The Druid's Garden

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

Tree Alchemy: Hydrosols and Essential Oils from Sacred Trees May 20, 2018

Nature can provide tremendous wisdom and healing, especially when we work with our local ecosystems and ecologies. One of the most powerful ways of working healing with nature, I believe, is to combine the innate healing properties of plants with your own various kinds of medicinal preparations. The plants and trees offer the raw material and your hands and tools shape that material into something that heals the body, mind, and/or spirit. Working to transform tree and plant matter through alchemical processes into medicine–and then taking that medicine–can be an incredibly powerful way of establishing deep relationships not only with the living earth but with the trees themselves. Today, I want to talk about a particular kind of medicine known as a “hydrosol” and talk about how you might make your own with plant and tree material.  This is especially beneficial for today as many of us are thinking about planning our year, what we will be planting and growing in containers and in gardens, and so forth.

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

Alchemy is the ancient art of matter transformation. Alchemists worked to turn base metals into gold, to render the philosopher’s stone for that purpose. Alchemists also worked with plants through spagyrics, the practice of plant alchemy. It was believed by the alchemists that the process of alchemy, as the material moved through the black, red, and white phases, didn’t just happen on the physical plane, but rather facilitated transformations of mind, body, and soul.  I, like most folks of this time period, have never done anything with metal alchemical work (it is highly toxic).  But for many years, I’ve been fascinated by spagyrics, and have made a number of preparations using those techniques.  (For good reading on the subject, I suggest Mark Stavish’s Path of Alchemy as an introduction).  Because Alchemy is an inner and outer process, there is a whole movement of “inner alchemy” or “spiritual alchemy” work, work that can be can be used for inner transformations. The thing about any alchemical process is this: matter has to be broken down with fire and heat in order to be reformed in a more pure manner.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we might do with trees and alchemy and have been experimenting in various ways in that direction. Basic spagryic preparations (which are detailed in Mark Stavish’s excellent work) combine macerating plant matter in high-proof alcohol (that is, soaking it for a period of time) and going through a process of refinement where the material that was macerated is burned and the ash is further refined. Eventually, the refined materials are combined for a highly potent medicine.

 

I think there are other kinds of work you can do with plants and tree matter that are a little less direct. On the most passive side that requires little tools, preparation, or time, a simple flower essence (where a bowl of spring water is held up to a leaf or flower of the plant, imbuing that plant energetically) is a good first step. Somewhere in the middle, requiring some preparation, tools, and time, we have the hydrosol and the creation of an essential oil. On the far side, requiring much preparation and time, we have the full spagyric plant preparation.

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Hydrosols are also known as “floral waters” although they can be made of much more than just flowers.  They are produced by a simple distillation process. You can purchase fancy equipment (often known as an Alembic or Still) to do this or you can do it with stuff you likely have already in your kitchen (I am going to offer information on both approaches.)  I used the simple stovetop approach with kitchen materials for many years before, using about $10 worth of materials from the thrift store for very small batches.  Then, last year, I finally invested in a medium-sized copper alembic to do more advanced preparations.

 

The process of making a hydrosol, which I’ll detail with photographs below, involves gathering fresh plant material that is aromatic in nature.  You will need a lot of plant matter – usually several pounds.  It involves heating the material up to create steam, cooling that steam and condensing it back into a liquid form that is medicinal and relatively shelf stable).

 

Hydrosols are sacred medicine in their own right, although they are often seen as “by products” of the essential oil distillation process.  When you heat up plant matter that has high amounts of volatile oils, those oils also come out through the distillation process and sit on the top of the hydrosol.  Most people working on this process at home, particularly with sacred trees, may not produce enough oil to make it worth their while, although some plants, like lavender or goldenrod, certainly can do so, especially if you do several batches of distillation.

Choosing Your Material

Harvest your plant material with reverence and respect. Hydrosols and distillation take a good deal plant material (particularly if you are using an Alembic and doing a higher amount of distillation). Keep this in mind as you are planning for the garden this year! Plant material should be safe to consume or at least put on the body. Despite my positive relationship with Poison Ivy, I would not, under any circumstances do a steam distillation of it!

 

Any plant or tree that is typically used in herbal practice and that has a scent would be a good choice. Common kitchen herbs are often used such as:

  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Rose(petals)
  • Mints
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Monarda/bee balm
  • Scented geranium

In terms of trees, the leaves or needles would work.  Ones I’ve experimented with include:

  • Blue Spruce (needles)
  • White Pine (needles)
  • Eastern Hemlock (needles)
  • Black Birch (budding branches)
  • Sassafras (root)

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

Harvest your material on a sunny day when it is not raining. The rain, particularly for flowers or aromatic leaves, can dilute the plant oils and overall result.  Harvest the plant matter in abundant areas or grow it yourself to ensure that you are not taking too much from the plant matter. Generally speaking, if the plant is rare, doing a tincture is probably the best way to use that plant’s energy because it is the most efficient.  If the plant is very abundant, a steam distillation would be a good choice.

 

The timing also matters–plants have different levels of aromatic oils at different times of year. If I was doing a black birch preparation, I would do this in the early spring due to the amount of sweet oil in the birch branches that time (due to the flowing of sap). Other plants, like the conifers, don’t matter as much. Flowers and herbs should be harvested at their peak–so when lavender is in flower, for example, but before it goes to seed.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A friend and I went out and harvested a number of plants to fire up the copper alembic. We did four distillations, two of herbs (goldenrod and sweet clover) and two of trees (eastern hemlock and blue spruce). We experimented with different kinds of approaches to the distillation.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

 

Distillation Process

Now I am going to walk step by step through the distillation process.

