Category Archives: Creative Pursuits

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

Friends enjoying the hot oven

Friends enjoying the hot oven

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

Insulating Your Oven!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose helpers help to mix up some cob!

Finish Plaster and Decoration

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

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

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

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

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

Wetting down for finish plaster

Wetting down for finish plaster

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

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

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

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

Here you can see it as the mosaic progresses.

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

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

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

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

Sheltering your Earth oven

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

Final Thoughts and Troubleshooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

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

 

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

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

Fire in the near-complete earth oven!

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

 

Preparation: Materials

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

Materials for building:

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

Tools for building:

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

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

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

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

Other Tools and Materials:

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

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

Preparation: Oven Size

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

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

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

Preparation: Selecting a site

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

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

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

Preparation: Clearing and Foundation

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

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

Clearing the space

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

Foundation of gravel

Foundation

Preparing and Mixing Cob

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

Screening cob

Screening cob

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

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

Subsoil screened and ready to mix!

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

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

Mixing cob

Mixing cob

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

Goose helpers

Goose helpers

Building your base

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

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

Building the base.

Building the base.

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

My mosaic stones

My mosaic stones

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

Base after adding mosaic stones

Base after adding mosaic stones

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

Base before insulation layer

Base before insulation layer

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

Thick layer of cob in base

Thick layer of cob in base

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

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

Bottle insulation

Bottle insulation

Here’s the bottles with more cob added

Bottles getting covered

Bottles getting covered in cob

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

The base is done!

The base is done!

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

Coon activity

Coon activity

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

Laying your firebrick

Firebrick layout

Firebrick layout

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

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

Circle for dome

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

Creating Your Sand Dome

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

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

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

Mixing the sand

Mixing the sand

Building the dome

Building the dome

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

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

The completed dome

The completed dome

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

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

Building the oven

Building the oven

Keep working your way up.

Oven build continued

Oven build continued

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

Building the arch

Building the arch

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

Here is our completed first layer of the cob oven.

first layer of cob finished!

first layer of cob finished!

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

Digging out the oven

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

Digging out the oven

Digging out the oven

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

First fire

First fire

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

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

Goose helpers and the druid builder!

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

Druid’s Travel Altar or Pocket Altar

Druid Travel Altars I made for initiation gifts

Druid Travel Altars I made for initiation gifts

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

Purpose

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

Buiding your Pocket Altar

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

Here is a list of some possibilities:

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

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

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

Assemble your Pocket Altar

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

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

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

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

Sample Travel Altar: OBOD Bardic Initiation Gift

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

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

Components of the travel altars

Components of the travel altars

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

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

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

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

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

Alcohol ink inside the boxes

Alcohol ink inside the boxes

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

Conclusion

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

Nature Connection, Wildcrafting, and the Wheel of the Year

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

The Wheel of the Year is obviously a powerful symbol, both in nature spiritual practices like druidry as well as more general neopagan practices.  It resonates with something that is ancestral and connected–living by the cycles and honoring the seasons. A host of different traditions use some form of a yearly wheel, and when you join many traditions, the wheel of the year is a critical part of the practice. But what do these holidays mean? How do they actually connect to our lives?  How do they connect to our local ecosystems, and how do the wheel holidays help us connect with nature?  I consider these questions and argue for a wildcrafted wheel of the year rooted in your own observation, connection, and daily life in connection with nature.

As a druid for the last 16 years, I feel like this is a question I continue to return to over and over again.  I even wrote a book on sustainable living practices as sacred action using a wheel of the year framework (see Sacred Actions) trying to explore these issues from yet another perspective.  I’ve celebrated these in all sorts of ways–by myself and in various groves and groups, formally and less formally, with other people’s rituals and my own.  And yet, I feel like almost every year, I get another piece of what it means to really live this wheel but also what complications and changes I have to make.

When I first took up the path of druidry when I was still in college, I began celebrating the wheel by looking at rituals in books and enacting them. There was nothing wrong with this approach, but I was essentially bringing in other people’s visions and classical interpretations of the wheel from an ecosystem in which I didn’t live.  It was a good foundation and gave me a connection to a tradition I was still attempting to understand.  However, it wasn’t until I really started delving deeply into wildcrafting my own druidry and developing an eco-regional approach that I really started to understand these practices.

I had an epiphany this week about Imbolc and the real power of this holiday. We had a pretty warm December and then January plunged us into very cold and dark times.  January was exhausting after weeks of sub-zero temperatures where we were trying to keep our animals warm, bringing hot buckets of water out to them several times a day, learning how to live with chickens in a tent in our spare bedroom–the chickens can’t handle the bitter cold we had.  Thus, the handsome Pythagoras, our roo, woke us up crowing up the sun every day!  Each morning, I’d face the bitter cold to tend to the animals, coming in like an icicle to warm by the fire (which I had to stoke and tend before venturing out). We spent our days making sure we had enough wood, and one of us was always up tending the fires throughout the night and wee morning hours.  It was pretty intense. This was deep winter, cold winter, dark winter, where the sun hardly even came out of the sky. And then, on January 31st, the weather broke.  We moved out of the teens and had a 30-degree day (I’m speaking Fahrenheit here!). The chickens got to leave their house tent purgatory, and the ducks and geese had their pools filled with water for the first time in weeks.  As the geese and ducks joyfully swam in their pool, you could see the joy and relief on their faces.  They knew the weather had shifted. And then  February 1st came and with it the flowing of the maple trees. The wheel had just turned from dark winter into late winter, and we celebrated Imbolc and tapped our maple trees.

I tell this story because, if I hadn’t lived on a homestead where we are required to go outside many times a day to tend our animals, the importance of this day would have likely been lost. I remember when I lived in an apartment, dorms, or a townhouse–I didn’t really pay attention much. I would have probably turned up the heat, ran the water a little extra to prevent the pipes from freezing, and then thought nothing of it on the way to the car or into a building.  Because that’s how it is in modern life is–everything is designed to make you a cog in the machine that never changes.  Regardless of what is happening in the ecosystem, you just keep on going.  But that’s not really what creates a deeply connected and wildcrafted wheel of the year.  Crafting our own wheel requires us to pay attention.

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh...with a portal into the unknown

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh…with a portal into the unknown

It was the experience of having to be out there in the cold for weeks on end, seeing the animals enduring the cold and suffering, and then after all of that, experiencing that powerful break in the weather and the first thaw.  As soon as the thaw happened, local wildlife changed activities, our flocks grew much more active and happy, our own spirits lifted as the temperatures rose.  When I think about the historical origins of Imbolc, how it was a holiday originally surrounding the lactating of ewes, I say yes–this must have been such a relief to those farmers and peasants who had just suffered through a difficult January.  Maybe the food stores were running a bit scarce.  Maybe they woke up for the 30th day in a row and froze each morning like I did while taking care of the animals and think…will this ever end?  And then, suddenly, it does. That was the power of Imbolc.  The breaking of the cold and dark times.  The promise that spring will return.  The flow of milk–of nutrients, of life.

I write all of this to illustrate a simple point: these holidays make more sense when we are deeply embedded in our landscape.  When we are deeply connected with nature, when we are out in it every day, when we–through our own life choices or commitments–are required to endure it along with the rest of nature, then we can learn the lessons the wheel really offers us.  Living the wheel of the year–not just celebrating it–teaches us the important lessons of that moment.  When we spend time in nature and commit to being out there, then we are forced to contend with whatever nature throws at us.  When we are understanding the holidays not only in terms of history or lore but based on our actual experience, then the wheel of the year unfolds for us.

And this is critical–in order to make the wheel of the year yours, a wildcrafted wheel that you build yourself, one of the best approaches is to find seasonal markers that make sense for you (I shared a lot more about this approach earlier in this post).  Maybe it’s the flow of the maples or the return of the robin, maybe it’s the hawthorn blossoming.  To me, these moments in our own landscapes are much more important than dates we may have from traditions that are far removed from us.  These kinds of key observational markers also will make sense in the age of the Anthropocene, when climate change is throwing off traditional seasons.

And here’s the other thing I learned through this process–not everyone has an eightfold wheel of the year.  Your wheel might be threefold, binary (rainy and dry), or even more.  In fact, I worked up a 12-fold wheel of the year for my region that actually works better than the eight (I shared that philosophy on the link above).  The idea being that there are distinct phases of each of the four seasons (and 4×3 = 12).  My 12-fold wheel allows me to understand my ecosystem in much more detail and allows me to see each season as waxing and waning.  What I found in creating these wildcrafted seasonal markers is that I start to anticipate them, look forward to them, and honor them as they occur.  So rather than having arbitrary dates and times that are disconnected, I do what my ancient ancestors did–I observe, make meaning of the observations, and build that into my spiritual practice.  And, I learn to honor and appreciate holidays like Imbolc at a deeper level.

