Tag Archives: the unsettling of america

The Druid’s Prayer for Peace: Shifting from Exploitation to Nurturing as a Spiritual Practice

Working with the land, in harmony and peace

Working with the land, in harmony and peace

One of the things I’m hoping to do on this blog, in addition to my usual “how to” posts, permaculture, and tree work, is give us a set of working tools and philosophical lenses through which to see and interact in the world.  Today’s post does just this–explores two concepts underlying much of industrial civilization and various reactions to it, and does so with a distinctly druidic lens.


In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Wendell Berry discusses two approaches to living and inhabiting the world–the practice of exploitation and the practice of nurturing. Berry wrote The Unsettling of America in the 1970’s as a small family farmer’s response to the rise of “Big Ag” and industrialized food systems. The book was truly visionary, and, if read today in 2015, rings even more true than it did in the 1970’s. Berry argues that exploitation and nurturing are are two terms that can describe mindsets and actions in our present industrial society.


I find these two concepts particularly useful to help tease out the idea of everyday sacred action through earth-based spiritual practice.  If our goal is to develop a deeper relationship with the land and enact that relationship in every aspect of our lives, then these concepts are useful as a baseline set of principles. So let’s take a look at both of them and their implications for earth-based spiritual practice and sustainable, regenerative living.



The nurturer is one whose livelihood, goals, and interactions are as much about healing and care as they are about getting the job done. Idealized by Wendell Berry as a small-scale organic farmer, the nurturer is concerned with the long term health of the land and its people and she makes decisions accordingly. She asks: “what is the carrying capacity of the land? What can be grown and how can it be tended in ways that will allow it to endure?” Berry writes that the nurturer is also concerned with health–not just of her family and their immediate land–but of the broader community and world. Berry suggests that the nurturer isn’t concerned as much with efficiency or profit as with working “as well as possible” and who is concerned with care, health, and quality.


Now of course, nurturing can go far beyond just farming or working the land–nurturing can be woven into every aspect of our lives. Permaculture design’s ethical system, as described above, includes people care, earth care, fair share, and self care. Caring for others well-being and health is one way to be a nurturer, and for some, that’s a much more obvious and concrete kind of care. But earth care, which is what I primarily focus on on this blog and in my daily living, is certainly another–and the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.


Making chocolate the traditional way in Costa Rica

Making chocolate the traditional way in Costa Rica

In the same way that clothing, food, or anything else can be created in a system that exploits people and the land and takes more than its fair share (see below), it can also be crated in a system that has the ethic of care.  As a great example of this, I visited a chocolate farm in Costa Rica during my trip last year where nurturing (and educating others about that nurturing) was a key focus. This farm had taken waste land, built up a healthy ecosystem, and grew their chocolate in a way that cared for earth and people.



I think we see these same ethics of care present at nearly every farmer’s market around the country–the idea of growing better food, making better products that people need, and giving people alternatives that aren’t set in a system of exploitation.  We can produce food, clothing, shelter, whatever we need in different ways.  Not all ways are created equal, and not all ways have to exploit the land and its inhabitants in order to make a profit or serve us.  Its not an ethic we think about, but its an ethic with great potential. A lot of what I’ve been posting about in this blog since the beginning focuses on nurturing–not just establishing relationships but taking steps to actively nurture the land as part of spiritual practice.


So now that we know how good things CAN be, lets look at the reality of how things are, in many cases.



Berry describes exploitation in a general sense, but I’ve found that breaking exploitation into two categories greatly helps parse out these concepts for earth based spiritual practice.


Active Exploitation. Exploiters, epitomized by Berry in the image of the strip miner, abuse the land for short-term profits made with as little work or investment as possible. Exploiters are concerned with the land only in how much and how quickly it can be made to produce profits (using words like “efficiency” or “cost savings”; the exploiter often uses quantification and hard data to measure his goals). Exploitative policies aren’t limited to the land: when we think about how workers (especially those in minimum wage jobs) are treated, how animals are treated–the entire mentality and conversation is in the language of exploitation. If you can stomach American politics, look at the language of the debates–they are all framed in terms of economics (America’s current “sacred cow”) and in terms of the “bottom line.” The language of current economics and of politics is not the language of care or nurturing, it is the language of exploitation. This kind of thinking allows children to go hungry, the land to be stripped and poison pumped deep into the earth, and people to close their hearts and minds to others.


