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Bringing back the Hearth: Ancestral Fires for Protection, Connection, and Comfort

Sacred tea over the fire

Sacred tea over the fire

Fire is one of the most ancient tools that humans have and one of the things that separates our species from others on this beautiful planet.  Humans have an incredible ancestral connection to fire. Think about how a fire draws you in–when you see a campfire or fire in a hearth, you want to get close and stay warm. That is probably because we humans have been working with fire for somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million years. 1.5 million years ago, our ancient ancestors would have been Homo Erectus; and so, as we evolved into Homo Sapiens, it is very likely that fire was already with us. For more information on fire and ancestral fires, I suggest checking out this post!

Because of this deep connection, if we move forward quite a bit in time, we can understand why as people built permanent homes, the hearth–that which contained the fire safely indoors–was the center of the home. Yet today, fire is something that many modern homes have completely lost–where we’ve boxed up fire in stoves or use electricity or gas instead of our more ancient heat, light, and cooking source.  Most people in modern homes have almost no connection to the equipment that keeps them warm in the winter or cooks their food–and that ancient ancestral connection to fire is missing.  So in today’s post, I wanted to talk about working with a hearth in a magical way–how you can reclaim an abandoned hearth, create a “hearth space” indoors even if you don’t have a hearth, or create an outdoor hearth, all as part of sacred actions.

A Hearth

A hearth has different levels of meaning and rich history in many different cultures.  Let’s start with language because language can offer fascinating aspects of history. “Hearth” itself can be traced back to Proto-Indo European *ker, which has connections to modern words in English including hearth, coal, and carbon.  Anything that goes back as far as Proto-Indo-European demonstrates a very common thing present in very ancient human cultures situated in Europe and India, and is a little slice into that ancestral history.  From there, we see that Hearth is present in Old  English as ‘heorð” later moving into our more modern term.  Latin also gives us another clue, with the Latin word for hearth being “focis” or “focus”, demonstrating the importance of the hearth.  Thus, value and connection to fire and to a hearth is literally woven into our language as far back as we can trace.

Traditional peoples give us another insight into the importance of fire. As explained in Ropes to God: Experiencing the Bushmen Spiritual Universe, Keeney describes how the Kalahari Bushmen, have the fire as part of the center of their community activities–the fire each night is where they share their stories of the day, eat, and connect with others.  Stories shared around this fire are the property of the entire community, and are a way for them to weave connection with their surrounding landscape.  Here in the US, you can see the importance of the indoor hearth by visiting our oldest houses or seeing historical reenactment.  In early US history, the hearth was centered in the home, massive hearths that measured 6 or more feet across with many different cooking tools.  These hearths started to slowly be replaced during the industrial revolution as a focus on efficiency and productivity became core values.  Thus, the traditional open hearth became replaced by more “efficient” and “hands-off” technologies in the last 150 or so years. In his book On Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane describes fire as being “unceremoniously boxed up” in boxes of Iron; he argues that this “boxing” of fire created disconnection both with wood and fire.  While the idea of a hearth may look different in different cultures and parts of the world, the fact that some form of fire and heat exists to cook, to connect, and to warm with seems to be a staple of human existence.

A very different kind of hearth--the earth oven at the druid's garden homestead!

A very different kind of hearth–the earth oven at the druid’s garden homestead!

The traditional hearth even inside a house is the center of the home, and I would argue the hearth functions a bit differently than any modern equivalent, like a kitchen. If you think about the center of the home now, depending on the home and family, it is likely the living room, where everyone crowds around the TV, or perhaps the kitchen table, where everyone eats.  But neither of these spaces has quite the same relationship with you in terms of comfort, protection, and warmth that a traditional hearth has. I believe that in moving away from traditional fire cooking and hearths, we’ve lost something important, something rooted in slow time and slow living that would be useful for us to consider bringing back.

Key Features of the Hearth: Physically and Magically

If we want to think about re-creating some of these important spaces for ourselves (regardless of whether or not we have access to indoor fire), it’s useful to understand the different features of a hearth from both a physical and magical perspective.

On the practical side, a hearth is first and foremost a fireproof surface that creates a safe space for your fire or stove to burn.  The hearth extends well beyond your open fireplace or stove, creating, literally, a safety net for any coals, sparks, or flames that may jump out of the fire. The hearth is what contains the fire, makes it safe, and also provides us additional tools to engage with it. If we consider this from a magical perspective, the hearth literally is built for physical protection, making it potentially very good to use for magical protective work.

There’s also a communal aspect to the hearth.  Prior to the replacement of open fireplaces with coal, gas, or electric stoves/boilers/heaters, the hearth was also the source of warmth, heat, and light for much of the year.  As the cold and dark closed in during the dark times, families would gather around the hearth to tell stories, share meals, work on various handicrafts and repairs, and spend time together. We see this feature in hearths whether or not it’s an outdoor or indoor space. Thus, the hearth is a space that allows us to share with each other and to stay warm and comforted–again, connecting to blessing, protection, and stability.

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

Fire provides us safety and life. Making fire is a critical skill for all humans (going back to my discussion of Reskilling at Imbolc a few weeks ago). Making fire was certainly one of the very first skills our ancient ancestors would teach their young, because for many, it would mean the difference between life and death. A fire can be the difference between safety and fear, between freezing and warm, and between safe water to drink and unsafe water. Again, we see the theme of safety and also having something that is a powerful tool to help us provide for our needs.

The hearth also puts you in direct connection with the elements. To make a fire, you would have to gather wood and prepare it–requiring knowledge of the land, how to forage, dry and store wood, tinder, and kindling. You also need knowledge for how to use those materials to start a fire through the application of air and friction. These require connection to nature through the wood and stones in the hearth, the element of air for oxygen which feeds the flame, as well as the element of fire itself through the blaze.

Finally, the hearth is where, traditionally, meals are cooked and shared.  Before modern stoves or burners, a hearth was the only source of heat for cooking, and people spent a great deal of time at the hearth. Unlike your modern stove, hearth cooking requires a lot more monitoring, knowledge, time, and skill. That is, you are tending the fire, you are working carefully with the coals, and you are building a relationship with it as you cook your meal. There is simply no equivalent to cooking over the fire vs. cooking over a stove.   So here, we see the principles of connection as well as slowing down.

Thus, like many things that were developed before modern industrialization, to truly experience a hearth in a traditional sense requires that we move back to “slow time”. A hearth requires that we attend to it regularly. As we build and feed the fire, the fire requires our time and energy.  We have to gather the wood, store the wood, bring the wood in.  We have to make sure the fire stays burning in a safe way.  As we put our time and energy into the hearth, we are rewarded with a deepening sense of connection to that space as well as the warmth, protection, blessing, and stability of that place.  Even if you don’t have a hearth in your home, there are things that you can do to create this sense of warmth, protection, and comfort.

Creating and Tending a Hearth space

Depending on where you live, how you create a hearth space will likely be very different.  I’ll cover some options based on your living circumstances.  Ultimately, not everyone has a hearth or hearth space in their house that they could already use, so we can get creative.

A Traditional Hearth.  If you have any kind of wood-based heating in your house that is in your living area, this would be your obvious choice for cultivating a hearth space.  I’ve been in a lot of houses where their hearth sits unused in favor of more modern heating and cooking sources. My suggestion to those who are blessed with this feature in their home is to use it if they aren’t already!  Make this the center of some activity, such as through reading, cooking, entertaining friends, or spending long cozy nights near the hearth.  Spend time decorating your hearth, making it feel welcoming and homey. Make it a point to start a fire and enjoy being near it regularly.  Perhaps learn some hearth cooking. Do what you can to make this space welcoming, sacred, and inviting.

A Hearth Shrine and cozy space.  Many people do not have a traditional hearth space–maybe you live in an apartment or a more modern home that does not have a fireplace.  For many years, I was in this same situation, and I discovered that there are many other things that you can do to still bring that energy of protection, comfort, and fire to your life. Using the principles above, consider how you might create a space that is cozy, comforting, and that puts fire at the center. For example, place a shallow bowl with sand and add a number of beeswax pillar candles to the bowl–this will create a “fire area” that you can then safely enjoy.  Or, you can use a candelabra or some other candle holder, decorate it, and place it in a central space where you often spend time. I have found that using multiple candles really helps you get this “fire” effect.  The other piece of this is to make it comforting, inviting, and a place you want to spend time.  You can set your hearth candles up each time, or you can give it a permanent place in your home.  You may also be in a living circumstance where candles aren’t allowed to be burned (such as a college dorm or apartment).  In that case, you might look to electric candles or even those little plug-in fireplaces–something that will give you some fire-like effect. Around your hearth altar, you can practice bardic arts or crafts, read, meditate, eat your meals, spend time with others, and really practice slowing down.

An Outdoor Hearth Space.  Another option for the warmer months is to create an outdoor hearth space. Using the same principles as an indoor hearth, you can create a central firepit that can be lit regularly or even an outdoor kitchen, earth oven, or another outdoor cooking area. Outdoor hearths can be wonderful spaces to spend evenings in the spring, summer, and fall, and still practice connecting with fire, slowing down, and connecting to the living earth.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we’ve been working on building an outdoor kitchen–we have our cob earth oven mostly finished, we have a completed rocket stove griddle/ maple sap boiler, and we’ll be working on some rocket stove burners and a naturally built pavilion in the years to come.  This has become a center point for us–with cozy chairs and a warm fire, you can stay out near the outdoor kitchen and use it for sacred activities.

Hearth Space Activities

Now that you have created or reclaimed some space where you can have a hearth, you might wonder what kinds of spiritual activities and sacred work can be done at the hearth.  I would suggest a number of both mundane and magical practices.

Slowing down. Tending a fire requires us to slow down and move with earth time.  Committing to a hearth practice is a commitment to taking your time to tend a fire and give that space some of your attention.  Relaxing, breathing deeply, and simply getting into the rhythm of the flames is an extremely relaxing and important thing to do. One of the things your hearth space can remind you to do is just to slow down, breathe, and relax.

Cooking. If you are working with a fire, cookstove, or outdoor space, learning how to cook on the fire can be a really wonderful thing to do–it puts you in a much deeper relationship with food and with fire. I’ve started learning hearthside cooking in the last few years.  Fire cooking does require different tools than you might use in your traditional kitchen–one of the most useful is a cast iron dutch oven with small legs, which is typically used with coals.  You simply take coals from your fire and place them on the bottom and top of the oven (or set the oven in a fire that has gone to coals) and wait. Other useful tools are any cast iron pans (you can use them both on the fire and on your regular stove), griddles, trivets, and other tools.  Antique stores are one of the best places to pickup cast iron cookware–and this cookware will last you a lifetime. Once you’ve gotten your hands on a piece of cast iron or two, you can make many different dishes and start to explore this ancient art.

