The Druid's Garden

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

Don’t Bag Your Leaves: An Analysis of Nutrient Loss and Soil Depletion for Leaf Removal November 7, 2014

This is the time of year when the leaves all drop in their delightfully whimsical fashion.  And yet, it seems that fall is not an enjoyable time for many, especially if those leaves end up on the lawn. I’ve discussed problems with the practice of keeping a lawn before, and today, I’d like to look at our relationship to leaves and typical practices for dealing with leaves.  People spend quite a bit of their own energy and fossil fuel energy removing leaves from their lawns (raking, blowing, mowing, and so on).  These leaves seem to end up in three places for a typical American household in the sprawling urban and suburban areas:

 

  1. In bags on the side of the roads for “compost” (most common in my area by far)
  2. Blown onto the side of the road and left there and/or picked up by the city (more typical in urban settings)
  3. In a burn pile smouldering away (this also happens a lot where I live).

 

Some of the more radical folk, like permies and guerrilla gardeners the like, might end up composting their leaves in our gardens or otherwise keeping the nutrients on our properties; but this is a rather rare approach and one not practiced by the bulk of the American populace. Many of us who are radical gardeners go out seeking the bags of leaves left on the curb to bring additional nutrients to our properties (I do this every year).  However, not all of us have the benefit of composting or keeping our leaves–not raking, mulching, or composting leaves is illegal in some township or city mandates and also in many subdivisions throughout the US. And leaves aren’t often the only things found in the leaf compost bags–usually when I go out to collect, I find a good deal of other matter and live plants.  This year, at about 10% of the houses where I picked up leaves, I also found the remains of someone’s backyard garden (tomatoes) and at another 10% I found other kinds of food from trees just thrown away (walnuts, apples, acorns, pears, etc).

 

And so, today, I’d like to explore this practice a bit and its long-term impacts on soil health…and what we might do instead.

 

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

What’s Written on the Bag: Linguistic Framing of Leaves

When people talk about the leaves that drop from the trees in the fall, they often call it “leaf litter” or “yard waste.”  Looking at the brown paper bags that people buy to store their leaves in for pickup, they say “Lawn refuse” or “Yard Waste” or “Refuse” on the sides. We label the bags and then frame what we put in them as waste or refuse; something to be discarded.  So we are already creating a framework for seeing materials that come from our yards as “waste” rather than seeing the nutrients in the leaves as a valuable thing.

 

What’s in the Leaves: Nutrients Contained in Fallen Leaves

The other issue I’ve been pondering for some time is the nutritional content of the leaves, and how many nutrients leave a typical American lawn in suburbia each year when they are discarded.  I found a reasonable analysis about the nutrient content leaves here; their calculations are based on one ton of leaves (which, granted, is a lot of leaves).  This section presents a look at the nutrient content in leaves and how much is lost when we put them on the curb (or how much is gained by picking up someone else’s leaves).

 

According to the analysis above, 1 ton (2000 lbs) of leaves has the following:

  • 940 lbs of carbon
  • 20 lbs of nitrogen
  • 2 lbs phosphorus
  • 2 lbs potassium
  • 32.8 lbs calcium
  • 4.8 lbs magnesium
  • 2.2 lbs sulfur
  • Plus other nutrients and a great deal of organic matter (organic matter not calculated)

 

Before I get into my analysis of how much we lose by putting leaves on the corner, I have a few caveats.  First, this kind of analysis requires quite a bit of assumptions and estimations; I’ve done my best, but what I have found might be specific to my local area in South-East Michigan.  Second, I’m certain that leaf nutrition varies pretty widely based on the  soil profile of the region, the nutrients present or absent in the soil already, the types of trees, the weather for the year, and so on.  With that said, I do think even a rudimentary analysis, like the one I’m presenting, gives us some starting points.

 

Methods: On my trips out to get leaf bags from the side of the road this year,  I did some counting in my area to estimate the amounts and weights typical bags of leaves had.  I went out for three weeks and brought back 46 bags of leaves; I went out twice each week to different areas within a 3 mile radius of where I lived. I counted how many leaves people left on the curb and when I got back, I weighed them to get their average weight.  In a fourth week it rained, and while I collected bags, I did not weigh them because the water weight would have impacted my findings. I then did some simple math using the numbers above.

 

Amount of leaves per bag and per yard: Most leaf bags I picked up ranged from 8lbs – 22lbs, depending on whether or not they were shredded. Shredded leaf bags typically account for about 20% of the bags I pick up.  Even unshredded bags are often compacted and pretty heavy, especially if the leaves fell relatively flat or were slightly wet when they went in the bag.    The average for the bags was just above 10 lbs.  People in the suburban area where I go leaf hunting put out an average of 4.5 bags of leaves on collection day; some had many more, and most had been putting them out for a period of weeks. My estimate is that most families in my area put out at least 7 bags of leaves in a fall season assuming they have a few trees in their yard dropping leaves; this amounts to about 98 lbs of leaves (I’m going to round this to 100 lbs to make the math simple).

 

So for each 10 lb bag of leaves put on the curb, it has:

  • 4.7 lbs of carbon
  • .1 lbs of nitrogen
  • .01 lbs of phosphorus
  • .01 lbs of potassium
  • .16 lbs of lbs of calcium
  • .02 lbs of magnesium
  • .01 lbs of sulfur
  • And Iron, Zinc, and much, more.

 

That’s a lot of nutrients.  And that’s just the leaves–I don’t have any way of figuring out what whole tomato plants and other plants ripped up from the soil are also contributing, but I suspect these numbers are much higher.  And then, if homeowners are also removing their grass clippings all season long, that’s a whole other calculation to include.

 

There are alternatives!

There are alternatives!

 

What’s Left in the Soil:  Long-Term Removal of Nutrients and Inadequacy of Fertilization

Now one bag of leaves makes an impact, but perhaps a small one.  The problem is that one bag of leaves isn’t what’s being removed–this is about the long-term systematic removal of nutrients from our landscape.  As I was driving through a bunch of Detroit communities last weekend, what really struck me was the age of the houses.  Many of the houses I was looking at literally were 75 years, 100 years, or older.  In my research on dandelions, I discovered that typical lawn practices prevalent today really rose to popularity after World War II, which suggests that people haven’t been bagging up their leaves forever, but likely they have been doing it for some time.  So let’s assume that for the last 50 years, most citizens of Metro Detroit (or any other city or suburban area) have been removing their leaves from their property.  So if we take the numbers above and assume 100 lbs of leaves being removed each year, we end up with nutrient loss something like this:

 

Nutrient Loss over Time

Nutrient Loss for Fall Leaf Removal for 100 Years (all numbers in pounds)

 

These numbers are striking, but what is even more striking is the fact that I haven’t accounted for any other kinds of “yard waste” such as grass clippings (put out on the curb weekly or bi-monthly by many) or other kinds of yard compost that people don’t want.  I might do a case study of this at some point, but for now, we can see the potential for soil nutrient health decline.

 

I’d like to offer one other piece of evidence as well. My house was built in 1945, so my yard likely suffered the same fate for most of the last 70 years as well.  When I got at my homestead a few years ago, prior to putting in the garden, I ran soil tests.   These are exactly where the leaves (and lawn clippings) would have been taken from (and I knew from taking to my neighbors that the people who owned this house did such practices).  I found that the soil where I wanted to put in my garden was pretty much sand.  It had little organic matter and a P.H. of 8.2 (our PH is high in this area, but the lack of organic matter made it higher).  It had only 8 PPM of Phosphorus (considered extremely low), 22 parts per million of potassium (low) and magnesium of only 27 parts per million (extremely low).  To get my soil prepared for growing crops…what did I do? Went around and picked up everyone’s leaves, imported massive amounts of organic matter in the form of manure, compost, and this year, even a pile of seaweed from a local pond.  And now my soil tests are beautiful and my soil is rich and healthy (and much lower in PH thanks to the organic matter all of the leaves helped create).

 

What’s going back into the soil?  Not enough.

In a natural process, assuming no removal of nutrients, it takes 500 years or more to produce one inch of topsoil.  This gives you a sense, I think, of the enormity of the challenges that face us in regenerating landscapes with these destructive lawn practices.  But, you say, aren’t people putting things back into the soil?  Yes, and we’ll take a look at that next.

 

1) Plants can pull certain kinds of nutrients from the air; typically this is nitrogen and oxygen. So certainly, some nitrogen theoretically could be being brought back into the soil, although typical lawn ornamentals and grass don’t do this well.

 

2) Most nutrients are in the soil, and those nutrients are cycled through the dropping and decay of organic matter.  Trees and other plants (like Burdock, Comfrey, Dandelion), penetrate deep into the ground and pulling up nutrients to the surface, which they then deposit as leaves or dead plant matter.  But how many nutrients are down there for the taking?  If nutrients are systematically removed from the same spot over a 25, 50, or 100 year period, I suspect that at some point, the ground underneath will simply run out of those nutrients. I also have a theory (untested) that this is part of why we have so many plant and tree diseases.  We keep removing organic matter and nutrients from our landscapes in this form, through logging, etc, and those aren’t going back into our system.