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

Once we were home, we removed large stem material and did our best to crush up the hemlock needles. We had not done this with the blue spruce (instead, placing whole small branches in the alembic) and that proved to give us very little essential oil, but certainly, a nice hydrosol. Breaking up the hemlock material took more work, but we believe, it was worth it as we had a better preparation.

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

After we soaked the needles, we added fresh spring water (harvested at my local sacred spring, Heffley Spring) for the distillation. If you can’t get access to fresh water, I would consider using distilled water. The point is this: the process is very potent, and I certainly wouldn’t want any human-added chemicals, like chlorine, in my distillation.

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

My alembic also has an addition column where you can cram more plant matter in and the top that also takes plant matter. So I did this–so both the base and column are filled with plant matter (this photo shows Goldenrod), and the base is also filled with water. That gives you a lot of plant matter at once to steam distill–probably 10x what I used with my other method.

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

In the traditional method, Rye flour is used to seal up the alembic prior to steaming it. If you have severe allergies to gluten, I would suggest a sticky rice flour or tapioca flour in the place of rye.  I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work. First you mix a big batch of the Rye flour up.  It looks a lot like a sticky bread dough.  I didn’t measure, just added enough water till I got a nice paste.

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Then you basically smear it into the cracks and crevices of the entire alembic to hold it together. The idea is to seal it up so that as it starts to steam, it doesn’t leak steam anywhere.

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

Distillation works with the heating up of the plant matter and water to create steam then cooling it down quickly for condensation. That’s the entire process.  So you will need something to heat it up (I used a small outdoor burner) and you will need something to cool it down (I used lines with a small submersible fish tank pump and ice cold water).

The full system

The full system

I forgot to take a photo of the pump part of the system. The condenser unit has two cooper pipes sticking out of it–the top one flows water in and the bottom one pulls water out. You can keep the system cold if you flow cold water into it. Online, some people just use this from their tap, if they have a spring or well, the water is cold enough if you keep flowing it through. I didn’t have this, so instead, I used several bags of ice and a cooler. I placed the submersible pump at the bottom of the cooler and then ran the tubing through it and into the condenser. I used a little clamp to regulate the pressure of the water (so it would stay level, which required some work).

 

I found that the unit took about 30 minutes to heat up and about 45 minutes to actually start condensing the steam.  I let it run two or so hours, until the water no longer looked cloudy when it was coming out of the condenser unit.

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

This final water has both your essential oil and the distillation in it.  You can purchase a fancy oil separator (which I didn’t have when I did this) but I used a different method.  In my case, the only plant that produced enough essential oil to really take off the top was goldenrod.  To do this, I simply poured it all into a mason jar and then froze the whole thing.  The hydrosol freezes but the oil does not. I then pulled it out of the freezer and used a pipette to pull the oil off the top of the jar, then unfroze the hydrosol and put it in neat little spritzer bottles.

 

Conclusion

Since doing this last fall, I have shared these hydrosols with many friends in the druid community. They remark on their potency–the spruce gives an incredible lift me up, the white pine brings peace, and the hemlock brings stability and space (mental space/clarity, is the way one person described it). In truth, the goldenrod got a little skunky/funky, but did produce  a nice oil, so I’m not sure I’ll do that one again (and I didn’t give that one away!).

 

Creating tree hydrosols and essential oils represents a unique and beautiful way to connect with the potent medicine of the trees and work with them for healing and transformation. What seems like an intimidating process is actually a very simple one: refining potent medicine through the application of fire, water, and ice.  The practice of alchemy, of course, isn’t just about producing a physical medicine–but rather, the refinement and work on the level of the soul. Alchemical preparations not only as medicine for the body, but medicine for the soul.

PS: After this post, I will be taking several weeks off of regular posting on this blog to do some travel.  I look forward to returning later in June to my regular posting.  Blessings!

Advertisements
 

Wild Food Profile: Eat Your Hostas! May 1, 2018

Often, when you are interested in unusual and wild foods, a season for a delectable treat may only last for a few short days or weeks. A fun early spring food that is usually popping up around or before Beltane in temperate parts of North America is the hosta. Yes, you heard me–that large leafy green plant that most only consider a deer resistant ornamental. This plant is a favorite of typical landscapers; it seems to show up in nearly every suburban and urban yard. Because I like finding ways to turn typical lawns into more healthy ecosystems that create habitat, food, and joy and that “stacks functions” in permaculture terms, learning to do something with these “typical” lawn plants is a great idea. And so, hostas are a wonderful food this time of year to harvest when they are still in “shoot” form. They are quite good–have a taste that is slightly bitter, and somewhat like lettuce. Hostas been enjoyed around the world, particlarly in Japan (they also understand and eat Burdock regularly; burdock is another great spring food!) The Japanese call hosta “Urui” and eat them raw or stir fried, often with soy sauce (which is a great way to eat them).

 

In this post, I’ll walk you through how to harvest and enjoy this springtime treat!

 

The Gargoyle says, "time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!"

The Gargoyle says, “time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!”

 

Like many vegetables, the younger the plant, the more tender the vegetable. This is true of hostas–I am harvesting them after they have been coming up about a week–you can continue to harvest patches that are larger than this (although at some point, you’d switch to boiling them rather than frying them). Even larger and older hosta leaves can be treated like spinach and boiled and used in a variety of ways. But I like these tender shoots the best. This size to a bit larger (3″ – 6″) is a really good size for tasty and tender eating.

