The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Sustainable Living

Returning to the Hemlock Grove: Old Growth Forests as Sacred Sites July 20, 2014

This week I’ve been back in the Laurel Highlands of PA (my homelands) for a writing retreat for my research team for my university position. I was able to take a short break from our work today to spend some time at Laurel Hill State Park and visit the 6 acre old growth Eastern Hemlock forest there. Eastern Hemlock is one of my most sacred trees, and I know I’ve written more about it than any other tree on this blog. You might remember my blog post about the sacred Eastern Hemlock tree back in December.  If you do, you’ll remember that the Eastern Hemlock is under serious threat from the wooly adelgid, which is an aphid that feeds on hemlocks, sucking away their sap till they die. Many of the Northeastern US old growth hemlock groves (and hemlocks in general) have been lost to the adelgid.  So these remaining old growth groves, even small ones like at Laurel Hill State Park, are truly a rare sight to behold both due to the rarity of old growth forest and due to the declining numbers of Hemlock trees.

 

Hemlocks (courtesy of Wikipedia)

I have spent most of my childhood and adult life in forests that are actively being logged or recovering from logging, intensive farming, or other kinds of over-use. I wrote about the experiences growing up in such a logged forest in my post “The Mystery of the Stumps and the Spiral Path: The Story of How I Became a Druid”  and about the magic of the stumps of the Eastern Hemlock tree in my post about medicinal reishi mushrooms.  These spaces are so common in our landscape, and they have a sacredness about them, but they also have their scars.  It is through their scars, often, that they teach the lessons we are meant to learn from them.  The stumps, rotting with age, share their stories in a different kind of way.  The old stone fences, remnants of rock floors and walls deep in the forest, abandoned mines or quarries, or barbed wire growing through the middle of old trees tell of the land’s past uses and inhabitants.  The trees and plants have their own stories to tell, when they are willing to share them. Everywhere I go, these tales of the landscape greet me, remind me that humans have been here and have used (and often abused) this land in various ways.

 

A month or so ago, I took in a rescue hen; she had clearly been abused by her previous owner, and when she saw me at first, she fled to the other side of the chicken run and hid. When I first let her out to free range, she darted away, running in fear and literally threw herself against the chicken wire in an attempt to escape me. Over time and with lots of tasty treats, she’s learned to associate me with food and protection, and now comes when I call to her.  I think many who have taken in rescue animals experience this kind of transition and the gradual building of trust. Its the same kind of relationship I find myself having with the forests recently logged, or lands under stress, which unfortunately are so many lands in this particular point in human history. The trees, plants, and spirits of those places aren’t always open to you and may very well associate you with those that did the damage.  If you go in with expectations, taking things without asking, or demands, they will close themselves off to you. Building relationships with these kinds of forests or other landscapes take time, and even after a lot of time, sometimes these spaces are forever altered. You can still build a deep and powerful bond and, as I’ve said, learn many lessons from these places. I wrote about some of how to build such relationships in regards to my own land here.  But what I discovered today was that, at least for this one old growth forest, things were very, very different.

 

I have only been to one other old growth forest, this one in a local park in Michigan made primarily of oak and cherry.  I have never met an old growth Hemlock tree.  I have never felt so welcome in a forest as I did walking into that old growth patch–the trees were clearly expecting me. I felt like I had returned home, that I had been there many lifetimes before, with these same trees, visiting them throughout the ages.  That I had visited those who had grown there even before these wizened elders, whose nutrients made up the current stand of trees. And since this is in my home region, in my beloved Laurel Highlands, the homecoming was on multiple levels.

 

When I stepped into that old growth Eastern Hemlock grove today, I cried.  I was overwhelmed with the serenity, the history, and the magic of that place.  The ancient ones held their people’s history, and they histories of so many more long forgotten.  I could see those stories clearly written on the bark of each tree.  I could hear their songs through the swaying of the branches in the gentle breeze.  One hemlock bid me to come closer and asked me to pull off some dead bark partially hanging from its trunk.  I did so, and when I walked away, I turned to see that I had revealed the ancient and wizened face of an elder, so clear in that trunk.  I sat and listened to those trees, I spoke little in return. I learned much in that forest, even in a short time, and some of it is not to be shared with others.  I expect, however, that if you visit this or other old growth groves, you’ll too receive powerful lessons and messages that will resonate deeply within you. I didn’t take any photos of this sacred place to share with you; I find the electronic equipment disrupts the energies of such places.  I simply sat, spent a great deal of time listening, and did what I was asked to do.

 

 

I could see the tell-tale moss covered massive hemlock stumps  on one of the back edges of the old growth grove.  This forest came so close to losing all of its elders some time ago, but this small six acre patch remained, and now it is protected in a park area of over 4000 acres.  The energies changed toward the back of the grove, grew more distant, more wary, as I approached the area where the stumps were.  The energies where the stumps were felt more like the energies of those many other forests who still remember the loss of their elders through logging or farming, those places where only the stones hold the memories of what had once been.

 

 

I have recently written about finding sacred spaces that are welcoming and working with existing natural sacred sites.  I wanted to write this post to encourage you to seek out the old growth forests, the hidden gems in our damaged landscape.  You can find a list of all of those over 10 acres here, but look close, see if you can find such trees in your area, even individuals or small groves like this one.  They are well worth the time spent finding them, and when you find them, if you are able to enter them reverence and awe, you will see what sacred places they truly are.

 

Homemade Tincture Press for less than $30 July 16, 2014

One of the primary methods of extracting and preserving the medicine of the plants is through creating healing tinctures, either magical or mundane.  This involves maceration (soaking) herbs in alcohol, pressing the alcohol out, and depending on the purpose that you are creating the tincture for, maybe adding a few more steps.  I wrote about tincture making last year in two posts, and you can learn the basic steps here for a magical tincture and here for bitters.

 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been engaged in dedicated study of plants and their sacred medicine.  This is taking place on multiple levels–studying Traditional Western Herbalism through a year-long course, working with the plant spirits themselves, and continuing to engage in gardening, foraging, and work on sacred trees. In the last year, I’ve made about 30 different medicinal tinctures.  For a standard medicinal tincture, after the alcohol has extracted the medicine of the plant, you want to press as much of the alcohol out of the plant matter as possible (a gallon of neutral high proof organic alcohol is around $80).  A search for tincture presses reveal most cost several hundred dollars, at minimum.

 

I looked at a few instructions online, and came up with my own design that may not exactly look pretty, but works really quite well.  Its based on the idea of a fruit press, which I’ve used to press out grapes for jelly.  My tincture press cost me $30 to make, total, and that was with all new materials.  If you have some of the materials lying around, you could save some funds. I should add that I have very little decent woodworking skills, and if I can make this, so can you!

 

Supplies:

  • One very large C-clamp (probably the largest you can find); I found mine at a home improvement store
  • One stainless steel cylinder (you can get this at a restaurant supply store; I bought mine online).
  • Cheese cloth for pressing (can be reused if washed carefully)

Tools:

  • Coping saw or other way to cut two wooden circles
  • Pencil for drawing lines
  • Sand paper
  • Drill and large-ish bit
  • Epoxy or some other glue (ONLY for outside of the press, see instructions below)

To make:

1) Start out by figuring out what size of wooden disks you will need and trace your circles in pencil.  You will need one wooden disk to support the bottom of your metal cylinder, and you’ll need a second to function as the “press” inside.  I found that a canning jar lid worked well for the size I was looking for.