 

3) People also often add fertilizers; but most commercial fertilizers focus only on the three macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  All of the micronutrients (some of which are critical to plant and human health, such as magnesium or calcium) are not added.  Fertilizers also come in a water soluble form (nitrate) and cause substantial problems for our waterways (I am not going to spend the time today to describe soil ecology, but a good introduction to it is here).

 

4) Mulch is sometimes also added to select areas.  But wood mulches are very high in carbon and little else.

 

5) Some people do buy compost and add it in select areas (say, a garden) but this is in select areas; I don’t see people dumping compost all over their lawns to make up for the loss of nutrients.  More on this in my next post.

 

So even with the inputs, it seems likely that a substantial net loss in nutrients in the soil immediately surrounding most of our homes and communities due to the “composting” practices of leaves and grass clippings.

Concluding Thoughts

What concerns me about this analysis, if its in the ballpark range at all (and I have reason to believe it is) is that each year, the soil surrounding our homes and in our communities gets more and more depleted as we continue to remove nutrients from our soils systematically through fall leaves and grass clippings.  This leaves me with a few serious concerns:

 

1) More and more people are becoming interested in urban gardening, homesteading, and the like, and yet, if they want to dig up their backyard, they are facing soils with literally no nutrients, organic matter, or life in them (as I faced when I started my homestead).  If we all wanted to do this, where would all the nutrients come from?

 

2) We aren’t looking at a few places of depletion, but probably we are facing it with nearly every suburban and urban home in the US.  When we combine this with modern industrial farming practices that kill soil life and strip the soil bare, its a very worrying issue.

 

3) The systematic loss of particular kinds of nutrients is also concerning; in my herbalism course, we have spent a great deal of time talking about magnesium deficiency (which the bulk of Americans are suffering from) and deficiency in other micro-nutrients; interestingly, many of these showed up in the list of what was in fall leaves and being removed.  Even if you were to grow some veggies in your soil that you added some organic matter to, would there be enough magnesium and other essential nutrients for your own body’s needs?

 

4) Perhaps most worrying of all: if history has anything to teach us, the widespread degradation and depletion of soil and other resources leads to a civilization’s collapse.  Combining this with many other ecological challenges suggests the widespread and systematic need for radical change.

 

I’ll elaborate on these concerns and what we might begin to do about this in my next blog post, which will discuss the concept of restoration agriculture and further discuss permaculture design.

 

Fall Leaves and the Druidic Garden: Leaves as Compost and Mulch November 12, 2010

Filed under: compost,Leaves — Dana @ 10:01 pm
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With the passing of Samhain, most of the leaves here in Michigan are now off the trees.  As I bike through my neighborhood or visit surrounding communities, I am always amazed to see people bagging up all of those leaves in the brown “compost” bags and leave them by the side of the road or (worse) burning them in the backyard.  Hold on for a minute!

What my illustrious neighbors bagging the leaves up and leaving them for the waste disposal company may not realize is that those same leaves, yard trimmings, and other waste are sold right back to them in the spring time when they want a little compost or rich hummus for their garden.  Unfortunately, this process is damaging on the environment because: A) fossil fuels are used to transport the leaves to and from their destination; high-powered composting facilities often use additional fossil fuels to automatically turn and process leaves; and finally, they have to be packaged back up and sold to the end consumer–sometimes across counties or states.  Another serious benefit is that the nutrients of the leaves–nutrients that would leech back into the soil if the leaves were left on the ground to decompose naturally–continue to be removed each year as the leaves are put on the curb.  This loss of nutrients in the soil eventually causes most to go out and buy petrochemical fertilizers (which contribute to substantial water pollution).

Burning those little leaves is even worse, however!  Leaf burning destroys many valuable nutrients (although some nutrients are retained in the ash, to be fair), substantially contributes to air pollution, and can cause trouble for health of asthmatics and others.  Not to mention the risk of fires spreading out of control.

Alternatives exist to bagging and/or burning leaves!

Leaves are a precious and valuable resource, and can be used in a multitude of ways in your own gardening practice: as a lawn mulch, compost, as a soil enricher, and as a garden mulch.

This year, I’ve used leaves in several ways to enhance my druidic gardening practice.

Directly in the Garden Beds. First, I used leaves as a basic ingredient of my “raised bed sheet mulching” approach (which I haven’t yet written on but plan on writing on soon).  Leaves were added right to the bed in the fall and will compose over the winter, adding much needed nutrients and humus to my sandy soil.

Leaf Composting. I also built myself a simple leaf composter out of some rusty wire fencing I found in the weeds on the side of the property.  I created a sphere with the wire and weighted the bottom down with some rocks.  Next, I layered about 6 inches of leaves with an inch of soil and/or manure and as I layered it, I wet the whole thing down.  If you layer it in this fashion, the leaves are less likely to mat.  If you wet it down, composting will happen much faster!  I have read that you can also use sacks for leaf composting or even build your own large bin.  The key is to make sure that your leaves don’t blow away before they are composted.  Now that I’ve done this work, I will wait and see what happens in the spring–and how far along my leaves have composted.  Leaf composting is super-easy, and you can use the composted leaves as an excellent soil conditioner or garden mulch.

Mulching. One of the most important lessons that I have learned in my short time on this property is that mulch is your friend.  I planted a number of trees and heavily mulched them–and was amazed to find that even after a week or more of dry weather, when I stuck my hand into the mulch, the roots were still damp.  If you want to use leaves as mulch, you can compost them partially (to avoid matting, again) and then spread them thickly on whatever it is you want to mulch.  The leaves will eventually decompose and will release their nutrients into the soil. In this way, you are mimicking the forest’s natural cycle of falling leaves eventually turning into fertile soil (we speed this up a bit with composting).

Do be aware that certain leaves may change the PH level of your soil.  Pine needles and oak leaves are particularly acidic (but this makes them incredibly useful for say, blueberries or paw paw trees!).  I have been using pine needles as a wonderful mulch on my newly planted blueberry bushes.

If you have a lawn mower, you can also mulch your leaves directly onto your lawn.  Apparently they make mowers just for mulching, but I’ve never seen them so I can’t write more on that process.

This is my first year using leaf composting, so I’ll report how things went in the spring!

 

Cultural Appropriation, Plant Relationships, and Nature Connection March 31, 2019

As a druid, someone who connects to the local landscape spiritually, I’ve gotten my fair share questions about cultural appropriation and druidry’s relationship to indigenous practices, particularly traditions indigenous to the USA. The conversation may go something like this, “So druidry, is that like Native American?” My response is, “Druids and Native Americans both honor and respect the land, and see spiritual significance in nature.  However, Druidry comes from a different cultural tradition (the British Isles, particularly Wales) and our relationship with the land, spiritual practices, and celebrations are completely different than indigenous peoples in North America”  Another thing that happens with some frequency is that I describe something on this blog, like land healing, building sacred spaces, or other such spiritual work. And someone who has never commented before leaves a comment that says something like “You don’t have a right to do that, this land belongs to Native Americans” or “You need to ask permission from those who used to live here to work spiritually with the land.” I usually delete these comments because they seem more concerned with virtue signaling than about honoring and healing the land and building bridges or building understanding.  But in my time in druid leadership in various places, I see a lot of white druids seriously grappling with these same kinds of questions and issues–and so I want to share my thoughts.

 

Another observation: here in the US, white people who are trying to reconnect to their land spiritually carry around a lot of baggage. Guilt about the atrocities that were committed so that we could live on this land, guilt about what was done before we were born, guilt about always being an “imposter” here on the land, guilt about living here now. Even if you don’t know your family history, if you are white, the cultural history and legacy of the broader US are more than sufficient. There’s also a lot of fear–fear of connecting deeply with nature, fear of appropriation (even inadvertent appropriation), fear of doing something wrong, of somehow doing more damage than has been already done. I never realized the extent of this fear and guilt–even within me–till I met druid who had recently came from Europe and moved to the US. I connected with her at a druid event where I was leading a workshop and ritual. After the workshop, she said to me that she felt that Americans were so afraid of their land. After her comment, we had more discussions and I started to pay attention, and I realized how acute her observation was. Culturally, there’s also this idea that if you are a white person, you really don’t have the right or privilege to connect with the land here. So the guilt sets in, the fear sets in, and people do nothing.  How, then, can white American druids build a relationship with nature, given these cultural complexities?  How can we build a relationship rooted in honoring the ancestors of the land and recognizing culturally, what work we have to do? And, do we have a right to do so? And why should we? Those questions are the subject of today’s blog post.

