There has been a lot of talk in the American druid scene in the last few years about establishing sacred spaces, creating sacred groves, and really starting to re-enchant our land here. I think druids and other earth-centered spiritual traditions around the world, particularly those living in places shaped by colonization, face these same challenges: how do we create our own sacred spaces? What does that look like? I wrote earlier this year, for example, about Stones Rising at Four Quarters farm and the raising of standing stones. A few years ago, I’ve also written a series on sacred sites in the US and how to build some sacred sites. This post continues those conversations.
In my Stones Rising post, I talked about how establishing sacred spaces, as a community, was certainly an “American” challenge because of the history of colonialism and the genocide of native peoples here. I commented how we were living on “someone else’s sacred land.” And there is certainly truth in that statement. However, upon further reflection and meditation, I think this statement is much more complicated and problematic. Here’s the thing: as long as we think about the land where we were born, and where we live, as someone else’s sacred land, it continues to be inaccessible/unavailable/distant from us. We feel like we are outsiders, inhabiting a place to which we do not belong. And the truth is this–we are here now, we are working to rebuild, we are working to reconnect, working to understand the sacredness of nature, her magic, her medicine. If we work to create sacred spaces, learn about ecology, uses of plants, and so on (a lot of stuff I advocate here on this blog), I think that this kind of work very much honors the ancestors of the land and the relationships they had with the land. In other words, we learn the land, we let the land teach us, and we connect with it on the deepest levels.
Obviously, its not ok to visit someone else’s sacred site and claiming it as your own–that is cultural appropriation. What is also inappropriate is not acknowledging the many ancestors of the land who came before–we have to recognize what happened here, on this soil, and help the land and spirits to heal. Given these two points, I believe that what we need to do is forge new connections for a new time. We have to build, from scratch, both our relationships with the land and the sacred spaces we need to honor the land.
And yet, “re-enchanting” or our land, so to speak, and connecting with it is a multi-generational process. It will take lifetimes of work, generations of people, individuals and groups. But I believe that work begins here and now–and for many of us, has already begun. The danger of not creating sacred spaces and making this land our sacred land means that we will never be fully connected to it. The danger of not seeing the land where you were born as your own means that you have no place to call home.
So in today’s post, taking this “sacred space” concept more to the practical level, I’d like to explore the work of establishing a piece of land, of any size, as sacred land–that is, establishing and maintaining a permanent sacred space, a sacred sanctuary, a place of magic, contemplation, reflection, and renewal (and many other things). This post coincides with my purchase of new land and my own moving to a new home, and so I’ll use myself as a case study.
What do I mean when I say “sacred land” or a “sacred landscape”? How is it different than a “sacred site?” In both cases, we are cultivating a relationship with the land, but the scope of that relationship differs. The way that I see this distinction is as follows.
Sacred Sites: We can establish a sacred site, like a stone circle, sacred garden, shrine, altar, and so on, as a stand-alone space. These are single constructions that offers a particular kind of blessing to the land or has another kind of use (or series of uses). They may be hidden away or created in a place that has many different purposes. The point here is that something is set aside for purposes only to be used as sacred (like a stone circle).
Sacred Landscapes: When I say sacred landscape or sacred land, I am talking about a potentially larger piece of land with many smaller sacred sites/spots/items contained within it. The idea here is that the entire piece of land or property is a dedicated sacred place where you can engage in various kinds of sacred actions to reconnect with nature. It is certainly a step above a single dedicated space, but rather, We have some public examples: Circle Sanctuary, Four Quarters, Dreamland. But any person can choose to do this as well on a smaller piece of land of their own–and it is to this work today that I will begin to attend.
One metaphor you might think about this ties to permaculture design. I might create a small raised bed for raising veggies and focus my efforts solely in that direction, or, I might create an integrated design that had many different kinds of features including an orchard, herb garden, outdoor kitchen, butterfly garden–the whole design, which took years to enact, works together as a cohesive whole to meet a variety of shared purposes. A sacred shrine is like that single-raised bed-growing tomatoes. A sacred landscape is an entire design, working together, to feed, house, and nurture all who call that place home.
