Tag Archives: sustainability

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.

White Picket Fences, Free Range Fantasies, and the Many Paths of Sustainable Living

We live in a time of grand and sweeping narratives, powerful narratives that tell us who to be, how to live, what to buy, and what to believe–and these shape our actions and identities. When I was a child in the 1980’s, the narrative of the American Dream, complete with the white picket fence, was compelling. A beautiful suburban home, a middle class lifestyle, a loving partner, 2.5 children, a large house, a beautiful lawn, the husband with a well paying job, and generally peaceful existence were the cornerstones of this dream. Of course, there’s a lot of critique of the white picket fence today, spanning from racial injustice and socioeconomic realities to sustainable living issues. In the sustainability community, in particular, the white picket fence has become a sense of what we are working against, as the white picket fence surrounds the chemically-treated and weed free grass…and certainly, that’s not what is going to help us transition to earth-centered living.

 

Loving the Land

Loving the Land- in many different ways!

However, what I fear is that sustainable living communities have replaced this white picket fence narrative with our own grand narrative, as equally powerful and as equally limiting. I call this narrative the “Free Range Fantasy” and it goes something like this: you and your perfect partner decide to quit your day jobs, purchase 50 acres in some remote area (which you somehow manage debt free), and build a fully off-grid homestead using an awesome ecological design method (cob, earth shelter, passive solar, etc). This homestead is complete with solar panels, acres of abundant gardens, fields of cute goats wearing daisy crowns, happy free range chickens, and two cute children covered in strawberry juice from your own strawberry patch.

 

The Free Range Fantasy is strongly promoted by a number of sustainable living magazines, events, books and other forms of media. As an example, Mother Earth News does a superb job. For the record, I love Mother Earth News and enjoy reading each issue; I also attended the Mother Earth news Fair in Seven Springs, PA last year and have every intention of going again. But I also recognize that Mother Earth News is promoting a specific kind of ecological living, and that living is not a reality for many of us, and it is in this grand narrative that much of the danger lies. For example, each year, they select a handful of homesteaders to be their homesteaders of the year. You can see articles on the last few years’ picks (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).  Notice a pattern? I certainly did: every “homesteader of the year” is a couple or a family; nearly all are living on large tracts of land and remote locations–and nearly all fit into my Free Range Fantasy. Now, from a sustainable living perspective, these couples  are superheroes. I respect them deeply for the work they are doing, and the way forward they are paving. But I also have to ask: Could a single person ever win this award? What about a non-traditional community? What about someone who is disabled? What about someone homesteading in a big city or in a 1/10th acre plot?

 

When I meet and talk to people who are practicing sustainable living and permaculture, 9 out of 10 times, they simply don’t fit the Free Range Fantasy. They may not be able to afford to purchase a remote 50 acres and live somewhere–perhaps they are already trying to make ends meet just paying their rent and working two or three part time jobs. How would they ever save enough up for a down payment, much less live debt free? Or perhaps they are still recovering from years in higher education and have student loan debt and need to keep their job to avoid defaulting on their loans. Perhaps they have sick parents or a sick loved one and are geographically bound. Perhaps they have a bad back or a serious disability. Or perhaps, they are single homesteaders–trying their best to live sustainably while working a full time job, and doing so without the strawberry-coated children and supportive partner. Maybe they have a partner, but that partner has a different worldview than them, and this kind of living is out of the question.

 

I really commend people whose life circumstances have allowed for them to make the Free Range Fantasy a realtiy, and for the daily work of making that happen. I am inspired by the work that they do. However, for most people, the Free Range Fantasy unfortunately sends the message that the only way to live sustainably is to live by this ideal.

 

Urban Garden early in Season!

Urban Garden early in Season!

I have spent a lot of time in sustainable living communities, and I can tell you that it has a powerful hold, being upheld as the “thing everyone should be doing.” It can get lodged deeply within you, this dream, of a life you *should* be living, rather than one you are living. I hear a lot of people saying “I wish I was able to buy a place in the country….”  or “In my dream world, I would…”; these are the narratives of the Free Range Fantasy. As the Archdruid of Water in AODA, I mentor people through our curriculum.  Part of the curriculum asks them to make three changes to their living to be more earth-friendly.  So many people feel guilty because they don’t feel they are doing enough, when in reality they are doing very good work, and pursuing a better path forward in their own lives. The Free Range Fantasy minimizes the important work that they are doing, in their community, and as individuals.

 

Truthfully, until very recently, I was trapped by this narrative. As a single homesteader in Michigan, isolated on my property, I fell into depression because my life looked different than the Free Range Fantasy. For me, most importantly, it was the family/partner issue–I didn’t have two cute strawberry eating children, nor a stable partner and it was extremely hard on my own to achieve all I wanted to achieve. I also didn’t have the funds, with my mortgage, to really take my property to the next step in terms of solar power, etc. In truth, I was doing everything I could, and still, my life resembled nothing like what I believed it should, according to the narrative. As long as I bought into the narrative wholesale, and I bought into it for a long time, then what I was doing never seemed to be enough, or sufficient, and there were always pieces lacking. In other words, the narrative made me feel like a failure, rather than encouraging me to celebrate my success and continued growth on this path–and I had much to celebrate! The narrative also encouraged me to place unreasonable expectations on myself. For example, when I tried growing all of my own food by putting in a 2000+ square foot veggie garden, I burned myself out and couldn’t maintain it (and started switching it to perennials, a much smarter option!) I now realize that growing all of my own food was kind of ridiculous when I was also working at the university 50+ hours a week. That is not a sustainable approach–and distance and perspective have helped me understand this, and the larger detrimental effects, of the Free Range Fantasy on my own well being.

 

Permaculture!

Permaculture – An Adaptable Philosophy, Ethical System, and Design System

As my own confessional here has demonstrated, the Free Range Fantasy can be as destructive as the white picket fence because it limits your vision to this one ideal. It stifles you, preventing you from doing something now that helps move towards sustainability, rather than dreaming of some far off thing that may never be your reality due to factors, probably many beyond your immediate control. More, if every person wanted their 50 acres, we wouldn’t have enough lands available! Part of the work of living in a sacred, sustainable manner is about living better in the circumstances that make up our present reality, not dreaming of a lifestyle that may not be tenable for that reality.  It is a good goal to work toward if your life circumstances allow, certainly, but there are other ways and means of living.

 

All of this has really been brought to life, and has shifted for me, during my permaculture design certificate and really embracing the alternative perspective that permaculture provided. Visiting small front-yard farms and alternative spaces was highly inspiring! Embracing small, slow and sustaining solutions is the new motto that I strive for. Permaculture isn’t about a one-fits-all model of sustainable living, but rather about applying ethics and design principles that can work for any life situation. It is here, that the power of these principles, that I found my path forward for regenerative, sacred living. And there are lots of books and resources that share alternative paths for such living, for example, how to make a permaculture patio! Permaculture isn’t the only way into what I’m talking about here, but it is certainly a way that has helped me get beyond the Free Range Fantasy in positive and productive ways.

 

I’m now at the point where I’m starting to consider buying a new piece of property after my life transition to a new job in a new state. The urban homestead appeals to me at this point my life, the idea of creating a site where people can walk to, that is easily accessible, that is very visible, and that can host permauclture meetups, herb classes, plant walks, and more. This site could provide sustainability and permauclture education right in the middle of my own community and town. That’s probably going to be the route I go for one simple fact–while I am blessed to physically be able to do this work, my call is to educating others. To me, this education must occur where people, here and now, where people are rooted and where they live their everyday lives. And those people aren’t just those who are privileged with being able bodied, have abundant finances, have perfect partner with which to do the work, or have their 50 acres debt free and ready to go. Rather, they are poor people, middle class people, disabled people, students, single parents, people of different walks of life–and I think its important to meet them where they are, in the places they inhabit, and show them options of sustainable living that they can do right here and right now. I now understand that that the kind of off grid living promoted by the Free Range Fantasy takes a community. If I have no family, partner, or community to bring to a homestead, than it seems that I will bring the homestead to the community and create family right here where I am.

