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?
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.
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…
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
Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
I love this post! Thank you to Willowcrow for going back to Penns’s Woods, also the land of my birth, though on the other side of the state. I do feel Pennsylvania in my bones, but I also know I was called to be exactly where I am, doing exactly what I’m doing on broken land in the Rust Belt. I particularly agree with this paragraph, but they are all gems:
“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.”
Thank you, Laura. I’m always so inspired to hear about the work you are doing in Indiana–it is good work, important work. We need to touch base soon! So much happening :).
Yes, I was thinking yesterday that we need to chat! Once I get everything else moved into the blue house next door, life will return to a bit more time and a bit less crazy. 🙂 Looking forward to that on all accounts, including our long overdue phone call.
LOL, it turns out your old house influenced the blue one, as I got our landlord to paint a blue room and a reddish orange one. I didn’t make the connection until it was already done, but looking at your place is what reminded me how much I wanted a large community space again, so there’s a little piece of you (or at least your house) in Goshen!
OMG, really? That’s so funny! I really miss having the house as a community space. Out here, space seems to be at a premium and there aren’t really big/good spaces for like even 15 people to meet for free. Just this week, I was working with the Food Co-Op group to find a meeting space. If I had been in MI, I would have had not one but two huge meeting rooms for us to consider!
And yes, I’m looking forward to our call :).
And yes! I can’t wait for our phone call. You tell me when you are settled in 🙂
Yes, it’s too funny how all the colors worked out, and I’m so glad to have the meeting space next door. We have quite a few options in town, but none besides the place next door was a good fit for me or for the types of students and guests I’d be having — either completely non-accessible to anyone who can’t climb huge flights of stairs, or glaring fluorescent lights, or too far away for me to get to without driving while hauling class supplies. Hopefully you can find a good space for you and the co-op. I’ll let you know when I’m settled. 🙂
That sounds great, Laura. I think my place here will work out in its own time. Its terribly hard to go back to renting, but I know that’s what is necessary as I reform my plans for future sustainable and regenerative living :). I’m excited to hear more!
Well, if it’s any consolation, we are doing all of this as renters. True, we have the best landlord in the entire universe, but we couldn’t do this without him — or at least not as soon or as well. He has all the contacts and all the know-how for rehabbing really awful properties into nice places to live, and he loves that his investment and time will actually pay off with us. At some point, we might buy both properties so we can do things like solar panels, but for now, it really makes this practically no risk on our part. If you find a like-minded landlord, you can do all kinds of things and then leave it for someone else to enjoy without needing to sell the property. For me, I wanted the yard and the houses, but I didn’t want a mortgage of any sort, so we would have needed to wait until we could purchase both properties outright. This way, we get to see if they really do put in a quiet zone with the train and what does our street’s renovation project actually look like before we commit to owning here. Win-win-win, including for the land. 🙂
That’s awesome, Laura! It does sound like a win-win situation for you. That’s part of why I’ve committed to at least one year, possibly two years, renting here in various places before buying. I want to make sure that when I buy again, I am buying exactly what I want and know what I’m getting into! The last one was a wonderful experience but also was a bit of a roller coaster, especially early on with all the rennovation!
Oh, Willowcrow. This post is so loaded with deep heartfelt love. I always love your posts no matter what they are about. Bill and I work so hard to heal degraded places, only to have them bulldozed over. This selling of public land hurts. We fight fracking. We restore wetlands. Our own land is our family. Every tree, every lizard, every mountain lion, every bear, every skunk, every bird, every bush are our sisters, brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, our children. We work to heal every thing we see that is out of balance because of humankind. As we age, it becomes harder. I pray, I touch with love, I communicate and listen to all of Her. I try to project happiness into the land, and it loves me through my feet to my heart and from up above through my outstretched arms to my heart. It’s all I can do, yet it feels never enough. The fury and chaos is too fast. It overwhelms, it burns, it hurts. So hard not to get discouraged, give up hope, throw up my hands in disgust and just lay down and die. I can’t. I love Her. She is everything to me. I am committed to her. I will continue. It is so hard to balance what I believe in my Soul and what I see going on. Love. Only love. That is all I can do.
