Tag Archives: regeneration

A Spring Equinox Message: The Gifts of Druidry in the World

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

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

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!

Lawn Regeneration: Return to Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

Front yard view, mid September

Front yard view, mid September 2015

As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times before–the spaces where we live and work each day are prime places to begin the regenerative work and rebuild our relationship sacred connection with nature. For many, the land nearest to us happens to be a lawn, one small part of the 40 million acres of lawn in the USA; currently the largest crop currently grown. And the lawn is a great place to start, for so many reasons.  Back in April, I wrote about Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, a project of my dear friend Linda.  Linda is a woman with deep spiritual connections to the land, and she knew she had to make a radical change to turn the lawn of her newly purchased home into something more in line with her principles. In my initial post, I shared Linda’s work in taking the initial steps in converting her entire 50′ x 50′ front lawn into a vegetable garden and showed some early plantings.  In this post, I wanted to check in with Linda to provide some updates and see how the season has gone for her.  Did she get in trouble with her town?  Did her project work? What happened throughout the season this year?  How did the veggies grow?

In Permaculture Design, one of the basic principles is to “obtain a yield” but the concept of “yield” is much more broad than just the fruit or vegetables.  So in this post, we’ll be looking at the many “yields’ that converting a lawn can give us,  including the vegetables themselves, community building, mindset shifting, education, exercise, meditation, health, habitat, and more. What Linda and her community have found through this process is that the yield of this garden goes far beyond  just the vegetables.

Community Building and Education

Linda began the process of converting her lawn to vegetables on October 2014, so her farm is now officially a year old. When I asked her how the last year has been, she said, “Its the best medicine I could have ever asked for. I didn’t know what to expect if I did this, if I was going to be called out or reprimanded. But everything went beyond my expectations.”

 

I want to start with the community aspects with Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, because for a project like this to be successful and embraced, the community is probably the most important factor. Building good relationships with local government and neighbors is part of how a project becomes successful rather than finding itself in legal trouble. Linda has not had any legal issues at all surrounding her farm–and its now been in place, very visibly, for over a year.

 

In talking to others who *have* gotten in trouble for lawn conversions, the problem seems to stem from a few places. First, not being aware of the laws or working within the laws (which may have ordinances about things like “weed” height, etc). Linda spoke with officials in her town government prior to converting her lawn last year, and they verbally gave her the “go ahead as long as there aren’t any weeds.”  Second, trouble happens when you are not engaging with the neighbors in a positive direction; Linda says that lavender-lemon shortbread cookies and fresh vegetables get you far!  Third, trouble happens when the garden looks unmanaged, wild, or unattractive to neighbors. If you can address these three aspects: laws, neighbors, and beauty, you will have success in converting your lawn.  So let’s take a look at a few ways that Linda was able to engage her community.

 

Child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Neighborhood child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Linda has been amazed by how much the community has embraced her front yard farm. She says “this is the happiest I’ve ever been, especially in getting affirmations from the children in the neighborhood wanted to come and help harvest. They would come help and then take home fresh food.” Linda describes several children who were regular visitors to the garden, learning from her, wanting to do the work in the garden. This kind of interaction can only happen when you are out in the open, in a community, in a neighborhood, where people can easily find you.  But more importantly, Linda is teaching neighborhood children a powerful lesson about nurturing our relationship with the living earth and learning about where food really comes from.

Kids packing up produce!

Neighborhood kids packing up produce!

Linda describes another story where a neighbor was walking with her grandson down the street, and they came to the garden.  The boy ran over to the garden and came inside and didn’t want to leave the garden because he was so happy to be there.  Gardens like these powerfully attract children, who haven’t yet lost the wonder of being in such a sacred space. Children, certainly, can sense the difference.

 

In a third story, Linda describes how an older man was walking down the street and came to the front of the garden and sat on one of the stumps Linda had placed there. He sat on the stump for a good 20 minutes, just observing the garden. Linda said, “It kind of reminded me of The Giving Tree. That’s why I put those stumps there, so people could come by and take it all in.” In each of these cases, we see people of all ages being attracted to the garden–attracted to this welcoming and sacred space that Linda has created.

A place to sit....

A place to sit….

In terms of what kind of an impact she’s having on surrounding lawns, Linda’s newest neighbors are planning on converting their lawn next spring, and other neighbors have likewise expressed interest in doing away with their lawns.  Linda expects that in a few years, more and more gardens will be appearing!

 

Now that Linda has experienced such a positive response from her community and has “tested the waters,” she plans to do more direct educational and outreach events this year and in the coming season. The first event she’s planning is a fall harvest festival, where she invites all of the neighbors to the garden to come harvest the last of the vegetables before the winter. At this event, she will share recipes and food cooked from the garden so that people get a sense of how to eat locally and sustainably. In the spring, she plans on offering more classes on lawn conversion and organic vegetable gardening.

Beans on the trellis near the house!

Asian long beans hanging from the trellis near the house.