Getting ready to cut circles

Getting ready to cut circles

2) Cut out your circles.  I learned through this process that my coping saw skills leave much to be desired–but in the end, I had two circle-ish wooden disks.

Wooden Circles

Wooden Circles

3) Drill some holes in one of your disks; the one designed to go into the press itself.

Drill holes in one of the disks

Drill holes in one of the disks

4) Sand your disks, making sure your pencil marks are sanded off and the edges are smooth.

Sanding disks

Sanding disks

5) Glue your second disk onto the bottom of the metal cylinder–this will hold it in place and make pressing much easier.  I’ve done this step since I took these photos; it is easier to use now.

Now you are ready to press!

 

To use your press:

1) Start by straining off your herbs into a clean jar (I use a simple plastic strainer, and I let them drip out for a bit). These are hawthorn “haws” that I made into tincture last November.

Straining hawthorn haws

Straining hawthorn haws

2) Place the cheese cloth inside your metal cylinder, making sure it will be sufficient to cover your herbs (I’m using a lot here because there are a lot of haws). Take your herbs out of the strainer and add them into the cheese cloth.

Haws in cheesecloth inside cylinder

Haws in cheesecloth inside cylinder

3) Get your press ready–make sure your wooden disk is supporting the bottom and put your disk with the holes in top of the press. Get your c-clamp into place for the pressing action.

Setting up the press

Setting up the press

 

4) Begin pressing, spinning your handle of the C-clamp in a clockwise fashion.  You’ll feel the tension as the herbs are pressed down.

Pressing

Pressing

5) After pressing for a bit, tilt your c-clamp and pour your tincture off.  You can continue to press and pour off your tincture till its too hard to press further.  You’ll notice I’m sending it through a strainer to get out any plant material–but I didn’t see any coming out of the press.

Pour off tincture

Pour off tincture

 

A few other notes about using this press:

1) Some of the alcohol will absorb into the wood. I sealed my wood with melted beeswax and that helped quite a bit!

2) I have found that only “spongy” material is worth pressing. The hawthorn pressed well and I got a lot more tincture through pressing. I also pressed a white willow bark tincture–I got literally nothing out of pressing because the bark was woody, not spongy, so it didn’t absorb the alcohol.  Keep this in mind and save yourself some trouble by only pressing material that will actually gain results.

3) You can use this press to press other things, like an herbal oil, if you desire.  I’d clean it really well between uses, and I’d seal the wood for sure if you are pressing oil (alternatively, you can cut yourself a third disk for oils and use that exclusively with the oils).

There you have it–a simple and practical way to get all the medicinal goodness out of your tinctures!  I’ll be posting more about the kinds of plants I’ve made into tinctures this year and sharing more of my herbal journeys.

 

The Sacred Site in America: Understanding, Working With, and Developing Sacred Sites July 3, 2014

One of the challenges that North American druids face is understanding, visiting, and working with sacred sites.  In my druid training, one order in particular really emphasizes the sacred site–the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD).  And I think if one is living on the British Isles, it makes perfect sense to do so.  The real question becomes–what is a sacred site here in the USA?   I’d like to take some time today to explore notions of the sacred as they relate specifically to druidry in the USA.

Simple stack of stones

Simple stack of stones

 

Defining “Sacred”

The term “sacred” itself implies a connection to the divine, a concentrated or holy space, a space set aside for spiritual contemplation or religious observance in some way. When most think about what a classic definition of a “sacred site” is, especially in the context of modern Druidry, we often think about ancient sites.  These ancient sites might be natural wonders and places that were the site of ceremony and reverence for a long time. These ancient sites may also have been built or adapted by humans in ages past, and continue to be revered and visited today.  These sites, even today, fill us with wonder and awe, encouraging stillness and providing one with a spiritual or magical experience.  This isn’t the only kind of sacred site, but I think its the most prevalent definition. I should also mention that the sacred is not limited to sites; it can also refer to events and objects.  I recently had the pleasure of witnessing the dance of the mayflies on Lake Erie.  A sacred event, indeed!  But the subject of this post is investigating the idea of a sacred site in America.

 

Challenges with Sacred Sites in the USA

When we think about the “ancient site” approach to sacred sites in the USA, several challenges present themselves.

 

#1: Native American Sacred Sites, Desecration and Cultural Appropriation. Most ancient sacred sites in the Americas are Native American in origin.  Because most of us do not carry the blood of the native peoples, nor live within their communities, the issue of cultural appropriation is a serious one.  Even for those of us who carry a small amount of Native American blood, but have grown up divorced from native culture (like myself), the idea of appropriating sacred sites is uncomfortable at best.  Even worse, with the long history of abuse, eradication, and genocide between the mostly white US government and the native peoples, appropriating any other culture’s site for spiritual use is, in nearly all cases, unethical.

The longstanding destruction of native sacred sites is also a noted concern. For example, in the Great Lakes region, I’ve visited Native American “sacred sites” that have suffered substantial abuses–White Rock, located about 30 miles north of Port Huron on the coast of Lake Huron, and Inscription Rock, located on Kellys Island in Lake Erie. White Rock in particular is worth noting, because it was a sacred rock to the native peoples of these lands, and it was  desecrated repeatedly through the centuries.  The most recent desecration was that it was used as a bombing target by the US government during WWII.  Inscription rock, which once featured various pictures inscribed into limestone, was “reinscribed” by tourists for over a century and a half.  In both cases, what was once a sacred site of the native peoples of this land has been degraded by those who came after.

The energies of these sites are not conducive to spiritual work–what I’ve done at both of these sites, when visiting, is to offer apology and ask if there is any work to be done.  At White Rock, there was and continues to be substantial work to be done (and those who are interested about that can read more in the AODA’s recent release of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America).

For these kinds of sites, I think that apologizing, picking up garbage, and asking if there is any work to be done is about the only thing most of us should be doing at these sites.

 

#2 – Sacred Sites and Tourist Attractions. This brings me to the next issue with the ancient sacred sites and sacred sites of natural wonder and beauty in the USA–tourists.  If a sacred site remains intact, especially if it is a site of wonder and natural beauty, more often than not, it is a tourist attraction. I’ll note the difference here between secular tourism to that of a pilgrimage or sacred journey, such as the one discussed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims are traveling and visiting for a spiritual purpose.  Tourist energy is not conducive to the sacred and little to no meaningful spiritual work can usually be done in such places.  Tourists are there to see, to photograph, to experience a canned and predigested experience on the most superficial level. Combining tourism with the issue of cultural appropriation leaves most sites largely inaccessible for any kind of spiritual or magical work.  Not to mention one can’t do any serious work with a droves of tourists milling about.