We can see this exploiter mentality in so much of the United States history–and in most of Western Civilization long before the US was even founded. Here, in PA, exploitation appears in every major economic boom: from strip logging that took place over the last part of the 19th and early 20th century and to present, the coal mining that leaves our rivers and streams toxic and lifeless due to acid mine runoff, the policies that exterminated or forced native peoples to relocate, and the current fracking industry. These actions are concerned with only one thing–the bottom line, the profit, the question of how much can be extracted from the land and its people. I think that exploitation is now so ingrained in our lifestyles, in our society, in our norms, that its not even seen as exploitation. I have started to look for land here, and listings say things like “18 acres, timber sold and to be cut, mineral rights sold” and I see it as the previous owner getting every bit he or she could get before selling the scrap of soil that remains. And this is a practice that is common, everyday, justified and perfectly acceptable.  One of the things I’m doing in this post is talking about these practices for what they are and giving them a name.


Passive Exploitation. Passive exploitation is when you are a participant and passive supporter without actually engaging in exploitation yourself.  In our society, that even if we aren’t making active exploitative decisions or the one at the chainsaw, we are still participating in passive exploitation of someone or something, very infrequently with our knowledge. This is where the lines get a bit grayer, but make no mistake–when you purchase a product, you purchase everything that goes along with that product.


ustainably raised Cacao for Chocolate Making in Costa Rica

Sustainably raised Cacao for Chocolate Making in Costa Rica

So, let’s look at a few examples. Let’s go back to my example of chocolate. Many mainstream companies that make that chocolate (Hershey, M&M/Mars, Godiva, etc) are exploiting child slaves in order to produce it. Imagine trying to offer that chocolate as an offering (which I wouldn’t suggest); imagine taking that energy of suffering within you.


Another example is clothing. You need to wear clothes; you need decent clothes if you are going to keep a good job. But all along the way, exploitation is occurring: the store where workers, often at minimum wage rates are being exploited; the farmers that grew the cotton; the land that suffered pesticides and poison in the act of growing, processing, and dying it; the factory workers who turned that raw cotton into your fabric and then later, your shirt; the people who packaged that shirt and prepared it for shipment (I worked in such a factory once, so I can speak about this experience firsthand), the list goes on and on.


Unfortunately, purchasing anything at the typical store opens us up for potential passive support of larger exploitative systems. Exploiters exploit the exploited and the exploited in turn exploit others, and down the chain it goes. And yet, you have to live, you have to eat, you have to work, and thinking about all the exploitation that’s happening for profit, and on your behalf, is overwhelming–read on, friends, and we’ll see how to rectify these issues.


Ethics and Eliminating Exploitation

Active exploitation is a problem, yes, but its usually a fairly obvious one that any discerning person can spot, especially if you are attuned and aware to these concepts. Passive exploitation is an entirely different matter–it is designed to be hidden. Thanks to the Internet, fewer things stay hidden these days–its all a matter in looking in the right places and being aware of issues. Exploitation of either variety creates a particular kind of nasty energy; when we purchase a product or support a practice that is exploitative in nature, that energy enters our lives. Think about that mass produced chocolate–you are literally eating the suffering of child slaves if you eat that typical chocolate bar.


The questions I have, then, are these: can we live in a system designed and consciously engaged in exploitation at almost every level without ourselves also exploiting others? Are there degrees of exploitation? Does unknowingly participating in exploitation make it less evil? These are tough questions, questions that each of us has to wrestle with ethically.