 

Growth and Harvest

Linda is an organic farmer with over 30 years experience, and it shows in her work and yields. Linda focused her farm this year on specialty greens: spinach, kale, minzua, arugula, tatsoi, salad mixes and lettuce as well as beans, herbs, potatoes, and cut flowers. Her farm has produced beyond her wildest expectations. When I asked her how her season went, she said “It was the best season I had ever had. Even better than my 10 acre farm.” In her front yard farm, she’s farming approximately 1000 square feet; her previous farm had about 6000 square feet in cultivation. We talked for a bit to try to understand what the difference was, how this small front yard garden was outperforming her previous farm, and she has no way to explain it. Others, too are trying to solve the mystery–she’s had visitors from the MSU State Extension office and other local farmers come to try to figure out how her small farm is producing so much, to test her soil, and so on.

 

Of course, I have an explanation that one can’t measure with scientific equipment: Linda poured her love into this land in a way she never was able to with her former land. Yes, she’s a fabulous farmer and knows how to grow good food–but in this case, she was growing more than food, she was growing community.  She was regenerating soil, she was regenerating her community’s relationship with its food and the land–and I think it was this interconnectedness that makes the difference.  This is a sacred space, a space that has grown care in the community in the same way it has grown vegetables.

The flower garden...

The flower garden

Linda is still calculating her exact harvest numbers for the season, but said she harvested between 1500-2000 lbs of food this season, mostly in greens. She said she was pulling out 30 bags (3oz each) of spinach and salad greens, 15-20 bunches of kale per week, even getting other farmers and friends to harvest as well. And still, the food keeps on coming! I want to note that greens are not a heavy crop, and the idea that anyone could pull almost 2000 lbs of greens out of one 50′ x 50′ space in one season is just incredible.  Its doubly incredible considering that Linda is also doing very low carbon farming–she uses no power tools of any kind–everything is

 

Linda used various pest methods and did not have difficulty with rabbits or deer.  She lined the garden in various alliums (shallots, onions, garlic, chives) and also used herbs (lavender and rosemary). She tucked in bits of dog fur, procured for free from a local dog groomer, around the edges. She said she saw a few rabbits come in, but they went back out quickly and wouldn’t stay around to eat. The deer didn’t enter the garden.

Sunflowers!

Linda reaching up to the sunflowers!

And yet, birds and beneficial insects flock to the garden. The sunflowers are now providing good seed for the birds, the plants, even this far into October, are still producing nectar and pollen for the bees. She described seeing numerous beneficial insects such as honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and even dragonflies–all in this space that was once almost entirely devoid of life.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Although we had a wet summer, Linda did use drip irrigation as an additional aid for the garden soil.  In her drip irrigation lines she added fish emulsion and kelp meal for regular nutrition to the plants.  These are ways of getting more direct nutrition right to the roots of the soil.

One of the benefits of a front-yard garden compared to a traditional farm (which Linda was on prior to this) is proximity, or what permaculture designers call a zone. In Linda’s previous farm, all of her vegetables that she was tending were fairly far from the house, some beds quite far from the house (Zones 2 – 4). In her front yard, they are there right where she lives, where she parks her car, when she gets her mail, as soon as she steps outside (Zone 1). This, and this alone, makes the urban farm quite distinct from its rural counterpart–its not “away”, rather its “right here.”

 

Healing and Regeneration

As I mentioned in my first post on Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, Linda had left a very bad personal situation, and she came to this new land hurt and in need of healing. Her land, likewise, was hurt and in need of healing in the way that so many modern lawns need healing: it had soil compaction, it was chemically ridden, and it was devoid of any habitat or life beyond the grass. Linda and her land came together for their mutual healing, and through that healing, have grown together to create the most sacred of spaces.

 

Linda describes her activity in the garden not as work but as meditation.  Certainly within druidry, we recognize different kinds of meditation, including movement meditation.  This movement meditation is one that brings Linda to the garden each day, and allows her to see her interaction with the garden not as “work” but as peaceful and engaged living.  I too, have experienced this movement meditation through the practice of gardening–sowing seeds, moving compost, raking leaves, weeding–all of these quiet, repetitive movements allow for deeper thoughts and introspection.

 

Linda also talks about the garden as her place of healing: it allows her to be outdoors, it provides her with exercise, it gives her interaction with her community, it provides her with vitamin D, it gives her nutritious food (food is medicine) and of course, continues her healing work.

A beautiful shot of the farm

A beautiful shot of the farm

 

Next Steps

In addition to the community education plans, I spoke to Linda about her fall preparation in the garden.  She explained that she’s going to add in more perennial crops this upcoming season (like blueberries, if she can get the soil PH low enough–its quite high in South-East Michigan) and start planning her crops for next year.  She plans on adding layers of leaves, pine needles (to help the soil PH) and another 5 yards of finished compost to her beds in preparation to the spring.

Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

 

Converting Your Lawn?

If you are considering converting your lawn or part of the lawn, a good place to begin is to examine the laws in your town.  Some people choose to defy the law to plant their vegetables, just be aware of the laws prior to beginning your journey so you understand the ramifications of your choices.  Second, have a plan going in of what you want it to look like and what you want to grow.  Third, start doing some sheet mulching! This is how Linda, and many others, convert lawns easily: layering organic matter with a weed suppression barrier.  Fall is a perfect time to do this as organic matter (in the form of leaves) is easily accessible and in large amounts.  Fourth, I’d suggest starting small.  Linda is a very experienced farmer–for someone who hasn’t grown much, consider converting a portion of the lawn and building up to a full lawn conversion over a period of years.  I, too, learned the lesson that bigger isn’t always better and smaller is more manageable as you are learning.  Above all–have fun in the work of regeneration!

