The Druid's Garden

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

Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II June 25, 2017

Creativity is the singing of the soul.  When we create, we draw from the deepest parts of who we are and express ourselves to the world.  The act of creation, the drawing forth and connecting to our inner selves, is the joy involved in creativity.  Having something nice in the end, to me, seems like a bonus! I believe this act of channeling the awen is not only inherently spiritual, it is also part of what it means to be human.  But to allow our souls to really sing, we have to grow comfortable with what we create, we have to set aside our judgement, and and to grow our skills as bards.

 

Last week, I explored what the bardic arts are, the cultural challenges associated with the bardic arts, and some ways community groups circumvent said challenges.   We looked at the creative spirit of children, and how that spirit gets repressed by cultural challenges and the langauge of disempowerment.  We looked at the ways that we think about “talent” and “creativity” serve to severely disempower us from pursuing the joy that is the bardic arts. Now that we have some sense of what has prevented more people from engaging in their creative and human gifts, we can now turn towards answering the two questions I posed last week:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

Last week, I also established four broad categories of bardic arts, which we’ll be returning to in this post:

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

And with that background, let’s begin to answer the two questions above and move into a place of empowerment, creativity, and the flowing of awen!

 

The Triad of Bardic Development: Exposure, Technique, and Practice

In the same way that the ancient bards were dedicated to their craft and in the same way that children devote countless hours to their own creative expressions, so, too, do we need to carefully cultivate our modern bardic arts if we are to grow our gifts. I’ll use myself as an example here of how we might cultivate the bardic arts.

 

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

Spirit of St. John’s Wort (painting inspired by nature, part of my plant spirit series)

I have been a visual artist focusing on the theme of trees and whimsical nature art and have been seriously pursuing this work for over a decade. As part of my own development as an artist, I often go to the natural world for inspiration and observation: studying the patterns of leaves, sketching in the woods, taking photographs, and bringing that inspiration back into my art studio. I also regularly expose myself to the work of others who are using different artistic techniques (talking with them, viewing artwork, reading books on techniques).  I go to museums and study, in detail, various watercolor paintings.  I talk to watercolor artsits about their own style and process and inspiration.  We share work with each other and ask about techniques.  Regardless of how “good” I have become, I regularly take classes, read books, watch youtube tutorials, which helps me gain the theories and techniques of a visual artist.  Often, as part of these classes, I get expert feedback on how to improve my work. Finally, I practice my art as often as possible, several times a week (often for several hours), in a space dedicated for this purpose. Practice doesn’t just mean do the same artwork over and over, but rather, I regularly take on new challenging subjects and new media so that I can continue to grow as an artist.  This might mean that I don’t always succeed, but there is much value in the practice.

 

In fact, the way that I develop my skill as a visual artist is no different than the Jazz musician who practices his scales each day, or the aspiring poet who memorizes large chunks of others’ poetry, or woodworker who hones her skills. And this is important: there are things that you can do, regardless of what skill level you begin at, that will help you make good progress on whatever bardic art you choose to undertake.  Further, from my example above, we can see that there are at least three essential paths towards developing bardic skills:

 

The first path of the aspiring bard is immersing yourself  in the thing you wish to master. You have to expose yourself in the world of that particular bardic art and begin to understand how others are already working on that bardic art. How this path manifests depends on the broad genre of bardic arts:

  1. Visual: Visual artists cultivate keen observation skills (of the subject matter) and also expose themselves to others’ artwork.
  2. Literary: Literary artists read copious amounts of others’ work; for poets this may include memorization of others’ poetry and forms.
  3. Performance: A performer would attend many performances and observe other performers practicing their art.
  4. Craft: A craftsperson would study as much of the craft of others as possible.  For example, a leatherworker would study other people’s leather working techniques and finished products, and so on.

 

The second path of the aspiring bard is to learn and practice the techniques of your art/craft. Each bardic art has a set of theories and techniques that you need to understand in order to develop proficiency and eventual mastery. Studying these theories and techniques (on your own and/or through others’ instruction) can greatly assist you as an aspiring bard. Specific bardic arts have their own techniques and their own tools, some of which are listed here:

  1. Visual: Techniques using particular artistic tools, understanding perspective and distance, understanding light/shading, understanding color theory, understanding how paint blends on a page, etc.
  2. Literary: Understanding the structure of a story; studying rhyme, studying different forms of poetry, building vocabulary, studying syntax
  3. Performance: The technical aspects of dance (how to safely perform different moves), how to engage an audience, the technical aspects of acting, singing, vibrato, positioning, lighting a space, etc.
  4. Craft: Technical aspects of the craft, for example, in leatherworking it would be cutting leather, using leather tools, dying and staining leather, finishing, putting pieces together, designing patterns, knowing which kinds of leathers to use for which projects.  Each craft has its own techniques.

Some techniques may transfer from bardic art to bardic art, while others need to be learned anew. For example, drawing skill helps me not only as a painter, but also as a leatherworker when I’m designing and creating leather tooled pieces. But that drawing skill is not so helpful when I’m trying to tell stories around the fire!

Pracitcing the technqiues for some bardic arts also require the tools: for example, as a watercolor artist, I need, at minimum, high quality brushes of various sizes, watercolor paper of a good quality, and a nice set of watercolor paints. Working with sub-par tools leads to a sub-par experience. Having better tools offers me a better “starting point” and eliminates certain kinds of struggles.

 

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree (from the AODA New Candidate Guide)

The third path of the aspiring bard is dedication and regular practice. Each bardic art requires dedication and practice, at minimum, on weekly level. Remember that practice often includes many things that are never seen by an audience (sketches, practicing the tale in front of the mirror, practice scraps of leather discarded, scales upon scales on an instrument, etc.). And because these things are hidden, we forget that they are ever done. However, dedication and practice are the only way we can achieve any form of proficiency, much less mastery. We don’t get good at something by thinking about it–we get good at it through practice (people seem to understand this with musical instruments but with little else!)

 

A second critical aspect of practice is that different kinds of practices are necessary to achieve proficiency. Sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over gives you a lot of skill doing that particular thing, so that you achieve mastery. So, if you make 100 leather bags, your 100th one will be much better than your first. But at some point, there is a diminishing return to continuing to practice the same thing–you’ll get to a certain point and not be able to go any further. It is for this reason that we also need challenges and exposure to more difficult kinds of practice.

 

A challenging piece/performance requires you to gain new skills, to push your skills a bit beyond what you can handle, and encourages new growth. With challenge is the possibility of failure, but failure is not something to fear.  Failure is a regular and consistent part of the learning process, and all proficient people practicing any bardic art have had their share of failure.  How we handle failure here is key–letting failure be an opportunit to learn, rather than an opportunity to shut down, is critical to our own development (for more info, see Carol Dweck’s TED talk and research on mindsets.  Dweck’s work explores two mindsets for approaching failure–when we can learn and grow, we gain much.  But when we shut down and fear/avoid failure, developmentally, little growth happens). A common saying is that the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried, and this is a very true of the bardic arts.  In this view, as we cultivate our bardic art, we must also cultivate the understanding and openness that is required for long-term growth and success. Embrace failures as part of learning and for the value that they offer. Of course it is frustrating to make a mistake, but mistakes are a sign of growth because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

 

My father and mother offered powerful lessons to me concerning mistakes and failure when I was a small child learning painting.  I remember working on a piece very hard, only to have a huge paint drip go into the middle of the sky.  I was ready to cry.  My father stopped what he was doing, and came over to me, and showed me how to turn that paint drip into a colorful cloud.  He told me that mistakes were an opportunity to try something unplanned, something different, and that some of his best work had been a result of such a mistake.  When this happened again, my mother reinforced the lesson several weeks later. As I continue to learn new things, I am always appriciative of that lesson and what it taught me.

 

And so, is through the triad of exposure, technique, and practice that we can develop proficiency, an eventual mastery, in the bardic arts. Notice that “talent” is not on this list. Anyone, given enough of the triad above, can develop at least a basic proficiency in a bardic art of their choice.  Talent might help speed things along, but it is is not necessary.  If the purpose of the bardic art is the process, the journey, the ability to connect with our hearts and spirits, then the end result seems but a secondary consideraiton.

Developing a Community and Culture of Bardic Arts

What may not be immediately obvious to the aspiring bard is that the triad above is embedded in a broader culture of bardic arts and also embedded in a specific community of practice. Bards need a community to share their work, talk to others about their work, to receive feedback, and to share their bardic gifts. Each community of bards has their specific techniques and tools, practices that are unique to that community. Further, a bard is often incomplete without an audience of some kind, whether that is the reader of a text, the audience of a performance, the viewer of an artistic creation, or the user/receiver of a craft.

 

In the same way that bards need communities in order to develop effectively, so, too do communities need bards. We cannot rebuild the bardic arts on an individual level without also rebuilding the communities in which these bardic arts are shared. Those engaged in the bardic arts need to feel needed; as though their work is important and it matters. Because it does. And so, we have to recognize that our communities are richer and better with our bards present and being bards. Imagine sitting around a fire at night with a dozen or so people—the more of those people engaging and sharing their bardic arts, the more interesting of an evening is shared by all. If nobody has a bardic art to share, the community suffers (and the evening is dull). This, too, is supported by learning research: we know that when people join communities of practice (see, for example, the work of Wegner and colleagues), those communities strongly support overall devleopment in a particular skill.

 

And so, the questions that remain to us now are: How do we build communities without inhibitions against the bardic arts? How do we nature and support people in those communities?

