The Druid's Garden

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

Establishing Sacred Land, or, A Home-Coming October 29, 2017

There has been a lot of talk in the American druid scene in the last few years about establishing sacred spaces, creating sacred groves, and really staring to re-enchant our land here. I think druids and other earth-centered spiritual traditions around the world, particularly those living in places shaped by colonization, face these same challenges: how do we create our own sacred spaces? What does that look like?  I wrote earlier this year, for example, about Stones Rising at Four Quarters farm, and the raising of standing stones. A few years ago, I’ve also written a series on sacred sites in the US and how to build some sacred sites. This post continues those conversations.

White Oak by the Creek

White Oak by the Creek

In my Stones Rising post, I talked about how establishing sacred spaces, as a community, was certainly an “American” challenge because of the history of colonialism and the genocide of native peoples here.  I commented how we were living on “someone else’s sacred land.” And there is certainly truth in that statement. However, upon further reflection and meditation, I think this statement is much more complicated and problematic. Here’s the thing: as long as we think about the land where we were born, and where we live, as someone else’s sacred land, it continues to be inaccessible/unavailable/distant from us.  We feel like we are outsiders, inhabiting a place to which we do not belong. And the truth is this–we are here now, we are working to rebuild, we are working to reconnect, working to understand the sacredness of nature, her magic, her medicine. If we work to create sacred spaces, learn about ecology, uses of plants, and so on (a lot of stuff I advocate here on this blog), I think that this kind of work very much honors the ancestors of the land and the relationships they had with the land. In other words, we learn the land, we let the land teach us, and we connect with it on the deepest levels.

 

Obviously, its not ok to visit someone else’s sacred site and claiming it as your own–that is cultural appropriation.  What is also inappropriate is not acknowledging the many ancestors of the land who came before–we have to recognize what happened here, on this soil, and help the land and spirits to heal.  Given these two points, I believe that what we need to do is forge new connections for a new time.  We have to build, from scratch, both our relationships with the land and the sacred spaces we need to honor the land.

 

And yet, “re-enchanting” or our land, so to speak, and connecting with it is a multi-generational process.  It will take lifetimes of work, generations of people, individuals and groups.  But I believe that work begins here and now–and for many of us, has already begun. The danger of not creating sacred spaces and making this land our sacred land means that we will never be fully connected to it.   The danger of not seeing the land where you were born as your own means that you have no place to call home.

 

So in today’s post,  taking this “sacred space” concept more to the practical level, I’d like to explore the work of establishing a piece of land, of any size, as sacred land–that is, establishing and maintaining a permanent sacred space, a sacred sanctuary, a place of magic, contemplation, reflection, and renewal (and many other things). This post coincides with my purchase of new land and my own moving to a new home, and so I’ll use myself as a case study.

 

Sacred Land/Landscapes

What do I mean when I say “sacred land” or a “sacred landscape”? How is it different than a “sacred site?” In both cases, we are cultivating a relationship with the land, but the scope of that relationship differs. The way that I see this distinction is as follows.

 

Sacred Sites: We can establish a sacred site, like a stone circle, sacred garden, shrine, altar, and so on, as a stand-alone space. These are single constructions that offers a particular kind of blessing to the land or has another kind of use (or series of uses). They may be hidden away or created in a place that has many different purposes. The point here is that something is set aside for purposes only to be used as sacred (like a stone circle).

 

Sacred Landscape - room to regrow

Sacred Landscape – room to regrow

Sacred Landscapes: When I say sacred landscape or sacred land, I am talking about a potentially larger piece of land with many smaller sacred sites/spots/items contained within it. The idea here is that the entire piece of land or property is a dedicated sacred place where you can engage in various kinds of sacred actions to reconnect with nature. It is certainly a step above a single dedicated space, but rather,  We have some public examples: Circle Sanctuary, Four Quarters, Dreamland.  But any person can choose to do this as well on a smaller piece of land of their own–and it is to this work today that I will begin to attend.