 

Building connections with nature

Building connections with nature

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual path is ultimately about connection and relationship building. People who find druidry and take up the druid path are concerned with building deeper connections to nature, physically and in spirit, and in living a life that is nurturing of the earth rather than destructive of her. People from all walks of life, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc, can join the druid tradition; it is open to anyone who seeks this path. I want to frame this entire discussion about cultural appropriation in terms of relationship, as I think it is a useful and productive lens. So let’s start by thinking about the definition of relationship. Here are a few dictionary definitions, useful to get us started. Definition A: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected” and B: “the way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave toward each other.” In the case of druid practice, we are exploring ways that we, as 21st century human beings living in specific ecosystems, and coming out of specific cultural and historical traditions, connect spiritually with our living ecosystems around us. My definition here, then, accounts not only for a specific person, but that person living in a specific context, and bringing specific history with them.  And it is this “cultural and historical context” that has everything to do with appropriation–but also, nature relationship.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, prior to white colonization, old growth forests covered the land, producing massive amounts of mast crops (acorns and chestnuts) with about 1/3 of the total forest cover in hardwood nut trees; streams were clear and full of fish; animals and hunting lands were abundant. Native Americans, as M. Kat Anderson describes in Tending the Wilds, tended these lands and had them in a very healthy state of abundance. As non-industrial societies, they depended on the land, build spiritual practices surrounding their relationship to the land, and many tribes had rich animistic traditions surrounding the land and her spirits. Traditions that, in some cases, spanned hundreds or thousands of years.  Framing this in terms of relationship–generations upon generations of Native Americans were tending the wilds and cultivating a sacred relationship with their landscape. Every person in that tribe gained strength from those ancestral connections to land, established over generations upon generations. Even for a native person today, those connections are still present, and I think they are beautifully described in the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer, among other native authors.

 

But a white person’s cultural relationship to our local landscape here in the USA is completely different. Let’s take a look at my own cultural relationship as an example.  As a white person living in Western PA in the 21st century, I can trace my ancestors back to the late 1600’s and 1700’s arriving on American soil.  My ancestors were some of the first people to arrive to Pennsylvania; and some of the first to push westward into Western PA and settle the Laurel Highlands region. My family heritage is Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English (about 75%) and German (25%). The strongest cultural heritage I grew up with was Pennsylvania German (Dutch) traditions, passed on to me in some small ways by my grandmother. This makes me very, very white, and the descendant of coal miners, farmers, steel mill workers, loggers, and other people who worked hard to colonize and extract the rich resources of Pennsylvania to fuel growing industrialization. In our family records, and in my own ancestry research, I know that when my ancestors first arrived, these lands were a cornucopia of abundance and were pristine. Within less than 150 years due to their efforts, these lands were desolate wastelands, extracted of their wood, coal, iron, tannins, animals, fish–anything that could feed the industry.  I know from a copy of the Department of Forestry’s Annual Report from 1898 from PA, that less than 4% of forest cover remained by the turn of the 20th century in counties where my ancestors settled. Further, in less than two centuries, Native peoples who made these lands their home were slaughtered or forcefully relocated to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. When I look upon the lands where I was born, lands that are still the subject of many extraction activities, I have to recognize the colonialist legacy that produced me. That’s the cultural and historical reality of the blood that moves through my veins.  Regardless of how much I have personally worked to reconnect with the land, I cannot deny or change this history.  My ancestry offers me little positive spiritual “connection”, historical or otherwise, to this land.  So I return to my original question, “How, then, can I, as a white druid, build a relationship with nature?”

Acid Mine Drainage--a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

Acid Mine Drainage–a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

 

Probably the worst way to answer these questions is to engage in cultural appropriation. When we look at the above–it makes sense that no white person wanting to connect spiritually with nature wants the cultural and historical baggage that being white on this soil brings. (For the record, it doesn’t matter if we want it, it is ours and we need to acknowledge it and work to right these wrongs). And so, a white person might be drawn away from their own cultural traditions, which offer no spiritual connection to the land, and instead, attempt to shift themselves into a different relationship with nature. Some people choose to do this, most unfortunately, by trying to appropriate various Native American traditions. Some have tried to spiritually practice like a Native American, of appropriate Native American traditions or beliefs as their own, or, in the most extreme cases, even claiming to be offering ceremony in a Native American way or in the way of a specific tribe. Native Americans call such people who appropriate their traditions “plastic shamans”; and I think the term is apt. In other words, these white people are attempting to claim the relationship to the land that only Native Americans have a right to. Understanding this issue as tied to relationship, the appropriation is not just about appropriating specific ceremonies or traditions, but really, it is an attempt to claim that indigenous relationship to the land and her spirits. (There are exceptions: in some limited cases, a white person has been welcomed into a tribe or by an elder and taught with intention.)

 

The relationship metaphor is a really useful one here for breaking down why cultural appropriation is so problematic and why cultural appropriation should have no place in the druidry–or any nature-based spiritual practice–of white people. You might think about your current relationships you have with other people: each one is unique, each one is different. Your immediate and extended family and friend network are all relationships cultivated over a long period of time. Each person in you know has a different relationship with you than any other person. Maybe one friend is fun to hang out with and chill out, but another one is a good travel partner, and still another you can share your deepest secrets with. If you have a partner or spouse, certainly, that relationship is very sacred and very unique.  You wouldn’t want another person to try to barge in and claim your spouse as their own–you would rightfully be defensive, angry, and demand that person stop. That’s essentially what I think appropriation is–taking someone else’s relationship with the land and claiming it as yours. It is no wonder that people whose traditions are subject to such appropriation are rightfully upset about it.

 

Further, relationships are complex and nested. I’m individual, yes, with my own ethics, spiritual path, and decisions to make. I’ve worked hard to build my relationship with my local land over time.  But I bring with me–in the very blood that flows through me–the DNA of my ancestors. I bring with me, for good or for ill, that cultural legacy and that history, the choices that they made, and I am living the benefits and consequences of those choices. As a white person, I simply cannot hope to have the same kind of relationship that a Native person has on this land today–because relationships aren’t just about individuals, they are about cultures and generations of people. Under no circumstances could I *ever* replicate someone else’s cultural relationship to the land, even if I tried.  Not only is trying to do so problematic from a cultural, ethical, and historical standpoint, it is deeply problematic from a spiritual one (and I don’t think the land spirits are having any of it).

 

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Now, let’s take a look at a very specific plant example here, to further illustrate my point. A few posts ago I wrote about the issues surrounding white sage and other at-risk plants. Let’s dig into white sage specifically, as it is an American plant used by a number of native traditions. There are a lot of different perspectives surrounding white sage and whether or not white people should use it.  These perspectives range from “don’t even look at this plant if you aren’t native” to “buy white sage from natives and support them” to “anyone can use this plant for any purpose.” I think the first line of reasoning suggests that only one culture can have a relationship with a plant that grows broadly, thus, cutting off that plant medicine and spirit to anyone else. As a druid, I see all of nature as sacred, particularly, the nature growing in my own ecosystem, and I think each person and culture can build new relationships with plants. At the same time, I also think the last perspective is problematic, as that is the source of white privilege and cultural appropriation.  What I see as the thing here is acknowledging that other cultures and people may have a specific relationship with a plant, and it is not ok to try to mimic that relationship with a plant. Instead, druids and others can build their own relationships with plants–relationships that are their own. White sage certainly has chemical properties that may help clear and heal. However, native tribes, such as the Luiseno and Cahuilla people in California, built up a very sacred relationship with white sage over millenia. Someone who is not part of that cultural legacy has no right to try to claim that specific relationship with white sage. This goes back to why indigenous peoples get upset when white people try to appropriate their plants and ceremonies–its trying to lay claim to a spiritual relationship that belongs to a culture.  If the plant’s use comes from a cultural tradition that you can rightfully access, then great, access it.  But if it doesn’t, those doors are closed to you, and you will never have a key. But it will be yours.  But what you DO have the ability to do is to create your own relationship.  It will be a different door.  It will be a different relationship. It will be a different key.

 

 

The land, her spirits, here in the US, even after all that is happened culturally, welcome relationships with white people.  But for white people living here, these must be *new relationships* and they need to be built upon acknowledging and honoring the past, building trust, and about repairations, accountability, and building trust. It is up to each of us to forge those connections, and for larger druid groups to start to do that on a broader, generational level. In other words, white people have build those relationships ourselves, and they are going to be inherently different looking because of our own identities, cultures, and histories. This is why talking about cultural appropriation matters–because we have our work cut out for us, and there are no easy short cuts. If we want to build deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with the land here, we’ve got to do the work from the ground up. If we are appropriating someone else’s culture and spiritual practice, we aren’t doing the hard and necessary work of relationship building for our own tradition–hence, we are perpetuating more colonizing behavior.

 

So, as white druids living in 21st century American soil, we have a lot of work ahead of us.  I see at a number of things that we can do to build our own traditions and relationships with this land, and offer this list as a starting point.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Become a nurturer and healer of the land. Reject the cultural values of exploitation and colonization that have shaped white people’s legacy here on American soil. Instead, work to reduce your own ecological footprint, learn to heal the land (through permaculture, sustainable living, conservation, other means), and develop a very different relationship with the physical landscape than other white people, past or present. Relationships with spirits are mirrored on the physical world. To get the land and spirits to trust you, to recognize you are different than other white faces that have come before, you have to behave differently–outside of the typical behaviors of exploitation. This is part of breaking down the past cultural legacy and establishing new patterns.