My ethics come out of permaculture design, as mentioned above, and they are simple and direct: people care, earth care, and fair share. For me, ignorance is not bliss–I believe I have an ethical obligation of knowing where a product comes from and how it is produced. This leads me in three directions. First, my ethical system encourages me to avoid even passive exploitation as much as is humanly possible, and knowledge is power, so I keep myself educated, change my consumptive behavior (by reducing it), I endeavor to keep very well informed on the products that typically exploit people or degrade the land (food, clothing, and electronics, for starters) and make sure that if I need to buy something, I’m buying the best thing I can. This practice also involves being hesitant and mindful in my purchasing decisions—I try to avoid “quick” purchases and instead dwell on it, research it, and give it time. This work doesn’t happen overnight–as always, I recommend small, conscious, meaningful, and permanent shifts slowly over time. Take one product you typically buy, research it carefully, make better choices, and rinse and repeat.


A second direction I take in response to exploitation of either variety involves stuff like this post–working to educate others consciously and compassionately. A lot of people just don’t know about what they are buying, and if they did, they’d be horrified. But there is no use guilt tripping anyone–we are all living in a very difficult period of time. We do the best we can, and what I try to do is to open up good spaces for conversation and growth.


A third direction I am taking is in my immediate community. Communities, as groups, can also respond to this system and the power of a small but committed group is often much greater than the power of a single individual. One of the things I’ve been working toward in my new town over the last four or so months is starting a community owned food co-op–this will allow us, as a community, to have much better control over the products we buy and where they are sourced. Even if we aren’t successful in starting our co-op (I hope we will be), the conversations, group interaction, community education, and establishment of ethical principles is worth its weight in gold. We are meeting tomorrow night, and when I look at our set of principles, I am filled with hope and joy–they are nurturing principles that seek alternatives and a firmly democratic process.


Nurturing as a Lifestyle and Spiritual Ethic

Druid's Prayer for Peace Painting (original version)

Druid’s Prayer for Peace Painting (original version)

This is leading me towards suggesting that much of what we can do to live regeneratively and wholly is to think not just about what we do on a daily basis, but what we support–this isn’t a new idea of course, but its one that is still not very mainstream.


These two mindsets are not mutually exclusive; Berry argues that each of us the capacity for both mindsets and they are often conflict with one another, especially living in industrialized societies. In my various studies, both magical and rhetorical, I’ve been taught to stay away from binary thinking–binaries can lock us into false pathways, make it seem like only two options exist, when many more do. And while I don’t necessarily see this as a false binary, in the sense that you are either are a nurturer or an exploiter, I think that there are degrees of exploitation vs. nurturing based on each practice, or a continuum that we all sit upon. There’s also degrees of conscientiousness–I may do my best to be a nurturer and support nurturing products and practices (or cut out the consumption all together) but there are times when choices are limited, finances are limited, or other issues are present and I’m forced to buy or participate in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. Even if that’s the case, there are still things we can do, like writing letters, activism, and encouraging better ethical practices, raising awareness, sharing with others…there’s a lot you can do even if you are forced to purchase something you disagree with due to finances, lack of options, or otherwise.


At this point, even if you can’t make any physical changes, I do advocate for putting yourself in a nurturing mindset and beginning to see this as part of a spiritual ethic. The mind is an extremely powerful tool. Seeing ourselves as nurturers helps us be nurturers, even if those changes are slow.  It allows us to be in the right mindset to seize opportunity (like, say, my experiences with the food co-op). I’m not saying we can, or should, passively think this way forever, but its a very powerful start.


I also see the concept of the nurturer as one that is really accessible to many, and appealing to many, who follow earth-based spiritual paths. We want to help and heal, and a lot of us just aren’t sure how to start walking down that path. Given this, I’d like to conclude by thinking about the role of the nurturer with a specific modification to a prayer that many druids say–the Druid’s Prayer for Peace. This is a prayer developed by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD); members of the order, including myself, often say this prayer every day. But years ago, I decided that it wasn’t quite working for me because it didn’t fit the permaculture ethical system quite enough and it while it started to embrace the role of nurturer, it didn’t take it far enough. So I made some modifications. The original prayer goes like this:

Deep within the still center of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.