PS I love Wedell Berry too! He and Aldo Leopold.
Peace and Love,
Oh Mary, I know. I know. Its so hard to balance, and its so hard to keep going, even when you see what you have accomplished ripped up, sold, cut down, or worse. There are times I despair too–and sometimes I think you see that coming through on this blog. Sound of Silence post, perhaps?
But I think the other piece to this is that even if they are cut down/bulldozed or worse–you held space. You were there. You showed that land that someone saw her, valued her, cared enough to spend time. Because this practice I’m describing–its not about the people themselves. Its about the land.
The other piece of this, however, is a healer’s retreat. We need to go where we will be re-energized. When we feel weary, we need to find that which will heal and nourish us. When I did my PDC, it really did that for me, and I think my posts since returning from the PDC have been really empowered by that PDC. They have been full of hope. On my way home from the PDC, I drove through and visited the PA Wilds–they had all been clear cut, and then 1.5 million acres were restored. THAT was hope. So there are those places, we can see them, we can be nurtured and healed. And then we go on, ever slowly, with our own healing work.
Yes, that IS the balance. <3 One of the agencies we work with is called The Quivira Coalition. They have a conference each year in November. It is a gathering of all kinds of people trying to heal, do what is best for and love their land. It is all success stories, so that is always a hopeful time of relating to people with similar interests even though we all come from different parts of the world. Aways interesting and feel good. Always lots of good books for sale too! I may have mentioned them to you before.
No, I don’t think you mentioned them before, but they look great! I wonder if there is an east-coast equivalent. I love the idea of a conference to get together with other land healers….how awesome. The permaculture meetups, convergences, and so on are a lot like that–people doing really cool things. There usually isn’t a spiritual component to it, but that’s ok, cause they are doing the work of land healing!
Thank you for this post – my favorite paragraph is the one that states “find the place where you are needed most” – I have considered myself “stuck” in my family’s old house, where my husband George and I moved before his death, in the most unsupportive place I could imagine in suburban central Indiana the past few years. But just this past week, the opportunity came to me to be part of a clean-up on a local river that had deeply troubled George, because of prior local lack of interest in protecting the waters or land, and that idea came to me, that I am the only one of whom I know who can covertly honor this water and energetically hold the space, and that’s what I’m doing here, for however long. Totally unglamorous, other than to know people like you and Laura B are doing this and much more.
Cindy, thanks so much for your comement. You ARE the only one, you are called to do this! I am working on boney dump piles now…totally “unglamorous” spaces that nobody cares about. At all. I’ll write about this soon. The important thing is that the land cares, the land knows, and the land is thankful :). I would love to hear more about this work!
Cindy, I’m so glad you’re finding purpose with the land and water where you are! Synchronously, up here, I just received a much welcomed email that a group of people are going to clean up the Mill Race twice per year now. We can’t help this weekend, because we’re already shoulder deep in other projects, but it made my heart smile to see double digits of people here joining together for their own unofficial clean up, but getting advice from Parks and habitat restoration experts on how best to proceed. Don’t give up on InDiana — as Ann K and I call Her. Dianna is the goddess of the woodlands. Perhaps one day She will feel comfortable in this state again … and ditto the Indians the state ran out. We have a lot of work to do, but after a long sleep, changes are creeping and leaping….
I would agree wholeheartedly with Laura! I first found my path to nature spirituality on the banks of the Wabash river in Lafayette, IN, while I was still in graduate school. Indiana needs this work just as much as any other state 🙂 <3
I love this post so much – and the poem is a perfect fit.
Thank you Fjothr! All of Wendell Berry’s work is really outstanding if you haven’t read it before.
Reblogged this on PANTHEIST HERITAGE.
Thank you for the reblog, Brendon!
The land is good care for it . A beautiful meaningful story. Your pottery will protect you…
Reblogged this on Rattiesforeverworldpresscom.