As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October. This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing; preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons. My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!
I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world. In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future. To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.
Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them
When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones. Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage. But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.
My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”; I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed. We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great-grandparents or their great-grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, and learn from them these skills, these ways of living.
I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up. Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey. We ate lots of zucchini from the garden. I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path. But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.
Living Without A Heritage
I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980’s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different. People needed each other then. We got on with very little. We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.” Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.
I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me. And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it. Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination. The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20’s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on. This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.
Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it
In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles. In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st-century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.
Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition. I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970’s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so). I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon). I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.
I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry. Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways. Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.
The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80’s, falling into video game addictions in the 90’s and 2000’s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long). It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.
And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants. By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself. By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden. By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox. By learning the secrets of the soil. By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time. There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient. Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.
Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors. Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on. My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants. Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things. This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making. I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.
I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors. It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.