 

#3: Land and Site “Management” practices. The other issue at most well known sacred sites is the land management practices that govern them are not conducive to spiritual work of any kind, nor can one or one’s group gain privacy at any site.  I remember reading a story a few years ago about a group of Native Americans who had lit a sacred fire on a sacred mountain for as long as their history went back.  The chief of this group was arrested because they refused to follow US Park service law, which had a recent ruling disallowing fires in that spot.  The park service had no sympathy or religious tolerance for the Native Americans; this intolerance and inflexibility largely extends to other groups as well.  This kind of thing happens all the time, most of it less public than that story.  Because earth-based religions of all kinds are not given equal treatment and respect here, and most of us are still in the closet, so to speak, it becomes even more difficult to have access to a public sacred site for the purposes of a private ritual.

This leaves those of us in the US interested in working with sacred sites in a bit of a conundrum–how do we meaningfully and respectfully work with sacred sites, if at all?  For this, I have two ideas in mind: seeking sacred sites, and creating new sacred sites over time.

 

Seeking Sacred Sites

Are there sacred sites that don’t involve human interaction, human tending that we can work? These secret places of wonder and magic worked by other beings?  Would they welcome us there even if we were able to find them?  Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

Stone Circle

Stone Circle

A small group of friends (all druids) and I went into a state park that had been largely closed down.  The pathways were covered in branches and trees, the roads were washed out even to get to where we were going.  And it was one of the most sacred places I had visited in Michigan.  Towards the end of our 5 hour hike, we came across a stone circle right in our path, with larger stones for the north and south, and covered with moss.  We felt welcome, having been lead by the forest and the winding paths to this place. Entering the circle in reverence and respect, we sat there for some time, feeling the sacred energies of that place.  Nobody had been by for a long time, and it was only because we entered in respect, and we asked to enter, that we were able to experience this sacred place and honor it.

When I was visiting Kellys Island in Lake Erie for a family vacation a few weeks ago, an opposite kind of thing occured.  I have never seen so much poison ivy in such a small area–all of the forests were protected by the beautiful poison ivy vine, covering the trees, matting the ground, going right up to the edge of any path. I could sense the tranquility and sacredness of those forests behind the ivy line; the old growth cottonwoods and maples, the mayflies darting about. The poison ivy sent a VERY clear message to anyone able to read the language of the plants–these forests are to be left alone. They spoke loudly, “Do not enter, do not pass, and do not seek sacred experiences within.”  Knowing a bit about the history of that island helps understand the protectiveness of the ivy and spirits there. This beautiful island had a long history of industrialization and abuse, where glacial grooves were destroyed by quarries and pristine forests destroyed through logging…and now, the ritzy houses and expensive yachts have mostly moved in (we did find a nice state campground and hiking trails!) No wonder what remains of this unique ecosystem is off limits to human hands.

When you come across a naturally occurring sacred site, one that isn’t on the maps, I’ve found its best to let your intuition lead the way, and to read the messages of the plant, animal, and stone kingdoms to know if you are welcome.  It might be that you have to establish a relationship over time with a site before the spirits of that site will give you access–listen and be mindful of what you hear.

 

Setting up Sacred Sites for Our Traditions

Beyond seeking sacred sites in places not on the map, there is a lot more we can do. I think one of the challenges that we face is that we assume a sacred site should already be there, setup by others or simply in the forest, and ready for our use. Revival druidry is a few centuries old, and while the British druids have done an amazing job in reclaiming sites connected with the ancient sites like Tara, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge, we have no such sites or connection to sites in the US. This brings me to the last key point–that we need to be establishing our OWN sacred sites.

Why is a site sacred to begin with? To go back to my earlier definition, its sacred because someone or a group of someones recognize its significance energetically, naturally, and so on, and made it a point to visit it, tend it, and work various kinds of ceremony there. Over a period of time, we can establish these same sacred spaces.

I also think its important to set up sacred spaces honoring the land to counter much of the environmental desecration we are seeing more and more. The disruption of the telluric pathways from oil pipelines and fracking, the harm to the planet from GMOs and pesticide use, the list goes on and on.  The more of us acting in a sacred manner, living our lives in a sacred manner, and honoring the land with dedicated spaces and work, the more we can demonstrate that not all humans are on that same destructive path and help rebuild a sacred relationship with the land.

Imbolc Sacred Circle

Imbolc Sacred Circle

I know we can work to establish sacred spaces of our own because I’ve done this myself through the work on my land.  When I arrived here five years ago, the land was energetically drained, the spirits were angry from the mistreatment of the previous owners, from pollution and garbage, from careless cutting of trees and eradication of plant life, and it took me a long time to shift those energies (you can read more about some of those initial efforts here).  A group of us set up a stone circle and began doing regular ceremonies in this space.  Over the period of five years, the energies of this land dramatically shifted in a positive direction–I’ve now had multiple people come and tell me that they don’t even feel they are still in Michigan when they come up my driveway or go out by the pond to the circle.  I think, if anything, the site is in the process of shifting into the sacred, and that shift will take much more time to complete.  Regular tending, mindfulness, and ritual all help maintain the space.

I’ve posted previously on some things you can do physically to help establish sacred sites here, here, and here. To my physical suggestions, I’ll add a few things on the spiritual side.

 

1) Listen before you act.  If you want to establish a stone circle or other place of meditation/worship/magic, you should ask the spirits of the land and heed their responses.  Combine this listening with your own observation and interaction (principle 1 in permaculture design).  This listening and observation process can take quite a bit of time, so be patient and understand that this groundwork is an important part of the process.  You’ll be glad you’ve done this work–the spirits of the land will guide you to where the site should be and often will give you vision about how to go about creating it.  This listening then, can help you create a space for use beyond just the human realm.

 

2) Small, slow actions.  To borrow a second principle from permaculture, you can’t establish a sacred space overnight.  You need to recognize that sacred spaces and shifting energies take a lot of time.  I have found that daily work, such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual, helps maintain and build energies slowly over time.

 

3) Do regular rituals honoring the land.  I like to combine my daily SOP work with regular group rituals and solo rituals during druid holidays and regular honoring of the land work to establish the space.  Honoring the spirits of the land and recognizing the sacredness of the place over time will help shift it.

 

4) Watch it evolve. The other thing that I’ve found is that once you’ve set your intentions and establish the initial space and begin doing the daily work, the space will evolve.  You might see new plants growing, trees appear that weren’t there before, or other kinds of helpful and spirits from the inner planes might make the land their home.   After we established this land as a sacred space, I found several hawthorn trees years after I moved in, I found a spiral willow on the island on the pond, and most recently at the Summer solstice, a friend and fellow grove member found foxglove growing behind the sacred circle.  Keep a record of what is happening–you will be amazed by the changes over time.

 

5) Recognize sacred activity and set rules for the space.  Protect the sacredness of the space–if you have visitors and guests over, make sure they understand the rules for the space (e.g. no consumption of alcohol in the space for non-ritual purposes, remaining quiet in the space, leaving an offering after use, etc).  You’ll find that some well placed signage also helps visitors and/or family respect the space.  It may also be that there are certain kinds of people you simply don’t want in that space, and that’s ok too.

 

I hope these thoughts help those of you pondering the idea of a sacred space here in our landscapes and how we might use the idea of sacred space as revival druids in the US.  Thank you, as always, for listening!