 

One metaphor you might think about this ties to permaculture design. I might create a small raised bed for raising veggies and focus my efforts solely in that direction, or, I might create an integrated design that had many different kinds of features including an orchard, herb garden, outdoor kitchen, butterfly garden–the whole design, which took years to enact, works together as a cohesive whole to meet a variety of shared purposes. A sacred shrine is like that single raised bed growing tomatoes.  A sacred landscape is the entire design, working together, to feed, house, and nurture all who call that place home.

 

Some Background

So how does this look in practice?  This will be my second time working to create a sacred sanctuary, and I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I still have a lot to learn!  And so, over a period of time as I create the space, I’m going to walk through the process  sharing how I am transforming my new 5 acre land land into sacred land–energetically and physically.  In order do that, I want to offer some background on where I’m coming from and where I’ve been. I lived on a 3-acre homestead in Michigan for 5 years (the beginnings of this blog) where I first intuitively learned some of what I’ll share in this post series. Then, 2.5 years ago, I returned to Western Pennsylvania, the land of my ancestors, for a new job and to be much closer to my family. It was a bit of a jarring shift–after working for five years on land both physically and energetically, and transforming it into a druid and permaculture oasis, I was stuck in a rental situation in a small town.  And yet, some of my deepest insights of my druid path came from this work. I had no home base. All the land became the land to which I belonged.

 

After two years of living in town, I was fairly convinced that urban permaculture was not the route I wanted to take. Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time exploring options of intentional community with a friend.  After exploring various pieces of land, we realized that our visions were different–I was drawn to the wild, wooded spaces and she preferred the hustle and bustle of city (or at least small town) life.  For some of us, living in a town or city and being “visible” doing permaculture is their calling, like my dear friend Linda of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm. But for me, I realized how badly I needed a sacred sanctuary.  Yes, it would be a sanctuary that had a regular flow of friends and guests–but not prying neighbors constantly observing my space. I wanted my home to be a restful space for myself and those I love that was largely invisible to outsiders. I do enough visible work in the world, but I didn’t want my home life on display.  And then, the land came to me–it literally fell in my lap.  I had resolved to start looking for a home next spring and give myself the winter in town. But then in early August, I was visiting some permaculture friends at their amazing food forest and they told me about a house that was going up for sale that I should take a look at. As soon as I saw the pictures online, I knew it was home. It came on a mostly wooded five acres, surrounded by forests and farms. It was 15 min from my work and only 5 minutes from the state forest where I enjoy kayaking and hiking. When I saw the photos, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, and the next day, went out to see it. After a long process, the land is now under my “ownership.”

 

Preliminaries: Establishing Relationship and Doing Away with “Ownership”

Having signed the paperwork making me “the owner” of the land this past week raises all kinds of issues surrounding creating sacred land–and these are useful to explore as part of the process. In truth, the profit-driven western world has encouraged a line of thinking that implies that we humans are the only agents of change in the world–we have the power, we have the control. There is this underlying assumption present, particularly with nature and life other than our own, that we can just do what we want. Of course, the modern conception of ownership of land solidifies the problematic “do what pleases you” thinking.  I just signed paperwork that says I can do just about anything I want to this land, short of some legal issues (like dumping raw sewage on it or building new structures without a permit).  But in terms of what I might do to the trees, to the plants, to the ecosystem–beyond “lawn maintenance” there are no laws for that. I could cut it all down, I could let it grow up–because I now “own it” the land is mine to do with what I want.  And for the record, I don’t really think this is about laws, what is legal or no.  What it really is about is mentality, mindset, approach, relationship.

 

Home: A little cabin in the woods

Home: A little cabin in the woods

I have a druid friend who is a landscaper, and he tells me how prevalent this attitude of “shaping nature to my will” is when he is working with clients on their landscapes. Most of the time, the attitude is “I want it to look nice” and by “nice” it means “in control.” He told me of a woman who owned a beautiful property and wanted to cut down a bunch of trees for no real purpose. He tried to talk to her about stewardship, asking about the people who would own the land after her…and it went over like a lead balloon. People don’t see themselves as stewards of the land, they see themselves as “owners.”  The most salient story I have ever read on this topic was in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss book. It was a later chapter in her book called, “The Owner.”  I think everyone should read it–it was a shocking and horrific story about ownership and what people will do to bend nature to their will tucked in an otherwise wonderful book about mosses and how they grow.  This “ownership” is from this same place and line of thinking that so many of the atrocities that are committed against the land are rooted.

