As I write this, a brave group of Native Americans is standing in support of the earth and protesting yet another oil pipeline that threatens water supplies, health, and home. Here, we see the clash between those defending their mother in care and compassion, and those representing profit and pillage. It is in the care for our lands the tribes take a stand; it is the understanding of the sacred connection of all things, all life, that helps them brave the dogs, pepper spray, the intimidation, and much worse abuses. In some ways, the situation unfolding in North Dakota is a representation of similar circumstances that peoples and communities find themselves all over the world facing: fighting giant corporations who seek to pillage and profit while paying little attention to the human and environmental costs involved in their actions. I believe that many of today’s problems stem from a lack of care, compassion, and connection for ourselves, for others, for the living earth, and all of her inhabitants. And since care, itself, is at the heart of permauclture design, it is fitting that the second post in my “permaculture for druids” series be about just that: care and connection. (For earlier posts in this series, see the following: Permaculture as a Spiritual Practice; Permaculture Design Site, and Sankofa).
A Deadening of the Mind and Heart
Industrialized cultures seem to have lost our ability, on an individual, community, and societal level, to care and be compassionate—towards other people, the land, the animals, the insects, the plants, even towards themselves. Joanna Macy in Coming Back to Life suggests that the greatest issue preventing general movement toward a life-sustaining society is in the deadening of the mind and the heart. It is an “apathy” (literally, non-suffering) or inability or refusal to feel.
When we look at conversations and actions driving much political change and laws being enacted in the early 21st century, care is an essential quality missing. In part, it is the lack of care and compassion that can drive ordinary citizens to oppose feeding hungry children in the name of tax cuts (which I witnessed firsthand when living in Michigan); it is the lack of care and compassion that can allow public lands to be sold off to the highest bidder and fracked for natural gas while others turn a blind eye; and it is the lack of care and compassion that make people keep buying products even though they know those products are being made at the extreme expense of others. I have witnessed this many times living in Western Pennsylvania—the economic issues overshadow all others. And so, our lands are fracked, the waterways poisoned with acid mine runoff, the people drinking the radioactive water—and the economics of it all are the only thing that people point to or are concerned about. I’m certain that readers throughout the world could share their own examples here–because they are everywhere right now.
I think this “deadening” of the mind and heart manifests as a numbness, or disconnection, a deadness of spirit. Its like our brains are constantly overloaded, in a matter of speaking, and our hearts are continually silent. It is inserted into us at an early age with the removal of play, nature, and creativity from schools; it is connected to ingrained and automatic actions and cycles of consumerism that we are quickly socialized into being part of. It comes from the “disenchanted” world we live in, where edges are harsh and experiences are cold. It also comes from the increasingly difficult realities so many face: people barely scraping by, working three jobs, trying to put food on the table and take care of their families in increasingly uncertain times, not having health care, not having steady transportation, living in places without stable heat, and so on. It comes from the inundation of various screens sharing calamity after woe after calamity. It is this monstrous pile that makes people “turn off” cause it is easier than trying to feel your way through it. And so, we stop caring. It hurts too much. We close our eyes, allow it all to flow from us, and go about our lives, burying ourselves in work, stuff, screens, drugs/alcohol, whatever.
Or if we don’t, it’s not necessarily any better. Even for those who do care deeply, compassion fatigue is a common problem. Those living in industrialized cultures are constantly bombarded with demands for time or resources—people grow numb to the amount of need and end up shutting down. I believe part of this has to do with the fact that we don’t have a cultural understanding of care; that we aren’t in an environment that encourages or facilitates care of any kind, and the current environment burns us out.
So, what can we do? I think it is a matter, for me, of understanding care and seeing it in a new way. Its about not just feeling but directing that energy that we have, those deep emotions, into ways that help change the things that cause the world, life, humans, and ourselves harm. If we can productively direct our own efforts and feelings, then our deep, open hearts become a source of tremendous strength and passion rather than something that just hurts.
This is where the concept of permaculture comes in, and why permauclture is ultimately rooted in the ethic of care. I think that the synthesis of permaculture as a practice for living and druidry as a practice for inhabiting gives a nice balance to help us feel deeply while avoiding the burnout and deadness that can otherwise consume us. So now, let’s take a look at the ethic of care as a whole, and where we might head with it.
An Awakening of Heart
In the deadness of the heart, we find the roots of so many problems of industrial culture. It is in the reawakening of heart spaces that helps us live lives that are regenerative and nurturing. We start waking up, reconnecting, finding the paths back to our own souls and to the living earth, our mother. Its often a slow process, a gradual one, and the ethics of care can help us arrive there, and understand our journey.
The herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner is one of many recent authors to point out the disconnection in our modern culture between the mind and the heart. In his Sacred Plant Medicine, he discusses the challenges with modern industrialized society in that we always “live in our heads” which allows cutting logic to dominate and decisions to be made without feeling out their consequences (as it is different to understand a situation rationally vs. feel a situation firsthand). Our education system encourages this rational thought at the expense of all feeling, so by the time we make our way out of formal education, there isn’t always a lot left of the heart. Further, the traditional symbolism in the tarot associated with “heady” actions and the mind is the suit of swords that cut all in their path. So much of our cultural value systems place emphasis on economics, on personal gain, on possessiveness, and on profit—all of which reside in the head. As Buhner describes, Native American indigenous cultures believed one’s consciousness resided in the heart and care and compassion, especially towards the living earth and one’s community, were critical values. It is in returning to a heart-centered space that we can begin to understand, more fully, the ethic of care and why it is so central to permaculture as a living practice and design system.
