Tag Archives: sustainability

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!

Reclaiming Our Heritage and Connection With The Land: Herbs, Plants, and Harvests

Path through the woods

Path through the woods: how many ancestors walked here?

As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October.  This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing;  preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons.  My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!

 

I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world.  In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future.  To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them

When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones.  Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage.  But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.

 

My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”;  I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed.  We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great grandparents, or their great grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, learn from them these skills, these ways of living.

 

I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up.  Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey.  We ate lots of zucchini from the garden.   I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path.  But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Living Without A Heritage

I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980’s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different.  People needed each other then.  We got on with very little.  We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.”  Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.

 

I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me.  And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it.  Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination.  The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20’s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on.  This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.

Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods!

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms!

In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles.  In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of  traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.

 

Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition.  I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970’s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so).  I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon).  I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.

 

I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry.  Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways.  Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.

 

The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80’s, falling into video game addictions in the 90’s and 2000’s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long).  It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.

 

And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants.  By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself.  By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden.  By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox.  By learning the secrets of the soil.  By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time.  There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient.  Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.

 

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors.  Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on.  My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants.  Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things.   This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making.  I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.

 

I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors.  It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.

The Right to Farm and Farming Rights: Recent Deeply Concerning Developments in Michigan

Friend's Local Farm in South East Michigan

Friend’s Local Farm in South East Michigan

When I moved to Michigan, one of the things that really excited me was the strong protections that small family farmers had, the emphasis on local food and local culture, and the support at all levels of government for these practices. Unfortunately, a whole series of recent events have shifted Michigan from one of the most progressive states in the nation concerning the right to farm to something…else, a state moving in a direction that is certainly not good for local foods or organic farms.

The trend that seems to be happening, at least in Michigan, is that as the local foods/local farms movement gains ground, as funds are diverted away from industrialized food and into farmer’s markets, and as people work to engage in more sustainable practices in their communities, backlash starts occurring.  Backlash may be locally motivated (e.g. irate neighbors); it frequently occurs in a legislative sense, where legislation aimed at protecting people and small businesses gets shifted or replaced with protecting large businesses/corporate interests.  I wanted to take some time today to discuss the recent occurrences with Michigan’s Right to Farm Act and respond to what has recently happened with this act.

I want to start with the name of the act–the “Right to Farm.”  The name of the act is fitting, and starts with the premise that  people should have the right to do things like grow their own food, slaughter their own animals, and generally be left to themselves (and one interpretation of the US constitution’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” suggests just that).  Our US constitution had no such “right to farm” because nearly everyone farmed, hunted, fished, gathered, and preserved their own food (again, I’ll refer to historical texts for this, like Jefferson’s wholehearted dedication to farming research, despite his continual failures).  Before the advent of the modern grocery store (a 1950’s invention) nearly everyone had a garden and grew at least some produce, many also kept livestock.

 

There is good reason to consider returning towards that model, especially in a destabilizing climate, an industrial agricultural system producing mostly toxic foods, and the uncertainty of dwindling oil resources.  By producing lots more of our own food and localizing our food systems, we will be more resilient and sustainable.  But we also empower ourselves to take care of ourselves, rather than trying to look to others, especially corporations, to care for us.   By growing our own food, we reconnect with the land, her seasons, and her cycles.

 

And there is good reason for doing so.  To give you a sense of the destabilizations in our food supply, we can look at the drought that is happening in California–it is already substantially affecting prices and the availability of many foods throughout the US (almonds, lettuce, citrus, and so on). Furthermore, industrial agriculture, which rose around the same time the modern grocery store was invited, is not working and has never really worked; the UN just released a report that provided evidence that industrialized agriculture cannot feed the world. It is also extremely harmful to our ecosystems.  And, as we have been learning the hard way with recall after recall, with stories of pink slime and salmonella, industrial agriculture does not produce food that is wholesome, ethical, or safe.  Monocropping requires pesticides that are linked to health deficiencies, pollinator die offs, and the destruction of our soil ecology. I could continue on here, but I think you get my meaning.

 

Dana and Linda at her farm!

Dana and Linda at her farm!

So now we turn to Michigan’s law, the Right to Farm act. Originally approved in 1981, for thirty three years, this law once protected small family farms and small homesteaders (like myself) from local legislation meant to shut down farming activities.  It said that farming was a right, and no one could take that right away.  This act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the nation concerning farming (and often cited as a model policy for others to follow), helped us build a local food system by protecting farmers and their investments.  There were cases where backyard or urban homesteading was producing food and livelihood for farmers but neighbors were upset because it didn’t look like a typical lawn.  In another case, a subdivision went up around an older family farm and then the subdivision got feisty and wanted the farm torn down (Mother Earth News describes one such case).  This law, over a 30+ year period, helped create Michigan’s incredibly diverse local food scene; in South-East Michigan alone, we have literally hundreds of farmer’s markets, thousands of small startup food-related businesses, and a growing appreciation and commitment to local foods on the part of consumers (having lived in other states, I can tell you that nowhere I have lived prior to here had any emphasis on local food!)

 

And then, this year, the Michigan Department of Agriculture decided that these farming activities only applied to farms whose farming activities were more than 250′ away from a neighbor–in other words, rural farms. To put this in perspective–I live on three acres in an area that is on the border between suburbia and a rural setting (I would like to live further out, but that would require an even longer work commute). My land is deep, not wide. There is nowhere on my 3 acres where I could put farming activities that would be protected under Michigan’s new “Right to Farm” act.  The act has been re-interpreted now to only give protections to large-scale agriculture or agriculture that is very rural.  Gone are protections for any urban farms (like those springing up all over Detroit); gone are protections for small farms that were there long before the suburbs grew up around them. Gone are the protections for anyone who seeks to farm on a smaller piece of land because that’s all they can afford or that’s where they are currently living. Now that the protections have been removed, farmers, especially urban farmers, are being challenged. And yet, everything is moving in the other direction, especially the revitalization of the core of Detroit using urban farming. New developments since I posted this include the seizing by force of goats and chickens from an urban homesteader’s property and a couple being arrested for having chickens on their property. What is this insanity?

 

Now it could be that a reasonable local government would protect residents rights to farms (and we are seeing chicken ordinances, for example, enacted all over the country) but it also might be that a less reasonable local government would have poor laws that took rights away.  It also can be that a reasonable government quickly gives way to less reasonable government, especially if a few powerful citizens pull the right strings because they are irritated that a neighbor starts keeping goats. The state-wide protections on local farms, meant that you could count on the right to have your farm protected, regardless of  how large it was and regardless of what happened at a local level or with the neighbors. And, as my battles with the township over lawn ordinances have suggested, people get really wonky and weird about things that don’t look perfect, like wild and beautiful native plant front yards and the like.  People don’t like hearing the glorious sound of a rooster crowing up the sun or see hoop houses erected in their neighbor’s back yards (I happen to like both of these things!)