 

But another piece of this is that there are always trade-offs and decisions to make, and each kind of living has its benefits: fossil fuel use and finances being two of them. In my case, I can substantially reduce my fossil fuel dependence if I live in a place where I can walk or bike to work and eliminate most of my car use–and seeing the destruction that fossil fuels have brought firsthand on the land here in PA make me even more eager to go that route. In MI, I used to commute 18 miles to work one way, and although the rest of my living was quite sustainable, nothing I did could really address 36 miles round trip 4 or so times a week. Further, acreage is expensive, and I can also stay out of debt if I live in town modestly; that’s another critical factor.

 

In sum, it’s important to realize that the Free Range Fantasy is an option for certain people who have the means, drive, family, and opportunity to do so.  However, it is certainly not the only vision possible, nor reasonable, given the challenges we face. For many of us, it is only a fantasy, and keeping our heads in a fantasy doesn’t address the importance of living in the here and now. We need a patchwork of unique responses, as many responses and sustainable living practices as we have people. We need people to do everything they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen: abandoned lots in Detroit becoming gardens; apartment dwellers learning vermicomposting; a local school planting a garden; urban beekeeping; whatever it is. We are starting to see those visions emerge, and we need voices doing all of these things. And so, dear readers, I hope you will be inspired by the multitude of ways, the patchwork of options, before us for sustainable living and regenerative, healing lives!

 

PS: I just realized that this is my 250th post on the Druid’s Garden Blog!  How fitting! 🙂

Lawn Regeneration: Return to Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

Front yard view, mid September

Front yard view, mid September 2015

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

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

Community Building and Education

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

 

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

 

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

 

Child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Neighborhood child helps harvest lettuce greens!

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

Kids packing up produce!

Neighborhood kids packing up produce!

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

 

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

A place to sit....

A place to sit….

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

 

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

Beans on the trellis near the house!

Asian long beans hanging from the trellis near the house.

 

Growth and Harvest

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

 

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

The flower garden...

The flower garden

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

 

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

Sunflowers!

Linda reaching up to the sunflowers!

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

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

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

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

 

Healing and Regeneration

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

 

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

 

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

A beautiful shot of the farm

A beautiful shot of the farm

 

Next Steps

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

Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

 

Converting Your Lawn?

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

The Wheel of the Year: Sustainable and Spiritual Activities for the Fall Equinox

Note: This post is directed at those who live in the northern hemisphere; for my readers in the southern hemisphere, you can see my post on the Spring Equinox for activities appropriate to you!

 

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year....

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year….

As the days shorten and we once again are faced with the coming of the winter months, we are reminded of the cycles that the sun provides to us and the promise, always, of new beginnings.  Each season brings its own spiritual and sustainable activities–and the Fall Equinox is so full of many things to see and to do!

 

The Fall Equinox sits on the gateway between the light and dark half of the year and after the equinox, we are in the dark half of the year once more. It is at the moment of the equinox that the light and the dark are in balance–and we, too, can seek such balance. In my region of the world, the Fall Equinox happens just as the weather finally cools down, just as the leaves begin to change, just as the air has a bit of a nip it didn’t have even a few weeks before. The goldenrod and New England Aster are in bloom but may be on the decline–and these plants, with some others, are our last sources of nectar of the year for honeybees and wild pollinators. The nuts and apples are dropping from the trees everyone is scurrying to get to them before the snows set in.

 

I love the fall–I feel like I’ve been in a frenzy all summer with gardening and foraging activities, where there is always so much to do, so much to put by, so many things you don’t want to miss. As the cold comes in, the world slows down a bit and we slow down with it. This is especially true when you are actively homesteading, farming, practicing herbalism, wild food foraging, or doing any other kind of activity that involves working outdoors and in nature.

 

Given this glorious time, we have many sustainable and spiritual activities we can do to encourage balance, sustenance, storage, and community.

 

1.  Spent time in (very) close observation of nature. Getting outside to see the amazing, incredible fall leaves and the quickly changing landscape is a must-do for this season. I would suggest that this is a good time to zero in on small details of the changing landscape–see the leaves individually, not just the whole forest or trees. One of the ways to get really close is to obtain a loupe (a small magnifying glass that is highly portable). If you take the loupe out into the land during this time, new worlds open up–you can do very close observation of fall leaves, flowers, and other things.

 

2.  Hold an Eisteddfod. In the Welsh tradition (and consequently, in the Revival Druid tradition), an Eisteddfod is a celebration and competition of the bardic arts: poetry, music, song, dance, and so on.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy the cool nights before the winter sets in. Getting some friends together, getting a big fire going, have people share stories and songs, offer  some prizes, open a bottle of dandelion wine or pass some freshly pressed apple cider and enjoy!

 

Pressing Apple Cider

Pressing Apple Cider

3.  Press some apples. Apples are a tree that humanity has held a very long and sacred relationship with–and cider pressing is an important part of that legacy. After a Wassail in the winter to ensure a blessing, the harvest unfolds in September with an abundance of apples! Its great to go out seeking apples–don’t pay for them. Wild apples can be found all over the place: ask your neighbors for their windfall apples, collect them from parks, find them along the road, and more.  You can get hundreds of pound of free apples just for looking and this will result in a mix of  varieties and flavors. In terms of pressing, you can make your own press, buy a press, share a press with friends, or even ask a local cider mill if they will press your apples (many will for a fee).

 

4.  Learn to Can. Fall is a very abundant time–September in my bioregion provides the largest part of the harvest, including the tomato crops, apples, pears, peppers, beans, eggplant, corn, and so much more. If you are new to canning and want to learn, I recommend you start by learning how to hot water bath can and leave the pressure canning till you have some hot water canning experience under your belt. The best way to learn is to find someone to teach you if possible. You will also want to get a book on canning, like the Ball Book of Canning. I use the Ball Book primarily for vegetable canning–their jam/fruit recipes are too high in sugar for my taste. If you want to can jams with honey, low or no sugar, also pick up Preserving with  Ponoma’s Pectin by Allison Carol Diffy.  Learning about Ponoma’s Pectin really changed the way I canned and made it much more appealing because its more fruit and less sweet.

 

5. Get to know your farmers Spending time at a farmer’s market can have you score big in terms of the bulk fruits and veggie that you want to learn to can or put in a root cellar. Even with my enormous and productive garden at my Michigan homestead, I still purchased bulk potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers because these “nightshade” family crops in bulk would screw up my crop rotations–they are heavy feeders. Now in my transition period renting in PA, local farmers are even more important! This time of year, farmers frequently have reasonably cheap bulk produce at the farmer’s market. Its a good idea to get to know the people who are growing your food, learn their growing practices, and support them in their work.

 

6. Establish a Pantry. In the earlier part of the 20th century, every household had a pantry, although today, keeping a pantry is a skill largely forgotten. Traditionally, a pantry is a place where we can store bulk dry goods and canned goods. There are lots of good reasons to start a pantry: first,  a pantry allows you to buy dried goods in bulk to save on costs. Second, a pantry allows you to safely store things away when they are abundant—this allows you to live and eat closer to the seasons and live more sustainably. Third, a pantry gives me food security, where I have a good amount of food in my house in case of emergency, disruption in shipping lines, big winter storms, and so on. For more information on how to establish a pantry, see this article.

 

7. Build a Root Cellar (or Root Cellar barrel). The compliment to the pantry, is of course, a root cellar. Root cellars take many different forms–I used five-gallon buckets sunk in the earth while I was in Michigan and also helped a friend build his own earthbag root cellar (which was quite a feat, but completely awesome when it was finished). Storey Publishing has an excellent book on different options for root cellars called Build Your Own Underground Root Cellar. The other option for a root cellar is a basement root cellar, where part of a basement is converted.  You can also find a wealth of information available online on any of these three root cellar designs.

 

8. Convert your lawn. I’ve been a long-time advocate of converting lawns to anything that isn’t lawn: vegetables, herbs, perennials, wildflowers, orchards, and more. Fall is a perfect time to begin a lawn conversion process because many of the materials that are useful for sheet mulching can be found in the fall (like leaves, dead material, etc). I have numerous posts on the subject to get you started, including a discussion of why to convert a lawn, a great example from Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm which was a fully converted front lawn, how to sheet mulch (two ways), and broader discussions of the need to regenerate our lands (which lawn conversion helps us do).

