The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Cherry (Prunus Serotina)’s Magic, Mythology, Medicine and Meaning June 23, 2019

Butterfly on choke cherry

When most people think of cherry trees, they think about plump, juicy, red or purple cherries from cultivated cherry trees.  However, here in the USA, we have a variety of wild cherries that are an interwoven and rich part of our landscape. An enigmatic tree found throughout the eastern part of North America and South America is prunus serotina, the wild cherry, black cherry, mountain black cherry, or rum cherry tree. Most people interact with this tree not in its living form, but through the beautiful reddish-brown heartwood that this tree produces, and that can be frequently found in their furniture and flooring.  And yet, this tree has so much more to offer than just beautiful wood! While I’m targeting my comments today about the black cherry, many of the material found here can be about *any* cherry tree local to you, including domesticated cherries.  Many other kinds of wild cherries may also be found along the US East Coast region: prunus avium (the wild sweet cherry) and prunus virginiana (choke cherry). Black cherry and other wild cherries of the prunus species are truly American trees and hence, should be considered as part of our magical landscape here in the USA.

 

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

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

Black cherry is a medium sized tree, often found on the edges of forests. When it is young, it can be shade tolerant, but older cherries prefer to have more sunlight, and thus, you can often find them along the edges of forests, pushing the forest into new areas. Cherries are prone to being blown over by strong winds because they primarily have lateral/fibrous (spreading) root systems rather than a deep tap root. Cherries can live between 150 and 200 years.  They are commonly found in the ‘dry’ or ‘mesic’ forest habitats more broadly. Here in Western PA, they are a very common tree, often growing in mixed oak/beech hardwood forests or hickory/oak forests, but also found on the edges of hemlock forests.

 

Identification of the tree depends on its age. Leaves are typically about 2-5 inches in length with fine tooth and an ovate-lacerate shape (elongated oval with points). Young cherry trees have a dark, smooth bark which is banded with lighter brown lines that are horizontal.  Older cherry trees have very dark gray/dark brown or almost black bark that is highly textured, but you can still see the bands (see photos).  A strong almond scent (very unique to cherries) can be smelled when leaves are crushed or branches are broken–more on this later in the post).

 

Younger and older black cherry trees

Birds, butterflies, and moths feed and grow on black cherry, including the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, who lays eggs individually on the black cherry leaves.  Other caterpillars who depend on the trees include the red-spotted purple caterpillar and the coral haristreak caterpillar. Unfortunately, it is also a favorite of the destructive eastern tent caterpillar, which can make large nests in the tree and strip trees of leaves. Usually, the cherries can bounce back the following year after a serious Eastern Tent Caterpillar issue. When the cherry is in bloom, it is a nectar source for many insects including bees, wasps, and butterflies. When the cherry is in fruit, it is a food source for many animals and birds including raccoon, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bears, and more.

 

Wood and Other Uses

The wood of the cherry is well known, as it is a common wood used for interiors, furniture, tools, flooring, and more. Cherry is a beautiful, reddish brown wood with a straight grain. It is a favorite of woodworkers as it is delightful to work with and beautiful when polished.  It is not as hard as oak, near as soft of maple, making it a wood that is firm yet beautiful to work with.

 

The berries, when using methods I’ve described before on the blog, can be made into a great ink or dye; it offers a purple/blue color. It doesn’t have a good light fastness (like most other natural berry dyes) but in my experience, if you use alum as a mordant, it can improve the light fastness. The berries are almost always in abundance, but they can be difficult to reach on high up trees.

 

The cherry pits (seeds) are also often harvested and eaten by wild critters. If you visit the base of an older wild cherry tree, you will often see the little half-cups of the seeds, dried and brown. If you are interested in natural crafts, these can make nice beads (with a tiny hole bored or drilled into them).

 

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

Cherry is an interesting tree because while the fruit is edible and medicinal, and the inner bark is also medicinal, most of the rest of the tree is extremely toxic. Cherry foliage and pits contain hydrocyanic acid. You can smell this when you crush a leaf or cut a part of a cherry tree–it has that distinct bitter almond smell. The leaves have the highest concentration of hydrocyanic acid, and as the leaves wilt, they produce cyanide. This makes the leaves extremely toxic to humans and many livestock animals, such as goats or sheep.  In fact, we had planned on getting goats for our homestead here for fiber, milk, and for clearing brush, but after we learned about the toxicity of the cherry leaves (which we have everywhere on the property) we decided not to do so and went a different route with our animals.  This is because one handful of wilted cherry leaves is enough to kill a full size goat!  Needless to say, Cherry’s toxicity is not to be trifled with.

 

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

At the same time that cherry’s leaves have such poison, black cherries are delightful and abundant to eat, high in antioxidants and nutrients, and an excellent wild food. Sam Thayer notes in the Forager’s Harvest that you should harvest the berries only when they are overripe, that is, a deep purple color.  I will also note that in my experience, different trees may produce slightly different tasting berries, some more or less bitter than the others.  If you are going to forage for them and you have some choice, I suggest tasting various trees! The variety in different trees can be quite distinct, with some tasting almost like a commercial cherry and others being nearly inedible and very bitter. So, once you find a tree that you can eat raw, you have found a good tree to turn the fruit into jelly or other tasty treats.  Even if a cherry tree has a little bit of bitterness, you can usually use sweetness to counteract it and allow for an enjoyable tasty tree.

 

Like many other fruits in the rose family (including apples and peaches), cherry pits also do contain hydrocyanic acid, and those, should be removed during or before preparation.  You can cook them slightly, mash them down, and strain out the pits, which is probably the easiest method of removing them.

 

This bitterness of any wild cherry can be reduced with the use of sugar, but any jams or jellies that you produce from it will still have some bitterness if your fruit started off bitter.  I have found that the bitterness is pretty tasty combined with meats or fish and add dimension and complexity (and bitter foods are healthy for our digestion). A simple recipe, offered by Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus book is a cherry jelly.  He suggests adding apple juice to the jelly to improve the flavor.  Take any number of quarts of black cherry and add 1 cup of water.  Take unripe apples and slice them and add them (or add some pectin as per package instructions).  Simmer this for 30 min then strain.  Take 2 cups of cherry juice and 2 cups of apple juice, and add 4 cups sugar (you could also add less sugar by using Pamona’s pectin; I prefer to can with honey using this approach).  Boil till it jells and then hot water bath can using standard fruit approaches (10 min for half pints, 15 min for pints, etc).

 

In Using Wayside Plants, Nelson Coon notes the difference between serotina (wild cherry) and virginiana (choke cherry) are as follows: chokecherry has more pointed leaves, bitter/acidic fruit, and shorter fruit clusters  He notes that while both can be made into tasty jellies, the choke cherry produce more bitter fruit.  I have also found this to be the case, and often, the serotina and virginana are growing right next to each other!  Sam Thayer recommends another approach to working with black cherry. After harvesting them, he puts them in the fridge for two days.  This reduces the astringency and bitterness, and then you can make jellies or fruit leather.

 

Cherry as Medicine

In Matthew Wood’s Earth Wise Herbal: New World Herbs, Wood notes that in the 19th century, wild cherry was considered an “indispensable” medicine by both pioneers and Native Americans; he suggests that it was likely one of the most commonly used herbs native to the US during that time period.  Wood notes that wild cherry works as a sedative, particularly for the circulatory system.  It is particularly useful for coughs due to irritation, coughs that linger on after an infection has passed, and those that have fluid or mucus in the lungs, such as through bronchitis, pleurisy, etc. He recommends collecting root bark if at all possible, and preferably in the spring when the cyanogens are lowest. He notes that while the bark does contain trace amounts amounts of cyanide, it is not enough to cause any health issues, particularly when it is used medicinally and for short term issues.

 

Prussic acid in found in wild cherry trees are particularly useful for coughs and many herbalists use it as a their go-to cough syrup remedy.  For this, you want the inner bark from any wild cherry. This is to be used for acute conditions short term only, but it is very effective. A simple cough syrup is to boil down 1/2 cup of the chopped inner bark of wild cherry for 30 min in 1 pint water.  Then, strain it and let it cool. Add raw honey at this point to taste.  Usually, I will freeze this in ice cub trays, then you can keep using it as needed and keep it till you need it.  Alternatively, you can simply make a strong tea of the wild cherry bark that you dry.  If you have a wild cherry nearby though, no need to dry it in advance–just harvest it fresh and prepare it as needed!  I have used this recipe many times myself, and it is just as effective as over-the-counter medicines.

 

Euell Gibbons gives another recipe for wild cherry cough syrup in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus book that I really like: 1 cup red clover blossoms, 1 cup white pine needles (preferably new growth), 1 cup mullein leaves, and 1/2 cup inner bark from the wild cherry.  Boil all of this in a quart of water covered for 20 min.  Strain and add 1 pint honey, then can it.  (I like this recipe, but I’d omit the honey and can it without, then add the honey later.  Raw honey is amazing, but heat removes much of the medicinal virtues).

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

Cherry does not seem to have much of a place in the traditional western magical traditions, particularly those deriving from Europe–which makes sense, as cherry is a North American Tree.

Leaves of cherry tree

In the European traditions, when it shows up, it does not often show up as a tree of power.  For example, in Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire, the book describe the Battle of Godeu (or the Battle of the Trees) and in this battle with Hades, while many trees fought valiantly (oak, hawthorn, heather, holly) many others, including the poor cherry tree did not fare so well and was broken during the battle. This battle is told in the Book of Taliesin as well.

 

What information there is about the cherry’s power suggests that cherry is tied to love, emotions, and romance, something that is consistent both from Europe as well as from folk magic here in the US.  Culpepper notes in his Herbal that cherry is a tree governed by Venus. In the American hoodoo traditions, according to Cat Yronwood’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, cherry is used primarily in love-drawing spells for drawing love, romance, or enticing someone. Thus, in American Hoodoo, it is frequently used in love-drawing mojo bags, oils, dressed candles. We see this same association in an old book, Grimories, who talks about using the “essences of the cherry tree” when when desires another. Interestingly enough, Native American talking sticks can also be made of cherry, and when they are, they are also tied to expression, emotion, and love. Yet, Cherry trees do not feature prominently in the stories that I have been searching (and that I usually share as part of these posts). Occasionally, someone eats a cherry in a story, or, someone notes that cherry is not good for making bows. But the tree has no distinct magical connection in the mythology of the Americas that I can ascertain.

