Walking the Hedge A Hedge Witchs
Musings on Permaculture
Goddess as compost
Several years ago, while constructing an explanation of my personal cosmology
for a study program I was engaged in, I ran across Lethea Erz internet
article discussing Goddess as compost. Erz suggested this creation tale:
Shortly after the beginning, the Goddess in
her benevolent wisdom created the compost process to demonstrate her powers
of birth, death and regeneration at an earthly level that human minds
could comprehend; to help life continue renewing itself without her constant
intervention; to remind human beings of their interconnectedness with
everything that exists, and to give humanity an opportunity to participate
in the ongoing sacred process of creating and sustaining life on earth.
My grandmother always had a compost heap, and I have been a composter
most of my adult life. In the last couple of decades, I have come to see
composting as a sacred activity, a living embodiment of how She
changes everything she touches. Through the alchemy of carbon, nitrogen,
oxygen, microorganisms, water, and sunlight, the compost heap turns garbage
into nutrient-rich humus.
So, too, does Goddess live in and around us always changing
and transforming. May we all transform the garbage in our lives into food
My personal cosmology and what I know to be true have shifted considerably
in recent years. I have sifted through the detritus of radical pruning
always assessing where I put my life force. Where do I put my time and
energy? With whom do I interact and how? Do those interactions feed me?
And I come out of those questions knowing that my work in this world is
to be a priestess of the life force. (Thanks to Deborah Oak
for the term).
Although I no longer have the certainty I once had about my relationship
with the divine, I have come closer to defining that relationship by knowing
and returning to my true self. Who have I always been? What is most dear
to me? At the same time that I have explored these questions, I have been
learning about permaculture (and discovering in the process that I was
already incorporating many permaculture principles in my gardening).
Leaving the Driftless Region
It seems that the physical change in my circumstances marked an era of
dissolution and confusion. I lived for 30 years in the Driftless Region
of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. A 16,203 square
mile area where the great glaciers of the last ice age never touched,
the Driftless Region is ancient and beautiful.
This is where I came as a very young woman and left as a seasoned witch.
I was deeply attuned to the land of the Driftless Region and spent hour
upon hour hiking through the woods with whatever dog shared my life at
the time. Touching into my Germanic heritage, I talked with the landwights
of the bioregion and spent a good deal of my time in mystical states with
them. At other times I tended to my kitchen, gardens, family, and extensive
network of loved ones. Other aspects of my life in the Driftless Region
were not so mystical. As a single parent, I moved from job to job, finally
securing a stable but unfulfilling government job.
When I later was offered another government job in a city across the
state, I was astonished at my luck and smug about the efficacy
of the magic I had done to bring about this change. Although the job is
a big improvement and I am very happy with my life now, the four years
of transition have been a journey to the Underworld and back.
One of the most difficult pieces of work in this transition has been
my effort to forge a relationship with the bioregion where I now live.
A very different landscape than the Driftless Region, the area around
Madison, Wisconsin, was dramatically affected by the last Ice Age, with
resulting glacial lakes, kettle moraines, and remnant oak savannas. Relating
to this more urban landscape is highly challenging. After being angry
and frustrated with my new bioregion, I feel that Madison and I have finally
made peace. I am forging my new relationship with the bioregion slowly
and tentatively, starting with my yard and neighborhood.
Beginning with thistles
When I first moved to my small house and yard in Madison, the barren,
ugly back yard was like a bowling alley with thistles. And although I
revere burdock, I did not care to cultivate the colony growing along with
the thistles. So as I unpacked all my belongings from the move, I tore
apart the cardboard containers and started to lay them down on top of
the burdock and thistles. Wood chips and whatever organic matter I could
scrounge went on top. Having an abundance of cardboard, I continued to
lay down what I now know is sheet mulch throughout the long, narrow yard.
My dear coven sister gave me divisions of many perennial herbs, which
started the garden.
How that bowling alley of a yard has transformed! Aside from
harvesting beautiful herbs, flowers, and vegetables each year, I now have
rich, living soil in place of the hard-pan clay I started with. And my
most precious accomplishment this year has been the infusion of pollinators
and wildlife honeybees, bumble bees, dragonflies (a symbol
of Freyja) and (gasp) hummingbirds.
Honoring the grandmother permaculturalist
Samhain is a time for honoring the ancestors, and for me I find no better
way to honor them than to work in my garden. Sometimes I wonder where
this gardening obsession was born, but I need look no further than my
mothers mother. Gam (my grandmother) was a domestic science (Home
Ec) teacher who decided to retire early and grow all of her food on a
large urban lot in Denver, Colorado. The daughter of prosperous Illinois
farmers who had spent her teaching career in Arizona, Gam was surprised
to learn how the Denver altitude and seasons limited her food-growing
expectations. Nonetheless, I remember the many hours Gam spent in her
magical, seamless mix of fruit trees, vegetables, and glorious flowers.