So how does this look in practice? This will be my second time working to create a sacred sanctuary, and I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I still have a lot to learn! And so, over a period of time as I create the space, I’m going to walk through the process sharing how I am transforming my new 5 acre land land into sacred land–energetically and physically. In order do that, I want to offer some background on where I’m coming from and where I’ve been. I lived on a 3-acre homestead in Michigan for 5 years (the beginnings of this blog) where I first intuitively learned some of what I’ll share in this post series. Then, 2.5 years ago, I returned to Western Pennsylvania, the land of my ancestors, for a new job and to be much closer to my family. It was a bit of a jarring shift–after working for five years on land both physically and energetically, and transforming it into a druid and permaculture oasis, I was stuck in a rental situation in a small town. And yet, some of the deepest insights of my druid path came from this work. I had no home base. All the land became the land to which I belonged.
After two years of living in town, I was fairly convinced that urban permaculture was not the route I wanted to take. Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time exploring options of intentional community with a friend. After exploring various pieces of land, we realized that our visions were different–I was drawn to the wild, wooded spaces and she preferred the hustle and bustle of city (or at least small town) life. For some of us, living in a town or city and being “visible” doing permaculture is their calling, like my dear friend Linda of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm. But for me, I realized how badly I needed a sacred sanctuary. Yes, it would be a sanctuary that had a regular flow of friends and guests–but not prying neighbors constantly observing my space. I wanted my home to be a restful space for myself and those I love that was largely invisible to outsiders. I do enough visible work in the world, but I didn’t want my home life on display. And then, the land came to me–it literally fell in my lap. I had resolved to start looking for a home next spring and give myself the winter in town. But then in early August, I was visiting some permaculture friends at their amazing food forest and they told me about a house that was going up for sale that I should take a look at. As soon as I saw the pictures online, I knew it was home. It came on a mostly wooded five acres, surrounded by forests and farms. It was 15 min from my work and only 5 minutes from the state forest where I enjoy kayaking and hiking. When I saw the photos, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, and the next day, went out to see it. After a long process, the land is now under my “ownership.”
Preliminaries: Establishing Relationship and Doing Away with “Ownership”
Having signed the paperwork making me “the owner” of the land this past week raises all kinds of issues surrounding creating sacred land–and these are useful to explore as part of the process. In truth, the profit-driven western world has encouraged a line of thinking that implies that we humans are the only agents of change in the world–we have the power, we have the control. There is this underlying assumption present, particularly with nature and life other than our own, that we can just do what we want. Of course, the modern conception of ownership of land solidifies the problematic “do what pleases you” thinking. I just signed paperwork that says I can do just about anything I want to this land, short of some legal issues (like dumping raw sewage on it or building new structures without a permit). But in terms of what I might do to the trees, to the plants, to the ecosystem–beyond “lawn maintenance” there are no laws for that. I could cut it all down, I could let it grow up–because I now “own it” the land is mine to do with what I want. And for the record, I don’t really think this is about laws, what is legal or no. What it really is about is a mentality, mindset, approach, and relationship.
I have a druid friend who is a landscaper, and he tells me how prevalent this attitude of “shaping nature to my will” is when he is working with clients on their landscapes. Most of the time, the attitude is “I want it to look nice” and by “nice” it means “in control.” He told me of a woman who owned a beautiful property and wanted to cut down a bunch of trees for no real purpose. He tried to talk to her about stewardship, asking about the people who would own the land after her…and it went over like a lead balloon. People don’t see themselves as stewards of the land, they see themselves as “owners.” The most salient story I have ever read on this topic was in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss book. It was a later chapter in her book called, “The Owner.” I think everyone should read it–it was a shocking and horrific story about ownership and what people will do to bend nature to their will tucked in an otherwise wonderful book about mosses and how they grow. This “ownership” is from this same place and line of thinking that so many of the atrocities that are committed against the land are rooted.