 

In another American classic grimore, The Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman (1820), which is one of the premier books in PA Dutch Braucherei, the cherry tree is used to help cure the “poll-evil” in horses. The Poll Evil is an inflamed back of the head which can burst (today, this is treated with antibiotics). The full charm involves breaking off three twigs from a cherry tree, one in the morning, one in the evening, and one at midnight.  You wrap these in pieces of your shirt, then clean the poll-evil with it.  Then you have to poop on the twigs while the twigs are facing north. Then you stir the wound again with the dirtied twigs a day or two later.  Yep, good stuff :P.

 

One of the places that cherry tree is very dominant is in Japan, and Cherry has different meanings in eastern societies.  Japanese cherries, or “sakura” symbolize the concept of “mono no aware,” or the understanding that life and things are transient, impermanent, and that a small amount of sadness or wistfulness can be had at their passing.  Cherry blossoms, which bloom en masse in Japan are thus symbolic of “mono no aware” and encourage people to reflect on the transience of all things.  We also see the tie to love from myths like “the Holy Cherry Tree of Musubi-no-Kami Temple” where a magnificent old cherry tree encouraged people to build a shrine dedicated to the “God of Love”.

 

Meanings and Magic for North America

So to summarize all of the above, we can see three distinct meanings for the Cherry tree, based on its ecology, medicine, uses, and mythology:

 

Cherry tree as a drawing love and romance.  The American traditions are strongly consistent in this, showing that cherry here in the US has the power for love: to bring it, to help it last, and to foster romance.

 

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

Cherry tree emphasizes the fragility, impermanence, and ephemeral nature of life.  The Japanese tradition is strong here, but so is, frankly, the fact that cherry can produce such a noxious poison.  The leaves of the cherry tree wilt and cause livestock (or people) to die who consume them.  That ecology sends, to me, a very strong emphasis on the idea that life is fragile!

 

Cherry, likewise, sends the message that the same aspects of nature can be both healing and destructive. Cherry is a tree of extremes: both one of the best natural medicines we have native to the Americas while also being one of the most destructive poisons we have.  Much of nature is like this, and this is a powerful natural lesson. The ocean is a very good example of this: the ocean can provide food and medicine, but also tidal waves and tsunamis.  I think every part of nature is truly like this: and cherry so beautifully emphasizes this lesson.  Nature is.  It is not good, it is not evil, it simply is.  I can be harnessed as a powerful tool, or it can harm or kill you.  Part of that depends on your own knowledge, and part, on the conditions at hand.

 

Foraging for Pigments from Local Rocks: Making Watercolors, Oils, and Egg Tempera Paint from the Land! May 12, 2019

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

When I walk along the landscape here, I am greeted with the deep oranges and yellow oxides of our soils laden with heavy amounts of clay and iron.  These colors are reflected each time I dig into the subsoil, and as I drive through the countryside where mountains were cut through for roads. In other places, I might be greeted with reds, blues, or greens, all reflected in the geology of the land. Each region carries its own colors, and you can find the palate of the land in every stream bed.  Even an hour drive in any direction puts one in a new geological region–and this changes the colors of the stones and the soil.   You might think about these colors like a language–each landscape has its own language that you can learn to read and speak. Each landscape has its own unique set of colors, found in every stream bed. Today, we can think about expressing that language in visual form.

 

In today’s post, I’ll talk about how to forage for local pigments and learn how to grind them and prepare them as paint. That’s right, you can make your own paint from locally foraged rocks!  What is amazing about this process is that each landscape is unique: your own land’s palate will depend on the local geology.  As you forage for pigments and then turn them into your own paint, you know exactly what goes into the paint, where it came from, and you know that any paint water or other materials can return to the land. You might discover things only you, in your unique ecosystem, can discover!

Boney Dump iron oxide - my favorite pigment to date!

Boney Dump iron oxide – my favorite pigment to date!

 

Getting into Pigment Making

Everything is derived from nature, but in the 21st century, consumerism practices and “distributed by” labels often mask manufacturing processes which almost never tell us how something was made, where the raw goods came from, who produced it and under what conditions, or, what it even contains.  Art supplies are notoriously bad; labels tell us almost nothing about the pigments, and art supply companies are very tight lipped about how they produce their paints. You don’t know what chemicals are in your paint, unless they are *really* bad and carry a CL warning or other kind of warning label. These kinds of warning labels mean they are toxic to you and should be used with care: but no labels tell you about the toxicity of your products for the planet.  This means, in my art studio and in studios all over the world, people often have no idea what they are using to produce art with or what the environmental cost of those materials may be.  And for something like paint, paint water and paint byproducts often get dumped down the drain, making their way into local water systems. When I use commercial paint, I literally have no idea what I’m putting down my drain–and by way of my septic drain field–out into the land and local waterways.  Since our spetic field sits about 40 feet above a local (clean) stream, this is of serious concern to me.

 

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Given these realities, as a serious practitioner of the bardic arts, I am always looking for better ways to practice my visual art that does not require me to consume, pollute, or create demand on fragile ecosystems. Before, I had played around with various natural arts, including making my own berry inks and dyes.  The berry inks and dyes are not usually lightfast, though, and can’t be taken with me in my watercolor palate. But most of the time, my artistic medium of choice is watercolor, so I wanted to learn more. After my favorite watercolor paint supplier no longer offered watercolors in the US late last year, I started researching alternatives.  One of the things I came across were tiny watercolor companies that sourced natural ingredients and charged quite high prices for their paint.  I was intrigued, and figured that if they could do it, so could I.  I wanted paints that were more sustainable and less questionable in terms of ingredients.  So this post will share some of my successes and ideas for how you can do this yourself!

 

 

Sourcing Natural Pigments

 

A stream bank behind the homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments....

A stream bank behind our homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments….after each flood, new stones wash up on the bank!

Natural pigments literally everywhere, and if you travel, you can find a wide variety of colors.  Most of these are colors of the earth; colors of soil and of sand and of stone.  Deep greens and oranges and the colors of sunrise and mountains.  Deep reds and browns, blacks, and grays. You can also get into other kinds of pigments (lapis lazuli has long produced blue pigment; malachite has long been used for green), but for our purposes here, I’m assuming that you are working to source things locally and are going to find stones in your ecosystem.

 

You can find pigments in a lot of places, but some places are particularly good.  Pigments can often be found in exposed edges of streams, rivers and lakes; the water will expose clay banks and stones, making it easy to find pigments. Around here, fabulous places to look are what we call boney dumps; these are old piles of rocks and other mine waste that have lots of different rocks on the surface. You can find some pretty neat colors in these places  (finally, a sustainable use for a boney dump!).  The boney dumps are particularly useful for pigments becuase they would set the mines on fire and somehow use fire to process certain ore; so you also get stones changed by fire (and fire can certainly change pigment colors).  You might not have these (and be thankful you don’t), but looking for other sites where earth and stone have been dug up or exposed is good (the exposed bank that was cut in for new construction, for example).  Anywhere that a lot of rocks are exposed is potentially a good site to pick up some pigment stones.

 

 

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

Because you want pigments that are easy to process, especially when you are starting out, good pigment stones are fairly soft.  You can sometimes tell a good pigment stone by rubbing it against a harder rock.  If it produces something that looks like paint or clay on the other rock’s surface, it is likely a very good choice.  You can see immediately what your pigment may look like. You want the consistency of the pigment to get quite fine.  Grainy rocks like sandstone can also be processed, but the processing is a lot more work and some you can’t get down that finely by hand.  Harder stones may be worth processing, especially if they have unique colors. Clays can make good pigments, but not always; you can dig them out, then let them dry, and then grind them up, removing any large or hard rocks. You have to really see which pigments work and which do not–some clays I’ve used have been wonderful, and others haven’t had much pigment at all and create a sloppy mess.  Each geology and ecosystem has something different to offer you, and it requires a lot of experimentation.

 

 

Other pigment opportunities also exist. Both soot and charcoal make great pigments, so keep this in mind if you are having fires indoors or out. Soot produces more of a warm black, while charcoal produces more of a cool black.  I harvested both from our indoor fireplaces. You can also make a “bone black” from burned bones, turned into charcoal.

 

A few years ago,  I visited a mineral spring and found loads and gobs of pigment flaking off the walls from the spring –I dried this and saved it in a tin for later use.  Recently, also, and what started me on this adventure, I was given a container of iron oxide from the Tanoma Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Remediation site.  This iron oxide is what makes many of our streams, creeks, and rivers too acidic; a site like Tanoma creates pools and uses a process called tromping to help precipitate out the suspended particles, clearing the water before it goes back into the stream.  After the iron precipitates, it settles to the bottom of the pools; this can eventually be collected and used by local artists! And it requires very little processing.

 

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Tools for Paint Making

You will need to gather some basic supplies for making your own paints from foraged materials.  While you can make a primitive paint literally by crushing the pigment between two rocks and adding some water or oil, the following supplies will help you create a more refined pigment that would be suitable for paintings. Tools for creating paints:

 

  1. A mortar and pestle, dedicated to this use. You don’t want to use a mortal and pestle that you use for grinding herbs or food; get a separate one for this.  Or you can use something else; two hard rocks from the land can also work great.
  2. A glass muller or other grinding agent  Again, this is not necessary, but most fine pigments need a final ground, and this works well.  if you don’t have a muller, other glass tools may work like the edge of a small round jar. The key is you want a wide, flat surface on the bottom of whatever you use as it grabs the pigment and binder and mixes it well.  This is the most pricey of the materials ($50-$90).
  3. A palate knife, cake decorating knife, or old credit card.  You need something to be able to scoop up the pigment.
  4. A slab of glass or granite.  You need something to spread your pigment out and mix the paints carefully.  Right now, I’m using a smaller granite slab that I’ve had in my studio for various purposes, but I want to use a piece of glass instead, and will get one when I can find something recycled.
  5. A very fine mesh sifter for sifting out larger particles.  This is really useful if you are grinding your own stones.  get the finest mesh you can find. I found a strainer with 0.2mm holes, and this produces a usable paint but for certain stones, may still be gritty. A strainer with 0.1 mm (called a 100 strainer) is even better.  Look for these with sides from a scientific supply.  It is possible to refine your pigment and separate out particles without a strainer through a water suspension method, but the strainer really helps.
  6. Containers for your paint and pigments (shells or containers for paints; jars for extra pigments).
  7. Googles, gloves, and a breathing mask.  Paint pigments are not good for your lungs, and you need to take serious precautions!

