The Druid's Garden

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

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors November 3, 2019

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

 

Awen and the bee

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

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

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

 

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

Awen from the heavens

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

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

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

 

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

 

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

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

How to Create Your Own Tarot or Oracle Deck for Personal Use October 6, 2019

 

My local ogham-like oracle system :)

My local ogham-like oracle system 🙂

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

 

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

 

What is an oracle? Why create one yourself?

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

 

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

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

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

 

Setting Vision and  Intentions

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

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

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

 

The Tarot of Trees

Your Oracle: Established Meanings or New Ground

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

 

Using and adapting an established oracle/tarot system.

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

 

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

 

Creating an entirely new oracle system.

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

 

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

My ancestor oracle

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Matter: Options for Making Your Oracle

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

Paper-based options

 

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

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

 

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

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

Object and Wooden options

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

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

 

Spirit: Developing Meanings and Uses

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

Developing meanings

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

 

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

 

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

Ancestor oracle

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

 

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

 

Developing Ways of Use

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

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

 

Tree Spirit Oracle

 

 

Use your Oracle

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

 

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

 

 

Using an Oracle or Tarot Deck to Establish Sacred Space September 22, 2019

Plant Spirit Oracle

As some of you may know from my posts on Facebook and Instagram, in early 2020, I’ll be releasing the Plant Spirit Oracle as my second self-published divination deck (if you want to support the project, see link in the right sidebar with the Oak image). I described the Plant Spirit Oracle project a bit in an earlier post. For today’s post, I wanted to share a ritual space strategy that I developed as part of the PSO project–how to use a tarot or oracle deck to establish a sacred space.

 

The idea in a nutshell is that rather than calling in th elements or powers in a more static way, you can use an oracle deck to draw upon them in a more dynamic way. Thus, each time you create sacred space, you will be asking the cards to help you select the right energies for the space.  I’ve been using this in my own practices for about a year and it works beautifully. While the Plant Spirit Oracle is used and mentioned below, you can adapt this to be used with any oracle or tarot deck that you enjoy using–I have instructions at the end for how to do so.  Most sacred space openings use one set of energy (e.g. calling air, fire, water, earth, and spirit) and the energy is always the same for any sacred space. This approach allows for the divine/spirit/nature (through the use of the divination deck) to call forth specific energies for a specific need–thus, spirit helps you create the specific sacred space you need. Thus, each sacred space you create using this method is different and unique to your specific circumstances.

 

Tje following segment on how to use the approach is adapted from the fourth chapter of the Plant Spirit Oracle book. While the first three chapters of the book focus on how to use the PSO as a divination tool, the last two chapters offer deeper work.  The fourth chapter focuses on the ritual, magical, and spirit journeying approaches to working with plants in the PSO.  The 5th chapter focuses on herbalism practices–thus, working deeply with the sacred plants both on the outer and inner planes.  And without further delay, here is how to establish sacred space with an oracle deck!

 

Excerpt from the Plant Spirit Oracle Book: Establishing Sacred Space with the Plant Spirit Oracle

To do many of the deeper activities with the PSO as described in this chapter, you will want to establish a sacred space in which to work. You may even find it useful to establish a sacred space when using this oracle for meditation or divination purposes. Creating a sacred space can help you get into a more receptive mindset and clear away (and keep away) negative energies that may interfere in your work.  It also helps you create a mental shift, shifting you from “everyday time” to “sacred time.”

 

Preliminaries: Setting up a physical space is an important part of establishing sacred space. If you are indoors, you might set up a small altar with candles, incense, herbs, and so on. This is also a place to put your PSO deck for use during the ceremony. If you are outdoors, find a quiet space you are drawn to, and, if you feel led, make a small natural altar from stones, sticks, flowers, and such. Lay out a cloth and your PSO deck in the center of the space.

