Author Archives: Dana

About Dana

Druid, herbalist, permaculture designer, scholar, teacher, learner, artist, dreamer.

Building an Earth Oven, Part II: Insulation, Finish Plaster, and Cob Mosaic

Friends enjoying the hot oven

Friends enjoying the hot oven

In last week’s post <LINK>, we began exploring the build of an earth oven.  An Earth Oven is a simple structure, made of clay, sand, straw, stone, and fire brick, that you can use to cook foods in a traditional way.  Last week’s post walked you through the first set of steps for building your oven.  In this post, we’ll finish the build, troubleshoot, and talk about how to bake in your oven.  When we last left off, the oven was drying after building the dome.   What is left to do is to add a layer of insulation and a finish plaster, and then offer the oven protection from the elements (an upcoming post cause I don’t have that last part done yet!)

Insulating Your Oven!

Mixing cob insulation layer--keep on adding straw until it barely stick together!

Mixing cob insulation layer–keep on adding straw until it barely stick together!

Once your oven is fairly dry, you will need to add an additional layer of insulation to the oven.  Insulation is critical for the success of your oven, as this determines how quickly the oven heats up and how long it holds heat.  If you want to bake 10 pizzas in a row in the oven, an insulated oven may be able to do it, while an oven with less insulation wouldn’t hold the high temperature long enough and you would have to repeatedly build fires. There are a few things that work and, as I discovered, some things that don’t work, for insulation.

One of the tried and true methods for insulation is to mix your cob with as much straw as possible so that it just barely is holding together. Straw itself has a lot of holes that trap air, so a layer of mostly straw will trap air, creating insulation. You want STRAW here and not hay (straw has many long and thin shafts with air in the middle; hay is basically dried grass).  If you get creative, you can also add lots of glass little bottles to your oven to get even more insulation.  I had read online somewhere that sawdust also makes a good insulation layer–this did not hold true in my experience.  I added a layer of sawdust-cob mix and it had very little insulating properties, so I had to add a second insulation layer.  So let’s add that layer!

To do this, you will mix up your cob, keeping it a little wetter than normal.  Take clean straw and, if you can, use scissors to cut it up if it’s really long (anything over about 12″ in length you can cut down a bit).  This makes it easier to cut it.  Then you mix it in and get ready to add it all over your entire oven.

My big mistake here is that I thought sawdust would be insulating enough, so my friends and I put on a layer of sawdust (and artwork) that we ended up having to cover up.  Ah well!

For extra insulation, I also added some small bottles; these created bigger pockets of air for extra insulation.  You don’t have to do this.  I had a bunch of bottles that I was having difficulty cleaning after they had tinctures in them for a long time, so I decided to put them to use in my earth oven.  You can see that in-progress shot above–the straw insulation with the extra bottles.

Goose helpers help to mix up some cob!

Finish Plaster and Decoration

At this point, you have a fully functional, very well insulated, earth oven. Now you can turn your attention to the decoration of your earth oven, the finish plaster, and figuring out how to put a good “hat” or roof on your oven. The reason you need to think about plaster and a roof is to protect it from the elements. This is an oven made of mud, and thus, exposure to the elements for any amount of time will damage it. Until you get your finishes on, you can put a tarp over it!

You have a lot of options for finish plasters and thinking about how to protect your oven.  Lime plasters are one option–here is a good introduction to lime plaster. If you do a lime plaster, you will have a nice breathable finish that is also very protective of rain and snow.

I made a cob-based finish plaster using a higher ratio of sand to prevent cracking. You will want to mix your plaster in advance and then do a test piece on your plaster to see if it’s cracking or not.  If it cracks, adjust your ratios (particularly see if you need more sand). You will also want to include a short fiber that is very strong. A lot of people use cattail fluff for this; but, I had an abundance of milkweed pods on the property (and I was already using the seeds for seed balls), so I decided to use the milkweed fluff and that worked great.

Plaster can be applied in a thin layer. What I did was to briefly wet down the outer layer (so that the plaster sticks) and then use a trowel and my hands to spread the plaster, about 1″ thick and smooth it out nicely. Here are a few steps:

Mixing my milkweed-based finish plaster–I felt like a frolicking fairy!

Wetting down for finish plaster

Wetting down for finish plaster

After I have started my final plaster–you can see the consistency of the milkweed plaster (a cattail plaster would look pretty similar).

Because I also wanted some artwork and decoration on my cob, I used the cob plaster to shape some nice spirals.  I saved up broken plates, cups, and bowls that had broken during regular use, and then I used a hammer to smash them up and give me smaller pieces.  I embedded these in the cob plaster and used a small sponge to wipe away excess.  When the plaster dried, I went back in and wiped it away again to clean up the mosaic pieces.

I’ll show a few detailed photos of the mosaic:

In this first photo, you can see how I shaped the finish plaster and added the spirals.  The finish plaster below this is still wet; if it wasn’t, I would have wetted it and also scored it with a stick or a butter knife to give the new plaster a bit to hold onto (just like you would do in pottery).  I added cob glue/grout to the inner area and kept adding a few pieces at a time. I did this with extra cob so that things would hold firmly.

Here you can see it as the mosaic progresses.

Now I’m going in and taking a wet sponge and sponging off most of the excess cob.  If there are areas that need more cob, I add it.  The idea is a smooth presentation.

Here’s what the finished mosaic and oven looks like!

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

Despite my best efforts, I still had a little cracking on my earth plaster, but I’m ok with that.  I needed to do a second test, and I didn’t, primarily because it was starting to get cold and I was running out of time to complete the build!

Sheltering your Earth oven

The final step for your earth oven is to create a shelter for it.  You either need a shelter or a finish plaster( lime plaster).  In temperate ecosystems with lots of rain and snow, a shelter is your best bet.  I am working on that final step this spring,  so I’ll share more about it once my friends and I finish that part.  It has taken some time because I’ve been harvesting lumber from the property–as trees fall down or are blown down by storms, I am gathering them up to use for my shelter.  This takes more time, but it’s also in reverence and respect for this land that had been logged before I came.

Final Thoughts and Troubleshooting

My oven has a crack! Nearly all earth ovens will develop a crack somewhere. That’s ok, and honestly, the crack can tell you a lot about the oven–as you learn about your oven, you will learn to read the crack to understand the temperature, etc.  This isn’t usually anything to worry about as long as you have built a strong structure.

Shrine on the path to the cob oven (that stone looks precariously placed but it’s actually quite stable! Kind of a cool optical illusion.

My oven takes a while to heat! Yes, it does.  This is not like turning on your fossil-fuel-driven oven.  Earth ovens take time and are absolutely ‘slow food’.  Because of this, you have to spend time tending the fire before you can cook.  To get pizzas, I start my oven about 4-4.5 hours before I want to bake.  If it’s below 40, I start it 5 hours before I want to bake.  This means every 30 min, I am going to tend my fire.  That’s part of the experience.  If you aren’t achieving baking temperatures, you probably need a longer fire.

My oven doesn’t seem hot enough. Get yourself an oven thermometer (the stand-up kind) and see what your internal temperature is.

I will be sharing more details about baking in the earth oven and some cool recipes to try in my 3rd post in this series!  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, I hope that this series has inspired you to get your hands in the mud and maybe build something or help someone build something.  Blessings!

Building an Earth Oven Part I: Foundation, Dome, and Structure

An earth oven is an oven made of cob (a mixture of clay, sand, and straw) with insulating features (firebricks, bottles).  It is an extremely efficient and sustainable method of doing any baking you might need to do. One firing of your earth oven can allow you to bake different things for hours (pizzas, breads, casseroles, vegetables, etc), and it takes only a small amount of wood to heat.  We fire ours by simply picking up deadfall sticks and branches, cutting them up, and that’s all we need. An Earth Oven is fully sustainable to build and to cook with, and you can locally source literally all of the materials for the oven (and in fact, minus fire bricks, you can probably harvest everything you need from your own land or the land around you).

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

An Earth Oven allows you to connect deeply with the earth itself, encouraging you to slow down, root, and ground.  It is certainly a nice example of “slow time” and “slow food”, as the oven takes a few hours to fire before you can bake in it, and it requires some learning.  With that said, the rewards of this approach way outweigh any challenges you might experience as you learn and grow.

 

The other thing about your oven that is rarely discussed is that it is truly a sensory experience.  Your earth oven will allow you to bake any number of delicious creations–and when you bake in it, the smell of the bread permeates the clay itself, and it has this incredible smell, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  Even on cold days, being near your oven will keep you warm (and your oven will stay warm for literally hours–possibly all night).  It is just such a wonderful thing.

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Earth ovens are a wonderful kind of “hearthspace” where we can cook foods for ourselves and loved ones, use natural materials to build from the land and honor the land, and create a very sustainable and low-input cooking method that is a joy to make and a joy to bake in.  In this new series, I’ll offer full details about how to build an earth oven step by step!  This series will have three posts–today’s post covers materials, preparing the foundation, preparing the base, and creating the dome.  Next week’s post will explore insulating the oven and finishing the oven through a mosaic/cob, finish plaster, and options for doors.  The final post will explore how to cook in your earth oven and some tips and tricks I’ve learned in my first year with the earth oven.

 

Preparation: Materials

In order to build your earth oven, you will need to prepare some materials and do some prep work.  Earth ovens are not expensive to build–most of the investment is in your own time and labor.

Materials for building:

  • Stone and urbanite: You will need some kind of base for your oven; most people use local stone or even urbanite for a strong foundation.  Urbanite refers to waste materials like broken bricks, broken concrete blocks, etc.  You can use urbanite to “fill” the inside of your base and create a stable foundation.  I have also seen people build ovens on old large stumps or platforms.
  • Subsoil / cob: First, you will need access to your subsoil (that’s the soil that is not full of organic matter, but the soil below it). You will need quite a bit of subsoil, so make sure you have easy access. Once you have access to the subsoil, you will want to do some soil testing (which I explain in the link) so that you can be sure you have good subsoil to work with.  To access subsoil here, I found a tree that had gone down and uprooted itself–the roots and ground below it was full of all of the subsoil I needed.
  • Straw:  You will need a bale of straw for your cob.  Straw adds strength, can provide insulation, and can help hold your structure together.
  • Sharp sand. You may also need some sharp sand (known as builder’s sand) depending on what your cob tests reveal. You can get this from a landscape supply or building supply place.
  • Sand: In addition to the sharp sand as an additive, you will need sand to build your sand dome.
  • Newspaper: You will need 3-4 newspapers for your dome.
  • Bottles: You will need at least 20 wine bottles for insulating your base. These can be foraged from recycling bins, saved by friends, or even found at local restaurants. Depending on your structure, you can also use smaller recycled bottles to help with insulation (I did this, but some people use an only straw).

Tools for building:

  • Wheelbarrow or cart: You need something to move materials around your site.
  • Shovel: A shovel for digging subsoil and moving cob around.
  • Screen.  To prepare your subsoil, you will need to screen it of larger items (stones, debris, etc).  For this, you can build a simple soil screener (this also works great for screening compost!).  Make your soil screener large enough that it will sit over your wheelbarrow or cart that you will be using to move it.  I built mine with scrap lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth.
  • 5-gallon buckets: A few buckets are super helpful.  They can move cob from where you mix it to your oven.  You can fill some with water to rinse your feet.
  • Tarps:  A small tarp will allow you to mix your cob.  You might want several, especially if you are doing the work yourself (I found that when I was doing the work myself, I would gather materials – screen cob, gather rocks, etc, on one day and then build on the next, so tarps were able to keep my cob screened and protect it from the elements).  You also will need a tarp to cover your cob oven until you can have a structure built for it.
Source of clay / subsoil - a tree that uprooted during a storm

Source of clay / subsoil – a tree that uprooted during a storm

Cob screen in action - this was built with scrap lumber and 1/2" hardware cloth

Cob screen in action – this was built with scrap lumber and 1/2″ hardware cloth

Other Tools and Materials:

  • Pizza peel (I created one from an old aluminum pan and an old rake handle)
  • Firing door and baking doors (more on this in an upcoming post)
  • Shelter structure

We’ll cover these last three in an upcoming post.

Preparation: Oven Size

You can decide how large of an earth oven you want to build.  There are many measurements in the Build Your Own Earth Oven which I used as a reference.  Here’s a simple diagram of the oven and dimensions that I used.  These allow you to figure out how large of a foundation and base you need and will determine the overall structure.

For example, to get good airflow, I created an oven that was 27″ in diameter, which included an 18″ high dome.  Your door should be 63% the height of the oven, or 11.5″ high.

Your oven can be larger or smaller, of course, depending on your needs.

Preparation: Selecting a site

I think it is really important to spend time selecting the right space.  Your space needs to drain well (especially if you are in a temperate climate that has snow/ice).  Your space also needs to be protected from the elements as cob is a natural material that will weather quickly if left without protection.  Your space should also align with your landscape (see setting intentions with nature).

Your oven should be somewhere easily accessible.  You will need to tend a fire every 20-30 minutes for four hours in order to have an earth oven hot enough for pizzas or other baked goods.  Thus, you don’t want to put it so far away from your house that its hard to tend the fire (but not close enough to cause any insurance issues!)

For my earth oven, I decided to build in a little nook on the edge of the property that leads into forest.  That provided both shelter from the elements (and it will get a permanent roof this year) as well as being pretty close

Preparation: Clearing and Foundation

To build your earth oven, it begins with a good foundation. Any cob structure should have “a good hat and feet”, and the foundation is the “feet” part of that equation.  Here is step by step how I built my foundation.