 

 

 

Sacred Beekeeping at the Summer Solstice June 20, 2014

Bees on honeycomb

Bees on honeycomb

As I’ve alluded to on this blog before, I started beekeeping this year.  I wanted to tell the story of that journey thus far, seeing as it is the Summer Solstice today, and share some insights on my process of sacred beekeeping!

 

Inspiration for keeping bees

Sometimes the most amazing things arise out of regular meditative and magical practice.  Take, for example, one of my daily spiritual practices, which started the journey of beekeping for me. The Ancient Order of Druids in America’s sphere of protection ritual is a general protective ritual that those of us in the order do daily. At the end of the ritual, one circulates a sphere of light around oneself or a space one wishes to protect.  I’ve been doing the sphere of protection here at my homestead each day since I moved in five years ago–I envisioned the protective sphere reaching out to the edges of my property, protecting all life within.  About a year into the process of doing this, things began to get interesting.  Instead of the rainbow light circling around, the protective sphere I put up around the property took on a life of its own.  First it grew vines, then the vines flowered.  It continued to grow in strength and beauty with each passing year.  Then, last summer, I helped a friend rescue some hives and work with his bees….and the next day,  bees showed up in my sphere of protection to pollinate the flowers.  The whole thing was so incredible, so magical, that upon reflection and meditation, I decided that I needed to take up beekeeping.

 

The other reason I wanted to take up beekeeping was that I’m very interested in long-term solutions and moving towards a sustainable future.  Bees are critical partners in our continued survival as a species and as a planet.  And, today, bees are under terrible duress in our lands.  I wanted to cultivate a personal relationship with the bees and learn how to help them survive.  So many pesticides, approved by the EPA, cause death to bees.  Combining this with GMO crops that how have pesticides and insecticides written into their genetic codes, extensive loss of habitat and forage (in favor of the lawn, and you likely know how I feel about lawns), colony collapse, varrora mites, and so on…the bees are in need of some help.  I wanted to contribute to the solutions and partner with the bees for my own land, and to help others in my community do the same.

 

Beekeeping, of course, also has substantial benefits for a homesteader!  Beeswax can be made into soaps, balms, salves, and candles.  Honey is one of the the greatest delights known to humanity, and having it from my own hives and own land was certainly something I was interested in!  If I get a harvest this year, you can be sure that I’ll be posting about what I’ve made with the wax and honey!

 

But beekeeping also presented serious challenges–I’ve always been afraid of bees and stings.  I wanted to help overcome that fear, face that fear, and realize just how strong I could be!  I knew this was the right path because of the meditations and magical work I was doing, and I know the bees have important lessons to teach.  But still, the first day, when the bees came, I was terrified.  I’m growing more confident with each visit to the hive, and am realizing that the bees are incredibly gentle, amazing creatures.  They are calm, they are loving, and if you nurture them, they will nurture you in return.

Outside the hive!

Outside the hive!

 

After deciding to move forward and partner with the bees, I needed to educate myself and make some decisions about the kind of hive and bees.  All through the winter, I read books on beekeeping.  I’ve read almost a dozen books at this point, watched videos, read forums and blogs, and talked to as many beekeepers as I could.  I read about Warre hives, Top Bar hives, and finally, Langstroth hives.  All had their benefits and drawbacks, and I wasn’t sold on any approach.  That was until I discovered Ross Conrad’s Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture.  I loved this book so much, and his approach so much, mainly because Conrad sees beekeeping as a partnership, and he writes in a sacred loving manner.  He argues against common beekeeping practices, like “requeening” in most cases (where you find the queen, kill her, and then replace her with a new queen) and so on.  I decided to use Conrad’s approach and asked around till I found someone who had hives and bees for sale.

 

Preparing for the Bees’ Arrival

Your first year of beekeeping requires a pretty substantial investment as well as a lot of preparation time.  The hives had to be picked up, painted, have some foundation added (I’ll post about my experimental approach to foundation for bees in a different post) and so on.  Here are a few photos of my beekeeping partner and friend, Paul, and I painting our hives (and yes, as druid beekeepers, we totally painted our hives with protection and inspiration in mind!) AODA members might note the colors of the two hives :). Painting the hives, and weaving in protection, was an important part of this work.  While I have many wild lands and natural foraging areas nearby, I also have neighbors who spray chemicals on their lawns–and I wanted to protect my bees from such poison.

Here are our magical hives, ready for bees!

Here are our magical hives in a big stack, ready for bees!

We also had to prep the beeyard; we cut back blackberry plants and pulled some additional ones out (saving the roots for medicine).  We leveled the space and sheet mulched around the hives to keep the weeds down and give us a place to work.  The beeyard is in the back of the property, within view of the sacred stone circle (to the upper left in that photo, about 200 feet away).

Hive setup

Hive setup

 

The Bees Arrive

It was a cold day in late April when we went to pickup our bees.  Nothing in bloom due to the cold spring, the temperature hovering somewhere around 45 degrees.  By the time the bees arrived and we returned to my house, it was too late and too cold to put them in the hive that day.  So where did we put them? The only reasonable place to put them and keep them warm–in my house, in a closet :P.   Talk about overcoming one’s fear!  The bees taught me my first important lesson that night–a lesson in trust.  I realized the next day as we transferred them into the hives that even if they would have escaped into my house, they would not have gone far, if at all.  They would have stayed in their cluster surrounding the queen.   I guess in America we grow up with all sorts of assumptions, like how bees would behave if they got into your house.  After working with the bees, I realize that so much of what I thought I knew about them was wrong.  Its gentle lessons, like these, that develop a sacred awareness of their wisdom.

Bees in their travel boxes

Bees in their travel boxes; Paul and grimalkin look on

The next day, the bees finally made it into their hives.  Prior to putting them in the hive, we opened up a sacred grove in which the bees could do their good work and made blessings for the hives.  The bees went into the hive without incident, of course!  Here’s my friend shaking the bees into their hive.  They were flying about, but otherwise, were happy to have their new home.

Paul adds bees to the hive

Paul adds bees to the hive

 

Growth of the Hives

The hives have grown considerably since the initial 3lbs of bees were added (that’s about 3000 bees) two months ago.  We had to feed them sugar syrup (and continue to do so to help give them the nutrients to build up the colony till we can add the “honey supers”). The hives are a joy each day to visit; I sit near the hives and watch the bees come in and out and spend time in meditation and observation at the hives.  The clover patch in my yard and the many medicinal and culinary herbs I grow have also become favorite spots for the bees, another spot to meditate and learn the lessons of the bee.  I am thrilled to see so many bees here now, and they are so joyful in their work.

Opening up the hives was scary at first, but I’ve learned a lot, and am thankful that my beekeeping partner, Paul, has a way with bees–I’ve learned much from his careful patience, diligence, and his ability to intuit the state of the hive.  I brought the book knowledge to the endeavor and am hosting the hives, but it was Paul who taught me how to hear their humming, communicate, and use one’s intuition to work a hive.

