Category Archives: Creative Pursuits

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.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) Medicine, Myths, and Meaning

PawPaw leaf - as big as your hand!

PawPaw leaf – as big as your hand!

The PawPaw is a tree that is so wild and unique and wonderful, and yet, is often quite unknown–it is the only native citrus tree we have in the upper east East Coast and midwest areas. Like some of the other trees I have recently shared in this series, Paw Paw is an underappreciated and under-recognized tree. Within the bushcraft and permaculture circles, it is quite well known as an amazing tree to find, plant, and tend. One of the reasons that PawPaw is probably not more well known has, unsurprisingly, everything to do with the commercial viability of the fruits. PawPaw fruit is absolutely delicious but it only stays good for a few days after picking–so it would never survive the rigors of modern industrial agriculture.  You can occasionally find it at a good farmer’s market, and it is well worth seeking out! You can also seek it out in the wilds. And yet, PawPaw is the only citrus tree that grows in a north-eastern climate.  Read that sentence twice–yes, we have a native citrus tree that grows utterly delicious fruits that taste like a cross between guava, strawberry, and a banana.

This leads to the names for the PawPaw, which includes everything from Appalacian banana, Michigan Banana, Ozark Banana, Kentucky Banana, West Virginia Banana, to American custard apple, Quaker delight, hillbilly mango, and poor man’s banana. As you can see from some of these names, a bit of a stigma was once attached to PawPaw, which may be another reason it is not as sought out or well known.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a lack of discussion of PawPaw in the magical community–so, like so many of the underlooked understory trees (of which PawPaw is one), we will build a magical understanding of this tree by exploring its uses, edible qualities, medicine, natural history and doctrine of signatures (for my full methods, see this post).

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Eastern Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Tamarak, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology of the PawPaw

The slender stem of a five year old pawpaw

PawPaw has a native range that spans from the edges of Texas and Oklahoma all across the southeastern US into Georgia and Alabama and upward into Maryland and Pennsylvania.  As a USDA Zone 5-9 fruiting tree, people have planted it as far as New England and the upper Midwest. Pawpaw is one of the few fruit trees that can handle full shade, and when I’ve found it in the wild, that’s typically where you find it: along quiet stream beds and river valleys, in damp and fertile flood plains, and deep in the shade of the overstory. PawPaw often spread by roots to form a dense clonal colony–thus, when you find mature trees, you will often find a large patch of them growing closer together.

PawPaw is an understory tree, typically growing between 25-35 feet in height with trunks somewhere between 8-12″ in diameter at full growth. The leaves typically grow only hear the ends of the branches so PawPaw may look a bit sparse compared to other trees.

PawPaw flowers have three sepals (petal-like leaves) that surround six maroon flowers. PawPaws are predominately fly pollinated, which means that you do not want to sniff the flowers, as they often smell like rotting meat (I learned this the hard way, haha!).  Don’t stick your nose in that maroon flower! The PawPaw flower would be classified as a “carrion” flower due to this unique odor–it creates a stinking, fetid odor to attract flies and beetles that would pollinate it.

The flowers appear at the same time that the new leaves are coming forth in early spring. I will also note that the leaves and branches also may have a slightly fetid smell, so do keep this in mind as you work with this tree.  It is kind of amazing that this stinky flower and tree can produce such delicious fruit!

After spring pollination, the green fruits grow to the size of your hand or more, eventually dipping down the tender branches and dropping from the tree in September or October. Here in Western PA, it is often late September that the fruit is ready to drop from the tree, just around the Fall Equinox. The fruits typically will fall from the tree while still green and ripen on the ground.  This is when you can find them–pick them up on the ground green and then sit them on a counter or in a dark paper bag until ripe.  Keep a good eye on them, as they will ripen quickly.  Once they ripen, eat them fresh or process them into fruit leather, jam, pies, etc as they only stay ripe a few days before spoiling.

PawPaw as Anachronistic Fruit and Tree of the Ancestors

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

This PDF titled “Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them”  by Connie Barlow of the Harvard Arboretum gives a really interesting natural history of the PawPaw as an anachronistic fruit.  While pawpaw and other fruits (including Osage orange, Persimmon, Honey Locust, and Kentucky Coffee Tree) were originally eaten and spread by the “megafauna” at the end of the Pleistocene, these animals went extinct at about 12,700 BC, likely due to overhunting by humans. These megafauna animals included mastodons, giant sloths, giant beavers, and spread PawPaw fruits by ingesting and then pooping out the seeds.