 

Honor the ancestors of the land and recognize those who came before you on this soil.  I think there are lots of ways to honor the ancestors of the land, and here are a few of those that I use.  First, learn about who the ancestors of the land where you live. Learn about who they were, what they did, how they lived, their stories, and what happened to them. For example, the peoples who lived where my home is located now were Osage, Shawnee, and Susquehannock. Today, the Osage and Shawnee are in Oklahoma, which is where they were forcefully moved by the US government. The Susquehannok are said to be extinct. (To find out who used to live in your region,  you might start with this site.) Once you know about them, find some way of honoring them regularly: perhaps say their names at the start of your rituals, create a shrine, or do an honoring ceremony as part of your practice.

 

Support and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples today. If there are still native peoples in your area or region, find ways of supporting them–if they need someone to come to a fight or take a stand, be that ally.  If there are not native tribes in your area, consider finding a cause that you can assist in that supports the rights of indigenous people regionally or globally. For example, I donate regularly to an organization called Cultural Survival, which fights globally for indigenous peoples’ rights. I also subscribe to their mailing list, which often has items you can take action on and keep you informed about global developments. I also think, as a white person, it is really important to do the “ground work”  to speak up for indigenous rights. Have compassionate conversations with other people about cultural appropriation, indigenous rights, and history.  Talk about these issues.  Recognize your own flaws and misjudgments.  Apologize. Learn and grow.

 

Recognize that we are building relationships, over time, in a new way. Because we are white people on US soil, we have very little to build upon. We are here, inventing and growing this tradition organically, a tradition imported from white ancestors, yes, but from a far off place. While this is a major challenge before us, it is also a really exciting opportunity.  In permaculture terms, we talk about the problem being the solution–in this case, our problem allows us to build something anew.  Something that responds to this time, this place, and honors our own path as white druids in the 21st century while not dishonoring those who were here before us. This requires us to deeply invest our time in learning about the land through building nature wisdom, nature connection, and our own rituals.

 

I hope this piece is helpful for those white druids who are struggling with these issues.  For this post, I am indebted to members of Sun Spiral grove, who spoke with me at multiple settings about these issues, and including members of the grove who read and offered me feedback on this post.  I also realize and recognzie that there may be things I haven’t thought about.  This is a tough topic, and I appriciate your respectful feedback. Blessings!

 

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Juniper’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings February 3, 2019

Here on the East Coast of the USA, we are still in deep winter. Soon, the maples will be flowing.  Soon, the winter snows will melt.  Soon, spring will return.  But until that time, the conifers, particularly offer strength and wisdom.  One of my favorite conifers is Juniper, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.  It is delightful to come across a wild juniper in the winter months, with her sweet and pine-scented berries and her delightful sprigs that offer friendship and hope through the darkest times.  So come with me today as we explore the sacred Juniper tree.

 

Juniper here on the land

Juniper here on the land

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more!  I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees.  So this series does just that–providing research and insight on the many trees here in the US East coast.  Previous trees in this series include Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the Juniper tree!

Description

In Eastern North America, our dominant Juniper variety is Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar. Other names for Juniper include: red juniper, baton rouge, pencil cedar, savin, or just cedar. Despite being called a Cedar, Juniper is actually in the cypress family, offering different kinds of needles (which are technically leaves)-very sharp, pointed, and prickly when they are young, and flattened, scale like, and overlapping as they age. These older needles are reminiscent of Eastern White Cedar, perhaps this is why the two are sometimes both called cedar.

 

According to John Eastman, Juniper is a long and slow growing tree.  It can live 200-300 years, and prefers open fields and other sunny locations. Junipers can produce cones starting between age 10 and age 25; some trees bear female cones and other trees bear male cones and the cones are wind pollinated. The tree is not very shade tolerant, so needs the sun in order to thrive. According to Grimm, Junipers can grow up to 30-40 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Juniper that large here in PA, as it is often instead found on dry or rocky soils, on limestone outcroppings or soils, and in abandoned fields. Unlike many conifers, Juniper cannot handle fire and can’t rehabilitate or re-establish after fire-burned sites.  However, Juniper is great at helping repopulate what are often called “wastelands” – overfarmed and abandoned fields, old gravel pits, and the like. At a distance, the Juniper tree looks like a flame, blazing up on the landscape–they are easy to spot and since they are conifers, they stay green year-round.

 

In the summer, you might come across a Juniper that looks more like an alien, with strange orange tentacles coming out of it everywhere! I remember the first time I saw this and I had no idea what i was seeing! Turns out it is the Cedar apple fungi (G. Juniperi-virginianae), which is largely harmless to the Juniper but which infect apple and hawthorn trees with a gymnosporagium rust. The rust is very detrimental to harvests of both apple and hawthorn, meaning that many who have orchards prefer to cut Junipers down rather than let them grow and possibly carry the rust.  You can tell whether or not a Juniper is infected with the rust–it will have large brown galls on it on the outer branches that have small holes within them, almost looking like potholes all over the gall. The orange alien-like tentacles come out of the nodules to spread the rust once a year–quite a sight to behold!

 

Juniper produces leaf litter that is high in calcium, creating slightly alkali soil (as compared to most conifers, whos leaf litter produces a more acidic soil).  Because of the increase in calcium, it is also an excellent place to find earthworms if, say, you wanted to go fishing.  Here in Western PA, we hae particularly acidic soil, almost too acidic, so juniper leaf litter is very useful for helping bring the acidity back into balance.

 

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Further, almost 90 different birds feed on the fruit of Juniper, Birds help disperse the seeds, which require cold stratification to sprout.  Others who eat the delicious fruit include chipmunks, mice, and opossums, voles, coyotes, red squirrels, and foxes. In the late winter, you will often see multiple species feeding on a juniper tree when there is little else to be found!

 

Regenerating Damaged Landscapes

Juniper is quite good at growing in thin or depleted soils, or soils that are polluted.  This makes it a critical tree for replanting and regeneration of the land, particularly in the rust belt region of the USA.  In the Rust Belt, three centuries of heavy mining activity has left a lot of boney dumps and other kinds of wastelands–places where there is only shale, no soil, and it gets hot and its hard for any plants or trees to take root. Thus, we often see this tree planted as part of replanting efforts after mining efforts; the tree’s roots help hold back erosion and over time, build soil, and slowly regenerate the land.  I’ve been to areas where there are hundreds of acres of juniper and scrub pine (pinus virginiana) and little else. Eventually, these two trees will help replant the entire landscape, but for now, I’m glad there is *something* that can grow there and begin nature’s healing process.

 

 

Juniper Berries and Wood Uses

The heartwood of Juniper is a beautiful red, with the outer wood going to cream or white, making it a highly sought after wood for a variety of woodworking endeavors.  This includes making “cedar” chests and other furniture as well as using it for decorative wood paneling. A lot of pencils are made from the Juniper wood; you might remember those nice smelling #2 pencils from your childhood! “Oil of Cedar” which is frequently used in polishes, medicines, and perfumes is distilled from the leaves and the wood of the Juniper tree.  The inner bark has also been used to make a reddish dye–it is a very beautiful dark red and just delightful.

 

Probably the most famous use of Juniper berries is for flavoring Gin. Juniper berries are used for flavoring in many contexts. Juniper oils in the foliage are toxic in higher doses, so the berries are used almost exclusively for this purpose

 

Juniper berries are ripe when they are a dark purple/black, often with a white residue on the surface.  You can eat them throughout the late summer and into the late winter, and on an abundant and mature juniper, the tree can produce hundreds.  They do contain a center seed, which you want to remove, so you are essentially nibbling on the fruit on the outside of the seed (which is like a thin skin).

 

You can do a variety of wonderful things with the juniper berry, and wild foraged ones are oh-so-good!  One of my favorite things to do is to make an infused vodka by taking a nice high quality vodka and putting in a good handful of berries.  Let macerate for a month, and you have this delightful beverage to share with friends.  Another favorite of mine is including them in a tea, particularly with nettle leaf, mint, and oatstraw.

 

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Tarot of Trees Incense with Juniper Berry

I developed this incense recipe as the perfect complement for the Tarot of Trees. This incense blend is a non-combustible powdered incense blend that you will need to burn on a charcoal block. Charcoal blocks can be purchased at most metaphysical stores and also online. You will need a mortar and pestle to grind your ingredients and tin or jar to keep the incense dry and fresh. The recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts frankincense
  • 2 parts sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon (powdered)
  • 1⁄4 part sweet orange Essential Oil
  • 1 part juniper berries (dried or fresh, see below)
  • 1⁄2 part lemongrass (dried)
  • 1⁄2 part yarrow (dried)

In a mortar and pestle, powder your frankincense as finely as possible. Combine the frankincense with the sandalwood and cinnamon until blended. Set aside. In the mortar and pestle, crush the juniper berries. They will be fairly easy to crush if they are dried. If they are fresh, freeze them for 30 min or more and then crush them–they will crush much easier. Crush your lemongrass and yarrow separately. Combine all ingredients, including sweet orange essential oil, in the mortar and pestle and blend thoroughly. Enjoy!

