The Druid's Garden

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

Coming Home July 16, 2017

Rocky shore of Maine at sunrise

Rocky shore of Maine at sunrise

My heart sings as I look out upon rocky shores where the clean waters meet the rising sun. I watch as the waves crash upon the bladderwrack-encrusted stones. Further inland, the land is vibrant, wild, and beautiful. The rivers and brooks rejoice as they cascade down from the mountains. The stones covered with lichen and mosses dripping with the recent rain. The lakes are so clear you can see 40 feet down. Visiting such pristine places are like a balm for my weary and tired druid heart. And yet, these wild places are not my home. The rocky coast of Maine is not the land of my blood and birth. Despite the singing in my soul, the healing and energy pouring into me from this beautiful landscape, I know I’m not home.

 

On my train trip back to Western Pennsylvania, my spirit grows heavy. I know that an invisible line exists between the states further north and my own state. In large parts Pennsylvania, including where I live, the land is far from pristine. Due to its richness in natural resources and lax environmental policy, it has been polluted, fracked, sprayed, and poisoned. This is an all-too familiar story for many such resource-rich places around the globe.

 

I know that once, that the Allegheny mountains sang in a way that the land still sings in the more remote and wild places I had just visited. Many centuries from now, it is likely that the Allegheny mountains will sing again after nature and humanity have done the necessary healing work. I have witnessed the potential of such healing in secret places, hidden places, places like an old growth Hemlock Grove that somehow was spared the destruction that ravaged these lands in the name of progress. I have also witnessed it in the regrowth of logged forests closer and dear to my heart.

 

However, knowing that nature can heal from widespread ecological destruction at a future point doesn’t change what I feel now, heavy. My heart is torn in two directions: both excited to be welcomed home by my beloved mountains and saddened to once again take up the burden of witnessing and living in these times. As the train rounds the famous Horseshoe curve outside of Altoona, I see new strip mines and logged areas appear since the last time I took the train several months ago. As the train nears my final destination of Johnstown, I feel the weight of the ongoing ecological destruction of my own home lands returning in full force. I am at ground zero: the extraction zone. This term that was told to me by residents of my area, friends who were working in envornmental activism for many years. It is, unfortunately, a fitting one. This is a place where the sacredness of nature is so far from the human mind, in part, due to the economic harsh realities.

 

Solastalgia is a term coined by Albreight et. al. that refers to the psychological distress caused by environmental damage. And the term fits well: there is a general distress (that is, depression, melancholia, powerlessness, hopelessness) that people sense when they see the environment around them being damaged, when they lose their sense of “home” because the “home” they knew is no longer there. The environment has been altered and damaged so much that it seems like an entirely different place, or the home site itself is gone due to mountaintop removal, strip mining or other tragedy. For someone who follows a path of nature spirituality and views the land as sacred, solastalgia isn’t just a psychological thing; it is a spiritual dilemma. One cannot only physically see the suffering of the land to experience solistalgia, but one can experience this energetically. It would be akin, perhaps, to someone burning down one’s church or mosque—an utter disregard for the sacredness and sanctity of life. A number of fellow druids who have visited me from other parts of the country have remarked on the “deadness” that is present here in what we call the telluric currents, that is, in the patterns of energy that run deeply within the land. This land’s deadness, from the many extraction activities, is particularly hard to those sensitive to such patterns. But I think, maybe on a semi-conscious level, the land is also hard on those who don’t have such sensitivities. There is a general “run-down” nature of folks around here, and it stems from many things, but I think this is one of them.