 

In order to create a meaningful sacred space on any land, or to establish land as sacred, this “Ownership” mindset must be put firmly aside. Sacred landscapes aren’t just about what you want to do on your land or about your vision becoming a reality. Creating a sacred sanctuary must be a collaboration with nature itself–both the elemental forces upon the world, the physical status of the land, as well as the will of the spirits of the land. In fact, the more that you can get into your head this idea of service, partnership, or stewardship for a greater whole, the better all of this kind of work happens. While I legally “own the land,” I do not see myself not as an “owner” but as a steward, here for a period time, here with the sole goal of leaving the land better than I found it and working the will of the spirits of the land while I am present.  Stewardship implies that you are there, for a period of time,

 

Part of this is linguistic: When we use possessive words, like “my land” or “I will do”, it again, establishes a certain kind of relationship–one where I am the dominant force, where I have the control.  I like to instead describe the land as “the land to which I belong.” Its subtle, but powerful, and helps shift the inner subconscious, not only for you, but for anyone else who hears you speak. And so, if we are going to establish any land as a sacred space, it begins in a place of partnership, respect, and conversation.

Further Preliminaries: Honoring, Trust, and History

Creating sacred spaces is a time-honoring, slow process; creating a whole sacred landscape is even more so the case. Like the flow of the seasons or the sprouting of a seed, this kind of work can’t be forced. The work takes the time it takes, unfolding like a spiral. In honor of time and space, before you even begin to shape a shared vision of creating sacred land, there is preliminary work to be done. Think of this preliminary work like the foundation upon which everything else is built–your job, first and foremost, is to lay the foundation and prepare the site. And you do that through honoring and, in a lot of cases, some good old fashioned sweat equity.

 

Before you even begin to shape a shared vision for sacred land, its important to acknowledge all of the folks sitting at the table: ancestors of the land, nature spirits, land guardians, the spirits of the stones, and the trees, and the like. There are a lot of different kinds of “spirits of the land” or “spirits of place.”  Ancestors of the land, human spirits that once lived there and still guard/protect, may be present. Nature spirits, the spirits of the plants, animals, stones, and trees, may also be present. Greater nature spirits, like those of the soil web, the mountain, the river, the whole forest, may also be present. Even greater beings, like a land guardian or deity of some sort, may also be around.  They want to be acknowledged and should be before any other work can begin.

 

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the Nature Spirits of the Land. For honoring the nature spirits of the land, I like to simply sit in stillness and quiet in a place on that land, and make simple offerings. When I arrived on the land to which I now belong, even before it was under my “ownership”, I brought some home-grown tobacco and my flute and played the flute and made offerings around the property.  This was my sole purpose in the visit. I spent time on the land; I brought a blanket and lay in what may become a sacred grove down by the pond. I just breathed in the soil and observed the land around me.  It was beautiful, magical. I could feel the spirits of the land stirring.  Sometimes, the spirits have been asleep for a long while–and they need time to awaken again. This simple honoring work achieves that goal over a period of time. For honoring them long term, I highly recommend a dedicated outdoor shrine–this will be the first thing I build on the new land once I have a sense from the spirits of where to build it.

 

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land. Ancestors come in many types. Here in the US, we have primarily two types–the more recent ancestors which may have been farmers, miners, and the like, and more distant ancestors of the land, who were the native peoples. For the native ancestors of the land, I am planning on a specific ceremony to honor them at Samhain. I will build a fire, drum, play my flute, offer my home-grown tobacco and simply be present to listen to their voices.  After I have listened, I will share with them my hopes and dreams for the land. For the non-native ancestors of the land, who I know to have been farmers (thanks to those who lived on the property before me), I have indicated my intent to dedicate a bed in the garden in their honor.

 

Building Trust.  Even if you are stepping onto “well tended” land, most land today has been damaged by the typical practices of westerners: keeping lawns, spraying weeds, burning garbage, driving over the soil and compacting it, and the like. You may find yourself in need of doing some reparation work before you begin any spiritual work. This is because the spirits may need to learn to trust again.  Before you can communicate with them, before you can create sacred land, you must pave the way and demonstrate your intentions.  At my old homestead, I had to clean up the egregious garbage all over the place before I did anything else.  That, and the honoring work, took me far in connecting to the spirits.  At my new sacred land, I have the sense that I will need to do some seed scattering and forest replanting, among other things.