 

The problem with this new interpretation of the Right to Farm Act is that it assumes an industrialized food model: and that assumption is that only farmers far from the cities and suburbs should be growing any food, raising any livestock, or keeping bees.  Its concerning because not everyone can be full time farmers, living far away from the city….many have other careers that are worth doing, and can’t live so far out that they can own 40 acres to farm.  The other issue is that the further away your farm is from those who might be buying your products, the more fossil-fuel dependent these systems are.  And I’d like to see us develop systems that are much less dependent on fossil fuels–or fossil fuel free.  I’ve met multiple farmers attending farmer’s markets in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market who come to market with a cart pulled by a bicycle!  Now that’s a fossil-free way to move produce!

 

I should also mention that the loss of the Right to Farm hasn’t been the only pushback on the local food scene.  Two other incidents are worth mentioning. The first is High Hill Dairy’s experiences with their milkshare program. Michigan is what is called a “herdshare” state; it allows people to buy into a herd, essentially owning part of it, and the farmers who keep the herd then provide raw milk and other dairy products (butter, ice cream) to the herdshare holders.  Regardless of your stance on raw milk (I like getting it to make cheese), what happened was just wrong.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture forced High Hill Dairy to dump almost $5000 worth of goods…into dumpsters.  In a second example, a few years ago, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources claimed that many heritage breeds of pigs that farmers had crossbred (the kinds that can survive the cold Michigan winters) were invasive species, and ordered farmers to slaughter their herds.  The Bakers Green Acres farm and several other farms decided to fight back, and underwent a very long and difficult battle to keep their pigs.  Other farmers capitulated and literally had to shoot all of their livestock.

 

Chard and Greens Growing

Chard and Greens Growing

I really do believe that laws like the Right to Farm Act are critically important and necessary not only for protection for small family farms and homesteaders, but to create a more resilient, sustainable food system.  In other words, these laws benefit all of us, whether or not we choose to make a living at farming or choose to erect hoop houses in our backyards. Because we face increasingly challenging times, dwindling fossil fuel resources, I believe we need to put local agriculture back into our landscapes in every setting, not just the rural settings.  We might look to Cuba’s example, when Cuba faced their own oil crisis, and responded with brilliant Cuban gardens and a revitalization of their local agriculture for the sake of survival.  I’d like to see us continue to revitalize our local food systems now, before we face an oil crisis on the scale that Cuba experienced.

 

Growing one’s own food and protecting that right is woven into the history of this nation and it is our heritage.  This country was founded on the backs of farmers and small homesteads–and I believe those roots should be honored.   If long term sustainability is our goal, I believe we need to serious step back, recognize the challenges inherent in our lawns and landscapes, and allow our perceptions and actions to shift.  We need to fight to protect the integrity of laws like the Michigan Right to Farm act and support farmers, homsteaders, and urban farmers as they do the tireless work of producing better food and a more friendly food system for all of us.

Being the Voice of the Trees – Stepping Forth in the Broader World and Communicating Publically

The trees and the broader living landscape of our great earth speak to us in subtle but powerful ways. Many in modern industrial society choose not to spend time hearing the voices of the trees and our other plant allies; they fill their minds with video games and Facebook and TV and Hollywood and various other human-created things. While these things are fine in moderation, many seem to use these to extremes at the expense of all else. This creates distance, disconnection, and allows for many to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the land and her inhabitants.

 

In this challenging time of destruction, desecration, and disrespect of the land, I think that the land needs a strong voice from those who work with her.  Those of us who walk nature-inspired, sustainable, druidic paths may be called to speak for our lands, our plants, and our trees.  We may be called to speak on sustainable practices, on how to do something, or be given the opportunity to encourage change.  If we feel called to speak for the land and the trees, we must spend time learning what knowledge they have to teach well enough that we can share their stories.

Jack in the Pulpit in early spring
Jack in the Pulpit in early spring

My Recent Experiences on NPR & Local TV

This spring, I had two opportunities to be a visible voice for the trees, the land, and the sustainability work we are doing in the community.

The first opportunity was I was asked to speak on the Hemlock tree on NPR on the Colin McEnroe show in late April. Here I am, in my little corner of the Internet, with some people who read my work here and comment (thank you, readers!).  And as you’ve seen on my blog, some of the serious work I’ve been undertaking is a magical study of our native trees; Hemlock was the second such tree that I focused upon.  So, yes I had done considerable original research about the hemlock, had extensive direct experience about the hemlock, and blogged about in January of this year. And I have been cultivating a lifetime relationship with the hemlock tree.  So when the call came to speak about hemlock’s magic and mythology on the show, I said, sure, why not? Here is a recording of the show (I come in somewhere around the halfway mark).

 

The second opportunity came a while ago, back in late December, but it was only recently edited and released. A local TV producer, Ellen Warra, films “Earth Talk” for Oxford (Michigan) Community Television.  She filmed a show on sustainability and what was happening at Strawbale Studio and our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup.  This show featured a number of people in our community doing good things, and you can see it here.

 

Both of these  events were a big steps for me, and after doing some reflection, I’d like to share my insights so that others may benefit from it if they are likewise called to be a voice for the land.

 

On Walking the Talk

I think there are a lot of people out there who want to tell others what to do in very loud ways and critique others’ practice, but don’t really want to change their own practices. One of the most critical things you can do if you are going to advocate for any kind of change or speak for the land in any way is to begin by examining your own practice.  If you want to speak for the land, you must spend time in it.  If you want to advocate sustainable practice, you must first live that practice.  Advocating and speaking came for me as a natural process stemming from what I was already doing–I was living it, doing it, and then others took notice and asked me to speak.  I can’t tell anyone else “this is a good idea for you to make these changes” if I’m not, myself, making and living those changes and being honest about where I’m at and what I’m striving for. Why is walking the talk so important?  First, because you understand the difficulty of what you are asking and what challenges there may be, and second, because you have the experience to be able to help others along the way.

