Author Archives: Dana

About Dana

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

Honoring the Ancestors of the Bardic Arts: Tools, Techniques, and Legacies

Shoemaking Hammer with Spirit

Browsing an antique store a year ago, I found a wonderful shoemaking hammer.  It was an interesting shape, and when I held the tool, I could literally feel the connection this tool had had with its previous owner. Whoever had owned this tool had used it well–the handle was worn, a piece of old, soft velcro partially worn off where someone had placed it for a firmer grip. I could sense the resonance of craft and skill in this hammer. I held the unique hammer in my hand, and turned it a few times, knowing that this tool would find a wonderful home in my art studio.  But more than that, this tool had a bardic ancestral connection to one of the primary bardic arts  I have been pursuing for some time: leatherwork.

In Druidry and broader neopaganism, we often focus on the ancestors in three different directions.  The first is ancestors of our blood, which is the most common idea of “ancestor” in modern culture, and represents a connection with the DNA and lineage that we have coursing through our blood and bone. We often also recognize ancestors of the lands where we live (which is critically important for those of us who live on lands that were stolen through colonialization).  And we also recognize ancestors of our tradition or spiritual path, for example, in Druidry, the ancient druids and those of the druid revival period are honored as ancestors.  I’d like to suggest that for those of us engaged in the creation of bardic arts, we might consider a fourth kind of ancestor: ancestors of our craft.  By bardic arts, I mean any creative arts that you practice, which can include literary, musical, movement, art and craft, or others that are less easier to categorize. These are things you create with your hands, your mind, your body, and your heart that allow you to experience the flow of awen (creativity) and create.  In my earlier post on this topic, I offered a philosophy of ancestors of the bardic arts in two ways: the first was in considering taking up bardic arts that are tied to your own blood ancestors: what they created, how they created it, and so forth. Thus, you can draw upon ancestral in the choice of a new art form or carry on a family ancestral legacy. The second way I shared was through connecting to previous through previous bardic creations and using those as inspiration. For a clothing maker, this might be being inspired by previous century’s fashions, for a musician, sets of notes created in another time period, or by poets, through the words written in days of old.  These flows of inspiration can support the creation of new works today. In today’s post, I want to expand this idea of bardic ancestry and also consider the role of tools and teachings as a third area that we might consider to be part of a “bardic ancestry.”

Tools and Connections

Some of the leather and tools gifted to me

To get back to my shoemaker’s hammer, part of the reason that I was so excited to find this hammer is that this isn’t the first set of old and well-loved tools that I’ve encountered.  In fact, the first set of tools set me on the path of leatherwork six years ago. The journey into leatherwork was an unexpected one, one that almost fell in my lap.  It started with Yankee Shoe Repair, which was an icon in my hometown for over 100 years.  I remember going into this bright, wonderful store when I was a child with my grandmother and looking at all of the patent leather shoes that they made there.  In late 2013, the proprietor, Carmel Coco, had passed away and nobody in his family decided to continue his legacy.  According to the article linked above,  Carmel had given up other opportunities, including going to the conservatory for music, so that he could dedicate his life to leathercraft and continue his family’s business.  In early 2014, Yankee Shoe Repair went up for auction.  My parents, who are artists themselves, went to the auction and ended up purchasing leatherwork tools and much of the remaining leather for me as a birthday gift.

I was delighted with the gift and began to learn in earnest. Leatherwork drew me in deeply because it required a tremendous amount of technical skill to master (which is a welcome challenge) but also, in part, because I did feel like I was in my small way continuing a local ancestral legacy.  The tools that I held in my hands and worked with, such as punches, a beautiful bakelite hammer, and a lovingly crafted handmade awl, weren’t just any tools, they were special tools that came from a special place and that needed to be honored.

Leather case I made for my sickle

After spending time with these tools, learning how they work (mostly through books and youtube videos), I have developed my own relationship with them.  These tools of my craft have a spirit of their own.  They have presence.  I can feel the weight of the years of use in them, guiding my hand.

I think, given time, my newer tools that I purchased to supplement the ones that my parents bought will take on their own energy and spirit.  But that will come only after years of use and relationship building.

I suspect that many of us may have an opportunity to connect with old tools of a bardic art, or even have those tools come to us in unexpected ways.  My suggestion is this: If you are going to start a new bardic art, see if you can find some older, well-loved, and well-made tools.  Perhaps this is an older instrument, set of songbooks, old wooden palate, and so forth.  connecting with the tools of previous masters of the craft offers you what I can only describe as an energetic connection into your craft.  You still have to put in the work, practice, and cultivate your technical skills.  But using those tools gives you something that is simply not present, and I can only describe it as a bardic ancestral connection.

Teachings and Techniques

The other way in which I see this ancestral bardic connection flowing is through a different kind of legacy–a legacy of teaching and learning.  Techniques and teachings are refined, passed on, and shared with students.  This might be from a physical teacher to student (and certainly, this was the only way it was done in days of old), or, it might be through preserved books, teachings, and recorded lectures.  I see this as another ancestor of bardic craft connection: if someone has decided to pass what they know on, you are carrying that legacy of instruction with you each time you use those techniques and skills taught.

Leather burned piece above altar

It is not easy to find local leatherworkers willing to teach you or local leatherwork classes. I have only had the opportunity of taking one in-person class in leatherwork (at the North American Bushcraft School) and one more via purchased video (the DVD from Jason Hovatter on Scandanavian Turnshoes).  Those were both fairly recent in the last few years–and before and since then, I’ve been mostly on my own.  The thing about leatherwork is that it does require huge amounts of technical skill, and no amount of “messing around” with the tools will teach you certain things you need to know.  You need to use the established techniques to be successful.  For me, filling in the in-person gaps was the books and teaching legacy of Al Stohlman. Al Stohlman and his wife Ann revolutionized leatherwork, producing over 30 incredible books that are literally illustrated in leather.  These books teach you everything you need to know about techniques, construction, how to use and care for your tools, and more.  The impact of these books on my technical skill and how much they have taught me (and how much I still have to learn from them) is incredible. Thus, the other clear bardic ancestors I honor in leathercraft is Al and Ann Stohlman.

I suspect that many of us who are interested in taking up a particularly technical art form may eventually find those kinds of sources–teachers, either direct or indirect–which help us radically shape our craft and build technique.  Those kinds of inspirational figures are worthy of honor and respect.

Honoring the Ancestors of the Bardic Arts

Leather bag with a wolf theme

Now I’ve offered four ways–two in the last post, and two in this post–to think about bardic ancestors and honoring those ancestors.  But what might this look like in practice?  I’ll share a few ideas, although I suspect that different bardic art forms may require their own kinds of adaptations).

  1. Honoring the tools of the craft.  Because I am working with tools that carry a legacy, I take a moment at the start of a new project or when I pick up my tools for a creative session to honor them.  I have a moment of silence where I simply feel the tools, hold them, and express gratitude for them.  It’s not any kind of big ritual, but simply acknowledgment and gratitude.  Even if you aren’t working with legacy tools, I think it’s a good practice to take a moment to honor the tools–the raw materials they were created from and their support of your work.
  2. Honoring your hands and body as a tool of creation. If you are a dancer or singer or use your body in some way to create, you might also think about the ancestral legacy flowing through your veins–that voice came from some genetic combination, the hands that were shaped from the genetic material of previous ancestors, etc.
  3. Ancestor Shrine in your place of creation.  As with other ancestors, you might create a small altar or shrine to honor your ancestors of the craft.  This could be set up in a place where you create.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or elaborate, but a simple acknowledgment of the lineages and crafting traditions that you follow.
  4. Ancestor work at Samhain. For any of the ancestor work that you do at Samhain or other parts of the year, consider including the ancestors of your bardic crafts.  For example, I usually do an ancestor altar, dumb supper, and ancestor ritual of some kind as a way to honor my ancestors (sometimes this is with a grove, and sometimes solo).  Consider adding these ancestors in and revering them in the same way you would other ancestors in your spiritual practice.
  5. Improve your skill and dedicate yourself to your craft. I think that another way that you can honor the ancestors of the bardic arts is by dedicating yourself to developing technical skill and eventual mastery.  If you are using their tools, techniques, and approaches, applying these well is a form of honor.
  6. Naming and honoring. You might name a piece after an ancestor or create something that honors the ancestors of your bardic arts in a specific way.

    A larger awen bag

A week ago, my new leather sewing machine arrived. The machine represents a huge step forward in me deepening my craft of leatherwork. It allows me to move in new some exciting new directions.  I named the machine “Coco” in honor of my ancestors.  I hope that this post has inspired you in some new directions.  I am happy to continue to share deep thoughts on the bardic arts–sometimes they seem a bit “left out” in our spiritual discussions in Druidry, but I think they are so critical to our paths.  Blessings to all.

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging and will resume blogging on the Winter Solstice.  Starting in 2021, I’m also planning on starting to release a quarterly email newsletter.  This will feature some of my favorite writing, new artwork, and other news about my work (such as my upcoming Sacred Actions book being released by Shiffer Publishing in 2021!)   If you are interested in signing up, please visit:  https://www.druidsgardenart.com/mailing-list/

Self Publishing Your Own Tarot or Oracle Deck: Printers, Marketing, Layout and More!

 

The Plant Spirit Oracle Book and Deck

Some time ago, I offered insight into how to create your own oracle or tarot deck for your own purposes. I promised a follow-up article that explored the world of self-publishing and had a recent request for this information, so here it is!  This article starts where the last one left off–I’m not going to talk about creation, intention, or media in this article but rather share the aspects of taking something that you have already created (or are in the process of creating) and sharing it with the world.  While there are certainly a number of considerations at play, creating an oracle or tarot deck that you release to the world can be a fantastic experience.  I realize a lot of people don’t need this information, but I’d like to put it out there for those who might find it helpful in bringing their own project to realization.

I’m writing this article from my 10+ years of experience as being a self-published tarot and oracle author and illustrator. My first self-published deck was the 1st edition of the Tarot of Trees, painted in 2005-2008 and self-published in 2009. 11 years later, we’ve just released a 10th-anniversary edition (the 4th print run) of the Tarot of Trees that was fully redesigned (both deck and book). I’ve also released the Plant Spirit Oracle deck in 2019, and hope to release my upcoming Tree Alchemy oracle in late 2021 or early 2022. Currently, my sister and I work together to produce and release these decks (I handle art, design, layout, and printing and my sister handles marketing, sales, shipping, and customer relations).

Benefits and Drawbacks to Self Publishing a Tarot or Oracle Deck

I want to start by sharing some of the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing so that you have a sense of what you might be getting yourself into!

Benefits: There are several significant benefits to self-publishing your own deck. The first benefit is that you have full creative control of all aspects of your project. This means everything from the card size to the cover art is in your control. When you involve a professional publisher, you relinquish a good deal of that control and you can end up with something that is very different than your vision, depending on the publisher.  That doesn’t always happen, but I’ve heard enough firsthand stories to know it does!

The second is that you can decide the timeline for your project to be released to the world.  If you are seeking a publisher, it may be several years until you secure a publisher to print your deck.  Most publishers take 6-12 months to respond to you after you prepare a submission packet (for example, my first book, Sacred Actions, is coming out in 2021 but I finished it in 2016–it took 4 years to find a publisher).  With that said, your timeline might be quite a while: both of the decks I have out took several years to finish, even with me working on them regularly–doing 40 or 78 high-quality paintings simply take time, finding a printer takes time, etc.  So while you control the timeline, it is unrealistic to think you can do this quickly.

The Tarot of Trees 3rd Edition with Special Edition Box

The third has to do with return on investment. Typical contracts with a publisher often offer 5-8% of the profits back of the deck to the creator.  Thus, depending on the deck, you might not see much of a return on your time investment even if you sell a lot of decks. If you self-publish and people like your work, you receive 100% of the net profits. You will be able to create an additional income stream from your project, which can fund other projects, donations, and more.  With that said, producing Tarot decks are not get rich quick schemes–they are labors of love that require years of dedication and work.

Drawbacks: Self-publishing certainly has its drawbacks and most of them are centered around doing everything yourself.  First, you have to have–or learn–the right set of skills to self publish. This includes art and design skills. Specifically, you must be able to learn scanning, editing, and layout. Most people use the Adobe Creative Suite (namely, Photoshop and Indesign) for this, but, those programs can be expensive, so you can also use Gimp or other open-source options). These skills aren’t particularly hard to learn but do require some investment on your part. Reaching out to friends or others who may already have some of them and can teach you is certainly a good approach. 