Spiritual Activities:  A hearth is an amazing time for any number of spiritual activities. Meditation, spending time connecting with the elements of fire and earth, ritual work or spiritual study are all good choices.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles--you can see the light of sunrise coming back in!  The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles–you can see the light of sunrise coming back in! The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

Ritual activities: Your hearth can also be the center of ritual activities, particularly those in the dark half of the year if you are indoors, or outdoors during the light half of the year. Around our hearth we have in our home, we’ve held grove events and rituals that have centered on the hearth. For example, we have built ancestor altars using the mantle above the hearth, where then the ancestors are invited in for the rest of the gathering.  We have also used the hearth for celebrating the winter solstice, where we place 14 candles (representing the 14 hours of darkness) and each candle (for more on this, see The Druid’s Book of Ceremonies, Prayers and Songs, which has an entry by Robert Pactti on this approach).

These are just a small taste of the many things you can do as you are thinking about connecting with the ancient element of fire, connecting with nature and the living earth, and learning how to more fully embrace the ancestral ways–which will also be the ways of the future.

I would love to hear stories of your own fires, hearths, and work in this area!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Reskilling at Imbolc

Imbolc–the first signs of spring (artwork by myself and my father, Mark Driscoll)

In a traditional neopagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc is the holiday that offers the first signs of spring.  Most traditionally, this is when the ewes began to lactate, and the snowdrops appeared on the landscape in the British Isles.  In the age of climate instability, traditional seasonal interpretations become challenged for many reasons–not the least of which are climate disruptions.  So how might we bring the holiday of Imbolc into the 21st century and think about what this holiday means to us today?

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, the 21st Century, the Age of the Anthropocene, offers us a set of unprecedented challenges and yet opportunities.  As a permaculture designer, I think it’s important to recognize that while the problems we already face are unavoidable, these problems give us a chance to re-see, re-think, and revise our way of living and interacting in the world.  Or, “the problem is the solution.” We know that our way of life is unsustainable,–so the opportunity and impetus is now to do something about it.  Because the Age of the Anthropocene presents us such challenges, it is an excellent time to think about how we can create spiritual practices that deeply engage us in the here and now of this age, and provide us a clear set of spiritual and physical tools that empower us into being part of the solution.

If you look at my previous posts in this series, starting at the Fall Equinox, you can see a clear progression. Here is our wheel so far:

  • Fall Equinox: Receptivity.  Working to embrace receptivity rather than expected harvest and reward and being open to the unexpected; working to adapt to what comes rather than being disappointed by what we expect which does not appear.  In other words, it is setting aside traditional notions of reaping rewards for hard effort and instead focusing on receptivity and flexibility.
  • Samhain: Release: Releasing and letting go so that we can embrace a different and unique tomorrow. Samhain is about unburdening ourselves from both our expectations of the future (tying into the Fall Equinox) and also dealing with our own pain and trauma surrounding an increasingly unstable age.  By letting go we put ourselves in a place to be ready to heal and rest.
  • Winter Solstice: Restoration/Rejuvenation. Now that we have let go of our expectations (founded on a different age) and dealt with the pain and trauma, we are ready to heal, rest, and immerse ourselves in our own spiritual practices.  In the age of the Anthropocene, many people are finding that self-care and rest are more important than ever before.

These three holidays set the foundation for what is to come–they are all internal, asking us to look inward and lay the spiritual, mental, and emotional foundation for the work in the light half of the year.

One final thing before we get into today’s topic–I’ve gotten some serious pushback on this series.  My take is this: the further we move into human-driven climate disruptions, the less the traditional seasonal celebrations are going to make sense, and the more sense of loss we may have surrounding an age that has passed.  From my perspective, it is important to make adaptable tools that work for my spiritual practice that work for right now and that helps me create and foster positive visions for the future. But if you are a traditionalist, my approach probably won’t appeal.  That’s ok, do your thing.

Reskilling at Imbolc

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Today, at Imbolc and our last “dark half of the year” holiday, we consider the next step in our new Wheel of the Year: Reskilling.

As a basic activity to introduce reskilling, consider your answer to the following questions:  Do you know how to provide your own food, water, shelter, clothing, and warmth from nature or the land around you?  How resilient do you feel you are if you no longer had access to the supermarket for a period of time? What traditional skills do you practice?

One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost.  The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. For hundreds of thousands of years–millions even–before we were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep themselves warm and safe.  These basic skills have been stripped from us–and as we are watching the global engines which drive systems we depend for these things upon grind to a halt–it is time to do something about that problem.

Reskilling is the idea that we can learn new skills: skills associated with taking care of our basic needs like water, food, shelter, clothing, and other basic know-how.  Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft (e.g. how to survive in the wilderness, make fire, wild food foraging, wild crafts and arts) but also those surrounding our homes and lives such as how to grow your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping as well as how to create things for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more.  The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community.

Why is Imbolc a good time to do this work? Because for those in temperate climates, it is usually the deepest part of winter, and it’s after the rush of the holidays.  This time of year is great for learning and practicing new skills. Traditionally, the winter months were useful for developing and maintaining new skills in a traditional household–this is when the mending got done, the spoons and bowls got carved, cordage was made, quilts were finished, and a host of other skill-based activities took place.

Reskilling is also about planning and figuring out what kinds of things you want to do and what skills you may need to get yourself there. For example, this year, I’m starting to work on a massive project–building our family’s root cellar using earth bag construction. Because this will be entirely done by hand, I have to have the right set of knowledge to know how to build it, how to prevent frost heaving, how to ensure good airflow, etc.  So that requires me to develop a new set of skills surrounding earthbag construction.  That’s what I’m focusing on at Imbolc this year–reading books, watching a number of videos, putting my plans on paper, and developing a new set of knowledge and skills to begin the project.

Reskilling

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

There are two approaches to reskilling that people often take: reskilling around basic human needs and developing specialist skills.

Basic human skills: At one time, all people were generalists in the sense that they knew how to take care of their own needs: forage or grow food; preserve food; make fire; make shelter; source clean water, etc.  So there’s a set of skills that probably all of us can learn and share together surrounding our basic human needs.  These basics actually encompass quite a few things:

  • Food: Growing food, wild food foraging, animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and brewing, low-impact and traditional cooking methods
  • Shelter: how to protect yourself, how to build simple shelters, natural building, building outdoor spaces (outdoor kitchens, etc), root cellars, appropriate shelter for animals, etc.
  • Warmth: Building and tending fires, working with fire for cooking and heating, being able to start a fire with different methods
  • Water: knowing how to source and filter clean water
  • Clothing: Learning how to mend clothing, sewing skills, this may also include things like cobbling (shoemaking) or creating other items
  • Household and functional items: Making things that we need and use every day (cups, bowls, spoons); learning how to do things without fossil fuel (people power), etc.
  • Supporting earth. I would add to this basic list of human needs that we need a healthy, diverse, and abundant planet on which to live, and so skills supporting protecting and preserving our own lands also go here.  These are techniques like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help us directly impact the life on this planet.

This list is actually a huge number of different skills. Here, I think, it pays to be a dabbler. Learn a bit about a lot of different things so that you can help prepare yourself for a variety of different challenges that may arrive–and become much more sustainable and earth-friendly in your own living.

Specialist skills. In traditional and pre-industrial cultures, beyond the generalist skills that everyone knew, there were people who specialized in crafts and techniques that were unique. For example, a typical medieval village would have a miller who milled grain, a cobbler who made shoes, a blacksmith who worked iron and other metals, a healer who specialized in herbs and plants; an apiarist who worked with bees to produce honey and candles, and many more things. These skilled professionals could also be found in traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

There were also specialist skills surrounding needs beyond the basic–storytelling, poetry, and other arts were traditional forms of entertainment that some individuals chose to specialize in.  When we think about reskilling, it’s not just about providing our basic needs but also other things that enrich our lives, like providing our own entertainment.

If you are serious about reskilling, I would suggest in addition to working on the basics (which may take a number of years) you might choose to specialize in a particular specialist set of skills from the list above.  Learn how o really hone your craft in that skill. Perhaps you already have a  skill set, and this is a good time to re-commit yourself to those skills.  Or perhaps this is your first time considering it!

Where does the part about ceremony and ritual come into play with these skillsets? There are several ways, which we’ll now explore.

Sacred Actions and Reskilling

One of the ways to ritualize the idea of reskilling is through the concept I advocate in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  In this book, the idea of Sacred Action is that of living in a manner that is sacred–recognizing that everyday life can have sacred intent and bringing in some of that to your life. (There’s a lot more about reskilling in my book too, if you are interested!)

Thus, if you want to focus your energy on learning to sprint and knit, and make your own clothes, recognizing that this is a sacred and earth-honoring activity will help bring your own spiritual principles in alignment with the work.  It allows you to approach the work not as “work” but as a sacred activity that puts you deeply in touch with the land.

Blessing and Honoring Your Tools

Most reskilling requires some kind of basic tools. For me continuing to learn natural building, for example, my drawknife, hatchet, shovel, soil sifter, and wheelbarrow are really important tools that I use regularly. These tools were all that I used to build the heat sink back wall of my greenhouse, my earth oven (posts forthcoming!), and will be what I use for my new root cellar project. These tools represent my connection to the skills I am developing, and  I could not do these projects without them. Thus, the tools can be treated in honor and respect. I like to honor my tools in several ways:

  • Before I begin a new project or start working on a project, I like to do a small ceremony invoking the elements and doing a smoke cleansing of my tools
  • I make sure I care for my tools properly, sharpening them, cleaning them, and putting them away after use.  When I put them away, I thank the tools for their help.

Recognize too that your body is the most important tool for reskilling–thus, you can also honor and bless your own body as part of this work.  You can do this when you honor your tools at the start of the project or in any other self-care-oriented or ritualized way (sacred bath, smoke clearing, etc).

Honoring the Ancestors of the Craft

Another way to bring sacred practices into your reskilling is by honoring the ancestors of your craft. Every skill that you might want to learn has individuals–known or unknown–who have helped preserve the tradition, taught it, rediscovered certain things, wrote books, historically documented material, or whatever else they did to ensure the tradition remained alive. These ancestors of the craft can certainly be honored as part of a reskilling practice.

For example, one of the skills I have committed to learning is leatherworking, both to create things like bags or knife sheaths but also cobbling.  I shared more of the story of my tools and how I honor the ancestors of that craft in this post.  In a nutshell, I named my industrial sewing machine “Coco” after my ancestor of craft and make regular offerings.  In a second example, for my ongoing reskilling surrounding wild food foraging, I honor my Grandfather Custer as my ancestor as he taught me my first wild plants and always took me into the woods. Thus, I have a special place at my parents’ house that I go that is named “Grandpa’s field” and I make offerings and remember him there.

You can create a small shrine, say a small prayer, put up a picture, name a project or tool after your ancestor of the craft.  You can do this work at Imbolc once a year or, consider doing it more often (such as when you clean your tools or when you start a new project).  This is an excellent thing to establish as you are establishing your new skill–consider how you can honor the ancestors of the craft and be inspired by them.