 

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley

The Nature of Expertise

One challenge I faced, especially in regards to the NPR piece, was considering my role as an “expert.” In this world of specialists,we assume that a specialist is needed to speak on behalf of the land, on any subject (read = advanced degrees in the subject).  You might say to yourself “I’m not an expert” or “I don’t know enough” or “What do I have to contribute?” And to this I respond–we never know enough.  There is always more to know, and a lifetime can be spent on any one subject.  That natural world is a university with doors open, always ready to teach, always ready to share.  The important thing is to put in your time, learn well what it is you set out to learn, and when you do have something to share and the opportunity arises, share it to the best of your ability.  Recognize yourself as a lifelong learner–you can learn from direct experience, learn from books and other kinds of written work, use your intuition,  learn from mentors and teachers, and so forth–but recognize that learning is a lifetime process.  If you put in the work to learn your subject well, others will take note, they will seek your advice, and you might just end up being asked to speak in very public ways!

 

As soon as you know more than someone else, you can teach someone about that subject, even in limited ways.  When I started gardening, even after my first year, people would ask me for advice on what to plant, when to plant, how to amend their soil, etc.  I was honest about my experience and spoke about what I had read, observed, and witnessed in my own garden.  For someone just starting out, even a year of knowledge was valuable and more than they had!

 

When you move beyond individuals and into a community or the broader world, speaking for the land in public ways is much more tricky.  It means that you do have to have a good knowledge base, be educated on your subject, and be as prepared as possible.  The last thing we want is a bunch of kooky druids sounding crazy on national radio or TV!

 

Challenges with Communication: Understanding Audiences, Rhetoric, and Seeking Common Ground

If there’s one thing I’ve learned concerning communication, however, its that we often communicate best  like-minded, like-pathed people, and its challenging to reach out beyond our own small networks.  I’ve witnessed this in multiple communities that I belong to–we are great at talking to each other and working to make changes in our own lives, but we sometimes are challenged in explaining ourselves to others who aren’t in our small communities. This is especially true in the broader political climate, at least here in the USA.  Seething anger, divided issues, and a virile hatred for the other side has lead us down a path where collaboration, mutual understanding, and building bridges between various sides is nearly impossible.

 

Understanding Audience. Classical rhetorical theory, which I’ve studied and taught for many years, offers us some solutions.  First is the matter of audience–understanding one’s audience, where they are coming from, what they hold sacred, how much they know, in what manner they are reading/hearing your words, and so on, is one of the most important pieces to effective communication. If you can understand and adapt your message, you are much more likely to be heard. Case in point–my recent post on the dandelion emphasized dandelion’s utility toward humans in the form of medicine, food, and the like while also emphasizing its role in healing the land. Why? I know that my blog readers care deeply about the land, and are also looking for things to do with plants and ways of interacting.  Plus, its cool information.  But more broadly, I know that humans are most interested in what is of use to them, so the utility why its not the only approach I take to talking about the land).

Cardinal

Scarlet Tanninger

 

On Careful Language Choices. I’ve written before about language, its power and its influence on our thinking, before on this blog.  In my post on “English vs. the Planet”, I talked about how certain terms influence our thinking in certain directions (e.g. develop, development, and so on have a positive connotation of human progress, but often come at the expense of habitat and substantial loss of non-human life).  This concept draws upon the broader linguistic theory of relativity as well as Burke’s idea of the terministic screen.  These theories suggest that the words themselves, with their cultural baggage, shape our thinking and that this shaping creates colored “lenses” through which we view the world.  Given this, if we want to be a voice for the land, we must be careful and mindful in our language use, especially given the number of exploitative and negative terms that are now positively framed in our culture.   How do I get around this?  I pay close attention to my language use and chose to positively reframe or redefine terms. For example, in my aforementioned dandelion post, for example, I discussed the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” setting that term with its baggage aside and choosing instead to discuss it as a plant ally.  This  use of language, hopefully, has the reader reseeing dandelion as a plant ally, which can alter thinking on a fundamental and important level.

 

On Your Ethos. Another rhetorical concept that bears mentioning here is ethos, also known as your character or credibility.  Ethos comes in two types–invented and situated.  Invented ethos is for people who already have established a name (be it good or bad), hold an important position, or have certain kinds of titles.  For example, if you meet someone who has a Ph.D. in biology, you’ll likely be more likely to believe them when they talk about plants and cell division (and likely anything else).. This is because they come into a situation with situated ethos. This situated ethos can go both ways, however.  If you meet someone who you know is in the KKK, it is very likely that you will immediately see them in a negative light and distrust everything they say.

 

Most of us don’t have “situated” ethos right away, and becoming a voice in a broader sense means that we need to “invent” our ethos for the occasion.  We need to carefully think about the image that we want to convey, the image we want to construct for ourselves.  And make no mistake–everything you say, the clothes you wear, how you chose to affiliate, all of that is a choice that can substantially alter how people view you. This gets back to my “kooky druid” comment above–when we talk about our practices and our work, I believe its important to do so in ways that others can understand and respond.

 

In Coming to Common Ground. I’ve also written before about stasis theory, a rhetorical theory developed in ancient Rome that aids us in coming to a consensus about moving forward on an issue.  We live in very contentious, dysfunctional times, when concepts like “consensus” and “collaboration” are practically curse words at most levels of our government.  But it is my firm belief that if we can get people of differing views to talk together with open minds and mutual respect, we can come to much common ground. These dialogues can take place in public forums as well as more private settings–and if you are going to be publicly speaking often, its a wise idea to talk to a LOT of people to understand their practices and how they live their lives so that you can relate to them and work to build common ground with them.

 

On Encouraging Change

One successful approach is to think about encouraging people to “add” practices rather than condemn current behavior (this is the same approach that successful dieting works–add healthy foods and slowly you will shift to more healthy foods…).  For example, encouraging people to put in a small vegetable garden is better than condemning them for mowing a large expanse of lawn.  As the old proverb says,

 

Spring Crab Apple Blossoms

Spring Crab Apple Blossoms

Being the Voice of the Trees

There are a lot of loud, well-funded voices out there advocating for a particular way of living, of consumption, of buying things and encouraging harmful practices tied to products. I’d like to encourage more of us in the druidic and sustainable community to educate ourselves fully, to live our practices, and to find ways of reaching out more broadly to speaking for the land, using “oak knowledge” to do so.  I think, given enough of us, we can begin to show that there are alternatives to what consumerist culture promotes as the only way of living, and that through living differently, we can create a better tomorrow.  Speak with the trees, my friends.  Listen to the song of the birds, the drips of rain on a summer day.  Hear the soft rustle of the patch of tomatoes in your backyard, and feel the sting of the nettle as you harvest from her stalk.  And after you’ve experienced these things, convey their wonder and magic to those who will hear of it.