 

Children. As mentioned in last week’s post, children are natural bards, and the first thing we can do in terms of cultivating communities of bardic arts in the long term is to let children be children and to help them retain and cultivate their creative gifts. Children should be free to create, explore, make messes, make music, and collaborate with friends. As parents and loved ones, finding ways of supporting, reinforcing, and cultivating their creative gifts should be encouraged, especially to help provide a balance to mass education systems which discourage creative expression and creative thinking. As children grow up, they should be encouraged to continue to pursue whatever bardic arts inspire them.  They should also be encouraged to view mistakes as an opportunity for growth (which, according to some of the resaerch I included above, is a very teachable thing). These children, then, can grow up to help lead bardic communities of the future.

 

Adolescents and Adults. In terms of the adolescents and adults, some remediation likely needs to be in order, based on the cultural and educational disempowerment so prevalent today. The overall goal is to help adolescents and adults take down their barriers and inhibitions and reconnect to their creativity in the spirit of the freedom children have but tempered by the focus and ability of an older generation.

 

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

First, adults/adolsecents must have opportunities in their material and social contexts for practicing their bardic arts, in the same way that children have. For example, storytelling is a common thing that can be practiced daily. Children are constantly telling stories to each other and to their families. Adults could cultivate the same opportunity. For example, perhaps each member of the family around the dinner table tells the story of their day as part of that meal. This simple family ritual allows for the building of a storytelling culture within a family and gives each opportunity to learn to be a storyteller. The same can be true of many other bardic arts: creating social opportunities for bardic arts to be shared and practiced is an important part of cultivating them. Another option here is the Druid’s Eisteddfod, a circle of bardic arts around the fire.

 

The second thing, also tied to children and creativity, is the fostering of “play time”, that is, unstructured leisure time in which to explore and engage in the bardic arts. As with children’s play, at least some time should not be dedicated to accomplishing a particular task, but simply exploring materials, techniques, and enjoying the process of figuring things out. (This, of course, means we have to reconsider our own relationship with time and make time for these things, which ties directly to my earlier series on “Slowing down the Druid Way.”)

 

The third thing adults/adolsecents need are the tools to engage in the bardic art and access to expertise. Tools can be procured usually fairly directly (a materialist culture lends itself well to such a thing), but expertise might be much harder to come by. Given that, I encourage those interested in a particular art to seek out a local community, or, online community if no local one is present. These things can be learned on one’s own, but it is often more effective to learn from another.  Chances are, anyone who has developed mastery in a bardic art has had plenty of mishaps and mistakes along the way, and its useful to talk about those mistakes as much as it is to talk about the successes!

 

The fourth thing is to reframe our language within that community of practice.  Aspiring bards need both support as well as constructive feedback, and the challenge in a community is finding methods of doing both in ways that nutrure the overall development.  Some communities offer competitions or critique days that allow people to seek feedback to improve their work. These structured forms of critique and feedback are generally a safe space for those who want that kind of feedback.

For Aspiring Bards

And so, now we’ve come to it–how do I begin to take up the path of the bard?  Here are two questions to get you started:

 

Which of the many bardic arts (visual, performance, literary, or craft) seem interesting to you? 

Select something that appeals to you, that is interesting to you and that inspires you.  Find one that sings to your soul. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or can’t do this thing or if you know anyone else who does it—all bardic arts take dedication and work. Try it out for a bit making sure that you have given the practice enough time to get past the very beginning difficult beginner parts. I’d suggest spending a minimum of 20 hours on it over a period of time to see if it fits you well (this is the practice we use in the AODA curriculum and it works tremendously well).  Twenty hours is enough to know if you will enjoy it, it is enough time to have some small successes, and it is enough time to get past the 10 or so frustrating hours (or more) of learning where not much is accomplished. If this bardic art turns out not to be a good fit for you, try something else until you find your right fit. In this process of exploration, you might borrow the necessary tools/equipment for practicing the art rather than buy them to minimize financial investment until you are sure you will pursue this particular bardic art.

 

Where is there a community with whom you can connect?

Seek out a community that is engaging in the same bardic art that you have interest in.  Once you find that community, show up. I strongly advocate for finding a physical community of people who are engaged in your bardic art (or a range of bardic arts) that you can share with. This community should meet regularly (1/month, at minimum). If you can’t find a community, consider starting one (ask friends to come over once a week and play music or share stories by the fire, etc.). Online communities are a way to supplement local communities, but we encourage you to not stop at online communities. Online communities that have some physical component (e.g. art that is traded through the mail, performances that are given, in-person conferences that are present) are much more effective.

 

The Flow of Awen

The Ancient Druids understood that the flow of awen, the divine spark of creativity or inspiration, was a magical thing (and a topic I talked about in depth several weeks ago). And the Ancient Druids weren’t the only ones to recognize this sensation: many cultures recognize a muse or deity that is associated with creativity (the Greek Muses; Sarasvati, Hindu Goddess of the Arts; Hi’aika, Hawaiian Goddess of Dance/Chant; and so on).  Whether you see the awen as a kind of abstract power or something that comes from a diety, the idea is that this creativity flows through a person when he or she is engaged in her bardic art.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: it is a powerful sensation.

 

Personally, I see awen a lot like the flow of a river.  If you are opening up those channels for the first time, it is like water pouring into an area: the river will need to make work to flow effectively; there might be obstructions to work through, and so on.  But the longer the water flows in that spot, the more effectively it can flow and the more channels the water makes. Expressing creativity and channeling the flow of awen is a lot like using a muscle—it can atrophy if it is not used. And yet, any muscle can be brought back into health with enough practice; you might see this like a kind of “bardic therapy.”

 

This is where everything in this post comes in: we need tools, practice, and skill to allow the awen to flow through our lives and inspire us.  And when we are in a place with our own skills and abilities as a bard, the awen can flow strong and we can create incredible works.  We need the basic skills and approaches so that we can forget about the technical details and instead just let the awen flow.  It is once we’ve achieved a certain level that we can really let loose, let our subconsious and muscle memory take over, and just flow with the awen.  The things outlined in this post can help the awen flow into your life permancently and powerfully.

 

May the awen flow within you in your pursuit of the bardic path!

 

(PS: Thanks to David N. for long discussions on this topic and working out many of the details that appear in these two last posts!)
(PPS: I have this set to auto-post while I’m on some camping and hiking adventures in rural Maine.  Please comment, but know that I won’t be responding to comments for another week or so! )

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I June 18, 2017

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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The Way of Wood January 22, 2017

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Imagine sitting down to your holiday meal with loved ones and family. There is a feast before you–ham, turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, gravy, and various other family favorites. The table is decorated with colorful red tablecloths, the lights are low, the lights on the tree are twinkling….and you are given a Styrofoam plate! I’m sure this has happened to all of us over the years–and to me as well! What if, instead, you were given a beautiful hand-carved wooden bowl or plate to eat from? How would that change the experience of eating your meal? What if the meal was by candlelight, with engaging conversation, and took my time with the meal?  In fact, if you had lived in an earlier time, you likely would have had this experience, and it would have been the “norm.”

 

In fact, Eric Sloane describes the shifts in our relationship with lovingly crafted, wooden things in his On Reverence for Wood. In this passage, he describes America before the Civil War: “Wood was not accepted simply as the material for building a new nation—it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘A substance with a soul’. It spanned rivers for man, it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.” (Pg. 72)  I think this quote beautifully expresses humans’ relationship with wood in previous generations, and to me, helps fill a gap that I didn’t know was missing.

 

A lot of things I talk about on this blog are what I might frame as “big” things: working on land regeneration, sustainable living and permaculture, growing food, natural building, beekeeping and more…these big things seem important and relevant. But there are also the more subtle ways of shifting living and communing with nature that may be less obvious, but no less profound. I think that there is value in exploring alternatives to the everyday objects that fill our lives and that we interact with. How many times, for example, do I encounter plates, bowls, cups, and silverware each day?  How many times do I put my feet in a pair of shoes, or put a pair of pants on, or put my head on a pillow in a typical week?  How many times do I sit down to enjoy a simple meal? How do those simple, daily patterns, unfold?  And so, today, I’m going to explore a rather simple concept, in honor of the many feasts most of us attended as part of the holiday season over the last few months. I call this concept the way of wood.

 

The Way of Wood

What I’m calling “the way of wood” refers to, in a literal sense, spending more time and contact with wood that has been lovingly shaped by careful hands.  Wood that has a soul.  The wood’s origins are important–ethical resourcing of the wood is critical. These wooden objects come into your life either by trading/purchasing/commissioning it from those who work with wood or by honing your own skill in carving/woodworking/turning, etc.  So far, I am in the first category, having found woodworkers whose talents I wish to support, although I hope to turn my artistic sights on this beautiful art form quite soon!

 

The way of wood, in a broader sense, asks us to consider the nature and origins of the objects that we engage with in everyday life–and bring those objects more carefully and consciously into our daily living experiences. This, again, means considering relationships between the object, how it was made, where it was sourced, as part of an energetic relationship.  The way of wood also encourages us to seek deeper connection with nature through the creation (and supporting the creation) of homemade items from local sources over industrial ones.  In other words, we are looking for items that have “soul” and that are, likely created outside of the industrial/consumption/stuff-making system.  Of course, this “way of wood” doesn’t happen overnight, but as things wear out, we might seek to replace them with things of a different nature, a careful nature, a slower nature.

 

The curved spoon and others...

The curved spoon and others…

Why does the way of wood matter? Some history here has really helped my thinking–I hope it helps you too.

