Category Archives: ancestors

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/

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.

Rituals and Prayers for Peace

Peace is a fundamental part of the druid tradition. The ancient druids had roles as peacemakers and justices, and today, many druids find themselves in a position of promoting and fighting for justice and peace.  A lot of this work is happening right now: working towards for the equal rights and treatment of black, brown, and indigenous people; fighting on the front lines of the pandemic as a medical worker or essential personnel; or and trying to work for inner peace in these challenging times, just to name a few.  Given what is happening at present, it seems like a very good time to start, reaffirm, or deepen a spiritual practice that focuses on spreading peace. Thus, in this post, I’ll share a peace meditation, peace prayers, and peace rituals that you might use as part of your practice. I also think that the more of us that do the work of peace in our spiritual lives, the more peace we can spread throughout the world at this very critical time when it is so needed.

Meditations on Peace

Peace

Mediations on peace can be an excellent first step in starting or re-affirming a peace practice as part of your spiritual work. I find two kinds of meditations that are particularly useful for this: discursive and energy visualization.

Discursive meditation allows us to work through difficult concepts and come to deep understandings. Meditating on the definition of peace–what it looks like, what it entails, and what it would take to bring that peace into the world can be highly productive.  You might explore peace from multiple angles:

  • Definitions: what is peace to you? How do you define it?  What features does it have?  How might this definition align with or deviate from other perspectives?
  • Peace within:  What does peace within look like? how might you foster peace within? What are the concrete steps you can take?
  • Peace at home: What would peace look like in your own life and in your immediate family? How can you foster peace at home?
  • Peace in your community: What might peace look like in your broader community? In your country? In the world?  How can we foster peaceful interactions in our communities, especially among diverse groups?
  • Peace between humans and the land: What would peaceful interactions look like within your landscape? How can we foster peaceful interactions between human and non-human life?  How can we be at peace with nature? How can we achieve balance?

This set of meditations can take some time, but it is certainly worth work doing.  I recently worked through this list, doing five distinct meditations for each of the bullet points above.  This helped me affirm my commitment to this work, both within and without.

Envisioning and visualizing peace is a second meditation technique, this one with an outward focus.  For this meditation, you might focus on one of the above spheres (e.g. peace within, peace in your immediate surrounding, peace in your local community, peace in your country, peace in the world, peace among humans, and non-human life).  The alternative is just to focus on peace broadly and let the energy go where it is needed.

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

The white pine, the tree of peace here in North America

Begin this meditation by sitting quietly and focusing on peace within.  Pay attention to your breath (using breathing techniques, like the fourfold breath or color breathing, both described in the Druidry Handbook by John Micheal Greer).  Recognize that this initial step can take some time–both in terms of an individual meditation session or a number of sessions.  For me, peace within means a quiet mind where I am able to slow racing thoughts, anxiety, or any other stressors and just be in the present moment.  I breathe through this for a while and then continue.

The second part of the meditation is simply sending some of that peace out into the world, directing it to whatever sphere you see fit (a caveat here–keep your direction of peace broad and unspecific.  Let spirit work with your intention as is best.)  You can envision peace in the four quarters of the world, for example, or envision specific scenes that would promote peace over violence (use some of your meditations from the first meditation activity).  I think this should be fairly intuitive–the more you practice, the more you will be able to send peace.

Prayers for Peace

Prayers for peace are also a wonderful way to begin, continue, or deepen a peace practice. Within druidry, both of the most common prayers invoke peace, justice, or both:

The Druid’s Prayer for Peace

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace
Quietly within this grove, may I share peace
Gently within the greater circle of [humanity / all life] may I radiate peace.

The Druid’s Prayer (Gorsedd Prayer)

There are actually a few different versions of the Druid’s (Gorsedd) Prayer.  For peace prayers, I prefer this version, which Iolo Morganwg attributes to the Book of Trahaiarn the Great Poet

Grant, oh spirit, Thy protection;
And in protection, reason;
And in reason, light;
And in light, truth;
And in truth, justice;
And in justice, love;
And in love, the love of spirit,
And in the love of spirit, the love of all existences

Peace Within: A Daily Peace Ritual

In druid rituals stemming from the druid revival, we often begin by declaring peace in the quarters (either going around the circle starting in the east (AODA style), or crossing the circle (e.g. going from north to south and east to west, OBOD Style). I have found that in this time, affirming peace in the four quarters, as well as within, has been a very useful daily practice and have developed the following ritual for peace.  I’ll first share how I do it, and then share the general model that you can adapt.

Grandmother Beach asks for peace

Each morning, I go out to care for our homestead flocks (our chickens, guineas, ducks, and geese). This is part of my morning ritual–and after I’m done letting everyone out of their coops, filling up water buckets and food troughs, I make sure I pause, take in the day, and declare peace. I just stand in the yard and spend a moment meditating on each direction (I start in the east since that is where the sun is rising).  I observe the east, seeing birds, watching the sun through the clouds, and paying attention to the air.  Then I say “May there be peace in the east.”  I do the same thing at each of the remaining three directions.

Finally, I focus on my own person and put my hands on my heart and say the Druid’s Prayer for Peace.   This is my adaptation from the OBOD’s Prayer for Peace.  I’ve adapted OBOD’s prayer to expand to all life, not just human life. And so I say:

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.
Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.
Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.

I then intone three ogham for peace, Koad (Grove); ifin (Pine), and Eastern Hemlock (Onn).  The first ogham is the grove ogham, representing the grove of trees coming together to resolve disputes and come to peace.  Thes second is pine, which has been a symbol of peace in North America for millennia, and I honor the peace of the ancestors of the land hereby intoning it.  The third is Gorse, which represents hope, potential, and the possibility for change.

This simple daily ritual helps me not only radiate peace and embrace life in the broader world but send a little bit of that peaceful energy out.  It also helps me get off on the right foot during this challenging time.  Here’s the ritual in a condensed form that you can use:

Druid’s Daily Peace Ritual

Face the east and quiet your mind.  Visualize peace in the east.  Say “May there be peace in the east.”  Do the same with the other three directions: south, west, and north.

Place your hands on your heart and say the Druid’s prayer for peace.

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.
Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.
Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.

Intone the three ogham three times each. As you do, envision peace radiating outward:
KO-ud
EE-van
OR

Cross your arms and say, “I thank the spirits for peace, justice, and blessings.”

Honoring the Peacemakers

A final thing that I do to envision peace is to honor the ancestors of the druid tradition.  The ancient druids were considered wise people who were justices, diplomats, and peacemakers among their people. This is an idea to which I can try to strive.  Meditation on this concept regularly along with some ancestor-of-tradition work can support this practice.

You might consider honoring other ancestors of peace in your practice, those peacemakers of the past whose work in the world is useful to remember.  Dr. Martin Luther King, James Farmer, or others who have fought for racial peace might be good focuses right now.

The Work of Peace

The work of peace is not easy, but extremely necessary to create a more equal, just, and welcoming society for all. I hope these simple practices support you during this very challenging time and offer you some additional tools in the work of peace in the world.

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?

 

 

Ancestral Herbalism and Samhain: Working Deeply with Rosemary

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

As we quickly approach Samhain, it is a useful practice to spend some time with rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and build her into your Samhain practices. In this post, we look into some of the magic and medicine of Rosemary, and I share a number of ancestor and Samhain-focused practices that you can use with Rosemary.

 

An Ancestral Ally of Humans: History, Medicine, Magic

Before we get into what you can make or do with rosemary, let’s spend some time exploring and understanding this ancient herb. Rosemary has been with humanity almost as long as we have written records. Native to the mediterranean region, rosemary was first found referenced on cuineform tablets from Ancient Egypt that are from 5000 BCE–thus, humanity has at least an 8000 year old relationship with this herb (but I suspect it is much longer than our written history!). It was spread to China as early as the 2nd century CE, and to Europe in the middle ages.  It came to North America and South America in the 1700s and now has global reach.

 

The “officinalis” in Rosemary’s latin name indicates that this was an herb used as of the materia medica in ancient Rome and beyond. While Linneaus in the 18th century came up with the Latin taxonomy of naming plants, and thus gave Rosemary her official “officinalis” designation, the uses of this plant go back quite further.  In fact, the term “rosemary” derives from Latin, ros marinus (“dew of the sea”).  Even the word itself has a wonderful history.