Approaching the Sacred Through Nature: Sustainability and Sacred Action (Pan Druid Retreat Talk, 2014)

I was blessed to attend the Pan-Druid Retreat in Gore, Virginia this past weekend.  As part of the retreat, I served on a discussion panel about “approaching the sacred through nature.”  We were asked to prepare 10 minutes for discussion.  I used a series of past blog posts and current thoughts to prepare my remarks on “Sustainability as Sacred Action.”  I thought I’d share my talk with blog readers.  Enjoy!

 

Introduction. The common bond that unites druids, and other earth-centered spiritual paths, is a deep respect and reverence for the living earth. We celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons, we revere the plants, and we speak to the forest spirits.  But what does having that connection with nature mean, and how can we deepen that connection into every aspect of our lives? How can we ensure our actions nourish, nurture and support in all ways, especially when live in a culture that exploits and actively harms.

 

For my own practice of druidry, building a more sustainable life and teaching others how to do the same is the cornerstone of my druid path. Yes, I engage in ritual and meditation and all “spiritual” stuff, but I believe that beliefs must be accompanied by actions. For me this means an emphasis on sustainability, on treading lightly, and in helping to change humanity’s destructive practices. Why? First, because the more deeply in tune with the natural world I’ve become through my druidic practices, the more I’ve realized that my own relationship with the land started out more passively damaging than actively nurturing.  With this series of realizations, I began to radically shift my own life to align with my spiritual beliefs. For anyone who has been attempting to live more sustainably, the odds are stacked against us in a culture of consumption—but it is possible with knowledge, determination, and a community of support. I’ll talk about what this can look like and provide some philosophies and resources for making this happen.

Oak Knowledge. The term druid means “oak knowledge.” But what does knowledge of the oaks mean today? While we have many ways of interpreting “oak knowledge” within druidry, I would argue that a deep understanding of the natural world, an understanding humanity’s ecological impacts, and a knowledge of how to nurture our landscapes and communities is critical “oak knowledge.” And what we do with that knowledge and how we share it is just as important.

 

For most of human history, knowledge about the medicinal virtues of plants, how to grow or forage for one’s own food, how to preserve said foods, how to not take too much, were all critical skills. It has only been in the last century that we’ve lost these skills—and druids have much to offer the world if we can find them again.

 

As an example of a really bit of useful oak knowledge, let’s talk briefly about the typical “American” lawn. The typical lawn is a battlefield between humans and nature. The dandelion pops up in said lawn, and it is mowed, pulled, or most often, chemically treated. But my oak knowledge tells me about that dandelion—it’s a species that is the beginning of the land healing itself. Its deep tap root breaks up compacted soil and is likewise a fantastic medicine for digestion. Its greens are a wonderful spring food; and its beautiful flowers are one of the earliest sources for pollen for bees—not to mention, they make a great wine. All of this “oak knowledge” about dandelion and many other useful plants has come in handy in helping my friends and community shift their practices around their landscapes. The lawn is currently the largest crop in cultivation in America, and yet it produces no food, it produces no forage, it requires extensive chemical and fossil fuels, and substantial human labor. When I can show that there are alternatives to a velvety green lawn that benefit all, shifts begin to happen.

 

I am part of the organizing team for a permaculture meetup in our area in Michigan. As part of this meetup this year, we are working to get 100 people in our community to commit to converting some of their lawn into a productive space for herbs, edible fruits, nuts, and organic vegetables. Knowledge of how to do that, and what plants are beneficial, can really help this process. When you have the knowledge of the oaks, you can show others the value in the landscape around us—and this can go far in helping us become more sustainable.

 

The spaces that we choose to interact with and be knowledgeable about are also important. While we may gravitate towards the forests, the wild places, the quiet streams and rugged isolated mountains, and oak knowledge can certainly be useful there, I would argue that we also need to start using this oak knowledge in the spaces that humans most typically inhabit—our cities, our suburban communities, our workplaces, outside or windows and back yards. The most important work is the visible work we can do every day, in our daily lives. These are not simple choices like “paper or plastic or bring your own bag” (all of which still assume a consumerist mindset, which is a big part of how we got into this mess) but rather deep, meaningful changes, like reducing the need to use bags for the procurement of food at all. The choice of how to tend our yards (will we have grass or medicinal/edibles/wild flowers?); what food to eat (will we grow our own, buy it from farmers, or buy it from Walmart?); how to travel and heat our homes, how we spend our time, and so on, are the important, everyday choices.   Each waking moment can be an opportunity to engage in sustainability as sacred action and reconnect with the world around us through nurturing practices.

 

Where do we gain “oak knowledge”? Teachings in the druid tradition often focus on the spiritual side of things, which provide many gifts, but do not necessarily help us in understanding the practical work of living in a nature-focused, sustainable way. To learn oak knowledge and how to live sustainably, I found myself reaching far and wide. A local sustainable living center taught natural building and alternative energy skills; a friend mentored me through my first year as a gardener; my university offered advanced courses in organic gardening; a prominent herbalist offered a year-long herbal intensive; books from the library taught me about beekeeping and foraging; historical reinactors taught me about cheese making, weaving, spinning, cooking over the fire, sustainable fire starting, and so much more.

 

winter_peasIn addition to the various books and friends and classes, I found it helpful to have a unifying theory that guided my actions, mantras that would help me always live in a sacred manner and seek oak knowledge. I found this in permaculture. Permaculture is a design theory, a set of principles that we can use to help us design anything from a simple landscape or organic garden, to a building, and to a community of people living and working together. When I first encountered the concept of permaculture through a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (2009), I thought it was one of the most Druidic books I had ever read. This book helped radically shift my view and deepen my own Druidic practice by observing nature, using nature’s forms, recognize the cycle of nature and nurture that cycle in my own life, and so much more.

 

In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holgren (2002) outlines three core tenets for permaculture. They are: care for earth, care for people, and setting limits and redistributing surplus. Permaculture design also includes twelve design principles, such as “producing no waste” (spend a year meditating on how to accomplish that!) and “observe and interact.”

 

In the interest of time, I’m going to briefly describe one of the ethical principles and how I’ve used and considered it within the realm of druidry. The principle is “set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus.” This tenant affirms that there are limits to what our lands can sustain and that setting limits within our own lives, communities, and broader world is important for long-term sustainability. To understand more about our world’s limits on a larger scale, I highly recommend the book The Limits to Growth: 30-Year Update (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows, 2004). This principle also recognizes, however, that the earth is abundant, and with proper care and tending, she can produce so much for us. I’m reminded of the principles of limits and abundance each year in the fall; the hickory tree in my yard produced an abundant harvest of hundreds of pounds of amazing nuts. I could go and pick every last nut, but if I did so, there would be no nuts for the squirrels and chipmunks that depend on hickory as a major food source. I set a limit of gathering nuts to once every other day and gathered them only from certain areas; this allowed us all to have our share. Permaculture design therefore, focuses on understanding balance—a lesson we Druids are reminded of every solstice or equinox.