The second potential drawback is that you are running your own business, which includes handling all taxes, bookkeeping, and everything else. Some people might be good at this (again, this is another skillset to learn) and some may not.  Some people may want to do this and some may not. 

The third potential drawback is that you will be serving as your own distributor (e.g. you are packing and shipping orders). This requires a time commitment each week, access to the post office, and so forth. 

The fourth potential drawback is that you will require thousands of dollars, at a minimum, to invest in your venture. If you already have a good social media presence or way to reach people who might support your deck, and you can launch a successful crowdfunding campaign, you can raise a good deal of what you will need to invest.  But if you don’t have this avenue and haven’t built a social media presence, you might have to front much of the cost. The first time I published the Tarot of Trees, I invested all of my own funds, which was terrifying. For the more recent release of the Plant Spirit Oracle, we did pre-orders through a crowdfunding campaign on Indegogo and were able to earn what we needed. We offered discounted decks, book and deck sets, along with handpainted and handmade art that people could purchase.

To give you a sense of the costs to launch a self-published deck and boot set, I’ll use the Plant Spirit Oracle as an example.  The Plant Spirit Oracle required a $4000 print run, the $1000 in shipping and import costs, the funds to ship out all decks people preordered ($1000), packaging and shipping supplies ($150-200), professional editing ($500), an ISBN and Barcode ($250), and as many books (printed on demand) as we needed (at about $6 each).  We set our goal at $8000 which was able to cover most of our costs.  I will say that you always will need more than you think–because things come up.  For example, the shipping prices went up quite considerably between the campaign and the release, and we had other odds and ends we forgot to account for.

Self Publishing: The Process and Considerations

If I haven’t scared you off based on the above discussion, we can now get into the business of talking about the actual process of self-publishing a deck.  I’m going to walk you through my own process, step by step.

Have a good idea. People are always looking for interesting and unique oracles and tarots to add to their collection and there can be a very good market for this work. Start with a solid idea and make sure that your artistic skills are up to the task. If you aren’t sure of your artistic skills, take a few classes and practice–art is like any other skill. You can improve drastically with patience and persistence, as I’ve discussed here in terms of my own work.  Once you think you have an idea, complete a few initial cards and sit with the idea a while.   If you have people who you trust, share the idea, and talk through it with them. Do some Internet searching to see if your idea is unique.  Do some planning and thought, as I discussed in my first post on this topic.

My In-progress Tree Alchemy Oracle

Decide on your name and register domain and social media names.  Since there are a lot of oracles and tarots out there today, you might want to make sure that your idea and name is unique and not too close to other names.  Spend some time naming, as it is a critical part of your project.  Once you have a name, you will want to register your domain for that, establish a hashtag, as well as establish a social media presence.  You could create an entirely new social media presence, or, if you already have one, use that with hashtags to share your project (for example, all of my artistic pursuits run under the Instagram handle @druidsgardenart but I’ll tag #Tarotoftrees as I work on that project).

Decide on the size of your work.  You have to make sure that you are producing your work in a way that will be easy to transition to a print run. Consider the following: what size do you want the final cards to be?  Do you want your cards to have a border? Will your cards include a card name on the bottom?  What shape might you want your cards to be?

One of the ways to get really crisp, nice artwork on a card is to produce the artwork larger and then reduce it when you lay out the deck. For example, I painted the Plant Spirit Oracle at 11×14″ each with enough for bleed (so I could produce these borderless), and they were 3.5×5.5″, which also included space for a title and key meanings. 

As you are making this decision, there are some things to know (and I’m not going to describe them here because there are lots of good tutorials out there and this post will already be long).  First, you need to learn about aspect ratios, so you can produce your work at a size that will work for your end product.  That is, you have to learn how to successfully reduce a larger piece of artwork to the size of the end card.  If you are planning on borderless cards, you will also need to research and understand the principle of bleed in printing so that you can plan accordingly.  Borderless cards offer some advantages–one of the biggest challenges I’ve had with printers over the years is getting the cut right on my borders so that they are all consistent.  Both my 2nd and 3rd edition print run was unfortunately plagued with this problem and we ended up having multiple decks we could not sell.  You can get a good and contentious printer to make your borders perfect (the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Tarot of Trees is a great example of this) but this is one area that is easily messed up by your printer. Finally, you can look up common die sizes that printers have (round, square, oval, etc) and that might spark your own creativity for producing your work.  These vary by printer, so when you inquire (see below), you can ask what card sizes they are able to print in.

Build a presence and share your process.  I would suggest building an online presence and inviting people who might be interested in your deck. Create an Instagram account, share stories, create a website, and so on.  If you expect to take 2 years to complete the art on your deck, start sharing it after you have a few cards done and have a sense of the look and feel of it. Create a unique name, get yourself a hashtag, and as people like your work, they will follow you. Get yourself a mailing list so you can keep people who are interested in your work.  The key here is to start to create a buzz before you finish your project–consider it part of your process of creation–to build the audience for your work.  Then when you want to release a crowdfunded campaign, you are ready to go.

Wonderfully printed cards!

I’ve often been asked at what point do you start sharing your work in progress.  This is a tricky question as I think the answer is dependent, in part, on the kind of artist you are. For me personally, I like to get a bit along in the project before I share.  My oracles and tarot decks usually take me 3-5 years to complete (as I also write full-size books with them), so I don’t want people hanging forever waiting for it to be done. I might start sharing about 18 months from the time I expect to have the project released to the world. For example, in the last month, I just started sharing on my Instagram about my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle deck (#treealchemy and #treealchemyoracle).  I just finished the artwork for that project, and I have six months of writing and layout left to do before that project will have a crowdfunding campaign. I didn’t want to share that work too early–it was a learning process over a number of years where I basically taught myself eco-printing and I had no idea how many years it would take me to complete. A lot of my projects are like that–creating an oracle or tarot is a journey into the unknown and is a process of deepening and unfolding that takes time. My own take on this is to share once you are ready and have a firm idea of what your project is, your size, your look, etc.

Finding a Good Printer.  I cannot stress the importance of finding a really good printer and taking the time (often 1-2 months or more) to do so.  There are lots of printers out there, and their prices vary considerably as does their quality. Begin by inquiring to a number of different printers and ask for A) their quote for your print run and B) mailed samples of their work. Get a quote and also find out if there are charges for setup (a good printer shouldn’t have one), shipping, and any hidden charges.  A good printer will respond promptly (within 48 hours) with questions and/or a quote and will be happy to send you some samples through the mail.  Talk to them about your project and your needs.  

So a request for a quote might look like this: I am looking for a print run of an 80 card deck, size 2.5×3.5″. I would like a rigid tuck box, full color. The deck is full color on both sides. I would prefer 300gsm paper, recycled cardstock if at all possible.  I also will require a printed proof mailed to my address.

Now I’m going to go through some of the key aspects of your print run.

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition

The Tarot of Trees, 1st edition, printed at 2.5×3.5″ (poker size)

Dies / Sizes. Larger printers will have more dies (sizes) to work with and will be able to print and cut any common size of the card. If you see a “die” charge and your quote is higher than expected, it is likely because they are charging you $1000-$2000 or more to create a custom die–if that’s the case, just find a different printer who has your die already made. If you chose a common size to lay your cards out in, you shouldn’t have this issue. If you want your cards at a really strange size, you will have to pay to have the die to cut them out made, which can considerably add to your cost. Realize that dies also can come in oval, circular, or more–but you have to find a printer that can cut to that size.

Printed proof. Something that printers will resist but I 100% insist on is a printed proof copy of your deck. This may cost you $100-250, and it is money well spent. A printed proof will let you see exactly what the project will look like, adjust colors, fix errors, and offer feedback.  Do not be fooled by a “digital proof” and them saying it will accurately print to the digital proof–this is often not true.  If they are unwilling to do a printed proof, look elsewhere. 

Number of cards. Most print runs of a “small” nature run 1000 decks, so that’s usually the minimum most printers will run.  So you want to probably get a quote for both 1000 or 1500 depending on your budget.  The more you buy, the cheaper it is.  That is, 1000 decks may cost you $4.50/deck while 2000 decks may cost you $2.25.  Of course, the question is, can you sell 2000? Can you afford that print run?   There are print on demand options, like makeplayingcards.com.  I see these options as a viable printing a one-off of your deck to test out or mock-up, but I would never go with this option for a larger amount. 

Environmental impact. Additionally, when working with your printer you should consider the environmental impact of your work and the print run. You will have to talk to them about recycled papers, soy-based inks, and other aspects to make your project more ecologically sound.  For example, in the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Tarot of Trees, we eliminated all plastic in the print run and went with a paper sleeve (I love how the sleeve turned out!) in addition to soy-based inks and recycled cardstock. 

Deposit. Most printers will require a deposit (50%) to start working on your print run. If you are crowdfunding, you will want to think about your timeline so you can have the deposit available.

Timing. From beginning to end, you should expect to spend 3-5 months finding a printer, working with them to get your cards the way you want them, printing them, and shipping them.  The printing usually takes a few weeks and then shipping can be extra time, especially in uncertain times.  The printer may also have several jobs ahead of yours, so talking to them about when they can run the print run is important. Also realize that if you are getting your cards printed overseas, you should budget a minimum of two months for printing, shipping, and delivery. 

Once you have your printer, you can ask them for the templates for your deck and begin the layout process.

Layout and Design. Layout and design is another important part of the process and another that you have full control over.  Once you have selected your printer, your printer should give you a basic template for your cards (both what will be printed as well as the cut lines and bleed) and you can use this to start laying out your deck.  They will also produce a custom template for you for your box, sleeve, or whatever else you are printing with them.  For a charge, you can also find someone to do the layout on your deck–although I will say, if you are willing to take a few days to learn the skill, card layout is not particularly hard and there are plenty of tutorials out there that will help you. 

Once you’ve finished your layout, export your cards into a JPG format and ask two other people to proofread and make your cards do not have any errors (it is so easy to miss things or misspell something!)  As I said above, layout and design require both programs and skills, so learning these as you go is certainly do-able. Your printer will also send you a digital proof before your printed proof, but I like to do proofing at multiple steps.

LWB: Little White Book or Larger Book. Another consideration for your oracle or tarot is whether or not you will include a small book of meanings (usually called a “little white book” and packaged with the cards) or if you will write a larger book to include bundled or sold separately. I will say that regardless of the option that you want to use, getting larger books printed is infinitely easier than getting your deck printed. Several good options for print-on-demand options exist (Kindle Direct, Lulu.com) and you can download templates and work with them to effectively and quickly print your book, using their online tools. There is less risk than getting your deck printed because you can order any amount of books you need at any time or fix an error before you order your next batch of books. There is less risk because it is cheap to order a preview copy, look through, and then fix anything before ordering however many copies you need.

A final thing I will say is that you should always, always hire a professional editor to proofread your book. Even if you are a good writer, it pays to have someone go over your work who is not you to catch all of the errors.

Sales, Marketing, and Wholesale

Plant Spirit Oracle

Sales and marketing are an art form in and of themselves. There are a lot of different avenues you can go here–I can share mine and my choices. Some people choose to sell their work through the big distribution channels, like Amazon.com, which certainly will get you lots of sales and exposure. I do not sell my work through Amazon because they are horribly unethical and because it becomes unprofitable (they take over 60% of the profit). My work has primarily been sold through my own websites (www.tarotoftrees.com and http://www.plantspiritoracle.com) as well as through sites like eBay and Etsy. In terms of websites, if you have enough sales, it might benefit you to invest in a website sales platform like Shopify. We have used primarily Paypal’s tools and Etsy over the years, and that works fine for us. I do have a good following on social media and on my blog, so a lot of that contributes to how I can avoid Amazon. 

You should also consider whether or not you are willing to do wholesale orders. For both the Plant Spirit Oracle and the Tarot of Trees, we have always had this option, and it is exciting to work with small businesses in this way and support other entrepreneurs. Having a wholesale option allows you to sell to bookstores, metaphysical shops, and other places. We have a wholesale sheet where we specify our rates for wholesale ( rates are usually 50% of retail). You might require a minimum wholesale order (e.g. you have to purchase at least 3/decks for wholesale rates) and make sure your wholesale rates are only available to brick and mortar stores. If you go this route, you want to make sure your prices on your website or online match those that the retailer will be using so that you do not undercut in-person retailers who are selling your deck.  If they are local, see if they are even willing to do an event with you!