New Comb With Eggs and Brood

New Comb With Eggs and Brood

Whether or not we’ll get a honey harvest this year is unclear–the bees have a lot of work to do in building their wax comb and so forth.  To me, the honey is just a bonus.  The real joys have been to learn the lessons of the bees–their alchemical work, transforming pollen and nectar into wax and honey.  To see their dances and communication with each other.  To have one land on my had and lick the sugar syrup off of it.  To smell the hive when you open it–nothing smells quite like it.  To work the hive knowing that the bees know you and put their trust in you.  I hope to share more stories of the bees as we continue through this first year!

Bees on comb they built

Bees on new comb they just built

 

PS: This is my 150th post on the Druid’s Garden!  How exciting!

 

The Druid’s Garden as a Metaphor for Living June 14, 2014

A metaphor for mindful living can be found through the understanding and application of the principles of the garden.  The more you spend time in a garden, the more you’ll understand the power of this metaphor (and I suggest that everyone spend time in a garden as often as possible and through as many seasons as possible). We can understand everything from the foundation of our lives (the soil) to the balance of elements (air, fire, water, earth) as necessary for a successful garden.

 

A well tended garden

A well tended garden

The Passage of Time and the Garden. In our lives, we have things that grow for just one short season  (annuals) to those things that grow each season (perennials) to what grows tall and bears serious fruit only after substantial time (trees/shrubs).  Small things in our lives may bear abundantly in most years and require practically no tending, like a black raspberry, while other things we must tend for very long periods of time (peach trees) before we see fruit.  Other things grow and produce, but only for a season, and must be cultivated carefully and protected from extremes (tomato and basil pants). Occurrences at the wrong time, like a chill period or a three week period with high temperatures and no rain, might hamper the fruit for the whole season.

 

The Seasons. The seasons pass in our lives just like they do in a garden; there is a time where the annuals die off, the perennials and shrubs and trees send their energy back into their roots, and the land lies fallow. There are times of harvest, when so many good things come our way.  There are times to plant seeds and tend them.  Recognizing what season we are in–and EMBRACING that season, whatever it may be, is critically important.  Recognizing also that we cannot stay in the late summer and fall harvest time forever, continuing to rake in the benefits and the harvest.  Enjoy the harvest when it lasts, but recognize that harvest comes only so often, and only after the hard work of cultivation.

 

The Soil. The soil is critical in a garden–gardeners often say that they don’t grow plants, they grow soil.  The soil, be it rocky, loamy, sandy, or full of clay, and the soil’s ecology (nematodes, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc) determines the health of the plants, their growth, their production, their resistance to pests and disease, and their general well-being. Compost, made of rotted down plant matter undergoing an alchemical transformation process, is added to the garden for nutrients and to help retain water. How will you build good soil?  Will you do it naturally, working with the soil ecology? Will you allow beneficial plants, like the dandelion, comfrey, clover, blue false indigo, and so on, to help build soil with you?

 

Composting. Composting happens in our lives–sometimes what is growing has grown out of control or used up the nutrients in the soil, or plants that we don’t want and that don’t bear fruit (or even may be harmful, like poison ivy or water hemlock) are growing and we must pull them out.  Sometimes, the whole garden must be started again as the seasons move in our lives from fall to winter.  In the last year and a half, this is what happened to me–fall set in, my garden had to be cleared for the winter months, the old material piled upon a heap and simply let to rot, and my work in the broader world had to lay fallow for a time.  I resisted this mightily at first, I thought there was something wrong with me, but as time went on, I realized that this period of composting and laying fallow was entirely necessary.  I think our culture assumes we should always be working, always productive, always DOING something.  But that’s not the way a garden works–it must have its time of rest and fallow….as do we.  Embracing this time of fallow, of composting, is a necessary part of healthy living.

However, gardens that lay fallow (bare) for too long, however, aren’t healthy either.  Perhaps you find yourself in a holding pattern, not able to move forward for a time.  Don’t let that garden stand bare, ready to plant, with soil exposed to the elements.  It will erode, and you will lose valuable nutrients and humus.  Instead, plant a cover crop to give yourself time to move forward….cover crops are temporary things that fill gardens.  I mean this literally and figuratively; clover is one of the best cover crops we have as gardeners.  I’d also say that if you are in this state, you might work with clover (as a tea, sitting by the plant and meditating, as a tincture) and it will help you through this time.

 

Shelter and Growth. If we use additional shelter to protect our plants, they may grow better but be weak.I can put hoop houses up, to protect myself, my heart, my emotions, and for some plants they work well.  But hoop houses can only be used in the spring in fall, as a buffer–if we use them throughout the summer, the plants will smother, wither, and die.  This is another important lesson of the garden…know when to take shelter and make shelter; when to shelter yourself…and know what seasons that shelter no longer serves you.

Careful timing and sowing

Careful timing and sowing

Plant Allies. Plant allies are one of the most important things in a garden. These are plants that serve a beneficial nature, like companions, to those we want to have bear fruits.  As we are going through our times of plenty and times of sorrow, look to the plant allies in a garden for help as to where you are.  Dandelion breaks up compacted soil; dandelion may also help you break up stagnation in your life.  Mints provide substantial, long lasting forage for pollinators, who help pollinate various developing fruits in our garden–mints might help cultivate inspiration and allow us to draw upon the awen within.  Learn carefully what plants do in the broader world–I think you’ll find that they can perform similar roles within us if only we are willing to listen and learn. Will you draw upon these plant allies in your life when you need them?

 

Metaphor for life. When I look at my own life recently, I recognize that I’m coming out of a fallow period and now I look across this great garden, prepared with the soil that contains the compost of so many things I had to pull out of my life (or that were pulled out for me).  While those old plants are gone, the nutrients haven’t been lost, and if I’m careful in my own thinking process, I can transform them and use them again.  So the past experiences, people, and so on that may no longer serve us still can be used for new growth.  Introspection and meditation can help us work with this old plant matter and transform it–that’s a lot of what I did in my fallow period, where my garden was barren but the bacteria were working hard throughout the winter to convert dead plant matter into rich earth.

 

This post was a lesson that my plant ally teachers, specifically, yarrow and dandelion, have shared with me.  Its a lesson that I think can be useful to others, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

 

Being the Voice of the Trees – Stepping Forth in the Broader World and Communicating Publically June 5, 2014

The trees and the broader living landscape of our great earth speak to us in subtle but powerful ways. Many in modern industrial society choose not to spend time hearing the voices of the trees and our other plant allies; they fill their minds with video games and Facebook and TV and Hollywood and various other human-created things. While these things are fine in moderation, many seem to use these to extremes at the expense of all else. This creates distance, disconnection, and allows for many to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the land and her inhabitants.

 

In this challenging time of destruction, desecration, and disrespect of the land, I think that the land needs a strong voice from those who work with her.  Those of us who walk nature-inspired, sustainable, druidic paths may be called to speak for our lands, our plants, and our trees.  We may be called to speak on sustainable practices, on how to do something, or be given the opportunity to encourage change.  If we feel called to speak for the land and the trees, we must spend time learning what knowledge they have to teach well enough that we can share their stories.

Jack in the Pulpit in early spring
Jack in the Pulpit in early spring

My Recent Experiences on NPR & Local TV

This spring, I had two opportunities to be a visible voice for the trees, the land, and the sustainability work we are doing in the community.