 

Permaculture design asks us to see everything in our lives, every object, scrap of food waste, and so forth as something that we can redistribute rather than throw away. Nothing, after all, truly goes “away” as the earth itself is also a closed system. I highly recommend using these principles, or others like them, to guide your path. John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology is a wonderful resource for this.

 

I want to provide you with some resources that I have found helpful in moving towards sustainability and more earth-centered living:

  • General sustainable living: Mother Earth News magazine, Foxfire magazines (1970’s)
  • Herbs and medicine: Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals
  • Gardening and Landscapes: Gaia’s Garden; Grow Biointensive
  • Foraging: Samuel Thayer’s Books

 

I also want to say that if you are overwhelmed with the prospect of making change, and a lot of us are, I’ll turn again to permaculture design for guidance—one of the principles is to “use small, slow solutions.” Start slowly and choose one area. For everyone, the food system is a great place to begin, as so many of humanity’s destructive practices surround it, and we all have to eat. 

 

In conclusion, every action, every choice, however small, can be done in a sacred, intentional manner, a manner that nurtures the earth and allows our practices to become sustainable and nurturing. Each choice for me, is sacred: from growing my own food rather than supporting an industrial food system that burns fossil fuels and destroys life, to picking up “treasures” in my neighbors’ trash to use in a new way, to offering land and knowledge freely for friends to learn how to grow their own food. My actions can’t just be sacred when I walk into a forest and honor the spirits there using ritual—my actions have to be sacred when I am going to work, paying my bills, spending time with my family, when I’m deciding how to spend my money. I started to realize that my offering, and my path, was how I lived my life, each day, and how I interacted with those around me.  Everything became a potential for sacred action.  We are facing increasingly difficult times, where the lands we love are under serious threat from so many forces–including from ourselves. Finding ways of living the sacred of everyday, using and building oak knowledge, seeking more sustainable solutions, and finding ways of engaging in nurturing traditions can help us make this shift. And in that shift, druids can become invaluable resources to their communities and to the broader world.

 

 

Sustainability as Sacred Action

The common bond that unites druids, and other earth-centered spiritual paths, is a deep respect and reverence for the living earth. We celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons, we revere the plants, and we speak to the forest spirits.  But what does having that connection with nature mean, and how can we deepen that connection into every aspect of our lives? How can we ensure our actions nourish, nurture and support in all ways?

 

Aster flower in late summer

Aster flower in late summer

For my own practice of druidry, building a more sustainable life and teaching others about sustainability and permaculture, is my cornerstone. Why? First, because the more deeply in tune with the natural world I’ve become through my druidic practices, the more I’ve realized that my own relationship with the land started out more passively damaging than actively nurturing.  How could I say I followed an earth-based path when I engaged in so many practices that were destructive—even  if I didn’t realize/intend they were destructive?  When I purchased products that supported companies actively damaging the land, harming my fellow humans, and so forth?  With this series of realizations, I began to radically shift my own life to align my daily life with my spiritual belief; this process is ongoing. For anyone who has been attempting to live more sustainably, the odds are stacked against us in a culture of consumption—but it is possible with knowledge, determination, and a community of support.

 

As druids, the land speaks to us in important and informative ways. The land of the two communities where I have spent the most time—South-East Michigan, where I live now, and Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, has much to teach us about the need for sustainable living. These connections helped shape my path.

 

In south-east Michigan, we are truly “on the front lines” of many of the energy and post-industrial challenges that we face in the world. These challenges include a declining industrialized society with dwindling resources, increased illiteracy and poverty in both rural and urban areas, rampant environmental destruction for cheap energy (such as fracking and oil pipelines), an automobile industry pushing in unsustainable directions, and local government structures that seem to hold the economy as sacred at the disregard of everything else. This situation has prompted many of us here to more carefully pay attention, to become informed, to learn from each other, and to ultimately begin to build communities that are more sustainable.

 

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

In south-western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, the landscape tells another tale. In their exploration for coal and steel production, numerous companies built up an industry in the 1800’s and 1900’s. They dug up the land, put men in the ground, dug out the coal, shipped it to the cities, and used it to produce boatloads of steel.  Of course, these companies have long since left (and some are still in business in places like Mexico), the individuals profiting from them long ago passing on, taking their profits with them. As part of the mining process, the mining companies created mountain-sized “boney dumps” that still remain a century later.  The dumps, the same size as the Appalachian mountains that surround them, contain a lot of the materials that weren’t usable. These dumps, exposed to the elements, make their way into the waterways. .The land suffers from the runoff of these old boney dumps: nothing will grown on their toxic contents, which include mercury, sulfur, and many other heavy metals and toxins.  Many of the creeks in the area, which locals dub “sulfur creeks” are so polluted that no life can be found in them. Cancer rates are high, along with asthma, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases (all found in my family and in the families of everyone else I know).  Some of the streams are bright yellow and full of sulfur; others are a pale cloudy blue/gray—all are devoid of life.  And of course now, fracking also is taking place throughout Pennsylvania. It is just one more blow to the land that has been repeatedly logged, poisoned, and now, fracked.

 

Jewelweed for medicine

Jewelweed for medicine

Examining my own landscape as well as my own actions in a spiritual manner over time encouraged me to realize that every action, every choice, however small, could be done in a sacred, intentional manner. Each choice was sacred: from bringing my own bags to the grocery store to picking up “treasures” in my neighbors’ trash to use in a new way,  to offering land freely for friends to learn how to grow their own food. It wasn’t not just sacred when I walk into that forest and honor the spirits there using ritual—but its sacred when I am going to work, paying my bills, spending time with my family.  And how do I ensure that the forest will be there in the future? That it isn’t fracked, sold off, or developed? I started to realize that my offering, and my path, was how I lived my life, each day, and how I interacted with those around me.  Everything became a potential for sacred action.  We are facing increasingly difficult times, where the lands we love are under serious threat from so many forces–including from ourselves.  For me, finding ways of living the sacred of everyday, and finding ways of engaging in nurturing traditions has what has helped me begin to make this shift.