 

I grieve what has happened to these lands, but I don’t blame the people here who have sold their mineral rights or timber rights to prospectors in order to feed their families. Most who grew up in this region share a similar cultural ancestry—people who settled here did so because work was plentiful in an expanding industrialized economy that demanded timber, coal, and steel. I drive past the abandoned Bethlehem Steel Mills where my grandfathers worked. I drive past the old mines in the Alleghney ridges where my great grandfathers mined coal. They stripped the local forests bare to create support beams to keep the mine from caving in so they could go home to their families safely each day. This is where the old growth forests went. A century later, these minds, long abandoned, still pour acidic water into the streams, polluting them for hundreds of miles. The stripping and pillaging of this land, too, is part of my own ancestral heritage.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

On my drive back from the train station, I lose count of how many conventional and deep injection/fracking wells I see. They dot the countryside, showing up in nearly every field and forest along the way. These wells are not only on private lands, but also on public lands, and so even a hike on a public trail puts you in close contact with them–there really is no escaping it. With a heavy heart, I think about the plans I and some friends have been making to possibly start an intentional community. It is devastating to be looking for land for a new home and see property after property with fracking wells, stinking of gas and toxins, pipes from each well under the skin of the earth. No mineral rights, they say. No timber rights, they say. The rights to these things long ago sold separate from the land, so land here is only for the surface and sometimes, even that has been sold as timber rights. After looking at everything available for the last few months, I’m not sure such a clean “refuge” exists. But maybe I will yet be surprised.

 

I say to myself: how could I live here and not be drained? How could I live here and not feel weary? How could I live here and not need a refuge? The solastalgia is certainly present, and acknowledging that and engaging in good self-care is certainly necessary.

 

But other questions, arise, as well. How could I live anywhere else when this is my home? How could I abandon this land when it has never abandoned me?  How could I leave when my own ancestors contributed to what is happening at present? I am not a powerless victim here. None of us are. We fight the hopelessness and despair with tools, knowledge, and spirituality. My path of druidry offers me tools to energetically heal the land and support my own self care. My knowledge as a permaculture designer gives me the tools to engage in physical healing and regeneration of the land.  I have everything I need to care for myself and for this land.

 

And so, as I round the last bend and come into the valley where Indiana, PA rests, I feel a growing sense of clarity, purpose, and vision. I might not be here forever, but I am here now, and I will continue to learn how to best respond and heal the land. I drive past the farm where I and some friends have been putting in a garden rooted in permaculture principles and hosting events. I drive past the community garden, a source of much light and activity in this community. I see a sign for an upcoming natural health fair. I think about our permaculture guild meeting this month, and the plant walks I’ll be hosting that will be full of people wanting to reconnect with nature. And my heart gets lighter.

 

And so, I must grow where I’m planted. Not wishing to be somewhere else, some distant rocky shore where the land is pristine and beautiful, not allowing the solistalgia to creep within my bones and lodge deeply in my heart. The pristine lands I visited were well loved, and that land has no need of someone with my knowledge and skills. But rather, I must be rooted in my own own heritage, be rooted in the lands where I live, be connected with my people who have done what was necessary to survive.

 

Hope

Hope

I can feel the blood of my ancestors flowing within me. They, too, know that it is time for this land to heal. They, too, knew the sadness of the crash of the ancient hemlocks, hickories, and pines. They, too, saw the tears of the river flowing as pollution made it too acidic to fish.  They planted apple trees and hoped for a better tomorrow. They too, wanted a better life for their children, and their children’s children, where black lung didn’t take them early and where they didn’t die of poisioning from the mills. Their spirits are here, in these lands, looking to set things right.

 

To those who are saddened by the deadness of the telluric currents and the raw destruction of the land present in this place and in so many other places, I say “go deeper.” To myself, in my tired and weary state, I say, “go deeper.” The magic of nature is still here, even if it is more hidden, more quiet, more still.  It waits. It has all the time in the world to wait. It is like the lichen, who can survive 100% desiccation. Lichen can literally survive the vacuum of space, being buried in a crypt for 500 years, living in the harshest and coldest places on earth, and yet still thrive when exposed to water and light. The lichen teach a powerful lesson of hope, of patience, and of nature’s incredible ability to heal all.

 

I, and others here, are finding ways to live, in the words of Wendell Berry, in this ruined place, renewing it, and enriching it. So that someday, the rivers will run clear as we will never know them, and someday, families will be singing in the fields while healthy forests once again stand. So that someday, this place will be sacred to all of those who live here again. The words of Wendell Berry resonate like an anthem deep within me. I realize there is still more work to do. The blood of my ancestors flowing within me, the land of my birth around me, the hope of a brighter future in front of me, I ready myself for the journey ahead.