 

Materials for Paint Making and How Paint Works

In order to know how to turn pigment into paint, its helpful to know how paint works.  Paint consists the pigment (color), a binder, and usually things to extend the life of the paint or improve viscosity and flow.  A binder is what “binds” the pigment to the surface; if you used only water and pigment, the pigment would flake back off the page after it dried, and your paint wouldn’t last.  In other words, a binder helps keep the paint on the page.  Gum Arabic or Linseed or walnut oil, and egg yolk are common binders.  A lot of modern paints use chemical binders, so we want to stay away from that stuff.

 

Paint Supplies: Watercolors

Watercolors are made with a combination of gum arabic and honey; glycerine can be added as well to prevent cracking.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder; that which helps the pigment stay on the page.  Since its water soluble, Gum Arabic is a great choice for watercolors. Honey helps improve the viscosity and flow of your pigment, and glycerine helps prevent the pigment from drying out or cracking.  I am currently using honey and gum arabic in all of my homemade watercolors.  You can purchase 1 lb bags of gum arabic in powder form, which you can just mix up and store in the freezer.  This is really economical, compared to buying it already prepared from an art store.

 

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

I’m currently researching a more local ingredient than gum arabic.  I’ve read some old books that say you can use wild cherry sap, ground and dried, which makes sense as it is also water soluble.  Pine resins would not be an appropriate choice for this as they are not water soluable (but they have other uses). I’ll report back on the cherry sap once I’ve experimented with it, which will be over the summer once I am able to harvest and dry some.

 

Paint Supplies: Oils

For oil paints you’ll need linseed oil and melted beeswax along with your prepared dry pigment.  Walnut oil may be a more local choice for you, and it will work almost as well as linseed oil.

 

Paint Supplies: Egg Tempera

For this you’ll need an egg yolk, water, alcohol, and your dry pigment.

I want to note that you can also make your own acrylics, but acrylics are plastics, polymers, and those go right back into the ecosystem when you are done. The materials above are more naturally sourced and based and represent more traditional sources.

 

Preparing Your Pigments

To prepare your pigments, you will need to get them ground finely while not breathing in any dust. Connect with the energies of the earth during this process and embrace the time it takes to do this. I use the following approach:

 

1. Break up rocks into smaller pieces.   First you need to break up your rocks into pieces that can be finely ground down with a mortar and pestle.  I usually use a hammer for this and a plastic bag.  Break the rocks up as fine as you can using this method.   In my case, I am using a thicker bag that is non-recyclable (this is a bag that chicken and guinea fowl treats come in). This process gives this bag a bit more life!  Put the rocks in the bag and start the breaking down process. You should do this outside and if it isn’t windy, consider a breathing mask.  If the stones are particularly strong, you might want several layers of bag (or a thicker feed bag, old tarp, etc).

Rock breaking.

Rock breaking.

 

2. Grind the pieces down in a mortar and pestle as finely as you can.  After you get the pieces much smaller with the hammer, you can start to get them finely ground. I have a granite mortar and pestle of a fairly large size for this purpose.  I grind down the pieces, working in very small batches.  You can see this reflected in the photo below–I work with smaller and smaller batches as I work the stones down into a fine pigment.  Again, use a breathing mask and do this outside if you can.  Here I am grinding down the local slate stones a friend and I found on a hike.  You might notice that the color has changed from the stone to the pigment–that often happens!  Everything is a surprise.

Slate pigment at various stages

Slate pigment at various stages.  The pigments often are a slightly different shade than the rocks themselves.

3.  Sift.  Sifting is probably the most critical part of the paint–if you don’t have a fine enough strainer, your particles will be too big and your paint will be gritty.  The goal is to get the finest particles possible–below I am using a .02 mm x .02 mm sifter.   I will take whatever won’t go through the strainer back into the mortar and pestle for a while. You can sift multiple times to get a fine grind.

 

In this case, whatever isn’t sifted is put back in the mortar and pestle for more grinding.  You can also store the extras in a jar for the next time you want to make paint. I’ve been talking to other natural paint makers, and the grinding and sifting is really an art form in and of itself–some are easy to do, and some are quite difficult–depending on the stone. It all takes patience and can be a very meditative practice.

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar/pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter (I might add some simple "walls" to it at some point!)

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar and pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter.  Since taking these photos, I purchased two additional sifters that are even better than this one!

Another option if you can’t get your particles fine enough is to do the long route using water.  If you grind up a lot of pigment, you can put it in a glass jar with a lid (I use a 1/4 pint or 1/2 pint jar for this).  Shake the pigment up well, and then quickly pour off everything but the very heavy particles that sink to the bottom.  The lighter particles are suspended in the liquid; they will likely precipitate out to the bottom.  (If they don’t, some paintmakers use a bit of alum to help them drop out).  Otherwise, if you have a small amount of water, put it in a greenhouse, dehydrator, or other sunny location and it will dehydrate.  What you are left with is a *very* fine pigment, fine enough to be a high artist quality grade paint.  The heavy particles can be dried as well and further ground up.

 

Making Your Paint

For watercolor: Place your pigment in the center of your glass plate.  Add about 1 part Gum Arabic for every 2 parts pigment, and then about 1/8 part honey. Some paintmakers are also adding a drop or two of clove essential oil for preservation, but I don’t have any so I’m not using it at present.  You can pretty much eyeball this.  If the pigment is too dry, add more gum arabic.  If its too wet, keep working it and the air will dry it out in a few minutes.

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Next, move to a muller or other tool that you can use to spread out and grind the pigment further. If you don’t have a muller, try something that can help grind the glass–like a flat glass bottomed jar. The muller is completely flat, and you can easily rub it over the surface to mix the pigment.  After you spread it out, use a palate knife to scrape up the pigment and use the muller again (see second photo, below).

Mulling pigment. This one doesn't have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.

Mulling pigment.

This first photo doesn’t have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.  If your pigment looks like this, it needs a finer grind and will be very gritty when complete.  You might need a finer sifter or to separate it with water.

What you are looking for is a very smooth grind.

The difference between these the above photo and this one is striking–and so are the results.  The second pigment here (iron oxide) has a very, very fine ground!

 

Here's the slate pigment--it turned into a pretty nice paint!

Here’s the slate pigment–it turned into a pretty nice paint because I was able to get a very fine grind and sift.  It still had a little bit of graininess to it, but works great.  A water separation or a finer sifter would have helped get the particles even smaller.

 

You may have to mull it for quite a while to get all of the pigment and binder together.  Usually 5-10 min. Once you see it as completely consistent, you can scrape it all up with a paint knife and put it in small containers to dry.

 

I have been using sea shells that I’ve had sitting around to put my paint in, but anything that has a lid (like an old Altoids can or lip balm can) would work just fine. I also had some empty plastic half pans I picked up at a yard sale, and I have also been using them.  If you want a full container of pigment, you usually have to make paint several times and add layers to the pans (as the pigment dries, it shrinks and cracks).

 

When you want to use your paint, rewet it and use it like any other watercolor.

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board.  This is a fireplace soot paint.

 

For Egg Tempera, you will want a small jar.  Start by removing the egg yolk from the white.  Egg yolks have a sack that holds the inner yolk; break the yolk and remove the sack.  This is accomplished by either puncturing the yolk and letting it drip in, or simply fishing out the sack after you’ve gotten the yolk punctured.  Add a small amount of water (1 tbsp) and put a lid on the jar, shaking your paint until everything is mixed.  Now, place your pigment in the center of your glass plate or other non-porous surface.  Add small amounts of alcohol to your pigment, and grind it or use your knife or muller (see photos above).  Finally, add enough yolk water to you get to the consistency you want and grind it some more.

Egg tempera is best used within a week; without preservatives it will go bad fairly quickly.  I will keep mine in the fridge between uses.  I don’t make these very often, but they are nice for certain applications (like traditional folk painting).

 

For Oil Paint, The process for making oil paints is the same as above, only instead of gum arabic and honey, you are adding linseed oil and a small amount of melted beeswax.  If exposed to the air, oils will eventually dry out within a week or two (just like commercial oil paints).  A lot of people will purchase metal tubes so you can keep your paint in a metal tube, just like commercial producers do ,when making oil paints – as it would be hard to mix up a whole palate anytime you wanted it!

 

Using Your Paint

Once you have your paint made, you can use it on anything!  I like the watercolors best for this process because they don’t require special storage–you just dry them out into cakes, and then they can be used and rewet as needed.  If you get a fine grind, you can make watercolors and other paints even *better* than what you can find in the store: rich, inviting, and completely made by you!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

The Water Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle; The tan paint in the roots is from my own handmade watercolors: the AMD Iron Oxide–the first paint I made using this method!

 

watercolor swirl painting--all of the browns were from foraged paint!

Watercolor swirl painting–all of the browns were from foraged paint!

I hope this has been inspirational and informative. Now that spring is here, I am excited to see what pigments my landscape offers and do some western PA specific paints with this local and eco-friendly palate of colors!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging as I am in the final preparation for releasing my Plant Spirit Oracle deck, plantng out our gardens on the homestead, and attending the MAGUS druid gathering and doing some camping.  I’ll resume posting in early June!

 

A Fire and Smoke Ritual for Land Healing and Blessing May 5, 2019

A few years ago, I led a smoke cleansing (smudge) stick making workshop at the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering event. As that event often has upwards of 100 attendees, I spent months growing and harvesting materials for the event so that everyone could make 1-2 sticks.  Sure enough, everyone got to make some smudge sticks and the workshop went great.  After the workshop, one of my friends and event fire tenders, Derek, came up to me and asked me about the leftover materials.  I had been placing them in a paper bag, and had planned on taking them home to make more sticks or return to the land. He said, “I want to make a smudge bomb and send healing smoke to this entire land.”  I said, “Yes, what a great idea!” So we tightly bundled up the remainder of the material, which filled at least 1/3 of the paper grocery bag, and wrapped it with the same cloth string.  The next day, as the Ovates were meeting around the fire circle in preparation for ritual, he brought out the smudge bomb.  The previous night’s fire had been a particularly large one, and in the morning, it still contained the embers from the fire the night before. Derek carefully placed the smudge bomb into the glowing embers.  It worked just as we hoped: it smoldered and sent up a healing and blessing smoke into the surrounding land. And it lasted quiet a long time!  Ever since that experience, I’ve been working with fire in different ways to think about how we might use fire and smoke to bless and heal large spaces, and how we can also make offerings in thanks to fire, humanity’s oldest friend and companion.  Today’s post compiles some of those ideas, big and small and is a follow-up to my ancestral Beltane fire post from last week.