 

Rosemary has been considered by many cultures as a sacred herb tied to memory and remembrance, and love. This was certainly known in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as in much of the other cultures in the Mediterranean, where rosemary was used both for weddings (in the form of sprigs or wreaths) as well as for funerals to honor the dead.  It is burned as incense, used in cooking, used as medicine and used in funeral ceremonies–a tradition that continues to modern times in Australia and other nations. Thus, you might say that Rosemary is an ally to us both in life, and in death.

Rosemary in flower

Grieve speaks of the different rosemary customs in her entry in A Modern Herbal, particularily surrounding memory and rememberance. This is a common and well known use, such as represented in Ophelia’s line in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”  Many herbalists recognize the usefulness of rosemary both for strengthening the memory, but also working with us a plant spirit ally in helping us remember. Memory can be a fickle thing this day and age, especially with phones rather than our minds and hearts doing the rememberance.  Rosemary, thus, is a potent ally for us, particularly at Samhain when reflecting back, honoring the past, and honoring those who came before us is central. 

 

Rosemary is also an incredible herbal ally. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to write of Rosemary and its many uses.  Modern herbalists recognize rosemary as useful both as an essential oil as well in its plant forms.  Every part of the plant can be used medicinally. Both the oil and the herb can be used as a carminitive, that is, offering beneficial and healing action on the digestive system and aiding in the reduction of gas and digestion of food (in fact, you will find that many culinary herbs aren’t just for taste, but have these same kinds of actions–which is probably why they were traditionally used in cooking!)   Rosemary, in tea or tincture form, can also be used to help calm the nerves.   Finally, rosemary is very useful in a hair wash to strengthen the hair and encourage new hair growth (I use a vinegar infused with rosemary often!)  Research has also shown that rosemary oil can be used to increase alertness and cognitive function, which is pretty cool!

 

There’s a lot more that could be said about rosemary’s virtues, but I think you get the idea–Rosemary is an amazing Samhain herb for so many reasons.  So let’s get to some of the stuff you can make and do with rosemary as a focal herb for this time of year.

 

 

Rosemary Smudges and Incense

Rosemary smudge for ancestor altar

Rosemary (on its own or combined with other herbs) make fantastic herbs for doing any kind of memory work or clearing work. Make sure you use fresh rosemary for your smudge stick making–dried rosemary is brittle and easily falls off the branch. I usually gather up rosemary in the weeks before hard frost (for me in Western Pennsylvania on the US East Coast, this is usually 1-2 weeks before Samhain arrives).  Some I save for culinary use, and the rest I use in smudge stick making. I have full details for how to make your own smudges and a list of recipes for smudges. For Samhain, and ancestor work, I like the following combinations:

  • Rosemary (alone) for deep ancestor work or memory work (such as working with the ancient art of memory mansions, etc)
  • Rosemary, Lavender, and Mugwort for deep dreaming work (which is best done between Samhain and Imbolc)
  • Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme for helping me shift my energies from the light half to the dark half of the year, and accept the frost and cold that is to come.

If you are growing rosemary itself, don’t overlook the roots as another useful part of the plant for incense and smudges–it has a more woody and deep aroma and is excellent!

Rosemary Oil for Visioning and Past Life Work

You can construct an herbal oil using rosemary leaf and rosemary essential oil that excellent.  I like to use a combination of rosemary and borage for this work, but you can use other plant combinations.  To make your oil, crush fresh or dried rosemary and borage and place in a small mason jar.  Cover the jar with fractionated coconut oil (prefered over olive oil for this recipe, but you could also use almond or olive oil–whatever you have around).  Wait 1 week (for fresh herbs) or one moon cycle (for dried herbs) and then strain.  For a bit of added punch, add rosemary essential oil (2% dilution, or about 10-15 drops per cup of oil).

Keep your rosemary oil in an oil roller or jar and rub on your temples and heart for any kind of visioning or past life work.  It also doubles as an excellent “memory” oil for wanting to jog the memory or wanting to hold something important in your memory and not lose it.

 

Rosemary Tea for Tea with the Ancestors

One of my very favorite Samhain traditions is to invite my ancestors to tea.  For this, I typically make a tea of three herbs: rosemary, lavender, and mugwort (small amount of mugwort because it can be bitter) and I sweeten it with honey.  To make the tea, boil water, add your herbs (about 1/2 tbsp of herbs per cup of tea), let seep for 5-10 min, and then strain and stir in your honey.

 

The ritual is simple and can be performed anytime around Samhain (I like to do this Samhain eve).  To set up the ritual, you will need a teapot and two teacups and candles.  I start by  then light a candle and leave it in my western window (also traditional).  I light candles around my space and place a blanket on the floor for me to sit on.  You should also have a large empty bowl.

Rosemary

To begin the ritual, I open up a sacred space (using AODA’s Solitary Grove ritual) and when opening the space, indicate that the sacred space is traversable by any ancestor who wishes to visit.  I then pour myself a cup of tea and wait. When an ancestor arrives, I likewise pour them tea and we sit and converse using spirit communication techniques (if you haven’t yet honed your skill in this area, a divination system like an oracle deck would work great).  After we are done conversing, the ancestor has taken their tea energetically.  I then pour it into the bowl and see if another ancestor wants to come and have tea.  I have met many fascinating ancestors this way–of land, tradition, blood, and bone.

 

Samhain Cooking with Rosemary

Samhain is one of my favorite times to really “cook” for a festival, particularly cakes, breads, and other doughy goodness.

If you are lucky enough to have chestnut flour available (which you can create yourself if you have access to some chestnuts), this is an amazing cake for Samhain that combines rosemary with the hopeful and strong chestnut.

For those who aren’t off hoarding and cracking chestnuts, I highly recommend this rosemary bread that you can make in a dutch oven.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Rosemary is such a powerful and potent plant ally for us, particularly at Samhain.  Dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with Rosemary.  Let me know if you try anything here!

How to Create Your Own Tarot or Oracle Deck for Personal Use

 

My local ogham-like oracle system :)

My local ogham-like oracle system 🙂

Ever since I self-published the Tarot of Trees, I get a fairly regular stream of people who are interested in creating their own oracle decks and want to know how to do it. So in today’s post, I’ll share the process of developing a variety of different oracles. Some were published oracles, like  The Tarot of Trees and my forthcoming Plant Spirit Oracle, while others were private oracles just for me, such as the Ancestor Oracle and my ongoing East Coast Ogham project and tree spirit project. Through these projects, I detail the process for how you might create your own. We’ll talk about the act of creation itself, as well as options for if you want to get it out into the world (self publish, print on demand, etc).

 

In today’s post, I’m going to focus on oracle decks that you make just for you–without the intention of mass-producing them. I’ll share various options for your deck and my own experiences in making many such decks.  In next week’s post, I’ll share details about how to make an oracle with the intention of getting it published or self-publishing).  I’m splitting up these posts for a very good reason. If you are making your own deck that is only for you, you don’t have to worry about a lot of considerations that go into printing and mass production (funding a print run, marketing, standard printer die-cut sizes for cards, etc). If you are making one just for you, you can do whatever you want, however, you want it.  If, however, you want to publish your work (either through a publisher or through self-publishing means) then you have to pay attention to certain considerations–which I’ll cover at some point in the next month or two!

 

What is an oracle? Why create one yourself?

An oracle is a set of cards, stones, or other objects that allow you to ask questions from spirit.  Typically, oracles have a theme (e.g. plants, angels, divinity) and through various imagery or objects they can offer you messages.  Many oracles work on the principle of the archetype–which is simply a recurring symbol or theme that is common to the human experience.  The maiden, mother, and crone are three such archetypes, as are the fool and the magician from the tarot.  When you are creating your own oracle, you can choose what kinds of symbolism and energy you might want to connect with.

 

There’s a lot of differing opinions about what you are connecting to with when you connect with an oracle deck.  Again, I think this depends on the person.  Some folks may find that they want it to remain a mystery.  Others believe they are connecting with their higher self or subconscious.  Others believe that they are connecting with some form of the divine or greater spirit, god/goddess, or universal energy.  For some people, these questions matter deeply and for others, they really don’t care where the messages come from as long as they are helpful.  While it doesn’t matter what you believe to create your oracle, it can be a useful exercise to consider what the source(s) of the energy is that you are drawing upon.

My Tree Spirit Oracle – a project I’m still working on!  I got this printed through a print-on-demand printer to see how it would look.  More on POD next week!

