My first trip to the land where I now live came as a moment of recognition. We followed a dirt two-track back to the one cleared spot. Half a generation ago, this was a cornfield, but for us it might as well have been a wilderness. We were setting forth into unknown territory. From the pat we followed through the overgrown field, ironweed and goldenrod stalks sloped away into a row of small trees that I did not recognize. I learned soon enough that they were Russian Olives, planted as wildlife food, windbreak and erosion control, but spreading everywhere. We would become like that plant, artificially introduced, but spreading our influence everywhere. We were following a dream, looking for land to buy as a nature sanctuary among other things, and for the three of us walking that drizzly December day with the owner, this place felt right.
We had a wish list of everyone’s needs for the land for this project; rock formations, streams south-facing hills and a field big enough for large groups of people to camp. The reality of this piece of ground was even better than our dreams. Not only was there a creek big and deep enough to have water all year round, but springs and a waterfall. There were two huge fields. We saw everything on the wish list but there was something more; even on a wet, gray December day there was a sense of vitality about the land. We walked through a meadow along the creek where dried grass stalks cushioned the ground and the air smelled of deer musk. We found a bee tree on one ridge and beaver-gnawed stumps along the creek. There were masses of geodes and a natural amphitheater of moss-covered rocks. The owner had already refused offers from hunters who wanted the land as a private game preserve. He was tired of hiding poacher’s salt blocks and tearing down deer stands. He wanted this land to be protected and restored. Pines and those Russian Olives had already been planted to begin the process of regrowing forest and attracting wildlife. It was almost as though this piece of abandoned farmland bound by rocky ridges had been waiting for u s to find it.
This is what this new piece of ground was meant to be, a place where the earth is treated with respect. We wanted to create a green haven, a place for people to escape from the cities, a place to practice healing, renewal and restoration, of the land and of ourselves. We called it Lothlorien, after the last wooded haven of the elves in Lord of the Rings. It was meant to be an outpost of nature, a blow for the wild against the spread of pavement and subdivisions. We harbored no illusions about this being forest primeval. The decreasing size of the trees in the deep floodplain along the creek showed where farmers had gradually given up. The uphill fields were overgrown with greenbriar and multiflora. The only large trees grew on the ridges that had been too steep to plow and in a rocky valley between the upper fields.
In the years since we became stewards of the land, we have tried to work with the needs of the land as well as the needs of the group. Letting nature have its way is not simply a matter of “leaving it alone.” When we cleared away the greenbriar and old weed stalks, twiggy saplings grew quickly into young shade trees. As a group we have worked for this balance. We cut and trim trees as little as possible, usually when dead limbs are dangerous, or when scrub trees are blocking the light from young oaks and maples. We constantly refine and relocate paths, because rainwater tends to find these cleared spaces on hillsides the easiest way down, and where water goes topsoil is sure to follow. We have large brushy areas of wildlife cover. There are areas we rarely go which we have left as nearly alone as possible, to let nature rebuild in its own course and tie, we have marked special spots as shrines to those aspects of nature they seem to represent.
All the work on Lothlorien has been done by volunteers out of love and a common desire to see the earth regreened wherever possible. Everyone who comes here has to find their own way of working with the land. One of the things I do by instinct is watch where water goes. This is both an intuitive and practical matter. I go out during a good hard rain and watch where the water naturally goes; it is not always the low spot or obvious run-off stream. This is how I fight erosion and look for ways to minimize damage from camping paths and the driveways.
Familiarity makes me feel at home in nature; I want to recognize the flowers and trees. But, I know that nature is not just plants and animals, nature includes rocks and dirt and us. Nature is a force that works and moves through everything. It is possible to walk in the forest or along a beach and become submerged in nature with no more effort than breath. People are at the core animals; the same force that tells geese when to fly south or tells spiders how to spin a web can guide us if we allow it. This force is at the green heart of every forest.
Through working with this one piece of living ground, I have learned that when we consciously and attentively work with nature the earth will reward us. Trees have grown tall and green here in an amazing time, but there have also been moments of instant reward. Within moments after I spent an hour picking up trashed washed down the creek, I found a hillside covered with blooming trilliums, a reed-filled pond I had never seen before and I saw a muskrat swim away under a sycamore. During a community ritual, I closed my eyes and talked about everything that meant rain about our Rain Shrine; its deep, shady valley, the soft, green moss and the cool spring flowing through the rocks. When I opened my eyes, clouds had covered the stars.