 

Anything is better than a lawn!

Anything is better than a lawn!

9.  Adopt and begin to regenerate an abandoned site.  In addition to beginning to work on our own sites, consider adopting another site–especially a site that has been neglected or that nobody else cares about. We have so many sites like these–places nobody wants to be, spaces abandoned and damaged–and one of the things we can do as a spiritual and sustainable practice is work to make that site just a little better than we found it. Scatter seeds, add nutrients, understand the history of the land and create a plan! (More on this practice in upcoming blog posts!)

 

10. Make some Acorn Bread. Another really fun thing to do this season is to gather up some acorns and make some acorn bread! I haven’t yet posted my recipes for acorns, but there is a great PDF from the California Oaks Foundation called Acorn and Eatem.  It has recipes, how to prepare acorns, and more!

 

11. Explore rocket stove technology. Consider building yourself a rocket stove for fuel-efficient cooking (indoors or out). I have built several of these over the years, and they always make a great meal–and a great project.  I’m amazed by how little resources they take to do any cooking, and in a time of resources that are growing more and more scarce, rocket stoves are a smart idea.

 

12.  Go Mushroom Hunting. Some of the most tasty mushrooms of the year, at least in my bioregion, can be found in the fall.  The Hen of the Woods (miatake) is a wonderful mushroom that only appears in the fall–it has both medicinal qualities and is a fantastic edible.  Others include late Chicken of the Woods, Puffballs, Cauliflower mushrooms, Honey Mushrooms, and more. If you are new to foraging, check out my two posts on how to get safely and ethically started.

 

13.  Make some Smudge Sticks. As the plants die off and the cold sets in,  you can make smudge sticks using up any remaining plant matter that you have locally available. Its a wonderful way to create some sacred smoke and a great craft to do with friends.

 

Amazing early fall harvest day!

Amazing early fall harvest day!

14.  Seek balance. The Fall Equinox is a time where the light and the dark are in balance–and we can seek balance in our own lives in a number of ways. One of the things I like to do during this time is to create a list of the things that I enjoy the most and that bring me the most satisfaction and benefit (being in nature, gardening, foraging, writing, reading, etc).  Then, I keep track of how much time I spend on those activities, and find ways of building more time for those things I love the most. This kind of activity keeps me in balance.  Other simple activities include hot baths, learning how to say no, or even just taking time each day to enjoy a quiet cup of herbal tea.

 

15.  Make some ink. With pokeberry, buckthorn, walnuts and many other berries and dye plants now available, its a great time to make some ink! I have instructions here for how to do so.

 

16.  Prepare for the dark half of the year. A lot of people aren’t fans of winter and actively oppose it, but its going to come whether or not we like it to. Given this, approaching the dark half of the year as as much about mindset as it is about physical preparation. One of the ways to make it enjoyable is to ritually and mentally prepare yourself for the coming cold–make some plans for good “stay at home activities” like reading books, writing, artistic projects, learning instruments (for that Eisteddfod!) and more.

 

I hope that these suggestions are helpful as you celebrate the Fall Equinox. Happy Alban Elfed!

 

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

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

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

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Challenges

Zones and Sectors, Analysis - 5 year mark

Zones and Sectors, Ongoing Challenges after 5 Years

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ox-eye daisy my first year

Ox-eye daisy my first year at the homestead

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Site Analysis and Assessment: The Opportunities

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

Salvaged Cedar Logs for garden beds

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

 

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

 

The Design and Restoration:

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

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

 

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

 

Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

Chickens as regenerators of soil!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Serviceberry - first harvest!

Serviceberry – first harvest!

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

 

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

 

Butterfly garden, year 2

Butterfly garden, year 2

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

 

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

 

Certification and Signage

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

 

Pond regrown - beneficial bushes and groundcover

Pond regrown – beneficial bushes and groundcover

 Education, Outreach, and Healing

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Regenerating our lands for pollenators

Regenerating our lands for pollinators

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

Hand-built greenhouse and gardens at Sirius Ecovillage

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

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

 

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

Shanti garden at Sirius Ecovillage

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

 

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

 

A ray of hope….

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

 

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage using repurposed materials

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

 

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

Resources to Learn the Inner and Outer Worlds of Herbalism: Plants, Books, Courses, Lore, and More

drying herbs

drying herbs

I have been doing an ongoing series of posts about herbalism: herbalism as a druidic practice, my path into herbalism, and medicine making during sacred times of the year. Given the fact that its early spring, and the herbs are starting to emerge back into the world, I wanted to follow-up with another post about how one can go about learning to be an herbalist and some of the resources to get you started.

 

There are a lot of ways to become an herbalist, but I would start by saying that the study of herbs is no quick thing. Like anything worth doing, it requires dedication and practice. Traditional western herbalism contains an immense body of knowledge that requires not only good memory and study skills, but also intuition, observation, and reasoning. You will be challenged, fully, by studying the herbs, their medicine, and their work upon the body. It will take years to develop enough knowledge to be a deeply effective herbalist, but you will also learn things even on your first day of studying herbs that you can apply to better your health and address various ailments.

 

Taking a Local, Sustainable Approach. I want to start by emphasizing that traditional western herbalists, myself included, try as much as possible to take a local approach to plants. This means getting to know local plants that grow or that can be cultivated, gathering them or growing them yourself, and using them rather than those that perhaps are more widely commercially available, but are not locally grown. Many of the really popular plants that are commercially available, like Goldenseal, Osha, or Black Cohosh also suffer from serious overharvesting and and are threatened–this is not sustainable.  There are ways of getting these plants sustainably, specifically, from small herb farms who cultivate them and harvest without disrupting wild populations. But those farms’ products are likely not found in your typical heath food store and have to be sought out.

 

As a locally-based herbalist, using the local plants will allow you to monitor the health of the species and grow some yourself.  Even if you have no land, a trip into the nearest farmer’s field, your family’s front yard, or a nearby forest can greet you with a wealth of herbs (in fact, the first herbs that are easy to learn like dandelion, plantain, violet, strawberry and ground ivy can all be typically found in most lawns). But also, being able to grow and gather your own plants puts you in a relationship with that plant that you would not otherwise have. There’s a huge energetic difference between harvesting stinging nettles fresh vs. opening up a plastic bag that you’ve purchased–a difference from a sustainable perspective, but also a difference from an energetic perspective. Using plants that are more abundant, too (read= invasive) can also help control their populations. For example, purple loosestrife, much maligned throughout Michigan, makes one of the best remedies for conjunctivitis.

 

Taking a local approach to plants is especially important to note because so much of our culture (and our own behavior patterns) is designed to fuel consumptive behavior.  If we really want to break free of consumptive cycles, it means doing a lot more things ourselves, and gathering and growing our own herbs is one of them.  I know there are a lot of well-meaning herb companies, but they still ship their herbs using fossil fuels, they still bottle or bag up herbs in plastic…all of this can be avoided (or mostly avoided) by taking a local approach.

 

Dana's herb class - 2014

Dana’s herb class – 2014

In-Person Herbal Intensives. One of the best ways for finding information on locally available medicinal plants is by learning it in person from someone who practices herbalism locally or regionally, which brings me to in-person herbal courses. I strongly suggest that if you are serious about learning herbs, try to find an in-person herbal intensive. Better yet, if you can take classes from a few different herb teachers, do so. I had read herbals before taking my year-long herbal intensive class, but learning herb through plant walks, lectures, and discussions fit my mode of learning much better, and allowed me to ask questions and also learn from other students. Plus, my herb teacher is one of my favorite human beings–many herbalists are cool, quirky, weird people who are fun to learn from and get to know. Mountain Rose herbs maintains a list of herbal schools here. Some herbal schools are in-person only (like my class from Jim McDonald); others offer distance courses, such as Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class.