 

 

Herbalism and Juniper

Juniper has been used in multiple traditions (western, TCM, Ayurveda) as a blood tonic and blood purifier.  In folk herbalism, it was considered a “fall tonic” plant, to compliment Dandelion and other spring tonics, and would be used to help support the kidneys and “clear” or “thicken” the blood.  What this essentially means is that in both spring and fall, our bodies need to prepare for the extremes: the heat of the summer sun and the work of planting and harvest, and the cold of the winter with less food and activity. Juniper, as a fall tonic plant (along with Sassafras and Sarsaparilla) helps prepare us for the cold of the winter.  Most of the fall tonics are warming and are said to “thicken” the blood (in folk herbal terms) so that you will stay warm and healthy during the winter.

 

Translating that folk wisdom into modern herbal practice, we know that Juniper has an diuretic action on the kidneys, meaning it helps flush the kidneys through urine production.  Stagnation is one of the worst things you can have in terms of the body, and keeping the kidneys moving and healthy is key to a healthy elimination system.  Juniper is a wonderful complement to that system, along with a number of other herbs such as dandelion leaf and nettle.

 

Juniper also has strong anti-inflammatory action, with at least three specific chemical constituents that help reduce inflammation in the body, and it is often taken for this purpose as well.

 

Magic of the Juniper in the European and Western Traditions

In the Western Esoteric traditions, Juniper has a long history of use, particularly tied to the work of fire, as a purification herb, and as something used to drive away disease. Its interesting always to see how the herbal wisdom ties to the magical uses and practices surrounding plants–and we can certainly see that at play with Juniper. We’ll now consider some of these uses:

 

John Michael Greer in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic suggests that Juniper is tied to the element of fire, with its astrological aspects being Mars in Aries (can’t get much more fiery than that!) Juniper was traditionally used in spells to get back property that was stolen and as a deterrent to theft. It was also used in purification rites, as it both helps purify and drive away lingering spirits. We can see this from its use in the Key of Solomon (which lists Juniper as a herb tied to invocations of Saturn). The purification uses of Juniper go back to the Greeks, who burned it and to the Egyptians, who used it both medicinally and to embalm their dead.

 

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree; it is often used as a bonsai

Culpepper suggests that the Juniper is a “solar shrub” and the berries are hot in the 3rd degree and dry in the first degree.  He notes that they were used as a counter poison, against venom and other kinds of poison.  He also notes that they are “as great a resister of the pestilence, as any growing.”

 

Juniper seems to have a connection to animal purification as well. In Scotland, a tradition developed of fumigating animals, barns, and homes to prevent disease.  In “A Journey in Southern Siberia” Jeremiah Curtin (1909) describes how the Siberian Shamans used the smoke of juniper to purify animals prior to their sacrifice.

 

A book specializing in lore from Italy, “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) from Charles Godfrey Leland describes a charm.  In the book, a woman has a beautiful baby and it is attacked by a cat; she believes this attack was caused by witches.  She creates a charm to protect her child, and that charm includes the protection of the juniper berry, along with the cat’s hair, frankincense, cumin, salt, bread crumbs, iron filings, and much more.

 

Magic of the Juniper in North American Contexts

In an North American context, Juniper has uses in folk magic, hoodoo, and Braucherei, particularly surrounding getting back stolen property. Juniper is used in Hoodoo, and is interchangeable with any other Cedar.  It is used, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, when a “benevolent power” is needed for various activities: to rent one’s home, to get someone to move away (like a neighbor), or to get your love to move with you.  This same kind use of Juniper can be seen in Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, or Braucherei, as described in Long Lost Friend by John George Hopman.  In one particular charm, a juniper tree is used to help get the Thief to return stolen goods.  In this case, the tree is bent towards the rising sun with the left hand in a kind of sympathetic magic (which is a lot of what Braucherei is). As the Braucher bends down the tree and ties it fast as part of the magic, the magic will bend will of the thief to return the stolen goods. Finally, Juniper berries in Hoodoo are also used for romance and sexuality-oriented workings.

 

In some Native American legends, juniper berries are featured prominently as a nutritious food important to the people.  This is the case of the the Hopi Legend Balolookongwuu and the Coyote, as well as the Apache legend, Turkey makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it.  Another Hopi Legend notes that Juniper is one of the chiefs of the world.  In one Navajo legend, Juniper helps two monster slayers overcome noxious vapors from a monster that they killed. They chew on the juniper and it offers them recovery. In a Blackfoot Legend, Sacred Otter, it describes an altar to the sun, with juniper laid upon it. In one of my favorite Seneca legends, one I’ve written about on the blog before, the Junipers are one of the many conifers who stand against old man winter and bring the return of spring.

Juniper’s Magic and Meanings

To summarize, Juniper, particularly through her wood and berries, is an absolutely wonderful tree with a wide range of uses.  In terms of overall meanings in a North American context, we might summarize with the following:

 

Juniper here on the land ...

Juniper here on the land …

Juniper is about warmth and fire. Juniper helps warm people up and is a strong fire-dominant tree, suggesting many associations with fire: passion, energy, warmth, and the sun.

 

Juniper offeres hope in dark times.  Juniper’s berries have long been a staple through the darkest of winters, and I see this both physically and metaphorically.  Culturally, we are in a period of darkness, and trees like Juniper can help see us through.

 

Juniper offers regeneration and bringing things back. Juniper’s ability to grow in places few other trees can demonstrate that this tree is a true land healer, offering us hope in these dark times and sharing the critical message of the healing power of nature. I also think this is tied to its sympathetic magic uses in the American magical traditions–Juniper helps bring things back.

 

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the juniper tree!  I would love to hear any stories or additional insights about the Juniper tree that you are willing to share. Blessings of the Juniper!

 

 

Recipe: Wildcrafted Herbal Blessing Oil January 27, 2019

A herbal blessing oil is a simple magical tool that you can make that directly comes from the living earth. The herbal blessing oil can be used to bless tools, seed balls, trees, yourself, other people, or anything else you like. You can include it as part of your Druid’s Crane Bag. Your own unique blend of herbs and wildcrafted ingredients will make it an amazing and potent tool for your practice.  While druidry doesn’t use oils extensively, other traditions, like the American folk magic and Hoodoo, use oils a lot to dress candles and do other kinds of energetic work.

 

Choosing Plant Material

You can harvest material from one plant or from a variety of plants and combine them. Here are some possibilities for you:

  • Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Balm, Majoram, – Garden herbs that offer healing and protection.  Add one or more of these as a blend.
  • Mugwort, Yarrow, St. Johns Wort, Goldenrod, Aster – Field herbs that offer protection, vision, and inspiration.  Mugwort is particularly good for dreaming.
  • Needles from White pine, eastern hemlock, and/or blue spruce – Tree herbs that offer strength, consistency, and vitality

You might also look at my series on sacred trees ( Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, and Birch) to create a specific tree oil that will be useful to you and the work you are currently doing.  You can also refer to my longer list on smudge stick making for details about many plants and their uses.  You can also refer to any good magical herbal, like John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of Natural Magic or Beryl’s Master Book of Herbalism.

The oil in my photos is a journeying oil for dreaming and deep journeying work.  It contains mostly plants I grew and dried myself, but also some wildcrafted ingredients.  The recipe is: mugwort, bay leaves, rosemary, tobacco, lavender, borage, and heather.  Given that its winter here, these materials have been preserved from earlier in the year.

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Gathering Materials

You want to gather fresh or dried plant material.  Fresh material can be obviously gathered in season; you can purchase or dry your own plant material otherwise.

Gathering Material. At a time of power (full moon, one of the eight holidays, another day of significance) go out and gather aromatic plant material. Aromatic plant material is that which has a high concentration of volatile oils (which is what essential oil is made from). When you crush the leaves of a plant or needles of a conifer and you can smell that wonderful smell, this is an aromatic plant. Even if its winter, you can gather conifers to make a potent oil.

You can gather your plant material from a variety of places a cultivated garden, an abandoned lot, an edge space, a field, or a forest. Before you gather your material, ask for permission from the plant and use inner listening skills to see if you can gather–I do not advocate taking any plant material without permission and an offering (see this herbal blend as a potential offering). If you are given permission, make an offering  and then harvest a small bit of the plant.

Purchased material. If you purchase your material, make sure it is organic and ethically sourced.  You don’t want any chemicals in your blend, and certainly, no suffering of the land.  Even though you purchased it, I suggest still making an offering to the land in thanks for the herbs before proceeding.

Dried material.  You can also use home-grown and dried materials from your garden or wildcrafted.

 

Making Your Oil

Fresh plant material. Once you’ve gathered your plant material or have obtained dried material, chop up the plant material into small pieces (1” or so in length). Spread the plant material out on a baking tray or similar surface. Allow the plant material to wilt on the counter indoors for a day so that some of the water is removed from it (wilting it in the sun will strip it of the aromatic oils). Wait till it dries out at least partially to reduce and/or eliminate the water in your sacred oil–water makes the oil go rancid.  It shows up like small bubbles at the bottom of the oil.

 

Open Up a Sacred Grove. Open up a sacred grove for magical crafting; as I described in my hawthorn post. You don’t have to do this, but I think if you are making an oil for magical purposes, its good to do so with intention and the right energy.