My modified version reminds me of importance of peace to all life and cultivating a nurturing mindset:

Deep within the still center of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the grove
May I share peace.
Gently within the greater circle of all life
May I radiate peace.

What I like about this simple everyday prayer, is that it reminds me that my spiritual path, Druidry, is a path of peace, of care, and of nurturing.

Understanding the Interplay between the Specialist and Generalist for Sustainable Action

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, has a great deal to say about the rise of the modern “specialist” in his Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. (This book, by the way, is one of the most influential books on my thinking and action and is well worth the read). Berry argues that specialization is part of what has made the shift in our food system from a broad network small family farms to centralized agribusiness and has precipitated some of the cultural challenges we face.  Specialists, he argues, don’t do much of anything other than their specialty (so bankers can only bank, hair stylists only style hair, tax preparers only prepare taxes). He argues that as we become more specialized, we depend on specialists for everything outside of our specialty: food specialists raise our food, health specialists keep us healthy, mental health specialists keep us sane, housing specialists build our homes, lawn care specialists tend our lawns, and so on and so forth. So, more broadly, specialization has created a society where we literally depend on someone else for everything and fail to take care of or even attempt to address our own needs.  And this is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Berry argues that generalization allows us to be more sufficient, think in a broader manner, and develop better relationships in our communities and with our land.


Natural Building in our Community - One great set of skills for a homesteader to know!

Natural Building in our Community – One great set of skills for a homesteader to know!

I think there is a great deal of truth in what Berry says, and I’d like take Berry’s original concepts and complicate them a bit.  That is, I’d like to argue that that while we can certainly be specialists and some specialization is needed, to build sustainable and stable communities we need to balance specialization with generalist thinking and being able to work in multiple modalities. Focusing on working in multiple modes and embracing this generalist mindset allows us a great deal more independence and resiliency, which is part of the core shifts towards sustainability in thought and in action. To demonstrate this balance, I’ll use myself as an example of someone who is both a specialist and a generalist. I’ll also tie these modes of thinking and action to sustainability and permaculture design.


The  Super-Specialized Specialist.  I am an highly trained specialist in my profession (I am a university writing and rhetoric professor), and so I can speak direct experience and clarity about the specialization, how one becomes specialized, benefits, and drawbacks. From the ages of 18-28, I completed 10 years of higher education (including completing my B.A, M.A., and Ph.D.). For the first four years, I studied my specialty but also was exposed to a general education curriculum (which was a very good thing!) When I went to graduate school, I was trained only in my specialty. I breathed, ate and slept my specialty in the order of 80-100 hours a week to graduate and join my profession.  And truthfully, I really enjoyed the immersive study of it, the focus, the determination and dedication it took to see it through. Since that time, order to get tenure at my university (which I just earned about 3 months ago), I again engaged in my specialty extensively through teaching, research, and service. This means for my entire adult life (I’m now 33), in every working hour, I have lived my specialty, dedicated my life to my specialty. This is the nature of training to be a a specialist, at least in higher education–you embody that specialty to the point where the specialty IS your identity. I even carry my specialty in my title and people address me as “doctor” rather than “Ms.”  If I wasn’t so spiritually and physically dedicated to what I’m doing with the rest of my life with regards to sustainable and spiritual practice, I probably wouldn’t do a heck of a lot else.


Candlemaking - another great skill!

Candlemaking – another great skill!

Specialization certainly has its benefits–at least in the realm of higher education, specialization allows us to build knowledge by working intensively on a very small focused area, in conversation and collaboration with few others who are also working on that small area.  This is one way of learning things that are of benefit to our culture and world–but by no means the only way in which we can learn.  Some of the benefits of specialization are as follows:


1) Specialization helps build human knowledge, approaches, and understanding. There is a world out there full of things to know and things to respond to, but no one person can hope to understand all of it.  Specialists, with their intensive training, can build knowledge in ways that non-specialists cannot (they also suffer from issues with regards to seeing things only from their specialization, but that’s covered below).