 

Altar with various bundles, getting ready to burn

Land Healing through Fire and Smoke: A Fire and Smoke Ritual  in Three Parts

Using the “smudge bomb” experience for inspiration, I developed a larger technique for using fire and smoke for land healing and blessing, creating specific ritual objects that are created in a sacred manner and then burned to send that energy, by way of smoke and wind, to far off places.  As I described in my earlier series on land healing, land healing comes in many forms.  Energetic healing or palleative care can be useful in situations where the land is actively under duress (which unfortunately describes many places on earth currently), where physical land healing (through permaculture, seed scattering, etc) is not an option. One of the challentes with land healing, particularly on a larger scale, is that you don’t always have physical access to the land you want to heal.  I do think that doing ritual directly on the lands you want to heal is most effective–but doing something else at a distance can be equally as effective if you have some good way of transmitting that energy.  Thus, this ritual technique is very useful for spaces, far and wide, that are otherwise inaccessible: around here that would be large swaths of logging, strip mines, polluted waterways, etc.  It is also very useful for healing more distant concerns: the plight of polar bears in the Arctic or deforestation in the Amazon, the oceans, or some other “far away” issue.  Or maybe you want to do land healing working for the entire globe. Thus, this technique is one that you can use to send healing and blessing energy to the lands nearby–or quite distant, using air and smoke as a carrier.

 

Smoke is often seen in today’s culture very negatively primarily because of our challenged relationship with tobacco: we have secondhand smoke, smoking as a harmful and life-threatening, smoke from wildfires causing issues, and  much more. And yet, smoke cleansing and blessing practices have been used throughout human history and in many cultures as a blessing and purifying agent (this link has a nice overview; this link is a study to over 250 plants used in smoke healing around the world).  In the druid tradition and in other pagan traditions, we use these practices quite a bit: through smoke cleansing (smudge) sticks, incense, using tree resins– smoke helps us call in and establish air in ceremonies and connect deeply with that element.  We often use smoke clearing, incense and similar such things on a smaller scale–but why not consider it on a large-scale for land healing or blessing?

 

Thus this technique has three parts.  Each of these three parts has both a physical component and an energetic component. The parts are:

1. Creating a bundle or object that will turn to smoke and bring that energy, through the currents of the air, to other places.

2. Creating a fire in a sacred manner and opening a sacred space.

3. Burning and releasing the bundle and directing energy.

(And then, of course, closing out your space and giving thanks. )

 

Part 1: Making Your Healing Bundle / Healing Object

Now, I’ll walk through some potential options for how to create your own healing bundle.  I am giving you options below to spark your own creativity, s.  Before we get into the bundles, I want to offer a few general principles:

 

  • *Everything* in these bundles should be all natural, coming directly from nature. This is because you are burning the objects, so obviously, you don’t want to burn something that pollutes the air.  So for example, if you are using string, it should be cotton, hemp or jute (string can be plastic), wax (use soy wax or beeswax).  Because non-natural materials can release harmful chemicals into the air, thereby rendering any particular healing work you want to do ineffective.
  • Like most magical workings, I think its less important the physical form it takes and more the intentions you bring with it.  Work with what you have and don’t worry about replicating what I have here–rather, create things from your local environment that speak to you.
  • Look for opportunities: a fallen conifer branch, a neighbor trimming a hedge of rosemary or hemlock, a huge number of pinecones, abundant material on your own land, etc.
  • At the same time, a larger size bundle certainly does give a good ritual effect, which is something you might want to consider.  Small ones work great too, but large ones burn longer, giving you more time to focus healing energies in a particular direction.

Three sample bundles: pine cone/herb bundle, wood burned oak slab, and bundle of sticks wrapped with prayers and sealed with wax.

There are two kinds of bundles you can make: things that are meant to smolder and things that are meant to burn. Things that smolder  are more traditionally used like incense on coals, and are designed to be added to existing coals or a slow burning fire.  Things that burn, on the other hand, are designed to burn when a fire is hot (and usually are wooden in some way).

 

Some Possibilities for Things that Smolder:

 

The Herbal Healing Bundle: This technique uses a bundle of aromatic dried healing herbs, very similar to the “smudge bomb” I described in my opening–a mix of carefully chosen herbs for their healing effects.  You can design a specific bundle for a specific healing purpose based on the herbs that you choose (see my list here).  I like to create these at the end of the season, when I’m clearing out my garden, and I have to cut plants back anyways.  This is also a great use of the stalks of plants; so if I’m harvesting sage, rosemary, wormwood, tobacco, and other plants, after I harvest the leaves, I am often left with a lot of stalk matter that I don’t know what to do with–and it goes in the bundle.  Any material (other than poison ivy) would work fine for such a bundle, but I think it’s particularly good with aromatic healing herbs that burn well–rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, scented geranium, wormwood, mugwort, etc.   For this technique, if you are using dried herbs, I suggest using a paper bag (which you can write your intentions on and then place the herbs inside) and wrap it tight with cotton string.  Depending on the nature of the herbs, you might be able to make your bundle without the bag, especially if you have a lot of long plant stalks, etc.  If you are using green/fresh herbs, you probably want to just bundle them without the bag using cotton string so that they will have a chance to dry out.  If you don’t grow your own herbs and/or don’t do wild foraging, this options probably isn’t as good for you as it requires a good amount of herbs and obtaining them may be more cost prohibative.  Never fear, there are many other options!

 

The Resin and Herb Bundle:  Conifer resins are a great addition to the herbal healing bundle; they smolder and produce a very good deal of smoke and last for a long time.  You can add conifer resins to a standard herbal healing bundle or use them on their own.  You don’t want to throw these directly in a fire; they are better off smoldering on coals.  You can also add conifer needles and branches, which will sometimes crackle and pop.

 

Pine cone bundle – this was for blessing the conifers of the land

Pine cone / Herb Bundle: Pine cones make great smoldering options, as they often contain a lot of resin in them.  I like to sprinkle my pine cones with herbs and then bind them together.

 

Shapes, Rings, and Effigies: Rather than putting your materials in a bag, you might instsead choose to shape some form–a wreath, for example, offers additional symbolism. Certain kinds of herbs and plants are obviously better for this than others.  An easy way to do this is to get a wooden ring started (see my instructions here for how I did this for a different project) and then from there, you can use cotton string to wrap dried or fresh herbs around the ring, layering until you have somehing you are happy with.

 

Things that Burn:

The Conifer Bundle: Conifer trees love to burn, and many of them have needles that are flamable, even when they are green and not dried out.  Eastern white cedar and other cedars, in particular, goes up well.  You can create a bundle of fresh or dried conifer boughs (or create a wreath or other shape).  This would be a good way to use up material from your Yule tree or else if you or a neighbor were trimming hedges of confiers, etc.   Bundle them up with cotton string and watch the sparks fly!

 

The Wax and Herb Bundle: An alternative to the large bundle described above uses beeswax candles wraped in herbs.  Beeswax will burn very brightly and leave off powerful light, and thus, is particularly good when you want to be bringing energy into a situation.  Take 1-2 beeswax candles (or a small brick of beeswax) and then layer the outside with herbs.  Or, you can heat wax up till its just soft, and then, roll herbs into the candle.  When you throw this into the fire, it will burn brightly and send energy outward quickly.

 

The Wooden Message Bundle: A final option is to use wood itself to fashion something–a bundle of sticks, wrapped with messages or healing words.  A wooden round with wood burning or natural ink messages, a wooden object bound together with string; a vine wreath with tucked in messages, and so on.  The sky is really the limit here.

Burning a Land Healing and Blessing Slab at Beltane

This first photo is for a simple healing for my own land; working with a wooden slab that I created and later burned ritually.  My own land was damaged through logging the year before I bought it, and I’ve been doing a lot of healing work here.  Burning this in a central fire helped send that blessing energy out to the land (and after burning it, to help further the intention, I did some cleaning up of a burn pile left by the previous owners that I had found a few weeks earlier).

Prayers for the world bundle

The second was a more in-depth bundle I created for holding space for species in decline and in danger of extinction and for ecosystems under direct threat. Each of the sticks in the bundle was a message that I wrote and tied to each stick; each stick became part of the larger bundle, which I sealed with wax. Each of these prayers were global in nature, thus, the smoke would carry the energy where it needed to go.

 

Part 2: A Sacred Fire

The bundles can be made anytime in advance of your fire ritual.  You can also make them together, as a grove or group of people.  To do your ritual itself, you can choose an aspicious day for your ritual (a full moon, a new moon, one of the wheel of the year holidays, etc).  I used Beltane for my most recent bundles–which are what the photos are of in this post.

 

If you can, I suggest building the fire intentionally and using traditional techniques (or in the least, not starting your fire with fossil fuels like lighter fluid–this is a healing ceremony, and using fossil fuels which are causing so much ecological damage sends the wrong signal and energetically, has issues).

 

Fire ready to accept healing bundles

Fire ready to accept healing bundles

Prior to starting your fire, I suggest that you open up a sacred space using whatever method you typically use (for druids, this might include delcaring peace in the quarters, calling in the four elements, saying the druid’s prayer, and casting a circle or protective sphere around the space). Once you’ve setup your sacred space, light your fire and tend it till you have what you need: good coals you can rake into an open area (for the smoldering bundles) or a blaze (for the burnables).

 

Part 3: Burning Your Bundle and Sending Energy Out

Once you are ready, place your bundle before you.  I like to do an elemental blessing of my bundle at the fire, blessing it with the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, inviting those elements into the bundle to help with the healing work.  You could do other things here, for example, if you are a reiki practitioner, you could send some reiki energy into the bundle, etc.  You might also raise energy in the bundle in other ways; drumming a steady beat into the bundle also works great.