 

The Great Soil Web of Life

Opening a Sacred Space

 

Step 1: Clear yourself and the space. Begin by using a technique to clear yourself and the area around you. For example, you can use a smoke cleansing (smudge) stick of dried herbs. Clear yourself and smudge the space. If you don’t have a smoke clearing stick, you can burn some kitchen herbs (Sage or Rosemary) on a piece of charcoal. Alternatively, make a strong tea of herbs (Sage, Rosemary) and then asperge yourself and the area by flicking drops of the tea around with a branch or your fingers. If you are outside, you can use a branch with leaves or pine needles to asperge the space. You can also use music, like ringing a bell, sounding a drum, or using a singing bowl.

 

Step 2: Declare your intent for the ceremony. Indicate to the spirits why you are establishing this sacred space. Are you working with the oracle for divination? Finding your plant spirit ally? Journeying? Let the spirits know. Here is an example: “Sacred plant spirits, I call to you to assist me in doing a plant spirit journey to learn deeper wisdom from the Reishi.”

 

Step 3: Shuffle your PSO deck. As you shuffle, keep your sacred intent for the ceremony in mind.

 

Step 4: Call forth four plant spirit allies. Now walk to the east with the oracle cards in hand. Hold the deck up to the east and say, “Spirits of the East! Powers of the Air! I call to you to reveal my eastern guardian.” Draw a card from the PSO and speak the plant’s name. Then say, “I thank you [plant] for your protection and wisdom this day.” Set the card down in the east as you move to the south.

 

In the south, repeat the above: “Spirits of the South! Powers of Fire! . . .”

 

Move to the west and repeat the above: “Spirits of the West! Powers of Water! . . .”

 

Move to the north and repeat the above: “Spirits of the North! Powers of the Earth! . . .”

 

Move to the center of your space put your deck on the ground. Say, “Spirits of the land beneath me, spirits of the interconnected web of all life, I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit below. . . .”

 

Stay in the center and raise your deck to the sky above you. Say, “Spirits of the skies above, the celestial turning wheel of the stars. I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit above. . . .”

 

Hold the deck to your chest and say, “Spirits of the spark of life, of the hope of regeneration. I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit within. . . .”

 

As you do all of this, you are physically creating a circle of cards around you (leave them for the duration of the ceremony if you feel so moved).

 

Step 5: Envision a circle of plant protection. Stand in the middle of your space and visualize the energies from the seven cards creating a powerful protective sphere of plant matter around your space. When you have this firmly visualized, say, “I thank the powers of nature and the plant spirits for their protection and healing.” Gather up your cards (or leave them in place, if you are not doing divination or do not need the full deck). The sacred space is now open.

Closing a Sacred Space

Once you have completed whatever work you want to do with the PSO, you should close out your sacred space. Closing out the space helps you return to normal space.

 

Step 1: Make an offering. Make an offering to the plant spirits who have helped you hold your space.  If you do not have a physical offering, you can offer these words or your own:

 

“By bramble and by seed; by star and by thorn; by root and by bud, I honor you, great spirits of nature. Earth mother, plant spirits, thank you for your wisdom and guidance.”

 

Step 2: Thank the four directions and plant spirits. Now, move to the north and thank the plant spirit who protected the space, saying, “Spirits of the North, powers of Earth, and [plant spirit], thank you for your wisdom and protection this day.” Move to the west, south, and east, and repeat, phrasing appropriately.

 

Step 3. Return energy of the plant protection circle to the earth. Return to the center of your space and once again focus on the energy of the plant protection circle that you created. Envision any remaining energy moving out of the sphere and into the earth, for her healing and blessing.

 

Step 4: Close your space. Cross your arms and bow your head, saying, “I thank the plant spirits for their wisdom and blessings.”

 

 

Example Sacred Space Opening

Let’s say that you want to do a harvest ritual at the fall equinox to honor the many gifts you have been given, make offerings to spirit, and focus on the quiet of the winter that is to come.  You decide to open up your space using the PSO (or other divination deck). Before beginning your ritual, you clear your mind and focus on the intent. Then, you do the opening ritual as above and you get the following cards at each of the seven directions:

 