A Commitment to the Journey

A final way that you can ritualize your exploration into reskilling is by doing a ceremony of commitment to your new craft.  I would suggest that you spend some time in the craft first (e.g. in AODA, individuals who are pursuing a new bardic art are encouraged to spend 20 hours–which is enough time to know if they would want to continue it or set it aside.  After you’ve done enough of the craft to know that you want to continue it, you can do a commitment ceremony.  For this ceremony, I suggest that you:

  • Honor and bless your tools
  • Speak about what you’ve already learned and what you would like to learn
  • Set goals
  • Invoke the assistance of higher powers/diety/ancestors/spirits

You can craft this ceremony in any way that is appropriate.  For example, when I took up the leatherworking journey, I did a ceremony like this.  I pulled out the lovely supplies and tools that I had been gifted and I set them around me.  I touched each one and spoke to them of what I might create with them.  I held the tools and honored those who had used them before me and made them.  I set goals for the kinds of things I wanted to create.  I then spent some quiet time sketching designs and meditating, and then I closed the space.  I’m not giving a specific ritual here because I feel that each person and path would require a unique approach.

Conclusion

When I started learning these traditional skills about 15 years ago and moved into more radical lifestyle changes, like taking up homesteading, I think a lot of people (particularly those at my workplace) looked at me like I was crazy.  I think that the tide has finally turned on this, however, and more people are waking up to the fact that the systems we depend on will not be there forever. If anything of the last two years have taught us, at least here in the US, is that things are not as stable as they once were.  We are likely to experience much more instability as climate change continues to progress and we continue to see more social unrest and upheaval on the long descent.  Thus, learning these kinds of skills not only cultivates resiliency in our lives, but it also provides some distance from the very systems that are harming the planet.  Everything I’ve outlined above allows us to live more richly, slowly, connected, and regeneratively, and those are skills well worth cultivating. They are meant to be done in the community, inviting others in to participate and enjoy.

The big issue that a lot of people have is time.  Yes, this kind of approach takes time and energy.  But this is energy and time well spent, both to developing a more sustainable and spiritual practice and creating a better tomorrow for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations.  Like anything else, I think if we are creative about how we engage in these skills, we can find time to enact them.

I would love to hear from you, readers, on your own reskilling efforts! What are you working on? What have you learned? What would you like to learn?

The Bee and the Machine: Moving Beyond Efficiency and towards Nature-Centeredness

Animals have spirit!

Over the course of the last four centuries, the Western World has created a set of “unshakable” principles concerning the natural world: that nature is just another machine, that animals don’t feel and do not have souls, that plants and animals aren’t sentient. Descartes, writing in the 1600s during the early rise of mechanization, was one of the first to make this claim. He posited that animals are mechanical automata, that is, they are beings without souls, feelings, or pain. These same ideas were not limited to non-human life; we see the same kind of thinking being applied to justify slavery, genocide, colonialization, and a list of other atrocities. When we combine this kind of thinking with the economic ideas of “growth at all costs” and “efficiency”, we end up in the dystopian fiction we find ourselves living in right now. I want to take some time to explore these concepts today and how we might think through them, and move beyond them, as part of our own nature-centered spiritual practices.

 

Perhaps we think ourselves evolved beyond such ideas in the 21st century, but a look at basic industrialized animal husbandry and farming practices tells a different tale. These same underlying ideas that allowed Descartes and his contemporaries to strip the enchantment from the world and encourage the mechanized reality we live in are still very much pervasive in our society. Efficiency and “savings” allow most people to tolerate factory farms and look the other way over animal testing. Everything moves very fast.  If we can simply say animals have no souls, no pain, and are essentially living automatons, it makes it easier to operate mechanized systems surrounding their raising, slaughter, and/or harvest (meat, eggs, honey, fur, leather etc). Unfortunately, I see this mentality strongly even among my neighbors here in rural Western PA. It is hard to see how “farm animals” are treated and conceived as simply objects that are meant to serve a purpose and be discarded. For example, earlier this year we were planning on getting some fiber goats as pets and companions and to help us clear areas of our land that were full of brush. After hearing that some of the plants on our land might be toxic to goats, I had called and talked with a PA state extension officer to learn more, and he told me that many of the plants on our land (Wild Cherry, bracken fern, pokeberry) were indeed deadly. He suggested that rather than buy “nice goats”,  I go to the local livestock auction and buy “junk goats” which could clear the land for a few months before getting sick and dying of the poisonous plants. I told him that it was abhorrent to think of doing such a thing, and he said people did it here all the time. Needless to say, we opted for geese and ducks as pets over the goats.

 

One of the best examples of this disastrous thinking–and people’s sheer excitement about it–can be found in the 2017 invention of the “flow hive” that touts mechanization and efficiency. I wasn’t even going to write about this, thinking that the craze about it had finally died down. But the darned thing just won’t go away. A video of an advertisement for a “Flow Hive” keeps appearing on my social media feed, shared eagerly by non-beekeeping friends who think that I’ll be so excited about it because they know I keep bees. It just happened again last week and my friend was quite surprised by my response. I am not in love with the flow hive. As a druid and someone practicing sacred beekeeping, the flow hive saddens me and hurts my heart.  I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because good analyses of why the Flow Hive is a bad idea have circulated from various beekeeping sites, and I didn’t think I had a lot to add to this conversation. But upon reflection, I do have something to add from a spiritual and relationship-building perspective, and certainly, from the perspective of this broader conversation about cultivating a relationship to the living earth.

 

A good thing!

A good thing!

The flow hive, and many other things like it, represent the mechanization and industrialization of nature in the name of efficiency and productivity. What do I mean by mechanization? Common definitions of mechanization are simple: the process of converting work done by hand or with animals to doing work using machinery. A textbook definition of the machine is, simply, an apparatus that has several interconnecting parts and that use mechanical power to complete a task. Words surrounding machines often have to do with efficiency; in its entry under mechanization, for example, Wikipedia shares some delightful statistics about the inefficiency of humans (1-5% efficient) compared to internal combustion engines (20%), diesel engines (60%) or other methods (up to 90%). Here, these definitions suggest that the goal of doing work is to get it done as efficiently, that is, as easily and without additional labor, as possible. Efficiency, or getting something done quickly and with minimal effort, is an idea that Wendell Berry also takes to task in his Unsettling of America. The language of efficiency pervades our thinking, clouds or judgment, and ties us even more directly to the machine.

 

The assumption underlying the flow hive is simple: a more efficient beehive is a better one because it requires less effort and doesn’t require as much interaction with the bees. An efficient beehive will save us time and effort. If I can simply flip a switch and get the honey to flow out, that is such a better experience than having to pull frames. Uh, yeah, sure it is. When I argue against the flow hive, I’m attacked on several angles: I’m a Luddite and hate technology and progress; I am resistant to change, or I’m old fashioned.  My response is that I’m a druid.  There is something abhorrent about flipping a switch and turning my bees into a factory.

 

To understand why this whole idea is so abhorrent to me as a druid, we have to get to the goals and purposes for beekeeping, or any other practice that we do as human beings. What is the point of beekeeping, or doing any other work? Is it just to have an end product (honey) or is it also about the journey? The incredible smell of the hive as you open it, the observation of the bees in their work, the relationship that you can create with the bees, seeing bees in all stages of life, seeing the queen laying her eggs, watching the workers take care of larvae and pupae, seeing the wax exuding from the backs of the workers–these are all experiences that I treasure. Interaction and connection are two of the main reasons I keep bees–these things that have no price tag and they require only my time, expertise, and effort to experience. None of these experiences have to do with efficiency, productivity, or getting honey. These experiences have to do with the sacred relationship that a beekeeper develops with her beehive and the joy at studying and learning from the bees, who are true alchemists.

 

The flow hive, by its very mechanistic nature, not only disrupts the sacred interaction between the beekeeper and the bee, it does so at the name of efficiency. I see it no different from the other kinds of disruptions that humans often face when using machines to tame nature: you can’t really appreciate the beautiful spring day outside if 30 of your neighbors are running gas-guzzling machines all across their lawns. Its simply not the same to take a drive through the woods as opposed to a walk–the machine limits that interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but that’s the only thing they offer us, and efficiency is over-rated.

 

Another aspect of mechanization, which John Michael Greer writes about is the myth of power. In his “Myth of the Machine” post on the former Archdruid Report, he explores the relationship between machines and power, and suggests that part of the allure of machines in modern industrialized society is the allure of power. There is something, for modern humans, inherently appealing about the modern gizmos and gadgets that “do so much.” New products are sold on this basis: the new iPhone does more than the old iPhone, so of course, you want one so that you can do more with it.  Perhaps a more accurate advertisement would be that the new iPhone allows you as a human being to do less; that with each new device, the quest for efficiency becomes more complete.

 

Doing things the old way….at the North American Bushcraft School

By turning a simple switch of this flow hive, the beekeeper gains an immense amount of power over the bees. While honey harvesting used to be a careful dance between bee and beekeeper, allowing the beekeeper not only to check on the health of the hive and its honey reserves, honey harvesting is now a simplified mechanistic process. The dance of the honey harvest, the careful interactions, and care, are replaced by the machine. Who knows what is happening in the hive? The flow hive way tells you all that matters is what comes out–the honey itself.

 

But also by turning a simple switch, the beekeeper doesn’t need to have the skill to engage in that careful dance. The machine itself does the work, and the knowledge necessary to successfully harvest honey from a hive is rendered obsolete. By flipping the honey switch, we’ve traded our skilled labor, which involves paying attention to the hive’s disposition, engaging in multiple kinds of hand-eye coordination, and using wisdom just to gain a product that flows out of the hive and into your jar.  All of the sense of craft, skill, and knowledge is lost. Yes, doing it the old way takes more time–but the trade to efficiency doesn’t seem worth it. This is especially true because mechanization and efficiency, ultimately, means a loss of care and a loss of connection. When we stop opening up the beehive, we fail to see the magic and beauty and sacredness of the work of the bees. When we just turn a switch and pour out honey, an essential quality–care and interaction–has been stripped from the process. We have traded ease-of-use for care.

 

We can use this same kind of argument in all sorts of ways: when we stop producing our own food, we lose the magic of it, but also the connection to the earth by producing it.  The more that machines do for us, the more efficient our lives become, the less whole they really are.  We trade our ability to engage fully as people with the world and instead, become dependent on the machine–in the same way a new beekeeper is dependent on the switch in the flow hive for their honey.  In “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine” Louis Mumford writes of the end result of this process, “the beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, trivial accessory to the machine.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  Isn’t this what is happening in today’s society? If we let machines and technology do everything for us, we are left with nothing but the ability to consume. No sets of core skills, and no connection to the living earth, all is done for us in the name of efficiency.

 

Its actually pretty entertaining to see news article after news article claiming things that anyone who spends time meditating in nature already knows: that all living beings have soul, methods of communication, and spirit. It doesn’t take science to tell me as a druid that trees communicate when they communicate with me daily.  It doesn’t take science to tell me that my chickens and guineas have their own unique communication styles and are deeply aware of their surroundings.  The myth that Decorate and so many others have propagated–that nature is a machine–is simply a smokescreen to take advantage of nature in the most abhorrent ways possible.

 

Beauty and mystery of nature

I write all of this because I think that these are some of the underlying ideas that we have to tackle–as druids–to really begin a paradigm shift.  Some technologies are really helpful to humanity (like say, basic refrigeration and washing machines.  I really appreciate the work that both do).  But many technologies and mechanizations take us further and further away from our ability to connect deeply with nature both by disconnecting us from the source of life (food, shelter, etc) and deskilling us. And at some point, we have to face the fact that we are likely better without a lot of these things and find ways of balancing our lives with useful technologies vs. those that actively harm us and our planet.

