I had a long conversation with an older close relative of mine over the holidays. He had overheard my sister, brother-in-law, and I talking about herbalism, permaculture, cultural shifts.  This conversation was framed in the context of the recent Paris climate talks where it appears that world leaders agreed not to do anything for 15 years and in some future time, stave off too much of a temperature rise. After listening to us for a time, my relative indicated that anything that we would do would make “little to no difference” and that when we were his age (he’s in his late 60’s), we’d look back on our lives and regret not being able to do much; we’d certainly regret not being able to hope we had hoped to accomplish.  The fact that we had “little money or resources” made this a certainty. He thought he was doing us a favor by “telling it to us like it was.” While this was certainly a mood killer for an otherwise pleasant holiday, its also a fantastic subject for this week’s post: the idea of making a difference.


We hear about “making a difference” all the time, and most often, it is rather nebulously defined in our culture. In fact, when I asked my relative to define what he meant by making a difference, he refused to do so…and yet, its these unstated assumptions and definitions that are in most need of illumination.


If I try to define it as it is most commonly understood, making a “difference” seems to imply some kind of very large-scale thing, national or international, that makes substantial impacts on many, many people or ecosystems or whatever. Perhaps “making a difference” means stopping climate change, saving a whole ecosystem, fixing the political system–something drastic, big, and far-reaching. You know, saving the world kind of stuff,. Sometimes, you can find “making a difference” applied to large-scale actions in the lives of many people in a community (but I don’t think this is what my relative was referring to).  And of course, there are the many non-profits telling you to “make a difference” with your dollars.  But it is this first thing, I think, that most firmly is in the hearts and minds of many of us in industrialized society.


I think these concepts stem from a few places–first, here in the USA and in other parts of the Western world, we have an extremely individualistic culture, where individual actions, not collective actions, matter.  Individuals, then, are held to high standards with regards to their own lives and individual impacts (for some cool data on this, check out Geert Hosfede’s work).  Second, in an increasingly global society, our news streams from all over the world–we hear about the “big things” that are entertaining or abhorrent enough to be covered. Generally, local communities and contexts are minimized in this kind of system and are seen as not important, trite, or irrelevant. A final issue at play, and one that I see firsthand in my research at the university, is a fear of failure.  We have become paralyzed with fear that we will fail–and failure is seen as simply not a reasonable option.


Given these assumptions and definitions, the problems with “making a difference” are clear. Most people walk around with this nebulous idea of “making a difference” in their heads, and their realities nearly always fall short of what they hope to accomplish.  The problem with this assumption is a matter of scale: we expect to make this enormous difference on a grand scale, all while pretty much ignoring what it outside of our door or immediate to us.  Sure, given this definition, its no wonder my relative wanted to give us a “hard dose of reality.”  Assuming that we need to make a difference naturally leads us to feeling disempowered.  Disempowerment encourages is not to act, to assume that you can’t do anything to change what’s going on, that you are hopeless to change the terrible wave of civilization from crashing down around us.  So then, the most logical solution is to do nothing at all–to be paralyzed with inaction for fear of failure.  What a catch-22!


However, there are other ways to define and consider these terms.  We’ll start with the notion that shifting our understanding of what “making a difference” is about can help us move past this dilemma.  Its to this work that we now turn with some help from permaculture design.


Zones and Sectors on my Michigan homestead
Zones and Sectors on my Michigan homestead

Permaculture’s Zone

Permaculture design uses a concept of a “zone” to help us design effective and ethical living spaces, gardens, communities, and more.  I find that the zone is particularly helpful for framing our actions and any “difference” they might make.