Introduction to Permaculture: Terminology and The Ethical Triad

Sustainability means “the capacity to endure.” I use the concept of sustainability broadly in introducing the work that I’m doing as part of my Druidic path—people understand that term, what it means, and are  immediately able to have some idea of where I am coming from. The reason I turn to the concept of sustainability (rather than eco-awareness, green living, environmentally-friendly or other terms) is that sustainability implies a set of actions and an end goal, whereas “green” and “eco” are now mostly associated with a set of products to be purchased. Avoiding consumer-based terms is especially important since the worldview and actions behind consumerism are huge parts of the challenge we face in creating more sustainable futures. In this blog post, I’m going to discuss the terminology and principles that are associated with sustainability, in particular, explore the connections between druidry and permaculture that give us both an ethical system and a set of core ways of interacting with the world.

 

Two Australian designers, Bill Mollison and David Homgren, coined permaculture, or “permanent culture” in 1978. Permaculture is a design theory, a set of principles that we can use to help us design anything from a simple landscape or organic garden, to a building, and to a community of people living and working together. When I first encountered the concept of permaculture through a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (2009), I thought it was one of the most Druidic books I had ever read. This book helped radically shift my view and deepen my own Druidic practice by observing nature, using nature’s forms, recognize the cycle of nature and nurture that cycle in my own life, and so much more.

 

In Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holgren (2002) outlines three core tenets for permaculture. These three tenets (which form what I am calling an “ethical triad”) are useful for building more sustainable societies and align closely with much of the ethics and practice of Druidry.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

 

Care for the Earth.  Caring for the earth, including respecting and preserving the earth’s biodiversity, understanding the web of life, and being stewards of the land, are of key importance within permaculture. Within “care for the earth,” we consider things like James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis (reference), a scientific hypotheses that suggests that earth is a whole organized system (isn’t it nice to know that science has finally caught up with 1000’s of years of human spiritual understanding?)

 

As Druids, “care for the earth” is at the core of our practices.  It allows us to care in multiple senses—have reverence and respect for but also engage in direct actions that demonstrate our care. This principle also lends itself well to the divine belief systems of animism, pantheism, earth-based deity, and the earth mother, as well as seeing the earth as spiritually as well as physically connected. I have found that care is certainly a concept worth reflecting and meditating on in our own spiritual and life practices, and its one we’ll come back to in future months.

 

Care for People. Permaculture does, inherently, recognize that people are part of the earth too, and that we have basic needs that must be met, although there are better and worse ways to meet those needs. Care for people also recognizes that we are not set apart from the world, but rather, we are at one with it. This gives us personal responsibility for our actions, and responsibility in taking care of ourselves, our families, our communities/tribes, and our world. Concepts like self-reliance, resilience, making use of what resources already exist also come into play under this ideal.

 

Much of the practices of Druidry—meditation, self reflection, self improvement, building tribes and communities—also about care for people. A sense of “non-material well-being” is critical to care for people according to Holgren (year, p #). The principle of non-material well-being is part of our spiritual tradition—we value the intangibles, the arts, and the things that have little to no material wealth in our current culture, and we also learn to better value ourselves.

 

Set limits and redistribute surplus. Different permaculture authors describe this final principle in various ways; Holgren (year) suggests that we “set limits to consumption and reproduction and redistribute surplus” (p#), and it aligns well with Druidry. First, it affirms that there are limits to what our lands can sustain and that setting limits within our own lives, communities, and broader world is important for sustainable change. To understand more about our world’s limits on a larger scale, I highly recommend the book The Limits to Growth: 30-Year Update (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows, 2004).

 

This third principle also recognizes, however, that the earth is abundant, and with proper care and tending, she can produce so much for us. I’m reminded of the principles of limits and abundance each year in the fall; the hickory tree in my yard produced an abundant harvest of hundreds of pounds of amazing nuts. I could go and pick every last nut, but if I did so, there would be no nuts for the squirrels and chipmunks that depend on hickory as a major food source. I set a limit of gathering nuts to once every other day; this allowed us all to have our share. Permaculture design therefore, focuses on understanding balance—a lesson we Druids are reminded of every solstice or equinox.

 

Redistribution of surplus is not a value understood and enacted in our present culture beyond basic understandings of “charity” work, but it is a principle that is at the core of sustainable societies. Redistribution doesn’t just refer to money, but rather anything that can be recycled and reused in new ways. A forest is a perfect example of a closed redistribution system—nothing at all is wasted in a forest. The trees fall and are host to bacteria and lichens; these break the remains of the tree down into fertile soil; nutrients in that soil is taken up by plants, which are eaten by animals, and who die and are returned to the soil, and so forth. Permaculture design asks us to see everything in our lives, every object, scrap of food waste, and so forth as something that we can redistribute rather than throw away. Nothing truly goes “away” as the earth itself is also a closed system. The druidic principle of the cycle and circle is particularly useful here.

 

Holgren (2002) suggests that redistributing surplus was actually one of the reasons that so many indigenous traditions (including our spiritual ancestors) gave offerings. It was a sign of giving back, of recognizing the harvest and honoring the land, spirits, and gods who allowed that harvest to happen. In my first article, I suggested that one of my offerings was living a sustainable life—this too is a way of redistributing surplus.

Conclusion. These three tenets within permaculture can help us understand and enact more ethical, sustainable living within the world around us. The principles are useful as themes for meditation, as mantras, and as providing us with an earth-centered ethical system. In addition to the three principles, permaculture has twelve principles to help us enact these tenets in sustainable ways, and  I’ll be exploring these over a series of blog posts in the upcoming year.

I would also love to hear from you—how might you be living these principles in your life, either consciously or unconsciously?  How might we extend these practices in various ways into druidry and other earth-based spiritual practices?

Strawbale Studio and Tar Sands Oil Pipelines – The Clash of Worldviews, Part I

Staked out pipeline

Staked out pipeline

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, we have an oil pipeline going through our immediate area in South East Michigan. The first “phase” of the project went 1/2 mile north of my home in 2012-2013. This was “Line 6B, phase I” according to Enbridge’s site, and was an upgrade/replacement project for one that they originally put in in the 1960’s to send oil from Canada to refineries in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The 2nd phase of the project began a few months ago and will continue into 2013-2014; it will create a new, much higher volume pipeline and decommission the old pipeline currently in that area. One of my goals with this blog, as I have done in the past, is to document such issues and their spiritual and environmental consequences (and long-term readers might recall my coverage of some North Dakota fracking last year).  I’m going to start with an overview about the larger oil pipeline and some environmental consequences–then I’ll get into details about how its affecting one local place, Strawbale Studio.