Making your Oil. Get a pint jar or other glass jar.  Using a pair of scissors or a mortar and pestle, break up the large plant material/grind up the plant material.  You can do this while changing, loosely pack the plant material into the jar. Now, take a good quality olive oil or other shelf stable oil (fractionated coconut oil or almond oil are other good choices) and pour the oil over the plant matter until it is completely covered.

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Infusing your oil. Let the plant matter infuse in view of the sun and moon (like in a windowsill) for at least seven days.  If the plant matter is wet, you want to infuse it no longer than 7 days.  For dried matter, you can infuse it longer, up to a single lunar cycle.

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

On the seventh day, get a fine strainer and strain the plant matter out. If you don’t have a strainer, 1 ply of a paper towel can work, but it takes a while to drip through. Sometimes, a cheesecloth or thin paper towel (one layer) can be used to get final bits of plant matter out. Getting out as much plant matter is critical because plant matter will make the oil go rancid much faster.

 

Finishing Your oil: At this point, if you want, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil. You can get a small portable bottle and take the oil with you. Store your oil in a cool, dark place.  It will stay good 1-2 years.  Make sure you label it carefully and write your recipe down so if you want to make more, you will remember how to do so!

 

Using Your Oil

Here are just some of many uses for this kind of oil:

  • Put it in your crane bag or in a bottle necklace and take it with you to bless trees, rocks, or any other aspects of nature on your journeys.
  • Consider using it to support meditations and dreams; you can dab a bit on your temples before meditation, dreaming, ritual work, journey work, and more
  • Dress candles with it, using traditional folk methods.  Dressing a candle means putting oil on your finger and holding the candle in front of you.  If you bring your finger from the bottom of the candle and up, toward you, you are “bringing in”.  If you do the opposite, and move your finger away from you and down the candle, you are “removing”.  You can do this and then burn the candle (I like the little 4″ chime candles for this purpose).  Use this for healing, meditation, and more.

I hope this is helpful to you as yet another druid tool for your crane bag!  Readers, can you share any additional tips for how you’ve used magical and sacred oils in your practice?

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning December 9, 2018

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

 

Druid Gratitude Practices – Nature Shrines and Offerings November 25, 2018

Black Raspberry in fruit

Black Raspberry in fruit

Every year, I look forward to the black raspberries that grow all throughout the fields and wild places where I live. These black raspberries are incredibly flavorful with with crunchy seeds. They have never been commercialized, meaning no company has grown them for profit. You cannot buy them in the store. You can only wait for late June and watch them ripen and invest the energy in picking. Each year, the black raspberries and so many other fruits, nuts, and wild foods are a gift from the land, the land that offers such abundance.  If I would purchase such berries in a store, my relationship with those berries would be fairly instrumental–I pay for them, they become part of a transaction, and then I eat them. There is no heart in such a transaction.  But because these berries can’t be bought or sold, when I pick them, the land is offering me the gift of sustenance.  Gifting is a much different kind of relationship, a powerful and connected relationship, a relationship that asks not only for reciprocation but gratitude.

 

Gratitude is an incredibly important aspect of reconnecting and reciprocating with the living earth. Given the recent cultural holiday of giving of thanks, I wanted to reflect on the idea of gratitude practices and share ideas for what we could do in the druid tradition to offer gratitude to the living earth and her many aspects. So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to develop a gratitude practice and why it matters.

 

What is a gratitude practice?

There are lots of words you might use to describe a gratitude practice: honoring, venerating, giving thanks, respecting, and so forth. What I’m calling a “gratitude practice” puts us in regular contact with the living earth and allows us to express our respect, gratitude, and offer our thanks to the living earth and various aspects of nature.  Nature provides everything for us–even if we are mostly disconnected in the western world from that process.  Re-imagining our relationship as one full of gratitude helps us reconnect to the living earth in incredibly powerful ways.

 

There are many, many ways to engage in gratitude practices–speaking them, writing them, saying them. One common gratitude practice is ancestor work, which I wrote more about in an earlier post, and where we are in gratitude towards those who came before. Today, I’ll explore a long-term strategy for gratitude practices surrounding the living earth–through choosing aspects of nature to honor, creating shrines, and making offerings.

 

Choosing Aspects of Nature to offer Gratitude

The word “honor” refers to treating someone or something with admiration, respect, and recognition. If we think about the way we honor humans–soldiers, guests, or dignitaries–we may offer gifts, set aside special spaces for them (statuary, memorials, etc), or hold various kinds of celebrations for them. For example, in American culture we have presidential monuments, days honoring Martin Luther king and others of importance, monuments to fallen soldiers, and we offer regular respect to those humans who have done something extraordinary. If we use this same kind of thinking to honor nature and aspects of nature, we can develop a deeper relationship to nature over time and make this a core of a gratitude practice.

 

Some druids may choose to honor all of nature or focus on “the land” or “the earth” as the center of a nature honoring practice, while other druids may choose to focus and work with a specific aspect of nature intensively. Working to honor that aspect of nature—say, an element manifested in the world, an animal, a tree or plant, a mountain, a river, a natural phenomenon (storms), etc, can put you in a very deep relationship with that particular aspect. Thus, choosing who or what to honor in the natural world is important and is highly individual. Some druids may have already been drawn to a particular animal, plant, place, or other aspect of nature, while others may need to seek out different aspects to honor. Perhaps you have a plant species you have always been drawn to, or perhaps an animal species frequently visits you.  Perhaps you’ve had powerful experiences in a particular place, or along a particular mountain ridge.  Perhaps you feel energized and excited by the storm. You can select one, or multiple aspects of nature, to honor. As you choose to work with nature or aspects of nature, recognize that gratitude is work of the heart. The most important choice, then, deals with your own personal connection to the living earth and her spirits. What aspect of nature is deeply meaningful to one person may not be to another—the point of all of this is to develop, for yourself, deep relationships. Follow your heart and intuition.  In this section’s activity, a specific ritual is given that can help you choose which aspects of nature you want to develop a devotional practice towards.

 

In an animistic perspective, we recognize the difference between matter and spirit, and in this case, both can be honored. For example, one druid decided to honor the black bear, so she begins by bringing in black bear imagery and statuary into her home; learning about the black bear; and creates a small shrine in the woods near her home to honor the greater spirit of the bear.  She also learns about a local movement to protect bear populations and volunteers her time. In doing these kinds of honoring activities, she is able to deeply connect with the bear energies and bring those energies into their life. In a second example, a druid chooses to honor the local mountain range where he was born and raised. He learns about this mountain range, its history, and what lives there and grows there; he spends time hiking and backpacking on various parts of the mountain range; and he does regular ritual to protect the mountain from harm. He also carries a piece of wood in his pocket from the mountain and places a second piece of wood on his home altar. He connects to the spirit of the mountain through deep meditation and journeying work.

 

Nature Shrines as a Gratitude Practice

Poison Ivy shrine

Poison Ivy shrine

One way of engaging in a gratitude practice is through creating a shrine or special space inside or outside of your home to honor the living earth and/or specific aspects of nature. In the druid tradition, a “shrine” is typically dedicated to a specific aspect of nature, while an “altar” is typically more of a working tool where you might engage in various kinds of rituals and practices. “Sacred spaces” are larger areas, perhaps containing a shrine or altar, that are dedicated to sacred activity. However, these can blend together, and we druids don’t get too picky about the differences.

 

To create a nature shrine, you need to consider four aspects: where the shrine will be, how you will construct the shrine,  what the goal of the shrine is, and how often you will interact with the shrine. There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions–but you should give them some thought.

 

To start getting your own creative juices flowing, I will now share a few shrines I’ve built over time:

  • Honoring the Fallen Shrine (Outdoor). The “honoring the fallen” shrine was a large shrine on a recently cut stump. The shrine consisted of sticks, stones, and bones, with a stack of stones in the middle. The sticks, stones, and bones came from sites that were damaged or hurting. The shrine honored trees, animals, and others who were passing on due to human interference. I would honor species going extinct, trees and forests that were cut, making regular weekly offerings at the shrine.
  • Protecting Waters Shrine (Indoor). The “waters” shrine was to honor the waters of all kinds: rain, lakes, rivers, streams, springs, and so on. I gathered water offerings from all over the world (and asked friends to bring me water from various places) and I would put the new waters in little glass vials with a label. The shrine held the glass vials. This shrine had a beautiful large bowl of water as the centerpiece, which I kept regularly filled. This shrine was near a large tub I had in my bathroom, up on a little ledge.
  • Poison Ivy Shrine (Outdoor). Everywhere I’ve lived, poison ivy has lived with me, and I’m one of the very sensitive people who get it easily. The poison ivy shrine was created to honor the poison ivy on the property and ask it not to harm me or my guests. I built this shrine in the winter when the poison ivy was more dormant after scoping out a place with the most poison ivy on the property. I created a small shelf with several rocks and then created a clay statue that was my personification of poison ivy. I put the statue on the rock shelf. And then, I let this shrine alone.  As the poison ivy grew back into the space, it mostly covered the stone and statue.  I left this shrine largely be, as poison ivy wanted to be left alone!
  • Land Healing Shrine (Outdoor, Group). I created a land healing shrine with a group of druids was a land healing shrine, also on a large stump. We took fallen wood from the property, cut it into wood rounds, and then woodburned protective and healing symbols and ogham onto the wood. We left these on the shrine along with aspects of the four elements. The goal of this shrine was to send healing out to the land.
  • The Mother Earth Shrine (Outdoor). This shrine was created to honor the entirety of the land and all of her spirits. I would frequently gather new things for this shrine from wild places and add them to the shrine. Over time, the pile grew quite large! The shrine itself was wild—I never cleaned leaves off the shrine but rather let everything layer just like it does in nature. I left regular offerings of cornmeal here as part of my daily spiritual practices.
  • The Animals Shrine (Indoor). I created a small shrine, using only photographs on a wall space, in my office. I wanted to honor certain animals in my local ecosystem and also draw upon aspects of those animals while at work. The cluster of photos didn’t appear to anyone as a sacred space, but I understood the intent of the work.