 

Wilcrafting Plants: Plant Identification. If you want to be a locally-based herbalist and use plants in your area, you want to learn not only about the herbs yourself, but how to grow and/or wildcraft those plants. Wildcrafting medicines and growing one’s own is actually, in my opinion, not only encouraged by necessary for good herbal practice. We have this tendency in our culture to just be willing to purchase everything–and certainly, plenty of herbal supplements, tinctures, or dried plants are ready to be purchased (and for some without access to plants or with limited mobility, this may be the only option). But if you have the means, invest the time in learning the plants and how to use them. If this is your goal, you  will want to get out there and start finding things! I want to refer you to my two-part series on wildcrafting as a good start (these articles include information that is applicable for wildcrafting herbs for healing/medicine). I’ve mentioned a few books really good for plant identification before–one of my favorites is Oslund and Oslund’s What’s Doin’ the Bloomin? You can also get many different kinds of apps and other resources–these are plentiful and a library has much to offer! Look also, for older plant taxonomies and guides–there are some lovely books easy to find and usually quite cheap that can teach you about tree identification, flowers, etc. The Audobon Society puts out a series of compact field guides will full color photos.  You can also get apps, like the free Leaf Snap, that can be super helpful if you are into the smartphone thing (I’m not, lol).

 

Learning about the Body: Energetics and Actions. Picking up an herbal and saying “oh, such and such plant is good for X” is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble–and while this method may work for simple ailments (like a burn, which is always in a hot state) its not good herbal practice. Why? Because traditional western herbalism doesn’t work like alleopathic (mainstream) medicine. Traditional western herbalism recognizes that each person’s “energetic” state in their body is different and how illness manifests in the body likewise, may be different. This means, in order to treat something, you need to know enough about energetics (called “tissue states“; the link gives Matthew Wood’s take on it) to give the right herb that will compliment and address the person’s energetic state manifesting in response to a condition.

 

Here’s what I mean–if you have a cold, your cold might be manifesting as cold (meaning you have the chills) and stagnant (meaning nothing is moving, the snot is stuck in your head) or you might have a cold that is hot (you are running a fever) and damp (you have a damp, wheezy cough, your snot runs profusely, and so on). These all very different states that the body is in–and require different herbs.  I’d use warming and stimulating herbs to treat the first condition while I’d use cooling and drying herbs to treat the second; for both I’d use immune system aids to aid the body along. If I gave the hot/damp person hot herbs, that may aggravate the condition even if the herb also had some sort of immune system boost.

 

So, the solution to this is before you dive into the herbs themselves, you should learn about how energetics work.  For this, the best book I have found is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. If you want to get started, my herb teacher, Jim, has a guide posted here. The second thing these books and resources will teach you is about herbal actions, or what effect the herb actually has on the body (e.g. plantain coat and soothe the mucus membranes with its mucilaginous quality).

 

Once you understand basic energetics, you can move on to using and understanding materia medicas (that is, herbal books)….

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures–in this case, from queen anne’s lace–from wildcrafted ingredients

Learning about herbs: Materia Medicas. Over the years, many different guides to specific herbs–Materia Medicas–have been written by skilled herbalists. There are several for free online, like Grieve’s Modern Herbal and Culpeppers Herbal. These are great resources and places to get started! My personal favorite herbals are Matthew Wood’s two Earthwise Herbals (Vol 1 and Vol 2). You will need to purchase both to have a full range of herbs. I also really like Adele Dawson’s Herbs: Partners in Life which as gifted to me about a year ago by two dear friends. Dawson doesn’t just talk about remedies, she also gives recipes and her innate knowledge of herbs. I think each herbalist will have his or her own favorite books–but the ones I’ve just listed are some good ones to consider.

 

Making Plant medicine. One of the areas I enjoy the most with herbalism is making various plant medicines. I’ve had a few posts over the years that detail some of my recipes, like Jewelweed Salve, Dandelion Bitters, Sore Muscle Rub, or Steam inhalations. The two books that are my go-to guides for these are complimentary and both excellent purchases: Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. These two present you with all of the principles you need to make awesome goodies.  If you want specific recipes and suggestions, you can pick up one of many Rosemary Gladstar’s books.

 

Plants as Teachers and Allies. A critical part of learning how to be an herbalist is working with the plants themselves as teachers, allies, and guides. While different herbalists have various views on the inner worlds of plants and their teachings, one of my favorite teachers in this regard is Stephen Harrod Buhner. His Secret Teachings of Plants, Sacred Plant Medicine, and The Lost Language of Plants are great places to start.  Many of my writings on druid tree workings and other spiritual practices can also aid you in reaching the plant realm.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but I think my earlier druid tree working posts covers a good deal of the basics :).

 

Learning about the Body: Anatomy and Physiology. But wait, isn’t this about plantsWhen I dove into herbalism a two years ago, I was surprised at just how much I had to learn about the body and its functions…and wished I had taken an anatomy and physiology class while still in college!  Herbalism was just as much about plants as it is about their interaction with the body. The book I’ve used for this is Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy: An Intergrative Guide to the Human Body. There are really good Youtube videos on the subject as well.

 

Learning about food and nutrition. Good eating is the cornerstone to good health. Working to heal your body and keep it in prime health means that you not only need to understand about plants as medicine, but realize that everything that you eat also has the power to heal (or to harm). This was made very abundantly clear to me when I worked with a nutritionist and herbalist to heal my asthma.  In the case of my asthma, which was brought on by a gluten sensitivity, herbs would only take it so far (and would be treating the symptom). By changing my diet and adding herbs, I was able to address the root cause instead. This is all to say that its important to learn about nutrition and healing foods as much as it is to learn about healing plants. Jim Mcdonald has some good links on herbs and nutrition in his master index here (which is great to check out for many more reasons!)

Dried herbs and old kettles!

Dried herbs and old kettles!

 

Getting the right tools and equipment.  Starting out in herbalism doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything–the plants are freely available on the landscape. However, as you go on, you might find some tools and equipment helpful. Much of this you can repurpose or build yourself.

  • Dehydrator and/or drying rack – to dry herbs for later use, including teas. Teas are best made with dry, not fresh, herbs because the drying process breaks down cell walls.
  • Jars (I use mason jars, reusable and infinitely useful) – for storage of dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, and more.
  • A double-boiler for making infused oils and salves (I found mine for $20 at a garage sale).
  • Tincture press. These are super expensive online, but I made my own for super cheap (instructions are here).
  • A few of the tools for harvesting and foraging: bags, basket, a pair of scissors, gloves (for nettles and prickly things), and a hori-hori knife (these and more listed in this blog post).

 

Herbalism Conferences are wonderful ways to learn from various teachers, attend plant walks, learn about energetics, and more. If you have the time and funds, an herbalism conference is well worth attending! Some conferences include the Herbfolk Gathering, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, and the Great Lakes Herb Faire.

 

Growing Herbs. You can also learn a lot about herbalism just from simply growing a few herbs in your garden. For a full introduction to this, you can see Cech’s The Medicinal Herb Grower.

 

On the process of learning. I think I mentioned on this blog before that part of my research as a university professor is on how people learn. Since undertaking any new learning has its own set of challenges, I’ll conclude with some brief advice from the science of learning that can help you more successfully take your first steps into traditional western herbalism.

  • On setting yourself up for success. Recognize how you learn best, and make your learning conducive to that approach. Perhaps you are a visual learner: seeing the plants, looking at pictures, engaging in observation and study: these will help you learn best. Perhaps you need to learn the big picture first–learning about the big picture of energetics will help you before delving into the herbals. Perhaps you need to learn by doing: find some youtube videos and follow along yourself. The key is to figure out how you learn best and use that strategy to maximize your success.
  • Learning from someone else. Even if you aren’t able to take a class (or even if you are) you’d be surprised who has a bit of herbal knowledge around you. Ask around for people who make teas, use salves, and so on. Its really wonderful to find someone to learn from, even if its just a friend teaching you a few things.
  • Pair up and learn together. Its also wonderful to take a class with a friend or family member or to self-design a curriculum you can use to learn about herbs together. This will lead to rich conversations and keeping each other moving forward.
  • On challenges. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, we don’t grow in the same way that if we are to challenge ourselves frequently to use–and learn new–knowledge. If you want to be a good herbalist, you have to find ways of challenging yourself to grow your herbal knowledge. Maybe tackle a big herbal project, like making a small family herbal medicine cabinet. Whatever it takes to have you grow each time you try something new.
  • On the nature of expertise. Any serious profession or subject requires considerable effort and practice to move from being a novice to to being an expert. Being an expert herbalist may not be your goal, of course.  But for many subjects, research has suggested somewhere between 5000-10,000 hours are necessary to have real “expertise.” Even if being an expert, practicing herbalist, isn’t your goal, realize that learning anything as complex as herbalism does require hours and hours of investment. So be patient and give yourself the space and time to learn.