I began by measuring out my foundation – 46″ based on the height of my oven.   Then I removed all of the plant material (as described in this post); I worked to replant any material that needed to be replanted, etc.

Clearing the space

After clearing, I dug down 1.5 feet and added a gravel base for drainage.  Its hard to tell from these photos, but we are on a slight incline, so I made a drainage area to the left of what you see here.

Foundation of gravel

Foundation

Preparing and Mixing Cob

The next step is to screen and create your cob.   I went to my site with my wheelbarrow and put a 5 gallon bucket at a time in my screen.  Using a rock, I worked the cob through the screen. (More details about making cob here).

Screening cob

Screening cob

After that, I moved it to my building site and prepared to mix the cob.

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

To mix the cob, you will need an old tarp, two or more buckets of water (I like to use warm water!), and some happy feet.  First create a well in the center of your cob and, just like making noodles or dough by hand, then start mixing the cob with your feet.  You can use the tarp to flip the cob and keep working it.

For building, you will want to also add handfuls of straw (I cut the straw up so it’s a little shorter) and work that in.  Ideally, you want something with a good consistency that sticks together and isn’t too wet and crumbly.  You can add more water or more soil as you mix.  I have more detailed instructions on mixing cob in an earlier post.

Mixing cob

Mixing cob

You can also get others to help you–friends, children, or even geese.

Goose helpers

Goose helpers

Building your base

In addition to the cob, you will also need something to build your base up that is fireproof and stable–rock or brick is a very good choice for you. For my foundation, I used a mixture of cob along with locally foraged stones and urbanite (old concrete bricks that were broken and strewn about the property.) A good foundation and good base are critical to the success of your oven. You want to build your base high enough that it’s comfortable for you to fire and use the oven.  I kept mine pretty low cause I like to sit on the ground when I work!

I began by mapping out a circle (using a string and some chalk) and building the outside of the circle up using the cob as a mortar.  On the inside, I added my urbanite brick pieces and filled in all holes with smaller stones and cob.  Here’s the first layer.

Building the base.

Building the base.

As I worked, I continued to build up the stones on the outside.  Since I also planned some decoration, I had stones I had already added mosaic to that I wanted to include.  These pieces were made of mosaic materials leftover from both from doing my mosaic bathtub a few years ago + broken pottery and plates that I save.

My mosaic stones

My mosaic stones

It took me two building sessions, but the base continued to grow.

Base after adding mosaic stones

Base after adding mosaic stones

You can see that I’m building up the inside of the base as I build up the outside of the base.

Base before insulation layer

Base before insulation layer

At this stage, I have the base at the top level and as high as I want it.  You can see I am using a piece of wood and a level to check to make sure everything is level as I work. The next step is to add the insulation layer to the base.  The insulation layer is made up of a straw-rich cob combined with wine bottles.  Bottles offer insulation, which keeps heat from getting absorbed by the stone below.  Insulation is really an important feature of these ovens–investing the time to do insulation will allow your oven to be used in colder temperatures, hold heat longer, and heat up sooner (meaning you use less wood to make that happen).

Thick layer of cob in base

Thick layer of cob in base

I started this with a thick layer of straw-rich cob. Straw itself is insulating as it traps small amounts of air in it as it is worked into the cob.

Next, I layered the bottles with more cob in between each to create a solid foundation.

Bottle insulation

Bottle insulation

Here’s the bottles with more cob added

Bottles getting covered

Bottles getting covered in cob

After the bottle layer, I used the board to smooth out the layer and wait for the base to dry about a week before continuing.

The base is done!

The base is done!

Except that we have powerful raccoon activity, and that night, someone tried to dig up my base to see what was in the bottles!

Coon activity

Coon activity

I repaired the cob and then started putting a tarp over it at night to deter the raccoons until my base was a bit more dry.

Laying your firebrick

Firebrick layout

Firebrick layout

To start your hearth, you want to put down a fresh layer of cob so that you can set the bricks in carefully.  Slide the bricks against each other and make everything perfectly level.  To make an oven that is XXX” inside (which is enough to cook a few breads and two small pizzas, perfect for small groups or families) you can use fifteen firebricks in the following pattern (the two firebricks in the back were redundant and I removed them later).

Notice here that I’m also planning a lip to pull my pizzas in and out of the oven.

Circle for dome

Using a string, I made a circle to show me where to build the sand dome for the oven itself.   Now I’m ready to build the actual oven.

Creating Your Sand Dome

I think the most labor-intensive part of this entire process is building the dome and cobbing the dome. Everything else can be done in stages, but this really has to be done all at once. This part is a great time to invite some friends or family to help you if you are doing this on your own.

Start by mixing 1-2 large batches of cob (with straw reinforcement) and tarping that while you build the dome.

To build the dome, you will want a ruler (to test the height of the dome), newspaper, and a few wheelbarrows of sand.  I mixed my sand right in the wheel barrow and got it to a consistency where it would build up well.

Mixing the sand

Mixing the sand

Building the dome

Building the dome

So then, start building the dome, using the guide you drew.  I stuck a metal art ruler down the center of the dome so I would know exactly how tall it was (with a goal of 18″ tall).

As you get further along, you can take a small board and smooth and shape the sand dome.  PUll out the ruler, and you are ready to build!

The completed dome

The completed dome

Go head and coat the whole sand dome with a layer of thick wet newspaper (this creates a barrier both to keep the cob from sticking to the sand and gives you a sense of where to dig out later.

Now, you want at least a 2-3″ thick layer of cob all around the dome.  You dont’ want to press the cob into the dome, but rather, shape the walls downward with your hands.

Building the oven

Building the oven

Keep working your way up.

Oven build continued

Oven build continued

A lot of ovens have some kind of door area. We used old bricks to build our door area (planned out in advanced).  To keep the door balanced, we added two pieces of packing foam that we cut to the right size.  These were later pulled out when the structure was dry.

Building the arch

Building the arch

The arch proved a bit tricky–we layered sticks in between the sand dome and the foam arches and that provided enough stability until the oven dried.

Here is our completed first layer of the cob oven.

first layer of cob finished!

first layer of cob finished!

At this point, you will want to give your oven some time to dry.  We put a little pavilion over it and allowed the summer sun to dry it out.

Digging out the oven

The next step is to dig out your oven and light a few small fires to help dry out the inside of the oven. You can just use your hands, a small trowel, or a stick.  You want to be careful as you dig out so that you are not digging into the cob itself (hence why the newspaper barrier is so useful).

Digging out the oven

Digging out the oven

I used my shovel to remove the bulk of the sand and then got in there with my hands as I got closer to the walls. I let the oven sit another week after I pulled out the sand, and then I lit a small fire for a few days to get the inside dried out.  Here’s the very first fire.

First fire

First fire

Alright! That’s over half of the oven build.  In my next post, I’ll show how I added layers of insulation, a final plaster, and also decorated it with more mosaic pieces that were salvaged from broken pottery.

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

One final thing I want to say now is this is an incredibly good way to connect with the element of earth.  There is nothing more grounding than having your feet and hands directly in the soil, shaping it, honoring it, and getting to know it.  I really enjoyed my time building this and felt incredibly grounded afterward!

Druid Tree Workings: An Initiation from the Trees

In the western esoteric traditions, and traditions tied to them, like druidry, initiation is a powerful method of transformation and energetic work. While features of initiation and their overall goals vary widely by tradition, many initiations do follow some basic patterns, and those are worth exploring. In Inside a Magical Lodge, John Michael Greer notes that the outcome of initiations are to enact specific and desired patterns of change in a person and to connect new members to the group and to the group’s overall egregore (that is, the energetic patterns that a group collectively creates). The initiation then, as he writes, is the magical framework that is put in place in a candidate from which all other things derive.

I believe that we can apply this same practice to working and reconnecting with nature, and today, I’ll share my thoughts on initiations through nature–tree initiations. A tree initiation often results in a very deep, mutually beneficial relationship between you and the trees. Nature and humans cultivated such relationships for most of human history; this is obvious from our mythology, from our own history, and from existing indigenous cultures. It has only been in the last few centuries that those of us in western industrialized cultures lost our ability (and desire) to deeply connect with nature.

Tree cradling moon in the roots

Tree cradling moon in the roots

Tree initiations are one way of helping us to re-establish those deep bonds with a specific kind of ceremony.  In the same way that some dedicate themselves to working with a particular deity, I have found great value in connecting myself deeply with certain tree species.  One of the ways into this work is through initiation.  That is, you are making a conscious commitment to connecting with a tree or tree species in a sacred manner. You can think about this as a magical act that will help jumpstart a much deeper relationship to the tree and to the species.

With tree initiations, this goes beyond a friendly acquaintance, but rather, is a gateway into the deeper mysteries of nature and of that particular tree or species of trees (or plant, for that matter). A tree initiation, then, is a way of establishing a life-long relationship with a tree species, in the same way, that one you are initiated into a druid order or other magical group, you typically will always be a member of that group as long as both you and the group exist.  This kind of ceremony can allow you to connect with the trees in a way. Like any other initiation, the initiation works deeply within you, and through you, and has long-term and lasting effects.  Perhaps what I write here is appealing to you, and you have been called to a specific tree, you will find it of use to continue to use some of the strategies I include here.  I will also note that while I am describing “tree initiations” you can do the same thing outlined here with plants and other features of nature.

Please note that this is a post in my longstanding series on working with trees in a sacred manner.  Earlier posts in this series include finding the face of a tree, working with trees on the outer planes, working with trees on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, offering tree blessings for abundance and wassailing trees, considering the role of the seasons and seasonal the breath of the earth in tree work, cultivating deep connections with trees, connecting to trees in urban settings, working with the Nywfre/energy flows of trees through sap flows, deepening relationships with trees, seeking out and working with grandmother trees, cultivating reciprocity in tree relationships, creating intuitive tree sigils and tree magic, and witnessing the death of a tree.  I list these out here because much of the preparation for doing a tree initiation, which is a very advanced practice, can be found in these other posts where you get to know trees, support them, and work with them in various ways.

Druid Tree Workings: An Initiation from the Trees

Before we can delve into the specifics of tree initiations, I’m going to start by describing some features of initiations so that we can see how we might begin to craft tree initiations:

Preparation. There is typically a period of time when the candidate prepares for their initiation. The specifics of this vary widely. This might be a longer period of time: like a period of learning and growing in that tradition, a period of growing up (as in years). But there is usually also some distinct time set aside for the preparation for that exact ceremony (a silent vigil, period of meditation, special bath, etc). This certainly applies to tree initiations; there often is a long period of preparation (and you might not even know you have been being prepared) while you learn and connect with your tree.  Most of the work that I outlined in my previous posts on Druid Tree Workings (see full list above) is much of the prep work for such initiatic work.

Timing. Timing often plays a critical role in initiations. For coming of age rituals and initiations that mark the passage of an important life event, the timing of them is obviously based on marking a key point in someone’s life. For initiations into magical traditions, path of the sun in the wheel of the year, the placement of the stars, or the phase of the moon may be important (e.g. having an initiation on the equinox). For tree initiations, paying attention to the seasonal cycles is particularly critical. I have found that different trees have their high energy times at different points; apple is most powerful when she is full fruit, witch hazel is most powerful in late fall when she is blooming; and maple is most powerful in early spring when her sap is running, as three examples. See this post earlier in the druid tree workings series for some general timing suggestions on when trees have their highest energy (because that is a very good time to do this work).

Roles: Common roles include the Initiator(s) who are performing the initiation, the candidate (those being initiated), and, depending on the initiation, observers/community who are there in support of the person being initiated. Anyone with any role in the initiation (even spectator) take part in the experience, and all are changed by it.

A good tree to get to know--Chestnut!

A good tree to get to know–Chestnut!

Receptivity. Typically, initiations involve somehow putting a candidate into a receptive state so that other work can be done. This can vary widely; in indigenous cultures, fasting, not sleeping for a period of days, and/or ingesting psychotropic mushrooms are ways to place the candidate in a receptive state; in other magical traditions, the candidate may be blindfolded, exposed to startling noises, or other things to get them out of their normal working state. With tree initiations, I believe that this receptive state comes after basic energy exchange and sitting in quietude with the tree.

A fundamental shift of some kind. The whole point of initiation is to enact some change in the candidate and to mark some important milestone; as such, effective initiations are accompanied by some fundamental shift. The shift may be subtle or dramatic, but it is present. The lack of such a shift likely means the initiation “didn’t take” due to a variety of reasons (e.g. the candidate is not ready for that kind of shift).

Now that we have some idea of the features of initiations more broadly, we can begin talking about specific tree initiations.

Preparation

Just like any other initiatory experience, it is important to prepare for a tree initiation for a period of time. For one, both the tree and you have to be ready for it and willing for it to happen, and that isn’t like putting a date on a calendar. Rather, this should be something that you come to understand over a period of time, that you are called to do or a specific tree you feel called to really deeply work with. Sometimes, the preparation for initiation can take years.  Trees work on their own time and it may not be your time.

I have personally found, and this might be different for you, that tree species will call to you.  A particular tree might be your main contact (e.g. the oak in your back yard) but you will find yourself as you are out on the landscape continuing to be drawn to the same species.  Over time, this is a species you might end up having an initiatic experience.

Establishing a relationship.  Most trees and plants want to have relationships with us; they miss our ancestral connections, and they are looking to re-establish them. The first step on this journey is working with trees, recognizing that they are our elders and that they have much to teach us. Practicing respectful communication with them, recognizing and honoring their agency, and a lot of other basic steps (again, outlined by my other posts).  If you are going to prepare for initiation with a tree or ask a tree for such an initiation, you need to lay the foundation and groundwork. This can take time, perhaps a lot of time, but it is time well spent.