 

The Loss of Reverence for Wood

At one time, wood was the most important thing we had: we made everything from it.  It was, as the quote above suggests, “a substance with a soul.” Eric Sloane’s masterpiece, Reverence for Wood, is well worth reading on this subject. I’m going to briefly summarize some of what he shares in that book here to help us understand historically, humans’ changing relationship with wood and its connection to industrialization here in the US–but I encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to read his work.  Its a short book (about 100 pages) and filled with his incredible illustrations–a gem well worth your time.

 

Sloane’s book explores, century by century, in reverse chronological order, human’s changing relationship with wood. Of key importance to Sloane was the drastic shifts between the 18th century, when everything was made of wood (as described in the quote above), and the 19th century, with the rise of the age of iron and industrialization, where wood became used as the fuel of progress.  Much of this shift was firmly settled with outcome of Civil War in the United States, the war not only of slavery, but of an agrarian society vs. an industrial one. With the triumph of the Northern industrialized states, industry quickly transitioned the entire nation (as it was already doing in England and many other former colonies).

 

It was during this transition that wood, according to Sloane, ceased to have its value as something to be lovingly crafted for daily living rather than as a resource to fuel industry.  In fact, it is during this age that we see billions of acres of forests, cut to be “coaled off” to make charcoal for iron furnaces, cut to run locomotives, and cut to literally pave streets for higher volume traffic among many other things. This is certainly what happened to “Penn’s woods” in Pennsylvania, where, by the start of the century, less than 5% of the forests remained in many of the Western counties surrounding the big steel factories. Sloane reports that one English paper during this time wrote, “The English criticized us, saying that the Americans ‘seem to hate trees and cannot wait to cut them down” because the land was literally being stripped bare.

 

But the shift in consumer goods and industry weren’t the only shifts away from this primary wood-filled economy. In the late 1800s, American farmers had walled up their hearths and instead added an iron kitchen stove. Wood was added to this stove as Sloan writes “without ceremony,” shutting it up inside the iron box that didn’t need much tending. This, of course, eventually led to our modern furnaces and use of fossil fuels for warmth. Sloane gives many other examples as well–how the incredible array of objects once made from wood (pails and spiles for maple sugar, meat pounders, churns, knives, sleds, mallets, forks, shovels, spoons, and much more–were turned into iron instead and sold to folks). Wood became quite unfashionable and quaint, something for an older generation and day and iron was now on the rise.

 

To me, the shift from wood to iron represents a profound shift in humans’ relationships with nature as a whole and with trees specifically. In the earlier economical model, wood was a primary resource whereby humans interacted with trees, managed them carefully, cut trees and shaped them for their immediate needs (shelter, warmth, tools), and understood those trees as a resource upon which we clearly depended. Damage to the forest resource would result in direct damage to the ability of those humans to continue to provide warmth, shelter, and tools–and so, wood was deeply respected, coppiced, and managed. Also in this earlier economical model, wood was known deeply and intimately. In the 17th century, Sloane describes how a chair might be made out of as many as 15 different woods, each having their own unique characters and properties. People could tell what kind of tree was being cut by the sound the axe made in the wood.  Each wood has its own unique personality; likewise, people were often tied to tree personalities.

 

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

With the end of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, wood became a secondary resource, cut and shipped “away” for use in some other location and the resulting goods coming back to humans in a new form (iron). Wood was no longer a resource upon which people primarily depended upon for survival–the invisible industrial processes and consumer economy masked its use.  If a forest is cut and shipped to an industry far away, it is of no real consequence to those who live nearby, for they have ceased depending on that forest for their needs. Rather, they depend upon, primarily, that far away industry. This is true of the many things for which wood was used: wood is purchased from a store (who get it from logging and a sawmill); heat is purchased from several sources (with a small amount of people still chopping wood); tools are purchased with handles, sometimes wood, from an unknown source; chairs are purchased of wood from a store, again, from an unknown source.  There is no reason to preserve and protect the local forest because all of your needs come from the store, who gets it from a factory, who gets the raw resources from all over (including that local forest).  This disconnection does much harm, in my opinion. And so, it was during this time of rising industrialization that humans’ rich understanding of wood and knowledge was lost and largely replaced by iron and industry.

 

Over 150 years now, we have a profound loss of understanding of the nature of wood and connection with that part of nature. Most people can’t identify more trees than they have fingers on one hand, much less understand intimately wood and its qualities.  I’ve seen this over and over again when I’m teaching herbalism or wild food foraging classes–identification skills are quite poor for most folks.  The bad news is that some of this knowledge may have been lost–but the good news is that the new movements in sustainable living, woodworking, permaculture, and bushcraft are encouraging folks to begin to learn the way of wood once more.

 

(I’ll mention here wonderful song by fellow OBOD Druid, Damh the Bard, from his 2015 album Sabbat. Its called “Iron from Stone” and it tells this same story of the changes in the landscape and the shift into iron (and the human cost of such a shift.))

Finding our Way back to Wood Again

 

For me, it started with a single, lovingly crafted wooden spoon, a spoon with soul.  A number of years ago, a druid friend of mine had gotten into carving and I decided to commission him to make me a magical serving spoon. This spoon was no ordinary spoon–it was harvested from cherry right off of his land only several miles from where I lived, carved with a spiral handle, and carved with an Awen in the center of the spoon. It was amazing, and after cooking with it, I came to the conclusion that I needed a lot more wooden things in my life.  This, of course, was many years before I had read Sloane’s work or really understood the historical aspects of the loss of knowledge of wood.

 

Instead, that first spoon offered an emotional connection, a soul connection: I loved the way the spoon felt, I loved the way my food tasted when I cooked with it, and I wanted more.  Soon after, he offered me a regular eating spoon for my birthday. After that, I found some really nice old carved bowls at a yard sale, carved by the woman’s grandfather. Then, I met a local wood turner at our farmer’s market with beautiful live edge bowls…over time, I replaced nearly all of my everyday eating bowls and such with beautiful wood–wood that requires care, love, and that brings connection.

 

I’ve watched friends’ delighted reactions as they come to my home and eat from my wooden bowls lovingly prepared food–it makes the meal so much more magical, meaningful, and connected.  Maybe, they, too, are connecting to the soul of the trees that are still very much alive within those bowls.

 

What I have come to fundamentally understand through this process is that the energy that goes into an object infuses that object. And it infuses us.  There’s just something different and sacred about the wooden objects that you don’t get from the standard stuff of unknown origin and manufacturing. Taking up the way of wood is a very simple thing to do–pickup some books on woodworking or take a class and start learning to carve or turn wood yourself.  Or, start keeping your eyes out for woodworkers and wooden objects as you go about life–farmer’s markets are a good place to find some of them!  If you want the wood in your life, the spirit of the wood will find you.

 

Caring for wood

An assortment of spoons and knives

An assortment of spoons and knives

Part of the reason I think that the wooden bowls are wonderful is that they require attention and care. The wood was once a living being, and the wooden spoons and bowls, in their own way, still have spirit within them. The more we interact with them, the more we can understand the wood and connect with that spirit.  The physical aspects of the wood and the spirit of the wood both need our interaction and care.

 

In terms of daily cleaning of wooden objects: you don’t just throw them in the dishwasher–the dishwasher would quickly ruin them. Instead, you wash them lovingly by hand, making sure water/liquid doesn’t sit in them for long and making sure that you dry them carefully once you are done washing them. It is no trouble to quickly wash your favorite wooden bowl after a nice meal!

 

Every three or so months, you’ll also want to re-seal them. I seal my wooden items with walnut oil or of a combination of warmed beeswax and walnut oil. I get a clean rag (that you can re-use) or paper towel (the paper towel can be used to start a fire after you are finished oiling your wood). Add a liberal helping of oil to all your wooden objects and let them sit for about 30 min. You’ll see which of them are thirsty and which are saturated. Give them a second liberal helping of oil.  If there is excess, it is no problem, as you’ll wipe it off. I usually let this sit a minimum of a few hours–even overnight. I check them again, and see who among the wooden things is still thirsty, adding a third layer. At this point, I let them sit, shine/buff them to take off the excess oil, and begin using them again.

 

I remember to tend my wood based on the solstices and equinoxes–as each grows near, I know it is time to lovingly oil my wooden items again.

 

I’ll also mention here that wood, over time, moves and shifts as the seasons change and as time passes (no wonder wood has “a soul”!)  Sloane talks about this as well–how old barns move (even if the stone foundations under them do not, meaning that over a period of years, the barn grows less stable).  The same thing happens to wooden bowls and other wooden objects.  For a bowl, for example, if you had wood with a grain facing East to West, the bowl would slowly shrink on the North-South axis making the bowl more oblong than round as time passed.  In the summer, wood absorbs moisture and may swell and in the winter, it will shrink. Understanding this is all part of the character, and care, of wood.

 

Closing Thoughts

I believe that the small details matter–building these small, sacred, and simple acts into our everyday living can help us engage in more sustainable, sacred actions throughout our lives and reconnect with ourselves and the land around us. I think this kind of thing is like momentum forward–each small thing adds to the whole experience and moves us from a kind of “average” living that is given to us by corporations and industrialization to living to sacred living. Even small shifts, like the shift from using conventional tableware to something handcrafted, creates an energetic shift that reverberates. And when you think about how many times you encounter these simple objects each day, and the energies and spirits of those objects, this small shift really has profound implications.