 

I hope this post has illustrated some ways to learn about herbs and that you find it useful!  I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with herbs, dear readers!

The Wheel of the Year and Sustainable Action: The Spring Equinox

I began this series of posts with examining sustainable actions for the winter solstice. Today’s post celebrates the current holiday–the spring equinox–and suggests activities for sustainable and spiritual actions that are appropriate for this delightful season. (I will note that these activities are appropriate for readers who reside in the Northern Hemisphere who are coming into the springtime–for those in the Southern Hemisphere, look forward to my Fall Equinox post later in the year!)

 

A few words about the spring equinox–the spring equinox is a time of balance, when day and night come in equal parts. The spring equinox is a great time to clear away the old habits and clutter that no longer serve us and that pull us back into unsustainable patterns and behaviors. The spring equinox is also a great time to start new activities, hobbies, actions, or even reorient our way of seeing. Given the energies of the Spring Equinox, I’ve compiled a list of things that you can do to help engage in more sustainable and earth-centered practices during this most sacred time!

 

On Personal Rituals

I like celebrating the eight-fold wheel of the year because it brings a sense of ritual and consistency into my life. I have crafted a series of “personal rituals” for each of these sacred days (like the inner spring cleansing, the first item below), and doing these with regularity each year gives me some balance and focus.  So you might also think about how your own personal ritual and spiritual work fits with the season at hand.

 

Beautiful spring violets!

Beautiful spring violets!

Spring Cleansing/Balancing (Inner). The spring equinox is a time when the darkness and light are in equal balance. And truly, this is a time of balance, a time of introspection when we can understand how to achieve inner balance in our lives. I think this is important because so many of us don’t take the time to do such balancing and cleansing work in this busy world, and an inner imbalance can lead us towards all sorts of outer imbalances and cause chaos and pain for us. How does one seek inner balance?

 

One suggestion is a practice I started few years ago on the spring solstice: I started with a list of all of the things that make me happy: writing, painting, being outside, being with family and friends, growing things, spiritual practices, sitting by the fire, spending time in the woods, teaching, mentoring my students, etc. And then I kept track of how much time I spend on everything for one week–its like a time diary. I kept track of it as precisely as I could (if anything took more than 5 minutes, I wrote it down). After one week, I evaluated how I did and how many minutes, of my 24 hours in each day, I spent doing things I really loved. I also meditated on the list, trying to work through my week, and worked to eliminate anything that wasn’t helping me. The following week, I tried to increase the time I spent on my favorite things by 5%; then I again evaluated my successes. Slowly, over time, I was able to clear extraneous things and time sinks (like Facebook!) and focus really on what made me happy. This led to inner balance and, honestly, a new way of seeing and living. To keep myself on the right track, I do this activity each year for at least a week as part of my spring equinox celebrations–to reinforce my goals and spiritual path.

 

Spring Cleaning (Outer Living Spaces). Now is also a great time for outer work–work that can help you live simply and more meaningfully. Part of the reason we have “spring cleanings” is that spring is really a great time for all kinds of cleansing work. The accumulation of excess stuff that we don’t need can energetically hold us back and keep us from moving forward. For example, I had a friend who had a serious accumulation of things–a lot of it was junk, but it had piled up in his living space to the point where he couldn’t walk or really do anything. He would spend many countless hours and days organizing his things, but the stuff always seemed to get the best of him because while he shuffled it around, he never actually got rid of anything, so the clutter and energy remained. Eventually, he was forced through external circumstances to do some serious spring cleaning–and energetically, his creativity started to flow again.I found this to be true with myself as well–after some life changes, I ended up unloading about 40% of my stuff–with each bag or box I donated, I felt lighter and happier. I’m in the process of unloading even more stuff to prepare for some more big life changes this summer. The more I donated and rehomed, the easier it was to let go of more. The clutter really does stagnate us energetically and harms our living spaces and inner work. Once we’ve done such an external spring cleansing, we can evaluate what is really needed for a happy and fulfilling life and only bring those things in that fulfill us, not bog us down.

 

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Foraging for Spring Greens. Depending on where you live and the temperatures in the year, in the next few weeks, you can likely begin foraging for the first spring greens. In my neck of the woods, these are cattail shoots and poke shoots (both to eat like bamboo shoots), dandelion greens, nettles, burdock root, and a bit later in the season, ramps. For the poke, you can have them as long as there is no pink or red coming up the stalks.

 

Spring Tonic Greens and Tonic Teas. Unsurprisingly, once you are able to find those spring greens, they make a great spring tonic blend. The idea behind a tonic tea is that the winter would leave one rather malnourished–so the early spring greens and roots often helped to nourish and revitalize the body. This is not a “cleanse” in the popular sense of the word but more of a revitalization for long health. There are lots of ways to make a tonic blend using the early spring greens–you can make up a spring greens stir fry (with dandelion greens, nettle, and burdock root) or you can just make yourself up a dandelion root-nettle tea. Regardless, the early spring greens can be consumed early and often and will leave you feeling revitalized for the coming months!

 

Evaluating Spending and Reducing Excess. Part of the challenge for those of us living in western industrial civilization is that everything encourages us to spend, buy, and consume, very often when we don’t need it.  think there is often confusion over what is a need and what is simply a strong want. This is a good time to year to analyze spending habits and work to reduce excess (a great book for this is called Your Money or Your Life and it will help you break down your necessities and what you really need–a fascinating and highly recommended read).  Evaluating spending and reducing excess in our lives is well-suited to be combined with any external or internal spring cleaning we are ready to enact.

 

Sacred space

Sacred space

Planning a sacred space. Early spring is still a great time for thinking about creating outdoor spaces–either on your own land or in out of the way nooks and crannies in public lands. I have found that the longer I hold an intention of creating such spaces in my mind, the better such spaces become when I enact them in the world.  Meditation and visualization to plan the right kind of sacred space is useful as well. I have several posts on sacred spaces: developing sacred spaces, stacking stones, bee and butterfly gardens, stone circles and spirals, shrines and more.

 

Reskilling. While any time of year is a good time to reskill, the spring is fantastic because it is a time of new beginnings, a very good time to clear away the old and bring in the new. Reskiling, or the practice of learning skills that allow for more sustainable skills, can help us begin to make the transition to lower-fossil fuel and lower-impact living. I have a post on reskilling where I cover the basics of this practice.

 

Seed starting. At this point in the spring, if you haven’t already started your seeds or are considering a veggie garden, this is a great time to start those seeds!  A lot of farmers and gardeners in my zone (Zone 6) plant their gardens on the 31st of May, so this is the time to start the plants that have an eight-week indoor growing time–and that includes most of the nightshades, such as the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Some info on seeds and seed starting is found here and here!

 

Learning Homebrewing. There are a fantastic array of spring beverages that one can craft–elderflower wine, spruce tip ale,  ground ivy gruit, and my favorite, dandelion wine. If you want to learn about some of these unique brews, you can check out Stephen Harold Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Ancient Art of Fermentation. You won’t be disappointed!  There are also many recipes to be found freely online, such as at the winemaking site.

 

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Early Spring Observations. I recommend that you take every opportunity to be outside, to live and breathe the spring air, to watch the ice melt, and generally experience the seasons.  The melting ice, the rise of the crocuses, the running of the sap, the unfurling of the leaves–there is just so much magic in the land this special time of year! Spending time walking outdoors, being still, and focusing your awareness on the landscape and the tiny details can reveal profound insights and draw you closer to the land. I think one of my very favorite moments of the year is when we have the big melt, and being outside as much as possible during those amazing days!

