In my ongoing work as a land healer, I find that I regularly need a retreat from my battered bruised landscape. Why? Because this work is really difficult. Lately, it seems more so–we have large swaths of forests where I live that are being cut down to make way for more fields, we continue to face threats of logging of so-called ‘protected’ lands here locally, and well, it has just been a few hard years. I find myself growing weary at work that never seems to be done and is in fact increasing each year–me traveling across these beautiful, ancient Allegheny mountains, always finding the ruined places, the damaged places, the places harmed by human hands. Doing what I can, in my own small ways, to do the work of healing and repair. This work is good, it is right, but it is exhausting and isolating. I don’t know anyone else in my region who is dedicated to this kind of work as a primary spiritual path. Lately, I’ve been feeling just bone-deep weariness and sadness because everywhere I look where I live, it feels like things are all going in the wrong direction. More deforestation, more human demands on the land, more toxic spills and waste, more fracking wells, more coal-fired plants, and more and more pain on this landscape. Adding that to the increasing effects of climate change, and well, it is hard to hold that all in your hands and to keep saying to your land, just hold on, a bit longer.
Speaking of hope, when I’ve spoken on this blog about a vision for the future, that vision often centers on fundamentally changing the basic relationships between humans and nature: moving from relationships that exploit and extract to those that nurture, tend, and reciprocate with the living earth. Where the land and her peoples live in harmony and balance; living slowly, richly, and locally; focusing on how to transition from what we have now to something much better, something that gives space for all life to thrive. I can see it in my mind’s eye, and when things get difficult for the land and I, we focus on that vision–that bright future. And I remind the land that so many of us who practice permaculture, herbalism, druidry, natural building, earth skills, and other ancestral connections are working to bring this forth. My land and I share this vision, we often talk about it and this vision is what keeps us going. In today’s post, I want to share the story of a journey that I was able to take to land that already enacts that vision.
Because of this bone-deep weariness about the present and future, I knew I needed a retreat. In late February, I went to a friend’s house to visit and help her with her book project. She told me she was house-sitting at a retreat center in the Caribbean, in a tiny island nation, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and she invited me to join her on the retreat. The timing was perfect, since I am on sabbatical right now and working on a book full-time, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity. Of course, I always have to weigh these kinds of opportunities with the environmental impact. Air travel emits a lot of CO2 and I try to avoid it when possible, although in this case, if I was to go, I had to fly there. Thus, I always pay to offset my emissions, in addition to working to live my life as sustainably as possible and sink as much carbon as I am able to do.
The land of St. Vincent and the Grenadines was deeply healing and nurturing in ways I did not expect. The land was, as expected, tropical, warm with breezes blowing, and beautiful to see. But it was not a major tourist destination, so we got to simply experience the local culture. Because of where we were staying, we were able to meet a number of local farmers and learn more about the Vincentian’s relationship with their land. And what I experienced filled my heart with joy–the people here really cared for their land, they honored their land, and they tended the land in loving ways. What I felt radiating from the land when I first arrived on the island was because of this reciprocation: I felt this deeply healing and nurturing energy from the land because that land was deeply honored and nurtured by her people. This brought me such joy: my own vision for the lands of the Appalachian mountains was literally being enacted there before my eyes: a whole culture of people who deeply honored the land and lived in harmony with that land. Seeing this reciprocal, care-based relationship is what I’ve been hoping can happen everywhere–and here it was, happening in a beautiful way.
Many of the food-growing areas and farms are high up in the mountains, which creates a really interesting set of circumstances. The land is very mountainous, and most of the people live in the valley areas, areas that are accessible by roads and cars. But they are on a tropical island, so bringing in external food is expensive–thus, people grow as much of the food as they can themselves. In a year-round tropical climate, they are always growing and harvesting some fresh produce, often in beautiful food forests. In the valleys where people live, people tend small gardens and may have a lot of edible fruits growing as well as limited livestock (cows, goats, and chickens). But the bulk of the produce that is eaten comes from mountain farms. These farms, situated in the rich volcanic soil, are only accessible on foot and may require quite a hike up and back down again.
My friend Sue, who is a fellow herbalist and lover of the earth, and I spent a good number of days getting to know the local plants and the local people who tended those plants. For example, we had a wonderful opportunity to visit Hope Estate Cannabis farm, a wonderful farm of good people growing good medicine. We started at the bottom of the mountain, and then to get to the farm, we hiked about an hour straight up into the mountain on a rocky, mountain path. There would have never been a way for a fossil-fuel-powered vehicle to get up there–whatever we wanted to bring, we carried on our backs. Our guide, Isong, even carried 3 gallons of water right up the mountain with us. I was thinking to myself, what a wonderful commute to work, a hike up into the mountains each day, for work.