The Work of Regeneration: Taking a Stand on Your Land

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

As I write these words, I look out my window at at rounded, weathered, Appalachian mountain, topped with trees, rising up from behind the houses in my small town. This mountain, and the many others in Western PA, are part of my blood–the nutrients that came from these soils are what built the very structures of my bones. These mountains are where my ancestors walked and toiled; generations and generations of them, going back two centuries (which is quite a long time for the USA) and in one particular family lineage, much much longer. And now, finally, after most of my adult life away, I have returned home. The funny thing is, Western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a place people are moving to, and in fact, its a place many are running from. The mountain that stands north of my small Pennsylvania town is a nature preserve–and yet, at least a dozen cleared locations, many fracking wells are present there, even in the wild spaces. Heck, the community garden has a well sitting less than 30 feet from the vegetable patches in this town, if that give you a sense of things. These wells are just the newest iteration of the long-abused land’s history: from the logging industry that nearly wiped Pennsylvania’s forests out a century ago to the mining industry who left their toxic mountain-size piles of coal waste and whose long-abandoned mines continue to pollute our streams, to the farmer’s fields that are now so toxic that even the plants on the edges of the roads cease to grow there–it seems there is no end to the toll that this land takes on behalf of the natural resource demands of industry and humanity.

 

Because of the environmental issues present in PA, I think that some question my move–why did I return to a place with such active fracking and other environmental challenges? Why, especially when more and more stories each day show the seriousness and destructiveness of the practice and the toll on both human life and nature? Why would I endanger myself in that way, when I could have stayed where I was or found another job I would enjoy somewhere else? It is for a simple reason–this is my land and I was called home.

 

Two months ago, I spent time in New England while I was doing my permaculture design certificate. On my journey there, I stopped in Western New York, at an amazing organic vegetable farm. I had lunch with the farmers, and we spoke of their land and the work they were doing. They revealed that many people were flocking from Pennsylvania to New York to escape fracking, selling their homesteads and farms and starting anew. In a second visit on my trip to New Hampshire, I spent time with a group who was working hard to prevent a natural gas pipeline and compressor station going into their community. When plans for the compressor station were revealed, a number of houses immediately went up for sale on the market, and others I spoke with said that they would be leaving for certain if the station went in.

 

These issues are hardly unique-the Amish in Ohio and Illinois, who are cashing in and getting out due to the disruption of their lives. I’ve seen firsthand the oil boom in North Dakota and what it did to the communities there. I think about recent reports of horrible environmental devastation in China and those who are helpless just to live in the pollution. The list could go on and on. When I think about stories from around the world, I can’t help but wonder what percent of humans today are facing the issue of living in environmentally degraded land and witnessing, firsthand, that devastation. When we see our lands degraded, or even threatened with such acts (as in the community I describe above), I think one of the big questions to ask is–If I have the capacity leave the environmental destruction where I live now, can I go somewhere that’s better? Or, as in my case, am I willing to move into an area with known environmental destruction?

 

Better than here? Really?

Better than here? Really?

I don’t think the answer to these questions are simple–not for anyone who faces them. And unfortunately, more and more people ARE facing the harsh reality of environmental devastation at their doorstep. So let’s break down the issues that contribute to how we can better answer these questions if/when the need arises:

 

First, there is the privilege of being able to leave, which very few actually have. For as many humans as may have the privilege to leave, there are many more humans and others who are forced to stay whether or not they want to. Just as importantly, the land does not have the privilege of leaving; the trees are rooted where they are, the streams ebb and flow in their valleys, the plants grow each year in the soil, and all of the land is exactly where it is. What happens to everything and everyone else when you leave? They are still there.

 

Second, there is the matter of humans’ existing displacement and a lack of connection to the land we are on. Many people that are alive today, at least in the USA, have decided or been forced to move elsewhere and may already have been displaced 4 or 5 times from the land of their birth. So we also have the issue of living on land that doesn’t resonate with us in the way that our birth lands do. This is not to say that we don’t care about the lands where we end up living–we very much do. But they don’t always feel like “home” and when they aren’t home, its easier to leave them. This problem isn’t a new one. For a long time, people have being displaced from their birth land and with that displacement comes distance–and most importantly, less care and concern. Many modern thinkers (Wendell Berry and John Michael Greer come to mind) have posited that the goals of industrialization were to mechanize labor, to essentially replace people with machines, to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and to displace people from their land. And it worked–people flocked to cities for work, and slowly, farmers left or were forced from their farms and those farms were mechanized so many less people were needed to live there and work there.  You treat land differently if you think you’ll be on it your whole life, and you’ll pass it onto your children, and your children’s children.  The land is not a commodity–its part of the family. Today, we are at an all-time high for people being disconnected from their land–and part of it has to do with these displacements.

