Putting in your Dirt Time and Connecting Deeply with Nature

As the head of a druid order, people often ask me, “What’s the best way to learn to be a druid?” or “What books should I pick up?” or “How do I get started in nature spirituality?” and my answer is always the same: “Go into nature and put in your dirt time. Nature is our greatest teacher.” We usually end up with a good conversation about what it means to practice nature spirituality and druidry, what that looks like, and how being part of nature is the greatest part of the experience. And to be clear, it’s not that books, reading, and learning aren’t important to any nature-based spiritual tradition, because we do have a tradition to teach, specific methods of interaction and exploration, philosophies, and practice and those things that can be extremely helpful.  But what I’m saying is that time in nature–dirt time–should be central. It should be the point, always, before anything else. What does it mean to put in your dirt time? In this post I share what I mean by “putting in your dirt time” can be many things, but ideally it is time in nature that is interactive, reverent, and unstructured, and, of course, dirty!

Dirt time is Interactive

Regenerate soil!
Dirt time!

Interactive means that you aren’t just passively observing nature but you are actively engaging with nature–you are getting up close, exploring a full sensory experience, feeling the touch of the leaves, the wind on your hair, and your body is covered in the rich soil, mud, clay, and leaves. If you think about the ways in which people interact with nature most commonly, it is in pre-digested experiences created by others: run on the paths with your headphones in, take photos at the specific vista where everyone else is taking photos, and make sure you stay clean. It’s almost like there’s a pushing away of anything that’s interactive and too deep, and asking you only to experience nature on the surface.  But who wants shallow, surface interactions? You can go on social media for that or experience that shallowness in far too many places in modern cultures.  Interactivity in something more, something deeper.

Interactivity in nature can explore depth over time, both in more human cultivated places like gardens as well as more wild places. In wild places, interactivity means getting off the paths (in non-sensitive areas, obviously), and getting to know nature.  It means smelling, feeling, using all of your senses. One of the things I like to carry with me on my forays out into the wilds is a small jeweler’s loupe–it is basically a magnifying glass that you can use to look really close up at things in nature like bark, mushrooms, and flower petals.  In this case, absoltely take time to smell the roses, feel them, and maybe do a little spirit communication. Its about me, as part of nature, being part of nature.

In your garden or food forest, interactive may also mean thinking about how to do things with your own body and simple tools rather than fossil fuels.  It is so easy to reach for the fast fossil-fueled powered tool to get the job done efficiently–but putting in your dirt time means considering a different, slower, and more connected approach.  This is a form of resistance to the typical narratives which tells you you should use products and chemicals and fossil fuels to accomplish goals on the land. For example, in the last month, I’ve been working on a project to cut back my friend Multiflora Rose near our spring in one of our food forest areas.  As an opportunistic species (what others would call an invasive species), Multiflora has become unbalanced in our ecosystem at the Druid’s Garden, and we’ve had to negotiate some new boundaries to ensure she is not harming the overall ecosystem.  So, after a discussion with Multiflora, we had an agreement that I could cut her back near the spring to plant paw paws, elderberry, and native raspberry bushes to re-establish a more native ecosystem as long as she could grow wild above the spring.  To remove the 4′ x 30′ line of multiflora, I could have come in here with some kind of fossil-fuel-powered brushog or chipper and done the job in about 30 minutes–and it would have been highly disruptive to the land.  Instead, I went in with a thick pair of leather gloves that went partway up my arm and my pruners and cut each multiflora reverently and carefully stacked her (for use in hugel mounds once she dries out). She took her blood offering each time I worked, and that was ok.  It took me about a week, working an hour or two a day on cutting back the multiflora. But I learned a great deal by putting in my dirt time this way–I learned how different multiflora plants age, I learned about her sacred geometry, and I learned that she makes great straight canes, which she gifted me for use for an upcoming art project. I was also able to be gifted this particular blog post, which arose in the hours I was cutting reverently.  And, by pulling her roots out by hand, I was able to not disrupt the soil web. In other words, by choosing to do this work with my own sweat equity and put in my dirt time, I was able to deepen my relationship with the multiflora rose, the soil, and pave the way for continued respectful interaction with what I will plant there next. I was able to show the spirits of the land that I value them enough to put my time and energy of my own body into this project and not to cause more damage than necessary.  In fact, this is the way we manage our entire 5-acre homestead.  We do it through slow practices, permaculture, and regenerative approaches that require our own sweat equity rather than high-powered equipment or fossil fuels.  There is a deep reverence in that slower, interactive, dirty way of doing things, and trust me, you never need to go to the gym!

Dirt time is reverent and respectful.

Dig deeply to discover the secrets of the soil
Secrets of the Soil – a sign in my garden!

