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Keystones of the Sacred Land

Author: Alison Leigh Lilly
Posted: March 24th. 2013
Times Viewed: 4,143

In modern Paganism, rituals are an opportunity to connect with our spiritual community. We come together in a shared sacred space to speak with the gods, perform magic or even just spend time in meditation. Even when we can't gather with other people, our rituals remind us that we are a part of the more-than-human community. Many of our spiritual practices connect us with the natural world through our relationship with the gods and goddesses of wilderness, and ritual tools invoke the powers of the elements and the energies of land, sea and sky. Whether we are solitary practitioners or celebrating in a group, we can use ritual to ground our spiritual practice in the local landscape by inviting the flora and fauna that share the land with us to join us in our sacred space. A powerful way to connect with the land is to foster a relationship with the keystone species where you live.

Welcoming the Keystones

In ecology, a 'keystone species' is an animal or plant that plays a vital and unique role in an ecosystem. Like an actual keystone that supports the weight of an arch, a keystone species is so important to the balance and health of an ecosystem that without it, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or might even cease to exist. Zoologist Robert T. Paine first explored the importance of keystone species in a thriving ecosystem during his research in intertidal ecology in the Pacific Northwest. Paine noticed that when a species of starfish was removed from the tide pools and rocky coastal waters of Makah Bay, the population of mussels (which were usually eaten by starfish) quickly exploded and began to drive out many other species, sharply reducing the biodiversity of the ecosystem and making it more vulnerable to collapse. This is a classic example of the importance of a keystone species: as the mussels' only natural predator, the starfish played a crucial role in keeping the mussel population in check and the intertidal ecosystem in balance.

Some ecologists joke that a keystone species is whatever animal or plant you happen to be studying at the moment. The more you learn about a species, the more you see just how important it is to the ecosystem in which it lives. For an example, let's look at the relationship between otters, sea urchins and kelp. Sea urchins love to nibble on the roots of kelp that grow in vast forests off the coast, but if left unchecked they can quickly destroy these kelp forests and jeopardize the many other organisms that depend on them for food and shelter. In a healthy marine ecosystem, otters will happily feast on these voracious sea urchins, ensuring that the kelp forests can continue to thrive. For that reason, ecologists consider otters to be a keystone species. Unfortunately, in recent decades the otter population has begun to drop off, partly because more and more of them are being eaten by orcas. Wouldn't that make orcas a keystone species? But wait! The orcas are eating more otters than before because their usual prey -- seals and sea lions -- are less abundant than they used to be. And the seals and sea lions are less abundant because overfishing by humans has made it more difficult for them to find food. However, scientists recently discovered that kelp forests play a really important role in reducing carbon in the atmosphere, which means that humans might just need kelp to survive.

Because all of these species are interconnected and vital to the health of the ecosystem, you might consider any of them (or all of them) to be keystone species. Instead of an arch supported by a single keystone, we find that we're actually living in a circle of keystones!

This startling fact about our interconnection gives us a hint about the spiritual significance of keystone species and how we can invite them into our sacred spaces as part of our regular practice. Many modern Pagans create sacred space by casting or drawing a circle and invoking the energies of earth, air, fire and water from the four directions. This practice helps us to orient ourselves within a complex web of sacred relationship. 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.

Lessons of the Keystones

Each animal or plant has its own life history and lessons to share, but there are some common traits shared by keystone species that can give us valuable insights into how to foster a meaningful relationship with diversity in our everyday lives. We can connect with the many different energies of the natural world through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water -- even though we know that these are not literal elements like hydrogen or zinc, of which there are many more than four! In the same way, there are four basic types of keystone species, even though any given animal or plant might play multiple roles in an ecosystem.

The first type of keystone species is the predator. A keystone predator protects the biodiversity of an ecosystem by keeping an herbivorous population in check that might otherwise overrun the ecosystem and drive out other species. The starfish in Makah Bay acts as a keystone predator, for instance, by preying on mussels, and otters are keystone predators because they help to reduce the number of sea urchins that might otherwise destroy the kelp forests. Often keystone predators will be what ecologists call 'apex predators', large carnivores at the top of the food chain, like the gray wolf in much of North America or the jaguar in the jungles of South and Central America. But as we can see with starfish and sea otters, this not always the case!

The lesson that keystone predators teach us is that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Too many herbivores can destroy plant biodiversity, but too many predators can also be unsustainable. Finding the right balance requires us to grapple with our appetites and desires, to know when to hunt and when to hold back.