What I’m suggesting takes time and effort.  You don’t have to do it all at once.  I suggest taking some time, a year and a day, maybe even longer, and simply observing what is right outside your door.  Ideally, your seasonal markers for the wheel will be happening in your everyday life–and if you are in an urban setting, they may also be dictated by the patterns of people as well as nature.  E.g. perhaps the early part of summer is when the local public pool opens.  The built and human-based environment is still part of our environment; we are all part of nature.

PS: This is part of my Ancient Order of Druids in America-themed posts.  AODA as a druid order is extremely committed to helping druids “wildcraft” their druidries and create local practices.  I am currently the Grand Archdruid in AODA, and have been a member for the last 16 years.  For more information on AODA, please visit www.aoda.org.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Reskilling at Imbolc

Imbolc–the first signs of spring (artwork by myself and my father, Mark Driscoll)

In a traditional neopagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc is the holiday that offers the first signs of spring.  Most traditionally, this is when the ewes began to lactate, and the snowdrops appeared on the landscape in the British Isles.  In the age of climate instability, traditional seasonal interpretations become challenged for many reasons–not the least of which are climate disruptions.  So how might we bring the holiday of Imbolc into the 21st century and think about what this holiday means to us today?

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, the 21st Century, the Age of the Anthropocene, offers us a set of unprecedented challenges and yet opportunities.  As a permaculture designer, I think it’s important to recognize that while the problems we already face are unavoidable, these problems give us a chance to re-see, re-think, and revise our way of living and interacting in the world.  Or, “the problem is the solution.” We know that our way of life is unsustainable,–so the opportunity and impetus is now to do something about it.  Because the Age of the Anthropocene presents us such challenges, it is an excellent time to think about how we can create spiritual practices that deeply engage us in the here and now of this age, and provide us a clear set of spiritual and physical tools that empower us into being part of the solution.

If you look at my previous posts in this series, starting at the Fall Equinox, you can see a clear progression. Here is our wheel so far:

  • Fall Equinox: Receptivity.  Working to embrace receptivity rather than expected harvest and reward and being open to the unexpected; working to adapt to what comes rather than being disappointed by what we expect which does not appear.  In other words, it is setting aside traditional notions of reaping rewards for hard effort and instead focusing on receptivity and flexibility.
  • Samhain: Release: Releasing and letting go so that we can embrace a different and unique tomorrow. Samhain is about unburdening ourselves from both our expectations of the future (tying into the Fall Equinox) and also dealing with our own pain and trauma surrounding an increasingly unstable age.  By letting go we put ourselves in a place to be ready to heal and rest.
  • Winter Solstice: Restoration/Rejuvenation. Now that we have let go of our expectations (founded on a different age) and dealt with the pain and trauma, we are ready to heal, rest, and immerse ourselves in our own spiritual practices.  In the age of the Anthropocene, many people are finding that self-care and rest are more important than ever before.

These three holidays set the foundation for what is to come–they are all internal, asking us to look inward and lay the spiritual, mental, and emotional foundation for the work in the light half of the year.

One final thing before we get into today’s topic–I’ve gotten some serious pushback on this series.  My take is this: the further we move into human-driven climate disruptions, the less the traditional seasonal celebrations are going to make sense, and the more sense of loss we may have surrounding an age that has passed.  From my perspective, it is important to make adaptable tools that work for my spiritual practice that work for right now and that helps me create and foster positive visions for the future. But if you are a traditionalist, my approach probably won’t appeal.  That’s ok, do your thing.

Reskilling at Imbolc

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Today, at Imbolc and our last “dark half of the year” holiday, we consider the next step in our new Wheel of the Year: Reskilling.

As a basic activity to introduce reskilling, consider your answer to the following questions:  Do you know how to provide your own food, water, shelter, clothing, and warmth from nature or the land around you?  How resilient do you feel you are if you no longer had access to the supermarket for a period of time? What traditional skills do you practice?

One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost.  The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. For hundreds of thousands of years–millions even–before we were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep themselves warm and safe.  These basic skills have been stripped from us–and as we are watching the global engines which drive systems we depend for these things upon grind to a halt–it is time to do something about that problem.

Reskilling is the idea that we can learn new skills: skills associated with taking care of our basic needs like water, food, shelter, clothing, and other basic know-how.  Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft (e.g. how to survive in the wilderness, make fire, wild food foraging, wild crafts and arts) but also those surrounding our homes and lives such as how to grow your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping as well as how to create things for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more.  The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community.

Why is Imbolc a good time to do this work? Because for those in temperate climates, it is usually the deepest part of winter, and it’s after the rush of the holidays.  This time of year is great for learning and practicing new skills. Traditionally, the winter months were useful for developing and maintaining new skills in a traditional household–this is when the mending got done, the spoons and bowls got carved, cordage was made, quilts were finished, and a host of other skill-based activities took place.

Reskilling is also about planning and figuring out what kinds of things you want to do and what skills you may need to get yourself there. For example, this year, I’m starting to work on a massive project–building our family’s root cellar using earth bag construction. Because this will be entirely done by hand, I have to have the right set of knowledge to know how to build it, how to prevent frost heaving, how to ensure good airflow, etc.  So that requires me to develop a new set of skills surrounding earthbag construction.  That’s what I’m focusing on at Imbolc this year–reading books, watching a number of videos, putting my plans on paper, and developing a new set of knowledge and skills to begin the project.

Reskilling

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

There are two approaches to reskilling that people often take: reskilling around basic human needs and developing specialist skills.

Basic human skills: At one time, all people were generalists in the sense that they knew how to take care of their own needs: forage or grow food; preserve food; make fire; make shelter; source clean water, etc.  So there’s a set of skills that probably all of us can learn and share together surrounding our basic human needs.  These basics actually encompass quite a few things:

  • Food: Growing food, wild food foraging, animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and brewing, low-impact and traditional cooking methods
  • Shelter: how to protect yourself, how to build simple shelters, natural building, building outdoor spaces (outdoor kitchens, etc), root cellars, appropriate shelter for animals, etc.
  • Warmth: Building and tending fires, working with fire for cooking and heating, being able to start a fire with different methods
  • Water: knowing how to source and filter clean water
  • Clothing: Learning how to mend clothing, sewing skills, this may also include things like cobbling (shoemaking) or creating other items
  • Household and functional items: Making things that we need and use every day (cups, bowls, spoons); learning how to do things without fossil fuel (people power), etc.
  • Supporting earth. I would add to this basic list of human needs that we need a healthy, diverse, and abundant planet on which to live, and so skills supporting protecting and preserving our own lands also go here.  These are techniques like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help us directly impact the life on this planet.

This list is actually a huge number of different skills. Here, I think, it pays to be a dabbler. Learn a bit about a lot of different things so that you can help prepare yourself for a variety of different challenges that may arrive–and become much more sustainable and earth-friendly in your own living.

Specialist skills. In traditional and pre-industrial cultures, beyond the generalist skills that everyone knew, there were people who specialized in crafts and techniques that were unique. For example, a typical medieval village would have a miller who milled grain, a cobbler who made shoes, a blacksmith who worked iron and other metals, a healer who specialized in herbs and plants; an apiarist who worked with bees to produce honey and candles, and many more things. These skilled professionals could also be found in traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

There were also specialist skills surrounding needs beyond the basic–storytelling, poetry, and other arts were traditional forms of entertainment that some individuals chose to specialize in.  When we think about reskilling, it’s not just about providing our basic needs but also other things that enrich our lives, like providing our own entertainment.

If you are serious about reskilling, I would suggest in addition to working on the basics (which may take a number of years) you might choose to specialize in a particular specialist set of skills from the list above.  Learn how o really hone your craft in that skill. Perhaps you already have a  skill set, and this is a good time to re-commit yourself to those skills.  Or perhaps this is your first time considering it!

Where does the part about ceremony and ritual come into play with these skillsets? There are several ways, which we’ll now explore.

Sacred Actions and Reskilling

One of the ways to ritualize the idea of reskilling is through the concept I advocate in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  In this book, the idea of Sacred Action is that of living in a manner that is sacred–recognizing that everyday life can have sacred intent and bringing in some of that to your life. (There’s a lot more about reskilling in my book too, if you are interested!)

Thus, if you want to focus your energy on learning to sprint and knit, and make your own clothes, recognizing that this is a sacred and earth-honoring activity will help bring your own spiritual principles in alignment with the work.  It allows you to approach the work not as “work” but as a sacred activity that puts you deeply in touch with the land.

