The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part I: A Framework July 8, 2018

A lot of people find druidry because they want to “connect” with nature.  They want to attune to nature, feel part of it, gain knowledge and wisdom about it. But what does “connecting” to nature look like in practice?  Going out in the woods and feeling good?  Knowing the name of trees?  Walking with sacred intent in a natural place?  Spending time in nature?  All above the above? And so, over the next few posts, I want to spend more time with the concept of “connecting to nature” and share some strategies for what people can do to connect with nature in a multitude of ways.

As I’ve written about earlier, part of what I see as the core of druidry as a spiritual tradition is the work of “connection.” In that post, I talked about connecting to nature, connecting to the spirit, and connecting to the creative practices as three ways in which connection is manifest in this tradition. And, I believe, it is this search for connection that underlies so much of the interest in nature-based spiritual paths like druidry and the growing amount of druids worldwide.

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

 

A Framework for “Nature Connection”

I find that older books on nature can really offer perspectives that we’ve sometimes forgotten about. For example, The Field Book of Nature Activities and Conservation (1961) by Wiliam Hillcourt, five nature-oriented actions are outlined in the opening chapter. He suggests that we can know nature, probe nature, use nature, do nature, and conserve nature. I think this offers a beginning of a useful framework for thinking about this topic.

 

Drawing upon his five categories, and adding in my own definitions and additional areas that are pertinent to druids gives us a nature connection framework with four major areas with three specific activities for each area.

Nature Wisdom

The basis of much of nature connection is rooted in building an understanding and knowledge of the living earth. This first category, which I call “nature wisdom” helps us do just that.

  • Knowing nature – Knowing nature includes two aspects: knowledge, that is, learning about nature and being able to identify aspects of nature, ecosystems, ecology, botany, and much more.  This knowledge is typically gained from books, classes, and teachers.  It is knowledge that is passed on to us as part of human wisdom.  While knowing about nature used to be something that every human had, and was part of the formal or informal knowledge that was passed to each generation, for many of us living in western contexts, this often needs to be learned anew.  From my perspective, if I am going to honor nature, I better know something about her as well, and that “knowing nature” helps me begin to do that.
  • Understanding nature – As the druid’s prayer suggests, there is a distinction between knowledge and understanding. Knowing is having a piece of information in your head (e.g. wild yam is a forest-dwelling vine that has heart-shaped leaves). Understanding is the kind of knowing that can only be gained through direct experience in nature.  (Wild yam grows up this tree in this particular pattern and has these variations in the leaves. And it has a good energy about it.) Direct experience leads to understanding. I truly believe that both knowledge and understanding are necessary for building “nature wisdom.”
  • Probing nature – Probing nature is not something that everyone does, but it is something that everyone could do.  This can mean anything from scientific observations and interactions where we build knowledge about nature to well as building your own understanding of nature through systematic nature journaling, observation, and so forth. This is what the great naturalists did as they built systematic knowledge of nature; this what every citizen scientist does as she logs the first blooms through Project Budburst. This is also what any organic gardener does as he carefully tracks yields of vegetables based on different soil amendments. Asking questions and seeking answers about nature is what “probing nature” is all about.

Abundance of harvest

Abundance of harvest

Nature Engagement

Nature Activity is the second broad category that helps us establish a connection with nature by engaging with and through nature. This category includes how we use nature, interact with nature, and do things in nature.

 

  • Using Nature – That humans can–and need to–use nature is a key part of not only our connection with nature, but also for our survival. Using nature is twofold: on one hand, it is about learning how to use the natural world for meeting our needs; on the other, it is about the reciprocation activities that must be present in that use so that it is sustainable over a period of time. So using nature includes learning the uses of many plants, animals, and other aspects of nature and would include foraging, natural building, hunting, and bushcraft skills.  This is about how to work with nature to bring productive abundance to our gardens and lands, how to make dyes or spin cloth from plants we grow, and so many more ways that we can turn a part of nature into something that we can eat, wear, or make.  And, it is also understanding local plant or animal populations, understanding the carrying capacity of the land, and learning how to give back.  That is,  engaging in sustainable (minimally) or regenerative use where we give as much as we get (through tending the wilds, scattering seeds, and doing other regenerative activities, see next section).
  • Nature Activity – These are the various activities that you can engage in  while in nature, such as kayaking, camping, backpacking, skiing, and so on. These activities help us get into new parts of nature and let us have fun and relaxation while doing so. Nature, then, becomes a canvas for some of the ways we engage in healthful activities and learn more about the living world.
  • Creating with/through nature – A third way that nature activity happens is through the flow of awen, through creative inspiration.  This might include finding aspects of nature as a muse for creative acts (poetry, song, dance, music, artwork, etc) or else directly working with nature in terms of creating artistic media (wooden drums, berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, etc.). This category is essentially the synthesis of the bardic arts and the living earth–and there is much to explore here!