Observe, interact, and commune. As you are preparing for this work, you want to spend time with your tree or tree species as much as you can.  Observe your trees in different seasons.  Interact with your trees.  You might find that a species all has a particular mentality, although individuals differ (think about this like culture–all people from certain cultures share certain features but are still individuals).  Spend a lot of time talking with your tree, getting to know your tree, hearing their story, and sharing yours.  Find out what you have in common and how you might work deeply together.

Massive oak tree

Build understanding. Its also a great idea to learn about your tree.  Find out information on the tree’s ecology, role in the ecosystem, growth habits, how tall it grows, how long it lives, what you can make from it.  Get a bit of the wood and see how it is to shape it.  Learn how to make medicine, cordage, food, drink, whatever you can from the tree.  I have a whole series on druid trees that you can draw upon if you are anywhere near my ecosystem (see the top of this post for a complete list).

Establishing commitment.  Once you’ve done that preliminary work, there will be a time where your work deepens, where you grow committed to each other.  It is at this point that crafting a tree initiation ceremony will be appropriate.

Planning Your Initiation

Once you feel it is appropriate and you get a clear signal from your tree, you can begin planning your tree initiation, a ceremony you craft together with the tree that helps connect you deeper and leads you into the deeper mysteries of the living earth.  I’m going to now offer some possibilities from my experience, but understand that each of these ceremonies are different.  Above all, work with the tree itself and hear what guidance they have for you.

Taking the Tree Within

Unless the tree is poisonous (like Yew), I have found that taking the tree into yourself in some way and offering something in exchange is an important part of this process. Your tree research should have revealed if the tree is poisonous or if it was used as medicine/food. In my ecosystem, few actually are poisonous and most have edible leaves or needles, but it might be different in yours. It also might be the case that part of the tree can be eaten but the rest is poisonous (for example, black locust flowers/beans can be eaten safely). Or it might be that eating it may require some preparation (certain tannin-rich acorns). Many of the hardwood trees (maple, birch, linden) have leaves that are edible, especially earlier in the season when they are young and tender. If it is poisonous, obviously, don’t eat it. If it isn’t, poisonous, however, I would suggest that you start consuming small parts of it (with permission and with an offering). This allows part of the tree’s life force and energy to work its way into your physical body.

Always listen to what the tree tells you regarding whether or not you can take a piece of it.  Honoring that tree’s request, and not taking something if it is not allowed/offered, is one of the most important and meaningful ways of building a relationship.  Many trees have been abused by humans, have lost their elders to humans, and some can take time before they are willing to give.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Eating leaves, flowers, seeds, nuts. You can eat flowers, leaves, nuts, and seeds fresh off the tree certain times of year.   Each tree has a different cycle. May tree leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious when young and tender). Nuts can also be enjoyed. Flowers and nuts are very potent because they contain the lifeforce of the tree.
  • A Tree Tea. Many trees make a pleasant tea that you can drink. I enjoy conifers for this quite a bit—eastern hemlock, white pine, blue spruce all make delightful teas.   To make a simple needle or leaf tea, I will gather the leaves/needles (leaving an appropriate offering) and pour boiling water on it and let it sit for a while (30 min or longer for needles, 10-15 min for tree leaves or flowers). If you want, you can instead use sun tea and allow the sun to heat up the needles. Strain and add a bit of honey for an amazing treat.
  • A Tree Bud or Leaf Essence. Some trees are not healthy for you to eat or don’t want to be damaged or have their parts removed, but you can create a flower or leaf essence. You simply go out on a sunny day with a bowl of spring water and put the bowl right up to the leaf/flower and let the leaf/flower sit in the bowl of water for a time (use your intuition). This creates a “mother” essence that you can then water down and store (some people put a bit of brandy in their essences to preserve them).  And you can take the “mother” essence for a long period of time.
  • Tree Sap. Some trees (walnut, birch, hickory, various maples) also have sap that runs and that can be tapped in the spring. With permission and copious offerings, you might be able to tap a tree and drink their sap directly (all of the above saps can be drank directly or boiled down into syrup/sugar). This is an extremely powerful exchange (you are essentially drinking the lifeblood of the tree) and should be done with respect and honor. To drink their sap, you don’t even need to tap them—I remember a year I was harvesting birch branches. It is best to do this in the spring right as they are budding. I harvested a branch from one tree and it was still running. I sat under that branch spot and it dripped every 15 seconds or so, and I allowed it to drip right in my mouth for a time and then made an offering (you know what!) to the tree in thanks. Don’t waste a drop!
  • Tree Resin. Some trees also produce an edible resin (like white pine) that you can consume with great care. White pine is the tree I most frequently do this with; again, this is the lifeblood of the tree and should be done only with deep respect, permission, and offering.

All of these offer possibilities to take the tree within, and much deeper work can manifest once we have a stronger physical connection to the tree.

Discover the tree’s time of power

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In order to perform the tree initiation, you will need to discover the tree’s time of power during the year.  Most deciduous trees are in their power at some point in the light half of the year, while conifers may have a longer time you can work with them. When is this tree at the height of its power? What I mean by this is–when is this tree at the peak of its vitality and presence on the landscape?  For example, Maples has two major times of power–when they are flowing in late winter/early spring and when they are in full fiery form in late fall.  Oaks seem to be in power throughout the light half of the year–once they have a full crown of leaves and are perhaps at the height of their power at the summer solstice and into the fall as they are dropping thousands of ripened acorns.  I’ve found most nut-bearing and fruit-bearing trees seem to be at their peak when those nuts and fruits are ripening and falling.  You can intuit this and ask the tree.

The point here is that you want to perform your ceremony at a time when both you and your tree are at their peak (e.g. no good will come of you trying to perform a ceremony with a maple tree at the winter solstice!)

Exchange and offering

You want to think about what exchange you will make, what you will offer the tree.  While a physical offering here can be used, I would recommend some kind of longer offering (e.g. I will gather your nuts and plant them in places each fall).  Here, the exchange should be something more meaningful (your time, energy, and service) for this tree.

Journey, lessons, or teachings

As part of an initiatatic experience, you will want to create space for direct communion with the tree. Depending on who you are and what methods you use, this part can vary but could include: an open conversation with the tree, meeting the tree on the inner planes and having a spirit journey (see more here), using divination tools to receive messages from the tree, or using sacred dreaming to receive messages.  Create space for these lessons and teachings from the tree (and continue to create space for them as time passes beyond your initiation).

Finding the right space

Obviously, you also need to seek out the right place to hold your initiation ceremony.  This should be somewhere private where you can be near the tree species.  This might be easy for some, and for others, you might have to do a bit of searching.  Consider this part of the process!

Putting it all together: Crafting Your Ceremony

Your ceremony will obviously be unique to you, so I cannot give you a specific ceremony here, but I can offer what one may look like.  If we put the various pieces above together, here is one option.  This is for a sugar maple tree in the fall.

1. In the space you selected, set up your space in any way you feel is appropriate.  In our sample ritual with a maple tree (in fall), this would include making a mandala of leaves around the base of the tree and creating an altar in front of the tree.

2. Open up a sacred grove in the space you selected, near a tree that you want to have a tree initiation with.  (I would use AODA’s solitary grove opening for this purpose).

3.  State your intentions for the ceremony and give space for the tree to offer their own intentions (see last week’s post!)

4. Take the tree within you in whatever manner specified.  For our sugar maple ritual, this would be a tablespoon of maple syrup.

5.  Go into a deep meditative state, meeting the spirit of the tree, and asking the tree to take you on a journey and offer you initiation and teachings

6.  Make a commitment and an offering to the tree (of time, energy, etc).  Make sure to do something during the ceremony to begin that offering and commitment.  For example, you might sing a song to the tree (I have a maple song I would sing) and then make an offering of liquid gold to the tree as well as an herbal blend.

8.  Close the ceremony, ground, and journal about the experience.

This is just one of many examples that you could use–the point being that you are carefully crafting a ceremony to bring you much closer to the sacred maple tree.  The last thing I’ll share is that sometimes these initiations aren’t planned–they simply happen!

PS: The Druid’s Garden blog will be going on hiatus for a few weeks while we do a site upgrade.  We will be moving to a new domain and doing some scheduled website maintenance, so you may also experience some intermittent downtime.  No worries–the blog will be back up and running soon!

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Druidry for the 21st Century: Setting and Co-Creating Intentions with Nature

Colorful tree with spiral roots into the earth

Nature has so much magic, it benefits us always to work with her!

Intentions are powerful things. They allow us to shape our force of will and set a path forward.  They help us figure out what our own goals are. And I think because of that, we often see them as very personal. This is something that we do for our own purposes. In many western occult traditions, and even in druidry, intentions are often framed as highly internal things: things we set, things we want to manifest, things that help us shape our vision.  You’ll see this very frequently in any ritual work–set your intentions for a ritual, a creation, a space, a new piece of land, and so forth. I think a lot of this is influenced by western occultism, which unfortunately puts the practitioner in a place of power and at the center of a working. I also think a lot of this is culturally influenced–westerners are inherently individualistic and self-focused, and this individual focus is both subconscious and conscious. This self-focus is an enormous problem when it comes to building reciprocal relationships with nature.  Westerners also have a view of the land that implies ownership–ownership of lands gives full rights to do anything you want with it. Thus, it’s hard to say you are respecting the agency of the land and her spirits when you pretty much go in and do whatever you want to the land at any time.

I wanted to share an alternative approach that I’ve done with our land here, a way of moving me out of the center of my own intentions and instead considering intentions as a mutual and shared thing that I create in relationship with the living earth (for more on reciprocity and nature, see this post). If we open up our intentions and let the spirits of nature be co-creators in shaping intention, it can lead to some amazing results and allow us to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature.

Reciprocation and Intention

I’ve been arguing that reciprocation should be a core value that we build into nature-based spiritual traditions. It is through reciprocation that we can build a stronger nature-based spiritual tradition, that we can work to repair the wrongs of previous generations (particularly those in relation to lands and indigenous peoples), that we can work to reverse colonialization, and that we can build a better future for all life on earth.  It is through reciprocation that we can begin to understand that humans are not above nature but are part of nature.  Reciprocation is also built into the Ancient Order of Druids in America (see our vision statement, here), the order where I am currently serving as Grand Archdruid.

I think that reframing intentions as something that can be reciprocal can move us a few steps in the right direction, both through our magical practices and our intentions for the living earth.

Intentions are the spark of an idea; they are an early commitment to moving in a particular direction, and they are often the beginning of a magical, spiritual, and/or physical practice (or something of all three).  So now let’s look at two ways we might shift intentions to a more reciprocal relationship.

Preliminaries: Nature Communication

In order to do any of the work I’m suggesting below, you will need ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and the land around you.  If you’ve been on a nature-based spiritual path or practice any kind of deep nature awareness, you probably don’t need anything I’m going to say and can skip this.  But if you are newer to this or unsure, I wanted to give you some options and resources.

  • Gut feelings and intuition. A lot of nature communication is based in feeling and understanding the signals that our body tells us.  In other words, when you walk into a forest, how do you feel? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel unwelcome and like the forest doesn’t want you there? Those initial gut feelings are a critical part of communicating with nature–particularly in listening.
  • Divination. Divination tools such as ogham, tarot, pendulum, geomancy, etc. are great ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and are particularly useful for those who are still developing other methods of spirit communication.  For setting intentions, I recommend that you use something very simple that has a yes/no function, thus, a pendulum is most appropriate (things like tarot or ogham get more complicated in their interpretation, where a pendulum will be very direct).   To use a pendulum in this way, I would suggest creating one with something from nature (a stone from the land around you and a string).  Then simply ask it to “show me yes” and “show me no” and now you know how to interpret it.
  • Spirit communication. More advanced practitioners can develop more direct ways of communicating with spirit through their inner vision: visuals, conversation, sensing energy, etc.  This method is what you will want to work up to–being able to converse with a tree, for example, allows things to be quite clear.  I have a series on how to cultivate plant spirit communication, so please check out these posts for more information: part I, part II, part III, and part IV.

The only other preliminary thing I suggest you do is to prepare some kind of offering for your work with the spirits of the land.  I’ve written more on offerings here, here, and here.

Setting Intentions for a Space or Project

The earth oven project

The earth oven project

Let’s say you have land and you want to create a new project on that land.  It might be a sacred grove, a druid’s anchor spot, or a sacred garden.  Here’s another great opportunity to set intentions collaboratively.  As one of the first things you do, reach out to the land

I would suggest that this should not be a one-time practice but rather a practice that is done on a regular basis.  The practice is simple: go to the spot and simply say, “I’d like to set shared intentions for [this space, the project, etc].” Then have a conversation, use divination, or any other means to set those intentions.  It may take some time as nature often works on a different timeline than we do.  But this work will unfold and you’ll see how rich the collaborative intention setting can be.

Intentions in my druid’s anchor spot. In one example, I’ve found that my druid’s anchor spot likes to set new intentions with each season, so I make it a point to do that work at the solstices and equinoxes.  Usually, at the Winter Solstice, the intention is simply “rest” but in the other seasons, we set intentions together for the work to come.  These intentions can vary pretty widely: last year in the fall, the shared intention was to share a story of the day, and as it grew dark, each of us would tell a story and listen to each other’s story.  The year before, the land was very intent on having some of the biodiversity returned, so we worked together on various approaches to bringing in biodiversity (specifically through cleaning up certain areas that had garbage, bringing in new soil, and planting new trees, understory, and woodland medicinal species).  I am excited to see what this season’s intentions will be!

