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Walking the Hedge — A Hedge Witch’s 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.[1]

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.[2] So, too, does Goddess live in and around us — always changing and transforming. May we all transform the garbage in our lives into food and beauty.

Re-rooting
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[3] 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[4]. 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 mother’s 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. Gam’s harmonious space I now realize was an example of urban permaculture in a time when the phrase had not even been conceived.

Permaculture didn’t enter the language until the 70s, putting a name to the practices many elders probably followed even in the smallest city yards.

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 in nature.[5]

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. currant bushPermaculture 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 Germanic goddess[6]) and numerous perennial vegetables that I grew from seed. And through fortune or most likely an escape from the neighbor’s 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 magnificent—green, 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, that’s great and totally in tune with permaculture principles—unless 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).

Many harvests
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 and gratitude.

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, “I’m not raking. I’m 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 Barb’s 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.

Notes

  1. "Compost as Manifestation and Symbol of the Goddess," by Lethea F. Erz, http://www.serpentina.com/spiritual-x.html <last accessed 10/29/2008>.
  2. "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.
  3. Deborah Oak, Branches Up, Roots Down, available as of 10/29/3008 at http://branchesup.blogspot.com/.
  4. "Driftless Area," Wikipedia, available as of 10/29/3008 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driftless_Area.
  5. Keith Johnson, The Permaculture Activist, Quarterly Ejournal, available as of 10/29/2008 at http://www.permacultureactivist.net/intro/PcIntro.htm.
  6. "Hyldemoer," Godchecker.com, available as of 10/29/2008 at http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/norse-mythology.php?deity=HYLDEMOER.

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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
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