 

Sacred Tree Profile of Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Magical, Medicinal, and Edible Qualities November 6, 2016

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

I remember when I first met black walnut. My Great Aunt and Uncle lived on a farm, and on that farm was a colonial-era farmhouse. Near their farmhouse sat a massive black walnut tree. I remember going there when I was a young child and picking up the black walnuts for the first time when they were still green, smelling their amazing scent, and sticking a few in my coat pockets. Of course, the weather grew cold and I forgot about those walnuts in the coat pocket, and when I went to use the jacket again in the spring, I was in for quite a surprise when the brown dye of the walnut husk breaking down permeated through my jacket. Ever since that day, I felt like the walnut had provided me with an important lesson, and I am honored to be friends with such a magnificent tree species.

 

This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, and Beech. Today, we will be looking at another powerful tree ally, the Walnut. I’m going to be focusing my comments on the Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) as that is the native walnut in my area. However, most of what I’ll write applies to walnut trees throughout the world.

 

 

About the Black Walnut

The Eastern Black Walnut (or what we just call “Walnut” or “Black Walnut”) is a tree native to the Eastern US with a large range spanning most of the Mississippi watershed. Here in Western PA, I’m actually at the very edge of its natural range (although I know people plant them north of where I am!) Black walnuts are an overstory tree, meaning they need light and grow tall, forming part of the canopy of the forest. They often are found in riparian zones which are the edge spaces between streams/rivers and the land (which typically flood in early spring and offer rich soil due to the flood plains). Black walnuts are pioneer species, similar to cherry, black birch, and black locust: these are some of the first trees to regrow damaged ecosystems.

 

The black walnut typically grows tall and straight, especially in the forest, out-competing other trees for the best lithg. It grows up to 130 feet tall; the tallest one we have on record in the USA is actually well outside of its native range, on the Colombia River downstream of Portland. Walnut leaves are feather-compound, with seven to seventeen narrow, toothed leaflets. They have a spicy smell when they are crushed or rubbed.

Walnut trees produce a very strong wood that is dark in color and is easily worked. It has a straight grain, it holds shape well, and is a solid with few pores. In fact, walnut wood is so valued that sometimes people poach walnut trees (which is, in my opinion, a terrible tragedy!) Because of this, there are less and less walnuts, so we all could do some good by planting more. In fact, in the history of Pennsylvania, black walnut trees growing in groups were often a sign to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) of good soil fertility, likely due to their connection and growth on flood plains of rich soil.

 

Walnut as an Expeller

One of the few things people often know about black walnut is that it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces a chemical called juglone that oxidizes in soil and prevents certain kinds of other plants from growing under or near it. It also can increase the soil alkalinity around the roots. Some plants, like black raspberry or serviceberry, have no difficulty growing under black walnut. Others, like tomatoes, pines, apples, or birches, cannot grow and will be poisoned by the juglone. This has been well known and documented for centuries, the whole way back to Pliny the Elder (the same Pliny that has preserved the famous druids harvesting mistletoe ritual and druid egg lore) who wrote, “The shadow of the walnut trees is poison to all plants within its compass.” Juglone is concentrated in nut hulls, roots, and buds; to a lesser extent, it also occurs in leaves and stems.

 

I want to note, and I’ll come back to, the importance of the doctrine of signatures here.  A traditional definition of this concept is  that the plant heals and works with what it looks like or how it acts.  In earlier posts on this series, I’ve proposed an equivalent doctorine of signatures for the magical properties of trees and plants–and so, we will return to this expelling quality towards the end of the post.

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Walnut as a Food Source

Walnut is considered a nut of the gods; in fact, the word juglans goes back to “jovis glans” or “nut of Juipter.” I think this speaks volumes about Black Walnut and its power and gifts.

Rather obviously, Black Walnut produces a really delicious edible nut—the black walnut nut is not easy to crack, but is well worth the effort! Like many other hardwood nut trees, most walnuts produce a really good harvest every few years, and need sunlight in order to do so. In years where there is a good crop, you can harvest them in abundance.  I typically will let the outer husks rot down and the little worms crawl out, and then once they have lost their husks, I remove the remainder and let them in their hulls till I’m ready to crack them.  Cracking them requires patience and some determination but is well worth the effort.  I typically crack them with a hammer or small mallet on a stone–one good swing and they will be ready to eat.  Put your cracked nuts in a bowl (shell and all) and then sit down with some friends to pick through them, removing the nutmeats (you might also need one of those small nut pick metal things).  Its nice to do this by a warm fire!

 

In addition to the people who enjoy the nuts, squirrels use them as a primary food source. When you are walking through the forest, you can always find out where the black walnut trees are by seeing how the squirrels have left their beautiful chewed black walnut hulls behind!  These are lovely for crafts and altars and take quite a while to break down and return to the land.

 

You can tap black walnuts similar to how you tap sugar maples (I haven’t tried this because I didn’t have large enough black walnuts). I think this would be just delightful, however, based on the deliciousness of the nut!

 

Finally, pressed walnuts make a lovely walnut oil (which you can find in specialty shops or online). Walnut oil is a wonderful oil for cooking (I like to use it for salads and dressings) with a very rich nutty flavor. Walnut oil also is very useful for sealing wood, like wooden spoons, especially when you’ll be eating from them.  I use walnut oil on my wooden bowls and spoons every few months to keep them in nice shape.  I haven’t tried to press my nuts, and my guess is that most of the walnuts that are pressed are English Walnuts, which are easier to crack and eat.  But you could certainly press the black walnuts if you were able to gather and crack enough of them!

 

 

Making Walnut Ink

One of the things I love to do with black walnuts is to make ink from them. I have a whole post dedicated to the subject of natural ink making, and I’ll direct your attention there for more details and will supplement those instructions here. In a nutshell (hah!), black walnut ink is best made once the hulls have gone brown (and usually wormy!). Put the whole nut – hulls, nuts and all, into an old pot and cover them with white vinegar. Boil them for an hour or so and let cool.  Yes, this will make your house smell very weird. Strain the ink to begin to get out the bits of hull.  I have found that it requires straining over and over again with finer and finer strainers to get all the husk pieces out–but it is well worth the effort. Once your ink is strained, return the ink to the pot and boil it down until you are happy with the consistency (usually about another hour).  You might strain it again at this point with a very fine strainer.  If you want to improve the viscosity of the ink (that is, improve how well it flows, especially through a dip pen) you can add a bit of Gum Arabic to it. I recommend using the commercially prepared Gum Arabic liquid you can get at art stores, not the resin that you need to powder up–the resin produces some lumps regardless of how fine you grind it! Let your ink cool, put it in a jar, label it, and you have a very lovely ink that will stay good for many years and can be used for many purposes!

 

Medicinal Actions of Walnuts

Black Walnut has had a large range of uses within traditional western herbalism: I’ll summarize some of the most common here.

According to M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, the bark and leaves of the walnut are alterative, laxative, and astringent, and are specifically used for skin issues like eczema, herpes, and other skin conditions.   Grieve also suggests that the juice of the green husks, boiled with honey, is really good for a sore throat/gargle. Matthew Wood, in the EarthWise Herbal, suggests a similar condition: the use of the leaves for external eczema, ring worm, itch, shingles, tumors, abscesses, boils, and acne.   The leaves, used internally, can also be used for tonsillitis, sore throat, hoarseness, internal ulcers and inflammation.  In large quantities, Grieve notes that the dried and powdered bark, as a strong infusion, is a purgative (makes you vomit!).

 

Matthew Wood suggests the hulls are useful for a wide range of things, but I have used them most frequently to deal with internal parasites, worms, and so on. A tincture of green nuts is particularly useful for dealing with internal parasites and worms (I have used this for worming animals, like chickens, as well in very small does). Other uses include low functioning thyroid and low functioning metabolism.

 

Mentally, Wood also has a suggestion that is directly in line with the expelling properties suggested by the doctrine of signatures.  He suggests it is useful when you are “too much under the influence of another person, thought, and scheme.”  I fully support this use and have used it this way myself.  Further, when I was at the American Herbalist Guild Annual Symposium, Matthew Wood also suggested that Black Walnut was particularly good for children or young adults who had experienced bad divorces; it allowed them to get beyond the experience. Wood suggests for any use of black walnut, small doses are appropriate (1-3 drops, 1-3x a day).

 

Here’s an old time recipe from Grive’s Modern Herbal:

 

To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’ – (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

 

Walnut in the Western Magical Traditions

Black walnut is considered a “masculine” tree associated with the element of fire and the sun. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, writes, “This is a plant of the sun. Let the fruit of it be gathered accordingly, which as the most virtual whilst green, before it shells.”

 

The forest canopy of walnuts!

The forest canopy of walnuts!

In the American Hoodoo tradition, walnut leaves and nuts are used to put jinxes on people. Walnuts are also used to “fall out of love”; Yronwode in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic describes a ritual where you make a tea of nine black walnuts (husk and all) boiled in three quarts of water; boiling it till the water evaporates down to 1 quart. You bathe in this water, renouncing ties to the former love, and then throw the water out at a crossroads or against the tree. This kind of bath is not one for the bathtub, but usually done in a smaller tub.  Again, we see this expelling or removing quality associated with the walnut present.

 

Cunningham, who I’m not always apt to trust, writes of walnut being tied to mental powers, infertility, health and wishes. He suggests that witches danced beneath walnut trees in Italy during secret rites (although why, he does not say). He suggests that carrying a walnut can strengthen the heart and ward of rheumatism. If you are given a bag of walnuts, you will have your wishes fulfilled. People can place walnut leaves around the head (or in a hat) to prevent headache or sunstroke. Cunningham also suggests that a woman who wanted to remain childless after marriage could place walnuts in her bodice on her wedding day—each walnut represented one year of being childless.

