Land Healing of Damaged Places: Exploring Empathy and Compassion


Land healing encompasses a wide range of activities: from physical replanting, rewilding, and regenerative approaches directly on the land to metaphysical blessings, healings, and palliative care.  As I’ve just launched the Land Healer’s Network and am releasing the Land Healing book, more questions than ever are coming up from people who are interested in taking part in healing the earth and making that a core part of the work they do.  One of the questions coming up from this work is – what do I do first? How do I work with really damaged lands?  How do I do this work well over the long term? And that, my friends, leads to today’s discussion of what I’d consider one of the foundations of land healing work: learning how to protect yourself and sustain yourself so you can do this work over the long term.  I have made it clear time and time again on my blog and in my book that land healing can be very difficult and gritty work–and when we face difficult things, we have to know how to sustain ourselves, protect ourselves, and nurture ourselves.  Today’s post explores care and compassion in land healing work and avoiding burnout.

This post is part of my Land Healing series, which includes my book Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth, the Land Healer’s Network, and a whole slew of posts on land healing–here are just some of them: A Framework for Land Healing, Physical Land Healing, Land healing using the Seven Element Framework, Land Healing in Small Ways, Land Healing at the Druid’s Garden, Love Letter to the Mountains, the grove of renewal, and my original nine-post series on Land healing (much of which forms the framework for my book): Druid’s primer on Land healing; Healing vs. Palliative Care, Understanding Energy, Land healing and the process of unfolding, Witnessing holding space, and remembrance; working with sites that will be destroyed; self-care and land healing; rainbow workings and palliative care; healing our lands.

A Learning Experience: Taking on the Energy of the Mountain

Some mountains that are still whole with windmills
Some mountains that are still whole with windmills

One of the worst energies and most dangerous places I visit to heal are mountains being mined–known as mountaintop removal.  The sorrow, suffering, and pain when a mountain is literally being eaten away to its bones is truely horrific.  When I was younger and less wise, I had a lot of hard lessons dealing with these kinds of situations.  I remember the very first mountain I met that was being destroyed–it was about 10 years ago. I could feel it from miles away, and when I got there, I sat with the mountain, opening my heart up, feeling the sadness and pain of the spirits of the mountain.  I felt the angry dead still there, spiraling and haunting the mountain, long after their bodies were gone.  I felt the spirit of the mountain itself, weeping and sad as it was slowly eaten away by the machines.  I chose to sit there, feeling all those things, feeling them as if I were the mountain, I were those spirits.  It was very difficult even to hold that space.  I grew nauseous and lightheaded. Afterward, I could barely get myself home.

When I got home, I felt like I didn’t even belong in my own body. I immediately went to bed and began to cry. I cried for hours, eventually falling asleep–not having taken care of myself, not eating or drinking, or even brushing my teeth.  I stayed in bed for a good part of the next day, and then immediately came down with some kind of cold and ended up sick for four days.

Afterwards, I spoke with my spirit guides and also one of my human mentors and we talked about what happened. She asked me, “Why did you take on all that energy? You would have been able to do much more if you protected yourself.”  My response was, “I felt I had to experience what that mountain was experiencing.”  And she said, “I understand.  But now you’ve experienced it once, and once was enough. There is no point in doing that again and making yourself sick for four days. Then you aren’t able to help anyone, not even yourself.”  She was right–by empathetically taking on the energy of the mountain into myself, I burned myself out badly, got myself sick, and took over a week to recover. As my spirit guides later revealed, I also inadvertently created an opening with a number of darker presences there, feeding off the energy of that mountain.  So, we all talked about added protections and shielding.  I worked with my spirit guides on some new practices and reinforced my Sphere of Protection to include protection from others’ emotions and to create an emotional shield for myself.

And then I went back.  Nothing much had changed since my last visit a few weeks before, but the spirit of the mountain acknowledged me and welcomed me. But I had changed. While I was here to help, I could never take on that kind of energy again.  So, I asked how I could help, listening deeply, and showing my care and concern.  But I held my own emotions in check and with my modified magical protections, I did not take on the energy of that place.  I did some more palliative care for the mountain and left, still feeling fine to go do more work elsewhere.  In this experience, I learned a very valuable lesson: both the need for specific kinds of protection and shielding myself from directly taking on the energies of wounded places.  In other words, I learned the difference both physically and metaphysically between empathy and compassion.

Distinguishing Empathy and Compassion

When we think about the work of a good healer, one thing that stands out is that they care.  They are doing this work because they feel something for the earth herself and all of her inhabitants–they want to help others grow and thrive, and they want no part in the broader human-caused destruction and collective insanity that marks our present global civilization.  As I’ve argued before, care is a fundamental virtue that helps us respond positively to today’s age, it helps us heal and tend the land around us, and certainly, it helps us bring forth a new paradigm for the future. Care is the foundation of changing our world. But too much care of a specific kind can get us in trouble or lead to burnout–and thus, distinguishing between empathy and compassion matters for any kind of healing work, including land healing.