Self-created oracles have a certain kind of power that you can’t get from an oracle someone else created.  A self-created oracle is yours, and only yours.  You choose what goes into it.  You create it yourself. You choose your symbols and meanings. You are the only one involved in visioning for it, choosing the archetypes or meanings, choosing the media, choosing how it is used.  Tremendous power exists in self-determination.  You will learn a lot about yourself and what you value through the process of creating your own oracle.  At the same time, recognize that it can be a considerable undertaking, sometimes over a period of time (particularly if you are searching out objects for your oracle).  It may also be limited by your artistic skill, but there are ways around not being able to draw (e.g. fancy lettering, collage, etc). But it is certainly something worth doing as a “next step” for divination work.

 

Setting Vision and  Intentions

For creating your own oracle deck, I have found it helpful to start by meditating and exploring your own intentions. Each person is unique, and an oracle we create is likewise unique, that should in some way reflect upon who we are as people and what our needs for divination are. Some of the questions you might ask to help you set your intentions are:

  • Why do I want to create my own oracle?
  • What kinds of questions do I want to ask?
  • What questions do I ask of my current oracles regularly?
  • What do I like about the oracles/tarot decks that I already have worked with?
  • What don’t I like (or is missing) from the oracles/tarot decks that I already have?
  • Do I have themes or media that I’m particularly drawn to?
  • Do I want to be able to add to my oracle over time?
  • How big do I want my oracle to be? (e.g. simple yes/no/maybe questions or deep understandings?  The more cards/objects, the more complex of questions and answers you can ask).

Once you have some sense of these questions, it is likely a good time to start making your own oracle. If you don’t have a sense of these questions, you might want to meditate on them for a time and return to the oracle project at a later point. Oracle ideas have a way of sneaking up on you–you may one day be struck with the awen (inspiration) and be ready to go after months of not being sure what to do. That’s ok–these things are rooted in spirit and they work on their own time and in their own way.

 

The Tarot of Trees

Your Oracle: Established Meanings or New Ground

Planning is your first step, and a multitude of options exist for you designing your own oracle.  First, you have to decide if you are going to use an established set of meanings (runes, ogham, or Tarot) for your basis for creating an oracle or if you are going to create something entirely new and unique.  This is an important choice.  Here are your two options:

 

Using and adapting an established oracle/tarot system.

Choosing to use something that is already established (runes, tarot, ogham, etc) gives you a basic blueprint of how to proceed.  Your major work using this approach is interpretation and manifestation. Your planning, then, has a lot to do with how you interpret the existing body of meanings to your specific theme and plan. If you are going to start with a set of established meanings–then those meanings will be a guide as you plan your deck. In this case, the plan is already before you (e.g. 78 cards, 4 suits + major arcana in the case of the tarot, 22 ogham staves in the case of the ogham, etc). Your job is simply to interpret those archetypes how you see fit.

 

The Tarot of Trees took this approach–I made a tarot deck. I changed some of the meanings and adapted the suits to fit a seasonal and elemental approach, but ultimately, the suits and cards are familiar to anyone who works with other Tarot decks.  There’s still a lot of room for flexibility and creativity in this approach but it does give you some structure, which is helpful to many people.  In the case of the Tarot of Trees, I focused on one tarot card at a time, starting with the majors.  I meditated on each of the traditional meanings and then envisioned what that might be when translated to a tree focus.  I read different interpretations of the cards. Thus, while some of my cards were fairly classical (the 3 of swords) others, like the Wheel of the Year (Wheel of the Seasons in the Tarot of Trees) or the Heirophant, went off in interesting directions.

 

Creating an entirely new oracle system.

The alternative is to go off in a completely new direction and create an entirely new oracle that is specific to you and that does not use an existing framework. This allows you to create something entirely unique, with your own symbology and meanings. Deeply personal oracles that are self-created have real power because they speak directly to you and are created by you. I highly recommend you do so at some point on your spiritual journey! In this case, your work is very different.  Not only are you creating the oracle itself, but also the entire framework and system for meaning. Let me give you two examples, which will help illustrate this process.

 

The Ancestor Oracle Deck is one such example that I’ve created (not the only one I’ve made, but the only I’ve shared publicaly on this blog prior to this post). In this case, I wanted to create an oracle deck that evolved as my own life did–I wanted to create an ancestor deck that I could connect with and use at Samhain, and I wanted to be able to add ancestors to my deck as loved ones passed on as part of my own mourning process. Obviously, since this deck was so personal, I would never publish it or share it with anyone else (and I’m even careful about which cards I photograph).  This deck had a very specific and meaningful purpose for me–a tool to use for divination, but also for my altar, and my mourning work as I lose someone important.  In the case of creating this deck, I did some pre-planning.  In the weeks leading up to Samhain, I opened up a sacred grove and invited my ancestors in. I reflected on each of them, and began to keep a running list of three things:  who they were, what they meant to me, and what core symbolism I might use to represent them. In the weeks following that, I created the deck itself and made the imagery (see link above for that process). I made a lot of extra cards for that deck, as I know that my collection of ancestors will grow as my dear ones pass. After I made the initial deck, I also spent some time with Ancestry.com, doing my DNA test, and learning much more about my distant ancestors.  At this Samhain, I’m going to be adding some of those more distant ancestors that I’ve been connecting to–my oldest tracable ancestors, for example, and some of the core family clans.  The deck itself has also helped

My ancestor oracle

I used a very different approach to create the Plant Spirit Oracle (PSO).  Unlike the Ancestor Oracle, which I planned out in advance, the PSO was extremely inductive.  I didn’t even know I was creating an oracle till I was about 7 or 8 paintings into the process!  I was doing some serious journey work with the Celtic Golden Dawn system.  As part of that system, you work with elemental groves and journey between those groves.  Each journey introduces you to a guide.  When I started the process, I met a plant–black cohosh–and she showed me a painting as part of my journey.  I painted it.  I kept doing these pathworkings every few weeks.  I’d meet plant spirits, and gain an image of what to paint, and use the painting process itself as a meditative tool.  Sometimes I would have to journey further to get the meanings or have the meanings revealed to me through meditation, even after already getting the image of what I wanted to paint. For this oracle, I did not plan it in advance, but once I got later in the process and had most of it complete, I did figure out an overall organization for the deck that worked with what I had and created a few cards tht “filled in” the gaps of the meanings I needed,  I would say, it was almost an intuitive and spirit-led approach.

And so, some general principles we can take away from these two examples:

Like most things, multiple options exist for how to proceed for designing your own oracle. One is the intuitive or inductive approach, where you simply work with one card or object at a time and use intuition/spirit to get you where you are going (my example of the Plant Spirit Oracle).  The other approach is and one is the plan-ahead or deductive approach (which is what I did with the Ancestor Oracle).  Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks, and they really will depend on who you are, the vision you have, and how you are most comfortable proceeding.  You might also find that a bit of both is the best approach–planning what you know you want to include, and leaving the rest up to divine inspiration as you create.

If you are coming into this process with a fairly strong vision for your oracle, it might pay to plan it in advance.  That is, it might pay you to sit down and map out what the meanings are that you want to create, the kinds of things you need in your oracle, what you want it to look like, and maybe even ideas on how you’ll read it and use it.  A map (visual) or outline can be helpful as you plan, think through, and revise before beginning.

If you are not coming in with a strong vision, then I suggest you simply look to the world around you for inspiration and use your core spiritual practices to get you there.  As you are in the act of creating, you may come across experiences or things in nature that resonate–write them down, collect them and help build them into your oracle.  Or you can create or adapt a specific set of practices just for oracle creation.

 

Whew!  There’s a lot to think about when it comes to which path you want to take to creat your oracle.  Now, we move into the next phase of creation.  You will need to make decisions about what (matter) and what the meanings will be (spirit).

 

Matter: Options for Making Your Oracle

You can make your oracle literally out of anything–collage or found images, photography, hand-paintings, small objects like bones, wood burned slices of wood, stones, acorn shells and much more more. Even if you have you have not honed your drawing or painting skills, there are still lots of other options for you. I’ll cover some of those options here and offer you some ideas to get you started.

Paper-based options

 

A handpainted “mockup” deck of the PSO to figure out how to best use it!