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

I have about six hosta plants at the new property, so I harvested 3-4 shoots from each plant.  According to other hosta connseours online,  you can harvest up to half the leaves without compromising the health of the plant. But I’m happy with a meal or two and enjoying the beauty of the plant for the rest of the season.

Success--shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

Success–shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

The pinkish part of the hosta that is the outer layer of the shoot as they come up is more bitter than the rest of the plant (which has only slight bitterness), so you will want to remove the outer 1-2 layers on the bottom for the young shoots. In the case of my photo below, I’m removing the two bottom pinkish layers.

Preparing the hostas.

Preparing the hostas.

Once you have your layers removed, it is time to cook them!

Ready to cook!

Ready to cook!

There are lots of ways to prepare some hostas. The simpleist way to prepare them is what I do for a lot of wild foods and mushrooms–fry them in butter and add a bit of salt and garlic.  A cast iron skillet works beautifully for this.  A good alternative is to fry them in sesame oil and add a bit of soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a pinch of brown sugar.

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Pan fry them for 3-5 minutes until they turn a darker color. Again, the younger they are, the more tender they are and the less they need cooked.  Ones this young can easily be eaten raw, but I like them better this way.

Nearly done!

Nearly done!

They make an excellent side or main dish. Here’s to many springtime foragable foods!

Delicious!

Delicious!

 

A Beltane Blessing: Recipe for Sacred Herbal Offering Blend April 29, 2018

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Sacred blend being stuffed in leather pouch for around the neck

Offerings to the land, spirits, and/or diety are a common stable in many traditions, druidry being no exception. Many opportunities present themselves and having something you carry with you can be built into your regular druid practice (and kept within, say, a crane bag).  Some years ago, I wrote about sustainable offerings and the kinds of offerings you can leave as part of a regular spiritual practice. These offerings might be home-grown herbs (as in the case of today’s post), home-brewed alcohol, small blessed stones, home baked bread or cakes, small shells, even your own nitrogen-rich urine.  I think the important thing with any offering is that it truly puts no strain on the ecosystem–but rather, is a true blessing.

 

In the spirit of this idea of sustainable and sacred offerings, in today’s post, I’ll share the recipe for one of my own sacred herbal blends that I often carry with me and use for leaving small offerings—in nooks of trees, on stones, in an offering bowl, as an offering as part of ritual, and so on. This kind of offering blend is a perfect thing to make at Beltane, as the energy of Beltane is full of vitality and life, of healing and blessing. Using the energy of Beltane to mix and bless these herbs brings that energy to the land and spirits throughout the year.

 

Sustainability and Suitability of Offerings

The key to leaving any offering is that it won’t damage the ecosystem or cause it harm–either in the leaving of said offering or in its creation. This means you have to take some serious care and consideration to develop an offering blend that gives back rather than takes. In the case of the herbal offerings I’m talking about today, it is critical that you leave only materials that will naturally break down and that will not spread any seeds that do not belong in the ecosystem.

 

Towards that end, I take two precautions with the herbal blend presented here. First, I use only leaf matter and flower matter (harvested long before the formation of seeds). Second, I bake the plant matter at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, killing off anything that might be present in the plant matter so that it is harmless and safe to leave (and bonus: it makes the house smell great!)

 

An alternative, another kind of herbal offering entirely, which I’ve talked about in some of my wildtending posts, is to intentionally leave seeds that are rare and in need of replanting–but that’s a different kind of thing–you can read more about that in this post. That is certainly another kind of herbal offering that you can leave.

 

An Introduction to the Herbs

A blend of herbs....

A blend of herbs….

For my blend, I wanted to use a combination of tobacco leaves and flowers (home grown), lavender flowers, rose petals, and  .  You can use any number of herbs you can grow yourself or buy organically: I like flowers a lot, as well as aromatic herbs for a nice smell (mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sages, etc).  Here are the herbs from this specific blend:

 

Nicotiana Rustica, or Wild Tobacco. Each year, I grow Nicotiana Rustica, which is an old form of tobacco known as “Aztec Tobacco” or “Wild Tobacco.”  I’ve grown it successfully in a garden as well as in smaller pots in a windowsill. It is super easy to grow and grows prolifically.  It will self seed if you allow it to.  Wild Tobacco is not a kind of tobacco used for smoking as it has up to nine times the concentration of nicotine compared to a traditional tobacco grown for smoking (although in some parts of South America, Shamans use it as part of entheogenic mixtures). I have found that this particular strain of tobacco is well received by the spirits of the land and they are joyful in receiving it. This variety is native to North America, but is usually not cultivated because it is too potent for the common misuses of tobacco today. By growing this plant myself, and, by being a non-smoker, I am cultivating a sacred relationship with a plant that has long been used as an offering here on the land in North America–and a plant that is often well received when given in reverence and respect to the spirits and the land. I feel, in some way, that I am reclaiming a relationship with this tobacco plant, returning it to its sacred, rather than its mundane and abused, purpose. It is still early in the year, and you can readily get seeds for this variety–so consider cultivating some!

 

I like to gather the flowers as they bud–each little stalk will produce a new flower and drop it regularly, much like common mullein. I will typically gather up most of the flowers and later, seed pods (to share the seeds).  And I will cut the stalks and allow the leaves to naturally dry (they slowly turn brown). I save the stalks for use in smudge sticks that are specifically created as “offering” and “blessing” sticks.  Both the dried leaves and stalks smoulder nicely.