Conclusion: Have fun and offer your gifts to the world

Creating and producing something that goes out into the world can be a wonderful experience.  It amazes me that almost 5000 of my decks are out there in the world, being used, touching other people’s lives, helping them in some way, and offering a message of honoring nature and regenerating the land. I am humbled when I see people posting about my work on social media and speaking about it. To me, being able to share a good message and reach others is worth all of the work of doing these projects.

I think I’ve covered all of the important details, but if you have additional questions or there is something I missed, please let me know so I can add it.  Blessings, everyone!

Deepening the Wheel of the Year and Wildcrafting Druidry

What is amazing about this wonderful planet we live on is the diversity of ecosystems, weather, climate, and life.  This diversity, however, can be challenging for those looking to adapt druidry or other nature-based spiritual practices to their practices.  Particularly challenging is the concept of the wheel of the year, especially if trying to apply the wheel of the year in a non-temperate climate setting. Thus, today’s post extends some of my earlier discussions about wildcrafting your own druidry, which include developing your own wheel of the year; in considering the role of observances, activities, and rituals; and in developing distinct symbolism for your work.  I’m going to continue this discussion today by talking about a further way to work with a seasonal approach from a wildcrafted and observational way and continue wheel of the year development!  So let’s get going!

The Wheel of the Year and Why It Might Not Fit Your Practice

Late fall sunrise and mist over the homestead

For many, the wheel of the year in a standard sense with standard meanings (see here) is problematic and troublesome, not always fitting or holding meaning in their practice.  This is for at least two reasons. First, I have found that in working with new druids to adapt their practices to their local ecosystem, the idea of thinking in “four seasons” can be really limiting. Druids in a variety of ecosystems not have four seasons so the eightfold wheel may not make sense. Second, even those living in areas that traditionally did match up may now be seeing changes as climate change is causing changes to our ecosystems and weather.  Things are not what they were 100 years ago, or even 25 years ago.

The entire principle of the wheel of the year is that it is a modern mash-up of a set of old agricultural holidays from the British Isles, put together in the 1960s by Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardener. This wheel of the year construction fits parts of Eastern North America and Europe, certainly the British Isles, and allowed both Druidry and Wicca a set of consistent practices. Thus, if you live in an area that has four distinct seasons (temperate regions of Europe and North America), chances are, it might make some sense to you. But more druids live in regions that do not fit this cycle, making it challenging to create meaning. The wheel of the year has two pieces:

The cycle of the sun: The solstices and equinoxes are ancient holidays celebrated by many peoples across time. They are entirely determined based on the cycle of light and dark, which is a constant on our planet. In other words, regardless of what is happening on the earth, we can always use the path of the sun and the light in the world to observe the light of the sun and year.  While it is important to note that the available light impacts weather, there are also things that are happening on the earth that can be accounted for.   Regardless, in AODA Druidry and in other traditions, the times of greatest light (Summer Solstice), greatest darkness (winter solstice), and the two days of balance (fall and spring equinoxes

The cycle of the earth: The specific weather, the waxing and waning of blooming, rain, frost, or fog is all dependent on where you live.  This is where things often become more challenging for people who want more than the cycle of the sun as part of their own localized seasonal observances.  The first challenge is that while we think in distinct seasons.  But that’s not really accurate. In the land, changes happen slowly and the landscape gradually changes from one thing to another.  It’s just like a sunrise or sunset–humans have named distinct parts of the day as night, dusk, daylight, and twilight–but these are full of smaller transitions, each moment being distinct.  You will experience those states, but you’ll experience a lot in between.  The second challenge is that because we have terms for seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), we tend to try to fit the world into the terms we create.  That doesn’t always work. In other words, we’ve been conditioned so much to think about seasons in terms of the four, and stepping out of that conditioning to really deeply observe may actually benefit us deeply.

The Wheel Challenge: Your Ecosystem for Year

 So what do you do? How you develop a holistic and realistic wheel of the year that makes sense for you and your situation?   I would suggest rooting it in observation and interaction with the living earth–hence the “wheel challenge.”  Here’s the basic practice:

  • Spend time in nature or with nature as close to where you live as possible (e.g if you have a daily hiking trail in a local park, use that trail.  If you have a backyard, use that backyard).  The goal here is to get you as close to nature at your own home as possible.
  • Try to observe nature at least twice a week for 10-20 minutes.
  • Keep some kind of record of your observations: photographs, videos, sketches, journal entries.
  • In observing, note anything that changes: bloom times, snow melting, fogs rolling in, etc.  the goal is to document what is happening in your ecosystem so that you can identify any “seasonal shifts” that occur with regularity.
  • Try to disavow yourself of the regular notions of “seasonality” e.g it is spring so these things happen and instead, simply observe

This approach doesn’t require much of a daily investment and can be built into existing spiritual practices (like spending regular time in nature, daily meditation, etc). But for me, this approach reaped extremely rich rewards.

Golden hickories of mid fall!

I’m posting this at a time when we have finished the growing season for the year (just after Samhain) and thus, the seeds of the new year are upon us.  I started my own practice of observation a year ago, last Samhain, which made sense as the clear demarcation of the end of the previous agricultural season and the transition to the next. By all means, though, start whenever you feel inspired.

My Example: The Unfolding of the 12 Phases of the Four Seasons

I spent the last year doing this the above challenge. I took daily walks on my landscape, I documented bloom times, took photographs, and also visited my tree (from the Tree for a Year challenge), and spent time regularly in my Druid’s Anchor spot  I also noted any time that I could really sense a “major shift” in my landscape (for me, this was first light frost and first freeze, budding of the trees, first snow, the first summer storm, etc). At the end of the year of observation (this past Samhain), I asked: Which observations or events led to major shifts in the landscape? What seasonal markers seemed present?  What is their timing?

This practice reaped rich rewards in several different ways. First, I was able to document most of the blooming plants on our property; I took photos, compiled information, and learned a lot more about where I live.  I identified several new edible and medicinal plants I did not know before. I also found one critically endangered plant, a rare form of Jacob’s Ladder. My nature knowledge really increased by focusing my energy in this way and spending more time photographing and documenting things systematically.

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

Second, I was able to develop a 12-fold pattern of the seasons.  I learned that each of the four seasons had three phases where I live–so I’m actually looking at a pattern that is twelvefold (or 3 within 4) rather than a basic four-season pattern here in Western PA.  I am so excited about this discovery and it is going to really help me add a new layer to my wheel of the year.  Now, my plan will be to celebrate the seasons in a 12-fold way. Here is my draft of my revised wheel of the year based both on what is happening in my local ecosystem as well as what is happening on our homestead.

Spring

  • Early Spring: Maples stop running and bud out, signifying the beginning of spring.  Nettle and skunk cabbage emerges.  Occasional snows and cold temperatures, ice, and freezing rain, with many days above freezing.  A bit of green can be found on the land.
  • Mid Spring: Cool-season crops (brassicas) can go in the ground (in the greenhouse and outside with cover).  Herbs start to emerge in the garden.  Perennials start to come out across the land.  Kayak can come out on a warm day. More trees bud and leaves start to unfurl.
    • The Spring Equinox usually marks a turning point to mid-spring (but not always).
  • Late Spring: Hawthorn blooms, marking the end of the frosts and freezes.  The last frost passes by mid-May.  Planting out warm crops and planting seeds. Dandelions, wild violets, and serviceberry bloom. Wild apple flower.
    • Beltane coincides with the blooming of the hawthorns and the arrival of late spring.

Summer

  • Early Summer: Garden is fully planted and begins to take off.  Harvest peas and spring greens.  Leaves are fully out and “full”.  Oaks bloom.
  • Mid Summer:  Perennial herbs are ready for first harvest (yarrow, lemon balm, catnip, parsley, and more).  Cukes and beans are ready to start canning.  Clovers and herbs growing strong.   Black raspberries start to ripen.  Elderberry flowers.
    • The Summer Solstice usually marks midsummer.
  • Late Summer (Lughnasadh): The land is at its peak; gardens are full and abundant.  Sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes begin to bloom.  Tomatoes start to ripen. Start seeds for fall cool-season crops.  Wild blackberry and wild blueberry crops are abundant.  Mayapple fruits ripen. Bonset and Joe Pye weed bloom.  Elderberry ripens.
    • Lughnasadh usually marks the peak of late summer.

Fall

  • Early Fall: Goldenrods and asters start to bloom and the land turns golden.  The apples start to drop from the trees. The first dying back is noticeable as grasses and plants go to seed.  We can tomatoes 3x a week.  Fall crops go into the gardens.  Joe Pye weed starts to go to seed.
  • Mid Fall: First light frost happens and gardens start to die back.  Fall crops go into the greenhouse. The asters continue to bloom.  Harvest squashes, gourds, and pumpkins as the vines die back.  Leaves begin to change.  Acorns start to drop and continue throughout mid and late fall.  Towards the end of mid-fall, Chestnuts drop.
    • The Fall Equinox usually marks mid-fall.
  • Late fall: Late fall is marked by the first freeze or hard frost (under 30 degrees).  This radically transforms the landscape as nearly everything dies back.  Maples and cherries are bare, oaks begin to go crimson and gold.  Garlic is planted.  The days grow noticeably shorter. We have to set up heated waterers for all of the flocks.
    • Samhain often coincides with the arrival of late fall.

Winter

  • Early Winter. First snowfall (most years), freezing rain, and ice.  Nights are often below freezing but above freezing.  The land is brown and bare as even the oaks drop their leaves.  The days are dark and cold as we approach the winter solstice.
  • Mid-Winter.  After the winter solstice, “winter” really sets in. This is the coldest and darkest part of winter and comprises the latter part of December and all of January.  We start getting snowstorms and sometimes, polar vortexes.
    • Winter Solstice marks the start of midwinter
  • Late Winter. The start of late winter is firmly marked by the running of the sap of the maple trees.  Temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.  We have plenty of snowstorms and cold.   Towards the end of late winter, you might even see a skunk cabbage sprout popping up through the snow.
    • Imbolc often coincides with the beginning of late winter.

Now that I have this general pattern figured out, I can spend the next year really mapping much more specific things to this pattern.  When exactly does the robin show up? When does she have her young?  When do the flocks of birds start congregating for the winter?  Before I had these tied to a simple season (spring, fall, etc) but now, I can tie them more explicitly to my 12-fold seasonal wheel, which is exciting.   So I will be repeating my “wheel challenge” for this upcoming year to refine my wheel and add more details to each of the different areas.

The other thing that I’m now thinking about is that I’d like a celebration to mark each of these twelve.  I have added in the 8-fold holidays (which I do celebrate) to this wheel, as they fit ust fine, but, with a 12-fold system, I am missing what is essentially the “beginnings” to each of these seasons. So this next year, I can start thinking about how I want to celebrate and mark each of the “early” points.  It seems like the first one to plan is the “first snowfall” celebration to mark the start of early Winter.

Dear readers, I hope this is useful to you as you continue to think about how to deeply adapt your practice to your local ecosystem, develop wildcrafted and ecoregional druidries, and rewild.  I would love to hear how you’ve been creating your own wheel of the year.  Blessings!

Nature Mandalas for Inner Work, Rituals, and Blessings

A woman comes to a clearing in the recently burned forest with a basket of stones, sticks, nuts, and flowers.  She begins to sing, laugh, and dance as she creates a beautiful circle with the materials. As she weaves her healing magic, the design of the circle grows more complex, spiraling inward and outward.  She finishes her work and sits with it quietly for a time, before leaving it in place to do its own work.  A healing mandala has been made on that spot, to help the forest recover after a fire.

Nature mandalas can be used for a variety of inner work, healings, blessings and rituals and are a wonderful addition to a druid or natural spiritual practice. Nature mandalas are an intuitive magical and bardic arts practice that works with the connection of your own subconscious to the living earth.  You use materials that are local to you, in season, to create beautiful patterns with sacred intent.

On writing about mandalas, C. F. Jung, the esoteric psychologist, spoke of the benefits of creating mandalas as a way of seeing deeply into the psyche and allow for the cyclical process of self-development. Mandalas have been used in a variety of traditions, as he describes, primarily for inner spirit work—as the mandala is constructed, understanding, enlightenment, or healing may come. A mandala can be done in combination with other practices (ritual work, meditation, land healing and/or blessing) or they can be done on its own. Mandalas can also be done by anyone at any point in their practice, regardless of their ability to raise energy, visualize, or engage in any other advanced ritual techniques.