 

Third is the issue of scale. To me, the most important question for those thinking of leaving land that is under threat or actively polluted is simply “How do you know that where you are moving to, in the long term, is going to fare any better?” Part of the issue we face is that climate change and environmental degradation are not local problems. They may manifest differently in local settings, but ultimately, they are a problem on a global scale. Everywhere you live, everywhere you go has something that is harming you and the land; some resource that someone wants to extract, some existing toxins, or some factory or plant producing something. This might be mining, mountaintop removal, acid rain, city pollution and smog, oil extraction, gas fracking, oil pipelines, various industries and abandoned industries, polluted waterways and oceans, Superfund sites, polluted soil, illegal dumping, an unexpected environmental disaster, and so on. Look at the effects of extracting fossil fuel energy–on this continent, at least, we have all sorts of issues that span every state and challenge so many: pipelines, fracking, oil spills, oil wells, offshore drilling, power plants, coal veins and acid mine runoff, and many others.  I point to North Dakota as a good  example–when I first visited it over 10 years ago, it was a beautiful, serene, and very unpolluted place to be.  Now? Its one of the fracking capitals of the USA, and everything is different about it. Could the North Dakotans ever have imagined this radical change over such a short period? I think not. The truth is, that all of us, on a global scale, are facing environmental degradation, likely of multiple kinds and likely over a period of our lives. I’m not convinced that moving anywhere “special” solves the problem–you move away from one thing and move toward something else. I left region plagued with oil pipelines and a lot of leftover toxicity in the soil because of industry and went to a region with acid mine runoff, boney dumps, and fracking. Both have their challenges–and the truth is, anywhere I would move will have its challenges, and things like climate change are affecting us all with increasing intensity.

 

And so, we come to the precipice and stand on its edge. Behind us, the lands we know and love, being ravaged by something we cannot stop. We maybe have tried, and failed to stop it, or we have learned about it to late to stop it.  Before us lay, potentially, options of moving somewhere new, somewhere “better”? Do we stay? Do we bear witness? Do we hold space for this land and share in its fate? Do we leave? Do we even have a choice?

 

If a choice is available–the choice is for each individual to make.

 

I’ll share mine: I specifically chose to come back to this very environmentally challenged region because it is the land of my blood and my birth. I was honored that I was able to have the opportunity to choose to come–and I took it.

 

If I don’t stand for this land, if I don’t hold space for it, if I don’t understand the long history here of humanity’s pillaging of natural resources, if I don’t begin the process of energetic healing and regeneration–who will? We all have choices to make each day and each moment.  How we spend our time is particularly critical in a time when our world is hanging on the precipice of so much change–how the world is shaped in the years to come, is largely based on the actions of each of us, today.

 

A healthy ecosystem!

A healthy ecosystem!

People write to me a lot on this blog, and one of the questions I frequently get asked is: how do you develop a deep and spiritual relationship with the land?  My response is this: go where you are needed most. Find the most degraded place you can find, a place that really needs you and the healing that you–and possibly only you–can provide. And take a stand on your land. Love that land. Do the healing work there, on the soil, on the rivers, on the waters. Fret not about what you can or can’t accomplish, just do everything that you can. Learn, grow, listen, use your intuition. Mimic the patterns of nature, bring abundance and biodiversity back. Do what it takes. Work with the soil. Understand the soil. Understand everything you can about that land and what is growing there. And most importantly: commit to staying. Our lands need us, to be there, to be present, to do something, even if that something is small. Take a page from the Native Tribes on this continent, so many who see no difference between their identity and their land: they–and their lands–cannot be bought for any price.

 

To me, this is where the path of of my nature spirituality lies–in really making a commitment to be in and with the land, to understand it, to teach others about it, to heal and regenerate it. Nature is not there just for my benefit–its not there just because I want to have a special relationship with some trees or walk into the forest and be healed. It is not there to please me. Nature gives so much to me, but I believe I must have a relationship with it in order to create a deep spiritual connection. Relationship, by its very nature, implies a give and take. If I want to walk in that forest, or walk up to that tree, and really connect with it, I must treat that forest like any other family member–and when that family member is in need, I must recognize that need, hold space, and be willing to help as I can. I must realize that my actions, each of them, can be sacred actions in communion with that place.

 

One of my favorite poets and writers is Wendell Berry. A man well ahead of his time, he has been writing about the ramifications of industrialized agriculture long before any others–and he continues to hold a sacred vision of a different kind of relationship with the land. His poem, called “Work Song, Part II: A Vision” deeply inspired my post this week. I close by sharing it here, in its entirety:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are gone
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, a new forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

– Wendell Berry

Permaculture in Action – Five Year Regeneration Model Site (My 3 Acre Homestead)

Last week, I shared some inspiring words about permaculture design, and how it can give us a path forward and an active, regenerative response to the many challenges we face. I wanted to take some time this week to share a more extended example that is near and dear to my heart—and this will likely be the last post on my Michigan homestead, a “celebratory” post of the good work that was able to be done there on the land in terms of regeneration.  I’ve already written about the energetic healing work on the land earlier–this is about the physical space. My homestead in Michigan was recently sold to an incredible human being who will continue her own regenerative work on the land—and for that I’m grateful!

When I came to my homestead, the need for regeneration of the landscape–and myself–was obvious to me in some ways, and not so obvious in others. So here’s a look at my homestead and the healing work through permaculture design that was done there.  So this post is an example of what one determined person (with help from dear friends and her community) can do over a five-year period to regenerate soil and bring abundance and fertility to the land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

When I purchased my homestead in Michigan in 2010, much healing and regeneration needed to be done. Its no surprise that permaculturists often select sites that are in the most need of healing—the tools work, and they work well, and we like a challenge. This land was no exception. The landscape was just covered in trash, chemicals, and more. Here’s what I found when I purchased the property:

 

The Lawn and Mowing: First, there was the typical damage of the lawn: no water retention, chemically poisoned, extremely compacted soil, very low-nutrient soil, shallow root mass, lack of biological diversity, no habitat or food in the grass for just about anything. A full 2 acres were being constantly mowed—pretty much anything that could be mowed was being mowed. The grass wasn’t healthy, the soil was so hard you couldn’t even get a shovel into it.