Blessing and Honoring Your Tools

Most reskilling requires some kind of basic tools. For me continuing to learn natural building, for example, my drawknife, hatchet, shovel, soil sifter, and wheelbarrow are really important tools that I use regularly. These tools were all that I used to build the heat sink back wall of my greenhouse, my earth oven (posts forthcoming!), and will be what I use for my new root cellar project. These tools represent my connection to the skills I am developing, and  I could not do these projects without them. Thus, the tools can be treated in honor and respect. I like to honor my tools in several ways:

  • Before I begin a new project or start working on a project, I like to do a small ceremony invoking the elements and doing a smoke cleansing of my tools
  • I make sure I care for my tools properly, sharpening them, cleaning them, and putting them away after use.  When I put them away, I thank the tools for their help.

Recognize too that your body is the most important tool for reskilling–thus, you can also honor and bless your own body as part of this work.  You can do this when you honor your tools at the start of the project or in any other self-care-oriented or ritualized way (sacred bath, smoke clearing, etc).

Honoring the Ancestors of the Craft

Another way to bring sacred practices into your reskilling is by honoring the ancestors of your craft. Every skill that you might want to learn has individuals–known or unknown–who have helped preserve the tradition, taught it, rediscovered certain things, wrote books, historically documented material, or whatever else they did to ensure the tradition remained alive. These ancestors of the craft can certainly be honored as part of a reskilling practice.

For example, one of the skills I have committed to learning is leatherworking, both to create things like bags or knife sheaths but also cobbling.  I shared more of the story of my tools and how I honor the ancestors of that craft in this post.  In a nutshell, I named my industrial sewing machine “Coco” after my ancestor of craft and make regular offerings.  In a second example, for my ongoing reskilling surrounding wild food foraging, I honor my Grandfather Custer as my ancestor as he taught me my first wild plants and always took me into the woods. Thus, I have a special place at my parents’ house that I go that is named “Grandpa’s field” and I make offerings and remember him there.

You can create a small shrine, say a small prayer, put up a picture, name a project or tool after your ancestor of the craft.  You can do this work at Imbolc once a year or, consider doing it more often (such as when you clean your tools or when you start a new project).  This is an excellent thing to establish as you are establishing your new skill–consider how you can honor the ancestors of the craft and be inspired by them.

A Commitment to the Journey

A final way that you can ritualize your exploration into reskilling is by doing a ceremony of commitment to your new craft.  I would suggest that you spend some time in the craft first (e.g. in AODA, individuals who are pursuing a new bardic art are encouraged to spend 20 hours–which is enough time to know if they would want to continue it or set it aside.  After you’ve done enough of the craft to know that you want to continue it, you can do a commitment ceremony.  For this ceremony, I suggest that you:

  • Honor and bless your tools
  • Speak about what you’ve already learned and what you would like to learn
  • Set goals
  • Invoke the assistance of higher powers/diety/ancestors/spirits

You can craft this ceremony in any way that is appropriate.  For example, when I took up the leatherworking journey, I did a ceremony like this.  I pulled out the lovely supplies and tools that I had been gifted and I set them around me.  I touched each one and spoke to them of what I might create with them.  I held the tools and honored those who had used them before me and made them.  I set goals for the kinds of things I wanted to create.  I then spent some quiet time sketching designs and meditating, and then I closed the space.  I’m not giving a specific ritual here because I feel that each person and path would require a unique approach.

Conclusion

When I started learning these traditional skills about 15 years ago and moved into more radical lifestyle changes, like taking up homesteading, I think a lot of people (particularly those at my workplace) looked at me like I was crazy.  I think that the tide has finally turned on this, however, and more people are waking up to the fact that the systems we depend on will not be there forever. If anything of the last two years have taught us, at least here in the US, is that things are not as stable as they once were.  We are likely to experience much more instability as climate change continues to progress and we continue to see more social unrest and upheaval on the long descent.  Thus, learning these kinds of skills not only cultivates resiliency in our lives, but it also provides some distance from the very systems that are harming the planet.  Everything I’ve outlined above allows us to live more richly, slowly, connected, and regeneratively, and those are skills well worth cultivating. They are meant to be done in the community, inviting others in to participate and enjoy.

The big issue that a lot of people have is time.  Yes, this kind of approach takes time and energy.  But this is energy and time well spent, both to developing a more sustainable and spiritual practice and creating a better tomorrow for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations.  Like anything else, I think if we are creative about how we engage in these skills, we can find time to enact them.

I would love to hear from you, readers, on your own reskilling efforts! What are you working on? What have you learned? What would you like to learn?

Building a Rocket Stove Maple Sap Boiler / Evaporator for Maple Sugarin’: Design Plans and Instructions for Boiling Sap

The Maple Sap Boiler!

Maple syrup season is one of my favorite times of year. Honoring the maple trees, collecting the sap in buckets, seeing the magic drip from the trees, and feeling the return of early spring.  Sap begins running just after the deep freeze is over, usually in early February here in the Alleghney Mountains in Western Pennsylvania. A very important factor in collecting sap is having a plan for boiling that sap into maple sugar.  Today’s post will give you full instructions for how to build a very wood efficient outdoor maple sap boil system using bricks, a stovepipe, and four restaurant trays.  I’ve used this system for five years at two different locations and it is one of the best setups I’ve seen.  For more information on maple sugaring, please see the magic of maple trees and maple sap.

There are a few key features about this setup:

  1. You can boil quite a large amount of sap using relatively small amounts of wood because it is using rocket stove technology. We boiled 40 gallons of sap down in 6 hours in March 2021 this system. That included about 45 minutes of getting the fire going and about 5 hours of boiling. We used two small piles of wood, most of which we trimmed as dead wood off of some of our Norway Spruce trees.  Thus, this is an extremely efficient system and can be fueled with downed wood.  The best kind of wood for this system is longer pieces of wood that are the thickness of your wrist or less.  The goal is to keep the flames on the boil system.  Wooden palates also work really well for this.
  2. This system (new) will cost you about $200, and half of that is the cost of the stainless steel pans and the rest is the bricks and stovepipe. However, many of these materials are quite easy to source for free or used, so take advantage of that. In fact, the stovepipe and most of the bricks all were salvaged here on the land, so the only thing we paid for was the boil pans. If you boil 40 gallons of sap a year, the system will pay for itself in under 4 years (around here, local maple syrup runs about $65/gallon). 
  3. This system requires no skills other than some sweat equity to build!
  4. The system doubles as a large party grill, so invite your friends over for the 4th of July for some grilled meats and veggies!  You will just need to source a griddle for it for this use (we use one for free that a friend gave us from her old oven).
  5.  Wood-fired maple syrup tastes much more incredible than maple syrup finished in commercial boilers. When you boil the syrup with wood, the syrup takes on a hint of smokiness that is just incredible. It’s hard to describe the exquisite flavor, but it is truly one of the best things you’ll ever taste!

So with all of that, let’s get started with how to build your own rocket stove maple sap boiling system!

Materials and Supplies

The following are the building materials that you will need to construct your rocket stove boiler.

  • Gravel: Several wheelbarrows full of gravel, depending on how level your original site is
  • Concrete bricks:  24 blocks for the sides and approximately 9 blocks for the back (depending on how you construct your boiler).  They cost about $3 or you can usually easily find them for free or used on Craig’s list (in the US).  We ended up using a mix of bricks foraged from the property that were left by previous owners with some new bricks–you can adjust for slight size differences.
  • Stovepipe: An wood stovepipe with a cap is your second piece of equipment. This is necessary for getting the fire really burning as it allows you to create a rocket stove effect for greatly enhanced efficiency.  Find one used –but make sure it is for wood and not gas.
  • Restaurant Pans: This boil system uses a set of four nested restaurant pans (full size, 6″ deep, stainless steel).  These represent about a $100 investment but can be used for years and years.  We’ve been using the same pans for 5 years now and they show no signs of wearing out.

You will also need some supplies on hand to complete the job:

  • Garden rake or hole to smooth out gravel
  • Shovel to help level and move gravel
  • Wheelbarrow  gravel and bricks
  • Level

Choosing Your Site

Once you have your materials, it is time to choose a site.  I would recommend three considerations:

  • Location: make sure it is at least reasonably near where you are tapping your trees. Large amounts of maple syrup are not exactly easy to move around, and so, you will want your boil system located near your trees if at all possible. 
  • Trees: Second, make sure wherever your stovepipe is located isn’t too close to branches or trees–the heat coming out of this is pretty intense.  You don’t want to damage trees in your sugarbush. 
  • Level: Finally, you will need to have a level surface for building your boiler, so starting with somewhere relatively level is a good idea.  You can always level the area out with soil and/or gravel.