Paper-based options are good for oracles–a heavy paper (like watercolor or bristol) stands up well to repeated use, and paper-based oracles can travel easily. Here, play around with some potential ideas till you find something you really like and start to make the cards.  cards can be any size or shape (and feel free to get creative here–round oracle cards are a thing). Make a few mock-up cards and see how the awen is flowing. If you are thinking of going this route, here are some options for you.

 

  • Pre-cut cards.  If you look online, you can easily find different sizes of pre-cut cards that are ready to go.  These include various kinds of colors, thicknesses, etc.  Using these as a starting point is a great way to go–get some stamps or markers, or your printer, and away you go!
  • Watercolor backgrounds and Lettering:  An oracle can be made just of watercolor backgrounds and lettering (see the watercolor background technique in the Ancestor Oracle post).  Anyone can make these backgrounds, and if you put them on a good watercolor paper, you can end up with a really nice place to start for images or lettering.
  • Lettering is an art form in and of itself and does not require the same level of skill as drawing. I would suggest checking out this list for books that can inspire you.
  • You could use a handmade paper technique where you use recycled papers or natural materials.  Again, handmade paper techniques are easy to learn and require no drawing ability.  Then put some nice lettering on your cards and away you go!
  • Handpainted cards:  Create fully handpainted cards.  Paint them at the size, or patin them larger.  I did both for the Plant Spirit Oracle:  I made a “mockup” deck work out the meanings and uses for the Plant Spirit Oracle.  I also had larger 11×14″ paintings for each.  For the Ancestor Oracle, I made only one card, and that was handpainted.
  • Collage techniques.  Gather up some inspirational magazines, glue, and some heavy cardstock and go to town! You can create wonderful, intuitive collages (similar to a vision boarding technique).  You can do these very intuitively–light some candles, put on some quiet music, and put yourself in a good place.  Then, go through the magazines and material and pull things out that speak to you.  Cut them, and assemble them into cards with words and pictures.  An oracle is born!
  • You can do digital art and then do a one-shot print run (such as through makeplayingcards.com).  Or you can print them out locally or on your home printer.  I did this for my Tree Spirit Oracle (which may or may not become a deck I release).
  • You can carve vegetables or various kinds of blocks (wood, linoleum) and create a printed deck (I’ve always wanted to do this, but haven’t gotten to it yet.  But I did make a set of cool elemental garden flags some time ago!)
  • You can also do basic stamp techniques with natural materials like leaves, etc.
  • There are papers you can get that turn colors when exposed to the sun. Use these with natural materials to create amazing and accurate prints. Look for “sun print paper” or “sun-sensitive paper”.
  • Doodles/pen and ink.  Zentangle techniques are meditative and fun and again, something anyone can do. These done intuitively with words or images would make a really cool oracle!

These are just some of many, many paper-based media options.  Play around and see what speaks to you.  Browse places like Deviant Art or Instagram to get ideas of what is possible and what may speak to you.

Object and Wooden options

Because of the prevalence of oracle decks, sometimes we forget that other materials also make great oracles.  Thus, your oracle does not have to be paper-based but rather can be made of objects of all kinds.  Objects give you a different kind of interaction, a much more tactile interaction, and can be a lot of fun to put together.

  • Found natural objects: sticks, stones, shells, and feathers can make a great oracle deck.  Put different gathered objects together in a bag, assign meanings, and you are ready to roll.
  • Stones: Collect or purchase different colored stones.  Paint them (or not) and assign meanings. You might also want to tumble them or leave them as is.
  • Bones.  In the hoodoo tradition, throwing the bones is a very common divination practice.  I have a friend who has a wonderful bone set–she collected them all herself, over time, and she also created a great casting cloth (see below) for her bone set.
  • Wood and sticks: You can do a lot with different kinds of wood, either slices of wood cut with a miter saw or sticks cut just with little hand tools. You can slice off one end of a stick and give meaning or symbol. Wood rounds make excellent sets for runes and other things. Woodburning these works best (see a photo of my ongoing East Coast Woodlands Ogham project for a simple example).
  • Clay:  You can do natural pottery (fired in a hot bonfire), air dry clay, or polymer clays like Sculpey or fimo.  You can shape things with them, or roll them out, use a little circle to cut out shapes, and then press other things into them (like stamps, old buttons, etc).  I would recommend you think about the portability of clay objects–how heavy will they be together?

 

Spirit: Developing Meanings and Uses

The spirit of the oracle refers to what it means and how you use it.  Meanings and how you gain those meanings are obviously central to any oracle deck. Developing an oracle, even if you plan it in advance, requires working with it to finalize the meanings and develop your understanding and relationship with that oracle.

Developing meanings

I began talking about how to develop meanings above, and I will continue that discussion here.  The first way of developing meanings is through lots and lots of research. My East Coast Ogham project, for example, is mostly a research-heavy project where I explore the different history, folklore, herbalism, physical uses, and mythology surrounding trees here in the eastern part of the USA and then derive my own meanings for it. That project has been a labor of love, and when you see a sacred tree post from me, that’s part of that project.  (Thus far, I’ve covered Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak as part of that project!).  I’ve made many more tree stick oghams that aren’t yet researched.  Each of these trees requires many hours to research, but the process is so rewarding.  In the end, this oracle will probably take me the longest of any I’ve created–but it will be all hand-gathered and from the heart.

 

The second way of developing meanings is through spiritual work such as meditation, nature observation, and sprit journeying. That’s how I developed the Plant Spirit Oracle. I did extensive journeying over a 4 year period and through those journeys, received not only the design of each card but their overall meanings. I already shared that process above a bit.

 

Another way of developing meanings is by meaningful personal association.  This was how I developed the Ancestor Oracle.  I had ancestors, I wanted to think about their role in my life and what messages they might have.  Sometimes, I had done spirit journeying work with them, and other times, it was simply what I remembered of them, stories I had been told, or what they meant to me personally.  For example, in the Ancestor Oracle, I have a card for “The Conservationists.”  I honor those who worked to create the beautiful state and national parks that I so enjoy as a druid.  This included many of the members of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built cabins, created paths, and really built our national and state park system here in PA from the ground up. I created that card several years ago and each Samhain, I honor those as one kind of ancestor of this land. I was only a few weeks ago I was camping with my family, and we were staying at Parker Dam State Park staying for the weekend in one of those CCC-built cabins.  My mother mentioned to me that my great-great uncle had been a member of the CCC.  How delighted I was to find this out! Now the card takes on additional meaning, as now it also represents at least one ancestor of my blood. These are the kinds of personal and meaningful associations that can develop over time, even after you finish your oracle.

Ancestor oracle

The final way is if you are working with an existing framework (tarot, ogham, runes, etc) and making it your own.  This is what I did with the Tarot of Trees. To do this, I first started by working with other tarot decks and books and just learning how the Tarot worked.  I took my own notes and as I used these decks, I intuited my own interpretations over time.  I painted the first card of the Tarot of Trees–the Tower–to better understand this card through meditation (I do a lot of meditation through my bardic arts).  Then I just kept going.  The general idea here is that you need to understand the system you are working with enough to interpret it and adapt it in whatever way you choose.  You can also add cards or subtract cards–this is your work.  For example, in the Tarot of Trees in the 3rd edition, I added a 79th card to the deck, “regeneration.”  This card, for me, was about hope and life.  I did this after studying permaculture design and feeling empowered about the potential role that humans could play in regenerating the earth.

 

Regardless of how you create your meanings, the final thing to remember here is that meanings and oracles evolve.  Even with original meanings, you have to work with the oracle to figure out the fine details of the meanings, the ways that different cards might interact, and the ways that you interact with your creation.  Allow for flexibility and time for these meanings to develop and understand that this is a process.  Keep a journal of what you understand the meanings to be, and allow yourself to

 

Developing Ways of Use

So you have an oracle and you have some basic meanings. Congratulations! The final thing you need to consider is how you can ask questions: that is, how do you draw objects or cards when you ask questions? How might you arrange them in a logical fashion?  You have lots of options here as well.

