Sometimes, the hidden, the unacknowledged hurts are the worst kind. These are the kind that you bury, deep within yourself, or that society pretends never happened. We hear stories of these every day–massive cover-ups of the truth of crimes being revealed, people coming forth after decades of silence, the relief that one feels when one can finally talk about something he or she experienced. If you’ve ever been in this situation, where something happened to you, and you were forced to keep it silent, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here. Having others know, to see, and to understand alone are acts of tremendous healing power. And it is on this topic that we continue our series on land healing and the work we can do as druids and other earth-based spiritual practitioners, permaculturists, and those who fight for a better today and tomorrow.
In my latest post on this series two weeks ago, we explored the first steps towards land healing–that of deep listening, ascertaining the nature of the healing work, and building trust. In today’s post, we explore the beginning of healing techniques: the magic of acknowledgment, witnessing, holding space, and apology. These are techniques that are appropriate for the many different kinds of healing we can enact, including both palliative care and land healing. These are techniques that I almost always use for my land healing work, sometimes as part of the ritual and other work, and sometimes on their own. I find that they are almost universally appropriate, even when some of the techniques we explore further on in this series are not. So let’s take a look at what these techniques are, why they work, and how to enact them.
Acknowledgment and Witnessing
Many times, in land healing work, we discover something that is in the middle of happening or something that has already happened. We aren’t all-powerful, we don’t command sums of money or influence that can change the destruction of our lands in many cases–and we certainly can’t stop what has already occurred. But what we can do is bear witness. To see what is happening, or has happened, to remember, to share the memory of what has been lost (see remembering, below). I find myself doing this work often with cut trees—remembering them and honoring them long after they are gone.
To go back to the example I opened up with, there is deep healing power in acknowledging the suffering of another. Acknowledgement is where we start–its the first powerful step we take in healing work of any kind. We cannot address a problem if we fail to acknowledge that there is one. I believe that acknowledgement is one biggest issues we have at present–there is this collective blindness, this collective unwillingness to engage, see, or acknowledge, what is happening around us. I see this a lot firsthand here where we have a lot of fracking and environmental degradation. People don’t really talk about the oil wells, the equipment, except to comment how its “good jobs” for the area (that is the truth, and in an economically disadvantaged area, fracking jobs are very good jobs). Just as people don’t talk about the continual raping and pillaging of our forests, the damaged and destroyed waterways from mining. If we fail to acknowledge these things even exist, if we fail to talk about them or draw attention to them, we cannot being the repair work necessary to heal. The longer that a painful issue goes unacknowledged, unseen, the more deep-rooted the pain surrounding the issue can be.
Acknowledgement requires us to both be capable of seeing and be willing to see. These are important distinctions. Being capable of seeing means that we have enough knowledge and wisdom to interpret what we are seeing and recognizing it is a problem. I think most of us are capable of seeing, and understanding, many of the challenges we face. Being willing to see means that we are capable of seeing and willing to do so-we choose to engage. We put aside the inner dialogues or cultural baggage that tells us these things are normal, that everything is fine, and instead choose to see destruction, damage, etc. for what it is.
There is tremendous power in acknowledgment. All of our healing work stems from this. Being ready to heal, ultimately, first means being ready to acknowledge. I have practiced being in a state of acknowledgement and openness with each day. I pay close attention to the land, in whatever state it is in, engage, and interact with it. If I see something awful, like a forest being cut, I do not look away, but instead, I acknowledge. Stating it aloud is even more powerful, “I see your suffering.” This leads us to the next steps: holding space. Acknowledgement requires us to directly look, to see what it is that may pain us, and to take it all in as it is. To see with a compassionate heart, and an open mind, and to simply take in what is happening.
Acknowledgment alone is rarely sufficient for healing work, but it is the first deeply important step. You might think about these activities as being on a set of stairs: you have to start with acknowledgement, and then you can move into the remainder of the steps here today.
When something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–this is the work of palliative care, as I discussed in an earlier post. This is especially true with places that have active suffering happening to them–mountaintop removal or fracking are very good examples here, as are polluted rivers with active dumping, etc. A good metaphor for some of the work we can do with these places is to think about a friend who is very sick, in a hospital bed. You wish you could do something to help this person, but some things are beyond your control. Instead, you do the thing you can do, which is to make sure they are not alone—you sit quietly with them, laugh, talk, and do some energetic work. You spend the time to help them.
The land is no different–when something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–holding space might be appropriate. Holding space is a powerful form of healing for the land, and goes well beyond just acknowledgement. You can hold space in many different ways–all of them require presence and active engagement.