Steps

The end goal is to have a boiler that is 4 standard concrete bricks long, 3 bricks high, and has a fairly sealed in the back that can keep your stovepipe secure. 

Cut-away view of the Maple Sap boiler with a shot of how to place the stovepipe for getting the rocket action!

Level your site and add a gravel foundation. The first thing you will want to do is create a level site using gravel.  We laid down 4″ of gravel across the area where we were building our boiler.  Level out the gravel as best you can, and check to see that it is relatively level before you start adding your bricks.  You can do this by using a larger level or use a smaller level on a piece of 2×4 board.  Adding gravel is important for two reasons–first, it allows the site to have good drainage and it prevents frost heaving (which is obviously an issue anywhere you are harvesting maple sap).

Build your walls, ensuring they are level and that the pans fit between them.  Next, you will build your two walls, building one tier of bricks at a time.  The first tier of bricks is two lines of four bricks across, and 21″ apart (the pans are 20″ 3/4″ wide).  As you work, make sure your bricks are level both short-wise and long-wise so that as you build your structure, you can keep it level.   After you lay your first set of bricks along both walls, double-check that all four of your pans fit and adjust accordingly.

Then, add your second layer and repeat the process, and finally, add your third layer and repeat once more.   At this point, your pans should fit snugly, but they should be able to be lifted out and put in with relative ease (remember when you start boiling, you will have to remove them at the end of the boil!)

Build your back and secure your stovepipe. I‘m going to show photos of how we built our back.  There are a few considerations.  First, you want to seal it up as much as possible so that the airflow goes primarily through the pipe and out any cracks (you can use cob for this or even small pieces of the concrete block).  You could use ashes or vermiculite if you wanted, but we just added smaller pieces of block.  Second, you will want to make sure your stovepipe is extremely stable so once you start boiling, you don’t encounter issues where it falls over, etc.  Second, you want to make sure you place a half brick or large stone under the pipe–as the ash builds up as you are burning all day, you do not want the pipe to clog.  Ours sits about 4″ off of the ground.

We had an interesting chimney-sized brick that was a square with a hole on our property, so we used that as something to better hold our stovepipe.   You can also just hold it in place with a few bricks long-wise.  After all of this building, you are ready to fire it up and boil!

Using your Boiler

I have some tips and tricks for using this boiler, as I’ve been boiling sap on this kind of setup for six years.  Here they are:

The absolute most important thing is to make sure your fire is going well for about 45 minutes before you add your pans.  One of the things that will cause the most grief and slow down your boil is a poor fire with your pans added too early.  If you get your fire started and wait at least 45 minutes, keeping it fed, by the time you add your pans, it should be able to keep going.  This means you need to procure wood and make sure its dry before the day of your boil (cause no wood outside is dry in Feb/March!)

Make sure you have dry wood that burns well. Your goal is high flames and a hot fire–not coals.  The flames should be touching the bottom of your boil pans.  This means you want smaller diameter wood (sticks, branches, wood palettes).  Often, your sugarbush will have enough downed branches that if you collect and keep dry, you will have enough.  If not, pick up some pine palates–they work wonderfully in this boil system and burn very hot. Cutting dead branches off of nearby conifers is also excellent and will yield many flames.  We recently had part of an Eastern Hemlock come down and a year later, that wood is amazing for sugarin’.

Good eats cooked on the edge of the boiler on a cast iron griddle!

You will need to tend your boiler throughout the day.  Plan on feeding it wood every 15 min, keeping an eye on the amount of boil, adding more sap, moving sap, and generally enjoying the day. This is an activity that requires your presence and is certainly “slow food.” Choose a nice day for boiling–you want a sunny day, as warm as it can be.  Usually, here our trees run in late January and through February and we choose to boil on a warm day in early March for boiling.

For your boil, you will want to have some kind of wire skimmer/strainer with a fine mesh, a mug or dipper for moving sap between the different pans, some heat-resistant gloves or mitts, and a vessel for transporting your finished sap (I recommend a pressure canner since it has the locking lid) for moving your hot sap to the house for finishing.  The oven mitts WILL get sooty so those from your kitchen will likely be ruined (which, of course, I learned the hard way).

You want your sap to be actually boiling–if it’s steaming but not boiling, it will take a LOT longer to boil off and your fire needs to be hotter.  Getting that rolling boil is necessary to make progress on your sap. You can get it too hot and then it starts to boil over–just add more cool sap to cool the pan down if necessary. 

The bricks next to the stovepipe will have a little bit of rocket action themselves–so it is a good place to cook yourself some lunch or dinner, especially if you have an iron griddle (see below).

This is about as dark as you want to go outside–bring it in the house to finish at this point.

Sugaring can be a really fun and community-oriented event.  In the many boils I have participated in over a decade, I’ve learned how to carve spoons, weave baskets, make cordage, and a number of other natural crafts that we would enjoy as we sat around the fire and took turns tending it. 

As you are gathering up your sap, make sure to discard any ice in your buckets or storage containers.  The sugars stay in the remaining non-frozen sap, so you can save yourself hours of boil time by removing the ice–this condenses down your sap and there is less to boil off.

The point of an outdoor boil is to boil off 80-90% of the water–and then take it indoors for finishing.  It’s hard to maintain the right levels of heat in this system to get it 100% of the way–you risk scorching or burning it.  So by doing most of it outside and finishing it on your stove (where you have full control) you are able to really be effective.

Sugaring Stage 1

Boiler Pans - the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Boiler Pans – the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Get your fire going and wait about 45 min until it is going really strong and well. If you add your pans too early, you will struggle to get the fire going and waste a lot of time.  Once it is going and will stay going when you feed it wood, add your boil pans being careful not to burn yourself.  Then, pour 3″ of sap in each pan. 

The way this system works is that the pans closest to the stovepipe will be hotter than the ones further out.  So your first pan, at the opening of the fire, will be your warming pan, your second pan will be hot and maybe boiling and pans 3 and 4 are your main boiling pans. You can see this from my image.

Feed your fire regularly, trying to make sure the flames are enough to keep at least your first two pans boiling steadily.  As the pans start to boil down, you will add the liquid from the 2nd pan into the 3rd and 4th as they boil.  Then add sap from the warming pan (1st pan) to the 2nd pan, and add more cold sap into the warming pan.  Use your mug for this.

This method works best because if you are adding cold sap directly, you are slowing down your boil–and the more you slow down your boil, the less efficient you are.  By adding sap from the second pan that is near boiling, you will not slow down your boil.  By having a warming pan, you keep the sap heating up and ready to move. As you boil, your final two pans will get darker and darker as the sugars are concentrated in the syrup.

As you are boiling, there will be bits of stuff in your sap–strain it as you add it, but the smoke and ash will continue to come into it a little bit (this is GOOD as it gives amazing flavor).  As the foam appears, skim it off and discard it.

Toward the end of the boil, you will either boil through your sap or get tired and want to call it a day.  At this point, your strategy switches.  You don’t want to boil it too far down or you can risk it turning to sugar–and the outdoor boil system isn’t very precise.  One of the things to look for when you are getting ready to be done is that the bubbles in the boil get thicker and the color turns much darker.  So, as you see your pans boil down and you are out of sap, you can start removing them.  First, pour off any remaining sap into your 2nd pan from your first and remove it.  Then, do the same with the second.  Allow these to boil down another 15-20 min and then, rake out your coals. 

Getting down to the final two boil pans!

At this point, you will want a good vessel that can carry your sap back to the house.  The absolute best tool for this job is a pressure canner with a lid that locks.  This will prevent you from burning yourself and you can finish it right in the pressure canner.

The easiest way to remove your sap is to label it out with your mug into your pressure canner until the boiling pan is almost empty.  Then, with a friend, each of you can take one side and pour off the rest. The pans are hot so be careful. They are also covered with soot, and you might be too after handling them.

At this point, put the lid on your pressure canner and take it back to the house.  You still have to boil it down a bit more on the stove.

Indoor Finishing

Finishing your sap indoors usually takes another hour or two, depending on how far down you were able to get your sap.  Bring your sap to a boil again, and with a spoon, check it every 15 minutes.  You should try to keep an overhead fan running–if you boil too much sap down in your house your house can actually get sticky (this is why we do outdoor boils).  After another hour or two (or 5, if you still have to go quite a ways), you will boil it down to the point where you have a thick and lovely maple syrup.  What I usually do is bring out a little syrup I have from the year before and compare it to what is in my pot–and when I get to the same consistency, I am done. 