  • For cards and objects, you might consider different kinds of spreads.  You can invent your own spreads for use with your divination system or you can use previously created spreads that you like. For example, a commonly used spread in the Tarot community is the Celtic Cross spread. Experiment with your oracle, see what kinds of placement and meanings speak to you.  I suggest you start simple and then work your way to more elaborated spreads and readings.
  • You can also use different kinds of casting techniques.  These are particularly useful for objects like runes, bones, stones, etc.  Perhaps you craw one after another out of a bag.  Perhaps you cast the entirely of your oracle on a casting cloth, where different positions and directions on the cloth mean different things.  Perhaps you draw 4 then drop them on a table, seeing which directions they point and how they interact.  If you google “Casting cloth” you will see a lot of possibilities for existing casting cloths that can help you be inspired to create your own.
  • Consider interaction: how do different cards interact with other cards?  how might they

 

Tree Spirit Oracle

 

 

Use your Oracle

Oracles are meant to be used, either by you or perhaps by you reading for others.  The process of creation continues as you use your oracle, develop deeper meanings and relationships between the different cards/objects, and develop a deep connection between it and yourself.  I’d like to conclude by suggesting that you allow yourself flexibility in adding and adapting your oracle even after you consider it “done” as you never know what new meanings or messages spirit will have for you.

 

As a reminder, my sister and I are working to get the Plant Spirit Oracle released by early next year!  If you are interested in the PSO, please visit the Indigogo crowdfunding campaign.  We have lots of levels and extra perks.  Please check it out!

 

The Ways of our Ancestors: Review of the Mountaincraft and Music Gathering

Here, in the center of our camp, the sacred fire burns. This fire is tended for the four days we are together, never being allowed to go out. This is an ancestral fire, and all of us at the Mountaincraft gathering have the responsibility of feeding it. This is where we remember that learning primitive and earth skills is the work of our ancestors. This is where we gather for a quiet moment to commune with those ancestors, and will our bodies and hearts to remember. This is where, each morning, we gather as a group to hear about the day’s classes, call to the directions, hear a word of intention, and recieve a water blessing from Nancy Basket, a tribe elder. This is where, at each meal, some of us may find ourselves, talking with each other or engaging in quiet communion with the flame. This is where, each night, we gather to drum, dance, and connect with all in this community. This is where many classes are taught, using fire as a tool for cooking, dye, carving, and more. The ancestor fire at the heart of the Mountaincraft gathering is the heart of the gathering itself–and it represents much of what we’ve come here to do.

Dye pots in the sacred fire

 

As I’ve already begun to do, in this post, I’m reviewing my recent experience at the Mountaincraft gathering. I’ll offer a full review, and also share at the end of the review how you might find a similar earth / primitive skills gathering, and why, if you are interested in nature spiritualiy and druidry, you might really want to do so!  And so, let’s get back to honoring the ancestors.

 

While I had been at the North American School of Bushcraft a few times before, this was my first time at their annual  Mountaincraft and Music Gathering–and in fact, my first earth skills gathering ever. This gathering focuses on the wide variety of earth skills and primitive skills that our ancestors once knew, and that many of us are now trying to re-learn and preserve. Held yearly in early September in Hedgesville, WV at the North American Bushcraft School, this gathering is a wonderful time for people to gather together to learn, teach, share, and grow. I have been looking forward to this gathering for quite some time, and I invited two druid friends to go with me.  And what a time we had.

 

A typical day at Mountaincraft looks like this: breakfast starts at 7am and ends at 8:30. At 9:30, we have morning circle around the fire. Morning circle is as I described above: part annoucements, part community building, and part ceremony.  We hear about the day’s classes from each of the many instructors–they introduce themselves, what they will be teaching and where. We get a word of intention for the day, which helps us focus our energy in a useful direction.  We gain a water blessing (and sometimes a song) from Nancy Basket, who uses cedar to flick each of us with pure water. Then, we go off to one of many classes offered.  Usually about 7-10 classes are being held at any one time. Morning class runs from 10am till 12:30. Lunch is till 1:30 and classes begin again at 2 and run till 5:30. The gathering provides breakfast and lunch, so then everyone goes off to cook or pays for a delicious purchased meal. Signups for classes start at dinner the day before, so around dinner, so everyone visits the board and sees what the next day’s offerings are and sign up. Many find it diffiuclt to choose as so many good options are available. As it gets dark, everyone gathers for drumming and connection. There might be trading activities (trade blanket, or trading/sales of items) or some other activity. The final evening of the gathering, Saturday evening, they had two fantastic Bluegrass bands (I’m not even a fan of Bluegrass but these were quite fun and enjoyable!) Then you go to your tent and enjoy your rest. While it sounds like you stay quite busy, the schedule is quite relaxed and things happen at their own pace. Earth skills are not “fast” skills, rather, they work on slow time. The gathering’s pace reflects this powerful lesson.

Afternoon Classes – so many!

 

Each day at the gathering offered new classes and exciting opportunities to learn. It was often quite hard to pick between the many classes. Here are just some of the many classes that were offered this year: Wilderness survival 101, map and compass, navigation without maps, bow drill firemaking (make your own kit and learn to use it), friction fires of the world, 40 minute forks, spoon carving, blacksmithing 101, make your own atlatl, primitive pottery, zen and the art of woodchopping, tool maintenance, make handles for tools from trees, make a milking stool from a log, flintknapping, tomahawk throwing and course, bow course, cordage, basketry (many, many different types–pine needles, kudzu, vine, etc) combined with storytelling, fingerweaving, natural dyes, bark baskets, parkour, campfire cooking, indigo and shibori dye, leatherwork: moccasins, make your own leather pants or skirt, process a deer and use all parts, cattail reed mat making, herbalism 101, salve making, naturalist classes, nature awareness, weed walks and plant walks, eating bugs and mushrooms, tree identification, drumming, learning guitar and banjo (and other music), nature identification, and so many more I can’t remember and didn’t write down! There was also a full 3.5 day kids program, where kids did many different earth skills along with plenty of play time, swimming, and nature hikes. This allowed the kids autonomy and also allowed parents to go to their own classes knowing that their kids were in good hands. There were also daily sweat lodges that you could sign up for–I did not do a lodge but one of my druid friends did and had an amazing experience.

 

40 Minute Forks

On my first day, I spent the morning learning “40 minute forks” from Fuz, a long-time earth skills instructor from North Carolina. This was a great class to help me build confidence with my knife skills, whittling skills and create some simple forks. Fuz was a strong presence throughout the gathering, not only teaching a wide range of primitive skills (carving, wood chopping, drumming) but he was also very active in the drum circles at night, helping us feel welcome and leading some great beats.

 

The afternoon class was primitive pottery with Keith. We made our way down to the creek bed, dug clay from the bank, and learned how to hand wedge it. Covered in mud, we came back to the primitive pottery area, where we shaped the clay into bowls and other objects. On saturday late afternoon, after drying the pottery by the fire, the kiln was built on top of hot ashes and all of our pots went inside. Then, we built a bonfire on top of it and watched it burn  I remember standing there with our pots, at about 11pm on Saturday night. Bluegrass band playing in the background, heat of the fire before me, and just thinking what an amazing experience this was–to use fire as such a powerful tool. Evening came and my friends and I shared a meal and some downtime at our campsite. We then went down to the ancestral fire, where we participated in the best drum circle jam I have ever been enjoyed!

 

Prefiring pots

The second day cordage in the morning with Jeff Gottleib.  I loved everything about Jeff’s teaching style: practical, knowledgable, friendly, and encouraging. Jeff was a professional earth skills instructors and naturalist and it really showed. He walked us through the intracies of creating cordage from various plants and trees, and had tons of examples to look at.  We made dogbane cordage and then some hemp cordage. He even had a book on the topic for more info, which I was lucky enough to purchase for reference.  (He has a site and Youtube channel you can check out here).

 

After a great lunch, I went to my afternoon class, which was dyeing with indigo and traditional shibori techniques with Stephanie Davis. I have been longing to learn these techniques for years!  Stephanie’s workshop was amazing. Stephanie brought out examples, pictures, and had her own indigo dyed clothing and tapestries everywhere for examples.  She offered us a box of clothing and we took what would fit.  I ended up with a great cotton sleeveless shirt and an long runner I will use as an altar cloth. Stephanie’s instruction in indigo was magical. Each of us finished our prepartion (with various stitches, string, rubber bands, and more) and then made our way to the dye vat. Stephanie worked with each of us, slowly and purposefully, to dye our work and remove it quickly so that we did not add oxygen to the vat. Her gentle guidance added *so much* to the learning process–I felt like she taught us how to commune with the dye, how to work with the Indigo plant behind it. My two pieces came out beautifully. Many of us stayed to watch the last of the items get unwrapped like precious gifts. I left that class with my heart so full.

 

Amazing dyed fabrics!