Creating a Nature Mandala

Space Selection. To create a mandala, select a flat space where you are able to lay out a pattern: a flat river bank or shore, a sandbar, a bare spot in the forest, a space in the lawn in your backyard, a dirt patch, a large stone, etc. Mandalas can be large or small and can be done in places where water can wash them away (a beach at low tied, the edge of a stream that will eventually flood, etc.), in the snow that will melt, etc.

Ephemeral nature. In fact, I would argue that their very ephemeral nature is part of that magic of the nature mandala: the mandala is created in the moment for a sacred purpose using materials local to the land.  After creation, it is left in the natural world, and nature’s processes will claim it again tomorrow.  As that claiming takes place, the mandala’s magic unfolds.

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Design and Creation. In terms of the design of the mandala, many options are possible, some intentional and some intuitive.  There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. You can create intuitive designs, setting your intention, putting yourself in a meditative place, and letting your subconscious guide you to create the mandala. If you are going to do this approach, I suggest before you begin, spending time communing with the land. Walking with the land, hearing the voices of the spirits in the wind, in your inner mind, feeling the energies present. Attune with those, and when you feel connected and centered with this place, create. This approach allows you to connect with the land and bring forth a design that is unique to the land, to your interaction, and to the place. This can lead to some really amazing designs and experiences.  I really like creating intuitive mandalas. They don’t have to be circular, they can weave around existing material in the landscape. They can be full of nature’s patterns: spirals, leaves, waves, circles, and more.  You can make mandalas to fit a landscape and space of any size or composition. Go in without a plan.  Connect to the world around you.  Just start laying things in a pattern. See what unfolds.  Smile, dance, and be happy.  Breathe.

On the intentional side,  Jung noted that many mandalas in other cultures unfolded in a circular four-fold pattern, tying to the four elements and other four-fold patterns in the universe. While we see a four-fold pattern in nature (in the flowers of a dogwood tree or in the small flowers in the arugula plant), this is only one possible pattern nature provides. The flowers of apples and hawthorns show us a five-fold pattern, the shell of a snail shows us a spiral pattern, and the flower of a trillium shows us a three-fold pattern. These and many other patterns can be used for inspiration. For more on nature’s patterns, see this post.

The alternative is to plan it out. I would suggest planning only if you are doing it with a group as part of a larger ritual or practice and/or if you are creating mandalas that will be of a more permanent nature. Planning your mandala can include sketching it in advance, planning out and gathering your materials, and preparing the space. The photo here is of a magical mandala that we created for a ley line ritual at the MAGUS Gathering in 2018. This was obviously intentionally planned in advance so that we could have it at the start of our ritual.

Mandalas and other Spiritual Work.  The act of mandala creation is a ritual in and of itself–but you also might want to use it in combination with other practices.  For example, you can use it as an anchor point for other ritual activity in this chapter, creating a mandala around a sacred space that you can sit in, meditate in, do other kinds of ritual in, or even, leave magical tools for further empowerment in.  I like to create mandalas as part of rituals; I use the mandala creation as a way of beginning my ritual work before moving into a formal ritual.  Or, you can simply be present with it for a time, spend a quiet moment in meditation, and then let it be, knowing that work continues on nature’s time.

Possibilities for Nature Mandalas

There are so many possibilities for working with Nature Mandalas.  I offer some suggestions for different ways you can create mandalas.

Nature Mandala with sticks, shells, stones, and other things. Begin gathering the materials for the mandala, using your intuition. A basket here also helps! As you gather, be careful not to disrupt the ecosystem (e.g. use fallen sticks, leaves, small stones, leave big stones where they are). When you have gathered your materials, begin to organize them in some circular or spiral fashion. There is no right or wrong way, just flow with the spirits of the land.  With each piece of the mandala, you can set intentions for the healing of the land (e.g. “this leaf represents the new growth of spring. This stone represents the health of the insect life” and so forth).

Fall Leaf Mandala. A very beautiful mandala can be created using fall leaves.  Just as they fall, gather them, and weave them into patterns to celebrate the autumn and the sacredness of this time.

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Nature mandala with snow. If you are in an area with snowfall and laying snow, the better approach is to weave your mandala into the snow itself. To do this, simply close your eyes and visualize the shape you want your mandala to take—or just start walking. You can use a big open area or you can use a wooded area where you work the trees, stones, and other natural features into your design. Walk your mandala each day the snow is present, if possible, to leave lasting healing on the landscape.

Nature mandala with sand or soil. Another option for a nature mandala is in the sand or bare soil. You might use a stick to trace patterns, adding stones or shells. You might use your feet to trace to walk a larger path of the mandala. Mandalas on the shore, placed at the low tide line, will be taken by the sea, and thus, can be used as a blessing for the oceans. Mandalas placed higher on the shore can bless the land around them. Mandalas on the edges of river banks can be done in a similar manner, as rivers flood.

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Flour or Cornmeal Mandala. You can create a mandala by using flour or cornmeal (and cornmeal comes in several colors). To do this, you will want some kind of vessel that makes it easy to pour a little bit out at once–a commercial dressing container with a larger opening, a gallon jug (use a funnel to get it in there) or even a water pitcher can all work as a basic tool. For this kind of mandala, it is best to have a sand or dirt surface. I often make these in our sacred grove; in the fall months, I rake up the leaves and then work with the bare surface to weave patterns of cornmeal, leaves, and patterns. As fall turns to winter and the snows come, I work with the snow in the grove instead, continuing to layer energies in that sacred space.

Stone mandala. A more permanent option is to create a mandala with stones, leaving it somewhere to simply “be”. I would suggest this only at sites that have already had major disruption, as you do not want to disrupt the ecosystem itself by moving stones.

One last point about the different kinds of mandalas—make sure that in your mandala creating, you don’t disrupt the natural world.  Stones of any size are often home to insects and other life and removing them can disrupt the ecosystem. Don’t remove large stones or remove them from rivers, etc. Pick up and use things that are already ephemeral: small stones that are moved by the river or waves, nuts, sticks, leaves.

Some examples

I’ll offer a few examples of the different ways I’ve used mandalas in my practice recently.  These examples are meant to help spark your own creativity and ideas!

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

The first example is an offering mandala. I made this mandala after creating acorn pancakes on the fall equinox from the acorns being dropped from our ancient oak tree. It is this tree that  I have been working with my Tree for a Year practice, and it’s this tree that I’ve made acorn ink from, and now, the acorn pancakes. As part of an offering practice, I wanted to offer gratitude to this oak.

Grove Mandala

Grove Mandala

The second example was another recent mandala, this one with the purpose of preparing a magical space.  I have been drawn to a particular section of our sacred grove for a while (a Norway spruce tree with a large stone underneath, and a hickory nearby) and had a vision of some visionary and magical work to do there in the coming months.  As part of this, I raked and cleared a small section and made a flour and leaf mandala as saying “hello” to the space and honoring it.  I decided on a flour mandala because I had found some flour infested by flour moths, so I wanted to make good use of it but get it out of the kitchen! Plus, flour mandalas look great against bare earth! The purpose of this mandala was honoring this sacred space and beginning to lay energetic patterns for future ritual work.

Grimalkin cat walks through the leaf mandala!

The final example is one I did simply to bring peace and calm. As the leaves were falling, I simply went out and worked with them, making patterns, and working to provide calm and healing.  And it worked!

I hope that this post has offered you some inspiration.  I would love to see any mandalas that you create!  Please consider sharing them here and/or tagging me on Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Blessings upon your journey!

Sacred Tree Profile: Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)’s Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

 

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

As we move into the dark half of the year and move closer to Samhain, the temperatures drop, the killing frosts come and the plants die back. The leaves grow brilliant and then fall.  Brown and tan dominate the land as the earth falls asleep. But there in the waning light is the brilliant, beautiful golden yellow of the  Witch hazel!  Around here, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginia) begins a magnificent display of tiny yellow flowers, appearing to explode outward with many delicate yellow petals.  As the last of the leaves fall, if you walk through a forest with Witch Hazel, you are struck by the beauty of these wild and warm yellow flowers. everything else may look dead, but Witch Hazel is alive and thriving. The time of Witch Hazel is the time of late fall and early winter, and it is a powerful and magical tree indeed.

Witch Hazel is also known as winterbloom (for fairly obvious reasons), snapping alder, spotted alder, tobacco wood, pistachio or wych elm.  John Eastman describes that the name “witch hazel” may be derived from the Anglo-saxon wych (which is related to the word “whicker”) which means “bending.” Because the leaves have an elm-like quality, it was sometimes called wych elm.

Growth and Ecology

Witch Hazel is often found as an understory tree in both evergreen and deciduous forests.  Here in Western Pennslyvania, you can often find it as part of the understory of the Eastern Hemlock/Beech forest or even the Oak-hickory forest.

Witch hazel just as it emerges….

Witch Hazel loves a part-shade or full shade damp place to grow, so you can also often find them along forest streams.  Witch hazels are shade tolerant, slow-growing, and often have a growth form with several smaller trunks coming up from a central stem; the trunks often grow crooked and at odd angles.  When the flowers open up in the fall, they also open up their seed pods, shooting out two black seeds from each pod.  While this has not happened to me, in John Eastman’s Forest and Thicket book (a fantastic book), he mentions getting hit by the flying seeds at distance up to 10-20 feet!  The lovely flowers are insect-pollinated by gnats and late flies.

I want to speak a little about the flowers of the Witch Hazel since they are so magical and unique. The flowers emerge just as the leaves of the tree begin to turn yellow in the fall and even after the leaves drop and freezing temperatures set in, the flowers continue to persist for some time.  Here, in Western PA, you can find them sometimes into late December, depending on the year. The flowers themselves look like a little yellow firework or sparkler–the bud opens up and over two dozen very thin, long flower petals unroll and twist around. From a distance, they almost look like little pompoms popping out from the branch.  They are quite special, with a warm sunny yellow that is just bursting with hope, life, and possibility.

The Medicine of Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is in common use today. What you purchase in the store called witch hazel is actually a steam distillation of the branches of the witch hazel. Witch Hazel branches are best distilled in the spring (for this you can use an alembic, similar to making an essential oil).   Witch hazel is easily found in the distilled form in drug stores, where it is used for mouthwashes, reducing inflammation, addressing skin irritation, addressing sore throats (especially inflamed), hemorrhoids, acne, wards of certain viral infections, and much more.  You can also make a tincture of it (1 part alcohol to 5 parts fresh bark and leaves) and you can create a very astringent rub that can relieve pain.

Witch Hazel Ecoprint (part of my in-progress Tree Alchemy oracle!)

Native peoples of North America saw Witch Hazel as a critically important medicinal plant. As described by Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes,  Native Americans used decoctions of leaves and twigs as liniments and mashed up inner bark as poultices for boils, tumors, and other external inflammatory items.  The Iroquois made a tea of the leaves, sweetened with maple syrup.  They drank the leaves unsweetened for diarrhea and other internal inflammation. Today, many of the same uses found traditionally can still be used.

Other Uses

If you are interested in creating sacred smoking blends, witch hazel (the leaf and inner bark) can be a nice addition.  One of the names for the tree was “tobacco wood” and I am guessing that witch hazel can be a good base for a smoking blend (as all astringent woods and plants make a nice smoke).  I’ve only briefly experimented with this, but I think it is well worth considering. Several foraging books, including Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, suggest that Witch Hazel seeds can be eaten but that they are rather oily and bitter. I haven’t tried them yet (I can rarely find them after they pop off of the tree). Although I do not know if it is done in the present day, Native Americans used to make bows from the branches as the wood is quite flexible (Erichsen-Brown, 177). I am unaware of any other uses of Witch Hazel.

Magic of the Witch Hazel: Dowsing, Water Witching, and Wayfinding

Virgula divina. (Diving Rods)
“Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,
Gather’d with Vowes and Sacrifice,
And (borne about) will strangely nod
To hidden Treasure where it lies;
Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,
For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline.”

From Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick by Samuel Shepard (1651)

As the poem by Samuel Shepard above suggests, one of the most powerful uses of witch hazel is the virgula divina, or the witch hazel divining rod, which can be used to find all manner of buried treasure or other hidden things.  European Hazels were used in Europe for this purpose, and when colonists arrived in the Americas, the Witch Hazel became the quintessential dowsing rod and was seen as a most magical of woods.