There is a clear energy being brought into this space from drawing these particular cards. In the East, we have Spruce, which focuses on openness, journeys, and travel. In the south, we have Catnip, which focuses on opposites, contrasts, or separation. This energy may be helping us overcome those things (depending on the working), or bringing in that energy.  In the west, we have Burdock, which is all about recovery, rest, and fallow periods. In the north is Comfrey, which is about resources, wealth, and personal action. The three center cards are Above/Oak: masculinity, strength, and wisdom; Below/Sweet flag: clarity, concentration, and insight; and bringing it all together is Within/Apple: abundance, comfort, and harvest. These energies, in their different positions, would lend you their strength–bringing in the openness, wisdom, and separation from the “always-on” mentality to allow you to rest; enjoying the resources that you were given; enjoying the abundance of the season. These cards would not only offer you a ritual space but some commentary on the nature of the ritual work you might want to do. They offer you a message on what to focus on as you proceed with your ritual.

Adapting this Practice for Other Oracle/Divination Decks

You can use this same sacred space opening and close with any other oracle deck.  With that said, I suggest you choose carefully.  An oracle deck with weird or dark energy will bring that same kind of energy into a working–which might be appropriate for your purposes or might not.  Each oracle or divination deck has a mind of its own, and may or may not be open to this kind of work.

 

Conclusion

Regardless of what deck you use, this is a very accessible, and yet, deep way to craft a magical space for whatever purposes you might need.  As I mentioned in the opening, the crowdfunding campaign was released this week to fund our print run.  If you are interested in supporting the PSO, please visit the Indigogo page.  We have original art, readings, and the chance to preorder book and deck sets!  As always, thank you for reading and for your support. I hope you find this helpful–and blessings upon your journey this harvest season!

 

Earthen Nature Spirit Statues with Cob September 15, 2019

An earth spirit statue in my greenhouse, freshly made with sticks and an oak gall

A lifetime ago, myself and a dear friend dug some clay out of a hillside.  We each took half of it.  My half of the clay was used to form an earthen statue, a guardian statue, for that same friend who was struggling with terminal cancer while still in his early 20’s. It had a wooden tree knot head, stones for its belly, a stick staff, and an earthen body.  My friend accepted it reverently, and it went with him everywhere, even till the end. As he struggled with his battle with cancer, it grew nicked and chipped.  The wooden head fell off, just as my friend’s brain cancer grew more serious. When he passed on, the earthen statue passed on with him, returning to the earth. This statue was an impermanent being; fashioned of unfired clay. It was brittle, yet, in its own way, full of strength. It was ephemeral, and yet perfect in its lack of permanence.  It was a spirit statue, channeled from nature, with a bit of spirit within it, there to help my friend on his journey.

 

I had forgotten about this small statue until quite recently.  I’ve been cobbing several times a week, working to get my back greenhouse cobblestone/cob heatsink wall done.  One day, I had just a little cob left over. Not enough to set more stones on the wall, but enough to play with.  I started to shape it and felt the power of the Awen and of spirit flowing through me.  I saw a vision of all of these earthen statues, shaped, with sticks, shells formed and strong. I saw them left, to break down quietly in the elements and return to the earth with her blessing. And then, I remembered that earthen statue that I made all those years ago to try to provide healing and strength for my friend. And so, I’ve been experimenting working with such earth spirit statues. After sharing a few of my photos with friends, several suggested that I write about how I make these and how I use them ceremonially.  So today’s post, part of my cob building series, looks at the process of making earthen nature spirit statues all from simple materials found in your local landscape.  This is something that ANYONE can do, regardless of artistic skill.  So let’s get muddy!

 

Ephemeral Sacred Objects

In earlier posts on this blog, I worked with the idea of building nature shrines and sacred spaces of all kinds.  One of the things I often stressed as part of that work was not bringing things into those spaces that might be harmful or damaging to the land.  So I suggested natural things, things like shells, stones, wood, bones–things that you gather yourself, from the land, and allow to return to the land.  Or I suggested things that would easily return to the land, like wood burned object, hand-dyed natural fibers, etc. These will break down quickly due to the elements, but that’s exactly the point.

