Today I wanted to take some time to share some of the updates on the land healing and permaculture practices we are enacting at the Druid’s Garden Homestead. As I’ve shared in earlier posts, when we purchased this land four years ago, the family who owned it just before us selectively logged about 3 acres, leaving the forest an absolute mess. The land otherwise was perfect–we have our own spring, a nice sunny area for gardens….and three acres of land in desperate need of healing. Since land healing is one of my primary forms of spiritual practice, I rolled up my sleeves and purchased the land! As this ongoing land healing project takes shape, I try to check in on the blog every once in a while to share new insights, techniques, and experiences. Today I want to spend some time offering updates on our refugia gardens and some of the clearing and replanting work that is necessary when you are dealing with these kinds of conditions.
Why Engage in Land Healing work?
As I’ve shared before, in order to do effective land healing work, you need to know a few things: first, you need to have a sense of what a healthy ecosystem looks like so that you know what your goal is and what to do. While book knowledge is useful, what is really ideal is if you can spend a lot of time in the same ecosystem in a place that hasn’t suffered logging, clear-cutting, or whatever other damage you are trying to heal it from. So since we live on a north-east facing slope that is wet and mostly deciduous, ideally, to help heal this land and know what I am aiming for, I need to study north-east facing slopes with wet, rich soil and mostly deciduous cover within 1-2 hours of where I live. Lucky for me, I grew up on such a slope, and I can return to my family’s land often to study and gather seeds. Because of this deep knowledge, I know exactly what ideally should be growing here both in terms of the forest and on the forest floor. Because I’ve lived in Western Pennsylvania most of my life, I’m also aware of what is no longer present: the American Ginseng roots, in particular, have been badly stripped from our land by poachers and foragers who sell them at a profit. I’m leveraging this knowledge to create a set of practices that allow me to help this forest heal.
When I’ve shared this ongoing healing work with others, sometimes people will say things like, “Yeah, but the forest will heal without you.” Yes, it will physically heal, given enough time. The trees will regrow, you will see the old wood rot down and the forest will return. However, and this is really important–a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th growth forest is not the same as what was originally here before white people came and stripped it bare. This is especially true if it is regrowing from something like old farmland. On a physical level, one of the things that the forest can’t do is replace ecological material that once grew here and that has since vanished–like the trillium, black cohosh, blue cohosh, ramps, ginseng, trout lily, mayapples, and more. These woodland species don’t survive logging or greedy humans, and they are very slow to spread (and are absent in many other places due to human overharvesting). So, even if I were to let this forest stand here and grow for the next 150 years, I doubt you’d find a ramp or blue cohosh growing. Ecological succession in this area takes about 300 years–and even after 300 years, we don’t always find what was once so prevalent.
But there’s another side to this, the metaphysical side. Humans are currently destroying our planet–there is not an ecosystem on this planet that isn’t tremendously threatened. It is the responsibility of those who are not brainwashed by capitalist and colonialist mindsets to do something to heal and turn this tide. Yes, I might primarily be focusing on 5 acres that I own–but for those 5 acres, and for the miles and miles around me, the spirits of the land take note. I do this as a way to bridge to the land, to remind the land that there are humans who are here to be in service and to heal. That’s part of what we have to realize about land healing: if people have intervened in the path of a forest, cutting it, stripping it bare, changing the basic ecology of the place–people need to be part of that healing and regrowth. That offers reparation work, and that certainly is the most ethical thing to do and, as I’ve argued before, should be part of the path of those of us who practice nature spirituality.
Goals for the Druid’s Garden Homestead
With all of this said, I had a pretty good idea going into this work what I was setting out to accomplish: first, the goal of replanting and healing this land, through physical and metaphysical land healing. This includes planting trees, shrubs, roots, seeds, and tending those plants till they grow. But it also includes regular rituals, offerings to the spirits of the land, and simply being in deep service to the land. The second goal was to establish what I call ‘refugia gardens”, or places that generate an abundance of seed/plant matter that can then be moved to other places that need healing. Refugia are as the name says: they are refuges for life, where life can grow and when there is abundance (seeds, roots, extra plants to split) I can share these with others doing this work or work to replant forests nearby. As part of this work, I am really careful about obtaining seeds and plants from ethical sources as I do this work. For example, all of the black cohosh and black elder we have growing here I dug up on my parents’ property because we had an awful septic line come through–so we saved those plants and I replanted them here. All of my ginseng seed I am planting comes from a certified forest-grown verified program through the United Plant Savers.