Intentions for the earth oven project. In a second example, I’ll share how to set intentions for a project.  The Druids Garden homestead is a 5-acre homestead in Western Pennsylvania, run by two druids.  We spend a lot of time prior to engaging in any project setting intentions with the land in collaborative ways.  On a larger scale, this includes figuring out what parts of the land want to be wild, which want cultivation, and where we can create gardens and more human-tended spaces (in permauclture terms, this is about setting up our zones of use, among other things).

Thus, when I decided to build the earth oven, I sat with the land over a period of months and asked, where can I build this oven?  Once both my partner and I had a clear sense of where to build, I began to narrow down the spot to the specific work at hand.  I was given permission to create a small path about 15′ into the brush and to create my oven there.  I was also shown a clear space for a shrine that would sit on the path to the oven.  I explained to the land that this would require me to move/cut some plants and remove the topsoil, and the land told me that I could ask each individual plant what to do (compost, replant, pot up and give away) as well as any stones in the area.  So I began that work–it took me a few sessions, but it was very rewarding. Some of the plants wanted to be harvested and made into medicine (blackberry roots).  Others were rhizomatic (like mayapple), and wanted to simply be composted.  The small cherry tree (also abundant) wanted to be made into pendants and gifts.  The wild yams wanted to be replanted and showed me where.  Spicebush wanted to be potted up and given to a specific person. The fledgling sassafras made it clear that she was the boundary and that I needed to situate the oven in a way that did not disturb her growth.  By the time I had “cleared” the land, every specific plant and tree that was there had the opportunity to state their intentions, and those intentions were honored.  After that, I could begin building the earth oven knowing that the land was fully honored and included in the intention of that space, and because of it, we would be able to work deep magic with the oven in the years to come.

Now imagine the difference in this experience if I had just come into the land, started pulling up plants, piling them up, and then clearing the land. The end result–a physical space for an earth oven would have been the same.  But my own relationship with the land would have suffered; the land being a victim at my hands.  Thus, when I talk about reciprocation, this is exactly what I mean.  We include the land, we not only as permission but we ask what we should do, how we should do it.  I think that its important to recognize that the land loves us, and wants to help us meet our goals.  This reciprocation puts nature in equal partnership with us, and the blessings flow from that relationship.

Setting Intentions for a Magical Working, Ceremony or Ritual

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Perhaps the most common means through which people set intentions are at the start of magical working, ceremony, or ritual.  I would say that co-setting intentions for rituals really depends on what the ritual is for–for yourself, for the living earth, for something else?  Whoever is involved should be involved in setting the intentions for the ceremony.

If it is a ritual that is primarily focused on you and on something tied to yourself, I would still suggest connecting with the spirits of nature for their guidance and wisdom.  Here’s a simple approach: anytime before you begin the ritual, take a short walk in nature.  Find a place to sit (such as your druid’s anchor spot), and describe to the spirits of nature what you are planning on doing.  After you share, make an offering and see if they have any guidance.

If the ritual is on behalf of the living earth or tied to the land in any way, you need to take whatever time you need to set intentions in a collaborative way with the living earth.  This is not always a simple process and may take quite a bit of time. Begin this with a conversation that is open to the spirits of nature.  Rather than saying, “I want to do this ritual,” instead, go to nature and simply say, “What do you need?”  “How can I support you?”  and see what comes from that conversation.  Don’t assume you know what the spirits of the land want and need, but rather, allow the spirits of nature to collaborate with you to co-create the ritual.  You can also reach out and say, “I’d like to offer a healing ritual for the land.  Do you think that would be a good idea?”  The point here is that if you go in telling the land what you are already planning on doing, that’s not very reciprocal.  Rather, create space for a conversation and a shared vision to come forth.

You can do this essentially on any level–individual, group, or even with a larger group. Here’s a recent example of a larger group practice that we recently completed. A few years ago, AODA had released our Vision Statement, and it became clear to some of us n leadership that we wanted to do something order-wide that was reciprocal with the land.  Individual members already do a lot in our curriculum in terms of tree planting, earth path lifestyle changes, and so forth.  But we wanted something that was community-based.  And so, a few of us began speaking with the lands around us.  What could AODA do, on an order-wide level, that would support the living earth where we lived? What would the land need?  Through our own work over the next six months, a very clear picture emerged of what we, as an order could do–a summer solstice land blessing and a winter solstice waterway blessing using AODA’s frameworks (here they are if you are interested!)  These rituals were not just created by humans in AODA, but rather, in conjunction with meditations and collaboration with the lands around us. I’m really excited that these rituals will be starting this year in 2022, and you are most welcome to join us in this endeavor!

In these examples, we can again see how setting intentions–magical and mundane–in conjunction with the living earth allows us to reciprocate and collaborate in ways that we cannot do if we only set intentions within ourselves.  I hope you found this post useful and inspiring.  I would also love to hear from readers about how you may already set intentions in co-created ways with the living earth!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Resilience at the Spring Equinox

Japanese Knotweed as Guardian of the Waterways (from the Plant Spirit Oracle)

One of the most resilient and enduring plants in the world at present is the Japanese Knotweed.  Japanese Knotweed is also the number one maligned plant in the world, as it is able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems and thrive in terrible conditions and will continue to grow despite the best efforts at humans to remove her.  Japanese Knotweed can withstand multiple direct applications of weed killer and it can handle a wide variety of growing conditions (high and low soil PH, drought, high heat, extreme negative temperatures, flooding, chemical pollution and more).  I would argue that the Japanese knotweed is probably one of the world’s most resilient plants, able to resist almost anything that is thrown at it, and despite interaction and engagement with humans, it can thrive.  I think it’s interesting that Japanese Knotweed also is an outstanding source of food and medicine, as well as nectar for bees and insects.  But if we look to Japanese Knotweed, we see a powerful plant spirit teacher that can offer us a number of qualities that I believe are important for the 21st century, right now, and certainly, into the future. What Japanese Knotweed and many other so-called “invasive” plants teach us is the lesson of resilience.

Another example of an incredibly resilient species is the raccoon, an intelligent omnivorous mammal native to North America. Anyone who has lived in a region with raccoons gets to know them quickly–they are extremely wily, able to break into all sorts of things (like your shed full of chicken food or your chicken coop itself), they can unlock latches, solve puzzles, and have fine motor control. They are quite strong and can break into all sorts of places.  Raccoons are now quite effectively adapting to city life, over cities all over the world; even in a place as inhospitable as a city, the raccoon thrives.  A raccoon is a being that embodies resiliency–a creature that is cunning, intelligent, persistent, and resourceful. Japanese Knotweed and Raccoons offer us powerful lessons in resiliency–and by studying them and other resilient beings in nature, we can start to consider how ew might cultivate and strengthen our own resiliency in these difficult times.

Resiliency is the capacity to adapt, to endure, to quickly recover if damaged, and to dig in and deal with a set of adverse conditions.  I would argue that it is probably the single most important concept that we can explore as humans living in the world today because we face a rapidly changing world with shifting challenges, a changing climate, and increasingly unstable social institutions that no longer offer stability.  Thus, as we consider the Spring Equinox as the other “balance point” in the year, our theme today is cultivating resiliency as a spiritual and physical practice.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year

In this ongoing series, I am offering an alternative set of themes and practices for the 21st century–considering the traditional neopagan wheel of the year in light of some of what we need in order to transition to a new way of living and being so that we can co-exist peacefully with other life on our beautiful earth.

Previous posts have included receptivity at the Fall Equinox; release at Samhain; restoration at the Winter Solstice, and Reskilling at Imbolc.  If we think about this alternative wheel I’m proposing, it is taking us on a powerful journey to strengthen our spirits and improve our physical and emotional skills to move forward. Thus, as we enter the dark half of the year at the Fall Equinox, we start by being open to change and accepting what comes. We release pain, sadness, anger, and other negative emotions surrounding our predicament at Samhain, follow up with restorative and renewal activities at the Winter Solstice, and then at Imbolc, start to move into the action at Imbolc with reskilling. You can see through this wheel how it is a journey–of releasing expectations, dealing with our own emotions and trauma, restoring and healing ourselves, and then moving into activities that help us prepare for what is to come.  As we move into the balance point at the Spring Equinox, we tackle one of the most critical themes yet–resiliency.

Features of Resilience

Dandelion from the Plant Spirit Oracle

One of the tragedies of modern civilization is that it has created generations of people who are inflexible,  vulnerable, and fragile–humans who have a hard time adapting to change and who are incapable of living without modern conveniences. Our modern way of life has cultivated a deep dependency on the current systems we have in place to feed us, clothe us, provide food for us, and offer us a host of other comforts. The system has been engineered for modern humans to depend fully upon it for their every need. And yet, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the very systems we depend on are more fragile and unpredictable than we thought, and this problem will only grow so as time passes. The solution to this problem is in reskilling and resiliency.  It is in finding ways to depend less upon the problematic systems and instead look to nature directly for our needs.

As Wendell Berry notes in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, one of the things our civilization has demanded are increasing degrees of specialization–and with the rise of super-specialists, we lose our ability to take care of our basic human needs.  He advocates a return to the ways of the generalist, where we cultivate a wide range of skills–and in so doing, develop more powerful methods of being resilient.   If you think about it, it makes –throughout human history, nearly all humans had a basic set of skills that allowed them to clothe themselves, feed themselves, provide shelter, find clean water, perform healing, and a host of other basic needs.  It is only with the rise of industrialization and the modern era that these have been forgotten.  But if we are going to be more resilient, its useful to think about how we can return to some of these ancestral ways.

Resiliency is a combination of having the right mindsets and being able to solve problems (drawing upon skills, knowledge, and resources).  It is about having a positive mindset, cultivating a creative and adaptable way of thinking, along with having a toolbox of skills, techniques, and knowledge that you can draw upon as needed.  Since we’ve already covered the skills in discussing reskilling and Imbolc, today, I want to focus on cultivating resilient mindsets, which involve a host of factors.

  • Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback, challenge, or trauma.  Rather than giving up in defeat or accepting your setback, when you cultivate recovery, you cultivate an ability to find a way forward.
  • Being adaptable  Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. Being adaptable allows us to face challenges and changes quickly and effectively.
  • Accepting Change and accepting what we cannot change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans to do, particularly those in modern cultures.
  • Seizing Opportunity.  Capitalizing on opportunity is another key feature of resilience.  be like the dandelion that grows out o the crack in the sidewalk–see where changes have created new opportunities, and anticipate those.
  • Applying Creativity. A lot of resiliency is about creative problem-solving.  How can you do something in a new way? How can you meet a need when what you used to use to meet it is no longer available?

Just as the Japanese Knotweed and raccoon can offer us powerful lessons of resilience, we can begin cultivating resilience in our own lives by observing the lessons of nature. Even in a stable climate, all of nature requires resourcefulness to survive, thrive, and adapt. When you spend time in the natural world, you are reminded of these powerful lessons.

I actually went into great detail about physical and mental resiliency in my post last year, so I’m going to direct you there for more on physical residency.  For the rest of today’s post, I’ll focus on a specific ritual and spiritual journey you can do at the Spring Equinox that can help you cultivate a more resilient mindset.

A Spring Equinox Resilience Ritual and Journey

Of course, mindsets determine actions.  If we can cultivate resiliency within, then when times get tough on a physical level, we are drawing upon that well of inner resiliency.  What I describe is a practice that I’ve been doing for a number of years that helps me learn deep lessons from nature from my local ecosystem.  You can start this journey at the Spring Equinox, but it does have the option to lead you to deeper work throughout the year.

Step 1: Seeking a Resilient Plant or Animal Teacher

One of my teachers literally tried to come in the house!

One of my teachers literally tried to come in the house!

The first step of the journey is going out into the world and deeply observing and interacting.  Your goal is to find a plant, animal, or even insect that offers resiliency.  This animal or plant should be something that you can directly observe or see the effects of that animal (e.g. if you are looking for a raccoon, you might not be able to see them directly but can see their tracks and/or put up a trail cam to learn more about their activities). Plants are obviously a little easier, you may just find them growing and can observe. I’ve given two examples at the start of this post of those I’ve worked with: the Japanese Knotweed and the Raccoon.

Thus, start by going out and setting your intentions for this work.  Go outside to a quiet place, and speak directly to the world around you.  Ask, in your own words, for nature to send you a messenger or teacher that will teach you about resiliency.  Then observe, interact, see what you find and who comes to you.  Use your intuition here–see where you are led and drawn.  Accept whoever comes to you (it is so much better for this work if we set aside preconceived notions or expectations).

This kind of approach can be done anywhere: urban, rural, wild places, etc.  It is as effective in an urban environment as in a wild one–for example, I once did this while I was in New York City, and I spent three lovely days observing and learning from the city’s pigeon population–they were amazing to see how adaptable and cunning they were.

Step 2: Outer Observations

Once you’ve found a resilient natural teacher who you are drawn to, spend time observing and interacting with your animal or plant teacher.  Learn what you can about them.  Observe them in the world in whatever ways you can.  Consider how they offer lessons in resilience.

For example, if you decide to focus on dandelion (a perfect choice this time of year), you might spend time seeking out dandelions in your town, looking at how and where they grow. You might draw upon what you already know about the dandelion.

Step 3: Spirit Journey for Deep Teachings

Any physical connexion is going to help you open up a spiritual connection. In the druid tradition, many of us work with the idea of an “inner grove” or a space that we have on the astral that is safe and that we visit often (different traditions teach this differently, but it seems to be a common feature)*. This journey uses the inner grove as a starting point for a journey with your chosen plant or animal teacher.  If you are new to spirit journeying, you might check out this post.