 

In this blend, the wild tobacco represents an offering to the land that is sincere and represents a desire for continuing a sacred relationship with the land.

 

Nicotiana Rustica

Nicotiana Rustica

Rose / Rosa spp (flowers/petals): My second ingredient in this blend is rose petals–they produce a beautiful smell and color, and make the blend really delightful. However, they have a more important purpose, and that purpose is protective and healing in nature. Rose, medicinally speaking, helps heal the heart and also has thorns which offer protection. I gather rose petals around Lughnassadh each year (or earlier, depending on the specific species).  Rose is under the dominion of Venus.

 

Lavender (Lavandula spp) Lavender flowers are a third ingredient that comes in my sacred offering blend (and occasionally, lavender stalks and leaves, although I usually save these for smudge stick making as well).  Lavender, which is a Mercury herb, has been used for millenia for purification and warding purposes–and that’s exactly what it is used for in this blend.

 

Elder (flower, Sambuccus Canadensis; Sambuccus Spp.). I have written pretty extensively about elder in an earlier post, so you can find complete information on Elder in that post.  In this blend, I gather Elderflower (right around or on the Summer Solstice).  I turn much of this elder into Elderflower cordial and tea but save some of it for my sacred offering blend. Elder offers a connection to the realm of spirit and for bringing good energy into the land through the connection with the summer solstice and solar current.

 

These are the four plants I commonly use in my blend, but as I said above, you can use any plant that speaks to you and that you’ve developed a relationship with. Here are some ideas:

 

  • Conifers: Eastern White Cedar, White Pine, Eastern Hemlock (needles), Spruces, etc. Other tree leaves would also be fine!
  • Herbs (leaf, flower, stem): Mints, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Marjoram, Basil, Thyme (if you are unable to grow them, you can buy organic blends at the grocery store or fresh at a farmer’s market, and dry them and blend them)
  • Flowers: Any flower petal that you can dry (avoiding any seeds)

 

The key to any blend is that you think about the magical purpose and energy behind each herb/plant/tree as well as your own relationship with it. This is a great way to begin to cultivate relationships with certain plants for certain purposes as well. If you “grow your offerings” this season, by the end of the year when you are ready to make such a blend, you’ll have spent a full season with that plant. If the plant is a perennial or you save some of the seeds, then your relationship with that plant deepens over the years. For example, I’ve been growing Nicotiana Rustica for about 8 years now, and each year, as I save the seeds and replant them, and share them with friends, my relationship with this plant deepens–and the power of the offering I give also deepens.

 

To me, every part of the cultivating and harvesting of this sacred blend is, in fact, part of the sacred relationship I am cultivating with nature. By tending the plants, or finding them carefully in the wilds, I can continue to build a specific blend that honors the land our deepens our relationship.

 

Magical Crafting and Making the Blend

The good news about a sacred offering blend is there is no right or wrong way to blend it. I would suggest, in fact, that your intuition (rather than measuring select ingredients) goes further than a specific recipe. However, I do have some suggestions to follow:

 

Select a sacred time. In my case, I decided to make this blend on the full moon closest to Beltane. This draws both on the power of the moon and the energy of the sun.

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Bowl and simple altar setup for creating sacred offering herb blend

Open a sacred grove. In the druid revival tradition, this would include calling in the sacred animals, calling in the elements, blessing/purifying with the elements, saying the druid’s prayer, establishing a protective sphere or circle.

 

Cut your Herbs (if necessary). Many home grown herbs are not in very small pieces, so I find it is useful to cut them. I do this with a pair of scissors.

Cutting tobacco leaf

Cutting tobacco leaf

Blend Your Herbs. Gather your herbs together and blend them. I find that using a clockwise motion while I chant or sing helps bless them and brings some of my own energy into the mixture.

Blending the herbs

Blending the herbs

Bless Your Herbs. You might use a simple blessing to empower the herbs further with sacred intent. I used an elemental blessing, drawing upon the energies already called and simply moving each elemental bowl clockwise above the herbal blend.

 

Store Your Blend. Depending on what you are going to do next, you might put your herbal blend in a mason jar to keep it airtight. The last batch I blended was primarily for gifts, so I instead put them in little bags with labels and also filled up my own offering bag again.

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Bagging my herbs for gifts

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Attaching labels for the herb blend

Close Your Sacred Space. Close your sacred space once your magical crafting is complete!

 

How to Use Herbal Offerings

There’s not really a wrong way to use an herbal offering, but I can give you some ideas of how I’ve used these.

 

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Land Healing Purposes. When I see land in need of healing–an abandoned lot, a tree that has been cut down, a recently poisoned lawn, I will leave a pinch of the offering. This is just to let the land know that I am here, I honor it, and I am present. I have left these pinches near cut Christmas trees during the  holiday season–again, as a space holding gesture.

 

Land Blessing Purposes. When I’m interacting with the land, I will leave a pinch. For example, if I’m camping out somewhere, when I first arrive and again when I leave, I will leave a pinch of the offering. If I’m hiking, I will leave some as a I walk at a few points.

 

Ritual Offering Purposes. Because I always honor the land and the spirits of the land as a primary part of my own ritual work, I use this blend as an offering to the land.