Tar Sands Oil and Environmental Impacts: This is a short (5 minute) video that provides a good overview of the pipeline in the Great Lakes region, specifically, at Mackinac Bridge (where it crosses the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan).  Mackinac is about 4 hours north of here. Its worth the watch:

 

 

I also have mentioned in an earlier post that this same pipeline was responsible for the Kalamazoo Oil spill in 2010, which put somewhere around 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamzoo river. The pipeline spill is still not entirely cleaned up and just a few months ago the EPA ordered Enbridge back to clean up more of the oil still in the river and surrounding areas. Given Enbridge’s history of environmental ethics in this state, the fact that they are making a larger volume pipeline now is particularly concerning.  One of my colleagues, who has the Line 6B coming through his property on my road, has been blogging about a lot of this at his Line 6B Blog.

 

Also of concern is the source of the oil–the Alberta (Canada) oil sands. This oil sands methods of extraction are particularly damaging to the peat bogs and boreal forests that make up much of Alberta. Water usage, and the release of oil-tainted water, very harmful to wildlife, occurs with tar sands oil extraction. Substantial carbon dioxide emissions are also on the rise (which have increased Canada’s emissions in the last 20 years rather than decreasing them, as per the Kyoto Protocol). In all, these oil sands, and the resulting pipelines, represent serious environmental and ethical challenges.

 

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Going after tar sands oil is an indicator of the fact that oil is a finite and quickly depleting resource, past its peak of production.  Companies wouldn’t have considered mining these patches for oil years ago when other oil fields were still easy to access and full of oil.  These tar sands oil fields are now mined, despite their environmental consequences, because few other options exist to keep oil flowing at the rate of demand. The energy returned on investment (EROI) on tar sands oil is somewhere between 2.9 to 5.1 by more liberal estimates (so for every 1 energy unit we put into the process of mining, we extract 2.9-5.1 units of oil). (Some have suggested its closer to 1:1 if one considers the whole lifecycle of the production of tar sands oil, and things like the upkeep of pipelines). Compare this to conventional oil fields, which today offer a 25:1 EROI (fields of years past offered much higher EROI). In other words, this tar sands oil cruising through pipelines in South East Michigan isn’t even worth much investing in from an EROI, even if one were to overlook the substantial environmental impacts.

One example of strawbale studio's work!  Here is a living roof/wood shed

One example of strawbale studio’s work! Here is a living roof/wood shed

Strawbale Studio in the path…..Back to the matter at hand. Endbridge is now moving onto their 2nd phase of the pipeline project, and this is very unfortunately intersecting with a place near and dear to my heart–Strawbale Studio and Sustainable Living Center (run by Deanne Bednar). Strawbale Studio is a place that, from a sustainability perspective, is doing everything right: teaching and empowering people who want to learn how to live more sustainably, building community, and sharing skills. I’ve been honored to take numerous workshops there and have learned a great deal of information on more sustainable living skills, such as cob building and artwork, strawbale construction and natural building, growing mushrooms, barn raising, rocket stoves, composting, food preservation, candle making, and so much more.  I’ve also been excited to meet so many people from around the world who are interning or taking classes at Strawbale Studio.

Another example of Strawbale Studio's work - A composting toilet!

Another example of Strawbale Studio’s work – A spiral chamber!

On the back part of the Strawbale Studio property spans the old oil pipeline that Enbridge built in the 1960’s; now they are decommissioning the old line and destroying more land for their larger, new pipeline.  A few months ago, we got the word that Enbridge would be clearing the trees near the existing pipeline–about 80 or so feet of trees, 4 acres long. They also required Deanne to dismantle one of the natural buildings that was nearly finished–it was an amazing, quirky guest house. I hate to think how many thousands of hours of labor went into building that guest house.

 

A few weeks ago, Deanne got word that the tree clearing would be occurring at a rate of 1 mile per day, and that it would be occurring soon at Strawbale Studio. I went out to the property to honor the trees and document what was occurring before the crews were to come through. Here are some photos of this patch of lovely forest, thick with many kinds of sacred trees and plants: hawthorn, apple, oak, maple, cherry, brambles, and so much more.

Guest house taken down before logging

Guest house taken down by volunteers before logging

Tree line happy and vibrant

Tree line happy and vibrant; these trees are all gone now

Path through the woods

Path through the woods; most of these trees are gone too

Hawthorn and Apple

Hawthorn and Apple; these trees are no more

I must say, that this was one of the hardest visits I ever had made to a forest.  Why? Because I knew it was doomed and had no hope of survival.  Nothing that any of us could do would permanently stop the great wave of oil that would wash through its path. The trees knew it was coming and had already accepted their fate with a dignity that few humans can ever achieve. They waved at me in the gentle breeze, knowing that they were experiencing their last sunsets, their last ever fall equinox.  When I arrived, I immediately noticed that the workers, in marking up their areas for clearing, had knocked over a small living hawthorn tree, a very sacred tree; we gathered up the berries and will dry them and use them this winter.

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

There is another part to this visit though, the darker part.  This visit was also very hard because I drove there, using fossil fuels that very well could have been extracted and sent down that same pipeline, and I was contributing to the problem even in order to make my visit.  The contradictions were rooted deep within me as I spent time there with the trees.  I’ve been seriously reading on how to reduce my dependence on fossil fuels in an efficient and cost-effective way, but I haven’t yet come up with a solution that I can afford and enact.  So knowing that I was using the oil that is driving this project was particularly difficult.

 

Enbridge clear cuts: A week and a half later, Enbridge did their initial “clearing” of the trees in order to make room for their pipeline. We weren’t sure when exactly was happening when (Deanne was out of town) but when I came back later that week, I was able to document what had occurred this far. Here are a number of photos:

Former oak

Former oak

Machinery clearing "brush"

Machinery clearing “brush”

Former life....

Former life….

Trailer tracks

Trailer tracks

Devastation

Devastation where life once stood

Giant pile of brush

Giant pile of brush

Patch of cleared land

Patch of cleared land with stumps and logs

Where do we go from here? There are ways to be reactive to what is happening and there are ways to be proactive.  This is not just the story just of destruction.  I’ll continue to document what is happening at Strawbale Studio, and talk to some of the people there about the “clash of worldviews” as I am calling it; the sustainable living skills that are attempting to be taught while the heavy machinery rolls ever onward and oil pipeline is built within earshot of our workshops.

 

What this story will hopefully be, however, is a story of what we do with this space after they clear out.  How this space is transformed into something new; how the wood is used, how the land is regrown, and how we all grow in the process.  As they continue to put this pipeline in for the next year or so–and as we brainstorm our next moves in producing something amazing in this space that has now seen such suffering. I hope you’ll follow us and see what happens next.