The first refugia garden we created, a full sun meditation garden, is doing great. We have healthy populations of New England Aster, Echinacea, Saint Johns Wort, Milkweed, Pleurisy root, Hyssop, and a range of other native medicinal plants that are increasingly rare on our landscape. I chose plants for this garden based on my local ecosystem–plants that are native here, plants I used to see a lot of, and are growing increasingly rare for a variety of reasons (spraying, farming, foraging, etc). The refugia garden plants are now producing boatloads of seeds each year–most recently, I gave my parents four giant bags of seed to replant the septic line that came through and we scattered them far and wide. Before the pandemic, I also taught some local kids at the UU how to make seed balls with the seeds and they spread them! I’ve shared these seeds with friends in this region. It is exciting to see how, in only a few short years, these plants produce such abundance.
Replanting and Refugia at the Druid’s Garden Homestead
Last year, after two years of getting our homestead gardens, greenhouse, and animal housing done and establishing the first refugia garden, I knew it was time to turn my attention to the forested areas that had been logged. This logging was not clean, and it was not kind. It viciously ripped through the forest, leaving massive amounts of severely damaged trees, debris, and damage to the landscape. In order to even formulate a plan, I had spent the first two years on the land prior to engaging in permaculture practice of observing and interacting, taking notes, and simply listening to the spirits of the land. I tried to identify every plant and tree, see how the birds and wildlife behaved, and identify areas that I could target for healing. In 2019-2020, I had worked to establish my first few forest hugels to help an area of the forest regrow. And so, in the spring of 2020, I invested a considerable amount in seeds, various roots, and planted so much (and THANK YOU to anyone who bought the Plant Spirit Oracle or Tarot of Trees–they help fund this work!). Feeling quite good about the hard labor I had achieved, I waited for my small plants to come up and my first to regenerate.
And then we had one of the worst droughts in the last 50 years; our region was in a severe drought for almost 3 months (and a moderate drought for 5 months). The land grew so cracked, parched, and dried. Since I was planting over a 3-acre area and didn’t mark all of the plant matter I planted, I wasn’t able to water everything. Many things never came up. The ones that did, I worked to water diligently (using the water from our goose and duck pools). But I lost so much due to the drought–hundreds of plants. Setbacks are, of course, an important part of any healing and regrowth. We grow through adversity and struggle. So I ordered more plants and waited for spring.
This winter, I also worked to start clearing some of the invasive species from the forested areas that quickly took hold after the logging. This will take some serious time. Thankfully, most of the areas are growing the native blackberry (rubus allegheniensis). These blackberries form thick mats but also allow for other things to grow. The bigger problem I’m facing now is the increasing amount of multiflora rose, which crowds out other pants. Clearing Multiflora rose is really difficult–she demands a blood sacrifice for every root you pull out. The work is slow going, but I absolutely refuse to do this by any other means–no chemicals (this land has seen enough trauma). Just sweat equity and a very good thick pair of leather gloves!
A Movement Meditation (or Sweat Equity)
In the last two months, I’ve planted several hundred roots: black cohosh root, red trillium, blue cohosh, and more. These supplement roots planted in the previous fall after the rains returned: American Ginseng and ramps, among others. These roots are very special to me–they represent the forest medicinals that are quickly pillaged from the landscape by those seeking a profit and they represent slow-growing roots that may never return without human intervention. These were the plants that graced the forest in my ancestors’ time, in my grandfather’s time. They have a right to live and not be pillaged. They represent, to me, a promise of healing to this land.
Now to be clear, planting a hundred roots or more in rocky, clay, compacted soil is tough work. But I see this as part of the service–I don’t mind offering my energy to the land. Once you recognize that this replanting practice will take a long time, you give yourself permission to not be in a hurry. You simply move into the practice. It might be more work than you ever thought it was going to be, but that’s ok. It becomes a movement meditation, an offering of your own energy and spirit to the land, to bring healing and life.
And I also take my time with each root I plant. I use my intuition and the voices of spirit to find the right spot to dig a hole on the forest floor. I dig, often hitting rocks, pulling them gently aside. I prepare the root (dipping the root in a bucket of water that I have blessed). I take the root and more water with me. I welcome the root, telling the root that I am looking forward to getting to know them, that this is a good place for them to grow, where they will not be harmed. I tell the root that when they produce seeds or offspring, I will make sure to spread their offspring far and wide. I gently cover the roots with soil, watering the spot, and offering my gratitude. This is a meditation and a magical practice. Each root gets a slightly different prayer. And then I move on to the next place in need of planting.
This is a way of serving the land in joy. It is simple, yet powerful. As I stand there, with my water buckets, fresh roots, and shovel, I am filled with gratitude to be in a position to help nourish this land. To me, this is the best kind of spiritual practice that I can think to do–the direct healing of the land. To supplement this physical work, I engage in extensive rituals and ceremonies to metaphysically bless and protect all of the new life on this land.
Perhaps, if you are willing, say a prayer for all of my new rootlets and plants. That the rains will come this year, that they will grow bountiful, and that their offspring will be able to live to old age and see the coming of days when they are honored, revered, and left to grow and die naturally.