The spoon test: the one on the left is from last year and the one on the right is from this year. The one on the right still needs to boil down a bit more

Get yourself a few clean mason jars, and pour your sap into your mason jars.  Wait 24 hours.  You’ll have some stuff in the bottom of the jars from the ash and smoke from the boil.  Pour these off carefully, making sure not to get any of the stuff from the bottom of the jar.  Usually, if I’m pouring off 3-4 jars, I will pour all of the sludge into one jar and let that sit a second time, and pour it off a second time.  That’s the syrup that I will use first.  The idea is to get as much of that out–because that will impact the shelf stability of your syrup. You can also experiment with finely woven linen or cheesecloth to get all the bits out. 

There you have it!  This is literally one of my favorite activities to do all year–it is meaningful, sacred, and fulfilling. I wish you the brightest blessings of the maple tree and joy in your endeavors.

 

Creativity, Mental Health, and Well Being: A Case for the Bardic Arts

Creativity is the birthright of all people. When humans are young, play and creativity are central to our own development. Children don’t worry about it being ‘good’; they just make things, play with crayons, laugh, dance, and sing. They play. As children get older, school and society often discourage individual creativity and play, particularly in a culture that values economic growth above all else. The result of this has been a stifling sense of creativity, with many adults believing in the myth of talent (that you have to be good at something immediately to practice it creatively) or insisting they have no creativity.

The bardic arts are those in the druid tradition that focuses on creative works: storytelling, creative writing, fine arts, fine crafts, and any other endeavor where you are building in your creativity. The ancient bards were part of the druid community and were the storytellers and historians of their people; undergoing rigorous training and learning how to pass on the legacies and traditions of their community.  In the druid tradition today, we see any creative practice–for the good of the self, community, or unknown others–as part of the path of bardic arts.  Druids see practicing the bardic arts and cultivating creativity as a spiritual act.  Even with this positive framing, many people feel they “aren’t creative” and may be blocked.

Hence, culturally, we live in a world where a lot of people are discouraged from creating anything–and while this is starting to change due to the challenges of the last few years,  I think we have a long way to go.  Not being able to cultivate a sense of play and creativity has serious implications for our mental health and well-being.  In this post, I’ll explore some of the reasons that creativity is good for all of us, drawing upon scientific research as well as druid sensibilities.

(I’ll also point readers to my longstanding series on the bardic arts, which can be found in these articles: taking up the path of the bard part 1, part 2, and part 3; cultivating awen in your life, bardic storytelling, bardic arts and the ancestors, and visioning the future.  I’ll also point readers to my 2019 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture on the bardic arts in the druid tradition!)

Creativity, Bardic Arts, and Mental Health

The idea that creative practices are tied to mental well-being has a fairly well-established history. In the 19th century, treating mental illness with the bardic arts was standard medical practice.  This was before the age of pharmaceuticals and modern industrial treatments.  According to this study from 2016, the idea of “therapeutic mental health landscapes” was common.  People would be surrounded by gardens, beautiful trees, and landscapes, and be able to engage in a number of creative practices as therapy.  This same kind of thinking: that creative practices have therapeutic effects can be found in research on World War I soldiers, in managing anxiety disorders, in helping individuals with compassion fatigue, and in managing depression. Studies from 2012 and 2008 demonstrated that women who engage in quilting and other crafts-based activities in their leisure time have more mental well-being and general happiness than those that do not. Similar findings are true for “men’s sheds” that provide socializing and opportunities to work wood. These are just some of the hundreds of studies that demonstrate the efficacy of creative practices on well-being and mental health.

Scientific research has begun to explore the relationship between creativity and mental illness, both psychologically and genetically. This study from 2015 examined the relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and creativity.  The study used a mathematical model to predict whether people who were diagnosed with mental illnesses had a higher disposition for creativity–and sure enough, they did. This led the researchers to suggest that creativity and certain mental illnesses may have the same genetic base. One study from 2003 explores divergent thinking (when people have to be creative within constraints) and makes the case that there there is a spectrum between creativity/genius and psychosis and madness/psychopathy. Thus, individuals may fall at different points on this spectrum.  Most recently, genetic research suggests that one gene, the COM-T gene, may be linked to creative thinking.  This same gene is also linked to certain forms of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. From this research, we see some link between creativity and mental illness.

In my own study of the creative arts within the druid tradition, I found that creativity helped address mental health challenges and create stability in a tumultuous world.  As part of my 2018 Mount Haemus lecture, I surveyed 266 druids worldwide about their creative practices. Many, many participants felt that their bardic arts were necessary to their functioning as human beings. It wasn’t that bardic arts was simply a hobby to them, but rather, it was a critical and integral part of their own lives and helped with their well functioning. In my survey, of those who regularly practiced bardic arts, almost half responded in this way to the question “Why do you practice the bardic arts” with a discussion about mental illness and/or health and well-being. Some of their answers included: “My creative practices are akin to my breathing.  I would be lost without them” and “I practice bardic arts to stay sane and grounded”; “Bardic arts help me navigate the difficulties of life.”  Thus, 50% of my participants used creative practices not only for self-expression but for mental balance. Some people used the bardic arts to make sense of the world itself, while others used it to help process issues relating to their personal life or broadly to 21st-century life.

A personal example offers another interesting point to this discussion. On one side of my family, we have a lot of mental illnesses. And it has been a source of some discussion over the years, as some members of the family have debilitating mental diagnoses and others of us showed no signs of mental illness. At first, it seemed random; some of us lost the mental illness lottery and others were spared. It wasn’t until I started digging into this creativity research that I had the ah-ha moment. Those of us who had dedicated creative practices had little to no struggles with mental illness; those who did not have regular battles with mental illness. Did those with mental illness not create?  Or did the lack of a creative practice allow mental illness to take root due to the lack of coping mechanisms? Or perhaps some of both?

Another piece of this puzzle involves the state of mental illness in most industrialized nations. On the rise for mental illness of pressing concern are the youngest generations: children and college-age students have much higher instances of mental illness today when compared with decades ago. Changes to the school system and the rise of the testing culture have had the creative arts stripped from the curriculum.  When funding grows tight, the arts are the first thing to go. We lock kids away in boxes, make them sit quietly and learn facts, test the hell out of them, never let them play or be outside, cut out music and art classes (with Common Core in the US, this is now even worse than before)–and we wonder why kids are depressed? Then, to have them cope with this reality, they get medicated. If children can’t play and create, of course, it is likely to cause a lot of psychological harm. What exactly does refusing them creative practices do?  When these children grow into unhappy and disgruntled adults, is it surprising?

Adults have other issues.  Most are conditioned to believe they are not creative and have no capacity for creativity that they literally engage in defeatest dialogue–“I could never do that” and “you’re so talented.”  The myth of talent, that you have to be good at something the first time you try it, has caused serious harm to many who otherwise would create.  The “I could never do that” shows a lack of understanding and willingness to experience creativity as a process–a process of learning, growth, exploration, struggle, and success.  Being creative takes only a few simple things: a willingness to do it and persevere, some basic tools and instructions, and the time to invest. And yet, for many adults in modern western culture, the idea of creating is outlandish.  I know this from firsthand experience--I’ve cultivated my own creative skills over a long time and now, that I’m a highly skilled artist, literally every time I share my work, I end up in one of these defeatest conversations.

So given all the above–how do we cultivate creativity? How can we gain the wonderful benefits of the Bardic Arts in our own lives?

Embracing Creativity and Flow for Mental Health

Let the awen flow!

Let the awen flow!

Finding ways of allowing ourselves to create–without judgment, without reservation, without blocks–can be an extremely freeing experience.  By shifting our ideas of producing a high-quality creative work (which comes with time and practice) and instead simply making the act of creating the key goal, we can start to overcome some of these challenges and reap the rewards of creative practice in our lives.

A “flow” state is a creative state where a person gets deeply immersed in their work.  In a flow state, you may lose track of time, have a deep focus on your creative activity, and often emerge from this activity feeling calm, refreshed, and grounded.  A flow state is one way that druids would describe the ‘flow of Awen’ – it is when you are deeply immersed and simply flow with your creative practice. The flow state cultivates deep calm and relaxation and has health benefits similar to meditation.