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The Druid’s Prayer for Peace: Shifting from Exploitation to Nurturing as a Spiritual Practice November 10, 2015

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.

 

Nurturing

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.

 

Exploitation

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.

 

The Work of Regeneration: Taking a Stand on Your Land September 9, 2015

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

As I write these words, I look out my window at at rounded, weathered, Appalachian mountain, topped with trees, rising up from behind the houses in my small town. This mountain, and the many others in Western PA, are part of my blood–the nutrients that came from these soils are what built the very structures of my bones. These mountains are where my ancestors walked and toiled; generations and generations of them, going back two centuries (which is quite a long time for the USA) and in one particular family lineage, much much longer. And now, finally, after most of my adult life away, I have returned home. The funny thing is, Western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a place people are moving to, and in fact, its a place many are running from. The mountain that stands north of my small Pennsylvania town is a nature preserve–and yet, at least a dozen cleared locations, many fracking wells are present there, even in the wild spaces. Heck, the community garden has a well sitting less than 30 feet from the vegetable patches in this town, if that give you a sense of things. These wells are just the newest iteration of the long-abused land’s history: from the logging industry that nearly wiped Pennsylvania’s forests out a century ago to the mining industry who left their toxic mountain-size piles of coal waste and whose long-abandoned mines continue to pollute our streams, to the farmer’s fields that are now so toxic that even the plants on the edges of the roads cease to grow there–it seems there is no end to the toll that this land takes on behalf of the natural resource demands of industry and humanity.

 

Because of the environmental issues present in PA, I think that some question my move–why did I return to a place with such active fracking and other environmental challenges? Why, especially when more and more stories each day show the seriousness and destructiveness of the practice and the toll on both human life and nature? Why would I endanger myself in that way, when I could have stayed where I was or found another job I would enjoy somewhere else? It is for a simple reason–this is my land and I was called home.

 

Two months ago, I spent time in New England while I was doing my permaculture design certificate. On my journey there, I stopped in Western New York, at an amazing organic vegetable farm. I had lunch with the farmers, and we spoke of their land and the work they were doing. They revealed that many people were flocking from Pennsylvania to New York to escape fracking, selling their homesteads and farms and starting anew. In a second visit on my trip to New Hampshire, I spent time with a group who was working hard to prevent a natural gas pipeline and compressor station going into their community. When plans for the compressor station were revealed, a number of houses immediately went up for sale on the market, and others I spoke with said that they would be leaving for certain if the station went in.

 

These issues are hardly unique-the Amish in Ohio and Illinois, who are cashing in and getting out due to the disruption of their lives. I’ve seen firsthand the oil boom in North Dakota and what it did to the communities there. I think about recent reports of horrible environmental devastation in China and those who are helpless just to live in the pollution. The list could go on and on. When I think about stories from around the world, I can’t help but wonder what percent of humans today are facing the issue of living in environmentally degraded land and witnessing, firsthand, that devastation. When we see our lands degraded, or even threatened with such acts (as in the community I describe above), I think one of the big questions to ask is–If I have the capacity leave the environmental destruction where I live now, can I go somewhere that’s better? Or, as in my case, am I willing to move into an area with known environmental destruction?

 

Better than here? Really?

Better than here? Really?

I don’t think the answer to these questions are simple–not for anyone who faces them. And unfortunately, more and more people ARE facing the harsh reality of environmental devastation at their doorstep. So let’s break down the issues that contribute to how we can better answer these questions if/when the need arises:

 

First, there is the privilege of being able to leave, which very few actually have. For as many humans as may have the privilege to leave, there are many more humans and others who are forced to stay whether or not they want to. Just as importantly, the land does not have the privilege of leaving; the trees are rooted where they are, the streams ebb and flow in their valleys, the plants grow each year in the soil, and all of the land is exactly where it is. What happens to everything and everyone else when you leave? They are still there.