 

One the things you might notice about the shrine examples I’ve offered above is that the shrines don’t just have a theme—the have an intention or goal. Your goals and intentions may evolve as you work deeply with the spirits of nature, so you can see these kinds of shrines as evolving things. I do think as you create a shrine, the shrine will evolve just as you evolve!

 

Earth Shrine

Earth Shrine

Sourcing Materials for Your Shrine

Sourcing materials for your shrine is also a critical choice, and sends a particular kind of message to the land and her spirits. For outdoor spaces, it is a good idea to make sure anything that you leave will not cause harm or pollution to the land. Further, you want to make sure that the earth was not harmed in the creating of that thing or the taking of that thing. This means you might use more naturally-oriented things or representations: sticks, stones, collected objects, secondhand objects, handcrafted objects, and so on. You can make beautiful shrines, altars, and sacred spaces using materials only from the land around you in many cases. Using things directly from the land allows them to break down and return to the land gracefully.

 

Building Your Shrine

Spend time planning and building a shrine to nature or to a specific aspect of nature. The process shouldn’t be rushed—often, the process of building a shrine takes time and unfolds in unexpected ways! First, you want to source the right location. Whether indoors or outdoors, it takes time to find the right spot. If it is in the house, you want to think about where it might be, and how visitors and other family members may interact with it (or not), and may respect it, or not. I once created a beautiful shrine in a guest bedroom, which worked except when I had guests who didn’t understand it and didn’t respect it well.

If it is outdoors, you again want to think about other people who may have access to the shrine and how public or private the shrine will be. I prefer to keep shrines as private as possible, unless I’m working with a group of fellow druids and we are co-constructing a shrine (as one example explored above). When sourcing a location, I recommend taking some time and doing multiple visits to ascertain the right location and if the spirits of the land would welcome the shrine. There are lots of considerations for location, particularly in terms of the weather, seasons, accessibility, visibility, and human interaction.

 

Once you’ve selected your spot, now comes the fun part of building the shrine.  I like to see a nature shrine as an evolving thing—just as the wheel of the year turns in nature, so too your shrine evolve as you find new things for it.  Shrines do not have to be complex, even a small stack of stones or ring of sticks works beautifully for a shrine.

 

The timing of initially setting up your shrine also can be important. Choose a day or time that is meaningful—a new or full moon, one of the druid holidays (solstices, equinoxes, cross quarter days) or some other day that lends itself well to the energies of your new endeavor.

 

Tending Your Shrine

After you have your shrine built, you’ll want to think about how you might regularly tend it.  Regular attention to the shrine assures that you are connecting deeply with the energies of the shrine and connecting with that aspect of nature and that you are investing time, energy, and care into the shrine.  Regular tending may include clearing the shrine of debris, replacing objects, and so forth. It may also be quietly sitting with the shrine, meditating near it, and simply observing it during the various seasons (if outdoors).  There are lots of ways you can regularly tend and visit your shrine.

 

Offerings

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Another thing you can do regularly at your shrine is make offerings–this helps you “give back” and engage in a more reciprocal relationship with the living earth.  Offerings are often symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. One of the ways you might think about offerings within a druid framework is that they are part of a larger gratitude practice. That is, through offerings, we are giving thanks, acknowledging, and honoring nature.

 

In terms of what to offer, the general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  These things may be physical or non-physical.

 

On the side of physical things: many things that can be purchased are problematic because their purchase put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging that creates plastic waste, etc.). So you want to give any physical offerings some careful thought.  One of the ways you might get around this is by either growing offerings, finding them, or wildcrafting them. A great offering could be something as simple as acorn caps gathered in the fall with a symbol painted on them in a natural ink. You could gather small stones or pieces of bark and bless them with the elements, and then use them as an offering. Another option is to create or grow a sacred offering blend of herbs (I use home-grown tobacco, lavender leaf, and rose petals as my current mix, see this post for more information).  You can also purchase offerings that are sustainably created—go to a farmer’s market and buy a bottle of locally produced organic wine or locally milled cornmeal or flour, for example.

 

Non-physical things make wonderful offerings as well.  Bardic practices, like drumming, dancing, singing, and so forth can be a great offering of your time, energy and spirit. I will also note here that music in particular is a great offering if you want to honor the spirits of the land while others are around—I like to take my flute to majestic places (which often have other people visiting them) and play a song or two.  The intention of the song is an offering to the land, but it doesn’t hurt to have others hear it too.

 

I hope that this post was useful in thinking about one way–among many–that we might engage in a regular gratitude practice as part of our paths in honoring and connecting with our most sacred earth.

 

Home-Grown and Wildcrafted Smudge Sticks: Plant List and Recipes November 18, 2018

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Creating homemade smudge sticks with local ingredients is a wonderful activity to do this time of year.  As the plants die back, you can harvest whatever you aren’t using for other purposes and create a number of beautiful smudges that can be used for many different purposes: clearing, honoring spirits, protection, setting intentions, letting go, bringing in, preparing for ritual or mediation, and much more.

 

A few years ago, I wrote an initial post on homemade smudge sticks using local ingredients–this has become my most popular post on my blog.  Given that, I wanted to offer a follow-up post with some additional information and share a few smudge stick recipes for specific purposes. For initial instructions on how to make your sticks, please see my first post.  This post expands the plant list that you can use to make smudges and also offers smudge stick recipes for various purposes.

 

Expanded Ingredient List for Smudge Stick Making

The following is a much expanded ingredient list from my first post–it not only talks about different plants you can explore in smudge stick making, but offers their latin names and also if they can be wildharvested or need to be garden grown.

 

Aromatic Cultivated and Wildharvested Herbs. This list represents plants that you can easily find in the wild and/or grow in a garden.  The information I’m providing is based on the US East coast/Upper Midwest, so you will need to adapt accordingly.  (C) refers to the need to cultivate this herb in most places in the US Upper East Coast or Midwest, while (W) indicates you might be able to find it in the wild.

  • Bay leaf (C)(Laurus nobilis):  Bay has a wide range of magical uses: to banish or expel, to protect, to support, to prepare folks for deeper magical work. If you aren’t sure what to use as smudge, bay is a great choice due to its flexibility! You can cultivate bay plants; alternatively, pick up some bay leaves in the spice section of the grocery store .
  • Coltsfoot (C)(Tussilago farfara): Coltsfoot is used primarily for divination, and due to its very early bloom time in the spring and beautiful yellow flower, it is also associated with sun work and the coming of spring. Leaves can be harvested in the spring or fall, you can find it along roadways in full sun or part shade areas. The leaf is large and can be used as a wrap for other smudge ingredients. The flower, looking similar to a dandelion but smaller, and blooming in early spring, can also be used in smudges.
  • Eucalyptus (C) (Eucalyptus spp.)– Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely and produces a powerful scent.  It combines beautifully with sage and lavender.  You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer and you can use it.  You can also get whole leaf in some places if it isn’t local. While you can find it in craft stores in the US, I don’t know what they treat it with–I’d use it from an herbal supplier first.
  • Hyssop (C) (Hyssopus officinalis) – An herb with ancient connections to purification work; you can also use this to keep away negativity that is thrown in your direction.  Hyssop smells wonderful when burned.  I’ve also used Anise hyssop in a similar way; the two do burn differently (anise hyssop is more aromatic and smells and burns like black licorice).
  • Lavender (C) (Lavandula spp.) – Lavender helps with clear thinking, relaxation, and focus.  You can use both leaf stalks and flower heads in smudges–lavender flowers give smudges beautiful colors and appeal.  Lavender combines beautifully with sage or sweetgrass.
  • Lemongrass (C) (Cymbopogon): Cleansing, removing obstacles, purification.  You can grow this or even pick up stalks in the local grocery store.  Burns with a lemony scent and produces good smoke.
  • Mugwort (W, C) (Artemisia vulgaris) – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its also used in a lot of herbal smoking blends).  Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming.  It is also wonderful for any other kind of trance or journeying work. While this is a powerful dreaming is a good thing in the short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care and not daily, but definitely use it!  Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges.  A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around where I live.  I really love this plant for both tea (harvested young) and smudges

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges--tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges–tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