 

Burning the healing bundle–I let the fire go almost out, then I put it on there and it smoldered for a long time.

State your intentions for the bundle, and offer it to the fire.  Observe as it burns, watching it and seeing if you see any messages within the fire.  As it burns, you want to envision that energy going to where you want it to–that the winds take that energy to the places you wish it to travel.  This may take some time, and my suggestion is to hold space for the duration of the bundle burning and smoldering.  You might also do other things to help the energy get there: drum, dance, sing, etc.

 

Once you are done, close out the space, and if at all possible, allow the fire to burn out naturally.

 

Embracing Ancestral Fires and Fire-starting at Beltane April 28, 2019

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.

 

The Druid’s Crane Bag April 21, 2019

A druid’s crane bag is a special bag, a magical bag, that many druids carry with them. Often full of shells, rocks, magical objects, feathers, stones, Ogham staves, representations of the elements, ritual tools, and much more, a crane bag is wonderfully unique to each druid! A few years ago, I shared a post about how to create a crane bag and a description of my bag at the time; today’s post revisits and deepens the treatment of this topic.  In this post, we’ll look at the concept of the crane bag and where it came from, four potential purposes for bags, and some tips and tricks for how to put them together and what they might include.  This is a wonderful part of the druid tradition that anyone, including those walking other paths, can enjoy!

 

My "ritual in a bag" crane bag, designed and created by me!

My “ritual in a bag” crane bag, which I recently completed. 

Crane Bag History and Purpose

The term “Crane bag” comes from Irish mythology.  In this mythos, Manannán mac Lir is a major sea god who is also the guardian of the otherworld.  One of his many treasures is a magical bag, known as a crane bag. As they myths go, he originally crafted the bag from the skin of a crane, hence the name. This wonderful, bottomless bag was full of many treasures: his knife and shirt, the shears of the King of Scotland, the helmet of the King of Lochlainn, the bones of Assal’s swine, a girdle of a great white whale’s back, birds, hounds, and other things.  His bag also contained human language, a powerful tool.  Some versions of the myths also suggest that the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet that is still in modern use, was also within the bag. In the myths, the bag’s treasures can be seen in the sea at high tide, but they disappear during low tide. In certain myths, the bag comes into the possession of Irish heroes such as Lug Lámfhota, Liath Luachra, and Fionn mac Cumhaill.

 

In the modern druid tradition, we are inspired by this mythology, and druids often create magical bags of their own.  A crane bag is not a singular thing, but as unique as each druid themselves: thus, the size, shape, and materials contained within the bag are up to an individual druid.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll show you various options for bags, styles, and purposes to help you develop your own crane bag.

 

Planning Your Crane Bag: Crane Bag Purposes and Options

Just as each druid’s path is unique, your crane bag should be an expression of you and your druid path. I think the most important consideration for your crane bag, even before we get into size, composition, or what goes into the bag is your purpose.  In talking with druids, particularly in the OBOD and AODA communities on the East Coast of the US, there seems to be three general purposes for crane bags: the ritual-in-a-bag approach, the power object bag approach, the field approach, or a combination of all three.

 

Some of the many things that can go in your crane bag

Some of the many things that can go in your crane bag

The Ritual-in-a-Bag.  The first approach to a druid’s crane bag is that it is a special bag that can hold all of your ritual tools. These tools, then, come with you wherever you go. For example, one druid I met at a gathering had a larger leather bag.  In this bag, she had her elemental representations, wand, a small sickle, and a small notebook. She indicated that anywhere she went, her tools could go with her, and she could easily break into “spontaneous” ritual with her tools at hand.  She also enjoyed carrying the bag to larger druid gatherings, thus, her tools went with her and also benefited from the energy raised at such gatherings. I have used this approach myself, and offer an example later in this article.

 

The Power Object Bag.  A second approach that seems common is to have a much smaller crane bag, one that is carried on your person frequently, or at all times.  Often, these will be bags small enough to fit in your pocket, around your neck under your clothing, or attached to a belt.  Contained within the bag are objects of spiritual significance to you–sacred stones, shells, sticks, herbs, teeth, bones, or whatever else is personally significant and powerful to you.  Those druids who I have spoken to who use this approach believe that you grow a stronger connection to the objects and bag the more the bag is physically with you. The objects, also, are able to lend you their strength, power, and protection throughout the day as you carry your bag.  A good friend of mine uses this approach; his is a small but ornate belt pouch that is always attached to his belt, and so each day, without fail, his crane bag goes with him.  It is with him when he works, hikes, drives, or whatever else he is doing.

 

The Field Bag. The third approach is creating a crane bag that will aid one out in nature–for this, you usually get not only objects of spiritual significance but also practical significance: land offerings, knives, folding saws, hori hori (an all purpose japanese gardening tool that is great for foraging and herbalism), bags, flint and steel or other fire-starting equipment, paracord, and more.  The philosophy behind this crane bag is that if you are going out in nature, it is useful to be prepared, particularly if you are interested in doing some wild food or medicine foraging, camp out for the evening, bushcraft, or other kinds of wildcrafting.  Thus, when a druid takes this bag with them, they are prepared for anything!

 

The Anything Goes/Combination Bag. The final approach uses a combination of all of the above–perhaps some items of personal significance along with a few ritual tools and a few tools to be out in the field.  My first crane bag, described in detail in my earlier post, uses this method (see all of the contents here). The benefit of this approach is that you end up with a multi-purpose bag that can serve a variety of needs.

 

Creating or Finding Your Crane Bag

My Crane Bag

My First Crane Bag: Repurposed secondhand find!

Today’s crane bags need not be made of crane leather, but can be made of any durable material: leather, hide, skin, linen, wool, cloth, denim, and so on. You can make your bag yourself, you can purchase it secondhand, or you can have someone make it for you. I do believe, in my conversations with many druids about their crane bags, that many prefer to make them, as it lends their own personal energy into the bag.  If you don’t make it yourself, find a special way of personalizing your bag.  For example, my first crane bag, pictured here, was a small denim bag with zippers and pockets that I found at a thrift store.  I personalized it by painting it with acrylics, and I am happy and delighted that the paint has held up for many, many years!

 

The bag can be large or small; however, you will want it large enough that it will fit your purpose and to carry what you would like it to carry (and think also about the future–what you might want to add to your bag at a later date). Depending on the size of your bag, it can be held or connected to a belt, cord, or slung across the shoulders and carried more like a traditional bag, depending on the size.  Most druids carry their crane bags into ritual (and around gatherings, if they attend), many may also carry them into the woods or other natural places, so it should also be something comfortable to take with you, particularly on long journeys or when you travel.

 

 

Items for Your Bag

Any item of spiritual or practical significance can go in your bag.  I encourage you to think about local ingredients, local materials, or those repurposed in other ways.  Many of the things in my bag are gifts from others or things that I found or made. Here’s a list of what I might consider essentials; these go in every crane bag that I have made or carry:

  • A small journal (Moleskine or other small journals work great for this). I never want to be out in the woods or anywhere else without my journal–this allows me to record my thoughts at any time. I especially appreciate this “old technology” as opposed to a cell phone for recording as I don’t think there is anything as disruptive of a sacred experience as pulling out one’s phone.
  • A few handy tools: I like to always take with me a lighter/matches, a knife, and a plastic or cloth bag or two to carry anything I find.  Even in my more “ritual tools” style crane bag, I make sure to have these with me.
  • Offerings.  I don’t go anywhere without offerings. I recently shared how to make a wildcrafted herbal blessing oil and  sacred herbal blend for offerings.  A blessed magic seed ball also makes a great offering. Anything you want to carry with you that you can offer is approrpriate.
  • Elements. As someone working within the context of both OBOD and AODA druidry, I find being able to work with the elements in physical form really helpful.  So I always have, in any bag, representations of each of these. They don’t have to be physical representations (fire, etc) but could be four small stones, woodburned images, and so on.  The sky is the limit!
Once I pull stuff out of my ritual-in-a-bag, I can make a beautiful altar setup for outdoor ritual work.

Once I pull stuff out of my ritual-in-a-bag, I can make a beautiful altar setup for outdoor ritual work.

 

Here is a much larger list that you might consider for including in your crane bag:

  • Rocks and minerals
  • Shells, corals, or sand (in a small bottle)
  • Plants, leaves, twigs, roots or pieces of bark
  • Herbs, oils, infusions, concoctions, tinctures, teas or healing brews
  • Seeds of all kinds
  • Feathers
  • Fur, nails, bones, claws, teeth or other animal parts (only those that are legal to have, of course)
  • Animal, plant, or spirit totems of any kind (for example, the small carved soapstone animals are a nice addition to a crane bag)
  • Divination tools, such as Ogham, runes, or tarot decks
  • Small musical instruments (like an ocarina, small flute, etc)
  • Jewelry or necklaces of significance
  • Tiny journals or books
  • A small altar cloth
  • Bags, jars, and other vessels for holding things (like collecting sacred waters, etc)
  • Ritual tools such as a small candle (a battery-powered candle is convenient when traveling), small sickle, knife, candle, etc.
  • Any other items with a spiritual purpose
  • Quarter stones (four or eight stones you can place at the circle to help hold the space)

 

Example Crane Bags: Druid’s Power Bag and Ritual in a Bag

I have three primary crane bags, one that fits each of the possibilities above.  My earlier post offered an example of an all purpose crane bag, so again, check that post out for photos.  I also have a regular backpack that I dedicate to foraging, but that has some sacred tools (the essentials) that will go with me on longer hikes.   I didn’t take photos of that one, as its not very pretty looking but is rather very functional.  But I did want to share examples of the other two: the druid’s power bag and the Ritual in the Bag crane bag.

 

The first bag is the Druid’s Power bag.  This is a small leather bag I made, and in the photograph, are some *examples* of what you could put in a bag.  I believe that the bag itself and the actual contents of a power bag should never be photographed, or really, even talked about.  This is a bag of sacred objects to you, and if you talk too much about it, you can talk the magic out of it.  So I am not showing you my actual contents, but I think this gives you a good example of what could contain and look like: natural items, small clay and stone statuary, beads, stones, jewelry, etc.  So in this photo we have some things people have given me, stones, stone animals, a bracelet, a ceramic bear, a painted pendant, nuts and seeds, and more.