All people are capable of getting into the flow state–and we can cultivate it by setting up the right conditions for it to occur. So here are a few things we can do:

  • Create time for creativity and creative practice
  • Work to develop a base level of technical skill in what you are doing–when you are too new at a skill, you will likely not get into flow states as easily
  • SEtup any conditions that may aid you: the right tools, music, the right setting, etc.
  • Rather than forcing a particular project that you want to create, try to allow yourself to work on whatever you feel drawn to in that moment.  This particular thing has worked exceedingly well for me–it does mean I have a lot of projects ongoing, but I am always ready to make progress on one or two of them when I sit down to create.

For me, for example, I often get into it as a writer by playing instrumental music, sitting down at a set time each week, and doing some brainstorming to get me in the mood (most of my blog posts are written in the flow state, and revised at a later place).  As an artist, my requirements are a bit different.  I usually put on a familiar movie or music track (this time with words) and lock myself in my studio.  And in either case, I ask myself, what am I most excited to work on? Of course, this kind of dedicated creative practice, along with my other spiritual practices, do help me maintain my mental balance and stability, even under conditions that can be difficult.  You’ll note that with each of these, I’ve had to practice ways of getting and staying in flow states–and once I did, I had a method that “worked” for me, and therefore, allowed it to come often.

To be clear, I’m not saying that an emphasis on the creative arts is the solution to all mental illnesses. But what I am saying is that according to a lot of druids in my study, and based on some of the other factors shared above, it may offer us a buffer to stave off mental illness.  Creative practices may be one of several things we can do to protect ourselves from the debilitating and rampant mental illness that is plaguing our culture.  And we get some cool paintings, stories, or songs out of it too!

Thus, creativity can be a buffer not only for these challenging times where mental health and self-care seem to be at an all-time low, but also a buffer to help us understand, process, and experience the world. I certainly use my own artwork to do that: I paint my feelings and emotions surrounding fracking and mountaintop removal here in my home. I paint my feelings about the loss of my beehives due to colony collapse disorder.  I paint my frustration about the inability of our world’s leaders (particularly here in the US at present) to do anything substantial about climate change and mass extinction.

Druid Tree Workings: Intuitive Tree Sigils and Tree Sigil Magic

Nature provides incredible opportunities for us to work with her magic, through symbolism, sacred geometry, and meditation.  Today, I wanted to share a technique I’ve been developing for land healing purposes–tree sigil work.

beech tree rising up with interesting patterns

A potential tree to work with for tree sigils

Sigils have many different purposes.  In classic Western Occultism, some of the most well-known sigils are found in the Lesser Key of Solomon and are used to identify and evoke a particular spirit or entity. Another more recent use of sigils is through the practice of Chaos magic, where sigils are often used to set an intention and use the image to focus on that intention.  I covered bardic intuitive sigils some time ago on this blog; this use is in line more with the second intention. Sigils can be meditated upon, carved into wood or stone, energized and blessed, burned or buried, or placed in key areas for reminder and reflection.

Tree sigil work can be used for either purpose. That is, tree sigils can be used to bring the energy of the tree into your life.  And tree sigils can also be used for setting intentions and magical work. Sigils can then be meditated on, carried with you, buried, burned, set on an altar, and much more.

But what about natural sigils? How might we draw upon this practice in a nature-oriented way?  Enter intuitive tree sigils!

Tree Sigils and Nature’s Patterns

If there is one constant of nature, it is the pattern.  Patterns great and small can be found all over the natural world in various ways: spirals, branches, waves, and clouds being just a few.  Patterns are reflected all through sacred trees and plants–branching patterns, wave patterns, spirals, and much more. Tree sigils are sigils created from particular patterns present in nature, such as those found in trees.  That is, we can use nature as a guide to design symbols for a specific purpose. Thus, we can look to these sacred trees for inspiration when we need it.  For further info on nature’s patterns and archetypes, you might check out my post on the basics of sacred geometry and nature’s patterns; I also have a post on the use of sigils in snow.

Tree sigils are simply images that we create after connecting to and being inspired by a particular pattern.  This pattern could be unique to a specific tree or can be indicative of all spaces of tree.  Once we are inspired by the tree, we can capture some small form of it in a sigil, which we can then work with magically.  So let’s go through the steps to do this:

Two potential tree sigils from an interesting pattern in maple bark

Two potential tree sigils from an interesting pattern in maple bark

First, you want to set an intention for your sigil work. Consider the following: Do you want to more deeply connect to the energy of a particular tree?  Do you want the tree to aid you with a specific thing? Do you want to direct energy outward towards the tree or the land for healing/blessing? Spend time setting your intentions, as sigil magic is more effective when you have a clear sense of what you want.

Once you have your intention firmly in your mind, seek out a tree that may guide you.  If you want to work with particular energy, you can seek out a specific tree species that may hold that energy (e.g spruce for healing from illness, oak for strength, hawthorn for heart healing).  You can use your intuition to find the “right” tree, the tree that speaks to you.

Three finished tree sigils

Three finished tree sigils

Once you find your tree, make an offering and ask the tree if you can work with it for creating a sigil.  If the tree says no, thank the tree and move on.  If the tree says yes, spend time with the tree using basic plant spirit communication guidelines. Quiet your mind, meditate with the tree and listen to what the tree has to say to you. Use any divination approach you want to ask further questions (a pendulum being good for yes or no questions, while something like the Plant Spirit Oracle is useful for more complex questions).  Finally, ask the tree to provide you with a sigil for your work.

Once you’ve received your message, start observing the tree really carefully.  Move away from it and then walk up to it using different angles.  Get in close, looking at the details of branches, leaves, fruit, or nuts.  Walk around the tree and see what draws your eye.  Spend time doing this–it may take a while or something about the tree may immediately speak to you.   Now, look for patterns. Most commonly, you can find patterns in the following ways

  • In the bark of the tree, including in areas that are damaged or different
  • In the branches of the tree—look up and see how the branches may grow or cross each other
  • In the pattern of the leaf of the tree or the leaf veins of the tree
  • In the pattern of nuts, flowers, and other aspects of the tree

Each tree has many patterns that you can find—the key for you is to find the one that speaks to you most strongly.  Once you have found the pattern you like, draw it on your paper.  You can redraw it, change it, or even add a second or third pattern to the tree sigil from different parts of the tree.  There is no right or wrong way to do this—just use your intuition until you have a pattern, derived from that tree, that can guide you.

From there, you can decide how to best use the sigil based on your intention. If you are bringing something into your life, you might consider turning it into a pendant and blessing it (using a tree oil, tree incense, or sacred grove work). Wear your pendant and meditate on the sigil each day.  If you are using the sigil to remove something, you might create the pendant on a larger piece of paper and wood and then have a ritual fire to burn it or cast it into running water.  If you are doing blessing work on behalf of the land or others, you might create an altar and do regular prayers and blessings, placing the sigil in the center of the altar. You can combine the sigil with any number of other tree magic practices here in this chapter.

Example: Eastern White Cedar Good Health/Revitalization Sigil

I wanted to work with a tree to develop a sigil for good health and revitalization due to a recent illness.  First, I went out onto my land and spoke my intention aloud, allowing my intention to settle across the land.  Then, I just let my intuition guide me.  I closed my eyes and opened myself to the land, allowing me to be pulled in a direction.  I opened my eyes and started to walk.  Quickly, I could feel the large Eastern White Cedar near our garage pulling me to her.

I came to her and asked to sit before her.  I saw with her, paying attention to different aspects of her: the way her needles grow closely over each other, the pattern of bark on the branches, and the pattern of the trunk.  I was drawn to the pattern of the trunk, so I meditated on it for a bit.

The cedar and trunk/branch pattern

The cedar and trunk/branch pattern

Then, I sat with my notebook and began to create the sigil.  This one happened fast–I started with a more literal representation of the trunk and branch pattern and then simplified it.  Here’s what I came up with!

From there, the next step is to use the sigil however you want.  For me, I trace the sigil into the air around me each day before I go off to work (as right now, I’m back to in-person teaching and I want to have a bit of extra magical protection as I’m exposed to many people).  I also fashioned it into a small charm made of Cedar wood that I can carry with me.

Finally, this post is material from my forthcoming North American TreeLore Oracle project!   This project focuses on creating new knowledge and magical practices surrounding common trees in Eastern North America.  This is a great way for us to reconnect to the living earth, build new traditions surrounding nature, and more deeply understand the interconnection of ecology, lore, herbalism, and much more.  If you are interested in learning more about the project, we’ll be releasing a Kickstarter for it in the next 3-4 months.  You can follow my blog and/or sign up for my newsletter for more information!

Healing from the Trees: Spruce Resin Salve Recipe

The completed salve!

The completed salve!