Barlow notes that PawPaw and other anachronistic fruits developed clonal spreading techniques when there was an absence of large megafauna seed spreaders. She notes that at the Arnold Arboretum after an old PawPaw died, the underground root network had hundreds of baby pawpaw spring up almost immediately.  When humans came into North America at the end of the last Ice Age, they would have taken up the work of the Megafauna and spread the seeds of these useful and edible trees. Thus, if you find a large PawPaw tree cluster in the wild, perhaps it was deposited there by ancient human ancestors of the land.  And, anytime you are planting a new pawpaw tree by root cutting or seed, you are connecting with that ancient legacy.  So this is an ancestral tree with ancestral connections.

Human uses: Food and Wood

Obviously, the PawPaw is a great wild or cultivated food. As permaculture, restoration agriculture, and food forestry take off, PawPaw has become a shining superstar for developing native perennial-based food systems here in North America.  PawPaw are particularly good for areas where you have rich soil with shade and water. In fact, one of the first things I did when arriving on this land was to plant 30 PawPaws in the understory, much of which had been logged, as part of my forest regeneration efforts. They haven’t borne fruit yet, but I know they will in the next few years, and I’m quite excited!

As I mentioned above, the fruits typically fall from the trees in the fall.  PawPaw fruits are usually higher than you can reach in mature stands, so you have to wait for them to fall onto the ground to collect. The fruits fall green and will naturally ripen on your counter in a few days.  You can also pick them from the tree, but only if the tree is ready to give of its fruit–in other words, if the fruit is easy to pick from the tree, it is ready (just like harvesting a wild apple). If the fruit does not want to come off the tree, come back in a few days and try again–it is not ready.

The fruits are delicious when eaten raw. They have large seeds (which you can plant, but you need to keep them moist or else they lose viability–so plant just after eating!)  You can also create custards, pies, jams, and jellies from your pawpaws. There are two real keys to pawpaw.  The first is that you have to process it fast: it’s really only good for a few days on the counter (or maybe up to a week in the fridge) before it goes rotten, so you’ve got to use it while it lasts!  This post offers some great tips for where to buy PawPaw products like beer, popsicles, and more.  The second key is that it is best used fresh, dried, or baked–so with the exception of my goose egg custard, I don’t typically cook it much, as you do lose some of the flavors of the fruit. Canning a jam can work, but it’s not going to be nearly as good as a fresh or frozen puree.

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

The fruit itself really tastes like a custard already, but I’ve found it particularly good when a bit is added to a duck or goose egg custard (I use the linked recipe and replace 50% of the maple syrup with the pawpaw for either duck or goose eggs). I’ve also made a nice fruit leather using a similar technique to what I posted for Autumn olives in the above-linked post.

Beyond its delicious fruit, PawPaw has a number of other bushcraft uses. PawPaw wood is very soft and fibrous, making it excellent for use in a bow drill set, both spindle and motherboard as well as for a hand drill (needs to be quite dry to use as a hand drill).  In fact, my first bow drill set (which I made at the North American Bushcraft School’s MountainCraft Gathering in 2019, taught to me by Jeff Gotieb ) used a PawPaw spindle.  PawPaw is one of the softer woods, considered good for a beginner who is new to ancestral fire-making.

As with any uses of any tree, I always suggest you practice reciprocation: make offerings, ask permission, and do something nice for the tree in return (such as planting its seeds or offspring).  If you are going to enjoy the tree’s fruits, make sure you give something in return.

Historical and Present Uses in Medicine and Magic

In truth, there is almost nothing that I can find on the magical or mundane uses of PawPaw in any of my usual herbal books or references in the different western magical traditions (western occultism, hoodoo, herbalism, etc). Thus, it does not appear that PawPaw has traditionally been used for magical practices or herbalism. This is pretty typical of the other understory trees that I’ve studied, but I think that they are really worth getting to know!

However, what search does yield fruit is looking at some of the publications coming out of the scientific community.  Even if PawPaw wasn’t used traditionally, scientists are now discovering some of the amazing properties of this plant. For example, Nam et. al (2018) found that PawPaw fruit contained at least some anti-cancer components and may be a useful anti-cancer treatment with future study.  In another study by Nam et. al. (2019), they found that alcohol extraction of unripe fruits contained considerable anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties, suggesting possibilities for anti-aging and anti-microbial applications.  PawPaw is also being explored as a possible food additive for domestic fowl production.

PawPaw’s Magic and Divination

Given all of the above, PawPaw is a really interesting tree to think about from a divinatory and magical perspective.

