Creating Sanctuary

By Christopher Hobbs L.Ac., RH (AHG) and Rosemary Gladstar
The world is changing at an accelerating rate. The Internet, jet travel, and satellite links have helped facilitate this change with increasing fervor. Growing up in southern California in the 1950s, I am used to the kind of change that is quickly reshaping the surface of the earth. I watched chaparral-covered hillsides at the foot of the Sierra Padre Mountains plowed and planted with vast orange and lemon groves, only to be cut and plowed 20 years later for tract housing and strip malls. When I was 15, we moved to a 5-acre piece of land that was full of quail, deer, coyotes, aromatic shrubs and huge 200-year live oaks. I used to roam this land smelling, touching everything, feeling very much a part of the wild animals and plants that called this place home. Several years later, preparations were made to put a major freeway through our backyard; the small country lane that wound peacefully along the front of our house was widened and became a four-lane freeway for frantic travelers. The native habitat with its trees and plants were paved over, buried beneath layers of concrete. But despite these immense disruptions, the wild spirit of the land and of the plants that grew a mile above us on steeper slopes could still be felt.

A few winters ago in the desert where I grew up the 100-year bloom happened. In all the years I had walked through this desert imbibing the essence of flowers and the pungent aroma of the chaparral bush under the bluest of skies, I could not, even in my wildest imagination, have pictured the vast ocean of purple sand verbenas and desert evening primrose sweeping as far as the eye could see. They had been waiting quietly for just the right moment to burst forth in such splendor and were literally blooming their hearts out.

In the Coachella Valley, near Palm Desert, most of the extensive chaparral and mesquite-studded dunes had slowly been flattened, plowed and made into golf courses, trailer parks, or strip malls. Here and there, however, a few hundred acre-squares were still untouched, more a testament to the outrageously steep price of land than lack of interest by developers. It was here in these untouched lots scattered midst the malls and golf courses that the flowers bloomed most intensely. Since many of the lots had for sale signs on them, it was only a matter of time before these too would be paved over, sealed in crypts of concrete. Did the intelligence of the flowers know what was to come? Were they reveling in the sheer joy of being with such bloom in one last majestic effort? It was then that the poignancy of it all struck me. After a half million years of evolution, these flower species, and all the insects, and animals that flourished with them would be no more, soon to be buried beneath malls and roadways. Standing amongst the transitory beauty of a thousand plus blossoms in full glory, witnessing what may never be seen again in my lifetime, I felt a great surge of tears.

It’s likely that you have seen similar changes in the areas where you grew up and have experienced similar feelings. Perhaps the woods or fields you ran in as a child, built forts, climbed trees, and breathed in the fresh scent of spring wildflowers is gone now. Perhaps, too, the old forests that you knew as a child have been replaced by a maze of buildings. If you ever had the opportunity of walking in an old growth forest, it’s a feeling you’ll never forget. It is impossible to fully describe such an experience. The delicate and complex web of life found in an old growth forest is vital, so perfect that one feels completely at home and at peace. Truly, one has entered the ultimate cathedral or temple containing all the beauty and inspiration that is earthly possible. Surely these rare old forests provide an intelligence pattern, a blue print, for life to continue. But of the vast ancient forests that once carpeted the earth providing a home for countless species, only a small portion remains. In North America, the estimates run as low as 4%-5% of these original forests remains intact.

Its impossible not to imagine what will happen to the land, the plants, animals, insects, and other life forms that are being systematically destroyed in our lifetime and replaced by our vision of a convenient world, a world recreated to optimize our shopping opportunities. But this scenario is not inevitable. The land where you live is sacred and alive, even if it lies buried under concrete, or has had toxic chemicals poured into it. It becomes our personal responsibility to act to protect the earth and the creatures and plants who share our home and, furthermore, to nurture and protect the expansion of the intelligence of nature. The land will regenerate; the first soil microorganisms and plants will detoxify, purify, and sanctify it. But we need to be willing to help.

Following are three important ways you can help expand, protect, and reclaim the landscape and thus preserve the rich diversity of life that occupies native land. Though these steps in themselves may seem small in view of the vast amount of habitat destruction taking place daily, they are among the most important ways we can turn the tide and create a greener world, because at the deepest level they empower us to make the difference.

Green Belts

Think of coordinating land purchases, even small lots of land, with neighbors to create “corridors,” or “green belts,” so important to the health and continuance of the wild plants and animals. Encourage friends, family and community members to do likewise.

Become Educated about Land Conservation

Educate yourself about local land trusts, conservation easements and environmental legislation in your area. Consider placing conservation easements on your land to protect its natural environment and resources into perpetuity.