Begin by opening up a sacred space (I use AODA’s solitary grove opening).  Once your sacred grove is open, you will want to put yourself into a quiet, focused place.  For this, I suggest getting into a comfortable position and doing some of the four-fold breath: breathe in for four counts; gently hold for four counts; breathe out for counts; gently hold for four counts, and repeat.  After a few minutes of this, you should have quieted your mind and prepared yourself for the journey.

Now, speak your intentions about the journey in your own words.  For example, “Dandelion, I seek your continued teachings to help me cultivate resilience in my life.  Will you come and offer me your spirit teachings?”

Now, enter your inner sacred grove.  If this is a new activity for you, most people first envision themselves on a path into the forest.  Work to build your inner senses, noting the colors, shapes, smell, sounds, as you walk. As you enter your grove, your animal or plant teacher will be there to guide you on a journey.

Once your journey is finished, offer gratitude and respect to your plant or animal teacher.

Step 4: Gratitude and Offerings

At the end of this process, I strongly suggest making some kind of meaningful offering to the plant or animal teacher on the physical world.  Leave food offerings out for the raccoon, help spread the seeds of the dandelion, create positive artwork about the Japanese Knotweed, or whatever other gifts of your time and energy you can.

You might find that this plant or animal will continue to be a teacher for you, offering lessons.  Or it may be that you will need to seek them out again. Whatever your longer-term relationship is, know that you can always continue to meet with them physically and metaphysically to learn more and grow.

Conclusion

The above is a great way to start thinking about resilience as a spiritual practice and how we can begin to cultivate and integrate a mindset of resilience.  I think that when we can do the work of spirit, then it becomes easier to manifest that into our physical existence.  I’m also grateful of the many lessons of Japanese Knotweed, Dandelion, and Raccoon–what they have taught me has helped me to learn to be adaptable, resilient, and strong in the face of so much.

 

Daily Rituals and Personal Daily Practices

Daily practices form the foundation of any nature-based spiritual or neopagan path. Daily practices give us a chance to dedicate regular time to our spirituality, to slow down and connect with nature, to protect ourselves from the daily energetic onslaught that is the 21st century, and to practice reverence and gratitude.  Each person’s daily practices are likely to be different, and as you walk the path of nature-based spirituality, the practices may also grow and shift as you deepen your work. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts about developing and maintaining a daily spiritual practice—different options, goals, and opportunities.

Daily Practices: Core Elements

There’s a pretty wide range of things you can accomplish with daily practices. I would argue that a good set of daily practices should, at minimum, help you do the following:

  • Offer energetic protection for daily life
  • Practice connection with nature / yourself / spirit / deity
  • Practice energetic cleansing
  • Practice gratitude, offering, and reverence

Additional things you might want to include are:

  • Engage in daily creative practices
  • Practice various kinds of energy balancing
  • Practice stillness and focus
  • Offer daily grounding and centering
  • Divination practices

I would argue that daily practices are the gateway and foundation to everything else. If you build the foundation of your connection, balance, and focus through daily practices, then you will be able to accomplish many other goals in your spiritual life.

Also, one carefully designed practice may be able to accomplish many points above. That is, if you do daily energetic working, it can provide protection, grounding, and energy balancing.  If you go out in nature, even for 5-10 minutes, you can practice gratitude, stillness, focus,  mediation, and do some cleansing.  So first, start figuring out what you really need to accomplish each day and then consider how you might get there.

Daily Ritual Practices

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree

Many spiritual traditions have some kind of ceremonial or ritual practice that is done daily. Given the challenges we are facing today, I would suggest to always doing a practice that offers grounding and protection at the bare minimum–this will help you in so many ways as you go about daily life.

If you belong to a druid order or other organization that has a set of core practices, you may already have one or more practices that fit this. The Ancient Order of Druids in America suggests daily meditation, a daily Sphere of Protection, and regular time in nature. The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids use the LIght Body exercise (this is energizing but not protective, so OBOD druids should practice something else for protection).

I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (SOP) as one of my primarily daily practice for grounding, balancing, and protection. The Sphere of Protection works with a seven-element system (Earth-Air-Fire-Water-Above-Below-Within). It invokes the four elements in their positive form and banishes the four elements in their negative form and also protects you.  What I like about the SOP is that it not only offers me a powerful protection that takes about 5 minutes a day, it also provides an elemental balancing, which helps me maintain my stability in today’s chaos.  Further, I use it to protect not only myself but our homestead and our animals each day.

The other ritual practice I use daily–at the end of the day–is a smoke cleansing practice combined with meditation. These two practices help me “bookend” my day–I’ll share more about that approach below.

Meditation

Meditation is a critical part of any spiritual path and can provide a wide range of benefits that are mental, physical, and spiritual.  Most forms of meditation include breathwork and focusing the mind (which could be empty mind, focusing on something like a candle, discursive meditation). Meditation can also be movement-based (like walking meditation) or even more in-depth, like spirit journeying. You can see more details about different forms of meditation in my Druid’s Meditation Primer.

If you want to hear the spirits of nature, connect deeply with the spirit world, connect to your own creativity, have more effective rituals, and accomplish many other things–committing to a daily meditation practice is the necessary path to getting there.  Meditation helps your mind become a powerful tool for any other work you want to do and is the foundation for everything else. Without meditation, you will continue to struggle to accomplish the basics because you have not trained your mind–think of this as a marathon.  Do you want to run a marathon? Better practice every day and build up to it.  Mediation is daily training for your mind.  I really can’t stress this point enough.

Druids Anchor Spot: Time in Nature

A place to come to meditate daily–the druid’s anchor spot and a nature mandala made in gratitude

The third part of my own daily triad is regular time spent in nature. My philosophy about this is tied to something I call a Druid’s Anchor Spot (a similar practice that the bushcraft and wilderness awareness communities call a “sit spot”).  An Anchor Spot is a place that you go to that is extremely easy to access (e.g. right outside your door, a 5 minute walk away) that you can visit ideally on a daily or very regular basis.

The Druids Anchor Spot practice can be as simple or as layered as you want it to be.  On the most basic level, you go to your Anchor spot and spend a little time there.  I like to spend time observing with all of my senses: attending to my sight, hearing, sense of smell, touch, and even taste (you might catch me nibbling on some Eastern hemlock needles, for example).  I also like to take a moment to check in with the genius loci, the spirit of the land, as well as other land spirits I am in contact with.  We might converse, do a short ritual, etc.  Sometimes I walk around the space and other times I simply sit.  I also like to set shared intentions with the space (e.g. what do we want to accomplish in the coming season?) and also do regular ritual work there. Even if I only have five minutes or there is a storm, I still make a point to visit for a few moments each day.

The other thing I do here daily is to offer some gratitude.  I have a hand-grown and harvested offering blend; I share a bit of this and offer my gratitude to the living earth and the spirits.  I have also built a shrine for making offerings and doing ritual work.  The space continues to evolve over time–this is also a central part of my land healing practices, so in addition to simply being present in the spot, I am working to physically heal the space.

Integration into Daily Life

As described above, you can see I essentially have a triad of practices–one that happens at the beginning of the day (SOP), one after I am done with work (Anchor Spot), and one that happens before I go to sleep (smoke cleansing and meditation).  These practices took a while to develop and a while to integrate into my life.  I’ve had many false starts and changes along the way, so I also wanted to share some ideas for how to get to the point where you have a regular, daily practice.

Calling up the sunrise with the Sphere of Protection in early spring with the geese

Calling up the sunrise with the Sphere of Protection last fall

One of the questions people often ask is–how do I actually build this into my day? My response is–how did you learn to brush your teeth? The principle is actually really similar: the goal is to create a habituated practice. This is one that you almost automatically do, and you are so used to doing it that you simply do it.  That’s the end goal.

To get there, you want to think about a few things.  First, consider how your overall day is structured and where it would be more seamless to build in those small moments.  A daily practice doesn’t have to take a lot of time–it can take as little as 5-10 minutes and you can always build from there. Find places that you might already have habituated or required practices and see if you can add a spiritual practice where you already have that time set aside. Also think about what would make the most sense for you in terms of practices based on the structure of your day.

Another thing that I have found very helpful is to really think about the transition points of the day–what does your beginning of the day look like? What might you build in there that helps launch you into the day?  Do you have or need a transition point after a certain point in the day?   What about your end of the day? Do you have a place to ‘wrap up’ for the day and transition to a good Dreamtime? If you can find those key transition points, and really work them to your advantage, then that is one way of making this all happen.

Finally, I think it’s important to understand your own nature.  Some people are very schedule driven and developing a daily routine is fairly straightforward. Other people are more whimsical and find it really hard to have a routine or even resist routines (I happen to be one of these people).  So you really have to work with yourself and show yourself some grace as you are working to establish daily practices.

Dana’s Example

To show you how this all first together, I’ll share my daily practice.  As I mentioned, these have undergone a lot of evolution and if I had a different lifestyle, I know they would look very different.  I also make allowances for myself–if I’m sick, traveling, etc, some of these would obviously be adapted. But I still try to make sure I do something every day.

Beginning of the Day and Sphere of Protection Ritual. Becuase I live on a 5-acre homestead, every day, I have animal care and farm chores in the morning. Since I have this thing I literally do every day, I always do my Sphere of Protection at the end of my homestead chores.  After the physical work of feeding, watering and tending the animals, I let the animals out and then I perform my SOP. It also allows me to offer energetic protection to the land and the animals–and it allows them to participate as well.

Anchor spot and unstructured time in nature. Then, I will go about my day.  When I finish my work for the day, I have found that I need a good transition point for whatever comes next, and that’s where the Druid’s Anchor Spot comes in. After working, I like to just unwind a bit by walking our land, walking meditation, observing, and then spending time in my anchor spot.  The time in nature is much less structured than my other daily practices.  I might find myself wandering, wondering, and simply creating the time to be present with the living earth.  There’s a lot of value in unstructured spiritual time.

Evening cleansing and meditation. After my time in nature, I will again go about my evening.  At least 4-5 days a week, that will include spending an hour or more in my art studio or doing some writing, dedicating time to my creative practices. Then, before bed (and before I get too tired!) I will do my end-of-day meditation and smoke cleansing. I like to do the smoke cleansing at the end of the day so that I’m not dragging any difficulty from the day into my dreaming (and I do practice sacred and intentional dreaming so that matters). Thus, I very intentionally clear any stress, problems, etc, that I’ve built up through the day with the smoke cleansing (I cleanse with my own herbal sticks that I make). Then will do some meditation before winding down for the evening.

Building Up

I think in the hustle and bustle of daily life, developing these practices is really critical.  Its so easy to get lost in the quagmire of modern living and all of the insanity that it brings. Like an anchor dropped on stormy seas, daily practices help you weather the storm, build your resilience and focus, and provide you with tools that can help you strengthen your own spiritual practice for years to come.

I would also say, allow yourself to shift and grow as you deepen your practice.  Find something that works for you right now, in this moment.  If your life changes or you have a new awareness or need something new, then by all means, change your practice to something that fits.  Just keep in mind the larger goals of what you want to accomplish.  For example, frequently, I also do daily divination, but right now as I’m the early stages of creating a new divination deck,  I’m staying away from other divination systems and simply allowing that new deck to come through!  Once the deck is a little further along, I’ll probably return to daily divination.

As we wrap up for today, I would love to hear examples of other ways that individuals have built daily practices into their lives. Please share so we can learn from your wisdom.

UPG and Me: On Gnosis, Personal Gnosis, and Unverifiable Personal Gnosis in NeoPagan Practices

As with any spiritual path, the question of how we build knowledge, what we believe, and where that knowledge comes from is important.  I think it is particularly important to druids as we have so few fragments of the Ancient Druid tradition.  We are constantly asking ourselves–where can we gain knowledge from? How do we build knowledge, and from what sources?

What is Gnosis?

Entering the Dreaming (Hawthorn card from the Plant Spirit Oracle Deck)

Gnosis refers to “knowledge of spiritual mysteries.” Gnostic traditions are those rooted in the idea that knowledge can be gained through esoteric (inner) practices, such as communion with a deity, prayer, meditation, repetitive activity, dreams, and so forth, and that that knowledge is important and valued. Throughout history and in many different spiritual traditions, Gnosis was an important part of any spirituality.  Seeking the mysteries on the deepest level often requires contemplation, silence, and communion with the living earth–as we have seen in monastic traditions throughout the ages. In the Gnostic traditions, this gnosis was said to be the most important knowledge one could hold and this belief transcends anything that might be provided by external sources. In other words, a Gnostic gets their messages and truths from spirit/deity above all else.

Gnosis is important to those on the druid path for several reasons.  First, druidry (at least the kind of druidry I practice through OBOD and AODA) is non-dogmatic and focused on individuals’ spiritual development.  This means, in AODA, for example, that druids work to hone their own personal spiritual development, spiritual expression, channel Awen, and wildcraft their druidry.  These practices, which form the core of those practicing druidry (especially AODA druidry) require you to localize and personalize your understanding; and thus, are enriched by your own personal gnosis.

Most people who practice druidry use a combination of personal gnosis (inner knowing) with external knowledge seeking (outer sources). A good of this is through working with sacred plants: if you wanted to work with maple trees, it would benefit to you to read some books about maples: their ecology, their function in the ecosystem, how humans may have used them for food or medicine (such as tapping trees for syrup), and also traditional folk uses.  But the key part of this is that you balance that outside knowing with your own direct experiences in nature: observation, meditation, and spirit communication.  It is through these different inputs you can develop a personal spiritual path rooted in nature that also supports the development of personal gnosis.