 

Unfortunately, that about sums up what most sources say about the magical uses of walnut, however, we can gain much more insight from exploring some of the lore around this tree, to which we will now turn.

 

Black Walnut in Lore around the World

Walnut Cracker (Native American): Walnut was an important food source for Native Americans; it was also used for talking sticks and flutes. In one story, a man is known as “walnut cracker” who was always cracking walnuts (which makes sense, giving how difficult they are to crack!). Even after Walnut Cracker died, his spirit continued to crack walnuts and would scare people so much that their sickness or illness would disappear. This shows up in several stories in the South East Native American tribes. Again, here is that same expelling quality–this time, the spirit of Walnut Cracker removes sickeness or illness through his very presence.

 

As a talking stick, walnut (along with pecan) represent the gathering of energy or beginning of new projects.

 

Other than that, I couldn’t find much in the Native American lore. Many of the other stories involving walnut primarily focus on it as a food item, including The Ignorant Housekeeper (Cherokee) who doesn’t know how to properly prepare walnuts.

 

 

Walnut Lore: Beating and Ingratitude (Greek, Roman, European):  Let’s now turn to the other side of the world, where we can see stories from the European subcontinent. In fact, walnut features prominently in many tales. There is a long history of discussion of the “beating” of walnut trees to gain their huts—where folks went at walnut trees with sticks showing ingratitude for the nuts that are produced and harming the tree. These fables and references span quite some time. Two Greek Fables, for example, illustrate the plight of the walnut tree; later, Antipater of Tessalonica offered this epigram:

“They planted me, a walnut-tree, by the road-side
to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones
All my twigs and flourishing shots are broken,
Hit as I am by showers of pebbles.
It is of no advantage for trees to be fruitful; I, indeed
Bore fruit only for my own undoing”

This same principle weaves its way into other early Roman poems as well as Aesop’s fable of the Walnut Tree, where it is treated with no respect. Into the 1500’s, a horrible proverb about how women, dogs, and walnuts all benefited from beating was widely circulated. This proverb continued to propagate the idea of walnut tree benefiting from beatings with sticks and rods to produce more nuts.

 

I’m not honestly sure what to make with this.  Some trees benefit from regular pruning, but this is the first instance I’ve seen any reference to just beating the tree with sticks.  Part of me wants to question, again, the difficult relationship we have between humans and nature.  I’ve translated this as “gratitude” below (but I’m open to other interpretations and suggestions!)

 

The Wise Walnut: Hermit Philosopher. In Georgian Folk Tales by Marjory Waldrop (1894), a wise man who lived in solitude came to a old walnut tree in his garden. He questioned why the walnut tree was so tall, growing for over 100 years, yet never producing bigger fruit, while the melons and pumpkins on the ground were so massive. He thought about it, eventually falling asleep under the walnut tree. A few nuts rain down from the tree, and he marvels in how his head would have been “broken” if not for the small size of the walnut.  In this tale, we see the walnut offering wisdom.

 

Small Beings and Things Hidden in Walnut Shell. In the traditional story of Thumbelina, a woman who wants a tiny daughter visits a witch and gets some magic barley-corn. From this corn sprouts a flower, and within the flower is Thumbelina. The woman gives Thumblina a beautiful polished walnut shell (my guess is an English walnut) for a cradle. Thumblina is later whisked away, shell and all, by an ugly toad. Thumbelina’s tale is quite similar to Tom Thumb, who also lives in a walnut shell due to his tiny size. In another tale, called Puddocky, the princes of the kingdom are given a magical mission of finding a small dog that can fit comfortably in a walnut shell, among other tasks, to become the king’s heir. In yet another story, a walnut contains a wasp whose sting is made of a diamond; and the walnut can contain the wasp within.

 

In another tale, this one from Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasnet (1904), we hear the tale of “Boots and his Brothers.” A king in the land has offered his daughter and half his kingdom if the ancient oak (that grows each time it gets taken to the axe) can be felled and a well dug to hold water. As John (Boots) walks in the forest, he finds a magic axe, a magic pick, and a walnut that spills forth water. He takes these things up, plugging the hole in the walnut shell with a bit of moss. He is able to fell the tree, dig the well, and fill it with water from the walnut—thus securing half the kingdom and the princess. In each of these tales, something important or precious is kept safe within the hard shell of the walnut, suggesting some protective qualities.

 

Overall Magical Themes

Drawing upon all of the above lore and material, I would like to propose the following magical themes and uses for the Walnut tree.  These can certainly be added to, over time, but I hope this is a good start for those of us who want to work with walnut.

 

Walnut as a “container” for many things and as a protector. The stories of Thumbelina, Boots and his Brothers, and Tom Thumb all speak to the magical nature of the walnut to contain or hold those small things which may otherwise get lost. Now, these stories talk about English walnuts, but there is a long tradition of hiding things or keeping them safe within a walnut. This speaks to some protective quality that walnuts have.  One of the ways we might see this is using a visualization of walnut surrounding us to protect us.  I can also see us using a whole walnut as a protective object to carry.

 

Walnut as an expeller. Just as walnut has its protective “within” quality, it also has a very strong “expelling” quality without. Walnut, through its very nature of producing juglone, expels things away. Walnut’s same medicinal qualities expel parasites from the body.  We see this same expelling quality in the lore and magical lore of walnut. Given all of these parallels, it is reasonable to connect these to the spirit world: I would certainly want walnut as an ally on my side when there were things I wanted to be rid of, especially spirit activity.  I’m sure there are many ways you can use walnut for this–what comes to mind most immediately is planting walnuts around a property, or taking a bit of walnut tincture to work to remove something unwanted (like sadness, depression, etc).

 

Walnut and gratitude. The long history of people “beating” walnuts to make them grow better and the problem of over-harvesting the walnut teaches us an important lesson in gratitude.  We humans are so quick to take without consideration: the walnut reminds us of the important lesson of honoring the earth, harvesting that which is offered, but doing so in kindness, respect, and care for the living earth.  I think these

 

Observe, Interact, and Intuit: The Personal Niche Analysis October 23, 2016

In my last two posts in this series, we explored permaculture design principles from the perspective of our outer and inner landscapes. We now move into a series of posts exploring different aspects of these specific principles.  Today, we start with the inner work of the principle observe, interact, and intuit (I will also note my post from last year on “Mushroom eyes” which is part of the outer work of this principle and explores nature observation).   Today’s post explores the personal niche analysis.  The Niche Analysis also connects with many other principles, such as layered purposes and can be useful both for designing spaces as well as inner work.

 

The Niche Analysis

A niche analysis is a tool that we use as permaculture designers to understand the many aspects and connections of a single element has within a larger system. We are using “niche” in the ecological sense here, which is defined “a position or role taken by a kind of organism within its community.”  (I’ll also note that the word “niche” comes into English by way of French, originating in Latin (nidus or “nest”; this etymology also teaches us a deeper meaning of the word).  In permaculture design, we see each element having its own “niche” in an ecosystem, a number of things that element does well.  We design intentionally, placing elements in the system that fill the multiple roles.

 

A typical niche analyses can include yields, needs, and behaviors.  I also add predators and allies to my niche analysis (see below for more details on each of these things).

 

Let’s take a look at my rooster, Anasazi, who lived at my homestead in Michigan.  I considered Anasazi one of the critical components of my land there.  Here’s Anasazi’s niche analysis:

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

What this does is help me understand how Anasazi functions in the system–what he offers, what he needs to be protected from, and who his allies are. I see his behaviors, and I’m able to use them for the greatest good and see his role. This is a really useful way to think about any element. (As an aside, if you want to know about specific trees and plants and how they function in the broader system, and you live anywhere in the Midwest or East Coast of the USA  you can check out John Eastman’s books, Book of Forest and Thicket; Book of Field and Stream; Book of Swamp and Bog.  They are delightful books and really describe these “niche” relationships quite well!)

 

The Personal Niche Analysis

We often learn to do a personal niche analysis as part of a permaculture design course, and I think its a useful activity for everyone to consider as a part of our own growth and inner work. In this context, I present it as part of the “knowing ourselves” piece of observe, interact, and intuit: the work of understanding our own role (that we determine), what we need, and what we offer.

 

The standard niche analysis asks you to start with your name in the center of the map, and then map three things: Yields, Needs, and Behaviors.  One I learned this summer offers two more choices: Predators and Allies.  I’ll cover each of these below and then show you a sample map that I created as part of my recent Permaculture Teacher Training course.

Yields: That which you produce. Remember that, just like in an ecosystem or garden, each element often has many different kinds of yields.  Yields for a human being can certainly be physical things like producing food or earning an income, but they can also be much less tangible, like offering love and support or bringing joy.

 

Articulating our yields is a critical part of self care and self empowerment. I think that many of us, especially those who are nurturers and healers, do not own our gifts and don’t have self-acknowledgement of the good work we do in the world.  Further, because our culture generally does not hold gratitude as a value, we often spend our time doing important work that is often under or unacknowledged or thanked. Describing our yields, then, allows us to be empowered–to realize what it is that we can and do produce in the world that is of benefit to life: whether that is a dedication to picking up trash in the forest, to being friendly to people at your job, or to simply being a person others can talk to in times of need.  These yields don’t have to be something that is “measurable” by society’s standards, but rather, something that you feel you bring.