Death and Underworld. Certainly, PawPaw has connections to the world of the dead and the underworld for several reasons.  The most important being that it has a carrion-smelling flower, that literally smells like fetid flesh, and that attracts flies and beetles as pollinators.  The second way that it connects is also through the doctrine of signatures–the tree itself has very sparse leaves and a very open frame, showing the skeleton of the tree (the branches and trunk) rather than being covered by leaves.  This connection might allow you to use the flowers to connect with the dead, to speak with them, or to help them on their journey.

Strong Need to Move On from a Toxic Situation.  Tied to the carrion flower that is transformed into an extremely delicious–but short-lived fruit, this tree may also signal that something that has been going on for a long time needs to end.  Sometimes we end up in situations where we should have ended a situation (a bad job, a bad relationship, a bad living situation) a long time ago, and for some reasons (fear, stress, exhaustion) we continue to persevere long past our breaking point.  PawPaw can signal the need to move on–and the healing and rewards (fruit) that come when we let go of the toxic situation.

Transience.  Because PawPaw’s fruit is so short-lived and transient, it reminds us of the transience or ephemeral nature of things.  We can never get too comfortable or used to anything in life–the only certainty is the passage of time.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look into the wonderful and delicious PawPaw tree–and may you find many on your travels!  I would love to hear of your experiences with this incredible tree!

Wild Food Profile: Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) Seed Flour & Yellow Dock Pancake Recipe

Harvested dock seed with a ready-to-harvest yellow dock plant

This past month, I had a chance to visit Silver Acres, my friend’s 5 acre farm in the thumb of Michigan, where she is practicing rewilding, restoration agriculture, and permaculture.  We were walking through her field and found a good deal of yellow dock that was in seed form–which for the Midwest US, usually happens around Lughnasadh (August 1st) and continues to the Fall Equinox.  While I’ve eaten the young leaves and used the roots as medicine, I haven’t had a chance to try making any seed flour yet–so we set about our task joyfully.  I’m quite impressed by how easy this flour is to make (compared to say, acorn flour) and it cuts nicely with other flours.

Foraging for wild foods is not only a fantastic way to connect deeply with the land but also allow us to reconnect with our ancient ancestral lifeways.  It allows us to connect deeply with the land and bring some of that energy int our own lives.

Yellow Dock Ecology and Foraging

Yellow dock leaf with goose blessing.

Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus) is in the buckwheat family, which is part of why she makes a nice flour!   Yellow dock is also known as Curly Dock or Narrowleaf Dock. Yellow Dock is a first-aid responder plant, an opportunistic plant that can quickly spread to new areas after disruption. Thus, you will often find her growing in areas that have poor soil, have recently been disrupted (such as construction sites), or other places where the land was recently disturbed.  As part of her ecological function, she begins to break up compacted soil with her deep tap root. One of the reasons its good to learn how to eat and make medicine of yellow dock in all of her forms is that she is considered an “invasive” weed in the USA, and thus, ethically-based foraging is a wonderful way to keep this plant in check.

Yellow Docks are perennial plants that can, when mature, produce up to 40,000 seeds per year.  The seeds can stay in the ground for up to 50 years, and when the opportunitiy arises, the yellow dock will arise from the soil!  This is how they are able to so quickly colonize disturbed areas.

Once you find a patch of yellow dock, you can return to it over and over again for food and medicine.  The seeds persist on the plants into the winter, and slowly drop as winter turns to spring. The easiest time to spot them is after the seeds have turned to a beautiful rust brown and dried (usually by mid August here in Pennsylvania). Thus, you have a fairly long harvest window with regards to the seeds. Each year, Yellow Dock also produces curled leaves (see photos) which are fairly palatable when young (cook in several changes of water).

Seed head closeup – this is perfect for harvesting

The very good news in terms of foraging ethics is that because Yellow Dock is considered invasive and can be found in abundance almost everywhere, you can harvest as much yellow dock seeds as you want for flour.  A few hours of harvesting and processing can yield considerable amounts of very easy-to-process flour!  I still recommend that you seek permission from the plants and offer gratitude if you have permission to harvest.  I have found it is easiest to harvest these with a basket or paper back.  Just snap off or cut the mature seed stalk and place them into a bag.

Harvest the seed heads when they are dry for the best flour. If you have to harvest them wet, let them sit out in the sun until fully dry.  Its hard to strip them from the stalks when they are wet.

Preparing Yellow Dock Flour

Grinding in a small grinder

Yellow Dock flour has three major steps for preparation: remove seed heads from stalk; toast seed heads on the stove or in the oven; and then grind them in a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or magic bullet.  I’ll walk you through each step.

