The Druid's Garden

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

The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part II: What to do During Your Druid Retreat August 12, 2016

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Following the path of the sun and the moon we can learn much about the work of a druid retreat in our lives. The daylight is where we typically live–it is bright, it is loud, people are about, lots of activity is taking place. The daylight offers us a particular way of seeing the world, of interacting in it, and while everything is bright and illuminated, it is so bright that we see only what is there. We scurry about, we live our busy lives, the sun blazes down upon us.

 

Retreat allows us to transition out of that sunlight for a bit and have respite. As the retreat grows near, the sun begins to set, and things begin transitioning. You set your goals for the retreat; you pack your bags, and you do some initial spiritual work. Then, the retreat occurs: night is here,the incredible full moon and blanket of stars provide a different kind of vision and illumination. The sun may allow your physical body to cast a shadow, but the moon shows the shadow of your soul. You spend time in that darkness, exploring what you need to explore, letting go of what you need to let go of, scrubbing your lightbulb (discussed in part I of this article) clean so that shines upon the world clean. As you begin exiting the retreat, the sun’s energy begins to rise once again, and dawn approaches. The stars slowly fade (always there, but not always visible). You transition out of the retreat and returning once more to the sunlight once again to live your everyday life–rejuvenated, healed, and whole.

 

Last week, I introduced the idea of the Druid Retreat, discussing what it was, preparation for the retreat, decisions to make about the retreat, the possibility of fasting, what to take and what to leave behind, and herbal allies for your retreat.  This second post talks about the retreat itself: what do do leading up to the retreat, what to do when you get there, and how to transition back into everyday living.

 

Dusk: Leading into your Retreat

As I’ve hopefully illustrated above, transitioning in and out of your retreat is just as important as the retreat itself–we must help our bodies, minds, and souls enter into the sacred space of retreat and then exit peacefully again.  This requires some work on our parts, of course.  Here are the things I do to transition into this retreat space.

 

Setting goals and intentions for the retreat. It is a wise idea to articulate some basic goals for your druid retreat prior to actually going to the retreat.  They might be really broad (personal healing, spiritual rejuvenation, etc) or they might be quite specific (a new life path for myself; clarity on an important decision, etc). Before your retreat, spend some time in meditation and consider what you might need out of the retreat at this time. Write your goals down and have them accessible somewhere during your retreat.

 

When I am preparing for the retreat, I find that a series of meditations and nature walks will help reveal what is weighing on me or what needs I have concerning the retreat.  Keep a pen and paper handy, craft your goals, and return to them at least once or twice in the days and weeks leading to the retreat to have a clear vision for your retreat.

 

At the same time, don’t let the goals limit the scope of your retreat. Understand that these are some starting places for you–but the spirits will likely have their own work they want you to do.

 

Preparing physically for the retreat. If you are going to be fasting, or even if you are taking my advice of “eating lighter” during the retreat, I find that being mindful of my eating for a few days prior to the retreat can set my body up for deep healing work. By this I mean I avoid meat, fried foods, heavy foods, too much dairy and the like, and stick to light, fresh foods for the three days prior to my retreat. I find that this makes my body feel less heavy and more ready for the deep cleansing work. Part of this is that the heavy, greasy foods ground us firmly in the daylight of our lives, and we don’t want that kind of grounding during retreat.

The forest is calling you deeper....

The forest is calling you deeper….

Slowing down. Imagine a train moving at 100 miles per hour suddenly having to stop on the tracks.  That could cause a crash!  Because our lives are so busy, sometimes, going into retreat is kind of like trying to stop that heavy train immediately. A safe way is to slow the train down, to break, to make sure it pulls into that station carefully and purposefully. Given this, I try hard to “slow down” a few days before my retreat. No frantic running around, making sure tasks get done with grace, and so on. This helps me ease into the transition of the slow time that is key and present as part of the retreat.

 

Dusk turns to Night: The Preliminaries

Finally! Your retreat has come and you are ready to begin the work of the retreat…if you only knew what that work was to be! I have a few things I like to do on retreats, and I’ll share them here to help provide structure for your own retreat.

 

Slowing Down. Let your train fully come to a stop at the station; let the sun fully set and the moon and stars to illuminate once more. Once you arrive at your retreat, I would suggest spending the first hour or so decompressing, unpacking, setting up, and so on. Take your time with this–there is no rush. There is nowhere else you need to be but here, present, in this moment. Pay attention to all of your senses (how often do we do this?) and simply enjoy the work of setting up camp, unpacking, whatever it is that you need to do first.

 

Deep Breathing. After you allow yourself to slow down, do a little bit of deep breathing and meditation.  Let yourself settle in, let the slower rhythm weave into your bones.  Let your body and mind know, gently, that you can slow down and relax. Sit by a tree and breathe deeply, simply being, for a time, letting the stuff in the outside world slowly fall away. Once you’ve done some of this initial work, it is time to begin the more serious spiritual work of the retreat.

 

Cleansing.  I start my retreats with some kind of cleansing activity before opening up the space officially. There are so many ways you can cleanse, but for retreats, I like to do this in a few ways.  A glass of fresh spring water (or nettle tea) with a pinch of salt combined with a jump into a mountain stream, a cool shower, or bathing in cool water with a pinch of salt and vinegar.  I follow this usually with a full on smudge session.   You may also find it appropriate to cleanse the retreat space itself (this is good if its a rental cabin or something that a lot of people are coming in and out of; totally unnecessary if you are camping in the woods).  Once you have done whatever cleansing that you feel is necessary, you can go ahead and setup the sacred space and intentions for your retreat.

 

How to setup the sacred space for your retreat. Setting up the sacred space for healing as part of your retreat is also an important step. This might be something as simple as the following:

  • Start by stating my intention for the retreat: personal healing, rejuvenation, etc.
  • Call upon the four directions and four elements for their guidance
  • Make an offering in gratitude to the land and spirits of the land for hosting
  • Cast a circle around the space for the duration of the retreat

 

If you have a way of opening up a sacred space or grove, you can use that and keep it open for the duration of the retreat.  For me, I will use the AODA’s solitary grove opening, with some additions at the end like setting my intentions for the retreat and making an offering to the spirits of the land.  This opening ritual can be done, and the space open, for as long as the retreat goes on.

 

And that’s an important distinction: the retreat itself takes place in an open grove for the duration of the retreat.  The entire retreat is a ceremony, a ritual, a spiritual act.  Understanding this, and setting this up intentially, helps you do the work of your retreat.

 

Moon and Stars: The Work of Your Retreat

So at this point, all of the preliminaries are over with. Everything that you needed to do, you did do. This is usually when people start looking around and saying, “Ok, now what?” The work ahead is much less clear, and much more specific to each individual who is on the retreat. People who have been doing spiritual work: meditation, journeying, quiet jaunts in the forest, for a while likely don’t need me to tell them what to do at this point.  The spirits will do that for you! But those of you who are new to this kind of work, still fresh upon the path, might find the following suggestions really helpful.

 

Vision Quest Shelter

Vision Quest Shelter

No agenda. Its generally better if you go into a healing retreat without an agenda. You may find that you are lead to do different kinds of things, unplanned things, when you got there.  Its better not to plan it out, but let things unfold as they unfold.

 

Intuition. The most important advice I can give for what to do when you get to this point is let your intuition guide you.  You might get the idea of doing some things you would normally not do (screaming, dancing naked, cartwheels) or things that seem odd to you (placing stones in a ring around a tree).  Don’t evaluate or judge what you feel led to do–just do it.

 

Spirit Communication. All of us have the capacity to hear messages from the land, from the spirits, from whatever conception of divinity you hold. Maybe these messages come in physical form–animals, branches banging on a tree, the babbling of the brook. Maybe this comes from prayer to the divine. Often, these messages also have inner components.  I spoke about inner planes communication and messages with trees quite a bit in my Druid Tree working series, so I’ll refer you there for more details.

 

Being and Observing. One critical thing to do is to simply lay by the fire, or out in the snow, and simply be there, slow down, simply inhabit yourself and be present in the moment. We spend so much time darting from place to place, putting out fire after fire, that we don’t just get to sit.  A retreat should include a lot of sitting and being.  Ask questions, see how the land responds (and it will respond on its own time, which can be hours or days after a question is asked)!  The value in sitting for a number of hours (especially around dusk or dawn) is that you will see the forest in ways you will never see it if you are wandering about.  Sitting still means you will see animal movements; you will blend into your surroundings and become one with the forest.  There are incredibly deep insights and values in this kind of quiet observation and communion.

 

Staying put or Wandering. There are different beliefs about whether you should stay put or you should wander about during a retreat–and to you I say, try a bit of both.  When I went on my vision quest, it was very important that we setup our sacred space and then stayed put in about a 30 foot area of space.  This allowed nature to send messages to us, to sit in stillness, focus, and quietude.  And while I loved this, I also love the discovery of wandering through the forest (which will make noise, and not allow as many animals to visit and bring messages).

 

Looking for Signs and Symbols. Learn to read the messages that the land sends.  A book called Animal Speak is a nice one to bring along, although I don’t usually take too much stock in what books say about animal messages.  Usually, animals come for a specific reason and that reason might be very unique to you and your spiritual path.  So if a deer comes, its likely coming to you for a specific reason that you will understand and/or need to interpret.  Use your own intuition to interpret the signs you are given, and perhaps supplement with some resources.  Pay attention to directions and time (e.g. a hawk flies in from the east at dawn is a different message than the hawk spiraling overhead in the early afternoon).  You might also use divination systems here, but I find the retreat will usually provide the messages you need.

 

Signs and symbols  in wildlife during the retreat

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the retreat

Pilgrimages.  If you are in natural places, taking a journey to a particular special spot is also a great thing to include in a retreat. For me, these are often healing or mineral springs (of which we have many in this area).  Perhaps you want to plan a hike and journey as part of your retreat (although I’d recommend foot journeys if at all possible–technology, like riding in a car, can disrupt the energy and flow of your retreat).

 

Inner Journeys. Inner journeying work is certainly another important part of spiritual retreats. Spending time in an inner sacred grove, or inner realms is an important part of the retreat.

 

To sleep or not to sleep. While I am on retreat, I prefer cat naps during the hot parts of the day (like afternoons, in line with most of the animals ) to full on sleeping at night; I try to stay up at least one full night out in the wilds, observing and being present.   I find that this gives me perspective and new insights.   If you are going to stay up all night, do it without a campfire or light–just let your eyes adjust to the darkness and be present in your surroundings.

 

The lifepath experience and answering hard questions. Sometimes, it is useful to review your path, in its entirety–how you’ve gotten here.  Think about the different things you’ve experienced, the different decisions that you’ve made, your soul’s spiritual journey, the key aspects of your personality.  You might also work through some questions, the kinds that we usually don’t get to spend enough time with:

  • Am I happy with my path? If not, what could I change?
  • What am I holding onto that I need to leave go of? Why am I not letting it go?
  • What makes my soul sing? How often do I engage in those kinds of things?
  • What do I think is ahead for me on the path?
  • What is my life’s work? How do I know it?
  • Who am I, as a person?
  • What are the things that are the most important to me? Why?

 

Self-Expression. After some of your inner work is done, you might also find that retreats are an excellent space for engaging in some of the bardic arts: music, poetry, song, dance, visual arts.  For me, I bring along my flute and typically my watercolors, and that way, if the opportunity presents itself, especially on later days of the retreat, I might create something beautiful.  Often, when I’m on retreat I am given new songs for the flute and that’s pretty incredible as well!