Friday night offered a traditional trade blanket. Each of us who participated brought multiple kinds of trades.  We took turns, going around the blanket and offering trades. Or doing side trades, which are ok. I ended up trading for a bag of spicebush seeds (yay for replanting my land), a small leather bag, beads, dried hen of the woods mushrooms, a self-published coloring book, and a wonderful wool shawl with arm holes. I gave iron oxide pigment, guinea and goose feathers, a handmade leather journal, small gourds, and a small gourd drum. This was a  very fun time and a good way to get to know people at the event. For an overview of what this is, you can see this page.

 

Saturday is the “big day” of the gathering. Lots of new folks rolled in and there were at least 10-15 classes running at all times–and again so many choices! I decided to do a natural dyes and ecoprinting class in the morning. My natural dye class was great–we foraged for materials, learned about dyes and prepartion, and prepared and used three different dyes: a pokeberry dye, a walnut dye, and a goldenrod dye. The best thing about this class is that we did these dyes over our ancetral fire, just like our ancestors would have.  We gathered the plants and stained our fingers and faces with pokeberries.

 

My kit, with a fire I started at home a few days after the gathering.

My saturday afternoon class was my last class of the gathering, since I had to return early on Sunday. But I consider this class my greatest success–it was certainly the most physically demanding and challenging but also rewarding. I had class with Jeff again. This time, he was teaching us how to make bow drill kits for friction fire building. We started with a good chunk of dried basswood he harvested. He showed us how to quarter the log and get boards from them, each student making their own board. He then took the rest and offered us smaller shards to carve down into our round drill. After a good deal of carving, we were ready to make the bow. We harvested our drill wood itself and then added lines or did a 3-ply cordage technique with leather.  By this time, we had been making our kits for several hours. Many of the other classes had finished for the day, but we were determined to start fires with our kits!  It took me about 15 minutes of practice to get the hang of it, but then, I HAD AN EMBER!  And then, a minute or so later, I had made fire.  I felt so alive, so proud, so accomplished. From my own hands, I took pieces of split wood and turned them into a friction fire kit that really worked.  I spent most of the evening riding my bow drill fire high, thankful to have learned this skill and feeling damn accomplished. Since returning home, I’ve made three embers and one successful fire with my bow drill–and it tremendously deepened my relationship to fire!

 

That evening was awesome.  We had the trader setup, where you could sell or trade for items from a wide variety of folks who had stuff at the gathering. There were soaps, jams and jellies, herbal medicine, knives, feathers and bones, old school lanterns, various tools, and so many more interesting things. As that winded down, the party began, and we enjoyed homebrew and two amazing bluegrass bands.  I ended that evening at the primitive fire pit watching my pots turn to molten orange.Sunday at the gathering is a half day, but unfortunately, I had to leave early due to having to go to work later on Sunday. I said goodbye and drove away with my heart so full and my mind active, the awen strongly flowing through me!

 

I want to conclude with a few general thoughts and encourage you to go to Mountaincraft or another Earth Skills gathering:

 

Firing the pots!

First, this community is really, really welcoming. I can’t stress that enough. I live in a rural and very conserative area, and that often translates that there are things women do and things men do, and men don’t always want to teach women “men’s” skills. Woodworking and treework, in particular, have been really hard for me to get any decent lessons in. Here at Mountaincraft, Jason and Sera, who run the North American Bushcraft School, are diligent about their land being an accessible and welcoming place. I felt completely respected and believed in, at all times, during the gathering. I had strong women and respectful men leading awesome classes. But its not just gender diversity that is respected: all people are. The elders are respected in this community and given places of honor. The children are likewise respected, and many of them are teachers themselves. I have never been in such an open and welcoming community that honors the diversity of age, race, gender, and path so much.

 

Second, this community has a lot to offer people who put in the time. Besides the incredible list of skills I mentioned, there is a lot of personal work you get to do in building skills. Its a meaningful and powerful method of personal empowerment, where each new skill you learn allows you to gain confidence, gain power, and gain wisdom.  One of my druid friends, also a woman, spent the weekend learning blacksmithing, making weapons, and throwing them.  Her body was sore but her heart was full. She took the warrior’s path, much different than my own bardic journey, and yet, both were fulfilling and enriching for us.  Starting my fire with the bow drill changed something within me; it connected me deeply with my ancestors but also seemed to unlock some as of yet unknown potential within me. All I can say is that I left that gathering a different person than I came, and what that means will likely take some time to sort out through more fire building and bow drill practice.

 

Third, this gathering teaches deep nature knowledge and nature awareness. Nature has so many facets to learn: identification, edible/medicinal virtues, and many other uses–each of these offers a different “face” of a plant. There is such a difference between being able to ID a tree and learning how to make something from its fallen trunk, knowing just the right wood and part of the wood to choose. Before this gathering, basswood was simply a nice tree that I could identify and whose flowers made a demulcent tea. By learning how to make a bow drill of basswood, I learned much more about the qualities of this tree–how the wood behaves, how soft it is, how it smells when it burns, how it carves. Thus, I learned a bit of the tree’s magic: what wisdom and resources that it can offer. Nature knowledge comes in many forms, and the path of earth skills is abundant in such knowledge.

 

Finally, I think earth skills gatherings offeres a wonderful “earth path” suppliment to my many readers who are practicing some kind of earth-based spirituality (such as AODA druidry, which we literally call “earth path” skills).  These are the practical skills, folks.  These are the skills that help you stay rooted and present and build nature knowledge.  It is an incredible opportunity.

 

If you want to find a gathering near you, visit the Earth Skills Gatherings website.

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob

Happy feet mixing cob!

In a meadow under the summer sun, a group of dancers laugh and fling mud.  Beneath their feet, clay, sand, and water become mixed together, creating a sticky earthen blend that sticks to their feet, their legs, and, after some play, faces and fingers! This is a cob mixing party, one of the best times you can have with good friends. After the cob is mixed, it is added by others to the bench and more soil is added and the dance continues.  In last week’s post we explored some reasons to consider exploring natural building as a potential way to build sustainable structures and be more attuned with the energies of earth.  In this week’s post, we will get into how to test your soil and how to make some cob!

 

One thing I want to share about cob–you don’t have to build big things, like houses or ovens, with cob.  You can also build really small things–candleholders, paperweights, primitive statuary, and so on.  You can do an earth plaster on a wall in your home, or build a small cob bench overlooking the woods. I think the underlying practice with cob is simply to work with the earth in this very earth-honoring and embodied practice.  This post explores how to test your soil and make cob, which you can then use to shape your world!

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

Soil horizonsMaking cob requires you to understand a bit about soil horizons and how soil lays on the earth.  If you dig a hole in the earth straight down, you’ll see that soil show up in layers (horizons).  The first layer, the O layer, is an organic layer–where dead and rotting organic matter can be found.  This is the layer that is created when leaves fall and rot, creating dark, rich, humus.  This is what we want to grow plants in, NOT what we want for natural building.

 

The second layer, the  A Horizon, is the surface layer.  It is usually less dark, but still contains nutrients and organic matter. It usually appears lighter in color. Again, this is for plants, not for cob.

 

The third layer, the B Horizon, represents the sub-soil.  It is here where we find clay, sand, and silt; our basic building blocks for cob construction.  You’ll notice another break in your soil as you go down–in my region, the soil gets quite orange, representing the high iron content that we have here.

 

The fourth layer is the C Horizon, or sub-stratum, where you get quite rocky before hitting the final layer: the R layer, bedrock.  We don’t really want that for cob either.  Depending on where you live, the bedrock may be very close to the surface or dozens of feet down, so you may never see it.  Here in Pennsylvania, however, you can get a good look at the C horizon less than a foot down!

 

The amount of O and A Horizons you have is based on your own soil ecology as well as the long-term land use and land history. Parts of the world were stripped to bedrock by glaciers.  Other parts have a 15 foot A Horizon due to long-term patterns of beneficial animal herd grazing.  The same is true of the B, C, and R layers–the depth of these layers is based on a lot of land history factors spanning back tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

 

The good news is that in many parts of the world, clay and sand are fairly abundant and easy to get to with only a shovel!  You can learn more about soil horizons in your area by looking at recently dug up areas–a fallen tree that has taken the roots with it as it fell offers one such opportunity; new construction into a hillside offers another.  Or, you can simply get out a shovel and start digging–the secrets of the soil horizons will be revealed to you with a bit of sweat equity.