A zone is simply a designated area (in this example, a physical area) that sees a certain amount of use.Let’s look at the typical suburban home-turned homestead as an example here. A typical home has five zones, each zone getting a bit further out from your center of activity and each getting less visited or maintained. Zone 0 is usually the house itself—where you spend a majority of your time and what is easiest to access. (Even within your house, you can designate zones of use; think about the kitchen or bathroom’s daily usage compared to the basement or utility closet!) But moving onto our subruban yard: Zone 1 is the area you access most frequently and is the easiest to get to and to tend—for our suburban home, this means the places you spend the most time or walk through every day. The path from the door to the mailbox  and the back patio where you commonly enjoy dinner might all be considered zone one. Zone two takes us just a little bit further away—zone two is still visited visit and tended often, but perhaps not in the immediate pathways or energy flows of daily living: for example, kitchen garden just out back, the pathway to the chicken coop (the coop is further from the house, its still considered a lower zone because you are tending the chickens at least two times a day). Zone three might be the inside of the chicken yard itself, your compost pile, your extended perennial garden–you visit these a few times a week, and they still require some care. Zone 4 could be a small back field where you gather herbs or a small orchard where you occasionally prune.  Zone 5 is the wild edges, maybe a forest stretching back further. We may really like what’s in zone 5 and we go there to reflect, to learn, and to grow. Zone 5 receives pretty much no regular attention or tending, however, and doesn’t need it.  The zone doesn’t just apply to our yards–it can also apply to our own living in a community.  Zone 1 is our homes, zone 2, our immediate community and town.  Zone 3 is our state or other geographical region, zone 4 is our country, and Zone 5 is the rest of the world.


The principle of the zone is extraordinarily useful in understanding the problematic thinking in our conception of “making a difference.” As this concept illustrates, you have the most power and possibility for changing those things that are closest to you geographically and physically–where you spend the most time and where you are rooted.


Putting our Feet on the Path

As the principle of the zone illustrates, and as I’ve often discussed on this blog, its our own lives where the changes are best to start.  Its our own lives where the first “difference” can be made. Of course, this is completely the opposite of our cultural conception of making a difference.  And so, when we think about “meaningful change,” it’s not about waiting for someone else to change Wall Street or Congress to do something—its about making changes in your own life, first and foremost, and its about going outside of your door and changing that which you are closest to and which you have the most power to change.  This is the kind of change that we can do quite successfully–and its this kind of change that can lead to many others!


So as a permaculture designer, druid, herbalist, artist, and professor residing in Western PA, I have the most ability to change my own actions, first and foremost. I have some measurable influence on my immediate surroundings and that of my immediate community using my skills (so, there is a group of us trying to start a food co-op, for example, which could really benefit our community and provide food security, resilience, etc). I’d certainly have less control at the county level or state level, and I’d have very little power over Wall Street Executives or Congress, because they are so far away. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t work to change these things, especially with the help of a great many other people, its just that that kind of change is much less likely than me doing something positive in my immediate surroundings.  So, principle one then is that “making a difference” can be focused on our local level, first and foremost, and that we can make a really powerful difference there.


A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--these stones were set by the work of many hands
A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–these stones were set by the work of many hands

Another issue here is the difference between individual and collective differences.  As one person, I can only do so much.  I am reminded of this when I want to stack stones or set standing stones in wild places.  The stones I would like to lift and move are usually much bigger than I am–and I could strain and hurt myself to lift them, which would not be good.  Or, I can take one of two approaches–ask a friend for help, or set my sights on smaller stones.  This is an important point, and one that is often lost on us–we can’t, and shouldn’t, do this work all ourselves.  Its about many people, each doing what they can, and working together, that the work is done.


Another factor is in the word “difference” and in defining this in a way that allows us to succeed and sets reasonable goals instead of setting us up for failure. Again, its worth interrogating the term and asking: for who? in what way?  Personally, making a difference means leaving my community, my land, any other spaces better than I found them–improved in some way. For example, when I think about the healing work I accomplished for five years on my homestead in Michigan, it exceeded my exceptions–its a 3 acre piece of land, not that “big” in some standards–but now, it is cleaned up of garbage, energetically and physically healed, and literally bursting at the seams with biodiversity, healing plants, food for all, and–just as importantly–left in extremely good hands.  That’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.


Time is another factor that we simply can’t ignore–and time doesn’t play by anyone’s rules. I don’t really know what the long-term impact of  working on that homestead site for five years is–and I might never know. In the same way, my father might never know if the thousands of trees he plants each year will sprout or grow into giant oaks. I also point to my dear friend Linda, and what she was able to do in her front yard farm–she didn’t know what it would lead to, but the important thing was that she did something. Could any of us predict what will happen with our actions in the word?  Likely not, and a lot of things take a while to “take hold.”


I’d argue that the outcome of the actions don’t matter nearly as much as the act of doing.  This is all to say that we do not have power or control over the outcomes, what may happen to the work we put out there into the world.  All we can do is do it.


Doing the Work

I actually think that things like “making a difference” or “having impact” are great, they make you feel good, but they also are problematic red herrings. I don’t have power or control over the outcomes or other people’s reactions to what I do–I only have control over my actions.