 

Reading and Study.  Like the Winter Solstice, for many of us, the spring equinox still has much snow on the ground and its an excellent time to read a few good books. I have a list of books recommended for homesteading here, and I also have listed some books for sustainability and druidry here.

 

May the blessings of this Alban Elier be upon you! /|\

Other Sites: Costa Rica as a Model Sustainable Living and Permaculture Design in Action

In February 2015, I took a 12-day trip to Costa Rica (my first real vacation!) Part of the reason I decided on Costa Rica was that this culture is well-known for emphasizing sustainability in a way that is well beyond lip service, and I wanted to experience it for myself and see what I could learn while I was there. I want to touch on the many things I observed and learned on this journey with regards to sustainable living and permaculture design. I traveled to four areas and drove across large portions of the countryside: the Monteverde region (high in the cloud forests), the urban and suburban San Jose region; the volcanic La Fortuna region, and the costal Manuel Antonio region.  One thing to remember about the Costa Ricans–they are one of the happiest countries in the world. I don’t think this is a fluke–I think its directly tied to the ways in which they live sustainably, have protected and preserved their own landscapes and local economies. So I’m going to look at some of those ways, envisioning Costa Rica as an alternative model for living. Along the way, I’m going to discuss  permaculture design from its three ethical principles: Care for people, Care for the Earth, and Set Limits/Redistribute Surplus.

 

Localized Economies

I want to start with the economy, because A) its the sacred cow of US politics and really the only thing anyone talks about these days, but also B) Costa Rica shows that there are viable alternatives for localized systems of wealth that empower people and protect the land. One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica was the localized economy–and how this manifested in the landscape. Literally everywhere we went, towns, stores, and businesses were different. They had different stores, small businesses, different kinds of food, artist-owned co-ops, wonky weird places and much more. In the USA, we are literally drowning in Walmarts, McDonalds, Rite Aids, TGI Fridays, Holiday Inn, Chase Bank, Subway, TJ Max, etc. Each town is a replica of the previous town, with the same 40 or so corporations promoting their wares.  Its like a rubber stamp; town after town looks the same. Each has this long line of strip malls with bad traffic and noise pollution, and you are supposed to WANT to go there and shop and purchase the same industrialized food.  Occasionally, a town or city will try to break out of it and have a “weird” core which is locally owned and unique (I think about Austin, TX, or Ann Arbor, MI) but even with their weirdness, the mega corporations are still there, just around the corner. I never realized how bad this was until I went to Costa Rica and drove all around the countryside.

 

In Costa Rica, the businesses are generally all locally owned, unique, and charming. I stayed in small B&B’s, farms, and small hostels everywhere and they were operated by the people who owned them and employed local workers (chain hotels weren’t even an option most places I stayed). A lot of these places were farms or sustainable living centers that also offered a bed to weary travelers. The accommodations were simple and wonderful. I ate food made and grown by locals (you didn’t even have to ask where it came from–you could just taste that it was fresh), I bought local art, and enjoyed locally-based attractions (like an orchid garden with 2000+ orchids or a sustainable chocolate plantation). It was amazing because everything was different, unique. Many places also embraced the landscape–they had gardens, walking paths, big trees, and the business “flowed” with the landscape so much more. And it was economically successful.

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

Unique Art Shop in Monteverde

This really gets at the permaculture design principle “Care for People.” People are empowered–they can own businesses, hire each other, and determine their own economic realities. I think they are rooted in their communities, they also care more about what happens in them (than say, Walmart, who really couldn’t give a damn about the local town or their local workers they are in because their economic reality isn’t firmly rooted there). And when the people are cared for, they can focus on caring for other things, like the land and each other.

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

CASEM Co-op (Owned and operated by artists)

 

Housing.

By American standards, most Costa Ricans live in, as one snarky American I met on my travels called them “shacks.” The houses have metal roofs, outdoor living areas, and rather small interiors. I would say that the Costa Ricans live simply, and there is much to like about how they live. Because really– how much space does one person need? We have large houses here in the states to accommodate the “stuff” that we purchase and store as part of consumerist culture. But simple living, with fewer and more meaningful things, has a lot going for it, as the Costa Ricans demonstrate. The only American-sized houses that I saw were owned in areas where Americans lived–the signs were in English, the lawns were present, and the houses were enormous in those resort areas. But everyday life in Costa Rica doesn’t look like that–typical dwellings are probably about 800 or so square feet, on dirt roads, colorfully painted, gated, with clothes hanging outside and goats in the front yard. I think this really gets at both the “Care for people” and “Care for earth” permaculture ethical principles: the houses are small, they are integrated into the landscape, but people don’t take or have more than they need, so the earth is cared for at the same time.

Rancho Makena - The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

Rancho Makena – The Sustainable Ranch We Stayed At

It also “sets limits” to the size of the habitation, the amount of space one takes up in the world–and I think these are very, very good things.

Typical Costa Rican Housing

Typical Costa Rican Housing

 

Lawns & Everyday Interactions with the Land

Typical Costa Rican homes, at least in the areas that I stayed in and drove through, did not usually have lawns.  If there were grassy areas (such as outside of the front of my bungalow at the sustainable ranch where we stayed), the grass that was planted sometimes was a variety that did not grow more than a few inches high and did not require mowing. That grass was mixed with other low-growing plants including plantain (so nice to see my plant ally there!) and some sort of violet. But other homes’ lawns were pastures–and the cows would occasionally be let out to “mow” the front of the pasture near the road.  What I like so much about the “lawn as pasture” idea is that it redistributes the surplus–green growth–into cattle and horses, which can then be utilized in various ways (for food, transportation, milk, companionship).

Lawn Mower - no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Lawn Mower – no chemicals or fossil fuels here!

Many homes had food forests in their yards–banana trees, mangoes, coconut palms, and various veggies like corn, lettuce, kale, and tomatoes. Nearly everyone was growing something, and most had quite a lot.  In the areas closest to the road, sometimes long grasses grew. I saw them employ three techniques to handle this–on some steep hillsides, I saw a few instances of men with weed whackers, I also saw most that people would bring in cattle or horses to graze grassy areas as I already mentioned; finally, some employed controlled burning. The only kinds of houses that had lawns were the homes that appeared to be much larger and much more wealthy–larger homes emulated American lawns and American sizes (and, where I saw the most, around the Arenal Lake’s northeastern side, the land was clearly being purchased by and catered to Americans).

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

Alternative lawn cover around a hotel

 

Livestock.

Costa Ricans keep a lot of livestock–a type of cow that does well on the very hilly pastures.  Many also kept horses, and used them for transportation. This is true whether you live in the middle of San Jose or out in the middle of nowhere–everywhere livestock is legal and everywhere people have chickens, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and horses.

 

We stayed on a small family farm in the Monteverde region that was a working ranch; they had various kinds of cattle and horses. They also kept pigs as “biodigestors” for compost and kept chickens for eggs. We were able to observe and take part in ranching and farming activities while we were there, such as see the greenhouses, feed the chickens, walk the fields and pastures. The buildings were simple and functional; the land rich, green, and well-tended. As was the case with earlier times in the history of the US everyone seemed to keep some kind of animals, even in the middle of the city you could hear the roosters crowing up the morning sun.  The ranch was great because they had intentionally designed it to care for people (human and domestic animal habitations), care for earth (half the ranch was forest and wild areas, with walking paths or just fully wild) and to redistribute surplus through composting and other techniques.

Livestock

Livestock

 

Farms and Gardens.