The first opportunity was I was asked to speak on the Hemlock tree on NPR on the Colin McEnroe show in late April. Here I am, in my little corner of the Internet, with some people who read my work here and comment (thank you, readers!).  And as you’ve seen on my blog, some of the serious work I’ve been undertaking is a magical study of our native trees; Hemlock was the second such tree that I focused upon.  So, yes I had done considerable original research about the hemlock, had extensive direct experience about the hemlock, and blogged about in January of this year. And I have been cultivating a lifetime relationship with the hemlock tree.  So when the call came to speak about hemlock’s magic and mythology on the show, I said, sure, why not? Here is a recording of the show (I come in somewhere around the halfway mark).

 

The second opportunity came a while ago, back in late December, but it was only recently edited and released. A local TV producer, Ellen Warra, films “Earth Talk” for Oxford (Michigan) Community Television.  She filmed a show on sustainability and what was happening at Strawbale Studio and our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup.  This show featured a number of people in our community doing good things, and you can see it here.

 

Both of these  events were a big steps for me, and after doing some reflection, I’d like to share my insights so that others may benefit from it if they are likewise called to be a voice for the land.

 

On Walking the Talk

I think there are a lot of people out there who want to tell others what to do in very loud ways and critique others’ practice, but don’t really want to change their own practices. One of the most critical things you can do if you are going to advocate for any kind of change or speak for the land in any way is to begin by examining your own practice.  If you want to speak for the land, you must spend time in it.  If you want to advocate sustainable practice, you must first live that practice.  Advocating and speaking came for me as a natural process stemming from what I was already doing–I was living it, doing it, and then others took notice and asked me to speak.  I can’t tell anyone else “this is a good idea for you to make these changes” if I’m not, myself, making and living those changes and being honest about where I’m at and what I’m striving for. Why is walking the talk so important?  First, because you understand the difficulty of what you are asking and what challenges there may be, and second, because you have the experience to be able to help others along the way.

 

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley

The Nature of Expertise

One challenge I faced, especially in regards to the NPR piece, was considering my role as an “expert.” In this world of specialists,we assume that a specialist is needed to speak on behalf of the land, on any subject (read = advanced degrees in the subject).  You might say to yourself “I’m not an expert” or “I don’t know enough” or “What do I have to contribute?” And to this I respond–we never know enough.  There is always more to know, and a lifetime can be spent on any one subject.  That natural world is a university with doors open, always ready to teach, always ready to share.  The important thing is to put in your time, learn well what it is you set out to learn, and when you do have something to share and the opportunity arises, share it to the best of your ability.  Recognize yourself as a lifelong learner–you can learn from direct experience, learn from books and other kinds of written work, use your intuition,  learn from mentors and teachers, and so forth–but recognize that learning is a lifetime process.  If you put in the work to learn your subject well, others will take note, they will seek your advice, and you might just end up being asked to speak in very public ways!

 

As soon as you know more than someone else, you can teach someone about that subject, even in limited ways.  When I started gardening, even after my first year, people would ask me for advice on what to plant, when to plant, how to amend their soil, etc.  I was honest about my experience and spoke about what I had read, observed, and witnessed in my own garden.  For someone just starting out, even a year of knowledge was valuable and more than they had!

 

When you move beyond individuals and into a community or the broader world, speaking for the land in public ways is much more tricky.  It means that you do have to have a good knowledge base, be educated on your subject, and be as prepared as possible.  The last thing we want is a bunch of kooky druids sounding crazy on national radio or TV!

 

Challenges with Communication: Understanding Audiences, Rhetoric, and Seeking Common Ground

If there’s one thing I’ve learned concerning communication, however, its that we often communicate best  like-minded, like-pathed people, and its challenging to reach out beyond our own small networks.  I’ve witnessed this in multiple communities that I belong to–we are great at talking to each other and working to make changes in our own lives, but we sometimes are challenged in explaining ourselves to others who aren’t in our small communities. This is especially true in the broader political climate, at least here in the USA.  Seething anger, divided issues, and a virile hatred for the other side has lead us down a path where collaboration, mutual understanding, and building bridges between various sides is nearly impossible.

 

Understanding Audience. Classical rhetorical theory, which I’ve studied and taught for many years, offers us some solutions.  First is the matter of audience–understanding one’s audience, where they are coming from, what they hold sacred, how much they know, in what manner they are reading/hearing your words, and so on, is one of the most important pieces to effective communication. If you can understand and adapt your message, you are much more likely to be heard. Case in point–my recent post on the dandelion emphasized dandelion’s utility toward humans in the form of medicine, food, and the like while also emphasizing its role in healing the land. Why? I know that my blog readers care deeply about the land, and are also looking for things to do with plants and ways of interacting.  Plus, its cool information.  But more broadly, I know that humans are most interested in what is of use to them, so the utility why its not the only approach I take to talking about the land).

Cardinal

Scarlet Tanninger

 

On Careful Language Choices. I’ve written before about language, its power and its influence on our thinking, before on this blog.  In my post on “English vs. the Planet”, I talked about how certain terms influence our thinking in certain directions (e.g. develop, development, and so on have a positive connotation of human progress, but often come at the expense of habitat and substantial loss of non-human life).  This concept draws upon the broader linguistic theory of relativity as well as Burke’s idea of the terministic screen.  These theories suggest that the words themselves, with their cultural baggage, shape our thinking and that this shaping creates colored “lenses” through which we view the world.  Given this, if we want to be a voice for the land, we must be careful and mindful in our language use, especially given the number of exploitative and negative terms that are now positively framed in our culture.   How do I get around this?  I pay close attention to my language use and chose to positively reframe or redefine terms. For example, in my aforementioned dandelion post, for example, I discussed the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” setting that term with its baggage aside and choosing instead to discuss it as a plant ally.  This  use of language, hopefully, has the reader reseeing dandelion as a plant ally, which can alter thinking on a fundamental and important level.

 

On Your Ethos. Another rhetorical concept that bears mentioning here is ethos, also known as your character or credibility.  Ethos comes in two types–invented and situated.  Invented ethos is for people who already have established a name (be it good or bad), hold an important position, or have certain kinds of titles.  For example, if you meet someone who has a Ph.D. in biology, you’ll likely be more likely to believe them when they talk about plants and cell division (and likely anything else).. This is because they come into a situation with situated ethos. This situated ethos can go both ways, however.  If you meet someone who you know is in the KKK, it is very likely that you will immediately see them in a negative light and distrust everything they say.

 

Most of us don’t have “situated” ethos right away, and becoming a voice in a broader sense means that we need to “invent” our ethos for the occasion.  We need to carefully think about the image that we want to convey, the image we want to construct for ourselves.  And make no mistake–everything you say, the clothes you wear, how you chose to affiliate, all of that is a choice that can substantially alter how people view you. This gets back to my “kooky druid” comment above–when we talk about our practices and our work, I believe its important to do so in ways that others can understand and respond.

 

In Coming to Common Ground. I’ve also written before about stasis theory, a rhetorical theory developed in ancient Rome that aids us in coming to a consensus about moving forward on an issue.  We live in very contentious, dysfunctional times, when concepts like “consensus” and “collaboration” are practically curse words at most levels of our government.  But it is my firm belief that if we can get people of differing views to talk together with open minds and mutual respect, we can come to much common ground. These dialogues can take place in public forums as well as more private settings–and if you are going to be publicly speaking often, its a wise idea to talk to a LOT of people to understand their practices and how they live their lives so that you can relate to them and work to build common ground with them.