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition
The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition

An example from my own life might best illustrate my point about simply doing the work, and seeing what comes of it. Many of you might be aware that about 6 years ago, I finished painting a Tarot Deck called the Tarot of Trees.  I painted this deck over a three-year period for myself for three reasons: I wanted to use the Tarot but didn’t want to use people-based symbolism, I wanted to deeply learn the tarot and work with its archetypes, and I wanted an artistic challenge.  After starting to share my work online as I was finishing the major arcana, a number of people wanted me to publish it, which I eventually did.  Its been quite successful, much moreso than I could have thought possible–it allowed me to help get a down payment for my homestead in Michigan, it allowed me to donate considerably to some great organizations, and when my family members were financially challenged, I passed it off to them and it allowed them to bring in a bit of extra income to make ends meet–and continues to do this.  It also was turned into a cool app by a really great company.  In other words, this project has been a blessing on my whole family and beyond, and continues to be so. Never could I have possibly imagined that when I started painting this project in 2006 that this would have been the result.  And you know what? The results are like icing on the cake–what was important was that I did the work! Most recently, its led to a really exciting collaboration on another oracle deck with a good friend (details of which will be forthcoming in 2016!)  The truth is, I would have been happy just to have finished the deck and used it for myself–I kept my goals modest, and then, they radically exceeded my expectations.


Another side of this has to do with working with nature.  Nature can provide her own healing–sometimes, she just needs the tools to do so.  Another way to think about doing the work is that we are planting seeds–and with the right conditions, the wind, light, rain, and soil, the seeds will grow.


Moving Forward and Visioning


So in conclusion, I think we should pay less attention to the outcomes or what “might happen.”  This stifles us, it makes us feel that we are not accomplishing our goals, especially when we set goals that are impossible or unreasonable for us to achieve. As important as the outcomes are, especially for the kinds of work I often discuss on this blog, they are largely out of our hands.


If we focus only on outcomes,  we are losing out on the most important pieces–the immediate journey and insights it brings.  In this case, for all of us, its the journey that matters at this moment in time.  Don’t get discouraged by feeling that nothing is being accomplished, that nothing big is happening.  As we are coming to the close of another year and looking to what 2016 will bring, I would encourage each of us to set some reasonable goals for the work ahead–what do we want to accomplish? What work do we want to do?  Just set your feet upon the path you wish to take, and walk forward.  Just as we sow seeds into abandoned lots to help them grow–the seeds that we sow will sprout in their own time, and good will come of them.


  1. Beautiful Tarot deck! I see printing is delayed right now, but if I may ask, did you self-publish it? I am working on a deck myself and am looking into self-publishing options and would appreciate any recommendations you may have. You can respond or email directly (email shown in Comments section of Dashboard). Thank you and Namaste _/l\_

    1. Yes, I self published it. I’m a bit delayed on my 3rd print run because my printer I used for the first two runs decided he’s not doing small print runs, so finding a new printer took a ton of time. But I’m just now waiting for the shipment to arrive 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on ravenhawks' magazine and commented:
    It is the journey that matters,and if each person does what he/she can it does make a difference. Change begins when we choose to do something, and choosing to do something makes a difference I believe.

    1. Thanks for the reblog, Ravenhawks magazine 🙂

  3. Unfortunately, as we age we can sometimes allow cynicism to overtake commonsense. If we go by this logic, no one should do anything ever. Think of the huge social changes that would never have happened – so really the argument holds no water.

    1. It does, and yet, its a dominant argument I see pretty often out there. We live in difficult and demoralizing times–but its up to us individually to..I was going to say “pave a new way forward” but instead I’ll say “rip up the pavement and plant some veggies!” 🙂

      1. LOL, I love that, Dana! Yes, “rip up the pavement and plant some veggies!” Wouldn’t THAT make a beautiful difference in our world?! For years I’ve had a vision (and said I would get a driver’s license again if and only if this happens): all the cars become hovercraft, and the roads get paved over with their own self-sustaining, low growing ecosystems. The “cars” float above the green, and the green beneath them immediately converts the CO2 to oxygen. Instead of pavement in residential areas, the roads are raised beds of veggies and fruit trees, with paths of low growing groundcover so we can easily walk across the street. Silly, yes, but maybe Seelie! Inspired by the Fae …. 🙂

        1. You aren’t the only one I know who decided to get rid of their driver’s license for a brighter future :). Hovercraft–now there’s an idea. Personally, I think we should go back to horses, or winged ones (a form a hovercraft, right?) We can have fields of incredible flowers instead of roads. Would certainly be softer and more friendly on the feet :P.