The practice of permauclture is, ultimately, rooted in an ethic of care. It is from care and connection to things that are not ourselves that interested in regenerating ecosystems and living gently. It is from regenerating ecosystems, communities, and much more that we can work to develop our sacred connection with the land. It is in living from the heart, and being present in the world, from the heart, that this work is most effective.
You see, from this discussion, that the drive towards a practice of permauclture is likely not much different, for many of us, then finding the path into druidry. Both stem from awakening and inhabiting the heart.
A Heart-Centered Life: Four Ethics for Permaculture Design
And so, we come now to the four ethics for permaculture design–all rooted in care and an open heart space. These ethics are the foundation upon which everything else in which permaculture is based–without them, the permaculture as a system has no heart and no spirit. The ethics of permaculture are like the glue that binds everything else together. The ethics are as follows:
Earth care: Caring for the earth, in all her forms. This means that we honor the earth through our actions and work to regenerate her damaged places, protect her wild places, and live our lives in a way that treads lightly upon her. Our goal, with this ethic, is to heal more than harm and recognize that we can be a force of good in our lands! Earth care is as much a spiritual practice as it is a physical one—and I would argue that they are one in the same—when we care for the earth, that we hold sacred, it is spiritual work. I think when we first get into nature-based spiritual paths, we tend to think that “spiritual work” in meditation, ritual, magic—but earth care is as much a part of that spiritual practice as is a ritual, and learning how to integrate these are keys for sacred action.
People care: Caring for people, in all their forms. A critical link exists between earth care and people care. If people don’t have their basic needs met, they will often strip them bare in order to survive out of desperation—or allow it to be stripped in the perception of economic gains. Poverty, further, leads to disempowerment and lack of agency over one’s lands, livelihoods, and more. And so, if we are going to care for the earth, we must also recognize that our basic needs, as humans, need to also be met. This isn’t selfishness–it is life. But people care goes well beyond the basic needs: Maslow’s hierarchy is useful here. We have basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, warmth, fresh water, clean air, security of body. Up the hierarchy we have belonging, community, expression, and more. All of these things are part of what people need–and people care considers all of them. The earth has more than enough to provide for us, if only we let her!
Fair share: Taking only what we need and redistributing any surplus. Fair share is the basic idea that we should only take our “fair share” so that others can also live comfortably and be fulfilled (and by “others” I mean all others, not just other humans). Taking too much is one of the big problems we have, with the accumulation of wealth and stuff. This is a tremendously challenging principle in a world that has difficulty separating “wants” from “needs” and where excess is expected and commonplace. And yet, if we lived by this principle, we certainly can make an enormously positive change in our world! Fair share applies to every aspect of life–from herbalism and foraging to eating a reasonable amount of food to minding how much stuff we bring into our lives. To live more simply and richly so that others also may live.
Self-care: A final ethic is self-care, or the care one needs for oneself in order to engage in the care of people and earth. Ethical self-care realizes that we can’t engage in any other kind of care if we, ourselves, are not taken care of first. Otherwise, we burn out and cannot shine brightly in the world where our light is needed. Nature spirituality is a path that allows us much in the way of self-care, as I’ve written about several times recently, including in Permaculture’s Ethic of Self Care as a Spiritual Practice, the Druid Retreat series, and the Spiritual Practices in finding Equilibrium through the Chaos.
Now this is just a brief introduction to the ethics of permaculture–we will see, as I continue this series of posts–how these practices are woven into the principles and actions of permaculture.
Permaculture Ethics for Spiritual Practice
Many ancient and modern spiritual movements have a set of ethics or morals attached to them—however, due to the newness of modern earth-based spiritual traditions, the fragmentary nature in which they were developed and evolved, not all of our current traditions do have an explicit ethical system, although ethical systems are certainly implicit. In druidry, perhaps it is best summed up as “nature is good, therefore, nature is good.” Useful, simple, but from my perspective, not enough to live by. To supplement the simple druid adage, I have found that the permaculture ethical system forms a perfect system of ethics for both my outer work as a human being living in these times and the inner path of druidry.
The ethics are simple enough to learn and remember, and yet profound in their wide-ranging applications. If I walked through life with only these ethics, I would still have a compass, a guide, from everyday living to the big choices! If the goal of an ethical system is to give us some idea of how to live, act, and be, the permaculture ethical system certainly fits. But more than that, these outer truths are also represented on the inner realms. It is the interplay between these ethics, the of druidry, and the principles of permauclture that form a beautiful synthesis of ethical, caring, and meaningful everyday living. I don’t know if these would fit everyone’s path, but I have found them to be incredibly helpful for my own, as I grow and learn and find my way forward.