Witch Hazel branches in bloom

Dowsing is performed by turning the arms up and holding a rod in both hands. By observing subtle movements of the rod, one can sense the direction and location of various buried treasures, which can include buried springs, mineral deposits, gold and silver, salt, and potentially other buried treasures. As Erichsen-Brown describes, as early as 1631, there is a record of Witch Hazel branches being employed as “divining rods” (p. 177)   While water is the most commonly dowsed for, Erichsen-Brown also notes the use of witch hazel in the colonial era for finding gold or silver, salt mines, and more. This tradition was extremely widespread, even in sacred Mormon texts the witch hazel rod often had directions whispered to it, telling it where to help look for gold.

As Witch Hazel is native to North America, this dowsing tradition ties to the larger folk magic of Appalachia and beyond. In fact, I was told when we purchased our current homestead that our drinking spring on the property was found by a local dowser in the 1970s.  He used a witch hazel rods that he cut on the property from local wood.  He dowsed commonly and many springs and wells in our immediate area were found by him.  Although dowsing is not as common now as it used to be, it still has power and influence here in the Appalachian mountains.

One of the ways we can think about dowsing is that you can use it to find physical things but also to help find our way. Some dowsers have been able to use their rods to find anything, and this seems closely tied to the overall magic of the witch hazel.  In my own experience, Witch Hazel certainly fits that approach. It helps us find what we are looking for, in that way, it is a wayfaring or pathwalking plant.

Divination and Meanings of Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel brings light and hope into dark places and dark times. I think Witch hazel is a particularly powerful plant for us here in 2020, given the civil unrest, economic insecurity, climate change, and so many other major challenges that we are facing as a species.  It feels like our civilization is going through a very dark time–and witch hazel reminds us that we can shine in that darkness, that even if everything else is retreating and dying back, there is always room for a little hope and joy.

Witch hazel likes to bloom when the rest of the forest looks like this!

Witch hazel assists with finding hidden things. Witch hazel has the longstanding ability within the Appalachian and American folk magic traditions of finding nearly anything: water, gold, silver, salt, minerals, coal, or other buried treasure.  Thus, Witch hazel more generally can help us do that work both physically in the world and, as in our next point, metaphysically within our selves.

Witch hazel is a wayfaring tree.  The wayfinding properties of Witch Hazel make this an important tree to work with if you are on a journey, if you are seeking a new path, or if you are trying to find your way through uncertain times.

What a blessing the Witch Hazel brings us today, and always.

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Creating Individual or Small Group Rituals: A Step by Step Guide

Rituals are not just an important part not just of druidry or of nature-based spirituality, but of human life in general.  According to leading scholar Catherine Bell in her book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, human beings have been involved in rituals for as long as we have recorded history—and likely well before. Rituals use meaningful symbols, movement, actions, repeated forms and staging to help us step out of our normal time with conscious and sacred intention. While many rituals may have spiritual or religious significance, rituals can also be cultural (graduation ceremonies) or personal.

Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual

Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual

A few weeks ago, I hosted a ritual creation workshop as part of AODA’s online workshop series as a lot of people want to start to create their own rituals.  In this post, I’m going to offer the framework I shared at the workshop to help you think through how to create rituals, the considerations for creating rituals, and so on.  In this post, I’m drawing upon the work of Catherine Bell and John Michael Greer as well as my own experiences in writing many, many rituals over the years: personal rituals, rituals for two different druid groves, and rituals for multiple large gatherings (here are a few examples: Hemlock Galdr, Ley Line Ritual, Water Healing Ritual, and a Grief Ritual.  I’m mostly sticking to personal and small group rituals in today’s discussion and assuming you want to plan in advance, for my take collaborative ritual creation without scripts, you can see this post.

Rituals can help us connect with ourselves, connect with the living earth, raise and direct energy, celebrate or mark an event, and much more. All human cultures have some forms of ritual, although what that looks like and how it manifests varies quite widely (for a fascinating look into ritual, I suggest Catherine Bell’s Ritual book, which offers an anthropological introduction to rituals in human cultures).  In the druid tradition, particularly revival Druidry, we often do rituals for a wide variety of purposes. These may include any of the following (and I’m sure there are some categories I am missing):

  • Celebrating and marking the seasonal holidays (solstices, equinoxes, cross-quarter days, new moons, full moons, etc)
  • Raising energy for land healing, blessing, and honoring the land
  • Raising energy for personal work
  • Opening up sacred space for meditation, bardic creation, or sacred communion with the land
  • Seeking assistance or guidance
  • Lowering energy for a variety of reasons (removal of sickness, shadow work, land healing/palliative care work)
  • Gratitude practices, which are so important I put them in their own category

A Ritual Creation Framework

In what follows, I’ll walk you through step by step how you can go about creating rituals for yourself or for others.

Step 1: Intention

What is it that you want to accomplish? What is your intention for the work? Start by answering these questions, as your goal or purpose for the ritual will determine to a large extent what you do and how you do it.  There are many goals when you seek to create a ritual and you may have more than one in mind for the ritual you will create.  For example, you might want to do a blessing for a local park or celebrate a seasonal holiday in a way that is local and resonant with you.

Step 2: Framework

All traditions have some framework or structure in which their tradition understands sources of power as well as helps categorize or interpret the world. Frameworks are often very closely aligned or the same as sources of energy (see step 4). Recognize that if you are using existing sacred space/grove/circle opening and closing rituals as part of the work you want to do, you already are given a framework from those opening and closing rituals, and you can skip this step.  For example, AODA’s opening and closing rituals, you will already have a source of energy and framework: AODA’s seven-element framework, which will manifest for you in a specific way that you choose to call each.   Not all rituals will need to use full opening and closing rituals but if you plan on using them, keep this in mind.  It’s important to know if you want to use an existing grove opening/closing (and considerations there are discussed in Step 3).

A ritual altar at the fall equinox

Broader Druid frameworks:

  • Four elements: earth, air, fire, water (or 5, if you also want to use spirit); these elements have been with Western traditions for at least 2500 years, but likely much much longer
  • Earth / Sea / Sky framework from the Celtic tradition
  • Gwyar / Calas / Nyfre framework from the Druid revival
  • Four druid animals tied to the directions: Great bear (north), Hawk (east), Stag (south), Salmon (west)

AODA-specific frameworks:

  • AODA’s primary framework is the seven-element framework which includes Air, Fire, Water, Earth (classic elements) and Spirit Above/Spirit within/Spirit Below (three aspects of spirit)
  • An alternative way we think about the three aspects of spirit are three currents: Solar, Telluric, and Lunar

Something tied to your tradition: Many people meld more than one tradition into their spiritual path.  If this applies to you, you can draw upon any of the frameworks of your other tradition(s) to work.  This might include a deity, etc.

Something local or unique to you: Over time, you might develop your own framework. frameworks you develop or those that resonate with you and your practice.  For example, you might use a framework of four sacred mountains, sacred trees, animals, etc.

Step 3: Consideration of Marking/Opening/Closing sacred space and Formal/Informal Ritual

One consideration you will need to make is whether or not you want to do a formal grove opening and closing as part of your ritual.  When would you use a formal sacred space opening vs. not?

The first thing to understand is why we might use grove openings or closings at all: and there are at least three reasons. The first is psychological: we need to have some way of helping us mark the difference between sacred time/spiritual time and everyday life.  For people in the more dominant world religions, they often accomplish this by going to a physically separate location, wearing special clothing, and in many Christian traditions, opening up with song or prayer for example.  For people in the druid and neopagan traditions, we have very few buildings or anything else, and so doing a grove opening or circle opening is a way of helping us designate sacred time and space from mundane time and space. The second reason has to do with your own relationship and connection to the world of spirit and the tradition you are working in.  As Catherine Bell’s definition of ritual above suggests, it is the repetition of certain traditions that turn them into rituals embedded with deep meaning.  After years of doing the same grove opening and closing, it takes on symbolic and emotional meaning.  The more that you engage with these same ritual forms, the more effective they will have on you over time.  You build meaning as you engage with them and the imagery and energy will become part of you.  The third reason ties to the occult roots of many of these traditions.  We create sacred space, particularly if doing energetic or magical work because we need to protect that work from outside influences.  The world of spirit is not all light and love; there are many things out there that would grow attracted to the raising and directing of energy and come to meddle.  By setting a boundary between you and the world, you are better able to protect yourself from any undue external influence.  This is particularly important when you are raising and directing energy.

So with these reasons aside, the question becomes: when do you actually use a formal grove opening and closing?  The first is your intention and the work you set out to do.  I think a lot of this can be summarized in the difference between doing a formal ritual (which would include a sacred grove opening/closing) vs. an informal ritual, which would be shorter and likely more simple.  Formal rituals are reserved for celebrating the major holidays and also other “major” work you want to do where you are going to raise and direct energy, work magic, do major blessings, or do deep work on the self.  By contracts, informal rituals are more like your everyday practices or small things you do if you feel the need, often spontaneously. Short, everyday rituals that serve to celebrate, mark, offer gratitude, or honor rarely need a formal ritual.  For example, if you want to create a small ritual to open up your meals, you do not need to do a full grove ritual for that (otherwise, meals would get quite long).  But if you wanted to do a blessing for the whole growing season for your garden, a formal ritual would make more sense.

Context is a major factor here.  If you want to do any ritual work where you are going to be out in public or with others who do not follow your path, the opening of a formal sacred space may not be feasible. For example, if I wanted to do a quiet tree blessing in a park where there are other people, I would certainly not go through opening up a sacred space. But if I was going to do that same blessing in my private backyard, I likely would use the full grove opening because it would offer a bit extra power and help me get into the right frame of mind. What I might do, in the case of the tree blessing in a park is to do a blessing ritual in advance, where I would open a sacred space, and then embed that blessing into a stone.  I can then go to the park, leave the stone with the blessing, and say a few words or play some music.  The point is depending on where you are, the formal ritual may not make sense.

A final consideration here on levels of formality has to do with tools and ritual clothing: when do you use them and when do you not?  For more formal rituals, it is likely that you will also want to dress the part in ritual gear, use a full altar setup, and really get into the part.  For informal rituals, it’s likely you’ll use fewer (or no) tools and certainly won’t be dressing the part.  If you are going somewhere where the ritual is likely, you can always create a crane bag to take with you.  I have a lot of information on crane bags here or here.  Another option for travel is to create some kind of Altoid tin mini set or even grove stones that you can take with you (grove stones are described in the Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer).

Step 4: Sources of Energy, Assistance, or Guidance

What often makes a ritual effective is to have a source of energy, assistance, or guidance that is outside of you that you can call upon as part of that work. This can be directly tied to your framework (Step 2) or can be separate from your framework.

Sources of energy

Not all rituals require sources of energy, assistance, or guidance, but anywhere you are trying to have an effect upon the world (e.g. blessing, healing) would require it.  For example, a simple honoring of the sun ceremony where a druid would go out and greet the sun each morning would not require a source of energy–other than the sun itself!  But, if you wanted to offer a blessing upon a journey, you’d want to send some energy that was not yours as part of that ceremony.

Why does this matter? We all have energy within us that we can call upon.  But we have only so much, and the more we pull from ourselves, the more we can deplete ourselves over time. Rituals are more impactful and meaningful if you draw upon sources of energy from outside of yourself that can lend strength, power, and additional layers of energy to your working.

Here are some common sources of energy you might draw upon:

  • From within you or the movement/music/activity, you generate
  • From your framework (3 druid elements, 4 elements, 7 elements, ogham trees, etc)
  • From sacred timing (solstices, equinoxes, full moon, new moon, etc)
  • From the natural world: rivers, mountains, plants, herbs, stones, trees
  • From connection to spirits or deity
  • From existing sacred spaces that you build and cultivate that hold energy over time

Sources of assistance or guidance

Some rituals seek assistance or guidance from outside sources.  This might be because you want to ask for advice about a new direction to take or ask for guidance for a particular challenge in your life.  Or you’d just like to request that spirit or deity have your back for the work you are doing.  Sources of guidance or assistance can often come in a few forms:

  •         Divination systems (Tarot, Runes, Ogham, Pendulum)
  •         Deity, Spirits, Guides
  •         Nature (specific nature or nature broadly)
  •         Subconscious or higher self

Obviously, if you are going to use any of these in a ritual, you’d want to think about how you will call in and honor this source of guidance or assistance.  For nature/diety/guides, I would certainly do this in a respectful way with gratitude and offerings. Even for your divination system, I think it’s a good idea not to just use the tool, but to really honor it.