 

Understanding the History of the Land. Part of trust building is learning, what you can, about the history of the land.  If you have access to the previous owners, that is a good place to start.  If not, you can look for signs on the landscape–old fence posts and barbed wire, for example, is a common sign in these parts.  I think it is useful to use any tools you can–in the US, the US Geological survey also offers historical maps of many regions and that can help you get a sense, back into the 1950’s, of what the land may have looked like.  Court records and deeds are also very common!

 

This post has gotten quite long, so I’m going to go ahead and close for this week.  In my next post on the series, we’ll continue into this work!

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Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!

 

The Sacred Site in America: Understanding, Working With, and Developing Sacred Sites July 3, 2014

One of the challenges that North American druids face is understanding, visiting, and working with sacred sites.  In my druid training, one order in particular really emphasizes the sacred site–the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD).  And I think if one is living on the British Isles, it makes perfect sense to do so as those sites are part of the heritage and tradition of druidry.  The real question becomes–what is a sacred site here in the USA? What, if anything, should we do with them?    I’d like to take some time today to explore “sacred sites” as they relate specifically to druidry in the USA.

Simple stack of stones

Simple stack of stones

 

Defining “Sacred”

The term “sacred” itself implies a connection to the divine, a concentrated or holy space, a space set aside for spiritual contemplation or religious observance in some way. When most think about what a classic definition of a “sacred site” is, especially in the context of modern Druidry, we often think about ancient sites.  These ancient sites might be natural wonders and places that were the site of ceremony and reverence for a long time. These ancient sites may also have been built or adapted by humans in ages past, and continue to be revered and visited today.  These sites, even today, fill us with wonder and awe, encouraging stillness and providing one with a spiritual or magical experience.  This isn’t the only kind of sacred site, but I think its the most prevalent definition. I should also mention that the sacred is not limited to sites; it can also refer to events and objects.  I recently had the pleasure of witnessing the most amazing dance of the mayflies on Lake Erie in June.  A sacred event, indeed!  But the subject of this post is investigating the idea of a sacred site in America.

 

Challenges with Sacred Sites in the USA

When we think about the “ancient site” approach to sacred sites in the USA, several challenges present themselves.

 

#1: Native American Sacred Sites, Desecration and Cultural Appropriation. Most ancient sacred sites in the Americas are Native American in origin.  Because most of us do not carry the blood of the native peoples, nor live within their communities, the issue of cultural appropriation is a serious one.  Even for those of us who carry a small amount of Native American blood, but have grown up divorced from native culture (like myself), the idea of appropriating sacred sites is uncomfortable at best.  Even worse, with the long history of abuse, eradication, and genocide between the mostly white US government and the native peoples, appropriating any other culture’s site for spiritual use is, in nearly all cases, unethical.

The longstanding destruction of native sacred sites is also a noted concern. For example, in the Great Lakes region, I’ve visited Native American “sacred sites” that have suffered substantial abuses–White Rock, located about 30 miles north of Port Huron on the coast of Lake Huron, and Inscription Rock, located on Kellys Island in Lake Erie. White Rock in particular is worth noting, because it was a sacred rock to the native peoples of these lands, and it was  desecrated repeatedly through the centuries.  The most recent desecration was that it was used as a bombing target by the US government during WWII.  Inscription rock, which once featured various pictures inscribed into limestone, was “reinscribed” by tourists for over a century and a half.  In both cases, what was once a sacred site of the native peoples of this land has been degraded by those who came after.

The energies of these sites are not conducive to spiritual work–what I’ve done at both of these sites, when visiting, is to offer apology and ask if there is any work to be done.  At White Rock, there was and continues to be substantial work to be done (and those who are interested about that can read more in the AODA’s recent release of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America).

For these kinds of sites, I think that apologizing, picking up garbage, and asking if there is any work to be done is about the only thing most of us should be doing at these sites.

