I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all-heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful. She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way! She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of land. How the town had serious stormwater issues, and more vegetation could help slow the water from entering the stream as quickly. But how her neighbor, and the borough, refused to allow any deviance from the 6″ high law, and wouldn’t listen to any reason. Yet, she was doing her best to not only heal this small patch of land but do good for the larger ecosystems in our county. In other words, my friend wasn’t just thinking about her small patch of land, but how that patch of land might be interconnected with other ecosystems and cycles more broadly–and how decisions she made there had an impact beyond her.
The earth, on the largest level, is an interconnected system and web of life. As we move further into climate change and ecological destruction, we are starting to see how true this really is: what people do in New York City can have a strong effect on the melting of glaciers in the North Pole and Greenland. What acid mine drainage pollution goes into a river in Western Pennsylvania makes its way to the Chesapeake River and the Gulf of Mexico. Indigenous peoples in the Pacific are being driven from their homes due to rising oceans from glacier meltwater on the poles. This concept—that earth is a whole and interconnected system—is critical for understanding land healing both locally but more globally as well. Today I want to talk about ecosystems and interconnectivity as critical concepts in relationship to land healing. Thinking in terms of systems, and ecosystems is more challenging for us because these are often large scale and not localized. And yet, for doing good land healing work, it’s important to reflect upon these larger levels and understand the broader systems present.
This is a new post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling several years with many posts! For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices. Last week’s post explored creating a healing grove for long-term land healing work. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing.
In today’s post, we’ll explore two interrelated ideas critical for land healing: ecosystems (and systems in general) and interconnectivity. After exploring these concepts, I’ll share some things to consider from a physical land healing perspective. Next week’s post will look at ecosystems and land healing from a ritualistic and awareness-building perspective.
Ecosystems and Land Healing
On the broadest scale, Earth is made up of many smaller ecosystems. An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms that are interconnected and depend on each other for life; ecosystems include both the biological community as well as the physical environment. Many different ecosystems exist; with several major types: forests, grasslands, desert, tundra, freshwater, and marine. These can be broken down into much more specific ecosystems based on the latitude, geology, soil composition, water composition, altitude, topography, and larger climate patterns. Regardless of where you live on earth, you will live in one—or on the border of more than one–ecosystem. It’s useful to learn what your dominant ecosystem is where you live, so that you know what a healthy ecosystem looks like.
For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, we live in a forest-dominant ecosystem that has several different types. In my region, it is either considered a “Northern Hardwood” forest, made up of Beech, Birch, Sugar Maple, Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine). Or, it is an “Oak-Hickory Forest” made up of Oak, Hickory, Tulip, Red Maple, and prior to the 20th century, American Chestnut. Each of these ecosystems are carefully evolved: the species of plants, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects live in careful balance with each other and all are necessary for the broader functioning of an ecosystem. If we remove just one species, particularly a keystone species (say, Eastern Hemlock through logging or American Eagle through pollution), its not just that species that suffers, but every other species in that ecosystem. (This information was freely available through my state extension office. Anyone living in the US will have a state extension office, and they will offer many free publications and materials on these topics. Other countries often have similar offices focused on conservation and public education on natural resources. Field guides and other books on natural ecology may also be useful here.)
This interdependency is critical for understanding land healing: all life depends on other life for survival. In many cases, that life has very specific needs. A well-known example is the monarch butterfly that needs various species of milkweed in order to survive: it has adapted to an abundance of milkweed, and now that milkweed is in short supply, its numbers are radically declining. Just like the monarch, all life has these needs. Part of the reason “invasives” can be damaging (such as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid) is that they aren’t part of the ecosystem, and they do not have the check and balances that native species have to live in harmony with each other. Thus, all life depends on other life, and healing one part of life (even energetically) can help heal other parts of life.
Ecosystems teach us a powerful lesson about interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is everywhere, but the enormity of how it functions ecologically is hard to wrap one’s head around. I like to think of it in a few different ways to make it manageable. One is through the hydrologic cycle: as I write this, I have a glass of spring water (from the spring on our property, which is our primary water source) that I am drinking. Where did this glass of water come from? From the ground and land surrounding my home. But where was it before that? Perhaps this water soaked in through the last few spring rains, and those had melted from a glacier and moved from the artic across the land. In other words, these same molecules of water that I am drinking right now have been cycling through the earth for potentially billions of years. Thus, how we heal–or harm–water in one place will cycle in many other places. This is part of why I like to focus on water as a land healing practice: unlike earth, which remains stationary across the course of our lives, water moves and the water we heal or bless in one case can make a major impact across the globe.