 

Journaling and documenting your retreat. Some people don’t want to write during their retreats, but I have found that this really helps me “continue the ceremony” long after it ends in the physical world, and it allows me to return to the ceremony again and again and make sense of what I have experienced.  If you want to do this,  make sure you devote adequate time to  during your retreat to journaling about your experiences as soon as you can after they happen–write while you are still in the alternative perspective of the retreat.  What happens is that when we are in ritual space (and retreat is an extended ritual) we are in a particular frame of mind.  As soon as we remove ourselves from that ritual space, we cease to be in that frame of mind, and things are quickly lost from our minds.  Write everything you want to write before you close your ritual space and return to the mundane of everyday living.

 

Dawn: Closing the Retreat and Continuing the Ceremony

Just as you worked to ease into the Druid Retreat, you will also want to ease out of the retreat–daylight can be harsh if we are not careful.

 

Conclusions, Insights, and Next steps. As you are nearing the end of your retreat, take some time to write down the insights and conclusions you gained.  Maybe that’s a set of spiritual practices, maybe that’s something you need to do for yourself, maybe its an actionable list of items.  Or maybe it is none of these things, but a sense of tranquility and calm, of completeness.  Whatever it is, you want to do your best to preserve that mindset–that state–those feelings and words.  I usually give myself at least 2-3 hours for this kind of work. I am a visual artist and an avid writer, so I will usually do something visual to represent my retreat and also write extensively in my journal.  These tactile experiences help start to bring me back into my normal rhythms.

 

Gratitude. Express gratitude to the land, the spirits, those that helped you on your retreat.  Sometimes they may ask for something in return–do whatever it is they ask gladly.  After all, they held the space for your healing.  I also make it a point that once I’ve returned from my retreat, I write notes of gratitude and give them to anyone who helped make my retreat possible (kid/pet sitters, significant others, etc).

 

Closing the Retreat.   Since you’ve just spent some serious time in a sacred space, you can close out the sacred space as befitting your tradition (I would use AODA’s solitary grove closing for this).  A simple closing works like this:

  • Announce your intentions to close the space
  • Give thanks to the four directions/quarters
  • Make an offering to the land/spirits/diety
  • Take down the protective circle/sphere/etc.

 

Grounding Activities. At the end of the retreat, especially one with light-ish food choices or fasting, you will want to start bringing yourself back into the patterns of everyday typical living.  I find that it is helpful to eat something a bit more hearty at this point to help me return. Maybe that’s some eggs and cheese, or a piece of turkey jerky–something that will help me ground.

 

Transitioning Back in. Be careful about how you transition back into your everyday living.  I’ll share a story here to see why this is important.  A number of years ago, I went with a friend of mine to a week-long earth-centered spirituality event.  We had a long drive back to Michigan.  I spent a lot of time both with others but also alone.  It wasn’t a solitary retreat, like I’m talking about here, but it was certainly a different kind of energy and space.  After we left, we stopped at a highway rest stop and went in for some food and a bathroom break.  I entered the rest stop, and was greeted by a wall of plastic encrusted food, screaming children, several TV screens, a sad guy at the cash register, music blasting–it was all too much for me.  Normally, I had no difficulty navigating such a space (I’d hardly be a functional human being in American society if I did) but after being away for 7 days, I was completely in shock.  Panicked.  I had to leave, and then I was greeted by more concrete.  Finally, I found a little patch of grass and closed my eyes, laying on it.  I felt better.  I had never experienced such a shock, but it taught me something really powerful: the transition needs to be managed with care.  Even if we are “used” to it, we need that transitory time.

 

A Transition day. If at all possible, given my discussion of transitioning above, I would suggest ONE EXTRA DAY, at home, or even 4 hours, at home, to transition back from your retreat.  Ideally, you need time just to process once you’ve returned, and to reflect and integrate.  I realize this is not possible often, but it is ideal!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

The Ceremony Continues

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about this kind of work comes from the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition, and it is worth sharing here.  Your ceremony continues well beyond the time that you were in the woods, in retreat.  They believe that for another 7 days, the ceremony continues on.  If you go home and begin talking about everything you experienced and learned, you can “talk the magic out of it.”  And so, I would suggest that you keep quiet about the ceremony and the insights you learned.  They are yours, and yours alone.  After the seven day period is over, you might find it appropriate to share bits of the experience with others, but never share much.  There are many things from my own retreats and vision quests that I have not, and will not, ever share–there is magic in silence, tremendous magic in silence (a great discussion on this topic can be found in John Michael Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge book).

 

Retreats as a Regular Spiritual Practice

A full blown druid retreat might be harder  to facilitate regularly, but I would say try to do one at least once a year if possible.  Even if you can’t do a full blown druid retreat, I have found that there is great benefit in a mini-retreat: an 4 or 8 hour retreat, where the same things can happen, but in a condensed time frame.  You aren’t going to get the deep insights you would get with a longer period of time, but even a short while away from things will do tremendous amounts of good in your life🙂.

 

Closing thoughts

I hope that this post series was inspirational for you and that you consider planning a druid retreat–even a short one.  I also wanted to let all of you know that I’ll be doing some retreat work myself in the second half of August and will be spending a week in the Hudson Valley taking my Permaculture Teacher Training course. Given this, I will not be posting new posts for the next two or three weeks, but I will return after my PDC Teacher training with an extended series of posts on Permaculture for Druids and some other spiritual gardening topics🙂.  Blessings!

 

The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part I: Why We Go on Retreat, Preparation, and Herbal Allies August 7, 2016

Each of is like a light bulb. No, not one of those new-fangled compact florescents, but rather, one of the old style standard bulbs with the firmament and all.  When we go out into the world and do good, through healing work, through engaging in people care, earth care, or fair share–the inner light of our souls, the inner light of our bulbs, burns brightly, illuminating all of those around us.  As we work through our lives, read the news, hear of suffering and violence, experience tragedy, loss, suffering, and violence–our light bulbs get stuff sloshed on them.  They grow dim, dirty from the world and its evils.  As I wrote about two weeks ago–life seems to be getting harder, with more sharp edges, and so many of us are on edge throughout. Our light bulbs get mired in the everyday grime of living and being in the world. It is important, then, that we maintain the integrity of our light bulbs so that we can do the good work that we are called to do. This isn’t the first time I have shared this metaphor on this blog (and it was taught to me by the brilliant Jim McDonald), but it is one that I find so useful and important that I keep on returning to it.

 

And so, once in a while, we need something more drastic to give us a boost and allow our inner light to shine forth.  And today, friends, I will be writing about a key practice that helps us do just that: the druid spiritual retreat.  It is this kind of retreat, even for only a few days at a time, that can leave us refreshed, whole, and ready to go back into the world with our lights shining brightly.

 

This will be a two-part post series: the first part will introduce the retreat, explain how to set one up, and explain some decisions to make (to fast or not to fast, solitary or companions), options for how to hold the retreat, herbal allies for your retreat, and so on. The second post, next week’s post, will explore how to ease into the retreat, the work of the retreat, and easing back into everyday life–the ceremony continuing on well beyond the retreat itself.

 

Introducing the Druid’s Retreat

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

One of the ways I think about the druid’s retreat is like this: your everyday life, you are hiking a path in a forest. There, you have a long way to go, you rest, you find mushrooms, you see what is before you on the path, you adapt, crawl over fallen trees, and more. What the retreat does is allow you to leave the forest of your everyday life and instead, sit on a mountain cliff, above that forest, looking down at all below. It allows you a different perspective, a broader view, where you can see the everyday patterns in a new light. It allows you to look at the interplay of the different trees, the meandering of the river, the mountains beyond the valley. When you return to that forest path, as you most certainly will do, you have more wisdom about it because you have seen it from a different perspective.

 

In the Tarot, the Hermit card teaches us much about the idea of a spiritual retreat. The hermit has gone off to seek solitude and illumination. He spends much time wandering the land, by himself, and coming to an understanding of life’s great mysteries. Of course, when he returns, he has much knowledge and illumination to share with others. The tarot is ultimately a deck of archetypes, and we see this same arch-typical story of hermitage, of solitude, of retreat encapsulated in mythology, stories, and religious lore from around the world–Jesus, Buddha, Thoroeau, even fictional characters like Obi Wan Kenobi–all retreated and had deep insight and wisdom to share. Another tarot card that is fitting is that of the hanged man–gaining a new perspective offers much in terms of insights, healing, tranquility, and more.  It is when we are able to get this new perspective–from the mountain far away from the valley of our life below–that we gain insight into what to do next and the next part of our journey.

 

Retreats are serious business, for this reason.  They can facilitate inner and outer transformations, allow us to have a new perspective on old problems, clear out old things that no longer serve us, jump-start a new set of spiritual or creative practices, help us clear out old patterns and establish new, more positive patterns, in our lives, among many other things. All of this is deep work, potent work, magical work, that we cannot take on lightly or without clear intent.

 

Breaking the Everyday Patterns

The principle of a retreat is simple: you get away from your everyday life (your home, your family, your work, your other demands) for a period of refreshment, rejuvenation, and seclusion (alone or with select others, see below). Where to take this retreat is a critical thing: I have learned that its near impossible to do this retreat in your everyday living space, because both things/stuff and patterns have a way of creeping in. Your stuff holds energy and puts particular kinds of demands upon you.  For example, your computer is there, beckoning for you to turn it on, maybe browse Facebook or your favorite blogs.  Your bathroom is there, in need of a good scrubbing.  Your phone is there, everything else is there, your pets, family and/or kids. These things are necessary, perhaps, and part of your daily rhythms.  But they work against us when we need to go on a retreat because they pull us back into the experiences of everyday living.

 

Likewise, the patterns of everyday living that we establish are critical for our overall “getting things done” and forward momentum, and our spaces are conducive to supporting and encouraging those patterns. Sometimes, we can get stuck in cyclical patterns, especially cyclical patterns associated with being in indoor spaces that harm us. Getting away from our patterns are also an important part.

 

Stephen Harrod Buhner writes beautifully on this topic as follows, “The daily cares that occupy so much of our time, the demands of work, of social conventions, of family, and of things that we feel we “have” to do often accumulate, filing up our time, taking our attention, becoming toxins to the soul.  The incessant mutter of the television, the continual sounds of technological civilization, the chatter goes on continually in our heads–these things fill us up with distractions and take us away from who we are and who we knew we were to be when we began this journal through life.  As our lives unfold, each of us is often channeled into paths that are not part of living a fulfilled life.  Fasting and retreat in wilderness allows the inessentials of life to be stripped away, allows our souls to detoxify.” — The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.

 

But there’s another aspect to this pattern breaking:  by removing ourselves from the situation for a time, we break the everyday patterns that no longer serve us.  The patterns that no longer serve us, that perhaps we want, and need to, be rid of for our own health, happiness, and fulfillment.  Those are another aspect to the patterns we remove when we go on retreat.

 

Finding a Retreat Space

The space for your retreat is really critical to the overall success of the endeavor–and I consider it one of the more difficult pieces to determine.  A good space facilitates a successful retreat; a poor space (where there are other people, noises, distractions) can really harm your overall retreat and goals and end in frustration.  The important thing is that the healing retreat be secluded, preferably from other people, certainly from life’s demands. Preferably, it will have no Internet service, no cell service, and no television!  The idea is to get away for a bit, have quiet, and be able to be fully present with nature.