 

#2 – Sacred Sites and Tourist Attractions. This brings me to the next issue with the ancient sacred sites and sacred sites of natural wonder and beauty in the USA–tourists.  If a sacred site remains intact, especially if it is a site of wonder and natural beauty, more often than not, it is a tourist attraction. I’ll note the difference here between secular tourism to that of a pilgrimage or sacred journey, such as the one discussed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims are traveling and visiting for a spiritual purpose.  Tourist energy is not conducive to the sacred and little to no meaningful spiritual work can usually be done in such places.  Tourists are there to see, to photograph, to experience a canned and predigested experience on the most superficial level. Combining tourism with the issue of cultural appropriation leaves most sites largely inaccessible for any kind of spiritual or magical work.  Not to mention one can’t do any serious work with a droves of tourists milling about.

 

#3: Land and Site “Management” practices. The other issue at most well known sacred sites is the land management practices that govern them are not conducive to spiritual work of any kind, nor can one or one’s group gain privacy at any site.  I remember reading a story a few years ago about a group of Native Americans who had lit a sacred fire on a sacred mountain for as long as their history went back.  The chief of this group was arrested because they refused to follow US Park service law, which had a recent ruling disallowing fires in that spot.  The park service had no sympathy or religious tolerance for the Native Americans; this intolerance and inflexibility largely extends to other groups as well.  This kind of thing happens all the time, most of it less public than that story.  Because earth-based religions of all kinds are not given equal treatment and respect here, and most of us are still in the closet, so to speak, it becomes even more difficult to have access to a public sacred site for the purposes of a private ritual.

This leaves those of us in the US interested in working with sacred sites in a bit of a conundrum–how do we meaningfully and respectfully work with sacred sites, if at all?  For this, I have two ideas in mind: seeking unmarked sacred sites, and creating new sacred sites over time.

 

Seeking Sacred Sites

Are there sacred sites that don’t involve human interaction, human tending that we can work? These secret places of wonder and magic worked by other beings?  Would they welcome us there even if we were able to find them?  Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

Stone Circle

Stone Circle

A small group of friends (all druids) and I went into a state park that had been largely closed down.  The pathways were covered in branches and trees, the roads were washed out even to get to where we were going.  And it was one of the most sacred places I had visited in Michigan.  Towards the end of our 5 hour hike, we came across a stone circle right in our path, with larger stones for the north and south, and covered with moss.  We felt welcome, having been lead by the forest and the winding paths to this place. Entering the circle in reverence and respect, we sat there for some time, feeling the sacred energies of that place.  Nobody had been by for a long time, and it was only because we entered in respect, and we asked to enter, that we were able to experience this sacred place and honor it.  More recently, my visit to an old growth hemlock grove certainly qualify as a sacred site and experience!

When I was visiting Kellys Island in Lake Erie for a family vacation a few weeks ago, an opposite kind of thing occurred.  I have never seen so much poison ivy in such a small area–all of the forests were protected by the beautiful poison ivy vine, covering the trees, matting the ground, going right up to the edge of any path. I could sense the tranquility and sacredness of those forests behind the ivy line; the old growth cottonwoods and maples, the mayflies darting about. The poison ivy sent a VERY clear message to anyone able to read the language of the plants–these forests are to be left alone. They spoke loudly, “Do not enter, do not pass, and do not seek sacred experiences within.”  Knowing a bit about the history of that island helps understand the protectiveness of the ivy and spirits there. This beautiful island had a long history of industrialization and abuse, where glacial grooves were destroyed by quarries and pristine forests destroyed through logging…and now, the ritzy houses and expensive yachts have mostly moved in (we did find a nice state campground and hiking trails!) No wonder what remains of this unique ecosystem is off limits to human hands.

When you come across a naturally occurring sacred site, one that isn’t on the maps, I’ve found its best to let your intuition lead the way, and to read the messages of the plant, animal, and stone kingdoms to know if you are welcome.  It might be that you have to establish a relationship over time with a site before the spirits of that site will give you access–listen and be mindful of what you hear.