 

The Soil Jar Test

To find out how much sand, clay, and silt you are working with in your subsoil, you can perform a simple soil jar test.  Dig down into the subsoil and get yourself a good cupful of subsoil.  Break it up well if it is compacted as much as you can (this might mean letting it dry out for a few days in the sun and then breaking it up that way). Place this in a quart mason jar and fill with water to the top, leaving about an inch or so to shake it.  If you have animal helpers, this is a good time to enlist their help. Shake it very well.

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

Now, let your jar sit somewhere undisturbed or 24 hours.

  • The sand (a large grain particle) will immediately sink to the bottom, within a few minutes.  Mark this with tape or a marker if you can, or mentally note where it is.
  • A layer of silt (a medium particle) will settle on top of the sand in about 30 min.  You should .again mentally note where that ends.
  • Over the next 24 hours or so, the clay (a vey fine-grained particle) will settle out of the water.
  • You will also see any organic matter floating at the top of the jar.

24 hour later, all has settled.

You can look at these ratios as a way to determine if you will need to source some off-site materials to make an effective cob blend (2 parts sand, 1 part silt/clay).  As you can see from above, I am blessed in that I have an excellent ration of sand to clay/silt, and the cob from my land is almost perfect without any additions.

Any organic matter will settle on top (or float) but if you are using subsoil and you dug below the A horizon, you shouldn’t have much of that. (As an aside, you can use this same test for garden soil on the surface and it will tell you how much organic matter is in your soil, which is a very good thing!)

 

Clay Ribbon Test

Another good thing to do to test your clay in your subsoil is to do a ribbon test.  This gives you a simple test that lets you know how pure your clay is and how it will hold up over time.  A good example of how to do this is here. You mix up your cob as usual and work to create one of those clay snakes (like you may have done as a kid). When you have it mixed, you see how well it can be worked (bending) without breaking.  The higher the clay content, the more bendy it is.

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

Not all sand is created equal and it is very good to know what kind of sand you have in your subsoil. Some sand has very soft edges; you can think of beach sand here. The waves and water over a long period of time have softened the sand to the point where it is smooth. It is possible that the sand in your subsoil is like this–it is very soft because at one time, it was on a beach somewhere! Sharper sand contributes to a stronger cob. If you are doing major load-bearing building projects, you might consider adding some “builders sand” (which is a sharp, coarse sand) to your mix.

How to Make Cob!

Without further delay, let’s mix up some cob!

To make your own cob, you will need the following tools:

  • A shovel to dig out subsoil, wheelbarrow
  • Subsoil
  • Straw (chopped up), aged manure, or other grassy things (this adds strength)
  • A mixing tarp (any tarp will do, at least 6′ across  so you can move the cob around on it
  • A water source (hose, bucket, etc.)
  • Some happy feet for cob dancing (you know you want to!)
  • A large wooden screen sizes (use 1/2 or 1/4″ screen; see “tools” below)
  • A rock or small board to help sift subsoil

 

Tools

Probably the only tool you will need to make is your screen sifter. For general cob applications, you will want a 1/2″ screen for coarse/building cob. For finer cob applications (finish plasters, earthen candleholders or statuary, etc) you will want a 1/4″ screen. I made my screen by making a simple wooden frame out of scrap 2×4″ board. Then, I used a good amount of staples to staple my hardware cloth (1/2″) to the frame. The process took about 30 minutes, which mostly involved cutting and stapling the hardware cloth.

Screen with soil

It is necessary that you screen your cob in most locations–you don’t want those happy dancing feet to step on sharp rocks, sticks, or other stuff.  If you are taking your cob down to the 1/4″ level and have really rocky and uneven subsoil, I suggest starting to screen it at 1/2″ and then rescreen it down to 1/4″.

Making Cob

Dig your soil. The first thing to do is to dig out a good amount of subsoil.  I usually mix two medium wheelbarrows full at a time.  If you mix too much at once, it becomes unwieldy, particularly if you are mixing it yourself.  You can see how rocky our subsoil is!

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

Screen your cob. Now, screen your cob. To do this, break up the hard chunks as much as you can with a shovel.  Wet soil will not screen.  Really dry soil (as in, you haven’t had rain for quite a while) may get hard to screen as well, so there really is a sweet spot for soil moisture (experiment, you will see what I mean). Put a few shovel fulls of cob in your screen and then start moving it around. After you break up the big stuff, you can use a rock or small piece of board to really push the soil through the screen. Once you’ve screened all of the cob, place the stones and other debris in a bucket, and continue with more subsoil.

Using a stone to work out the last bits of subsoil/clay chunks from stone

Make your cob. Once your subsoil is all screened, you can dump it into the mixing tarp. Make a well in the center of the subsoil, and just like you’d do making a dough, place water in the well in the center.  Don’t overdo it, just fill up that well.

The well with water

Now, start mixing the cob together with your feet. As you mix, grab an edge of the tarp and pull part of the soil over on itself. Add more water. Mix with your feet again, and continue the process–flipping over the cob, adding water, etc, until all the cob is firm yet pliable. How wet you want your cob depends on the application. If you are using cob as a mortar for a stone wall or brick rocket stove, you will want it much wetter. If you want to make bricks and build with it (like an earth oven), you will want it more firm.

Work it!  Mixing in the straw.  Sprinkle lightly to prevent clumps.

Optional: Add straw. At this stage, if you want your cob to have extra strength, you can mix in some straw or other grassy matter. This addition is excellent for building cob ovens, walls, and so on. The straw will suck up some of the moisture in your mix, so you may have to add a bit more water till you get a perfect consistency!  For fine applications, a lot of cobbers actually use dried out horse or cow manure–the cellulose stays in the plant matter as it moves through the animal, giving a really nice soft strengthener.

 

In my photo here, I am using this cob as a mortar for my greenhouse back wall, so I have added straw to help strengthen it.

A good mix!

Create anything with your cob! Now, you have a wonderful building material that you can do anything with!  If you don’t have anything to build yet, consider not adding the straw and instead, making some primitive statuary, cob candleholders, paperweights, and so on.  I love the way that some cob statuary and candleholders look on an altar!

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

The photos in this blog post show two different locations–at my permaculture design certificate program, where the soil was more brown/gray and then here in PA, where we have beautiful yellow-orange iron-rich soil.  One of the other delightful things about cob is that it reflects the land where it comes from–we can truly see the colors of the land through this practice.

I hope this post was inspirational to you and you consider experimenting with this amazing building source!

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!

Embracing Ancestral Fires and Fire-starting at Beltane

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

An awen-shaped sacred fire, created from my flint and steel

The tiny sparks from my flint and steel shower down on my char cloth.  This flint and steel set was a gift from a fellow druid from almost a decade ago, a gift that has long offered me a connection with my ancestors.  It takes me a few moments to remember the technique he taught me, striking the steel against the flint in a particular way with a particulary angle to my body.  Starting a fire in an ancestral way isn’t just a mental act; its an emboded one.  I breathe deeply and remember, and the tiny sparks fly from my tools to the char cloth. After a few more attempts, a single spark lands on the cloth and starts to glow orange. I carefully pick up the char cloth and blow on it to increase the ember size, then place it in a specially prepared “nest” of bark, pine pitch, and soft cattail and milkweed fibers.  I blow some more on the nest.  At first, nothing happens, and I fear the spark is lost.  But then it starts smoking, more and more, and suddenly, the whole nest is aflame.  I lay this nest carefully down and begin layering thin plant stalks and dried materials that I had prepared in advance, slowly building the fire from that tiny ember.  In 30 minutes, the fire is blazing and warm, and I feel intimately connected with it because I was able to start it on my own with basic tools.

 

We call Beltane a “fire festival” in the neopagan traditions because fire plays a central role. Modern Beltane festivities are derived from the ancient tradition in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man where people lit fires and drove cattle through them as a blessing as they went out to pasture for the summer months. People seeking blessings also lept over the fires.  For a nice description of the history of this practice, see this site.  Fire was such an important part of Beltane because fire represents the sun, and by May 1st, people are eager to welcome back the sun, to enjoy the sun of the long summer months, and to have sunlight to kiss our crops that they may be fertile and abundant for the long winter ahead.  Today, in honor of the fires of Beltane, I want to talk about fire as an ancestral practice and encourage exploration and experimentation with fire and fire starting in more traditional–and ancestral–ways.