Reverence and respect is another really important part of putting in dirt time, and we saw one example of respectful interaction in my exploration of cutting back multiflora above. By this I mean that your mind and actions are in a reverent, earth-honoring place, where you are going into the land in gratitude.  You are not there to see what the land can offer you, but rather, what you can offer the land. This is a really big problem for many people new to nature spirituality–they go into the woods expecting to get something specific (an experience, a feeling, wild medicine, etc.) and not realizing that everything about building relationships with nature is about reciprocation.  And that matters, so, so much, for several reasons. First, it matters because humans are taking so much right now that all life on this planet is being threatened….and being a human who doesn’t assume you can take what you want is very important to building deeper relationships with the living earth.  It is important for the spirits of nature to be able to trust you with their deeper lessons, and it also matters becuase it is simply the right thing to do.

This has a number of possibilities.  I think that permission and gratitude are foundational here.  Before you do anything, take anything, or want a more meaningful interaction–ask for permission.  Ensure that the being you are interacting with, whether that’s a tree, river, stone, or juicy edible berry patch–welcomes your presence.  If you get a no, respect that and move along.  The second is gratitude–regardless of what happens in tersm of permission, offer gratitude.  Make offerings that are meaningful, sustainable, and heartfelt.  And train yourself to do this every single time.  I have a lot more about reverence and respect in some previous posts, so I’ll direct you there for more information: reverence and gratitude in herbalism, animism and respect of spirits, gratitude practices, and meaningful offerings.

Dirt time is unstructured.

Our third aspect of dirt time is that it is unstructured–in modern cultures, everything revolves around what is scheduled and planned.  In fact, some of us are so wound up by this way of living that it can be really hard to let it go…but there are a lot of benefits to ditching the watch and the plans and simply see what happens. What happens when we set too rigid of goals is that we don’t allow space for the spirits of nature to lead us in their own directions and offer us their own deep teachings. Think of it like a conversation with a friend–if you are always the one talking and setting the agenda, then you won’t be able to hear what your friend says or wants to do.  I’m going to be honest, this is the one I really struggle with the most becuase I have a full time demanding career, a 5 acre homestead, a dedicated bardic practice, and lead a druid order–I always feel like I have too much to do and not enough time to do it.  But that doesn’t matter–I know the value of unstructured time, and I make the time.

Soil web of life from Plant Spirit Oracle

For least some of the time, ideally at least every week for an hour or two, allow the spirits of nature to lead you and be your guides. Walk into nature and simply say, “Nature, I’m here for your lessons.  Please share whatever it is you want to share.” I like to make a point to do this at least once or twice a week, usually once on my land and then once in a different natural area near where I live.  I simply get out, bring a water bottle and my backpack along with some simple tools (first aid, ritual and foraging tools, things I always carry with me) and then go out. Usually, I will take a map only to ensure I’m not completely lost (although there can be great value in getting lost from time to time) and then see where nature leads me.  If I hit a fork in the trail, I ask the spirits where to go. I listen to the spirits of nature, and hear their wisdom.  I build and tend shrines, make offerings, do spontaneous rituals, whatever else the spirits ask.

On my own land, I do something similar. I simply create space for wandering and see where I feel led through my own intuition.  I observe and interact and explore the changes I witness since the last time I visited that particular spot. This is a simple practice I learned from Nate Summers and Jon Young–body radar. Body radar is allowing your body and intuition, which is very embodied–to lead. Pay attention to the solar plexus region and see where you are gently pulled. Follow that. Doing this practice has led me both on our own land here as well as in wild areas to experiences I could never have planned or imagined. It is truly a gift to allow nature to take the reigns and see what happens. This is where I feel like the really deep lessons come in–the things that the spirits of nature are excited to show me.  I would not get these teachings if I enforced my own agenda.

Dirt time is dirty.

Dirt time is dirty. Culturally, there’s this prohibition against being dirty, to be covered in soil, and to have the blessing of the earth upon your clothes and skin.  Think about those terms: soiled, dirty, unclean…they seem to suggest that there’s something wrong with you as a person if you are dirty or unclean.  But, soil is literally the thing that sustains all life; the soil web is a sacred web of communication, networks, and nutrients that support and sustain all life on this planet.  As many organic farmers and permaculture practitioners note–we arent’ growing gardens and food forests, we are growing soil.  If you grow good soil and cultivate a healthy soil web, it is the foundation for a healthy ecosystem.  Thus, soil is one of the most sacred things that there is.  I’m happy to be covered in soil, in dirt, and in mud–because that means that I’ve interacted fully with the living earth.  I’ve gotten my clothes and body dirty through that interaction, and that’s valuable. Maybe I’ve crawled down into a hole to see what there is between two large stones, or I’ve marked my forehead with blue clay from the embankment. So here, I suggest you wear old clothes and embrace the dirt in dirt time!