 

Since this has been mostly an opinion piece, I’ll end with a few takeaways that are useful practices to start these shifts:

  • Take one aspect of your life that you depend on industrialization or consumerism to fulfill and learn how to produce it yourself. As a few examples, I declared tomato independence many years ago, and make it a point to grow and preserve the tomato needs of my family for the year.  I also have recently been taking up fire-starting technologies using material from my land and also learning how to make my own paints.  While these may seem like small steps, they are highly fulfilling and empowering.
  • Look for industries that have the most egregious issues (like clothing, food) and try to make better choices, informed choices, choices that are rooted in care rather than efficiency and cost. You can’t often make every good choice due to the costs, but you can choose one or two areas to focus on.
  • Attend an earth skills gathering, like Mountaincraft or find a local Bushcraft school.  You can find a list here.  I attended my first gathering (Mountaincraft) earlier this year and was amazed by the number of skills and friendship offered at these places.  Since then, I’ve returned to the North American Bushcraft School for other classes (I was just there yesterday making leather bags!)  The Earth Skills community is teaching and modeling a more healthy paradigm and relationship with the living earth–and this kind of thing is a great deal of fun.
  • Examine your own assumptions and start checking those assumptions in your interaction with regards to things like growth, efficiency, etc.  As I shared before on this blog, mindset shifts are the keys to everything else: if we shift our mindsets, we can change the world.  These are insidious things that are rooted deeply in our subconscious.  Bringing them to a conscious place, examining them, and ridding oneself of them takes effort–but it is so worth it.  Surrounding yourself with people who are doing this same work really helps.
  • Have technology-free days where you embrace the darkness, spend time in nature, learn to make things slowly and by hand, and generally disconnect and allow yourself to simply be, un-impeded, with nature.  You’ll be glad you did!

This planet is being eradicated by the kinds of thinking and actions I’ve examined in this post.  I’m growing tired of inaction and tired of watching the thing that I hold sacred, and that I love, be under such threat.  If we change mindsets, we change the world.

Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part IV: Slow Movements and Slow Spirituality

When I lived in Michigan, each Christmas, a local church just down the road from me put on a drive-by nativity scene. Cars full of people would line up for over half a mile and drive around this circular loop surrounding the church, where church members dressed up and enacted various kinds of nativity scenes.  I’m sure from the perspective of the church (who, clearly, invested a lot of time and resources, taking weeks to build the sets in the bitter cold in the time leading up to the event), it was a way to reach people who might otherwise not come through the church doors.  This same church also offered “speedy sermons” and other “quick” ways of getting busy people in the door. The idea behind these different initiatives was reaching out to people who were otherwise too busy to come to church–a reasonable and rather creative thing to do, given the time crunch everyone seems to be in these days. But for all that was gained (new members, new donations, etc) what was lost in the process of converting religion into a drive-through experience? Of course, just like the burger at McDonald’s vs. the burger you grill at home with time and care, there are likely some big differences not only in taste but also in presentation, nutrition, and energy.

 

In my last three posts in “Slowing Down the Druid Way”, we explored the history of time and our relationship to our working hours, and how we might begin to honor our time more fully.  This directly leads me to the topic of my final post on time and work: looking at the slow movements as a way of slowing down, making slowing down a conscious choice, and embracing leisure time.

 

The “Slow” Movements

The term “slow” has been increasingly used to describe many of the movements connected to sustainable living: you might have heard of slow food (as opposed to fast food or industrialized food) or slow money (in terms of investing, saving, and spending and in opposition to current derivatives/investment market).  We now also have slow schools, slow books, and even (in my own field) discussion of slow writing! The slow movement has, in fact, been around since the 1980’s; it was started by Carlo Petrini, who protested the opening of the “fast” food joint, McDonalds, in Rome, Italy. Since then, the movement has spread and deepened, connecting now to all aspects of life: travel, food, parenting, education, working, gardening, and more. Of course, you won’t see any discussion of this movement in mainstream culture–mainstream culture, here in the US, is focused on the idea that more and faster is better, and that kind of thinking takes some time to overcome.

 

A good slowing down spot!

A good slowing down spot!

The slow movements suggest that we are all the victims of “time poverty” and the slow movements are deliberate attempts by people to live at a reasonable pace (rather than a frantic one).  But these movements are more than just about slowing down–they recognize inherently that the faster we move, the fewer connections we make: with ourselves, with each other, with our creative gifts, and with the world as a whole.  So let’s now explore some of these slow movements and what they provide.

 

Nature Spirituality and Slow Spirituality

I’m going to start by introducing my own kind of “slow” movement: slow spirituality.  Cultivating a deeper relationship with time is certainly a principle that seems inherent in the druid traditions and in related nature-spiritual traditions. Anyone following the wheel of the year is certainly concerned a tremendous amount with time: the eight holidays on the wheel of the year are all about timing and the sun and it’s slow movement across the sky.  The phases of the moon reflect this on a monthly cycle. We focus on the interplay of light and dark, the slow changing of the seasons, the minute changes from day to day of weather patterns.  All of this takes observation and interaction with nature and a lot of time dedicated to understanding this larger cycle of the seasons.  Sure, there are ways of going about these practices that are “fast”, but moving fast means you miss most of the important pieces. In the AODA, for example, we ask that all members spend weekly time in nature, daily time in meditation, and time just observing and interacting with the world. This time is critical–and it is through these activities that deepest understandings are often cultivated.

 

In fact, I think part of the reason that so many people are drawn to meditation, ritual and other druid practices is that it offers a way to slow down and change pace. The more time you spend with these practices, the deeper they will go and the richer the rewards will be.  There is much room for exploration in linking the slow movements to the druid tradition and key practices within it.

 

Slow Travel

Another aspect of these slow movements is “slow travel.”  Slow travel refers to the idea, again, that efficiency is not always the best way to travel to new places and that we miss a lot if we don’t take opportunities to slow down. We are conditioned to work to get to a place as fast as possible: it’s how our GPS technology works and when we sit down to plan a trip, it is often getting from point A to B quickly.  But what about everything between point A and B?  Is that worth seeing?  What might be discovered there?

 

And so, here are a few simple ideas for slowing down: rather than taking the 70MPH highways for a whole trip, consider some 55MPH back country roads and see what there is to see.  This allows you some exploration time as well as gives you much better fuel efficiency!  Or, rather than default to taking flights everywhere, consider taking the train or a bus to get where you are going.  Train travel, in particular, is my favorite: you have ample room, you get to see a lot of the countryside, and you don’t have to deal with extremely intense security situations and screening and blaring televisions.  It also is a more earth-friendly way to travel. When you plan your trip, plan in a few “extra” stops that you aren’t planning. Give yourself some wiggle room so that you can explore and see what is out there.

 

The same applies to hiking and travel by foot–if you’ve ever been on any of the big trails, I’m sure you’ve seen the hikers with their poles, hiking like mad to get where they are going.  Most of them are so intent on their goal that they forget the journey itself!  I have the opposite approach; much to the frustration of some speedy folks with me, I like to take the time to wander, get lost, explore the woods, and more.

Things you see when you slow down!

Things you see when you slow down!

Even here in town, I budget a little extra time for my walk anywhere I am going so I can literally stop and smell the roses, visit the bramble bush each day to observe how it is changing and growing through the seasons, watch the flight of birds overhead, and so on.  Even that extra 5 minutes that I take on my walk to work or to the bank really gives me peace of mind.

 

I think in our travel, there are times we do really need to get somewhere, and there are times when we do not.  Finding a balance is one of the keys to this part of “slowing down.”

 

Slow Food

It is no surprise that the slow movement started as a resistance to fast food.  Fast food and industrialized food processes embrace the current ideas of efficiency and profit at the expense of all else, perhaps in some of the most egregious ways possible. But, as Wendell Berry points out in the Unsettling of America, industrialized farm systems’ emphasis on efficiency ends up exploiting the land for profit. Industrialized food treats nature, animals, plants, and humans all as machines, trying to get the most out of it in the fastest amount of time possible. In other words, if efficiency is the only metric by which we measure our food production and cheapness is the only metric that we use to measure its consumption, we lose much.

 

The slow food movement was born from a rejection of these industrialized food values: we should know where our food comes from, have relationships with our farmers or our own land, and grow food that is healthful and that is grown in a way that is healthful to the land. Wendell Berry writes that small family farmers aren’t concerned with efficiency as much as they are concerned with the long-term health of the land, the idea of doing things well, and building in nurturing practices. When we purchase their food at farmer’s markets, directly from them, or even in grocery stores (which are increasingly carrying more of these kinds of options), you are not only purchasing something better for you but also better for the land.

 

In addition to the rejection of fast food and other convenience foods, slow food focuses on cooking one’s own food from whole ingredients, growing food, knowing one’s farmers, and supporting businesses who are engaged in nurturing and healthful practices.  Those in this movement often have potlucks to break bread and share.

 

One of the things I like to do is a “slow food” metric and ask myself: how long would this take to produce at home? Can it be produced at home? That helps me stay away from too much processed stuff. Since I cook a lot from scratch, I’ve been learning how to make foods I like to eat from their base ingredients–this teaches me a lot about how processes something might be.  For example, I like to eat tortilla chips and hummus. Making my own tortilla chips was an incredibly gratifying, but intense, experience (I will be working on this again, hopefully, this year with better equipment!)  Even if I don’t want to make my own tortilla chips all the time, making them once has me much better appreciating what went into it.

 

Another aspect I see connected to slow food (although others might disagree) is fermentation of various kinds.  Most often, I make homemade sodas (using a ginger bug), dandelion wine, or saurkraut.  These foods simply take time and it is really exciting to see how they transform as they go through the stages of fermentation.  Slow food at its best!

 

A final aspect of slow food, in my opinion, is the act of eating itself. I have a number of friends who are mindfulness practitioners, and they have taught me much about enjoying a good meal. I think we are so accustomed to rushing through everything that meals aren’t an exception. Learning how to slow down, pay attention to the meal, chew your food well, and enjoy the company is a part of this slow food process–and a powerful one!

 

Slow Money

Slow money is a recent offshoot of the other slow movements–it is focused on slowing down the current derivative/investment banking and creating alternative systems of cash flow that are based on ecological and nature-honoring principles.  An organization tied to Slow Money is working to line up a variety of people to invest in ways that “bring funds back to earth.”  This movement is focused on investing locally, avoiding “too big to fail” banks and businesses, and investing in the health and fertility of our land (so you can see clear ties to the slow food movement above).  Groups connected to slow money are popping up all over the world! In fact, a whole range of alternative structures, particularly for financing, exist: land contracts arranged between buyers and sellers (so we don’t have to deal with big banks), micro-investments and loans, and so much more.  I’ve been happy to pursue some of these options in my own life and they have worked out really well!