 

Burn piles, trash piles, and garbage everywhere. The previous owners had decided not to pay for garbage service but continued to produce a copious amounts of garbage, so their solution for years was to burn it each week, spread it in random places in the yard, and dump it in the back of the property. In these burn piles, I found everything from nail polish bottles exploded by the heat to lumps of melted plastic, metal coils, and chunks of rubber. The land beneath these piles, of course, had all the chemicals leeching in. All along the edges of the property was a ring of trash—from old bedsprings to plastic containers, for YEARS I found more and more trash along the edges where the trees stood! There was also a full metal bus, which my neighbor was willing to remove and scrap.

 

Scary fluids in metal bins. There were several scary metal drums, stored about 20 feet above the pond in the brush. I looked at them for a good month, trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, my neighbor helped me sort it out—it was hydraulic fluid, and he offered to take it from me since he could use it. Luckily there didn’t appear to be any leakage into the pond.

 

Deforestation. A one-acre section of cedar and white pine trees had been cut about two years prior to my moving in—the google map view still had the trees, but they were all found in the back of the property. A neighbor told me the owners “didn’t like the trees” so they had them cut and dumped. The wood was not used and the land still bore the scars of that event.

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

Alkali and degraded soil. Early soil tests from around the property revealed soil somewhere between PH 8.1 – 8.3 with almost no potassium to speak of and little to no organic matter. This kind of soil is a challenge—the high PH means that iron, phosphorus, and manganese are less available and may get locked up. I was, like many in my area, living on what had been old potato fields and the soil had been abused quite a bit in those days. You can learn a lot from the soil by the plants that were growing there—one of the few plants I had in the back of the property growing was Ox-Eye daisy; these are indicator species that grows in very poor soil conditions when little else can grow.

 

Water runoff issues. Additionally, the water runoff issues, especially down the driveway, put all the driveway runoff into a shallow ditch that went across the road and into the wetland.

 

Buried shingles everywhere. Someone thought it was a good idea to suppress weeds with toxic asphalt shingles—I found great layers of them under pine trees, down a pathway, in the barn.

 

Massive Garbage/Wood piles in back of property. When the previous owners had cut down all of the cedars and pines in the center of the property, they dumped them in the back, in the woods, and piled garbage on top.

 

Energetic issues. I wrote pretty extensively about energetic healing in my “about the land” page—I’m not going to be talking much about this here, but this is also a critically important issue. When something is mistreated, it closes off and curls up in a ball—that’s essentially what was happening to this land.

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Despite the degradation present, the site presented a host of wonderful opportunities to enact permaculture design—“the problem is the solution” as Bill Mollison would say. The site included:

 

  • Nearly 1/3 acre of full sun, including a north-facing line of trees that created a heat trap
  • ¾ acre pond (not well placed from a permaculture standpoint for regeneration, but in healthy condition minus the garbage floating in it). Indicator species, like spotted leopard frog, suggested the pond was ecologically healthy.
  • A pole barn and detached garage
  • A variety of microclimates: full shade, full sun, part shade, protected, high ground, slopes, and so on.
  • A lot of established hardwood and nut trees: maples (for tapping, 3 tapable maples on property); several hickories, many oaks, wild cherry for medicine
  • Protective, biodiverse hedges of trees, shrubs, and berry bushes surrounding the property on three sides where neighbors and the road were (these helped deflect noise, protect from pollution, offer food and forage to all life, and provide privacy)
  • A big pile of logs dumped in the back of the property ready to be used
  • A bunch of other supplies, like posts and fencing, dumped into the sides of the property ready to be used
  • Land energetically ready for healing!

 

The Design and Restoration:

In the first year, I spent most of my time doing the physical clean up of the land and observing the site. The trash cleanup took up most of my time on the land: picking up the burn piles, picking up the trash, fishing more trash out of the pond, picking up pieces of glass, dealing with scary materials in metal bins, and so on. I also sheet mulched three 4’ x 20’ beds in the area that I had the most solar gain and sheet mulched a rocky, gravelly area to turn that into soil. The winter came, and I began researching plants and thinking about the overall site design.

Looking back, I think the project evolved as my knowledge of permauclture design and organic farming grew. I wanted to regenerate the soil, to grow a wide variety of annuals and perennials (with a special emphasis on fruit trees, herbs, and biodiversity), to encourage pollinators, and to create a sacred space. My goals evolved as I learned more!

 

Soil Regeneration. Because of the state of the soil, my big goals for the property was soil regeneration using multiple strategies. As I mentioned above, ox-eye daisy was growing abundantly all through the property, and I was told when speaking to some people from our state extension office that I needed to chemically manage it—advice I chose wisely to ignore.

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

In my first year on the land, I sowed quite a bit of red and white clover in all the areas of the lawn that I knew I wasn’t going to do anything with for a period of time. Dandelion and burdock also popped up in those areas, breaking up compacted soil. I spread these as much as I could around the property (much to the dismay of my neighbors, I’m sure!) Dandelion and Burdock have deep tap roots and are dynamic accumulators of nutrients, so they are breaking up compacted soil and healing the land with their very presence.