Step 5: Methods You Can Use

Now we get to the many possible methods you can use to achieve your goals or intentions.    I’m going to list a lot of them here (this list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start) so you can have a variety of methods to work with.

Goose ritual helpers!

Setting up the ritual space. The ritual space that you choose to create is an important part of helping you prepare for the ritual.  Here are some considerations:

  • Is your ritual going to be outdoors or indoors?
  • Is your ritual going to take place in an established sacred space (the one you use often for rituals) or in a new setting?
  • What might help you set the stage for your ritual? Consider how you will decorate, use materials from the season, light candles and incense, set up an altar, and more.
  • Are you going to dress for the part?
  • Are you going to have a feast and/or offerings as part of your ritual? If so, what might that include?  (See Gratitude practices, below).
  • If you are including others, make sure you design a way for everyone to share or add to the space.  For example, last year, our grove did a great Samhain weekend and one of the things we did was built an ancestor altar on Friday evening.  We each brought one or more ancestral objects or photos and took time sharing.  That altar stayed with us all weekend.

I always take the time to set up the space for any formal rituals that I do.  To me, space is a very important part of the overall equation in developing a ritual that is impactful or meaningful.  It’s kind of like hosting a dinner party–you want the space to be just right, flowers on the table, and the house clean.  Hosting the same party with a dirty and messy house just doesn’t cut it.

Raising Energy Methods: Energy raising methods are used for healing, blessing, empowering, bardic arts creation, new journeys, and so much more.  Here are some methods to raise energy:

  •  Chanting (changing ogham words or Awen is a good choice).  Chanting magic is powerful and can be an excellent way to accomplish a number of goals and rituals.  I use ogham chanting regularly for a variety of purposes in my own practice.
  •  Dance and body movement.  Often, you see this method employed with more ecstatic rituals where people are encouraged to dance, drum, and move to raise energy for a specific purpose.  But there’s no reason you can’t do this on your own as well.
  •  Drumming / clapping / Noise.  Nothing like raising energy through some good noise making.  Drumming, clapping, hooting, and hollering all fall into this category.
  •  Visualization.  Visualization is a technique we use often in AODA, where you use your inner eyes to envision something–light radiating out into the world, rains falling, land healed and clean, etc.  Visualization is a very powerful way to employ the imagination for the work you are to do.
  •  Auditory/calling forth/Inviting in.  Words have power.  Stating your intentions and speaking of the work you are to do can certainly be effective.
  •  Use of herbs, plants, oils.  Drawing upon the inherent power and relationship you have with herbs, oils, or plants can be a very useful energy raising method.  I have found that the deeper your own relationship or connection is with the plant or herb, the more effective this practice is.

Lowering Energy / Removal Methods: Just as there is specific work to raise energy, there may also be times where you want to lower the energy or remove energy.  I use this technique fairly often in my land healing work dealing with palliative care, where very damaged lands that are suffering need rest and quietude.  Removal work is also common when you are doing self-development work and trying to let go of bad habits or things that harm you.

  •  Drumming down (starting fast and slowing the beat till it stops)
  •  Ritual burning (words, papers, herbs)
  •  Taking an object that is imbued with power and casting it off (such as into a body of water) or burying it
  •  Use of clearing or cleansing herbs, salts, or vinegar.  You can use fumitory herbs (e.g. smoke cleansing) or water cleansing with salt/vinegar to assist with this.

Gratitude Practices:  Another big part of the work of rituals is honoring and showing gratitude.  Traditionally, an offering was something that actually cost the person something: the fruits of your labor, the fruits of the first harvest, a portion of the food for the winter, etc.  I like to think about offerings in that way–they aren’t just symbolic but should somehow be meaningful and useful.  Here are a few methods you can consider for this work.

  •  Physical offerings (cakes, wine, herbal blend, incense).  While these might be considered an easy “go-to”, I really push back against offerings that are part of the capitalist system that is destroying the planet.  If you are going to offer physical offerings, they should be md
  •  Service offerings (cleaning up trash, planting trees, lifestyle changes).  In the 21st century given all of our challenges, I actually think these offerings are some of the best we can do.  If you are doing this in a ritual setting, what you might do is state the offering you have recently made or plan on making (e.g. I will be attending a tree planting in the park next week as part of my offering to the land for assistance in this ritual).
  • Bardic offerings (music, dance, chanting).  Bardic offerings are always welcome, particularly because they do not consume physical resources and can be made with sacred intent.
  • Bodily offerings (hair, liquid gold).  Sometimes you are out and doing spontaneous ritual and you don’t have anything to offer but what you have with you.  Hair is a traditional offering (particularly if you are ritually harvesting plants and wanting to give back).  I’ll also put in a plug for liquid gold (urine) which can be given at the base of trees (not directly on the plants) or roots.  That’s pure nitrogen.  Even your own carbon-rich breath can be offered.

Step 6: Solitary or Group

Before we get into putting the ritual together, you will obviously want to account for the participants in your ritual.  If it’s just you, move onto step 7.  If you will include others, I’ll briefly share some thoughts (writing good group ritual is an art in and of itself, and this post will be way too long if I included all the info on that, so I’ll cover it in the future at some point).  In the meantime, here are a few considerations for you:

Ritual smoke through the trees

  • If you are working with known others (say, part of a small grove), work with others to design the ritual so that they are invested if at all possible (even if it’s just to bring something to the ritual, like water from a local source).
  • Make everyone comfortable- some people like to participate and some people prefer to have an observer role; work to make sure everyone can fill a role they’d like to fill.  Even if people don’t have a formal part, invite them to engage in parts of the ritual like visualizing, interacting, etc.
  • Make it interactive – have everyone in the group doing something as part of the ritual.  It can be small, but meaningful.  The boring rituals are ones where you have to stand in a circle and listen to people talk and watch people move around for 30 min–create something that engages people in some way.
  • Give a memento – group rituals are more powerful when people have something to take away that is tied to the ritual in some way: a bit of sacred water, seeds, ribbons, you get the idea.  Takeaways build connections.
  • Make it meaningful – good ritual work should be meaningful and impactful, not empty.  Think about how you can make the moment meaningful for people who are participating.
  • Make sure people know what is going on.  If it makes sense, talk through the ritual in advance so everyone has a good idea of what will be happening during the ritual, the goals for the ritual, and not be lost.  When running Crescent Birch Grove in Michigan, we always made sure to have at least 30 min set aside before we started a grove ritual to talk through what we were doing and the work at hand, let people read over parts, and so forth

Step 7: Structure

Alright! It is now time to put your ritual together.  I’m going to share a few different possible structures that can help you.

Formal structures. Most formal rituals have a variation on a similar structure, which is as follows:

  • Opening the space:  After you set up your space prepare yourself, you can open up your sacred space/sacred grove.
  • Declaring intentions for the ceremony: Language that expresses what the ceremony is about and what you hope to do; this sets your intentions not only for you and any other participants but also for spirit/deity/powers of nature.
  • Engaging in the core ritual work: This varies widely and I’ll offer some options below
  • Closing the space in some way. Close out your sacred space/grove. Closing a grove helps you to transition back to everyday life (ritual can be unbalancing if you do not transition carefully).  Closings often return unused energy to the land and offer thanks.

The core ritual work obviously depends on your intention, but much of it follows a formula something like this:

  • Prayers, gratitude, or words about the intention of the ceremony
  • Raising energy
  • Directing energy
  • Giving thanks

There are a lot of variations on that theme, but a good 80% of the rituals that I’ve attended or written have some structure similar to the above.

Informal structures. Informal ritual structures dispense with anything on the formal opening and closing elements and just focus on the core work at hand.  They may include a simple prayer, meditation, breathwork, offering, and more.  They may still have small pieces to give you a moment to transition (such as the three deep breaths offered in the ogham wisdom chant).

Ogham Wisdom Chant.  This is a simple ritual that you can use immediately when you need it, even in the middle of your workday or daily life.

Intention: To offer wisdom, strength, and discernment in everyday life, available at a moment’s notice. Framework and Source of Energy: Ogham (Oak few, Duir, pronounced “Doo-er”)  Work: Raising energy for wisdom, strength, and discernment through chanting

The ritual:

Take three deep breaths.
Place hands across chest
Chant Oak Ogham Three Times: Duir, Duir, Duir
Take three deep breaths

Closing

While what I’ve offered above looks like a lot, after you have some practice writing rituals, it’s

likely you can dispense with the formal steps entirely and just do things intuitively.  But having steps like these can really help people as they are learning to write rituals know what to think about and how to think about it.  I’d love feedback on this framework: for those of you who are new, does this help you?  Please share what you end up creating!   For those of you who are experienced ritual writers, am I missing anything or is there anything you’d suggest differently?

Daily Rituals and Daily Spiritual Practices

In my time as an Archdruid and now Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a set of questions I see often are questions surrounding the establishment of daily ritual or daily practice question. These are questions like: how do I figure out how to do something every day and actually stick to doing it?  How do I build daily rituals into my life? What are some daily rituals people do?  Why would I want to do daily practices?  Since these questions are so common, today’s post explores the idea of daily rituals and practices for druids:  I’ll share how to begin and some considerations and also share a number of examples of daily or regular practices that you can do to deepen our druid path.

Daily practice

Daily practice

The idea of a daily ritual is, of course, that you do something at the relatively same time every day and it becomes part of your daily routine.  We have tons of daily rituals that aren’t necessarily sacred, from feeding pets to sitting down for a meal to brushing teeth.  We may also have unconscious rituals, like laying in bed in the morning and reading a book or mindlessly looking at social media every time we pick up our phone.  Some of these rituals (brushing teeth) are obviously good for us while some (social media at the beginning and end of the day) may actually harm our mental health.

Daily rituals and practices within the context of spirituality can help us achieve some of our spiritual goals: attune with nature, offer us healing, improve our mental health, offer us grounding, and help us deepen our practice and our connection to core work.  Daily rituals that are established may help us when we have times of challenge or instability (hello, pandemic!) and offer support.  Daily rituals can also help us deepen our spiritual practices–you might think of daily rituals similar to how a musician practices scales.  The more we do our practices, the deeper we connect with them and the more they build both meaning and power over time.  One of the best things you can do is to find a way to engage in regular practices and ritual work, to provide some consistency and forward momentum to what you are doing.

Setting Ritual Goals and Examining Life Circumstances

What really helped me in establishing a daily ritual was to give the practice some serious thought and consideration before I began. I didn’t want to do daily rituals because someone else told me to do so.  I wanted to do daily rituals because I wanted them to enrich my life and offer grounding and connection.  Even if the daily rituals were recommended by a druid order or study program, I wanted to find the motivation intrinsically and be motivated not because I should do them but because I wanted to do them and saw a benefit.  These are the kinds of questions that you might find helpful in finding your own intrinsic motivation and discovering what you hope to gain from such a practice:

1. What do you want to accomplish with a daily ritual?  Articulating your goals will likely help you decide what practices might be appropriate.  Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Prayer or devotion
  • Connecting with nature
  • Improving mental health or clarity
  • Deepening spiritual practice
  • Staring the day in a positive / sacred way
  • Ending he day in a positive / sacred way
  • Preparing for sacred living
  • Preparing for sacred dreaming
  • Offering a daily commitment to your practice
  • Taking a quiet moment in an otherwise busy day
  • Simply feeling good

Come up with your own list of things you’d like to accomplish and go from there!

2. Does your tradition or order already offer a daily ritual or practice?  If so, this is a great place to start. Most traditions offer some kind of daily practice–a mediation, prayer, or energy working.  This connects you both to the tradition you are practicing and allows you to focus your practice in ways that are useful to continue to learn that tradition.

For example, in AODA we offer two daily practices and a weekly practice:  we encourage regular time in nature (at least 15 minutes each week) and we ask that all members perform a daily Sphere of Protection and also engage in meditation.  These three practices are at the heart of what we do and help strengthen one’s spiritual journey in AODA druidry, give connection to the order, and offer considerable spiritual benefit.  I always do these practices and have a few others I’ve added in over the years :).