 

Setting up Sacred Sites for Our Tradition

Beyond seeking sacred sites in places not on the map, there is a lot more we can do. I think one of the challenges that we face is that we assume a sacred site should already be there, setup by others or simply in the forest, and ready for our use. Revival druidry is a few centuries old, and while the British druids have done an amazing job in reclaiming sites connected with the ancient sites like Tara, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge, we have no such sites or connection to sites in the US. This brings me to the last key point–that we need to be establishing our OWN sacred sites.

Why is a site sacred to begin with? To go back to my earlier definition, its sacred because someone or a group of someones recognize its significance energetically, naturally, and so on, and made it a point to visit it, tend it, and work various kinds of ceremony there. Over a period of time, we can establish these same sacred spaces.

I also think its important to set up sacred spaces honoring the land to counter much of the environmental desecration we are seeing more and more. The disruption of the telluric pathways from oil pipelines and fracking, the harm to the planet from GMOs and pesticide use, the list goes on and on.  The more of us acting in a sacred manner, living our lives in a sacred manner, and honoring the land with dedicated spaces and work, the more we can demonstrate that not all humans are on that same destructive path and help rebuild a sacred relationship with the land.

Imbolc Sacred Circle

Imbolc Sacred Circle

I know we can work to establish sacred spaces of our own because I’ve done this myself through the work on my land.  When I arrived here five years ago, the land was energetically drained, the spirits were angry from the mistreatment of the previous owners, from pollution and garbage, from careless cutting of trees and eradication of plant life, and it took me a long time to shift those energies (you can read more about some of those initial efforts here).  A group of us set up a stone circle and began doing regular ceremonies in this space.  Over the period of five years, the energies of this land dramatically shifted in a positive direction–I’ve now had multiple people come and tell me that they don’t even feel they are still in Michigan when they come up my driveway or go out by the pond to the circle.  I think, if anything, the site is in the process of shifting into the sacred, and that shift will take much more time to complete.  Regular tending, mindfulness, and ritual all help maintain the space.

I’ve posted previously on some things you can do physically to help establish sacred sites here, here, and here. To my physical suggestions, I’ll add a few things on the spiritual side.

 

1) Listen before you act.  If you want to establish a stone circle or other place of meditation/worship/magic, you should ask the spirits of the land and heed their responses.  Combine this listening with your own observation and interaction (principle 1 in permaculture design).  This listening and observation process can take quite a bit of time, so be patient and understand that this groundwork is an important part of the process.  You’ll be glad you’ve done this work–the spirits of the land will guide you to where the site should be and often will give you vision about how to go about creating it.  This listening then, can help you create a space for use beyond just the human realm.

 

2) Use Small, slow actions.  To borrow a second principle from permaculture, you can’t establish a sacred space overnight.  You need to recognize that sacred spaces and shifting energies take a lot of time.  I have found that daily work, such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual, helps maintain and build energies slowly over time.

 

3) Do regular rituals honoring the land.  I like to combine my daily SOP work with regular group rituals and solo rituals during druid holidays and regular honoring of the land work to establish the space.  Honoring the spirits of the land and recognizing the sacredness of the place over time will help shift it.

 

4) Watch it evolve. The other thing that I’ve found is that once you’ve set your intentions and establish the initial space and begin doing the daily work, the space will evolve.  You might see new plants growing, trees appear that weren’t there before, or other kinds of helpful and spirits from the inner planes might make the land their home.   After we established this land as a sacred space, I found several hawthorn trees years after I moved in, I found a spiral willow on the island on the pond, and most recently at the Summer solstice, a friend and fellow grove member found foxglove growing behind the sacred circle.  Keep a record of what is happening–you will be amazed by the changes over time.

 

5) Recognize sacred activity and set rules for the space.  Protect the sacredness of the space–if you have visitors and guests over, make sure they understand the rules for the space (e.g. no consumption of alcohol in the space for non-ritual purposes, remaining quiet in the space, leaving an offering after use, etc).  You’ll find that some well placed signage also helps visitors and/or family respect the space.  It may also be that there are certain kinds of people you simply don’t want in that space, and that’s ok too.

 

I hope these thoughts help those of you pondering the idea of a sacred space here in our landscapes and how we might use the idea of sacred space as revival druids in the US.  Thank you, as always, for listening!