 

Rather than mowing the whole thing and further compacting the soil, I chose to mow paths in the back 2/3 of the property and continued to mow the front lawn (especially after some legal troubles when I stopped one summer). The clover and dandelions (and other plants I later added, like boneset and new England aster) also provided valuable forage for pollinators. Looking back, being more intentional about this and sowing native grasses with deep root masses would have helped to build soil as well!

 

A second strategy for soil regeneration was bringing in chickens. A good number of permaculturists are using animals and specified grazing techniques to build better soil—my goal was similar. These grazing techniques basically suggest that we can sequester carbon by allowing grasses to get tall, then in allowing an intensive foraging by animals to reduce them to the roots. The roots get smaller when the leafy mass is gone, shedding carbon and building organic matter. As the plants regrow, new roots form and the cycle can begin again. My chickens ate bugs, pooped, and built nitrogen with their good work on the land. I also used them when they were in their run to compost materials rapidly and I was able to spread that compost into the soil. I spread manure from a friend’s alpaca farm, then let the chickens come in and scratch it up looking for bugs.

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

I also used soil amendments when I had the opportunity—I made compost teas and spread them in all perennial and annual beds as well as my field. Because of the high alkali soil, wood ash was out (which was a shame, since I had so much of it), but I did spread chicken compost as well as sourced some free seaweed and spread that. A friend had some leftover granite dust, so I used that as well as rock phosphate.

 

The field started out all in ox-eye daisy, heavily compacted soil. In a period of 5 years, few ox-eye daisies remain, and now there are a host of beneficial plants, berry bushes, and more. Where Autumn Olives grew up, I cut them back in the early spring before they leafed out, forcing them to deposit a lot of their nitrogen and carbon in the roots into the soil. This created a more fertile, less alkali soil, which eventually allowed me to create other things.

 

The last technique, one that I did only a little before moving, was to make and bury biochar to help fix carbon and build soil quality. My garden (covered below) received many more amendments (copious amounts of chicken-composted leaves, organic matter, etc).

 

Now a lot of these techniques were initially focused just in my garden—and that was a mistake. My garden was about people care—but the whole landscape needed to be cared for. Later in my time at the homestead, I started building soil not just for the garden and perennial gardens but throughout the whole property.

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

Biodiversity and Perennial Plants and Trees. I really wanted to showcase perennial fruit and nut crops as well as perennial herbs for medicine. To do this, I created different small perennial beds: an traditional medicine wheel herb bed in the front, a small orchard of fruit trees with mini-swales behind the barn, a second row of fruit trees with guilds of beneficial plants along the driveway, a butterfly garden, and a mini food forest (there weren’t trees, but there were trellises and large bushes). These spaces were designed and implemented individually.

 

In permaculture, we think about “stacking functions” where a single plant has many uses – the cover, for example, fixes nitrogen, provides good groundcover that doesn’t require mowing, and creates a fantastic nectar source for bees. Many herbs and perennials have these kinds of multiple functions.

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

Pollinator Haven. In my third year, I really focused on pollinators. I added many more milkweeds, spreading them throughout the property. I planted and managed two perennial pollenator gardens with long-blooming plants. I added other blooming plants, especially mid-to-late season blooming plants like oregano, bee balm, boneset, joe pye weed, New England aster, and goldenrod. The goal here was to provide nectar sources well beyond the spring flows. I had my property certified as a wildlife sanctuary and monarch waystation.

 

And, of course, I added the two beehives. I paid close attention to what the honeybees vs. bumble bees and other native bees liked, and I made sure that all of those things were present on the landscape. Clovers, ground ivy, brambles, so many things the bees like!

 

Certification and Signage

As I mentioned above, after some difficulty with my township about my rather wild front yard, I registered the site as a Certified Monarch Waystation and Certified Wildlife Habitat. I did this mainly for education of those driving by my house—the signage showed people that something different, something regenerative, was happening here.

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

A final piece of the design of this site was using the site as a place for others to come, to grow, to learn, and to heal. This took on a lot of different forms: I had 9 other people, at various times, with plots in my garden. Many others learned about various garden techniques like sheet mulching, front-lawn conversion, beekeeping, perennial plants, herbalism, and more. Throughout my time at the site, over 150 people, many through our Permaculture meetup, came through and saw what was going on, and learned about it. I hosted many monthly meetups as well as hosted three permablitzes so that people could come and learn.

 

Others came, when they were in need, to use the land as a quiet retreat for healing or integrative work.   Still others came to celebrate the wheel of the seasons in the druid tradition. These spiritual and healing aspects were as important to the regeneration of the land as the physical ones!

 

Here’s a final map of everything that was planted and where! Thanks for reading :).

 

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

Full Landscape Map when I left (click to see larger version)

The Power of Permaculture: Regenerating Landscapes and Human-Nature Connections

Regenerating our lands for pollenators

Regenerating our lands for pollinators

As a species, we are facing a number of challenges that can be overwhelming—from global climate change to failing ecosystems, to mass deforestation and substantial water stress. Many who care deeply about the earth, who see the earth as sacred, finds themselves in a state of perpetual mourning and apparent powerlessness when reading the headlines or seeing destruction firsthand. The sense of being overwhelmed can be stifling, limiting, leaving you unsure as to how to do anything but strongly wanting to do something. It can leave you feeling that nothing that you do is good enough and nothing that you do as an individual matters.