 

Second, there is the matter of humans’ existing displacement and a lack of connection to the land we are on. Many people that are alive today, at least in the USA, have decided or been forced to move elsewhere and may already have been displaced 4 or 5 times from the land of their birth. So we also have the issue of living on land that doesn’t resonate with us in the way that our birth lands do. This is not to say that we don’t care about the lands where we end up living–we very much do. But they don’t always feel like “home” and when they aren’t home, its easier to leave them. This problem isn’t a new one. For a long time, people have being displaced from their birth land and with that displacement comes distance–and most importantly, less care and concern. Many modern thinkers (Wendell Berry and John Michael Greer come to mind) have posited that the goals of industrialization were to mechanize labor, to essentially replace people with machines, to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and to displace people from their land. And it worked–people flocked to cities for work, and slowly, farmers left or were forced from their farms and those farms were mechanized so many less people were needed to live there and work there.  You treat land differently if you think you’ll be on it your whole life, and you’ll pass it onto your children, and your children’s children.  The land is not a commodity–its part of the family. Today, we are at an all-time high for people being disconnected from their land–and part of it has to do with these displacements.

 

Third is the issue of scale. To me, the most important question for those thinking of leaving land that is under threat or actively polluted is simply “How do you know that where you are moving to, in the long term, is going to fare any better?” Part of the issue we face is that climate change and environmental degradation are not local problems. They may manifest differently in local settings, but ultimately, they are a problem on a global scale. Everywhere you live, everywhere you go has something that is harming you and the land; some resource that someone wants to extract, some existing toxins, or some factory or plant producing something. This might be mining, mountaintop removal, acid rain, city pollution and smog, oil extraction, gas fracking, oil pipelines, various industries and abandoned industries, polluted waterways and oceans, Superfund sites, polluted soil, illegal dumping, an unexpected environmental disaster, and so on. Look at the effects of extracting fossil fuel energy–on this continent, at least, we have all sorts of issues that span every state and challenge so many: pipelines, fracking, oil spills, oil wells, offshore drilling, power plants, coal veins and acid mine runoff, and many others.  I point to North Dakota as a good  example–when I first visited it over 10 years ago, it was a beautiful, serene, and very unpolluted place to be.  Now? Its one of the fracking capitals of the USA, and everything is different about it. Could the North Dakotans ever have imagined this radical change over such a short period? I think not. The truth is, that all of us, on a global scale, are facing environmental degradation, likely of multiple kinds and likely over a period of our lives. I’m not convinced that moving anywhere “special” solves the problem–you move away from one thing and move toward something else. I left region plagued with oil pipelines and a lot of leftover toxicity in the soil because of industry and went to a region with acid mine runoff, boney dumps, and fracking. Both have their challenges–and the truth is, anywhere I would move will have its challenges, and things like climate change are affecting us all with increasing intensity.

 

And so, we come to the precipice and stand on its edge. Behind us, the lands we know and love, being ravaged by something we cannot stop. We maybe have tried, and failed to stop it, or we have learned about it to late to stop it.  Before us lay, potentially, options of moving somewhere new, somewhere “better”? Do we stay? Do we bear witness? Do we hold space for this land and share in its fate? Do we leave? Do we even have a choice?

 

If a choice is available–the choice is for each individual to make.

 

I’ll share mine: I specifically chose to come back to this very environmentally challenged region because it is the land of my blood and my birth. I was honored that I was able to have the opportunity to choose to come–and I took it.

 

If I don’t stand for this land, if I don’t hold space for it, if I don’t understand the long history here of humanity’s pillaging of natural resources, if I don’t begin the process of energetic healing and regeneration–who will? We all have choices to make each day and each moment.  How we spend our time is particularly critical in a time when our world is hanging on the precipice of so much change–how the world is shaped in the years to come, is largely based on the actions of each of us, today.

 

A healthy ecosystem!

A healthy ecosystem!