 

Needs: This is what you need in order to be stable, functioning, and happy.  Again, these can be physical things but also emotional or spiritual things. Again, articulating our actual needs is something that we often don’t do, and there are at least two challenges and reasons for this work.  The first is cultural: commercials and advertising work very hard to make us believes we have needs that we don’t–needs of products and services–rather than needs that help support and fulfill us.  Many of us, as part of our own spiritual paths, are shedding the layers of consumerism, and re-articulating what are actual needs in our own lives, rather than manufactured needs, is an important part of this process. The second is the intersection of personal and cultural reasons: many of us have a hard time voicing our needs in our immediate relationships (work, family, friend, intimate) or even to ourselves. Part of spiritual growth is recognizing that we have needs, and those needs are valuable.  This involves acknowledgment of the need of others in our lives but also the acknowledgment of our own ability to provide for our needs.

 

Behaviors: Behaviors are those things that you engage in in order to produce your yields.  You should write these as verbsWhat I like about adding behaviors to a personal niche analysis is that it allows us to think about our actions out in the world and what are meaningful to us.  Ultimately, behaviors lead to yields, and if we aren’t engaging in the behaviors we want to be engaging in (or we have behaviors that are detrimental to our goals) we end up not being able to produce the yields.

 

Allies (Optional): You can add two additional categories to your niche analysis (which I think really helps create a fuller niche analysis).  Allies are those things that help you produce yields and facilitate the behaviors that you want to engage in. These, again can be anything from free time to supportive partners, to, in my case, rivers and chickens. Think about your support system external to you: these are your allies.  Those that help you move forward with whatever it is you want to accomplish. We often draw strength by surrounding us with allies, and they are critical to acknowledge and to honor.

 

Predators (Optional): Finally, we come to predators.  In this niche analysis, they are defined as they things that harm or otherwise take away your ability to produce the yields you want to produce in the world.  Predators again can be anything at all: from problematic thinking to certain people to things happening in the world that drain you.  These are “predators” in the pejorative sense, not in the nature-oriented sense (which I discussed in a blog post earlier this year).  Identifying predators in our lives helps us better avoid them or find ways of managing them.

Creating your Personal Niche Analysis

You can create your personal niche analysis any way you like. I will give you some suggestions here that I have found are useful and helpful in creating it.

 

Get a large sheet of paper and markers. I find it is useful to do it on a large sheet of paper with colored markers, each color can represent a different element of the Personal Niche Analysis.  A large sheet of paper gives you more space to be thorough and really explore those different aspects of yourself. You can embrace the inner bard within to get visually creative with markers, paints, etc.   I’ve seen other nice niche analyses that people have done digitally, but that’s not quite my thing!

 

Open up a sacred space. The personal niche analysis is a wonderful spiritual activity: open up a sacred space/grove, say a small prayer, clear your mind with some meditation or color breathing, and then allow the niche analysis to flow from you.

 

Create Time for reflection.  As our first permaculture principle suggests, the personal niche analysis requires time for us just to interact, observe, and intuit our own gifts. Spend time really considering the different things that you bring.

 

Repeat this practice. We are always growing and evolving as people and the niche analysis can help us see that.  You can do a new personal niche analysis every year or few years to see how things have changed (revising the predators and allies, for example, is a really useful activity).

 

Use it to spur change and growth in your life!  Use the Personal Niche analysis as a reflective tool that will help you understand where you are now.  You can use goal setting, journaling, and other kinds of meditative work to help you move closer to your personal, spiritual, physical, social, family, or other goals.

 

Here is my sample personal niche analysis from my permaculture teacher training course this summer:

Dana's Personal Niche Analysis

Dana’s Personal Niche Analysis

In terms of how I used this niche analysis; after doing it, I spent some time meditating on it and thinking about it.  Are there needs I’m not currently having fulfilled?  Are there behaviors that are negative (that I chose not to represent?)  How often am I producing the yields I want to be producing?  This niche analysis can help us engage in deep reflection on ourselves and create a richer understanding of who and what we are!

 

I’d love to hear how this works for you as a spiritual exercise–please share if you end up using this as part of your spiritual work. This doesn’t have to take long, and it is a really useful first step for the inner work of permaculture. In the next post on this series, we’ll explore the same principle from the outer world.

 

Balance at the Equinox: Magical Crafting a Balancing Mobile September 18, 2016

When I was a new druid, many moons ago, I celebrated my first holiday with another person at the Fall Equinox. During that celebration, my friend had the idea that we could do a holiday craft, what we ended up calling a “balance mobile.”  In the weeks leading up to the Equinox, we gathered up materials representing the four elements and then, at the Equinox, crafted them carefully into small mobiles. We took these mobiles to a river shore, where we did a ritual to bless and empower them.

 

A beautiful balance mobile!

A beautiful balance mobile!

In the years since, I have often made these little balance mobiles as gifts for druid friends as ways for us to remember to work to balance our lives.  The mobile offers both a reminder for the need to balance our lives, a physical representation, and also a “gauge” for the ways we might be unbalanced. I think its a nice follow-up to my article last month about finding equilibrium in these difficult times.

 

So, as an equinox activity, I wanted to show you today how to make such a little mobile and share with you the simple ritual for empowering it.  This is a wonderful equinox activity to do with friends, loved ones, or just by yourself to celebrate this powerful day.  It doesn’t require artistic talent, and it can be done with really simple things, like printed out images or photographs.  In fact, the mobile I started to design for this post will be finished with some friends next week as part of our own ceremony for a new group!

 

Three Versions of a Balance Mobile

The first decision you have to make is to the nature of what the mobile represents.  It can represent either a balancing of the inner and outer realms (version 1) or a personally focused/inner work focused mobile that emphasizes the relationships between mind, body, spirit, and the creative arts (version 2).  Or you can just work with the elements themselves! Choose one you like, or use these as a basis for your own interpretation.

 

Version 1: Balance of the Inner and Outer Realms

  • East – Air – Balance of the Mind
  • South – Fire – Balance in Work/Outside life/outside obligations
  • West – Water – Balance in the Heart
  • North – Earth – Balance in the Home and Hearth
  • Center – Spirit – For centering and balance

In this version of the mobile, you are working to balance both external aspects (your work and/or community life and outside obligations; your home life/family) as well as your own inner mind and heart. This version works well for people who are feeling pulled in many directions, with little time for themselves and their own inner work.  The energy of this particular mobile can help you balance all the many things going on in life.

 

Version 2: The Inner Work Mobile

The second version of this mobile is fully inner focused, with different representations at each of the directions/quarters.

  • East – Air – The Mind, knowledge seeking and learning
  • South – Fire – The Creative and bardic arts; expressing and exploring one’s gifts and purpose
  • Water – West – The Heart, Intuition, and spiritual life; exploring the inner realms
  • Earth – North – The Body, working on the physical vitality, rejuvenation, replenishment, and restoration of your physical home while on this plane
  • Spirit – Center – The center of all things; connection to the divine

This second version is particularly good for people who are currently doing a lot of inner work or work on themselves in some way; its good for those who are inward focused, whether that is on working on themselves physically, mentally, or spiritually.

 

Version 3: The Elemental Mobile

If you want, you can keep it more abstract and just work with the elements themselves, allowing them to flow in your life. Here’s some simple correspondences, colors, and animals from the druid tradition for this version.

  • East – Air -Yellow – Spring Equinox –  The Hawk
  • South – Fire -Red  – Summer Solstice –  The Stag
  • Water – West – Blue  – Fall Equinox – The Salmon
  • Earth – North – Green – Winter Solstice – The Bear
  • Spirit – Center – White/Silver – Time of No Time – (Interpretations vary, I use the soil web of all life for this)

 

Materials Gathering

Now that we have a sense of the mobiles themselves and what they represent.  The next step is gathering up your supplies to create the mobile.  I want to share what you’ll need:

  • Representations of each of the five elements
  • String, wire, ribbon, yarn to hang the five elements
  • Sticks or strong wire (coat hanger, etc) to hold the mobile together
  • Beads, feathers, and other embellishments for decoration

 

My elemental representations

My elemental representations

Representations of each of the five elements:
The entire mobile is based on the representations you will have at the for corners of the mobile, and if you choose, also at its center.  You want some small objects, of about the same weight, that represent each of the elements as they are manifesting in your mobile (version 1, 2, 3 or some other version you create for yourself).  For my original mobile, I created paintings, and then wrapped them around some air dry clay.  I then sealed the whole thing. My friend created small sewn items that she hung.  Other friends have shaped things of air dry clay, or painted images, or used small rounds of wood and printed out images–it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as they are clearly representative of the element and meaningful to you.

 

You can, for example, gather four smooth stones, paint them, wire them, and affix them to your mobile.  You could paint and hang four used canning jar lids! You can print out images you really like and glue them to some cardboard.  It doesn’t matter–what matters is that you have something that resonates with you and that is of equal weight. (If they are not equal weight, hanging extra beads to balance them out is also ok!).

 

For finding your items, I would really recommend repurposed items or found items for these as we all work to tread lightly on the earth.

 

String, wire, ribbon, yarn, etc.  The look of your mobile is very much up to you.  Some funyky and fun ribbon or yarn can add a lot to your mobile. But even simple string or wire will do!  You can find ribbon, wire, yarn, etc most of these kinds of things at yard sales/thrift shops really cheaply (if you don’t already have a stash).

 

Sticks for the mobile itself.  For my mobile, I created a hanging apparatus out of river sticks–I had gathered many of them along a river, and fashioned them into a small box-structure, and then my mobile pieces hung from the four corners (see photos).  River sticks work well for this, as do any other fallen sticks or found sticks.  Even Popsicle sticks are fine!  An easy way to do this (which I demonstrate below in the photos) is to find two sticks of about equal length, and drill holes right through the center.  Then you can add a simple string and a knot, and you are in business!