 

Nature, too, is a critical component of the Druid’s healing retreat.  You want to be somewhere where you can easily commune with nature without distractions.  You need to be able to be in nature, and hear her messages.  You want to be in nature that is whole, pure, and not damaged in some way (retreat is not typically a time for land healing work, but a time for inner healing work).

 

Otherworld forest...

Otherworld forest…

Here are a few models for the healing retreat:

  • Go to a friend’s secluded cabin, yurt, etc.  Ask friends if they have shares in hunting lodges or know of a place you can go for a few days.
  • Backpack into a secluded spot and stay a few days; bring minimal supplies and tent
  • Rent a rustic cabin in the woods somewhere far away from others (*rustic* cabins are hard to find; you may have to do some searching and use non-Internet sources.  Most of the cabins I have been finding on the web are luxury / glamping cabins–not really necessary or needed for retreat).
  • Go into the woods with minimal things (maybe like a tarp); vision quest style.  I did this when I went on my vision quest a few years ago–a tarp, a sleeping bag, a jug of water, my flute and drum, and a journal were my companions.  It was perfect.
  • Plan a “walkabout” journey where you wander for a time on a trail (or do an all night walkabout).  If you do this during a full moon, in a semi-open space, you may not even need a light.
  • Get in a boat/canoe/kayak and do a river trail or go to a secluded lake; camp along the edge of the river and float for a day or two down the river.

 

Before the Retreat

Timing and planning. Take at least 24 uninterrupted hours for your retreat, although several day retreats are even better (I like to do a 3 or 7 day retreat)—and for those who are insanely busy, ask friends to help with watching children or pets, take a vacation or sick day from work, etc. The key here is to make space for your healing retreat.  So you need to plan it in advance, line up your ducks in a row, and be prepared for the distance and space necessary for a healing retreat.

 

Food. If you are going to eat (see fasting, below) I would suggest cooking in advance for the retreat unless cooking is a healing and nurturing activity for you. Then you can focus your energies only on the retreat and not worry about feeding yourself during it.  I will say that even if you plan on eating, I would keep the meals very light: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds.  Too much food, especially heavy meats, have a way of grounding you firmly in the physical realities–and the whole point of retreat is to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from the everyday.  So do plan your food carefully with this in mind.

 

Vision quest altar

Vision quest altar

Consider packing and bringing the following items with on your retreat:

  • A journal for personal reflections and discovery.  I believe this is the most important thing to bring on your retreat!
  • Spiritual objects of significance to you
  • A blanket or something to sit on (I have a nice sheepskin that I like to take into the woods; it was a gift from a good friend)
  • Ritual items (candles, incense, whatever tools you will need)
  • Musical instruments (a drum, if nothing else, is a great idea).
  • Offerings for the land (my favorite offering blend that I make is a combination of tobacco that I grow myself (including leaf, stem and flower) + wild rose petals + lavender flowers.  It smells great).  Urine is also a great offering!
  • Medicine making and harvest equipment (if you will be doing any wandering, foraging, etc.  I always do this on my retreats)
  • A forest hammock (this is an important part of my retreats–I have a great hammock with tree straps that will easily attach to any tree. It is good for resting, looking up at the stars at night, and simply “being” present (and keeping the ants and critters off of you).
  • Things to keep you warm (hand warmers, etc) if the weather is cold.
  • Extra shoes and layered clothing, especially if you are going to be outside.
  • Bring really good water.  I know this kind of sounds silly, but our bodies are made of water, and most of the water that is available is not good water–its stored in plastic, chemically tainted, shipped from who knows where, bottled and chemically ionized or whatever.  I would suggest that you find some really good water (like spring water, locally sourced if possible) and bring that with you for drinking during your retreat. What you will find is that really good water does something to you–it makes you feel more alive, you feel extraordinarily refreshed after you drink it–it works on many levels.

 

Leave the following stuff behind:

  • All electronic devices. Bring your phone in case of emergency, but turn it off and do not look at it or check it at all during your retreat. The world can survive without you for a few days, and you can survive without it (that’s one of the patterns that is useful to break!).
  • Unnecessary stuff.  Minimal packing is good for retreats–you don’t need fancy hair dryers or five pairs of sandals, or whatever.  The more you bring, the more that stuff weighs you down.  Think about needs over wants here.  Its not that I’m saying to be uncomfortable, but I am saying that minimal packing is ok!

 

Herbal Allies for Your Retreat

If you are interested, certain herbal allies may aid and strengthen the work that you do on retreat.  I have found that working with a series of plant allies can  extend the work that I are doing on various levels. Here are a few of them:

 

  • Hawthorn.  Hawthorn is a plant that helps us clear our lightbulbs, to get the grime off, to return to our heart spaces and engage in our own deep healing work.  It is particularly good for retreats. I usually take this as a tincture (berry, or berry/leaf/flower) and/or tea.  You can even rub the tincture on your heart for added effect.
  • Stinging Nettle.  Stinging nettle is many things, but in this context, we are focusing particularly on its regenerative properties for the nervous system and adrenals.  Part of what we do on healing retreat is physical regeneration work and nettle is quite good at this work.  Cold nettle tea is also a good diuretic, which helps flush toxins from the body and does healing on the kidneys.  Stinging nettle: I would not go on retreat without it!
  • Wood Betony: Wood Betony is another plant that works on the central nervous system, and is a tonic nervine plant.  Most of our nervines have very specific qualities, things that they do better than other nerviness.  In the case of Wood Betony, it is good for those who live in their heads, who over intellectualize, over think, and suppress instinct.  Culturally, we are all in this place–privileging our minds over our hearts, suppressing emotions and intuitions, and learning to work in more of a heart space. It is for this reason that I believe that this is always a good plant to take on retreat:  combined with the others on this list, it will allow for powerful transformations!

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

  • Mugwort. Mugwort has been known to many cultures and traditions as a dreaming herb.  I have found that it certainly stimulates good dreams, but also good visions while we are in shifted spiritual states, trace states, in deep retreat/vision quest, and so on.  Consider mugwort like a guide to your unconscious and sub-conscious–mugwort expertly leads the way on the path into the deep recesses of the soul.  There, you can do the work you need.  Mugwort tea is a bit bitter, but you can take it internally.  You also get the exact same effects if you burn it (like a mugwort smudge or mugwort-infused incense).
  • Indian Ghost Pipe. I have written about Indian Ghost pipe or Ghost flower before, and this is a *fantastic* plant ally for your retreat.  The principle of Ghost Pipe is simple: it provides us distance and perspective, both physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  Ghost pipe helps us get into the retreat space and stay in that space, giving us the “up on the mountaintop” perspective we seek during retreat. Ghost pipe can be found and eaten, tinctured, or smoked in a herbal smoking blend. Beware, however-this is a delicate plant, a sacred one, and you need to cultivate a sacred relationship with it. Please take only what you need of this most sacred plant and treat it with the utmost respect.

 

Now, you can take these plants internally (as described above). You can simply make a tea beforehand and take it with you on the retreat, for example.  But you can also just have them with you, maybe in a little medicine bag, or find them and sit near them.  They will do their work on whatever system you need: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Trust your intuition and work with them accordingly.

 

The alternative is to find the plant allies you need while you are out on retreat.  Foraging and seeking the plants–the ones that you need will be there, waiting for you, when the time is right.  If you know how to see them, if you have your mushroom eyes on, they will come to you.

 

The Retreat-Fast

Another option you can add in is the fast for your healing retreat. I have done fasting retreats (and recently completed a seven day fast about a month ago combined with 3 days of retreat). What I found was that fasting adds an additional dimension to the retreat, a very intense dimension, and one that must be prepared for.  A lot of us have never fasted, and a lot of us have never gone into the woods alone.  Combining these things all into one 3 or 7 day journey might be too much for a person the first time.  So consider fasting as an option, but don’t feel you have to do it.

 

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

One of the things that happens when you fast is that you get really weak, so consider a “staying put” and “quiet” retreat if you are going to do a fasting retreat.  E.g. if you lug 50 lbs of equipment into the woods and fast there for 7 days, you will still have to lug that equipment out–and that might not be possible for you after 7 days of fasting.

 

With these caveats, I have found fasting to be an incredible part of retreats, especially retreats where healing and/or releasing is a primary goal.  I would highly recommend that before you take on such a fast, you read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.  This book describes water and juice fasting, including short fasts and extended fasts.  Buhner argues that you can detoxify spiritually through fasting and achieve higher levels of consciousness and awareness (which works partially because food grounds us; fasting puts us in a ceremonial space or deep intuitive space). He argues that because so many of our emotions are wrapped up in food, and because our bodies hold those emotions inside, fasting, and shedding some weight during fasting, can help us clear up emotional trauma. Finally, there are the physical benefits.  Here’s one of the things he writes:

 

“When you are empty, you are ready to be filled.  And you cannot be filled with what you want unless what has been in your way is allowed to pass out…the residual toxins, the side effects of shallow food, have to emerge from the deepest recesses of the self and exit.  Some of these things as they pass out of you might be frightening, some difficult, many boring: some are surprisingly easy to let go of, and some are joyful. ..You are intentionally entering a new territory, intentionally deciding to suffer, not to eat.  You are allowing yourself to empty so that something else, a better food, can fill you up.”

 

Now how he describes these transformations are, in themselves, a journey worth taking in book form!  So read it, consider your options, and go from there.

 

Retreating with Others

I have done healing retreats with others and by myself, and there are benefits to both. Most of what I’ve described in this post assumes a solitary druid healing retreat.  But I wanted to share another model: the retreat with companions.  A dear friend of mine who is a Zen Buddhist often does these kinds of retreats–a group of people, together, support each other with mindfulness practice days.  These retreats are often interspersed with group sharing, teaching, and a lot of quietude.

 

A healing retreat with others–the right others–can add much to your experience.  But it is fundamentally a different experience than a solitary retreat, and you will likely do different kinds of work. With that said, there is room for others on this retreat if they are the right kind of others, those who will help heal and rejuvenate rather than drain us. If you are going to take a friend on a healing retreat, make sure you establish in advance what the retreat will be about (e.g. a full day of solitude with no taking; specific work to be done at the retreat).  If you are going to plan this kind of retreat, here are a few suggestions:

 

  • Have a structure planned out in advance. (E.g. daily retreat times, no talking, ritual planned at night + one shared meal).
  • Have goals for the retreat and a goal-setting session early in the retreat.  The goals may be inward focused (healing and guidance) or outward focused (healing of the land).
  • Consider if one person will function as the “retreat” leader or if all will be equal participants.  A retreat leader is a space holder–their function isn’t so much spiritual healing or journeying, but rather, focuses on facilitating the retreat energetically, physically, spiritually).  A retreat leader may be needed if there are a lot of inexperienced/new people at the retreat.  But if there are those that are experienced, one may not be needed and the group can function cohesively and all can get their own work done.
  • Have a feast at the end of the retreat (perhaps combined with an eisteddfod!)
  • Consider group journeys–physical and spiritual.  Visiting healing springs, etc, are always a nice idea!
  • Consider group healing work.  This is where I would do my most serious land healing work with others–on a retreat weekend dedicated to that purpose!

 

The important thing is to establish and maintain structure prior to beginning the retreat–this will allow all participants to get the most out of the retreat.

 

Closing

Going deep into the woods, wilderness, away from it all has tremendous benefits.  We are coming up on the Fall Equinox, which is a really good time to consider a retreat as we move into the dark half of the year.  As I mentioned above, this is my first of two posts on druid retreats. I’ll be posing the second half next week. In the meantime, blessings upon your journey!