I will note here that some foraging books say Yellow Dock Seed is not worth harvesting because its impossible to separate the seeds from the chaff (the seed casing).  But in the case of Yellow Dock, you simply grind everything up together.

Remove seed heads from stalk. Once you have harvested, find a nice place outside to sit and strip the seed heads by hand into a large bowl or other vessel. Return the stalks to the land (somewhere where you want yellow dock to come up, as there are likely seeds remaining!).  I suggest doing this outside because it is a messy job!

Toast the seeds.  The next step is to toast the seeds.  You can do this on the stovetop in an iron skillet- just add a few handfuls of seeds, stir them till you hear popping, and then remove from heat and do the next batch. Alternatively, you can roast them in the oven for 5 minutes at 350.  You’ll see a difference in both the color and smell of the seeds. This step is really worth it as it produces a much better tasting flour!

Beautiful ready-to-enjoy Yellow Dock Flour

Grind the seeds. Using a Vitamix, magic bullet, coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle, grind the seeds in small batches.  You will want to work to get as fine of a grind as possible on your flour.  You’ll end up with something looking like the photo on the right!

Storage: Like other wild flours, this has about a six month shelf life. You can extend the shelf life by freezing it (where it will stay good up to two years.

Recipes

There are few things to know about Yellow Dock flour. First, Yellow Dock flour does not contain any gluten, so it will produce a much “flatter” bread than wheat flours, which you should keep in mind when using it.  When it is cooked on its own, it has a bitterness that can be a bit unpalatable (e.g. straight yellow dock flour) so I recommend using it in combination with another flour (use 25% or 50% yellow dock).  The bitterness is considerably lessened into something quite delicious when you add some sweetness.  I don’t find that it has a particularly strong taste but rather will take on the taste of the other ingredients (like acorn flour).

Yellow Dock Pancakes

I adapted my acorn pancake recipe for use with Yellow Dock, and it works great!

  • 1 cup yellow dock flour
  • 1 cup other flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them!)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Cooking up beautiful pancakes!

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

Here are some other inspirational recipes for your yellow dock flour!

Double Chocolate Dockseed Cake

Curly Dock Bread

Dock Seed Brownies

Dock and Lambsquarter Flour Crackers

Dock Sponge Bread

Cultivating Resilience as a Physical and Spiritual Practice

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

Staghorn Sumac: A tree that teaches us about resilience

Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems are those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure. In other words, a resilient ecosystem can withstand drought, flooding, or other difficulties by being adaptable, flexible, and having redundancies. Which of course, is so critical in today’s ever-changing world fraught with climate change and instability.  Resilient plants are the often-maligned weeds: those weeds who take every opportunity to grow: who find a crack in the sidewalk and take root, who immediately start to grow after disruption, or who outcompete less resilient plants. They are able to be like weeds or opportunistic species, taking advantage of new opportunities, finding niches, and gracefully adapting to change. Think of the dandelion here, growing up through cracks in the sidewalk.  This same concept, I believe, will grow to be more and more central to both getting through the present and the future and central to the spiritual work we do. As humans, we can learn a lot about the concept of resilience from nature, and adapt it in our own lives.

And truthfully, in the wake of the present challenges and an uncertain future, it seems like a most excellent time to start cultivating resilience. When we grow comfortable in life we have worked hard to create, we are resistant to change and often hold on bitterly even after it’s obvious that change is needed. This is part of why we are still seeing so much inaction to climate change–as a species, we need to cultivate resilience, ingenuity, and creativity to step up to the challenges we face.  Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that on a large scale, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. While I certainly advocate doing everything we can to cultivate hope and positive change in the world, there’s a lot that is outside of our control.  Given the age we live in, I’d argue that resilience is one of the most important 21st-century skills we can have and something that we can cultivate within and without.

Features of Resilience Learning from Resilience in Nature

We can begin by looking to nature for guidance about how to become resilient in an age of deep conflict and change.  By observing nature, we can learn some of the qualities that we can then apply in our own lives.  Here are some that I’ve understood through my observation and interaction with nature:

Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback or challenge.  We see evidence of the recovery of nature everywhere–how quickly the opportunistic species grow after an area is cleared by humans for new construction; how quickly a forest that is burned immediately starts to regrow; the ability of the tree to keep on growing even if it was knocked down. Nature is literally full of examples of an innate ability to recover and move forward with explosive growth.  Here on our homestead, three acres were logged before we bought the property–and we’ve really enjoyed seeing how quickly nature can grow back and be bountiful once again. The ability of nature to heal is one of nature’s lessons that I always return to and that I am always in awe of–nature is the master of resiliency, and we can learn so much through observing her at work.