To give you an example of this, right now, a most of the hemlock trees in my town are fighting the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This is a small, aphid-like beetle that has been making its way east and destroying our hemlock populations. It slowly sucks the sap out of them until they die; and it covers the hemlocks with its little white cocoons and spiderweb looking tendrils. I discovered it only recently, when some branches dropped in front of me on my path. If these infestations are caught early, and if a lot of chemicals are used, some trees can be saved–but these trees have away too many on them already. In the next few years, they will slowly be drained of their sap, their life energy, and pass on. And, in truth, it is deeply painful to me, since hemlock is one of my most sacred trees–the hemlocks shape the entire ecosystem around here. Sometimes, I’d rather look away, to take a different path on my walk to work and avoid the hemlocks and their suffering–but I don’t. To hold space for these trees, I walk by my friends, the hemlocks, each day on my way to work. I note the branches that drop with the adelgids. I put my hand on their trunks. Sometimes, I bring a little anointing oil for them. I bring blessed stones, and bury them at the roots. I am collecting their seeds, to go into my freezer, to spread again and plant when I am an old woman in the hopes of bringing these trees back to our forests. I know that in this act, I’m not just holding space for these specific hemlocks, but all of the hemlocks who are going through this transition–the tens of thousands of them here, in this county, the millions and millions in this state, and more beyond.
There’s tremendous power in simply holding space for these places. In recognizing the suffering of another. Your very presence is so important. Your presence is calming and soothing, you resonate “I am here for you” and “you are loved.” “I see your suffering, and I am here for you.” This is tremendously powerful work. We cannot abandon our earth mother during these dark times–if we want to walk the path of land healers, we must quietly and firmly, stand with her even in her darkest times, holding space for her. Holding space is about investing your time and energy. Its being available and simply there, for however long is needed. Its being strong even when you see suffering you’d rather not see.
I also think that holding space is a way for us to work through our own emotions about everything that is happening around us. Doing the work of land healing in this day and age can be tremendously difficult–but holding space gives us the peace of knowing we are doing something, and that something is important. In fact, I’d say that’s true of all of the techniques described here–they help the land, which is their primary goal, but they also help us!
Just as there is tremendous power in acknowledgement and witnessing, and in holding space, so too is there power in apology. Often, in seriously degraded places, like places where whole mountains are being removed (we have one such place not far from here), individual spirits of trees, plants, and animals, the spirits of places have been forced to leave may need an apology, to help pass on, to help heal. Apology is appropriate for any healing work–and sometimes, acknowledgement and apology is all that I do at certain spaces, especially spaces that are not willing to have anything else done. When I do the work of apology, I apologize on behalf of myself and my species
If your spiritual gifts allow you direct communication with the land and her inhabitants, sometimes as part of the work of apology you will be asked for an explanation. I find that it’s helpful to give one, and that, too, is part of healing work. Even if not, however, standing and witnessing, and apologizing, is a powerful healing act. I described some of this work in this post–especially at the older sacred sites of others to whose tradition you do not belong, or at sites that are closed off to all human activity, this is the most appropriate healing work.
My Asatru friends have a saying: “Those who are remembered live on.” And I have adopted this saying for my land healing work, as I think it provides us with a potent and important form of healing–but also empowerment. Remembrance is an important part of land healing. I think its very appropriate to dedicate a holiday, or a day, to remembrance of places, spirits, trees, whatever it is, that have passed, and to honor them on this day. Or, to maintain a small shrine for them in their honor.
Remembrance can be a potent form of healing work, especially when you know lands will be damaged/destroyed. I remember the first tree I ever worked with in this way–it was a tree that I grew up near, a huge silver maple. I witnessed it being cut, and was told that the people who cut it were new homeowners who “didn’t like raking up the leaves.” I was so devastated, did the work of acknowledgement, holding space, and apology, and after the tree was cut, I managed to get a small piece of it. I kept this piece with me, and then, when I bought my property in Michigan, I met a second tree– a tree that had also been cut, the twin to the still-standing white pine tree in the center of my property. There, I made a “shrine to the fallen” with a simple stack of stones, and around that stack, I placed the piece of the silver maple, and many others. Over the years, I added much to the shrine, regularly tended it, and, at Samhuinn, made offerings of my homemade dandelion wine and cakes. Since I left Michigan, I made a new shrine in the woods and have continued the practice. It was a small gesture, not taking much time, but it has done a lot of good in the long term, I believe. I felt it was important that I not visit the shrine more than once a week to tend it, and I only make offerings once a year. I don’t want to focus my energies on the dead all the time (that’s not healthy) but I do want to honor them at appropriate times and fondly remember them, honoring them.
There are lots of ways to engage in the work of remembrance. My shrine example is one such way. Other ways include creating artwork, stories, songs, poems, and other bardic arts; growing a “remembrance” sacred garden; lighting a candle at a certain time of the year; honoring and remembering through ritual; or even doing acts of service for good in the community or land. Planting a new tree of the same species to honor one that has fallen, for example (or even using that tree’s seeds or tending that tree’s offspring, for example, is a powerful act of remembrance). Let your heart lead you on this journey.
I’m surprised at how long this series is taking me to write–but clearly, there is a lot to say on this subject and articulating all of this is helping many, I think. Its certainly helping me to put into words the practices that I know and do often. So thanks for staying with me as this series is unfolding! We’ll continue working deeper into the energetic healing work next week. I also wanted to let you know that I’ll be doing some overseas travel for work in the next month, so I will likely miss a week or two of posting in April, but will begin my regular weekly posts in May. Blessings of spring to all!