Climate Change and Growing Food: Creating Resilient Polyculture Crops for Spring Weather

In Michigan, last spring (2012) was one of the warmest on record.  By early April, I had beautiful spinach and lettuce crops; the crops were bolting by mid-May.  The warm weather took its serious toll on our fruit crops—most berry bushes and fruit trees bloomed and then had their blooms killed by an early April hard frost; this meant that most of South East Michigan had very little fruit or limited berries last year. Maple sugar/syrup production also was at a standstill in 2012 because the sap didn’t run long—the trees budded out very quickly after the warm weather hit. Farmers, especially those in orcharding or syrup production, had an incredibly difficult year. Our local cider mills had to import nearly all of their apples (luckily, they could do so from the western side of the state, which didn’t get hit with frost as badly).

 

This year, 2013, was very much the opposite. The jet stream shift caused by the melting Arctic ice brought cold air to us for most of February, March, and April (and there are likely a host of factors causing this, but this seems to be one that most agree upon).  In fact, we had three snowstorms in April and several nights of 25 and below–and a hard frost in May (tonight, actually). We’ve had very severe winds (which ripped apart my hoop houses and dropped my greenhouse with seedlings inside!) In the 2nd week of may, we are only now beginning to see buds on our trees. This means we had a most excellent maple syrup harvest (which I’ve blogged about earlier this year) and we should have excellent fruit and berries.  But this also means that our greens are barely growing and many cold-weather crops that can be started in April aren’t yet larger than an inch or two out of the ground in mid-May.  Farmers in the area complain about how they are now 3 weeks or more behind where they need to be in their planting because the ground remained frozen for so long.

 

The national data supports my local observations – the following graphic is a description of March temperatures for 2012 vs. 2013 put out by Climate Central.

Extreme heat vs. extreme cold in March.

When I look at these last two years, I see quite a few lessons in terms of resiliency. Resiliency is a concept used within the permaculture and sustainability movements that describes one’s ability to endure. In the case of our spring weather, a diversity of crops, from greens to fruit to herbs and so on, is critical to provide a good harvest.  This year, I’ve been attempting to grow greens nearly in futility, starting things like lettuce and chard indoors rather than try to grow them outside. But more importantly, I’m staying away from monocropping and from depending too much upon any one crop, because that crop may or may not be here and doing well in the coming years. So rather than planting six cherry trees (or having a dozen different fruit trees) which are susceptible to frost and weather shifts, I’m planting hazelnuts, gooseberries, cranberries, blueberries, beach plums, and currants, all of which bud at slightly different times and which have different cold and drought tolerance.

 

Even within a single crop, I am also testing out the limits.  I did an experiment with some of my tomato seedlings to see which ones are more resilient to drought conditions (which we also experienced in the summer 2012).  I pulled a number of different tomatoes that I was planing this year — Yellow Pear, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Cherry Roma, and Green Zebra–and purposely didn’t water a set of seedlings very much at all, stimulating drought conditions.  And the results were quick and obvious–the Yellow pear tomatoes are by far the least drought tolerant, and the Black Krim and Amish paste are more so.   We’ll see how these tomatoes fare when I plant them in the garden next week!  This also supports Greer’s earlier argument that druids need to take up science, learn how to conduct science, and engage in citizen-research (more on this soon!)

 

So in this way, I’m seeking to build diversity within my own crops, which builds resilience.  I don’t think we can expect “normal” weather patterns from here on out–we have to deal with abnormal weather conditions, be it too much rain or too little, too much heat or too little, and find crops and plants that can function well under a variety of unknown and unforeseen conditions.

The anthropocene and the rights of non-human persons

We have entered a new age, what scientists are calling the “Anthropocene,” otherwise termed the “Human Epoch” by geologists. This means, for the first time in history, rather than having meteorological activity, substantial volcanic activity, or other natural phenomena which affect the entire planet’s ecology and geology, we have human-driven activity affecting it on a larger scale. To get a sense of the enormity of this fact, the Planet Under Pressure conference put out an informative website and video.  Here’s their video (their State of the Planet declaration is also worth a read):

 

More evidence about reaching our limits, or “overshooting” beyond them, can be found in the Limits to Growth, which does a very thorough, if not depressing, job of showing the human-driven stresses on our planet (and I’ve blogged about this book before).  These limits aren’t just felt by humans–but rather, all life on this planet is being radically impacted.

 

While scientists, policy makers, and the general public can continue to debate efforts to move towards sustainable solutions (or, worse, debate the fact that we are even causing problems), which are likely not to come in time to do any real good at least in the USA, perhaps what is being lost in here are the rights of other species–plant, animal, insect, and microbial–to life and the space to grow.  These are often called “non-human persons” in animistic thinking, the idea that you can be a person and not be human, to have a soul, a spirit, a set of unalienable rights.

 

Its something we don’t usually discuss: the rights of non-human persons.  But perhaps we should.  Bolivia recently made international headlines by enacting a law that contains eleven principles giving “Mother Earth” legal rights.  Now I want to clarify–my understanding of these is that they aren’t considered “protections” as much as actual “rights” and that’s a world of difference.  In the USA, we have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose job is supposed to consist of protecting our natural environment.  These protections are usually shoddy, underfunded, and corrupt.  In other words, we have a shoddy agency trying to save face while corporations and individuals continue to do whatever they damn well please.

 

Whether or not Bolivia will be able to overcome their oil and profit-driven industry’s motives and create something new that goes beyond paper and into practice is another story.  At this point, the law is a start, an intention, and we’ll need to see how it plays out and if this is first in a larger series of movements that make us recognize that our tribe must extend beyond fellow humans and to encompass all life.

 

The rights of all...

The rights of all…

An animistic perspective has something to offer to this discussion as well.  In animism, all living things (birds, trees) and natural material objects (rivers, stones) possess a spirit, a soul, something that transcends their physical well being.  (We can set this in stark contrast to the view held in various Christian religions, where only humans have souls).  This means that when you destroy a tree, or a river, or some other natural thing, you aren’t just destroying the physical thing, but you are also impacting a spiritual entity connected to the same web of life that you, yourself are connected to.  I think that thinking about the world in these terms makes us understand why mother nature, as a whole, and individual spirits within her great web (birds, plants, rivers) should have rights–the same rights that humans enjoy.

 

For who can decide what has the right to live, the right to consume resources, the right to take up space, and who does not?  Is that really our right as human beings? I would argue that in this age, we need to stop thinking about our rights and start thinking about those whose rights have been trampled.  We need to take more positive actions as Bolivia is attempting, we need to recognize and own up to the consequences of our own behaviors, and we need to build a better world.