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Adaptability. Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. I look to the raccoons here, who are truly one of the most flexible, adaptable, and resilient of persons living in my own ecosystem. This past summer, the coons and I had an ongoing battle with the chicken coop feed storage in the shed. The regular feed bags I used to keep there were quickly raided. So I bought metal garbage cans for storing the feed. The coons figured how to get them open in one evening. So I bungee corded them together and that seemed to prevent them from getting in most of the time. But, we compromised by leaving them bowls of cat food and hot dogs on the back porch and now they leave the chicken feed alone and actually defend our land against other predators–and everyone wins.  This is a great example of the idea of both adaptation and pivoting–when confronted with one obstacle, they simply changed direction. 

Accepting Change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans.  In nature, changes happen all the time. Forest fires, floods, a tree crashing down during a storm, and so on. Rather than dwelling on what is lost, nature immediately springs to action and moves forward. When the tree drops, nature pivots and immediately fills in that space with new trees growing up to fill the canopy. The mushrooms come in, colonizing and breaking down the tree. 

Opportunistic. A few months ago I shared the magic of the understory, and how certain understory trees (Witch Hazel, Mountain Laurel, Spicebush, Rhododendron) and plants (Mosses, Lichens, wintergreen, partridgeberry) take advantage of the dark and cold months in order to make the most of the winter sunlight.  We can also look to the many opportunistic plants, like dandelion or burdock, who are able to easily take root even in the most adverse conditions. The quality these plants have is that they are opportunistic–they see a change and immediately pivot.  Or, they wait until the right time and then use the current conditions to the present situation. 

The above qualities are present in all of nature–all we have to do is walk outside our door, spend some time in nature, and see how resilient nature can be.  So, to take this a step further, how can we apply these qualities to our own lives?

Physical Resilience

Resilience is something we can work to cultivate and resilience requires both inner and outer work. Resilence in our lives means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented, which is now the norm rather than the exception. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the systems upon which we build our lives are not going to continue to be stable, and it’s up to us to build skillsets that allow us to provide some of our own needs. When we think about our needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start.  We all need food, clothing, clean water, shelter, and in colder climates, heat.  At present, most humans have long depended on others (corporations, larger consumer systems, etc) to provide those basic needs.  Part of cultivating physical resilience is thinking about how to transition at least some of those needs to a community and individual level.

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Humans have always been tribal and social, as many of our animal kin.  Thus, rather than thinking about resilience as an individual problem, you might think about it as a community or group effort.  What can you do now to support a more resilient community?  Supporting a local food system and farmer’s market is a very clear choice–even if you aren’t able to grow your own food, network, and provide resources to those that are; the more strong a local and regional food system is, the more resilient your community is.  This is also where other community groups like permaculture meetups (that share tools, resources, and knowledge), reskilling communities (who work to build traditional skills among members), and earth skills gatherings can come in.  The point here is that you can cultivate a lot of resilience in your life by joining with others.

I do think its a good idea to cultivate some individual resiliency or family-level resiliency so that you can be prepared in the event of an emergency.  Thus, it might be a particularly good time to start growing some of your own food (Indoor or out), looking into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and making sure that you have several weeks, at minimum, of food stores to meet your needs.  Consider how different kinds of disruptions may occur, and do your best to do some minimal planning for them as you are able.  Even a little bit of planning can go a long way in an emergency. My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices offers many more suggestions for resilient living both at a community and individual level!

I also think it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how nature can provide for you directly–what can you ethically forage, harvest, or grow in terms of food, medicine, and your other basic needs? Take up an ethical foraging / wildtending practice, where you are gathering food from the local environment and also giving back. Learn about some abundant local herbs and how you can use them for medicine. Learn what you can eat in your yard or local park. Not only do these kinds of practices cultivate resiliency, but they also allow you to grow closer to the living earth.

Mental and Spiritual Resilience

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

I’m using “cultivation” of resilience in a very deliberate sense. Resilience is a lot like growing a garden. The garden isn’t going to grow without you putting in the time and effort (planting seeds, preparing beds, etc).  Resilience isn’t like an on/off switch, where you are either resilient or not. Resilience is a skill that you cultivate and a mindset that you create, and we can all be on the path to resilience.