 

You can do a lot of things with this sacred blend–or another like it! I wish you a blessed Beltane–and happy magical crafting!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

 

A Druid’s Meditation Primer February 11, 2018

In this time as the light is coming back into the world, the time surrounding Imbolc, I find myself often going deeply inward for healing and strength and turning towards meditation as a guide for spiritual balance.  This deep winter period is, of course, coming on the heels of the frenzied holiday season where many of us get burned out by the amount of hustle and bustle.  Further, many of the demands of modern living, particularly for those working wage-earning jobs, require us to move faster, be always “connected” and present with new technology, and have an increasingly fast stream of information pouring in and out of our heads. This can lead to long-term drain on the spirit. In this quiet time of the year, amidst the snows and frozen earth, various meditation techniques allow for rest, centering, and rejuvenation.

 

The quiet that nature provides...

The quiet that nature provides…

Meditation offers us a quiet moment away from the hustle and bustle of normal life—a sacred moment, a moment that gives us peace and allows us to be only within our own minds. And yet,  I think that “meditation” for a lot of people raises up images of sitting cross legged ohm-ing or doing deep breathwork (the kind of meditation you might see on TV or find in a Yoga class). These forms of meditation are certainly effective, but represent only a small number of possibilities, and may not be as useful or practical to those who are on a druid path and seeking to connect deeply with nature. Particularly for those walking a nature-based spiritual path, other meditative forms might be more effective and connecting.  I would like to explore some of those today.

 

Three Outcomes of Meditation

Its always interesting to talk with a spiritual practitioner of another path. I have several good friends who have deep Yoga, Zen, and mindfulness practices, and when we talk about daily spiritual life, we find a lot of similarity–but also a lot of difference. In conversations with these friends, I have realized how important it is not to assume the word “meditation’ carries the same meaning, and to talk instead about the specific practices that we do. I have come to understand that  meditation is not a single technique but a wide range of techniques that work on the relationship between mind, body, and spirit and that offer spiritual benefit. These goals of meditation can manifest in at least three ways:

 

Clearing Meditation: Some forms of meditation encourage us to disconnect from the troubles and everyday grit of living–to facilitate peace, calm, tranquility. In eastern meditation, we might have “empty mind” kinds of meditation, where the goal is simply to clear one’s mind for a period of time or practice 30 or 45 minutes of quietude a few times a day. In druid and western meditation techniques, this might be when we practice a “fourfold breath” technique at the beginning of a meditation session to simply clear out what was there. Other forms may connect us to universal energies or our higher self. These goals are very “up and out” kinds of goals, and can certainly be useful and spiritually enriching. I also think these kinds of goals are really useful for distressing and finding ourselves again after busy life circumstances–the kinds of meditation that offer us real health benefits and stability.

 

Connection Meditation. Other kinds of meditation practices ask us to work to be fully present with the moment. I see mindfulness practices from Eastern tradition as a great example of this as well as the practices of nature observation, walking meditation, and other goals that connect us deeply with nature. In this broader goal then, the point of the meditation seems opposite of the first–it isn’t to help us clear and get us out of a present reality, but rather, put is in touch with one.

 

Focus Meditation. A final goal for some types of meditation is the goal of focus. I see this goal really clearly in the use of discursive meditation, where the goal of discursive meditation is to help direct thoughts and lead to deep insight. A second meditation where this happens is shamanic trance and journey work, where inner journeys are facilitated by a particular receptive–and yet focused–state of mind.

 

Reconnecting with the land

Reconnecting with the land

Breaking meditation into these three categories has helped me with my own meditation practice, and it has certainly also helped me teach these techniques to others and explain the benefits.  If you simply want to “meditate every day” as many druid and esoteric traditions suggest, you have to figure out what you’d like to get out of the meditation so that you can use appropriate techniques. If you use only one form of meditation always, you are getting a particular benefit but may not be getting the full range of benefits that different styles of meditation provides. You can also combine meditation styles (starting with a clearing meditation and moving into a focus meditation, for example) for maximum benefit.  So now that we have some sense of the goals of meditation, I’m going to share some meditative techniques that can be helpful for us to achieve them, specifically from a druid-based framework.

 

Preliminaries: Posture and Breathwork

Before you begin any kind of meditation, priming the body and mind for the meditation is necessary. This priming includes posture and breathwork.

Posture: Many meditation techniques suggest a particular posture (sitting in a straight-backed chair with the spine upright, sitting cross legged on the ground on a small pillow to elevate the spine, standing comfortably, laying flat on a hardwood floor with a yoga mat underneath, and so on). I have two thoughts on this subject.  First, because different meditation techniques have different outcomes, the position of the body may need to be different for these.  For deep journey work, for example, my preferred posture is laying on the ground on a yoga mat.  For a simple 10 minute clearing meditation, I’d prefer to sit cross legged outside on a stump or on the ground in front of a candle. So as you think about the roles and goals of your meditation, different postures may be helpful.

 

Another consideration is that some bodies do not do well with certain postures.  For example, some people are very comfortable sitting in straight-backed chairs or standing for long periods of time, while other bodies may hurt after only a few minutes of this practice.  While there is a body element to meditation, in that you can train your body, just as you train your mind, you can also be aware of what your body’s limits are.  Early on, for me, trying to maintain a rigid pose when my body doesn’t want to do that led me to frustration and shorter meditations.  When is tarted laying down and using a yoga mat, I was able to gain tremendous benefits without body sensitivity.

 

Breathwork is used in nearly all meditation styles, and styles of meditation connected with druidry is no exception.