Gams harmonious space I now realize was an example of urban permaculture
in a time when the phrase had not even been conceived.
Permaculture didnt enter the language until the 70s, putting a
name to the practices many elders probably followed even in the smallest
The word "permaculture" was coined
and popularized in the mid 70's by David Holmgren, a young Australian
ecologist, and his associate / professor, Bill Mollison. It is a contraction
of "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture."
Permaculture is about designing ecological human habitats and food production
systems. It is a land use and community building movement which strives
for the harmonious integration of human dwellings, microclimate, annual
and perennial plants, animals, soils, and water into stable, productive
communities. The focus is not on these elements themselves, but rather
on the relationships created among them by the way we place them in the
landscape. This synergy is further enhanced by mimicking patterns found
The experiment continues
At Samhain I come to the end of a season in which I consciously worked
in my yard as a beginning permaculturalist. A mentor and one of the marvelous,
creative local permie folk I have begun to meet says, Permaculture
is all about experimenting. And experiment I did, discovering many
amusing results. Permaculture
encourages the use of perennials and fruit-bearing bushes and trees, and
I planted an elderberry (sacred to Hydlmoer, a lesser-known but no nonsense
and numerous perennial vegetables that I grew from seed. And through fortune
or most likely an escape from the neighbors yard, a currant bush
magically appeared in my beds. Permaculture design leaves room for our
beloved annual vegetables and flowers to tuck in among the perennials,
and I planted borage and groundcherries, species known to self-seed.
Some of my experiments were highly successful and fun, but those groundcherries
have been not only disappointing (I have harvested only about a dozen
groundcherry fruits from the four plants) but just plain strange. I thought
I was so clever, planting the groundcherries that I grew from seed in
a hugelkultur. A hugelkultur (gotta love that name) is essentially a raised
bed made of sticks and compost. The plants are magnificentgreen,
happy, and huge (each about 4 feet tall, as the picture testifies). But,
alas, no fruit. While going through my seed collection, I noticed that
the variety I started were perennials from Peru. Well, thats great
and totally in tune with permaculture principlesunless you live
this far north where I am certain this variety of fruit needs a longer,
hotter summer and a milder winter. The hugelkultur was a good idea, but
the seed package said to plant these groundcherries in poor soil, not
a big pile of compost. When in doubt, read the directions. We were laughing
recently about the groundcherry experiment while in my hot tub, Sheila
na Gig, and concluded that at least I have created lots of biomass (good
food for the compost heap).
So like the Peruvian groundcherries, my present spirituality and relationship
to Goddess are an experiment. I am far more prone to engage with Her in
a give and take and much less inclined to try to influence the outcome.
Having had too many of them go awry (Be careful what you ask for), I have
lost interest in spells that try to manipulate the circumstances of my
life. Instead, in my relationship to Goddess, I work to cultivate acceptance
With this in mind, as I was raking the massive amount of leaves from
the huge maple tree in my front yard, I thought to myself, Im
not raking. Im harvesting leaves. As I treasure organic matter
(OM, the sacred answer to many earthly needs), I found myself enjoying
the harvest much more than I would have the mundane task of raking.
As I harvest leaves, I think about Samhain and a dear close friend who
died this season. In my grief, I was able to reconnect with another dear
friend as we two went to say goodbye to Barb. I will grieve and I will
work to keep the connections to the living and the dead alive. I will
compost the sadness and the unresolved questions around Barbs death.
And I will dance, sing, work, laugh, and harvest leaves this season. In
keeping with permaculture principles, I will cultivate stable, productive
communities human and otherwise in my life.
May we all enjoy our harvest.
- "Compost as Manifestation
and Symbol of the Goddess," by Lethea F. Erz, http://www.serpentina.com/spiritual-x.html
<last accessed 10/29/2008>.
- "Backyard Magic:
The Composting Handbook." Department of Environment, Government
of New Brunswick, Canada. Available as of 10/29/2008 at http://www.gnb.ca/0009/0372/0003/0001-e.asp.
- Deborah Oak, Branches
Up, Roots Down, available as of 10/29/3008 at http://branchesup.blogspot.com/.
- "Driftless Area,"
Wikipedia, available as of 10/29/3008 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driftless_Area.
- Keith Johnson, The
Permaculture Activist, Quarterly Ejournal, available as of 10/29/2008
Godchecker.com, available as of 10/29/2008 at http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/norse-mythology.php?deity=HYLDEMOER.