Create a Botanical Sanctuary on Your Land

Though it may sound daunting, creating a sanctuary is relatively simple. Buy as much land as you can, whether it is a city lot, an acre homestead or a 100-acre wilderness parcel, and create a sanctuary for life. Though gardens and cultivated fields are lovely, it is important to restore wilderness, even to a small parcel of land. Begin restoring the native species that once grew in your area. This may require some investigation and research on your part. Talk to local wildflower societies; they are often great resources for plant information. Replant the native trees, shrubs, flowers, and medicinal plants that once inhabited your area and witness the rich diversity that begins to return to your acreage, your sanctuary, within a few short seasons. In the process, you will find out much about health, vitality and your own family’s well being.

Growing Awareness

The Practical Side of A Botanical Sanctuary Once you decide to establish your own botanical sanctuary, what practical steps can you take to help it grow and flourish, and be of service? Focus in these four areas: Identification, restoration, preservation, and education.

*Learn to identify plants

Before this century, herbalists were also botanists. Begin by identifying as many plant species on the land as possible. Invite a friend over that knows some of the plants, and buy several identification guides. When we moved onto our 40-acre piece in the Soquel hills near Santa Cruz, California, I roamed the land observing every plant and tree. As I recognized the plants, one by one, I began a list, which eventually grew to over 200 species. For the eastern United States, I recommend the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants of the Eastern U.S. by Steven Foster and James Duke. Terry Willard wrote an identification guide to Rocky Mountain medicinal plants, and Michael Moore’s excellent books cover the western U.S. Many flower identification books offer full color photos specific to your area and are available at your local bookstore or local wildflower society. For the more technically-minded, order a flora, or technical identification manual for your bioregion or state.

*Learn where plants come from and where they are going

Pay special attention to whether a plant is a native plant to your area, an ornamental from some exotic place, or a weedy species. Many weedy plants, though valuable and often lovely to look at, tend to take resources like water and light that native plants require to live. In establishing a botanical sanctuary, you will want to limit the number of weedy species that thrive on your land, especially if they are obviously widespread. Herbalists love dandelion and milk thistle, valuable medicinal plants, but try to limit their growth to specific areas. One of the first things I did on our land in the Santa Cruz Mountains was to establish a good weed patch. I collected weedy seeds and plants from all over the county and actually brought them to the land; first because I love their tenacity and survivability, and second, so I could observe them more closely and begin to understand how they fit into the whole botanical tangle on the land. I removed many other weedy plants around the land, especially in those areas/habitats that were most conducive to the native wild species. Don’t forget about the UPS consultant service. We can put you in touch with a consultant who can help you learn more about your ecosystem and how to go about establishing and managing a sanctuary.

*Plant Natives

Identify as many plants and trees that originally came from your ecosystem as possible. The more you learn about the ecosystem where you live, the better able you will be to help the land regenerate. In the processes, you will be renewed and regenerated. Get to know your land intimately. Wander all over it and with permission, the surrounding areas. Get your neighbors involved! Locate a local native plant nursery, wildflower society and/or call one of the suppliers listed in the nursery directory in the back of this book. Whenever possible use local sources. This preserves the purity, precedents, and intelligence of the original eco system where you live. You can order the same species from a supplier or nursery, but these may be genetic hybrids or carry the genes of some other species. We do a lot of seed collecting and propagation through cutting of local plants. I carry those little brown coin envelopes with me all the time, to store, identify, and organize weedy and native seeds. These are available from a craft store or stationary store.

*Preserve and protect the land

Join the UPS Sanctuary network, and be your own sanctuary manager. In today’s world, the land needs a champion, a steward, and a manager to reduce interference, to bring natives back to the land, and allow the intelligence of nature to work her magic. Signs are available through UpS that can be hung around the perimeter of your land to help people to honor and preserve the sanctuary.

*Allow your Sanctuary to become the educational center it naturally is

Teaching and learning about the land is a lifetime study. Within every community you’ll find knowledgeable people who are often willing to share. Invite them to your land. And always be willing to share with others what you have learned about land management, wild plants, and the importance of biodiversity.

* Create a medicine trail

on your land as part of your educational effect. It can be a path through your front yard, or as on Rosemary’s land, a self guided mile long trail. Make signs or have them made that give the Latin binomial, common name, origin, and uses of the plants on the trail.

*Lead herb walks

or encourage others to give classes on the land. You’ll often find knowledgeable and willing people through the local forestry service, wildflower society’s, herb clubs, and sometimes senior citizen clubs.

*Create a nature center on your land

Teach others how to grow wild plants, ethical wildcrafting techniques, preservation, medicine-making, and herbal therapeutics.

* Help create and preserve serene places

among the plants and trees for communion with the green spirits and divas.