Seeking the Keystones of the Land

Spring has definitely sprung here in the rainy emerald city of Seattle: the salmonberry is blooming and, believe it or not, the sun is shining! (For now, anyway.) This past weekend, Jeff and I enjoyed a somewhat belated equinox celebration — we spent all afternoon hiking through the city’s largest park (while I indulged in some wildflower photography and rather clumsy bird-watching), we observed Earth Hour Saturday evening, and we visited the Seattle Aquarium for the first time, where we made the acquaintance of some very adorable, very playful sea otters.

Sea Otter preening itself in Morro Bay, CA  sea-otter-morro-bay_13And speaking of sea otters (which happen to be a keystone species out here in the Pacific Northwest), two new articles of mine were also published this weekend, both of them exploring the role of keystones as guides and companions in earth-centered spiritual practice.

Over on The Witches’ Voice, you can check out my article, “Keystones of the Sacred Land,” where I introduce the ecological concept of ‘keystone species’ and how we can welcome the plants and animals of our local landscape to be companions and active participants in our spiritual lives. Here’s a taste:

A circle has no beginning and no end; it symbolizes wholeness and infinite interconnection. Within the circle, the four directions of north, south, east and west provide us with guidance and direction, like the points of a compass. It’s not that these directions are any better or more important than, say, southeast or north-northwest. But by “squaring the circle” in this way, we establish points of contact that make it easier for us to find our own place in the circle. The four directions are gateways where we can enter into relationship with the whole and begin the spiraling dance.

In this same way, keystone species can act as guides and guardians in our exploration of the local landscape. The ecosystem where you live is a vast and mind-bogglingly diverse place. (Even your own body, with its plethora of microbes, is more diverse than a rainforest!) Trying to cultivate a relationship with the land can be overwhelming and intimidating if we don’t have a place to start. That’s where keystone species can help. In many ways, they already act as guardians of the ecosystem, nurturing its health and vitality by ensuring that all its many beings remain in balance. If we want to learn how to live in harmony with the land, and to make sure that our spiritual work is part of the health and harmony of our more-than-human community, keystone species have some really important lessons to teach us.

You can read the whole thing here. Judging from the emails I’ve been receiving over the past couple days, this article is inspiring a lot of people to take a new look at how they work with the plants and animals of their local landscapes, and I’m really excited by the response so far! Thanks to all of you who have written to let me know how much you enjoyed the article!

If the idea of working with the keystones sounds intriguing to you, then you should definitely check out my latest Wild Earth column in Aontacht Magazine, “Seeking the Sacred Keystones: Entering the Wild.” (You can download the entire issue for free on the Aontacht website.) In this column, I share some tips for finding the keystone species of your own local bioregion and how the work of seeking out and meeting keystones can itself be a practice of mindfulness, interconnection and mystery:

Keystone species act as guardians of diverse and complex landscapes, nurturing the health and vitality of all by ensuring that the many beings who share these places remain in dynamic balance with the cycles of life, death, decomposition and regeneration. Because of their special role, we can work with keystones as guides and messengers from the natural world who bring valuable insights to transform our lives and ground our practice in the living, sacred land. Yet nature is teeming with complexity, and every landscape is different. How do we seek out and meet these powerful allies in the places where we live?

The first and most important thing to understand is that ‘keystone’ is not just a simple label that we can stick onto a particular plant or animal. The ‘keystone-ness’ of a species is not an intrinsic quality, but an aspect of its relationship with the larger ecological community in which it lives. In other words, a species might be a keystone in one place, but not in another. Discovering which plants and animals are keystones in our local landscape requires discernment. We need a more subtle understanding of how all of the living beings in our area form a single, yet complex community.

This article is the second in a series that I’ll be publishing through Aontacht Magazine over the next several issues, so stay tuned for more in-depth exploration of keystone species and their place in our spiritual practice in the months ahead.

Meet the Keystones In-Person…

If you’re lucky enough to live in Seattle, you’ll have an opportunity to meet some keystone species of the Pacific Northwest firsthand! During the month of April, Jeff and I will be leading three guided naturalist programs through the Seattle City Parks, where we’ll introduce you to the diverse wonders of the beaches of Puget Sound and some of the keystone species that make these thriving ecosystems possible. I’ll have more information about these programs as the time gets closer, so check back soon!


Photo Credit: “Sea otter preening…” Mike Baird (source)

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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