People write to me a lot on this blog, and one of the questions I frequently get asked is: how do you develop a deep and spiritual relationship with the land?  My response is this: go where you are needed most. Find the most degraded place you can find, a place that really needs you and the healing that you–and possibly only you–can provide. And take a stand on your land. Love that land. Do the healing work there, on the soil, on the rivers, on the waters. Fret not about what you can or can’t accomplish, just do everything that you can. Learn, grow, listen, use your intuition. Mimic the patterns of nature, bring abundance and biodiversity back. Do what it takes. Work with the soil. Understand the soil. Understand everything you can about that land and what is growing there. And most importantly: commit to staying. Our lands need us, to be there, to be present, to do something, even if that something is small. Take a page from the Native Tribes on this continent, so many who see no difference between their identity and their land: they–and their lands–cannot be bought for any price.

 

To me, this is where the path of of my nature spirituality lies–in really making a commitment to be in and with the land, to understand it, to teach others about it, to heal and regenerate it. Nature is not there just for my benefit–its not there just because I want to have a special relationship with some trees or walk into the forest and be healed. It is not there to please me. Nature gives so much to me, but I believe I must have a relationship with it in order to create a deep spiritual connection. Relationship, by its very nature, implies a give and take. If I want to walk in that forest, or walk up to that tree, and really connect with it, I must treat that forest like any other family member–and when that family member is in need, I must recognize that need, hold space, and be willing to help as I can. I must realize that my actions, each of them, can be sacred actions in communion with that place.

 

One of my favorite poets and writers is Wendell Berry. A man well ahead of his time, he has been writing about the ramifications of industrialized agriculture long before any others–and he continues to hold a sacred vision of a different kind of relationship with the land. His poem, called “Work Song, Part II: A Vision” deeply inspired my post this week. I close by sharing it here, in its entirety:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are gone
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, a new forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

– Wendell Berry

 

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part II: Places to Gather, Ethical Harvesting, Avoiding Pollution, and Foraging as Spiritual Practice January 25, 2015

This is my second in a two-part series on how to wildcraft and forage successfully. The first post dealt with supplies for foraging, resources and how to learn the skills, and understanding timing. This post will talk about places to gather, avoiding contaminants in the landscape, the ethics of harvesting, and the spiritual side to foraging and wildcrafting.

 

Where You Gather: Kinds of Property

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wildcrafting obviously requires you to go out into the land and find what you need. There are different kinds of places you can go—your own backyard/land, parks, abandoned lots, friends’ land, and so on. Each location has some benefits and as you start wildcrafting and foraging, you will find your own spots that you will return to again and again and again. Here are some of the kinds of places that I go:

 

My own land. Since I know it best and am out there every day, I can observe the changing landscape as the seasons pass. I know the history of the land, I know how much of a particular plant is usually in season, and I can know how much to ethically take since I’m the only one taking. So obviously, if you have your own land, this is a wonderful place to harvest. A lot of people don’t have access to some acreage, however, and this leads us to….

 

Friends/Neighbors/Family Private land. If you can’t harvest on your own land, or don’t have your own land, finding other private land (such as that of friends, family, or neighbors) you can harvest from is really a great thing. You can ask them about the land’s history; you can harvest without anyone else around, you can know just how much to take, and you can share the joy and abundance of the harvest with others. I have found that if I approach a friend or neighbor about wildcrafting from their land, they are often not only willing to let me onto their property but also interested in learning more (and yes, this often even works with complete strangers!) This creates a space to teach them about the sacred medicine of their own landscape, which only deepens their appreciation for the land. I have also found that for those who already value their land, they love it when you appreciate and value it also. For example, there is a spot I harvest cattails from along a road for making paper each spring, and a couple walking there had the land across the street. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them, and they invited me into their property. I was not only able to gather more cattails there, but also found a bunch of recently dropped willow branches to make a basket and some cattail shoots for making a nice stir fry. They were excited to learn about their property and invited me to come back anytime. I’m reminded here of my 85 year old neighbor who has an 80-acre farm; we tap trees, harvest apples, forage for herbs and berries, and so much more there—and he’s so happy that someone else values it.Of course, one does need to be careful of who one asks—some people just don’t want others on their property. There also might be a gender bias in this—my good friend, who I harvest with often, says that people are much more likely to say yes to me than to him alone (he has long hair and a beard and maybe he looks a little unscrupulous).