Cultivating Personal Gnosis

Personal Gnosis can come in many forms as you travel along the druid path. These methods are fairly varied but many of them end up with similar results.

The first is our intuitive “knowing” or gut feelings. The reason they are called “gut feelings” is because we often experienced these in embodied ways–a sensation we get within the body, a knowing we have that cannot be shaken. Intuition/gut feelings are very important to those practicing spiritual paths and can be very useful to cultivate on your journey.

Another form of personal gnosis is Direct contact with spirits/deity who offer messages or teachings. This contact may be in many forms: voices, songs, feelings, visions, messages on the inner planes, teachings from spirits, etc. There’s an enormous amount to learn and navigate on the “inner” planes, and much of this is connected to the spirits you connect with and what they have to teach you.

Bardic arts is another area where personal gnosis may come to be. As you create, the awen, which druids see as a spiritual or divine force of creativity, will flow through you, inspiring you and deepening your understanding of the world.  As Jung noted, creative expressions help you connect with your subconscious, and there is much wisdom to be gained in such a connection.

Dreams may be yet another area that you can connect both with your subconscious and with the larger sense of dreaming of the world.  You can cultivate a dreaming practice where you delve deeper into the world of your dreams and work to understand the messages they provide you. (I highly recommend the teachings of Sarah MacLean Bicknell for more on a systematic, intuitive, and highly engaging dream-based practice).

Meditation is another area where you can develop a deep understanding of yourself, your life, and your spiritual path.  Meditation quiets the mind and/or focuses the mind, allowing it to move in particular directions, connect with spirit and with the subconscious.  Jung noted that dreams, creative practices, and meditation were powerful ways of getting in touch with our subconscious.

As you continue your studies, personal gnosis may come infrequently or regularly to you. It is a frequent occurrence for many more experienced practitioners but varies considerably by an individual.  Some practitioners see gnosis and their interactions with the inner worlds/spirit/deity as the most central part of their practice. If you aren’t yet experiencing these things, continuing to quiet your mind, seek the sacred in nature, and engage in regular meditation is a sure path to receiving personal gnosis from nature and spirit.  Keep at it and it will come!

Verification: Outer Plane Checks and Confirming Insights

Those new to these practices may question what they experience/hear/learn and question if these experiences are “real” or if they are all “making it up in their heads.”  This is a critically important question to consider–even with trusted spirit teachers or deep gut knowing, it is always wise to test your insights.

The first question towards unpacking this is: where do the messages come from? There are two parts to this question to consider.  The first is tied to what you believe–and thus, you will want to think about how your own experience fits in with your belief.  If you are in the woods and are in prayer/meditation and receive a message, a Christian druid may believe that message came from God, while an Atheist druid may believe the message to originating from their subconscious.  So understanding the “source” of personal gnosis as it fits your belief is important.  The second part of the question is also tied to the source and your level of trust.  Did you receive this message from a trusted inner contact, one you have experience with, or was this a random spirit or entity?  If you’ve developed a longstanding relationship with a spirit/deity and that connection is healthy, there is probably little reason to question what you received.  But if you aren’t sure of the source or if this is a new spirit, there is great cause to be wary.

Further, there are numerous questions beyond questioning the source of the message.  What does the message say? What would acting on the message do, if anything?  Does that action make sense?  Is that message asking you to behave in a way that is your best self or not?  These kinds of questions are important to ask, particularly as you are starting out–we tend to be very trusting early on our journeys, and that can get us in some trouble.

Outer Plane Checks and Confirming insights. One of the ways to “verify” personal gnosis is by asking spirit/deity for what is known as an “outer plane check.” This is some kind of external message or verification from spirit/deity and it can vary quite widely but it is somehow rooted in our physical reality.  Part of what you will receive as verification again goes back to your own personal belief system and how much skepticism you have.  Here are some examples:

A great example of a message from nature--the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual--the messages we received have an additional verification

A great example of a message from nature–the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual–the messages we received have an additional verification

Some druids would consider an outer plane check confirmed if they were in nature, received a clear message, asked for an outer plane check, and then had a very clear sign from nature–such as a flock of wild turkeys walking through the center of their grove, a large eagle flying overhead, or a ray of sunlight shining through the clouds.  This kind of confirmation may not occur immediately but should be obvious when it happens.  For example, I was making a very serious life choice some time ago, a choice that had a significant impact on the future of my life.  After hearing guidance from the spirits and making a tentative choice, I asked spirits for confirmation that it would be the right one.  A bad storm blew through and dropped a  big tree away from my house–a clear message confirmed.  They aren’t always that drastic, of course.

Having a human (friend, mentor, even stranger) confirm a message is another path.  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a friend or mentor shared a similar experience; that allows them to confirm and understand their own experience/message  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a similar message came through to them by another means (friend, mentor, someone sending them a link, etc).  For example, after receiving a message upon which you might act, going to a friend for divination (without revealing any details) could be a useful way to confirm. Some druids would want physical confirmation, such as being able to read or see something that confirms what was shared (not always possible, but useful for things like past life regression).

Sometimes the best way to verify a message is simply time.  Wait to see what happens, seeing if the insights or understanding gained comes to be.

Gnosis without verification: Some Personal Gnosis may not be able to be verified with an outer plane check, but there are still other ways you might think about this in more depth. Here are some useful ways of thinking about the information you receive:

  • Do you trust the source?  If this is a deity or spirit that you have a deep relationship to, it is probably much more trustworthy than from someone you have no relationship to
  • Does the message/insight/information make sense? If the information is outlandish or uncharacteristic, it is a good idea to question it.
  • How strong was the message? How did you feel after you received it?
  • Were you protected when you received it?  E.g. did you do a daily protective working (such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection) or were you in a sacred grove/sacred circle? This also makes a difference.

Sometimes personal gnosis cannot be verified and must be taken on faith.  More interactions over time with the world of spirit are certain to deepen this knowledge.

Unverified/Unverifiable/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (UPG)

While personal gnosis is a critically important part of our own spiritual experiences, it can lead to some trouble, especially when people begin to pass off their own personal gnosis as fact.  In the broader neopagan community, the term is usually “unverified” or “unsubstantiated” personal gnosis, which refers to matters of spirit that cannot accurately be verified using physical means.  It is often, but not always, used in a negative way for at least two reasons.

The first is that UPG can be dangerous when used in groups and can be used as a means of control of individuals and groups.  If one leader or small group claims a direct connection with a deity or set of spirits, and only that leader has a connection and receives messages, then anyone who follows that leader can be led deeply astray.  They can become enthralled by the leader’s visions and there is no way of verifying the visions.  This happens in all sorts of spiritual traditions (think about your typical “cult” here), and unfortunately, does occur within neopaganism.  Thus, it is really important that when you are listening to the words of others, you pay attention to where they are getting their information–is it UPG? What does your own gut tell you?  It is good to take someone else’s personal gnosis with a very heavy dose of skepticism, particularly if they are using it as a means to control.  Ask them where the information comes from, and distance yourself if necessary.

The second place that you often hear about UPG being a negative thing is particularly tied to movements like Celtic Reconstructivism or other reconstructivist movements.  Reconstrutivist movements focus on historical accuracy and recreating/resurrecting lost traditions, and thus, UPG is rarely welcome in such communities because the emphasis is on recreating ancient traditions. In this case, the community’s values are focused on historical sources, not UPG.  Druid revival orders, such as AODA or OBOD, don’t worry as much about this issue as we don’t have less than 9 pages total of preserved works from the ancient druids, but it is very important to understand that different traditions value different things–and to respect those differences.

Sharing Personal Gnosis

Given the above, one of the things that gets tricky in the broader druid community  (and where the negative spin on UPG comes from) is when individuals intentionally or unintentionally pass off personal gnosis as truth, fact, or historical fact. This is something you will want to watch out for in your own interactions.

In sharing your own personal gnosis, I recommend that you make it clear that this is your own gnosis/understanding that comes from spirit. It is easy enough to signal this when you are sharing with phrases like, “in my experience” or “In my interactions with spirit/deity” and simply clarify that this is coming from your personal gnosis. That way, when you are sharing, it is very obvious where your information comes from.  This makes you a more trustworthy person and allows you to have positive, healthy interactions with your broader spiritual community.

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Some personal gnosis is specifically given to you to share. Our world is in a tipping point, and spirits are eager to help humanity transition away from our destructive path.  Thus, you may start getting messages with the idea that they need to get out there.  I point to my Plant Spirit Oracle as a good example of this.  It was very clear to me from the beginning that this project and set of journeys were meant to be shared.  In my book, I made it very clear that this project–the images, meanings, divination system–was my personal gnosis.  I shared exactly how I came to the meanings and images, and with that, I feel like my ethical obligation is complete.  People can choose to use it or not, and they know where it came from because I’ve been upfront about it.

On the other hand, not all personal gnosis is meant to be shared. You will usually have an intuitive sense (if not a direct message from spirit/deity) about what can and should not be shared. Some may be shared with those who are mentors or friends, while other personal gnosis may be appropriate for more public sharing.  There is such a thing as “talking the magic out” of something, meaning that if you had a very deep personal experience and you begin sharing it widely without taking the time yourself to work with it and unpack it, you may never reap the full benefits of the experience or message.  Thus, I recommend always sitting with insights and messages for some time, and then if you are going to share, share carefully.

In reading and responding to others’ personal gnosis, you can ask the simple question–where did this information come from? Are they indicating that they had a personal experience, they were taught this, this is part of a family tradition, part of some larger tradition, or so on?  If they aren’t sharing where it came from, you can gently ask (but be kind, a person is choosing to share a personal thing and we want to always honor that sharing). Part of the reason it is good to recognize when someone is sharing UPG is for reasons I outlined above–someone may claim or use UPG (or claims of UPG) for personal gain. Thus a “grain of salt” approach is useful–again, think about who is sharing and if they are trustworthy.

Personal Gnosis is Personal

One of the most important issues with sharing is to understand that personal gnosis is personal. Your relationship with that plant/spirit/deity may be very unique.  It may not align with what others are sharing–and that’s totally ok.

Think about it this way–you are a different person in your professional workplace, with your parents or siblings, with your childhood friends, or with your druid grove.  In essence, you are many sides of the same person.  This happens in the spirit world as well.  The spirits will work with you as an individual, and the insights you receive may be different than what others experience. Your interaction with spirits is based on a host of factors:  how long have you been doing this? What is your relationship? How deep is it? How much do you walk your talk?  What have you done on behalf of these spirits/land? and so on.

Thus, if your own personal gnosis differs from someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that either of you is wrong, but rather that you are both experiencing different aspects.  I see this a lot with plants and trees.  Trees like Hawthorn or Elder, for example, have a wide range of personalities and magic, and what side of those trees you see may be very much based on who you are and what relationship you cultivate.  You may read one thing in a book about Elder being a certain way, and experience a very different thing.  This doesn’t mean you are wrong; it just means that Elder, to you, appears and offers a different set of teachings. All of this is part of why it’s really important to understand when others are offering their own UPG.

Personal to Community Gnosis

Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

In some cases, personal gnosis transitions to community-based gnosis or even cultural gnosis if enough people receive the same kind of messages. For example, there are a number of people in the druid, herbalism, and bushcraft communities that have been individually receiving messages and teachings from the Poison ivy plant. After sharing notes and experiences in smaller groups, these teachings are starting to be transmitted via classes and events and a new name for the plant (Sister Ivy) is being used pretty widely.  All of us who have worked closely with her, over a period of time, have recognized the need for her teachings in this particular age, and have spread the new name for her, more fitting of the role she wants to assume.  At this point, after almost 30 conversations with different people about their individual experiences, it seems pretty clear to me that Sister Ivy has a message and set of teachings she wants in the world right now.  Thus, what was personal gnosis to some individuals is now being shared more widely–because that gnosis was consistent among individuals that received it and the information shared makes sense. The key here is that this same Personal Gnosis has been experienced by a number of different people independently, and, most importantly, nobody is using that personal gnosis to control others.  It is something that is simply being shared, understood, and valued.

Conclusion

A spiritual path is so much richer when we are able to work effectively with our own personal gnosis as part of our path.  By using the practices I’ve outlined here, you can develop your personal gnosis, avoid some of the pitfalls, and learn when it is appropriate to share.

A Druid’s Guide to Dealing with Climate Change: Addressing Deep Emotions and Grief

Fear. Anxiety. Grief.  Helplessness. Despair. Feeling overwhelmed. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. Anger. Numbness. Displacement. Disconnection. Sadness.  These feelings are some of the common ones that people experience today with the pressing and growing concerns about climate change, the age of the Anthropocene, mass extinctions, and the loss of life on our planet. And it seems like every day, with every report or first-hand experience or another failed climate summit, these feelings are reinforced.  These kinds of feelings are now termed “climate grief” and are being experienced by people all over the world including young people around the globe, adults in the US, and those who are choosing to be childless due to climate change, among many others.

This really came to a head for me a few weeks ago. I was on a call with a number of AODA members about a month ago, and before the call started, we had been talking about the unseasonable and extreme weather that people were experiencing all over North America. The conversation then shifted into talking about our fears about climate change, how it is pretty scary to think about our future from a climate perspective. It helped to talk about it, to bring it into the open, and people were relieved just so share in that small space. It struck me that we don’t create enough space for these kinds of discussions within our tradition–and they are critical for us to have. I also realized how many of us are feeling this way, but maybe not have appropriate times and places to share.