When you study any kind of wilderness survival, one of the most important things you learn is to keep a positive mental attitude towards a difficult situation. That is, half the battle is staying positive, flexible, and having a good mindset along with the many skills above: adaptability, recovery, accepting change and being opportunistic.  This is not a skill set that many people are brought up to have. In Western consumer culture, we are purposefully taught to be passive recipients of culture, to buy our way out of problems, to allow others to take care of our needs, and not cultivate creativity in our lives.  In other words, if you live in any western culture, particularly here in the United States, you have been socialized into a set of behaviors that are actually taking you in the opposite direction of resilience.  Thus, it is worth some time to work to cultivate a new set of skills that can help you move in the right direction.

So how might we do this?  Here are three practices that I’ve used to cultivate resilience in my own life:

Meditation and Connection with Resilient Plants and Animals

We have a whole host of plants and animals in the ecosystem around us who are masters of resilience–I mentioned a few located here in Western Pennsylvania: the raccoon, the dandelion, the burdock.  In cities, this might be the pigeon, who has adapted incredibly to urban environments. Every ecosystem has these plants and animals: those cunning animals and resilient plants who are able to grow and thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Choose a plant, tree, or animal that speaks to you and who has some of the qualities of resilience you would like to cultivate and work with that plant or animal however you see fit. If at all possible, spend time with that plant or animal; observe and see how they respond to adverse conditions.  Work to bring that energy into your own life through reflection, energy exchange (if permitted with the plant/animal) and by working to cultivate these same qualities in your life.  If the plant offers, carry a piece with you.

One of the resilient plants that I often look to for guidance is the Staghorn Sumac tree.  Staghorn Sumac is extremely resilient, often able to grow in places that have been disrupted.  We often see him here growing along the highways and persisting even after spraying and heavy chemical use.  I had a wonderful mature patch on the edge of my property and my neighbor cut the patch down, literally bulldozing it with a tractor two years ago.  I mourned this patch and harvested some of the wood to honor and work with as an artist…and then it started to regrow.  Two years later, what had been a mature stand of Staghorn Sumac is now a thicket of 6′ tall new sumac–all that the disruption did was make the patch grow back with more strength and power.  When I am feeling like I need the qualities of resilience, I sit with this patch, who has so strongly rebounded after such a major disruption, and draw upon those energies.  I leave an offering for the gifts and lessons that Staghorn Sumac teaches.  Since staghorn sumac is edible, I often will harvest the flower buds for a sumac aid drink as a magical aid in cultivating resilience (recipe in the link above) and also carry a piece of the wood with me.

Shadow Work and Meditation

It’s very helpful to take an inventory of what resilient skills you already have and which you might want to cultivate.  Knowing yourself and having a metacognitive sense of who you are (e.g. knowing your strengths, why you respond in certain ways, etc) can help you cultivate resilience. You can use a permaculture technique called a personal niche analysis to do some of this basic work or simply spend time meditating on your strengths and areas of struggle as a person. Another meditation that can be useful is to look back at times when you were faced with adversity–how did you handle it? What personal qualities did you bring? What could you have done differently the next time? 

For example, one important skill for resilience is how you handle difficulty or failure. Do you give up? Shut down? Berate yourself? Or do you rise to the occasion, trying something new and taking the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and try again?  Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Culturally, in the United States, the education and workplace systems often cultivate fixed mindsets, creating people who have a great deal of difficulty with failure and struggle, and who believe that any struggle or failure on their part is a reflection of their incapacity as a person.  Conversely, people with a growth mindset see struggle or failure as an opportunity to grow, creating a resiliency that is a powerful force in their lives. (I’ll also note that in my professional life, I am a learning researcher and social scientist who studies this stuff, and it is incredible to see the long-term outcomes of these two mindsets and other core personality traits on people’s development!)

Seeking Opportunity to Practice and Reflect

Once you have a sense of your strengths and areas you want to improve, pick one or two features of resiliency that you want to bring into your life.  Find small ways of practicing these: at work, at home, at school, wherever you are.  Reflect, consider how you responded, and keep moving forward.  Over time, you can cultivate these qualities in your own life by putting effort in that direction.  Every new situation is a situation for you to cultivate the skills to be more resilient and become the person you want to be!