 

Public lands. Not that long ago, the idea of a “common” land (or “the commons”) was quite a strong one. However, in the 20th century that idea largely shifted and now the emphasis is on pristine preservation (Wendell Berry discusses this concept much further in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture). The idea is that the land will be soiled if someone takes something from it—and this is true, in a manner of speaking, because few people today know how to harvest and take ethically. Yet these intensive obsessions with pristine preservation sit side by side with the push to sell of public lands, to allow logging, mineral rights, fracking, and more. These are all products of industrialization–the disconnection of people with the land, the commodification of goods and wealth into the hands of the few. So when one enters public land, one needs to be aware of the laws surrounding that land. If you are to take nothing, take nothing. A lot of state and local parks have this kind of arrangement–do not take anything. However, most state game lands function more like the old commons—you can limited amounts of game, you can cut limited amounts of fire wood, you can pick mushrooms, and so on—and they are great places to wildcraft. Many local parks, likewise, have no laws against harvesting. However, to be an ethical harvester you do need to be aware of overharvesting, of chemicals, the lands history, and so on.

 

Secret harvest spot

Secret harvest spot

Where You Gather: Kinds of Ecosystems

In addition to the kinds of property that you are gathering from, you also want to think carefully about what ecosystems you will be gathering from. For example, a swamp or marsh is simply going to have a different ecosystem and plants than a deep secluded forest or an abandoned farm field. This is why I mentioned I have several “spots” that I like to go to–many of them with multiple ecosystems. Another thing to think about, stemming from permaculture design, is the understanding the value of the edges and margins. That is, the edge where the forest meets a field is often a very rich and diverse ecosystem.

 

Here is just a short list of where I find what plants that I gather to give you a sense of this:

  • Edge of Pond/Lake/Near Water: blueberries (in a bog); highbush cranberries (edge of a bog); horsetail (medicinal, edge of lake where there is a sandy soil), beach plums (beach on great lakes), cattail (edge of pond, swampy areas), boneset (edge of water, medicinal), marshmallow (edge of water, medicinal), joe-pye weed (in shade or swamp, medicinal)
  • Edge of Forest: black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries (all edibles), mulberry trees (edible), stinging nettles (edible and medicinal), staghorn sumac (medicinal; also good for smoking blends), autumn olive (edible), violets (edible, medicinal), poke (medicinal, great dye plant), dryad’s saddle mushrooms (edible),
  • Deep in the Forest: black birch (medicinal); chicken of the woods mushroom (edible), reishi mushroom (medicinal), blueberries (bush style, edible), maple sap (edible), acorns (edible), hen of the woods mushroom (medicinal/edible), stoneroot (medicinal), mayapple (edge of forest, edible), ramps (edible, over-harvested so only gather if they are abundant)
  • Fields/Wastelands: St. John’s Wort (medicinal), goldenrod (medicinal), milkweed (edible), yarrow (medicinal), scrub red pine trees (resin for incense making), blackberries (edible), elderberries (medicinal/edible), new england aster (medicinal), dandelion (medicinal/edible), burdock (medicinal/edible)
  • In the Suburbs/Landscapes: walnut (edible, medicinal), serviceberry (edible), various crabapples (edible), various other crab fruit trees planted as decorative (edible), eastern white cedar (often planted as an ornamental; medicinal and for smudges); plantain (medicinal, be careful the lawn wasn’t sprayed)
Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Now I think the above categories are fairly self explanatory, all except the last one. The suburbs, the exerbs, the little strips of plant life along the strip mall, in the cities, etc., are typically NOT prime foraging grounds. Primarily this is because of pollution (see next section). However, people sometimes plant really nice trees there—various crab apples and serviceberries (and serviceberries are WELL worth finding and making into jam and baked goods). One of my favorite serviceberry spots is literally at the start of this posh subdivision, about 30′ back from the road. Another favorite serviceberry spot is in the parking lot of the library…you get the idea :). So while there are limited foraging to be done in the city and suburbs, fruit is one of your best bets. Tree fruits are also one of your best bets because trees are rarely sprayed where things on the ground, like plantain or dandelion, are usually heavily sprayed.