Listen to the music of the world: a climate change response

Listen to the music of the world: a climate change response

I think it’s important to talk about this issue of mental health openly and as one part of the spiritual and physical responses, I share on this blog for a few reasons. As the head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I really see this coming up for more and more people each year and it is becoming a serious concern for many who walk paths of nature spirituality. First, on the most basic level, we are all on the front lines of climate change right now, whether or not we want to be.  It doesn’t matter where we live, we are impacted and there is no escaping it.  And things are getting more serious with each passing year, and for most of us, they will not improve in our lifetimes. Second, for those practicing nature-based spiritual paths, we are seeing nature–the thing we hold most sacred–under serious threat from human-driven activity.  It adds an additional layer, an additional burden, to the pain–knowing that there is a spiritual side, that the spirits of the land suffer along with their physical counterparts.  And third, certain kinds of typical druid activities–like deep observation, druid’s anchor spot practices, and others, can cause difficulty when we continue to observe natural patterns well out of the norm.  I’ve had new druids tell me they resist too much careful observation because they are afraid to see what is happening. Thus, what was meant to be a comforting spiritual practice can cause anxiety. And of course, it is further exasperated by the fact that global leaders appear incapable and unwilling to engage in serious action on climate change. In fact, humanity’s leaders and those in power seem intent on pursuing the relentless profit-and greed-driven paradigms that are literally endangering all life on this planet.

The question in all of this is–what do we do? How might nature-based spirituality help us through this?  How can we find a way of balance through this chaos? What kinds of tools can we develop so that we can process our own emotions, come to a place of emotional resiliency, and–most importantly–be ready to take action? The first thing, and what some climate specialists argue is the most important, is attending to the emotional aspects of climate change.  As I’ll describe in this post, the emotional issues are often what prevent people from action, what create what appears to be apathy, and what ultimately can help us move forward into action.

Emotions and Climate Change

Our emotions about climate change are real, valid, and are a deep part of our own humanity.  To talk about this, I’m going to be drawing from the work of Renée Lertzman, who is a leading climate psychologist and whose work has influenced how I approach climate change from an emotional perspective.   She outlines three psychological points that can help us understand climate change and how to address our emotions:

Window of Tolerance: Originally developed by Dan Siegel, the window of tolerance refers to a our mental and emotional state being such that we can stay connected, integrated, and in touch with our feelings enough to be fully functional and able to accomplish what we want to accomplish in the world.

Each of us has a threshold for stress–the amount of stress that we can tolerate at a given time.  Each of our thresholds is different, and we may be more or less resilient to stress based on previous recent stressors.  For example, for many people, the global pandemic introduced a host of new stressors, and many are reporting that they are less able to cope with new stress now compared to two years ago.  When we experience more stress than we are able to tolerate, thus pushes us to the edges or even out of our window of tolerance and leads to one of two responses: a rigid response like anger or denial or a shutting down kind of response like depression or apathy.  Either of these two states makes us less able to be whole, resilient, adaptable and functioning within our window of tolerance. Now, if you think about most people’s response to climate change: apathy and anger/denial are two extremely common responses.  This is in part because the problem is so enormous and appears so insurmountable that psychologically, we shut down.  In addition, this is not a single stressor, but rather one that continues to build over time. Thus, we are experiencing nearly a constant stream of information that works to push us out of our window of tolerance and either makes us rigid or apathetic.  Thus, it takes work for us to integrate and attune to these emotions.

The Double Bind.  The second issue that comes into play with our emotions surrounding climate change is the “double bind.”  The basic idea of a double bind is that we feel trapped regardless of what we do–if we do something, we are trapped and if we do nothing, we are trapped. The “rock and a hard place” metaphor for describing this goes back at least to the Odyssey, where Odysseus has to choose between the monster Charybdis, who creates a whirlpool that would consume the entire ship and crew, and Scylla, whose many heads grab sailors off the deck and eat them.  This “rock and a hard place” metaphor is extremely apt for what is happening with climate change. It doesn’t matter what we do, we believe the message that we are trapped and that no amount of action or inaction will make a difference.  Or, in the case of others, they work hard to make changes, but recognize that laws, culture, and things like taxes and money require us down a path we’d rather not take.

Our human psychological response to this situation is to push these feelings away, to avoid looking at the problem too long.  So we bury our care and concern and avoid the whole thing.  This looks like apathy.

How do we get out of the double bind, so that we can fully function within our window of tolerance?  The key is what Lertzman calls Attunement, which is extremely close conceptually to what Jung would call Individuation.

Attunement is when we are in a relationship with the world that makes sense, where we are accepted, understood, and in connection with our own emotions and emotional states.  We do not face shame or judgment about our actions (or refuse to tolerate judgment/shame from others). You might think about this like tuning an instrument–it may be very out of tune or only a little, but as we play our great instrument of life, we need to be regularly tuning ourselves. Part of the work of attunement is personal and part is communal and collective.  The goal with attunement is to understand our window of tolerance and work to be within it–because if we are within it, we are much more able to solve problems, face challenges, and be resilient.

Emotional and Ritual Work for Healing

Attunement works on an “as within, so without” principle: we start with ourselves, then our loved ones and friends, and then, if we feel ready, being out in the broader world. The first thing is to do a lot of deep meditation on the issues of our own emotions and create space to feel whatever we feel without judgment (mindfulness practice is really useful here).  So you might start by saying;

1. What are my feelings about climate change?  (Sit with this question a while, let it roll over you for a period of days or weeks, and really dig deep into your feelings).

2. How can I offer compassion to myself about these feelings?  I think it’s important to recognize that these things are incredibly hard.  It is a very hard time to be both a human and a druid!

3.  Ask questions and try to cultivate curiosity surrounding the experience.

These three steps can help you work through your feelings. You may also choose to work through some of these through bardic arts (e.g. journaling your feelings about climate change, creating climate change-related art, and so forth).

Ritual work can also be appropriate here. f you have feelings that are debilitating you and preventing you from moving forward, a releasing ritual of some kind may be appropriate.  For example, this kind of ritual could be very appropriate for extreme anxiety, fear, or releasing numbness or apathy.  Really sit with this for a while before you choose to do a ritual though. A lot of these emotions we are feeling about climate change do need to be directly addressed and integrated, and they will continue to reoccur, and sometimes ritual work is another way of burying them or saying they are released and therefore don’t bother us any longer.   Another kind of ritual work that can help this process is spiritual journeying to understand the depths of your emotions and working with helpful spirits to heal.

An example of healing art about climate change

An example of healing art about climate change

I use bardic arts quite a bit for this work, where I focus on channeling some of that energy into my artwork for a better vision of the future.  The bardic arts have a tremendous ability to heal and ground us.

Beyond ourselves, the second step is to find friends and a community surrounding these issues. Find people with whom you can share your feelings and who can share with you openly and without judgment. Give people in your life permission to simply feel what they feel and share what they feel like sharing.  Being heard and understood is an important part of our own healing and growth.

The third step is to practice attunement in the broader world and in your interactions with others. Recognize that there is deep strength in showing up as a human being, talking about your emotions, and recognizing that we all have them. This can be as simple as a statement saying, “Yeah, I’m really angry too and I don’t have all the answers.  But let’s see what we can accomplish together.”

Action in the World

Many people have found that part of the process of dealing with deep emotions, beyond the meditative and psychological effects above, is to “do something.”  That something will be specific to you, and you can really take it as far as you want to go.  In AODA, we ask people who are working through our curriculum to make three lifestyle changes–these changes can be anything they choose, as long as they are direct actions in their lives.  My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice began in just that way–I wanted to feel like I was aligning with my own principles as a druid, that I was living my life in a way that was honoring the living earth and healing the land.  As I worked to learn so many things, those actions spiraled into an entire wheel of the year practice, and I finally had enough to share. That book is full of ideas to help you live more sustainably and regeneratively–direct action in the world.

I use this as a core way of dealing with these issues.  When I feel the weight of the world coming down, I work to channel it into something positive–go dig a new garden bed, go write a new blog post, go scatter some seeds.  I have found that this approach is a particularly valuable way of channeling some of that stress and pain and transforming it into something I can feel good about.

The other part is some level of acceptance about the things that are out of our power to change. In permaculture design, we think about “the problem is the solution” Here, we can do nothing but experience climate change, observe it, and maybe even take advantage of it.  I look at it this way–with warmer weather and more rain, how do I take advantage of that in terms of my food forest?  What can be a benefit to these conditions?

Conclusion

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say that the above has really helped me learn how to be a druid in the age of climate change, in the age of the Anthropocene.  Do I still have these feelings and get overwhelmed?  Yes, absolutely.  But I also think that by cultivating a set of tools, I am more resilient and prepared for whatever may come.

I’m very interested in hearing what others have experienced with regards to addressing feelings, emotions, and pain surrounding climate change.  What approaches have you used? What has worked for you?

Druid’s Travel Altar or Pocket Altar

Druid Travel Altars I made for initiation gifts

Druid Travel Altars I made for initiation gifts

Creating a little pocket or travel altar for your nature spirituality practice is a great way to be able to “carry” your practice with you, particularly when you are hiking, traveling, or simply out and about.  I’ve made a number of pocket altars over the years, and I get questions about how to make them, so I wanted to share here in today’s post.  This is a fun spiritual craft project that you can do that also helps you understand what is important about your work.

Purpose

The purpose of a Druid’s Pocket Altar is that you have some ritual tools that you can put in your pocket.  Then, you are prepared for ceremony anywhere that you might find yourself. For some druids, having these kinds of tools at hand can be a helpful part of their practice. What I particularly like about a travel altar kit like the one I’m going to describe today is that you can go out into the woods, build a larger altar from sticks, leaves, etc, and pull a few focal points out of your pocket to complete your setup. These little pocket altars are great for throwing in a purse or backpack and, if carefully crafted, can even be taken on a flight or longer trip.

Buiding your Pocket Altar

The first thing you should do is consider what your absolute necessity go-to ritual items are and what you might want to include in your travel altar.  In other words, which items are necessary to your practice? For some people, it may be more important to have representations of the elements and for others, you might want to focus on statuary, representations of animals spirits or diety, etc. Others may want a smoke clearing stick or an offering blend. Make a list of the “necessary items” for your altar. After this, create your list of “would be nice but not necessary” items.

Here is a list of some possibilities:

  • Representation of fire: candle, red stone, stone deer figurine, piece of antler, red and yellow glass marble
  • Representation of water: vial of water, collapsible or tiny bowl, shell, river stone, blue stone, river stone
  • Representation of air: incense cones or sticks, charcoal for found incense (if you are hiking in forests, it’s easy to find conifer resin – see this post), smoke clearing stick, feather
  • Representation of earth: wood burned tree image on wood round, rough stone, green stone, vial of earth, sand, vial of salt, salt cube
  • Vial of anointing oil
  • Tiny divination set: pendulum, penny for flipping yes/no; tiny set of runes, mini tarot, etc.
  • Offering blend
  • Icons or statuary: small carved beads work well, as do small stone animal carvings
  • Prayer beads or strands
  • Vials of herbal blends you use with your practice
  • Altar cloth: go to a thrift store and look through their hanky, scarf, and doily selection and you will likely find a few nice options for a tiny cloth to carry with you
  • Smoke clearing stick
  • Quarter and cross quarter stones for marking sacred space: you can get 8 stones–all the same or representative of the quarters and cross quarters and use them to mark a sacred grove; you can also paint these with elemental symbolsm

As you are deciding on your list, you will also want to decide what size of the container you will make your altar in. The smallest possible size that is reasonable is an Altoids tin; I have an example of one of those below and also an example of another slightly larger tin (this is a used salve tin that I repurposed).  You want something that is sturdy but also lightweight–so metal tins are a great choice.  I would be hesitant to use glass because it is more prone to breaking.  A lightweight wooden box would be another very good choice.

Finally, you should also consider how and where you will take the altar with you. If you will be traveling on a plane, for example, you will want to omit any liquids like oils or waters from your altar.  If you are going to be in forested environments, it’s much easier to forage representations of the elements and incense, so you might look to offering blends, a fire-starting tool, and a small knife.

Assemble your Pocket Altar

Once you’ve created your list and found your altar container, you can start working on making or sourcing the items that go in your travel altar.  Start by looking through your own spiritual supplies. Beyond your own stash, if you are looking for representations of animals, elements, or other sacred symbols, a good resource is a bead supply shop, as they often carry small beads for many different things.  You can also look at a rock shop, which often will carry small animal figurines, colored marbles, etc.  I recommend the incense matches if you are very tight on space–they work great and double as a fire source and incense source.  Sourcing your items and seeing how they all fit can be a very fun part of the process.

Finally, you want to decide if you want any artwork inside or outside of the box; artwork can include poetry, pictures, collages, paintings, and much more. You have lots of options here, from finding artwork in magazines and gluing it on, painting or drawing your own artwork, using photos you have printed, etc.  Think about where you want it (top of box, sides or bottom, inside).  If you are going to carry this with you frequently, I’d be hesitant about too much artwork on the outside unless it was very sealed (e.g. decoupage would be a good option) as it will wear over time.  But inside the box is protected and you can add all kinds of artwork as you choose.

Another  option here is painting–if you are working on metal, enamels work well.  You can also use spray paint (a technique here is to paint one shade, let it dry, then take leaves, flowers, or ferns and then lay them on top of the box and spray a second shade).

A final option is that you can leave the tin as it is and then just have it disguised as something it is not, which can be very useful if you are a closet druid!

Sample Travel Altar: OBOD Bardic Initiation Gift

This travel altar is one that I made for bardic initiations we were performing for the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids at the MAGUS gathering in 2019. For these, they were OBOD specific, so a lot of the symbolism both in the art and box is geared towards OBOD practice.

