.  Its primary used for urinary issues (as a tea); it can help address urinary tract infections, kidney stones (with goldenrod), and issues of hypothyroid. Some debate in the herbal community exists about its role as a potential birth control method; a tincture of the seeds is said to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb, but I’ve read conflicting reports of this. 
  • Food: Queen Anne’s Lace and the domesticated garden carrot are actually the same species; one is just much more human selected and bred than the other.  Only the 1st year roots of Queen Anne’s lace can be used for food–and they, like carrots, are high in Vitamin A.  I’ve personally also used Queen Anne’s lace seeds as a very interesting spice–I grind it up in my mortar and pestle and sprinkle it over salads or meat dishes.

 

Other Plants: This post is getting fairly long, but plants that could easily be added to this list include sweet clover, milkweed, chicory, ox-eye daisy, evening primrose, common fleabane, spotted knapweed, dead nettle, heal all/self heal, lamb’s quarters, garlic mustard, common mullein, purslane, multiflora rose, speedwell, wild strawberry, canada thistle, and common wormwood.  I highly suggest John Eastman’s Book of Field and Roadside to learn more about ecological benefits of these plants; Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals Volume I and II will provide a great wealth of medicinal knowledge.  Sam Thayer’s two foraging books can fill in the gaps and provide information on wild edibles!

 

Weedwalking and Weedtalking

A recent visit to a new friend’s house reveals much about this notion of “weeds” and how some oak knowledge can help shift mindsets.  As we stand in her driveway on a sunny fall day, she notices me eyeing some greenery on the edges of the driveway and says, “Oh, Dana, those are just some weeds I need to cut back.” “Weeds, you say?” I respond, drawing closer to the lovely patch, many of whom I already recognize.  I quickly take note of my plant allies growing there: yellow dock, common fleabane, goldenrod and some plantain, along with a few others I don’t yet recognize.  I smile and say, “Come, let’s meet your weeds.”  She grins and comes over, and I point at each one, describing the plant and its health and ecological benefits.  She says to me, “Do you want to see the backyard?” and I say, “Sure” and we take a delightful weed walk in her tiny 1/8 acre plot and get to meet sweet violet, dandelion, periwinkle, more plantain, red clover, ground ivy, chickweed, black raspberry, eastern hemlock–her land is just bursting with delightful medicinal plants!

This story illustrates, I think, a fundamental principle: if we walk with the weeds, and teach others about their medicine, they go from being unloved and unwanted plants to important allies. In fact, my friend was particularly excited to hear about goldenrod, as she had been suffering seasonal allergies for a number of years–and there’s some assistance, right there on the edge of the driveway.  That one conversation changed her relationship to a number of different plants in her yard; a few weeks after it, she asked me for more information and has taken an interest in learning more. I’m always excited by this–a little bit of plant knowledge goes a long way to empowerment and shifting our relationship with nature.

Just let it grow!

Just let it grow!

Weedtending

I’m not really going to talk much about “invasives” here (another loaded term) except to say that I know a lot of the weeds above fall into that category.  And I simply don’t see plants that way; in balanced ecosystems that aren’t continually under duress, most “invasives” become well behaved members of the plant community.  And all of my dear wise weeds above are opportunistic plants who can handle and thrive in the human-created and driven conditions that are currently present. They wouldn’t be “invasive” without our direct impact on the landscape (you can see my thoughts on this here). This, to me, makes the matter of which plants are invasive a moot point–its human damage that creates opportunities for certain plant species over others, and until we stop doing such damage, trying to blame the plants is just silly.

Now, with that aside, let’s talk about weed tending! I believe that we can create spaces for these “weeds” for them to thrive–much like the abandoned lawn in the home near my parents’ house. These are spaces for these plants to grow unhindered, for harvesting and for the benefit of all life. Let’s work on making space for the weeds, for the benefit of all.  The nice thing about these kinds of plant allies is that they are very good at thriving in places that others neglect. All that we need to do is to set aside places just for them to grow and simply let them grow. Nature will do the rest.

 

Acknowledgement: I have been greatly influenced by Jim McDonald‘s teachings on weeds and conversations with Sara Greer about her delightful backyard plant allies. Thank you both for your incredible insights!