2) Specialization helps us accomplish complex tasks. If I want to put a solar water system in my house, I am going to learn a lot about how to do that–but I would love to talk to someone who has done it, a lot, and make sure I’m doing it right.  If someone wants to write a grant or wants to learn about how to write more effectively, they talk to me.


3) Specialization can teach critical skills.  I am grateful to my specialization for teaching me a variety of useful skills, such as how to write well, empirical research methods, how to engage in critical thinking, how to focus, and so on.  The intensive nature of specialization training gives one tools that can be of great use in other areas (if one can see that training as use beyond the specialty).  Even on this blog, you get some hints of my specialization in posts like this, this, or this.


In sum, there certainly is a place for specialty in our world.  But at the same time, specialization has its serious downfalls and problems. Here are some of the problems of specialization as I’ve experienced them:


1) First, my perspective is mainly one of my discipline, which asks particular kinds of questions and uses particular kinds of methods in order to enact understanding (Thomas Kuhn had a great deal to say about this in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) Working in a highly specialized field can encourage a myopic view of the world.  I have found this to be the case with many specialists (and not just those who work in higher education).  For example, a neurologist sees all problems stemming from the brain, a dietician sees all issues related to diet, and so on.  While a myopic view might not be as culturally problematic in a discipline like mine (where I spend a lot of time thinking about how written language is enacted in the world) a specialization in making money leads to only thinking about making money and making decisions where the most money is made at the expense of all else. And that, my friends, is part of what has led us to where we now find ourselves as a culture.


2) Second, while I came out of my training exceedingly good at my specialty, it was literally all that I knew how to do when I left. Part of this is that intensive training is the only way to be a specialist, but part of this was that intensive training was  all I had time to do.  Again, this does not encourage a broad perspective nor, frankly, a balanced individual.


3) Third, the demands of specialization continue, even long after one’s formal education is complete.  After finishing my training, I entered the profession, and dedicated just as much time to being a member, learning how to be effective, making various contributions, and so on. I think many specialists find this to be true–a work week well and above 40 hours is demanded to participate in the specialty, which leads to less time for everything else, such as spiritual or sustainable practice.


4) While specialization provides a great deal of depth, it lacks any sense of breadth in most cases.  I don’t think that many specialists would disagree with this, even if saying it aloud might make them uncomfortable.


5) A lot of specialties we have today have nothing to do with providing for basic human needs, tending the land, ensuring a rich cultural tradition, and so on.  They are there only to make money, or their specializations have become so intertwined with money and corruption, any original intentions or benefits to society or the land are lost.  I think this is a sad truth that we also have to face.

Papermaking as another specialization

Papermaking as another great skill!

So now that I’ve examined some of the benefits and challenges of specialization, I’d like to turn to Berry’s second mode of thinking and action: the generalist.


Working in Multiple Modes: The Generalist

Wendell Berry argues that the opposite of the specialist is the generalist–the person who isn’t highly specialized, but rather, has a little bit of knowledge about a wide array of subjects.  He argues that small family farmers, by design, have to be generalists-they have to know a bit about soil ecology, meterorology, genetics, marketing, geology, and much more. There are a lot of benefits to generalization: seeing and interacting with the world in a multiplicity of ways, being good at a number of things, being flexible and adaptable. Take a look around any farmer’s market–you can spot the family farms with their dozens of products. I visited one such market this past week while visiting Washington DC (for a specialist conference): there were specialists at the market, like the cheese maker or the bread baker. But many family farms had a large assortment of products: handcrafted jams, mustards, maple sugar, honey, vegetables, scones, baskets, and more.  I have found that in doing homesteading, sustainable living, permaculture design, and so on, a generalist mindset is hugely beneficial.  Now a small family farmer might respond and say, “But I’m a farming specialist”; I think the difference here is that to be an effective farmer, one doesn’t just have to know one field–farming is inherently interdisciplinary and requires a broad set of skills to be effective.  This is especially true when one examines the difference between the kinds of work that takes place on a large industrial farm vs. a small family farm (which Berry would argue is the difference between specialization and generalization).