 

Tree Resins from Eastern North America: Harvesting, Crafting, and Incense Making July 31, 2016

Jack Pine Resin - Abundant and Amazing smelling!

Jack Pine Resin – Abundant and Amazing smelling!  I harvested this locally.

Burning incenses, particularly the burning of tree resins, has been known throughout the millennia as a sacred activity. Incenses are offered to the spirits, the land, the gods, the ancestors as a way of seeking communion and blessing. Today, most people who are interested in “natural” incenses gravitate towards resin incenses for their lasting effect, delightful smells, and natural origins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees: trees may be scored or drip naturally and the sap hardens, creating the resin (like Frankincense, Myrrh, Benzoin, Copal).  Others might be dried liquid from trees or fruit (like Dragon’s blood). When you burn the resin on a charcoal block, you get billows of incredible, sweet smelling smoke. Tree resins have an extensive history certain parts of the world, and are often highly revered by the cultures that produce them. For example, when I was in Oman in April (for a professional/work trip), I was amazed to see the frankincense trees and experience the fresh frankincense firsthand. The Omani people see frankincense as a symbol of their culture–it is burned in many public places; ground up and drank in water, and much more!I’ve already listed some of the most common incenses you can purchase–and, like most things, they come from considerable distances and far away places.

 

It is sad, I think, that we don’t do more to honor or local trees that produce incredible resin incenses here in North America, particularly in the Eastern part of the US.  While it is little known, we actually have a large variety of fantastic ingredients for incense making! They are not commercially available or discussed, but they are present and available in the landscape. It is possible that this knowledge has been lost because the native peoples of these lands, those who had the knowledge, were driven off to other lands and/or killed as part of this colonization. I believe that we can relearn and integrate ourselves into our lands more fully–and part of that is the sacred tree knowledge that we hold.

 

Given this, for a good number of years, I have been working to develop local incense sources and locally-based spiritual supplies (see my post on making your own smudge sticks, for example).  And so, in today’s post, I’m going to explore tree resins local to the Eastern USA, particularly the midwest/north-east/mid-atlantic regions, and sharing how to find these resins, how to harvest them, what they smell like, and how to craft basic incenses.

 

What is resin and what tree resins work best?

Tree resins are the sticky and dried sap of trees. In my area, this primarily refers to the sticky and dried sap balls and drips you find on conifers. Conifer resins are not hard to find and are often abundant. Pines, in particular, produce really nice amounts of resin (especially if they have a limb removed/broken and/or are damaged in some way) and most of their resins have a piney/lemony smell.  Spruces also produce nice resins that are typically easy to harvest; the spruce resins are more musky than the pine resins. If you can find it (and this is by no means an easy task), Eastern Hemlock produces the most amazing resin (however, in my visits to thousands of hemlock trees, I’ve only really been able to collect or find resin from two of them). I haven’t yet had a chance to collect resin from the Larch/Tamarak (there are few in this area) so I can’t speak to that specific tree.

 

There are a few non-confier trees that also produce a resin.  Black Cherry produces a resin that hardens and appears a possible candidate  However, I have tried burning this and it doesn’t burn and doesn’t really smell good. But I suspect that some other trees or plants may produce a nice-smelling and nice-burning resin. If any readers know of other plants that produce a nice resin you can harvest–please share and I can update my list.

When and where do you harvest resin?

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

You can harvest conifer resin anytime of the year.  Tree sap flows most abundantly in the spring, and it will often be dried a bit by the fall. I actually like to do a lot of my resin harvesting in the late fall months when I’m starting to look for Chaga mushrooms–whatever resin flows happened that year, they are likely dried out a bit by then and the cold can sometimes make it easier to break off the resin. Although when everything freezes, its hard to harvest the incense in many cases. But most months of the year you can look for it and harvest it.

 

In terms of finding conifers to harvest from, you don’t need to go into the deep woods.  In fact, some trees that are at local parks or along the street produce really good resin because they are often trimmed or damaged.  These damaged trees will ooze from a wound.  The spruce in the photo to the right is along my street and I go past it on my walk to work–that’s how easy it can be to find.  You can also find large patches of conifers in local parks or in forests, and those are well worth your look.  Really, if you just keep your eyes open as you are out and about, you will find abundant supplies of resin.  Just be prepared to harvest it!

 

How do you harvest resin?

Tree resins start out in a fresh form–they are extremely sticky, gooey, and delightful.  Whatever you get them on, they will stay on (so if you harvest with a knife, that knife will likely have resin on it forever).  You can use the resin either in its fresh form, or you can wait for it to dry and crystallize.  I have harvested both and both have their uses (see recipes, below).

 

I typically have a special knife (ok, it is an old butter knife) I use to harvest resin and usually harvest it into plastic cups, small glass jars, or plastic bags.  The knife is pretty much used just for resin–resin is really hard to get off and clean of anything else (requires alcohol, not water). The plastic bags or jars keep it from sticking. If you end up having to clean your tools, you will need to use a high proof alcohol to do so (even rubbing alcohol can work); conifer resins do not clean up or extract in water.  If you are harvesting fresh resin, and put it in a plastic bag, it will never evaporate and turn crystallized; so if you want the crystal stuff, let it crystallize on a tree and/or harvest it into a cup and let it sit somewhere in the sun for a long time.

 

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here....not sure I will ever get the bowl back!

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago after finding it in abundance on a white pine that was cut down. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here….not sure I will ever get the bowl fully clean!

You will need to be patient for the dried form of resin–if you see a tree freshly oozing, its probably necessary to come back in six months, a year, or more, and check it to see if it’s dry (how long it takes depends on the kind of tree). Usually, finding other trees around will allow you to harvest a bountiful amount of incense.

 

When harvesting, remember that tree resin is created when the tree is damaged: the resin essentially “seals” the wound of the tree.  Because of this, when you harvest resin, you want to only harvest from around and/or below the wound of the tree, not the wound itself.  For example, if a tree has had a limb removed, some trees (pines especially) will produce a mountain of resin to seal off the wound. I would not remove this resin, as it is protecting the inner part of the tree.  However, the tree could have produced so much resin that there is excess dripping down the side of the tree.  This is what I would harvest in abundance, as that is not actively sealing off a wound on the tree.  I hope this makes sense: we harvest carefully, and delicately, to ensure our tree brethren are not damaged in the process.

 

Some trees will also drip resin to the forest floor, which you can then scrape off of roots, lift off of the pine needles on the floor, or even pick up crystallized chunks.

 

Trees Producing Abundant Resin – List and Scent Descriptions

Here are some of the tree resins that I have harvested and my description of their smell. All of these trees are easy to find and abundant throughout the Eastern US and parts of Canada:

 

  • White Pine – White pine, the chief of standing people, produces the most amazing incense.  It can be found typically whenever the tree has been cut or broken (like limbs removed). It is a very sticky resin till it dries–and it can take a very long time to dry out (I have some that I have been drying out for 4 years now…it is still partially gooey).  The smell itself when burning is really divine: light, piney, with a hint of vanilla scent; when it burns it almost reminds me of how some whipped cream frosting smells.  I think this is one of my favorite of all conifer incenses and is well worth your time to harvest.

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

  • Jack Pine – Jack pine resin is a light colored, quickly crystallizing, extremely abundant resin (I have a photo of it at the opening of this article).  I had a spot in Michigan where tons of little jack pines were growing and I could easily collect a pint of it in about a half hour–it just crystallized all over the tree very quickly, was rarely sticky, and quite easy to harvest. In terms of smell, it has a very light aroma, piney with hints of lemon orange, very clean and excellent burning.
  • Red pine – Red Pine produces a lot less incense than some other trees, but it is well worth gathering.  Most of the time, I find small chunks of it on the trunk of certain trees because a little bug has burrowed in deep and the tree has responded by producing a chunk of incense (some of which can be removed or will remove itself by flaking and some of which should stay to protect the tree). The incense itself burns with a piney smell that includes almost an orange/cherry undertone. It is very light and refreshing.
  • Blue Spruce – Blue spruce resin can be harder to find, but it is well worth the effort.  It is usually found on the places where the tree is damaged (from being cut or trimmed, etc).  And when it is found, it is found in abundance.  It is an intense incense–it has a very skunky/musky, almost animalistic smell. Some people really like it and others do not–but I’d say, find some, harvest it and see what you think!
  • Norway  Spruce – Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a  skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines, and slightly different than the Blue Spruce.  They often also have an undertone of slightly citrus, slightly floral.  Different trees produce different amounts of the “musky” quality, which can get quite strong in some trees.

Trees that Produce Little Resin

The above trees are my staples for tree resin incense, but I also want to share a few additional trees. These are trees that only produce a tiny amount of resin, but it is worth keeping your eyes open for:

 

  • Eastern Hemlock Resin – As my blog readers know, I very much adore and love the Eastern Hemlock Tree.  Of the thousands of hemlocks I have visited, I have found harvestable resin on only two of the trees. One had a huge gash from logging and had produced some dried resin that I could harvest without damaging; the other had a gash from debris along a riverbed. The broken branches do not produce any resin, nor do cut stumps.  So, if you can find it, it is well worth your time, but it it is incredibly elusive!  The incense itself is extremely light and refreshing with a hint of lemon; it has a very clean smell and smells awesome.  It is comparable to white pine resin, but with more of a lemon/cirtus smell.
  • Eastern White Cedar: Thuja Occidentalis does not like producing much resin at all, but if you can find it, it is really nice.  I have found tiny little beads of resin sometimes on older trees’ trunks and larger branches. The beads burn well and smell very cedar-like, which you would expect.  Because of the lack of abundance of resin, I often burn the needles of this tree (which pop and crackle for quite some time).
  • Juniper / Eastern Red Cedar: thus far, I have not found a juniper tree with any amount of incense to harvest (although I am keeping my eye out!).  However, I burn the berries of this (they smell really wonderful, a strong piney/floral scent) and they also smoulder nicely.  So they have some resinous qualities themselves.

 

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Resins Not Recommended

I want to mention one other tree that produces resin, but that you don’t want to use–and that is Wild/Black Cherry.  Cherries do produce a resin that crystallizes and dries.  However, it doesn’t burn like a typical conifer resin (which smoulders nicely, producing billows of smoke as it boils and burns on the charcoal block); rather, it crackles and pops, it doesn’t want to burn, and when it burns, it kind of just smells like something is burning (dark, earthy smell).  You might be able to grind it up and use it with some other tree incenses, but I’m not sure I’d use it on it’s my own.  I’m still experimenting with it.

 

Making Incense from Fresh Resin: Incense Balls

You can make a really nice incense from fresh resin in the form of incense balls. Note that if you harvest resin sticky, and then you put it in a bag, it will remain sticky pretty much indefinitely because it is not exposed to air. If you don’t want it sticky, best to let it dry out on the tree for some months and/or years. Trust me.

 

But if you harvest it sticky, and you have a nice clump of it, you can make some great incense balls. Collect the fresh resin itself (I usually do this in an old bowl). Then, I add any other ingredients I would like that are dried and/or finely powdered to the resin: sage, rosemary, mugwort, and so on (you can see a list of my common ingredients that are local and useful in my smudge stick post for some ideas). Eventually, you will work enough plant matter in that the incense takes form. You can test out small amounts until you get a good smell (my favorite is fresh white pine resin with rosemary and sage powder). Form your balls (with your hands or gloves; your hands will need a very good cleaning afterwards–use alcohol). Then, give them a final “roll” in some kind of powder to avoid stickiness.  You can also wrap them up individually in a bit of wax paper.  But what I like to do, is let them sit out for a while (a month or so) and then the outsides will eventually dry out.