Taking up a Bardic Practice

Another great way of cultivating inner resilience is taking up a bardic practice or some practice that requires you to be creative on a regular basis. When we start learning the bardic arts, and as we engage in more challenging work as a bard, we are regularly confronted with difficult situations where we can cultivate resilience: creativity, adaptability, and take new opportunities. These practices require us to confront our own fears, our own struggles, and occasionally, deal with failures. If we can take what we’ve learned from these practices and connect them to other aspects of our lives, it will cultivate a general resilience that can be helpful. I’ve written a series about taking up the path of the bard, and I’ll refer you there for more details: part I, part II, and part III

Concluding Thoughts

Resilience is one of the most important skills that I think we can cultivate as people in the 21ts century.  It allows us to reconnect with our ancient ancestors, who clearly had enough resilience to survive and thrive in a changing world (particularly before the Holocene, where the climate was not stable) and allows us to become better people living in a challenging world. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave.  Practicing resilience asks us to deeply understand our own fears and shadow selves and to cultivate skills that will help us bring forth a brighter tomorrow.  On the physical side, practicing resilience helps us directly prepare for adversity and abrupt change–and allows us to build a useful skillset that can enhance our lives and our nature-based spiritual practices. 

I would love to hear more about how you are cultivating resilience in your life in the comments!

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

The Practice of Deep Gratitude

At the heart of the challenges, we face in transitioning from a life-destroying culture to a life-honoring one is to disentangle the many underlying myths and narratives that subconsciously or consciously drive our behaviors.  These myths include the myth of progress, the myth of infinite growth, the lure of materialism, and the assumption that nature is there only to serve our needs. These myths have, in part, been the underlying forces that have driven us to the present challenges of our age. I believe many of these myths are rooted in colonialism, and if we are ever to end this awful practice and its centuries-old impacts, we must address them. They drive both larger systems at play as well as each of us. And while we can look to broader

A nature mandala offered in thanks for our land that provides so much to us.

systems of power and privilege that sustain these myths, it’s important to realize that they are as much embedded in our individual hearts and minds–and thus, are worth countering directly. But here’s the thing: even if you understand these myths on a mental level, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy to be rid of.  Thus, while meditating on these myths and coming to understand them is fundamental to us creating a better future and vision for the future, it’s also in our actions where we can begin to address them.  That’s the whole principle of “sacred action” that I talk about in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Based Sustainable Practices: engaging in behaviors that help us live in a more sustaining and sacred way. That’s also part of what I see as the necessary de/un-colonizing work we all must do.

One of the most important myths to counter is the idea of nature being at our disposal to use as we see fit–and for this, a counter practice that I share today is what I call “deep gratitude.” Deep gratitude is developing a consistent, mindful, and sustaining gratitude practice for the world around you.

Three Reasons to Practice Deep Gratitude

If you want to get right to the practice, skip this section.  If you want to hear why I believe deep gratitude is critical and some of the things we need to counter, keep reading!

Nature Loyalty over Brand Loyalty. One of the problems with industrialization, consumption, and materialism is that we lack a true sense of gratitude for the earth that provides for us. The system purposely disconnects us from our food and the sources of our food and the land that sustains us. The system disconnects us from the sources of nature which provide the goods we use (e.g. the “distributed by” label). Instead of having gratitude for nature, which literally provides our every need (even very indirectly in this current age), we have brand loyalty. Companies and corporations steal that loyalty, cultivate it, and we somehow feel beholden to them.  But the true source of our clothing, housing, food, and possessions is the earth, and thus, we need to cultivate gratitude and loyalty to the earth from which everything is derived. So one way we might realign ourselves with the correct loyalty (to the living earth) rather than the things that strip the earth of resources (Walmart) is by simply practicing deep gratitude.

Gratitude for the sun, rain, and mists that provide sustenance to the land

The other thing here is that brand loyalty erases the other part of this equation: the people whose labor makes these things we consume happen. The hands that grow, and pick, and package, and ship, and sell. These people aren’t just cogs in a machine, their labor–which allows us to eat, have clothes, etc–also matters.

The Lure of Money. I another reason that gratitude matters is because of the disconnection and greed that money fosters. Money disconnects us and, like brand loyalty, cultivates a deep love and desire for money. If you think about it on an abstract level, the system is kind of bonkers: you labor for someone, and they give you money.  Then you go to the store and use the money to buy what you need (clothes, food, etc). That whole exchange privileges money and wealth; what it doesn’t privilege is natural abundance or the earth from which all flows. Money disconnects us.  Money creates a whole lot of intermediaries that distance us from the earth and from our fellow humans.  We are the only beings on the planet who live in such a way.  Everyone else for the most part (unless they are domesticated and live with us) depends directly on the natural earth for everything. At the same time, we can be grateful for our own labor that has produced the funds necessary to procure the goods that sustain us.  Self-care and self-love is certainly part of the deep gratitude equation.