          1. Yes, long live the Pegasus! And, of course, bi-location and portals would make a great return, as well. 😉

      2. Well I think living in 1350’s during the Black Plague, working in a cotton mill during the 1890’s, or being in a concentration camp in 1939 is a difficult and demoralizing time. But for me, I think because I was raised by a lover of history, and I look to history and patterns, and these age doesn’t seem so bad. JMO but people really need to put things into perspective. I don’t mean to sound insulting or to hurt people’s feelings but really we are living during a time that has its challenges, but we also have the answer, and need only the courage and persistence to achieve what we desire.

      3. I am all for ripping up pavement and planting veggies! When I bought this 5 acres I had extra concrete… I kept one 10×10 for a little patio under a tree and built a 7×7 raised bed next to it. I filled it with dead branches and compost… no voles or rabbits. I am making 6 total raised beds on all this concrete and will enjoy the greenery. 2 of the beds are becoming a greenhouse. I am more into vegetables than concrete… but it will keep the voles and rabbits out and not get into a dump somewhere. In Texas I saw some guys knocking out concrete for yet another McMansion. I asked for the concrete chunks to build raised beds… they delivered it all to my house and broke the big pieces for me! I used all of it to turn my backyard (on rock, 3″soil) into raised 18″ beds with winding pathways. It was wonderful. I got leaves from the neighbor’s and composted awesome soil.

        Definitely vegetables instead of concrete! I am in action.

  4. Your blog has already made a difference for me! On my spiritual journey, I have been led to garden and to help the many plants and animals on my property and that live in nearby. I found your blog recently & its been very educational and inspirational for me. So i just wanted to mention this, in light of your relative’s comments, and say that we should never think that our efforts are in vain, or that sum of all our efforts isn’t helping to make the world a better place.

    1. Thanks, Nick! I think his whole line of thinking is one of disempowerment. And its so easy to feel that way in this day and age–but skills, knowledge, relationships with nature–these are all responses that help us move forward :). Glad to have you reading!

  5. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    I’ve been meaning to reblog this because of the encouraging message, especially as so many people create New Year’s Resolutions. I hear from a lot of clients who fear they “can never do enough to change ___, so why bother?”

    Here’s why: because every little thing adds up, and one success inspires and fuels another one. We never know our full ripple effect, but we can and do create ripples wherever we go. As we finish out 2015, please give yourself credit for the things you’ve done, assess those you’ve left undone, and then feel your way into 2016 and beyond. What little step keeps nagging at you to take it? What deep soul longings keep nudging you to pay attention?

    For the moment, forget the desired end, just focus on finding the next foothold and planting your step. YOU are part of the cycle of life! Whenever you choose to foster life — in whatever ways, small or big — you reaffirm the Great Cosmic Dance of Life. Twist, turn, leap or spin: just MOVE and see what happens.

    1. Yay! As an herbalist, I know that stagnation is the worst thing ever for the body. Stagnation leads to constriction, muscle tension, toxin buildup, fat buildup in bad places, and so on–and stagnation isn’t any better for our lives! Time to start to MOVE! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on Sophia's Children and commented:
    Happy Fifth Day of Christmas to you all, whether you celebrate Christmas or honor the Spirit of the Season in other ways.

    As we near the threshold of the passing of this past calendar year and the dawn of a fresh new one, many of us can appreciate that feeling of starting a new year with a blend of hope and intention, mixed in with healthy doses of anxiety, uncertainty, overwhelm, and even sadness or grief.

    I and no doubt several other of my blog-o-sphere sisters and brothers will continue sharing what ‘good medicine’ comes into and through us to encourage and inspire (as we navigate that same mix of inspiration and uncertainty!).

    So I’m glad to share a timely blog article from The Druid’s Garden, along with Laura Bruno’s intro-musing to her own reblog of this post.

    You’ll find Laura’s message, and then the link to the reblog of ‘Making a Difference’.