Toxins, Chemicals, and Pollution

If you are harvesting anything for internal use (medicine, edibles), you want to be aware of any chemical toxins in the landscape or area you are harvesting from. Toxins are not always easily to spot and can reside invisibly in the soil, so it takes some creative thinking and sleuthing to understand what may or may not be safe to eat.

 

Around houses and buildings. Soil near foundations of older houses and buildings often has lead because lead paint was used at one point and flaked off. You don’t generally want to harvest anything next to an older house that will be eaten (or plant anything, for that matter, that you are going to eat). Obviously any factory sites are really off limits for foraging.

 

In Swamps/Wetlands. Roots can often concentrate toxins and chemicals, and roots in swampy areas or lakes are particularly suspect.  Remember that plants like Cattail function as the cleansing plant for a water system–this means if there are toxins, they are going to be heavily concentrated in the cattail plant roots.  So, if you are harvesting roots or edibles, especially in swampy areas, look for the nearest body of water and see what is sitting upstream (like a polluting factory).  Even in what appears to be a pristine swamp or wetland, you might not realize that a factory 10 miles up the river is dumping into the waterways. Using maps (and especially online maps) is really helpful for this.  This is why I like to harvest catttails and other such roots and tubers from private lands that I have vetted well and from very small wetlands.

 

Pesticides, Herbicides, and other Sprays. There is also the issue of home and agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While most tree medicine is off the ground, I would not harvest anything on the ground a subdivision where everyone poisons their lawns with chemicals weekly. Likewise, I would not harvest too close to any industrialized, conventional agriculture (e.g. huge fields of corn or soybeans or other chemically-sprayed and GMO crops). These fields are covered in chemicals and those chemicals can easily drift to the surrounding landscape.  And this sometimes sucks, because the best stand of staghorn sumac I know is right in front of an industrialized agriculture soy/corn field.  Alas, that’s how it goes sometimes.

 

History of the Land. Its also really useful to know the history of the landscape. If there used to be a factory that is now abandoned and torn down, you may not want to harvest there.  This is actually one of the biggest impediments to urban farming in places like Detroit–so much of the land was poisoned with factories that people aren’t sure if its safe to grow in their soil.  Regardless, use your common sense and intuition to figure out where is safe to harvest.

 

The Ethics of Wildcrafting/Foraging: Taking and Giving Back

Ethics are another area of concern to the forager and wildcrafter.  Why?  Because in the last 150 years, humans have done a very good job at taking and taking and not a very good job of giving back.  And as I mentioned in part I of this series of posts, humans have largely lost our understanding of the ecosystem, knowing how to live in balance from the land.  Most of us live completely disconnected from it, and we haven’t developed an innate understanding of the land’s rhythms or ways.

 

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Understanding Abundance and Scarcity. One of the first things that important to understand from an ethical standpoint is the concepts of abundance and scarcity. There are, at times, great amounts of abundance in the landscape. There are also times of great scarcity (e.g. winter, less abundant seasons, droughts).  When things are abundant, we must remember that we are not the only ones who depend on that abundance and that whatever we take is being taken from others that may need it for sustenance. This is why I so strongly suggested in my first post that you begin learning how to forage or wildcraft by understand ecology.  Even if things are very abundant, you want to limit what you take.

 

How much to harvest: the 30% guideline. I use the 30% rule for most harvesting of non-endangered, very abundant, native plants. I generally will never take more than 30% of something that is in an area for one harvest (e.g. if there is an apple harvest, I will take no more than 30% of the apples). However, this rule is not a hard and fast one to be applied in all circumstances but rather a guideline. If a plant is not very abundant in the area, I might only harvest 5% or even less. Sometimes even a 10% harvest can do substantial harm to a plant that isn’t very abundant. For example, if I’m harvesting roots, depending on the plant, it might kill the plant, so harvesting roots is very different than harvesting berries (which are designed to be harvested). If I’m harvesting leaves, like nettle, I can harvest a few from each plant safely and leave the plants themselves intact (in fact, nettles can be bent down to the ground and then they will regrow new shoots you can harvest!) So I’m constantly thinking about the individual plant, what I’m harvesting, how resilient it is, and what I can do so to cause the least amount of disruption to an ecosystem. At the same time, some plants, like garlic mustard or autumn olive, can be harvested in greater abundance due to their current dominance in the landscape (I talked about my take on invasive species here). For these plants, I harvest all that I can. You can also think about seasonal harvesting–if its the end of the season and a big frost is on the horizon, you can safely harvest more than the usual 30% (especially if you are only harvesting leafy material, and not seeds or roots).