 

To use them, simply burn them on a charcoal block.  Different mixes obviously will make different blends–try testing out a few different combinations and seeing which ones you like the smell of best!

 

Making Incense from Dried/Crystallized Resin

The other way to work with the tree resins as incense is to harvest it after it has dried out.  Sometimes, you can find really nice dried piece of resin.  Most dried resins flake easily off of the tree and into your bag/jar.  I like to keep these incenses in a jar somewhere handy–they are beautiful and easy to use.  You might find that before burning them, you want to take a hammer and put them in a bag and mash them up a bit–otherwise, the chunks may be too large to be serviceable.

 

The easiest way to use this resin is simply to burn small chunks of it on a charcoal block in whatever amount you’d like.  Test a small amount first to see how much smoke you get.

 

The other way you can use it is to grind it up into a powder and add other ingredients (tree powders, powdered or finely chopped dried herbs, and the like).  You can see my incense on incense making for more information.  Any of the dried resins can be used in place of more traditional resin ingredients (frankincense, myrrh, etc).  As with all resins, they are not self-combustible, so you would be making again an incense to burn on a charcoal block.  If you used a LOT of woody matter and plant matter, and a tiny bit of resin, you might manage to make a combustible (self-burning) incense, but that’s a bit hard to get the balance right.  Some incense books (like Cunningham’s) use Saltpeter to get things to burn on their own–it is carcinogenic.  Use the charcoal block (non-self lighting).

 

Incense Papers

If you have access to really high proof alcohol (and by this I mean 95%/ 190 proof) another fun thing you can do is to extract the resin in the alcohol and make incense papers, which can be burned.  Essentially only alcohol will extract resins.

Grind up your resin (dried) or add your fresh (I find dried works better for this).  Cover it with your 190 proof alcohol (or as close to that as you can get).  Shake it every day or so, and let it sit at least two months.

The alcohol will extract the components of the resin and produce a resin tincture.

Then, you can drop a bit of this onto a sheet of paper (like Japanese rice paper or standard copy paper) and let the alcohol evaporate.  Then, burn the paper to get some of the scent! I am only starting to experiment with this, but the results are promising (I will probably post more on this in a future post, but wanted to share some initial thoughts here).

 

Energy and Tree Incense

One question you might have is: what spiritual or energetic qualities do these incenses hold?  For this, you need to go back and look at the specific tree.  Here’s a basic list:

  • Pines: Considered a “tree of peace” by some Native American tribes, it also represents longevity, life, immortality.  It can be burned for purification, healing work, and divination.  I see it as our “frankincense” and use it in pretty much the same way.
  • Spruces:  Considered a versatility tree that survives well in northern, cold environments; it can represent constancy, versatility, and determination.  I like to burn spruce for getting things going and keeping them going.
  • I have already covered Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Cedar extensively already (and some of the other trees in this post will get the same extensive treatment).

Conclusion

I hope that you’ve found this post on making tree incenses helpful! I am also working on a post on local, natural incenses, but I suspect it will be some more time until I can present that to you!  I would love to hear from you about trees to add to this list. We don’t have many wild firs growing around here–would love to know what they smell like as well!  Blessings on this Lughanssadh weekend!

 

Spiritual Practices to Finding Equilibrium in the Chaos: Grounding, and Flow through the Druid Elements July 22, 2016

A tremendous amount of really difficult occurrences are happening in the world right now. It seems like the more time that passes, the more we balance on the edge. The edge of what exactly, nobody can say.  But the edge of something, and likely, not something any of us are looking forward to. Things seem to be spinning faster, and faster; the light growing darker and darker.  A lot of folks are having difficulty just coping with reading the news or even being on social media, the enormity of everything–social, political, environmental, personal–weighing down.  Responses to this range from rage and anger to numbness. There is a heaviness in the air that cannot be discounted.

A good place to seek the stability of calas

A good place to seek the stability of calas

 

And so, many of us turn to spiritual practices as a way of helping make sense of it all, to find a way forward, finding a way to keep ourselves sane and to levy some positive change in the world. For me, any outer healing or change in the world begins with my own inner work, finding my own inner equilibrium in order to compassionately respond and enact change. I find myself returning, again and again, to the elemental work I did in my AODA and OBOD curriculum: working with the healing power of the elements, seeking balance within. And so, I’m not going to talk about everything that is happening (as a lot of it is well outside of the scope and purpose of this blog), but I am going to share with you some ways of self-care and balance seeking that I’ve found helpful in dealing with all of this. Specifically, I’m going to use the framework of the three druid elements: gwyar, calas, and nywfre, and discuss how we might use those elements (particularly the first two) to help maintain our own equilibrium during difficult times.

 

Equilibrium

We have a lot of terms that get raised when we are faced with instability (instability of any type: culturally, locally, politically, or personally). These terms most often focus on grounding, but may also include balance, composure, equilibrium. I actually prefer the world equilibrium, for a few reasons. One dictionary suggests that equilibrium is “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced.” What I like about the definition and concept of equilibrium is that it doesn’t require one response (e.g. grounding) but rather a range of responses based on the needs of the moment.

For example, if I am feeling really disconnected, scattered, and unfocused, I might do some grounding techniques that help more firmly root me back in place. But there are times that being rooted firmly in place is not the best idea, and instead, I need to let go and simply learn to flow. Equilibrium implies both of these things: finding and maintaining it is situational based on the context and your own needs.

 

Grounding, or the work of Calas

When I talk to spiritual friends about these times and all that is happening, I think a lot of them talk about “grounding” and grounding strategies. Grounding usually happens when we connect with the energies of the earth, of stability, of calm. In the three druid element system, this grounding is clearly represented by calas, which is the principle of solidity and substance. Calas represents the physical substance of things, the strength in the cell walls of the plant, the stones beneath our feet, the stable and unchanging fathoms of the deepest caves. When we ground, we plant ourselves firmly and solidly on the living earth–we plant our feet strongly and with purpose. We stand our ground, so to speak, we dig in our heels, we spread ourselves out upon the earth and feel its stability and strength.  Now, there are times when grounding is the correct response, and there are also times where I actually think it does more harm than good. The key questions to determine whether or not grounding is an effective approach seems to be: do I need stability in my life right now? Do I need something firm to stand on, to hold on, and to simply be present with? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then by all means, ground away. But recognize that sometimes, holding fast to something is a reactionary response, rather than the best response.

 

There are so many practices and ways of grounding–I’ll just share a few of my favorites.

Earthing and forest walking. I really love to take a barefoot walk through a path in a very familiar forest (even better if it is raining, lol).  I wouldn’t do this in an unfamiliar forest, or one that has a lot of poison ivy or brambles. But certain forests, dirt paths, and mossy areas lend themselves really well to this kind of activity. It is the most simple thing–you take off your shoes and socks, and simply walk on the earth.  Feel the land beneath your toes.  Walk, perhaps in movement meditation, for a period of time. You can combine this with energetic work.

 

Energetic work. When I do the forest walking, I like to stand a spot and envision the energies of the telluric current, those of the deep earth (envisioned in green-gold) rising up through my soles of my feet and into my body, clearing me and filling me with a sense of calm and stability.  The OBOD’s Light Body Exercise, for those that practice it, works quite well as a grounding and clearing activity.  Really, most kinds of energetic work can be good during the forest walking.

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

 

Weeding and Garden tending. Spending time with earthy things, like in the garden, can be extremely grounding and stabilizing. Planting, harvesting, weeding–even laying in the garden with a good book is a sure way to help do some grounding work.

 

Working with the stones. Carrying a small stone with you is a grounding activity in and of itself.  I have one that I’ve been placing above my heart if I am feeling really awful about all this stuff–I clear it once in a while by placing it in running water or sunlight, but at some point, I know I will be casting it off back into the earth permanently. This stone work is good for trauma and really deep healing.

 

Eating nurturing and nutrient-dense meals. Sometimes, when we are upset, we forget to eat.  But food has always been a grounding thing, and the more nutrient-dense and protein rich, the better.  An omelette of sausage and eggs and kale, for example, is just about as grounding as one can get!  Remember to eat.  The body and the soul both benefit.

 

Burying your feet in the earth. Similar to my earthing and forest walking, I have found great comfort in taking a shovel, digging a hole in my garden, and sticking my feet in it, covering them up with the soil. Sit there for a time in quietude, doing perhaps energetic work as well, or simply being and soaking up the sun while you sit. It works.

 

Sitting with Hardwood Nut Trees. When I am feeling ungrounded, I seek out hickory or oak trees and spend time sitting with them or hugging them. There is something about the energy of the hickory that I found extraordinarily grounding. Many of the hardwood nut trees also have this quality, as well as some others. I’m not sure I’d use a walnut, they have a bit different of an energy, like an expelling energy, which also has its own magic (but is not really well suited for this purpose). .

 

Sitting with a flock of chickens. Maybe this is just a personal thing, but I get great stability out of simply being near chickens. Chickens do many of the activities on this list, after all: dust baths, burying their feet in the earth, eating nutrient dense food, walking on the land barefoot–and they have tremendous connection to the energies of the earth. Spending time with them can be very grounding.  It is fun to watch them find bugs, peck, scratch, take dust baths–and most flocks that were raised with love will welcome your company and companionship.

 

Truthfully, as delightful as the above activities have been, I haven’t been drawn to grounding much lately–it seems like, in some ways, I am already too grounded and connected to what is happening.  Like my feet are planted so firmly that maybe I’ll just fall over if the wind comes by.  And so because of that, I have really been embracing the second druid element this year: the principle of gwyar.

Flowing, or the work of Gwyar

The element of Gwyar, often represented by water, represents the principle of fluidity and of flow.  Gwyar is the principle of change, opposite of the stability of Calas.  All things grow and change, and sometimes, we must learn to be adaptable and embrace that change.  Water teaches different lessons than the grounding of the earth–it teaches us the power of flow.  The babbling brook cascading over the stones, the water flowing off the leaves during a storm, the air flows pushing clouds and rain further across the landscape, the constant flow of time: these are all part of the power of gwyar.  Like Calas, there are times when embracing Gwyar is the right approach, and there are times when being too “go with the flow” is not the right strategy.  Questions I like to ask to determine this are:  Am I in need of letting go? Am I in need of trusting the universe to guide my path?  Am I feeling to rigid or inflexible?  Affirmative answers to these questions suggest a need to embrace Gwyar.

I have found that embracing Gwyar has been helpful for me as there are a number of things in my life, and certainly in the broader world, that are out of my immediate control. As much as I would like to control them, I am unable to do so, and attempting to exert control is only going to lead to my own suffering.  Instead, I must learn to accept these things at present, and flow with them, and the act of releasing my attempted firm hold is in itself a very powerful magical act.  And so, here are some ways to embrace the power of flow:

 

Getting on the water!

Getting on the water!

Get on the water. This summer, I bought a kayak, and have spent nearly all of my free time out on lakes and rivers, learning how to flow with the waves.  This has its own kind of healing work, but in a watery sense–rather than being firmly planted, I am learning the power of flow.  Of riding the waves, leaning into the current, anticipating–and simply moving along.  Not fighting the current. Putting up my kayak sail, and simply letting the wind and waves take me on an adventure.  Kayaks and other water vessels are easy to come by–you can rent them at many state parks or local lakes; you can also ask around and I’m sure at least 1-2 friends will have one you can borrow.  I would suggest a kayak, rowboat, or canoe for this kind of flowing work–you want to be closer to the water, as close as possible.  The other option is tubing–a lot of rivers offer a tubing option where you rent a tube, bring a cooler, and spend the next 4-6 hours floating down the stream.  This is really, really good for connecting to the principle of flow.