Potential power bag with objects

Potential power bag with objects

 

The other bag I want to show today is the “ritual in a bag” crane bag. I have been working on this bag for six months, and I’m delighted to have completed it to share with you.  The goal of this bag was simple: I do a lot of ritual work outside, right on my land or in a nearby state park. What was happening is that when I needed tools, I’d put them in a basket from my altar, but the tools were quite heavy and bringing them back up the mountain on my land was a problem, and carrying them into the woods at the state park was even more of a problem (it isn’t fun to carry four large ceramic altar bowls!)  Further, when I have friends that visit, we often go into the woods with sacred intent, and I wanted a bag that I could literally just ‘grab and go’ that offered me everything I needed to do a nice ritual with the bells and whistles. I’ve also been working hard to improve my leather working skills, so this bag was also a challenge to me as a bardic practitioner. Finally, I wanted my sacred plant allies to be with me with the energy of the bag.  I wanted it small enough that I could put it in my foraging bag and still had room for other tools.

Hawthorn and elder each are on a pocket on the front of the bag, behind the flap

Hawthorn and elder each are on a pocket on the front of the bag, behind the flap

The leather bag itself I designed and put together.  I used leather tooling and then a leather acrylic and acrylic sealer on the bag itself, which I hope will last over time (we will see!)  This brought beauty into the bag and helped imbue my own energy with it.  On the bag, I have some of my most sacred plant allies: wild yam (on the edge of the strap), ghost pipe, hawthorn, and elder.  These are all plants I regularly work with and who are local to my ecosystem.

Another shot of the bag

Another shot of the bag

Inside the bag, I have everything that I need for a ritual.  This includes five copper bowls (I purchased these on Etsy from a regional craftsperson; they are great because they are super durable and light).  Four of these are for the elements and the fifth is for offerings or other purposes.  When I’m out in the woods, I usually fill the air bowl with sand or soil, then stick an incense block or cone in it.  The fire bowl gets a little candle (with jar, otherwise it will go out), the water bowl gets some local water, and the earth bowl can be filled with soil, rocks, nuts, sticks, whatever is around.  In the photo, you can also see two little incense containers and also a smoke clearing stick (smudge stick), it has its own little package.  You can also see the small altar cloth (this particular cloth was a gift from a dear friend and mentor, and is a very cherished part of my ritual gear), which rolls up nicely and fits in the bottom of the bag.

Ritual tools in the bag

Ritual tools in the bag

Finally, I have an elemental woodburning with an awen; when I place this on my altar, it reminds me of the four directions (extremely useful for someone like me with dyslexia).

Elemental woodburned piece for remembering the directions!

Here are some other things that show up in my ritual-in-a-bag: my favorite ritual flute, a small knife (used mostly for ritual, but also for herb harvesting), a vial for water (I like to save water from my rituals or from places where I do ritual and add it to a water altar), a lighter, and a journal.

More crane bag tools

More crane bag tools

One of the keys I think to keeping a small crane bag is careful packaging.  I have used a lot of special packaging to keep things together: sewing little bags for the elemental bowls, having a wrap for my tarot deck, having a wrap for my my smoke clearing stick so that it doesn’t flake off everywhere in the bag, and so forth.  One of the bags below contains all of my land offerings.

Packaging helps!

Packaging helps!

 

Even with all of these great tools, which you can carry everywhere, what doesn’t fit in the bag is Acorn!

Acorn is blessing the altar!

Acorn is blessing the altar!

 

I hope that this post helps de-mystify the druid’s crane bag and offers you a number of ideas that you might use in your own druid based, OBOD, AODA, or nature spirituality practice. In the words of John Gilbert, former AODA Archdruid of Air, “Your Druid Crane Bag is the badge of a Druid. Wear it with pride and with honor to yourself and the Druid Craft.”

 

Working Deeply with Water: Waters of the World Shrine and Sacred Waters April 7, 2019

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In the druid tradition, water represents the west, the place of emotions and intuition, the place of our ancestors and of the honored dead. Water is often connected with the salmon of wisdom, the salmon who dwells in a sacred pool, offering his wisdom to those who seek him. Water may serve as a gateway to other worlds and as a tool for scrying. Water can be used as a tool understand flows of all kinds. You can study flowing water through observation, fishing, boating or swimming and connected with in order to help us understand deep insights.  Snow and ice can likewise, be used as spiritual tools.  Water-based animals like turtles, fish, salamanders, dragonflies or water-based plants like cattail, calamus, or lotus are powerful allies for spiritual work. Working deeply with water is part of several druid teachings and courses, and thus, finding ways of doing that kind of work is important.   Today, I wanted to share some suggestions and ideas for working with the element of water.

 

Because I like to root our druidry in the here and now, I think its important to understand why, on the physical and spiritual level, water is a good element to be focusing on now.  Partially, I want to do this because in the last two months, I’ve been tackling a lot of difficult topics surrounding “Druidry for the 21st century“, and I hope that this post will help offer some soothing and healing. But tied to the issues that I’ve been recently discussing, we have a host of environmental challenges with water: global warming causing ocean acidification and coral bleaching; huge dead zones and polluted rivers; acid mine drainage issues; and issues with draining aquifers are all problems that the earth is facing.  We also have a host of social problems surrounding water, like major floods or droughts, issues of water ownership and issues of the drinkability of water (such as the ongoing water saga in Flint MI or the protests by the Water Protectors to protect the land and drinking water sources).

 

Further, It seems that right now, the emotional water energy of the world is out of balance: people only feel and focus on their emotional reaction rather than critically analyze (air), tensions are heated, and social unrest is present.  I do not believe that there is any coincidence that as the waters of the world are under pressure and threat that we see this unbalanced water energy in our social sphere. As a druid, I understand the relationship of these things.  Water is life. When we abuse that water, that abuse unbalances the waters of the world and we, thus, are unbalanced as well.  Given these larger problems, I think its good to cultivate a positive and meaningful connection with balanced water energy.  This helps us have a buffer between all that unbalanced watery and emotional energy that is plaguing us, for one.  But also, deep water work can open up worlds and new insights to us.

 

Collecting the Sacred Waters

My very special vial of Iona water

My very special vial of Iona water

Some years ago, at the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering, I was gifted with a very special vial of water. Thea Worthington, the OBOD modron at the time, offered me the water  that she had brought from Iona, the Isle of Druids. I had never been to Iona or the UK (and I still haven’t been) and this sacred water, coming from my the land of my ancestors–and spiritual ancestors–was a very cherished gift. When I brought the water home and placed it in a glass vial, it was literally humming with energy. I began using it in my spiritual work in various ways; taking a single drop of it and adding it to local water to ‘charge’ that water, bringing it into my rituals and the rituals of our grove, and so forth. Soon after, I began collecting waters from sacred places that I was visiting–waters of the many sacred springs, lakes, rivers, and oceans. After this experience, and through closely working with these waters. Each time I would gather the water, I put it in a small glass dram vial, and gave it a label. If others were going to visit places I may never go, I asked them to bring me water back with them.  Thus, over a period of 6 years, my “water collection” has grown quite considerably! Further, I found that physically working with the waters led to many spiritual experiences and insights — and you can build a whole spiritual practice surrounding collecting, honoring, and working with sacred waters.

 

You might consider starting your own water collection and working with waters deeply.  I’ve learned a few things that can help you if you want to do this kind of work, which is the basis of the rest of the ritual and spiritual work outlined in this post.

 

A local sacred spring for water honoring and collection

A local sacred spring for water honoring and collection

Bring a vessel. First, when you are out and about, always take some kind of collection vessel with you.  If you are out locally, you can also use your water bottle to bring back some water at the end of a hike or from some other outing. I try to keep a vial with me in my crane bag and foraging bag; that way, I will always have the opportunity to collect some water. I also keep a spare vial or bottle in my car for other adventures.  That way, when the opportunity to gather some water comes up, I am able to take advantage of it!

 

Now, when you travel on a plane, you need some planning and forethought.  I like to put my sacred water in a simple spray bottle labeled “hairspray.”  I have never had customs or TSA give me trouble with this, as long as it is packed away in my quart ziplock bag or in a checked bag.  Tincture bottles can also be used for this purpose.

 

Collect water with sacred intent. Second, I think its important to collect water with sacred intent. You want to make an offering to the water in exchange for the water you are taking. I like to do something sonic or energetic for this.  I may offer a stone from my land, chant, or play my flute. I like to do something that can resonate with the water in some meaningful way. I also, by the way, will clean up any garbage at the site where I am collecting if there is any to be found.

 

Frankfort Mineral Springs - A great place to collect some water

Frankfort Mineral Springs – A great place to collect some water

Knowing where to collect. I think that most places are good places to collect water.  I like to think about it this way: even if the source where I am collecting water from is polluted, it is good to represent that water source.  That river or lake or whatever still has a spirit, still has live that is trying to live there.  I treat polluted water sources differently in my ritual work though, and I’ll explain that below.  So if you are going to do this practice, collect widely.

 

Enlist help. If you have friends or family who are traveling somewhere that you may never go, ask them to bring you back a bit of water.  You can also involve other druids by doing a water exchange or using water in your rituals–ask everyone to bring some water (see combined waters – group ritual)  below.

 

Label and store carefully.  I purchase clear 1 dram vials with a lid, and use those for my waters, which works really well.  I used corked glass bottles for a while, but they tend to dry up after a year or two; the plastic lids never dry out.  Pour your water you collected into the vial, then, seal it up tightly.  Taking some colored paper and a pen, make yourself some kind of little label.  I tie these onto my bottles, but I could just as easily tape the label on there with packing tape.  The rest of the water, if safe, I offer my plants or the land.  If not safe (due to pollution), I will usually send it down the sink with a thanks.

 

At this point, once you have some waters you’ve collected, you can start to work with them in really amazing ways!

 

Creating Your Sacred Water Shrine and Ritual of Coming-Together Waters

Once you have started a water collection, you can build a shrine and welcome each of the waters into your collection with a ritual. I will offer you the basics of the ritual, with the understanding that you can frame it how you like, in any tradition you like.