 

Fire and the Ancestors

Fire is one of humanity’s oldest friends, tools, and teachers.  New research from the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggests that homo erectus–our pre-human ancestors–had been cultivating and working with fire at least one million years ago, possibly 1.5 million or more years ago.  It is likely that when we evolved from homo erectus into homo sapien, fire was with us.  That is, when we birthed from the ancestral womb into the species we are today, fire was with us.  When our ancestors transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies and developed agriculure at the start of the Holocene 8000 years ago, fire was with us.  When our ancestors needed to stay warm in harsh winter weather, fire was with us. When our ancestors needed to keep back the predators in the dark, fire was with us. Fire is with us even now, as we heat our homes, move our vehicles, cook our food, and journey far and wide.

 

Perhaps the most interesting facts about fire is that it is one of the two things that distinguish us from other species (the other being language, although that fact is currently under debate).  Fire scares and drives away animals and insects, while it invites humans in closer.  If you are camping in the woods, its instinctive to want to have a fire, get close to it, and burn it brightly.  Some of my most frightening times in nature have been when I was alone in the dark woods without the warmth and comfort a fire offers. This, too, was ancestral.  Because my ancestors have been enjoying the warmth, light, and protection of fire for literally millions of years–it is no wonder that the primal part of my brain felt it lacking, especially when I heard critters afoot in the cold and dark night.

 

Today, people gather around fires, indoor or out, just as our ancient ancestors did. At any outdoor event or camping trip, there is a fire to be found. And where there is fire, there are people gathered, laughing, cooking food, telling stories, drumming, sharing songs, or more. Indoors, the fire has much of the same function. The hearth in traditional times was the center of the home. The fire burning, food cooking, the sharing of skills and traditions across generations. The hearth offers us a place to join with each other, teach each other, and nourish our own spirits.

 

 

Fires burn

Fires burn

Fire also has also contributed significantly to human evolution; Charles Darwin said that humans were distinguished evolutionarly by two things: langauge and fire. We can see this is true from both the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of human societies. First, fire has the unique ability to render food more digestable: we see that the application of fire to meats, vegetables, and fungus creates it more nutrient rich and dense. Some scientsts suggest that this has had a strong evolutionary function, in that more nutrient rich foods, honed by fire, allowed for a larger brain to develop (as typically, about 1/5 of our total calore intake goes towards our brains). Fire also was a driving force in moving humans further up the technological ladder: fire is what allowed us to create and refine copper, bronze, iron, steel and today, many, many advanced technologies still rely on basic principles of fire. Thus, each successive civilization has learned new and powerful ways to harness fire–and sometimes, to destroy with it.

 

 

Fire has had spiritual connotations throughout human history, and across human cultures. The worship or deification of fire, known as pyrodulia, pyrolatry, or pryolatria, was common, particularly in pre-industrial societies. The ancient alchemists and hermeticists, too, understood the importance and power of fire.  Alchemists divided fire into four types including the “secret fire” upon which all inner alchemy (spiritual alchemy) was based.  Likewise, in the Golden Dawn tradition, fire is considered the first element, and everything descends from fire.  Ancient societies, including Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese, venerated fire and worked with it elementally and ceremonially.

 

In every way, fire reconnects us to our roots, to those ancient ancestors who gave us such an important gift.  When I look at the fire from this perspective, I realize that fire is my most important ancestral gift, and thus, one of the best ways to honor my ancestors is to learn and understand fire, to work with fire as they might have, to learn to start and build fires, and to honor them through this practice.

 

Beltane Fire Traditions, the Ancestral Way

So perhaps this Beltane, considerworking deeply with fire in a new way.   I offer three suchs suggestions for how to honor the ancestors and work deeply with fire at beltane: traditional fire starting, tending, and honoring the fire.  These are three of many, many you can consider!

 

Fire Starting and Honoring the Ancestors

For most of us, fire starting requires a match or lighter, something that makes a quick flame.  We often build a big stack, put wads of paper in it, light it with some fossil-fuel derived source, and hope for the best.  However,  learning to make fire in other ways, slower ways, ancestral ways, creates what I can only describe as a different quality fire.  For one, you have a different investment in the fire, both from a physical and mental perspective. On the mental side, we use ancestral knowledge, knowing what materials to use, knowing the techniques, learning and failing and growing from the experience.  On the physical side, as I mentioned in my opening, fire starting is an emboded practice.  These practices take a lot more physical effort, particularly when you are learning.  But that physical and mental effort leads us to amazing outcomes:  fire we have truely kindled and lit with our ancestors beside us. But also, by starting a fire in a more traditional way, you invite your ancient ancestors to your side, and thus, the fire seems to have a different quality.  Finally, the fire has more meaning becuase you have done it the slow, old way, and that has power.

 

Another naturally created sacred fire

Another naturally created sacred fire in a special firepit

The “Fire Triangle” I learned at the North American Bushcraft School offers some practical suggestions for ancestral fire starting. This triangle suggests that we need Fuel (something that will easily burn); Oxygen; and Ignition (a heat source, a spark).  Traditional firestarting methods are focused on all three, with a specific emphasis on generating the spark, ember, or heat and transfering that into a fuel source that will allow you to produce a flame and using your breath to help bring oxygen into the fold.

 

The traditional method that I know best, using flint, steel, and char cloth, was detailed above in the opening and requires a minimal investment (a good kit is usually less than $20, you can also make your own charcloth from scrap cotton fiber).  There are other primitive fire starting methods that you might try.  Here are a few with detailed videos. I prefer videos for this, so I’m going to link you to some good ones)

  • Flint and Steel demonstration and method.
  • Hand Drill: method overview and instructions (probably the hardest to learn at first, but also potentially the most satsifying).  Local materials for me to use include mullein, yucca, or goldenrod stalks and soft pine or cedar boards).
  • Bow and Drill methods.

Starting a fire with one of these methods takes practice!  I’ve had some basic instruction in the hand drill, and one of my goals for this Beltane is to learning it in more detail this Beltane. After Beltane, I will continue to develop my knowledge of local woods and materials for this beautiful firemaking technique.

 

I believe that fire building and fire starting can be treated as a sacred practice, a ritual in and of itself.  With each step, we can set our intentions from preparing to start the fire in a sacred manner, lighting the fire, and honoring the fire.

 

Honoring the Fires

Honoring the fire begins with creating it in a sacred manner, and continues with how we tend it and what we do with it.  I think that each of us can create our own unique fire traditions, but here area  few that I particularly like:

 

A fire offering.  As we make offerings to the land, spirits, or other divine entities, we might also honor our fires.

–Creative offerings. I like to paint things or create things that are specifically for the fire.  This may be a woodburned piece, a small painting, other natural creations.  In particular, for these, I like to gather things from the land itself and use only natural materials (such as my natural inks or dyes, watercolors, etc) so that anything I offer to the fire is not going to have chemicals or other byproducts.  So my fire offering this Beltane is a woodburned piece honoring the fire, created for the fire with intent.

–Fire blend of Herbs.  You could also create a fire blend of herbs that you can offer; I especially like to include resins or other pine substances in these so that they burn brightly.  Cedar or pine boughs are also great choices for this, as they crackle and pop when they burn. A ball of beeswax mixed with herbs is truely a sight to behold in the fire!  I might do a whole post on fire offerings in the future.

–Music or Drumming.  Play a drum, flute, sing, or make some other kind of music for the fire.  Anyone can pick up a drum and offer a heartbeat rhythm and connect with the fire.

–Dance.  Dance around your fire, letting your body flow and move (if this isn’t usual to you, just do this when nobody else is around!  Even for someone who is not a dancer, you can connect with the fire in this way).

 

Treating the fire respectfully. Another thing I recently learned at the North American School of Bushcraft that some native traditions say that you should never throw anything on a fire, but rather, place it gently.  This is becuase Fire is seen as an elder, worthy of respect.  As druids, we might develop our own respectful fire traditions, so for you personally, you might think about what treating a fire with respect means.  If you have a regular fire pit or a ceremonial pit, you can develop a layered set of expectations and actions that guide your fire interaction.  Remember that the fire is a place for us to gather with our ancestors, and thus, it is always a sacred place.

 

 

I hope that this post has been inspirational to you and that you have a blessed Beltane!  May the fires burn brightly and may spring once again return.

 

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the fire teachings of Jason Drevenak at the North American School of Bushcraft as inspiration for this post.