 

Many earth spirit statues

As I have talked about over the last few weeks, Cob is a natural building material made of clay, sand, and straw.  When you make something from Cob, it’s not fired.  It will not hold up to water. It will break down in the snow, wind, rain, and ice. Why, then, would you make statues out of cob if you know they will break down? First, because there is a magic in impermanence, magic in the making.  When you know something is only going to be a certain way only for a short period of time, it holds additional value.  For example, when my strawberry patch starts to produce the best-tasting strawberries, I know there is a short window, maybe 2 weeks, where I get to enjoy them fresh from the plant.  The rest of the year, I might enjoy preserves, but never that fresh succulent strawberry right from the vine.  Sacred objects can be like that too–an object you carefully construct, with the full knowledge that it will be broken down, creates a different kind of relationship. A sacred relationship based on the immediate moment. Creating these statues asks you to be in a place for this moment in time, to simply be present, making these, working with the cob between your hands. Letting the natural objects find their own shape and in their own time.  And not rushing it.   For there is much magic in the making.

 

There is magic in the making, and there is magic in the placing. An earthen spirit statue’s goal is to return gracefully to the land.  If you want, you can work slow magic with these, on nature’s time and at nature’s pace, as part of this work.  Almost all of my earthen spirit statues are used for the purposes of land healing.  As I shape them, I speak my healing words into them, I work healing energies through my fingertips. I sing, I chant, I smile, I laugh. I put the energy of life and light into my statues. And maybe when they are done, I put some more into them ritually, adding the powers of the elements and the sacred animals of the druid tradition.  Then, they become like little healing shrines all to themselves.  Carefully wrap one and put it in your backpack while you are on a hike, leaving it in the nook of a tree.  Place one on a stone in a stream, knowing the floods will carry it away.  Bury one in a snowdrift in a logged forest to offer peace to the survivors.  Offer one to your local lady of the lake.  Place one in your garden to nurture your plants to grow, letting it become soil you will plant in.

Gathering Materials and Decorations

There are two parts to an earthen spirit statue.  Natural items, such as feathers, leaves, sticks, stones, nuts, roots, seeds, and more are one of those parts. Take a small basket into the woods, beach, bog, desert or whatever is near you.  Walk intentionally and slowly, letting small bits of nature speak to you.  If they call out, pick them up, and leave an offering in thanks.  Once you have a good selection to work with, its time to make your cob!

 

Making Cob

And so, let us put our feet and hands into the earth and make our cob! For an introduction to our delightful material, you should look at the introduction to cob construction here, and how to make cob here. I will also offer basic instructions here, as they differ slightly from the instructions on my introduction to cob page. In a nutshell, cob is a combination of clay, sand, and straw.  This combination, in the right amount (1 part clay/silt to 2 parts sand) makes a perfect material for building earthen spirit statues.

To make your cob:

  • Dig down to the subsoil (see here for more details).  Fill up part of a wheelbarrow (1/2 or so).  Screen it, removing any rocks, sticks, or other debris.  The goal is to have just clay, sand, and straw.
  • Put your material on a tarp.  Make a well in the center of the soil, and then, add water.  Mix with your feet, putting your prayers, energy, and love into that material.  Dance with the spirits as you dance on your cob.  Take a side of your tarp and flip the cob, adding more water to make a good firm dough consistency.
  • If you want extra strength, you can add a bit of fine straw.  To add straw, take your scissors and carefully cut the straw up into 1/2 in pieces or less.  then sprinkle it through, working it in with your feet.
  • Pick up some of your cob.  It should hold its shape well and you should be able to work it.  Add more soil if its too wet and more water if it’s too dry and crumbly.
  • The goal is a nice firm but doughy texture that will hold its shape and that you can form.

 

Goose blessing of my cob

Make Your Statues

Make your statues however you see fit.  the easiest way is to create a cylinder by rolling the cob in your hands or on a solid surface. Then, find the natural objects you want to include.  Press them into the cob, shaping it as you go.  Stick some sticks coming out of it, shells, or dried turkey tail mushrooms (or similar small polypore mushroom). Let the objects speak to you, and let the clay speak to you. Make no thought if it is “good” or “right”; refrain from any value judgments. Your goal is to channel the spirits of nature, and they are not concerned with the physical vessel you are creating.  Don’t fuss over it.  Let it be complete, and make another.  And another, and another, until you feel you are done.  As you make, laugh. Get muddy. Sing to the statues, drum.  Call for the sacred powers of nature who might aid you.  Put happy, healing, and light energy into your work.  Let go.