    It’s a really important message as each of us does of the work of keeping (or re-gaining) our Sovereign Center, and continuing to add our big and small magic, our own contributions (small and large) to the cause of wellbeing, Agape (Perdita’s Gifts!), and a restoration of joy and Wisdom for all beings.

    Thanks to Laura for reblogging this (I’d missed this post, so was glad for the reblog!), and to The Druid’s Garden for the initial musing.

    Here’s to the great importance of a wealth of (seemingly) small contributions.

    Big Love and Holy-Season Blessings,

    1. Thank you for the reblog and king words, Jamie! 🙂

  7. Profound. Thank you for helping each of us to internalize what “making a difference” can mean to us and the communities we impact. It is too easy to forget that change always begins with one.

    1. Thanks Sherry! 🙂

  8. Dana, thanks so much for posting your experience with your Uncle. We can make a difference. We are the drop in the bucket that will fill the world with positive change.

    1. Thank you Linda! It was a good experience, as it lead to positive change and discussion here!

  9. Excellent post. This micro to macro approach in terms of addressing change – individual to community – is the most natural and effective way to tempering our own (re)actions to facilitate change. However, I believe something as simple as looking to one’s own habits to restore balance is skewed by popular taglines and terms heavily promoted by the media and at water coolers worldwide. Terms like “new age” “new world order” “climate change” and “spirituality” all have truth in their roots but are used in such a grandiose prophetic manner that many who do make change are put off by the exorbitant usage and mannerism portrayed. For example, I groan at the phrase “climate change”. While I am the first to speak out about the vile mistreatment of ourselves and of Mother Gaia (including a plastic “island” off Bikini Stoll wtf?!), I am the first to groan over the debate of tempature change and “global warming”. Seriously, who cares what may or may not happen in 10 years when we have a whole planet and occupants unwilling to work together as a global community to clean up and install a proactive people/planet friendly atmosphere today. Bottom line is we need to bring back to a lifestyle change that all we all deep down understand – and leave the speculative terms and arguments buried somewhere….I heard the Vatican is a good place to hide things.

    1. This is such a good point about the term “climate change.” Its happening here, and now. And no amount of dodging, bantering, etc, is going to change the reality of what is outside our door–and the impetus for us all to make positive change. Not sure if you read the Archdruid Report, but John Michael posted a really compelling analysis of what is happening on the Greenland ice sheets *right now* during Christmas week (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2015/12/too-little-too-late.html). Its not like its a far away thing.

      We have flowers blooming right now in my town. Its really something else.

  10. […] Source: Making a Difference | The Druid’s Garden […]

    1. Thanks for the reblog 🙂

  11. I enjoyed your blog. I also had another property that I did a lot of healing on and sold to come to this 5 acres. I have been here 3 years now. I read Bill Mollison’s book many years ago and was very inspired by it. I am creating a Food Forest. The standing stones are inspirational. I have seen stones I’d like to set up here. I also have faced that sense of not making a big enough difference. I decided that if I were the only one, then it would cheat others from their necessary contribution. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    1. Sounds wonderful, Rebeccatreeseed! That land needs you and loves you ;). I think you are hitting a very key point here–everyone has contributed, and so everyone must also be part of the solution. If some of us “fix this” (not that I think that’s possible) then others will have learned nothing and will not have grown from the experience!

      1. Or had the great fun of it.

  12. What a powerful article, I things like permaculture and the like, I love the idea of making a difference. It is so disheartened when people state that people, especially just individuals can make little or no difference. I find such a mindset so poisonous (not that people who say it realise that, they can say such things with good intentions) but it can seep in.

    After all if people in the past had seen a problem and just shrugged it off as too big, nothing to be done to make a difference the world would be a different place.

    I think coming together, even just as a small group first can make big differences – after all some of our biggest impactors such as (for example) Amnesty International started by one man writing to a newspaper about an injustice – that had a knock on affect that rippled and like-minded people came together.

    PS: your tarot deck is stunning!!!!

    1. Yeah, I think we are supposed to think its too big to do anything, but that simply isn’t the case. Each of us has a stake in the problem, so each of us has a stake–our own stake–in the solution :).

  13. 2nd Jan. I have yet to think of my goals for 2016. This encourages me to do that.

    1. Hi Alex! Good to hear from you :). I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with in 2016 🙂

      1. Hi Dana, thanks, I will keep you informed. Have a great 2016.

    1. Thank you for the reblog, Narda!

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