In order to create a meaningful sacred space on any land, or to establish land as sacred, this “Ownership” mindset must be put firmly aside. Sacred landscapes aren’t just about what you want to do on your land or about your vision becoming a reality. Creating a sacred sanctuary must be a collaboration with nature itself–both the elemental forces upon the world, the physical status of the land, as well as the will of the spirits of the land. In fact, the more that you can get into your head this idea of service, partnership, or stewardship for a greater whole, the better all of this kind of work happens. While I legally “own the land,” I do not see myself not as an “owner” but as a steward, here for a period time, here with the sole goal of leaving the land better than I found it and working the will of the spirits of the land while I am present. Stewardship implies that you are there, for a period of time,
Part of this is linguistic: When we use possessive words, like “my land” or “I will do”, it again, establishes a certain kind of relationship–one where I am the dominant force, where I have the control. I like to instead describe the land as “the land to which I belong.” Its subtle, but powerful, and helps shift the inner subconscious, not only for you, but for anyone else who hears you speak. And so, if we are going to establish any land as a sacred space, it begins in a place of partnership, respect, and conversation.
Further Preliminaries: Honoring, Trust, and History
Creating sacred spaces is a time-honoring, slow process; creating a whole sacred landscape is even more so the case. Like the flow of the seasons or the sprouting of a seed, this kind of work can’t be forced. The work takes the time it takes, unfolding like a spiral. In honor of time and space, before you even begin to shape a shared vision of creating sacred land, there is preliminary work to be done. Think of this preliminary work like the foundation upon which everything else is built–your job, first and foremost, is to lay the foundation and prepare the site. And you do that through honoring and, in a lot of cases, some good old-fashioned sweat equity.
Before you even begin to shape a shared vision for sacred land, it’s important to acknowledge all of the folks sitting at the table: ancestors of the land, nature spirits, land guardians, the spirits of the stones, and the trees, and the like. There are a lot of different kinds of “spirits of the land” or “spirits of place.” Ancestors of the land, human spirits that once lived there and still guard/protect, may be present. Nature spirits, the spirits of the plants, animals, stones, and trees, may also be present. Greater nature spirits, like those of the soil web, the mountain, the river, the whole forest, may also be present. Even greater beings, like a land guardian or deity of some sort, may also be around. They want to be acknowledged and should be before any other work can begin.
Honoring the Nature Spirits of the Land. For honoring the nature spirits of the land, I like to simply sit in stillness and quiet in a place on that land, and make simple offerings. When I arrived on the land to which I now belong, even before it was under my “ownership”, I brought some home-grown tobacco and my flute and played the flute and made offerings around the property. This was my sole purpose in the visit. I spent time on the land; I brought a blanket and lay in what may become a sacred grove down by the pond. I just breathed in the soil and observed the land around me. It was beautiful, magical. I could feel the spirits of the land stirring. Sometimes, the spirits have been asleep for a long while–and they need time to awaken again. This simple honoring work achieves that goal over a period of time. For honoring them long term, I highly recommend a dedicated outdoor shrine–this will be the first thing I build on the new land once I have a sense from the spirits of where to build it.
Honoring the Ancestors of the Land. Ancestors come in many types. Here in the US, we have primarily two types–the more recent ancestors which may have been farmers, miners, and the like, and more distant ancestors of the land, who were the native peoples. For the native ancestors of the land, I am planning on a specific ceremony to honor them at Samhain. I will build a fire, drum, play my flute, offer my home-grown tobacco and simply be present to listen to their voices. After I have listened, I will share with them my hopes and dreams for the land. For the non-native ancestors of the land, who I know to have been farmers (thanks to those who lived on the property before me), I have indicated my intent to dedicate a bed in the garden in their honor.
Building Trust. Even if you are stepping onto “well tended” land, most land today has been damaged by the typical practices of westerners: keeping lawns, spraying weeds, burning garbage, driving over the soil and compacting it, and the like. You may find yourself in need of doing some reparation work before you begin any spiritual work. This is because the spirits may need to learn to trust again. Before you can communicate with them, before you can create sacred land, you must pave the way and demonstrate your intentions. At my old homestead, I had to clean up the egregious garbage all over the place before I did anything else. That, and the honoring work, took me far in connecting to the spirits. At my new sacred land, I have the sense that I will need to do some seed scattering and forest replanting, among other things.
Understanding the History of the Land. Part of trust building is learning, what you can, about the history of the land. If you have access to the previous owners, that is a good place to start. If not, you can look for signs on the landscape–old fence posts and barbed wire, for example, is a common sign in these parts. I think it is useful to use any tools you can–in the US, the US Geological survey also offers historical maps of many regions and that can help you get a sense, back into the 1950’s, of what the land may have looked like. Court records and deeds are also very common!