 

Nature Reciprocity

Inherent in the use of nature and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. Inherent in the term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves (with or without human help).  But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good–the recognition that humans have took too much (at least here in the US) for over three centuries.  It isn’t enough to sustain, but we must learn to nurture and regenerate. This helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

  • Conserving nature – Working to protect nature and conserve existing ecosystems; such as those that are pristine or those that are actively healthy or healing. This includes a range of “conservation” activities that may include protecting new areas, protecting endangered species, encouraging native plant and pollinator populations, river cleanups, building new trail systems, political action, and so on. Conserving nature can also include exploring our own ways of reducing our impact on the planet as a whole, engaging in actions that help us preserve and protect existing resources from further degradation and exploitation.
  • Regenerating and Healing Nature – Working with the land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health, we might use both ritual means (land healing ceremonies) and physical means (such as permaculture design techniques). In this case, we recognize that a great deal of land has been degraded and we can work actively to help be a force of good and bring these lands to a healthier state ecologically.  For example: turning a lawn into a butterfly sanctuary or a food forest is a good example of this practice.
  • Offerings to Nature: Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of the kind of ceremony I am talking about, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.

 

Nature Reverence

A nature based shrine

A nature based shrine

Everything that I’ve been writing about is a form of honoring nature.  When you develop nature wisdom, you honor nature.  When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature.  But there are also specific activities that are more distinct, more intentional, that put honoring nature as central.

  • Respecting Nature – I believe that honoring nature begins, first and foremost, with a mindset. Most people in Western society are socialized to think of themselves first–what can I do that best benefits me, etc.  Through respect of nature, we can add “what can I do that best benefits the land” as an additional (or primary) category in our minds.  Recognizing and engaging in thought, word, and deed that recognizes the sanctity of life and the living earth  is the first step in honoring nature.  This internal mindset, then, will manifest as outward action in a variety of ways.
  • Honoring nature – Honoring nature also involves offering respect and reverence for the natural world and recognizing the sanctity of all life through ritual and intentional action.  This can be through engaging in various kinds of ritual for benefit of life on the planet and the living earth–such as through seasonal celebration or land healing rituals. Another way we might honor nature is through creating physical spaces in our homes and out on the broader landscape. This may include creating physical shrines upon the landscape, home altars, and more.
  • Communing with nature – Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual experiences for us, experiences that help us understand the land and our place in it in greater depth.  Many traditions facilitate these experiences surrounding rites of passage or coming of age rituals, but these experiences are open to anyone. Having deeply intense and spiritual experiences with nature; experiences that may fundamentally alter your understanding of yourself, your spiritual practice, and the living earth.  May include things like a druid retreat, vision questing, journeys, long-term work on a single site (like a druid’s anchor spot), and more.

 

Looking at this list above, there are clearly a lot of ways that “connection’ with nature can happen. There are likely ways I’m missing,  but I do think that this list is a good start for someone who wants to connect but isn’t sure how to do so beyond the “go into the woods and feel good” kind of thing!  Since each of these four topics can be a post in itself, that’s exactly what I’ll do next–delve into activities for each of these and how we might engage deeply with them.  Blessings as you connect with the living earth!

 

A Druid’s Primer for Land Healing, Part V: The Magic of Witnessing, Holding Space, Apology, and Remembrance March 27, 2016

Sometimes, the hidden, the unacknowledged hurts are the worst kind. These are the kind that you bury, deep within yourself, or that a society pretends never happened. We hear stories of these every day–massive cover-ups of the truth of crimes being revealed, people coming forth after decades of silence, the relief that one feels when one can finally talk about something he or she experienced. If you’ve ever been in this situation, where something happened to you, and you were forced to keep it silent, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here. Having others know, to see, to understand alone are acts of tremendous healing power. And it is in this topic where we continue our series on land healing, and the work we can do as druids and other earth-based spiritual practitioners, permaculturists, and those who fight for a better today and tomorrow.

 

In my latest post on this series two weeks ago, we explored the first steps towards land healing–that of deep listening, ascertaining the nature of the healing work, and building trust. In today’s post, we explore the beginning of healing techniques: the magic of acknowledgement, witnessing, holding space, and apology. These are techniques that are appropriate for the many different kinds of healing we can enact, including both palliative care and land healing.   These are techniques that I almost always use for my land healing work, sometimes as part of ritual and other work, and sometimes on their own. I find that they are almost universally appropriate, even when some of the techniques we explore further on in this series are not.  So let’s take a look at what these techniques are, why they work, and how to enact them.