 

The environmental movement doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way response because its largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate. Environmentalism teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine forests; to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively caretake them (the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection.  I also think the environmental movement, at least as I have participated in it, is fairly reactive rather than proactive.  I think there’s a place for the kinds of work the environmental movement does, and I think they are helpful, but I don’t think they are “enough.”

 

Sustainability as a concept, I am realizing, is also problematic. (I’ve been using this word myself, but am now transitioning away from it in favor of regeneration for reasons described in this post). Sustainability, which means a “capacity to endure” essentially seeks ways of sustaining what is there.  This may mean to sustaining our current lifestyles and levels of consumption (or near similar lifestyles and levels of consumption) while also working to mitigate any further damage to the planet.   Yet, the current lifestyle got us into this mess. Why do we want to sustain that? What are we really protecting when we are “sustainable?” Furthermore, it has become another term commonly used by companies to sell their products and services, rather than an ethic or principle for many. I’m not sure of the ethics that fuel sustainability–desire to do less harm? desire to protect and preserve? They are often not very well articulated.

 

I’ve struggled with both environmentalism and sustainability as meaningful responses because they made me feel like something was missing. Being a better consumer of environmentally friendly goods, or my early attempts at sustainably, still made me feel not so great because I was mitigating problems. I’ve expressed that struggle quite a few times in posts over the years here, and I’m sure that so many of you share it—so the question is, what else is there?

 

What it seems we really need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools that go beyond the above approaches and into envisioning “what’s next?” or “what’s better?” So many of the structures of our daily lives don’t work: our homes require too much energy for heating and cooling; our waste is treated as waste; our landfills fill up with things that still have value; fresh water runs from the streets of our cities and into the sewer system; our bodies are pumped with poison and chemicals; and our landscapes are barren and toxic. We need tools that help us facilitate the deep work of healing our damaged lands, to re-evaluate and develop better ways of living, and in directly rectifying the damaged relationship we have with nature.  We need an ethical system that is simple to teach and yet profound. We need tools to help us envision the future today–what will our next iteration of lower-to-no fossil fuel living look like? What if we could design for that now? What if we are the ones building what the next iteration of human living could look like?

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

 

One set of tools to help us do this is permaculture design. Two Australian designers, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, developed permaculture, or “permanent agriculture” in the height of the sustainable living movements of the 1970’s. Permaculture was developed in response to the growing awareness of the damage humans were causing and the dwindling resources of our planet. Permaculture is a design theory using a whole systems approach modeled in natural patterns; it is a set of ethics and principles that we can use to help us design anything from an outdoor landscape or organic garden to a workplace or a community of people. Millions of people around the world are using permaculture design to revitalize their relationship to the land, enrich their lives, and enhance their communities. To design effectively using permaculture ethics and principles, we must carefully asses, observe, interact, measure, study, and analyze the existing site before we can begin to consider change. The act of interaction, analysis, and observation prior to making change is in itself a powerful tool—it asks us to go from reaction to mindful and directed thought and action.

 

What makes permaculture different than other things, like environmentalism?  For two, permaculture gives a clear ethical system that actually makes a great deal of sense, and that can be directly applied to any design. Permaculture rests upon three primary ethical principles: people care, earth care, and fair share (which I covered in more detail earlier). A goal of any design is to address them all at the same time. We, therefore, design with the understanding that caring for the earth and caring for people are one in the same. Stop and think about that for a minute. The earth’s needs are equal with our own, and both can be satisfied with careful planning and analysis. Furthermore, also a matter of ethics, one of the things permaculture design can do—and do well—is to help us regenerate even the most damaged and poisoned of lands. In fact, many permaculture designers purposely select abused lands as these are the lands that can benefit the most and this is where they can do the most good.

 

Permaculture can be learned by anyone (most of what you need is freely available online) or through books or courses.  Despite its straightforward principles, yet it allows for a lifetime of study and practice. It can be applied to any site or community–from apartment living to rural farmlands.  It puts the power into the hands of the individual and the community, rather in the hands of others.   It also considers the role of the design in the larger ecosystem and community.  Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of permaculture, described four goals for landscape design: ecological as well as economic; repair and conserve all systems; provide a unique and essential service for the bioregion; and creating something inter-generational (considering current generations as well as future).  So while economics is there, for something like the farm; so is repair of land, conservation, and considering the future.

 

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

The actual design principles  from permaculture are all rooted in nature (and some will be quite familiar to my readers, as I integrate them often into these posts). I have found these principles to be so useful that not only have I integrated them into my life in terms of my living and landscape, but I have used them extensively as themes for meditation and personal growth.

 

Furthermore, the act of any designing work involves intentionality—something sorely lacking today. Many of permaculture design’s principles used in the natural landscape work to improve existing conditions: keyline design, for example, uses water catchment and keyline “plowing” to quickly build soil, sequester carbon, and effectively manage water. A multitude of techniques unfold from the principles and ethics.

 

Does permaculture actually work? Yes, it really appears it does! Sites around the world demonstrate just how powerful this approach can be in multiple settings. I’ll share a few examples here from across the spectrum: from large-scale farming to community design to urban settings: permaculture can be applied effectively.