 

Whitewater Rafting: If you really want a more extreme version of “getting on the water,” whitewater rafting or kayaking is a good choice.  The stronger currents force you even more to get into the physical embodiment of flow and adaptability, which is a powerful spiritual lesson. In fact, the reason that this post is two days early from my normal schedule is that I am getting on the extreme waters this weekend and heading out to one of my very favorite rivers, the Youghiogheny, for some rafting!.

 

Water observations. Sitting by moving water (or even still water) can teach you a lot about flows and the importance of going with the flow. I love doing this by small streams and creeks–playing with the rocks, seeing the interplay between gwyar and calas as the water tumbles through and down the stream.  What amazes me even about still water, like lakes, is that the lakes themselves change as the weather conditions change–from choppy waters to still and clear waters–and this, too, is a powerful lesson.  As I observe the water, I think about the places in my life where I need to embrace gwyar and flow, and the places where calas is a more appropriate path.

 

Energetic work.  Similar to the work above, I have found that I can connect to the element of gywar energetically, especially at points of water or other kinds of movement or flow (a dance, for example).

 

Mindful drinking of water.  Drinking high quality water mindfully, paying attention to the taste and the feel of it as it flows, and sipping it quietly while you mediate, is another simple activity that you can do.  Try to find local spring water, if you can, for this, but any spring water or well water would do nicely!

 

Bathing.  We all need to be clean, and bathing rituals and activities can certainly help.  Even if it is simply a matter of turning your awareness for a few minutes to the flow of the shower around you, or the comfort of the tub, it can be tremendously useful for  connecting to gwyar.  I sometimes will let the water drain out of the tub as I sit within it, feeling the waters flowing around me and cleansing.

 

Getting in the mud....

Getting in the mud….

Standing and walking in the rain.  Take a walk in a rain without an umbrella (and preferably without shoes). Pay attention to how the water feels as it soaks you, flows around you.  Pay attention to how it runs down the road, down the trunk of the tree, see where it goes afterwards.  This is tremendously useful and I try to do it often!

 

Swimming in a lake or stream. Jumping in the water, and floating for a time, is a really fun way to embrace gwyar.  I have been combining this with kayaking–I kayak out to a secluded spot and then jump into the water for a bit.  It has really been great.  I’ve also been working to visit the many local swimming holes near this area!

 

Sitting with a flock of ducks.  If chickens epitomize an earthy and grounding being, the duck is a good representation of gwyar.  I like sitting with ducks a lot–they have a very different energy than chickens, and observing them can help teach the principles of flow.

 

Some Methods of Bringing Balance and Unity of Calas and Gwyar

A third possibility, of course, is that in order for equilibrium, you need both the energy of gywar and calas.  I have found that if I’m generally just so overwhelmed, feeling both ungrounded and unadaptable, the unification of these two elements in my life can really help me find my footing.  You can combine activities above together, or engage in activities that innately emphasize the unity of the two elements.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Playing in mud puddles. Playing in the mud should never be discounted as a fantastic method for seeking equilibrium.  We knew this well as children, but have often forgotten the most important truths as adults.  Wait for a good summer rain (it has been dry here, but I am waiting) and find a puddle in the field or abandoned dirt road somewhere–somewhere safe and clean.  And get on the oldest clothes you can, take off your shoes, and just jump in it. Or make your own mud puddle with the hose.  Make mud pies, just like when you are a kid.  This is a most healthy antidote to present day reality!

 

Natural Building. An alternative is to visit a natural building site and become one with the cob.  Natural building requires initial flow and wet materials that dry into strong structures.  Making some cob with the feet and the hands, and plastering it on there, is a great experience.

 

Frankfort Mineral Springs - Embracing Gwyar

Frankfort Mineral Springs – Embracing Gwyar

Visiting Springs.  Springs are another place where you can see the interplay and balance between gwyar and calas in a natural setting. I have been visiting springs all over Western PA since moving here a year ago. I recently went camping at Raccoon Creek State Park and had the delight of visiting the Franklin Mineral Springs while I was there. It was really a cool spring–completely unexpected–with heavy content of iron (I shared a photo of it above). It had a basin where the water flowed so cold–I dunked my head in it, soaked myself up in it, and observed the flow of this spring. It was awesome! What I have found about these natural springs is that, at least here, they really do represent the intersection of gwyar and calas–the flow interacting with the stability of the stone.  This particular spring resonated strongly with balance of the elements: the stone where the water issued forth and the basin for stability, the ever-flowing gush of the water from the stones, and the mineral content in the water itself representing the unification of the elements.

 

Stillness. Stillness of the body and of the mind is another way to embrace the intersection of gywar and calas.  We spend so much of our time running around, dashing to and fro, and never really just being present in the moment, in ourselves. After the AODA’s practices, I like to sit in stillness in nature, quiet my mind, and simply be present in the world around me. This work requires us to both physically stop moving and be more stable, but also flow into the moment and simply observe what comes. It is powerful and profound!

 

Dancing: The principle of dance is all about the intersection of the stable earth and other objects with flow, and participating in some dance yourself (even if you aren’t very good, it doesn’t matter, go do it in the forest or wild areas where nobody can see you). I like to do this with ribbons or flags or something to even more appropriately attend to the energies of flow.

 

Throwing Pots. Any art forms that encourage the intersection of calas and gwyar are useful activities for seeking equilibrium. I have found that pottery, for example, is one of the best ones (for reasons similar to natural building/cob building, above). The intersection of the water to shape the clay, and then the application of heat, offers powerful spiritual lessons and opportunities.

 

As we all navigate these difficult times, I hope that the above material will provide you with some strategies for seeking equilibrium.  Blessings upon your path and journey!

 

Embracing “First Aid Responder” Plants July 17, 2016

As I grow ever more in tune and aware of nature’s gifts, I keep coming back to one of the tragedies of our age–our incredible misunderstanding of the natural world, the sacred living earth from which all things flow. One of the things I’ve been working hard to do in this blog, and in my own community here in PA, is to restore and reconnect humans and nature. My particular way of doing it has lately been through the teaching of healing plant medicine, edible wild foods, and the like.  This means breaking down some assumptions, but really, building new knowledge and empowerment for many people in the community.  Since moving to my small town I’ve been really busy as an ambassador offering presentations on permaculture and vermicomposting, summer plant walks (wild food/medicine), herbalism classes, and most recently I am teaching children at the local UU church how to make medicine from plantain! I am finding that here, there is a great need for this kind of plant education in the community, certainly, and great interest.

 

What I am learning is that people have very limited vocabularies, frameworks, and understandings when it comes to plants. One of the things that often comes up from people, and that they latch onto, is the idea of the “invasive” vs. “native” plant. When I share a plant, they want to know if its invasive or native, and I rarely want to use those terms. As I mentioned in my last post on this subject (which was rather controversial), the concept of invasiveness is, in itself, a real problem. And I think, more than anything, it is because all invasive plants are put into a little box. If these plants were human, attaching such a label would be considered racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, etc.  But apparently, we can do it as much as we like to plants–and when we pigeonhole plants into an “invasive” or “native” category, we make assumptions about them without knowing their true nature, understanding their spirits, or their medicine and magic.

 

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

I think this is a problem for a number of reasons.  For one, the term is derogatory, and makes a set of assumptions that simply don’t fit for all plants with the “invasive” category.  Second, a lot of plants don’t fit in the whole binary very well. Poison ivy, which is one of my very favorite plants (I will have to write on it one of these days) is a native plant, yet, it doesn’t get privileged status because humans don’t like what happens when they rub up against it. Water hemlock is another native plant which which you do not want to tango. Nearly all lawn grass isn’t native, but humans like it because it mows well and mats well and creates lawn. We have all kinds of stuff we’ve planted (hello wheat, oats, barley, lettuce, onion, radish, leek….the list goes on and on).  How do any of these fit within the categories?  They really don’t.

 

So if the categories don’t fit, why do we still use them?  Probably because they are simple, and they allow people to know something (e.g. plant = good or plant = bad) about the plants.  Part of what I believe we need to do, in order to build more fruitful relationships with nature, is to rethink these terms.  So today, I’d like to present one new category that we can consider as a thinking, teaching, and relationship-building tool: the first aid responder plant.

 

Introducing: The First Aid Responder Plants

Imagine that a person who is in a really bad accident, that the person was unable to move, damaged and broken.  Who would that person want to come to their aid?  A first responder, that’s who! An ambulance and medic, someone who could help stabilize the person, get them to the hospital, and set them on the path for long-term healing and recovery.

 

If we use this same analogy with plants, we can see that this is what happens to our lands every day. I wrote about different kinds of damage extensively in my recent land healing series. Our lands are harmed with our various activities: oil extraction, logging, new construction, conventional agriculture, and so on. These activities really harm certain kinds of plant species that are slow to propagate and slow to take hold. But other plant species, those that have evolved to adapt to these kinds of conditions, can take hold and help regenerate the land. They are plants that are adapted to particular circumstances: disturbance, and the nature of that disturbance is almost always human caused, directly or indirectly. And these are our first responder plants.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of our first aid responders end up on noxious weed lists for a simple reason–they are abundant, as disturbance is abundant. This has people assume immediately that these plants are somehow “out of control” but, given the nature of where these plants grow, they are only responding to human-caused disturbance. As I’ll show here, the situation is far less clear.  For one, people only pay attention to what is happening at this moment, not what has happened or what will happen in the future.  This short-term view means that we cannot account for most of the variables in why the responder plants are here–and that’s a problem for a few reasons.

 

Ox-Eye daisy is a very good example of a first-aid responder plant (and delicous edible and medicinal plant). This plant often shows up in disturbed soil: over-grazed pastures, old potato fields, edges of parking lots, and so on. People see these dense patches of daisy and think, “oh noes! There’s the invader!” without paying attention to why it is growing there or the history of the land.  I observed a very interesting pattern with regards to daisies in my own acre-sized field on my homestead: the first year, the field was all daisy, as the previous owners mowed the field all the time.  I chose not to mow the field but instead only mow walking paths; the second year, the daisy only grew on the paths where I had mowed.  By the fourth year, there were very few ox-eye daisies other than growing out of the paths–the rest of the field had gone to milkweed, st. john’s wort, wild strawberry, and other such plants.  The truth is, you aren’t going to get rid of Ox-Eye daisy in a field–but you don’t need to if you let it do its sacred work of healing.

Ox-eye daisy my first year - this field has practically nothing after six years!

Ox-eye daisy my first year – this field has practically nothing after six years!

 

Sweet clover is another one where I’ve seen a similar pattern–areas of disturbance, especially areas that have been recently dug and mowed. I noticed this a lot in parks–fields of plants with sweet clover only on the disturbed edges.  If there is no longer disruption, it disappears after about five years (fitting my first responder category). Bees make incredible honey from sweet clover, and it is also a fantastic medicinal plant, particularly indicated for nerve damage.

 

Dandelion is yet a third fantastic first responder plant; and I’ve written on the dandelion’s magic and purpose extensively a few years ago on this blog (along with wine recipes, lol). Dandelion breaks up compacted soil and brings nutrients from deep.  It is particularly effective in regenerating lawns.  Dandelions won’t grow once ecological succession happens and the lawn is no longer a lawn–again, they are a first responder plant. And, of course, dandelion is medicinal and edible.