  • Three Deep Breaths: Three deep breaths is a technique taught by OBOD and used at the start of many OBOD ceremonies.  It is a very simple clearing meditation technique where you take three deep breaths, typically tied to the elements of earth, sea, and sky.  So you can simply stand and take a deep breath with the sky above you, with the sea around you, and with the earth beneath you.  And those three deep breaths can be a very simple meditation technique in their own right or as a gateway to deeper work.
  • Four-fold breath. The four-fold breath is a breathing technique that helps you settle into a meditation and is used in many esoteric practices and traditions. I see it as being used for both focus and clearing purposes.  I was taught it through the work of John Michael Greer (Druidry Handbook and other works).  In this technique, you focus on counting to regulate your breath in four equal ways.  The way I do it is this: breathing in for the count of three, hold your breath (lightly) for a count of three, breath out for a count of three, and pause (again lightly) for a count of three.  JMG warns that if you close off your throat at either the inbreath or outbreath to severely, it can lead to long term health complications.   I like to see the fourfold breath almost like a pendulum or swing (breathing in to the moment of apex, where there is that pause and then outbreath, with another pause on the other end, except the time intervals are all equal).
  • Quiet Breath. JMG also describes “quiet breath” as another meditation technique–after doing a four-fold breath, for example, you might transition into quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation (this is the technique with discursive meditation, taught in the AODA’s tradition).  Quiet breath is a normal breathing pattern, where you are lightly breathing in and out in your normal rhythm.  The idea is transitioning away from breath being a central focus of your meditation and into other work.

 

Three Nature Meditations for Druids

Now that we have some of the preliminaries covered, I thought I’d share three meditation techniques that can work well for those practicing a druid path, framed within the three paths or perspectives of druidry: druid arts, ovate arts, and bardic arts.  I also want to indicate that I’m sharing new forms of meditation here–ones that are very connected to druid-based and nature spiritual purposes.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

A Druid-Focused Meditation: The druid path asks us to connect deeply with spirit, thus, a simple “clearing” meditation is helpful for the druid path. To do this meditation, you should find a source of running water or falling water (so a rainstorm, stream, flowing spring, or seashore would be highly appropriate). Find a comfortable position near the body of water. Begin with three deep breaths followed by the fourfold breath where you work to simply be present and let go of anything you might be mentally carrying with you. You can switch at this point to quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation. As you enter quiet breath, close your eyes and allow the sound of the water to flow through you, within you, and over you. Simply be with the water, taking the sound into you, feeling the flow of it through you. Do this for a time until you find peace, tranquility, and presence.

 

Water is a very good element to start with for this meditation, but you can actually do it with any of the four elements for different effects. A windy day makes a nice air meditation, as does sitting by the fire, or digging one’s feet in sand or earth. This is a very sense-oriented meditation, but the overall goal is to work with that element to help clear and ground you.

 

I will also note that while I developed this meditation for the purposes of clearing, it also offers benefits for connecting and focus–in other words, it helps us meet all three goals of meditation.

 

An Ovate Mediation: The ovate path asks us to connect deeply with nature, so a walking meditation with a primary goal of “connecting” is a useful for this regard.  For this meditation, go to any natural area and be ready to walk.  Ideally, this should be a place where you are not going to run into a lot of other people, certainly, a place where you don’t have to interact or converse if possible. For this, I like to find a quiet and out of the way path at a state park (but you could go into any natural area that fits your . I begin by standing on the path and doing a simple earth-sea-sky breath and a quiet prayer to ask the spirits of nature to inspire me on this journey.

 

The idea of this meditation is a walking-based meditation, where you get into a state of focus on the world around you, and allow the spirits of nature to simply flow through you and be with you.  For this, the goal is to be in the present moment, experiencing whatever there is to experience, on whatever level there is to experience it.  Observing, interacting, and simply taking it all in and being part of the journey.  This practice leads to deep spiritual awakenings and insights–and each walk, even in the same natural area, can be completely different.

 

A Bardic Meditation: A bardic meditation is often a focus meditation, with the goal of the meditation to bring forth something into the world as part of a nature-enriched creative practice.  For this, it is best to find a place that you find inspiring–a place that sings to your soul.

 

For this meditation, you will want to go to that inspiring place and bring with you the tools of a bardic art you’d like to practice or already do practice. So you might bring an instrument, pen and paper, paints, and so on (I think it is ALWAYS a good idea to bring some kind of recording device as well).

 

Begin by opening up a sacred grove and using the fourfold breath and quiet breath to bring you to a receptive state. Transition into a series of Awen chants, and then simply take the place within you. Be like a sponge, pulling in the energy of that place, hearing that sacred place’s song, story, poem, painting–connecting deeply with spirit. The goal here is to be in a meditative and receptive state so if this place has something it would like you to bring forth, you are able to be ready to have a quiet and receptive mind to do so (the meditation part). The first few times you do this, you might not end up creating anything at all.  But with enough visits and practice, these techniques will put you into a receptive state where awen will flow when it is ready to do so.  

 

This technique, for me, has produced amazing paintings, songs, and words…many of which have ended up here on the Druid’s Garden blog!

 

Concluding Thoughts

There are so many other kinds of meditations that you can do that connect you with nature, your own spirit, and the bardic arts.  I think the important thing, with any of these, is making enough time for these connections to take place.  Not all spiritual work has to be planned–sometimes, the best experiences come from the unplanned things, the things that simply happen, or things for which we make space.

 

Taking up the Path of the Bard III: Practice makes Perfect February 4, 2018

“You have so much talent” or “I’m not talented enough” are powerful statements, statements I hear on a regular basis from those who long for a creative practice. The idea of talent can cause an incredible amount of inaction, of people not feeling they are “good enough” to even try.  I see this, in particular, with the visual arts. But the first time you put pen to paper, if you aren’t Picasso or Monet, you might as well forget about it. This larger cultural ideal, of course, seems at odds with the druid tradition where Eisteddfod and the channeling of Awen are central to our spiritual life. In the druid tradition, creativity isn’t about producing something of commercial value or high quality, its about the channeling of creativity for spiritual purposes. But for those coming out of mainstream Western culture with all of the cultural baggage, this can be difficult to institute such a mindset shift.