 

Bless your statues

If you feel the need, you can do an additional blessing for your statues.  Draw upon the power of earth, air, fire, and water, and give a blessing to them–smudge them with incense, drip some beeswax on them or hold them to the flame.  Give them some water drips, smear them with soil.

 

More earth spirit statues!

Place your statues

Find a home for your statues in the nooks and crannies of the landscape.  They want to travel, go somewhere, send their healing energy out as they begin to break down. Put them in unconventional places.  Put the in places in need of light and healing.  Put them on nature shrines.  Put them in your druid’s anchor spot. Visit them and watch them break down, or leave them never to return. You can put one on your altar for a while, but make an agreement between the two of you how long it will be there so that you can return it at the right time (these energies are meant to move between you and the land freely). There is no right or wrong path, just you, the spirits of nature, and how spirit moves through you.

 

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob September 8, 2019

Happy feet mixing cob!

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

 

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

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Soil Jar Test

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

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

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

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

24 hour later, all has settled.

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

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

 

Clay Ribbon Test

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

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

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

How to Make Cob!

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

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

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

 

Tools

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

Screen with soil

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

Making Cob

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

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

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

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

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

The well with water

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

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

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

 

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

A good mix!

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

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

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

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

 

Plastic Waste into Resources: Exploring Ecobricks as Building Tools August 25, 2019

As I described in last week’s post, at least here in the US, we have serious challenges befalling us with plastic recycling along with a host of waste plastics that can never be recycled. A recycling infrastructure built almost exclusively on exporting masses of “dirty” recycling to China now has the recycling system here in the US is in shambles when China stopped taking recycling. Further, so many plastics simply can’t be recycled, meaning that even well meaning folks who recycle everything they can still end up throwing away enormous amounts of single-use plastics, packaging, film, and other waste. In permaculture design terms, it is time to turn some of this waste into a resource!  So in today’s post, I’d like to explore the concept of making ecobricks as a way to sink large amounts of un-recyclable waste into a productive resource and share some designs and ideas for using ecobricks for building projects.

 

Ecobricks, also known as Bottle Bricks, are a concept that has been growing in popularity, particularly in developing nations who are awash with plastic.  When we have plastic literally filling up oceans, streams, and communities, communities start looking for ways of dealing with that plastic–and ecobricks are one of the solutions that everyday people are creating. In a nutshell, you take a plastic bottle, fill it with unrecyclable plastic, and use it as a building tool for all kinds of projects.  If combined with other kinds of sustainable building techniques, like Cob, it is buildling tool can be used again and again, in the event that the original thing you built you want to dismantle.

 

Why are Ecobricks a spiritual and sustainable practice?

Ecobricks present multiple kinds of “solutions” and benefits.  Before getting into the specifics of how to make them, I want to share these benefits.

Accessibility and empowerment. The first thing I really like about ecobricks as a sustainable solution is that they are easy enough that anyone can make them.  And everyone has access to the basic materials (which are all free, and all considered waste).  Even if you choose not to use ecobricks in your own project, there is a global network of people who are making them to contribute to community projects (see more at grobrick.com).

 

Raising awareness and raising plastic consciousness. Saving up the plastics for ecobricks (and seeking out additional plastics) helps shift one’s own awareness about the proliferation of plastic.  New studies have recently demonstrated the serious toll that plastic is having in the world, from drinking water to oceans to our own bodies.  By treating it as a resource and changing your relationship to plastic, it helps you raise your own “plastic consciousness” in terms of both how much plastic you consume, but also, how much would get thrown away if you weren’t creating ecobricks.

 

Magic and intention. Making the ecobricks has a deeply spiritual side, a kind of sacred action.  Because it takes a long time to make ecobricks, as you create, it becomes a kind of meditation.  As you push the plastic into the brick, you can meditate on the world you are creating, rather than the world that created that plastic.  You can write on the ecobrick your hopes and dreams for the future, as many people do all over the world–these then become a way of doing both inner and outer alchemy through the transformation of waste plastic into a resource.  The brick making becomes a magical act to help us create a different future.