 

Permaculture’s answer to traditional, large scale farming. Just over 40% of the available land in the USA is used for farming, over 95% using conventional agricultural methods (read: fossil fuels, GMOs, and poisons). Current industrial farming practices emphasize only thing: the amount of food grown for the plate (and hence, the profit of the farmer). The food is grown with absolutely no sense of earth share or fair share, and these practices essentially chemically shut down any natural processes that don’t immediately contribute to the crops and kill the life in the soil. US farms are currently losing topsoil at a rate of 3 cm per year (and topsoil is where life grows; where the nutrients are concentrated).

 

As a comparison, permaculture thinks about the yields not only to ourselves but also to the land, how farmlands managed differently can also provide: pollen, nectar, and habitat are yields for pollinators, build rather than lose soil, and so on. A farm of this nature would still have plenty of growing capacity for human food production—but it would yield much more. A good example of a larger permaculture farm doing industrial-scale production is Mark Sheppard’s New Forest farm. Not only is Mark regenerating the land and creating soil, habitat, and encouraging biological diversity, he’s out-growing other industrial farms of his size (see his fascinating analysis in Restoration Agriculture). And the yields benefiting people from his farm include honey, wax, propolis, pastured pork, pastured beef, free range chicken, free range turkey, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and more. He shows how perennial treecrops can provide for many of the same caloric needs currently being filled by soy and corn—and they need to only be planted once, as opposed to every year. And, as he writes in his book, he could literally walk away from his farm today and it would still be producing a variety of crops in 1000 years. Now that’s regeneration!

 

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

Urban backyard. On the other end of the spectrum from large-scale farming, so many examples exist of urban front and backyard designs using permaculture.  One example is Paradise Lot, developed by two permaculture designers, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates.  They regenerated a small urban area and actively worked to sequester carbon. Eric and Jonathan bought a tiny duplex on 1/10th of an acre in an urban setting in Massachusetts. Initially, their site was bare, dry and contaminated. Using regenerative permaculture techniques and soil building, the site is now now extremely abundant and fertile. They managed to sequester over 5 tons of carbon over a period of five years (Imagine if everyone sequestered 5 tons of carbon in their back yard rather than produce more from mowing!). They are producing a variety of yields: food, forage, nectar, good soil, beauty, shade, and more. This was all done using the same principles and ethics of New Forest Farm. Like New Forest Farm, if Eric and Jonathan walked away from Paradise Lot, it would continue to be abundant indefinitely.  There are a lot of other sites like Paradise Lot, including one I recently visited as part of my PDC and will be sharing with you in an upcoming post, and my friend Linda’s site in Oxford, MI that I blogged about earlier this year. This is a really empowering and wonderful way to integrate permaculture!

 

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Community-level design. A final example incorporating permaculture principles on a community-wide level was the site of my permaculture design certification course (PDC), Sirius Community near Amherst, Massachusetts. One of the oldest ecovillages in the world, it was modeled after Findhorn in Scotland. Sirius uses permaculture design in every aspect of their living: earth care, people care, and fair share are woven into daily life almost as much as breathing. They mill their own lumber and use it to build structures that are ecologically sound and innovative: greenhouses, a community center, various residences, and more. They use extensive passive solar and heating designs in these structures—when I was at Sirius, several days were 95 degrees, and while it was sweltering outside, it was quite cool in the buildings due to these smart uses of heat and cool (compare this to my townhouse in PA, where anything about 80 degrees inside is completely insufferable). Acres and acres of gardens, including food forests, perennial herbs, and annual vegetables provide a significant amount of the food not only to Sirius’s permanent residents but also to the many guests and visitors (we were fed for two solid weeks from these gardens—a delight!). All waste (including human) is fully incorporated back into the land in some way. Solar, wind, and wood generate much of the power and heating.…I will stop here, as I’m planning a full blog post sharing more about Sirius and detailing more of the incredible things they are doing. But suffice to say, this can be done at a community level, especially from the ground up.

 

If you are interested in seeing more examples of successful sites, the film Inhabit profiles a number of different permaculture sites across the US and the great work so many are doing.

 

A ray of hope….

One of the greatest challenges we face in the western world is responding to what is happening globally. A lot choose to ignore it, and go on living as though nothing were happening. Others weep and lament, and feel disempowered to change anything—and so they mourn but do little else. Still others try, but feel that what they are doing can’t make a difference. Even if everyone today started practicing permaculture, we are still paying the hefty tolls of over a century of industrialization and those tolls are irrevocably changing our culture and our world. Yet some of those changes, if we design carefully enough, can be very positive—the problem is the solution, as a permaculture principle suggests.

 

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage using repurposed materials

At this point, as the earth’s atmosphere has just gone over 400 parts per million of carbon, every ton of carbon that we can put back into the ground matters. Imagine if everyone started sequestering carbon as part of their “lawn care” like Paradise Lot! Every response we can have is a response.  And its not just individual—when we engage in actions that show a different path, they are like wildfire—spreading further than we can even imagine. I don’t think anyone knows what the future will bring—but permaculture, for me, helps light my way on that path. It gives me tools and ethics of empowerment to teach the next generation. What it does is give me the power of hope.

 

PS: Look for my post next week, where I show these principles in action on my 5-year homestead project—another success story of a regenerated landscape!