 

On Encouraging Change

One successful approach is to think about encouraging people to “add” practices rather than condemn current behavior (this is the same approach that successful dieting works–add healthy foods and slowly you will shift to more healthy foods…).  For example, encouraging people to put in a small vegetable garden is better than condemning them for mowing a large expanse of lawn.  As the old proverb says,

 

Spring Crab Apple Blossoms

Spring Crab Apple Blossoms

Being the Voice of the Trees

There are a lot of loud, well-funded voices out there advocating for a particular way of living, of consumption, of buying things and encouraging harmful practices tied to products. I’d like to encourage more of us in the druidic and sustainable community to educate ourselves fully, to live our practices, and to find ways of reaching out more broadly to speaking for the land, using “oak knowledge” to do so.  I think, given enough of us, we can begin to show that there are alternatives to what consumerist culture promotes as the only way of living, and that through living differently, we can create a better tomorrow.  Speak with the trees, my friends.  Listen to the song of the birds, the drips of rain on a summer day.  Hear the soft rustle of the patch of tomatoes in your backyard, and feel the sting of the nettle as you harvest from her stalk.  And after you’ve experienced these things, convey their wonder and magic to those who will hear of it.

 

Ode to the Dandelion May 26, 2014

I remember a sunny day not too long ago in early May when I was visiting my parents in western Pennsylvania. Everywhere we drove, dandelions were growing, their beautiful, bright yellow heads serenading the sun. After one of the coldest winters in modern history, seeing fields and lawns full of dandelions reflecting back the light of the sun was a blissful experience. “Here we are!” the dandelions cried out. “We are bringing sunlight and spring back into the world! Hear our song!” And I could tell they were doing just that, their sunburst flower heads reflecting the warmth and heat, welcoming spring to the lands once again. As we were driving, I remarked to my parents how nice it was that people were letting them grow instead of mowing them or putting chemicals on them. The photograph is below–this was one of the fields that I saw.  However, I had spoken too soon–not a day later, fields and lawns I had photographed full of dandelions were mowed, one after another.  It seemed that everyone took that day to mow down their dandelions, spray them, and then the fields left their magical dandelion state and went back to mundane green.

Fields of Dandelions...mowed hours later!

Fields of Dandelions…mowed hours later!

The dandelion, perhaps more than any other plant, instills hatred and virility across the US landscape. The dandelion seems to be enemy #1: Americans and other industrialized nations spend millions of dollars and dump millions of petrochemical weed killers on getting rid of dandelions.  In my few short days visiting my parents, I witnessed people digging them out, mowing them down, spraying them, and expressing frustration and anger at the sight of them. In some townships and developments, they are banned from the landscape. A friend tells me how her subdivision has banned the dandelion and anyone who has them growing in their yard can be fined up to $100 a week. The irony of all of this, of course, is that the reason this plant is in the US at all is because our ancestors brought it here due to its highly beneficial nature.

 

Why is there such hatred for the dandelion today, when in previous generations, it was a revered plant? I think there are a number of underlying factors.  First, the perfect (tame) green lawn is an incredibly powerful myth that people hold onto, something they strive to have, for reasons largely lost on me. The dandelion challenges that myth and requires work to remove; it challenges the idea that we can tame nature.  Second, we have a profound lack of knowledge about about the role of the dandelion and how beneficial it can be to the land, the insects, and ourselves.  Third, the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” masks its beneficial nature–weeds are pests, unwanted plants that plague humanity….if only they realized that settlers brought the dandelions here in the first place due to their beneficial nature!

 

In this post, I’m going to present an alternative view to the dandelion, and discuss its important role in our ecosystem and in our own lives.  If we want to shift to more sustainable practices and a more spiritual way of interacting with the land, we need to start seeing dandelions as allies, not enemies.  And allies they are, providing us with land healing, nutrition, medicine, beauty, whimsy, and even wine!

 

What is a Dandelion?

A dandelion (taraxacum officinale) is a hardy perennial wildflower that grows across temperate regions in the Americas, Asia and Europe.  It often appears as one of the first flowers in spring, although can be found blooming throughout the summer months.  The dandelion is naturalized to the North American region, being brought here by European settlers, who found dandelions to be so useful that they  planted dandelions wherever they went.

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

 

Why does the Dandelion grow in your lawn?  What is it doing there? Why is it important?

Before I get into the specific benefits of the dandelion, the issue of the lawn must first be addressed. The lawn itself is an attempt to put nature in an unnatural state that requires fossil fuels and many human hours of labor to maintain.  The lawn is the largest “crop” in cultivation in the USA, yet it produces no food. The dandelion’s role in the ecosystem is a restorative plant: it comes in and attempts to restore the lawn to a more natural state, to heal the damage that has been done.  It does this in at least three ways: through rejuvenating the nutrients in the soil, through reducing soil compaction, and through preventing soil erosion.

 

Dandelions, according to Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture, are helpful plants that rejuvenate damaged and compacted soil.  When we strip the soil bare (say, at a construction site or in a new subdivision where the current practice is to remove all topsoil and sell it), dandelions and other rejuvenating plants (burdock, yellow dock, yarrow, clover lamb’s quarters, ground ivy, etc.) start growing to begin to regenerate the soil. These plants are the first of many that will eventually grow, but these plants job is to bring nutrients from deep below the soil, to pull in nutrients from the air into the soil, and generally build soil health.  If this bare soil was left on its own, eventually dandelions would give way to larger shrubs and bushes, eventually trees and forest would move in (and dandelion would be long gone).

 

In addition to regenerating the land in terms of nutrients, one of the things that dandelion is particularly good for is breaking up compacted soil.  Most of the “lawn” spaces are repeatedly driven over with heavy machinery, causing substantial soil compaction. To see how compacted your soil is, go and try to stick your fingers down in your soil.  If they don’t slide in easily, the soil is likely compacted (compare this to a freshly turned garden soil).  Because of soil compaction, its very hard for many plants to establish root systems. Therefore, one of the most important roles dandelion plays in our ecosystem is to break up compacted soil with its deep taproot.

 

That same deep taproot and carpet of dandelions can help quickly prevent soil erosion and the loss of nutrients from the soil.  Soil erosion is a serious issue–in our nation’s history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930′s was largely caused by poor soil erosion control (wind erosion).  This led to substantial crop and farm failure and contributed to the worsening of the Great Depression.

 

Understanding a bit about the soil quality, soil compaction, and soil erosion, we can now understand why dandelions show up in so many lawns!  They are attempting to heal the soil so that other plants can grow.

Other Benefits of Dandelions for the Land

In addition to building healthy soil, the dandelion has numerous benefits for other creatures in the landscape.  Bees and insects of all kinds depend on it for survival, as do various other animals.