 

Slow Living

A lot of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog over the years can be classified as slow living.  For example, living by candlelight naturally allows you to slow down and changes your life rhythms in subtle–yet powerful–ways. Using a compost toilet helps bring your own waste back into the cycle of life, as does various forms of composting. These are simple techniques, yet allow us to slow down and cycle nutrients.  Hiking and foraging, especially when you aren’t in a hurry and are willing to get lost in the woods, is a wonderful way just to slow down and take it easy.  There are so many options here–and each of us may find our way into slower living differently.  When we combine these physical things with the spiritual practices of meditation, regular ritual, honoring the seasons, and so forth–we can really bring our life more into a healthy balance.  One small step at a time helps you slow down and bring you more fully into the present moment.

 

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

A Slower Mindset

As I work to shift into “slower” ways of living and doing, the most important thing I’ve found to remember is that I need to shift my expectations. I can’t get a giant “to do” list done on my only day off from work. If I did that, I’d not have enough time to just sit in nature or spend time in my sacred garden. And so, a re-focusing of my own expectations helps me slow down and realize that there are things I just don’t have to do at this moment (and learn to put less of them on my plate to begin with). Once we begin to mentally adjust our schedules, plan not 100% of our waking hours but less of them, then we have an opportunity to slow down and enjoy what nature brings. Now, I schedule “open” weekends where I have nothing on my agenda, nowhere to go, and see what happens (usually, I end up in the woods and in the art studio–and these are amazing days!)

 
A second part of a slower mindset is recognizing the difference between doing something efficiently and doing something well.  Do we need to get all those things done, or can we just get one thing done well?  This is a question I am always asking myself: how can I do this one thing well?

 
A third part of a slower mindset has to do with cultivating patience. Impatience is widespread these days (try driving the speed limit around town, lol!)  One of the big shifts I’ve worked to make in the last few years is calm down and silence my inner “impatient” dialogue when I found myself waiting for people, waiting for things, etc.  It was a big issue for me, but I’m happy to say some progress has been made!

 

The Return of Creativity

I have a number of friends that practice “unschooling” with their children.  The stories they have shared with me all have many features in common.  Unschooling is self-directed learning–children decide what and how they want to learn and go about learning it. What my friends report happening in the transition to unschooling (especially out of public school, where children get no self-directed learning at all), is that the children, when given freedom, begin with a variety of electronic binging behaviors: excessive watching of TV, playing 12 and 14 hours of video games, and so on. But soon enough, usually within a few weeks, they get bored of playing video games and watching TV all day and their natural curiosity returns. Suddenly, they are inquisitive, questioning, and active in the world around them. Some of them begin to undertake considerable projects–building and launching weather balloons, understanding how to grow crystals, learning how to grow vegetables and learning about the biology of soil, making baskets, and so much more. I think this is a nice example here about the nature of unstructured leisure or play time, and how humans, when given the opportunity, naturally will find useful things in which to pursue if they have the time and energy to do so.

 

What unschooling does for children, leisure time can do for adults.  We once were those naturally curious and wonder-filled children, asking questions, being curious, being constantly at play, being able to move from playing music to making mud pies to building forts in the woods.  And then, modern life crushed our creativity with bells and demands and suddenly time wasn’t ours and our work consumed our lives and…yeah. The loss of our creative spirits and the loss of our creative selves happens as more and more demands are placed upon us. I believe this wonder-filled, creative, and curiosity-filled place to be one of our natural states of being.  One of the reasons retired people are often so interesting is that they find a hobby and pursue it with relentless passion–because they can.  I believe that slowing down and cultivating more unstructured/leisure time can allow us to get back to that place of creativity, curiosity, and wonder we had as children.

Here is just a small list of the things that leisure can get us:

  • A rest from daily stress (family, workplace, health-related, political, environmental); the ability to rebuild, nourish, support and heal the physical body
  • Time to think carefully and with a sound mind
  • Time to think about opposing ideas and carefully wrestle with the ideas they contain
  • Time to explore the wilds
  • Time to travel to other places
  • The ability to build and enjoy community and friends
  • Time to explore and experiment with options for sustainable living
  • Time to plant a garden (annual and perennial)
  • Time to gaze at the stars and clouds
  • Time to engage in spiritual practices of all sorts (meditation, outdoor activity)
  • Time to develop relationships and connections: with other humans, with plants/trees, with bodies of water, with the living earth
  • Time to get lost in the woods
  • Time to pick through trash to find treasures
  • Time to go foraging
  • Time to heal the land and scatter seeds
  • Time and energy to do all the things we say we “wish we had time” or “wish we had energy to do”
  • The time to engage in various bardic arts and learn new bardic arts / time to dedicate oneself to a craft or skill in seriousness
  • Time to read books and to ponder, meander, and think about them
  • Time to pick berries and can them
  • Time to do some home food preservation
  • Time to brew up some good ferments and good wine
  • Time to do all the things.  All the things.

 

I believe that we can fully embrace our human gifts if, and only if, we make the time and build in more unstructured time in our lives to do so.  This is about all I have to say at the moment on slowing down and thus, this concludes this post series at present.  Thank you to everyone who had such wonderful things to share as we worked through these issues–I gained much from reading your stories and from our conversations.

Slowing Down the Druid Way: Part III: Time-Honoring Strategies

This past week, a friend and I were discussing options for starting seeds for a new joint major gardening project (more on that in an upcoming post).  We talked about several options, and deciding we wanted to stay away from plastic ready-made planting pots, opted for a paper pot maker (a little wooden device that makes it stunningly easy to create paper pots from recycled newspaper). This choice, of course, is an excellent one from a permaculture perspective: it takes an extremely abundant waste product and turns it into a resource. Of course, in order to make these pots, you need the time to collect the paper and the time to create them. This simple choice–paper or plastic–along with the investment of time illustrates an underlying principle that seems to me to be near-universally true in my experience: the further away from fossil fuels we get, the more time things take. And here, of course, is the crux of this entire blog post series: if we want to do anything beyond our work (practicing permaculture, developing deep relationships with the land, developing bardic arts, or whatever it is we want to accomplish), we have to find the time to do so.

 

Starting seeds in recycled materials

Starting seeds in recycled materials

In my previous two blog posts, I explored the nature of work both historically and in the present age, which helped illuminate some of the current unbalances we have with our work–and opened up the door for us to consider revisiting our relationship to it. And it is this spirit that today, I talk about re-negotiating and re-envisioning our relationship to work and hence, to our time. As I explored over the last two weeks, historical data suggests that we worked a lot less in ages past, which allowed for more leisure time, feasting, merriment, and the learning of crafts and skills. It also gave our ancestors the necessary time to live without fossil fuels–to do work slower, with more intention, and live at a different pace. In the present age, our time is owned by our employers and continued increases in productivity have occurred with increases in work hours, meaning that we are working more than ever before.  It seems that, in some cases, fossil fuels and the myth of progress is speeding us up so much–and most of sustainable living practices focus in the opposite direction. The tension between them is many things, but one of them is certainly time and different ways of working.

 

Now to be clear, it is not that I’m saying that work itself is the problem–it isn’t.  Work is a necessary part of our lives.  It is a part of being alive: working to provide for our own needs and make sure our loved ones who depend on us are well fed, happy, clothed, and with roofs over our heads. This isn’t just the human condition, but rather, part of life in general–all animals must seek out their food, find shelter, build their nests, and so on.  The challenge comes with the balance between our work and the rest of our lives.  So in this post, I’ll explore both some opportunities and options for us to re-negotiate our relationship with our work, bring more leisure time into our lives, allow us to more fully pursue our passions, and dedicate more time to treading lightly and joyfully on the earth.

 

The Time Audit

When we want to understand a phenomenon that is very close to us, one of the best things we can do is find a new way of seeing that phenomenon (think about the Hanged Man card from the tarot–this is all about re-seeing a new situation). Each day, you spend your time as you’d spend anything else–you might think of it like a bank account, but its a set account of time (and the associated energy that comes with that time). One strategy for re-seeing this expenditure of time is through what I’m calling a time audit. I’m adapting this strategy from Your Money or Your Life, who gives great suggestions for money spending audits.  So let’s look at one possibility for a time audit:

 

  1. Begin by, on a separate sheet of paper, listing all the things you value the most that you wish you had more time to do.
  2. Next, for a period of time (at least a typical week, or longer; I’d recommend a month), keep track of your time and how you spend it. A good way to do this is on an Excel spreadsheet or in a notebook. Try to keep track of things as they happen, not at the end of the day, so that you have a more accurate representation of how you spend your time.  Note: if you spend a lot of time on the computer, some programs exist that also help you monitor your time on the computer–I use one called “RescueTime” which monitors what programs you are running and how much time you spend on it.
  3. After your set period of time, review your records and categorize them. You might come up with different kinds of categories: Time spent with family/loved ones, time in nature, work time (normal working hours), work time (overtime), social media, television, gardening, etc).  If you use Open Office or Excel or something, you can then add up the time you spent on each thing that week/month.
  4. Put a star next to any “things you value the most” (from your earlier list).  Also, note any categories that you consider “wasted” time.
  5. Now, add up your time and consider the following questions:
    1. If your time is your life energy–are you spending it well?
    2. How much of it do you see as wasted time?
    3. How much of the “things you value most” list are getting your time? How much of it?
    4. What are common “time sucks” that you see that you can eliminate?
    5. What do you want to spend more time on in the future?
    6. What percent of your waking hours was spent on that thing?
  6. Make a set of three goals for yourself moving forward and evaluate those goals after each week.

 

You will likely find that the act of monitoring your time itself helps you be more aware of how you spend your time.  Seeing your patterns with regards to time is even more helpful. Setting goals helps you to take the next steps towards reclaiming some of your time.

Re-negotiating our Relationship with Time

Beyond the time audit, it can be very helpful to examine cultural assumptions surrounding time and confront them directly. As I’ve begun paying more and more attention to this issue, I am struck by how powerful and pervasive these cultural assumptions are.  I’m going to walk through a number of these (and I’d love to hear more if you have any!

 

You are not a machine. Modern western industrialized culture makes a very dangerous assumption: that people are just like machines. That is, we are expected to be ultra efficient, ultra productive, and never break down.  We are always expected to work well and always be at the top of our game. Terms like productivity and efficiency are the measures that became the most central and dominant in our culture.  Even today, rather than calling people people, we call them “human resources” like they are simply another cog in that wheel.

 

We are not machines. We cannot work all day long and expect to function at peak efficiency. We are not made to work that long; our ancestors certainly did not, and the current expectations are unreasonable. If we want to build a better relationship with our time, we need to be kind to ourselves and to recognize that this intense culture of overwork is not a normal state of things.  And we can’t expect ourselves to be always working at peak efficiency.

 

I don’t know how many people think they should always be working and perfectly so.  I remember having a doctoral student who was teaching a course for us come into my office in tears–she shared how there had been a very unexpected death of a young cousin in her family and the family was in shock and having to care for the children of this person.  She had gone to several faculty who expressed their condolences and then shrugged her shoulders.  And she said to me, “I don’t think I’m teaching as well as I was before.”  I showed her compassion, and told her she wasn’t expected to, and it was OK to take this time to mourn (and we could find her a sub if necessary).  I was so struck by this situation–especially after she relayed that she had been advised to who had been advised to keep going regardless of what happened.  She expected herself, and expected all of us, to insist she always perform at peak efficiency–like a machine.