  • Mullein (W) (Verbascum thapsus) – Soft, fuzzy mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders.  They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins.  In Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.  I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in becuase of that clearing/grief/lung connection.
  • Rosemary (C) (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary is another clearing and protective herb.  It is also another staple for smudges.  Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities.  The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.  Don’t let them get too dried out or the needles fall off easily and you will have a hard time wrapping them and keeping them intact.  You might look at the different varieties of rosemary–not only do they smell slightly different, but they burn slightly different as well.
  • Sage (C) (Salvia spp.) – Sage is a clearing herb that helps purify and cleanse spaces of negative energy.  All sages energtically work similarly, but do have some fairly unique smells.  Here are some different sage options:
    • White Sage can be grown in gardens and has a potent, distinctive smell.  The seeds are rather hard to start (only about a 20% germination rate) and it doesn’t like it too wet–it likes it hot. I usually plant this in my greenhouse as it is hotter and drier than the rest of my yard for the summer months.  You can use white sage stalks and leaves in your smudge sticks.  If you can’t grow it, you often can also find sage bundles in metaphysical shops (and you can take the bundles apart and mix them with other plants).
    • Desert Sage also has a lighter, sweeter smell than white sage.  I haven’t grown this myself, but have gotten some from friends who were out west. It also is relatively easy to find in the shops.
    • Garden Sage is a wonderful choice for multiple purposes–culinary arts as well as smudge sticks.  I harvest back the garden sage plants in the fall for use in smudges and for cooking!  It has a deeper sage smell than the other two.
    • Clary Sage has larger leaves and a more musky smell.  Works great for smudges!
  • Scented Geranium (C) (Pelargonium Spp.): Geranium is associated with prosperity, happiness, and love. The leaves and stalks of scented geraniums make wonderful smudge stick ingredients.  They burn similar to the smell that the geranium has.  i have had the most experience with my lemon scented geranium for smudges, but there are many options here.  Pick one up and it will grow in a pot all summer for you.
  • Sweet Clover (W) (Melilotus officinalis) – A great locally available plant that smells fairly similar to sweet grass (and attracts spirits and honors them, like sweet grass) is sweet clover.  Sweet clover is dotted over roadsides and fields around midsummer. It does not burn quite as sweetly as sweetgrass, it has similar qualities and a similar smell.
  • Sweet Grass (C) (Hierochloe odorata) – Sweet grass gets spirits’ attention and can be used any any visionary or honoring work. I cultivate a patch of sweetgrass (moved with me several times and originally given as a gift) and it works great for smudges.  Sometimes, I will put a full section of a sweetgrass braid in a smudge (see my photos).  That really gets some attention and looks amazing.
  • Thyme (C) (Thymus vulgaris): This gentle garden and culinary herb is an incredibly powerful magical plant.  Thyme helps with the removal of negative emotions, healing, and emotional healing. It looks so pretty in a smudge bundle too, especially the lemon thyme varieties.
  • Tobacco (C) (Nicotinana Rustica): Home grown tobacco is my go-to offertory plant, making offerings in particular to the spirits of the land, particularly of the plant kingdom.  Tobacco also helps other plants do their work better (it amplifies their power and connects you deeply with their energies).  I grow my own tobacco, and I use the leaves for offerings and use the stalks in smudge sticks.
  • Valerian (C) (Valeriana officinalis) – Valerian is one of the most powerful and potent cleansing and clearing herbs. A little valerian goes a long way.  The fresh flowers smell sweet, but as they dry, they take on a potent wet-dog style aroma. The dried flower stalks work great in smudges. You can also use the roots, but the roots smell even more like a wet dog–and your smudge will smell similarly when burned.  And  your house will smell just with the roots sitting out in a smudge stick.  That physical potency lends itself well to the spirit plant, for I have found nothing better to clear out a space.  Burn with the windows open!
  • Wormwood (C, W) (Artemisia absinthium): Another super protective and clearing herb is Artemesia Absinthium (Common Wormwood).  It has a pleasant smell when it burns, and is clearing, but in a more gentle way than valerian.
  • Yarrow (C, W) (Achillea Millefolium): Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.  Yarrow is used for workings where you don’t want to be seen or you need to hide or conceal something.  It is also useful for strength and divination.

Trees and Shrubs.  Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out in the western part of the US.  In my bioregion, conifers mostly produce the best smudges, although some a few other options exist.

  • Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): Junpier is a strongly protective herb and useful for male strength and for banishing. This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally.  I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis):  Eastern white cedar is a great smudge to help cleanse and open up a sacred space.  It also helps with cleansing negative emotions, grief, or other pain.  It is also tied to longevity and illumination. Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils.  If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
  • White Pine (Pinus Strobus): White pine is associated with peace (both outer and inner), drawing things out (including pain), cleansing and purification, and wayfinding. White pine needles burn beautifully and smell a bit like a pine-vanilla when they burn.  Wonderful in any smudge stick!
  • Blue Spruce (Picea pungens, Picea glauca): Spruce offers healing, resilience, strength, getting past the darkness. The latin name says a lot about the scent of the spruce tree: pungens – it is pungent!  The blue spruce has a very musky smell which goes well for working with animal magic and other nature-focused approaches.  The white spruce is less musky and very strengthening and potent.  Beware–most spruce needles are sharp and may need to be handled carefully when harvesting and making smudges.
  • Staghorn sumac(Rhus Typhina): Staghorn sumac is a wonderful addition to any smudge stick.  While you can use the leaves or fuzzy berry clusters, I much prefer the berry clusters.  If you are using the leaves, you need to get them into the center of the smudge stick or they crumble as they dry. You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall for the best smoke.  Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge.  It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic, but copious).  Staghorn sumac is a plant that offers creative approaches to thinking and cunning, which can certainly be of use.
Smudge sticks with various components--center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Smudge sticks with various components–center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Visual Components.  There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand. Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge). A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with–I love adding black eyed susans, sprigs of blue queen sage, or yellow ox-eye daies to smudges.  You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne). There are SO many options to experiment with!

 

 Recipes for Smudge Sticks

Now that we have so many wonderful ingredients to choose from for home-grown smudges, what kinds of combinations smell nice and work well?  The following are some combinations I have used for various purposes.  You may not have all of the ingredients on these lists–you can eliminate ingredients you don’t have and mix and match.  In the end, your intuition should be the best gauge for what plants to put together for what purposes.  Here are some of my personal favorites:

Recipes for the Wheel of the Year

  • Winter Solstice Smudge: For bringing the light back into the world. Cedar, Juniper, and White Pine.
  • Imbolc Smudge: For Purification and Renewal: Hyssop, Rosemary, Cedar, and Sage
  • Spring Equinox Smudge: Letting the Awen Flow: Lavender, Sage, and Cedar
  • Beltane Smudge Smudge: Fertility: Wormwood, Motherwort, Lavender
  • Summer Solstice Smudge: Drawing Strength and Power:  Scented geranium, wormwood, juniper
  • Lughnassadh Smudge: Land blessing/Offering: Tobacco and White Pine
  • Fall Equinox Smudge: Seeking Balance: Bay, Rosemary, Mullein, Thyme, and White Pine
  • Samhain Smudge: Honoring the Ancestors – Bay, Sweet Grass or Sweet Clover (or both), Cedar

 Recipes for Other Purposes

  • Visioning and Journeying Smudge:  Any of the following, individually or in combination: Mugwort, Bay, Lavender, Sweet Grass, Sweet Clover, Yarrow, White Pine, Staghorn Sumac
  • Letting Go of Grief/Pain: Mullein, Juniper, Thyme, White Pine
  • Really Super Cleansing: Valerian, Rosemary, Wormwood
  • Divination: Coltsfoot, mugwort, White Pine
  • Establishing Sacred/Ritual Space: Bay, Yarrow, Sage, Cedar, Staghorn Sumac

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings November 11, 2018

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies.   As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges.  Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season, and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all.  Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring.   Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength.  All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.

 

This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.

 

Oaks in Many Forms

In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home.  Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak.  In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant.  The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks!  And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.

 

One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk.  One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA.  Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk.   All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain.  Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.

 

Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow growing and long lived.  Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest.  A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel.  This is contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel.  Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.

 

Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as   writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.”  Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees.  The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

“The World looks different when you eat acorns.”  Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden

Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest.  According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years.  This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year.  Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak.  Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.

 

All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared.  Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts.  These nuts are also both delicious when roasted.  Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation.  Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour.  For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden.  Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen OceanEuell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.

 

The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes).  Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-Americans disdain for Native American peoples.  Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.

As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes.  In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom.  Through taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition.  We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.”  The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray.  This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce.  Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down.  You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic.  He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”

 

In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal.  She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!).  She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; it can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.

 

Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by jupiter and that the oak is known to to help resist poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.   

 

Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory  also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version).  Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.)   This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue.  Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent.  I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium.  This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use.  Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree.  He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body.  He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically.  He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey.  Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall.  He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak responds.  Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.

 

In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez.  In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast.  He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine.  There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.

 

In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again.  Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.

 

A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family.  She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible.  The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her.  He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night.  A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse.  A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe.  Here are three core meanings for the oak:

 

  • Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree.  All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom.  We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
  • Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality.  Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
  • Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions as well as certain native american lore, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so!  Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.