As a beekeeper, I welcome the dandelions at the start of spring.  After a long, cold winter, all of the bees are hungry; dandelion provides them with the earliest source of nectar and pollen. Pollen is a critical part of the bees’ diet; pollen provides protein that the bees use as a food source and to raise their own young.  Without the pollen in the early spring from dandelions and other flowers, bees might sacrifice protein in their own bodies to raise their young.  Considering the plight of the bees, especially the honeybee, anything we can do to aid in their survival (such as letting dandelions grow) is critical.

Furthermore, if one mows a field of dandelions in full bloom, one risks killing thousands and thousands of bees–domesticated honeybees as well as wild pollinators like bumble bees or mason bees.  We need those same bees to come along and pollinate our tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, and many other plants later in the season, and they form a vital part of our ecosystem!  For the sake of the bees, don’t mow down that field or lawn of dandelions!

 

Harvesting Dandelion

In the sections that follow, I’ll describe some recopies using the different parts of the dandelion plant–this info on harvesting will help you understand how to ethically and safely harvest. When harvesting any wild food/medicine, you want to be very careful about where you harvest.  Harvesting from your neighbor’s lawn, when your neighbor sprays every few weeks, is a very bad idea.  Likewise, harvesting too close to an old house (that may have had lead paint) or by the roadside (that once had cars with leaded gasoline) is likewise not a good idea.  I usually harvest my dandelions from inside my organic garden–encourage their growth on the edge of my garden to attract pollinators, and when the stray ones grow up in my beds, I pull them out.

 

If you are going for the root, you’ll obviously be harvesting the whole plant.  I suggest harvesting roots early in the spring or late in the fall if you can do so–the energy of the plant is in the root during these times.  Once the root sends up its greenery, you lose some of the energy of the plant into the greenery and seed production.  With that said though, roots can be harvested all through the spring, summer, and fall.  To clean the roots, you can wash them easily with a big bucket and a hose outside–rinse them off till the dirt is gone.  I usually go through several changes of water and use a scrub brush and they are clean.  What you do with the roots at that point is up to you (see “Dandelion as Medicine” and “Dandelion as Food” below).

 

The greens are best harvested in the spring, as the plants are shooting up their new growth.  If you are harvesting greens, the rule of thumb is that the younger the greens, the less bitter they are.  The energy of the plant is in the greens at that time. You want some of the bitter nature of the plant (more on that below) but too much bitter may not be so palatable!  Again, you can harvest from any safe place and then wash them lightly.

 

I don’t really think in most places you can overharvest dandelion to the point of threatening the plant.  Do be aware, however, of how many dandelions are in the immediate area (especially if you are digging roots) and harvest only as many as you need.  Do also be aware that bees and other insects need them as a food source, so harvest with that in mind.  I have an abundance of dandelion in my yard, so I harvest as much as I’d like, knowing there will always be more!

 

Fields of dandelion

Fields of dandelion

Dandelion as Medicine

The way that I use dandelion most often is as a medicine.  Dandelion’s entire plant has medicinal qualities.

Bitters. One of the primary medicinal qualities of a dandelion is that it is a bitter. Bitters are found quite a bit in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll get exactly what I mean).  But when we cut bitters out of our diet, our digestion began to suffer.  My herb teacher, Jim Mcdonald, describes bitters as stimulating all digestive functions, including the stomach acids, saliva, stomach enzymes, hormones produced in the stomach, bile, and so on. Each of these, in turn, help break down food and add to digestion and overall gastrointestinal well being.

Bitters should be seen as a tonic, that is, they are something we don’t take only when we are sick, but rather something we take every day to help keep us in optimal health.  I take my dandelion bitters before each meal–in order for the bitters to be effective, you have to taste them.  A few drops of my dandelion root tincture on my tongue (see recipe) will help my digestion each day!

Beyond the immediate physical benefits, I there is also a spiritual side to the bitters.  You are taking and extracting the essence of a plant, preserving it in alcohol, and then taking that plant as medicine.  This puts you in communion of the plant (even more so if you harvest/grow the plant itself).  This has powerful spiritual implications for those who choose to seek them.

 

Dandelion Root Tea

Another way to take your daily dose of dandelion is through tea.  Here are two kinds of recipes:

Fresh tea: The fresh tea is simple to make–dig up a number of roots (which shouldn’t be too difficult). Wash your roots, chop them up, and bring them to boil with several cups water (think about 1/2 tablespoon root per 1 cup water). Boil for 40 minutes and then enjoy.

Dried Tea: The dried tea can be enjoyed the same way as fresh.  After harvesting, you can chop and dry out the dandelion root.  I usually just let it air dry, but you can also use a dehydrator.  The dried root tea can be prepared like the fresh tea.  Also consider adding other medicinal herbs to your blend!

 

 

Dandelion as Food

Dandelion can be ingested in many ways, the health benefits of which I discussed under “dandelion as medicine.”  The nutritional value of dandelion plants are also quite high–they are high in vitamins A, B, C and D, and contain potassium, zinc, and iron.  This makes them an all-around great food and drink.  Again, remember that dandelion is a tonic plant, which means we want to be taking it often!

Roasted Root Coffee: The dried and roasted roots also make a great tea (although its a little more like a coffee, and some people drink it as a coffee substitute–coffee, like dandelion, is also a bitter that “moves” you!)  Again you’ll want to dig up as many roots as you’d like.  Now you’ll want to chop them.  To chop them quickly, you can use a food processor.  Set your oven to 250 degrees, and lay your roots out on a baking sheet (or several).  Over the next two hours, check on them fairly often, stirring them to ensure an even roast.  When you have them to the desired darkness, you can pull them out of the oven.  Before serving, I usually grind them up further in a coffee grinder so that I get a nice ground.  You want to store the grounds  in an airtight container (like a mason jar).  You can use 1 tablespoon (level) for 1 cup of coffee. You’ll want to boil it for 10-15 min (not just brew like regular coffee).  Add cream and honey!  Delicious!

Dandelion Wine:  I have also had the joy of making dandelion wine, detailed in two posts here and here.

 

Dandelion wine fermenting....

Dandelion wine fermenting….

There are many other ways to enjoy dandelion in the spring, especially the leaves, which can be used in salads, stir fried, sauteed, made into fritters, etc.  An online search will reveal many more recipes!

 

Shifting Consciousness: Dandelions, Whimsy, and Magic

I remember as a child how I would go out into a field of dandelions, pick one seed head after another, and blow them all away.  Dandelions have a very whimsical quality to them.  As they take flight, they appear like little fairies.

Dandelions are truly a plant of the sun–their flowers open when the sun is out, and close at night or in overcast or rainy weather. The seed heads, however, have a lunar quality–they appear like a full moon, and stay that way regardless of the weather or light or darkness, until the wind (or some child) comes and blows them away.  At this point, the seeds take flight; a delicate umbrella carries off the tiny dandelion seed to new ground.

What I’ve been attempting to convey in this book is the importance of shifting our own consciousness, of understanding dandelions as more than just a “pesky weed” but an incredibly important plant ally that gives so much to the land and to us if we only allow it.  I encourage you to spend some time and sit with the dandelion plant.  Watch her softly move in the breeze.  Watch her seeds take flight.  Dig one up and examine her deep taproot, turn it into medicine, and see the dandelion as a magical, incredible plant that she is.

 

 
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