Start with two nice sticks (in my case, two pieces of bark gathered near a waterfall)

Drill a hole right through the center of both sticks. The more centered you are, the more it will hang centered (which matters!)

Drill a hole right through the center of both sticks. The more centered you are, the more it will hang centered (which matters!)

Put a string through both and let them hang. You can now drill more holes for the four edges. You can also put a knot below it, and then let the string hang down for something in the center!

Put a string through both and let them hang. You can now drill more holes for the four edges. You can also put a knot below it, and then let the string hang down for something in the center!

 

If you want a more elaborate setup, you can construct a little stick box, like pictured below.  I made this one with river sticks and wire.  Apparently, I like to use sticks and things found by rivers in my mobiles!

Elaborate mobile top!

Elaborate mobile top constructed with wire!

Or, you can even use a circular item, like a coat hanger, or a wooden or plastic plate, or anything else.  The key is to have something to hang all of your elemental representations on.

 

Embellishments.  Beads, feathers, glitter, whatever it is you want to make your mobile a little more pretty. This is highly personal and is part of the fun.  You can use things here that are personally meaningful to you, that you’ve gathered over the years, etc.

 

Putting your Mobile Together

I like to create a magical crafting space in which to work before I begin.  Before I setup the space, I setup an elemental altar and make sure I have all of the supplies that I need at hand before I start the ritual.

 

Setting up a magical crafting space is easy–you can just use whatever typical sacred space opening you like (I use the AODA’s Solitary Grove opening, which includes the Sphere of Protection as my go-to magical crafting ritual).

 

I talked about creating such a space in this post a few years ago. In a nutshell, set the intention of setting aside a space in which to do spiritual work, in this case, crafting your mobile. At minimum, ground and clear your own energy, set your intentions for the space (creating and blessing a mobile), call in the elements that you will be working with, create some kind of protective barrier or shield energetically (or physically, with stones or candles).

 

Once you’ve created your sacred space, focus on the work at hand. As you put it together with string, glue, yarn, wire, and so on, think about the balance in your life. Consider, as each piece goes on, how that element/aspect manifests in your life, and envision balance in that area.

 

I find for this, some low key music is also nice. Magical crafting, at least for me, is very much a meditative activity and the music helps set the mood and tone.

 

If you are doing this with a group of people, you want to set some expectations and ground rules before you begin.  Is this to be a solemn activity, in quietude, or a fun one?  Talk through it and make sure everyone is on the same page.

 

Blessing your mobile

After you’ve completed your mobile, you can do a simple blessing.  You don’t need a script, just representations of the four elements (in four small bowls: incense/feather; candle; water; and a bowl of salt and/or earth.  Take the mobile to each of the elements (or bring them to the mobile) and speak about your own life.  Talk through what is currently balanced in that domain, and what is unbalanced, and then empower each of the aspects of the mobile with that energy (you might, for example, move the representation of the element around the mobile 3x in a clockwise direction and envision the energy of that element going into the mobile).  You can conclude your ritual with setting some goals for balance and a short period of meditation.  Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this, but the importance of making it a ceremony, and taking the space to do that, is important.

 

Once you have your mobile made, you can work with it at the two equinoxes.  Each year, at the fall equinox, I re-empower it at the Fall Equinox and think through the progress I have made.  It has become an old friend, journeying with me through the wheel of the year, hanging there and reminding me of the lesson of balance in my life.

 

Hanging your mobile

The nice thing about this as an Equinox activity is that it gives you something to remember and something to keep with you as you move through the year.  In this case, the magic very much “keeps on going” :).

 

One of the things you might notice, over time, is that the mobile can shift. Take note if it shifts–that might be a sign that one area of your life is particularly dominant (or needs attention) at the moment.  I learned to “read” my mobile over the years and it has always helped me know where I might be a bit out of balance.  For me, if the element is high, it means that element might be dominant in my life–too high and it is out of balance.  If one goes high, one of the other three go low, and then I can see what is suffering.  It has become an excellent little gauge as to how things are going.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this Fall Equinox activity brings you joy this season! Blessings upon you during this upcoming fall equinox! Next week, we’ll return to the longer series on permaculture (maybe with a post on foraging as well!).

 

Tree Resins from Eastern North America: Harvesting, Crafting, and Incense Making July 31, 2016

Jack Pine Resin - Abundant and Amazing smelling!

Jack Pine Resin – Abundant and Amazing smelling!  I harvested this locally.

Burning incenses, particularly the burning of tree resins, has been known throughout the millennia as a sacred activity. Incenses are offered to the spirits, the land, the gods, the ancestors as a way of seeking communion and blessing. Today, most people who are interested in “natural” incenses gravitate towards resin incenses for their lasting effect, delightful smells, and natural origins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees: trees may be scored or drip naturally and the sap hardens, creating the resin (like Frankincense, Myrrh, Benzoin, Copal).  Others might be dried liquid from trees or fruit (like Dragon’s blood). When you burn the resin on a charcoal block, you get billows of incredible, sweet smelling smoke. Tree resins have an extensive history certain parts of the world, and are often highly revered by the cultures that produce them. For example, when I was in Oman in April (for a professional/work trip), I was amazed to see the frankincense trees and experience the fresh frankincense firsthand. The Omani people see frankincense as a symbol of their culture–it is burned in many public places; ground up and drank in water, and much more!I’ve already listed some of the most common incenses you can purchase–and, like most things, they come from considerable distances and far away places.

 

It is sad, I think, that we don’t do more to honor or local trees that produce incredible resin incenses here in North America, particularly in the Eastern part of the US.  While it is little known, we actually have a large variety of fantastic ingredients for incense making! They are not commercially available or discussed, but they are present and available in the landscape. It is possible that this knowledge has been lost because the native peoples of these lands, those who had the knowledge, were driven off to other lands and/or killed as part of this colonization. I believe that we can relearn and integrate ourselves into our lands more fully–and part of that is the sacred tree knowledge that we hold.

 

Given this, for a good number of years, I have been working to develop local incense sources and locally-based spiritual supplies (see my post on making your own smudge sticks, for example).  And so, in today’s post, I’m going to explore tree resins local to the Eastern USA, particularly the midwest/north-east/mid-atlantic regions, and sharing how to find these resins, how to harvest them, what they smell like, and how to craft basic incenses.

 

What is resin and what tree resins work best?

Tree resins are the sticky and dried sap of trees. In my area, this primarily refers to the sticky and dried sap balls and drips you find on conifers. Conifer resins are not hard to find and are often abundant. Pines, in particular, produce really nice amounts of resin (especially if they have a limb removed/broken and/or are damaged in some way) and most of their resins have a piney/lemony smell.  Spruces also produce nice resins that are typically easy to harvest; the spruce resins are more musky than the pine resins. If you can find it (and this is by no means an easy task), Eastern Hemlock produces the most amazing resin (however, in my visits to thousands of hemlock trees, I’ve only really been able to collect or find resin from two of them). I haven’t yet had a chance to collect resin from the Larch/Tamarak (there are few in this area) so I can’t speak to that specific tree.

 

There are a few non-confier trees that also produce a resin.  Black Cherry produces a resin that hardens and appears a possible candidate  However, I have tried burning this and it doesn’t burn and doesn’t really smell good. But I suspect that some other trees or plants may produce a nice-smelling and nice-burning resin. If any readers know of other plants that produce a nice resin you can harvest–please share and I can update my list.

When and where do you harvest resin?

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

You can harvest conifer resin anytime of the year.  Tree sap flows most abundantly in the spring, and it will often be dried a bit by the fall. I actually like to do a lot of my resin harvesting in the late fall months when I’m starting to look for Chaga mushrooms–whatever resin flows happened that year, they are likely dried out a bit by then and the cold can sometimes make it easier to break off the resin. Although when everything freezes, its hard to harvest the incense in many cases. But most months of the year you can look for it and harvest it.

 

In terms of finding conifers to harvest from, you don’t need to go into the deep woods.  In fact, some trees that are at local parks or along the street produce really good resin because they are often trimmed or damaged.  These damaged trees will ooze from a wound.  The spruce in the photo to the right is along my street and I go past it on my walk to work–that’s how easy it can be to find.  You can also find large patches of conifers in local parks or in forests, and those are well worth your look.  Really, if you just keep your eyes open as you are out and about, you will find abundant supplies of resin.  Just be prepared to harvest it!

 

How do you harvest resin?

Tree resins start out in a fresh form–they are extremely sticky, gooey, and delightful.  Whatever you get them on, they will stay on (so if you harvest with a knife, that knife will likely have resin on it forever).  You can use the resin either in its fresh form, or you can wait for it to dry and crystallize.  I have harvested both and both have their uses (see recipes, below).

 

I typically have a special knife (ok, it is an old butter knife) I use to harvest resin and usually harvest it into plastic cups, small glass jars, or plastic bags.  The knife is pretty much used just for resin–resin is really hard to get off and clean of anything else (requires alcohol, not water). The plastic bags or jars keep it from sticking. If you end up having to clean your tools, you will need to use a high proof alcohol to do so (even rubbing alcohol can work); conifer resins do not clean up or extract in water.  If you are harvesting fresh resin, and put it in a plastic bag, it will never evaporate and turn crystallized; so if you want the crystal stuff, let it crystallize on a tree and/or harvest it into a cup and let it sit somewhere in the sun for a long time.

 

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here....not sure I will ever get the bowl back!