 

Slowing down....

Slowing down….

Learning about your own relationship with time. Stemming from the above idea that we are not machines,  it is useful to explore your underlying value systems associated with time and the narratives surrounding your use of time. Most of these are given to us by our culture–and so we likely have some healing work to do. You might consider your own reactions to the following words and phrases: relax, free time, leisure, good sleep, unstructured time, play, productivity, efficiency, accomplish, stamina,  busy, keeping busy (and there are a lot more!)  Exploring your gut reactions as a place to start–and then, question where these reactions come from.

 

For example, I used to get excited at the word “productive” because it meant I was accomplishing so much.  But where did that excitement come from? Was it even mine? Probably it came from my education and current work environment, where being productive meant piling on the accomplishments (which are rewarded) and embracing the insanely packed schedule to keep up the accomplishments. But did I ever consciously choose that value system?  Do I really want that value system in my life? Is it serving me well?  After some long, hard looks, my answer was “no.”  I didn’t want this value system because I felt I gained very little, and lost a great deal.  These kinds of questions can help us unpack these underlying cultural assumptions surrounding time.

 

Letting Go of Guilt. Because we have such an unbalanced relationship with our time and often hold onto the human-as-machine ideology, we feel guilty if we aren’t working or being productive. This guilt can manifest in many ways depending on the kind of work you do, and it takes on different names: academic guilt, productive guilt, work guilt, and so on.  But the underlying feeling is the same: when you want to relax, or do something fun, or just chill out, you have to first convince yourself that it is “ok” to do so, and maybe apologize to a few other people, for doing so. Or you don’t want people to know what you are up to, so you do whatever it is you want, but then hide the fact that you did so when you return to work. One of the manifestations of this is that people try to work even when they know they either won’t get what they need to get done (exhaustion, not the right headspace, etc) or they find work to do that they don’t need to do at that moment.  This is something you can certainly watch out for.

 

For example, how many times have you felt guilty for resting for a full day and not doing work? Or perhaps, enjoying a book for several hours in the afternoon? Taking time off on weekends? I see this often in my own workplace: we are meant to be always working. To do otherwise is not acceptable. I once thought this was unique to academia, but in fact, it is not–friends who work at home, friends who are self-employed, homemakers, and so many others tell me of their guilt at not working. The one exception to this is people who are retired: they are expected to simply enjoy life because “they’ve earned it” (having already put in the work).

 

So take a few deep breaths and let go of the guilt.  Go ahead.  You can do it. It feels really good :).

 

Seeds take their own time, never in a hurry

Seeds take their own time, never in a hurry

Beware of “efficiency” substances as ways of letting you go on longer.  There’s a difference between liking coffee for its flavor and enjoying a cup every now and then vs. depending up on it to get a tired and overworked body out of bed and moving again. Coffee, energy drinks, and other stimulating substances (even things like Ginseng) often act like a boost of coritsol to our systems–giving us a temporary “high” so we can keep moving just a bit longer or get to the weekend and crash.  However, this comes at a substantial physical cost. If we stop drinking it, even for a while, we will see what the “true state” of our bodies are.  These substances are like credit cards: sure, you can raise your limit and spend more now. But you do so at an extraordinarily high interest rate, and paying back that extra debt over time is so much harder.

 

Beware of cultural peer pressure. One of the things I’ve noticed is that certain really detrimental things are glorified–and it is easy to get wrapped up in other people’s time narratives. Overworking, being extremely busy, not getting enough sleep, being overwhelmed and overworked–these states of being are seen as at best, normal, and at worst, very positive places to be in.  I hear my colleagues speak with pride about how well they can function on 4 hours of sleep, or how they worked all weekend to prepare for their conference, or how they worked all through break. Uh, no. I have learned to resist these narratives firmly by sharing an alternative time narrative of self-care and balance.

 

We are more than our work. As I mentioned in my last post, at least here in the US, work is firmly tied to our own identity. But, your work is not your identity.  It is what you do for pay. It might be good work, you might really enjoy doing it–but it does not represent you or the whole of who you are. It is simply work. This was a particularly hard lesson for me to understand due to the amount of time and energy I had invested in getting to the point of being able to do my current work (dissertations and advanced degrees and all). But realizing that my whole being is not, and should not, be tied up with my work helped me broaden my perspectives and re-negotiate my relationship to my work. As an added benefit–now, when something goes wrong at work, it doesn’t crush my soul because there are more parts to me than just work.

Some Healthy Alternatives

So now that we’ve gotten past some of the negative assumptions with regards to time, I want to focus on a few positive alternative narratives that can help us move forward.

 

Understand that physical and mental health is wrapped up in time.  As I shared last week, the adrenal system and the other bodily functions are directly tied to the amount of stress and overwork in your life–which is tied to how you spend the time.  The sympathetic/fight or flight nervous system is what we use to keep us going, going, going. This has a measurable, strong link to our physical health.  Stressed bodies are not healthy bodies–many of their systems are functioning minimally under chronic stress. Long-term results of this can be quite serious indeed.  By learning to let go of some of the insanity and learning to rest, we can much better take care of ourselves. Likewise, our mental state is also determined, to a large extent, by how we spend our time.  Not having time to simply sit and process things that happen, being engaged in meaningless work, not slowing down enough to give our minds a chance to rest–these, too, strongly effect us. In other words, our time is our health.

 

Amaranth sprouts growing on their own time...

Amaranth sprouts growing on their own time…

See time and life energy as precious resources.  Our time is one of the most precious resources that we have.  This is simple: anything that we want to do requires–at the most basic level–the energy and time. There is no getting around this fact. Other issues, like physical resources, finances, lack of skill/ability, etc, have multiple solutions. But if we lack the time and energy to do something, nothing else is going to get that thing done.  Linguistically, this is now how time is framed in our culture. Typically, we “spend” our time (like spending down a bank account) or we “save” our time (like a savings account, note the efficiency metaphor again).  But we don’t necessarily “protect” or “cherish” our time with the same positive qualities.  This is part of why I’m talking about “time honoring” here–honoring this precious resource and all that it offers to us.

 

Evaluate your options. It might be that you can find ways of balancing your work and your life and coming into a more healthy relationship with it using the time audit and exploring other cultural assumptions. And for some people working some kinds of jobs, this is totally possible. But it also may be that you want to make some choices about your life (new work, part time work, new living circumstances) that lead you to less work and more living. This is certainly an option  not to be discounted.  Or, if choices present themselves for you to take on more work with higher pay–consider them carefully.

 

Promote Positive Narratives Surrounding Time.  This, for me, is a really important part of my own relationship with time–and that is serving as a good role model to others. I’m honest when people ask me how I spend my weekend: I was out in the woods, I was in my art studio, I was reading or writing or playing my flute. I don’t buy in to the glorification of busyness, and I don’t make excuses for not working constantly.  Because my current work  has me mentoring lots of advanced doctoral students, I am working hard to model my own more healthy relationship with time with them and encouraging them to take time off when they need it. I think that the more of us who are willing to gently but powerfully share alternatives and show that we can still be functional in our work, the more we are able to help others around us also think through these issues.

 

Conclusion

I share all of the above with a caveat: I am not pretending to be a master of my time and energy.  I am just another human on this path, working to balance a demanding career (which at this point due to my earlier life choices, is necessary) with the ability to have enough time and energy to live my spiritual path and live my truth. The above things are strategies that have worked for me.

 

The next post in this series will look more carefully at leisure time and explore the “slow movements” of various kinds, and offer some additional insights.  I very much look forward to hearing from you with your own suggestions and time-honoring strategies!

Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part II: Relationships of Work and Time

In the US, it seems that the first question people ask is, “what do you do?”  When they say that, of course, they are not talking about how you spend your leisure time, but rather, the work that you do for pay. This is the most defining characteristic of modern lives–because this is tied to the thing our culture holds as most sacred: money.  Money is the only metric that has any real value and the pursuit of money drives all else. If you aren’t working in the workforce earning pay, either the work are doing is devalued (as any stay-at-home parent can attest) or there is something very wrong with you (as in, why aren’t you out there earning money?). This current economic system, driven by industrial mindsets surrounding profit and efficiency, gives us a rather poor metric through which to measure ourselves and our value.

 

Last week, I explored a bit of the history of our current cultural value system with regards to work by examining humans’ earlier relationships with work and time. In today’s post, I’m going to bring us into the present age, and explore some of the issues surrounding modern relationships with our work and how these relationships are tied to underlying cultural value systems of exponential growth, the love of money, and the myth of progress. I do so because our modern relationships with work and money are directly linked to our ability to slow down and engage in anything else meaningful: a spiritual path, sustainable living, communing with the trees, etc. I also want to take a moment to thank so many of you for your incredibly thoughtful and useful comments in last week’s post–I hope we can continue to discuss these issues!

 

Modern Overworking and Productivity

As above, so below

As above, so below

David Graeber wrote a controversial essay in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” (this essay is free online, but the site that typically hosts it seems to be down, so I found it on the Internet Archive here if you want to read).  He outlines how, for almost a century, with the rise of fossil fuels and the various technologies, we’ve had reports that increased technology combined with more fossil fuel use would lead us to an increase of leisure time.  In fact, in the 1930’s, John Maynard Keynes suggested that by the year 2000, we could have work weeks as little as 15 hours a week.  For those of you keeping track, this assumption is also wrapped up in the myth of progress that I described in detail in last week’s post.

 

In fact, we are technically capable of working a lot less, at least by modern economic metrics (which, for the purposes of this post, I’ll take at face value). An analysis from Eric Rauch of MIT suggests that today, the average “productivity level” of a worker (that is, how much a worker gets done in a day) has gone up tremendously over the last century, particularly since the rise of modern communication systems.  Today’s workers get done in 11 hours what the average worker in 1950 got done in 40; productivity levels have been on a steady rise for the better part of 70 years.  Graeber reports that as late as the 1960’s, people were still expecting those future 15-hour weeks. Yet, the average work week is now over 50 hours for at least half of Americans (and for some, considerably over 50 hours). So where is all of the extra time going?  Why do we seem to be the most unhappy, and most productive, of workers?

 

Most of this seems to stem from our relationship to consumerism and money, not necessarily from work itself.  Julie Schor, economist and author of The Overworked American: The Decline of American Leisure demonstrated that  workers unions often will nearly always choose higher pay and benefits over shorter working hours. The same is true of non-unionized workers: if faced with the choice between less work and more pay, workers almost invariably choose more pay and give up their leisure time as a result. The idea of not taking more work for more pay seems unfathomable to many. This is, I believe, due to the underlying value system that privileges money and little else combined with an assumption that growth (in wages, in standing at one’s job) is a desirable and necessary pursuit.