We visited many gardens and farms while in Costa Rica–they were quite easy to find and very abundant.  I will be writing about two of them in upcoming blog posts. Many of them advertised their sustainable activities right on their signs, being “carbon neutral” or “100% organic” or “sustainable farm.” But this wasn’t mere talk–Costa Ricans live sustainably, care deeply about the environment, and really mean what they say. In a nutshell, we saw all of the techniques for sustainable organic farming being enacted everywhere we turned: no chemicals or big sprayers, rainwater harvesting, composting, bioferments, perennial crops, effective soil management, integrating livestock, vermicompost, trapcrops, terracing, reusing materials, using principles of permaculture design, closed loop systems, and more  ( The one exception to this was the palm oil farms–and I’ll talk about those in another post.)  These sustainable, organic, bio-intensive farms are doing it right–in small spaces, they are caring for the land, the earth, and redistributing surplus back into the landscape.  I’ll also note that Costa Rica banned all GMOs in their country as of January 2015.  This is a major victory!

Hotel Belemar Garden

Hotel Belemar Garden- one of my favorites that we visited.  More on this soon!

Handling Waste.

You know you are in a place that values sustainability when its harder to find a trash can over a recycling bin, and when recycling bins look like this.  Note that there IS no trash can here–and these were the options you had available to you.  Talk about redistributing surplus and setting limits!

Recycling Bins - All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Recycling Bins – All over Costa Rica, this is what you see!

Local Food.

Costa Rican fare was simple, local, and delicious. The “typical” Costa Rican plate had a generous portion of rice and beans, sweet fried plantains, a meat/fish/avocado and cheese main portion, steamed vegetables, and a salad. All of this food was locally grown (except the rice, as far as I could tell). Everywhere we went, food was being fed to us right out of the farms, everyone kept livestock, the eggs were fresh off the farm, etc. Here, its nearly impossible to eat like this every single day if you aren’t growing it yourself–you can’t figure out where the food comes from and it takes considerable effort to source all local ingredients. In Costa Rica, I ate organic, wholesome, delicious food every single day. We saw very little in the way of fast food, especially any kind of fast food chain, although they still were present, especially in the city, where McDonalds and KFC are trying to weasel their way in. One day, I went white water rafting, and was told that “lunch was included.” In the States, this would be some sandwiches, industrialized food for sure.  In Costa Rica, they took us to an organic farm and we had the most amazing meal, a farm-to-plate meal complete with locally grown coffee, fresh sugarcane juice, and amazing vegetables. Here it was:

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Farm-to-Plate Meal

Transportation.

As I mentioned before, horses are in wide use in Costa Rica as a means of travel. The public transportation system, even in the most remote areas, is quite good–there are bus stops on nearly every major road and many are using the bus system. One can travel most of the way across the country on a bus for less than $50. Many also use small, fuel-efficient motorcycles. Gas is about $5/gallon, so that alone makes people purchase and employ fuel efficiency. I witnessed more than one electric scooter, in addition to the bicycles and plain old walking, which Costa Ricans do a lot.  This demonstrates a lot with regards to “care for earth” and “setting limits.”

Walking home from work

Walking home from work

Respecting the arts.

Beautiful, colorful Costa Rican art, was abundant everywhere we went–from the streets of San Jose to the smallest town and village. The art was nature-themed, vibrant, and full of positive energy–not full of the ennui of modern life, but that which reflects the surroundings. Much working of wood, stone, inspired by nature. And its valued—and everywhere!  I will be writing more on the value of local art and local artists and how that enriches a culture at some point in the coming months!

Art for Sale in a Hotel

Art for Sale in a Hotel – You also saw artists setup on the streets and even in the airport!

Inside "Luna Azul" in Monteverde - Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

Inside “Luna Azul” in Monteverde – Another fantastic art shop promoting local art

 

General Happiness.

Costa Rica is, by multiple measures, one of the happiest nations in the world. Some would say that this is because they are a tropical paradise–but I point to other countries in Central America, like Mexico or Honduras, which do not measure anywhere near the happiness levels.

 

I think this is not only the result of much of what I’m describing in this post, but also because of a few other cultural things.  First, because the Costa Ricans seem to be moving at a different speed. There is siesta, a two-hour nap/rest/break in the middle of the workday. There is a general and deliberate taking of one’s time, especially in the areas outside of the big city. WE all stop and watch as a man herds his cattle down the road–nothing to do but enjoy the experience. Its not assumed that we eat and run, rather, that we should savor the meal–the bill is only brought AFTER we ask. These are values in many Latin American countries and families–and to my mind, certainly better than the insane/mad dash/race to nowhere that comprises so much of the modern American lifestyle.

Rainbow in Monteverde

Rainbow in Monteverde

Another reason that I think Costa Ricans are so happy has to do with some cultural values, specifically, a collective rather individualistic mindset.  A while ago on this blog, I talked about individualism vs. collectivism as mindsets (based on the work of sociologist Geert Hosfede* ; whose work  you can look at here). Costa Ricans care about each other and about the group much more than Americans–they have a collectivist mindset (this is that they think in terms of “we” rather than “I”). On Hosfede’s scale, the US manifests at a 91 for individualism (which is extremely high) and the Costa Ricans have a 15, which is very low.  I suspect, although I haven’t yet researched this theory, that issues of collectivism also relate to environmental protections, because a collectivist culture who sees their land as inherently one with themselves will extend it the same protections they extend their families and cultures. This thinking was apparent in many of the conversations I had with Costa Ricans about their interaction with the land.

 

Another reason is just the general laid-back nature of life in Costa Rica. The society lacks the extremely restrictive laws and codes on buildings, lawns, other outdoor spaces, and vehicles and so on.  Costa Rican life is extremely laid back and friendly, and their much less restrictive laws demonstrate that.  When I think about laws in the US, we have all these laws in place not to benefit the people, but to keep us engaging in certain consumptive behaviors or living in certain kinds of structures or having our property look certain kinds of ways because someone profits from it.  In other words, the laws are mostly written these days to benefit some corporate stakeholder, not the people.  We live with the laws and think they are necessities of life–but they are not, and the Costa Ricans clearly get on fine without them.

 

A final reason has to do with how monetary wealth (which I specify from other kinds of wealth, such as rich living or healthy food) is wrapped up into the economics of place.  The US is considered to be a very wealthy nation–we are a nation of consumers and stuff–but that stuff isn’t rooted, isn’t connected to place. The problem is, the more stuff we have, the less happy we are and the more restrictions we have.  Simple living, fewer laws, less stuff, better food, localized economies, love of the land…these are all features that make Costa Rica great.

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

Organic Garden Sign at Sustainable Institute

General Thoughts.

While Costa Rica is far from perfect, I do think we have a lot to learn from them in terms of sustainable living and seeking happiness.  I had a very hard time “readjusting” to life in the USA after being in Costa Rica.  After seeing firsthand how different and more aligned with my own value system life could be, it was hard to come back. It was hard to come back to watching people consume poisons, chemicals, and modified foods, to watch them drug their children on ADHD medication, to do battle on the roads on my way to work each day, to just look at how despondent, run down, and miserable everyone is (pay attention next time you enter a grocery store), and to watch people spend much of their lives attached to various screens.

 

But this trip has given me a sense of renewed hope.  Costa Rica, with its sustainable principles undercurrenting so much of life, is thriving.  This kind of living can work, and perhaps, they can serve as a model to many of us who are transitioning ourselves and our communities into something simpler, locally-focused, and more fulfilling.  The question is…how can we build it?

Laundry drying outside

Laundry drying outside

 

Reskilling for Sustainable Living: Ways to Learn New Skills

Everyone, to some extent, is a product of their culture. Our culture’s formal education system teaches a set of skills that are claimed to be beneficial and practical for functioning in present society. Certain sets of skills are privileged, and others are simply not taught, and in some cases, skill sets that are deemed no longer relevant are lost from the collective knowledge of many communities and families. Unfortunately, many of the skills of the past that are needed to help us transition to a lower-carbon and lower-fossil fuel society have been lost as newer generations weren’t interested in learning them or because these skills are no longer part of any community or family educational system.  This is where the concept of reskilling can come in.

 

What is reskilling?