Blessings and Wisdom of Dirt Time

Sunrise at First Frost
Sunrise at First Killing Frost

Dirt time isn’t just fun and games, it’s really the foundation upon which everything else is built in terms of a nature-based spiritual practice. Putting in your dirt time gives you balance, and wisdom, and allows you to learn the deep lessons that only the living earth can convey. Here’s an example of why this matters: perhaps you want to learn more about the cycles of the year, a common theme in the druid tradition and other neopagan traditions. You can read about the cycles of the year till the cows come home, but there’s really nothing more striking than walking as the sun rises on the morning of the first frost–and seeing the beauty of it  The crystalline structures weave their way across all of the blooms and tender leaves, creating a beautiful, magical and enchanting sight.  And then coming back a few hours later when it has warmed up to see the death and devastation that frost has wrought, seeing things to go from green to brown so quickly, all across the landscape. Even as I write this, my words are a facsimile for the experience–the true power of it only comes by your own observation and inhabiting that space, feeling the nip of the frost on your fingers as you touch the flower, smelling the change in the air, and mourning the end of the summer. That’s the power of Samhain, that’s the energy that is present in that place on the wheel of the year.  I feel like I didn’t experience Samhain fully until I put in my dirt time and be up close and personal with a killing frost. After that experience, I am forever changed–deepened, altered, and have the wisdom of experience. Now when I celebrate Samhain or read about it, I am reminded of the embodied experience that my dirt time offered.  This is what I’m talking about with nature’s wisdom–so much of it can only be experienced, never taught by another human.  It must be lived, embodied.

I believe that dirt time is also a really important part of teaching and leading. Dirt time is one of my core prerequisites for choosing people to learn from, in that the people that I seek to study with in person or read their books or work are people who put in their dirt time. Over time, I’ve decided that I really don’t care to learn from someone who is only in their head, in the world that humans have built of concrete, screens, circuits, and boxes–I want to learn from someone who has integrated themselves into nature, sees themselves as part of nature, has reverence and respect for nature, and has put in their dirt time. Dirt time keeps a person in check and humble, it keeps their heart in the right place, deep in the soil. Recently, when I was in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I was blessed to go on a plant walk with someone who spent four years in the mountains, living off the land and staying in the bush. I listened to every word he said, asking questions and honoring his teachings and wisdom. You could hear the teachings of the plant and mountain spirits weaving in what he shared, and it was a true honor. Thus, if you have a chance to learn from someone who has put in their dirt time, you will not be disappointed.

Dirt time is a blessing, it is a chance to experience a different way of seeing, interacting, and being in the world–without screens, timepieces, or cultural demands on your spirit.  Let yourself loose and experience the wisdom that nature provides!

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (RedFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (RedFeather, 2022), and is the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is a certified permaculture designer and permaculture teacher who teaches sustainable living courses and wild food foraging. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart.

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  1. It reminds me of the differences between a written culture and an oral culture—a written culture is individual, residing in the head. But an oral culture is interactive, residing in relationship. A lovely post, thank you.

  2. it’s funny. every time i go into the garden, i end up with a little cut and i look at it exactly the same way: “OK, they Fey/garden/plants got their blood/energy/exchange, I’m grateful to be getting this work done, and you’re welcome for the blood.” it’s funny. i don’t even know when i started that; it’s been years.

    1. I feel the same way–I don’t mind giving a little blood if that’s what the land needs!

  3. I appreciate your approach to working with Multiflora Rose without the use of chemical inputs! I’m going through the same right now with Buckthorn and it’s been a long process of manually removing saplings at ground level – cutting as flush with the earth as I can and covering with mulch. Very intimate and intense work.
    When I first moved to the land I’m currently stewarding, she had the run of the place. I spent a full year getting to know the land and who lived here. I didn’t plant a garden or harvest anything (with the exception of a handful of dandelion flowers). The land and the house had been through the wringer. One of my favorite plants to work with is white pine, who is always very giving of her medicine with me. One morning I was craving some white pine tea and went out among the trees here looking for some fallen branches (she gives so freely) and there were NONE. Nothing. Not even one bunch of needles. They weren’t fully ready to trust me yet.
    A few months later, I had a dream involving this land and part of that was the image of a pair of hands cupping and holding me – the land saying “we support you.”
    That morning I went out on my walk and there was a beautiful branch of fresh white pine right in the path waiting for me.
    It’s been a beautiful relationship with this land since.

    1. Hi Nicki, I love that story! Very powerful. White pine is not one to easily trust, but once you have her trust, she will be a dear friend. Have you tried making dye from the buckthorn berries? It makes this amazing dye that looks purple but then oxidizes to a deep, kelly green. It is really beautiful, and maybe a way to turn the buckthorn into something else :). Blessings to you and your land!

  4. I love this. I think it’s one of your best posts. I also like the intellectual, logical, figuring-stuff-out work, but there is no replacement for the direct experience of the world we live in.

    1. Hi Karen, thanks so much! I’ve feel like the more I put in the dirt time, the more I’m reminded to do that every day (just got in from moving 5 loads of compost into our new beds, lol!)

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