Because of this, wanted to include a representation of the bardic symbol and connections with the four elements, which are used heavily in OBOD. I also wanted to include an offering blend.  Here are some of the component pieces I assembled–a tiny tin of offering herbs, a wood round with a wood burned tree and earth symbol, a vial of sacred waters (saved from previous OBOD ceremonies and other places), and the OBOD’s Bardic symbol with an awen in it.  Not pictured here was a beeswax candle and some incense matches.

Components of the travel altars

Components of the travel altars

Here's how the inside of the altar looks packed and unpacked.

Here’s how the inside of the altar looks packed and unpacked.

This second photo shows everything that comes out of the tin and how I managed to get it all fitting inside.  It was tricky but it all worked!

In terms of decoration, I had two different approaches.  Since I wanted to cover up the Altoids logo (I was using repurposed tins), I made nice watercolor panels that I sealed with an acrylic sealer.  This helped protect them from wear and tear.  I glued those on the inside, top, and bottom of each altar.

I chose to do the outside cover and inside covers with watercolor panels–painted them, cut them to size, and then used a water-based superglue (the Ultimate) to adhere them.  I sealed them with clear acrylic.  The outside of the panel just had a little tree scene on it.  The inside of the panel included the Druid’s Prayer for Peace as a focus for meditation.

Alcohol ink inside the boxes

Alcohol ink inside the boxes

I decided to spiff up the insides as well.  I used alcohol inks, which are permanent and can adhere to things like metal and glass.  These gave a cool effect.  Here’s a photo of the alcohol inks in progress. Once everything was done, I packed them up and we gave them out to the new bards at our gathering.

Conclusion

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this tutorial on how to make a pocket altar.  These are really fun to make and make fantastic initiation gifts or other gifts for all sorts of people on nature-based spiritual paths.

Bringing back the Hearth: Ancestral Fires for Protection, Connection, and Comfort

Sacred tea over the fire

Sacred tea over the fire

Fire is one of the most ancient tools that humans have and one of the things that separates our species from others on this beautiful planet.  Humans have an incredible ancestral connection to fire. Think about how a fire draws you in–when you see a campfire or fire in a hearth, you want to get close and stay warm. That is probably because we humans have been working with fire for somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million years. 1.5 million years ago, our ancient ancestors would have been Homo Erectus; and so, as we evolved into Homo Sapiens, it is very likely that fire was already with us. For more information on fire and ancestral fires, I suggest checking out this post!

Because of this deep connection, if we move forward quite a bit in time, we can understand why as people built permanent homes, the hearth–that which contained the fire safely indoors–was the center of the home. Yet today, fire is something that many modern homes have completely lost–where we’ve boxed up fire in stoves or use electricity or gas instead of our more ancient heat, light, and cooking source.  Most people in modern homes have almost no connection to the equipment that keeps them warm in the winter or cooks their food–and that ancient ancestral connection to fire is missing.  So in today’s post, I wanted to talk about working with a hearth in a magical way–how you can reclaim an abandoned hearth, create a “hearth space” indoors even if you don’t have a hearth, or create an outdoor hearth, all as part of sacred actions.

A Hearth

A hearth has different levels of meaning and rich history in many different cultures.  Let’s start with language because language can offer fascinating aspects of history. “Hearth” itself can be traced back to Proto-Indo European *ker, which has connections to modern words in English including hearth, coal, and carbon.  Anything that goes back as far as Proto-Indo-European demonstrates a very common thing present in very ancient human cultures situated in Europe and India, and is a little slice into that ancestral history.  From there, we see that Hearth is present in Old  English as ‘heorð” later moving into our more modern term.  Latin also gives us another clue, with the Latin word for hearth being “focis” or “focus”, demonstrating the importance of the hearth.  Thus, value and connection to fire and to a hearth is literally woven into our language as far back as we can trace.

Traditional peoples give us another insight into the importance of fire. As explained in Ropes to God: Experiencing the Bushmen Spiritual Universe, Keeney describes how the Kalahari Bushmen, have the fire as part of the center of their community activities–the fire each night is where they share their stories of the day, eat, and connect with others.  Stories shared around this fire are the property of the entire community, and are a way for them to weave connection with their surrounding landscape.  Here in the US, you can see the importance of the indoor hearth by visiting our oldest houses or seeing historical reenactment.  In early US history, the hearth was centered in the home, massive hearths that measured 6 or more feet across with many different cooking tools.  These hearths started to slowly be replaced during the industrial revolution as a focus on efficiency and productivity became core values.  Thus, the traditional open hearth became replaced by more “efficient” and “hands-off” technologies in the last 150 or so years. In his book On Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane describes fire as being “unceremoniously boxed up” in boxes of Iron; he argues that this “boxing” of fire created disconnection both with wood and fire.  While the idea of a hearth may look different in different cultures and parts of the world, the fact that some form of fire and heat exists to cook, to connect, and to warm with seems to be a staple of human existence.

A very different kind of hearth--the earth oven at the druid's garden homestead!

A very different kind of hearth–the earth oven at the druid’s garden homestead!

The traditional hearth even inside a house is the center of the home, and I would argue the hearth functions a bit differently than any modern equivalent, like a kitchen. If you think about the center of the home now, depending on the home and family, it is likely the living room, where everyone crowds around the TV, or perhaps the kitchen table, where everyone eats.  But neither of these spaces has quite the same relationship with you in terms of comfort, protection, and warmth that a traditional hearth has. I believe that in moving away from traditional fire cooking and hearths, we’ve lost something important, something rooted in slow time and slow living that would be useful for us to consider bringing back.

Key Features of the Hearth: Physically and Magically

If we want to think about re-creating some of these important spaces for ourselves (regardless of whether or not we have access to indoor fire), it’s useful to understand the different features of a hearth from both a physical and magical perspective.

On the practical side, a hearth is first and foremost a fireproof surface that creates a safe space for your fire or stove to burn.  The hearth extends well beyond your open fireplace or stove, creating, literally, a safety net for any coals, sparks, or flames that may jump out of the fire. The hearth is what contains the fire, makes it safe, and also provides us additional tools to engage with it. If we consider this from a magical perspective, the hearth literally is built for physical protection, making it potentially very good to use for magical protective work.

There’s also a communal aspect to the hearth.  Prior to the replacement of open fireplaces with coal, gas, or electric stoves/boilers/heaters, the hearth was also the source of warmth, heat, and light for much of the year.  As the cold and dark closed in during the dark times, families would gather around the hearth to tell stories, share meals, work on various handicrafts and repairs, and spend time together. We see this feature in hearths whether or not it’s an outdoor or indoor space. Thus, the hearth is a space that allows us to share with each other and to stay warm and comforted–again, connecting to blessing, protection, and stability.

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

Fire provides us safety and life. Making fire is a critical skill for all humans (going back to my discussion of Reskilling at Imbolc a few weeks ago). Making fire was certainly one of the very first skills our ancient ancestors would teach their young, because for many, it would mean the difference between life and death. A fire can be the difference between safety and fear, between freezing and warm, and between safe water to drink and unsafe water. Again, we see the theme of safety and also having something that is a powerful tool to help us provide for our needs.

The hearth also puts you in direct connection with the elements. To make a fire, you would have to gather wood and prepare it–requiring knowledge of the land, how to forage, dry and store wood, tinder, and kindling. You also need knowledge for how to use those materials to start a fire through the application of air and friction. These require connection to nature through the wood and stones in the hearth, the element of air for oxygen which feeds the flame, as well as the element of fire itself through the blaze.

Finally, the hearth is where, traditionally, meals are cooked and shared.  Before modern stoves or burners, a hearth was the only source of heat for cooking, and people spent a great deal of time at the hearth. Unlike your modern stove, hearth cooking requires a lot more monitoring, knowledge, time, and skill. That is, you are tending the fire, you are working carefully with the coals, and you are building a relationship with it as you cook your meal. There is simply no equivalent to cooking over the fire vs. cooking over a stove.   So here, we see the principles of connection as well as slowing down.

Thus, like many things that were developed before modern industrialization, to truly experience a hearth in a traditional sense requires that we move back to “slow time”. A hearth requires that we attend to it regularly. As we build and feed the fire, the fire requires our time and energy.  We have to gather the wood, store the wood, bring the wood in.  We have to make sure the fire stays burning in a safe way.  As we put our time and energy into the hearth, we are rewarded with a deepening sense of connection to that space as well as the warmth, protection, blessing, and stability of that place.  Even if you don’t have a hearth in your home, there are things that you can do to create this sense of warmth, protection, and comfort.

Creating and Tending a Hearth space

Depending on where you live, how you create a hearth space will likely be very different.  I’ll cover some options based on your living circumstances.  Ultimately, not everyone has a hearth or hearth space in their house that they could already use, so we can get creative.

A Traditional Hearth.  If you have any kind of wood-based heating in your house that is in your living area, this would be your obvious choice for cultivating a hearth space.  I’ve been in a lot of houses where their hearth sits unused in favor of more modern heating and cooking sources. My suggestion to those who are blessed with this feature in their home is to use it if they aren’t already!  Make this the center of some activity, such as through reading, cooking, entertaining friends, or spending long cozy nights near the hearth.  Spend time decorating your hearth, making it feel welcoming and homey. Make it a point to start a fire and enjoy being near it regularly.  Perhaps learn some hearth cooking. Do what you can to make this space welcoming, sacred, and inviting.

A Hearth Shrine and cozy space.  Many people do not have a traditional hearth space–maybe you live in an apartment or a more modern home that does not have a fireplace.  For many years, I was in this same situation, and I discovered that there are many other things that you can do to still bring that energy of protection, comfort, and fire to your life. Using the principles above, consider how you might create a space that is cozy, comforting, and that puts fire at the center. For example, place a shallow bowl with sand and add a number of beeswax pillar candles to the bowl–this will create a “fire area” that you can then safely enjoy.  Or, you can use a candelabra or some other candle holder, decorate it, and place it in a central space where you often spend time. I have found that using multiple candles really helps you get this “fire” effect.  The other piece of this is to make it comforting, inviting, and a place you want to spend time.  You can set your hearth candles up each time, or you can give it a permanent place in your home.  You may also be in a living circumstance where candles aren’t allowed to be burned (such as a college dorm or apartment).  In that case, you might look to electric candles or even those little plug-in fireplaces–something that will give you some fire-like effect. Around your hearth altar, you can practice bardic arts or crafts, read, meditate, eat your meals, spend time with others, and really practice slowing down.

An Outdoor Hearth Space.  Another option for the warmer months is to create an outdoor hearth space. Using the same principles as an indoor hearth, you can create a central firepit that can be lit regularly or even an outdoor kitchen, earth oven, or another outdoor cooking area. Outdoor hearths can be wonderful spaces to spend evenings in the spring, summer, and fall, and still practice connecting with fire, slowing down, and connecting to the living earth.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we’ve been working on building an outdoor kitchen–we have our cob earth oven mostly finished, we have a completed rocket stove griddle/ maple sap boiler, and we’ll be working on some rocket stove burners and a naturally built pavilion in the years to come.  This has become a center point for us–with cozy chairs and a warm fire, you can stay out near the outdoor kitchen and use it for sacred activities.

Hearth Space Activities

Now that you have created or reclaimed some space where you can have a hearth, you might wonder what kinds of spiritual activities and sacred work can be done at the hearth.  I would suggest a number of both mundane and magical practices.

Slowing down. Tending a fire requires us to slow down and move with earth time.  Committing to a hearth practice is a commitment to taking your time to tend a fire and give that space some of your attention.  Relaxing, breathing deeply, and simply getting into the rhythm of the flames is an extremely relaxing and important thing to do. One of the things your hearth space can remind you to do is just to slow down, breathe, and relax.

Cooking. If you are working with a fire, cookstove, or outdoor space, learning how to cook on the fire can be a really wonderful thing to do–it puts you in a much deeper relationship with food and with fire. I’ve started learning hearthside cooking in the last few years.  Fire cooking does require different tools than you might use in your traditional kitchen–one of the most useful is a cast iron dutch oven with small legs, which is typically used with coals.  You simply take coals from your fire and place them on the bottom and top of the oven (or set the oven in a fire that has gone to coals) and wait. Other useful tools are any cast iron pans (you can use them both on the fire and on your regular stove), griddles, trivets, and other tools.  Antique stores are one of the best places to pickup cast iron cookware–and this cookware will last you a lifetime. Once you’ve gotten your hands on a piece of cast iron or two, you can make many different dishes and start to explore this ancient art.

Spiritual Activities:  A hearth is an amazing time for any number of spiritual activities. Meditation, spending time connecting with the elements of fire and earth, ritual work or spiritual study are all good choices.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles--you can see the light of sunrise coming back in!  The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles–you can see the light of sunrise coming back in! The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

Ritual activities: Your hearth can also be the center of ritual activities, particularly those in the dark half of the year if you are indoors, or outdoors during the light half of the year. Around our hearth we have in our home, we’ve held grove events and rituals that have centered on the hearth. For example, we have built ancestor altars using the mantle above the hearth, where then the ancestors are invited in for the rest of the gathering.  We have also used the hearth for celebrating the winter solstice, where we place 14 candles (representing the 14 hours of darkness) and each candle (for more on this, see The Druid’s Book of Ceremonies, Prayers and Songs, which has an entry by Robert Pactti on this approach).

These are just a small taste of the many things you can do as you are thinking about connecting with the ancient element of fire, connecting with nature and the living earth, and learning how to more fully embrace the ancestral ways–which will also be the ways of the future.

I would love to hear stories of your own fires, hearths, and work in this area!