 

Rolling Hills and Mountains (small painting by yours truly)

Rolling Hills and Mountains (small painting by yours truly)

Acknowledgement and Witnessing

Many times, in land healing work, we discover something that is in the middle of happening, or something that has already happened. We aren’t all powerful, we don’t command sums of money or influence that can change the destruction of our lands in many cases–and we certainly can’t stop what has already occurred. But what we can do is to bear witness. To see what is happening, or has happened, to remember, to share the memory of what has been lost (see remembering, below). I find myself doing this work often with cut trees—remembering them and honoring them long after they are gone.

 

To go back to the example I opened up with, there is deep healing power in acknowledging the suffering of another.  Acknowledgement is where we start–its the first powerful step we take in healing work of any kind. We cannot address a problem if we fail to acknowledge that there is one.  I believe that  acknowledgement is one biggest issues we have at present–there is this collective blindness, this collective unwillingness to engage, see, or acknowledge, what is happening around us.  I see this a lot firsthand here where we have a lot of fracking and environmental degradation. People don’t really talk about the oil wells, the equipment, except to comment how its “good jobs” for the area (that is the truth, and in an economically disadvantaged area, fracking jobs are very good jobs).  Just as people don’t talk about the continual raping and pillaging of our forests, the damaged and destroyed waterways from mining.  If we fail to acknowledge these things even exist, if we fail to talk about them  or draw attention to them, we cannot being the repair work necessary to heal.  The longer that a painful issue goes unacknowledged, unseen, the more deep rooted the pain surrounding the issue can be.

 

Acknowledgement requires us to both be capable of seeing and be willing to see. These are important distinctions.  Being capable of seeing means that we have enough knowledge and wisdom to interpret what we are seeing and recognizing it is a problem.  I think most of us are capable of seeing, and understanding, many of the challenges we face.  Being wiling to see means that we are capable of seeing and willing to do so-we choose to engage.  We put aside the inner dialogues or cultural baggage that tells us these things are normal, that everything is fine, and instead choose to see destruction, damage, etc. for what it is.

 

There is tremendous power in acknowledgement.  All of our healing work stems from this. Being ready to heal, ultimately, first means being ready to acknowledge. I have practiced being in a state of acknowledgement and openness with each day.  I pay close attention to the land, in whatever state it is in, engage, and interact with it.  If I see something awful, like a forest being cut, I do not look away, but instead, I acknowledge.  Stating it aloud is even more powerful, “I see your suffering.”   This leads us to the next steps:  and holding space. Acknowledgement requires us to directly look, to see what it is that may pain us, and to take it all in as it is.  To see with a compassionate heart, and an open mind, and to simply take in what is happening.

We need to acknowledge this stuff.

We need to acknowledge this stuff.

Acknowledgement alone is rarely sufficient for healing work, but it is the first deeply important step.  You might think about these activities as being on a set of stairs: you have to start with acknowledgement, and then you can move into the remainder of the steps here today.

 

Holding Space

When something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–this is the work of palliative care, as I discussed in an earlier post.  This is especially true with places that have active suffering happening to them–mountaintop removal or fracking are very good examples here, as are polluted rivers with active dumping, etc.  A good metaphor for some of the work we can do with these places is to think about a friend who is very sick, in a hospital bed. You wish you could do something to help this person, but some things are beyond your control. Instead, you do the thing you can do, which is to make sure they are not alone—you sit quietly with them, laugh, talk, and do some energetic work.  You spend the time to help them.

 

The land is no different–when something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–holding space might be appropriate.  Holding space is a powerful form of healing for the land, and goes well beyond just acknowledgement.  You can hold space in many different ways–all of them require presence and active engagement.

 

To give you an example of this, right now, a most of the hemlock trees in my town are fighting the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This is a small, aphid-like beetle that has been making its way east and destroying our hemlock populations. It slowly sucks the sap out of them until they die; and it covers the hemlocks with its little white cocoons and spiderweb looking tendrils. I discovered it only recently, when some branches dropped in front of me on my path. If these infestations are caught early, and if a lot of chemicals are used, some trees can be saved–but these trees have away too many on them already.  In the next few years, they will slowly be drained of their sap, their life energy, and pass on. And, in truth, it is deeply painful to me, since hemlock is one of my most sacred trees–the hemlocks shape the entire ecosystem around here.  Sometimes, I’d rather look away, to take a different path on my walk to work and avoid the hemlocks and their suffering–but I don’t.   To hold space for these trees, I walk by my friends, the hemlocks, each day on my way to work.  I note the branches that drop with the aldelgids.  I put my hand on their trunks.  Sometimes, I bring a little anointing oil for them.  I bring blessed stones, bury them at the roots.  I am collecting their seeds, to go into my freezer, to spread again and plant when I am an old woman in the hopes of bringing these trees back to our forests.  I know that in this act, I’m not just holding space for these specific hemlocks, but all of the hemlocks who are going through this transition–the tens of thousands of them here, in this county, the millions and millions in this state, and more beyond.