 

I have a good example of this from my own life: a few years ago at my previous university position, I was asked to consider stepping into a major administrative role much higher up the food chain so to speak, overseeing a large and growing major. This job offered almost a 40% pay increase from what I was currently making. However, this new job was not appealing to me in the slightest. For one, would take me away from all the things I enjoyed about my job, namely my teaching my students and the discovery I was able to do as a researcher, and replace it with more work I didn’t enjoy. For two, it also meant losing my flexible schedule, working many more hours, and it would require that all my working hours be on campus. Consequently, due to the longer daily working hours, I would have had to deal with rush hour traffic twice a day that I had learned to otherwise avoid.  This meant even less time on my homestead, and in winter months, leaving before the sun rose and getting home after the sun set (think of the chickens!).  And so, I gently declined the position. When word got around that I had declined what was clearly a “step up” in my career, my colleagues couldn’t understand why.  No answer I could give was sufficient. Finally, I came up with the one answer always acceptable to academic audiences: I wanted to focus on my research (that is, I preferred the noble goal of making new knowledge and sacrificed higher pay to do so). Giving people the true answer: that I liked the work I currently did,and that I didn’t, gods forbid, want even more work on my plate or a more restricted schedule, was simply not an acceptable answer and giving it would have considerably harmed my reputation. This is because more money and higher status is always the choice you should make given the cultural value system that privileges earnings above most else.

 

One book that really helped me make sense of this decision to keep a lower paying, lower hour, more flexible position was a book called Your Money or Your Life.  This book puts out, in direct terms, a system for monitoring the relationship between your time and your work and draws clear the distinction between the two.  In a series of exercises, you calculate your “real” hourly wage (not what you are paid, but what you actually make after you subtract work-associated costs, transpiration, transportation time, and the downtime/recovery time that is lost after work that you need to recover from it). It also has you monitor your spending and identify ways in which that spending is or is not in line with your value system. When you do these activities, it really helps you change your relationship with your work and your finances.  I’ll talk more about this approach in my third post on this series–but suffice to say, this book helped change my own relationship with money and made me realize that I made the right decision.

 

Another major issue contributing to overwork is that the current work system intentionally privileges overwork. For one, many people fear losing their jobs such that they have to do whatever their employers tell them to, and will, and that means among other things, much longer hours at lower pay (hence one of many reasons that the middle class is shrinking and pay is stagnant). For two, most workers no longer possess much autonomy over their work, and so the amount of work they do is no longer determined by them. With the rising income disparity, more funding is going to boated administrative positions at the cost of the average and lower-paid workers who then suffer  more administrative oversight (see next paragraph).  Finally, the more “productive” one is compared to one’s peers, the more one is rewarded. For those working hourly rates, the situation is even more dire: extremely low pay per hour requires them to work tremendously long hours at unpleasant jobs to take home a pittance. I think the underlying thing that is happening here is that we are supposed to want to work, we are supposed to want to earn good pay, we are supposed to be growing our salaries and our careers and we should be sacrificing all to do so.

 

David Graeber offers his own interpretation to some of the above: the creation of “bullshit jobs,” primarily of the administrative kind. He describes the new jobs like telemarketing and financial services and the “ballooning” of administration” in many areas. In terms of why this is so, Graeber writes, “The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).”  He argues that many people find large portions of the work they do as meaningless, even if they do this work for pay (and often for a lot of it). Graeber notes that the resentment and “psychological violence” that builds up for those doing “bullshit jobs” and is inflicted upon those actually doing meaningful work.  Those who are doing meaningful work are often doing it for less pay, furthering resentment between all involved. A good example of this is the teaching, nursing, or social work professions: all folks engaging in really important work who do it for less pay and over overseen, increasingly, by administrators in bullshit jobs. Whether or not you buy Graeber’s argument, there is no doubt that today, people feel overworked, underpaid, and generally strained–all the while carrying around an unconscious value system that tells them they should keep earning profits.

 

Another piece of this I’ll note is the rise of the super-specialist system. Wendell Berry discusses this system briefly in the early chapters of the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. In the specialist model, we have replaced generalist workers that are good at a lot of things and are well rounded (like a small family farmer, handy person, etc) with super specialists who are really good at one thing. Increasingly, we feel the need to go to specialists for every little  thing (finances, health, food, haircuts, you name it). The rise of the specialist system reduces individual autonomy, flexibility, and freedom, requires infinitely more specialized (and in many cases, less meaningful) work.  But I also think that the rise of the specialist system makes us think that we can only be good at one thing (our specialized work) and so we must do that well above all else.

 

I could write more here, but I think my points have been sufficiently made: that workers in today’s system are both products of the system beyond their control (one engineered to make sure they don’t have leisure time), but also often make choices to maximize wealth and thus undermine their own leisure time due to tightening economic circumstances coupled with underlying cultural myths about growth and progress.  This system works such that we are exhausted at the end of the day, and we can’t do much else rather than spend all our time in front of screens pumping advertising that makes us buy things to keep the system chugging right along. Further, we depend on that system and many of us are in serious binds due to economics and decisions we made earlier in life. So now, I want to turn my attention to the costs that this system has on our emotional, spiritual, and physical well being.

 

The Physical Cost of Overwork: Our Nervous System

Physically, the amount of work we are doing, without much downtime and festivity (as explored last week), means that our bodies are less able to handle stress or any serious endeavors beyond just keeping going to our jobs. We begin “living to work” rather than “working to live.” I think the increased productivity levels means that most workplaces are more demanding, fast paced, and intense than even 10 years ago–so when we go, we are working harder, faster, and with less rest. I know in the time I’ve been in the academic workplace, the university is demanding a lot more for a lot less compensation. And this causes us physical harm and daily stress. Additionally, as we age, our bodies are different and cannot always work as much as we want them to. A recent study suggested, for example, that people over 40 are better workers with a three-day work week as opposed to a five day work week.

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

Stinging nettles support the adrenals

 

I’m going to put on my herbalist hat for just a moment and talk about the automatic nervous system, because it helps illustrate a few key things important to this issue of stress and overwork (and for more on this, I point to Hoffman’s Herbs for Stress and Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy). The automatic nervous system (which is outside of our conscious control) maintains and governs the vital functions of the body like digestion, circulation, heart rate, and breathing. It has two modes: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). Earlier in human history, the sympathetic nervous system was used to get us out of immediate danger (oh noes! A big bear is chasing me!) In this state, anything that’s not immediately needed for survival, including our digestive system, our immune system and inflammatory responses, and our sexual system, are essentially shut down.The problem for those of us living as modern humans in these work-intensive and difficult times is that stress doesn’t work like it did in earlier points in human history. Most stress is not stress we can just run away from and relax—rather, its continual and grating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, overworked, and isolated are three key signs of a continual sympathetic nervous system state. Due to modern demands, we make things worse by pushing our bodies to go even further using various common stimulants (sugar, coffee, caffeine, energy drinks—in fact, caffeine mimics adrenaline in the body). Prolonged stress responses encourage the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called Cortisol into the blood, which again mobilizes stored glucose and fat, suppresses the inflammatory response (how the body can heal from damage), and taxes the liver.

 

If the body continues to face stress, the body responds with what is known as  “general adaptation syndrome” – which is essentially a chronically stressed system—with the adrenal glands releasing all of the cortisone they can for as long as they can. Long-term exposure to Cortisol taxes the liver and can lead to digestive problems, muscular tension, poor joint health, high blood pressure, various reproductive system issues. Eventually, if this goes on long enough, the body is exhausted and suffers what is known as “adrenal burnout” or “adrenal exhaustion.” Our bodies cannot go forever on and on, and at this stage, we have severely decreased ability to deal with stress, severe mental and physical exhaustion, and higher susceptibility to illness and disease.

 

If you are feeling exhausted when you are relaxing, you know that your body has been running in sympathetic mode long term. A few other common signs are waking up tired and not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep or getting sick as soon as you go on vacation. Because so many people are running on General Adaptation Syndrome, when they finally do get back to a parasympthetic state (say on vacation), they immediately fall ill and feel exhausted—this is feeling the true state of affairs in the body. In 2015, for example, 24% of Americans were experiencing “extreme stress” and general stress levels have continued to rise. Given healing, self care, and downtime, the body can fully heal.

 

I believe that the above information is likely why television and other media are such huge attractions.  Adrenally depleted people cannot muster the energy to do much–getting something to eat and crashing with Netflix is what a lot of folks do at the end of the day because they are physically incapable of anything else.  This, too, is a cost of our work.

 

The Non-Physical Costs of Overwork

Schor notes that the decline of American leisure time has resulted in what she calls “loss of independence.” Likewise, literary figure Herman Mellville wrote in a letter to a family member, “Whoever is not in possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence.” The more that our working hours are wrapped up in our jobs or other responsibilities (meaningful or not), and the more time we spend outside of that work as exhausted and adrenal depleted zombies, the less we are able to engage in any meaningful activity that doesn’t have to do with earning a living.  Independence is critical to our success in any endeavor or path beyond our work.

 

The second cost of overwork is wasted potential. This independence, this unstructured time, offers us potential and possibility. We have to determine how we enact that potential, of course, but the potential itself will never be there without the time and energy to do so.  In other words, overworking closes off potential and possibility for us all. Free time is like a bed of soil, freshly prepare for seeds and planting. We can choose to leave it barren or we can choose to cultivate something. But if we don’t even have access to that bed and the energy to plant anything, there is no way anything can grow. I think that humans have the potential for so much–creative gifts and tapping the flow of awen, doing good work in their communities and healing each other, healing the land, spiritual self discovery, deeper understanding–all of the things, really, that make us human.  But we need to the unstructured time to make that a reality.

 

A third thing I think we lose is the ability to learn and grow fully. Having leisure time means you have time to make mistakes, ponder about those mistakes, try some new, experiment, tinker, and so on. This is a really critical part of  learning anything, but certainly, its critical to develop any skill in the bardic art or in homesteading or planning a garden. We have to have time not only to learn, but practice, and on occasion, fail at things so we can get better. When are strained for time, we don’t have the space to do that. Because every bit of time is so precious, failure leads not to introspection but to seeing the time as “wasted” and to frustration.

 

A fourth thing that we lose is the ability to reflect an think carefully  about what is happening in our own lives and in the world around us.  For example,  how many people have you talked to (and maybe this has happened to you) where something major occurs and rather than process it and deal with it, they keep working and never really think about the issue. Maybe this thing is a tragedy and they bury the pain of it, or maybe it is something really wonderful–and neither can be thought about or processed. Losing our ability to be reflective means we don’t integrate lessons and experiences and grow as people. I think this work so critical to us–both in terms of our spiritual paths, but also in terms of our humanity.

 

A fifth thing we lose is the ability to connect with each other or the land. Harried work schedules coupled with adrenal fatigue means we don’t have time for others in our lives: to reach out, to send a card, to have a nice cup of tea by the fire, or to commune with the non-human aspects of the world. It takes time to build and maintain connections, and without them, we are isolated and alone.

 

And I think at this point, I’ve come full circle to the issues that I opened with in my last post: wanting to live in line with my principles and never seeming to have the energy and time to do so.  I’ve explored some of the problems and causes that I think are contributing to these phenomenon (in my own life, in the lives of my friends, and broader for many people).  Next week, we’ll move to the next stage of this process: what to do about it.  In the meantime, friends, I hope you can find some leisure time and enjoy it!