The second type of keystone species is the mutualist. These are not as well known as the keystone predators, and we tend to take them for granted because they rarely pose us a direct threat. Some of the most common keystone mutualists are insects, fungi and microorganisms, which go about their work largely unseen. One charming example of a keystone mutualist is the hummingbird. In some ecosystems, certain plants have evolved long, tubular flowers that can only be fertilized by the hummingbird, whose long beak allows it access to the sweet nectar within. This relationship between plant and hummingbird is mutually beneficial to both, and if one species were to disappear the other would soon follow. Another example of a keystone mutualist are cleaner fish, which feed on the parasites that live on the bodies of larger fish and help to keep those larger fish healthy.

The keystone mutualist teaches us that cooperation is often just as or even more effective than competition. In a diverse community, we can find many ways to share our unique gifts with the world to the benefit of everyone, and when we do, we often discover that others have many amazing gifts to share with us in return. Cultivating a harmonious relationship sometimes means taking stock of what gifts we are overlooking or taking for granted.

The third type of keystone species is the engineer. A keystone engineer is an animal or plant that dramatically transforms the environment and, in doing so, provides vital habitat to many others in the ecosystem. Beavers are a particularly famous keystone engineer -- their dams redirect water flow in rivers and streams, creating ponds and wetlands that support a whole host of diverse insect, plant and animal life as well as ensuring nutrient-rich soil and a natural filtration system for the watershed. Prairie dogs play a similar role on land; their burrows help to aerate the soil and direct rainwater, reducing runoff and erosion, as well as providing shelter for other burrow-dwelling animals. Another, more unexpected keystone engineer of the African savanna is the elephant. Elephants feed on tree saplings, ensuring that the grasslands remain grasslands.

The lesson of the keystone engineer is one that many of us could benefit from, especially in today's society. Through our interactions with our environment, we have a huge impact on the other plants and animals that share the world with us. As the human population continues to grow, we can choose to change our environment to meet our needs in ways that help support and sustain the ecosystems of the planet, or in ways that squander resources, pollute the earth and drive species to extinction, including possibly our own.

The fourth type of keystone species is the provider. A keystone provider is a plant or animal that provides resources to other species, particularly during times of seasonal scarcity. This kind of keystone species is somewhat rare, but an excellent example is the role of the fig tree in many rainforest ecosystems. Fig trees produce fruit more than once throughout the year, and different species of fig will fruit at different times, ensuring a continuous supply of food for the many animals that rely on this vital resource. For fruit bats and capuchin monkeys, for instance, figs provide a lifeline during times of year when no other food is available and can mean the difference between sustenance and starvation.

The keystone provider can teach us to value our own uniqueness and individuality. There are times when the talents and skills that we have to offer our community are a lifeline for others, providing them with the nourishment and support they need during times of scarcity. It can be frightening or lonely to be weird -- to be the only person with an enduring passion for obscure fifteenth century linguistics or a penchant for collecting broken ham radios, for instance -- but the keystone provider teaches us to embrace our eccentricities as absolutely vital to a thriving, diverse community.

Connecting Ecology and Culture

Although ecologists generally only consider these four main types of keystone species, a fifth type is gaining some popularity as well: the cultural keystone. These are plants or animals that play a vital role in connecting humans to the more-than-human community and helping our species to thrive on this planet by influencing our arts, technology and culture. Here in the Pacific Northwest, for example, the western red cedar has a significant role in the culture and spirituality of the indigenous peoples who live here. The wood and bark of the red cedar have been used for centuries to make baskets, ropes, canoes, houses, clothing, utensils, masks and ceremonial objects. Because of its vital importance to native culture and its long life as a species, the tree is sometimes called Arborvitae, which is Latin for "tree of life."

But really, almost any plant or animal can become a cultural keystone. We can connect ecology and culture when we bring our ecological knowledge to bear on our spiritual practices and beliefs, and when we root our traditions in the health and harmony of the living land all around us. What keystone species live in your area? What lessons can they teach you? There's only one way to find out: start exploring! Soon, you'll be on your way to discovering all of the power and beauty to be found in our amazing, interconnected relationships.

Copyright: © Alison Leigh Lilly

A version of this essay originally appeared in Aontacht Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 3 (December 2012) . A free download of this issue is available here:


Alison Leigh Lilly

Location: Seattle, Washington


Author's Profile: To learn more about Alison Leigh Lilly - Click HERE

Bio: Alison Leigh Lilly is the producer and co-host of Faith, Fern and Compass ( . Nurturing the nature-centered, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, she explores themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. Her work has appeared in numerous publications both in print and online. You can learn more about her work on her website: Or find her on social media at: and

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