3. How much time do you want to spend?  Do you have 5 minutes, 15 minutes or 30 minutes a day to spend?  My suggestion here is to have a basic practice that you can do regardless of whether you are in your normal routine, are traveling, have house guests, or whatever else it may be.  You can also have an extended practice one or two days a week.

Remember that you are in this for the long haul.  It is better to start small with something you can sustain rather than something that you will never be able to sustain long-term.  If you start small and have good results, you can always add more over time and feel good about your practice.  If you start big and can’t maintain what you are doing daily, it might make you feel bad and be a detriment to your spiritual growth.  Thus, small, slow steps are best.

For example, when I was doing a lot of work travel and often staying with others in various hotels, I tried a longer daily practice and found it difficult to maintain with the travel–and then it was harder to pick back up when I came home and my practices would fall off before I had to jump-start them again.  Since this happened with unerring frequency, I decided that I wanted a small daily practice that could be done in the bathroom at a hotel or while taking a walk in a city.  Thus, I kept it pretty basic (SOP, walking meditation, and some observation of nature), knowing that I could always do that practice regardless of what was happening in my day.  And I built in regular once-a-week larger practices that I could do when I had more time or was home.

4. What time of day is best for you?  Another factor here is to find a way to build your daily ritual into your routine at a time of day that works best.  For example, if you are exhausted at the end of the day and are non-functional for the last hour or so before bed, it’s probably not a good idea to try to meditate for 15 min because you’ll fall asleep (not that I have ANY experience with that, haha!).  A better option would be to build a daily meditation practice into your lunch break and/or morning routine.  If you are a busy mom and the only time you have is early mornings or when you take a bath, consider how you can build that in. You might have to test out a few things to see what works for you.

I will also note that some people are working in different traditions at the same time, and those traditions are not always energetically compatible (or it is too much to do it all together at once), so it may be necessary to split the practices.  If this is the case for you, you can do one set of practices in the morning and another in the evening.  For example, I also practice the Celtic Golden Dawn tradition, and I prefer to do those practices in the evening to compliment my AODA and druid practices in the morning.

5. Do you have existing routines that you could extend or daily practices that could be altered? Another way to think about building in daily spiritual practice is considering what you already do that is required and/or habituated and that you could extend into a daily spiritual practice.

For example, I am responsible for our morning animal/homesteading chores, which usually take about 30 minutes each day.  I have to do these chores rain or shine, snow or sun, because our animals need let out of their coops, fed, watered and tended.  This gives me a great opportunity to be outside and to take an additional 15 minutes a day to do my Sphere of Protection, drink a cup of tea, and do some light nature observation or meditation or a short walk on the land (pending weather).  This is what works for me now–what worked for me before I had such responsibilities was different, and thus, you should always recognize that if your routine changes, you may have to adapt to a new routine.

Testing and Habituation

So you’ve done the above and have developed a good plan for your daily ritual or practice–great!  The next thing you want to do is test it out.  Why?  Because what you have may not actually be workable, or only partially workable.  One of the things I see new druids do is use their enthusiasm and excitement to build in a ton of practices that they can’t necessarily sustain once that initial enthusiasm is over.  It is better to have a simple practice, 5 or 10 minutes a day, that you can commit to rather than an elaborate practice you can only manage to do once in a while. Thus, spending some time testing the practices to get the right timing, the right time, and the set of practices that work for your best is important.

I suggest trying out the practices for a few weeks or one lunar cycle.  Give yourself time to really dig into them and if they haven’t worked for you, try another set of practices until you find what does.  Developing daily work takes time and its important to give yourself time and be patient.

Daily walks in nature provide room for discovery

Daily walks in nature provide room for discovery

Once you are happy with the practice, then you want to work to habituate that practice. Habits are things we form that become something we simply do (often without thinking) and we almost never miss.  For most of us, brushing our teeth before bed is a good example of this kind of habit.  You don’t really think about it most times, you just go into the bathroom and do it.  Ideally, you can get to that level of habituation with your own daily practices–they are just something you always do and benefit you.  But that’s not where many of us start, and it takes a while to get into that rhythm for two reasons: first, habits take time to form (the 21 days is actually a myth, research shows that it can take anywhere from 15 – 200+ days to form a lasting habit depending on what it is and your own circumstances).

Another thing to realize here is that a major change in life circumstances may lead to a necessary change in your daily practices–and that’s totally ok.  A new home, new job, move somewhere new, new baby or family member, or any number of other things may require you to re-evaluate what you do, when you do it, and how long you do it for.  And that’s totally ok.  Always remember that these spiritual practices are for you.

Finally, be prepared to be flexible.  I like to take a morning walk on our land, but I might shift to a cup of tea on the porch if we are having a downpour.  Recognize that small variations in your daily ritual (depending on weather, if you are sick, etc) are also ok.  This practice is for you and only you.

Examples of Daily Rituals and Practices

There are so many good rituals that you can do.  I’m going to offer a few options for you to spark your own ideas.  Remember that daily rituals don’t have to be formal–they can be simply time spent in nature, a quiet cup of tea with the moon, anything that helps you with your own spiritual practice.

Daily Prayers and Altar Work.  Daily prayers and altar work are probably what most people think of when they think of daily ritual work. Your altar can be a center of your spiritual practice and tending it each day and spending time there can provide you a focus for everything else you do.  Consider any of the following:

  • Leaving a daily offering for spirit/deity/guides/etc.  I like to offer spring water as I can then offer it to a plant the next day (double offering for the win!)
  • Burning incense or lighting candles for a period of time
  • Doing daily divination or tarot card draw
  • Offering prayers or speaking affirmations (e.g. I always say the Druid’s Prayer and the Druid’s Prayer for peace in addition to a prayer that I wrote that reminds me and affirms my path as a land healer and being in service to the living earth)
  • Doing short meditations
  • Daily ritual work, like the Sphere of Protection, mentioned above.

Altar work will often evolve as you do in your spiritual journey or may change as circumstances require.

Greeting the Sun.  Whether you wake up at dawn or later in the day, it is a useful practice to greet and honor the sun (similar to the idea in Yoga of the Sun Salutation, many cultures have done this work in honor of the sun, the giver of light and warmth).  This greeting takes no more than a minute but is a powerful way of connecting you with the giver of life for our beautiful planet.  I like to do a simple greeting.  I face the east and put my arms in the air and simply feel the sun’s rays on me.  I observe the sun’s rays hitting the leaves and landscape. If its an overcast day, I still honor the sun and clouds/rains.  I raise my hands to the clouds facing east and thank the spirits for the rains.  After raising my hands, I bow my head and cross my arms in honor, and chant an “Awen” (Ah-oh-en) for inspiration for the day.

Greeting the sun!

Greeting the sun!

Communing with the Moon. The phases of the moon present another opportunity for daily ritual.  You can get or make a moon calendar (my moon calendar is wood burned and in the PA Dutch tradition).  While you can’t always see moonrise depending on the weather and time the moon rises, you can take an opportunity to acknowledge the moon.

For this, what I do is brew a cup of lunar tea (using lunar herbs like violet, mugwort, ginger, passionflower, clary sage, or hibiscus) and take my steaming cup of tea outside (unless it is really frigid, and then I’ll sit in a window instead).  I hold my cup of tea so that I can see the reflection of the moon in the tea, and wait a few minutes, feeling the connection between me, the moon.  Then I drink the tea, saving a bit in the bottom to pour on the earth as an offering.

Tree energy exchange. Go to an accessible larger tree (accessible as in you can easily get there). Place your back to the tree and allow the energy of the tree to flow through you (particularly if you are feeling tired or depleted). If you have an excess of nervous energy, place your front to the tree and allow it to subside.  (You can tie this to my “tree for a year” challenge from earlier this year!)

Mindful Eating and Honoring the Harvest. I like to build this daily ritual in for at least one meal to help connect me to the living earth and have gratitude for what the land provides.  Choose a meal where you can be alone or eat in silence (which may not be possible every day!)  Ideally, take this to a nice place where you can look out upon the land or be in the sun.  Place your hands over the meal and express your gratitude in your own words (I like to express gratitude to the land, to the farmers who grew it, and to anyone who prepared, packaged, or shipped it. If you grew it, even better!)  Now, really be present with this meal and dedicate yourself to simply being present and enjoying it.  Chew each bite and savor the taste.  Engage with your senses.  When you are finished, offer gratitude.

A winter view from my own druid's anchor spot

A winter view from my own druid’s anchor spot

Observation and a Druid’s Anchor Spot.  Another really great way to honor the changing of the seasons and to connect with nature is the practice of the Druid’s Anchor spot. I think this is one of the most powerful ways of attuning deeply with a local place.   More on the Druid’s Anchor Spot can be found in this post.

Daily Divination. Using an oracle, ogham, or tarot deck can offer you insight into your day, offer themes for meditation, and be an excellent way to really learn a divination system.  Doing a simple one-card or one stave daily draw is a nice way to start or end a day and can be combined with many other practices.

Candle Meditation. One of my favorite daily meditations is a simple candle meditation.  This meditation not only encourages calm and rest, but it also strengthens focus and cultivates inner vision (which is necessary for most advanced journey or shamanic work).  I like to do a candle meditation before I go to bed, sometimes burning some mugwort to encourage vivid dreaming.   A dark room is best for this practice.  Light a candle and place it before you.  Spent time staring at the candle, affixing how it looks firmly in your mind.  As you do this, quiet your breath and settle into a comfortable position.  After you are calm, close your eyes and keep the flame burning in your inner eye.  Breathe and focus on the flame.  If you lose your focus, simply open your eyes, affix the candle flame in your inner eye, and close them again.  Even five minutes of this practice a day will yield results.

 

In conclusion, I also want to remind you that in addition to daily work, you might have seasonal work that varies by the season–you can read all about that here.

Also, dear readers, I hope that you will share additional ideas for how to build daily rituals into your spiritual practice!

Rest, Retreat, and Balance at the Fall Equinox

I don’t know about you, but 2020 has been a hell of a year.  Usually, the Fall Equinox and the coming of the dark half of the year is a time for celebration, as Fall is my favorite season. But this year, the idea of moving into the dark half of the year when so much has already been dark is hard.  We have so much loss, death, employment insecurity, health insecurity, food insecurity, sickness, political unrest….the list goes on and on. Here in the US in particular, things are really difficult and many are dealing with basic issues to security, including financial security, food security, health security, and obviously, a lot of isolation. So, given these challenges, I think its important to fall back on our spiritual practices for nurturing, support, and grounding and embrace what the season offers. The Fall Equinox, as a time of balance, can help us bring those energies into our lives. The light and dark are balanced, reminding us to work to balance those energies in our own lives. So in the rest of this post, I offer some ideas for those who are solitary this season for potential practices, particularly surrounding rest and balance.

Contemplating Darkness and Embracing Rest

The fall equinox is a time when, for the briefest moment, we have balance. The balance between the light in the world and the darkness, when we stand equally within the dark and the light. I love the Fall Equinox because, like the Spring Equinox, it is a gateway.  In this case, in the Northern Hemisphere, we are walking through the gateway from the light half of the year, from the time of planting into growth, into a time of harvest and then, of rest.  Darkness isn’t a bad thing, its just different than the high light of summer (I wrote about some of these differences a few years ago and how to embrace the darkness as it comes).  I also think its important to realize that nature’s darkness is a different kind of darkness than we might be facing culturally.  Nature’s darkness is a time of rest, of rejuvenation, and of completeness.

At the same time, it’s also important to note that the darkness is hard for many: the energizing quality of the sun as it wanes can be difficult.  Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and the thought of going into the winter months with the cold and dark can be difficult.

Given all of this, I think that’s one of the things to focus on during this season in particular: rest and slowing down. If we consider traditional agricultural calendars and holidays (which much of the druid’s wheel of the year is based on), the Fall Equinox helps us continue the harvest season (which begins at Lughnasadh and ends at Samhain) and moves us into the season of quietude. As a homesteader and sacred gardener living in Western PA, we have four seasons, and the late fall and winter really do provide a time of rest.  It is dark early, the animals hunker down, the perennial plants go into their hibernation, the woodland creatures hibernate, and the annuals drop their seeds.  Our garden is tended and put to bed.  Our garden, which is always a source of labor and joy, goes into slumber. And then, we can all rest for a bit before the season picks back up in the spring.