Slowing Down the Druid Way: A History of Time

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

Some awesome gardens on my homestead

What continues to drive me is to live more in line with my principles: to grow my food, to take care of my basic needs, take charge of my health and healing, and to live fully and honestly with myself in line with the living earth. For a while, as I have discussed on this blog, I ran a homestead as well as worked full time to pay for it, something that I stopped doing about a year and a half ago. Part of why I had to walk away from my homestead in its current model (and regroup) was that it was physically exhausting me, especially as a single woman. I was trying to do everything: hold a full time job, grow my own food, tend my bees, tend my chickens, tend my land, make lots of things, write my blog, engage in my druid studies…and I couldn’t do it all. It was a painful and hard thing, leave a year and a half ago and open myself up to future possibilities. It also has been good in that I’ve been working to confront some of the fantasies that made me pursue things in the direction that I did when that direction was, for me, unsustainable. I had a hard time understanding how my ancestors made it–how they were able to do so many things, when I seemed to be able to do so few effectively.

 

Interestingly, at the time this was going on in my own life, I knew of several other homesteading folks who were in the same bind.  One couple, who were also educators, were selling their land because they couldn’t do it all, and they both had to work to pay for it, and the debt and time debt was really harming them. Like me, they really wanted to live sustainably but found they couldn’t swing it with the jobs and mortgage. Another good friend (another single woman) wanted to buy land, and had the money, but after seeing what I was doing and spending some time, started re-thinking her choices. Yet another friend was also a single homesteader and had no idea how to work and keep his homestead. All of us had also experimented with WOOFing and other kinds of community building but it wasn’t enough to sustain us long-term. And in the time since, I’ve met many people on the path who have expressed similar issues.

 

What I hadn’t fully accounted for when I started homesteading was the toll that trying to live in two competing systems at once did to me; I was trying to literally live two full-time lives at once. The existing system of work and life and taxes didn’t decrease in its demands just because I had a spiritual awakening and wanted to live in line with my beliefs: a mortgage, student loans, the demands of my work, the path and choices I setup for myself in my 20’s still were present and demanding of their attention in my early 30’s. The current system is designed so that it is easiest to live within it, and every step you take out of it is more and more difficult.

 

And so, I’ve been reflecting. What happened? What could I have done differently?  What could any of us done differently? What did I learn so that in the future I can take a different approach? For me, it all kept coming back to resources: my time and energy, debt, and community. I never seemed to have enough time to do even half of what I wanted at the end of the work days, and I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends recovering from my work. And, yet, I knew I was working more efficiently and engaging in a lot more self care than many of my colleagues at the university, who seemed perpetually exhausted. I also never seemed to be making much headway on my debt for the mortgage and on my student loans.  Each time I had gotten a raise, associated costs of life went up (especially health insurance), and I ended up taking home less money than before the raise. I felt like, literally, I was a hamster spinning in a wheel. What was happening here?

 

And as I’ve been working through these questions about my own experience, a deeper set of questions has also emerged: what are the larger cultural systems in place that influenced my experiences and the experiences of others I knew? Culturally, what are the challenges?

 

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could work through this, but today, I’m specifically going to look at time and leisure. And this is for a simple reason: time and physical energy seems, to me, to be the biggest limiting factor for many people; it was a limiting factor for me, and certainly, for others that I knew who were in a similar place. In fact, time seems to be one of the critical factors between well-intentioned folks who want to do something and people who do can something.  This happens a lot: I talk to people every day practically who really want to live more sustainably, who want to practice permaculture in daily living, who want to reconnect on a deeper level–and who physically can’t do so.  They don’t have the energy, they don’t have the time, and the idea of “making time” sounds exhausting.  I think there’s a lot of harsh criticism out there for people’s honestly on the matter of their time and energy–one form of this criticism is that it sounds like they are making excuses. In the US at least, we have a tendency to criticize an individual for personal failings and deficiencies rather than look at the systems in place that help or harm us.  And yet, we live and work within these systems, and we are inherently bound to them and to the demands they place upon us.  Having a clear understanding of those systems, and what we can do about them for the good of our spiritual practice and everyday living, seems critical.

 

And so, in the rest of this post (and over the next few weeks), I’m going to explore cultural challenges–and solutions–with our relationship with time: how our system literally sucks away our time and makes it much more difficult to engage various kinds of sustainable living and self sufficiency, especially for those who are trying to walk the line between both worlds.

 

Understanding more about this system, and its history, is critical to all of us as we work to respond to the current industrial age, but as we begin to put in place new systems that will help replace this age and transition us back to nature-oriented living. And the key here is transitioning in a way that allows us to thrive: to be healthy (including well rested), happy, be able to take care of some of our own needs, and to work with the land to create abundance and joy in our own lives. So now, let’s take a look at our relationship to time in the broadest view, that is, over hundreds of years of human living.

 

Progress and Time

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along...

Some nice trees I painted to help this challenging subject along…

One of the so-called promises of industrialization and consumerism is the idea that things are “better” or “easier” for us now that machines and fossil fuels do so many things. We are told, explicitly as children in school, that we are better off, that we work less than our ancestors, have better lives, and largely benefit from the technologies and goods. Our ancestors of the distant past had hard lives of filth and toil, and we have somehow risen above this. This is one of the cores of the myth of progress: that our lives are better than our ancestors because of our “progress” as a civilization. Wrapped into this myth is the idea that fossil fuels and the current 40-hour workweeks somehow liberated us from crushing labor.  John Michael Greer has written extensively on this subject in his many books and blog, and if you aren’t familiar with his work and want his take on the subject, I’d highly recommend it (his new book After Progress is a particularly good place to start). This myth, the most powerful driving narrative of our present age, spans back at least until the time of industrialization but had its roots much earlier. One of these key pieces of the myth concerns the nature of time.

 

Work and Leisure in the Middle Ages

I’m sure any of you studying the druid traditions and old ceremonies read about 12-day celebrations and week long feasts and think to yourself,  how is this even possible?  Who would have time for this? A 12 day celebration seems like a dream, a fantasy, not the reality of any people, at least within the industrialized era. But evidence exploring pre-industrial cultures, including the Middle Ages in Europe, offers a different tale. In fact, peoples in Europe and elsewhere did have time for multiple 12 day celebrations and feasts because they had an entirely different relationship with time, leisure, and work.

 

A good book on the subject of time and the history of work time is The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet B. Schor. Schor demonstrates that while the 40-hour work week of the 20th century was an improvement over the 80-hour work week from the 19th century (which she claims may have been the height of human work hours in recorded Western history), there is an implicit assumption that all work weeks were 80 hours in the centuries before the 19th. That is simply not the case. Schor provides good evidence that prior to capitalism, our ancestors had an abundance of time and a leisurely pace of work. She, and others writing on this subject, often point to the Middle Ages as a comparison.

 

Work in the Middle Ages was intermittent, with frequent breaks, even during planting and harvest times–these breaks were considered part of the rights of workers. During periods of downtime between planting and harvest, little work was done at all. In fact, almost one third of the medieval person’s life was spent on holiday: everything from prayer and somber churchgoing to merrymaking and feasting. These included many holidays through the Catholic Church (which was still quite pagan in those days, adopting many of the earlier week-long pagan feasts and traditions). In addition to the publicly sanctioned feasts, a typical middle ages calendar also included the “ale weeks” of various sorts where you might take a week off to celebrate someone’s wedding or birth of a child and the like. The Catholic Church’s doctrine suggested that too much work was a sin, and so, it actively limited how much work anyone could do (it also limited other things, like usury, or the charging of interest which is another topic entirely).

 

With this religious-political system in place, people had a lot of leisure time for all of those holidays and festivals as well as practicing functional crafts and bardic arts. For example, France’s ancien règime guaranteed workers fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays per year (could you imagine that today?) Approximately 5 months of the year were taken off in Spain during the Middle Ages. In England, records from manors in the 13th century suggested that manor  servants worked 175 days a year (likely a 10 or 12 hour day); peasant farmers worked not more than 150 days a year on their land, laborers worked around 120 days, and even miners worked only 180 days.

 

If we average these different data-points from England, we get 156 days of work per person. Today, with the typical “40-hour work week” with standard holidays and two  weeks off for vacation (read, crashing and recovering), the average American work week is about 261 days.  This is nearly one hundred days more than our medieval ancestors.  And even on days we don’t work or are on vacation, how many of us now are tethered to our smartphones and emails–our work follows us wherever we go, in ways even our counterparts from earlier in the 20th century can’t imagine. Now I’m not saying Medieval system was perfect–but on the matter of time, it appears to be a vast improvement from our current state of affairs.

 

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes....

Recent painting (in my spare leisure time!) of the planes….

Change is a constant, and certainly, big changes were coming near the end of the Middle Ages. The Protestants, specifically, the Puritans,  grew in strength and popularity all over Europe; their take on work was the opposite of the Catholic Church’s. Their motto was that hard work was good for the soul, and laziness was the work of the devil. Further, in England, the English Reformation led to major changes in work hours: King Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their land furthering the protestant cause and decreasing the stability of the peasants (who often worked land owned by the monasteries). The changes continued–after industrialization began taking off, a need for bodies in factories led to major shifts in how land was used: in many places, the common people and peasants were driven off lands and replaced with more profitable sheep (see, for example, the Highland Clearances in Scotland).

 

Eventually, these and other factors give rise to the 80-hour work weeks the 18th and 19th century (work weeks suffered by largely displaced peoples–economic refugees). The factory worker’s plight is a tale many of us likely know well (for a good description of this  in the early 20th century, see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). Eventually, laws in various countries were introduced, including the current 40 hour work week here in the USA (which certainly seemed like a improvement after the insanity that preceded it).

 

Also, there is some truth in the idea that we have it better now in terms of work from our ancestors a century or two ago. But the idea that pre-industralized peoples worked away their days just to scrape by is hogwash.  It’s hogwash not only in terms of the Middle Ages, but even in terms of the more distant past. And, as I’ll explore next week in more depth, work weeks currently are on the incline, and have been for at least the last 20 years.  Part of this, as we’ll explore next week, has to do with our own choices and relationship to work (things we can control) and part of it may have factors outside of our control.

 

Concluding Thoughts

All of this information helped me put things in perspective–people living close to the land in ages past had very different demands on their time than people attempting it today.  I’m, then, not surprised by my own experiences and those with similar stories that I knew well. For so many of us, it is not a lack of desire, but of time, of resources, and of support–and finding ways to balance these things, while all the while paying for it within this crazy system–is a serious challenge and one deserving of our attention.

 

People living in times past had amounts of leisure time that seem unfathomable to those of us in modern industrialized or post-industralized societies–leisure time in which to make merry, engage in careful handicrafts, or pursue other interests fully. Further, people living in those earlier times also had support from strong and thriving communities.  People living in the distant past also had existing systems in place to aid them and often had carefully cultivated and abundant landscapes in which to work, which is diametrically opposed to our seriously degraded landscapes that we are now working to restore.  In other words, the challenges we face are serious ones, and our responses must, therefore, be thoughtful, deep, and careful. Understanding the systems in which we work, and their demands, can help us better adapt our own plans, especially to those that seek regenerative and nature-based living. Time, especially as it relates to our work demands, is certainly not on our side. There are some alternative approaches and solutions to this–and we’ll keep exploring these in the coming weeks.