Another manageable way to think about this interconnectivity is within our own bodies, each a complex, interconnected system. If we engage in unhealthy behaviors (smoking cigarettes, eating poor food, being sedentary), our bodies as a system can handle that for a while. At some point though, these poor choices will have done enough damage to our body’s system that they will be disastrous. You don’t see the effects of one bacon cheeseburger and one lazy day on the couch. But 30 years of bacon cheeseburgers and lazy days on the couch significantly harm the body’s whole system.
Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing
From an ecosystems and ecology perspective, humanity has been metaphorically eating bacon cheeseburgers for three meals a day and sitting on the couch for 30 years, and that long line of bad choices is coming due. The whole earth, as a whole system, is starting to break down. The need for healing is everywhere, it is so extreme, it is overwhelming at times. We certainly can’t physically heal that whole ecosystem on our own, but we can understand it, and we can use the principle of interconnectivity for great effect.
As with all land healing, there are energetic ways of healing and there are physical ways of healing. In the remainder of this post, I’m discussing physical land healing using these concepts. In next week’s post, we’ll consider some ritual work and spiritual ways of working with these concepts.
On the most basic level, when we think about physical land healing, thinking in an ecosystems approach is really helpful Thus, it’s not about individual plants but rather how to support an interconnected web of life. One of the ways that I find helpful when I’m doing this kind of thinking is to use some terminology and categorization from permaculture design:
- Dynamic accumulators: plants that enrich soil, by deep tap roots that bring nutrients up from the ground, possibly also from the air
- Some examples: Chickweed, Comfrey, and Horsetail. Here’s a more complete list.
- Nitrogen fixers: plants that “fix” nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air.
- Some examples: Most legumes and clovers. More info on these can be found here.
- Nectary plants: plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.
- Some examples: St. John’s wort, goldenrod, apple trees. Here is a more complete list.
- Habitat and forage plants: those that provide other kinds of habitat (such as the milkweed for the monarch) or forage for wildlife.
When we are replanting a space, like a lawn, it’s useful to think about how these plants may work in conjunction with each other to form an interconnected web of life. Not just that we are planting plants that may look good, but plants that can help serve different functions and work together. This is how we start thinking on a larger (eco)systems level and consider the role of interconnectivity. In addition to this, of course, there are many other considerations to supporting a healthy ecosystem: clean rainfall, removing pollution, supporting a healthy soil web of life, building soil fertility, and much more. But these concepts, at least, help us start to think about the ecosystem as a system, rather than plants as individuals! In permaculture, we call these “guilds” where the goal isn’t just to, say, plant an apple tree, but plant a whole ecosystem that helps support that tree and all the life around it.
And you might be saying, but what about the animals, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on? I would respond: if you plant it, they will come. The whole idea of focusing on plants is that we are building habitat, food, shelter, and places for wildlife–and its that life that brings the other pieces of a more complete ecosystem.
As a simple example of how this can work in practice, we recently planted two apples and two pears in the back of our garden (on the northern side). The garden is on a bit of a slope, so part of the role of these trees is to establish good root systems to help hold in the soil in addition to our swales. But the other idea, here, is that we want to create an ecosystem as part of our garden and support the trees for us and for wildlife. So rather than just planting apple trees, we did (or are planning to do) the following:
- Wood chip inoculated mulch around base of the trees
- Comfrey plants so we can “chop and drop” for extra nutrients; comfrey also functions as nectary plants for bees
- A variety of nectary plants to support insect life and that are also medicinal in nature: St. johns wort, wood betony, lupine, red clover
- Nitrogen fixing plants: red clover and lupine
Now, rather than having just some apple trees for good eats, we have a whole mini-ecosystem that supports us with food and medicine, brings good insect life to the garden, and supports life.
In the end, the major takeaways are these: earth as a whole is a single interconnected system, and as land healers, we can work with any part of that system energetically or physically and help offer healing. We will always be working at a local level, within one or more ecosystems, but through doing so, because earth is all interconnected, we benefit all of the earth through our efforts.