 

Find a place where you can have your water shrine.  It should NOT be a place that cats or kids can easily get to.  In fact, in both of my homes, I kept my water shrine on a counter or near my tub.  That’s where it is located currently; my art studio and sacred space has an attached bathroom, and the whole bathroom is dedicated to the theme of water, flow, and Awen. I have an Awen shrine in the bathroom focusing on flow and honoring water, and opposite side, I have my sacred waters shrine.   IF this isn’t an option for you, consider getting a nice decorative  box for your waters to serve as your shrine.  That or a high shelf might be an option to you.

 

One you have a place, you’ll want to think about how you are going to arrange your water vials.  I got a nice cut wood round, sanded it a bit, and used that–and it works great.

 

Now you are ready for the ceremony. There are two options: You can do this in a regular ritual space you use, or you can do it in the bathtub. The bathtub has one advantage–you can, immediately during the ceremony, connect with your sacred waters much more deeply when you are in water yourself.  If you don’t want to or are not able to do it in the tub, you can do that part of the ceremony later (it is offered below).  Before you begin, you will need your water shrine area prepared, all of your vials present, and you will need dropper and one empty vial or bowl for the ceremony.  Before the ceremony begins, fill the bowl with rain water, spring water, or melted snow from your local area (some form of pure water).

 

The Ceremony

 

My sacred water shrine, which currently may be in need of expansion!

My sacred water shrine, which currently may be in need of expansion!

Open up a sacred space in your usual manner.

 

Begin with thanks for the water.  Say some words in gratitude, play music, drum, dance, whatever you feel led to do.  Allow the emotion to flow through you.

 

Arrange the vials of water in front of you, however many you have. Pick the first vial up, and through the glass, sense the energy of the water. Focus on the water for a time, simply feeling its energy and remembering how you gathered it–what the day was like, where you were, where the water comes from. Then, focus and see if there are any messages, insights, feelings. Once you are done with the vial, offer thanks and place your vial on the shrine. Continue this process till all of the vials are placed.

 

Now, take your bowl and dropper. Bless the bowl however you see fit and then pick up each water again. Using your intuition, sense the water and if it should be used for spiritual purposes. If you get an affirmative, take 3 drops of the water from the vial and place it in the bowl.  I do not recommend that you include any waters that are polluted to your sacred combined waters.  For example, my sister traveled to India and brought back water from the Ganga river.  When I did this ceremony and welcomed the Ganga waters to my shrine, I had the very clear message that I was not to open the bottle or work with that water in any way beyond sending that river healing energy (the Ganga is the 6th most polluted river in the world, with over 600 miles of dead zones).

 

At the end of this ceremony, if you are already bathing, do the full bathing ceremony below. If not, you can close out your space and when you have an opportunity, do a full bathing ceremony if that ceremony speaks to you.

 

Each time you have a new water, you can use the above ceremony to add that water to the shrine.  Or, if you are doing a lot of collection, you can wait till you have a few vials to add and do them all at once.

 

After your ritual concludes, you have created a very powerful bowl of sacred water with many different water energies, what I call the “coming together” water.  Add this water to a vial and label it.  If there is any remaining water in your bowl, water your plants with it, or pour it on the earth to offer your blessing.  If your vial gets low, you can always add more waters (and treat this like a “mother” essence, infinately able to be added to and used).

 

Setting the stage with a water-based altar

Setting the stage with a water-based altar

Healing and Blessing Bathing Ritual

You can do this ritual, as I said above, as part of your shrine building and coming together water ritual, otherwise, you can do this anytime you feel led.  I find this ritual is particularly powerful for when I am having a hard time emotionally and my emotions (and thus water) is out of balance.  I also find this ritual useful for healing of all kinds.  This ritual is useful to cultivate the flow of Awen in your life. This ritual is best done in a bathtub, but not all people have access to bathtubs.  Thus, I give a shower variant at the end.

 

Now, I want to talk a little bit about what to do at the end of the ritual (before I offer instructions).  In the tradition of hoodoo and more broadly, from many folk magic traditions, a bathing ritual is complete only after a person has drip dried–that is, towelling off after the ritual literally “wipes away” the magic.  I think that drip dry option adds an additional layer to the ceremony.

 

Prepare your bathroom for sacred work. I prefer to do this ritual at night, and I use at least four large tapers to light my bathroom. This provides ample light and sets the right ambience. Burn some incense and do whatever else you’d like to set the stage. You can play some soft instrumental music for this ritual. Additionally, make sure you have your vial of coming together waters and a dropper bottle.

 

Open up your sacred space, then fill and enter your tub.  Have your vial with you. Holding the vial in  your hand, speak your sacred intent to the water (healing, creative flow, balancing, flexibility, etc).  Then, open up your vial and use your dropper to drop 3 water droplets into your tub.  Close the vial and then swish the water around.  Now, simply relax.  Meditate, journey, breathe deeply, listen to music–just allow that sacred water to work on you in various ways.

 

When you have allowed the sacred waters to do the work, thank the waters for their gifts and healing. Then, pull your drain and leave the tub. If at all possible, do not use a towel and allow yourself to drip dry.  Close out your sacred space.

 

 

The same altar, but in the day. What a difference!

The same altar, but in the day. What a difference!

Shower variant: Place the sacred waters in a bucket of warm water.  Take the water into the shower and using a sponge, sponge yourself all over.  Do everything else the same as described above.

 

 

I hope this has been a useful way for you to think about how to work in a sacred way with water as part of your druid or nature-based spiritual path.  I still have a lot more to share about these water practices, but, since this post is getting quite long, I’ll finish up next week. Next week, stay tuned for by offering you some other ceremonies and ways to use your combined waters and also how to do a “coming together” waters ritual in a grove/group setting.

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Plant-Based Spiritual Supplies and Global Demand March 24, 2019

Can you even imagine druidry without plants or trees?  Plants and trees are some of our strongest allies for the work that we do, and are often connected to almost everything that we do spiritually. Plant spirits are teachers, guides, and allies.  From before we had recorded history in any culture, the plant spirits were there, growing with us, guiding us, healing us, and supporting us on our journey. Today’s modern druid practice continues that tradition: we burn plants for smoke cleansing, clearing, and helping to energize spaces. We use trees as part of divination and sacred rites. We use plants as healers, for magical healing and physical healing, and to connect with on deep levels.  Plants have long been friends of humans–and have long walked beside us, hand in hand, as we do our sacred work.  And today, we’ll explore ways we can offer that same kind of honor, respect, and nurturing in return–on both a local and global scale, given that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.  For other posts in this series, please see Druidry for the 21st Century, Druidry in the Anthropocene, and Psychopoming the Anthropocene.

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, given the strain on many ecosystems and species, it is necessary to be an “ethical” consumer–both reducing overall consumption, and when it is necessary to buy, knowing where our goods come from, who makes them and in what conditions, and what we are really supporting. This behavior, in turn, helps certain ethical products and companies succeed and creates less demand for unethical and damaging products. In the progressive circles, the idea of “voting with your dollars” comes to mind.  We see this movement in food (local eating), clothing, electronics, and many more kinds of goods. There are good, bad, and ugly choices out there, and making ethical choices helps promote better livelihoods and protects ecosystems.

 

Ginseng my family grew

Ginseng my family grew

With over half of the world’s species in serious decline, threatened, or endangered, I don’t think we can simply enjoy using whatever we find in the local pagan shop (even if we want to support that shop!). When you walk into one of these shops, or start browsing online, you can find literally thousands of places that are selling palo santo, white sage, sandalwood, and many other critically endangered plants.  These plants are critically endangered because of their overuse, particularly by people who are far disconnected from their growth, harvest, and ecosystems. I’d like to suggest that we take the wisdom of the “ethical consumer” movement and apply it to the purchasing spiritual materials.  This is particularly important for druidry and neopaganism, where it isn’t just about the physical, but also, the spirit. Ethical plant use, where we know where the plant comes from, how much of it remains, and how our own choice of using this plant is a necessary part. While I’m focusing on plants today, I want to add that this really applies to any goods we may use as part of our spiritual practice from two angles: the physical and spirit.

 

The Physical: Land, livelihood, Indigenous Practice, and Ecosystems

I already grow and use a lot of my own herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes, but occasionally, still enjoy the choice rare ingredient that I purchase or that is given to me as a gift. For example, the other night, I was burning a piece of Palo Santo that a friend had given me as a birthday gift and got the distinct question, “do you even know me?”  The answer was, shamefully, no, I did not.  So I started to research it, I found a host of material that suggests that the ethics of Palo Santo are all about the sourcing:  it can be harvested ethically and be used to support native peoples and ecosystems, or it can be stripped bare.  In holding my own piece of Palo Santo wood, I realized I couldn’t answer the important questions: where did this come from? How was it harvested? Who harvested it?  Who profited from it? A few days later, after doing some research, I saw a post shared by a friend on social media.  This post came from a woman native to Colombia who said that Palo Santo was being stripped from her forests, and begging people to stop using it.

 

Palo Santo is hardly unique in this respect–there are so many plants that are now in global demand due to their uses for medicine or spiritual purposes. The work of Kelly Ablard is useful here.  Her website details information on essential oil plants and their conservation status. As she describes, as global demand for certain plants rise, the plants become so lucrative that are over-harvested and can be poached, reducing biodiversity and threatening local people’s traditions and livelihoods.  As the link I shared in the last paragraph about Palo Santo harvesting suggests, in purchasing plants for spiritual supplies, you can make choices that encourage biodiversity, enhance people’s livelihoods, and support life.  Or you can make unknown choices, which are almost *always* the bad ones.  Knowledge of sourcing is critically important.

 

I have witnessed the vicious cycle of over harvesting driven by global demand firsthand here in the Appalachians, such as the case of wild ginseng. When I was a child, my grandfather used to come back with beautiful wild ginseng roots, and we would brew up ginseng tea and enjoy it as a special treat.  I remember those roots–the look of them, the feel of them, the energy of them.  He would only every bring back a small amount, as he was tending his wild patch long-term so that, as he told me once, “my grandkids will be able to harvest this as I did.”  However, the patch was stripped bare by ginseng wildharvesters (I call them poachers) ages ago–every last root was taken.  A good quality dried American Ginseng root, wildharvested, currently goes for between $500-$800 a dried pound, and there are many ginseng dealers that will pay top dollar for anyone who can deliver.  They don’t care where it comes from, only what they can make from it (and the demand for ginseng is growing). So what happens is that people–usually poor people, out of work due to our poor economy–literally scour our mountains for Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Reishi, and other in-demand medicinal plants–and when they find them, they harvest all they can. Over the years, I have covered thousands of miles of forests, nearly all of them here in the Appalachians.  And I’ve never seen a single wild ginseng plant.   The demand for ginseng is primarily from China–a far off place wanting to pay top dollar for high quality ginseng.  Chinese people buying American ginseng have no idea what it is doing to the  wild ginseng populations here.  And so locals here don’t even get to see the plant, much less, build a relationship with it–it is no longer part of our forest ecology. That same story can be told about many, many of these in demand sacred plants–and I think its useful to see that this overharvest problem can happen anywhere, even in “developed” nations like the US. (In the case of ginseng, I will also note that a new forest-grown initiative is helping change the way ginseng is harvested, which is great–but not enough to restore wild populations).