 

As I mentioned in my post last week, the reason I took the last few weeks off of blogging was so that I could turn my attention to another project–doing the analysis and writing the paper for the OBOD’s 19th Mt. Haemus lecture. My work in the mundane world is as a professor and a learning researcher; I study how people learn, develop over time, and transfer/adapt that learning to a wide variety of circumstances.  And so, understanding bardic development as a learning process is tied to some of that broader research I’ve been doing for a long time. Over the last five months, I conducted an empirical study of the bardic arts in the druid tradition, surveying 266 druids from 9 countries as well doing in-depth interviews 14 participants at different points in their bardic development. I talked to people about their bardic arts, their successes, their struggles, and gained a deep understanding of what the bardic arts do–and can do–for us as a spiritual practice.  The results were heartening, uplifting, and amazing.  The study itself will be published by OBOD on Beltane 2018 (and I’ll share a link on the blog when it is posted) so I’m not going to talk too much about it here.  However, I did want to share a specific piece of the study, almost a prequel if you will, and talk more about the bardic arts from a developmental perspective.

 

You’ve Got Talent!

In the process of doing this research and just over time in in sharing my own visual art, it seems clear that words alone are not enough to encourage people to break through the “talent” barrier and create, even for those who long for such a creative/bardic practice. In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with people about the study, and multiple conversations go something like this:

 

Friend: Dana, you are so talented! You should sell your work!

Me: Actually, I practice a lot.  I spend at least 10-15 hours in my art studio most weeks, and have done that for over 12 years.

Friend: I wish I had your talent!

Me: If you set your mind to it and devoted effort, you could make great strides and produce things you are happy with.

Friend: No, I’m not good at it.  I just couldn’t. I don’t know where to begin. 

Me: No, really, you could.  You just have to start somewhere and keep practicing. Take a class.  Come here, we can do art together.

Friend: It’s easy for you to say that because you are talented.

Me.: I haven’t always been this way. I have to work hard. 

Friend: I’ll never be talented like you.

Me: …

 

The problem with this conversation is at least twofold: first, the person assumes that because they aren’t “good” at something the first time they try it, they shouldn’t try at all. Yet, if we know one thing in educational research and human history, it is that humans have an incredible capacity to learn and adapt over time.  Denying oneself the opportunity to learn something new, grow, and learn a new skill is almost like denying that innovative and creative part of yourself that longs for expression. In fact, studies of human development in a variety of contexts (including some of my own exploring writers’ development over long periods of time) show that even people who aren’t “good” at all when they start can gain incredible amounts of proficiency and skill in the long run.  The key is taking the first steps on that path. The second challenge with this conversation, from my perspective, is that anything I say doesn’t make a difference because I am “talented.”  After several frustrating conversations just like this, and in seeing where some of my study participants struggled,  I realize that maybe the best way to address this issue isn’t in conversation, but rather, with actual physical evidence of an artist’s development over a period of time. And so, in the remainder of this post, I wanted to share a bit of my own bardic development.  I use myself as a model for a few reasons.  First, I am finding myself more and more often in a place where people talk about how I’m “very talented” and it “comes naturally” (incredibly ironic, given the rest of this post!)  Second, I think the only way for people to understand how real learning happens is to have good models, models not just of success, but also of how people worked through failure, so I’m hoping to provide one. The truth is, regardless of how much I love doing  art and the spiritual benefits it offers, I still have to work hard at it, and have worked hard at it for 12 years, and that counts for a lot more than any innate “talent” I may have had when I first picked up a paintbrush.  And I still have plenty of times where it doesn’t work out well, lots of “failures” and attempts that don’t pan out.

 

 

A Story of Bardic Development

When I was a child, I grew up in a family of artists; my parents were graphic designers, and that’s how they made their living. I made a lot of art as a child, but as a teenager starting to consider options for my future, I distanced myself from it.  To me, art was associated with not having enough, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet in a rust belt economy that was quickly seeing all of their clients leave the area.  Art, to me, was a thing I couldn’t do, something forbidden, some that would somehow pull me into that world of economic struggle.  Becuase I loved art so much, I felt I would get sucked into it, and end up loving it so much that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Circular logic, to be sure, but it prevented me from doing any art from about the age 15 to the age 25. When I decided to attend college and was trying to select a major, my parents asked me to do anything but be an artist. After one year as a miserable computer science student, I settled on Writing instead (which was another love of mine). But all through this time, I wouldn’t let myself near art supplies, I wouldn’t create, and I certainly wouldn’t think about art.

 

When I was 25, so many things in my world shifted.  I lost a dear friend to cancer, I found my spiritual path of druidry, and congruently, as part of my own bardic/spiritual practice, I began to seriously take up visual arts again: painting, primarily, but also a range of other art forms (jewelry, mixed media, bookbinding, etc).  Of course, I hadn’t practiced artwork in over a decade.  I didn’t have a style, I didn’t have a theme, I just knew that in my pain and sorrow, I wanted to do something creative.  I wanted to visualize it, to paint out the pain, so to speak, and so I bought some supplies and started painting.  I hadn’t practiced much, I wasn’t very good, and I had no idea what I was doing.