 

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

There’s tremendous power in simply holding space for these places.  In recognizing the suffering of another. Your very presence is so important.  Your presence is calming and soothing, you resonate “I am here for you” and “you are loved.”  “I see your suffering, and I am here for you.”  This is tremendously powerful work . We cannot abandon our earth mother during these dark times–if we want to walk the path of land healers, we must quietly and firmly, stand with her even in her darkest times, holding space for her. Holding space is about investing your time and energy. Its being available and simply there, for however long is needed.  Its being strong even when you see suffering you’d rather not see.

 

I also think that holding space is a way for us to work through our own emotions about everything that is happening around us.  Doing the work of land healing in this day and age can be tremendously difficult–but holding space gives us the peace of knowing we are doing something, and that something is important.  In fact, I’d say that’s true of all of the techniques described here–they help the land, which is their primary goal, but they also help us!

 

Apology

Just as there is tremendous power in acknowledgement and witnessing, and in holding space, so too is there power in apology.  Often, in seriously degraded places, like places were whole mountains are being removed (we have one such place not far from here), individual spirits of trees, plants, and animals, the spirits of places have been forced to leave may need an apology, to help pass on, to help heal. Apology is appropriate for any healing work–and sometimes, acknowledgement and apology is all that I do at certain spaces, especially spaces that are not willing to have anything else done.  When I do the work of apology, I apologize on behalf of myself and my species.

 

If your spiritual gifts allow you direct communication with the land and her inhabitants, sometimes as part of the work of apology you will be asked for an explanation.  I find that its helpful to give one, and that, too, is part of healing work.  Even if not, however, standing and witnessing, and apologizing, is a powerful healing act.  I described some of this work in this post–especially at the older sacred sites of others to whose tradition you do not belong, or at sites that are closed off to all human activity, this is the most appropriate healing work.

 

Remembrance

My Asatru friends have a saying: “Those who are remembered live on.” And I have adopted this saying for my land healing work, as I think it provides us with a potent and important form of healing–but also empowerment. Remembrance is an important part of land healing. I think its very appropriate to dedicate a holiday, or a day, to remembrance of places, spirits, trees, whatever it is, that have passed, and to honor them on this day.  Or, to maintain a small shrine for them in their honor.

 

Stack of stones on the stump as an act of remembrance

Stack of stones on the stump as an act of remembrance

Remembrance can be a potent form of healing work, especially when you know lands will be damaged/destroyed.  I remember the first tree I ever worked with in this way–it was a tree that I grew up near, a huge silver maple.  I witnessed it being cut, and was told that the people who cut it were new homeowners who “didn’t like raking up the leaves.”  I was so devastated, did the work of acknowledgement, holding space, and apology, and after the tree was cut, I managed to get a small piece of it. I kept this piece with me, and then, when I bought my property in Michigan, I met a second tree– a tree that had also been cut, the twin to the still-standing white pine tree in the center of my property.  There, I made a “shrine to the fallen” with a simple stack of stones, and around that stack, I placed the piece of the silver maple, and many others.  Over the years, I added much to the shrine, regularly tended it, and, at Samhuinn, made offerings of my homemade dandelion wine and cakes.  Since I left Michigan, I made a new shrine in the woods and have continued the practice.  It was a small gesture, not taking much time, but it has done a lot of good in the long term, I believe.  I felt it was important that I not visit the shrine more than once a week to tend it, and I only make offerings once a year.  I don’t want to focus my energies on the dead all the time (that’s not healthy) but I do want to honor them at appropriate times and fondly remember them, honoring them.

 

There are lots of ways to engage in the work of remembrance.  My shrine example is one such way.  Other ways include creating artwork, stories, songs, poems, and other bardic arts; growing a “remembrance” sacred garden; lighting a candle at a certain time of the year; honoring and remembering through ritual; or even doing acts of service for good in the community or land.  Planting a new tree of the same species to honor one that has fallen, for example (or even using that tree’s seeds or tending that tree’s offspring, for example, is a powerful act of remembrance).  Let your heart lead you on this journey.

 

Closing thoughts

I’m surprised at how long this series is taking me to write–but clearly, there is a lot to say on this subject and articulating all of this is helping many, I think.  Its certainly helping me to put into words the practices that I know and do often.  So thanks for staying with me as this series is unfolding! We’ll continue working deeper into the energetic healing work next week. I also wanted to let you know that I’ll be doing some  overseas travel for work in the next month, so I will likely miss a week or two of posting in April, but will begin my regular weekly posts in May.  Blessings of spring to all!