Since moving to our new homestead a few years ago, I’ve been working to build a local material medica–that is, learning about all of the medicinal plants, herbs, and trees here on our 5-acre property.  This also, of course, means growing a lot of my own herbs but also learning everything I can about the uses of the plants/trees already present on the land.  This post is a follow-up to my Spruce post from a little while ago to share some primary ways of working with spruce: A Spruce Resin Salve (also known as a Spruce Gum and Spruce Resin salve) with bonus fire-starters from the process!

Many conifers produce a tarry, sticky resin or sap that has a range of uses: as a binding agent or glue, as a medicine, as gum you can chew, as incense, as a fire-starting tool, as a waterproofing agent, and much more!  Gums from many trees, including Norway Spruce, White Pine, and Blue Spruce are highly medicinal and can be turned into a range of herbal preparations.  In today’s post, I’ll share a basic process for making a salve from spruce resin; this same process can be used for any other salve made from white pine resin or other medicinal conifer tree gum.

I think that learning how to make medicine from sacred trees is a really important part of developing a wildcrafted druidry or nature-based spiritual practice.  Trees are incredible friends, guides, and they have much to offer us–if we take the time to learn, to listen, and to work with them.

Medicinal Properties of Spruce Resin/Pitch/Sap

Norway Spruce is not native to North America…but it, along with Blue Spruce, is planted just about everywhere!  It is easy to find in urban and suburban areas, where these tress are also often trimmed, resulting in many opportunities to harvest the dried resin or sticky gum sap.

Norway Spruce Gum  (and other spruces such as Black Spruce, Blue Spruce, and White Spruce) have been used for millennia for medicine. The many uses of Norway Spruce include antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-microbial properties.  Spruce gum has been used to treat a host of skin conditions including burns, infections that won’t heal, scrapes, scratches, boils, abscesses, and even more serious issues like gunshot wounds.

The primary tree for this purpose in Europe is Norway Spruce, while in North America, black spruce often was used in this way (their medicinal properties are almost identical).  And, as is often the case, science is finally catching up with folk traditional uses as this recent study published in Advanced Wound Care in 2016 demonstrates the powerful antimicrobial and healing properties of Norway Spruce.

Resin – hardened and ready for salve or burning as incense

Many Pine resins are similar in nature and can also be treated in the same way.  White Pine, one of the dominant pines in North America, has similar antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties (although there is less scientific research on white pine compared to various spruces).  Either one will produce a wonderful healing salve.

This salve is more involved than a traditional backyard healing salve, but is well worth making.  I recently had a very deep and nasty cut (one that should have gotten stitches, in hindsight) and I was able to stop the bleeding with fresh yarrow and then treated the cut successfully with my spruce gum salve.  It drew debris from the wound, sealed it up, and kept it from getting infected.  Not to mention, it smells amazing, which gave me a bit of aromatherapy while healing the wound!

Thus, your Spruce Resin Salve can be used for any of the following: cuts, scrapes, burns, deep cuts, drawing out debris from wounds, chapped lips (it will work wonders on severely chapped lips) and any number of uses for animal care (such as mild frostbite on combs and wattles of chickens in winter).

Tools and Materials

Whatever you use will forever have spruce resin on it, so I suggest dedicating a few tools to this purpose.  I have found that a large tin can works great (I am using a #10 tin can), an old butter knife, and some cheesecloth / thin natural cloth (cotton, linen) and string.  For the salve itself, you will also need a good quality olive oil and beeswax.

The can is used for three steps in the process–gathering, filtering, and making the salve.  Thus, you will need it to be large enough to boil water and also contain all of your salve.  A #10 can is a great size, but I think a slightly smaller one will work as well.

Step 1: Harvesting Your Spruce Pitch and Resin

Various conifer species of trees produce their sticky, gooey sap when the tree is wounded.  Thus, you can often find large amounts of it in urban or suburban areas where these trees are frequently pruned.  You can also find it naturally occurring in the wild.

As with all wild medicines and foods, you want to practice ethical harvesting practices, which include asking permission from the tree, leaving an offering, and engaging in reciprocation–doing something for the tree or forest where you are harvesting.   I believe that if you treat nature respectfully and with agency, your medicine will be all the more potent for it.

Gooey resin dripping from a norway spruce!  This spruce has been regularly pecked by woodpeckers and is producing a ton of sap….I will wait for these crystals to fully harden and use them for incense

Tar, Pitch, and Resin: Tar, Pitch and resin are all the same substance but they have been outside of the tree for different amounts of time and thus, have different levels of viscosity or dryness. Spruce tar (also known as sap) is a fairly new flow from the tree and is usually clear, very sticky, and drippy–think liquid honey here.  Spruce pitch is usually milky and sticky, having partially dried on the tree (and often collected bugs, debris, etc.) which is part of why we have to do some processing to make it into medicine.  Spruce pitch is often similar in consistency to crystalized honey. Spruce resin is the hardest of all–you can handle this, it is firm and completely dried.  The resin usually represents a few years of drying out on the tree. The difference between them is the age of the substance and how much there is (which affects drying time).

If you are wanting to make a healing salve, it is best to make it with pitch or resin, which is hard enough to collect.  Spruce resins are also awesome for incense.  The incense from a Norway Spruce is called Burgandy Resin, and it smells and burns amazing–a light and delightful pine scent that will offer powerful energetic clearing.

In areas where I harvest, I will usually let sap sit on the tree till it hardens into either pitch (for salve making) or resin (for incense).  It takes 2-4 years for the sap to harden into resin which can be handled.

Harvested resin and pitch

When harvesting, take only what is excess from the tree and what will not expose any sensitive areas of the tree. If you see big globs of resin or pitch, remember that the tree uses this to seal over wounds. If you scrape it all from the tree, you are exposing that tree to pests and disease.  You can take a little from the outside of the wound, but make sure that the tree remains protected. Sometimes there is so much sap that it drips and hardens–all of this is safe to take as it is not at the site of the wound of the tree. This is a good time to work slowly and listen to the spirit of the tree–the tree can guide you about how much to take and where to take it from. Carless harvesting can lead the tree to harm, which is not a good way to start working with this tree.

Harvesting and preparing spruce or pine pitch is a very sticky business.  You will want a dedicated container (I have a dedicated #10 soup can for this purpose) and an old dull knife (a butter knife is fine) to harvest. Scrape the pitch in gobs into the container, using your knife.  Small bits of resin can be harvested by hand.  Once you have 1/2 cup or more, you can move on to the next step.

Step 2: Filter out Debris and Bugs from your Spruce Tar

As the sap of the Spruce dries, it collects an assortment of debris: bugs, dirt, small bits of bark, etc.  In order to make a healing salve, you will need to filter these out before use.

There are several methods for doing this– I’m using a boiling water filtration method that I developed after reading about a number of methods.  This method requires the use of cheesecloth, boiling water, and a stone.  This method works because any conifer resin is not water-soluble.

Begin by adding all of your spruce resin and pitch to a square of cheesecloth or thinly woven fabric (I’m using a scrap piece of fabric here).  Place a small stone in with the resin.

Bundle with stone in middle

Bundle

Firmly tie this bundle with some string (don’t use a rubber band–it will sometimes fail in the boiling water).  I had two on this bundle and one broke in the boil,, but I was lucky to have a second.  I’ve since switched to using simple hemp or cotton cordage, which will not fail!

Bundle

Put your can on your burner on your stove and then add your bundle to the can.  Add enough water to fully cover your bundle by at least 2-3″. The rock will weigh your resin bundle down, making it sink below the water.

Water with bundle

Boil 45 minutes to an hour. As you boil it, the pitch will melt and come out of the cheesecloth, either on the surface or bottom of the can.  Turn off the heat, remove the remaining bundle (which should be mostly a stone and cheesecloth at this point), and allow the water and resin to fully cool.  After it is cool an hour or more later, you can then pour off the water and you will be left with pure resin.

Resin is ready!

The stone can be returned to the land.  The cheesecloth, when cut into smaller pieces, makes an outstanding natural firestarter–so hold onto it for your next camping trip!

Step 3: Make your Salve

The basic recipe is 1/4 cup resin, 1/2 cup olive oil, and 1/2 – 1 oz beeswax.  Since the resin will still be pretty sticky, you can estimate how much resin you have to work with, and adjust your recipe accordingly (e.g. 1/2 cup of resin = 1 cup of olive oil and 1-11/2 oz beeswax).  You can go a bit higher on the olive oil if you want to stretch it, but I would say you want a minimum of 1/4 c resin to 1 cup olive oil.

The salve is getting good use!

The salve is getting good use!