 

Example #1: Artist Trading Cards

Fairly quickly, I stumbled upon something called Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) which were great for my graduate student budget and time–they were little 2.5 x 3.5″ pieces of artwork that artists made and traded all over the world through various websites. I wasn’t very good at these and my first attempts were lackluster, but the community was super supportive (with no judgement) and I quickly realized how much I enjoyed creating these small works of art. After may failed attempts (which I didn’t photograph, unfortunately), I started trading them with people.  So in 2006-2008 or so, my mini works of art I was willing to trade and photograph looked a lot like this:

Attempt at Abstract art

Attempt at Abstract art, Circa 2006

Watercolor Tree 1 (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Tree 1, 2006

Watercolor Bonsai tree (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Bonsai tree, 2006

As I continued to paint hundreds of these cards, and challenge myself outside of my normal media, I started getting better. A lot better.  I took classes, I explored different media, I focused on the technical aspects of the craft. I watched a lot of YouTube to see how other artists went about their process. I took on challenges that I knew were too hard so that I’d get better even if I failed in the attempt.  I kept trying to hone my craft as an artist.  I started a “reject” box for all the art that I wasn’t happy with and didn’t want to trade; I saw that box as my “improvement” and “practice” box. As I improved, I developed a style, found tools and media that I really liked (a particular kind of paper, a particular brush, a particular paint) that I could rely on for effect.  And I improved:

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

I did these little pieces of art seriously for about 7 years.  In that time, I painted literally thousands of them.  I know this because each one I painted, I traded to another artist and I have a shelf of binders full of the pieces I received in return still in my art studio to this day.  Thousands and thousands of mini paintings on variety of subjects (but about half of them trees) will certainly help you improve.  Just recently, at the start of 2018, I completed some more ATCs as gifts for my interview participants in the Bardic Study.  My style and complexity have continued to improve, so here’s where I’m at with this same size  (and same paints/media/paper that I like):

 

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Practice and dedication to one’s art, over a period of time, produces results.  Is there something to be said for vision, for inspiration, and for “talent”?  Perhaps, but I don’t think any of that is what has gotten me to where I am today.  What got me here was a willingness to make mistakes, a willingness to try and attempt, a dedication to improving my skill, and a lot of hard work and determination.  What keeps me going are the intrinsic and spiritual benefits I gain from such a practice.

 

Example #2: Tarot of Trees and new Healing Plant Spirit Oracle

As a second example, which in some ways is much more drastic because it is at a larger size, we might look at the comparison between my self-published tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees and a new project I’m currently working on. The Tarot of Trees reflects my skill level between 2008-2009 after I had been painting a few years; my new project, the Healing Plant Spirit Oracle reflects my style in 2016-2018.  The Tarot of Trees really pushed my skills at the time and also helped me really establish not only my own artistic style, but also, the synthesis of the creative arts with my spirituality–a true bardic art.  I did these as sacred artwork, completing them in a sacred grove, painting, channeling the Awen.  And like any of my other paintings and projects, I had a few that didn’t end up in the deck and didn’t pan out, but that’s part of the process.  Here are two of my favorite cards from the Tarot of Trees:

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

My newest oracle project got underway in 2016–a series of plant spirit paintings, reflecting the spirit of healing plants.  I’ve been really, again, working on the synthesis between my technical skill and spiritual practices. To deepen my technical skill, particularly my drawing skill, I’ve been doing individualized drawing study and studying the work of other artists. I’ve also gotten regular expert feedback from artists on these pieces.  These plant spirit paintings are, once again, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the series (which I hope to have complete by 2020):

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Certainly there is magic here, but it lies not raw talent, but rather, the careful application of the skills I’ve honed to bring forth a particular vision combined with channeling the Awen that is flowing. Paintings like these don’t happen without considerable effort and work–I do a lot of meditation, journeying, sketching, and more to manifest them in the world. As evidence of this, here is a page from my sketchbook that shows just this for poison ivy (I worked on the sketches for this for several sittings before doing a larger sketch that led to the painting):

Poison Ivy sketch

Poison Ivy sketch

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think its easy to look at, see, or hear something beautiful and feel that the piece must have emerged out of the ether and is the result of some mystical talent. And yet, I’m a druid who channels Awen and even I don’t believe that. For every person I know who has considerable skill and expertise (notice how I’m avoiding the word “talent” here), I know that their work is a product of years of dedication to their craft. In fact,  think the most ironic thing about the whole “talent” challenge in modern society is that by ascribing to this idea of talent, it undermines the hard work that people who are dedicated to an art or craft take to hone their skill. By telling someone that they are talented, we reinforce the idea that it magically happens and you either have it or you don’t–and in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It disempowers the speaker, it disregards the effort of the person who has practiced, and it makes the bardic arts unattainable for many.  In truth, we all can improve, we all can become highly skilled, if we put the time into it.

 

So how do we do this?  My earlier pieces in this series, Taking up the Path of the Bard part I and Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II, offered details and discussion of how we can begin to develop creative and spiritual practice in our own lives. I’ve talked about the bardic arts as a spiritual practice, the historical idea of honing skill, channeling the flow of Awen, and other kinds of rituals to help empower us as bards.  Hopefully, among all of these blog posts, you’ll find something of value!

 

Blessings upon your bardic journey and may the Awen flow within!

 

 

Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More December 20, 2017

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.

 

I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.

 

Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.

 

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!

 

And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.

 

Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.

 

Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.

 

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:

Conifers

Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.

 

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.

 

Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.

 

I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:

 

Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!

 

Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath

 

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!

 

Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree

 

Conclusion

Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.