An Outdoor Rest Ritual

A place of rest

A place of rest

On the theme of rest, you can do a simple rest ritual for your fall equinox celebration. The first is a rest ritual.  Its pretty simple: take a blanket and go into the woods or a wild place of your choice.  I like to be near running water for this.  Open up a sacred grove or circle in your tradition and then place your blanket in the middle of the space.  Lay down on the blanket.  First focus on physical relaxation and deep breathing: starting at your feet, work to tense, and then relax each part of your body, working your way up to your head.  As you do this, attend to your breath, coming into a quiet breath meditation.  After this, just rest.  Work on the absence of activity, of thought, and simply be at peace.  Doing this, even for 10 or 15 minutes, can really help you slow down and relax.  If being absolutely still doesn’t work, try just observing the natural world around you and give your conscious mind something to focus on.  When you are done, thank the spirits of place, and close out the space.

I do want to stress that you can do this ritual indoors (and I’ve done so with good effect) but I’ve also found that it is much more effective if you do it outside somewhere if at all possible. Laying on the ground allows you to really soak in the telluric energy from nature and that has a nurturing quality to the body, mind, and soul.

Druid Retreat

Playing on the theme of rest, I have long advocated for druid retreats (of any duration–from a few hours to a few days) as a spiritual practice, and these are something that I really think can benefit us in these challenging times, particularly in the spiritual preparation of heading into the dark half of the year among so much cultural darkness. This is an excellent time for one–the Fall Equinox is still usually pretty warm out and you can go camping, rent a cabin, or even just retreat into nature for a few hours.  I have written extensively on how to take a longer druid retreat (Part I and Part II) for more details on a longer retreat.

Even if you can’t do a longer retreat, consider a shorter retreat of a few hours.  The most important thing here is that you set your intentions and just go and be.  Spend time with yourself, looking inward, and working on the things you can control (we can always do self-work, even when the world is spiraling out of control around us!)

One of the things I did recently in this theme was doing an overnight kayak trip, a retreat from the difficulty of everyday life.  My sister and I went overnight on the Allegheny river, taking our trip the weekend before the fall equinox.  Packing minimal gear, we camped on one of the public wilderness islands in the Allegheny that are open for primitive camping.  My favorite part of this trip was sitting in the brisk morning watching the sunrise over the water.  It was really nice just to disconnect for two days and spend time with water, wildlife, sun, and good company.

Retreat on the Allegheny River

Resiliency was a key theme for me as we were on our retreat–it was helpful to meditate on the theme of resiliency, what it means to me, what qualities that I have that can make me more resilient, and how I can move forward despite some extremely challenging circumstances at present.

Gratitude Practice and Ritual

I think because of these challenging times, we are all tending to focus on what we are missing or how things are hard or scary, not what we still have or are grateful for. One of the things I’ve been doing throughout this challenging time is to ramp up my gratitude practices.  I want everyone and everything in my life to understand how much I value them. Gratitude practices can be as simple as taking the time to thank those in your life (human and non-human alike).  Offering practices, shrines, and other nature-honoring practices (see link above) can also be a fantastic way to offer thanks.

One of the things you might try is committing at the Fall Equinox to a daily gratitude practice and bringing gratitude more into your central awareness.  Here’s what I suggest:  in a ritual space, begin by focusing your meditations on the idea of gratitude.  What is it to you? How does it manifest? How does it make you feel when someone is grateful for you? What does it make you feel when you express gratitude to others?  Once you’ve done this, write down everything you are grateful for in a list.  Now take that list and divide it into days between the Fall Equinox and Samhain (about 6 weeks) and divide up your list across those six weeks.  Each day or every few days, you will have something or someone on your list to express gratitude for.  Make this a part of your life for the next six weeks and see what happens.

Spiritual Tools and Healing Herbs

Some of the nicest hawthorn I have ever harvested — found on the recent retreat!

A final tool I want to mention the theme of rest and rejuvenation is to seek out herbal healing allies during this time.  Here in our ecosystem, we have a number of plants that are ready to harvest at the fall equinox: Goldenrod (anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory), New England Aster (lung support), Hawthorn (for the heart and emotional heart), joe pye weed (for supporting the kidneys and gallbladder), and so much more.  Learning about one or more plants in your ecosystem, how to make sacred medicine from them, and harvesting them is a wonderful practice.  I’ve written extensively about this, so check out any of these posts:  Sacred medicine making at Lughnasa, A druid’s guide to herbalism part I &  part II, preparing flower essences, how to learn more about herbalism.  One of the things that I especially like to do this time of year is to create smoke cleansing sticks for spiritual purposes–smoke cleansing traditions appear in many traditional cultures and certainly have a role in many modern druid practices.  I have offered instructions on my blog for the basics as well as extensive lists of plants you can use if you live in an ecosystem similar to what I have here in Western PA!

One practice I can suggest is thinking about one thing that plants could help you with in the coming dark half of the year (if you need suggestions about plants or ideas, post in the comments and I’m happy to help!) Create yourself some sacred plant medicines and spiritual tools with the intent of using them to assist you with these challenging times and the coming dark half of the year.   Here are a few ideas:

  • Working on emotional healing and resiliency – Hawthorn tincture or glycerate
  • Focusing on grounding – acorn infused oil
  • Working on clarity of thought – ginko leaf and/or lavender tincture
  • Clearing away dark energy or thoughts – cedar and sage smoke stick

You get the idea!  The list I offered above are spiritual tools you can craft and use for these challenging times.

Conclusion

I hope this post has found its way to you in a time when you needed it and that you have a blessed Fall Equinox. I’d love to hear other ideas for what you are doing this particular fall equinox to strengthen and prepare for the dark half of the year.

 

 

Fresh Flower Crowns and Flower Garlands: Step by Step How-To Guide

A woman hikes up to a sacred spring that she visits at least once a season.  From her small bag, she pulls out a beautiful crown of flowers that she had lovingly crafted before leaving home.  Placing the crown upon her head, she dances and sings around the spring, drinking deeply and celebrating life on this early fall.  As a sign of respect and offering, she hangs the flower garland near the spring and carries her sacred water back down the mountain.

Family wears crowns I made at the bridal shower

I find it interesting that the ancient art of flower crowns garland making is almost non-existent today, at least here within the US.  This tradition has so much potential. The only people who I’ve seen make these delightful crowns are children, who haven’t yet lost their magic or wonder about the world.  And yet, garlands and flower crowns, are powerful, expressive, and wonderful to create, to wear, and to offer.  I grew interested in learning this practice after I had read about the ancient practice of adoring flower garlands sacred springs with regards to Lughnasadh traditions, and I liked the idea of a flower garland or crown as a potential offering.  When I spoke with a few friends who live in areas of the world that used to practice this tradition (like Ireland) I was told that it was no longer done.  As a second motivation to learning to practice this art, my sister was getting married and I decided to make a flower crown for her shower (see photo).  We had planted a lot of flowers this year, and August and September are “peak” flower time for us in this ecosystem, so I had a lot of materials to work with.

Thus, in this post, I’ll share some strategies for making flower crowns and garlands and some of the ways you might build this delightful practice into your own spiritual path. A garland typically refers to a wreath or long string of plant material that can be laid across something (like a hearth or altar) while a flower crown is something you can wear (like the photo above).  But the process of making them is almost identical and is simply dependent on the size.

Supplies

You will need three kinds of supplies to make a flower crown:

  • Willow, hydrangea, young grapevine, or some other bendable plant matter such that you can make a crown base.  I don’t have willow here, but Hydrangea sends out long enough canes that will work.   You can discover many different options in your local bioregion by walking around and seeing if you can form a head-sized loop with various woody bushes or thin branches from trees.
  • Flowers, any kind that are in season and abundant can be used.  You can use wildflowers or else purchase some at a local farmer’s market.  Certain flowers last longer than others (for example, zinnia have a stronger staying power due to their thicker petals while daisy will fade faster).  You might also select flowers for their magical properties–building a crown with rosemary, sage, and new england aster would have a different energy than one with lily, sunflower, and trumpet vine!
  • Tools including a pair of pruners, some small green wire (floral wire) and wire snips.  If you are making a flower crown that will be worn, you absolutely want to use wire.  If you are making something like a garland or crown that will be offered in nature, I suggest instead switching to natural cotton string or hemp; something that can break down naturally.  I also suggest using wildflowers you gather or flowers from a garden or organic farm for this; commercial flowers are heavily laden with pesticides and you do not want to leave commercial flowers as an offering to poison the land.

Making Your Garland or Flower Crown

To make your flower crown or garland, you will want some kind of sturdy base. I have found the easiest way to make a base is to use some kind of bendable woody material (vine, willow, hydrangea). Cut a fresh long piece of bendable woody bush or tree material (in my case, I am using hydrangea).  If you don’t have a fresh piece, you can soak a dried piece of willow for a few hours and then shape it.  You could also do this same practice by attaching flowers to a rigid headband, if you wanted a headband style flower crown.

Here I am with a piece of freshly cut hydrangea about 40″ long.  It has a few extra pieces coming out, which is fine and will add more greenery to my crown.

The next step is actually the most tricky and when you are most likely to break the branch.  Slowly bend the woody material until it forms a head-shaped size (or a larger wreath size if you are making a garland instead).  At this point, place it upon your own head to make sure it is not too big or too small and adjust accordingly, holding it in place so it doesn’t slip.

Next, keep weaving the branches through until the crown is solid and won’t shift.  Usually, this can be accomplished by the 2nd or 3rd go around.  In my case, I had a lot of extra smaller branches that were coming out of the main hydrangea stalk. I wove some of these in and cut some of them with pruners.  Once you are at this stage, test the crown again and make sure it fits the shape of your head.

Now that you have your crown, it is time to gather flowers.  You can gather them earlier and leave them in water.  You want them as fresh as possible to go on your crown.  At this stage, you can think about design–what do you want to include? How many flowers? do you want a big center flower or a bunch of flowers all around?  Select what you will need.

Here I am with my crown, flowers, and other tools ready to go!

For making something to wear, you should probably use wire (I am using thin green floral wire) as it holds the crown in place better.  But if you are leaving something to offer, I would not use a wire (which won’t break down and leave no trace) and instead use a natural hemp or cotton string for the flowers.

To construct your crown, lay your first flower and wiring or tie it to the crown.  Then, lay your second flower where you tied or wired the first, and tie that one.  Keep going around the crown, working to layer each flower and tie them. If you are wearing the crown, make sure you don’t make one side heavier than the other!

For this first crown, I left it mostly with greenery and wired only a few flowers.  For the second crown (below) I added as many flowers as I could!  Both have their charm.  You can see what I mean about layering flowers here–just wire one in, lay the next on the previous wire, and work your way around the crown.

If you wanted to make a garland, the process is the same, just with a larger shape.

The other thing I want to share here is that you will have to work quickly if it is hot outside or your flowers will start to wilt.  You might want to do a few practice crowns till you get the hang of things and can work quickly so that the flowers are fresh when you finish.

If you aren’t going to wear your crown right away, you can preserve it for at least 6-8 hours by wrapping it gently with some wet cloth or wet paper towels and putting it in a plastic bag and then sticking it in the refrigerator or a cooler.  I was able to preserve several crowns for transport this way without any issue and they were still fresh hours after I made them.  Once you start to wear it, depending on the heat of the day, it will likely look great for an hour–or several before it begins to seriously fade.

Ideas for your crowns and garlands

The uses of these crowns are wide-ranging. I have made them this summer as part of a personal ritual; the preparation for the ritual was gathering the materials and making the crown. I then proceeded to my ritual space and did my Lughnasadh ritual.  Once druid gatherings and events get going again, I could see these very successfully being built into other rituals and experiences.

I have also used them as an offering at sacred places (like the opening suggests).  I left a small braided bundle of herbs (a derivative of the crown idea) on the land that was being cut recently.  I have left one within the grove of renewal that I have been working on regularly for land healing purposes.  I have also visited my favorite sacred spring and tucked a small garland into the greenery behind the spring (lots of people visit it and I don’t know what they’d do with my garland if they found it!)

As I mentioned above, I made two very colorful ones (the ones that opened this post) for celebratory purposes–my sister was getting married and we wanted it to be extra special, especially since the pandemic has made everything more difficult.  Those were very special crowns, and mementos that she can save, dry, and hang on a wall. It was a seriously wonderful and unique way to honor the bride and mother of the bride.

I hope that you have found this post inspirational, and yet another way that you can create sacred and meaningful things from your own druid’s garden!