Nature is not Walmart.  But what about things that don’t involve money or aren’t part of the larger industrial system?  We still need gratitude.  I have seen the ramifications of this lack of gratitude in many places, but perhaps none so glaring as in the wild food foraging community.I used to teach a lot of wild food foraging classes locally and regionally, and I’ve paused those classes (the verdict is still out on whether I will again in the future).  Despite my best efforts, I watched people descend upon nature like pirates raiding a merchant ship.  Nature was the treasure and they were treasure hunters.  I watched a group of people–who I had just spent 20 minutes talking to about ethics, reciprocation, and gratitude–strip a patch of woodland nettles down to their roots before I could stop them. I’ve seen people I’ve taught in my previous plant walks posting on social media unsustainable harvests. I feel at least partially responsible for those actions. I’ve been kicked out of multiple foraging groups on social media for talking about the lack of sustainability of harvesting five gallons of ramps with the bulbs intact (my blog readers will know I have a deep love for these endangered woodland medicinal species!)  I offer this example of wild food foraging because getting into the woods isn’t enough–the myths and materialistic forces that drive us there.  So what’s the alternative?

Practicing Deep Gratitude

This all leads me to the practice of deep gratitude as a way of countering these myths. What I mean by deep gratitude is this:

Taking small moments to acknowledge what nature has provided to you and be in gratitude for those gifts. Thinking about the natural resources as well as the human hands that created, moved, and sold things to you so that you can be healthy, comfortable, and well-fed. Slowing down enough to be grateful for what you have and how it has come to you.  Acknowledging the lives and labor that have produced what you will consume and giving thanks.

The practice itself is simple.

If you are consuming anything, have take a moment for gratitude.  If you eat something, have gratitude.  If you purchase something, have gratitude. You want to honor the life or resources that was given (because something is almost always given when we consume).  Take a moment to simply express your gratitude and thanks for what nature has provided you.

Gratitude for the abundance of nature!

For example, let’s say you are having a banana for breakfast. Spend a moment honoring the tree that that banana came from, the soil web that sustained it, the hands that tended that tree and harvested it, and those people who helped get it to you. If you are engaging in repairs to your house, be grateful for the materials–where they came from, what was given (the life of the tree for the board for your home), etc.  Simply take the time to honor and acknowledge the earth that provided, the hands that provided, and be thankful.

If you harvested something directly, either from a garden you grew or from nature in the wild, be grateful.  Before you harvest, ask permission.  If you can, leave a small offering before you take anything.

Try this practice as often as you can–I suggest starting for a week and seeing how it goes. Even if you don’t do it for everything, start with one thing, like what you eat or what you wear.  Practice gratitude at your meals, for example, or for anything new that you buy.  I don’t think you can do this all the time, but if you do it some of the time, that is enough to help cultivate this gratitude within you.

I’ve been practicing this for some time now, and it has done a few things for me.  First, I have paid a lot more attention to the steps and ways in which things get to me: if I’m eating a banana (which obviously doesn’t grow here in Pennsylvania), I think about the steps it took to reach me and offer gratitude to everything from the living earth to those who grew and sold it.  Second, it affirmed the need to source everything as locally as possible (which I already do) so that I can offer my gratitude directly.  For example, I buy milk from my local farmer.  I can take a moment to thank the farmer and when I visit to pick up the milk, thank the cows and the grass that sustains them. Another thing this practice does is center permaculture ethics in my life: I am constantly thinking of the triad of earth care, people care, and fair share as I go throughout my day. I’m thinking about these ethical dimensions and drawing attention to both the earth-based and human-based ways in which others have touched me, nourished me, and helped sustain me. I’m stripping out loyalty to oppressive systems and instead focusing on what actually provides for me: the living earth and those others who are directly involved. Finally, this practice has created more joy in my life. Rather than rushing through a meal, I take the time to savor it, being grateful for a full belly and the beautiful asparagus from the garden.

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep gratitude is a fundamentally transformational practice. It encourages you to slow down, pause, and be grateful. Being grateful makes things more meaningful, and our experience is richer for it. It roots us in the here and now and re-aligns our minds and hearts with the living earth. I think  I hope you’ll give it a try (if you don’t do something like this already). I would love to hear your thoughts about how you practice gratitude in your life!

PS:  I have a few updates on my new book!  Thanks to all who have already supported me by purchasing it!  First, I was featured on the latest Druidcast (episode 171) talking about my new book Sacred Actions.  The book also has a number of reviews: one from Nimue Brown at Druid Life, one from Bish at the Druid’s Network, one from Dean Easton at A Druids Way, and one from James Nichol at Contemplative Druidry, one from Regina Chante, and more out soon!