Return your can to the heat with the resin still in it, and add an appropriate amount of olive oil.  Heat this up and allow it to simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring it with a stick.  After 30 minutes, add your beeswax (if you shave it or chop it up small, it will melt faster).  Once the beeswax is melted and incorporated, pour it into small jars or tins.  Let cool completely and you will have an amazing healing salve for use for any deep cuts, surface cuts, and also safe for animals.

If you want, at this stage, use paper towels or cotton rags to clean up any drips and also to wipe out your can.  Save these as wonderful fuel for fire-starting–just add a bit of flame and they will burn brightly and help start a fire.

This salve will be good for 1-2 years if stored in a cool, dark place.  This has become my favorite healing salve for a wide range of uses, and I always take some with me when I travel!

Sacred Gardening: A Druid’s Spiritual Approach to Weeding and Clearing Plants

A shrine for the spirits of nature in a new outdoor kitchen area

Druids revere all nature as sacred–but what happens when you need to weed your garden? What happens when you need to clear a new area for a project where lots of things are growing? Is there a way to clear plants or trees honorably and with reverence?  In fact, there certainly is!  In today’s post, I’ll walk through some simple suggestions for how to weed and clear plants respectfully and with reverence. This is all part of my philosophy of Sacred Action, or bringing earth-honoring, care-oriented activities into our every day life (if you are interested in this concept, check out my Sacred Actions book!).  This is part of what sacred gardening, creating a true Druid’s garden, is all about!

Our big project this year was starting to build an wood-fired, naturally built outdoor kitchen with a maple sap boiler/grill, an earth oven, a small pavilion and set of rocket stoves (this is an ongoing project and I’ll share more about it in upcoming posts). In order to do this, we had to clear a small bit of land. Where we are situating our outdoor kitchen is on the edge of a clearing with a shaded overstory, just as the forest begins. The tentative plan for our earth oven was about 6′ into an area with some brush and small trees. We were hoping to use this spot  for the earth oven because sometimes we get bad winds from the fields that are to the south-west of our home, and by locating it slightly in the brush, it would allow us to provide it some additional shielding from the elements. But, this particular spot required me to clear a small 5′ path and about an 7 foot round area in the brush–assuming the spirits of the land and plants agreed.  I’ll walk through the general principles using the clearing of my earth oven space as an example.

1. Recognize the agency  and sanctity of nature by seeking permission and offering gratitude.

An offering bag near some garden weeds that will be cleared

One of the first things to remember is that if we are going to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature, we must treat nature with respect, reverence and recognize nature’s own agency.  This means we do not take from nature without permission (treating her with the same respect you would do any other person. There are different levels of permission: one-time permission and ongoing permission.

Getting permission for anything is twofold: seeking it and allowing the necessary time for negotiation and conversation.  Don’t expect to get permission to clear a large area of land 5 minutes before you want to clear it.  Seeking permission begins with simply spending time engaging with spirits of the land and explaining what you want to do and why. Explain what you would like to do and how you will do it.  See what results from this converation: sometimes you can get a clear go-ahead, while other times, the spirits may want something in response (e.g. clear this area but leave this area to grow wild; build this shrine, use everything that you’ve cleared, etc).

If you are clearing for a permanent space (such as a garden, outdoor kitchen, home, etc) you can seek a blanket permission statement.  This means that you have the general permission to create the garden and then keep it as a garden, clearing as necessary.

Two months before starting construction of the earth oven, I began by asking permission.  I started by making an offering at the space I wished to clear and speaking aloud what I would like to do, where the boundaries of it were to be, and why.  I asked the spirits to think about my request.  A week later, I returned to the spot and we started discussing. I came back several times over the course of a few weeks and after that, I received the confirmation that I was permitted to proceed. As part of this negotiation, I was told that each plant species would have something different they would like me to do as I cleared.

2. Setting Boundaries for Activities

As part of your request, make it clear what you plan on doing and how long this agreement lasts.  For example, if you are cultivating a garden, make it clear that you would like permission to tend this garden throughout the year and weed any plants that come up in the garden that you haven’t planted, etc.  This allows you to set some clear boundaries for the kinds of activities you will engage in over time.  You can also set boundaries about other things, such as not using any chemical sprays, etc.  The idea here is that you will make a clear agreement with the spirits of the land that you are both satisfied with so that you can proceed.

In the case of our earth oven, I agreed to tend the path and boundaries of our earth oven space and also to cut back some of the surrounding areas if they grew too close to the oven, always asking the plants’ permission.  We established where the areas of the other outdoor kitchen were to be before proceeding.  I was also asked to build two smalls shrines, one to invite the spirits of the hearth to join us (see the first image in this post) and a hidden shrine to honor the earth elementals.

You also may need to negotiate with specific dominant plant species in an area.   For example, in the case of our garden, I’ve made it clear that dandelions are welcome to grow anywhere, but I will be harvesting any within our garden areas for making food or medicine for ourselves and our animals.  But, any dandelions that grow outside of the bounds of the garden will be undisturbed (unless I further sought permission to harvest them for a different purpose, which would be a different negotiation).

3. Clear mindfully and listen to the voices of nature as to how to use cleared material.

Once you have permission to clear an area, establish a garden, or weed regularly, the next step is to start clearing it in a way that is reverent and respectful.  I like to call this “mindful” clearing.  I’m going to clear in a gentle manner, pulling out each plant, checking in with each plant to see how they would like me to proceed (cut you off at the root? Harvest the root? Put you in the compost pile? Feed you to the geese?).  Thus, as I clear, I am also engaging in deep connection with the plants and hearing their voices for how to proceed. As I do this, I continue to make offerings, I sing songs, and I raise good energy for the work I am doing.

Beginning to clear the area for the earth oven

I work to do as much clearing without the aid of fossil fuels as possible, relying on hand tools, as this allows me to get closer to the individual plants I am clearing. Once in a great while, I do have to use a battery-powered lopper or chainsaw, and I let the spirits of nature know what I am doing before I do anything.

So in the clearing of my earth oven space, I spent about 2 hours clearing the space, while I was in a meditative place.  Using movement meditation, I cleared my mind as I cleared down to the soil, making sure that each plant I was clearing had a chance to share what they would like to see happen.  I ended up transplanting several wild yams into another section of the forest.  The Allegheny Blackberry asked me to take their roots and use them for magic (they have been teaching me their magic for many years now) and to compost their stems and leaves.  The small spicebush asked to be potted and given away.  The Virginia Creeper had me pull out enough to clear, asking me to make a small wreath of her and then place that wreath on the altar.  And so it went with each of the plants in this space, where I listened to their voices and did my best to honor their requests.  In the end, I had not only a cleared space but new magical plant knowledge and several roots for my spiritual practices.

I do the same thing in my garden as I am regularly weeding and tending. While I don’t necessarily need steps 1 and 2 each time I got into weed the garden, when I am weeding, I am still listening to the voices of the plants and honoring what they would like me to do with them.  I am treating them in reverence and respect, even as I clear them.

Eventually, you may find that even the most dominant weed can be negotiated with to grow elsewhere.

Doing these practices in this way allows you to both hear what the plant spirits may offer you as well as give you a chance to learn some of the uses of common plants in your area.  For example, if you are clearing a garden, many garden “weeds” have tremendous herbal and edible uses including lambs quarters, ground ivy, pursuance, dandelion, red clover, chickweed, and wood sorrel, to name a few.  If you are pulling out something and you don’t know what it is, take a few minutes to learn and do what you can to make use of that plant for food, medicine, crafts, or spiritual purposes.

4. End in Gratitude

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel, garden weed, delicious food!

Finalize your work each day in gratitude–gratitude for the land itself, the soil, and any plants or materials that were moved or pulled as part of the work you were doing.  Recognize the sacrifice that these plants have made and honor them.  You can practice gratitude by making offerings (such as this offering blend), drumming, dancing, doing a land blessing ceremony, or any other number of things.

In the case of my earth oven, the end of the clearing, I again sat with the space and honored it with flute music and offerings.  I meditated to see if there were any additional messages, and if not, I continued to work on the project.  The next steps in the project were to create a draining gravel foundation to prevent frost heaving, and so when I went back to the site a few days later to start removing soil and subsoil, I made sure to continue to make offerings at the shrine I built and continue to offer gratitude.

Conclusion

As the above explores, the key to honoring nature while also tending spaces, weeding, or clearing land has to do with the approach.  Rather than immediately moving into clearing, spend time honoring the spirits of the land first, the physical bodies of the plants to clear, and take your time to make sure you are engaged in reverence and respect.  This kind of practice integrates spiritual practice with everyday life in the practice of sacred action, and can certainly deepen our own relationship to our immediate landscapes.