As I was having this magical experience of visiting the mountain farm, I was thinking to myself how my own culture would manage this kind of circumstance. I could never see anyone in the USA being willing to do this hike each day, and leaving their fossil fuel-powered vehicles and tools behind. They’d rip out the trees and plow up the soil, they’d use heavy machinery to create a road right up into the mountain in the most destructive way possible. And then, the land would be managed with the aid of fossil fuels and machines, destroying the soil web and contributing to the ongoing challenges. But not the islanders–they just used their own two feet, carrying themselves up the mountain, and returning with 50+ lbs of food carried on their backs, which is then sold locally at stands or even on the porch of their home. Many people did this either part-time or full-time–you always saw men walking in and out of the mountains, carrying a machete and a bag of something on their backs, their faces smiling as they made their way back to the village homes.
On our journey up into the mountains to Hope Estate Cannabis farm, we not only learned about how they grow sacred medicine is grown, but also about a number of medicinal plants and edible foods. What I came to understand was that this land was deeply tended–even on public lands–and people were everywhere in these wild mountains supporting an extensive food forest network. Our guide up the mountain, Isong, told us that he lived in the mountains for four years, never coming down, just eating off the fruits of the land. He had much wisdom to share about plants and relationships with the land. He explained how people would tend all of the lands up in the mountains–replanting, pruning, scattering seeds, tending small plots, and so on. He also had much philosophy to share about living in this way and how it brought him into a deeper relationship with himself, the land, and the broader cosmos. I told him I wish I could go into our mountains and live for four years, but it was illegal where I lived and that, at present, our land is not tended in such rich ways.
From these wonderful people, Sue and I learned some of the most powerful medicines of the land. We learned of the uses of Cannabis roots (which the farmers gifted us) as a tonic for health, and wellness, and also to support asthmatics. We learned how to harvest cacao pods and enjoy the fruit from the beans before the seeds are made into the richest chocolate. We learned of the Tiki Thyme, Ball herb, Blue Vervain, Leaf of life, Bitter Mellon, Lemongrass, and leaves of the Soursup tree, among other sacred plants and their healing medicine. We learned of the seasons for various fruits and flowers on the land and always had our bellies full of some new tasty delight. When we returned from the mountain, we spent days making herbal medicines (I’ll share in a separate post about this) using all of the ingredients there from the land.
The local food, of course, reflects this amazing landscape, with people eating locally and in season. Most of the food is cooked in traditional ways–while we were up in the mountains, we enjoyed a lovely soup with all local vegetables from the mountain. The soup had eddoe roots, onions, coconut milk, coconut dumplings, and fresh greens. It was deeply healing and nourishing, served in a gourd bowl.
The other thing that was notable was the genuine humility, friendliness and goodwill of those who tended the land. These were people who were so respectful, so kind, and so honest.They were willing to share their wisdom and the fruits of their labor. They had time to teach. They were eager and willing to have us learn from them, and appreciate the work they were doing. It makes me realize that part of the equation of healing and balancing the land goes back to that not only do we need to change our relationships with the land around us, but also with each other. To be kind, generous, and open–that same relationship with the land needs to be present in each of us.
As I was nearing the end of my time and visit to St. Vincnet, the power and importance of this experience really struck me. What I mean is this: for so long, I had been envisioning something that looked just like what was happening here as one of the best possible futures for the Allegheny mountains. I had been putting that vision out as a magical act for some time. Part of this was because I had been reading about land tending and reciprocal relationships in terms of this land and related land’s history, thinking about what the Americas must have been like prior to colonialization. I knew places like this must exist, where people are able to enter into such a beautiful reciprocal relationship with their land. Due to my work, I end up visiting many different places around the world. And while I’ve seen this kind of activity in really beautiful ways in isolated pockets (like at Dancing Rabbit ecovillage), I’ve never seen this kind of land tending on a society-wide scale. But it exists, here and now, and it is beautiful. It is more than I could have envisioned or imagined. I will need more time to process this–one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to have more than a vision, but have a plan to get there. What can I do? What can others do? This experience helped me see some potential avenues. I’m not ready to share on that yet, but stay tuned.
When I returned to my battered, bruised land here in Western Pennsylvania, things looked so different. My drive home revealed even more deforestation, the regular coal-fired power plants spewing their toxins, and people not recognizing the spirit of my own beautiful, ancient mountains. People went about their hurried and busy lives, not paying attention to the beauty of nature around them. But, everywhere I looked, I could see the possibilities unfolding, that bright future is not yet written, that vision that I continue to hold–in my mind, heart, and spirit–stronger than ever before.
The first thing I did when I returned to my own land was that I went to the sacred grove on my land, my grove of renewal. This was a damaged place that had been logged and had multiple toxic burn pits–cleaned up the burn pits and planted a range of native, woodland medicinal species that grow more endangered and threatened by the year. It is in this place that I do my deepest visioning and healing work, it is this place where we work to radiate that vision outward. And so, I told the story to the trees, to the mountain, and to all of us here who continue to hope and dream. I sat in a sacred grove on this land, and I shared it all–not just the story, but the vision, the energy, the experience with the Allegheny mountains. We cried together, knowing that if it could happen in one place, it could happen in others. This experience gave us a tremendous gift–the gift of hope.