 

Accountability. When it comes to plastic, people in privileged places often have an “away” mentality.  Thus, our goal is to make the plastic go away as soon as it no longer serves us. Plastic packaging is wanted till the plastic is out of the package–then it needs to go away as fast as possible.  Recycling allows it go away (at least mentally).  But the truth is this: no plastic ever goes truly away.  We are each personally responsible for the plastic we create demand for: from being willing to purchase plastic products to forgetting one’s reusable grocery bags and asking for plastic, that plastic is now yours.  Ecobricks allows us to take a personal responsibility for plastics.   And responsibility changes our relationship not only with the plastic, but with the land, who suffers too often from humanity’s plastic addiction.

 

Ecobricks as a Transitioning Technology. Obviously, plastic is not sustainable–the very opposite. We know that plastic, out in the ecosystem, causes serious concernes environmntally and for the health of all beings.  A lot of people are moving away from plastic, into zero waste lifestyles, and really evaluating the plastic in their lives.  Ecobricks are a transition tool–the more plastic you are able to lock up in ecobricks, the more you don’t allow back into the environment.  This page explains this concept more in depth.

 

I hope that the above is enough to convince you that this is a great possibility for your own plastic!  Now let’s take a look at how to make the bricks and what projects you can build with them.

 

Making an Ecobrick: Step by Step Instructions

The process of making an ecobrick simple, and I’ll walk through it step by step.  First you gather up your materials.  Since I’m working on a “big project” that will probably require several hundred bricks, I’m being really methodical about it.  I keep every bit of non-recyclable plastic in plastic bags and keep these near the recycling, compost, vermicompst, and trash in my home.  Thus, there are now five options: vermicompost for coffee grounds and food scraps, compost for any other organic material, recycling for regular materials that can be recycled, and the ecobrick station for everything else.  This means very little goes in the trash! I also am prepared to gather up any excess plastic in other locations that I frequent–my workplace, places I hike, etc.  I’m also in the process of recruiting friends and family to help me create more ecobricks or, at the least, save me their plastic for me to create more.

 

In this first image, this is a collection of a about a month of saving plastic from the sources listed above.  Into my wheelbarrow goes everything from: unavoidable one use plastic (such as straws, plastic silverware), twist ties, bread bags, styrofoam, plastic baggies, plastic packaging, films, wraps, and so forth.  I gathered a lot of this from my workplace and also as trash along the side of the road or in the woods. Once you start collecting, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to collect and how quickly you can gather enough for one brick.  For example, a local picnic used 15 plastic tablecloths, which I gathered up and stuffed into a brick, making almost one full brick from that single picnic!

Here are two more photos of some of the selection from my most recent ecobrick making time: some food packaging that isn’t recyclable from bread, quinoa, and avocado, just to give you an idea:

Unrecyclable plastic avocado bag with preening goose in background

The world is full of this stuff!  You can find it at your house, at your work, littered in parking lots, in the woods, at the beach…you get the idea!

Once you’ve gathered your supplies, you will also need some 1 or 2 liter soda bottles.  If you don’t produce them yourself, a walk down the street of any urban or suburban area on recycling day is sure to produce many for you!  Or just ask people you know who drink soda. I usually store these in the same box I am gathering up my materials.

Goose inspection of my bottles

I usually gather stuff up for a while, and then make a few ecobricks at the same time.  Once you hvae your material, you can begin stuffing your bottles. You might want to include some nice colored plastic on the bottom of your bottle. The reason you might want something nice colored is that when you build with them, if you choose to let the bottoms be seen, you can have different colors! Certainly, you want something soft so you can stuff it into the cracks, so don’t use any hard plastic for this purpose.

Bottom of bottle

The technique is very simple, however, there are a few tricks to make really good bricks. First, you want a stick or dowel rod so as you get almost full, you can shove it down and keep stuffing further.  Ecobricks need to be carefully compacted without much give or when used as a building material, a poor brick can compromise the structure. Stuffing the bricks as full as possible and using some muscle to push down the brick is necessary. Sometimes, larger materials can be twisted into the bricks. Other times, I’ve found I have to cut them into smaller pieces to have them fit (especially true for thicker plastics).