“Reskilling” is one of the terms that often comes up in the sustainability and permaculture communities. The concept of reskilling is simple–those of us wanting to get ahead of the curve and transition to low-fossil fuel, sustainable living, need broad sets of skills that aren’t typically taught in our education system nor are typically part of growing up in our present culture. Reskilling is really about gaining the skills to provide for our basic needs for ourselves, our families and our communities–the movement is concerned with skills that help feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, provide daily functional items for ourselves from local materials, entertain ourselves, deal with our waste, keel ourselves healthy, and keep ourselves sheltered and warm.  So we can think about reskilling as the process of gaining a set of skills for basic human life in a non-industralized or lower-fossil fuel setting–a setting that future generations and many of us today are heading toward. Typical reskilling may include a lot of the concepts discussed in this blog-natural building, homesteading, gardening, fermentation, herbalism, animal husbandry, candle making, and much more.

Animal Husbandry as an important skill

Animal Husbandry is an important skill

Why Reskill?

I think there are a lot of reasons people start reskilling, and I’ll give you a few of mine. Reskilling has been a really empowering thing for me for a few reasons. First,I found that each time I learn a new skill–from how to properly start seeds or rotate crops to how to deal with an egg-bound chicken or make my own medicines–I was stepping further away from modern industrial and consumerist society. This meant less dependence and financial support for practices/companies/lifestyles that I spiritually disagreed with.  Second, being able to provide some of my own needs, like food or medicine, also made me feel like I was doing something to face the problem directly rather than lamenting over what wasn’t being done by government, etc. Third, reskilling, while hard work, is fun and exciting–and has created a really fulfilling life full of activities and new interests.   Finally, reskilling allows people like me, who were heavily trained in a specialty, to adopt a more generalist mentality, and there is great benefit in such an approach.

 

Since my spiritual path is rooted in the living earth, I see reskilling not only as a sustainable practice, but as a sacred spiritual practice–the earth is honored, I live more sustainably, my needs are taken care of, I learn more about the land, and I live much closer to her rhythms and seasons.  This is a big part of my druidry, my sacred action.

 

Ok.  I’m sold on reskilling. What should I learn first?

I have found that it is important to learn one thing comfortably at a time–when you start trying to do to much, you risk frustrating yourself.  Start slow, read, talk to people, and find out what you are inspired to try.  Also find out what you can learn about in your area–who is around and willing to teach. One of the things you want to think about is if you want to specialize in one kind of skill extensively or learn a bit of everything. A typical community 150 years ago had certain activities that everyone did (e.g. the home cottage industry such as growing and preserving food, brewing, making home cheeses, churning butter, raising some chickens, etc) but then there were those that specialized, such as a blacksmith, wood carver, or herbalist.  You want to think about your interests and see where they develop.

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

Basket weaving as a sustainable skill

 

How does one reskill?

There are many, many options for reskilling.  I think you’d be surprised the places and things that have things to teach you. It really depends to a large extent on what is in your area, how many like-minded people you have, and how you best learn.  The rest of this post presents ways you can reskill through multiple angles: history, firsthand learning,

 

History

History in its various forms have so much to teach us in terms of reskilling, becuase many skills we are learning when reskilling are skills of our past.  Here are three different kinds of histories that I’ve found are helpful to reskill.

 

1) Living Historical Events/Festivals: The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and other forms of reenactment (civil war, colonial, etc) offer one way to learn traditional skills. Some friends invited to me to their reenactment camp a few years ago, and I was really excited to see how many skills the reenactors were preserving and excited to teach. From these sources, I learned about soapmaking, weaving, spinning, flint knapping, blacksmithing, leatherworking, and more.  While these provided me with “glimpses”; I was able to be inspired, gain some basic instruction, and connect with others preserving these various skills.

 

2) Historical Villages. You can find various kinds of historical villages peppered around the country, and like the “living histories” above, there  There is a wonderful village called Old Bedford Village in Bedford, PA, where all sorts of old traditions are preserved–they have a full fledged print shop, an apothecary, a candlemaker, various woodworkers, a blacksmith, a potter, a tinsmith, and more.  Its an inspirational place and while there is limited hands on, you can learn a lot just studying the old tools and ways of living.  Even seeing a typical house in the colonial era (like where the hearth was placed, the cooking instruments, etc) gives me lots of ideas for reskilling.

 

7) Historical Study: Learning about your town’s and family’s local history serves as another theme for reskilling. Read family historical documents and journals, studyold maps, study what your town or city used to look like also give some hints as to life in centuries past–and the skills that people had.  If you are *really* lucky someone is still around who knows a lot about your town or your family and how people lived.

 

8) Historical shows. If you don’t have any access to the above, the other thing you might check out are a series of “living history” shows produced by the BBC.  These are shows such as “Victorian Farm,” “Edwardian Farm,” “Tudor Monastery Farm.” What I like about these shows is where historians live a year on the farm and practice all sorts of interesting skills.

 

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Herbalism as a traditional skill

Firsthand learning from others.

There is little substitute for learning firsthand.  Here are a few ways that one can learn:

 

1) Classes: Classes are a great way to learn many skills, and one of my preferred methods of reskilling. Since I started reskilling six years ago, I have taken all sorts of classes–natural building (round pole framing, rocket stoves), compost water heaters, rocket stoves, organic farming, winter organic farming, herbalism (year long), foraging, candlemaking, fermentation, mushroom foraging, livestock, and so much more.  These classes were found by reaching out to friends, looking to see what others were doing, and also looking on Local Harvest for classes there.

 

2) Apprenticeships: If you find someone who knows how to do something you really want to learn, consider asking to be their apprentice.  While this might be an old idea, its a really good one. Learning under someone who has a skill allows you to have a mentor, to aid them in their work, and to learn firsthand.  I can’t stress this enough.  I was lucky enough to serve as an organic farmer’s apprentice for a season, and there was no substitute for learning under her.

 

3) Friends: Friends may know all sorts of interesting things.  I learned how to make soap from two friends, and now already I’ve taught soapmaking to other friends.  Friends can learn different skills and then swap skills.  Learning a new skill with a friend is a wonderful experience!

 

4) Community Organizations : I’m lucky that in my area, we have a fantastic amount of organizations and groups that you can learn new skills from in my area. Everything from the Mother Earth News Faire (offered in three locations each year) to a more local events like Ann Arbor Reskilling and our own Oakland County Permaculture Meetup allows people to come together and share skills.  I should also say that if a community organization or group doesn’t exist–consider starting one–that’s what a group of friends and I did with our permaculture meetup, and its going on three years now and I’ve learned so much from everyone.

 

5) Reskilling Festivals: Reskilling festivals are becoming another great way to learn how to do various activities.  Some areas may have local reskilling fairs (there is one that takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about an hour fro where I currently live, for example).  There are also national reskilling fairs, perhaps the most well known being the Mother Earth News Fair.  Keep an eye out–they may not call themselves “reskilling” fairs, but if you take a look at the program and see things on there you want to learn, go for it!

Fermentation is a great skill!

Fermentation is a great skill to learn on one’s own!

Learning On One’s Own

Sometimes its best to learn just by doing or trying things out on your own–especially if you want to learn something and can’t find any classes or anyone else doing anything.

 

1) Videos, Blogs, Websites and Forums: There is so much good knowledge to be found on the web–Youtube Videos, websites, forums and blogs. I am always amazed at the amount of knowledge freely available out there just to learn. One of my favorite forums to learn is the permies forum; I’ve learned a lot from reading and more when I ask questions.  How-to stuff on the web, I have found, is generally quite useful and often is vetted by people through comments and responses.

 

2) Books and Magazines: I have saved my favorite way of learning to reskill for last–books! I am especially drawn to books from the 1970’s, as they have a wealth of really good information, great graphics, humor, and wit. From building my own solar cooker to solar greenhouses to organic farming, there are wonderful books out there on literally any reskilling subject. I like to collect books during the year, and then in the dark winter months, hole up in my home near the fireplace with a few good books and get ideas for the coming season. I created a list of some of my favorite books for homesteading (there are so many more I have yet to list!)

 

Reskilling as a Way of Life

What began growing my own food and investigating sustainable practices, I had no idea where the journey would take me. I am so grateful for the people who I have had the pleasure of learning from, from the awesome books I’ve read, the people on the web who have shared their knowledge, and those who have inspired me. Reskilling has become a passion of mine and really, has changed the way I live and work and I am so glad to be on this path!