 

Leave spaces how you found them. Another ethical issue involves how you harvest–and here, the guideline is to leave areas as you found them. If you are digging roots, dig your roots, and then when you are done, put the soil back and scatter leaves on the forest floor. The idea is that you want to be as least as a disruption as possible on the landscape. This is true in general every time we enter an outdoor space, but its particularly useful when foraging or wildcrafting. The idea here is that we need to be mindful stewards of the land.

 

Help the Plants Along. Another method I use to engage in ethical harvesting is to help the plants I’m working with propagate themselves further. For example, if I want some young milkweed pods for eating (they are awesome, and you can treat them just like okra) then I will return later in the year to that spot and as the milkweed seeds are turning brown, I will scatter them carefully. This means that while I have taken limited pods to enjoy in my curry, I have returned to the spot to help the plant propagate. If I’m gathering berries, I may throw a handful of ripe ones into a new space to help them establish there (especially when nothing else is growing there). This not only pleases the plants but ensures future abundant harvests for all.

 

I think with each of these categories, the key is approaching the landscape with knowledge, with reverence, with respect, and with an understanding that you are not the only one who is taking or depending upon that land for sustenance.

 

Foraging and Wildcrafting as a Spiritual Practice

My foraging partner and dear friend wrote an article last year for the AODA’s new annual publication, Trilithon, that examined the spiritual implications of foraging from a druidic perspective. He argued that foraging allowed him to practice two key spiritual aspects important to nature-based spirituality: cultivating stillness and cultivating focus. I’d like to explore those implications for a bit here and consider some additional areas.

Choice dryad's saddle

Choice dryad’s saddle mushroom–easy to spot with mushroom eyes!

As meditation. I find no greater joy than picking berries from a bush in the summer or fall. I remember last year, I spent many hours sitting with autumn olive bushes and harvesting their delightful berries. This was a meditation, where the repetition of picking the berries and putting them into my blicky (see last post) allowed me to still my mind and simply be in the moment. In my spiritual tradition, we recognize both sitting meditation and walking/movement meditation–I think this can classify as some of the latter.

 

As Communing with the Plants. A second thing that harvesting gets you, whether you are harvesting violets for tea or medicine, or harvesting thousands of autumn olives, is time to simply be with the plants.  To touch them, to give an exchange, to commune with them. This is really valuable–and the plants love giving of themselves to those who revere them. And we take that bounty within and it sustains us; it allows us to further build our connection to them.  The power and importance of this act of communion cannot be understated.

 

Understanding Nature as a cycle. When you get into foraging, you begin paying much more attention to the rain and temperatures (especially for mushrooms), when the weather warms up and the ground unfreezes, or when the frosts come.  Foraging asks us to really pay attention to the weather and seasons in ways that we do not normally do; this can give us deeper insights into the landscape around us, into the cycles that govern our lives.

 

As a way of seeing. One of my mushroom teachers taught us about “mushroom eyes” that is, we had to focus our gaze to see the mushrooms in the forest rather than seeing other things. You can walk through a forest without seeing any of the mushrooms in it (especially those that are small, on the ground, and non-colorful). This practice of putting on one’s mushroom eyes has profound spiritual implications, in that it asks us to shift our vision, to see differently, to see with intent.

 

As self-education. Knowledge is an important part of any nature-based spiritual practice. Foraging and wildcrafting allows one to learn about the landscape and become attuned with it. Its also an amazing way to learn in a way that others can benefit from.

 

I hope the information I’ve provided in the last two posts is helpful for you on your wildcrafting and foraging journey!

 

Understanding the Interplay between the Specialist and Generalist for Sustainable Action November 28, 2014

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.