 

Spotted Knapweed is yet another first responder, and one my herbal mentor Jim McDonald taught me extensively about.  Jim showed us his field that used to be full of it.  The more he pulled, the more it came (of course it did, it thrives in disturbance).  He gave up pulling it out and over time, it did its work and now there isn’t hardly any of it left after about 10 years! And, if you are noticing the pattern here, spotted knapweed is also medicinal.

 

Curly Dock/Yellow Dock and Burdock, which are both fantastic medicinal and edible plants, also work with compacted soil well, and will grow to heal disturbance and break up compacted soil if given a chance to do so. Once ecological succession takes place, curly dock and burdock are nowhere to be found.

 

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

Burdock as a land regenerating plant and medicinal

What you have hopefully noticed form this list is not only is this plant a first aid responder for the land, these plants are also healing and medicinal for humans!  We should be thanking them for the services we provide for our lands: healing the soil quickly and effectively, breaking up compacted soil, reducing erosion, offering us medicine and food so freely.  These plants deserve our respect and to be honored. Where would the land be without these first aid responders?  Where would we be without them?

 

I hope this framework is helpful to you as a way to expand beyond the invasive/native binary.  Now, I am full to admit that this is one taxonomy of plants, and there is another group (kudzu, buckthorn) that may rightfully deserve some of the ire that people throw at them (as these vines literally tear down forests; the long-term ecological impacts still yet to be known). I cut buckthorn down by hand when I see it, for sure.  But I don’t think by any means that the first responder plants deserve to be in the same category, not from all of my observations and research. And maybe, next time you see one, thank a first responder plant for the good work that plant is doing on behalf of all.

PS: This link tells you a bit more about how some first responder plants indicate certain soil conditions.

 

Wild Plant Profile: Stinging and Wood Nettle’s Medicinal, Edible, and Magical Qualities! July 10, 2016

Wood Nettle

Wood Nettle

Grasp, love, grasp thy nettle tight!
Beneath the blossom there be stings
Which start and stab; but out of sight
Within that flower lie folded wings
So now, ere these be set on flight
Grasp, lover, grasp thy nettle tight!

 

Those stings which, lightly touched, do harm–
If those but hold them fast enough;
Spent of their poison shall disarm;
And seeing but a little rough,
Reveal beneath the covert form
So dear, and deep, and close, and warm
–From “Now or Never,” Laurence Housman

 

The above poem, published in 1915, shares one of the stinging nettle’s secrets–that if you grab the nettle firmly, rather than gently, the nettle stings will break off harmlessly and you can handle it without the sting.  But reaching for it tentatively will have the stings all in your skin! Nettle is one of my very favorite wild foods and medicinal plants, so this week’s post is devoted to nettle’s edible, medicinal, and magical qualities.  This is a good time to be gathering nettles–and eating them with all the other wild and tasty treats of the season (like chicken of the woods mushrooms and black raspberries!) I’ll also share some harvesting tips and recipes I’ve developed for enjoying nettles.

 

Nettles, Nettles, Everywhere

Around where I live in PA, we have two kinds of nettle: stinging nettle (urtica dioica) which is a very common plant throughout the US, and is native to Europe, Western Africa, and Asia (and naturalized here in the US). Stinging nettles (urtica dioca) typically shows up on the edges of forests–I’ve found really nice patches of it on the edge of baseball fields, for example, right where the forest brushes up against the lawn.  I’ve also found it in the open around structures, like barns, and sometimes in open fields.  Sometimes it is in a stand on its own, and sometimes, it is woven in with other plants. It prefers a sunny, less moist setting than its woodland cousin.

 

Wood nettle (laportea canadensis) is a native plant to the Americas.  It prefers the moist, deep forest.  I find it almost exclusively in bottom areas that either hold a lot of moisture or that have some flooding.  Most often, I find it in small or medium sized creek beds (sometimes on the edges or even in the middle) with lots of shade.  Forest swampy parts also often hold this delightful plant.

 

The sting of wood nettle is not as potent as that of stinging nettle–some wood nettles have a lot less stingers on them.  Both are equally enjoyable and share nearly all of the same qualities from an edible, medicinal, and magical standpoint.

 

Nettle as Awareness Medicine

When I was a kid, I remember being stung by nettles and carefully rubbing jewelweed on my stings to soothe them. Back then though, I only knew I wanted to avoid the nettle, and so I paid careful attention to where it grew.  This is one of nettles many lessons: nettle awareness medicine.  It teaches us how to pay much closer attention to our surroundings, and reminding us that there are consequences for failing to do so. Most people stop at nettle’s stinging qualities; the stings, in the form of fine hairs with irritating chemicals, often prevent people from knowing nettle’s deeper mysteries. But if we instead grasp it tightly, so much of the medicine and magic of the nettle opens up before us.

Another awesome wood nettle!

Another awesome wood nettle!

 

Fire and Water as Transforming Agents

Nettle is transformed from a stingy plant that you don’t want to touch to a delightful and tasty medicine and food–with the simple application of heat, water, (steam) and time. In the nettle, we see our own inner academical processes at work:  our rough edges and prickles sometimes have to be transformed though the fires of alchemy. If we allow them to remain, we can never get to our healing or enjoy the fruits of our labor.  But if we are able to transmute these qualities, we have the potential for reaping great rewards.

 

Nettles stings are also therapeutic (see below); specifically, they bring a flush of new blood to areas that are stung, addressing stagnation in the body’s system. I believe that nettle works on the same level spiritually and offers a powerful lesson. Sometimes, we can’t avoid the pain of living and life, but it is in these most painful moments that we are able to clear away old stagnant patterns of living that no longer serve us. Sometimes, it is because of this pain that we have new opportunities for deeper growth.

 

Harvesting Nettle

You can harvest nettles simply either by doing what the poem above says–grasping the nettles tightly (although you are still bound to get stung!)–or you can use gloves and a pair of scissors, like I do🙂. You can harvest the tops of nettles anytime, especially before they start going to seed. Once they have gone to seed, they get quite woody (but are still good for tea, but not for fresh eating). They eventually get really mineraly, which is great for tea still, but not so good for fresh eating.

 

Nettles can be harvested very sustainably and ethically, especially if they are in abundance. If you bend stinging nettle plants down to the ground, they will send up new shoots, which you can then harvest. If you cut the tops off of them, they will also send up new shoots (sometimes multiple sets), which you can also harvest.  I spend my summers harvesting from the same nettle patch multiple times–coming back a two or so weeks later gives you a completely new batch of fresh nettle tops!

 

Harvesting stinging nettle in flower to encourage new growth!

Harvesting stinging nettle in flower to encourage new growth!

Supporting our Body’s Systems and Nettle’s Healing Powers

Nettle is both an incredible nurturing food but also a top-rate medicinal; I daresay it is one of the most widely useful and practical plants we have in the local ecosystem here. First of all, it has a tremendous amount of minerals and vitamins: vitamin K, protein, iron, and magnesium (of which we are nearly all deficient).

 

Nettle is a metabolic tonic that helps address depleted states of the adrenals and kidneys. It is what we know as an alterative herb, restoring health and balance to the body. While it works slowly, it works well over time and offers a lasting effect. The nettle personality (the person for whom nettle is particularly indicated) i someone who is constantly in the sympathetic nervous system state and is often jumpy, nervous, twitchy or anxious. Nettle helps bring people out of the sympathetic nervous system state and back into the parasympathetic.

 

Cold nettle tea is also a great diuretic, which supports the urinary tract and the kidneys.

 

Even nettle’s sting also has benefit.  It is used as an alternative treatment for any stagnant conditions of the circulatory system and the blood, particularly for arthritis and osteoarthirtis. Tendonitis can be treated by stinging the affected area and adding a salve of solomon’s seal oil or a yellow dock leaf.  Nettles sting can also be used to treat the loss of sensation in the body (e.g. in the fingers after an accident).

 

Nettle Dip - yum!

Nettle Dip – yum!

Some Nettle Recipes

Because Nettle is so abundant, I have developed a number of recipes that showcase nettle in a variety of ways.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Nettle French Onion Dip

  • 1/2 cup of nettles (fresh)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1/2 cup of sour cream
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

This is a very simple dip–I recently made this for my plant walk, and it was a huge success!  Bring water to a boil, add the nettles, and boil 3-4 minutes to remove the sting.  Drain and press the nettles to get the excess water out.  They will look a lot like cooked spinach. Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, saute your onions in olive oil until they are brown.

 

Add the nettles and the onion into a food processor and process until chopped.  Add salt to taste, and sour cream.  If you let the flavors meld in the fridge for a few hours, this dip is even more tasty!

 

Nettle Pesto (Vegan)

For a simple nettle pesto, combine 1/2 cup blanched nettles with 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup basil, and salt to taste (you can also add Parmesan cheese to it if you like!).  You can eat this fresh on pasta or sandwiches or freeze it.

 

Nettle Palak Paneer (veg/vegan)

Palak paneer is one of my favorite Indian dishes; when I had a ton of nettle available, I thought, why not create a nettle paneer? You can do one of two things: make it all nettles or make it spinach + nettles. Either way, it is absolutely delicious!

 

  • 2 cups of nettles, blanched (about 4 cups before cooking) (You can also go 50/50 on the nettles with spinach)
  • 1/2 cup paneer cheese (substitute extra firm tofu)
  • 1 medium onion (cut finely)
  • 1/2 chunk of ginger (shredded/cut finely)
  • 1 Small tomato (finely chopped)
  • 6 tbsp ghee or cooking oil
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 green chilies (depending on your spice level)
  • 3 tbps of cream (optional)

 

Begin by blanching your nettles (and spinach, if you are using it). While it is blanching, you also want to fry your ghee/tofu in 3 tbsp of the ghee or cooking oil, browning them on all sides.

 

Strain your nettles and spinach, and allow to cool a bit. Then, add them to your food processor and process them a bit to make a rough puree.

 

In a skillet, combine 3 tbsp of ghee/cooking oil with the ginger, onion and garlic and saute for about 5 min until everything goes translucent. Add chilies and tomato and saute for another 2-3 min. Add the pureed nettles and paneer cheese, season to taste. If you want, you can add 3 or so tbsp of fresh cream.

 

Blanching nettle

Blanching nettle

Serve this over rice–delicious!

 

Vegan options: tofu instead of paneer, use cooking oil, omit the cream.

 

Nettle Nervine Nourishing Tea

I find nettle tea to be a really delightful treat. My favorite tea blend, one that supports and nourishes the body, is the following:

  • 1 part nettle leaves, dried
  • 1 part oats, dried (whole oats, not crushed oats) or oatstraw
  • 1 part lemon balm
  • 1 part catnip

Blend these together and make an herbal infusion. Boil water, add herbs, put a lid on it, and seep for at least 10 min. Enjoy with some raw honey!

 

Closing Thoughts

I hope that you take the opportunity to get to know this amazing, incredible, nurturing, and healing plant!

 

Sustainable Living in a Rental House: Options, Ideas, and More July 3, 2016

As a follow-up post to last week’s discussion of how anyone, anywhere can live a sustainable life , I wanted to share some of the sustainable living things that I am doing here while I’m renting a small house (with terrible solar gain, lol) in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Through this, I hope to demonstrate that even if you aren’t living the free range fantasy, there is a lot you can do, both in your own life, and for the greater good in your community. I hope that this post inspires you to share your own ideas!