 

Sacred cedar

Sacred cedar

The “Wildharvest” label is fraught with problems. I have spoken to a lot of people in teaching herbalism classes who think it’s better if its wildharvested. I say, “better for who?”  Certainly not better for the plant population!  Wild harvesters who are harvesting for profit have a wide range of practices and ethics. You have no idea what the total population of the plant is, you have no idea how many different wildharvesters came through an area, or how many they take.  A farm, on the other hand, is growing and harvesting there for the long-term, harvesting each year and conserving populations.  Here, most of our wild harvesters looking for ginseng are folks that are out of work and pretty desperate for cash, particularly because of the long decline of the rust belt economy.

 

Knowing which plants are of particularly concern and how they are harvested is also an important part of this process. One good source of information on some plants in North America is the United Plant Savers; just this year, White Sage was added to their list due to wildharvesting and overharvesting.  Ablard’s notes critically endangered plants by region. These include Palo Santo (Peru), Juniper Berry (from Morocco), Sandalwood (Timor Leste), Spikenard, and Agarwood. Her lists also include sweet almond, olive, cedar, elm, and sassafras (in certain locations), and Eastern Hemlock here in the USA.  A lot of plants that are endangered are “whole plant” harvests; ginseng being a good example–if harvesting wood or roots, or all of the aerial parts of a plant, what is left of that plant afterwards?

 

The other piece of this is cultural appropriation. While smoke cleansing (what are commonly called smudging or smudging ceremonies) of all kind are used widely in global traditions (such as this delightful German practice that Christian Brunner describes on his blog) the use of particular plants for smoke cleansing is tied to certain indigenous practices.  White sage has been in the spotlight recently as one such plant. Increased demand for white sage use are driving up the prices of white sage, and reducing native access to wild white sage (due to commercial wildharvesting), and putting white sage plants themselves at risk. Even the term “smudging” is coming under question as a term that appropriates a native practice; see this perspective shared here. I think the key takeaway here is that some of these plants are tied to indigenous traditions, and should be respected as such, particularly when it comes to specific ceremonies and/or wild populations under use by indigenous peoples.

 

In the end, the questions I keep coming back to are: Is it right or ethical that we use these plants to the point of their extinction? Is it right to create such demand for plants that native peoples who depend on them for spiritual practices and cannot find them to use?  Can we find a better way?  These are important questions, but just as important are the spiritual implication of sourcing of plant material.

 

Spiritual: Energy, Honoring, and Connections

Even if we put every physical consideration aside, there is still the matter of spirit–honoring the spirit of the plant, working with the spirit of the plant, and connecting to the spirit of the plant.  Attending to our connection and relationship with the spirit of a specific plant we are using spiritually matters if we want our spiritual practices to have effect.  Sure, I could wave some rosemary and sage around to “clear” my room before doing a ritual, but if my relationship with sage is one rooted in blind consumption, and not connection, is that sage really going to want to support my efforts? What energy tied to the plant’s harvest and sale, is being brought in at the same time?  The way in which the plant was obtained has a direct relationship with the connection–and depth of connection–I am able to have with the plant.  If I purchase a plant from an unknown source, I am bringing all of the energy of that source into my spiritual practice.  Who harvested it, how it was harvested, how it was handled, how it was sold, how it was transported–and in the case of poaching and overharvesting, that may be energy I very much do not want to have in my life.  What was that plant’s life–and harvest–like?  Was it done respectfully? Was it done in a sacred manner?  If not, do I even have any hope of connecting with it spiritually? These questions are critical in developing spiritual practices surrounding plant use.

 

Anytime we use a plant as part of our sacred practices, we are building relationships with that plant.  Plants work physically and spiritually, but for many of the deeper spiritual uses, they really do require a deep connection.  For example, many herbalists, understand and quietly share about entheogenic properties of Calamus (Sweet flag). You can’t get there with a single huge dose of Calamus. You have to connect with the spirit of the Calamus, build a relationship with it over a long period of time.  As part of this, you have to work with the plant, tend it, plant it, spend time with it, meditate with it, and ethically and respectfully harvest it. At some point, sometimes years or decades later, Calamus open you up for visions and experiences. This isn’t something you can buy or purchase or force to happen–it is something you cultivate over time.  Calamus offers you a process of initiation–and it must be done with the utmost respect and patience.

 

The need to cultivate deep relationships to really “know” a plant and use it for good spiritual effect is necessary for  every plant we might work with spiritually.  Each plant offers us an initiation into its own mysteries, teachings, and magic; and having those initiations will allow you to use the plant to its full magical or spiritual effect.  However, we have to build that relationship.  It’s hard to build a relationship with a plant that has had suffering, death, and pain as part of its sourcing. In the case of some plants, sure, you can use them spiritually, but you aren’t ever going to breach that barrier into deeper work if these other concerns are present.  I can burn my piece of Palo Santo, and it smells nice and produces a calming energy.  But that experience is very surface.  But under no circumstances, could I ever build a deep relationship with that particular wood, given the conditions under which it was harvested and the energy that it now carries with it.

 

Ethical Plant Use in the Anthropocene: Purchasing, Growing,  and Wildharvesting

 

Given the above, I’d like to advocate for the key practice of ethical plant use in druidry and other neo-pagan paths.  By the term “ethics,” I draw upon permaculture‘s three ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share.  People Care encourages us to think about the sourcing of the plant (if you are not growing it yourself) and how the harvest of this plant is tied to local communities and local labor.  Earth Care asks us to consider how the harvest of this plant may have affected the plant and plant species itself as well as the broader ecosystem where the plant grows. Fair Share  asks us to take only what we need of the plant, and certainly, to make sure this plant is available to indigenous peoples who might depend upon it–fair share can take place both on and individual level or a cultural level. Now let’s consider a range of alternative practices to simply “consuming” plants.

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

 

Substitutions: Yes, palo santo, frankincense, sandalwood, and so on smell amazing–but do I really  need these specific plants? Can I instead use local plants that are growing in your own ecosystem, or even backyard? For example, I brought back a small amount of Frankincense when I visited Oman a few years ago and have been slowly using it, but learning what I have about Frankincense and the disappearing frankincense trees, I will not purchase any more.  Frankincense cannot be cultivated commercially, and overharvesing is killing trees–and will severely impact cultures that depend on it as part of their cultural and religious traditions.  I have already replaced Frankincense  with locally harvested white pine resin, which has a similar smell and similar energetic qualities–and which I can harvest myself, thus, cultivating a deeper relationship with white pine and my local bioregion.

 

Ethical Purchasing: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Purchasing is still on the table, but it should be done with ethics in mind.  Some purchases are very good, and can support initiatives that help honor the plant and build livelihoods and ecosystems for local peoples. If you are buying locally or online, before you buy, ask some good questions to ensure an ethical and sustainable harvest.

The questions I like to ask before purchasing are:

  • Where does this plant come from?  (Look for places engaged in sustainable harvesting, like this example from Fair Trade Frankincense)
  • How is this plant harvested? (Learn about your plant. Root or wood harvests are most damaging, and can often kill the plant, but other harvests, like leaf or resin, may also be extremely damaging, particularly if they harm the plant or prevent it from going to seed.)
  • Who harvested this plant? Under what conditions? (How are individuals, cultures, and communities impacted by this harvest?  Be skeptical of a “wildharvest” label, recognizing the lack of oversight for many wildharvesting operations.)
  • Who is profiting from this plant?

If purchasing locally, if the shop owner can’t tell you the answers (especially to the first three questions below), perhaps encourage that person to consider a different source.  If buying online, you can ask the same information if it is not available.  For Palo Santo, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs describes exactly where they get their Palo Santo and their conservation efforts. If I wanted more Palo Santo and it was very important to my practice, I’d want to get it from this kind of source–where I am not only supporting a local farm in Equador, but also supporting the replanting of Palo Santo trees.  To me, this is critical–a good purchase can do a lot of good and support people care, earth care, and fair share.

 

Ethical Growing: The easiest way to manage a population and cultivate deep relationships is to grow it yourself, if you can. For example, I never buy white sage, but I love the smell and I do like to use it as part of certain incense blends that I make and use regularly.  Thus, I grow it myself, and try to let some of my plants to go seed so that I can sustainably grow it in the future.  Even if you don’t have land to grow large amounts of plants on, you can still grow a number of your own magical herbs.  In fact, many garden herbs are potentate magical allies and readily available for purchase in the spring.  A pot of rosemary, sage, white sage, bay laurel, thyme, or lavender would all be a very useful culinary, magical, and medicinal ally–and you build your relationship considerably with each time you tend the plant.  You can also grow many things outdoors, if you have the space.

 

Ethical Wildharvesting: Some plants, and trees, are harder to grow in pots in your windowsill or garden but certainly can be wildharvested ethically, taking only what you need, helping populations grow by spreading seeds, and tending the land that supports the plants.  I like to wildharvest plants on private lands (asking landowners, developing relationships with them) so that I know exactly how many people are harvesting there and how much is being taken.  Harvesting on public lands presents a much larger problem because even if you take only a little, you are never sure how much is being taken by others (hence, my ginseng example above).  For more on tree incenses and resins you can harvest from North America based on my own research, see this post.  For more on how to create wildharveted and home-grown smudge sticks for smoke cleansing, see here and here.  For more on how to learn foraging and wildharvesting, see my series here and here.

 

I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how to respond to the Anthropocene–it might seem like a small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is a piece we have a lot of direct control over. For these populations of plants, communities, and ecosystems, making ethical choices, reducing our demand, and practicing people care, earth care, and fair share may make all the difference.