Stuffing an ecobrick with Widdershins’ supervision

 

Twist method for a plastic bag

Fill up your ecobrick with plastic, stuffing down with the stick several times as it gets full. When you can’t add any more and the brick is firm, you can finish it by adding a cap. Your brick is done!  If you want, you can register it at GoBrik.com and it will keep track for you of how much plastic you stored and how much C02 you saved.  You’ll also get a brick number label and you can contribute your ecobrick to any number of ecobrick projects (or start one of your own).

Three recent ecobricks!

I have found that each ecobrick takes maybe 20 minutes to make, once you sit down and do it.  I usually only make 2 at a time because it takes a lot of muscle to make them!   They also take a lot more plastic than you would think–the last few I made, I counted and they took between 35-50 distinct pieces of plastic, depending on the size.  You can also invite others to gather up their plastics and come over and have an ecobrick party!

 

 

Travel Ecobricks

What is fun about this process is that it has been deeply empowering.  Rather than lamenting each piece of plastic I threw away that wasn’t recyable, I’m now seeking out waste plastic for my bricks.  For example, during a recent trip to Lake Erie with friends we had a few opportunities to do some beachcombing.  I was picking up plastic all over the beach and stuffing it in a found 2 liter bottle, which I brought home.  While I used to pick up trash only to recycle what I can and throw the rest away, I now can lock up that plastic in a brick that will be a resource.  Just this past week, I had a picnic lunch for work as part of our opening year activities and I gathered up everyone’s waste straws, plastic bags, and chip bags for my brick.

 

There’s lots of ways to easily collect plastic. Take an empty 2-liter bottle and a dowel rod with you when you go anywhere or anywhere you might spend time that generates plastic. A small one can fit in a purse or bag, even.  Thus,  I now have an ecobrick in my car, I have one at my workplace, I have one in my purse.  I recently went camping and took one with me (and finished it in one weekend by collecting plastic out of the woods!) I am now handing out sticks and bottles to friends and family, and asking them to make them for me (yes, I need a lot for the project).  For Lughnasadh recently, we had a grove event and the grove helped make part of a brick.

 

What I love about this is that everywhere I go, I am leaving the world a bit better by collecting that plastic and putting it to a productive use.

 

Building Projects

There are great resources online that share different kinds of things you can do with the eocbricks.  People make walls from them, benches, raised beds, furnature, even whole structures!   Pintrest has a number of excellent boards where people are sharing ideas for using ecobricks, such as this one!   

My long-term plan is to create an outdoor kitchen using ecobricks, which I am estimating will take at least 100 ecobricks in total. The ecobricks will help me create the basic surfaces on which I will build a cob oven and will also help build counter spaces and benches.  Ecobricks, combined with cob (a natural building material of clay, sand, and straw) and with a good roof, will create a long-term structure that will offer us many years of use–for druid grove events and simple family meals! Ecobricks will be part of the entire kitchen, and I estimate that I will need at least 100 to complete the project!  Here are some of my initial plans.  Some of these things I’ve had the opportunity to build before, but others are new!

Outdoor kitchen plans

Cob oven plans

 

In terms of how to build walls, seats, and more, two such videos that offer a good introduction:

 

 

If you plan on making some ecobricks, please share your ideas and plans here!  I would love to hear of anyone else who has a project in mind.  Blessings!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Boney Dump iron oxide - my favorite pigment to date!

Boney Dump iron oxide – my favorite pigment to date!

 

Getting into Pigment Making

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Sourcing Natural Pigments

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Tools for Paint Making

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

 

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

 

Materials for Paint Making and How Paint Works

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

 

Paint Supplies: Watercolors

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

 

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

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

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

 

Paint Supplies: Oils

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

 

Paint Supplies: Egg Tempera

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

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

 

Preparing Your Pigments

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

 

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

Rock breaking.

Rock breaking.

 

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

Slate pigment at various stages

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Making Your Paint

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

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

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

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

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

Mulling pigment.

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

What you are looking for is a very smooth grind.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Using Your Paint

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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