Farmer's market booth - Soda and Sundries is inherently generalized :P

Farmer’s market booth – Soda and Sundries is inherently generalized 😛

One way of thinking about generalization is the idea of working in multiple modalities. A “modality” is a particularly way of working, sensing, and/or inhabiting the world–it derives from the word “mode.” The term derives from the latin modus, which is where we get the Latin term still used frequently today in a limited context:  modus operandi, or a method or working. There are other ways of thinking about the multitude of ways that we can work in/sense/inhabit the world–we might think about lenses through which we see and experience things.  The 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke talked about this as a “terministic screen” – the screen, aided by language, is the screen through which we view reality.  And I think that ways of seeing and ways of action are linked and, really, inseparable.  If we see the world through an artist’s lens, we see everything as inspiration for painting or sculpture.  A real estate agent will look at the value of the properties on that street; a chef might note the variety of restaurants, a construction worker the spaces in disrepair, and so on.  Regardless of how you want to theoretically frame the idea of the modality or generalist way of being–it is a powerful thing to realize. One of the things I’ve been practicing is shifting my viewpoint often and integrating viewpoints: if I am standing on a city street, how do I see that street as an artist? as a writing professor? As a permaculturalist? As a druid?  And then, I say, can I see it as all of those things at once?


This blog is a great example of a generalist approach in working to achieve sustainable and spiritual practice.  It has a few larger categories under which I lump things: druidry, the practice of a nature-based spirituality and lifepath; sustainability, the emphasis on living in a way that preserves the land for all life; and permaculture, a design system that allows us to use resources more effectively and honor life. Everything that I write about or share here has something to do with one of those things, often all of them (even the above posts can’t disentangle one from another). The sub-categories of this blog are wide ranging indeed–from raising chickens to fermentation, from magical tinctures to seasonal celebrations and rituals, from herbalism to natural dyes, papers and artwork. I also spend a good deal of time thinking about philosophical and political issues , ones that impact sustainable and spiritual practices.  My coverage of any of these issues, say beekeeping, isn’t as thorough as other blogs or writers who have chosen to specialize (for example, my favorite bee blog is the Honey Bee Suite which is a specialized blog about beekeeping).  But what I can say is that you’ll be able to learn a little bit about a wide range of things, and for the kind of lifestyle I’m striving for, that’s super useful.
Each day, I work to find a balance (there’s another druidic concept) between being a specialist and finding time for my spiritual path, to reskill and learn and enact various sustainable practices.  I think many of us, even those working highly specialized jobs, can still find time to build more generalist understandings that can greatly benefit sustainable practices and our work in the world.   I’ve found that my work as a specialist is enriched by learning to think like a generalist–and this too, is an added benefit.

Finding a Balance

Finding a Balance

Generalist Thinking and Multiple Modalities as a Response to Our Predicament

I’ll conclude with a bit of a broader note towards the issues of specialization and generalization by addressing the broader picture.  One of the things John Michael Greer says, and its worth noting here, is that humanity has gotten itself into a predicament. This predicament is concerning human’s use and abuse of the land and uncontrolled growth, which has lead to climate change, peak oil, resource depletion, loss of resources, mass extinctions, and much more. Greer argues that this is not a problem in the traditional sense: problems have clear solutions and can be solved, predicaments do not. Responding to predicaments don’t make the predicament go away, responses  just give us some means of dealing with our predicament. And like the complexity of the predicament we face, using multiple modalities and generalist thinking is going to give us a wider set of responses.  I don’t think that any one specialized field or area is going to solve the predicament (it can’t be solved) but we can work to respond in many ways…and those responses can help ourselves, our communities, and our world.