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago after finding it in abundance on a white pine that was cut down. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here….not sure I will ever get the bowl fully clean!

You will need to be patient for the dried form of resin–if you see a tree freshly oozing, its probably necessary to come back in six months, a year, or more, and check it to see if it’s dry (how long it takes depends on the kind of tree). Usually, finding other trees around will allow you to harvest a bountiful amount of incense.

 

When harvesting, remember that tree resin is created when the tree is damaged: the resin essentially “seals” the wound of the tree.  Because of this, when you harvest resin, you want to only harvest from around and/or below the wound of the tree, not the wound itself.  For example, if a tree has had a limb removed, some trees (pines especially) will produce a mountain of resin to seal off the wound. I would not remove this resin, as it is protecting the inner part of the tree.  However, the tree could have produced so much resin that there is excess dripping down the side of the tree.  This is what I would harvest in abundance, as that is not actively sealing off a wound on the tree.  I hope this makes sense: we harvest carefully, and delicately, to ensure our tree brethren are not damaged in the process.

 

Some trees will also drip resin to the forest floor, which you can then scrape off of roots, lift off of the pine needles on the floor, or even pick up crystallized chunks.

 

Trees Producing Abundant Resin – List and Scent Descriptions

Here are some of the tree resins that I have harvested and my description of their smell. All of these trees are easy to find and abundant throughout the Eastern US and parts of Canada:

 

  • White Pine – White pine, the chief of standing people, produces the most amazing incense.  It can be found typically whenever the tree has been cut or broken (like limbs removed). It is a very sticky resin till it dries–and it can take a very long time to dry out (I have some that I have been drying out for 4 years now…it is still partially gooey).  The smell itself when burning is really divine: light, piney, with a hint of vanilla scent; when it burns it almost reminds me of how some whipped cream frosting smells.  I think this is one of my favorite of all conifer incenses and is well worth your time to harvest.

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

  • Jack Pine – Jack pine resin is a light colored, quickly crystallizing, extremely abundant resin (I have a photo of it at the opening of this article).  I had a spot in Michigan where tons of little jack pines were growing and I could easily collect a pint of it in about a half hour–it just crystallized all over the tree very quickly, was rarely sticky, and quite easy to harvest. In terms of smell, it has a very light aroma, piney with hints of lemon orange, very clean and excellent burning.
  • Red pine – Red Pine produces a lot less incense than some other trees, but it is well worth gathering.  Most of the time, I find small chunks of it on the trunk of certain trees because a little bug has burrowed in deep and the tree has responded by producing a chunk of incense (some of which can be removed or will remove itself by flaking and some of which should stay to protect the tree). The incense itself burns with a piney smell that includes almost an orange/cherry undertone. It is very light and refreshing.
  • Blue Spruce – Blue spruce resin can be harder to find, but it is well worth the effort.  It is usually found on the places where the tree is damaged (from being cut or trimmed, etc).  And when it is found, it is found in abundance.  It is an intense incense–it has a very skunky/musky, almost animalistic smell. Some people really like it and others do not–but I’d say, find some, harvest it and see what you think!
  • Norway  Spruce – Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a  skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines, and slightly different than the Blue Spruce.  They often also have an undertone of slightly citrus, slightly floral.  Different trees produce different amounts of the “musky” quality, which can get quite strong in some trees.

Trees that Produce Little Resin

The above trees are my staples for tree resin incense, but I also want to share a few additional trees. These are trees that only produce a tiny amount of resin, but it is worth keeping your eyes open for:

 

  • Eastern Hemlock Resin – As my blog readers know, I very much adore and love the Eastern Hemlock Tree.  Of the thousands of hemlocks I have visited, I have found harvestable resin on only two of the trees. One had a huge gash from logging and had produced some dried resin that I could harvest without damaging; the other had a gash from debris along a riverbed. The broken branches do not produce any resin, nor do cut stumps.  So, if you can find it, it is well worth your time, but it it is incredibly elusive!  The incense itself is extremely light and refreshing with a hint of lemon; it has a very clean smell and smells awesome.  It is comparable to white pine resin, but with more of a lemon/cirtus smell.
  • Eastern White Cedar: Thuja Occidentalis does not like producing much resin at all, but if you can find it, it is really nice.  I have found tiny little beads of resin sometimes on older trees’ trunks and larger branches. The beads burn well and smell very cedar-like, which you would expect.  Because of the lack of abundance of resin, I often burn the needles of this tree (which pop and crackle for quite some time).
  • Juniper / Eastern Red Cedar: thus far, I have not found a juniper tree with any amount of incense to harvest (although I am keeping my eye out!).  However, I burn the berries of this (they smell really wonderful, a strong piney/floral scent) and they also smoulder nicely.  So they have some resinous qualities themselves.

 

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Resins Not Recommended

I want to mention one other tree that produces resin, but that you don’t want to use–and that is Wild/Black Cherry.  Cherries do produce a resin that crystallizes and dries.  However, it doesn’t burn like a typical conifer resin (which smoulders nicely, producing billows of smoke as it boils and burns on the charcoal block); rather, it crackles and pops, it doesn’t want to burn, and when it burns, it kind of just smells like something is burning (dark, earthy smell).  You might be able to grind it up and use it with some other tree incenses, but I’m not sure I’d use it on it’s my own.  I’m still experimenting with it.

 

Making Incense from Fresh Resin: Incense Balls

You can make a really nice incense from fresh resin in the form of incense balls. Note that if you harvest resin sticky, and then you put it in a bag, it will remain sticky pretty much indefinitely because it is not exposed to air. If you don’t want it sticky, best to let it dry out on the tree for some months and/or years. Trust me.

 

But if you harvest it sticky, and you have a nice clump of it, you can make some great incense balls. Collect the fresh resin itself (I usually do this in an old bowl). Then, I add any other ingredients I would like that are dried and/or finely powdered to the resin: sage, rosemary, mugwort, and so on (you can see a list of my common ingredients that are local and useful in my smudge stick post for some ideas). Eventually, you will work enough plant matter in that the incense takes form. You can test out small amounts until you get a good smell (my favorite is fresh white pine resin with rosemary and sage powder). Form your balls (with your hands or gloves; your hands will need a very good cleaning afterwards–use alcohol). Then, give them a final “roll” in some kind of powder to avoid stickiness.  You can also wrap them up individually in a bit of wax paper.  But what I like to do, is let them sit out for a while (a month or so) and then the outsides will eventually dry out.

 

To use them, simply burn them on a charcoal block.  Different mixes obviously will make different blends–try testing out a few different combinations and seeing which ones you like the smell of best!

 

Making Incense from Dried/Crystallized Resin

The other way to work with the tree resins as incense is to harvest it after it has dried out.  Sometimes, you can find really nice dried piece of resin.  Most dried resins flake easily off of the tree and into your bag/jar.  I like to keep these incenses in a jar somewhere handy–they are beautiful and easy to use.  You might find that before burning them, you want to take a hammer and put them in a bag and mash them up a bit–otherwise, the chunks may be too large to be serviceable.

 

The easiest way to use this resin is simply to burn small chunks of it on a charcoal block in whatever amount you’d like.  Test a small amount first to see how much smoke you get.

 

The other way you can use it is to grind it up into a powder and add other ingredients (tree powders, powdered or finely chopped dried herbs, and the like).  You can see my incense on incense making for more information.  Any of the dried resins can be used in place of more traditional resin ingredients (frankincense, myrrh, etc).  As with all resins, they are not self-combustible, so you would be making again an incense to burn on a charcoal block.  If you used a LOT of woody matter and plant matter, and a tiny bit of resin, you might manage to make a combustible (self-burning) incense, but that’s a bit hard to get the balance right.  Some incense books (like Cunningham’s) use Saltpeter to get things to burn on their own–it is carcinogenic.  Use the charcoal block (non-self lighting).

 

Incense Papers

If you have access to really high proof alcohol (and by this I mean 95%/ 190 proof) another fun thing you can do is to extract the resin in the alcohol and make incense papers, which can be burned.  Essentially only alcohol will extract resins.

Grind up your resin (dried) or add your fresh (I find dried works better for this).  Cover it with your 190 proof alcohol (or as close to that as you can get).  Shake it every day or so, and let it sit at least two months.

The alcohol will extract the components of the resin and produce a resin tincture.

Then, you can drop a bit of this onto a sheet of paper (like Japanese rice paper or standard copy paper) and let the alcohol evaporate.  Then, burn the paper to get some of the scent! I am only starting to experiment with this, but the results are promising (I will probably post more on this in a future post, but wanted to share some initial thoughts here).

 

Energy and Tree Incense

One question you might have is: what spiritual or energetic qualities do these incenses hold?  For this, you need to go back and look at the specific tree.  Here’s a basic list:

  • Pines: Considered a “tree of peace” by some Native American tribes, it also represents longevity, life, immortality.  It can be burned for purification, healing work, and divination.  I see it as our “frankincense” and use it in pretty much the same way.
  • Spruces:  Considered a versatility tree that survives well in northern, cold environments; it can represent constancy, versatility, and determination.  I like to burn spruce for getting things going and keeping them going.
  • I have already covered Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Cedar extensively already (and some of the other trees in this post will get the same extensive treatment).

Conclusion

I hope that you’ve found this post on making tree incenses helpful! I am also working on a post on local, natural incenses, but I suspect it will be some more time until I can present that to you!  I would love to hear from you about trees to add to this list. We don’t have many wild firs growing around here–would love to know what they smell like as well!  Blessings on this Lughanssadh weekend!