Empathy and compassion are two terms that are often used interchangeably in everyday life.  But for our purposes of land healing, teasing them out using the distinctions between the caring and medical professions is useful.  Empathy in these definitions is when you put yourself in someone else’s place (whether that someone is a person, a tree, an animal, a forest, etc) and feel what they feel in a situation.  Energetically, empathy means that you are taking on the energy of that experience directly into yourself by literally putting yourself in that person or place’s shoes.  This is what I did in my story of the mountain–I literally took on the energy of the harmed mountain, bringing that energy into myself. Compassion is when we recognize another’s emotions and suffering and we want to help.  Compassion and empathy both allow us to show care and approach the work from a place of wanting to help, care, and support but to still do some basic things to keep another’s energy from mingling with our own.

From a metaphysical and physical perspective, the two have critically important distinctions:  when we practice empathy, we are literally taking on the suffering of someone else. This has energetic consequences and can lead us to be burned out or cause harm to ourselves. High levels of empathy in the caring professions are associated with burnout–and that’s a danger here, but not the only danger.  As my story above shares, this practice can be very dangerous in land healing when working with any sites that are damaged or may have maligned energy.  This kind of work in the short term could make you sick, and in the long term could dangerously deplete your vital energies and cause longer-term illnesses or issues. I want to stress the Hermetic adage matters here: as above, so below, as within, so without.  You do not, under any circumstances, want to take on the energy of wounded places in this way–because that inner energy within you can very readily manifest outward as sickness, diseases, or other challenges. And often, there is more than just negative energy at these sites–these places often attract spirits with ill intent. You do not want to have that kind of suffering and energy in your body or come into direct contact with it. You do not want a gateway for these spirits into your own life. I’ll discuss protective work for land healers in the next post on this series (a few weeks).

This is all to say that we should be very cautious in practicing empathy with land healing.  I think it’s fine to take on the energy of certain places–places we’ve healed, places that nourish us, as long as we are intentional and clear in what we are doing.  If we are going to practice empathy, we should make a distinct intention of doing so and have a good reason to do so–and do so with a ton of protections in place.  It should not be our general mode of operation.

Practicing Compassion in Land Healing

Compassion combined with magical protection and shielding gives us a clear and safe way forward to care for the land in a safe way.  Making a conscious effort to practice compassion over empathy is a way to do this work, even with very damaged sites, and not put yourself at risk. With compassion, we care and are motivated to help, but we create some distance between us so that we are not taking on another’s emotions and suffering. When we practice compassion, we are doing the following:

1. Protecting ourselves using various shielding techniques (see future post)

2. Recognizing the suffering of another without taking on that energy

3. Showing our care and desire to help and support others

4. Being willing to bear witness to another’s pain (this gets into the work of apology, witnessing, and remembrance)

5. Doing what we can to physically and metaphysically support others

These five things can get you far as a land healer and allow you to keep doing this work for years and years. And right now, we are in a long-game situation.  We need as many people on deck as possible, and we are going to need more and more of this work in the future to turn things around and give us all a brighter tomorrow.

Just like empathy, compassion has both physical and metaphysical manifestations. The list above represents the work of compassion –the actions we can take and the emotions we can feel. But as #1 suggests, there’s a metaphysical aspect to compassion, and that is shielding ourselves from directly taking the energy on of another.  This is a conscious thing: we can sit with a wounded place, we can heal wounded places, but we want to protect ourselves and our emotions. I have found this involves both setting a conscious intent (“I am not taking on this energy”) and also can be greatly helped with magical protective work (where you literally envision a shield around your heart).  One of the things I do is after I perform my Sphere of Protection around my person is to also provide some extra shielding to my heart, and rub some protective oil around my heart.  I also work with plants like Motherwort and Hawthorn that are specifically good for that heart-shielding kind of work.

This month, I’m writing on a longer post on protective work and land healing, but in the meantime, I’ll direct your attention to my Metaphysical Street Smarts post, which has a range of suggestions for protection and daily work that can be used to supplement care and compassion in land healing.


I’m happy to announce the following:

First: the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids has recently released The Mount Haemus Lectures: Volume 3, which features my 2018 Mount Haemus Lecture on the Bardic Arts. An online series of talks on the Mount Haemus lectures from this volume is planned for May – I believe I will be presenting on May 21st but I don’t yet have a time or other details.  Once I do, I’ll share more details here!

Second: In two weeks I’ll be speaking at the PA Garden and Herb Festival on April 12-13 2024 on “How Your Garden Can Save the Planet!” I’ll also be vending some of my art and books. If you are anywhere near York, PA, please come and say hi!

Third: I appeared on one of my favorite podcasts Plant Cunning Podcast talking about land healing, the sphere of protection, herbalism, and so much more!  Please check it out!


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 Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. 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. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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