 

1.  The Walking Lifestyle.

Some friends along the streets of my town :)

Some friends along the streets of my town🙂

One of the primary lifestyle shifts I made was moving to a place where I could walk to work (hopefully permanently, but we’ll see where life takes me). I think this one shift is so huge, for so many reasons, that it probably offsets everything I’m not able to do in my rental that I was doing at my homestead.

 

I decided to see how much carbon emissions I saved by walking to campus rather than driving the 36 miles round trip in Michigan. Assuming I go to campus four days a week, 48 weeks of the year, that comes to just under 7000 miles driven per year to get to and fro from work. And there is also my walking to the post office, bank, to pick up food, and more–and the need to drive much less because everything is located conveniently in town. Assuming the lowest estimate, just the work miles, I have saved 2.87 metric tons of carbon this first year in walking rather than driving (you can get your own carbon estimates from Carbon Footprint Calculator). Now maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider that there are severe costs not just to the carbon going in the atmosphere, but also extraction, refining, and transport of fuel that are harder to use an online calculator to figure out, that’s quite a bit. We’ll add to this that I get daily exercise, I no longer have the horrible stress of Detroit Metro area traffic, and I can get a lot more out of my car by not using it as much (reducing the demand for new automobiles!).

 

And from a spiritual perspective, the walking is amazing.  I have tree friends that I visit every day; I use it as a time to do some walking meditation, speak with the spirits, even a bit of energetic work.  I am observing the changing of te seasons in the cracks of the sidewalks and the edges of people’s lawns, each day in the trees.  I would be flying by these in a car; and instead, I am slowing down, building in extra time on my walk to take it all in fully, to smell the flowers.  It has become something that I look forward to each day rather than dread, and it is now interwoven with my inner spiritual life.

 

2.  Growing Things: Container Gardening, Community Gardening, and Sprouting.

I have been exploring a number of ways to still grow things, which was one of my primary focuses at my old homestead.

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Solar gain and container gardening.  Each rental or apartment is different, and the main issue to contend with is light. How much full sun do you have? How much space in the sun do you have? This really determines to a large extent what you can grow, especially, what will thrive.

 

That is my big challenge here, certainly. The rental house I am living in has real challenges with solar gain; no place in the yard gets full sun.  I have no south facing windows! So I have had some challenges with growing things. And yet, I have really embraced container gardening this year. Last year, I discovered that the light is simply not enough to grow most veggies I like (like Kale) so I rented a community garden plot in addition to the containers and am growing veggies I really want to eat there. But, as a permaculture designer, I am focusing instead on how to turn this lack of light into a productive thing. Herbs are doing fine in their pots with morning sun, so I have rosemary, scented geranium, dill,  and a few other herbs in pots; I’ve tucked some herbs also into the “landscaping” on the front of the property (mint, chamomile, new England aster).  I have also grown several successive rounds of lettuce and spinach in pots, and am going for a 3rd round now–the part sun is a benefit to the spring/fall crops and keeps them from bolting.

 

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden. The community garden has been a great place to go when I’m feeling the need to get my hands in the dirt.  The way ours is setup here is that in addition to individual plots that anyone can rent for the season (for $25, I believe), there are also many community plots that are shared and that anyone can harvest from. So there is always gardening work to do for people like me who enjoy it! Also, I don’t think you how much you know till you start gardening around other people, lol! I have been having a lot of fun out in the community garden and have a lot of chances to learn and to share. I would recommend it to any renters!

 

Indoor Growing and Sprouting.  I’ve tried a few kinds of indoor growing, but they all required light (for example, growing microgreens over the winter).  Since I want to use less, I’m not sure that kind of growing is worth it right now for me.  But one carbon-free/energy free kind of growing I am really enjoying is sprouting.  Sprouting doesn’t require much light; it can be done on a counter.  It doesn’t take long, and the sprouts are highly nutritious and delightful!  I like the alfalfa sprouts the best. You can source seeds that are organic and GMO free, and support good companies while doing so🙂.

 

I'm proud of these sprouts!

I’m proud of these sprouts!

3.  Curbing Consumption and “Stuff ” Creep

I’ve written pretty extensively on this topic before, in my disposing of the disposable mindset posts, vermicomposting post, and more. But I want to say a few words here today, especially about consumption and waste, especially in terms of renting and small space living.

 

Stuff. Knowing that I gave away so much stuff in my life prior to moving has motivated me to keep “stuff creep” (the acquisition of useless stuff you don’t need and clutter) from happening.  This is really important in small spaces where you don’t have a lot of spare room! There are a few strategies to do this: One of the ways that I’m managing that is by keeping a box in my living room that is the “give away” box. When it is full, I take it to a local thrift store. The second is that I am never, ever buying anything on impulse. If I am interested in something, I wait a full week before making a decision, and that gives me time to decide if my decision was the correct one. Only then will I purchase it, and only then if I can use it.

 

Waste. I’ve been, as ever, monitoring plastics and packaging, working to recycle waste, recycle materials, and so on. People know about that and so I don’t have to spell it out here🙂.

 

4. Verimcomposting, Outdoor Composting, and Liquid Gold

For renting and small space living, there are actually several good options for composting and reycling of certain kinds of waste.

 

Vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is something that anyone, regardless of their living circumstances can do. Since I have limited space here, I opted for a smaller model vermicomposter consisting of a few old food grade buckets that had seen better days. You can read all about how to build a verimcomposter on my blog post.

 

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost Tumbling.  I brought my compost tumbler from my homestead with me to my rental, and boy am I glad that I did!  It has really allowed me to make a lot of great compost without any kinds of rodents or large compost piles in the yard that might upset neighbors.  The compost tumbler that I have (and that I really like) has two chambers for composting.  It claims to be insulated, which I don’t really think matters, lol, but the two chambers of large capacity are super helpful.  I switch chambers about every six months, so I just emptied the first chamber and am getting ready to refill it.

 

Liquid Gold. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the effectiveness of liquid gold for watering my plants, which I covered in more detail in this post.  My plants are happy and so am I!

 

5.  Life by Candlelight.

I wrote about this a bit in my Winter Solstice post (and you can read that for more depth); I have decided to forgo electric lighting at night and instead live by candlelight. This has profoundly changed my own rhythms, encouraging me to slow down, breathe deeply, and reconnect with the quietude of the dark.  I’ve been experimenting with a number of different kinds of lighting and candles to get the most efficiency possible.  I gave a lot of clear instructions for sourcing candles, lighting, etc, in my linked post, so I’ll encourage you to read.

 

One thing I’ll add is that I’ve now been doing this lifestyle about 8 months. It is truly amazing. I love living by candlelight at night; I sleep better, I feel less stressed and frantic, and I just feel more stable overall. It is amazing how such a small shift makes such a big difference, but it really does.

 

6. Haybox Cooking

Good friends of mine (two different sets) taught me about the haybox.  It is a very simple contraption–you heat something up, and then rather than continuing to use heat (like the oven or stovetop) to cook it, you instead pull it out of the oven and put it in a well-insulated box. This saves on fuel.  Here’s a nice introduction to how to build one. A few weeks ago, after finally getting my new dutch oven (!!!!) I started experimenting with the haybox and I really like it!  I have a very rudimentary one that is not nearly as nice as the one in the article I linked above, lol, and it is made of cardboard box with an old blanket as insulation (the hay would obviously be messy).  I have found that for cooking simple things, like a vegetable soup, works well.  My first attempt didn’t have everything cooked the whole way through cause I started it in the afternoon (and I should have started it in the morning). I’m still very much experimenting!

 

7.  Thermostat Changes and Air Conditioning

This is a pretty standard thing, but its important to mention.  Even when renting, you have control over your thermostat and your decisions about whether or not to crank up the AC in the summer or heat in the winter.  I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to move air through the house effectively to avoid the AC using fans in windows–this has been great!  I also invested in some great wool socks and sweaters  and can keep my house a much lower temperature in the winter.  Simple things add up🙂.

 

8.  Supporting Local Farmers with Chemical-Free Growing Practices

So obviously while renting in my solar-gain challenged circumstances, I’m not growing much of my own food these days.  However, this has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know my farmers at the farmer’s market and support them!  I have found several organic growers that I really like; additionally, I found several offering local pasture-raised meats, cheeses, dairy, and more.  Even in a quiet town in the mountains, there are good options available.  They aren’t as bountiful or divere as the Detroit Metro Area by any means (which is really like a local food Mecca!) but they are there if you know where to look.

 

9.  Plant Education in the Community

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk :)

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk🙂

So this is one of the things I am most excited to share.  When I got here, I found some people doing some good work with conservation and standard gardening, but not too much else.  I decided to go for it, offering my knowledge as a permaculture designer, herbalist, and wild food forager to the community.  The response has been really great!  I’ll share one story: I began offering plant walks this summer to people who wanted to learn more about the edible and medicinal uses of plants.  I see this as part of my work in the world as a druid–helping reconnect people and nature.  I decided I didn’t want to earn money for them (it is sacred work, part of my spiritual path) so instead I took a donation for a good cause (and each walk is for a different cause). My first walk was a few weeks ago  (my second one is this week) and I had 25 people show up and raised $350 for charity!  They were a great bunch and since then, many are posting about their garlic mustard pesto and dandelion greens!  I opened the walk with a discussion of dandelion, and closed the walk with some tasty treats and a delicious bottle of dandelion wine. It was super exciting!

 

10. Land Healing, Scattering Seeds, Wildtending

Long-term readers of my blog will have noticed my shift in energy and focus: In moving, since I didn’t have land of my own, I shifted my focus instead on tending the broader land around me. This has been really productive for my own thinking, as well as for the land here, I believe. I have written a lot of posts on this subject in more depth: my post on healing hands, my series on wildtending and refugia and seed balls,  my extended series on land healing. Its interesting because I never realized how intently focused my gaze was on that one piece of land till I no longer had it, and it was almost like waking up, looking around, and saying, “ok, now what?!?” I think good things have come of it!

 

11. The Disposables Problem

I have also worked to tackle the disposables problem by starting to carry with me my own take out containers, buying in bulk when possible, and eliminating plastics from my life as much as possible. One of the small, yet important, shifts I made was investing in some stainless steel silverware (a spork and pair of chopsticks) that I keep in my purse.  Now, if I’m at the Chinese buffet, I don’t need to consume another pair of chopsticks. If I’m at tge campus function and there is disposable silverware, I get my spork out instead. This has equal value as an educational tool as it does to reduce waste🙂. I have a acquaintance who sells them.

 

12.  Slowing Down

A few of these (walking, candlelight, haybox cooking, local foods) have a united theme: the theme of slowing down.  I have been reading a lot more about the slow movements–slow food, slow money, etc.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that these things are “slow” in the sense that nothing ever gets accomplished.  But they are slowing down to the right speed so that we can more fully and meaningfully live!  And that’s good by me!

 

Other Stuff I’m Excited to Try: I have been looking diligently for a large, used fish tank with the hopes of getting an indoor aquaponics system setup.  The fish tank hasn’t yet manifested itself, but I suspect it will when the time is right. I’m quite excited to try this approach!  I’m also working on building a solar cooker and experimenting with a lot of different kinds of gas-free cooking, like dutch oven cooking.  I’m also, obviously, in search of my next property so the real fun can begin again!

 

What are you doing in your spaces, great or small! I would love to hear from you🙂.

 

 
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